§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Simmons.]
§ 12.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Stanley Prescott (Darwen)
I desire to raise a matter which I believe to be of very great importance and gravity. Some time ago I was fortunate in obtaining the Adjournment for today in order to raise the question of the shortage of coal in Lancashire and the stopping of mills in Lancashire. As a result of what transpired yesterday in the House, I gather that the Debate may be on a slightly wider basis than that which I had expected. May I refer, first of all, to the statement made by the acting Leader of the House yesterday at Question time? When I asked him a question with regard to the possible absence of the Minister of Fuel and Power from this Adjournment Debate, the right hon. Gentleman replied:I shall do my best to co-operate with the House in trying to have all responsible Ministers here if the Debate takes a serious form, as indeed it may."—[OFFICIAL REPORT 6th February, 1947; Vol. 432, c 1976.]I do not quite understand what the right hon. Gentleman meant by that. I am raising the question of the closing down of mills in Lancashire through shortage of coal. Surely, that in itself must be a serious matter. I assume the question as to whether an issue is serious or not is judged not by the status of the hon. Member who raises the question in the House, but by the matter which he wishes to discuss. I think this matter is very serious, and I was very keen that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Fuel and Power should be here, because my submission to the House today is that it is largely the maladministration of that Member of the Government which is responsible for the situation in which Lancashire and the rest of the country are now placed.
Therefore, I requested the right hon. Gentleman to be so kind as to be in his place during this Debate. He wrote to me this week and informed me that he considered that the question I wished to raise was the concern of the Board of Trade, and that he could not see his way to be in his place today. I had imagined that, after what transpired yesterday in the House—after the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. Ellis Smith) had tried to move the Adjournment of the House on a matter of urgent public importance— 2123 the right hon. Gentleman would have been in his place, and, also, the right hon. and learned Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade. I notice with regret, however, that only the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade is in his place. I am glad to see him, but I should have thought that his Minister should have been here, together with the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Fuel and Power and the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Supply, because, when the hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn) asked a Question about the shortage of fuel in the Austin works, it was the Minister of Supply who answered that Question. Therefore, apparently, he also is concerned, and, if he is, why is he not in his place today?
This is a very grave and serious matter, not only for Lancashire, but for the country as a whole. There are tens of thousands of operatives in Lancashire who are unemployed, and there are literally hundreds of mills closed down. This situation is not confined to Lancashire; it is spreading. I read today in the Press that ships can no longer sail from British ports if they have to bunker up. That is the position, and yet, when this matter is raised in the House of Commons, the only person representing the Government in his place is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade. I think it is shameful. I am glad to see that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Transport is coming in because, of course, he also is involved. So many Government Departments are involved that many right hon. Gentlemen ought to be present, but at least we have two. I hope that, as time progresses, other right hon. Gentlemen will drift into the House, in a leisurely and orderly fashion.
I think that this matter which I am raising today is so serious that one should not deal with it from a histrionic point of view. I am fully conscious of the great responsibility which rests on me in opening this Debate. While I will restrain myself in my observations, I am not fortified in that desire. I remember observations made by the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer this last weekend, and I think that I should refer to them. Speaking in the country, the right hon. Gentleman said: 2124Private coal owners, before they flitted, left us with stocks of coal lower than ever before in our history. This month we have had coal cuts and the shedding of electrical loads. That is entirely the responsibility of private enterprise in the mining industry.No statement could be more deliberately inaccurate, and, when prominent Members of the Government make statements of that kind, it is very difficult for back bench Members, such as myself, to be restrained on an occasion like this, when I am speaking about the closing down of industry and the throwing out of employment of tens of thousands of people. The responsibility for the low coal stocks and for the closing down of these industries, rests firmly and squarely on the shoulders of the Minister of Fuel and Power.
I think that I ought to go briefly into the history of this matter. It was just before Christmas that the Austin motor works were threatened with closing down. That was one particular industry. But the day before Christmas Day, it appeared from the Press that many mills in Lancashire were going to close down, and would not be able to reopen because of the shortage of coal. For a long time, I had feared that, during this winter, there would be grave shortages of coal which would necessitate the closing down of industries. I had hoped that it would be possible to avoid it, but I feared that it would eventually happen, and I know that that fear was shared by my hon. Friends on this side of the House. But, even so, I had no inclination at Christmas time that closing down was imminent. I had not the slightest knowledge at all of that, nor, I think, had industrialists as a whole. It came to them as a great shock, as it did to me.
On 4th December, the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Fuel and Power who, I am glad to say, is now coming into the House, issued a circular to industry of which he was kind enough to give me a copy. It is addressed to the managing director or proprietor of all industries, and it sets out what was then the view held by the Government as to the coal situation in the country. This document could have led no reasonable person to suppose that there was about to be a wholesale stopping of industry through lack of coal. The final paragraph says:If, as the Government hope, industrial consumers (other than the industries which 2125 will be totally exempted) at once curtail their consumption by five per cent., the consequent improvement in the stock position, assisted by the reduction in the consumption of coal by electricity undertakings and gas works, should suffice to enable industry as a whole to get through this winter without any serious interruption in activity.Three weeks later, industries were closing down, one after the other. I say to the Minister of Fuel and Power that that document was wholly misleading, and that either he was not in full possession of all the information concerning output, or else mat the document was badly drafted. Which was it?
With regard to the Minister of Fuel and Power, I must say that, as soon as this position was revealed in Lancashire and I communicated with his Department, he was extremely courteous. He granted me an interview the day after Boxing Day, and gave me a great deal of his time. We had a long, full and, I think, frank talk, and I would like to acknowledge his graciousness in seeing me and to thank him for the information he gave. But, having acknowledged his graciousness, I cannot say that he was very forthcoming with regard to real facts about the coal situation in the country, or as to reassuring me that Lancashire and the rest of the country would be able to carry on. My charge against the Govern ment—and I make it after much reflection and with as full a sense of responsibility as possible—is that the Government must have known that this position might arise during the winter.
§ Mr. Prescott
If they knew—and I note that one hon. Member opposite says that they did—then, unpleasant as it was, it was their duty to take very definite action, and to produce a proper plan which would have limited the injury to industry. It is my charge today that, because the Government would not face up to the position, and because they muddled, month after month, the situation in which we now find ourselves is much worse than it might have been. I entirely agree that, at the present moment, and for the last week or ten days, the weather conditions in this country have been abnormal, and that they have added to the difficulty of the Government. But I am not dealing with that issue. I am saying that, quite apart from climatic 2126 conditions in this country, we should have been in a mess, because of the failure of the Government to take proper action in the early part of this month.
What is the position? I note that coal output is now increasing, and I am delighted that it is. I hope that it will increase further in the months to come, but, when I consider that increased output, I must refer to the "Monthly Digest of Statistics" for January, 1947. In the "Monthly Digest" dealing with the production, consumption and stocks of coal, there is a column headed "Saleable mined coal" and it gives the average weekly output for December, 1946. The figure is 3,629. It is my contention that the heading of that column is entirely misleading because a very large proportion of the coal now mined is not coal; it is not capable of creating any heat, and it would not be saleable at all except for the fact that there is one huge Government monopoly, from which consumers have to take their supplies.
It is not saleable at all. It is not usable at all. I have had a letter— indeed I have had many letters about this matter—from one of the mills in Darwen. They have been kind enough to send me today—the postage must have cost them quite a bit—some coal from their mill, and I will gladly give it to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, if he wishes, he being responsible for allocation, in order that he may look at this stuff which they have to use in the cotton mills of Lancashire. It is slate. I am informed that about 25 per cent. of what they get is stuff like this, upon which they simply cannot run the mill. Therefore, I say to the Government: When they are considering the question of allocation they have to bear in mind that they have brought industry down very considerably. Even so, on the allocation which they now get a very large part of the coal is quite unusable. Surely, that position can be remedied; surely, something can be done about it?
May I ask the President of the Board of Trade, who I think is concerned with allocation, one or two questions about the revised allocations, and what is likely to happen in the future? As a result of what happened at Christmas the Government took some sort of action I am wondering at the back of my mind—and 2127 I hope I am not unduly suspicious— whether they did not take action previously because of the vesting date of the coalmines, and because they did not want to create an unhappy effect in the country. After Christmas they took action, and there was a revised allocation for industry. Most industries got 50 per cent., with the possibility of applying for an increased allocation if they were concerned with work of national importance; some industries got 75 per cent.; some got 100 per cent. and the cotton industry got 65 per cent. But I must tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the cotton industry has not been getting anywhere near the 65 per cent. allocation which they are now permitted.
What I want to know is this. Would the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Fuel and Power, who I understand is winding up in this Debate, or the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, answer this question? The new allocations were said to be on a realistic basis; in other words, industry was to get what it was promised, and not merely very little of what it was entitled to. Will there now be new, realistic allocations? Will there be a whole revision of the allocation of coal to industry, and, if so, on what basis will it be? Because we in Lancashire believe that the cotton industry will not get anywhere near the 65 per cent. allocation to which it is now entitled. We say to the Government, quite frankly, "Please do tell us what we are going to get. Do not promise us 65 per cent. and then make it 40 per cent. or 50 per cent. Do let us know what we are going to have." That is the first question which I direct to the Government today.
The second question is this. Obviously, the real solution to this problem is to produce enough coal for all the industries and all the people in this country. But that, apparently, at the moment the Government are not capable of doing—although this is the first occasion in the history of British mining that this country has been reduced to the state in which we now find ourselves. On the assumption that at the moment this Government is physically and mentally incapable of producing enough coal, I put this question. There will be a limited amount, and everybody cannot have all they want. It is my submis- 2128 sion that industry is the main lifeblood of this country, and must get all the coal we can give it. Therefore, I put this to the Government: If there has to be a drastic cut, if there has to be a lot of suffering in the country, would it not be possible to shut down cinemas and theatres, for example, one day a week? Would it be possible to introduce a partial dim-out in some towns? If these things were done, how much coal would be saved, and how many industries would be enabled to continue in work which, at the moment, cannot? I have not the information at the moment to answer my own questions. I merely throw them out to the Government to ask whether they have received any consideration, and whether any benefit would result if effective action were taken on them.
I do not wish to detain the House too long. I have a reputation, not for good speeches, but for brief speeches. Today, possibly this speech is neither good nor, certainly, brief. There are many things upon which I wished to address the House. I know many other hon. Members wish to speak, but I would emphasise again the gravity of the situation. I really do think that, in view of the serious position in the country, it is right that the House of Commons should give consideration to this matter. It is what we are here for. It is a very serious situation, and we should know who is responsible and why it happened. Those are matters upon which we may differ. But I think all hon. Members will agree that it is right that this matter should be raised in this House, and the responsible Minister of the Crown should be given an opportunity to make statements to reassure the country, or to inform the country, taking the country into its confidence, what is the real position. I had thought that when Parliament resumed after the Christmas Recess the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Fuel and Power or the right hon. and learned Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade would make a statement about this matter. But nothing was said. Therefore, I thought it was right to raise this matter on the Adjournment, and to request the Government to tell us what the position really is, and to hide nothing.
I do not know, as yet, how the different functions are divided between the Minister 2129 of Fuel and Power, the President of the Board of Trade, and the Minister of Supply. [An HON. MEMBER: "Nor do they."] I do not think anyone knows. An hon. Friend says, "Nor do they," but that I do not know. I would like to find out. Today, I think the House would be interested to know, too, the exact division between these three Ministers, finally, what really is the position now and what is to happen in the few months ahead. How much coal are we going to have, what plan, if any, have the Government got for industry, and what, if any, are the new allocations which are proposed?
I will take up no more of the time of the House. I am grateful for the attentive manner in which my observations have been listened to. I am appalled at the situation in which we now find ourselves. It was not a situation, if I may say so, envisaged when I was at Darwen during the General Election, nor envisaged by the Minister of Fuel and Power when he came to Darwen and made such a brilliant speech in the Market Place. I read that speech with great interest. If he has forgotten it, I will send him a copy. I do not remember that anything of this nature figured in that speech, although many other matters figured in it. In view of his personal appearance in Darwen, I know my constituents will read with great interest what he has to say today. Of course, if he cared to make a return visit I would be very glad to welcome him there personally. That is a little Parliamentary pleasantry which we all understand.
I want to end on a note of seriousness, and to express my sincere and deep concern at the present situation in Lancashire, which is spreading as a blight throughout the whole of the country. I must repeat that I hold the Minister of Fuel and Power responsible for this—and, of course, the Government. I think much of it could have been avoided. However, we want to know what is going to happen now that the President of the Board of Trade has been brought in, and what is the outlook for the future. At the moment it cannot be a happy thought for any of us in this House that many of our constituents are out of employment, and that works are closed down. It is idle for the President of the Board of Trade to come to Lancashire and to say, "Increase pro- 2130 duction," and then for the Minister of Fuel and Power to come and to say, "Decrease coal consumption." They are totally irreconcilable requests. We may achieve some reduction by way of fuel efficiency, but it is no good making those sorts of speeches, saying, "Increase production," only to find that there is no coal. It is a stupid and fantastic business. While we expect stupid speeches in the country from Members of this Government, of late they have excelled themselves, especially the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I hope this Debate today will do some good, that it will focus even further attention on this matter. And I hope that we shall have definite statements from the Government on what they propose to do to alleviate this tragic situation.
§ 12.39 P.m.
§ Mr. Blackburn (Birmingham, Kings Norton)
This is a very sad day for me, because I have in my constituency two large factories: one is Austin's and the other is Cadbury's. The workers in both those factories are today out of jobs. I feel we ought to consider this matter in a spirit entirely above party. I desire to say nothing which will be in any way disloyal to the Labour Party, to which I belong. However, I shall have many observations to make. Whatever criticism has been advanced against the Government, one criticism that I say is undoubtedly wrong was that advanced by a Conservative Member of Parliament in the columns of "The Times" last month, namely, that the Labour Government should not have made 1st January, 1947, the vesting day. The earlier we made the vesting day the better. There can be no doubt whatever about that. Since the vesting day, output has gone up; and I want to say at the outset that I believe that the Government and the Minister of Fuel and Power deserve to be congratulated on the fact that they more or less doubled voluntary recruitment to the mines last year, and also on the fact that output per man hour is rising. We may have a haphazard distortion of an occasional speech by the Minister of Fuel and Power such as some papers indulge in, but that is something which does not deceive the people of this country. Of course, if the Minister goes to the miners, to a particular section of the miners who are working very hard, he is entitled to say to them, "Things are better because 2131 you have worked harder. "He would be failing in his duty if he did not, and anyone who knows anything at all about papers, knows the sort of thing that occurs.
I do not desire to criticise the Government. On the contrary, I desire to congratulate the Government. But I feel that the suggestion I made to the Minister of Fuel and Power at the end of December ought to have been examined— namely, that he or the Prime Minister should have got on the radio to the miners and to the people of Britain and said. "It is inevitable that in January and February we shall lose vitally needed exports through shortage of coal. We are proud of what you have done already, but we should like to let you know that for every extra ton of coal you get, you will be keeping ten workers in a job, who otherwise would be out of a job." I do not know what the figure really is; but, at any rate, they could have given the proper figure. Secondly, I believe a very strong case can be made out to show that there was inadequate long-term planning, but I have no desire to enter into that, because, in so far as I can assist the House—and I hope that I may be able to assist it—it will be by giving evidence, and facts, and asking thereafter for an impartial inquiry into these matters. I wish to leave alone this case about long-term planning although, possibly, it may be a very strong case and one that ought to be examined. I propose to deal with the immediate situation and the immediate facts.
I wish to say that it seems to me that the present plan for meeting this situation is wrong for three reasons. The first is that there is no Minister responsible for administering it. I am going to prove that in a moment. There is no Minister responsible for administering the plan. There is no Minister prepared to inquire into it, and I am going to read in a moment a letter written to me by the Minister of Supply, which is going to put Austin's out of work until the end of March. This letter shows that Ministers are not even prepared to inquire into the position of the body which is to be able to make a decision of that kind—a decision which may mean the loss, perhaps, of 10 million dollars. That then is the first point, that there is no Minister responsible, and I will give facts to prove it.
2132 The second reason is that the plan is based entirely upon the figure of 50 per cent, of maximum consumption. It takes no account of minimum consumption. It is rigid and inflexible; it has no relation to the exceptional factory, and is entirely unworkable and unjust. I propose to prove in a moment that Austin's, in fact, is such a factory. The Government have had the evidence of this. I, personally, saw that they had it at the end of December. The third reason is that there is no priority at all for the export trade. Austin's is an exporting firm. I have no desire that it should have preferential treatment. There has been no suggestion of any kind, by the company or by the workers or by me, that we desire Austin's to be treated in a different way from any other motor company or any company engaged in the export trade. But there is no priority at all for the export trade. I am informed that the Co-operative Laundry at Birmingham has what is called a realistic allocation of 70 per cent. The realistic allocation for Austin's is 50 per cent. My comment is, that it would be better for workers to work dirty, than not to work at all. I could give a great many figures of a great many firms, but I will not weary the House.
