Orders of the Day — Fuel and Electricity (Control) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th November 1973.

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Photo of Mr David Madel Mr David Madel , Bedfordshire South 12:00 am, 26th November 1973

The speech of the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) was much more technical than mine will be. At the beginning of it he mentioned the seriousness of the coal dispute and its effects on industry and employment. I shall say a few words about that matter later in my speech.

I welcome the Secretary of State's repeated appeal for restraint in the use of oil and petrol. I assume that one reason why the Government have not yet introduced a rationing scheme is that they are determined to make such a scheme, should its introduction be necessary, much more sophisticated than previous schemes. The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) rightly stressed the problems of the rural areas and the fact that rural train and bus services had steeply declined. Many of us on the Government side of the House echo his appeal for special attention to be paid to the situation of people in such areas.

I agree that there should be a compulsory 50 mph limit. Such a limit is easy to operate on many stretches of motorway because we have, at great expense to the country, a hazard warning light system in times of fog and ice when the police feel that a certain speed should be observed. Continuing to spend money as we do to keep this apparatus in operation, it seems sensible to use it to flash a 50 mph limit.

I should have thought that the Post Office and the rural bus services could co-operate to see whether additional improvements could be made should we have to have petrol rationing, but I hope that the Government will not forget that if we must have extra bus and train services this is bound to have an effect on overtime payments, unsocial hours working, and so on, under phase 3. I hope that the Bill's built-in flexibility will be of use in this respect.

But I cannot too strongly stress to the Minister that in my constituency there are many people who work shifts and we cannot do without their work if we are to keep the economy expanding at the present date. Therefore, any scheme which does not make a generous allocation of supplementary coupons to those who must have such coupons will not be satisfactory. I hope that should we have to have a rationing scheme great attention will be paid not only to people in the rural areas but to those who have to work shifts.

I should like to say a few words about the Electricity (Heating) (Restriction) Order No. 1900. I do not think that the Government are doing enough to publicise the existing laws on electricity heating restrictions. I should like to ask the Minister two questions. He may not be able to answer them when he replies to the debate, but I hope that he will give publicity to them. First, is it legal to heat village halls if they are used from time to time for play group purposes? Secondly, is it legal to heat village halls by electricity if they are used by pensioners for a weekly or twice weekly group meeting or coffee morning or any other social activity which county welfare services or other voluntary groups may organise for pensioners? I should like the Government to make a clear statement on the rules for heating village halls.

I turn now to the question of the coal dispute and the forthcoming meeting between the Government and the National Union of Mineworkers. I agree that we should have an energy commission, one of whose first tasks should be to consider the effect on investment and employment of the current oil-coal crisis. I should have thought that such a commission could make a report on the situation by the spring. It would have to consider not only the question of the pay of coalminers but the wages of gas-workers and electricity supply workers, who also have wage claims in the pipeline. If there were an overtime ban in the gas industry or the disruption or slow-down of gas supplies there would be an equally serious effect on industries dependent on the supply of gas as there would be with a disruption of coal sup-lies. Such a commission would also consider the power engineers' dispute.

It is clear that the oil crisis has badly jolted phase 3. One of the first tasks of an energy commission would be to look into the totality of energy supplies and the cost of energy, which inevitably includes the pay of coal miners, gas-workers and electricity supply workers. We could not expect the commission to produce a report in a month, but it could, I believe, produce a report in four or five months. I hope that in the meantime, given the setting up of the commission, the National Union of Mine-workers will accept the offer made under phase 3, with the proviso that by the spring the energy commission will have considered not only the coal industry, vis-à-vis what the miners are paid, but the situation in the electricity and gas industries, which are equally vital. That is the way to avoid a winter of disruption and dispute.