HL Deb 24 March 1942 vol 122 cc354-77

THE EARL OF LISTOWEL rose to call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the recommendations of the Third Report of the Select Committee on National Expenditure on the coal mining industry; to ask what steps His Majesty's Government propose to take to increase production during the summer months; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, it is six months since I last directed the attention of the House to the grave and indeed urgent problem of the coal mining industry. We have survived the winter without any serious stoppage due to lack of coal, and without inflicting acute hardship on a great number of domestic consumers. But though we have just scraped through, our coal stocks have now reached rock bottom. Output from the pits has failed to reach the target level throughout this period, and the industry, as a whole, is producing less coal at the moment than in the years immediately before the war. At the same time, the demand for solid fuel to keep our factories going and to generate gas and electrical power has been steadily increasing since the outbreak of the war, and the claim of the home market will be greater next winter than it has ever been in the past. We are, therefore, faced, at the present time, by a widening gap between the fuel requirements of our war industries and the supplies which we can draw upon to meet them.

This gap can be filled, and can only be filled, by a substantial increase in output coupled with a drastic cut in all forms of fuel consumption not indispensable to the war effort. Unless the gap is filled by a nation-wide effort to increase production and to save fuel during the next six months, we shall be confronted in the autumn by a situation which might easily lead to a serious decline in our supplies of war material or to a weakening of civilian morale. The Government are now taking seriously the need for immediate economy in the use of fuel. Their announcement last week, in another place, that gas and electricity, as well as coal, would shortly be rationed, was a most welcome move, though it is a little difficult to see why a step to effect this enormous saving should not have been taken six months or so earlier. Let us hope that the cut in consumption, when it comes, will be really drastic, and that the rationing scheme will be quickly prepared and no less speedily executed. In the meantime, it will be well for the public to listen to the appeal made to them by the President of the Board of Trade to save fuel, gas and electric light in their homes and offices as much as they possibly can. We now have this guarantee that consumption will be considerably curtailed in the near future. Would that we could be no less certain that output will be correspondingly increased.

Of all the many questions which are exercising the minds of those who are gravely concerned about coal production, the main questions are those of man power and management. There are, in certain quarters, grave doubts as to whether the industry, under the prevailing conditions of control and management, is running at a maximum of efficiency. Representations on this subject are, at the present time, under consideration by the Government, and no one would wish to start a public controversy while negotiations are proceeding, or indeed to express any opinion that might prejudice the conclusion of a successful agreement. I should like, however, to dissipate one widespread misunderstanding. The miners are not asking, at this moment, for nationalization of the coal industry. They are not proposing that the Government should buy out the colliery owners and transfer their property to the State. They do not, indeed, wish to raise any issue that might imperil the unity of the nation. What they do want is a greater measure of public control and a more unified direction of policy applied to the mining industry. I shall refrain from entering into the merits and demerits of the case. I believe that everyone hopes that the parties will meet in a spirit of compromise and with a genuine desire to find common ground, realizing that there cannot be the smallest improvement in production without friendly co-operation between the Government, the colliery companies and the miners. Perhaps the over-riding sense of patriotic duty may even, for a time at least, bring about real partnership in this matter.

The crux of the problem of raising greater quantities of coal from the pits this summer lies in man-power. It is sometimes said the miner is taking life too easily, and gives himself a holiday whenever the spirit moves him, but the importance of avoidable absenteeism as a brake on production has, I think, been much exaggerated. If the number of absentees has risen recently it is mainly due to the terrific strain of work underground on an older working population. The establishment of pit-head canteens has done much to counteract this tendency, and the Mines Department and the Department of the noble Lord opposite, the Ministry of Food, are I think to be congratulated on the really striking things which have been achieved this winter in the provision of canteens. The establishment of those canteens where hot meals are served has undoubtedly lagged behind the setting up of those of the snack-bar type, and one hopes that it will be possible to arrange for more places of what one may call the restaurant variety to be set up without delay. There have also been cases in recent months of men taking a day off because they imagine that the Government are robbing them of part of their earnings, and the Select Committee on National Expenditure are now suggesting the aid of posters to explain the extremely dark mysteries of Income Tax. Posters of this kind should be affixed in the vicinity of every pit. I hope the Government will accept this suggestion as an effective and simple remedy for ignorance.

It must, of course, be freely admitted that there is a certain number of genuine shirkers. They are mostly young men without domestic responsibilities who knock off as soon as they have earned the wage they set out to get. Let us not forget that these men represent only a tiny fraction of the great mining community, and their fellow miners are just as determined as the Government and the colliery owners to drop heavily upon them and upon those who may wish to follow their example. Excessive emphasis upon the- absentee merely causes bad blood in the industry, and serves to obscure the main obstacles to increased production. I do not think that it can be too often repeated that what has done most to slow down output from the pits has been the quality and quantity of the man-power employed in the coalfields. The Secretary for Mines has stated that 80,000 of the youngest and fittest men in the industry have now joined the Armed Forces, and that a further 60,000, attracted by higher wages and easier conditions, have drifted into other occupations. A full year ago the Coal Production Council appealed for the immediate return of 50,000 of these ex-miners; but, in spite of the belated efforts of the Government to bring back these men from industry, the net increase in man-power during the last twelve months amounts to only 17,000.

