HC Deb 21 October 1976 vol 917 cc1793-822
Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

As I was saying in moving Amendment No. 47, the debate is exploratory. We have 50 m.p.h. and 60 m.p.h. so-called temporary speed limits, introduced as a fuel economy measure in 1974. They were renewed in 1975 and they come up for further renewal, if that is the Government's decision, in about four weeks' time.

The effect of the Act with which we are dealing is, I understand, not to renew those limits but to give the Government power to make speed limit orders on fuel economy grounds, but if the Government want to continue with the limits they must come back to the House for renewal. When I say "come back", let us be clear exactly what that means. The procedure is by negative resolution. Last year the Government renewed these limits but allowed the House only 12 minutes' debate. The debate was adjourned in December and was never resumed, in spite of all requests.

The Government behaved in a discreditable and shabby manner. Thousands of motorists have been prosecuted under this law, yet Parliament was refused any effective means of challenging or questioning the proposals. That is not treatment that the Government would have attempted in any other part of the criminal law. With the motorist their attitude seems to be that anything goes.

That is in the past. It gives me no great confidence in the Government's future actions. Before we can judge whether the powers which are the subject of the amendment are necessary, we must know the Government's plans. The 50 m.p.h. and 60 m.p.h. limits will lapse at the end of the next month unless the Government move to continue them. The Government must already have made up their mind whether they intend to go ahead with them. The House, having a rare opportunity to debate the question, will want to know what decision has been made by the Department of Transport.

I should like to say why I believe that these limits should be scrapped. First, they lead to uncertainty and confusion. There is now a plethora of speed limits—30 m.p.h., 40 m.p.h., 50 m.p.h., 60 m.p.h. and 70 m.p.h. By any standard there are too many. What is worse, two of them—the 50 m.p.h. and 60 m.p.h. limits—are unmarked. Although the legal position has changed, no signs mark that change.

Motorists on relatively short journeys can travel through a bewildering number of different speed limits when those changes are unmarked. That breaks the golden rule that every effort must be made to make the motorist aware of the law. Certainly the motorist in the United States is made aware of the situation, because in that country a general 55 m.p.h. limit operates. At least the motorist knows the position. The limit in the United States has been not only marked but extensively advertised on television and in the Press. However, in the United Kingdom the Government have not attempted to get the message across. Frankly, their position is that they do not give a damn for the motorist. Nevertheless, let them reflect that a law that leads to genuine confusion is bad law—and our present system amounts to just that.

I have no sympathy for the motorist who flagrantly ignores speed limits—and such people certainly exist in the total number of prosecutions. In the last two years, no fewer than 25,000 motorists have been prosecuted for failing to observe unmarked 50- or 60-mph limits, and many feel a great sense of injustice. It should be an unwavering principle that the law should not only be fair but should be seen to be fair.

Generally, relations between the police and the public are exceptionally good, and the Government should aim to maintain that situation. Let them not forget the point made by the Willink Committee on the police in 1962 that one of the most critical areas to consider is the relationship between the police and the motorist. If that relationship is wrong, a great deal of the relationship between the police and the public in general will be wrong.

The 50- and 60-mph limits are justified on the ground that they are fuel-economy measures. Indeed, that is why they appear in the Energy Bill. How much fuel do the Government estimate is being saved by these limits? To date, the Government have been remarkably unforthcoming on this matter, but the fuel-saving aspect is the whole justification for these provisions. If the Government cannot give reliable information on the savings, an already crumbling case will collapse into ruins.

The Government, when pressed, sometimes justify the measure on grounds of road safety. As a transport spokesman, I regard that argument as important, but I wish to know the evidence. However, that does not affect our main case—namely, that the law should be simpler. If the Government want to argue on road safety grounds, let them come forward with the evidence, and certainly with a much simpler procedure than the present one.

There is strong public feeling on this matter. The motoring magazine Autocar has campaigned strongly and vigorously, and I pay full tribute to that journal for its efforts. We all know from the many petitions that have been presented to Parliament that many motorists feel very strongly about this matter. For far too long the Government have ducked a debate. They can do so no longer. Renewal of these powers will come before the Department of Transport during the next few weeks, and at this stage the Government must know their plan. We shall regard it as totally unsatisfactory if the Government's reply this evening is simply to the effect that they are still considering the subject.

The time has come for the Government to come clean on this issue. They have a shabby record. If the Minister does not believe it, I suggest that he reads the history of this matter. I hope that the Minister can at least do something partly to redeem that record.

Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

The whole House, indeed the whole country, is familiar with the atmosphere of torpor and congestion that generally pervades the roads following the introduction of these two temporary speed limits. Yet the curious anomaly persists that, although these limits were introduced for one reason, their retention is defended for a totally different reason. They were introduced, we were told, to save fuel, as part of some window-dressing exercise at the time of the energy crisis. It presumably looked good, and perhaps it was part of the habitual practice which occurs at times of crisis to try to impress our creditors.

Even at that time, it was admitted that it would save only a fraction of a fraction of the fuel costs. Since then, as has been said, 25,000 people have been prosecuted. But the reason for retaining the limits has shifted from that of saving energy to that of preventing accidents. Yet there is no statistical evidence to show that accidents are prevented by this expedient.

Leaving aside the curious practice of defending a measure on grounds totally separate from those that were originally put forward for its introduction, there is a total absence of any statistical evidence, other than of the simplest kind, relating the total number of accidents to previous years. This ignores the number of vehicles on the roads and the fact that the increased cost of petrol probably means that people use their cars less. Accidents are a function of total mileage, and it seems probable that people are doing, on average, a smaller mileage. The statistics are suspect in the general way in which they have been presented.

