HC Deb 07 December 1973 vol 865 cc1649-59
The Minister for Aerospace and Shipping (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

The application of the 10 per cent. reduction in 1972 fuel supplies announced by my right hon. Friend on 19th November would have imposed effective reductions on scheduled and charter air services ranging from 17 per cent. to 80 per cent. on individual airline companies because of their growth over the past year. This would do serious and in some cases irreparable damage at a time of peak activity.

I have therefore decided that the airline industry must reduce its anticipated consumption by a total of 55,000 tons for the period 20th November to 31st December—that is by an average of 17 per cent.

Some airlines already know their allocation within this total and the remainder will know by Monday.

I have also decided that exemptions should be granted for the following :—

Air Ambulance operations.

Services for the Highlands and Islands and the Scilly Isles.

Air-sea rescue flights.

Flights supporting North Sea oil exploration (fixed-wing and helicopters).

Essential test and training flights.

I believe that general aviation should also play its part in the overall economies. I have had discussions with representatives of this industry and I am asking them to ban private flying including the towing of gliders on Sundays until further notice. In addition I am directing that the allocation of fuel for light aircraft or helicopters for noncommercial use will be reduced by 50 per cent. of the corresponding period last year. Different arguments apply to the use of these aircraft for industrial and commercial purposes and I have agreed as a general rule that subject to a reduction of 25 per cent. in fuel supplies this activity should continue except where a direct scheduled flight exists and subject to the ban on Sunday use. The general aviation sector has offered to enforce restrictions and I am grateful for their co-operation which I readily accept.

I have also been considering the supply of oil fuel for shipping. Coastal shipping is already on the priority list. I have decided that carriage of cargo by sea to and from the United Kingdom should be added to that list.

I am asking the shipping industry to take such steps until further notice that after providing for these priorities their total consumption remains within the ceiling of 90 per cent. of fuel supplied during the corresponding period last year.

Mr. Bishop

The House will welcome this belated statement, but undoubtedly it would like a few more assurances. The hon. Gentleman referred to the civil section, and I believe that the House would like some indication of the effect on defence flying by the RAF and so on.

May I put five questions to the hon. Gentleman? In view of the further restrictions of an average of 17 per cent., will the hon. Gentleman say whether the industry can rely on firm supplies being available until, say, mid-January? Can he give an assurance about the level of supplies which will be available for scheduled services after that? The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, although we back every economy in fuel, the airlines are concerned about restrictions on their programmes for pilot training since these will affect the supply of next year's pilots to the airlines.

With regard to the restrictions on private flying and the use of executive aircraft, can the hon. Gentleman say what monitoring will take place to ensure compliance with his requirements?

Will the hon. Gentleman say what discussions he has had with operators, especially with the Tour Operators Study Group, about holidays next year in view of the fact that cuts in scheduled and other services will result in fewer passengers albeit better payloads.

With regard to shipping, I understand that ships are proceeding more slowly and planning thereby to save about half-a-million tons of fuel a year and that that has been embarked upon already. However, is the hon. Gentleman aware of the international bunkering shortage which is made worse by the scheduled supply of 75 per cent. of the previous allocation to stations? If the majority of container ships proceed slowly to their destinations, pickups are fewer and that will adversely affect the balance of payments on shipping services and thus worsen our "invisibles" which have always been a "plus" to offset deficits on our balance of trade. Will the hon. Gentleman keep that position under review?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman will know that questions about defence flying are matters for my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence. As for questions about the commitment of fuel after mid-January, I regret that I cannot give assurances about supplies at that time. The essential nature of the difficulties which we face does not make it possible in this or in any other industry to give the assurances which the hon. Gentleman requires.

The hon. Gentleman's second question related to pilot training. He will see that I have exempted essential training flights in order to be sure that real problems of this kind which might exist can be dealt with. We shall have to look at this in detail with the industry.

As for the monitoring of private flying, I am grateful to the light aircraft industry for the steps that it has taken to help me in the imposition of restrictions which are felt to be necessary. It will be for the industry to devise a system and to make it effective. In the last resort, of course, I am answerable for the overall fuel situation in this industry. But I see the help which the industry can give me in monitoring the position as a crucial part of the day-to-day restrictions that we are imposing. I am sure that it will be possible for the various clubs and airport management organisations in the industry to play a crucial part here.