I feel that I ought, with your permission, Sir, to give the facts about Austin's as briefly as I can; and thereafter I propose to ask the Government to appoint a commission of inquiry, under the chairmanship of an independent person, somebody of the stature of a High Court judge, to find out the truth about Austin's; because the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) and another hon. Member made insinuations, which in my opinion were not entirely rebutted by the Minister of Supply. The right hon. Gentleman gave a somewhat conciliatory answer. The allegation made by the hon. Members, in the form of insinuations, was that Mr. Lord and I and the workers of Austin's had asked for preferential treatment. We have never done anything of the sort. I very much resent the suggestion, that in any circumstances I would be a party to trying to get preferential consideration for any firm, and I am quite convinced that Mr. Lord has not tried to get preferential treatment. I feel we are entitled to an independent judgment in this matter. I do not feel that Socialist Members are behaving as Socialists when, without bothering to investigate the facts 2133 of the case, they make insinuations of that kind. If we are Socialists we must believe in fair and equal treatment and fair distribution.
§ Mr. Blackburn
I regret that I cannot accept offers from the party opposite. I am very glad that when I was a candidate, I moved at the Blackpool conference the resolution which decided that we must never again have a coalition with the Tories. But I am trying to consider this matter in a non-party spirit, and I thought we were all trying to deal with it in a manner entirely above party. It is a national crisis. I propose to give the facts.
§ Major Bruce (Portsmouth, North)
Will the hon. Member say why he asked his Private Notice Question about Austin's and not of the export trade as a whole?
§ Mr. Blackburn
The answer is, I think, very obvious. First, it would not, conceivably, be in Order to put down a Private Notice Question about the export trade. Secondly, I have no more right to talk about the export trade than any other hon. Member, but I have the right, and the duty, to talk about Austin's; and I know I have a duty to resist any form of blackmail because I play the game by Austin's. I propose to do it. I may say that there have been suggestions made to me, which I very much resent, that I am in the pocket of Mr. Lord. There has been a suggestion that I am being duped by Mr. Lord. I, therefore, insist upon a fair and impartial inquiry into the Austin case, so that the truth may be known. May I then give the facts about Austin's and I am sorry if I have been led away. At the end of August, Austin's had about five or six weeks' stock of coal, which was much the same situation as that at Cadbury's, also in my constituency. Their consumption of coal, during the winter months, goes up to about 1,800 tons per week. They received about 800 tons. It was understood by them, and by Cadbury's and other firms, that that was part of the Government's policy, namely, that stocks of firms should be reduced to the rock-bottom minimum, and that when their stocks reached that minimum, the Government would take action. That was a fair decision, if it was the decision. I am not sure whether it was. If it was the decision 2134 I would agree with it, although I must say that it offers no incentive in respect of fuel efficiency. The result was that Austin's had, by 29th November, reached a crisis. They wrote a letter to the Fuel Controller on 20th November, and said:Unless we get out allocation, we shall have to close within three weeks.They never received any reply to that letter. About three weeks later, a telegram was sent to the Minister of Fuel and Power, to whom I am extremely grateful. He behaved extremely well in seeing us about the question of a supply of coal sufficient to enable Austin's to carry on. I have-no quarrel about that. I believe that there was an attempt at that time to administer the scheme flexibly, instead of in the rigid way in which it is now being administered. An inquiry was ordered by the Minister, and, of course, he conducted it himself. When he announced that inquiry in the House I made no comment, although I am not saying that I accept, in full, the result of that inquiry.
Now we come to what happened a fortnight ago. Mr. Lord sent a telegram to the Minister of Fuel and Power, and I immediately got into touch with the Ministry. The allocation to Austin's has now come down to the realistic allocation-of 875 tons a week. It takes 800 tons a week for Austin's to prevent their machines from freezing. So, the effect of this decision—which has nothing whatever to do with immediate transport difficulties—if maintained, will be that Austin's will stay out until the end of March. They can only work one week in ten. Obviously, it is not worth working for one day in ten. I am speaking for Austin's workers, just as much as for their management. As I say, a telegram was despatched to the Minister of Fuel and Power. I spoke to the Minister myself, and he explained that the allocation of fuel had nothing to do with him; that he was responsible for getting the coal but not for distributing it. I got on to the Board of Trade who said, "It is true that the President of the Board of Trade produced the plan, but responsibility for administering it, in the case of the motor trade, falls on the Minister of Supply." I could not believe that that was true, and I still cannot believe it. I got on to the Ministry of Supply and they said, "It is true that we are responsible for the motor trade, and for making recommendations to the Board of Trade, but we are 2135 not responsible for administering the scheme. Perhaps you had better get on to the Ministry of Fuel and Power." Back again to the Ministry of Fuel and Power, and they said, "It has nothing to do with us. You must get on to the Board of Trade." Back to the Board of Trade, back to the Ministry of Supply, back to the Ministry of Fuel and Power, and so on. If this kind of thing goes on it will be serious for the Government. It went or day after day, and is still happening.
Now I want to read a letter which I received today from the Minister of Supply. I cannot see why the right hon. Gentleman should have written it. May I suggest that we put ourselves, for a moment or two, in the position of the individual who is responsible for administering this plan? "No man can serve two masters" let alone three or four. How can anyone be responsible to all these sponsoring Departments? Surely hon. Members, I, and the country, are entitled to know who is responsible for administering the scheme. Surely, there must be one Minister who is responsible. I do not wish to make any personal remarks, because I have the greatest admiration for all the Ministers concerned— [Laughter.]Somebody behind me seems to think that that does not sound right. I hope we shall differentiate between giving facts, and drawing inferences 01 making insinuations. I shall end by saying something about the position of the Government. I have no adverse comment, however, and I repeat that I am a great admirer of the Minister of Supply, the Minister of Fuel and Power, and the President of the Board of Trade.
The effect of the letter which I have received, and which is dated 6th February, is that Austin's remain out until the end of March. This is the language in which this important decision is couched:My dear Raymond:With reference to your letter of 3rd February, the information you gave me about the fuel position of the Austin Company's works has been considered by Ministers. As you know, the fuel allocation schema is administered by the Regional Fuel Allocation Committees, who have detailed knowledge of the local position, and who are in the best place to decide conflicting claims. You will appreciate that needless difficulties would be created if an attempt was made to deal with individual factories from headquarters, and if a position developed in which the decisions of 2136 the local committees became subject to appeals to Ministers.That means to say that Ministers are not prepared to inquire into bureaucracy. I do not desire to weary the House with the rest of the letter—
§ Mr. Blackburn
Very well. It goes on:All cases must be handled through the machinery set up to deal with the industry as a whole. The grounds on which the company base their claim for an increased allocation have been carefully examined; they are the same as those which have been advanced, or could be advanced, by othe firms"—That is untrue as I will show in a moment—in the same position, and which would justify giving them such special assistance as is possible within the scope of the allocation scheme. The scheme was devised that all firms should receive a proportion of their requirements, in the hope that this would enable pools to be built up in each region, from which, after the balance of the requirements of certain priority industries had been met relief might be given to firms which like Austin's had to contend with special difficulties.We are still at the bottom of the queue. The letter goes on:The recent weather conditions, with their most unfortunate effects on the lifting and moving of coal, have not allowed these pools to be built up as was expected.That is utterly irrelevant. The transport position has nothing to do with what I am talking about. I am talking about the decision. If all the transport is there, we can have only 875 tons a week, only enough to keep going for one day a week.
§ The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Shinwell)
I do not wish to interrupt my hon. Friend, who is putting a quite legitimate case from his own standpoint, but he will understand that the effect of the recent climatic conditions has been adverse in respect of the use of pools.
§ Mr. Blackburn
That is our case. Austin's are victimised because this is a rigid scheme, which takes account only of maximum consumption. Austin's produce one-third of their own electricity. How can you treat a firm which uses Corporation electricity, on the same level as a firm which produces one-third of the electricity it uses? I hope that, in the inquiry, the Minister will take note of the 2137 allegation of Austin's—which I believe to be correct—that their method of generating their electricity results in a saving of fuel, because the waste is utilised in the factory. Therefore, I do not think there is any doubt that one ought to encourage firms to do things such as that. I will not weary the House with the remainder of the letter, because it is not really relevant. The effect of it is that there is a decision by a committee, and that, apparently, no Minister is going to explain exactly what is the reason for the committee's decision. No single Minister is responsible for administering the scheme. In conclusion, I would like, first of all, to reiterate my suggestion that the Government must produce an inquiry of an independent nature. I see that the Minister of Fuel and Power seems dissatisfied with me for not reading out the end of the letter, and as I do not want to be unfair, I will quote it:The recent weather conditions with their most unfortunate effects on the lifting and moving of coal have not allowed these pools to be built up as was expected. No immediate relief in the overall situation can be anticipated unless these conditions, which we hope will be only temporary, improve. Needless to say, every possible step is being taken to overcome the difficulties which they are causing. The Regional Committee will, however, keep the situation at Austin's under close review and will give them whatever assistance they can to them and to other firms in the same position, as spoon as they possibly can.There is no indication there of the vital necessity that the Government should immediately insist on the Fuel Allocation Committee considering the much more important figure of minimum consumption as against maximum consumption. The existing situation is rather the same as if I might have a half a pound of steak a week and my right hon. Friend a quarter of a pound of steak a week, and if we were then rationed and it was said that I must be cut down to a quarter of a pound a week and he must be down to one-eighth of a pound a week. That is what this scheme is doing. It does not take into account the really essential figure—the amount of coal which must be consumed if irreparable damage is not to be done to the factory. That is the most important figure, and it has been ignored throughout. I gave information about this day after day to the Ministers concerned, and it is no good Ministers shaking their heads about it, because I have yet to meet a Minister who has mastered the facts of this case.
2138 I ask for an impartial inquiry into the whole case, and I will accept and abide by the verdict of that inquiry. I do not want another inquiry by another Minister whose Ministry is itself being attacked. That is not an impartial inquiry.
May I conclude in this way? I believe it to be the duty of a loyal Member of the Labour Party to expose bureaucracy ruthlessly. I believe that if Socialists do not kill bureaucracy, bureaucracy will kill Socialism. I believe that to be the greatest danger to our party. I remind the House of two facts. The first is that the workers of Austin's at all times have said that they have the greatest confidence in the miners. Nobody has ever tried to drive a wedge between the workers of Austin's and the miners, and the workers at Austin's would not allow that wedge to be driven. This will be a great day, in a sense, if it brings home to us all how much we depend upon the miners, who have had such a frightful time.
The second observation is this. I can remember the last speech in this House by Mr. James Maxton, and I believe that that speech was utterly true. I believe this Government must succeed for the benefit, not only of this country, but of the whole world. It will not succeed unless Labour Members, not only in the interests of their constituents, for they must not only think of them, but in the interests of the country, and in view of the White Paper on exports, recognise the fact that we shall face an economic and financial crisis next year, inevitably, unless we get to a figure for exports three-quarters above the prewar volume of exports. Unless we do that, we shall be facing an economic Dunkirk.
I believe we must be crusaders against bureaucracy in the Labour Party, and we must not allow a monopoly of that crusade to the party opposite. Hon. Members of all parties must not become voting machines going through the Division Lobbies. I must say that I have not the slightest complaint to make in respect of the Whips. My Whip is looking at me now. I have been a naughty boy on many occasions, and I have never had a hard word from the Whips, and I am sure I shall not have one now. All that stuff about Whips that we read in the newspapers is absolute nonsense. I hope that by telling the facts, by exposing the facts, we shall be able to take measures that will 2139 enable the Government to succeed in their great task.
§ 1.6 p.m.
§ Mr. John Foster (Northwich)
The hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn) was in a congratulatory mood, but if he ever becomes critical of the Socialist Front Bench, I should very much like to hear him. In a situation of such gravity, there are so many factors that ought to be brought to the attention of the Government, of which they do not seem to have any knowledge, and there are so many hon. Members who wish to speak, that I will confine my remarks to two points which I think are of importance in dealing with this crisis. The first is that, as has been pointed out to the Government again and again, it is of the utmost importance that the labour force in the mines should be increased. It has been pointed out again and again that the labour force in the mines could have been increased much more than by the negligible thousands which have been brought into the mines during the last few months if foreign labour had been recruited.
The Minister of Fuel and Power, while paying certain lipservice to that request, has, in fact, not done what has been in his power to increase the supply of foreign labour. The number of Poles introduced into the mines has ben infinitesimal, and the proper measures to see that Poles and other foreign miners were brought into this country have not been taken by the Minister. The right hon. Gentleman has failed in his first duty, which is to see that all possible steps are taken to make the labour force in the mines large enough to produce sufficient coal for this country and also to produce exports so that the wheels of industry may be set going in Europe. The Minister of Fuel and Power has not taken the proper steps because psychologically he has not felt that foreign miners should be introduced into our mines. He has not told the trade unions frankly the position, and he has not appreciated the fact that Polish miners alone in this country would make a substantial contribution to the production of coal.
§ Mr. Foster
The number of Polish miners in this country is very small. I would like, in return, to ask the right hon. Gentleman what steps he is taking to get miners from abroad. The answer is, "None." There are miners in Czechoslovakia, among the displaced persons in Germany, and in the parts between Hungary and Czechoslovakia, who could be brought to this country.
§ Mr. Shinwell
This is very important. I do not want the hon. Gentleman to ride off on this issue, which appears to be quite irrelevant in any case, without having the facts. Is he aware that there is not a coal-producing country in Europe that has not made a demand upon foreign labour, and that, in fact, there is a great shortage of mining workers in every country?
§ Mr. Foster
It is possible to train people from among the displaced persons in Germany, and there are miners among them, too. I should like to ask the Minister, Has he inquired how many miners there are among the displaced persons in Germany?
§ Mr. Shinwell
The hon. Member should know that we have considered every possible avenue of approach in the direction of securing more labour. We have tried every means. We should be glad to use any foreign labour, if we could secure it.
§ Mr. Foster
I gather from the right hon. Gentleman's answer that he is not prepared to tell the House how many Polish miners are working so far. He says he will not say how many.
§ Mr. Shinwell indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Foster
That is certainly the impression I got when I asked the number of Polish miners working in this country. The right hon. Gentleman evaded the issue when he was asked in this House the number of Polish miners working in Britain.
§ Mr. Shinwell
I cannot recall having been asked directly how many Polish miners were working here, but if I had been asked, I should have replied that the number was nil.
§ Mr. Foster
It was the Minister of Labour who was asked and he evaded the issue. I am sorry if I confused the 2141 right hon. Gentleman with his colleague, but I should have thought that when the Minister of Labour was asked the question, he would have consulted his colleague the Minister of Fuel and Power before making his answer. I apologise for mentioning the Minister of Fuel and Power, when it should have been the Minister of Labour. I must direct my attack to another Department of the Government. The question of foreign labour was not considered by the Minister of Fuel and Power until he was pressed to take Northern and Southern Irish labour. It was only when he was pressed, that he gave way. His first answers were, "No, it would be quite impossible. We could not get any miners from Northern and Southern Ireland."
§ Mr. Shinwell
Really I must protest against that statement. The hon. Member has no evidence at all to substantiate what he has just said. For many months, long before the question was raised in the House, we were trying to secure labour from Eire and Northern Ireland. Many months ago, we were in negotiations with the authorities there to secure labour and we did succeed in getting a fair amount.
§ Mr. Foster
I agree that the right hon. Gentleman succeeded in getting some labour, but it was not until he was pressed, or rather until the Ministry were pressed, that he finally agreed. The first answer was, "No, it is quite unworkable." If the Minister looks up the files in his Ministry he will see that the first answer was the usual answer of any Department, "No, you will not get any labour there." It was not until he was pressed that he agreed to get the labour.
§ Mr. Foster
I was answering the Minister of Fuel and Power on the point of not getting Irish labour until he was pressed. The hon. Member asks me what this has got to do with the question. I should like to explain to him that extra labour means extra coal, and we are short of coal. The shortage of labour has been foreseen by everybody within the last 18 months—
§ Mr. Foster
The Government have been pressed and urged to train more people, but they have not taken on adequate numbers. The Minister of Fuel and Power knows perfectly well that that charge is a true one. The second point is that the Ministry of Fuel and Power are not taking all the available steps to get coal. There is the possibility of importing coal from the North American continent. I wrote letters on this urgent matter to the Minister of Fuel and Power, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and one other Minister. We have all got to take individual cases, and what has happened in my constituency is connected with the firm of Imperial Chemicals. They make soda ash which is a basic alkaline for many important industries. Without alkaline many industrial processes cannot take place. Imperial Chemicals had to reduce the production of soda ash by 25 per cent. owing to the lack of coal. That, inevitably, meant less employment as well as a reduction of a product which is vitally needed all over the world and of which there is a world shortage.
