§ 8.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Harold Neal (Bolsover)
I beg to move,That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Motor Fuel (No. 2) Order, 1956 (S.I., 1956, No. 1840), dated 20th November, 1956, a copy of which was laid before this House on 21st November, be annulled.During the past few weeks, the House has been provided with ample opportunity for heated controversy, from which I confess to have derived as much interest and excitement as most other hon. Members have done. However, this is not such an occasion. Petrol rationing—that is rather a loose term, as the Minister of Fuel and Power will agree, but it is perhaps the easiest one for our purpose—is an unwelcome necessity, and it is our mutual duty to ensure that while the scheme is in operation it works in the best interests of the nation.
The day when the Minister announced the Order he said that he recognised that it was the professional duty of hon. Members on this side of the House to make things appear worse than they are. We have never conceived that to be our duty, nor have we conceived it to be the duty of the Minister to make things appear better than they are. Neither side ought consciously to trifle with the facts relating to a service upon which our whole economy depends.
The Opposition's attitude towards rationing has often brought hon. Members on this side of the House into sharp conflict with hon. Members opposite. Our policy remains consistent; when any commodity is in short supply, we believe that it should be equitably distributed. It is in that spirit that we make our critical approach to the Order. I beg the Minister to accept our criticisms in the spirit in which they are made.
First, the announcement of the Order was bungled and ill-timed. The Order was laid before Parliament on 21st November, and its vital contents do not come into operation until 17th December. It did not take us long to introduce rationing in war-time, in 1939, and the Government at that time had no precedents to guide them. However, it seems that the present Government must 132 have been thinking about the rationing of petrol for a very long time. I have my own petrol ration book here, and at the top of the first page it reads:This book is the property of His Majesty's Government.That wording is out-dated. Perhaps we might have an explanation of that error.
What did the Minister expect to happen between 21st November and 17th December? It is well known that there was chaos among the motoring public. It provided unscrupulous citizens with an opportunity to hoard petrol. When my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds) questioned the Minister on this point, he seemed to be unaware of the difficulties. He must have been singularly unobservant if he never saw queues of waiting motor cars at the garages on the roadsides, and remarkably lucky if he never had the experience of calling at a garage and being refused a fill-up.
The Minister will doubtless reply to this by saying that the hoarding of petrol is an offence against the law. I entirely agree, but while it is the duty of the State to penalise citizens who do wrong, it is equally its duty to make it as difficult as possible for them to do wrong. Twenty-seven days between the issue of the Order and its coming into operation was an incredible blunder.
I freely admit that the Minister found some sections of the Press not very helpful to him during that period, but he might have taken a lesson from the Chancellor of the Exchequer—two hours after he made his statement last week the price of petrol was increased. That was much more expeditious than the Minister of Fuel and Power in the introduction of rationing. If the coupons were printed in 1950, as the use of the words "His Majesty's Government" appears to indicate, and were left over from the last rationing period, then half the task of preparing the scheme was done, and the scheme could have been started with less notice and less confusion.
I want now to turn to some of the anomalies of the four-monthly period. Will the Minister tell us how he thinks a black market will be avoided? The motoring organisations calculate that on 31st December half a million vehicles will be taken off the road and will not be licensed for the succeeding quarter. If 133 an owner does not licence his vehicle on 1st January, he is in honour bound to surrender three months' petrol coupons.
Does the Minister really believe that that will happen universally? In any case, a motorist can have a motoring spree for the whole of December and use four months' petrol coupons in one one month, if he wishes. The instructions on the coupon clearly indicate that the coupons are available during the period. What period? The first rationing period of four months. Surely the Minister ought to find a way to prevent that abuse, and I hope that he will be able to tell us, even at this stage, that he will be able to stop it.
The postbag of every hon. Member must be showing great dissatisfaction at the disproportionate sacrifices imposed on the motoring, public. What my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) calls the language of priorities seems to have a different interpretation in petrol rationing. Most of the complaints that I have received—and I have had many—relate to the generous basic allowance compared with the scanty or absent supplementary allowance.
The Minister may pride himself on the fact that his scheme has provided 200 miles of motoring per month as against 90 miles under the old rationing scheme, but that puts a very favourable emphasis on unnecessary journeys. When applying for a supplementary allowance, it is not even a justifiable argument to say that the allowance is needed to take one to one's place of employment. That is rather a pity, because in these days, when workers are accustomed to modern transport, it will create serious inconvenience.
One has only to stand outside any great industrial works to realise how many workers travel to and from their work by means of motor-propelled vehicles. Shift workers, in particular, have to go to work when public transport is not available, or is only running at hourly intervals, and they are going to be seriously inconvenienced if they cannot have petrol to enable them to travel to and from their place of work.
Has the Minister considered the serious effect which this Order will have upon production? Admittedly it may be possible for some motorists to draw upon 134 their firm's pool. But what of the motorist whose only claim to supplementary allowance is for the purpose of travelling to work? How will he fare? Is it really fair that some workers will have to use all their basic coupons to help carry on the nation's production while others can enjoy 200 miles of pleasure motoring?
Then there is the problem of heavy and long-distance haulage. An A-licence vehicle previously travelled about 800 or 1,000 miles a week. The basic ration will permit it to travel only 100 miles. With the supplementary ration added it will probably be able to travel 120 miles. I have here a long list of organisations and firms all over the country, which I have obtained from a reputable source, and which shows that in many cases firms will be able to operate at only 13 per cent. or 14 per cent. of their pre-ration strength. Even those highest in the list will be able to operate only at 33 per cent. of its pre-ration strength.
One of the significant things about the allowance made to them and to other users of petrol is that there is no machinery for appeal. It is rare in our constitution to find a case where a Minister can impose a decision either by himself or through one of his officials without there being any appeal against it. I can only sympathise with many haulage operators whose livelihoods will be taken out of their hands as a consequence of the Order, and who will not be able to appeal against it.
I am satisfied that the Order will have the effect of removing some of the anomalies of long-distance haulage. The Minister is perhaps aware that coal has been moved from the East Midlands coal fields to London and the south-western counties by road. This is a policy which should never have been begun, and which should never be restarted when rationing is ended.
§ Mr. Neal
With the best will in the world, there is bound to be some unemployment and short-time working among haulage workers. Any haulage worker who is unemployed or on short time as a result of the operation of the Order will not view with pleasure any 135 unnecessary motoring, whether it is undertaken by parsons, farmers or Members of Parliament. I hope that the Minister will re-examine the basic ration and change the emphasis to the supplementary ration; otherwise there will he a loud outcry against the inequitable distribution of petrol in this emergency. I should like to repeat the advice offered by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition last week. I hope that the Minister and his colleague, the Minister of Transport, will take the trade unions into consultation at every stage of this emergency. If they can carry the trade unions with them it will be far better, and in the best interests of us all when unpopular decisions have to be made.
The Order makes no provision for red petrol. Has the Minister ruled that out entirely? I know that if rationing is going to last for only a very short period there may be extreme administrative difficulties which might not make red petrol worth while, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has not banished it altogether from consideration if rationing is to continue after the four-monthly period. He is probably very well aware that it was one of the most effective instruments in stopping abuses in the use of petrol when it was rationed during the War.
I wish to ask the Minister whether he really believes that the present ration can be maintained. I an) not without some knowledge of this subject, and in my view—unless the Suez Canal is cleared by the end of January, and unless the Syrian Government realise the incredible folly of breaking the pipeline and stopping the oil from flowing through its territory—by the end of January we shall be in serious difficulties.
I have no desire to be guilty of spreading alarm and despondency, but I am supported in the view that I am now expressing by the remarkably revealing figures given a few days ago by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The plain fact is that the tanker fleet of the world was working to capacity before this emergency; and I sympathise with the Minister when he reads of people advising him and his colleagues to build more and bigger tankers—as if some 136 magic wand could be waved and the situation saved in a week or two.
Even if the "moth-ball" fleet in America is serviceable at once; even if the United States is prepared to adjust its laws to admit increased production for the export of oil; even if the Chancellor makes available dollars to buy the oil from the Western Hemisphere, does the Minister really believe that we can embark upon another rationing period at the present rate of consumption? At one of his Press conferences the right hon. Gentleman said that it might be that before the end of the four-monthly period he would have to take more drastic steps. In that case, would it not have been better to give higher priority now to the essential services?
We should like an answer to some of the points that I have made. Because we believe in fair shares, we think that this Order is ill-conceived and ill-considered, and one which will arouse a great deal of resentment in the country.
§ 8.47 p.m.
§ Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Itchen)
I beg to second the Motion.
I have very great pleasure in seconding this Motion which has been moved so wisely and temperately by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Neal). I hope to make points which have not been made so far. Obviously, the country has to pay for the failure of the Suez affair. We may disagree very bitterly about the causes of the Suez crisis and of the present need for petrol rationing, but whatever our views about the causes of this crisis, I hope the House will reach some measure of agreement about the best way of sharing the hardships which the crisis has imposed.
I think it unfortunate that the Tories are traditionally opposed to rationing, indeed it is almost a fetish among them to denounce it. Yet, if things are scarce, no reasonable man can deny that rationing is the only right method of sharing the scarce things, because then everybody gets some. The wit of man has to be exercised to see that the shares which everyone gets are fair. In the last few weeks, the days before the imposition of rationing, we have had a striking example of what it means to leave things to free, unregulated private enterprise. All those whose philosophy may be summed up in 137 the workman's expression "all right, to hell with you Jack"—[Interruption.]—the original expression may be worse than that—have gone round in the last week collecting petrol, not only to put in their cars but in cans or in secret dumps. They have benefited to the extent of 1s. to 1s. 5d. a gallon for their greed, because they bought petrol at the old price. So though we deplore the necessity for rationing, we certainly welcome the rationing of petrol.
Indeed we think that rationing came too late. It should have been imposed at once. The Government should not have allowed three weeks for the black marketeers, the hoarders, to do their worst. As a matter of fact, Britain has been saved from the worst by the really honest work of most garages which have done the Government's job, set up their own rough rationing systems and tried to deal reasonably with their regular customers and allocated a meagre dribble to those who were just passers-by. I pay tribute to the garagemen of England, many of whom I have met during the last three or four weeks, and I do not judge them by the odd black sheep.
If the Government say that they acted as soon as they realised that petrol supplies were to be cut, and that it was bound to take some weeks to get the machinery in order, then I suggest in all seriousness that they should have foreseen weeks ago that petrol would be in short supply. No Government should have gone into the Suez escapade without knowing what the Opposition was telling them in September at every street corner in England, that the first casualty in the escapade would be the Suez Canal itself.
This Order came between three and four weeks too late. It came too late because the Government have been too proud to eat all the words they have spoken about rationing in general and because somehow, they hoped, wishfully, against logic itself, that the thing would not and could not happen. When the first rationing proposals were announced, the Minister made a virtue of what I believe to be a weakness of the scheme. He said that this was different from previous rationing schemes because, unlike previous ones, there was a good basic ration, but that he would be tight on supplementaries. This seems to me all wrong when the supplementary rations 138 are the ones which will be used for purposes essential to the country's needs.
One must admit that the Minister is quite right in saying that, compared with previous schemes, the ordinary basic ration for the private motorist is a good one; but, even compared with the grim war years, the extra rations for special needs are inadequate. If we were out to restrict wasteful private motoring, there were other methods that we could have used, but one would be out of order in discussing them now. If we are battling for survival, as indeed we are, and it is the task of both sides of the House sooner or later to get over to Britain just how grave the economic fight is, then I believe that the nation's petrol ought to go to those parts of the battlefield where it is most needed for the nation's survival.
