HC Deb 08 February 1944 vol 396 cc1730-8

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

Mr. Buchanan (Glasgow, Gorbals)

I would like to raise an issue which is neither so absorbing nor interesting as the subject of education which we have just left. The issue is one that mainly concerns the part of Scotland which I represent, not the whole of Glasgow but the tenement dwellers within the City. There is serious concern within that City, which has well nigh 1,000,000 population, and the surrounding districts, as to the supply of coal to tenement dwellers. I take this seriously and I am sorry there is no member of the Cabinet present. This House discussed the whole question of the rationing of coal. I confess that at the start I was not a keen rationer, but this was one of the few occasions when I had an open mind. After I had heard the responsible Cabinet Minister coming solidly down for rationing, I decided that the Government had, on the whole, made out their case. But the House of Commons and the Minister rejected rationing, and now we have, in effect, a bitter rationing system which is an attack on the very poor. My city is largely one of tenement dwellers. The Department comes along and says, "Five cwt. per four weeks." That is bad enough if you can get it, but frequently you do not get it. It would have been bad enough in peace-time when, on the whole, the quality of coal was not so bad, but the poor buy the worst quality of coal and their allowance of five cwt. is frequently discounted by a fairly large amount of bad material in it. The most the majority of our people can store is three cwt. Some have what is called a bunker, but unless they intend to fill the bath—which they do not do—or some other receptacle, then they are limited to the three cwt.

Look at the unfairness of the position. I live in a fairly modem tenement in Glasgow which is capable of storing about a ton of coal. I have no family. I have electric light, a gas fire and a hot water system. I am allowed five cwt. per month, plus my ton which is stored, plus my gas, my electricity and my hot water. As I say, I have no children and I have a clean job. What is the position across the road, where they have only three cwt. per month to heat a house which needs far more heat than mine and where there are young children and perhaps a moulder, who is working all day in dirt and grime? They have no gas fire and frequently there is no electricity in the house. Is there a defence for all this? I say you have no right to ration the poor until you come to the House of Commons and get our consent.

On the whole the Minister has been fortunate up to now. I think I can speak about the weather without incurring displeasure if I speak of it in the past tense. The B.B.C. does it and, therefore, I take it that a humbler member of the community can do it too. Some days ago I was afraid that the weather would be very severe. If that happens, panic will break out in the City of Glasgow. While we are waiting on the development of housing we are all concerned with the care of children. I defy anybody with two or three children to keep themselves in comfort on the limited amount of coal which the Ministry of Fuel and Power are allowing. There is another thing that angers me. Ministers must not walk away with the arrogant assumption—which is becoming all too common—that just because they say certain things those things must be so. Just because a Minister says things they are not necessarily true. Ministers must prove what they say. The Minister says that in exceptional cases coal can be obtained. It is the exceptional case which is the every day rule. A family with children is entitled to more coal than I get. What about the woman with children who falls ill? Suppose a man in a foundry takes a day off to get more coal He is attacked for misbehaviour and perhaps jailed for absenteeism. If the woman leaves her children it is worse. What is she to do? Wait patiently until she gets the coal? The situation is most unfair.

Some of them are telling me that they can get a limited amount of charcoal. I often wish that people knew these tenement dwellings and the kind of fireplaces they have. No doubt, charcoal could be burnt in a bedroom fireplace properly set up and well equipped, but a kitchen grate is no place at all for it. It does not fit in. My hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell), who was once Minister of Mines, made a remark which got echoing cheers throughout the House. He said that there was one thing that he was not going to do and that was to lower the already too low standard of many of the working folk. You are lowering the standard. People have not shivered vet in our City, but that has not been the Minister's fault. We thank Providence for that and not him. I understand we may be told that those who distribute coal have given certain undertakings. Why should I have to depend on the kindness of a particular merchant? There is much to be said against rationing and much for it, but if we are to have it let it be equitable. Those with children need more coal than those who have none, and women who have husbands out in the Far East and two or three children have enough to do without the Government throwing on them the problem of running around looking for an inspector. Let these people get their coal not by begging or pestering for it but as a right.

