HC Deb 02 May 1956 vol 552 cc554-62

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

11.33 p.m.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes (Anglesey)

I shall endeavour to be reasonably brief, but I think I am justified, by reason of its importance, in raising even at this late hour the question of rural electrification. There is general agreement with the proposition that the introduction of modern amenities to our countryside is a matter of urgent necessity. They are needed for several reasons. They help to stop the drift from the land and to stimulate agricultural production. Moreover, we all agree that country folk have a right to them. Why should the country housewife, for example, have to struggle along as many still do, in cramped cottages, often damp, without sanitation, without a piped water supply and with a paraffin lamp for lighting?

Recent years have brought a growing realisation that some urgent action is needed. In some directions substantial progress has as already been made. In some areas in the task of bringing electricity to the countryside progress has been spectacular by comparison with the inaction of the pre-war years. This is as it should be, because of all amenities electricity is the greatest single factor in arresting the drift of population from the countryside.

I said that progress in this field had been spectacular. During the first six years of nationalisation, the area electricity boards took electricity to 400,000 rural premises, including 60,000 farms. That was a considerable achievement and a complete vindication of the policy of the Labour Government, which nationalised the industry and also included, in the Electricity Act, 1947, the injunction that supplies were to be extended to the rural areas.

The number of farms connected on vesting day, on 1st April, 1948, was 90,374. By 31st March, 1955, the last date for which figures are available, the figure was 167,375, a remarkable increase. In percentage terms, it is an increase from 32.3 per cent. to 59.9 per cent. of all the farms in the country. The last Report of the Central Electricity Authority, in which these figures are to be found, indicates that smaller farms represent a high proportion of the substantial increase in the number of farms connected.

That is very significant, because it illustrates that the criterion is no longer the farmer's ability to find a large sum of money to pay for the scheme. In Wales, as the Parliamentary Secretary will be aware, the position was always rather more serious than it was elsewhere. For example, on 1st April, 1948, the percentage of farms connected in South Wales was 14.4, an appallingly low figure, and in the Merseyside and North Wales area the figure was 26.4 per cent.

Here, there was obviously a tremendous backlog to be made up. By 31st March, 1955, the figure for South Wales was 32.2 per cent. and for the Merseyside and North Wales area 46.1 per cent. A great advance was made between vesting day and 1955, but these two areas still have the lowest figures in the country. Rural Wales is an area where depopulation is causing the gravest concern. I believe that if necessary special assistance should be given to areas where the figures are very low and the need is most acute.

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

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could explain what he means by "special assistance" in this context?

Mr. Hughes

Certainly. For example, there are areas in England where a very high percentage of farms and rural premises are connected to a supply of electricity—figures as high as 79 per cent.—but in South Wales the figure is as low as 32 per cent. Where economy cuts are to be made, my argument is that the disparity between the high and the low figures should be taken into account and a proportionately larger capital allocation should be made to the areas where a comparatively small number of farms are connected to an electricity supply.

I now turn to the autumn Budget and the Chancellor's statement, in which, the House will recall, he called for overall percentage cuts in the capital expenditure of the nationalised industries. His instructions have been implicitly obeyed, but we have been told by the Minister of Fuel and Power that reduction in the electricity supply will fall on generation and not on distribution. My concern—and this is, I think, very widely shared—is that rural electrification schemes will suffer substantially. I have some evidence that they will and I shall be glad to have an assurance to the contrary from the Parliamentary Secretary.

The Farmer and Stock Breeder of 4th October, 1955, quotes Lord Citrine, the Chairman of the Central Electricity Authority, as saying: Plans for rural electrification have been slowed down by the credit squeeze. Efforts have been made to cut capital costs of distribution by about 10 per cent. and local boards are feeling the effects. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the number of farms connected will not fall far below the yearly average of 12,000. Then we read in The Times of 22nd February, 1956: Although some 500 fewer farms will be connected to the electricity supply in 1956–57 than had been planned, it is expected that when the programme of connecting 60,000 farms in five years ends in 1958, the target will be reached and may even be exceeded. This information was contained in a letter which the Minister of Fuel and Power sent to the hon. and gallant Member for South Angus (Captain Duncan). These statements cause us to think, because this figure is a substantial drop from the number connected in 1955, which, as the Parliamentary Secretary knows, was 14,796. I am not happy at all about the overall position, in spite of the assurances that we have had from time to time in Parliamentary replies from the Minister.

