HC Deb 27 January 1958 vol 581 cc167-76

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

9.59 p.m.

Mr. George Craddock (Bradford, South)

Before introducing this subject of coal prices, I would like to say that I had an interview last July with the Minister's predecessor in office, when we discussed a number of coal matters concerning the City of Bradford, particularly enforcement. I thought that I had a very sympathetic hearing, and I was very pleased to note that the Minister's predecessor seemed to have full cognisance of our many difficulties in Bradford.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Therefore, I hope that the Minister will look carefully into this matter because it is one which concerns a great many people in the City of Bradford. I have had many complaints in connection with overcharging and misdescription during the past twelve months, and my investigations over that period have been quite unhurried. I have gone very carefully into all the information that has been given to me, and I have checked and cross-checked everything. I want to talk on facts and not on hearsay. I must say that I have had some very good advice given to me today, but I am not including that in my speech because I think this subject needs to be dealt with very carefully and one must be quite sure of one's ground.

It is important that I should say at the beginning that I have plenty of information which proves that there is evidence of overcharging and misdescription. Consequently, consumers suffer from the lack of a proper check on sales. The number of enforcement officers, which is only thirty-six for the whole country, is an insufficient check for an important matter like coal which affects everybody, and the reluctance to grant warrants to local authorities to conduct their own prosecutions enables unlawful practices to take place. The weights and measures departments throughout the land have been responsible for a certain amount of enforcement connected with fuel distribution since 1889, and they could easily be given the job of safeguarding the consumers' interests in solid fuels.

For the sake of clarity and in order that the Minister may have the complete scope of my remarks, I should like to say that I wish to talk about present legislation, the need to have improved legislation, the failure of the present method of enforcement, the need for a transfer of this responsibility to weights and measures inspectors who, in my opinion, are fully qualified for the task, the present method of stocking by merchants—that is a matter which needs careful study—the question of grading, overcharging and misdescription.

That seems a pretty big tally to do in a matter of a quarter of an hour, but I must bow to the rules of the House and try to say as much as I can in that short time. We have at the present time an entirely useless legislation. I fully understand that we had this legislation to meet war-time difficulties. It has gone on for seventeen years. We have not the same shortages. Although in this House from time to time we complain about the shortage of fuel, it seems to me that it is now given out in a more widespread and easier fashion than even five or six years ago. Therefore, there is not the grumbling and the difficulty that we had not long back.

Officials from Bradford visited the Ministry last year, and the case was conceded that the legislation was very much behind. However, it was said that in view of the imminence of decontrol it was not considered politic to put forward a new Order. The statement about the imminence of decontrol has been made repeatedly during the past four years, and I hope the Minister will agree with me that that has worn a little thin and that it is necessary that we should have some other reply.

I do not know whether it would include the decontrol of maximum prices, which is a very chancy undertaking. It is, however, an appalling thought that this puerile legislation has existed for as long as seventeen years. I see no reason that should stand in the way of an immediate revision of the Order, which I believe could be done very quickly if the Ministry were so minded.

At the moment, the merchants have matters almost entirely their own way. With such practices as stocking and the keeping of absolutely the minimum of records, the detection of upgrading is very difficult indeed. As to the pricing and grading of coal, which are the kernel of this matter, present legislation requires a merchant to keep records of supplies of rationed coal only as to quantity. It does not require that such records shall include details of the type or the grade supplied. Not only need the records include quantity only, but even that requirement does not apply to unrationed coal.

It seems to me rather ridiculous that a record only as to quantity must be kept and not as to the type or quality as well. It is almost entirely because of this that there is so much upgrading and consequent overcharging. Many merchants make use of ground stocks which have been in existence for considerable periods. After a lapse of time, it is quite impossible to identify the coal by clerical methods, with the result that the classification placed upon the coal by the merchants can never be challenged.

I have had reported to me the case of one merchant in Bradford who, as soon as two or three trucks of coal come into the yard, puts the coal in stock. He does not even draw upon the railway wagons for current loads to be delivered that day. It seems to me the height of absurdity to think that a merchant imposes that extra physical strain on his men and the consequent loss of their time merely for the sake of doing it. He does it because he knows that he can then upgrade the price of that coal. It all goes into stock and if in consequence he puts it up by only one grade it means an increase in the price equal to 13s. 4d. a ton.

There are many old-age pensioners and people working in factories and shops who are in receipt of a net weekly figure of not more than £7 or £8. To these people such a method employed by a coal merchant, because of the lack of legislation to prevent it, involves the imposition of a considerable increase in the cost of living, which cannot be and is not being detected. I say, therefore, that this is a most serious matter and I hope that the Minister will indicate that an inquiry will be made into it.

