I am glad to find hon. Gentlemen opposite giving me some support in this, even though they would not support ideas of wresting control from State agencies on the Shelf and handing it over to the agencies of private enterprise which can do the job so much better.
I hope that the Minister will bear in mind that while the industry was right to shut down its carbonisation plants, through lack of collaboration with the National Coal Board the industry has got itself into a delicate situation with the steel industry and domestic consumers. We have a fuel crisis of the first magnitude. This could have been foreseen three or four years ago, but no steps were taken to avert it. We have now got ourselves into the ridiculous situation whereby we are exporting to France and receiving the processed material back here for our consumers to buy. However, I must concede that it is possibly the only thing that we can do in the circumstances.
I welcome the suggestion that one or two uneconomic carbonisation plants must be kept operating for the time being. I hope that the Minister will also watch the market for liquid natural gas. The price is tending to fall since we negotiated the contract with Algeria many years ago. It may be that in future years more advantageous prices will be available.
I hope we shall be given information, if it is available, about the Ekofisk, an area of advantage where a well has recently been discovered on the Norwegian side of the median line. This will probably make vast supplies of natural gas available to the United Kingdom; that is, if the Gas Council is able to buy it.
In my view, the chemical industry should have the right to buy not merely its chemical feedstock directly from suppliers on the Continental Shelf, but also any fuel it requires for its own steam raising. This would get rid of the middleman and probably do a lot to bring down the industry's costs.
I fully back the contention about converting one power station, Hams Hall, in Birmingham, to dual firing. There is, however, a difficulty. Gas is a premium fuel and there might be a tendency, particularly in the early days, to over-sell, so creating a major problem. I hope that this power station does not experience the fate of another plant in Birmingham some years ago. The authorities then tried to use low-grade coal for making gas and the plant had to be shut down as uneconomic. That was a failure. I am certain that on this occasion the project will be a success.
I welcome the progress that the Gas Council and the area boards have made generally. This is a great industry with a great future. However, if the industry goes on spending as it is now, parliamentary checks will be necessary, and prices will have to be watched. I do not put much by the Prices and Incomes Board in this context. That will go, with the result that, in the end, the checks will have to be made here in this House, and not through consumer councils. Or perhaps the market forces will settle the matter. However, market forces cannot operate when there is a sole monopoly. Ultimately, we might get a few conversions on the bench opposite. Perhaps even a few hon. Gentlemen opposite will accept that competition can have advantageous results.