§ (1) Coal at the pit's mouth shall not be sold or offered for sale by the owner of the coal or on his behalf at a price exceeding by more than the standard amount per ton the price of coal of the same description, sold in similar quantities, and under similar conditions, at the pit's mouth at the same coal mine on the corresponding date (or as near thereto as, having regard to the course of business, may be practicable) in the twelve months ended the thirtieth day of June nineteen hundred and fourteen (in this Act referred to as the corresponding price).
§ (2) The standard amount shall be four shillings: provided that the Board of Trade may, by order, if they are satisfied, as respects any class of coal mines specified in the order or the coal mines in any district so specified, that owing to special circumstances affecting those mines the standard amount of four shillings should be increased, substitute for that amount such higher sum as they may think just in the circumstances; and as respects those mines this Act shall have effect as if the higher sum so substituted were the standard amount.
§ (3) If any person sells or offers for sale any coal in contravention of this Section he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding one hundred pounds or, at the discretion of the Court, to a fine not exceeding treble the amount by which the sum paid or payable for any coal sold by him in contravention of this Section exceeds the maximum sum which would have been paid or payable for the coal if there had been no contravention of this Section.
§ (4) This Section shall apply to a case where the owner of coal at the pit's mouth has sold or offered to sell that coal at a price which includes the cost of railway or other incidental services besides the actual value of the coal at the pit's mouth, 1675 as if he had sold or offered to sell it at the pit's mouth at a price reduced by an amount representing the cost of those services.
§ The CHAIRMAN
The first Amendment on the Paper, standing in the name of the hon. Member for Leeds (Mr. O'Grady) [Sub-section (1), after the word "mouth" ("coal at the pit's mouth") to insert the words "whether subject to existing contracts or not."], is in the wrong place. I think the question of contracts is best dealt with at the end of line 22, where there is another Amendment on the Paper in a better form-Sir J. WALTON: I beg to move, in Subsection (1), after the word "mouth" ["coal at the pit's mouth"], to insert the words "for household and domestic consumption, for railways, gas, electric lighting, waterworks, and controlled munition works, where dividends are limited by Act of Parliament, and also for public authorities."
If this Bill be amended so as to secure that the merchant intervening between the price of the coal at the pit-head and the consumer has his profit reasonably limited, then I have no objection to the Bill if it is made to apply and is limited only to household coal for domestic purposes and the other national and public utility purposes which I have enumerated where dividends are restricted by Act of Parliament. If, however, the Government were to declare now that it is their intention to take the surplus income of every taxpayer over an average of two years preceding the War, with one-fifth allowed to cover the increased cost of living, as a special war tax, then the limitation which I now suggest would in my opinion be no longer necessary, because there is no desire on the part of the coal owner to feather their nests at the expense of the nation owing to the War. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend does not speak with knowledge. Some may have made war profits, but others have not, and further than that, my proposal that the Exchequer should by a special war levy take the whole of the war profits from every taxpayer in the country will, at any rate, allow them no longer to enrich themselves personally out of those profits. I exclude only private undertakings where they are left free to make unlimited profits and where freedom of contract ought to be continued.
Let me give one or two illustrations. Is it not inconceivable that any Government 1676 should come to Parliament and by legislative enactment seek to prevent a coal producer selling at the market price of the day—for instance, to those struggling millers whom we heard of the other day as having amassed £357,000 as war profits? It is too absurd that anyone trading with a firm like that should be asked to accept anything less than the market price for anything that he proposes to sell. It is equally unjustifiable that the ordinary course of trade and free contracting should be interfered with by the State as regards the coal supplies required by our great armament works, shipbuilding yards, steel and engineering works, uncontrolled munition works, works where woollen goods, khaki, leather, boots, and other goods needed for war purposes are made, and that whilst they are to have their coal at lower than market price they should be left by the State free to make unlimited profits on their products. It seems to me that in this Bill we have an alarming exhibition of State intervention run riot. The only sign of commercial sanity, in my judgment, that the Bill contains is the absence of any provision to secure coal for shipowners making colossal profits at present at the expense of the nation at less than market prices. It might be necessary under certain circumstances that the State should commandeer from the coal owners a sufficient quantity of coal to satisfy the requirements not only of the Navy, but also of the public utility works and the other requirements that I have already stated to the House, as a first charge upon the output of the coal of the nation, and that would prevent any difficulty in these works, which are entitled, in my judgment, to have this preference given to them solely because their profits by Parliamentary restriction are limited, but that would prevent them being in danger of not getting their coal because a little higher price was offered by some outside buyers in this country or perhaps a much higher price were offered if the coal were being sold for export.
§ The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of TRADE (Mr. Runciman)
If my hon. Friend means by this Amendment to exclude all private manufacturing undertakings from the advantages of the Bill, I would point out to him that he is to that extent limiting the amount by which the income—the war profits, as he chooses to call them—of the coal owners would be affected by the Bill. I have no doubt that that is what he has in his mind. If that is 1677 what he has in his mind it is directly contrary to the principle of the Bill, which does provide for a limitation of the price that the coal owner is to have. My hon. Friend has given no indication as to how far he wishes the benefit which the Bill will give to be restricted, but I might point out to him that, as he has drafted the Amendment and explained it to the House, it would mean that the cotton trade, excepting those establishments which were manufacturing for the Army or the Navy, would get no benefit at all from the Bill. It would be open to those who supply the cotton mills of Lancashire to get as much as they could squeeze out of the market, and the limitation of the standing price would not apply to that great industry. My hon. Friend is very anxious that coal used for domestic consumption should be limited in price. Why? For the simple reason that he does not wish the householder to be burdened. But for the cotton spinners of Lancashire it is just as serious a matter to find his concern bled to such an extent, as it would be, as it is for him to have to pay a little extra for the coal that goes into his kitchen fire. That is equally true, not only of cotton, but of the pottery industry and a very largo number of others. I cannot understand the principle on which my hon. Friend wishes to exclude these trades from the benefit of the Bill.
§ Sir J. WALTON
It is because you do not limit in any way the price that the products of those concerns shall be sold at, as you limit the price of coal.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
There is only one way of dealing with that larger subject, and that is the taxation of war profits. I think my hon. Friend is ill advised in wishing to restrict the area of the Bill. If anything, the Bill is narrow and not wide, and the tendency that he suggests to us would certainly be detrimental to the efficiency of the measure. I hope, therefore, he will not press the Amendment.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Mr. RONALD McNEILL
I beg to move, in Sub-section (1), after the word "mouth" ["coal at the pit's mouth shall not be sold"], to insert the words "of any mine the average output of which exceeds 500 tons a day." The effect of this Amendment would be to restrict the operations of the Bill, as a whole, to mines which have an average output Exceeding 500 tons a day. I ask for the 1678 sympathetic attention of the President of the Board of Trade to this Amendment, on the very familiar ground that though it makes an exception to the Bill, it is a very little one. Hon. Members who are familiar with the industry of coal mining may almost smile at the very idea of a mine whose output does not reach 500 tons a day. I have, however, put down this Amendment in the interests of a very small group of mines which, perhaps, the right hon. Gentleman has never heard of. He may be surprised to hear that there is such a thing as coal mining in the county of Kent. There are coal mines there, but they are in a very youthful condition. There is a minefield in Kent which has been open for some time, but it has not yet reached a stage when it is supplying large quantities of coal. It is not for mo to say when it will reach that stage; at all events, at the present time it has not reached the stage of supplying the country with large quantities of coal.
It has had to cope with difficulties, both financial and geological, and, at the present time, the very few pits which have been opened are in an experimental stage of development. The pits which are in that stage of development have, during the critical period from the point of view of this Bill, namely, the period of comparison ending in June. 1914, been in this position: during that twelve months these pits, for the purpose of advertisement, instead of spending money in advertising their products, have sold the small quantities of coal which they could produce at prices very much below the ordinary market prices, as a means of pushing the new article. That being so, the right hon. Gentleman will see that if they are restricted, as this Bill would restrict them, to a maximum increase of 4s. over the price which they realised during that particular period, they will not be gaining the bonç fide increase which is allowed to coal mines which have been old-established, and they will be subject to a tax, if it comes to that, upon the circumstances under which they laboured during that critical period ending in June, 1914. These few pits have not been able during the last year, so I am informed, even to pay interest on their debentures.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
The average number of mines in the United Kingdom having an output of 500 tons a day would make the total output of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. R. McNEILL
My hon. Friend opposite speaks with a knowledge of this question which I do not for a moment claim. I am only directing the attention of the Committee to the particular circumstances of these particular mines with which I am familiar. They have not been in a position even to pay interest on their debentures, and during the last winter, when prices were so high throughout the country—prices which have called for a great deal of hostile comment in many parts of the House—these particular mines never succeeded in selling coal at a higher price than 22s. 6d. per ton. The real point, perhaps more than any other, which I think justifies me in asking the right hon. Gentleman to accept this Amendment is that the total quantity of the output of these mines is so small that in no case could it affect the market price of coal in the country. If these mines, being in the stage of development which I have described, are not allowed to reap such benefit from their very small output as would enable them to pay interest on their debentures, the only result will be for them that the circumstances of the War will probably close them down altogether. The ultimate effect of that will be, not to produce what we all desire, namely, an increased output of coal combined with a reasonable price to the consumer, but, pro tanto, to diminish the total supply of coal in the country. If these small, struggling, and developing coal-fields were enabled to take advantage of any rise of price which they might be able to get at the present time, it might enable them during the coming year or so to open out their pits, and therefore to make a certain addition—I cannot pretend to say that even within the next few years it will be a large addition—to the supply of coal available for the public. Under these circumstances, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to accept my Amendment, unless there are circumstances connected with other mines which would be involved, and with which I am not familiar. I think he might accept this Amendment without in any way making an inroad into the principle of the Bill, with which I am entirely in accord, and without destroying the object which we all have in view, namely, to enable the public, in the circumstances of the War period, to enjoy as large a supply of coal as possible at the smallest possible price.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I quite understand the anxiety of the hon. and learned Member 1680 to limit as far as possible the operation of this Bill in respect of new coal-fields, and I imagine that he has particularly in his mind the developing Kent coalfield, which has been a subject of anxiety and prophecy, and, one might add, of speculation, for many years past. The great hopes which have been centred upon the Kent coal-field have, unfortunately, not amounted to very much up to the present. I need hardly say that everyone who wishes to see industrial development in the South of England earnestly hopes that the Kent companies, and the mining engineers at work on their coal, may be enabled to raise a much larger amount in the future than they have in the past. I am not sure that the hon. and learned Member realises how far we shall be carried by accepting his Amendment. It would affect, not only the Kent coal-field, but mines all over the United Kingdom. At a later stage I believe a proposal will be made to exclude the three coal mines of Ireland. There are only three in Ireland, and each, I understand, produces under this amount. If that proposal is made, we shall not resist the proposal. But I would point out that in South Wales, in the Midlands, in the North Country, and in Scotland there are large numbers of collieries that produce not even such an amount as 500 tons a day. Therefore the hon. Member did not realise how very far-reaching his Amendment would have been. If he had limited it to the small amount of coal which is now produced by the Kent collieries, even then I think the benefit would have been inappreciable. What the Kent collieries require is a much larger output, rather than that they should be allowed to charge higher prices for their coal. The only way in which these pits can get a larger demand for their coal is not by putting up the price, but by undercutting the coal which has to come by rail or by ship—both very expensive and inconvenient methods at the present time. I do not believe that the benefit that the hon. Member thought would be likely to come to Kent through this Amendment would have the effect he desired, and I would, therefore, suggest that, as it would be likely to do considerable harm in leaving the door open for a large increase in the price of coal all over Great Britain, it would be as well for him to withdraw his Amendment, being satisfied with the attention which he has drawn in the House to the special case of this new Kent coalfield.
§ 4.0 P.M.
§ Mr. R. McNEILL
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said in regard to these particular coal mines, but I would like to point out that the mere fact of having drawn attention to the matter in the House of Commons will be of very small benefit to those who are interested in this Kent coal-field. I am informed and I believe it is true that the effect of this Bill on the pits concerned—I think that there are only two of them—is that they will not be able to carry on even to the small extent to which they are carrying on at the present time, and will have to close down. Naturally I am not going to persist in my Amendment if the right hon. Gentleman really feels that he cannot accept it. But I would ask him if he would give some assurance that Sub-section (2) of this Clause should be considered applicable to this particular case. T did not quite understand what the right hon. Gentleman said with regard to mining in Ireland. I understood him to say that three mines there would come under this requirement, and that if they asked exemption the right hon. Gentleman would not be able to resist it. If he really said that, then I feel very much encouraged to persist in my Amendment, because if exemption is to be given for the three mines in Ireland, I cannot imagine why it should not be given for the two mines in Kent. Kent was, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, at one time an independent Kingdom, and I think that it is quite as much entitled to separate treatment as is Ireland. If the right hon. Gentleman gives me an assurance that Sub-section (2) would be applied, then I will certainly withdraw my Amendment.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I do not wish to enter into any comparison between Kent and Ireland. What I had in my mind when the hon. and learned Gentleman drew attention to the special case of the Kent fields was Sub-clause (2) of Clause 1, under which it is open to the Board of Trade to take into consideration any special class of coal mine, and I had hoped that he would rest satisfied with that, having drawn our attention to it. If the matter is raised, as no doubt it will be raised by the Kent coal owners, we would wish to remember what he had said in applying such powers as we possessed under Sub-clause (2). But I could not give any undertaking, without inquiring into all the circumstances of the case, as to how far the benefit of Sub-clause (2) should 1682 be applied. I could not be expected naturally, before the Bill has gone through Committee or been put into operation or any representations have been made, to give any promise of this kind.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Sir E. CORNWALL
I beg to move, to leave out the word "coal" ["owner of the coal"], and to insert instead thereof the words "mine from which the coal has been won."
I suggest later that a further Amendment should be moved which defines "owner" as defined by the Coal Mines Act, 1911. That, as I am informed, would make quite clear the person to whom this Bill will apply with regard to the price of coal at the pit's mouth. We have looked at this Bill very carefully, and are unable to make up our mind as to whether, as drafted by the right hon. Gentleman, it is intended to apply solely to the owner of the mine from which the coal has been won, or whether it is intended to include the factor. If the right hon. Gentleman intends to include the factors in the persons selling the coal at the pit's mouth, then it seems rather unfair to the factor, because the coal factors carry on a rather large business in the country—buying coal from the collieries and selling the coal to merchants trading in different parts of the country; and if they are to be included in the Bill, it seems a little unfair to deprive them of any profit from their business. At the same time, if the Bill as drafted excludes the factors, that seems to be undesirable, because if they are excluded they are put into the position of getting the coal under the Bill at 4s. over the price for the corresponding period. That leaves them free to charge any price they can get, and then there is the very great danger of the coal being sold by the owner of the colliery to the factors and their being able to inflate the price, or to bring about a condition of things which it is the object of the Bill to avoid. In reference to the factor, I have an Amendment later on which proposes to limit his gross profit, not his net profit, to 1s. per ton. Some may say that that is too much, and others may say that that is too little. Coal factors have communicated with me, and have? written, I think, to the President of the Local Government Board, pointing out that 1s. gross profit is too little. But on the subsequent Amendment the House could say what profit, gross or net, the factor should have. At present we are 1683 unable to make up our minds whether he is included in the Bill as drafted. Therefore I beg to move words which would make it quite clear that this part of the Bill is confined solely to the owner of the mine from which the coal has been won, leaving the question of the factor to be dealt with later on. I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will either make clear what the Bill means, or will be able to accept my Amendment.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
The object of my hon. Friend is obviously to free the coal factor from the limitations which this Clause would place upon him. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend thinks that he would be able to get at the price that the coal factor would charge afterwards, and that he may be limited in the profits which he is able to obtain then. But I need hardly tell him that it is very much more difficult to ascertain the profits which a man is making, than to ascertain the price at which he is selling a commodity. That is the main reason why it is much better to deal with the price of coal at the pit's head than it is to deal with the amount of profit which -the merchant or factor or anybody else may show that he is making. I should regard his Amendment, if carried, as limiting the power of the Bill to deal with the limitation of prices. My opinion is that we cannot so easily limit the price by the limitation of profit as we can by the limitation of prices at the pit's head. If it is necessary to limit the price at the pit's head to prevent the coal owner charging an excessive price for his coal during the period when this Bill operates, it must be equally necessary to have a limitation of price when the owner of the coal is not the owner of the mine, but when he is the factor. It matters very little to the consumer? whether he is the owner of the mine or the owner of the coal. Coal is the substance which is of importance to the consumer, and anything which provides for the factor taking too much for his coal is obviously to the detriment of the consumer. It is much better to deal with the price of coal at the pit's mouth from the point of view of accurate business than to deal with it by way of limitation of profits, which can be — I do not say it offensively — juggled. I much prefer the method adopted in the Bill. I should regard my hon. Friend's Amendment as opening the door to releasing one of the controllers of the coal from one of the 1684 limitations placed upon him. I therefore hope that he will allow us to adhere to the drafting of this Clause. The owner of the coal may be either the mine owner or the factor. What we should do is, take it for granted that the coal should be borne away from the pit's head not above a standard price—I hope below it—and whether it belongs to the mine owner or to the factor is an immaterial fact from the consumer's point of view.
§ Sir E. CORNWALL
The intention of the right hon. Gentleman in drafting this Bill is that the factor should be included, and he is included in this Clause. I am not engaged as a factor of coal, so that I am not speaking for myself, but there is a large number of people outside this House who are engaged in factoring coal, and it is only right that their case should be put before the Committee. They are in a very large way of business. I suppose that in the South of England alone there are many millions of tons of coal sold by factors. I quite appreciate the argument of the right hon. Gentleman. He knows that I am in sympathy with him with his efforts to obtain the object to which he has referred. I am only raising the point because I am sure that he does not wish, even in attaining a worthy object, to do anyone an injustice, and I do not see myself exactly how the factors are going to get their legitimate profit for what is a legitimate business with the words as they are in the Bill at present. I suppose that the only way in which they could get their profit would be by agreement with the coal owner. They must get it somewhere out of the 4s. Whether it is possible to get the butter out of the dog's mouth I do not know. I should think it very difficult for the factors to put themselves in a proper position. It would servo no useful purpose to divide the Committee, but the Committee should bear in mind the facts which I have submitted, and, if it is possible for the right hon. Gentleman to meet the factors between now and the Report stage—they may desire to see him— to ascertain if it is possible to make some Amendment later on that will suit them.
§ Mr. MAURICE HEALY
I think that the hon. Member has served a useful purpose in moving this Amendment. When I read the Bill I did not appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman did not intend to include the coal supplied by the coal factor as well as that supplied by the coal owner. I am glad to learn that that is so. The right 1685 hon. Gentleman says that the Bill does apply to the coal sold by the coal factor at the pit's mouth. Am I to understand that it will not apply to the coal sold by the coal factor not at the pit's mouth?
§ The CHAIRMAN
That point is raised on some later Amendment, and perhaps the hon. Member will put his question on that subsequent Amendment, or when I put the Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Sir ARTHUR MARKHAM
I beg to move, in Sub-section (1), after the word "exceeding" ["exceeding by more than"], to leave out the words "by more than the standard amount per ton the price of coal of the same description, sold in similar quantities, and under similar conditions, at the pit's mouth at the same coal mine, on the corresponding date (or as near thereto as, having regard to the course of business, may be practicable)," and to insert instead thereof the words "the average prices realised by rail, inland water, or land sale, respectively, for coal of the same description at the pit's mouth at the same coal mine."
This Amendment is a matter of some importance. The Bill provides that coal at the pit's mouth shall not be offered by the owner of the coal at a price exceeding by more than the standard amount per ton the price of coal of the same description sold in similar quantities and under similar conditions at the pit's mouth in the twelve months ended the 30th June, 1914. I and others at the collieries with which I am associated dislike this Clause very much. There would be great difficulty in working it for this reason. I must not take the month of July, for that is about over, but will take August 1st, 1913. The sales at that date might have been made at a low price, and I will assume that there were two sales of 1,000 tons each—one at 10s. and the other at 11s. It is quite clear that the coal owner will have some difficulty in saying which price he is going to take. The coal owner might refuse to sell at all, and say that he was not going to make the sale at that low price, and that he would only sell at such times as he happened, from time to time, on looking at his books, to be able to sell at a higher price. Coal varies enormously from day to day according to the people to whom the coal owners sell coal.
It may interest the House to know that, some years ago, I raised the question of 1686 the average profits made on coal, and, taking a series of years, so far as the Chancellor of the Exchequer could tell me, the average profit—the gross amount, not the actual dividend—was somewhere about 8d. a ton. A shilling a ton, over a period of years, makes a very substantial return on the money that is invested. The capital sum may vary per ton of coal from 10s. or even from 7s. per ton. A man in some cases may raise a million tons where the capital value is £500, and in some cases it may be very much less. This provision will enable a coal owner to get 1s. a ton more if he works his books correctly. Would it not be very much better to take the average price of coal sold at the colliery over the whole twelve months from the previous June? I assume that every coal owner knows exactly the prices at which he sold' his coal until this Act came into operation, and when these prices are known any buyer of coal would know what price he had to pay by adding to what the coal owner made in the corresponding period of the preceding twelve months. I am not a member of, nor associated with, any coal owners' association, but when this matter was discussed by the coal owners they were practically divided; half wanted to get the average price over the twelve months, and some wanted to take the Clause as it stands as best suiting their book. But I do not think that Parliament should regard the matter as one for the convenience of the coal owner.
Undoubtedly it would be to the interests of the consumer that each colliery should issue a price list showing what had been the average price for coal, whether by rail, canal, or land sale, and then he would be able to determine the price, and everyone would know where he was. I have a consequential Amendment later on providing that the price lists should be deposited in Somerset House, and every buyer on going to Somerset House could obtain the maximum prices at which every colliery was entitled to soil its coal until this Act comes to an end. I hope I have made it quite clear that the object of this Amendment is to enable every consumer of coal in the country to know exactly what he is going to pay for coal until this measure comes to an end. Whether the price is taken in the way I propose, or as the Bill provides, it would be precisely the same if it is taken legitimately, but, in point of fact, the coal owner sells from day to day, and from month to month, and he would always take advantage of the 1687 best prices in his books during the preceding twelve months, and, therefore, he would get more money as the Bill stands than by my Amendment. Taking the average price of each quality of coal in each individual pit, the suggestion I make is that the right hon. Gentleman would be able to accept this average Clause, or, if he cannot accept the average Clause, would he take another course—would he adopt the alternative proposal of allowing the coal owner to either take the provision contained in the Bill, or take this average Clause? He would not be allowed to take both, he would have to declare which he took; and, for my own part, I would very much rather have definitely stated what the average price was, for everyone would then know how he stood, and it must be an advantage to the consumer if the Amendment is accepted.
§ Mr. LAURENCE HARDY
I would like to ask the hon. Gentleman whether he really means to leave out the words "by more than the standard amount per ton." If so, that takes away the whole benefit of the Bill.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
It is not my intention to defeat the object of the Bill, I am not a lawyer, learned in drafting Amendments. I have been in error, and see the importance of the point which my right hon. Friend has raised. Those words would actually have to be included.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
The point which has just been raised by the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Laurence Hardy) is undoubtedly one which must have been overlooked by my hon. Friend; obviously so, as we know that he has no idea of limiting the price of coal to exactly what it was in 1914. If he had done so it would have meant that the coal owners of the United Kingdom, so far from making a profit, would make a dead loss, and that by Act of Parliament. [An HON. MEMBER: "NO, no!"] That is a great revelation as to the merchants' profits. They assured me that the working expenses of the collieries since the War broke out could be measured by shillings. If my hon. Friend had really meant to leave it at the price in 1914, I feel quite sure that ho would not be representing the view of the coal owners in regard to the benefit they would procure from this proposal. In one of the interviews with the representatives of the mining association they told me that they would prefer the average price, as my hon. Friend sug- 1688 gests. I considered that proposal, and it certainly appeared to me to raise considerable departmental difficulties. Moreover, I am not quite sure that it would achieve entirely the end in view, because of the different conditions under which coal is sold in many parts of England. For instance, it was pointed out to me, what is well known in the business world, that a firm of old connection, who had been buying from one colliery for thirty or forty years, and may have had no variation in the terms of their contract during the whole of that time excepting as regards prices and quantities of coal to be delivered per month or per annum, is' in a better position than others by the mere fact of having that long connection, because the coal owner happens to be on good terms with the firm who buys from him, the parties are almost in the position of a sort of limited partnership.
In bad times the consumer does not beat him down too hard, and in good times the coal owner does not put too heavy a price on the consumer; they try to keep up a mutual arrangement to their mutual advantage. One of the advantages which the habitual consumer has from the coal owner is, that undoubtedly he never has any great variation in the terms of his contract. The firm which has an old connection with the colliery gets better terms. Although there may not be much difference in the figures that appear in the contract, the terms given to old customers are better than those given to new. That is only natural, and it applies to the coal trade as to nearly every other trade in the country. But in arriving at the average price a great deal depends on the terms of the contract. I believe that in some coal-fields the view is strongly held by the coal owners that the purchaser of even quantities of coal, making no difference in winter or summer, is better worth having than the customer who buys in a small amount in summer, and a large amount in winter. It is quite obvious that it should be so, because the colliery owner can carry even loads throughout the year. That is one of the conditions that is to be taken into account in arriving at the average. In regard to the conditions of payment, the well-established firm may be allowed more easy terms of payment than those who are in a new position and not so strongly established. There are other conditions not only as to delivery and payment, but as to description of coal, quantities to be delivered in certain times of 1689 pressure, when ease is to be given by the customer to the coal owner, or when it is desired to have a larger amount of screened coal in order to get the advantage of the fluctuations of the market. All these considerations create difficulties in regard to the average price, and I came to the conclusion that, from the point of view of the Board of Trade, on whom the duty is thrown to deal with the matter, it would mean an overwhelming amount of work, and that it would not be the clean-cut arrangement provided by the Rill as it stands.
