HC Deb 11 May 1960 vol 623 cc579-88

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

11.13 p.m.

Mr. S. O. Davies(Merthyr Tydvil)

On 11th April I had to give notice that I would raise at the first opportunity presented to me the subject of the disgraceful treatment meted out by the National Coal Board to those employed in small or licensed mines in South Wales. I would say at the outset that I have no financial interest, directly or indirectly, either in the mining or the marketing of any kind of coal.

I wish the House to consider the terms laid down by the Coal Board. For the nine months from 1st April to 31st December of this year, the Board has decided that the output, compared with a similar period in 1959, must be reduced from 16 per cent. in some small mines to as much as 66 per cent. in others. This shows that the Board has given no consideration to the varying circumstances existing in these mines. I am very glad to be able to say, however, that in the South Wales coal field the Board says that output from deep mines will not be cut this year.

In addition to this disastrous imposition by the Board, it also demands that royalties of from 4s. to 6s. a ton be paid to it by these small mines, and that each licensee must deposit in a so-called "security fund" held by the Board the sum of £100 for each opening of these small mines, plus £10 an acre of the individual takings.

These are the crippling financial penalties which have been imposed—and I say deliberately imposed and irresponsibly so—on the small mines by the National Coal Board on the principle of "accept them or clear out". The Board has never done anything for the small mines. They have always been left by the Board to their own devices. Neither in the working nor the marketing of their coal have these small mines been helped by the Board in any way. These demands are made by a body which accepted huge opencast schemes without a word of protest which have driven thousands of miners out of the deep mines in South Wales and other parts of the country.

I must explain that there are a dozen of these small mines in my constituency, where nearly half of the men employed in them have been written off already because of the conditions imposed by the Board. Furthermore, a very substantial proportion of these men will never return to the deep mines because of their age or because of injuries which they have received while working in them. The position is roughly the same throughout the whole of the South Wales coalfield. Miners who have been injured are already out of work by the hundreds in that coalfield, and the Board apparently can do nothing for them.

Among these small mines there are between 65 and 70 working anthracite coal, the scarcity of which has now reached famine proportions. But the Board is determined to destroy them. No distinction between these and the non-anthracite small mines has been made by the Board, although many of these produce anthracite of a very high quality. The Board officially admits the extreme scarcity of this type of coal. Two weeks ago a member of the Board's opencast executive said in South Wales that "there was a serious deficit of high-grade anthracite as against the demand in world markets and that the new projects for deep mines would not reach peak proportions in production for another two or three years or more. If this state of affairs continues, we cannot meet this demand, and the markets will be lost, possibly to oil, and if that happens, we shall never regain those markets."

This was said in an appeal to the Carmarthen Rural District Council to work anthracite by opencast in that very beautiful county. As I have said, the National Coal Board is in the process now of destroying nearly 70 small mines. This disastrous, contradictory, and ever-changing policy of the Board has characterised its administration during the last several years. At one moment, the miners are urged to sacrifice everything, even their negotiated agreements, in the interests of greater output. This they do, with the result that almost in a matter of months thousands of them are displaced from their collieries.

We are tired of being regaled by the Board with a spate of speeches about uneconomic and exhausted pits, about so-called unforeseen difficulties which—I say again deliberately—could have been foreseen by anyone with an elementary knowledge of economics and a little interest in the mining industry. Is it any wonder that the leaders of the South Wales miners say that the industry as administered has destroyed the belief that coal mining any longer offers security of employment? They say that never again will their union be shackled by the obligation of persuading men to work in the pits. I know the leaders and every one of them knows the industry very well indeed. They are responsible men, whose lives have been spent in the mining industry, and no person or body of people is more desirous of seeing the industry prosper than they.

The Board's attack on the small mines is only one of many disastrous steps. It is time someone should say so, and in this House, and particularly those ex-miners here who have backed the Board all along the line since vesting day. The attack on the small mines is only one of many ignoble steps which have been taken in the Board's 13-odd years of existence. It has, as I indicated, destroyed the confidence of the miners and the mining communities in the industry. The Board has been far more concerned with satisfying such a Government as this than in making the mining industry a success.

When we talk about coal we are referring—I wish the Board would wake up to this—to the infinitely richest mineral in this world. Its potentialities are almost incredible. Some of us—I must confess to this—in the last forty years have tried to awaken the interest of the people, including Governments, in the vast riches known to exist in such coal as we have had in this country. Some of us had hoped that when the mining industry was nationalised we had broken for ever with the terrible wastrelism which characterised that industry in its long and its barbarous history, when for generations coal was regarded merely as fuel. Four-fifths of its thermal content was destroyed, and for the last forty years, that is, to this day—and I defy any coal man on the Board to dispute this—not a tenth of its known values have been extracted for public use: not one-tenth. Aided and abetted by a Government such as we have these days, the Coal Board has made no contribution to remedy this.

