HC Deb 24 January 1963 vol 670 cc278-83
Mr. T. Fraser

(by Private Notice)asked the Minister of Power if he will make a statement about the present restrictions on the supply of towns' gas.

The Minister of Power (Mr. Richard Wood)

The position has improved in the areas that have been most affected. The supply in Wales has now been restored to factories, although not at full pressure. The South Western Gas Board has been able to reduce the hours of restricted supplies. Both these boards have been helped by the co-operation of the public, but economy by domestic consumers is still essential. I regret very much the inconvenience that has been caused.

In the South and Midlands, gas pressures are still reduced in most areas, but some improvement has been reported this morning. In northern England and in Scotland all demands are being met in full at normal pressures.

All the boards have produced remarkable outputs of gas. In many areas supplies have been maintained, day after day, at outputs one-fifth or more higher than the highest attained last year for a single day. As this continues, the strain on the workers increases and the risk of plant breakdown becomes greater. I would like to pay tribute to the great effort that has been made by everyone employed in the industry and by those in coking plants and oil refineries, which are supplying gas to the boards.

Mr. Fraser

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House to what extent the difficulties being encountered now in the gas and electricity industries are due to the restrictions on capital investment in these industries imposed by the Government on many occasions in the last five years? Is he aware that not only have many workers been out of jobs in recent times as a result of these restrictions but that a great deal of misery has been endured by ordinary people in the country?

Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that there is a growing demand that this whole question of investment in these public service industries should be inquired into, because it appears from decisions from time to time that every time the economy seems to be overfull is an occasion for a further cut-back in investment in the public service industries?

Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether he would not consider having the whole matter inquired into independently at an early date?

Mr. Wood

It is important to get this question of investment perfectly clear. Those who suggest, as the hon. Gentle- man is suggesting, that the gas and electricity boards must have capacity available to meet every demand at every time are suggesting the building of sizeable gasworks or power stations which would be completely unused for a very large part of the year. I do not believe that that is an investment policy which any Government could follow, and that is the reason why the Government have taken the decisions they have on investment at the levels they have taken them in the years past.

Sir G. Nabarro

Would my right hon. Friend not agree at once that the level of investment in the fuel and power industries is now 3½ times as great as it was ten years ago? Is it not a fact that the sums that have been invested this year are at a record level and all that is economically justified?

Mr. Wood

I think that I must remind my hon. Friend that the Question is about towns' gas, but what he says about the quantities of money invested in the power industries is perfectly correct. As my hon. Friend knows so well, investment has been increasing year by year for quite a long time.

Mr. C. Pannell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in 1947 hon. Members opposite were alleging that all our troubles were not due to lack of investment but due to the follies of the Government of the day? We are now in the year 1962 [Laughter.]. Will the right hon. Gentleman try to explain to the House why this shortage of fuel and the difficulties we are running into are not attributable to all the follies we have had to stand during the last ten years?

Mr. Wood

The hon. Member has made it perfectly clear by his question that he and his hon. Friends are at least a year out of date. In any event, I do not think that it is very profitable to make comparisons between 1947 and the present time. Anyone who paid any attention to these matters would consider, on reflection, that the two times are quite incomparable and that the difficulties being faced at present are of an entirely different nature from the ones we faced in 1947.

Mr. Shinwell

I notice that the right hon. Gentleman has omitted to blame the weather for the present crisis. What is the matter with him? Has he forgotten about it? Has the weather nothing to do with it? Can he explain why there is no comparison between the situation in 1947 and the situation now?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we have had fourteen years of capital investment, fourteen years of mechanisation, of rationalisation and reorganisation, and all the rest of it, and that there is an abundance of coal in the country at present whereas in 1947 there was an extreme shortage of coal and there was difficulty about transport in addition to the weather? Yet right hon. and hon. Members opposite, who ought to be ashamed of themselves, blamed the Government then.

Mr. Wood

I find it very difficult to relate the right hon. Gentleman's question to the matter in hand, which is about the supply of towns' gas, which, I hope I made clear, has not been affected by any shortage of coal at the gasworks.

Mr. Loughlin

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that some concern is being shown in the South-West as a result of a Press report that there was a possible danger to life from the absence of gas in the gaspipes there? Will the right hon. Gentleman allay the fears which some people in the South-West genuinely hold at present?

Mr. Wood

I am glad that the hon. Member has raised that point. The danger is reached if the pressure is allowed to go to a point where air might enter the main. That is exactly the reason why the South Western Gas Board took the action it did. That is the danger which it saw and is certain was prevented.

Mr. Grimond

Could the right hon. Gentleman clarify one or two points? When he says that the situation was quite different in 1947, does he say that the situation is much more difficult now than it was two years after the end of the biggest war in history? Secondly, can he say what production has been lost in the country through having to stop factories, or slow them down? Has he made any study of what has gone on in other countries of comparable climates? Do they suffer the same cuts or have much unused capacity? Thirdly, if it is desired that less gas should be used, should we not look at the advertising for gas and, indeed, for electricity?

Mr. Wood

I will try to answer the right hon. Gentleman's questions. I suggested that this year was not comparable with 1947. I do not think that anyone who tries to compare the two will think that the difficulties which we have been facing in the first three weeks of 1963 are comparable with those in the early months of 1947. There has been very little loss of production, because until yesterday I do not think that there was any cut of gas to factories and, as I have said, that out has now been restored.

As for European experience, one of the newspapers this morning had a very interesting account of the various restrictions and shortages being faced in a number of countries abroad. That makes perfectly clear that the difficulties which we are facing are not at all unique.

As for gas and electricity sales, I think that the right hon. Gentleman will have made a note that the effort in these two industries has been directed to try and promote the off-peak load.

Mr. T. Fraser

Reverting to what the right hon. Gentleman said a few minutes ago about rated capacity and his suggestion that it would be wrong for the Gas Council or the area boards to have capacity to meet the demand in conditions like those we have had in recent weeks, will he tell us whether that is really his view?

Is it the view of Her Majesty's Government that these public authorities should not have the capacity to meet demand when we have a few days or a few weeks of wintry weather? Does he realise that this will not be well received in the country? There is a widespread realisation that many countries have climates with greater extremes of summer and winter than we have, and there seems to be something wrong—[HON. MEMBERS:"Question."] I am trying to ask a question. I am asking whether the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are telling the people that, whenever we get a few cold days in January, we shall inevitably be short of gas.

Mr. Wood

I assure the hon. Gentleman, as I have assured him before, that to provide that capacity would be extremely expensive in capital and, what is more, the provision of adequate capacity to meet the heaviest loads in a winter of this kind would, when the decision had to be taken four or five years ago, have been quite unjustifiable. I am quite sure that the hon. Gentleman, among others, would not have agreed to the sum to be provided in order to achieve that capacity then.