HC Deb 06 December 1944 vol 406 cc684-94

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

7.0 p.m.

Earl Winterton (Horsham and Worthing)

I gave the Minister of Fuel notice, three weeks ago, that I would raise this question of the utilisation of wood fuel, and I have just been informed that he will not be present. I rather wished the information had been conveyed to me before, in which case I would have raised the matter on another day. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will tell me why the Minister could not be present. That, of course, implies no reflection on the Parliamentary Secretary, but it is usual for a Cabinet Minister to be present, especially when an ex-Cabinet Minister gives three weeks' notice.

I will put my points in tabloid form. I think they are of considerable importance. In the South of England, in the counties of Kent, Surrey, and Sussex, there is a large area of what used to be forest country. It was, indeed, part of the old Forest of Anderida in Roman times which was afterwards known as Andres Weald and is still known as forest country. What I say, however, applies not only to the part of the world with which I am familiar but has a wider application. I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary will not mind if I say some hard things about the administration of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman in his absence. I am going to charge the Minister of Fuel with grossly neglecting over a series of years, and giving most inadequate answers to questions, a very important form of fuel which would reduce the strain upon the coal mines to a very considerable extent indeed.

Let me put in tabloid form the situation as it is to-day. In the part of England of which I am speaking, and it applies also to other parts, to the West country for example, until within recent memory—until, if I may say so with the deepest respect, Mr. Speaker, a time within the memory of yourself and myself when we were both young and lived in that part of the world—the great majority of people below a certain standard of income, the whole of the wage-earning population of Great Britain and the farmers, burnt nothing but wood fuel. No coal went into their houses at all, partly because of the question of transport. There is to-day an unsatisfied demand for wood fuel in that part of England. There is an unsatisfied demand, as the Parliamentary Secretary knows perfectly well, in London and in the South. Astonishing as it may seem, after more than five years of war, and after more than three years of the administration of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, I submit that no efforts, except of the most puerile character, have been made by the Minister of Fuel to have that wood used.

What are the three classes which could be used? First there is the wood fallen from trees by reason of gales or storms and also old trees which have fallen into decay, beech trees for example, the greater part of which could be utilised for burning and would make some of the finest fuel that there is. The only effort made by the Minister to have this fuel collected, according to the answers which have been given to me, has been an appeal to local authorities and district councils to have it collected. I should like to say, as the owner of considerable acreage in the South of England with a great deal of wood who has done his best to utilise it, as I shall show, that no such appeal has reached me from any of the authorities who, as I understood, the right hon. and gallant Gentleman had asked to collect this wood. Secondly, and most important of all, we come to the question of cordwood, which is a technical term in the South of England and, I think, elsewhere, for branches cut off from trees felled for timber purposes. The House will regard it as almost incredible that at this distance of time, when people are actually suffering in many of the towns from lack of fuel, no compulsion has been put upon owners of cordwood by this Ministry—which is always, when it comes to this House, constantly saying how difficult it is to carry on its work—to have that fuel collected.

Above all, perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary, who, no doubt, still belongs to the Labour Party, will answer me this question: Why has no price been laid down for this fuel? There are variations in price which are tremendous and some people are profiteering. Lastly, there is the important question of the complete failure by the Minister—I must regret he is not here so that I may say these things to his face; I presume that even he, on the Olympian heights he occupies, which prevent his attendance when an important question is under review, occasionally reads HANSARD and so will have the benefit of reading my remarks—to take any action in connection with another form of fuel which is being ignored altogether, namely, the vast forests of underwood, which was formerly used for making brooms and baskets. This makes some of the best possible fuel, yet nothing has been done. The Ministry of Supply have been far more energetic than the Ministry of Fuel and Power. They have a Timber Control Section which has requisitioned timber for war purposes. With a little enthusiasm and organisation the Minister of Fuel and Power could have dealt with the whole situation.

Let me refer to decayed wood. For instance, beech trees suffer a disease which causes them to fall. That disease does not affect the wood for burning purposes and it is incredible, when we hear from Members representing Glasgow and other large town constituencies about the difficulty of getting fuel, that poor people should not be able to buy this wood fuel because of the puerile manner in which the matter has been dealt with by the Ministry of Fuel and Power. Even to-day it is possible to go into woods to cut fuel and dispose of it. The Forestry Commission has very large interests in the South of England. It is a very good organisation, and I should have thought it would have been possible for the Minister to have approached my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Rye (Sir G. Courthope), who represents the Forestry Commission in this House, and to have devised a scheme by which labour, such as Italian labour, which is used for planting and thinning, could have been diverted to some extent in order to obtain this fuel. Yet, as I say, nothing has been done. If the Minister does not agree with what I have said, I would like to make a polite demand that he should send an investigator to the places where this wood can be found, either one from his own Department or an independent person, to make a report.

