HC Deb 10 February 1948 vol 447 cc335-44

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

10.2 p.m.

Mr. Shurmer (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

In a recent speech my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that to talk of a restoration of the basic petrol ration showed complete failure to understand the gravity of the circumstances of today. I cannot agree. I believe that there are methods of petrol rationing which could take the place of the present abolition of the ration, and I would like to know whether the alternative plans put forward by the motoring organisations have been fully considered?

Before I go any further I would like to quote an example of what the abolition of the basic petrol ration means, and what results from this abolition. Two people went away on a holiday; instead of going by car they had to go by train. The train was absolutely packed, because motoring was prohibited, and many passengers were left behind as no more could be squeezed into the corridors. Here are the astonishing figures showing what the cost of their holiday in petrol and money was to these two people: Taxi to the station, a double journey, one gallon of petrol, 15s.; rail journey £2 18s. 10d.; taxi to holiday destination, a double journey, one and a half gallons of petrol and £2; taxi from holiday destination back to station, a double journey, one and a half gallons of petrol and £2; taxi from station to home, one gallon of petrol and £1. Total cost, five gallons of petrol and £8 13s. 10d. If the return journey had been done in a small car from door to door, as it could have been done on the basic petrol ration, the cost would have been five gallons of petrol plus a little oil, price 13s. 10d. Think of what that means to many working men during the coming summer months.

I have no desire to embarrass the Government, because I am well aware of the extreme difficulties they are facing today, but I feel compelled to ask the Minister for an early announcement about a return of the basic petrol ration. Is there to be any petrol this Easter? It has been said that the position cannot be reviewed until June. What will this mean? It will mean that many people will be left in doubt about their holidays unless there is an early statement from the Government. Despite the fact that the public have been urged to stagger their holidays from May onwards, many car owners will hold back in the hope of getting some petrol, which will mean that holiday resorts will be crowded out at the peak period. That, in turn, will mean that people will be unable to find accommodation. Holidays with pay are now in operation on a large scale; 33,000,000 men, women and children are entitled to a holiday. Can the railways cope with that position? Certainly not.

We all know what happened last year, and without petrol this year there will be a mad scramble for trains. Many people will forgo their holidays rather than travel like cattle in trucks. The effect of that will be seen in many ways. It has been estimated that last summer, when 2,000,000 motorists were on the road, the railways were relieved of some six or seven million people. It has been said that the abolition of basic petrol is class legislation. I know that is not true. Many thousands of wage-earners are owners of cars today. They depend on their cars to take them and their families on holidays, for, without them, they probably could not afford the railway fares. Let the Minister think also of the depreciation of these cars, and the loss which that will mean to working men if they have to lay them up for any time.

Another aspect of this matter is the small garages on the highways and byways, many of them owned by ex-Service men who have sunk their gratuities and savings in these businesses, and who are dependent on the Passing motorist in the summer time for a living. Will they have to close down. The abolition of basic petrol will mean ruin to many of them. I say, without fear of contradiction, that 90 per cent. of the letters which I receive on this subject are from workmen in the lower income groups and their wives, who say, "We support the Government and will do all we can to help in the production drive, but we think that we should be given the use of our cars to enjoy the countryside in the summer months."

Recently, the Minister, in answer to a Question, said that there was no sign of loss of incentive due to the withdrawal of basic petrol. That may be true, but I am afraid that it will be a different story this summer if the workers are forced to forgo their holidays and, at the same time, see their cars laid up in garages. I appeal to the Minister to make an early statement. Cars which have been laid up will need to be overhauled before going on the roads. If we have an allowance of petrol this year, and a late announcement is made about it, that will mean that garages will be unable to cope with all the repairs, and there will be many accidents on the roads. Cannot we have some official softening of heart on this question? The Automobile Association in their submissions to the Government for the restoration of basic petrol have pointed out where saving of petrol can be made and how to defeat the black market, so I will not go into those matters now.

