HL Deb 18 July 1967 vol 285 cc224-42

4.5 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill is designed to enable the Government to deal with a situation which has not yet arisen and which the Government hope never will arise. The situation I refer to would be one in which we should be faced with such a serious shortage of oil as a result of the current dislocation of supplies that it would be necessary for the Government to exercise control over the use of oil in this country. No such shortage has yet occurred, and it is so far impossible to predict whether it will occur at some time during the period contemplated by the Bill. I will come later to the reason why, if there is no shortage now nor any immediate prospect of one, it is necessary for the Government to seek the powers given by the Bill without delay. It may be convenient first if I say something about the circumstances which led to the moving of the Bill.

As we all know, the Suez Canal has been closed and various bans on oil supplies to this country have been imposed by the Arab States. For some weeks after the start of these events normal supplies continued to arrive in tankers already at sea West of the Canal. Loaded tankers caught East of the Canal had to go round the Cape and this imposed a delay on their arrival. Time was needed to sort out the confused situation which resulted and to send further tankers out to the Middle East round the Cape. Oil from sources unaffected by these events, whether East of Suez or in the Western Hemisphere, is arriving in this country and supplies of it are being built up. Nevertheless, although we entered this situation with a very strong stock position, there has inevitably been some drain on our stocks while the pattern of transport was being reorganised by the oil industry.

The future level of our stocks depends on the success of the tremendous effort which the industry is making to deal with the immense problems with which it is faced. Stocks generally are still well above a level that could be called critical, and it is hoped that this will remain the position. The problem with which we are at present faced is not lack of stocks, or lack of sources of oil, but facilities to transport the oil. I do not propose to go into further detail about the state of our stocks or about the prospects of a return to a more normal supply situation. These are very delicate matters, for reasons which I am sure will be obvious to all, and it would be wrong for me to disclose more information, or to speculate further, since what is said here could command a wide audience not only in this country but overseas. Suffice it to say that, while the Government have every hope that the present difficulties can be surmounted, there can at this stage be no certainty about the outcome.

This brings me to the need for this Bill at this time. The purpose of the Bill, which is set out in Clause 1, is essentially to enable the Minister of Power to control the supply, acquisition and consumption of liquid fuel. The passing of the Bill would not in itself bring such control any nearer. As I have said, there is not, at this moment, need for control. The Government have taken no decision about this, although they are, of course, watching the situation closely. But although there is no call for control now, one cannot exclude the possibility of unfavourable developments which may require control to be exercised at a later stage. The Government have at present no powers to exercise control. It will be recalled that some ten years ago, during the Suez crisis, the Government rationed petrol and introduced other restrictions on the use of oil. They were then able to avail themselves of the powers provided by the Defence Regulations and to make various statutory orders under them. These regulations have long since been revoked, and there are no standing powers available in their stead. To acquire the necessary powers only two courses are open to the Government: one is the introduction of this Bill; the other is to invoke, at the appropriate time, emergency procedure. This would entail the proclamation of an emergency and the making of the necessary emergency regulations under it.

But this procedure is open to the great objection that an emergency would need to be proclaimed afresh from month to month, and similarly the regulations made under it would need to be renewed at monthly intervals. The disadvantages of this process are obvious. If, for example—and I emphasise that this is a hypothetical example—the Government were to decide very soon after Parliament had risen for the Summer Recess that the situation required some control to be introduced, Parliament, under the emergency procedure, would have to be recalled, possibly two or three times, during the Recess in order to enable the control to be exercised for any length of time. In the Government's view this would be a clumsy and inappropriate procedure. They have therefore preferred to introduce this Bill. I am sure your Lordships will agree that there are objections at this time to invoking the emergency procedure, as a matter of principle. Under the Bill, which I repeat is purely an enabling measure, the Minister of Power could make orders regulating or prohibiting the supply, acquisition or consumption of liquid fuel. The Minister could also give directions to refiners and suppliers of liquid fuel so as to ensure the best possible pattern of supply in circumstances of shortage, whether of oil generally or of particular types of oil.

