HC Deb 04 June 1930 vol 239 cc2186-98

Lords Amendment: In page 3, line 35, leave out from the word "district," to the word "of" in line 36.


I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

I am moving to agree with this Amendment on the ground that two lines lower down we state this point in rather clearer language.

Lords Amendment: In page 3, line 38, after the word "allocation," insert such maximum being fixed after taking into consideration and providing for the last ascertained consumption in that district of coal produced therein;

Read a Second time.


I beg to move, as an Amendment to the Lords Amendment in line 3, to leave out the word "consumption," and to insert instead thereof the words "supply and sale."

This Amendment refers to the part of the Bill which imposes upon the central council the duty of preparing schemes and providing for various matters to be dealt with. The words introduced in another place say that the maximum allocation for each district is to be fixed after taking into consideration and providing for the last ascertained consumption in that district of coal produced therein. The object with which these words were introduced was explained in another place, and explained also in a letter to the "Times" newspaper this morning. I am not concerned with that controversy, but, as the words read, it seems to me they will raise a position of very great difficulty, and possible absurdity in some districts. Take the case of an undertaking which mainly, if not entirely, produces coal for export purposes. In view of what is practically a direction to them, what are the central council to do in a case where the coal is not "consumed" in the district but is sent abroad—if we give to the word "consumed" its ordinary meaning in the English language? I am not quite satisfied that the words I have suggested are really satisfactory. I had thought of putting down the word "disposal," but I find that word is defined in the Interpretation Clause in such a way as to make is inapplicable. The point I want to deal with is where no coal produced by an undertaking of the kind described is consumed in the district.


I beg to second the Amendment to the Lords Amendment.


I can set at rest the anxiety of my hon. Friend by saying that we do not propose to recommend the acceptance of the Amendment from another place.


Would it not be convenient, Mr. Speaker, if you were to permit a discussion upon the Amendment generally, and upon the consequential Amendments, which would only become relevant if the Lords Amendment were accepted, at any rate in principle? I think it would be very difficult to discuss this Amendment without discussing the merits of the general proposition.


I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is very difficult to discuss this Amendment without discussing the Amendment moved by another place, and I therefore propose to allow a general discussion.


Under this Clause in the Bill the central scheme may provide for the allocation to each district, in the terms of paragraph (b) of Sub-section (2), of a maximum output for the district which is afterwards described as the district allocation. The Amendment proposed in another place says that such maximum shall be fixed, After taking into consideration and providing for the last ascertained consumption in that district of coal produced therein. 4.0 p.m.

I understand this Amendment was made partly in the interests of certain colliery proprietors in Staffordshire and, it may be, in other areas. In that county there are three districts, and the argument seemed to be that when the maximum output was to be fixed account should be taken of the coal consumed in that area in each of its districts. In other words, so far as I can understand, it is an attempt to suggest that the area of consumption runs with the area of production, or can run with it, whereas it must be obvious that that is not the state of affairs, and if that proposal were accepted chaos would be complete. Perhaps the best illustration I can give is the case of Lancashire, which county consumes far more coal than it produces. If the last ascertained consumption in the period prior to the institution of this allocation were taken into account, it would mean that there would be, in practice, no regulation of the output of the collieries in Lancashire at all, and, as I understand it, there would require to be a corresponding and unfair restriction of production in collieries in other districts which were not in the position of the Lancashire collieries. For that reason, I hope, also, the hon. Gentleman will not press his Amendment.


The Amendment of the hon. Member is at present before the House. Does he wish to proceed with it?


In view of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, I do not see any point in proceeding with the Amendment, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw it.

Amendment to Lords Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


I beg to move, "That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said Amendment."


I feel in some difficulty about this Amendment, and it is a very good example of the difficulty of legislation of this kind, which is general in its character, and seeks to impose a general scheme which may work in some districts, but may very seriously damnify other districts. If the Amendment is put in a perfectly general form enacting—though I do not think these words do it—that every producing district is to have as its quota the consumption of that district, then, I agree, you get a ridiculous position in two ways. If you take a district like Lancashire, which consumes a great deal more coal than it produces, then, obviously, Lancashire will get a quota of 130 or 140 per cent. of its standard tonnage. That becomes ridiculous. Equally, I agree with my hon. Friend, that when you deal with a district like South Wales or Durham, which produces a great deal more coal than it consumes in the district, and a large part of its output goes in the export trade, there is another difficulty. If a general hard-and-fast rule were laid down, South Wales might get a quota which would give it 100 per cent. of its total consumption, but would give it practically nothing for export. I agree that that becomes fantastic when stated in those terms, but that is no answer if by this proposal you do an injustice to some other district. We have to find some outlet.

