Clause 1. — (Extension of Borrowing Powers of Gas Authorities.)

Part of Orders of the Day — Gas (Borrowing Powers) Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th July 1965.

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Photo of Mr David Webster Mr David Webster , Weston-Super-Mare 12:00 am, 20th July 1965

I have pleasure in supporting the Amendment so ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. McNair-Wilson). It is a very moderate Amendment and would carry out the principle, as he said, that Parliament should have adequate scrutiny of public expenditure.

The gas industry is a very thriving nationalised industry and in the last few years it has taken big steps forward. We welcome these developments. There is nothing in the Amendment designed to prevent that type of expansion from continuing. In fact, it is well within the limit set down in the brochure "The Growing Gas Industry" and it is extraordinary that the Government should extend the industry's borrowing powers at this time.

We have seen the changeover from coal to oil. In this connection, a number of hon. Members, doing their job for their constituents, spoke at length on Second Reading of their anxieties and about the switch over from coal to oil and to natural gas and Algerian methane. I will not mention hon. Members by name, for I do not see them here and as I did not give them notice I am not entitled so to do but they expressed their anxieties which are of a non-party nature.

This is a non-party subject. It is a matter for the House of Commons. We wish to scrutinise the development of the industry and keep a close check on it. This is, after all, a five-year programme and it is right that we should keep within the limit so far set and not go beyond it at this time in the country's financial history.

I do not want to go back to last October and November, when there were mutual recriminations about the sudden balance of payments crisis. I am Rapporteur on fuel matters of the Economic Committee of the Council of Europe. When we were discussing the raising of money for borrowing by this country, people said, "We will try to help you and to be understanding of your difficulties but we expect you to be responsible about this and not go on spending money without adequate scrutiny." We on this side are trying to make sure that this kind of responsible qualification is applied to the granting of immense sums of money to a nationalised industry.

At the same time, there is the squeeze on the private sector through bank advances. Not very long ago, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that if the credit squeeze did not show immediate effect he would tighten the screw. Then, last week, he said that it would not be necessary for him to do so. There was a little flurry in the exchanges and the £ went weaker on that occasion. So the right hon. Gentleman felt fit to go to a miners' gala and say that if necessary he would apply a squeeze.

But there was nothing in this to apply a squeeze to the nationalised industries. I must say that I congratulate the Minister, though I do not agree with him, on getting more out of the Chancellor of the Exchequer than, apparently, did his colleague the Minister of Transport for new roads. We now have that Minister saying that he hopes to carry on the programme left to him by his predecessor but that the problem is to get the money.

It is the duty of hon. Members to look to the priority within the public sector. I am not absolutely against the public sector. I want to have more expenditure on various aspects, but every time an hon. Member comes along with a proposal involving expenditure—say, a new hospital in his area, or something of that nature—he is challenged, or should be challenged, to say how he proposes the money should be raised.

As a former member of the Select Committee on Estimates—which ceased, incidentally, to be the Select Committee on Estimates and became just the Committee on Estimates on the day I joined it—I have always felt it to be the duty of an hon. Member, when putting forward a proposal for public expenditure, to say how he proposes to raise the money, whether it should be by additional taxation or whether by curbing another form of expenditure. I should like to have a number of other forms of expenditure which I think should have greater priority than this, but I do not want to develop that, for I should be getting out of order.

However, every one of us in this Committee is entrusted by his constituents with the duty of scrutinising the activities of the Executive and public expenditure, and it is for that reason that I warmly support the Amendment moved by my hon. Friend. I hope that the Minister will see fit to accept it, as it runs so much in line with the recommendations of the Chairman of the Gas Council.