Another reason sometimes produced, one which was given to me by the former Transport Minister in reply to a Question, is "In any case, most motorists observe the limits". That is hardly surprising when we consider the heavy penalties to which they are subjected. If a motorist's licence is endorsed three times in three years for exceeding the speed limit, it is taken away. The House will agree that one of the heaviest penalties which an otherwise law-abiding citizen can pay is to be deprived of the means of getting to and from work, enjoying his leisure and taking out his family. When this is simply for having infringed a largely bogus measure it is an enormous penalty.

The argument that everyone observes the limits and, therefore, those limits can be kept because people are accepting them is highly specious. Psychiatrists tell us that people exceed the speed limit because they have a super-abundance of male hormones, or some such fashionable argument. To those who contend that motorists are observing the limits, it can be said that if the speed limit was reduced to 20 m.p.h. and was enforced—if you will forgive a certain medical crudity, Mr. Deputy Speaker—by the castration on the spot of those exceeding it, it is possible that the deterrent effect would mean that there would be no accidents at all. It could be said "What a splendid measure this is".

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that nearly all motorists suffer from a disease known as the "malady of supposed urgency?"

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Clark

I suppose that the idea of the malady of supposed urgency has some substance at times, but I cannot accept that it should be associated with penalties of such severity as are attached to these statutory requirements. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) said, the requirements are not accompanied by warning signs. People put their driving licences on the line, without any means of knowing the sort of circumstances in which they are likely to be apprehended.

Moreover, as always happens with the introduction of legislation of this kind, much money is spent to make it even easier to apprehend law-breakers. Anyone who drives on a motorway sees the raised lay-bys marked "Police vehicles only" all over the country. Who pays for them—the central Exchequer or the local authority? Somebody has paid for them.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Secretary of State for Transport were present it might be possible to address these questions with some hope of answer?

The Minister of State, Department of Energy (Dr. J. Dickson Mabon)

My hon. Friend and I are here to give answers.

Mr. Clark

I hear what the Minister says, but my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) made an important point. As I recall it, on the last occasion this subject was discussed in the House the Secretary of State's predecessor was present but the total time then available to the House was about nine minutes. On this occasion, I do not know whether hon. Members on either side think it satisfactory that a Minister in charge of an entirely different Department claims that he is empowered to give answers. We shall see what answers he gives, but it remains unsatisfactory that we are compelled to consider this question in depth on an occasion of this kind.

I was speaking about expenditure. Additional expense has been incurred in installing comprehensive radar equipment in police cars solely for the purpose of measuring the speed of motor cars, and, be it noted, motor cars travelling in a straight line. It cannot be done when a motorist is executing a dangerous manoeuvre or going round a corner, for example. The speed can be measured only when vehicles are travelling in a straight line. I doubt that the putative saving in fuel costs is as great as the extra expenditure on the various items of equipment, structural modifications alongside motorways and the rest.

I am sure that all my hon. Friends agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield when he suggests that this is all part of the Government's congenital nature, in that they seek to regiment every kind of private activity. Here is a wonderful opportunity for them. They can pretend that it has something to do with saving fuel, and they then bring in not one but three different categories of restriction on people without giving them the means of knowing at any given moment the sort of restriction to which they are subject. I know that there is a distinction between dual-carriageway and single-carriageway roads, but this distinction can be blurred, depending upon whether the two carriageways are separated by a continuous strip of paving, a grass strip or white lines of varying width.

In my view, the Government welcome these restrictions because they welcome anything of this kind which is unclear, since one can then always find in favour of the central authority which seeks to regiment individual citizens. One of the means which gives independence, a certain unpredictability and an entrée into the world of material possessions is the motor car, and to this the Government have always objected most. They approve of people who make motor cars—we all know about that—but those who possess and use motor cars have been victimised by all kinds of petty legislation. This may relate to seat belts, to dazzling them with headlights at night or to paying more for the MOT test.

There are endless varities of petty niggling laws which are being imposed on the motorist. They are not being imposed in the interests of road safety or of energy conservation. Such arguments are spurious. Their real purpose is to regiment the motorist, and we are determined to lift this burden from his shoulders.

Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire, South-East)

In my view, the speed limits of 50 and 60 m.p.h. have become counterproductive in terms of energy conservation. I would be the first to support them if it could be shown that it was sensible to put them on a compulsory basis and if it could be proved that the limits were making a useful contribution to energy conservation, but this is not so. I believe that people are anxious to conserve fuel themselves by better motoring practice and that they are prepared to discipline themselves simply because of the market price of petrol. This is a far better discipline and incentive than a restrictive measure which only adds to the difficulties of enforcement and involves extra costs. It also antagonises a large section of the community against a bureaucracy which seems to be insensitive to the real needs of the situation.

I hope that the Government will accept that the time has come to abandon these particular restrictions. I hope that they will use part of their publicity and promotion campaign as well as their energy-saving campaign to advise those motorists—only a small minority who need reminding from time to time—how much money they can save on fuel by sensible driving practices, including voluntary restraint in the use of the accelerator. This would be far more sensible and would ensure far more co-operation from the public and less antagonism towards the police and bureaucracy, as well as making a far more valuable contribution to energy saving.

On the question of penalties I think it is quite immoral—not merely unfair, but downright immoral—that penalties should be imposed which lead to the cancellation of the right to drive a vehicle after three offences which have nothing to do with driving dangerously or endangering the public. If one were fined for speeding and prosecuted for dangerous driving, there would be every justification for eventually having one's licence removed, but to be fined in the interests of energy conservation for exceeding an arbitrary speed limit should not be an offence of the same weight as that of endangering the public. There is an important moral distinction here.

