HL Deb 25 April 1923 vol 53 cc915-30

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(The Earl of Onslow.)


My Lords, before the Question is put, I ask leave to make a few observations. I regret very much that it should be necessary to trouble your Lordships at an hour of the evening which is manifestly inconvenient for everybody. I also regret very much that we should be obliged to discuss a question of first-rate importance at such a time as this. I do not approach this question from the point of view of those who have placed Amendments on the Paper. I look at it in the light of the experience gained by myself and others during the war, and I find that the Bill runs so entirely counter to all recommendations based upon our experience during that time that had I been able I should have asked your Lordships' permission to move that the Bill should not be considered in Committee of your Lordships' House but referred to a Select Committee.

Unfortunately, owing entirely to the fault of inexperience and, as regards this House, of extreme youthfulness, I did not follow the stages of business. I find that the Papers circulated to us, especially the Blue Papers, are, if I may be forgiven for saying so, extremely confusing and, having been accustomed to the ways of another place, I frequently find that I am not keeping in touch with the business of your Lordships' House. This particular Bill was read a second time without my knowing it. Had I known of it, and had I been present, I should certainly have made the Motion which I have mentioned, that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee. On consulting the authorities of your Lordships' House I find that there is a precedent for moving that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee at the stage which has now been reached. I am, however, a very great believer in adhering to the Rules of that House in which one has the honour of a seat, and I should be the last person ever to strain those Rules even to meet an important difficulty and one which ought to be met if possible Therefore, I do not propose now to move that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee, but I do propose to urge upon the Government that they, who can do it if they will, should adopt such a course as that which I have indicated.

Nobody can contend that time is pressing in regard to this subject. It is many years since Parliament passed any legislation in regard to it, and, speaking with some knowledge of the subject, I know of nothing which suggests that the difficulties or the dangers are so great and so urgent at the moment as to call for the immediate intervention of Parliament. Certainly, as regards the time at your Lordships' disposal for the consideration of business. I do not think it can be urged that this Bill must be taken through its Committee stage in your Lordships' House this evening. I would, therefore, most respectfully ask His Majesty's Government to consider whether I am not making a case for referring this Bill to a Select Committee.

I have been in communication with His Majesty's Government and I have been told that my fears are groundless and that they will be easily disposed of in debate. I can answer fair it that my fears are not groundless. Whether they can be disposed of is a matter with which I will not deal at the moment. But there is this one remarkable fact which cannot be disposed of. The responsibility for the storage, sale and distribution of this petroleum oil depends upon three different sets of people. There are the great shipping companies; there are the various distributing agencies; and there are the oil companies. Unless my information is entirely erroneous, there is absolute concord amongst those three different and very important bodies that this Bill will do great harm, that it is neither conceived nor drawn in the right spirit, and that it is very difficult by amendment to make it less harmful than it is.

I have said that this is a truly national question, and I have said it for this reason. During the war, immediately after the formation of the first Coalition Government, the then Prime Minister asked me to take charge of all petroleum questions. They were at that moment in a very parlous condition. When I tell your Lordships that at the time that I took over His Majesty's Navy were tied to their moorings and could not manœuvre for fear of exhausting their slender supply of oil and becoming unready to go to sea for immediate action, that there was only ten days' supply for Lord Haig's Army, that in order to feed our forces, whether at sea, on land, or in the air, it was necessary to take at that moment the most drastic measures with regard to the supply for commercial purposes at home, I do not think I need say more to convince you that the situation was a grave one, and that anything affecting the supply of oil in this country is not a local, or a trading, or a commercial question, but a national question of first-rate importance.

Shortly after I took over I had occasion to meet the late Lord Northcliffe and he told me that his firm had that day received notice that their supplies of commercial petroleum would have to be intercepted in order to feed the Navy and the Army. Although the late Lord Northcliffe was the last, man in the world to put his commercial necessities before the needs of the nation, he pointed out to me with unanswerable force that if we stopped the supplies of petroleum and other oils for commercial purposes and that stoppage interfered with the production of the greatest newspaper in the world, the results would be of the gravest character to the Allies and to this country; and he was not exaggerating. Happily, I was able to tell him that I had been aware of this in the morning, that I had countermanded the order and that I proposed to take steps to deal with the question in another way.

