HC Deb 04 February 1941 vol 368 cc904-12

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

Mr. Culverwell (Bristol, West)

I wish to draw the attention of the House to the serious coal shortage which has arisen in many parts of the country and which is largely due to inefficiency and a lack of foresight on the part of the Government. I want to describe the conditions which prevail in Bristol, not because that is the only city affected by the shortage, but because the position there is typical of that which exists, to a greater or lesser degree, in constituencies represented by hon. Members in all parts of the House. It is only because I am familiar with Bristol that I take the conditions in that city as an example. I want, first of all, to remind the House that the Government cannot shelter behind the excuse that they were taken by surprise. Last winter there was an acute coal famine in many parts of the country. At that time, we were living under more or less peace conditions; no bombs had fallen, and coastwise shipping had been very little interfered with. In the light of that experience, the Bristol Corporation asked permission to build up reserves of coal, but they were informed—and we were all delighted to hear the announcement—that the Government intended to build up reserves of coal all over the country, so that such a catastrophe would never occur again. After months of strenuous effort during the summer, the Mines Department managed to build up the magnificent total of about 5,600 tons of house coal in Bristol—suffident to last the city for about four days. I have no doubt that the dumps built up in other parts of the country were similarly helpful. No doubt the Minister will tell us that, in addition to this, the Department managed to build up a reserve of about 16,000 tons—it is, I am informed, nearer 10,000 tons—of steam coal, but clearly if an emergency arose it is very unlikely that the gas and electricity undertakings would be allowed to suffer in order that householders might be provided with coal.

The position in Bristol to-day is that, while the average normal weekly consumption of house coal is about 10,000 tons, we have been receiving over the last three months an average of about 5,000 tons—sufficient to last about half the week. Therefore, we are to a large extent living on reserves that have been stored in private cellars. Patriotic and prudent citizens adopted the advice of the Government to build up stocks of coal against an emergency and they did so in Bristol—and no doubt elsewhere—to the extent of over 50,000 tons. But clearly, if the experience of last winter is any guide, when those cellars begin to run out—and probably they will all do so about the same time—the acute shortage will become manifest and grievous. There is no reason why the Government should be complacent because there has not been such a violent outcry up to now as might have been expected. There is plenty of coal available at the pithead. We have lost all our Continental markets, and indeed, we are finding it difficult to find employment for miners who are at present out of work.

The coal famine in Bristol and other parts of the country is partly due to inefficient marketing and distribution methods, but chiefly to the chaotic state of the railway system. Therefore, anything the Minister of Mines can do to assist or relieve our overworked railway system will ameliorate our conditions. I want to put one or two suggestions, not necessarily new, which deserve careful examination as affording a possible relief to the situation. First, I suggest that merchants should be forbidden to order small consignments of coal. It should be the general rule that only complete trainloads should be ordered from the coalfields, and that the order should be given either by merchants in co-operation, or, if that is not practicable, by regional coal officers. It is quite obvious that this system would avoid a lot of shunting of wagons and the making-up of trains, and that thereby the task of the railways would be considerably eased. In small places where accommodation for a complete train is not available, special arrangements should be made for them by conveying the coal by Army lorries or commercial vehicles from dumps and sidings.

Secondly, I suggest that just as we have adopted pool petrol so the time may have come when we should adopt a policy of pool coal. There should be two or three grades of coal at standard prices, and merchants and consumers should be compelled to take whatever kind of coal was available. There should be none of this picking and choosing between one type of coal and another which makes the task much more difficult in these times. Thirdly, I have urged the Minister to develop the output from local collieries which would obviate the necessity of hauling coal by railway from distant coalfields. Where necessary, the Minister should draft labour into these coalfields. I understand there is some unemployment in the coalfields; he could, therefore, draft labour in from the more distant coalfields for this purpose. In this connection I wish to draw my hon. Friend's attention to some rather disquieting figures from a typical colliery. I do not know whether it is the general state of affairs, but if so it certainly deserves careful and serious examination. These figures show that while the wages of the miner has increased by 23 per cent. since October, 1939, the output per man has gone down by some- thing just over 7 per cent. That seems to disclose a state of affairs which certainly deserves examination. I do not know whether all my suggestions are workable, but I understand the Minister is moving on these lines. All I am doing is to endeavour to make him move a little quicker. Certainly these suggestions would help to relieve the burden on the railway system.

I turn now to the Minister of Transport. His Department is certainly largely responsible for the present serious state of affairs. We all appreciate the added burdens on the railways and the difficulties with which they are confronted. Indeed, if we were not familiar with them we could quickly learn of their achievements and difficulties from the enormous number of advertisements which appear in the daily Press. I urge the Minister of Transport to try to cut through the red tape and bureaucratic methods which stop the proper functioning of our railways. I am quite convinced, and I think it is the general opinion, that there is a lack of co-ordination and unification in our railways. They are still working in separate compartments, and they are still jealous in these times to guard their profits rather than provide service for the community. The Government should guarantee their profits and take over that side of the work providing we can get the coal and other materials we require transported throughout the country. The Great Western Railway, for instance, I am told will not allow wagons to leave its system until it has an equal number of wagons in exchange.

