HC Deb 12 December 1950 vol 482 cc1109-20

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

10.24 p.m.

Mr. Nabarro (Kidderminster)

The subject of this evening's Adjournment debate is complementary to the subject of the debate which has occupied us today, because it relates to the advertising arrangements of the British Electricity Authority. The prevalence, the persistence and the regularity of power cuts in all parts of the country, and the disruption and dislocation caused by them have rightly focused public attention on this important matter. In the last few weeks, it has not been any longer a question of load shedding but of load severance, not of a "dim out" but of a "black out." There have undoubtedly been most damaging results to industries, factories, workshops, and undertakings of all descriptions, as well as to hospitals, transport, even traffic lights, and danger to life and limb in many parts of the country.

Perhaps the gravity of the situation might be emphasised by a statement which the Chairman of the British Electricity Authority, Lord Citrine, made to a Press Conference exactly seven days ago, on 5th December. On that occasion he said: We are running into a situation which is not only serious but which may be dangerous or even disastrous. For better or worse, the British nation owns all the electricity undertakings in the country. It is not illogical, therefore, that the British nation as a whole should have a direct interest in the advertising and publicity arrangements which the Electricity Authority undertakes. I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary would not quarrel with me when I say that any policy which the Ministry of Fuel and Power try to put into effect, be it in connection with coal, coke, gas, electricity, fuel oil, or any other form of fuel, whether solid, liquid or current—in the case of electricity—it would be impossible to implement without publicity arrangements which are closely harmonised with the boards of control of the nationalised fuel and power industries.

I shall endeavour to demonstrate this evening that the policy of advertising being followed by the British Electricity Authority is completely out of harmony with the requirements of the national fuel and power situation, the gravity of which has been underlined from all parts of the House in speeches which have been made in the debate that immediately preceded the Adjournment Motion.

A particularly offensive campaign of the British Electricity Authority—I emphasise the word "offensive"—is that which has been widespread in the United Kingdom over the caption "Another New Power Station." It has been run on bill hoardings from John o'Groats to Land's End. It has formed the subject of large and expensive advertisements in the national, the provincial and the local Press. I wish to recapitulate the efforts which have been made by hon. Members on this side of the House to elicit from the Minister of Fuel and Power some tangible information during the last few weeks as to the purpose of this advertising campaign, its efficacy and its cost.

On 6th November, on 13th November, and again on 20th November my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Major Beamish), my right hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd), and myself questioned the Minister of Fuel and Power to try to obtain certain information from him. On 6th November the OFFICIAL REPORT records that, in response to a supplementary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames, about this power house poster campaign, the Minister replied: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would put a Question down about these posters."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th November, 1950; Vol. 480, c. 582.] My hon. Friend complied with this request, and on 13th November, one week later, a Question appeared on the Order Paper. Upon that occasion the Minister replied that: On reflection, I think the hon. Member's Question deals with a matter affecting the day-to-day administration of the British Electricity Authority, on which it would not be desirable that I should comment in a reply."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th November, 1950; Vol. 480, c. 1364.] Later on the same day, I asked the Minister of Fuel and Power whether he realised that the psychological effect of this expensive and extensive advertising campaign—that is, the power house posters only—was to cause consumers to use more electricity, at a time when the right hon. Gentleman wished them to use less. The Minister, whom I am sorry to see is not in his place tonight, replied: I think the hon. Member's Question shows that he does not read the advertisements. A very large part of them is devoted to explaining to housewives and others that they should use as little electricity as possible at peak hours."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th November, 1950; Vol. 480, c. 1365.] I have a copy of the power house advertisement here, cut from the "Daily Herald" of 27th October, so it must be correct. The advertisement says "Another New Power Station." It shows the power station at Stourport-on-Severn. The painting is by Charles Cundall, R.A., and there is a description of certain technical features of a power station and the advertisement finishes by saying "More power from Stourport means more power for the nation"—by British Electricity.

