David Grenfell – 1941 Speech on Coal Supplies

Below is the text of the speech made by David Grenfell, the then Secretary of State for Mines, in the House of Commons on 4 February 1941.

I am sure the House will be grateful to the hon. Member for the general tenour of his remarks and, in particular, for the quotation from the “Daily Telegraph” which he has read. This problem is one of distribution, transport and right methods of buying and selection. The problem of distribution, particularly, is a serious one, and I think that a solution is to be found in right co- ​ operation between the responsible Ministers. I was disappointed when my hon. Friend referred to the coal shortage and attributed it generally to the inefficiency of the Government. There are many things which we have to endure which are not attributable to the Government. I do not resent taking, as head of the Mines Department, a share of the responsibility, but the hon. Member must know that new problems and difficulties have arisen which are not attributable to the Government. There are war conditions from which many inconveniences arise, and one of the problems is that of internal transport. We are not alone in that. Fortunately, the enemy has the same problems and we have added to his difficulties as he has added to ours.

It is wrong for the hon. Member to say that we might have avoided all the complaints which he said had arisen from various parts of the country. He said the Government were responsible because they had received due warning 12 months ago. If the Government had done nothing in consequence of what happened, then they would have been to blame. Representing the Mines Department, I take a measure of credit to ourselves that we embarked on an ambitious scheme for storing coal in all parts of the country. As a consequence, we were successful in setting aside many million tons. We have stocked nearer 30,000,000 tons of coal than 20,000,000 because of what happened previously and we realised that there might be great danger to our fuel supplies if we did not make preparations in time. I want to assure the hon. Member that these preparations extended as far as Bristol, and there is not a town which has not got a substantially larger quantity of coal in stock than was in stock last year.

The hon. Member said that the reserves in Bristol amounted to 50,000 tons of house coal. The Bristol householders, urged by the Department and by publicity of all kinds—I myself advocated the stocking of coal by householders—set aside, and the merchants disposed of, 113 per cent. more coal last summer than they did in the summer of 1939. We more than doubled the storing of coal in the consumers’ cellars in Bristol compared with the previous summer. There is now no danger of a widespread famine in Bristol because of any unwillingness on the part of the Government to provide ​ stocks in the summer time in readiness for the winter. There are people in Bristol, as elsewhere, who, unfortunately, have no room to stock coal. In all our large cities accommodation for stocking coal and the means to buy it are not available to all. There are people in Bristol about whom we are very much concerned. But it is not true to infer that there is a general famine of house coal in Bristol. There are people there who can go throughout the winter without further supplies. I am not suggesting that there is no shortage, because there is, but there are large stocks of coal in Bristol. The gas company, for instance, holds stocks for five weeks. If no coal went into Bristol at all, there would be no danger for more than five weeks of a discontinuance of operations at the gas works. There are two electricity works there; one has stocks of coal for seven weeks and the other for 16 weeks.

My hon. Friend said there was no reason why more coal should not be brought to Bristol. More coal is being brought to Bristol. We are overcoming some of the difficulties by the very means which he advocated. He suggested that we should make up complete trains which would make the journey direct from the Midlands or Durham to Bristol, and that has been done. They travel to Bristol without further attention at marshalling yards or elsewhere until they reach their destination. Then he suggested that we should pool supplies and that customers should be compelled to take whatever coal is provided for them, that customers should be told, if it is house coal, “This is your ration, and you must take it.” I advise him to try that plan first in a public meeting at Bristol. It is easy to suggest it in this House, and to receive the concurrence of Members here, but it is not very easy in practice; and, further, it is not always the right thing to do. Not all houses have the same equipment for consuming household fuels. There are houses fitted with anthracite stoves, there are houses with wide, low fireplaces that want one kind of household coal, and others in which the draught is not sufficient to burn another type of household coal. In Bristol we are finding it difficult to get people to accept house coal that has been taken from a neighbouring coalfield in order to meet the shortage.

Mr. Culverwell

I suggested two or three grades of coal.

Mr. Grenfell

I agree that we should produce a number of qualities of house coal, but you cannot compel people to take any coal you choose to offer to them. In the last few weeks we have been able to augment supplies by various means. More trains have been going to Bristol, and we have improvised in ways which I shall not mention in detail, and more coal has been got from the neighbouring coalfields. Bristol does not draw all its coal from distant coalfields. No city of large size is closer to the coalfields than is Bristol. It has a coal mine within the city boundary. It is within 17 miles of the Somerset coalfield and within 40 miles of the Forest of Dean. In these three coalfields there is an output of nearly 2,000,000 tons a year. In those coalfields there is not a sufficient variety of quality compared with the supplies outside those three coalfields, and Bristol actually draws 75 per cent. of its supplies, not from the coalfields near it, but from the Midlands and elsewhere.

The third point made by the hon. Member was in regard to increased production in Somerset. That is not as easy to deal with. He raised a point concerning wages which I have not time to discuss in detail, but it is not true that wages in Somerset have gone up disproportionately. The wages of miners in Somerset, the Welsh coalfields, the Midlands and Scotland have varied in accordance with the increases in the cost of living.

Mr. Culverwell

My point was that output had gone down.

Mr. Grenfell

The hon. Member said that while wages had gone up by 23 per cent., the output had gone down. If I were speaking to an audience of miners, I could quite easily explain the reason for that. The Somerset coalfield is very difficult.

There is a shortage of labour, strange to say, in the Somerset coalfield. We are trying to attract more labour there. The hon. Member may truly say that output has gone down by a small percentage as compared with 12 months ago, but there are many factors to account for that fact. I can assure him that one of the matters connected with the present output is the dearth of young men; this has not arisen in the last few months and is not due to my presence here. It is due to the general unwillingness of young men to enter this industry. We find ourselves ​ without sufficient young men in the Somerset coalfield, and we are not now likely to get them.

Lord Apsley (Bristol, Central)

Is there not considerable unemployment in the coalfields?

Mr. Grenfell

There is a search of coalfields for men of military age. I am sure that I can convince my hon. Friend that no charge rests against the workers concerned, in regard to output. The additions which have been received to wages have been awarded to all the districts in the miners’ organisation in this country and are awarded on a scale in accordance with an increase in the cost of living. I can assure my hon. Friends that the points which have been put to me and to the Minister of Transport have been noted, and that we shall pay attention to what has been said. To the hon. Member who suggested that we should take control of the railways and work them, I would observe that while that is rather a revolutionary proposal I am quite willing for him to endeavour to persuade the House to acquire and control the railways. If he wants to do that, I am a candidate for the post of Minister of Transport in those conditions, but I am afraid the hon. Member will find some difficulty among the people to whom he talks in regard to that proposition. He said that if we were to increase the demurrage, that might have an effect. We have been trying to get people to secure the return of wagons, and we are not at all satisfied that it would be just or expedient to increase the demurrage.

There are difficult conditions for transport in these days. An appeal has been made, and a request, that my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Transport and I should work together for the common interest in order to secure and maintain the distribution of coal. I agree entirely, and I am glad that my right hon. and gallant Friend and I have been giver the opportunity to sit together on this Bench to-night to demonstrate our willingness to work together. I can assure the hon. Member that steps are already in operation, and that the outlook for the future is slightly better.