Imperial Chemicals received a communication from a Canadian firm who said, "We understand that you are reducing your output of soda ash by 25 per cent. owing to a lack of coal. We need it vitally, so we will send you the coal and you can send us the extra soda ash, which you make as a result of this coal, charging us extra dollars to offset the increased price of coal." That would seem to suit everybody. Canadians would get their soda ash, the people of Northwich would be given constant employment, and the Imperial Chemicals plant would be working on the basis of 24 hours' production so that everybody would be pleased, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer who would get a substantial dollar net profit on the transaction. The answer of the Minister of Fuel and Power was, "No. If you import the coal, we will take an amount equivalent to that imported off your allocation so that you will be back to the 75 per cent. allowance." I consider that scandalous.
§ Mr. Shinwell
The hon. Member has made a statement that my Ministry told a firm in his constituency that they would reduce the coal allocation if that firm imported coal. Will the hon. Gentleman produce evidence of that?
§ Mr. Shinwell
The reason I ask him, is because the statement is totally inaccurate. Nothing of the sort ever occurred, nor could it have possibly occurred. It was for another valid reason that we could not accept the offer.
§ Mr. Foster
I said I would produce the evidence when I was called upon to do so. What I did was to write to the Minister about a hypothetical case, where coal came from transatlantic sources to make a product which would not otherwise be made because of the fuel shortage, the product then being re-exported and bringing in a dollar profit. He has not seen fit to answer my letter. I sent the Chancellor a similar letter, and he has not seen fit to answer it. I also sent the letter to a third Minister and he, too, did not see fit to answer it. I would have thought in view of the vital urgency that an answer would have been given.
I know that the Minister of Fuel and Power is going to say straight away that Britain could not accept coal from North America, because of our agreement with the European coal organisation. In a perfect planning world that might be a good answer. The answer might be, "No, England has more coal than these other people, and it would be wrong to take coal from the starving peoples of Europe. Therefore, we cannot take the surplus coal from the North American Continent, because we would be taking it from the Belgians, the Dutch, the Danes and so on who need it more than we do. "The fallacy is that the European coal organisation would get the coal, and there would still be surplus coal in America which would not in any case be exported to Europe. It would be sent to this country for a definite export purpose, in order to produce such products as soda ash, which are in short supply. 2144 In other words, production would be on a barter basis, and we could take that coal from America, without taking it from the peoples of Europe. I gather that, if my assumptions were true, the Minister would agree to the import of coal.
§ Mr. Foster
The right hon. Gentleman has not seen fit to answer my letter. This is the information which, I understand, has come from American sources and I put this information in the letter which I sent to him. These are the only two points I wanted to make. There are many stages at which the Government of this country have failed lamentably to bring coal production up to its highest level. These are the two that I submit —first that they have not taken the proper steps to see that people are taken into the industry for recruitment and training; and secondly, that they have not considered the importation of coal from North America. That would only be a palliative, but it would help in the desperate situation in which every little can be of assistance.
§ 1.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke)
Never did a Government take on the responsibility of governing in more difficult times: never did a Government hold the confidence of the people and retain it as this Government have done up to now. This imposes upon us—especially those of us who have been born and cradled in the movement which has given life to this Government —a great responsibility, to be worthy of the people's confidence. As soon as we detect any weaknesses in administration or organisation, we should face them at once, and expose them, in order to strengthen our country economically and strengthen our Government and our party. Those of us who were in the 1935–39 Parliament remember the weaknesses of that large majority, but that is not going to apply to this large majority. Irrespective of our party differences, we should all be proud that this country can produce a virile Parliament that is working with decision and at record speed. In these days it is men that are required, not sycophants. Today, the "Manchester Guardian" states that 45,000 persons are now unemployed 2145 in the area to which I belong, the most important industrial area in this country. Of the firms which have ceased work, 206 are cotton spinning concerns and 28 cotton finishers—and all this after six years of war and seven years of no consumer goods for the people.
Step by step I want to trace the coal situation in correct perspective. Let me make it clear that the Minister of Fuel and Power is not responsible for the immediate situation, nor can anyone point a linger at the mining industry of this country in that connection. Those of us who have been trained to work to plans and drawings know that before we proceed to lay-out we must first have our objective in correct perspective. The treatment of the miners of this country for generations past represents the blackest page in Britain's industrial history, and Conservatives have forfeited all right to be critical on this issue. The only people who are entitled to be critical are those who have been proved to he the patriots and the true Britons, those who supported proposals for improving the conditions of our people and its economy.
The black chapter is too well known, and the legacy too well appreciated for me to dwell upon it today. Let me, therefore, turn to another aspect which is too often forgotten. In 1939, the working class people of this country, and especially the organised workers, made it clear that while some people were quibbling and did not know where they were, we were prepared to give our all, in order to win the war against Hitlerite Germany and world Fascism. It was we who brought about the "Win the war" Coalition; it was we who called to the office of Prime Minister the right hon. Gentleman who played such a great part and who had been held back for so long by other people. The Foreign Secretary, before he acquired his new-found friends, could tell the story of the part that some of us played behind the scenes in those difficult days. That brings me to the fact that early in 1942 the Labour Party were against coal rationing. I remember having row after row with some of my best friends who were some of the most noble characters who have ever sat in this House—men like Gordon McDonald, Joe Tinker, Joe Batey, Tom Cape, and many other noble sons.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
The hon. Gentleman knows the people to whom I refer, and let me say in all modesty, that it is unbecoming for him to make such a remark, as he knows. During 1942, as I was saying, the Labour Party were against coal rationing. A few of us were always in favour of it, knowing that the people of this country did not mind going short—as they still do not—so long as we are all having the same ration. The then President of the Board of Trade came to our private Parliamentary meeting in Room 14 and pleaded with us to accept the principle of rationing, and it is to the everlasting credit of this party that, irrespective of the pre-meeting opinion, they accepted the need for rationing. That was reported to the Government, and on 7th May, 1942, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer made an overwhelming case in the House for the rationing of coal. Here are a few of the points he made: coal, coke, gas, electricity and paraffin were to be rationed and that would enable us to reduce the domestic consumption of coal by 10 million tons. The following are quotations from the official record at that time:Mr. Dalton: As I have already informed the House, I asked Sir William Beveridge on 14th March to report to me on the most effective and equitable methods of restricting and rationing the domestic consumption of fuel. I received his report last week. After consideration of this report, His Majesty's Government have decided to introduce as soon as possible a comprehensive scheme of fuel rationing.Coal, coke, gas, electricity and paraffin will be rationed on a points system. Each house will have a ration calculated on present needs and not by reference to previous consumption."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 21st April, 1942: Vol. 379, c. 491.]Then, on 7th May, 1942, referring to his first speech in the House as President of the Board of Trade, the right hon. Gentleman said:I said: There is a very serious situation confronting us…Our production is insufficient…; our present consumption is excessive, and our stocks are much too low….It is clear that in the national interest consumption must be cut down. It is also clear that mere exhortations are not enough.…His Majesty's Government, therefore, have decided that a comprehensive scheme of fuel rationing shall be introduced as soon as possible.'"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th May. 1942; Vol. 379, c. 1452.]On the same day, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Arthur Greenwood) said: 2147In my view the case for the acceptance of the principle of rationing is proved."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th May, 1942; Vol. 379, c. 1478.]Then we come to nth June, 1942—and let every hon. and right hon. Member in this House listen to what took place. Mr. Gordon Macdonald, speaking on behalf of the miners and referring to a conversation he had had with the then Lord Privy Seal, said:I ventured to ask whether the views of the Mineworkers' Federation of Great Britain would have the same weight as those of the 1922 Committee. He replied: 'I do not think it is intended that the committee on this subject should consult the 1922 committee.'Mr. Macdonald went on:I do not know much about the 1922 Committee, but they seem to me to be a very formidable and influential body."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th June, 1942; Vol. 380, c. 1328.]It is there that the seriousness of the fuel situation in this country started. Much to our surprise later on, the statement was made that the Government had decided to postpone rationing. That is the beginning of all our immediate troubles. Let me quote from a letter which appeared in the "Manchester Guardian" of 6th February, 1947.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
Yes. The letter was written by myself. It reads as follows:Mr. Macdonald, speaking for the miners, said that he thought the Government had surrendered to the threats of the 1922 Committee.I reiterate here as coolly as possible that the Government did give way and refused to face up to the rationing of fuel and power because of the 1922 Committee, which blackmailed them and prevented them from doing it.
§ Mr. Molson
Is there anything constitutionally wrong in a Government paying attention to the opinions of the majority of their own supporters? Are this Government never going to do so?
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
I have no objection to that interjection. It only underlines what I have said, Then I proceed to quote an extract from the "Manchester Guardian" of 14th May. This newspaper is looked upon as one of the most reliable in the world and one of the most 2148 informative. This is what the newspaper said:The postponement of the Government's plan for rationing is an odd business. There clearly is a good deal behind it. Governments do not change tactics so sharply without serious cause, and the cause is to be found in the Tory revolt. In some respects it is the most nakedly political squeeze that the Churchill Government has been subject to in its two years of office.Further on:Apart from the differences over ownership, etc., it is from this period that we have drifted and drifted into the present situation.Then hon. and right hon. Members on the other side have the audacity to be critical of the Minister of Fuel and Power.
Rationing, let me say clearly, from this date would not have produced one more ounce of coal. Coal is only produced by the miners, although, in some other countries, students, lawyers and others are now assisting. We may have to call upon other people to assist in this country. What good would that do? With a systematic plan of rationing it would have enabled us to have equitably distributed the coal in an orderly manner, and enabled us to allocate coal in accordance with the priority needs of industry.
Now let me place on record what "The Times" has to say about it. This is not a Socialist newspaper, but the orthodox "Times" of April 22nd, 1942. It said, on fuel rationing:The Government have decided that a comprehensive scheme shall be introduced.On 28th April, "The Times" said, in a very informative article that "the time for rationing had arrived." On 2nd May, 1942, "The Times" said:The opponents of rationing fuel must face some stubborn facts Rationing is a method of securing fair distribution.On 7th May, 1942, "The Times" said:Coal, coke, gas and electricity must be rationed.On 7th May, the same newspaper said:Without comprehensive rationing, fair distribution cannot be assured.On 13th May, "The Times" said, in page 4, column 5:A factor which must be taken into account is that most Conservative private Members continue to express strong opposition to any rationing scheme based on coupons or the points system.On 14th May, "The Times" said:The 1922 Committee, in an official statement, expressed satisfaction on the withdrawal of proposals for fuel rationing.2149 I say that we have now got this issue in correct perspective. The responsibility for the present anarchy and chaotic state of affairs in fuel and power in this country lies at the door of the Conservative Party, who were responsible for the decisions of the 1922 Committee. Things are far too serious for us to hide behind that. We have some responsibility. Annie Besant once said:Before we are entitled to be critical of others we should analyse ourselves.I always try to apply that maxim. If it is right to apply it to individuals we must apply it to our party and to our Government. Had we assumed power last August we should not have had a word of criticism to say on these benches, but we assumed power in 1945. We had experience of last winter. Those of us who advocate planning, ought to be prepared to plan. It is well-known that we only just got through the previous winter. We should have planned to enable us to get through this winter. Therefore, while we all want to do our best to get through the immediate situation, we must have Ministers today who are planning to enable us to get through the next winter and the winter after that.
So concerned was I about the situation in the area for which I have some responsibility, that I asked a Question. I asked why the Press conference statement was made before the details were worked out. I wish that some of those statements were prepared in a far different way. We ought to have got away from that kind of thing before now. Anyone who knows anything about planning, knows that you cannot work out the details before you submit the plan. You must have the specifications, you must have some statistical evidence, and work-put in, to enable you to plan. A great deal of uncertainty and misunderstanding arose in the country from that Press conference, which ought never to have been held until the full facts could have been placed before the country. The answer to the Question states:The amounts of fuel and power that would be available are not capable of such a close estimation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th February, 1947; Vol. 432, c. 1971.]Those of us who have been brought up in large-scale industry and know what responsibilities people have to assume in order to fulfil the needs of industry, could never have expected an answer like that. 2150 Estimating and quoting take place in' industry every day and business people have to estimate and quote in order to carry out manufacturing for years ahead. So it can be done by Ministers, if they are prepared to work it out as they should do. If they are too busy—as I know many of them are, and I make all allowances—they ought to delegate some responsibility and some authority to other people. The answer goes on:I do not accept the implications of the last part of the Question."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th February, 1947; Vol. 432, c. 1971.]That may be true, but it was a disgraceful exhibition, and it is typical of what is taking place on many occasions.
I want now to deal briefly with the situation in my own areas. I would prefer not to press this too far, because I would like to have the very best technical advice but I suggest that instead of continuing the sudden cutting off of gas and electric power which takes place far too often in the midst of delicate operations and production at great risk to lives and production. Ministers should consult industry and technical advisers as to whether something else cannot be done with regard to that. It is well known that the finest quality coal in the world comes from our own country. This means a very big income and a fine contribution to our dollar position. Cannot industry be consulted with regard to the quality of coal in order that we can maintain our fine quality production? Upon what basis was the allocation decided? Who decided the percentages of 60 per cent. and 50 per cent.
Can I have a reply to this question: Is it proposed in any quarter, or is it in any Minister's mind, that there may be a reduction in household coal? If so, let me remind Ministers that we are entitled to at least five bags per month. Yet in our area, including my own home, we have never had above three bags per month. This may be all right for people who are well placed with central heating, or gas and electric fires, but our people are scrambling for the limited supply of wood and coal, carrying it on perambulators, in bags, and women wearing shawls go for the little coal that is to be given out. Let all be put on the same basis. If the Government do that, we will go to any part of the country and defend their policy. The cotton workers, for example, 2151 have been to work in the morning, standing in the dark in queues waiting for buses and then, when they arrived at the mills, they have been turned back, because a detailed and real plan had not been worked out. Our workers are too loyal, too great, they respond to the appeals of the Government too well to be treated in that way. Therefore, I hope that as a result of today's Debate, Ministers will reconsider the situation. We have now placed the responsibility at the right door. Let us face the situation. Let us plan and prepare to deal with the immediate situation, and with the winters ahead, and I will guarantee that people will respond to the appeals that will be made to them.
§ 1.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Drayson (Skipton)
I think the House and the country should feel indebted to the hon. Member for Darwen (Mr. Prescott) for raising this subject on the Adjournment today, and I was pleased to see the belated realisation on the part of the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. Ellis Smith) of the seriousness of the situation. It is a pity that in the speech he has just made, he did not treat the subject with the seriousness it deserves. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh".] He went back to 1942 to try to place the blame on other shoulders, whereas there is no doubt in the minds of the people of this country that His Majesty's Government are wholly responsible for the situation that faces us today.
We can gather from the speeches that have been made the full seriousness of the situation that faces the country. Only a few moments ago, I was on the telephone to my constituency and had first-hand and up-to-date reports of the situation as it presents itself there now. The main point with which we are concerned at the moment is the fact that the rayon and cotton industry in the West Riding of Yorkshire have not been given the same basic ration of coal as the cotton and rayon industry in Lancashire but 50 per cent. of normal requirements instead of 65 per cent. I know that the Cotton Spinners and Manufacturers Association in Manchester have brought this matter to the notice of His Majesty's Government, but I am informed so far they have had no satisfaction. It is very unfortunate that, merely because of the geographical 2152 position of the mills in my constituency, and, among others, in the constituency of the Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Board of Trade, they should find that they have been discriminated against in this way because they are in the North-Eastem region and not in the North-Western. When they approached the Regional Fuel Officer for the North-Eastern region, he said the fact was that the coal is just not there.
May I give one or two figures to show what effect this reduction of 15 per cent. has on the cotton industry in my constituency at present? In one group of mills the difference between 65 per cent. and 50 per cent. accounts for 60 tons of coal a week, but if that 60 tons is not forthcoming, 2,150 operatives will be affected. I know that in some industries 60 tons of coal will not keep 60 people in work for one week, but that, perhaps, is one of the reasons why the Government should reconsider their system of allocation because, surely, where 60 tons of coal will affect the employment of 2,150 operatives, it is a matter which should receive the most serious consideration of His Majesty's Government?
I have had reports from another town where, since 31st December, they have received only one and a half weeks' supply of coal, and this is affecting 1,200 operatives. They tell me that further stoppages throughout the area are inevitable. Now, as the House may know, my constituency, which is one of the largest in England, is not highly industrialised, but that part where we have the cotton and wool industry is of vital importance to the whole economy of the area and this country. Not only cotton, but wool is worked in my constituency, and I have one report from a woollen mill employing 350 operatives which closed down on the 5th February indefinitely. They say— and this has been touched upon by other speakers—that the coal they get is far from satisfactory; much too much of it is outcrop, it has too high an ash content, and they are unable to do their work satisfactorily. The recent cut in allocation has put the whole industry out of gear. In connection with wool, it is absolutely essential that the mills should be at the correct temperature. Any fall in that temperature, even though it may be only a few degrees, means the closing down of the mills resulting in countless 2153 thousands of operatives being put out of work.
