HC Deb 20 February 1957 vol 565 cc434-40
The Paymaster-General (Mr. Reginald Maudling)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement on the oil situation.

The measures taken to deal with the severe reduction in petrol and oil supplies have led to an improvement compared with the position in the first weeks of the emergency. It is hoped that this improvement will continue, but this depends upon the restoration of the normal channels of supply. Meanwhile, I would like to express on behalf of the Government our appreciation of the efforts made by the United States to help Europe during the present emergency.

The Government have again reviewed the restrictions now in force, with the following results. It remains the Govern- ment's intention to remove petrol rationing as soon as practicable, but this depends on the assurance of an adequate and regular flow of supplies and the possession of a working stock sufficient to ensure proper distribution. The Government think it prudent to proceed on the assumption that a further rationing period will be necessary and to make arrangements accordingly—although these preparations and the issue of new coupons will not prevent an earlier end to rationing should this prove possible. Although a final decision will not be taken until nearer the time, I can say now that we should at least be able to maintain the ration at its present level.

The Government must continue to conserve stocks against the end of rationing, but we appreciate that car owners would like to use their cars to a greater extent at Easter. As the holiday falls just after the end of the current rationing period, arrangements will be made for any coupons unused in the current period to be valid up to the end of April in addition to the coupons for the new period. This will also apply to coupons held by operators of goods and public service vehicles.

Supplies of fuel oil have improved and the review indicates that restrictions can be limited to the present level throughout April. The restrictions on gas/diesel oil can now be lightened. As from 1st April next the cuts will be reduced to 10 per cent. in the case of industry and 25 per cent. for non-industrial central heating. The restriction of 10 per cent. on agricultural and fishing supplies will be abolished from the same date. Despite these changes the average saving on gas diesel will still be of the order of 15 per cent.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation is also making preparations for a further rationing period from 8th April. Details will be made public tomorrow, but he has asked me to say that allowance will be made for seasonal changes in normal consumption, particularly in the case of coaches whose allocation will be increased to 75 per cent. of their normal consumption for the period.

Mr. Robens

This is a long statement, and we shall want to look at it and, perhaps, ask questions later of the Minister. Meanwhile, I should like to ask one or two questions.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the improvement depended upon the restoration of the normal channels of supply. Is he now able to tell the House and the country just what estimation the Government have made as to when tankers will begin to come through the Suez Canal? Will he tell us when, if the Canal is cleared within a comparatively short time, negotiations will begin about British tankers going through the Canal, or whether arrangements have already been made so that as soon as the Canal is cleared British tankers can go through it without any difficulty?

We should also like to know the position about American supplies. The general information is that there is available in the United States sufficient oil, if it is permitted to be produced in Texas. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could tell us what effect the talks that have recently been held with the Americans have had in getting increased production from the Texas oilfields which would enable Europe to move out of petrol rationing very quickly?

While we very much welcome the decision to enable coupons unused at the end of the rationing period to be used over Easter, is he not able to say something to the general public about petrol allocations for the summer? It is at this time of year that the public are making preparations for their holidays. Coach proprietors and those responsible for carrying the public have also their arrangements to make. Bookings, which affect not only the motor coach people but also hotels and seaside resorts, have to be made well in advance. Therefore, it will not do to leave it too late to make an announcement about the allocation of supplies for the summer holiday period. When will the right hon. Gentleman be able to tell us about those things?

Mr. Maudling

The improvements to which I have referred are not based on any assumptions about the restoration of normal supplies through the Canal, or through the Iraq pipeline. I think that it would be quite wrong, at this stage, to make a firm prediction about what will happen, and the exact date at which it will happen, with regard to supplies from that source. The important thing in any rationing scheme is not to hold out prospects which one cannot be absolutely certain of maintaining in practice. So tar as the Texas supply is concerned, I think that the recent announcement underlines once again that a very great deal of help is being given by our friends in America to meet the difficulties of Europe.

Sir I. Fraser

Would my right hon. Friend clarify his remark about allocations for coaches? I understood him to say that they were to get 75 per cent. Is that 75 per cent. of what they used last year, or 75 per cent. of their present ration? Would he bear in mind that the whole holiday and seaside business depends very much upon generous allocations for coaches?

Mr. Maudling

I am very glad to make that point clear, because it is very important. The 75 per cent. is 75 per cent. of their normal consumption in those particular months.

Mr. Ernest Davies

While I am sure that the increase of 75 per cent. in holiday coach allocations is welcomed, may I ask the Minister to give an undertaking that the essential needs of public service transport will not be subordinated to the needs of holiday coach traffic? The public service vehicle operators have done a wonderful job during this difficult period. Would he not consider restoring the 10 per cent. cut which they have suffered?

Mr. Maudling

I understand that, on the whole, the public service vehicle operators are receiving 95 per cent. of their normal allocation. They are making excellent efforts and, I feel, are meeting the requirements of their customers very well.

