HC Deb 19 November 1936 vol 317 cc2065-72

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]

11.12 p.m.


On 10th November I addressed a question to the Secretary for Mines in reference to the importation of 100,000 tons of foreign coke and asked whether he did not think the Government ought to take steps to prevent it and to make sure that no such importation should take place in future in view of the depression in the coal mining industry. The hon. and gallant Gentleman gave a reply which was entirely unsatisfactory to me and to all those interested in the industry. I asked whether there had been any negotiations and whether he had granted any licence to permit of the importation. He replied that no licence had been granted, in fact no licence was required, but there bad been consultations. I have a copy of a letter sent by the secretary of the Monmonouthshire and South Wales Coke Association to the hon. and gallant Gentleman's Department last May. Apparently at that time there were discussions on what was described as the risk of a shortage of suitable coke. The secretary of the association denied that there was any risk of a shortage, and gave an undertaking that in South Wales alone, without mentioning other parts of the country which can supply coke, there was no fear of any shortage and they were able to supply all the coke that was necessary. In any case, assuming that there was at any time a shortage of suitable coke for the purpose for which this was required by an organisation known as the Wholesale Coke Association, there is an abundance of suitable coal for the same purpose. The Minister admitted that in his reply. I asked whether there was not an abundant supply of steam coal or anthracite, which is eminently suitable for the purpose. He said: As regards the third part of the question, I am informed that supplies of South Wales dry steam coal and of anthracite are available which could be used in some instances in the place of coke, but this is of course a question of commercial practicability." —[OFFICIAL. REPORT, 10th November, 1936; col. 689, Vol. 317.] It is not a question of technical practicability, not that coke is unacceptable because of its composition and cannot do the job, but because of commercial reasons. What does that mean? It means precisely, in colliers' language, that foreign coke is cheaper than Welsh coal. If this had been a question of foreign eggs or beef, the benches opposite would have been full, and we should have heard a great deal about the matter, but coal mining is reduced to such poverty that it has not a friend on the other side to say a word for it, and there is not a coal-owners' representative prepared to raise the matter. Anthracite coal could be used instead of these 100,000 tons of coke, which have deprived 330 miners of full work for a year, and I am told on very reputable authority that if these 330 miners had been employed producing these 100,000 tons of anthracite or dry steam coke, instead of this coke being imported, another 330 men would have been indirectly employed at the ports or on the railways in handling the coke. Thus 660 men have been deprived of a year's employment in order to provide some of the merchants in London with cheap coke so as to increase their profits. It also means that these 660 men will be entitled to £35,000 from the Unemployment Insurance Fund. Look at the profits of the gas and electrical companies I No one can say that these companies which use coke are in such a parlous plight that they cannot afford to pay the price for British coke. It is in order to swell their profits that this coke is being imported. I protest against this scandal of putting more miners on the dole and leaving them to the tender mercies of the Unemployment Assistance Board in order to swell the bank balances and the profits of merchants in London. We take a strong view of this matter. The South Wales Coke Owners' Association and everyone connected with the industry has been amazed that the Minister of Mines should have sat down without taking effective steps to protect the British miners. I ask the Secretary for Mines to take note of our protest. Some time ago he came to the House and brought a sheaf of Orders to try and reorganise the selling side of the industry and to replace chaos by some order. The purpose of the Orders was to make impossible internal competition in this industry and to raise the price of coal so as to provide the men who risk their lives with a wage commensurate with the risks they run. Yet at the same time that the Secretary for Mines brought these Orders before the House, asking it to confer on the coal-owners powers which really amounted to a monopoly, to charge in the British market prices which could give the industry an opportunity to live, the Department were consulting with the Coke Owners' Association as to whether they would agree to 100,000 tons of cheap foreign coke coming into this country. I was told—my information may be wrong, but it came from Belgium—the figures of our exports of coal to Belgium.

Let me give the figures of the export of coal to Belgium. If there was any reciprocity, if we bought their coke, because they bought our coal, I could understand it. The export of anthracite coal to Belgium for the first nine months of 1934 amounted to 10,447 tons and for the first nine months of 1936, to 3,450 tons. When we come to the figures of all coal exported, we find that in the first nine months of 1934 we exported 748,962 tons to Belgium and in the first nine months of this year the figure was reduced to 324,283 tons. Therefore in two years our exports of coal to Belgium have been more than halved: yet that is the country from which we are buying coke, a country which is putting every kind of obstacle in our way. Every kind of quota, restriction and licence in respect of the importation into Belgium of Welsh and English coal has been imposed, and yet the Minister allows coke importations to come from that country in the way I have described. I protest that the Minister did not take steps to prevent that. Even if a licence was not required I suggest that his Department, or the Government if they had not the power, should have come to the House and asked for power. They lose no time in coming to ask for power to prohibit the import of other commodities, and I ask that the Minister should take steps to stop this 100,000 tons of coke if it has not yet come. If necessary he and the Government should seek powers, which the House will gladly give them, to protect the interests of the men who are being deprived of their livelihood by means of this sort.

