HC Deb 29 March 1945 vol 409 cc1603-17

2.15 p.m.

Mr. Tinker (Leigh)

The right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Minister of Fuel and Power has had the courtesy to send me word why he cannot be present to-day, and I want to take this opportunity of extending the deep and sincere sympathy of the whole House to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman and his sister the hon. Member for Anglesey (Lady Megan Lloyd George) in their deep distress.

The question I want to deal with to-day is the distribution of domestic coal. Right through the country there is a lot of feeling as to whether this is being done fairly, and on 20th February of this year I asked the Minister if he would give some explanation to the country as to the future distribution of coal. He was not able to do it just then, and he said the time was not ripe for it. So I brought the matter forward again on the Debate on the Ministry of Fuel and Power Bill. Again, however, the time was not opportune and it had to be left over until to-day.

The points I wish to put to the Parliamentary Secretary are these. Everybody who reads the local Press will see from time to time public notices as to the allocation of coal. The one I have in my hand deals with the period February to April and says: Deliveries within the maximum must be regulated by the merchants according to the supply and labour position. It also says: No carry over is allowed of quantities not supplied in previous restriction periods. We know that coal is not delivered by one particular person and that there are various merchants in every locality. While there is a maximum amount beyond which they cannot go, we have instances—I myself have them—where some coal merchants are able to get more supplies than others. Mind you, they are within the law, they are not exceeding the maximum amount, but by some means or other they are able to supply a greater quantity to their customers than other merchants, and it is very difficult to discover how it happens. Whether this particular merchant has not many customers and is able to get his allocation early, and therefore can dole out to his customers an amount within the maximum quantity, whereas others belonging to a larger organisation are not able to get the same amount, I do not know.

Then the point arises that no carry over is allowed of quantities not supplied in previous restriction periods. Therefore, we may have in this period coal burners who are not able to get their allocation because of restrictions, such as lack of vehicles and so on, and, when the end of the period comes, they may have had far below the normal quantities given to other people. The order I have quoted says that no further amount can be given for a period that has passed, and we have difficulty in persuading people that fairness is being done to everybody when in the same street you may have one householder getting more than another, under exactly the same conditions, but through different merchants, and this causes a lot of troubled feelings.

Evidently other people have trouble because I have here a Question put down by the hon. and gallant Member for Chelsea (Captain Sidney) on 1st March last, as follows: CAPTAIN SIDNEY asked the Minister of Fuel and Power whether he is aware that in districts where deliveries of coal and coke by dealers have been more than one month in arrear, householders have not been receiving their proper allowance of coal, since it is the practice of dealers with the sanction of his Ministry to cancel orders which have not been fulfilled within one month; and whether he will now issue instructions that an order once made shall remain on the dealer's books until delivered is effected."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st March, 1945; Vol. 408, c. 1571.] That is quite common to many parts of the country, and the Minister in his reply did not clear up the point but said he would have it examined and see what could be done. I am hoping, therefore, that the Parliamentary Secretary to-day will take the opportunity of trying to clear up the matter.

My second point is with regard to what is called the calorific value of coal; that is to say, people may get an equal amount of coal, say, 5 cwt., but anyone conversant with coal working knows very well that there is a difference between one seam of coal and another. There are rich seams and poor seams, known to the customers as best coal and moderate coal. When you order best coal, say, one bag, you have to take moderate coal with it, but if something goes wrong with the deliveries and you get two moderate or two very inferior bags, naturally the person who gets this inferior coal wonders whether he has been dealt with fairly or not. Here again, you may have in the same street one person getting two bags of good coal and another person getting two bags of inferior coal, yet both get two bags of coal. May I give a graphic illustration of what I mean? Round about where I live two householders were discussing coal, and one said to the other, "You have a bag and I have a bag; what are you grumbling about?" The woman who was grumbling said, "Aye, I have a bag, but there is nothing but damned rubbish in mine." It was quite true, she had a bag of coal, the law had been carried out, but her portion was nothing but rubbish, and anyone who has experienced it will agree with her. Anyone who has been unlucky enough to get a bag of coal from the dumps realises that he has a bag of rubbish. So I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether there is any regulation or any control at all by which persons get the same calorific value as their neighbours, because otherwise it will lead to a lot of unrest and trouble amongst the people.

