Orders of the Day — Fuel and Power

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th March 1950.

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Photo of Mr Robert Hudson Mr Robert Hudson , Southport 12:00 am, 29th March 1950

We on this side of the House have suggested for today's Debate the Ministry of Fuel and Power with special reference to dirty coal—the many complaints that are being received by hon. Members on all sides about the prevalence of dirty coal—and also the question of supplies of oil to the public. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, it was thought that it would be more convenient if we discussed coal in the early part of the Debate and oil later. Therefore, if you agree, I propose to devote my remarks to coal and leave it to the right hon. Gentleman who will wind up the Debate for us, to deal with oil.

Before I discuss dirty coal, may I say that one of the problems facing this or subsequent Parliaments will be how we are to deal with the nationalised industries. It has been suggested already, and I think agreed by the Government, that a certain number of days out of their time should be devoted to each of the nationalised industries. But the question arises of how Debates are to take place on those days and what we shall get out of those Debates.

One of the difficulties which faces the nation as a whole, and this House in particular, is how we are to control these nationalised industries in any detail. Where today does effective control lie? How can criticism be made effective? It seems to me that there is a tendency today for these industries to become responsible to nobody. Eventually we must decide where effective sanction lies and how effective sanction is to be applied. I take the National Coal Board as an illustration. Before the industry was nationalised, and when it was under private enterprise, the managers of the pits were, broadly speaking, responsible. The manager of any pit which consistently sent out dirty coal eventually found himself in trouble with his directors. Probably, he either mended his ways or he got the sack.

But now what happens under the present set-up? The individual who receives dirty coal complains; but he gets no effective redress. Under private enterprise, whatever drawbacks there may have been, the customer who got dirty coal changed his merchant. Today the customer can change his merchant once a year, but in the majority of cases he finds that he has merely jumped out of the frying pan into the fire—or rather into the grate. Under private enterprise, the merchant who consistently received dirty coal was able to change the source of his supply and buy from another pit. Today he is deprived of that recourse. All he can do is to accept the coal. He has to take what is sent.

If a consumer writes to his Member of Parliament, the Member usually gets a long and, I am bound to say, a courteous reply from the Ministry, but it gets him no further forward. If we as an Opposition raise the matter in Debate and if our arguments are answered at all, which is not always the case, we are provided with a series of official excuses. We go to a Division, we are defeated by the Government, and necessarily the effect in the industry among the managers and so forth, is for them to say, "The Government have got away with it. It does not matter if we continue to supply dirty coal." That is the position today.

One of the supplementary difficulties is that of bringing home these cases to the Government. I do not accuse the Coal Board of victimisation, but there is undoubtedly a widespread feeling among merchants that if they complain and allow their names to be put forward either in Debate or in a Member's letter to the Ministry, the Coal Board may take steps to victimise them. I do not say that I have got any evidence of that. I am not saying that I have got the evidence for that, or evidence of actual victimisation by the National Coal Board. I am saying that there is widespread fear, which makes the task of bringing concrete cases before the House extremely difficult.

We have had numbers of cases brought to our notice, and, in practically every single one, there is a paragraph which says "We hope you will not quote our names." [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Oh, yes, plenty. I have a certain reluctance in putting forward cases in this House unless I am in a position to give the full facts and unless I have personally checked them. I do not propose to weary the House with a large number of cases, though I have two which I propose to quote. In these cases, in fact, the writer has definitely stated that we may quote his name. It is perfectly true also to say that he told us, when he gave us that permission, that he would probably get into serious trouble for doing so. These two cases happen to come from the constituency of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northants, South (Mr. Manningham-Buller).

The first is that of a man whose case has been brought to the notice of the Department; there is a letter from the Parliamentary Secretary in the file, so that it is not a case of which the Department is ignorant. This is a letter from a customer who says: Reading in last night's paper, the 'Northampton Chronicle and Echo,' that Mr. Noel-Baker would like details of the coal shortage, perhaps this would help. At Hackleton and Piddington (Northants), there are residents who had their last coal delivery six weeks ago (two and three cwts.), and have had no coal, slate or stone, etc., to burn for the last fortnight. One local firm had delivered between 1st November, 1949, and 11th February, 1950, 47 tons 19 cwts., against an allocation of 90 tons for that period. Can Mr. Noel-Baker find the missing 42 tons 1 cwt.? A local coal merchant in the same area happens to be in a Co-operative Society, which no doubt will strike a chord of sympathy in the minds of hon. Gentlemen opposite. The manager writes on 21st March: At the time of writing, there is not a vestige of coal at this depot. That applies not only in his case, but to two other merchants as well. He goes on: During the summer, supplies were not available for householders to stock up, and consequently the position is serious in the extreme. In answer to an earlier letter from the Parliamentary Secretary, who said that people could always get coal in case of illness or emergency, this Co-operative Society manager says: We cannot even supply coal against a priority certificate. The Parliamentary Secretary suggested that, if there was a shortage of deep-mined coal, the merchants should be able to make good with opencast, but this Co-operative Society tried, and the reply was that there had been such a demand in Warwickshire for opencast coal that the merchants were completely overwhelmed, with the result that none was to be obtained.

