HC Deb 01 February 1957 vol 563 cc1414-24

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

4.10 p.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

When putting this subject down for an Adjournment debate I was in some difficulty in deciding to which Ministry it should be addressed. The Ministry of Power and the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation are concerned with the allocation and distribution of petrol, and the Board of Trade with the effects on the economy of the country. I am happy to have a reply from my hon. and learned Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power, but I hope that he has consulted the other Ministries so that we may have a comprehensive and authoritative reply.

I should like to establish immediately that I am fully seized of the need for imposing strict economy in the use of petrol in our present circumstances. I assure my hon. and learned Friend that I shall treat the matter in a restrained and responsible manner. That, of course, will in no way lessen the strength of the case or minimise the need for prompt and effective action by the Government.

I am on common ground with my hon. and learned Friend in urging the need for strict economy, but I am sure he will agree that there is no sense in imposing restrictions so rigid as to cause serious economic repercussions which could be easily avoided with a little thought, organisation and flexibility of administration. I have assumed—I am sure I am right in my assumption—that it is the desire and indeed the intention of the Government that the country shall be as little disturbed as possible as a result of the present emergency. But unless there are rapid and effective adjustments in some directions in the amount of supplementary petrol allocated, there will certainly be a very damaging disturbance to both home and overseas trade in the near future.

I believe and hope that my hon. and learned Friend will be able to give the necessary assurances this afternoon. Hon. Members, including myself, have made the strongest possible representations about the position of commercial travellers. I know that the Commercial Travellers Association, wholesale organisations and representative bodies of the wholesale manufacturers have emphasised their concern at the grave effect which the penal cuts to commercial travellers will have on trade and economy generally.

I can best illustrate the gravity of the problem by indicating the hardship on firms in the wholesale textile trade. Their problem will apply to a wide range of firms in a great number of trades, everywhere, in fact, where there is a selling link between the wholesaler and retailer. If the flow of goods along that channel is in any way artificially slowed down, there will inevitably come a time—it is not far ahead unless some action is taken—when there will be a drastic falling off in sales, and all the consequences to production and employment which will follow. That position has not yet reached an acute stage, because the orders for goods already in the shops were placed before petrol rationing was introduced and indeed before the emergency arose.

Those goods will soon begin to be cleared from the shops, and unless it is possible for representatives to call on those shops to take repeat orders and assess the pattern of the requirements of the shops for the next season, the part-time employment already causing considerable concern in a great number of factories will rapidly develop into full-time unemployment in a great many cases and for a great many people. I assure my hon. and learned Friend that it is not a question that, whether or not the travellers call upon their customers, the pattern of purchase will continue. I know that that view is held in some quarters, but it is not true and will not stand examination.

In present circumstances, there is a strong tendency for retailers to run their stocks right down before ordering and then to buy only from hand to mouth. It is impossible for wholesalers to trade on that basis. My hon. and learned Friend will realise that wholesalers and manufacturers must be able to assess in a reliable manner the requirements of the retailers and the general pattern of trade well ahead of the time when the goods will appear in the shops.

Wholesalers must be in a position to place their orders with manufacturers about a year before the goods will appear in the retail shops. Certainly, the time required is little less than that. This, too, is the general requirement for overseas markets, and the long production runs assured by the wholesalers are the manufacturers' prerequisite to a successful export trade.

The grouping of wholesale and overseas orders provides the background that enables manufacturers to meet all the requirements of overseas buyers—special requirements of design, styling, quality, price, and especially delivery. Much of the necessary information for the successful carrying out of this operation is available only through the work of the commercial travellers in the contacts which they make throughout the country.

As with retailers there is a slowing down in purchases and a scaling down of orders, so there is with wholesalers. The slowing down of the channels of distribution by restricting the movement of travellers will inevitably result in wholesale firms drastically cutting the size of their orders and delaying the placing of those orders until the last possible moment, thus disrupting the whole pattern of manufacture, with all its unfortunate consequences on our export as well as our home trade.