It seems to me that that is not the kind of thing that should be allowed to continue. I am told also that one railway will not allow another to use its sidings. That seems to me obstruction. We are all aware that wagons lie about for days and weeks, sometimes even for months, being used as warehouses. When the railways are complaining of lack of wagons, that seems to be a system that should be stopped. The Minister might by further increasing demurrage rates discourage the use of wagons as warehouses. I am told that there is great hindrance at the junctions where one railway system connects up with another—such cases as Bordesley and Banbury. No doubt the railway companies could put forward technical objections, but I am sure, if the Minister exercised drive and pressure, many of them could be overcome.

Another point is that the Government should cut down all unnecessary traffic. They should not consider only the question of price. Last March I brought to the hon. Gentleman's notice a case in which 60,000 tons of bricks were brought from the London area to build air-raid shelters at Bristol, merely because they were cheaper, overburdening the railways and at the same time throwing local brickyards out of work. Exactly what was foreseen has occurred. Forty per cent. of the local brickyards have closed down, their labour is dispersed and they are unable to start again. In normal times, this serious state of affairs, exhibiting such lack of foresight, inefficiency and lack of drive, would have justified a Vote of Censure on the Government, and it would have been carried by a large majority. As these are not normal times, as one does not want to put difficulties in the way of the Government or dwell on past mistakes, I have couched my remarks in very mild language, but I can assure my hon. Friend that feeling is very strong and, unless he takes energetic steps and brings pressure to bear on the railway companies and the coal merchants to bring their methods up to date and cut through their inefficient methods, we may be faced with a disaster of the first magnitude. I cannot do better, in conclusion, than quote from a leading article in the "Daily Telegraph" yesterday: What is needed now is not emphasis on difficulties which should never have been allowed to arise, but more energetic collaboration between the Ministries of Mines and Transport to overcome them. The public, which has shown great patience, will look for immediate measures and concrete results. I think I shall be voicing the views of other Members if I say that not only the public but the House will be looking for immediate measures and concrete results.

The Secretary for Mines (Mr. David Grenfell)

I am sure the House will be grateful to the hon. Member for the general tenour of his remarks and, in particular, for the quotation from the "Daily Telegraph" which he has read. This problem is one of distribution, transport and right methods of buying and selection. The problem of distribution, particularly, is a serious one, and I think that a solution is to be found in right co- operation between the responsible Ministers. I was disappointed when my hon. Friend referred to the coal shortage and attributed it generally to the inefficiency of the Government. There are many things which we have to endure which are not attributable to the Government. I do not resent taking, as head of the Mines Department, a share of the responsibility, but the hon. Member must know that new problems and difficulties have arisen which are not attributable to the Government. There are war conditions from which many inconveniences arise, and one of the problems is that of internal transport. We are not alone in that. Fortunately, the enemy has the same problems and we have added to his difficulties as he has added to ours.

It is wrong for the hon. Member to say that we might have avoided all the complaints which he said had arisen from various parts of the country. He said the Government were responsible because they had received due warning 12 months ago. If the Government had done nothing in consequence of what happened, then they would have been to blame. Representing the Mines Department, I take a measure of credit to ourselves that we embarked on an ambitious scheme for storing coal in all parts of the country. As a consequence, we were successful in setting aside many million tons. We have stocked nearer 30,000,000 tons of coal than 20,000,000 because of what happened previously and we realised that there might be great danger to our fuel supplies if we did not make preparations in time. I want to assure the hon. Member that these preparations extended as far as Bristol, and there is not a town which has not got a substantially larger quantity of coal in stock than was in stock last year.

The hon. Member said that the reserves in Bristol amounted to 50,000 tons of house coal. The Bristol householders, urged by the Department and by publicity of all kinds—I myself advocated the stocking of coal by householders—set aside, and the merchants disposed of, 113 per cent. more coal last summer than they did in the summer of 1939. We more than doubled the storing of coal in the consumers' cellars in Bristol compared with the previous summer. There is now no danger of a widespread famine in Bristol because of any unwillingness on the part of the Government to provide stocks in the summer time in readiness for the winter. There are people in Bristol, as elsewhere, who, unfortunately, have no room to stock coal. In all our large cities accommodation for stocking coal and the means to buy it are not available to all. There are people in Bristol about whom we are very much concerned. But it is not true to infer that there is a general famine of house coal in Bristol. There are people there who can go throughout the winter without further supplies. I am not suggesting that there is no shortage, because there is, but there are large stocks of coal in Bristol. The gas company, for instance, holds stocks for five weeks. If no coal went into Bristol at all, there would be no danger for more than five weeks of a discontinuance of operations at the gas works. There are two electricity works there; one has stocks of coal for seven weeks and the other for 16 weeks.

