HC Deb 23 July 1915 vol 73 cc1916-26

(1) Coal shall not be sold, or offered for sale, at any place within the Metropolitan police district and the City of London at a price exceeding the London maximum price.

(2) The London maximum of any coal shall be a sum equal to the price of that coal at the pit's mouth as fixed under this Act, together with the addition of fifteen shillings per ton or such greater amount per ton as the Board of Trade may allow in view of any proved increase in the cost of freight or distribution.

Clause brought up, and read the first time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a second time."

This is the first time I have had an opportunity of laying before the Committee the special case of London, and particularly of the poorer classes. My Clause lays down a maximum price beyond which no coal is to be sold in London. The reason why I put in this maximum figure is that in London, especially amongst the poor, whenever there is a shortage of coal, the people are compelled to pay exorbitant prices. Unless something is put into the Bill that will prevent that occurring next winter I think very serious results may occur. I pointed out on the Second Reading that last winter, whilst the increase in the price of coal, as delivered to the ordinary householder, between November and February, was 7s., the increase in the price of coal bought from hawkers by the poor people in London was 11s. 8d. That is not the price of the coal, but the increase in the price. Therefore the poor had to pay at a much greater rate of increase in those few months than the ordinary consumer had to pay. I will not say whether that increased price went to the mines or to the coal merchants. That does not matter to me at the moment. At any rate the increased price was charged, and it was not due entirely, or by any means entirely, to the conditions of freight. If the same thing takes place next winter, if there is a shortage, what will happen? I understand that the right hon. Gentleman has provided for the cost in London, or he thinks he has provided for it, by a series of agreements with certain leading coal merchants. I hope that will be successful as regards the merchants. I am told, however, that a very large number of London coal merchants have not had any communication with the right hon. Gentleman in regard to these agreements. I think they have only been made with the Coal Merchants' Association.

That does not meet my point. Even if the coal merchants adhere to the agreement and do not charge more than a certain additional price regulated by the Board of Trade, beyond the price of coal as got at the depot, it will have no effect upon the hawkers. We shall find that if the coal gets short the hawkers will be able to hawk coal at a very large profit. In my opinion if there is a shortage of coal the coal merchants will not produce the coal to the poor people. They did not do it last year. There are certain coal merchants who undertook to provide coal for philanthropic societies at a certain price, I believe 26s. 6d. a ton. When colliery-sold coal went up to 38s. 2d. some of those coal merchants refused to carry out their contract. They said that they had not got the coal to fill the orders. That is exactly what will happen, I believe, in the coming year unless some limit is put to the maximum price at which coal may be sold in London. I do not see any reason why you should not limit the price. It is possible that you cannot exactly know what price you should fix as the maximum, especially the price at which it is sold by hawkers. I have put in my Amendment a price of 15s. over the price at the pit-mouth, or any greater price which the Board of Trade may allow in view of the proved increase in the cost of freight or distribution. I have arrived at that 15s. in this way: Taking the last three years and taking the price of Derby brights I find that in 1913 they sold at a price of 11s. a ton at the pit-mouth. They were delivered to the consumer in London at 25s. 9d. That was 14s. 9d. more than the pit-mouth price. In 1914, before the winter, the same quality was selling for 12s. 6d. at the pit-mouth and was delivered at 27s. 3d., that being 14s. 9d. above the pit-mouth price. In the winter of 1914, when coal had rushed up to the figure which it reached then it was sold at the pit-mouth at 19s., and delivered at 35s., which was an increase of 16s., and in 1915 there was an increase of 15s. Therefore in those four years 15s. would make up the difference with regard to that particular kind of coal. I quite agree that that may not apply to all coals no matter where they come from. That is why I put in the final words of this Clause, which leave it to the Board of Trade to say that they may charge more for coal when they prove an increase in the cost of freight or distribution. I am perfectly certain that the right hon. Gentleman has nothing more keenly at heart than to secure the interests of the poor consumers in London, but the Bill will not solve this question and I believe that it will be solved only on the lines suggested.