The plain fact is that since the outbreak of war the mines have lost 15 to 20 per cent. of their total personnel, and this falling off in numbers has been accompanied by a no less serious physical deterioration in the mining community. The average age of the mine worker has steadily risen. Those who have left the industry are predominantly young men; those who have returned are predominantly middle-aged; yet only a skilled man in his prime can be expected to work whole time and with a maximum of efficiency at the coal face. The moment has surely come for the Government to acknowledge that their attempt to restore the necessary man-power to the mines by recruiting ex-miner's from civilian occupations has failed. Might they not even admit that one way to ensure a sufficient labour force to stimulate production is to release temporarily, for a short span of time, several thousand young men now serving in the Armed Forces? This course has been urged on them by the Coal Production Council, which advises the Mines Department, by a majority of speakers in the debates in both Houses of Parliament, and in the recent Report of the Select Committee on National Expenditure. I should like to quote the most far-reaching of the conclusions of this Committee, that A plan should be prepared for the temporary release of men from the Army this spring, to help in building up stocks for the winter of 1942–43".

I beg the Government to revise their policy on this matter, because, unless we get in the next six months the extra coal which we need, our war effort will be seriously compromised.

I should like to say a word in conclusion about the distribution of coal to domestic consumers. A great deal of hardship was caused in London this winter on account of the inability of coal merchants to deliver coal to households during the whole of the recent cold spell. The coal dealers are suffering from a shortage of labour, and they find themselves unable to cope with the demand upon their services. The situation was eased in certain of the London areas by the initiative of 15 borough councils who undertook the work themselves, using their own vehicles and the personnel of the Civil Defence Services. The Select Committee on National Expenditure recommend that the Essential Works Order should be extended to cover the small coal dealer, but I do not believe that this measure, however helpful it would be, would suffice to guarantee that the householder would get his coal next winter. As long ago as 1925, I should like to remind your Lordships, the Royal Commission on the Coal Mining Industry, over which my noble friend Lord Samuel presided, recommended that the local authorities should be given powers to undertake the distribution of coal as a vital public service. There is even more reason in wartime why public bodies should be empowered, and indeed encouraged, to perform this useful function, and I hope that the Government will give their full consideration to action on these lines as a form of insurance against the coming winter. I beg to move.


My Lords, you must be grateful to the noble Earl, who has called attention to this Report of the Select Committee on National Expenditure, which was issued on February 19 last. This is neither the time nor the opportunity to discuss the coal industry generally. The principles and practice which govern it must fall for consideration when the question of our great and essential industries is reviewed in the reconstruction period after the war. During the war it is neither possible nor desirable to discuss basic changes in the industry. The point before your Lordships is a shorter one. We want more coal; how are we going to get it? This Report, if I may be allowed to say so, is an extremely valuable one, and an extremely fair-minded one. It declares that it is vital that the miners themselves should realize the important part which they play in the war effort, and also that members of the general public should practise self-denial in matters of comfort in order to ease the burden which at present lies on the shoulders of the coal industry. That is excellent advice both to the miners and to the public, and no doubt it is advice with which we shall all agree.

That advice is followed in the Report by fourteen recommendations, but what one would like to know is what the Government are going to do about the matter. We arc all somewhat anxious, because the Ministerial trumpets in another place sounded rather an uncertain note. The Secretary for Mines said that at no time has any undertaking essential for the prosecution of the war been stopped for lack of coal. I believe that that is profoundly true, and he deserves our thanks and our congratulations for that. On the other hand, the President of the Board of Trade said: There is a very serious situation confronting us… our production is… grossly insufficient; our present consumption is excessive… we have just scraped through so far without serious mishap. The position is a serious one. We want more coal; how are we going to get it? What steps do the Government intend to take with regard to an increased production and a diminished consumption of coal? I do not propose to go into the question of consumption; I propose to deal only with the question of production.

It is obvious that in a complicated matter such as coal mining, the general public cannot know all the facts. We can only judge by results, and one of the unfortunate results is that the output per man per shift has gone down. This result is due to certain actual factors, and also to what I may call, for want of a better word, certain psychological factors, and it is the latter which are the most difficult and the most perplexing with which to deal. Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to refer to one or two of these factors, in order to illustrate the argument which I wish to place before you. The collapse of France and the entry of Italy into the war resulted almost overnight in the loss of most of our export trade. Within a few weeks large numbers of men were either unemployed altogether or were working short time, and this naturally applies especially to the export areas like the North of England and South Wales.

