HC Deb 20 November 1950 vol 481 cc39-45
The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Philip Noel-Baker)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and the permission of the House, I should like to make a statement about the supply of coal.

As the House is aware, ever since the war the home demand for coal has been steadily increasing year by year. Inland consumption, excluding house coal, will this year be nearly 22 million tons more than in 1945, and 35 million tons more than in 1938. This is a consequence of full employment; industry is working more double shifts and overtime; there are more workers; and better industrial equipment constantly increases the demand for power per man-hour.

Including house coal, inland consumption this year will be 6 million tons more than it was in 1949. Next year industrial demand for coal will be still further increased by the mounting volume of production.

During last winter the Government instructed the National Coal Board to export as much coal as we could spare. Their purpose was to help in the restoration of our balance of trade, to buy essential food and raw materials, and to aid the recovery of Europe. In the first half of 1950, our exports of coal were higher by 16 per cent. than in the corresponding period of 1949.

Owing to persistent rainfall throughout the summer and autumn, this year's output of opencast coal will fall short, by about three-quarters of a million tons, of the estimates which had been made. Deep-mined output is unlikely to exceed this year the lower of the two figures given in the estimate made in the Economic Survey. Of the three factors which determine output—attendance, productivity and manpower—attendance has somewhat improved; productivity is still running above last year's level, but not now by so much as in previous years since 1947. Manpower, on the other hand, has fallen and the shortage in certain areas is seriously holding up production. For these reasons output has fallen in recent weeks below the level of the corresponding weeks last year.

As a consequence of these various factors, the distributed stocks of coal, after allowing for the increased quantities in the cellars of domestic consumers which resulted from the summer prices scheme, were, at the end of October, lower by 700,000 tons than had been hoped. The Government have already taken measures to restore the situation. But, in view of what I have said about demand, it is clear that, if the winter were hard, our margin would be narrow. As an insurance against the results of severe weather, they have, therefore, decided on further immediate steps.

With due regard for the essential needs of shipping, they are reducing the coal supplies for bunkers, and for bunker depots overseas. These reductions will be made only for so long as our stock position is in doubt. As a further measure of insurance, the Government have instructed the National Coal Board to buy some coal abroad. This will help the Coal Board to meet our urgent commitments to our foreign customers, and will make provision against possible adverse winter conditions at home.

By these, and other measures, the Government believe that our national industrial effort can be successfully sustained through the coming winter months. But it is clear that, if our home demand continues to increase in the future, as it has done in the past, our output of coal must be increased as well. The Government have, therefore, been considering with the Coal Board what further measures can be taken to increase production during the next few years, that is to say, in the interim period before the Coal Board's National Plan can give its full results. I hope to make a further statement on these measures in due course.

In the meantime, I hope that everyone who uses coal, both in industry and at home, will exercise as much economy as they can. As I said last week, I am consulting the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers about the measures required to increase production during the coming winter months.

Mr. Eden

I have no doubt the right hon. Gentleman will agree that his statement is very serious and the House as a whole would like an early opportunity of discussing it, a day for which can be arranged through the usual channels. At the moment I should like to ask one or two questions which immediately come to one's mind. First of all, how much coal is it intended that we should buy; secondly, where are we proposing to buy it; and, thirdly, how much is it going to cost?

Mr. Noel-Baker

I should not like to say what amount of coal we shall buy, and I am not sure that it would help those who have to buy it if I did. It will, however, be a marginal amount, a part of one week's output here. We shall buy it where we find it; I expect some in the United States and I hope some elsewhere.

Mr. Eden

One has to consider very carefully the effect of any statement about buying, and I only ask the Government to consider carefully how much further information they can give us on where it should be bought, and that they will make a statement at the earliest possible moment. It was very difficult to follow parts of the right hon. Gentleman's statement even though he kindly supplied a copy, and I should like to ask him what is the position as regards output here at home. As I understand it, the figure contemplated this year will only be about the same as we were able to win from the coal mines in 1941 with a small labour force, because many miners were at the front, and with much less machinery.

Mr. Noel-Baker

I hope that the amount will be two millions higher than last year. It will be 205 or 204.9 million tons or something like that.

Mr. Fernyhough

The Minister in his statement said that the Government were taking measures to deal with this situation. As one of the reasons for it is the shortage of manpower, does not the Minister think it preposterous when manpower in the mines is declining that the reservists should be called up and miners allowed to volunteer for the Forces? Does he not appreciate that calling these men up may help us to win the cold war, but in doing so we very much look like freezing at home?

Mr. Noel-Baker

That question, of course, is under consideration.

Mr. Watkinson

Can we take it that at least industry will be assured this winter of the allocated amounts already promised?

Mr. Noel-Baker

That is our intention.

Mr. A. Edward Davies

While the Minister appeals for economy in the use of domestic coal as well as industrial coal, does he appreciate that domestic coal is at a very low level at the moment, and if there is more severe weather he will be inundated with complaints about the already low basis?

