HC Deb 29 November 1973 vol 865 cc697-716

8.45 p.m.

Mr. S. C. Silkin (Dulwich)

I beg to move Amendment No. 2, in Clause 2, page 1, line 18, after 'applies', insert :— 'Provided that any such order which enables disabled persons to claim a Business Ration of petroleum shall include among the disabled persons so entitled such disabled persons as, by reason of physical disability, require a vehicle to take them to and from their place of work and are the holders of a local authority's disabled drivers' badge'. This is a probing amendment which I hope will not detain the Committee for long. As I understand the Bill, it is under this clause that petrol rationing, if it comes in, will be introduced. Press notices have already appeared in the newspapers explaining how to claim and who can claim what. I am not altogether sure whether at the moment these notices have any statutory authority, but no doubt in due course it is intended that they should have the authority of this clause.

The point that I wish to make is limited but important for a number of disabled drivers. The Press notices that have been put out show that the business ration for vital and priority drivers may be claimed by a number of people about whom one would not wish to quarrel. At the end of the list come the disabled who in the course of their work use three specific categories of vehicle. The first is a DHSS vehicle, no doubt the Invacar. The second vehicle is one for which a DHSS grant or maintenance allowance is payable. The third is a vehicle exempt from excise duty. The problem which arises and which this amendment seeks to deal with is in the case of a disabled driver who needs his vehicle to get to and from work but does not qualify under any of the categories unless the second category has a wider meaning than is at first apparent.

A constituent of mine who is a member of the legal profession is compelled to drive from my constituency to central London and back every day, and he cannot do without his vehicle. It is because of his problem and, no doubt, that of many others in the same situation that I raise this case. He does not have a DHSS vehicle. He had an ordinary car. It is not exempt from excise duty, and so under the terms as they appear in the Press notice he would be confined to the second category if that were the category under which he could claim his business ration. The second category is b. a vehicle for which a DHSS grant or maintenance allowance is payable". My constituent, being a man of relatively affluent means, has no need for a DHSS grant or maintenance allowance and is certainly under the impression that his means are such that if he asked for one he would not get it. Quite clearly, however, the question of whether he should be entitled to a ration of petrol to enable him to get to work and home again can hardly depend on whether or not he is poor enough to be entitled to a grant or maintenance from the DHSS for his vehicle.

It seems to follow that there is an anomaly which could have grave effects for people in the position of my constituent, unless paragraph b. is to be read as meaning "a vehicle for which a DHSS grant or maintenance allowance is payable, or would but for his means have been payable ". I appreciate that we are not construing a statute, but if that is what is intended it would be a good idea if it were put not in legal terms but in plain terms so that people in my constituent's position would know that they could claim.

It may be said that my constituent could claim a supplementary allowance on a hardship basis, but it would be most unsatisfactory that he and others like him should have to resort to that, when logic seems to suggest that they should be able to claim the ordinary business ration under the provisions applicable to disabled persons. They can hardly be separated on a hardship basis from people who will be able to claim under those provisions.

As the amendment suggests, my constituent has a local authority's disabled driver's badge. He must have his car, and he has to park it as near his office as he can. His disabled driver's badge helps him in that respect.

I hope that the Minister can promise to revise the wording so that everyone knows the position. If he cannot do that, I hope that he will at least give an appropriate assurance that I can take back to my constituents and other people in the same position.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)

I heard today from the divisional officer of the Red Cross in the Camden division, whose premises are situated in Hampstead about a problem concerning one of its semi-geriatric clubs. Red Cross members, who are all volunteers, take the old people in their cars. Those members are giving up their time and the use of their cars. They want to be reassured that they will be entitled to claim a supplementary petrol ration so that they are not carrying the old people around at the expense of their own allocation.

1 appreciate that my hon. Friend the Minister may not be able to answer straight away, although I know that he is very good at fielding fast balls. If he cannot answer now, I shall be grateful if he can let me know the answer later or if something can be said when the Bill goes to another place.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Peter Emery)

Sir Myer, good evening.

The Temporary Chairman (Sir Myer Galpera)

A most unusual greeting..

Mr. Emery

Good manners never hurt anyone, Sir Myer, as you and I know only too well from other places.