If we are to have a united Britain in this crisis, there are two guiding principles which ought to commend themselves to right-minded people. The first is that the burdens and hardships imposed by the crisis ought to be placed on the shoulders of those who can best afford to carry them, and that the poorest people should not have to carry the extra loads. I am deeply disappointed that our first debate tonight has shown that the Government have failed to realise that that is a good principle.
The second principle is that, if possible, the Government ought to do everything they can to avoid utterly destroying the livelihod of some groups of citizens by the actions that they take in rationing petrol. If the crisis means for some people merely an inconvenience, using two small cars with ration books for each instead of one luxurious large car, that is something which we cannot approve. I cannot say how shocked I was to read an advertisement in a newspaper in which a firm in the Midlands is advertising that with one new car a second-hand old car is given free, with a ration book for each.
§ Dr. King
Already people are seeking ways of circumventing the aim of the Government and the true interests of Britain. If it means on the one hand merely discomfort, the abandoning of a big car for two little ones, while for other 139 people it means utter hardship and ruin, the Government have failed.
If the Minister of Fuel and Power is undoing by his measures what the Minister of Labour is trying to do by his measures, that is to preserve full employment, the Government is indeed in a very shabby position. On this count, what the Government propose to do in petrol rationing will not bear examination. We already hear of short-time and unemployment in the motor car industry; they will emerge wherever petrol plays an important part in industry. It would be better if we had no private pleasure trips at all if the oil so saved can be used to keep men at work and to make more goods for export or for home consumption.
I want to apply that principle to a narrower field, to two small groups of citizens who must have bigger rations if they are to keep going. Some of us have already raised with the Minister the question of commercial travellers, whose living depends upon the number of miles they travel and the number of visits they make. Every cut journey means a cut in their business. I understand that under previous rationing schemes, and right through the war, the bona fide commercial traveller received a special commercial traveller's supplementary allowance.
The Minister, while expressing sympathy in letters to me with the general case for the commercial traveller, has so far turned down the demand by this body for a special commercial travellers' allowance. He said to me in the House and in a letter, "The travellers must expect to get their allowance from the allowance which is given to the firms which they serve." He also said—I take same hope from this—and I quote him:Special consideration will be given to the needs of the self-employed travellers whose livelihood would otherwise be threatenedIn both the industries of which I speak, the little man's livelihood is threatened, and he faces the danger of being wiped out. I hope that at the end of the debate, or very soon afterwards, the Minister will lot us know what exactly he has in mind for commercial travellers.
I judge any case That I will support in this House by its justice and very often by the tone of the correspondence I receive. Let me quote therefore from a 140 letter from the United Commercial Travellers' Association, in which the Southampton branch secretary saysI do not need to emphasise to you the important function which the bona fide commercial traveller plays in the maintenance of trade and commerce, and whilst he can he relied upon to bear his burden of the restrictions necessitated by the present emergency, his very livelihood and his function surely justify some reasonable scheme of supplementary allowances, since the basic … is completely inadequate for his needs.The commercial traveller, in short, is willing to bear his share of the burden as an ordinary member of the community, but he says, "As a British citizen I object to having to carry an extra load."
The other group is the taxi industry. I hope that Question Time today did not leave the Minister with the thought that anyone thinks that this can be solved by robbing one group of taximen in the country to benefit another group. London taximen seem to have received a reasonable petrol allocation, but I should say that the taximen of London need and can use all they are to get under the scheme. On the other hand most provincial taxi-men are faced with complete disaster. Even in the war most of the time they got something like 17 gallons a week. We were fighting Hitler then and every drop of petrol used in this country was brought over at the risk of the lives of merchant seamen. Against that 17 gallons put the 9 gallons a week which so far is what the taximan is supposed to get.
I had a meeting with my friends the Southampton taximen, employers and employees, owners and owner-drivers about ten days ago when we discussed the impact of the scheme on those men. The position is just as I stated it at Question Time today. The average allowance is 9 gallons a week. The owner-driver using two drivers, himself and one employee, builds up a unit so that a 24-hour service can be given with one car for which 50 to 60 gallons a week is needed. There are 60 owner-drivers in my town. They can earn only £7 a week under the proposed allowance. It means, of course, that the owner-driver will have to sack the second driver at once.
Out of the £7 the owner-driver has to pay £1 a week insurance, he has the cost of petrol—and we have just put that up to over 10s. on the 9 gallons—upkeep of his car, oil, capital depreciation of his car 141 and—much more important and usual—hire-purchase instalments paid weekly for his car. In many cases rationing does not mean merely the end of work for the owner-driver, but he is left with worse than nothing because, having been turned out of his living, he still has to pay £2 10s. or £3 a week in instalments on his car which he cannot afford to use.
For the owners of fleets of cars, I am assured it means the dismissal at once of more than half their men. In my town, and probably up and down the country, taxi owners and taximen have worked very well together. Owners have said to me, "How bitter, how indescribably bitter, is the task which faces me on 17th December when, in the week before Christmas, I have to dismiss a number of faithful employees." It is worse than that. Owners of fleets of taxis will not be able to run them for more than half the four-month period, and only then by dismissing more than half their men and using four months' supply for two months' running. Perhaps the Minister will understand how bitter the taxi industry feels about the hundreds of thousands of gallons which have been "salted" away in the free period before the Government made up their minds to ration.
Some measure of the problem of the taximen was shown when they told me that even if the present ration were doubled the allowance would barely keep the average taxi on the road. As I have pointed out in the House on other occasions when I have spoken on behalf of taximen, the taxi industry does not merely serve for pleasure jaunts. Britain has become taxi-minded. Taxis are used today by all kinds of people. In a town like Southampton, the taxi service is terribly important from the shipping point of view.
§ Dr. King
I assure my hon. Friend that I use Southampton examples because I know them, but what I say applies to other ports and towns. Taxis are important for men called out on river work, for dredgers and pilotage at all hours of the day and night, for incoming transport to Southampton, for very precious dollar transport, for the service of tankers which are to provide the crude oil for Fawley.
142 Strange as it may seem, taxis in Southampton, and no doubt elsewhere, play an important part in the hospital service in supplement to the voluntary car service. I quote a letter from the Town Clerk of Southampton, who writes:The taxi proprietors are very worried about the considerable traffic which they have with hospitals. The Netley Military Hospital has no 'bus service to it and a considerable number of journeys are run there from Southampton Station. The Children's Hospital at Bursledon is not on a 'bus route. [It is some seven miles out of Southampton.] One taxi proprietor has used 8,000 gallons of petrol in the last six months in connection with direct hospital services, and this proprietor has already notified me that his contract with the local authority in respect of the conveyance of mental defectives, midwives, between 10.30 p.m. and 7.30 a.m., and the transfer of people from old people's homes, and for Blind Welfare, must terminate.If I mention Southampton, and if I plead the case for Southampton taximen, it is because I know our taximen in Southampton very intimately, just as I know very intimately the life of the town in which I have lived for so many years. But I would urge the Minister that what I have tried to argue is also true of other ports; that other provincial towns have similar needs, and, in the countryside, with the great distances that have to be covered by taxicabs, there is, again, a special case for the little individual taximan.
I beg the Government therefore to take this question of the allocation of petrol very seriously, and not to be inhibited by any doctrinaire dislike of planning, not to mind putting a bit of Socialism into action. That is done in quite a lot of the social Ministries, and they should not mind adding a little more to it. Their duty to the nation is to sec that the nation's petrol goes where it can serve the nation best, where it can help our economy, and where it can prevent unemployment. I would particularly ask the Minister to give very sympathetic consideration to the case, which has been made to him by deputations from one end of England to the other, of the two groups of people of whom I have spoken in detail.
§ 9.6 p.m.
§ Mr. J. E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)
The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Neal), criticised the slow speed with which the rationing system had been brought in. Admitting that it started off with ration books left over, I imagine, 143 from the old rationing days, I must say that I have been rather impressed by the amount of work which the Minister, his Department and the general public have been able to get through in three weeks in order to mount the scheme at all. One cannot compare it with what happened in the war, and must consider the amount of work that had to be done. About 5 million ration books have, I believe, been issued by the Post Office. There are now twice the number of cars and vehicles on the road. Above all, there was no staff in being to operate the scheme.
I think that the seconder of the Motion, the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) rather exaggerated the degree of black marketeering, or petrol hoarding, that has gone on. Hoarding, collecting or pump crawling is news, but those who do it represent only an infinitesimally small proportion of petrol users.
When one reflects, there was, in mounting the scheme, really no alternative but to adopt something of the present nature. One had to start off with a particular rule-of-thumb principle, with a fairly generous basic ration, followed by a limited supplementary allowance, with a limited category of priorities.
That is rough justice. What I and, I am sure, Members on both sides of the House are concerned about for the future is that, as this emergency lasts, the hardships inseparable from any system of rough justice should be eased and smoothed away. I should, therefore, like to make a few comments on the development of the rationing scheme.
First, there is a distinction in need between different places, and a quite obvious distinction between town and country, which is not taken into account in the existing rationing rules. A scattered countryside cannot have the same alternative facilities in public transport as has a more built-up area. I have no doubt that other constituencies have troubles which may be even greater than those in my own constituency, but I should like to say that I represent 110 parishes which extend 55 miles in one direction and up to 17 miles in another. A great many of my constituents do not work in the villages in which they live, and have to travel to work. The bus 144 services are scanty. Indeed, many villages have no daily bus. There is, therefore, really no alternative but to go to work in a car or on a motor cycle. Even if people switch as much as possible to the local railway, that in itself may involve a fairly long round trip to and from the station.
There are many special cases, such as, for instance, the case of a rural district council occupying premises in an isolated position, the staff of which, it appears, cannot get to work on the existing basic allowance plus supplementary allowance, if granted. There are schools placed in a similar position. In addition to the difficulties experienced in the work of these and similar institutions, there is the problem which will confront people following professional or commercial occupations which are not at this time included in the rather limited category of priorities. I have in mind such people as architects, land agents, etc., whose need is not so urgent, perhaps, as that of veterinary surgeons, but who, in the course of time, will find their practices restricted unless they can have a rather freer range. They cannot cut down their mileage without restricting their work.
People themselves have different circumstances. Even in the countryside, it may be possible for one person to be much nearer public transport than his not-so-near neighbour. Therefore, except in the short run, reliance upon the basic allowance, however generous, with a possible supplementary allowance of 100 miles, will work inequitably, as was said by the hon. Member for Bolsover, between those who suffer mere inconvenience and those who are suffering actual loss of earnings and work.
I would ask, therefore, that some flexibility should be introduced, particularly as regards the commercial user. Here again, there are many small rural firms which depend for their whole existence on at least one member of the firm going around fairly freely over a limited radius, working as a sort of local commercial traveller, perhaps visiting villages within ten to fifteen miles of a small country town, in order to collect orders and deliver supplies. Often, the employees of such small firms, which may be making a particular product or packing it, depend for their employment on that one man's activities. It does not 145 really matter whether the work is the packing of groceries or the making of gravestones; the same principle applies.
The allocation for commercial use is 40 per cent. of the normal allowance. That places a difficult burden on country firms which have a relatively long mileage in relation to their business. One case which has been put to me—no doubt it is only one of many—is that of the country laundries. In my part of the country they were classed as essential during the war, but at the moment they are not. It is difficult for a laundry, even if it halves its collections and deliveries, to run on a 40 per cent. allowance.
All this adds up to the plea that in the New Year, the broad work of the basic issue and supplementary allowances having been dealt with, my right hon. Friend should consider making the scheme rather more flexible so that supplementary allowances may be issued for a greater amount in those cases which show—they will need to be well proved—that a disproportionate injury will follow from restriction.