In my post bag today I had three letters which must be typical of those received by all hon. Members who are concerned with this problem. The first was from the Barnoldswick Urban District Council. This serious local government body headed the communication with three letters, "S.O.S." They said that at present they have only three days' supply of coal for the gas works and unless a further supply arrives by Saturday—tomorrow— they must cease production of gas for the whole of the Barnoldswick and Earby area. The next was from a manufacturers' association. It states:One of the largest mills closed last week, and unless we receive a better allocation of coal the unemployment figure will rise considerably in the near future.I have another letter which is not from an industrial concern, but from an ordinary consumer. It draws attention to the vast amount of shale which is sold with the coal. The writer says that it is a waste of a miner's time and energy that he should be asked to bring up this shale from the pit. It is a waste of transport and manpower not only from the point of view of carting the fuel, but because of the additional work required in dealing with fires and furnaces. He adds:It is an imposition on the consumer who has to foot the bill. The scandalous feature is that all this results from a deliberate policy in order to swell production figures.That is a point about which we on this side of the House have been suspicious for a long time. We have suspected that the Minister of Fuel and Power, in order to bolster up his production figures, has allowed the quality of coal continually to deterioriate. These letters describe the position in my own constituency. One can well imagine the serious effect which is being felt all over the country, particularly in areas such as Lancashire, as has been pointed out already.
I wonder whether the Government have made any calculation as to what this represents in terms of production and exports? If, as we are told, some industries are closing from now until the end of March, which is for two months out of the 12 months of the year, that will account for a very high percentage of our export target of 170 per cent. over our prewar figure. The position also has a demoralising effect on our workers who see ever diminishing 2154 stocks of coal in the factory yards, and who go to work every morning wondering when they are to be laid off.
This is no sudden crisis. We have known about this situation for many months and hon. Members on this side of the House have given ample warning to the Government about what was taking place. We have suggested how the difficulty could be remedied. To my mind, this is just one of the symptoms of a creeping paralysis which is the main product of Socialism. Only yesterday in this House an hon. Member said that the party opposite were trying to rewrite the laws of economics. At least, we hoped that they realised that coal was vital to the economy of the country. We have been shocked by the complacency of Ministers who sit on the Government front bench. I do not know whether the Minister of Fuel and Power has some facial affliction, but the constant smirk on his face when these matters are mentioned is an insult to this House and to the country. (HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]
§ Mr. Drayson
The right hon. Gentleman seems to me to be rather like the late Minister of Food, who was always hoping that something would turn up. He sent a whaling fleet off to the South Pole thinking that it would help him with his fat ration. [An HON. MEMBER: "It did."] Only at the very last moment when they came back empty handed, or with not as much as the Minister expected, did he tell the housewife the seriousness of the situation. We hope today that the Government will tell us the true situation. How grateful the Minister of Fuel and Power must have been, no doubt to one of his public relations officers, for the phrase "shedding" to describe the constant cuts in electricity. What the country is anxious to know is when the Prime Minister is going to "shed" the Minister of Fuel and Power. That step is long overdue. Perhaps it is that the Prime Minister wants to keep him in the Cabinet where he can keep an eye on him, because I am told he is more dangerous out of office than in office, just like his right hon. Friend the Minister of Health, whose failure to provide houses can be compared with the failure of the Minister of Fuel and Power to provide fuel. I think we can say, of these two right hon. Gentlemen, 2155Never has so much unnecessary suffering been inflicted upon so many, by two so incompetent Ministers.
§ Mr. Drayson
I hope that we shall hear full details from the Government today of the present situation and their future plans and that I shall be given some message of encouragement to take back to my constituency.
§ 1.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Heywood and Radcliffe)
There was, I think, only one point in the speech by the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Drayson) with which I agreed. That was when he expressed gratitude to the hon. Member for Darwen (Mr. Prescott) for having raised this very important subject. I think, too, we are grateful to subsequent speakers for having widened the scope of our discussion. Let me confess frankly, as a Lancashire Member, that my primary interest in this subject is in the cotton textile industry. It is right, however, that we* should remember that there are other industries which are affected as seriously as the cotton industry, and in some cases even more seriously. I have in mind particularly the paper and furniture making industries, as well as the woollen textile industry to which the hon. Member for Skipton referred. I was glad that the hon. Member for Darwen said that he preferred to keep the discussion on other than a histrionic level. I think that, with certain reservations, he succeeded fairly well. I wish his supporters on the opposite side of the House had lived up to the high standard which he set them.
If we are to make this a political rough and tumble, I do not think we shall make any progress here; but if we were to do so I think the balance of argument would be greatly on our side. We on this side of the House could point to those years when men were driven out of industry, when pits and cotton mills were closed down at the same time, not temporarily but for good. In the borough of Radcliffe, which I represent, there have been, within living memory, 28 coal mines in operation. Not one of them is now working. In the borough of Heywood there are, from place to place throughout the town, derelict areas where nothing but rubble and desolation is left. At one time, when 2156 hon. Members opposite were the governing party of this country, those places were the sites of prosperous cotton mills. Those coal mines and those mills did not close down because the people of this country had all the coal and cotton goods they needed, but because, due to the failure of private enterprise, there was not the purchasing power available to the people of this country. But I do not think that political arguments of this kind will help us, this afternoon, to solve the problem, which seems to me essentially a problem of administration.
§ Mr. Greenwood
Because if hon. Members opposite try to make political capital out of the position, we are in a much better position to do so. As I was saying, it is a straightforward administrative problem: how best we are to distribute fully and fairly the limited stocks of coal which are available to us. In that connection, I want to make three points to the Government, which I hope will be referred to by whoever replies to this Debate.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade yesterday referred to the elasticity of the present allocation system. I have doubts as to whether it is as elastic as it is capable of being. It seems to me that there may be a certain lack of elasticity, not only between industry and industry, but between different sides of the same industry and between different firms in the same side of the industry in the allocation of fuel. In the cotton industry, the spinning side—here I would touch upon a point made by the hon. Member for Skipton—needs 15 of the 65 per cent. which has been allocated in order to keep the spinning mills adequately heated. That means that the spinning side of the industry is getting an effective allocation of fuel less than that of the weaving or manufacturing side. But the bottleneck is in the spinning side, the production of yarn. I am afraid that under this present allocation we are tending to make the bottleneck even worse. The manufacturing side is working rather more fully than the spinning side. Stocks of yarn are being depleted, and the shortage will become even more acute in the near future. The other point I want to make about the elasticity of the system is that at present we are tending to penalise the efficient firms, a point which has touched 2157 on by my hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn). In fact, firms which have practised and studied fuel economy are at the moment being given a smaller allocation than that to which they would otherwise be entitled
The second point I want to raise relates to labour in the industry. The Minister of Labour speaking at Oldham on Wednesday very rightly drew attention to the need for recruiting labour into the cotton industry, especially young people. In Lancashire at the moment we are going through extremely difficult times. In fairness to the President of the Board of Trade and ourselves I am bound to say that his proposal to introduce the two-shift system in the spinning industry has not improved the prospects of recruiting young people into the industry, whatever we may think of the rights or wrongs of it. At the moment, young people who might be tempted to go into the cotton industry will tend to drift away, and be dispersed into industries like distribution and clerical work, or lighter industries which are not affected to the same extent as the cotton industry. The situation may, in a few years' time, as a result of these shortages, be extremely serious for the industry, because we have to build up our labour force if the cotton industry is to remain one of the basic industries of this country. I was glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton say that he did not want a priority allocation for Austin's. On the other hand, I do want priority treatment for the cotton industry of this country. I believe that in the years to come the fine cotton goods of Lancashire, which cannot be equalled in any other part of the world, will be more important to our export drive than the automobiles made in Birmingham, Coventry and elsewhere in the Midlands and the South of England.
§ Mr. Greenwood
Yes. My third point is this. The hon. Member for Darwen has said that on this occasion he was not interested in the climatic conditions which had prevailed for the last few days, but it is quite clear that the weather conditions, coupled with the unfortunate breakdown of the Wood-head Tunnel, have played an important part in the deterioration of the situation, 2158 so far as Lancashire is concerned. For example, speaking on 28th January Sir John Grey told a meeting of the Cotton Spinners' and Manufacturers' Association in Manchester that in spite of incidental difficulties at individual mills no complaint had been received that morning that supplies were not reaching mills. Today "The Times" report Mr. G. B. Fielding, addressing the Cotton Manufacturers' Association, in Manchester, yesterday, as saying that the whole allocation system had broken down, and that the cotton industry was faced with prolonged stoppages, unless there was some immediate improvement. It seems clear that the situation has deteriorated to a large extent, due to the unfortunate weather we have been having. I hope my right hon. Friend who is to reply will tell us to what extent he believes these causes have produced the situation we are now in.
I do not think, however, that responsibility for the situation can be laid entirely on those factors. For example, if we look at the stock position in the coal industry, stocks, which in October were nearly 11 million tons, had sunk on 18th January to only seven million tons. It seems to me that if this new system of allocation is effective and efficient, the time to have introduced it would have been several months earlier, before the situation had deteriorated to its present condition. I feel confident that my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench have an effective answer to that criticism which I have made.
In conclusion, I would merely say that Lancashire as a whole, both manufacturers and workpeople, have accepted this situation with what I think could be called characteristic Lancashire good humour. For that reason they are the more entitled to be taken fully into the confidence of my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench. I hope that when the Government reply they will tell us quite frankly if any member of the Government, or the Government as a whole, has been guilty of avoidable lack of foresight. If not, let them tell us the reasons, and we will tell the country, who, I believe, will accept the reasons with understanding and sympathy.
§ 2.9 p.m.
§ Mr. Eden (Warwick and Leamington)
I do not suppose that there is an hon. Member in any part of the House at present who doubts that it was a wise 2159 step to have this Debate this afternoon. It would, in all the circumstances, have been unthinkable, had this House dispersed for the weekend without examining the situation which now confronts British industry. I do not suppose that the right hon. Gentleman, who, I understand, is to reply to the Debate, will disagree with my statement that, at the moment, we in this country are confronted with the gravest industrial crisis that has faced us at any time in the last 20 years.
If anybody has doubts about that, he need only have heard the speeches made, in respect of Lancashire, in vivid and arresting phrases, by my hon. Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Prescott), who opened the Debate, and by the hon. Member for Heywood and Radcliffe (Mr. Anthony Greenwood). Having for many years sat on the Treasury Bench, I fully understood the kind of speech he was trying to make—loyally anxious to support the Government, but unable wholly to disguise the fact that Lancashire was perturbed. Then there were the speeches of the hon. Members for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn) and Stoke (Mr. Ellis Smith). I have only one word to say about the speech of the hon. Member for King's Norton. I am not in a position to judge the rights or wrongs of the dispute between himself and the Ministerial Benches as to the facts, but I should have thought that, if there were such a dispute, it would be well if his request for an inquiry were accepted. It seems to me that there is a conflict of evidence, and neither the hon. Member nor the Government would have anything to lose by clearing up that conflict and getting the facts, as they concern the Austin works. The hon. Member for King's Norton will forgive me for saying that, while I understand his concern about the Austin works, my concern is much wider than that. Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman at once that I am not desirous of speaking in any party spirit. As I understand the situation, it is much too serious for that, and, although I shall have criticisms to make, and am in duty bound to make them, I shall try to couch them in a constructive spirit, and to make suggestions as to what may be done in the situation which now faces us.
The chief topic of my comments this afternoon will be one which the hon.
2160 Member for King's Norton touched upon, but said he was not going to follow through—that is to say, the planning arrangements which should have been made in the light of the present situation. I say to the right hon. Gentleman, therefore, that my charge against him and against the Government is that, while their intentions were no doubt good, they have, in fact, completely misjudged the situation, by taking too optimistic a view of the gap which had to be bridged between the national industrial demand and the available supplies of coal. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that, as a consequence of that misjudgment, the Government did not prepare, or put into force early enough, the necessary plans to ensure that the existing shortages did the minimum amount of damage to our industrial output. Finally, I say to him that, when they did agree upon such a plan—now known as the "Cripps plan"—they did so too late, and applied it too late. I propose to establish my statement, and I shall first call in evidence the words of the Ministers themselves. I must remind the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Fuel and Power that he told the House in the course of a speech delivered on 16th October:If we find in the course of the next month 0f so that our appeal for the promotion of further fuel efficiency methods and economies has not resulted in further saving, we may have to come and tell the House of further more drasic steps, for the one thing which we must avoid at all costs—and this is our full intention—is any dislocation of our industrial activities in the coming months."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th Oct., 1946; Vol. 427, c 929.]
§ Mr. Eden
The right hon. Gentleman says, rather sharply, "I will tell you later," but I am trying to develop a case on a national issue; I am not trying to score points. At the same time, I must put before the House what the right hon. Gentleman said, and I hope that he will accept it in that spirit. I now come to the next question, and I will quote, not a wicked Tory paper, but the "Daily Herald" of 25th October. Here is the heading—not my heading:Crisis? 'They All Know But Myself.' Shinwell.That is the "Daily Herald" heading. It goes on:Everybody knows there is going to be a serious crisis in the coal industry—except the 2161 Minister of Fuel, said Mr. Shinwell yesterday. There is not going to be a crisis, if by crisis you mean that industrial organisation is going to be seriously dislocated and hundreds of factories are to be closed down.What is the position today?
§ Mr. Eden
I will tell the right hon. Gentleman. In my judgment, the situation now confronting us is the gravest domestic industrial situation with which we have been confronted for the last 20 years. If I have exaggerated, I shall be only too glad to be reassured by information available to the Government, but I fear that I have not exaggerated.
I come to the next point. I say that the Government misjudged the extent of the problem with which they had to deal. That, in part, explains, though, in my submission, it does not excuse, the confusion that followed. What happened? Again I stand to be corrected if my account is wrong. As I understand it, during an important part of this winter, firms in this country have been given allocations by the regional organisation of the Ministry of Fuel and Power. The Ministry have not, in fact, been able to fulfil those allocations. That, I think, is not disputed. The Ministry must soon have known that they could not fulfil those allocations. What, in fact, did they do? They proceeded to cut deliveries against those allocations by varying amounts, with the result that, in some cases, deliveries were as low as 55 to 60 per cent. of the allocations. Those are the words of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, when he spoke at the Press conference on 13th January. As a result of that situation, the word "allocation" became a complete farce, very much as the word "compensation" has become in other respects.
Let the House observe, for a moment, the fundamental weakness of the method pursued by the Government. There were reductions in deliveries, as the hon. Gentleman showed this morning—and, of course, it is not an isolated case—and allocations were made on a hand-to-mouth basis. No advance information could be or was given to companies of what they would get. From week to week, they did 2162 not know how large or how small a percentage of their allocations they were going to receive. If any of these statements is wrong, I hope the Minister will correct me when he replies, but, to the best of my knowledge, that is what happened. This state of affairs inevitably created the widest possible confusion. The right hon. Gentleman knows, of course, without my telling him, that a great many industries in this country cannot afford to stop a manufacturing process half way through because of the consequences to their plant. Therefore, I say to the Government that the Minister's failure to introduce any ordered plan in the early days, as he should have done and as he was appealed to by many to do, created the utmost difficulty in industry, at the very time when the Government were beseeching everybody concerned in industry, workers and employers alike, to increase production to the utmost extent of their capacity.
I repeat, therefore, that there has been no foresight. So it was until December. Surely, by then, the realities of the situation ought to have been evident to the Minister? Yet it was then that he issued the letter to industries in this country from which my hon. Friend the Member for Darwen quoted at the outset of this Debate. I quote one paragraph from that letter because I think that it illustrates the point. I' am sorry to have to say it, but the right hon. Gentleman-underestimated the gap he had to fill. Paragraph 6 of the letter said:It has been decided that in no circumstances shall any reductions at all be made in the present rate of deliveries for electricity undertakings and gas works or for certain essential industries (iron and steel, including foundries; coke ovens; railways, canals and docks) and that in any reduction in deliveries which may be unavoidable for other industries, the reductions to be made shall be proportionately smaller for certain industries of high national importance than for other less essential industries.I ask the House to note the date of that letter—4th December. The right hon. Gentleman said that large block of industry—more than half—was not to be affected by cuts. Then the right hon. Gentleman concludes:If, as the Government hope, industrial consumers (other than the industries which will be totally exempted) at once curtail their consumption by 5 per cent. the consequent improvement in the stock position, assisted by the reduction in the consumption of coal by electricity undertakings and gas works"—2163 though why the right hon. Gentleman should have assumed that, I cannot imagine—should suffice to enable industry as a whole to get through this winter without any serious interruption in activity.That was on 4th December. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman if I am right in my figures? As I understand it, that reduction for which he asked on 4th December exempting a large block of industry amounts to a reduction of five per cent., according to the "Monthly Digest of Statistics" on a total of about 700,000 tons. I have excluded the industries not to be touched. That leaves, according to page 21 of the Digest, 618,000 tons for other industries, to which I add 87,000 tons for engineering and other metal trades, making approximately 700,000 tons per week. That figure of 700,000 tons is the figure on which, in December, the right hon. Gentleman asked for a reduction of five per cent. which he said would be enough to tide him over his difficulties. That is 35,000 tons a week. Does the right hon. Gentleman really suggest that that was a correct assessment of the situation on 4th December? That amount of 35,000 tons a week could not possibly bridge the gap which the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade himself said was now 300,000 tons a week. I regret to have to repeat it, but the right hon. Gentleman completely failed to diagnose correctly the extent of the gap he had to bridge. Therefore, he did not put the plans into force early enough, and we find ourselves having to accept hurriedly improvised plans by the Government when they are up against the immediate problem now confronting them. Let me carry that a bit further. In the same month of December, we heard of the introduction of emergency measures. I think "emergency measures" is rather too complimentary a term to use for what are really only make-shift arrangements, scrap innovations and an attempt to rob Peter to pay Paul. I have no idea where he actually got the coal for Austin's, though I have my suspicions as to where some of it came from. The right hon. Gentleman's handling of the situation, particularly in its early stages, was such as to discourage thrift on the part of the industries themselves, for the companies who exercised the greatest care soon learnt that the result of being very careful was 2164 either that their allocations were not fulfilled or that they would be asked to supply coal for others who, perhaps, had not been so thrifty or careful.
