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Defence (Coal Supplies)

Volume 478: debated on Monday 18 September 1950

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

10.0 p.m.

I am asked to take this opportunity to raise what I consider is a matter of vital importance, especially in relation to the Debate that we have had upon Defence. I want to raise the issue of coal in relation to defence. We have been listening to a Debate today in which the Opposition sought to discuss the pros and cons of the export of materials and machinery to Eastern Europe. One of the most important factors in the entire issue of defence has been omitted from the whole of this Debate and the Debate of last week. The base of the pyramid of British defence is now, as ever, coal. We have heard in the Debates practically nothing upon the coal position in Britain and the relationship of coal supplies to the defence of this island.

The Opposition case today has been made on unreality when we analyse the national issue of British coal supplies. Britain plays an important part in the production of the coal of Western Europe. One half of Western European coal comes from this island. Any system of defence of Western Europe depends as much as ever upon British supplies of coal. In addition, this island is responsible for one-third of the supplies of Western European steel. Consequently, no matter how boldly we talk about defence and about being strong, unless we have coal from the pits of Britain, or unless we have adequate supplies of coal, any talk of defence in this House becomes unrealistic.

The Opposition missed one point when talking of strength in defence, that Western Europe depends upon Eastern Europe, and particularly Poland, for a large amount of its coal. Belgium needs to import 25 per cent., Luxembourg 100 per cent., and Italy, which is within the sphere of Western European defence, 100 per cent. When we are talking of our defence we must keep in mind the factor of coal. We had figures last week to show that coal stocks in Britain are improving, but we know that there is a large gap. I am not saying what it is at the moment. We know that, on 2nd September, coal stocks had risen by 320,000 tons to 13,428,000 tons. That is a coal stock of 1,166,000 tons below the stock of last year.

I do not want to make a party point about this. I want to point out the seriousness of the issue. It is necessary, so the Minister says, ultimately to get our coal stocks to the figure of 16,500,000 tons. We are faced at the moment with a decline in manpower. In 1945, 17,351 miners left the pits. In 1947, with the nationalisation of the industry and better conditions, there was a jump of 26,165 more miners in the industry. But again the drift from the pits is beginning. In the first quarter of 1949 there was an increase in recruitment of 322 miners but in the first quarter of 1950 there was a decrease of 6,345 men.

This has nothing at all to do with nationalisation but it has quite a lot to do with the arduousness and difficulty of the job. No one is more grateful than I that the House realises the gallantry of the Scottish miners who gave their lives to win this valuable material so that we might propel our industry and strengthen our defences. I still have the horrible memory of my experience as a child when I was living in the valley where the greatest explosion in the history of British mining took place, in Senghenydd, South Wales.

I appreciate the efforts of the miners to produce this coal to make our progress possible, but the trouble is that, because of our full employment policy and our increased production, what we produce now cannot keep pace with rising consumption. We found that in the week ending 2nd September the consumption of coal was 65,000 tons more than in the previous week. The total consumption of coal in the first eight months of this year amounted to about 146 million tons, an increase of 4,436,000 tons consumed in industry compared with the same period last year, and at the same time as factories, power stations and dwelling houses are using more coal we are experiencing a decline in manpower.

I therefore ask the Government to look into the issue of pay in the Forces and pay on the surface and at the coal face for the miners. The issue will have to be faced. The best miners also make the best sappers, and if we want to keep the miners in the pits pay and conditions will have to be considered. This is one of the problems of a nation which has agreed to arm like Sparta. If a nation seeks to arm like Sparta, it will ultimately have to live like Sparta. Talk about defence is purposeless unless we have enough coal to maintain our industries.

Despite the gallant effort of the miners of Britain who have given 30 million tons more since 1949, thus saving the nation from disaster, and despite the magnificent effort of the Coal Board, we have to offset that by the increased internal consumption. The Minister told us not so long ago that in 1949, with full employment and the rising productivity of labour, total home consumption of coal, including factories, electricity, gas and railways but excluding house coal, was 34 million tons more than in 1938. We are scraping the bottom of the barrel and Lord Hyndley has warned the nation in these words:
"Either we get more coal or the whole basis of British life may be threatened."
That has nothing to do with the Labour Government being in power. It is because of the speed of mechanisation and the great consumption of coal in this country.

I have heard from the benches opposite cheap jokes about opencast coal, and hon. Members are smiling now, but before they smile let them listen to the facts. It was the 57 million tons of opencast coal that enabled this country to export 56 million tons of coal and to earn £126 million of foreign currency with which to feed our people, to get animal fodder, and to keep our industry going. Before the Opposition smile let them read Professor Hancock's book on the British war economy. Speaking of the coal position during the war he says on page 478 that three factors prevented shortage of coal from becoming a serious brake on war production. The first factor only need be mentioned. It was the development of opencast production.