I thank the hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. S. C. Silkin) for using the case of a constituent to bring forward a matter which must affect a number of people, not only in London but in many other cities where disabled drivers' badges are used. The Government fully understand the concern of the people involved, and I entirely agree in principle with what underlies the amendment. The problem is that we must temper logic with administrative possibilities. That is always a difficulty. From a legal point of view the amendment is not acceptable to the Government because the Bill is not bringing forward the administrative factors of any rationing scheme. I appreciate that the hon. and learned Gentleman has said that it is a probing amendment.

Whilst recognising that priority must be given to disabled drivers, it has only been possible in the business rationing scheme to give a higher allocation to those who use vehicles in the course of their work which are readily identifiable as related to the disabled, namely, DHSS vehicles, vehicles in respect of which a DHSS grant is payable and vehicles exempted from excise duty. The arrangements cover many but not all disabled employees. There are, of course, some who drive normal vehicles and not vehicles for the disabled which one associates with such categorisation.

It would be impossible for Post Office counter clerks who are issuing the business ration on the production of a number of simple and standard documents to use and discern a number of other pieces of documentation which are not standard throughout the country. As I think the hon. and learned Gentleman will realise, in trying to ease the burden which the Post Office will have to bear we have had to draw lines in a number of areas. We have had extensive negotiations with Post Office officials. We have attempted to make matters as simple as possible for Post Office staff so that there are no complications which need further reference.

We are having to do something which is unparalleled in peacetime. We are having to stimulate 15 million or 15½ million people within a short time to go to a Post Office with their registration book and their licence disc to claim something on a given day. To do that we have put forward an enormous amount of advertising. The papers and the television and radio authorities have been as co-operative as it is possible for them to be in trying to ensure that the information is brought home to the ordinary people.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

Will the Minister tell us how the counter clerk in the Post Office will satisfy himself that an applicant is, for example, an undertaker or a home nurse?

Mr. Emery

The situation is stated clearly on the form. The use of the local authorities' disabled drivers' badges would, for this purpose, be introducing an additional complication in what is as streamlined an arrangement as we have been able to make so as to get the business ration issued quickly by Post Offices to millions of business users. We are using a new method. It was not used on the last issuing of coupons. It will save a tremendous amount of supplementary allocations to the regional petroleum officers.

I can give the hon. and learned Gentleman an absolute assurance that we shall cater fully, as the whole scheme is to cater, for the needs of all disabled drivers in the supplementary allowance scheme, including those who own vehicles other than those which I and the hon. and learned Gentleman have listed. I am sorry that I cannot give him the assurance which I know that he would like. The employer of a person who has a disabled driver's badge as the only indication of disablement and who uses his vehicles for business purposes, including travel to work, will be able to claim a supplementary allowance on his behalf. If he is self-employed he may make an application for a supplementary allowance in the knowledge that it will be dealt with as if it were an application for a business allowance for which he qualified in one of the ways I have outlined. These people will obtain exactly the same allowance as those who are in the other categories of disablement.

9.0 p.m.

Although coupons are being distributed, there is still a major need for fuel economy. We shall be keeping up the campaign that if we all save a little we all save a lot. That motto, "Save a little, save a lot" will be seen a great deal more throughout the land. A major voluntary saving of all fuels will benefit people financially and benefit the whole nation at a time of considerable shortage of fuel generally.

I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will accept my assurance that the type of person about whom he is concerned will be able to obtain exactly the same amount of petrol as he would have obtained had he applied for the normal business allocation.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

Will my hon. Friend reply to my question?

Mr. Emery

Seldom do I forget my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg). I give him my assurance that the supplementary allowance scheme will provide specifically for those engaged in geriatric work, helping the blind and multiple sclerosis patients—indeed, for all who are doing essential work to help the least fortunate people in society.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

I am grateful, as I am sure my constituent will be, to the Minister for the assurance he has given. I cannot say that I am wholly satisfied. If it is simply a matter of administrative convenience, perhaps the Minister and his Department will consider whether there is a better way of doing what we plainly both intend than by way of the supplementary allowance system.

I note that according to the Press notice the supplementary allowance is granted only if rationing is introduced, which I presume means that the coupons will be sent only if rationing is introduced.

I also note that in relation to a number of categories entitled to claim supplementary allowance, there is an asterisk in the printed notice which indicates that these forms will already have been completed by an applicant for business rationing and handed back with the coupon. That applies to business users who are not agricultural or horticultural.