The Prime Minister in a broadcast on Friday night last said that the hope of economic salvation lay not in the hands of the Government but in the hands of the ordinary people. I agree. All I can say now is: Give these ordinary people the petrol to enable them to enjoy the countryside and take the holidays which will refresh them for another year's hard drive towards prosperity. In conclusion, may I be allowed to make one joke? The basic talk of England today is what is meant by the fruits of victory. "No basic" is the apple of discord. The grapes of wrath are being squeezed like an orange. Finding the answer is "a lemon," (we finally get the pip.

10.9 p.m.

Brigadier Peto (Barnstaple)

On Thursday last I asked the Minister of Fuel and Power the following Question: whether an allowance of petrol coupons will be made available during this year to those who wish to travel by car in this country for their annual holiday."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th Feb., 1948; Vol. 446, col. 1888.] He replied to this and similar questions by saying that he could see no reasonable prospects of making any alteration by way of permitting the restoration of the petrol allowance for holiday motoring, private yachts and other non-essential purposes. After some pressure by hon. Members in different parts of the House he somewhat reluctantly agreed to review the position not in June, but by the end of March. I am sure everybody in the House and throughout the country will be duly gratified that he will give us this information by the end of March rather than leave it so late as June.

I am going to spend the two or three minutes in which I shall detain the House on commenting on his reply mainly from the point of view of a constituency in which there are many seaside resorts. First, I cannot for the life of me understand why he brackets those who wish to take their annual holiday by using their motor cars in order to convey their families to some seaside places with those who wish to go in motor yachts. To my mind the two things are totally different.

Perhaps the Minister would answer three questions. First, are holidays essential? If we are trying to increase our production I should say the answer is definitely in the affirmative. No man or woman can give of his or her best unless each has a period of holiday. The second question is—are there not a great many people like those in the Division of the hon. Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Shurmer) who can only afford to take their annual holiday with their family if they can travel by car, because they cannot afford the high cost of railway fares when they have children and the various impedimenta which go with children. They can afford to take a small car a long distance, and spend the rest of their money on their annual holiday in the seaside resort which is their destination.

Thirdly, are there not thousands and thousands of people who earn their livelihood and are dependent entirely on tourist and holiday traffic throughout England in the summer months? The hon. Member for Sparkbrook mentioned various categories into which these people fall. I will not reiterate them except to say that he did not exhaust the number when he mentioned those who keep petrol pumps and garages and the employees of them. He did not mention some such people as those who make their living out of hiring fishing and other boats, those who keep lodgings, and those who keep cafes and little restaurants, all of whom are entirely dependent in the summer months on the tourist and holiday traffic.

The Government have lifted the ban on foreign travel. Speaking now entirely from the English holiday resort point of view, it is the grossest injustice to our holiday resorts if no restoration of petrol is made in this country. There is one other aspect, that of the rates. A little seaside town in my own constituency, known probably to many hon. Members, called Lynton, is 20 miles from the nearest railway station, and it makes from car parking a sum equivalent to a 7d. or 8d. rate. It derives this money from controlling the car parks in the urban district. If there were no car parking it would mean an added burden on the ratepayers of 7d. or 8d., in addition to their loss of income from tourist traffic.

I fully realise the gravity of the present situation, I realise that every economy has to be made, and I realise, too, that if it were left to the Minister and his own sweet will he would probably be only too pleased to restore some basic ration, but I urge upon the Government that it is absolutely essential to give some basic petrol for holiday-makers this summer. They should not confine their economies to the detriment of our holiday resorts but should think of saving a similar number of dollars by some other means. The only controversial thing I shall say tonight is that in the past this Government were not careful how they spent our money and were not over-careful how they wasted the dollars. For example, there are the imports of entirely non-essential luxuries up to the value of £7,136,000—on such things as pears, grape-fruits, chewing gum and so on—which sum if it had been saved, would have given us the basic petrol for this season.

10.18 p.m.

Mrs. Leah Manning (Epping)

In the four months since we lost the basic petrol, the Government say that they have saved something like £10 million. Everybody will agree that there are two sides to every balance account, and those of us who are in close touch with our constituencies can tell the Government not only what they have saved but what they have lost as well. It is outstanding that the Government have lost an enormous amount of goodwill and they have, moreover, lost a great deal of the vitality of those who work in the important industries and services of the country.