1 think we all agree that the petrol shortage is imposing a burden which we want to see shared as evenly as possible. If what we hope is a temporary interruption of only a few months hurts some people or arms more than others because they are running on a very low margin, either of reserves of or working capital, or because of hire-purchase reasons or anything of that nature, I hope that if their need is proved a greater allocation will be made in the New Year.
That raises the question of where the petrol is to come from. I cannot pretend to know in detail the sources or supplies or the forecasts, but if there is to be a shortage it would be as well, as the staff builds up and these cases can be examined, to put the emphasis on the supplementary allowance rather than on the basic allocation. That, I think, would give general satisfaction all round. I agree that it cannot be done at the moment, but I believe that it could be done in the near future.
§ 9.17 p.m.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)
My observations will be for the purpose of providing the Minister with an opportunity of stating more clearly how the Order will be administered and 146 to give a few concrete examples to try to bring about a clear understanding among the public, especially in the industrial areas concerning its administration.
If I understand correctly, the Minister's authority will be derived from the Defence (General) Regulations, 1939, together with the Supplies and Services (Transitional Powers) Act, 1945. I have special personal recollections of pride in the way that we intended those Regulations to be administered in 1945. Unfortunately, however, there was a retreat from that very fine stand which was taken. I would advise every right hon. and hon. Member to read the debate on that notable Friday.
During the period of rationing, I would say that in the main, considering our difficulties, there was a fair amount of satisfaction regarding the ration. I hope that even what little dissatisfaction there was on that occasion will be eliminated now. I do not want to go into the political side of all this, and this is not the occasion for doing so. My indignation as to the causes which have brought about rationing is deeper than that of most people, but we should not concentrate on that this evening. Our task tonight is to limit ourselves to the administration of the Order, with a view to achieving the clearest understanding and to obtaining an undertaking from the Minister that the Order will be administered as fairly as it is possible to administer an Order of this kind. Therefore, I should like the Minister to explain how the basic ration and the basic ration coupon are to be administered.
Already I have heard complaints about that. I have already heard complaints amongst hon. Members of this House that some hon. Members are being allowed more than others. They do not understand why that should be so. I know that it is a matter of an individual position. Some hon. Members have large Jaguars, others only small cars, and I know that allowances must be made accordingly, but I beg the Minister not to carry that sort of thing too far here or elsewhere. The same argument applies to the supplementary allowances, and I hope the Minister will make some observations about those.
I do not want to make too much of this, but I am very uneasy about the Press report tonight about the Brighton 147 case, because that kind of thing undermines the confidence of the people, more especially when prominent people are associated with it. I know that this is not the Minister's responsibility, that it is a case of our playing the game with one another, but it is not a good thing that cases should occur like the one reported in tonight's Press.
More and more ordinary workers are travelling to their employment in cars, and many a man carries with him two or three of his colleagues. In my view, those who do that should receive special consideration. I have already had my attention drawn to a personal case, which I have sent to the Ministry. I am afraid I have made a slip, because I have sent it to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power and it should have gone to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation. It is the case of a man, who lives on the fringe of my city, at Meir, whose sister has rheumatoid arthritis. Her's is a serious case. He applied to Birmingham. He was very disappointed with the reply he received and so he sent it to me, and I have sent it to the Ministry.
I mention the matter because I think that people in such circumstances should receive special consideration. At the beginning of such a scheme as this a man in such circumstances should be given the benefit of the doubt. I can understand some tightening up of the administration later if people take advantage, but at the beginning, and for a few weeks, it would be better for the Ministry to err on the side of generosity in cases of this kind rather than lose public good will. After all, this man feels aggrieved and sends a letter to me. No doubt, therefore, he will talk about it to many of his friends. It is this kind of official action which undermines public good will for the administration of the scheme, and public confidence in it, and it is a mistake to undermine that at the beginning of the scheme. I hope that the Minister will give an undertaking that he will use his influence to see that this sort of case is prevented from recurring.
Then there is the question of people who have to travel to hospitals. I do not know whether this is the case throughout the country, but in some areas with which 148 I am familiar there has been a concentration of hospitals. Some have been closed in consequence. Thus more and more patients are being directed to the most modern and most efficient hospitals.
In my part of the world more and more people are having in consequence to travel miles from the fringes of the city and from the countryside around to hospitals like the Stoke City General and the North Staffordshire Infirmary. People who have to travel such distances to hospital ought to receive priority in allowances. Some of them have to go for treatment every weekend. Then there are out-patients, such as injured miners. I have seen them standing in the cold awaiting public transport. More and more they are taking advantage of cars, and I think such patients ought to receive priority.
Public transport is already totally inadequate to deal with the demands in some of the industrial areas. I give concrete examples which can be checked if the Minister has any doubts. There are huge housing schemes in the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Relatively speaking, making allowances for the population, the city has the finest housing record in the country, but this has meant an increase in travelling. Many of the slum clearance schemes which have been carried out have resulted in people having to travel from the fringe of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) to the other end of the city. Transport is already totally inadequate. It is common to see long queues standing in the cold, in the rain, in the snow and fog for far too long, and now there is this cut in the amount of petrol allowed for use in public transport. This matter should receive further consideration and, if necessary, the cut should be restored in certain areas.
If any area has great need for the restoration of the cut, it is the area to which I have referred. Practically all the people in Stoke-on-Trent are engaged either in the export trade or in mining. It Grieves me to see men and women who have been engaged in workplaces where the temperature is high being compelled to stand a long time in the cold waiting for transport. Nothing undermines the health of the people more, and it affects production. It irritates the workpeople 149 and it affects their good will. We ought to see that public transport in areas such as this should have the maximum consideration.
I have long been closely associated with the men who are employed in Trafford Park. There are nearly 70,000 employed in that one small area, and 22,000 of them work in one establishment alone. No one knows better than the Minister, who has himself been closely associated with large-scale industry, that it is necessary to have the maximum and most efficient transport if we are to secure the best results in industry. These men are not playing with marbles. The management and the work-people have great responsibilities. They have responded to the nation's appeal from time to time. Their output is greater than ever, and now they have to suffer this irritation. I ask that this whole matter should be re-examined and reconsidered as soon as possible in the light of the contribution which these people make to industry and to the export trade, so that they can continue to make that contribution to the nation's economy in the way they have done during the past 20 years.
§ 9.28 p.m.
§ Mr. T. L. Iremonger (Ilford, North)
I want to make one general point and one particular plea and ask the Minister for some information. My general point is very brief. I think that hon. Members opposite, who seem to have a general bias against the comparative generosity of the basic allowance of petrol, should bear in mind that we are having to pay, as one part of the price for the present situation, the price of unemployment in the car industry. If the basic allowance were drastically lowered, we should have to consider the repercussions which that might have, and the fact that we might have an even more serious situation in the car industry. If this is a temporary phase, it might be unwise to cause that amount of disruption for a short time. Therefore, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Fuel and Power is perhaps not very wrong in his view of the importance of maintaining the basic allowance.
At the same time I ask my right hon. Friend to pay great heed to the plea put forward from both sides of the House about commercial travellers, and I shall refer to one kind only, the self-employed man. He is in quite a different case from the traveller employed by a firm, because 150 the firm gets its petrol allowance and it is largely within its own discretion how that is used. The odds are, anyhow, that the firm will keep the man on, and will employ him more fully when more petrol is available.
On the other hand, the self-employed man faces ruin, and he could well be broken in the period during which we envisage petrol rationing will obtain. I have had a letter from a constituent putting in a nutshell the situation in which many such people find themselves. He writes:I am a commercial traveller I have to carry about 1½ cwt. of samples of various goods which are suitable for the jewellery trade.It sounds rather substantial jewellery, but I have no doubt that figure is accurate.My total approximate mileage, which I travel in connection with my business, is 500 miles each week. Without a car I can earn nothing, and with my liabilities. …"—That is the point, because at the end of his letter he refers to the need to earn enough to support his daughter, his wife and himself, in addition to meeting mortgage commitments. Obviously, he cannot stop living and he cannot reduce his standard of living because of this crisis. He continues:… with my liabilities I cannot afford to try any alternative means of earning a living.It is on behalf of such people that I make my plea.
And this is the point of information to which I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would address himself when he replies. The Minister gave me a prompt reply to this letter, which I sent on to him, very much in the terms in which he replied to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Southampton, lichen (Dr. King). My right hon. Friend concluded with this sentence:… special consideration will be given to the needs of self-employed travellers whose livelihood would otherwise be threatened.So I gladly recognise that he has the special needs of these people in his mind.
What I ask my right hon. Friend is, what does he mean by "special consideration", and how and when will it be given? I have a nasty feeling that as the Minister's organisation is now at full pressure dealing with the basic ration, it will not be until the middle of next month that his officials will be able to consider 151 individual hard cases. In that time the mortgagees will start to foreclose, bills will have to be met, and the standard of life of these people will fall. They will be broken in the time it takes my right hon. Friend, with the best will in the world, to organise means for dealing with hard cases and special needs.
So I ask my right hon. Friend to tell the House tonight what prospects he can hold out to these people of doing something soon. What can we tell them? In sending on his letter to my constituent, I felt obliged to say that I thought it was rather vague and that it could give him little comfort.
Consequently, I am glad to have the opportunity to raise this subject tonight and to ask the Minister to enlarge upon, and give specific details of, his plan for dealing with hard cases. Some people may be broken by the crisis, and it is not right that that should happen. We should all take a share of the inconvenience. Those whose livelihood is involved must be rescued, and rescued quickly.
§ 9.35 p.m.
Being greeted with such a welcome from my hon. Friends, I feel almost like a maiden speaker.
I agree very much with what has been said by the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger). When a rationing scheme of any sort is being introduced, it is very important that it shall not only seem to be fair but shall be seen to be fair. The people must be convinced that, in spite of the difficult circumstances, justice is being done all round.
I have no doubt that the Minister, who is a reasonable man, will be trying to do the right thing in introducing this unpopular measure. It would be unpopular in normal circumstances, but I think that at the moment most motorists must be waiting for rationing day, when they will no longer be obliged to seek the favour of a gallon of petrol from a garage proprietor who is himself embarrassed at having to decide how to distribute his present allocation of petrol. During this week and the previous week, it has been a misery for motorists, some 152 of whom have gone from garage to garage, unfairly storing petrol which ought to be shared equally.
On Saturday my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) and I met the taxi drivers of the City of Cardiff. A taxi service is not a luxury service; it is an integral part of the transport system in a great city. Anyone who arrives in our great cities after about 11 p.m. is completely dependent upon the taxi services to reach the city outskirts. Today the taxi service in Cardiff is in grave jeopardy. What my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) has indicated about the taxi service in the great port of Southampton applies to the great port and City of Cardiff, where merchant seamen, arriving at all hours of the night, and carrying kit, have to be conveyed out of the docks. Our evening service of taxis will disappear unless the Minister looks again at the size of the petrol allocation.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Itchen, I do not think that the London taxi drivers are having too much, but I am convinced that the London allocation is unjust when compared with that in other parts of the country. The allocation for taxi drivers in Cardiff is one-third of that for taxi drivers in London. Our taxi drivers making a journey to the outskirts of the city are allowed, technically, to pick up passengers for the return journey, but they rarely manage to do so, and they have to use twice the amount of petrol used by the London taxi driver, who almost regularly picks up another fare whenever he drops one. This is a very real grievance to the people of Cardiff.
