HC Deb 22 November 1955 vol 546 cc1419-28

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

11.52 p.m.

Mr. George Brown (Belper)

This occasion makes, or breaks, a record for me. It is the first time in ten years that I have had to trouble the House at the end of a long day's sitting with an Adjournment debate, and I should not have done so now but for the extraordinary stickiness of the Ministry of Fuel and Power over a long time, and on a subject about which there has been a lot of correspondence; but the stickiness of the Ministry of Fuel and Power I find so incredibly bad and ham-handed that I consider it necessary for me to ask the House, even at this late hour, to take account of what is, I admit, a local matter.

The question I wish to raise arises out of the amalgamation of fuel offices, a subject on which the Ministry of Fuel and Power is engaged throughout the country and something which, in general, may very well be the right thing to do. There may be areas all over the country where, if there is amalgamation of the fuel offices, a greater degree of efficiency and economy is achieved which does not now exist, but in any scheme of this sort the gentlemen in Whitehall must have some regard for local circumstances.

I have in mind an area in my constituency, the Repton Rural District Council's area, a very large area at the southern end of my division, which, on the whole, is badly served with transport to the local towns. Here, in pursuance of a national decision, the Parliamentary Secretary and his Ministry have quite wantonly decided, against all the local advice and local requests, that the fuel office previously serving this area must be closed down and the area shall be served by a new central office to be opened in Derby. When we were on that side of the House and the Parliamentary Secretary was over here, he joined with his colleagues in twitting one of my right hon. Friends for once having used the phrase, "The gentleman in Whitehall knows best." But the chickens are now coming home to roost. My right hon. Friend used that phrase in a context which was intelligent, but now the "gentleman in Whitehall" goes on even when all the evidence is against him and even when the local people obviously know best.

There is no party issue here. The council and the local people concerned in that part of my constituency are all stoutly and nobly Tory in their normal political leanings, but they are angry beyond measure at the stupidity and obstinacy and determination of the Ministry of Fuel and Power under its present incumbents to enforce this scheme.

At the moment, the fuel office for the Repton rural district is administered by the Repton Rural District Council Clerk, in the Repton Rural District Council offices, situated in Burton. Anyone who has ever been there knows that the local town for the people of the Repton district is Burton. That is where their transport goes and that is where they shop; that is the centre of their being. The fuel office is already there. But what does the hon. Gentleman do? He says—and he has written many letters to this effect—"It is true that you have been very well and efficiently served, and that the fuel overseer has drawn no salary for the job and does it, as he does many other jobs, nobly and well, but now it must stop. Henceforth you must go to Derby."

Derby as a town means nothing to the bulk of the inhabitants of the Repton rural district. The bus services to Derby are extremely infrequent—as I know to my cost—and complicated. People do not normally go there. If they now want to consult the fuel overseer they must make a special journey to Derby, which involves a journey into Burton and then out of Burton to Derby, with considerable waits in between, and by an infrequent and very crowded service. They are now told to go to Derby where there will be set up, not a fuel office staffed by local people—doing other jobs but knowing the district—but a special fuel office, specially set up, specially staffed; new people at special salaries, office staff, technical staff, office equipment and the rest.

On the basis of economy, this thing never starts at all. I am advised—and the Minister had better not deny my advice, because it comes from the most unimpeachable source—that the population of the new district to be served by this one amalgamated office will be 406,000.

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

Mr. Brown

The Minister shakes his head, but it is the office itself which has given the figure. The Minister had better have a word with his own office.

The new amalgamated district will have a population of 406,000. It will have a full-time fuel overseer, three full-time and two part-time clerical staff and, on the basis of the salaries of the grades set down, the total annual cost of that office will be £2,200—equivalent to 1.3d. per head of the 406,000 population. The present fuel office in the Repton district—the Repton and Swadlincote areas—costs £200 a year. As that district has a population of approximately 53,000 the present cost is .9d per head.

On the grounds of economy, what the hon. Gentleman is achieving by his determination is to put up to my constituents the cost of their fuel office service from .9d. to 1.3d. They are to pay an extra ½d. for the benefit of having the fuel office shifted from Burton, where they normally go, to Derby where they seldom, if ever, go. So, from the point of view of economy, it is a non-starter. It will cost us more for the service the Parliamentary Secretary insists on ramming down Our throats. We shall now have to travel twelve miles from where the service is at the moment, and if we should want to telephone the new fuel office it will cost us 8d., as against the ordinary charge for a local call.

But there is another point. The Minister does not seem to know that Burton is just exactly where the Midland Region of his Ministry meets the East Midland Region. Derby is wholly in the East Midland Region. So we shall now have the wonderful situation in which we go to a fuel office which is not even within the region from which the coal merchants serving us get their supplies. We go out of our way, at greater trouble and expense, to a fuel officer in Derby, and he will have to go to Birmingham or somewhere—which is where the Midland Region is—to get someone there to look into the trouble, because he will not be able to deal with it as it is not in his region at all.