My hon. Friend said there was no reason why more coal should not be brought to Bristol. More coal is being brought to Bristol. We are overcoming some of the difficulties by the very means which he advocated. He suggested that we should make up complete trains which would make the journey direct from the Midlands or Durham to Bristol, and that has been done. They travel to Bristol without further attention at marshalling yards or elsewhere until they reach their destination. Then he suggested that we should pool supplies and that customers should be compelled to take whatever coal is provided for them, that customers should be told, if it is house coal, "This is your ration, and you must take it." I advise him to try that plan first in a public meeting at Bristol. It is easy to suggest it in this House, and to receive the concurrence of Members here, but it is not very easy in practice; and, further, it is not always the right thing to do. Not all houses have the same equipment for consuming household fuels. There are houses fitted with anthracite stoves, there are houses with wide, low fireplaces that want one kind of household coal, and others in which the draught is not sufficient to burn another type of household coal. In Bristol we are finding it difficult to get people to accept house coal that has been taken from a neighbouring coalfield in order to meet the shortage.

Mr. Culverwell

I suggested two or three grades of coal.

Mr. Grenfell

I agree that we should produce a number of qualities of house coal, but you cannot compel people to take any coal you choose to offer to them. In the last few weeks we have been able to augment supplies by various means. More trains have been going to Bristol, and we have improvised in ways which I shall not mention in detail, and more coal has been got from the neighbouring coalfields. Bristol does not draw all its coal from distant coalfields. No city of large size is closer to the coalfields than is Bristol. It has a coal mine within the city boundary. It is within 17 miles of the Somerset coalfield and within 40 miles of the Forest of Dean. In these three coalfields there is an output of nearly 2,000,000 tons a year. In those coalfields there is not a sufficient variety of quality compared with the supplies outside those three coalfields, and Bristol actually draws 75 per cent. of its supplies, not from the coalfields near it, but from the Midlands and elsewhere.

The third point made by the hon. Member was in regard to increased production in Somerset. That is not as easy to deal with. He raised a point concerning wages which I have not time to discuss in detail, but it is not true that wages in Somerset have gone up disproportionately. The wages of miners in Somerset, the Welsh coalfields, the Midlands and Scotland have varied in accordance with the increases in the cost of living.

Mr. Culverwell

My point was that output had gone down.

Mr. Grenfell

The hon. Member said that while wages had gone up by 23 per cent., the output had gone down. If I were speaking to an audience of miners, I could quite easily explain the reason for that. The Somerset coalfield is very difficult. There is a shortage of labour, strange to say, in the Somerset coalfield. We are trying to attract more labour there. The hon. Member may truly say that output has gone down by a small percentage as compared with 12 months ago, but there are many factors to account for that fact. I can assure him that one of the matters connected with the present output is the dearth of young men; this has not arisen in the last few months and is not due to my presence here. It is due to the general unwillingness of young men to enter this industry. We find ourselves without sufficient young men in the Somerset coalfield, and we are not now likely to get them.

Lord Apsley (Bristol, Central)

Is there not considerable unemployment in the coalfields?

Mr. Grenfell

There is a search of coalfields for men of military age. I am sure that I can convince my hon. Friend that no charge rests against the workers concerned, in regard to output. The additions which have been received to wages have been awarded to all the districts in the miners' organisation in this country and are awarded on a scale in accordance with an increase in the cost of living. I can assure my hon. Friends that the points which have been put to me and to the Minister of Transport have been noted, and that we shall pay attention to what has been said. To the hon. Member who suggested that we should take control of the railways and work them, I would observe that while that is rather a revolutionary proposal I am quite willing for him to endeavour to persuade the House to acquire and control the railways. If he wants to do that, I am a candidate for the post of Minister of Transport in those conditions, but I am afraid the hon. Member will find some difficulty among the people to whom he talks in regard to that proposition. He said that if we were to increase the demurrage, that might have an effect. We have been trying to get people to secure the return of wagons, and we are not at all satisfied that it would be just or expedient to increase the demurrage.

There are difficult conditions for transport in these days. An appeal has been made, and a request, that my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Transport and I should work together for the common interest in order to secure and maintain the distribution of coal. I agree entirely, and I am glad that my right hon. and gallant Friend and I have been giver the opportunity to sit together on this Bench to-night to demonstrate our willingness to work together. I can assure the hon. Member that steps are already in operation, and that the outlook for the future is slightly better.

it being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.