My next point is in regard to a notice I saw just inside Kensington Gardens the other day. It was headed "Royal Borough of Kensington—Emergency coal dump—West Cromwell Road. Open from two to five except Sunday." It stated that those who went for the coal could get 141bs. for 6d., 281bs. for 1s., and 56 lbs. for 25., which works out at 4s. per cwt. To me it seems altogether out of place that in some parts of the country people should have to suffer a burden like that, because the price of coal, even the best coal, where I come from is not 4s. per cwt. delivered at the house, yet here are these poor people who have to go to the dump for it, paying 4s. a cwt., and carrying it home themselves. Is this the best coal or is it inferior coal bordering on rubbish? I ask that because the term "dump" always conveys to my mind some kind of inferior quality.

I want the Parliamentary Secretary to try to answer these points to-day because the time has now come when the country should be taken into the confidence of the Minister of Fuel and Power. Hitherto we have suffered a lot because it has been thought that something would be divulged which would be detrimental to the country. For instance, we have never cared to ask the amount of coal being sent overseas because the Germans might find out what we are doing. However, I would emphasise to-day that the Minister's representative ought to take the House and the country into his full confidence, to let us know exactly what is the position, and what will obtain for the future. I say this because the Prime Minister told us the other day exactly the amount of foodstuffs we have since there is no need now, in view of the war situation, to keep anything from the public. That being so, there is nothing to fear with regard to the enemy, and I think the time has come when the Parliamentary Secretary ought to tell us exactly what is the coal position, and the users of domestic coal ought to know what is the intention for the future in regard to the points I have brought to his notice. If he will do that, whatever hardships and difficulties the people of this country have to put up with, if they are getting a fair deal and if nobody is getting an advantage over anyone else, then they will put up with it and not object. If, however, there is the feeling that some are getting better supplies than others, while not breaking the law, then unrest is caused amongst the people. We on these Benches have pressed for a strict allocation of coal but we were not able to get it because it would require too many people, but we ought to know what is going to be done for the future to ensure that every householder, so far as the supplies go, will be dealt with equally. If he will do that, he will have the full confidence and backing of the people. So I am asking the Parliamentary Secretary now to keep back nothing at all and to let us know the full story.

2.28 p.m.

Mr. Foster (Wigan)

In my opinion the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker), in raising this question to-day, has performed a public service. A short time ago the Minister of Fuel and Power said in reply to a supplementary question that he was not aware of any dissatisfaction prevailing in the country in regard to the distribution and the allocation of coal. I can assure the Parliamentary Secretary, who is in his place to-day, that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction, especially with the present method of distribution, and the amount of the allocation to householders, in particular in industrial areas, and also, as the hon. Member for Leigh said, in respect to quality.

First I would like to say a few words with regard to the allocation. The present method allows a general allocation of 5 cwt. a month, and the latest order is that there must not be more than 5 cwt. in stock. In industrial areas I am convinced that the allocation of 5 cwt. per month is grossly unfair, and does not work equitably, because there are large working-class families, and this amount of coal does not meet their needs, especially as in hundreds of cases families have no other means of cooking, washing or heating. They are absolutely dependent on coal. My complaint about the present allocation is that it pays no regard whatever to the size of the house, the number of rooms, the number of workers in the family, and their ages. In some families there may be two, four, or even six people who are working, some of them on different shifts. In miners' homes where men are on day, afternoon, and night shifts, fires must be kept going for those who are going out and coming in. Apart from the few hours of sleep which she gets, the mother in the home has to spend her time cooking over a coal fire, if she can get the coal, and in washing or mending. In the absence of other methods of heating the present allocation of coal is not half enough for the needs of such families.

