HL Deb 02 June 1949 vol 162 cc1375-80

3.30 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor.)


My Lords, I think it will be generally agreed that we have made a great many improvements in this Bill. I am glad to think that, in the majority of clauses, they have been made by general agreement. On this side of the House we should certainly adhere very strongly to the view that the only matter on which we differed—which was the Amendment to Clause 2—was a wise and sound Amendment. I must take this opportunity of reverting for a moment or two to the matters which were raised on the Amendment to Clause 2. Your Lordships will remember that the Amendment we made was that the Coal Board should not have the power to engage in the export trade in coal which was denied to them under the principal Act—and deliberately denied by Parliament—without a Resolution by Parliament giving them the power so to do.

In the course of that debate, the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, I am sure on instructions, if I may so phrase it, and relying upon those instructions, made what was a very serious attack upon the British coal exporters. I quote from Column 615 of the proceedings of your Lordships' House in Committee, when he said this of the Coal Board: They are asked to run an industry in the interests of the country and they find British exporters trying to oust them from a market which they have had for a number of years. Then, after some intervention from a noble Lord on this side of the House, he went on to say: That market was, at that time, in the hands of the National Coal Board. British exporters then came along and robbed the National Coal Board of their market. The words, "robbed the National Coal Board of their market," are pretty strong language.

Now the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, not unnaturally, was challenged from many sides to justify this charge, and he said that what he alleged had happened occurred over exports to Eire—I suppose I should now say the Republic of Ireland. He said: What happened in a country very near here was that British coal was being sold. A British exporter offered Polish coal in preference to British coal and the Polish coal was bought and the British coal left unsold. On being asked whether there was British coal of the same quality and price which the Irish purchaser required and was prepared to pay, Lord Macdonald claimed—I am sure on instructions—that British coal was available of comparable quality and price. Frankly, I was taken a little by surprise—if I may use Dr. Johnson's language, I was both surprised and amazed—at that statement, because only three days earlier, in another place, the Minister of Fuel and Power had been asked about these deliveries of Polish coal to Southern Ireland, and he said this: I am not aware of any lack of co-ordination. At any rate, so long as we can sell all the coal we can afford to export I do not think we need grumble very much. Since the debate I have made very careful inquiries, and the facts as stated to me by the coal exporters are as follows. There is in force an inter-governmental agreement between the Government of Eire and His Majesty's Government here, which provides that 1,570,000 tons of coal will be supplied in the current year. I am informed that in the first three months of this year deliveries were 80,000 tons short, and the bulk of this deficiency was in domestic and industrial coal. More than that, what the Irish wanted was large coal, and that was coal of a quality which the Coal Board could not supply. The Irish importers, therefore—the initiative came from Ireland—sought offers of I Polish coal from British exporters, though, of course, if they had been so minded, the Irish importers could quite well have gone direct to the Poles and bought the coal from them. Now the British merchants who had been so approached, being unable to get coal of the quality which the purchaser demanded, supplied Polish coal; just as, with the full knowledge of the Coal Board, these merchants are to-day selling American coal in France, Italy and Scandinavia, where British coal is not available. They are doing that with the full knowledge and approval of the Coal Board. Of course, that is right, because in that way they are holding these markets and connections and, incidentally, are earning dollars for this country.

Now what is sinister, shocking or wicked about this story when you get the true facts? Is not the right conclusion that the merchants have, in fact, performed a very useful service? What would have happened if the British merchants had refused to supply Polish coal to Ireland or American coal to Europe? Surely this would inevitably have happened: their customers would have gone to foreign merchants, and this country would not only have lost the commission and possibly the freight, but, what is very much more important, this country would have lost valuable and established connections. It is supremely important that British merchants should hold these connections, because if, as we hope, more British coal becomes available for export in the future, then the British firms will be able to switch over to British coal. In that way we shall keep the world-wide merchanting organisation and connections which have built up and maintained our coal exports in the past. On these facts, which I give to the House on the authority of the coal exporters of this country, I submit to your Lordships that the decision which you took upon this clause and the wisdom of that decision is, in fact, confirmed and reinforced.