Anyone who has had experience of the coal industry knows the extraordinary difficulties which beset it, and it may be—and in my view it is the case—that the Government are not altogether to blame for past mistakes; but we do not want mistakes to be perpetuated. The Report finds that repeated attempts were made on both sides of the industry, especially in the export areas, to impress upon the Government the danger of depleting the industry of its younger and more active men, in view of the anticipated increase in coal consumption in 1941. It would appear that lack of foresight was shown at that time by the Government in not preparing for the steadily increasing demand. We must not throw all the blame upon the authorities. The fall of France paralysed the coalfields. It was almost a knock-out blow. But, after all, that is nearly two years ago. The Committee which examined this question were favourably impressed with the good relations which had been created in many areas between the representatives of the men and the representatives of the owners since the beginning of hostilities. I think it may be said that there is peace at any rate in the coalfields. The two sides were united in their desire to obtain maximum results.

But are you satisfied, my Lords, with the present position? What is it? It is said, and with truth, that with the numbers and quality of the present personnel in the mines we shall never produce the coal we need. Do not misunderstand me. I do not say that the men are bad workers, but there are older men engaged, and there are not enough men engaged. We want more men and younger men. Does the Minister agree with that? Now, where are they to come from? It is suggested, by the return of men from the Army to the mines. It is suggested that men over forty-five should be released from the Army unconditionally, but on the promise that they will join the Home Guard. The case of men under forty-five is more difficult. It is proposed that they shall be given the opportunity of returning to the mines for a period on the condition that they keep up their military training, equal to a day per week, to be paid the wages of a miner while doing so, and to be ready to return to the Army should the military situation require it. Undoubtedly there will be difficulties in organization, but I venture to suggest to your Lordships that an effort should be made to consider this proposal and to overcome the difficulties.

Someone will ask, how many men will be affected by the changes. My answer is that this is not the time here to go into details. I have heard a number suggested, but the Government, with the information at their disposal, can make a far better estimate than any of us. This is the first step to be taken towards getting more men and more production in the industry. There may be other industries to which men have been diverted and from which they should return. A case is given. It is as follows: At a certain colliery village where there were 400 workers, 200 were actually living in colliery houses, who travelled fourteen miles daily to work outside the mining industry, when they were all urgently needed in the local colliery. I am not suggesting that that prevails everywhere, but it does lead me to this question: What about the travelling expenses of the miners? Are they paid for, in the same way as the travelling expenses of munition workers? Both miners and munition workers may often have to travel miles to and from their work. I do not know what the answer to that question is, but it seems to me—I may be wrong—that the same practice ought to prevail with regard to both. Again, there may be cases of production being stopped on account of transport difficulties, or wagon shortage, and it is extremely difficult to convince men that output must be increased if the coal mined cannot be stocked or moved away from the pits. But these are only examples of actual factors, which can no doubt be remedied by care and attention.

I now turn to the two paragraphs numbered 10 and 11 in the Report, and they deal with absenteeism and other matters. It is alleged that there is a tendency amongst some workers to limit their efforts when they have earned what they consider to be sufficient for their immediate needs; while, on the other hand, some of the younger men are anxious to join the Services or to find less arduous and more highly paid work in other industries. And there is another short point—the only one with which I wish to deal—with regard to the Income Tax. Some resentment is felt towards the payment of the Income Tax, and men are inclined to stay away rather than work one day, as they say, for nothing. As to absenteeism, it is time to protest against untrue charges made by irresponsible speakers against the miners as a body. The Report makes no such charge, and the men's leaders are extremely anxious to assist in reducing absenteeism. But recollect this: you will never get increased production from unwilling workers. No one excuses deliberate absenteeism. A man in the mine is just as much on duty as a man in the Army, and he who sleeps upon or neglects his post is failing in his duty to his fellow men.

But it is not fair to blame the whole body of miners, and to say that the reduction per man per shift is entirely their fault. All the saints are not in London and the sinners in the coalfields only, and there is just as much patriotism in the mines as there is in the Ministries. Anything which obstructs the war production by destroying the incentive to additional effort must be eliminated. The response of the miner should be 100 per cent. If no coal, there will be no nation. Still the phrase "output per man" is apt to be misunderstood. Forgive me a detail. If you have a colliery, say, with 500 men, producing 500 tons per shift, the sum is an easy one, but a colliery has many processes which depend upon one another. There are the men cutting the coal, the hauliers, and many other workers. You may have a certain number of coal-getters and a certain number of other workers. If the numbers on the coal face remain the same and the others are increased owing to different working conditions, it may be the output per man per shift will go down, although the people on the face are getting quite as much coal, or nearly as much coal, as before. I do not press this question, but could the Minister kindly let us know the figure of the output of the men actually on the face? Are different seams being worked, or are more distant seams being worked, or are more difficult seams being worked now than before the war?

