HC Deb 20 April 1948 vol 449 cc1767-78

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

11.18 p.m.

Mr. Osborne (Louth)

I apologise to the House for keeping it at this late hour, but I wish to raise a matter of some considerable importance, especially to people living in rural areas. I am grateful to the Minister of Fuel and Power for coming at this late hour to listen and reply to my remarks. I wish to draw his attention to the injustices that are felt, either rightly or wrongly, by many people with regard to the new basic or standard petrol ration. I understand from the Table that I am not entitled to discuss the black market or the licence rebate, but that I shall be in Order in discussing the standard allocation.

I want to ask the Minister if he will reconsider, in the light of the facts I wish to put before him, the position of the people who have been getting E and S coupons, many of whom feel that they are suffering an injustice. I am sure that that is the last thing that the right hon. Gentleman would wish to happen. When he announced the new scheme on 8th April, this is what the Minister said: Those now receiving supplementary petrol equal to or exceeding the 'standard' ration will receive in total no more petrol coupons than before; and I must make it plain that no appeals against the application of this rule in individual cases can be considered. It is against that I am asking the Minister to think again. He went on to say: I realise, of course, that this will seem rather hard to some. Later on, the Minister said: I do not expect for one moment that these arrangements will satisfy everyone. I want to show him he was dead right. Then he said this: I said that I could not consider appeals against the principle of taking the standard allowances from recipients of supplementary allowances."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th April, 1948; Vol. 449, cc. 368, 369, 372.] I want, if I can, to bring some extra evidence to him and ask him to think again.

I would like to quote to the Minister what "The Times" said of his new scheme in an editorial on 9th April: The intention behind the scheme is good, but it will mean hardship for some motorists. Those who already get supplementary petrol at the standard rate or more will have to do their pleasure driving out of what they have been given for business reasons. Mr. Gaitskell did not attempt to defend this anomaly. Until now a sense of grievance has been playing havoc with general standards of honesty. It is that sense of injustice I plead with him to try to remove. The new scheme has undoubtedly removed some injustice, to which "The Times" referred, but it has left many people still feeling that sense of injustice.

The "Daily Telegraph" on the 17th of this month put it this way, and I would call the Minister's attention to the word commonly used—"injustice." Almost everyone who writes to Members of this House and to the newspapers, and who writes in a reasonable and responsible way, uses this term. Attention has already been drawn to the many injustices and anomalies arising from the new petrol rationing scheme. The grievance of voluntary workers calls for special mention. Take, for example, the case of a Territorial officer. For the sake of his duties he has applied for and received E coupons. Now as the new scheme is administered he will be faced with the alternatives of either abandoning his work, to the detriment of the public interest, or of using his basic ration in its service. If he adopts the second course he will have little or no petrol for his own purposes. The same will apply to many other people engaged in voluntary public work. I am sure Members on both sides will agree with the "Daily Telegraph" when it says: This is surely a paradoxical reward for public spirit. I hope the Minister will look at it from that angle. The "Daily Telegraph" goes on to say: The person who does no work of this kind enjoys the whole benefit of the basic ration for his own private pleasure, whereas the person who does such work sacrifices not only his time, but also the effective use of his car. The newspaper then makes this appeal to the Minister, which I underline: The cost in extra petrol would be practically insignificant and Mr. Gaitskell may he urged to revise the excessive rigidity of his scheme. I raise this matter tonight for the purpose of asking him if he could do that?

In further support of my plea, I will quote a resolution passed on 16th April by the Executive Council of the National Union of Commercial Travellers. It expressed strong disapproval of the unfair terms of the new petrol rationing scheme. The deduction of standard rates from the present inadequate supplementary allowances is an injustice"— the same word again, the Minister will notice— to E and S coupon holders who need petrol for their livelihood and will be deprived of pleasure motoring granted to the public. We strongly urge the Government to reconsider the scheme and restore the supplementary allowances in full. In addition to that, I should like, as a Member of the House, to give the Minister extracts from three letters I have received from my own rural constituency. I feel that this cut affects the people in the widely scattered rural areas more than those who live in the towns, especially those in the rural areas of Lincolnshire, where there are great distances between the villages. The bus services are not good, and the railway services even worse. It is essential, if these legitimate requests cannot be met generally, that at least they should be looked at favourably from the countryman's point of view.

