Duration of Act

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Trevor Skeet Mr Trevor Skeet , Bedford 12:00 am, 29th November 1973

I beg to move Amendment No. 9, in page 5, line 27, leave out from 'expire' to end of line 10 on page 6.

This legislation springs from an emergency but it is in permanent form and runs for perpetuity. The Secretary of State said on Second Reading : As to the long term, the Bill can also be reactivated by Order in Council. After the original term has expired, the Bill will, so to speak, lie dormant on the statute book until the Government of the day find it necessary to invoke its powers to deal with an energy shortage."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th November 1973 ; Vol. 865, c. 45.] This could happen at any time—perhaps 10 or 15 years hence.

Clause 2 says : The Secretary of State may by order provide—

  1. (a) for regulating or prohibiting the production, supply, acquisition or use of any substance to which this Act applies ;
  2. (b) for regulating the price at which petroleum or any substance derived from petroleum"—

that means chemicals— may be supplied.

These are enormous and broad powers.They may be used when there is no emergency or crisis. When they have been prompted by an emergency, why should we have on the statute book, reactivated whenever the Government desire, powers of this dimension?

Fortunately, several of us were in the Chamber when the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) said : I come now to the Bill. It takes powers which are permanent—this is not a temporary provisions Bill—and cover all fuels. I welcome the Bill because it will enable a Labour Government to do all they want under Labour's programme for Britain, including 90 per cent. of our policy for the North Sea.

Later, talking of the oil companies, he said that the Bill would enable a Labour Government to fix their prices and their distribution systems ; and under these powers, every other fuel and its use, including the chemical industry, will be brought within the control of the Government of the day."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th November 1973 ; Vol. 865, c. 141.]

The Minister may say that future Governments will not do this, but under Clause 2 they can do precisely what they like. While I have every confidence in the Minister's assurances that he and his colleagues would never think of perpetrating such acts, if there were a change of Government that Government could do what they liked. We should not stand aside now and let the oil industry be caught by conditions which it may find very unfavourable, which could lead to their take-over and the usurpation of some of their powers.

When we last had these difficulties, in 1956–57, the Defence Regulations (No. 3) Order, the Supplies and Services (Transitional Powers) Act 1945, the Supplies and Services (Extended Powers) Act 1947 and the Supplies and Services (Defence Purposes) Act 1951 were perfectly adequate. If they were adequate then, they should be adequate now.

Let us see how we have dealt with it on this occasion. The Emergency Regulations No. 1881 of 1973 have been made under the Emergency Powers Act 1920 and the Emergency Powers Act 1964. We therefore have a parent Act, the Act of 1920. Section 2 of that Act says : Where a proclamation of emergency has been made, and so long as the proclamation is in force, it shall be lawful for His Majesty in Council, by Order, to make regulations".

Therefore it is limited to cases of emergency.

Altered, subsection (4) of that Section says : The regulations so made shall have effect as if enacted in this Act, but may be added to or altered or revoked by resolution of both Houses of Parliament or by regulations made in like manner and subject to the like provisions as the original regulations ;".

What distinguishes that Act from this measure is that here there need be no emergency whatever. It may be, when all the clouds of the difficulties in the Middle East have passed, that the Government say that they want to control the pricing and distribution of the oil companies. They can do so at will with this measure. Why should we take these powers now? There are several further precedents. Unfortunately, this dangerous form of legislation is becoming increasingly popular. The Counter-Inflation Act 1973 says in Section 4(1): Subject to the provisions of this section, this Part of this Act shall cease to have effect at the expiration of a period of three years".

It goes on, and we find exactly the same precedent coming up again : (3) If an Order is made under subsection (2) above. Her Majesty may, by Order in Council again bring this Part of this Act into force for a period ending not later than 31st March 1976.

Fortunately, there is a terminal date in that case. If we look at the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 we find under Section 30 (2): The provisions of this Act … shall remain in force until the expiry of one year beginning with its passing and shall then expire unless continued in force by an order under this section … all or any of the said provisions which are for the time being in force … shall continue in force for a period not exceeding one year from the coming into operation of the order.

That, too, can continue for an indefinite period. But it is dealing with Northern Ireland and it is an emergency.

For the first time we find, coming out of the blue, this new trend in legislation being utilised by the Government—and I am surprised they are doing it. I wonder whether all hon. Members realise what is going on. The Government are seeking to utilise an emergency such as we have today to saddle on the economy permanent powers which can be used in perpetuity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) and I have been in the same Lobby when the House has dealt with the Rhodesian situation. The order dealing with that must be renewed annually. We have a number of defence requirements, such as the War Emergency Laws (Continuance) Act, which force us to trundle through the Lobby once a year so that they may be continued. The right way to deal with this is in the way proposed in my amendment, that is to have the measure clarified once a year, to come back to this Chamber and get Parliament's approval for its continuance.

