HC Deb 17 January 1940 vol 356 cc125-42

Order for Second Reading read.

3.16 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Bernays)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The House will recall that last month a concession was proposed in respect of the taxation of gas-propelled vehicles, and a Ways and Means Resolution giving effect to it received the approval of this House. It was necessary to adopt this procedure in order that this concession might operate from 1st January, at the beginning of the motor vehicles licensing year, but that resolution will lapse after 20 parliamentary days unless the confirming Bill receives a Second Reading from this House. The Government are, therefore, asking the House to-day to give the Second Reading to this Bill in order that that concession in respect of taxation may be given permanent effect and, following on the statement which I was able to make in the Debate on the Ways and Means Resolution, I do not think the House will want me again to go over the details of this concession. It is designed to carry out the pledge of my hon. Friend the Secretary for Mines that no increase of taxation should result from the production of, or the conversion to, gas-propelled vehicles.

The Bill, in effect, provides for the removal of the burden of extra taxation which might otherwise result in respect of the weight of gas plant or container on any goods vehicles, which as the House knows are taxed on unladen weight and not on horse-power, or of the provision of a trailer to carry the plant or containers. This Bill deals only with goods vehicles, since passenger vehicles are taxed either on their seating capacity or their horse-power and are not subject to a trailer duty. It is anticipated that this Bill will ensure that conversion from petrol to gas propulsion will not result for the owner in any increase of the burden of his licence duty. I hope the House, which unanimously agreed to the Ways and Means Resolution, will be willing in the same way to express unanimity in regard to this Bill.

3.21 p.m.

Mr. Georģe Hall

I can assure the hon. Member who has moved the Second Reading of this Bill that we shall offer no opposition to its passage, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence) stated when we discussed the Financial Resolution. We think that such a Measure is long overdue, and it is a sad fact that it needed the stimulus of a war to force the Government to consider this question of only one alternative fuel. There is no doubt that the ease with which oil fuels have been obtainable and the efficiency of their distribution have lulled this nation into a false sense of security. Anything which will assist in the provision of alternative fuel, for road or sea transport, is welcomed by those of us who come from the mining districts of this country.

This Bill does give a valuable concession for gas-propelled vehicles and will materially assist in their use, but the value of the concession must not be exaggerated. It does mean that the weight of the plant necessary for the production of the gas will be exempt from any duty. For years the Government have been pressed to make such a concession, but they would not give way. I remember that three years ago I and certain Members from the other side of the House waited upon the then Minister of Transport and begged him to make a similar concession, but he refused. But that has not prevented many enterprising people and companies from following up this question of the gas-producer vehicles. We have seen certain progress made in connection with it. We thank the Secretary for Mines and that excellent committee which was appointed to consider the question of designs, not only for the production of those designs but for persuading the Minister of Transport to agree and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make the concession which this Bill contains.

For some reason or other, this nation has always been behind Continental countries in dealing with this question of alternative fuels. Even in the case of producer-gas, France, Germany and Italy have long ago not only reduced taxation but have made the use of such vehicles compulsory in many cases. France has done much to throw off this yoke of using petrol only, and Germany, in order to meet her needs, has done a very large amount of similar work; so has Italy. It has taken the war to wake us up in this matter. I take it that the design referred to by the Secretary for Mines some six weeks ago is now available for manufacturers who can produce it, that both the design suitable for the trailer and the design suitable for the chassis—for there must be two sorts of design—are available for any suitable manufacturer who can manufacture these things. No estimate has been given as to the possible cost of the design, and that must play a large part in the extended use of these gas-propelled vehicles.

Also, I wish the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport had given some estimate of the possible saving in fuel costs through the use of gas-producer vehicles instead of petrol-driven vehicles. It is a question not only of the scarcity of petrol but also of the increasing price of petrol. I remember the tremendous increase which took place in petrol prices during the last war—and not only during the war. In 1920 the cost of petrol increased to no less than 4s. 3d. a gallon; and the taxation levied upon petrol at that time was less than it is now. I have seen certain estimates of the possible saving. A reference was made in a South Wales paper quite recently to a local authority which took a petrol-driven vehicle from South Wales into the Midlands, and the cost in petrol alone for the journey amounted to something like 22S. But when the vehicle had been converted into a producer-gas vehicle the cost of bringing it back to South Wales was not more than 3s. That is an indication of the economy which can be achieved.

