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Domestic Solid Fuel Allocations

Volume 527: debated on Monday 17 May 1954

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

12.26 a.m.

When food rationing ends, early in July, the only major rationing scheme remaining in force will be in connection with the Coal (Distribution) Order, 1943, and the rationing of domestic solid fuel supplies. My purpose in raising this matter tonight is to draw attention to three aspects of the matter of supplies of domestic solid fuel; namely, the price of it, the quality of it and the manifest inadequacy of the present rationing arrangements.

In regard to price, I do not think that any hon. Member would deny that there is grave public dissatisfaction. Coal prices have risen upon no fewer than 17 occasions since nationalisation in 1947, and an all-time high record for price increases has been achieved during the last 12 months. In the latter period the price of house coal has risen on no fewer than six occasions.

Generally, the quality of coal made available for domestic supplies—other than free and concessionary supplies to miners, which are of high quality—is appalling. It is the cause of endless complaints in all the principal towns. In addition, the clumsy rationing system, which is unsuited to present circumstances, is inequitable in its incidence, giving rise to an acute sense of frustration in innumerable households, largely because of the lack of any satisfactory method of registering legitimate complaints about the quality of domestic coal supplies; and the failure of the system, so often explained to the House by successive Ministers of Fuel and Power, whereby a householder can complain to a merchant who is supposed to be able to obtain redress from the National Coal Board in the form of replacement supplies.

In fact, no satisfaction is given, and attempts to raise the matter in this House generally meet with frustration equalled only by that of the aggrieved consumer. I last referred to this matter in this House just over 12 months ago, on 15th April, 1953, when I dealt with house coal supplies generally, their prices, their quality and the inadequacies of the rationing scheme. I had a good deal to say about prices. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary replied on that occasion, and as reported in c. 341 of the OFFICIAL REPORT of 15th April, 1953, he told me that my predictions about further price increases in house coal supplies were totally wrong.

I drew attention on that occasion to the fact that house coal prices had risen only a few weeks previously by the largest single amount since nationalisation, namely, 5s. 6d. per ton, and I said that price increase applied only to re-coupment of losses by the National Coal Board in the preceding year. I said that, in 1953, further increases would undoubtedly take place.

My hon. Friend said, quite unequivocally, that I was in error. His words were:
"My hon. Friend is in error there. It …"
That is the price increase of 5s. 6d. per ton in March, 1953:
"… was specifically to prevent a loss in 1953."
My hon. Friend went on:
"In addition to that, I would remind him that the Chairman of the National Coal Board, in his 'Face the Facts' conferences that he has been holding, has repeatedly emphasised that 'we have reached the limit of increased coal prices.'"
The Parliamentary Secretary went on:
"… there is no suggestion that they are to come out of any increase in the prices of coal, at any rate during this year."
That was in 1953. He added:
"I wish to emphasise that in case of any erroneous impression which my hon. Friend's words may have caused."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th April, 1953; Vol. 514, c. 341–2.]
He was referring to any erroneous impression that I might have caused.

I ask my hon. Friend this evening to take note of the fact that, whereas 13 months ago he twice said that I was in error in predicting that there would be any further increases in the price of house coal, not only have my warnings been borne out in fact, but they have been borne out, in fact, on no fewer than six different occasions. There having been six separate increases in price, amounting in the aggregate to more than 20s. per ton, in the average price of house coal in various parts of the country, and that has caused the price of house coal to reach the all-time high record of today.

I hope that, tonight, my hon. Friend will at least withdraw the suggestions that he made 13 months ago and readily admit that, not only have we had these six price increases whereas he said that there would be none, in the course of the last 12 months, but that, in the face of the present situation, we are likely to have, in the forthcoming 12 months, price increases at least as big as those which have taken place since April, 1953. I have no desire to be gloomy about this, but at least we in this House might as well face the facts, as the Chairman of the National Coal Board has apparently been endeavouring to do in the course of the last 12 months.

