Duration of Act

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 Thomas Boardman Mr Thomas Boardman , Leicester South West 12:00 am, 29th November 1973

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.