I am told that at last—and I welcome this spot of news which has come my way—the Board is doing something about coal derivatives and their possible extraction. I appeal to the Board to wake up about this matter. Let it start with an inquiry into the services rendered by the coal industry as far back as the 1914–18 war when dozens of derivatives —by-products as we called them then— from anaesthetics to high explosives, from saccharine to rivers of paints and dyes, an almost complete pharmacopoeia and other most essential products were extracted from the coal mined by British coal miners.

I now make the awful suggestion that the Coal Board visits East Germany and the mines of the Hoyerswerda-Sprem-berg district there to see the vast and almost fabulous industries which have been built up on lignite, always regarded contemptuously by both the British coal owner and the British miner as that inferior brown coal. There, not only scores but many scores of derivatives have been extracted and many large industries have been brought into being thanks to the scientific exploitation of this lignite, or brown coal. So successful has that been, that in that district lignite is now known not as an inferior coal, whose geological development was held up as it were and never evolved, a coal which we treated with contempt, but rather as black gold.

Knowing of the tremendous work which had been done on this inferior brown coal, I asked for a booklet to be sent to me. This is what a German scientist says about lignite: When you come home in the evening"— this could have been written by a Welshman; there is a touch of poetry about it and usually only the Welsh people know how to put it in words like that, and it is beautiful, even in the English language— and switch on the electric lamp whose bulbs flood your room in warm light, do you know what is almost invariably the source of your electric power? The girl buying perlon underwear"— here it could be nylon underwear— in a department-store, does she know what perlon is made of? The man over there, nervously stroking his forehead, who takes a headache powder, does he realise what is the basis of many drugs? The discs placed on the gramophone, the candles for the Christinas tree, the soap with which you wash, the petrol for the motor car, the gas flame in the kitchen, smelting coke, detergents—all these have their origin in the basic material called lignite or brown coal"— this is not Welsh bituminous coal, rich in an infinity of by-products, but lignite or brown coal— the formerly despised peat-earth. My time is rushing mercilessly on. I want the hon. Gentleman to have something to throw back at me. I am sure that he will do his best to throw something back. As long as it is nothing worse than a piece of first-class Welsh coal, with which I am well acquainted, I shall stand it very well.

The Coal Board should stop playing about with this great and rich mineral. Why do not the Government encourage the Board to extract these by-products, these derivatives, from coal? First, I suggest to both Government and National Coal Board that they should have the brains, understanding and desire to establish a national fuel policy, coordinating the coal, gas, electricity and atomic energy industries so that a planned fuel policy could be evolved. From this would follow far more scientific research into coal and the development of many other new forms of coal utilisation.

I am sorry that I have had to put the case so strongly this evening, but there is a limit to the patience of those who have spent so many years of their lives in the mining industry and who in fact—we might as well admit—know only that industry. We are getting tired of the continual frittering away of the richest of all mineral deposits in the world. I look to the Parliamentary Secretary to give me some encouragement so that we can carry on with some sense of security in the future.

11.33 p.m.

Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)

The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. S. O. Davies) referred to the small mines in Wales. I hope that my hon. Friend will pay particular attention to them. I gather that the small mines in England have reluctantly taken the view that they must accept the terms which are offered. The terms offered to the small mines in Wales, employing in the aggregate nearly as many workers as the small mines in England, are far less satisfactory. Whereas in England the cut back is by about 40 per cent., in Wales for some mysterious reason it is larger, despite the fact that the National Coal Board is not in the long run to decrease its production in Wales in a similar way to most of the other areas in the country.

I wish also to mention the amount of increased royalty being asked. There used to be criticisms of the old coal owners. If they had asked for a 600 per cent. increase in royalty, I can imagine what would have been said to them. I ask my hon. Friend to ask the National Coal Board to look at this again.

11.34 p.m.

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

The subject of this Adjournment Motion is unemployment in relation to the coalfields of South Wales. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. S. O. Davies) has travelled very far, indeed, but has dealt very little with that subject. However, just for a moment, I should like to deal with the subject of the Motion.

The fact is that there is practically no unemployment in the coalfields of South Wales today. On 14th March there were on the books of the labour exchanges only 1,050 miners, which represents about 1 per cent. Unemployment of miners in South Wales does not present a problem generally—

Mr. S. O. Davies

What about the disabled miners, too?

Mr. George

The disabled miners, of course, are included in that total. Had the hon. Gentleman dealt with unemployment, he would have known exactly the position, but it should be recorded that amongst the miners in South Wales there is only about 1 per cent. unemployment.

I turn now to the subject with which the hon. Gentleman actually dealt at length, and which my hon. Friend the Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) has just mentioned—the treatment by the National Coal Board of the small mines in South Wales. The Board was given authority by this House to extract coal in Britain. It still has the sole authority to extract coal, but within that authority it has power to grant licences, and to those licences it has the power to attach any conditions that it thinks are best for the industry. The Board, in pursuance of the powers given to it by this House, decided that quotas should be a condition of the licences to be issued this year, and in the years ahead.

