HL Deb 18 July 1956 vol 198 cc1253-63

5.35 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this short Bill, to which I desire the agreement of your Lordships, seeks to do four things. Two of these matters are important but the other two are technical amendments of existing legislation. The Bill is designed to make the necessary financial provision to enable the National Coal Board to proceed with the development plans which they fully described in their publication Investing in Coal. I do not think the House would expect me to-day to examine the proposals for capital expenditure in the coal industry, for that is a very wide question which would naturally cover every aspect of their development plans and is hardly suitable for discussion on this occasion.

Under the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act, 1946, as amended by the Act of 1951, my right honourable friend the Minister of Fuel and Power can make advances to the Board for capital purposes up to a figure of £300 million, and the aggregate amount advanced in any one year must not exceed £40 million unless an Affirmative Resolution is made in another place, as in fact has been done during the last two years. It is now proposed, under Clause 1 of the Bill, to make additional provision for advances during the next five years by increasing the figure of £300 million to £650 million and the annual limit from £40 million to £75 million. A larger sum can be advanced in any one year by an Affirmative Resolution of another place.

Noble Lords who have taken an interest in this matter will have noticed that the Bill has a life of five years, and if at the end of that period the Board require additional finance, they must ask for it, and further legislation will be required. I should, however, mention that the Board believe that they will be self-supporting by that date and that no further Treasury advances will be necessary.

The other matters dealt with in the Bill are the alteration in the definition of the annual limit and the date of the financial year of the National Coal Board. These changes are technical and I need not weary the House with the details. My right honourable friend has agreed that a White Paper shall be presented to Parliament annually covering investment in the coal, gas and electricity industries. This Paper will reflect the performances of the Board in the previous year and estimate the prospects for the current year. I feel sure that noble Lords, on whichever side of the House they sit, would raise no objection to the presentation to Parliament of an annual review of these vital industries. This is a short but none the less important measure. With these few remarks, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Munster.)

5.39 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to extend a warm welcome to the Bill. It is on the right lines and I welcome it for one good reason—it is an indication that the Government are satisfied that coal will hold a prior place among all fuels for many years to come. The sum of £650 million is a tremendous amount of money, and I should like to know why that figure has been chosen and not some other figure. I have looked at Investing in Coal and find there that a good case is made out for this Bill. Moreover, those who know most about the needs of the industry, first, the National Coal Board, who are in close contact with the industry, and second, the trade union that provides the workpeople, are both in close contact with the industry, and I understand that they both support this Bill. I should certainly consider that providing money is a vital necessity, but I always consider it in relation to the other two essentials of manpower and management.

I do not object at all to an annual opportunity to look into how the money is being used, provided that it is done in the proper way. I have read of remarks made by some people who seem to me to be strong anti-nationalisers—no doubt that is the main reason for their remarks. But they are giving an impression throughout the industry that may be injurious to the industry. Being antinationalisers, they are afraid that the success of nationalisation might encourage further efforts of nationalisation. The manpower position in the industry is sufficiently difficult at the moment, without anybody outside making it more difficult. To give the impression that the Coal Board are a set of nincompoops, who do not know their job and are not in a position to suggest whether it should be £350 million or £250 million, or any other sum, is not wise in this industry. It is useless to provide adequate finance for an industry and, at the same time, to disturb those employed in the industry. There have been remarks made outside this House which are not at all helpful.

Certainly I have no objection to Parliamentary accountability. How could one object to that? How could Parliament entrust this large amount of money and never hear a syllable about how it is being spent? But I am not so sure that an annual investigation is a wise thing. This money will be invested in such a way that it will take years to show results. I understand that twenty sinkings are to take place. A sinking takes a long time, and it is an expensive operation. It will be eight years before a colliery is opened out. I do not see that an annual White Paper will be of much use, because if someone asks: "How is this or that sinking going on?", what can the Minister reply but that "It has gone down so much deeper than last year"? After all, it is difficult to fix an amount. If I may make a personal reference, I well remember that when I was Controller of the North West during the war, I had fairly frequently to make decisions as to whether we should spend a certain amount on development in collieries. The only people who could advise me were the engineers. They laid before me all that they knew, and my confidence in them enabled me to decide one way or the other. It was the same with opencast coal. What did I find? In every case there was a marginal error; sometimes the expenditure involved was 10 to 20 per cent. less than they had suggested, and sometimes 10 to 20 per cent. more. No one responsible for a firm decision can do other than rely on those who should know sufficient to advise him.

There have been references made outside this House which rather reflect on the industry. I have a fairly good knowledge of the Coal Board and of its personnel, and some I know better than others. I consider that it is a competent body. In my view, the Chairman, in particular, is well fitted for his difficult job, and I am sure that he has not only the knowledge but also the vision and courage to carry on with it. I know the Minister well, and I am sure the Prime Minister was wise in his choice of the present Minister of Fuel and Power. The Minister knows mining well from personal experience, and he is qualified in every other sense.

