HL Deb 17 January 1974 vol 348 cc1169-78

8.35 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this House do adjourn during pleasure in order to enable the Secretary of State for Energy to make a statement as to how it was that he came to make a statement to the Press instead of arranging for it to be made in Parliament—a statement of the very greatest importance to this country.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, is aware that in this House we have congratulated him on his appointment, even though we know that in another place great concern has been expressed about an appointment in your Lordships' House as a result of which it might be thought that another place was denied the opportunity to cross-examine and discuss the performance of a Minister in a most crucial role in the present Government. This afternoon we quizzed the noble Lord at some length on questions with regard to fuel supplies, and earlier in the day we had thought it likely that there would be a Statement on the subject of the energy position—all the more so since Questions have been raised, both in your Lordships' House and in another place, as to whether the Government had shown competence in assessing the position with regard to fuel supplies; as to whether it was necessary in fact to have a three-day week and whether the country was going to have to face, as was apparent to us all, a situation of such gravity that in the event of an Election the successor Government would be faced with a situation in which industry in this country was, to put it mildly, broken-backed. The noble Lord answered the questions with his usual skill and I think he will agree that they were put with courtesy—and we assumed that nothing further was likely to be said to-day.

The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, will recall that I raised the possibility of a further Statement, not bearing directly on this point but with regard to the possibility of Government action with regard to elections. At any rate we accepted that there was nothing more to be said, and in fact, although the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, was subjected to a good deal of questioning, there was no indication that there would be later—a mere couple of hours later—a statement of the very greatest importance to the people of this country. What I gather was said (it is alleged that it was said at a cocktail party, but I rather gather that this was an opportunity that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, was taking to meet industrial correspondents) was that there would in fact be an immediate increase; that full electricity supplies are to be restored immediately to steel production. My Lords, one of the greatest threats to this country has been the possibility of a decline in the production of steel, and this has been emphasised both in your Lordships' House and in another place.

Furthermore, according to the "tape" the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said that there were a number of factors which had resulted in the improved position. He referred to the weather—and we are all well aware that the weather has been stormy but unusually mild, as he apparently said; and again he called for no worsening of the situation—the pressure that we have seen continually brought upon the miners and on the trade unions—and he said that the Government have decided, in the light of the improved situation at power stations, to restore full electricity supplies to steel production. He further indicated that he is asking representatives of the C.B.I., the T.U.C. and chambers of commerce to see him early next week to talk about a further relaxation for industry and to discuss how it was best to proceed, and that this could mean a four-clay week for industry in about seven days' time, but it depended on the wishes of industry. I should like to ask the noble Lord whether in fact he said that.

My Lords, these are things that ought to have been said in Parliament. They ought to have been said in your Lordships' House; they ought to have been said in another place, where the noble Lord has in Mr. Patrick Jenkins a very competent deputy who could have dealt with all this. I am bound to say that in my Parliamentary experience it is an outrage that a statement of this importance should not have been made in Parliament, and I hope that the noble Lord, in his own interests and in the interests of the good faith of Government towards Parliament, will give some sort of explanation as to how it was this statement was not made in Parliament.

Moved, That the House do adjourn during pleasure.—(Lord Shackleton.)

8.41 p.m.


My Lords, have been a Member of your Lordships' House for certainly longer than anyone else present in this Chamber, and I think all your Lordships will know that the last thing I would wish to do is to be discourteous to your Lordships' House. I hope that that will be understood straightaway. I think one must acknowledge that there always is a difficulty in deciding whether or not one makes Statement in the House. Obviously, one does not want to make too many Statements about things; it interferes in the business of your Lordships' House. I think that Statements should be made only on important matters.

My Lords, if I may explain, on this particular occasion I thought it right that as soon as possible after taking office as Secretary of State for Energy I should see the industrial correspondents, who would wish to question me about my new job, about how my Ministerial colleagues and I looked at affairs, and that we might be able to explain the way we intended to work. It seemed to me that a good opportunity to do this was on the occasion of the publication of the weekly figures of fuel stocks, which are published weekly and about which there is never any announcement to Parliament. I thought this was a good opportunity because it would enable the industrial correspondents to look at the fuel stocks and to see with me the situation we had reached.

The only decision—and this is a matter of judgment—which I made clear to the audience I was addressing (it was not a cocktail party, but a conference of industrial correspondents) was that I thought that, in the light of the coal stocks position it would be possible forthwith to relax restrictions on the electricity supplies to steel. Steel is a continuous supply process and is already getting 65 per cent. This relaxation would really only mean, broadly speaking, that the electric are furnaces would be able to operate, because even now in the steel industry the coking coal situation is such that there cannot be full production. So this is a comparatively minor adjustment, although I think an important one. On reflection and consideration, I do not think that this particular announcement was something that was worthy of a Statement to your Lordships' House.