At another interview which I had with representatives of the coal owners I was much surprised to find that they had apparently changed their minds. Certainly many of those who were in the room discussing the matter with me preferred the draft in the Bill as it is now to the suggestion made by my hon. Friend, and, as naturally happens in a division of this kind, it really meant that the number of gentlemen from one district at one interview happened to be large and that the same district was badly represented at the second interview. It is a case largely of competing coal-fields or coal-fields in which there is a great division of views. I was bound therefore, as I found that the business men who were engaged in this matter were divided, and as I had to think of the administration of the Act and to endeavour to get an equitable basis, to form my own views irrespective of their representations. After giving a great deal of consideration to it I came to the conclusion that the comparison which we make is the easiest way of saving the customer from extortion. In using the word "extortion," I do not wish to say anything offensive—it is the only way in which one can express it. The method in the Bill is the easiest way of saving the customer from extortion and of enabling him to make comparisons, and of ascertaining whether he is getting the coal at fair or unfair prices. If the case is brought to the Board of Trade, it is much more easy for us to inquire under the system of the Bill rather than to do it by taking the system of averages. There is a further Departmental difficulty I must point out. If we were to adopt my hon. Friend's suggestion we should be overwhelmed with the vast quantity of returns which must come in to us if we were to form a correct judgment on this method of measuring the price of coal.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I am not sure of the exact number, but I know that there are over 600 in South Wales. Whatever the number may be, I am sure my hon. Friend would not wish to see the Department overwhelmed with an enormous quantity of returns which would not be as completely reliable from the customer's point of view as the comparison provided for in the Bill. Therefore on the grounds not only that I think it is simpler for the customer and for the Department, but also that it provides no injustice for those concerned, I think we should adhere to the proposal of the Bill rather than accept the suggestion of my hon. Friend. I have admitted there is something to be said against both systems, but my decision is that in the long run we had much better adhere to the proposal in the Bill than accept that of average prices.
§ Mr. GALBRAITH
Since the hon. Member for Mansfield (Sir A. Markham) has said that the owners would be well satisfied with 1s. per ton I desire to state that I live in the midst of collieries, and with my left hand I could throw a stone to one that paid during the last few years a dividend of 36 per cent, and with my right hand I could throw a stone to another colliery that paid 45 per cent, for the last half-year's dividend, and just a little way off, owing to the conditions differing, there is a mine which through the nature of the soil and difficulties of production has not paid for some time, but since the War began has paid and is paying well to-day. Some of the miners who engage in hewing the coal and risk their lives in doing so do not get 1s. per ton. I have myself with my own hands got coal at 7d. The hon. Member talks about 1s. per ton, and if he is right there is an unfair distribution of profits.
§ Sir J. HARMOOD-BANNER
I am thoroughly at one with the Amendment. I think the words in the Bill are very indefinite. The right hon. Gentleman has informed us that this question has been before him in different shapes. I think there was a very large body who were thoroughly in favour of this principle of averages. If you leave the Bill as it stands the question is what "sold" means.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I may point out to the hon. Member that I shall call on him 1691 to move a later Amendment on which he will find opportunity to deal with that point.
§ Sir J. HARMOOD-BANNER
I should be quite satisfied if the system of averages was taken and I would not move my Amendment.
§ Mr. J. A. PEASE
I am one of those who believe that the system of averages would be very much simpler than that which the Government have adopted. I have often worked out these amounts in days gone by and I am quite certain that it would simplify the matter in many parts? of the country, and especially in the North of England, if these averages for each colliery were taken out month after month. There would be no difficulty at all about it. For the right hon. Gentleman to say that it would give his Department a great deal of work appeared to me to be a little beside the point, because the average prices are taken out for collieries from month to month and from half-year to half-year, and from year to year. It is so simple to work on a system of averages that in my judgment it complicates matters if you have to deal with each customer, and to try and find what was the equivalent in regard to a contract when the circumstances were quite different from those which may be obtained to-day. But, of course, as the right hon. Gentleman cannot see his way to accept the Amendment I cannot press it to a Division, but I think he overrates the difficulty in connection with the matter.
§ Mr. WALTER ROCH
I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman has not accepted this Amendment. I do think he is mistaken in some of the arguments he put forward against it. First of all, he talked of the trouble that it would cause to the Board of Trade, but the return of these average prices would be made by the colliery owners, and surely it would not add to the difficulties of the Board of Trade for the colliery owner to do so. As the right hon. Gentleman opposite has just pointed out, there really would be no difficulty in collieries making the return. They have the prices from month to month, and half-yearly and yearly, and without any great difficulty they would be able to send them on. I think this proposal of average prices so far from giving more trouble would give less, because once the average is ascertained it is done so once and for all. Under the system pro- 1692 posed in the Bill mark what happens. The colliery owner can have the matter worked out for every day in the year, and he can insist on keeping the coal so that it may work out at a proper price. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman realises how unselfish is the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield, because this works out adversely to the colliery owner. It is another instance of that extremely altruistic attitude which he displays in such a genial manner in this House.
§ Mr. ROCH
What will happen under the proposal of the Bill? As the right hon. Gentleman knows, if you take any month there will be two periods for prices of coal —one good and one bad. There would be a variation in price in the days when contracts were made and in the days on which coal was sold on a somewhat speculative market. In the period corresponding to that in which the bad price prevails what would happen? My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield would not do such a thing, but some more selfish owner would say, "We are not going to sell in that period at all. We are going to wait for the latter half of the month," and upon that basis of the high price they would be able to add the 4s. I do think that the right hon. Gentleman has lessened some of the value of his Bill and the possibility of consumers getting low prices by not accepting this Amendment. I do not know whether there is any good in appealing to him to reconsider the matter, but we are unfortunately in this time of truce precluded almost from criticising the Front Bench or from even whispering that everything is not the most perfect in the most perfect of worlds. I do venture to think my hon. Friend should press this Amendment as strongly as he can, and I do hope the right hon. Gentleman will give it his consideration.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
May I ask for the elucidation of the matter for the Committee whether the hon. Member for Mansfield, in asking us to accept this Amendment, means that his average price is to include the price of coal sold under a contract and the sale of free coal as well.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
If that is the case, may I point out exactly what would happen. I do not challenge the altruistic 1693 character of my hon. Friend. I know there is no one more frank or candid in the House, but I would point out if you take the average it means the average not only of the contract prices, but also of what is called free coal. Any one who knows the trade knows that the contract prices are, if not always, yet very generally, below the prices paid for free coal.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I am very much inclined to think that we are much safer if we compare like with like rather than with free and contract coal. The Committee will remember what has happened during the last twelve months. Contract coal has been selling at comparatively low prices. The sensational figures which have appeared in the Press invariably applied to free coal. If we are to accept the average of free coal lumped in with contract coal it does not mean that you are going to have contract coal compared with contract coal, but contract coal compared with contract plus free coal. My hon. Friend says that in this period free coal was selling for less than contract prices. Ho knows a great deal about the coal trade and I do not wish to challenge his information, but I think the Committee, which docs not know -so much, would do very much better if they compared like with like rather than like with the average of dissimilar things.
§ Sir C. CORY
I hope my right hon. Friend will adhere to his Clause. The hon. Baronet the Member for Mansfield (Sir A. Markham) said that there was a division amongst the coal owners on this point, so therefore I think we may take it that, from the point of view of the consumer, there is not much in it one way or the other. I think they are pretty equally divided and therefore there cannot be much in it from the consumer's point of view. If you had a flat rate for all customers you would be doing a very great injustice to some as compared with others, and for the sake or convenience and of justice to the customers the method proposed in the Bill is the better system. If a man who is making a contract, say, for 300,000 tons and who pays promptly on the nail is to be charged exactly the same price as the man who makes a contract for 100 tons and perhaps pays in three months, and under other conditions, it would, I think, be very unfair. As to the hon. 1694 Baronet's remark that the seller would choose a day on which he had made a higher price and make his contract on the corresponding day, coal owners cannot deal with their customers in that loose sort of way. They have to consider their customers, not only for to-day, but also for the future. They cannot tell a good customer, "You must come to-morrow or next week and I will give you a price; it does not suit me to give you a price to-day as the price at which I sold on the corresponding day last year is too low." They would soon send their customer to some other coal owner. Moreover, if they charged him too high a price he would soon be disgusted and take his contract to somebody else. You must have regard for your customer and treat him decently or he will go to somebody else. We are not all in the fortunate position of the hon. Member for Mansfield of being able to knock 4s. off the price and yet make a handsome profit. That, at any rate, is not the case with the owners in South Wales. The fact that my hon. Friend is willing to take an alternative shows that he is rather looking out for his own interests. If he finds the average does not suit him he asks, "Will you give me an alternative?"
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
It will not affect me, as the price of all my coal sold under contract was considerably below the prices provided for by this Bill.
§ Sir C. CORY
If you take the average the opposite prevails in one district as compared with another. I believe that in my hon. Friend's district prices were going down after 1912. If you take the average you bring in a lot of contracts made in 1912 which it would not be the intention of the Committee to bring in, and which were made at very much lower prices than the prices of 1913–14. In South Wales we have what are called arrears of contracts brought forward—arrears of 1912 contracts delivered in 1913. From every point of view—the convenience of the Board of Trade, the convenience of the coal owners, and the interests of the consumers—the Bill is better as it stands.
§ Mr. S. ROBERTS
This point has been before the Mining Association. There was a difference of opinion on the matter, but the majority were in favour of the scheme of the Bill. They thought that on the whole it would be more convenient, and therefore they supported the principle put forward by the right hon. Gentleman.
§ Sir E. CORNWALL
I think the question whether the scheme of the Bill or the scheme of the Amendment is the better depends very much on the year. In some years there is a great variation in price in one part of a month as compared with another. In regard to such years, my hon. Friend's Amendment would be much more important. But in regard to this particular year, where the variations were comparatively very small, I think the scheme of the Bill is as useful as that of the Amendment, and that the objections urged against the Bill by the hon. Member for Mansfield have not so much weight applied to the year 1913–14 as they would have if they applied, for instance, to the year 1914–15. In the latter case the Amendment would have to be adopted in order to secure what the right hon. Gentleman wants in his Bill. I did not quite understand what the President of the Board of Trade meant when he said it was desirable to compare like with like—free coal with free coal. You cannot compare contract coal, because contract coal is not affected by the Bill. You have to pay for your contract coal according to the contract you have made. It is only in regard to the free coal that is left that you can compare the period 1913–11. As has already been said, 70 per cent or 80 per cent, of the coal has been already sold under contract and has to be taken. You can only compare the free coal which you can buy with the free coal that was sold at the same period two years ago.
§ Mr. OUTHWAITE
I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman did not meet the point raised by the hon. Member for Mansfield, that the colliery proprietors would be able to choose favourable days and refuse to sell on days which did not suit them. The hon. Member for St. Ives (Sir C. Cory) said that colliery proprietors would not be in a position to deal with their customers in that way, as the customers would go somewhere else. That is not the case in the Potteries. There they are in the hands of a combine. They have not a number of individual colliery proprietors to whom they can go. I think there is a great deal in the point put by the hon. Member for Mansfield, and I should very much like the right hon. Gentleman to deal with it.
§ Sir J. WALTON
How is the buyer of coal to ascertain the maximum price that the colliery owner can charge? Has he power to demand that the colliery owner shall produce his books, and show the actual sales made in 1913–14 upon which 1696 the new quotation is based? I do not know what method the right hon. Gentleman has in mind by which the buyer shall be able to ascertain that he has not been overcharged. As to colliery owners choosing particular days on which to sell because higher prices were obtained on those days in 1913–14, I do not think there is much in that point, inasmuch as there were very slight variations in prices in that particular year.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
The President of the Board of Trade does not really understand this question now, although he ought to as he has had a great many interviews with the coal owners on the matter. The point is really a simple one. The right hon. Gentleman tells the House that it would give the Board of Trade enormous trouble if the average prices of the twelve months preceding the War were taken. He is going to take the average price of coal sold on similar dates, in similar quantities, under similar conditons, in every single coal mine, on every single day in the whole year.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
No. The hon. Baronet may say that I do not understand the coal trade; he certainly does not understand the Bill. The Bill does not do anything of the kind. The Board of Trade is not going to have a schedule of every parcel of coal sold on every day in the year in every coal mine in the United Kingdom- The only cases that will come to the Board of Trade will be those where the customer thinks he has been unfairly treated. The Board of Trade will then have power to call for the books and go into the matter with the colliery owner, and those books will, I hope, give the Board of Trade the requisite data for arriving at a just decision.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
That argument means that, when the coal owners sell coal in the 1,700 collieries of the country on the 300 days in the year, it is only occasionally, when somebody complains, that their prices are going to be checked. It means that no coal owner's prices are to be checked day by day, month by month, or year by year. They will only be checked if somebody complains. Under my scheme, every buyer of coal would know what he was going to pay. Under the Board of Trade scheme as draw-n, no one will know what he is going to pay. The object of the coal owners is perfectly clear. They want to have the opportunity of selling coal at the 1697 present time, when the demand is greater than the supply. I really do not know how the scheme is going to be worked. The managers of the collieries with which I am associated tell me that they do not know how they are going to take the prices day by day and strike this average, according to what the actual conditions are. The right hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand. All I suggested was taking an average of the prices realised in each colliery for the given period. If the Board of Trade is too busy to receive the returns, let them be sent to the Home Office. The Home Office gets scores of returns—certainly half a dozen—from every colliery in the United Kingdom every year. The Bill as it stands, so far from being a useful measure in controlling prices, will give endless trouble, not only to the seller of coal, but to the Board of Trade.
The hon. Baronet opposite (Sir C. Cory) thinks that I am looking out for my own interests. As I have already said, I have sold all my household coal in the last two or three months at prices considerably lower than those which I should be entitled to charge under this Bill. Therefore, so far as household coal is concerned, it will not affect me in the slightest degree. Hence his argument does not hold water for a moment. I am not bringing forward the Amendment on behalf of myself or of any colliery with which I am associated. I represent in this House colliers, not collieries, and it is solely in the interests of the consumer and the public that I have moved this Amendment. If the right hon. Gentleman does not accept it, he has a servile majority behind him, and I shall not take the matter to a Division. But it is very unfortunate, as the Bill as it stands will give a great deal of trouble in administration. Of course, if the right hon. Gentleman says that there is to be no inquiry except when complaint is made, I quite understand that there will be no trouble.
§ 5.0 P.M.
Mr. MacCALLUM SCOTT
The discussion we have already had illustrates the fundamental unsoundness of a Bill which attempts to fix for a long period of time a maximum price, or prices, and which does not go further and attempt to regulate or control distribution. That is a general point which I know I should be out of order in attempting to discuss, and I do not propose to discuss it. I merely mention it to bring the point into relation with the discussion—which I conceive will be in order. As I 1698 understand it, the point which we are discussing is whether it is preferable to have a separate maximum price for each day in the year or an average price for the whole of the year. The right hon. Gentleman gave us two arguments against fixing an average price for the whole of the year. It seemed to me that these arguments were not conclusive. The first one was the difficulty of ascertaining the facts and fixing an average, and he mentioned two cases in illustration of that difficulty. In the first place, better terms were often given to old customers. It does seem to me that where better terms are given to old customers, better terms lasting throughout the year, the real difficulty is in fixing a price on any particular day, and the easiest thing to do would be to fix what is the average price for the year in regard to these customers. I think the instance which the right hon. Gentleman gave told entirely against his contention.
The second instance which he gave was the fact that better terms were often given to customers who distributed their orders evenly over the year, and who did not give the bulk of their orders in the winter. There also it seems to me the easier thing would be to strike an average with regard to these customers and their orders, and that the more difficult thing to do in accordance with the facts is to say what is the real and particular selling price on any particular date. The right hon. Gentleman also gave a further reason against accepting an average. He pointed out that in the Amendment moved by the hon. Member for Mansfield the average would be not only that of contract coal, but of free coal. That seems to me an argument, not against the general principle of fixing an average, but in favour of alteration in the Amendment. If it be conceded that on general grounds the policy of fixing an average were the better method, then it would quite easily be possible to fix separate averages for contract coal and for free coal. I think that the hon. Member for Mansfield has established his contention that the policy of fixing a separate maximum for each day in the year gives us an entirely fictitious idea of the price of coal as fixed by this Bill. The price of coal, as fixed by this Bill, is not regulated by the nominal standard maximum which is fixed by the Bill; it is regulated' by the coal owners themselves, who will pick and choose the particular days on which they sell their coal, so that the maximum in practice will really be, certainly many 1699 pence, and possibly even a shilling or so, over that which this Bill professes to fix. In spite of that, I am not convinced that the policy of the average is the better method.
It has been pointed out that the great demand for coal and the rush of orders comes in the winter, and not in the summer, and that this disparity, this extra crush of business in the winter, is to some extent corrected by the fact that in the summer prices are very much lower and a certain amount of business is attracted from winter to summer by these lower prices. The variation in price certainly does serve a useful purpose in helping to distribute business more evenly over the year. It is a natural corrective. But if the average price is fixed, there will be no such natural corrective in the matter of prices, and so far as prices are concerned it will not matter in which part of the year one buys. Therefore, business will be attracted more and more towards that portion of the year in which there is the greatest crush of business. That may lead to congestion. It may load to such a state of affairs that there may be a real coal famine in the large centres where the coal is wanted at that period of the year. I am not sure that any of the methods in the Bill are good. They do not control distribution. I am inclined to think that the method which allows the greatest elasticity and the greatest variation is the one which, in the long run, best serves the public interests.
§ Mr. RUSSELL REA
I confess that, on the whole, I am inclined to favour the suggestions of the hon. Member for Mansfield. I cannot see the force of some of the arguments that were brought forward by the President of the Board of Trade. Surely it is easier to ascertain the average, as the average prices vary little? It must be very much easier, from an administrative point of view, for the Board of Trade, which administers this Act, to have the average inserted here. If the Bill is passed as it stands the buyer always concludes his bargain in the dark. He cannot possibly know whether the terms of his contract are or are not in compliance with the terms of the Act.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
May I interrupt one moment? Surely the hon. Gentleman is now referring to buyers who have never bought before from a colliery? Any buyer who has had a contract in the year 1913–14 1700 will know perfectly well what he paid. He is provided by his own contract with the means of comparison if he is about to renew that contract. That is a much easier way of ascertaining—if he thus gets his coal in similar quantities and on similar days of the year.
§ Mr. RUSSELL REA
That is quite true of that class of buyer who renews a contract with the same colliery, but to a certain extent it leaves him out of the competition of other collieries. What appeal has the ordinary buyer? He has an appeal to the Board of Trade. But my contention is that the ordinary buyer buys in the dark and does not know whether the price he is asked is in accordance with the terms of the Bill. By an average we are working in a simple manner. I would just, too, point out another thing. The average price is pretty certain to be a lower price than the sales in consideration here. Therefore the seller has the buyer at his mercy. He is always comparing for the purposes of sale the numerous sales which he makes of his free coal to outsiders the same day, under pretty much the same conditions, and it is very seldom that there is only one day that he can take for his comparison. He will take the day, perhaps, on which he made his biggest contract with the railway company, so that on the whole I think it will favour the buyer to adopt the words of the Amendment. He will have the advantage of the lower price by taking an average, rather than by making a calculation of the terms proposed.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Sir J. HARMOOD-BANNER
I beg to move, in Sub-section (1), after the word "sold" ["sold in similar quantities"] to insert the words "for delivery not earlier than 1st July, 1913."
The reason for this Amendment is that I think the word "sold" is not a very definite or reliable term on which these contracts are to be based. There have been a good many discussions as to whether this word is or is not satisfactory, and though I do not profess in any way to represent the Federated Body of Coal Owners or Coal Association, I think it right to point out that the majority—a very small one perhaps—considered that the word "sold" would meet the difficulty. Whilst, therefore, the word "sold" was accepted, yet there is no doubt that one set of districts overbore another set of districts in agreeing to the word, which 1701 I do not think is sufficiently definite. The differences were these: In one area contracts were low and prices were rising all the time between 1st July, 1913, and 30th June, 1914. That was the South Wales district. In the South Wales district all the time prices were rising, so that it suited them to have the word "sold" and not to have the word "delivery." On the other hand, as regards Lancashire, and I think also Yorkshire—in a very large part—the exact opposite prevailed. The contracts were higher prior to 30th June, 1913, and they went down during the whole of the year. So much so that I think the Bill, if it is translated in the way the word "sold" means on day-today prices during the whole of that period, would adversely affect Lancashire and Yorkshire to the extent of a shilling as compared with South Wales. That is a very large amount, and I think it is rather hard that that should be so. I would not like to say I accept the fact that the word "sold" means day-by-day prices irrespective of contracts. That would be hardly fair. For instance, during the month of June, 1913, the date on which most of these contracts were made, you make your contract for delivery after 1st July. You make your contracts, but no coal is delivered until after 1st July. I would like to know what the word "sold" means in that case. If the word "sold" in July, 1913, means the coal as delivered in pursuance of a sale after 1st July, 1913, then I am quite content to accept the word as it stands; but if the word is to be construed as affecting sales made in May and June for delivery after 1st July, 1913, I think we should be placed under a very great hardship indeed, and it is important that that question should be settled, because there is a difference of as much as 1s. a ton between the prices of May and June, 1913, and those in a later month that year in Lancashire districts in gas contracts, and I think of 10d. in railway contracts. We should be, therefore, put back to prices that were made for future delivery; that is to say, when we came to August or September of this year? we should not be able to compare those prices with the prices of August and September, 1913, but we should have to take those prices at which contracts were being made at that period, say for 31st December and subsequent dates. As I say, the whole of Lancashire and Yorkshire, with prices going down during that twelve months, will be put at a very great disadvantage, 1702 whereas in South Wales the prices going up during all that period gets an immense pull. What we want is that to the price the consumer paid for coal at that date you should add the price of 4s., and that should be the price at which we are entitled to sell. I think we should be within the law if we contended that was the meaning of the word "sold," and that we could not be fined if we said the word "sold" meant the price the consumer was paying on the day he was receiving his coal. I think it is better it should be made clear, and I think it is only fair you should not make a difference between districts, but should see that all districts are treated alike.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I am not sure that the object the hon. Gentleman has obviously in view would be effected by his Amendment as drafted, but it is clear that it would enable comparisons to be made for this purpose with contracts made so long ago as 1912, and I need hardly point out to the Committee that in some of the coal-fields advanced prices in 1912 were fairly good.
§ Sir J. HARMOOD-BANNER
That is the reason why deliveries should commence after that date, so that would not cover the contracts referred to.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
The deliveries might be a considerable time after the contracts had been made. If there is to be any comparison made it must be either with coals for delivery for next year, say, and with coal delivered in the standard year, or coal sold during next year with coal sold in the standard year. To have a different comparison would lead to different results in different coal-fields. I hope the hon. Gentleman will not think it necessary to insert these words. Undoubtedly, as he says, there is a division of view on this Clause because it helps coal owners in some districts, but not those in others. On the whole, I think we should take the course which will certainly be applicable to more of the coal-fields to the advantage of the consumer, by adopting the comparison we make here rather than the hon. Member's comparison.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Sir E. CORNWALL
I beg to move, in Sub-section (1), after the word "quantities" ("sold in similar quantities"], to insert the words "or as near thereto as, having regard to the custom of the trade, may be practicable."
1703 My object is to insert qualifying words. I do not mind what qualifying words are used, but there is a danger that the Bill may become a dead letter if the words remain just as they are in the Bill, because there is no such thing, so far as my experience goes, of a merchant buying at ordinary times "similar quantities." He may make a contract one year for a similar quantity of coal as the previous year, but he is never buying to-day a similar quantity of coal to that which he bought this day last year. He wants one truck sent to a particular depot and fifty trucks sent to a larger centre. It is not ordered exactly by the ton. It may be a truck, two trucks, or a dozen trucks of coal. A truck contains from 5 to 12 tons. In the practice of the trade there is no such thing as buying from time to time a similar quantity to that bought on a previous occasion. You buy each day what you want, and, therefore, if a merchant goes to a colliery and names the price, not exceeding 4s. for the corresponding period referred to in the Bill, the colliery owner can say, "Well, it must be a similar quantity," and if the purchaser could urge that it should be a similar quantity "or as near thereto as, having regard to the custom of the trade, may be practicable," then, if there were a dispute, the Board of Trade would have something more reliable to depend upon than they have in the Bill as now drafted.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
To insert the words proposed by my hon. Friend would quite conceivably do what he requires, but the word "similar," I dare say he knows, has very often been the subject of litigation, and I am not sure that even now in this connection the word "similar" would give us any precise data on which to go. The safeguard is found in Clause 2, Subsection (1), which says that, if in any proceedings for the recovery of a fine, any question is raised as to the corresponding price of any coal,the Court shall refer the question for determination by the Board of Trade, and the decision of the Board shall be final and conclusive for all purposes.Obviously the point which the hon. Member has put is one of those which would of necessity be taken into consideration. I am, therefore, advised that to insert these words he proposes is unnecessary, 1704 and, unless my hon. Friend makes a strong point of it, I would suggest we do not alter the drafting of the Bill.
§ Sir E. CORNWALL
Of course I wish to help the right hon. Gentleman in this matter. I am still rather under the impression that some words are necessary, but he is better advised in these matters than I am, and I, therefore, beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Mr. MAURICE HEALY
The Clause which gives the Board of Trade some power, and on which the right hon. Gentleman relies, can only be invoked when criminal proceedings have actually been taken, and, consequently, a man faces criminal proceedings in the dark, and may or may not get a decision from the Board of Trade. I must further point out that the Bill merely provides that the person who makes the contract contrary to the Act shall be liable to a penalty; but, of course, there is a general law that a contract entered into contrary to an Act of Parliament is void, and, consequently, that would be set up as a defence to an action, and it might be necessary to be in the position of obtaining the decision of the Board of Trade, whereas the Clause to which the right hon. Gentleman referred only comes into operation when criminal proceedings have been instituted. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman if he does not see his way to meet the Amendment, which I think is reasonable. I think the Bill sets up an unnecessary dictatorship of the Board of Trade as to whether or not the provisions of the Act have or have not been violated. That being so, I do think the intervention of the Board of Trade should not be in the form in which it is at present, which limits it to occasions when criminal proceedings are instituted.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Sir E. CORNWALL
I beg to move, in Sub-section (1), to leave out the words "and under similar conditions."