The first letter I shall read comes from a commercial traveller, who says: I would like to draw attention to what I think is a real injustice. The same word again, I would ask the Minister to note. I am a commercial traveller, and my area is across North Lincolnshire. When the basic petrol allowance was cut, my S allowance also was cut by 10 per cent., thus making it impossible for me to cover my ground satisfactorily for the firm. I had been hoping"— he is not the only one; many people of this class had been hoping— that the standard allowance would be in addition to the supplementary, as our basic petrol was used to enable us to do our job. I am sure that the Minister realises the justice of this claim. There can be no accumulation of petrol coupons for a holiday in our case, as all goes on the work of the firm. We do not feel like paying railway fares for holidays with our cars resting in the garage. That seems useless expenditure. He appeals to me, and says: Will you please do what you can to air this injustice in the House of Commons? Then I have another letter from another type of constituent—the country parson, who says: I get a small quantity of petrol for conducting Divine Service at two churches, for visiting, and for going to the various hospitals, all of which are a considerable distance away. It can hardly be maintained that this petrol is used for pleasure purposes, and yet, if I do my duty, I shall have no petrol for pleasure purposes at all. I hope you will press for a definite E allowance, independent of the basic ration. That is from a parson who has a big area to cover. His is a very different problem from the parson working in the centre of a town.

The third letter I shall read is from a constituent who is a doctor specialist, and who says—and I want to emphasise this: I am afraid I was completely honest in my returns and never used the car for anything but my work. He goes on to say: The one bit of pleasure we had last summer was getting into the country at the week-end, and on my present allowance I must either go without the car for my work,"— which would be a bad thing for the people in my constituency— which is impossible, or stay in the house at the week-end. So I would be obliged for your help in this matter. I am putting to the Minister that those who have E and S coupons who were honest are suffering because of their honesty. As one of my constituents said to me, it appears that honesty does not pay under Socialism. If we are dishonest, we get away with it. The important thing, from the point of view of the Minister's own department is this: that if he is claiming that those constituents of mine who have been getting E and S coupons can squeeze something out of these allowances for their own pleasure, that means that they have been getting more than they should have had before.

But I see that the Minister is looking at the clock. I want to hear what he has to say, so I will cut out of my remarks other points which I wished to put to him, and I will ask him this one question. Since he made his statement we have been pleased to learn that Marshall Aid is definitely coming to this country. Can I ask the Minister how much extra petrol he expects to get under Marshall Aid? Will that make any difference to the scheme he has put before us? If so will he meet the legitimate grievances of those people who are looking to him for a better deal?

10.30 p.m.

The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Gaitskell)

I apologise to hon. Members who wish to speak, but I am rather anxious to make an adequate statement on this subject, which I know is of considerable interest to hon. Members in all parts of the House. I should like to thank the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) for raising the matter, and for the moderate and reasonable way in which he put his points. I should like to tell him at once that I appreciate—indeed I rather expected it—that many feel a sense of injustice.

He in particular will appreciate that with the dollar position as it now is we could not afford to spend any more on importing petrol. That point was generally accepted in the House as a whole and was made by speaker after speaker throughout the Budget Debate. Unfortunately Marshall Aid will not make any difference whatever. It simply means that we can continue importing whereas if we had not got Marshall Aid we should have been in a very parlous state indeed. The fact that oil happens to be one of the commodities included under it does not make any difference at all. It is unfortunate, but there it is.

Most of us would agree that the situation existing before I made my announcement to the House was unsatisfactory in many ways. The fact that a million people have to lay up their cars or motor bikes is something in itself none of us approves, nor must one overlook the fact that some people have, after all, bought their cars specifically and solely for the purpose of using them say on their holidays. That is a point which hon. Members have put to me from time to time.

There is an admitted difficulty in drawing lines in administering this petrol rationing system. We have heard talk on both sides of the House about pleasure motoring. Some have said there is no such thing as pleasure motoring, as I think was asserted by the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) in the Debate which we had on this matter last October. Probably the fact is something like this, that at one extreme there is something which might be called pure pleasure motoring or joy riding, and at the other extreme there is motoring for pure business purposes. However, there is an enormous range between the two. I am bound to admit that some of the million people who were obliged to lay up their cars and motor bikes were people who in the first part of their mileage would not be pleasure motoring in the pure sense of the term. They might have used their cars for going to their work, for instance, which while not absolutely essential was of great assistance to them. Our regional petroleum officers have had to draw the line, and it has been difficult for them. That is an unfortunate feature of the situation as it now is, and another criticism which I might make of the present system is that it is extremely hard to enforce the law which restricts the use of petrol to certain purposes. The police have done their best under very hard conditions, but it is difficult to do and that is appreciated by everyone.