I sympathise with my right hon. Friend who moved this Clause, but the Committee will agree that the one place in the country where satisfactory arrangements were made, before this Bill was introduced, and irrespective of whether it applied to contracts or not, to prevent any undue or improper advance of coal was London; and why the right hon. Gentleman should pick out London as the one place which should be specially dealt with under this Bill and exclude all other places where arrangements have not been made I do not quite understand. My right hon. Friend says that the arrangements made with the coal merchants of London did not include all the merchants. That might have been the case in the early days of the negotiations. It was complained that the arrangement had been made with the Board of Trade by a limited number of coal merchants, but there was no substance in that complaint. A large meeting of coal merchants was held at the St. Pancras Hotel a month ago, when 200 merchants attended. All the arrangements made by the Board of Trade were reported to that meeting, which unanimously approved of those arrangements between themselves and the Board of Trade. I submit therefore that there is now no reason why, in this Bill, London should be particularly picked out, while all the other parts of the country are not referred to. My right hon. Friend referred to the price of coal sold by hawkers, and there were some very unsatisfactory circumstances last winter. It was pretty well known that coal was sent up by responsible traders to be sold in London at a fixed and definite price, and it was reported in a good many directions that when there was a very severe shortage of coal these hawkers were not content with the price at which the coal was to be sold by the merchant, and they charged and obtained a higher price. There was a very justifiable complaint about this, but since last winter, with the co-operation of the coal merchants, the London County Council have passed a very useful by-law making it a duty on the part of all those who hawk coal to place a permanent board on their cart on which to mark conspicuously the price of the coal they hawk. The by-law makes it an offence for hawkers to demand a higher price than is indicated on the board. My right hon. Friend will sec, therefore, that circumstances have changed since last winter, and that, having regard to the arrangements between the coal merchants and the Board of Trade, and the powers and regulations under the by-laws of the London County Council, everything is being done that can be done, and if anything more can be suggested by the county council or the Board of Trade the coal merchants will be only too glad to give their full cooperation to safeguard the interests of the poor in connection with the distribution of coal in London.

I think my right hon. Friend may rest assured, in these circumstances, that everything possible is already being done to meet the object he has in view. It is not easy at a time like this to carry on business at all, owing to shortage of labour, of horses, and even of supplies of coal coming along. This is not a time when you should put extra obligations upon the merchants, who have given assurance of their earnest determination to do all they can in co-operation with the Board of Trade and the county council, and who, with their responsibilities and the exciting condition of things, might break down under the present abnormal circumstances. My right hon. Friend suggests a flat rate of 15s. In some of his figures he was quite correct, but may I point out to him that the London rate varies. When I say London rate, I am referring to the lowest London rate. For Yorkshire, for instance, the lowest London rate is 7s. 2d., for Derbyshire 6s., and for Warwickshire 5s. 3d. The London rate is 6s. to King's Cross. It varies from 3d. to 3s. 4d. in different parts of the Metropolitan area. Then you have different qualities of coal and different rates from the pit to London. My right hon. Friend would make it absolutely impossible to carry on the coal trade in London if his Clause were carried. We undertake to sit round a table with him or the representatives of the Board of Trade at any time, and we are prepared during the War to place our full service and experience at the disposal of the Board of Trade. We cannot foresee what the circumstances will be. They may be what my right hon. Friend thinks or what I think, or they may differ entirely from what either of us think. You cannot tell. What you want is a genuine willingness to co-operate and to conduct business in London in the public interest and under the control of a responsible body like the Board of Trade. I think I have shown, on the general argument, that my right hon. Friend would be acting wisely and correctly if he did not press this Clause. With regard to the actual working out on the basis of 15s., I can assure him it is not workable, and no one could carry it out even if it were put into the Act of Parliament. As the Bill is a Bill dealing with the price of coal at the pit's mouth, and has not so far gone beyond that, I think it is rather late in the day, in a thin House, and as it was not in the original Bill, to begin to introduce the very complicated and difficult question of saying what the maximum price of coal should be on delivery. It opens up a very large question, which would require many Clauses to deal with and a very full House, and which would want very long consideration by the Government and Government officials before justice was done to the problem, because they ought to advise and guide the House as to how best it ought to be done if it were to be done. Under all the circumstances, I hope my right hon. Friend will not press this new Clause.


I was one of the three Members of this House who served on the Departmental Committee on Retail Prices, and I can only regret the absence of my two colleagues. If the hon. Member for Woolwich were here he would be able to bring tears to the eyes of hon. Members by recounting the misery which the poor suffered last year through the excessive price of coal. I am perfectly aware that this Bill so far has had nothing to do with retail prices. But we on the Depart- mental Committee had all to do with retail prices, and I cannot see what the Government have been at in attempting to regulate only wholesale prices when the crying need was to regulate retail prices. It is all very well for the hon. Member for Bethnal Green (Sir E. Cornwall) to say that the London merchants have given, or will give, an undertaking to the Board of Trade. He may say that in perfectly good faith, but when the winter comes and coal is being sold to the poor at very high prices the hon. Member and his friends will probably have to say that they cannot control everything. They do not represent all the coal merchants; they represent only a section, and I cannot believe that it will be in their power to regulate the price or to say how it can be regulated. I would like to see something in black and white in the Act of Parliament. The labours of the Departmental Committee, which extended over fifteen days, will be thrown away and the Report published last March will be so much waste paper, unless you accept in some tangible and reasonable manner the principle of the Amendment.