Another matter which worries me is that Clause 10 does not specify the conditions upon which the House should agree that the powers should be reactivated. It is amazing that Clause 4 should be continued. This deals with the power to interfere with the sanctity of contracts.

These contracts—apparently at times of an emergency and at other times—can be broken at will. The Minister has had the opportunity of speaking to Sheikh Yamani. He may have it in mind that this emergency may pass within the course of the next year, which I would have thought would be adequate. The Financial Times of 28th November reported that Sheikh Yamani had said that Western European countries like Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom which were affected by restrictions against Holland could make up lost quantities by lifting oil direct from Algeria and Saudi Arabia. Now that the Minister has had an opportunity of coming face to face with Sheikh Yamani perhaps he will tell us whether he expects the crisis will last for more than one year. I should have thought not. Most of us know the answer, I think.

12 midnight.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his contribution to combating the crisis. I read in the Evening Standard that he has replaced his expensive Daimler with a battered Morris Minor.

Photo of Mr Don Concannon Mr Don Concannon , Mansfield

The miners are getting the blame again.

Photo of Mr Trevor Skeet Mr Trevor Skeet , Bedford

The miners account for all sorts of things. I do not know who battered this one, but that is what my hon. Friend's wife said. It is a step in the right direction.

The Government are seeking to shackle the oil, the coal the electricity and the chemical industries with new regulations which will run into perpetuity when they should, because the crisis is temporary, be using temporary provisions. I hope my hon. Friend will explain why the Government are seeking these additional powers.

Photo of Mr Arthur Palmer Mr Arthur Palmer , Bristol Central

I am glad that the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) has put down the amendment. It covers a point I made during the speech by the Under-Secretary. I asked why the powers could not come to an end after a reasonable period, which is normal parliamentary practice. Why have the Government chosen 30th November 1974? Is that the date for the General Election? If that is the explanation and if the powers have to go on, if they can be reactivated by an Order in Council, what are the Government expecting? If no General Election is planned and the Government hope still to be holding on to office do they expect a situation of more or less perpetual crisis?

I am intensely puzzled by it all. I pay this tribute to the Conservatives. When they take to bureaucracy they do it thoroughly. No Socialist administration could improve on that. The hon. Member for Bedford called in aid of his argument my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn). I am sorry that he is not here. It is asked whether there can be two kings in Brentford. I do not know about that, but there can be two opinions in Bristol. As a democratic Socialist I should greatly favour the oil industry coming into public ownership—and I expressed that view at the time of the Labour Government when it was possible to do it. I should like that to happen, but not by these hidden powers. The proper way to do it in a free country is to bring legislation before the House of Commons for proper discussion. I do not think the Labour Party should consider bringing the oil industry into public ownership by means of scraps of legislation left behind mistakenly by the Conservatives.

On grounds of normal democratic theory and practice we deserve a fuller explanation.

I am sorry for the hon. Member for Bedford. Apart from the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen), who is always very valiant, he sits there alone as the champion of freedom. Where are all the others on the Conservative benches? I join him—it is just a coincidence—in asking why the date of 30th November is necessary. What is the logic about it? Are we to expect perpetual crisis? If that is the explanation, the country should know the worst.

Photo of Mr Trevor Skeet Mr Trevor Skeet , Bedford

The Bill says nothing about a crisis. If it were called the Fuel and Electricity (Emergency Control) Bill or the Long Title said that it was to do with the crisis, I could understand something about it. But it says nothing like that. Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a pure Bill, which could come up at any time?

Photo of Mr Arthur Palmer Mr Arthur Palmer , Bristol Central

I do not think it is a particularly pure Bill ; it is extremely impure in many ways, because it is confused in so many directions. These powers grow and grow, and I can see no reason for it.

I do not quite follow why the hon. Gentleman intervened in that way. I was only trying to carry through more logically the argument he started.

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , Oswestry

If one discounts the Treasury Bench and the Parliamentary Private Secretary representation, one is left with 100 per cent. freedom-fighting representation on the Government back benches. It is in that spirit that I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) and to say that the Committee owes him gratitude for raising the point he has raised, because it is one of substance, for two reasons.

First, there are the arguments put with such tantalising enthusiasm by the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), that there was a form of managerial Toryism which was thoughtlessly fashioning the very weapons that he wished to inherit at a subsequent electoral triumph. I am not sure that that is true. I am not sure what is the significance of the Long Title when it says "make temporary provision". I do not know whether the fact that that is in the Long Title would itself prevent the use of the legislation for the right hon. Gentleman's much wider-ranging ambitions.

But what we cannot dispute is that energy—fuel and electricity, oil supplies—is one of the most commanding of all the commanding heights of the economy. Therefore, casually to place on record in perpetuity powers which at least could excite the perhaps misguided enthusiasm of the right hon. Gentleman is a mistake. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will reconsider the dangers that might be implicit in having on the statute book a piece of legislation which could be used for ambitions and objectives wholly outside those of a temporary, emergency character.

