As opportunities of debating the affairs of the National Coal Board in this House are comparatively rare, I count myself fortunate in being called upon to take part in this present important debate. As it is virtually impossible for hon. Members to put down Questions of any consequence on affairs affecting the Board, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will give us further opportunities to discuss these matters in the future. I am sure that all hon. Members would welcome those opportunities, although I am rather more dubious about the Board.
Paragraph 1 of the Introductory Note in Volume 2 of the Report and Accounts of the Board states that the Minister of Power requires that this Report and these Accounts shall conform with the best commercial standards. In my opinion, they more than fulfil that requirement, and a word of congratulation is due to those who have prepared such lucid accounts in connection with what is admittedly a vast and complex industry. They have been compiled in such a way that even I can understand them, most of them. Although there are one or two omissions, they are, on the whole, excellent documents.
There are, however, certain aspects of the Board's policy that are a little more difficult to understand. and I am glad that we have had the benefit of hearing my right hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Southwark (Mr. Gunter) developing some of these points of policy. For example, we read in the Report that it was definite policy in 1960 for the Board to reduce production below the level of consumption in order to diminish its rather inflated stocks. In theory, I suppose that that policy sounds easy to carry out; in practice, I am sure that it is far more difficult, and although the Report says that that object has been reached I wonder at what cost it has been achieved, particularly in the matter of good will.
Obviously, with so many grades and qualities of coal it is impossible to carry out such a policy without some sacrifice by the consumer. By that I mean that the consumer often has to accept inferior grades of coal from stock when the Board either cannot or will not supply the grades he really requires. That is rather like asking the greengrocer for a cauliflower and getting a cabbage instead, or asking for carrots and being fobbed off with parsnips.
I am quite sure that the Sales Division of the Coal Board would be the first to agree that none of these customers can be regarded as being fully satisfied until they get the grades of fuel they require, and at the right price. This applies not only to industrial, but to domestic users.
On the domestic side, I note that 1½ million tons more domestic fuel were sold by the Board in 1960 than in 1959. Although it does not seem to be specifically mentioned in the Report, I believe that at least part of this increased sale of domestic coal must have followed on the Board's drive to increase its retail sales.
In this respect, I understand that the Board's Cardiff office recently installed an Answerphone so as to be able to accept orders for coal either during the day or through the night. This service was advertised, and fairly prompt delivery was promised. I understand that, as a result, that office has been so flooded with orders that it has had to suspend the service, for the time being, at any rate.
Personally, I regret that the Board should find it necessary to compete with the retail coal merchants in this sphere, but if, as I suppose is the case, it intends to continue in this way, I hope that the Minister will give a definite undertaking that such competition will always be conducted on a scrupulously fair basis. For instance, I hope that the Board will never offer grades or qualities superior to those obtainable from other coal merchants in the area at the particular time.
There is cause for concern here, because it is probably well known that retail coal merchants are restricted to the quota they sold in the previous year, which means that they can never increase their sales. On the other hand, I understand that the Board has considerably increased its retail sales in recent years, so it would seem to have an unfair advantage there.
I am sorry to see that the Board's efforts to encourage increased stocking during the summer months have not been more successful. As we know, it tried to encourage merchants and industrial and domestic users to stock up during the warmer months by offering an incentive of a price reduction of up to 20s. a ton. If this could be worked effectively it would certainly remove a very big headache for the Board.
I wonder whether one solution might not be a more aggressive sales campaign by the Board to the merchants, and by the merchants to the consumers during the summer months. In respect of an account customer, particularly, I do not think that there would be any objection if the coal merchant telephoned or called to ask the customer whether he could not take 1, 2 or even 5 tons of coal at a reduced price into his coal cellar during the summer months. I understand, however, that the best qualities of coal are always in demand at this time of the year, that is, the period from May to August. Realising that, this policy can only be carried out provided that these supplies are always available.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) referred to stocks for the coming winter. Domestic stocks, I understand, are only fractionally above the danger level for the coming winter and I am sure that if we can impress even now on the consumers that they should stock up before we get the really cold spell—and if they are forewarned that it is possible that we may get a very bad cold period during the winter—a fuel crisis will be avoided.
The loss of a domestic customer is always the cause for concern by the Coal Board. The loss of an industrial customer is something of a calamity. I am sorry, therefore, to read in the Report that oil consumption had increased in the period under review by the equivalent of 7½ million tons of coal. I also read with regret—and my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster mentioned this, also —the decision of two leading cement companies to change, after many, many years, from coal to oil. One of these companies, Aberthaw Cement, is situated not far from my constituency and I have discussed with its chairman the reason for this change.
It appears that in the manufacture of cement the consistency of the fuel is of importance because if there are wide variations in its consistency it is reflected by wide variations in the consistency of the manufactured article.
Price, of course, enters into this and hon. Members have already heard something about it during the debate; indeed, the hon. Member for Kidderminster referred to the subject. So far as consistency is concerned. I understand that Aberthaw Cement experienced such a variation—not week by week or month by month, but delivery by delivery—that they were more or less forced to take this serious decision. It is a big and vital decision for a manufacturer who is situated virtually on the edge of a vast coalfield. He must make the change at considerable cost and much change from a fuel that should be obtainable in vast quantities with good consistency from nearby to a fuel that has to be brought thousands of miles by sea.
It would seem that there is still very great scope for improvement in this question of quality and consistency in the output of the Coal Board.