HC Deb 23 May 1947 vol 437 cc2777-84

3.55 P.m

Mr Skinnard (Harrow, East)

I am very sorry to have to raise, at so late an hour, an entirely different subject, and to detain the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power when I know he has a most important public engagement in Southampton and ought to leave the House, at the latest, by quarter-past four. Therefore, I assure him I do not expect a long reply to any of the points I may raise, because I am sure he will give them due consideration, and will enlighten me as to any steps he may take at some later date.

At the beginning of this month the House will recollect that there were two important Debates on the fuel situation, which took place in succession on the same day. The first was on a Motion to annul the Control of Fuel (Restriction of Heating) Order, and the second was of a more general character, on the Motion for the Adjournment. I listened with very great attention right throughout the day to practically all the speeches made, and I came away very disappointed, because so little attention was paid to the practical everyday problems of the housewife on whose efforts, equally with those of the miner, will depend the success or failure of the campaign to avoid a repetition of last winter's fuel crisis. Much was said about the target at which she was to aim. an overall saving of 25 per cent. on her fuel consumption, including the prohibition of space heating, and there were many rather gloomy prophecies made about the domestic circumstances which would force her to ignore the Order. There was even mention of the short-sighted few people who might attempt to sabotage the saving campaign, such as one lady I met, who boasted that in order to embarrass the Government she had turned on every gas tap and every electric switch in her house. As a matter of fact, I do not think that such bad citizens are very numerous, in fact I am sure they are not, because when she actually made that statement she was taken to task not by myself—I did not get the chance—but by her fellow housewives around her who told her off in no uncertain fashion Her husband informed me that he had also suggested to her that she should defray the quarterly bills from her dress allowance, as he did not propose to pa[...] them. Such bad citizens are, fortunately, rare; women on whom we rely to co-operate with the miners in the difficult task of fuel conservation are mostly co-operative and understandings They are fertile in domestic expedient, economy is second nature to them—and they take a pride in passing on to their neighbours any useful experiences they may have gained. I am proud, for instance, that in my own district of Harrow it is mainly from the housewives that has come the plan for a "Fellowship of Hearth and Mine," to equate a fuel saving target in each non-mining district to the coal production target in whichever mining area wilt be the partner in this experiment. The housewives backing this Fellowship scheme, which has had, I am glad to notice, the blessing of the Minister and of the chief officials of the mine workers' union, have come to me with certain difficulties which they find over achieving their target for the summer period. Like so many of the new suburbs and periphery towns which have developed between the wars, Harrow has literally thousands of small modern house; in which very little gas or electricity is normally consumed during the months of May to September. The small boiler of the "Ideal" or "Redfyre" type installed in the kitchenette, or the slow combustion fireplace of the "Esse" type which is very popular in my area in the dining room, is relied upon to heat water for baths, to do the family wash, to air the clothes and to burn the rubbish from the garden as well as from the household, and to mitigate in one room at least the occasional rigours of the English summer. Those units are most economical, as the Minister well knows, the more so because there is a general rule only to use them at the weekend. They are normally lit on Friday nights and let out at the latest on Monday, and nowadays, with so many mothers going out to work, they are even let oat on Sunday. Most of them can be kept going all day on one morning stoking and a raking out and making up at night, if suitable coke or, better still, processed boiler fuel such as anthracite, anthracite nuts or phurnod is available.

The housewife, aware of the gravity of the position, would be able, by exercising unusual caution and by keeping a careful watch on the household, to achieve the 25 per cent. overall saving, but she cannot, in view of the present chaotic position with regard to fuel for this modern type of house. There is no very great difficulty in getting coal delivered in small quantities, but it is almost impossible to obtain slow combustion fuel. On 10th May—I have carefully checked this—there was in the whole of Harrow, the largest urban district in this country, at six depots to serve some 50,000 householders, only 340 tons of boiler fuel, including very poor quality coke.

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. Michael Stewart.]