I do not propose to take up much of the time of the House, but I should like to mention one or two limitations which this producer-gas possesses. As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, it requires comparatively simple engine modification. I have no doubt that this is one of the factors which will put these producer-gas vehicles very much into the limelight. The re-conversion of a vehicle back from producer-gas to petrol consumption will be equally simple. But there is one other side to the picture. It must be remembered that the fuels suitable to produce this gas are very limited. It is just a question of anthracite and low-temperature-carbonisation coal. I would ask that the Fuel Research Board should continue their research in order to ascertain whether there is not a wider range of fuels suitable. Otherwise, we may have a number of these producer-gas vehicles without having the necessary amount of suitable fuel.

The producer-gas vehicle does not by any means exhaust the field of alternative fuels, and I would like the Government to press for a greater use of steam vehicles. I do this because of the simplicity of the steam vehicle engine, its reliability and its flexibility, and because a very wide range of coals is suitable for the purpose. Perhaps I have just an ulterior motive in this matter because some hundreds of miners in my division have been thrown out of employment as a result of the steam lorry being driven from the road. The steam lorry of to-day is very different from the steam lorry in use during the last war. Many of the objections that were made against it ten years ago have now disappeared. It makes very little noise and there is a minimum amount of smoke. It is not as bulky as many of the vehicles which now appear upon the roads. I beg of the Minister of Transport and the Secretary for Mines, in dealing with this question of alternative fuels, to keep in mind the return of the old steam lorry.

As I have said, we welcome this Bill, for it marks a change in the negative attitude adopted by the Government in the past when we have asked that something should be done to assist tie use of alternative fuels. My hon. Friends and I, and representatives of the mining industry, have for many years pressed the Government to proceed with energy not only with the research into the use of alternative fuels, but to take action in regard to them as well. We have always been met with formidable obstacles but we have always been convinced that there has been a clear case for the full utilisation of oil substitutes based upon our own natural resources of coal, and this Bill is a start. We welcome it and trust that ere long the Secretary for Mines will himself stand up at that Box and expound a very much larger scheme of fuel alternatives, and possibly inform the House and the country that it is the intention not only to deal with producer-gas, but with oil extraction from coal as well.

3.33 P.m.

Mr. Ellis Smith

I want to begin by making an appeal to the Prime Minister and those who advise him to reconsider their decision to take the Committee stage of this Bill to-morrow. The Bill is a very important: one, and it will make an important contribution to the economy of the nation, if it is altered in certain ways. Some of us can produce evidence to show that it is most important from the national point of view that the Committee stage of the Bill ought not to be taken to-morrow, so as to give time for facts to be produced in this House to assist those who are responsible for the introduction of this Measure. We wish to attempt to show the need for a drastic change in regard to the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. George Hall) said, a number of us on this side of the House have taken a great interest in this question, and I regret to say that it has taken four months of war to show the need for such a Bill. Since 1936 I have put down question after question on this problem, all of which have been deliberately designed to stimulate interest in the need for the adoption of alternative methods of motor power. I think that this Bill is more important than many people realise, and I welcome its introduction because it is a small step in the right direction, but, considering the serious situation in which we are placed, I do not think that the step is great enough. Therefore I want to produce evidence and make some observations in order that between now and the Committee stage the Minister of Transport and the Secretary for Mines and their officials can reconsider the Bill.

In order that the House can consider the Bill in its correct perspective I wish to give an indication of what has been taking place in other countries. I would very much like to give indications of why we are in this position, but I do not want to be hypercritical this afternoon or responsible for raising any controversial issue. I want to make an objective contribution in order that we may get the best possible benefit out of this Bill. In France, in 1938, there were 10,000 vehicles being run upon producer-gas; in Germany, in 1937, there were 1,207; in Italy, 1,5oo; and in Russia, in 1938, 15,000; while in Britain, in 1939, there were only 30 vehicles being run upon producer-gas. That is an indication of the leeway that we have to make up if we are to get the best out of this Bill.

