HC Deb 06 March 1950 vol 472 cc121-36

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

8.47 p.m.

Mr. I. J. Pitman (Bath)

I should like to take this first opportunity of congratulating the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power upon his confirmation in the same office as he held before the election. His Minister is greatly to be congratulated upon having a tower of strength behind him. I have a very high personal regard for the Parliamentary Secretary. He and I saw a great deal of one another in the last Parliament. We may almost take the words about Heraclitus: I wept as I remembered How often you and I, Had tired the sun with talking And sent him down the sky. I might almost say that he and I have also sent the sun up the sky as well as -down the sky. I should like to add how greatly I welcome him back to the House. I was glad that he got a considerable majority. In a Minister, that is a good thing. Ministers should not be keeping their eyes on their constituencies but on His Majesty's business, that they have to transact. I am sure that the Minister will be busy.

I also think that it is fortunate that the first Adjournment Debate in this House should be connected with nationalisation. It is clear that the country has said very definitely that it will not have nationalisation of anything new. It is equally true that the country is extremely anxious about the way in which the nationalisations already effected are working. One of the points on which nationalisation will in due time be judged will be on its claim that it gives to the consumer a greater control over great monopolies. Still greater monopolies have been created and it is very important that the consumer should have a square deal, and should have control over the undertakings to stop them from being completely arbitrary and untrammelled in their work. In this connection, the disclosure of information is one of the most important items in consumer control, in order' not only that justice should be done but that justice should appear and palpably appear to be done by these colossal monopolies.

There are three things to which I would call attention in connection with the conduct of the nationalised undertakings. First, there is the need for information. Secondly, there is the need for courtesy and kindliness of manner in giving the information. Thirdly, there is the obligation to collaborate willingly with Members of this House. I think I shall be disclosing to you, Sir, that on all those three counts, in the gas industry in general and certainly in the South West area in particular, there has been a great shortcoming.

I should have said that if there was one thing which ought to be avoided by nationalised undertakings it should be the suppression and the withholding of information from hon. Members of this House. In my opinion that is a criminal mistake on the part of anybody conducting a nationalised undertaking to be unwise in that way. I also think that obviously discourteous treatment, particularly of hon. Members of this House, ought equally to be avoided. Finally, there ought to be no running away from collaboration offered by hon. Members and no spurning of their efforts to work in collaboration with the nationalised undertakings.

The Minister has power under Section 7 to give directions to area boards in general, and to a particular area board if he so desires, and it is common knowledge that we Members of the House have been asked by our area board to make our representations for information and other matters to the consultative council. I shall suggest in the course of this short Debate that if the area boards are to ask hon. Members to direct their questions to the consultative council, they should make that member of the board who is the chairman of the consultative council lead it to give, if anything, too much information, to treat hon. Members of this House courteously, and to collaborate in every way they can with hon. Members in the discharge of their duties. I think it will be easy for me to show that in the gas industry generally, and particularly in the South West area, there has been a definite suppression of information from hon. Members of this House, and a shortcoming in the other two respects as well.

It may be within your knowledge, Mr. Speaker, that we had trouble some time back in regard to tariffs in the South-West Area, and that the new tariff scheme was withdrawn because not even the legally required information had been given. Ian that connection I can quite understand, now that the principles have been published, why it was decided—I think it was unwise—that the area board should suppress information. They have now disclosed the principles under which they were working, and one most disturbing one is that the price of gas has been put up in an area of supply not because the gas costs more but because the price of gas in that area was before nationalisation the lowest in the whole area of the Gas Board. That is an unpopular, because an unreasonable, principle. Merely because gas has been manufactured at the lowest price in the whole area should not of itself be a reason for raising the price. I think that reason was suppressed because of its unpopularity.

Then there is the issue of new developments in rural areas. The principle now announced is that in such new developments gas should be supplied at lower than cost and, to make up for that, the urban areas should pay for their gas more than it costs to supply. Taking the south-west as a case in point—where we have been developing with the Minister's definite encouragement supply mains through Salisbury Plain—this means that those new developments at the high prices of 1950 are to be subsidised at the expense of gas manufactured in plant and distributed through supply lines which were bought at the much lower prices prevailing before the war. That the towns should pay more for gas than it costs in order that the country may pay less is an unpopular principle, and I think an unwise one, because it means that the poor widow living immediately next to the gas works in an urban area has to subsidise the tenant or the landlord—and much more probably the latter—in the rural districts.

