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Quality (Complaints)

Volume 486: debated on Monday 9 April 1951

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asked the Minister of Fuel and Power on what date he decided to place the responsibility for dealing with complaints of bad quality coal on the coal merchants rather than having complaints investigated through the industrial and domestic coal consumers' councils.

I have made no such decision. As I have explained in answer to earlier Questions by the hon. Lady, only the merchant who sells the coal can identity any consignment of which complaint may be made. A regular procedure for dealing with complaints has, therefore, been agreed between the National Coal Board, the Coal Merchants' Federation, and the Co-operative Movement, and I have no reason to think that it is not working well. But this procedure leaves it open to any consumer to complain to the appropriate consumers' council, if he fails to obtain satisfaction from the merchant who sold him the coal.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are no consumers' councils in the region I have in mind and that, in answer to all the letters that are written to him on this matter, he always puts forward the view that this is now the responsibility of the coal merchants? What is his constitutional authority for abandoning the procedure laid down under the Act?

I have not abandoned it. Any consumer is free to go to the consumers' councils at any time he likes.

If retail distribution had been nationalised, perhaps we might have had a different system which would have been better, but in view of the fact that it remains in the hands of 20,000 private merchants, I think that this is the best plan that we can have, and the merchants think so, too.

Is it the intention of the right hon. Gentleman to nationalise the distributors in the near future?

Is the Minister aware that, under the Act, consumers' councils in the regions, on the authority of his own Parliamentary Secretary, in a recent letter to me, envisage the establishment of regional councils for the mining industry? Why has that not been put into effect?

I can establish regional councils if the hon. Lady can prove to me that it is desirable to do so. She has not yet done so.


asked the Minister of Fuel and Power what compensation was asked for by a coal merchant in respect of bad quality coal supplied to an industrial undertaking, particulars of which have been supplied; and what compensation was paid.

I have not got the information, for which the hon. Lady asks; and bearing in mind that it concerns an individual transaction in the day-to-day business of the Board's administration, I do not think that it would be right for me to take the special steps that would be needed to obtain it.

If a merchant is dissatisfied with the compensation paid by the N.C.B., it is, of course, open to him to raise the matter, either through his trade association, or direct, with the Industrial Coal Consumers' Council. This would, of course, in no way prejudice any right he may have under his contract, which is enforceable in the courts.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that £110 was demanded and that the National Coal Board settled for £40; and that the coal merchant has written to me, as I happen to be his Parliamentary representative? Does not the right hon. Gentleman take any notice of Parliamentary representation on this matter?

Because the merchant did not get all that he claimed, that is not proof that the Coal Board were wrong. If the coal merchant had a grievance, he could have taken it to the Industrial Coal Consumers' Council, and since the hon. Lady desires that they should have more work she might have advised him to do so, instead of putting down a Question.

Has the Minister ever had any evidence that the consumers' councils have been of the slightest use to consumers.

Is the Minister aware that in "Labour Believes in Britain" it is said that the voice of the consumer should ring out loud and clear? What means have the consumers of making their voice heard?

They have the Industrial and Domestic Coal Consumers' Council, and they are also able to induce Members of Parliament to ask Questions, which, before nationalisation, they could not do.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that some coal retailers find that if they make complaints they are victimised to the extent that their fuure supplies come through very slowly, if at all?

I have heard that suggested in the House, but I have never had any evidence whatever to support it. Indeed, if the Coal Board were foolish enough to try to withhold an allocation of coal from any merchant, the House Coal Scheme, which is run by the merchants themselves, would very soon take it up.


asked the Minister of Fuel and Power whether he has examined the stones and rock submitted to him, respectively, by the hon. Members for Tynemouth and Kidderminster, as examples of numerous cases of dirt and deleterious matter contained in allocations of solid fuel supplied to householders as coal; what steps are to be taken to improve matters; and whether he will make a statement.

In view of the great labour involved, and other objections, I cannot undertake to answer in future Questions about such individual complaints as those which the hon. Members have drawn to my attention. But, since these two complaints have received wide publicity, I have made inquiries, and the results are as follow:

Mrs. Chapman of Hendon, who wrote to the hon. Member, received 5 cwt. of coal, which were part of a truck load of 10 tons 9 cwt. All this coal was sold and no other complaints about its quality were received. The merchant, having considered the matter, does not intend to take it up with the National Coal Board. I made special arrangements for a fuel inspector to see the 2 cwt. of this coal which still remained in Mrs. Chapman's possession; he found no stones or other deleterious matter.

Mrs. Hickson, who told the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Miss Ward) that she had received 28 lb. of stone and slag, informed my officer that she had collected this stone and slag from her grate over a period of three months; she said it was the residue of seven deliveries of one cwt. each; she admitted that the pieces of stone and slag were the inner core of large pieces of good coal. No blame can, therefore, be attached to the merchants or to the screen hands at the pit.

While thanking the right hon. Gentleman for the punctilious and courteous way in which he has investigated these complaints, may I ask if he does not agree that there is cause for a good deal of dissatisfaction with the quality of household coal? Will he not therefore show a little mercy towards the participants and shareholders in his nationalised slate club?