As I have said, this Bill could be made a great contribution to the economy of this nation, but I want to point out some of the defects of the Bill and to indicate the changes that will be necessary if we are to keep up with other countries in regard to development. The consumption of liquid fuel in this country could he considerably reduced if this Bill were based upon right lines. I would be the very first to admit the necessity for the maximum economy in the consumption of petrol, and if we admit that fact, it clearly shows the need for alternative methods of motive power. If this Bill were on the right lines, the whole of the imports into this country could be considerably educed. It would help the Chancellor, of the Exchequer and others in regard to the foreign exchange, which could then be used to facilitate the importation of food, munitions and raw material. We would also be able to reduce the number of convoys bringing petrol to this country, and the Naval and Air units engaged in this service could be used for other purposes. If the Bill were on the lines that the scientists of this country demand, it would mean a great expansion of our coal trade and of home-produced fuel. It would assist in the balance of trade.

The Bill opens up great possibilities. It is a small step forward, but, having regard to the very serious situation in which we find ourselves, it will not deal adequately with the problem. I would emphasise that we shall not get the best results from the Bill unless more energetic action is taken by the Minister of Transport and the Secretary for Mines than they have taken up to the present. I know of no more important question, and the Minister of Transport should take early steps in order to broadcast what ought to be done in connection with proposals of this kind. Let me give an indication. By an approximate capital expenditure on a commercial vehicle or bus of £95, plus £5 for fitting, £100 in all, it would be possible to convert such a vehicle. There would no longer be any need to be concerned about petrol, and it would be possible to reduce running costs by approximately two-thirds. Trade union officials have recently made statements before the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Transport stating that they are very seriously concerned about the Minister of Transport's lack of policy. This is supported by commercial firms and organisations throughout this country and by all hon. Members on both sides of the House who realise what is taking place with regard to transport in industrial centres.

In France, Germany, and Italy this type of motive power has been encouraged by reduced taxation, and in other ways, and I want to ask the Minister and the Secretary for Mines, who have both a great deal of responsibility in this matter, whether they are satisfied with this Bill as it is being proposed at the present time. The House is entitled to an answer. If not, will they reconsider their decision to take the Committee stage on this Bill to-morrow in order that the evidence that is going to be produced can be considered and suitable Amendments proposed, so that the industrial people of this country can have justice done to their claims? Here is the position, briefly: We have two big transport concerns; one on this side of the road and one on the other. The transport concern on this side of the road decides from patriotic motives, and also from having taken a long view of the situation, to convert from the use of petrol to producer-gas. That decision will mean their being involved in a capital expenditure per vehicle of approximately £95. But as a result of that expenditure they will be rendering great benefit to the nation by swinging over from the consumption of petrol to producer-gas. The firm on this side of the road pays no heed to the appeal by the Minister of Transport to economise in petrol, and it is not fair that a position of that kind should be allowed. If firms arc prepared to swing over from the consumption of petrol to producer-gas and embark on such capital expenditure, they should be encouraged.

Therefore, I say that this Bill is not going far enough. It is another indication of the need for Amendments to be introduced on the Committee stage in order to get the best out of it. In my view, greater concessions ought to be in the Bill, and I want to suggest two or three Amendments before we reach the Committee stage. Clause 1, Sub-section (2), only makes allowances for the weight of the extra equipment, and I want to ask the Minister to consider whether he cannot do more to encourage those who are prepared to use home-produced fuel. Cannot he introduce an Amendment in order to make each vehicle that is converted tax free for 12 months or two years?

The Minister of Transport (Captain Wallace)

Will the hon. Gentleman forgive me? I do not know whether he has quite appreciated the fact that this Bill is founded upon a Ways and Means Resolution and that it is impossible for it to go outside the terms of that Resolution.

Mr. Smith

I thank the Minister for pointing that out, but, of course, that is one of the difficulties of the position in which we find ourselves.

Mr. James Griffiths

Do we gather from the Minister that if there was a disposition to grant a greater concession, such as suggested by my hon. Friend, we are precluded on the Second Reading of a Bill from putting forward a suggestion of that kind?

Mr. Speaker

I do not think it is out of order to suggest a reduction.

