Powers of Control

Part of Fuel and Electricity (Control) Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th November 1973.

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Photo of Mr Alexander Eadie Mr Alexander Eadie , Midlothian 12:00 am, 29th November 1973

I hope to satisfy the Minister and the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) to the contrary. I wonder whether their attention has been drawn to an article which appeared on 17th November in the Scotsman under the heading, US Navy try oil from coal. It tells how A battle-scarred World War II destroyer, the USS Johnston steamed out of port here today to become the first ship in history to use liquefied coal to power her engines. … For more than a year, the Navy have been working with the Department of the Interior to develop a clean-burning, economical substitute for the petroleum-based fuels the Navy consume at the rate of 42 million gallons a year. … Within a decade the Interior Department hope to have assisted in development of a number of privately-owned and operated coal conversion plants, each capable of producing 250 million cubic feet of gas a day—enough for a city of a half-million people—and 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of synthetic fuel oil a day. The Minister knows that I am talking about the art of the possible.

In case the Opposition are confronted with cost arguments, I have a proposition to make to the Minister. The US Navy has decided to do this to make sure that its ships stay afloat on the seas. We in this country have a "mothball" fleet. We have ships which may be in what is generally called cold storage, but the Navy regards them as the "mothball" fleet. The Under-Secretary should consult the Ministry of Defence on this point. I suggest that a couple of ships should be pulled out of the "mothball" fleet and the Ministry of Defence should start experimenting. In talking about energy we are also talking about defence, so why should not the Ministry of Defence bear the cost of such an experiment? I suggest that a couple of ships from the "mothball" fleet should be used for this experiment. If anything is learned from the experiment it can be passed on to industry and put to profitable use for the country as a whole. I think that many people would regard an experiment on the lines that I have suggested as one of the most constructive operations to have been carried out by the Ministry of Defence for a considerable time. Therefore, I put the proposition to the hon. Gentleman and suggest that he discusses it with the Government.

There are far-reaching powers of control in the clause and, indeed, in the Bill. Therefore, we must put questions to the Government on matters of administration.

Certain administrative powers are vested by Parliament in the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales. How does the Department propose to liaise with Scotland and Wales on the general administration of the far-reaching and widespread provisions in Clause 2?

For example, some of my hon. Friends have already received letters from remote areas in Scotland and in Wales. Several queries have been raised. We understand that, although petrol may be taken from the private motorist, public transport will not suffer. Apparently bus services will not be affected. But the hon. Gentleman must know, even with an elementary knowledge of geography, that there are no bus services in the islands. Therefore, if we are to pass legislation that is fair and equitable to everybody, consideration must be given to the people in the islands who, if a strict interpretation of the legislation is applied—I hope that I am wrong about this—will be marooned in their homes.

I visited the Western Isles this year. I can understand how the people in the islands of Uist and Benbencula, for example, must feel about what is proposed by the Government. Therefore, from a purely administrative point of view, the hon. Gentleman must give some assurances on the implications of Clause 2 and how it will operate. I hope that in terms of administration, with which I prefaced my remarks, he will explain how the provisions of Clause 2 will affect both Scotland and Wales.

9.30 p.m.

Although petrol ration coupons have been issued, we are hoping that there will be no petrol rationing. Nevertheless, the Government should comment on how they propose to act now, before, and if, petrol rationing comes. For example, there must be new petrol stations in prospect, perhaps half-built or about to be built. Planning permission must have been given by local authorities, and applications must have been received by planning committee. Does the Under-Secretary think that it is wise, in the circumstances, that applications for planning permission should be granted? Are the Government considering whether there should be at least a temporary stoppage of planning permission and the building of new petrol stations?

I could develop that argument. Various views have been expressed. One view is that we shall not require any rationing of energy supplies if the advice given by the Department is acted upon by the public, if we are careful and cautious, and try to use whatever sources of energy we have as intelligently and as carefully as possible. The Opposition wholeheartedly support that plea by the Government. Nevertheless, the other point of view is that we are in for a long period of great difficulty in the provision of energy; that, indeed, this is not a British crisis, but a world crisis, which is likely to continue for a considerable time.

Whatever view the Government emphasise tonight, they must make certain policy decisions to give assurance to the country and—I hope that this will not be thought to be conceited—to the Opposition. Do the Government intend to announce a stoppage of the building of new petrol stations and the granting of planning permission for such stations? In addition, the Government have a duty in relation to the design of new power stations. There must be some policy in relation to oil. Whether or not we get the oil resources, one thing is certain : oil will be very expensive to come by. One could probably say in general, to be fair, that there will be no cheap source of energy available from now on. Do the Government consider it wise that the prospect of building oil-fired power stations should still be in train? This decision needs very careful consideration

What I have said previously about the Middle East crisis may not have been accepted by everyone. But when the prospect of a whole series of oil-fired power stations was announced, realising the consequences of this I said that I considered it to be an act of vandalism for the Government to approve of or to encourage the building of power stations to be fired by that type of fuel.

I wonder whether the Minister can tell the Committee how he proposes to implement some of the controls. I am thinking, in particular, of the Central Electricity Generating Board. He is aware that in the generation of electricity the CEGB work on the principle of what is called "merit rating". I think my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) will agree that the accent used to be on cost, but there will now have to be a re-appraisal. The board used to say that under the merit rating system it was possible to generate more electricity from coal, but it had to consider the question of cost.

I have visited various power stations and found them to be wonders of technical efficiency. They calculate how much coal or oil will be burned—there is no option with nuclear power, because nuclear power stations have to be kept burning all the time and the generators cannot be allowed to run down—in order to generate enough electricity to meet the needs of the nation. This is very important, because if there is a shortage of oil but big stocks of coal the whole philosophy of merit rating must be reconsidered. The Minister knows that I have already expressed these views in the House. I am not prepared to leave responsibility with the Chairman of the CEGB. He must now be convinced that we have an energy crisis, but a couple of months ago he told us that the energy crisis was just a propaganda stunt and that there was plenty of energy in the world.

I know that the Minister is very knowledgeable about this matter, because he has extensively visited the installations of the CEGB and knows how the merit rating system works. He should tell the Committee tonight how the Government propose to exercise the energy controls under Clause 2.

I have spoken for a little longer than I intended, but I hope the Committee will realise that this is a very important matter, and that it would be very wrong of Parliament to skim over Clause 2 and the points which I have made.