HC Deb 04 February 1974 vol 868 cc851-7
1. Mr. Jessel

asked the Minister for Energy if he will make a statement on current electricity supplies.

32. Mr. Palmer

asked the Minister for Energy if he will make a statement on the present availability of electricity supplies.

The Minister for Energy (Mr. Patrick Jenkin)

I have nothing to add to the statement I made in the House on 25th January 1974.

Mr. Jessel

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the figures for the ballot in the miners' unions for a strike today showed conclusively that the Government were right to restrain the use of electricity as from several months ago?

Mr. Jenkin

I shall not comment on the miners' ballot today as there is to be a meeting at No. 10 this afternoon with representatives of the TUC. But my hon. Friend is right; the figures of the rundown of coal stocks over the last few weeks have shown that we should now be in a parlous state had we not taken action as we did in December.

Mr. Palmer

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the electricity supply industry is as well organised as it should be to cope with the present emergency? What advice does he take on these matters?

Mr. Jenkin

The electricity supply industry is extremely well organised to cope with the emergency, in that stocks of fuel—both coal and oil—will give it a good many weeks of endurance, even if we have to face the damage caused by a miners' strike. We take advice from a wide variety of sources on these matters.

Mr. Stanbrook

What would the reserve stocks of coal be now if they had decreased at the rate of use prior to the three-day working week?

Mr. Jenkin

That is a hypothetical question. At the time we introduced the three-day week, the power engineers were still in dispute, we had no idea what the weather would be like, and we had many weeks of winter ahead of us. As it appeared to the Government then, and as it appears to most impartial commentators, the Government took the right action in calling for restrictions as early as they did to ensure that we had the endurance needed.

Mr. Benn

Is it not clear that if the Government had allowed free negotiations between the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers, the £1,500 million worth of production that has already been lost would not have been lost? Will the right hon. Gentleman convey to the Prime Minister, now that the silent majority in the mining industry has spoken in support of its leaders, that a settlement must be achieved on a fair and honourable basis?

Mr. Jenkin

I have already said that a meeting with representatives of the TUC is taking place at No. 10 this afternoon, and I do not wish to comment further on that. As to whether there will be freedom to negotiate, the right hon. Gentleman knows that the Government, like many other Western Governments, are determined to combat the domestic causes of inflation as best they can. The counter-inflation policy, as the reports of the Pay Board and the Price Commission have shown, is making a contribution to that end.

10. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Minister for Energy what legislative plans he has to compel householders to economise in the use of electricity.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin

None at present. I am confident that householders will continue to make sufficient economies voluntarily.

Mr. Hamilton

Can the Minister say where this silly and sinister idea came from? Does he not recognise that even if the worst happened and a strike took place, such legislation as has been suggested would be completely unacceptable and, indeed, unenforceable, and that a knock at the door at three o'clock in the morning is not part of "A Better Tomorrow" that we were promised?

Mr. Jenkin

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there would be grave objections to legislation of this sort, but I think he will be aware that many industrialists who are facing extreme difficulties as a result of the restrictions which have been imposed on them feel that, from their point of view, it would not be unreasonable to impose restrictions on householders. Every time I have referred to this possibility I have been very careful to stress that any such controls have serious objections. The problem of enforcement to which the hon. Gentleman refers is not the least of those.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that if the miners' strike does take place rota disconnections to domestic consumers will be inevitable, and can he predict when that might start to take effect?

Mr. Jenkin

That is a hypothetical question. I recognise that rota cuts might well be one of the ways in which the Government would have to respond to a strike, but I should not want to commit myself on that today.

Mr. Frank Allaun

How can the Minister justify the farce of closing down television at 10.30 pm, since it saves less than one-thousandth of a normal day's consumption? Is this part of the Government's psychological warfare—its propaganda to put the people against the miners? If so, it is failing.

Mr. Jenkin

I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not done with that in mind at all. At a time when it is necessary to ask the public to make substantial economies in the domestic use of electricity, now to relax in terms of television hours would, I think, not be understood.

Mr. Rost

Would not the public respond even more to voluntary restraint if more were done to switch off more of the public motorway and road lighting than has already been done?

Mr. Robert C. Brown

Switch off dishwashers.

Mr. Jenkin

I can tell my hon. Friend that the vast majority of local authorities—with exceptions that could perhaps be numbered on the fingers of one hand—are collaborating fully with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries, who has called for a 50 per cent. cut in the use of electricity for street lighting. This is being done by many authorities in a very sophisticated way, keeping lights on the most dangerous roads and reducing them substantially on roads where the danger is less. I pay tribute to local authorities for their collaboration in this matter.

