HC Deb 17 March 1948 vol 448 cc2246-56

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

11.17 p.m.

Mr. E. L. Gandar Dower (Caithness and Sutherland)

I make no excuse for raising the question again of an allowance of basic petrol for the rural districts of Scotland. I feel sure the case is one the Government should recognise. I can assure the Minister that Scotland will grant him no respite on this issue. It will pursue him like Banquo's ghost. Agriculture is the staple industry of Caithness and Sutherland, just as it is of many other Scottish counties. Admittedly, farmers receive grants, though insufficient to satisfy their needs, but there is also the question of farm employees.

I would point out that no amount of subsidy will encourage people to stay on the land if they are obliged to suffer isolation. I am informed by the chairman of the Scottish National Farmers' Union that it is the practice of farmers in the North of Scotland to supply motor transport to their shepherds and outlying employees to enable them to be contended and remain on the land. If that is not done, they will leave the land, the sheep will be sold and the country will suffer financial loss.

Surely, instead of discouraging mobility, the Government should look forward to supplying every farm labourer with a motor cycle of low horse-power capable of travelling 100 to 120 miles to the gallon, because such a grant would bring happiness and contentment to land workers far beyond the cost to the nation. At Kildonan, farm employees have to travel 20 miles to an inn. I would suggest to the Minister that if one has to travel 20 miles on a cycle to satisfy a thirst, he probably comes back with as great a thirst afterwards. Although I believe some undertaking has been given to farmers that they will receive petrol to attend the Royal Agricultural Show at Inverness, until recently it was not so. Even exhibitors were refused allowances. When the Minister comes to reply, I hope he will clear up any doubt and that his answer will receive wide publicity. The isolation felt in the rural districts of Scotland is not confined to the agricultural community. There is depopulation, which is much to be deplored, taking place because of this loneliness.

I have received from Kildonan in Sutherland the information that an application for one gallon of petrol a week for salmon fishing has been declined, although such fishing would assist the local larder and the food supplies of the nation. Further, relatives may suffer anxiety on the question of illness because they are unable to travel to where the sufferer lies. And the Minister, for whose attendance I am most grateful, will realise that on Sundays no transport of any kind operates north of Inverness. In the event of death relatives are unable to attend funerals because of this 20 miles embargo on hire cars. Permission can be applied for, and granted, but how long does that take? Death does not always give notice.

I turn to the medical aspect of the matter. I have been advised by doctors that their petrol allowances have been severely cut down. I am referring to doctors in the outlying districts of Sutherland, and I am told that they are unable to answer calls when they receive them, but have to let them wait until the next day, so as to call on several patients together. Then, the limitation of 20 miles on hire cars, concerning which I fear the Minister has twice within a very short period been addressed from this side of the House, is a handicap in the case of illness. The main hospital of Sutherland, the Lawson Memorial Hospital, Golspie, to which I desire to pay every tribute, has not sufficient ambulances to meet snap demands from the outlying districts of Sutherland, and in the case of illness it has been the usual practice to hire cars to carry patients to the hospital. That practice, in fact, continues, but owing to the 20 miles' limit, and the natural nervousness of hire firms, patients—often in pain—are being transferred once, sometimes twice, on a relay system of cars to reach hospital.

There is the question of the small garage. Caithness and Sutherland cover a wide area, and dotted all over the counties are small garages started by ex-Servicemen, employing two or three men. Through this discouragement of motoring, they are being obliged to close down, and these ex-Servicemen are losing all.

Now comes the familiar cry of the hotel industry. It will lose nothing by repetition. There are no less than 59 licensed hotels in Caithness and Sutherland and in view of the immense area concerned, I would like the Minister to understand that this is not one too many. The withdrawal of basic petrol led to the cancellation of bookings for Christmas, 1947, and to the cancellation of bookings for Easter this year. Bookings for the summer are being cancelled wholesale. Nearly all the west coast of Sutherland is studded with good houses, stretching from Lochinver to Scourie, Durness and Melvich. They are situated no less than 50 or 60 miles from the nearest railway station. It has been suggested that an allowance of petrol should be given to hotel proprietors to enable them to meet guests at the railway station. But imagine running empty for 5o miles to meet, or deposit, guests. And there is the question of the black market. What an opportunity this would provide. Hotel proprietors, like the rest of the community, possess among their number some black sheep, and I would suggest that such an allowance is not the best method of dealing with the matter.