In most of these industrial areas there are no reserves of either coke or wood fuel. Recently the Minister stated that local authorities were accumulating reserves of wood fuel for distribution. I can assure the Parliamentary Secretary that in my area, at any rate, there are no reserves of coal or wood fuel. People cannot eke out their meagre ration of coal by this means, and last winter, which was a bitter winter, miners and other industrial workers had to go short of coal. I do not know how the House feels about miners, who have to get coal, coming home after a hard day's work and finding there is no fire because they cannot purchase coal, as they have already had their allocation. I have seen miners and other industrial workers having to go, in the depths of winter, to pit-heaps to pick up coal. I have seen them as busy as bees on these dirt heaps, trying to find enough coal with which to eke out their allocation of fuel. In many cases that has been responsible for quite a lot of absenteeism. You cannot expect miners and others to do a hard day's work and then to come home, find a receptacle of some kind, and go a long distance to pick coal from a dirt heap and finally carry it home on their backs, especially when they may have moved five to 15 tons of coal on to a conveyor during their ordinary day's work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh referred to the quality of coal, which I believe has deteriorated to a very large extent during the past 12 months. I have tried to understand why this should be so. It is not much use ordering best coal today, because you are more likely to get the worst. I have experienced that myself. Further, I sometimes think that when you take the ashes out of a fire which has been made with the kind of coal you get to-day you have even snore than you put in, because in the present allocation you do not get your full weight of coal, a part of it being stone or dirt. The Parliamentary Secretary may say that we should complain to the fuel overseer, but that is not much use. In some cases he will tell you that you are lucky to get any coal at all. He has a difficult job and has not the power to deal with the quality of the coal. That is determined at the pithead, where the coal is divided and put into wagons according to its different qualities. One of the main reasons for bad quality coal, I believe, is that the worst seams are being worked, and that the best are being left until after the war for development at a very rapid rate. That may be the explanation. I would like to know what control the Ministry have over the quality of coal. I once described the Ministry as "The Ministry of Fuel without power," and I am satisfied that that is the case.

I do not think the general allocation, which has to cover all sorts of circumstances, is the correct one. When the Ministry were preparing for a rationing scheme forms were sent to consumers seeking information as to the number of rooms and the sort of heating apparatus in the house. That information is still in the hands of the Ministry, the local authorities or the fuel overseers. In fixing the allocation some regard should be had to the size of the house, the number of rooms, the ages of the workers in the family, the number of workers and also the alternative facilities for heating, washing and cooking. The Parliamentary Secretary may say that the main cause of the trouble is shortage of coal, but I believe that even with the present supply there would be more equity if the Ministry developed a scheme on the lines I have indicated. I know householders who can stock coal at the present time, and others who cannot. The Parliamentary Secretary may say that to do what I have suggested would mean the institution of a rationing scheme. Whether we do that or not we ought to do something to better the present situation. To-day, there is rationing without regard to the needs of the individual. Food rationing is based on the size of the family, which ensures that all shall get a proper share of what there is for distribution. But with coal there does not seem to be any plan or scheme. Whether it is because of a desire to save money or manpower I do not know. One wonders what is the cost of applying the present scheme? It must have cost a lot to advertise, and to arrange the numerous exhibitions which the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary have opened. I think a rationing scheme would have been less expensive and that the results would have been better. Therefore, I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us that the Ministry will consider another scheme that will give more equitable treatment to the people of this country. If they will do so it will give greater satisfaction than is prevailing under the present system.

2.45 p.m.