I should like to know how the figure mentioned in the Bill was arrived at, but I have confidence that the men negotiating with the Minister would have a good idea of the right figure. As regards the future use of the money, I am concerned that it should be spent in the best possible way. The hints are that geographical considerations should enter into it. That is a dangerous thing, especially in mining. I agree at once that £1 million spent in the Midlands would produce more coal, and produce it earlier, than £1 million spent in Lancashire. Why is that? It is simply because Nottingham and that area happens to be a newer coalfield. It is not because the men there are better miners, but because they have better geological conditions. Let us remember that geological conditions count.

If I may refer again to a personal experience, when I was on the coal face I made most money when the job was easiest, for the simple reason that I was working on a good seam. The least I ever got was when I was working on a bad seam. Abnormal conditions do count. The same applies to districts. I hope the Minister will not listen to these arguments that you can get more out of spending in one particular place than you can get out of spending in another. This applies in each individual colliery, too. There are areas in each individual colliery which are uneconomic, but it would never be suggested that they should he closed in order to concentrate on other areas. There is a danger, in spending this money, that too much attention may be given to going for immediate and earlier output, which will not help the coal industry.

We are told sometimes that there is indiscipline in the coal industry, although I myself have not seen much of it. I would say that discipline is very much a managerial matter: where you have good discipline it is generally the result of good management. The possibility is that in some areas in the coal industry where the discipline is not all that we should like it to be it may be due to the managerial section of the industry. The job of the managers, who are between the men and the Coal Board, is difficult, and they have a rough time. However, I suggest that discipline in the coal industry is no more difficult than in any other industry.

Let me say this, too, as regards Parliamentary accountability. I read a book that was published recently (I am glad to see the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, here, because it is a book to which I should like to draw his attention) called Twentieth Century Socialism. I expect that before long we shall have a book called Twentieth Century Capitalism. I hope that we shall; I should like to see it. I should like to make one quotation from this book on the question of Parliamentary accountability. It says: We already have some experience of accountability in the nationalised industries; it cannot be said that Parliament has yet found the ways of making it effective. The difficulties are familiar. There is the dual danger of the Government doing either too little or too much. A Parliamentary debate once a year on the Annual Report cannot possibly suffice. On the other hand, what has to be avoided is the hostile, petty criticism to which the Public Corporations are often submitted—peering over the shoulder of administrators, pillorying day-to-day decisions, calling attention to the risks which did not bear fruit and ignoring those that did. What is wanted is a reasonably objective and expert appraisal of the performance of public industry at longish intervals. A basis for fair criticism must he provided without crippling the initiative and responsibility of those in charge. I am certain that the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, will agree with every word of that statement.

What I want in regard to these annual examinations—I say this because I have read what some people have said regarding them, and the type of examination they want—is that the utmost care should be taken. This is a great responsibility. It must be remembered that in this industry we have the Communist element, and the Communist element is prepared to use anything to handicap the leaders of the industry. If we discredit the Coal Board or the Minister, it is not good for the industry. I take no objection to Parliamentary accountability. The quotation I have just made fits in with what I think should be done, but it should be done in a responsible way, otherwise it might damage the industry. I gladly support the Bill.

5.50 p.m.


My Lords, may I just add a word or two to that of my noble friend, and support his pleasure that this Bill is being brought forward for this loan? If the ordinary British public, far away from mining areas, could see, as do those of us who live in the midst of them and, indeed, in the same streets as the workers, the signs of recasting the whole mining system, it would bring to their minds the fact that great changes are taking place in the world of mines. I live in a district in the West, the shallow side. In the document which my noble friend has quoted, it is said that the best of the coal in the more shallow seams has been greatly worked. As a matter of fact, there has always been a great danger of over-emphasising that and of creating something like a panic, as though the seams would be finished to-morrow.

That is not so. What has happened is this. In those areas, which have been described as producing some of the best coking coal in the world for tempering steel, there were a great number of family companies. They competed with each other in price, and it is a fact that we almost gave the coal away to some countries who have not been friends of ours in recent years; and the men there paid a great price in their bodies for the price of that coal. Of course, we know that that system led to great masses of miners being idle in the depressed areas. Therefore, they had to leave the area, and miners are fairly precious at the moment. Shaft is being connected with shaft, colliery with colliery and seam with seam in a way in which it could not be done under the old system of working, and which now makes for more economical working.

Great changes have taken place with regard to the ventilation of the deeper mines. Everybody knows quite well that the ventilation system was not very good at all. Miners in one or two deep pits where I worked used to say that rats could not get through from one shaft to another, let alone men. I think those concerned with the mines had not the capital to do what they wished. Until recent years it was not understood that ventilation was the key to the working of the mines.

