§ 7.16 p.m.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)
I want to begin by thanking the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power for being in his place at such short notice and, I believe, at some personal inconvenience.
On 23rd May last year there was a debate in this House on the subject of the domestic coal allocation, and a number of hon. Members on this side of the House argued that the system of allocation of 966 domestic coal represents a transfer of administrative responsibility from the shoulders of the Government, where it properly belongs, to those of the distributive coal trade, because since the coal actually received for distribution by the trade falls short of the maximum permitted quantity—which, rightly or wrongly, the public inevitably regard as a ration—the responsibility of acting as a rationing authority does in effect fall upon the individual coal merchants.
I want to use this opportunity tonight to draw attention to a particular instance of this unfair delegation of responsibility by the Government to the coal trade—that which relates to the allocation of extra coal to the sick and the aged. It is a practice of mine as far as my opportunities permit—and I am sure it is one followed by many other hon. Members—to call personally upon as many of my constituents as I can, and I find that by doing this a different set of problems is presented to me from those which my post-bag or even my weekly "surgery" bring. By visiting people in their homes one finds a different range of problems from those which reach one in the constituency office or through the post. On a rough estimation I would say that nearly 50 per cent. of the problems that I have discovered by house-to-house visits, and on which I have felt that I had to take action, were connected; at any rate during the winter months, with the problem of heating—the question of coal supplies.
This matter of domestic coal supplies, especially for the sick and aged, is one which intimately and personally affects hundreds of thousands of households throughout the country. It is hard not to be impressed with the outstanding importance of space heating for the sick and the aged. For the healthy person in adult life heating is an important but comparatively minor problem; but in the minds of the aged and the sick in the winter months heating ranks probably before food itself as the paramount consideration.
There is a system whereby a medical certificate can be given in a case where a person is aged or is sick at home. Upon that medical certificate an extra allocation of coal can theoretically be obtained. I think it will be agreed that the medical profession are both fair and reasonable 967 in their use of this right to issue certificates for extra coal. The next step in the procedure is for the householder who receives the doctor's chit to take it to the local fuel overseer, who issues to the householder, in return for it, an order upon the householder's coal merchant for the latter to provide the extra coal shown upon the certificate. It might, for instance, be an extra five cwt. a month, making roughly two cwt. a week, instead of the average of one cwt. a week.
The householder takes this licence from the local fuel overseer to his coal merchant. The coal merchant is then presented with what is best described as a "facer." He receives no more coal himself as a result of this licence which has been brought to him. There is no extra allocation made to him out of which he can meet the extra demand. So far as I can ascertain, there is no local or area pool or reserve to be distributed in accordance with the licences issued by the local fuel overseer. The merchant receiving the licence has to try to squeeze the extra allocation for that household out of the coal which he gets for distribution amongst his ordinary customers in order to meet the normal allocation. Very often this means that, in practice, no response at all follows the issue of the medical certificate and the conditions which called for an extra allocation of fuel remain unsatisfied.
If the coal merchant does take action—and I know from my own experience that wherever possible they do take action and that the coal trade, generally speaking, shows very great consideration for the special needs and hardships of customers—what, in fact, he does is to deliver to that address part of the normal allocation for the household but perhaps a little in advance. What is theoretically intended to happen is that there should go into that house per week or per month twice as much coal as otherwise would have been received. That is the intention of the system; and that is obviously the requirement, if one has to meet a case of age or of sickness. But, for the practical reasons which I have explained, that is what does not happen.
I hope the Minister will not use this argument tonight, but I know it is easy to say that the permitted maximum was increased during the summer months in 968 order to enable householders to lay in stocks for the winter, and that if the householders in question had taken time by the forelock and done so, then they could probably have obtained the extra coal allocation on top of their stocks when the time came. But it is precisely the households where there is age or chronic sickness, households which perhaps consist of one or two aged persons just managing to get along on their pension with, say, an allowance from national assistance, that the extra allocations are needed—it is just these households which, economically, were unable during the summer months to afford the expenditure to lay in stocks of coal in advance.
Time after time I have found myself in front of an empty hearth in an old person's dwelling where the old people have volunteered the information that they knew perfectly well that during the summer months there was an extra allocation which they could have bought. "But," they added, "in those months we just could not find the money week by week to buy the coal from our merchants and we had, therefore, to decline it."
Therefore, we cannot accept the increased summer allocation as an excuse for not taking practical administrative action which would bring genuinely extra coal, over and above the normal allocation, into the households where it is needed as shown by the medical certificate. At present the licence which is issued by the local fuel overseer is nothing more than a cheque drawn upon an account in which there is no money; and the indignation of the customer when the coal merchant, so to speak, marks it R.D. falls in the wrong place. It falls upon the coal merchant, who has himself no choice in the matter and is coping with insoluble difficulties. The customer's indignation should fall instead upon an administration which does not arrange for a pool or a reserve, if only a small one, against which these licences could be issued.
My object tonight is to ask the Government to consider whether they cannot make those administrative arrangements which will ensure that, when a doctor's certificate is given in a case of old age or of acute or chronic sickness, there are means whereby the extra coal can readily and without question be made available. I realise perfectly well that there is only 969 a fixed total amount available for domestic consumption in these current months. I realise that if a small local coal bank were set up, the coal to go into it for the purposes of the sick or the aged would necessarily have to come out of the allocations to other householders and that the gap between the quantity actually delivered and the maximum permitted would, for the ordinary householder, be slightly wider. But I am convinced that people at large, if they were satisfied that the coal was going into the households where this special need exists, would accept the slight additional hardship involved.
I hope the Government will not try to ride off what is a real problem, a problem which affects hundreds of thousands of homes, but will ask themselves whether they cannot provide administratively for its solution.
§ 7.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Manuel (Central Ayrshire)
I am particularly pleased to follow the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell). Certainly, various facets of the subject he has mentioned deserve attention, but I do not think he was quite fair in his approach to the problem, nor did he give sufficient attention to the scheme which is operating up and down the country. When I hear hon. Members opposite concerning themselves with the sick and the aged people and with their troubles and worries, I am rather amazed. I can remember quite vividly the time when those of us who hold the beliefs of this side of the House were struggling to get the old age pensions increased so that there could be money available with which to buy coal. At that time we did not get very much support from hon. Members opposite or from their friends in the country.
I would add this. This problem has been aggravated because of the economic policy of the Government. There is an aggravation of the problem because many more people in the country can now afford to burn fires—and more than one fire in a house—than formerly. It is a well-known fact that today more old people are keeping up their own homes than in the old days. This is the experience of many local authorities. It is certainly the experience of the local authority of which I was a member for many 970 years. Formerly, when the young people of a family grew up and married and left their home, the old couple, during those long years of widespread unemployment, went into the workhouse; but today we have fewer old people going to the workhouse and more of them retaining their own homes, and no matter what hon. Members opposite may think, there are more people burning coal in their own fires today than there were before. I think we should recognise that.
§ Mr. Angus Maude (Ealing, South)
The hon. Member will also recognise that the workhouses are pretty full now with people who are not able to get ordinary houses?
§ Mr. Manuel
No, the workhouses are not full now with people who cannot get ordinary houses. In fact, space in what are now known as "residential homes" is being turned over for hospital use—for the treatment of tuberculosis and other things. This is so in Scotland, at any rate. I will deal with the Scottish position, as I know it in my own area, and I am certain that it is not very much different from the position in the hon. Member's constituency.
However, I agree that there is a problem of supply, as indicated by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West. I agree that for aged people, and in homes where there is illness, heat is an essential requirement that must be catered for. But when we review how the Ministry have tried to cope with this problem, we ought to be fair and we ought to see whether there is any alternative we can propose, if necessary, instead of making a tirade against what is happening without offering any alternative and without focussing the problem properly.
The hon. Gentleman spoke of extra coal in the case of sickness in the home and in the case of another family going into the house through sub-letting. What he did not say was that the fuel officers at six-monthly periods regulate the supplies of coal to the coal merchants. At the end of every six-monthly period, there is a review. The hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that this should happen every day or every week, is he? Obviously, the coal merchant does not get an extra bag or an extra two bags per week, but if someone leaves the district, 971 or if the tenant of a house dies, the merchant does not drop off his list the bag or two bags per week in respect of that person's supply; and so there is a sort of evening up, and a balance is arrived at; so that most coal merchants find that they can work fairly easily the scheme as laid down.
§ Mr. Manuel
We are not dealing with opencast just now, though perhaps we shall come on to that problem also.
§ Mr. Nabarro
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me? I am sorry to interrupt him, but will he address himself to the point that, although a coal merchant is willing to honour a medical certificate or docket given by the fuel overseer for an additional ration of coal for an aged or infirm person, if he has got the coal, in many instances he has not got a hundredweight of coal in his yard, and therefore cannot honour the docket?
§ Mr. Manuel
I do not find that to be the case to any extent in my area, because while there are certain persons coming on to a merchant's list, others are going off it. Of course, he ought not to accept them on his list if he cannot supply them, and he ought to allow the docket to go to a coal merchant who can honour it, because there are fluctuations in the supplies coming forward. I find that there are also aggravations in the methods of supply by the coal merchants. In my particular district we have coal merchants who are very irregular in their deliveries. I deal with the local co-operative society, as a sane person who wants a regular supply, and I get my supply every fortnight. My wife arranges for it, and it comes with clocklike regularity on the same day every fortnight.
§ Mr. Manuel
I am quite certain that that has nothing to do with it, and I certainly should not allow it if it had.
§ Mr. Manuel
No doubt more heat would have been engendered if the right 972 hon. Gentleman had spoken in the debate, and thereby had been able to enjoy himself a little better. However, I am convinced that the scheme is working fairly well, and, after all, no scheme can be completely watertight. I am convinced that a person will not register with a coal merchant if there is no guarantee of supply. A coal merchant is quite wrong to take the additional order if he cannot meet it, as the hon. Gentleman says he cannot. I would, however, put against that what I know is happening in the matter of irregular supplies.
We have to recognise that there is not an unlimited supply of coal in the country. We cannot augment domestic supplies ad lib., but there are some stocks in the railway sidings. The coal merchants do look after their customers, and do their best to maintain and to build up their businesses. They look after their reserves for that purpose, and by means of the stocks they guard against delays in delivery to them because of snow—although that is not the same problem in England, perhaps. All these things ought to be taken into consideration.
The whole question ought to be looked at in the light of what is best for the country as a whole. We must also take into consideration that industry today is using 34 million tons of coal more per year than in pre-war years. We have to recognise that that fact raises additional problems of supplies. We have to ask ourselves whether we would rather have full employment and rather less coal just now, or a proportion of unemployment—that is, if the miners would work in such circumstances—and have more coal for everyone.
