They are included amongst His Majesty's loyal subjects, I hope. Therefore, I think hon. Members opposite must allow me to say that if we are to get this problem into focus, as I think the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Harrison), said earlier, we must look at it in the larger context of the coal situation, at least from one or two aspects.
We are really in a crisis within a crisis. In the autumn we had the coal crisis approaching, and apparently the Government did not foresee it, but we are now in a second crisis as a result of their continual lateness in taking measures to try to meet the crisis. We can see that in regard to big matters and small ones. In the largest matters we see it reflected in the importing of American coal. The Government took that decision late. They could not get the ships quickly enough, and the result is that, although the Government told us time and again that the real crisis of the year would be in February and March, not all this coal, which is being specifically imported to help us to meet this crisis which the Government so lately realised was to come upon us, is going to be here by that time. The hon. Gentleman himself admitted the other day that some of it will not arrive until April—some of it, I fear, not until towards the end of April.
In the small matters, we find that the speed with which the train services had suddenly to be cancelled by the Railway Executive led to the most farcical results. For example, a train which ran between Birmingham and Wolverhampton was cancelled. Somebody forgot it had been cancelled and turned up at the station to find that it was still running. It was known locally as the "ghost train." It turned out that the cancellations had to be done so quickly that, in fact, the train had to run for certain service reasons, although of course the public were not allowed on it.
On the question of priorities, it was my duty as Secretary for Mines at the outbreak of the war to bring in this system of priorities and to get the local fuel overseers appointed. I should think that the system which the hon. Gentleman will describe to us tonight is probably the same, basically, as that which it was my duty to establish all those years ago at the beginning of the war, with proper arrangements for the sick, the aged and other special cases. The House will probably agree that the local fuel overseers during all these years have done a very good job, but let us look at the conditions in which they have to do this job at present.
There is a system of priorities, whether an informal system laid down by the Government or whether at a later stage formally announced and enforced. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt disagree with me if I am wrong, but broadly speaking the Government above all, have to see that the public utilities, such as gas works and electricity works, do not fail if they can possibly avoid it. Therefore, the first stage of priority must be given to them, and is. I think it will be agreed that industry must come after the big public utilities. Up to the Christmas Recess, there was no case known of any works which were actually shut down through lack of fuel. I had a case in my own division in Birmingham of a factory which was going to shut down within three days. I telegraphed to the Minister and I am glad to say that he acted with some speed, and enough coal came from somewhere so that the works did not have to close down.
The point I want to make is that the person who comes at the end of the queue in this system of priorities is the domestic consumer. My hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) has given some figures of the tremendous reduction in the amount of coal which goes to the domestic consumer—about 15 million tons a year—as compared with before the war. This, incidentally, shows that we should treat with reserve statements which have been made from the opposite benches about not being able to buy coal in the past. Somebody, at any rate, bought the coal, and they were not all rich people. There is much less coal now going to the domestic consumers, and in a way we may say that, with all this system of priorities, when an extra squeeze has occurred, then, until the last 15 per cent. cut on industry, it has been the housewife who has taken the squeeze. If I may use a rough phrase, I would say that the Government are riding the fuel crisis on the back of the British housewife—and that is administrative failure.
When it comes to dealing with the sick and the aged, within the shortages of the domestic consumer, I believe that there exists a perfectly good administrative scheme. The only trouble is that the whole situation is impossible. When I was in Birmingham during the Recess—and I expect it is the same in other parts of the country—merchants told me that, on the whole, they were receiving enough coal to supply about two-thirds of the allocations to domestic consumers. We can see from that how much is the shortage. I believe that the local fuel overseers, and, if I may say so to the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown), the merchants themselves, are in a terribly difficult position in the existing situation.
I did not know, any more than did other hon. Members, that this subject was to be raised tonight, but it so happens that I have been making quite a few inquiries about it during the Recess and since. What struck me as a result of my inquiries was this. I do not believe that hon. Members on either side of the House, apart from those who have made a study of it, or the country as a whole—except for those who are suffering—fully appreciate the degree of the hardship which has been caused to the ordinary people throughout the country by the coal shortage this winter. In the homes it is going on quietly, and because it has become a sort of chronic condition the Press do not seem to pay much attention to it. If that sort of thing had happened before the war, there would have been a great outcry. Consumers have been squeezed a bit and squeezed a bit more and have felt it terribly, but they have rather taken it as a sort of normal accompaniment to winter under the present Government.
I was struck by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. H. Price), who did something which we are all very shy of doing. He introduced the question whether somebody had or had not died as a result of these conditions. Nobody likes to do that, but that is what my hon. Friend did, because he mentioned what a doctor had told him. It will be understood that that is something which none of us likes to do, because we naturally feel it would be taking advantage of the situation in order to build up the case too much. But I am not convinced that we are right in our attitude. I am not sure that it does not happen. I think we ought to be as concrete as we can in our examples, and I want to tell the House about some cases which I discovered in Birmingham during the Recess.
These are not necessarily cases which have been taken to the local fuel overseer, because we must realise that not all the old people put their cases to the overseer. That happens when a Member of Parliament comes along or when some other influential person realises the position, or when a doctor takes up the matter. But some of the old people are not quite so forward in putting their case, as is well known; in some cases they may not have the physical energy to do so.
First, here is the case of a lady and her husband in Sheldon Heath Road, Birmingham. They are old-age pensioners, 78 and 79 years old. The wife is suffering from arthritis. They were without coal—and I am now talking about the middle of January. Next, here is the case of a lady in Newborough Road who lived with her mother, who was aged 79 years. She wrote, "We have no coal whatever and none will be delivered for another 14 days at the earliest."