With permission, I will answer this Question and Nos. 37 and 76 together.
In general, I have nothing to add to the statement I made in the debate on 9th April.
We are reviewing with the producers all possible steps to improve solid smokeless fuel supplies and are also asking public authorities if they can reduce their call on the available supplies by stepping up the conversion of public buildings to other fuels.—[Vol. 799, c. 760–880.]
I am not able to judge what the public reaction is to the exaggerated and little-founded predictions about what will happen next winter. I can only say that, far from the Government being complacent, they are taking every possible step open to them, both on the supply side and on the demand side, to deal with any danger of more than a tight situation next winter.
Does not all this amount to a shocking failure of forward planning and co-ordination by the Department? What estimate has the right hon. Gentleman made of the cost of the crash changeovers which are being forced on public authorities and others as a result of this failure?
The crash changeover to which the hon. Member refers is no more than a hastening of what would have been inevitable if we were to cease the antiquated process of carbonising coal to produce gas. The elimination of coke for that reason would, in any event, have compelled a changeover, and many may think that this changeover has been neglected by some of the authorities concerned.
Is it not a fact that we have had to drag from the Minister the admission that there is a serious gap? What is his estimate of the developing situation for next year? Will he answer the question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane): what is the cost of this total operation, and who is to pay for it?
The hon. Member should not flatter himself in claiming to have dragged from me that there will be a serious gap. As far as my recollection goes, he has not yet had that success, nor do I think that he is likely to have it. There may well be a tight situation next winter, and no more. Its extent will depend upon the weather, the amount of conversion that takes place and many other factors relating to the supply situa tion. I could not possibly give the cost of conversions until they had been completed. All I can say is that it is no good the hon. Gentleman and his friends seeking to capitalise on the necessary changeover from burning coke, which will not be available in any event if we are to have a modern gas system, to burning smokeless fuel.
On a point of order. In answering the last Question, No. 27, from his hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer), the Minister grouped with it Question No. 76 from his hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun). As you will see from the Order Paper, Mr. Speaker, I have put down a similar Question, No. 47, and there are other hon. Members whose Questions on the same subject come earlier than No. 76.
My point of order is to ask whether it is in order for the right hon. Gentleman to select the Questions which he wishes to group together in such a way as to ensure that supplementary questions come rather from his own side of the House than from the Opposition side.
Further to the point of order. May I point out, Mr. Speaker, that my Question No. 75 also clearly relates to the same topic? We are in a state of great chaos concerning smokeless fuel in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Could not my Question have been answered also?
Further to the point of order. My Question No. 48 deals with exactly the same point as the Minister has answered. It is monstrous that he should group Questions in such a way as to avoid supplementary questions being asked from this side of the House. I ask for your protection in this malpractice, Mr. Speaker.
Further to the point of order. Is it not clear from a study of the Questions on the Order Paper that those which have been selected for grouping together and others dealing with the same subject are identical, and that they could easily all have been taken in a single group, but that the Minister seems to have picked only those tabled by his hon. Friends? [HON. MEMBERS: " That is not true."] May I give notice, Mr. Speaker, that we shall pursue this matter at the end of Questions, as you suggest?
On a point of order. In view of the very unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I wish to give notice that I will raise this matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible moment.