Captain Duncan (Kensington, North)

I would not have intervened in this Debate except for the reference made to Kensington by the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker). I would like to inform the hon. Member and the Minister that the dump in Cromwell Road was of good quality coal, but that dump was not particularly needed and was opened only for a few days. The price which the hon. Member for Leigh seemed to infer was charged at the instance of the Kensington Borough Council was not their price but was fixed by the Ministry of Fuel and Power. I want to protect the Kensington Borough Council from any accusation of overcharging for coal from that dump. The coal was owned by the Ministry of Fuel and Power and was only distributed by the Kensington Borough Council at prices which the Ministry fixed.

Mr. Tinker

I was not making any charge but only quoting the price, which seemed to me to be too high.

Captain Duncan

I wanted to defend the Kensington Borough Council against what might be assumed to be an attack on them. I want also to say a few words about the future. There was another dump at the other end of Kensington, and that dump was badly needed. It was a real tragedy to see old ladies having to go to fill bags of coal. The Civil Defence services worked magnificently in filling and weighing the bags and helping the women to put the bags into their little trucks and trolleys, but in some cases old ladies living alone had not got a pram in which to put the sack of coal and had to carry it away on their backs. I hope that sort of thing will never be allowed to happen again. But what is the position now? Are we getting sufficient coal production to allow enough coal to be distributed next winter, and is there the staff on the distributive agencies to deliver it in London next winter? I want the Minister to deal with these questions: Is there enough coal not only in the dumps but in the coal merchants' yards, and will there be the staff to deliver the coal, so that old ladies will not have to carry 14 lb. of coal in a bag on their backs next winter?

2.49 p.m.

Mr. Evelyn Walkden (Doncaster)

The hon. and gallant Member for North Kensington (Captain Duncan) need have no spirit of optimism about next winter, because the coal distribution problem in London will not be solved, whether the war is over or not. There will be that problem next winter, and the winter after that, until we deal with fundamentals. The Minister and his advisers know that. The whole coal distributive system in London is antiquated and out of date, costly and uneconomic. I would say to the Minister that we have done very well during the last few weeks to get out of the "jam." There are not many households in the vast region of London that can say they have no coal. The weather and various other circumstances have come to our aid; the improvement has not been achieved by the system, which is still antiquated. There is dishonesty in every sense of the term, and there are extortionate prices. The House should clearly understand that 4s. a cwt. is a general price for London, and people are lucky at certain periods if they can get the coal at that price.

Mr. Tinker

At that price is the coal supplied or do people have to fetch their own?

Mr. Walkden

They are lucky if they can get it and often they have to fetch it themselves and pay the price. I ask the Minister to provide some safeguards on three points. Will he tell us whether it is intended to tackle the question of distribution in the future? I do not expect everybody to get what they want, but I ask the Minister to protect the people of London and the provinces from the dishonesty involved in advertising Derby brights. In London ten times more Derby brights are sold than are produced in that coalfield. But people like being deceived, to pay more and think they get something better than their neighbours get; and the coal merchants trade on that fact.

I beg the Minister, before his existence comes to an end, to lay down some scheme so that whatever Government may follow the present one will have some guiding principles to work on. Whether they displease the coal merchants or not does not matter. I know that when a few years ago a scheme was recommended by the Labour Government, and it was announced that we were going to get rid of this uneconomic method of distribution and set up a scheme which, undoubtedly, would have meant great advantages to the people of the country, there was a meeting in Cannon Street and the coal merchants collected £9,000 in 24 hours for a campaign. That campaign was not necessary; the Government had to drop the scheme, as they have had to drop the scheme for the health and medical services, according to Press reports. Finally, I ask the Minister to look into the question of firewood. Only the well-to-do, the influential, those who know how to work a racket under the counter, can get pieces of wood and logs, but firewood is being sold to very poor folk in London who cannot get anything except their ration of coal, which is very limited; and that firewood is being sold at from £25 to £30 a ton, because it is sold in small quantities. A few weeks ago the Minister said that he had a reserve of firewood, but we have never seen it. Will he look into this question?

2.53 p.m.

