Fuel Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th January 1974.

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Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton 12:00 am, 9th January 1974

The Government were right to recall Parliament.

We face what the Prime Minister three weeks ago called the gravest crisis since the war. It is essential that the House takes stock of all that has happened since then—the anomalies and injustices of the fuel restrictions ; the grave and accelerating damage inflicted on industry, exports and the economy ; the question of the responsibility for the crisis ; and, above all, the means to a solution.

But though this recall debate is about the energy crisis, we ignore at our peril the wider and deeper crisis which the nation faces. So much public discussion is today directed to the executive of the National Union of Mineworkers—indeed, is deliberately directed to that subject—that it is often overlooked that we were facing a desperate economic crisis in this country before a single mineworker embarked on the overtime ban, and even before the Arab restrictions on oil exports. The Chancellor's winter Budget, for example, was dictated not by the miners or the oil sheikhs but by the failures of three years of Government policy.

The balance of trade figures, worse in the three months September-November alone, is far worse than that for any single year for which comparable figures are available since the beginning of recorded time. The pace of inflation was unacceptably high in the so-called price freeze of stage 1, but still higher in stage 2, though there trade union acquiescence, however reluctant, in the stage 2 pay code, destroyed once and for all the Government's argument that it was the unions which were responsible for rising prices, because prices continued to rise. In stage 3 the pace of inflation has quickened still further.

All the signs now point to still faster food price increases.

Also, on council rents, I am receiving, as no doubt are some other hon. Members, the most alarming portents of increased rents arising from the first activities of the rent scrutiny boards. Even Tory-controlled authorities, which pushed up their rents to what they considered the limit, are finding their determinations referred back by the boards as inadequate. Stage 3 made no allowance for the effect of the rent scrutiny boards, yet it is a consequence of Government policy. At the same time, the Government still refuse to suspend the statutory rent increases due from April.

Not a single action of the Government has done anything to moderate those price rises which are generated in this country, including their own rents policy and interest rates policy, and also the devaluation of the pound. Nor has there been a single action of the Government directed to shielding the British public from the effects of food price rises by introducing subsidies or by taking appropriate acts of social justice for those least able to withstand erosion of their living standards. Grocery prices rose by 18 per cent. in 1973, every day of which was lived under a statutory so-called "anti-inflation" policy.

These underlying crises—a balance of payments deficit unparalleled in peace time and a rate of internal inflation unparalleled in peace time or in war time—will remain when, as we all hope, a settlement is reached and the mines are working normally—and the railways, too. But these underlying crises have been immeasurably aggravated by the imposition, without adequate preparation, without consultation—I did not think much of the Prime Minister's explanation of that—of the three-day working week, together with what may be a much more protracted steel shortage, with effects going right into the summer, and something else which may prove to be a still more devastating and lasting consequence of the disruption of continuous process industries, namely, the great danger of permanent damage to costly installations.

Last week, as the three-day week effects became clearer and clearer, all we had from the Government were the twice-daily emanations from the noble Lord the Chairman of the Conservative Party, the then Secretary of State for Defence, fulfilling in his party rôle what the Chancellor of the Exchequer told us was itself a full-time job.

I am glad that at long last the Prime Minister has appointed a Minister for Energy. We pressed him to do this in the Queen's Speech last October. But the Minister for Energy should be in this House, not least because the noble Lord will now have to deal with miners as well as campaign against them. He has made his task immeasurably more difficult by his party-oriented attacks on the miners last week.

Last week was a week of total silence from the Prime Minister, apart from an election tour in South Worcestershire—and I did hear him on the early morning radio imaginatively extolling the great advantages Britain had derived, and conferred, in one year's membership of the Common Market—and this week he addressed the nation through the New York Times. During that period all we were getting was the Chairman of the Conservative Party, and all he was concerned about—and he was doing far more harm than the Prime Minister was doing—was the identification of scapegoats in the industrial crisis. Not a word was said about the Government's responsibility for the crisis and there was not a thought from the Government about the way in which that crisis should be resolved. The Prime Minister would be well advised at this time to address to the noble Lord the injunction that Clement Attlee addressed to his party chairman, "A period of silence on your part would be welcome". What we need from the noble Lord is not only silence on these issues but work.