For these reasons, I felt that it was necessary to see whether within the existing dollar expenditure and without any increased consumption we could make some improvement. The House will be aware of how the black market came into the picture. I will not go into that now, because it would be out of Order. We estimated we would get 100,000 tons by stopping the black market, and another 20,000 tons by cutting down on supplementary allowances in certain cases. I cannot honestly say there is much chance of more than that. The total of the supplementary allowances cost us about 800,000 tons a year in petrol, and it is very unlikely that more than 100,000 tons is coming through the black market in addition to the 800,000. One in eight is a pretty high figure, and, though it would be obviously attractive to hope that we could get much more, I cannot, I am afraid, expect it.

Taking that 120,000 tons, what would have been the position if we had first re-distributed it in the old way as a basic ration? It would have enabled each motorist to get about eight miles a week. That would have been farcical. Nobody would have licensed his car on that basis; I am referring, of course, to those motorists who had laid up their vehicles. If that concession had been made, it would have been greeted with a howl of protest, regarded as derisory and there would have been great indignation. To those with supplementary allowances, it would not have made much difference; there would have been no great advantage, although they would have had their eight miles "free" and it would have been easier for them at any particular moment to have arranged for the basic, or standard, ration to be used at their convenience.

We felt that a distribution of what was available on these lines would not have been a practicable proposition, and we decided that the extra petrol should go to those with cars laid up. Anything much less than 90 or 100 miles a month, which the standard ration will allow, would be too little for them. It may be suggested that, perhaps, 60 to 75 miles should he allowed, but that would only have meant an addition to the supplementary allowance holders of about 10 miles, there being about twice as much needed for supplementary allowance holders as for those who have cars laid up. Therefore, as I have said, we came to the conclusion that the extra petrol would have to go to those with cars laid up, but we provided that the others, the supplementary allowance holders, should get the standard allowance, their supplementary allowance being reduced by the same amount. As a result they have one great advantage in that they have some freedom, and it means that there is no more of that business of not being able to turn two hundred yards off the road to visit a friend or some person. That, we all agree, was a particularly tiresome restriction, which we are glad to be rid of.

I appreciate that many people think that this is unfair. My answer is that we cannot honestly, bearing in mind that no more dollars can be spent, give on the one hand sufficient to allow those with cars laid up to bring them out again and to give extra petrol in addition to freedom to those with supplementary allowances. We know that there is the man who uses his car for business, and who claims that he has nothing for pleasure motoring. But I think that people will agree that there is a lot of advantage gained from these allowances. There are hundreds of thousands of motorists in London who, without breaking the law, find they can, if they wish, take their wives to the shops on the way to business. They can also take them to the theatre on the way back, and it cannot be denied that this is something of benefit. Even with no basic allowance, they get that advantage, but with the additional freedom, the advantage is the greater. Everybody may not be in that position, but a great many people are.

Then there is the possibility of a certain amount of economy in the use of petrol for business purposes. So long as people are not going to get an advantage from that they won't try to. If they know they are going to be free to use petrol it is very often possible to make an arrangement. The kind of arrangements I have in mind are arrangements for giving each other lifts. That could be done. It probably will be done, though it is not a thing the Regional Petroleum Officer can take into account in making allocations. Petrol rationing is not an exact science as hon. Members know. It is impossible to fit exactly the amount of petrol to the needs of each individual. One has only to look at the history of the changes made in the maximum supplementary allowances to see how there have been variations.

Commercial travellers have been mentioned. I would have thought they get a fairly reasonable allowance—perhaps ten times as much as the standard allow- ance—and that they should be able to get a good deal of convenience and pleasure motoring out of that in combination with their business. I am sure the majority will be able to do so. Then there are the doctors who are already in a very strong position compared with others because we had to make special concessions to enable them to use their cars, even when no basic or standard ration was available, for social purposes, because they may have to be "on call." That alone is a considerable advantage.

