Orders of the Day — Gas Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th February 1948.

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Photo of Mr Brendan Bracken Mr Brendan Bracken , Bournemouth 12:00 am, 10th February 1948

The Government will. Surely the hon. Gentleman does not suppose that the Opposition will. When integration has been achieved the formidable risks inherent in hasty nationalisation will sensibly diminish, and by that time—I should think it will take at least five years to complete integration—the Minister's experience of coal and nationalised electricity may also diminish his faith in a nationalised gas industry. I am pretty certain that by that time we will have a new Minister, anyway.

As the House will have noticed, I have been studiously moderate so far. This is but a part of the case against this boa constrictor Bill. The gas industry is much more than a distributor of fuel and power. Listening to the Minister this afternoon, one would imagine that the gas industry did a little bit of work in carbonising but that it did not amount to very much. I would inform the Minister that the gas industry is not only a great chemical industry, but it has tremendous potentialities. It is the pioneer in treating coal as capital. I agree with what the Minister said this afternoon about the great wastage of coal in this country. We all accept the view that coal is Britain's only great natural asset, but we go on squandering it. We have squandered it in the past and we are squandering it today.

The by-products of coal are much more important than coal as mere fuel. The gas industry has done a great deal to create new industries from coal, and if the Minister has a little time he ought to study the list of by-products of the gas industry. It will take him a certain amount of time because they are numbered in hundreds. The gas industry has created many new industries, and it can create many more if the resourcefulness and the zeal in research of its leaders are not chained by bureaucratic controls. I was hoping that the Minister would pay some tribute to the gas industry for being the only important industry in this country which for many years spent great sums of money on research, but he was silent on that point. Perhaps he did not realise it.

Perhaps the Minister does not realise another matter of the greatest possible importance, namely, that this is the age of chemistry. A new industrial revolution is upon us, and the gas industry can play a great part in restoring prosperity to Britain. Britain's recovery cannot be achieved through many of our traditional exports. That fact is only too well known to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and to the President of the Board of Trade. Countries which before the war concentrated upon primary production are now rapidly industrialising themselves and are planning to compete with some of our traditional exports. Last September I was in a country which, before the war, was mainly an agricultural country. I saw factories going up all the time, to make goods which we can make much better in England, which will not only supply a market in which we obtained prosperity before but which will also play a part in developing that country's export trade. I beg the House to believe that if we depend on our traditional exports, there is no future for Britain. Our great hope now lies in developing the new industries.

As I said to the Minister, this is an age of chemistry. I also maintain that these countries, which before the war concentrated upon primary production and are now planning to compete with our own traditional exports, have great advantages which we, of course, do not possess. Many of them have abundant raw materials that strengthen that competition.

The outlook for Britain would indeed be black if science had not come to our rescue by creating a new industrial revolution. Britain can become a vast laboratory from which will spring many new industries. We have the chemists and we have the physicists. We have the most skilful workmen in the world to translate their discoveries into industries or processes. That is our great hope for years to come. Gas has been the pioneer of new industries that have sprung from our laboratories. It can be the parent of many more. The leaders of the gas industry fully agree with the chief scientific adviser of the Government, Sir Henry Tizard, appointed, I think, by the Lord President of the Council. His contention is that by using modern scientific methods Britain can step up her industrial output by 50 per cent.

Gas as the creator of new industries is deeply interested in helping to provide power for other industries, and particularly for new industries. As a power producer, the gas industry prides itself on being able to give personal service to new industries, however small. It is fair to say, in words devised by a former associate of the Lord President of the Council, Mr. Leslie, that the gas industry rightly boasts that its spirit of service is not equalled by any other industry. Mr. Leslie did a very good job of work in seeing that that point of view was put across to every industry in the country. Mr. Therm is eager and skilled in designing plant and supplying power to small and big enterprises. He can take on a job, whether it is for those who are engaged in vast industrial operations or for a very small man who wishes to start an industry in an old garage or any other sort of place, where he has a roof to cover his head. Gas will particularly delight in helping new industries if it can give a knock to its old foe, electricity. That indeed will add to its happiness.

