HC Deb 06 February 1957 vol 564 cc570-80

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

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Nicolson (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

I wish to raise the question of petrol rationing in respect of commercial vehicles and, in particular, the position of commercial travellers. To begin with, I should like to pay a well-deserved tribute to the Ministry of Transport and, indirectly, to the Ministry of Power for the way in which they have got over the early difficulties of petrol rationing.

The cries of "Chaos" which were heard during the opening days have now faded into almost universal praise of the way in which this difficult operation was carried out—almost universal, because there are still a few anomalies and grievances. I have asked for this Adjournment debate in order that I may call attention to them. In doing so, I should not like it to be thought that there was any general complaint in the road haulage industry about the method of operation of the rationing system.

In the early days, before we got over the hump of incoming applications for supplementary fuel, there were, naturally, many hard cases, but everybody has co-operated—the road hauliers themselves, Ministry officials and also the public, who have seen that they had their part to play in helping us over the difficult situation caused by the lack of fuel.

There is one category of persons which is not quite so happy—the commercial traveller. I know that on Friday attention was called to his plight by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden), to whom the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power replied on the Adjournment. I return to this subject, although I have other topics to touch upon, because it also affects the Ministry of Transport in respect of C licensees, among whom are to be found so many commercial travellers.

As my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport knows, the commercial traveller is in a very special position. The car is a tool of his trade. If he is deprived of it he is unable to earn his livelihood. His job is based upon the car. He is located, geographically, in the position which is perhaps most inconvenient for access by rail but most convenient for access by car. He cannot change overnight or even in a year his habits of travel and work. He is bound to his car. He cannot carry heavy samples about with him in public transport nor, when he arrives at his destination, perhaps some large and partly unfamiliar town, can he hump his bags around the streets. He must go by car if he is to fulfil the essential task which he has in the retail distribution of goods.

He does not feel that he has had the same fair deal from either of the two Ministries as have all others who rely very largely upon petrol. He believes that he has been unfairly cut to an average of 50 per cent., and in many cases much more, of his normal fuel consumption, and without a more generous allotment, which I know has been promised, but which at least in some cases has not yet been given, he feels that his standard of living will quickly and disastrously decline.

I should like to put to my hon. Friend that there seems to be some unfairness between the procedure adopted by the Ministry of Transport and the procedure adopted by the Ministry of Power in allotting supplementary petrol rations to commercial travellers. My hon. Friend's method is infinitely the more generous, and the last thing I should like to see is the Ministry of Power's system of allocation to these travellers become the universal system. On the contrary.

I should like my hon. Friend, if he has not already done so, to inaugurate discussions with the other Ministry to see whether the rationing for all commercial travellers could not be brought up to the scales which he himself already allows as a minimum. Having established that minimum, could he not then consider how far he could meet the claim of the organisation which speaks in the name of the commercial travellers, for two gallons a working day, which would amount to about 1,000 miles per month? That is a scale which is by no means up to normal; indeed, the probability is that a traveller will do almost one-third as much again in normal working times.

I pass from the problem of the commercial travellers to the more general question of the C licensees. Is it a fact that my hon. Friend's officers have been instructed to take into account the danger to the continuity of a small business in allotting the supplementary fuel ration? By that I mean, does he consider solely the desirability of that particular trade in terms of national welfare, or does he also take into account the individual human problem of the man, probably a small man with a single lorry who, without the fuel to make it go will very soon find himself in a desperate position?

In my talks with those affected by the scheme, I have found that they complain very frequently of the diversity, or the lack of uniformity, in the allocation system as between different areas. It seams that some regional transport commissioners are more generous than others, and while those who do attract the larger supply naturally have no complaints, those who happen to live in an area which is patronised by a less generous commissioner and who have conversations with friends from other areas, naturally feel a sense of grievance.

Is it the case that instructions are sent out from the Ministry of Transport to the regional commissioners laying down in broad terms, but terms which will result in a fairly equitable distribution of the available fuel all over the country, conditions which will satisfy those who can claim that they are being unfairly treated as compared with their colleagues elsewhere? If not, could it not be done?

