HC Deb 01 December 1952 vol 508 cc1244-54

Motion made, and Question proposed. "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Studholme.]

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

Notwithstanding the fact that we enter this coal-winter with a larger stock of coal than in any post-war year—namely 19½ million tons—notwithstanding that exports of coal this year at 12 million tons will probably exceed last year's figure by 50 per cent., and notwithstanding that the deep mining output of the United Kingdom will probably exceed the output last year by a million or two tons, the need for fuel efficiency and conservation of coal remains a paramount consideration. Fortunately, there is no division of view on principles between hon. Members opposite and those on this side of the House, and we have debated the matter very fully in March of this year and again on the Ridley Report towards the end of October.

My purpose tonight is to draw attention to one important aspect of the recent Ridley Report, namely, the question of the status, the training and the standards of proficiency of boilerhouse staff and firemen employed in British industry. I think it is no exaggeration to say, though hon. Gentlemen in many parts of this House have been often inclined to contradict it, that an unskilled or, perhaps, partly trained boilerman can waste in a week as much coal as a skilled miner can cut. I did not originate that statement. It was made in the first instance by a professional body that had spent years investigating this problem, and that derived its information from a close examination of conditions of operation, particularly with Lancashire boilers in different parts of the United Kingdom.

From the improvement of standards of training of industrial boilermen we might expect very important results to flow; first, a reduction in dust and smoke emission in industrial areas; second, the improvement of safety standards; and third, coal conservation. In connection with those two first points, I intend to dwell on them only very briefly.

I may say that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mr. Edward Davies) placed before this House a most significant figure when he said in a debate on the Ridley Report on 28th October last that in the Stoke-on-Trent area 19.1 tons of solids were deposited per month on every square mile. That is probably the highest rate of smoke pollution anywhere in the United Kingdom. It derives, of course, in large measure, though not entirely, from inefficient stoking of industrial boilers.

In the second instance I mentioned, the safety factor, I may, perhaps, say, that a boiler is as much a lethal weapon as is a motor car or a shot gun. Fortunately, the rate of accidents with industrial boilers in the United Kingdom is lower than in the United States of America, and lower than in Germany—largely, due I think, to the arrangements made by our insurance companies in the last few years, and the admirable surveys and periodical inspections, carried out by their skilled staffs and technicians.

Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

Will the hon. Member forgive me? I think it would be right if I were to correct him by suggesting that in Stoke-on-Trent the pollution he mentioned would not be due to inefficient boiler firing so much as to the old, intermittent type of kilns, which are now disappearing.

Mr. Nabarro

That may be so. It is an associated problem, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree. I am concerned solely tonight with coal conservation. I appreciate that this whole problem bristles with difficulties of labour relations, of educational facilities, the status of existing boilerhouse staffs and operatives, and the availability of recruits, and it intimately affects many trade unions and the T.U.C. In fact, at Margate last year a resolution was placed before the conference by an associated union and was rejected.

It was, therefore, a somewhat controversial matter within the Trades Union Congress, and I believe that any settlement that is reached for raising the status of boilerhouse operatives in industry must take into account the legitimate fears of many trade unions in regard to the future employment of skilled men and semiskilled men who are at present engaged in industrial boilerhouses.

To give a few facts and figures in this connection, there are approximately 400 million tons of steam raised in Britain each year, out of which 130 million tons are raised in British industry, excluding power houses and public supply, at a cost of about £90 million. Of all that steam raised in British industry, only 50 per cent. of it is accounted for by steam raised on boilers that are mechanically stoked. The other 50 per cent. derives from hand-fired boilers.

Now this is a significant fact. In far too many industrial and commercial plants a hefty man is taken out of the yard, given a shovel, told there is a stack of coal or coke by the boiler and to shovel it into the boiler. I have myself seen industrial boilers without even a thermostat on them, with no sort of mechanical controls and no sort of skill exercised either by the man on the boiler or, in many cases, by the supervisory staff, who are equally indifferent. I do not blame the boilermen entirely; in many instances the supervisory staff are to blame.

