HC Deb 03 December 1953 vol 521 cc1473-82

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

11.8 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

May I say at once in as clear and unequivocal terms as I can that I have a genuine and sincere respect for the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power, who has been here for some considerable time, and will be back in a moment or two. I will pay a tribute to him in his temporary absence and spare his blushes. He is a distinguished member of my profession, he is above the average as a Minister, which is not saying very much, but all I can say. He is at present my own Member of Parliament—not precisely the man I would choose—but, nevertheless, on the whole, there is reason to be thankful, and he has treated me with great generosity in this matter.

The hon. Gentleman has given me a great many figures, with varying degrees of accuracy. We met at very short notice and we had an amicable interview. The only thing we neglected was to have a photograph of us shaking hands on the doorstep at the end of the meeting. I am happy to see him here now, and it is only fair to say that our previous discussion did collapse somewhat suddenly towards the end.

I want to refer to the affairs of the urban district of Chadderton. It is a very large and substantial urban district with the Borough of Oldham on one side and the City of Manchester on the other.

It has a large and growing population. It has its own urban district council and a large and well-equipped town hall in the centre of the town. Chadderton has a large variety of industries. On the outskirts is the vast factory of A. V. Roe, Ltd., which has contributed so much to our air services. We have a tremendous variety of industries connected with the cotton spinning, weaving, dyeing, and so on. There is one great dyeing works in Chadderton itself. There is also the great Ferranti factory making radio sets, and, also, we have a jam factory, the Co-operative Jam Factory, which produces very good jam indeed.

The clerk to the urban council is a most energetic person. I will not pass any comments on the council, except to say that they have always treated me in a most friendly way and have a variety of political opinions. They have very good officers and an extremely efficient organisation which appears to work to the general satisfaction. But, suddenly, the Ministry of Fuel and Power swooped down and removed the fuel office. They have taken it to Oldham, which is at least a mile away from the site of the former fuel office and several miles from some parts of this large urban district.

The reason given is remarkable. It is said that it is hoped to save a very substantial sum of money by this transition, and I wish to deal with that at once. I am making no criticism of the administration of the fuel services in Oldham, which are in very good and efficient hands. But there are 42,000 registrations in Oldham now and 11,000 in Chadderton. It is also sought to concentrate in the one area the towns of Royton and Crompton and the township of Lees to the north of Oldham. By this means it is hoped to save £19,000.

At the conference when this matter was discussed and when we sought to find out what were the real reasons, the representative of the regional office was asked to show how that saving could be effected. He said, "Well, the way we approach these matters, and we have done it so many times, is to compare the cost per capita in the large well-administered fuel office, which is comparatively small, and the cost per capita in the small office which, on the whole, is rather large."

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

Mr. Hale

The Parliamentary Secretary shakes his head, but I have here the written notes of the meeting and that is certainly what the written notes state.

I am prepared to apply either test. A study of the actual figures shows that the present total cost of administering all four of the fuel offices which it is sought to concentrate in Oldham is £1,958. How anyone can suggest that it is possible to save £1,900 out of a total expenditure of £1,958 I do not know. There are passed to Oldham 23,000 additional registrations from the four areas and that will not be done for an additional expenditure of £58. It will cost Oldham much more.

There are 42,000 registrations in Oldham and the cost is exactly £3,000 a year. Even for me, that is a fairly simple form of arithmetic. It means that per capita it is costing one-fourteenth of a £ per head. One-fourteenth of £1 comes to 1s. 52\per head. That is the cost in Oldham. Chadderton is a smaller area where one might expect the cost to be a great deal higher because one concedes that, unless the administration is very good, costs tend to be higher with a smaller number of registrations. In Chadderton, there are 11,000 registrations and the total cost is £780. This presents a slightly more complex computation, but it works out at 1s. 5d. and a very tiny fraction of a penny per head.

In point of fact, the figure is a remote decimal point of a penny per head less than in Oldham. Therefore, it is absurd to say that there will be any saving in the per capita cost. It is nonsense to say that there can be any considerable saving on the test of actual cost. We have the situation that if the Parliamentary Secretary had been furnished with the fullest information and adequate figures he would have seen that his claim that this will result in a substantial saving is baseless.

I refer to another matter. On 13th February, 1953, a letter was addressed from the regional coal officer to the local fuel officer at Chadderton, and, presumably, to those at Royton and Crompton. It said: Dear Local Fuel Overseer, We should like to get some idea of the number of requests you receive for assistance from consumers who are in difficulties about fuel supplies during the next few weeks. If you do not already have a record of such inquiries I should be grateful if from next Monday, 16th February, you could keep a simple record of the number of requests for assistance reaching your office by post, telephone and personal call. It would be helpful to have a note of the total for the week by post, at the close of business on Saturday, 21st February, and on the three following Saturdays. There was not a word about the purpose behind it. No suggestion that "what you say may be used in evidence against you." There was nothing about this being a letter from the spider to the fly. It was an innocent rather vague request for a bit of casual information, and on the basis of that information it is proposed to close a fuel office.