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

It is seldom that I make speeches of what my hon. Friend calls an arrogant order, but I want to face up to this point fully and, I hope, fairly. Since he first mentioned the matter to me I have gone into it very thoroughly, even before he gave notice to raise it on the Adjournment. His complaint can be divided into two parts. First of all five cwt. a month is not, he says, adequate for people living in tenement dwellings, largely because they have not stocking room and cannot get stock when stocks are going. The second complaint is that this discriminates unfairly in favour of those who have stocking room and were able to get coal in when coal was available.

I took the precaution of trying to get some information as to the amount of coal that was used in these tenement dwellings in Glasgow in pre-war days, not in order to try to justify the present allowances, but to see how the position worked out with the present restrictions. In a survey that was made in Glasgow about 1937–38 it was found that those living in tenement houses bought about one cwt. of coal per week, taking it over the year, and that over the 22 colder weeks of the year they used about 1.77 cwt. I have to admit that the present restriction gives about one half cwt. a week less than it was at that time.

Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)

Who made the survey?

Mr. Smith

It was made by the gentleman who to-day is Regional Coal Officer for Scotland.

Major Markham (Nottingham, South)

Is my hon. Friend aware that these figures are contradicted on page 86 of the Beveridge Report, which gives the amount spent weekly on coal in households all over the country?

Mr. Smith

I am talking about tenement dwellings in Glasgow.

Mr. Buchanan

I would like to know much more about the kind of tenements to which those figures relate.

Mr. Smith

I am giving the figures in all good faith, but I am bound to concede that at that time Glasgow was a distressed area and that if people had been able to afford more coal they would possibly have burned more. With regard to the question whether five cwt. is adequate or not, there does not appear to me to be any possible chance at the moment of any additional quantities of household coal. I will show later what the supply position is. With regard to the argument that there is unfair discrimination against those who cannot accumulate stocks, my hon. Friend is not right in assuming that those who have substantial stocks can continue to get five cwt. per month.

Mr. Buchanan

But what you can do is this. If I have 10 cwt. now and reduce it to five, I can go to my merchant and get five more to bring it up to 10. Poor people who can store only three cwt. cannot do that.

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend in his own personal case and in a supplementary question on 1st February rather implied that those who had been able to accumulate stocks of coal would, whatever their stock, get this five cwt. in addition. That is not the position.

Mr. Buchanan

It was the position a month ago.

Mr. Smith

In January the maximum was one ton. In February it was 10 cwt.

Mr. Stephen (Glasgow, Camlachie)

The people in tenements might not be able to get even five cwt., because the Ministry point out in all their notices that the people are not guaranteed five cwt., but only what they can get.

Mr. Smith

If I had time I would deal with that point, because I have given a good deal of attention to it. With regard to the argument that the five cwt. per month discriminates unfairly against those who have no stocking room, the position is this. It was essential to stock in the summer for two good reasons. First, if we had not stocked, the pits would have had to work short time or we should have been compelled to stock the coal underground. Second, the mere fact that we were able to stock a good deal of domestic coal left us with the same quantity of transport for fewer people and more than we would otherwise have had.

That is absolutely essential in order that hon. Members may understand the reason for the summer stocking policy. In addition to that, there were limits upon those who could accummulate domestic stocks. They could not have more than the maximum of two tons in stock, unless they had a special licence. In getting that licence they had to sign that what they had would keep them going until the end of March, 1944. Some of these people are now complaining that they would have been much better off if they had not got the licence to stock but had taken their chance with any restriction scheme that was going.

With regard to Glasgow, there are certainly complications. A very large proportion of the trade is carried on by small merchants, and some of them are apt to take a less serious view of their responsibilities. There is the difficulty of getting coal carried up four or five flights of stairs. In peace time the distribution of household coal was not a perfect machine, and the calibre of the labour which is handling this coal to-day is not the same as it was in peace time. It takes a very strong man to carry a hundredweight of coal up two or three flights of stairs. With regard to the exceptional cases, instructions have been sent out that additional coal can be granted on account of sickness or confinement on the production of a medical certificate and if my hon. Friend knows of any case—I put this to him quite honestly——

Mr. Buchanan

I know the case of a woman who is hawking and is living on a soldier's allowance. She gets a doctor's certificate and she can get an extra hundredweight by going over to the town hall, and she can get it every week if she repeats it. Does the hon. Member say that that is a good thing to do to poor people? If so, he can go and do it.