I believe that hon. Members opposite want to be fair in this particular matter. They must recognise that additional allocations are given to coal merchants at six-monthly periods, that at the six-monthly periods there is an opportunity to rectify the position, and that in between the reviews they can, on balance, regulate their deliveries to their customers within the limits of the quantities they have for their customers. I am sure that that is so in my own area. I think that in the case of old people who are entitled to the extra allocations and who cannot afford to take up their bigger supplies during the summer, we should see that they do get their supplies, as and when 973 they can take them, during the whole year. In the street in which I live there are sometimes two deliveries to one house because there is a sub-tenant, although there is no illness there and no old people; they get additional supplies with no trouble over delivery.
Taking everything into consideration, recognising that we have full employment and that the miner is doing a good job, and that the Government are doing a good job with the coal available, we ought to be trying to support the effort that is being made, instead of hon. Members opposite, as they do with meat, transport and everything else, trying to run down our own concerns and to put the blame on the Government. It would be much better if they indicated that we were doing a jolly good job. The workers are more concerned than hon. Gentlemen opposite about the needs of the sick and the aged, as they have proved in the past. From my experience of the Conservative Party in Scotland, for them at this stage to try to make political capital out of this and to work up synthetic indignation on behalf of the aged and sick is just so much "bosh."
§ 7.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Angus Maude (Ealing, South)
I am particularly glad to have caught your eye, Mr. Speaker, at a time when I can make some sort of reply to the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel), who has been putting up Aunt Sallies and knocking them down again at a rate seldom equalled in this House. Until he rose to his feet no question of a political nature had been raised in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), to whom I listened very carefully, scrupulously refrained from making any allegation against the Government or any political references.
If I had had the pleasure of catching your eye, Mr. Speaker, before the hon. Gentleman I had intended to say that I hoped the Parliamentary Secretary would not, when replying, treat us to the old, old story about the people who could not afford to buy coal before the war. He has not got the opportunity now, because his hon. Friend has done it already. I think that at this stage we might be spared this sort of thing in a non-political debate.
§ Mr. Manuel
Is it the hon. Gentleman's contention that today the subject of coal is non-political? Surely he is not un-political in his outlook, and no matter how the question is approached the whole subject of coal is political.
§ Mr. Maude
It is perfectly obvious that the question we are now discussing is, in effect, non-political. The question whether or not there is enough coal in the country is no doubt political, but that is not what we are discussing. We are endeavouring by agreement, in what we had hoped would be a friendly discussion with the Minister, to discover methods by which this problem could be solved. As I see it, there is no reason for introducing these political polemics.
The question of how much coal is being produced is a question which may be political, but the question of what machinery we could use to see that the needs of the sick and aged are properly met in present circumstances is quite a different question. The argument about the poor who could not afford to buy coal at all before the war is always used in connection with meat, coal and everything else, but it does not seem to me to be an adequate reason for refusing to discuss in a rational spirit the question of how to make the machinery that exists work in the present situation, and this is the difficulty which we on this side of the House have continually to face. Hon. Members on the back benches opposite will ride these questions off on to matters which in my view are completely irrelevant.
I assure the Minister that I for one—and I think I speak for quite a lot of my hon. Friends—do not regard this particular question as one in which the Government and the nationalised industry on one side are perhaps to be shot at, and the private enterprise coal merchant on the other side is to be defended at all costs, because in my experience, very frequently in this respect the coal merchant is to blame. I have had cases in my own constituency, as I am sure all hon. Members have, where without question the coal merchant was to blame because the old or sick persons concerned were unable to get round to the office to press their case as strongly as the more able members of the community could do, and had their allocations cut despite the issue of medi- 975 cal certificates, fuel overseers' certificates and so on.
An ordinary able-bodied family with a strong man in command of it can usually ensure that the coal merchant is bullied sufficiently to make him live up to his obligations; somebody in the family can go round to the merchant every morning or every afternoon until something is done, but the old or sick person living alone is not able to do so. Often the old or sick person can rely on nothing more than writing an occasional letter to try to chase up the order. I have known of orders placed in September or October which have not been met in the following January, which has certainly nothing to do with the coal shortage.
If a coal merchant adopts that view the Minister may well say, "What has that to do with me? It is a question purely and simply for the coal merchant." I am not so sure that it is. I feel that there are certain steps that could be taken. Here I would remind the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire that my hon. Friend began by quite clearly saying that we on this side acknowledged the present stocks and production position; we acknowledge that there is not enough coal to go round to give everybody as much as they want. However, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire retaliated, almost as if he had not heard what my hon. Friend said, by saying that we must consider what was in the interests of the country as a whole.
That is a very dangerous argument in this case. It is the old argument of rough justice. It is as good as saying that so long as everybody is getting a bit and the wheels of industry are just kept turning it could not matter less if some poor and sick people go without. The hon. Gentleman worked up a certain amount of heat about Tories daring to raise any question which concerned welfare. I know his heart is very warm and that he has the interest of his people at heart, but it seemed that in much of his speech he was advocating a line which would be in the worst possible interests of his people.
The stock and production position affect the situation in two ways. First, the consumer is placed in a position wherein he cannot freely change his coal merchant if he is dissatisfied. In theory he can change his coal merchant at the speci- 976 fied times, but in practice, as I am sure the Minister will agree, an old and rather timid person feels that, if he has been with a coal merchant for a long time and he goes to a new one, he will go to the bottom of a long list, and probably not get very good service.
Secondly, the shortage means and nationalisation means—I do not want to go into that too much—that the coal merchant himself is very much restricted. Under nationalisation, he cannot change his supplier, so if he fails to get enough coal to honour the demands made upon him, he can do very little about it. I cannot believe that it is quite impossible for the local fuel overseer, with the aid perhaps of a helpful directive from the Minister of Fuel and Power, to inquire a little more closely into the position of these old people in each area than has so far been done, because the information service as regards old people particularly is much better now than it used to be.
Old people's welfare committees, local authorities and many other bodies are doing a great deal more to find out how these old people live. There are still some, but far fewer now, who are never visited at all and of whose existence no one knows. In the London boroughs it is rather tragic how many do not get visited even now, but we are going further in the direction of locating these people and seeing what can be done for them. I am sure that the welfare machinery that exists could be used to put the fuel overseer in touch with particular cases where difficulties have arisen.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, is clearly right when he says that a doctor's certificate and a fuel office certificate are of no use if they cannot be translated into terms of coal. No one would disagree about that. If the Minister can reassure us by telling us exactly what is being done to meet this need, and if he would undertake in future to consider in the light of this debate individual cases brought to his notice and see whether the machinery for dealing with them is in fact working, we should feel much happier about it than we have hitherto.
In Central Ayrshire conditions may be all right; but for people in London, the Midlands and far from the coal fields the situation is very far from being all right, 977 I do not say that the whole distribution machinery is breaking down, but there are a number of toads beneath the harrow who are feeling the teeth. If we could feel that the Minister would consider individual cases brought to him and would give some directive to the local fuel officers which would ensure that these old people are not neglected month after month and even winter after winter, we should feel much happier.
§ 7.54 p.m.
§ Mr. Harrison (Nottingham, East)
I suggest that we on this side of the House should wholeheartedly join with hon. Members opposite in recommending that the Minister give his attention to this very deserving matter. I think that it has been within the province of most of us during the cold weather to witness the severe suffering of some old folk owing to the tightness of the coal situation, and therefore I am sure that we sincerely support hon. Members opposite in making this plea to the Minister. I do not think that the coal merchant is particularly blameworthy in many of these cases where he is unable to supply old people with the extra coal recommended by their doctors.
§ Mr. Nabarro
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to intervene, I wish to tell him that he should address his reproofs in this matter to the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel).
§ Mr. Harrison
It is not my nature. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was trying to strengthen the case that this was a matter deserving of consideration by the Minister. If I wanted to enter into the realms of reproof or of acrimony, I might suggest to the hon. Gentleman that if it were left to his district, we should very likely be worse off than we are now, because we are fully aware of his loud advocacy of no opencast mines for Warwickshire.
§ Mr. Nabarro
The constituency which I have the honour to represent is the Kidderminister Parliamentary Division of Worcester, not Warwickshire.
§ Mr. Harrison
I apologise to Warwickshire. It was Worcestershire to which I was referring. The hon. Member for Ealing, South (Mr. Angus Maude), said that it was possible in pre-nationalisation days for the coal merchant to change his colliery supplier. That was not so in hardly any of the cases that came within my knowledge. The coal merchant was tied to a colliery in almost the same way as he is tied today. He could change between one or two, but he had little liberty in the matter.
I do not say that it is possible for us to leave these old folk to the tender mercies of any district or to be dependent upon the strong arm tactics for getting extra coal from the coal merchant. We ought to find some other way to enable them to get coal. With the present machinery we ought to see that something is done so that these old folk, with doctors' certificates, can obtain extra supplies when they are available. I would support the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire, that very often these stocks are available in the railway yards and that it should be made quite clear to every applicant that there are no stocks available before he is refused.
§ Brigadier Clarke (Portsmouth, West)
Let the hon. Gentleman opposite come down south and have a look.
§ Mr. Harrison
I was prompted to take part in this debate because of the conditions that exist in my own constituency where we can see the pitheads if we look just outside the division. It was because of the shortage there and of the suffering of our old people that I took the liberty to come into this debate. While it may be worse down south, we have some difficulties even in the coal area on this question of the supply of coal to old people. I can assure hon. Members down south that that is the case. The hon.
979 Member for Ealing, South, prefaced his speech by saying that he hoped the Minister would not trot out the old story about people before the war being unable to buy coal because the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire had already taken the story out of his mouth. I remember quite distinctly living in a coal area where the only source of supply that old people or other people had, was to follow the coal carts over the old cobblestones. People used to walk behind the cart picking up the coal that had dropped off. That was their only source of supply. It is the old old story, but nevertheless it is a true one. People before the war needed coal very much in the depth of winter and the only supply available to them was the coal that had fallen off the carts. I can assure Members opposite that that situation does not exist today. While we have a tightness in the supply of coal, we at least have a little coal to keep small fires going.
§ Mr. Alport (Colchester)
Is the hon. Member aware that in my part of Essex, when the tide goes out, people collect from, the river banks coal which has been dropped from ships, so that they can have a fire?
§ Mr. Harrison
That may be the case in the hon. Member's constituency at a time when there is a shortage of coal. At the time I am referring to there was plenty of coal and the miners were out of work. That is the time when people had to pick up coal from the streets. The difference today is that because of the shortage of coal it is a very profitable job to salvage it from the river bank. I am referring to the old, old story.