As I understand, the case put forward here is with regard to South Staffordshire, a coal-field with which I am not personally acquainted, and one which is of a peculiar character. They work there a very large seam of a rather inferior quality, and not only as regards the mining industry, but as regards the other industries there has not been a general development under which, at the present time, a large part—probably the whole—of the output of the mines in South Staffordshire is used in that district. That, I gather, is the position. The Staffordshire people, I understand, are afraid that if there is given to a Central Board, representing all the districts in the country, a general discretion to fix quotas for districts as they like, then Staffordshire may be given a far lower quota than the amount of coal which it produces to-day, and which it sells to the Staffordshire industries, to the great convenience of those industries. The right hon. Gentleman says that he feels difficulty in meeting that position, because it is difficult to draft a Clause of general application which will meet the South Staffordshire case. I submit to him that he ought to try to draft a Clause which will meet the South Staffordshire case, if it be a good case.

The right hon. Gentleman has not dealt with this specific point. He ought to produce some Clause to meet the South Staffordshire case if it be a reasonable one, while safeguarding the position of the South Wales export trade, on the one hand, and without giving a tremendously excessive allocation to Lancashire on the other. I venture to suggest that he might find it in words like these—"after taking into consideration the last ascertained consumption in that district." That is not to say that you have got to provide for the last ascertainment, but it would give to the Central Board a general indication of the lines they were to follow in the absence of exceptional circumstances. Obviously, in the case of Lancashire, they would say there were special circumstances, but when they came to deal with Staffordshire under a proposal of that kind, the prima facie case which would be made out before the Central Board would be that Staffordshire should be allowed to produce the amount which it has been producing in the past and has been selling to Staffordshire industries. But that would not be final. If they were able to show that there would be a great diminution in production in the ordinary way, they might reduce it. Under Sub-section (2, h), if Staffordshire or any other district felt that it was suffering by a decision of the Central Board, it would have an appeal to an independent arbitrator, who would be able to give a final decision. I suggest to the House, which, I am sure, wants to do justice between all these districts, that we ought not to leave an area, even if a small one, to the possibility of being unjustly overridden by a large majority of other districts, though I agree that we ought to safeguard the interests of the great districts.

I put to the President of the Board of Trade these points: First have I correctly stated the Staffordshire case? Secondly, is not that in substance the position which Staffordshire to-day enjoys under the Five Counties Scheme? I think that South Staffordshire is in that scheme. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] If that be irrelevant, I do not want to enter upon that consideration. But have I correctly stated the South Staffordshire position? If I have, then is not there a case made out, both as regards the coal-owners in that district and as regards the industries in that district, for consideration by the Central Board in the way which I have indicated? Thirdly, would not the words which I have suggested give to the Central Board a direction to show South Staffordshire that consideration, and the right of appeal if they thought they were damnified by this proposal? Fourthly, if my words are not appropriate to the case, will the right hon. Gentleman suggest words which will do justice throughout the scheme?

I would add only this: I do not think that it is an argument, or a conclusive argument, to say that all these matters will be before the Central Board when it comes to consider the subject, because the interests of all the other areas are bound to be considered by the Central Board, and it may well be that some small district with a particular claim for consideration would not get a full or fair consideration by a Central Board representing a number of great districts. If we think it ought to have that consideration, then we ought not to leave it to the chance judgment of the Central Board, but we ought now to put in general words and directions which would direct the Central Board to give fair consideration to such matters.


The question raised by this Amendment is giving very great concern to the South Staffordshire coalowners. This is not a matter which affects coalowners in North Staffordshire and Cannock Chase. The South Staffordshire coalowners are afraid, not only that their quota may be cut down very considerably from what it has been in the last few years, but that a decision might even be taken to cut down the South Staffordshire coalfields altogether. It is, in some respects, a unique coalfield, working under rather different conditions from many competitors outside. There may be a certain amount of jealousy—I do not know—but they are definitely afraid of what may happen to them if they are not protected by some Amendment of this kind. I hope, therefore, that the President of the Board of Trade will go rather further, and give a full explanation of what the position may be. Will it be possible for them to be cut down completely, or their quota cut down considerably? I think that there ought to be, some definite assurance given to the South Staffordshire coalowners before we part with the Amendment. If the right hon. Gentleman is able to say anything to allay the very real fears and alarms created in South Staffordshire, I think it will do a great deal to ease the situation, even if he is not able to accept this Amendment.


I rise to support the suggestion of my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member who has just spoken. This question has given very serious disturbance of mind not merely in the South Staffordshire coalfield, but to the various industries in that district which depend upon that coalfield for their efficiency. If, under the operation of the original Clause, South Staffordshire coal were to be restricted, it would mean a deficiency of coal for that very active part of the country. The whole of the output of the South Staffordshire coalfield is employed for industrial and household purposes in that part of the country. I do not think that any part of the South Staffordshire coalfield exports at all. The whole of the output of this rather peculiarly constituted field is given to the immediate locality within a radius of 20 miles, and now there is this grave consideration, that in that district now supplied with coal from that field, if the quota were to come down in any serious way, coal would have to be imported from a very considerable distance at increased cost, raising the cost of production in the industries in that area.