The initial purpose of the Board was to put a stop, if possible, to the anomalous position that while the Board was forced seriously to reduce output year after year, the small mines were, at the same time, raising their's substantially—

Mr. Davies

Only at the request of the Coal Board.

Mr. George

The hon. Gentleman had more than his full share of the time available, so perhaps he will allow me to use the last few minutes he has left me to give him information that may help him.

The hon. Gentleman says that the reductions range from 16 per cent. to 66 per cent. Of course, they are nothing of the kind, as I shall show in a moment. He has also spoken of what he calls the terrific injustice of increased royalties, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Barry. The National Coal Board, and we at the Ministry, had the pleasure of meeting the small mine owners and listened to their grievances more than once. They never once raised the question of increased royalties. That is a fact. I repeat; never once did they raise that question as an injustice in any way—

Mr. Davies

Not with the Coal Board.

Mr. George

I therefore leave that question where they left it, and turn to the quotas. The Coal Board made up its mind that the small mine owners should play the same part as the Board itself was playing and should help the industry as a whole. It decided that the quotas should be reduced. In 1958 the small mines produced 2.6 million tons, and, initially, the Board said that their production in 1960 would be 2 million tons, and in 1961, 1.5 millions tons—

Mr. Davies

Why not compare it with 1959?

Mr. George

As I say—1.5 million tons in 1961. That was the Board's proposal.

The small mine owners resented the reductions and approached my right hon. Friend, who made it quite clear that the responsibility was the Board's and that he had no authority on this question whatever. However, he used his good offices, and further negotiations took place. In the end, the representatives of the small mine owners—the people whom the owners had elected to lead them as trade unions appoint people to lead them—came to an agreement with the Board, on behalf of all their members, to accept in 1960, not 2 million tons, but 2.2 million tons; not 1.5 million tons in 1961, but 1.8 million tons; and 1.7 million tons in 1962. The leaders of the small mineowners accepted these terms and promised to recommend their acceptance to their members. It is true that the vast majority of small mine-owners whose licences expired on 31st March have accepted new licences incorporating the quotas. In South Wales and Monmouthshire 19 have decided not to renew their licences for various reasons, but the majority of small mineowners in the country have accepted the terms of the new licences.

Mr. Gower

Under protest.

Mr. George

I am not aware of that. The hon. Gentleman may have more information than I have, but I understand that that is the position. Let us see why. The hon. Gentleman said the reductions were 16 per cent. to 66 per cent. Of course, they are nothing of the kind. It is true that the reduction in 1960 is 16 per cent. But within the 16 per cent. there is power for every National Coal Board Division to give a 10 per cent. hardship allowance. If there is any danger of hardship in a small mine the division is allowed to increase the quota by 10 per cent. This means that in 1960 if there is hardship there is no reduction beyond 6 per cent.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the shortage of anthracite in South Wales and the action of the "stupid Coal Board" in doing everything to prevent an increase in output. Had he known the facts of the situation he would have learned that the Coal Board in its agreement with the small mineowners have said to South Wales that where in any district the qualities of anthracite in short supply are produced they will have an open quota to produce as much as they like. That is the agreement. The hon. Gentleman ought to have known that. There is a hardship allowance reducing the 16 per cent. by 10 per cent. and there is an open quota enabling the small mineowners to produce all the anthracite they like. The majority of the small mineowners have agreed to the position and have accepted the licences. The agreement was accepted by the mineowners' representatives. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman must accept what I am saying. I have told him the arrangement. I do not care what document he has in his hand; that is the arrangement.

The hon. Gentleman says that the Coal Board is determined to destroy the small mineowners. The Board had an instrument in its hand by which it could have destroyed them all. It only had to refuse to renew the licences and they would have been out of business. But the Board did not do that. It drew up an agreement which was equitable to itself and to the mineowners. I must make it clear that I am not taking sides on this question. I rest upon the fact that an agreement was reached between the leaders of the two sides of the industry and that it is being put into execution.

The hon. Gentleman tried to impress upon the House that derivatives were the cure, that they would require millions of tons of coal and would have meant the saving of the mining industry. Of course, nobody in his senses would suggest that any production of derivatives would consume millions of tons of coal per annum. That is not true. But the Coal Board is not so unmindful of its responsibilities as not to be looking into this matter and we at the Ministry are keenly aware of the problem.

My right hon. Friend's predecessor appointed the Wilson Committee to do the job which the hon. Member suggests should be done. That Committee is studying all the knowledge available of every form of derivative, and the use of coal for purposes other than simply for burning. The Wilson Committee will report soon and we hope it reports favourably on some of the systems which have been devised so far. But let no one try to deceive himself or this House that the manufacture of coal derivatives will play any great part in consuming millions of tons of coal annually, for it will do nothing of the kind.

A great deal of ground was covered in this debate, and great emphasis was laid upon the unfairness and injustice—

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 seventeen minutes to Twelve o'clock.