Although the difficulties with which we may be faced would spring from a shortage of oil, the powers of control which the Bill proposes for the Minister of Power would extend to all liquid fuel, not only petroleum products. The reason for this is that if there were a shortage of petroleum products, it might have repercussions for other liquid fuels, for example those derived from coal. A situation might arise in which it would be desirable for the Minister to be able to make arrangements to supplement supplies of oil with other liquid fuels, or to ensure that those who ordinarily depend on other liquid fuels did not find themselves in difficulty as a result of a sudden increase in demand for them. Here I would say that liquid fuel as defined in Clause 7(1) does not include lubricating oils or grease. This is because these are not used as fuel. The Bill therefore provides for the Minister to cover the supply of lubricants as well as liquid fuel in any directions he might need to make.

The Bill also provides in Clause 3 for the Minister of Transport to take steps to ensure the most efficient use of the available goods vehicles in the event of petrol rationing. If operators of goods vehicles had to manage with less motor spirit or derve than they customarily use, it would obviously be sensible for them to be free as far as possible to make the optimum use of their vehicles. Accordingly, the Bill empowers the Minister of Transport to relax certain restrictions under the Road Traffic Act 1960 on the carrying of goods for hire or reward or for own account—but only to the extent necessary to reinforce any measures of control which the Minister of Power may take.

My Lords, these are the two main powers which the Government seek to obtain through this Bill—the power for the Minister of Power to exercise control, and the power for the Minister of Transport to relax restrictions. The Bill also, of course, contains necessary supporting provisions. Among them in Clause 4 are the Parliamentary procedure for the handling of Orders made under the Bill (these would be subject to negative resolution procedure); the service of notices and other documents; the persons to whom the Bill applies; authority for duly authorised Government officials to require undertakings to produce documents and, in certain circumstances, to obtain warrants for entry and search of premises; and the establishment of offences under the Bill and of penalties for them. Your Lordships will have noticed that Clause 4 refers back to the Emergency Laws (Re-enactments and Repeals) Act 1964, and, in effect, applies them in this legislation.

The Bill is intended to apply both to Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Government of Northern Ireland (this is dealt with in Clause 10) would be prepared to play their part in the application of any restrictions which may be called for. But they, like the Government at Westminster, are presently without power to exercise control. The Bill will enable any restrictions which the Minister of Power may see fit to introduce in Great Britain to be adopted in Northern Ireland and to be operated on his behalf by the appropriate Northern Ireland Government Department. Similarly the Bill provides for the application of restrictions in the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, which depend on this country for their supplies of oil. It would be for the Island authorities to decide the nature and extent of any restrictions which they might choose to operate. Clause 8 simply provides for the appropriate provisions to be extended to the Islands by Order in Council.

I am afraid it is impossible at this stage to give any reliable estimates of the cost of any operations which may need to be undertaken under the Bill. So much would depend on what kind of restrictions were needed, when they might start, and for how long they might last. Undoubtedly, if petrol rationing were called for, the cost of the staff needed to administer a rationing scheme would be a substantial item. During the Suez crisis some 1,800 staff were needed to administer the rationing of private motor vehicles. In those days there were only about 4 million cars on the road; now the figure is something round 10 million. Present arrangements provide for the rationing of this vastly increased number of cars to be undertaken by a staff of some 2,500—the increase in staff being a good deal less proportionately, I am happy to say, than the increase in the number of cars. This could not help but be a substantial item of expenditure. Not only is there the cost of staff but also the cost of accommodation for them, and the cost of the coupons which would be required and of supporting operations by the post offices and local authorities' local taxation offices. The Bill provides specifically for the reimbursement of expenditure which may be incurred by the Postmaster General and local authorities in the event of petrol rationing. The Minister of Power would be responsible for the costs of the former, and the Minister of Transport for those of the latter. Otherwise expenditure by Government Departments would be met from moneys provided directly by Parliament.

I might add at this point that certain steps have already been taken (these were announced last week) to prepare for petrol rationing in case it is needed. These steps include the printing of coupons and forms, the acquiring of accommodation for rationing staff and the posting of advance parties to the regional offices where rationing would be administered. The mounting of a rationing scheme is no small undertaking, and the issue of coupons would necessarily occupy some weeks. The steps that are being taken now do not mean that rationing is inevitable or is even contemplated at the present time. They are simply sensible precautions which the Government would be imprudent to neglect, so that, if the need arises, there should be no undue delay.