In this connection, it is noteworthy that the Incorporated Plant Engineers in their evidence to the Ridley Committee, a copy of which they sent to me recently for the purpose of this Adjournment debate, wrote the following: Only about 1 per cent. of the total boiler-house firemen in this country have received adequate training in their craft. The T.U.C., in submitting evidence to the Ridley Committee, did not go quite as far as that, but I believe spoke in sufficiently emphatic terms to deserve the attention of this House tonight. They said on page 223 of the Ridley Committee, in Recommendation No. 25: A further point to which attention should be paid is the improvement of arrangements for training stokers. More efficient stokers can undoubtedly save a great deal of coal, and although greater efficiency is not wholly a matter of training, improved training arrangements could make an important contribution. That was emphasised by the F.B.I. evidence to the Ridley Committee, which said in equally strong terms: There is need for better education and training of those who deal with fuel and power in industry from the plant engineer to the boilerhouse operative. It is hoped that the Committee will survey the present educational and training facilities with a view to their expansion if necessary. In particular the Committee should consider whether in, say, five years' time, a scheme should be established for obligatory certificates of competence for boiler operatives. That was contained on page 213 of the Ridley Report.

The Ridley Report in this regard was, frankly, very disappointing. Without reading the whole of paragraph 186, where they survey evidence submitted to them, I think it would suffice if I refer to and quote only the Committee's Recommendation No. 23 in these terms: Stokers should be encouraged to raise their efficiency by arrangements for improving their status. This is evasive and feeble; quite inadequate to deal with a major industrial problem.

I should now like to quote what I regard as a much more authoritative view of this matter, because it comes from the Ministry of Fuel and Power itself. The Education Committee of the Ministry of Fuel and Power on 9th January, 1952, issued document E.F.A. (52)5, which contained the following words—and as this has come from the Education Committee of the Ministry, I think we may all regard it as being an authoritative statement on this problem: In reviewing the educational ladder erected a few years ago for the training of stokers, the Education Committee find that less than 1 per cent. of the stokers employed in the country have taken advantage of the training facilities. If the remaining 99 per cent. are given a basic training they believe at least 1,000,000 tons of fuel could be saved each year by efficient stoking. The Committee therefore proposes special training methods for stokers and, in order that such training may be fully embraced and become effective, recommends that a system of licensing be introduced through the country, whereby, on and after January 1st, 1955, or other appropriate date, boilers of a capacity of ten therms per hour (or say 2 cwt. per hour) and over shall be attended only by qualified licensed stokers.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

On a point of order. My hon. Friend is recommending something which, I think, would require legislative action, and, if I am correct, would that not be outside the rules of order?

Mr. Speaker

I have not understood that at the moment.

Mr. Nabarro

I apologise if I have strayed from the rules of order. I was quoting from an official document. From what I have said, I think that we may take it that there is irrefutable evidence from authoritative bodies that this is a problem that ought to be closely examined, and tackled at an early date, by the Ministry of Fuel and Power.

May I pay a short tribute to what the Ministry have done already? All of us know that the Ministry of Fuel and Power have been running in the last few years courses, by arrangement with technical colleges in various parts of the country, to which they have endeavoured to attract industrial boilermen. Last year's results are extremely interesting. One hundred and twenty-five such courses were held, and about 2,000 men were trained out of an approximate total of 80,000 industrial boilermen in the United Kingdom. At that rate of progress, it would take 40 years to put them all through a course.

These courses at technical colleges are not being fully subscribed today. In fact, one or two such courses have been discontinued through lack of support in industry. The Ministry, of course, through their mobile vans and similar arrangements, have given great attention to boiler plant, instrumentation, calibration, thermostatic control and many other aspects of boilerhouse practice. They have helped many industrial firms. But it is quite useless to put efficient and modern instruments into boiler houses if the man who is later to operate these instruments has not reached a standard of proficiency to enable him to get the best possible results from them.

In the nationalised field of our industries, for instance, the National Coal Board have done very useful work since vesting day. In the last five years they have organised courses for boiler-men. As hon. Members know, there are no fewer than 4,000 colliery boilers in the United Kingdom, 500 with mechanical stokers attached to them and 3,500 are hand-fired—but that is no reflection on the Coal Board. The Coal Board have organised their courses and they are well-attended.

Similarly, the gas industry and the British Electricity Authority have their own specialised courses for boilermen in their own industries. Over the whole range of British industries, however, the only courses really available, except in the case of large firms such as I.C.I., are through the arrangements which the Ministry of Fuel and Power have made, and they are not being fully subscribed and taken up by the industries themselves.