I cannot understand why the President of the Board of Trade has not attempted to grapple with the question submitted to the Departmental Committee. He has ignored the real point—the cost to the consumer. He may say that when he has regulated the price at the pit-month he will automatically be able to put his finger on the weak spot; but I do not think it is in his power or in that of the Coal Association in London really to say what the cure shall be when the need presses. We were told in evidence that the lorry trade was fast disappearing. We know that owing to the different class of houses the poor cannot take in such quantities of coal as they once did. I do not think the hon. Member or the Coal Association can control the hawker. It is excellent to say, "We will put '1s. 10d. per cwt.,' or whatever the price may be, on an enamelled iron plate on the cart of the hawker," but that is not a remedy. The coal will be 1s. 10d. or 2s., and the poor will say that that is the regulation price. I want to see, in black and white in the Bill, that prices are going to be regulated, and that extortion from the poor is to be stopped. It was clearly laid down by the Committee that the poor had a good case, but we did not know on whom to put the blame—whether on the colliery owner, the factor, or the merchant. Surely it should be within the power of the Board of Trade, having had a most careful and exhaustive inquiry into the whole question of the distribution of coal by retail in the Metropolis and throughout England, to put their wits to work, and bring in some sort of reasonable and tangible Act of Parliament to deal with the real trouble.


I do not pretend to say that the proposals of my right hon. Friend are the best way out of the difficulty; but I do know that there is a very strong feeling in London that the Government and Parliament ought to do something to protect the poor people in regard to the price of coal. On Wednesday I, as representing the Corporation of the City of London, attended a conference of the representatives of the Metropolitan boroughs, and the unanimous opinion there was that something should be done for the relief of the poor. We are all aware that last winter the poor people were charged about 45s. per ton for coal—a monstrous price. It is a scandal if no remedy can be found for that. I trust the right hon. Gentleman will consider the matter in the interests of the poor people, who cannot very well help themselves.


I find myself in agreement with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Marylebone, and I shall have great difficulty in voting against this Amendment. It may be doubtful whether these sumptuary laws are possible, and whether the elementary laws of political economy, which regulate supply and demand, will not operate in spite of your settlement. But if you do this, what good is it to talk about prices at the pit-head. The real pressure is in the prices paid by the poor in London. If you cannot remedy this, the whole thing falls to the ground. What good will it do to the poor people in London, whom we know quite well are paying these exorbitant prices for small quantities, to tell them that you are regulating the prices at the pit-head? We know that there is going on a struggle between the coal owner, the middleman, the railway companies, and the corporations; but what does the poor man care for all these points of political economy? I have doubts and difficulties in regard to the operation of these sumptuary laws, for the laws of political economy have a very unfortunate habit of reasserting themselves. But if you do attempt any sumptuary law of this sort in fixing prices, for God's sake let it be in fixing the prices where the shoe pinches, and not some vague fixing of prices to regulate at the pit-head the commercial relations between great corporations, great owners, and little men!

6.0 P.M.


I do not at all challenge the remarks that have just been made, and I sympathise entirely with the views put forward. Unfortunately for the purposes of this Debate they have nothing to do with this particular new Clause, which seeks to enact that one maximum price shall be charged for the whole of London. That is all very well to come from the representative of North St. Pancras. His constituency is near a coal depot. Suppose there is a shortage of coal in the winter. The people who will suffer will be the people on the south side of the Thames, for the people near the coal depot will supply themselves first and the south side will suffer My only interest in this is for the consumers who buy coal. I cannot understand, seeing that London is such a huge place, that anyone can defend a Clause like this. I challenge those who have studied history to point to any country in the world that was ever able, by passing a law, to control retail prices. It has been tried over and over again in the history of the world and has always broken down. If I thought that the passing of this Clause would enable the poor of London to get their coal cheaper, of course I would support it, but it does nothing of the kind. [An HON. MEMBER: "What is the use of the Bill?"] That is another question. I have not brought the Bill in. I am talking of this particular Clause, and not talking at large. It simply enacts a flat rate for the whole of London, whether a place is far away or adjoining a coal siding. That cannot be fair.