I believe that the area board in the south-west is failing to give the information to the public in regard to several other important factors. On the question of debt redemption, the British Gas Stock is due for repayment in 1990–1995. I am told that the principle of debt repayment adopted by the South-West Area Board is one of writing off the whole of that debt by either 1990 or 1995. If so, it is a very steep and more severe principle than has previously been operative in the gas industry and it is the kind of information we ought to be given, but which has not been given.

On the question of the treatment of assets which have been written very much below the current cost of replacement, even allowing for obsolescence, there are throughout the country, and especially in corporation undertakings, units which were taken over at the debt value which was much lower than the asset value even on such a written down accountancy basis. Who will get the benefit of that? Is it to be the town which has paid too much for its gas in the past or is it to be the surrounding neighbourhood? That also is an important principle which ought to be disclosed but has not. With regard to the treatment of replacements, if unit A just before the war carried out a big renewal whereas unit B is due for replacement, what will happen? That important principle, too, has so far not been disclosed.

Particularly in the south-west there has been the fact that only 10 days' notice has been given of the new price tariff, and those 10 days were all after the consultative council had met to consider the new tariff and not before. From what the Minister said upstairs it is quite clear that the intention of this House was that the tariffs should be announced and the public should have the means of going to the consultative council, and that the latter should consider those tariffs only after they had been open to representation from the people they represent.

So there are still major omissions in the disclosure of information, certainly the south-west, and the Minister ought to exercise his powers of direction to get the area board first to allow hon. Members of this House to get their information through the consultative council or, failing that, direct from the area board, and there should be full disclosure of relevant principles by every area board throughout the land.

Now I come to the question of discourtesy. The way in which the consultative council consistently has treated me has been of great discourtesy. There has been not only the suppression of information. Much of the information was information which could easily have been given—it must have been available. I have given the Minister the opportunity of going through my files and seeing the actual correspondence which has passed between me and the consultative council. The final discourtesy of all was in announcing to the Press a resolution which was offensive in itself and writing to me only seven days afterwards to let me know about it.

Members of this House would all wish to support one another in claiming that we are an honourable House, that we have great responsibilities on the financial side and that the financial onus eventually depends upon this House, and that it should be possible and especially desirable to meet Members over what are clearly very reasonable and very pertinent questions. After all, Members of Parliament need to maintain a balance in regard to nationalised undertakings which no member of a consultative council has to do. Because of the operation of the financial provisions of Sections 41 to 50 of the Gas Act, 1948, of which the Minister will be aware, it is undoubtedly true that ultimately there is a risk on this House for any financial shortcomings of the gas industry which may result.

Great sums have been lost in the south-west area alone. Literally not one penny of any increased prices will have been taken in the south-west for over a year. It is deplorable that this House should be saddled with the ultimate responsibility of financial loss of that kind, and in this respect the consultative council has no interest or responsibility whatever. That is to say, a Member of this House has to weigh two advantages: every time that he is asking, in the name his constituents, for cheaper services or developments to fresh areas, he must also have in mind the question of the cost and the financial impact of that action upon the Treasury and therefore upon this House. The consultative council, however, has no such responsibility at all. It is in that respect a completely irresponsible body, not interested in anything except improving the services to the consumer, if need be at the unlimited expense of the taxpayer. For that reason, a Member of Parliament is doubly important as a collaborator with an area board and a consultative council in reviewing the situation. The attempts of members to collaborate in this proper balance of service and cost seem to he spurned rather than welcomed.

The gas boards and the Gas Council ought to be in a position to treat members of this House and the public at large in a really proper manner. Some very big sums of money are involved. The loss in the south-west has been very considerable indeed. The chairman of the Gas Council gets £6,000 a year and the deputy-chairman, £5,000. The area board chairman gets £4,500 and £500 expenses; the deputy-chairman, £3,500 a year and £400 expenses. If they are paid those big sums, bigger than the Minister's own staff are paid, surely they ought to behave in the same way vis-à-vis hon. Members of this House—that is to say, in a statesmanlike way and in the best traditions of the Civil Service. I challenge the Minister that the record here and the record of the suppression of information which has been going on do not justify these big sums being paid.

The chairman of the south-west area is an extremely good and competent gas engineer. He is more a technician than an administrator. Presumably, therefore, the deputy-chairman is the man whom the Minister appointed to have control of what might be called the administrative and permanent secretaryship aspect of the conduct of that great administrative task. He may be an excellent man but it seems to me that he is, quite obviously, one of the political appointments. At £3,500 a year and £400 expenses, even without allowing for P.A.Y.E., he is getting £70 a week. To other members of his union, the Amalgamated Engineering Union, that is really big money; it is money which entitles the people of the south-west and Members of this House to get a genuine administrative job done properly.

