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Scottish Coalfields (Conditions)

Volume 465: debated on Tuesday 24 May 1949

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Popplewell.]

12.10 a.m.

The matter which I wish to raise is the question of conditions in the Scottish coalfield. Like every other intelligent person I recognise that it is very easy to criticise from the negative point of view. I shall endeavour, therefore, to direct my remarks more to constructive than to negative criticism. The case, however, demands both candour and courage. To me it looks very much as if the National Coal Board in Scotland has no coherent plan. It appears that it has very little grasp of the men's psychology, while its appreciation of the miner's mentality is a reflection of the rule of 50 years ago.

Some people tell me that in Lanarkshire there is a surplus population of 30,000. Only a week ago a very important member of the Scottish Coal Board, writing in "The Scotsman," which is a most authoritative journal, stated that 500,000 people in Scotland would require to change places. It looks to me as if the policy of the Board was rather feckless. To me it is not enough simply to close 40 collieries in Lanarkshire and airily state that there is plenty of work in Ayrshire, Fife and the Lothians. Let us take one illustration. John Smith is, say, on the sunny side of 50. He has a large family and, because in recent years there has been a serious decline in the numbers of the mining population in Lanarkshire, John Smith finds that he is the only member of the family who earns his bread by mining. Other members of the family are employed, say, in steel, in the making of clocks, in the making of carpet sweepers and in the light industries which have been brought into Lanarkshire in very recent years. At the moment I see no visible sign of development in Midlothian either in new pits or new mines. The last time any large pit was coaled in Midlothian was about the year 1907.

It follows, therefore, that if there is any considerable transfer of personnel from the Lanarkshire coalfield or any other coalfield into Midlothian, we shall find that these men will be absorbed into old collieries. It simply means that the manpower will be used in the old and rather worn-out method of coal production. I do not think that that is an economic method of using manpower. I say with a certain amount of regret that the only scientific improvement I can see in coal mining in Midlothian at the moment is not from the point of view of deep mining, but rather from the point of view of opencast mining. I firmly believe that while this method is being followed, when the seams reach the depth at which they are no longer suitable for opencast extraction, it would be well for the Minister to consider commencing deep-mining operations before complete reinstatement of the soil takes place. Thus we should find that there were no initial charges in regard to the sinking of vertical shafts. We want more coal cheaply, and the moral to me is that we should put the skilled imported labour on to work on the alluvial seams so that we shall not be up against the high overhead charges consequent on employing the men in these old worn-out mines.

To encourage the Smith family to move from one county to another we require ancillary industries. In Midlothian we are in a splendid position to offer the most strategic sites of any city, possibly, in Britain. Many years ago Sir Frank Mears, a great planning expert, scheduled along the Edinburgh-Peebles railway in the Bonnyrigg district a very large area for industrial purposes. This site has great advantages; it has two railway systems. It has at the moment three railway sidings. It is traversed by first-class roads; it has a first-class water supply; it has an electrical station which distributes 33,000 volts of electricity. I suggest that here, if the National Coal Board will take the necessary action and free this ground, it will find that its doubts and fears are groundless. I am informed by the local authority that the National Coal Board object to this site from the point of view of industrial development because of the presence of alluvial coal. I can testify to the fact that I was present at the extraction of the last of the alluvial coal about 1908, and assessed it. Sir Richard Redmayne, ex-Inspector of Mines for Great Britain, stated at the inquiry into the Blackhall Colliery, Glasgow, in 1927, that where waste stood for 25 years, it formed a barrier as efficient as virgin coal. Our local authorities are building houses close alongside this site and there is no reason why the National Coal Board should act as a dog in the manger. It is said there is no fear of subsidence, and this building proves it.