The Scottish hotel season lasts barely four to five months and these hotels are empty throughout the rest of the year. They have already suffered seven years of hardship during the war and if this lack of petrol continues I implore the Minister to realise that they will close down. There is a strong affinity between Scotland and America. Many of the best American citizens are of Scottish extraction and they come back to visit Scotland and their ancestral homes and this is a necessity because it brings dollars into the country which we can ill afford to lose. They will not come unless they are able to travel through Scotland by car and enjoy what they expect when they come home.

I am a believer in lifting the ban on foreign travel. Any one condemned to remain in this country under a Government of gloom, producing more and more hardship is bound to suffer from claustrophobia. But when granting foreign travel I would draw the Minister's attention to the effect it will have on the Scottish tourist industry. The British holidaymaker who takes his car to France or to the Continent is granted an allowance of petrol. He may motor from the French coast to the southern portion of Italy but if he goes to Scotland he will not get one gallon to enjoy his holiday. The Scottish hotels have suffered a second blow. It would be inappropriate for me to refer to the Catering Wages Act. It is enough to point out that five and seven bedroomed houses in Scotland are being treated as if they were West End hotels. We have recently seen that 17,000,000 dollars are to be spent to provide American films in Great Britain. As far as the rural districts of Scotland are concerned they think that the money would be better spent in supplying a little petrol rather than American films.

It has been noted, too, that the Hollywood film industry has been invited to invest, I think, the sum is 2,500,000 dolars, in purchasing, or investing in, British hotels. If the Minister studies the Scottish papers he will find that never before have so many Scottish hotels been put up for sale, so America should get them on the cheap. I do not wish to see a dollar wasted. I voted against the American Loan because I believed that this country could only recover by its own efforts, but in spite of the amount of Scotch whisky exported, the Scots still have insufficient petrol to run their cars. There is a general feeling that this Measure is a piece of bitter class legislation. I do not support that. I believe that it is a mistaken policy and I think that the Government are simply reluctant to admit a mistake. It is not my duty to save this Government from unpopularity but I can assure the Minister that nothing has caused more gloom, irritation and hardship than these regulations, and what example is being set. Are Ministers and officials motoring to a minimum? What is the average horsepower of cars which stand daily in the Speaker's Court? Imagine, too, what Scottish rural feeling is when they read the following, and I quote from the "Dorset Daily Echo," of Saturday, 13th March. It has been sent to me by a constituent: No fewer than Ono motor coaches went to Sheffield for the tussle between Derby County and Manchester United.

An Hon. Member


Mr. Gandar Dower

The policy is, of course, a Cabinet responsibility but the Minister will bear the brunt of public attack, and if Scottish rural districts are asked what mercy should be rendered to him, they will cry "a halter, gratis; nothing else."

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley (Aberdeen and Kincardine, Western)

My hon. Friend, the Member for Sunderland and Caithness (Mr. Gandar Dower) has performed a useful public service in drawing the atten- tion of the House to this matter. I am glad he stressed the hardship caused to the rural areas in Scotland by the withdrawal of the basic petrol ration. Folk who live in towns can see their friends, go to the cinema, or concerts or dances or to their sports clubs, on foot, or by public transport. That is very seldom the case in the scattered rural areas of Scotland in which country folk have to live in isolation, like hermits, in their own houses, unable, for weeks or months on end, to be visited by their relatives or their friends and unable to go into towns for recreational facilities. That is hardly calculated to attract young men and young women to go and live in the countryside. Of course, it may be said that it is always open to people to hire cars. That is all right if they can afford it, but hiring cars is very wasteful of petrol both because of the double journeys involved and because most hire cars are very large, and high horse-powered cars do a very small mileage to the gallon of petrol.

