Emergency Powers

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th January 1974.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Regulations made by Her Majesty in Council under the Emergency Powers Act 1920 by Order, dated 9th January 1974, a copy of which was laid before this House on 9th January, shall continue in force after the expiration of the period mentioned in section 2(2) of the said Act, subject however to the provisions of section 2(4) thereof.—[Mr. R. Carr.]

10.16 p.m.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull North

I have two points to raise in relation to the emergency powers which have some bearing on the debate earlier tonight and which are important. They relate in particular to Regulation 17 concerning electricity supply.

Yesterday, at a meeting arranged by my colleagues and myself with leading trade union officials in my city, concern was expressed about the way in which electricity was being apportioned on so many days per week. The officials expressed a preference for electricity to be rationed on a meter system and spread over the whole week rather than for a smaller number of days.

I suggest that the powers in Regulation 17 should be used in this way in order to solve the problems particularly afflicting small firms which do not have their own private generators and which do not use electricity continuously, but only for limited purposes. The trade union officials have spoken to many employers in the area and believe that not only would this be more economical in the use of electricity and keep more people in work, but it would be of great benefit to the country.

There is a firm in my constituency which exports all of its production and referring to its export dates it says: We cannot meet these dates on a three-day week and, as our usage of electricity is minimal, lighting, which we can get over by spreading our week over six days, heating, we have oil and are allowed to use our units, but, we must have power to fill our air tanks as we use air tools. We have two compressors, one to give a back up service to the other and, apart from initial usage in the morning, use very little electricity except for topping up our air cylinders. This is a problem particularly affecting the small firms which use a great deal of labour, much of it skilled, and a minimum amount of electricity for a very few tools. These firms want their electricity supplied over a five-day period and checked by a meter. That would be easy to arrange with the electricity boards which could keep adequate check in the way that they do at the moment.

The proposal would ensure continuity of employment. Our financial and industrial problems will not disappear merely with the ending of the miners' overtime ban. The problems are deep-seated and it seems foolish to throw away our foreign markets by not adopting a more rational and sensible way of rationing electricity.

I urge the Home Secretary in consultation with his colleagues seriously to consider giving firms their ration of electricity spread over a week. This would be a more sensible way of dealing with the problem and would have less socially divisive consequences than the policies currently adopted.

10.20 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Fraser Mr John Fraser , Lambeth Norwood

I shall not discuss these regulations in detail—they are almost identical to two previous sets of regulations put before us—but I wish to refer to comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) in the first debate on regulations of this kind. She pointed out that a continued state of emergency, with power to abrogate both contract and statute law, was inconsistent with parliamentary goverment. It is indicative also of the Government's inability to govern through the normal democratic processes. Probably, it is a tribute to their obstinacy and inflexibility.

I hope that his presentation of the present regulations has reminded the Home Secretary that the chickens which he hatched in one Department have come home to roost in another. Only in 1971, as Secretary of State for Employment, and a declared enemy of a statutory incomes policy, he assured the country that the procedures under the Industrial Relations Bill would rid us of situations such as the present. They would, he said, confer upon him powers to act when there was an interruption of the provision of goods and services through industrial action.

Indeed, the emergency powers which he sought and eventually obtained under the Industrial Relations Act were the subject of tribute by his right hon. and learned Friend, then Solicitor-General. The clause then under discussion, said the right hon. and learned Gentleman, gives the Secretary of State additions to the flexibility of his armoury. It increases the room for manoeuvre. It gives him useful additions or alternatives"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th February 1971; Vol. 812, c. 714.] Little more than two years later, we have regulations presented, partly though not wholly due to industrial disputes, which show that the Government have no flexibility, no willingness to manoeuvre and no useful alternatives.

I turn now to certain aspects of the regulations themselves. I shall not comment in detail on what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), but there are other problems arising out of the regulation of electricity supplies. I urge that the Department of Trade and Industry—or the new Department and electricity boards—should be far more willing to consult small users of electricity in order to achieve a better distribution of supplies.

There are many areas in which the allotted days are Thursday, Friday and Saturday but in which, by custom, there are many firms which work only a five-day week. For such firms working on a Saturday is particularly difficult, for example, when a large proportion of the employees are married women with children who are home from school on Saturday. Some concession has been made for shop users, but there are office and other small users adversely affected which might be helped by a more flexible arrangement with the electricity boards, under licence from the Government.

It is extraordinary that if one telephones the electricity board one is told that it is a matter for the Department of Trade and Industry, but if one telephones the Department one is told that it is a matter for the local electricity board. It is difficult to have any meaningful consultation and discussion with either the board or the Department in an effort to achieve a better distribution of electricity and to avoid the hardship which comes to people who are allotted the use of electricity on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Perhaps I should add that I am a solicitor and I should declare some interest in this matter. It would, perhaps, be wrong if I did not do that, but this representation has been made to me by many constituents and small firms, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will pay some regard to it and pass on these comments.

I come now to Regulation 30. I am grateful that the Secretary of State has made some change from the last set of regulations, taking account of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) and by the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments. We are glad that a change has been made, which I take to mean—and I understand the Secretary of State to intend to mean—that lawful industrial action short of a strike does not constitute sabotage under the terms of the regulation.