I would like him to answer this question: Is it or is it not the case that all the categories of wood I have described—fallen trees, cordwood and underwood—total thousands of tons of fuel which at the present time are not being utilised? The Minister can take power under the Emergency Powers Act, first to lay down a proper price for the sale of wood suitable for burning, and, secondly, he can take power, and ought to take it to-morrow, to enable cordwood to be cut instead of leaving it to rot in the woods. The other day I went round with an official of the Ministry of Supply in order that he might serve a requisition notice upon me to sell certain trees to a timber merchant. It was a friendly arrangement. We noticed, stacked in some woods where timber had been cut two or three years ago, large heaps of cordwood. I said, "What is this cordwood doing here?" The timber merchant said that when he bought the trees he had sold the cordwood to another merchant, who apparently had not troubled to take it away. I was very indignant, and where there is such a shortage of fuel I think there is room for indignation.

My attack is not directed against the Parliamentary Secretary personally, but against the Minister. I have found him a most unsatisfactory Minister to deal with. When a point is put to him he cannot give a definite answer. There are always difficulties. I make these specific suggestions to the hon. Gentleman. Firstly, there should be a proper investigation to see whether or not the charges that I have made are true, and, if they are true, he should immediately take powers to see that this fuel is properly utilised, thereby greatly reducing the strain on our coal resources. I think it is very unlucky in the sixth year of the war, with people shivering all over Europe, to leave unused natural resources which any Minister with energy and initiative would have used years ago.

7.13 p.m.

Mr. Evelyn Walkden (Doncaster)

I feel that the Noble Lord has done a service to the nation, and I believe to the Ministry, in raising this issue. I have seen many areas where we have uncovered land for the purpose of open-cast mining and have removed trees by the hundred or the thousand and the timber has either been buried or left lying, with no effort made to collect it.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. Tom Smith) indicated dissent.

Mr. Walkden

I am speaking of Yorkshire, Nottingham and a part of Derbyshire, and in those three counties I have seen timber on open-cast sites which has remained there or been buried with the earth that has been removed. That in itself is wrong because, if the Minister went round the adjacent towns, he would find that it is practically impossible to get logs, or even firewood, except at a prohibitive price. Only this morning, within half a mile of my home, I saw logs outside a shop which had never sold logs before. They were greengrocers and they found it more profitable to sell logs than cabbages or potatoes. It may be incredible, but it is true, that coalowners never made such profits as those who are handling logs and firewood to-day. Whatever the Minister may have said when he was on this side and on public platforms, the coalowners never dreamed of such profits as are being made. The price of the timber I saw outside the greengrocer's shop was 30s. a cwt., that is £30 a ton, or 7s. 6d. per 28 lbs. If you go round to any part of Yorkshire, Lancashire or the Midlands you find that the town dweller has the utmost difficulty in getting wood and that the prices are not only prohibitive but a scandal. It would have been a good thing if long ago the Ministry could have mobilised some form of organisation to gather timber through the coal yards or the coal distributors and to have a fixed price. It is no use saying that a fair price cannot be determined for firewood. I ask the Minister to examine the question in the light of the facts given by the Noble Lord, and I believe that, even at this late stage of the war, he could help the town dweller to get wood for the lighting of his kitchen fire.

7.17 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. Tom Smith)

I, like the Noble Lord, regret that the Minister could not be present. When I was asked to reply I knew that the Noble Lord with his usual vigour would make his points.

Earl Winterton

My objection was that the Minister might have notified me. It would have been only courteous for him to have done so, and I would have put the matter off for another day.

Mr. Smith

The Noble Lord knows that a Parliamenaary Secretary has to step into many breaches, and I will try to deal adequately with the points he raised. The House ought to know what the policy of the Ministry was about three years ago when it was decided to collect wood from estates, moors, etc., in order to stock it in case of acute shortage of household coal. It was found then that there was a certain amount of trading in fuel for household purposes. This was before the Ministry of Fuel and Power was created. It was felt that it was not right for the Ministry to set up a kind of trading organisation, but that it should do all it could to help the people who were handling the normal trade in wood fuel and to build up reserve stocks in case of emergency as a kind of cushion to fall back upon. I am sure the House will take from me anything I say with regard to this matter. I want to assure the Noble Lord that a great deal of attention has been paid to it, and more actually done than the House is aware of. My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. E. Walkden) asked me to give my personal attention to this. I have already done that and spent a considerable time in the counties he mentioned seeing what can be done. More than 7,000 tons of logs have been got from those localities. I want my hon. Friend to appreciate that if one does not constantly shout it does not mean that one is not paying attention to these things.

In trying to estimate the total supplies of timber for this purpose, it was found that one had to differentiate between wood that was suitable for burning and wood that was suitable only for kindling fires. In order to let the House know what has been done, may I say that there are to-day in operation 142 schemes; 43 of these schemes are inside the South-Eastern Region. The total amount of logs we have stocked as a kind of cushion to fall back upon is in the region of 80,000 tons. In the South-Eastern Region, in which the Noble Lord's constituency is, we have more than 16,000 tons in stock. I can assure my Noble Friend that, while we have had some little disagreement with one local authority in his constituency, arrangements have been made and I think that we shall secure the co-operation of the local authority with a view to developing that particular scheme to its fullest extent.