I think many of us have been troubled about these words. Although the right hon. Gentleman has already pointed out,' with regard to the previous Amendment I moved, that very wide powers are given to the Board of Trade—in fact, absolute powers—of appeal, at the same time men carrying on business cannot stop to have controversies with people with whom they are doing business while they go to the Board of Trade and have it settled. Every 1705 one recognises that the main reason for introducing this Bill is to help over the coming winter, when everybody expects a great scarcity of coal, and it is hoped that this Bill during that somewhat famine period will avoid famine prices. Is that the time, when there must be a shortage and a scarcity of coal, when the people who are buying their coal are going to the Board of Trade to settle all sorts of questions with regard to "similar quantities, and under similar conditions?" Of course, I can understand that the Board of Trade under Clause 2 has very drastic powers to decide, but, apart from those drastic powers of the Boord of Trade, the danger of which is of their being brought in too late, the words, "similar conditions," are to my mind almost fatal to the Bill, because there are no similar conditions. A colliery can say that they are paying much higher wages than two years ago, and that it is not under similar conditions. They may contend that they are paying much more for material and that there is a scarcity of pit props, and endless points could be raised by the collieries to show that purchases are not taking place under similar conditions to those of two years ago. What I am afraid of is that there will not be time to settle the objections between the purchase of the coal and the settlement of these differences. Under these circumstances I do not suppose the colliery would supply the coal to a merchant who wanted it and have these questions settled afterwards. The man would have to buy the coal and get it first. It is not as if the colliery was being compelled to supply the coal, and the merchant finding when the bill is sent in that the charge is too high as provided for under this Bill, and then refusing to pay, the difference being settled by the Board of Trade. That is not what is going to happen. If the merchant will not buy the coal when he wants it he will not have it, and will not be able to carry on his business. I see very great difficulty in the working of the Bill if these words remain in it.
I quite understand the right hon. Gentleman bringing in emergency legislation of this description, and I know he does not claim it as a watertight measure. I quite appreciate that, and I am not endeavouring in any way to embarrass the right hon. Gentleman by my proposal. If this Bill was to be made watertight with regard to this and many other matters, you would want a Bill of at least one hundred Clauses and a large number of Schedules. I am 1706 only raising this point in order to ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider very carefully whether, by the retention of these words, he is not almost destroying the effective working of the Bill. I should have thought that colliery owners and merchants would have been able to work together better under this Bill without these words, because when this Bill passes into law it can only be made effective and useful by the co-operation of all concerned. If you get the hearty co-operation of the colliery owners and merchants generally then this Bill will be useful, but if you insert words which permit a colliery owner to plead that it is not under similar conditions, it will lead to controversy and it will prevent merchants and collieries cooperating to keep a steady price. I think the right hon. Gentleman would be well advised to leave these words out of the Bill.
§ Mr. GOLDSTONE
I have much pleasure in supporting this Amendment- I cannot imagine more vague words appearing in a Bill than "under similar conditions." I think these words are well calculated to lead to legal quibbling. I can imagine those who have purchased from the colliery owners using these words to proceed to the Courts. This type of emergency legislation ought to be so drawn as to prevent any unnecessary recourse to Law Court proceedings. An hon. Member says that the Board of Trade settles the matter, but he forgets that Clause 2 requires legal proceedings as a precedent to Board of Trade-intervention. I am sure that these words will lead to lengthy and unnecessary quibbling, and they ought to be deleted unless there is some very grave reason advanced in favour of their retention. Under the Bill the coal owner is very likely to suffer because possibly those who have purchased his coal may take the opportunity of using those words to refrain from settling their just accounts. No reason has been put forward to justify the retention of these words and therefore I support my hon. Friend who has asked for their deletion.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
It does not seem to me that there words strengthen the Bill in any degree. I imagine that a vague phrase like "under similar conditions" would provide a perfect paradise for lawyers to decide whether coal bought before and during the War was bought under similar conditions. It might be argued that every condition at the present moment is different to what it was 1707 before the War. Practically all matters such as wages, pit props, and other things might come in, and I suggest that these words are quite unnecessary.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
I want to ask a plain question, and I want the right hon. Gentleman to give me a straightforward answer, which I am sure he will do If a colliery owner desires to sell 1,000 tons of coal at a given date and he had no similar contract for a quantity of coal at or about that time, is he entitled to sell what quantities he likes? If these words are struck out, I take it that no coal owner can make any contract or any sale by contract unless it is precisely the same as in the preceding year. The Bill provides that the coal shall not be sold unless it is at a certain price and unless in similar quantities and under similar conditions. I want my right hon. Friend to tell me whether it is not a fact if those words are struck out, coal can only be sold in similar quantities to the contracts made during the previous twelve months? If so, that would be absolutely impracticable.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I will answer the point put to me by the hon. Baronet as straightforwardly as I can. I take it that these words are necessary to meet the point the hon. Baronet has put, and if we do not have them in it would be impossible to meet the point he has raised. Obviously, if you are going to deal with only similar conditions, if the output has been doubled or trebled, and contracts are on a much larger scale and you have only the words similar quantities, it would be impossible to allow for any variations. Therefore, you must have these words to provide for such variations. I see the force of the objections which have been raised by my hon. Friends, and if I am not misjudging their view, I think what they have in mind is that war conditions are ruling now, and they were not ruling before. I am advised that it is not necessary to add to the words in order to make it clear that the conditions do not refer to war conditions, but in order to put it beyond doubt I suggest that we should insert, after the word "conditions," the words "affecting the sale," and so make the comparisons under similar conditions not allowing for war conditions. I think that will meet the object of hon. Members who have spoken, and if they will allow these words to remain in the Bill, I will move later on the insertion of the words I have suggested.
§ Mr. MAURICE HEALY
It is absolutely certain that under the conditions which have been referred to every person will enter a defence to the action, and will seek to raise in the Courts a legal defence to the effect that the contract violates the provisions of the Act because the price of the coal is excessive for the reasons given. I think the words of this proviso are dangerous. Of course, if these words are merely intended to guide the Board of Trade in coming to a decision, they are not objectionable, but they are very desirable and necessary in that case. I think that is necessary, and I do not in the least find fault with the Bill because it does that. While I am quite willing that it should be done, and while I am quite willing that the Board of Trade should be guided by these words in the Bill, I think it is a matter of the greatest danger, and might lead to the most serious consequences if it were possible, as the right hon. Gentleman opposite has pointed out, that it might be possible for any question to be raised in the Law Courts with regard to these words. If I were drawing up this Bill I should put an express provision in it that no question under it should be litigated otherwise than with the consent of the Board of Trade.
§ Mr. M. HEALY
I have said all that I wanted to say, and I do not wish to go over it again, but I would respectfully submit that all I have said is perfectly relevant to these words, because they will be most dangerous unless there is some provision put into the Bill that questions of the kind are to be settled by the Board of Trade and the Board of Trade alone.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
I am not quite clear even now—the right hon. Gentleman is going to add the words, "affecting the same," after the words "under similar conditions." Assuming a colliery enters into a contract for the sale of 100,000 tons of coal in the month of September, and that no contract has been made for five months previously for anything like the same quantity, how is that colliery to fix its price under the terms of the Bill? It cannot do it, because the Bill says that coal can only be sold in similar quantities, and the words now to be added are going, as far as I can see, to limit the quantity.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
He must not expect me to reply to business problems with which he is familiar but with which other Members may not be so conversant. In reply to the question he put to me, I think the words "under similar conditions affecting the sale," as the phrase will now run, will to some extent meet his case, but I would draw his attention to Clause 2, Sub-section (2), which gives pretty wide powers to the Board of Trade, who will have to ascertain as nearly as they can what is happening in the same district in similar mines to enable them to get over the difficulty if it arises. May I suggest to my hon. Friend and to the Committee that a good deal of the criticism we have heard this afternoon is based on the assumption that this is a Bill fixing prices. If it were I agree with my hon. Friend (Sir E. Cornwall) that we should not be able to get it on two pages of print; it would take thirty pages, and I do not know how many Schedules and how many months of Parliamentary time. It does not attempt to do anything of the kind. All it attempts to do is to prevent panic prices operating, and nothing else. It does not mean that every contract made is to he 4s. more than last year—I hope nothing of the kind will happen—but if a man asks 6s. more, then this Bill would come in the way and block it. It is only in the way of panic prices, and it is in no sense an attempt to fix prices for various qualities and descriptions of coal under various conditions. The Bill being of that limited extent, I would respectfully suggest that a good deal of the criticism offered is somewhat out of place.
The hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. M. Healy) has asked me a question about the Courts. He knows much better than I do how often this word "similar" has been litigated upon in the Law Courts, but if any question is raised on the words "corresponding price of coal" he knows that the Board of Trade is to determine it. That is the safeguard against undue litigation on the words "and under similar conditions." It is only by that means, by what he called "the dictatorship," that we are able to avoid undue litigation. I hope that we may now make a little more progress with the Bill. There are two large outstanding points, and I know that the Committee is anxious to get to them. If hon. Members could see their way to 1710 proceed more rapidly with these small points, I think it would meet the convenience of the Committee. The two larger points affect existing contracts and what is the standard price. Those are the two outstanding points of criticism, and I would make an appeal to the Committee to allow us as rapidly as possible to approach those points and come to a decision upon them.
§ Mr. RAMSAY MACDONALD
Supposing when a case is before the Courts a plea is put in that the coal, as a matter of fact, was not sold under similar conditions, would that mean that the judge would say, "This is not a case for my consideration at all," or would he be prepared, under Clause 2, to refer to the Board of Trade the question whether the coal was or was not sold under similar conditions? If he cannot close the action altogether, and must refer to the Board of Trade the question whether that is a good or a bad plea, then I do not see any harm in the words being accepted; but I am doubtful whether he has that power.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I am told, under Clause 2 as to the corresponding price of coal, that it must come to the Board of Trade.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
Surely the Board of Trade has no power to settle the question, even under Clause 2, Sub-section (2).
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
The right hon. Gentleman referred us to Clause 2. With great respect, he is quite wrong in saying that this Bill does not regulate the price of each quality of coal.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
Only the maximum price. The hon. Gentleman has again and again referred to this matter in the course of the Debate, but he surely must have misread the Bill. The Bill only affects the limit above which you cannot charge. The hon. Baronet, for instance, says that he has made a good many contracts for household coal at 3s. above the standard price of the previous twelve months. It does not under any circumstances compel him to raise that to 4s. Knowing how generous ho is, I hope that he will sell a good deal of coal below that limit.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
That is not the point. The fact that my company has taken action which no other colliery has taken has nothing to do with the case. 1711 This Bill is actually going to fix the maximum price of every quality of coal, and the maximum price under this Bill will operate in all cases except the collieries with which I am connected. We have been selling coal—the hon. Member behind the Treasury Bench (Sir E. Cornwall) has been buying it from the colliery with which I am associated—at 10s. below the market price. This Bill is going to fix the actual maximum price.
The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN
The Debate seems to me to be getting wide of the Amendment, which is that the words "under similar conditions" should be left out of the Clause.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
I have not finished my remarks yet, Mr. Deputy-Chairman. The words "under similar conditions," and the limitation that is now being pro posed by the President need further consideration. I understand you to say that I am not in order in dealing with the question of what are the similar conditions, but with great respect I submit that I am in order in comparing the conditions with those—
§ The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN
That was precisely what the hon. Baronet was not doing when I called him to order.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
With great respect, is it not possible to show what are "under similar conditions"? When you called me to order and asked me to address my remarks to the question, I was pointing out that the words "under similar conditions' in this Bill necessitate a maximum price. The President himself pointed out that these similar conditions would not mean a maximum price, and you did not call him to order. Ho said that the Bill did not fix maximum prices for all coal. I say that it does.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
The right hon. Gentleman said that the maximum price of each class of coal would not be regulated by this Bill.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
I understood the right hon. Gentleman to say so, but we are really talking too quickly. My mind does not travel as quickly as that of the President. I understood him to say that 1712 this Bill would not operate with regard to each quality of coal, and that in practice there would be lower prices than those provided for under the Bill. I say that the Bill will actually fix prices for each quality of coal, and the coal owner will have the last penny to which he is entitled. Let me come back to my original question. If I make a contract to sell 100,000 tons of coal in a given month and there is no corresponding contract for six months, I want to know how I am going to sell it. I have taken counsel's opinion about this matter. I have just asked a legal Gentleman of this House, and he tells me that a colliery owner will not be allowed to offer large quantities unless there is some provision put into the Bill later on. If the right hon. Gentleman will give an undertaking to put words in at a later stage, then I do not wish in any way to impede the progress of the Bill, but the words in Clause 2 to which he refers do not cover the point. If the matter is not clear, will he bring it up on Report? I am quite certain that he is wrong. If he will see my hon. Friend, who is a legal gentleman and whose authority he will not doubt, he will tell him that we shall not be able to offer coal under the Bill if there is a large contract made in one particular month and no similar contract in the previous twelve months. If my hon. Friend convinces him, perhaps he will alter it on Report; otherwise, the Bill is unworkable.
§ Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Clause," put, and agreed to.
§ Amendment made: After the words "under similar conditions" insert the words "affecting the sale."
§ Mr. ANDERSON
I beg to move, in Sub-section (2), to leave out the word "four" ["four shillings"], and to insert instead thereof the word "three."
I think the present proposal leaves too wide a margin with regard to the price of coal. The President of the Board of Trade has stated repeatedly that there ought to be an effort made to prevent exploitation, and that is the real purpose, of course, of this Bill. We had a Committee in London—a Departmental Committee—on Retail Coal Prices, and after investigating the whole question that Committee came to the conclusion that at that time 3s. for London, including the increased retail charges and distribution, as well as the increased charges at the pit- 1713 head, would amply compensate the coal trade for the extra charges made necessary by the War. But under this Bill as it stands 4s. extra is to be allowed to the coal owners at the pit-head in comparison with the previous standard, and in addition to that the retailers in London are to have an extra 2s., not under this Bill but by other arrangements, to compensate them for the increased charges for freightage and other matters. Really, therefore, the prices will be 6s. higher in London than in the previous period with which comparison is made. I feel that that is altogether too high a figure, and, seeing how it will work out, it is evident that this Bill is really going to be no improvement at all, or at any rate very little improvement, so far as the working classes of London are concerned. I should like to draw one or two comparisons.
Take the quality of coal known as the best Silkstone. In January, 1914, that quality coal was sold in London at 29s. per ton. Last January it was sold at 32s. per ton. If the coal owners are allowed to charge 4s. extra on the previous standard, and if 2s. extra is to go to the retail trader as well, it will mean that that coal will be sold in London next January at 35s. under this Limitation of Coal Profits Bill. The same thing will happen with regard to the best Derbyshire coal. In January, 1914, it sold at 28s., and a year later at 31s. In January, 1916, under this Bill, the price will be 34s., and that will apply to eases where quantities of a ton and upwards are bought at a time. When you come down to the smaller quantities it will mean that the coal, as heretofore, will rise to a very high price indeed, especially as there' is, so far as one can see, no legal attempt being made to limit the operation of the coal rings.
All that is attempted is to deal with the price at the pit-head, leaving even there a wide margin. But no attempt is made to limit the prices with regard to dealers outside certain rings. We admit frankly there have been additional expenses, such, for instance, as for pit timber, and, since the Report of the Departmental Committee, there has been an addition to the wages paid to miners in different parts of the country. Taking all these matters into account, and bearing in mind the statement made on the Second Reading by the President of the Board of Trade, we fail absolutely to realise that there is any cause for the additional 4s., so far as the pits are concerned. The President of 1714 the Board of Trade dealt very generously with the matter of expenses, and yet even on his figures he was unable to make out a case for a 3s. advance. The figures were below that amount. I contend, in these circumstances, that this is an exceedingly moderate Amendment, and one which should commend itself to those who are anxious there shall be some relief, so far as the poor are concerned, from the high coal prices which had to be paid last winter.
It would have been very much more useful to the Committee if the hon. Member had given the figures on which he bases his claim to reduce the amount to 3s. Until we have those figures we are in the dark. No doubt the Board of Trade, in fixing the figure at 4s., took a great deal of pains to decide upon an amount which it thought fair under the circumstances. As a matter of fact, it is within the knowledge of the Committee that there was a meeting of more than 200 Members of this House on this subject, and that meeting appointed a Committee to go into the question of prices. The Committee included three colliery proprietors, three shipowners, three representatives of the Labour party, and three representatives of consumers of coal, and it reported to the 200 Members of the House of Commons that 4s. 3d. was a fair price to put on. I had the honour of moving a resolution which is practically embodied in the Clause which we are discussing. I naturally take great interest in the matter. The Board of Trade cut our figure down to 4s., but, on the other hand, I have had applications from various persons interested in coal asking that it be raised again to 4s. 3d. But, inasmuch as I assume the Board of Trade had good reasons for cutting the amount down, I do not propose to bring forward that proposition. It is no use hon. Members voting blindly whether the figure shall be 3s. or 4s. They ought to be satisfied before supporting the reduction to 3s. that that is a fair figure, and they ought to be given the data upon which it is based.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
We have the statement of the President of the Board of Trade and also the Report of the Departmental Committee on Retail Coal Prices. If you deduct the 2s. extra to be allowed to the retail people in London, we are prepared to say that 1s. is a sufficient increase at the pit-head. I am therefore leaving a very wide margin indeed.
No doubt the hon. Member has satisfied himself, but what he must do is to satisfy the Committee. I should be delighted to vote for 3s., or even 2s., if it can be proved to be a fair price, but I believe I am expressing the feelings of the majority of the Members of this Committee when I say we cannot blindly vote 3s. simply to secure lower prices to the general public when we may be doing an injustice to the other people concerned. I assume that the Board of Trade have fairly considered this matter, and I hope the President will take this opportunity to give the figures on which he bases the 4s., and that he will do so in such a way as will convince the Committee.
§ Mr. J. SAMUEL
I have an Amendment down on the Paper which is much bolder than the one moved by the hon. Member for the Attercliffe Division of Sheffield (Mr. Anderson). My Amendment is to substitute 2s. for 4s., and I want to attempt to show the Committee the reasons which I think justify that. It was stated by the last speaker that we are more or less in ignorance of the actual facts upon which the 4s. is based. I want to show the Committee what the country will have to pay, even if the figure is put at 2s. This is a most serious matter for the country. The genesis of this figure of 4s. is, I think, to be found in what was done by the Committee upstairs. I attended one of the meetings there, and I remember hearing a very prominent Member of this House, a very large coal owner, state that if 2s. was fixed the colliery owners would become more or less millionaires.
§ Mr. J. SAMUEL
As the hon. Member for Mansfield has divulged the fact that he was the hon. Member to whom I was referring, I will say now that he stated that 1s. would cover all the expenses, and the colliery owners would make large fortunes. The hon. Member certainly gave us the impression that he is most generous in his treatment of the consumer. He was a member of this Committee, and I should like to ask him if he voted for the recommendation that 4s. should be fixed. Did he recommend the Board of Trade to suggest that increased price to the consumers? If he voted in favour of that recommendation, that the price should be 4s. 3d., and not 2s., then 1716 in that case certainly more than 2s. profit would accrue to every colliery owner. I want to show how this will affect the country. We are in a position to know exactly what will be the tonnage of coal left in this country for home consumption. We have had a report from an important Committee, over which Sir R. Redmayne presided, on Coal Mining Organisation, and in that report it is stated that the production of coal in 1913 was 287,411,000 tons. Looking at the returns I find we exported 73,400,000 tons to foreign countries. We exported, also, in the form of bunker coal, 21,400,000 tons, giving a total export of 94,000,000 tons. This practically leaves for home consumption 193,011,000 tons. In the report Sir Richard Redmayne estimates that the reduction in the output of coal, owing to the War and the large number of men who have joined the Colours will amount to 36,000,000 tons as compared with 1913. That would reduce the output of coal to 251,411,000 tons.
We are saving in this respect, that we shall export according to their estimate, 24,842,000 tons less to foreign countries, and my estimate is that we shall supply something like 6,000,000 tons less of bunker coal, which amounts to 30,842,000 tons. Taking the export and the bunker coal, that will leave us altogether 63,558,000 tons against 94,000,000 tons we exported in 1913. That is the estimate given by this Committee. If you deduct the 63,558,000 tons from the 251,411,000 tons it will leave for home consumption 187,853,000 tons. If the price of coal should be raised to the maximum—I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield that if this price is put into the Bill and it becomes an Act of Parliament, the natural tendency will be for all the coal owners, if they can, to raise the price to the maximum of 4s.—if the price is raised to 4s., that will mean that there will be a cost to the nation of no less than £37,570,600. That is what I work out to be the cost to the nation upon the home consumption. Taking my figure of 2s. as the maximum, that would mean an increase cost to the nation of £18,785,000. I think everybody will agree with me that that is a very large sum of money for the home consumers to pay upon the home consumption of 187,000,000 tons. Take the question of the 63,000,000 tons for export to foreign countries and bunker coal. I have formed an estimate upon the figures given by the hon. Member for Mansfield, 1717 who stated that in some cases the price of coal for export purposes had gone up to 38s. per ton. [HON. MEMBERS: "28S.!"] He stated that that was the figure which some of the collieries were asking for export coal. I will take the figure at 28s. That will mean an increase of 10s. per ton upon export and bunker coal.
§ Sir J. WALTON
That is on the free coal—on the small margin of free coal that the collieries will have to sell. They will not have higher prices from their old contracts.
§ Mr. J. SAMUEL
I understood from the President of the Board of Trade that there was no limit to the price of coal for export purposes, and that there was no limit in this Bill for coal for bunker purposes. If that is the ease, my point is that if the average increased price was to work out at 10s. a ton—
§ Mr. J. SAMUEL
Perhaps the hon. Member will allow me to make my statement, then he can make his. I have fixed the price based upon what I have listened to in the House of Commons. It is a very low price according to the figures. On the 63,000,000 tons for export and bunker coal it will work out at £31,779,000. Taking the price of coal at 4s. extra for home consumption, and bunker and export coal, I make out that if the colliery owners charge the maximum sum under this Bill they will obtain for these three classes of coal no less than £69,349,000 extra revenue. [Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh, but I am prepared for anyone to test my figures. At the sum suggested by the hon. Member for the Attercliffe Division (Mr. Anderson), 3s. upon coal for home consumption would work out at £28,182,000. Export and bunker coal, if they reach the increase of 10s. after this Bill becomes law, will work out at no less than £59,961,000. Those are actual figures based upon the Returns which have been presented to Parliament and also upon the figures which were given by the President of the Board of Trade, who stated in his speech that every shilling increase in the price of coal to the home consumer under this Bill meant £9,000,000. I work it out at about £9,300,000.
I do not see why the coal owners of this country should be made a privileged class at the expense of the general community. If my figures are correct, and if they can- 1718 not be challenged—I challenge even the hon. Member for Mansfield (Sir A. Mark-ham) and the hon. Member for Barnsley (Sir J. Walton) to deny that these large increases will be made—the effect of these increases will become a most serious matter for this country. Everything depends upon cheap coal. All our manufactories depend upon cheap coal. The price of steel, of ships, and of every article in the country is raised in consequence of the price of coal being raised. It has another effect, upon which I wish to make an appeal to this Committee to fix the price at the very lowest maximum. Take the case of a town which owns gas or electricity works. This is going to be a very serious matter for them. In the first place, the rates in our large towns were going up by leaps and bounds even before the War. Our taxes are going up. If you speak to tradesmen in our large towns they will tell you the turnover is going down and that the profits are going down. Consequently the tradesmen are affected by increased rates, increased taxes and less profits. Already in some of our large towns the price of gas has gone up 6d. per 1,000 feet. For every corporation and council in this country the question of the contracts for coal and the heavy price that is going to be charged is a problem to be settled. Suppose you have this large increase in the price of coal for gas works, you have this factor: that the same consumers who pay the large increased prices for their domestic consumption have to pay again on the gas rate, in addition to which, in consequence of the price of coal, the profits of the gasworks go down and the rates gain nothing to make up the deficiency. Therefore, looking at it from any point of view, the ramifications of the increased price of coal is a most serious matter for this nation. I should like to make this appeal to the President of the Board of Trade. As Members of Parliament we are asked to go about the country to appeal to the people to save money. I have been asked to go into my own Constituency to do what? In the first place, to ask the people toeat less meat.I have to ask them to be'careful with your breadand to tell them that the country wants every pound to pay for the War. If this Bill is going to make this enormous charge, which, putting it at the very lowest, comes to £37,000,000, it is not right to extract something like that very large sum from 1719 the whole of the community, and, when they have paid it, ask them to save money to contribute to the War Loan. Let me take my own county of Durham. From an estimate of a committee containing some of the most eminent authorities in the county, including one of the largest coal owners, Mr. Arthur Francis Pease, of Darlington, it appears that they say that Durham will produce 33,000,000 tons of coal. If the whole of that is used for home consumption—if it is not so used they will make even a larger profit—we in the county of Durham, the large manufacturers and consumers, will have to pay no less than £6,645,000 extra. That is too large a price for the public to pay to make rich men richer. That is what it comes to. Some colliery owners, as the hon. Member for Mid-Durham said, are already making 40 and 50 percent. I do not say all are doing it. But here you have struggling tradesmen and struggling working men who do not know what to do to make both ends meet, and you are extracting money from them when they cannot extract better prices for themselves. I appeal to the hon. Member for Mansfield, in all seriousness—I am not saying it in any joking spirit, because I look upon this matter as a very serious one—and to all parties in the State, to make their sacrifices. The hon. Member came down to the House to try to save £200,000 a year; he is at it every day. But he is going to make a huge fortune out of this Bill. He has admitted it. We are not all in a position to make these huge fortunes, and if we were, I dispute very much the right of men to come to the House of Commons and protect themselves at the expense of the general community. In my town the price of coal has not increased more than 3s. above what it was last year. This will naturally put it up another shilling, but looking at the prices exacted from the community since last January, this Bill will be a protection to London. I admit it. But I think 4s. is too high, and I hope the President of the Board of Trade will see his way, when this appeal is made to him, and when the fact is brought out that this 4s. extra revenue will put something like £37,000,000 a year into the pockets of the coal owners, to agree to the Amendment and fix it at 3s.