I now pass to the question of Income Tax. The men's leaders have always advocated direct taxation, and still do so. It is the incidence of the tax and the method of taxation, not the tax itself, which cause trouble. If a man earned good money last year, it is difficult to pay the tax this year if his earnings are less and the deductions cannot be afforded. Your Lordships have doubtless seen many letters and articles in the daily Press on this point, but I hope you will forgive me if I quote three lines, and three lines only, from the Financial News of March 6. It states: The central criticism of the system is the fact that it is entirely inappropriate that wage-earners who are accustomed to budget on a weekly basis should pay half-yearly. The method is productive of considerable inequity, particularly where the tax on high past earnings is having to be paid out of low current earnings. I do not pretend to be a tax-gatherer, but it is understood that there are several alternative ways of collecting this tax, and it is common to most of them that the earner's tax deductions should fluctuate in accordance with the actual contents of the pay-packet. I ask the Government whether anything can be done to remedy this unfortunate state of affairs.

With regard to production, there is only one other matter to which I desire to refer, and that is in Chapter X of the Report. That chapter consists of a very interesting paragraph upon experiments in open cast mining, and it says: It is understood that an examination has been made of a number of sites in various parts of the country where coal lies within 20 feet or so of the surface. In such places the overburden can be taken off by giant diggers and the coal underneath removed. It is hoped that these experiments will result in a valuable contribution to production"— and the conclusion of the Committee is that "this work should be energetically pursued." I ask: by whom? Can the Minister give us a little more information on this point? It is a new suggestion and a new departure. Would it not be well to place this at once under full State control, and so eliminate the difficulties which arise when you are trying to run a new experiment by private enterprise with Departmental restrictions which must necessarily be imposed.

Now let me pass to my last point. To what incentive shall we turn in this hour of crisis? Some day the history of our race will be written. Now, we see through a glass darkly. Then, our real strength will clearly be perceived. A great and powerful incentive is that of service to our fellow men, and it is on that ground I would appeal to the miners. We have courageous statesmen, we have men in Parliament with knowledge and experience, and we have brave soldiers, sailors and airmen. To the call of competent and sympathetic leadership a patriotic people will always respond, nor do I doubt that the miners will be among them. Standing here, I make an appeal to them. What a change has come over their industry! It has its trusted leaders. Years ago their chief concern was about hours and wages. Now they are national leaders ranking high among British statesmen. To a large extent the miners dwell apart. They have their particular towns and their particular villages, their own sports, and their own amusements. Many of their young men are highly educated and are authorities on the social and political questions of the day. I share with them the desire that the profit clement should disappear from their industry. I may not see it, they for certain will. But now we look to them. They will not fail us in our hour of need. We are not conquered. The spirit, energy and genius of our race survive. These gifts are our common inheritance. They served our fathers well in time of old, and to us also they will bring peace and victory.


My Lords, I can, unfortunately, claim no direct connexion with the coal-mining industry, but my excuse for saying a few words on this Motion is that it is the concern of every one of us in the country to-day. There is, unfortunately, in the country, as a debate in another place showed, a certain amount of bitterness, and certain allegations have been made which I very much deplore. I should like, if possible, to try and put the position rather in the nature of a problem which we can look at and try to find a solution, and an immediate solution. The first thing is to try and summarize the facts. These are very difficult to give owing to the obscurity of the figures and to the fact that many figures cannot be given in the circumstances. But I should like, generalizing, to lay emphasis on three points. One is perhaps rather a platitude—that coal is at the moment vital to us, absolutely vital. Your Lordships will perhaps wonder why I mention that, but sometimes points which are obvious are apt to be overlooked and forgotten. We should never overlook the importance of coal. The second point is the nature of the industry as it is. Coal is extracted from mines owned almost entirely by private individuals and worked by miners who work on a shift for wages. The third point, with which I feel your Lordships will all agree, is the extreme seriousness of the coal position to-day.

What, perhaps, is not fully appreciated always is the fact that we are, or have been, living on our reserves of coal. At the beginning of this war, when we lost a large amount of our export trade, there was tremendous depression in the coal industry, and there were large reserves of coal which could not be used. Personally, I have always wondered, and still wonder, why no steps were taken then to employ the unemployed miners and build up greater reserves which must inevitably be needed before this war can be brought to a conclusion. However, that was not done, and it is no good going over the past. The fact remains, as has been quoted by the President of the Board of Trade in another place, that our production is grossly insufficient, our consumption is excessive, and our stocks are much too low. That is putting it mildly. There are two ways in which we can deal with this problem. One is rationing, and I sincerely welcome this attempt that is going to be made to restrict domestic consumption. At the same time it must be recognized that however drastic this rationing is going to be, domestic consumption is only a very small part of our total coal consumption. I do not know what it is, but I imagine it is something under one-eighth. Whatever the cut by this rationing may be, it cannot really solve the problem of the shortage of coal—coal that we need both for our war industries and for the support of our Allies in this war. I was going to dwell on the point of the release of coal miners now in the Army, but that has already been dealt with by the noble Earl. I should, however, like to add a strong suggestion that it is essential that some men should be brought back from the Forces to the coal face. That is the real crux, I am sure, of our problem.