My Lords, the Bill makes only temporary provision for control. The Government believe that if control were required, it should be for only a short period, to tide over passing difficulties. They are not seeking continuing powers. The Bill itself sets a term to the duration of the powers which it gives. It is timed to expire on June 30, 1968. This is contained in Clause 9(1). It should not be inferred from this that any restrictions that might prove necessary could be expected to last as long as that. Petrol rationing, for example, if it were required at all, might well be over by the end of the year. But some preparations will still need to be made well before the end of the year against the possibility of a prolongation into 1968, and the Bill must cover such a contingency. For this reason it is not possible to set an earlier term to the Bill. The Government hope that they will not have to exercise the powers in the Bill: if they do have to, they will certainly not wish to do so for a moment longer than is necessary.

The powers of control which the Government seek in this Bill are admittedly unusual, but I think the justification must rest on the unusual situation which has arisen and on the uncertainty as to how it will develop. Given this uncertainty and the need for quick action should the situation develop unfavourably, the Government believe that it is not only desirable but essential that they should be accorded these powers. They may never be used. If they were it would be for only a limited time. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Shackleton.)

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shackle-ton, for having introduced and explained this Bill. I am sure that every noble Lord is very glad to know that it is only an enabling Bill. We all deplore the circumstances which have given rise to the necessity for a Bill of this nature, but I think the Government are right in taking the necessary precautions and, if I may say so, in taking them in this manner. At the outset, I should like to congratulate not only the Government but also the oil companies and those others who are deeply involved in this matter for having kept the supply of oils plentiful to date. To the average consumer there has been little difference from the status quo before all the trouble in the Middle East occurred. Yet I cannot help but believe that substantial headaches were given to the people trying to keep these supplies going.

I would confine my remarks to asking the noble Lord some questions, so that he may be able to amplify and clarify a little more the circumstances which surround this Bill. The first thing I have in mind is what exactly the petroleum situation is like. I notice that the noble Lord was hesitant to be drawn on this subject too much, and I appreciate his reasons; but would he be able to go so far at least as to tell us whether at the moment our average weekly consumption of fuels is as great or greater than the average import of fuels? In other words, are we importing sufficient fuels to keep ourselves going or are we having to live to a certain extent on our reserves? I should be glad to know how large these reserves are. I have heard that it is three weeks' supply. Is this so or do the reserves of fuel last longer?

Does the noble Lord, at this time, visualise rationing becoming a reality? If we go on as we are, with the same imports and consumption, is it likely that eventually petrol will be rationed? Or is the object of this Bill merely to take precautions in case the import situation gets worse than it is at the moment? I should be grateful if the noble Lord could tell the House whether the oil companies at the moment have a free rein to import oil from anywhere, even from areas where previously they may have encountered currency restrictions, in order to meet the demands of the market. If there is a shortage of imports, is this because oil is not available, or because tankers are not available, or because of currency restrictions which prevent either the purchasing of oil or the hiring of tankers?

All the talk is about petrol rationing. This is described as the Control of Liquid Fuel Bill, but what are the Government's intentions about other fuel? Do they propose to ration, if necessary, diesel fuel, central heating oil or tractor vaporising oil, or is this to be confined to petrol rationing and the motorist? If so, it could well be argued that it would be more equitable if all liquid fuel users were subject to restrictions, and not motorists only. It would seem illogical for a man to be prevented from using his car and yet be allowed to use his central heating full blast. And how do the Government intend to prevent lorry and tractor petrol from finding its way into private cars? Do they intend to resort to the previous method of tinting petrol with a red dye—and have they any arrangements to ensure that this is going to be more successful than it was before? I rather fancy that the noble Lord would prefer to "keep mum" about some of these questions, on the basis that the less said the better, for fear of scaring the public and possibly giving too much information to the suppliers, but I deliberately ask the noble Lord these questions because I think it is right that we should know what is in the Government's mind and that we should not be kept too much in the dark.

Again, can the noble Lord say whether such gases as propane and butane, normally known as Calor gas, though I realise that this is a trade name, are to be rationed? Indeed, are they covered by this Bill? These are liquid fuels when in containers at a high pressure and low temperature, and when released to the air they are vaporised and become gases.

