HC Deb 25 January 1956 vol 548 cc327-36

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

10.4 p.m.

Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)

First, I should like to express my best wishes to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power on his appointment to office and, through him, to his right hon. Friend the new Minister on his appointment. I ask my hon. Friend especially to note that during the period that he is in charge, with the Minister, of this Department we hope that he will be cognisant of the problem which I wish to raise tonight.

In raising the question of the decline in Welsh coal shipments I have in mind the effect on the Welsh channel ports—primarily the ports of Barry and Cardiff. The three hon. Members who represent the Cardiff constituencies have indicated to me that they fully support the plea which I wish to make. Indeed, they have evidenced their keen support by their presence tonight. They are deeply concerned about the turn which this matter has taken in recent months.

We do not expect a final answer tonight from my hon. Friend. We wish merely to be sure that in these early days in their new offices he and my right hon. Friend will be seized of the importance of this issue, that their minds are turned in the right direction; and we should like an assurance that every practicable step will be taken to find a solution. I appreciate that there are aspects of the trade of these ports—freight charges, communications with the hinterland, general cargo, and so on—which do not fall within the province of my hon. Friend. But the main aspect of the Welsh dock trade certainly does, because the South Wales ports have been, and are, primarily coal ports, Barry and Cardiff remarkably so.

Allow me to quote from Cmd. Paper 9359, the Report on the South Wales Ports which was prepared a year ago to this month by the Council for Wales and Monmouthshire. In page 6, paragraph 5, it states: In the busiest years of their history, just before the 1914–18 war, the South Wales ports handled 45 to 50 million tons of traffic per year, of which nearly 40 million tons was coal. In 1913, coal exports from South Wales represented 40 per cent. of the total exports from the United Kingdom. As the same Report states, in page 1: This development sprang from the need of improved facilities for the industrial traffic of the valleys and for the movement by sea of Welsh coal.… Indeed, Welsh coal was then famous the world over and so were the ports of Cardiff, and Barry from which most of it was exported. I do not refer to the ports of Swansea and Newport to the same degree, because they are blessed with a variety of general cargoes and are not affected to the same degee.

From Barry alone in 1913 more than 11 million tons of coal were exported, and even in 1938 the export of coal amounted to 5½ million tons. Since the last war the position has changed completely. In 1953, Barry exported only 2,236,000 tons, and Cardiff only 1,447,000 tons. I can assure my hon. Friend that I appreciate, as he does, some of the reasons for this decline—reduced national production and increased domestic and industrial demand—and that some of the imports of coal have brought some much needed relief to the ports. But I wish my hon. Friend to note another aspect of this question.

In 1938, South Wales produced 16 per cent. of our coal production per annum and exported 39 per cent. But in 1953, when South Wales still produced 11 per cent. of the total annual production, her exports had fallen to only 23 per cent. of all our exports of coal. Referring again to the Report, in paragraph 30, in page 11, it is stated: …there was a movement out of Wales of 7.6 million tons for home consumption in other parts of Great Britain. I should like to ask my hon. Friend who ordained this. Why is such a large proportion of Welsh production now moved overland into England instead of being exported by sea as before the war?

This position, I may say, existed even before the decision last year for a further reduction in our exports. I can assure my hon. Friend that there is uneasiness in the minds of many informed people in South Wales about this aspect, because some of the North-Eastern ports in England have maintained and sustained a remarkably high percentage of their prewar exports.

From this subject I can pass naturally to the decision which was taken last year to restrict coal exports still further. The hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) then questioned my hon. Friend's predecessor—the hon. Member for Chichester (Sir L. Joynson-Hicks)—on this subject. He asked the Minister to see that the reduction in coal exports was fairly shared among the coal exporting ports of the country."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1955; Vol. 546, c. 75.] In reply, the Minister said that the annual reduction would be about 5 million tons, and that about one-third of that reduction would affect the Welsh coal ports. That would involve South Wales ports in a further reduction of about 1,700,000 tons. I would point out that the total exports of coal from South Wales ports last year had fallen to 6 million tons. It will, therefore be seen that they can ill-afford this further reduction. Indeed, why should they have to bear one-third of the total reduction? Is this a fair proportion? I submit that it is not, taking into account the number of ports in the United Kingdom.