Mr. Viggers

I am not proud to make this speech. I have an interest to declare which is known, no doubt, to the magistrates at Petersfield in Hampshire. I was convicted of exceeding the 50-mph speed limit.

This subject has nothing whatever to do with party politics. If we on this side were in power, I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) would be defending this measure from the Government Benches against attacks by the Labour Party. This is an example of the torpor of Government. We saw it with the Drought Bill, when the country baked and roasted and nothing happened until the drought became obvious even to civil servants and the Government. The impositions were then put on. When the floods came, the Government did nothing and the Minister with responsibility in the matter travelled around the West Country turning on standpipes in flood conditions.

We now face a similar situation. The energy crisis caused the imposition of speed limits which the Government have failed to remove. They should do so now. The only argument in favour of the limits is fuel saving. They may be defended on the basis of road safety, but that is not why they were imposed originally. The saving of fuel is not sufficient cause for maintaining the limits, for one overwhelming reason.

I give you my word, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I trust you will accept it, that I did not know when I was charged with exceeding 50 mph that the limits were still in force. As a lawyer and a Member of Parliament, I ought to have known——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

I do not know whether the hon. Member is asking me to accept or reject his lack of knowledge on these matters, but what he has just told us is characteristic of lawyers.

Mr. Viggers

I am almost silenced by your witty intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not know that the limits were still in force. If I did not know, how could the 2 million people in this country who are incapable of reading understand that the limits are still in force? I put it to the Government that the uncertainty of the present position is so great that there must be vast numbers among the 25,000 people found guilty of motoring offences who had no idea that they were guilty of an offence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield made an important point when he said that it was vital for the police not to be exposed to a situation in which they were charging persons who were innocent of intent. If I did not know that the speed limits were in force, how on earth could the "man on the Clapham omnibus" know?

Mr. Alan Clark

On a point of order. Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would not wish it to be thought that I was concealing an interest, and, therefore, I too should declare convictions in the past and prosecutions pending.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has made that submission to the House. I can assure him that he will not be castrated.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

Is it necessary to declare one's bills, past or present, in this House, Mr. Deputy Speaker? I do not consider a fine to be an interest in this matter.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

If one has been fined, it is helpful to declare that fact.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Wiggin

In that case I, too, must declare that I have an endorsement on my licence for speeding with a trailer.

We often hear comments from constituents and others that the value of this House is constantly being debased. I find it appalling and astonishing that such an important matter, which affects millions of people, should be debated in this way, late on a Thursday when both sides of the House know that the rest of the business is not sufficiently controversial to require a full attendance. This is not the first time that this situation has occurred. The order was dismissed in nine minutes on the last occasion when it was brought before the House.

Apparently there was not time to debate the seat belts Bill last week, yet we found time to discuss the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill and next week we shall be considering a Bill dealing with endangered species. It is appalling that matters of life and limb, commerce and transport and the lifeblood of the nation should be debated in this way.

If we are to prevent this House becoming a butt and a mockery to the nation, we must complain when the Government's business managers bring on this sort of thing at this hour.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The matter was not brought on at this time of night. It started as the main business this afternoon.

Mr. Wiggin

With due respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it happens to be on at this time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman said that it was brought on at this time.

Mr. Wiggin

I am not going to argue with you about the semantics, Mr. Deputy Speaker—it is too late to do that—but I regard it as an insult to the nation that we should be dealing with something of such vast importance in such a way. Its introduction into an Energy Bill when it ought to be in a transport Bill is the root cause of our problems.

As far as I am aware, no other limitation of speed has been brought in by any measure other than a Road Traffic Act or its equivalent.

Dr. J. Dickson Mabon

Not so.

Mr. Wiggin

I hope that the Minister or his colleague will put me right if I am mistaken, although I object to having an Energy Minister replying to the debate. The Secretary of State for Transport should be here. His predecessor attended the Finance Bill Committee when we discussed cherished number plates and, although he regretted having done so, he considered it his responsibility to deal with that part of the Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I think that tonight we should deal with the amendment which is before us.

Mr. Wiggin

I am dealing with it, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It refers to speed limits. It is rational that we should have proper evidence of the savings produced by this measure in terms of gallons and lives—if that is to become an argument.

The Transport and Road Research Laboratory, the police and other responsible people will argue that a 50 m.p.h. limit—and we should remember that only seven years ago there was no limit on our main roads—is correct. If one pursues their argument a little further, however, limits of 40, 30 or even 20 m.p.h. would be correct because the lower the limit, the greater the saving of life. Unhappily, we have to accept some penalty for being able to transport ourselves conveniently and rapidly, and that penalty is the tragic and mounting toll of road traffic casualties.

The fact that the Government turned their back on the simplest and easiest way of stopping the casualties by introducing the compulsory wearing of seat belts is entirely their own fault.

Dr. J. Dickson Mabon

It was a House of Commons decision.

Mr. Wiggin

It has nothing to do with the decisions of the House. The Government brought in a measure and they did not back it. They brought it on at strange times and on different days.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are not discussing the seat belt measure.

Mr. Wiggin

I was discussing casualties. I understand that this limitation is argued by many authorities as a means of reducing casualties. Many other countries have speed limits of this sort, but they do not argue them on the ground of energy saving. They are argued on the ground of saving life. Surely we cannot have a sensible debate if we do not introduce that aspect. I sincerely hope that the Minister will mention it. It must be relevant. It is a factor that I shall consider before deciding how to respond to the amendment. It is surely connected with the way in which lifesaving measures and transport measures are being handled.