We must have the younger men who can work at the coal face in order to increase our production. It has been said that a miner can lose as much as 8 lbs. in weight in a day while working. It is incredibly hard physical labour in conditions that are sometimes almost intolerable, and it is only from the very youngest men that we can expect good results from this very hard physical labour. Again, there have been, unfortunately, allegations against the miners in regard to voluntary absenteeism. One must admit there is a certain amount of that, but it is only a small percentage, though perhaps it is on the increase. I think I agree, again, with the noble Earl that in the majority of cases it is due to the fact that the older men cannot stand up to the strain, and when they have been working six and seven days a week they find that they must ease up occasionally if they are not to break down entirely. But there is something more needed if we are to solve this problem of production. Personally I should like to see at least 40,000 men brought back from the Forces to cope with this situation.

A second point is one of reorganization inside the industry. There I must say I disagree with the noble Lord who said we cannot make any drastic changes. I think myself that, without altering the structure, we can make such changes in the coal industry as will have an effect on the miners themselves so that absenteeism will no longer be a problem. In fact, I am sure that the solution of absenteeism is to put the onus, the burden of cure on to the miners and their leaders. I think that the bad opinion of their mates is a greater deterrent to miners than any arrangement we could devise, and if punishment is necessary it should be for the pit production committee or the miners' leaders themselves to initiate the prosecution. We do not want to have a feeling that it is always the coalowner's side that is prosecuting the men for absenteeism, especially as on the other side there have been feelings, whether justified or not, that some of the coalowners themselves have been more interested in profits, particularly in post-war profits, than in production of coal, and that seams have been worked which are harder to work now, leaving seams which are easiest to work for later on. From my experience coalowners are intensely patriotic men, and as keen as anyone to put every effort they can into winning this war, but there have been allegations on both sides, and I think the Government should investigate and find out what is the situation. If that were done it would clear up the thoughts that are in the minds of the miners once and for all.

I submit that the problem with which we are faced, besides the need of getting the men back, is the psychological one of bringing in the idea of sacrifice and making it a reality. If once the industry works together completely united you will find production increasing per shift per man, and it is here that, speaking for myself, I think that the inculcation of that idea might be based on efforts of the pit production committees. These committees have in some cases worked very well. In others, they have been either ignored by the owners or by the miners' representatives. It seems to me that if regional or district boards could be brought into existence with equal representation on them, both of owners and miners, and perhaps with Government representation too, the problems of production could be largely handed over to these boards. Once the miners feel that they are taking part in the industry, not only would they be asked about questions of absenteeism but they would be brought into direct touch with the control and working of the mines and there would be considerable improvement. If only the pit production committees could be extended and developed, I am sure that the industry would take on a new life and vitality in its production.

Lastly, I should like to endorse the words spoken by the noble Earl, and say that if we can, at least for the period of this war, try to banish the profit motive as much as possible from this industry, the better it will be. If a pit should have to be closed down through lack of workers, that is a sad thing in these days, but it should never be allowed that a pit was closed down because it was unprofitable. It should never be allowed that machinery was not installed in a pit because it would not pay. I submit that the only criterion, the only yardstick by which we can measure the amount of machinery or anything else, must be one of total coal production, one of maximum effort, and not one of profitableness.


My Lords, I would venture for a few minutes only to stand between the House and the noble Lord who is to reply for the Government. With the indulgence of the House I should like to raise a point connected with the debate which took place in your Lordships' House earlier this month. In the course of that debate the question of coal supplies was very actively raised, and the feeling in many quarters of the House, if it can be correctly interpreted by what took place at the end of the debate, was that the noble Lord, the Minister of War Transport, who answered on behalf of the Government, did not appear to deal with many of the points that had been raised in the debate. The net result was not to disprove or dispose of the belief, and indeed the allegation, that the object of the Motion (which was to save imported fuel) could be achieved by a limitation in the use of domestic fuel. The point made was that the insufficiency of domestic fuel demolished the urgency of the investigation of the proposal that was then made. I see, on referring to the Report of the proceedings, that the noble Lord said that the proposal would mean the diversion of solid fuel, which was in great demand, thereby insinuating that the insufficiency of fuel was one of the main reasons for delay on the part of the Government in dealing with the question. It is for that reason that I venture to ask the noble Lord who will reply for the Government if he can himself give any assurance that an early announcement will be made on developments or, if he cannot do that, give an assurance that this matter will be urged by him with the Minister concerned.

