HC Deb 21 February 1940 vol 357 cc1329-38
38. Lieut.-Commander Tufnell

asked the Minister of Transport whether he is aware that, in connection with the almost universal shortage of coal, the view is widely held that there is ample coal but that delivery is not efficient; whether the fullest possible use is being made of road transport since the railway companies have not been able, in view of their other commitments, to fulfil national requirements; and whether he can make a general statement upon the position of road haulage in relation to coal distribution?

Captain Wallace

The conveyance of coal by road over long distances is not a practicable way of remedying the position, but as regards local distribution I made arrangements some four weeks ago with my hon. Friend the Secretary for Mines that special issues of liquid fuel rations should be made for goods vehicles delivering coal locally if the applications were recommended by his Divisional Coal Officers.

Viscountess Astor

Can my right hon. and gallant Friend tell us who is responsible for the coal muddle? Is he aware that the whole country would like to know?

Mr. Ammon

Is the right hon. and gallant Gentleman aware that one of the reasons for the coal shortage is said to be the high demurrage charges, which merchants cannot pay?

Captain Wallace

I believe that not to be correct. As far as I know, no merchant has yet paid increased demurrage charges. I gave a most specific promise in the House when I introduced the Regulations that in cases where convincing evidence could be brought that merchants had done their best and could not clear their wagons, the charges would not be enforced.

Mr. Thorne

Is the right hon. and gallant Gentleman going to make a statement on this matter this afternoon?

Sir Frank Sanderson

Is it not the case that the coal shortage is partly attributable to the fact that the Government have controlled all private wagons?

39. Mr. Lipson asked

the Minister of Transport whether he is aware that the Shirebrook Colliery, Limited, had 642 loaded labelled wagons of coal in their sidings at 7 a.m. on Friday, 9th February, some of which had been standing there since 15th January; that this has resulted in the colliery working half-time and unemployment, as there are no empty wagons into which coal can be loaded; and will he take immediate steps to remedy this unsatisfactory state of things which is bound seriously to affect the output of coal?

Captain Wallace

I have had this matter specially investigated. On 28th and 29th January access to the colliery by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway was entirely blocked by snow and on 1st and 2nd February access by the London and North Eastern Railway (Great Northern Section) was also entirely blocked. Since that date there has been a progressive improvement both in the number of empty wagons supplied and in the number of loaded wagons cleared. During the first nine days of February the average number of empty wagons supplied each day was 109 and of loaded wagons cleared 147; the numbers for the second nine days of February were 143 and 195 respectively. On 9th February some 627 loaded wagons were standing ready for despatch. By 18th February the pit sidings were completely clear. The hon. Member will no doubt appreciate that the recent severe weather has imposed a severe strain on the railways and their staff. In extremely difficult circumstances they have done their best to provide an adequate service for this colliery.

Mr. Lipson

Is my right hon. and gallant Friend aware that the company say that they have spent pounds on telegrams and telephone calls to railway companies and have simply received excuses galore—that one day they were told there were no engines, on another day no freights, and on another day that there was sickness on the part of the staff; and will my right hon. and gallant Friend give an assurance that this sort of thing is not likely to occur again?

Captain Wallace

If my hon. Friend will read the answer I have given, he will see that a very remarkable effort has been made to provide railway wagons. No amount of telegrams will make sick railwaymen well again.

Mr. James Griffiths

Has the right hon. and gallant Gentleman investigated the question whether there are sufficient wagons in the country to deal with the coal, and is any increase being made in the number of railway wagons?

Captain Wallace

Yes, Sir. We are building all the wagons we can. It was because I was not satisfied that with the present rate of usage there were enough wagons to meet present and prospective demands that, after careful consultation with all the interests concerned, we brought in the demurrage regulations in order that more use might be made of the wagons we have.

Mr. Arthur Greenwood

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Transport what steps he is taking to increase the tonnage of coal carried on the railways, in order to meet the needs of the public utility undertakings and other consumers?

Captain Wallace

The protracted spell of bad weather, including particularly the very heavy falls of snow and the prevalence of fog and other wintry conditions at sea, which are the counterpart in this country of the unprecedented ice-bound conditions which have prevailed throughout Northern Europe, have had two results. In the first place the demand for coal has naturally increased and, secondly, transport of all kinds has been seriously interfered with.

The situation has for some time past been engaging the urgent attention of the Government and, as indicated by my hon. Friend the Secretary for Mines in the statement which he made on 6th February, various measures were taken, including the direction of consignments and the arrangement of special train loads of coal for the places most seriously affected. The Railway Executive Committee at the same time has been making every effort to accelerate the flow of supplies through the normal channels.