Mr. Smith

I do not claim to understand procedure to the extent of being able to debate these fine Parliamentary technicalities, but I understood that it was in order on the Second Reading of a Bill to make proposals of such a kind, based on the principles contained in the Bill. I see on both sides of the House hon. Members who are connected with the industry in various ways and who have been tolerant enough to listen to the evidence that I have tried to produce. I know that an important statement is going to be made about the problem of economic warfare, but this is one aspect of economic warfare, and I attach much importance to it. Unless the Government and Members on both sides take more drastic action with regard to this matter, it is no use making an appeal to the people where we come from, and those whom we represent, in regard to wages and other considerations, unless there is to be more ruthless organisation of the resources of this country than at the present time. But I want to keep within the limits of the Bill, and I want to tell the Minister that if he does not move on the lines that we are indicating, he will find himself in a considerable amount of trouble in the next 12 months.

As a result of putting Questions on the Order Paper I have had a number of letters from various people. I have made it my duty to meet these people in order thoroughly to understand the position. If what I have suggested is not in order, I hope that the Ways and Means Resolution will be withdrawn, so that the House will be able to consider the proposals that I have indicated. I hope also that the Minister will consider the insertion of a new Clause which would give confidence to commercial firms which are prepared to swing over from petrol to home-produced fuel. If a firm resolves to go from petrol and use producer-gas, it will be involved in an expenditure of some thousands of pounds, and such a firm is entitled to some consideration. It should have some confidence as to the future. I suggest that there ought to be a Clause to the effect that the Bill shall continue in operation for at least two years after the termination of the war.

Then I also want the Minister to consider the suggestion that between blackout times, that is, from morning until evening, in the case of motors using trailers the speed limit should be taken off. I know a number of companies which are going to use trailers, and that will mean that they will be subject to a speed limit of 20 miles an hour. That is most unfair to the people who are prepared to swing over from petrol to producer-gas. Since 1935 the taxation of vehicles using producer-gas has been halved in Germany, and from 1936 to 1939 a State subsidy of 500 marks was given in that country to every converted vehicle. In France there have been substantial concessions. In June, 1938, there was a decree that 10 per cent. of the vehicles belonging to any firm owning more than 10 vehicles must he operated on home-produced fuel, and in Italy all passenger vehicles have to be operated on home-produced fuel and the State bears two-thirds of the cost of conversion. I hope the Minister will consider what has been clone in other countries.

I am asking that more energetic action should he taken on this matter because it is vital to national economy and to the winning of the war. I feel compelled to say that the Ministry of Transport is not functioning at present as energetically as it should. In the industrial centres we still have appallingly long queues of people. The position is as bad now as when we raised the matter some months ago, and when hon. Members opposite said that we did right to raise the issue. I am not blaming the Minister of Transport or the Secretary for Mines when they demand that there should be the maximum economy in the use of petrol. I was in the Tank Corps during the war, and I know how tanks simply eat petrol. It is most essential, therefore, that we should economise, and I am prepared to back up the Ministry in every possible way in that direction. But having said that, I do not think we are being fair to transport companies. One important transport company writes: For the past few weeks we have been allowed only one-third of the fuel we require. We are afraid that the position is becoming hopeless. We have a depot full of goods awaiting transport. Another company writes: Since writing to you, the fuel position has got much worse, and we are wondering what is going to happen to us. We are going into the matter of fuel for lorries, but at present it is not possible to obtain alternative fuel. That is only typical of what is happening in industrial centres. I am convinced that the Minister of Transport and his officials are out of touch with the conditions in industrial centres, or they would not take the complacent view they do in regard to this question. Our convoy system on the seas is working efficiently, greatly to the credit of the Admiralty. It is working more efficiently than many people think, and when we consider that we have only been at war for four months and that our convoy system is working so efficiently, it is greatly to the credit of the Admiralty and all those who are connected with it. But it means a loss of at least 25 per cent. in efficiency, plus a loss through lower speed in the discharge of cargoes. It only shows the need for utilising the tonnage available to the best advantage, for a cargo saved means a ship available for other purposes. About 2,500,000 tons per year of imported oil could be replaced if the Minister of Transport and the Secretary for Mines were more determined and energetic in the proposals behind this Bill.