Then there is the chairman of the consultative council. He, again, is an appointment of the Minister. He gets £750 a year for the job of attending the board part-time and attending the consultative council every now and then. He ought to be an administrator in outlook and particularly to make nationalisation work well and smoothly, because the nationalisation of those industries which are already nationalised is very much on trial. People on both sides of the House have found sufficient evidence of that during the election. We want to give nationalisation a really fair trial and to reverse the process only if it fails to live up to the hopes and expectations claimed for it. It is very important that in the next four or five years there should be a genuine effort to make it work and to make this public relations side of the industry, in particular, work very much better than it has done so far.

I direct the attention of the Minister, therefore, to the need for him to give directions to the industry as a whole, and to the south-west area in particular, that they should disclose all information. As I see it, there is more than a possibility that in May we shall again be in the position which prevailed some time ago of people refusing to pay their accounts and being able to force the area board yet again to postpone tariffs on the grounds that they have not legally complied with the law because of this curious and wrongful desire of theirs to suppress information of relevant and necessary facts.

9.9 p.m.

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

May I at the outset express my thanks to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Pitman) for the very kind personal references which he made? As I understand it, his chief complaint is of lack of courtesy from the area board or the consultative council of the South-West Area. I do not understand the relationship which he places between the salaries of the top men in the industry and the question of courtesy. My own view is that it would not matter if a person was doing a job on an honorary basis or getting a half or a third of his salary for it. Courtesy costs nothing and should always be given. Therefore, I do not in any way relate salaries to the question of courtesy, whether in this House, in commerce, or wherever it may be. I am not here to defend those salaries because we have discussed salaries in this House from time to time.

The other question is what information should be divulged and the peculiar position of Members of Parliament. The great question raised by the hon. Member, perhaps unknowingly, is the real position of consultative councils, not only in the gas industry, but in all industries where they have been set up. I am perfectly sure that on reflection the hon. Member does not want Ministers, of whatever party they may be, giving directions to consultative councils as to how they should do their job. Yet that is the very thing he is asking. In the first place, my right hon. Friend would have no power to give directions to the consultative council. He might give a direction to an area board about what he thinks the consultative council should do, but it would have no effect on the consultative council and, therefore, the Minister is unable—and very properly unable by virtue of the provisions of the Act—which were thoroughly discussed, to give information on this matter.

Mr. Pitman

If I had asked the Minister to give a direction to the consultative council I would have been out of order, and I think I made my point very clearly that it was the area board which asks Members of Parliament to direct their questions not to the area board but to the consultative council. I have therefore asked the Minister to give a direction, not to the consultative council, but to the area board, saying to the area board, "If you are going to do this, do it and continue to do it only if the consultative council are going to answer questions willingly, are going to answer questions courteously and are willing to collaborate with Members of Parliament in the way they ought to collaborate."

Mr. Robens

I hope that consultative councils will treat the whole of the public as they would treat a Member of Parliament and that if information is wanted they should give it freely if it is in the public interest. I can well understand, however, that there may be occasions, for example when they will be dealing with matters of tariffs, when it perhaps would not be right in the public interest for a disclosure to be made. In each case we must leave it to the good sense of the consultative council to decide what should be made public at a particular time and what may be made public at any time.

We ought to have a look at the composition of the consultative councils before going further with the idea of giving directions to them. I always felt when we were dealing with this and other Measures that the consultative councils were, as it were, a safety valve which gave the public the opportunity at any time to deal with matters in connection with the particular industry concerned. The appointment of consultative councils was very carefully laid down in the Act. The persons who get on the consultative council only do so if they have been well sieved. In the first place, the local authority decide whose name should go forward and make a choice. They must be given credit for appointing a man or woman whom they regard as able to do the job in an excellent way.

Mr. Pitman

They are nominated.

Mr. Robens

That is so. The nominations come to the County Councils Association if from a county council, through the Association of Municipal Corporations if it is a borough council, and so on. The associations then go through the list of names which have come up from their constituents, and sieve them and pass on to the Minister what they regard as a list of people from whom he could readily choose without any fear that they are not suitable persons.

The Minister then makes appointments. He ought to feel that the persons he gets from the local authority lists have been well vetted and are in the first place elected by their citizens in their areas and have been selected by their local authorities and then vetted by their association. When he gets the list he should be assured that he has a list of people with good public spirit who will do the job efficiently.

The other persons who go on to the consultative council are appointed from industry, commerce, labour and so on. It is laid down in the Act that the Minister shall consult with those interests. In practice he consults with the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, the T.U.C., the Parliamentary Committee of the Co-operative Congress, the Women's Voluntary Services, the Federation of British Industries—all bodies which everyone in this House would recognise as of the right type to submit nominations from which the Minister might make a selection. The Federation of British Industries, the T.U.C. and others send in the lists and from those lists the Minister appoints the non-local authority members.