I was fortunate enough to secure, as the real executive officer for this work, the services of Professor Cadman, now Sir John Cadman, and this very remarkable man, of immense ability, untiring energy, devotion to work, and unfailing courage, set himself at once to accomplish a task many of us believed to be impossible. It was largely due to him that our difficulties were, in the end, overcome. When we took over the chart, which we had prepared in the usual way, showing the existing supplies, the line was many, many points below that of mere safety, but, thanks to Sir John Cadman, when peace was declared the line was many degrees above safety, and supplies of oil to this country and to the Allies were ample and sufficient. Shortly after we took over this work it was found that we could not confine our operations to this country alone. France and Italy were vitally concerned, owing to their need of oil. The United States of America was one of the largest sources of supply. The result was that we had to form what was really an International Committee, over which I had the honour to preside, and on which there were representatives of the Allies and of the United States, which was not then in the war.

Looking back to that time, I remember the profound and almost terrible anxiety of not knowing when I went to bed late at night whether the, morning would not bring news of the loss of many of the tankers, which, of course, would have resulted in a grave diminution of our supplies of oil. I wonder whether my colleagues in that Coalition Government remember the, days through which we went, the clays of terrible and wearing anxiety, knowing that unless things could be pulled right by some herculean effort, which it seemed almost impossible to accomplish, there would be great disaster for our Allies on sea and land, and in the air, and in the supplies for our commercial needs.

If I recite these facts I do so for one reason. This is the first time that I have had the opportunity of making public reference to the work done by Sir John Cadman. That work was unknown and unnoted, except by those with whom he was immediately and closely associated. If ever a man, by his own personal efforts and abilities, contributed more than almost any individual to the ultimate success of our arms, it was the man who put oil in sufficient quantities safely at the disposal of our fighting forces and our commercial services. I mention it not only because I want to do justice to a man who did most splendid work, but also because of the lesson that we learned. Why was it that we were faced with this terrible shortage? Everybody knew the need of oil. Everybody knew that it was the motive power without which ships could not sail, troops could not march, and wheels could not go round. Everybody knew this, yet how was it that we suffered from this terrible shortage? It was because we have always been desirous, I am afraid, of taking things a little too easily, of trusting that things will come right in short, to use a familiar phrase not altogether, I think, inaccurate, of risking many things and blundering through our difficulties. We did not blunder through, but we got through.

The one conviction left on my mind, and upon the minds of those who worked with me, was that if we were to be saved against the possibility of the recurrence of these difficulties we must multiply ten, twenty and thirty times the storage capacity of this country. We gave that advice to France. I have forgotten at this moment the name of the Italian Minister who served on my Committee, but Senator Beranger, who held a post similar to mine in France and was constantly here, would, I am sure, if he were here, confirm what I say when I declare that storage is of the most vital importance. So important is it, indeed, that we laid it down that everything possible should be done to encourage the people responsible for storing this great commodity to increase their storage power to the largest possible extent.

What is it that this Bill does I understand that it is alleged that there is some danger in connection with the storage. That goes without saying, and that danger must be sufficiently provided against. But it is very difficult to provide the great storage tanks that are required. When I was at the Local Government Board, a great many years ago, people were just beginning to realise the importance to public health of satisfactory drainage, and everybody in this land was prepared to pay tribute to the need that there was for a sound drainage system in the interests of the community, but when it was suggested that a sewage farm should be erected in the neighbourhood of their houses, or in the villages where they lived, or on land belonging to them, they were prepared to die on the floor of the Committee room of your Lordships' House or the other place in order to prevent such a monstrous thing happening. So it is in the case of these storage tanks. One of the first duties I had to perform when I went to the Board of Admiralty was to insist upon preparation for storage being continued. People in the neighbourhood where it was proposed to put tanks pointed with horror to these great, ugly erections, saying that they entirely destroyed the beauty of the landscape, and begged me to go somewhere else. I had to assure them that wherever I went the same criticism would he addressed to me. Therefore, you have to overcome a great deal of strong local opposition, and this cannot be done without determination on the part of the shipping company, or the oil company, or the dock board concerned, and it cannot he clone without the expenditure of a great deal of money.