The inevitable depletion of stocks during the partial hold-up of traffic has, however, resulted in continued shortages in some areas. Last week it was decided that further measures should be taken and arrangements were made for the movement of coal to be specially accelerated.

I hope that by these means the situation in those areas where there has been a shortage of domestic supplies will soon be relieved. It will, of course, be realised that the capacity of the railways to carry additional freight is not unlimited and that at the present time there are very great demands upon it. The general interest requires that the needs of the public utility undertakings—electricity, gas and water—should be met as well as the domestic supply, and it has been decided, after a careful review of the coal situation generally, that special measures must be taken to augment the supplies of coal to such undertakings, especially those in London and the South of England.

In present circumstances this will involve the drawing of additional supplies of coal by rail from the Northumberland and Durham areas as well as from the Midland Amalgamated District which includes South Yorkshire.

I have accordingly asked the Railway Executive Committee to make such arrangements as will enable an increase of some 70,000 tons of coal per week to be carried in train loads from collieries in these areas direct to London and the south. This will mean 143 additional coal trains per week, of which 100 will work from collieries in Northumberland or Durham. Essential freight traffic cannot be sacrificed for this purpose and it will only be possible to secure this large increase of coal supplies by rail at the expense of passenger services.

The additional trains from Northumberland and Durham will necessitate a considerable reduction of passenger services on the main lines between Newcastle and London as well as on a number of secondary and branch lines. There will also be certain curtailments of services on other lines to make room for the additional trains from the Midland district to London. The fullest possible notice of the alterations will be given.

I hope that the travelling public, who will undoubtedly suffer some inconvenience, will accept the paramount necessity for giving this priority to coal traffic. The long period of exceptionally severe weather has inevitably resulted in an accumulation of loaded wagons in colliery sidings and marshalling yards, but I can assure the House that energetic steps have been taken, and will be continued, on the railways to meet the needs of the coal situation in the fullest measure possible.

The Prime Minister authorises me to add that he personally is taking a direct interest in this vital matter and that everything possible will be done to resolve the present admitted hardships.

Mr. Greenwood

May I put a Supplementary Question to the Prime Minister? I would like to ask the Prime Minister whether, in taking this direct personal interest in the problem, he intends to act in concert not merely with the Ministry of Transport but with all the other Departments concerned; whether the plans which the right hon. Gentleman is contemplating are designed to effect a permanent improvement in coal supplies throughout the country in the circumstances of this time; and, lastly, whether the right hon. Gentleman can assure the House that this problem, which is very close to the people, will be solved within a very reasonable period of time, that the situation will be really eased and the hardship really abated?

The Prime Minister (Mr. Chamberlain)

In reply to the first Supplementary Question of the right hon. Gentleman, certainly this is not a matter which concerns the Ministry of Transport only. I shall be in direct consultation with the Secretary for Mines, the President of the Board of Trade and the Minister of Shipping, all of whom are concerned in the matter. In regard to the second point, of course the immediate problem is to try to overcome the shortage which now exists and which is very serious, and to that, I think, our first efforts must be directed; but I fully agree that what we have to do, when we have overcome that shortage, is to try to take such measures that it will not be likely to occur again. As to the third Question which the right hon. Gentleman put to me, I appreciate very keenly the hardships which have, unfortunately, been inflicted upon the domestic consumer, and I know that, in many cases, they must have suffered very much, especially in the extremely hard weather—[An Hon. Member: "And still are"]—and I dare say they still are, although I hope that the milder weather may have mitigated the situation to some extent. I do not like to pledge myself to dates because one does not know but what we may have a recurrence of hard weather which might add to our difficulties; but I think, as my right hon. and gallant Friend has just said, that we are now in a position to assist the domestic consumer as well as the public utility companies. Barring accidents, that is to say, barring exceptional weather and other accidents, we may hope that the situation will be materially eased in the course of a reasonably short time.

Mr. Cassells

Arising out of the first part of the Prime Minister's reply, and in view of the fact that no reference was made to Scotland, may we be informed by the Minister of Transport what can be done to meet the present difficulties in that country?

Captain Wallace

We are doing our best in every way to meet the shortage, not only in London but in Scotland as well as other places.