Mr. Noel-Baker

The house coal market will receive one million tons more this year than last year. What will be the situation after Christmas will depend on supplies.

Mr. Peter Roberts

Will the Minister consider giving instructions to the National Coal Board, for a voluntary increase, if possible, in the amount of stint at the coal face, coupled with increased wages if necessary, in order to get the extra coal?

Mr. Noel-Baker

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Harold Davies

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, some three months ago in this House, I asked the Minister of Fuel and Power to import coal, in view of the exigencies of the situation, and that, at that time, I was met with a flat denial? Is he also aware that we appreciate the magnificent efforts of the miners—fewer miners than ever, and greater production than ever—and that we believe that, if the development plan is to proceed, we must for a long time in future import coal for the safety of our domestic defence and strategy.

Sir Ian Fraser

Will the Minister see what coal we can get from South Africa, thereby saving dollars?

Mr. Noel-Baker

Yes, Sir; certainly.

Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd

Does the Minister recollect that, in the National Coal Board's Report for 1947, they assumed a demand under the Marshall Plan to dig 220 million tons of deep-mined coal in 1950, and to export 33 million tons?

Mr. Noel-Baker

Those were based on estimates of what the European countries would want to import. I believe it was laid down in these estimates that the United States should send 14 million tons to Europe, but, in fact, they sent only one million tons.

Mr. M. Philips Price

Will my right hon. Friend see that the latest fuel-saving appliances are used in industry and in the housing schemes of local authorities, wherever possible, thereby effecting a saving of coal?

Mr. Noel-Baker

Yes, Sir. There are big economies to be made in the use of domestic house coal by modern appliances. These appliances are being pushed very hard already, and we shall see what more we can do.

Miss Irene Ward

Would the Minister consider circulating with his statement the annual output per year of deep-mined coal since the end of the 1914–18 war; and would he also consider giving some appreciation of what benefits the coal trade might expect from the mechanisation which has been going on since the mines were nationalised? Does he not think it would be very helpful to Members of the House in assessing the present position?

Mr. Noel-Baker

With regard to the first part of the question, I will consider it. Regarding the second part, we are getting 30 million tons more than in 1945, and with less manpower.

Mr. Murray

Can the Minister say when the contracts are likely to be fulfilled, and whether, when they have been fulfilled, we shall be able to manage without buying coal?

Mr. Noel-Baker

These are hypothetical questions; it depends largely on the output of coal here.

Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd

Since the right hon. Gentleman last week announced what he called a postponement of some exports of coal, which I take to mean really a reduction, and since he has now announced the importation of foreign coal, can he give an estimate of the deter- ioration of our foreign exchange position as a result of these two measures?

Mr. Noel-Baker

No, Sir; I should not like to do that today. We are going to use some of this coal to meet foreign obligations.

Mr. Drayson

It production is affected by a shortage of coal during the winter, and industrial concerns are prevented from complying with their contracts, will the Minister say whether he will allow them to receive imports of coal directed by the exporter to whom they wish to send their goods?

Mr. Noel-Baker

I think the plan we have adopted is better, and we have adopted it because we intend that industry shall be able to carry on.

Mr. Yates

Will the Minister bear in mind that thousands of families were denied the opportunity of obtaining coal in the summer months because they had no storage capacity, and that his statement will be received with great consternation if they cannot have some hope of priority in obtaining supplies in the coming winter?

Mr. Noel-Baker

It was one of the conditions of the summer prices scheme that merchants should, in winter, give priority to householders who are without stocking space. The merchants' records enable them to do this, and I am sure they will carry out their promise.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson

The House has become rather tired of hearing optimistic statements about what the Minister is going to do to ease the situation in the future. Can he hold out no hope that this situation is not progressively deteriorating? Is not this a terrible indictment of Government policy?

Mr. Noel-Baker

No, Sir; not at all. Of course, it is plain that, in conditions of full employment, it is a much harder problem to keep an adequate labour force in the mines than it is when there is mass unemployment. For my part, I prefer the present position to that of pre-war days, when we had 14 per cent. of miners unemployed for 20 years.

Mr. Nicholson rose—

Sir Arnold Gridley

May I ask the Minister, in regard to these modern domestic appliances that might save fuel, if he is aware that on very many of them there is a crippling 100 per cent. Purchase Tax; and would the Minister make representations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer accordingly?

Mr. Noel-Baker

That is one of the things we are considering. In fact, 300,000 of them are being sold in a year, and I hope the number may be greatly increased.

Dr. Barnet Stross

is my right hon. Friend not aware that this problem of falling output of coal is being noted in countries other than Britain throughout Europe; does he not agree that the difficulty of manpower is at the coal face rather than elsewhere, and that it is not associated with wages? Will he not give special attention to the difficulties of our technicians at the coal face?

Mr. Noel-Baker

There are many factors in it. I think the total manpower does affect the manpower at the face. Housing is a most important factor, but there are others.

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