We demand a complete mobilisation of the transport system of this country and that it should be run on home-produced fuel. There is going to be a great strain on the transport system in the next 12 months. Why have we not used our canals to a much greater extent? The answer given by the Secretary for Mines yesterday to a Question by the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. G. Macdonald) was to the effect that one of the most important factors in regard to short time in the mining industry was the difficulty of transport. What I am saying is that producer-gas engines could be easily placed upon the roads. Hon. Members who come from industrial centres know that the canals were built in the industrial revolution.

Mr. Speaker

I hardly think that this has much to do with the Bill.

Mr. Smith

What I am saying is that there are thousands of miners in this country on short time unnecessarily, and that home-produced fuel and producer-gas mechanism could be easily placed on the boats using the canals. The boats on the canals are not being used because the Minister of Transport is not making proper use of the proposals in this Bill. I ask that this Bill should be drastically altered in order that we can get the best out of the canal system of the country and in order that we can utilise the economic resources of the country to the best advantage in the prosecution of the war.

Mr. Speaker

The Bill deals with a particular kind of road transport, and we cannot raise the question of canals.

Mr. Smith

With great respect for your Ruling, Sir, I will not continue on that line. If the Minister was pursuing this matter of road transport in the energetic way in which the armed Forces of the Crown are pursuing their undertakings, we should be in a better position in regard to the transport system. There will be a great strain upon the railways, and if bombing to any great extent takes place, the Ministry of Transport will have a serious responsibility for the situation. Up to the present we have been immune from bombing in this country, but if bombing takes place on important railway arteries, it will mean that we shall want road transport immediately, and it is therefore most important that our road transport should be organised as efficiently as possible. I therefore ask for the Financial Resolution to be withdrawn and for the Committee stage to be postponed in order that the Minister of Transport and the Secretary for Mines may reconsider the matter and deal with it in the way that the country demands.

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Hiģģs

I seldom find myself so completely in agreement as I do on the present occasion with the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. E. Smith), whom I congratulate on the greater portion of his speech. I have taken a considerable interest in this problem of gas fuel and producer-fuel for vehicles, and since I have been in the House of Commons I have spoken on the subject four or five times, I have written to Ministers at least six or seven times, and I have asked numerous questions. I have always had very polite replies from the Ministers, but I cannot claim to have influenced the introduction of this Bill. I suppose the Ministers have many similar requests, but when the present Minister of Transport came into office I asked him a question, in Committee, on this problem, and he was not then familiar with it, because he immediately referred to one of the officials, and I could see, by the replies that the official gave him, that the official mind was opposed to this Bill. I feel convinced that that has been the reason for this type of legislation not having been introduced earlier. When the present Prime Minister was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he was approached by the Chairman of the Birmingham Gas Department to institute legislation in order to permit the kind of vehicles with which this Bill deals to be run on advantageous lines. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister did not see the necessity for it at that time. Electric vehicles have had this concession for a considerable period, and there is quite a number of electric vehicles on the road, but they are not nearly so beneficial and useful for transport as gas-propelled vehicles would be. I have not so much hope in the use of steam. It has been tried many times and in many countries, and I do not think its future is great.

To turn to the Bill, there are two types of vehicles dealt with. There is the vehicle that carries containers in which the gas is compressed—generally coal gas—and there is the vehicle with a plant for producing gas, carried on a trailer. With regard to the container type, the Birmingham Gas Department has been doing experimental work on this type of vehicle for the last 10 years, and I am under the impression that that department has had considerable influence on this Bill being introduced into the House of Commons. There are some gas departments in the country that are defeatists and are opposed to this type of vehicle, which I consider has. a considerable future. We want the nation on top with regard to developments of this character. We well remember how the use of the red flag retarded the progress of road transport, and I consider that the legislation and the taxation that have been applied to heavy vehicles of this description have been responsible for retarding the progress and development of the gas-propelled vehicle.

