HC Deb 18 January 1974 vol 867 cc1061-71
Mr. Harold Wilson

(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether the public statement of the Secretary of State for Energy about coal supplies to the steel industry and the introduction of a four-day week in manufacturing industry in seven days represents the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Edward Heath)

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Wilson

May I put further questions to the Prime Minister? First, on the continuing contempt of Parliament, will he say why this important statement was not made in both Houses of Parliament? Since the three-day-week announcement was made by the Prime Minister himself in this House, why did we not have a Minister in this House to tell us of the big change? Why did the noble Lord, knowing that he was already due to go to the party of industrial correspondents at 5 p.m., at 3.30 p.m., in answer to a question specifically related to these issues, give an entirely different impression in another place? If, as we have now read, this matter was decided after full discussion in the Cabinet yesterday, why did not the Prime Minister reveal the decision himself when he was answering questions?

Further, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the sudden change of policy hardens public feeling that the length of the working week is being and has been used for electoral purposes, particularly since facts and figures given by the Government about coal stocks and about oil have been totally contradictory, even within the last week? Will he inform us why the Minister of State with whom he has generously provided this House only two days ago gave warning of the need for fresh domestic lighting restrictions, and earlier this week was curdling the nation's blood with fears of sewage flooding out into the streets because of the desperate electricity situation?

Finally, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there will be increasing feeling that the earlier policy was deliberately hardened up to incite workers generally against miners and that when this failed, and with the Government continuing to reject the TUC response to what the Secretary of State held out to them at Christmas, they have now decided this week to soften the restrictions for electoral reasons?

The Prime Minister

I cannot accept the right hon. Gentleman's allegations. I will deal with the facts of the case. My right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, speaking in another place last night, gave that House his assurance that no discourtesy was intended to it and he expressed his regret if the noble Members of another place felt that he had been discourteous. He had made a judgment, and if it was wrong he told the House that he freely accepted responsibility for it. On behalf of the Minister for Energy and myself, I can give the same assurance to this House. The Minister for Energy cannot be here this morning because he is carrying out engagements which have long been arranged in another place, and I am dealing with the Question of the right hon. Gentleman myself.

On the facts of the situation, the statistics were published yesterday afternoon. In accordance with the undertaking given to this House, they were sent across to the Library and are now available in the Vote Office. So the information is available to the House. What my right hon. and noble Friend did was to say that stocks now permitted the full restoration of electricity supplies to the steel industry. Changes have been made in other industries in recent weeks because of representations to the Department and the present Secretary of State without statements being made in cither House about them.

Regarding any change concerning the steel industry, particularly the private sector of that industry, which will be producing more as a result of the change in electricity supplies, it is not customary to make statements about changes in particular industries in this respect.

The right hon. Gentleman has spoken—I can quite understand him using the words from what has appeared in the Press—about "decisions" concerning the four-day working week. That is not what my right hon. and noble Friend announced. What he announced was that the present stocks, in our judgment, permit of relaxation concerning electricity supply to industry, and he was, therefore, inviting for consultation the CBI and TUC, as well as other bodies. This was not a decision about a four-day working week. It was an invitation to the CBI and the TUC. After all, right hon. and hon. Members of the Opposition have echoed the criticism which has been made by the TUC about lack of consultation. My right hon. and noble Friend has invited them for consultation in order to discuss how best the additional resources which are now available can be used. In particular, he mentioned different ways in which it could be done, on which he wishes to have the views of industry and of the TUC.

The CBI has put forward the proposal of an overlapping three-day working week. The question put to my right hon. and noble Friend was whether a four-day working week might be a way of doing it, to which he said that it was one way, or that there may be a further way of a more flexible use of the power available over a longer working week.

No decision has been reached on any of these matters. The consultations will be carried through.

I think the House will agree that it is not usual in the House to make a statement announcing that one is entering into consultations. It is right that when a decision——[Interruption.] If hon. Members opposite want to use this occasion to make a political row they can do so. When decisions are reached after consultation, it is right that a statement should be made to the House.

Concerning the consultations, I have invited the TUC to meet me on Monday in order to discuss with the Government first, the question of the working week ; second, the question of the general economic situation—which we do from time to time—and third, the question of its meeting last Wednesday.

Mr. Wilson

The House will be glad to hear the last few words of the right hon. Gentleman's statement. I still find it difficult to know why he could not have said it yesterday in the House of Commons. But in view of the widespread scepticism about the Government's figures and their policies which are said to depend on them, which what he has said this morning has done nothing to remove, will the right hon. Gentleman now consider setting up a Select Committee of the House to examine the whole record of the Government in the matter of the three-day working week? Further, the right hon. Gentleman said just now that earlier changes had not been announced in Parliament when there were concessions to individual industries, but we had the Lord President's moving passage about hairdressers—a very important matter—in the House recently.

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer one question that was put repeatedly in the debate and was dealt with by the noble Lord yesterday, though no explanation was given? Unless the television restrictions were for what the Government called public psychology, to stir up some of the public against the miners, will the Government, in the new situation, now return to normal television hours?