My Lords, subsequently I said to the industrial correspondents that the situation with regard to coal stocks, which was much better than one had anticipated, led me to suppose that it might be possible to relax restrictions further in the near future, and that I had to take another look at the stocks before I made a decision on that, and before the Government made a decision on that; but in anticipation of that decision I intended to see the T.U.C., the C.B.I. and the chambers of commerce and so on, in order to discuss with them, if it was possible, what sort of relaxation would best suit them: because, if your Lordships remember, on the occasion when the three-day working week was introduced, there was some criticism that there had not been consultation. So I told them this. Of course, if it becomes possible to relax in some way—for instance, by going on a four-day working week or some other variant which may be more practical or desirable to those most interested—the first thing I would do, and I assure your Lordships of this, is to come to your Lordships' House and make a Statement about it.

My Lords, that is what happened. It seems to me that it would not have been right to make a Statement to your Lordships purely about the situation on electricity. That was the decision I came to. It must be for the judgment of your Lordships' House whether I was right or wrong. But on one thing I do assure your Lordships: the last thing I wish to do is to offend the House, or any of your Lordships in it.

8.48 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord will be the judge of his actions to-day. I have been in this House, not as long as the noble Lord, but sufficiently long, and perhaps a good deal longer than most of your Lordships present here this evening, to be able to respect the integrity of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. I am prepared to say that what he has done to-day was a question of ill-judgment—ill-judgment, because what we have to understand is that there are two Houses of Parliament. If the Secretary of State is in the House of Commons, your Lordships' House largely depends on the good relations, but if a Statement is made in another place by a Secretary of State, it is repeated in your Lordships' House. That is what we should all require, irrespective of which Party is in Opposition. Therefore, if, in his judgment, a Secretary of State in the House of Lords decides not to make a Statement, lie not only denies this House, but denies the elected representatives in the House of Commons.

My Lords, the noble Lord said that he thought it was a question of interference of important business, but this is an important statement. It is something infinitely more than just the coal stocks. Steel is now to be put on to full time; there is the possible relaxation. This is a major statement. I would acquit the noble Lord of contempt of Parliament if he had, as he said, decided to brief the Press, as all Secretaries of State are entitled to do, as it is part of their duty so to do. It would then have been for the Press to use it for general information. But the Secretary of State has been speaking to the nation, on television this evening, has he not? To me, that is the greatest contempt of Parliament, because what the noble Lord has done is to circumvent the two Houses of Parliament, not only in briefing the Press, but in speaking through television on a basis on which he could not be questioned.

I have always thought that one of the fundamental principles of democracy is that Ministers are answerable to Parliament; that they make their Statements, answer questions and defend their position. What the noble Lord has done to-day is to deny Parliament its right to question a Secretary of State on a major principle of policy. I would acquit the noble Lord if it were merely a briefing of the Press, as he said, but to go on television—that, my Lords, I regard as the highest contempt of Parliament.

8.49 p.m.


My Lords, I read the tape, and what I regret is the lack of understanding in this statement. It was a good statement from the Government and one that will give cheer to Ebbw Vale and some of the other Welsh steel producing areas, and to such places in Scotland. It will give cheer, but it will also mean something of a social difference to rents, mortgages and food prices. But being made as it was made, and being made on television, Parliament must watch. Even when the Labour Government was in office, sometimes I criticised this use of the trivialisation of politics. This was the trivialisation of a vital piece of information at this moment when we might go into an Election on February 14. Therefore I have a feeling that this is "jumping the gun" a little to create a feeling of satisfaction in the country, that things are improving. I believe this House and the other place are where this statement should have been made.

I have the utmost confidence in the noble Lord; I think he is a gentleman of great integrity. Consequently, I hope he will not think I am trying to make a cheap personal attack on him. It may have been a mistake, but who am I to judge? We have all made mistakes, sometimes stupid mistakes. I have in my lifetime. This was a mistake made because of the withering away of Parliament imposed by the trivial media to-day, which asks for immediate decisions. You have little men and women appearing on television making immediate decisions over mighty problems. We must learn to look at these things in depth, and Parliament on this occasion failed to have the cut and thrust of debate on a good standard.

8.52 p.m.


My Lords, I should like heartily to support my noble friend the Secretary of State for Energy, because I do feel that the Opposition have really exaggerated. The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has used the word "outrage", and the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, said that his action was in contempt of Parliament. I must say I find that absolutely fantastic. For a number of hours now we have been debating the protection of the environment; perhaps we should be protected from fallacious Motions rather than the environment. For a number of hours we have been discussing the Protection of the Environment Bill in Committee; and neither the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, nor the Deputy Leader have been here. The Chief Whip of the Opposition has not been here for a number of hours. Suddenly, out of the blue, when the House is about to rise, they come forward with this trumped up excuse for criticising my noble friend. I think it is disgraceful. I think it is much more important that my noble friend should talk to the nation through the medium of television when addressing a few million people, rather than try to influence seven noble Lords who support the Leader of the Opposition.