To get the maximum effect from the Bill, the gas must not be rationed for this purpose and the gas must not be taxed for this purpose. I understand that when vehicles propelled by producer-gas are to be put on the roads, the ration of petrol is going to be reduced for any undertaker who uses these gas-propelled vehicles. If that is done, it will be very detrimental to the process, and I think the ration of petrol should remain what it is and that the gas-propelled vehicles should be allowed in addition. I do not claim that this type of vehicle will oust or substitute the petrol-driven vehicle, but it will be additional haulage if the Government encourage it by still giving the ration of petrol to which hauliers are already entitled. Vehicles with compressed gas have the gas compressed at something in the order of 3,000 lbs. per square inch, and I understand that one of the difficulties in the immediate future is that of obtaining cylinders to withstand that pressure. It may be one particular problem that will prevent compressed gas being used, but then we have the alternative form of the producer-gas, in which that problem does not arise. As the hon. Member for Stoke has said, these vehicles can be converted at a cost of £80 or £90 for a 20 horse-power car, and the total operating costs are then something less than with petrol at is. 6d. a gallon. There is a slight loss of engine power, but special engines have been developed by an important Midland firm for a 14 horse-power car that will do 140 miles on one charge of compressed gas, and the extra cost is about £70.

The hon. Member for Stoke gave figures with regard to what other nations are doing, and I can confirm practically every figure that he gave, but I have a little additional information here with regard to Germany. I have a cutting out of a local paper of 29th December last, as follows: A new decree will be issued early in January requiring that all motor lorries shall be adapted for the use of gas fuel and not petrol. This transformation must be completed by the end of 1940. It is estimated that as early as the end of January 40,000 lorries will have been changed over to the use of gas. The change-over in the case of private cars is to be the subject of a special decree. The town of Neath is very interested in this question owing to the anthracite industry there, and I have an extract from a little book issued by that town, as follows: In Rome last year a conference of delegates inspected a fleet of 130 omnibuses, and by the end of 1938 the Italians expect to have 2,500 buses of this type. In France about 5,500 gas-producer vehicles are in use, and one company alone is selling producers at the rate of about 250 a month. Out of every to commercial vehicles now produced in France, one must be gas-producer driven. Those extracts deal with 1938, and I give them in order to show the House the importance of this Bill, the possibilities of the development of this type of vehicle, and how this country is lagging behind other nations of the world in this respect. I found that there were vehicles of this type running in South Africa two or three years ago. Our Government have now taken a step in the right direction, and, of course, it is up to the manufacturer to do his part. I believe that much progress will be made. I can understand critics of the Bill saying, Well, the only advantage that the user is getting is a few pounds saved on taxation." It should be remembered that in the case of a lot of people, when they buy a car the first question that they ask is not what the insurance or depreciation will be, but what the consumption and the costs of running and taxation will be. The taxation is the great point, because people look upon it as though they are paying something for nothing when they are paying taxation. That state of mind towards this vehicle exists, and I am convinced that with this reduction of taxation there will be a considerable advance in the quantity manufactured. As a matter of fact, there are practically no vehicles of this type running in this country to-day —five or six at the most.

With regard to what the hon. Member opposite said as to the importation of fuel, in 1938 we imported daily 50,000 tons of food, and in that same year we imported daily 30,000 tons of oil. If we could reduce that importation of oil by using vehicles of this description, surely it would be a great national asset. There is far more work being done on this problem throughout the world and by engineering concerns in this country than the man in the street realises, but a lot of people realise it and are very anxious indeed to get the article on the market. Several engines have now been developed that make it possible to run this type of vehicle at a cost equal to 7d. a gallon for petrol. That is referring to the producer kind of vehicle, generally fitted on a trailer. In many parts of the world oil is very expensive. Petrol evaporates very rapidly in hot climates, and there is quite an export market for this type of producer. Before the war Germany exported this type of vehicle, using producer-gas, to the Far East, and they were running them on ground nut oil and bean oil. They can be run on many fuels, whereas the petrol vehicle cannot, and I consider that after the war is over, if we develop this vehicle as I anticipate we shall develop it, it will be of considerable advantage to our export trade. We are wrong in continuing to operate all our road transport on imported petroleum, and I am indeed delighted that the Government have seen their way to introduce this Bill. I agree with the hon. Member opposite that the Bill does not go far enough and that probably further concessions will have to be given, but it is a step in the right direction, and I am very pleased to see that the Bill has been introduced.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

I feel sure that right hon. Gentlemen on the Government Front Bench and hon. Members in all parts of the House will agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke (Mr. Ellis Smith) made an interesting speech. My hon. Friend did not inform me beforehand that he was anxious to have a postponement of the Committee stage. If he had done so, perhaps we might have been able to arrange that before the Business of the House was settled; but I am sure the Patronage Secretary will not allow a technicality of that kind to stand in the way if there is some point of importance to be discussed. It is the usual procedure of the House to have an interval between the Second Reading and the Committee stage for the purpose of giving hon. Members an opportunity, if they think fit, to put down Amendments for the consideration of Ministers and the House, and if those Amendments prove to be good, we adopt them. The only reason this procedure was not followed in the case of some recent legislation was that a great deal of that legislation was of an agreed character, and it did not seem to hon. Members on either side that it was necessary to have a long delay between the Second Reading and the Committee stage.