I stress the fact that, prior to the last war, no Minister, authority, or body had power to fix arbitrarily how much coal should be exported from any coalfield—and foreign customers showed a marked preference for Welsh coal. The National Coal Board and my hon. Friend's Department might well benefit from the trading experience of half a century prior to the last war, which led to South Wales coal exports being extremely high.

I recognise that there may be a need for a short-term reduction in the global exports of coal, but is my hon. Friend satisfied that it is sound policy in the long run? Is not it a fact that, before the war, we earned great amounts of foreign currency because of the superior quality coals which we then exported? Might not it be equally good policy, and sound business, for us to continue to export some of these first-grade, high carbon value coals, and to import coals of lower value.

I know that my hon. Friends are not dogmatic about this, but I hope that the Minister will recognise that we feel that South Wales ports were a strategic asset in wartime—they demonstrated their value in two world wars; they have been the natural ports for one of the most famous coalfields in the world, and should be regarded as an asset to be sustained. We recognise the limitation of power of my hon. Friend's Department, but we feel that more can be done by the Minister and my hon. Friend, in co-operation with the Chairman and members of the National Coal Board, to ensure, first, that a fair proportion of coal will in future be exported from South Wales ports and, secondly, that the question of this reduction in exports will be fully considered, especially with reference to the problem which I have raised tonight. So far as it lies within their power, my hon. Friend and the Minister should use their influence to promote the improvement in or maintenance of the necessary facilities and communications by pressing their colleagues in the Departments concerned.

I should have liked far longer to develop this subject, but I recognise that some of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members wish to say something. For that reason I abbreviate my remarks. I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that in so doing I am none the less very serious about this matter. It is a big issue, and I hope that my hon. Friend's Department will give it very serious attention.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South-East)

I speak as the Member for Cardiff, South-East, and not in any other capacity. I speak also not only with your consent, Mr. Speaker, but with the consent of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas), who has renounced any opportunity he might have sought of catching your eye. I congratulate the hon. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) on raising this matter and also, while I am in this felicitous mood, I congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary. At least, I can console myself that while the hon. and learned Gentleman is busily engaged on coal, he is not doing any damage in transport.

We are all very concerned about the situation. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West and I have had communications—other hon. Gentlemen may have had them—from the Cardiff and Barry Coal Trimmers' Union, a small organisation of about 600 men. These men are engaged wholly in coal trimming and their livelihood is now at stake. This is not a profession into which there are many recruits nowadays, and that is one of the reasons why this is a very important matter. These men are now in their forties and fifties, and changing over to other occupations will be extremely difficult for them at their age, at which they are becoming less elastic and mobile.

There is some sort of responsibility with the Minister because South Wales is still a Development Area. He has to see that in the allocation of coal exports we are not dealt with unfairly by comparison with other areas. The Cardiff Trades Council has made representations to us and to the last Minister of Fuel and Power. I am not very optimistic about the plea made by the hon. Member for Barry. It means all of us scratching round for a fair proportion of a smaller and smaller export trade. We shall have to return to this problem many times, not in relation to the specific problems of Cardiff or Barry or of any other coal-exporting port, but in relation to the very big question whether the Government are wise and prudent in cutting off our export trade at this moment. I have very great reservations about the policy that they are following. I may be wrong. Exports of coal from Cardiff are likely to be reduced from about 3.6 million tons to .6 million tons during the next 12 months. The export of coal from this country will be reduced to nugatory proportions.

I speak only for myself and my hon. Friend on this matter. We are very concerned whether the Government's policy is wise in cutting out overseas markets on which we may be very glad to fall back. We cannot expect to be self-sufficient in fuel again. We are bound to have to go on importing oil and to rely increasingly upon nuclear energy, so if there is a good market to be made in selling our coal abroad, even if it means importing more coal than we would otherwise import, there may be a good case for selling abroad at one price and buying coal of a different quality at a different price.

We shall have to return to this topic on another occasion. It is a very big problem, and I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to consider most seriously with his right hon. Friend, in his new responsibility, whether the Government are convinced that they are following the right course. I would reinforce the other plea made by the hon. Member for Barry that the right hon. Gentleman should consider this matter, not only in relation to the loss of exports of coal from South Wales but in relation also to the loss of livelihood by a group of men who have served their lives in the coal trade. They will have very great difficulties in finding alternative accommodation if this extremely savage cut goes through in its entirety. I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to speak.

10.20 p.m.