The evidence I have received from my own county, Anglesey, for example, where the figures of connections in rural districts were very low indeed in 1948, and where satisfactory progress has been made since, is that there has been a considerably slowing down since the Chancellor made his autumn Budget statement. The Parish Council of Llangeinwen, in Anglesey, was informed some months ago that work on the electrification of the village of Dwyran and the surrounding district would be begun in April of this year.

Then the Clerk of the Council received a letter from the Board on 14th March, 1956—and this is the sort of evidence on which I am relying in the case I am making. The Board states: I would inform you that we do not know to what extent our programme will be affected by the Government's restriction on capital expenditure, and at this stage it is practically impossible for us to gauge its influence on individual projects or particular areas. Our programme must therefore be regarded as subject to change to meet the national situation. I am sorry that because of this I am unable to be specific about construction dates.

Mr. Renton

What is the date of that letter?

Mr. Hughes

It is 14th March, 1956.

It is, therefore, clear that, to put it at its lowest, the Board is uncertain of the position. I understand from inquiries which I have made that there will be a slowing down of at least 12 months in the rural electrification schemes in my area. I submit that if the same is true of the whole of the rural areas of the country there will be a substantial slowing down.

I understand, too—and I should like the Parliamentary Secretary either to confirm or deny this—that since the Chancellor made his statement there has been no overtime working in any of the areas throughout the country. If that is true, it means a very substantial curtailment of work. It is clear that a severe brake has been applied to the Boards' programmes.

In the statements which he has made, the Minister has given figures of farms alone. What is the position in relation to rural premises as a whole? The House knows that the schemes of the area boards include villages, hamlets and private houses as well as farms, and it is impossible to know to what extent there is a curtailment without having the overall figures, including all types of rural houses and premises. Rural electrification has been accepted by this Government, as well as by the last Government, as a national problem, and the House and the country are entitled to know exactly how progress in this field is being influenced by the Government's economic policy.

11.47 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. C. Hughes) is to be congratulated on making a great many points and asking a number of questions in a short time. It is not possible for me to answer them all without notice, but I can assure him that the electricity boards concerned will no doubt take note of these matters, some of which are matters of detailed administration and, as such, the responsibility of the boards rather than of the Minister.

I am glad that the hon. Member has raised this matter for three reasons: first, it enables me to give some up-to-date facts about the good recent progress in rural electrification in Wales; secondly, to remove certain wrong impressions which, as is clear from the hon. Member's speech, have arisen as a result of the need to limit capital expenditure; and thirdly, to give a reasonably hopeful and, I hope, not over-optimistic view about the future of electrification in Wales generally.

As a rural Member myself, I fully endorse the hon. Member's sentiments about the need for electrification on the farms and in the cottages for the efficiency and well-being of those who work in agriculture. The facts about rural development so far are these: as the hon. Member stated, before vesting day, which was 1st April, 1948, Wales lagged behind England in rural electrification. In fact, the percentage of farms connected at that date in Wales was 14 per cent. and in England 36 per cent. I should perhaps add that it is not necessary to assume that there would have been no progress without nationalisation. It is fair to say that some of the companies had very good post-war plans which were well under way at the time of vesting.

Since nationalisation, considerable progress has been made in both countries, and by 1st April, 1956—just a month ago—the position was that in Wales 40 per cent. and in England 70 per cent. of the farms had been connected.

It is interesting to compare the position in North and South Wales. In North Wales, there are 23,000 farms, of which 8,900 have been connected, and in South Wales there are 21,000 farms, of which 8,429 have been connected—about 40 per cent. in both North and South Wales. They are running neck and neck. I am not prepared to bet which of them will win this race, nor when the race will finish.