§ Mr. J. A. PEASE
I am somewhat surprised at the figures which have been used by my hon. Friend. Anyone who has 1720 lived in Durham ought not to have been misled in the way he has by stating certain statistics. I do not take any exception to the figures which he has quoted in regard to quantities, but I take the greatest exception to the way in which he has presented his case. He has assumed throughout the whole of his argument that the whole of the coal is going to be raised 4s. a ton He has then gone on the assumption that the whole of the coal raised is going to be subjected to this 4s. increase. As a matter of fact, even if the first assumption is correct the second cannot be correct, at any rate until after the lapse of some years. Take, for instance, one of the largest firms, with which I am associated, in the North of England. My firm, before the War, sold coal for several years ahead, and it has pre-war contracts, some of them not expiring until April, 1917. On none of these contracts is it possible for us to raise the price of coal, and yet the cost of raising it has been very materially raised and will continue, probably, throughout the whole of that period. The cost varies in different collieries. Some are in the best position and have a large quantity of free coal, but the average colliery is making less money now than it did last year, and the amount of free coal available is in most large businesses very small. Take, for instance, one item which my hon. Friend has entirely overlooked, the item of waste. You produce a lot of coal, and you lose 5 per cent, in waste. About another 3 per cent, of your output goes in colliery consumption for your engines and for your workmen. In one district the workmen get their coals free, and we have to pay more for those coals to be raised, and yet we get nothing for them. If you take certain other contracts which have been made for a long time ahead, I can compute, certainly in many instances, that during the next six months not more than 10 to 20 per cent, of the output can get the benefit of the higher price. But the increased cost of 6d., 9d., 1s., 1s. 6d., up to 2s. which operates in these collieries, operates on the whole output of the colliery, and that is the reason why many colliery proprietors at present are losing money on some of their collieries, while on others they are making no more than they were making a year ago. I think these facts ought to be taken into account.
I want to put this other point to the President of the Board of Trade. The tendency always is, where you have an 1721 artificial price to an Act of Parliament, to create both a maximum and a minimum, and in the event of anything of this kind being done, although export coal is going to be limited, in my judgment, and in the opinion of many others who have sold coal for many years, if an artificial price is going to be fixed in regard to coal for home consumption it will have a tendency to operate prejudicially in connection with the export trade, and the export trade will obtain very little advance over and above that limit which has been placed on the coal for home purposes. The result will be that this country, during the period of the War, will be deprived of many millions of pounds in connection with the prices that they will obtain for their exported coal in neutral countries. Information has been supplied to me which dwells very much upon that particular fact, and whilst I agree with the hon. Member who introduced the Amendment that for household purposes it is very desirable to curtail the price which might be charged in regard to the consumers of the country, I think it is a very serious thing if, at a particular juncture like this, the limitation in connection with the whole of the home consumption should be much less than two shillings. Four shillings seems to me to be a fair price if the price is to be limited at all. Further, this is an artificial fixing of price in regard to only one material, produced only by one particular interest. The coal owner and the coal producer will probably have to pay increasing prices for all other commodities during the period of the War, and the cost may increase to a very much greater extent in the future than it has in the past. But, if we are able at any rate to obtain our higher prices, owing to the general demand for this in common with the demand for all other materials, which apparently can be raised to a very much higher price, I am glad to say the workmen will get some benefit in regard to the increased wages which they will get for the average prices realised.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
My hon. Friend (Mr. J. Samuel), who is generally full of statistics, has given us a great many with regard to the food prices which were incorrect, and he has now given us an equally wrong set of figures about the coal trade.
§ Mr. J. SAMUEL rose—1722
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
What I said upstairs at the private meeting was that the price of coal had in my own case doubled, and if the colliery owner was able to make a profit of 2s. a ton he had made a fortune, and did very well. The Amendment proposes 3s. I will tell the House exactly how much my cost has gone up. In Wales the cost of timbering has gone up from 100 per cent, to 120 per cent.—from 8d. to 1s. 6d. a ton—and for every ton of coal produced in Glamorganshire the average cost for timber alone is 1s. 6d. In the colliery with which I am connected in Monmouthshire it is 8d. to 10d. a ton, and in some cases over Is. Since the Departmental Committee was set up there has been an advance given to the miners in the federated area of 25 per cent, on the old standard rates of 1889, and, in addition to that, there has been a reduction of output of very nearly 25 per cent., and the net result is that in my own colliery there has been an increase of cost which will necessitate a few collieries going to the President of the Board of Trade and asking for an increase above the 4s. If you take the collieries as a whole throughout the federated area—I am talking of house coal—I do not think the increased cost has been more than 1s. 6d. to 2s. per ton. Perhaps I am on the low side. In some of the older collieries the increase is considerably more. I am giving the House the figures of the best collieries. When you come down to Wales, if you take the price at 3s. it would not really cover the actual increase in the cost of wages and timber, and I do not think, therefore, that the figure of 4s. is an unreasonable one. What I suggested to the Chancellor of the Exchequer was this. It is not fair that one class of coal owner in the federated area should, under the provisions of the Bill, make a larger profit than the people in South Wales, and I have therefore urged the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make a pronouncement in the House to-day that he will take all surplus profits made by coal owners. That will get rid of the whole injustice about the 4s. The moderate collieries say, "Why should you, by Act of Parliament, have the power to charge 4s. per ton, which will give you a very substantial profit, while it will yield us very little if any at all?"
This Bill is brought in not for the purpose of fixing a natural price at which coal is raised in the collieries throughout the United Kingdom. It is brought in to prevent panic prices, to prevent the price of 1723 coal being doubled on the consumer as it has in many cases, and the price of 4s. is very little more than the price prevailing in the year 1900, when, although the prices were very high, the miners were not getting anything like what they are asking now. The coal owners and miners between them think the country at large ought to pay any price they fix. The miners have had this addition of 25 per cent., which makes their wages 90 per cent, above the standard, and in addition to that they will be entitled directly to another 20 per cent.—that is, in the federated area. I cannot think it is right that we should have one large trade union which is able to exercise great pressure on the community, or that either coal owners or miners, or both together, should be able to force on the general community a high rate of wage in a time of national danger, and if the President of the Board of Trade could in some way introduce into the Bill a provision that there should be no further increase, either on the part of the owners or of the men, I think that would certainly meet the views of the miners themselves. The miners in the federated area have this 25 per cent, and they are perfectly satisfied, and they are the last men to desire to ask for any further increase of wages, although they are entitled to it, and if the price of coal goes up they will have it. Therefore I think it would have been better if my right hon. Friend had introduced, after the word "increased" the words "or decreased." There are certain classes of mine in which he might well have made the prices lower than they will be under this Bill.
I did not know that an Amendment had been moved to that effect. I have endeavoured to do my best to protect the consumer. I think we ought to do that. It is the desire of everybody in the House to do so. However, when the hon. Member for Stockton gives these figures of immense profits, I can assure him that it is not so. If lie will take the trouble to come to my house, I will show him the cost of the collieries with which I am connected, and he will see that they are actually making to-day, some of them, less money than they were making at this time last year. I told the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday that when the taxation comes for the profits of last year it will be found that the collieries in 1914 made less money than they did in 1913.
§ Mr. O'GRADY
In Command Paper 7866 it will be found that the sum of 3s. is mentioned there. That was the reason that induced the Members with whom I associate on these benches to suggest the sum of 3s., and also the fact that the President of the Board of Trade in his speech on the Second Beading mentioned that figure. We would not like to have the figure so fixed that it would endanger the position of the miners' wages. To be quite frank with the House, I may say that the miners themselves have agreed upon the figure 4. At the same time we want the public to know that they are not agreeing to that for the purpose of increasing the cost of coal to the ordinary consumer, whether industrial or domes-tie. All things considered, the view taken by the hon. Member for Attercliffe (Mr. Anderson) and myself, and those who sit upon these benches, is that really 3s. is a fair price to put in the Bill for the extra cost the mine owners have been involved in since the War started. I was really appalled by the astounding figures the hon. Member for Stockton (Mr. J. Samuel) gave us. The mind reels at the millions with which he treated us. I am inclined to think that upon investigation they will turn out to be very wide of the mark. He gave the President of the Board of Trade some figures, and if these figures which he has now given us are like those he gave to the right hon. Gentleman, I do not think they will stand the test of investigation. As between the figure of 2s., which the hon. Member suggests, and the figure of 4s. in the Bill, I think that from the information that we possess in the Departmental Committee's Report, and from the information that the President of the Board of Trade himself possesses, we ought to compromise the question and accept the 3s. contained in our Amendment.
§ Sir J. WALTON
If the figures given by the hon. Member for Stockton were true, all I can say is, advocating as I have done, in season and out of season, as a coal owner, that the whole extra profits ought to be taken by a war levy and put into the National Exchequer, I would gladly welcome his figures because of the grand haul the National Treasury would receive. What we are concerned with, however, is to try to ascertain what addition to the price of 1913–14 would at present be fair. Personally, I do not desire that collieries should make one penny piece more money during the War than they made in the 1725 year ending 30th June, 1914. What are the facts? We have heard from the hon. Member for Mansfield (Sir A. Markham) that there is a great variation in the effect of war conditions upon collieries in different districts, and on different collieries in the same district. At his large new collieries, working coal close to the shaft, with gloriously thick seams and enormous output, he is working under the most favourable conditions of any colliery owner in the world. Not only that, but whereas our output has been diminished through the patriotism of our men going to serve their King and country to the number of 230,000, and our output is down 38 to 40 per cent., the hon. Member told me the other day that owing to the big wages the men got at his pits—
§ Sir J. WALTON
The men have kept to their work, and that has practically brought the output up to the figure it was before the War began. That is a magnificent result. The hon. Member knows, however, as well as I do, that a great many of the old collieries in the country are not so favourably situated as his. Let us take the case of the diminution of output. That, in some cases, has increased the cost of coal over 1s. a ton to my own personal knowledge. In some collieries we are heavily watered, and we have the great cost of pumping on a largely reduced output. Then there is 120 per cent, more to be paid for timber. In addition, there are enormously increased costs in charges to pay for steel, iron, and engineering work, which is by no means a small item in connection with colliery undertakings. You have an increased price to pay for these things, and everything else that is needed in that way. There is an increased price to be paid for oils, and colliery stores of all sorts. The total of these increased costs represent a substantial increase in the cost of coal per ton. Not only have you that enormous increase due to diminished output, higher pumping charges, etc., but you have in many cases old collieries working thin seams with bad roofs, which entail extra timbering, and, as I have remarked, timber is 120 per cent, more costly than it was before the War.
What evidence have I personally of what is the real increase of cost in producing coal to-day as compared with twelve months ago? I have the personal knowledge that 1726 I possess of the costs at collieries in Durham and Northumberland, which I receive monthly. In the majority of these collieries I do not hesitate to say that, owing to war conditions, the cost has gone up in some cases 3s. 6d. and in other cases over 4s. per ton. I have a letter from a large group of colliery owners in the county of Durham, which says:—The figure proposed by Mr. Runciman's Bill, namely 4s., is in the opinion of myself, and several other coal owners in this district, totally inadequate to meet the extra cost occasioned by the shortage of labour, thereby considerably reducing the output, the high price of materials, and the advance of wages which has already taken place.
§ Sir J. WALTON
An hon. Member says I should make it 10s. I only want to make it what it is really. I only want to show what is the increased cost to-day as compared with twelve months ago. In connection with collieries I am interested in I am prepared, if the Board of Trade desires it, to have the exact figures taken out, and to abide by them, as to the increased price I should be allowed to have compared with 1913–14. I have here a letter from South Wales:—The 4s. per ton advance allowed on the price obtained in 1913–14 in many cases will not meet the increased cost, and, unless the colliery affected is to be run at a loss, it will mean confining its operations for shipment and shutting off the home trade. This move, Mr. Pretyman said, will be met by the Licensing Committee. I frankly cannot see bow this will work smoothly, when you work out the details and how they operate.I have another letter from Newport, Wales, in which I am told that there is another point that ought not to be overlooked. The bulk of the coal of Wales is exported, and it is "anticipated that very high prices will be realised for it. The miners' wages are regulated on the selling prices, and the smaller collieries in South Wales, which do not export but sell for home consumption, are likely in the near future to have their wages bills considerably increased by being lumped together in the taking of the average prices in Wales with the great exporting collieries that are obtaining much higher prices. In this letter my correspondent foresees great difficulty for the small collieries who must face this still further increase in wages. I do not know whether the settlement so happily arrived at in South Wales disposes of that matter or not for the duration of the War and for six months afterwards. I hope it does. This letter from Wales also points out that the cost of these smaller collieries in Wales have gone up to an extent that justifies the 4s. increase per 1727 ton proposed in the Bill, and suggests that if they have further increases in wages to pay they ought to be allowed to add them to the 4s. I have a similar communication from Yorkshire. My hon. Friend (Sir A. Markham) always takes things good-humouredly, and I would tell him that when I spoke of the Ishmael of the coal trade that it was a quotation from a letter of a friend of his that I have. We all know that he has the honesty and courage of his convictions, and we welcome his intervention in every Debate. In the letter I have received from Yorkshire this outspoken Yorkshireman says:—Obviously this Bill is being engineered by Sir A. Markham to benefit his thick scam pits, and to standardise the coal from them. The Government are being hoodwinked, but I am sure if they pass this Bill there will be a rude awakening for them.The hon. Baronet, however, treats all criticism in that light genial way which he has. In conclusion, I maintain that the proposals in the Bill are fair as a whole, though it will give the hon. Member for Mansfield increased profits at his collieries and will give me no corresponding profit. So long as he continues to advocate and give his powerful influence in favour of our joint project of taking the whole of the excess profits for the Treasury, then I agree to the passing of the Bill in its present form.
§ 7.0 P.M.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
It is interesting to hear my hon. Friend (Sir J. Walton) suggest that this Bill will bring no profits at all, but will leave a good deal of profit to the hon. Member for Mansfield, and then to add, as a corollary, that he is in favour of the heavy taxation of war profits. It appears to me that both my hon. Friends are prepared to agree to schemes which will see that the profits made by the other go somehow into the National Exchequer, without accruing to those with whom they are associated. They have both discussed in a good-humoured way the Amendment before us, and have thrown some light upon the increased cost to which collieries have been put during the last twelve months. I do not for a moment wish to suggest that any figures that are produced for individual collieries can be taken as typical of the whole trade. For instance, the deep collieries of my hon. Friend in South Yorkshire are new and have many advantages over some of the older pits. There are many of the older pits in Monmouthshire, the Midlands, and Scotland where the costs are particularly high. There are, 1728 however, none of these that you can take as typical of the whole. The only way you can arrive at any figures likely to be at all just is by taking the averages of sample collieries over very large areas. The fact that there has been a large rise in wages for miners all over Great Britain has in itself had a considerable effect upon the increased cost of getting coal. The war bonus had added in the federated area 15½ per cent, on current wages. It is better to take current wages than the old standard. As far as one can tell, that in the federated area means an addition for that area of about 1s. a ton. It is somewhere in that region, but it varies, of course, between colliery and colliery, but that is on the average the amount of the rise. You have also to take into account the fact that the amount that is consumed for colliery purposes remains pretty much the same, and there is consumption of coal for other purposes which does not leave as large a proportion free for sale as formerly when the output was up to the maximum. It is probable that 1s. 2d. per ton would not be an unfair amount to take in the federated area in respect of the increased charge caused by the war bonus. Then it is 17½ per cent, on the basis rate in South Wales, which must have added something over a shilling a ton—I am now taking an average again—to the cost of getting coal in South Wales. In Scotland 18½ per cent, was added on the standard. I forget what that means on the current wages.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
As far as I can gather, from the calculations which we have been able to make, this would mean that the increased cost in Scotland of the war bonus could not have come to much more on the average than about 8d. a ton. In Cumberland and Scotland and the Forest of Dean, there have also been other increases as well as those which they have suffered under the war bonus. In Cumberland there was an increase of 2½ per cent, on the standard because of the increased selling price of coal. In Scotland the increase recently given under the arbitration of Sir George Askwith, came to about 12½ per cent, on the standard. It would be roughly another 5d., as far as we can make out, on the coal owners. So that in Scotland the increased cost in wages alone works out at something in the region of 1s. 2d. or 1s. 3d. The House will 1729 observe that I do not give precise figures, because precise figures would be misleading. I am afraid that it would be impossible to have quite precise figures, but the amount is somewhere in that region. In the case of the Forest of Dean the increases have amounted to 25 per cent, on the standard, which is, as far as I can gather, something like 1s. 6d. additional on the output in that district. In all that I have given the averages. It is only fair to say that in the case of every one of these coal-fields there will be a great many collieries where the increase is above the average, and in many others which are more fortunate, so far as cost is concerned, it will be less. We cannot leave that out of account, but it would not be an unfair estimate to allow 1s. 6d. or thereabouts as added to the cost of getting coal throughout the United Kingdom since the War began. The figures that were given by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds were quoted from a Command Paper which was issued some time ago before any of these increases were given. Therefore the figure would have to be increased if only the addition were made for the extra wages which have been granted, I might point out, to the men by agreement.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
The figure is not a pit-mouth figure, but includes the whole of the additional charges.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
That is quite true, and therefore it is scarcely applicable to the calculation which we are now attempting to make up. But, apart from wages, there are other elements of increased cost. More than once reference has been made to the shortage of pit props, which have gone up in price. Scarcely anything has fluctuated more, perhaps, during the last twelve months than pit props. Sometimes we have had an increased supply, say, from the South of France, which I may say we have obtained largely with the assistance of the French Government. Sometimes we have had unexpected shipments from Portugal. Arrangements have been made, though not very much has come of them up to the present, for an increased supply of pit wood from Canada and Newfoundland, but until these come forward the necessity of collieries providing them is so urgent that they have had to pay abnormal prices in order to induce shipments to be made to this country at all. I find it extremely difficult to arrive at anything like a fair calculation as to what the increased cost of pit wood will have come to—it varies so much in individual collieries. In 1730 some of the coal-fields a much larger proportion of wood must of necessity be used for the amount of coal that is raised. In those cases the increased cost of pit wood is a very powerful factor in affecting the cost of getting the coal. In others more fortunately placed, and in some districts in England and Scotland, they have been able to lay their hands on a home supply, of which I regret there is not more, and that has relieved the burden thrown on them. In the matters of pit wood and the cost of fodder, oils, and all sorts of materials which are requisite for machinery, illuminations and light, there have been a great many additions made to the standard charges, and all these bring up, as far as we can tell, the cost of material since the War began to something again in the region of 1s. 6d. It is above that in the case of some collieries and below it in the case of others.
Then you have to add something for increased expense owing to lower output. There are all sorts of standing charges which must of necessity go on. You have got to keep ways open and in. good order, and the pumping must be conducted exactly the same as it was before. Interest and capital charges remain exactly the same as before. In addition, all these standing charges must be spread over a very much lower tonnage. In some cases the drop in the output has been as much as 20 per cent. The average, I am glad to say, is not more than about 10 per cent. But in some districts it has been very heavy, and in those districts where it has been very heavy the increased burden per ton, measured by tonnage, thrown on these collieries has, of course, been proportionately increased, and we have therefore reached something over 3s. In many cases I fear that the increased cost of getting the coal has been considerably more than 3s. Instances have been put before me in which the increased cost of getting the coal has been over 4s. It will, however, be unfair to take these extreme cases for the standard price which we put into the Bill. On the other hand, I think that it is quite clear from these average calculations which have been drawn out with as great care as our statisticians have been able to apply that to put in 3s. would mean that actually in this Bill we should be facing the coal owners with a definite loss prescribed by Act of Parliament. This has a further effect. My hon. Friends below the Gangway, who 1731 have proposed that the figure should be 3s. and not 4s. are leaving out of account the fact that in a great many of the colliery districts wages have already been increased and there has been an increased cost on the selling price of coal of above 3s.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
You have power under this Bill to increase the price of coal where the circumstances warrant an increase.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
That argument is leaving out of account the exceptional power. If you take an average of the whole, you must take the average as the standard of price. But if you are to use that exceptional power of departing from the standard of price and accept the adjudication of the Board of Trade, it would be much better to leave to the Board of Trade altogether the complete regulation of the matter, as indeed the hon. and learned Gentleman on the other side has said.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I am glad to hear the hon. and learned Gentleman say that of the Board of Trade. But at all events I was not prepared to throw on my Department the whole burden of dealing with the matter simply on appeals. I am not egotistical enough to think that I would be allowed to do this. If I were to ask the House of Commons to take 3s. it would definitely let the average collieries of Great Britain in for loss. That would have been grossly unfair, and it would also besides have complicated wages calculations and have had a detrimental national effect. This was pointed out by one hon. Gentleman—I forget for the moment who it was. There are a great many colliery districts where there is a choice of selling abroad and selling at home. The Coal Exports Committee does check to some extent the undue selling of coal abroad—that is to say, selling coal abroad to such an extent as absolutely to deprive the home market of coal which we must have here. But if we definitely put into this Bill a figure which would impose a loss on the collieries, so long as the Bill was in force, it would not be a choice as between selling coal at home and abroad, but it would mean that the collieries would find it better not to get the coal up to the surface at all rather than be under the provisions of this Bill. As far as any such 1732 districts who would only raise coal to sell abroad are concerned, nothing that can be done by the Coal Export Committee would be sufficient to force the coal into use in places where we need it for certain uses, if a Statute with that provision were imposed on these collieries.
§ Mr. OUTHWAITE
What does the right hon. Gentleman mean by extra loss? Does he mean that the profits have been reduced or that the cost of production is greater than the amount received by sale?
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
It really depends very largely on the collieries. A great many collieries last year made no profit at all. The average certainly did make profits, but it would put them in such a position—when I speak of loss, I mean more loss apparently than absolutely in substance—it would put them in such a position as to make it not worth their while to raise the coal for home consumption if the figure of 3s. were put in.
§ Sir C. CORY
A number of collieries last year actully lost, not in comparison with previous profits, but they received less than what it cost to raise the coal.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
That is quite true. Still, I am afraid that we must deal with the average, taking neither the exceptionally good case nor the exceptionally bad case, and what I have tried to do is to put in the figure that is fair. I am sure that the Committee will be well advised to arrive at a figure which is fair, taking all the increased cost of working into account, rather than to attempt to make this a penal provision without there being a corresponding benefit. The suggestion made by my hon. Friend behind me (Mr. J. Samuel), that every extra shilling added to the price of coal in this country would mean that the consumers would have to pay over £9,000,000 extra, is quite correct. The exact figure is somewhere in the region of £9,250,000, but the whole of that does not go, and, owing to the increased cost of getting coal, cannot go into the pockets of the coal owner I feel sure that my hon. Friend, when he talked of 4s. representing something like £37,000,000 extra expense to the consumers in this country, could not have meant that the whole of that went into the pockets of the coal owner. It has gone in the price of materials and extra wages very largely. Some of it must go as extra profit in many cases, but I believe that on the average this is 1733 the fairest figure which we can adopt, and I must remind the Committee that when the Committee was sitting upstairs looking into the matter they arrived, not at 4s., but 4s. 3d. I have taken a more severe view of the situation than they have, and have left out the 3d. I hope that the Committee will be prepared to accept the figure inserted in the Bill without feeling that they are giving the coal owners undue profit, and that, all those things which I have mentioned being taken into account, they will agree that the 4s. is a fair sum, which will not act to the detriment of the consumer, and will not give the coal owner a greater profit than he is entitled to, and will not disturb the arrangements which have been made as to wages, which would certainly occur if the figure in the Bill were reduced to 3s.
§ Mr. T. M. HEALY
In this case we have had, on one side, the voice of the coal owner, who, of course, is seeking the highest figure possible, and, on the other hand, we have seen the attitude of the Labour party. In this matter the Labour party and the coal party are, to some extent, in one boat, and therefore the Committee has not the protection which it has under ordinary circumstances, when we have not the Labour party what is called attacking capital. Here, we are, so far as wages are concerned, deprived of the protection of labour opinion, because the Labour party well know that if they were to oppose some such proposal as is now made it would be said that they were going against the advance of wages. Therefore the Labour party and the coal party are in one boat in this matter. But I say, with great respect, that the fact of the Labour party being ready to fix the amount at 3s. instead of 4s. gives the ignorant man, whom I represent, a beacon light. If the Labour party, with all their interest in the advance of wages, have fixed 3s. as the maximum which would give the coal owner complete power to raise wages up to the labour standard without loss, then I say that the ignorant man whom I represent may well express the hope that the Labour party will go to a Division in support of 3s., and I shall have satisfaction in voting with the Labour party for a sum sufficient to raise wages, and to compensate them for the prices to which the War has driven many of the necessaries of life. Will the hon. Gentleman who moved the Amendment go to a Division? I hope he will.
1734 Whenever the question of coal is raised, I think what is called the ingle-nook point of view is the one that should be considered. I complain strongly that no attempt has been made to separate the qualities of coal—namely, household coal and steam coal. As regards steam coal the man who is charged, in my opinion, has the protection that, to a large extent, he can "pass it on," to use the words of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he tried to double the tax on beer or whisky. Of course, gas companies and electric companies, whose prices are fixed by Statute, cannot pass it on; but if you take steel, iron, cotton, or any other article in which coal largely enters into the price, they can to an enormous extent pass it on. The man who has not that protection is the ordinary man who buys three, four, five, or even twenty-five tons, of coal in a year. Why is not his case considered? It has received no consideration; yet he is the person with whom I, and I think the House, very largely sympathise. What is the effect of this Bill? In many cases in Ireland £2 a ton is being charged for coal—that is to say, that the poor are being charged that amount for coal. In some cases I have heard that £2 5s. and £2 6s. a ton is charged. What increases the price of coal to these people? The price is talked up; it is talk that raises the price of coal; we hear of Stock Exchange prices being talked up. This Bill may be an excuse for further talk to raise the price of coal to poor men in distant parts of the country. For my part as between 4s. and 3s. I should gladly vote for 3s. I heard the speech of the late Minister of Education (Mr. Pease), who referred to long-running contracts to those people who made contracts for years at 5s. and 6s. I should like to see some of those contracts. The persons most interested in making them are gas companies and electric companies, but they all say that they have not made such contracts, and they ask that the price of gas and electricity should be raised. Some of them are raising their prices.