I am informed that 600 girls leave one particular part of the county every morning to work in the city of Edinburgh, coming from a district where three parishes are scheduled under the Distribution of Industry Act. One wonders why no industry has been introduced into this particular area. This is the Calder area of Midlothian, and in the adjoining West Lothian constituency there is industrial development; gigantic development is contemplated in Grangemonth, and ancillary industries have been poured into Lanarkshire, making it all the more difficult for people to leave Lanarkshire and come to new surroundings. On inquiries as to why no industry has been introduced into the three scheduled parishes in the Calder area, the Board of Trade say that if any ancillary industry were introduced into these scheduled areas, it would upset the labour economy in the City of Edinburgh. This, I suggest, is a deliberate insult to the intelligence and ability of the girls from the county and is insufferable.

But let me show where the National Coal Board is likely to unbalance the labour in a particular locality. It is intended to build 600 houses near the town of Pennicuik. The staple industry here is paper making, and if female labour from 600 households is laid at the disposal of the reactionary paper mill owners of the Esk Valley, then we shall find a depreciation of the wages of the employees of the paper-makers in the Esk Valley. I was glad to see that the Board did admit its full responsibility for the recent misunderstanding at Shotts; but the question remains: Was the mine promised before proof of the mineral was ascertained—before it was decided there was any body of mineral in that area? I should compliment the Board, however, on having the courage to go forward and admit its responsibility in this respect.

Let me turn to the housing policy, or lack of policy, of the National Coal Board. No one can blame the Board for the deplorable property that they were compelled to take over on the vesting date. That was its inheritance from private ownership. Places like Butlerfield, Sherwood, Poltonhall, Dalhousie, Loanhead Westend and Shottstown are places which I think would earn the condemnation of the most broad-minded. The conditions of some of our people, especially in the Dalhousie, Poltonhall, and Sherwood areas, were very much worsened when the local authority took over the responsibility for what passes for cleansing.

In Butlerfield, the conditions are unbelievable. Butlerfield is a pretty little hamlet adjoining Dalhousie Castle, the seat of the Ramsey family and of the Earl of Dalhousie. One of the Earls was Viceroy of India. He is alleged to have returned with his horses' hooves shod with gold. This is the place where the Conservative Party holds its gymkhanas, but hon. Members opposite fail to look over the wall and look at Butlerfield, which is part of the estate. I suppose it would remind some of them of their sundowner days, because Butterfield has no sanitary arrangements at all.

Inquiries have shown that there are strangers coming into the mining area who are provided with modern up-to-date houses. I suggest to the Minister this does not tend to create a feeling of equanimity. Let me give two typical cases. Tom Philip is a skilled miner from a skilled mining family. He is married and for 18 months was overcrowded in his father's council house. He had to remove to the west end of Edinburgh and now, because he stays in the City of Edinburgh, although he has to travel one hour to his work in the morning and one hour back, he loses a shift if he loses a bus. He cannot be provided with a house in the county's mining area. Douglas Forrest is a skilled machine man working in one of the best collieries in the Lothian. His wife works in Newbattle Hostel and Douglas is in lodgings. He sees people coming into the county and procuring new houses while he himself is debarred from having anything like an ordinary chance of getting a house.

And all this happens, let me say, in a county where the skilled face-workers are working for 1s. 8d. per shift less than the men of the adjoining counties. I suggest to the Minister that a little attention should be paid to this situation in future. I hope and trust that he and his right hon. Friend will see that these grievances are remedied.

12.24 a.m.

We have all listened with great attention to the case put forward by the hon. Member for Midlothian and Peebles, Southern (Mr. Pryde). I am really surprised that no Scottish Members of the Opposition have felt it worthwhile to be in their places to listen to something that is really remarkable in the history of Scotland, for we are discussing the declining coalfields and the social facts of the transfer of men to the other coalfields in Fife.

The general basis of the National Coal Board's plan for Scotland is to expand production in the newer and more promising fields in Fife, Ayrshire, and the Lothians to take the place of output from pits in Lanarkshire, where the coal reserves have become exhausted or hopelessly uneconomic to work. My right hon. Friend has approved the general lines of this plan. The details of it, that is, where production of existing pits can be expanded, the sinking of new pits, when and where production from old pits should be discontinued—can only be worked out by the experts and these decisions must be the responsibility of the Board. They will, of course, consult with the National Union of Mineworkers.