My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade knows very well how difficult is the situation at present in the Black Country and in the whole region round Birmingham and the Midlands. We are finding the greatest difficulty in maintaining continuous capacity in the great variety of industries in that part of the country. If these additional difficulties are to be imposed by this Bill, the position will be intensified very considerably. Owing to the special circumstances of this case, such as the thickness of the seam, the accumulation of dirt and so on, if the period of working is restricted these collieries will inevitably have to close down. I am sure that the President of the Board of Trade is the last person in the world to lend himself to any injustice in that part of England which even now is in a very difficult situation.

I support the contention of my hon. and gallant Friend below the Gangway that this is a case for exceptional consideration, and I would ask the right hon. Gentleman if he could not see his way to agree to the Amendment which has come from another place, and which was put in after very full consideration of all the circumstances of the case, whether he would be prepared to say that he would give instructions to the Central Council that this coalfield should be given special consideration when its, quota comes up for consideration. That I think, would give some measure of satisfaction. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to contemplate the situation that will arise if under the operation of the quota the output is reduced by 10 or 15 per cent. for the whole country, and this becomes operative over the South Staffordshire coalfield so as to restrict the supply of coal over the industrial activities of that area. Apart from the natural anxiety of the right hon. Gentleman to see this Bill through the House in its original form, I am sure that if he contemplates that situation he will see the importance of accepting this Amendment.

Colonel LANE FOX

I do not think that this is a matter of any real controversy as between the two sides of the House. I think everyone will see considerable difficulty in accepting the Amendment as it stands, but I should like to ask the President of the Board of Trade whether, if the words "and providing for" were left out, it would not then be an innocuous Amendment, which might, at any rate, leave room for a proper consideration of the special circumstances of the case which, for all that we know, may exist in other places when the Act comes into operation. No one wishes to injure this particular district where, as everyone must recognise, the circumstances are very distressing. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not, prematurely and without consideration, turn down the case of this coalfield, and I trust that he will accept the suggestion which I have made.


Will the right hon. and gallant Gentleman kindly repeat the suggestion which he has made, because I did not hear it?

Colonel LANE FOX

The suggestion I made was to leave out the words "and providing for," and, if I were in order, I should move an Amendment to leave out those words.


I am afraid the right hon. and gallant Gentleman would not be in order now in moving such an Amendment. The Question before the House is, "That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said Amendment."


I agree with my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Colonel Lane Fox) that it would have been better if we could have left out the words "and providing for." There was considerable controversy over this question, and this is a genuine attempt between the Government and the Opposition to find an agreed form of words. I have no actual knowledge of the South Staffordshire problem, but I do know what a very big thing it is to have transport costs higher than is absolutely necessary. It seems to me absurd if this Bill is going to work in such a way as to compel a works to take its quota from some other part of the country, and to pay increased transport charges rather than get the whole of the coal that they require from the immediate neighbourhood.

We are always saying in this House and outside how important it is to cut down overhead costs, and, unless some Amendment is put in the Bill, it seems to me that we shall be, by law, forcing certain works to get their coal on increased transport charges which are not necessary in the least. The President of the Board of Trade may say that, when the Commission are examining these cases, they will naturally take that matter into consideration, but I really cannot see why some such Amendment as is suggested cannot be accepted by the Government. There are very few districts I know which are really affected, but those districts which are affected are important, and I hope that the Government will try and find some form of words, if not these words, and either persuade the district council itself to say that they will take the matter into consideration or allow the Amendment itself to remain part of the Bill.


I gather that the President of the Board of Trade, in his opening remarks, said that this Amendment was proposed in the interests of certain coalowners in South Staffordshire. I should have thought that he would agree that the Amendment is far more interesting to consumers in South Staffordshire. These industries in what is called the Black Country take, as far as I know, the whole of their consumption from this coalfield, and, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Hackney (Captain Hudson) has pointed out, any modification in the quota of the production of those mines must involve the transport of coal from outside the area. Consequently, the only portion of the community that will gain will be the railway companies, while the consumers will lose by enhanced cost paid for transport.

The President of the Board of Trade might consider the question of the quota of coal in the industries which have used this particular type of coal for a great number of years. Presumably they have found it suitable to their works, and their boilers are adjusted to take this class of coal. Now they are going to be put into the position of having to purchase coal from outside, probably of a quality and class which they do not desire. Allusion has been made to the physical difficulties in this coalfield, and I do not think it is fully realised how waterlogged these pits can become if they are not continuously in operation. If by the application of the quota the working days are cut down, extra unremunerative pumping will have to be done, and of course the overhead charges will be proportionately increased. Allusion has also been made to the thickness of the seam. I think it is a 30-foot seam, and that also causes grave difficulty if there is not continuous and full-time working.

