HC Deb 27 February 1948 vol 447 cc2364-76

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now Adjourn."—[Mr. G. Wallace.]

3.57 p.m.

Mr. Lever (Manchester, Exchange)

I wish to call the attention of the House to the present system of petrol rationing and to urge its abolition. Since the abolition of basic petrol, this subject has become charged with a good deal of emotion and prejudice on both sides of this House and it is a little difficult to get a hearing for views on this subject which are unorthodox. I might preface my remarks by saying that if I criticise the Government's action in the past it is for cutting down petrol consumption and motoring later than they should have done. If I had had my way, I should have exported 90 per cent. of our new cars right from the end of the war and cut down the home consumption of petrol before our economic situation was as bad as it is now. I hope that nobody who supported the selfish and unseemly clamour for unlimited pleasure motoring will call what I say in aid of their pleas.

The fact that I welcome the abolition of the illusions that surrounded the state of this country and its power to afford pleasure motoring does not mean that I support the action of the Government in abolishing basic in the way they have done, nor that I approve of the present system. One has not to look far to find that it is far from being a good one. The Government are seriously attempting to ration two million motorists on individual application to the various regional petroleum officers. It is quite apparent that this is a task which no administrative organisation can adequately perform. Instead of attempting any longer to assess the relative merits of nearly two million applications, the administrative staff is of necessity reduced to assessing the competing inventiveness of nearly two million applicants. It is not necessarily the man who has the most need who gets the petrol; it is the man who knows how to dress up his need in the manner most likely to appeal to the harassed officials who have to administer this scheme.

What I have said about motor cars applies equally to lorries and vans. The Minister will agree that in practice lorries and vans cannot have their individual merits assessed with any exactitude and that they end up by getting more or less as much petrol as they want. That means that they have more than they need and that in turn means that the black market is always amply supplied with a stream of petrol coupons not used by the van and lorry drivers, which find their way into the petrol stations so that the petrol finally goes into the tanks of motor cars which ought not to have it.

It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Lever

It must also be realised that the administration not only cannot assess the relative merits of these hordes of applications, but they are so behind with their work that they cannot assist the police and the checking authorities in controlling the misuse of petrol. I am told that at some regional offices there are thousands of applications lodged by the enforcement officers in order to test whether misuse of petrol has occurred, and the regional officers, who already cannot cope with doling out petrol, can certainly not give any attention to the checking required to prevent the misuse of petrol.

There are other evil consequences. It is obvious to anybody who uses his eyes and sense that there is widespread breach of the law. I am not suggesting that every motorist breaks the law, but I suggest that a great many are doing it today, what with open breaches of the law and the perverted exercise of ingenuity which always brings people about their business occasions in the West End at the same time as they happen to be going to the theatre with their wives, or at the same time as there is some social function at their favourite hotel. So it is quite apparent that the law is being brought into contempt by open breach and by the evasive ingenuity applied to routes. Nobody knows how the Minister stands upon this, because we all understand that we can deviate a little from our route but, how much, nobody is quite clear. It is obviously bad for the country to have many ordinary, decent people breaking or stretching the law in an unreasonable way.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

Would not my hon. Friend agree that the law is also brought into contempt when fines are imposed for quite frivolous offences, such as taking a motorcar to a garage to have it repaired?

Mr. Lever

The hon. Member reinforces the point which I am seeking to make. I would agree, too, that some of the offences which are tracked down—if the Ministry is lucky enough to find a regional officer able to check these matters—end in a prosecution which is frivolous from start to finish.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd (Mid-Bedford)

May I ask the hon. Member whether, if all the people who broke the building regulations of the Ministry of Health were sent to gaol, it would solve the building problem?