This afternoon the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he believed that the scheme will last for only five months. That is his hope, and we must share his hope. But is it not tragic that people should lose business and find their assets disappearing as a result of a scheme which is to last for so short a time? The Minister has an obligation to protect people who have rendered, and, I have no doubt, will continue to render, outstanding service to the community. At present taxi drivers are running their services at a loss, because of the price of petrol. Public transport systems have been told that they can increase their fares immediately, but taxi drivers have been told 153 that for them it will take eight weeks. All sorts of additional difficulties are facing them.
The Minister has decided on a reasonable basic allowance and a small supplementary allowance. That is probably because he has not the staff to administer a scheme giving a small basic ration and a more generous supplementary allowance which weighs all the issues at stake. However, it is his obligation to see that these cases are protected. I am sorry to quote my own constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East so much, but it is because I know them better than I know other parts of the country. I have read in the Cardiff Press that it is possible that our public transport system will be curtailed after 6 p.m. That will hit all the late steel workers and dock workers in the City of Cardiff.
§ Mr. Thomas
My hon. Friend has some miners, and if he has, no doubt I have some.
An hon. Member opposite suggested that the Minister fixed the present basic ration with an eye on the car industry. If so, he is deceiving himself, although he is not likely to deceive anybody else on this question. So long as rationing is here, the car industry will be hit for six. We need not deceive ourselves about that. Only those whose livelihoods make it a necessity to have a car will buy cars. It is not the size of the ration, but the fact that there is rationing which is hitting the car industry. I am sure that the Minister knows that.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)
Plus the fact that the car manufacturers themselves are being rationed and cannot produce the cars.
§ Mr. Thomas
Yes, my hon. Friend is as helpful as ever. [Laughter.] I see that during my enforced absence from the House he has not changed, and I am glad.
I believe that the Minister wants to do the right thing. I am sure that he does not want to damage these people who, 154 after all, are the middle class folk about whom hon. Members opposite talk so much, those thriving individualists who are seeking to build up their own businesses. We all like to try to help them, and we admire them and their efforts. I know the taxi service in Cardiff as hon. Members opposite know their taxi services. I see the hon. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) nodding his head. He uses our taxi service. I hope that he will raise his voice on behalf of these people tonight—or is his Department involved?
I conclude with this submission to the Minister; although the scheme is expected to last for less than six months, it can destroy the well-being of some of our sturdiest folk. It can damage our national interests far more than he believes, if he does not reconsider using this precious raw material to the best advantage and ensuring that the Government protect employment.
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Hirst (Shipley)
I am sure that the whole House was very delighted by the contribution made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas), and to have the hon. Member back with us again, able to make his contribution with the very good humour and very good sense with which he always addresses the House. I hope that he will allow me to pay him that compliment.
I am afraid that I agree with a great deal of what has been said. I cannot disguise from the House that I trailed my conscience through the lobbies tonight. I am not at all happy about anything that is being done today, although I prefer a Conservative Administration to a Socialist one.
Here we are faced with the administrative action involved in this policy, namely, the rationing procedure. There are distinct difficulties about it. I am not happy about its effects. I agree with the hon. Member for Cardiff, West that the provincial taxi services have been definitely left in the cold as compared with London. I know how true it is that they have difficulties. They have some quite long hauls—if I am able to use that phrase—without any possibility of a return fare. They very rarely have a return fare. I feel that the Minister ought, therefore, to consider their case a little 155 more favourably. I know of their difficulties very well because I live some distance out of town, and I use the local taxi service. I know that they are at a serious disadvantage.
Much has been said about the commercial traveller and the manufacturing agent, who has a very tough job to do. I have good reason to know one of them very well, and I know the authenticity of the facts which he has given me. He has hitherto normally and legitimately used 60 or 70 gallons a month. He has received his basic ration, which is a great thrill, and has been allowed—after making a very reasonable claim for less than half of what he used previously, bearing in mind the emergency—precisely 2½ gallons supplementary ration. I am prepared to give the Minister particulars of that case.
I acknowledge my right hon. Friend's difficulties, but it is no use for him to say that we have a difficult situation before us and may have to face a 10 per cent. cut, when anyone with nothing approaching his information knows perfectly well that once the Suez Canal situation developed a 10 per cent. cut was absolutely boloney—it never meant a thing. From that stage I must, in fairness, say that I agree that it was either not very honest thinking or was extremely stupid—and I think that we must know which. Clearly, it meant more than that.
I know that the rationing machinery is terribly difficult, but the country wants to know the truth. It has always faced the truth if it has been told what it was. Are we actually in a temporary difficulty? I have little to say in America's favour, but I wonder if—having behaved in a despicable fashion previously—she has at long last come round, in some marvellous way, to our aid. It would be very interesting to know this.
What is happening to make this situation better or worse than it was? I have not heard any facts or information to guide me in my decision upon the Prayer, which I believe the Opposition were quite entitled to move. We must know the facts. Let us have them straight and fair, and from the shoulder, because the nation will take them. Unless there are some facts of that character we must fear the results of the Order to a certain extent.
I am told that some commercial users of derv will get only enough to operate 156 for about one-and-a-half days in a week, which is not much use. After all, it is not so long ago since a Conservative Government inveigled these people into buying lorries for use on long-distance hauls. Where is the price of their business now?
If we are in a state of siege economy in this country so far as fuel is concerned, let us face it. Let the country be told. But, for goodness sake, do not let us fiddle about with this thing—with people saying that something is going to happen; possibly for the worse, or that possibly the position will be all right in a few months' time, although the result in other directions may not be so good. But let us have the facts and know where we are. I am sick to death of playing about with this situation, and with people saying that it is not so serious as it might be, and this, that and the other.
I feel that the situation is very serious, but I want it put into the context of a statement of policy and not have this fiddling about with coupons. Are we facing a siege economy, and does that mean that commercial travellers, manufacturers and agents are to have their petrol supplies cut down, as would appear to be the case? Are the haulage people and the big lorry owners, who paid a high price for their vehicles—too high in my opinion, but that is another matter—to be cut down to supplies sufficient for one-and-a-half days instead of a week?
Incidentally, in the case of long hauls I would say that all coal hauls by road are not uneconomic. As many hon. Members know, I come from Yorkshire, where for years it has been the custom—it was the custom all through the war—for many firms, particularly in the textile industry, to get their coal straight from the pithead into the hopper, which was often at the side of the street. That has been the custom, and it is not good enough that they should now be told, either by the Minister of Fuel and Power or the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation, how they are to get their fuel. They cannot get it by road, because the haulage people are not allowed to carry it for more than a certain distance. Where rationing is necessary, let us see that people get no more than their share, but do not let us allow Ministers to dictate to them how they shall use it. 157 That is my personal plea tonight. Whatever the facts, the country will face them. But let the people know them. Let us stop this business of fiddling about with vague ideas, and let the country know the truth.
§ 9.53 p.m.
§ Mr. B. T. Parkin (Paddington, North)
One of the most alarming features of this Order is the danger that the Minister may have been advised by his Department that it was extremely easy to improvise or to operate a rationing system and that, of the many troubles with which his Department has to deal, that would he one of the least in view of previous experience. But I submit that previous experience is of no avail at all. There was a time when the call-up and the concentration of industry looked after many of the problems which had to be dealt with in due course; many of the individual personal problems and problems of small industries which hon. Members are bringing out in this discussion. Then, when supplies were getting difficult, the demand for them in so many personal and inessential industrial ways was decreasing. Contrariwise, when the war was over the increasing trickle of supplies into the country made it possible for the Ministry to relax, and to give extra supplementary allowances fairly abundantly from time to time.
The difficulty which faces us now is that the situation is hardly likely to improve in the immediate future. I hope the Minister has a considerable reserve to use in solving the problems being laid before him tonight and those which will be conveyed to him by correspondence and by deputations from all parts of the country. I hope that he will be able to announce some general principles to comfort those who are disquieted, who feel that the burden is weighing too heavily upon them.
We know that he is likely to make a statement about taxi-cabs. I ask him to consider two points in connection with London taxis. One is the undue hardship placed on what I believe is called the double taxi, the vehicle which is shared by two drivers who change over in the evening and who, therefore, have to share the allocation for the cab. This means that each one has the opportunity to earn only half as much as the owner-driver who can work either all day or all 158 night, as he chooses, with the complete allocation.
The other point—and I am sure that this is a long overdue reform anyway—is whether the Minister could possibly induce his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to make it legal or permissible for a taxi driver who is going home, and who has got to go home or to a place where he can hand over to the man who is waiting to take the cab for the evening, to put up some kind of notice saying that he will take passengers in a certain direction, north, east, south or west, instead of having to decline all customers lest one should require him to go in quite an opposite direction. Quite an absurd waste of petrol is involved, and it is most infuriating. It usually takes place at rush hours because those are the times when the night driver wants to take over in order to get some of the traffic in the early part of the evening.
I also suggest to the Minister that he might look at the position of the commercial travellers whose difficulties have already been laid before him and to which he has made some sort of reply, not solely from their point of view. Their case has been irresistibly put tonight from these benches. Some of them, especially the self-employed agents, face personal ruin. I should like the Minister to look at the position from the point of view of cost, because we have been assured by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that all these calamities that we are going through are not likely to raise the cost of living by very much.
I do not know what proportion, but a very large percentage of the consumer goods sold in this country is sold by commercial travellers who go round the shops in the cities taking orders on a commission of a certain percentage or, if not on a commission, on a salary calculated usually on the equivalent of 5 per cent. Most manufacturers will add in their costing that figure of 5 per cent.
If the commercial traveller is not able to cover the ground, is not able to make the same number of calls and book the same number of orders, because of petrol rationing, then obviously the cost of getting each separate order will go up. If he has to use all kinds of devices, such as taking taxis and staying overnight in 159 towns where he would not have dreamed of staying before, in order to move on by train early the next morning, or something like that, clearly the overhead personal expenses will be considerably increased.
It seems to me inevitable that that figure of 5 per cent. sales cost will very soon be 7½ or 10 per cent. That is perfectly evident. Surely this must apply to a very large number of not only commercial travellers but technical representatives, consultants and those who have to move around a considerable area. I wonder if the Minister could give some consideration, quite unsentimentally, to the question of the increase in the cost of living, the increase in the cost of commodities, which will result from withholding petrol from those who normally have to travel about the country on their business in order that it may be used to provide a higher basic ration, or whatever else the Minister has in mind.
I am glad to see that the Ministry of Transport is represented here tonight by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. Could the Minister of Fuel and Power also initiate discussions with the Ministry of Transport to find out whether some of the old-fashioned regulations about packing on the railways may be revised? Since the development of the internal combustion engine a number of industries have convinced themselves that their goods can only be delivered by road. Some regulations on the railways were laid down half a century ago and are quite inappropriate.
For instance, if we send furniture by rail, in order that the railways shall pay for it if they break it we have to disguise it so that it is unrecognisable by wrapping it up in straw and sacking. When the shapeless mass is delivered to the railway no railwayman can see what it is. He naturally pushes it around, and very often it gets broken, but the railways always pay for it. There is no bother at all.
Furniture manufacturers use this method for odd deliveries in parts of the country where they have no delivery of their own by road, but they do not mind. It is the railways' risk, provided the sender packs the goods as the railways want. If the railways break it, they pay. It is not true that railways are staffed by a lot of 160 inconsiderate people. The most sensible way to send things by rail is to expose them, so that railwaymen can see what they are. The trouble is that if an accident happens, then it is at owner's risk.
If the Minister will look at this matter he will find that there have been tremendous improvements in the technique of packing since the railway regulations were drawn up. I am certain that the railways will offer a much more sensible and up-to-date suggestion. That would be part of the drive to see that whatever arrangements are come to in allocating the limited resources at our disposal the criterion should be, what is the danger of increasing the cost of the products of industry? We should give priority to methods which can cut down costs.