On this new Clause I think we have had very definite guidance from the Committee which dealt with Retail Coal Prices, the Report of which was signed on 24th March, 1015. Now the suggestion which has been made by my hon. and learned Friend behind me, which was endorsed by the hon. Member for Marylebone (Mr. Boyton) was that the proper way to proceed was by way of fixing maximum prices, and he quoted in support of that view the action of the Retail Coal Prices Committee. I observe at the end of their Report the signature of Mr. J. Boyton, who I take to be the hon. Member for Maryle- bone, and I find that he attached his name to this paragraph:— We have considered the question whether the adoption of maximum prices, cither by legal enactment or by the method of 'recommended prices,' which was applied to provisions in August last, would be calculated to solve the problems before us. In view of the difficulties incident to fixing pit-head and retail prices for all parts of the country, and for all kinds of coal, and of securing an even and adequate distribution of coal supplies under such a system, we prefer to turn to remedies which in our opinion are at once simpler and more immediately practicable. I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman should have abandoned his colleagues on the Committee, and should now repudiate the very Report to which he put his signature. Let us turn to the other recommendations to which he also put his signature. The first was:— Exports to neutral countries should be restricted. Within a few days of receiving this Report those exports were restricted. The next was:— Steps should at once be taken to consider, in consultation with the public bodies concerned, the question of the accumulation by such bodies of reserves of coal in or near London, for the use of small consumers during nest winter. That was done immediately. The next recommendation was:— The rates of freight on the interned steamers should be further reduced. That also was done. The fourth recommendation was:— Suitable enemy ships condemned by the Prize Court should be taken over by the Government and used for coal transport. That was also done. The final suggestion was:— If prices do not shortly return to a reasonable level, the Government should consider a scheme for assuming control of the output of collieries during the continuance of the War, All those recommendations were adopted, except the last, and the first proposal was discarded by the Committee as being futile under the circumstances. I quite understand the feelings of the hon. Gentleman opposite and his colleague near him. I know the interests of the poor have no warmer advocate unless it is on the Back Benches on this side. I know my right hon. Friend has put forward this proposal with one object, namely, the interests of the consumer, and he has no other object. There have been many discussions on this question, but they have all turned on deliveries in London, and if the proposal of my right hon. Friend were adopted it is quite clear that some portions of London would be left entirely without coal, and nothing could be more painful than that we should find some distant parts without any coal at all. It would not then be a matter of price, but of no coal at all. My right hon. Friend has adopted 15s. as the marginal price, but any flat rate for all London is bound to be a failure and prove disastrous, and 15s. would be absolutely out of the question for very large areas away from the Midland and Northern railway depôts. It would mean that to deliver coal at that price would be a dead loss and that the coal would not be delivered. Moreover, any attempt to fix one maximum rate which did not take into account the great fluctuations in trade and all the difficulties which have come about owing to the conditions of the War, through taking carts and lorries—if all these things are not taken into account the people in London will be in a constant state of anxiety.

I think it will be much better to leave j the further consideration of the distribution of coal in London to the constant activities and attention of the Board of Trade, who, by co-operation with the merchants who are mainly responsible, I hope will be able to keep prices below the level of last winter, and thus make altogether impossible the fulfilment of the prophecy of panic prices which in almost I every direction was freely made until it was known that we were likely to intervene. I hope that on this Clause we shall not keep the House very long. There is a little more Parliamentary business to do before the House rises, and an undertaking was given earlier in the afternoon that we should not be kept much longer than the present hour. I hope the Committee will allow us to bring this stage of the Bill to a conclusion now and leave us to deal with outstanding matters on Report.


I do not intend to ask the House to continue this discussion now, and I shall withdraw my Clause, What the right hon. Gentleman has said is rather misleading the House. My proposal was not to fix a single price, but 15s. or any greater amount the Board of Trade might allow. I am quite aware that a proposal like this cannot be carried nut in opposition to the President of the Board of Trade, but I hope he will give more consideration to another proposal I should like to bring before the House; otherwise the interests of the poor consumer will suffer.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.


The next Clause, in the name of the hon. Member for North St. Pancras (Mr. Dickinson)—[Sale of Coal in London in Small Quantities]—is outside the scope of the Bill, and the following Clause, in the name of the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Denniss)—[Publication of Fair Prices]—is quite unnecessary.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill, as amended, be reported to the House."


I am extremely sorry that the second of my right hon. Friend's proposals cannot be discussed on this Bill. I represent one of the poorest constituencies in London—


The Question before the Committee is that I report this Bill to the House.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill, as amended, reported; as amended, to be considered upon Monday next, and to be printed. [Bill 142.]