HC Deb 20 November 1956 vol 560 cc1557-62
The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Aubrey Jones)

By your leave, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement.

In view of the continued uncertainties of the situation in the Middle East, the Government have decided that further measures are necessary to reduce oil consumption. The broad purpose of these measures which will affect all the main petroleum products, is to make good an estimated shortfall of 25 per cent. in United Kingdom supplies. The measures have been designed to maintain industrial production to the maximum possible extent. They fall under three main headings.

First, a statutory rationing scheme for motor fuels, that is, motor spirit and diesel oil used in road vehicles, will come into operation on 17th December. I have today made the necessary Order.

Ration books for private motor vehicles will be made available at main Post Offices and local taxation offices from this Thursday, 22nd November. There will be a basic ration with limited supplementary allowances for really essential purposes. Coupons for goods and public service vehicles will be issued by the regional transport commissioners of the Ministry of Transport and for farming, industrial and miscellaneous uses by my regional petroleum officers.

Public passenger transport consumption is to be reduced on average by 10 per cent., the cuts varying widely according to the type of service.

Secondly, for non-industrial central heating the present cut of 10 per cent. will be increased from 1st December to one-third on gas-diesel oil and 25 per cent. on fuel oil. Hospitals, nursing homes and similar buildings will continue to be wholly exempted and the further cut will not be applied to schools, but all will be expected to make every possible economy.

Thirdly, for industrial purposes, the present cut of 10 per cent. in gas-diesel oil will be increased from 1st January to 20 per cent. Minimum requirements for the railways and for coal production will be maintained, but diesel oil for agriculture and fishing vessels, which have hitherto been supplied in full will be cut by 10 per cent.

Thanks to the substantial savings that can be made in ships' bunkers and by the Central Electricity Authority, I do not propose at present to increase the 10 per cent. cut on fuel oil for industry. I must warn the House, however, that further cuts in fuel oil may in time become unavoidable.

Hon. Members


Mr. Callaghan

I am quite sure that the acting Prime Minister will want to afford time to the House to debate this latest vindication of the Government's policy, but in case there is any reluctance on his part may I ask him now whether he will afford facilities to us for an early debate?

Meantime, I should like to ask one or, two questions. What is the basic ration to be? The statement did not contain that information?

Secondly, why is the Minister estimating on a basis of a cut of 25 per cent. in out' supplies when, according to all the estimates that have been given, we are expecting a cut of 45 per cent.? Does the right hon. Gentleman anticipate being able to maintain the basic ration at this level? If so, for how long?

Finally, in view of the gross mishandling of our national affairs over the last few months, would it not have been appropriate if this statement had contained an apology to the people of Britain and of Western Europe?

Mr. R. A. Butler

On the question of business, I understand that the Order will be laid tomorrow, and I suggest that we then indulge in the usual conversations in order to arrange a time when we can discuss this matter on the Order itself. That will be the most appropriate Parliamentary way of doing it.

Mr. J. Griffiths

I take it that the right hon. Gentleman understands that we shall want adequate time to discuss this grave statement.

Mr. Butler

I do not underestimate the gravity of the statement. That is precisely why my right hon. Friend has made it today. It is most important that people should realise the situation—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear"]—and also the steps that the Government have in mind to deal with it. I am convinced that we shall have public support in facing up to our difficulties.

Mr. Jones

I should like to reply to the two questions which were specifically addressed to me by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan). First, I ought perhaps to add that full details of the whole scheme will be available in the Vote Office this afternoon. The basic ration will be equal to 200 miles a month, whereas the former ration, in the former rationing period, was equal to 90 miles a month.

I ought perhaps to explain that there is one very crucial difference between this rationing scheme and the old rationing scheme. The old scheme had a relatively low basic allowance with large numbers of supplementary allowances. This scheme, as I have indicated, will have a not so low basic allowance but fewer and more limited supplementary allowances. [AN HON. MEMBER: "Why?"] Because, otherwise, the administrative costs of the scheme would be far greater than they are.

