HC Deb 20 March 1947 vol 435 cc718-26

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

9.59 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Fraser (Stone)

I wish to raise the subject of importing coal from the United States. The speech made by the Prime Minister a few days ago accepted in principle the importation of coal from abroad. The whole Press of the nation today is ablaze with rumours respecting an order having been placed by His Majesty's Government with the United States for three million tons of coal. Putting those two circumstances together, I think there is good ground for believing that negotiations are taking place for the purchase of coal from abroad. If that be so, I feel no sense of pride. It is most unfortunate—

It being Ten 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. Michael Stewart.]

Mr. Fraser

It is unfortunate that this country should be forced to carry coal to Newcastle in the ships of another nation. Hon. Members are well aware that there is inescapable necessity for meeting our present coal demand. Within the next six months, something like 8.8 million tons will be required for industry. It may be said also that II million tons of coal will have to be put into stock in order to make absolutely certain that we avoid disaster overtaking us again next winter. In the next six months we may be short of 9½ million tons.

It is clear that there is an easy remedy for this situation. The right remedy is that the mining industry should produce more coal to fill that gap, but we have been told recently that that gap will not be filled. We have been told quite clearly that it will not be filled. We have been told by miners' leaders that the present rate of production will be maintained, a fact which is no use to this House or to the country for filling that gap of 9,500,000 tons, envisaged for the coming summer. Industry needs an insurance policy. It is possible that the Minister and the mining industry may succeed in filling the gap, but judging, as we must, by statements made by responsible people like Mr. Lawther, Mr. Horner and others, the filling of the gap seems unlikely to take place from that quarter. We need an insurance policy, to ensure that the wheels of industry are kept turning and that we shall not receive such shocks and suffering next winter as those from which we have suffered in the winter which is now past.

The answer is to import coal from abroad. That may be what the Chancellor of the Exchequer called the other day "turning history upside down," but it is certain that this thing is going to be forced on the Government and I hope tonight the Government will make an announcement. The country from which coal can be imported is the United States, and in America there is growing up a huge export trade in coal, an export trade which started almost from scratch. Two years ago, America believed that when the European Coal Organisation was formed it was extremely doubtful how much coal they could produce. They put their export at one million tons a month. Today, the value of the deep sea export trade has risen to between three and four million tons a month. That is a most staggering achievement. It has been clone against very great difficulties indeed, but today there is virtually no shortage of shipping in America. The initial hold-up in port facilities and coal loading and railway box cars is being overcome as the demand is being put on the American export industry. That is undoubtedly the area to which we must look for coal. The question of coal from South Africa is not one which bears investigation. There is a possibility of some slight export to coaling stations at Port Said. There is some question of small export going on but the problem there is essentially the problem of shipping.

In America the problem no longer exists. The question of deep sea ships to carry coal to this country and to Europe has, to some extent, been solved and can be solved completely by the bringing out of dock of the large number of Liberty ships still laid up and by overcoming what difficulties may still remain in the outgoing ports of the American continent and which, to some extent, have already been overcome.

Evidently the Government are now seriously considering, judging by the rumours we have heard recently, and judging by the statement of the Prime Minister, turning to the American market. It is a germane question to ask why this Government did not turn to America before. It is a most important question. What we have seen is the development in America of a great coal exporting industry. That industry has been in reply to demands. The demand to supply export coal has come from Europe, South America, Canada and other countries which were used to having their demands met by Great Britain and Germany. They have turned to America and have turned not in vain, because in that country money, I must say to the right hon. Gentleman opposite, still has a harmonising effect in the affairs of men, while the law of supply and demand can bring out what is needed in that country. That law has had effect and there has grown up this vast industry of export coal which prior to the war barely existed.

If the Government are now looking to the question of bringing coal to this country from America, why did not they look into the question months ago? The question why they are doing it now and did not do so before resolves itself into several parts. Doubtless, hon. Members opposite will shelter behind the screen of the fact that in America there were coal strikes last year. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will investigate the statistics and see why in the months of July, August and September America exported 4.700,000 tons of coal, of which under 1,500,000 tons came to Europe It stands to reason that if the Government had put in a claim last spring, coal could have been diverted here, not from any starving country in Europe, but from South America or from Canada. If arrangements had been made we could have had some of the coal from the Nova Scotian coalfields.

Are the Government informing us that last spring they were totally unaware of the impending coal crisis? Action could have been taken, and as a result there would have been an expansion of the already expanding American export market in coal. The difficulty of port facilities at Hampton Road would have been overcome; the question of railway transport from the Virginian coalfields to Hampton Roads, and that of Pennsylvanian coalfields, down to Boston and Philadelphia could have been overcome even more quickly, and the export of coal would have been on an even larger scale than it is. If they can have dollars now, which seems likely, why were not the Government prepared to spend dollars last year, when there were more dollars to our credit in the United States? Turning to our relations with the rest of Europe, if in the spring of 1946 we had gone to Europe and said we desired to import coal, Europe would have accepted our explanations more easily, and perhaps more readily, than they would be prepared to accept them today. We on this side of the House want answers to these questions.