Another point about the 50-mph general speed limit on roads other than motorways and dual carriageways is the conflict that the ordinary motorist will have with the police. I do not want to enter into an argument about whether the police should have to deal with all traffic offences, although I know that they wish to keep the right to do so, but the fact remains that at every corner of every reasonable "B" road at every hour there will be dozens of cars breaking the 50-mph speed limit. It is not difficult now for a police patrol car to position itself at a corner and catch a rash of offenders in a fairly short time. That can be done by officers sitting in a patrol car only a few miles from their base. I know for certain that any police officer who is experienced in these matters would agree.

It is no good passing legislation that the average members of our population will not willingly obey. Certainly they will not willingly obey the 50-mph speed limit—[Interruption.] I did not catch what the Minister of State said from a sedentary position. Does he wish me to give way?

Dr. J. Dickson Mabon

I have been provoked into dealing with this matter. This provision arises from the legislation that the Conservative Government introduced in 1973. We are seeking to continue it for a very short time so that we can get all the statistics for which the hon. Gentleman asks. The hon. Gentleman cannot make these assertions without proving what lie is saying by producing statistics, and he has not done so. He should be reasonable and allow the amendment to be accepted. In six months' time we shall review the whole matter.

Mr. Wiggin

I utterly reject that argument although I can understand why the hon. Gentleman wishes to use it. We are sent here by constituents to represent their viewpoint. I do not claim to be the great oracle in reading the views of my constituents, but I know that they do not react favourably to a 50-mph limit. I know that they are breaking it by the dozen every hour of the day. I do not think that any Member now present in the Chamber—unhappily, there are only a few of us here—would deny that.

I do not wish to be a party to passing laws that the majority of the population does not and will not obey. If the hon. Gentleman is truly serious about fuel economy—the fact is that the Government are not really serious about petrol economy—he knows that there is a vast bureaucratic machine for dealing with the matter. For example, there were petrol coupons that were issued but never used. If the Government are so serious, why did they not use them? It seems that expense was incurred for no purpose. I find the Government's argument totally fragile and transparent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) referred to penalties for motoring offences, and especially to exceeding the speed limits. One of the offences that attract an automatic endorsement is parking a certain number of yards from traffic lights. There are many people who collect an endorsement for what is really a parking offence. The Government are now seeking permission to bring in a speed limit which, I suggest, the vast majority of motorists will not obey. People do not go out thinking that they will commit a crime when they commit a motoring offence. It is not an offence in the true historical sense of "offence" or "crime".

The Member is now delving into an area that is not normally part of his Department's responsibilities. He must accept that, when the Bill goes through, he will have brought suddenly into his field a whole new world with which his Department is not equipped to deal and upon which it has no authorisation. I for one would not wish to rely upon its advice.

I hope that the question of speed will be dealt with in the hon. Gentleman's reply to the debate. I do not think that the right way to deal with road speed is to constrain people to the point at which frustration and impatience build up. Those of use who drive many miles a year—unhappily, I do—know that it is the personality behind the wheel that matters in road safety. It is the very constraints imposed by the law that are often dangerous. Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether the constant watching of one's mirror on a motorway does not cause as many accidents as lifting the limit from 70 mph to 80 mph or 85 mph, which would be a more comfortable speed for the modern motor car.

Road traffic laws are already far too complex. To impose by statute speed limits of 30, 40, 50, 60 and 70 miles per hour, which is what in effect the order will produce, is to impose too many. A great step forward in road safety would be made if a more rational approach to the whole question of speed limits were introduced. I am not saying that with that there might not be a great increase in fines. It is extremely important that if we have speed limits they should be adhered to. The margin established with police forces is now well known to motorists. That margin allows people to break the law knowing that perhaps they will not be prosecuted.

Here is an area in which the Government should be totally constructive instead of proposing what is, in truth, a road safety measure in the guise of an Energy Bill and doing it without the necessary evidence.

The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Dr. John A. Cunningham)

Whatever else we should or should not consider, it is clear that we should not have any debates at this time of night on any subject, judging by some of the speeches we have heard recently. We reject entirely the rather childish allegations that in some way the present Government have a down on motorists and that we either seek to hedge them about with petty restrictions and delight in people breaking the law, or are engaged in setting limits which we know will upset or frustrate people. All of that is nonsense, and it has no place in a rational debate in the House of Commons.

We have had a great deal of breast beating and revelation from Opposition Members. They have made it clear that, whatever people may be doing up and down the country in response to the existing speed limits, Conservative Members do not have a very good idea of the Road Traffic Acts or a very good ability to stay within present speed limits. That is a matter for them. I am delighted that we have not had a similar response from Labour Members.

Mr. Alan Clark

Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Cunningham

I am intent on responding to the speeches in the debate and some of the wild allegations. [Interruption.]. The Opposition spokesman says "What a nasty speech." I am replying to the kind of allegation that has been made by his colleagues and himself. If that is nasty, he should have thought about that before he set the tone for the debate.

Mr. Norman Fowler

Will the hon. Gentleman give way? Surely he will.

Hon. Members

Give way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) has been a Member of the House long enough to know that if a Minister, or any other hon. Member, does not give way, he does not give way.

Dr. Cunningham

We have been criticised for another error of fact, and we have been blamed for the subject being debated at this time of night. That clearly is not so, as you yourself pointed out, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

10.45 p.m.

Another error of fact, which I had better get out of the way, relates to the seat belts legislation. There was a free vote of the House on that Bill, as there has been in the past. The Government can hardly be blamed, whatever the outcome on that. Indeed, most people would agree that it was right that such a matter should be the subject of a free vote.

Mr. Wiggin

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Cunningham

I am bound to say that I welcomed—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Dr. Cunningham.