The difficulty which my constituent will face is that, as matters stand, he will not be able to claim a supplementary allowance until rationing is introduced. If he were in a position—which evidently, from what the Minister said, he is not—to have made an application for a business ration now, knowing that it would be subject to the asterisk procedure in respect of a supplementary allowance, at least his application form would have gone into the Department and between now and the time when rationing is introduced—if it is introduced—it would be open to the Department to make whatever inquiries were necessary as to the genuineness of his claim. But I fear that if rationing is introduced there will be a sudden enormous swamping of the Department by people who think they are entitled to a supplementary allowance, and in those circumstances people who find themselves in the position of my constituent might simply take their place in the queue, and grave hardship might result.

Mr. Emery

Perhaps I may explain that until rationing begins, nobody will need their coupons. The application would be received from the hon. and learned Gentleman's constituent immediately the announcement was made. The hon. and learned Gentleman's constituent would know from the assurance I have given that he would be entitled to the business ration in this instance, and would have his basic ration, which can run for three months. Therefore, even if he had to wait for two or three weeks before the business ration was made, there would be no hardship whatever to him in not having the petrol for the purposes for which he was carrying out his business.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

I am again grateful to the Minister, particularly if what he says is to be taken as an assurance that two or three weeks will be the limit of the period during which the Department will be able to deal with all these cases. I do not want to hold him precisely to that, but I am glad to know that, broadly speaking, that is the period which the Department has in mind.

I have made my point and the Minister has given me an immediate answer. I ask only that the report of this short debate will be read in his Department, and if it is felt that an improvement on what he has told the Committee can be made, he can be sure that many people will be extremely grateful. In view of the undertaking which has been given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw my amendment. In conclusion, I echo what the Minister said, and say "Sir Myer, good night".

The Temporary Chairman

Thank you, but I am not leaving yet.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That Clause 2 stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Warren

I was tempted to table an amendment on this clause, but I thought that it might be better to try to explore the Minister's intentions in regard to subsection (2)(c) where there is an opportunity given to him to give directions to any person carrying on a business involving the use of such a substance "— namely, fuel. Will he give an assurance that his Department will consult with other Government Departments which have the right and duty to regulate traffic and transportation procedure? I have in mind particularly the Ministry of Defence and its effect on air traffic control procedures in this country. I shall illustrate the size of the problem to give the Minister an idea why there should be coordination in the matter.

I have statistics from August to October inclusive for the three London Airports—Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. They show that in the London area we are now experiencing aircraft movements of civilian air traffic alone of the order of 500,000 per annum. One airline—British Caledonian—has provided certain hon. Members with information about its fuel usage. Fuel economy could be improved by co-ordination with Government Departments.

British Caledonian, with only 42,000 movements per annum—less than 9 per cent. of the total—has quoted five areas of improvement where the Government, particularly the Ministry of Defence and its agencies, like the Civil Aviation Authority, could help. The five areas in the whole year would give economies of 2 million gallons of fuel used by British Caledonian. The five areas would apply to all airlines. They are : air traffic control delays absorbed on the ground, with aircraft engines running—305,000 imperial gallons a year ; delayed climbs between take-off and cruising altitude, principally out of Gatwick, 840,000 imperial gallons ; holding at a radio beacon near Gatwick, 160,000 imperial gallons; certain radar problems at Gatwick, 45,000 imperial gallons ; and one direct routeing from Midhurst to Alderney would save 600,000 imperial gallons—a total for one airline of 2 million imperial gallons a year. That is the scale of saving that could be made by the Secretary of State and his colleagues in other Departments by ensuring that the Government do all they can in playing their part in helping this vital economy.

The five areas of improvement mean, therefore, that on the basis of one airline—British Caledonian—there could be a probable saving of 25 million to 30 million imperial gallons of fuel by all the airlines operating into this country. In addition, airlines operating over this country should be considered and there may be need for co-ordination with Western Europe. The Government called on us to save a little so that we would save a lot. But the Government have a principal part to play in saving a lot.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Eadie

My hon. Friend for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) tabled an amendment which was not accepted. I do not criticise that but he would have liked to speak on the Question "That the clause stand part of the Bill." Unfortunately, he is ill. The House will understand that the amendment is the kind of issue which my hon. Friend has pursued for a long time.

The hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Warren) said "If we each save a little, we'll all save a lot." I suspect he was really plagiarising a Scots phrase which you and I, Sir Myer, know well : Many a mickle mak's a muckle. It sounds better that way.