Next, Regulation 29. This gives power to requisition property and houses in order to secure essentials for the life of the community. In my borough of Lambeth, we have 14,000 families on the housing list, we have 100 families homeless, and we have 1,650 homes which have been empty for more than six months. I can think of nothing more essential to the life of the community than that people should live with a roof over their heads and should have the basis of a good and secure home.

If it is possible to have a regulation such as this trotted out at the time of an industrial dispute, I hope that the Secretary of State will convey to his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment the view of some of us that there should be a greater degree of urgency in what is almost a permanent state of emergency in the housing sector, and that requisitioning powers such as those conferred by this regulation ought to be, in some parts of the country in which there is a serious emergency in housing, a permanent feature of our statute law.

A third aspect of the regulations arises in regard to Regulation No. 32 which deals with interference with Her Majesty's Forces and others who are performing services essential to the life of the community. I am sure that the Government do not intend to use troops in the present industrial disputes. No doubt the Secretary of State will confirm that. But there is one area in which Her Majesty's Forces are being used for civilian duties in England for the first time in peace time, I think, for about 50 years—at London Airport. In the words of the Daily Mirror, it is an ominous step which most defence chiefs wanted to avoid. I am sure that the Government wanted to avoid it. But the ghastly risk that a civilian airliner might be fired at with a surface-to-air missile at Heathrow is a risk which certainly must be eradicated. No one would forgive a Government who failed to heed that kind of a threat.

However, as the use of troops armed with live ammunition is a very unusual departure from our usual practice and is taking place at the same time as a state of emergency, the Secretary of State should tell the House the nature of the risk which is being dealt with there, for how long that operation is to last and to what extent the use of troops has been made necessary by what is in London a grave shortage of ordinary police officers. Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether there is any part of the emergency regulations which is available in these circumstances or whether the troops who are acting there are acting or are invested with any powers under the Protection of Aircraft Act 1973?

I do not necessarily expect the right hon. Gentleman to answer these questions off the cuff. It would be unfair to demand that, but I should be neglecting my duty if I did not put that kind of question and ask for a statement about a rather unusual departure from practice and clearly a serious risk. It is something about which the House ought to have an explanation and a chance to question the Secretary of State.

10.28 p.m.

Photo of Mr Robert Carr Mr Robert Carr , Mitcham

Both hon. Members who have spoken have gone rather wide on these regulations. Let me assure the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) that Regulation 32 has absolutely no bearing on the matter of Heathrow. Indeed, if he reads the regulation he would see that that was so. Here we are talking about the rôle of any member of Her Majesty's Services in connection with people who are charged with the exercise or performance of any power or duty under any of these Regulations. This has nothing whatever to do with Heathrow. There may be some other occasion when the House will properly wish to ask me to speak about that, and I shall be only too ready to do so. But this is nothing whatever to do with the regulations. As has happened when Parliament is not sitting, I did what I thought was right and made as full a public statement as I could about the matter of time.

I note what the hon. Gentleman said about Regulation 29 but I do not believe that he thinks that this regulation has anything to do with the subject that he raised.

Regarding Regulation 30, I was glad that with the help of my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General we were able to deal with this very difficult matter, which is very complex legally. I am assured that this puts beyond doubt what was always the intention in the last and all previous sets of regulations, namely, that anyone taking lawful industrial action, including strikes and action short of strike, should not be in any way caught by these regulations. I hope that we have succeeded in that. We have certainly tried to, and I am assured by my hon. and learned Friend that we have in fact done so.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) referred to the use of Regulation 17. He will appreciate that, as Home Secretary, I am responsible for the regulations, but I am not responsible for the way in which my right hon. Friends in various Departments make use of them. The regulation gives power to my right hon. Friends, but I, as Home Secretary, cannot speak on how that power is used. I assure him, and the hon. Member for Norwood, that I will draw my right hon. Friends' attention to what has been said.

I agree strongly with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, that among the chief sufferers, if not the chief sufferers, from the effects of the coal shortage and the consequential power restrictions are the small firms, not only the owners of those firms but those who work in them. The larger companies, by and large, have a greater capacity to survive a period of crisis. I take the hon. Gentleman's point about how the form of rationing, if it were technically possible, might be of more assistance to small firms, and I will pass that on to my right hon. Friend.

The hon. Member for Norwood started his brief intervention by bringing in the Industrial Relations Act. That is extremely tempting territory for me, but it would not be wise in my own or anybody else's interest for me to be tempted. I cannot help reminding the hon. Gentleman that when his Government, at the beginning of 1969, introduced their Industrial Relations Bill—remarkably similar in many ways to ours—and said that it was essential to the well being of this country and then six months later threw it away, in the next year the number of strikes doubled. Let the hon. Gentleman contemplate that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Regulations made by Her Majesty in Council under the Emergency Powers Act 1920 by Order, dated 9th January 1974, a copy of which was laid before this House on 9th January, shall continue in force after the expiration of the period mentioned in section 2(2) of the said Act, subject however to the provisions of section 2(4) thereof.