Mr. Wiggin

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Dr. Cunningham

I welcomed the speeches and the general tenor of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) and the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers). They were in marked contrast to some of the other speeches we have heard tonight.

One thing on which I can agree with the Conservative Front Bench is that the purpose of the provision is to continue permanently the enabling power under which speed limits, for the purpose of saving fuel, were fixed. That will not by itself make speed limits permanent. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) asked me to clear that point up. I willingly do so. We are at one with him on this matter.

Regarding the effect of the amendment, it would prevent the preservation of the Fuel Control (Modification of Enactments) (Speed Limits) Order 1973. That was introduced by the Conservative administration. That order was made under the Fuel and Electricity (Control) Act 1973. The present Bill provides for the repeal of that 1973 Act. Therefore, unless the order as such is continued under this Bill, it will lapse as soon as the 1973 Act is repealed. I think that that has entirely cleared up that point. The House will recall that the order was made during the 1973–74 energy emergency. It is an enabling order giving powers to make specific speed limit orders for fuel-saving purposes. These provisions have been continued since that time. The general limit of 50 m.p.h. was ended at the end of the emergency. Subsequently this Modification of Enactments Order also enabled the making of the order of December 1974 setting a 60 m.p.h. speed limit on dual carriageways other than motorways and a 50 m.p.h. limit on other roads.

When the regulations were introduced in December 1974, it was on the basis that excessive speed wasted petrol, as well as costing lives. The limits were an assessment of what should be done having regard to fuel saving and safety. As both sides of the House have agreed, we should still be doing all we can in this country to conserve petrol and reduce our oil import bill.

I agree that the limits we have are broadly similar to limits which obtain in other countries in the Western world. However, it is true that there have been vigorous representations against the use of speed limits, on grounds both of safety and of conserving energy. I do not dissociate myself from the points which have been made in that respect.

We believe that people should be in absolutely no doubt that there have been considerable protests of that nature. I hope that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield will be pleased—in spite of his displeasure at my earlier remarks—that we therefore accept there should now be a careful reassessment of the position and of the usefulness and acceptability of the present limits.

Mr. Viggers

May I ask why consideration was not given to the subject before?

Dr. Cunningham

Consideration was not given to the subject before because the proceedings were terminated very rapidly after the subject came on for discussion in the House.

My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Energy and the Secretary of State for Transport agree that there should be a public discussion of the evidence, the pros and cons and all the arguments before a final decision is taken. We accept that it may well be that on a number of grounds the present limits are not quite right from either the fuel economy or the safety point of view. We accept that point, which was put very forcefully from the Opposition Benches.

However, the present limits are set by a temporary speed limit order which is due to expire on 30th November. If the fuel economy provisions were allowed to lapse there would be no automatic return to a national limit of 70 mph, which is the upper limit on motorways. If the present order which expires on 30th November is not extended or revised, there will be no speed limit on most of our country roads, except for the motorways which are not affected by it.

We recognise that it is not feasible to consult representative organisations and consider their views by the end of November. I think most people would argue, rightly, that that is far too short a time scale, and we accept that. We are determined to give people the opportunity to think about the matter and to consult each other and the Government. We also want to allow ourselves sufficient time to weigh up the views that are put to us.

I hope that the Opposition will accept the proposal to allow six months for consultation with a wide range of public interests about the economic and road safety arguments for and against the existing limits. I give the House the undertaking that a consultation document will be circulated as soon as possible setting out the various considerations to be taken into account. It will include the results of a survey carried out during last summer on, among other things, the observance of the limits. Early next year the Government will decide, in the light of the replies to the consultation document, what speed limits it would be appropriate to adopt next spring.

I hope that with this assurance the Opposition will feel able to withdraw their amendment.

Mr. Norman Fowler

Before the Minister sits down, I hope he will allow me to say that the last part of his speech was considerably better than the first part. What annoyed my hon. Friends was his gratuitous insults to hon. Members, which I hope he will take the opportunity of withdrawing.

The Minister made an important statement. Will he be specific on when the debate in the House will take place? One of the Opposition's major complaints is that on the last occasion when the limits came up for debate only 12 minutes' debate was allowed. We regard that as totally inadequate. I recognise how far the Government have gone tonight, but will the Minister give an assurance that a full debate will take place within the next six months before any further changes are made?

Dr. Cunningham

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman said in his opening remarks. I cannot be specific about the date of the debate. The hon. Gentleman must know that this is a matter not for me but for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the usual channels. I have given a firm assurance on the main items that were of concern to the Opposition, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept those assurances as a guarantee of our good faith. I cannot say more than that.

Mr. Norman Fowler

I still regret the hon. Gentleman's comments, which are not in keeping with a Minister of the Crown. In view, however, of the important assurance that the Government have given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 48, in page 27, line 4, at end insert— 'The Order in Council above is to be treated for the purposes of this Act as if it had been made under section 4(3) of this Act, and references in this Act to powers and orders under it, and similar references, are to be construed accordingly where the context permits.'.

No. 49, in page 27, line 13, leave out 'the above orders' and insert 'the orders set out in this Part'.—[Dr. J. Dickson Mabon.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

10.56 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)

I spoke on Second Reading but did not have the opportunity of serving on the Standing Committee. Therefore, I do not think that it is out of place, because it is not particularly late by the traditions of the House, for me to make some observations on Third Reading.

The Minister of State said it was untrue that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy was itching to intervene and to exercise new powers relating to energy. It was obvious that the Opposition did not agree with my hon. Friend, but I believe that he was substantially right.