The Minister is not only forcing us to pay more money and go out of our way to a place to which we do not normally go, but is forcing us to go into another region. Clearly, if the Minister agreed, as he so easily could, to continue the present office, he would get an economy there. He could say, "Yes, but we shall have that staff in the Derby office." But if he did not insist on unnecessarily going to the Derby area, he could no doubt save money at the Derby office; he could save his own costs as well as letting us have this service more cheaply. He would not have to add to the Repton office, because we do the work largely with our own voluntary staff.

It is the basis of his own case that he is producing an economy, but to set against the figures there is the point that we get a much more efficient service by having a local service. I thought he believed in having government brought as near as possible to the people who are to be governed. A local service is always more efficient than a service far away. There is something to be said for removing a local service at the loss of efficiency if one gains by economy, but in this case one loses the efficiency and has an increased cost. We get a less efficient service because it is no longer local, because it is in a different region and an inaccessible town. We get a less efficient service at a greater expense, so we gain nothing on the swings to pay for what we lose on the roundabouts.

I do not want to press this unduly or make too much of it. It is a local matter, but it is a great thing for the people of Repton to know that the House of Commons will find time to consider it. I beg the Minister to realise we are not here putting up a case just for a local empire, Sometimes that happens, and we understand it. I would not have bothered the House with it, and would not have expected you and the staff to stay behind after a long day, or the Minister to come here, if I thought that is what it was. But it is nothing of the sort.

This is a ridiculous and wanton insistence, for the sake of maintaining a pattern of uniformity, on the loss of a local service that has served us very well, that has been efficiently run, and run cheaply—an insistence that we shall lose that and replace it with a service farther away. I have no doubt that the Minister's officials in the Derby office will do their best. But it will be more costly, farther away, in a town we do not normally visit, a town that is neither the market town nor the administrative town for our area. We will get a less efficient service, and will pay another halfpenny a head of the population for having it.

I never despair, even of Ministers in this Government, although as time passes it becomes more difficult to maintain one's optimism and faith in human nature. I beg the Minister, whatever reply is on his brief, to look at this matter sympathetically. I hope that he will send someone down to check these facts, to check the costs and, above all, to check the transport services and what I have said about Burton and Derby and the relationship of the people to them. I have a sufficient liking for the hon. Gentleman to think that if he comes to the conclusion that I am right he will say, "Let us have uniformity, but do not let us have it at the cost to Repton folk of an awful lot of trouble."

12.8 a.m.

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

In the light of what the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) has said in his opening remarks, I felt justified in extending to him the indulgence of the House and not interrupting him. I thought that he did well for a maiden effort, and I congratulate him on the fluency and confidence he displayed on this occasion of his first Adjournment debate.

The general background of this matter, as the right hon. Gentleman said, has been discussed between us in correspondence, and I do not think I need go into it at length. I would, however, emphasise that his taunts about the the gentleman in Whitehall fall a little flat in this case, and, in fact, in the case of all the amalgamations of fuel offices.

Amalgamations are initiated and discussed and advised upon from the region and not from Whitehall. I was discussing this case this afternoon in Nottingham; but it only comes to Whitehall, to the Minister or myself, when the whole of the facts have been ascertained and all the investigations have taken place locally. The discussion took place locally with the local people, the local fuel overseers and the regional officers.

Mr. G. Brown

Nottingham is even further away.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

My second point is that the irony of the taunt falls rather flat when, from all the amalgamations which have taken place, and there have been a great many, we have had no complaint of any sort from any amalgamated office, or about the service it gives. It may well be that once amalgamation has taken place people find the service offered is satifactory. Since April, 1953, arrangements have been made, or directions have been given, to reduce 1,443 offices to 555, and to reduce 3,994 staff, many of them part-time staff, to 2,189. As a result, we have been able to effect savings for the taxpayer of more than £350,000 a year. That is a substantial amount. It is also worth mentioning that the right hon. Gentleman is a passive witness to the success of this operation because I recently amalgamated the rural and urban districts of Belper with the Ripley office, and I have had no complaint from the right hon. Gentleman about that.

Mr. Brown

Ripley is the market town for the Belper urban and rural areas. Derby is not for this one.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I do not think a market town comes into it, because one of the great points with regard to these amalgamations is that, owing to the reduction of work which is now necessary in connection with the Coal Distribution Order it is very seldom necessary for people to attend personally at a fuel office. In the present case we would naturally arrange, as is the custom, for all merchants to be stocked up with forms; and if the right hon. Gentleman's constituents desire it, we will be perfectly prepared to supply a form service at the offices of the Repton Rural District Council.

In addition to that, this particular amalgamation also affects the constituencies of the right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) and my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. E. Wakefield), and neither of them have complained about it at all.

Mr. Brown

But Derby is the centre for them.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I agree that Derby may well be a centre for them, but the amalgamation affects no fewer than seven local authority areas apart from the right hon. Gentleman's, and covers a considerably wider district than Derby itself. It is not an excessive area by any means. We have found in practice that amalgamations covering whole counties work perfectly satisfactorily, and I am not worried about the size of the amalgamation.