The Prime Minister

Full statistics are being and have been published. There is absolutely no justification for the right hon. Gentleman to demand the setting-up of a Select Committee to look into this matter.

Mr. Leadbitter

We do not believe the right hon. Gentleman.

The Prime Minister

The announcement about hairdressing was made in a Press notice and was referred to later by my right hon. Friend in the debate which took place.

Concerning television, it is essential—I wish to emphasise this, as my right hon. and noble Friend and my right hon. Friend have done in the past week constantly—that, if we are to make as much electricity available to industry as possible, there should still be the greatest economy in domestic and other use. That is absolutely essential.

It is for a number of reasons that the stocks have improved in the power stations and overall during the past weeks. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to question the figures, I can tell him that, compared with a rundown of 3.6 million tons of coal in the five weeks of the miners' overtime ban preceding the imposition of the restrictions which I announced, in the following four weeks stocks fell by only 1.8 million tons, even though two of those weeks were holiday weeks in which supplies were reduced. That shows the contrast with what was happening before the restrictions were imposed and how essential they were. We have been helped by the return to work of the power workers, because that now permits us to have the full use of nuclear power in this country, which we were not getting at the time. The interference of transportation of fuel supplies has not been accelerated and neither has the coal production been further decreased.

Therefore, the Government took measures which the whole of industry stated publicly at the time were a measure of prudence. Because we have also been helped by our diplomacy in securing greater supplies of crude oil, we are now in a position to give greater supplies of energy to industry. I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would have welcomed this, which was a result of Government action.

Mr. Fell

Can my right hon. Friend imagine what the Leader of the Opposition would have been saying this morning had my right hon. Friend taken none of these steps and had we had a cold spell and now practically a no-day working week? Will my right hon. Friend take comfort from the fact that the country—[Interruption.] Opposition Members must know me well enough to know that I shall say what I want to say, whatever they say.

Will my right hon. Friend take comfort from the fact that the people of this country will be grateful for the statement he has made this morning and for what was done yesterday, in that they will be grateful for any relief that may come about through good handling of the energy situation and through the relaxation that will come about through that good handling and through the clement weather that we have been experiencing?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. If we had now found ourselves in a position in which the power engineers had not returned to work, in which the coal situation had been further escalated, in which the transportation difficulties had further increased and in which stocks were approaching the level at which there was interference with supplies vital to the life of the country, the Leader of the Opposition and his hon. Friends would have been condemning the Government wholeheartedly, and there would have been justification for their doing so. There is absolutely no justification for their condemning a prudent policy which has now put us into a position in which we can restore further energy supplies to industry.

But I must emphasise two things to the House. First, as a result of what is happening in the pits, we can still not provide industry with all the supplies that it needs. This particularly applies to coking coal, which therefore still affects the production of steel in this country, which is essential for the rest of our industry. That fact must be faced. I also wish to emphasise again that industry's supplies can be kept up only providing that the domestic economies are maintained to the utmost.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Prime Minister aware that if he is seriously saying that, when a Government enter into a commitment to have talks which are of vital importance to the economy, there is no obligation to make a statement to this House unless it is an actual decision, that proposition is flying in the face of precedent? The number of cases which could be cited to prove the right hon. Gentleman wrong are legion. Is he aware, therefore, that the way in which this has been leaked out or informed to the nation through the Press is greatly resented in the House? Is it the Prime Minister's view, as expressed by the noble Lord, that this is merely a minor adjustment? It would be interesting to know whether that is the right hon. Gentleman's view.

Finally, is the Prime Minister aware that, if we have a Government whose members tell us one day to brush our teeth in the dark but on the next day are telling us that there may be a four-day or five-day working week, with a Government capable of such oscillation it becomes even more important that the House keeps some control over what is happening?

The Prime Minister

As to discussions, I have constantly entered into discussions with the various organisations, including the CBI and the TUC, without making a statement to this House. The right hon. Gentleman knows that perfectly well.

On the right hon. Gentleman's last point, I have emphasised that all the requests made to the public by my right hon. Friend stand. There is the greatest need for domestic economy in the use of electricity. I would have hoped that, as a responsible leader of a party, the right hon. Gentleman would have endorsed those requests instead of trying to ridicule what the people of this country have done in response, which has been in part responsible for allowing us to increase the electricity supplies to this country.

On the subject of steel, the change should permit crude steel supplies to be raised by about 7 per cent. in total. That is why my right hon. and noble Friend used the phrase which in fact he used. It is an increase of 7 per cent. as a result of the increase in electricity.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if he wishes to have the endorsement of leaders of various political parties in this country he will find it much more easy to get it if a statement is made in this House and not in correspondence or at gatherings at which we are not present?

The Prime Minister

I fully accept that point. But the right hon. Gentleman must acknowledge from his experience that it is a matter of judgment as to which statements are made to the House and which are not. It is a constant process with Governments of both parties, when statistics are issued, to make statements about them to the Press. Surely this has long been accepted. It is valued by the Press, and the House accepts it. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to make a political fuss, that is up to him.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson

Is it not clear that the Leader of the Opposition can no longer disguise his disappointment at this better news for Britain? Would my right hon. Friend not agree that if we had followed the foreign policy which the right hon. Gentleman indicated during the Middle East war we would have both petrol rationing and a complete standstill in British industry today?