It may be held that travellers could easily switch from car to rail travel. That view is held, but it just is not correct. People who hold it have no knowledge of the facts. Goods have to be supplied not only to the large concerns in the large towns but to the vast number of small shops in the little villages and hamlets.

Even for those who work in the large towns the proposal is untenable. Most travellers carry large ranges of samples which frequently are heavy and bulky. After arrival at the station they still have the problem of taking those goods around to the customers. In the old days there were "barrow men" at almost every station in the country. They conveyed the travellers' samples on their barrows to the various shops. Those men no longer exist, and neither do the large stockrooms from which travellers could show their samples and to which their customers would come to see them.

The advent of the motor car has changed all that. I assure my hon. and learned Friend that all that organisation cannot be conjured up again at a moment's notice to meet a temporary emergency; but somehow those men must be kept on the road, doing their vital job. In my submission that can be assured only if they are given the petrol essential to their needs.

Perhaps my hon. and learned Friend will realise the importance that firms attach to their selling staffs if I bring to his notice the fact that the cost of commercial travellers is by far the biggest single cost in trading that these people have to meet. I assure him that if that cost could be cut down in any way these well-run wholesale firms would certainly cut it by reducing or entirely abolishing their staffs of travellers. They would certainly not undertake the enormous expenditure involved in running their selling staffs unless it was absolutely necessary.

When petrol rationing was introduced the then Minister of Fuel and Power stated that it was the intention of the Government to cut down overall petrol consumption by 25 per cent. The category of users to which I have referred has in fact been cut by 75 per cent. and, in some instances, more. My investigations show that firms have received a block basic allowance, a supplementary allowance, and in some cases an addition supplementary allowance. Basic and supplementary allowances together allow no more than 400 miles of motoring per month compared with normal requirements of 1,600 to 2,000 miles per month. The firms that have got an allowance for 400 miles are lucky. Other firms have been refused any supplementary allowance whatever, despite their further appeals.

I can give my hon. Friend particulars of a wholesale firm in Glasgow whose travellers cover the whole of Scotland, including the remote Highland villages. The firm has 80 cars and receives a total allocation of 3,651 gallons for four months. It normally uses between 19,000 and 20,000 gallons. There is a firm in Manchester whose travellers cover Westmorland, Cumberland, Lancashire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the whole of North Wales. It has three vans and one Hillman Huskey. It receives 352 gallons and requires 1,330 gallons for the four months. Its application for supplementary petrol was refused.

Again, there is a large London wholesale firm whose travellers cover the whole of the British Isles. Each traveller normally does a mileage of 1,600 miles per month, but has received petrol for 400 miles. In the last day or two there has been an indication that the Government are trying to alleviate the hardship, but they must give a more precise indication. It is not enough to say that the regional officers are to be given more licence in dealing with supplementary allowances. It is essential that they be given instructions that will avoid anomalies and wide variations in the treatment of claims.

The announcement indicating some relaxation requires further explanation. We are told that self-employed travellers are to receive special treatment. They will receive larger allowances than other travellers. Has my hon. and learned Friend really examined that suggestion? The position will arise in which three firms selling precisely the same goods in almost identical circumstances may receive entirely different treatment from the same regional officer. One firm employing men on commission only will apparently get far more petrol than the second firm, which employs one man on commission only. That traveller will be treated entirely differently from the second traveller who may be on salary and commission. The third firm, whose travellers are employed entirely on salary and commission will get less than the three travellers employed by the other firm.

That is entirely wrong. They are doing fundamentally the same job, although the terms of employment of one man may differ from those of another. I suggest that my hon. Friend looks at the possibility immediately of grouping these allowances to travellers, so that all men doing that work are assured of sufficient petrol to carry out their duty. I assure my hon. Friend that that is essential to the economic welfare of the country.