My hon. Friend mentioned American films. If a Scotsman were asked whether he would rather have the restoration of American films or the basic petrol ration he would say, "the basic petrol ration every time." "Forever Amber" is a sordid substitute for the freedom of the road and God's open air.

Mr. C. S. Taylor (Eastbourne)

May I interrupt? I do not think this refers only to Scotland. I think it refers to a great many other districts in England and Wales also, and I hope that in his remarks, the hon. Member will also bring in England and Wales.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

If it were in Order, I should be delighted to do so, but I understand that the Adjournment Debate is specifically about Scottish rural areas. However, what I was saying about the rural areas of Scotland applies to almost every other rural area. What I want to say particularly concerns hotels, because hotels are in the very greatest difficulty. They have to face difficulties, which the Minister knows about, in getting permission to do work. They have had great staff difficulties and now they have the difficulties of the wages regulations under the Catering Wages Act, and on top of that there is this withdrawal of the basic petrol ration.

I will give one example only, because the difficulties are well known to many hon. Members. This is a case from my own constituency of the Invercauld Arms Hotel, Braemar, on Deeside. This is a hotel which was requisitioned during the war and, after possession was obtained quite recently, great difficulty was experienced in getting the necessary permit to do the place up. The proprietor got together a staff of between 40 and 50, mostly ex-Service men and women, and they were working excellently as a team. But because of the withdrawal of the basic petrol ration they had to close down, leaving a caretaker and bartender in charge. Their booking for the summer are almost all dependent upon the basic petrol ration being restored. That is one example of a great many others up and down rural Scotland and in England and Wales as well.

I know that the Parliamentary Secretary informed us last night that the Minister of Fuel and Power is about to make an announcement shortly about petrol for the tourist industry, and I am very glad to hear it. It is very important and even more important that he should give a promise that the basic petrol allowance will be restored at the earliest possible moment.

11.35 p.m.

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

The whole House, I am sure, will have listened with attention to the very well reasoned argument which the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Gandar Dower) has made tonight, and the admirable contribution which the hon. Member for West Aberdeen (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley) has made to this discussion; and I am glad that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland said he did not share the view, which some of his hon. Friends hold, that this is a case of class hatred, because if there is a class which has suffered, it is the working class. I know that approximately 500,000 cars are laid up, but it must be remembered that there are about 300,000 motor cycles laid up, and I am one of those who wants to see these people with more freedom once again. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland dealt with the rural areas of Scotland, and one readily appreciates all he said. But in relation to overseas visitors, it will be recalled that I said last night that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade would be making a statement on this particular matter next week, and I think we can leave this until that time to see what provision is made. The other points which the hon. Member has made are matters to which I will try to give a helpful reply. He indicated the difficulty of taking people to hospital, and I would explain that it is not necessary for the owner of a hire car to wait until he has a call to get a permit for the journey. He can get a blanket licence so that he is covered for taking people to a hospital even although the journey is one of more than 20 miles. We are most anxious to be reasonable and generous in so far as we can in helping people in these circumstances.

Mr. Gandar Dower

May I interrupt? I thank the hon. Member for his assurance, but may I make it perfectly clear? Can hirers who would normally take patients to hospital, obtain a blanket licence beforehand to meet eventualities of this sort?

Mr. Robens

Yes, that is so where the area necessitates it and the distances are more than 20 miles. The hon. Member also referred to shopping, church-going, and taking children to school. The allowances for these things are mainly advantageous to rural dwellers, because they are the people who are most advantaged by those concessions. We have given allowances to veterinary surgeons and farmers for their needs, and so far as doctors are concerned, there is no complaint from the medical profession that we are not giving them sufficient for their needs and for all necessary travel in attending to patients. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that it is not my province, nor am I competent to debate, tonight, the relative expenditure in dollars on films from the United States and on basic petrol, and I hope, therefore, that I shall be forgiven if I do not enter into that controversy.