§ 10.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)
I add my support to the eloquent plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) with regard to oil businesses and transport in rural areas, and especially to small businesses and those engaged in export. In many cases employees of those business have to come to them from a radius of at least fifteen miles. There are no services in rural areas like electric trains, trolley buses or underground services. The facilities are very meagre in many cases.
I have a case in my constituency of a man in the Customs and Excise Department who normally used to get to his work at 8.30 in the morning on his motor cycle. Now he can only get there at 11 o'clock at the earliest. I ask the Minister to pay particular attention to the fact that business requirements in rural areas have been cut down to 40 per cent. and that this is affecting the export trade of small businesses.
I would emphasise again the difficulties in connection with the rail bus and the bus services, which are becoming meagre. The buses are cut in winter, too. I plead for extra thought to be given to this matter, and for extra buses. I add my plea to those that have been made for the taxi driver in rural areas. I hope the railways will meet the challenge and will put down improved services for the people in the rural areas, who are being hit very much. I hope some of the stations which have been closed will be reopened.
161 Whatever inconveniences have been caused, we know that if action had not been taken by the Government at the time the inconveniences would have been much greater in a year or two years' time. Having said that, I ask that particular attention should be paid to the very difficult problems of businesses which have to keep going in rural areas.
§ 10.5 p.m.
§ Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South-East)
I intervene for only a moment to read from a letter of a constituent which I think the House ought to hear and to which I want the Minister to pay attention, I have had two letters from a man who runs a motor car testing station. In one letter he said:In 1946, after 10 years service as a pilot in the R.A.F. I had no work, no home for my wife and family and very little money. With my war service gratuity I bought a small car and gave driving instruction and, by working from nine o'clock in the morning until 10 o'clock at night almost every day for ten years, I built up a school which provides employment to a number of ex-Service men who are now trained and highly efficient instructors. My fixed overhead expenses, rent, rates, advertising contracts, hire purchase on cars and equipment are normally covered by business expenses, but, since the sudden and unexpected cancellation of driving tests not only has the flow of new pupils ceased but hundreds of present pupils have asked for their fees to be refunded and cancelled all their further appointments until they have further news about the future of driving tests. Even if I dismissed all my employees and sell all my cars and equipment, I have no hope of fulfilling the expenses to which I am committed for many years ahead.In a letter sent a week later, my constituent stated:Our business has deteriorated so rapidly that on several days recently a total of only two driving lessons remained for our ten cars and ten instructors who normally would have given approximately 100 lessons in that time. I am now forced by financial difficulties to dismiss six instructors and one receptionist, all ex-Service men and all expert men at the work and conscientious employees. I have already sold three cars at great loss to cover present expenses. Unless the tests are restored without delay I shall undoubtedly be forced to sell the remainder.That letter says more eloquently than any long speech of mine. In the interests of people like that, if this shortage is to be a temporary shortage, I ask the Minister not to ruin by administrative action the livelihood of men who have worked hard to build up their small businesses. I have read the letters as they stand, and I beg 162 the Minister to remedy the situation by giving a definite date for the restarting of those driving tests.
§ 10.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Harold Lever (Manchester, Cheetham)
I rise with some timidity, because my hon. Friend the Member for Itchen (Dr. King), who seconded the Motion, said this was a Socialist Measure and we ought to have more of it. I also find my timidity mounting as I find myself under the scrutiny and within the hearing of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Fienburgh), who has drawn my attention to the fact that sometimes I have been known to express views in this House which are not strictly the views of my party.
§ Mr. Lever
My hon. Friend has been here for part of the debate. If he will take my word for it, this particular brand of Socialism appears to have the unanimous support of the House, so if "We are all Socialists now"—except for myself—in the sense of 50 years ago, or whenever it was that Campbell Bannerman intiated the remark, the theoretical position seems to have been profoundly reinforced in the years between.
This is a melancholy occasion for me because, between 1945 and 1950, I campaigned continuously against petrol rationing. It seemed ludicrous that this particular method should be used when there is a shortage of petrol until we have at least taken adequate steps to ensure that private motor cars get no petrol at all until the fundamental and urgent needs of basic industry are satisfied.
It is a circumstance to which I have drawn the attention of the House more than once, that the British people always feel that, when they suffer something, good is bound to come from it. This is a point of view which has enabled them to erect certain psychological defences to the British climate, and is, perhaps, responsible for the fact that we get Conservative Governments elected for more than one electoral period at a time.
I notice that in this crisis all the Tory leader writers have produced a positive efflorescence of metaphor and simile, in which flowers are plucked from nettles, blessings are seen in disguise, salvage is 163 redeemed from wreckage, and so on. The particular flower that one might have hoped would come from this particular nettle—if I may select a metaphor which commends itself to the most classically-minded Members of the House—and the one which I should have liked to have seen, is that some ordinary, commonsense realism might have prevailed in the petrol situation.
The facts are that this country is using more cars and more petrol than it can afford—on private motoring, at all events. This was the case even before this present crisis came upon us. It is likely to be the case long after the Minister's optimistic forecasts of the end of rationing have been fulfilled—or disappointed. When chronic crisis had superimposed on it an acute crisis such as the present situation, one might have thought that the Government would bend such talents as they possess and such energies as yet remain to them towards reducing the number of cars on the road, so that, at least, we should get a long-term benefit from it. But no—not at all.
On the contrary, this petrol rationing is a deliberate Governmental device for keeping the maximum number of cars on the road with the minimum amount of petrol available. It is obvious to those who use ordinary powers of observation that we have too many cars on the road. Incidentally, the remedy is not to make more new roads than we can already afford in order to support more cars, because we are already running more cars than we can afford in any case. But, as the traffic on the existing roads has reached a stage of dislocation, of danger to life, and of poisoning the atmosphere, which alarms every sensible member of the community, one would have thought that the Government would have used this opportunity to reduce the number of private motor cars on the road instead of maintaining, as I say, the maximum number with the minimum amount of petrol.
I see the advantage of being called now in this debate, in that, having listened to speakers on all sides of the House, I find the ingenuity which manages to find hardship in every direction, and of a special character, positively amazing. Either the Minister is appealed to on the ground that those in the country are ill-treated, or, on 164 the other hand, that those in the towns have to carry the heavier burden—whether it is the taxicab owner, or the double-shift taxicab driver, or the old, or the sick, or the young, or the ill, the case is made for a further extension. It is perfectly plain that it is only the time of the House that limits the special number of categories entitled to increased rations, and perfectly plain, also, that although everybody is enthusiastically in support of this rationing measure in general, nobody is satisfied with it in particular.
All these "Socialist" supporters, if I might call them that, have the idea of "Come the revolution, we will have half the imports and double the rations for everybody." That is the kind of logic implied by these demands. We have to face the fact that there is a limited amount of petrol, and that one cannot go round increasing, on the ground of hardship, the ration that has been given without making a demand for petrol greater than the country can afford.
In my view, it is a monstrous reproach to us all that, in what is said to be a siege economy, the Government should issue millions of ration books to private motorists for pleasure use. I am the last person who can be accused in this House of being a kill-joy; I like relaxation. But it seems to me that, if we are in a crisis, the Government should be doing something better than working an elaborate rationing system so that the existing small supplies are evenly spread, to the maximum expense and inconvenience to everybody, over the maximum number of motor cars. I should have thought the Government would have been better occupied in devising some means of lessening the burden on the roads and reducing the number of cars.
It is quite true that motor manufacturers will have to lay off men, but, of course, if our economy goes to "pot", it will be not only motor manufacturers who will be laying off men. The fact of the matter is that an intelligent diversion of labour from socially undesirable production—because it is socially undesirable to saturate our pitifully over-pressed roads with further motor cars—would be of greater benefit to the community in these days.
Far from getting any benefit from the misuse of our labour and misuse of steel supplies—and heaven knows what dollars 165 we have spent on importing steel far motor cars in the last few years—John Citizen is not by any means the gainer. It is well to remember that when all these passionate pleas in the name of Socialism are being heard about petrol rationing, the great majority of citizens have no cars at all; and they may well be ex-Service men, the old, the sick, the wounded and so forth. They also are entitled to consideration when their livelihood is being undermined by a misuse of the nation's resources.
§ Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)
If my hon. Friend would allow me to make a comment here, those citizens who do not possess motor cars are even more adversely affected than they need be because petrol which could be used for public transport is now being diverted to the private sector, and, in fact, public transport has been considerably reduced.
§ Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, All Saints)
May I say to my hon. Friend that, in industrial areas such as Birmingham and Coventry, to lay off men and to follow the course he is advocating would lead to complete dislocation? Would it not meet the case far better to say that what the country needs to do is not to make more cars but to export more cars, which means getting back to a planned economy such as we had in the days of Sir Stafford Cripps?
§ Mr. Lever
I would agree with both my hon. Friends, and I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson), in response to his intervention, that he is quite right to point out that petrol could be much better used if diverted to public transport services. But it goes even further than that. Because of the clogged roads, such petrol as we do allow for the bus services, especially in Central London, is wasted; and so is the labour of our drivers. I do not know what the technical expression is, but the number of passengers per man-hour or per omnibus per route-mile, or whatever it is, would obviously go up if the roads were clear. That is plain for anyone to see at the bottom of Park Lane, for instance, every evening, where the road is jammed and blocked tight with a moronic snake of suburbanites who have trundled 'their cars in to London in order to obstruct the roads still further as they ride around the streets, poisoning the air and obstructing public transport.
166 All this misuse of our resources is sheltered and protected in the sacred name of sentimental equality by the Minister, who ought to be thinking in terms of rather how he can use this crisis to bring home to the nation that we are using more cars than we can afford on the roads and more petrol than we can afford on the roads. All this talk of better and bigger roads to accommodate the cars we cannot afford, which use the petrol we have not got, is utterly misplaced, not merely now in time of crisis but even when this immediate crisis is over. No sane man should dream of having more cars until he has more roads. To do so is to have the order wrong, and, if I may misuse the analogy, to put the cart before the horse.
§ Mr. Hobson
If my hon. Friend will allow me to say another word. I should just like to point out one or two things in his support. My hon. Friend will agree that, in those places where they have the best roads, in the United States or in Germany, in cities like Chicago, Essen and Dortmund—
§ Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)
On a point of order. Is it in order for hon. Members, one of whom certainly has been in the Chamber only a short time—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)
If an hon. Member gives way, another hon. Member can intervene. It is done every day.
§ Mr. Hobson
Where there are the best roads, there is the greatest congestion, as in the United States of America and West Germany.
§ Mr. Lever
And the greatest number of accidents.
I do not want to detain the House any longer. What I want to say is that as the result of the fact that the Government allow, and have allowed for some time, an excessive number of motor cars on the road, and by this rationing are preserving them, in spite of the shortage of fuel and in spite of our economic position, John Citizen gets about more slowly in his public transport, he has to 167 inhale fouler air and his children are subjected to ludicrous danger in what purports to be a civilised society—because clearly, in this regard, we are less civilised than we were twenty-five years ago. Because of all this claptrap, which supposes that all this overcrowding of the roads with motor cars is for the social and moral good of the community, children are exposed to danger, the economy is distorted and skilled labour, which could be more profitably devoted towards earning our bread—
§ Mr. Fienburgh
Has my hon. Friend got a motor car? If so, what will he do with it, in view of his argument?
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
As one who is not in the same category as my hon. Friend, may I ask whether he does not think it right that we should be concerned about the thousands of John Citizens who want to travel from Manchester and Salford into Trafford Park and that they should have adequate transport?