The Opposition talk of strengthening the defences of Britain, but they are trying to make party capital out of the issue of opencast coal. Nevertheless, opencast coal today is as necessary as ever it was because any scheme of defence which does not see that coal is plentiful becomes meaningless. We are drawing on coal stocks and if we want Defence, if we want 38 new power stations and extension of the 43 existing ones, it would be a tragedy for this country if the Opposition got into power and applied a policy to coal such as they applied in prewar days. How are we to solve this problem?

The hon. Member says get more coal. Exactly. But the Coal Board is expected to perform a gigantic and almost impossible task. It needs a breathing space to win new seams and sink new shafts. Some of our best seams have been worked and burned, and year by year coal has been won at greater depths from thinner seams. In some of our old pits we are reaching the point where the antiquated haulage system and the old-fashioned shafts cannot cope with the supplies of coal coming from the coal face. On both sides of this House men of experience know that it takes time to work out a development plan. For instance, when the Coal Board took over we were told that there were 60 different underground railway gauges of varying widths and that tubs varied from 3 cwts. to 3 tons capacity on the haulage. Standardisation of the haulage and of the tubs takes time.

Although this may sound heresy, I believe it is essential common sense at this moment to win time by buying foreign coal. At one period in our history we were great wool exporters. There was a change in our economy and the time came to import wool. The United States of America is one of the greatest producers of petroleum in the world yet nobody criticises American economy because she imports oil. Just as America imports oil and Britain has had to import wool, the time has now come for Britain to consider the importation of foreign coal if we are to have reality in our talk of Defence.

London already imports coal from Newcastle-on-Tyne, and the docks and wharves—[Interruption.] Hon. Members opposite shake their heads. Let me finish the point. The docks and wharves which are used for the importation of coal from Newcastle have the machinery which could handle coal imported from Europe or elsewhere. If the Opposition benches maintain an acrimonious tone about trade with Eastern Europe, we will not be able to get the coal if we need it.

Where are we to get coal if we need to import it for the defence of Western Europe? There are three places. First, there is American coal, but that costs dollars and the British people would have to pay for it for years and years. Then there is Germany or Poland.

If the hon. Member studied the matter he might discover that wankie coal is one of those which, if transported great distances by sea, might burst out from spontaneous combustion. The hon. Member should understand that for that reason there are certain coals which cannot be sent great distances in ships.

I believe that the Government should now be considering the importation of coal. Far from such a course being testimony to the failure of the National Coal Board, it would show that both the Government and the nation face the realities of the situation. Although I was not able to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, when I sat through the three days of the Defence Debate, I believe that this fundamental point of the need for coal supplies was missed entirely in that Debate, and tonight in the Debate about exporting machinery to Russia the need for using Eastern European coal has been missed.

I ask my hon. Friend, therefore, whether the possibility I have suggested has been considered, and what is the policy of the Government to stop the drift from the pits, to improve the conditions of the miners, and to have a complete investigation into safety in mines. What are the Government doing as regards pay in the mines in relation to pay in the Forces? I should like to know also what is being done to proceed with the development plan and to give the Coal Board a breathing space for that plan to go ahead until we can win new seams, widen haulages, and deepen and widen shafts.

10.18 p.m.

The House, like myself, will have listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies). None of us would disagree with his general contention that coal is vitally important to the nation and must play its rôle in defence. It is the source of all our power and without it we should be very badly placed indeed.

Before replying to my hon. Friends' questions, I should like to underline some of the things I said a week or two ago in the country about stocks, production and consumption. This is very important, and I should not want to under-rate the rather serious situation in which the country might find itself with consumption having well overtaken the increase in production.

I do not think so. I have an extract from his speech, but we have not time to debate it.

In answering the Question today, my right hon. Friend said we had to build up our coal stocks.

No, he said they were being built up. If the hon. Lady will have patience and allow me to give one or two figures, I will show how these stocks are building up. When I have said that, however, I shall not say that we are happy or satisfied about the position.

The country must have 16,500,000 tons of coal in stock before the onset of winter. That is not necessarily tied to a given date such as the end of October, because weather plays a part in it; but we generally begin to lift stocks towards the end of the year, and therefore there is not much of a breathing space beyond the end of October to get the 16,500,000 tons in distributed stocks. On 9th September, which is the latest figure I have, the total distributed stocks amounted to 13.4 million tons, which does show an improvement, carrying out what the Minister said in answer to the Question this afternoon, an improvement in the stock position. At the same time, the gap between 13.4 million tons and 16,500,000 tons which is absolutely essential as a minimum is far too wide for any of us to be complacent about it.

There has been a big increase in production, of course. In 1949 there were 5.7 million tons more produced than in 1948, but the fact is that internal consumption has gone ahead. In 1945 the inland consumption was 179 million tons and in 1949 it was 195,500,000 tons. That is an increase in internal consumption of 16,500,000 tons in four years. One cannot expect to get big increases in productivity in all sorts of industry without having raw coal burned to provide that increased productivity, because we are all well aware that it is horsepower at the elbow of the worker that gives increased productivity, and that means coal and fuel of all kinds, whether in the form of gas or electricity.