Captain Sidney (Chelsea)

The hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) has raised a point which I put to the Minister in a Question at the beginning of March, and I will not say more on it, except to ask the Minister to deal with it. I would like to reinforce what was said by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Kensington (Captain Duncan) about next winter's distribution. That seems to me to be the crucial point. We have to look ahead and see that the disaster, for it was nothing less, which occurred during last winter does not recur. The people of London do not expect vast quantities of coal, but they expect even and continuing distribution. I cannot think that that is beyond the power of the Ministry to achieve. I visited a large coal dump supplying my constituency during a frost, and it was disappointing and heartrending to see coal held up there which could not be distributed. I do not intend to go into the question of the production of coal, except to say that if, as the Minister prophesied, our supplies will be shorter next winter, that calls for much greater efficiency in distribution. There should be more dumps formed this summer, not only large dumps but small sub-dumps which are accessible to people if it should become necessary for them to fetch their own coal. There is a shortage of labour which is willing or able to carry sacks of coal up into flats. It is the flat dwellers who are sufferers during the frosts. They have no storage available and they quickly run out of coal, and if the monthly allotment is only 4 cwt. or 5 cwt., they have nothing in reserve when distribution breaks down.

2.56 p.m.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

I agree with what the hon. and gallant Member for Chelsea (Captain Sidney) said about the allocation of coal, but even with this allocation, the distribution does not take place and many people not only in London but all over the country do not get any coal, or get it only at odd times and not the full allocation. I am continually meeting people who have no coal in the house, and always the question arises whether the Ministry of Fuel and Power have any power at all. I tell people that the Ministry have no power, and I say that the Parliamentary Secretary cannot tell us that they have any power. I can see the Parliamentary Secretary going into a meeting of coalowners to fight them; when he wakes up in hospital he will be a wiser and sadder man. We can get rid of Hitler and the Nazis, but it is going to be a much more difficult job to get rid of the coalowners. That is the fundamental problem in connection with coal. The Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister know that. There is another question that I want to put to the Parliamentary Secretary. It will be necessary for him to consult with the Ministry of Labour if he wants to see even the moderate distribution that he has agreed upon properly allocated, for he will find that one of the difficulties is that those who are distributing coal cannot get the labour. I know that the Co-operative coal society in my own town have had the greatest difficulty. The employment exchanges send the only men available, but they are quite unfitted to load coal, fill bags or carry bags. That is one of the greatest difficulties in distributing the allocation. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary also on some occasion, when he feels strong, to give this House and the country an exhibition of how he is capable of tackling the coal-owners.

3.0 p.m.

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

Much as I should like to respond to the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) and tell the whole story, I am afraid that this is not an opportune time, but I will deal faithfully with the points that have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Foster) raised the question of a rationing scheme. He knows that the House rejected it in 1942, and that is a matter for the Government rather than for the Minister of Fuel and Power. It is also true that, when the present system of restriction came along, it was known that it could not be worked with out causing some little inequity and that it would be governed mainly by the amount of coal available for disposal in the household market. There has been a considerable drop in production, and unfortunately it is still continuing. May I point out what the position was in 1941–2 as against 1944–5? There were then 43,329,000 tons at the disposal of the domestic market. In 1944–5 that had dropped to 33,300,000 tons. The amount of coal available for the household market is determined by the amount of coal available generally. My hon. Friend talked about the present restriction scheme not working out fairly because certain areas have electricity and gas both for heating and cooking. I can assure him that that is taken into account and that those districts which have less electricity and gas for cooking get a bigger allocation than districts which have more. It is true that the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Chelsea (Captain Sidney) asked a Question on 1st March and that the Minister gave an answer in which he recognised the injustice of not carrying forward orders, but merchants have been reminded in the last month that unfulfilled orders should not be cancelled but carried forward to the next restriction period, always subject of course to any alteration that may be made in the amount to be supplied. So that that has already been attended to. We have not yet started selling fuel on a calorific value basis, maybe we shall one day. I have met deputations of industrialists on this point, because they have been receiving low grade fuel at a relatively big price. We had to tell them that we could not consider selling coal on a calorific value basis. With regard to value, there was bound to be a deterioration in war time. The hon. Member for Wigan wanted to know what power we had to handle the question. He knows as well as I do where the dirt comes from. It is not that the worst seams are being worked. It applies generally all over the country. But before the war that stuff would not have been sent out of the pits. When we get complaints we investigate them. We are conscious of the fact that, while there is more dirt coming out of some pits than there was formerly, there are fewer men to handle it on the screen. It is true that in a free market the colliery companies used to have to clean their coal more thoroughly than they do now in order to sell it. We try to avoid low grade fuel going to one particular area as against another.