§ 8.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Carr (Mitcham)
I was glad to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Harrison), because it seemed to me that he was correcting some of the unfortunate remarks that had been made by his hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel).
§ Mr. Carr
I was sorry to find, however, that the hon. Member for Nottingham, East, fell into the same error as his 980 hon. Friend at the conclusion of his speech. When I hear speeches such as we have heard from Members opposite today, I have to pinch myself very hard to believe that it was Members opposite who won their victory at the General Election by putting their names to a document called "Let us Face the Future." They may face the future, but their eyes must be at the back of their heads. Even if their eyes are at the back of their head, their hindsight seems just as defective as their foresight.
We are dealing here with a human problem, and I would remind Members opposite that long before the party they represent was born, people like Disraeli, Shaftesbury and many others were doing what they could to meet problems of this kind. It is true that before the war much still remained to be done, but it is also true that much remains to be done today, and the way the present Government are forgetting the question of priority means that what has to be done will be increased rather than decreased in the coming years.
§ Mr. Manuel
The hon. Member says that we are forgetting priorities. Will he take that a bit further? There is priority, if we can get it at all—[Laughter.] I am talking administratively. Has the hon. Member forgotten priorities for the school children by way of fruit juice and cod liver oil? The hon. Member should not listen to the advice of his hon. Friends, which will only lead him up the garden path. "The Right Road for Britain" will certainly put us in Queer Street.
§ Mr. Carr
The hon. Member condemns himself out of his own mouth by talking about "priority if we can get it." We are maintaining that priorities should be effective. The hon. Member has asked me to expand this subject a little further. I should dearly like to do so, but I am afraid that before very long I should find myself out of order. Perhaps I might give him two examples. We find that under the Health Service tuberculosis is not being adequately dealt with because we are not devoting enough resources to its treatment.
§ Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)
Is it in order to go beyond the scope of this debate, which is concerned with fuel supplies?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew)
Anything is in order on the Adjournment providing it does not involve legislation.
§ Mr. Carr
I am sure that the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire, will agree that we are not devoting enough resources to the treatment of tuberculosis. It does not seem to make sense in any effective priority system to give everyone free dentures and so on when we cannot find enough resources to devote to tuberculosis, which in my opinion is the more urgent need. I shall also give the example of the school dental service. We find that the number of dentists in this service is falling because we are not devoting enough resources to get the dentists we require, whereas we are providing free dentures for old people regardless of need. It seems to me to be fantastic that we should be overlooking dental treatment for our school children, which is the only way to improve the dental health of the country in the future.
§ Mr. Manuel
There is one aspect of the matter which the hon. Member has completely forgotten. Does he not agree that every child in the country can get dental treatment from the family dentist? The hon. Member who is preaching economies in the Health Service is now asking for an additional service for each child in the country.
§ Mr. Carr
I am saying that we need an effective priority system for the resources which are not as big as we should like them to be, which means devoting sufficient resources in the first place to the most urgent needs as against the less urgent although most highly desirable needs.
I should now like to return to the subject of coal supplies, having been led up, or down, the garden path on the question of Socialist lack of priorities. We are here faced with an immediate human problem. It does no good to these people to spend our time looking back on the past. What we are concerned with is to see whether we can do something to help these people who are suffering at this moment. The two Members who have spoken from the Government benches happen to sit for coal field areas, and therefore I am sure the position is bound to be much brighter in their constituencies. Those living in the south 982 will know that this is a real problem indeed. Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), has said, the people who are suffering most are the old people who cannot afford to stock up in the summer, to go down to the coal yard with a pram or barrow with which to bring back some small supplies, or to call at the coal office day in and day out until they can get their coal delivered. It is our duty to do something to help these people.
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire accused my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, of not making any constructive suggestion. I thought his suggestion that a local fuel pool should be arranged in each area, even if it meant some reduction in the overall domestic ration in order to ensure that there is local fuel for these old people, was something that deserved attention. This is a domestic problem and not a political one. I want to add my testimony that there is need for some administrative action in order to help these people. It is a matter of importance, and if the Welfare State means anything at all, it means that we do everything in our power to make sure, that those in the greatest need receive help, and in this case that means in their coal cellars.
§ 8.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)
The hon. Member for Mitcham (Mr. Carr) at the beginning of his speech gave me the impression that he was treating this matter in a humorous way, but as he developed his speech and came to the concluding part he struck another note. He said it was an intensely human problem which we were discussing, and with that I am in full agreement. When we are dealing with the sick and the old it is an intensely human problem, and I have no desire to make it into a political argument, because the matter to me is too serious to be the subject of political gibes across the Floor of the House.
The subject before the House is, to what extent, with the available supplies at our disposal, can we meet the needs of the aged and the sick? I intensely dislike people advancing arguments and blaming the Government for what is now taking place. I am happy to know that in this debate so far, no 983 mention has been made of the miners. We are now dealing with an administrative problem, and I want to support the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) and my hon. Friend the. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Harrison), when they said that before the last war it was impossible for old people to buy coal because they had not the money with which to buy it. That statement stands unchallenged. No old age pensioner or sick pensioner could buy coal on a pension of 10s. a week.
In the matter under debate tonight, some of the coal distributors are not immune or exempt from blame. I sometimes also blame the Co-operative Society, about which we get constant reminders from the other side of the House. They are not free from blame in dealing with the distribution of coal. From time to time I have had reason to call the attention of coal distributors in my division to the fact that they are not fulfilling their obligations either through failure to meet priority claims which come to them from fuel overseers, or because of medical certificates. Immediately I have drawn their attention to it, they have found ways to meet the needs of those consumers who have such a priority from the overseer or are supported by a medical certificate, and it always seems to me that by a strange wave of a magic wand they are able to find the coal that is needed for the old age pensioners and for the sick people.
I am happy to say that there are very few distributors against whom I have had to make a complaint, but it is often the case that because of the few, all the distributors are charged with neglect. In my opinion, it is wrong, dishonest, and unjust for the coal distributor to accept consumers if he knows full well that he cannot supply their needs. Such distributors would be well advised to say to the old people or to the sick, "With the allocation I have I cannot supply your needs, and, therefore, I would much prefer you to go to some other distributor who is in a position to supply your needs."
There is another point I want to make. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), raised this matter, and I should like to ask him whether it has been dealt with in his 984 locality. Have representations been made to the local fuel overseer? If so, what has been the result? From my experience I know that as soon as I have made a complaint about the non-supply of coal to a consumer with a medical certificate, the fuel overseer has dealt with it immediately either with the distributor or through some other source. I should like to ask the hon. Member to what extent this matter has been brought to the notice of the fuel overseer?
§ Mr. Powell
Of course, when an individual case is taken up with the fuel overseer or the coal supplier by the Member of Parliament, that individual case is dealt with, but my object in raising the whole issue was to ensure that these cases would be dealt with automatically, without difficulty and without the accidental and individual intervention of the Member of Parliament.
§ Mr. Brown
I accept the answer to the question which I addressed to the hon. Member.
May I put another question bearing on this subject? It is well now that the subject has been raised to have the whole matter threshed out. How far and to what extent have the coal distributors with the assistance of the local fuel overseer made application for an allocation of what we call cushion supplies—something over and above the normal supply of coal? It is possible for a coal distributor to tell the local fuel overseer that it is impossible for him to supply the demands which are now being made, and with the assistance of the fuel overseer he can make application for a cushion supply to meet the needs of the old people and the sick. How far has that been done?
§ Mr. Powell
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the major issue I am raising is that the coal, in respect of which a certificate is issued, is not received, and the householder, therefore, has not, in fact, received the extra ration to which his certificate entitled him.
§ Mr. Brown
The hon. Gentleman is evading the question I put to him, because he knows full well, if he has been dealing with individual cases, that the regulations and the general administration of the fuel overseer ensure an individual getting additional supplies over and above his normal 985 allocation if he has a certificate. What we call cushion supplies were granted to help coal distributors to meet the needs of those who have priority certificates either for sickness or old age.
I have no desire to prolong this debate, and the fact that the matter has been raised on the opposite benches does not disturb me one bit. We have tried to sustain the administration and the method and policy pursued by local fuel overseers, and I say that if it is within the realm of possibility to meet the needs of the old people and of the sick, then no stone should be left unturned by the Ministry of Fuel and Power, the local overseer or the distributors of coal to see that the requirements of these people are satisfied, because it matters not who suffers so long as they are cared for and given the attention they so richly deserve.
§ 8.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Nabarro (Kidderminster)
I am sure that hon. Members will agree that the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) is invariably listened to with the greatest respect and without interruption because of his unparalleled knowledge of the coalmining industry. This problem is not contentious or controversial, but largely administrative. We may have varying opinions on the efficacy of the arrangements made within the nationalised coal industry for producing coal, but I am sure there will be a measure of agreement that there may only be a fixed global or aggregate quantity of coal available for domestic purposes during the course of the next few years.
I received notice only some 10 minutes before this debate commenced, of the subject which was to be raised this evening and I am sure, therefore, that the Parliamentary Secretary will forgive me if I am not able to quote precisely the figures to which I intend to refer. I think I should be correct, to the nearest one million tons, in saying that the amount of coal distributed for domestic purposes in 1938 was 45 million tons and that in 1950 the amount actually distributed for domestic purposes has declined to 30 million tons.
§ Mr. Nabarro
I do not think that it was due only to the rationing system, for in fact it is not a rationing system but a 986 maximum permitted allocation to householders. I shall be referring to that aspect of the problem in one moment. I think that the Minister would agree that the global amount of domestic coal in the United Kingdom has declined by approximately 33⅓ per cent., comparing 1950 with 1938. Not only has the tonnage declined by 33⅓ per cent., but the loss to domestic consumers is much greater due to the presence of an unpredictable amount of dirt, stone, ash and rubbish in the coal. This arises, I believe, although expect some hon. Members will disagree, from the increased mechanisation at the pits and a number of other factors.
I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans) on the benches opposite. He will recall the report which appeared in the Midlands Press to the effect that the chief salvage officer of Wednesbury said that the amount of salvage he collected in the borough had increased very substantially on the preceding 12 months because of the amount of incombustible material delivered as part of the household coal.
§ Mr. S. N. Evans (Wednesbury)
And it is due to the fact that the whole of our population are able to buy coal instead of about half of them.
§ Mr. Nabarro
Perhaps that might be so, but that salvage officer attributed it to the decline in the quality of coal. The second feature to which I am referring is that the number of old people in the United Kingdom has increased by about one million in that period. When I refer to old people, I mean those above 65 years of age, and I am comparing 1950 with 1938. Therefore, the problem has been further aggravated by that increase in the number of old age pensioners.