Some of these stocks have been grounded for years. Whatever quality coal comes along, it all goes into the stock and I imagine that the merchant charges for coal drawn from that stock not the price for the lowest grade of coal but often the highest or the middle price and thereby gets away with a great deal of money. As a matter of fact, a carter in one case which came before the court in Bradford admitted that he was making £4 in a morning. By this method, and through the lack of information on waybills, it was considered that the man concerned in one case made between £1,000 and £1,500 on the side. We must give more protection to the general public. The Order merely states that it shall be an offence to overcharge. It makes not the slightest suggestion as to how the price shall be recorded. There is no link between the various transactions. Everything is left to the integrity of the merchant, and in many cases this proves to be an unfortunate state of affairs for purchasers.

I want to say more about stocking. No one can detect the price or the grade. This is unidentifiable simply because there is no necessity to keep records of grades received and of their subsequent movements. The difference in price of even one grade is approximately 13s. a ton. The Ministry is already aware of the position. In my opinion, it could be remedied easily by legislation providing for the keeping of simple records, and for the waybill to show the grade, price and quantity of coal loaded on the vehicle.

Now I will quote some of the decisions in the courts in the last twelve months or so in Bradford. They are very revealing. One coal merchant who sold coal at a price exceeding the permitted maximum was fined £35 and his manager was fined £49 for aiding and abetting. Another coal merchant on the same charge was fined £480 and costs of £21. Another was fined £240, and yet another £240 or six months imprisonment in default. Another one was fined £480, and another £600.

It is a serious position when local weights and measures inspectors, notwithstanding the fact that they have very little to work upon, can make these discoveries. The cases I have just given affect merchants and managers. I will mention one or two other cases involving coal carters. One charged with the larceny of 15 cwt. of coal was given twenty-one months. A similar case involving 5 cwt. of coal resulted in a man receiving six months' imprisonment, and a fine of £10 was inflicted in a larceny case concerning 10 cwt. of coal. I have been at great pains to get this information, and I hope that something will be done to try to improve the position.

As regards the enforcement of administration, is the Minister aware that since Bradford appointed its inspectors of weights and measures as price enforcement officers, prosecutions have been fifty times greater than hitherto? There were two prosecutions for overcharging by the Ministry enforcement officers in five years, both in respect of the same merchant, and there have been forty prosecutions in two years by the Bradford Weights and Measure Department. In fact, there were cases shortly after they had the warrant to proceed with their own enforcement.

Can the Minister say why other local authorities have been refused similar powers? I am thinking of Stockport and Rochdale, which have been refused the powers extended to Manchester, Bradford, Glasgow and one or two other places. Is the Minister aware that enforcement by the Ministry of Power, by its very disposition of regions and administration, can no more than make a gesture? This was admitted by the previous regional coal officer in the City of Bradford.

I wish to comment about grading and the National Coal Board. It is almost impossible to leave this subject out of my speech, for the very simple reason that it is germane to the point. I have in the main been interested in advocating protection for domestic users of solid fuel. Is the Minister aware that at present there are seven grades of household coal and that discontent exists among coal buyers and merchants alike not only about the methods of establishing the grades but also about the fluctuations of the grades in certain classes of coal.

The method of establishing a group of coals is arbitrary and was originally based on the consensus of opinion of some dozen merchants without reference to any scientific formula although there has been a British Standard on the subject since 1942. Later the groups have appeared to vary considerably, and nearly always in an upward direction. For instance, Beamshaw Doubles have risen from Group 5 to Group 1 in the last ten years, and Lofthouse Doubles from Group 7 to Group 2. These are two examples from hundreds. The difference in retail price averages about 12s. per ton. The ratio of five to one means an increase of well over £2 per ton.

Very naturally, there is dissatisfaction about grading. This cannot be denied. Is it not a fact that changes in grading by the Board are nearly always in an upward direction, and that, while such group descriptions are arbitrary, such upgradings represent a concealed price increase to the consumer? Would it not be advisable for the Minister to institute an inquiry into the methods of price fixing, enforcement, grading, and marketing generally in order to allay the concern which exists about these matters?

10.17 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Sir Ian Horobin)

The matter which has been raised is one of very general importance, and it has been very reasonably put to us. It is fair to point out that the subject was raised on the Adjournment only about six weeks ago, and, therefore, there is very little new that I can add to what was said on that occasion. It is recognised that, for some reason which I confess is not clear to me, Bradford seems to be a very awkward spot in this matter. Another one is Glasgow, and the subject was raised on the previous occasion by one of the hon. Members representing that city.