On the main question of this debate, which was so admirably dealt with by the noble Earl who introduced the subject, I recognize that debates on coal in your Lordships' House always bring a full attendance because there are so many noble Lords who can speak with knowledge on the subject. The Report of the Select Committee on National Expenditure covers all the points which it is believed might lesson the anxieties so rightly urged with regard to coal, but with the indulgence of your Lordships I would like to make two points. I have not noticed in the report of the debate in another place last week that the Minister very much clarified the first point to which I would allude. It is that large users of coal in the country are in agreement that of the coal raised to-day, and available for industrial purposes, a very large part is of very low quality and contains a large proportion of substance other than that which would yield reasonable calories. That has a disquieting effect on industry, and I hope the noble Lord will comment on that matter.

My other point deals with an appeal to the psychological side of the miners' approach to this problem. That I think might give encouraging results. In this period, when the medium of advertisement in the Press is being used by many Government Departments, I think that apart from the psychology of the miners, which has been admirably dealt with by other speakers, some appeal of an imaginative character might be made to consumers of domestic coal. If all those open-hearth grates in houses and in offices could give way to electrical heaters there would be economy in coal consumption. In addition to that, I think some encouragement might be given to people in the country to use wood instead of coal—although I know there are difficulties about transport—and in Scotland and Wales people might be encouraged to use peat. Besides that there is the possible utilization of coal dust by making it into briquets. Every contribution of that kind, although it might be small, would be of help.


My Lords, I would like to say a few words upon a limited but nevertheless very important aspect of the problem now being discussed, and to emphasize and amplify the reference made to it by the noble Earl who initiated the debate. It is the problem of the supply and distribution of domestic coal. I can speak from no personal knowledge of conditions in the cities of the provinces during the very severe winter through which we all hope we have finally passed, but the position in London during the past few months has been grave in the extreme. It is fair to say that hundreds and indeed thousands of the citizens of London have been without not only adequate warmth but any warmth at all for considerable periods. I was a few weeks ago urgently approached by the representatives of one important Metropolitan borough and assured by the Town Clerk of that borough that people in that borough were going to bed after tea in order to keep warm. Arrangements had to be made outside the powers of local authorities in London to supplement the facilities, which proved to be completely inadequate, given by private enterprise for the distribution of coal in London.

Those of us who are in greater or less degree responsible for the maintenance of the civic life of London are very much exercised that this situation shall not recur next winter. If it is not to recur the Government must now—to-day, not to-morrow—take steps to bring into existence such organization for the distribution of coal, plus its storage in advance, as will enable the citizens of London to receive a fair and proper amount of fuel for their respective dwellings. When, owing to enemy attack or otherwise, the existing facilities for the distribution of food in London were found to be inadequate, the noble Lord, the Minister of Food, at once took steps to supplement those facilities. Those steps, in the operation of which the noble Lord, I think, will himself admit he has received the whole-hearted co-operation of the local authorities in London, have gone a long way to maintain the morale of the people in London. They have gone a long way to maintain, as we are pleased to hear is the case, the health of the people of London. But it is idle in my submission for the Minister of Food to provide facilities for the distribution of adequate well-cooked meals, it is idle for the Minister of Food in co-operation with the President of the Board of Education and the Minister of Health to increase the distribution of milk to children, if the people of London, including the children, are to be left without adequate fuel and without adequate warmth. Their problem is likely to become more acute as the result of the decreased availability of clothing resulting from rationing of clothes.

I make no complaints against the coal merchants, for they have been faced with very difficult problems. There was first of all the problem of inadequate supplies in London, notwithstanding that the local authorities had placed at the disposal of the Ministry of Mines many sites upon which coal might have been stored but only some of which were used for that purpose. There was the problem of distribution, rendered more difficult by the severe weather, by the withdrawal of man- power from the coal merchants' trade, and the disinclination, and, maybe, the inability of the older men left in the industry to deliver coal above the first floor of a block of flats. The result has been that the local authorities, in many parts, and the county council in at least one, have been obliged to go into the coal distributing trade, and acquire stocks, and, with their limited supply of labour, seek to distribute coal equitably not only to those on the ground floor but also to those who might be living on the fifth floor of a particular block of flats. I suggest to the Government that if it was right, as it clearly was right, for private enterprise to be supplemented for the distribution of food—hot meals—it is equally right that if private enterprise in the circumstances which exist proves to be incapable of distributing coal equitably and reasonably among the population of London, or indeed in any other city or district of the country, then some additional machinery must be brought into existence.