Last night on television the noble Lord set out—quite fairly, since he was new in the job—his idea of the priorities. Apart from the overriding need to get an agreement on coal, his priorities must be North Sea gas and oil, and gas and oil in the Celtic seas. He should urgently study, as we have pressed, the possibility of re-developing oil from shale. Some years ago many Opposition Members and some Government supporters fought hard to prevent a Conservative Government wrecking the shale oil industry by their tax policy, but we failed. The noble Lord, as a long-term measure, should now also examine what we have pressed on the Government, the possibility of oil from coal plants in development areas. When we pressed this in the Queen's Speech debate we said that we were informed that oil through coal could be viable with imported oil prices at 10 dollars a barrel. Since then prices have risen far above that level.

I hope that the noble Lord will also examine our proposal for a standing coal commission—the National Coal Board, the NUM and Ministers—to re-examine the industry's future and report urgently. I have given that advice because we all welcome the appointment of the Minister for Energy.

So far, the Government have given the impression too much that they are using a grave national crisis as a diversion, as a means of creating scapegoats, hoping perhaps that somehow the electorate will be persuaded that the Housing Finance Act was created by the mineworkers and the approaching 15p loaf by the train drivers. This kind of diversion that we have been getting for the last 10 days follows interestingly in the public mind upon the actions of the Government on 13th November and 13th December.

On 13th November there was the publication of a fact which the Government knew many days earlier—the catastrophic £350 million trade deficit, the decision of the 13 per cent. bank rate and the credit squeeze. Within minutes the Government called a state of emergency. Why that particular day? The Arab oil cut-off had been announced a month earlier and the overtime ban on coal had been in effect for only one day. But the Government chose that day for the announcement of a state of emergency, and all the orchestration of the Press after that was in terms of the miners and not the balance of payments deficit or the bank rate. A month passed, then came the announcement of the three-day week on 13th December, when the Government published the November trade figures. Unless the December trade figures are more encouraging, I tremble to think what fresh diversionary crisis announcement we shall have next week when the trade figures are published. The whole Government orchestration has been to blame all our problems —trade, inflation, housing, the lot—upon the miners and to try to turn public anger against them.

The other Sunday, when listening to my favourite Sunday lunchtime programme, "Weekend with Prior" I was pleased to hear the Lord President denying that it was a question of fights or victories or who would win or lose. I was glad to hear him say that, because on 14th December he told the Conservative ladies of Bexley: We are engaged in a struggle with certain sections of the railway industry and certain sections of the mining industry and this time we must remain firm. I am glad he changed that position in the broadcast on that day,

There was an alternative to the course which the Government pursued—admittedly not so attractive to them from their party point of view. They could have used their time from, let us say, the beginning of November—certainly they could have used their time since our last debate three weeks ago—in concentrating their energies and those of their Departments on finding a settlement. I say a "settlement". I do not mean a surrender. I do not mean the creation of an open gateway through which millions could stampede who do not face the daily perils of fatal accidents or wasting disease, or black lung, or the dirt and dark of pit life, or, for that matter, are not so clearly needed as the miners are needed to dig the coal treasures so recently discovered in Yorkshire. These treasures are as great a contribution to our future prosperity and independence of foreign policy as are any of the great finds that have been made in the North Sea.

Many of us interpreted the speech made by the Secretary of State for Employment in the second day of the crisis debate—particularly his reference to trade unions other than the NUM—as implying a response—a guarded response perhaps—to those of us who on both days had asked him to bring to his new task the traditionally conciliatory rôle of his Department over half a century. He said that they—by which he meant the other trade union leaders— would have to declare that they would accept leaving the miners as a special case compared to their own members, thereby making sure that the miners' relative position in the wage scale was effectively maintained."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th December 1973; Vol. 866, c. 1366.] These words were understood by many hon. Members—and certainly by the Press the next day—as a peace offering conditional on some response by the TUC. That was how those words were immediately interpreted, although rather hastily a contrary interpretation began to appear in a number of newspapers that what the Secretary of State meant was that if the TUC could have given some such assurance all would be well but that of course it could not. That is not what the Secretary of State said. The Secretary of State usually chooses his words carefully, particularly when he is trying to keep open a door that more rigid minds want to close. I will return to those words before I sit down.

Following the Secretary of State's pronouncement we had those heady pre-Christmas days when there was talk—obviously informed, inspired talk—of reviving the idea of crediting some or all of the miner's waiting time when he was already on his employer's premises making the necessary preparations for work. This was the proposal, first made public by Mr. Lawrence Daly, on 24th November, on which I wrote to the Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman rejected it out of hand on 27th November, and he repeated his rejection and the reasons for rejecting it in an impassioned interruption at the end of my speech in the crisis debate. He got up, we all remember, in the last two or three minutes of my speech. I will deal with what he said later.