Mr. Lever

The aptness of that interjection is no greater and no less than might have been expected from the hon. Member. The fact is that these prosecutions are, in most cases, not of the shrewd evader of the law, of the habitual user of petrol for irregular purposes, but of the naive and ingenuous young man who does not know the right kind of tale to tell the policeman or enforcement officer. He gets caught, while the habitual drinkers of petrol for pleasure purposes—these habitual drunkards so to say—never appear in a court of law. They have their story ready planned, they have their friends to corroborate that they were on a business visit to one or other of the West End hotels or cinemas. It is bad for English law to be brought into contempt in this way. It is even worse that the people who break the law, for the overwhelming part, go unpunished. It is bad for the law of this land, because decent people are often placed in impossible positions, as when they must either go on their way, or go a little out of their route to help someone on a filthy night and so break the law.

But far more important is the waste of manpower involved in the present rationing system. I do not want to elaborate on the number of officials necessarily engaged in this work. They do their job to the best of their ability, and they are not greatly assisted by some of the ill-informed comments of hon. Members on the other side of the House and of people who hold their political opinions. I often think that their criticism is not bona fide, but is really motivated by a desire to have as much petrol as they want for their own purposes, and is not any genuine complaint. I can only speak from personal experience, but I have found that petroleum officials lack all the Gestapo-like characteristics which hon. Members opposite are fond of attributing to the paid servants of this Government. Apparently, when a Conservative Government are in office, the bureaucrat is a much more delightful chap altogether.

Apart from the man hours taken by these large numbers of officials vainly struggling to apportion petrol between clamouring hundreds of thousands of motorists, and to check up on the misuse of the petrol which enforcement officers are reporting, there is an enormous waste of man hours in private industry in form filling, form checking and the sorting and allocating necessary to comply with the rationing scheme. I am not saying that that proves the scheme a bad one, or badly administered, but inevitably there are thousands of man years wasted every year by people who have to queue up or spend time on the allocation of petrol, whether garages or to petrol users. There is another wast of manpower, which is becoming more serious, as well as having a psychological effect. That is the springing up of hire car firms. At present, in spite of the efforts of the Government, all the pleasure motoring in this country is done by the very well-to-do. Having had occasion recently to use a hire car, I can say that it is only the extremely well-to-do who can afford it.

Mr. Marlowe (Brighton)

Members of the boards.

Mr. Lever

I do not know that they are members of the boards. Having seen a lot of these gentlemen, I would say that they are not political supporters of this Government, but stalwart champions of a system of free enterprise which commends itself to hon. Members opposite. Only the very well-to-do can afford hire cars. That brings in a lot of illogical stupidities. Instead of driving oneself to a cinema, one gets a hire car, which has to come perhaps two miles, to take one to the cinema and then to return, and not only uses three or four times as much petrol, but wastes the services of a man to drive the car. Then there is the hire car racket, which I distinguish from the hire car business itself. A good many gentlemen—who are not likely to be members of the Coal Board, or occupants of the "jobs for the boys" about which hon. Members opposite seem to have a monomania—hand their private cars to a hire car firm. Then, by some spurious device, they appear to be using their cars as hire cars in which they can roam about within a 20 mile radius. That is another effect which is very unfortunate, and evil. I am sorry that this does not exhaust all the debits of the system. There is the black market, which keeps in being innumerable crooks, spivs, drones and other gentlemen whom the Ministries are anxious to get into honest labour. It is bad that there should be a widespread black market in petrol.

Those are the debits of the present system, and I believe we ought to abolish the rationing of petrol to private cars. I do not believe that petrol for private cars is an essential which warrants an enormous staff which imperfectly rations it at the present time. The word "essential" must be construed in the context of the country's economic position. I believe that petrol is a great convenience to people in business, Members of this House, company directors, and others, who enjoy the definition of "essential users of petrol." I do not believe that it is, in fact, essential having regard to our economic situation.

Petrol should be rationed by price. If this were not an Adjournment Debate I would suggest that the Chancellor, in his next Budget, should tax petrol so heavily that it would keep consumption down to the level desired by the Government. As this is an Adjournment Debate, I cannot suggest that. I can only say that I hope that the Minister has power under some regulation to do that, and if not, perhaps someone, when it is not an Adjournment Debate, would suggest that.

