HC Deb 01 July 1957 vol 572 cc677-80
20. Mr. Nabarro

asked the Paymaster-General whether he will state the reasons for the authorisation by the Minister of Power of an increase of an average of 6s. 6d. per ton in the retail price of house coal effective from 1st July, 1957.

22. Captain Pilkington

asked the Paymaster-General what circumstances have led to the proposed increase in the retail cost of coal.

Mr. Maudling

The increase in the pithead price of coal, which takes effect today, is necessary to meet the increasing costs of production of the National Coal Board. Retail prices of house coal are being simultaneously raised to allow merchants to recover the higher pithead prices and some increased costs of distribution.

Mr. Nabarro

Is it not a fact that the price of domestic coal has now been increased on no fewer than 30 occasions since nationalisation? Having regard to the fact that this latest price increase will lead very soon to increased prices of gas, coke, electricity, transport and steel, can my right hon. Friend say what is the wisdom of continuing to pursue a deliberately dear coal policy?

Mr. Maudling

It is not a question of a deliberately dear coal policy. The fact is that the National Coal Board is facing steeply rising costs. Wage costs are probably the largest and there are the costs of materials, such as steel, and in addition large obligations placed upon the Coal Board by Parliament in the form of the Coal Mining (Subsidence) Bill, which is going through the House, and the Mines and Quarries Act.

Mr. J. Griffiths

Is it not true that even after this increase, quality for quality, the price of British coal is still at least 20s. a ton below the price of comparable qualities in any other coalfield in Europe?

Mr. Maudling

It is certainly a good deal cheaper than European coal, but I should not like to quote the exact figure.

Captain Pilkington

Will not this inevitably result in a further increase in the cost of living, and is it not unfortunate that we cannot get more of this basic commodity at a stabilised price after having been told by so many people that nationalisation would do so much for us?

Mr. Maudling

I think that the National Coal Board is making every effort it can to keep the price of coal as low as possible, but it is facing these rising costs. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that an increase of this size at the present moment is a very serious matter.

Mr. Hamilton

How much of this increase is due to the voluntary price freeze undertaken by the Coal Board last year in order to help out the Government in their stabilisation policy?

Mr. Maudling

I do not think that I can answer that question without notice.

23. Mr. Nabarro

asked the Paymaster-General how much the price of Grade 2 house coal, both in terms of money and percentage, has risen respectively in London and Kidderminster since 1st January, 1947; and, having regard to Ministerially authorised price increases in recent years, irrespective of whether the National Coal Board makes loss or profit, what steps he now proposes to take to prevent further exploitation of the consumer in domestic coal prices.

Mr. Maudling

Since 1st January, 1947, Group 2 coal has risen by about 106s. a ton, or 118 per cent., in London and about 100s. a ton, or 142 per cent., in Kidderminster. These higher prices have been necessary to meet increased costs and future prices must depend on the movement of costs.

Mr. Nabarro

Would my right hon. Friend not agree that the year before last, when the National Coal Board made a very heavy loss, the price of coal was increased on average by 18s. per ton; and that although last year the Board made a substantial profit of £13 million, the price of coal has again been put up, this time by 6s. 6d. a ton? What hope is there for the oppressed consumer if, when the Coal Board make a loss, it puts up its price heavily and when it makes a profit it still puts up its price? Is there to be no redemption in the future?

Mr. Maudling

Had my hon. Friend looked at the statement issued by the National Coal Board he would have seen from the figures that without this increase in price the Board would have faced a very large deficit again this year.

Mr. D. Jones

How does this 118 per cent. increase in the price of coal compare with the increase in the price of commodities which the Coal Board has to buy from private enterprise?

Mr. Maudling

I am afraid that I could not answer that without notice.

Dame Irene Ward

Since this is a matter of great public interest, is it not possible, before my right hon. Friend's noble Friend gives a direction for the price of coal to be raised, that there should be a debate in the interval between the price being asked for and the Government giving permission, so that we might be given a chance to let my right hon. Friend know what consumers think about the present position—which is not very much?

Mr. Maudling

The statutory position is that the Coal Board has a responsibility for fixing its prices. It is the Coal Board's decision, which does not need the permission of my noble Friend, although, of course, there is much close consultation on these matters between the Coal Board and the Minister. Before price increases are settled and announced, of course, there is consultation with the Consumers' Councils, both domestic and industrial.

Miss Lee

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that households are much more sensitive to changes in price of items like coal than items like steel, and would he, therefore, help us by getting out a report showing plainly that the price of coal is socially fixed much more than the price of steel, so that the consumer may know precisely how much increase there is on various important domestic items between the dates 1939, 1945 and the present time?

Mr. Maudling

The price of coal, of course, is a large, or substantial, element in the cost-of-living index, and the price of steel is not; on the other hand, the price of steel indirectly influences the price of coal to the consumer. I find the comparison a little difficult to follow.