HC Deb 11 July 1946 vol 425 cc729-38

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Joseph Henderson.]

10.52 p.m.

Mr. William Shepherd (Bucklow)

I wish tonight to raise the question of petrol rationing, and to endeavour to obtain from the Minister of Fuel and Power some definite assurance which will clear up the misunderstanding and the doubt which exist at the present time in the minds of so many people. It has been almost an impossibility for any Member of this House to obtain any information of any real value from the Minister on the question of petrol rationing. In fact, we have had for some time what I would describe as "the iron curtain of Westminster," which has made its European counterpart at times almost like a piece of chiffon. What I want to do tonight is to try to get through these difficulties and find out exactly what is happening. I suggest there has been, on the part of many Ministries, a hang-over of security from the war period, which officialdom has found very convenient indeed. The time has come when the public should be given some facts. The information which we have extracted from the Minister of Fuel and Power has been extracted by means almost as physically arduous as mining itself. What I want him to do tonight is to come through clean without any further pressure from His Majesty's Opposition. We have not had any concrete information on the reasons why we 'are still inflicted with a very rigorous petrol rationing.

We have been offered a diversity of reasons, such as the need for military usage, the difficulty of obtaining tyres, the shortage of tankers, the lack of dollars, and the difficulty of refineries handling the volume of spirit that would be necessary. I have no doubt at all that there was some substance in all these observations, but I suggest to the Minister that most of these reasons are now of decreasing importance. If we examine these reasons we find ample justification for a reduction in the present rigorous rate of ration. Let us look at the military requirements. It is true that, as a consequence of pressure applied by His Majesty's Opposition, the Government have demobilised during the year at almost double the rate they had intended to demobilise. Surely, that has made a considerable difference in the original calculations as far as petrol is concerned, and justifies some optimism that a relaxation should come about. In Germany, as an occupied country, for example, eight or nine months ago military units were using more petrol on their work at that time than they had been using during the fullest scale of operations. This, I understand, has been taken in hand, and the requirements in that direction are not as heavy as eight or nine months ago.

The Minister of Fuel and Power has stated that tankers are a problem. I am convinced that at the time he said that, it was true, and tankers had to be diverted from their work in the Far East to another theatre. I believe that this diversion is no longer taking place, and that we can say, with some degree of assurance, that there is ample tanker space to carry the petrol which we require. The same diminishing value can be put upon the argument concerning tyres. The position of rubber in the Far East certainly exceeded all our most optimistic expectations, and there can be no real difficulty in meeting needs in that direction.

The security which hangs over all these figures makes it difficult for me to say whether the refinery capacity is equal to the needs which would obtain if petrol rationing were relaxed altogether. In view of the fact that refineries no longer have to cater for such an enormous quantity of Too octane petrol as they did during the war, it may reasonably be expected that they would be able to cater for any of our domestic demands. The sixth reason given by the Minister, which is one to which I believe he attached and still attaches a great deal of importance, is the question of providing the necessary fund of dollars. I believe that he maintains the position that, while there is enough petrol in the sterling area to provide this country with all that it needs, it might be necessary to spend dollars to provide petrol for the whole sterling area. That may be so, but have we not been told by the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the tremendous improvement in our exports, and how the whole of the country is surging towards prosperity? Have we not been told that the dollar position is not as doleful as it might be expected to be? I suggest that the Minister of Fuel and Power should try to capture a little of the infectious gaiety and almost boyish enthusiasm of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and, at the same time, capture some of his golden dollars for petrol for the hard-pressed people of this country.

I want to deal with one or two classes of people who are in extraordinary need of petrol. People who are invalids—and there are a lot who fall in that category—are at present suffering in health because they cannot get out into the countryside, or to other places, where they can enjoy themselves, because of lack of petrol. Then there are the commercial travellers. I think that under the system of society which the right hon. Gentleman ultimately hopes to establish in this country, the commercial traveller will not perform an economic function, but as the consumers' choice has not yet been eliminated, they do perform a proper function, and they are a very reputable body of men. They are now facing the position in which competition is about to show its influence again, and if they wish to establish themselves with their customers by personal contact, an extra ration of petrol is a necessity.

I make no bones in saying that the private motorist is entitled to better treatment than that which the Minister of Fuel and Power has handed out to him up to now. The private motorist is entitled to go out and enjoy himself. This country has been through an extremely difficult time, and so have its people, and they are entitled to the pleasure that motoring can give. That pleasure is not confined to the rich. I suggest that the poor man who runs a car gets more pleasure out of it than the rich man, and that; the Minister of Fuel and Power would do well to give this petrol to make a little greater the meagre pleasures of the people at the present time. I am fortified in this demand to abolish petrol rationing by the fact that many countries on the Continent of Europe have already done so. It is, perhaps, not unreasonable to expect that countries like the U.S.A. and Canada should have done so. But we find that of the countries on the Continent, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal and Holland have abolished rationing and yet, here are we allowed only a miserable ration. It is not remarkable that many people in this country are wondering whether, after all, a Nazi war is not more grievous to bear than a Socialist peace.