I should like to suggest to the Minister and the Patronage Secretary that this matter of a postponement might be discussed through the usual channels. During the interval, no doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke would formulate his Amendments, and then we could see whether they could be fitted into the structure of the Bill. Those Amendments would, of course, have to be in line with the general scope of the Bill, but apart from that, there is no rigid yardstick with which they would have to conform; and if my hon. Friend's Amendments contained proposals which would be of benefit to this very important industry, and if the Government and the House found that it was suitable to insert those Amendments in the Bill, that could be done. Therefore, I hope the Patronage Secretary will give consideration to the suggestion that a postponement of the Committee stage should be discussed through the usual channels.

Mr. E. Smith

I would not like it to be thought that in this matter I have not played the game. I did not know that it was proposed to take the Committee stage to-morrow until the Prime Minister made his statement on the Business. That is the explanation of the position.

4.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Captain Margesson)

I see no reason why the Government should not accede to the request that the Committee stage of this Bill should be postponed from to-morrow to an early day next week. Like the right hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence), I had no idea that there was any objection to taking the Committee stage to-morrow. From the Debate on the Ways and Means Resolution, I thought that the House as a whole was anxious that the Bill should be passed as quickly as possible. All the speeches that were made then, including the speech of the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. Ellis Smith), were in favour of the Resolution, and consequently, the Government felt that we might as well get to the Committee stage as quickly as possible. In view of what has been said, however, I think that obviously it would be convenient to put off the Committee stage until early next week.

4.19 P.m.

Sir Stanley Reed

I should like to say a few words in support of three principles which have been stated by hon. Members. First, the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. George Hall) urged the Minister of Mines not to relax in his anxiety to produce alternative fuels to the fuels now available. We know from experience that when there is a limited supply of any commodity and a fresh demand suddenly springs up, the price is apt to go up disproportionately. Those who come from mining districts know that not so very long ago part of the product of the anthracite mines—anthracite grit—was virtually going to waste, but that as a result of the discovery of a new method of using this anthracite grit, this product is now being sold at £3 or £4 a ton. Secondly, with all deference to my hon. Friend the Member for West Birmingham (Mr. Higgs), I hope the Minister will accept the suggestion of the hon. Member for Aberdare, and not turn a cold shoulder to the steam engine. If there were more steam engines on the roads to-day, that would be a solution of some of the problems, the losses and the disabilities, that arise in all parts of the country owing to a lack of adequate road transport as a result of petrol rationing.

It seems to me that the basic point was raised by the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. Ellis Smith). I think that the principle which the hon. Member adumbrated was absolutely unanswerable—namely, that this Bill should do something more than remove a disability, and that it should give an incentive—that it should guarantee—to those who will turn from petrol to producer-gas, either in the form of a direct financial inducement or in the form of a long-term assurance, that the Bill will operate long enough to cover the whole capital cost which the conversion of the lorries entails. How that could be done is a matter for consideration, but I hope that in all parts of the House there will be support for the principle which the hon. Member put with such clarity. I was for many years engaged on work in connection with transport. I know how fatally easy it is to concentrate on the simple method of using petrol and petroleum products for transportation purposes. With the perfection of the petrol vehicle, and even more the engine using Diesel oil, there is every inducement to use oils everywhere available, and not to embark on any form of experimentation. I hope that whatever Amendments may be framed, they will embody the principle that the Bill should not only remove a disability, but give a direct and definite inducement to road transport operators to swing over to producer-gas. If this were done, it would relieve the demand for petrol, and so conserve our shipping resources and what is equally important, our command of foreign exchange.

Mr. E. Smith

I should like to thank the Patronage Secretary and the Minister for the course which they have taken.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House for To-morrow.—[Captain Margesson.]