Now, apparently, or so we read and understood immediately after the Secretary of State's speech, this idea was to be reconsidered, and optimism grew. The Pay Board was reported as taking an initiative, pointing out how, given the production of the necessary evidence, the pay code could be interpreted to let it through. Up to Christmas the message was one of hope.

Then, six days later—last week—there were all the gloomy Press stories that it was not a runner, it would not work, it could not add up, it was not on. What was not clear was whether the initiative in saying all this was coming from a Government Department or from the Pay Board. We read that the Department was doing its own calculations about waiting time and reaching gloomy results. It was not quite clear for what purpose.

But this is very odd, because on this matter the Department has no standing under the law. If we had had the situation, as in bygone years, of the Pay Board's being given the same functions as the Prices and Incomes Board, it would have been forced to examine all aspects of the problem and to recommend their solution. On that analogy the particular case of the miners in those days would have been referred by and on the responsibility of the Government to the Prices and Incomes Board, and, following its report, the Secretary of State, with all the resources of the Department available, after negotiations with the two sides, as required, would, with Cabinet approval, have put the decision before the House.

But under the system in statutory force today, where, subject only to a reserve power that they have so far refused to use, Ministers have legislated to ensure not only Parliament's but the Government's impotence, all rests with a remote board—the Pay Board—responsible neither to Government nor to Parliament, a quasi-judicial tribunal without judicial qualifications concerned only with construing the law, and not in any way with the national interest.

This is very relevant in the miners' case. The Pay Board is not required by its terms of reference, as was the Prices and Incomes Board, to place first importance on the recruitment and buildup of adequate manpower. In any case going before it, there is no power to have to consider the needs of manpower, recruitment or wastage.

I do not know what the Departments were doing. I should like to have seen the board and the Secretary of State's Department, had the law permitted the Secretary of State to authorise it, actively working for a solution on the waiting time scheme, on winding time, on recruitment needs, or on any other relevant factor, whatever they were considering and working for a settlement, because that is the one thing that is not happening with the Government at this time. But the Departments were statute-barred from acting to work for a settlement, except in a situation where the Secretary of State might contemplate the use of the reserve power under the Act.

In the event, despite the Pay Board's apparently helpful attitude up to and including Christmas Eve, the proposed settlement fell through. That is why we have a three-day week today—[Interruption.] Without a three-line Whip not many hon. Members opposite could support the Government's policy. We do not need one. We are dealing with a very serious national crisis, for which Parliament has been recalled. I can understand hon. Gentlemen opposite being so nervous that all they can do is giggle, but let us get down to the facts of this matter.

The Pay Board had been helpful right up to Christmas Eve, but, even before its ruling, which was interpreted, rightly or wrongly, by last Friday's papers as rejecting this kind of settlement on grounds of principle because of pay code legalism, it was clear that another hopeful route to industrial peace was blocked—I trust only temporarily.

I referred to the Prime Minister's intervention in the last debate and to his letter on this waiting time question, of which high hopes were held just before Christmas. In his letter to me on 27th November, which was quite properly made public by him, he said that it would cost between £45 million and £50 million and in his passionate intervention in the House just before Christmas he said that it would cost £45 million. That was on the assumption that the whole of waiting time qualified. I had said "all or part". I believed, and still believe, that at the time it was put to the right hon. Gentleman and rejected by him seven weeks ago, just before bull week, a modest part of it could have been accepted. But his figure of £50 million showed a total ignorance of his own pay code. He had forgotten the 40-hour starting point when he quoted those figures.

It is extraordinary that we should have a three-day week throughout British industry, and great restrictions in process industries, when it is clear that the Government had never properly studied the various means that had been put forward for a settlement.

I hope that we shall have an explanation of the whole history of this change of policy from time to time on waiting time, and I hope that we shall have an explanation, perhaps from the Secretary of State tomorrow, of a report that I read in last week's Economist:The Coal Board had reckoned that a lucrative extra offer might be allowed and told the miners before Christmas that it could even see its way to paying an extra winding-time (another half-hour's pay a day). This led the miners to think in terms of big money, perhaps another 8 per cent. When the Pay Board was called in it said that there was nothing incompatible with the Pay Code in paying for two winding-times a day. But then to the miners' surprise, the Coal Board's deputy chairman, Mr. Norman Siddall, said last Friday "— that was 28th December— that this was illogical and he could not agree to it with a good conscience. The miners thought that the Coal Board would be a push-over once the Pay Board apparently approved the deal. They concluded that Ministers had given the board "— the Coal Board— orders not to concede any more. There is other evidence to support that proposition.

None of us can know whether those alleged facts—