Pray, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, where is there any exhortation to use less electricity? Obviously the right hon. Gentleman was trying to wriggle out of an exceedingly difficult situation. To supplement all this, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes wrote very deliberately to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power in September, and asked for details of this particular advertising campaign. The Parliamentary Secretary replied promptly, courteously and efficiently, as he always does to me, to this effect: This is not a matter which I can deal with. I recommend that the hon. Member should make application to the British Electricity Authority. So the hon. and gallant Member for Lewes wrote to the British Electricity Authority. The reply was received, in a letter which was so curt and abrupt as to be almost rude, that the information could not be disclosed. The hon. and gallant Member for Lewes wrote another letter to the British Electricity Authority and said that surely the earlier reply was intended for someone else, not for him, because none of his questions were answered. Would they tell him what the power house poster campaign cost, its purpose and why it was considered to be efficacious. The Authority again refused the information. Being a resourceful man, the hon. and gallant Member for Lewes wrote at once to the Consultative Council for the South Eastern Area of the British Electricity Authority, and asked that Council for the information. Again it was refused. Finally, as we could obtain no satisfaction in this House, it was left for one or other of the hon. Members on this side of the House to ballot for an Adjournment Motion.

We had a debate a few weeks ago upon the accountability to Parliament of nationalised industries. I aver tonight, without fear of contradiction, that this is a matter of great public concern. As the electricity industry is nationally owned, my constituents, or any other hon. Member's constituents, should be in a position to discover the cost of any particular advertising campaign by a nationalised authority. The refusal of this essential information reduces to a farce the status of hon. Members of this House. We are, in effect, reduced to complete impotence in not being able to secure this information. It represents the emasculation of Parliamentary representation.

I said earlier that the particularly offensive feature of the British Electricity Authority's advertising arrangements was the poster campaign "Another New Power Station," with particular reference to Stourport-on-Avon. I have particular interest in this power house because it is in the middle of my constituency. It supplies power to practically the whole of the many industrial undertakings in Kidderminster, Stourport and the Black Country and a large amount to the Midlands' grid.

The posters state that this is a "new power station." May I dwell upon the historical facts of the situation? The Stourport-on-Severn power house was authorised in the year of Our Lord 1924. It was constructed between 1925 and 1926. The official opening was carried out by my eminent predecessor, the then Member of Parliament for that area, Mr. Stanley Baldwin, during his second period of office as Prime Minister. A continuous chain of expansion of power installations has been going on for no less than twenty-five years; and the recent extension, the "B" station at Stourport was opened on 26th September last. It represents an addition of 60,000 kilowatts to a power station which had previously been generating 180,000 kilowatts. It is a 33⅓ per cent. extension only, which is nothing very remarkable.

Now we have the piquancy of the situation. This station was opened with a champagne luncheon, and a great flourish of trumpets, symbolic of the arrangements. [An HON. MEMBER: "No ice cream? No oysters?"] No, there were no oysters, for the simple reason that they were not in season at the time, but if the hon. Member will allow me to make this one point, I think he will be interested. A note of piquancy is to be found here, because the extention at Stourport broke down after generating power for only a few weeks, and, it is stated, will be out of action until next month, although the British Electricity Authority continues to plaster the countryside with posters telling us that "Another new power house is being built." Here is one of the splendiferous, multi-coloured, "all-singing, all-dancing, all-talking" advertisements put out by the British Electricity Authority at a time when manufacturers cannot obtain enough electricity for their needs.

But let me now dwell on another aspect of the advertising arrangements of this nationalised authority. I have here a magazine entitled, "Electrical Housekeeping." It is issued free, gratis and for nothing to any person calling at an electricity showroom anywhere in the Midlands, desiring to pay an electricity bill, or for any other reason. One then gets one of these magazines. It is an interesting publication to which I invite the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary. It has a highly coloured cover, and it contains a short story by A. J. Bevan, although I should emphasise that this is not the Minister of Health. The story is entitled, "The Sea Horse." and it begins, There was a dissatisfied Sea-Horse, who lived in the Aegean Sea. He had an ambition gnawing at his vitals which he was sure nobody else would understand. He longed to be a land-horse. He longed to be a racehorse, which was, of course, presumptuous as well. At length he went to his father and told him what was bothering him. There follows a story for two pages of just about the intellectual standard I would read to my two sons of four and five years. Then there is an article by Dr. Charles Fordyce on "Coughs, colds and chilblains." Alongside that is an article upon a "Teen-age Set: Cap, Scarf and Gloves." This is set out for any young woman, and the next article is most instructive in matters electrical. It is an article containing instructions for a "Black Bat-wing Sweater," and close to this is an article, exclusive to this magazine, "Calling all Knitters." This shows a glamorous young woman in a black sweater, with instructions on how to knit it. Being so deficient in their arrangements for the supply of electrical power for heating, one imagines that young women now need to knit a jumper for themselves, in order to keep warm.