I am not pretending that all countries in Europe are free from rationing. Rat may we look for a moment at those countries which have rationing? Let us look at France. The English motorist who goes to France, on arrival, gets 33 gallons—I do not know how long it would take him to get 33 gallons in this country —and he then gets II gallons a week—a very generous state of affairs in a country which is not doing as well as we are, if all the stories which the present Government put out are correct. A traveller from this country who takes his car to Belgium gets 66 gallons a month for a 10 horse-power car—a thing unheard of in Great Britain. So, when we ask that we should receive a more liberal ration, or that the ration be abolished, we are justified on the basis of what is happen- ing in European countries, because, if those countries which were occupied during the war can do so well, we, surely, can, at least, do something along those lines. I suggest that dollars are available, and that the Debates which we have had in this House during the past week or so indicate that dollars must be available. After all, we are told by right hon. Gentlemen who are colleagues of the Minister of Fuel and Power that they cannot buy the vast stocks of grain from dollar sources which they would wish. We are told that they cannot buy the stocks of oils and fats which they desire. Surely, if that be the case, there must be a reserve of dollars which would have been spent upon other commodities, and which might be diverted to the purchase of petrol. If the pleas which I make tonight to the Minister to abolish rationing altogether, or to give us a much more liberal allocation, fail, and they may do, because the Minister is a very hardhearted man, I would ask that some consideration be given to people who have to go on holiday. I feel that there is nothing whatsoever which prevents the right hon. Gentleman from making a generous gesture towards those people who have to go on holidays, and want to use their cars. I am certain the right hon. Gentleman could do something for that class of the community.

The final reason I urge this course upon the Minister is that there does exist at the present time an admitted black market. There is no disputing that fact. The Minister of Fuel and Power may say, as Ministers always do, "If the hon. Member will give me details, I shall be pleased to look into them," but that is not very satisfactory, because I do not mix extensively in black market circles, and after all, I am not paid as a "snooper" for the Minister of Fuel and Power. It is undeniably true that a black market does exist on a not inconsiderable scale, and one of the ways in which a black market can be removed, and indeed the most effective means by which it can he removed, is by freeing the supply. It is in the matter of freeing the supply that I ask the Minister to do something tonight.

11.2 p.m.

The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Shinwell)

The hon. Member for Bucklow (Mr. W. Shepherd) is mistaken in his assumption that I have endeavoured to conceal the facts from the House. It is true that I have declined to disclose the actual stocks in our possession for reasons of military security, and I stand by that. These reasons may not be appreciated by hon. Members opposite, but we are very concerned about the interests of the country. I hope that may have some impact on the minds of hon. Members opposite. Moreover, it never was customary to disclose the actual stocks of petrol in our possession, and precisely for the reason I have just given. Other than that, I have not refused to disclose the facts that are available. I am as anxious as any hon. Member to dispense with petrol rationing. Over and over again, I have declared myself on that subject. But clearly, in a condition of uncertainty as regards future petrol supplies, it would be a mistake, a blunder, if we dispensed with petrol rationing. We could, of course, dispense with petrol rationing tomorrow on the basis of existing stocks, but it would ill become us if, in the course of the next few months, the position deteriorated, as it might well do.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, Southern)

What position?

Mr. Shinwell

The petrol position, which we are now discussing. I advise the noble Lord not to indulge his imagination too liberally. In an uncertain position, and without an assurance that the position will not deteriorate, it would be a blunder to dispense with petrol rationing at once. We must be assured of future supplies. Any responsible Minister would be bound to take that course. We cannot bank on uncertainties; we must be sure that supplies will be available.

Obviously, as the hon. Member appears to realise, this issue of petrol rationing is associated with the exchange position. That is a matter with which everyone is familiar. It is true that substantial quantities of oil are purchased from British oilfields, and that if we availed ourselves exclusively of the production in the sterling area and were assured of future supplies, no difficulty would emerge. But oil produced in the sterling area cannot be expected to come to this country alone. We have to consider our markets, and those markets are highly vulnerable. If we lost those markets, temporarily, it might be difficult to recapture them, and I am well aware that hon. Members opposite are anxious to retain our export trade.

The hon. Member has stated that the rate of rationing is rigorous in character. But there has been a substantial improvement since the beginning of this year. Undoubtedly, the ration in 1945, following the close of the war, was rigorous in its application, but there has been, on the whole, a substantial improvement. That is reflected in the position of private cars. I will give hon. Members the facts. The number of cars for which basic rations are now being drawn is over 1,600,000. One might suppose, from what has appeared in the newspapers, and from what critics have said, and from what hon. Members opposite have sometimes declared that there were no private cars operating at all.

