HL Deb 03 May 1962 vol 239 cc1131-9

3.43 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a small Private Member's Bill which has been passed in another place. It is designed to remedy defects in the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act, 1946, and to enable representatives from Northern Ireland to sit on the Coal Consumers' Councils. The Coal Consumers' Councils are appointed by the Ministry of Power under Section 4 of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act, 1946. They comprise representatives of the Coal Board, consumers, and wholesale and retail coal traders. Their duties are to consider any matters affecting the sale or supply, whether for home use or for export, of coal, coke and manufactured fuel which are the subject of representations from consumers, or which they think ought to be considered apart from any such representations; and to report their conclusions to the Minister when they think action is desirable. They must also consider and report on matters of the same nature which are referred to them by the Minister.

Imports of coal into the United Kingdom from non-sterling sources are not allowed at present, so that Northern Ireland obtains practically all its coal—amounting, I think, to about 2¾ million tons a year—from Great Britain. The only other sources of supply are a few very small coal mines in Antrim and some small imports from the Irish Republic. I have always thought it is rather a remarkable thing that, whereas the principal coal deposits in Great Britain are situated on or near the West Coast—in Wales, for example, in Cumberland and in Lanarkshire, Scotland—there is practically no coal at all in Ireland. A few deposits have been discovered there and have been worked at various times. I remember that a large coal merchant in the North of Ireland gathered together a lot of capital in order to exploit a seam of coal at a place called Coal Island in County Tyrone. But in spite of that the seam petered out and the scheme had to be abandoned. So the net result is that practically the whole of the coal which is consumed in Northern Ireland comes from Great Britain.

In view of Northern Ireland's dependence on the National Coal Board for its supplies, I think it is very desirable that Northern Irish interests should be represented on the Consumers' Councils. This cannot be done at present because the 1946 Act does not apply to Northern Ireland. I think there will be advantages in having representatives from Northern Ireland on the Councils, so that matters affecting coal supplies to Northern Ireland—such as quantity, quality and price—can be discussed with representatives of the Coal Board and the coal trade in the context of United Kingdom supplies as a whole. The Minister of Power has welcomed the Bill, and I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Lord Rathcavan.)

3.48 p.m.


My Lords, I know your Lordships will all realise that this is a very difficult occasion for me, but I feel that we who have come here from another place—I might say we who have been privileged to come here from another place—have one particular advantage. We have already experienced in that other place the encouragement, the tolerance and the generosity of Parliament towards Members placed as I am placed to-day. I feel very strongly fortified as a result of that, because I know that your Lordships will extend to me equal generosity and tolerance.

But, apart from that, I should like to say that I have another advantage because, apart from my politics, I am a most conservative person and I stand here to-day, as nearly as I can judge, in exactly the same place as I stood some twelve years ago to make my maiden speech as a Member of another place, when your Lordships were kind enough to have lent us your Chamber as our own had been damaged in the war. Going back twelve years, I remember that, as happens particularly in another place—but not so badly here to-day, when the moles and the other animals have been mentioned—considerable delay ensues before the person making his or her maiden speech is able to be called. I remember getting up on that occasion and—it is something which does not often happen to me—I found I had lost my voice out of sheer fright. It had completely disappeared. But, obviously, your Lordships have been kinder. Your Lordships will not, I hope, think it presumptuous of me if I say that I have always had a very great respect for the debates in this House. I think it is generally conceded that there is a great fund of experience and knowledge here, and I should like to say, as a very, very newcomer, that I hope to be able to make some contribution which is worth while, however small it may be, to your Lordships' debates.

Coming now to the Bill, I am glad to be able to assure the noble Lord opposite that I wish to support what he has said. As your Lordships know, to-day it is common parlance to hear, in the Press and on many platforms, that 1962 is to be the year of the consumer. I should like to go further than that—in a non-controversial way, of course—and say that I believe that this decade of the 'sixties will see the consumer movement clearly established as a recognised part of the social scene in this country. I believe that that is inevitable as an increasing number of consumers (which is a word I personally never like; perhaps we shall be able to find a better one) become both better informed and more interested. In fact, my Lords, speaking entirely as a consumer, and for neither side of your Lordships' House, I should like to say that when the Government of the day begin to take the ordinary shopper seriously, whether this be for coal or for any other merchandise, we shall have reached the end of the beginning. I know, of course, that maiden speeches should be brief, and so I shall not allow myself to be deflected into the wider area of asking whether or not the present Government have begun to take us shoppers seriously. But my guess would be in the affirmative; and I would say that the nearer we get to the General Election the more seriously shall we shoppers be taken. All of this, I hope, will provide us with much interesting debate, perhaps, in the next Session of Parliament.