We go on with a whole string of articles which have nothing to do with electricity, except for one. I have no desire that this should develop simply into a matter of banter, because there are important principals at stake. There is an interesting article called "Good Lighting Leads the Way." There is an artists's nice impression of an all-electric kitchen, and illustrated is an electric cooker, electric washer, electric kettle, electric toaster, and an elaborate electrical fitting hanging in the ceiling. In various other places electric appliances are advertised.

Surely in response to the urgent request for fuel economy made only a few hours ago by the Minister of Fuel and Power, it is utterly incongruous that the nationalised Electricity Authority should now be persuading people to buy electrical appliances, devoting vast quantities of a scarce raw material, paper, to advertising arrangements which seem to have no useful purpose whatever and are entirely out of harmony with our national fuel and power situation.

My appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary, as I have only been able to give two examples of these misconceived advertising arrangements, is that urgent and immediate steps should be taken to set up a co-ordinated advertising policy for the coal, electricity and gas industries in order that the three shall be closely integrated, that people shall be encouraged not to buy electrical appliances, thereby increasing the electricity load, that they shall be encouraged to consume only those forms of fuel which the Ministry consider desirable in present circumstances, and that this fantastic and ludicrous situation, which has now been allowed to develop, should come under the immediate scrutiny of the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary.

10.43 p.m.

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

It is a long time since I have enjoyed such a good stump speech as that. It was highly amusing, and it all boils down to the fact that the hon. Gentleman has one opinion about the publicity of the B.E.A., and that they have another, and it is largely a matter of opinion. So that I could see what advertisements were being put out, I asked for a file. They have a section dealing with new power stations. I do not know what is wrong with putting up a poster when you build a new power station. I do not know what is wrong with telling the people what you are doing to provide more electricity. These advertisements contain a great amount of information, and I should think they are of great interest to the people in the locality.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

They are a waste of money.

Mr. Robens

That is an opinion. Some people may think the big posters which say " Guinness is Good for You " are a waste of money.

Mr. Nabarro

The taxpayer does not pay for Guinness advertisements.

Mr. Robens

The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. The taxpayer does not pay for this.

Mr. Nabarro

He pays for it in his electricity account.

Mr. Robens

The taxpayer does not pay.

Sir W. Darling

Guinness is not a monopoly. The analogy is quite wrong. I must use electricity. That is a monopoly. I am not compelled to drink Guinness, however good it may be for me.

Mr. Robens

The hon. Gentleman is not compelled to drink Guinness, or be rubbed down with it, or anything else.

Captain Waterhouse (Leicester, South-East)

Surely the difference is that you can get Guinness, and you cannot get electricity.

Mr. Robens

That is a very interesting contribution. You can get electricity for certain for 20 hours a day, but you cannot get Guinness for 20 hours. So that it just comes to be a matter of opinion.

When the hon. Gentleman said that the Stourport Station had broken down, hon. Gentlemen roared with laughter. It seems to be the funniest thing in the world if a power station breaks down. Why they should laugh at the failure of the private makers of a set which has gone into a power station and which they decided to take out because it might develop some trouble, I do not know. I should think that was very serious. [An HON. MEMBER: "It was over-loaded."] It was not over-loaded at all. I understand the first generator at Stourport "B" Power Station had to be taken out of service shortly after being installed because the makers wished to effect certain changes to guard against trouble which it was thought might develop later. What is there funny about that?

The fact is that hon. Gentlemen do not like these posters. I like them, and my opinion is as good as theirs on this matter. There will be people who like them and there will be people who do not like them. I do not agree that it is a good thing that a Member of Parliament can write to an electricity board and say, "Give me the answer to any questions I ask." He might ask how many letters they send out every day. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why not?"] Why should they be burdened with that?

