HC Deb 21 February 1952 vol 496 cc529-33

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £300,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1952, for the war services and certain other temporary services of the Ministry of Fuel and Power.

8.42 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. L. W. Joynson-Hicks)

This Supplementary Estimate covers a fairly wide range of different possibilities, and I do not think that at this hour the Committee would wish me to go into detail on matters which are not interesting to it. If any hon. or right hon. Gentleman will say what particular item it is on which he desires further information, I shall be very happy to supply it.

Mr. H. Hynd

I should like further information about the increased charge under Sub-head D, the grants to local authorities and other expenses in connection with fuel control, and also about Subhead A.2 concerning the house coal distribution emergency scheme. I am wondering whether this extra expenditure can really be justified in connection with this coal distribution scheme.

My experience of the scheme is that it is not at all satisfactory. There is in fact no coal ration as such. There is a certain allocation of coal which is regarded as the maximum that any user can obtain, if he is lucky, but there is no coal ration in the sense that there is a ration of foodstuffs. The scheme works, roughly, as I see it, through local fuel distribution officers allied with local voluntary committees and the coal distributors themselves. It is a very loose system, and I am not at all happy about the way it operates. It seems to me that people who can pull strings or exercise pressure on either the local fuel officer or the local committee of fuel merchants or both can get extra coal, and that others may have to go without.

In the first place, why is this extra amount required for this new scheme? Is it being tightened up? Or are the expenses of running the scheme increasing automatically? If it is a question of improving the scheme, perhaps we may be getting somewhere, because, in my opinion, the time has come to revise this scheme, to look at it very closely, and either to make it a proper rationing scheme or to do away with it altogether.

If the Government are looking for economies, and if they are not prepared to make a proper rationing scheme, there may be a field here in which they could save a quite considerable amount of money. I believe that if the local committees of coal merchants were prepared to continue to operate without the assistance—if it is assistance—of the local fuel officers they might serve the whole of the purpose covered by the present rather expensive scheme. Unless the Minister can explain why all this extra money is required for that purpose I shall have great doubt about voting this sum of money.

8.45 p.m.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I should dearly like to accept that challenge, but I am quite certain that were I to do so I should not be allowed to get very far. Unfortunately, the question of the merits of the distribution scheme for household coal is not a matter which arises on this Vote.

Mr. C. R. Hobson

Surely my hon. Friend is entitled to know how the sum is arrived at.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

The answer to the one legitimate point the hon. Gentleman raised is exceedingly short, and I was merely explaining that, unfortunately, I am not able to reply to allegations he has made about the operation of this scheme. I think I might be permitted to say, how- ever, that it is about the most economic and efficient scheme which is run in connection with anything to do with allocations or rationing, and I should be very happy to have an opportunity of defending it.

The £5,000 increase was due to an upward revision of scales of the salaries and pay of the staffs involved. The £30,000 increase to the local authorities, who are the employers of the local fuel overseers, was due to a slight increase in their salaries. In addition, it was somewhat augmented by the introduction of the coke rationing, or rather, control scheme. Those two items together make up the £30,000 extra required under that head.

Mr. C. W. Gibson (Clapham)

I do not want to argue the merits of the scheme, which I agree is a good one, although it sometimes works out very badly. Recently I have had occasion to call the attention of the local fuel overseer to long delays in supplying coal to people who have a storage capacity of only 2 cwt. or 3 cwt., and who have had to wait a month after ordering their coal before getting a fresh supply. That inevitably means that for a period they have no coal, which in cold weather involves an enormous amount of discomfort.

When complaints about this sort of thing are made to the fuel overseer, it is no excuse for him to say that the coal was delivered within a month. I should like to know whether the Minister will ensure that, as far as possible, these deliveries are speeded up, and that the supplies of coal in the depôts are maintained. On one occasion in my own constituency some three or four months ago I discovered that the coal supplies had dropped to an almost infinitesimal amount, and when I complained about it a large supply was placed in the depôt.

The Chairman

The hon. Gentleman is now going beyond this Supplementary Estimate.

Mr. Gibson

All I ask is that some of this additional money may be spent in improving the way in which the scheme works. I hope the Minister can give me some hope in that respect.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

The hon. Gentleman has really answered himself. As he said, this is not a rationing scheme. It is an allocation scheme. It is not a ration of fuel for which the Ministry are responsible. If his constituents are unable to obtain fuel to which they are entitled—

Mr. Gibson

I am sorry to interrupt, but the hon. Gentleman suggests that this is not a scheme for which the Ministry are responsible. Surely the fuel overseer represents the Ministry of Fuel and Power, and he is responsible for seeing that the allocations are properly shared out in the area he covers.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

It is not a ration for which the Ministry is responsible.

Mr. Hobson

It should be.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

It never has been. The hon. Gentleman had an opportunity of arguing the point in the last Government over a considerable number of years, but evidently he did not take it up with them. The answer is quite simple. If his constituent is unable to obtain coal to within the limit to which he is entitled from his coal merchant, he should take the matter up with the coal merchant.

Mr. Hobson

A point on which I should like a little elucidation is the storage and distribution of oil. I am not concerned so much with the distribution of oil, but I am concerned about the storage of oil. I would like to know if this sum includes the storage of oil for the British Electricity Authority, who are converting and building a power station to run on oil.

Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

The Minister has explained that Items A.2 and D, involving sums of £5,000 and £30,000, are entirely due to increased salaries paid to those who administer the scheme. I wonder if he has available with him information as to the number of people altogether involved who administer it?

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

To answer the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) first, I do not think that he has read the figure in quite the right way. The figure of £603,000 for storage and distribution of oil is, in fact, a saving; it is not an expenditure at all. It is a saving which results from a reduction.

The Deputy-Chairman

Savings cannot be discussed.

Dr Stross

I asked whether the Minister having told us that the sums of £5,000 and £30,000 were entirely due to increased salaries to those who administer the scheme could give us the total number of those involved.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I am afraid that I have not the figures available. They are national figures, and if the hon. Gentleman wishes to have them, I will certainly forward them to him.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £300,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1952, for the war services and certain other temporary services of the Ministry of Fuel and Power.