As regards the facts in this particular case, the right hon. Gentleman quoted a considerable number of figures, and I certainly accept that those which he quoted from our own office are correct. But the difficulty that the right hon. Gentleman is in is that he has not interpreted the figures correctly himself. Let me take him through them. The costs of these offices which are being amalgamated, prior to amalgamation are £3,554. The costs of the offices after amalgamation centred on Derby, and assuming that Repton comes into the amalgamation, are estimated to be £2,747, showing a saving of £807.

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman can get all that without doing this.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

No. That includes the amalgamation of Repton. That assumes that the costs of Repton are at the figure they were for the last financial year when reimbursement was made, that is to say £406. If Repton is omitted from the amalgamation, and assuming for the moment that its costs remain the same, there will be some reduction in the estimated costs for the Derby amalgamated office, and the saving would still exist, but it would be reduced from £807 to £560. Now, if Repton and Swadlincote remain outside the amalgamation—and Swadlincote, incidentally, is agreeable to the amalgamation—and Repton reduces its costs to £200, the saving would then be more substantial, at £766, but still below the saving of £807 which is estimated to be obtained from the complete amalgamation.

There is one question that I want to ask about this—and I do not expect an answer, because I know the right hon. Gentleman cannot give it to me. How does Repton propose to save over 50 per cent. of its costs? It claims—and we have agreed, and the right hon. Gentleman is proud of the fact—that the office has been efficiently run. Well, it has been efficiently run at a cost to the taxpayer of £406. The right hon. Gentleman claims that without any loss of efficiency it will be able to cut its costs to £200. I think we all agree that if the Repton office can cut its costs to £200 it ought to have done it long ago, and if it did not do it long ago, as in fact it did not, then it cannot claim to be an efficient office.

Mr. Brown

Let us get this clear because this reflects on the Clerk to the Repton Rural District Council who has given me a letter which says that the cost of the Repton and Swadlincote office is £200, for a population of approximately 53,000. He is not only a very efficient but a very honest man. If the hon. Gentleman says that it has been costing £406, somebody is quoting a figure which obviously is not comparable. Is there any other item in the hon. Gentleman's £406 which would not be in the annual cost of the office?

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I think the difference between us is only one of date. I was careful, when I first referred to this, to say that the figure of £406 was up to the last financial year. Until we come to reimburse the local authority for the costs which it claims for running the office at the end of the financial year, we cannot tell what its costings are. It is, I think, only a matter of time. I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says that as from 1st April last the office may have been running at £200, because it was before that date that discussions first took place about amalgamation.

I have already dealt with the question of transport, because there should be no necessity for transport to the fuel office. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the staff being voluntary, but I take it that he was referring only to the local fuel overseer himself. That point does not really arise. The right hon. Gentleman was also somewhat confused about the state of the regions. So far as we are concerned for this purpose, neither the East Midland nor the Midland Region comes into the picture at all. The whole of the area, including the regional director, is in the North Midland Region. Therefore, there will be no difficulty of the sort that he visualises between merchants, customers and the fuel overseer.

The only point which arises is the timing of this amalgamation. I should like to refer to what has so far taken place. I mentioned just now that correspondence and discussions concerning it have been going on since last February. Eventually, in order to bring the matter to a head and because we were satisfied, after the investigations which had been carried out and the discussion which had taken place, that it was a fit and proper case of an amalgamation to the benefit of the taxpayers and not to the inconvenience of the customers and householders consuming the fuel, my right hon. Friend issued a direction on 15th September requiring the amalgamation to take place on 1st November.

That first direction requires the local authorities to agree together upon where the amalgamated office shall be, and upon the local fuel overseer. On 1st November all the other seven offices were taken over, and it is some answer to the right hon. Gentleman that in the limited time since—and inquiries have been made today to verify this—there have been no complaints and the amalgamation has gone satisfactorily and perfectly happily. On 4th October, the Repton Rural District Council asked for the reconsideration of this matter and at its request I went into the question again myself and reconsidered it.

I could find no grounds or justification whatever upon which to advise my right hon. Friend to change his decision. That was indicated to Repton in a reasoned and I think sympathetic reply on 22nd October. Following upon that Repton acknowledged the letter on 24th October. The Clerk wrote that: The same … that is, my Department's letter— will be placed before the Council at their next meeting for further observations. In the light of that, after 1st November—the date on which the amalgamation should have taken place, but did not in the case of Repton—I waited in order to give the Repton Council the opportunity of offering the further observations which its Clerk had indicated were likely to arise.

We had heard nothing further from the Council until tonight, and I was accepting the right hon. Gentleman's statement tonight as being the official reply of the Repton Rural District Council. I am sorry to have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that he has introduced no new facts into this case. He has pleaded the cause with a vehemence, a sympathy and an enthusiasm which I admire, but which I am afraid, does not make me change my mind.

The gentleman in Whitehall at the moment, as instructed by the right hon. Gentleman, feels that he has had the better of the argument. Therefore, I am afraid that I must inform the right hon. Gentleman that the second direction will have to go ahead, because, in the interests of efficiency as well as of economy, I am convinced that his constituents will be well served. However, I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that if it should transpire that things do not go well in the Repton Rural District Council area, we will certainly look at the matter again, but as I say, I have every confidence that his constituents will be satisfactorily served.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past Twelve o'clock.