My division of Epping is a typical example, not in relation to holidays, but to ordinary humdrum life, of how people suffer. Since a few years before the war, 750,000 people have moved from the centre of London, not to the suburbs but to the rural fringe 10 to 25 miles out of London. It is safe to say that these people would not have gone out there, had they not been able to take their transport with them. Ordinary public transport was never designed, never planned and never intended for this vast army of immigrants, and these people are suffering as a result today. During the war they did not notice it because they laid up their cars or sold them, but when men came back from the war, they spent their gratuities on motor cycles or little old battered second-hand "eights" and tried to resume the pleasant pattern of their life in prewar days—the ride to the station in the morning or up to business and back at night, the visits to the cinema in the next town, or taking out the children on Sundays. Some of the most moving letters I have had are from people who have been used to taking the mother and the children to see the grandparents. The loss of solace to old people is enormous through their not being able to see their sons and daughters.

The struggle today to get to business is absolutely impossible. I have mentioned the chaos on the Central Line, which is supposed to serve the Epping division. There is a fight to get to business every morning and a fight to get back home; when people get home they feel penned in because there is nowhere they can go; they are not even able to use their car to take a piece of apparatus or scenery down to the club. They are stuck there. What was to have been a happy, healthful sort of existence now seems to the people who have gone to the villages a kind of prison life. If that does not mean loss of good will and vitality, I do not know what it does mean.

I hope the Minister can give us a word of comfort tonight. I want to ask him two or three questions because most of us hope that he will give back some basic petrol—not very much—but we do not want the position to arise all over again in which people said, "If you will give me a gallon and a half, I can fiddle the rest." Too many honest, law-abiding, peaceful citizens in this country are at the mercy of the racketeers and black marketeers, and I want to know what the Minister is doing to meet that situation. Those of us on this side who have been interested in motoring associations have asked him to deal with this. Is he going to do anything about colouring commercial and other petrol? Is he going to do anything about asking people to register with one dealer? Is he considering putting petrol on personal points and letting people have tobacco or petrol? Has he any plans of that kind? Above all, what is happening about tankers? We are told that in the Middle East they are pouring petrol back into the wells. Are we getting any tankers from America and, if so, shall we he able to use those tankers to bring oil from the Middle East? Those questions people are asking every day, and I hope the Minister will answer those questions tonight.

10.22 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. Robens)

The hon. Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Shurmer) has raised a matter of considerable public importance and if, as a result of this, I am able to clear some of the issues involved, I shall be grateful to him for giving me this opportunity. He asked one or two questions particularly with reference to the motoring associations and the black market, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mrs. Manning). The House will be aware that my right hon. Friend has set up a special committee to investigate the problem of the black market. That committee is sitting and, in due course, will present its report to my right hon. Friend. When he receives that report, he will be able to examine the situation and arrive at some definite conclusion.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

How soon will it be published?

Mr. Robens

If the hon. Member will leave that for a moment, I think I shall be able to satisfy him. I have considerable sympathy with the hon. and gallant Member for Barnstaple (Brigadier Peto), who put his case very reasonably. I know his area well, and can well understand the many difficulties and complaints he will receive from his constituents who largely depend upon the holiday traffic, which is predominantly a car-touring one.

The Government and my right hon. Friend are fully aware of all the considerations that have been raised in this short Debate; indeed, my right hon. Friend would be relieved of a severe headache if it were possible for him to restore basic petrol. It is not that he does not desire motorists to be able to use their cars as they please; it is the sheer inability of this country to spend what few dollars she has on anything but the real necessities of life for the mass of the people who make up this nation. It is a choice that has to be made, and although it is a disagreeable decision that we have to impose this restriction, as any restriction, yet no Government and no Minister would be worth their salt if they failed to carry out a disagreeable decision for the sake of cheap popularity.