With whom are these long contracts running? We are not told, and they have not condescended to speak of them. I hope that a Division will represent the sense of this House as regards what I call the ordinary poor consumer. I have only given in this House one vote which I have ever regretted, and it was when I was persuaded by the present Prime Minister, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, to 1735 vote for repealing the Coal Duties. I have always regretted it. Any question in relation to coal is one which should interest this House more than any other and should be most carefully scrutinised. If ever justification was wanted for the nationalisation of an industry, or the application to it of socialistic principles, it is found in the question of this prime element of public and private existence. Therefore I want this Amendment to go to a Division, and the coal owners should at all events consent to allow themselves to suffer in the same way as every other man in the community suffers. The story that collieries are run at a loss I disbelieve. If I had a colliery running at a loss I should shut it up, and I am sure that I would represent ordinary human nature and Christian principles in doing so. Therefore, my humble opinion is that tall talk, booming, newspaper puffery, and the important position of colliery proprietors in this House, have largely accounted for the price of coal that in distant parts of the country the people are paying.
I have great respect for the hon. Baronet (Sir A. Markham), who spoke of the patriotism of miners who have gone to the front. It is quite true, and I do not think that there is anything more remarkable than the way in which they have come forward, and in many cases they make most efficient soldiers. But why reward the patriotism of the miners at the front by increasing the wages of the miners who have not gone to the front? I disbelieve in this Bill, I dislike it, and I believe the better plan would be to put in no figure, not out of any extraordinary confidence in the President of the Board of Trade, but if no figure was mentioned you would not give a foothold for an increase to 4s. I do not think it would be right, in referring to the hon. Baronet the Member for Mansfield, if I did not say that I believe that every time he rises he is actuated by unselfish and patriotic motives, and, though I have sometimes come in conflict with him, I submit that he is entitled to have that opinion expressed. I think he has done nothing to raise the price of coal; I think his attitude throughout has been fair and honest; and I am quite certain that if his advice were harkened to at the Board of Trade and the War Office things would be rather better for the country.
Mr. A DAMSON
I should not have intervened in this discussion but for the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Cork, 1736 who, in the course of his observations, stated that, the Labour party having proposed that the amount should be 3s. instead of 4s., he was prepared to support them. The Amendment we are discussing at the present moment is not the Amendment of the Labour party, but has been put forward on the personal responsibility of the Member for the Attercliffe Division (Mr. Anderson). Doubtless the hon. and learned Member for Cork was led into the error owing to the mistake made by my hon. Friend who spoke on this Amendment. The Labour party, the representatives of the miners in that party, are not concerned about increasing the coal owners' profits to an enormous extent, as has been stated by some hon. Members who have taken part in this Debate. The Committee should bear in mind that there are the men's profits which enter into the selling price of coal; the miners' wages enter into the selling price of coal as well as the profits of the coal owners; and while the miners have no desire to take advantage of their fellow countrymen in any respect, I do not think it will be denied in any part of the House that the cost of living has been increased for miners as well as for other sections of the community, and the cost of living having been increased for miners, they are entitled to get an increase in their wages wherewith to meet the increased cost of living.
The increased cost of living is one that bears on miners equally heavily with other sections of the community. The miner has to get the wherewithal to meet this increased cost of living, and it is bound to come on the selling price of coal. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out in the course of his very able speech, in the increased cost of producing coal the increase in miners' wages represents a fairly substantial part of the amount which is put in the Bill. I do not exactly agree with him as to the figures, still at the same time I agree that the increase in miners' wages represents a fairly substantial portion of the increase provided for in the Bill. I only intervene for the purpose of pointing out that if the hon. Member for Cork or any other Member of this House support this Amendment under the idea that it is brought forward by the Labour party, they are making a mistake. It is not put forward by the Labour party, but by one who happens to be a member of the Labour party.
§ Mr. TIMOTHY DAVIES
I listened with attention to the President of the 1737 Board of Trade to see whether he could justify the figure of 4s., and when I found that the increased cost of production came to about 3s. I arrived at the conclusion that 3s. should be the sum put down in the Bill. We have had the argument from those who know of the working of old and new collieries, that there are some where the increase of cost would be more than 3s., but there are many others where the increase is very much less. There is, however, a provision in any case where the increase is more that the Board of Trade may set down a figure. I am quite sure any representations from any colliery where the cost of production was more than 3s. would be considered fairly by the Board of Trade. There is not, how-
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
I beg to move, in Sub-section (2), to leave out the words "class of" ["any class of coal mines"], and to insert instead thereof the words "coal mine, or."
The object of this Amendment is to prevent the Board of Trade taking a whole district and classifying the mines in it,
§ ever, the slightest doubt that if the 4s. is reduced to 3s. there will be a saving to the consumer of the country of £9,000,000 per year. If the figure is not reduced, we do not know whether the extra 1s. will go into the pockets of the colliery owners, or the workmen. [An HON. MEMBER: "They will share it."] I doubt but that that extra 1s. will nearly all go into the pockets of the coal owners. If the hon. Gentleman who has proposed this Amendment will go to a Division, he will find me at any rate in the Lobby with him.
§ Question put, "That the word 'four' stand part of the Clause."
§ The Committee divided: Ayes, 77; Noes, 33.1737
|Division No. 8.]||AYES.||[7.33 p.m.|
|Adamson, William||Henderson, John M. (Aberdeen, W.)||Raffan, Peter Wilson|
|Adkins, Sir W. Ryland D.||Henry, Sir Charles||Rawlinson, John Frederick Peel|
|Balfour, Sir Robert (Lanark)||Hewins, William Albert Samuel||Rea, Rt. Hon. Russell (South Shields)|
|Banbury, Sir Frederick George||Hinds, John||Rea, Walter Russell (Scarborough)|
|Banner, Sir John S, Harmood||Hogge, James Myles||Roberts, Charles H. (Lincoln)|
|Beauchamp, Sir Edward||Hohler, Gerald Fitzroy||Roberts, S. (Sheffield, Ecclesall)|
|Beck, Arthur Cecil||Hope, James Fitzalan (Sheffield)||Rolleston, Sir John|
|Bellairs, Commander W.||Howard, Hon. Geoffrey||Runciman, Rt. Hon. Walter (Dewsbury)|
|Booth, Frederick Handel||Keating, Matthew||Runciman, Sir Walter (Hartlepool)|
|Boyton, James||Lewis, Rt. Hon. John Herbert||Shaw, Hon. A.|
|Brace, William||Lloyd, George Butler (Shrewsbury)||Steel-Maitland, A. D.|
|Bridgeman, William Clive||Long, Rt. Hon. Walter||Tennant, Rt. Hon. Harold John|
|Brunner. John F. L.||Mackinder, Halford J.||Thorne, G. R. (Wolverhampton)|
|Bull, Sir William James||Macnamara, Rt. Hon. Dr. T. J.||Tickler, T. G.|
|Carson, Rt. Hon. Sir Edward H.||M'Callum, Sir John M.||Touche, George Alexander|
|Cave, Rt. Hon. George||Mond, Rt. Hon. Sir Alfred||Walton, Sir Joseph|
|Cornwall, Sir Edwin A,||Morgan, George Hay||Watt, Henry Anderson|
|Cory, Sir Clifford John||Morton, Alpheus Cleophas||White, J. Dundas (Glasgow, Tradeston)|
|Craik, Sir Henry||Munro, Rt. Hon. Robert||Williams, Aneurin (Durham, N.W.)|
|Denniss, E. R. B.||Nicholson, Sir Charles N. (Doncaster)||Williams, Col. Sir Robert (Dorset, W.)|
|Finlay, Rt. Hon. Sir Robert||Nield, Herbert||Wilson, Rt. Hon. J. W. (Worcs., N.)|
|Fisher, Rt. Hon. W. Hayes||Partington, Oswald||Wood, Rt. Hon. T. McKinnon (Glasgow)|
|Fletcher, John Samuel||Pease, Herbert Pike (Darlington)||Yate, Colonel C. E.|
|Goddard, Sir Daniel Ford||Pease, Rt. Hon. Joseph A. (Rotherham)|
|Hall, D. B. (Isle of Wight)||Perkins, Walter F.||TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—Lord|
|Hardy, Rt. Hon. Laurence||Pretyman, Ernest George||E. Talbot and Mr. Gulland.|
|Henderson, Rt. Hon. Arthur (Durham)||Pringle, William M. R.|
|Baker, Joseph Allen (Finsbury, E.)||Galbraith, Samuel||Radford, George Heynes|
|Bethell, Sir J. H.||Goldstone, Frank||Roch, Walter F. (Pembroke)|
|Bryce, J. Annan||Hayden, John Patrick||Samuel, J. (Stockton-on-Tees)|
|Chancellor, Henry George||Healy, Timothy Michael (Cork, N.E.)||Scott, A. MacCallum (Glas., Bridgeton)|
|Clough, William||Hudson, Walter||Snowden, Philip|
|Dalziel, Rt. Hon. Sir J. H. (Kirkcaldy)||King, Joseph||Thomas, James Henry|
|Davies, Ellis William (Eifion)||Lambert, Richard (Wilts, Cricklade)||Thorne, William (West Ham)|
|Davies, Timothy (Lincs., Louth)||Macdonald, J. Ramsay (Leicester)||Wardle, George J|
|Dickinson, Rt. Hon. Willoughby H.||Markham, Sir Arthur Basil||Wing, Thomas Edward|
|Dixon, C. H,||O'Grady, James|
|Dougherty, Rt. Hon. Sir J. B.||Outhwaite, R. L.||TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—Mr.|
|Elverston, Sir Harold||Price, C. E. (Edinburgh, Central)||Anderson and Mr. Pratt.|
§ as being outside the provisions of the Act with regard to the 4s. I do not think the Board of Trade ought to exempt any mine from having to charge 4s., unless the mine could prove that it was losing money. Otherwise the President of the Board of Trade might take, for instance, West Yorkshire, where there 1739 are a number of poor mines, and say, "I am going to exempt the whole of the mines in that district." That would be manifestly unfair, because there are a number of mines in that district which make far more money in proportion to the capital invested than in other parts of Yorkshire. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will accept the Amendment.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
One of the difficulties by which we are faced is that, I am told, the number of applications we shall have from collieries, in order that they may have exemption, will be considerable. I think it is very much better if we can to take an area. Any idea of taking a whole district, like West Yorkshire, and excluding it altogether from the operations of the Bill, was far from my mind. On the other hand, to take the Amendment would mean that any individual mine in any individual area might be subject to the exemption we should be asked to give. It is better on the whole that the class of mine should be kept together than individual mines taken. Unless my hon. Friend feels that there is a strong point in this, I would rather the opening was not given for appeals to be made by individual mines in order to gain exemption from the provisions of the Bill.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
I beg to move, in Sub-section (2), after the word "increased" ["should be increased"], to insert the words "or decreased."
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept this Amendment. According to the Bill, where the circumstances are quite exceptional, the standard rate may be increased, but even if there be exceptional circumstances in the other direction, the standard rate cannot be increased. If the matter holds good in one way, it ought to hold good in the other. The right hon. Gentleman told us of very considerable fluctuations, but they are not all in one direction. They are not all upwards, they go downward as well. Where the fluctuations are of a character to justify a smaller figure, it should be possible to do so. It is from that standpoint I move, so that the figure can be decreased as well as increased.
The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the BOARD of TRADE (Mr. Prety-man)
I am afraid that this Amendment really goes beyond the scope of the Bill. The amount four shillings, which has just been approved by the Committee, has been fixed after the most careful consideration of the extra expenses, as to which the President of the Board of Trade has given the details; and this provision is meant to deal only with very exceptional cases of particular districts, such, for instance, as the Kentish coal mines referred to by the hon. Member for the St. Augustine's Division (Mr. R. McNeill), and possibly other districts where the conditions are quite exceptional and the expenses are very heavy. I do not think my hon. Friend can point to any one district or any one class of mines with which this Bill deals where it could be suggested that on the whole the expense of raising coal, including wages and all the other items of expenditure, would be so much less than the figure already approved as to justify the Board of Trade in interfering to suggest a decreased figure. This is really a maximum figure. As regards particular mines, I think it is obvious that a particular mine in a district will have its price fairly regulated by the price at which its neighbours are prepared to sell. This is a maximum price fixed for the time being, and so far as any figure below the maximum is concerned, every mine will be open as before to competition in the market. If in any particular district a mine has particular advantages, I do not think it would be possible to interfere with that mine in this respect, because the price would be regulated by the competition of its neighbours. Therefore, on the whole, I do not think that this Amendment would be of any particular advantage.
§ Mr. GOLDSTONE
I fail to follow fully the contention raised by the Secretary to the Board of Trade. The fact that the hon. Member for the Mansfield Division voted in the "No" Lobby in the Division a few minutes ago clearly indicates that he is of opinion that there are a number of mines where a less increase than 4s. is possible. It is clearly the opinion of a gentleman responsible for the management of a considerable portion of the coal-fields in the Midlands that there are circumstances which would warrant a reduction from the maximum. If the Secretary to the Board of Trade rightly contends that there are no such cases, then the Amendment would not operate. All that the 1741 Amendment does is to place it within the power of the Board of Trade, if such circumstances do arise, to give the consumers any advantage that can be given from the fact that there are not so many expenses associated with the getting of the coal as have been contended. Therefore, as no harm would be done by the giving of this additional power, I suggest that the matter should be considered between now and Report, if we do not press the Amendment on the present occasion.
§ Mr. T. M. HEALY
It is hardly fair to blame the Secretary to the Board of Trade for not accepting this Amendment. What has happened is that the President has left the House, and the hon. Gentleman thinks it better in his absence to stick to the Bill. He is really only tiding us over until the President returns. I would suggest that the matter might be dealt with on the Report stage. The Committee has undoubtedly shown by its vote in the recent Division that in the opinion of many Members 4s. is too high. Why, then, should not power be taken enabling the Board of Trade to reduce the figure if that opinion is shown to be well founded? This measure will remain in force not merely for the period of the War but for six months afterwards. Supposing these great pit profits come down with a run, and that wages, elsewhere than in South Wales, do the same, you are still to stick to your 4s. We simply ask the Government to take power to do justice; but they say, "No; under our inspirational system we, the Popes of the coal trade, have fixed upon the infallible figure of 4s., and under no circumstances will we consent to allow that figure to be reduced." I hope that between now and the Report stage the hon. Gentleman will represent to his chief that this is a reasonable Amendment. It hurts nobody; it can do no harm; it may possibly do good. This coal business is hitting the people more than taxes; it is felt in every hearth and home in the country. I believe that one of the tests at the next General Election will be the side on which Members voted, the 4s. or the 3s., and the man who voted on the 3s. side will be likely to get the vote. I hope the hon. Member for the Attercliffe Division (Mr. Anderson) will raise the matter again on Report.
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
I quite appreciate the courtesy of the hon. and learned Gentleman, and while I think the decision of the Government can be defended on its merits, I will certainly make the representation 1742 which he suggests, and I am sure my right hon. Friend will carefully read what he has said. But I must again emphasise the point that this is not a Bill for fixing prices for coal.
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
No. If we debate the Bill on that basis, we shall debate it on a wrong basis, and take up a great deal of time which might be better spent. This is merely a Bill for fixing a maximum and to prevent panic prices in the coming winter and under circumstances which may arise after the War. If we were to attempt to make this a Bill really to regulate prices, the contention in this Amendment would, I think, be answerable. If it were the business of the Board of Trade to regulate from day to day or from month to month the prices at which coal should be sold at the pit's mouth, giving just the proper modicum of profit to the producer, and at the same time seeing that the consumer got fair treatment, all these points would have to be gone into most carefully. But we do not profess to do anything of the kind. We could not ask the House of Commons to deal with a Bill of that description in one short afternoon. The hon. and learned Member should take the Bill on its merits as put forward by the Government, and not as a much more ambitious scheme to which he might most justly apply his acute and critical mind. In war time we have to divest ourselves of a large proportion of our ordinary peace principles in the discussion of these matters. In peace you are passing a Bill for all time, and you have to consider its effect to-day, to-morrow, and in years to come. Here, we are not doing anything of the kind. We simply ask the House of Commons to enable us to fix a limit which shall be, not the best price for coal, but a maximum beyond which coal cannot be sold during the period in question. To attempt to fix the proper price of coal at any given moment would be straining the Bill altogether beyond its proper ambit and take us into a region which the Government refuses to enter. If the hon. and learned Member will treat the Bill merely as one fixing a maximum price, I think he will see that I am justified in refusing the Amendment on its merits.
§ Sir A. MOND
I am rather surprised at the statement of the hon. Gentleman that this Bill does not fix coal prices.
§ Sir A. MOND
The maximum price will be the price. You not only take power to fix the maximum price at 4s., but you take power to increase the 4s., so that you have not even a fixed maximum. As I understand the Amendment, it does not affect the principle of the Bill; it simply says that, as you take power to increase the 4s., you may as well have power to diminish the 4s. I think that that is only fair. I voted for the 4s. because I thought, on the information given by the Board of Trade and other information which I have received, that on the average 4s. is not an unreasonable figure. But there are certainly a number of cases where 4s. would be unreasonable. After all, the right hon. Gentleman must have fixed his 4s. on some basis. I take it that it was fixed on the consideration that it fairly covered the increased cost of production. Why, in cases where it can be clearly established that 4s. is excessive, the Government should not have power to say that 3s. would be a reasonable maximum, I cannot understand. That is a very different question from fixing the price. The Government ought not to refuse a power which it may possibly be wise to exercise in the future.
§ Mr. W. THORNE
I understand that one of the chief reasons why the Board of Trade fixed 4s. was that they took into consideration advances of wages, the increased cost of props, which represent a considerable item in the cost of production of coal, and other expenses. Once we get the Baltic open it will make a considerable difference to the price of props. The closing of the Baltic has increased the price of props by more than 50 per cent. Once we get the Baltic open, the price of props will come down by at least 25 per cent. That, I think, is one reason why this Amendment should be accepted.
§ 8.0 P.M.
§ Mr. ROCH
I really had hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would have accepted this Amendment. I quite appreciate the fact that, owing to convention, he does not, perhaps, like to do so in the absence of his chief. But really the right hon. Gentleman talked about the magic figure of 4s., and said that it was the magic figure which had been agreed upon by the House. I think he missed the point which was the object of this particular Amendment. That magic figure is fixed, but it can be altered in an upward tendency, and therefore the force of that argument as to its magic falls to the ground. All that this 1744 Amendment asks is that in case circumstances are altered, that which applies to the upward tendency shall equally apply to the downward tendency, if a case is made out for it. Pit props, I think, show from 100 to 120 per cent, increase in price. It is quite possible that circumstances may arise in which that price might be considerably lower, and that you get back to the normal price. I do think the Amendment would not have done the slightest harm to this Bill. It would have given the Board of Trade a power which in some cases would have been of some value. It would do no harm to give the matter some consideration. I hope something in the direction desired may be done between now and the Report stage.
§ Sir J. HARMOOD-BANNER
As to what the right hon. Gentleman opposite said with regard to the opening of the Baltic, that will only take place when the War is over. Apart from that, I really cannot follow the arguments about this Amendment. Certainly I should have preferred that there should have been no question of altering the 4s. at all—either higher or lower. I do not see the object of it. Competition fixes the price. Whatever the Government may say, a man will not get any more for it, because he will have the competition of everyone else. To suggest—it has been suggested—that because there may be some exceptional cases that this should be done is, I think, wrong. I do not know anybody who is getting so much for his coal that he will ask for a decrease.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
I quite agree with, the last remark that it is unlikely that any colliery owner will ask for a decrease in the price of his coal. But that is not the point. The point is that of giving the Board of Trade wider powers than they possess at present. They have got the powers, where circumstances justify it, to increase the price. We are merely asking that, where circumstances are such that there is no right to that increase, that the Board of Trade, obviously, shall be able to consider the reduction of the figure. I think that is entirely reasonable, and I am astonished really that opposition to this has come from the Front Bench. It almost appears as if they had made up their minds in advance that nothing put forward by any Member of the House should be accepted or have a chance. There ought to be some discretion given to Members of this House, and there ought not to be this refusal to 1745 any proposal, however reasonable. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will convey to the President of the Board of Trade that practically every speech made on this matter has been in favour of this proposal, and I hope that before the Report stage the Government will see that the matter is reconsidered. If I get that undertaking, I will not press the Amendment any further at the present.
§ Sir C. CORY:
As has been pointed out, this is a maximum based on the average of the increased cost at the different collieries. Some collieries have been shown where the cost is more than 4s. There may be some where it is less than 4s. So far as the provision of the Bill goes, if a mining district shows that it is working at a loss, those concerned may go to the Board of Trade for an increase. I consider this of no value at all, and for this reason: If they get their increase they dare not, and cannot, obtain the increase from the buyer. If their neighbours are selling at 4s. and they ask 5s., how on earth can they got it? There is no value in this Clause of the Bill, and I certainly think it would be unfair to put in the decrease. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Swansea said if you have a maximum people will necessarily always charge the maximum. I know from experience that is not so. Very often a maximum is fixed, and people, owing to competition, go below the maximum. People in business take business at a considerable loss owing to competition and in order to get customers. It is quite conceivable that under the Bill the same thing may happen, and they will sell under 4s. I trust the right hon. Gentleman will stick to his Clause. So far as the Baltic is concerned, if it is opened, I do not think it will very materially decrease the cost of pit-props. The increased cost does not come from that. Most of our pit-props are now coming from Bordeaux and Bayonne districts; besides which we have some from Norway. The increased cost is not due so much to the difficulty in getting the wood as it is to the increase in freights. This is due to the withdrawal of steamers from the freight market, whilst many of our steamers have been sunk and others have been taken over by the Admiralty.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Mr. GOLDSTONE
I beg to move, at the end of Sub-section (2), to insert,(3) In every contract for the sale of coal at the pit's mouth under which such 1746 coal has been sold but not delivered at the time of the passing of this Act it shall be an implied term that the price of such coal shall not exceed the lawful price as determined by this Act, and any disputes arising there from shall be submitted to the Board of Trade for determination in accordance-with the Board of Trade Arbitrations, etc., Act, 1874.I think it will be generally agreed by the House that this Amendment is probably the one of most consequence on the Paper. Without it the Bill, from the point of view of the household consumer and from the point of view of authorities which have large undertakings—large gas and electricity works—will be valueless. The right hon. Gentleman in charge on the Front Bench described the Bill as an effort which was not ambitious. That is its failing. It is not sufficiently ambitious. If the Board of Trade, at the outbreak of the War, had accepted responsibility for the coal-mines as they did for the railways a good many of our present-day difficulties would not have arisen. Unless this Amendment be accepted many of the contracts, representing probably about 70 per cent, of the output in the next year, will not be touched by this Bill. It will mean that for the greater part the people, with whose interests at least I am particularly concerned, will get no benefit from the Bill. I imagine that most of the contracts have been determined and fixed up recently, extending possibly for a year; but if we cannot touch those which arc-concerned with future supplies, then this Bill will have failed in its primary object.
I agree that we can scarcely hope to touch supplies of coal already delivered. The complications would be such as to render that practically impossible. But in the matter of coal yet to be delivered it would appear to me, in view of the special circumstances which now exist, that it would be the correct thing for the House to touch the sacred law of contract. Normally, of course, it would not be suggested that contracts legally entered into should be broken—particularly by the House of Commons; but the circumstances are so special and extraordinary that we should, in my view, undertake powers under this Bill to protect the interests of those who are most keenly hit by this enormous rise in the price of coal. The pit price may not rise to any considerable extent. It is probably fair for the coal owners to urge that the price which is paid to them at the 1747 pit-head is not responsible for the enormous increase which is put on the price of coal when it is delivered to the householder. But unless we can touch the contracts the old game will go on of the householder being exploited by the middleman. I believe this Amendment would touch that class of individual who has been having of late a kind of time of his life at the expense of people who feel most any rise in the price of coal.
In particular the small user in London has been hardly hit. When he has to buy, as it has been his unfortunate position of late to buy, in quantities of twenty-eight pounds, and less, the price has been raised against him very very considerably. I believe the increase must have amounted to almost 20s. on the ton on the normal price—this against a possible rise at the pit-head of 4s.! The position of the municipalities is severely prejudiced if the Bill stands in its present form. Take the case of the county borough of Stoke-on-Trent, the town clerk of which has probably written to other Members of the House besides myself. You have here an authority, which, in view of its electricity undertakings, has had to make contracts because its coal supply was almost exhausted. An extra price of 6s. per ton has been put on the old contract. That appears to me exorbitant, and particularly since the colliery owners concerned must have known from the negotiations which have been carried on with the Board of Trade what was contemplated in this Bill. Though 4s. was the figure which was in the mind of those negotiating with the Board of Trade, yet in the contract which has been executed with the Stoke-on-Trent municipality for the coal for the electricity undertaking 6s. per ton has been added to the old contract price.
Not only, therefore, are householders hit through the prices they pay for the coal, but they will be hit—and I believe it is common for some of them now to have electric light in their houses—by having to pay an enhanced price for the small supply of electricity to their homes. The same will be true of the gas undertakings of municipalities. The householder, again, will be hit, not only because of the higher contract price of the coal, but by having to pay more for his gas. I venture, therefore, to urge upon the hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill that he should not tell us that the sanctity of contract must operate here. Nominally it should; but 1748 in the particular circumstances of the present prices, the position of the householder and of the huge undertakings of municipalities for the supply of electricity or gas should be borne in mind, and the fact that 70 per cent, of the output of the collieries for a year ahead is now probably contracted for, unless he touches those contracts for coal yet to be supplied, his Bill will be in the main valueless in the majority of cases.