The Prime Minister

I fear my hon. Friend is absolutely right. That would have been the consequence if we had followed the advice of the Leader of the Opposition. I am always sorry that the right hon. Gentleman finds it so difficult to accept any reasonably good news for the British people.

Mr. Jay

If the Government have not been playing politics, is it not now clear that they badly miscalculated in December and then panicked? Is it not a fact that, for the sake of British industry, if, like Sweden, we had rationed petrol and made the necessary switches of crude supplies, we need never have had a three-day week at all and probably we would have had a four-day week now?

The Prime Minister

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman does not understand the relationship between petrol rationing and crude supplies. If he is concerned with the question of supplies for power stations, which has always been the crucial factor. I want to give the figures for the eight weeks 27–28th October to 15–16th December, which is the time of the imposition of restrictions, in 1972 and 1973. The rundown in 1972 was 200,000 tons. The rundown in 1973 was 4.1 million tons. Those are the essential facts. Nobody can deny them, and they have got to be accepted.

Mr. Cormack

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, although there could be some minor criticism of the way in which the announcement was made, everybody who has the interest of this country at heart will be delighted by its substance and will wish my right hon. Friend success in his negotiations on Monday?

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend. I told the House at the beginning that my right hon. and noble Friend had told the other place that if he had made a misjudgment he regretted it and no discourtesy was intended to the House. I have made exactly the same statement in this House, and in my experience during the last 20 years and more it has been customary to accept it.

Mr. Richard

Can the right hon. Gentleman help a little more? Does he say that the possibility of this relaxation was foreseen when the three-day week was first introduced? If it was, why was the country not told so? If it was and if there was the possibility of a relaxation so far as the steel industry is concerned, why did he make such militant noises to an American newspaper?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. and learned Gentleman will consult the speech which I made to the House in the debate following the restrictions, he will see that I said clearly that we would not keep these on a day longer than was necessary. I have constantly told the House in answer to supplementary questions that as soon as there could be any improvement in the situation we would at once introduce it.

On the subject of my interview with the New York Times, I said that we were making preparations to enable industry to work on a reasonable and orderly basis and to keep essential services going in this country through to the spring. Our judgment is that we can do that and produce an improvement in supplies for industry. We shall continue to watch this, and if any of the factors change we shall make a corresponding announcement. That is obvious. If the domestic economies are not secured, obviously the whole situation for industry has to be looked at again. On the other hand, if we get still more domestic economies as spring approaches, supplies to industry can no doubt be improved. This is a prudent and wise way of handling the situation.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

On the subject of television, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a pity that the television cameras are not in the Chamber this morning to reveal to the nation the bogus and bad-tempered electioneering of the Opposition?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I would welcome them here.

Mr. Sheldon

Is the Prime Minister aware that the most serious aspect of all of this is the two voices which we hear on this issue from the Minister for Energy and the Secretary of State for Energy? What is really very important is the fact that the Minister for Energy himself made it clear that electricity was not being saved by the amount required, and that was the whole purpose of his request about brushing one's teeth and so on? A few days later we hear of a relaxation. Will the Prime Minister cease playing politics with industry in this country?

The Prime Minister

The only confusion is in the hon. Gentleman's mind. He cannot distinguish between the use of electricity for domestic purposes and for industrial purposes. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy was urging still greater economy in domestic use, and I fully support those requests. What is more, savings in domestic use have been made, and I think it was wise of my right hon. Friend to remind the public through the media of what is still required from them most urgently.

Mr. Fowler

Is it not a fact that this relaxation is dependent upon the miners not intensifying their present action? Is it not also a fact that to try to pretend, as the Leader of the Opposition has done, that we are out of the wood is deliberately misleading the country and is the most arrant nonsense?

The Prime Minister

I told the House that the discussions which are to take place are to deal with the best use, in the view of industry and of the TUC, of what supplies are available. We cannot yet get back to full supplies for industry, and, in particular, so long as the industrial action continues we cannot get the steel industry back to full production. I have made that absolutely plain. If in any of the related industrial spheres action is introduced or escalated it is bound to have an effect on our fuel supplies and the Government will always take the necessary action.

Mr. John Mendelson

As it is now agreed on both sides of industry—the right hon. Gentleman must be aware from his correspondence that that is so—that the most urgent task is to get the country back to work, how can the right hon. Gentleman explain the delay in making a further approach to the Trades Union Congress? Why is not this approach taking place today, and why is the right hon. Gentleman not instructing the Secretary of State to call upon the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers to start new negotiations? Why are four, five or six days being allowed to slip by before the Government take the necessary action?

The Prime Minister

As I said yesterday, we had been in touch with the TUC before I came to the House, and Monday is the best day to have a meeting. That is the simple answer.

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