HC Deb 04 June 1951 vol 488 cc673-6
17. Mr. Redmayne

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power whether he anticipates that all qualities of house coal as defined by the new price structure will be available in each zone; and whether the consumer will have free choice of quality.

26. Miss Hornsby-Smith

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power under the new system of graded coal, what means are available to the consumer to enable him to ascertain whether he obtains the grade of coal for which he has paid.

27. Mr. W. G. Bennett

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power if, in view of the many differing qualities and prices of coal now being introduced, the consumer will have the option of procuring supplies of fuel from another merchant if the registered supplier has no fuel of the grade required available.

32. Mr. P. Roberts

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power whether he will make a statement about the new price structure to be introduced by the National Coal Board.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

Hitherto, the National Coal Board have supplied some hundreds of different grades of coal at different prices to the house coal market, and the price of each grade has varied in each district of the country according to the cost of transport and the cost of distribution by the retail merchant.

In agreement with the merchants, the Board have re-classified their household coals into eight groups, and each group will be sold at a uniform maximum price in each of about 60 zones. Thus coals of similar quality, however far they travel from the pits, will reach the householder in any given district at the same price. Coals in group I will be 5s. a ton dearer than those in group 2; coals in group 8 will be 5s. a ton cheaper than those in group 7. The difference between the other groups will be 3s. 4d. a ton.

These new arrangements will mean that the prices of coals delivered to the domestic market will be much more closely related to their quality than ever before. They will help to ensure that the householder gets what he pays for, and will make it easier for the merchants and the Board to deal with complaints about the quality of the coal.

Though in many regions all the groups of coal will be available, and in the rest nearly all the groups, there will be districts within a region where the choice of coal will be more limited. This may be for many reasons; for example, because the districts rely on local pits, or because they rely on sea transport from a special coalfield. The merchants will do their best to supply their customers with the quality for which the customers may ask, but it would be impracticable to arrange the transfer of orders from one merchant to another, nor do I think that the failure of a merchant to supply a particular grade of coal would normally be considered by the local fuel overseer to be an adequate ground for granting an exceptional change of merchant. It will, of course, always be open to a consumer to change his merchant at the beginning of a new coal year.

The merchant will be required to show the group number of the coal and the price on the delivery notes which he sends to his consumers. The schedules of qualities and maximum prices will be available for inspection in offices of local fuel overseers and of coal merchants. If any merchant charged more than the proper price for the coal which he delivered, he would be liable to prosecution.

Mr. Redmayne

What is the average overall price of all grades, having regard to the qualities that will be available in summer or winter? Is it not a fact that the average discloses that the price of coal to the consumer is increasing? Is the consumer getting better value or worse?

Mr. Noel-Baker

It is complicated by the fact of the transport and distribution costs of the merchants, but the pithead price—what the Coal Board receives—will, on the average, be about 1s. less than it is now.

Miss Hornsby-Smith

Can the Minister say how ordinary householders are to tell whether they are getting a lower grade of coal and paying a higher price for it?

Mr. Noel-Baker

It has been extremely difficult for them to do so in the past, and this arrangement will, I think, make it very much easier. They can always go to the coal merchant or to the local fuel overseer to verify what the price ought to be.

Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd

Can the Minister say what it is in this arrangement which is comparable, as a protection to the consumer in respect of quality, to the older arrangement by which the consumer could change his coal merchant or the coal merchant could change his colliery?

Mr. Noel-Baker

I am afraid that the abandonment of registration with the coal merchants is a very big affair, and that the merchants would strongly resist it.

Mr. P. Roberts

May I ask the Minister two questions? First, do I understand from him that the specifications of "quality boxes" are to be published? Second, may I ask, concerning the consumer who is involved in a longer transport haul, which obviously would increase the cost, where that extra subsidy is to come from? Does it come from other consumers, who get their coal on a shorter haul, or will it be borne by the railways?

Mr. Noel-Baker

It is to be averaged within the zone.

Mr. Roberts

Does that mean that the users of coal who at the present time live near a coalfield are to pay more in respect of their coal because of the longer haul to supply others?

Mr. Noel-Baker

Within their own zones, some may pay a little more and some may pay a little less.

Mr. Vane

When will it be possible for a person to order his coal direct from a colliery, as he used to be able to do, to avoid all these complications?

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

Has the right hon. Gentleman any particular grade of this new coal in mind when he speaks of special district difficulties in getting hold of the new coal?

Mr. Noel-Baker

In South Wales, I think that probably there are only to be three or four grades available. They will be the grades which South Wales people like to burn.

Mr. W. Robson-Brown

When the Minister made reference to quality in relation to price, did he relate that to the amount of dirt, ash and slate in the quality of coal, and can he say whether there will be any indication in the quality as to the percentage of these impurities?

Mr. Noel-Baker

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the amount of dirt in coal has been very greatly reduced indeed. If there is dirt it will count as part of the classification for quality.