HC Deb 02 February 1960 vol 616 cc957-68

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

11.44 p.m.

Mrs. Patricia McLaughlin (Belfast, West)

Tonight, I want to raise a matter of very great importance to Northern Ireland—the cost and the quality of the coal that is sent there. That is a very vexed question. It has been the subject of numerous debates, Motions and Questions in the Northern Ireland House of Commons, and tonight I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to clarify the situation, and show his determination to help Northern Ireland in this matter of coal costs and quality.

On average, we import 25,000 tons of coal, and approximately 80 per cent. of the house coal comes from the East and West Midlands and the North-East Divisions. From the pitheads of those places, the f.o.b. charges on domestic coal are 25s. 7d. a ton, and on industrial coal the charge is 17s. 6d. On top of that there is the shipping factors' charge of 9d., and 14s. for sea freight. Those are very high costs indeed. In fact, the pithead cost is only half that of the coal when it arrives at the consumer's coal bin.

I have heard many reasons advanced for Northern Ireland having to have coal from the places I have mentioned which are a long way from a suitable port, but I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to explain why so little heed has been paid to our needs in this matter. We are very greatly concerned about it, and it causes very considerable difficulties in regard to both the domestic and the industrial use of coal.

Again, why was the Ayrshire coal contract for the supply of industrial coal to Northern Ireland summarily removed to the East Midlands? Is that policy to continue? Next, what is the situation regarding the development of the new Ayrshire pits which would be so valuable to Scotland and to Northern Ireland? Supplies from them would mean short sea journeys, and to get much coal at a price we are able to pay would lead to greater benefit on both sides of the water.

When can one hope for some genuine consideration of the question of coal cost and quality? The subject has been discussed for many years now, and the Parliamentary Secretary well knows that committees have been set up to report in Northern Ireland, and that everything possible has been done to investigate the problem on our side. It all goes back to what happens between the coal leaving the pit and its arrival on the quayside in Northern Ireland.

Over those charges we have absolutely no control; in fact, we appear to have no choice as to where the coal shall come from. Cynics in Northern Ireland say that we were forgotten when the divisions of the Coal Board were being created and it was decided what part of the United Kingdom should draw its coal from where. The coal is too dear, and, in many cases, too poor. One of the things we hear day after day in Northern Ireland is, "We wouldn't really mind paying for it if it was first-class when we got it." We have, of course, to take many grades and varieties all lumped together, and many things that are not good coal lumped in with what is supposed to be good coal—

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

I hope that my hon. Friend is not suggesting that that is a state of affairs peculiar to Ulster. Is it not the fact that there is widespread dissatisfaction throughout England and Wales about both the price and the poor quality of coal?

Mrs. McLaughlin

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am not, of course, suggesting that this merely affects Northern Ireland, but it is in that part of the United Kingdom that I am particularly interested.

The average Ulster family likes to enjoy an open fire. It is a traditional part of our way of life. Today, however, the average housewife is becoming "fed up" with dirty coal at high prices. The fashion in coal fires could fall off very quickly—so quickly, in fact, that it could never be retrieved—and I notice that it is happening already. More and more families are turning to other kinds of heating, especially those lucky enough to be going into new houses which they are building or buying. Oil-fired central heating is becoming more popular, and gas and electric heating are being used much more.

I am aware that our gas and electricity at present are made from coal, but in the near future we expect to have a new electric power plant in Northern Ireland and I understand it is to be the first oil-fired one. That will be only the first move in what will be a change in what we use coal for and what we shall stop using it for, and I do not doubt that in due course atomic energy will take over, too.

I believe that the day is fast coming when the National Coal Board will be even more anxious than it is today that people should buy coal. Belfast Corporation is now building flats which have no open hearth at all, and that project is only the first of many such schemes. If the coal fire is to disappear altogether in Northern Ireland there will be a very big drop in demand for coal, and that will be a disadvantage to the coal mining industry in general. We in Northern Ireland are very conscious of the value of coal to employment, and we know how important it is that the coal which is mined should be used and not continually stockpiled, with the consequent danger of miners becoming redundant.

Ulster people, least of all, would wish to see anyone lose his job unnecessarily, but we know that if we are to go on buying coal, and if Ulster industry is to go on working on coal, something will have to be done about cost. Far too many people in Ulster today, living on small fixed incomes, including old-age pensioners, find the cost of coal a very heavy burden indeed and a great strain on their means. In fact, many old people do not use that amount of coal which we reckon is necessary to keep them in comfort in their homes. It is because the cost is so high that it is too great for them, and it makes the cost of living in general for those people higher than it ought to be.

