Coal Shortage

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st February 1951.

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Photo of Mr Brendan Bracken Mr Brendan Bracken , Bournemouth East and Christchurch 12:00 am, 1st February 1951

I am sure, Mr. Speaker, that you are delighted to have the assistance of such a charming censor of taste. My attendance here is as good as anybody else's. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I do not intend to take up much of the time of the House today. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Of course, if these constant interruptions occur I cannot avoid doing so.

The Minister is here, I am told, to make a melancholy statement on the reduction of coal supplies which are vital to our industrial production. Many of my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite will wish to discuss the Minister's statement, so I shall try to be as brief as I can. Unless the weather becomes milder, we are told by the Parliamentary Secretary that the prospects of averting another fuel crisis "are all very gloomy." This is a crisis long foretold. [HON. MEMBERS: "By Old Moore?"] No, by Lord Hyndley. At the end of last April the Chairman of the National Coal Board declared: Either we get more coal or the whole basis of British life may be threatened. Things can't go on like this. I doubt if the country realises the gravity of the position. I am quoting Lord Hyndley. Disregarding this grave warning, the Minister made a speech in this House on 12th July which abounded in optimism. If the Minister was complacent in July, he was reckless in the interview which he gave to the Press on 25th September when the risk of another coal crisis was apparent to all save the Minister. Here are some of his carefully prepared answers to the questions put to him. He was asked: Are we heading for another fuel crisis? The right hon. Gentleman answered: There is no reason to think so. Of course, full employment has greatly increased the home demand and coal distribution is more difficult if the winter is hard. But we have taken every measure required to ease the distribution problem and stocks will he tip to the standards that everyone has recognised as fully adequate. In answer to another question about stocks the Minister said: We may not quite reach the 16.5 million tons by the end of October, but we shall before the winter starts. The householder received this comforting assurance from the Minister: I hope and believe that there will be more coal from the mines for the house coal market during the winter months as well; and the householder can buy as much coke as he desires. What a statement! Householders are desperately seeking coke. Where can they buy as much as they like? Perhaps the Minister will tell us when he answers. I can assure him that if he tells the public he will create the largest queue in history. The Minister must read reports from the camps in the newspapers. There are many instances of shivering soldiers and airmen. The truth is that we are very short of coke, and the Minister misled the public when he suggested that anyone could buy as much coke as he desired.

The House should remember that these promises regarding coal and coke were made by the right hon. Gentleman on 25th September. On 20th November the Minister announced that it had become necessary to buy American coal. That was two months later. The only comment I shall make on the Minister's glowing promises is that they remind me of the statement of the Minister of Defence before the fuel crisis of 1947. He was then Minister of Fuel and Power. Said the right hon. Gentleman: Everyone knows there is going to be a serious fuel crisis save the Minister of Fuel. The Minister of Defence has been right twice. Everyone does know that there is going to be a serious fuel crisis save the Ministers of Fuel and Power past and present.

Why does the Minister disregard warnings given him by the Coal Board? Let me remind him that in the September issue of the Coal Board's magazine, which contained a charming picture of the right hon. Gentleman having a good cup of tea, the first article contained these words: Has it dawned on you that the country is heading for another and more drastic coal crisis this winter? It had obviously not dawned on the Minister, but that was a statement made in the official journal of the Coal Board, and it merely reiterated what has been said by Lord Hyndley and his colleagues from time to time about the dangers of another coal crisis. While the Minister has been occupying himself in making optimistic speeches, let us hear the words of a more responsible man. Speaking at Manchester after the fuel crisis of 1947 the Prime Minister said: We have the power now to organise this great fuel industry as a national service. This shortage of stocks in winter must never happen again. Alas, neither the organisation nor the service has fulfilled the urgent needs of the nation.

Let us consider the consequences so far of this national service. Many homes are very cold. Many railway services are being drastically cut. If there is any truth in the statements that appeared in the newspapers today, the cut in the railway services is likely to impose immense hardships on the public. Supplies of electricity and gas are, of course, affected and a new black-out has been ordained in peacetime. In some areas, as hon. Members know, schools are closing for lack of heating.

If we had coal to exchange for meat there would be no need for an 8d ration of gristle. The dollars we are spending in importing American coal could have purchased timber for tens of thousands of houses. How many times have hon. Members in this House heard statements made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the previous Minister of Health declaring that they could not get timber from the United States because of the dollar shortage—or Canada either. Now we know that the Government can provide dollars to hide their own muddles.

For lack of supplies the National Coal Board has failed to fulfil important export contracts. I have read in the foreign newspapers accusations that the Board has defaulted. I do not believe that Lord Hyndley and his colleagues intentionally defaulted, but they have been unable to fulfil their obligations because of the scarcity of coal here, and we must accept that fact. Nevertheless, we are jeopardising old-established export markets. The predecessor of the right hon. Gentleman now Chancellor of the Exchequer has often told us of the great desirability of creating enough stocks at home and enough production here to provide for the needs of all our people and to add greatly to Britain's export earnings by selling coal, because coal is the most readily accepted of all British exports.

Now for this reason—the failure to export coal—which is understandable, the public here must be prepared to face higher prices. The Coal Board makes a substantial profit on its exports, and, of course, if those exports have to be consumed at home then, without doubt, more must be paid for coal. There are other reasons why the price of coal must go up soon. And the cost of living will rise again.

Now this remorseless rise in the cost of living is largely due to the mismanagement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and of the Minister of Fuel and Power—I am referring to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer who was responsible for devaluation. How can we put a stop to this perpetual rise in the cost of living? I should have thought that the Minister would have that very much in mind but, of course, he must now accept the fact that once again the price of coal must go up. These are some of the consequences of the failure of the national service promised us by the Prime Minister in his Manchester speech.

The Minister, in his agitated explanation of the running down of coal stocks, suggested that a little error of only one-half per cent. was made in calculating supplies. The Government, through Sir Stafford Cripps, promised this House that stocks would never be allowed to run down again. Why was that promise broken? The Minister has apparently no understanding of the reasons for creating stocks. Stocks are built up to meet emergencies. Owing to the failure of the Minister to maintain stocks almost every home in the country suffers. Industrial production may be gravely diminished. Employment is imperilled. Cold indeed is the comfort of the explanation of the Minister—"We only erred by a trifling percentage." What an excuse for a long series of muddles and miscalculations.

The truth is that the Minister, though otherwise he is a virtuous man, has gambled against the weather. Even Mr. Micawber, who was fond of taking risks, did not bet against nature. Ministers have promised us "an abundance of coal"—