Questions about holidays next year come within the earlier question put to me by the hon. Gentleman. I cannot give assurances now. Naturally, I realise the anxieties which will arise and I shall expect to make a statement as soon as I am in a position to do so, possibly followed by other statements. There is no other way in which I can possibly proceed.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that by introducing various economy techniques British shipping throughout the world is saving an estimated half-million tons of fuel on an annual basis. This is not all British fuel, of course. It is British shipping throughout the world acting, in many cases, as a good neighbour, and that is to be welcomed. Some will be picked up in this country, but by no means all of it.

I cannot estimate the medium- or long-term effects on the shipping industry of the restrictions being applied not only in the industry but in the economies of the world at large. There is an interplay which at this stage is beyond calculation. We shall have to watch the situation as it evolves, and we shall keep closely in touch with the Chamber of Shipping and anyone else representing the industry.

Mr. Wingfield Digby

Is my hon. Friend aware that there will be a general welcome for his decision to extend the priority status to shipping which is carrying our import and export trade, and that there will be great relief in the Chamber of Shipping? Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that there is a serious distortion of world trade already occurring both because of the slowdown of ships and because ships can no longer pass places where there are no bunkers? It is difficult to see the effects of this both on our "invisibles" and on our imports and exports. Will my hon. Friend bear in mind this factor, which is more or less imponderable at present?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support in giving priority classification to trade to and from the United Kingdom. Through the Chamber of Shipping we shall keep in close touch with the position. We have it in mind to set up a joint working party with the chamber to obtain immediate information on effects as they emerge. There is no other way that I can give assurances at present.

Mr. Thorpe

With regard to civil aviation, is not the logic of the hon. Gentleman's statement that flying for pleasure and for purely private reasons is cut back only to 50 per cent. of last year's consumption? Does that reflect accurately the seriousness of the situation that we face? Will the hon. Gentleman look at that again?

On the same basis, the 90 per cent. restriction which apparently relates to cruising for private pleasure is again a matter which must be looked at if we want to get a reduction.

Mr. Heseltine

May I clarify the phrase "cruising for private pleasure"? Is the right hon. Gentleman talking about ships?

Mr. Thorpe

I am talking about private boats which are taken out at weekends. If we are to economise, this kind of use should be out completely.

Mr. Heseltine

I had understood the right hon. Gentleman aright. He was referring to boats as opposed to aircraft.

Let me deal with the right hon. Gentleman's first question which concerns the use at all for pleasure purposes of light aircraft. I have had to consider this situation essentially in the short term, which is the basis on which I make this statement today. There are consequences of a commercial nature which flow from a total prohibition of the kind that the right hon. Gentleman suggests for people who provide the facilities for others to turn up at an airfield during weekends and fly light aircraft. We are extremely reluctant to take absolute stands which could destroy the commercial capabilities of people who now earn their living in this area. Balancing this and taking into account that other sections of the community are not being asked to give up all their pleasure activities, I have come to the conclusion that it is reasonable to ask for the 50 per cent. reduction.

I am aware that the restriction on cruising around the coast is within the reduction to 90 per cent. of 1972 supplies. That is generally applicable. I have had to take into account that this is not a problem at this time of the year. The number of people using such facilities is very restricted as most boats are laid up during the winter and fuel consumption is small. If we were to move into the same atmosphere next year with a peak demand for seasonal activity I should have to look at the matter again.

Mr. Mikardo

As the Minister's statement is an element in the overall energy problem the various sectors of which are interrelated and impinge on each other, may I ask him to tell the House—or, if he cannot, perhaps to get one of his right hon. Friends to tell the House—why, when we are facing electricity cuts because the power stations are running out of coal, the National Coal Board is exporting 500,000 tons of steam-raising coal to the French electricity industry?

Mr. Skeet

That has nothing to do with it.

Mr. Mikardo

Will he also explain why the British Steel Corporation is talking about cutting its output by 30 per cent. because of coal shortage, and yet we are exporting annually 200,000 tons of anthracite to the French steel industry? What sort of idiocy is that?