Would it not be possible for Northern Ireland to buy coal at a more economic price? I know that we are tied to British coal. Could it not be sold to Northern Ireland either at the export or the domestic price, whichever be the cheaper at the time? I am aware that there are many arguments against this, but after all, Eire enjoys at present the export price which happens to be cheaper than the domestic rate. I know she had for years been paying a higher rate because it was higher than the domestic rate, but Eire is not part of the United Kingdom, and yet she has all the trading advantages of the United Kingdom.

Could not Ulster be considered in the light of her special needs, including the need to increase employment, and in the light of the expense of shipping and all the particularly difficult problems of being separated from the rest of the United Kingdom by that strip of water? Could she not be considered especially in this matter? Would it not be possible to do something on the lines that I suggest?

This would be the greatest single aid that Her Majesty's Government could give to Northern Ireland at present, for it would reduce the cost of coal by anything up to 25s. a ton, and that would be a great help to our coal-burning industries, to our householders, and, indeed, to everyone. We have no natural resources. We must import all our fuel. There must be something done to ensure that we want to go on importing coal. If the Minister wants us to use coal we shall have to have some help in this matter, because I can assure him that a change is coming, like a turning of the tide, in our fuel consumption. The people of Northern Ireland have themselves been talking about this a long time. There has been discussion and there have been reports upon it. But there has been no action. I can feel the change which is taking place, particularly among the younger generation, who say, "Why bother with fuel which is dirty? Why bother ourselves with the trouble of it and the cost of it? We must have something else, even though it may not perhaps be as cosy." When that attitude spreads in an area, it is very hard to change it, and to retrieve the damage it can do.

There is another problem I should like to ask my hon. Friend about. Eire has her coal at present at the export price. What happens in Londonderry, where coal for Ulster and Donegal in Eire comes into the same quayside? Are there two prices at the quayside, one for coal for Donegal and one for coal for Ulster? How do they differ? The Robson Committee, which reported while the coal controls were still in force, was not certain then about the height of prices, or, indeed, whether they were much too high at that time; but the Isles Report said definitely that they were too high. The Domestic Coal Liaison Committee, which is still in action, is greatly concerned at the high prices prevailing, and it said that there was a significant drop in demand.

To prevent that fall in demand continuing, something determined will have to be done. It is no use fobbing us off time after time with the argument that it is not possible to get the coal we used to have, that it cannot come from pits which used to produce it for us, and nothing can be done. I do not pretend that we can go back to conditions in 1939 or even to conditions immediately after the war, but surely there must be some means of transporting the coal to the quayside in Northern Ireland without exorbitant transport costs. Surely we can have the coal, good coal, despite all the complications of groupings and gradings, and have it delivered at economic prices.

I have not time to go into the details of the matter. It is a long and vexed question. But I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who knows a great deal about the subject, will be aware of all the complications of gradings and groupings which make it extremely hard for the Northern Ireland consumer to understand the continuing high price he has to pay for coal of poor quality. These things are difficult to understand. Indeed, many people find them beyond their comprehension.

Somehow or other, people in Northern Ireland have got into their heads the idea that automation in the mines has revolutionised coal mining. In fact, instead of helping us, it has hindered us. Is it impossible to sort out this problem and send good coal to us from pits as close as possible to Garston and other suitable ports and, in that way, reduce the cost of transport, helping the consumer at the other end in reducing his differential in the cost of industrial work? It would help us, incidentally, to set up more industries in Northern Ireland and thereby increase employment. This is a very important factor.

All these points are quite straightforward, but, since the introduction of automation, we have been told that pits which previously produced coal for us no longer can do so, the type of coal is no longer suitable, and so on. Either there is some completely muddled thinking somewhere now, or there was completely muddled planning at the beginning. Somehow, we must bring back confidence to the Northern Ireland consumer. He must feel that his interests are being considered and his welfare is being protected.

In spite of the difficulties, would it be possible to stock coal in Northern Ireland? Is there any specific reason why it should not be done there as it is done in other parts of the United Kingdom? Would there be any advantage in this? It is a point which has been put on many occasions, and there has never been any informed answer on it.

I await my hon. Friend's reply anxiously. I trust that he will not fob me off with the usual replies and stock answers. I hope he can show that he is in command of the situation. There must be a remedy. Something simply must be done. I assure my hon. Friend that anything that can be done will be well repaid, for Northern Ireland will recognise that she is receiving not sympathy but practical assistance from Her Majesty's Government on this very real problem.

11.58 p.m.

Mr. A. C. Manuel (Central Ayrshire)

I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary and hon. Members present were impressed by the case advanced by the hon. Lady the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin). I am deeply interested in one aspect of the case. I do not wish unduly to detain the House, or prevent her from receiving a very full reply from the Parliamentary Secretary.

