HC Deb 21 February 1972 vol 831 cc906-12
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 fuel supplies.

In my statement to the House last Thursday I stressed that in planning early further restrictions I was guided as a matter of caution by the assumption that there would be no early relief in the coal supply situation. That relief came, however, as a result of the agreements reached between the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers in the night of Friday to Saturday last. The immediate effect was to withdraw the pickets which had achieved a substantial denial of coal and other essential supplies to the Central Electricity Generating Board. In addition, the economies achieved by the C.E.G.B. and the Scottish generating boards in their own systems, by the public in their splendid response to my appeal for restraint, and by industry and trade in coping with the enforced restrictions together added up to a better position than had been expected.

I came to the conclusion, therefore, on Saturday that we should be able to get by with the present level of restriction and that, subject to acceptance by the ballot of the recommendation of the N.U.M. leaders, there was every prospect of not needing to introduce still more rigorous cuts in electricity supply. In view of the importance of this decision to industrial planning, I made it known immediately.

We are now faced, subject still to the conclusion of the ballot, with the arduous task of rebuilding coal stocks and getting electricity supply back to normal. Every endeavour is being made by all concerned to achieve this end. This involves movement of coal both at generating stations and at pit-head into position to supplement electricity supply; it involves replenishing stocks of lighting-up oil and other essential supplies; it involves import of coal to help relieve the shortfall resulting both from the recent strike and from the previous overtime ban.

Despite all these efforts, it will be some weeks before the country is back to normal. Until then, power cuts will have to continue. Domestic coal stocks will need still to be distributed on the basis of the priorities already in force. The immediate priority is to get industry back into full production again as soon as possible, and this means some preference being given to this purpose over the householder. I renew my appeal to the public at large to co-operate as they have so willingly and successfully done already in getting back into our stride again by maintaining the strictest economy in their use of both electricity and coal.

Mr. Benn

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that statement. Obviously, we recognise that the postponement of further cuts must depend on the outcome of the ballot, but I wish to put to the Secretary of State, these more general questions. First, what is his estimate of how long it will be before the situation is back to normal? Second, can he yet give any estimate of the total cost of the strike in terms of day lost as a result of men being laid off, in addition to those on strike, and in terms of financial cost?

Third, what consultations has the Secretary of State had with both sides of industry about the best method of getting production back to its full level as soon as possible? Fourth, will he, as the Minister responsible, make it his business now to confer more personally with the trade unions, since his failure to meet the N.U.M. at any stage since he became Minister certainly contributed to the difficulties through which we have now been?

Mr. Davies

First, I think it is wise still to assume that we shall not be back to a strictly normal situation much before four weeks or so from now. This is the present estimate of the generating boards as to their likely ability to meet full load. I can make no estimate in terms of days lost or of the cost at this stage.

Now, the question of consultations. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there were discussions with both sides of industry last week relating to the proposed further cuts. At the end of last week, I was equally in touch to give notice that we would not now need to bring those restrictions into effect. The right hon. Gentleman reproaches me with inadequacy of consultation with the unions. Yet I am conscious of having had widespread consultations with unions involved in every single trade and industry in this country—either myself or my Ministers—over the past months. I do not, therefore, accept the right hon. Gentleman's criticism in that respect. Indeed. I doubt that additional consultation of the kind he suggests would have brought about any real change in the situation as we found it.

Sir D. Renton

Could my right hon. Friend forecast what is likely to happen as a result of the letter—received by some of them this morning—sent to the 20,000 largest industrial consumers, who are asked to make cuts which seem to be quite separate from and over and above the cuts locally made as part of the block scheme of the Central Electricity Generating Board? Is there any hope of relaxation of the terms of that letter?

Mr. Davies

I think my right hon. and learned Friend is referring to a letter which will have been received in anticipation of further cuts which would otherwise have been applicable from next Wednesday. As I took steps to announce on Saturday, these further cuts will not now come into effect.

Mr. Concannon

Is the Secretary of State aware that he, the Secretary of State for Employment and the Prime Minister have through sheer incompetence and arrogance forced the miners into a six-week strike and forced this country into a period of economic stagnation—in wartime possibly we would have shot people for such a thing—and that the only honourable thing is for right hon. Gentlemen opposite to resign?

