Fuel Emergency

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th February 1947.

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Photo of Mr Julius Silverman Mr Julius Silverman , Birmingham Erdington 12:00 am, 26th February 1947

Is the right hon. and gallant Gentleman basing his expectation of an increase simply on the problematical question of how much solid fuel can be imported from outside? If so, that is a most tenuous basis on which to make such a suggestion. I think that it is undesirable to raise the hopes and expectations of ordinary people by suggesting that it is possible to do something which is not possible at the present time. I am glad that in the plan which was published during the month of January the word "realistic" was used. I thought that in tackling this problem the Government intended to be realistic and to base their estimates on concrete expectations, and not merely on hopes that might never be realised. I represent one of the largest industrial constituencies in this country—perhaps the largest. There are many large units in the Division of Erdington, and I have spoken to both employers and workers on these problems. They have put to me certain questions which I am now putting to the Minister, and I hope that whoever replies will deal with these matters.

In the first place, they want to know what is the basis for the allocation under this plan. I do not think it is sufficient for these matters to be decided in the obscurity of some regional office, and then imposed on people, without letting them know the whys and wherefores. I think that the Ministry will be faced with far fewer problems, and will create far fewer difficulties for themselves, if they inform the manufacturer of the basis of his allocation in the first place; at the present time he does not know what it is. What particular priority is given, for instance, to the question of export? What priority is given to the question of firms who run their own generating plants? What priority is given to coal-cutting machinery? Let me give the example of one firm in my constituency. They manufacture component parts of coal-cutting machinery. The people who assemble coal-cutting machines are clamouring for those parts, and cannot make machines because this firm, on account of the fuel shortage, is working on short time. The position is that, because of the fuel shortage, coal-cutting machinery is held up. In consequence, we get a vicious circle and a hold up of production. Would it be possible to give priority to firms engaged on this work, who find it possible to do a full five-day week, and get the maximum production of these machines to produce the coal which is needed.

Another problem, which I put to the Minister, is this: The right hon. and learned Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade said that the scheme would be flexible, that we do not want a rigid scheme. I agree that we do not want a rigid scheme. But I wonder just how much flexibility there will be. Will it mean further clamour by firms at the doors of the regional office, or that firms will go to the Ministry in order to increase their allocation, simply on the basis of pressure—call it persuasion if you like? In those circumstances, I am afraid that the whole situation will be most obscure and difficult. Firms in my constituency have expressed doubt about what they are to do. They say, "Do you think that if we press the Minister, we shall get more, when this scheme is in operation?" Every firm has its own difficulties, and each will be conscious of its own problems. Unless they know the whys and wherefores of the plan, I am afraid that we shall have a continuation of pressure and persuasion by almost every firm in the country, which will leave the whole situation in obscurity and difficulty.

Will the flexibility merely be upward; does it mean that there is going to be an increase in the event of an emergency or of unforeseen difficulties, or is it to be a downward flexibility? Firms want to know that the amounts allocated to them are really assured, and that they can work upon that basis. I also want to know on what basis increased allocations are going to be made. Are they to be made on the basis of a sudden emergency or upon matters of unforeseen circumstances in the first instance, unprovided for in the plan.

One problem was put to me in this fashion by a firm in my constituency. This firm said to me, "We have a certain allocation. We are trying as a firm to assist the Government to economise to the uttermost in fuel. We have already endeavoured to do so. Can we be assured that economy is not in the long run an instrument which will be used against us?" Is there going to be any reduction in a firm's allocation simply because it has amassed certain stocks in consequence of its conservation of coal allocation, or are we going to say to such a firm, "Carry on. This is what you are going to get; you will continue to get it and if you secure stocks by economising, you will get the benefit of that." Is this scheme based upon what is called the maximum consumption? If it is, I think it is an unreasonable method on which to estimate, because that means that if a firm at the time when the maximum period of consumption was calculated, was not conserving its resources, it is going to get the full benefit, whereas the firm which was economising is not going to get it. All these are problems with which we are faced. I hope that it will be possible to give firms in my constituency and other firms in the country satisfactory answers.

There is one further point to which I would refer. That is the question of solid fuel supplies against the use of electrical appliances. It is suggested that one is alternative to the other. Frankly, I do not think so, judging from my experience. I think the two things are complementary at the present time. The public are using additional supplies, and will continue to do so, even if it were possible to increase the supply of fuel. People today want more light and more heat than they obtained before the war. People like to be warmer if they can get warmer, and whatever the position may be for solid fuel supplies, the demand for electricity is going to be immensely greater. That, of course, means that the demand for electrical appliances will continue to increase, and I do not see how in fairness it could be stopped without discriminating against certain people. I do not think it would be wise to base any expectations on the assumption that the increased demand for electricity is merely an alternative supply of fuel for heating and lighting purposes.

The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade has said—and, of course, it has been mentioned in this House before—that one of the main reasons for the lack of preparation for the fuel crisis which has emerged as a result of the weather is the estimate given by the Electricity Commissioners and the Electricity Board. I think that this House is entitled to know the basis upon which that estimate was made. It is going to be a very serious matter if such utter miscalculations in the situation are made again. While I do not doubt that the President of the Board and the Minister of Fuel and Power are entitled to rely upon the estimates given to them by proper authorities, if the estimate is not only given wrongly but is such a serious miscalculation as is obvious in this case, then it ought to be investigated and the plain facts put before this House. Are the people who made this miscalculation competent to advise the Minister on important issues? That is a matter about which this House is entitled to know. I have placed before the Minister issues of complexity which have effect upon my constituency, and I hope he will be able to satisfy not only firms in my constituency, but industrial undertakings throughout the country.