We will require some explanations before approving Clause 2. We are vesting such wide powers in the Secretary of State that, as a democratic Parliament, we must satisfy ourselves that an emergency could exist or does exist. I ask for clarification of the Secretary of State's Second Reading speech when he said : Our energy situation has already been transformed when it comes to gas. It is remarkable that in the North Sea we already have five fields in the southern basin and one in the northern basin. We have negotiated with the Norwegian Government to purchase their interests in gas in the Frigg field, and by the mid-1970s we shall be obtaining five times as much gas from these sources as we were using in the pre-natural gas era. This has been a remarkable achievement by the gas industry, and it certainly relieves our immediate problems."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th November 1973 ; Vol. 865, c. 35–36.] The House will be aware that before the Middle East war and the consequential energy crisis, doubts were being expressed about the ability of the gas industry to meet the demands of consumers if the annual appetite for North Sea gas increased at the current rate. It was said that there could be problems for industrial consumers in the Midlands, for instance.

We will attach importance to the replies we receive on this question. Was it the Minister's intention to encourage consumers' appetites for North Sea gas? Are we now to encourage more gas sales? Does the statement mean that new finds or agreements have overcome our anxieties about meeting fuel demands if the annual consumption trend continues?

The clause deals with powers to control all fuels and electricity, and the Minister owes the House some further explanation about how he intends to act. Are we to take it that in the interests of the country the security of supplies will override more than ever before questions of price? If the Government accept that principle, what steps have been taken to look at indigenous sources which are a potential source of energy?

It is appropriate when we are discussing the powers in a Bill which will last for a year or more to insist that the Government cannot be allowed to bask in whatever sunshine they may get from them. Are there plans afoot to explore the possibilities of shale deposits in places like Midlothian and West Lothian? The hon. Gentleman knows that the cost argument is fast disappearing. Reports have appeared in today's Press on this matter. Therefore this House is entitled to some positive thinking from the Government.

Then there is the possibility of getting oil from coal. I have raised this before on many occasions, and the hon. Gentleman knows that even if we were to use 1950 technology—and surely we have learnt something in 23 years—we could get 100 gallons of petrol and many other derivatives from one ton of coal. Therefore we are entitled to know what is being done by the Government in this connection.

It is well known that other countries are beginning to adopt this process. We as a nation have the technical know-how and expertise, and the Government should say what they are doing. It may be thought that I am at the moment riding one of my own hobby horses—

Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedford)


Mr. Eadie

I hope to satisfy the Minister and the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) to the contrary. I wonder whether their attention has been drawn to an article which appeared on 17th November in the Scotsman under the heading, US Navy try oil from coal. It tells how A battle-scarred World War II destroyer, the USS Johnston steamed out of port here today to become the first ship in history to use liquefied coal to power her engines. … For more than a year, the Navy have been working with the Department of the Interior to develop a clean-burning, economical substitute for the petroleum-based fuels the Navy consume at the rate of 42 million gallons a year. … Within a decade the Interior Department hope to have assisted in development of a number of privately-owned and operated coal conversion plants, each capable of producing 250 million cubic feet of gas a day—enough for a city of a half-million people—and 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of synthetic fuel oil a day. The Minister knows that I am talking about the art of the possible.

In case the Opposition are confronted with cost arguments, I have a proposition to make to the Minister. The US Navy has decided to do this to make sure that its ships stay afloat on the seas. We in this country have a "mothball" fleet. We have ships which may be in what is generally called cold storage, but the Navy regards them as the "mothball" fleet. The Under-Secretary should consult the Ministry of Defence on this point. I suggest that a couple of ships should be pulled out of the "mothball" fleet and the Ministry of Defence should start experimenting. In talking about energy we are also talking about defence, so why should not the Ministry of Defence bear the cost of such an experiment? I suggest that a couple of ships from the "mothball" fleet should be used for this experiment. If anything is learned from the experiment it can be passed on to industry and put to profitable use for the country as a whole. I think that many people would regard an experiment on the lines that I have suggested as one of the most constructive operations to have been carried out by the Ministry of Defence for a considerable time. Therefore, I put the proposition to the hon. Gentleman and suggest that he discusses it with the Government.

There are far-reaching powers of control in the clause and, indeed, in the Bill. Therefore, we must put questions to the Government on matters of administration.

Certain administrative powers are vested by Parliament in the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales. How does the Department propose to liaise with Scotland and Wales on the general administration of the far-reaching and widespread provisions in Clause 2?