11.22 p.m.

The SECRETARY for MINES (Captain Crookshank)

I am much obliged to the hon. Member for bringing forward this subject. It is very difficult to deal adequately with such matters at Question Time. Ministers can only answer specific questions put to them and if they stray beyond these limits they are liable to be pulled up by the Chair. In the few minutes at my disposal I hope to be able to clear away some of the difficulties in which the hon. Member finds himself.

One question is about 100,000 tons of coke. I want to be quite frank. It is a little more than that, because there has always been in recent years a certain amount of importation of coke from Belgium. As I said on Tuesday this coke is for horticultural purposes in the Lea Valley. That coke largely comes from Belgium but we send coking coal to Belgium and the coke comes back here. I merely say that to clear up any misapprehension about the actual figures.

The point which the hon. Member has in view is the importation of 100,000 tons of coke. Let us try to get the matter in its proper perspective. In 1935 the production of coke and breeze in this country was nearly 25,000,000 tons and the export of coke from this country in 1935 was just on 2,500,000 tons. The hon. Member's question only relates to 100,000 tons. I make that point because it brings the matter a little more into relation with the general picture as far as the mining industry as a whole is concerned. South Wales is vitally important, but one must also consider the industry as a whole in all these problems. There is a shortage of coke and it is to fill that shortage, I understand, that 100,000 tons of coke are being imported. The shortage is due partly to the increased demand of the iron and steel industry, and also to an increased demand for coke for central heating and domestic purposes. It is also due to a reason which must be of great importance to anyone who is interested in the coal industry as a whole, and that is, the very great success which has been achieved in the South of England by using coke for various appliances which in the immediate past have used oil. The hon. Member must know that since the London and Counties Coke Association was established in 1931 its research and propaganda have been such that the quantity of imported oil used for making water gas in the area it covers has gone down from 35,500,000 to 16,000,000 gallons, and coal has replaced it. There is, therefore, a very much increased demand for coke as a result, and the general improvement that has gone on during the last few years has meant that at the moment there is a definite shortage of coke. The improvement has resulted in an increased production of gas coke in the London and Southern areas, and that is the area concerned in this 100,000 tons. Over and above that the South of England absorbs more—to the extent of 1,500,000 tons of coke for the Midlands. Granted a shortage—and I hope it will not be denied there was a shortage—the problem was how to fill that shortage.


The shortage has been denied.


Nevertheless it is a fact, and the problem was how to fill that shortage. One of the possibilities was that in view of the fact that our exports were in the region of 2,500,000 tons that amount of coke could have been kept at home, and then the question would not have arisen. You could have kept back from the export market some of this 2,500,000 tons. That was one way. Another way was to negotiate with the coke producers to see if they could provide more coke and the third choice was to import the balance.


You could use something else.


It is possible that the people who wanted coke would not have been satisfied with something else. This question has been under the consideration of the Government for months past, and they came to the conclusion that in view of the difficulty, having once lost this market for the export of British coke, it was of paramount importance, during the temporary shortage, to see that nothing was done to lose any of that export market, because the experience with coal as well as coke has been that if once you lose a bit of your export market it is twice as difficult to win it back. If you fail to fulfil your obligations you have entered into the particular country buys somewhere else and you cannot get back that market. Taking the long view I am satisfied that the Government were right in saying that it was of vital importance to keep up the export market, and that it would be better to make up the shortage by importing coke and go on exporting coke up to the full quantity. That is really the position.

It is asked why we do not stop these imports coming in. The answer is that there is no power. Of course, it was always open to the South Wales Miners' Federation and to the owners, as they know perfectly well what steps could be taken, to check the importation of coke if they so desired. They could have made a case to the Import Duties Advisory Committee and allowed them to adjudicate on the point. It was specifically put in this House that that line of approach was open to them, but it was not taken.


Surely the South Wales Miners' Federation have no right of appeal to the Import Duties Advisory Committee?


As far as that goes, anybody can appeal who is interested. The general mining interests of South Wales were aware of the course open to them, should they choose to adopt it, but they did not. Therefore the position is that these 100,000 tons are in process of coming in, because of the importance of retaining our export market. The shortage is temporary. The hon. Member said that there are certain coals which might have been, or might still be, used, instead of coke. If that be so, all I can say is, "Good luck to them." Let them try and secure that market. They have an opportunity now to get it, and recently a good deal of propaganda has been made, with a view to getting into that market. But it is not right to say that the object is to swell the profits of rich gas companies. Let the hon. Member bear in mind that had the companies which are now exporting coke in order to retain the export markets taken the other course and sold it here, and not exported it, they would have made more money out of it. They could have obtained a better price in the home market than they are getting in the export market at the moment. I think it is now agreed by all concerned, however, that everything should be done to see what can be achieved in the way of substituting dry steam coal from South Wales for these purposes. It is up to all concerned to do what they can to that end—

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.