Mr. Nabarro

The latter part of my right hon. Friend's statement responded to my Question No. 9 on the Order Paper. Would he confirm that the increased allocation of motor fuel for these coaches, in conjunction with the additional railway services to be run by the British Transport Commission, will, in total, be adequate to move the many millions of industrial workers, notably those from the Midlands, to seaside and other resorts for their annual holidays?

Mr. Maudling

I hope that that will be so.

Mr. Woodburn

Will the Minister consider making a special allocation of petrol in those parts of the country where there is no rail transport, so that hotels in the Highlands and outlying areas may be able to book their visitors in the secure knowledge that there will be petrol to transport the visitors from the nearest railhead?

Mr. Maudling

This is a very difficult problem, particularly in the Highlands, of which my noble Friend is well aware. At the moment, it is difficult to see how we can find any satisfactory solution to the problem other than by the ending of rationing, which remains our primary objective.

Mr. John MacLeod

Is not my right hon. Friend aware that a day or two ago a plan was sent to him to deal with this problem by way of a form of travellers' cheques, and that that plan could easily work? The effect of rationing is very serious in the north-west Highlands. There they would welcome an increase in allocations for coaches, but there are many roads along which coaches cannot go at all, and hotels and other places count very largely on motorists.

Mr. Maudling

My noble Friend is examining that scheme, and will be very glad to examine any other suggestion, but I must warn the House that it is very difficult to provide for these particular problems otherwise than by abandoning rationing altogether.

Mr. Grimond

Is it only the restrictions on diesel oil for fishing and agriculture that have been removed, or is it all restrictions? When the right hon. Gentleman is considering the Highlands and Islands, will he bear in mind that, apart from the tourist traffic, there are many districts in which there is virtually no public transport at all, and in which employment of every kind depends on oil or petrol? Can he be as generous as possible to those places?

Mr. Maudling

So far as the Highlands and Islands are concerned, the regional petroleum officers are empowered to give special allocations to avoid hardship or special disturbance to production.

As to gas diesel oil, the only restrictions completely abolished are those on agricultural and fishing supplies, but the cuts in industrial consumption and non-industrial central heating have both been reduced in scope.

Sir I. Orr-Ewing

While welcoming the fact that there is now some hope of coach operators getting a greater allowance of fuel, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he will remember that nothing could be more deplorable than that those living in rural areas should see coach-loads of holiday-makers roaring through their districts when they themselves have not any transport? Is he aware that, in spite of the fact that a 95 per cent. allowance was made to public service vehicle operators, it is the rural areas, with their longer runs, which have suffered most?

Mr. Maudling

I quite appreciate the difficulties of the rural areas, but I think that some of them might be sorry if they did not see the coaches roaring into their areas.

Mr. Hale

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what proposals he has had from the petrol distributors to limit the increase granted to them on account of the shortage, and what statement he intends to make to the House about the very heavy tax which he announced was to be put on purely as a rationing measure, and which now appears wholly unnecessary?

Mr. Maudling

I do not quite understand the point of the hon. Member's question. Rationing, as I have explained, is still continuing.

Mr. Osborne

Does my right hon. Friend's statement mean that the organisers of agricultural shows and gymkhanas—who have to make their preparations months ahead and require petrol for the support of such events—can go on with their schemes with confidence?

Mr. Maudling

I think that we have already announced that applications from the organisers of those events will be treated on their merits

Mr. Lee

Does the Minister agree that one of the vital things in this situation is the supply of fuel oil to industry? Is he now able to say that supply is, in fact, catching up with demand and, therefore, our stocks are not being reduced? Can he, further, say whether the good news from America means that we are to get fuel oil from America as distinct from petrol?

Mr. Maudling

The important thing is that we can maintain present fuel oil supplies and that we will not have to impose further restrictions during March and April; but it will be very important to build up fuel oil stocks between now and next winter. That will take a lot of doing.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

Is my right hon. Friend aware that what appears from his statement is not so much that there is a shortage of oil in this country but a passionate desire on the part of civil servants to maintain a pernickety rationing scheme? Will he, as soon as possible, abolish the whole rationing system and allow the transient effects of this crisis to be borne upon the price structure?

Mr. Maudling

If my noble Friend believes that either Ministers or civil servants enjoy rationing, he ought to think again.

Mr. Hayman

May I ask the Minister to reconsider the question of holding over coupons from the present rationing period beyond 30th April, because so much of the holiday traffic and other business in the south-west of England, particularly Cornwall, depends upon people coming in in their own cars?

Mr. Maudling

That is a very interesting point. The trouble is that, as the future supply situation is still rather uncertain, it is very difficult for my noble Friend to allow a bulk of unspent coupons to be carried on for a long period. He thought that to allow them to be carried on to the end of April, over Easter, was about as much as it was safe to do.