Secondly, Parliament has one asset which it can trade with the executive, whether a Conservative or Labour executive. That asset is time. It should not be traded away without careful thought. If this legislation had been passed after the Suez crisis, the powers which are now being sought by the Government would have been automatically employed by such a Bill lying dormant but capable of resuscitation. We would not have been granted the amount of parliamentary time which we have been able to extract by having a Committee stage on the Floor of the House, which enabled my hon. Friends the Members for Harborough (Mr. Farr) and Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) to demonstrate the tremendous social changes which have occurred in their constituencies which makes rationing on this occasion in prospect wholly different in character and consequence from what it had been some years previous.

None of us, not even the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Donald Stewart), is so nostalgic and so romantic in our concept of society that we suppose it will be stuck in its current composition. If some emergency arises five or 10 years hence requiring this kind of legislation, our successors will be anxious to demonstrate that the changes in their constituencies are of material and demonstrative consequence, and wholly different in their consequence than those way back in 1973.

We have obtained the opportunity to have such a discussion and to make such points of the Floor of the House. I remain convinced that the Floor of the House is still the most effective of the available options. We have had to put through the Committee stage speedily. My right hon. and hon. Friends will concede that, when the country is faced with difficulties or an emergency, Parliament does not play the fool. That is the joy of this institution. Whatever may be its occasional absurdities, which may be a useful safety valve, the truth is that it is a deliberative and legislative institution which has an uncanny, immensely helpful and happy sense of reality and proportion. Given the present situation and the legislation before us, perfectly legitimate doubts are raised. They are not doubts that merely exercise libertarians on the Government benches ; they exercise libertarians in the Labour Party.

It may be said by some managerial regime in the future "We had better give them all a day for a debate on the Adjournment" That is not quite the same. That has not the range of refined options which is before us. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Varley) made a hopeless gesture because it was not believed that there was the possibility of a vote. One gets a nose for such things after a while. But the hon. Gentleman knows well that all the opportunities for a vote are provided by a Committee stage on the Floor of the House for this type of emergency legislation.

All too often we learn to experience in this House that the consequences of a good deal of our legislation often outstrip and falsify our expectations. When I trudged through the Lobby faithfully supporting the Industrial Relations Act, I had no concept that I would bring into being a somewhat enhanced rôle for the Official Solicitor. Again, when I did not trudge through the Lobby because I thought it would be such a passing irrelevance, I had no concept that under legislation furthering science and technology literally tens of millions of pounds would be plucked out of the air to support the British computer industry. Such money should not be voted to the British computer industry, but we can have that debate on another occasion. Legislation often bears consequences that are not apparent at the time of its execution.

12.15 a.m.

That is why I say that my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford is not raising false fears when he asks whether it is wise for legislation of this character once put on the statute book in a rush to be left there in perpetuity. It is the hallmark of the managerial Government that wants to line up legislation after legislation, perhaps of a temporary character but always there, as one quick button for some future executive to press without the complicating processes of coming to Parliament and being subject to the irksome representations of Members of Parliament who want to plead their constituency cases on the Floor of the House even in the early hours of the morning.

My hon. Friend may not be able to offer hope that he is not merely aware of and sympathetic to the anxieties that have been expressed but that something will be done. I hope he will say that the Bill is not to be the final creation of parliamentary workmanship and is capable of improvement, perhaps not this evening but in another place. Perhaps when we come to give our final assent he will say that our arguments which are serious, substantial and fundamental will receive recognition.

Photo of Mr Thomas Boardman Mr Thomas Boardman , Leicester South West

I have sympathy with a great deal that my hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) said about the rôle of the House and of Members of Parliament, but I am sorry that I shall have to disappoint him and my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) in not being able to reach the conclusions to which they would draw me. I understand my hon. Friend's concern about the use that may be made of the powers of the Bill in the long term by less sensible administrations.

The hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) sounded some alarming notes, but I am happy to assure the Committee that his remarks were, as all too often, ill-founded. He failed to realise that even if the Bill were reactivated under a future Labour administration for reasons unconnected with a fuel emergency its duration would be only for one year. It could be extended at the end of that period, but no administration could act on the assumption that an Order in Council for that purpose would be made. From that it follows that nationalisation of, say, the oil industry could not be accomplished under the Bill. For that a permanent enactment rather than one requiring renewal every year would be necessary. That same argument mitigates against any attempt to impose permanent control over the oil market, as any action taken could not be assumed to have validity after the Bill was due to expire. The whole project would be built on a base of shifting sand.