Thirdly, a complaint which I have heard about the existing system is that the railways have been using more liquid fuel than they need. Is it true, as I have heard, that since rationing became necessary, British Railways has inaugurated at least three new diesel trains: one between Euston and Glasgow, a second between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and a third between Newcastle and Carlisle? If this is not so, I should be glad if my hon. Friend would deny it, since obviously it causes a certain amount of distress among those who are very hard up for fuel if they feel that the railways have initiated new services which could so easily have been postponed until after this emergency.

Those are all the existing grievances that I have to present, but I should like to add one or two words about other problems which I think that it would be right to consider now; the problems that will arise if another rationing period is necessary. Obviously, my hon. Friend is not in a position tonight to say whether or not a further rationing period will be necessary, but the first point that I should like to put to him is an obvious one. Can as long notice as possible be given to the transport industry when it becomes clear beyond reasonable doubt that a new rationing period will be essential? Naturally, we all hope that it will not be necessary but, if and when it is decided that the four-month period is to be extended by another, will my hon. Friend bear in mind these points when making the allocation for the new period?

Will he remember, first, that there is always a great seasonal increase in transport activity on the roads in springtime? One of the reasons why we have been able to overcome the difficulties of the initial period fairly simply is that there is, in any year, a natural seasonal decline in transport on the roads at this time of year. This will not apply in the next period, and I would ask him, in making allocations of supplementary fuel, to base his allocations not on the demands made in the first place but on the reasonable demands for the new time of year.

Secondly, will he bear in mind the fact that, at the outset of the first rationing period, nearly every firm had been wise enough to fill up its storage tanks with fuel? Those tanks are now empty. They tided us over a difficult period around Christmas, but there will not be the same advantage at the beginning of the second four-month period. It would, I think, be unfair if the regional commissioners were to examine what a firm had had in the first place and base the second allocation only upon that figure, forgetting the fact that there was a large reserve which will no longer he available.

Would he bear in mind that many vehicles have been laid up. It would not be fair simply to ration firms upon the vehicles which they have upon the roads. It should surely be borne in mind that there are many vehicles which have been, quite properly and sensibly, taken off the roads but which, when put in mobile condition, form part of the general fleet of particular firms. Allowance should he made for that also.

Finally, I come to a rather technical point which has been put to me. I understand that it is the intention of the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Power that the coupons for petrol will not be valid in the succeeding period, if there has to be one. It has been suggested to me that that is a mistake and that there ought to be a period of overlap of at least a week or so during which the coupons for both periods are equally valid. The reason for that is that many lorries will be far away from their home bases at the time and firms may not be able to send out the new coupons in time for the lorry drivers to make use of them. It would be an absurd situation, and one which would not be desired by the Ministry, if lorries were to be found stranded in remote parts of the country, the drivers having coupons which were no longer valid.

Those are the points which I had in mind to make to my hon. Friend. I should like to end as I began, by congratulating him and his staff all over the country upon the great service which they have done in this difficult time to this great industry.

10.24 p.m.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Itchen)

I should like to add my congratulations to those offered by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson), and to reinforce the appeal he made especially for the commercial traveller. His case has been conceded by the Government, both the general case of the man employed by a large firm and the particular case of the self-employed commercial traveller. The grievance still remains that the amount of supplementary allowance they receive bears no real relation to the amounts they used prior to petrol rationing.

If the country is working on a 75 per cent. basis, then it ought to be possible for commercial travellers to get something like 75 per cent. of what they were getting before. Any move which the Minister can make towards that would, I think, be of real service to commercial travellers in general and especially to self-employed men.

10.25 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson) on his success in securing the Adjournment debate tonight to raise this very important subject of fuel rationing for commercial vehicles. Before answering my hon. Friend's various questions, I think I should give a brief outline of the general background to our policy.