Then I am told that a branch of the Department of Imperial Defence considers that these places should not be put where they are dangerous. Nobody has a greater respect for the Committee of Imperial Defence than I have. On a previous occasion I have said in your Lordships' House what I think about that Department, but this matter of the allocation of storage does not rest with them. Obviously, it is mainly a commercial question. I should have thought that it was the duty of the various corporations and bodies to provide the storage in a full and adequate manner, and that it would then be the duty of the Committee of Imperial Defence to see that so far as possible protection was afforded. But do not let there be any mistake in the mind of the Government. I do really know what I am talking about in this matter, because I went into it very closely, and have been responsible for it myself, both in those two anxious years of the war and when I was at the Admiralty. If it is to be laid down that all these precautions, giving a Government Department power to make all sorts of conditions and impose all sorts of limitations, are necessary on the ground that these storage tanks will be exposed to attack and, therefore, can only be erected with the permission of the central authority, the local authority and the military authorities, I say that the Government are going absolutely wrong.

The choice in regard to the, storage of petrol is a very simple one. If they believe it to be so dangerous to the community that it cannot be stored in tanks there is only one alternative, and that is that it should be put under ground.I have no right to speak for the great corporations who are charged with the duty of providing this storage—I do not know their views—but I will undertake to say that if you compel these great bodies to put these storage tanks underground you will cast upon them a burden of expense which will make it impossible for them to provide the storage. The result will be a reversal to the policy of trusting for your supplies coming in and feeding your requirements as they arise. That is entirely contrary to every lesson we learned during the war.

Before the war, and since the war, the consumption of petroleum and its various products has increased by leaps and hounds. Every one of His Majesty's ships now launched is built to burn oil. Much of our commerce is dependent upon it. It drives our ships, enables our soldiers on land to be fed, and makes our flying possible. It does practically the whole of our business. Unfortunately, we cannot provide it in this country; we have to import it. The only chance for us, if we are to be safe in the event of war, which we all pray God may not come, though we shall not prevent it by not preparing for it, is the preparation for the storage of oil in ample quantities in this country. And it is not going to cost the Government or the country a single farthing. It will all he done by private enterprise. Private enterprise has been doing it, and is prepared to go on, but I am assured that if these new powers are passed into law it will make the position of the great corporations, who have to provide the accommodation, absolutely impossible. They have very able representatives in your Lordships' House and can very well make out their own case, hut I firmly believe they are right.

I speak with some practical knowledge of the difficulties connected with the provision of this storage. Before and during the war the provision of storage was wholly inadequate. When these great companies co-operated, as they did under my chairmanship with a public spirit and devotion for which they deserve the greatest credit and gratitude, they met the difficulty by superhuman efforts at the moment. We impressed upon them at once to begin storage. We did it at the Admiralty. It is clone by shipping companies and other corporations, and to check it in any way is to take a fateful step in connection with the safety of the country and in connection with our industries. During the war we set up a body called the Petroleum Department which was presided over by Sir John Cadman. He was succeeded by a very competent official, Mr. Clarke. I should like to know whether this Petroleum Department has been consulted with regard to the provisions of this Bill and whether they have given their entire assent. It is said that the Committee of Imperial Defence and General Staff have expressed the need for some of these powers. I should like to ask, therefore, whether the Admiralty are in accord with their colleagues in the Government in the proposals now made.