Mr. Davies

I regard that as a most immoderate, inaccurate and incompetent statement.

Mr. Hastings

In the event of any possible future threat to fuel supplies for power stations, do the Government now intend some review of the present law on picketing? What is to prevent the railwaymen or the engineers, or anyone else who can organise it, from making a beeline for the power stations on the precedent of the mineworkers simply because they see this as an effective stranglehold?

Mr. Davies

The picketing that has taken place during this strike has undoubtedly revealed a potential of interference with the life of the nation which few people anticipated. The question of action to try to provide some protection for the community against such picketing will have to be considered, but this is not a matter for me.

Mr. Frederick Lee

Would the Secretary of State agree that it is now essential that we should speedily know the financial position of the National Coal Board? Are the appropriate Government Depart ments now convening in order to determine the extent of the write-off of dead capital which is absolutely essential?

Mr. Davies

Clearly, we shall have to consider the financial position of the National Coal Board in the aftermath of this damaging strike. This is a matter which will have to be taken fully into consideration in the near future.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

In the light of my right hon. Friend's reply to the last question, does he recall that 10 days ago my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment told the House that no Government had provided a subsidy for the settlement of an individual wage claim and that we should not start now? Can he assure the House that this remains the Government's policy?

Mr. Davies

In replying to the right hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Frederick Lee), I made a clear inference that the whole finances of the National Coal Board will have to be looked at in the light of the present situation.

Mr. Palmer

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, with all moderation, whether he is aware that his handling of the electricity supply situation has been much criticised in the electricity supply industry and in industry generally, particularly his failure to pay attention to warnings given to him in this House and elsewhere in plenty of time? Does he not agree that things were much better looked after when we had an independent Ministry of Power directly responsible to the House?

Mr. Davies

I have no experience within the House of an independent Ministry of Power responsible to the House and clearly, therefore, I cannot comment upon it. But I assure the hon. Gentleman that the information, advice, and warnings, to the degree that was apposite, given by the electricity authorities were always most carefully heeded and acted upon by the Government.

Mr. Emery

Would my right hon. Friend say more about the present financial structure? Many people outside the House are interpreting the Wilberforce Report as meaning that other public sectors, particularly the nationalised industries, can look to the Government to help finance wage claims. I hope that is not my right hon. Friend's view. Therefore will he ensure that the negotiations that his Department will have with the National Coal Board are proceeded with in haste and a report made to this House as soon as possible in order that the whole financial position can be clearly understood?

Mr. Davies

Certainly, no time will be lost before proceeding to an examination of the National Coal Board's finances. Equally clearly, the Government's intention is to try to achieve the point at which these large organisations operate on clearly stated and adhered to objectives.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

As it is the declared policy of the Government to control prices as well as incomes, is the Secretary of State aware that where miners have allowed coal to go to those in urgent need there has been profiteering? Candles are being sold at 500 per cent. above their normal price. Can he give an assurance that he will take action now to stop this profiteering in the supply of candles, batteries and coal?

Mr. Davies

I shall certainly look into any cases brought to my notice but, surprisingly there has been none concerning the supply of coal.

Mr. Lewis

I will give the right hon. Gentleman some.

Mr. Skeet

In order to prevent one State industry from being unduly dependent upon another, will my right hon. Friend consider allowing the C.E.G.B. to burn natural gas in roughly the same proportions as is done in Holland and elsewhere in Europe?

Mr. Davies

The question of which basic fuel the C.E.G.B. and the other generating boards use is a matter for discussion between the boards and the Government. I will bear in mind all the various points made to me on this subject in formulating future policy.

Mr. Dalyell

Is the Secretary of State aware that on the question of picketing the Lord President of the Council gave an undertaking on Friday that certain events surrounding the imprisonment of my constituent, Mr. Graham Steel, area secretary of the N.U.M., and others at Longannet would be looked at by the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Lord Advocate very quickly? Until this is done the situation in the Scottish coalfields will not be entirely happy.

Mr. Davies

This is a matter not for my attention but for that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate.