HC Deb 11 February 1972 vol 830 cc1736-41
The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. John Davies)

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

Availability of electricity is deteriorating rapidly. It is being hit not just by running into coal shortage but by denial of supplies of coal and other essential products caused by picketing.

The Government are obliged to take further measures now to conserve electrical supply as far as possible for essential and humanitarian purposes such as hospitals.

First and foremost I ask the whole community in its life at home to do all within its power to reduce consumption. This particularly applies to electric heaters but also concerns lighting and every other kind of electrical appliance. Except where there is sickness, only one room should be electrically heated. Lights should only be used where they are essential.

I am making an order today under the emergency regulations banning the use of electricity for the heating of offices, shops, public halls, catering establishments and premises used for recreation, entertainment and sport. This will come into effect tomorrow. There will be limited exceptions; for example, for the activation of central heating equipment or to preserve delicate apparatus.

But this, even relying as I do on the co-operation of everybody, is simply not adequate to meet the severity of the situation.

I am therefore obliged to issue directions that there shall be a massive restriction in the use of electricity by industry. From Monday on, most industrial consumers with an estimated maximum demand of 100 kilowatts or more will be required not to use any electricity on Sunday and on three other days in the week. In the case of larger users on separate circuits operating continuous processes, they will be required to cut their consumption by 50 per cent. There will he some exceptions for absolutely essential needs. I am seeking to ensure that the days of prohibition coincide with those when plants are most likely to be affected by rota cuts so that they are not hit twice.

I may need to extend these restrictions still further dependent upon developments and this I shall be able to do by general direction.

The Government very much regret all the hardships and inconvenience these decisions will cause. But I must take them in order to do all I can to maintain the essential minimum of electrical supply, particularly now that talks have broken down between the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers.

Mr. Harold Lever

The right hon. Gentleman is aware that the cuts that he has announced will, apart from domestic inconvenience, inflict very heavy damage upon industry. Does the situation not indicate that he has allowed an atmosphere of complacency to be in being right up to this moment? Why were we not warned that we were moving into this situation earlier, so that the House could make clear what its reaction would be at an earlier date? Are not the cuts not merely emergency cuts but cuts prepared in an emergency? That is to say, do they take into account the special needs of firms, or are they blanket emergency measures affecting all firms equally and, therefore, hitting some more severely than others? Why was not a proper and detailed preparation evident in the restrictions? Are we to be treated to the same sort of situation as we have been treated to in Birmingham? The House was told yesterday that an agreed rationing system was not possible there, yet today one is in operation, I believe. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us the likely effect of the cuts upon production and employment?

Mr. Davies

I do not think there was any lack of knowledge very fully available to the House and the country of the progressively more and more severe effect on electricity supply of the duration of the coal strike. In view not only of statements which I have made but statements made very widely by the Central Electricity Generating Board, I cannot accept that there is any justification for that remark.

As to the effect on firms, broadly speaking the restriction is in no way an ad hoc arrangement but one that has been prepared with great care. It divides the industrial life of the country into three broad sections. The first is the smaller users of electricity using under 100 kilowatts. They will contribute to the restriction by the normal process of the rota cutting arrangements which will affect them. There is then the intermediate class of bigger users of over 100 kilowatts. They are being dealt with individually, but in the terms I stated, by being three days a week off, and Sundays as well. There are about 200,000 industrial consumers of electricity, and it would not be possible to deal with each individually.

Thirdly, there are the very big users, particularly continuous process plants, where it is not practicable to shut down the plants on three specific days in a week and Sundays. Therefore, the cuts must be made by some other means, and it is here that the individual arrangements will have to be brought into effect. But the arrangements are very carefully thought out and are not at all hurriedly put together.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the situation in Birmingham. If he looks up what was said yesterday he will see that I said clearly that an endeavour to secure that coke moving out of the depot concerned was for priority purposes was clearly a matter between the board in question and the National Union of Mineworkers. That is precisely what has happened. So there is nothing in contradiction with what was said yesterday on that matter.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked me about the effect on the country's productive efforts and the number in employment. I cannot give him an accurate assessment. It is a matter that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and I are considering. But it will undoubtedly be exceedingly severe. Many people, perhaps millions, will be laid off.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the statement that he has just made, following upon the statement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, will have a very serious effect on the country and the community as a whole, and that the longer the situation goes on the more there will be established in the public mind a disenchantment with the attitude of the National Union of Mineworkers in not going back to work while the court of inquiry is in being? This will have a very unfortunate effect on the public's attitude to the trade unions generally. Will my right hon. Friend therefore get in touch with Mr. Vic Feather and see whether Mr. Feather can persuade the union to go back to work while the court of inquiry is in operation, which is what the public want?

Mr. Davies

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment will have heard what my hon. Friend has said. As the House knows, he is in frequent contact with Mr. Feather on these subjects. I entirely endorse the seriousness of what I have said, and cannot seek to minimise it. What we must be so concerned about is the conservation of the minimum load on the electrical plants, bearing in mind that the reconstitution of stocks, even when the strike is over, will still imply a continued restraint on electricity supply for a considerable time afterwards. [Interruption.] The matter is not at all a recently thought up one either.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is the most grievous disruption of productive industry since 1947, which was caused by the acutely cold weather of that year? Will he not accept that it is the result of Government policy to try to bully their way through with the coal miners, as they try about once every year as a virility symbol? Last year it was the postmen. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Government made two very serious miscalculations. First, because they did not know then, they miscalculated the mood and solidarity of the miners. Secondly, has there not been a serious miscalculation about electric power? Does the right hon. Gentleman remember all that was said by the Government before and at the beginning of the strike, that the miners would be forced to go back to work because of the distributed coal stocks and the ability to maintain electricity production?

Mr. Davies

The right hon. Gentleman's second point is simply not correct. I do not know what he is quoting, but he is certainly not quoting any member of the Government that I know. I know of no member of the Government who said that the miners would be forced back to work because electricity supplies would be maintained. That is entirely incorrect. I would perhaps freely admit that the Government did not fully realise the degree to which picketing could restrain the capacity of the electricity industry to maintain supplies. Some of that picketing, I assent, is fully within the concept of the law: some of it is, quite clearly, outside it.

Mr. Tom Boardman

In view of what my right hon. Friend has just said, and in view of the serious domestic and industrial consequences, can he give an assurance that the Government will not allow illegal picketing to aggravate the situation?

Mr. Davies

Restraining people from undertaking acts which are unlawful clearly poses enormous problems, and the whole House will be aware of them. It would be a pity if any hon. Member were by any act or statement to encourage the use of unlawful means to bring about the results of the strike. That would be entirely outside the normal concept of the duty of the House.

Mr. Bob Brown

Every story has a beginning, and the beginning of this story is the incompetence of the Government which started the strike. Whatever the Secretary of State may say to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, there can be no doubt that Sir Stanley Brown, of the Central Electricity Generating Board, a month ago was pontificating, as he did last night, and as were members of the Government, that coal stocks at the power stations were quite adequate for eight or nine weeks and that there was no question of the strike bringing the country to its knees. That was the inference from statements by the C.E.G.B. and by members of the Government. The complete obstinacy of the Government has created the present situation and it is time that the Secretary of State came clean and said so.

Mr. Davies

I do not assent to a single word of that.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. This is becoming a debate. There is a debate on Monday on these very matters.