On the council to which the hon. Member has referred there are representatives from county councils, from the Association of Municipal Corporations, including one from his own city, Councillor Pearson, representatives from the Urban District Councils Association, the Rural District Councils Association, the chambers of commerce, Federation of British Industries, the T.U.C., the Women's Voluntary Services and the Standing Joint Committee of Working Women's Organisations.

He has gathered together in a consultative council a good array chosen quite impartially on the basis of public knowledge and public service with a duty laid upon them. They are to serve the public interest in so far as the gas industry is concerned. They must represent to the gas board the desires of the people in the area over which they have some control. If they are dissatisfied with what the area board is doing they have the right, a complete and free right, to go to the Minister and say so. The consultative council is a quite free and independent body which is not beholden to the area board or the Minister but, if it does the job properly, it is able to hold the balance fairly between the consumers and the board.

If the hon. Member has not had from the consultative council information to which he feels he was entitled that is not a condemnation of the chairman of the consultative council, but a condemnation of the whole of the consultative council. I know the hon. Member would never suggest for a moment that his views and knowledge of these things and his judgment were greater than the combined knowledge of all the people on the consultative council who have solemnly come to a decision and have supplied the hon. Member with certain information while they say they do not think it would be useful to supply certain other information.

I do not want to enter into the merits of whether they ought to have supplied the information or not, because I do not believe that is our job. I think the consultative councils should be left to do their job. If my right hon. Friend felt that the consultative council was not carrying out its duties, clearly laid down in the Act, I am sure his view would not be that he should tell them they are not doing it, but the line he would take would be to sack the lot and put in a fresh bunch.

Mr. Pitman

I think that the Minister is misunderstanding my whole point. I have not got my knife into any consultative council as a consultative council. All I am telling the House is that the area board chairman says "refer your questions to the consultative council." As a result of that action by the area board, Members of this House are—and I do not know whether the Minister will dissent from this—finding that information which would ordinarily be obtained direct from the area board chairman is suppressed. I submit that in default of obtaining it from the consultative council the information ought to be obtainable from the area board chairman. I think the area board chairman is using the consultative council as a blind so that he can direct questions and is then using the voice of the chairman of the consultative council to suppress information.

Mr. Robens

I am sorry that the hon. Member has said that because it compels me to disclose something which I did not want to disclose as I did not think it was necessary to do so. I understand that in this case the chairman of the area board has had several meetings with the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Pitman) and has given him a great deal of information, and indeed all the information for which he has asked.

Mr. Pitman

That just is not true. I have had only one meeting with the area board chairman. That was to arrange a B.B.C. broadcast at the request of the B.B.C., and he very kindly paid for the dinner and entertained us, but I have not, except unofficially, had an answer to more than about one question, and to all the major questions I have asked I have not received answers at all.

Mr. Robens

If my information is wrong I beg the hon. Member's pardon, but I understood that the chairman of the area board had seen the hon. Gentleman and had discussed these matters with him.

Mr. Pitman

No. I have seen the secretary unofficially but he made it quite clear that I was seeing him unofficially. So far as the chairman of the area board is concerned I repeat that I have seen him only once, and that by arrangement with the B.B.C.

Mr. Robens

It may be that the information to which I have referred was a reference to the secretary acting on the instructions of the chairman of the area board.

I agree that it is a good thing that Members of Parliament should take an active interest in these boards and do their public duty of looking after their constituents, but after all, a consultative council is set up for the purpose of giving information and it would be a bad thing to pick out Members of Parliament and say that in this matter they need not use the machinery laid down by Act of Parliament, that they are to have the privilege of being able to get hold of the chairman of the area board, who will meet their requirements for information. I wish to lift the general public up to the standard of Members of Parliament in relation to these matters, and for any member of the public to be able to go to the consultative council. I hope that they will do so, that they will use the consultative councils and that the consultative councils will stimulate area boards.

Mr. Pitman

If the members of the public can get the information.

Mr. Robens

The hon. Member says, "If the members of the public can get the information." There is the crux of the whole matter. Here is a consultative council on which are about 23 people, all of them selected in the way I have indicated, and these 23 people have said that this information should not be given. It is the hon. Gentleman's judgment against that of 23 people brought together from all walks of life and well versed in public life. I do not wish to draw any inference from that; I leave it to the hon. Member. It must be clear, however, that when a consultative council is set up for this specific purpose the hon. Member must accept the judgment of 23 people, who have been brought together in this way, as to whether certain information should he given or not.