For example, some of my hon. Friends have already received letters from remote areas in Scotland and in Wales. Several queries have been raised. We understand that, although petrol may be taken from the private motorist, public transport will not suffer. Apparently bus services will not be affected. But the hon. Gentleman must know, even with an elementary knowledge of geography, that there are no bus services in the islands. Therefore, if we are to pass legislation that is fair and equitable to everybody, consideration must be given to the people in the islands who, if a strict interpretation of the legislation is applied—I hope that I am wrong about this—will be marooned in their homes.

I visited the Western Isles this year. I can understand how the people in the islands of Uist and Benbencula, for example, must feel about what is proposed by the Government. Therefore, from a purely administrative point of view, the hon. Gentleman must give some assurances on the implications of Clause 2 and how it will operate. I hope that in terms of administration, with which I prefaced my remarks, he will explain how the provisions of Clause 2 will affect both Scotland and Wales.

9.30 p.m.

Although petrol ration coupons have been issued, we are hoping that there will be no petrol rationing. Nevertheless, the Government should comment on how they propose to act now, before, and if, petrol rationing comes. For example, there must be new petrol stations in prospect, perhaps half-built or about to be built. Planning permission must have been given by local authorities, and applications must have been received by planning committee. Does the Under-Secretary think that it is wise, in the circumstances, that applications for planning permission should be granted? Are the Government considering whether there should be at least a temporary stoppage of planning permission and the building of new petrol stations?

I could develop that argument. Various views have been expressed. One view is that we shall not require any rationing of energy supplies if the advice given by the Department is acted upon by the public, if we are careful and cautious, and try to use whatever sources of energy we have as intelligently and as carefully as possible. The Opposition wholeheartedly support that plea by the Government. Nevertheless, the other point of view is that we are in for a long period of great difficulty in the provision of energy; that, indeed, this is not a British crisis, but a world crisis, which is likely to continue for a considerable time.

Whatever view the Government emphasise tonight, they must make certain policy decisions to give assurance to the country and—I hope that this will not be thought to be conceited—to the Opposition. Do the Government intend to announce a stoppage of the building of new petrol stations and the granting of planning permission for such stations? In addition, the Government have a duty in relation to the design of new power stations. There must be some policy in relation to oil. Whether or not we get the oil resources, one thing is certain : oil will be very expensive to come by. One could probably say in general, to be fair, that there will be no cheap source of energy available from now on. Do the Government consider it wise that the prospect of building oil-fired power stations should still be in train? This decision needs very careful consideration

What I have said previously about the Middle East crisis may not have been accepted by everyone. But when the prospect of a whole series of oil-fired power stations was announced, realising the consequences of this I said that I considered it to be an act of vandalism for the Government to approve of or to encourage the building of power stations to be fired by that type of fuel.

I wonder whether the Minister can tell the Committee how he proposes to implement some of the controls. I am thinking, in particular, of the Central Electricity Generating Board. He is aware that in the generation of electricity the CEGB work on the principle of what is called "merit rating". I think my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) will agree that the accent used to be on cost, but there will now have to be a re-appraisal. The board used to say that under the merit rating system it was possible to generate more electricity from coal, but it had to consider the question of cost.

I have visited various power stations and found them to be wonders of technical efficiency. They calculate how much coal or oil will be burned—there is no option with nuclear power, because nuclear power stations have to be kept burning all the time and the generators cannot be allowed to run down—in order to generate enough electricity to meet the needs of the nation. This is very important, because if there is a shortage of oil but big stocks of coal the whole philosophy of merit rating must be reconsidered. The Minister knows that I have already expressed these views in the House. I am not prepared to leave responsibility with the Chairman of the CEGB. He must now be convinced that we have an energy crisis, but a couple of months ago he told us that the energy crisis was just a propaganda stunt and that there was plenty of energy in the world.

I know that the Minister is very knowledgeable about this matter, because he has extensively visited the installations of the CEGB and knows how the merit rating system works. He should tell the Committee tonight how the Government propose to exercise the energy controls under Clause 2.

I have spoken for a little longer than I intended, but I hope the Committee will realise that this is a very important matter, and that it would be very wrong of Parliament to skim over Clause 2 and the points which I have made.

