HC Deb 24 February 1972 vol 831 cc1505-8
The Minister for Industry (Sir John Eden)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on electricity restrictions.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry told the House on Monday last that the situation on electricity supplies had improved as a result of a number of factors, particularly the withdrawal of pickets from the power stations. He added that the immediate priority would be to get industry back into full production as soon as possible. Since then the recovery programme for getting fuel supplies to power stations has made very good progress, and substantial quantities of coal and essential supplies have been delivered and much more is on the way.

On the assumption that there is a favourable outcome to the miners' ballot, it is my intention to revoke, with effect from midnight Sunday, the directions prohibiting the use of electricity by industry on certain specified days. I must, however, point out that on their two high-risk days they will still be subject to rota disconnections. Those large consumers which have received directions to restrict their demand and consumption to 60 per cent. of normal will be permitted to increase their consumption to 85 per cent. of normal.

There are some points which I must emphasise. The most important is that this relaxation, which will be made only if there is a favourable outcome of the miners' ballot, assumes there will be a full and rapid return to work in the pits. It assumes, too, that all classes of consumers will co-operate to exercise maximum economy in the use of electricity. If consumers do not exercise economy, and, of course, if weather conditions are abnormally bad, the resulting overload on the generating system could lead to disconnections on what are at present medium-risk days. There is, therefore, an element of risk in the proposed relaxation, but, against the background of heavy unemployment and the full co-operation from the public so far, the Government think that this risk should be accepted. Following discussions with the C.B.I., this particular measure of relaxation has been chosen in order to enable industry to begin getting back towards full-time working as soon as possible.

For the time being, the other restrictions must remain; but I have the position under constant review and shall introduce further relaxations as soon as circumstances permit.

Mr. Varley

We on this side are grateful for the Minister's statement. However, while we welcome the relaxation towards the normal supply position, we note that he has had discussions with the Confederation of British Industry. Does he not think that it is now advisable to have discussions with the National Union of Mineworkers? We understand from a broadcast today on "The World at One" that Mr. Laurence Daly has said that, assuming that the ballot goes in favour of an early return to work, they are prepared to co-operate.

Assuming a normal return to work on Monday, when does the hon. Gentleman now expect industry to get back to full-time working, especially in view of today's terrible unemployment figures? When does he expect the normal supply position to be restored to the domestic consumer?

Sir J. Eden

I absolutely agree on the first point, and I shall be making arrangements for discussion with the National Union of Mineworkers on the aspect to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. With regard to the prospects for industry getting back to full-time working, this will obviously build up progressively and fairly rapidly during the coming week. I cannot be more specific, because it depends on individual company plans and how they organise their working programme. As for domestic restrictions, clearly the rota disconnections will continue. As I said, this is under continuing review the whole time, and as soon as it is possible progressively to relax on these rota disconnections this will be done.

Mr. Rost

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should now give urgent priority to a fundamental and forward-looking review of national fuel policy, particularly with regard to reducing the over-dependence upon one source of fuel for the generation of our electric power?

Sir J. Eden

Of course the fuel policy aspects will be studied very closely indeed.

Mr. Milne

Is the Minister aware that, welcome though his proposals are, they reflect little or no credit on his Department, and that his efforts to introduce oil into coal-fired stations during the course of recovery from the dispute could have done much to jeopardise the speedy return to normal which we all want? Will he make a statement on this matter as early as possible?

Sir J. Eden

The quite extraordinary success of this recovery programme owes a very great deal to the ability of those who have been conducting it in the Central Electricity Generating Board, the National Coal Board and British Railways, as well as among members of the Road Haulage Association.

Sir G. Nabarro

While one congratulates the electricity generating authorities on their resilience and the speed with which they are resuming normal services, would my hon. Friend bear in mind that back benchers have the most extraordinary difficulty in extracting reliable information about fuel and power from his Department? Would he not consider publishing a White Paper setting down carefully all the economic and financial consequences of this calamitous strike?

Sir J. Eden

This point was answered by my right hon. Friend on Monday of this week. My hon. Friend will no doubt refresh his memory on that. I have never found him at all unable to get the answers to the questions he puts. The question of the full cost of the strike is, of course, under study at the moment; it is too early to give precise figures.

Mr. Pardoe

Could the Minister clear up one point? In his statement today he said that the withdrawal of pickets has improved the electricity supply situation. Is he aware that last week his right hon. Friend was busy defending to this House, his, the Minister of Industry's, forecast at the outset of this dispute that there were eight weeks' supply for the electricity power stations? Is he aware that there is a contradiction here? Will he tell us exactly how many days' supply were lost as a result of picketing?

Sir J. Eden

No, Sir, there is no contradiction. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman studied the words of my 9th January statement closely enough. It referred to eight weeks' normal winter consumption.

Mr. Michael Stewart

If the Minister hopes that the result of the miners' ballot will be favourable, will he implore the Prime Minister not to make any more pronouncements on social and economic matters, because nothing could be more unhelpful?

Sir J. Eden

I will implore my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to maintain the Government's attack against inflation.