§ Sir C. CORY
Contracts in South Wales are made for the whole year. If you are going to deal with the contracts which are higher, surely you ought to deal with the contracts which are lower as well; otherwise the unfortunate coal owner who makes contracts will be at a loss. This does not affect me personally, or only to a small extent, and I am only looking at it as one who has experience of the trade and who wishes to put before the House his knowledge. I do not think it is fair to deal with one class of contract and not with others.
§ Sir R. ADKINS
I desire to support this Amendment for one or two reasons. No one wishes to be unfair, or consciously unfair, either to those who have coal to sell or those who have coal to supply; but municipalities and statutory companies are obliged to buy coal at certain times of the year, and to buy a long way ahead. I have in my hand a communication from a town clerk in an important borough in the North who says his corporation have already entered into a contract for coal to be delivered between 1st September next and 31st August next year. That is a contract which has had to be entered into, or otherwise the essential public services would be put in jeopardy. It was entered into only a few weeks ago. There was not, when that contract was entered into, the real fredom of contract which is necessary if the contract is to be sacrosanct. What is asked for in this Amendment is that where you are dealing with a contract entered into under conditions to which this Bill is intended to apply, and which contract has still to be carried out, then, if this Bill is to do what it is intended to do, and to secure to consumers of coal that they shall not be unduly charged owing to the exceptional circumstances, surely the Bill ought to cover contracts of that kind. I am not quite sure my hon. Friend who spoke last has put forward a really valid argument when he 1749 says that if you bring in any kind of contract you must bring in all kinds of contracts—those that were made at less than the maximum provided in the Bill—but surely these could only be brought in if it were shown that those contracts were made under such disadvantage to the coal owner that he was practically obliged to make them at a loss or at an inadequate price. In all the discussions there have been in this Committee and in this House, and in conferences upstairs and elsewhere, I am bound to say, although I have attended most of them, I have never heard it put forward that those who have coal to sell were placed at such an extreme disadvantage owing to national circumstances that they had to take long and extended contracts practically at a loss.
§ Sir C. CORY
So far as South Wales is concerned, really they are bound to take long contracts. They are taken for practically the whole year. If they do not do so, the expense of keeping the collieries standing open would be greater than any loss on contract.
§ Sir R. ADKINS
All I desire to say is, I do not believe, or, at any rate, I have not yet had it proved to me, that during this War period there have been anywhere such conditions as to force the coal owners to a disadvantage so great that it would require to be redressed by this Bill; whereas it is undoubtedly the ease, not only in the borough to which I have alluded, but in a number of cases, both of municipal authorities and statutory companies, that they have been obliged to enter into contracts at higher prices than would be allowed under this Bill, and yet under conditions precisely like those with which this Bill deals, and also entered into them a very little while before this Bill was brought in. I submit the true principle is this: When a Government brings in a Bill in such abnormal times as these to deal with a state of things which has arisen, the Bill ought to be made to apply, as far as possible, to the whole period in which such state of things has arisen recently, so that you are not dealing merely with things which happen to-day but which have happened under war conditions.
I cannot see that the two kinds of contract are really in the same position. Those which have been made, which would have been within the powers of this Bill, the Bill will not interfere with. Those 1750 which could not have been made under this Bill, but which have been made within the last few weeks and which apply to months and months ahead, ought to be brought under the Bill, if it is to accomplish the object it is intended to accomplish, and if it is intended to meet the very grave disadvantages which follow from the very high prices of coal—I will not say artificially made, but arising out of these peculiar circumstances. When the hon. Member replies for the Government, I hope he will not meet this Amendment with a mere blank non possumus. I can assure him that simply to vote down this Amendment will be to leave the problem unsolved, and will not prevent the matter coming up again and being, what no one wants it to be, a returning trouble both to the Government and to the country. I do not say that the words of this Amendment should be regarded as absolutely final, but I do say that the substance of it should be accepted, and that those contracts which were made under precisely the same conditions which led to the introduction of this Bill should be brought in in such a way as to get the benefit of this measure in the same way as other people who enter into contracts or take action under this Bill. It is not for me to suggest any modifications of this Amendment, but I hope the Government will see their way to accept it. I believe it will meet the widespread wishes and the judgment of the Members of this Committee. I ask the Government not to reply that they cannot deal with this matter in some way other than that which is provided for in this Bill.
§ Mr. S. ROBERTS
I had not the pleasure of hearing the beginning of the speech of the hon. Member who moved this Amendment, but I believe that he dealt with the general principle that old contracts should not be included.
§ Mr. GOLDSTONE
I do propose by my Amendment to deal with contracts already entered into. My point was that, as a normal thing, the last thing Parliament ought to do would be to interfere with contracts generally.
§ Mr. ROBERTS
This Amendment, if carried, would do a great injustice. Only this year contracts were made extending over the next twelve months or more. They were entered into quite openly, and I say that it would be an injustice to interfere with those contracts. In South Yorkshire the colliery proprietors recognised 1751 six months ago that it would not be right for the colliery owners to exploit this War for the sake of increasing prices, and we agreed that prices should not be extended beyond the price which this Bill allows. I believe that undertaking has been properly carried out.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
By what collieries? There has been no undertaking whatsoever given by the South Wales collieries.
§ Mr. ROBERTS
I do not believe that the hon. Baronet the Member for Mansfield is a member of the Colliery Owners' Association of South Yorkshire. A meeting of that association was held in February, and it was decided that they would not contract beyond the price which this Bill allows.
§ Mr. ROBERTS
The hon. Baronet does not know there was an agreement come to at a meeting which was held in Sheffield of colliery proprietors, and they did not desire or wish to extend the prices beyond about the price which this Bill allows, and I believe those prices have been honourably carried out, and contracts have been made on that basis. They could have got much higher prices, but they have not done so. [An Hon. MEMBER: "Yes, they have."] As far as my information goes, they have not, and prices have been maintained on that basis. With regard to old contracts, if the Government are going to interfere with the present contracts which have been made at the advanced prices, in all fairness the other point of view ought to be considered. There are contracts running at the present time which were made before the War at prices which are not remunerative, and which are being worked at a loss by the collieries. Is it fair that the present contracts should be interfered with, if the old contracts are to be left as they were? You ought not to interfere with one without the other, because you do a great injustice. If these contracts are to be interfered with, it will be very unfair for the owners, to whom I allude, who early in this year made up their mind that they would not take advantage of the War to advance prices more than this Bill allows. So far as I know that is what has taken place. The hon. Baronet the Member for Mansfield does not know this, for he is not a member of the association to which I have referred.
§ Mr. ROBERTS
If the hon. Baronet is a Member of that association, all I can say is that I have never had the pleasure of seeing him at its meetings. There is no desire on behalf of the coal owners to take advantage of this War with regard to prices. The President of the Board of Trade has given the Committee an account of how increased prices are arrived at. He has taken an average and we agreed. The mining associations support the principle of this Bill, but we cannot submit to proposals which would perpetrate the injustice which I have referred to. The proposal of this Amendment is that the price shall be restricted, and that contracts already made shall be disallowed, while at the same time the old contracts which are running at unremunerative prices, and made before the War, should be allowed to stand, and not have the advantage of those prices.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
I do not understand the argument which has been advanced by the hon. Member who has just spoken. As I understand the matter, the coal owners of Yorkshire have agreed amongst themselves to sell coal at an extremely moderate figure and not to advance the price. If that is so, they will not be touched in the least by what we are proposing.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
I will briefly explain the scope of this Amendment. I associate myself entirely with several previous speakers, who said that unless this Amendment, or some such Amendment as this, is carried, the Bill will be practically useless so far as the poor people are concerned. It has been said already that this Amendment is not verbally inspired. We agree with that contention, and we shall hand over our Amendment gladly to the President of the Board of Trade in the hope that something better may be done if he will concede the principle of it. This Amendment is going to test whether this Bill is intended to be a piece of effective legislation or a mere political demonstration, because the fact that 8 per cent, of the coal that is going to be dug for the next twelvemonths has already been contracted for, and therefore unless this Amendment, or some such Amendment is carried, it means that 80 per 1753 cent. of the coal for the next twelvemonths will be outside the scope of this Bill altogether. It means that coal dug twelve months from now but contracted for already will not fall within the scope of this Bill, and, if that is so, the Government may practically tear up the Bill so far as any good it is going to do during the probable period of the War is concerned.
It is stated that the Bill will apply to free coal. How much free coal shall we have to which to apply this Bill? About 20 per cent, of the coal produced is free coal. A large part even of free coal has always been used in the coal market to have in some districts something of a gamble in the winter time, and through this prices for free coal in certain times have been high. These prices will be taken into account when comparing with that which previously obtained. The fact of the matter is that in London large contracts have already been entered into, though the coal has not been delivered, and coal is 8s., 9s., and 10s. higher than it was the previous year. An hon. Member complained about the South Wales coalfields, where there seems to be a loss. One of the most extraordinary things about this matter is that nobody is making a profit; everybody is making a loss. Prices go up, and yet no coal owner or coal merchant is making a profit. They are all heading for bankruptcy.
Last year the London County Council contract for Graigold Merthyr large smokeless coal was 11s. 3d. per ton at the pit-head. This year the London County Council were offered the same coal at 21s. We hear this wailing about the loss that is involved in South Wales and elsewhere, but when we investigate the prices really charged we see that there is very little to complain about. There is one argument which can be used with regard to the London County Council's contracts. A number of coal owners on their own account have voluntarily entered into an arrangement with the London County Council that if Government legislation is carried they will associate themselves with that arrangement and will rearrange their contracts on the basis of it. If one or two coal owners can do that, why should there be any discrimination between one coal owner and another. If it is possible for these coal owners to interfere with their contracts, it is possible for the same principle to be applied all round.
1754 I say that this is not only unfair between one coal owner and another, but it is unfair to the great municipalities not to interfere with these contracts. We hear again and again in this House of the need for public economy during the War on the part of our great municipalities. We all agree with that, though some of us do not carry it to the length that other hon. Members would carry it. What scope is there for economy when you get figures like these: Here is the Glasgow corporation's new bill for their coal supply for gas and electricity — 811,000 tons for gas at an increase of 5s. 3d., and 160,000 tons for electricity at an increase of 6s. 3d. The total increase in the Glasgow corporation's coal bill is going to be over £265,000. And then we ask the cities to practice economy. The very best way that we can help the Glasgow corporation to practice economy is by relieving it of the increase on its contracts, and allowing it to get back to more normal figures. The same thing is true of the traders. I have received only this morning two letters from large co-operative societies at Sheffield, and they say that unless contracts are going to be interfered with this Bill, so far from doing them any good, is going to do them harm. This is what is said by the Brightside Co-operative Society:—The directors of this society ask for the Bill to be made retrospective. I may say that we, along with a large number of other societies, have already entered into contracts for the supply of coal for the next twelve months, and the Bill in its present form would be a severe blow to us.Mr. Rose, the secretary of the Sheffield and Ecclesall Co-operative Society, says:I have to point out, so far as this society is concerned, that in common with others, our contracts have been made at the usual time, from 1st July, 1915, to 30th June, 1916. This year's contract has been made at an average increase of 5s. 6d., and we shall be placed at a disadvantage of 1s. 6d. per ton. This means that the consumer will derive little benefit from the proposed legislation. In our view, if the measure had provided for the cancellation of contracts, it would have been a distinct gain.These letters are an expression of working-class opinion. Under this Bill, other firms in competition with them and with each other may come under the new Government terms, and you will certainly be setting up discrimination as between one set of dealers and another. If only 20 per cent, of free coal remains, you are practically going to do no good for the consumer, whom we are supposed to be trying to help in this matter. If 80 per cent, of the coal is already under contract and will not come within the scope of this Bill, then I absolutely fail to see what we are driving 1755 at or what the Bill is really intended to do. All law is really more or less an interference with contracts, because people have to readjust themselves to the new conditions under the law. The whole point is whether it is to the interest of the State and the community and in the interest of industrial peace that these prices should remain for the next twelve months. I believe that it is wrong, that this ought to be a real measure, and that it ought not to be a make-belief. I believe that by a measure of this kind, and by a measure dealing with profits, industrial peace could be obtained if the workpeople were made to feel that they were having a fair field. It is only in that way and not by compulsion that you are going to have industrial peace. I do net believe, when they come to know what this Bill amounts to, they will have any regard for it at all unless some such Amendment Is carried. I have, therefore, much pleasure in supporting the Amendment.
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
The hon. Member who moved this Amendment hoped that no pedantic reply would be given as regards the sanctity of contracts, and one or two hon. Members who have since spoken have hoped that the mere form of the Amendment would not be dealt with, but that the question would be treated on its merits. May I clear away both those points by saying that I, at any rate, and I am quite sure my right hon. Friend is in the same position, do not propose to answer this Amendment on the point of the sanctity of contracts. We have already claimed that this is war legislation. No war legislation could be a precedent for peace legislation; it could only be a precedent for legislation in the next war, which we all hope may be many generations removed from to-day. Therefore I do not propose, in the few remarks I rise to make, to base any opposition to this Amendment on the ground that sanctity of contracts must be considered in war time at all costs against the interests of the community. Nor will I deal with the mere verbiage of the Amendment, because what we are discussing at this point is the principle whether this Bill is to go back on contracts—whether it is really to be a Bill for regulating delivery prices or whether it is not. I do not propose to go into the niceties of verbiage, but I will deal with the main points.
I do not think any arguments have been put forward in this Debate—and they have 1756 been very strong arguments ably put forward—which were absent from our consideration at the time this Bill was being drafted. Every one of those considerations, and perhaps even stronger ones, were brought forward when the drafting of the Bill was under consideration. It certainly was the desire of the Department, as it is the desire of every hon. Member here, to make this measure go as far as is practicable in the general public interest. I do not think my right hon. Friend will find fault with me when I say that, in the original draft of this Bill, it was hoped and intended to make it a delivery Bill, but when that came to be considered from a practical point of view, from a point of view which every Government has to consider—the actual difficulty of giving effect to a Bill drawn on these lines, and when we came to see the region into which that would take us, we came reluctantly to the conclusion it was beyond the scope of the Bill and that it would alter its character. We found it was not practicable to do it, and we were therefore obliged to confine the Bill to one which will prevent panic prices in the future, and not make it a more ambitious Bill which would deal with the present difficulty and bring war prices down to something approximating peace prices.
The Committee will naturally ask: "What are those difficulties?" Hon. Members will say: "Before we can accept that argument we must understand what the difficulties are, otherwise we cannot accept a mere statement of that character." Mainly the difficulties arise in this way. Every hon. Member of this Committee, everyone who has had business experience, knows that the price is only one item in a contract. When you are considering a contract you consider that contract as a whole, and, if you alter the price of any contract between two persons, you cannot possibly resist the demand for the whole terms of the contract to be revised, where price is only one item. If we were to accept any Amendment which went back on the existing contract it would mean that the responsibility would be thrown on some tribunal, presumably the Board of Trade, to adjudicate not only on prices, but on all clauses in a contract made between buyer and seller. Actually there has been experience of that kind in a private Bill. It is a recognised principle of legislation that if you break a contract you must allow the person to whose detriment that contract is broken 1757 in one clause to have an opportunity of revising his position under the other heads of the contract, which he agreed to in consideration of the price. If you inserted a different price he would rightly demand the opportunity of revising his position.
If you made a sudden change of that kind there would be no time for adjustment in the matter of wages, and we should be bound to assent to the demand that wages based on present prices—prices which have been prevailing during the last few months should be revised. If the system we propose is adopted what would be the effect? I am accepting figures I believe to be quite correct. One hon. Gentleman spoke of 70 per cent, of the coal as being already under contract, and my hon. Friend put it at 80 per cent. I do not think they would apply that percentage to the whole country; there may be districts where there is such a large proportion under contract, but there will be other districts where it is less? Still, if you take 70 per cent, as being the average figure for the whole country, what does this Bill mean? It does not mean that you are immediately going to bring down prices of the whole 100 per cent. That is actually what we would like to do, but it is impossible to do it. We do, however, immediately bring down the prices of 30 per cent., and the prices of the remaining 70 per cent, will be brought down in the future.
Therefore something very considerable is accomplished now, and more will be accomplished in the future. Existing prices, even if there were no panic, would be brought down, and we do go beyond our claim, therefore, as our only claim is to prevent any crisis in the future. We may claim in this respect to have gone beyond that, because, under the Bill, the immediate effect will be a reduction of price as regards 30 per cent, of the coal, while as regards the remaining 70 per cent., as the contracts run out the level will be gradually reduced to the advantage of the whole community. So far as coal owners are concerned and their wage bills, the effect would be—and I am sure the hon. Member for Mansfield will agree with me on this point—if we were to introduce a very sudden change in a great industry in regard to prices, very disturbing indeed. It is very desirable that any change which is made should be made as gradually as possible and that there should be some opportunity of adjustment between the various interests concerned.
1758 If we look at the effect of this Bill we shall see that what the coal owner has to look at is not what he is getting for any particular contract, not what he is getting for 20 per cent, or 70 per cent, of his coal, but what his total receipts are in proportion to his total outgoings and what is the average price he is getting for the whole output of his colliery. The effect of this will be that whereas under his present contract the coal owner is getting to-day and will for some time after this Bill has become law be getting a larger price than is laid down in the Bill, part of his coal will immediately drop and the rest will gradually come down, and in due course there will be a period when practically the price of the whole of his coal will be reduced to this standard. If you drew a diagram of prices you would find that instead of a sudden drop, which is always most injurious to the trade concerned, you would have a gradual fall, and, during that fall, the different interests—the interests of the wage earner, the wage payer, and the people who are using the coal—would have some opportunity of adjusting themselves to the new conditions.
I would make this further observation upon the matter: that there are not only to be considered the contracts which would be dealt with under this Amendment, but also a very large number of sub-contracts and subsidiary contracts. A very large number of people who have contracted to buy this coal have sub-contracted to sell it. The coal factor—I think I am using an expression which will be understood here—is a man who buys large quantities of coal at the pit's mouth and sells it in considerable quantities to coal merchants in various parts of the country, who, again, resell it to their customers. Under this Amendment a coal factor who had made a contract for large quantities of coal would be compelled to accept a price, say, 2s. below the price for which he had contracted. It is quite obvious that it would then be necessary to impose similar conditions upon the sub-contractor. That would take us into a most difficult region beyond the area covered by this Bill, and, in respect of the duties thrown upon any tribunal which had to adjust the matter, a whole area of difficulty would be created by taking contracts now entered into. I can assure the Committee, not that I am an authority on a Subject like this, because that is out of consideration altogether.
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
Yes, entirely. I do not pretend to know anything about coal, and I do not speak here on my own authority at all, but when one has taken part in conferences on questions of this kind, even the most uninformed person begins to understand the opinion of those who have really studied the question and have a life knowledge of it, and is able to form a judgment that is not without some value. I may say that I did go perfectly prepared to approach this subject from the point of view that this is War time, and having no pedantic feelings about contracts in War time I entered upon this question myself with a feeling that I hoped it might remain a delivery Bill, and not a contract Bill, but, after hearing the whole case argued by people whose wishes I believed were the same as my own, but who had practical knowledge not only of the coal trade but of the whole area of trade which would be covered by the effects of carrying this Amendment, I came to the conclusion that to carry out that principle would be impracticable. Therefore I put it to the Committee, that however much we may all wish or may have wished to get the great advantage which I admit this Amendment would confer upon the community, on the whole it would take the Bill into a region into which we cannot attempt to travel at this time. I hope that looking at the matter in that light those who have proposed the Amendment will be prepared to accept the lesser benefit the Bill proposes to confer, and will not attempt to confer the larger benefit which the Department concerned feels it cannot agree to.
§ 9.0 P.M.
§ Mr. BOOTH
I occupy in this matter, perhaps, a somewhat middle position in the Committee. It does not seem to me so easy as it seems to my hon. Friends on either side. It is easy to suggest that the price of coal should be reduced at the pit's mouth in order that constituents, such as municipalities and so on, should get coal cheaper. That is a simple proposition which would commend itself to some people either in peace or war, but I am not sure that it states the whole of the case. Neither is it quite fair to assume, on the one hand, that coal owners are making enormous profits out of every seam, or, on the other hand, to suggest that they are living by their losses. So far as the places with which I am personally connected are concerned, this Amendment would not 1760 make a scrap of difference, and from that standpoint I do not care whether or not it is passed. I would remind the Committee that there are a number of collieries which are worked with great difficulty, collieries with thin seams, bad roofing, and a great deal of dirt and so on. The experience of a number of collieries in the country, taking them from the commencement of the War until now, is that they have made a considerable loss. Taking the entire scope of their business, it cannot be denied in the case of small, difficult quarries that up to the present the War has brought them nothing but loss. That is not stating the whole case, but only a small portion of it, and apparently it is entirely overlooked by a good many speakers in this Committee. I quite see that in a time of great difficulty that the interest even of deserving people, or even of some poorer collieries, should not stand in the way of the general need; indeed, the probability is that, as the measure is framed, some will suffer. We must take it because we know that during the time of war there is a great deal of sacrifice and loss occasioned to various interests. At the same time, I utterly fail to follow my hon. and learned Friend for the Middleton Division (Sir Ryland Adkins), who introduced an argument that seemed to me rather to defeat his point, if he will forgive me for saying so. He wanted this Bill to go back into the kind of contract that was made before the Bill passed, and to try to restore the conditions. I should think that he, as a lawyer, must know that you cannot do that. If part of a contract—a complicated contract—has been performed and it was worked for some little time, I defy any common lawyer or any Chancery lawyer to go back and restore the original conditions. It cannot be done in any walk of life. I would draw my hon. Friend's attention to this: If you go back into contracts and pick out a certain proportion of them where you say they get too high a profit, and you want those attended to, can you in common fairness—you might as a lawyer, but should you as a business man—disregard entirely some other contracts which are run at a loss? There are many contracts placed not only before the War but after the War by many individuals which are now being executed at a loss. The conditions of the advances in wages and the advances of freight have been very much more this year than during the first six months of the War.
1761 I put this to my hon. and learned Friend: Suppose one colliery, in making a contract, has an order for an equal number of tons from two different seams of coal. They balance the two prices. They may get rather more than a fair profit on one 100,000 tons and might be taking less on the other 100,000 tons. But, says the seller, "Looking at the order as a whole, it will pay me." Looking at the order as a whole, it may come within the scope of this Bill. The order as a whole might not be more than a 3s. advance, whereas the Bill allows 4s. If he had the foresight, or if by accident he had proposed to the purchaser to reduce the price on one and increase it on the other, so that there might be no difference on the total deal, he would escape this Bill. Therefore, if you go back into contracts which have been made, it is purely accidental whom you hit and whom you let off. I would not at all mind going back into these contracts if we were sure we were accomplishing what the Committee wishes to do, but I am perfectly certain that the Government cannot follow this out. Immediately you strike certain men you let others off. You even go a stage further with the factor and a stage further with the sub-contractor. How far are you going to follow it? We will say a colliery has made a very large bargain above the 4s. They are very fortunate if they have. I have not had any such luck as that. But suppose they have sold at 6s. above last year's price. Suppose they have sold 100,000 tons to a big factor or merchant, and he has placed it all out. This Bill will enable that factor or merchant to go to the colliery company and get a reduction of 2s. a ton on his whole purchase.
Is he bound to give that advantage to the consumer? Is that in the Amendment? It cannot be carried out if you try to put it in the Amendment. The Board of Trade cannot follow it out from man to man, from contractor to sub-contractor, and from sub-contractor possibly to a third sub-contractor, and ultimately to the consumer. These are the difficulties that present themselves to my mind. I regret that on this occasion I cannot be as dogmatic as, perhaps, I sometimes am when referring to other matters, but it is largely because of my knowledge of this question, and having thought it out as carefully as I can; and if hon. Members who so lightly cheer a certain sentiment would only make themselves familiar with the trade, how coal is bought and sold and how it is distributed, they would pause before they 1762 attach themselves to some of these Amendments. As far as this is concerned, I can only deal with it on broad and general grounds, but I appeal to the House not to let much passion come into this. The hon. Member for Cornwall happened to suggest that there were coal owners in South Wales—not anything he is connected with—who had some contracts at a loss, and the reply came in the usual political way, "We do not believe in these South Wales coal owners working at a loss. Of course not. I dare say some of them have contracts on their books which are at a loss. I appeal to the House not to be led away on the one hand by a desire to allow people to have coal cheap merely at the pit-head, without following it up and being sure that the Amendment carries it out. I am waiting to hear what some other Members may say, but I should like the Committee to bear in mind that we have had quite a number of collieries which are in difficulties. My hon. Friend (Sir A. Markham) generally challenges any statement at all if he does not agree with it, but he was silent upon it, and I challenge anyone in the House to deny that quite a number of collieries have difficulties, and from the time of the declaration of the War up to now have made a considerable loss on their dealings. It may be that they will be hit a little more in the general interest. If so, one must grin and bear it. I appeal to the Committee to think what the programme is and be sure it accomplishes that which it desires.