Gas is today a heat provider for more than 4,000 industries and trades, which is a very significant figure. The Minister talked of the gas industry in a patronising way and said that if it was not nationalised it would probably disappear in the course of some years. Let me tell the Minister that in the gas industry the demand for industrial gas has increased by something like 70 per cent. since 1938. I beg the Minister not to come here giving us his airy generalisations about the terrible future that awaits the industry if it is not nationalised. According to the Heyworth Report, the industry may hope to increase its consumption by 20 per cent. within 10 years. The truth has been that the increase in the industry has run three and a half times more quickly than Mr. Heyworth and his colleagues expected. I would advise the Minister to study the history of the gas industry a little more carefully before he makes generalisations about its coming death if the virtues of the Bill should be withheld from it.

Let me sum up the case for allowing to the gas industry the measure of freedom it has enjoyed. During its long life it has been the good servant of most of Britain's homes. It renders inestimable service to industry. Its charges have always been regulated by Parliament. It is the pioneer of many new industries and it can start many more. It is eager and qualified to serve the many and complicated needs of the new industries by which prosperity can be restored to Britain.

There is another powerful argument against the Bill. It is one that the Minister has made no real attempt to deal with this afternoon. Some passages in his speech increased my doubts about the Bill. One of the main charges against the Bill is that it creates a complete fuel and power monopoly. The Prime Minister told us that we are engaged in pricing ourselves out of the export market. We are, indeed. From all over the world one hears the same story, that British goods are too expensive. The Prime Minister was not exaggerating when he said that we are pricing ourselves out of our export markets. Fuel and power costs enter into all our exports. Many of our competitors have easily mined coal, natural gas, and an abundance of water power to produce cheap electricity. If Britain is to survive such competition we must strive to produce fuel and power at the lowest possible cost.

Does the Minister believe that a rigid power monopoly will reduce costs, whether it is controlled by the Government or by capitalists? Of course, it will not. There is a strange irony in the fact that the President of the Board of Trade has announced that he hopes to introduce a Bill in this Session to curb monopolies, but here we are now witnessing his colleague, the Minister of Fuel and Power, setting up the biggest monopoly in our history. Why not allow the gas industry to serve as a spur to the coal and electricity monopoly of the Government? The Minister should remember that his cherished Heyworth Report recommends that gas should be enabled to compete effectively and without restriction with other fuel industries. It is foolish to believe that there can be free competition for gas if it is to pass into the control of the Ministry of Fuel and Power, which is also the master of the coal industry and of the electricity industry, and is deeply concerned with oil.

The Ministry can settle the nature and price of fuel used by every industry in Britain. I predict that gas will be the Cinderella of such a Ministry. What protection has the consumer against this monstrous monopoly? The Bill gives him no protection. I read two reports in the Press today of statements made by chairmen of national boards. Sir Ben Smith, Chairman of the West Midland Coal Board, said that only two mining divisions under the National Coal Board made a profit last year. Are the other divisions still losing money? Will there be any further increase in the cost of coal, and consequently of gas? Lord Citrine, chairman of the British Electricity Authority, is reported to have said that the price of electricity must be raised as soon as possible. What a prospect for the consumer. The consumer is afforded no real protection in the Bill, save by the setting up of a Consultative Council of Consumers—whatever that may mean. Their position is very much like the status of the Bishop of Sodor and Man in another place. He is allowed to sit, but he is not allowed to vote or even to speak.

I have not been able to deal with more than a small part of the effects of the Bill. I am sorry that I have spoken for so long, but the Bill is so important that I feel that we must put the best possible case against it. I assure the Minister that we shall have many Amendments to offer in the Committee stage. I must make reference to two glaring defects—the compensation terms offered to the owners of the industry and the Government's conduct in destroying the most hopeful system of co-partnership in Britain. The Minister himself admitted that his ideas of compensation have been freely borrowed from the Electricity Act, without any regard to the fact that they are wholly inapplicable, not to say unjust to the owners of the gas industry.