Anyone who has read that letter will not be surprised that the information appears to have been to some extent misleading because, as I understand, the figures that the Parliamentary Secretary has, the figures which have been supplied to me and the figures that he himself privately discussed with me, vary. The figures he relys on show that in the week ending 21st February there were 22 inquiries and in the week ending 28th February there were only two.

I have had an analysis made, and the real facts are that in the week ending 21st February there were 18 new registrations, each of which means a personal attendance or at least some personal dealing with a personal problem; there was one application for anthracite; 49 applications for permits for extra coal; and 56 coke registrations, a total of 124. That is six times the figure that the Minister was supplied with, and that he was relying on.

On 28th February the figure was only 78, but that is 39 times the figure that the Minister got, because he had only two. So it goes on through the whole period, with a vast number of registrations more than are given in response to this curiously vague somewhat naive inquiry. I do not think that on the whole it was the sort of letter which ought to have been addressed to a fuel overseer whose office one was thinking of closing down. Having pointed out that, so far as I can see, on the figures there is no saving of money, may I indicate the general harm to the public?

It is of course, perfectly true that it is not very far from Chadderton Town Hall to the new office, only about one mile—a 1½d. bus fare, and buses do run.

Mr. Hugh Delargy (Thurrock)

My hon. Friend must be wrong. Twopence is the minimum fare.

Mr. Hale

I took my information from the Parliamentary Secretary. I shall leave him and my hon. Friend to work it out between them. It may be 2d., but, at any rate, bus services operate, and are operated by Oldham Corporation.

However, we are dealing with three or four important matters. The first is the dignity and the importance of local self-government. We have had our furnished rents tribunal taken away, and the people have to travel miles away at great inconvenience about that sort of business. Now we are having our fuel office taken away, and the people of Chadderton are saying that this is most unreasonable and a censure upon an exceedingly well-conducted council with a very able staff.

What about the staff? Some are part-time. What does one do when one closes down on part-time staff? Some of the part-time staff have to be dismissed from some other part-time occupation, too. It is a matter of great difficulty which causes great hardship.

Next, there is the hardship to the people themselves. Most of the applicants are sick or aged people. After all, age or sickness are two of the reasons for applying for and obtaining special conditions. The full fuel ration has never been available in Chadderton. Now with the increasing poverty of people, and the diminishing purchasing power of the £, it would seem to be the case that less coal is being sold per head at the moment than at any time for a year or two.

Fourth, there is the habit of the people and the need of people to go to the town hall for other reasons. Indeed, the hall is also a social centre. It is exceedingly well appointed, very modern. There is dancing there at least once a week—two or three times a week sometimes. Flower shows are held there. Social events are held there. Labour Party meetings are held there. There the Member of Parliament interviews his constituents. If people have to go elsewhere, to places they may have no other reason to visit, and cannot deal with the people they trust, the people they like, it is a great inconvenience. It is a great inconvenience to go away somewhere else. For all these reasons I suggest that this is a very serious matter. It is doing harm to the district, which is a very important district.

I just want to mention one other point. Chadderton has taken, perhaps, the most progressive steps that have been taken, so far as I am aware, in the whole of the area to try to solve the problem of the location of industry. They have planned large pieces of land which they have plotted out with the Lancashire County Council for the building of new factories.

They do now intend to develop them. They do now intend to encourage new industries to come in for a wider diversity of skilled labour and can offer special facilities for the introduction of new industries second to none in the county.

I appeal to the Minister. I hope I have shown that some of the information he has got, even if accurately based on documents, is not completely revealing, and that, therefore, he has had some false impression about the facts and false impression about the figures. I ask him to look at this again and to receive a deputation, if necessary, to discuss it more fully in all its implications.

11.25 p.m.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) both for the way in which he has made his case this evening and for the opportunity he has given me of being able to reassure his constituents in this matter. We are fundamentally opposed in our approach to this problem. The hon. Member has made out a very good case for the maintenance of perpetual controls on household fuel for the sake of local pride and prestige. We on this side of the House regard ourselves as being forced by economic circumstances to continue them for the time being, but our aim and object is to get away from controls on fuel allocations altogether and we do not want to perpetuate them in any shape or form.

The general background to these proposals for the amalgamation of fuel offices is one of economy. I want, in the first place, to reassure the hon. Member that this is no reflection upon the officers in his constituency or any of the other constituencies which are concerned in this amalgamation. As the hon. Member said, five local authority areas are being amalgamated for fuel office purposes. These officers have carried out their jobs exceedingly well, exceedingly courteously, exceeding sympathetically and with great assistance not only to the Ministry but also to the people whom they have served. I want to make that perfectly clear.

The point is a financial one. The hon. Member has quoted figures to try to show that there will be no saving. I accept the figures which he quoted; the difference in the cost of registration between Chadderton and Oldham is, as he said, a halfpenny. One is 1s. 5d. and the other is 1s. 5½d. per registration. I cannot even remember which is which for the moment. But, in any event, we do not take that into account.