About a fortnight after the Austin crisis, at long last an attempt was made to introduce some kind of order. The President of the Board of Trade came to the rescue. He flung out the lifebelt to the right hon. Gentleman. Together they held a Press conference at which, for the first time, they announced a completely new set of figures on what was called a realistic basis. It is certainly true that nobody in any part of the House can claim that the earlier figures which were produced had any realistic basis at all. This plan, which I understand is known as the Cripps plan, at last adopted the principle of ensuring to industrialists at least some deliveries of coal which they could be certain to obtain. The wholly fictitious allocations which had ruled before were, in fact, halved, and the industrialists were assured that they could be certain of receiving these new so-called realistic allocations. Over and above the deliveries against these reduced allocations a reserve pool was allotted to various regions, to be distributed to various industries in accordance with a broad list of priorities. But while this so-called Cripps plan did introduce, at long last, some measure of realism into the coal allocations—though pretty rigid realism—it was introduced much too late. As a measure of the failure of the Minister to grasp the facts of the situation, I would remind the House of this. When I read out this letter of 4th December, the House may have observed that the iron and steel industry was then assured in this letter that, in no circumstances, would it be cut at all. Yet that industry has now had its allocation reduced by the Cripps plan to 75 per cent. That is not what one would call very reassuring evidence of the Government's planning or grasp of the situation. As late as December that great industry was assured that on no account would its allocation be cut; then, a few weeks afterwards comes the Cripps plan and the joint meeting with the Press, and the cut is instituted. I am not in a position to decide, but the so-called Cripps plan might have been of some help if it had been introduced in good time.
Now a still further emergency is upon us which, I fear, leaves the Cripps plan far 2165 behind. To the right hon. Gentleman's unparalleled mismanagement we have to add now the severity of the weather. I fear, therefore, that it is clear to everyone that the new realistic plan, though only a fortnight old, cannot now work, and so I ask the right hon. Gentleman to tell the House what he proposes to do. I ask him to tell us, for instance, what is his plan in respect of supplies to the power stations and gas companies. Are these going to be maintained, or are we going to have further cuts in electricity, caused this time, not by too heavy a peak load, but by shortage of coal? I am informed that the average stocks of electricity companies are now very low indeed. I am told they average about one and a half weeks, and many of them are under that figure. I ask the right hon. Gentleman what he proposes to do in the situation. I would remind the House—and I have not gone into past controversies, because I think the situation is too serious to justify it—that many warnings have been issued to the right hon. Gentleman, including one by his predecessor, my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Pembroke (Major Lloyd-George) as long ago as last July. He said:Finally, I do not think it is possible to exaggerate the seriousness of the position with which we shall be faced his winter. We may very easily have serious breakdowns in our public utility undertakings; we may have industries going under, with consequent hardship and unemployment for our people."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th July, 1946; Vol. 426, c. 106.]The right hon. Gentleman may have agreed with those warnings—I do not say that he did not—but what I do say is that he certainly never acted upon them. All his activities, and those of his staff, were, no doubt, absorbed in the details of the Coal Board and, more lately, in the preparation for the Electricity Bill which we have been discussing so recently. I wonder, had this last Measure been postponed to some more remote date, whether the Minister and his Department might have been able to find a little more time to attend to the urgent needs of the nation.
My anxieties shall be summed up in the words of "The Times" leading article as recently as Tuesday. The right hon. Gentleman will know what a good friend "The Times" is to the Government. The article said:The right steps were certainly not taken last year.2166 Again, later in the same article, these words appear:If that Ministry's record had been more impressive, the present emergency measures would not have been necessary.I believe that to be true, and that is the case to which I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reply.
So I sum up. The difficulties of the problem were under-estimated by him. As a result of the right hon. Gentleman's unwarranted optimism, he has utterly failed to distribute such coal as we have to the best national advantage. When, eventually, in January, he was forced to adopt a new and more practical method of distribution, it was too late. And now, an even more serious crisis is upon us. I ask him: Is he going to be too late again?
§ 2.31 p.m.
§ The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Shinwell)
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden) has an extremely weird conception of what is a non-party speech. He has talked about the gravest crisis that has confronted the nation for 20 years. He has a short memory. There was a time, when he was a Member of a Tory Government—and an influential Member, armed with great authority—when this nation was faced with a situation in which more than two million persons were out of work; and that indicated the suspension of industry on a vast scale. But, of course, that was not a crisis according to Tory interpretation. When hundreds of thousands of miners in this country—in tire right hon. Gentleman's time, not in mine; when he was a Member of the Government—were disemployed, seeking employment, and anxious to produce coal, and when those who were employed were working, in the main—with some exceptions—for starvation wages, and when the pits of the country were persistently neglected, and consequently deteriorating, that was no crisis according to the Tory conception. That was a normal Tory situation.
§ Mr. Shinwell
I am amazed at the right hon. Gentleman departing from his normally docile demeanour, standing at that Box daring, on behalf of the Tory Party —the effete, electorally discarded Tory 2167 Party—to castigate this Labour Government. It is a classic example of Tory brazen effrontery. Nor have we heard anything from the right hon. Gentleman about a new situation which has emerged, which apparently has escaped his attention. There are 19 million and more people at work in this country at the present time.
§ Mr. Shinwell
I reply to the hon. Member who asks, "What are they producing?" Much more than the hon. Membe—
§ Mr. Shinwell
—who is only capable of producing a few outworn wisecracks. I repeat, there are 19 million and more persons in this country engaged in gainful employment. The consumption of vital commodities in this country—and certainly in the sphere of fuel and power—is higher now—let the right hon. Gentleman take note—than at any time in the history of this country. But that has all been overlooked in this non-party oration to which we have just listened. I am too old a Parliamentarian to be deceived by that sort of palaver.
We have had several speeches from both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn) said—and he certainly sought to implement his contention—that this Debate should be above party. But hon. Members must not deceive themselves. We had three kinds of speeches. We had speeches by hon. Members who were obviously concerned about the general situation, and who were distressed by certain possibilities which are apparent to most of us who have to consider these matters. I take no exception to those speeches. Questions were asked, and an attempt will be made to furnish the answers. There was a second type of speech, made by hon. Members who were concerned about individual undertakings in their own constituencies. Again, I make no complaint, except to say this. In any situation, normal or abnormal, we have to concern ourselves with the industrial economy; we have to consider, not the interests primarily of individual undertakings, but the synchronisation of indus- 2168 try in relation to national requirements. Then we had a third kind of speech, from those who were gloating about our national embarrassment.
§ Mr. Shinwell
Hon. Members who are delighted because of this turn of events, who are hoping that the weather will remain frozen because it adds to the Government's difficulties. Over and over again, we have had Questions addressed to responsible Ministers, which clearly depict the frame of mind of hon. Members opposite; and we have had an abundance of evidence in the capitalist Press of late, indicating that out of this situation there is a hope that there will be either a Government crisis or, at any rate, a mild coalition. Hon. Members on this side of the House, and a great mass of people in the country, are proof against Tory deception.
In the course of the Debate we have had the most grotesque and fantastic allegations made against the Government, and repeated by the right hon. Gentleman, who ought to know better. And what are they? We have been told—and this allegation is repeated ad nauseamin the House, in the country, and in the Tory newspapers, although I agree there are honourable exceptions, both in the House and in the country—that from first to last, at any rate, until recently, no adequate warnings were given about the situation and what was expected. Can that be so? Have I not been accused, over and over again, of uttering too many warnings? Have we not issued statement after statement, indicating the gravity of the situation? Have we not held conference after conference, seeking to induce those engaged in production of all grades to respond to national requirements? Did we not in this House—since the right hon. Gentleman has referred to what my predecessor said in July—in June of last year present a coal Budget, in which I indicated what the gap was likely to be and the steps we proposed to take in order to bridge that gap? Away back in May last—and there are more recent documents in this connection 2169 —we informed the London and Southern Emergency Advisory Committee of the coal supply officers that no guarantee could be given that it would be possible to maintain throughout the summer—not the winter, but the summer—full and regular supplies in accordance with the allocations. Nor could any guarantee be given, owing to changing and unforeseen circumstances, that it might not be necessary to reduce allocations, and so on.
Then, we have been told that there was no plan. That is the right hon. Gentleman's case—that there was no plan, that there was a lack of foresight, a lack of perspicacity on the part of the Minister of Fuel and Power, and, it may be, other Members of the Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I will tell the right hon. Gentleman and his friends what our plan was. I thought hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite were familiar with it. To begin with, let it not be forgotten, I make no complaint about my predecessor at all. He had to deal with a very harsh situation, which neither he, nor anyone else, in the circumstances could mitigate. But the right hon. and gallant Gentleman left me a legacy, and I started with a deficit.
§ Mr. Shinwell
Of course, it was two years ago. That is the trouble. It was two years ago, in the most difficult situation, which I shall now explain to hon. Members. If the right hon. and gallant Gentleman had left me this unwilling legacy —note my language, unwilling legacy: for I do not for one moment suspect the right hon. and gallant Gentleman of diabolically malicious motives, because I know the difficulties that confronted him in the Department—of a situation where manpower was rushing into the mining industry, and where pits were so prolific as regards production that I could have overcome the legacy, all would have been well, and, indeed, better than well. But what was the situation? Manpower was declining rapidly. We could not induce men, and certainly not boys, to enter the industry. They were embittered, soured; and they had been led to believe—and, indeed, rightly so—that this was an industry that offered no prospects of a decent career.
§ Mr. Shinwell
By the conditions that appertained at the lime. My first plan— and it was a plan—was to promote the right atmosphere in the mining industry, to induce the National Union of Mine-workers, and other organisations concerned with the workpeople in the industry, to believe that every effort was going to be made to promote a proper understanding in the industry. In that I succeeded. That was a worth while plan. As a result, we introduced into the mining industry last year rather more than 76,000 persons, men and boys. I agree there has been a remarkable wastage due to all causes—old age; accidents; illness associated with the mining industry, silicosis, pneumoconiosis, insidious industrial diseases that menace mine workers [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Shinwell
It was with these difficul ties we had to contend. I claim that we surmounted them with a remarkable measure of success. I take no credit for that. I was assisted by capable, keen, enthusiastic, willing officials, and by a vast number of people in the country concerned with the industry and anxious to promote the public weal. Otherwise, success would have been impossible of achievement. That was part of the plan.
The other part of the plan was to promote the right kind of organisation in the industry. In Heaven's name, is there any hon. Member who dare say in this Assembly that it is possible to promote the right kind of organisation, with mechanisation on modern lines, in the course of 18 months? The Reid Report confounds all that, and we are working in the most difficult conditions. It is quite impossible for us to promote at this time a long term policy, because we are so anxious to promote immediate production in the interests of the country.
It was said there was a lack of fore sight as regards allocations. I will tell the right hon. Gentleman the answer to that. Proof of the pudding is in the eating of it. The fact is that from the time I took over from the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Pembroke (Major Lloyd-George) until quite recently, be it noted, there was no industrial dislocation whatever due to the coal short- 2171 age. I challenge any hon. Member to dispute that contention.
§ Mr. Prescott
Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me? He has referred to the legacy which he was left by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Pembroke (Major Lloyd-George) due to the war years. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Due mainly to the war years, and a month or two afterwards. [HON. MEMBERS: "Prewar."] If there was such a legacy, was it not vital that the right hon. Gentleman should get out a plan of allocations of coal for industry, and have it ready to put into operation, and put it into operation before serious dislocation occurred?
§ Mr. Shinwell
That is precisely what I was trying to deal with. I should have thought hon. Members would have had sufficient understanding, not to say intelligence, to understand that that was what I was driving at. But one can never tell. However, the position was that there was no industrial dislocation.
§ Mr. Shinwell
I am sorry. As I say, in the previous winter—there was here and there a little trouble—but, generally speaking, there was no dislocation. We assumed that with the rising output—and it was a fair assumption—and provided consumption did not rise unduly, we should escape difficulty. What are the facts? We have been faced with a consumption position such as we have never known. The right hon. Gentleman may regard himself as a great planner, though I always thought, by the way, that planning was discounted by hon. and right hon. Members opposite. However, he may regard himself as a great planner, but when faced with estimates that vary almost week to week, with estimates that have been presented to me by the Central Electricity Board, which proceeded from 545,000 tons required for the electricity supply to 560,000 tons, up to 570,000 tons, then up to 600,000 tons and, last week, to 720,000 tons—for a week—he might agree that, in such circumstances, it is impossible to prepare a plan with foresight and value, when the demands being made on the fuel that is produced are so excessive. And the same applies to gas.
2172 Of course, there might have been a rationing plan. But let it not be forgotten that when the right hon. Gentleman was a Member of the Government the rationing plan was rejected. It is not easy to bring into operation a rationing plan that does not penalise a large number of people in the community; and when it is doubtful whether it benefits others. So we were faced with that situation. I claim that, from first to last, everything was done in order to prevent dislocation. When did dislocation arise? The trouble began to emerge some weeks before the end of last year. The right hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington referred to a statement I made on 16th October, I think it was at a fuel efficiency conference. That conference was assembled in order to promote fuel efficiency, and I then said that we must have a 10 per cent. voluntary cut. But it was clear that we would not get voluntary agreement, and so I had to prepare a scheme for a drastic compulsory cut. That scheme was in train when the people who have the right to talk about these matters—employers and trade unionists, who are members of the National Production Advisory Council for Industry—intervened. They said: "We should like a plan which is realistic in the sense that we want, not an allocation which is far in excess of actual deliveries, but a realistic allocation." They said, in effect, "Tell us what you can give us, and we will do the best we can." So, we had to reconsider our plan, and as a result the present fuel allocation plan was adumbrated.
What do the people who know most about this matter say about this plan? There was a meeting of the chairmen of each regional board, the men who are responsible for determining the actual allocation to industry, and to particular undertakings. It was agreed by all who were present that the scheme was sound, and a great improvement on previous conditions. What they asked for was a greater measure of flexibility—and I ask my hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn) to note that they said that the flexibility should be left to the regional people to determine, and that there should not be constant appeals to the Minister. It is absurd, if not monstrous, that a Minister should be asked to decide on a submission made by every undertaking in the country.
§ Mr. Blackburn
I entirely accept that, but where you have an extremely important case, and a continuing dispute about the facts, with one factory being closed for two months while the American-owned Vauxhall company are still in full production, ought there not to be a special inquiry by the Minister to show that he is prepared to have bureaucracy exposed?
§ Mr. Shinwell
On the subject of bureaucracy, I am not prepared, at the moment, to express an opinion. There may well be a little rigidity in the regional machinery and, if so, we want to see that it is properly oiled, properly lubricated. We do not want any more bureaucracy than we have been accustomed from the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Pembroke in the past. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington talked about the gravest crisis. I shall have something to say in a few moments about a grave crisis, and I shall not shirk any difficulty. It is not my custom to shirk difficulties.
Let us consider what happened. In the week ending 1st February, according to the figures prepared by the Board of Trade, who collate them from the various regions, 188 firms in the regions have lost hours of work as a result of the fuel shortage. Part of that period, if not the whole of it, was during the severe climatic conditions. That meant some unemployment. But when we recall that we sent out 45,000 circulars— there are 45,000 industrial undertakings in the country, each consuming more than 100 tons of coal a year—we find that only 188 were adversely affected up to 1st February. So what happened up to that time cannot be regarded as a grave industrial crisis. There has been a lot of talk in the Press on why this did not happen during the war. People write letters to the newspapers to ask that question. Well, it did happen during the war, but when there was a fuel shortage works were not closed. The men had to be retained. Besides, for security reasons it was not desirable to disclose the facts. Now there are no longer any security reasons, but there is a scapegoat, the Minister of Fuel and Power. Everything is pinned on me. May I say here that the regional fuel allocation committee officers are not civil servants? They are employed in the industry. They are, for instance, trade unionists and employers.