Mr. Heseltine

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to raise this matter in the debate that is to follow when questions on my statement come to an end. However, I assure him that to the best of my knowledge none of the coal is going in my aircraft.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

Regarding marine bunkers, will my hon. Friend keep in mind throughout the crisis, however it develops, the point made by the Chamber of Shipping that it is not so much the shortage of bunkers that causes the immediate effect but that it projects ahead a ripple effect on voyages either outward or inward that cannot be regained for many months ahead?

Mr. Heseltine

The situation is more serious than being merely applicable to the shipping industry. It has some effect throughout the entire economies of the world and that has a return ripple effect on the shipping industry. I will bear that point in mind.

Mr. McNamara

On the Minister's list of priorities there is no mention of the fishing industry. Can he guarantee that there will be adequate supplies for both the deep-water and inshore fleets? What negotiations has the hon. Gentleman had with foreign countries concerning the bunkering facilities in Arctic and semi-Arctic areas which are needed for the efficient running of the fishing fleet and maintaining the supply of a basic and important food?

Mr. Heseltine

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that those are questions for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Mr. Benyon

The Minister has not said anything further about economies on international routes. It seems ridiculous that planes should still be crossing the Atlantic and going to Paris half empty. What further international discussions are taking place? Will economies be pressed very strongly?

Mr. Heseltine

To the best of my knowledge, aircraft are not crossing the Atlantic or going to Paris half empty. Indeed, very much the reverse. There have been substantial cancellations and withdrawals of services across the areas flown by scheduled aircraft out of Britain. It is fair to point out that, because employees of TWA are on strike, the reduction in passengers coming to this country might not be as substantial in terms of British Airways as it would have been if the three airlines had been flying. That is an exceptional circumstance. I assure my hon. Friend that there have been substantial reductions. Where necessary, I am prepared to support the initiative of the airlines in this country in seeking capacity rationalisation with other Governments.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Will the hon. Gentleman elaborate on his statement that services connected with North Sea oil will be exempt from the cuts? Is he aware that already British Airways has announced severe cuts in services between London and Aberdeen and that there is disquiet in the area that this should be done especially at a time when we need all possible facilities in Aberdeen and the North-East?

Mr. Heseltine

The scheduled reductions to which the hon. Gentleman refers are matters for British Airways to work out in the light of the load factors that it is carrying. I am providing exemptions for flights supporting North Sea oil exploration. That, again, will be a matter for detailed discussion. I am sure that the whole House realises the importance of North Sea oil exploration and would want exemptions of that kind.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

Will my hon. Friend tell us whether scheduled and charter fliers can guarantee that there will be no cutback in their Christmas holiday arrangements? What discussions has he had with the Civil Aviation Authority and British Airways about economies in the ground handling of air- craft and, indeed, in air traffic control as well?

Mr. Heseltine

The operators either have received or will receive by Monday figures of the allocations of fuel that are available to them to 31st December. It is not for me to say what this will enable them to do or not to do. It will be for them to make their own calculations when they have studied the figures. Taking into account a variety of factors, I hope that a considerable part of the holiday market will be able to fulfil contracts entered into and paid for. I am not in a position to make a statement about the situation after 31st December, but I believe that the operators will not enter into commitments that on a reasonable assumption, based upon my statement today, would mean that people would not be able to return from those holidays. Obviously we have a responsibility to get people back. I should have to take a cautious view until I know what the airlines say.

Mr. James Johnson

Further to the question about the supply of fuel to the fishing industry, which the Minister fobbed off much too lightly and dodged, is he aware that last night at an official gathering of members of the deep sea fishing industry I met some concern about this matter? Cannot he stand at that Box, as the Minister in charge of the matter, and tell hon. Members that there is no need for any concern about supplies to our deep sea fleet whether in the Arctic or any other part of the North-East Atlantic?

Mr. Heseltine

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to suggest that I fobbed off the question. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food deals with that area of governmental responsibility. I will certainly draw his immediate attention to the fact that the question has been raised by hon. Members. I know how important it will be to him. However, I do not have responsibility for ships owned by this country.

