(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry whether he will make a statement about the instructions given to distributing depots such as the Saltley Yard of the West Midlands Gas Board about the operation of the Government's priority system for the distribution of fuel supplies.
No such instructions have been issued to the gas boards. Depots such as the Saltley Yard make deliveries to solid fuel merchants and wholesalers and not to final consumers The National Coal Board and retail merchants are responsible for the distribution of solid fuels. They, with the help of local authorities and doctors, are operating the arrangements described by my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry in his statement of 9th January, which are designed to reduce the danger of hardship to priority consumers such as the aged and sick and to ensure supplies for essential services. The final distribution to consumers of coke from the Saltley Depot is covered by these arrangements.
Is the right hon. Gentleman unaware of what has happened today—namely, that the Chief Constable of Birmingham has decided to close the yard—and does not this make nonsense of the insensitive complacency which the Home Secretary displayed yesterday by refusing to discuss the operation of a priority system?
Surely the Secretary of State can take some initiative to see that the Chairman of the West Midlands Gas Board discusses these matters. I am informed that he has today refused to discuss them both with a group of Birmingham city councillors and with leaders of the N.U.M. The depot has been closed and we have a continuing danger of strife and the possibility of injury and even death. We do not have in operation a priority system for hospitals, for the old and for those who are most in need.
Cannot the right hon. Gentleman take some initiative to ensure that sensible measures are taken—measures which the union leaders will accept—to remove this exacerbating situation and get in operation a priority system such as he himself outlined at the beginning of the strike?
I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman should have made that charge against my right hon. Friend. [Interruption.] The truth is that the closure of the depot is not in any sense due to any insensitive complacency of his. It is due to the fact that picketing at this depot has been carried beyond the point of reasonable peaceful picketing— [Interruption.]—and to the fact that the police, in the exercise of their duty, advised the manager of the depot to close it because of the virtual obstruction of the right of people to work, brought about by a degree of picketing not in conformity with the law.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that one gets the impression from his observations that the West Midlands Gas Board has been particularly provocative—for example, by opening the yard for Sunday trading last weekend? Does he know that Sunday trading has not taken place for many years? Would he agree that that was a particularly provocative action on the part of that board, bearing in mind that the pickets who are there from all over the country are obviously operating in an extremely emotionally charged situation?
Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that -for the West Midlands Gas Board to speed up this process of emotionalism— [HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."] One would have imagined that the Secretary of State would have taken careful note of the action of this Board—[Interruption.] I am not finished yet. I know the area very well indeed, perhaps better than anyone on the Government Benches.
It is clear from what my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Cheetham (Mr. Harold Lever) said that there is danger to life and limb in the area because——
There is danger to life and limb because the picketing is taking place at the junction with a main arterial road out of the city, and it is the main link with the M5. The danger to life and limb therefore arises from the situation at the power station. For this reason one would have thought that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry would have had much closer contact—[HON. MEMBERS: "Question."] I am coming to the question. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I emphasise that this power station is in my constituency. The question I am asking is: what power has the Secretary of State, when dealing with the situation at the West Midlands Gas Board, over the Chief Constable of Birmingham?
The question I want to put is this. Today the yard is closed; what guarantee can the Secretary of State give to the House that it will be closed except for the essential supplies which the National Union of Mineworkers' officials have given an undertaking to Members of Parliament that they will allow—to hospitals, old-age pensioners—to be taken out of the yard?
I shall certainly try to detain the House as little as possible. The guarantee lies in the success of the voluntary response by the distributing industry to the appeal made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry which has given rise to effective action by the distributing industry to look after priority customers in preference to any other customers. This is the guarantee. No other guarantee in the case of a depot such as this, which is serving no one but the merchants and the wholesalers, has any effect at all.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that as to picketing there can be no distinction whatever concerning the purpose of the journey and that picketing must be peaceful whether transport is waiting to go through the picket line for a purpose which has the approval of the union, or not?
Yes. Perhaps I should recall the words in the Donovan Committee Report on the subject of picketing:
It should be recalled that the prime objects of picketing are to make known the existence of the facts of the dispute and peacefully to persuade persons to abstain from working. Obstruction or intimidation of those wishing to work is unlawful.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Chairman of the West Midlands Gas Board told me yesterday that sales of coke from this gas works last week were considerably higher than in previous weeks? Is not this prima facie evidence that lorries, some of which I saw myself, coming long distances from Devon and Cornwall to get supplies are a great provocation to miners who are trying to carry out normal picketing duty?
Is the Secretary of State not aware that under the terms of his right hon. Friend's circular of 9th January similar plants—the Coalite Company at Granthorpe and the Barnsley Coking Company and the Doncaster Coke Company at Markham—are all working priority schemes satisfactorily? Why is it that the West Midlands Gas Board, as a fuel supplier at Saltley, has not been requested by the right hon. Gentleman to carry out the same priority arrangements as those which are working satisfactorily everywhere else in the country? Why do we now have a situation in which priority cases are getting no coke out of the yard at all? Is it not a fact that the Chief Constable of Birmingham has shown more sense than has been shown by the entire Government Front Bench?
No. Once more the hon. Gentleman mis-states the situation. All the depots to which he has referred are delivering to the final consumer whereas this yard delivers to merchants and wholesalers and the ultimate destination of the fuel would not be known. Those at the Saltley yard would not have knowledge of something which it is not within their capacity to know.