In introducing this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), did so in a way which was entirely non-contentious and uncontroversial in spirit. The problems of my hon. Friend's constituency are very similar to those experienced in my own. My hon. Friend represents a division which is separated from the industrial conurbation of Kidderminster and Stour-port-on-Severn by a distance of only 15 miles. I never attack the Parliamentary Secretary unless I know the full answers in advance myself, and unless I am sure that if I were in the Parliamentary Secretary's shoes I could do much better than 987 he is doing. The only occasions upon which I have attacked him are those upon which I have granted myself those two premises. This evening I am in a very different position. I am prepared to admit to the Parliamentary Secretary that this is an extraordinarily difficult administrative problem, but it is only administrative and nothing else.
I prefaced my comments by saying that I recognised that we might not expect any large global increase in the amount of domestic coal available in the immediate future. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will correct me if I am wrong in saying that England is divided into two parts, for the purposes of allocating household coal, by an arbitrary line drawn from the Severn to the Wash. Householders are granted 34 cwt. per period south of that line, while those who are north of that line receive 50 cwt. per period. Can the Parliamentary Secretary tell us how many householders are getting the maximum south of the arbitrary line and how many are getting it north of the line?
If one multiplies the number of householders south of the line by 34 cwt. and adds to it the result derived by multiplying the number of householders north of the line by 50 cwt., the total aggregation of domestic coal should yield 30 million tons, which is the global figure which the Ministry of Fuel and Power is allocating to the domestic consumers. If it comes to more than that, somebody in the Ministry of Fuel and Power has made a statistical error. If the answer comes to more than 30 million tons, then theoretically the Ministry of Fuel and Power should reduce the maximum permitted allocation to householders north of the line and south of the line. That, theoretically, includes the whole of those old age pensioners. That is the only way to relate the artificiality which we have at present with the reality which we all seek.
I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary follows my argument. It seems to me to be the gravamen of the problem in this administrative matter which is confronting us at the moment. We are all agreed upon the necessity for trying to help the old, the infirm and the sick with coal supplies. Nobody has mentioned the very young. I believe that fuel overseers have instructions that where there is a child 988 of less than six months of age, every effort should be made to give the parents sufficient solid fuel to keep the room warm in which the baby is sleeping. That problem, linked to the problem of the aged, has been brought to my attention on dozens of occasions in the last few months.
The hon. Members for Nottingham, East (Mr. Harrison), and Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) referred to the part which the coal merchant has to play in this matter. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will agree that it is quite futile for the medical officer to issue a priority note to the parent of a very young child or to an aged person for an additional allocation of coal, and for the fuel overseer to endorse it, if the recipient of the docket, when he goes to the coal merchant, is told by him in despair, "I have no available coal supplies." The reason why in many cases the merchant has no available supply derives simply from what I believe is the statistical miscalculation arising from the total number of householders in both areas of the country multiplied by the allocations which they are at present entitled to receive.
I believe that the remedy for this administrative problem is not very difficult to find. It cannot be applied this winter, but it might be done next winter. Every fuel overseer ought to be asked to establish with one coal merchant in his area a special priority reserve stock of coal which should be supplied only to old persons and the parents of very young persons. From that cushion, as the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) so wisely observed, priority issues would be made only in respect of priority dockets that had been issued by the local fuel overseer.
I believe that system might function satisfactorily. It would not result in any over-all increase in the amount of domestic coal consumed, but it would, with a very simple administrative re-arrangement, fulfil the purpose which hon. Members on both sides of the House so ardently wish to see fulfilled, namely, that the old people, the infirm, the sick and the parents of very young persons would be provided with a sufficiency of solid fuel.
§ 8.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)
As the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) said, we wish, on both sides of 989 the House, to raise this issue because, despite any party points that might be made, Members on both sides are interested in the sick, the aged and others getting these supplies. I wish to point out that quite a lot can be done locally. I wish to recount an experience within my own constituency. In Christmas week I had not a lump of coal in my home for five days. We were burning the bottoms of old shell boxes on Christmas Day. I experienced these problems. I was then rung up by the coal merchants in the district. They were threatening to go on strike. In the North Staffordshire area we are living on a coalfield but the position in my division was as bad as the position anywhere in the south of England.
I met 47 coal merchants and heard their case. Many months ago my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mr. Edward Davies), and I met the coal merchants in the town hall of Hanley. As I say, I met my local coal merchants in Kidsgrove, and I found that there was something in the charge that the hon. Member opposite has been making so far as the distribution of supplies were concerned. There is a cushion supply. It is now available. The hon. Member was asking for such a supply but it is already there. There seems to be some timidity, however, on the part of the organisation in the district and I would draw the Parliamentary Secretary's attention to the point.
Let me explain what happened. After spending a considerable amount of my own money telephoning from one end of Britain to the other, I managed to clear up the situation. There was a fear locally that the stocks there should not be touched. There were people locally gathering coal off the tips and going out into the hedgerows, gathering all kinds of fuel to burn in Christmas week.
§ Mr. Davies
I did not say that. Sometimes there is no time to ask Questions in the House. Labour Members usually get on to the job at once. I did not wait till the end of the Recess. My people were cold during Christmas and so was I, and so I tried to get in touch with the local overseer. The local overseer in the Kidsgrove area did all he possibly could.
990 When I rang up Birmingham they did all they could and they were very kind. But when I rang Birmingham I was given to understand that at divisional level they did not understand that permission was not being granted at the district level to take in some of the stock at the wharfs for distribution during this bad weather period.
In other words, it is clear to me there was not that co-ordination which there should have been between divisional level and district level at an emergency period regarding the distribution of coal for the sick and aged. In fact I understand that divisional level did not know that district level were refusing to touch the stocks of coal. Eventually we released some thousands of tons of coal for the Kids-grove area and for Biddulph and the Leek district. In that case I wrote direct to Lord Hyndley, and he was kind enough to investigate this matter. It seems to me unfair to throw the burden on the coal merchant for not being able to distribute coal.
§ Mr. Nabarro
I hope the hon. Member is not suggesting that I was in any way doing that. I should be grateful if he would address his reproofs to the hon. Members for Nottingham, East (Mr. Harrison), and Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) who were critical of the coal merchants.
§ Mr. Davies
Those hon. Gentlemen spoke from their own experience. I would not dare to comment on their own experience and so I qualified it. I spent hours with the coal merchants in my district and I am fully aware of this problem.
§ Mr. Harrison
I attempted to explain that I did not think the coal merchants were in the main responsible. How the hon. Gentleman opposite can suggest that I argued in that way, I do not know.
§ Mr. Davies
I should not like to have been a coal merchant during those scarcity periods, because I experienced the scarcity in my own home and the blame was being put on the local merchants for lack of distribution.
Can we in this House do something about the distribution of the supplies that we have? It is no good dealing with an imaginary supply. Let us make the 991 machine work smoothly with the supplies that we have. My criticism from my experiences in the Leek division is: (a) there seems to be a lack of co-ordination during an emergency between divisional and local level so far as the distribution of local supplies is concerned; (b) there seems to be some misunderstanding about the amount of cushion supplies to which a coal merchant is entitled; (c) in my district allocations of coal were cut 40 per cent. during Christmas week. I want to know why that was done at that time of the year when there were stocks at the wharfs which could have been used to give a supply and provide a little warmth and comfort at that festive time. The divisional level seemed to know nothing about the 40 per cent. cut.
Do not let us make party quips about these questions on nationalised industries. The nationalisation of the mines has come to stay, and far from expecting a colossal machine with a capital of £400 million to work smoothly in four years, we should remember, as I said the other day, that it has taken 20 years for I.C.I. to learn its administrative job; and I.C.I. has a capital of only £78 million. A £400 million machine needs a lot of administrative detail and at the moment it is working pragmatically. In this House we should evolve some kind of formula by which, not carping criticism, but constructive criticism from either side of the House could be brought to bear on the points at fault, so that corrections can be made. That at the moment, especially on the issue of allocation of supplies, does not appear to be available to hon. Members. They must act at the local level and work through to the division. I have nothing but praise for the promptness with which, at Birmingham, they answered my difficulties and helped me with the allocation of supplies for the Leek district.
§ 8.40 p.m.
§ Brigadier Clarke (Portsmouth, West)
The hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) has shown clearly that the whole of the coal maladministration this winter has been due to the Government. There has been a cushion; there has been plenty of coal. The only drawback is that the Government did not know how to distribute it properly. That is what he has said. That may be so in his district.
992 In my district the difficulty is more the price the people have to pay for the coal. Before coming to that point, I want to tell the Parliamentary Secretary that I will not give him any sums to do. I shall not ask him to multiply 50 over the Border with 30 below the Border. In June or July of last year, I remember his trying to tell us that petrol at 3s. a gallon was really cheaper than it used to be when it was 2s. a gallon. He made a very good effort then, and no doubt tonight he will succeed in telling us that we have had plenty of coal but we did not really know it.
Since the nationalisation of the coal industry, a number of people in the south have felt that we should have coal in the southern region at the same price as is paid by those who live near the mines and the pitheads. People think that now we own not only the coal mines—which is a doubtful pleasure—but the railways, there is no reason why we should pay more in my constituency of Portsmouth than the people pay in, say, Nottingham. There is good weight behind that argument. The old age pensioner and the war widow in the south get no more money than the same type of people who live in Nottingham or the coalfield areas. Why should they pay more?
It may be said that coal has always been more expensive in the south because of the rail charges. That may be true of coal before nationalisation; but there are many examples of private enterprise, including cement, sugar, and other articles, which are distributed throughout the British Isles at a flat rate. It is no more expensive to buy cement in Edinburgh than it is in Portsmouth. I see no reason why my constituents should pay more for this commodity. Not only are the people asked to pay more, but such industries as we have in the south are at a similar disadvantage.
The result is to make the cost of living in the south more expensive than it is in the north. The increase in the cost of coal by 4s. 2d. a ton, which was mentioned in the last debate, will put up the cost of transport, and once more the cost of living will rise. I should like to draw attention to the reasons given for the increase in the cost of coal. This extract from the OFFICIAL REPORT makes interesting reading. When the Minister of Fuel and Power was speaking in the 993 debate on 1st February, the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Sir P. Macdonald) intervened:We are told that while imported coal is being unloaded at one part of a dock, at another part of the dock coal is being loaded for other parts of the world, such as the Argentine, at a lower rate. It that true?He got the answer:Yes, it is true. A very small quantity of coal is being exported.When the Minister was asked how much coal was being exported, he replied:About 100,000 tons a week.He did not say for how many weeks this had been done; and 100,000 tons of coal a week for 52 weeks is quite a lot of coal. The Minister added:It is a very low rate.Later he said:The Government have agreed that this increase will operate from Monday next. …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st February, 1951; Vol. 483, c. 1115.]Is it not a fact that that was due to exporting coal when there was no cushion? If there was one, it must be blamed on distribution; if not, then it was due to the fact that the Government exported this coal without proper foresight and regard to the country's requirements this winter. Finally, I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to look into the question of a flat rate throughout the country. I understand that we are to get a flat rate for electricity and gas before many years have passed, and I ask him whether it is not time that the Government produced a flat rate for coal.
