HL Deb 08 April 1948 vol 154 cc1245-51

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to ask His Majesty's Government the question of which I have given them private Notice—namely, whether they are now in a position to make a statement on petrol rationing for private cars.


My Lords, the Minister of Fuel and Power is making a statement in another place to-day and, if I may, I will read that statement to your Lordships, using the Minister's own words.

The statement is as follows:

"Since the withdrawal of the basic ration and the other restrictions imposed last autumn, substantial savings in petrol consumption—and therefore in dollar expenditure—have been achieved. These savings, I estimate, amounted in total, up to the end of March, to 430,000 tons which would have cost 18,500,000 dollars. And each week now the level of consumption is about 21,000 tons less than it would have been if no cuts had been imposed—representing at present prices an annual saving of about 50,000,000 dollars. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer has emphasised, the need to hold down dollar expenditure to-day is just as great as it was last autumn. The European Recovery Programme has saved us from the immediate prospect of further drastic and damaging cuts in our dollar imports of food and materials, including oil, but it does not permit us to increase such imports above their current levels. Nor must we forget that the increasing demand for oil—particularly in the United States, which absorbs two-thirds of the world output—combined with a lack of tankers and refinery capacity, will almost certainly give rise, for some years, to an acute world shortage of petroleum, and that this may have repercussions on the supplies which we ourselves can obtain.

In these circumstances the Government have decided that we cannot possibly afford to give up the valuable economies achieved as a result of the measures adopted last autumn. Any changes in the present rationing arrangements must therefore be subject to the condition that they do not involve an increase in total petrol consumption. At the same time the Government fully recognise that the present arrangements are in many respects unsatisfactory. The question therefore arises: Can they be altered so as to give greater satisfaction without an increase in petrol consumption? The first and most formidable obstacle to any improvement is the existence of the black market. There can be no doubt that only the complete withdrawal of the basic ration, with all its tiresome consequences, could have achieved economies on the necessary scale—so long as the black market existed. For a mere reduction in the basic ration would have only intensified the demand for black market petrol and the scale of illicit transactions. And equally, so long as such transactions are possible, the restoration of a small basic ration would certainly be accompanied by heavy losses through the black market and a consequent increase in petrol consumption. Finally, although the withdrawal of the basic ration diminished the importance of the black market, there is reason to believe that the leakage of petrol through this source still remains substantial.

In order to find some solution to this problem I appointed a Committee last January under the Chairmanship of Mr. Russell Vick, K. C., to investigate its causes and to suggest remedies. Their report was published last night and honourable members will be aware of its findings. I should like to express my sincere thanks to the Committee who have done their work with great vigour and speed and, I believe, have found an effective solution to this most difficult problem. I would also like to thank the organisations and persons who have assisted them. The Government have decided to accept in the main the proposals of the Committee, including the passing of special legislation on penalties for those who engage in the black market. A Bill giving effect to this is already being drafted and I hope we shall have the support of all sides of the House in securing its speedy passage. I must make it plain that the Government regard this Bill as essential to the further changes which I am about to describe, and that the latter cannot be put into effect until the Bill becomes law. If the Vick Committee proposals succeed—as I am confident they will with the backing of strong public opinion—then I believe we can count on saving up to perhaps 100,000 tons of petrol a year which is probably still being transferred illicitly through the black market.

My Department has for some time also been engaged in examining the system of supplementary allowances with a view to saving petrol and simplifying administration. In this we have had the assistance and advice of Mr. W. B. Reddaway of Clare College, Cambridge, who has had exceptional experience in dealing with rationing problems in the Board of Trade. The task here is a formidable one and we have not by any means completed it. But I think we may reasonably count on saving at least 20,000 tons a year by cuts in certain allowances. Representatives of the Joint Committee of the Automobile Association, the Royal Automobile Club and the Royal Scottish Automobile Club are already collaborating with us in this review, and I propose to appoint a Standing Advisory Committee, whose functions would be to advise on any measures to simplify and improve the rationing system which may be put forward, and to supervise the carrying out of measures to suppress the black market. Accordingly, I have asked Mr. Russell Vick to be Chairman of the Committee and his two colleagues Mr. W. E. Parker and Chief Detective Inspector Chapman to be members. I have also invited Mr. Gibson and Captain Phillips, the Joint Secretaries of the Committee of motoring organisations, Mr. Grafton, of the Motor Agents' Association and Mr. Reddaway to serve on the Committee.

