HC Deb 23 November 1965 vol 721 cc227-30
17. Mr. Murray

asked the Minister of Power if he is satisfied about the security of electricity supply nationally during the next six months; and if he will make a statement.

20. Mr. Gresham Cooke

asked the Minister of Power what preparations the Central Electricity Generating Board are making to deal with the cold spell forecast by the long-distance weather forecast service for the first half of December.

21. Mr. Channon

asked the Minister of Power what steps he is taking to maintain gas and electricity services at all times this winter and to avoid power cuts during cold spells.

27. Mr. Frederic Harris

asked the Minister of Power what safeguarding action he proposes to take to avoid inconvenience to the public arising from electricity power breakdowns this winter.

33. Miss Quennell

asked the Minister of Power whether he will issue a general direction, in the public interest, to the electricity boards and the gas boards to complete their winter arrangements by 1st November in future years.

34. Mr. Driberg

asked the Minister of Power what steps he is taking to avert further public inconvenience and hardship of the kind suffered during the recent cold weather; why the winter preparations of the electricity and gas boards were not complete by mid-November; and if he will make a statement.

41. Sir R. Russell

asked the Minister of Power if he will give general directions to the gas and electricity boards to complete the annual overhaul of their plants earlier than mid-November.

Mr. Frederick Lee

The Government have announced that a winter emergency committee covering the fuel, power and transport industries is being set up to deal with any emergency that arises and, so far as possible, to take action in advance of any strain that may develop. The industries are doing everything possible to bring their plant to a high state of readiness and to bring new plant into service.

As far as future winters are concerned, the industries have been asked to plan their withdrawal of plant for annual overhaul so that their full capacity is available by the end of October each year.

Mr. Murray

While thanking my right hon. Friend for that reply, may I ask him whether he will ensure that enough publicity is given to these facts, and will he point out that this has been due to a general lack of planning by the previous Administration?

Mr. Lee

I have pointed out the shortage that we have to meet this year. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Board is doing a first-class job of work in keeping in commission plant that otherwise would have gone out of commission—and, maybe, at times overstraining other plant in order to ensure that it cuts down the gaps to a minimum. That approach will continue.

Mr. Channon

As these vital industries, gas and electricity, are at present unable in moments of crisis to meet the demands, can the Minister give the House the absolute assurance that there will be no cut in the vital investment programme that these industries are about to undertake?

Mr. Lee

We have no intention of cutting any investment programme.

Mr. Driberg

Would my right hon. Friend be good enough to answer the second part of Question No. 34, which, I think, was not answered in his original reply? Also, does he recall that, many months ago, a number of shop stewards at Beckton Works issued a detailed warning of the likelihood of a gas shortage this winter because of the loss of skilled manpower at those works and the abolition of reliable coal-burning plant?

Mr. Lee

I have mentioned that there is now a shortage of plant. This does have its effect on the stage at which the boards can begin to make their plant ready for the winter. In other words, they have to keep longer in commission during the summer period plant that they would otherwise be renovating against the winter period—[Interruption.] If hon. Members opposite want me to begin talking about private enterprise, I will do so. It is because private enterprise let the boards down that they now have to overwork the plant they have, and that does result in the fact that their winter programme is not ready as early as it otherwise would be.

Miss Quennell

Does the Minister realise that his Answer to the first group of Questions is rather unsatisfactory? Can he indicate whether the emergency committee to which he refers will be a permannt body in order that plans can be conf dently completed by 1st November in future years?

Mr. Lee

It is intended that the committee shall function during the course of this winter. I have intimated the real cause of the problem. As far as that goes, the Generating Board, the Gas Council and the boards will keep in the closest possible communication with their suppliers to ensure that they get the best delivery possible.

Mr. Richard

In order to keep this matter in perspective, can my right hon. Friend tell us how much it would cost in terms of national resources to obviate all possible power difficulties in a period of prolonged bad weather? How much, in money, would have to be spent in order to give the sort of assurance asked for by hon. Members opposite?

Mr. Lee

I mentioned, I think, that the Board's plan was to have a margin this year of 14 per cent., rising by 1969–1970 to 17 per cent. This should give the kind of margin to which my hon. Friend refers, but because of the things I have pointed out—lack of supplies, and so on —that margin is now down to 7.4 per cent. Obviously, on that basis, if the weather conditions at any one point become acute, that 7.4 per cent. will not meet the position.

Mr. Peyton

In order to get this matter quite straight, does the right hon. Gentleman recall that the plans on which he is relying now were made by the previous Administration? [HON. MEMBERS: "And the shortages"] In reply to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), I was glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman's statement that there will be no cuts in electricity or gas investment, but has he at any time contemplated the wisdom of an increase and is he now advising that?

Mr. Lee

That is a very wide question of which I should need notice. The hon. Member has been very fair in these matters. In our debates some time ago he said that it was easy to ask that supplies should be sufficient for an exceptional winter, but to do that we must accept that we would be faced with the cost. Because of that it is not possible this year to make these 100 per cent. secure.

Miss Quennell

Owing to the very confused nature of the reply to my Question, I beg to give notice that I shall raise the matter again at the earliest possible moment.