I have also been told that the Bill is based on the recommendations of a Committee. That, no doubt, is true; but when did that Committee sit? It sat in 1913, the year before the war—ten years ago, and ten of the most fateful years that ever passed over our heads; ten years during which we learned that much that we had been accustomed to think right was utterly wrong; ten years during which we realised how inadequate had been our preparations in various directions! And a Bill based on the recommendations of a Committee made ten years ago is a Bill which deserves the fullest possible consideration. I do not know whether your Lordships will consider that I have made good my case. I dare say I have made it very badly, but it is not my own case. There are plenty of others, not only here but in allied countries who acted with us in the war, who will confirm what I have said. If I have exaggerated it a little surely I have made out a case sufficiently strong to show that the provisions of the Bill, however carefully prepared and however much time the Government and the Home Office may have devoted to it, should be examined by a Select Committee and not by a Committee of your Lordships' House, because nobody will contend that a big Committee sitting either in this House or in the other place is the best body for the examination of a matter which may require evidence.

You are dealing with something which is of vital importance not to defence alone but to the commerce of the nation. It is very easy to put a little sand in the wheel, it, is very difficult for the most skilled artificer to make the wheels go round faster. You may easily do irreparable harm. These great companies and corporations are showing a splendid public spirit in providing storage in the country, in introducing new works and new machinery which will be of immense value not only for the supplies they will give us but because they will employ British labour. I spent thirty-five years of my public life in different Government Departments and I shall be the last man ever to say a word against them, but there is one thing Government Departments do not do. They may be right, but they do not expedite the work of individuals or of corporations who are trying to carry out certain special operations. We heard from the noble Earl opposite, Lord Elgin, his account concerning housing in Scotland. If you are going to tell these great corporations with one breath that they are to increase storage to an unlimited capacity—and we are not likely ever to have too much—and at, the same time to hand them this Bill, passed into law, and to say that they are to do it subject to all these conditions, subject to the control of the local authority, subject to the control of a central authority in Whitehall, and in addition, by way of adding insult to injury, to tell them that they are to pay for the privilege of being controlled, I say that what will happen will be that they will go back to the old haphazard policy, and all the lessons we learned in the war will have been forgotten.

I apologise to your Lordships for keeping you so long at this late hour, and I am very grateful to you for listening to me. I would urge upon the Government that the case I have made is not one to be answered on mere Departmental grounds. If they are afraid that these explosive oils—and they are not all explosive—may cause damage, I should like to ask them: What about the storage of mines? Unless I am very much mistaken—it was certainly so when I left office—there are immense quantities of mines, enough to blow up half a town or more, stored in different parts of England. Are they all to be put under ground? It is no good talking about economy if you are going to embark upon an expensive activity of this kind. The expenditure will be simply huge if you are going to attempt to put everything underground which it is dangerous to keep above ground, because it might be exploded by an aeroplane. These reasons are not, in my judgment, sufficient. They do not justify legislation so drastic as this.

With great respect I must conclude by saying that I do not think that the provisions of this Bill have been drawn in the full appreciation of the very difficult question which they affect, and I would earnestly appeal to His Majesty's Government not to take the Bill through its stages here, but to refer it to a Select Committee, because I believe that careful examination before a Select Committee will result in our having it entirely recasted. That is the view which I hold, and on these grounds I beg to urge upon His Majesty's Government the request which I have made.


My Lords, the noble Viscount, with his usual great courtesy, wrote to me and informed me of his view on this matter, and I hastened to consult my right hon. friend the Secretary of State in regard to his suggestion. I need hardly say that the sugges- tion has received most careful consideration, but we are unable quite to see what advantage would ensue from pursuing the course suggested by my noble friend. I am reluctant to enter into any controversial matter with my noble friend, as I had the honour to serve under him during the most agreeable part of my official career, but I must say that I gather from what he said that he is incorrect in the conclusions which he reached as to the difficulties which this measure may cause.

I agree most earnestly with all that he said in regard to the necessity of increasing the production of petroleum, and I would also add what he was unable to add, how indebted the country was to him for the work which he did during the war and the manner in which he promoted the industry of producing petroleum. The work which the noble Viscount did during the war will not, I submit, be interfered with by this Bill. There is no intention whatever of discouraging the wide distribution of storage installations, and the most definite assurances have been given of the intention of the Government to give the utmost consideration to the claims of commercial interests. The proposals which are embodied in Clause are those that have been approved by the Committee of Imperial Defence. That Committee is desirous that some sort of coordination of control should be imposed in this very vital question for the defence of the country, as the noble Viscount himself eloquently described it.