Mr. Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)

The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) seems to think that Wales and Scotland have a monopoly in remote areas. I can take him to parts of my constituency which are every bit as remote, beautiful and sparsely populated as any part of the Western Isles. I hope that the Minister realises the grave hardship which will be caused by petrol rationing and the use of these powers in the remote areas where public transport is non-existent. The Minister has authorised an experiment in the use of postal buses for public services in Lincolnshire. This shows how bad the public transport system is in the remote areas of England.

I heard my hon. Friend's assurance to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg) about voluntary workers who use their cars to help the disabled and sick. I should like to mention the meals-on-wheels service in Gainsborough. In the last fuel crisis in 1956, the service, run by the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, was manned entirely by people who lived in Gainsborough and could walk to the centre to do their turn at providing the meals every day of the week. Most of those voluntary workers have now moved out to the surrounding villages and have to come in to do their shift. Presumably, that trip in to do an essential voluntary service is eligible for some supplementary help. I should be grateful for an assurance on that point.

Do the powers in Clause 2 allow the Minister to put a statutory 50 m.p.h. limit on the whole country? Over the last four days, I have noticed that in many areas the limit is being seriously observed. People are being very conscientious. Going on the Al from my home to my constituency, I see practically no one going at more than 50 m.p.h., and if anyone does he is flashed down by everyone else. The depressing thing is to go on the Ml. Whereas on the Al, between Grantham and Gainsborough, as many as 80 per cent. of the drivers are playing the game, on the Ml the percentage is as low as 60 per cent.

My hon. Friend knows that astronomical savings can be made at 50 m.p.h. It has been most encouraging, in the last few days, to discover how much money can be saved by various forms of fuel saving. There has been an enormous amount of waste in the past. I should prefer these powers to be used to impose a compulsory 50 m.p.h. limit on the whole country rather than have these dreadful ration books. I would rather we were asked to make a 20 per cent. saving than have any system of rationing. I should be grateful for an assurance on those two points.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I have been approached by a number of people who have studied the proposals tabled so far and who feel that the fair way of introducing petrol rationing, should it have to come about, would be to allow people to accumulate their coupons over a full 12 months. The reason is that if coupons have to be used or exchanged within six months of issue, as I understand is the present proposal, if rationing were imposed in December, people would have to use up their coupons by about May and would not be able to save them for their summer holidays, towing the family caravan or going on a tour of the British Isles, including Scotland and the Western Isles. Please let us have some flexibility. There is nothing wrong, surely, in a man saving his petrol coupons so that he can take his family on a well-deserved holiday in this country and at the same time possibly save some foreign currency.

9.45 p.m.

My next point relates to the supply of petrol to mopeds and their two-stroke engines. In many parts of the country for years they have been accustomed to buying petrol and oil separately at a garage, simply because there is not a ready-mixed pump available, and mixing them themselves. The present regulations are causing them considerable concern because in many cases they have to travel long distances to find a ready-mixed pump. I understand that it is permissible now to supply them with their fuel in cans, but more publicity could be given to that fact because many garage owners are not aware of it.

The problem of collecting fuel in cans also arises for a number of smaller farmers and horticulturists who have for years collected their petrol or fuel in several 5-gallon drums at a time and are now having difficulty in getting those drums filled by their normal suppliers. Many of them do not have 200-gallon fuel tanks on the premises. They have to depend on collection in cans. I hope it can be made even clearer than it is now that it is permissible for people in agriculture and horticulture in a small way to get their fuel in cans.

I want to make strongly a point which I am sure the Government appreciate but which has not been spelt out sufficiently to the country, namely how essential it is that agriculture and horticulture should get their full requirements in all forms of fuel. As hon. Members on both sides of the House realise, it is not a question of making a 10 per cent. cut in farming or horticultural enterprises—they cannot even make an economy of 1 per cent. If they are to be efficient today, farmers cannot afford to waste fuel, and the considerable quantities of fuel they use on the land—more than ever before with increasing mechanisation—are essential to the well-being of agriculture and horticulture.

I hope that the sort of difficulties which my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) talked about on Second Reading—he described how a number of farmers in Bedfordshire were having grave difficulties in obtaining supplies of fuel sufficient just to keep their machinery going—will not be repeated, because whether it be to heat and light intensive production units, to dry grain—which will be necessary again next summer—or just to keep the tractors going, no fuel is wasted in the countryside. It is all needed, and needed quickly when required by the farmers.