My Lords, does not the noble Lord realise that this is giving way to the diktat of one person through the use of the media? This was the first place, or the other place was, where such a discussion should be established.


My Lords, noble Lords opposite in venting their criticism have acknowledged—as those of us who have been long in one or other House know—that it is always a nice matter of judgment when to make a satement or not. Furthermore, I believe noble Lords opposite would agree that there is no single Member of your Lordships' House who would be less likely to wish to be contemptuous of the rights of this House than my noble friend Lord Carrington. Having acknowledged that it is a nice matter of judgment, it seems to me a little anomalous that the Government should have been criticised by noble Lords opposite, and certainly by those in another place, for not having passed out enough information about this emergency, and occasionally for not having passed it out quickly enough. It seems anomalous that, when the noble Lord has done that as quickly as possible, noble Lords should be taking him to task in the way they have. Although this principle that Ministers are responsible to Parliament is an immensely important one, there is a risk occasionally that we are a little too touchy and sensitive in this matter. Personally, I entirely exonerate my noble friend from any wish or intention whatever to treat this House with contempt. I am sure that will be the feeling of the majority of the Members of this House.


My Lords, may I, as possibly the junior Member of the House present, as opposed to the senior Member, Lord Carrington, congratulate him on telling the nation that in fact we can increase our production. This seems to me very much more important than the susceptibilities of various people opposite.


My Lords, I do not want to enter into competition with the noble Earl as to who is the most junior Member of the House, but I think that I qualify for that. I am also at this disadvantage, that I have not seen the subject matter of this dispute about which so much energy is being dissipated this evening. I have listened to the energetic way in which the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, and the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, have pressed this matter, and I have listened to the energetic way in which the Minister of Energy has made his statement. I think that possibly at this late hour it would be a solution of this matter if I were to say on behalf of myself (to quote a statement by the Secretary of State for Energy in an earlier exchange) that having heard the statements from both sides of the House, "That is that."


My Lords, I do not know whether or not I am in the situation of having to wind up, but I should like just to say one more thing, if I may. First of all, I would thank my noble friends who have supported me. But I would say at the same time to those noble Lords who have criticised me that I bear not the slightest ill-will: I know that the three noble Lords opposite are staunch upholders of Parliament and therefore I make no criticism of that at all. I only come back to what I said at the beginning. I think it is a matter of judgment as to whether or not I should on this occasion have made a Statement to your Lordships' House. I came to the conclusion that I should not. I must tell your Lordships that in point of fact I still think that I was right; but I may be totally wrong. I would, in conclusion, if I may, just reiterate once again that I hope, whether noble Lords think I am right or wrong, that your Lordships will acquit me of any discourtesy to your Lordships or to this House.


My Lords, the noble Lord's statement was more acceptable than the ludicrous remarks of his noble friend Lord Merrivale, who clearly has no understanding of Parliamentary custom. I never really think it is worth bothering with the noble Lord, so I will leave him there. But I do take more seriously the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Amory. I realise that it is always a matter of difficulty to judge these matters. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, defended his action; he in fact indicated that it was a matter of judgment, and that he had formed the judgment, which he still inclines to, that he was right. I am bound to say with all seriousness to him that his judgment has been wrong in this matter. This is very much a Parliamentary matter; it is a matter of concern to us in the House of Lords, and particularly in our relations with another place.

The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said that he had been criticised, or the Government had been criticised, for not having sufficient consultation. Whether telling the Press what ought to have been told to Parliament ranks as consultation is somewhat dubious. But the fact remains that the Press have attached the greatest importance to this statement. The Press Association political correspondent talks about Lord Carrington's surprise packages, and says that this will be used by the Government to pressurise the miners into settling their dispute with the Coal Board. I can only say that I wish the noble Lord was not in fact the Leader of the Conservative Party at this moment. He knows we do not criticise his integrity. But here is a statement which reveals among other things that, so far from stocks running down, in certain areas stocks have actually risen. I must say to him that he has committed an error of judgment and, as a result, though he may have not intended it, has committed a discourtesy to Parliament.

I think we shall have to leave the matter, until noble Lords have read the tape and seen the really rather strikingly high figures of stocks. Then perhaps we can discuss this matter next week. We have to-day, for the first time, had a chance to cross-examine and talk to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, on actual facts and figures that he has given. When he says that he thought it was right to give an opportunity to the industrial correspondents, I can only say that it would have been better if he had given this opportunity to us, with the information which he did not give to us this afternoon. I think that an error of judgment was committed. I think that the noble Lord has done a real disservice. He knows that the Opposition leadership, while I have been leading it, and my other noble friends, have not indulged in unnecessary, captious debating in this House, and we are deadly serious in our criticism. However, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion that the House do adjourn during pleasure.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.