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

I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barry (Mr. Gower), and the hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) for their very kind references to my right hon. Friend and to myself. Substantially, they have both raised two points this evening. The first is as to the wisdom of the Government's coal export policy, and the second is as to the effect of that policy upon the ports of South Wales in particular and, of course—necessarily and understandably—its effect upon the ports in their constituencies.

The first question is a very big one and one of high policy, and I do not propose to do more than deal with it somewhat briefly in the course of this debate. I do not complain of its being raised, because it is important in its effect on the constituencies of the hon. Gentlemen, but, in the nature of things, I do not think that a full reply from me would be helpful at this stage. Let me just say that the decision to cut coal exports which was announced last July was taken by the Government with the greatest reluctance and only after the fullest consideration.

That decision became necessary last year when it was found that the output of coal was falling and that home consumption was rising. We were already importing coal, and the combination of the two factors which I have mentioned led, of necessity, to an increase in imports. It so happened that, owing to a number of factors, of which freight rates was one, imports were costing us a good deal more than exports were bringing in. These large imports imposed a heavy burden of cost upon the National Coal Board, which cost, in turn, had to be passed on to the home consumer. The Government necessarily had to consider very carefully the effect upon the balance of payments position in the circumstances which prevailed at the time when the decision was made and which exist now.

It might interest hon. Members to know the overall tonnages of coal exports which were affected by this decision, and I think that the picture is fairly shown by the figures which I am about to give and which, incidentally, exclude exports to the Channel Islands. In 1954 we exported 13½ million tons. In 1955 we exported 11.9 million tons. The figure for 1956 can only be an estimate, but it looks as though it will be about 7 million tons.

I would remind the House that although the Government have to decide the overall amount of coal exports it is for the National Coal Board to decide which coal is to be exported and through which ports it is to be shipped. In making that decision the Board has to consider all the complexities of supply and demand both at home and overseas for various grades of coal. It has to consider the commercial factors, the economics of moving coal from various collieries to various ports. In other words, it has to consider the type, the quality, the destination of the coal being exported; its availability, and the proximity of the collieries where it is produced to the docks from which it is to be shipped, and also the foreign destinations to which it is to go. Those are the factors which govern the National Coal Board in its choice of port of shipment.

Let us consider how those factors have worked out in relation to South Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Barry gave a considerable number of figures, but I am going to ask him and the House to bear with me while I give one or two further figures which seem to me to be even more appropriate to this matter than those which he gave, and they are these. In 1955, 3.1 million tons of coal were exported through South Wales. That happened to be 26 per cent. of the national total of coal exports. It is estimated that in 1956, 1,750,000 tons will go through South Wales. That, again, is about the same percentage—approximately a quarter—of the national total of coal exports. Therefore, on that test, South Wales is not being treated unfairly.

Mr. Callaghan

Does that figure include coastwise trade, or is it export?

Mr. Renton

It is export. I am giving figures of true exports, excluding exports to the Channel Islands.

Mr. Callaghan

Coastwise is in addition?

Mr. Renton

Coastwise is in addition, yes. That is one test which I suggest proves that South Wales is not being unfairly treated. I am speaking of the South Wales ports as a whole.

There is, however, another way of looking at the matter, and it is this. The national total of coal exports in 1956 will be reduced by about 40 per cent. compared with 1955, and the reduction for South Wales will also be about 40 per cent. in 1956 compared with 1955, so on that second test it can be fairly said that there is no discrimination against South Wales. But I must stress that it is the factors which I have mentioned, which are mainly commercial factors, which decide the matter, rather than a desire to favour or not to favour any particular port or group of ports.

However, I agree with the hon. Members who have raised this matter—and let there be no doubt about it—that the cut is a severe and regrettable one. There is no doubt about that at all. It is, indeed, unfortunate for those whose livelihood and business has been the carrying of coal from South Wales ports that they should be faced with this fall in traffic.

I should perhaps mention that within South Wales different ports will be differently affected owing to the factors which I have mentioned, but those factors are again for the Coal Board to consider. It would, of course, be quite wrong for the Government or indeed for this House to dictate in any way how the decision should be taken by the Coal Board, though I have no doubt that what has been said here tonight will be borne in mind from time to time.

In conclusion, I would say in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Barry that the best way to bring this regrettable situation to an end is for more coal to be produced. The output figures during the last few months have shown some improvement, and long may it continue.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.