§ THE DUKE OF MONTROSE asked His Majesty's Government whether the Council conferring recently with the Minister of Mines in regard to the increased use of coal, has come to any practical decision; and whether the possibility of the Government assisting; directly or indirectly, any processes for coal distillation, has been considered. The noble Duke said: My Lords, I make no apology for rising to ask this Question. I feel sure that your Lordships will be as anxious as I am to hear the noble Lord who will reply for the Ministry of Mines tell us something which will give us hope and afford an opportunity of doing something definite to minimise the awful distress of unemployment now prevailing in the coal mines. I ask the Question because I understand that a recent Minister of Mines, before he demitted office, held a number of conferences with committees or associations or individuals who are large consumers of coal, the idea being to increase the consumption of coal. I should like to know whether anything resulted from these conferences, whether anything is likely to result, whether there is going to be any increase in the use of coal, and whether we are going to be told anything about the results, and, if so, when.
On one occasion the recent Minister of Mines said:
Coal distillation has passed from the territory of the scientist into the territory of the financier and the politician. It is a question of high finance, and one in which the State is the dominant factor. What is done within the next few months will open a new era for the coal industry.
The few months have gone by, but I do not think anything has happened which the public can recognise as a new era for the coal industry. What we wish to do, therefore, is to elicit information as to the present chances of using more coal. I suppose I am nearly right in saying that the coal mining industry has probably been hit harder than any of our other heavy industries. At the
present moment I believe there are something over a quarter of a million miners wholly unemployed, besides many thousands of other miners working on short time. But if you take the quarter of a million miners wholly unemployed, and consider what we are paying them in the way of "dole" and the allowances made in respect of their wives and children, I shall not be far wrong if I say we are spending £300,000 a week in unemployment relief in this one industry alone. That works out at £15,000,000 a year that we are paying in respect of the mining industry. And what have you got to show for it? Nothing. Nothing at all for £15,000,000, except physical degeneracy on the one hand and silent courage on the other.
§ I mention in my Question coal distillation because that was a process mentioned by the recent Minister of Mines in the quotation I read from his remarks. Coal distillation is one of those processes now very prominent in the public mind as a means of increasing the use of coal. When I think of the present position of this country in regard to Persia and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and their oil supplies, and when I think of the present position of this country in regard to America from the financial aspect, I cannot help feeling it would be to the advantage of this country to encourage the home production of oil, and not to buy so much from overseas. It would not only give employment in this country, but I believe it would help to rectify the trade balances.
§ There is no doubt that the use of coal in its raw state is really dying out in this country. In the Navy and in the mercantile marine, on the railways and in the great factories, oil is taking the place of coal. Even domestic lighting and heating are coming from gas and electricity, and, therefore, I think it may he accepted that if we are going to increase the use of coal it will have to be done by some form of special treatment. I remember very well, in the case of agriculture, the enormous encouragement that was given to the development of the sugar beet industry by the Government in guaranteeing the principal and interest on the capital expended in the erection of sugar beet factories. The worst of it is that in the coal industry all the collieries are so bankrupt now 288 that they have not the money to try any of these systems for the treatment of coal. I wonder whether it would not be possible to do for the coal industry what was done for the sugar beet industry, and whether the Government could not give some kind of a guarantee. As they did in the case of sugar, could not they guarantee the whole of the capital and interest? If they could not do that they might perhaps guarantee the interest on the debentures put up for the erection of factories. If the Government did that I believe that the necessary money would be forthcoming from private sources to make a success of coal distillation.
§ If the Government felt there was any risk in guaranteeing this interest, they have the advice and ability and experience possessed by the Fuel Research Board to guide them. They could not get any better advice, and I think if they listened to the advice of the Fuel Research Board their risks would be minimised. My knowledge of coal distillation is somewhat limited, but I believe it is right to say if some capital was put up so that we could treat some 8,000,000 tons of what I call smalls or fines—that is, small coal of poor quality, which is very often left at the bottom of the pit, and which perhaps would be sold at from 2s. 6d. to 3s. a ton at the pit—if we could have enough capital to treat say 8,000,000 tons of that coal, it would mean that we could produce 600,000 tons of oil and 2,500,000 tons of smokeless fuel, besides other by-products, and, in doing so, give work to 20,000 miners. If you took those 20,000 miners off the Unemployment Fund you would save the country £1,000,000 a year. Surely when we have so vast an amount of unemployment in the country something ought to be done on these lines.
§ We have a very good opportunity now. Within the last few weeks, under various Acts, a call has been made, for instance, in Scotland for the amalgamation of all the collieries in the Fife coalfield, and for the amalgamation of all collieries in West Lothian. I believe there is also under consideration a call for the amalgamation of all the collieries in the Lanark-shire area. If those amalgamations come about there will be a great opportunity of putting coal distillation to a really large commercial and economic test. Take the collieries in the Fife area. 289 It is an advantage, I believe, to have the distillation plant close to each pithead for treating the coal, but as regards the oil, it is an advantage to bring all the oil down to a central place for refining it. What better place could there be for a refinery than the disused Rosyth dockyard? There is an enormous dockyard put up at a cost of millions of pounds by this country lying idle there. Why not use it now as a centre for the oil refining of the amalgamated Fifeshire collieries? It would be an excellent centre for distribution and for shipping, and would be available for the Navy. We have already proved, I believe, in this country that oil produced from British coal is suitable for naval purposes. Why not go on with this scheme and give work to our people in this disused dockyard and in these large coal areas? It is in the hope of eliciting some information from the noble Lord who is going to reply for the Ministry of Mines that I ask the Question standing in my name.