The noble Lord said that at the time of Suez it was necessary to take on 1,800 extra staff and that if petrol rationing is brought in that figure would become 2,500. I appreciate that he may not be able to give too many details, but could he say where it intended to recruit the extra 2,500—from other Ministries? If so, what are these Ministries going to do without them? If they have enough staff, to spare, why have they so many now? And if they are not coming from other Ministries, where are they to come from? It is all very fine to say that we want extra people, but we do not get them, as it were, out of a hat. In the Government's preparation for rationing, what period of time do they anticipate will elapse between the announcement that fuel will be rationed and rationing coming into force? Your Lordships know that whenever there is a change in price this normally happens "as from midnight". I assume that rationing would not come in with quite such devastating alacrity; but if it is going to be 12 days or three weeks, is there not the problem that people will make a run on stocks and hoard their fuel? I cannot help but believe that rationing would be desperately inconvenient, wildly time-wasting, very frustrating, probably in some ways inexorable, and certainly very expensive. I wonder whether the Government have discarded entirely the possibility of curtailing demand, should that be necessary, by increasing price.

I hope that the provisions of this Bill will never have to be used and that we can manage without rationing. I think the Government are entirely right and prudent to bring it in and take the necessary precautions. They certainly have my sympathy, because I do not think that it would be easy, popular or cheap. At least I am sure that those responsible for administering it will do so with as much humanity and understanding as possible. I stress the word "understanding" because I recall that at the time of the Suez petrol-rationing one farmer filling in his petrol claim form was asked what means of locomotion he had. He said "A tractor and a stallion". He was granted an allowance of two gallons for the tractor and ten gallons for the stallion. I am sure that we have learned from our mistakes in the past. Though I hope that the provisions of this Bill will never come into operation, I, for one, wish it well.

4.29 p.m.


My Lords, may I say from these Benches that I hope that we shall never have to use the provisions of this Bill, but I think the Government are wise to bring it in. May I ask two points on administration? I assume, in regard to the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, about where the extra people would be recruited, that they would probably be retired civil servants or people in that category. But will the Minister say whether this is to be a regional organisation, and will he bear in mind the need to avoid concentrating civil servants in new centres, especially in the South of England, where there is already far too much congestion in London and the surrounding districts? Secondly, can the noble Lord say anything in regard to what was reported this morning; namely, that the Algerians are holding up supplies of liquid gas to this country? Because this could have a bad effect in causing a greater burden on other fuels, such as oil. With those few words, I welcome the Bill.

4.31 p.m.


My Lords, it was not my intention, when I entered the House, to engage in this debate, but listening to the statements that have been made it occurred to me that perhaps on a Second Reading debate such as this it would be reasonable to raise the general question of our complete dependence, as it is becoming more and more, on others in regard to fuel supplies. This is the second, I will not say crisis, but difficulty in regard to oil supplies that we have encountered in recent years. On each occasion it has shown the vulnerability of this country to such dependence. We are now in the position of having, in substance, a large supply of our necessary fuel dependent upon what are, at the moment at least, manifestly unfriendly Powers, and Powers which at any time might use our vulnerability as a political weapon, to further some nationist aims, or something of that kind. It sems to me that common sense requires a review of our fuel policy, so that we may see whether there are any agencies open to us which would render that dependence and vulnerability considerably less.

It is not many years since, not quite at the behest, but under the influence, of the then Government, the electricity supply industry decided for the first time to embark upon a number of power stations which were to burn oil. I may say quite definitely that the engineers of the electricity supply industry were at that time totally opposed to the use of oil in the generation of electricity. They were of the opinion that the technical problems were greater than the continuance of reliance upon coal. At that time nuclear power had scarcely been thought of as a really practicable measure of meeting the electricity needs of this country. Consequently, we in the supply industry—I was then the chairman—set about spending money converting from coal to oil, stations that were in the process of building, and making some stations capable of running on both. To the best of my recollection, the capital cost of doing that was some £16 million. Had the supply industry's own technical officials been allowed to pursue their way, it would have meant that we could have reduced that capital payment by the use of coal.