In other countries, very great progress has been made in this field. In the U.S.A., the majority of States, have already enacted legislation requiring every class of boiler-house operative to possess the necessary qualifications for the job, after which a certificate of competence obtained by examination viva voce and written, and renewable annually, is issued. This leads to a progressively higher standard throughout the country, of industrial boilerhouse firing and practice, and it gives industrialists confidence to intall new and efficient plant because they know that the men employed on the plant have the requisite standards of proficiency to operate it satisfactorily.

In Canada, the Operating Engineers Act (Ontario)—and I draw the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to it—has proved a model piece of legislation in this matter, and is being copied by other Canadian States. It follows closely the American practice.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member has kept so far to safe points of administration, but he seems now to be inviting us to follow some legislation in one of the Dominions.

Mr. Nabarro

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I will step from the Dominions to Western Germany, where no such legislation exists, but where a similar problem has attracted a great deal of attention since 1936. I looked up recently the Report of the Economic Commission for Europe, Coal Committee, Utilisation Working Party which records that between 1936 and 1952 no fewer than 16,044 industrial boilermen have been trained at 507 courses in 11 provincial centres. If one leaves out the war years and the years of post-war chaos, I think that by comparison with this country it shows a training rate three or four times as great, for boilerhouse stokers and staff.

A word about the attitude of the T.U.C. towards these matters. From my conversations with individual officials of trade unions and with members of the T.U.C., it would appear that their fears in this matter are that any system of certification might be regarded as an unwarranted interference with the right of entry into an occupation, or, indeed, the right for a good stoker to maintain his existing position. They would, of course, resent a call for examination to test their standards of proficiency. Many of them have been engaged in their craft for many years and many are highly efficient. But that only scratches the surface of the problem. There are thousands who have not reached the required standards of proficiency.

The T.U.C. consider that the whole problem is not only one of the boiler-house operative to raise his standards—and here I entirely agree—but it is also a question for the supervising engineers and for a more acute realisation of the need, on the part of maintenance engineers and executives in industry, right up to the managing director's chair, to appreciate the importance of the stoking problem.

I have never told the House this story before, but it is true. On going round a textile mill I asked at the end of my tour if the managing director who was taking me round, would take me to the boiler-house. He did so and I asked him a few questions. He did not know the answers, but said he would find out from his plant engineer. I asked him when he had last been in the engine house and he said he was not sure, but certainly it was not since the end of the last war. It was not a very large mill. It employed 500 or 600 people, and it would not have been an unduly arduous task for the managing director to go to the boilerhouse, occasionally. The plant was antiquated and the men operating the boilers had not received a reasonably adequate standard of training. That is the sort of problem which has to be tackled by the Ministry of Fuel and Power, the Ministry of Labour and the T.U.C. working in concert with one another.

I would make three specific proposals. I think that the Ministry of Fuel and Power, in conjunction with the F.B.I., the National Union of Manufacturers and and the T.U.C. must take urgent steps to secure that industry fills all the available places that there are available today, at the technical colleges, and the courses to which I have referred, for training industrial boilermen. The Ministry of Fuel and Power should take steps to enlarge those facilities so that similar courses may be available in the lesser industrial centres. At present they are available only in the major centres. If the courses could be increased, in their spread over the whole country, coupled with appeals and exhortations from the Ministry and the appropriate employers' associations, we might get more men flowing through these courses.

Third, I believe that the Ministry, in conjunction with the F.B.I. and the T.U.C., should enlarge by every means in their power the employment of increasing numbers of mechanical stokers, because the employment of a mechanical stoker reduces the human element of control. In the case of a hand-fired boiler the boilerman is wholly responsible for the efficient hand-firing of a boiler. In the case of a mechanical stoker the boiler-man is only 50 per cent. responsible and it adduces greater efficiency in firing.

I hope my hon. Friend will be able to assure us that, in spite of the rather feeble recommendations of the Ridley Report which does not meet the case, the Ministry are prepared to take appropriate and energetic action to meet the situation.