§ 8.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Fernyhough (Jarrow)
I should not have risen to intervene in this debate but for the fact that the hon. Member for Mitcham (Mr. Carr) spoke about the need for priorities and accused the Government of failing to face up to this question. A week or 10 days ago, a Prayer was moved by the Opposition to annul regulations dealing with advertisement lighting. The Minister of Fuel and Power had introduced the regulations, of course, in order to see that coal was not wasted on anything that was not actually necessary. On that occasion, hon. Members opposite were very concerned that the glaring lights of London should still be kept on, notwithstanding the fact that it might mean that we should have to face a shortage of fuel for the fac- 994 tories, which would mean loss of production and unemployment.
It seems to me that, while this has been a non-party debate generally, it is necessary, when hon. Members introduce points of that kind, that they should face up to the real issue, which is whether or not, with limited supplies which cannot possibly meet all our commitments and demands, we can in any way improve upon the present method of distribution. I think that those hon. Members who have spoken so feelingly and knowingly on the hardships of the sick, aged and young children are doing a service for the constituencies of all hon. Members, as cases of that kind are to be found everywhere.
I should like to be assured that, when the coal merchant receives a doctor's note or a note from the fuel overseer, it is possible there and then for him to meet that note by means of a special supply and without taking coal from some other regular customer, who is probably just as badly off and waiting for his own supply. I am told that that is not so, and that it is not always possible for coal merchants to meet their regular commitments and at the same time to meet the claims put forward as the result of a note from a doctor or from a local fuel overseer.
I do not think it would mean many thousands of tons spread over the country for stocks of that kind to be available to meet emergencies. If it could be arranged for one coal merchant, or a group of merchants, in an area to have a stock of 10, 20, 30 or even 50 tons of coal available, to be supplied only on the issue of a medical note or a note from a local fuel overseer, I think it would go some way towards meeting the hardship cases and personal difficulties which we know exist. I hope it will be possible for the Parliamentary Secretary to give consideration to the various points which have been put forward in a most helpful manner in this debate, in order that the difficulties experienced this winter shall be avoided next year.
§ 8.49 p.m.
§ Mr. H. A. Price (Lewisham, West)
I want to contribute two points to this very beneficial debate. First, I want to reinforce what has already been said about the difficulties of the aged and the sick. This question has been brought to my 995 notice twice in the last few days; first, last week, when I happened to be having lunch with a clergyman, and, secondly, in my post today, when I received a letter from an old age pensioner complaining about the price of coal and the difficulty which she and others in her position have in finding the money to pay for the extra coal they need during cold spells.
The clergyman told me that he was genuinely distressed at the number of times during the last five or six weeks that he had been called in to administer the Last Sacrament to an elderly sick person who was dying in a room in which the fire was little bigger than a candle. The problem divided itself into two parts. Sometimes, he said, they just could not get the coal, but, at others, even if they could get it, they could not pay for it.
I imagine this is a problem not so much for the hon. Gentleman who is to reply as for his right hon. Friend the Minister for National Insurance, but I feel that the possibility of helping these people to acquire the coal they need should be investigated. After all, we help the old age pensioners to acquire cigarettes and tobacco at a reduced price. We give them special coupons to enable them to obtain those commodities at below normal cost. Why cannot we do it in the case of coal? It seems to me it would not be impossible to work out some such scheme.
§ Mr. Manuel
The hon. Gentleman has raised a very interesting point, but I would point out with regard to aged people or people in very poor circumstances, and certainly in the case of aged old age pensioners where there is only the pension of 26s. a week for a single person and 42s. a week for a man and wife, that there is an augmentation of the pension in respect of rent and coal up to something over 50s. a week.
§ Mr. Price
The hon. Member is tempting me along political lines which I do not mean to follow. I am not talking about the cost of living, but I am sure he knows that old age pensioners, even with the increments to which he has referred, find it extremely difficult to make both ends meet. Coal has just been increased in price, thus making matters more difficult still. Surely, the aged sick 996 are entitled to a little comfort in their last few days. The same clergyman told me that in some cases the doctor had said that if the patient could have been kept warm, he or she might have lived a little longer. I am not suggesting that he would have recovered, but I was certainly given to understand that it might have helped him to live a little longer; it was not put higher than that.
A problem which exists in my constituency, and one which I am sure exists in the constituencies of a good many hon. Members opposite, is in connection with large blocks of municipal flats where the storage of coal is very difficult. I would like to tell the Minister of an instance which occurred in my constituency early in January. I received a telephone call from a man who lived in one of a block of over 900 L.C.C. flats. He was a married man with a wife and two children. His wife and children were all ill with influenza and had not had a fire for a fortnight because he could not get any coal. He asked me if I could help him to get some.
It is really surprising how difficult it is to help in such a case; one comes up against a maze of regulations. I got on to my own coalman, but he could not help because the man was not registered with him. I asked if he could have some from my cellar, but I was told that would be illegal because the allocation was made not to me, but to my household, and that therefore it would be illegal to transfer it to anybody else. However, I eventually solved the problem, but I shall not tell the House how I solved it as, otherwise, the Minister might send somebody along to see me. I warn the Minister that if he does, I shall say to whoever comes along, "I don't understand your questions." I suggest that when we have a severe spell of weather and coal is in short supply, instructions should be issued to regional and local coal offices for the regulations to be administered with the maximum of flexibility.
I should like to carry a little further the matter I referred to earlier. My friend the coal merchant told me that he would have gone quite willingly to the coal dump at Greenwich on Saturday morning, loaded his lorry with 60 sacks of coal and taken it to the estate and delivered it had he been allowed to do 997 so, but he would not have been allowed. Over 900 families on that estate, as far as I can see, had no coal delivered for a fortnight in that cold spell. Surely that calls for a relaxation of the regulations.
Would it not be possible during such a period—and we are told that such periods are likely to recur during the coming years—to issue an order throughout the fuel distribution system to put an emergency plan into operation? I am sure that with proper safeguards a system could be devised to allow a coal merchant to go into the coal dump and draw 60 sacks and deliver them to the estate to help these families who otherwise would have no coal at all. I am not an expert on this subject but such a scheme ought to be possible and I am sure that if it is possible I can rely upon the Minister to give it his serious consideration.
§ 8.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Burke (Burnley)
May I ask two questions? The first is whether the Parliamentary Secretary can tell us if a doctor's certificate is really essential in every case. There are cases of people suffering from rheumatism who are chronically ill but who are not being attended by a doctor. They are entitled to an allocation but they cannot always go to the inconvenience of calling a doctor to provide a certificate. Are the regulations sufficiently flexible to allow them to dispense with a doctor's certificate?
My second question arises out of a case brought to my notice this morning of two people aged, I think, 79 and 80 who were quite ill. Their vicar called on them and found them without a fire. He applied to the fuel overseer on their behalf and he was told by the officer that they could not have coal, although their infirmity was recognised, because they were not in bed. I should like to know whether that ruling is part of the regulation. If the officer was wrong the matter ought to be put right. If the fuel overseer was right, the regulations ought to be altered.
§ 8.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd (Birmingham, King's Norton)
I think everybody will agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), has rendered a service by raising this subject. I was sorry that the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel)—
§ Mr. Lloyd
I listened to the hon. Gentleman's speech with some care. I cannot say I have an annotated version of it in my pocket. What I was about to draw attention to was not his first words but his last words, when he was working himself into a state of excitement about something my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, had not said at all. Finally, in an excess of great enthusiasm, he declared that the Socialist Government and the Socialist Party had made a jolly good job of coal. He seemed to take great offence that we should bring any criticism against the Government, but we have our duties as an Opposition and this House is historically a place for the airing of the grievances of the subject against the Executive. I do not know that there is a greater grievance one can have in the midst of winter than that a large number of His Majesty's subjects should be in a considerable state of hardship because of lack of fuel.
§ Mr. Lloyd
They are included amongst His Majesty's loyal subjects, I hope. Therefore, I think hon. Members opposite must allow me to say that if we are to get this problem into focus, as I think the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Harrison), said earlier, we must look at it in the larger context of the coal situation, at least from one or two aspects.
We are really in a crisis within a crisis. In the autumn we had the coal crisis approaching, and apparently the Government did not foresee it, but we are now in a second crisis as a result of their continual lateness in taking measures to try to meet the crisis. We can see that in regard to big matters and small ones. In the largest matters we see it reflected in the importing of American coal. The Government took that decision late. They could not get the ships quickly enough, and the result is that, although the Government told us time and again that the real crisis of the year would be in February and March, not all this coal, which is being specifically imported to help us to meet this crisis which the 999 Government so lately realised was to come upon us, is going to be here by that time. The hon. Gentleman himself admitted the other day that some of it will not arrive until April—some of it, I fear, not until towards the end of April.
In the small matters, we find that the speed with which the train services had suddenly to be cancelled by the Railway Executive led to the most farcical results. For example, a train which ran between Birmingham and Wolverhampton was cancelled. Somebody forgot it had been cancelled and turned up at the station to find that it was still running. It was known locally as the "ghost train." It turned out that the cancellations had to be done so quickly that, in fact, the train had to run for certain service reasons, although of course the public were not allowed on it.
On the question of priorities, it was my duty as Secretary for Mines at the outbreak of the war to bring in this system of priorities and to get the local fuel overseers appointed. I should think that the system which the hon. Gentleman will describe to us tonight is probably the same, basically, as that which it was my duty to establish all those years ago at the beginning of the war, with proper arrangements for the sick, the aged and other special cases. The House will probably agree that the local fuel overseers during all these years have done a very good job, but let us look at the conditions in which they have to do this job at present.
There is a system of priorities, whether an informal system laid down by the Government or whether at a later stage formally announced and enforced. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt disagree with me if I am wrong, but broadly speaking the Government above all, have to see that the public utilities, such as gas works and electricity works, do not fail if they can possibly avoid it. Therefore, the first stage of priority must be given to them, and is. I think it will be agreed that industry must come after the big public utilities. Up to the Christmas Recess, there was no case known of any works which were actually shut down through lack of fuel. I had a case in my own division in Birmingham of a factory which was going to shut down 1000 within three days. I telegraphed to the Minister and I am glad to say that he acted with some speed, and enough coal came from somewhere so that the works did not have to close down.