But even if the Government are somewhat late in putting forward their demand, even if their demand could have been put forward some months ago, it is better late than never. What the Government seem likely to do now will be a definite advantage, not only to ourselves, but to Europe. An expansion in the American export trade will come as a result of our further demand, and of the other demands which are accumulating in Europe. The Government would be justified in stepping forward now, although they do so rather late in the day, to make this demand on America for coal. Right hon. Gentlemen opposite have been, on the whole, inclined to misconceive the role of the European Coal Organisation. The role of the European Coal Organisation is largely that of an agency to allot quotas of coal to European countries. It is entirely wrong to regard that organisation as a charitable institution. It is, in fact, a sort of coal merchant's office, run largely by the chief producer, America, in which, so to speak, the ghost of President Wilson wrestles with that of President Coolidge, and where sensibility wrestles with horse sense. It is no good demanding coal unless we are prepared to pay for it. The motto of the European Coal Organisation is not "Ask and you shall receive." The motto is "We trust in U.N.O., but customer pays cash." That, I think, is a most important consideration at the moment.

The United States are sending, or are preparing to send, 2,600,000 tons of coal to those States in Europe which have joined the Coal Organisation, but there is a grave danger that towards the end of this year those supplies will begin to decline for the very simple reason that the countries which are being supplied are running out of American dollars. Already there have been two defaults on shipments of coal made to Scandinavian countries. It seems highly likely that by December France will be unable to meet her requirements in cash, and that, because she is unable to pay cash, it is doubtful whether America will provide the coal. America is not a very willing seller of coal to countries unable to pay. There has been a decline in exports from North America to South America for the reason that North America is not ready to accept goods in payment from South American countries, and the same will be true of Europe.

To buy coal from America will not only be an advantage to ourselves, but it will be of advantage, I believe, to the whole of Europe, in so far as that coal export trade of America will be maintained and stimulated. I believe that, unless the right hon. Gentleman can make a vast improvement in his Department, for many years to come Europe will be dependent on American exports of coal. There will have to be multi-lateral arrangements, financial arrangements, and the rest of it, to allow Europe to purchase coal. In the meantime it is of vital importance to Europe that the supply of coal, and the machinery of the supply of coal, should continue to function properly in the United States. I, therefore, welcome the remarks in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister—and I think many hon. Members do—in which he said he was prepared to purchase coal abroad.

But I deplore the fact that coal was not ordered earlier in America, and that the European Coal Organisation was not approached with greater speed so that the whole machinery of American exports should have been further stimulated, Liberty ships released, and preparations made in this country to receive the coal. The right hon. Gentleman must remember that, if coal is to come here in mow ton ships instead of the usual 5,000 ton ships, there will be difficulties of unloading, very considerable difficulties, and that new machinery will be required, and that preparations will have to be made. It is not a simple matter, If the thing had been done properly several months ago it would have been not only to our benefit but to the benefit of Europe. If that decision had been taken last spring, the dollars would have been spent, and well spent—

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South)

We had not got the dollars then.

Mr. Fraser

They would have been well spent then, and they will be well spent today, too. But it is important that the Government should send out strong negotiators to the United States to see that we get the right coal. Pocahontas is as good as Durham coking coal, and there are other classes of excellent coal which will be well suited to our industries, and which, I believe, will help this country to get again its leading place in Europe, and will help Europe to its recovery. We want to know tonight why the coal was not purchased before when it was possible, and what the Government plans are for purchasing the coal now, and whether they are going to send very strong negotiators both to E.C.O. and the U.S.A., and not the unfortunate type sent out in the so recent past.

10.20 p.m.

The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Shinwell)

If I am to reply to all the statements made by the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Fraser), more than 10 minutes will be required. He has ranged over a very wide field. He has impinged on the preserves of the Foreign Secretary. He has dealt, in some respects, with foreign policy. He has made reference to the dollar position. If I am to deal with that subject, I should require to invoke the aid of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The hon. Member certainly ranged far beyond the scope of the Ministry of Fuel and Power.

Let me, to begin with, dispose of the rumour which apparently received some credence in a morning newspaper that we were about to purchase 3 million tons of coal from the United States. That is merely a rumour, and no more. On the other hand, I entirely agree with what the hon. Member said about the undesirability of importing coal to a country where coal is indigenous, where it is easily available, provided we have an ample supply of labour, the requisite machinery and the right type of organisation. In fact, there never was any need for importing coal into this country, and in my judgment, provided the organisation is made available, there never will be any such need.

