National Coal Board (Report and Accounts)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th July 1955.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr George Sylvester Mr George Sylvester , Pontefract 12:00 am, 20th July 1955

It is my privilege to make my speech after a maiden speech. and I should like on behalf of the House to congratulate the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Farey-Jones) on the way in which he delivered his maiden speech. To make one's first speech in this House is an ordeal, as everyone who has done it knows. The hon. Gentleman delivered his speech in a very honest and sincere manner. We on this side of the House will be delighted to hear him speak on another occasion, when, of course, he will be subject to analytical correction by hon. Members on this side of the House. The hon. Gentleman said that he knew the Yorkshire miners. I suppose he got to know them in the 1950 General Election, when he contested the constituency next to my own.

The Minister, in his speech, said that he would provide a survey of what happened in the inter-war years. He blamed it on trade at that time. I believe that the Minister was a Member of the House before the war. To that remark of the Minister I reply that all Members of the House on the Government side who were Members of the House at that time must take some responsibility for the shortage of the manpower in the pits today. In 1925 there were 1,172,000 men in the pits. In 1938 that number had been reduced to 728,000.

Why that reduction during those years? For the simple reason that men had been forced out of the industry by unemployment, victimisation, and so on. Young men who, in the 'twenties and the 'thirties, were getting married were saying that their sons would never go down the pits. As a result, we find ourselves today with only a few more than 700,000 men in the pits.

Great play is being made by some speakers and some sections of the Press with the allegation that the miners are not pulling their weight. I do not say that responsible Ministers are saying that, but certain sections of the Tory Party are saying it, and wherever it is said I should like it to be contradicted. The country has a right to know what the miners are doing about this very vexed question of the shortage of fuel. There is a fuel shortage. It is called a fuel crisis, but in the inter-war years there were crises in every miner's home in the country, economic crises which the Conservative Party of that day lifted tot a finger to resolve.

However we measure it, we find that the men in the industry are producing more than they have ever done. In 1946 the output per man-shift overall was 1·03 tons; in 1954, according to the Report of the National Coal Board, it was 1·23 tons, and at the face, 3·26 tons. In other debates on coal hon. Gentlemen opposite have asked what the production has been per man-year. In 1946, the year before nationalisation, the output per man-year was 260 tons. In 1954, according to the Report of the Coal Board, it was 303 tons.

Therefore, we have had a gradual increase in output, whether we reckon it by output per man shift or output per man year, with less men in the mines. It is also true that a few years ago the miners, after years of agitation, got a five-day week, and, immediately they got it, they surrendered it because the country was in a difficult position. As the result of this voluntary surrender of some- thing for which they had fought for years, the miners last year added to production between 10 million tons and 12 million tons of coal by working voluntary shifts on a Saturday.

Furthermore, the output in the British mines was higher last year than in any previous year. In fact, it was the highest output of any country in Europe. Out of 709,000 men, the Minister said that some 20,000 were engaged in development and reconstruction work. When we examine the Report, we find that there are more than 40,000 men on development and reconstruction work which ought to have been carried on over a period of years, but which was left until the Coal Board took over. Coal became short and, therefore, men had to be taken away from the coal face to do this development and reconstruction work. As I have said before, certain people and certain sections of the Press are constantly criticising the miners and suggesting that the fuel shortage and the increase price of coal are the fault of the miners, but in my opinion the miners are doing a good job.

This country admittedly wants more coal. It also wants more men to get the coal, but surely it is not the sole responsibility of one section of the public to provide the men. Surely it is not the responsibility of the people who live in the mining communities to provide all the young recruits. What about some of the people who are so voluble in their criticism? They take jolly good care that their sons do not go down the pits.

We in the mining areas and in the N.U.M. take no responsibility for the situation which has been created through the decadence of the industry in the years of private enterprise. We take no responsibility at all for that. The Board has been placed in the position that, in ten years, it is trying to repair the loss of forty years' development. Since nationalisation more borings have been made in one year than private enterprise made in the previous twenty years.

Great play has been made with the balance sheets of the Coal Board. We in the mining world are not prepared to accept depressed balance sheets. We say that the industry itself has made a working balance of £20 million, £1½ million has been paid in taxation, and £5 million to make up for the loss on imported coal. My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mr. P. Noel-Baker) mentioned the question of imported coal. A sum of £17½ million has also been paid to the old coal owners. Personally I have always felt that we paid them too much, but that was in the Act. They exploited us for generations, and now they are not doing too badly out of it.