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to associate myself with everything the noble Viscount who has just sat down has said in regard to the imputations made against British coal exporters. With regard to the Amendment on Clause 2, I would say, in the light of debates which are likely to take place in your Lordships' House in the near future, that the wisdom of the proviso which was inserted seems to be abundantly clear. It is a very necessary proviso, and one which I hope will find a place in any similar, and possibly regrettable, Bills which may be introduced hereafter. We on this side do not want to see His Majesty's Government engaged in miscellaneous trade activities on the Continent and overseas in such a way as to jeopardise our existing position. Otherwise I am happy to associate myself with what has been said about the number of Amendments made in this Bill by agreement, consistently with the tradition which has long prevailed in this House.

3.41 p.m.


My Lords, may I intervene in support of what the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, has said? I have just come from Cork, and there was a ship there unloading Polish coal. I was having lunch with two coal importers and I asked about these ships. My friends told me the same story as the noble Viscount. These people said that the Polish coal they were getting was of better quality than that which they would have received under the same description if they had bought British coal—and they got it at a lower price.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, in associating myself with my noble leader in this matter, I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, really realises the seriousness of the allegation he was making. I do not believe the Labour Party have ever understood the rôle of the merchant. If they had, the noble Lord would have realised what a terrible thing he was saying about people who had been the historical prop of our economy. I would add that if any Government were to be tempted to act under Clause 2 and to go in for bunkering overseas, they would certainly have to offer the district they wanted to serve the best value for money, whether that district were South Wales, Poland or China, since none of these countries is likely to allow bunkering and merchanting to operate to its own disadvantage in its own territories.


My Lords, I have discovered little by little how much this House differs from another place. In another place on Third Reading we could not have had this debate on something which is not in the Bill. It is evident we can do things here which cannot be done in another place. The noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, would have your Lordships believe that I made some serious attack on exporters during the Committee stage of the proceedings. The noble Viscount knows well that I resisted the temptation to make an attack.


I quoted the noble Lord's words. If he said that those words about "robbing" were not intended to be an attack, I am delighted to hear him say so.


I say that I resisted being tempted by the interruptions of noble Lords to make an attack. I stated a fact, which the noble Viscount admits, that Polish coal was sold by British exporters in a market in which British coal had been sold previously. It may be there were circumstances justifying that sale; I never questioned that during my remarks. What I suggested was that because exporters were able to sell Polish coal in preference to British coal, that was one reason—and only one of the reasons—why the Government felt that the Coal Board ought to be entrusted with the same powers that owners in the coal industry had prior to nationalisation. I want to repeat here that the Government stand on that issue. They still believe that the Coal Board should be entrusted with the same powers regarding the sale of coal as were enjoyed and used by coal owners prior to nationalisation. They see no reason why the powers of the Coal Board should be limited as compared with the power of the coal owners. The exporters were in the main the coal owners: there is an attempt sometimes to differentiate. What I said was that the sale of this coal had caused the Coal Board to think, and to make representations to the Government. The coal exporters may on some occasions sell in their own interests, and it may be in their own interests upon occasions to push other coal than British coal.

I want to suggest to the noble Viscount that the remarks I made were not intended as an attack. I instanced one single sale of coal in a market in which British coal had been sold previously, but in which Polish coal is now being sold. This was one small case I instanced which justified asking for the Coal Board to be entrusted with the same exporting powers as the coal owners had prior to nationalisation. I consider this Amendment to be a barren Amendment and one which must be resisted; and I sincerely hope it will be resisted in another place. I say frankly that if you ask the Coal Board to exercise their powers in the interests of this country, you must give the Coal Board that power. If you withhold the power, they will not be able to achieve their object. I say again that my remarks were not intended as an attack on the coal exporters. They were made only to give an instance which was brought to my attention by the Coal Board of how their powers were apparently to be limited, to such a point that they would not be able to discharge the duties laid upon them by Parliament.