Why do not politicians want to interfere with the free commercial enterprises? This question of publicity is a sheer matter of opinion and there are lots of people who think advertising a waste of time, a waste of space, and a waste of paper. It sometimes costs dollars, too. There are other people who do not share that view. If you appoint people to do a job, you must allow them to do it, otherwise remove them. There is all the power to do that. I see nothing in what the hon. Gentleman said that causes me any alarm.

Let us have a look at the other advertisements. Here is a group of 20 or 30 advertisements; all for what purpose? All designed to bring home to the people the need to keep their electricity demands off the peaks. There is no problem in generating the supply of electricity the people want for all the day, except for about four peak hours, and it is very much in the interests of the B.E.A. and electrical consumers that one should step up the demand in the off-peak hours and cut it during the peak hours. That is the way to make electricity pay.

Mr. Nabarro rose

Mr. Robens

If the hon. Member wants it, it is not only elementary, but it is pretty cheap to take up a magazine and to talk in this way. The B.E.A. are showing to their consumers something about electricity. They are making it readable. The hon. Gentleman, of course, wants it all ways. The fact is that during the summer they concentrated on prestige advertisements to tell the people what was being done to build power stations, which was a reasonable thing to do. During the winter the advertisements switched on to the off-peak loads. There is nothing wrong in that.

Colonel Stoddart-Scott (Ripon)

What does the Parliamentary Secretary mean by peak loads? In the West Riding of Yorkshire recently we had seven-hour cuts.

Mr. Robens

The peak load is that part of the day when the whole of the peak is being used by consumers and it exceeds the amount that is capable of being generated. Roughly, it is about four hours a day. If the hon. Gentleman had a seven-hour cut, he would probably find there was some technical fault with the generators.

Mr. W. J. Taylor (Bradford, North)

Is the technical fault there day after day? The fact is that the capacity is not there to produce it.

Mr. Robens

If one gets a cut longer than the peak period it is probably due to some technical fault.

Mr. Taylor

Why try to explain it away then?

Mr. Robens

I am not trying to do that. I am quite honest about it. The hon. Member for Kidderminster said that he or his friend wrote to the Consultative Council, which is composed two-thirds of representatives of local authorities, all of whom have been elected by their fellow citizens to serve on their local bodies.

Mr. Taylor

They have no executive power.

Mr. Robens

If the Consultative Council said to the hon. Gentleman that they did not think that he ought to put the electricity people in the position of having to reply to his request I think it is a pretty good judgment.

Mr. Nabarro

The information is on their own files. I have got this information from the advertising profession because the B.E.A. would not disclose it. They had it on their own files but refused to disclose it.

Mr. Robens

I am sure the B.E.A. will be interested to know that people with whom they have contracts revealed private information. I shall certainly draw their attention to it, and if I were in their place I should write those people completely off my list. They would get no more advertising. The Consultative Council, having examined a request from a Member of Parliament and, of course, a member of the public, said that it was not in the interest of the electrical industry that it should be given. That in my view is a decent and reasonable judgment. and I am quite prepared to back it. The trouble is that the hon. Gentleman sets himself up as an authority above all others. What he says must go. He must always be right.

Mr. W. J. Taylor

Will the Parliamentary Secretary say whether the B.E.A. had been in communication with him or his Department before the reply was given?

Mr. Robens

I did not bother to write to the B.E.A.

Mr. Taylor

But did they bother to write to you?

Mr. Robens

We have regular correspondence with the B.E.A. We are very friendly; we often write to one and other. We are on the same level as the hon. Member for Kidderminster.

Mr. Taylor

Will the Parliamentary Secretary answer my direct question: whether the B.E.A. did in fact write to him before they sent a reply to the hon. Gentleman? Was there any collusion between his Department and the B.E.A.?

Mr. Robens

That is a terrible allegation to make—that there was collusion between the Ministry and the B.E.A. The fact is that these are matters of day to day administration, and I respectfully suggested that the hon. Gentleman might write direct to the B.E.A., which he did, and they have written to him. That was a matter between him and the B.E.A. in which I would not seek to interfere. This question of a poster campaign—

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 Six Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.