HC Deb 29 July 1966 vol 732 cc2175-86

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

4.29 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

It has often been remarked as a matter of surprise in motoring circles and motor trade circles that British motorists do not seem to take kindly to having the windscreens of their cars wiped or their oil and water checked. Unlike the position in America, it is said that British motorists do not seem to have the time, that they rush off as soon as they have collected their change and the attendant has no time to wipe the windscreen or do anything, else.

Last autumn, I motored about 2,000 miles in America and in each service station I regularly had my windscreen wiped and my oil and water checked. I suddenly discovered the reason for this difference in practice between Britain and America. The difference lay in a simple device known as the latched automatic cut-off pump nozzle. This nozzle allows two things to a petrol pump. First, it automatically cuts off when the petrol tank of the motor car is filled or when the petrol has reached the tip of the nozzle. This is done by a little spring-loaded device which is part of it. That part of the device is now in use in some petrol stations in this country to prevent overfilling of the petrol tank.

Secondly, in this latched nozzle device in America, there is a latch on the handle of the nozzle which allows the nozzle of the pump to be latched and unattended while the tank is being filled. This is what is wanted over here. The attendant would not then have to stand, as he does here, whistling through his teeth and cursing the Government for having put up the price of petrol. He could leave the pump and either wipe the windscreen and check the oil and water or, if in a hurry, collect one's change. The attendant would be free to stick the nozzle into the tank and then do the same for other motor cars.

Therefore, one attendant at a petrol station could attend to two or three cars at once and push the nozzle in and collect his money from each car.

I was so struck by the importance of this little device for our overcrowded and busy island that on my return I wrote an article for the technical trade Press, advocating its immediate use in this country. I claimed that it would be a convenience for motorists, would save manpower and would increase productivity in garages. I also advocated that banks of petrol pumps should be put at right angles to the road and not parallel to it, so as to allow three or four cars to go through the gates at once, instead of having to wait for the car in front, as is so often the case in this country.

Also, sales of petrol would be helped if it was sold in units of £1 or 10s. to save time and the issue of change. Soon after this little article was published, I was told that the latched nozzle was not allowed by local authorities in this country—they, after all, are the controlling licensing authorities—because they followed a document called "The Model Code of Principles of Construction and Licensing Conditions for Petrol Filling Stations", issued by the Home Office.

That code did not mention the use of the automatic latched cut-off nozzle. I was told that representations had been made by the petrol companies to the Home Office for changing the model code to allow the latched nozzle. However, to keep the matter alive and register my interest in it, I asked some Questions about it and I think that it is illuminating to consider the answers.

On 27th January, I asked: … what progress is being made in revising the Model Conditions for petroleum spirit licences so as to allow automatic cut-off pump nozzles … The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas), answered: A revised version of the Model Code of Principles of Construction and Licensing Conditions far Petrol Filling Stations, which takes account of these devices, will shortly be submitted to the Standing Advisory Committee on Dangerous Substances for its consideration. The revised Code if approved, will then be circulated for the general guidance of the licensing authorities as soon as possible."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th January, 1966; Vol. 723, c. 106–7.] That was 27th January. I allowed the hon. Gentleman two months. On 7th March I asked another Question about what progress was being made by the Committee reviewing the recommendations made to the local authorities. On this occasion the hon. Gentleman told me, these will he submitted to the Standing Advisory Committee on Dangerous Substances for its consideration as soon as possible."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th March, 1966; Vol. 725. c. 1721.] That was before the General Election. Ministers were very enthusiastic and forward-looking at that time. However, after the General Election I asked another Question, on 19th May. I asked when the Standing Advisory Committee on Dangerous Substances would report to the Minister on the model code. The right hon. Lady the Minister of State, not so enthusiastic after the General Election, replied: The use of these devices is only one of many matters covered in the new draft code, and at this stage I cannot say how soon the Committee will be able to make recommendations about them."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th May, 1966; Vol. 728, c. 290.] I gave the Home Office another two months. On 27th July I asked the Secretary of State what progress was being made and when he expected the Committee to report. I was answered by the right hon. Lady, who said: The Standing Advisory Committee on Dangerous Substances has considered the draft of the revised Model Code of Principles of Con- struction and Licensing Conditions for Petroleum Storage, which includes a reference to these nozzles; and has arranged for a technical sub-committee to examine it in detail. The sub-committee, on which are representatives of government departments, the local authorities and the oil industry, will no doubt make such inquiries as it considers necessary. It is too early to say when the subcommittee will be able to report, but I recognise the need for speed in this matter."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th July, 1966; Vol. 732, c. 291–2.] I was one of the millions of people who listened during the General Elections of October, 1964, and March, 1966, to the promises made by the Prime Minister about swiftly ushering in a new dynamic, technological age. I was so enthralled and enthused by all this that I almost voted Socialist at those elections, But I am afraid that in this case the dynamic technological age has become bogged down in the technical sub-committee. I would not have had to keep the right hon. Lady here late on Friday afternoon, when I know that she wants to go to Yorkshire, if her Department had acted with the speed the Prime Minister promised us in October, 1964.

