HC Deb 29 January 1934 vol 285 cc31-5

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary for Mines if his attention has been called to the importation of 1,600 tons of coal from Poland at a cost of 15s. 9d. per ton delivered to a London wharf, and that this was in consequence of deliveries from British collieries having been in arrears with their commitments; and whether, as plenty of British coal is available for all purposes, and in view of the large number of unemployed in the British coalfields, he will immediately take steps to prevent a repetition of this?

The SECRETARY for MINES (Mr. Ernest Brown)

I am obliged to my hon. and gallant Friend for giving me an opportunity of making a full statement with regard to the delivery of 1,600 tons of Polish coal to Messrs. Bowater's Paper Mills at Gravesend. I have taken advantage of the offer made by that firm to investigate the statements included in their published announcement of the 14th January, and I am satisfied that there were arrears on some of their contracts, that in consequence their stocks of coal were depleted, and that their contractors advised them that they were in difficulties in obtaining British coal. I have been in communication with the contractors, one of whom endeavoured to obtain a cargo for Messrs. Bowater's outside their contracts, and they inform me that their inquiries were pursued "in the ordinary commercial manner and with more than the usual commercial diligence." In these circumstances, I deemed it necessary to ask the Central Council of Colliery Owners to ascertain whether it was possible to obtain from the collieries in the last weeks of December a cargo of at least 1,600 tons of suitable coal for delivery not later than the early part of January.

The Central Council's inquiry covered all the coal shipping districts, all of which replied that they would have been able to supply the required cargo within the stipulated time. I will, however, give details only in respect of Scotland and Northumberland, the districts from which Messrs. Bowater's normally draw their supplies. In Scotland, five important collieries could each have supplied the coal required, and I understand that one of these collieries, early in December, offered one of Messrs. Bowater's contractors an extra cargo of 1,500 tons of Pearls for shipment to the Thames during the month, which the contractors were unable to accept. 1,350 tons of this cargo were actually retained in trucks and carried over the Christmas and New Year holidays. Three other Scottish collieries could have supplied part cargoes of suitable coals which in total would have more than covered Messrs. Bowater's immediate requirements, as reflected by the Polish cargo bought by them. Nine important collieries in Northumberland have stated that they could have supplied suitable coal at the time mentioned.

I have no doubt that Messrs. Bowater's were genuinely concerned about the position of their coal supplies, and, on the advice they received from one of their contractors, considered that the situation justified the purchase of foreign coal. I am, however, satisfied that there was, in fact, no need whatever to import Polish coal to meet the requirements, which could have been met as promptly from British sources of supply.


May I ask my hon. Friend whether he has submitted already to Messrs. Bowater the reply which he has read out to the House, and given them any opportunity of making their observations upon it?




Is it not rather unfair to make a statement which reflects upon a firm without having given them that opportunity? Further, I would like to ask my hon. Friend whether he has had brought to his notice further complaints from other firms on the banks of the Thames that they are unable to obtain suitable British coal in adequate quantities, and promptly?


I do not know why my hon. Friend should assume anything of the kind. I think he had better inquire from Messrs. Bowater about the matter. That is all I need say about it at the moment. With regard to the second part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question, I have received no other complaint. There is no evidence whatever of shortage of coal owing to the quota. During the last quarter of 1933, the allotment made by the Central Council under the Coal Mines Scheme to those coalfields which cater for the Thames exceeded their annual output by over 500,000 tons. During that quarter Northumberland and Scotland both applied for, and secured, two additional allotments.


May I ask the hon. Gentleman if he is aware whether the coal that he is talking about could have been supplied to the mills that are mentioned at the same price as their contract price?


I am aware that Messrs. Bowater have specifically stated that price was not an issue in this matter.


Does not this propaganda convince the Secretary for Mines that it is high time that His Majesty's Government brought in a comprehensive Bill to supersede the Act of 1930?


My hon. Friend is drawing large conclusions on a very small basis.


Was the failure of the original contractors to supply the quantity of coal required due to the operation of the quota system, and, if so, at what date was the allocation made to the particular contractors, and how was it, if the allocation was made at a suitable period, that they were unable to fulfil the contract?


The contractor concerned was only one of those who normally supply Messrs. Bowater. The others were not concerned. My answer has shown, although they alleged great energy, that their inquiries could not have been as widespread as they might have been of the people who normally operate in the trade.

Captain EVANS

Has the hon. Gentleman any knowledge, official or otherwise, of any further orders being placed for Polish coal by British firms?


I have made the most careful inquiries, and I know of no other cargo coming to Great Britain.


Is it not a fact that a cargo of Scottish coal consigned to Messrs. Bowater arrived two days before the cargo of Polish coal?


I should not like to answer that in the affirmative, because there are other issues involved. There was some delay in the unloading of the coal.


Can the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that his Department will endeavour to expedite the allocations, particularly the additional allocations, in order that the collieries concerned, when they are faced with a situation like this, may be able to look ahead and be in a position to fill orders under contracts which they obtain?


The answer is that the Department does everything it can with promptitude and dispatch. In regard to allocation, the new system, as has been shown by the results of the last six months, has proved elastic enough for areas to get, not one additional allocation inside the period, but two.

Mr. A. C. REED

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that modern plant has been erected to burn certain grades of coal, and that other coals are inefficient or impossible to burn? Is he also aware that there were at least five firms on the Thames in desperation for coal during November and December—one, burning over 1,000 tons a week, had less than 200 tons—and they found it impossible to get coal of their particular grade? Will the hon. Gentleman give a list of the collieries which could have supplied Messrs. Bowater with suitable sized coal?


I am well aware, and all those concerned with the trade are aware, of the new problem which has arisen between large and graded fuel, owing to the new demand and the new technique in using graded fuel. That is not only a problem here, but is a world-wide problem. As far as that problem is technical, my Department is in the closest touch with the trade on the matter, and the coalowners themselves are considering the matter of the large as against the graded fuel. More than that, the Fuel Research Board at the moment is engaged in the investigation of breaking down large coal in order to meet this new demand.


Is the hon. Gentleman aware that this attack on the quota is really directed to lowering the price of coal and to reducing miners' wages?


In this case, the firm have made it abundantly clear that price was not in issue, and, in the event, as a matter of fact, the coal was actually dearer.