I should like to instance one incident which took place during the war. There is an installation of petroleum which was erected under the licence of the Act of 1871 concerning which the defence authorities were not consulted. At a time when the necessity for guns and munitions on the Western Front was very acute, a painful moment which your Lordships will well remember, it was necessary to send guns to defend this installation, which could have been erected elsewhere under the co-ordination of licences proposed in this Bill, and many guns and munitions could have been diverted to the Western Front.

The noble Viscount asked me whether the Petroleum Committee had been consulted in this matter, and I may reassure him on this point. The Petroleum Com- mittee itself was the first to take the initiative in this question. It has been consulted right through in the preparation of the Bill, and I may acid that it is really at the back of the Bill, which was prepared on its own recommendations. I hope your Lordships will agree that the Bill can receive adequate attention in your Lordships' House, and that it would really be more proper that its clauses could be discussed here rather than in a Select Committee. I venture, therefore, to hope that your Lordships will agree that the House shall go into Committee on the Bill.


My Lords, by your Lordships' indulgence I should like to say a word on this point, and as I have burdened your Lordships' Notice Paper with a number of Amendments, and I promise that my proceeding will probably shorten the proceedings of the House, I hope that such indulgence will be accorded to me. The Bill which is now before your Lordships' House was introduced as a Bill to amend the Petroleum Acts of 1871 and 1879—a very long time ago. The petroleum industry to-day has no relation whatever to the petroleum industry as known to the promoters of those Acts, any more than the Stockton and Darlington Railway has to an electric railway of the present time.

On a first perusal of the Bill it appeared that it was intended merely to govern the future of the petroleum trade in regard to certain matters. There were, however, a number of important points; for instance, the Bill applied to all petroleum, and not merely to petroleum of high flash point, namely, the class of oil to which my noble friend referred as being of an explosive character; but there was really nothing on the face of the Bill as it was presented to make one think that there was any reason why it should not be beaten into shape in Committee of this House. At a very early period of consideration, however, and in consequence of the action which was taken, I think, by the Port, and Dock authorities, it suddenly turned out that the Bill was not merely a Trade Bill, but that behind it all was the question of Imperial Defence.

Directly that emerged all sorts of other questions arose, because people said at once: What has the Bill to do with Imperial Defence, and what is going to fol- low? Does it mean that where under the Fill a licence has to be taken out for a particular oil installation that the conditions of that licence will impose upon the people who own the installation all sorts of things with reference to Imperial Defence? It is only an annual licence. Where is it going to stop, and why are questions of Imperial Defence by this method, and by this sort of Bill, to he imposed upon one of the greatest industries in the country? What is to be the delimitation of costs to be borne by those responsible for imperial Defence and those who carry on the industry? There is not a word on that point. I do not use the word offensively, but the Bill was masquerading as an ordinary Departmental measure, and it turns out, after a visit to the Home Office, to be a Bill involving questions of Imperial Defence of the highest order.

Your Lordships know the meaning of all that. Those responsible for Imperial Defence are not immaculate. They change their minds. It is not so long ago that France was the potential enemy of this country, and every method of defence which could be devised by our advisers was poured on to the southern coast of this Kingdom. All at once, through no fault on our part, the situation changed, Germany became the potential enemy of this country, and attention was turned to the East Coast—to Rosyth. We want some supervision to decide what is going to be done with regard to matters of defence, and there is nothing in the Bill to give a lead.

If I were asked what a Select Committee can do which cannot be done by a Committee of the Whole House, I should say (without inquiring into what the soldiers and sailors in secrecy desire to do) that a Select Committee ought to decide what are to be the impositions, respectively, upon the country in the name of defence, and upon the trade in the name of commerce. I agree with my noble friend that there is a great deal to be looked into in this Bill. It is not a Bill to amend the Petroleum Acts of 1871 or 1879. It is nothing of the kind. It requires a great deal of examination, and now, to make my pledge good, I only say that, in supporting the plea made by my noble friend, I also beg leave not to move my Amendments, because I do not wish to be responsible for endeavouring to amend the Bill. I would rather leave it to take its course.