Briefly, I would ask my hon. Friend to look at another point, the question of making petrol available for the London offices of overseas buyers. There are in this country, and particularly in London, a number of overseas buying businesses. Their job is solely to purchase goods from this country for overseas markets. They act for overseas firms. They look after the buyers from overseas when they visit this country.

We are told that arrangements are being made for visitors to the country to have as much petrol as they reasonably require. It is necessary that the buyers, who apparently can have petrol, shall be able to put it into the cars that are maintained in the London offices for the sole purpose of getting them around quickly to do their job of buying when they are here.

I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will be able to give a satisfactory reply to the important points which I have raised.

4.25 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

There is one other section of the community which is most grievously and adversely affected by the present system of petrol distribution. I allude to variety artistes. I have had considerable correspondence with the Ministry on the plight in which many variety artistes find themselves.

It is absolutely essential that they should have the use of cars to enable them to get from one engagement to another. Normally, an engagement finishes late on a Saturday night and they have to be in a distant place first thing on Monday morning. If they are artistes using equipment they have to take that equipment with them. In a number of cases to which I have drawn the attention of the Department variety artistes are prevented from entering into contacts because they do not know whether they will physically be able to get from one place to another.

The Department has said that in cases where loss of livelihood is directly threatened some concession can be made. The Variety Artistes' Federation is quite prepared to vouch for any cases of this kind. It is a pity that its co-operation has not been so warmly welcomed by the Department as it might have been, because that might have overcome some of the difficulties. I hope that the variety artistes, who are not travelling for their own pleasure but to keep the provincial theatre going, will be given an opportunity of doing so and of earning their livelihood. I hope that the Minister will be able to make a much-needed concession to them.

4.27 p.m.

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

May I, first, deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton)? I can assure him that variety artistes are not excluded from our arrangements for dealing with cases in which loss of livelihood might be involved. The hon. Member did not ask that they should be treated as a special priority class; and, indeed, we could not consider such a proposition.

I must thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) for the reasonable way in which he has put forward an important case. It certainly is our desire not to disturb production, and especially not to disturb the export trade, any more than we can help as a result of petrol rationing. I realise that my hon. Friend speaks with intimate knowledge of the textile industry, which is an important part of our export trade. I trust that his fears are unfounded about a threatened fall in sales. We will do all we can, within the limitations necessarily imposed by the petrol shortage, to prevent those fears being realised.

My hon. Friend raised three points and I shall deal with the last one first. That was the question of overseas buyers. No doubt many overseas buyers come here without a car and with no intention of taking a new car back with them. The firms they visit no doubt prefer—if I may put it this way—to "do the honours" themselves rather than to compel buyers to go to the trouble of buying cars. That would be common courtesy as well as good business practice. To some extent a firm can be expected to provide for a visiting buyer out of its block allowance in the normal way, but we realise that there may be cases in which a firm has very little to spare from its block allowance and realises that a little extra to spend on the buyer would pay handsome dividends for the export trade.

There is nothing to prevent a firm making a case to the regional petroleum officer for some extra petrol for such occasions. The regional petroleum officer has discretion to deal with ad hoc claims of this kind and will consider them sympathetically, provided that extravagant claims are not advanced and real evidence of need is produced. We wish rationing to interfere as little as possible with the export trade, and we shall do all we can to help, but on the understanding that willingness to give occasional assistance is not misinterpreted as an invitation to all and sundry to invent a perpetual stream of overseas buyers as an excuse for swelling their allocations. I think that that is fair enough.

I should tell my hon. Friend that the import and export agencies have been in touch with our regional petroleum officer at Stanmore and also with the Board of Trade, and that their case is now being presented to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Board of Trade, by the American Chamber of Commerce, in London. We have not made any difficulties over this according to the advice which I have from our London regional director's office, which is now looking into the matter. On the contrary, we are giving all possible help, and, so far, we have no evidence of any visit having had to be cancelled because of lack of petrol. If further help is needed, we are ready to give it. There is no reason why occasional requirements of this kind should not be met.

