HL Deb 18 July 1916 vol 22 cc770-6

LORD MONTAGU OF BEAULIEU had the following Notice upon the Paper—

To ask His Majesty's Government, whether they can indicate what steps are likely to be taken in the near future, or have been taken since the beginning of the war, to promote economy in the use of petrol for public and private purposes; the dates of any regulations or notifications insisting on the need for economy; also what steps have been or will be taken to increase the production in this country of liquid fuel, including benzol from gas works and low temperature distillation plants, in view of the needs of our aerial, naval and military forces, as well as for commercial purposes.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the subject of the Question which I have put on the Paper is an important one. We have arrived at a stage in the war when, to public knowledge, we are running short of liquid fuel, at any rate for the time being; and when you consider that our aircraft, a considerable portion of our Fleet, and a great part of the transport of our Army are dependent on liquid fuel, the importance of the subject is obvious. What seems to me to have happened in regard to this question is this. Too late in the day—in the twenty-fourth month of the war—the Government have realised that there is a chance of this country being short of supplies of fuel of this description. Consequently they have, I think quite rightly, taken steps to see at any rate that the Army does not suffer and that the public services are supplied. But this has now to be done at the cost of the private consumer, and, to a certain extent, of the transport services of this country and of the commercial community.

I maintain that if this question had been properly considered earlier in the war we might to-day have been in a much more favourable position and should have had ample stocks for our requirements. There was no secret about the increasing consumption of liquid fuel before the war. In 1913 this country consumed 105,000,000 gallons of petrol; in 1914 it had risen to 125,000,000 gallons; and in 1915 to nearly 150,000,000 gallons. Therefore it was obvious that, war or no war, the consumption was increasing rapidly. The war found us in this position. Though there were good stocks in some countries, like America, there was no great reserve in this country; and we have ever since the war been put in this position, that being non-producing with regard to petrol—except the small quantities that are distilled from shale in Scotland—we have had to import it and the price has risen so much that a tank steamer of 6,000 tons of liquid fuel from New York to-day costs £100,000; more than double what it would have cost a short time ago. I think it is not inopportune that I have put this Question on the Paper at this moment, because the noble Lord who replies will have an opportunity of telling your Lordships authoritatively the amount of restriction which is likely to be put on the supply to the private consumer after August 1. It has been stated that he is to be left with only 30 per cent. of his usual supplies. The Times yesterday informed us that the figure was 50 per cent., while others place it higher. Users of the automobile of all classes recognise that in a question of national necessity their own private and even commercial interests must give way. I do not think there is any harm in saying that the consumption by our Army at the Front for transport services may in some contingencies be doubled shortly, and this extra amount which has to be found will have to come entirely out of the home supply. This is another case in which we are loo late in taking precautions. If at the beginning of the war real thought had been given to the subject, we might have had ample stocks laid by.

Nobody can defend the unlicensed consumption of petrol that has been going on ever since the beginning of the war. No check has been put on its use by the private consumer for what is called joy-riding; and nobody could have witnessed the multitude of cars, as I did myself recently, going down to comparatively distant race meetings, without seeing that even now there is no heed paid to the Government's plea for economy. Above all, there has been a scandalous waste of petrol in some cases in connection with Government services. I am not going to quote cases to-day, but it is known that cars have been washed with petrol. It has been reported to me by officers whom I cannot but believe implicity. I think it behoves the Government to set their own house in order by promoting the greatest possible economy. One often sees cars conveying single officers. Greater economy in that direction might be observed, and I believe the War Office have already taken action in that connection. In many instances a train would be equally as quick, and even the humble tramcar might be used in some cases. Again, I am sure that officers could in many cases do work on co-operative principles, and not use one car for one officer only. I quite agree that drastic restrictions are now inevitable, and they will cause great inconvenience. It is all very well for the Government, in their appeals for economy in motoring, to lead the public to consider that motoring is a luxury, but it became a necessity long ago. People have sold their horses and carriages and have been accustomed to rely on motor-cars for all kinds of professional work. To cut off to a large extent the supply of liquid fuel to the inhabitants of this country would be a very grave act indeed, and I am sure that nothing but necessity compels the Government to restrict its use as much as they are going to do.

One other point I want to mention before I sit down. There is a source of home supply which I have advocated in this House and elsewhere for many years past, and that is that we should produce benzol from gas works and low temperature distillation plants. I have used benzol myself with great success, and it is now being used more and more. It was largely used before the war, in France, for taxicabs especially; but the Government of this country before the war were taking very little interest in this subject. I think now we ought to be going into the question of low temperature distillation of coal and stripping gas of benzol on as large a scale as possible. I commend the Government for the steps which the Board of Trade have taken already at Barnsley, where they have a system for the home production of liquid fuel, but it must proceed on a very much larger scale than that. If the Government wish to be independent of foreign supplies of liquid fuel, which will be absolutely vital to aircraft and transport and to certain portions of the Fleet, they must institute in this country a wide system of distilling benzol from coal on a low temperature system. Otherwise in this war and in any other war afterwards we shall be absolutely dependent on foreign produced liquid fuel. Moreover, liquid fuel is an absolute necessity to carry on the business of the country. When I criticise the Government in this way I should like to say that the Admiralty, alone of the Government Departments, were aware of the coming shortage, and I am informed that they made a protest early in the war on this point. I understand that the importing companies also informed the Government. But it was not until the appointment of the Petrol Committee, under Mr. Berry, of the Great Northern Railway, that any serious notice was taken of the subject. I have put this Question on the Paper with the object of giving the Government an opportunity of stating their policy with regard to the future, and I hope they will tell us that they are seriously considering the question and giving it the attention which it deserves.


