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Coal Industry

Volume 486: debated on Monday 9 April 1951

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Colliery Ventilation Fan (Stoppage)


asked the Minister of Fuel and Power if he is aware that, during the recent rescue operations at South Birtley, County Durham, the ventilating fan specially installed for the benefit of the entombed men was put out of action for 15 minutes by an electricity cut; and if he will take such steps as are necessary to prevent such occurrences in the future.

Yes, Sir. I will advise the managements of mines which, like South Birtley, normally rely on natural ventilation that, when electrically-driven fans are installed to deal with an emergency, they should warn their area electricity board not to cut the power.

Does this incident not illustrate the unpleasant consequences which can follow on electricity cuts? Cannot the right hon. Gentleman hasten the time when the electricity undertakings will be obliged to provide, as in former days they did, a continuous service, without interruptions?

If we had not had a war we should, of course, be farther forward. In this particular case no danger was involved, I am glad to say; and the power was restored immediately a telephone call was made.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has been greater care for the miners since nationalisation?



asked the Minister of Fuel and Power what percentage of coal was cleaned of dirt in 1947; and what is the position now.

In 1947, the percentage of coal cleaned either by mechanical means or by hand was about 78 per cent.; in 1950 it was 82 per cent.

Has the amount of dirt taken from coal since nationalisation been much greater than before nationalisation, and, when the pits were taken over, was there adequate cleansing machinery in the old pits?

Before nationalisation the cutting machinery had been increased much more rapidly than the cleansing machinery, and there is a backlog of mechanical cleaning plant to make up.

Would the right hon. Gentleman suggest to his hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. T. Reid) that he asks the housewives of Swindon whether they agree that their coal is cleaner?

Has the right hon. Gentleman considered the passage in the Gas Council's Report which says that the low quality and dirtiness of the coal resulted in an extra million tons' consumption?

If the right hon. Gentleman had looked at the Order Paper he would have seen that there is a Question down about that.

Would the right hon. Gentleman tell the House how much of the 82 per cent. is mechanically cleaned?

Would my right hon. Friend answer the last part of my Question? Was the machinery for cleansing the coal adequate in the pits before nationalisation?

No. I have said it was not adequate because the cutting machinery had been increased much more rapidly than the cleansing machinery.

Quality (Complaints)


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.

Fuel Overseers


asked the Minister of Fuel and Power the number of fuel overseers and their total annual cost in salaries and expenses.

There are 1,459 local fuel overseers, of whom more than 1,100 spend a part only of their time on their fuel duties. The local fuel overseers and their staffs are employed by local authorities, to whom the Government repay the costs reasonably incurred in the maintenance of the service. For this purpose, £920,000 is provided in my Department's Vote this year; £110,000 is provided, in the Votes of other Departments, for common services, such as office accommodation and stationery.

Is the Minister aware that in 1913, before these gentlemen were appointed and when there was hardly any mechanisation, this country produced 287 million tons of coal and exported about 94 million tons?

Yes, Sir, and the figures fell, under private enterprise, from 289 million in 1913 to 174 million in 1945.

Can my right hon. Friend say whether it is or is not part of the duty of local fuel officers to deal with the complaints of household consumers if such consumers do not obtain satisfaction from the coal merchant to whom they have taken their complaints in the first instance?



asked the Minister of Fuel and Power if he will give the coal production figures for the years 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1950, respectively.

The deep-mined production of coal during the last five years has been as follows: 1946, 181 million tons; 1947, 187 million tons; 1948, 197 million tons; 1949, 202.6 million tons; 1950, 204.1 million tons.

Is the Minister aware that these figures are evidence of a grand contribution by, and a great credit to, the miners?

Will the right hon. Gentleman circulate in HANSARD figures showing the extent to which production has fallen short of his Department's estimate?

Is the Minister aware that the 1950 figure for deep-mined coal is still 25 million tons less than in 1939?

Yes, but it is 30 million tons more than in 1945, when the Coal Board found the industry in chaos and faced with great difficulties.

Has my right hon. Friend yet received any reply from the miners to the good wishes and congratulations of the right hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd)?

Is it not a fact that, with the same numbers employed and with far more mechanisation, we obtained less deep-mined coal in 1950 than in 1941 and can the Minister say why that is so?

1941 was the crisis of the war, and the miners worked more shifts then than in any other year, and certainly more than I should desire that they should work in any peace-time year. Moreover, the mechanisation since 1947, while considerable, is only beginning to touch the fringe of what is required.

Can the Minister say how the figures compare with those for the years after Waterloo?



asked the Minister of Fuel and Power the consumption of coal in Great Britain for the months of January, February and March in the years 1948, 1949 and 1950, respectively.

The total consumption of coal in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland in the first quarter of each of the last three years was as follows: 1948, 52,600,000 tons; 1949, 54,900,000 tons; 1950, 55,950,000 tons.

Stocks, Eastern Region


asked the Minister of Fuel and Power if he is aware that merchants' reserve stocks of house coal in Norfolk and the other six counties of the Eastern Region now total only five days' supply; and what steps are being taken by his Department to bring the stocks up to a more adequate level.