In collecting this wood there must be some regard for practical difficulties. It is true that there are only certain months in the year when it can be collected, and that a good deal of it is inaccessible. We have had a lot of labour difficulties and difficulties about transport. In addition to that, it is possible in some localities to get wood sufficient to meet more than the local demand, but not to be able to get the necessary transport, particularly in the last few months, when even collieries have been on short time on account of lack of transport. We have not been able to move that wood from one point to another. Reference has been made to price. I want to be fair. There is a controlled price at the roadside, under an Order, of 22s. a cord, and 25s. per ton in the case of slabs. It was found, after discussion with the Minister of Supply, that it was almost impracticable to fix a uniform price at which timber, collected by dealers in the ordinary way, could be sold.

I will give one or two of the reasons which became apparent in the discussion some time ago. For example, the cost of wood varies according to the source from which it is obtained, and the cost of transport and of sawing into logs is not uniform. The quality of the wood varies, hardwoods such as ash, oak and beech, making better fuel than softwoods such as larch and fir. Round wood is more suitable than slab wood. It is difficult to control wood on a weight basis as wood varies in quality accordingly to its age and condition. Few merchants have scales for weighing. It is also interesting to remember that there is no uniformity in the way in which this kind of wood is sold. In some places it is sold by cord, eight feet by four feet by four feet, or 128 cubic feet, varying in weight from one ton to 25 cwt. according to the density of the wood. In other districts it is sold by the ton, or by the load or in sacks, and so on. It was found impracticable to fix a price, because that would have necessitated the registration of all these people who were trading in this fuel. I am only giving the arguments that were discussed as far back as 1942–43 when it was felt on balance that we could not fix a uniform price.

When we talk about trees we must not forget that the kind of timber that is available for us is not the ordinary tree trunk. That comes under the Timber Control and is needed for other purposes. The kind of wood that we have been handling is branches, the lop and top, as they are called, which other people have not needed. It has taken some time to get those branches from certain estates and woods to the places where they have had to be sawn into logs and taken to local authorities for stocking.

Earl Winterton

Could not portable saws have been used?

Mr. Smith

I can tell the Noble Lord that we have done better than a portable saw. We actually set up a saw driven by electricity. It sawed far better than a portable saw. I am making no apology for what has been done. I think more has been done in this direction than some people know. Attention is being paid to it. I am only pointing out some of the difficulties.

May I say with regard to price, that we have got this timber, these logs, with certain local authorities up and down the country. We have been trying to get assistance from certain merchants in distributing these logs in case of necessity. What have we found? We were asked as much as 30s. a ton margin for distribution. We were asked 35s. a ton margin for distribution in London. We were not prepared to be exploited.

Mr. E. Walkden

But the public are being exploited.

Mr. Smith

We have asked for the co-operation of local authorities, and in the main we have got it.

Earl Winterton

By what means have local authorities any authority to enter and cut this beech wood? What is the hon. Gentleman doing to get the stuff cut? He is dealing with it.

Mr. Smith

We have been dealing with it through the local authorities.

Earl Winterton

The hon. Gentleman does not know his own case. Local authorities have no power to enter people's land. The only people who can do that are the Ministry of Supply Timber Control.

Mr. Smith

I am not speaking about them going on other people's land. We have had no difficulties in getting hold of what cuts were obtainable when other people had done with the timber. In distributing these logs during a time of necessity, such as in the coming winter, what we are aiming at is to get the local authorities to distribute them for us, and we are not aiming at making any profit. That is to say, if the woad can be distributed at something like a no-profit price we shall be happy.

Mr. E. Walkden

Does my hon. Friend realise that bomb damaged timber in London is being sold at the prohibitive figure I have mentioned of £30 a ton?

Mr. Smith

No, I was not aware of that. It hardly comes within the purview of my Minister.

Mr. Walkden

Will my hon. Friend have an investigation?

Earl Winterton

I sent notice to the Minister of what I intended to say. Surely the hon. Gentleman is prepared to say if he is prepared to have an investigation?

Mr. Smith

We intend to have the fullest investigation made. As a matter of fact the Noble Lord was kind enough to send to the Minister a note which I got, as a result of which I have been able to make a number of inquiries and to discuss also the facts he sent in. I had already agreed before the Debate that there should be the fullest investigation. Anything we can do will be done.

There is one thing with which I should like to deal, the suggestion that we might get additional labour in the form of Italian prisoners for getting in this timber. I am told there is very little hope at the moment of obtaining any Italian prisoners for this work. Most of them are engaged in agriculture, railway work, sugar beet processing and so on. As a result of the inquiries, the Minister of Labour has recently been in touch with the Prison Commissioners about the possibility of using prison labour for this particular purpose, and it may be possible to use some of these civilian prisoners for that purpose. But certain inquiries have to be made, because there are such questions as the site vis-à-vis the prison, and so on. With regard to the possibility of using German prisoners, I am told that at the moment there are one or two difficulties in the way. I will convey to my Minister the sense of what has been said, and the House may take it from me that if anything can be done to get this timber in we shall do it.

It being half-an-hour after the conclusion of Business exempted from the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House) Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, as modified for this Session by the Order of the House of 30th November.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Seven o'Clock.