I have always admitted to the House that, at present, with the greatly increased demand for coal due to full employment, we have to give some coal to the household coal market which is not as suitable as we could desire; but these cases show that the hon. Member is not justified in making the statements he makes in the House.

Would it not be very much better if genuine complaints about the quality of household coal were taken to the local fuel officers who, by and large, do very good work in dealing with complaints of this kind?

In view of what the right hon. Member has said about his attitude to future Questions on this subject, is he not aware that the local fuel officers are his officers and that he is responsible to the House when they fail to give satisfaction?

It is not part of the duty of the fuel officers to deal with complaints. The local fuel overseer advises the consumer to go to his merchant, who alone can deal with these complaints, because he alone can identify the coal.

Does the right hon. Gentleman really think he is right that old age pensioners, buying in very small quantities, should have to take a proportion of their bad coal up to the fuel office for it to be examined? Is he aware that it is only when Questions are asked that investigations are made?

I made great efforts last year to ensure that the quality of the coal should be improved. The merchants have admitted that it has been greatly improved, but I would add that in the past, as now, there has always been some dirty and poorer quality coal in the household market, which, in the old days, the poor had to buy, because they could not afford to pay the price of good coal.

In answer to a previous supplementary question, the right hon. Gentleman said that Members of Parliament could now address their complaints to his Department which they could not do in pre-nationalisation days. Does his statement mean that he has now gone back on that?

I said that in the old days Parliament could do nothing about the coal industry because it was in private hands. Parliament can now exercise a very great measure of control, and it does so.

How can Parliament exercise control when the right hon. Gentleman has just said that he will not consider individual complaints?

I have not said that I will not consider complaints. I have said that I cannot answer Questions about day-to-day administration.

Is it not a fact that the right hon. Gentleman gave an open invitation to the whole country to send him concrete evidence? Now we have done it, what is he complaining about?

I have never given any such invitation. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] Anyhow, I am not in the least complaining of anything the hon. Member has done.


asked the Minister of Fuel and Power details of the procedure to be followed when domestic consumers complain of dirt and deleterious matter in house coal allocations; what redress in cash and in kind the householder is entitled to seek from the coal merchant in such cases; and what redress the coal merchant can claim, commensurate in cash and in kind from the National Coal Board.

As I have frequently explained, individual complaints about the quality of coal should be settled between the buyer and seller. Consumers should address their complaints to their merchants, and it is for the merchants, in the ordinary way of business, to deal with these complaints according to the merits of the case. It is impracticable to specify in advance the precise form of redress which a merchant may be able to give to a consumer. This must obviously depend on the circumstances of each case.

In making their complaints to the N.C.B., merchants should follow the procedure which the Board and the trade have agreed upon; every merchant has been informed of this procedure, and knows what he should do.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that notwithstanding the fact that if a domestic consumer takes his complaint to a coal merchant, he rarely secures redress in cash or kind, because the coal merchant cannot secure commensurate redress in cash or kind from the Coal Board? Therefore, the Minister's statement this afternoon is worthless. What is he going to do about it?

What is the job of the fuel overseers if they do not deal with complaints?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will put that Question down. It will be a very long answer.

How many coal merchants have been able to find any coal for their customers in respect of the complaints which they have had?

Will the Minister admit that very high prices are being charged for stone? Will he try to reduce the amount of stone in coal?

On a point of order. So far as I could hear, at least the last three Members who put supplementaries did so without being called. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am saying I did not hear them called. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Portsmouth, West (Brigadier Clarke), who was on his feet last, was not called so far as I could hear.

The hon. Member for West Fyfe (Mr. Hamilton) was very unobservant. Surely he must have seen that I was talking to the Foreign Secretary at the time and that Members got up although I did not call them. The hon. Member asked a supplementary question the other day. It was only throwing a brick across the Floor of the House, so I did not call him today for that reason. Once we start throwing the ball from one side to the other it continues to come back so that it becomes quite impossible for the Speaker to give a ruling. On that occasion the ball was kicked over to the Opposition side and came back very quickly, so I promptly called the next Question.

I neither had a ball nor a brick to throw across the Floor of the House, but I did rise to ask a supplementary question in the hope of catching your eye, Mr. Speaker. However, three or four hon. Members on the other side got in without being called.

I was engaged for the moment. If the hon. Member wants to ask a supplementary question, let him get up and do so now.

We hear a lot about dirty coal, and I want to ask the Minister—[HON. MEMBERS: "Speech."] Hon. Members opposite are wrong; it is not a speech. Is it not a fact that we are now hearing about dirty coal because in the days of private ownership the coal owners would not install cleaning machinery in the coalfields? Further, is it not a fact that the Coal Board, in the three years during which they have been in existence, have spent more money on cleaning plant than was spent in the 10 years before the war?

In view of the disgraceful replies to Questions Nos. 13 and 15 I beg to give notice that I will raise the matter on the Adjournment.

I rather dissent from the expression "disgraceful replies." The usual formula is, "owing to the unsatisfactory replies." The word "disgraceful" casts imputations; "unsatisfactory" is the correct word.