HC Deb 10 April 1956 vol 551 cc67-75

No furnace which is designed to burn fuel at a rate of five tons a week or more shall be operated after the appointed day except by a person who holds a certificate of proficiency of a kind approved by the Minister for the purpose of this section and any person who operates a furnace or causes a furnace to be operated in contravention of this section shall be guilty of an offence.—[Mr. Nabarro.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

5.15 p.m.

Mr. Nabarro

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

It is significant that in all the provisions which we have considered in the earlier stages of the Bill, none goes as far in fuel conservation and clean air matters as those which are extant in the United States of America. I can give the House a glaring example by reminding it what we decided to do in Clause 3 (2), which says: Any furnace installed in accordance with plans and specifications submitted to and approved by the local authority shall be deemed to comply with the provisions of subsection (1) of this section. In the United States of America they are much tougher about it than that. In New York, Pittsburg or St. Louis, every undertaking which wishes to install a boiler has to obtain the permission of the city authority, and then get the specification and plans approved. The plant is then installed and is subsequently inspected by the city authority. To add insult to injury, in the United States the firm which desires to install plant has to pay the full costs of the examination and all other processes associated with its installation. No part of the cost is paid by the city authorities.

Similarly, in all the principal industrial cities and States in the United States it is required that boiler men shall hold certificates showing that they have achieved minimum standards of proficiency. This matter was referred to in the productivity report of the Anglo-American Council on Productivity. On page 75 of its Report on fuel conservation it says: In America a number of States and cities have enacted legislation requiring every class of steam and power plant operator to possess the necessary qualifications for the job. A certificate of competence is obtained by examination. This is subject to renewal annually, and the continued competence of the man is thus assured. Not only so: the individual is encouraged to study and attain progressively higher standards. A man starting with a boiler operator's licence may ultimately step up to a chief engineer. Similar provisions are contained in the legislation of most of the Canadian and Australian States, and the Germans are also considering similar legislation. I ask hon. Members to consider whether Britain has fuel and power resources even equal to, let alone better than, those of the United States and Canada. In fact, our fuel and power economy today is facing a most difficult situation.

The new Clause is concerned primarly with coal. The earlier stages of the Bill, and our deliberations on them, revolved for the most part around fuel conservation considerations and methods of saving coal by greater burning efficiency. I have said on a good many occasions—and I have been supported by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides—that efficiency in the burning of coal connotes smokelessness, and the visual evidence of inefficient combustion of coal and solid fuel must be the ignition of dark and black smoke.

To cut short discussion on this Motion, perhaps I might be permitted to quote a passage from the Second Reading debate of the Private Member's Clean Air Bill on 4th February, 1955, for in a few short words it summarises the position: The poorest grade of coal may be burned in an industrial boilerhouse without the emission of dark smoke, providing that the boiler-house is equipped with a chain grate or other form of mechanical stoker, notably an underfeed mechanical stoker, providing that there is proper thermostatic control in the boilerhouse, providing that there is a correct draught to the boiler, of a primary and secondary character, and providing that the boilerman or fireman is himself fully trained. …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th February, 1955; Vol. 536, c. 1432.] I am not being in any way derogatory about standards of boilerhouse practice when I say that the standards of training of British boilerhouse operatives are notoriously low. They date from the time when coal was abundant and cheap and it did not matter very much if coal was wasted. In fact, in pre-war days there was no real economic need at all to save coal. Any measures on a national scale to save coal were generally opposed by the National Union of Mineworkers, for there were a large number of coal miners out of work at the time.

Today, however, we are in exactly the opposite situation. Coal production over four years did not increase; coal products last year actually fell by a substantial margin—by about 4 million tons compared with the three preceding years. We were obliged to import about 11,500,000 tons of coal which cost £80 million and caused a severe drain on our resources of foreign exchange, and a great part of that coal had to be hauled all the way across the North Atlantic. There can be no dispute that if our standards of boilerhouse practice and the firing of boilers, mechanically or otherwise, were raised within a measurable space of time, if a concerted effort were made in all parts of industry to train boilermen thoroughly and up to fairly high standards, a large amount of coal could be saved.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power may reply to the debate. I should like to remind him of the words printed in a document issued by his Ministry on 9th January, 1952. I will give him plenty of time to send for the document so that he can check the words. It had the reference E.F.A. (52) 5, and it contained these significant words: In reviewing the educational ladder erected a few years ago for the training of stokers"— a ladder erected by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) during his tenure of office as Minister of Fuel and Power— 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 million tons of fuel could be save 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 1st January. 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. I repeat the last few words: … shall be attended only by qualified licensed stokers. That was a recommendation of the Education Committee of the Ministry of Fuel and Power as long ago as 1952. It is a practice widely accepted in the United States of America, Canada, Australia and elsewhere—all countries which are very much better off in regard to indigenous supplies of fuel and power than we are in Britain.