My Lords, the Committee appointed by the Board of Trade to deal with the petrol question have taken a census of the consumption, stock, and estimated requirements of all users of motor spirit. The results of the census have only just been ascertained, and it is now clear that drastic restriction in the use of petrol for all classes of motor vehicles will be necessary, as the shortage of petrol at the present time is serious. It is provided by the Finance (No. 2) Bill, now before Parliament, that on and after August 1, 1916, no motor spirit may be purchased without a licence. A duty of 6d. per gallon will be charged on licences for private cars, and of 3d. for doctors' cars and veterinary surgeons' cars; and the amount of petrol issued under the licence will be considerably less than the estimated requirements shown on the census cards, though I cannot tell the noble Lord the exact proportions.


Can the noble Lord say whether 50 per cent. is probably correct, or somewhere about that figure?


I am afraid I cannot tell the noble Lord the figure. There can be no question at present of the use of benzol as motor spirit, inasmuch as practically all the benzol produced is required for the manufacture of high explosives. Every possible step has been taken to increase the output of benzol at gas works, and a Bill has gone through the House of Commons—and I hope may pass its final stage in your Lordships' House to-morrow—enabling the Board of Trade to make Orders substituting a calorific-power standard of gas for an illuminating power standard in the case of undertakings erecting benzol recovery plant. Further, the number of by-product coke ovens has been largely increased. The Board of Trade consider that low temperature carbonisation of coal may undoubtedly have a high value, but at the present time the by-product oven has an even higher value for war purposes, inasmuch as the yield of raw materials of a standard of purity suitable for explosives is greater, and the metallurgical coke produced is urgently required for blast furnaces, etc. The question of low temperature carbonisation in the future is being considered by the Government.


My Lords, the noble Lord, of course, has not been able to tell us in what proportions these allotments of petrol will be made, but may I ask him, before the Government make any declaration, whether he would not consider and bring before the proper authorities the great hardship which will be created if those proportions are made according to the amount of petrol used in the past and without inquiry. A man who has been, as my noble friend put it, joy-riding unlimitedly for many months puts in a return, say, of 100 gallons; another man who has used his car almost entirely for military and public purposes may return 40 gallons. If each of them is going to get a quarter of his previous supply, you will make it quite impossible for the one to do the work he has hitherto done.

The Government before bringing forward their restriction in this connection—which I admit may be wholly necessary—made an appeal to us voluntarily to abstain, in the public interest, from undue use of petrol. I know a large number of people who have made it a practice—it has been almost a sacred rite—not to take their motors out unless required for some really necessary work. It is rather hard in those cases that they should see their neighbour who had not met the Government demand placed in a very favourable position, while they are absolutely unable to get about to do their necessary public work. I would ask my noble friend to have this point considered. A grave fear has arisen in the course of the last few days that a standard which is said to be one-quarter of the previous supply is going to be fixed indiscriminately. I should have thought that those who had been moderate in their use of petrol ought to have an opportunity of showing before some authority that they have a right to the full supply they had hitherto received. I may state that in my part of the country we have a very large camp, and some motor-cars have been used to carry workers to and from the camp, which is situated three or four miles away on the common. It would be very hard if that work were stopped, while those who are using their cars to go forty or fifty miles to London, when the train would do just as well, do not suffer the same amount of restriction. I hope that this matter will be given serious attention by the authorities.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Stanmore has referred to the cards, and rather intimated that the returns made would form the basis of future supply. I would ask the noble Lord whether any test or inquiry has been made in reference to the statements filled in upon the cards with regard to past consumption. If the noble Lord has not already informed himself on that question, perhaps he will make inquiries. I suggest that it might be desirable to test certain cases, because there is little doubt that some people have not been conscientious about their return. I was myself told that I had been very foolish to make a true return seeing that I would certainly get it cut down, and that I should have done what other people did—namely, make a much larger return, and ask for 100 gallons a month, and I should then get 25 gallons, which would be the normal amount required. It will be very unfair if no attempt is made to test these cases and to cut down people who have made wrong returns.


I forgot to mention, when I spoke just now, that I entirely endorse what fell front Lord Montagu about the over-consumption of petrol by the Army at home. Only to-day I had an instance brought before me where drivers who were loading up allowed their engines to run for an hour and a-half. All these things ought to be looked into, especially the consumption of petrol by officers travelling from place to place in England. If this were done, I believe that a reduction of something like one-third might be made.


The course which it is feared will be taken is so obviously inequitable that I cannot believe that this will be the basis on which the arrangement for the future will be made. Anyhow, I will inquire into the matter, and bring the noble Viscount's suggestion to the notice of the Department. And that applies also to the suggestion which was made by Lord Strachie.


I thank the noble Lord for the reply he has given me. It has not been very satisfactory, but I recognise the difficulty of answering all the questions. Perhaps if the subject is raised again later on, definite information will be given to the House; and I hope the consumption will not be cut down until that has been done.


My Lords, it was not, of course, possible for my noble friend to go into details on the questions put to him from the other side of the House; but I may say confidently that the principle to be adopted is not likely to be the principle of merely reducing in the same proportion the amount consumed by individuals, whether that consumption was a prodigal or a careful one. It seems to me that the first object would be to ascertain whether the basis of the calculation was a reasonable one, and then to apply the percentage of reduction. We will take care that this aspect of the case is thoroughly considered.

House adjourned at five minutes past Seven o'clock, till to-morrow, half-past Three o'clock.