I am not oblivious to the fact that there have been periods in the history of the coal industry when it appeared that their ability to meet the needs of the electricity-generating industry were inadequate; but they were based upon what proved to be wrong estimates, not, I am glad to say, of the officials of the supply industry, but of those of the then Coal Board. No-one has been more prominent than the noble Lord, Lord Robens of Woldingham, in his advocacy that for an economic, viable policy of coal production we need a greater output of coal. Time and time again he has emphasised this, almost to the point, one might say, where he has been oblivious to the broad policy of the Government of the day.

I welcome the statement which, according to The Times, is due to be made to-day by the Minister of Fuel and Power, in which, apparently, he is to urge the extended use of coal. But I want to put in a plea for consideration of nuclear power as a fuel. It is true that coal has been our staple commodity in the electricity supply industry for the generation of electricity, but I have never been very happy at the thought of men having to work underground in conditions which at best cannot rival those of good industrial practice on the surface, which I think is socially most undesirable. That may appear a contradiction of what I said a few minutes ago about the use of coal; but if one gives the matter consideration, it is not.

Nuclear power is unquestionably entering an era when it can equal, if not outdistance, the efficiency of any other kind of fuel for the generation of electricity. There is no question at all in my mind about that. I was chairman at the time the decision was made to experiment with nuclear power stations, and I was prominent in advocacy of embarking on that experiment. It has now passed the stage of experiment, and it would mean that if we were to extend considerably, as it could be extended, the use of nuclear power, we should find our sources of supply far more assured than the supplies of oil are to-day. The major supplies, so far as my recollection goes, were to be obtained from the Commonwealth. We are hardly likely to be at variance, certainly to the point of war, with the Commonwealth, although I am not sure about other parts of the world. So I regret, although I well understand, that this limited but, in the circumstances, necessary, Bill does not deal with the major problem of our continued reliance on imported fuel.

4.38 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join the noble Lord, Lord Citrine, in widening somewhat the scope of this debate. It seems to me essential that we should not allow this matter to pass without saying what a lamentable thing it is that for the second time in ten years our country should have to consider the necessity to ration petrol in peace time. To my mind it is almost incredible. Of course, I warmly support the Bill. I support, also, the questions asked by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and I shall look forward to hearing the answers which the Minister will give.

I wish to say, however, that the present situation would seem to be intolerable from the point of view of the whole of Europe. Here is the Suez Canal, a major thoroughfare of essential importance to world trade, which is controlled by one Power—and I recall that the thoroughfare was shut before the Israelis got there. Now that the Israelis have reached the Canal, it is obviously impossible for the normal transit procedures to work, and therefore it is clearly essential that the Israelis should be persuaded to leave. But even when they leave, the Canal will remain in the hands of a Power which seems to be extremely unfriendly, which is obtaining a great many more arms from Russia with a view to continuing the war, and on which we apparently cannot rely for reasonable treatment of our commerce.

In these circumstances, I think that every consideration ought to be given to providing an alternative method of transit. We can go round the Cape of Good Hope, but it is a very long journey, and this puts our trade at a great disadvantage. We should certainly suffer great disadvantages East of Suez, in India and other countries, as compared with Japan and the United States, if we have to get there all the way round the Cape of Good Hope. Therefore, I feel that consideration ought to be given to other possibilities.

I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to one possibility: that is that the Port of Eilat, which will take 200,000-ton ships, should be used as the end of a pipe-line to a port on the Mediterranean—one is already being built by the Israelis—and that special transits should be arranged by pipe-line and road for liquid fuels and also for goods to be trans-shipped. They would be able to be carried in ships much larger than can go, fully loaded, through the Suez Canal. And, if the Israelis know their business, I am sure they would see that that system does not cost more than going through the Suez Canal itself.

I should have thought that a little competition in these matters would be no had thing. There would be certain corollaries. One would be that the Gulf of Tiran should definitely be kept open, and I think that means kept open by the Israelis, because I do not see how anybody can have very much confidence in the United Nations. The second would be that somehow the Israelis must be got to go away from the Canal. But if they were to receive some help with a pipe-line and roads, perhaps they would be less unwilling to consider that.

Something will have to be done also to produce a better state of peace between the Arab countries and Israel. I should like to think that in the long run some sort of new deal for the North African countries as a whole will be considered. On the other side of the deal I personally should like to see O.E.C.D. as a whole, so that 0.E.C.D. would fulfil the godparent role, which the Americans and the Canadians fulfilled in relation to Europe after World War II. My Lords, these are vague ideas, but I put them forward simply because it is intolerable that we should be in this position in times of peace, and I think the disadvantages to our commerce, our economy, and the standard of living of our people go very far beyond the question of liquid fuels alone.