I have no desire, nor do I suggest, that the coal merchant should be in any way displaced. There is, perhaps, no single element in our present economic structure with which we can to-day, in the midst of war, dispense. I do suggest, however, that consideration should be given to the question whether or not local authorities should be given power to supplement, in the need that may be proved to exist, facilities available or provided by the coal merchanting trade. Local authorities ought not to be left in the ambiguous position of being bound by the pressure of human needs to do something which they know is clearly outside their province, and outside their powers. The Government should at once consider bringing into existence—either through the local authorities or otherwise if it is deemed to be more convenient and more efficient—some organization which will assure (1) that there are adequate stocks in London of domestic coal, and (2) that there is adequate machinery for equitable and fair distribution. Speaking for the L.C.C., I can say that although we are not anxious to engage in any further or additional activities, if the Government decided that this problem could best be tackled through the local authorities, I can assure your Lordships that the L.C.C. would be willing and anxious to do its part, and take its share in any such organization.


My Lords, we have had a very interesting debate on this very important subject of coal. It was started by a very excellent speech on the part of my noble friend Lord Listowel, if he will allow me to say so. I was doubly pleased with the speech because he began with something that is very rare in these days. In his first few sentences he actually gave His Majesty's Government credit for some foresight. I do not say that he never does that as a general rule, but to listen to what is said in some quarters outside your Lordships' House, you might imagine that nobody in His Majesty's Government ever thinks of anything at all. Therefore, as I say, I am doubly grateful to my noble friend.

He has called the attention of the Government to the recommendations contained in the Third Report of the Select Committee on National Expenditure. That was the purpose of the first part of the noble Lord's Motion, and I am glad to assure your Lordships' House that the problems of the industry to which attention is drawn in this Report are receiving, and have received, the most careful study. Indeed, a great many of the steps recommended by the Committee had already been partly put into force before the Report appeared. For instance, the standing instructions given to pit production committees and to the Coal Production Council, both as to the scope of their functions and as to the methods by which the committee should bring home to the men the urgency of the need for increased output, are in harmony with the suggestions contained in the Report. Leaflets and posters—this I think, was a matter referred to by the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Sankey—illustrating in simple form how the colliers are affected by Income Tax, have been sent to all collieries. Also a programme of broadcasts to the public calling for more careful economy in the use of fuel is being continued. These will enjoin people to cut down their consumption of coal, gas and electricity, and will give information as to the means of using fuel and power to the best advantage. This was referred to by the noble Lord sitting behind me, and I am much obliged to him for his most interesting contribution.

The importance of the welfare of the miners is fully recognized and for the past eighteen months, at the request of the Ministry of Mines, a Miners' Welfare Commission has been carrying out an intensive programme for the provision of canteens at the pits to supply full meals as well as snacks. Indeed, during that time, I am glad to be able to inform your Lordships, the number of canteens has increased from 250 to 715 and a further 203 are in course of preparation. When all these are finally brought into full use they will, I think, cover about 96 per cent. of the whole of the mines of this country. Indeed, His Majesty's Government are so anxious to secure proper food for the miners that they will give requests for the establishment of hot canteens a very warm welcome from whatsoever quarters those requests may come. Discussions are taking place with the representatives of the industry and of the Government Departments concerned to ensure the maintenance of adequate travelling facilities. I think that that was one of the points that was raised by my noble friend Lord Sankey. The question of payment of travelling expenses is being considered at present by the Coal Production Council, and it is hoped that a satisfactory decision will be reached before very long. Steps have been taken to safeguard the necessary supply of mining materials, and block orders have recently been placed for substantial quantities of new machinery to meet the requirements of the pits. By the judicious use of suitable substitutes the animal food position is satisfactory.

The noble and learned Viscount, Lord Sankey, raised the question of open cast mining. The Mines Department are at present seeing that these open cast mines are worked wherever possible, and an examination is being made of further potential outcrops. The noble and learned Viscount also asked me about output at the face. My honourable friend asks me to say that it is not in the public interest to give the exact figures, but it can be said that the output per shift at the face has been well maintained, particularly when we consider the loss of the younger men. If my noble and learned friend would like to have the figures, I will send them to him for his private consideration, but I cannot give them in public.


No, thank you.


My Lords, that deals briefly, but I think as fully as possible, with the first part of the noble Earl's Motion. I now come to the second part of that Motion, in which the noble Earl asks what steps the Government propose to take to increase production during the summer months. I can assure him that those charged with the responsibility of ensuring for the nation the necessary supplies of coal for the successful conduct of the war are very conscious that the forthcoming rationing of domestic fuels, which was announced the other day by my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade, although very necessary in itself, must be subsidiary to a substantial increase in production. As regards the rationing of fuels, my right honourable friend has been able to secure the services of Sir William Beveridge to help him, for which everybody must be thankful. I think that my noble friend will find that, when this scheme has been worked out, it will probably not err on the side of leniency; he need not be afraid of that.