With the greatest respect to you, Mr. Speaker, there were 10,000 pickets from the whole of the Birmingham industry there this morning, and I am informed that they will be there in larger numbers on Monday. With great respect to you, may I point out that we have had only three supplementary questions from this side of the House on a matter of major industrial concern? Will you, Mr. Speaker, please reconsider your Ruling that further supplementary questions relating to this industrial situation and strife arising from the Government's decision ought not to be allowed today?
The difficulty of the Chair is that the purpose of a question is to elicit information, not to enable debating points to be made, and it seems to me that we have reached the position where the information has been given and we should not go on to debating points.
Following your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, may I endeavour to elicit some information? The depot is closed at the present time—[Interruption.] I am putting a question to the Secretary of State; I suggest that he might listen to the question which I am putting to him. Presumably it is the
desire of the Government——
As you, Mr. Speaker, are aware, although the hon. Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) is not, I did not rise to a point of order. I rose to ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry whether, if it is the desire of the Government to get this depot open, he will not seriously consider whether it is not possible, by intelligent discussion with the gas board, to get an ad hoc system of priorities operating which would be accepted by all concerned.
Again, simply seeking to respond to the right hon. Gentleman's desire to elicit facts, I point out that any arrangements which have been entered into with the depots distributing solid fuel to consumers with regard to the limitation on output to priority consumers alone have been entered into on a strictly voluntary basis between them and the National Union of Mineworkers. This is not a matter, therefore, for me. It is a matter for others.
Since this yard has now had to be closed, are we to understand that the police have had to abandon their responsibility for preventing illegal obstruction? If so, what action are the Government going to take?
It was the judgment of the chief constable that the situation which obtained today was not one which allowed of the depot continuing its normal task. That situation arose as a result of what can only be characterised as unlawful picketing. It is to be hoped, and I sincerely do hope, that there will not be a continuation of that situation and that the depot will re-open largely with a view to supplying all those who are most in need, and those are the priority cases of the sick and the like.
Is it a fact that the total quantity of stock left in the depot is about 40,000 tons? Bearing in mind that it is almost certain that the shortage will continue for a fortnight after the strike—even if the strike is by any chance settled within the next day or two—is it not urgent to carry out a scheme of priorities? Would not this avoid the sort of disturbances which we have seen during the last week, which are disrupting my constituency and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mrs. Doris Fisher)? Is not this a matter of using common sense in the priorities of distribution, quite apart from creating disturbance and provocation?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The National Executive of the National Union of Mineworkers met today and discussed this very serious situation. I understand why you have tailed hon. Members from Birmingham, but many of us belong to the N.U.M. and I and my colleagues have to go back to our constituencies this weekend and try to contain a very explosive situation. All we require from the Ministers responsible today is the application of a bit of common sense and not just talk about contractors and dealers. The National Executive of the N.U.M. does not want this depot to close. What it wants to see is a proper distribution of the fuel there. This is a flash point, not just for Birmingham but for the whole of the union, stretching from Scotland to Kent. If we cannot tell our people something this weekend that will satisfy them, we shall have a very difficult job to contain their anger.
On a point of order. Mr. Speaker. You have said that the exchanges were becoming a debate instead of the eliciting of information. With respect, I do not think that you have allowed enough hon. Members to put questions, because the issue of profiteering in the general situation has not been put to the Secretary of State. I can tell him through you that there is general anxiety about the question of merchants taking advantage of the situation and profiteering. I want to ask what he is doing about that.
Order. I understand the anxieties of hon. Members. But we have already been discussing these two Private Notice Questions for 40 minutes. I have indicated that Monday's debate will be pretty wide. The point which the hon. Gentleman has just made can be made then. I must warn the House that if every time I allow a Private Notice Question I am to be expected to allow 25 or 30 minutes of supplementary questions, I will not allow Private Notice Questions until I am ordered to.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I would have raised this matter as a point of order had no Private Notice Question been asked. The country is in a state of emergency. I turn to you, as guardian of back-bench rights in this House. This matter cannot be debated on the Floor of the House for the next 72 hours at least. As a consequence, we have before us 72 hours of a possible flash point situation in the country. I ask you, through your good offices as Speaker of this House, to try to get some sensible answers from Ministers so that we can go back to our constituencies this weekend satisfied that we can do our best in the interests of the nation.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your guidance? My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins), my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mrs. Doris Fisher) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Denis Howell) have attempted to put forward a constructive proposal for a solution of a very dangerous problem. We have been told by the Home Secretary that this is a problem for the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that it is a problem for the Secretary of State for Employment. May I ask your guidance as to where this proposal might be rightly made?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. With great respect, we are in difficulty by virtue of the fact that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is placing responsibility for this matter anywhere except on his own shoulders. Advice from the right hon. Gentleman is what the Chairman of the West Midlands Gas Board has said he is prepared to accept. How can this matter be pursued? Yesterday, it was not possible for you to accept a Motion for a debate under Standing Order No. 9. I make no complaint about that, as I well understand your difficulties. But as a result a serious situation has arisen today in which most of industry in Birmingham has closed down and not fewer than 10,000 workers have marched to the depot to give support to the miners. You have referred to the possibility of a debate next Monday. They have given notice that a much more widespread stoppage will be pursued on Monday, which will mean that not fewer than 20,000 workers will be disrupting the industry of Birmingham, with all that that means to policemen in particular and to the miners' pickets. Is it not possible to have a debate today or to pursue questions now in order that something might be done which would stop the dislocation next Monday? Otherwise, Monday's debate will be held after the horse has left the stable.