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Coal Industry

Volume 464: debated on Monday 9 May 1949

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Opencast Mining

1.

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power in how many cases during 1947 and 1948 have successful tenderers for opencast coal work been instructed by his Department to purchase plant from the Ministry of Supply or any other Government Department.

None, Sir. But because of the need to ensure that American machinery already purchased for dollars was employed in the most productive manner, there were a number of sites for which tenders were asked on the understanding that the successful tenderer would purchase excavating plant which was especially suitable for the site concerned. The number of machines purchased from the Ministry in this way was 43 in 1947, and 38 in 1948.

In actual fact, was it not the case that many contractors were compelled to take machinery they did not want; and is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the evidence put before the Select Committee it was stated that the Ministry had started unloading plant on unsuccessful tenderers?

The answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question is, "Certainly not, Sir," and I would not agree with that interpretation of the evidence put before the Select Committee.

2.

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power on what basis is the initial cost of providing loading and screening facilities for opencast coal-mining written off by his Department.

Capital expenditure incurred in the provision of loading and screening facilities is spread over the total production programme. An annual review is made of the rate at which such expenditure is written off, and, if necessary, adjustments are made in the light of the balance still outstanding, the estimated amount of future capital expenditure and the remaining production programme.

Can the right hon. Gentleman say if, then, the whole of the capital cost is ultimately recovered from the selling price of coal?

3. Mr.

the Minister of Fuel and Power what percentage of the sale price of opencast coal is represented by Departmental overheads.

The estimated figure for the year ended 31st March, 1949, is 41 per cent. of the average sale price.

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper in the name of Mr. HUGH FRASER:

15. To ask the Minister of Fuel and Power what action is being taken to restore the agricultural value on the opencast mining site at Hatchley Farm, Dilhorne, Stoke-on-Trent; why machinery including a tractor has lain idle there since 1st October, 1948; why a contractor's bungalow on the site is paying neither rent nor rates; what is the work of an engineer who is on duty on the site each day; and what action he proposes to take.

Mr. Speaker, may I point out that this Question should read, instead of "a tractor has," "six caterpillar tractors and six scrapers, the property of his Ministry, have."

Restoration work on this site began last October, but early in November, owing to bad weather, the ground became waterlogged and unfit for further work, and the contractor was given permission to postpone work until the Spring. In April, however, he gave notice that he would be unable to complete his contract and alternative arrangements are now being made to complete the restoration of the site. The tractors and scrapers were not required for other work during the winter, and were left on the site for use when restoration started again.

The contractor's agent and his wife were allowed to stay in a Nissen but erected by the contractor because they could find no alternative accommodation. It is not the practice of the Ministry to charge ground rent for contractors' buildings. I have no information about rates. The engineer who uses the office on the site is mainly engaged on routine work in connection with other sites in the district.

Is it not the fact that these tractors could have been employed in the month of November and also since April? In point of fact, they have been eating their heads off doing nothing. Further to that Irishism, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that these tractors might well have been used by his right hon. Friend who has been complaining about the lack of tractors in Tanganyika? Something like 6,000 working hours have been lost by these tractors, which I compute to amount to a loss of about £9,000. Is the Minister further aware that the firm who were employed by his Ministry have since gone bankrupt? Is no check made of firms before such contracts are given to them? Finally, is the Minister aware that a complete mess has been made of the land, and that the topsoil and the subsoil are completely and inextricably intermingled?

The tractors may have been eating their heads off, but they are still alive, I am glad to say. They certainly could not have gone to Tanganyika and come back in time to do restoration work this Spring. As regards the contractor, I am glad to say that it is very rare for a contractor to break down on his contract as has happened in this case. We take all possible precautions to prevent that kind of thing happening.

17.

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power, in view of the Report of the Select Committee on Estimates, whether he proposes any early change in the present opencast coal policy.

No, Sir; if we are to be able to meet the increasing demand for coal at home and our commitments to expand exports, it is imperative that everything possible should be done to fulfil the present opencast programme. The policy of the Government, therefore, remains as stated by my predecessor in the House on August 7th, 1947. At the same time we shall continue our effort to reduce costs of production which, as the Committee's Report shows, have fallen by nearly 10s. a ton in the last five years. My Department's reply on the detailed recommendations of the Select Committee will be forwarded to the Committee in due course.

Arising from that reply, which indicates that the Government are continuing their policy of winning opencast coal, I want to submit the following questions to the Minister: first, is he aware that the people who are living adjacent to opencast sites are suffering great mental anxiety, physical discomfort and disturbance of their domestic life, and will he take steps to eliminate or reduce to the lowest possible level the discomforts experienced; and secondly, is he further aware that the promises made on 30th March at the meeting held in the Billinge U.D.C. to the people there have not been carried out by his Department? Will he ginger them up and see that the promises are kept?

With regard to the second part of the question, I will certainly follow up the information provided by my hon. Friend. As to the first part, we will certainly do everything we can to diminish the inconvenience which opencast operations cause in that locality, but I must insist that we carry out the programme if we are not to be short of coal.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the devastating effect on agriculture and food production is a factor which is just as important as that of obtaining coal? Why does not that get proper consideration?

It certainly does get proper consideration, but in terms of value it is very small by comparison with the value of the coal which is raised.

Domestic Supplies, Cornwall

7.