§ Mr. MAURICE HEALY
(indistinctly heard): I gather that this Amendment raises a question which is very important for England. I do not profess to know much about English conditions and I do not rise to discuss them, but unless some Amendment of this kind is adopted, as far as Ireland is concerned, this Bill may be taken and torn up. Ireland may be said to have an interest in this question which is very special. I should suppose that Ireland is the place in the United Kingdom where coal is sold dearest to the ordinary consumer. I doubt if there is any spot in Great Britain, no matter how remote from the collieries, which is so situated as Ireland. There is practically no coal industry in Ireland. All our coal is sea-borne, and is brought from a long distance, and we are far more hit by sea transport than are most parts of England. At any rate, in England you have rail and water, while in Ireland we are entirely 1763 dependent upon water carriage. The result is that in Ireland the householder and the consumer for commercial purposes have to pay for their coal a price which is higher than that which prevails in any other part of the Kingdom. I think the hon. Member who moved the Amendment has not over-stated the case when he puts it that between 70 per cent, and 80 per cent, of the total output of coal is affected by these contracts. In Ireland contracts of this kind are usually made in June. That is in one sense against me. It may be said that to enable these contracts to be cancelled would be harder on the coal vendor than it would be in other cases, but there remains the fact that, as regards three-fourths of the coal supply to Ireland, Ireland is excluded from the benefit of this Bill. It is unfair to the Irish consumer and it is unfair to the Irish coal merchant, because the coal merchant who has been in the business all his life and who has in the past few months committed himself to contracts extending over twelve months will find himself, if the Bill is passed, faced with the competition of persons who enter for the first time into the business, knowing that they can procure coal at prices which the ordinary vendor is unable to get, because he is bound by the contracts into which he entered. Accordingly, Ireland is especially hit by the point which is dealt with in this Amendment, and I am greatly disappointed at the non possumus which we have heard from the Treasury Bench.
I do not think the arguments of the right hon. Gentleman are convincing. They certainly did not impress me. The right hon. Gentleman spoke as if he had a whole volume of arguments, but his case, when stated, was in the end reduced to one; the case of the sub-contractor. It is said that if you enable the coal owner at the pit's mouth, or the factor, to cancel his contract for coal, you must also enable the man who has bought from him to do so. Why not? The fact is that vendors of coal take very great care to protect themselves by their contracts, whereas the purchasers are not protected at all. I have never read a contract for the supply of coal which did not contain an elaborate clause in which the gentleman who undertook to sell the coal did not protect himself by saying: "If this happens, or that happens, if there is a strike, if there is an accident, if the output is lessened by any serious 1764 accident we are entitled to cancel the contract." I only know of the contracts that I have read, and I have never read a contract for the sale of coal which did not contain a provision, not merely protecting the coal owner against strikes and accidents, but also containing a provision that if from any cause the output of coal from the mine was substantially reduced the coal owner could cancel the contract and refuse to continue the supply. I do not say that the existence of that particular clause in the coal contract would protect the coal owner against this Bill; of course it would not. But nothing would be easier than to introduce into the Bill a Clause which would protect the coal factor or the sub-contractor who had resold coal on the strength of the contract which he had made. I do not see the difficulty which the hon. Member for Pontefract raises. He says that if you break the contract with the factor you must break it with the man he has sold to, and that there is a difficulty in saying that where the man whose contract is broken is affected he may claim the benefit of the Act so far as any contract he has entered into goes. There is no difficulty whatever. I quite agree that perhaps this will impose a great burden of labour and difficulty on the Board of Trade, but I take it that the Board of Trade would have to be made the supreme arbiter in all these cases. It would be quite out of the question that the Courts of Law should inquire into the various topics we have investigated tonight. The Board of Trade will have to be made more or less—I do not say it in an offensive way—the dictator in this matter. I quite agree that that would be absolutely necessary, and I do not think anyone will object to that.
In introducing this Bill the only ground which the right hon. Gentleman gave for preserving contracts was the case of the sub-contractor, and the only ground which the right hon. Gentleman gave to-night was the case of the sub-contractor. Accordingly, we are really only faced by one question. I do not pretend that it is not a difficult question, but this Bill is full of difficulties. It is of a character which would make one's hair stand on end if it had been introduced in ordinary times. It bristles with difficulties from end to end. We have heard all kinds of topics discussed upon it to-night, and whatever view was put forward on one side, another view was immediately put forward on the other side. Therefore, whatever we put into this Bill, 1765 difficulties will undoubtedly arise; whatever we do there will not be a complete solution for all the difficulties. What we have to do is to do our best, and the question is, is it best to leave contracts to stand, or is it best to leave the coal consumer to be plundered, as he undoubtedly has been and will be plundered? I am glad that we have had so early in the Debate a full statement against this Amendment. I say with great confidence that it is not a strong case. It is a case which can be answered, and I hope will be answered in the subsequent Debate. There is only one point against the Amendment, and that is the case of the sub-contractor. There is no difficulty in dealing with the sub-contractor if the Board of Trade will have the courage to face the difficulty and deal with it. All that would be necessary would be to impose by Statute, on the top of the common form of contract by which the coal owner protects himself, a Clause enabling the coal factor, in case he was hit by his contract being broken under this Act, to get similar benefits against the man who was purchasing from him. I do not pretend that that proposal is a small thing, and I do not pretend that it is not full of difficulties, but this Bill has been brought in to meet an enormous difficulty, a crying evil and a great grievance, and it will fail to meet that difficulty or redress that grievance if the right hon. Gentleman passes the Bill as it stands in this respect.
§ Mr. MACKINDER
I only want to say a few words on an important point in regard to this Amendment. The points that were put by the Parliamentary Secretary were, I need hardly say, points which any Member of the party which I used to represent, when parties existed in this House, would appreciate, namely, the difficulty of revising contracts. But I represent a Constituency in which a very keen interest is taken in this Bill, not only by those who are merely domestic consumers, but also by those who are great industrial consumers, both of electricity and of gas. There is one question which is being asked in that constituency, and which will be asked, and I am going to put that question here now, because I hope that the President of the Board of Trade will be able to give a satisfactory answer to it. I believe it was on the 6th May last that the great meeting was held in London of the users of coal, and especially of representatives of what are commonly known as the public utility companies and municipalities. Those 1766 municipalities and those great statutory companies raised this question at that meeting in the beginning of May, because they knew that immediately in front of them the time was approaching when the twelve months contracts would have to be made. The question is being asked at the present time, and in no mincing phrases, what can be the state of inefficiency which can allow nearly three months to go by before a Bill is introduced, apparently designed to meet the difficulty which was raised last May—a Bill which is introduced in a form which is almost ironical and which will be described as a Bill shutting the door when the horse has been stolen. This question which is being asked, and which will be asked, is pertinent to this Amendment, and it is the reason to a very large extent why this Amendment has been brought forward.
I do not say that I should be prepared to support this Amendment in its full extent and in the wording in which it now stands, but I would point out the position of a corporation like the corporation of Glasgow, which contracts for something like one million tons of coal a year, and which has to earmark its supply, because it is under statutory obligations to deliver gas and electricity, and which, at the present time, has thrown upon it demands for increased supplies of electricity in order to meet the new munitions factories and the departments which are being set up in old works for that purpose. That great undertaking, with these great statutory duties laid upon it, came to the' meeting in London, and I believe it is no secret that it was one of the chief bodies which inaugurated the whole movement. Representatives assembled in London from all over the Kingdom at the beginning of May and that great conference took place. As a result of that conference there was initiated a movement in this House and an informal Committee was appointed, on which, as it was stated the other day on the Treasury Bench, there was probably a larger number of Members than has ever sat on any Committee upstairs. That Committee met again and again to discuss this question, and it is felt to be amazing and ironical that after the whole of the contracts or, admittedly, 70 per cent, of the contracts have been made, the Government brings forward this Bill. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has some explanation to give on that subject, because undoubtedly it does lead to 1767 discontent and to much of the trouble between labour and capital which is occurring at the present time, when it is felt that there is not a plain meeting of the difficulty, but that resort is had, it is said—I do not say that for a moment—to subterfuges in order to defeat the plain demand, and appear to yield to it when in fact they do not yield to it. The delay of this Bill will cost the people of Glasgow £70,000, and that fact will be the measure of what I venture to say is the inefficiency that has been shown at the present time in not acting speedily, when obviously speed was of the very essence of the demand put forward.
§ Mr. DICKINSON
This Amendment I look upon as by far the most important in connection with this Bill. I do hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give us some far better reasons for rejecting the Amendment than have been given hitherto. I hope that he will do so not only from the point of view of public interest, but from the point of view of his own reputation and that of the Government. I cannot help saying seriously that if this Bill goes forward in the shape in which it now is the Government will be considered to have fathered a political fraud. It is no good saying that this is merely a Bill in order to prevent panic prices, and that it does not affect the actual price. The consumer will not look at that way. If the public in the course of next winter find, as I believe they will certainly find, unless this Amendment is carried, that they are not in a better position than they were last year, they will say that the whole thing has been a fraud. I was glad to notice one thing in the speech of the Under-Secretary of the Board of Trade. He did not attach very great importance to the so-called sanctity of contracts. He referred to the fact that this is war legislation, and might well be looked upon as exceptional. I am very glad that he took that view, because, oddly enough, the Government have committed themselves to the same view on this very same day. I have in my hand a Bill which was introduced to-day in another place which provides that contracts entered into for the purpose of registration in the present year may be annulled. That is an instance of what one Department can do when it wants to interfere with contracts.
There are special reasons to justify interference with contracts in this particular 1768 case. It is well known to be the custom that contracts for the sale of coal for the whole year are made in the months of April and May and June, mostly in the month of June. Before that time this year the Government had established a Committee to investigate this question, and the Committee reported by the end of March. From that moment every coal owner had due notice that something would be done to reduce and limit the charges which he would make for coal. Therefore we are perfectly justified in interfering with every contract that was made subsequent to that date. I do not suggest that we should interfere with contracts prior to that date, but as a House of Commons we should be justified in interfering with contracts made during April, May, or June, and we are called upon particularly to do so this year. I am informed and believe that so anxious have the merchants been about the future that they have rushed into making contracts, and they have actually made more contracts for supplying winter coal this year than they would in ordinary circumstances. The consequence is that 80 per cent, of the whole twelve months' supply is already contracted for at prices exceeding the maximum which this Bill is going to lay down. What is going to be the result of that upon the consumer? Has the right hon. Gentleman who is in charge of the Bill any estimate by which he can say what will be the price to the consumer in London under this Bill as it stands at present?
I have looked into the figures in consultation with a coal merchant on whom I have great reliance, and my estimate is that if the coal is sold at the prices at which it has been sold under contracts recently, the poor man in London will be paying at least 37s. per ton for his coal in the winter. He was forced last year to pay 38s. 4d. If the poor people of London are this winter going to be forced to pay over 37s. per ton there will be not only dissatisfaction, but grave danger in our Metropolis arising from the feeling that they have been sold by the Government upon whom they depended to relieve them from this extraordinary imposition which took place last year. I have in my hand a letter which tells of the terms upon which a gentleman has contracted for coal. He says that Derby Brights, the price of which was about 11s. per ton at the pit, are raised this year from 1st July, 1769 1915, to 30th June, 1916, to a price approximately 16s. per ton on a sliding scale rising 6d. per ton as the retail market advances 1s. per ton. The contracts, under which coal is now being purchased for the London market, continue the system of sharing the profits between the owners of the mines and the merchants, which was condemned unanimously by the Committee and which we hoped to sec ended.
As I read this Bill, the ordinary contracts which have now been entered into between the mine owners and the London coal merchants still contemplate this system, of which the House, perhaps, is not aware. The system which was condemned was this, that the mine owners sell to the London coal merchants coal at a certain price based on certain market prices to the consumer, and as the market increases 1s. a ton by that very fact the 1s. has to be divided between the mine owner and the coal merchant, and, therefore, if these contracts are not going to be affected by this Bill, as I read the Bill, there will still be that process going on. We shall still find that under the contracts the owners of the coal mines will be entitled to share the increased profits on the prices which they are getting in London. That is one matter of which I would like a reply from the right hon. Gentleman. Then there is a second question: What is going to regulate the price of coal in London? It is quite a romance to read the evidence which was given before the Committee as to the system which regulates the price of coal in London. It is regulated by a little, I will not say coterie—they are very important people—but it is regulated on the Coal Exchange by agreement between the principal merchants. It is regulated by what they think the public will stand. That is the whole system.
If they think that the public will stand a rise of 1s. or 2s. then they put up the price 1s. or 2s., and everybody else puts it up. Under this system, under which the greater portion of the coal which will come to London will be coal under contract and therefore coal that was bought at the pit's mouth at more than 4s. extra—say 5s. or 6s.—above the prices of twelve months ago, will it be those higher prices which are going to regulate the selling price in London, or will it be the price which is based upon the smaller sum, 4s.? I think it is only human nature to imagine 1770 that the coal merchant in London will put the price on the highest figure. I am open to correction, but I am only judging by what seems to me almost certain, that if the majority of these great coal merchants under contracts are paying at the rate of 7s. more than the fixed price, and not 4s., they will fix the consumer's price on the higher figure, and not on the basis of the smaller sum in respect of free coal in small quantities. If that be so, the right hon. Gentleman's Bill will absolutely fail in London, which forms a very important part of this particular question. The other question I should like to ask again is, whether or not the sliding scale price of coal is to regulate wages? Eighty per cent, of the coal is going to be sold under contract, and 20 per cent, is what is called the free coal price. Is the price which is to regulate wages to be 4s. or 7s.?
§ Mr. DICKINSON
If that is so, then the wages would be adjusted according to the average between the contractor and the owner. It is a very difficult question, and it seems to me that the whole thing points to this: that we ought to aim at putting the whole of the mines of the country on the same basis, from the passing of this Act and onwards, as regards price. If one coal owner is limited to 4s. others should be limited to 4s., whether they have made contracts or not. I understand that there are, as a rule, very few subcontractors—perhaps one or two people. There is not a very complicated system of sub-contracts. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has had time to look into the method by which I have tried to deal with this very difficult question. I have put down on Clause 3, which I thought the proper Clause, because it deals with contracts, an Amendment, which proceeds on these lines, namely, that all contracts made between the 24th March and the passing of this Act should be subject to revision on the application of either party to the contract, and such application shall be made to the County Court judge, who would have to adjust the price on the basis of the statutory amount. It is rash to say of any Amendment that it will hold water, but I believe that this one would hold water. I believe the Amendment shows a practical way out of this difficulty, and I do hope that if the right hon. Gentleman does not accept 1771 those words, at any rate it will be decided that these contracts are not to be maintained in their entirety, and that the right hon. Gentleman will give his attention to the particular method I suggest of meeting this question. It would be a terrible result if this provision in the Bill rendered the whole Bill absolutely nugatory to purchasers of coal.
Mr. DUNDAS WHITE
This seems to be one of the most important Amendments to the Bill. If there were any case in which the Government have a right to interfere, in these emergency conditions, there can be no stronger case than that which we have before us. Here is a case in which the natural resources of the country are in the hands of certain people. I listened with astonishment to what was said by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Sheffield to the effect that the coal owners have not taken the opportunity of raising the price against the public.
I have no knowledge of that particular district, but I know that in many other districts, in most other districts, they have certainly taken the opportunity to raise the price as high as possibly could be done. This tells against municipalities and statutory companies, and ultimately, therefore, tells also against the consumers. The municipality of Glasgow contract for more than 900,000 tons of coal, and the contracts have to be made about May or June. Contracts have been made before the War, but now the prices have been put up very considerably, and on a quantity of something more than 900,000 tons the excess price over the price of last year has been between 5s. and 6s. The result is that the Glasgow municipality have had to pay something like £265,000 more than they did last year for coal. If, instead of this greatly increased price, they had been called upon to pay on the basis of the Bill, an extra 4s., the extra amount would have been about £195,000, a saving of £70,000. I was astounded by some of the observations of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade on this question. We were told that we were going to hear an argument to show the difficulty and impracticability of this Amendment. When we came to the argument it did not seem nearly so strong as foreshadowed. It did show a certain amount of difficulty, but disclosed no difficulty which any Government in earnest in 1772 the matter could not conquer. The hon. Gentleman said that he was not influenced by pedantic feelings, but the House is less concerned about the pedantic feelings of Ministers than about pedantic action on the part of the Government. Their action in regard to these contracts seems to me distinctly pedantic. I say that these prices which are to be paid for coal go to persons who are in possession of national resources of this country. They have used this emergency time to get the highest prices they can, and, as my hon. Friend (Mr. Dickinson) has pointed out, it is not merely a matter of all existing contracts. I should be content, I admit, if the Government go the length of saying that this class of annual contracts, made during May, June, and July, should be subject to revision. I should like to emphasise what my hon. Friend the Member for the Camlachie Division of Glasgow (Mr. Mackinder) said concerning the action of the Government. This whole difficulty was anticipated at a comparatively early date in May. There was an important meeting here, and May passed and June passed, and here we are towards the close of July, and we have only now got a Bill to deal with this matter. The Government now talks, I will not say about the sanctity of contracts, but the Parliamentary Secretary says that those contracts have been made, and that they cannot interfere with them because of the enormous difficulties which would arise. Surely the municipalities which entered into those contracts, and other people, may well come to the Government and say: "We gave you notice of this difficulty as far back as May, and you have done nothing but let it stand over, and stand over, until now we have had to enter into contracts, and you decline to save us from a difficulty which is of your own creation." That is a charge which may very reasonably be made against the Government. There has been a great deal of talk concerning the action of the coal miners. I really think it is time for the House to turn its attention to the action of the coal owners as well. I have nothing to say in defence of what has been happening in Wales lately. That is not a matter to go into, but do the coal owners come to this House to-night with clean hands? This is a matter that goes to the very vitals of the nation. I know in Glasgow how the people are suffering with increased rents on the one hand and increased prices of coal on the other. Until 1773 the Government come to look into the fundamental question of the rights of the people, and the obligations of the Government to secure them their right to these elementary products of nature, things will go still further wrong. I do say this is one of the cases in which the Government could act, and, even though they do not take the whole of the proposals, let them take the proposal of my hon. Friend with regard to contracts made during May, June, and July, and they will then at least have gone some way to solve the difficulties and to meet the fair demands of those who came to them as far back as May.
§ Mr. G. THORNE
I would very earnestly urge on the President to give very careful consideration to the suggestion made by my hon. Friend (Mr. Dickinson). The suggestions that be has made are made with the object of facing a very difficult and anxious situation. We all recognise we are facing at the present moment one of the most critical questions which could possibly arise. It comes to us from every part of the Kingdom. Every constituency is representing itself to its Members, and showing the difficulties they are placed in by the contracts which have been entered into during the last few months, and that if in some way those difficulties cannot be met, times of necessity will necessarily result. I, for one, perfectly recognise the grave danger of interfering with contracts. We all recognise that, but we are acting under very anxious conditions, and we have got to face a new situation, and therefore facts have got to be looked in the face. It is stated that the men who entered into contracts recently have got to take the risks. So they have, but they have got to take the ordinary risks that they might reasonably look forward to as taking place, but the risk now is different, and it is brought about by an Act of Parliament. This is an Act of Parliament which interferes with contracts, and which places those who made their contracts after the Act has passed altogether on a different footing from those which were made before it was passed. When we realise that this is not an ordinary Act of politics, but an Act produced by the state of war, then it does seem to me that we are bound to face this situation somewhat on the lines of my hon. Friend's suggestion.
I, for one, am not prepared to accept the Amendment now before the House. It does not seem to be quite fair to meet 1774 the situation, because I recognise the force of the remark made by the Parliamentary Secretary, that after all, price is only one element in a contract, and that it is not fair by Act of Parliament to alter merely one item against one party to the contract. Therefore, the Amendment before the House, which would do that, seems to me to be unfair. As our object is to be just as fair as we can to all parties, it seems to me our duty is, if we find that in the interests of the nation we must pass an Act of this description, to place all the parties as nearly as possible in the simple position they were in before. The only fair way is for the Government to give either party to the contract the right to cancel it if, in view of the new situation created by the Act, they think it unfair to either of them. By some such method as that suggested by my hon. Friend, or by something analogous to that, a difficult situation would be met, and I think it would be the best way to do it. I do not suppose the President can face so difficult a situation right on the spur of the moment, but I do earnestly trust he will be able to hold out to us the hope that it is one which he sees the necessity of facing, and that if he cannot do it on the Committee stage he will try on the Report stage to meet a difficulty which is felt in every quarter of the House and by every section of the community.
§ Mr. T. M. HEALY
In very little of the War legislation that has been passed have Irish Members intervened. The general body of the Irish Members are not present in the House, for the reason that they felt they could rely in every matter concerning the War that the general interests of Ireland would be cared for by English and Scottish Members, because our interests are all identical. In this matter of coal there is a special Irish interest which I think should be voiced, and that is why more than once to-day I have intervened in this Debate. As the House has been told, coal in Ireland is dearer than anywhere else. It comes harder on the poor than anywhere else. And in certain districts the prices for the ordinary necessities of life have gone up so much that even the ordinary beggar man on the road will ask you for an extra copper. When you are dealing with coal, which is a matter of absolute necessity in everybody's house, you are dealing1 with a matter which affects our country in a very special degree, although, as a rule, we are only, except to a small degree, con- 1775 sumers of household coal. This Bill, in my opinion, is either a sham, or worse than a sham, or it is a reality. For us in Ireland, unless this Amendment is carried, or an Amendment substantially the same, this Bill is not merely a sham, but a mischief. I take this case in this way. I have listened with very great respect and attention to the two very able speeches made by the Parliamentary Secretary. He produced on me this impression, and he will forgive me for giving utterance to it, namely, that of an official new to office, necessarily new to office, overpowered by the Departmental chiefs. I suppose when a man goes fresh to a great office like that of the Board of Trade it is inevitable that he must put himself more or less in the hands of those officials. What is their interests? I assert that the interest of the permanent official of the Board of Trade is against the interests of the country. They do not want to be bothered, and if this Amendment is carried it will treble the work of the Board of Trade. That is a serious statement to make, but I will prove it.
Why is it that this Bill, when the volume of demand culminated in May last, was not brought in at once? There is not an official of the Board of Trade who did not know that the month of June is the great month for making contracts. You waited, waited, waited, until the month of June had passed, and contracts all over the Kingdom had been completed. Then you bring in a Bill to deal, forsooth, with contracts for coal to be made in the month of August. What an absurdity! That is officialism. If I were asked the conundrum, "What is a Coalition Government?" I am sorry that I should have to reply, "A thing constructed with power to defy the opinion of the House of Commons." That is what a Coalition Government is. The voice of the House of Commons, as heard all through this Debate, has been against the Government, if I take the independent men on both sides, the men who are directly interested in the question. How do you get your majority? By whipping up men from both sides who have not taken a keen interest in the Debate. Accordingly—I begin to see it already—the result of the formation of a Coalition Government will be that men who take an independent stand will have to speak more sharply and more thoroughly in addressing themselves to that 1776 Government than they would do if it was a Liberal or a Tory Government. The knowledge that you Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench have that you can call up your squadrons on both sides is a great temptation to you to defy the opinion of those who voice the opinion of the country.
Do the Government believe that all the agitation to fix the price of coal was an agitation to fix the price of August coal? It was an agitation to fix the price of June-coal, or coal during the time when the June contracts were being made. Now that you have allowed the June contracts to be made, you say, "Oh, well, we cannot do anything; the sanctity of contracts!" There is a precedent for breaking the contracts of sub-contractors. I remember that when Mr. Gladstone reduced the rent of the tenants he was asked, "What about the middleman? He will have to continue to pay his rent to the head landlord." Mr. Gladstone said that it was bad enough to break the sanctity of contracts in the one case; he could not go further and allow the middleman to break his. What happened? Within five years a Tory Government came into power, and so great was the injustice that that Tory Government broke the contracts of the middleman as against the head landlords. So there you have this particular case. Suppose a man makes a contract in June at, say, 7s. over the normal rate, while a man who makes his contract in August can make it at 4s. over the normal rate. How is the man who makes the June contract at 7s. to compete with the man who makes the August contract at 4s.? I think it would be a splendid thing in a country like Ireland, now that you have got everybody handcuffed to his June contract, to go into the coal business. Irish contractors have made their contracts at the June prices, and now we shall have the benefit of the Government Bill enabling us to get coal at 4s. over the normal price of a year ago. If anyone advertised—I will take a fancy name, say, as Runciman and Company—offering coal to the Irish people at 3s. under any other other man by virtue of the Act of George V., chapter so-and-so, he would make a fortune. I invite the hon. Member for Mansfield to come over and help us.
That is really the position of affairs. What is the argument? When I heard the hon. Member for Pontefract (Mr. Booth) opposing the Amendment. I knew the Amendment must be right. His speech supporting the Government was the 1777 shakiest speech I ever heard. He did not know on which side of the fence he was coming down. He had evidently been appealed to by that telepathy which exists between certain sections of below the Gangway opinion and the Treasury Bench to say something from the independent point of view in resisting the Amendment. What was his argument? He says that you cannot follow the price of coal. Why can you not? It is all on paper. If you put in a Clause enabling the sub-contractor to appeal to the County Court judge, I venture to say there will not be much litigation, because he will get the concession as a matter of course. The Amendment may, perhaps, go too far in applying to all contracts, but it should certainly apply to contracts made since this agitation began—that is to say, May and June contracts.
Again, look at the hardship of statutory companies. Take gas companies. Would not this House have been flooded with private Bills to enable gas companies to raise their statutory charges but for the hope and expectation than the Board of Trade would deal with this matter? I venture to say it would. I was glad to hear what the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Dundas White) said about that great industry which Glasgow carries on—its great tramway system with its halfpenny fares. Why did they make their contracts? Because they had to make them. I suppose their coal bunkers were empty. The bayonet was at their breast. How long were they to wait? When you are dealing with a municipality, with hundreds of thousands of pounds, when the lighting and traction of a whole city are at stake, are you to take risks and say, "We will wait until August?" What men do you expect to stand halting between two opinions when the lighting and traction of a great municipality are at stake? The thing is absurd. What are we up against? We are up against the vis inertice. of the permanent officials of the Board of Trade, and the sooner it is known and stated the better. If the right hon. Gentleman says, as he might well say, "It will throw a great additional burden on the Board of Trade," let him ask for more help. The fault I find sometimes with the Government is that they seem to think that this House will not rise to the demands which they make. I say that any demands the Government make during this War the House of Commons will cheerfully vote. If the right hon. Gentleman wants more help in the shape of Under-Secretaries, 1778 the House of Commons will give it to him. [Laughter.] He evidently does not appreciate the gift. At all events it is now simply a question of drawing a Clause to enable the sub-contractor, if necessary, to appeal to a court of justice. Let him do that, and I venture to say, if he does so, he will have grasped the nettle, and have settled the question, and all these great difficulties, which have been formulated by the permanent officials, will disappear in a puff of blue smoke.