Mr. T. Smith

I want my hon. Friend to know what instructions have been sent out about exceptional cases, apart from any general policy on rationing. Hon. Members should know what the arrangements are. Where there are exceptional needs and the premises are entirely dependent upon coal is the second case. The third is where there is more than one family in premises with only one registration. In any other circumstances, additional coal can be granted only with the concurrence of the Assistant Regional Coal Officer.

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

Are those Regulations?

Mr. Smith

They are not exactly Regulations, but instructions which have been sent out.

Mr. Bevan

There is no Parliamentary authority?

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend will find that everything will be done to deal with any exceptional case brought before the local fuel overseer. Nobody regrets more than I that we cannot have a full discussion on the points that this raises. The house coal emergency scheme, of which my hon. Friend knows a good deal and which was in operation before the Ministry of Fuel and Power was set up, puts the responsibility upon coal merchants to see that coal is equitably shared among the different merchants, who have undertaken to give priority to the small consumer. The position, from the angle of supplies to-day, is this: It is not getting any better; is is to some extent getting worse. The present drastic restriction was intended to secure the necessary reduction in disposal to an average of 707,500 tons a week spread over the whole country for the seven weeks ended 15th January. Disposals have averaged 675,800 tons, showing a saving of 32,000 tons a week more than was anticipated, or a total additional saving of 222,000 tons. Against this, however, supplies over the same period have fallen short of the programme by an average of 63,600 tons per week, or 447,500 tons over the seven weeks and we are at present 225,000 tons worse off than was intended. [interruption.] I am speaking of house coal over the whole country. The deficiency has had to be made good through stocks which have therefore been seriously depleted and the worst of the winter may yet have to come. Only last week, due to disputes alone, we lost roughly 178,700 tons of coal, the largest recorded loss through disputes in any week since the war began. We all know what the causes are.

Mr. Bevan

Through disputes?

Mr. Smith


Mr. Bevan

Caused by the Government's policy.

Mr. Smith

That may be, but through disputes. In addition we lost last week 56,700 tons due to a shortage of wagons, and these two figures added together show a formidable loss last week which is bound to have an effect.

Hon. Members


Mr. Grenfell (Gower)

Is my hon. Friend bound to state these figures now?

Mr. Smith

I hope I am trying to state the position absolutely fairly. I want to be frank. I was only trying to show that our supply position is not so good as we should like. My hon. Friend said there was fear of panic in Glasgow. That is not my information. The problem in Glasgow is one largely of distribution rather than supplies, I am told. Merchants' stocks in Glasgow stood at 46,000 tons on 22nd January. This represents about three weeks' supplies at the January rate of disposal, and is 13,000 tons more than the merchants' stocks at the corresponding date last year.

Mr. Buchanan

Despite what my hon. Friend says if there is one week—goodness knows I hope it does not happen; I back my hon. Friend and I know my city—such as we had two years ago my hon. Friend will withdraw every word he has said.

Mr. Smith

I would not, because I think the House will appreciate that if we had such weather as that more places than Glasgow would suffer. I am trying to show what supplies are in hand in Glasgow. I can only say this in all fairness to the household scheme and to the services of the directorate generally, that there has not been that number of com- plaints in Glasgow brought to the notice of the local fuel overseer that my hon. Friend tries to make out. There are 318,000 consumers in Glasgow. Over the last month there has not been the huge increase in complaints my hon. Friend has mentioned. I can give him an assurance from the local fuel overseer that any complaint my hon. Friend has got will be examined and dealt with. There have been large numbers of people who have been supplied with coal immediately the facts have become known, but the local fuel overseer cannot handle complaints unless he has knowledge of them.

Mr. McKinlay

Has the fuel overseer the power to instruct the merchant to deliver coal?

Mr. Smith

Yes, under the voluntary scheme we have power to reinforce it if we have difficulties in that direction. If any hon. Member will bring to the notice of the local fuel overseer any complaint in any district every effort will be made to put such complaints right as quickly as possible.

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.