The general intention of our policy is to save 25 per cent. of the petrol and diesel oil used by commercial vehicles. We have given to the regional transport commissioners in each region allocations which together will achieve that saving. We have made the allocations to the regional transport commissioners rather than deal with it ourselves because there are altogether some 1¼ million commercial vehicles and some 500,000 operators. It would clearly be impossible for us to deal with this very large number, spread all over the country, through a central organisation. We have, therefore, used a regional organisation to deal with the distribution. Indeed, we had one virtually ready-made.

The regional transport commissioners are also the traffic commissioners and the licensing authorities. Therefore, they combine an intimate knowledge of local conditions throughout their region with a knowledge of the circumstances of individual operators. At the same time, their work and training fits them to act in a semi-judicial capacity and, therefore, very well qualifies them for dealing with difficult individual cases.

The commissioners started by issuing approximately half a million basic rations based on the unladen weight of the commercial vehicles. Up to date, they have received applications altogether for 226,000 supplementary rations. Of these, they have refused 12,000, they have made an issue on account for 1,000, they have finally assessed 204,000 and are in course of dealing with the remaining 9,000. The rest of the operators, however—that is, more than 50 per cent.—are managing on their original basic ration. I make that point because it is often said that the original basic ration was far too small to be of any use to anybody. Quite evidently, in the event it is being enough for more than half the commercial operators. I think this is evidence that our Scheme had the right basis.

I come now to the principle of allocation. My right hon. Friend sent out a directive to the regional transport commissioners initially indicating what were the priority services which must be kept going at all costs. We set them out in a Press notice issued on 4th December. They cover such essential matters as food distribution, coal distribution, medical services, newspapers, and the like. Obviously, in many cases, those services require more than 75 per cent. of their normal use if they are to be kept going at the essential level, although all of them have accepted some cut and have been most co-operative.

It inevitably follows, therefore, as my right hon. Friend said at Question 'Time today, that if we are to achieve an average saving of 25 per cent., others who are not in the priority class will get less than 75 per cent. and some of them quite significantly less. I am certain that the House would agree that where we have to accept a cut, clearly it is the duty of the Government to maintain those services which are absolutely essential for the national life and then do the best it can to keep others going with what remains. That is what the commissioners have done. They have done it according to the freight and, of course, according to local conditions, according to the extent to which rail can replace road transport, and so on, and with their expert local knowledge they have been very well able to do it.

On the matter of personal hardship, to which my hon. Friend referred, the commissioners have been given discretion specifically by my right hon. Friend to help the small operator on two grounds —first of all, if his livelihood is in danger from the reduced allocation, and secondly —on the point made by my hon. Friend —the question of the continuity of his business. Thus in dealing with individual applications, the commissioners can take into account not only the priority needs of the country but also these special personal circumstances of the small man.

My hon. Friend mentioned the need for uniformity of standards between the different commissioners. We have done what we can to achieve it, and indeed they have too. My right hon. Friend had a conference of commissioners on 8th and 9th January to discuss the general administration of the scheme and to see what could be done to achieve a uniformity of standards. The commissioners agreed between themselves the broad lines on which their work should operate, but they found that it was quite impossible to define precisely what the standard should be for each class of haulier throughout the country because the conditions varied so much in different circumstances. They did, however, agree the broad lines,

In addition to that very valuable conference, we have a senior official from our Department travelling round from one region to another to make sure that each one is working roughly on the same lines, and my right hon. Friend and I have managed to make some visits. Last week my right hon. Friend visited Birmingham; I visited Manchester, and we are intending to visit one or two more regions. Certainly my impression from visiting Manchester, which is the next biggest region to London, was that the work was going extremely well, despite all the difficulties.

I should like here to pay a special tribute to the driving test examiners who have been turned on to this work, and who, after all, never expected to have to undertake it when they were originally engaged. They have turned to it with great willingness and they are working overtime and weekends in order to deal with the work. I am sure the House would wish me to put on record our thanks to them for the way in which they have helped us out. I am sure that they will be very glad indeed to hear my right hon. Friend say that we hope to resume tests on a limited scale in April.