§ Mr. Lever
I have not said otherwise. Trafford Park, however, seems to me to be a singularly ill-chosen example. My hon. Friend's views and sincerity I have never disputed, but Trafford Park is the heart of the industrial centre of Manchester. If any part of Manchester has a public transport service, surely it is Trafford Park. If it has not, what is needed is surely not a plea for the relative handful of men who have the cars but a plea for a decent public service to be obtained for that industrial area.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
My hon. Friend either has not understood the speeches that have been made or is putting a wrong interpretation upon them. We who have made our pleas have spoken as realists. We have a situation which is not as we should like it to be. Therefore, within those limits, we want to bring about the best arrangements for the thousands of people living in areas such as those represented by my hon. Friend.
§ Mr. Lever
I hate to find myself in disagreement with my hon. Friend; I am not at all unsympathetic to his request. What I am saying is that given the limited supply of petrol available to the people of this country—first, by the crisis which has come upon us, and secondly, by the chronic crisis in our affairs—we should all be much better advised in pressing that such petrol as is available is directed towards improving the public services, instead of cutting them down in this lamentable way.
When I hear, from both sides of the House, a remarkable moaning and gnashing of teeth on behalf of the supposedly about-to-be impoverished taxi drivers and taxi owners, I am bound to throw my mind back to the time when I returned after the war; and I cannot say that I noticed that those who had been occupied during the petrol rationing period in driving taxi cabs appeared to have suffered any spectacular malnutrition as a result of the petrol rationing which had been in force. I have no reason to imagine that anybody need fear any such lamentable occurrence in this connection now.
It is possible—and nobody is better qualified to do it at greater length than I am—to enlarge indefinitely on the number of categories who ought to have the special favour of the Minister, who no doubt is waiting to reply so that he can refuse them all, as I hope he will. One could apply on behalf of people who have been told by their doctors that they have incurable cancer or any other incurable disease. Why should they be deprived of driving in the last months of their lives? Why should we not give special consideration to those orphaned in the war? Why should we not give special consideration to those who lost limbs in the war? I do not say that sneeringly. I am merely pointing out that the categories of humanity entitled to special consideration can be enlarged indefinitely until they embrace the whole community.
In all probability the Minister will have to consider some 3 million applications, and give each and every one of them careful and impartial consideration to determine what the judiciously considered and socially desirable share of the community's restricted supplies of petrol is in each case. The only right way in which the available petrol should be 169 used, apart from its use for certain categories of high priority personnel such as doctors and those in urgent medical services, is in the public transport services, to save them from being cut down in the present manner.
I conclude with this thought. I believe myself that this country is facing an economic crisis, and that it may face siege conditions, but that this is not the way to bring home that fact to the people, and that a much more realistic and serious approach is required instead of the somewhat flippant approach which, it seems to me, is widened, though perhaps unconsciously, by this attitude that sympathetic consideration should be given by the Minister to these special applications. The most serious consideration should be given by the Minister to the allocation of this precious fuel.
§ 10.27 p.m.
§ Mr. C. N. Thornton-Kemsley (North Angus and Mearns)
At this hour of the night I can make two promises, first that I shall be very brief, secondly that I shall stick very much more closely to the Order than the hon. Member for Cheetham (Mr. H. Lever), whom the House nearly always enjoys to hear. I want to speak about one category of persons who have not been mentioned in this debate so far and who are, I think, deserving of special attention, not because of hardship or anything of that kind, such as exists in some of the cases which have been mentioned—
§ Mr. Hobson
On a point of order. In view of the legal nature of this Order which we are discussing, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, do you not think we ought to have present one of the Law Officers of the Crown in order that we may have a proper explanation of it?
§ Mr. Thornton-Kemsley
I was going to make a special plea tonight for surveyors, whose position has been brought to my notice in my own constituency this weekend, and for whom I can speak with a certain amount of personal knowledge, because I am a member of that profession myself, and to that extent I should, of course, declare an interest.
The surveyors nearly all work in the open air; they have to inspect properties with which they deal, otherwise they 170 are very likely indeed to be negligent and to fail the clients for whom they act. I want particularly to speak about land agents, because their plight will be extremely difficult in present circumstances. They have to deal with tenant right valuations on changes of tenancies on farms. They have to deal with stocktaking valuations for Income Tax purposes and for other reasons, and with farm management. That kind of business takes them all over the countryside and over areas in many of which there is no public transport whatsoever.
§ Mr. Thornton-Kemsley
I have heard a number of speeches here tonight about people in urban areas, where public transport of some kind or another is available, but I am thinking especially of remote areas of Scotland where there literally is no public transport at all, but where these men have to travel about if their duty is to be done properly. I have very good reason to believe that the Agricultural Departments are very concerned with the difficulties which will be faced by this profession at the present time.
Then there is the general practitioner who deals with valuations of every kind, with valuations for Estate Duty purposes, for insurance purposes, for mortgage purposes, for town planning purposes, and in derequisitions and compulsory acquisitions, and with sales and lettings of properties, and all that kind of thing. In every case, personal inspections are involved.
There again, it seems that in both the countryside and the towns it is the small men who will be hardest hit. In the case of a big firm, all the surveyors may have cars, or may use cars belonging to the firm, but only one car or perhaps two cars may be used by a small firm, which will thus have great difficulty in getting the work done. Much essential work will remain undone if surveyors are restricted to the 300 miles per car which they are at present being allowed.
I want to put two suggestions to the Minister. First, while I do not suggest that a special allocation of petrol should be made—I do not think that would be right—I consider that those who are administering the scheme locally should, so far as possible, be persons of understanding who appreciate the needs, in 171 particular, of the profession in the countryside. Secondly, my right hon. Friend should do what he can to give instructions that those in charge of the administration of the scheme should deal with individuals according to their need and according to the need of the public which they serve.
§ 10.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Victor Collins (Shoreditch and Finsbury)
I think the Minister will agree that throughout the debate—
§ Mr. Collins
—there has not been the slightest sign on the part of hon. Members on this side of the House to make any political capital out of the present situation. There has been criticism of the Order from every speaker, but it has all been constructive.
It will be impossible for the Minister to answer all the points which have been made, but I am sure he will study them and, as soon as possible after the debate, make a further announcement, because one of the greatest difficulties for industry in the present situation is that people do not know what is going to happen.
When the Minister announced the curtailment of petrol supplies, he said that it would be about 10 per cent. In a Question, I asked him whether that did not mean that supplies for ordinary motorists would have to be cut by 50 per cent. The Minister replied that it would be at least that. As has been pointed out, now that fuel supplies are to be cut to 75 per cent., it ought to mean no basic ration at all for ordinary motorists. Then it would be possible to have proper priorities.
In order to be brief, I shall put a series of questions to the Minister. It is obvious that an enormous number of inquiries will be addressed to hon. Members from all sorts of people. Does the Minister propose to put into operation the policy adopted in 1946 whereby hon. Members were invited to write to regional petroleum officers to have the problems of their constituents attended to, for that would save an enormous amount of time for his Department and for hon. Members?
Will the Minister look again at the absurd situation in which responsibility is divided between his Department and that of the Minister of Transport and 172 Civil Aviation? There seems to be no possible justification for it. Each industrial firm which runs motor cars for business as well as motor vans has to deal with two Departments. I know firms which also have farms, and they have to deal with both cars and tractors, and so on. These have to be dealt with on one form, and they receive a block allocation. Such firms will have no idea at all what the priorities ought to be within the block allocation. It seems wholly absurd that that sort of thing should happen.
There has been no disposition to make party capital out of the situation. Certainly the country as a whole thinks that it is time the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth were over and that we got down to the job of dealing with the situation. However, if the Government expect to be supported from this side of the House, as I think they will be, the measures they put forward must be sensible, workable and fair and have nothing of a Tory doctrinaire nature about them. We are prepared to support things which are sensible and fair.
We are therefore entitled to know—if possible tonight—why there has been such a high basic ration. Why could not the basic ration be related to a particular vehicle and to particular months? Is it the case, as one national newspaper said, that as much as 9 million units may be put on the black market because the cars will not be used? Why are garage proprietors, who are already getting 5d. a gallon profit on petrol, to get another 1½d.? Why is it that, road haulage costs having gone up only 5 per cent., prices will be increased by up to 10 per cent.? Why should London Transport, which told us only a few weeks ago that it could save £2 million a year if it could increase the average speed of its vehicles by one mile an hour—and in view of the reduction of traffic in London it must be doing that—be permitted to increase its fares by £2 million?
There are one or two questions about industry which I want to put very quickly. Taxis have been frequently mentioned in the debate tonight. There is no need for me to remind the Minister that taxis are a public transport service and operate under a licence and conditions about their fares and in other respects which put them on lines similar to those of other forms of public transport. I do not want to make invidious 173 comparisons and still less fail to support the case for provincial taxis, but conditions in London are different and although there is a great deal of idle mileage in going from the centre of a city like Cardiff to the outskirts, the distance from the centre of London to the outskirts is much greater.
The other day I was talking to the proprietor of a taxi service. He told me to my astonishment that although London taxi-cabs charged 1s. 3d. a mile, the average paid time worked out at 6d. a mile. He said that he would be very pleased if paid running time worked out as high as 8d. a mile. Those are astonishing figures, but they are figures for London. When the Minister considers the very strong case for taxi services, will he bear those points in mind? Not only in the provinces will the small man be driven out of business. Many London taxi-cab proprietors will not be able to meet demands and carry on business.
Will the Minister also say whether there will be any exceptions to the rule that no extra petrol will be allowed for travelling to work? For example, has he thought of the position of people who work in markets and have to start at four or live o'clock in the morning and live perhaps ten or eleven miles outside London? They cannot possibly get to work except by using a motor cycle or motor car. There must be exceptions to the rule for workers of that kind. If there are not, the Minister will be saying that the markets must open an hour or two or three hours later and that the shops they supply must open later, which is not possible.
Will there be exceptions for particular industries? I am not talking about the great basic industries like coal and agriculture and so on, but thinking of firms like one in my own constituency which supplies machine tools through its representatives who go about the country and perform a very useful function.
The position at the moment is that if these people have received any supplementary coupons at all they have had 50 per cent. of the basic ration, which means that at the most they have had only about three-eighths of their normal requirements. Similarly, in industry, firms which run vehicles for industrial transport seem to be all lumped together—the 174 local greengrocer with the firm which runs a nation-wide transport service. Priorities must be exercised, and these people must know soon what their position will be.
They may be receiving this week—or they may already have received—their basic allocation from the Ministry of Transport. They are told that they must not re-apply just yet. The fact is that over quite a wide range of industry the basic allocation for industrial goods vehicles is only about 23 per cent. or 25 per cent. of their normal supply, which means that at the end of four weeks, if they go on at the normal rate of consumption, they will be without supplies. I am firmly of the opinion that with economy and careful usage everybody can reduce his consumption without reducing efficiency, but it is utterly impossible, however efficient one may be, to reduce consumption from 100 per cent. to 23 per cent. or 25 per cent.
This allocation must be on a sensible basis, and the Minister must tell us the type of priorities he will employ. The Minister of Transport, in answer to a Question of mine last week, gave some of the priorities, and said that a number would be added, but the types he gave were far too limited to give industry any real idea of what he means to do. I therefore ask the Minister, first, to answer as many as possible of the questions put to him, at least in a general way, and secondly, to give an assurance that he will go into all the other suggestions as speedily as possible and make further announcements as quickly as possible, so that industry can have a fair idea of what the future holds for it. He should give it as much information as possible, so that it can do its utmost to carry on within the allowances it is likely to get.
If the Minister will see that industry is told that, and that some of this absolutely wasteful use of petrol is wiped out, and if, as soon as possible, he retrieves the error he has made in giving such a high basic ration, and gets down to proper priorities and a grading of industry, we can get by without too much difficulty and without halting our production. We must not treat industrialists like children. We must tell them as much as we can and give them a chance to get on with the job.