Now why should I wish to support this Bill? First of all, because obviously it is a further development of consumer affairs and gives representation on the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council which is overdue; secondly, because it draws the attention of your Lordships to this subject of consumer councils in the nationalised industries; and, thirdly, because I have for some two years been a member of the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council and have seen how it works. Point one is self-evident, but I should like to comment very briefly on points two and three. Are these Councils worth while, or are they simply "window-dressing"? Are they effective in any way, or are they simply "rubber stamps"? And are they known to the public? In these comments I must emphasise that I am speaking for myself. My colleagues have no idea that I proposed to speak—in fact, I myself knew nothing about to-day's debate when I attended the last meeting of the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council.

My Lords, I think our Domestic Coal Consumers' Council, to which this Bill refers, is worth while; and what pleases me very particularly is that I believe it is becoming more worth while. One of the reasons is that the members are definitely not prepared to take "No" for an answer. Furthermore, they are not prepared to take any answer which is not fully substantiated—and, as a thoroughly awkward member of that council, I can assure your Lordships that we do require substantiation.

The second point, which I feel is very important, is that the lay members, the consumer members, of this Domestic Coal Consumers' Council are not overwhelmed by specialised trade knowledge. I think this is greatly helped by the co-operative spirit of the trade representatives on the Council, but I am quite convinced that your Lordships will know that in many consumer committees, dealing with all kinds of commodities, one of the great problems is to get lay members who are not overwhelmed by technical or trade knowledge. So often I have seen these committees become complete "rubber stamps" because, when a lay member puts forward some really worthwhile suggestion, the trade or technical representatives will say, "That is not possible", and the non-trade people just subside. I should like to pay tribute to the trade members of this Council and say that that does not occur here. Then if we, on the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council, are not a "rubber stamp" can it be taken that the members to be appointed if your Lordships approve this Bill to-day can assume that they will have any real influence on national policy? I think they can, if they will accept that the suggestions from this Council are a contributory factor and not necessarily a decisive one.

It is not my purpose this afternoon—and it would be quite wrong—to go into the thorny question of coal price increases, but I would say to your Lordships that, going back some months, when the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council were informed of some price increases which had become inevitable, we took very strong exception to being informed of this at a late date. Whether or not our opinion would have made any difference, we did not like not having the time to make that opinion known before decisions were taken. Here I should like to pay tribute to the Minister, to whom the Council complained. Ever since then, we have had plenty of time, and it is up to us to make the feelings of consumers known.

There is one other point that I should like to mention, because I think it is important. This is that at all the meetings of the Council which I have attended, when there have been some very thorny discussions and some very strong arguments, the divisions in the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council have been between what I might call the sectional interests. They have been between the trade and the consumer and the Coal Board: they have not been between the political Parties—and that I take to be a very valuable pointer. I think it is the only way in which consumer councils can work effectively.

My last point is: are these consumer councils known to the public? Obviously I can speak specifically only from the point of view of the Council to which I belong, but what I want to say has, I think, general application. I believe that they are not well enough known, but the matter is not easy because a great deal of work is done behind the scenes. As your Lordships may know, many people believe that one of the primary functions of the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council is to deal with in- dividual complaints; and from time to time we get presents of faulty coal. I hope that none will arrive as a result of this debate! But what the new members will find out, when they come to represent Northern Ireland, is, I think, that although we are not primarily a court of appeal for these individual complaints—and we all realise that individual cases make bad law—the actual complaints which come to the Council are investigated and are dealt with; and members of the Council are very assiduous in following them up from meeting to meeting until they really get to the bottom of things.