Now the Selective Employment Tax has made the matter all the more urgent. A garage recoups itself for the payment of its staff and its overheads by selling new cars and used cars and by means of repair charges and petrol sales. New car sales will drop through the restrictions on hire purchase, the price of petrol will be controlled, and repair charges are virtually controlled. So the only way a garage can find the money to pay the Selective Employment Tax is by trying to reduce staff. That is the shake-out that the Government want. A garage having perhaps six or eight pumps in two banks and two forecourt attendants to attend them will now have to try to obtain increasing productivity and the other things that the Government want. It may now want to have only one forecourt attendant instead of the two. The adoption of the automatic latched nozzle is the way to do, this. In happier times if we have these nozzles we can return again to having two attendants and thus have our windscreens wiped as well.

Why is there delay in revising the model code? Is it the usual over-cautious British attitude? It reminds me of the L.C.C. before the war when it was drawing up the regulations for its great concrete building, the Earls Court Exhibition Hall, and it required 137 fire exits to be put in the building when everybody knew that the building could never burn down.

Three things are said against the use of a latched nozzle in this sense. First of all, it is said that there is danger of the nozzle falling out of the tank and spilling petrol. There is inside it an impact device which trips the mechanism and stops the flow of petrol. It is then said that motorists might drive away with the nozzle of the pump still in the petrol tank of the car. However, here is a shearing device, a soft section, which shears off and cuts off the supply of petrol if that should happen. Then it is said that the speed at which the automatic pump fills a car's tank might result in blow-back and the spilling of petrol. Here again there is a device so that the speed of petrol flow can be set by the attendant before the nozzle is inserted in the car.

The British design for these latched nozzles has all these safety features. There is a German pump nozzle which has similar safety features and which is made under licence in this country. I understand that the Greater London Council is having tests conducted in America by an organisation called the Underwriters' Laboratory. That is good for the Council, but why this elaborate caution? Why cannot we revise the model code?

The Minister should bear in mind that these nozzles have been adopted in 20 countries, including America, Australia, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Greece. Surely the inquiries of the technical committee must now be complete enough to show that these nozzles should be introduced in this country. It is extraordinary to think that these latched nozzles have, in fact, been used in Britain for many years. Despite the local authorities and the Home Office, they have been used at American bases and Air Force stations and, because they are outside the jurisdiction of local authorities, they cannot stop them being used.

The model code must be amended and recommendations made to local authorities to follow the amended code. This should lead to more self service stations operated by coin or bank notes, as is done in Sweden and Germany. Local authorities which are nervous about such service stations may attach such condi- tions as they wish. A few local authorities require attendants to hover over the motorist while the motorist does the work. That is not only uneconomic but silly, because paraffin is already sold by self-service coin operated pumps at garages. That being so, why not petrol?