Mr. Skinnard

There were 340 tons for 50,000 houses in that large district, and when the coke is obtainable it is of such inferior quality that it is frequently incombustible. I would like to quote a letter which I have received about one delivery of coke—and the delivery itself was unusual and was hailed with joy, but it is now not regarded with such delight: I tried several times to burn it in my Ideal boiler, but it would not burn— As the Minister knows, this boiler is famous for burning almost anything down to father's old boots— I went to the fuel office, and they sent a man to show me how to burn it. He could not do so. I asked them to go to the place from where I got the coke and take it away. They have now done so. I do not want coke of that kind. The answer is, possibly, that the extraction rate from coal from which the coke is formed in the gas ovens is now much higher, something like 75 to 80 per cent, I have been told. So the coke received is more or less clinker. Processed fuel is the greatest need at the moment. The correspondent I have just quoted says that the next door neighbour got delivery on the same day, and he has used the coke as the foundation for his new garden path because he could not get the coke to burn.

There are a few suggestions which I would like the Minister to consider. I know that he is in a hurry, and I am trying my best to beat the clock. I want him, if he can, to readjust the priorities of deliveries on the advice of his local fuel overseers, so that in areas like the one which I have quoted, rather than the accent being on coal deliveries, it should be on processed boiler fuel, or coke of a better quality than that which is so sparingly delivered now. Secondly, I would like him to take a leaf out of the wartime expedient of appointing regional coal allocation officers to see that there is an equal distribution for their areas. I do not think that there is such an officer for boiler fuel. If there are these officers, they do not appear to be working very effectively. The concentration of the Ministry is desired on the boiler fuel allocation and a priority of the better kind—the more economical kinds, although they are dearer, such as Phurnod and anthracite nuts. If they have to use coke, please can he arrange to have it carefully graded so that the housewife knows how much combustibility to expect from a load, and that the fuel allocated to her is of such a kind that her husband will not have to use it to build the garden path.

There is a strong case, I submit, for an allocation of coke and boiler fuel separate from coal. At the moment, where they are getting coal in many of these areas they are using it, instead of preserving it to build up winter stocks, because they cannot get the week-end boiler lit except by using the small stocks of coal now arriving. The coal allocation might be worked out in consultation with the regional fuel officers in each area who know the special circumstances Ana type of house.

I now come to a very important point. Where a householder is registered with a gas company for coke, he should not be permitted to take any boiler fuel from a coal merchant without a permit from the local fuel office. I understand that in some areas people have been beating the ration and in fact getting two lots of 34 cwt. per annum, because they have a dual registration. In my own area that is not now possible because the coal merchant is notified immediately a registration with the gas company is taken out. I should be glad to know if that rule is general.

If these economies are not effected I can foresee difficulties for large coke users like bakeries. There is one in my constituency which has had its coke allocation cut from 78 tons to 53 tons per annum. That means great difficulty for it. The savings effected by the dis- appearance of any dual registration whereby people can get two lots of fuel, would, I think, help the large users. It would also prevent the curious position where people with small allocations of coal are using coke upon their fires to supplement coal, and other people are unwisely using their coal in boilers in order to provide the necessary hot water at the weekend.

4.6 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. Gaitskell)

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend for the opportunity he has given me to reply to this Debate and also to catch my train. Let me say first, I fully agree with his remarks about the importance of getting the co-operation of the housewives, and I feel myself one will get that co-operation if one shows one understands their difficulties. That is what we are constantly trying to do, and I am sure we shall get from all the constituencies the greatest possible assistance in connection with the fuel saving campaign. My hon. Friend the Member for East Harrow (Mr. Skinnard) concerned himself almost wholly with the problem of the domestic boiler fuel supplies and I want to concentrate on that, too.

Let me say at once that this is a particularly difficult problem for a number of reasons. For some years from 1943 on-wards, or indeed going further back, there was no special difficulty about the boiler fuel. Indeed, in 1943 it was actually removed from the ration altogether for a short time. Then in 1944 there was a maximum allowance of 42 tons a year, which seems handsome to us now, and from 1945 to 1946 it was two tons. From then onwards we had to bring the maximum down to 35 cwts. What the reasons for that were I should like briefly to explain. It is not due to any long-term decline in output. There has been an actual increase amounting to about 10 to 15 per cent. in the supplies of coke available for the home market, which is naturally to be expected in view of the increased demand for gas.