The point I want to make is that the person who comes at the end of the queue in this system of priorities is the domestic consumer. My hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) has given some figures of the tremendous reduction in the amount of coal which goes to the domestic consumer—about 15 million tons a year—as compared with before the war. This, incidentally, shows that we should treat with reserve statements which have been made from the opposite benches about not being able to buy coal in the past. Somebody, at any rate, bought the coal, and they were not all rich people. There is much less coal now going to the domestic consumers, and in a way we may say that, with all this system of priorities, when an extra squeeze has occurred, then, until the last 15 per cent. cut on industry, it has been the housewife who has taken the squeeze. If I may use a rough phrase, I would say that the Government are riding the fuel crisis on the back of the British housewife—and that is administrative failure.
When it comes to dealing with the sick and the aged, within the shortages of the domestic consumer, I believe that there exists a perfectly good administrative scheme. The only trouble is that the whole situation is impossible. When I was in Birmingham during the Recess—and I expect it is the same in other parts of the country—merchants told me that, on the whole, they were receiving enough coal to supply about two-thirds of the allocations to domestic consumers. We can see from that how much is the shortage. I believe that the local fuel overseers, and, if I may say so to the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown), the merchants themselves, are in a terribly difficult position in the existing situation.
I did not know, any more than did other hon. Members, that this subject was to be raised tonight, but it so happens that I have been making quite a few inquiries about it during the Recess and since. What struck me as a result of my inquiries was this. I do not believe that hon. Members on either side of the 1001 House, apart from those who have made a study of it, or the country as a whole—except for those who are suffering—fully appreciate the degree of the hardship which has been caused to the ordinary people throughout the country by the coal shortage this winter. In the homes it is going on quietly, and because it has become a sort of chronic condition the Press do not seem to pay much attention to it. If that sort of thing had happened before the war, there would have been a great outcry. Consumers have been squeezed a bit and squeezed a bit more and have felt it terribly, but they have rather taken it as a sort of normal accompaniment to winter under the present Government.
I was struck by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. H. Price), who did something which we are all very shy of doing. He introduced the question whether somebody had or had not died as a result of these conditions. Nobody likes to do that, but that is what my hon. Friend did, because he mentioned what a doctor had told him. It will be understood that that is something which none of us likes to do, because we naturally feel it would be taking advantage of the situation in order to build up the case too much. But I am not convinced that we are right in our attitude. I am not sure that it does not happen. I think we ought to be as concrete as we can in our examples, and I want to tell the House about some cases which I discovered in Birmingham during the Recess.
These are not necessarily cases which have been taken to the local fuel overseer, because we must realise that not all the old people put their cases to the overseer. That happens when a Member of Parliament comes along or when some other influential person realises the position, or when a doctor takes up the matter. But some of the old people are not quite so forward in putting their case, as is well known; in some cases they may not have the physical energy to do so.
First, here is the case of a lady and her husband in Sheldon Heath Road, Birmingham. They are old-age pensioners, 78 and 79 years old. The wife is suffering from arthritis. They were without coal—and I am now talking about the middle of January. Next, here is the case of a lady in Newborough Road who lived with her mother, who was aged 1002 79 years. She wrote, "We have no coal whatever and none will be delivered for another 14 days at the earliest."
§ Mr. Harrison
The right hon. Gentleman will admit that there is not only the question of the coal supply in Birmingham, but that in the last two or three months we also have had one of the worst transport problems in the country in regard to traffic into Birmingham. The transport problem also affects the situation.
§ Mr. Harrison
They are bringing more coal into Birmingham to the factories than ever before. Birmingham in the last 10 years has grown considerably, and there are not the siding facilities there for getting in the coal.
§ Mr. Lloyd
It has grown no more in proportion in the last 10 years than in the 10 years before. It has been steadily growing continuously for the last 100 years, and for the last 50 years at a very great pace, and yet somehow the facilities for the production and the transport of coal for that city kept pace with that development until recently.
Let me give another case. It is that of a lady who is bedridden in a downstairs room and who should have a fire day and night. She has been granted an extra allowance of 2 cwt. for the period from October to April. It seems rather small, but I am not making any complaint of that. But that was in the middle of January.
Since then, one of the most notable facts about the coal situation—no doubt, very much welcomed by the Parliamentary Secretary, and indeed by everybody here—has been the mildness of the weather. There was a sharp cold spell in the early autumn. In a way that was a concealed help to the Government, in that it stimulated them to realise what the possibilities might be at an early stage of the cold winter. Since Christmas, and in January, it has been mild. For example, the average daily mean temperature for the first four weeks—[An HON. MEMBER: "The right hon. Gentle- 1003 man must have been in the south of France."]—of the year was 40.8 F.—slightly lower than last year, but five degrees higher than that in January, 1947, which preceded the last major fuel crisis. I think that probably the hon. Gentleman would agree that five degrees of higher temperature averaged over a week means a saving of something like 160,000 tons of coal, which, of course, in only four weeks does add up to a tremendous total.
Therefore, I think this mild weather since the turn of the year has done more to help the fuel position in this country than any of these measures that the Government have so far taken. But what is particularly disturbing is that even though we have had this mild weather, the latest information that I have at the present time is just as bad as that which I have given for January. This is information which I received today. It just happened that I got it today.
§ Mr. Lloyd
This is from Birmingham still. I am sure, however, that it is typical of the rest of the country. Many hon. Members have given instances which, I think, are as bad as those I am giving. Of course, I am agreeing with the hon. Member for Ince in this one particular point, that people must not run away with the idea that it is only in the south of England that these bad conditions obtain. After all, we in Birmingham, like people in other places, are on the very edge of a great coalfield; yet nevertheless we are getting these conditions—
§ Mr. Lloyd
—colder than in Birmingham, but we are in the middle and in an average position, and therefore, I think we are, on the whole, representative of the country.
Here is a case of an old age pensioner who has been without coal for two weeks. I am toldMr. Jones tells me that his wife is often ill, and up to the present has been in bed 1004 for five weeks. The bedroom is heated with a small gas fire and that, together with their bit of cooking, burns 3s. worth of gas per day, or 21s. worth per week. They have no coal at present, and so he stays up in the bedroom with his wife to try to get a little warmth. They are both elderly, and their three grown-up sons go out anywhere at night where they can get warm.Here is another case of an old age pensioner without coal. This one has been bedridden since November. That case has been taken up with the fuel overseer. There is the case of a Mrs. Green who has been without coal for three weeks. She has four children, and one child under 12 months old is ill. Though they have done everything, they have not been able to get coal. Another lady, ill with 'flu, has no coal. I will not weary the House with more examples, but those are the sort of complaints coming from all over the great City of Birmingham, upon which we depend so much for our exports and also for our re-armament.
There is no doubt in my mind, having discussed this with the coal merchants, that the lack of coal has been one of the causes of a considerable increase in the consumption of electricity and gas. There can be no doubt about it at all. In the Recess, in my division I was met all the time by people who, in discussing the coal situation, told me they had no coal but they had been lighting the gas oven, leaving the oven door open, sitting in the room and trying to keep warm in that way. The result was that they had to put so much money in the gas meter—these were all working-class people, I may say—that the gas meter had got choked up and a man had to be sent from the corporation to unchoke the gas meter in order that they could resume this unfortunate improvised, socialised method of keeping warm.
I do not want to continue this further by talking too much about coke, but the coke queues at the Saltley and Nechells Gas Works have become a sort of feature of Birmingham life; people come there with prams, boxes on wheels and stand in queues. The reason undoubtedly is that carburetted water gas and petroleum have been used to help out with the coke, and there was no coke left. Somebody in the Ministry of Fuel and Power—I cannot tell whom—has brought down some coke from the north-western district. Perhaps I ought not to reveal that, as there might be some trouble over 1005 it, because I believe they are a bit short there.
This is a serious human problem, and I should just like to mention to the House an incident which took place in Birmingham, which if it were not tragic would be rather humorous. Last Thursday night the Birmingham police received a message to say that some people were stealing a road in Garrison Lane. The police went out and found that this was a wood block road, and that in order to repair the road workmen had been taking up the wood blocks. I gather that visibility was not particularly good and people from the district apparently descended upon the road and in almost no time the road blocks had disappeared. Although in describing this incident the Birmingham Press was extremely careful to say "It was alleged that fuel seekers had stolen the wood blocks," it was fairly clear that the suspicion was that, owing to the fuel shortage and people being very cold, the road blocks disappeared. The police came and there were still a few road blocks left; the police gave it up and went away, and the people came back and took the rest of the road blocks. One of the workmen said "The raiders must have worked like Trojans to take away so many blocks."
§ Mr. Yates (Birmingham, Ladywood)
Surely the right hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that in the City of Birmingham there is a widespread shortage of the kind he has indicated? Surely the Members of Parliament for the city had a long conference with the fuel overseer, and people in need through illness and other special cases had their applications dealt with. What the right hon. Gentleman is saying is quite fantastic.
§ Mr. Lloyd
It is very interesting that the hon. Gentleman should take that line. It is true that some of the Socialist Members for Birmingham had a conference with the local fuel overseer, although they had not been particularly active in bringing the matter up in this House at an earlier stage when it might have been useful to do so. So far as I am aware, the local fuel overseer in Birmingham has been doing a thoroughly good job in the very difficult circumstances in which he has been placed.
§ Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Erdington)
Is the right hon. Gentleman 1006 not aware that the supply of fuel to Birmingham for domestic allocation has been slightly more than last year? I think that the right hon. Gentleman is trying to convey the impression that the circumstances in Birmingham have been growing more difficult, whereas they are precisely the same as they have been for many years.
§ Mr. Lloyd
If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to take the responsibility for regarding it as something which is reasonably satisfactory that conditions which have existed in Birmingham this year have been more or less the same as those which have existed over the last few years under his Government, he is welcome to that view. I tell him that the situation in Birmingham last year, and in many other parts of the country, was extremely bad for the domestic consumer, which reinforces my argument that we are getting into the habit of accepting this chronic under-supply to the domestic consumer as something normal under the rule of the Government supported by hon. Members opposite.
§ Mr. Lloyd
The hon. Gentleman is perfectly at liberty to give his opinion, and I have given way to enable him to do so. I take an entirely different view of the seriousness of this matter. I think that hon. Members who represent Birmingham constituencies would be doing a very wrong thing in representing the affairs of their constituencies if they gave the impression that there was not grave hardship to the domestic consumers in the great City of Birmingham at the present time.
