HC Deb 23 June 1980 vol 987 cc8-10
4. Mr. Colin Shepherd

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he is satisfied that small garages are not being unfairly refused supplies of petrol.

23. Sir Albert Costain

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he is satisfied that small garages are not being unfairly refused supplies of petrol.

The Minister of State, Department of Energy (Mr. Hamish Gray)

Arrangements for supplies of petrol between wholesalers and retailers are generally a matter for the parties involved. I have reported to the House the assurances the oil companies have given on continuation of supplies to small garages, particularly those in rural areas.

Mr. Shepherd

Is my hon. Friend aware that considerable concern is expressed, especially in the rural areas, that the policies of the larger petrol suppliers are making it difficult for the small garages to continue with petrol retailing at all? What proposals has he to ensure continuity of availability of petrol to garages in villages?

Mr. Gray

We have been taking note of these developments, but I remind my hon. Friend that the assurances given by the companies have been honoured. Where supply has been discontinued, new companies have set up, and many of those who were deprived of their original supply have been able to make alternative arrangements.

Mr. Beith

Is the Minister aware that, whatever assurances he may have been given, the Esso petroleum company in particular has continued to cut down on supplies to rural areas with considerable effect in Northumberland and has threatened many of the remaining rural outlets with a surcharge on top of the present high rural petrol price?

Mr. Gray

I have discussed this matter with Esso, and others, and the assurances which they originally gave have been honoured. It is true that the price being charged for supplies to some smaller outlets is different but this is to be expected and the supply has been maintained. It is better that that continues rather than that the Government should institute a form of pricing which might lead to the closing down of smaller stations with low throughput.

Mr. Wigley

Is the Minister aware of the problems in certain tourist areas such as Gwynedd where garages were running out of petrol by Saturday during May, the peak time for the trade? It is that trade which keeps them going for the rest of the year. They have run short because the companies have insisted on full tanker loads before they will deliver. Does not the Minister think that that is unsatisfactory?

Mr. Gray

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says. We have received no reports of that kind this year. However, if the hon. Gentleman has a particular case in mind and he cares to let me know about it, I shall certainly have it investigated.

Mr. Emery

Will my hon. Friend note that certain garages in the West Country that were operating with a gross profit per gallon of 11.77p 12 months ago are now operating with a gross profit of 5.7p and that that figure is likely to be reduced to 3p because of pressure from the major oil companies? Will my hon. Friend give the House two further assurances? First, will he have words with his right hon. Friend the Minister for Consumer Affairs who, I believe, has been approached on this matter from the consumer point of view? Secondly, will he, once again, look at supplies to rural areas, where rural petrol stations are very much at risk from any pressure from the major oil companies?

Mr. Gray

As my hon. Friend rightly points out, this is a question for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Consumer Affairs. But I understand that the Director General of Fair Trading is considering whether the situation is such as to warrant the exercise of his powers under the Fair Trading Act or the new Competition Act. He is investigating whether there has been any significant qualitative changes in the market since the last report by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in 1979.

Mr. Ashton

Is the Minister aware—since the Government are supposed to be the party of the small business man—that his answer will not satisfy small business men? Is he further aware that 1,300 petrol stations, of a total of 1,800 which closed in the last year, were independent and that they closed because they were unable to get supplies? Why is it that Esso in America is prohibited from fixing the retail price of petrol and prohibited from withholding supplies while this Government allow it to do just that in Britain? When will the Minister take action in the interest of these small business men?

Mr. Gray

The hon. Gentleman is guilty of his usual fault of exaggeration. I assume that the figures that he quoted applied during the petrol shortage last year. We have no evidence to support the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. There have been few cases where companies have not been able to obtain alternative supplies.