There has also been a substantial increase in the demand, partly as a result of new building, for coke to be used for boiler fuel. My hon. Friend referred to the fact that some consumers were putting their coke into open fires. It is perfectly true that they are, but I do not take too hard a view of that. The ordinary consumers who have an open fire—and there are quite a few in Harrow as well as elsewhere—were short of fuel last winter and a little coke helped them to keep the fires going from time to time. A second feature is the construction of a number of prefabricated houses with "Siesta" stoves in them, which require additional supplies of coke. A third factor, which is of some importance, is that in gas works we have deliberately encouraged the production of gas by the use of coke and by adding oil to the water gas which is produced, which gives it a high calorific value. That means the proportion of gas to coal is increased and coke supplies are accordingly reduced in relation to what they were before. Also for the purpose of saving coal we have introduced a degree of oil carbonisation, but these factors alone would not, I think, haw led to the undoubtedly serious shortage of coke which exists at present had we not been obliged during the recent winter to tell the gasworks to reduce their carbonisation by 10 per cent. We had to do that for the simple reason that we wanted to avoid a breakdown in gas supplies Pressures were reduced and as a result coke supplies were reduced too. Against that I am bound to say that during those months of the winter there has been an almost corresponding increase in supplies of other forms of boiler fuel such as anthracite and steam coal.

Mr. Skinnard

I should like to see some.

Mr. Gaitskell

It is all a question of demand and although, as I say, the supplies have been kept up quite well there is this difficulty, and it is true that the coke stocks at the end of the coal year were extremely low. I make no apology for that fact because coal stocks were also extremely low, and it would have been a very wrong policy to have had large stocks of coke unused while coal consumers could not get anything to burn. After all, there are limits to the extent to which they can use coke in ordinary open grates. It is fundamentally a question of a choice between coke and coal. That is not an easy choice to make and one has to balance the hardship that would be imposed by having more coke and less coal and that which would result from having the opposite. The coke consumer has been in a more favourable position than the coal consumer for a number of years; we are now pretty even, but We have to watch the position to make sure that it does not get out of balance.

My hon. Friend made a number of suggestions which I should like to touch upon briefly. He suggested that coke should be given priority in the matter of deliveries, but I do not think that at the moment there should be any difficulty in this field because weather conditions are favourable, and as far as coal merchants are concerned the labour situation should be all right. I think the difficulty is simply one of production: that is to say, the total supplies of coke coming from the gas works are small for the reason that we are trying to stop gas being consumed. Indeed, the very policy of fuel economy is having this repercussion on coke supplies. It may be possible to help areas where coke is very scarce by switching back from the carburetted water gas policy to ordinary coal carbonisation, and we are considering that at the moment.

My hon. Friend mentioned the desirability of the regional coal officers co-ordinating the machine. I will certainly look into that point, but I do not think that there is any weakness in our coal organisation there. He also suggested that there should be an improvement in the grading of different types of boiler fuel.

As regards anthracite and fuel of that kind, which is produced in its natural form although it may undergo some process afterwards, that is a matter for the Coal Board, and I can assure my hon. Friend that they are giving it very close attention. When it comes to the grading and quality of coke, one has to deal with hundreds of different gas works all over the country, with coke ovens and other forms of carbonisation, and it is not so easy to get the kind of arrangement we should like.

Finally, my hon. Friend spoke of the separate allocation of coke and the desirability of avoiding dual registrations. I entirely agree on the last point. Dual registration is not allowed, and if he knows of any cases where people are obtaining coke from two different suppliers, I hope he will inform me

Mr. Skinnard

It is really a matter of checking the methods by which the fuel overseers watch for this kind of thing, and I think my hon. Friend will find that there has been dual registration in a large number of metropolitan areas.

Mr. Gaitskell

I will certainly check that point. My hon. Friend asked for a separate allocation of coke. If he means that the local fuel overseer should decide how much coke each house should have, that raises a great many complications. It would be a considerable task, because the demands for coke vary tremendously. We have been pressed from time to time to restrict supplies of coke so as to help domestic consumers with domestic boilers. There is obviously a case to be made out for that, because they need it most, but it would be very difficult and unfair; it would mean that a house with a domestic boiler might have two tons of coke in addition to the coal allocation, whereas A house with no domestic boiler, which might be able to use coke to supplement the coal ration, would receive none. I do not think we can contemplate any discrimination of this kind. Important as coke is in providing necessary hot water, the ordinary consumer needs coal not merely for hot water, but for space heating. I think the position is pretty evenly balanced at the moment. If we had devoted more coal to provide more coke, greater hardship would have been caused, and that is really our difficulty. I will, however, look into the points raised by my hon. Friend. We are acutely conscious of the difficulty of housewives at the moment in this matter of boiler fuel, and we shall do our best to see that it is overcome.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Seventeen Minutes past Four o'Clock, till Tuesday, 3rd June, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.