So the fact is that no-one is worse off under the new arrangement and it is certain that the overwhelming majority of people will be better off. Some will not be. I can see that. I know the case of close relatives of my own who will be at one end of the scale, who are closely rationed on a mileage basis and who cannot get much more convenience out of the extra freedom now possible. But I had to ask myself this question: Is the fact that these people are relatively in not such a good position a reason for withdrawing petrol from the others? I do not think it is a good reason and I do not think if it were put to them they would think so either. I wish I could respond to the appeal of the hon. Member but I am limited by the dollar position and the amount of petrol available. I cannot depart from the position that there can be no appeals against this matter for the reasons I have stated: that if I said one may appeal in certain cases, there would be an avalanche and every one would appeal and it would be impossible to draw the line.

As to what prospects there are I can only say this. Some have been saying that there is a chance for the standard ration to be increased in the near future. I must categorically deny that. I do not want people's hopes raised unfairly and unnecessarily in this matter. So far as I can see there is no prospect of any change for the standard ration this summer. I cannot tell what the position will be after that. If extra petrol becomes available, if the savings from the black market are larger, or the dollar position improves and we are more favourably situated, I can promise the House I would consult the Advisory Committee I have set up as to how best the extra petrol could be distributed. They, in any case, will be going into the whole question of supplementaries and how one could make changes. But if they propose changes I must warn the House that they will not be pleasant for everybody. If there is only so much petrol available and they say that some has got to be taken from someone else then, if it has got to be taken, somebody is going to squeal. That is a very big job and I cannot expect results, at any rate, for some months.

I appreciate the feelings many people have but I am sure the House will agree that in the circumstances this was the right decision. In fact I have heard of no other alternative. We consulted the motoring organisations throughout and they agreed, although they would have liked more. So would we. They are entitled to press for more but, granted that there is only so much petrol available, I consider that this was the only reasonable way of dealing with the matter.

11.45 p.m.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks (Chichester)

I am very glad to have an opportunity, even at this last moment, of saying on behalf of the organisation I represent, the Executive Committee of the Automobile Association, that we have never agreed to these particular proposals at all. We do not approve of them; we do not think they are good; and we shall not rest until we get them completely changed.

Mr. Gaitskell

Mr. Gibson, the representative of the Automobile Association, in my presence gave an entirely different account of the matter. I can only say, I understood that both he and Captain Phillips, who represents the R.A.C., were fully authorised by their associations to take the line they did.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

At this late hour I do not want to pursue with the Minister a private and domestic quarrel on this matter across the Table. I certainly do not want it to go out, or to be thought that I was seeking to imply, that the Minister was misrepresenting anything which had been said to him. I think there is genuine ground for the misunderstanding which probably has arisen. But at the same time I should like it to go out that at least we of the Automobile Association are not in favour of the scheme as it has been proposed.

Mr. Gaitskell

Would the hon. Member tell me how he would distribute the same amount of petrol?

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I should be delighted, but not in the one remaining minute.

Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas (The Wrekin)

When the hon. Member says "we of the Automobile Association," does he mean the Executive Committee or the governing body of that Association?

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

Yes, I do. Perhaps I could ask the Minister a question on one particular aspect, to which he can reply when we have a full-dress Debate on this subject—because I think this is only a "curtain raiser." I refer particularly to commercial petrol. The right hon. Gentleman referred to getting a saving of 10 per cent, on the supplementary petrol in order to find the necessary pool for this increase. I think he will find that that was the term he used. I want to be quite clear whether he includes in that the 10 per cent. which I understand he is hoping to get from the commercial side as well. If so, we want to know why he is making an arbitrary reduction of 10 per cent. on the commercial side. If previously they had only sufficient petrol on their allocation, how is it that they will now be able to manage with 10 per cent. less? We feel that the whole scheme for a percentage allocation to commercial vehicles is unnecessary and should be done away with in the interests of economising in petrol on the commercial side.

Finally, I beg the right hon. Gentleman to give us more facts and figures. The feeling is that until, by facts and figures, he can convince the people who have been deprived of the petrol which they feel they ought to have, they will feel he has something up his sleeve—something he is trying to hide from them. I only say that is the feeling; I do not say the right hon. Gentleman has anything up his sleeve. But I do beg him to put all his cards on the table and let the public have the full facts, information and figures, so that they may judge and see that his allocation is a correct one.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twelve Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.