§ 10.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)
I want to make a plea to the Minister about my constituency. It is seldom that I make such a plea, but this evening I must. Last winter the Minister of Labour said that the unemployment problem at Yarmouth during the winter was one of the most difficult and persistent that he had had to deal with. Unfortunately, this crisis has come right at the beginning of the winter, when the unemployment figures in Yarmouth are beginning to mount quite speedily. Because of the petrol rationing it appears that those people who are going to be thrown out of work will have practically no chance of getting work on the labour market in Great Yarmouth.
I therefore appeal to the Minister to consider especially those serious cases which I shall let him know about from Yarmouth—as I get particulars of them. I can let him have one or two now. I appeal especially for the driving schools and the taxi drivers. There are not very many of them, but they are in as difficult a case as anybody anywhere else.
One or two speakers before me have managed to cut the time rather fine, and there are still a few hon. Members opposite who wish to rise, and I do not want to stop them.
I was in agreement with what the hon. Member for Cheetham (Mr. H. Lever) was saying about private rationing. I did not agree with him that we should use the situation in order to get rid of cars from the roads; nevertheless, I agree with him to the extent that it would be reasonable to expect the people—I believe they would expect it themselves—not to be allowed pleasure petrol if it meant that other people lost their livelihood. We must have complete frankness from my right hon. Friend. It should be put to the private motorist that in order that people should not lose their livelihood the private ration has to be even less than it is. That is what the nation expects.
It has been said that we are running into a siege economy. Whether we are or not, I do not know, but we ought to be, if we are not, and for one reason, if for no other. It is that the nation cannot afford at this stage to spend a single dollar more in the United States for oil or anything else that is not absolutely essential and imperative to keep the nation going. 176 I hope that the Minister will not be afraid to tell the British people—such an appeal was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst)—the stark, absolute truth, and will not be afraid to make sure that priorities are given to such as public-service vehicles, industry and to all people who might otherwise be out of jobs.
§ 10.48 p.m.
§ Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)
I am in agreement with the hon. Members for Cheetham (Mr. H. Lever) and Yarmouth (Mr. Fell). There is an over-all shortage of fuel oil and petrol as a result of the policy of Her Majesty's Government. That has to be faced. Therefore, there has to be rationing. How is that rationing to be carried out and what industries should be rationed?
The Minister has fallen into the error of following somewhat slavishly the method used when petrol had to be rationed during the war, although the pattern is entirely different. I speak from wide experience in the electrical generating industry. I know of no power stations that were fired with fuel oil before the war, but many are now so fired. The four boilers in the Neasden power station of London Transport are today fired by oil. Before the war the firing was by pulverised fuel. There are other stations now fired by oil. On the assumption that there would be an abundant supply of oil, many industries changed from solid fuel to fuel oil.
Therefore, the prerequisities of industry are infinitely greater now than they were during the worst period of the war when so many tankers were sunk through enemy action. But these needs, I assume, are known to the Ministry, are they not? I put that in an interrogatory form, because I recollect that in the coal shortage of 1947 the Ministry did not know the amount of coal consumed by British power stations, which got us into a pretty fine mess. There is, also, the question of the maintenance of strategic stocks, which cannot be revealed.
I think that fuel for public transport should not be cut, neither should it for industry nor the power stations. If a cut has to take place, it should be applied to the private motorist. We cannot avoid this, because of the dilemma we are in. I should be much happier in supporting this Order if I knew, and if the House 177 had been informed, that there had been consultations between the Minister of Fuel and Power and the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation with regard to introducing legislation to compel traffic to be taken off the road and put on the railways. That has got to be done sooner or later because of congestion on the roads. I notice that Sir Brian Robertson, reported today, said that the railways are carrying under 20 per cent. of their capacity. Are we going to allow goods to be taken by road which could go by rail and yet have the drifters of Yarmouth, the power stations and public transport short of oil?
We cannot just try to please everybody. The Government have got to be tough. The country is in a shocking position economically. The hon. Member for North Angus (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley) pleaded for extra petrol for surveyors. I could make a case for the owners of taxicabs, and every hon. Member could make a special plea. We cannot at this stage do that. I therefore find it difficult to support this Order, because it is an attempt to please everyone. We need real toughness from the Minister with regard to the private motorist, and we need also an assurance that oil supplies to industry and the power stations will be maintained.
§ 10.54 p.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)
The Minister has heard in this debate many criticisms from all parts of the House about his scheme for rationing motor fuel. I do not think there can be any doubt that during the six months to come, he will get far more. But we all agree that, in present circumstances, some rationing scheme is necessary.
There has been remarkable restraint on the part of my hon. Friends today in that they have refrained from hinting even as to who is responsible for the fuel shortage from which the country is suffering. We have avoided that subject, and we have concentrated upon considering whether this scheme, which we now have before us, is well conceived and whether it was wisely launched. By "well conceived" we mean a scheme which would obviate entirely damage to our industries and our economy, that would minimise hardship amongst individuals and minimise the opportunity for black marketing and all the sense of injustice and frustration which comes from such 178 a situation—a scheme, moreover, which maintains proper social priorities.
Before saying a word or two about the scheme, I want to ask a question about its launching. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some reply because the country has been much disturbed and believes that the launching was badly done. We do not know, we cannot judge, we are not sufficiently in possession of the facts, but it appears to the ordinary layman that there was far too long a delay in bringing the scheme into operation, that announcements were made earlier than were necessary, and that, as a result, a large number of people were able to obtain an unfair advantage. A large number got a great deal of petrol and hoarded it, while others were able to get very little. Indeed, I know some who were unable to get any because all the garages to which they applied said they were unable to sell them any.
It seems that the scheme was launched in such a way, particularly in the time it took to get into operation, that considerable damage was done, and a considerable amount of justified public criticism was expressed. The Minister owes it to the House and the public to tell us why he could not do this more quickly and better.
I wish to refer to a paragraph in the Order to which, so far as I know, no attention has been paid, either in the House or elsewhere, but which seems a subject of proper criticism and condemnation. I refer to paragraph 8, which seems a bit of red tape that will cause an unnecessary nuisance. That paragraph says:Where any coupon is surrendered by any person to any dealer …"—meaning the retailer—as aforesaid …"—in other words, where the person gets his petrol and surrenders his coupon—… that dealer shall(a) keep a record showing—What does that mean?
- (i) the name and address of that person;
- (ii) the date of the surrender;
- (iii) the combination of letters appearing on the coupon;
- (iv) the total amount authorised by the coupon;
- (v) the period of validity of the coupon;
- (vi) the date of each supply furnished to that person in respect of the coupon, and the quantity then supplied."
179 It may be that several people queue for petrol on a cold windy February morning at some remote country petrol station when snow is on the ground, and each time a customer surrenders a coupon the man looking after the pump has to bring out a book and fill in a lot of detailed information. Is that really necessary? It never happened under the old petrol rationing scheme. Is the object to make a check? I do not know, but it appears to be awful nonsense, and will cause more swearing among customers and those serving petrol than anything else. It does not appear to have any justification. I hope that the Minister of Fuel and Power will tell us why it is there, if it is really necessary, and whether it ought not to come out.
There has been criticism that a large number of people who will get petrol coupons will not use them. The British Road Federation has estimated, with what justification I do not know, that the number of people who do not licence their cars in the first quarter of the year is 500,000 out of about 3½ million users of private cars. That may be an exaggeration, but the Minister must know the number. Plainly the number is substantial. Yet all those people are to be entitled to draw petrol in respect of their coupons for the whole four-month period. Really, that again is a nonsense.
Moreover, and this is another estimate put out by the people in the petrol industry, the number of gallons involved is about 9 million. Taking the half-million people and the four-month period, coupons for about 9 million gallons will be issued which will not be used. That four-month amount will all be used by the owners of cars either in the fortnight between 17th and 31st December or, as is much more likely to happen—and is, indeed, bound to happen—those 9 million gallons will be given away or—far more likely—sold on the black market.
It therefore appears that, by deliberate action, the Minister is by this scheme creating a black market of enormous extent—himself creating a big pool of coupons, representing about 9 million gallons of petrol, which will be at once available for sale or distribution at the very beginning of the scheme. I hope that we shall have an explanation of that 180 from the right hon. Gentleman, and that he will tell us whether or not that is really sensible.
cannot understand why it is laid down that the owner of a car can use, if he so wishes, all his petrol in the first month, but that if, for some reason—he may be ill, or may not wish, or be able to use his car—he does not use his car for the first month, he is not to be allowed to use that first month's supply in the second or third month. Unless I have misread the document, he is not allowed to use in the second, third or fourth month, petrol that he has omitted to use in the first. That seems to be awfully unfair.
§ Mr. Strauss
I want now to come to what is the fundamental objection to this scheme. It has been put during the course of the debate by almost everyone on both sides of the House who has spoken. As a result of this scheme, very many people will be able to continue pleasure motoring, or be able to use their cars, if not for pleasure, for unnecessary purposes, while very many other people will not be able to use their cars for necessary, or even essential purposes. By "necessary" or "essential" I mean purposes essential in the national interest, or essential to enable the individual to maintain a livelihood.
We do not know how much oil for distribution the Minister expects to arrive during the next four months—he probably does not know himself and has to guess—but it seems, from all the statements that have been made by the Minister, and the notices which have been sent out to the regional petroleum offices, that in fact this is exactly what will happen. We have been told that the basic ration is to be high compared with what it was during the war—that it will average about 200 miles a month for each car. We are also told that the supplementary rations are to be very tightly held.
I submit that that, in effect means that the Government's deliberate policy 181 is to make the minimum interference with the great bulk of the ordinary motorists, and to enable them to continue using their cars to a considerable extent, but that the Government are giving scant consideration to all that substantial number of people who need to use a car a great deal for their livelihood, or to maintain businesses which they may have built up, or, indeed, for serving the industry and economy of the country.
Indeed, one can go further and say that the result is that there is not going to be sufficient petrol to maintain our public transport services. That is very serious. I should have thought that the Minister, looking at this matter from the national point of view when introducing his scheme, would have said to himself, "First, I must maintain the essential services, and the transport services are essential; they should not be cut. Next, I must see to it that those who use their cars for essential services have sufficient petrol."
I understand that doctors are to get what they need, but I gather that they are just about the only ones, apart from midwives and perhaps veterinary surgeons. But there is a large number of other people who do essential work for industry who cannot run their factories properly unless they have a certain amount of transport to enable them to go about and see to things, visit branches, etc. I am speaking of small industries particularly, where a business may have only one car. Such people as that should have an ample supply of petrol.
Many of the people who have been mentioned during the course of this debate perform an essential public service, and they ought to be assured of getting a reasonable supply of petrol; if not the full amount, at least as much as they got during the war. Taxi drivers have been mentioned. They are an essential part of our transport system. They take people to and from the stations, and they take the luggage too, which, it should be remembered, often cannot be carried by the public transport services at all. Moreover, the public transport services, particularly in the country, do not necessarily go where people want to go.
Taxi drivers should have a sufficient amount, far more than what I understand 182 is suggested at the moment. Many of the other categories which have been mentioned, people engaged in commercial activities, etc., whose work is really important and essential, ought first of all to be assured that they will get enough. Motor driving schools are another example: it would be a serious thing for safe standards of driving in the country if many motoring schools were closed.