I hope that this Domestic Coal Consumers' Council will be better known in the future. If price increases become a thing of the past, if quality troubles disappear as a result of the Approved Coal Merchants' Scheme (on which we had many discussions before it saw birth), then I think the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council, with the widening representation which the noble Lord's Bill to-day will give it, can bring home to the public the evolution that we hope for in this field. We have thoughts about clean air and the trend to central heating; we are getting the change from raw coal to man-made fuels tailored to the consumer's needs, and we shall probably see a change in delivery methods. So, as I visualise it, the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council can help the development of these new marketing policies; and we shall all be pleased to welcome the new members who will join us if your Lordships pass this Bill.

3.59 p.m.


My Lords, I think we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, for having introduced this Bill, not only briefly but with extreme lucidity, in a way which everybody can very easily understand and without any ambiguity at all. I am really left very little to add about the Bill itself, but in a moment, perhaps, I will mention one or two points which could be of some interest. The only other speaker in this very short debate was the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry. I think we could have wished that the debate which she was illuminating might be a little longer, so that other Members of your Lordships' House could have added their congratulations on what I am sure we shall all agree was a model maiden speech.


Hear, hear!


For, in the first place, not only was it delivered with singular charm, and in a way that every Member of your Lordships' House could hear and appreciate, but it was a really illuminating speech, because this little Bill, which otherwise would have been rather dull, became extremely interesting. We heard a great deal about the Consumers' Councils. The noble Lady herself is a member of the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council, and we heard of the good work it is doing, of some of the difficulties it meets, and how effective it is, which was extremely interesting to everybody in this House. The noble Lady's speech was entirely non-controversial, which is not always easy for a maiden speech; and it was short. It is a pleasure for me to be able to congratulate the noble Baroness. It is the first time I have had the privilege of congratulating one of the noble Ladies; I have never had to speak immediately after one before.

The noble Lady made one or two introductory remarks which interested me. For instance, she referred to the tolerance of the House, and thought that it would be no less than that which she found in the other place. I think we can perhaps congratulate ourselves in that certainly we do extend a very considerable tolerance. She also referred to herself as a most "conservative" person. I can assure the noble Baroness that the tolerance of your Lordships extends even to those who wish to change their seats (and that has been known to happen, of course, now and again) from one side to the other, or backwards, or forwards, or even sideways. We are not particular about the direction in which we go.

I would also assure her, when she says that she hopes to make a worthwhile contribution, that she has already made one on this Bill in directing our attention to Consumers' Councils. Having looked up her record, it is fairly obvious that she is going to be able to make contributions on many other subjects in the educational field, in both academic and physical education, in welfare, and even in commerce and industry, with which I notice she has had some considerable connection. Therefore, I look forward very much to hearing the noble Baroness speak to us again on many occasions, and the sooner it is, the better we shall be pleased.

Now, my Lords, I think all I need say on this Bill is that the Government support it. My right honourable friend the Minister of Power actually welcomed the Bill in another place. The only point which perhaps needs any reference at all is this: that, of course, Northern Ireland's coal problems have not actually been neglected in the past. They have been reasonably well-considered, because these problems could always be brought to the attention of the Minister of Power by the Northern Ireland Government. The Minister of Commerce in that Government has often done this in the past, and has done so only quite recently in connection with the rise in the price of coal Which took effect as from May 1 of this week. Another point is that it is considered more advantageous to have representatives of Northern Ireland directly on the Consumers' Councils, both industrial and domestic, because it enables them to know rather better what is going on in relation to the sale and supply of coal from this country, upon which, as the noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, pointed out, they are really entirely dependent in their own country. Therefore, matters can be dealt with probably rather more efficiently and promptly if they have a seat on each of the Consumers' Councils.

The only other point is this. This Bill does not affect complaints of consumers in Northern Ireland itself. They are naturally dealt with by the Northern Ireland Government under their own laws and their own system. So far as Northern Ireland is concerned, it will affect only complaints about the distribution and sale of coal from this country to Northern Ireland. The position of the Northern Ireland Government is safeguarded because these Councils operate under the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act, 1946, which, of course, does not refer to Northern Ireland at all. Therefore, it is simply a co-optation of members on the Consumers' Councils who will be dealing with matters relating to England, Wales and Scotland, and the export of coal from there to Northern Ireland, but not with the individual complaints which may arise in Northern Ireland itself. My Lords, I do not think I need say any more about this Bill, and I hope that the House will agree with the noble Lord who moved it and give it a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2ª, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.