There has been great discontent in Ayrshire following the discontinuance of export of coal from Ayr harbour to Northern Ireland, a traditional market for our county. This is tending to increase unemployment among railwaymen and dock workers, and it will have an impact on the new mining township being built up at Drongen because less coal will be required from that area. Ayrshire coal compares most favourably with the coal now being received from the East Midlands. I have been reliably informed that the cost of the rail haul from the East Midlands to the port of shipment to Northern Ireland is very nearly three times more than the cost of the haul from the Ayrshire coalfield to Ayr harbour and that, therefore, there must be appreciably higher costs at the Irish end on the coal now being delivered.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be more forthcoming. The hon. Gentleman has an Ayrshire background, an intense interest in Ayrshire matters, and a knowledge of Ayrshire mining traditions. He knows the coalfield and the Ayrshire miners with whom he worked in very close association for many years. His arguments must have terrific force if it is to repeal the argument on difference in costs which is reflected in the price of the coal which is now being sold in Northern Ireland. I hope that the position will be reconsidered.

I feel that the situation is easier now and that the Parliamentary Secretary could be more forthcoming with a view to giving all-round satisfaction not only in Ayrshire but to consumers in Northern Ireland who are not as satisfied with East Midlands coal as they were with Ayrshire supplies.

12.2 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. J. C. George)

The House is always glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin). She has put her case in a pleasant, moderate and eloquent way. The earnestness of her pleading and the ingenuity of her argument command my admiration, but they cannot command my agreement. She has raised some questions, for example, the difference between the price of coal today in Northern Ireland and in Eire, to which she has herself given the answers.

In the postwar years Eire paid a high price for its coal, because Eire was treated as a foreign country. Northern Ireland is part of the home market and is charged the home price and, therefore, it had the benefit over those years. Now, things have changed, because the National Coal Board is having a great fight to retain its hold in the export markets, and the price in Eire is below that in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend has made the ingenious or ingenuous suggestion that the Northern Ireland price should always be the lower price. I really do not think that she meant that to be a serious suggestion.

Northern Ireland, as I have said, is part of the home market and has that market's advantages and disadvantages. The export trade has swings of the pendulum and the prices we get when the market is high help to make up for prices when the markets fall. Therefore, I cannot support that suggestion of my hon. Friend in any way. My hon. Friend raised the question of the Ayrshire contract and I understood that she was talking mainly about household coal, but the Ayrshire contract has nothing to do with household coal. This is purely a transfer of industrial coals for one customer from Ayr to another port. The transfer, when it was made, had the complete agreement of the customer who was not in any way at a disadvantage and was not dissatisfied with the change.

The transfer was made because, in the Midlands, there was a situation in which mines might have to be closed because of lack of space to stock coal. There were heavy stocks in the Midlands and practically no stocks in Scotland. In the East Midlands they were 9¼ million tons, in Scotland 940,000 tons, and in Ayrshire 88,000 tons. The latest figures show that, even with the switch from Scotland to the Midlands, stocks in the East Midlands are 10,540,000 tons, in Scotland 1,350,000 tons and in Ayrshire 84,000 tons, and no change in employment has taken place in the Scottish coalfields as a result of this switch.

The Coal Board must be allowed to operate the industry as a whole and to see where the best advantage lies at any given time. This change was made reluctantly, and, as the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) has said, it was the natural market for Scotland. I can only give the assurance that the Coal Board will keep in mind the traditional exports from Ayrshire to Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend also asked about costs and, of course, this Scottish coal would come at a freight rate of 12s. a ton, against 25s. 7d. from the Midlands. That is that side of the picture; but it is ten years since Scotland played any significant part in sending house coal to Northern Ireland. All the house coal produced in Scotland is used there, and some used there has to come from England.

There is nothing which can be done yet. All that I can say to my hon. Friend tonight is that there is new development in the Ayrshire coalfields. I was down Killoch, one of the new pits, a few weeks ago, and development there is going ahead speedily. Of course, there have been some geological troubles experienced, but the job is being pushed on. In one pit, there is a fine seam, 6 feet 6 inches thick, and I can only say I hope that fortune follows the affairs of Killoch and that it can supply Northern Ireland at no distant date.

The hon. Lady speaks of the price of coal, but that has been steady for two years and, therefore, I am surprised that she has not raised that point before now. She asks, too, about a higher quality of coal for Northern Ireland, but she must know that there is no general demand for it. Northern Ireland seeks what is known as Group 5 coal from this country —that is Group 3 in Northern Ireland—and it is reluctant to take any other group. Scotland cannot supply it and Cumberland cannot increase its supply. Northumberland and Cumberland coal, some of which the hon. Lady says, is not acceptable, has been taken in increasing tonnage, which stands at present at 140,000 to 150,000 tons a year.