Indeed, my difficulty regarding the Bill is of an entirely different character. The trouble with the Department of Energy at present is not that it does too much but that, in areas where only the Department can decide, it does too little. It does not seem able in many respects to make up its mind on anything at all. Will my hon. Friend the Minister of State tell the House whether the wider powers granted by this measure will assist the necessary powers of decision in the Department immediately or whether we shall have to wait for an emergency?

Under Clause 7, the Minister may give directions to the Central Electricity Generating Board regarding the control of power station stocks. But for how long shall we have the CEGB with us? Lord Plowden's committee, which worked so hard on the reorganisation of the electricity supply industry, recommended that the CEGB and the Electricity Council should be abolished and that a strong central executive should be created in their place to take over both generation and distribution. It is quite some time since the Plowden Committee reported, but we have had no news as to whether there will be any action. I should have thought that at least a White Paper would have assisted.

Under Clause 8, to take yet another example, the powers of the British Gas Corporation and of the Minister regarding natural gas matters have been greatly strengthened. Under Clause 1 the Minister may control gas prices. That provision is no doubt for use in an emergency.

In the meantime, there is no indication of any policy on the depletion rate of gas supplies or a true cost pricing policy in relation to alternative energy supplies. There is silence from the Department. In consequence, the surplus of electricity generating plant grows while our plant manufacturers look for orders and their employees face the prospect of the dole. Here is an area where decisions by the Minister should not be delayed, though I fear that they will be.

Lastly, but most important of all in the context of this Energy Bill, we need a decision whether, in the judgment of the Government, it is necessary to prepare for or to ignore the risk of an energy gap towards the end of the century. Dr. Marshall, the eminent Chief Scientist to the Department, is convinced that there will be such a gap, and I am sure he is right. That is why a decision on the fast breeder reactor is imperative.

The Chief Scientist appeared on television recently and put his view forward, but the political arm of his own Department seems to think that the gap will vanish if only enough people succeed in talking it out of existence. That is a most extraordinary way even of not reaching a decision. I do not object to the Department having the extra powers of the Bill, but if the House grants them we should in return at least have a policy.

11.1 p.m.

Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)

The hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) has made a short but pertinent contribution to the Third Reading. He reminds us that the Energy Bill, now reaching its final stages, is the only legislative contribution that has been made to energy policy during the current Session of Parliament, other than the Coal Bill which dealt with the borrowing powers of the National Coal Board and was passed earlier in the Session. The hon. Member rightly alerts us to the provisions of Clause 7 and its implications for the organisation of the electricity supply industry. He also drew our attention to the clauses which affect the Government's whole pricing strategy in relation to the various components of total energy supplies.

We missed the hon. Gentleman in the Standing Committee because, even in the more leisurely circumstances of that occasion, these issues were canvassed in a fairly charming, reasonable nonpartisan fashion. Despite that, the answers were not at all helpful. The hon. Gentleman is well advised to cling to the last straws provided by the Bill, because I have tabled a Question for Monday on the Government's intentions in respect of the Plowden report and I understand that the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East has a similar Question. I think that we shall be disappointed by the replies. We both travel with that degree of scepticism which is all too common in politics.

On Third Reading the House must consider whether the Bill, with the armoury it contains, really provides a basis for the Government to proceed with their policy for energy. The Bill is sad and disappointing when related to the expectations that were raised by the reference to energy in the Queen's Speech almost a year ago.

In Committee we had a most constructive debate, working on the helpful foundations which had been laid in another place, where the Bill was first debated. I might say how much I appreciated the assistance which I received from all my colleagues in the Standing Committee. Understandably, my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) feels mildly exhausted by the events which immediately preceded this Bill, but he was a great pillar throughout the Committee stage, as were my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) and my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost).

The reservations which the Opposition still have about the Bill are very largely contained in Clause 1. They concern both the problems of end use and the powers of price control. As the Bill has finally taken its shape, both these contentious matters are contained in Clause 1.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East has made conservation very much his speciality, and I know that he feels a keen sense of regret, which we share, that there was not another method whereby the conservation aspirations of the Bill could have been contrived. The rules of order do not enable me to refer to a clause which is not in the Bill, but it is our judgment that New Clause 1, which was voted down earlier today, would have been very much preferable with the conservation aspects of the legislation cast in that form.

What I am about to say I shall try to put at a reasonably temperate level, because if I put it at an intemperate level the atmosphere would not be conducive at this hour. Our worry is that, both in respect of end use and in respect of the powers of price control, there is the prospect of the politicisation of management decision in energy matters, especially in the oil industry. I say that in the presence of the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East, who has had more experience than any of us of surveying a series of Governments who, for one reason or another, have sought to intervene in the management of our public utilities, on the whole with a net disadvantageous consequence. Therefore the warning is writ large, and I feel that it is one which to some extent has been neglected in the fashioning of the Bill.

If we consider the powers which the Government are seeking concerning end use—the conservation powers—it remains the settled conviction of the Opposition that price is still as good a conserver as we know. We seem to be recruiting to our ranks the Under-Secretary, whose appointment we welcome. We wish him well and hope that he will perhaps stay in that post a little longer than his immediate predecessor—although his immediate predecessor had such a valuable apprenticeship that he moved to a better-paid, if not an otherwise more rewarding, occupation.

When talking to the British Junior Chamber in Brighton, the Under-Secretary said that energy saving is not merely a going concern, but a profitable one. I am not a theologian about these matters, but I prefer to hear Ministers talking about profits than about other forms of motivation, because I think that they lie a shade nearer the basic realities of human nature.

Inasmuch as the price mechanism can be used to serve the end of conservation, on the whole it is likely to be most effective. But there are many other considerations which the Government may have in mind where conservation provides a useful cloak. This is a matter which was referred to in our debates earlier today.