Furthermore, the compensation machinery in the Electricity Act will break down when applied to the gas industry. Many owners of gas stocks are inheritors of investments which are rarely quoted in Stock Exchange lists; others have never appeared in those forbidding columns; and in this respect I speak with authority, the compensation offered to local authorities is, as Alderman Leach says, a mockery of fair dealing—[Interruption]. I did not say "robbery," I said a mockery of fair dealing. The Minister proposes to take over their properties at less than a quarter of their worth. This is Socialist accountancy with a vengeance, taking over the properties of municipalities, in some cases municipalities with a large majority of comrades, at less than a quarter of their value.

I hope that Members of this House, whatever the party they belong to, will see that justice is done to local authorities and even to stockholders. They have had the rawest deals through the nationalisation of their properties. I hope that the Minister will reconsider the terms of compensation. At any rate, I hope to have an ample opportunity of dissecting this monstrous ramp when we reach the Committee stage. Meanwhile, all I shall say is that the compensation terms in this Bill are more worthy of Senor Miranda than the British Treasury, so savagely mulcted by him.

Let me say a word about the wanton extinction of co-partnership in this Bill. The Minister was very hesitant in his attempts to explain away the abolition of co-partnership. Is it a fact that the Minister yesterday, at No. 10, Downing Street, had to meet a number of aggrieved gentlemen who are protesting against the terms of this Bill? I do say that co- partnership as defined by the right hon. Gentleman is something quite different in fact. Co-partnership must not be looked upon as a mere aspect of profit; it is something greater and better. It is the glad acceptance of a full identity of interests between owners of the industry, employees and consumers. It can answer the Government's prayer for an effective incentive to steady production. I know that, as the Minister said today, co-partnership is not popular with many trade union leaders—and many employers. These diehards have much in common. I have some little experience of the F.B.I. and I have some experience of the bosses of the trade union system, and I have never met a more remarkable collection of diehards in all my born days.

I aver that co-partnership is one of the best ways of providing the good life that our people deserve. It can provide not only social security, and we in this party take a good deal of interest in social security because, with the Liberal Party and with the right hon. Gentleman's party, we were partners in devising the great system of social security which we hope and believe will not be ruined by financial improvidence. But I ask the Lord President, who I understand is to answer for the Government, to consider that co-partnership not only provides social security but also gives us social progress. The idea that lies behind co-partnership is one of the most constructive of our time.

It is, of course, well known that co-partnership has been practised in U.S.A., in Britain and in many other countries. It has not flourished greatly. That, I think, is partly due to the fact that the industries which adopted it never attempted to convert other industries to the marvellous potentialities that lie in this idea. I believe that a proper system of co-partnership would solve most of the Government's present labour difficulties. I believe that if the trade union leaders would only realise it, co-partnership is the best possible way of giving a fair deal to all employed in the industry. Some of my hon. Friends who hope to speak in this Debate will give up most of their time to this great subject. We hold it to be a matter of paramount importance to the industrial future of Britain, and in our future discussions on this Bill we shall try to persuade the Minister to spare the co-partnership system.

Considering persons who have read the recent speeches of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are reinforced in their view that Britain's future is in the balance. Let me tell the Lord President that we are not rounding recovery corner. We are, in fact, up against the worst economic crisis in our long history. It can be solved. We of the Opposition have no wish to exploit our country's difficulties—on the contrary. We will co-operate wholeheartedly with the Government in anything that will solve the deepening economic crisis, but it would be unreasonable to expect us to give any support to a Bill like this, a Bill which clinches a rigid fuel and power monopoly that will add to the cost of living at home and will price us out of export markets in many lines.

In many lands the faint of heart and the small of brain believe that Britain's industrial strength is waning. We of the Opposition reject this defeatist trash, but because we believe that this Bill will hinder our recovery and will encourage the vultures hovering over our dwindling export markets, we shall oppose this Bill in all its stages. Let me end by telling the Lord President, the real begetter of this Bill, that Britain will never recover under a power miser.