§ LORD TEMPLEMORE
My Lords, it falls to me as representing the Ministry of Mines in your Lordships' House to answer to the best of my ability the Question which has been asked by my noble friend this afternoon in his very able and informing speech. What I liked about that speech and what I think your Lordships probably liked, was that we saw in it a desire to help. The noble Duke wished to help the unemployed, and it is because that spirit is abroad not only in your Lordships' House but in another place, and, I think, in the country as a whole, that I personally believe we shall pull through this difficult time. The noble Duke was, as I expected, referring to the Committee of the flack to Coal Movement, as this is the only Committee which has recently been conferring with the Secretary for Mines in regard to the increased use of coal. It may interest your Lordships if I give a short history of this movement, and inform you what it has done up to the present.
This Movement was formed in South Wales in the early part of 1931, primarily with the object of pressing for a larger use of coal by the Navy in place of imported oil. On this aspect of their activities a deputation was received by the Board of Admiralty in July, 1931, and by my right hon. friend the Lord President of the Council in April, 1932. 290 At the second meeting the Committee also raised the more general question of the wider utilisation of coal. On the question of the Navy reverting to the use of coal, the Committee were informed both by the Board of Admiralty and by the Lord President that the Government regretted their inability to accede to the request made. There were serious technical reasons which made it impracticable to adopt such a course. But it was pointed out that much research and experimental work had been carried out in an endeavour to produce from coal alternative fuels and that this work would be continued. On the more general question of securing a wider utilisation of coal and coal products the Committee were informed by the Lord President that this was a matter in which the Secretary for Mines was primarily concerned, and accordingly they brought a deputation to the Secretary for Mines in September last. On this occasion they were accompanied by several Members of Parliament representing Welsh constituencies. At this meeting the Committee made it clear that they had not receded from their main proposal that the Navy should revert to coal. The Secretary for Mines replied, however, that this was not a matter with which it was practicable for him to deal.
On the wider question proposals were made for the setting up of a Standing Committee whose duty should be the linking up of industry with research and the promotion of the commercial development of such new processes for the treatment and utilisation of coal as were considered to be worthy of it. It was pointed out to the deputation that the composition of such a Committee as that suggested would necessarily be very similar to that of the Fuel Research Board and that the terms of reference proposed might overlap those of the Board. The Secretary for Mines agreed to consider whether the object which both he and the deputation had at heart—namely, the greatest possible use of coal—would best be met by the extension of the terms of reference of the Fuel Research Board and possibly by an addition to the commercial representation on it, or by separating the development stage and certain aspects of publicity from the Board and handing them over to a separate Committee. It was there- 291 upon agreed that a small sub-committee of the deputation should be appointed to discuss this proposal in more detail with representatives of the Mines Department and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.
There has since been some correspondence between the Committee of the Movement and the Secretary for Mines, which ended with a letter dated the 27th October last from the Secretary of Mines inviting the sub-committee to meet representatives of the two Departments as agreed. An acknowledgment of this was received intimating that the letter would be placed before the Committee of the Movement at the earliest opportunity, but since that date no further communication has reached the Department.
As regards the second part of my noble friend's Question, if he is asking whether the question of securing Government assistance for processes for coal distillation has been considered by the Back to Coal Movement, the answer is that no specific proposal has been put forward, nor so far as is known has such a proposal been under consideration by the Movement. But as regards the question whether the Government have considered the question of giving help to these processes, the answer is that a great deal of help has been given. The Government Fuel Research station has for a number of years spent a large sum of money annually on such work and at the present time a considerable extension of this work is being carried out designed to explore further the best means of treating tars obtained by the distillation of coal whether by low temperature or by high temperature processes. The Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry have carried out experiments in the use of oil products obtained from coal and these will be continued. The Government are also seeking to encourage the use of smokeless fuels obtained both by high and low temperature distillation of coal by using a proportion of such fuels in Government Departments. In addition, motor spirit produced in this country as a result of the distillation of coal is free from the duty imposed on motor spirit produced from imported petroleum. As this duty amounts to 8d. a gallon the preference is a very material one.
I do not know whether my noble friend will be satisfied, but that is all the 292 answer I can give him on his specific Question. He has during the course of his speech put forward suggestions which will be considered by His Majesty's Government—for instance, whether a guarantee can be given for the establishment of plant for the distillation of coal in the same manner as a guarantee was given to the growers of sugar beet. Obviously that is a question on which I cannot give an answer at the moment. I can only say that that, and his possibly useful suggestion about the utilisation of the derelict Rosyth dockyard, will be noted with other suggestions of my noble friend the Minister for Mines. I will see that he has a copy of this debate, because I will send it him with my own hand. In conclusion, I beg on my own behalf and on behalf of His Majesty's Government to thank the noble Duke for his speech and for the very useful suggestions he has made.