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) has said about life in the countryside in general, and how different the situation is from the last time our petrol supplies were threatened. In the years which have intervened since the last time we had petrol rationing—that was at the time of Suez—a great deal has happened in the countryside. The most significant thing has been the complete dismantling of the rural railway network. In Leicestershire, in 1959, we had in my own constituency no fewer than 25 railway stations all in use. Three years ago that number was reduced to one. We got a second reopened, so we now have two railway stations. The buses which were put on to replace withdrawn railway services were not patronised sufficiently, and they have been withdrawn.

Thus, today, the motor car is the only means by which people in rural communities, some of them quite large, can keep in touch with one another and get around. My hon. Friend will be interested to know that in Leicestershire there are more than 60 communities, some of more than 3,000 inhabitants, who have no public transport services of any form at all on any day of the week. Many slightly larger communities may have a weekly bus, and some places even one bus a day, but there are certainly more than 60 communities with no form of public transport at all—bus or train, good or bad.

I hope, therefore, that if the time comes when we have to work on the ration books which are being introduced my right hon. Friend will realise that life in the country is very different today from what it was 20 years ago. To give one or two examples of great significance, I would mention first that the country doctor who lived in a village and served that and a couple of nearby villages has now vanished. Doctors are grouped together in our new health centres, which are in large or fairly large towns, which may be 10 or 15 miles away from the rural communities which the centres also serve. The people in the villages have to go to those centres to see their doctors. One or two village shops keep going in a village, but in the main people have to shop in the big towns or cities. Pensioners find themselves in a still more serious position. In many of our villages the post offices have been closed, so that pensioners, two or three probably travelling together, now have to take lifts in cars to collect their pensions once a week.

There are many other reasons for which people who live in the country depend upon the motor car to get around. I suppose the most significant change of all is that, whereas 20 years ago most people who lived in the country communities worked in country districts and probably near where they lived, today most people living in the country travel by car to work in the towns and cities and do not live near their work.

I hope that I can rely upon my hon. Friend's sympathy with and understanding of the points that I have put forward, which are very significant.

Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)

My hon. Friends the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) and the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) have given very accurate and eloquent testimony to the social revolution which has overtaken the countryside in the last decade or so and which will make the whole concept of petrol rationing infinitely more complex in execution than that of which we had experience at the time of the Suez crisis. I shall not repeat their argument but merely observe and endorse it in respect of rural Shropshire, no less than in respect of Lincolnshire and Leicestershire.

The point I would direct my remarks to is that contained in subsection (1)(b). It is perhaps inevitable on a Thursday evening that the Committee should be thinly attended, but this is legislation of considerable implication. To begin with, any Bill which seeks to make temporary provision almost certainly carries implications of permanence judged by all our past experience. In Clause 10 it is proposed that it shall be in force until 30th November 1974, and, of course, there are provisions for its reactivation. I am concerned about the powers of price control that are vested in subsection (1)(b), and my anxiety is that the Government's intentions about this should be spelt out at somewhat greater length than hitherto. As I understand the Bill, there is no relationship of necessity between rationing and price control.

Subsection (1)(b) could be exercised whether or not rationing was in force. We therefore recognise, as did the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), that the days of cheap energy are past, and if he were not there to remind us of that fact certainly Sheikh Yamani indicates that the price is upwards, ever upwards.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (The Hartlepools)

I, too, am seeking a definition. Will the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) consider as he develops his argument whether or not this subsection deals with the regulation of price, which might be completely different from the control of price in the market, and whether there is any possibility of persuading the Minister as to the meaning of this provision? The control of prices, is distinct from the regulations about prices.

Mr. Biffen

That is a fascinating point. I should be doing the hon. Member a disservice if I were to try to develop his argument. However, I am grateful for his intervention.

My anxiety is that we shall try to persuade ourselves that by a tighter form of price control than would be exercised by the Price Commission, and which would operate through the application of subsection (1)(b), we shall have a depressing effect upon profit levels of the oil companies. This has to be said openly. It is not a particularly palatable observation to make but there is a danger in a situation of world oil shortage that the most vigorously regulated market, the market with the most rigorous control over oil prices and profits, will be the market which is bypassed by the great international trading companies that comprise the oil and petroleum world. They will get to the less-regulated and less-controlled markets of, for example, North America and West Germany. I am therefore anxious to establish that the Government do not intend to exercise price control more rigorously under subsection (1)(b) than would be the case if they relied merely on the Price Commission.

I would go further. I believe—

Itbeing Ten o'clock, THE CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again

Committee report Progress.

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