One company at Ewell in Surrey has persuaded the local authority to allow such a self-service station to be started. As a result, petrol at that garage is "3d. off" and there are eight pumps serving eight cars simultaneously. One attendant is available to top up oil and attend to other necessities. Nevertheless, the handle of the nozzle must be held when the petrol is being supplied.

At another petrol station, on the Exeter-Plymouth road, petrol is sold by the half crown or £ note placed into an electronic device. The motorist presses an amber light and a green light comes on to tell him when to start taking petrol. One advantage of the self-service is that one does not have to tip attendants. A self-service station at Bognor has been allowed to operate on condition that the attendant lives on the premises and keeps an eye on the pumps.

In these days when we are seeking higher productivity and speed and efficiency in transport, we should go further and allow self-service petrol stations to come into being. This is particularly important at night time, remembering, too, that petrol can be sold more cheaply, certainly at "3d. off".

However, the key to all this lies in the use of the latched nozzle. The Government should say today—I hope the Minister will say this—that, as a matter of urgency, on the ground of productivity and greater efficiency, in addition to the convenience of motorists, they will issue a revised model code at once to local authorities authorising the use of the latched nozzle. I hope that they will also, in the interests of productivity, urge the use of self-service stations and, in any event, encourage people to buy petrol by the £ or 10s. note instead of going to the trouble of requiring change.

By taking these three steps the Government will go a long way to achieving speed of service, efficiency, greater productivity and the convenience of the motorist. Is it not very tempting to the Government to kill four birds with one stone? I believe that the latched nozzle will be the greatest step forward for petrol stations since the introduction of the electric pump, and I hope that the right hon. Lady will tell us that she is in favour of it and will allow this great step forward in efficiency and productivity.

4.45 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Mice Bacon)

I know that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) has campaigned for some little time for the introduction of automatic petrol filling devices, and before raising the matter today he has asked many Questions on the subject. His interest in the motor trade is well known, and although I cannot hope to rival him in his knowledge of that trade I can assure him that I am broadly in sympathy with his aims. In particular, I am no less an enthusiast than he for the introduction of any change that might help to achieve more productivity.

I should, first, remind the House of the law relating to the storage of petroleum spirit. The basic law on the subject is contained in the Petroleum (Consolidation) Act, 1928. In simple terms, the Act says that petroleum spirit shall not be kept in any premises that do not have a petroleum spirit licence and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, petroleum spirit licences are issued by the local authorities, who are empowered to impose any conditions they think necessary.

In granting or withholding licences, local authorities are guided to a large extent, although it is not obligatory, by a model code issued by the Home Office in 1957. This code sets out the principles of construction, and licensing conditions for various premises, including petrol filling stations. It also deals in some detail with such matters as the construction of buildings and storage tanks, safety precautions and devices—including fire-fighting equipment—and requirements for petrol pumps.

The hon. Gentleman will realise from this that the code—and even the new code that we envisage—does not deal solely with petrol pumps but with a variety of other things, including the safety of the premises. But the code only provides general guidance; it is for the local authorities to take the final deci- sion in the particular circumstances of each case.

The Home Secretary is the Minister who considers appeals from persons who have been refused a petroleum spirit licence by a local authority or who consider that the conditions imposed in the grant of a licence are unfair. On appeal, the Home Secretary may grant a licence, with or without conditions, or he may modify the conditions attached by the local authority. I want to emphasise that the sole purpose of the licensing procedure is to ensure the safety of the public. We are not dealing with water, but with petrol, and although petrol is a common substance, it is dangerous. I do not think that anybody would dispute the need for safeguards for its storage and use.

I should like to deal, first, with the problem of the automatic latched petrol nozzle operated by petrol pump attendants and, secondly, with the wider question raised by the hon. Gentleman of self-service petrol stations. As he has said, the petrol pump attendant puts the automatic latched nozzle into the filling pipe of the vehicle, and then lifts the latch to allow the petrol to flow. At the same time, the latch, when lifted, is held in position by a stop, so that the attendant can leave the nozzle in the filling pipe of the vehicle and walk way.