§ Sir E. CORNWALL
I should just like to say this, that on the Second Reading I made a very strong appeal—as strong as I could—to the Board of Trade to include contracts in this Bill. It seemed to me that with the exemption of contracts a great part of the object of the Bill would be lost, as has been said by many hon. Members. This Bill, without the inclusion of contracts, it is quite clear from the speeches of hon. Members, is three months too late. Contracts had to be entered into by coal merchants and corporations, because it was not possible, or safe, to-delay making those contracts. These have been made, and the prices are in advance of the 4s.; especially for manufacturing coal. At the same time one must recognise that there are very serious obstacles in the way of the Government invading contracts. I listened to what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North St. Pancras said with regard to his particular Amendment, and it did seem to me that it was possible to have a compromise between a general breaking into contracts, and that the action of the Bill should be applied to contracts made, say, since the Report of the Retail Committee. There is some justification for such alteration of contracts. That Committee did make specific recommendations with regard to prices charged by collieries, and their Report indicated that prices were far in advance of the cost of the previous period. This Bill gives them 4s. instead of 1s., so there is some justification for the Government and the House making this Bill apply to contracts made since the Report of the Retail Committee was issued.
It is well for the House to understand what it really means. As I understand it, at all events from the point of view of pounds, shillings and pence, if we do not apply this Bill to contracts it means that the cost of house coal in the country will, be from 1s. 6d. to 2s. a ton more. If this 1779 Bill does not apply to manufacturing coal and its contracts, then it means in pounds shillings and pence something between 1s. and 5s. per ton. My right hon. Friend the Member for North St. Pancras dwelt a good deal on the question of the cost of household coal in London. The difference between carrying his Amendment and not is, I believe, between 1s. 6d. and 2s. per ton. Again, there is the very serious matter which has not been mentioned in this Debate with regard to the effect on the prices of household coal and manufacturing coal in London. There is nothing in this Bill with reference to freights. We have not discussed that, and I do not want to start a discussion upon it now. I only mention it because it has a very very important bearing on the cost of manufacturing coal in London. It may have a far larger bearing on the cost of coal than the question of applying the Bill, or not applying it, to contracts. If the President of the Board of Trade could see his way to accept an Amendment somewhat on the lines of that proposed by the hon. Member for North St. Pancras it would be well, and it might perhaps include in that Amendment what is proposed in the Amendment of the hon. Member for Attercliffe, which is now before the House; that is, that although it might apply to contracts made since the Report of the Retail Committee, it should only apply to coal not delivered prior to the passing of this Act. I do not think the Amendment of my right hon. Friend means that?
§ Sir E. CORNWALL
If it means that then it will meet my point. I do not think any serious injustice would be done to anybody if this Amendment were accepted. I do not think anybody who makes contracts would be very much surprised if the House of Commons took the course which this Amendment suggests. Everyone who has been trading in coal has understood that the whole matter has been under the consideration of the Government. They have expected that something would be done. If it had been done three months ago, and this Bill had then been passed, no one would have been surprised, no one would have objected, and the trade of the country would have been going on practically on the lines of this Bill. I hope the President of the Board of Trade will fully consider whether it is possible to make 1780 some compromise in view of the various arguments which have been urged on this very important question.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
I have waited patiently all through the Debate to say a word or two on this very important question, because I do think really that if this Amendment is not accepted, or some such suggested alteration of the Bill, the Bill is not worth having. I want the House to observe what the President said when he introduced this Bill. He made the most amazing statement which has ever been made from that Front Bench. He said that people had only themselves to thank if shrewd business men had nothing in their contracts knowing that legislation was coming, and that those people who entered into contracts would have to stand by them. Just imagine the President saying that shrewd people were going to get the benefit of those people because they had not entered into their contracts, when he for five months had deferred bringing in this Bill! It was essential that those people who had to buy to carry on public utility services should have their supplies secured. The demand for coal is greater than the supply, and it was therefore essential for all merchants and people to secure their contracts. What has happened in the last few days? It has been said there is 20 per cent, of free coal. Not at all. What has happened on the Coal Exchange since this Bill has been introduced is that the coal owners have gone there and through their agents have said, "Unless yon buy at once at prices which were given you, now we will not give you coal at all." Therefore, innumerable contracts have been entered into in the last few days by merchants who want their supply of coal; otherwise they would not get it. Then the President tells us that they are shrewd, indeed, who have not entered into these contracts. The situation means that more contracts are being made, and simply for the reason that there is this shortage of coal. The proposal of the hon. Member for North St. Pancras is, I think, an admirable one. The Secretary of the Board of Trade said yesterday that the House of Commons was not going to be allowed to do what they liked. I asked him whether the House, of Commons could vote freely and he said. "No; we are going to have the party Whip." I have never asked the Whip how I am going to vote, and I never shall. But when an Under-Secretary gets up, in reply to a 1781 question as to whether the House of Commons will be allowed to act on its own free judgment, and says, "No; you have to do as we, the officials of the Board of Trade, tell you to do," I do not think the House of Commons—
The hon. Gentleman is not entitled to make that statement. The hon. Member asked me whether the matter would be left to the House, and I told him what our advice would be. I made a perfectly plain statement. I said that I considered in a matter of this kind it was the duty of the Government to give its advice to the House, and not to leave the House without leadership, but that the House, of course, would come to its own decision.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
That is exactly what I said. The only difference between my hon. Friend and myself is that, instead of leaving the House to their own judgment, when they put on party Whips for party loyalty hon. Members vote with their party irrespective of the merits of the question. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman definitely said he would not leave this question to the House of Commons. Let me tell the House what they will have to vote by way of loans and sums of money if they are not going to accept this Amendment. Railway companies are paying to-day in some cases in Wales double the price they were paying for coal twelve months ago. The railway companies, I think, consume about 40,000 tons a day. Parliament, however, has guaranteed the dividends of railway companies, and, as a consequence, this House will have to make good to the railway companies the enormous difference in these charges. An advance of 4s. is a reasonable sum to meet the difficulty the trade is in, but to allow people to charge prices which have been charged in many contracts renders this Bill absolutely worthless. The hon. Member for Sheffield (Mr. S. Roberts) made a statement that the coal owners of Yorkshire last February entered into an arrangement that they would not increase the price of coal above that approximately in this Bill. I challenge him to name one colliery that did so.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
I ask him to name any colliery selling coal right up to the end of June, when coal was selling at f.o.b. Hull and Grimsby as much as 25s. I do 1782 not know whether he has the daily returns, as I have, but I can assure him the figures I have given are market prices. No such combination was ever made. The association to which he referred is only an association which deals with railway contracts and certificates. With that association are connected some of the collieries with which I am associated, and therefore I know exactly what happens. It has nothing whatever to do with it at all.
§ Mr. ROBERTS
The hon. Baronet does not attend the meetings of that association, and does not know what takes place. I do, and I know five months ago that association met, and we decided amongst ourselves not to charge more than this Bill charges, and I believe that understanding has been honourably carried out.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
To the general public? The hon. Member is quite mistaken. My representative attends all those meetings.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
Contracts, too. Contracts have been entered into. We are not talking about contracts; we are dealing at this particular moment with free coal, when coal has been sold. It is no good the coal owner saying he has not had the plunder, and the merchant says he has not the plunder. The public has had to pay. We have all had our finger in the pudding; I have had mine. I have had more than I am entitled to.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
Coal owners and merchants between them have had it, and consumers have had to pay. If we go to a Division on this question we shall beat the Government. I see the Patronage Secretary has been moving rather briskly up and down the House, and I have a very shrewd suspicion he knows the Government are in a very difficult position. Oh! but he has got, I understand, faithful battalions behind him, irrespective of the merits of the subject. If, however, the Government pass this Bill in the form in which it is it will do much harm to the Coalition Government in industrial districts, because the working people, under contracts which have already been made, will be paying as much money in the coming winter as they did last winter. It will be a scandal to the House of Commons to bring forward a Bill to limit the 1783 price of coal which practically places no limitation at all, because most of the coal has actually been sold before the Bill becomes law, and therefore the object of the Bill cannot be attained.
§ Sir A. MOND
There is one aspect of this question which has not been presented to the Committee during this Debate. One of the great difficulties which I see will arise if the present intention of having two lots of coal prices, a high contract price and a lower maximum, is carried out, will be that those who wish to buy at the lower maximum price will never get any coal at all, because all the coal that is available will go to those who have made contracts at the higher price. A well-known colliery proprietor told me that it is obvious, having got people to pay the higher price, he will take care to see that nobody is going to get coal at the lower price. This is not an exaggerated view at all, because a colliery owner knows that the consumers must have the coal. I know cases in which contracts were in existence at the lower price, and the coal owners have refused to deliver under those contracts unless they do so at the higher price on the ground that they had better contracts, and therefore they would not sell under the old contracts during the War. I do not know how the right hon. Gentleman is going to deal with them.
It is no use looking at this question from the point of view of the London household coal. Really I never understood how anyone could defend the so-called sanctity of contract on this system. After all, the whole doctrine of the sanctity of contract is built upon the idea that you have two independent contracting parties who are at liberty to contract or not to contract. We are not talking now of people in the position of free and willing contractors, because one of the parties is bound to contract or close down their gas works or electric lighting works. I cannot understand why the right hon. Gentleman did not give some warning to all these public bodies that he was going to produce this legislation and tell them not to buy for a month. I should have thought he could have given his advice confidentially in that way. How did they know whether he would introduce a Bill, or what maximum price he was going to fix? There is nothing so easy as to be shrewd when you have the information and the other party has not. 1784 The right hon. Gentleman knew what he was going to do, but these public bodies did not know. Those of us who have to regard the sanctity of contracts recognise the importance of contracts being observed, even at a considerable loss, but to penalise the large body of coal contractors because they have bought two or three weeks before the right hon. Gentleman has introduced his Bill is calculated to produce an acute sense of unfairness throughout the whole of the community, and will do a great deal of harm to the Government and to the House.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
The Debate on this Amendment has been much the most important on the Bill, and it has certainly led to a great variety of both theoretical and commercial doctrine. When my right hon. Friend (Sir A. Mond), who has just sat down, suggests that it is part of the duty of the President of the Board of Trade to give a private tip to one of the parties to a commercial transaction. I think we may say that we have got into a new commercial code.
§ Sir A. MOND
I do not look upon public authorities in the same sense as private individuals. [Hon. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] I am merely putting my view. It is not a question of a private tip to advise people that you are going to introduce legislation which is going fundamentally to alter contractual relations.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
If my right hon. Friend was talking relevant to this Amendment, he was dealing practically with every case, for this Amendment does not strike merely at local authorities, it deals with everybody who may have bought coal before the introduction of this Bill. The suggestion that has been made by my right hon. Friend is that owing to their feeling the pressure of necessity the local authorities were bound during the last few weeks, before this Bill was introduced, to make contracts at prices above the standard prices in the Bill. I understand that a large number of local authorities have been squeezed in Scotland as well as in England. I do not know how large the number is, but, if I may say so with respect, there appears to be a good deal of exaggeration about the extent to which the relief that could be given by turning this into a delivery and not into a sales Bill, would be likely to confer upon the local authorities. As a matter of fact, my information is that although a good many local authorities 1785 have made their contracts there are also a very large number who have refrained from doing so, and these local authorities who have refrained from making their contracts will undoubtedly get the benefit of this Bill, if it is passed.
§ Mr. OUTHWAITE
May I ask my right hon. Friend if he has received a letter from the borough of Stoke-on-Trent, in which they say that colliery owners refuse to supply except at 6s. a ton more, and that they cannot get coal?
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I have received a letter to that effect from Stoke-on-Trent, but it is not the only place affected. I am pointing out that some authorities have refrained from making their contracts as early as they were pressed to do so, and so have private individuals, and so have large numbers of merchants. It appears to be thought from the discussion we have heard to-night that 80 per cent, of the output of coal in Great Britain has been contracted for during the past few weeks before this Bill was introduced. That quite overlooks the fact that there are very large coal-fields in Great Britain which do not run from August to August or from September to September, but from January to December. Their contracts are made in the winter, and every one of these will get the full benefit of this Bill. If there is any case at all, it is certainly the case of the local authorities, who, as I have said before, may be squeezed. I will return to them in a moment, but, before I deal with them, let me deal with the whole case as put forward by the mover of this Amendment. He provides in his Amendment that contracts that were made before this Bill was introduced shall be torn up. It is true that we have done many bold things during the War, but I know none so bold as to definitely tear up commercial undertakings which have been entered into and which would really mean not only that you would be breaking what is the real basis of commercial life in this country, but that you would be actually conferring by Act of Parliament upon some business men a benefit which you deprive other business men the opportunity of possessing.
§ Mr. THORNE
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that at the beginning of the War certain collieries refused to deliver coal under their contracts?
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
If a man breaks his contract he can be taken, into Court. Nobody sympathises with one who breaks a contract. Yet this Amendment suggests w e should break contracts! The hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Cork (Mr. T. M. Healy) said he had not much respect for the argument as to subsidiary contracts.
Let us see how far that would take him. Suppose a big contractor—a bridge builder, a steel maker, a chemical manufacturer, or a potter—had entered into a contract in May last to buy coal during next year at a certain price above the standard rate. It is more than likely that that bridge builder, steel maker or chemical manufacturer would have taken into consideration the price ho would have to pay for the coal when he was making his own contracts for the ensuing year, and that price would be incorporated in the price he charged for the commodity which he produced. It is pretty certain ho would have taken into account the exact price he expected to pay for his coal. But along comes the hon. Gentleman with his Amendment to substitute 4s. for 6s. The 2s. would be put straight into the pocket of the steel maker or bridge builder, or potter, or chemical manufacturer! Are we going to have another Bill to provide that the steel maker's engines or motors, or whatever he may produce, shall be reduced in price in proportion? The Committee knows that that would be a perfectly ridiculous proposal. Yet by carrying this Amendment you would simply be giving 2s. right off to the producer of the article. Then there are the cases of merchants who have sold in double or quadruple. Are you going to place every one of those contracts in the same position? My hon. and learned Friend suggests that it should be left to the County Court judge to do. But how could he do it? We have on this side of the House one of the largest suppliers of domestic coal in London. I do not know whether he has made his contracts for the coming year, but I do know that once he has made his contracts for the succeeding year he proceeds, as rapidly as possible, to cover himself by subsidiary contracts for sale. It may be he makes a thousand such contracts; it may be twenty thousand, for he enters into an enormous 1787 number of them. Are you going to ask the Board of Trade, or some other authority, or the County Court judge, to consider every one of these contracts made for the sale of domestic coal? If you do not, you give this man the advantage of the 2s. under this Amendment.
Further, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary reminds me that you cannot always identify the coal. You cannot trace it, and it amounts to nothing more than that the Government would be taking away from certain coal producers and miners a benefit which the Governments thinks they should have, and the merchants, because you cannot trace the coal sold under the sub-contracts, will get the whole of that benefit. And all that is to be done because it is said the Bill should be retrospective. I have heard a good deal of the Debate to-night. I did not hear the whole of it, because I took my dinner at a reasonable hour. But it has been an appeal ad misericordiam from beginning to end. Certain authorities and certain merchants, it is said, have made contracts above the standard price named in the Bill, and it is contended that they ought to have had the benefit of an earlier introduction of the Bill, so that when the season came round for making their contracts they would have had this Bill as a protection. The hon. and learned Gentleman suggested we had been guilty of a crime. I think we have been guilty of a crime which, in the minds of some politicians, k the greatest of all crimes — we have actually listened to the advice of the permanent official. What was the cause of the delay? I explained it to the House on Monday. One cause of the delay was that it was impossible to proceed with a Bill like this in which you entered a standard price like that unless you were of necessity sure that the standard price was going to be a fair one, and one that would help. If this Bill had been introduced in the month of April it would have been introduced before the War bonus had been decided upon for the wages of miners all over Great Britain; it would have been introduced before the great readjustment of wages in Scotland, and before there had been anything like equilibrium in the Welsh coal-field. It would have been introduced at a time when materials were fluctuating with great rapidity in price, some upwards and some downwards, and at a time when it would have been impos- 1788 sible to state with any degree of accuracy whether 4s., 3s., or 5s. was anything like a fair sum to put in the Bill. It was essential, before we started doing anything so drastic as this Bill does, that we should have something like equilibrium in the coal trade. I confess that I was reluctant to introduce the Bill at a time when in almost every coal-field labour troubles were unsettled, when negotiations were going on, and when this proposal would itself have provided one of the most disturbing factors in those very negotiations. If that was not a very good excuse, I have none other to offer. It is of first importance that at the present time there should be nothing done by Parliament which afterwards might cause greater difficulty between capital and labour.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I have just answered that question. If we had taken May there would have been no wages readjustment in Scotland or a settlement of anything in South Wales. Then, if we had taken the beginning of May, there were grave doubts about the supply of the necessary materials for the collieries. I know that the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Mackinder) said he thought we had been inept, incompetent; that we had been ironical—I have forgotten all the other eloquent phrases he used. I would suggest to him that, when he is discussing a purely business project, he had better avoid eloquence and confine himself to business.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
Let us see exactly what has happened in the case of household coal in London. My right hon. Friend behind me (Mr. Dickinson), who knows the London case very well and who appealed to the Committee on behalf of the London consumer, asked what was likely to be the price of coal in London in the coming winter. He gave some estimates with which I cannot quarrel, because I cannot prophesy what the price of coal in the coming winter will be. I do not know that you are going to benefit the London consumers if you are going to tear up all contracts. One of the greatest securities London has had in the past is that coal has come in under contract. It is true that one form of contract, the sliding scale contract, has been detrimental to London in the past. That is why 1789 the main suppliers of London undertook at the Board of Trade that in the coming winter they would abandon the sliding scale. If they do not do so, I shall be glad if my right hon. Friend—
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
Yes, the coal owners in the Midlands, who are the main suppliers of household coal in London. If my right hon. Friend knows of any cases, perhaps he will let me know who are the suppliers who attended at the Board of Trade who have departed from the undertaking they gave the Government. That has nothing to do with the Bill or the Amendment. It does not get rid of the sliding scale system and it does not cover it, so that in so far as what my right hon. Friend said was relevant, it would not help in the very least. The truth is that the Committee-has been much impressed by the special case of Glasgow. Glasgow is one of the largest purchasers of coal for its gas and electric light undertakings. I think something like 960,000 tons of coal have been bought under contract by the Glasgow corporation. The Glasgow corporation bought before the Bill was introduced. I have been found fault with for having used the unfortunate word "shrewd" in a previous Debate. It may be that the Glasgow corporation did their best to avoid contracting. Possibly they failed to buy from hand to mouth. It is quite possible that their stocks were so low that they could not afford to wait and run the risk of the market in any degree. If that is the case I dare say there may be good reason for taking the position of that corporation and others into consideration.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
That may be. I do not know what their demands were. If that was so, possibly their special case ought to be taken into consideration. But that is quite a different proposition from the one before the House. The Amendment would strike at the root of all commercial stability. No man would know where he was, no contractor would know where he was, no manufacturer would know where he was, and no sub-contractor would know where he was. It would mean that you would be transferring the definite benefit by this Amendment from one set of pockets to another, and if that is the wholesale way in which the hon. 1790 Gentleman means to deal with the Bill, I cannot accept his Amendment. It would give no relief, it would cause a great deal of trouble and mischief in nearly all our industries, and it would certainly do no good to those whom we wish to benefit. But the special ease that has been put of corporations is one which I think the Government is bound to consider, and I suggest that the Amendment should not be pressed to a Division, or if it is, that it should be beaten, and that the Government shall, between now and the Report stage, endeavour to meet the case of local authorities and those public utility companies which are limited in the payment of dividends. In one form or another the local authority is the State, and it may be that we are doing right to protect the State with respect to some of these contracts. I am very doubtful about the principle of the thing, but the Bill is one purely of expediency, and to deal with the case of the local authorities is quite a different matter from tearing up all contracts which have been entered into before the introduction of this Bill. If the Committee will take the advice I give them and negative the Amendment, I can undertake that the Government will see what may be done for the local authorities and those who are in similar positions, and we will make a proposal on the Report stage.
Mr. MacCALLUM SCOTT
The right hon. Gentleman has made a powerful speech and has shown some reasons to which weight ought to be attached for rejecting this Amendment. But I cannot resist the feeling that he has shown more reason against the Bill itself. The question that constantly occurred to me at the end of each of his arguments was, granted that that is so, of what use is the Bill itself. I have listened attentively to the Debate on this question, which is really the crux of the Bill, and I cannot resist the conclusion that without this Amendment the Bill is merely a piece of window dressing; that it is full of dummy parcels, which are made to show and not to sell that it is intended merely to have the effect of stopping criticism in the country, of calming public feeling, and of deluding the people into the idea that something is being done to prevent that high price of coal which prevailed last season. It will not prevent that rise in price to the consumer. The hon. Member for Mansfield has shown, I think, conclusively, that as the Bill stands the 4s. standard which is the basis of the Bill is wholly delusive, 1791 and that by selecting the days on which they will make their contracts the owners of the coal can really raise the average standard over all their contracts very much above 4s. average over last year. If this Amendment were carried the intention of the Bill would be legitimately and bonâ fide carried out. Practically the whole of the coal for the ensuing year is now subject to contracts already made. Those contracts have been made bonâ fide; they have not been made on selected days, and, therefore, if this 4s. standard were to apply to them, it would be a genuine standard, and would really carry out the intentions of the Government in regard -to the price of coal as it reaches the consumer. Attention has been called to the case of Glasgow, and I was very glad to hear the suggestion which was held out by the right hon. Gentleman, that the case of corporations should be a subject for special treatment. I do not think they are justly entitled to special treatment any more than the ordinary private individual or private trader who has entered into contracts. If a concession is made to corporations and public utility bodies, private traders who supply domestic consumers are entitled to claim the same concession. I am, however, glad to welcome the concession so far as it goes. There is only one further point. The right hon. Gentleman has made a very strong point about not interfering with contracts. I think he has forgotten the measure which was imposed by the Government at the beginning of the War, a measure called the Moratorium. That was an interference with contracts. We are acting to-day under the same coercion as the Government was acting when it imposed the moratorium on many people who had made contracts. I earnestly ask the Government, in considering the question with regard to public utility companies and corporations, to consider again, with an open mind, the question of applying the Bill to all contracts whatsoever.
§ Mr. ANEURIN WILLIAMS
I think it right that one supporter of the Government should say how very much disappointed he is at the reply which the right hon. Gentleman has made. I do not think that it is at all satisfactory simply to yield to the corporations and the public utility companies, and I hope that before we come to the end of the Bill the Government will see its way to adopt some concession 1792 on the lines of the Amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for St. Pancras, so that this question of contracts made since March could come before a judge of the County Court, or some other judicial person, who shall decide in each case where it is not possible to do justice to the consumers in this matter.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I am afraid that I cannot on the spur of the moment agree to that course. If this Amendment w7ere withdrawn I could give an undertaking that the matter will be dealt with as rapidly as possible by the Government. In reference to future procedure, we propose to finish the Committee stage tomorrow and take the Report stage on Monday, when we hope to show what our proposals will be.
§ The CHAIRMAN
It can only be withdrawn by the hon. Member who moved it. Of course, that does not affect its being brought up on the Report stage.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Mr. S. ROBERTS
I beg to move, at the end of Sub-section (3), to add the words,Provided that a person shall not be liable to a fine under this provision if he shows that he had reasonable grounds to believe that he was not committing an offence.
§ Mr. T. M. HEALY
What precedent is there for accepting an Amendment of this kind? If a person shows that he had reasonable grounds to believe that he was committing no offence, of course he would not be convicted. This Amendment would make the procedure under this Bill simply ludicrous. The provisions of this Bill are to be applied to intelligent people. You are not dealing with rogues and vagabonds. You are dealing with colliery proprietors, persons of high intelligence, who have skilled advisers. The Government, which has resisted reasonable Amendments all 1793 the night when they were proposed in favour of the public, accept this Amendment in favour of the colliery proprietor. That shows the trend of Board of Trade opinion. It is a coal trend. Unless some explanation be given of Amendments of this kind those who have been pressing in vain for Amendments in the interests of the public will take a Division against an Amendment in the interests of those who, if they break the law, must in my opinion break it advisedly.
§ Sir R. ADKINS
There is an entire want of necessity for this Amendment. People are not convicted unless they have committed an offence, and I cannot conceive why these words should be put in, adapted as they are to throw doubt on the whole proceeding. I ask the Government not to accept the Amendment, or do anything in any way to weaken the character of the Bill, weak enough already.
The hon. Gentleman opposite, though his reputation is great, I submit is mistaken. The Sub-section says, "if any person sells or offers for sale, "he shall be liable to conviction, and my hon. Friend is quite right that he ought not to be convicted unless he does it knowingly and wilfully. The words he proposes are absolutely necessary; otherwise, if a "person sells or offers for sale, "however, innocently, he must be convicted. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that if a person makes a sale, however innocently, he must be convicted by the magistrate because of the mere fact of the sale.
Mr. D. WHITE
I join in the appeal to the President of the Board of Trade not to accept this Amendment. If a man sells obviously he does it "knowingly," and even the introduction of that word in the Sub-section would not strengthen it. How can it be possible that any dealer in coal does not know what he is doing in making a sale? If he commits an offence he knows perfectly well that he will be convicted in the ordinary way. Nobody ever dreams of putting in such words as these where there is a penal offence, and the assumption on which people are punished is that they know the law; and here is a distinct statutory declaration that a man dealing in coal who sells it in contravention of the provisions in the Bill is liable to be convicted. That the President of the Board of Trade has accepted an Amendment of this character is to me astonishing, for it is the most unusual departure from precedent which he could adopt.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
The Amendment proposed by the hon. Gentleman opposite is much stronger than "knowingly "the words are "reasonable grounds. "The hon. Gentleman says there is no precedent for this; there is a great quantity of precedents.
§ Committee report Progress; to sit again to-morrow (Friday).