In February, 1954, a wage increase was negotiated between the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers, the effect of which was to raise the costs of the National Coal Board by no less than £9½ million in a full year. On that occasion the National Union of Mineworkers gave an undertaking that the increased cost entailed in the wage increase would be offset by an increase in production of at least 2½per cent. No increase in production at all has yet taken place this year. In fact, coal production is even lower than last year: and over the first 17 weeks, measured to 1st May, 1954, coal production is at 76·6 million tons compared with 76·8 million tons one year earlier.

The fact is that, notwithstanding the very large increase in the price of house coal that was announced on 14th April, 1954, the biggest price increase of any of the 17 price increases since nationalisation—and this latest price increase varied from 5s. per ton to 17s. per ton—no part of that price advance offsets, in any way, the increased wages given to the miners, announced last February, which will cost £9½ million in a full year.

The whole of that £9½ million has still to be made good, in spite of the increase in the price of coal announced only four weeks ago. I estimate that to offset the £9½ million increase in miners' wages last February, assuming that production does not increase—and three months have already elapsed without there being any increase in production, so it is not unreasonable to suppose that we shall not see any very great increase in coal output this year—we shall witness a further increase of approximately 7s. 6d. per ton in the price of coal.

That figure will probably be added to the price of house coal within the next three months. I hope that my hon. Friend will not have the temerity to tell me for the third time that I am in error. All his predictions last year proved false. Such an increase as I refer to will be inflationary from the industrial point of view, and will cause very great hardship to the domestic consumer.

A survey was conducted, a matter of 15 months ago, in the early part of 1953, by the Coal Utilisation Council, inquiries being made of 2,000 householders all over the country. The survey provided a report that 24 per cent, of domestic consumers could not afford to take up their coal ration. Since that date, the price of coal has risen by a further 20s. per ton. I predict that it will rise a further 7s. 6d. in the next three months. I consider that before very long, as many as one half of all domestic consumers will be unable to afford to buy all their coal ration. If ever there was an example of virulent rationing by price or the purse, this is it. A very large number of householders, as a result of the arbitrary action of the National Coal Board, are no longer able to take the full maximum allocation, as it is called, of house coal.

As regards the appalling quality of house coal, to which I referred earlier, there is no effective means of ventilating complaints. I will cite two examples of what has happened to me, as a Member of Parliament, and may happen to all Members as a result of the frustrations experienced by the general public. Recently I was privileged to take part in a television programme on the subject of coal. My opponent on the platform was the well-known trade union leader who has recently become President of the National Union of Mineworkers. In the 14 days before that programme, and after it became publicised that I was to take part in it, I was inundated with nicely tied-up little parcels of slate and rock sent from all parts of the United Kingdom by people.

They asked me whether I would please show them on the television screen. The complainants said that it was futile to complain to the local merchants or to the National Coal Board about the appalling quality of house coal because no redress was available. In fact, I did no such thing. I used to send such parcels, when they came to me in a previous Parliament, to the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. Noel-Baker), who was then Minister of Fuel and Power. A steady stream of them used to go round from my office to him at his Ministry, until he implored me to stop sending them.

The second example is the sort of thing that happens to Members of Parliament when they hold so-called political surgeries in their constituencies. A typical example occurred to me 14 days ago. A lady constituent came to see me, bringing with her a heavy shopping basket which she put on the table. She invited me to examine its contents, and when I took out the first parcel, neatly wrapped in newspaper, she entreated me to unwrap it. I unwrapped it. It looked like a piece of coal. I squeezed it and it was a lump of unadulterated clay.

That woman had brought down to me nearly half a hundredweight of this material. In desperation she had taken it to her coal merchant, who had said: "It is no good bringing me this rubbish. I have complained endlessly to the National Coal Board during the last three years. Their attitude is: ' You will take this material, or get nothing at all'." It is no use my right hon. Friend shutting his eyes to these causes of complaints. There are thousands of them silently suffered, day by day.

The consuming public are utterly frustrated. They have no outlet for their complaints about the shocking quality of this material which is being supplied by a monopoly and nationalised undertaking. There is no redress, only the abortive attempt to get the local Member of Parliament to do something, and that is what I am endeavouring to do this evening.