If the hon. Gentleman takes the view that he has dealt with all the cases brought to him, I am sure that he has, but the cases I have been giving to the House tonight are not cases which we waited to have brought to us. We have been visiting the homes, not from the 1007 point of view of the coal situation only. Our Unionist workers have been in the homes to see if there is any assistance that we can give to the people. We take the view that in present circumstances, when people are so much dependent on the actions of the Government, we are doing a useful thing, particularly with regard to old people who cannot get out much themselves, in going to visit them ourselves and taking the initiative. This process brings to light many real grievances which may not necessarily come to a Member of Parliament in his postbag.
§ Mr. Manuel
This is a matter with regard to sick and elderly people. Do I take it that the right hon. Gentleman is saying that the local fuel overseer has been approached by these individuals in these dire circumstances and that no visits have been made by the overseer in an attempt to relieve the position?
§ Mr. Lloyd
I was careful to point out that in some of these cases there may have been an approach and in others not. I was concerned to say that while I accepted that the administrative arrangements were good, in actual practice there are many people who are not being reached by the administrative mechanism, through one reason or another.
I conclude by saying that the hon. Member for Ince made a point—I know that he is usually very fair—which I should like to take up with him. He was inclined to blame the coal merchants because he said that no one ought to take on more customers than they could actually deal with. In principle, I entirely agree with him.
§ Mr. T. Brown
The right hon. Gentleman has referred twice to me. I accept his references in the good humour and fairness which he always applies. To me merchants and distributors are two different sections of the community. We have very few merchants in the north of England; they are nearly all distributors. I repeat that no distributor of coal ought to accept more registered customers than he can supply until he has taken steps with the fuel overseer to see that he gets a cushion allocation to meet their needs.
§ Mr. Lloyd
It may be that there is a slight difference in different parts of the country. What I am thinking of in 1008 Birmingham and the Midlands, as well as in other parts of the country, is where the person distributing the coal gets it from the colliery or at the opencast working. The point I want to make is the difficulty of a merchant in present circumstances knowing what his position is. He cannot be sure of getting the coal he ought to be getting in order to satisfy his customers. It is really quite a fight for some of these small people to get their supplies. A man may send his son out to the colliery near to Birmingham to get the coal, but quite often he has to come back without any coal and go back again the next day with his lorry at about 5.30 in the morning. This is not only a question of altruism, although they wish to supply these people; it is their business, and they cannot be sure from day to day how much coal they will get.
§ Mr. T. Brown
The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly right in what he is saying. Exactly the same thing takes place in the north-west of Lancashire, which is in the heart of one of the largest coal-fields in the country. The coal distributors do exactly the same thing. They attend at the yard or at the wharf for their allocation of coal. The coal may not be available, due to a transport breakdown or a shortage of railway wagons, with the result that they have to go back the next day. That fortifies the point I am making, that no coal distributor ought to accept more customers than he can supply.
§ Mr. Lloyd
But the man does not know what coal he will get until he actually receives it, and therefore he does not know how many people he will be able to supply. However, I think the House can see the point that is being made on both sides.
I want to put forward a suggestion for consideration by the Parliamentary Secretary, although I cannot be sure whether it is capable of being worked out in practice. The summer stocking scheme is obviously a very good scheme, but every one has not got storage capacity. A great number of people in Birmingham have storage capacity, both in the old central areas and in the new housing areas, and thank goodness we are not a city with a great number of flats. I am not considering the sick for the moment, because sickness is something that usually comes on quite suddenly. I am thinking of the old age pensioners.
1009 What can be done from the practical point of view to help the old age pensioners who need assistance? Is there any possibility of these people having the financial resources with which to do this stocking up in the summer? I have questioned both the Minister of Fuel and Power and the Minister of National Insurance with a view to seeing whether it could be arranged for the assistance boards to make a supplementary allowance to these old people in respect of the increased price of coal. I suggest that it would be a very good thing for the country and for the old people if they could do a bit of stocking up in the summer.
It would mean that an administrative scheme would have to be worked out by which they could get an extra allowance in the summer. There would, of course, have to be safeguards. But, would it not be possible to enable them to pay for the stocking up of coal in the summer? I think it would be in the interests of the Ministry, as well as being useful for the old people, if we could perform this small act of alleviation. It would be a rather complicated matter to work out, but I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to consider it.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. Robens)
The debate was opened by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), who earlier spoke to me and asked me if I would mind his raising this matter and if I would be in my place. I undertook to be here. I understood that the debate was to deal with the question of priority deliveries and deliveries based upon medical certificates. However, we have gone very wide and I do not propose to wind up this debate as though it were a Supply Day or one of our coal debates; although I confess I am very tempted to do so because of the thoroughly dishonest speech of the right hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd), who wound up for the Opposition.
I say it was thoroughly dishonest, because as an ex-Secretary for Mines he should have known a lot more about this debate than he gave the impression of knowing. Instead of raising the cases which he said he had received when he was in his constituency, presumably from 1010 his agent, if he had taken the necessary steps those cases would have been dealt with, and the people today would have had their coal instead of being without. He only wanted to make cheap publicity in Birmingham out of people's hardship. He only wanted to use these people's cases as a weapon against the Government.
§ Mr. Robens
I am not finished yet. The right hon. Gentleman can come in later. I was interested to hear him say at the beginning of his speech that my hon. Friends were making this a political issue. Then he talks about queues at the gas works as though they were something new. When he and his right hon. Friends were in power the queues were at the labour exchanges and not at the gas works. I do not want to be controversial about this at all, and but for the intervention of the right hon. Gentleman I had no intention of being so. I do, however, regard it as thoroughly dishonest for him to say what he did say. It was also interesting to observe that my hon. Friend the Member for Lady-wood (Mr. Yates) said that when constituents made their complaints to him, he took their cases to the local fuel overseers and had them attended to. The fuel overseer is the only man who can do anything about it and the right hon. Gentleman knows that very well. He does not, however, do that, but he brings his cases to the House.
§ Mr. Lloyd
The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. I am continually in touch with the authorities in regard to the alleviation of cases of the kind, which were the purpose of my visit, and though the hon. Gentleman is entitled to use the strong words of controversy, he is not entitled to say that I do not want to help these people.
§ Mr. Robens
I am entitled to judge the right hon. Gentleman by his actions and his words in this House tonight, and I say it comes ill from him to charge my hon. Friends, when they have got their cases dealt with by the only person who can do anything about it. The right hon. Gentleman preferred to raise the matter here, and I believe he raised it not in the desire or in the spirit of his hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, but to make this a matter of political controversy. If the right hon. Gen- 1011 tleman really wants that, we can have a day for this matter, but, because of the way in which this debate was raised and because of the manner in which I was approached earlier today, I do not think he was entitled to turn it into a political and controversial subject.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned a lot of things which have nothing to do with the matter we are discussing. He talked about American coal coming in April and said that that would not be much help. As an ex-Secretary for Mines he ought to know something about building up stocks and how we deal with summer stocks. He knows perfectly well that the coal from America will be of great advantage. The right hon. Gentleman need not try to wriggle out of it now. What he in fact said was that this American coal in April would be no use, and I say that he did not know his job as Secretary for Mines or else he was trying to hoodwink the House tonight.
§ Mr. Lloyd
There are limits to the extent to which the hon. Gentleman should be allowed to misrepresent me. I said that the Government had always taken the line that the acute crisis of the winter would be in February and March, and I pointed out it was naturally desirable to get the maximum amount of American coal to meet the crisis this winter. I always believed that this coal should be brought in for the winter crisis, and I argued that in coming in April, it would not help that crisis much.
§ Mr. Robens
The right hon. Gentleman is an ex-Secretary for Mines. He claimed tonight that he was the originator of the scheme. I should imagine that he knows more about it than to make that statement. He knows perfectly well that the end winter stock position is a very important—or does he? I wonder whether he does. At least if he did know, he would also know perfectly well that American coal in April was extremely valuable.
§ Squadron Leader Burden (Gillingham)
I should like to ask the Minister to explain the position and to say whether the only time one is entitled to expect a delivery of coal for household use is when there is a case of sickness or of old age in the family. That is what the Minister seems to imply.
§ Mr. Robens
The Minister has not said that yet. I have not yet even started to reply to the debate. I have only been trying to put the right hon. Gentleman right on one or two of his facts. When I have finished with the right hon. Gentleman the rest of the debate will be quite peaceful, as far as I am concerned. I think it has been a very interesting debate and the House is indebted to the hon. Gentleman who raised this matter. I am certain from what I have heard in this House as to the procedure to be adopted to deal with hard cases, that I shall be able to show that they can be dealt with.
The right hon. Gentleman ought to be an expert, because he is an ex-Secretary for Mines. In my humble opinion he has used tonight's debate for a pure, political joy-ride instead of dealing with the real matter that we were supposed to discuss. For example, what had the railway trains that had been cancelled to do with this matter? He knows that I am not the Minister responsible for railways. It was one of the right hon. Gentleman's pleasing little bits that he put in, in order to make his own side rather pleased and smile because they have not a lot to smile about in these days.
The right hon. Gentleman wanted to rally the housewives of this country to his side and so he made great play—very dramatic—with this squeezing of housewives. It was a very excellent show. It ought to be shown at the Palladium or somewhere like that, where it would be greatly appreciated by the audience. The right hon. Gentleman will not face facts. What he had to say tonight was not really new. I have said in this House not once, but many times, that the more one looks at the total availability of the coal of this country the more it is clear that the job of the Ministry of Fuel and Power is to allocate the coal so as to keep industry going.
The first thing one must do is to keep industry busy—the power stations, the gas industry and industry generally, export, bunkers, and so on. It is clear, and I have said so before, that the housewife and the domestic market are at the end of the queue. It is unfortunate that it is so. What is the alternative? The alternative is robbing industry to save millions of tons of coal—being warm at home, and 1013 out of work. There is no other alternative.
§ Mr. Nabarro
There is another alternative, as the Parliamentary Secretary knows very well, and that is greater efficiency in the utilisation of coal in industry.
§ Mr. Robens
I would not say that by greater efficiency in the use of coal we could not save this country many millions of tons, but that is a long-term matter. The fact remains that that is our choice. It is very little realised in this country that today we burn more coal than ever before in our history. More industry and greater productivity are the reasons. If we take large quantities of coal from industry, it inevitably means that while we might help the domestic market we should rob industry, which would not be able to work full time.
§ Mr. Robens
We have had many debates on coal in this House. No one has ever disagreed with the general contention that we require the production of very large extra quantities of coal every year. I hope that we shall go on requiring more and more each year because if we do, and if we use it efficiently, British industry will be on the upgrade.
I turn to the principal matters with which this debate is concerned, namely, what arrangements are made to prevent hardship either in the case of old people or people who are ill and need extra warmth. I wonder if the House realises just what the general scheme of things is in relation to coal allocations in the domestic field? Do they know, for example, that from the point when the allocation is made globally by the Ministry of Fuel and Power, it is the merchants' own organisations which take charge? I do not think that that point is sufficiently well known in the country.