The Minister of State will say that he has considerable powers under the submarine oil pipelines legislation and that one is being hyper-sensitive to suppose that he would have to have recourse to Clause 1 to secure these objectives. But I have no doubt that the Government are very concerned about the location of petrochemical developments. Anyone listening to the debate on the Cromarty Petroleum Order Confirmation Bill earlier this evening, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty took such a distinguished part, will realise that this is a matter which will command wide attention in the House. As the Minister reminded his audience at Stavanger recently, in respect of a proposed North Sea gas supply system, there are considerable consequences in terms of investment location of great interest to him in his political capacity. We understand that.

The Minister said: There are companies interested in exploiting this valuable feedstock. What we must ensure is that petrochemical development is carefully controlled, taking full account of the environment, of infrastructure considerations, of employment, as well as its financial viability. This we are determined to do. I note those words. I do not invest them with any sinister significance, but when Governments have these wide-ranging objectives there is always a well-founded anxiety that the end-use provisions of Clause 1 could well determine that end when I feel that there might be more appropriate legislative means.

I turn to the second point which has given us anxiety and which we sought to rectify by our votes—alas, frustrated—on Report. I refer to the powers of price control. The Minister based a great deal of his argument upon the paraffin order. He will not be disappointed to have seen on the Order Paper a Prayer seeking to annul that order. Whether this great parliamentary drama will have the opportunity to be unfolded, so that the great divide between us can be fully revealed, I know not. But the case for price control cannot really rest upon the paraffin order. The more the House knew about the working of that order, the more it would be fascinated.

The reality is that there has been a substantial increase in the use of paraffin, as there has been a substantial increase in the use of Calor gas, related not to any of the provisions of the paraffin order but merely to the substantial rise in the price of electricity which persuaded many people to see whether there were cheaper alternative fuels.

I do not challenge the Minister of State, but at least I invite him to place statistics before the House. We should like to know the exact profile of the average consumer of paraffin. Is it the elderly person on low income? Has the tremendous expansion in paraffin consumption been a result of an enormous increase in the significance of this category in the community, or are we persisting with an order in respect of this fuel largely out of nostalgic considerations, quite unrelated to current economic and social circumstances? I believe that it will be very difficult to sustain the case that the paraffin order is fulfilling some social objective. I doubt whether data can be produced to sustain that argument.

However, what worried me in particular was that when the Minister of State was answering points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty about the price control measures he gave a roll-call of interests which had asked that there should be powers of price control, and inevitably and predictably they were all consumers of oil products. They were happy that the impact of the Government's legislation would be to hold paraffin at a price lower than would otherwise be the case.

I have the gravest reservations about the long-term beneficial consequences of permanent powers of this character. We have only to look round the Western world to see where Government intervention in response to that kind of lobbying has been counter-productive to the national interest. I quote from a talk given on 19th October in New York by G. A. Wagner, President of the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company: the patchwork of United States energy price controls still encourages consumption, and retards the search for more oil and gas to halt the rapid decline in domestic production. That is evidence of the state of affairs in North America and should be a warning to this country. I hope that it will be taken as such by the Minister of State.

I trust that when the hon. Gentleman comes to consider that quotation, and indeed the question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty, he will do all he can to assure the House that it will not be the Government's intention to use these powers in a manner detrimental to the level of profitability of the oil industry. We have to be reconciled to a high level of profitability to ensure that degree of investment that will be necessary to give this country a reasonable choice in energy sources.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) said in Committee: The next point I want to make is that I do not believe that Governments are capable of pricing."—[Official Report, Standing Committee J, 29th June 1976; c. 142.] The right lion Gentleman puts these things in rather more direct controversial language than perhaps I would use, because I find myself occupying the middle ground. Nevertheless, the doyen of the Liberal Party seems to have hit on a fundamental truth: that our experience of Government centralised agencies taking a view on energy prices has on the whole tended to intensify our difficulties and problems rather than ameliorate them.

This Bill had a fairly controversial launching in the House of Lords. What was once the handiwork of the Department of Energy became the aristocratic handiwork of the other place. We tried to improve the measure, but, alas, the Government were not prepared to accept the Bill in the terms in which it reached this House. I fear that both in respect of the end-use and price-control provisions they have left the Bill with two major flaws. On those points we have our pro- found reservations. Therefore, the Bill goes its way improved but certainly still imperfect.

11.20 p.m.

Dr. J. Dickson Mabon

We have all enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen). It was almost his maiden speech tonight. He has had a good go at everything. When I was rescued from the obscurity of the Back Benches, as Chairman of the Manifesto Group, and was made Minister of State at the Department of Energy, the question was whether I would have an interesting dialogue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy.

That was not really the question. I have had a most interesting dialogue with the hon. Member for Oswestry, who is—if I may say so with respect to my right hon. Friend—a much more interesting political personality. My right hon. Friend is a very moderate man. The hon. Gentleman is such an extreme man that I find it fascinating to listen to his arguments. He is an absolute purist in terms of laissez faire and the working of the market and all the rest. I would love to believe him, but all the evidence is so much against him.

Take, for example, the simple instance of the paraffin order which I innocently introduced as non-political exhibit No. 1 in the defence of the use of these powers. It was introduced by the Conservatives originally. It was a perfectly justifiable instrument. It was sustained by us, altered in different ways. It was certainly in defence of these powers. It may have been open to abuse in various ways which the hon. Gentleman described, but if I had divided the House, as I threatened to do, I would have carried half the Tory Party with me as well as the whole of the Labour and Liberal Parties, including the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud), whom I see in the Chamber.