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power if he is aware of the shortage of anthracite and domestic coal in South-East Cornwall; and if he will take immediate action to rectify this position.

10.

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power whether he will take steps to remedy the shortage of fuel in West Cornwall, with particular reference to anthracite.

As I have frequently explained to the House, and as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has recently indicated in correspondence with the hon. Members, anthracite is scare on the home market owing to the need to increase exports, particularly to Canada. The shortage is no more acute in Cornwall than elsewhere, and coke, of which supplies are adequate, is a satisfactory substitute in most stoves and boilers. Stocks of house coal in South-East and West Cornwall are reasonably good for this time of the year, and I am not aware of any special difficulties in these areas.

The Minister has used the word "scarce." Is he aware that in Cornwall this is not a question of scarcity; the supply of anthracite is absolutely zero. With regard to the last part of my Question, is the Minister aware that domestic coal is at a dangerously low level? I do not think it is reasonable compared with the rest of the country. Will the right hon. Gentleman look into the matter again?

According to my information, stocks of domestic coal in Cornwall are substantially above the level in the rest of the country, and represent at least two or 1½ weeks' consumption.

Is my right hon. Friend prepared to give priority to owners of stoves which only burn anthracite?

Yes, Sir, we have always given instructions to our local officers to ensure that in such cases anthracite shall be provided.

Would the Minister ask for a special report from the South-Western Fuel Overseer?—because I have been round two or three coal yards in that area, and there is no domestic coal at all. The Scotch anthracite burns too slowly for these "Cookanheat" stoves. There is no Welsh anthracite whatsoever in the St. Austell district—or there was none three weeks ago.

I had, of course, obtained a report from my regional officer before answering the Question. I do not think the hon. and gallant Member realises that stocks of house coal are normally very low at this time of the year.

Is the Minister aware that the report that he mentioned referred to Cornwall, whereas I had specifically referred to South-East Cornwall? Perhaps there is a conflict there. Will the right hon. Gentleman inquire into the matter further?

According to my information, stocks in South-East Cornwall amount to 1.6 weeks supply.

Western Europe (Production And Marketing)

9.

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power whether any steps have been taken by His Majesty's Government either through the National Coal Board or otherwise to co-ordinate the production and marketing of coal in Western Europe as a whole.

Production and marketing of coal in Western Europe is coordinated through the Coal Committee of the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation on which His Majesty's Government are represented. This Committee meets frequently in Paris to deal with solid fuel problems arising within the framework of the Organisation, in particular the forward coal prospects, requirements and availabilities of the participating countries. In addition, His Majesty's Government are represented on the Coal Committee of the Economic Commission for Europe which includes representatives of all European countries who are members of the United Nations. This Committee meets quarterly in Geneva to recommend allocations of the available supplies of coal, and has recently initiated a study of the long-term aspects of European coal production and utilisation. The National Coal Board is kept in close touch with the Paris and Geneva Committees through the Government machinery in London, and representatives of the Board also attend meetings of the committees as advisers to the United Kingdom delegate.

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that after the first world war cut-throat competition between British, Polish, German and French coal industries resulted in every ton of coal cut being sold under the cost of production? Does he recognise the necessity for taking effective steps to see that this situation never recurs?

The hon. Member raises a very big issue with which I cannot deal in question and answer, but I can assure him that we appreciate the point he has made.

Does either of the bodies mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman deal with Ruhr coal which is being exported at a price substantially below the normal world price?

Certainly, the Economic Commission for Europe would be concerned with that, and also I think the other Committee.

Is the Minister aware that Polish coal is now being landed in Eire? Cannot something be done to make better co-ordination than that?

I am not aware of any lack of co-ordination. At any rate, so long as we can sell all the coal we can afford to export I do not think we need grumble very much.

Mining Subsidence (Report)

16.

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power if he can now state when legislation will be introduced to implement the main findings of the Report on Mining Subsidence or alternatively, in view of the urgency of the matter, if he will consider introducing a short preliminary Measure dealing with compensation for damage done to cottage property.

I regret I am not yet in a position to add to the reply given to my hon. Friend on 24th February last. The proposals raise many important issues which are the concern of several Govern- ment Departments, as well as the National Coal Board, and some delay is inevitable before the Government can reach a decision on the Report and the action to be taken as a result of it.

Has the Minister considered the suggestion in the second part of the Question?

Yes, Sir, but I do not think it would be practicable to introduce separate legislation dealing with that point, and in any case the exact criteria to be applied in the matter of claiming compensation is one of the points which must be most carefully looked into.

In that case, is the Minister aware that three months ago the answer he has now given was reasonably satisfactory, but that the people living in the cottages there are being subjected to the same treatment as if they were under enemy bombardment, and that they are no longer satisfied with that answer? We really must ask for a hasty decision.

I quite appreciate my hon. Friend's concern in this matter, which I share, but I would ask her to be a little patient. This is a very difficult problem into which we must go carefully before we reach a decision.

Would the Minister kindly tell us whether an opportunity will be provided for the House to discuss the Report? We agree that there are many complications and that might be a profitable procedure.

Is the Minister aware that we had an understanding from his predecessor in 1946 that legislation affecting compensation for mining subsidence would be brought before this House before the end of 1949?

I am not aware of any such promise being given. I should be very surprised if, in fact, it were given.