HL Deb 25 January 1966 vol 272 cc43-8

4.24 p.m.


My Lords, may I now answer a Private Notice Question which has been put to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood? Because of a series of breakdowns at the West Midlands Gas Board's plants at Tipton and Coleshill, the Board was forced to impose severe restrictions on the use of gas by industry on Thursday, January 20. Practically the whole of industry in the area, except where supplies were needed to avoid damage to plant, was without gas until Monday, January 24, when supplies were restored to some 270 firms in the Birmingham and Stoke areas including the Potteries.

These difficulties have been due to technical failures and not to miscalculation of demand. The Board had planned to provide sufficient capacity to meet a daily peak demand this winter of 490 million cubic feet, well above the demand actually experienced. However, last Thursday, January 20, both streams at the Coleshill plant were out of commission because of the failure of boiler feed pumps, causing a loss of 50 million cubic feet of gas a day. One stream was brought back into operation the following day but the other had suffered damage during the emergency shut-down. The first stream at Tipton was already under repair and on January 21 the second stream developed boiler trouble and had to be shut down. The Board was thus deprived of a large proportion of the gas which feeds the Board's high-pressure grid.

With one stream at Coleshill working and the fall in demand due to the recent warmer weather a partial resumption of supplies became possible yesterday. But supplies of high-pressure gas into the grid are still inadequate and resumption in those areas relying exclusively on the grid, in particular the motor car centre of Coventry and Longbridge, is still not possible. The Board's and the contractors' engineers are working round the clock to repair the damaged plants. It is too early yet to say precisely when supplies can be fully restored, but it is hoped that this may be possible in the next few days.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord very much for this statement. It certainly is very depressing that so often when the climate in this country behaves in its perfectly normal manner—that is, it is very cold here in December and January—we are continually faced with cuts, breakdowns and so on, of industries which on the whole should by now, one feels, be able to meet the ordinary rigors of our climate. It is not nearly so cold this year as it was in 1962–63, for instance.

I note that in the reply that the Minister has given to me he talks of technical failures and not of miscalculation. This is not what I read in a speech made by the Prime Minister at the weekend, when he said that there was grave miscalculation of the demands by industry in regard to gas; and, I believe, in regard to electricity, too. So I am glad to know that miscalculation is really not the reason for what has happened. Nevertheless, I feel depressed that we should again have a serious breakdown for technical reasons.

I listened, as I have no doubt many people have done, to the broadcast on this subject. What is happening is terribly serious, and I hope that every possible assistance will be given to the contractors to get things going again. I say that, because it is a disaster when one thinks of the great motor car industry being unable to work and unable to meet its obligations, when it is essential—as I am sure the Government would agree—to our export trade.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, but it is a fact, of course, when there is severe Weather combined with mechanical failure, that there is real trouble. Had there been a mechanical failure during a time when the highest pressure was not required, then of course, although depleted in its capacity, the plant may have been able to meet the demand, as it is able to do to a degree at the present time. After all, until January 24 no demands could be met, except the domestic demand. Now, of course, because of the warmer weather and the slightly increased supply, we have been able to meet some of the other demands. It is the combination of severe weather and, of course, the failures at the worst time they could possibly have happened, that has brought about the present position.


My Lords, does my noble friend not consider, in the light of events, that it is now necessary that we should have a national gas grid right throughout the country, so that gas can be supplied from one area where there is a surplus to another, to help in cases like this?


Yes, my Lords; and of course the Act that was passed by your Lordships in special circumstances in July last does, for the first time, give the Gas Council the opportunity to create a grid. Also—which is of equal importance—there is the opportunity to have underground storage of gas which can be drawn on in the case of failures of plant.


My Lords, does the Minister agree that his statement that this has nothing to do with miscalculation is a complete repudiation of what was said by the Prime Minister in a public speech blaming the previous Administration? I have another question to put, but I should like that one answered first.


My Lords, so far as I am concerned, it is getting the plant repaired and people back to work that matters, rather than making political points.




If noble Lords opposite had had to work at the bench and had lost their wages when they were out of work, they might feel as I should —glad to get back to work and so be able to pay the rent and buy the bread and butter. But, after all, the Prime Minister was only replying to other politicians who had been accusing this Government of not providing adequate plant in fifteen months, although it is known that an electricity works takes five years to build and a gas plant from two to two and a half years.


My Lords, does the noble Lord realize that I admire him very much for his attempts to defend the Prime Minister? But the question is whether it is now quite clearly stated on behalf of Her Majesty's Government that there was no error of calculation, and no shortage at all due to any miscalculation or inaction on the part of the previous Administration. Can the noble Lord make that absolutely clear?


My Lords, I would agree. I would ask your Lordships to be a little patient so far as I am concerned. I thought I knew something about transport, whereas I have been in my present job only seven days, and therefore my knowledge of it is strictly limited. In so far as the question is concerned, undoubtedly there was an insufficient margin of reserve, but there was sufficient capacity within the 490 million cubic feet to meet the expected demand. But, in fact, first the new plant at Tipton failed to come into supply when it was expected to; and secondly the existing plant at Coleshill, which is a new plant, went out of production because of a failure of plant.


My Lords, would the noble Lord say what action, if any, the Winter Emergency Committee has taken since its appointment in relation to gas? Secondly, while I appreciate the noble Lord's concern—and it is our concern, too—that these motor factories should be back at work as soon as possible, can he give any indication of how long he thinks it will take before they get a flow of gas? I do not think he said anything about that in his statement. He may not be able to give any very positive estimate, but it would be useful to know how long he think this shortage is likely to continue. There are two questions there, I am afraid; hut I hope that, despite his having been in that office for only seven days, he will be able to say whether or not the Winter Emergency Committee has accomplished anything in relation to gas.


My Lords, the noble Viscount is an ex-Cabinet Minister. I have never been a Member of the Cabinet, but I have always understood that it was not for Ministers to divulge what has happened either in the Cabinet or in Cabinet committees. All I can tell the noble Viscount, so far as the Winter Emergency Committee is concerned, is that to my own knowledge it has been meeting at least once a week, and involving, first, the Ministry of Transport and now, so far as I am concerned, the Ministry of Power.

So far as the resumption of supplies is concerned, the difficulty is this. We have hopes, and though one would not like to make statements in the House which are really for the Board to make, in conjunction with the industries concerned, I can tell the noble Viscount that the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry are in consultation with the West Midlands Gas Board to-day in regard to the resumption of supplies of gas, and about priorities, if they are necessary. Although it is strictly for the Board to say, it is our hope that, after consultation with them, there will be a resumption of supplies by Thursday.


My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that in fact the plant ought to have been ordered far earlier, because it had only a very short period in which to overcome its teething troubles before the winter was on us?


Yes, my Lords; and I thank the noble Viscount for that interjection. But, equally, there have been certain delays in the delivery of certain plant.


My Lords, are the Government proposing to have a look at the liability of Gas Boards for damages for breach of contract? Of course, one of the things which compel ordinary people to keep their contracts is the thought that if they break them they will be responsible for the losses of the other people with whom they are in contract. But if, in the case of a Gas Board whose gas supply breaks down, the only result is that the Board does not get paid for, the gas it has not supplied, and nothing more, that is not a very strong force compelling the Board to keep up its supplies; to industry.


My Lords, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, those are legal questions. But, if they are involved, some people who have had a motor car which has not been up to standard when delivered might even have a claim against the motor-car industry.