HC Deb 17 December 1947 vol 445 cc1711-4
The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Gaitskell)

Despite the condition of my voice, I will make a statement on the coal position.

As the House will recall, the winter coal budget provided for the needs of industry to be met in full and for domestic consumers to receive the same, but not more than last winter; but it did not provide for anything in the nature of a regular coal export programme. Shipments overseas were to be almost wholly confined to the provision of bunkers on a restricted scale. More recently, in order to relieve the inland transport position in certain areas the National Coal Board were given discretion to supply additional coal for bunkers and bunker depots abroad and to ship occasional export cargoes. It is now six weeks since the beginning of the coal winter. During these weeks, output has been somewhat greater than we estimated and consumption—particularly by industry—somewhat less. Stocks, accordingly, now stand at a higher level than was expected.

In the light of these favourable developments and of the export commitments entered into at the Paris Conference in August, the Government have come to the conclusion that certain modifications can and should now be made in the coal allocation plan for this winter. As from 1st January, 1948, the amount of coal to be made available for exports, bunkers and bunker depots abroad will be increased from 112,000 tons a week, as provided in the budget, to 200,000 tons a week. About three-fifths of the 200,000 tons will be for bunkers and bunker depots abroad and the balance for exports. Potential customers for exports will be countries which participated in the Conference of European Economic Cooperation and other countries—subject in each case to securing in trade arrangements a good return for this country in food, raw materials or dollar saving. At the same time, supplies should be sufficient to provide for an increase of about 20,000 tons a week for domestic consumers. This is not a large increase—only about 3½ per cent. of the present total allocation for house coal, but it will help to meet some of the harder cases and to bring relief where the shoe pinches most.

Finally, it is necessary to increase supplies to the coke ovens. The present programme is not sufficient to meet the continued high requirements of the iron and steel industry for coke, and another 20,000 tons of coal must be provided for carbonisation. On the other hand, it is clear from the experience of recent weeks that the coal requirements of the iron and steel industry were over-estimated and a saving will be achieved on this account which almost precisely balances the increased needs of the coke ovens.

I do not wish to exaggerate the importance of these changes. If we are to meet the commitments entered into at Paris, and also to be able to export small quantities to other parts of the world, we must average throughout this year not 200,000 but 300,000 tons a week for exports and bunkers. Moreover, these figures are to to be compared with the 900,000 tons a week for exports and bunkers which was normal before the war. Nevertheless, this is a milestone on our journey, even if there are still many more to come, and we have reached it sooner than at one time seemed possible. Therefore, all those who have helped to bring us thus far—all engaged in the getting of coal, deep-mined and opencast, and those who have saved fuel in industry and at home—may well be proud of their achievement. The nation looks to them with confidence for another sustained effort so that we may continue our advance to the next milestone on our journey.

Captain Crookshank

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman a question? I think I heard him right when he said that the consumption by industry is somewhat less than estimated, which he considers is a favourable development. That seems a very strange saying, unless he can say that it is due to better methods of saving fuel, rather than slowing-down of industry, which might also be the reason for it.

Mr. Gaitskell

There is no evidence that it is due to the slowing-down of industry, and I think I can confidently say that it is due to the more efficient use of fuel.

Major Lloyd George

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman how it is, in view of the figure which the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave in the Debate at the beginning of the year, that 200 million tons was the bare minimum for our requirements—a figure which has not yet been reached and may or may not be reached for 52 weeks—that we can have that saving in industry, when the right hon. Gentleman told the House earlier that that was the minimum requirement?

Mr. Gaitskell

The right hon. and gallant Gentleman is referring to the calendar year 1947. My statement, of course, relates only to the coal winter of 1947–48.

Major Lloyd George

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the calendar year, when he started that the bare minimum for that period was 200 million tons, no matter whether the winter was a cold one or not. That figure has not yet been reached.

Mr. Gaitskell

I think there is some confusion here. Actually, I suspect that we really over-estimated our minimum needs, and, in fact, I think I have said so on other occasions. I am concerned with the programme for the coal winter and not the calendar year.

Mr. Gallacher

Will not the Minister and the Government take into consideration some means of commemorating the very great effort which the miners have made, and the work done by his predecessor in inspiring the men to make that effort.

Mr. Gaitskell

I only want to say that, of course, these favourable developments owe their origin to action taken in the past.

Mr. David Eccles

I understood the Minister to say that we are now free to export coal in whatever direction is best for the United Kingdom economy. On the other hand, it looks as though we are committed first of all, to export coal to the participating nations. Can the Minister say which is the correct explanation?

Mr. Gaitskell

I think that if the hon. Gentleman will read the statement I have made, he will find it put there very carefully and plainly. The position is that we undertook—one can say, more or less undertook—at Paris that we would export six million tons in the calendar year 1948 to the countries participating in the Conference, but that did not debar us from exporting to other countries.

Sir Frank Sanderson

Is not the saving partly attributable to the burning of oil in the place of coal?

Mr. Gaitskell

To a small extent, yes.

Mr. Usborne

While I welcome the news, may I ask if the Minister can say whether it is possible to give a definite assurance that there are sufficient stocks for the power stations and the industrial concerns to see them right through the winter?

Mr. Gaitskell

I do not think my hon. Friend need have any anxiety, but I shall watch the position very carefully indeed.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

Could the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what the price of this export coal will be?

Mr. Gaitskell

That will be a matter for commercial negotiation between the National Coal Board and the importers.

Mr. Austin

In view of the importance of coal exports, can the Minister say whether, in the event of difficulties being experienced by private enterprise export agencies, he will give full authority to the Coal Board to undertake its own export programme?

Mr. Gaitskell

I think we can safely leave the matter in the hands of the National Coal Board.

Mr. Erroll

While I welcome this most encouraging statement, may I ask the Minister if he took into full account the serious and deteriorating fuel oil conditions?

Mr. Gaitskell

I am answering a Question on that subject tomorrow, and I think we had better leave it till then.

Mr. Spence

Is the Minister aware of the very grave concern about the rising price of coal, especially in the trawling industry, where, I understand, it amounts to 25s. a ton?