I will not delay the House for any time, but I thought it was necessary to say there is ocular evidence, in the older areas at least, of the recasting of the whole system. In the deeper collieries there is no doubt whatever that not only the system of working but the whole layout of the pits is being affected. May I venture to say this as a forecast? I have thought in recent years that, with the making of roadways and the better attention to ventilation, it is probable that in a few years time we shall be working seams at a depth which would have been almost impossible, had it not been for the experience gained in respect of ventilation of mines and conditions under which men can work. I agree with my noble friend Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor and the general support which has been given by the workers' representatives to this loan, which I am sure, from my own observations and conversations in the mining world (at least that part of it with which I am more familiar) is being usefully and economically employed.

5.57 p.m.


My Lords, we must not lose sight of the fact that this Bill more than doubles the advances to the Coal Board envisaged in 1951. What I should like to say has nothing to do with the principle of nationalisation; I should like to assure the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor, of that. But I submit that no responsible institution would agree, circumstances being what they are, to make the advances provided in this Bill without laying down some conditions. After every allowance has been made for the dangers and unpleasant nature of some of the work involved, it is notorious that difficulties are allowed, or have been allowed, to stand in the way of development. If difficulties stand in the way of development, they stand in the way of the achievement of the best results from more public investment in the coal mining industry.

Her Majesty's Government, as trustees for the whole people who are now being asked to put more of their savings into this industry, surely have a duty to see that there is not obstruction but real cooperation at all levels to get the best out of this industry. The manpower necessary to make this additional investment productive should be found and accepted in the mining industry, subject to any reasonable and proper safeguards. Every week petty disputes are reported as leading to loss of production in this industry, and all this is very disturbing to us. Surely, the right moment to raise and tackle these matters is when more capital investment is sought. I think we are entitled to ask the Minister for some solid assurances when asked to approve this considerable additional credit. I hope the noble Earl will give us such assurances when he replies.

6.0 p.m.


My Lords, let me say at once that I cannot complain in any way whatever at the manner in which your Lordships have received this small and highly important Bill. I was particularly impressed with the remarks which fell from the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor, with all of which I think I agree. I believe that the very views which he has upon this important industry are those which are, in fact, held nearly all the way by my right honourable friend the Minister of Fuel and Power and Her Majesty's Government. I was glad also to Near the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, with his lifelong knowledge of this industry, give support to the Bill as well. The noble Lord's experiences of working in the coal mines are always interesting and he relates them on many occasions to your Lordships, who always listen with much interest.

I turn from there to deal with the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, who, as I understand it, suggested that before the Treasury made advances to the National Coal Board under Clause 1 of this Bill, they should lay down some conditions, not necessarily conditions which would be obstructive but conditions as to how the National Coal Board should spend the money, what in fact they were to do with it and how it was to be deployed generally in the areas throughout the country.


May I interrupt the noble Earl? I did not want to go so far as that, but I want to know that Her Majesty's Government are assured that the finding of this additional money will produce the effect that we all desire.


I certainly hope that the finding of this additional money will produce the effect which the National Coal Board desire and which they have stated in some detail in their publication which I mentioned in the course of my Second Reading remarks. Let me remind the noble Lord that mining is not now, and certainly was not in the past, an easy business. It has never been possible to prophesy with any degree of accuracy whatsoever what results will materialise or follow from any particular development. As I think the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor, himself said, however good the geological knowledge may be, unexpected difficulties sometimes appear which are very heavy at times to meet in cost. I cannot guarantee in any way that some portion of this large sum of money may not be wasted, but I am perfectly certain of one thing: that to apply conditions, whatever those conditions may be, may well have the effect of stultifying development in the coalfields for fear that the money will not in the end be forthcoming.

The conditions which the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, thought should be applied have not, in fact, been applied to date, but, nevertheless, much of the investment which has been made since the Nationalisation Act of 1946 was passed has proved to he successful and there has been an increase in productivity in those reconstructed pits. What happens to-day? My right honourable friend the Minister of Fuel and Power and the Chancellor of the Exchequer each year review and approve the capital expenditure and the borrowing requirements of the National Coal Board. That procedure enables ray right honourable friend to scrutinise the Board's programme as a whole without going into any detail whatever; but, if he was to ask that this examination should be undertaken by hire in almost daily routine and in great detail, then it seems to me that it would be quite impracticable for the industry and, indeed, wholly undesirable. I should have thought that it would have a considerable impact upon the managerial efficiency of the industry and upon the discipline which was mentioned by the noble Lord opposite. In fact, no body, whether it be public or private, could expect to function satisfactorily on that basis.

I am perfectly certain in my own mind that the National Coal Board have no desire whatsoever to waste any not necessarily public money, because all this money is repayable in due course, but I myself would leave them to continue the work which they are now doing in the hope, as they themselves have said, that in the course of five years they may be on the basis of supplying their own capital needs in the future. During this period and until that happy day should arrive, it would be unfortunate to try to tie the Coal Board in any way such as has been described by the noble Lord opposite. I have no more to say on this measure now but I would ask the House to accord it a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a Committee negatived.