I hope that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East will continue to make the same valiant contributions to our debates on these matters as he made in Committee. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes), who is now Minister of State, Department of Education and Science, for all he did on this Bill. He worked closely and well with me and a better companion I could not find—apart, of course, from my hon. Friend the Member for Whitehaven (Dr. Cunningham), who is now Under-Secretary at my Department. My hon. Friend the Member for Widnes did well and certainly improved the provisions of the Bill during our discussions.

I take the view that Ministers ought to change a Bill when they discuss it in Parliament. No Bill is perfect when it is introduced. It ought to be altered as Ministers go along. There is no dot or comma that is sacrosanct in any Bill. Alas, the Bills—and they occur—that have never changed from start to finish are not the Bills that they ought to have been.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Like the European Communities Bill.

Dr. Mabon

That is one. The Industrial Relations Bill was another. There are various others I could cite. I do not want to embarrass my own side in this respect.

Mr. Biffen

Would the hon. Gentleman agree that he and I valiantly walked through the Lobby to try to secure, without success, changes in the European Communities Bill?

Dr. Mabon

That was a most unhappy part of my life, not because I was with the hon. Gentleman but because it was such a painful affair from beginning to end. However, we have arrived where we are and I am pleased that we are now in the Market. That is the end of the argument for me.

With regard to the Plowden Report, I agree that the replies have been disappointing, particularly for my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East. We must wait and see how matters develop because this is a difficult one, particularly in these days of devolution and the arguments that go on about the concentration of industry and so on. However, that is not part of this Bill. All I say is that this is a matter which my right hon. Friend is seriously considering.

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to dwell on the point, but will he deal with the Clause 7 point? Can he confirm, so that we may get it clear, that, devolution or not, the Plowden proposals do not affect the electricity supply industry in Scotland at all? Both the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board and the South of Scotland Electricity Board are totally outside the terms of the Plowden recommendations.

Dr. Mabon

The hon. Gentleman does me a disservice. I am speaking not entirely as a Scotsman but as a British citizen. Members of different areas in England are entitled to their views in this matter. I am not taking sides. All I am saying is that there is this question of devolution in England which impinges on the administration of nationalised industries. I ask the hon. Gentleman not to tempt me into argument, because all I am saying is that new factors are emerging which are not irrelevant to these questions.

There have been references to the politicisation of oil. That has happened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, much in the same way as it did with sugar. The politicisation of sugar took place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We can hardly beg the question in the matter of oil. Oil is a highly political subject, right the way from OPEC and the "Seven Sisters" through our own regime in this country, and even in Europe for that matter. It is highly political, and we cannot dodge that.

On the international side, the Bill enables us to fulfil our international obligations under the international energy programme, on all of which I understand that hon. Members on both sides agree. Under the IEP we are obliged to hold specified levels of petroleum stocks and to furnish information. We agree to do all that in the Bill. Also, we honour our obligations to the EEC.

We extend the Government's control over the supply and use of natural gas, to which the hon. Member for Bedford, who is not here now, referred. Natural gas is a resource of great value which the country can ill afford to squander, and, as a strong Presbyterian, I take the view that the flaring of gas is a wicked thing to do. One ought to try to use it and harness it as God intended us to do, for the benefit of mankind. I hope that we shall be able to use the gas, not recklessly flaring it as though we were a Kuwaiti or Middle East petroleum country but using it for the benefit of our own people and others.

There remain areas of contention in the Bill. This is not the last Energy Bill which will come before the House. I come now to the points made by the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty—I understand why he cannot be here now—who asked six important questions, and very Scottish-style questions they were, calling for a straight "Yes" or "No". I am sorry to say that I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman in that way.

First, the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty asked about the exercise simultaneously of general powers under the prices legislation and the specific powers under the Bill. I acknowledge that the Government are at present using the general powers under the Counter-Inflation Act and we are using specific powers under the Fuel and Electricity (Control) Act 1973, a Conservative Act of Parliament. How can the hon. Gentleman complain? The Price Commission deals with oil price applications for an overall increase—one is before it now—but it does not control price increases in respect of individual products. This can be done only through the rather clumsy mechanism which the Conservatives gave us in the 1973 Act.

The 1973 Act was an effort to refine and make more sensible the way of dealing with petroleum products. We have not taken a decision about longer-term arrangements for price control. It is a little too early to say anything about that, but I take the very sensible point which the hon. Gentleman made.

In response to the hon. Gentleman's third, fourth, fifth and sixth questions, I cannot give unqualified answers but I give an assurance that the Government would not introduce new controls without full prior consultation with the industry.

I was asked about stocking directions to the generating boards under Clause 7. These stocking directions are given to enable stocks to be held on a system rather than on an individual power station basis. The number of private generators affected is so small that it is not reasonable, I think, for me to develop that matter further.

I come next to Clause 14 and the exemptions for mobile and standby or small generators. In implementing Clause 14, we intend to make an order under subsection (4) to exempt from the notification requirement mobile genera- ting stations which are for emergency use only, and we envisage exemptions also in respect of stations of less than 10 mW.

I do not think I can take matters further now, save to express my gratitude to the Opposition for the good reception they have given to the Bill. Despite all their speeches in Committee and here tonight, they have helped us to take the Bill to the statute book. They could have been very difficult and blocked it completely, which would have meant that we should not honour our obligations to our friends overseas and the international agreements which we have signed. The Opposition have not prevented that, although, with their great talent for speech and the deployment of argument, they could have done so. They have accepted the essence of the Bill and, while it is not perfect, it is a good measure. I am grateful to them for assisting it in its passage through the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with amendments.