It is therefore, my purpose to give some statutory effect to this recommendation made four years ago by the Ministry of Fuel and Power, and in doing so I should mention that the Ministry's recommendation of "ten therms or say two cwt. per hour" I have converted by assuming fifty hours of work per week for the average industrial boiler, assuming it is well damped down or extinguished overnight, and that fifty hours multiplied by two cwts. would give approximately five tons per week, which is the figure which I have included in the new Clause.

There must be overwhelming justification for a provision of the kind I recommend in the Clause if we have regard to what is being done by the National Industrial Fuel Efficiency Service. In its first full year—and I direct the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to the annual report on the first year's activities—the Service said that it had succeeded in securing the training up to City and Guilds examination standard of approximately 675 industrial firemen for boiler operator's certificates. I put those 675 men against the total number of firemen engaged in every branch of industry. As far as we are able to estimate, including the nationalised industries, there are 75,000 to 80,000 industrial firemen. Last year 675 of them reached the standard of the boiler operator's certificate.

I would not say for one moment that the whole of the remainder of these firemen are untrained, but a very large number are. A very large number have no skill or training whatever. They are the men employed on hand-fired boilers of which, sad to relate, there are still about 40,000 left in this country. Usually strong men—labourers or navvies—and I am not seeking to be derogatory—are chosen for this work. They are given a shovel and told, "There is a pile of coke or coal; there is the boiler; put that coal or coke into that boiler." These men have no skill at all. There is no mechanical control. There are no thermostats or other instruments fitted to the boilers, and the result is a prodigious waste of coal.

It was on that that the Education Committee of the Ministry of Fuel and Power was centreing its criticism when it made the statement in 1952 which I have quoted. The National Union of Mineworkers has been among the pioneers in this respect. As long ago as 1904 the Union required that no man should be employed in a colliery boilerhouse unless he held a certificate with a minimum standard of proficiency; yet it is extraordinary that when a trade union affiliated to the Trades Union Congress, namely, the Engineers and Surveyors Association, raised this at the T.U.C. at Margate in 1952 and asked for that National Union of Mineworkers' principle to be made universal in British industry, it was defeated by Congress.

In the following year when the same trade union, the Engineers and Surveyors Association, raised the same matter and put it on the agenda of the T.U.C., it was persuaded by the executive of the T.U.C. to withdraw the motion on an assurance that the T.U.C.'s Economic Committee would give close consideration to the matter with a view to improving standards of technique and training for industry's boilermen.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I want to correct him on one point. He has referred to the National Union of Mineworkers in 1904. There was no such organisation. It was the Miners' Federation of Great Britain.

Mr. Nabarro

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whose knowledge of mineworkers' union matters is infinitely superior to my own.

The appropriate trade union representing the miners has for 52 years past recognised the principle which I am expounding today, and it does seem a trifle incongruous that, although the mineworkers recognise that, they are not prepared to have that principle applied throughout industry generally. The National Coal Board has supplied me with some detailed figures in this regard, and it is significant that in 1951 about 11½ million tons of coal was burned in colliery boilerhouses. By 1956, that had been reduced by 3½ million tons—from 11½ million to 8 million tons—partly by putting in mechanical stokers to hand-fired boilers, partly by improved standards of technique and the training of industrial boilermen, and by other factors.

It is inescapable that a policy of clean air demands not only satisfactory and efficient equipment in the boilerhouse, but also that the boilerman himself shall be fully trained and absolutely proficient in the equipment he is operating. I have mentioned nothing about safety standards, but there are, of course, explosions in boilerhouses. There is a loss of life, and we would be well advised to have some regard to the fact that the men operating plant of this kind, given minimum standards of proficiency, might be able thereby to raise the safety standards in an important part of every factory.

May I conclude on this note? Opposition from the Trade Union Congress to a proposal of this kind has generally been to the effect that if it became a statutory requirement, it might so narrow the entry to a profession or craft as to cause either financial hardship or a measure of unemployment. I cannot accept either of these allegations. I do not believe them to be true. Anybody who knows anything about the burning of industrial coal will recognise that one could afford to pay a fully proficient industrial boiler-man 50 per cent. higher wages as a bonus to save coal and still make a huge profit out of what he saves. Firms which have given their stokers a big bonus for saving coal have reaped a rich reward from it.