As to the second question, on the extent of the shortage, I recognise, of course, that it is the professional occupation of hon. Members opposite to make things appear worse than they are, but it is not right to assert, as the hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East did, that our supplies are down by 45 per cent.

Mr. Callaghan indicated dissent.

Mr. Jones

If the hon. Member did not do so, I must have misunderstood him. The figure of 45 per cent. was used.

The reduction in supplies from Middle Eastern sources is certainly less than 40 per cent., and the reduction can in part be made good by supplies from the Western hemisphere.

The hon. Member also asked how long the reduction was to be maintained. I cannot peer into the future. Everything depends on events. Ration books are being issued initially for a period of four months, but the situation will, of course, be kept under constant review.

Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd

Would my right hon. Friend agree that his statement, combined with the present coal prospects, makes an even stronger case for pressing ahead at the fastest possible pace with the development of atomic energy?

Mr. Jones

I accept that entirely. As I think I indicated to the House the other day, I hope before the end of the year to be making a statement on that subject.

Mr. Hamilton

In view of the very disturbing statement which the Minister has made, and taking it in conjunction with the statement made by the Secretary of State for War, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to have consultations with his right hon. Friend, because many miners called up as reservists are still digging in their heels in the Army, doing absolutely nothing, while we are wanting coal?

Mr. Jones

I will certainly look into that.

Mr. Nabarro

Will my right hon. Friend clarify two points about the rationing of motor spirit? First, can he give the House an assurance that branded petrol will continue and that there is to be no return to pool petrol? Secondly, can he tell the House whether it is his intention to require commercial vehicles to use red petrol, as in the last phase of the previous rationing scheme, or whether all motor spirit for private cars and commercial vehicles will be in its natural colour?

Mr. Jones

I can certainly give my hon. Friend the assurance for which he asked in the first part of his question

As to the second part, there is no question, for the time being at any rate, of red or coloured petrol but, of course, the situation will be kept under review.

Mr. Wade

Can the right hon. Gentleman say what steps have been taken to define the term "essential purposes", so that the general public may know what is covered by that expression?

Mr. Jones

The hon. Member had better address a Question to me after having studied the full details of the scheme which are now available in the Vote Office.

Sir R. Grimston

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that this announcement shows the extent to which our economy could be controlled by the whim of a Nasser in unfettered control of the Canal?

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members should not demand an answer where there is an inference that any hon. Member can draw or not.

Mr. T. Williams

Can the Minister say whether, before deciding upon the reduction of diesel oil for agricultural purposes, the Minister of Agriculture was consulted? If so, is he satisfied that it would not interfere materially with winter operations on the farms?

Mr. Jones

The answer is "Yes" to both questions.

Mr. H. Fraser

As the flow of oil is vital to this country, would not my right hon. Friend agree that if needs be, and if dollars be the shortage, he should consider a reduction of tobacco purchases by this country in America?

Mr. Jones

I must respect my Departmental confines. That is a question which must be addressed to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Ernest Davies

Is it not ridiculous to reduce the allowance to public transport by 10 per cent. in view of the fact that there will be a far greater demand on public transport as a result of rationing?

Mr. Jones

As I said in my statement, the reduction, or "cut," which is the word that we have accepted, for public transport will vary widely as between different forms of usage. For public bus services the cut will be relatively light, but for coach services the cut, of course, will be a heavier one. The 10 per cent. is an average for all purposes.

Mr. Patrick Maitland

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that these measures also illustrate the vital urgency of clearing the Canal?

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order, order. Again, this is an inference, which one can draw or not as one pleases.

Mr. Callaghan

May we not have an answer from the right hon. Gentleman to this very important question? Will he not convey to his Cabinet colleagues that the quickest way to get the Canal open is to bring the British and French troops out of Egypt?

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is four o'clock. We are to have an early debate on this matter.