4.43 p.m.


My Lords, first of all, I should like to thank noble Lords for welcoming the Bill, and I particularly thank the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for giving me advance notice of some of the questions he has asked. That I am unable to answer them is not just, except in respect of one or two, a matter of the normal Government caution which Oppositions so rightly seek to dent, but is due to the fact that the Bill is rather a hypothetical Bill. Therefore, I shall not be able to satisfy him on all the points he has raised.

In particular, I am afraid that I cannot say very much about the average weekly or monthly import of fuel, or the equivalent consumption. I will go into this matter a little further and see what the particular difficulties are in giving this information. But, of course, I do not think it would help him at the moment. The situation is one that is changing. Obviously, the initial dislocation of supplies—and this may go some way to answer his question—has led to a reduction of imports temporarily, and therefore I think stocks are bound to have gone down. The question is really how far the further measures that have been taken, and what has been done by the oil companies—and I share with him appreciation of the hard work they are putting into it—will restore the situation. I am afraid, therefore, it would be quite misleading to pick a particular group of figures—say, for last week—of current arrivals and consumption, unless we look at the forward position. Although I share his interest, and it is a reasonable question to ask, I believe any answer is bound to be misleading. Therefore I think it is better not to go further than the comments I have already given.

This is the point where he asked me whether I thought rationing was really going to take place. I have no idea. The Government do not know. We are still hoping that it will be possible to avoid it. Although it is natural that people instinctively want to know the Government's opinion on this question, I must emphasise that this is essentially a precautionary measure. When I say that, I am not concealing a hidden intention, or hidden belief, on the part of the Government that rationing is going to come about. We simply do not know; and we think there are reasonable chances, good chances—who can judge at the moment?—of avoiding rationing.

In this context the noble Earl asked whether there were any currency restrictions for oil or for hiring tankers. The answer is, No. There are no such restrictions, and the situation continues as in the past. Certainly, there is no proposal or intention at the moment to introduce rationing as an aid to the balance of payments. The balance-of-payments situation may have taken a small dent in the last few weeks, partly because of loss of confidence and partly because certain extra costs are being imposed, but we do not face any crisis at the moment, or any great oil supply crisis. It is essentially a transport problem. Therefore, here again it is a hypothetical question—or, rather, the noble Earl's question is not hypothetical, but observations on future events on the balance-of-payments side would be very hypothetical indeed, and there are no restrictions at the moment.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, also asked about rationing of diesel fuel, central heating, T.V.O., et cetera. The Minister is taking power under this Bill to control the supply, acquisition and consumption of any or all liquid fuel; and this would cover not only motor fuel rationing, but also restrictions on other fuels used for central heating, and so on. But whether rationing or other restrictions may be needed will depend on the course that is to be followed; and here again we have taken no decisions. We are not proposing to ration, anyway. When I say that we are not proposing to ration anyway, I mean that we are merely taking certain steps. Therefore, I think it is difficult to answer this question.

The noble Earl referred again to the problem of tractors and lorries, and whether red dye would be used. There is certainly no intention to use red dye. Red dye was not used when petrol was rationed during the Suez crisis. As to the noble Earl's reference to his friend's stallion, I can only conclude that the regional office must have thought that "Stallion" was the name of a motor car. I am quite sure that, although mistakes will be made, once again the petrol rationers will do their utmost to conduct the petrol rationing in as sensible a way as possible. Obviously, none of us wants it. It poses bureaucratic value judgments in certain respects which are extremely difficult and which Governments and civil servants, I am quite sure, would much prefer not to have to deal with.

Again, I was asked about butane and propane. My recollection is that Calor gas was not rationed even during the war—I am not quite certain about that. But, of course, it is in much greater use to-day. Here, again, the Government are taking powers to cover the matter, but it would be too early for me to answer that question. These are questions of a kind which it is extremely natural to ask, but it is very difficult to answer them when the Government have not in fact decided to do anything; and I apologise to the noble Earl. I think they are very reasonable questions.

