HC Deb 23 January 1945 vol 407 cc651-5
81. Sir Robert Tasker

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power whether he is aware that great hardship is being experienced by poor people due to the shortage of coal; and if he is considering obtaining the release of men to act as loaders and carmen to enable suppliers to meet the demand of customers and confer with the Minister of Labour to that end.

86. Mr. Astor

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power what steps he proposes to take to relieve the serious situation regarding the distribution of coal in London; and whether he will consider using Italian prisoner-of-war labour on this work.

The Minister of Fuel and Power (Major Lloyd George)

There are adequate supplies of house coal in London at the present moment. Receipts of coal merchants over the last five weeks were practically the same as during the corresponding period last year and merchants' disposals to consumers during the same period were also about the same as last year, despite difficulties caused by the prolonged severe weather. Merchants' reserve stocks are still substantial though much less than at this time last year. The Government dumps, which were laid down to deal with an emergency, however, are available for merchants to draw their supplies and 72 of these dumps are now being used in London. Further, consumers authorised by the Local Fuel Overseer can obtain, on a "cash-and-carry" basis, small quantities from certain of these dumps.

The primary difficulty in London has been labour for retail coal distribution. The trade has had to do its job with only three-quarters of its pre-war manpower, and the events of the past summer have added materially to the strain on this depleted labour force. In particular, the flying bomb attacks caused many people to leave London, and, consequently, they did not stock their cellars as usual. Notwithstanding the general shortage of labour, special steps have been taken to make more men available from sources such as the Services, Civil Defence and Prisoners of War.

It is not possible to increase the number of Prisoners of War already engaged for this purpose in London, because of the billeting difficulties involved, but I am glad to be able to announce that, as a result of consultations with my right hon. Friends the Minister of Labour and National Service and the Secretary of State for War, it has now been possible to arrange for the employment of 400 soldiers to assist in the movement of coal from Government stocks and in the distribution of coal to householders. This new arrangement came into operation this morning.

Sir R. Tasker

May I thank the right hon. and gallant Gentleman for his personal visit to my constituency and for his endeavours to mitigate the hardships which have been inflicted upon people there? May I also express the hope that he will be unceasing in his efforts to the same end?

Mr. Astor

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his answer is a completely inadequate description of the very serious situation from which many people in London are suffering in this cold spell, and that his idea that women, who have been at work all day in factories, can then go, pay cash and carry coal some distance to their houses is really an insult? Will he take early steps to improve the distribution of coal in London, especially while this serious cold spell lasts?

Major Lloyd George

If I may say so, I do not think my hon. Friend listened very carefully to my reply—

Mr. Astor

I listened to every word.

Major Lloyd George

—because it was not the main part of my reply that the cash-and-carry scheme was a cure for this trouble. If my hon. Friend had listened, he would have heard that the prime difficulty is labour, and that steps had been taken, which came into force this morning, to help to put that situation right. I have been to my hon. Friend's constituency, and know what the situation is there.

Mr. G. Strauss

Is the Minister satisfied that this extra amount of labour will be adequate? Is he aware that there are families in London with priorities who have children seriously ill and yet have been unable to get any coal for weeks and that the situation is very critical in large areas of London; and is he really sure that an extra 400 people will be adequate for handling the situation for all London?

Major Lloyd George

If it is not adequate, I can assure my hon. Friend that more men will be obtained, because one main trouble, as my hon. Friend knows, has been the weather, and it has been added to this week, because the condition of the roads in some districts has been such that no horse-drawn vehicles could leave at all.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

Will the right hon. Gentleman pay special attention to Edinburgh, which I think comes within his jurisdiction, where large numbers of people live in tenements and on separate floors, and where, in a great many cases, the coal distributors do not deliver to individual apartments?

Major Lloyd George

I will pay special attention to Edinburgh. I have already looked into the case, but if my right hon. Friend does not mind my saying so, some reports were rather exaggerated. With regard to the question of tenements, this is a difficult question even in peace time, and, in war, with a depleted and much older labour force, it is not so easy to get men to carry coal up six flights of stairs.

Mr. Higgs

Is the Minister aware that this trouble is not confined to London or anywhere else, but that it is country-wide; and will he take early steps to improve the distribution of coal? An additional 400 people will not assist either Birmingham or Scotland.

Major Lloyd George

I cannot agree that the situation in the country is as my hon. Friend described. London has been in a particularly difficult position because of the events of last summer. I do not think people in any part of the country would object to London getting special attention, but I can assure my hon. Friend that, with the means at my disposal—and this industry, as well as others, suffers from a shortage of labour—everything possible will be done.

Mr. Sorensen

Is the Minister aware that women are being allowed sixpennyworth of coal, and can he say how often they can get this sixpennyworth and how long he estimates it to last?

Major Lloyd George

I think my hon. Friend rather misunderstands the position. The cash-and-carry scheme was put forward in order to enable people who could fetch their own coal to do so, and these sixpennyworths of coal, to which my hon. Friend refers—I think he saw it in a newspaper this morning—obviously refer to very small quantities. Nobody in my Ministry would suggest that sixpennyworth of coal is all they are to have.

Mr. Bevan

Is the Minister aware that, as a consequence of this House refusing to pass a rationing scheme, the present situation falls most hardly upon poor people, who often have no alternative source of heating or cooking, and that there is especial hardship where there are large families? Will the Minister therefore see that instructions are given that, in the present emergency, coal distributors will give first attention to poor people, who can buy and stock only in small quantities?

Major Lloyd George

My hon. Friend will remember that a scheme was drawn up which gave priorities (a) to the small man, who could not stock in summer, and (b) to those who suffered special hardship through bomb damage. What I would emphasise is that, even if there had been a rationing scheme—with which I personally did not agree—it would have been physically impossible on certain days this week in particular to deliver any ration at all.

Mr. Astor

Will the Minister seriously go into the question of using more prisoner-of-war labour in London; and, when he visits my constituency again, will he show me the usual courtesy and let me know so that I can meet him?

Major Lloyd George

I was most anxious to find out things as they actually were, and, if I was guilty of any discourtesy, I apologise. I found out what the situation was and everything possible will be done to meet it. As regards the prisoner-of-war labour, and the difficulty of accommodation, if my hon. Friend casts his mind back about a week, he will remember the agitation to prevent prisoners coming to London at all.