We are using the Bill as a temporary measure—as the Short Title implies—to deal with a temporary situation. But, with a view to the long term, we thought it right that powers of this sort should lie dormant on the statute book to provide for quick action to remedy any future energy difficulties. I am sure that the House will realise that the size and speed with which energy crises can develop today are far greater and more rapid than has been the case in the past. Whilst it has been possible for successive Governments to invoke emergency powers, the machinery for dealing with a situation like an oil emergency can only be effectively covered by an enactment such as this Bill, which does not have to come up for renewal every 28 days and which, if necessary, can be invoked more quickly than it has been necessary to do even on this occasion.

The preparation and issue of the rationing coupons as a preparatory measure takes some four weeks. Therefore, to proceed with a programme of petrol rationing—if it should be necessary at some future date—under emergency regulations would be fraught with many complexities and difficulties. That was recognised in 1967 when the Labour Government introduced a measure to serve that purpose. It may be said that the powers of renewal will be exercised and that one should work on that assumption, but I believe that to be a false and unwise premise.

We have, by, I hope, good stewardship and good stocks, been able to have plenty of warning that a fuel crisis was developing which might lead to rationing. But one can visualise a situation, which I hope will never arise, when action might have to be taken far more quickly, and the only effective way of doing it is by the powers contained in a Bill like this.

While I recognise the point my hon. Friends have made, that taking wide powers in a permanent renewable Bill is objectionable unless justified—and I believe I have justified it—I remind them that to renew the Bill an Order in Council is required to be approved within 28 days. The House would then have an opportunity to discuss the wide issues involved. My hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry has never been at a loss to find a way to debate any issue which he believes to be of importance to the House. He has done so with considerable eloquence, even if perhaps both sides of the House have not always agreed with the contents of what he has said.

I hope my hon. Friends will accept the force of this argument for including in the Bill power of extension or reactivation for the future. I cannot speak for the actions of any possible contingent future Labour Government, but I am sure that both my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite will realise the absurd situation which would arise—I am going beyond the presumption of a change of administration—if it were suggested that a Bill of this type should be used to scale what the right hon. Gentleman called the "commanding heights of the economy" with perhaps a falling-off again in 12 months' time. I must, therefore, ask the House to reject the amendment.

Photo of Mr Trevor Skeet Mr Trevor Skeet , Bedford

I am a little disappointed with my hon. Friend's reply. This is an indication of a trend which has now become established in that a similar pro vision has been included in the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 and the Counter-Inflation Act 1973. Now we have this Bill. Every power is being taken away from this Chamber, with provisions being reactivated by Orders in Council, and we in this Chamber have very limited powers to deal with them. That is why I must express my disappointment—

Photo of Mr Thomas Boardman Mr Thomas Boardman , Leicester South West

The precedent dates from a good deal before this year. One of the Rhodesian Acts of 1965 contains a similar provision.

Photo of Mr Trevor Skeet Mr Trevor Skeet , Bedford

I am aware of that. But when we deal with Rhodesia, we do so annually, and we have an opportunity in this House to review the legislation and to vote against it. While that may be intended to be a helpful contribution, it is a little unfortunate.

My hon. Friend said that it was useful to have on the statute book an Act which can be brought into operation very quickly. There is one difficulty about that. This Bill received a Second Reading on Monday. Today, only a few days afterwards, we are dealing with the remaining stages. This House knows that if there is an emergency situation, legislation can be got through very quickly. There are a number of precedents. My hon. Friend could very easily introduce a Bill on some future occasion and get it through all its stages very quickly.

Whatever back-bench hon. Members may say in this House, when it comes to the construction of a statute, one has to look at its terms, and nothing else. I am very impressed by the wide powers conferred by Clause 2. This is what worries me. In fairness to my hon. Friend, it was he who referred to a possible change of Government. Although he would not prosecute these powers for unrealistic purposes, a future Labour administration might have different ideas and, although it would be inappropriate to nationalise an industry under these powers, they could assume extensive control over the oil market and so embarrass that part of the economy that ultimately they might lead to the destruction of companies and their eventual takeover. That is my anxiety.

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. He has given us some clarification. He says that he wants this provision for speedy action in the future. However, I would welcome an assurance from him that the trend which we find in current legislation will not be proceeded with further except in an emergency. I do not suppose that my hon. Friend can concede that now, but if he can deal with that point I shall be satisfied on this occasion.

Photo of Mr Thomas Boardman Mr Thomas Boardman , Leicester South West

I am sure that my hon. Friend realises that I cannot make any commitment of that kind on future legislation. Equally he will realise that the view that I have expressed about this Bill will be shared by many of my right hon. and hon. Friends who will note with care what my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) has said.

Photo of Mr Trevor Skeet Mr Trevor Skeet , Bedford

I appreciate what my hon. Friend has said. I remain disappointed, and I shall watch future legislation with great care. In the event of any repetition I shall move amendments and try to divide the House on them. However, on this occasion I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without amendment; read the third time and passed.