I do not want to go too deeply into details on this matter but I understand what the hon. Member did not get was information in connection with the original price schedule which was subsequently withdrawn. I understand that the view of the consultative council, from which I would not dissent, is that there was no point in giving information about an original price schedule which had been withdrawn when the council was dealing with a price schedule that was to be put into operation.

Mr. Pitman

The Parliamentary Secretary has seen all my correspondence, at all events I made it available to him, and that is not the complete picture of the withholding of information. However, I will deal with that point first and say that the area board claimed that they had published that information. If they had, then it was available and surely something which is available to the public might properly have been given to me- instead of being withheld. It was withheld. The other point is that there was—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has exhausted his right to speak.

Mr. Pitman

May I, with great respect, Mr. Speaker, deal with the question of accuracy of what is being said? I asked for copies of the notices and the agenda and the dates of the submission of the new tariffs to the consultative council, a most important matter but these were refused.

Mr. Robens

I have looked very carefully into these files, and while I would admit that some letters were not happily phrased, yet at the same time I think that the consultative council has by and large done its job without any blame attaching to it. The hon. Member did secure what he set out to achieve when he originally intervened in respect of the original tariff structure that was published in a non-technical way.

I return to the principle with which I think this House should be concerned—not the details of a private war between the hon. Member and an area board or a consultative council. We must deal with principles, and is it not a good principle when there is a consultative council, the duties of which are clearly laid down—to represent the consumers to the area board and also to represent the area board to consumers—that information which is required should come via the consultative council? I think that is right. So far as Members of Parliament are concerned, it is perhaps particularly useful that they should get their information via the consultative council because from time to time they may be able to make a contribution to the consultative council.

Mr. Pitman

I do not dissent from that.

Mr. Robens

What the hon. Member is now complaining of is that his judgment is different from that of 23 members of the consultative council as to what information he should have. The hon. Member, with his long experience as a director of a gas company, and any other hon. Member who has been on any board at all, knows that there are some matters which are not disclosed.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

Does the Parliamentary Secretary suggest that a shareholder is not entitled to receive full information from the directors?

Mr. Robens

He does not always receive it.

Sir W. Darling

He is still entitled to it.

Mr. Robens

Public meetings do not always bear out what the hon. Member is trying to indicate to the House.

Surely the judgment of a consultative council elected in this way—it could not be more widely drawn or more democratic—as to what should be disclosed and what should not will not be a bad judgment? The hon. Member is not suggesting that his judgment is better than the combined judgment of the 23 members of the consultative council? If the hon. Member was able to say tonight that by a very narrow vote the consultative council decided not to let him have the information there might be something in his argument, but I understand that the resolution printed in the Press, I presume merely as an extract of decisions made, was a unanimous decision of the council.

I return to what I consider to be the important principle. The consultative council is surely the machinery which we should use, and I think we should use it to the best of our ability, because it would stimulate the area boards and it is also useful for purposes of local publicity in the interests of the gas undertaking. Surely, when that vehicle exists. we should use it, and, if we are dissatisfied with whatever judgment the consultative council passes upon us as individuals, I am afraid that we shall really have to accept it. I do not think that we can say that the judgment of 23 people is quite wrong—

Mr. John Foster (Northwich)

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me? Will he say whether he agrees that the reasons put forward why the consultative council did not disclose the information was because a mistake had been made previously and that they were possibly reluctant to disclose the fact that a mistake had been made? If the hon. Gentleman does not agree with that, what was the reason why the information was not disclosed? Does he think that it was of military interest to somebody, or that it was disclosing something about the price of gas?

Mr. Robens

Frankly, I do not know, and I do not want to know. I do not regard it as my task or that of the Minister to go through the business of the consultative councils and tell them what is right and what is wrong. These are responsible people, and, if they are unable to perform their task, our judgment was wrong in ever appointing them. [Interruption.] Well, the hon. Gentleman will have to take some of the friends of the hon. Member for Bath who are included in the consultative council. He would not admit that their judgment was wrong, and, in my own experience and from my own knowledge of many of them, I can say that I would respect their judgment. I think it would be an intolerable position for the hon. Gentleman to take up if he were to talk about this party interfering with and regimenting other people. Here, we are setting people free to do the job, and leaving them in complete freedom to get on with it, and I am surprised that he should suggest that we are interfering with them.

I say finally that, while I would regret it very much indeed if the hon. Gentleman has been treated with any discourtesy, on the question of information the use of the consultative councils in the way in which I have described is the right and proper use of them and is really the only way in which they can operate.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Nine Minutes to Ten o'Clock.