With regard to motor coaches, the petrol allocation has been cut, but this is one way in which the present transport difficulties can be eased. Provisions for motor coaches apply in Scotland as equally in any other part of the country.

Mr. Blackburn (Birmingham, King's Norton)

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, and I quite appreciate that this is not his responsibility, but could he deal with this one point? The point that a large number of dollars are to be spent on films compared with the restoration of basic petrol, is one which I am sure the Government must have in mind and on which we do hope there will be some early statement.

Mr. Robens

I take note of what the hon. Member has said and I will convey that to the right quarter: it is an important and necessary point.

With regard to hotels, and the fact that some of the Scottish hotels are a long distance from the railway stations, that is another case where the hirer can get a licence for a particular purpose. In any case we do give an allowance to the hotel proprietor to take guests to the hotel from the station and vice versa.

Mr. C. S. Taylor rose——

Mr. Robens

I have got to get on and there are one or two important things I want to say. We have done what we can to ease the situation within the problem of meeting the position. I have been at this Box a number of times during the past week in connection with basic petrol and I do not want to repeat all the arguments I have used before; but I think it is important that I should tell the House something about the average weekly savings. In October the average weekly savings were 5,000 tons; in November, 15,000 tons; in December, 17,000 tons; in January, 20,000 tons and in February, 23,000 tons. That is a total saving of 350,000 tons in five months ending 29th February. It represents approximately £4,123,000 at present prices of £11 15s. 7d. per ton c.i.f. or approximately 16,600,000 dollars. Thus it is a real saving and it does represent something very well worth while, bearing in mind the earlier months where there was very much less saving of petrol.

Let me say something about the position of the restoration of basic. That is what the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland wanted to know and what the House and the country want to know—[HON MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Hon. Members need not sit up in great expectation. I am not going to say anything as definite as all that—but much depends, in relation to the restoration of the basic petrol ration, or shall I say, a petrol allocation—on the findings and the recommendations of the Committee which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Fuel and Power set up to deal with black market dealings in petrol.

As the House knows, this Committee has been sitting under the chairmanship of Mr. Russell Vick and I am glad to tell the House that we anticipate that his report will be in the hands of the Minister in a few days' time. The Minister will want to consider that report along with other matters. When he has done that he will come to the House and he will make that long-anticipated statement which the House is so desirous of hearing and it would not be for me tonight to anticipate what that statement will be. Therefore, I do ask the House to wait in patience—and there is not much longer to wait—for that statement and to be assured that there is good will and the desire to help. It is with that point of view and that line of thought in mind that this whole matter is being investigated.

Mr. Gandar Dower

Can the Minister give an assurance that allowances are being made to farmers to visit the Royal Agricultural Show at Inverness, one of the great Scottish shows?

Mr. Robens

I am sorry the hon. Member has asked me a question about a specific show, but, by and large, we have agreed in respect of shows of that type that farmers should be entitled to go, and I do not think there will be any difficulty.

Mr. Gandar Dower

Thank you.

Mr. C. S. Taylor

I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary what relation the saving of petrol has to the advantage which the Americans have gained over the films deal? Surely, it would be far better if this country were given back basic petrol instead of being presented with "Forever Amber."

Mr. Robens

I am sure I would not be permitted to enter into an argument on the relative merits of "Forever Amber" and petrol. I have been dealing on this Motion tonight with the question of how the petrol ban affects Scotland, and this is not the time to discuss film versus petrol.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

It is not so much a question of getting a guest from a station to the hotel and back again. It means having a car to visit well-known beauty spots, and people will not come to the hotel if they cannot make these visits. That is why it is so necessary to have petrol.

Mr. Robens

I understand that, but the same point applies to hotels throughout the country.

Adjourned accordingly at Thirteen Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.