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Coal

Volume 640: debated on Monday 15 May 1961

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Imports

4.

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.

8.

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

11.

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

13.

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.

14.

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 Alfred Robens, Chairman of the National Coal Board, that the fault in this matter really lies with the unwieldy and out-of-date price structure of his Board?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.

19.

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£££
19475994·934·882·20
194894·865·08Not known
19493·59Not known
195045·735·37Not known
19511,1857·167·194·70
19522308·338·603·70
19536·282·10
19544785·765·721·70
19555,3017·026·512·45
19563,1208·007·913·15
19572,0149·198·954·05

Accidents, Northumberland And Cumberland

12.

asked the Minister of Power if he has received the report of the Inspector of Mines and Quarries for Northumberland and Cumberland concerning the accident rate; and what action he proposes to take in the matter.

My right hon. Friend has read this report. While noting the points raised, he does not think it calls for any special action on his part.

Does not the Parliamentary Secretary recognise that the increase in the accident rate, both underground and on the surface, is causing considerable disquiet in this section of the mining industry? Will he not also agree that at present, with the intensive mechanisation of the industry which is now going on, there is a need for a reassessment of the

to give us the specific figures about the amount lost by way of subsidy on coal, will he please ask the Iron and Steel Board to provide those figures so that the House may be fully aware of all the issues involved in considering the matter?

I should like to make two things clear. Very little, if any, of this imported coal went to the steel industry, and I must point out, in order to keep the perspective right, that the losses which the Coal Board made at that time were, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, more than balanced by the premium on the coal they exported from this country.

Following is the table:

safety measures that may be taken? In this connection, would the Parliamentary Secretary consider the introduction of a more intensive educational drive among both employers and employees regarding this problem?

Neither the Ministry nor the National Coal Board is indifferent to any rise in the accident rate, but the rise shown in this case is not significant. In fact, the accident rate in this area is just about the national average. Accident rates fluctuate up and down in mining year by year, but in this case we do not consider that there is any real cause for concern. In reply to the hon. Gentleman's second point, a review is going on all the time into the needs of mechanisation with regard to safety. Exemptions are given for new appliances and the conduct of the industry under these exemptions is carefully watched and, when full experience is achieved, new regulations are introduced. With regard to educational courses, these courses for safety are going on all the time. The National Association of Colliery Managers and the Institution of Mining Engineers and various other bodies are constantly discussing and publicising papers on the safety aspect of coal mining.

Pneumoconiosis

15.

asked the Minister of Power what reports he has received from his inspectors of recent action taken, or intended to be taken, in coal mines to improve the working conditions of those who suffer from pneumoconiosis and, in particular, those who suffer from other respiratory weaknesses which are worsened by different degrees of pneumoconiosis; if he is satisfied with the arrangements for medical examinations and assessments in North Staffordshire and within the city of Stoke-on-Trent; and if he will order his inspectors to make a special inquiry into these matters in that area, and to recommend what action should be taken to improve conditions.

Adequate arrangements for providing suitable working conditions for miners suffering from pneumoconiosis already exist, and no change is contemplated. The arrangements under the Industrial Injuries Act for medical examination and assessment in North Staffordshire and in Stoke-on-Trent are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, who considers they are adequate. My right hon. Friend sees no reason for ordering a special inquiry by his inspectors.

Is the Parliamentary Secretary aware that when the legislation was being put through this House an undertaking was given to hon. Members that where there was a doubt in the matter of industrial diseases the man would be given the benefit of the doubt? Would the Parliamentary Secretary consider this large number of letters I have received proving that this is not being done? Is he aware that the Ministry of National Insurance is now considering, together with the Trades Union Congress, the whole question of assessments and diag- noses, and will he instruct the Coal Board officers in this area to give evidence to the Minister of National Insurance?

As I said in my reply, the matters which the hon. Gentleman raises are matters for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, and any assistance he desires from that Ministry will, I am sure, be readily given.

National Coal Board (Steel Purchases)

16.

asked the Minister of Power how much steel, in money terms, was bought by the National Coal Board in 1960.

The figure the Minister has given represents money spent in the United Kingdom, since the Coal Board imported no steel during 1960. Will the Minister bring that fact to the attention of the President of the Board of Trade?

I am sure my right hon. Friend, the President of the Board of Trade, is already aware of that. The Coal Board, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is free to buy steel from the market which it considers the best, and it happens that in 1960 it chose to buy at home.

Miners

17.

asked the Minister of Power what general direction he has given to the National Coal Board about the shortage of miners.

None, Sir. My right hon. Friend has frequent consultations with the Chairman on this subject, as well as on the Board's plans for increasing productivity to combat the shortage.

Is the Parliamentary Secretary aware of the shortage of mine workers in Lancashire, and will he give an assurance that no pits will be closed because of this shortage?

We are well aware that a shortage exists in various districts. We have no reason to think that the shortage of miners will cause any closures in any district.

Does that reply mean that the Ministry is not concerned about the shortage of miners? Might I direct the Parliamentary Secretary's attention to one area I have in mind in South Wales where there is a shortage?

I gave no such impression. It is impossible to deny that some anxiety exists about the rate at which men are leaving the industry, but the urgent task facing the Board is to offset the effects of lower manpower by higher productivity. The Chairman of the Coal Board has initiated what he has described as the greatest mechanisation drive in the history of the industry, and its success is vital to the industry.

Mines (Improvements)

18.

asked the Minister of Power if, in view of improved results following his modernisation and mechanisation policy for the coal industry, including the level of productivity and output per man shift, he will give a general direction to the National Coal Board to increase their expenditure on matters affecting the conditions of work of miners, especially cleaning and brightening coalmines, improving welfare arrangements, stopping the emission of fumes from coal tips, and improving the appearance of coal-tips by covering them with grass and shrubs.

No, Sir. The Board is aware of the importance of these matters and substantial improvement have already been made. It is for the Board to decide how much shall be spent on them.

In view of the remarkable results that have been obtained nationally, and in this area particularly, in regard to output and productivity, has not the time arrived when the Minister should give the Coal Board directions that it should introduce some reciprocity in regard to improving the locality in which miners and their relatives live?

Is the Parliamentary Secretary aware that a dark black shadow has been cast over Fenton and Longton, which should have been removed long ago, and will the Parliamentary Secretary give an undertaking that the suggestions made in this Question will receive the consideration of the Ministry and of the Coal Board?

I am unable to discuss a specific local question such as the one raised by the hon. Gentleman, but I think all hon. Members will agree that the National Coal Board has nothing to be ashamed of in its record in caring for the social welfare of its employees as far as financial resources allow—and I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at the industry as a whole. Far from having extra money to spend, the Coal Board will show a substantial deficit for last year. The Coal Board is always looking after the social interests of its workers.