In case the Minister should think that this is an isolated case in a small rural station in Northamptonshire, when the assistant house coal officer of the House Coal Distribution (Emergency) Scheme at Nottingham was appealed to, he said: We note the tonnage you have received ex Warwickshire, and from the figures you give it would appear that your receipts have been in line with the general level of Warwickshire receipts. Clearly, this state of affairs does not apply to one isolated area, but to the country as a whole, and I have no doubt that other hon. Members could quote similar cases.

The only other case which I want to quote is that of one of my own constituents. Here, I asked the leader of the Borough Council to make personal inquiries into conditions at Southport, and he says: I went into this matter rather closely and it is no exaggeration to say that the Department is kept occupied for about half its time in dealing with complaints about quality. He goes on to say: The cases which have been personally investigated of poor quality coal show that 20 per cent. of the supplies as an average are bass or stone. These are two cases for which we can definitely vouch, because we have the details, and I should like to know what answer the Minister is going to give. I hope that we shall not be given the old excuse about pre-war failure or the shortage of adequate washeries, because it is not true. [An HON. MEMBER: "Of course, it is."] As hon. Members will see in a moment, it certainly is not, and it certainly does not cover all the cases. If the hon. Gentleman will take the trouble to look up one of his own Government's publications, Command Paper 7548, the Statistical Digest, he will find in Table 45 this interesting statement: Before the war, in 1938, the output of cleaned coal amounted to 103 million tons. The Department has not published any figures since 1947, and perhaps it would be of value if the right hon. Gentleman would see that his Department brought the figures up-to-date. The latest figure which we have, which is 1947, is only 90 million tons of coal which were clean, so that he will see that, although the percentage of washed coal before the war was slightly smaller than it is now, the actual amount, which is what matters, was really greater in pre-war days than it is now. I therefore hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not put forward that excuse, and that he will not repeat the fatuous excuse given on Monday week that the improved position before the war was due, relatively, to unemployment. There can rarely have been a more fatuous answer given by the Government than that.

I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not pretend either that the fall was due, or was largely due, to the increased amount of coal which was mechanically mined, because, again, if he will look at his own statistics, he will find that coal was got mechanically before the war. He will discover that 58 or 59 per cent. of the coal was mechanically mined before the war, and that the percentage today is between 75 and 78. The difference between the amount of dirt in coal today and before the war is very much greater than the difference in the percentage of coal mechanically mined before the war and now. I therefore hope that we shall not have that excuse put forward.

Indeed, if the Minister had thought of making that excuse, it might be well for him to remember what his predecessor but one, the present Minister of Defence, said in the course of the passage of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Bill. If he will look at HANSARD for 14th May, 1946, when we were discussing an Amendment put forward from this side of the House to improve the position of the consumer in regard to quality, he will find that his right hon. Friend, then Minister of Fuel and Power, said this: The hon. Gentleman, who is not without intelligence and who has had long experience, knows full well that the situation today is quite different from what it was before the war, and in the course of, perhaps twelve months or less, certainly no longer than twelve months, we shall have corrected the position and we shall be able to adopt screening methods.… I hope, after that, they will no longer require to discriminate between the normal coal supplies and the inferior coal supplies which the hon. Gentleman has described."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th May, 1946; Vol. 422, c. 1699.] That was 1946, when the present Minister of Defence held out the confident hope that the position concerning dirty coal would have been cleaned up inside 12 months. Of course, the fact is that today all grades of coal being sold by the National Coal Board, with the exception of the small minority which are washed—and that applies particularly to the large coal which used to be efficiently handpicked before the war—are badly cleaned.

There is no question at all about the reason for this, and the National Coal Board themselves know it perfectly well. I do not know whether they have told the right hon. Gentleman; perhaps it is not fair to expect him to know it as he has been in office such a short time. However, they make no bones about admitting it privately to customers who complain. They say that up to now, at all events, they have failed to get the same conscientious care in cleaning the coal and in picking off the dirt as the coal goes over the belt as used to be got before the war.