My Lords, I feel there is some difficulty in asking your Lordships, at this period of the evening, to go into Committee effectively on the Bill, but I should like, if I may be allowed to do so, to say one or two words in order to clear away what I think is entirely a misconception as to the intentions of the Government and the operation of the Bill, which seems to have entered into the minds of certain noble Lords. I listened with the greatest care to the speech of my noble friend Viscount Long, who rightly claimed to have a special title to speak upon the question. He did, during the war, take charge of the petroleum provision in the manner which he described, and he conferred great services upon the country. I need not say, therefore, that I listened to him with very special regard.

As I heard his speech proceeding, however, I felt all the time that he was arguing not against the Bill but in its favour, because what my noble friend pointed out was the vital importance of oil in time of war. He recalled to your Lordships the immense difficulties which beset this country owing to the shortage of petroleum. He showed how vital it was, not only for the conduct of the ordinary business of the country but vital to the Military, Naval and Air Services of the country. What he said is true, but it will be much more true in the next war, if there is one. It will be doubly vital, and does he think we should have done our duty as a Government if we had not taken, at the earliest opportunity which presented itself to us, every necessary precaution, so that we might be prepared if and when another war should come? Why! my Lords, the proper conduct of the business of this country necessitated that the moment the late war was over we should make every preparation to prevent such a catastrophe falling upon us again, and so far as this Government is concerned there shall be no time lost. Therefore we entered into the necessary precautions at once.

What is the great danger to the storage of petroleum? It is, of course, abundantly open to air attack, and was it therefore very surprising that the Government should have desired that there should be some direction as to where these petroleum stores were to be put, so that when war came they should not be open to direct air attack? Of course, that is the most reasonable thing imaginable. I have the earliest recollections of the late war, when it was my duty in another capacity to look after a part of the coast, and it was not the smallest part of my small jurisdiction to look after a small oil storage upon that part of the coast. That storage had been put in the wrong place, and it involved special protection from the beginning to the end of the war. Does my noble friend wish to have that repeated? Of course, he does not. This Bill is not a measure to put obstacles in the way of the petroleum trade, in order to restrain the commercial use of petroleum. Its object is to give to the central authority some voice as to where these petroleum stores should be placed. I very much hope that the actual operation of the Bill will not be very common, and that it will not be difficult to come to an arrangement in every case, but some kind of control is surely necessary.

Now I come to the machinery of the Bill. The machinery of the Bill is that there should be a licence from the Home Office. It is very simple machinery. My noble friend spoke as if these stores were now put up without any licences. That is quite wrong. They have to have licences now, but they are local licences. All we say is that in the grant of such licences the central authority should be consulted. It is a most reasonable, modest, and moderate request, but, of course, the Government will listen to any observations of your Lordships with a view to improving the machinery of the Bill. If any noble Lord thinks the Bill seeks to acquire too great powers, or that there are any means of preventing undue interference, by all means let him suggest an Amendment, which we shall consider with the greatest possible care. But do not let him represent that we are oblivious of the great necessity of favouring this great oil trade, or that we desire to put any obstacles in the way, because that would be the reverse of the truth. I hope I have said enough to show what is the real meaning and bearing of this, and that the more you say about the importance of oil the more necessity there is for some such provisions as are contained in this Bill.


It is forgotten that a great many of the most important of these storage reservoirs are under the control of the Admiralty.


Yes, certainly they are.


I desire to ask the Deputy Leader of the House what are his intentions with regard to the Committee stage. It is very late, and I understood him to indicate that he did not desire to take that stage to-night?


The Government desire to study the convenience of your Lordships. I feel that it would be rather difficult to go into Committee to-night, and, if your Lordships will allow us, to go pro forma into Committee, I would consent to the House resuming immediately.

On Question, Motion to go into Committee agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The EARL of DONOUGHMORE in the Chair.]

House resumed.