The second point in regard to narrowing the entry to this particular calling or profession—the point about unemployment—I would meet by saying that this new Clause gives as a basis an appointed day some years hence. Of course, a measure of this kind would not be brought into being overnight. It must require four or five years to make the necessary training arrangements for the whole country. Of course, there would be some men who could not qualify, and I recognise that there would be some hardship in some directions, but a very large number of the men would qualify, given the incentive and given the training. I believe that we cannot make a policy of clean air for the next few years fully effective unless we tackle the proficiency standards of the men who are most generally concerned, who are these boilermen and firemen in general industry responsible for the plant in the boilerhouses.

Sir Albert Braithwaite (Harrow, West)

I beg to second the Motion.

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

I am sure that the House will agree with a great deal of what my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) has said. The House will agree with him that in this country we have lower standards than we should have, that it is necessary that boilermen and stokers should be efficient, that those who are not proficient should be trained or instructed, and that those who take the trouble to undergo training courses should have a certificate of proficiency. With all that none of us will disagree.

My hon. Friend, in support of his case, mentioned experience in the United States, Canada and Australia with regard to giving and, indeed, insisting upon certificates of proficiency. I must remind him that it is rather dangerous to generalise on that matter, especially as far as the United States is concerned, because I am advised that most of the certificates there are given to ensure proficiency in regard to safety rather than in regard to fuel economy or clean air. In this country, I can assure the House, the safety aspect of the matter is well cared for under the Factories Act, the Ministry of Labour inspectors and a well-established system. In this country, we also have a very much fuller system of voluntary training and certification already in operation than my hon. Friend referred to.

For example, my hon. Friend mentioned that in the annual report of the National Industrial Fuel Efficiency Service it is stated that 675 industrial firms were trained to boiler operators' certificate standard. But the complete story is a more impressive one. Instead of only 1 per cent. of the men now working having been trained, it is probable that the figure comes very much closer to 10 per cent. today. It may have been only 1 per cent. in 1952, the year for which my hon. Friend gave figures, but the position is that, since the war, very nearly 10,000 men have undergone training of one kind or another, elementary or advanced, practical or academic, specialised or general. In particular, under the course for the boiler operators' certificate, which was first introduced in 1953, by arrangement with the City and Guilds Institute the results have been as follows. In 1953, 144 men took the course and 115 passed it; in 1954, 756 men took the course and 590 passed it; in 1955, 666 took the course and 794 passed it; and in this year, it is expected that double the number of men will enter for the course as compared with last year.

Dr. Stross

May we have the last figures again, please, relating to the numbers who entered and passed in 1955?

Mr. Renton

In 1955, 966 men entered and 794 passed. I am sorry.

With regard to that fairly simple kind of course, which is essentially a practical one and one which can be taken by the men without too much effort, there is a steady increase to show. I do not propose to burden the House with all the detailed figures for the intermediate and final grades of the boilerhouse practice certificates which are organised by the City and Guilds Institute, but the balance of the figure of nearly 10,000 men trained since the war is made up by those who entered for the City and Guilds Training courses, and they too are increasing all the time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster wants to go much further than this practice, while developing the strength of voluntary training and certification. He wants certification made compulsory, and he wants to punish everybody who operates a furnace burning more than five tons a week, or who causes such a furnace to be operated, unless the operator of the furnace has a certificate of proficiency. Moreover, he wants most of the 75,000 to 80,000 boilermen to be trained before the appointed day. I am not quite sure what my hon. Friend meant by the "appointed day" in this case, and whether he suggested that a specially-appointed day should be arranged for the bringing into operation of the proposed new Clause.

Mr. Nabarro


Mr. Renton

That is my hon. Friend's intention. I see. I should point out that even if it were desirable under statutory procedure to introduce a compulsory licensing system of that sort it is fortunately not necessary to do so in order to carry out the purpose of the Bill. Clause 1 will make it illegal to produce dark smoke. If the stoker or boilerman is inefficient, dark smoke may be produced, and then the occupier of the building will be punished. Therefore the occupier will have to make sure that his stokers are efficient. The view of the Government is that the further sanction of compulsory certification is not needed.

For those reasons I am unable to accept my hon. Friend's Clause, but I assure him that the importance of proficiency among stokers is not overlooked and that the Ministry of Fuel and Power is in consultation with N.I.F.E.S. continually about the matter. There has been great co-operation on the part of industrialists and trade unions to get more men to undergo training. We are confident that, in view of the sanctions contained in the Bill, it is unnecessary to insert a further compulsory element.

Question put and negatived.