I do not know if the right hon. Gentleman can find means of adjusting this position. We realise that, generally speaking, it will be very difficult to produce an Amendment which can cover the whole country on these lines without causing difficulties in Lancashire and elsewhere, but that is the right hon. Gentleman's business, because he has produced this Bill with all its imperfections and inequalities, and it is he who is stretching areas like South Staffordshire on a bed of Procrustes so that it has to have its limbs cracked and stretched in order to fit other districts into this bed which the right hon. Gentleman has prepared. I hope that, on consideration, the right hon. Gentleman will see that this is an exceptionally important point, and that he may be able to find words which will meet what I think is the unanimous desire of the House.


In this discussion reference has been made mainly to South Staffordshire, but I think the same problem will arise in other districts. Take, for example, North Staffordshire. The reason that the Potteries are there is not because of the clay, but because of the special suitability of the coal in that particular area. If by the operation of this Bill it is found necessary to import coal from another area, the Potteries will not only be saddled with the additional cost, but they will be subjected to the great inconvenience of loss through being compelled to use coal which is not suitable for their particular work. I hope the President of the Board of Trade will endeavour to find some words which will meet this difficulty which will arise not only in South Staffordshire, but also in North Staffordshire.

Captain PEAKE

This Amendment expresses the anxiety of the districts concerned as to the principle on which their allocation is going to be fixed. The trouble arises simply and solely because the Bill lays down no principle of any kind upon which the allocation is to be based. The only principle, in practice, upon which allocation can be based is the principle of past results. In practice, the allocation for the next quarter or for the next month will be fixed on the supply and sale of coal in the last quarter or the last month. I see the difficulty in which the President of the Board of Trade is placed in regard to this matter, and I agree that we cannot, at this stage of our economic history, introduce artificial geographical barriers across which coal is only to be allowed to pass under certain conditions. If we cannot retain Free Trade within the limits of the United Kingdom, I agree that there is little hope of getting it extended to a wider sphere, but I believe that this would be a way out of the difficulty. I cannot agree with the suggestion of my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Colonel Lane Fox). That suggestion still leaves the geographical barrier in position. I believe, however, that if the Amendment were made to read as follows: such maximum being fixed after taking into consideration and providing for the last ascertained consumption of coal produced therein, leaving out the words "in that district" and getting rid of the geographical barrier, we should have the clear and distinct principle that the allocation should be fixed upon the last ascertained consumption of coal produced in the district. I believe that this result could be arrived at if the right hon. Gentleman could see his way to withdraw the Motion which is at present before the House, and to allow an Amendment to be moved in the form which I suggest. Then we should have the perfectly clear principle that past results were to guide the Central Council in fixing the allocations, and it is perfectly clear that the past results would keep those allocations up to date. If the consumption of Lancashire coal were decreasing, and the consumption a South Yorkshire coal were increasing, that would be seen in every quarterly ascertainment of coal consumed produced from those districts. You would get that perfectly clear principle, and the smaller districts would then know exactly where they stood, while the arbitrators, to whom in the last resort this question will have to go, would have a clear guiding principle which I believe is the principle that the right hon. Gentleman always had in his mind, although it is nowhere stated in the Bill.


I can only speak again by the leave of the House, but it may be the desire of hon. Members that I should try to explain the position, particularly in reference to some of the suggestions which have been made in different quarters of the House. To that end it may be easier if I recall the steps which are taken in the particular area to which hon. Members have referred. Under the First Schedule of the Bill, North Staffordshire, South Staffordshire exclusive of Cannock Chase, and Cannock Chase, are three districts for the purposes of the Measure, and the practical effect of this is that, assuming that these districts proceed without amalgamation, or until they are amalgamated, there would be an allocation to each of them by the Central Council of a certain quantity of coal which they were entitled to produce over the period for which that production was fixed. The debate in another place, and to an appreciable extent the discussion here this afternoon, seems to exclude North Staffordshire and Cannock Chase, and to concentrate on the South Staffordshire area, and hon. Members express the fear that under the quota there will be such a reduction of output as will either close collieries in that area, or will so increase the cost of winning their coal as to put them at a disadvantage, or will generate a wider complication and penalise industries in that particular district. Let me try to address myself to these considerations.

It is quite impossible, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Leeds (Captain Peake) has recognised, with, if I may say so, his very great experience of the industry, to take anything like a geographical basis; but there is not the least doubt that that is the underlying consideration, or at all events has been up to this point, of many of the advocates of this change. You can fix quite easily and freely the area of production, and, in a general way, you know the margins of the area of distribution; but you cannot fix that in any precise form. Suggestions have been made that it might be a radius of 10, 15, 20 or 25 miles, but of course one figure is just as meaningless as another.

Forward to