HC Deb 17 February 1972 vol 831 cc623-8
The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. John Davies)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on the subject of restrictions on electricity. No major change has taken place in the rate of deterioration in the overall energy supply pattern I outlined to the House on Monday night. Stocks of coal, light ing-up fuel and necessary chemicals available to the Central Electricity Generating Board have diminished as anticipated, with denial of available and necessary supplies still continuing as a result of unwillingness of other union members to cross picket lines. Load met yesterday was 23,500 megawatts. The combined effect of the statutory restrictions, the rota disconnections and the public response to the appeal for economy has been to reduce the consumption of coal at power stations by about 35 per cent. This is good, but the effort must be intensified. I urge all concerned to do so.

I must plan on the assumption of no early relief in the situation, much as I hope it will occur. I will, therefore, be giving directions for further restrictions in consumption to take effect on Wednesday of next week: details will be made available as soon as possible after the completion of consultations presently in hand. They will affect industrial, commercial and domestic users.

Assuming no relief in the situation, these restrictions will allow supply to be maintained throughout next week at the still further reduced level, before reaching the point where we will be down to non-coal generated capacity—equal to 20–25 per cent. of normal load—and sufficient to meet only the essential services of the country with very little left available for other users—domestic or industrial.

If essential materials currently denied to the C.E.G.B. were made available, then the time by which this basic, essential services-only level would be reached would be extended by some seven to 10 days. If there were resumption of work early next week in the coal mines, I would expect the new restricted level of consumption to need to be maintained for a comparatively short time, after which there would be a progressive easement of the situation, though, as I have previously said, restriction of supply is likely to be required for several weeks after the coal mines are back in production.

I will continue to keep the House informed of developments.

Mr. Benn

I thank the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Leader of the House for the fact that a statement was made today.

I wish to put some questions to the Secretary of State. First, would he tell the House how many people are now laid off and what he would expect the total of lay-offs would be next week if the anticipated further cuts were made? Second, what changes in the rationing system are being considered following the representations made by the Confederation of British Industry and others at meetings held this week? Third, what contact has the right hon. Gentleman made with the National Union of Mineworkers about the distribution of priority fuels which the union is seeking to facilitate? Fourth, will he seek the co-operation of the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. to give the widest possible coverage to the findings of the Wilberforce Committee when it reports? Lastly, may we have a further statement in the House tomorrow?

Mr. Davies

On the first question, the approximate number of people laid off as a result of these restrictions is about 1½ million. If things move as perhaps they may be expected to move by, the middle of next week when the more intensive restrictions would come into play the figure is bound to have risen to two million. I cannot predict how much that would be added to as a result of these new restrictions.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what changes in rationing are contemplated. As for industry, these revolve essentially around the number of days of specific restriction imposed on industry in its different classes, of which the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, the three major classes to which I referred on the previous occasion.

Regarding rationing consumers, this is largely a question of the extent and intensity of rota disconnection, which will also be a matter of discussion. As to consultations with the National Union of Mineworkers about priority fuels, the right hon. Gentleman asked whether I personally had had such consultation. I have not, although I am satisfied that the extent of the understandings which have been reached with the N.U.M. permits, broadly speaking, fuels to be allowed to move to priority consumers without difficulty.

As for the general publication of any findings of the Wilberforce Committee, I have no doubt that, without much encouragement from me, all the media will be carrying them quite extensively.

Mr. Benn

When does the right hon. Gentleman expect the Wilberforce proposals to be made public?

Mr. Davies

I cannot answer that with certainty. I hope they will not be long delayed.

Mr. Tom Boardman

Has my right hon. Friend had any indication from the Leader of the Opposition whether he and his colleagues support or repudiate industrial action on the part of unions which are not involved in the dispute—[Interruption.]—and the acute personal hardship and economic damage that that is doing?

Mr. Davies

No, I have had no such communication from the right hon. Gentleman.

Perhaps I might respond to a question which I omitted to answer. The right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) asked whether I would be making a further statement tomorrow. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said yesterday, statements will be made to the House as the situation develops. At the moment I do not expect that there will be matter for making a statement tomorrow, but I shall bear in mind what the right hon. Gentleman suggested. He may be assured that if matters evolve in a way which requires a statement to be made I shall not hesitate to make one.

Mr. Palmer

Does the right hon. Gentleman not think it appropriate that he should express at least a word of appreciation to employees of all grades in the electricity supply industry who are maintaining the electricity supply of the nation in extremely difficulty circumstances? He should at least acknowledge that.

Mr. Davies

Yes, and, clearly, the hon. Gentleman was not in his place when I made reference to that the other day and said how great a debt the community as a whole owed to those who were faced with exceedingly arduous activities, particularly in relation to the whole system of rota disconnection. This places an immense load, physical as well as mental, on the people concerned with operating it.

Mr. Emery

What further approach does my right hon. Friend feel the Government and, I hope, the Opposition might make to see—if, after the Wilberforce findings, a ballot is necessary—that the miners withdraw picketing so that essential supplies can get through at all times during the period of the ballot?

Mr. Davies

I take note of my hon. Friend's recommendation. He may rest assured that all these matters are very much in the mind of the Government.

Mr. Duffy

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the "no power for three days" each week rule to medium and large industry is creating a tremendous problem in Sheffield—[Interruption.]—because of the way in which it affects offices which are sited on factory sites? This interferes with clerical work and then disrupts communications in such a way that the "no power" rule has an effect on industry in Sheffield, out of all proportion to the economy achieved. Will he look into this matter?

Mr. Davies

I am aware of the problem which the hon. Gentleman raises, though he will appreciate that it affects an area much wider than Sheffield. I assure him that it is being look into.

Mr. Tilney

As the blackout is now worse than it was during the war and as much power was saved then by altering the clock, may I ask my right hon. Friend to consider bringing in Summer Time as an emergency measure?

Mr. Davies

The matter is under consideration. I should, however, inform my hon. Friend that, broadly speaking, the consideration up to date has not favoured the adoption of the suggestion.

Mr. Charles R. Morris

While I accept the need for these restrictions, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware of the consternation among chemical industrialists in my constituency because the classification which they have been allocated does not afford them three days' continuous production? Will he bear in mind that many chemical processes need three days' continuous production and that in many instances it takes 12 hours for these processes to get into top gear?

Mr. Davies

Yes, I understand the problem, and I think the hon. Gentleman will realise that this was the objective of the very extensive discussions which were held during the course of last summer and autumn in an effort to devise a plan of campaign. He must equally realise—I spoke about this on Monday evening—that there is an impossibility in the generality of cases about ensuring consecutive days of consumption at the same time as maintaining the essential principle of rota disconnection and operating it no more than necessary so as to avoid aggravating the situation in domestic households. There is, therefore, a difficult problem of reconciliation to be overcome. I assure the hon. Member that all such cases as the one he quoted are very much under consideration by my Department as they arise with a view to facilitating the industrialists concerned.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. An enormous number of hon. Members have indicated to me their desire to take part in the next, extremely important, debate. I therefore urge the House to move on to its next business.