10.35 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. L. W. Joynson-Hicks)

I am sorry to have to cut short this debate by intervening now. This matter raises some interesting questions, and I know that hon. Members on both sides would wish—and would be well able to—to contribute towards a solution of this problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) and I are at one on what we want to achieve. The only difference we may have is on the best method to be employed.

I am grateful to him for having given us an opportunity to reconsider this question and me an opportunity to elaborate somewhat the brief remark I was able to make on recommendation No. 23 of the Ridley Committee's Report during the debate that we had on that subject. On that occasion, I said, with reference to that recommendation: … my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Labour is bringing to the notice of both sides of a number of selected industries the urgent need for increasing the efficiency of stokers."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 28th October, 1952 Vol. 505. c. 1871.] This is no new problem. Some hon. Members may not realise that it has been before industry since the last century. Some hon. Members opposite will be aware that it was as long ago as 1901 that the National Union of Mineworkers entered into an agreement for the certification of stokers. I mention that to indicate that this problem has been before industry and the trade union element of industry for a considerable time.

It is a matter which has received a great deal of thought. The aspect of fuel efficiency came much later. For reasons which are well known to the House, the importance of fuel efficiency was not really appreciated until the war. It was, therefore, about 1942 that there began this series of educational ventures to which my hon. Friend has referred which led to the starting of lectures on fuel efficiency in seven different centres. I think that this will help the House to get the picture in perspective. From that there developed, through the assistance of the City and Guilds of London Institute, the syllabus for a preliminary grade in boiler work.

Having established that, we were able to advance still further and the City and Guilds established a syllabus in the intermediate grade and then in the final grade. Then, again, there followed from that the grade of combustion engineering. My hon. Friend has given figures about the number of stokers and boilermen who have been trained in this country, but it is a little difficult to know exactly what he means by the word "trained."

There may be a certain element of difference between us on the qualifications to which he has referred. Since 1945 there have passed through the intermediate and final grade 1,336 men who had gained certificates. That may not sound a great many, but the number is increasing steadily every year. And, of course, to obtain the final certificate it is necessary to have a fairly high degree of competence and efficiency. There are many who pass the preliminary grade, who might well in other countries be recognised as qualified stokers, who are not included in that number.

Coupled with that, the Ministry itself took numerous steps to enlarge the scope of its educational policy by the issuing of literature, films, lectures, magic lantern slides, and so on. Numerous demonstrations, on the floors of factories and places where the boiler men were working, have been given on their own boilers and in their own factories, but I have no doubt that these men are not included in any existing category of qualified men, but have been taught actually on the job.

These educational facilities met with considerable success, and the reason for that was because they were approved and adopted and pressed on with by both sides of industry through their industrial organisations—by the British Employers' Confederation, on the one side, and the Trades Union Congress, on the other. We believe—and this is where I rather part company from my hon. Friend—that it is this aspect of getting industry to do the job itself which is the surest and most certain way of being able to achieve true and real efficiency.

I want particularly to enlarge for a moment on what I said in the previous debate as to what we are doing in connection with the recommendations of the Ridley Committee. It can be argued that compulsion is the quickest answer, but I think it is equally true to argue that it may not necessarily be the best answer. We feel that the way which we have initiated is far more in accordance with the traditions of industry in this country and with the way in which one gets the best results. Therefore, we are proposing joint consideration by the proper industrial organisations, and I may say that, as in the past, so now in the future, we look forward to very close collaboration and very considerable assistance from industrial organisations throughout industry.

In the first place, we intend to approach selected industries which have the larger numbers of boiler men in their employ.

Mr. A. Edward Davies (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

Will that include the Potteries?

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

It very likely will include the Potteries, but I am not prepared to say definitely whether it does or not at present.

There are varying conditions from industry to industry, and even within industries, and we do not want to fall into the error of making all people trained for all industries. We believe the best approach is to let the industries themselves feel their own way, working out together what is the best means whereby this result can be achieved, because one of the essential things is to get the interest of management in this job. It is no good having trained boiler men, certificated or not, unless management is also going to ensure that the incentive and opportunity are made available to these men to put into practice the knowledge they have acquired and which it is in the interests of management to use.

We feel that that is the practicable solution to the problem, and that by this means we shall get the interest of management and of men, with more efficiency, and that it will be for the two sides of industry to decide upon the future course.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Sixteen Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.