2174 These were the instructions which were sent out on 28th January, which reminds me that there is a misconception here. Some Members talk as if the scheme had been put into operation long before that date. Nothing of the sort. It was designed to come into operation on 20th January, and was based on an estimated deep mined output of 3,600,000 tons of coal. The conception was that there would be a realistic allocation—actual delivery, so far as was practicable, and if transport difficulties did not intervene— of about 80 per cent. to the iron and steel industry, which was a priority industry. It may have been 75 per cent. but the idea was to make it 80 per cent. For electricity and gas undertakings there was to be 100 per cent. in order to maintain essential services which are, of course, vital. For industry generally, it was to be 50 per cent. It might have been 47½ per cent., but the idea was that while that was to be the allocation there should be a pool of 100,000 to 150,000 tons of coal, out of which the regional fuel allocation committees would allocate coal according to priorities. The scheme was essentially sound. But something happened. I will not say anything about nationalisation in the presence of hon. Members opposite, but production went up to 3,700,000 tons of coal in the first three weeks of January. That would have given us a much larger pool to play with. Then something else intervened, the climatic conditions, for which I noted that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington acquitted us of any blame. I have never heard him so subdued as that in any of his attacks. It is too bad. The Tory Party must think again about their propaganda. Here are the instructions which were sent out:The following considerations should be taken into account by fuel allocation committees in distribution of the pool:(1) The distribution of coal should as far as possible be such as to produce a reasonable balance between one stage of production and another for example—'I hope the hon. Member for Darwen (Mr. Prescott) is taking a note of this—as between cotton spinning and cotton weaving.(2) Special attention should be paid to continuous processing industries—'that is wise because they must be maintained—'in view of the exceptional difficulty of adjusting production to arbitrary cuts in fuel 2175 supplies. Such attention should not be given regardless of the importance of production.(3) Care should be taken to avoid creating widespread unemployment as a result of denying a small tonnage of coal to firms whose consumption of coal is negligible compared with the employment they provide.(4) In view of the curtailment of existing production due to the shortage of coal, supplies should be withheld for the time being from new undertakings coming into operation save in the development areas and in exceptional cases elsewhere, and in special relation to exports—'something was said during the Debate about exports—'due weight should be given to export considerations particularly where valuable exports are at stake.Finally, to enable firms to plan production in advance every effort should be made to settle grants of fuel on a firm basis as soon as possible.'I suggest that those are wise and valid instructions, and these instructions would have been carried out in their entirety if it had not been for the severe climatic attack to which we have just been exposed.
Before I pass to the really grave matter on which I must advise the House, I want to reply to one or two of the questions that have been asked. A question was asked by the hon. Member for Northwich (Mr. Foster) about foreign labour. Here again, it is not a case of lack of foresight. I beg of the hon. Member to understand that, from the beginning, we have been in consultation with the responsible workers' organisations on the question of the import of foreign labour. Difficulties were experienced, and I could not impose foreign labour on the mining industry and incur the risk of serious disturbance. Eventually we got the principle accepted. But I think the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Pembroke will agree with me that we cannot take 100,000 men, even if they are trained—and it takes a long time to train them, and, in addition, there have to be hostel accommodation, training fields and all the rest of it—and put them down into the pit and find pit room for them. In fact, we have far too many men on the surface. There are men on the surface who are redundant. In the opinion of some experts, there are too many men engaged on haulage and on other such work. We want more men at the coal face, but some of the men will 2176 not go there. It is not as easy as all that. I am as anxious as the hon. Member for Northwich to promote the use of foreign labour.
The hon. Member for Northwich also mentioned the imports of coal. There is a substantial reason why I could not agree to a scheme of two or three cargoes of coal coming here in return for soda ash. There is a European coal organisation. We are members of it and we operate by agreement. Coal coming from foreign parts to this country must be included in the allocation for Europe, and if we were to take the coal which, for example, might be the allocation for some area like Sweden we should not get the timber and other commodities which we need in return. Finally, there was the quality of coal. The hon. Member for Darwen raised this issue, as did other Members. I understand that there is a good deal of shale in the coal. The hon. Member referred to the coal he got before nationalisation came into operation.
§ Mr. Shinwell
I do not know when that was produced. It may have been cut six or seven months ago. But this I do know, that under the agisof private ownership in the mining industry—and I am not complaining about it because the owners had not the screening or the washing facilities—the coal produced in many areas was not good. It would do hon. Members opposite a lot of good if they tried to understand these problems.
Unfortunately, in the last 10 or 14 days severe weather conditions have completely disrupted the organisation. That is bad enough, but unfortunately they have dislocated production. Production in the Yorkshire area-a most substantial area from the point of view of coal production for this country—has been reduced by 50 per cent. Pits have been blocked; men have been unable to get to the pits; and in some cases men have got to the pits but have been unable to get away from them. There have been blocks on the road,, and as hon. Members are aware many roads are impassable. We have secured the use of military labour, Polish soldiers and aid from the local authorities. We have had to use snow ploughs, and every available device in men and material in order to clear the ground, but we have to face the fact that there is 2177 bound to be, in the next week or so, a shortfall. It is unavoidable. It has nothing to do with foresight, with imagination or with planning. I will agree that if the stock position had been good in the last three or four months, we could have avoided any difficulties that are likely to emerge in the next few days. But the stock position has been bad.
Take the case of Austin's. They had 10,000 tons of stock at the beginning of September, but they had to destock because they could not get the supplies that they thought were necessary to meet their requirements. The same thing applies to other firms. If there is a constant de-stocking regardless of the availability of supplies, then firms will not have supplies when we come to a time of emergency. Take the electricity undertaking. Last week the London undertakings consumed the unprecedented figure of 150,000 tons, and as a result of that, some of them have only a week's supply. As hon. Members may be aware, we have to bring that coal from the Tyne and from South Wales. What has happened? There are over 50 ships in the Tyne but there was dense fog and there were gales, and the ships could not get out. When some of them did get out, they had to put into the Humber for shelter. There are nine ships in Sea-ham—I am sure to be blamed for this— unable to get through the dock gates and I am not sure that they have got away since. Then we have 30 ships held up in ballast in the Thames waiting to get to the North. Some of them have now got away. We have learned that some have reached their destination, but as for others we know nothing about them. That is the sort of thing which has been going on.
In the emergency which has arisen we have had to improvise. Hon. Members talk about good planning. How can there be good planning if we have to improvise? We have to supply the London electricity undertakings as best we can by rail, which means a long haul. As the right hon. Gentleman the senior Member for the City of London (Sir A. Duncan) knows, it is very difficult to carry that out. Coal has to be brought by train, then loaded into barges and so on. There nave been shortages as a result and what is the position now? The electricity stations are in the grave position of being unable to say whether they will be able to carry on for the next 2178 week or 10 days. We have got supplies in today. That will help to carry on for a few days but we cannot take risks. Therefore, in those circumstances, and more particularly because there is no indication whether the conditions in the North will abate and they may indeed have become worse, and because of the lower production experienced in the last week— and I might add that there is an epidemic of illness in some parts of the coal fields which is not uncommon at this time—we face a very difficult situation.
So I have to tell the House, much to my regret, that we shall curtail in the next few days at any rate, probably beginning on Monday, supplies to industry of power in particular areas. I will specify the areas. It will not be possible for power stations operating in the London, South-Eastern, Midland and North-Western districts to be kept fully supplied with coal to meet the present consumption of electricity. There are some districts which are unaffected. They are the North-Eastern district, Yorkshire—which includes the Sheffield iron and steel trade— and several others, but those which I have specified are likely to be affected.
May I mention the position in the London area, where electricity consumption is particularly heavy on the domestic side and far in excess of the industrial consumption? In the Midlands area it is the other way round. For several months now, I have been considering whether it was possible to curtail the supply of electricity for domestic purposes, but in fact it has not been possible. One can cut and shed, or anything else one likes, but to ration as a very difficult problem. The whole matter is still being considered, and it may yet be possible to provide a scheme for the coming months. A number of power stations in the districts I have specified will have to cease operation, and supplies will have to be brought in through the medium of the grid from the remaining stations which will be kept in operation as far as possible. This will mean that supplies of electricity throughout these areas will be at a much reduced level, and it will be necessary, therefore, to make drastic cuts in consumption to avoid the possibility of a complete breakdown of electricity supplies, which would be disastrous.
The position is that if we do not keep the large power stations running with such coal as is coming in, and as we are likely 2179 to get next week, there is bound to be a collapse. The smaller stations will have to close, but the essential thing is to keep supplied the vital services such as hospitals, sewerage, food processing, bakeries running on electricity, and the—
§ Mr. Shinwell
From Monday. I should say as regards the Lancashire area, that it may be possible to avoid the cut—at any rate after the first day or so—because supplies may be coming in. In view of the situation which I have outlined I have to inform the House that the Government have decided that, as from Monday, no electricity shall be supplied to any industrial consumer in the areas specified, and that supplies to domestic consumers shall be cut off during the hours from 9 a.m. to 12 noon and from 2 to 4 in the afternoon. The Electricity Commissioners will send a circular to electricity undertakings in these areas notifying them of this decision and asking them to maintain supplies only to essential services, such as hospitals, water, telephones, food processing and so on.
We have taken this step with the greatest reluctance, and only because the emergency is so critical that there is no alternative. As soon as the coal stocks reach the power stations, these conditions will be mitigated or removed. I have to repeat that the conditions now to be put into operation are entirely attributable to the shortfall that we have experienced in the past week and that we are likely to experience next week. It is hoped that this will not last for longer than three or four days or, at the most, for a week. We must give ourselves a week, and we shall notify industry accordingly.
I do not propose to occupy the time of the House any longer. I have spoken at great length. I have dealt with the criticisms which have been made by hon. Gentlemen oposite and I have disposed of them to the best of my ability. I have indicated that the Government took due 2180 warning of the position and exercised the greatest care and foresight in the preparation of a scheme which would ward off the difficulty. We are not responsible for the weather conditions or for the shortfall. We have to make the best of conditions. I hope that, in the course of a week or so, we shall be able to recover from the present position and to restore the full electricity supply to industry and to the domestic consumer.
§ 3.16 p.m.
§ Earl Winterton (Horsham)
To those who knew the last Parliament there is something slightly dramatic in my following the right hon. Gentleman. I think he will certainly remember the rather wounding references to myself and himself in a conversation in "Arsenic and Old Lace." After his speech this afternoon that coalition is completely abandoned, I most sincerely hope for all time.
I do not want to pursue either an egoistic line or a line which in the slightest degree reduces the gravity of the situation as it has just been presented by the right hon. Gentleman. I would say to the House that we have listened to the most immensely grave statement on an industrial situation which I have ever heard in my long experience in this House, except, indeed, at the time of the general strike. I said and I pledged myself—and I shall keep to my promise— not to make anything like a personal attack on the right hon. Gentleman, but I should not be defending the interests of the side of the House on which I sit, and I should not be defending my right hon. Friend from the personal attack which the right hon. Gentleman made, if I did not first say this, by way of obiter dictumat the beginning of my remarks, that it was obvious to any person of impartial mind, that at any rate the right hon. Gentleman was as baffled as he was angry. He was angry because he was baffled, and he was baffled because was angry. If ever I heard a statement in this House which showed that a Minister was getting pretty near the end of his tether it was the statement which the right hon. Gentleman has just made.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden) made a most moderate speech, the statesmanlike type of speech which we are accustomed to hearing in this House, care- 2181 fully avoiding anything of a personal character. He said: "This is a grave situation, far too grave for any of us to make personal or political capital out of it." My right hon. Friend asked a number of questions. Not one of those questions has been answered. I will do hon. Gentlemen opposite the justice of saying that though the Minister did not appreciate the gravity of the situation, their faces showed that they did—at any rate it was apparent to anyone who watched them closely while listening to the speech. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn) on a very fine speech. In that speech, and in the faces of hon. Gentlemen opposite, was reflected their anxiety.
I do not want to stand long between the House and my right hon. and gallant Friend the former Minister of Fuel and Power, but I must repeat the questions which were put by my right hon. Friend. On this side of the House we most respectfully insist upon the acting Leader of the House, whom I see in his place, ensuring that we have answers to these questions, either this afternoon or next week. We cannot continue in the conditions which exist in this country at the present time, without having the answer to a single one of these questions. I have not time to make extensive quotations from the right hon. Gentleman's speech but before coming to the questions to which I have referred, I want to make one other point. It is absolutely fantastic to say that the Government were not warned again and again in the course of last spring and last summer of what would happen. I myself, and others, warned them. I will quote an article that I wrote last April. I said, basing my information upon what had been told me by some of the greatest leaders in this country, that I was convinced that no increased production of coal during last summer could possibly avoid such an absence of reserves during the three critical months— January, February and March—that there was certain to be some unemployment. What did the right hon. Gentleman say? I will quote one of his many statements which he made on this subject on 24th October last year. This is the most famous of all the statements he made, and the most calamitously incorrect. I ask the House if there had ever been a statement made by a Minister on a grave matter 2182 which has proved more incorrect than this:Everybody knows there is going to be a serious crisis in the coal industry—except the Minister of Fuel and Power—
§ Earl Winterton
It cannot be quoted too of ten. He went on:I want to tell you that there is not going to be a crisis in coal, if by a crisis you mean that industrial organisation is going to be seriously dislocated.The right hon. Gentleman is so kind and gentle as to tell me that that has been quoted already. Why was it then that, in the course of his speech just now, he did not make the slightest attempt to defend himself against having made one of the most misleading statements ever made by a responsible Minister of this House? I would willingly give way to him now if he would tell the House what is his apology, or what is his explanation of that statement.
§ Earl Winterton
The right hon. Gentleman tries to pass it off as though it were very funny. He says, "It is quite true I made the statement." But it is not funny. That is not what the people of this country are thinking at this moment, the people who are short of coal, with no amenities, the people who, in the midst of cooking their Sunday dinners, or their Monday teas, are having their electricity cut.
I shall ask one or two questions which I hope will be answered by the Minister before this Debate is over. The first is this: Does he really suppose that he will get through the next three months merely on the basis that there will be a certain amount of trouble during the next five or ten days? One would suppose, from the way he spoke, that for almost the first time in history, there has been a dislocation of transport caused by snow, frost and fog. Everybody knows that those dislocations occurred before the war, and during the war they occurred at all times in this country. Of course it has made the situation worse, nobody denies that, but the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, and every Minister on that Bench knows perfectly well, despite the conflicting utterances made during the last eight 2183 months, that nothing could have prevented serious dislocation to industry and to the consumer even if there had been no frost or fog.
My next question to the right hon. Gentleman is: How will you get through the next 10 months? How many people will be out of work? I notice that the right hon. Gentleman was very careful to make no reference to that point in the speech made by the hon. Member for King's Norton, in which he suggested that Austin's works would close immediately until the end of March. Is that a small matter for our overseas trade at this time? Is it a trivial matter? Is it a small matter? Is it a thing to be passed off with a sneer and a smile, and a look round at his followers for applause because he is having a hit at the stupid Tories? I would ask the right hon. Gentleman another question: Is it a small matter that next week we are to have these cuts in electricity? Is that a matter to be passed off with a smile at the misguided followers of the right hon. Gentleman behind him, though some of them are not quite as misguided now as they were before? I ask a further question. Everybody who knows anything about the coal trade, or has any knowledge of the business interests of this country, knows that before the war one of the most important parts of our export trade was the export of coal. An important part of that trade was the bunker coal trade. Can hon. Members conceive any responsible Minister getting up in this House this afternoon and, after spending 20 minutes in sheer abuse of my right hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington, saying that he was going on to answer the points that had been made, and yet making no reference to the fact that there was an announcement, which is described even in Socialist newspapers as a serious one, that ships have been prevented from taking any bunker coal, so short of coal are we in this country?
§ Mr. Shinwell
The noble Lord has made so many monstrous allegations, that I am not going to trouble very much with him. But he has made one statement which must be denied at once. There is no truth in it.
§ Mr. Shinwell
I might add that there is no truth in a lot of the statements the noble Lord has made.
§ Earl Winterton
I understand the right hon. Gentleman to say that the statement made in all the newspapers today, including the "Daily Herald," is untrue?
§ Mr. Shinwell
What I say is that there is no truth in the statement that ships are being prevented from getting their bunker coal.
§ Earl Winterton
I am delighted to hear it. Every paper has headlines on it. It is in every newspaper today. Why did the right hon. Gentleman not get up in this House and instead of accusing me of being a liar—I know he likes to call people liars; it is a privilege to be called a liar by him. [HON. MEMBERS: "Order."] Instead of accusing me of being a liar, why did the right hon. Gentleman not get up and say that there is not a word of truth in it? [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] Why did he not say that there is not a word of truth in these statements which appear in the columns of the Press? It would have been perfectly easy for the right hon. Gentleman to have done that. I am very glad to hear there is no truth in the statement. I hope the Minister of Fuel and Power will take immediate steps to find out how these rumours appeared in the Press.