Far from improving the position with regard to large coal, I am told that it is being allowed to go from bad to worse. That position is having a bad effect, not only on the domestic consumer in this country, but also on our export trade, about which I shall have a word to say later. Not only does the housewife complain, but the railways complain—the right hon. Gentleman has probably read the evidence given before the Railways Rates Tribunal—and the electricity companies are complaining.

I was told only last week that, on average, supplies of coal coming by rail and sea to electricity generating stations in London often contain as much as 25 per cent. of stone and dirt compared with a maximum of 14 per cent. before the war. Imagine the waste involved. One truck in every four coming to London for generating stations carries nothing but dirt, and one ship out of every four which we see from the Terrace of this House passing up the Thames contains nothing but dirt. That is a shocking state of affairs, and we should be glad to hear from the right hon. Gentleman what effective steps he proposes to take to deal with that matter.

One member of the Government—I think it was the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, but I am not certain, and I do not wish to do him an injustice—said that, under present conditions, it was up to the merchant to clean the coal. But the merchant never had to do it before the war; he got reasonably clean coal then. Today the merchant is faced with two difficulties. Anyone can look at merchants' yards in many parts of the country today and see the amount of dirt they are picking out from the consignments they receive. But why should this task be inflicted upon the merchants? They have to pay for all that dirt, and cannot recover its value from the National Coal Board.

I hope that when he replies on that point the right hon. Gentleman is not going to say, "Oh, but there is an established procedure whereby merchants can recover the cost from the National Coal Board in cases where the consignment is unsatisfactory or contains too much dirt." It is perfectly true that a scheme of this kind does exist, but it is not effective, because it only applies to cases where the whole truckload contains an undue proportion of dirt. Think of the position of the merchant who gets one truck of coal delivered to him at a small country station in the winter. Can we seriously contemplate his putting that truck on one side and waiting for three or four days before the representative of the Coal Board can come down to confirm that it is unfit to be sent out to consumers? What is going to happen to all the unfortunate consumers while the merchant is waiting for its replacement? In theory there may be a means of getting compensation from the National Coal Board, but, in fact, except in the very rare cases, it does not work.

In addition to that, merchants today are compelled to take a proportion of opencast coal to eke out the insufficient supplies of deep-mined coal, and, further, they are forced to take as domestic coal, fuel which before the war would have been classed as industrial. What I would like the right hon. Gentleman to explain is how the unfortunate dealer is to dispose of this low grade coal and at the same time give his customers a fair deal and retain their goodwill. I think the right hon. Gentleman would have difficulty in doing that if he were the unfortunate merchant.

I should also like him to explain the meaning of the word "allocation," which he and his Parliamentary Secretary are so fond of using. The ordinary consumer thinks that it is a ration to which he is entitled. Not a bit of it; it merely means a maximum which he would be allowed to buy if supplies were available, which, of course, they never are. Neither this summer nor last winter, nor the winter and summer before that, were supplies sufficient to meet the allocations. We only got through these last two winters because they were mild winters. Had either of them been really cold, we should have been faced with a fuel crisis similar to that which overtook the country in 1947.

Again, I hope that when the right hon. Gentleman replies he will not use the stock answer that consumers could have got over the difficulty this winter by stocking up in the summer. Quite apart from the fact that there are a great number of people living in flats, for instance, who cannot stock up in the summer, had everybody bought the amount of coal to which they thought they were entitled, there would not have been sufficient to go round. The only reason why supplies were adequate was because great numbers of people were physically unable to lay in a stock. The fact is, of course, that the output today from the mines, particularly of deep-mined coal, is woefully insufficient to meet all the needs of the country.

Despite misleading propaganda, after three years of nationalisation the Government of hon. Members opposite, especially those who sit for mining constituencies, have failed to bring home to the industry the real situation which confronts the country, and also the magnitude of the opportunity open to it to make a lasting contribution to our recovery. Miserable targets have been set every year, and unjustified praise has been lavished on the industry by the responsible Ministers. Not only have the Government tried to pull the wool over the eyes of the people of this country concerning the amount of coal produced and their efforts to get adequate supplies to meet our needs, but what is more serious in my view is that they have extended this to their relations with, and it their reports to, O.E.E.C. and E.C.A.

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has seen the memorandum submitted to O.E.E.C. for 1950–51–52 on operations under the agreement between ourselves and the United States covering the fourth quarter of 1949, but in case he would like to look at them I will now hand him a couple of copies. Perhaps he would not mind looking at them because I am going to deal with them in detail, and they are almost impossible to follow anyway. The first thing to which I want to draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman and of the House is the statement on page 28 that output per man-shift is the best general measure of efficiency. We have heard that story for a very long time but it just does not wash. The effective measure is the output per man-year and not the output per man-shift. If the right hon. Gentleman will turn to the previous page—page 27, paragraph 105—he will find that—