That internal consumption increase has continued during 1950, and in the 35 weeks to 2nd September inland consumption was 133.2 million tons. In the corresponding period of last year it was 129.5 million tons, so we have an increase over last year in 35 weeks of 3.7 million tons. This is where we strike a great difficulty, because during the same period of 35 weeks production has only increased by 1.8 million tons. In other words, we are losing ground to the tune of nearly two million tons already this year.

Stocks for industry naturally give any Government cause for great concern, because this country could not tolerate an approach to a fuel crisis such as we had some years ago and we cannot reckon upon reasonable temperatures for winter. That is why it is so essential that stocks should be at the level I have indicated. The other day I took the chair at the Emergency Committee of the National Production Advisory Council for Industry, which, as the House knows, is representative of industry generally, and of the regional boards for industry. We discussed this very important matter of industrial stocks.

We have agreed to get industrial stocks up to a level of about four and a half weeks, which is a good safety margin, by about the middle of December. In that connection industrialists will require during those weeks to take what coal is offered to them. I do not think it is any use at all industrialists refusing to take coal which may have to come from another coalfield which is not their usual source of supply. If they are to get up their stocks, they will have to take the coal which is offered to them.

Does that mean that they must be prepared to accept a quality different from the ordinary quality? Would that always be suitable for their appliances?

I am not thinking so much of quality, because the National Coal Board should seek to give the quality they want, but it may be necessary for them to take coal from a coalfield which is not the coalfield from which normally they get their supplies. Because of that fact there may be some hesitation on the part of industrialists to take these marginal parcels of coal. I am only saying to industrialists that they should not in these weeks refuse to take coal of similar grade because it happens to come from another coalfield.

My hon. Friend referred to the falling manpower, about which the House is made well aware by the statistics made available from time to time. My hon. Friend said that the increase in the pay of the Forces would have an effect upon recruitment to the mines and indeed on the drift of men from the mines. I gather his suggestion was, that if that drift was not to continue, we should do something about miners' pay so that the Forces' pay would not be so attractive to miners. It is not an argument for tonight's Debate, but I must say, thinking aloud, that the whole argument for increasing the pay of the Forces in order to make the Forces attractive, disappears immediately every industrial worker's pay is increased by that amount.

The fact that coal is the base of the pyramid of the defence and the production of this country places coal in an entirely different position from any other of our products.

I am sure my hon. Friend believes that sincerely, and as one of those in the Ministry which is responsible for coal I also like to feel that and I realise it is, but it is extremely difficult to get dockers, electricians and others to accept that line of thought.

Would the hon. Gentleman clear one point about manpower. During the Recess many reports have been circulating of Army, Navy and Air Force Reservists being recalled from the coalface in connection with the Korean episode. Is it the intention of the Ministry to allow Reservists to continue to be called up from the coalface, or are they to be retained at their much more important job?

That is important, and matters such as that have to be considered by the appropriate Ministers who are responsible for the call-up, in consultation with the Ministries concerned. I mention that in passing only because my hon. Friend made a special point about it.

So far as pay is concerned, it is never the Government's desire to intervene between the publicly-owned enterprises and the trade unions in the case of straightforward negotiations. An offer was made by the Coal Board of 5s. which would bring the minimum rate to about £6 per week for underground workers and £5 15s. for surface workers in respect of the datal men. That case went to arbitration. The arbitrators have considered the case and we are waiting to hear their final decision. We shall obviously not want to interfere on wages matters between what are employers and employees as represented by their trade unions.

We at the Ministry are doing all we can in regard to safety in the pits. This is not a political issue. All Ministers of Fuel and Power have at all times done all they could to improve safety in the pits. Figures show year by year a gradual improvement—fewer fatalities and fewer accidents of a serious nature which are reportable.

I am sorry that I cannot reply to all the points that my hon. Friend has raised, but I should like to reply to the important issue he raised about the importation of coal. It is not the Government's intention to import coal, and while my hon. Friend put a very good argument, and while I have no doubt that under a given set of conditions which I need not at this stage mention it may be necessary to think about that, all I would say at this stage is that the Government do not propose to import coal.

We will certainly go on doing our best to attract men into the pits. The difficulty about the industry in relation to its organisation is that there is the long-term programme with which we may not interfere by a vigorous short-term policy. Otherwise we shall probably get more coal now and less coal later. The long-term programme has to be fitted in with the short-term programme. We shall supplement output by opencast coal. I gave some figures and indications about what we were to do in the course of a Debate before the House rose for the Summer Recess. It might well be a good thing if we could have a breathing space, but it seems to me that the Board are doing the best they can under very difficult circumstances.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'Clock, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Ten o'Clock.