HC Deb 27 March 1947 vol 435 cc1413-8
The Prime Minister

I propose, with Mr. Speaker's permission, to make a further statement on the fuel position.

The House will be aware, from the statement which was made by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, in his speech in the Debate on the Economic Survey for 1947, that during the coming summer the country will continue to be faced with a grave shortage of coal. Total requirements for consumption during the six months 1st May to 31st October, 1947, are estimated at 92,000,000 tons. To this must be added a figure of 10,000,000 tons required to rebuild stocks by 1st November to 15,000,000 tons, making a total requirement of 102,000,000 tons. From this can be deducted some 2,000,000 tons, representing a saving which it is hoped to achieve as a result of the coal-oil conversion programme.

The Government are pressing ahead with all possible measures designed to increase production. First priority has been given to the production of mining machinery, and steps are being taken by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply to ensure that it is made effective. The recruitment campaign is being intensified, and is meeting with an excellent response. Training facilities are being expanded. At the same time, the National Coal Board, with the co-operation of the miners' leaders, is taking all possible steps to secure increased output per man-year.

The Government are confident that these measures will lead to a steady increase in the output of coal. They can, however, only bear fruit gradually; and, the Government do not consider that it would be prudent, in preparing plans for the immediate future, to count firmly on a production during the six summer months of the amount required. The deficiency may amount to as much as 10,000,000 tons. Railway passenger services, this summer, will be reduced by 10 per cent., as compared with last summer, and in this way a saving of 250,000 tons of coal will be effected. Such measures as are possible for reducing still further the export of coal from this country, whether for the bunkering of ships or for other purposes, will be taken. And, should it prove possible to import coal into this country without unfairness to our friends in Europe, this will be done. But, whatever we may be able to achieve in these directions, there will still remain a very serious gap and, if industry is left to bear the burden of the whole of this gap, the damage to our economy will be very serious indeed.

In these circumstances, it is the view of the Government that domestic and non-industrial consumers, as their contribution towards closing the gap, must aim at saving 2,500,000 tons of coal during the coming summer. The only certain way of securing a saving of this order would be to introduce a scheme for rationing domestic and non-industrial consumption of electricity and gas. During the recent weeks, therefore, the Government have had under examination a number of alternative rationing schemes. They have found, however, that all these schemes would be both very complicated and difficult to enforce, and even so, inequitable in their incidence as between one household and another. Moreover, they all suffer from the grave disadvantage that large additional staffs would be required to work them.

The Government have, therefore, decided that other methods should be adopted. They propose to apply restrictions on the use of gas and electricity for heating rooms in residential premises during the summer. They also propose, with some variation, to maintain the existing prohibition on the use of electricity for cooking and water-heating during certain hours each day, and to extend this to gas. The details of these restrictions will be announced shortly. The Government further propose to publish, in the near future, certain targets which will show each individual householder and each non-industrial establishment the scale of the total savings which they will be expected to make during the summer, both by the restrictions to which I have referred and by other, voluntary, savings. The Government expect that, when they know the full facts, all concerned will do their utmost to achieve their target. The Government intend, however, to keep under constant review the extent of the savings secured by these means. Should they prove to be insufficient, then other measures, however drastic, will have to be taken to ensure that the target is achieved.

Mr. Eden

I am sure that the Prime Minister will realise that the important statement he has just made is one that we should have an early opportunity of debating. I tried to follow it as best I could, but it was not easy to do so, as it was of an intricate character. But as I understood the Prime Minister, I thought he said that the Government were contemplating the possible purchase of coal from abroad.

The Prime Minister

indicated assent.

Mr. Eden

The Prime Minister confirms that, and, that being so, I do not see how he can reconcile that with the somewhat derisory attitude which the Minister of Fuel and Power adopted towards this matter.

The Prime Minister

I was not aware that my right hon. Friend said anything derisory. I believe that he said that the matter was under review, which does not sound very much like derision. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are pursuing, with the utmost intensity, the question of getting more coal.

Major Peter Roberts

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the domestic consumer, during the last six years, has suffered greater cuts than any other consumer in the country? Is he not aware that there is coal available in the Ruhr, and will he see that British people get coal first?

The Prime Minister

I am quite sure that the hon. and gallant Member knows of the difficulties about allocation of coal from the Ruhr, and also of the demands of France and other countries. In these matters we have to work with other countries. I am well aware of the suffering caused to domestic consumers, but we have to appeal to everyone in this matter, because industrial production is essential to the country.

Mr. Keeling

Is not the decision of the Government not to ration domestic coal and electricity a complete justification of the opposition of the Conservative Party, some years ago, to the Beveridge rationing scheme?

The Prime Minister

As I was a Member of the Government of that day I should not like to discuss domestic details like that.

Mr. Ronald Chamberlain

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is great confusion, on the part of the public, as to their proper domestic allowance, and also as to their carry-over from one period to the next? In view of that, would he broadcast a simple statement at an early date?

The Prime Minister

I will certainly consider whether a statement made on the wireless would be useful.

Mr. Beechman

As the cutting down of railway services during the summer will result in a saving of only half a day's output of coal, and as it was almost impossible to get on many holiday trains last year, does the Prime Minister really think that it is worth while doing this injury to the health and happiness—and thus the energy—of our people?

The Prime Minister

It is quite easy to put up that objection to every kind of economy, by saying that it will not fill the gap, and that it will be troublesome, but in this matter one cannot go on political theory. We have to take steps to see that we can get the coal we want. If conditions improve, so much the better.

Mr. Kinley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his announcement will cause much uneasiness in the Merseyside area? Following the cuts which have already been made, and which ought to have resulted in large economies in every household, the almost universal complaint is that their bills, for the last quarter, have been considerably higher than they ever were before. They suggest that variation in the supply of electric current is deranging meters, and causing false readings.

The Prime Minister

That is not a question which should be put to me; the matter should first be taken up with the supply undertakings, and then perhaps with the appropriate Minister.

Mr. Assheton

Would the right hon. Gentleman read the letter which appears in "The Times" today from Mr. McCosh?

Mr. Eden

I know that the Prime Minister will agree about the importance of this statement, and I wish to ask the Leader of the House whether, in view of that statement, he does not agree that we ought to debate this matter before we go away for Easter? I am not asking for a reply now; but would he consider whether Wednesday's Business might not be changed? The Business at present fixed for that day does not seem to me to be of earth-shaking importance, and that would allow a discussion to take place before the House adjourns.

Mr. Arthur Greenwood

I do not quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman; I think we really must get that Bill before Easter; it has been about for some time now. If it should be that half a day suffices for the discussion of Wednesday's Business, the other half might well be devoted to a Debate, and if that were to prove impossible there will be Thursday which might be used. But I should hate to take Thursday for Government Business because it is a Private Members' day.

Mr. Eden

Will the Leader of the House also bear this in mind—that when we come back, the Business already announced is to be the Budget, which means yet another week during which we cannot discuss this state of affairs? I would really press him, therefore, to try to rearrange the Business as I have suggested.

Mr. Greenwood

I appreciate that point and I will do my best to co-operate with the right hon. Gentleman to arrange for the Debate next week, provided we get the other Business which I have already announced.

Mr. Scollan

Could some arrangement be made whereby a microphone could be put on the Box, so that the people at the back may hear what is being said?

Mr. Speaker

The arrangement of the microphones in the House has nothing to do with me. The hon. Member must apply to the Minister of Works.