Stocks of house coal always fall to a fairly low level at this time of year. The stocks in the Eastern Region have been rather lower than I could have wished, and there has, of course, been some reduction during the Easter weeks; but the current deliveries to merchants are being well maintained. Everything practicable will be done to build up satisfactory stocks during the summer months.

Is the Minister aware that the allocation to the Eastern counties is rather lower than it ought to be because his Ministry still work on certain tables which seem to show that the climate in that area is the same as in Torquay or Bournemouth? It is for that reason that the level of the stocks is of particular importance.

I will consider that, but I should like to point out that since 1st May the merchants have sold to their customers 74,000 tons more house coal than the year before.

I understood the Minister to say "current deliveries were being maintained." Would he explain what that means?

Did I understand my right hon. Friend to say that he has already made arrangements to increase the supplies available for domestic issue during the forthcoming summer and winter?

Has the Minister been able to take steps to overcome the acute shortage of coal in Cornwall?

Drift Mines


asked the Minister of Fuel and Power if he will inform the House how many drift coalmines are at present producing coal; and how many of these were developed in the first three months of 1951.

I have asked the National Coal Board to let me have the information which the hon. and gallant Member desires, and I will send it to him as soon as I can.

Does the Minister remember that four months ago in the House he said that one measure which would give relatively quick results was the opening of drift mines? Will he try to push on with it, because it does not appear that everything is being done?

The Coal Board have asked their divisions to do everything they can to press on with this matter.

Can my right hon. Friend say how many drift mines have been closed since nationalisation, for which we have to pay compensation and which are of no value to the nation?

Schuman Plan


asked the Minister of Fuel and Power what steps he is taking to meet the threat to the British coal ex port trade consequent on the initialling of the Schuman Plan Treaty on 19th March last.

With respect, I do not accept the hon. and gallant Member's suggestion that the initialling of the Schuman Plan constitutes a threat to the British export trade in coal. In any case, the interim provisions annexed to the draft treaty provide that the High Authority shall forthwith start negotiations with other Governments, and in particular, with the Government of the United Kingdom about the general economic and commercial problems of coal and steel.

Does not the Minister consider that the formation of what practically amounts to a cartel in Europe is bound to cause anxiety? Before the signing of the treaty would he not carefully consider the effect that it is bound to have upon the coal export trade?

We are considering the implications now, and the negotiations which will take place.

Coal Board (Vacancy)


asked the Minister of Fuel and Power when the vacancy created by the death of Sir Arthur Street will be filled.

I hope to fill in the early future the vacancy on the Coal Board created by the lamented death of Sir Arthur Street; but I regret that I cannot yet give a definite date.

Supplies, Birmingham


asked the Minister of Fuel and Power if he has investigated the case of Mrs. Siviter of Leahouse Road, Birmingham, to which his attention was drawn on 12th March; how soon after having submitted a medical certificate she was supplied with coal; what representations were made to the Birmingham fuel overseer on her behalf; and what action was taken to deal with the complaint.

When, on 9th January, 1951, Mrs. Siviter presented to the local fuel overseer a medical certificate which was dated 6th November, 1950, it was found that she had a supply of coal in her house. She was advised that, if she were in danger of running out of coal, she should contact the local fuel overseer at once. The local fuel overseer was told on 29th March that Mrs. Siviter was without coal. He at once issued a priority certificate and it was honoured on 31st March, when a delivery of 6 cwt. was made.

Has the Minister seen a copy of the "Birmingham Mail" for Saturday last, 7th April, in which a grave reflection was made on the local fuel overseer in connection with this case? In view of the fact that this was the second report—the first being on 12th March—affecting one of my constituents, each report being totally untrue and false, is the Minister willing to take action to ensure that the public are properly informed in Birmingham and to deal with these abusive reports, especially as one was inspired by the right hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd)?

I will consider what my hon. Friend says. I must say that I do regret that the right hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd) should have asserted that priority certificates had not been honoured without verifying the facts and, so far as I can discover, without consulting the local fuel overseer in the matter.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this lady informs me that she approached the local fuel overseer with a doctor's note in October, and in February, and that on one occasion her doctor also telephoned to the office? It is typical that it was only after the matter was raised in this House that she received the extra coal allocation.

All the facts are on record in the overseer's office, and if the right hon. Gentleman could make it convenient to go there he could see them for himself.

Is not the object of medical certificates to get an extra supply of coal into the house and not to create the possibility of a coal supply when the existing one has already run out?

I did not say when it ran out. The purpose of the certificate is to ensure that people are not without coal when they need it, and that is what happens.

Can the Minister instruct a local official to answer these reports, which have caused very grave concern among the people of Birmingham because of their untruthful nature?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that even graver concern has been caused by attempting to minimise genuine hardship?

No, Sir. Neither I nor my hon. Friends have attempted to minimise anything. The fact is that assertions that priority supplies are not honoured have always been proved to be untrue.