The hon. Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton) is eternally complaining about the alleged iniquities of private enterprise textile manufacturers. She says that the President of the Board of Trade should initiate prosecutions against them under the Merchandise Marks Act. The first prosecution in my view, that ought to take place for falsifying the description of an essential material and requirement of home life, is a prosecution by the President of the Board of Trade against the National Coal Board in respect of materials falsely described as house coal but which in fact comprise slate, rock, bits of old tombstones and other incombustible materials, all of which the National Coal Board distribute under the guise of house coal.

In fact, about 25 per cent, of the material sent out today and stated by the National Coal Board to be house coal is practically unburnable. This racket has been going on now for several years, unchecked by successive Ministers of Fuel and Power, and I believe that a change in the machinery for ventilating grievances in regard to the quality of solid fuel supplied by the National Coal Board is long overdue.

I want to say a word about the Coal Distribution Order, 1943—the rationing scheme which has now been in force for more than 11 years. It is the last major rationing scheme in force. When food ration books are destroyed, a matter of only a few weeks hence, coal rationing will be the last war-time scheme remaining. The belief of Her Majesty's Government over the last three years has been that they could not end house coal rationing because it is estimated that it would need an additional 4 million tons of house coal a year to satisfy total un-rationed demand.

In fact, 32 million tons of coal were distributed on the house coal market during the last full year period, and the Ministry of Fuel and Power estimates that if house coal were unrationed, the figure would rise to 36 million tons of house coal in a full year. I suggest that my right hon. Friend has no statistical grounds or evidence whatever for reaching that conclusion, which is purely conjectural. What we have today, though, is quite reliable evidence in my view, that the price of house coal is now so high that an increasing number of householders can no longer afford to buy it, and that coal will ration itself. In fact, if house coal rationing ended tomorrow, it would, in my view, make no difference at all to the global or aggregate consumption of house coal.

Large numbers of people who are in a position to do so have changed over to oil consumption; large numbers of people —veTy rightly so—who are in a position to do so, have swung over to coke; large numbers of people, instead of using solid fuel in their homes, are using electricity or gas. All forms of available alternatives are being actively called into use because of the difficulty of getting suitable and good-quality supplies of domestic coal and because large numbers of householders are so utterly frustrated with not being able to ventilate complaints and obtain redress for solid fuel they buy under allocation schemes at such high prices, and which contain so much unburnable material.

Many of my hon. Friends and myself have a real financial interest in trying to end this clumsy house coal rationing scheme in view of the high cost to the taxpayer. Today about 1,500 full-time officials are employed in administering the scheme and a large number of part-time officials are also engaged. The total cost to the taxpayer is about £1½ million a year. I believe that, with very little difference to the pattern of consumption as it exists today, and in view of the danger of a substantial further increase in the price of household coal, we could consider at this juncture the abolition of the house coal allocation arrangements without any substantial additional demand being made on our coal resources. Price control should remain.

I wind up on this note. When nationalisation of coal took place the average price of house coal, for grade 4 coals, was about £3 15s. a ton. Today the average price is nearly £7 per ton for that grade of coal. If the Parliamentary Secretary wonders how that figure is arrived at I ask him to consult the published prices for grade 4 coals that are at present supplied in a number of provincial centres. I did not take these centres because of their distance from the coalfields. I took a number of the principal towns in all parts of the country, such as York, where the price is £5 13s. for grade 4 coals, Liverpool, where it is £5 14s., London where it is £6 15s. per ton, Bristol where it is £6 7s., Plymouth where it has now risen to £6 19s. and Brighton where it has risen to £7 5s. Summer prices are 10s. per ton less.

It is futile for my hon. Friend to say that the people can buy the cheaper coals which are less costly, because we all know that much of the material in the lower grades of coal such as can be used for house purposes is virtually un-burnable in the home. Grade 4 is the lowest grade of coal anyone can reasonably use at home in present circumstances. I imagine that London will soon be paying about £8 per ton for good household coal, and that price will increase before we are very much older. In these circumstances, making a comparison with figures that were only approximately 50 per cent, of those rates seven years ago, and much less than that in earlier years, when this Coal Distribution Order was introduced, I believe it is no exaggeration to say—remembering the findings of the Coal Utilisation Council in their survey 15 months ago, when it stated that only one family in four could afford to buy their ration of coal—that the position today is twice as bad as when that survey was made, and that one family in two cannot afford to pay for their maximum allocation of house coal. Further, during the next few months, the position may become progressively worse.