A number of points have been raised tonight, and we will examine them. As to the type of records to be kept, I think it is necessary to bear in mind that, while good records are always desirable, we are by no means dependent in enforcement on records kept by the merchant. The National Coal Board has very exact records of deliveries, and in any case where wholesale and deliberate continuing fraud is taking place, the inspectors, I am advised, are by no means unable to check it. On the other hand we must be very careful, especially in the winter, not to impose a lot of pettifogging extra records on the merchant, because they lead to what is at present almost a more frequent cause of complaint than that of quality, namely, delays in getting supplies.

I will consider the method of stocking, but, in principle, if the merchant mixes, for instance, any group 4 coal with group 3 coal and sells it as group 3, he is committing an offence. Exactly how that is to be determined is another matter, but the offence is there.

There are two matters to be distinguished in these complaints, the problem of upgrading, with which I will deal—and I do not at all dissent from the argument that there is a very considerable financial incentive to a dishonest merchant to upgrade—and the matter of sheer overcharging. It is important to bear in mind that it is obligatory to have a list of the controlled prices on the lorry, so that to a very substantial extent the matter of overcharging is in the consumer's own hands.

I think that the hon. Member is slightly misinformed about the method of grading. I am advised that it is not at all correct to say that the merchants settle grading among themselves. It is a definite responsibility of the National Coal Board. It is true that the Board is assisted by a panel of merchants, and that is reasonable, but the responsibility for putting a particular consignment or type of coal into a particular group—and that is obviously necessary, because there are only seven groups, but endless varieties of coal and the whole system would break down if the number was not reduced—is plainly and definitely on the shoulders of the Coal Board.

Referring to the matter of who is to enforce this, the hon. Member put the same argument that was made on a previous occasion, that warrants should be issued to the weights and measures inspectors. His figures were slightly incorrect on that, and to show that there is no dogmatic question at issue I can say that about one-third of those with warrants are weights and measures inspectors. The whole point is what is generally desirable in this matter.

It is interesting to observe that in the two towns where this reinforcement of the corps of persons with the necessary powers began—Bradford and Glasgow—in the latter case the initiative came from the Ministry, which shows that we are looking at this purely as a matter of what is reasonable. I say at once that if the figures from Bradford could be held to be prima facie corresponding to the situation all over the country, there would be at least a very strong argument for saying that if we gave similar powers all over the country we might get closer enforcement.

However, two comments can be made about that. We feel that these very considerable powers of entry onto premises and calling for records, and so on, are such that they should not be given unless a case is definitely made out. At the Ministry we have in mind the consideration that once having given those powers, we have no control over the persons holding our warrants, as against our own inspectors. If the case is made out, well and good, but it must be made out in the individual case. Since the instances of Bradford and Glasgow, certain local authorities have been given these powers, each one on its merits, while others have been refused because it did not appear that the case had been made out.

I want to quote one of two cases which has arisen in our experience in the last six months. These were cases where the Ministry thought that a prima facie case for handing over powers similar to those of Bradford had been made out. I refer to Manchester. If one takes the proportion of population and the length of time over which they have had these powers, one would have expected about a dozen prosecutions in Manchester since these powers were given. In fact, there have been none. Even in a town where the Ministry thought that a case had been made out for conditions somewhat similar to Bradford, if I may say so without offence to that great town, experience indicates so far that the circumstances in Manchester are not similar to Bradford. Therefore, it is not fair to say that the Bradford experiment proves that if only we gave these wide powers all over the country we should unearth and stop a very large violation of the order. It becomes purely a question of balance.

I know that I was warned about this, but I think I must come back to the point: what is sensible in this matter? It must to a great extent depend on whether we think that rationing and price control are permanent or are even going on for a long period of time. I think it is fair to say that if we were forced to the conclusion that they would have to go on for a long time, and the efforts which had been made and which are being made to bring them to an end in a reasonable period would fail—I am bound to say that that would be a considerable criticism of the way in which the National Coal Board had been carrying out their statutory duty to provide coal in the quality and quantity required—then I am free to admit that this question, amongst a number of other things, would probably have to be considered.

But as the Government hope and intend, if humanly possible, to bring an end within a reasonably short time to rationing and the control that goes with it, we feel that the case is not made out for a drastic change in the machinery that has lasted so long. That is not to say that if in any particular town or area a prima facie case is made out we will refuse to consider it. What we do not feel is right is that at this time, long after the end of the war, we should give general permission to use these large powers to people outside the control of the Ministry where we have no reason to suppose that they are urgently required.

Question put and agreed to.

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