Orders of the Day — Fuel and Power Policy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th March 1968.

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Photo of Mr Alexander Eadie Mr Alexander Eadie , Midlothian 12:00 am, 26th March 1968

I wish that the hon. Member's party had done more in relation to retraining. If it had we might not have been confronted with this problem.

I want to put the matter into proper perspective. The argument is that coal is too dear. I do not accept that. I do not accept the philosophy behind the White Paper, which was withdrawn because of pressure from the miners' group. The argument was put forward in that document that because of devaluation certain changes would have to be made. But the White Paper is now a shambles, on the basis of costs. I do not know how my hon. Friend will defend it. What worries me is that my right hon. and hon. Friend can stump the country trying to defend it. There has been a call to debate the White Paper in the House, but I do not know what could be debated, because the White Paper requires to be scrapped. In a previous debate my hon. Friend and I said that the time had come to make a funeral pyre of the material in the White Paper.

I know that this is pretty strong language. It reminds me of the old Chinese proverb, "Do not remove the fly from your friend's forehead with a hatchet."

My hon. Friend and I have made no secret tonight that we want to attack the whole philosophy behind the White Paper. I do not like speaking in this way in this debate, but I cannot speak impersonally. I am speaking about people that I have worked with all my life—about people that I shall meet this weekend. Statistics about 105,000 men a year do not mean anything to me. I am talking about my friends at Michael Colliery. I have negotiated many times on their behalf. My own family work there. As for unemployment, my own brother-in-law is at present on the dole. Why is he on the dole? There is plenty of coal there. The miners there are some of the finest in the world. But the Coal Board, whether in conjunction with the Government or not, I do not know, says that the colliery is not a commercial proposition.

One of our arguments with the Government is that we believe the Government can influence market trends. We do not believe the commercial argument about coal. If they want to do it, the Government can reopen the Michael Colliery; they can do it with the Coal Board; and the Government can influence market trends. This is one of the pleas I make this evening.

The White Paper is an inconclusive document. It is full of guesses about oil, gas and coal. We have time after time advanced the argument that if this country relies too much on non-indigenous fuel, and allows it in in great abundance, then at a time of international crisis industry in this country can come to a standstill. We know the impact which the Suez crisis had in 1956. Although the impact of the last Middle East conflict was not so heavy on us, it is the sort of impact which could happen again. No one can predict with any certainty that oil supplies from the outside world will always reach this country safely. Therefore, the thinking behind the White Paper is all wrong, because the only thing it seems to be certain about is oil supplies.

Let us consider the penetration of oil into the United Kingdom's economy. In 1956 coal consumption amounted to 217½ million tons; in 1964, 197·2 tons. The coal equivalent of oil consumption in 1957 was 36·7 million tons, and equal to 15 per cent. of total fuel consumed. It rose to 111·4 million tons in 1966, or 37½ per cent. of total fuel consumption. 'That year 70 million tons of coal equivalent was from the Middle East, 17 million tons from Libya, 12 million tons from Nigeria, and 20½ million tons coal equivalent from the rest of the world.

I managed to get some figures of costs out in time for the debate. Between January, 1967, and January, 1968, the monthly cost of imported crude oil to Britain rose by £41·3 million to £47·5 million. The cost of importing residual fuel oil rose from £8 million in January, 1967, to £10·8 million in January, 1968. In October, 1967, a month before the White Paper, and before devaluation, residual fuel cost Britain £8·5 million. Yet the increase in the amount of residual fuel oil imported was only 186,000 tons. To get an extra 186,000 tons cost the country £2·3 million. The White Paper is a shambles, the costings are an absolute shambles.

Because my hon. Friend has already dealt with it, I shall skim over some of the aspects of nuclear power, but there is one point I want to make and which he did not make. I agree with everything my hon. Friend said. We do not want a Luddite approach to this, we do not want to be Luddites about nuclear power. Our quarrel with it is that it is too large and too chancy, and that we must not commit the error that we made in relation to the Magnox programme.

The argument is advanced that nuclear power is an indigenous fuel, but it is not. As I pointed out in the debate in November, taking the A.G.R. programme of 8,000 megawatts—which, incidentally, is about 20 million tons of coal equivalent—at that time it would have added about £10 million to our import charges because of the foreign exchange costs of uranium. That was the cost before devaluation, and there has been an increase since then.

My hon. Friend spoke about the Magnox nuclear power station programme. He did not mention the figures involved, but they were £525 million more than the cost of the equivalent coal-fired power station. If one works it out, that blunder cost 28,000 miners their jobs. That is why I raise the question of costs, because it is argued in the White Paper that coal is too dear. Yet here is a nation in the middle of an economic crisis, spending money like a man with no arms. It has been argued that the Magnox programme was necessary if we were to hold our place in the technological world, but it was a failure and, to some extent, a misappropriation of public funds.