§ Earl Winterton
I do not know that it is a matter for the Committee of Privileges, but it is a very serious matter. I have another question to ask the right hon. Gentleman. It is, to some extent, a repetition of a former question, and I hope it will be answered. How are we to get industry through the next two months without serious unemployment caused by the lack of coal? Everybody knows that the situation cannot improve until April. What evidence is there today that, even with the increased output—though a lot of that output, as has been pointed out by my hon. Friends behind me, is not of the quality we had before the war—we shall be able to build up a sufficient reserve of coal between now and next October to enable our industries to be carried on at 2185 full speed next year? We must do that if we are to avoid causing very serious hardship. Believe me, it is a serious hardship.
I do not want to end on a controversial note but all of us on both sides of the House—[Interruption.]Unlike hon. Gentlemen opposite, I regard this as an extremely serious matter which is causing unemployment and serious inconvenience to a number of people, including those who are patients in hospitals. I regard that as a very serious matter. I ask them this question, in conclusion. It is a perfectly proper and serious question to put to any Minister. How are we to get through the next 10 months? How are we to build up reserves in order to provide for next winter? Above all, how are the Government to build up what is essential to this country if we are to survive industrially—and nobody knows it better than those hon. Gentlemen opposite who represent industrial districts —how are we to build up a proper export trade in coal?
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas' Jay (Battersea, North)
J would like to try to follow the advice of the hon. Member for Darwen (Mr. Prescott) and not indulge in party histrionics. I agree, though it might seem strange to agree with both right hon. Gentlemen who have spoken from either side before me, that this is an extremely serious situation. If only for that reason, J shall attempt to follow that advice. Quite frankly, I think that this is a situation in which we all bear some share of responsibility, on both sides of this House. I think there has been lack of foresight by a great many of us. Therefore, today I wish only to make a few constructive suggestions. In the Debate last October, to which reference has already been made, I predicted that on the existing figures stocks of coal in the country would have been reduced by March this year to only one week's supply. With due respect to both sides of the House, that was perfectly obvious on the existing figures. That must have been obvious to anybody. I suggested that the only way in which this situation could be remedied—I wish to try to be constructive and practical now—was by an increase in the manpower in the industry. I suggested three practical ways in which that might be done. The first was to take the most energetic 2186 possible steps to introduce special types of labour, including Polish labour and Irish labour, into the industry. The second was to gear up the efforts of the Ministry of Fuel and Power and of the Ministry of Labour to the most intense tempo of which they were capable to increase the intake of ordinary British labour. The third, which may be less agreeable to hon. Members opposite, was to take some steps which would lead to a higher level of wages being earned in the coal industry.
Since then the first two of these steps have been taken. In my opinion, energetic efforts have been made by the Ministry of Fuel and Power, the Ministry of Labour and the Coal Board to increase the intake of labour into the industry. Energetic steps have also been taken to obtain an abnormal supply of Irish labour, and are being taken to obtain a supply of Poles. About 3,000 workers have been brought from Southern Ireland into the industry since I spoke. The Minister of Labour has told us that arrangements are going ahead for the introduction of Polish workers as rapidly as possible. I hope that we shall not be content with just Polish workers who can speak English, or who have been coal miners before, but that we shall set a target of say 20,000 by the end of this year. I shall be extremely disappointed if we fall short of 20,000 by the end of this year, because quite frankly I think that is necessary for the survival of British industry.
I am the last to deny the seriousness of the immediate situation. But underlying this situation, which is due, as we all agree, to lack of stocks and to the weather, there has been, as a result of these two steps which I have mentioned, a potential improvement. It is not merely that output, as we all know, has until recently—and the position last week was due to the snow—been going up since the turn of the year, when the Coal Board took over. I make little mention of that because I want to keep off party histrionics. But more encouraging still, is the fact that the strength of the industry has been rising since December. When I spoke in October, I predicted that the labour force in the industry would be down to 687,000 by 1st January. In fact, it fell to 691,000 in the first week of December, since when it has risen to 695,000 today. That is an encouraging factor, and we should, therefore, preserve some sense of proportion.
2187 The main thing I wish to say briefly today is that I hope, now that all has been said that could have been said this afternoon on both sides of the House about the present, we shall give some thought to the future before this Debate ends, because in my view unless even more drastic action is taken than has yet been taken, we are bound to run into even worse catastrophe next winter. Since we have all been guilty of lack of foresight, I think it wise to say that now. The reason for this is that obviously we shall finish this winter, whatever happens in the next few weeks, with a level of stocks which is absolutely disastrous. If we do not build up stocks at much more than the normal rate in the summer, one has only to look at the figures in the Monthly Digest to see that industry will come almost to a complete stop in November or December of this year. Therefore, we must do that, but the question is: How can we do it? To answer that, I think we must return—although. I am afraid, it will be unpopular to many in the House—to the question of the level of wages in the industry.
In my own unorthodox, but considered and calculated opinion, the real cause of the present coal crisis is that wages and earnings in the industry are too low in relation to earnings in other industries. New industries in the coal areas are paying higher and better wages. It is not for me to say how some change can be achieved. Therefore, I will only make two points. I think that we must somehow very quickly achieve two changes in the wage structure of the industry. One is to ensure that the average level of earnings in the industry is a good deal higher than it is at the present time in relation to that in other industries. The other is to ensure that that maximum level of earnings is not received by the individual worker unless he does a reasonably fair and good week's work.
I am not an expert on this extremely intricate subject of coalmining wages. But I do not believe that it is beyond the wit of man to achieve both these objectives, and to achieve them before midsummer this year. The only other suggestion I wish to make—and I think that it is the only other thing that we can do —is, somehow, to limit the consumption of electricity by domestic consumers. There is unquestionably a terrible amount 2188 of waste going on by domestic consumers at the present time, and, since we have to be drastic in order to get out of this situation, I think that some drastic remedy must also be found for that: If no other remedy is technically possible— and I hope it is—the Government ought even to consider a rise in electricity charges to at least some domestic consumers. It has to be done somehow, because we are, at the moment, wasting coal in this direction, and taking it away from industry in order that domestic light and power may be used beyond what is really necessary.
Therefore, I would only say today that, quite apart from the rights and wrongs of the controversy to which we have listened, I hope, not merely that the present encouraging tendencies will continue, but that the Government will concentrate on the question of building up stocks for next winter, and will, above all, face the issue of the wage level in the mining industry. I believe that if we go into next winter or, indeed, into next autumn, with the present level of earnings in that industry, we are going into certain industrial catastrophe.
§ 3.39 p.m.
§ Major Lloyd-George (Pembroke)
We have had today a Debate on a very serious state of affairs. In my view, the Minister replied entirely inadequately to many questions put to him. Indeed, he spent a considerable part of his time abusing my right hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden), apparently, because he referred to the present situation as one of the most serious with which this country has been faced in the last 20 years. He practically denied that fact, and, then, in the course of a quarter of an hour, produced the most serious statement that anybody could have issued at this stage. At a quarter past three o'clock the Minister who, previously, had said that this situation was not as serious as my right hon. Friend tried to make it out to be, stated that, in order to avoid a complete breakdown—those were his words—in the electricity supply industry, the most drastic cuts would take place from next Monday. No opportunity has been given to the House to discuss the matter and to see whether hardship can be alleviated.
The hon. Member for North Battersea (Mr. Jay) seemed to regard what he 2189 called the domestic consumers' wastage of electricity as something of a crime. Let me assure him, from a good deal of experience of this Ministry, that no class of consumer in this country has had the cuts that the domestic consumer has had in solid fuel. Up to two years ago, they had been cut by 13 million tons of coal a year and, as I told the Minister last July, the reason for this increase In electricity consumption is because people refuse to go cold. If we want to alter the position in the way suggested by the hon. Member for North Battersea, we can do it nicely by killing most of the people off, in which case the problem will solve itself. I assure the House that the reason electricity consumption is increasing today is because of the lack of solid fuel.
§ Mr. Jay indicated dissent.
§ Major Lloyd-George
If the hon. Gentleman will look at the Statistical Digest, a book which I think he will enjoy reading—he may have written it, for all I know—he will see a very significant fact, and that is the rising stocks of solid fuel in the merchants' yards in this country, resulting from the reversal of the former policy. I suggest there is less solid domestic fuel in the houses of the people today than at any time since the war. That is the reason we are getting this tremendous consumption of electricity in the domestic field.
It is a very serious state of affairs that, at a quarter-past three on a Friday afternoon, this House should be advised of the most serious cut we have ever had, when we have had no time to discuss possible hardship to certain classes of people who may have no solid fuel in their houses. I believe this House should have an opportunity of discussing in greater detail the suggested cut before it is put into effect. I do not think the Minister has dealt at all adequately with the position as it is today. He has shown, by the actions which have been taken in the last few weeks, that he was entirely unprepared for the position which now exists. He said he was not unprepared, and that he had a plan which has produced a better atmosphere in the industry. He referred to the legacy which he received from me. He did not refer to other parts of that legacy, which did a great deal to improve the atmosphere about which he is so anxious. He did not 2190 refer to the wages agreement which was in existence when he took office. He referred to pneumoconiosis and silicosis, but not a word was said about what had been done about those diseases before he took office. The right atmosphere was in course of creation before he arrived, and that is a legacy which I am very proud to have passed on to him.
Miners' wages were 85th in the list of wage earnings at the start of the war; now they are near the top. In addition to that, an assurance was given that those wages would continue for four years. The benefits which the right hon. Gentleman is now enjoying have a good deal to do with the recruitment in the mines, because he himself knows very well that one of the greatest obstacles to keeping miners in the mines was the competition of other industries in the same districts. The purpose of the agreement was to make the industry more attractive and bring the men back. The right hon. Gentleman will have observed—and I have figures here to prove it—that they were coming back last year.
§ Mr. Shinwell
Will the right hon. and gallant Gentleman explain how it is that after they got this award, the figures declined and continued to do so, and that, as a result of certain methods which we have adopted, they are increasing again?
§ Major Lloyd-George
As usual, the right hon. Gentleman has not got his facts quite correct. The fact is that the manpower situation is not the same as it was during the war, and the right hon. Gentleman has enjoyed a thing which everybody knew he would enjoy—the returning ex-servicemen. Would the returning ex-Servicemen have gone back to the industry if it were no more attractive than it was before the war? Every mining Member on the opposite side of the House will agree that it had a great deal to do with the situation. No warning is given about the most serious things which have taken place. We have heard about this shipping position. The Minister flatly denied that there was any question at all of stopping bunkers of foreign-going vessels. Now, in "The Times" this morning there appears this statement:The Liverpool Bunker Advisory Committee yesterday afternoon stated that instructions had been received from the Ministry of Fuel and Power stating that the loading 2191 of bunker and cargo coal in British and foreign owned ships proceeding to foreign stations and to Eire will cease immediately.'Now what is the answer to that? The Minister said that is not true. But it is a fact that all the shipping people in this country believe it to be true. They do not know what the instructions are; they do not know at this minute whether that statement which I have read is true or not. Now, I am going to ask the right hon. Gentleman: Is that a true statement, or is it not?
§ Mr. Shinwell
What. I told the House in reply to the noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) was this, that bunkers have not been stopped. What is there to worry about?
§ Major Lloyd-George
In that case, is this a complete mis-statement of fact?…instructions had been received from the Ministry of Fuel and Power stating that……the loading of bunker and cargo coal in British and foreign-owned ships proceeding to foreign stations and to Eire will cease immediately.'Did instructions go from the Ministry of Fuel and Power?
§ Mr. Shinwell
I gather that what the right hon. and gallant Gentleman is concerned with is not whether it is untrue that bunkers have been stopped, but whether that instruction was issued. I think I have already told him that bunkers have not been stopped; and the shipping world knows quite well what the position is.
§ Major Lloyd-George
I understand there are some Public Relations Officers in the Ministry of Fuel and Power who earn a lot of money. Would the Minister explain why a responsible newspaper quotes those instructions? [Laughter.]Do hon. Members opposite deny it is a responsible newspaper?
§ Major Lloyd-George
If the hon. and learned Member had been here a little longer, he would know that I am entitled to ask any question I wish of a Minister. If I wish to ask the Minister a question, I will do so without interference from the hon. and learned Member. I am asking 2192 the Minister if this instruction did go out according to this statement. If so, it means that a deliberate misstatement has been made by a national newspaper; in fact, actually using quotation marks to show that the Ministry of Fuel and Power gave official instructions. I may take it, then, from what the Minister has said, that what appears here is untrue, and that no instructions were given?
§ Mr. Shinwell
I am not saying anything of the kind, and the right hon. and gallant Gentleman is not going to put words into my mouth. I understand that what hon. Members opposite are concerned with is whether bunkers have been stopped. My answer is: No.
§ Major Lloyd-George
The right hon. Gentleman is not being quite straight. Were those instructions sent yesterday by his Ministry? [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] The right hon. Gentleman would rather not answer, so it is quite obvious that what has happened is, between yesterday and today somebody has changed his mind, which is not unusual. I can take it from what the Minister says—perhaps I should say, from what he does not say—that this instruction did go from his Ministry to stop foreign bunkers. Since this morning, I take it that another Ministry have discovered that something concerning them has happened, and they have had a meeting; and, from what I hear from people in the shipping business, when this Debate started, they had no idea what the position was. The Minister obviously knows what the position is but declines to give us the information.
The "Daily Herald" this morning quoted another official of the Ministry as saying:I do not know how long it will go on for. It. might even stop tomorrowWell, that is what is known as planning. I do not want to keep the House long, but I do want to say this. The Minister, as he has been told today, was warned last summer—as he himself admitted— of the seriousness of the position. He had ample warning in July, when he was told that the stock position was such that it was not possible for this country to go through the winter without possible disaster. I would remind the House I gave the right hon. Gentleman a figure. 2193 I said I should not be very surprised if we finished this winter with 4,000,000 tons in stock. I think we shall be lucky now if we do. Anyone with experience of the coal industry, and of the fuel industry generally, will know that if you have 4,000,000 tons in stock at the end of the winter scores of public utilities and many industries will not be capable of operating at all. I warned the right hon. Gentleman in July that I thought his calculations were too optimistic. I warned him about having 4,000,000 tons at the end of April. He is getting very near to making that figure correct. It is no good saying coal consumption for electricity goes up month by month. Of course it does at this time of the year. Gas consumption is going up month by month. Taking the figures which he produced, I took it that 4,000,000 tons would be left. He cannot say he was not forewarned about this. In fact, he himself said he had 11 million tons in stock at the beginning of this coal winter, and that he would want 16 million. Then he told us how he proposed to get it. He said he was going to save 3,000,000 tons of coal by transferring from coal to oil. That was his original statement. He was then going to save 1,500,000 tons by a very shady transaction known as better distribution, which was simply running stocks down by another 1,500,000 tons. Then production of open-cast coal was going up by 1,500,000 tons. That alone made 6,000,000 tons, which would have given more than 16 million.
As to open-cast, I warned him that, after Christmas, open-cast coal digging is not a very pleasant occupation. There are bound to be upsets in January and February through the weather, and I told him he had to average 190,000 tons a week. He has been averaging 140,000. Not one of his calculations is accurate, with the result that we have got the position that public utilities are down to a supply for a week and a half. That means the level throughout the whole country has been lowered. Then there is gas, with stocks for a week and a half. There is no doubt at all that this is due largely to a shortage of solid fuel.
There has been no sign of a plan at all. The Minister did absolutely nothing to show there had been a plan. It is no good talking now about planning for this winter. This is the time to start planning for next winter, not this winter, and that 2194 is what most people do. He has a very good organisation in his Ministry—I hope it is still there—for receiving information from 30,000 points all over the country about stocks, consumption and deliveries. It covers 35,000 merchants. He ought to know the position at every important place in this country without going to the areas at all. I hope that that very good organisation is still in existence. I wonder if it is. It certainly ought to be, because it was the finest distributive organisation in the world today. If it had not been for that organisation—I can say this because I did not set it up—we should not have been able to go through the war with the production of coal that we had. By better distribution, it enabled us to disguise the fact that our production was not adequate to our needs. The right hon. Gentleman should have used that organisation, and used it well.
We have heard about transport and weather. The weather is not uncommon for this time of the year. After all, this is the winter. There are transport upsets, which lead to trouble. I would remind the Minister that in 1945, when I was Minister, I lost, in one week, 360,000 tons through transport delays. The whole purpose of stocking in winter is for the time when you consume more than you produce. You must allow for certain interruptions of transport through weather. The fact is that the right hon. Gentleman has not really got down to this thing at all; he is doing now the things that he should have been doing months ago.—[Interruption.]How is it that I was able to give the right hon. Gentleman the figures which he now admits are accurate?