Mr. C. S. Taylor (Eastbourne)

Is the hon. Member suggesting that only the rich should have petrol?

Mr. Lever

Perhaps the hon. Member will bear with me a little longer, and he might hear what I have to say on that matter. I would ration petrol through the purse. The duties would go in tax to the Government and produce a very useful sum for the Chancellor in his next Budget. Long distance road transport could easily be dealt with because, it is to be nationalised—

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

Before my hon. Friend leaves his suggestion that we should ration by price, I must point out that I am prevented from dealing with that suggestion because this is an Adjournment Debate.

Mr. Lever

I can only say that that is the suggestion—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)

I can only say that the hon. Gentleman cannot pursue that suggestion because it is out of Order, as it would necessitate legislation.

Mr. Lever

I was about to suggest that the Minister, under his power of regulation, could sell petrol at 6s. a gallon, or whatever price is required to keep consumption to the present level, and pay the petrol companies 2s. or 1s. 9d. per gallon or whatever sum they get at the present time. The difference would thus be left in the Government's hands. That could be done by advocating taxation it this were not an Adjournment Debate or by the use of regulations, as this is an Adjournment Debate.

Long distance road transport is to be nationalised, and companies operating such transport could be informed that the extra tax they would have to pay in the interim period before they are taken over would be taken into account in assessing compensation on nationalisation. "C" Licence holders, short distance transport and people like doctors could be dealt with in one of two ways, either by refunding to them at the end of the year the equivalent of what the tax would cost them on their present consumption, or to say that the average short distance road transport user is, according to the Chancellor, making excessive profits at the present time, and allow the extra tax to impinge on those profits That might be a useful way of helping to deal with excessive profit margins. Certainly the Minister can please himself which he does, but there is no reason why, if it is desired to do it, that the tax could not be refunded on vans and lorries on short distance routes, and to doctors and other essential users in classes of that kind.

If the Road Fund tax was abolished it would save the average motorist about £10 a year. If an extra tax of something like 4s. per gallon was placed upon petrol, or the price was increased by 4s. a gallon, that would be equivalent of giving the average motorist 50 gallons a year at the present price. He would have a certain amount of basic petrol, nearly a gallon a week. It would not noticeably affect the petrol consumption, as I think the Minister would agree to provide 50 gallons at the old price, in effect, by abolishing Road Fund licences. The Minister might consider, in such a scheme, keeping in being the radius restriction, the restriction as to how far one can travel in one's car without being on an essential journey. That is quite a subsidiary matter. There are certain attractions about that, because the whole scheme would be anti-inflationary. It would mop up anything between £75 million and £125 million of purchasing power every year.

I do not put it forward to this House as a complete scheme. It is not my business to elaborate all the details. My hon. Friend has much greater assistance at his disposal than I have at mine for the purpose of doing that. I do not suggest that what would result would be a system of perfection. In any case, the present system is not perfection: far from it. It is fallacious for hon. Members to deceive themselves by saying that the existing method is perfect and, therefore, they will not have the scheme which I suggest. We ought to say that the present scheme is thoroughly bad and that it has much to condemn it. On balance, I submit that there is much less to be said against some sort of arrangement like this than there is to be said against the present scheme.

Mr. E. Fletcher

Would my hon. Friend agree that his scheme would be particularly attractive to motor cyclists?

Mr. Lever

I am continually assisted by my hon. Friend. That is a very good point. The small petrol user, the little man, would come out of this scheme better than ever before. He would be able to have a little pleasure, because he would not have to pay any Road Fund tax. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary will say that this is motoring for the rich. I would like to know how many poor people are doing any motoring today. All pleasure motoring today is done by the rich and, therefore, it would not make things any worse if we were to increase the price in the way I have indicated and in the way in which I am not permitted to indicate. I dare say that my hon. Friend will strain himself and his advisers in order to discover hard cases. Of course, there will be hard cases; but every Member of this House knows that there are innumerable hard cases under the present system. Much hardship is wrought under the existing arrangement. Considerably less hardship would be caused under my system or under some general scheme on the lines I have suggested.

