Adjournment (Spring)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd May 1979.

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Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton , Macclesfield 12:00 am, 23rd May 1979

I am glad of the chance to speak after the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) because my constituency in Cheshire will share some of the problems that will face his constituents if the price of petrol goes up dramatically. There are large rural areas in my constituency, and any substantial increase in the price of petrol will seriously affect the mobility of people who cannot rely on the sort of public transport that is available in our major cities.

My Government must therefore pay particular attention, in any decisions they take, to the plight of the rural areas. This particularly applies to my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor in respect of any increase in the tax on petrol or in excise duty.

I rise to speak now because I was prevented from putting what I consider to be important points to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy when he replied to the private notice question earlier today. There is increasing concern in this country about future sources of fuel. I believe that the Government will soon have to make further statements, and I thought it interesting that the Opposition Front Bench spokesman asked my right hon. Friend to come to the House on a regular basis to make statements about the energy situation.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will ensure that regular statements are made and that, if necessary, information is given during the recess to the press so that people know what the situation is at any time.

Casting my mind back a few months, I find it interesting to recall that when we were in Opposition many hon. Members then on the Government Benches, especially among those below the Gangway, were only too keen to see the Government of the Shah of Iran brought down. The revolution came in that country, and I say to those who were so keen to see the Shah removed that, perhaps, they ought to accept some responsibility for the fuel crisis now facing this country and the world as a whole.

I hope that that fact will be borne in mind by those who, through their speeches, and, maybe, through certain things that they did, gave encouragement to the revolutionary forces in the Middle East to bring down a Government friendly to the West, who were providing large quantities of the oil required by the West for its industry and its standard of life. I only regret that the Shah of Iran is no longer there presiding over that country's affairs. The problems confronting us today have arisen because his friendly Government are no longer in power.

I am not sure that my right hon. Friend fully appreciates that the people of Britain will be extremely angry if they see huge quantities of the oil from the North Sea being diverted to other countries while we go short. I recognise that we have overseas obligations, and I appreciate that we do not wish to see a world industrial depression or recession which would inevitably affect industry and employment in this country. Equally, I do not want or expect this nation to enable our major industrial competitors to continue to compete with us—perhaps even assisting them directly to do so—by allowing them to have large quantities of the oil from the North Sea.

I therefore share the views expressed by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell). If any EEC directive instructs us to part with large quantities of the oil which we are producing from our own resources in order to assist our major industrial competitors while our own industry is at the same time starved, the people of this country will be very angry indeed.

My request, therefore, to my right hon. Friend, who, if I may say so, made a brilliant speech last night in replying to the debate on the Address, is that he will make some comment on this matter this afternoon. It is wrong that the people of this country, who have contributed in many ways to the development of our resources in the North Sea, should suffer. We are reliably informed that we are some 80 per cent. or more self-sufficient in oil. I acknowledge that we have to import a certain amount of oil to be blended with oil from the North Sea so as to make it acceptable for all the purposes required in this country, but people are asking me the direct question: if we are so nearly self-sufficient, why is a great shortage developing within the United Kingdom?

In the same context, I refer specifically now to problems in my constituency, where there are many smaller businesses. I am pleased to know that my Government pay more than lip service to the importance of smaller businesses and all that they can do to reduce the present unacceptable levels of unemployment. But I am concerned about a number of small hauliers and transport contractors in my constituency. I see that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) nods in assent, so I take it that he shares my concern. These small firms have limited fuel storage facilities and they are suffering because the oil companies are not prepared to deliver to places where the drops are small. I hope, therefore, that the Government will discuss this matter with the oil companies to ensure that small firms do not suffer as a result of the major oil companies' allocation of fuel to their customers.

That brings me to the specific example of the smaller garage or distributor of the kind mentioned during the exchanges on the private notice question today. I believe that, sadly, the major oil companies are allocating their resources primarily to their own company-owned sites. But the smaller distributor and garage—I endorse here what was said by the hon. Member for Caernarvon, who represents a rural constituency in Wales—is the major supplier in rural areas. If these smaller distributors and garages cannot get supplies, they will be in great financial difficulty and, what is more, those who are dependent upon them will also have serious trouble.

In my own town of Congleton there is a small garage which, on the account system, supplies the county council, nurses, local hospitals and local doctors, quite apart from all the commercial concerns which have accounts with it. That garage is not now receiving the supplies to enable it to fulfil basic requirements. It has already put up a sign saying that it wishes to supply only regular customers, yet it does not have sufficient fuel to meet supplies for the essential services which every community has come to expect.

My area has many features in common with that of the hon. Member for Caernarvon. A number of small farmers have been in touch with me, both during the election campaign and since. Small farmers with limited fuel storage facilities cannot get supplies because the drop is, say, only 300, 400 or 500 gallons and the oil companies and distributors are not prepared to make these small drops when their own company sites and the large users are taking drops of 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 or even 5,000 gallons at a time.

Grave problems are developing, and they are especially acute in the rural areas. I hope that, in looking at the situation which we face, the Government will take these matters into consideration. In this context I associate myself with many of the remarks of the hon. Member for Caernarvon.

I turn next to the position of farming. Sadly, during the debate on the Address we did not hear a great deal about this industry although it is one of the most important to this country and one of the most efficient. Our farmers are willing and able to make, and should make, a greater contribution to our economic progress. They can produce more food from our own resources—although there is an echo in that phrase, I am not referring directly to the White Paper published some years ago by the Labour Government—and they seek to make a greater contribution to our economic progress. They can do that only if the Government give them the encouragement and the cash to do so. They are not asking for a direct subsidy. I leave it to hon. Members on the Opposition Bench to press the matter of subsidies.

I am concerned that we should be going into recess without the farming community throughout the land, in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, being told that in our negotiations with our partners in the European Economic Community we shall seek a devaluation of the green pound—a devaluation of, I suggest, 5 per cent. to 7½ per cent.—within the next three or four months so that our farmers may be enabled to compete with farmers on the Continent in a situation of much fairer competition.

At present our farmers face unfair competition. But they can make a major contribution to our balance of payments. They could save our balance of payments several hundred million pounds a year if they were given the return to enable them to do so.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House represents a constituency in which there are some farms, and I know that it is an important farming area. I must tell him that the farmers expect our Government to give them justice. There is at present a disparity in the value of the various currencies, and a great disparity in relation to the green pound between the United Kingdom and the major currency countries of the EEC. I believe that a devaluation—a small devaluation of 5 per cent. to 7½ per cent.—would give our farmers that extra income which would enable them not only to produce more food for the people of Britain but to give us a more secure supply of food in the long term, enabling us to do much better on our balance of payments while at the same time ensuring that we are not so dependent upon the import of food from elsewhere in the world.

I shall be happy to be away from the House for a fortnight. I remind the House that because of the Dissolution or the previous Parliament and the election campaign that ensued we forwent our Easter break. Many of us were active preparing for the general election when normally we would have been spending a great deal of time helping our constituents. At that time we were in fact preparing to help our constituents subject to re-election.

The recess which begins at the beginning of next week and continues until 11 June is welcome. It will enable our new colleagues on both sides of the House to get to know their constituencies and what is going on in their constituencies very much better in the absence of the hustle and bustle of an election campaign, which often establishes a rather false image in a constituency, not least for the candidates themselves.

I welcome the break but I hope that matters of considerable importance such as the future of our oil supplies, the price of oil and the problems that shortages will create for various areas will not be overlooked by the Government. Surely we stood on the platform that we would be the Government of the people and that we would be concerned about their interests, whoever they are, whatever they are and wherever they are.