There is an old saying that "Those who make the most noise have the least room," and British business men and industrialists have taken far more advantage of a free economy than have the miners. Dividends and holdings have been increased by the policy of this Government, and yet the miners, although in a strong position, have been very moderate in their demands and have not attempted to hold the country up to ransom. Therefore, this nation owes a debt of gratitude to the men in the pits.

Another matter to which the Minister rightly referred was that of home consumption. Home consumption was running at the rate of 218 million tons last year, nearly one-and-a-quarter times the rate of production in the pits in 1945. I feel that because production cannot provide 12 million tons for export and meet the increased requirements at home, we shall have to continue importing coal. Certain hon. Members opposite, in conjunction with industrialists, who, incidentally, may be getting coal well below the economic price of production, are saying that nationalisation has failed, and are calling for a new policy in the industry. In my opinion, raw coal can never supply the need for power which this modern age demands and, therefore, it will be necessary to import a certain amount of coal.

I feel that the Coal Board should be the body to import the coal. They should be the Government agent, but not financially responsible for any losses, because it is not the Coal Board which wants the coal. It imports coal under Government direction for certain industrial concerns and, therefore, it is wrong that the industry should be called upon to bear the loss on imported coal. Any loss that may occur should be a Treasury charge. My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South mentioned that we were following that course in the case of wheat, and paying £10 a ton to the British farmer.

Another point in the Report is the fact that the total cost of producing coal during 1954 was £3 1s. 11d. per ton and the average selling price was £3 3s. 6d. per ton. I think that it is fair to say that the domestic consumer pays about £6 per ton or over for coal. [An HON. MEMBER: "More than that."] At any rate, he pays between £6 and £8 per ton. That leads me to the conclusion that there is something radically wrong with the system of distribution of coal. It the selling price is £3 3s. 6d. per ton and the domestic consumer has to pay between £6 and £8 per ton, then, if the distribution system is O.K. industrialists must be getting it at less than cost price. There are only two conclusions which one can draw.

Another matter referred to in the Report which does not get Press headlines, and which no one mentions because it is not the concern of anyone outside the industry, is the accident rate in the industry. As one who was in the industry for many years, I feel very strongly about this.

The fatality rate dropped in 1954. It was one of the lowest on record. Fortunately, there were no major disasters, yet 364 men were killed; that is, one for every day in 1954. In that year, 1,825 men were injured severely, and the other reportable accidents as a result of which men were off work for three days or more were 219,000, making a total of 221,000. That does not take into account the hundreds of men who died, while off work, from various dust diseases such as pneumoconiosis and silicosis.

Not many weeks previously, the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board were negotiating a wage structure for the day-wage men. A national newspaper had the cheek and audacity to refer to the miners as "now the aristocrats of industry." When I read those startling accident figures I wondered how many aristocrats had died like those men in the coal fields.

The N.U.M. is very perturbed indeed about the old compensation cases, the men whom we have described as the "forgotten" men in the industry. They are the men who were unfortunate enough to meet with their accidents before July, 1948. They have had no increase from this Government. This is a matter on which the Minister could get into touch with the Minister of National Insurance if he wants more men in the industry. I have no doubt that if my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Finch) is fortunate enough to be called to speak he will develop this point, because he is an expert on the matter.

I appreciate that a lot has been done since nationalisation to improve the miners' position and to make mining attractive to new entrants, but the N.C.B. will have to take care that the relationship which exists at the top exists also at pit level. Unless that is done we shall always have unofficial stoppages. We decry unofficial stoppages, but we must instill at pit level both among management and men—mainly management—that they must show the same relationship at pit level as the National Coal Board shows to the National Executive of the N.U.M.

My last suggestion to hon. Gentlemen on the Government benches is that they must in no way, shape or form interfere with the present structure of the industry, either by decentralisation or by any other method which will put district against district. Those of us who were in the pits in the inter-war years know quite well what that means. We know full well that it will be resisted by the men in the pits, and strongly resisted by the N.U.M. by every means in its power. It will not only result in chaotic conditions in the industry but will bring economic disaster to the country.