§ Mr. Shinwell
The right hon. and gallant Gentleman is indulging in a lot of challenges. I do not propose to waste a lot of time on some of them, but would he say what he would do if he were building up stocks now? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Would he say what he would have done last year in the way of building up stocks, in the face of the manpower problem?
§ Major Lloyd-George
I notice that the right hon. Gentleman changed his first question. He asked what I would do now.
§ Major Lloyd-George
That shows that the right hon. Gentleman has no ideas. 2195 I am not afraid to answer this question. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer it then."] I will answer the question in my own way. I am not the Minister. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to answer this question: How is it that last July—and that is not today —I was able to forecast—and it is all in HANSARD for him to see—the present position? How was that possible?
§ Mr. Shinwell
I will give the right hon. and gallant Gentleman an answer. It was not necessary for him to forecast. We were well aware, at the Ministry of Fuel and Power, what the position was, and it was precisely because of what we knew about the position, that we disclosed the fact that there would be a cut of probably 10 million tons, and that in certain conditions we would be able to reduce the gap by five million tons.
§ Major Lloyd-George
I know that. I am backed by HANSARD. [HON. MEMBERS: "What would you have done?"] I have shown what I have done. I take it that even hon. Members opposite would judge a man by what he has done. The right hon. Gentleman can challenge me as much as he likes, but the fact remains that I disclosed, in July, the position we have now reached. By next April he will be down to 4 million tons of stock. I challenged him on the open-cast increase, and I think that will be justified. I challenged him on the question of oil from coal, and that has been justified already. I said that his figures were too optimistic. In view of the warnings he got in July, that was the time to make the plans that he is making now. I know that he cannot help it, that he has only a certain amount of coal. I am not blaming him. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Of course, I am not; I never have. I have been very good to the right hon. Gentleman. But what I do say is that it is his duty, when he has only a certain amount of coal, to allocate if as best he can throughout the country.
§ Major Lloyd-George
No. If the right hon. Gentleman had been doing that, we should not have to face the situation we are facing today.
§ Major Lloyd-George
I have shown what I would have done, and I do not propose to pursue the matter any further.
§ It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. R. J. Taylor.]
§ Mr. Shinwell
The right hon. and gallant Gentleman has been very prolific in his allegations. Was he aware, six months ago, that electricity consumption would increase by 26 per cent. this January over last January? Did he believe, six months ago, that we would be consuming 720,000 tons a week for electricity supply? How could he possibly make that estimate in view of the fact that the Central Electricity Board eventually found that they required more than 150,000 tons over their original estimate?
§ Major Lloyd-George
The right hon. Gentleman gave percentage figures about the electricity increase over the previous period. But I warned him last July. I would simply allocate what is there. That has not been done. He has shown by his statement today that he has not done it, because factories are closing all over Britain. This is not the time to start planning for this winter. There is nothing that the right hon. Gentleman can do for this winter, because whatever happens to the weather, stocks will diminish from now until the end of April. That has happened every year. But I beg him, and the Government, to take seriously into account what they intend to do for next winter when, so far as I can see, the position at the beginning of the year will actually be worse than it was last winter. We cannot afford to have two succeeding years of this kind of thing. I therefore hope that the Government will seriously get down to making up their minds as to what they will do for next year.
§ 4.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Clement Davies (Montgomery)
The first thing that strikes me about this Debate is that it is rather extraordinary that one of the most serious statements which this country has ever had to face has had to be left until late on a Friday afternoon, and, even then, might not have been made but for the fact that there was 2197 a persistent application in the House yesterday for the Debate. It is certainly one of the most serious, because it affects the major part of our population, the whole of the London area, possibly the Lancashire area, in fact, most of the densely populated and industrial areas. We cannot emphasise too strongly the seriousness of this situation today. The Minister has referred to the past situations, which were certainly disastrous, but today we are face to face with a situation which has never faced us before—a shortage of manpower, materials and food, and the need for increasing exports such as we have never done before in order to pay for the raw materials and the very food we require.
May I refer to the speeches which have been made from the other side of the House? Some of them have been made as though this was merely a political Debate. When there is a national crisis let every man forget his own party. We have had two very searching and excellent speeches, one from the hon. Gentleman the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn) and the other from the hon. Gentleman the Member for Stoke (Mr. Ellis Smith). They were two very courageous speeches. They could have made those speeches without apology, or the need for making comments about the regard they have for Ministers. In a moment of this kind, I feel that the House should be turned into a real Council of State. We all ought to face the facts, however awkward and uncomfortable they may be.
I would like to deal with the coal situation in three parts. First, production. I would like to admit, at once, that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister is heir to a long and bad past which undoubtedly has affected production. There has been a steady dwindling from 1913 until to-day. With regard to the position of manpower in the industry, the Minister of Fuel and Power and the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Pembroke (Major Lloyd-George) succeeded to a situation that ought never to have been allowed to develop. When we began the war there were 800,000 miners. If anything was necessary in order to provide the munitions of war it was coal and the figures were allowed to drop from 800,000 to 740,000 in the course of a few weeks. Though warned of the 2198 seriousness of the position, they were allowed to drop still further to 690,000, which was the position when the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Pembroke took charge. Then it was that we had the Essential Work Order, but in order to try to get the men and recruits for the coal mines we had what was known as the Bevin boys scheme. Let it be remembered that the miners and Bevin boys have been the slaves of this country ever since. They were bound to go down into the mines to produce the coal which the country needs.
I agree with the remarkable speech of the hon. Member for North Battersea (Mr. Jay). What is to be done in order to increase production? The mine workers have always been underpaid and they are even underpaid today. Especially have they been underpaid in comparison with workers in industries which offer much more comfortable and better amenities to those who work above the ground. Therefore, let there be more and more amenities and let there be more wages given to the miner. It is comforting to know that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Fuel and Power has succeeded through his organisation—and, I take it, with the assistance of the trades unions—in getting the remarkable number of 67,000 back into the industry. He did not tell us what the amount of wastage was, but I believe it is something very serious. I believe it is above normal, because men are getting older, especially those who worked during the course of the war, while those who can voluntarily retire from the pits are doing so. Something has got to be done there.
I come now to my second point, which is distribution and delivery. It has been known for a very considerable time that we were not producing a sufficient quantity of coal to allow us to provide the amount of fuel required in this country. That became obvious during the war, so much so that two schemes were prepared for the rationing of coal during the war. That was defeated at that time, and in my opinion, wrongly defeated. I only wish that the then President of the Board of Trade had stuck to his guns at that time, or rather had stuck to the scheme which would commend itself better to the House than sticking to guns Ability is a great and necessary quality, but at times courage is 2199 even more necessary. We could also see— and. I challenge the Minister of Fuel and Power on this—that there was likely to be a rising need for electric power as we went on. I believe he himself—although I cannot recall the actual instance or the actual words—called attention to the increasing demands for consumption of coal in this country. That being so, preparation should have been made to meet it, and if preparations could not be made to meet it by increasing the production of coal, then one of these schemes should have been brought into operation. It is no good leaving it until the winter is upon us. Some references have been made today to the cold weather we have experienced, but it is not abnormal. It is what we expect at some time during the period from the beginning of November to the end of March. Sometimes it is better and sometimes worse, and it is no worse this year than it has been on many occasions when we have had experience of it in the past. It cannot be expected that throughout that period we shall always have' a sort of normal, mild winter, any more than anybody can expect to have an ordinary, quiet voyage across the North Atlantic from America to England in mid-winter. One knows perfectly well that there may be storms. In the same way one must expect something of this kind with regard to the weather and the only way to prepare for it is to lay down stocks in sufficient time.
My complaint about the right hon.-Gentleman is that he knew this. He made certain preparations, but they were too optimistic at the time. In fact, he thought himself that he would be 10 million tons short, but he hoped that if all went well he could reduce that figure to five millions. One is not entitled to gamble upon a thing of that kind when one knows that our industry and our people may be suffering from the cold.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
It is all very well for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to say that the Minister's hopes were disappointed and that he gambled upon them being fulfilled. I want him to say what the gamble was, and what he is suggesting 2200 that my right hon. Friend did that he should not have done, or omitted to do what he should have done.
§ Mr. C. Davies
I think the hon. Member must have failed to listen to the Minister because the right hon. Gentleman gave the very figures—
§ Mr. C. Davies
Where he did wrong was to believe that all was going to be well, whereas he should have increased the amount of stocks as a provision against this bad weather. He has not got them and he knows it, and that is why he has to make the cut which is to begin next week—because his stocks have gone down. The right hon. Gentleman made it perfectly clear in his speech that the only way to meet a situation like this was to hold his stocks, but, unfortunately, things did not go as he expected and we are reduced to the present position.
I was hoping that the Minister would have answered all three points raised by the hon. Gentleman the Member for King's Norton. With regard to the question of priority, I did feel that, in reply, there had been some suggestion that a certain priority would have been given to exports There was, however, no reply to the other two questions as to whether it would be possible to make the scheme much more flexible and far less rigid and whether, instead of basing it upon the maximum requirements of the past— which seems to me to be entirely fallacious and wrong—it could be based upon the minimum requirements. I should have thought that that would have been a far and away better method of dealing with this problem than the one in use at the present moment.
Undoubtedly what matters most is that further and better—what shall I say?— not power, but discretion, should be given to the right hon. Gentleman's own men in these districts to deal with situations as they arise. I said the other day that we were bound to get failures in certain industries, certain factories or certain houses, or whatever it may be if we follow a rigid rule of thumb. What is required is to get somebody who must take the responsibility, and who can be trusted, and who will be able to allocate where allocation is needed in order to keep industry going and people at work. The 2201 situation with regard to coal and industry generally is so serious, and so fraught with danger to this country, that it is not right that we should part with this subject after a short Debate on Friday afternoon. I hope that the Leader of the House will provide another and an early opportunity for a full Debate, so that we can go into the whole of these matters. I am deeply disturbed and deeply concerned at the industrial situation facing this country at the present moment.
§ 4.17 p.m.
§ Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)
This Debate has been utterly ruined by the characteristic incompetence of His Majesty's Opposition. With a perfectly arguable, I do not say justifiable, administrative case in a narrow compass, on a particular point, in a particular situation against the Government, they have chosen to ride off for party reasons upon a general political attack upon the Government and upon the Minister of Fuel and Power, in which they had no case whatever. If my right hon. Friend has not dealt fully with the administrative points of detailed criticism which were made to the House—
§ Mr. Silverman
The noble Lord— [Interruption.]I have only 12 minutes remaining to me—talked about the breakup of the "Arsenic and Old Lace" partnership. I thought at the time of the partnership that it was doubtful which half of the assets was contributed by which partner. Now upon the dissolution of the partnership, the noble Lord appears to have retained more than his share of the arsenic. My hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn) made an administrative criticism of the Government in this situation. He could have argued—
§ Dr. Morgan
On a point of Order. I heard the right hon. Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) turn to a colleague just now and describe my hon. Friend who is speaking as "a swine."
§ Colonel Clarke (East Grinstead)
I have been sitting here for the last hour, and I have not heard anything of the sort.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I have already said that the remark did not reach my ears. I think it would be to everybody's advantage if we proceeded with the Debate.
§ Mr. Silverman
In any case, I would rather have the noble Lord's insults than his compliments any day of the week.
The point I was making was that the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton were not fully answered. The blame for that lies with the Opposition, who were engaged in a political Debate which only exposed their utter and complete bankruptcy in this matter. After all, the Government took over a bankrupt industry only six weeks ago, and they could not possibly be expected to put everything right in such a short time. The administrative questions have not been answered.
Everybody acknowledges that if there is a shortage, the only thing that can be done is to allot what there is, as fairly as possible among the different claimants. There must be an order of priority, and there must be a scheme that will work. Nobody complains, therefore, that there had to be allocations and that the allocations had to be of reduced quantities; that was occasioned by the overall shortage for which I do not blame the Government or my right hon. Friend. Nor does anybody complain that in allocating those reduced supplies, there should be a local committee representative of many departments of the national life administering the allocations according to their local knowledge on the spot. I think my hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton was a little misunderstood on this point; he was not complaining that there ought to be one Department looking at the whole thing; he was not complaining that there was a local committee making the allocations on 2203 the spot. Everybody accepts that as right. I think his complaint was this— and there may be an answer to it, I do not know—supposing the local committee on the spot, applying the instructions given to it from London, make a mistake, what is the proper tribunal of appeal to ask that such a mistake be rectified?
§ Mr. Blackburn indicated assent.
§ Mr. Silverman
That question has not been answered. There ought to be someone who would look at the question and find out whether anything had gone wrong or not. I would like to hear the answer, though right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite prefer to talk about other things. The other point I would have liked answered is this: Why, in assessing allocations, some regard is not paid to minimal requirements, and why the cut is made from maximum usage with no reference made, as far as one can tell, to what is minimally required, in, order to keep plant from wasting and to keep a measure of employment going.
My constituency is almost entirely a cotton constituency. At this moment, something between 60 and 70 per cent. of its workers are unemployed because of the coal shortage, and we are told this afternoon that now there is a possibility —I admit it was not certain—that there is to be a cut of electrical power to Lancashire. The right hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden) talked about the greatest national crisis for 20 years. In Nelson, 60 or 70 per cent. unemployment is a crisis, but it is not a crisis to which they are unaccustomed. They would not call it the greatest crisis in 20 years. There never has been a period since I have known the constituency, when it has had less than 60 or 70 per cent. unemployed, and hon. and right hon. Members opposite did not care about production in those days. They did not regard it as a national crisis, they did not raise Debates about it, they did not attack Ministers about it. Not at all.
The thing that makes it serious today is that Nelson thought that under this Government it was getting out of it. We were getting people back into the cotton trade. People have been employed for 12 months almost 100 per cent. Four weeks ago there was no unemployment in Nelson; now it is 60 or 70 per cent. The 2204 real test will be how long that lasts. I cannot get an answer now, but I want to know how long allocations, which first reduced the coal supply to cotton producing firms to -65 per cent., and then delivered less than half of that 65 per cent., will go on, and whether they are due to any administrative cause that can be quickly rectified.
§ Mr. Silverman
In talking about withdrawing electric power from Lancashire, will some regard be paid to the condition as it now is, and how it may be made very much worse if that is carried out? We have not had a proper discussion on all these matters. I blame hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite for that. They have been too ready to work up a national crisis. The last national crisis they had was the one in 1931. They were then in Opposition and they were able then to arrange somehow to get back into power, without the will of the electorate, by a form of coalition.
§ Earl Winterton
On a point of Order. The hon. Gentleman has made a most serious charge against those on this side of the House of working up a national crisis. He accused them of a conspiracy with certain people outside this House to produce the state of affairs which exists in this country at present. I would like to ask you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, whether it is in Order to attribute motives to hon. Gentlemen and to accuse them of having been responsible for working up this kind of thing in collaboration with certain people outside this House.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
It is out of Order to attribute motives to an individual. It is not out of Order to attribute motives to a party.
§ Earl Winterton
Further to that point of Order. The hon. Gentleman deliberately pointed to those hon. Gentlemen sitting on this side of the House. He pointed to us and said, "Hon. Gentlemen opposite." May I ask you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, whether this attribution of motives by the hon. Gentleman, that some of us have been responsible for a national crisis, is, or is not, within the meaning of the Standing Order?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I think it would be very undesirable and certainly not to 2205 be expected, that the Chair should have to recognise or interpret the purport of a gesticulation.
§ Mr. Silverman
I do not want what I meant to be in any doubt. Let me say it quite clearly. I accuse the Conservative Opposition in this House of deliberately exaggerating the situation, deliberately talking about a national crisis which does not exist, and in which they do not believe, in order to find a road back to power which they could never get in any other way. Nobody who heard the speech by the right hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington could possibly doubt that that was the sole motive of making an allegedly nonparty speech, which was in fact the most effective party speech that could possibly have been made in the circumstances. We know they have been talking about coalitions; they have been talking about them for some time. This occasion presented them, they thought, with an admirable opportunity of creating such a crisis and getting back into power because of it. The only result has been to deprive them and us of an opportunity, which was legitimately ours, of pressing the Government much more closely, not on the great industrial crisis, but on the 2206 quite real administrative difficulties which have arisen during the past three weeks and with which many of us are not quite satisfied that they have adequately dealt.
§ 4.28 p.m.
§ Colonel Clarke (East Grinstead)
In the few moments which remain I want to raise a single point which I hope will be found to be constructive. During the current year it is the intention of the Americans to export some 30 million to 35 million tons of coal. Of that only a proportion of 25 to 30 million tons is bound for Europe under direction of the European Coal Organisation. A considerable amount is to go to the Latin South-American countries. I think it is not impossible that some of that coal might be brought here. If it were possible to get it, some of the coal held by public utility companies could be released for industry. I ask that that suggestion should be explored. I suggested it in October, and if inquiries had been made then this crisis might not have been so serious.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Four o'Clock.