In all, then, I hope by suppressing the black market and by the cuts in supplementary allowances to save 120,000 tons of petrol a year. This is all the extra petrol we have to distribute if total consumption is not to rise. Distributed as a basic ration of the old type, this would allow only some 30 miles a month per car. It would be of some advantage to those already receiving supplementary allowances but of little or no value—and therefore quite unfair—to those with motor vehicles laid up. We have therefore decided instead on a different plan under which nearly all the extra petrol saved goes to those who get none now. The new arrangements will be as follows:—

  1. (1) Anybody who licenses a private car or motor cycle will be entitled to a small all-purpose petrol allowance to be used entirely as the owner wishes. This will be at the rate of one-third of the old basic ration and so will be sufficient for only about 90 miles motoring per month, as compared with 270 miles per month provided through the basic ration immediately before it was withdrawn.
  2. (2) In contrast to the old basic ration this allowance will not be additional to the existing supplementary allowances. To avoid confusion I therefore propose to call it a "standard" ration. A reduction equivalent to the new standard ration will be made from all supplementary allowances as they are issued. Thus those now receiving supplementary petrol equal to or exceeding the "standard" ration will receive in total no more petrol coupons than before; and I must make it plain that no appeals against the application of this rule in individual cases can be considered. I realise, of course, that this will seem rather hard to some, but we just cannot at present afford the dollar expenditure which would be necessary to give everybody the standard ration in addition to their existing supplementary allowances, and this is the decisive factor. Holders of supplementary allowances will of course be entitled to use their "standard" 1249 ration quite freely and without restriction.
  3. (3) The standard ration will be valid for the month of issue and the succeeding five months so that those who wish to do so may accumulate their coupons for as much as six months. Moreover during the first six months of the new system, coupons valid during the period may also be used in advance.
  4. (4) Motorists who do not draw supplementary allowances will be entitled to obtain a motor vehicle licence for their car or motor cycle at half the normal rate. My right honourable and learned friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be tabling later in the day the necessary resolution on this matter. I also propose to discuss at once with representatives of the insurance companies the question of a reduction in premiums being granted in similar cases.
  5. (5) Arrangements will be made for an issue of petrol for private motor boats and aircraft at one-third of the rate in force immediately before the withdrawal of the basic ration.
  6. (6) As a corollary of these changes, I propose to revoke the order restricting the operation of hire cars to a radius of 20 miles from the place in which they are normally kept.
These changes will come into effect on June 1, which is the earliest possible date by which the operations against the black market can be fully effective. I do not expect for one moment that these arangements will satisfy everyone but I claim that, given the condition that we cannot afford more dollars for petrol, they have great advantages. Those who have been obliged to lay up their cars or motor cycles-may bring them out again without excessive cost for a modest mileage, which they may concentrate or spread in time as they wish. Those with supplementary allowances, who have enjoyed no little benefit and convenience from keeping their cars on the road, now have as well a much valued element of freedom. Finally, the clearing up of the black market, which is the foundation on which the whole scheme rests will, I am certain, receive the backing of all good citizens. I have explained these new proposals in confidence to the representatives of the main motoring organisations, who have given them their full support, and for the reasons I have outlined I am confident that they will be welcomed by the majority of motorists as constituting a marked improvement on the present arrangements."

4.12 p.m.


My Lords, we shall, of course, wish to examine carefully the details of the long and complex reply which we have just heard, but I should like to say at one, on behalf of those who sit on this side of your Lordships' House, that we are very glad to hear the statement which has just been made by the Lord Chancellor. We, who sit on these Benches, have, as your Lordships know, long pressed for some relaxation of the petrol restrictions. I must confess that, having listened to the Lord Chancellor's statement, I am still somewhat bewildered as to why the basic ration was abolished last year. The main reason given at that time, so far as I remember was that it was necessary to do so owing to the badness of our economic and, particularly, of our dollar position. That position as the Lord Chancellor, himself, has said, still persists.

Now we are told that a main cause—perhaps the main cause—of the Government's action, was the black market. This is a completely new story—or it has never been given so much importance before. I hardly think that it is to be regarded as an adequate explanation. Surely, there ought to have been other methods of dealing with this evil without penalising to such an extent law-abiding persons. Seeing that it is possible, now, to relax these restrictions it seems to me a great pity that car owners, the general public and garage proprietors should have been put to so much inconvenience for so many months. However, having said that, I will add that I am glad to hear that the ration is to be restored, and I repeat that we shall study the proposals with care.


My Lords, may I ask the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor whether it is intended to bring into force all the recommendations of the Russell Vick Committee just as they stand?


No. The statement which I read, if I remember rightly, contained the phrase: "in the main," and the fact that the statement contains that phrase leads me to suppose that the entire recommendations will not be carried out. I cannot tell the noble Earl any more than that at the present moment.

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