Mr. Allason

Would it not help the aviation industry to reduce its flights if it were charged the same rate of oil duty as is charged to public transport on the ground? Is not aviation oil duly only 1p a gallon in this country and nothing for flights overseas?

Mr. Heseltine

I do not think that any adjustment of the price mechanism of a relatively marginal kind that might follow would affect the dilemma facing us at the moment. I will look at the point made by my hon. Friend. I think that the system that we are proposing is likely to be more effective in dealing with the problem facing us.

Mr. Bishop

I should like to press the Minister on the fishing aspect. T appreciate that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food may be responsible, but the hon. Gentleman must be able to assure the House that he has had discussions with his right hon. Friend about the implications of allocations of fuel to the fishing fleets. In the absence of any assurance that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will make a statement soon, I think that it would be for the convenience of the House if the hon. Gentleman indicated that he had had discussions with his right hon. Friend and could give certain assurances. This would be welcomed by the fishing industry.

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that my responsibilities do not cover the country's fishing fleets. I have gone as far as I can in saying that I will draw this matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who, I have no doubt, will seek an appropriate opportunity to inform the House of the position.

Mr. Rost

Is my hon. Friend aware that far too much aviation fuel is still being wasted by unnecessary stacking, particularly at Heathrow? Reports have come out of the stacking of aircraft for periods of an hour or more. This is not the fault of the airlines. It is due to lack of co-ordination between international airports and air traffic control. May we have an assurance that firm action will be taken to try to cut out some of this wastage?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter, and I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson) who raised a similar point, to which I did not reply.

I have received a number of representations from hon. Members about im- provements that could be made to ground handling and air traffic control procedures. I have asked the Civil Aviation Authority, as a matter of urgency, to advise me about the possibility of adopting any of the measures suggested. Certain measures have been introduced, such as taxi-ing on two engines in order to save fuel, and I assure my hon. Friends that this matter is being considered.

Dame Irene Ward

Is it not a little odd, in view of the importance of reassuring the fishing fleets about their position, that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture did not ask my hon. Friend to make a statement on his behalf, knowing that he could not be here himself? Does my hon. Friend think that it is fair that, having told many people of the situation with regard to fuel supplies, he is not in a position to reassure the fishing fleets of their position? Everybody wants reassurance, and if they get it there is greater co-operation.

Can my hon. Friend please tell us when the Minister of Agriculture will be in a position to make a statement? Is it not a fact that there must have been a discussion between the two Departments, otherwise this would be a rather silly assessment of the whole position?

Mr. Heseltine

I hope that the assurance I have given will satisfy my hon. Friend and others who have raised the matter. I shall immediately communicate the interest and anxiety of the House on this matter to my right hon. Friend, but I must stress that it is a matter for him to decide upon priorities and what measures he wishes to take in the areas which the whole House knows are his responsibility and not mine.

Mr. McCrindle

If, understandably, my hon. Friend cannot give an assurance about next summer's charter holiday flights, will he consider engaging in discussions with the travel trade so that some emphasis might be placed on bookings early in 1974 on those package tours which use scheduled flights, otherwise thousands of people who have booked are liable to be disappointed next summer?

Mr. Swain

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it possible for the House to ask the Minister of Agriculture to come here at four o'clock to make a statement?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

I understand the hon. Member's feelings in the matter, but that is not in order.

Mr. Heseltine

The problems of booking into next year's holiday season are very real, and my Department—though not particularly my part of it—is in touch, and will continue to be, with the travel industry about the problem, in the same way as I shall be in touch with the airlines about the problems that exist for them. It is not possible, as I am sure my hon. Friend understands, to give assurances about fuel supplies over which I do not have control.

Mr. Benn

Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain) about the desirability of a statement by the Minister of Agriculture, it is not a point of order, but it will be within your recollection, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that, when a situation develops about which hon. Members express anxiety, it is not out of order to ask whether the Leader of the House will consider asking his colleague to make a statement on this subject later in the day. I put it forward on that basis.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I understand that, and no doubt proper attention will be paid in the right quarter to what the right hon. Gentleman said.

Several Hon. Membersrose

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We must get on with the business before the House.

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