The general aim of the Scottish plan is eventually to increase total coal production to 30 million or 31 million tons a year, an increase of some 25 per cent. over the 1948 level of production of 23.8 million tons. The coal industry in Scotland is especially fortunate in having the opportunity to develop production in the new coalfields and there can be no question that this development will be for the economic good of the mining industry in Scotland and of Scottish industrial life as a whole. It could not be contemplated that the industry should be burdened indefinitely with the highly uneconomic production of the declining pits in Lanarkshire. Their effect on the efficiency of the industry is shown by the fact that if only 19 of the poorest pits which were in operation in 1947 had been eliminated, the surplus of the Scottish division for that year would have been increased by 35 per cent.

Now I come to details of the plan. Immediately, it is proposed to close down 29 pits in all, of which 17 are in Lanarkshire, by the end of 1950, including 10 scheduled for closure in the first stage. At six of these latter workable reserves are in any case completely exhausted. Of the total manpower employed—about 5,000 men—probably 600 to 700 can be transferred to other local pits and the Board hope that the remainder will be available for transfer to the areas where production is being developed and where additional manpower, and particularly skilled men, is urgently required. It is a vital part of the plan to transfer as many as possible of these men from the Lanarkshire collieries, where they can produce only 12 to 15 cwts. per shift, to areas where production can be at the rate of 30 cwts. per shift or more.

To achieve this aim the Board have taken all possible steps to facilitate transfers. Special action has been taken with local authorities and the Scottish Housing Association to provide houses for miners in Fife and the Lothians. Plans have been prepared and agreed for the provision of houses in the developing area to about 10,400 by the middle of 1951, and of these 50 per cent. will be available for transferred miners and the remainder for miners employed locally. It is also the Board's firm intention to time the closures so as to fit in with the new opportunities for employment in the developing areas. At present there are vacancies in Fife and the rate of development can be stepped up as soon as more skilled mineworkers become available.

I agree that changes on this scale are bound to involve great social and economic problems, both within and beyond the scope of the Board's own responsibility, but the Board have a particular obligation, in preparing and carrying out such plans, to consult with the workers in the industry. In fact they have done a good deal more than this. Besides full discussion with the National Union of Mineworkers they have held meetings with representatives of local authorities and Members of Parliament for the areas affected. Early in 1948 the Scottish Divisional Coal Board gave the National Union of Mineworkers a broad outline of their plan and after discussion with them agreed to present the plan to the Divisional Consultative Council representing all sections of the industry in Scotland. The National Union of Mineworkers undertook to explain the plan to a delegate conference at which all branches of the Union in Scotland were represented.

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that the National Union of Mineworkers took a decision yesterday that they will have no further co-operation with the Coal Board on the policy of closing down pits?

I understand that is so and I am sorry, but the purpose of this Debate was to deal with this particular matter of which I am now giving the present picture.

The final stages in consultation were explanations of the plan to Members of Parliament and local authorities and a detailed examination by each colliery. The National Union of Mineworkers gave their general acceptance to the plan, but reserved their final acceptance in the case of individual pits. This is conditional, of course, on the further examination by the Board of any new facts brought to light, or alternative schemes which may be put forward in the last stage of consulting with the Colliery Committee.

In connection with the closing of the two collieries Hillhouserigg and Fortissay, there can be no question that there was keen disappointment felt by the mineworkers at the decision of the Scottish Divisional Board to abandon development of a proposed new surface mine at Harthillwood, near Hillhouserigg in this area. At the time that the Scottish Coal Board discussed with the Scottish National Union of Mineworkers the whole proposals, it was indicated by the Board that a new surface mine was to be opened. It was unfortunate that at that stage it was not made clear that the development of a surface mine was dependent on the results of the trial borings. Consequently this decision was conveyed, quite properly by the President of the Scottish National Union of Mineworkers, Mr. Abe Moffatt, to his delegate conference in December last, and to a special meeting of Shotts miners in February of this year. Subsequently, however, the trial borings revealed that the quality of the coal was very poor, and clearly the Board could not contemplate developing a new pit which they knew beforehand to be completely uneconomical. And so the project was abandoned and the decision conveyed to the Union on 25th March.