One must pay tribute to the merchants for this work that they do. They have the house coal scheme, and it is officered by the merchants themselves. We are indebted to very many men in all parts of the country, busy business men in the coal trade, who do this work voluntarily in many regions. They are first class people whom I have met many 1014 times during the time I have been at the Ministry of Fuel and Power. It is a good thing that the final allocation of coal should rest with the merchants themselves. Every individual case must be different from another, and only the merchant who is serving is really in a position to say what the precise requirements are.
It is perfectly true that there must be, in addition to that, a machine which can meet hard cases. In the first place, therefore, the Ministry allocate the global amount of coal for the whole country. The house coal scheme, which is the merchants' scheme and is a merchant-operated scheme, then allocates those supplies or rather breaks down that total and supplies each merchant with an allocation of coal. In making allocations under the house coal scheme account is first taken of the number of registered consumers and then the figure is weighted by the amount involved in licences in the previous period. So a merchant who has had a number of licences during the previous period, has his coal supplies added to by reason of that fact.
In addition to that, there is a certain amount of coal known as cushion coal, which is available to be shifted about from week to week into areas in case of an emergency. It is not possible to move cushion coal to the extent of a ton here and a ton there. It is for an emergency within an area. For example, if for some reason or other Birmingham was suddenly without coal, the cushion coal would have to be brought in by all sorts of methods, using not only normal methods of transport but road transport, etc., in order to meet the emergency. There was, for example, a case when the Thames overflowed its banks and flooded an enormous number of houses. That was an emergency. There was no question about not getting coal to the people concerned to enable them to dry out their homes. Cushion coal was used in that area to meet that emergency.
In addition there are two kinds of certificates which are issued by the local fuel overseer, and any person is entitled to go to him if they are in difficulty about their coal supplies. There are two certificates. One is for the person who needs a quick supply; in other words, in a case where they are completely out of coal and what 1015 is required is an immediate supply to keep things going. It may not be additional to the maximum permitted quantity, but it does mean that if the consumer is without coal, the local fuel overseer is enabled to give a priority certificate and the merchant has to deliver quickly the supply of coal for that person.
§ Mr. Angus Maude
Is there any sanction on that? I am not clear about that. Is there anything to secure that the merchant does in fact do it.
§ Mr. Robens
Yes, I am coming to that. The second certificate is a licence which enables the consumer to buy coal over and above the maximum permitted quantity.
How are these priority certificates given? They are usually given on medical grounds but it is not necessary to have a medical certificate. The local fuel overseer, knowing the facts of the case, is enabled to use his discretion in connection with the issue of a certificate. It is obviously to his advantage in making the decision if there is in existence a medical certificate; but there is nothing in the regulations that he should not give a priority certificate merely because a medical certificate has not been forthcoming. The hon. Gentleman wanted to know if there was anything in the regulations which said that elderly persons should not have additional quantities unless they were bedridden. That is not accurate. The local overseer is able to issue coal to old people where their circumstances warrant it.
§ Miss Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
Can the Parliamentary Secretary say what actually is the age limit? In our part of the world I have been told that one has to be 80 before being regarded as old.
§ Mr. Robens
I think that would be quite wrong. No one has laid down in the regulations that it should be one age or another, and there is an enormous amount of discretion given to the local fuel overseer. I should have thought that "elderly" people were people who were not working because of their age; and as a consequence were at home all day and would naturally use more fuel than persons of the same age who were out at work all day.
Here is a really interesting point about the regulations which have been 1016 laid down and which makes it clear that every merchant in the country knows about these regulations. I have here in my hand a circular sent out by the director-general a the house coal distribution scheme to all the registered coal merchants so that they are well aware of what happens. For example, the first certificate which can be given by the local fuel overseer is a certificate in order that a supply should go into a home where coal is urgently needed because they have not any coal. The amount usually is not more than two cwt. for an emergency and the certificate must be honoured by the coal merchant within 48 hours. People need not wait three weeks or since last September—
§ Mr. Robens
I am coming to that point. The coal merchant must make delivery within 48 hours in every case of that kind where coal is required. If the consumer is not suffering hardship—as in the case of people who are ill in bed, who have a small stock of coal which clearly will not last out long enough or for the length of the illness—then coal must be delivered within seven days. This is rather interesting from the point of view of the flexibility of the scheme. In normal circumstances a merchant may only supply a registered consumer. If the merchant with whom the person is registered cannot carry out the delivery, in the first case within 48 hours and in the second within seven days, what are his instructions from the house coal scheme?Where a merchant is unable to make any priority delivery within the specified time he must arrange through the depot manager for another merchant to do so.In those cases, therefore, the other merchant who is able to supply may do so, although he is supplying a consumer who is not one of his registered customers.
Administratively we have met the situation. All that remains is the hon. Gentleman's interjection, "If the coal is there." While it may be that, from time to time, a depot may have cleared its coal, there is always coal in the pipeline. The period of being without coal may be one of a few hours or a day, but usually not much more than that. There are very few, if any, merchants who could say that 1017 they had been without coal for so long that they could not carry out this regulation. Obviously, one of the problems that faces the merchant is that he may have the coal, he may have some stock, but his delivery staff may be away with influenza, he may have a shortage of staff or his transport may have broken down.
It happens frequently that coal is at the depot, but the merchant is unable to get it from the depot to the consumer.
§ Brigadier Clarke
Will the hon. Gentleman admit that I, with other hon. Members wrote him a letter pointing out that the system had broken down and that the merchants could not get coal? We said that it was not a matter of going to the depot or not having transport. What the Minister is now reading is all theory—"You can have it in seven days; you can have it if you are sick." The point is that the coal was not there so they could not have it.
§ Mr. Robens
The hon. and gallant Gentleman does talk foolishly in this House from time to time. One would have imagined that sensible people would be taking part in this debate.
§ Mr. Robens
One would imagine from what the hon. and gallant Gentleman says that there was no coal for the domestic consumer.
§ Mr. Robens
In the last calendar year, 1,600,000 tons more coal was supplied to the domestic consumer than in 1949.
§ Mr. H. A. Price
I am sorry that I missed something which the hon. Gentleman said. He said that an emergency certificate could be issued upon which the merchant had to deliver within 48 hours. After that he said something about seven days. I did not catch that because my attention was distracted. Would he repeat it?
§ Mr. Robens
The reference to seven days was when there was a shortage of fuel but no undue hardship. In other words, someone may be ill but the amount of fuel which they have would last for a few days. The merchant knows 1018 that he must deliver the required amount of coal, and he is allowed seven days in which to deliver it.
§ Mr. Powell
I take it that there is nothing to ensure that the certificate for extra coal, which is the second type to which the Minister referred, is in fact met with extra coal and not merely by bringing forward part of the allocation?
§ Mr. Robens
I have explained that if it is a certificate for urgent delivery, it does not mean that extra coal will be supplied. If it is a licence, then it is for extra coal. Assuming that there was illness in a house and the people got certificates merely to expedite the delivery of their permitted quantity, they would come to a point when they had no coal. Then they would get a licence for extra coal.
§ Mr. Powell
But that overlooks the difficulty. I appreciate that it means that over a period of three or four months they may get their allocation plus "x," but it does not mean that in fact week by week over the period of the illness they will get twice as much coal into the household.
§ Mr. Robens
Yes, it does, if the delivery is expedited. If it is not expedited then the householder should see his coal merchant. If the delivery is expedited, their maximum permitted quantity will be reached much more quickly, in which case licences can be granted for an extra quantity, and they would, in fact, be getting coal as and when required. Until the permitted maximum has been reached, there is no point in giving them extra coal. If the hon. Gentleman will look at that in HANSARD, I think he will get the sense of it.
§ Mr. H. A. Price
I am obliged to the Parliamentary Secretary for giving way again. He has referred to a document which has been distributed to the coal merchants. Is it possible for hon. Members to get copies, and, if so, where?
§ Mr. Robens
If hon. Members would like to see it, I see no reason why it should not be distributed. It does not belong to the Ministry of Fuel and Power, but I am perfectly certain that the director-general of the house coal distribution scheme—this is really the merchants' scheme—would be very glad to 1019 let hon. Members see it if they wish. I shall contact the director-general to see if I can get a sufficient number of copies, in which case they can be sent to all hon. Members without application.
That brings me to my last point, I was saying that there are many cases in which the merchant has, in fact, got the coal, but cannot get it to the consumer because of his own problems of transport, and they really are difficult problems.
§ Mr. Robens
I can think of nothing more tragic or pathetic than a lot of old people sitting by fireless grates, cold and miserable, or people who are ill in cold rooms. It is important that all of us who are associated either with our constituents who need the coal or with the administration of this scheme should so operate the scheme as to distribute the coal that is available. I have made the point that this does not create any more coal for the domestic market, but we should make sure that what is available is so distributed that we take care of these cases. That is absolutely right.
I would add that, without wishing to stop hon. Members writing to me about particular cases, if their political agents in their constituencies or they themselves have got cases of this kind, if they will contact the local fuel overseer without delay, they will save much time and will get satisfaction for their constituents quicker than if they write to me and I have to get in touch with the division.
§ Mr. Alport
Reference was made to a scheme to encourage people who cannot afford to stock up during the summer to be able to do so, and I should like to know whether it might not be done by a system of vouchers for cheap coal.
§ Mr. Robens
The only scheme I know of is that which is run by the merchants themselves, who have what they call coal clubs. The Co-operative movement has a similar coal club, and probably that is the kind of thing which the hon. Gentleman means.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd
I think the Parliamentary Secretary is referring to a suggestion which I made that the hon. Gentleman should approach the Minister of National Insurance on the question 1020 whether the Assistance Board could not work out a scheme on these lines.
§ Mr. Robens
Why should we add to the bureaucracy and add to the administrative work and cause needless expense? If, in fact, the merchants are prepared to run these clubs, as many of them do, I think they will be encouraged to do so, though we do not want to be involved with any Governmental control.
§ Mr. Nabarro
I raised an interesting theoretical point about the total number of consumers multiplied by the maximum permitted allocations. Can the hon. Gentleman respond to that?
§ Mr. Robens
I am afraid I am not able to answer the actual point made by the hon. Member, but the fact is that, having got the global quantity, in this case about 31 million tons, the merchants supply coal below a line running from Oxford to the Wash at the rate of 34 cwts., and above that line 50 cwts. I will get the figures for the hon. Gentleman, and let him have them.
§ It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
§ The remaining Orders were read, and deferred.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Pearson.]