I turn now to the question of commercial travellers with C licence vans and to the comments made by the hon. Member for Itchen (Dr. King). I am afraid that they cannot expect to average 75 per cent. of what they were using before. Inevitably they are not as a rule in a priority class, and therefore in terms of the national interest their demands do not rank high. They have rather to rely on what the commissioners can do for them to help them to maintain their livelihod and the continuity of their business. I think that our commissioners are meeting that need in a sympathetic and understanding way. Commercial travellers cannot expect to get 75 per cent. of what they were getting before, but I believe that they are getting enough to keep them going, although naturally with difficulty.

I assure my hon. Friend that there is no difference in principle between the administration in our Department and in the Ministry of Power. I am glad to record that when the meeting took place last week between the Department and the commercial travellers' associations the associations expressed general satisfaction at the way in which the administration on the Ministry of Transport side was working.

On the question of the conversion to diesel engines on the railways, some services have already been introduced and others have been planned, and they are generally so far committed that it would be impossible to stop them now. My right hon. Friend is at present reviewing with the Commission the programme for further conversions. It must be remembered, however, that the nation is short of coal as well as of oil, and one must see this matter in perspective. As I say, my right hon. Friend is now reviewing the situation with the Commission.

With regard to my hon. Friend's question about a second rationing period, as he rightly recognises, tonight I cannot possibly say—indeed, the Government are not ready to assess the various physical and political factors which will determine it—whether a second rationing period is necessary. However, I can give the assurance that the Government will make this assessment at the right time and will give hauliers the best notice that they can of whether or not a further scheme will be necessary.

We will certainly take into account the various points which my hon. Friend has mentioned. Seasonal variations, if we have to deal with them, will certainly be taken into account, particularly in the passenger transport business. We shall also take account of initial stocks. Most hauliers have most candidly told us what their stocks were, and it would be quite wrong if they were penalised for that. Allocations will not normally be reduced if vehicles have been laid up. On my hon. Friend's final point of whether first period coupons will be allowed to be carried over, no decision has been taken but we are considering that point.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this subject tonight. It gives me a chance to report to the House on how it is going. It has also been most valuable in having these various points drawn to the attention of the Government if we do have to have a further period. I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising these points in the interests of trade and industry generally. Particularly, I am sure that what he has said will be welcomed by his constituents, for I recognise that Bournemouth is a very important centre of communications in the South of England for both commerce and holidays. I am sure that his constituents will recognise that my hon. Friend, in calling attention to these matters, has shown his customary interest in their welfare.

My reply shows that the system of allocation for commercial vehicles is working well, but the last thing I wish to do is to leave an impression with the House that we feel complacent about it, for we certainly do not. We are doing our best to make it work, and we are succeeding. This is partly, I believe, through the hard work and skill of our officials, and particularly the regional transport commissioners and their staffs, but—I stress this—certainly not less, and perhaps more, it is due to the admirable co-operation that we have received and the adaptability of hundreds of thousands of operators in the country who have been determined to keep their businesses going despite the difficulties they encounter. I believe that, between the two, we have managed to work the system successfully to the benefit of all.

10.37 p.m.

Mr. W. A. Wilkins (Bristol, South)

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, I wonder whether I might mention one other point with which he has not dealt. He mentioned the priority classes and the services which have to be maintained, with which we all agree, but he did not refer to the small business men—I really mean small business men—who find themselves in very considerable difficulty.

Perhaps in the minute left I might explain it in this way. I know a man who manufactures fireplaces in a small way. His goods go throughout the southwest of England and South Wales as well. If he puts the goods on rail, he has, in order to comply with railway requirements, to crate every single item, no matter what it is, and the estimated additional cost of this is £5. If 100 of these crates are going out in a week, one can appreciate what an enormous expense it represents to the man. In addition, there are three lots of handling whereas the article is handled only once if it is put on the one lorry that he owns. Perhaps the Minister will consider that—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-one minutes to Eleven o'clock.