I would emphasise that I do not envisage an increase in petrol consumption. Only politically irresponsible people could seriously defend the suggestion that we should cut down timber for housing or food imports in order to provide more petrol. Of course, we should not do that, but there is no reason why petrol consumption should not be kept down by the price. The imperfections of the present system are far greater than the imperfections implicit in my idea. I refer to the waste of manpower, the black market, the irritations and the law breaking, which exist under the present system. The case for placing all motor taxation on petrol is now unanswerable. Obviously we want the maximum disincentive, whether or not my scheme is admitted.

The Minister ought to tell us, when he raises his objections to the ideas I have put forward, how much petrol is being used by the Forces. Is it still the outrageous fact that the Royal Air Force is using twice as much aviation spirit as that used by our entire civil aviation services throughout the world? Is it a fact that the Forces are now using nearly as much petrol as that used by the whole of the vans and lorries in the country? The Minister might tell us a little about that.

I want to say this to put the thing in perspective. Ministers are telling us quite freely nowadays that if we do not solve our economic problems we are going to have a despotism, and that a totalitarianism, probably of the Right, is going to rear its head in this country and finally take control of our destinies. It is no use Ministers telling us about the desperate state of our affairs if, while they talk 1948, so to speak, they act on 1938 assumptions. It is the assumptions of 1938 which gave us petrol rationing for motor cars, as if petrol for cars were some precious spirit on which the nation's economic life depended. It is not. Two fallacies underlie the rationing system for private cars. One is that petrol is an essential commodity for private cars, when it is not. It is a very great convenience. The second fallacy is the implied belief that this rationing system is only a temporary measure. It is not temporary. The people of this country had better realise that we are never going to have back the motoring of 1938—at least for a decade or more.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

Oh, really!

Mr. Lever

The hon. Gentleman is one of the blissful and ignorant. He believes that unlimited petrol for pleasure purposes is round the corner. He can con- tinue to believe that. He will find that any realistic appraisal of our economic circumstances shows that we can never again afford the kind of motoring which we had before the war, or, at any rate, if not never, not for a long time, and not in the next decade. This rationing system is not some temporary nuisance; it is going to be a semi-permanent feature of our economy. We have to realise that it is something which is going to stay for very many years to come. One of the Government's duties is to contract the number of motorcars on the road today, and they have to do it by providing a disincentive by the high cost of motoring. We cannot afford to spend as much of our national income on motoring as we did before the war, and we must look at the situation in a realistic way and handle the matter in a planned and orderly fashion, instead of waiting until economic circumstances do it for us.

One final word, and I will leave the matter to the Minister. I am perfectly well aware that all sorts of objections can be made to this scheme, but I think that, at the present time, we have either got to innovate or perish. Some people prefer to perish rather than innovate, but I think the Minister ought to look at this matter with a flexible and open mind and realise that circumstances have changed since the rationing system was introduced as a temporary wartime measure, and also realise that it now looks like being a semi-permanent feature of our national life. I hope he will give careful consideration to the points I have raised.

4.22 p.m.

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

I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. Lever) will not expect me to reply in about eight minutes to the speech which he has taken over 20 minutes to deliver—

Mr. Lever

That is all the hon. Gentleman asked for.

Mr. Robens

—particularly as he raised a very large number of points which would be ruled out of Order because they involve legislation, and I am therefore precluded from following the very interesting subjects of taxing petrol and abolishing the Road Fund tax. My hon. Friend said one or two things about the whole problem of rationing, and the effect of rationing upon the motoring public—and one agrees immediately that it is an irritation and a bother which we want to get rid of as soon as possible—to which I would like to make some reply. My hon. Friend also referred to the economic situation of the country, which is well-known to us.