I will next deal with the case of manufacturers' agents, and commercial travellers working in this country for factories in this country. On Wednesday a deputation from the United Commercial Travellers Association, the Manufacturers Agents' Association and others discussed these problems with officials at our Ministry, and in case my hon. Friend has not had brought to his notice the statement which was issued by the Ministry after that meeting, I should like to read him an extract from it: Regional petroleum officers had, however, discretion to grant extra block allowances in cases where production or turnover"— That really means "sales"— would otherwise suffer seriously, On the other hand, self-employed commercial travellers and manufacturers agents had no claim on any block allowance and, like other self-employed people, must therefore be assessed individually. Their petrol needs varied as widely as the type of goods they carried and the territory they covered and the Minister had decided that each case must be decided on its individual merits. Regional petroleum officers had, therefore been given wide discretion to grant more petrol to self-employed travellers who could show that they would otherwise face serious loss of livelihood. I am sure that, whether dealing with self-employed travellers or whether dealing with claims made by firms to increase their block allowances, regional petroleum officers, in exercising the discretion which I have mentioned, will pay attention to what my hon. Friend has said. We cannot possibly dictate to them how to deal with individual cases, because the circumstances of every case, even within the same trade, vary so considerably.

I wish, however, to remove one misunderstanding which has been current and which seems to exist also in my hon. Friend's mind. In principle, there is no difference in the arrangements which we have made for dealing with the employed and with the self-employed travellers and agents.

I now come to my hon. Friend's third point, which concerns those travellers who use small C-licence vehicles so that they can carry their samples and stock in trade with them while making their visits as travellers. I should point out that although this is the responsibility of the Ministry of Transport, we have, in the Ministry of Power, co-ordinated our arrangements with the Ministry of Transport, and there should not now be any dissimilarity of treatment between those travellers who use C-licence vehicles for carrying their goods with them and those who merely use private cars. In many cases, the vehicles are very similar; they are of about the same weight, and nearly all use petrol, and not diesel oil.

I am asked to say that the regional transport commissioners are aware of the difficulties to which my hon. Friend refers, and will also deal sympathetically with the cases coming before them. I should mention that on 8th January, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport asked his regional transport commissioners to give particular attention to those cases where people's livelihoods are involved. I have no doubt that those cases where production, sales or turnover would suffer, come well within the spirit of my right hon. Friend's direction.

As this is the first opportunity that I have had since the House reassembled after the Christmas Recess of speaking on petrol rationing, may I just add this, and hope that it will not be considered irrelevant? Regional petroleum offices do not drop suddenly from the heavens. We had to recruit mostly untrained staff and build up the organisation of the regional petroleum offices very quickly. They had a stupendous task to perform, but they have mostly got over their initial difficulties and I hope that, with further co-operation from the public, they will give increasing satisfaction, and will now go from strength to strength.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me this opportunity of clearing up these points, and I hope that I have been able, to some extent at any rate, to arrest his fears.

Mr. Lipton

Will the Parliamentary Secretary say how long regional petroleum offices are taking to deal with the applications made to them? I have cases of applicants who have waited five or six weeks and have not yet received an answer.

Mr. Renton

To give anything like a precise or statistical answer to that question, very considerable inquiries would have to be made, and I would have to have considerable notice. All I can say is that, several weeks ago, I visited one of these petroleum offices. It had received 85,000 applications for supplementary allowances since such applications were invited, and within, I think, three weeks, it had dealt with nearly 60,000 of them, which was not too bad going with a staff which, as I say, was to a great extent untrained when the operation started.

If I may say so, in spite of expected difficulties which had arisen—difficulties not always caused by the regional petroleum officers themselves, but very frequently caused by the applicants—such as addresses not being given—they were tackling their job in a calm and collected way, and there is clear evidence that the public is gaining increasing confidence in their work.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Five o'clock.