It is true that the Prime Minister made a statement on this subject the other day. He said that if we could get coal from abroad to relieve our necessity, by all means we would do so, but he gave no indication whether that coal would come from the United States or elsewhere, and his statement was limited by the practicability of obtaining coal from elsewhere. The hon. Member made several suggestions as to the amount of coal that could be procured from the United States. He is not the only one to have made suggestions in this House. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for the City of London (Sir A. Duncan) suggested, in the course of a recent Debate, that 10 million tons should have been imported last year. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) gave a figure of five million tons for the same period, while the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bromley (Mr. H. Macmillan) had the same idea about importation of coal but did not go so far as to guess at a figure. He was much more modest. Nothing is easier than to dispose of these fantastic suggestions. If I may say so, they reflect a lamentable ignorance of the European coal situation in 1946. Why did we not buy foreign coal last year? First of all because the world shortage of coal was then even more acute than it is at present. Any coal we might have imported would only have been obtained at the expense of Allied countries whose need of coal was more pressing than our own. There is no qeustion about that.

The hon. Member has referred to the strike position in the United States last year. He belittled the idea that the labour troubles in the United States prevented the exportation of coal. But what are the facts? There were three strikes in the United States last year, the first coal strike in the spring lasting eight weeks, the next was the maritime strike in the autumn, lasting about six weeks, and, at the end of November and the beginning of December, there was a second coal strike, lasting over two weeks. What was the effect of those strikes as regards the provision of supplies for European countries? They resulted in a loss to European countries of imports of between four million and five million tons—a very substantial amount. Deliveries were far below the programme which was provided by the European Coal Organisation. In those circumstances, it would have been impossible for us to have arranged for the export of coal from the United States to this country. Indeed, appeals were being made to us, over and over again, in spite of the allocations directed from the United States to Europe, to send coal to the European countries. We had France, Belgium and Holland, and other European countries, on our doorstep all the time, but it was quite beyond our power. Therefore, we had to refuse to provide the extra coal which those European countries demanded from us.

Over and above that, the result of the disputes in the United States led to a most embarrassing situation for us, because, while previously the United States had provided double bunkers for our ships, they were unable to do so, and we had to provide coal far in excess of our anticipations. That was the position in 1946, and the suggestion was made that all we had to do was to inform the European Coal Organisation that we intended to send someone to the United States, and that, as a result, not merely the inferior coal, which the United States was dispatching to Europe, could be diverted to us, or that we could receive an allocation of that coal, but that we should actually get Pochentas coal, which was perhaps the best coal in the United States.

Mr. Fraser

The point I was making was that, if we had placed orders in America and had built up the machinery for importing coal from America this year, whether there were Strikes in America or not, we should have got the coal.

Mr. Shinwell

The hon. Member entirely disregards the fact that, while it is easy enough to turn aside the importance of the European Coal Organisation, that Organisation was established within the framework of the Atlantic Charter, for which the right hon Member for Woodford is as much responsible as anybody. That organisation was set up as a result of protracted negotiations in June, 1945, or round about that time, or, at any rate, it was contemplated at that time to set it up even though it may have been set up later. But, having set up that organisation, and having participated in its activities, it was quite impossible for us to disregard the claims of its constituent elements. That is the general position.

I have no time to deal with the other points raised by the hon. Member, but I can say before I sit down that there are physical disabilities in connection with the importation of coal from America into this country. We may be able to import coal from European countries where small vessels can be utilised but this is not a country that is accustomed to import coal in large quantities and particularly from large vessels, but the United States vessels available for the export of coal are vessels of about 8,500 to 10,000 tons and there are very few ports in this country which can take those vessels and discharge them. They have neither the facilities nor the equipment for the purpose.

Finally, all that I would say now is that naturally this matter is under constant examination, and while I cannot make any firm commitments to the House as to whether we are intending to negotiate for the purpose of importing coal either with the European Coal Organisation or the United States authorities, the matter will remain before us, and if it is so decided that arrangements can be made we shall, of course, comply with the request of the hon. Member.

10.29 p.m.

Mr. Harold Macmillan (Bromley)

Of all the many speeches which the right hon. Gentleman has made during the last few months I think this is the most inconclusive and the most feeble. He has repudiated the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whom he tells us he would like to consult, and bring to his aid. If rumour is correct, he will be very unlucky in getting aid from that quarter. He has repudiated the Prime Minister's statement and has given us the most negative of all the negative statements he has made in recent months.

Mr. Shinwell

Make the most of it.

Mr. Macmillan

The right hon. Gentleman has once more failed to perform the first of his functions—

It being Half-past Ten o'Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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