Mr. Roderic Bowen (Cardigan)

In 20 years' time.

Mr. Renton

That is rather unnecessarily pessimistic.

As the hon. Member for Anglesey mentioned, this House, in 1953, passed a Motion urging an increase in rural electrification; and a five-year programme of 57,000 farms by 1st April, 1958, was adopted by the electricity boards for England and Wales. The Welsh share of that figure of 57,000 was 12,070 farms, or just over 20 per cent. I say that was reasonably generous to Wales because only 16.7 per cent. of the farms in the two countries together are in Wales; but it was purposely and rightly made generous because the Welsh started a 'good way behind the English in this race.

In the first three years of the five-year programme, 32,369 farms were connected in England and 7,811 in Wales. Therefore, the satisfactory position was reached that in both countries more than the annual average necessary for completion of the programme in five years was achieved. In other words, in three-fifths of the five years approximately two-thirds of the farms had been connected. The boards, therefore, were ahead of schedule when this year the Government had to 'consider the capital expenditure of the nationalised industries to make sure that they were not spending more than the country could economically afford.

The capital cuts had to be carefully considered by the Government in consultation with the industry and during part of the winter there was, I agree, a period of understandable uncertainty on the part of the boards, which led to the expression by some officers of some area 'boards of fears about the future of particular schemes.

An unjustifiable impression still remains in the minds of some of those officers, but I hope that what I am saying will help to clear it up. I hope that the fears of most people, such as they were, will have mainly disappeared since the Government announced what the cuts would be.

On 20th February, my right hon. Friend said that, broadly, they would fall equally upon distribution and generation. He announced that in this financial year farm connections in England and Wales as a whole should be not far short of 12,000, which is, incidentally, the annual average necessary to complete the five-year programme. That figure of 12,000, not far short of which it is hoped to reach, compares with 12,500 originally planned. It was for the Central Electricity Authority, in consultation with its area boards, to decide how the available money was to be allocated among the boards and, as a result of their deliberations, the Welsh share arrived at is such that 2,500 farms will be connected compared with an original estimate, hopeful or otherwise of 2,700. So Wales, again this year, will have its 20 per cent. of the total of the two countries. I hope it is clear from the figures I have given that Wales is getting its fair share.

There are one or two specific points which the hon. Gentleman mentioned with which I can deal to some extent. He made the suggestion that special assistance should be given to those parts which are underdeveloped, but I feel that it is difficult to answer that point without elaboration on his part. Does he, for instance, mean a Government subsidy, or a subsidy by some consumers to other consumers in the same area; and has he borne in mind the fact that there are various subsidies under the Hill Farming Act? But perhaps he and I could have a word about this and explore the matter further.

There is then this question of the various letters which have been written and, in particular, those in relation to his own constituency. I cannot possibly answer in detail for those, but I can say that I do not consider that there is any general justification for anyone saying that schemes which were definitely planned by the board for this year will, on any large scale, have to be postponed for a very long time. I cannot see how that can arise on the figures which I have given.

So far as I have been able to give him the general picture, in the time available, I hope that his fears, and those of his constituents are set at rest; but, if there is a particular scheme in his own constituency—as he mentions there is—then his remedy is to pursue the matter with the board. It is not for the Minister to dictate to the board which scheme should be completed next.

Mr. C. Hughes

There might be a general delay, I am assured, of 12 months in these schemes. Is there likely to be that delay or an even longer one?

Mr. Renton

It all depends on what is meant by the word "delay". If a scheme was, in any event, not even planned for this financial year, then it is hardly surprising if there is a delay before starting on it. But it would surprise me very much to learn that a scheme, actually started in this financial year, was to be delayed for a whole year. On the figures which I have given I should have thought that there could hardly be any such scheme in the country, but it is a question of precisely how far the thing had got and when it was intended to start it. Without that knowledge it is impossible to comment effectively upon what the hon. Gentleman has said, but perhaps he will write to me about it.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Twelve o'clock.