When we can have these five fuel offices under one roof we shall be able to save very substantially on the number of people who are involved in the administration of the fuel requirements in the five areas. The hon. Member said that out of a total expenditure of £1,950 between the four offices which are being amalgamated with Oldham, we could not save £1,900. I did not say we could save £1,900. I said we should save a little less than £2,000, and at the time I said that, the expenditure in these four offices was about £2,250. Some of them, and Chadderton is one, have made some recent reductions in their expenditure and I think it is probably correct, that the cost of those four offices is now about £1,950.

If we save £1,750, which I think we shall, we shall be well satisfied, because on this side of the House we regard £1,750 of the taxpayers' money as being worth saving, and we have every intention of endeavouring to save it in those ways where we can do so without inflicting any hardship upon the population. Indeed, there is one case with which I am dealing in which the saving is £100. We regard these matters as being worth doing.

Mr. Harold Lever (Manchester, Cheetham)

The hon. Member should tell that to the President of the Board of Trade.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I spoke of hardship and said we did it where it could be done without inflicting hardship on the population. That is the criterion in these matters.

Before the hon. Members raised this case with me I had been into it, and I reviewed it again after that because of representations which I had from two of my hon. Friends who are also concerned in respect of the other amalgamations, which happen to be in their constituencies. It is a remarkably compact area. The whole centralisation of the transport and similar systems is upon Oldham and there is no difficulty of locomotion or of communication with that centre or any part of the amalgamated area.

The second thing which I went to particular pains to verify was that the office at Oldham will be able to cope with the increased demand upon its services. Of that I am perfectly satisfied. We have been into that in great detail and the hon. Gentleman would be the last to admit that the Oldham office is inefficient.

Mr. Hale

It is very efficient.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I have no hesitation whatever in expressing the view that there will be no hardship imposed upon the constituents of the hon. Gentleman or the constituents in the other amalgamated authorities by reason of any failure on the part of the Oldham fuel office.

The question of hardship is the criterion, and that is the crux of the circular to which the hon. Gentleman has referred and which he read out in part that was sent out by the regional director to the local fuel overseers. If he had read on from the next sentence he would have seen that the regional director requested figures from the local fuel overseers which should not include enquiries about change of registration or other matters unless the caller is, at the same time, seeking some immediate assistance. The object was to ascertain the number of hardship cases.

The other cases to which the hon. Gentleman has referred are normal registration cases which always can, and should preferably, be done through the post rather than by a personal call, and they are routine matters which can be dealt with at any time. They are not hardship cases. But it was the hardship cases that we particularly wanted to verify, and the hardship cases are those which the hon. Gentleman knows about and to which reference has been made. In fact, during the six crucial weeks of last year, the most critical time when fuel was difficult, in February, there were for Chadderton 22 applications, not only in person but in writing as well, during the week of 21st February, two the next week, 20 the week after, two the week after that, six the week after that, and two the week after that.

Mr. Hale

That is the greatest tribute to the fuel overseer and to the people of Chadderton.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I agree, and there is no reason to suppose that there will be any less tribute deservable and payable to the Oldham office when it takes over.

There is one other thing I should like to mention, and that is that the reply which I sent to my two hon. Friends representing constituencies in the same amalgamated areas was accepted by them as being such an overwhelming case for amalgamation that they would not contest it any further. I may say that is the point of view which the majority of local authorities adopt, and that there is not as a rule any necessity for any direction to be given. It is true to say that, during the last two days only, consents have been signed for no less than 17 voluntary windings-up of local fuel offices, and in the majority of cases local authorities are glad of the opportunity of being able to do away with this line of business and to save the time of their staff, to save the accommodation, and to effect economies themselves.

As a result, in this case, the regional director had called, for this morning, a meeting of the representatives of the five local authorities being amalgamated. The invitation was accepted by four local authorities, but not by Chadderton. We are sorry that they did not come along.

Mr. Hale

May I explain that? They knew about this debate and I think it was out of courtesy to me.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

That may be so, but I am sorry that they did not come. The discussion was to settle the mechanics for implementing the order, and they were settled in a most amicable and friendly atmosphere.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, the two fuel offices are under a mile apart—in fact, they are nine-tenths of a mile apart. There is a regular bus service every quarter of an hour during the morning and every 7½ minutes during the afternoon. It is a 1½d. bus fare. The house coal stocks throughout the area are greater than they were at this time last year, and, therefore, there is no conceivable reason to suppose that the constituents of the hon. Gentleman will suffer any hardship at all.

The only doubt they may have had would have been due to the fact that they might have been in ignorance of the change of the local fuel overseer's office from Chadderton to Oldham. The hon. Gentleman has served his constituents well by raising the matter tonight. He has introduced publicity into the matter, which, I am sure, will be reported in his local Press, so that all his constituents will know of the change which is being carried out. Thus they will not be caused to suffer, or be put to inconvenience, on that score.

We are convinced that this is a necessary amalgamation in the public interest, and that the hon. Member's constituents will not suffer hardship. If they do, they have only to go to the local fuel overseer, or through him to me, and we will do what may be necessary to help. We hope that this new system will work well, and I am convinced that it will result in a substantial saving of the taxpayers' money.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-four Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.