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Volume 640: debated on Monday 15 May 1961

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asked the Minister of Power having regard to the application made by the Steel Company of Wales for a licence to import Virginian coals from the United States of America, paid for in dollars and hauled largely in American freight ships to South Wales ports of foreign coal into Great Britain, ports, and his policy of obviating all im-for balance of payments and other reasons, whether he will initiate urgent conversations with the British Iron and Steel Federation and other interested bodies with a view to substituting British coal in appropriate grades and prices for the proposed American imports; and whether he will make a statement concerning present policy on coal imports.


asked the Minister of Power whether he will make a statement about the policy of his Department on the private import of coal.


asked the Minister of Power if he will make a statement concerning the Government's present policy on coal imports.


asked the Minister of Power what consultations he has had with the President of the Board of Trade about the effect on collieries in the South Wales coalfield of the import of coal from the United States of America.


asked the Minister of Power if he will make a statement about the Government's intentions on the import of coal.

Because of the importance of the issues involved, I do not expect to make an early statement about the Government's policy on coal imports. This is being considered in consultation with the appropriate authorities. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade tells me that he intends to defer his decision on the application by the Steel Company of Wales until this examination has been completed.

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that any refusal to allow steel manufacturing companies in Britain to import coal from sources which show an economy in price compared with the price of British coal would be inconsistent with the continuous exhortations of Her Majesty's Ministers to British manufacturers to increase their competitiveness abroad and to reduce their prices? Would he make it clear to Mr. Alfred Robens, Chairman of the National Coal Board, that the fault in this matter really lies with the unwieldy and out-of-date price structure of his Board?

My hon. Friend, with his usual sagacity, has put his finger on two of the important issues I shall be considering.

I do not know about sagacity, but would the Minister, when considering this matter and advising his friends on it, bear in mind that it would be very unfortunate if the slowly mounting confidence in the coal mining industry were to receive another blow—

Yes, yes—and if that confidence should again be diminished the Minister will have to bear in mind that the large number of vacancies that exist, particularly in the South Wales coalfields, will be very difficult to fill. Further, does not the Minister think that the National Coal Board should at least be given an opportunity of proving its faith in mechanisation and greater production before it receives this further blow?

If I may turn for a moment to sagacity, may I ask the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro)— —

Order. The hon. Member cannot ask questions of persons other than Ministers.

Then may I ask whether the Minister will take steps to initiate conversations between the Coal Board, himself and other interested parties to see if we can arrive at a satisfactory solution to this problem, which may be only temporary?

That is precisely the course I have in mind; to hold this kind of consultation with the appropriate interests. As to issues, I think that the main issues are the whole question of the competitiveness of the steel industry abroad, and also the competitiveness of the coal industry at home.

If my right hon. Friend and his right hon. Friends are unable to give a categorical statement at this stage about Her Majesty's Government's policy on coal imports, can we assume that this is an assertion that Her Majesty's Government are nothing like ready to announce some progress towards Britain joining the Common Market? Secondly, can my right hon. Friend say to what extent the American coal producers are subsidised by the American Government?

I think that my hon. Friend ought to put his question about the Common Market to my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal. As to subsidisation of the coal industry in the United States, I understand that the chief difference between the pithead price of American coal and the pithead price of coal here is caused by the very different geological nature of the coal seams.

Would the Minister say at this stage whether he has consulted the National Union of Mineworkers about this problem? Further, has his Department made an assessment of all the adverse factors involved in a deal like this, and does he think that it would be in the national interest for deals of this nature—importing American coal cheap into the Welsh coalfields—to be made?

I have noticed certain views expressed by the National Union of Mineworkers on this question, and, certainly, if anybody has views to put forward, the Government would consider them in reaching a decision.

If it is eventually decided that this one company may import coal from abroad, will the Minister make it clear that any other company may do the same; and that the National Coal Board may also import steel from outside countries not affected by the 10 per cent. tariff which protects steel now?

There is another Question on the Order Paper about steel purchasing by the Coal Board, but I may say that there is nothing to prevent the Board, if it so chooses, from importing steel from abroad.

Reverting to the Minister's reply to the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro), may I take it that the right hon. Gentleman agreed with the suggestion that the price structure of the Board should be reviewed? If so, does that include the realising by the Minister that the Coal Board's prices are fixed compared with imported prices? Is it not true that ever since the Board was established its prices have been subject to Ministerial approval?

In answer to the latter part of the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, I said that I thought that one of the main issues here was the question of the competitiveness of the coal industry at home. That is an issue that I think we shall have to consider now, and I shall consider it with the Chairman of the Board. It is a most relevant issue.

But would not the Minister agree that the Board's prices are not fixed without the Minister's approval?

There has certainly always been consultation with the Minister, and before that arrangement was changed a great deal of discussion would have to take place.

Before any decision is taken, will the Government ensure that coal exported from the United States is not being sold below the cost of production; otherwise, it would surely come within the ambit of our anti-dumping legislation?

6 and 7.

asked the Minister of Power (1) what was the difference between the cost of the imported coal from the United States of America, and the price it was sold on the home market, for each of the years 1947 to 1956;

(2) if he will state the amount of coal in tons per year which was imported into this country from the United States of America for the period 1947 to 1957.


asked the Minister of Power what was the total tonnage of coal imported from the United States of America during the period of coal shortage; what was the loss sustained by the National Coal Board in the sale of this imported coal in the home market; what proportion of this coal was sold to the steel industry; and what was the loss sustained on this by the National Coal Board.

I will circulate in the OFFICIAL REPORT a table showing for each year from 1947 to 1957 the tonnage and cost of coal imported from the United States, the cost of imports from all sources and the loss per ton on imported coal. I am afraid I cannot state the loss on American coal alone or the quantities of this coal sold to the steel industry.

I appreciate the difficulty that the Minister may have in giving information on the amount of loss resulting from the cost of the importation of American coal, but could he impress on the Steel Company of Wales that as it received subsidised coal during a shortage of fuel energy, it is now being very audacious in asking for the importation of American coal because freight charges are rather low?

I think that is also contained in the important issues that I shall be considering with the other topic we have discussed, and I should like to leave it at that.

While we shall, of course, have to study the figures that the Minister is to supply, is it not true that the supply of coal for a period to other industries at less than the cost to the Coal Board means that the coal industry was subsidising other industries? Secondly, since the Minister is not able

Coal imports from U.S.A.Average c.i.f. cost per ton of coal importsAverage loss per ton on imported coal
from U.S.A.from all sources
Thousand tons£££
194894·865·08Not known
19493·59Not known
195045·735·37Not known