A great part of our security against a shortage of coal supplies during next winter must be won from the labours of the next six months. The men are working a high average number of shifts per week—higher, I think it may be said, than at any previous time in the history of the industry. If the productivity of the industry has fallen, most of that fall is due to factors beyond the industry's control. I do not wish to suggest by that that no efforts are being or can be made to achieve better results from the present man-power in the mines. A small number of men, whose absence from work is due not to infirmity or to age or to the strain of war conditions, must somehow be induced to work more regularly. In this connexion, I can say that the new procedure for dealing with this type of absence is now in operation, and it is hoped that good results may be achieved. It is not easy, but I hope that something will come of it. These men must somehow be made to realize that their absence places an unfair burden on their fellow-workmen, and, in highly-mechanized mines, the effects of their irregularity are felt far beyond the shifts from which they are absent.

At the same time, I should like to take this opportunity to deprecate, not only in connexion with coal mining but in connexion with every other activity, the great exaggeration which is sometimes to be found in speeches, not in this House but in the country, and in newspaper articles, on this subject. The noble and learned Viscount, Lord Sankey, also drew attention to this point. I think that this exaggeration is most harmful, and I should like to state, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, that to say that all managements are idle and foolish and that all the men are slackers is very wrong. It does a tremendous amount of harm here and in our Dominions and in foreign countries, besides being totally untrue.

The noble Earl who raised this matter made a great point of the possibility of recalling men from the Armed Forces, and mainly, I think, from the Army. The mines, as we all know, suffered a very heavy drain on their man-power owing to the war, and 80,000 men—for the most part the youngest and most productive—have gone into the Armed Forces, and 60,000 into other industries. The wastage in the industry is very heavy, and reinforcements must be obtained if the level of production required to meet summer consumption and to build up stocks for next winter is to be reached. As I said in my speech in this House on October 1 last, when we had a similar debate, also on a Motion by the noble Earl, it is very difficult to take men out of the modern Army once they have gone into it, because the modern Army, unlike that with which most of us were acquainted, is an expert Army, and, once a man has gone into it, he probably becomes an expert in something or other, and, if he is promoted and becomes a corporal or a sergeant, it is still more difficult. At the same time, I am authorized to state that His Majesty's Government have decided to release a certain number of men from a limited number of Army establishments for service in the mines. As my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade stated the other day in another place, the whole question is still under consideration, and a statement will be made as soon as possible. I must here refer to the interesting speech—if he will allow me to call it so—which was made by my noble friend Lord Latham, about the domestic distribution of coal. I shall not go into a detailed answer now, because I had no notice that he was going to raise the matter, but the noble Lord's remarks will be conveyed to the Minister for his consideration.

I think that I have answered my noble friend's questions to the best of my ability, but before I sit down there are one or two comments which I should like to make. We are now emerging—at least I hope that we are; with our extraordinary climate, we can never be sure—from the third winter of the war. As your Lordships will remember, the first winter was an intensely hard one, with heavy snow and frost lasting through a great part of December, the whole of January and right up to the end of February. The second winter of the war was perhaps not quite so severe in weather, but it was made worse by the intense bombing of our ports and cities and industrial centres, which was then at its height. The winter just over has been exceedingly severe since early in January. For seven-and-a-half or eight weeks the thermometer stood either at freezing point or below. We are not allowed to talk about the present weather, but February has gone by, and we now know that it was the hardest February since the year 1895. I think that people are a little apt to forget, when they criticize the Secretary for Mines and the Mines Department, that in addition to war conditions we have had three winters running of exceptional severity—exceptional severity, that is, for the British Isles—and, without being in the least complacent, which is the last thing that I should wish to be, I do think that a great debt of gratitude is due to my honourable friend the Minister, to the officials of his Department, and to the managers and workers at the mines, for the work which they have done.

I am obliged to my noble friend for giving me the opportunity of speaking on this matter, and I can assure him that it is the aim of His Majesty's Government to obtain the highest degree of output from the mines at all times, so that our war effort may not be impeded, and also so that as much comfort may be given to our people as will nerve them for the great work which they are doing, and which they may yet be called upon to do.


My Lords, I should like to draw the attention of the Government to one point which I think has been omitted. In order to increase the production of coal, it is necessary not only to bring back men from the Army into the industry in order to increase production, which I think is essential for the purposes of the war, but to bring back those who have left the industry and who are mechanically minded. The industry has become more and more mechanized and a great number of the younger men whom we want back in the collieries are men who have shown a disposition to take an interest in mechanization. It is impossible to get the output from the collieries unless we have a large number of these younger men, who may have gone into factories, and a good number of men who have gone into the Air Force should also be brought back into the industry.


My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord opposite for the care with which he has prepared his full reply to both parts of the Motion, and for the answers which he has given to the questions which were addressed to him from various parts of the House. I am particularly glad of the announcement on the subject of the use of men from the Armed Forces in the mines. It is very pleasing that the Government have at last heeded the advice that has been tended to them for so long by members of this House, by members of another place, and by many knowledgeable people outside. One hopes, and indeed one believes, that this will be no half-hearted measure, and we shall look forward with much interest to hearing the further statement that will be made on this subject in the near future. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.