I might say that Lord Balfour, the chairman of the Board, has expressed his own personal regrets that the Coal Board's plan to open a new surface mine was made known without the qualification that the Board naturally always have in mind when developing new pits or when proposing to develop new pits that it is consequent on the results of trial borings. This happening was, to say the least, very unfortunate because there is nothing worse than to raise men's hopes and then have them disappointed. But there it is. No good can now be obtained by recriminations. Had the coal qualities been worth while then the new surface mine would have been developed. As it is the coal qualities were not and so the project has to be abandoned. There is nothing more I can say on that except that we, too, felt very sorry that this misunderstanding arose. But there it is and one can only express one's great regret.

This, of course, does not alter the fact that it is inevitable that worked-out collieries should close and this is not a new feature of the industry since nationalisation. Where the Coal Board scheme is immensely better than anything the industry has known before is that it co-ordinates a decline in production in one part of Scotland, which cannot be avoided, with developments elsewhere. In order to reduce any hardship the Coal Board have prepared a scheme of compensation for miners becoming redundant through reorganisation schemes, under which benefits are payable for 26 weeks. The Board of Trade and the Ministry of Labour are kept closely in touch with the position and are taking steps to provide other employment. For example, in addition to the existing industrial estates at Larkhall, Chapelhall and Carfin, large new estates are being constructed at Newhouse, and Blantyre, where employment has already reached 2,000 and should continue to rise progressively as the new factories come into production. At East Kilbride an industrial estate of about 51 acres is being planned as an integral part of the new town.

At all events, I should make it perfectly clear that there is coal mining employment for all miners who are ready to move away from Lanarkshire. In fact, housing conditions in the development areas are very much better. The advantage of the plan in providing an overall increase in coal production, and for far more economical use of manpower, will relieve the industry of an intolerable economic burden, and not only the prosperity of mining but the whole economic welfare of Scotland depends on its success.

This new development of the Scottish coalfield is a scheme that should commend itself to every Scot who has the interests of his country at heart. The development of the Scottish coal industry to more than 30 million tons a year in newer pits with much higher productivity, with superior housing conditions and the development of other industries to provide a better balanced economy will bring a new era of prosperity and pride of achievement to Scotland.

The Parliamentary Secretary in opening his remarks, commented on the absence of Scottish Members on this side of the House. I did ask one of them if he would stay, but he said he thought criticism of the National Coal Board could, at present, quite safely be left to the other side, and I think we have seen that.

If the National Coal Board are taking all these steps to transfer men, why are they not getting on with the development of new pits? There is this famous Rothes pit. I understand that it has been very much delayed by the non-delivery of machinery, and that by the end of 1948 No. 1 shaft was only down 240 feet, and No. 2 shaft down only 81 feet. Anyone who knows the depth at which pits must be in the new area will realise that that is a very short way. I do hope that with all this transference of men some acceleration will take place in the further development of these pits.

I understand that there is a further difficulty, namely, whether there are the necessary transport facilities to move this new Fife coal across to the Lanarkshire steel works, for they are not closing down. It would be interesting to know what steps are being taken to provide that transport. I understand that in the next two years something like 40 collieries will be closed. In the case of 34 of them the coal which can be easily worked is exhausted, and in the remaining six the level of operating costs is too high. That is a higher proportion than the Parliamentary Secretary mentioned, but I presume he was talking of a shorter period than two years. I understand that over the next 10 years it will be necessary to move 100,000 people from the central area of Scotland into the new areas where the mines are opening in Fife, Midlothian and parts of Ayrshire. It appears that this is a very big matter, and I am sorry there is no more time to debate it. I apologise for speaking on Scottish affairs, but I feel it is a subject to which attention should be called.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-two Minutes to One Clock.