Mr. Shinwell

Will the Prime Minister give his personal attention to the seaborne traffic aspect of this problem, including adequate protection to the crews of colliers, coasters and other vessels employed in the trade, and the provisions of the necessary vessels?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir, certainly. I appreciate that the situation can be solved only by an increase in the amount of coal borne by sea. It can be assisted by land transport, but it is essential to get further supplies by sea. Therefore I will give my personal attention to the point to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

Brigadier-General Sir Henry Croft

In view of the very serious position that exists, will immediate planning take place in order to ensure that adequate reserves are held in all those areas which are cut off from sea supplies owing to war conditions; and can my right hon. and gallant Friend give an undertaking that efforts will be made now to see that that is done at the earliest possible moment?

Captain Wallace

As soon as we have dealt with the immediate situation we shall, of course, do that. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has just said, we shall do what we can to build up reserves and to take such other steps as are possible.

Viscountess Astor

Is it not a very serious matter that every time there is a muddle like this there is a row in the House and then the Prime Minister says that he will look into the matter? Does not the Prime Minister think it would be fairer to himself and better for the country that he should have Ministers who can do the work; and may I ask my right hon. Friend whether, in fairness to himself, to the House of Commons and to the country, he really ought not to get Ministers who would save us from this muddle?

The Prime Minister

I thank my Noble Friend for her care for me, but I have every confidence in my Ministers—[Hon. Members: "The King's Ministers"]—I should say, in my colleagues. I was asked by the Leader of the Opposition to take a personal interest in the matter, and to that request I am very glad to accede.

Mr. Benjamin Smith

Having regard to the fact that, in these days, many poor people are without coal, will the Prime Minister consider utilising the many thousands of vehicles that are laid idle by the Government's policy in the issuing of petrol, because thus he would relieve the railways of certain of their goods and minimise to a great extent the pressure upon passenger transport?

The Prime Minister

That is a matter which will have attention.

Mr. Smith

It will have attention?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Jagger

Will the Prime Minister make a special inquiry into the effect of the new demurrage rates in causing chaos and will he consider the advisability of reducing the charges of a demurrage?

The Prime Minister

A Question on that subject has been answered to-day.

Mr. Poole

If the railway companies are so completely unable to cope with the additional traffic that they must make such an incursion into the ordinary passenger traffic, how does the right hon. and gallant Gentleman hope that they will be able to carry sufficient traffic to earn the revenue which is set out in the recent Agreement?

Mr. Speaker rose

Mr. Poole

With your leave, Sir, I was coming to the point in relation to this shortage. When the Department of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman took over the railways, was a priority department established to decide the priority of traffics to be conveyed on the railways, as such is very badly needed; and is the Minister aware that it would be completely unnecessary to have 146 additional trains if 20-ton, 30-ton and 40-ton wagons were used, instead of the 10-ton and 20-ton wagons used at the present time?

Captain Wallace

There certainly is an organisation to secure priority on the railways, as in other places.

Mr. Poole

It certainly does not function.

Mr. Watkins

Is there reasonable hope that the people in London who have been without coal for several weeks will be able to have coal, at any rate during the next few days?

Captain Wallace

I do not think I can add to what the Prime Minister has said on the subject.

Mr. A. V. Alexander

Is the right hon. and gallant Gentleman aware that, although two or three full train-loads are through during the last 24 hours, there are about 40 train-loads—whole train-loads—still outstanding for London alone, and that unless they come through quickly we shall be in a dire position this weekend?

Captain Wallace

In the answer which I have given I have told the House that we are taking every possible step to accelerate, not only whole train-loads, but individual consignments.

Mr. Burke

In addition to looking after the interests of London and the south, and into the question of domestic supplies, will the right hon. and gallant Gentleman consider the terrible state of the Lancashire mills? Is he aware that many mills that had average pay rolls of £2,000 per week have been closed down, and that this situation is causing as much distress to the ordinary public as is the lack of domestic supplies? The right hon. and gallant Gentleman knows about the problem; will he be good enough not to neglect it while his eyes are turned to London and to the south?

Captain Wallace

I shall do my best to have eyes all round my head.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

Is my right hon. and gallant Friend aware of the magnificent work that has been done under exceptionally trying conditions by engine drivers, firemen, and railway staffs, whose numbers have already been heavily depleted by sickness during this difficult time?

Captain Wallace

Yes, I am well aware of that, and I am very glad to join in the tribute that my hon. Friend has paid to them.

Mr. J. Griffiths

May I ask the Prime Minister whether the investigation will include an investigation of the possibility of increasing the supply of coal by providing work for tensor thousands of miners in this country, who will read of this discussion with dismay?

The Prime Minister

When we have solved the problem of transport, the other problems will very speedily be on the way to a solution.

Mr. Lunn

When will the Government appreciate the position of the miners in this country?