Mr. Gallacher

When the hon. Gentleman gets complaints and investigates them, has he ever contemplated prosecuting the coalowner?

Mr. Smith

I could not say how many prosecutions there have been, but we take action with regard to the complaints.

Mr. Gallacher

What action?

Mr. Smith

We have taken action to see that it does not occur again. There are also such things as price re-adjustments. All our regional controllers are prepared to investigate complaints if they get them. I am not arguing that coal owners are good, bad or indifferent in these matters. That is not the point. What I am trying to bring out is that on the whole our distribution of coal has been exceptionally good. We had coal in London in the winter. It is not a question of having coal. It is a question of transport. London had 25 per cent. fewer men distributing coal than when the war broke out. The point was made, a perfectly good one, that they were not the same kind of men who used to handle the coal in hundredweight bags. I cannot say what is going to happen in the future but it is a fair assumption that there will be more labour available for distribution next winter than there was last. We recognise that coal distribution is not perfect. You have coal supplied from 1,600 collieries, you have 6,000 depots and 30,000 merchants, and they are not an easy organisation to handle.

This is what is happening. Last summer we had had about 12 regional conferences in which we have asked local fuel overseers and depot managers to give us their experience of distribution and suggest how it could be improved. Since then we have 'had conferences with the Regional Controllers, The Merchants' Consultative Committee and the House Coal Trade Advisory Committee for discussing the matter, and to consider the possibility of further measures for rationalisation of distribution, the problems of labour and transport, priority in winter deliveries, the restriction procedure, including the period during which restriction will operate in future, Summer stocking limits and maximum quantities. These are the things which are now being considered by the various bodies advising the Ministry, and I can give the assurance that my right hon. Friend is expecting to get some progress made on these particular points. That is just in order to show that something has been done.

With regard to home coal which was mentioned by hon. Members, Lancashire appears to be, if I may make the humourous point, rather backward in this matter. I should not like it to go out of this House that all the mining districts of this country were in the same position, because they are not. As it happens, the hon. Member concerned comes from the county where unfortunately they have no home coal system. We recognise the difficulty, but I think it has been explained in this case. With regard to timber, I anticipated that hon. Members would raise this question, and I have got the figures up to date. These are the figures. We contracted to get 121,000 tons. We have got in stock to-day 95,600. We have these as a kind of cushion to fall back on. It has not been easy to collect, but I would say that we sold some of the timber from our own stocks amounting to a total of 810 tons. We have had no absolute control over the way private dealers have been selling this timber, but we set out to get as much as we could from all the available sources.

Mr. Evelyn Walkden

The Minister did say on a previous occasion, "We shall control the price and we shall declare the areas in which the timber will be available." Can the hon. Gentleman say what those areas were?

Mr. Smith

I cannot give the areas offhand but I must say that we are conscious of the fact that we must get as much wood as we possibly can as a reserve. As I have said, it is a difficult problem. I would like to assure the House that my right hon. Friend does not willingly impose these restrictions. He has done his best to deal with a very difficult situation and I think the House can take it that we are conscious of the defects in distribution and that we are doing all we possibly can to improve it.