Mrs. McLaughlin

Cumberland coal is Group 4 and is acceptable in Northern Ireland; but only a small proportion comes in.

Mr. George

It is 14 per cent. of the total tonnage with a cheap freight rate. The Northern Ireland Coal Importers' Association has said that the North Western coal is too friable to be imported; it is said that there is too much small coal in it. So we are left with three English areas, the East and West Midlands and the North Eastern, and from those, 86 per cent., or 960,000 tons, out of a total of 1,110,000 tons came last year.

At present, there is no alternative for Northern Ireland's supplies. As the hon. Lady says, there is a long haul involved, costing 25s. 7d. a ton, but there is just no other source which can supply Northern Ireland with Group 5 coal. If she can do something to induce the Irish importers to take other qualities—of course, at higher prices—that would be something which would go a long way towards getting better coal in her country.

The Coal Board has gone to very great lengths since 1947 in the matter of treating coal. On this particular subject, I think that, since it has spent vast sums on new screening and washing plant, and so on, the coal is being delivered to the markets today in far better condition than it ever was in the past.

Regarding the inherent qualities of the coal, we are seeing the old trouble. Seams which have been worked out are being succeeded by less satisfactory seams. That is happening in coalfields all over the world. The good seams are dying out and being replaced by less satisfactory seams, but I deny that there is any fault in the preparation of the coal for the Irish market by the Coal Board.

My hon. Friend said that coal is being used to a lesser degree, and, unfortunately, that is true not only in Northern Ireland. It is a serious matter throughout the United Kingdom. It is just that the fashion has spread to Northern Ireland. I assure the hon. Lady that the Coal Board values the Northern Ireland market and will make every effort to satisfy the demand from that market. The output per manshift in the mines is rising steadily. The price has been steady for two years and that is an important achievement.

The only way to reduce prices in the future is to increase the efficiency of deep mining. That is being done. Month by month we see an improvement in the pits. The only hope for better quality coal for Northern Ireland at cheaper freight rates is when the new Scottish pits begin to help to close the present gap in the supplies to Ireland. I have no doubt that the quality of the coal from these new pits, which include seams which Ireland knew and liked so well in the past, will remove some of the worries which exist there today.

My hon. Friend made repeated assertions that the people of Ireland are complaining about the coal being dirty and dear. I made inquiries and I could find neither frequent nor serious complaints.

Mrs. McLaughlin

I can give my hon. Friend plenty of evidence of complaints.

Mr. George

I have no doubt that is true, but they are not on record. There is no record of frequent or serious complaints about quality. I repeat that the Coal Board has spent many millions of pounds in making provision to prepare the coal for the market in a far better way than ever before.

My hon. Friend referred to the possibility of stocking coal in Northern Ireland. That is scarcely an economic proposition. It is costly enough to stock at the collieries, but to transport the coal across the Irish Sea and to lay it down again in Northern Ireland would be a totally unacceptable proposition.

We have had some trouble in Northern Ireland in the last month or two over the shortage of supplies and there has been some criticism of the Coal Board in that respect. It is true that for several reasons the Board did not sell to Northern Ireland the amount of coal which we should like in the summer. In fact, only 374,000 tons were sold, which was 100,000 tons less than the average for the previous three years. That is roughly six weeks' supply which Northern Ireland did not have when it was needed most. But if my hon. Friend can use her influence wherever possible to ensure that summer supplies are taken in, the worries we have had this year about supplies and coal being too dear or too dirty will not exist in the years that lie ahead.

It has been asked why summer prices cannot apply to Northern Ireland. In this country, coal is sold £1 cheaper in the summer, and winter prices are restored in October. That does not apply in Northern Ireland, but the Board is willing to consider the extension of the summer prices scheme to Northern Ireland. Perhaps that could be a matter of discussion by my hon. Friend with her constituents.

I am sorry not to be able to cover all the points raised by my hon. Friend. I must repeat that the price of coal has been steady for two years. The high cost to Northern Ireland, as she rightly said, results in large measure from the accident of geography, but the Coal Board values the market and is doing everything in its power to produce coal cheaper in this country. It will as quickly as possible switch supplies to Northern Ireland from ports where coal is available at a cheaper freight rate in the years that lie ahead.

Mrs. McLaughlin

Does my hon. Friend take into account the fact that all coal bought by Northern Ireland merchants must be paid for at—

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 past Twelve o'clock.