Mr. Allaun

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I shall raise the matter on the Adjournment.

19. Mr. Willey

asked the Minister for Energy whether he will provide for discretion to be exercised in the application of emergency regulations on the supply and consumption of electricity to take account of difficulties caused on religious grounds.

The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Peter Emery)

A general discretion is impracticable, but the option allowing industry and commerce to use electricity on Wednesday instead of Saturday will, I hope, alleviate these difficulties.

Mr. Willey

While agreeing that there has been an improvement, may I ask whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that it is unusual and exceptional to ride roughshod over religious beliefs without any consultation? Now that he has the opportunity, will he ensure that these consultations take place? Is he aware that in my constituency the Jewish community was particularly hard hit by the first version of the three-day week?

Mr. Emery

I personally have had consultations with representatives of a number of Jewish organisations, including a representation from the Chief Rabbi, so it would be quite wrong to suggest that we did not give serious consideration to the views that were expressed.

Mr. Mikardo

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that consultation after a decision has been taken and announced is not consultation at all? It is the setting down of a diktat. Is he also aware that there is a small but significant number of firms in my constituency with owners and/or employees who are observing Jews which have still not been given any concession, and their three-day week is de facto a a one-and-a-half day week?

Mr. Emery

As I probably knew the hon. Gentleman's constituency even before he did—

Mr. Mikardo

Before 1930?

Mr. Emery

Before the hon. Gentleman was the Member. I understand the position of small industries there, the problem of the orthodox Jew, and work on Friday, which is a serious matter and has not been alleviated by the Wednesday and Saturday recommendation. I realise that, and this matter is being seriously considered by the Government.

Mr. James Johnson

Does the Minister exercise any of his famous discretion in the matter of sport? Is he aware, for example, that 12 men can play badminton for four or five hours in the evening in a school ablaze with light, while householders nearby are being exhorted by people like himself to economise? Does the right hon. Gentleman use his discretion in this matter?

Mr. Emery

Certainly my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for sport has cooperated with my Department in order to ensure that wherever lighting is used indoors for sporting purposes it is kept to the minimum.


Mr. Mikardo

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you be good enough, with your usual kindness to hon. Members, to provide an opportunity to the Under-Secretary of State for Energy to withdraw his statement that he knew my constituency before I did, in view of the fact that I lived in it 45 years ago, that I was married in it 42 years ago, and that my two daughters were born in it 41 years ago and 38 years ago, respectively?

Mr. Emery

I shall be delighted to withdraw any inference against the hon. Gentleman, and I state only that I was the candidate for the constituency 25 years ago.

31. Mr. J. H. Osborn

asked the Minister for Energy what is his latest estimate of the cost per kilowatt of electricity supplies to the national grid based on fuel oil at current prices, and on estimated prices for 1974 on home-produced coal assuming all subsidies are removed and the latest National Coal Board offer is implemented, imported coal, and nuclear sources, respectively.

Mr. Emery

Future generating costs will depend on a large number of factors which it is impossible to quantify. I am asking the Chairman of the CEGB to write to my hon. Friend on current costs.

Mr. Osborn

Is it not important that the nation should have more information about this? Is it not a fact that electricity generated from oil is still more expensive than electricity generated from coal? Is it not also true that if the CEGB were charged economic prices by the NCB, particularly when any offer to the miners is implemented, and if subsidies were included in that price, imported coal would be competitive with home-produced coal?

Mr. Emery

The hon. Gentleman will realise that the price of fuel oil will depend very considerably on the arrangements which are being made at the moment concerning the importation of oil into this country. To believe that one can give a single figure at this time would be unrealistic, but I agree completely that there is need for these factors to be made known to the public, when they can be published.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Do not those facts demonstrate clearly that the only sensible thing for the Government to do now is to negotiate a sensible agreement with the miners?

Mr. Emery

The hon. Gentleman will realise from the tone of all the questions today that the Government believe that there is an absolute need to continue with a degree of counter-inflation policy but at the same time to be able to ensure that a settlement with the miners can be made. That is what the present negotiations are about.

Mr. Ridley

Does not my hon. Friend agree that the price of coal can now rise a great deal while still remaining competitive with oil and other fuels? Will he estimate by how much the price of coal could rise while remaining competitive?

Mr. Emery

No. Sir. It is impossible at this stage even to know what the average price of imported oil will be over the next three months.

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