Instead of a sufficient supply being available for all these people, so far as one can judge from the announcements so far made, there will he a quite inadequate amount, while the general level for ordinary consumers is to be kept up fairly well. They will suffer, of course; those who want to do much motoring will not be able to do it; but it will be possible to do 200 miles a month, and much of that will be for pleasure purposes and unnecessary work. That, of course, is all right; one would not mind that at all if one did not fear that at the same time there will be a large number of people who will be severely injured and damaged by this rationing scheme.
I understand that the general supplementary ration which has been laid down, according to information in the Press, provides for 3 gallons a month for cars of a horsepower between 8 and 9, 4 gallons for horsepower from 10 to 13, 5 gallons for cars of a horsepower from 14 to 19, and 6 gallons for cars of 20 horsepower and over. I understand that that figure has been allocated quite indiscriminately and given to practically all applicants in industry as a supplementary ration, without any close inquiry at all as to the relative needs and requirements of the applicants. That is all wrong.
It is also unfair that not sufficient petrol has been reserved by the Minister to give supplementary rations to those, other than taxi drivers or those who need petrol for commercial purposes, but who will suffer serious hardship as a result of living in the country, perhaps in remote places. They may be elderly people who have to travel every day to their work, using their cars to go to and from the station. In future, they will be able to get only their basic ration and a very small supplementary allowance.
Such people will suffer greatly. I do not know what they will do. In many 183 cases, they will have to walk—and the worst months of the year lie ahead—or they will not be able to go to work at all, even though they make all the arrangements they possibly can for the pooling of transport with their neighbours. Country people who live a long way from the stations will obviously suffer severely, compared with the town dwellers.
It seems that all these difficulties will arise because, in our opinion, certainly in mine, the Minister did not put sufficient emphasis on social priorities when he devised his scheme. Whether our fears are justified, only time will tell. I hope they will not be. I do not want the Minister to get into trouble over this. I would much rather he got into no trouble and that we could praise him at the end of the day for introducing a wise scheme which caused little hardship.
Looking at the position now, however, and taking account of the comments and pronouncements made by the Minister, we very much fear that he has gone wrong and that he has been too much concerned by the technical difficulties of drafting a good scheme or he has been too keen on getting the maximum popularity from the maximum number—that, is, the ordinary car owners, who want the basic petrol—rather than the small number who want the supplementary allowances.
If, however, we are right and this Order does show itself to be bad and to bring about great hardship and deprivation among important sections of the community, the Minister will be condemned, and rightly so, for having introduced an unfair and an ill-conceived scheme.
§ 11.11 p.m.
§ The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Aubrey Jones)
May I, first, express my appreciation of the manner in which the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Neal) opened the debate and, indeed, the manner in which the debate has been conducted. The hon. Gentleman said that we were all concerned to ensure that the scheme was conducted in the best possible way. He asked me to accept his criticisms, and the criticisms of everybody else, as being offered to me in that spirit. I do accept them as being offered in that spirit, and I trust that I can respond in the same spirit.
184 Whether I can answer every point raised in the debate, I doubt; I do not think that it is humanly possible to do it. Indeed, some of the points, although not very many, concern my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport more than myself. I promise, however, that in the calm of the morrow, full consideration will be given both by my right hon. Friend and myself to all the points which have been raised.
It has been said—I think, rather ruefully—that in this context we are now all rationers. That is regrettable but it is inevitable. No rationing scheme is perfect. All the injustices that have been pleaded this evening are to some extent inevitable. One cannot really get true justice in this world anyhow, and one probably gets further away from exact justice under a rationing scheme than under any other arrangement. The real question is whether this scheme is as fair and as practicable as it is possible to make it and whether it has the proper balance of fairness and practicability.
Before I endeavour to answer that question, which is the real question before the House, I think it would be helpful if I sketched in some of the background to the scheme. There has been a certain tendency in the country—more in the country, I am afraid, than in the House—to compare people's lot under this scheme with their lot under the old scheme. I think it was the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin) who said that no such comparison is valid.
In several respects, the situation in which this scheme is being introduced is vastly different from the situation obtaining under and relevant to the old scheme. For one thing, motor transport looms much more largely in the life of the country now than it did fifteen years ago. The number of motor cars has doubled and I believe that the number of commercial vehicles has increased by one-third. We are, all of us, much more dependent on motoring than we were at the time of the old scheme.
Not only that, but the nature of the cut which is necessary now is much more severe than was necessary last time. When the last rationing scheme was introduced at the very beginning of the war, in September, 1939, it was done because of the fear of the effect that submarine warfare might have on the supplies of oil 185 reaching this country. In fact, however, in the early years of the war, even in the dark days of 1940, oil was plentiful and relatively easy to come by. At the end of the scheme in 1950–51, the amount of petrol being saved by the rationing scheme was not much more than 5 per cent., at most between 5 and 10 per cent. On this occasion we have had to stage a much more severe reduction; one of 25 per cent.
I have been asked by several hon. Members to be frank with the House and to give the truth. I trust that I am always thought to do that, and the situation is as I have always described it. The drop in the supplies of oil reaching this country amounts to just under 40 per cent. When this scheme was introduced it was estimated that a proportion of our supplies might come from the Western Hemisphere and that the 40 per cent. fall might be offset to some extent by Western supplies. Hon. Members ask, to what extent? We estimated that it would be about 15 per cent., and the announcement made subsequently in Washington makes no difference to that calculation. Rather, it merely confirms our estimate. The extent of the cut required is, therefore, 25 per cent.
Next, I have been asked by other hon. Members to say if I am reasonably satisfied that the cut in petrol supplies will not have to be made more severe. The answer is that I am. In the light of the American statements, I think I can tell the House that I consider it reasonable to anticipate that the restriction in petrol will not be made more severe.
I think it was the hon. Member for Bolsover—it may have been another hon. Member—who referred to a report in the Press, purporting to have been something which I had said at a Press conference, to the effect that I was warning the country that much more severe restrictions would have to come about. I have never said that in connection with petrol; but I have said it in reference to fuel oil; and to debate that would be outside the scope of the Order which is now before us. What I can say is that, to spare industry every possible inconvenience at present, the restriction in fuel oil was made deliberately light. It was a 10 per cent. cut, but I do not say that it may not have to be made more severe, and if it has to he, then I will pay due regard 186 to the injunction of the hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Collins) that industry should be given the appropriate knowledge as soon as is possible.
§ Mr. Callaghan
Could the Minister tell us about this 15 per cent. which we expect from the Caribbean out of the total cut of 40 per cent.? Is the 15 per cent. based on the amount which America can supply to us, or by the amount of dollars which we can set aside for the purchase of oil?
§ Mr. Jones
I am afraid that I cannot answer that offhand, but I will confer with the hon. Gentleman later.
I should like just to say a word about the background of this scheme, compared with the previous rationing system. The present scheme has had to be applied abruptly, and not entered into gradually, as at the beginning of the last war. We are all rationed now, and we ought all to be conscious of it; but every rationing scheme at its inception has to apply a broad brush. It has to group all petrol users by the broadest categories and then, as time goes on, it becomes possible for it to become more refined. At the inception of the last scheme there was a system of broad classification, followed by an enormous superstructure of special allowances; but one cannot begin a rationing scheme by indicating a lot of special needs. Those have to be grouped into various broad categories.
Finally—I trust the House will not regard this as an irrelevant difference between this scheme and the old one—we hope—I hope I shall not be accused of complacency in saying this—that this scheme will be a short-lived one, a matter of months rather than years—and if it is to be short-lived, it would not be possible, even if it were desirable, to have quite the same degree of refinement as was appropriate last time.
Those are the basic facts lying at the back of the scheme. In the light of them, I should like to reply to some of the criticisms which have been uttered. The criticisms, so far as I have understood them, have fallen into two groups; first, relating to the timing of the scheme, and, 187 secondly, relating to the distribution, as between different groups of users.
First, I will deal with the timing. The hon. Member for Bolsover began, and the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. G. R. Strauss) concluded, by saying that the scheme should have begun earlier, but there was a contradiction in their thought. Although they said that the scheme should have been begun earlier, they also said that there should be far more detailed supplementary allowances and that the order of priorities should be far more scrupulously arranged. We cannot both have our cake and eat it. If the object is to start the scheme as quickly as possible, one must cut down the number of supplementary applications which one is asking people to submit. On the other hand, the greater the number of supplementary applications that one is allowing, the greater the delays.
The time taken was just over three weeks, the same time as for the former scheme, although there are now double the number of cars on the roads. That time was necessary so that the ration books could be issued and so that, above all, priority supplementary applications for doctors, nurses, etc. could be considered.
It was doubtful whether, in the time available, all the intermediate priorities could be considered. It was because of that that the coupons were made interchangeable. It was because of that that it was made perfectly lawful for a man to draw his petrol for the whole four months right at the beginning. Pending a scrutiny of his application for a supplementary allowance, he could anticipate, to some extent, the future. Again, this was an inevitable result of the relatively quick introduction of the scheme.
In passing, I wish to comment on one remark by the right hon. Member for Vauxhall. He was in error in saying that the coupons were interchangeable forwards but not backwards.
I now come to the second group of criticisms, those dealing with the distribution of petrol between different categories of user. Time after time tonight the cry has been raised that the scheme deals too leniently with the pleasure motorist. I should have been delighted had I been able to identify the pleasure 188 motorists, tie them up neatly into a parcel, see exactly how much petrol they consumed, and then supply all the rest to industry.
I am afraid that the so-called pleasure motorist, pure and simple, is not so very easy to identify. Of the petrol used in this country, 80 per cent, is used by cars employed for business and professional purposes. We are left with 20 per cent. Nobody is going to tell me that the whole of that 20 per cent. is used entirely for pleasure motoring. It is used, as most of us use it, for a substratum of essential purposes, but on top of that people indulge in their little pleasures.
The basic ration of 200 miles a month was fixed so that people could cover those essential purposes with none left for pleasure. I think that the misunderstanding has arisen partly from the comparison which people unconsciously make between this and the last scheme. Under the last scheme, the basic ration was 90 miles a month, and in the case of the private motorists that was eked out by all kinds of special allowances—taking a child to school; taking a grandmother to church on Sunday; going to work and so forth. If this scheme was to begin quickly, all those special allowances had to be cut out, and the figure of 200 miles a month was fixed as being most compatible with the exclusion of those other things.
Then I come to business and commercial travellers. Again I repeat that if the scheme was to begin quickly, it had to be relatively simple. It was therefore left to business itself to determine certain priorities within business. For instance, in general a firm will have for all its cars the equivalent of about 300 miles a month. How the firm distributes its block allocation, as it is called, between commercial travellers on the one hand and works managers on the other, that firm itself is in the best position to decide. If, however, the size of the block allocation to a firm affects its production—if the firm can establish a good case showing that production and employment are adversely affected, special consideration will be given to that case.
Then I come to the manufacturing agent, the self-employed man. Once again I must say that it is hoped that the scheme will be short-lived. The country's whole economy is not geared to great war 189 operations as last time. It is reasonable, therefore, where the livelihood of a self-employed person is affected, as with the production of a firm, that special consideration should be given. Where commercial travellers fall into this special category—the special group of cases where livelihood is affected—consideration will be given to them straight away through the regional petroleum officers.
I should like to say that I was very much impressed by the complaints voiced throughout today, both at Question Time and in the debate, about taxis. My difficulty has been in ascertaining the full facts—the mileages of provincial taxi drivers, etc. However, I will take into account the criticisms made today, and I hope to make an announcement of one kind or another in a few days' time—before the end of the week.
Time does not allow me now to deal with many more of the issues raised. I have thought the debate extremely valuable and I have learned much from it. The scheme is not fixed for all time, and as time goes on we hope to smooth and soften its edges. In that process I shall pay due regard to what I have heard throughout the debate.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.