The attendant can either attend to another customer or, as the hon. Member said, he can do some other service for the customer he is attending, such as wiping the windscreen. When the petrol tank is full, a sensing device at once releases the latch so that the flow of petrol is automatically cut off. All the attendant then needs to do when he returns is to remove the nozzle and collect payment against the amount metered on the pump.

As the hon. Member said, nozzles of this kind are in use in the United States and some European countries, but so far as I know they have not yet been licensed by any local authority for use in this country in the sense that a licensing authority has approved the absence of the attendant while the filling operation is going on. The present model code specifically recommends that no stop or catch should be provided on the nozzle attached to the delivery hose from a petrol pump which would enable the valve to be kept fully open and so eliminate manual control.

I admit that it is because of this recommendation that local authorities generally have felt unable to licence installations using automatic devices. The present position is that my Department has been consulted both by the oil industry and by local authorities about this problem. We have made it clear that while we are in no way opposed in principle to these devices we are concerned that if they are used they should be used with essential precautions.

For example, we think that the local authorities would want to be assured that any apparatus had in-built safeguards which would prevent a dangerous spillage of petrol should the nozzle accidentally fall or be knocked out of the filling pipe of a vehicle. It should also be proof against danger from a motorist driving off while the nozzle was still in the filling pipe of the car. We also think that the cut off device should be capable of operating at defined flow speeds.

This problem first came to our notice at a time when we had already decided that the model code, issued in 1957, was in need of review. These devices are, in fact, mentioned in the revised draft of the model code which has now been prepared. The revised draft code was recently submitted to the Standing Advisory Committee on Dangerous Substances. It decided that detailed study of the draft should be referred to a special subcommittee on which central Government Departments, the local authorities and the oil industry are all represented.

The hon. Member has put many Questions on this subject. We are at one with him in wanting a satisfactory conclusion as soon as possible. We therefore drew the attention of the Advisory Committee to the need for speedy action on the particular issue of automatic cutoff nozzles, but the Advisory Committee decided that this point could not conveniently be considered in isolation from the rest of the code. It felt that the whole code regarding premises, and so on, would have to be considered in conjunction with the latch nozzle. This was entirely a matter for the Committee itself to decide.

Self-service filling has also been mentioned by the hon. Member. This can be divided into two main kinds, installations where members of the public serve themselves under supervision and unattended self-service stations. As to the first, our provisional view is that before licensing such an installation local authorities should satisfy themselves, that, whether the money is paid in at a kiosk or fed into a coin box at the pump itself, it should not be possible for a customer to dispense petrol before the nozzle of the delivery hose is actually in the filling pipe of his vehicle. There should also be a safeguard to prevent over-filling.

A combined warning and remote control device may also be needed so that the attendant can prevent a pump starting up before a customer is ready to begin filling and so that he can switch off at the pump in an emergency. The arrangements must obviously be made to deal with accidental spillage. Even more safeguards will be needed for unattended self-service stations. It would seem essential to provide as far as possible against accidental or deliberate misuse.

Incidentally, I know of one such installation in Britain where the proprietor has now closed down the self-service pump in question. He lives on the premises and was constantly being disturbed by the noise of car engines during the night, and by motorists knocking him up to demand change.

The problem of self-service stations is also touched upon in the draft of the revised model code to which I have referred. I think that it is right to await the sub-committee's deliberations. I fully sympathise with the hon. Member's desire to see that the possibility of modern petrol station equipment is fully exploited, both in the interests of making the best possible use of the country's manpower as well as of improving the service to motorists.

But before we make final decisions we must be satisfied—and I think that the House would agree that we ought to be satisfied—on the basis of the expert advice which will be given to us, that we can confidently recommend any proposed changes in present practice to the local authorities without increasing the risk either to the staff or to the public.

The sub-committee will be at work on these problems very soon and I will see that its attention is drawn to what the hon. Member has said. I feel confident that it will do its best to report conclusively on the matters in which the hon. Gentleman has a special interest as well as deal with the revised model code as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Five o'clock.