HC Deb 21 February 1927 vol 202 cc1393-6
44. Mr. W. THORNE

asked the Secretary for Mines if he is aware that the coal merchants of West Harrow are selling coal at 3s. 4d. per cwt. whilst the coal at Northolt, a few miles distant, can be bought at 3s. per cwt.; and whether he can state the reasons for the difference in price for the same quality coal?


I have made inquiries of the Coal Merchants' Federation, who state that coal is being sold at 3s. 2d. in Northolt; but they state, further, that this coal is of an inferior quality to that which is being retailed at 3s. 4d in West Harrow.


Can the hon. Gentleman tell us who fixes the minimum selling prices of coal, or is it left to the merchants to fix what price they like for the coal; and is he aware that the merchants to-day are getting 2s. 6d. a ton more for distribution than they were this time last year?


I can do no more than communicate the answer which was drafted after very careful inquiry had been made with the Coal Merchants' Association. If there be a grievance it is not against the Secretary for Mines, and it must be argued out with the Coal Merchants' Association.


Is he aware that there is grave dissatisfaction among consumers all over London with regard to the question of consumption, price, and the unloading of wagons, and is he now prepared to have a Committee of Inquiry set up to find out who is right and who is wrong?


There have been in the past at least two Committees considering this question—the Duncan Committee and the Shinwell Committee. I must refer the hon. Gentleman to the Reports of those Committees, and then he will see that the whole position is one of very great complexity.


Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that the retailers in London have definitely declared their intention of securing all the profits which they lost last year, and will he not, under those circumstances, urge upon the Government the necessity of controlling prices so that they cannot do what no other section of the community are able to do?

51. Mr. GROVES

asked the Secretary for Mines whether he is aware that it is the intention of the London coal merchants not to reduce the price of household coal whilst the public is willing to buy at the present price; that for February, 1926, the margin between the cost of production and the selling price was 12s. 2d. per ton; for February this year it amounts to 14s. 8d., showing an additional profit of 2s. 6d. per ton and whether he will take steps to remedy this state of affairs?


I have seen in the Press the figures quoted by the hon. Member. It is alleged by the coal merchants that costs at the present time are in fact higher than this time last year. These are the kind of statements and counter-statements which, as the inquiries already held on this subject show, are extraordinarily difficult to check. Nor do I think that a further inquiry going over the same ground would serve a useful purpose. So far as any increase in cost is due to reduced sales, the obvious remedy is to increase sales by reducing prices. If there is any sustained attempt by merchants to charge excessive prices and thus restrict sales, there is an obvious incentive to coal owners, whose interest is to secure the maximum of sales, to cut into the distributing trade.


Is the hon. Gentleman aware that what I have stated in this question has been definitely stated in the Press by the coal distributors themselves? Is he also aware that there is a week's supply of coal on rail, and that, if this coal could be handled and distributed, there would be an inducement for the price of coal to be reduced?


That is quite another question. I am aware that there is difficulty in connection with the unloading of coal in London. If it were possible to get better delivery of coal, I think that that would relieve the situation. But that is a very different question.


In view of the continual references to the previous inquiries on this question, may I ask whether it is not a fact that the position is altogether different now from what it was when those inquiries were held; and, in view of the drastic reductions in wages suffered by the miners, which must make coal cheaper, is it not high time that the consumer was protected?


The principal factors in the argument are the same now as they were, although conditions have changed since those inquiries were held. If the hon. Member will look into the Reports of the two inquiries—the Duncan and the Shinwell—he will find, as I have, how utterly impossible it is for anyone to unravel the intricacies of the problem.


May I ask the hon. Gentleman, as one who has read carefully the Reports of those inquiries, whether it is not a fact that the miners have now about half the wages they had before—[HON. MEMBERS: "No!"]—while the cost of coal is infinitely higher than it was before the stoppage, and is not that ground for the holding of an inquiry?


Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the selling price of coal at the pit-head in 1926, for the same class of coal, was 27s., and it is now 35s., and can he tell us how it is that, in spite of the extra hour worked by the miners, and the reduction in their pay, the price of coal is about 8s. more than it was this time last year?


Why should it be extremely difficult for the Department to make a simple comparison of the pit-head prices a year ago and to-day?


Does not the hon. Gentleman's answer, in effect, mean that the Government have no intention of taking any action against the coal merchants, and are perfectly willing that the coal merchants should take the last penny—


We cannot debate the matter now.