I must, in fairness to the Ministry and the Government, reply to some of the things my hon. Friend said. For example, it is not true that individuals can turn over their private cars to hire firms and have them hired back to themselves with any amount of petrol. New hire car allowances are given only in very special circumstances. There is no allocation of petrol at all for any hire cars unless they are in a business which was operated before the war, or, alternatively, where there is now a very special public need, or where there is a disabled ex-Service man who is registered as disabled, and in whose case the Ministry of Labour have said that the best way of reinstatement for that man is in the hire car business, in which case we do grant petrol. I would not like it to be thought—and I have heard this stated many times both inside this House and outside—that it is easy for people to say, "I have got a hire car licence and I can have a lot of petrol." It is not true, just as it is not true to say that people are prosecuted for trivial offences.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a court action in relation to a man who was taking a car to a garage for repair. The Press really misrepresented the whole of that case. It was not purely a trivial case. While not going into details, I can say that it was not the triviality which it appeared to be from its presentation to the people. We have, from time to time, looked at all these enforcements and prosecutions, and we are interpreting the whole scheme with reasonableness and generosity, but we are determined to stop misuse where it occurs. It is true that there is always the problem of assessing needs; but, in spite of all the defects of any human system for assessing needs when the needs of individuals are so vastly different, it seems to me that it is a very much better way than to have regard only to a person's ability to pay for petrol, which really is a most astounding suggestion.

Take, for instance, the business man who uses his car for business. It is a business expense, and it is paid for and charged up, quite legitimately, against his firm's accounts. It does not matter to that individual how much petrol is a gallon. First, the charge goes into his firm's accounts—it is not out of his personal income—and secondly, it is a trade expense, and, therefore, the Chancellor of the Exchequer pays 9s. in the £ on that amount. The man concerned is actually paying only half the cost of his petrol. Compare that with the position of a young man with an autocycle or a motorcycle which, by and large, he has bought for two reasons: first, because he has worked out that he can save money by travelling on it to and from work, and can also get enjoyment out of it at the weekends. But he would have to pay 10s. a gallon, which would put it right outside his ability to run it. I am astonished at my hon. Friend making a suggestion of that sort.

Mr. Lever

I suggested that the small user of a motorcycle or motorcar should be protected by being relieved of an equivalent amount of other taxation.

Mr. Robens

That would have to be put down in black and white for careful consideration. I do not think that suggestion would bear examination, because, after all, what is the price to which petrol would have to go before people would say that they would not buy it? Who knows? No one. To judge need merely on that basis—and I say this with the best respect to my hon. Friend—is really ridiculous.

Mr. Blackburn (Birmingham, King's Norton)

While entirely supporting my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, may I ask whether the Government will try to give sympathetic consideration to workers who live a long way from their places of work, and who desire to work overtime, but who find that they get too tired to do so by having to take the form of transport available?

Mr. Robens

I am as much concerned as anyone about the chap who has to work long hours. I know from experience that it is a great loss to many of these chaps who have bought autocycles and motorcycles which they cannot use.

All I would say, finally, is that it would have been worth while, in view of the fact that my hon. Friend has raised so many things that affect legislation if my hon. Friend—had he wanted to make a real contribution—had put down his points on paper so that my right hon. Friend or I could have gone into them, and discussed them with him. Quite frankly, I do not think there has been any real value in this Adjournment Debate. Hon. Members will want to know something about the savings effected.

Mr. Lever

Could my hon. Friend tell us the consumption of petrol by the Forces at the present time?

Mr. Robens

My hon. Friend will have to put down that question. A minute is hardly sufficient time in which to answer it. In October, the average weekly saving was 5,000 tons; in November, 15,000 tons; in December 17,000 tons, and, in January, 20,000 tons.

As my last word, I wish to say that, at the present time, we are reviewing the whole situation. We recognise the irritation and the loss of convenience, and everything else, that has been caused by having no basic ration at all. However, we are determined to maintain the savings that have been achieved. If, within some compass, a review of the situation will enable anything to be done, then that review will take place. I say to the House and to the country that I am very anxious about this. The review will be completed by the end of March. I am not going to say it will mean that basic petrol will come back, or even that it will not. Nevertheless, the statement will be made at the end of March.

The Question having been proposed at Four 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 Half-past Four o'Clock.