Mr. Gammans (Hornsey)

There is no suggestion of that kind at all.

Mr. Shinwell

As I have said,, the number of cars for which basic rations are being drawn is over 1,600,000, and supplementary allowances are issued in respect of about 900,000 of those cars. Therefore, about 700,000 are drawing the basic ration only.

What is the position about hire cars and taxis? The hon. Member has addressed several questions to me on this subject in the past. There has been a substantial increase in the number of both classes of these vehicles since before the war. The number of private hire cars has increased from about 27,500 to about 39,000, and provincial taxis from 6,500 to 13,000. Increased allowances were authorised in respect of those vehicles when petrol rationing was gradually relaxed last year. The monthly allowance for private hire cars shows an increase of 70 per cent. in May of this year as compared with May, 1945. In all the circumstances this must be regarded as a substantial improvement. I do not think it is adequate or satisfactory, but having regard to the difficulties which we have gone through, I do not think it can be regarded as an unsatisfactory position.

The hon. Member has referred to the tanker position. He has much mare knowledge on this subject than I have, although one might suppose that I should be in possession of the facts. But it is a fact that there is still a substantial shortage in tanker supplies. We lost a great many tankers during the war, as the hon. Member knows. The hon. Member opposite knows something about the mercantile marine, and is well aware of these facts, and it is difficult to make up the leeway. We have had to rely to a considerable extent on American tanker supplies, and that costs dollars, and is affected by the foreign exchange position. It will take some time—and I cannot say how long—before there is an adequate supply of tankers.

The hon. Member has also used the occasion to ventilate a subject that has received much prominence in the newspapers. I refer to the alleged absence of rationing in foreign countries. The hon. Member was a little subdued on that subject, and I will give him the facts. It is not true to say that there are no restrictions in foreign countries. Rationing still exists in Denmark, France, Belgium, and in Holland rationing was terminated on 1st June, but there is not only in Holland, but also in France and Belgium, a permit system under which the driver has to have a permit to operate his vehicle and he is only issued with that permit if the vehicle is to be used for essential work. There are some foreign countries where there is no rationing of petrol, but supplies in these countries are made almost exclusively by British oil companies, with the approval of the Government, for currency reasons, that is dealing with hard currency countries. Of course, we rely on some of their imports. From Sweden, for instance, we require timber for housing and other constructional activities and so on, and it is very desirable that we should provide them with petrol.

As regards the privileges accorded to the foreign tourists going to France and other foreign countries, I am not quite clear whether the hon. Member is arguing that foreigners coming to this country should be accorded equal treatment——

Mr. W. Shepherd

I merely contrasted how generous was the treatment in this matter by the foreign countries compared with the niggardly treatment in this country.

Mr. Shinwell

I should like to hear the comments of the French public on that matter, but, at any rate, we are not going to follow their example. If we are going to relax the restrictions we are going to do it in order to benefit the British public, and not foreign tourists coming to this country.

I have not much time left and, therefore, I will do what I can to reassure hon. Members. The matter is under active consideration. I use the formal nomenclature with which the House is familiar, but something very profitable may emerge in consequence. The dollar position may be rectified, although there——

Mr. Gammans

Are we to understand that the American loan is to be used for this purpose?

Mr. Shinwell

The hon. Member has anticipated what I was about to say. It must not be assumed that, if the dollar position is rectified to our advantage—and, at least, we hope that will be so—the immediate result will be the removal of these restrictions. That depends. We may require to use dollars for other purposes. There must be a fair allocation, having regard to the needs of the situation. We may have to consider food supplies instead of petrol supplies, or we may have to consider machinery supplies in order to assist British industry to recover. It is very desirable that we should treat the matter fairly and in proportion to the needs of the country at large, but the matter will have to be dealt with in its proper perspective.

It may be that I shall have an interesting announcement to make. I cannot say, but I hope I shall be in that position. Following that, it may be necessary relax the existing restrictions. I am very anxious to assist private motorists, and 1, am particularly anxious to facilitate inland transport for industrial purposes. We are doing everything we can in that connection. As regards commercial travellers, I am sympathetic. We have just received a deputation from the association concerned with commercial travellers, and if it is possible to assist them in that way, we shall certainly do so. I repeat, this is the vital issue—the position is still uncertain, and that is so as regards the existing position internationally. Therefore, I could not possibly afford to advise that the restrictions be removed immediately, although I hope that as soon as the position is clarified, as I trust it will be shortly, I shall be able to satisfy hon. Members and the general public.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-one Minutes past Eleven o' Clock.