Mr. Brendan Bracken (Bournemouth)

Then why was the basic ration increased last year?

Mr. Robens

I could deal with that, but it would only take up time. [Laughter.] What are the facts which the right hon. Gentleman finds so amusing? I should have thought they were well known, especially to the right hon. Member for Bournemouth (Mr. Bracken). There is a grave shortage of dollars, and the gold reserve of this country is running out. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why?"] If that is something to smile at, I am perfectly certain no hon. Member on this side finds it a humorous matter. Until that position is eased, it is clear that our stock of dollar's must be watched carefully, savings must be accomplished wherever we can do so, and spendings in dollars have also to be carefully watched. Failure to do this will bring grave hardship upon the whole population of this country. Let me emphasise that. It is not the lack of desire on the part of the Government, but the general economic situation.

The Automobile Association and the Royal Automobile Club have circulated their members asking them to bombard Members of Parliament on this issue of basic petrol. My right hon. Friend and myself, being members of the A.A., have received a circular, the same as other members. We do not take their advice. I say to those organisations that they are wasting time, labour, money and materials in such useless propaganda, and the members of the public who take the very ill advice of those organisations are wasting their time and their money in so doing. Members of Parliament, who very naturally pass on any letters they receive to my right hon. Friend and myself, are merely making an additional administrative burden without achieving any single useful object whatever. Hon. Members cannot expect us to deal with the flood of letters which may result from an ill-advised appeal like that. This is not a matter on which the pressure of public opinion can change the issue. Indeed, pressure of public opinion is absolutely unnecessary, because as soon as it is possible to provide basic petrol my right hon. Friend will provide it.

What has been the effect on dollar saving up to the present time? In December we were saving at the rate of 264 million gallons, which is 880,000 tons a year.

Mr. Bracken

What is that in dollars?

Mr. Robens

It is the equivalent of £10 million sterling. If the right hon. Gentleman cares to work it out at a little more than four dollars to the £, he will see what it is. I am not able to give the actual figures for January, but what returns have reached us enable me to tell the House that the January savings will have maintained the December savings; indeed, the figures may prove to be even better. Last Thursday my right hon. Friend stated, in reply to a supplementary question by my hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook, that he appreciated the need for an early statement on the question of basic petrol during the summer holidays, and in reply to a later supplementary question he said that he hoped to review the matter at the end of March.

Mr. Bracken

What did the Chancellor of the Exchequer say last Sunday?

Mr. Robens

It is reasonable that a statement should be made to put an end to uncertainty and to enable people intending to take their holidays to make adequate arrangements.

Mr. Bracken

Hear, hear.

Mr. Robens

I cannot at this stage say what that statement will contain. We do not know what the economic state of the country will be. [Laughter.] It is curious how that amuses hon. Members. They must not read into those words that the motoring public can rely upon a basic petrol allowance this year. The situation is gloomy, to say the least, and so far as the direct question of Easter holidays is concerned, there is no possibility at all of basic petrol for Easter.

My hon. Friend specifically referred to the need for holiday transport and we are all one with him in wishing to ensure that the workers in industry and elsewhere should have reasonable and comfortable travelling facilities. As a consequence my right hon. Friend, in an endeavour to improve the situation in regard to travel by rail, is increasing the amount of coal to be allocated to the railways this summer by 250,000 tons. That is as far as my Department can go. We are not responsible for the transport facilities that can be made available as a result of that increased allocation. I have been in communication with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport. I have no doubt he will be giving to the House quite soon some indication as to what effect that extra coal allocation will have in improving transport by rail.

I am sorry that I have not been able to announce any concessions, and have only been able to present perhaps a dismal picture. No one would be more pleased than my right hon. Friend and myself if it could have been otherwise. The facts are that Britain is fighting desperately against great economic odds. Dollars must be saved and the abolition of basic petrol is an important factor. We have done everything administratively possible to provide petrol for business, professional, commercial and compassionate use. In the choice between food for the people and motoring for pleasure and convenience, we should be failing in our duty if we did not put food for the people first.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.