All these factors drive me to believe that the Coal Distribution Order, 1943, should be urgently re-examined with a view to its termination at the earliest possible date. Simultaneously, I think my right hon. Friend might at least take some urgent action to impress upon the National Coal Board the facts about the appalling quality of house coal that is being supplied in so many cities of this country today, and the need for an early improvement.

12.50 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power
(Mr. L. W. Joynson-Hicks)

My hon. Friend has shot a lot of arrows into the sky tonight and left me only a few minutes in which to collect them from the target; and, therefore, I am afraid, it is not going to be possible for me to reply to all the points he has made. Some I have picked up and should like to try to deal with, because he has made a certain number of statements, a great many of which are entirely correct and accurate, but some of which, I think, do bear a different interpretation from that which he put upon them.

He quoted remarks of mine on the increase in the price of coal in 1953. I speak entirely from my own recollection, because I have not the record before me, and I did not know that my hon. Friend was going to raise the matter, and so I did not look it up. My recollection is that I was particularly careful in that debate to make it quite clear that I was referring solely to the possibility of an increase in prices during that year in respect of increases in costs which had already taken place. As I have made quite clear, in answers to my hon. Friend's questions, that the increase in price this year, 1954, is in respect of anticipated losses which the National Coal Board is likely otherwise to face in 1954. So there is no overlapping there. I do not think my hon. Friend can justly challenge me on the accuracy of the statements which I have made in the past.

I must be exceedingly brief, because I have so little time, about the broad question of the derestriction of coal. It is true that there is no exact estimate of what increased consumption of coal would arise from the derestriction. My hon. Friend challenged me with the suggestion that we had no basis at all upon which to consider any results of derestriction. That is not quite so. That matter was considered carefully, and upon as detailed information as was available, by the Ridley Committee, and the result it arrived at was that the increase in consumption of domestic house coal would be about 4 million tons, and 4 million tons at the present time is an exceedingly substantial increase in the consumption of domestic house coal.

I pass swiftly to the question of the quality of coal and merchants' complaints. There is a perfectly well-known and perfectly well-worked scheme for dealing with complaints about quality. If one buys an article, of whatever nature, that does not come up to one's expectations, the normal thing to do with it is to take it back to the shop and to say, "This is a bad article. Take it back." One can do exactly the same thing with coal—take it back to the coal merchant.

Coal merchants, through an arrangement that the Federation of Coal Merchants has with the National Coal Board, are perfectly prepared to take up with the Board the question of the quality of coal it has supplied, and the Board is glad to receive properly authenticated and genuine instances of bad quality coal sent out from its pits, so that the Board can trace and verify any examples of carelessness or laxness in the preparation of the coal it sends out.

But if the householder is not satisfied we have, during the past few weeks, given him a still better opportunity, because there is only one real solution to this problem and that is to enable the consumer to change his merchant. If he is not satisfied with what one merchant supplies, let him go to another and see if he can get better service. So this year we have made it possible for consumers freely to change merchants of their own volition during the three summer months starting from May. They can do so without having to show any cause why they wish to change their merchant. That is some step towards freedom. I quite agree with my hon. Friend that that is the ultimate desire, and we have taken certain steps in that direction already.

My hon. Friend referred to expenses and costs. We have amalgamated no fewer that 300 local fuel offices already, at a very considerable saving to the taxpayer. In addition, as the hon. Gentleman doubtless saw, my right hon. Friend stated, in answer to a Parliamentary question on Friday, that we have streamlined or eliminated the returns of fuel consumption and fuel stocks from no fewer that 28.000 industrialists, which represents a very considerable saving.

I am afraid that that exhausts all the time I have at my disposal to reply to my hon. Friend, but I hope that we may have a further opportunity of considering this subject, in regard to which he has no greater desire than I have to free the consumer from any sort of restriction.

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

Adjourned at Four Minutes to One o'Clock a.m.