Then he came to the question of the staff that will be required. I mentioned 2,500, and both he and the noble Lord, Lord Byers, referred to this matter. Indeed, the questions put by both noble Lords were ones that I myself asked: if we can find 2,500, just like that, does this not suggest that Government offices have got a "bit of fat"? The answer is, No. The answer is that in fact there are certain people who will obviously have to work a good deal harder—those who are setting up the machinery—but other work will just suffer, and there may be certain people who are engaged in certain activities (and I prefer not to specify them at the moment) which will just have to be dropped for the time being. There are certain things which, although in themselves, desirable, we can afford, in a difficulty of this nature, to stop for the period.

On the particular point as to where they will be, I take the noble Earl's point that he hopes—and very properly—that they will not all be stuck in London. The answer is that about a quarter will be in London. I should have thought that if this were going to be a permanent scheme (which I am sure it will not be) this is one of the type of headquarters that one would like to see situated somewhere other than in London.


My Lords, does one gather from that remark that 60,000 people in London are going to be engaged in this?


My Lords, the noble Lord's calculations are not quite accurate; the figure should be 6,000.


My Lords, I think it is 600.


Yes, my Lords: that is quite right. If, in fact, it were a quarter, the figure would be about 650. The noble Earl, I fear, is causing a good deal of difficulty with these figures! London itself contains a pretty sizable part of the population of this country, but many of them will be concerned in regional offices. I think I have now answered that point. I shall probably return in a moment to the noble Lord's point about Algerian oil.

The noble Earl then asked what the time lag will be; whether it will be a day or a week. Inevitably it will be some weeks after the announcement of this scheme, because the petrol coupon books will have to be applied for and issued. Precisely how long I do not know, but people will get notice. I appreciate the noble Earl's concern that presumably people might start hoarding. The one thing we all wish to avoid is hoarding, but I suppose there will always be a few selfish people. However, the issuing through post offices and local taxation offices of petrol coupons and ration books for more than 10 million private cars cannot be done more quickly than within a few weeks. Again, it will be a very much bigger operation than during the Suez crisis.

The noble Earl asked whether the Government had discarded the idea of decreasing demand by increasing prices. To try to obtain any appreciable reduction in petrol consumption would call for a really swingeing increase, and this would lead to a great deal of unfairness. I always think it is worth while looking at the market method of dealing with this sort of situation, but I cannot believe that the noble Earl and the Party to which he belongs would contemplate this for a moment; and I am sure it would be unacceptable to the public. There is always, of course, the possibility—and again I should not like to suggest it—that there might be price increases. I think that at the time of the Suez crisis there was a special tax of something like a shilling which the Chancellor put on in order to recoup the revenue that he lost. But it is certainly not intended, if rationing should come about, to introduce it by the purse.

The noble Lord, Lord Byers, asked about Algerian liquid gas. I am sorry to say this has been stopped right from the beginning. There have been some rather conflicting reports in the Press about it, and there has been a new incident on top of the earlier one.

I have done my best to answer both the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and the noble Lord, Lord Byers. Finally, I come to the noble Lord, Lord Citrine, and the noble Lord, Lord Hankey. I must say that they improved the shining hour by taking the opportunity to raise matters of great importance, which I am not proposing to answer. Anything that the noble Lord, Lord Citrine, may say on fuel or electricity supply or coal is of great importance, and of great interest to the House, because there is nobody who knows more about those things; and I do not doubt that in the past his words of wisdom have been perhaps more neglected than they should have been. But I do not think I ought to go further into it on this particular Bill. Indeed I had in mind Standing Order No. 26, which I did not attempt to invoke, although the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, nearly stimulated me into doing so, in relation to relevance, but one could say that although it did not bear directly on this particular Bill, none the less it is of great interest.

However, I do not expect any of your Lordships will expect me to do more than say that I listened with the greatest interest, and clearly the question of alternative supplies and the vulnerability of our position in this matter is one that Governments have constantly considered. I ought just to say (and in doing so perhaps I am myself going out of Order) that there are two sides to this question.

Those people who are unable to supply their oil will be in pretty serious trouble also.

I am grateful to your Lordships for the reception you have given to this Bill, and I am glad it is going through, although I hope that its provisions will never be put into effect.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.