Coal Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd July 1959.

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Photo of Mr Harold Finch Mr Harold Finch , Bedwellty 12:00 am, 23rd July 1959

I agree with my hon. Friend. They worked on Saturdays, when workers in many other industries were not doing so. They supplied the nation with the necessary fuel by which industry could work, and, in these circumstances, I think that for that reason alone there is a great moral obligation on the Government.

Looking back over a period of years on what coal and coal miners have done for this nation, surely one of the first considerations today should be what we can do in the present crisis to assist this industry and the men employed in it. Apart from that, the obligation is all the more evident when it is realised that this industry has had to carry heavy burdens and severe penalties. What have they been? The cost of importation of coal to the amount of £70 million and full liability for mining subsidence.

What is worse, until recently the industry has been unable to operate as a commercial concern. In past years, by any ordinary commercial standards, in which hon. Members opposite believe, the Coal Board would have been justified in increasing the price of industrial coal, but the hands of the Board were tied, and it was unable to increase the price. That may have been in the interests of economy, but it is a debt which the people and Government of the country owe to the miners. The Coal Board's hands were tied, and it could not operate as an ordinary commercial concern.

Now that the industry is faced with all these difficulties at this moment, when it is faced with the competition of oil and with declining markets, it is told that it can operate as a commercial concern. The Minister of Power, Lord Mills, has said "Yes, we can go on now; we can enter the race," but the industry begins under a very heavy handicap. It is like a horse going on a racecourse half-starved, with a very heavy burden upon it, while Lord Mills says, "Go on. Have a go." The industry has never been able to compete before as an ordinary commercial concern, but now it is allowed to do so.

If the Coal Board had been allowed to operate as an ordinary commercial concern in years gone by, it would now have millions of pounds in hand. It would have been able to have accumulated about £400 million. It would have been able to compete with oil, and able to meet on level terms the competition of the oil industry. It had been deprived of that opportunity and has been handicapped in this struggle, which is an unequal one. The least that the Government can do in these circumstances is to see what financial aid can be given to the industry in this crisis, if only for a temporary period.

After all, the oil industry has the reserves. No oil firms could do what they are doing now and sell fuel oil at less than the economic price if they had not the necessary reserves or the excess profits from many of their subsidiary undertakings. When the mines were nationalised, the interest paid to the coal owners was 2½ per cent., but since then it has gone up to 5 per cent. and even 6 per cent., which the Coal Board has had to meet. For the first five years of nationalisation, the interest payments were £15 million per year. Last year, they were £32 million. I agree that this was partly due to increased borrowing, but largely it was due to the monetary policy of the Government.

I would remind the House of what the Government did when this country ran into a balance of payments crisis. The Government sought and obtained permission from the United States to waive the interest payments. They went to America and said, "We are in difficulties; waive the interest payments for the time being," and they were able to get away with it. I submit that, in these circumstances, it is not too much to ask the Government to do the same for the mining industry as they have asked the Americans to do in connection with the balance of payments crisis. This is a financial question.

Is it too much to say to the electricity industry that the new power stations proposed to be operated on oil should be operated instead on coal? Is there anything unreasonable about that? This crisis is not due in any way to prices. That has not been the position, because the Paymaster-General said very clearly this afternoon that it was due to the fact that we were suffering a shortage of coal at that time, and that it was intended to go over to oil. This is not a question of economics, or of price. Therefore, it is not too much to ask, when the employment of thousands of our men depends upon it, that 11 or 14 power stations should be using coal and that arrangements should now be made accordingly.

What applies to the electricity industry certainly applies to the gas industary. I do not want to criticise the gas industry for the experiments which it is making at the moment, because it is showing initiative and enterprise. It must look to the future, but I do say that, since the coal industry has been the pioneer and the economic foundation of this country, it is not too much to ask the gas industry to restrict oil consumption.

I look with alarm on the experiments conducted by the gas industry in the use of liquid methane. I should have thought that this was contrary to all Tory philosophy. The Tories have always said that we should make ourselves less dependent upon countries abroad and imports from them, but this is a policy which will make us more dependent on imports from abroad. We have already been reminded that for years it has been the policy of the party opposite, supported by my own party, to assist the agricultural industry. It has been done to give support to home production and to avoid the necessity for imports as far as we possibly could. We say that the same policy should apply to the coal industry in the present situation.

It is unnecessary for me to remind the House that we are living in an age of great scientific achievement and technical improvement, in which there is a continually increasing application of mechanisation to industry. That is so in the mining industry. On a five-day week basis, deep-mined coal production is about the same this year as it was last year, but with 30,000 fewer men. The industry is now reaping the harvest of past capital expenditure, and it would be a calamity if help was not given to the industry in these circumstances. I am confident that, given fair competition and proper and adequate assistance, the industry can maintain and improve the prosperity of this country.

Here I should like to reply to a point made by the hon. Member for Kidderminster. We on this side of the House want to do nothing to impede the advance of atomic power. We believe that atomic energy will mean for the workers fewer hours of employment. After all, who wants to go into the pit if energy can be supplied on the surface? But, as my right hon. Friend has said, this must be planned. Planning, however, is alien to Tory philosophy. When planning is mentioned there is a feeling of scepticism among the Tory Party. We want nuclear energy and atomic energy to be planned. These are great sources of power and they can mean fewer hours of employment. During the period 1919 to 1926 the miners enjoyed a 7½-hour day. That was thirty years ago.