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Petrol Rationing

Volume 413: debated on Friday 24 August 1945

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3.26 p.m.

The House has been talking about the liberty of speech, and I now desire to raise another question of liberty—the freedom of movement. I want to ask the Minister of Fuel and Power whether he will double the petrol ration as from 1st September. I did not give him very long notice of tins subject, and as I know that he has had to change his engagements to be here I thank him for that. Petrol rationing is acknowledged to have been well done during the Coalition Government, and Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd, the then Secretary for Petroleum, was able to restore the basic ration within a week of the end of the war in Europe. I understand that the 25 per cent. increase in the ration which we are to have next month was decided last May. That means that the present Minister has been unable to make any increase as a result of the end of the war with Japan. He told us a short while ago, in answer to a written Question, that he is considering the subject, and that he proposes to make a further statement when the House resumes. I do not think that is good enough. Everywhere in the country there is disappointment, because we all know that when the fighting ceases the consumption of petrol by the Armed Forces is sharply and progressively reduced. The people expect an increase in the civilian ration to match the enormous reduction which has taken place in military needs.

I want to try to get this matter in true perspective, so that the House may measure the lack of generosity of the Minister. I do not intend to ask him the exact figures of stocks of motor spirit in this country to-day, because it would not be right for him to tell the House, but am I correct in thinking that the stocks of such spirit in the country at present would enable the present basic and supplementary ration to be continued for several years? Am I right in thinking that the consumption in one month by the Armed Forces over the last year has been equal to many years' consumption of petrol by the civilian population at the present rate? I know I am right in saying that since the end of the war there has been a glut of ocean-going tankers, that as soon as these ships could proceed independently of convoy there were more of them than were required. And also there are adequate supplies of oil in the sterling area, including Persia, which could be picked up. The tankers have to be switched from the North Atlantic route to the Persian Gulf, and this takes a little time. The question is, are the stocks on hand in the United Kingdom adequate to finance the comparatively short interval before the tankers get into position to load oil in the sterling area? I am sure they are.

If that is the case then to maintain the petrol ration at its present level just now when the holiday period is in full swing is an act of unnecessary bullying. We have had to submit to many onerous restrictions on our personal freedom during the war. One of the most irksome has been the inability to move about, caused by the necessary reduction in all forms of transport. We have been immobilised to a degree that has hurt—hurt trade, hurt health, hurt friendships, and has fallen especially hard upon old people whose movement is restricted by natural causes. We know that clothing and food rationing must continue for some time because supplies are short, but supplies of petrol are not short. Can we have an increased petrol rationing immediately?

The right hon. Gentleman might say that he cannot give us more petrol, because tyres are scarce. That argument will not do. Everyone knows that the Army has been a large user of rubber but when the battle-wastage has ended important quantities of this raw material could be diverted from military to civilian uses. He may say he cannot give us petrol because there are not enough mechanics in the garages. That was true up to the end of the Japanese war. It is not true now. Only yesterday the Minister of Labour and National Service told us that there will be a million workers redundant in two months in the munitions industries, and another million men are to be released from the Forces by the end of the year. Among those 2,000,000 must be thousands of men who would jump at the chance of good jobs in garages. If the Minister says that he must wait until petrol, tyres, mechanics, new cars, second-hand cars are all in equally abundant supply before he does anything, he will do a grave injury to the public. In this matter of restoring liberties it is always wrong to do nothing until you can do everything.

I am not only thinking of the private motorist but also of the traders, the people whose needs are called "semi-essential"; they have been hard hit. Housewives would greatly benefit if distribution of goods could be increased. Fresh vegetables and fruit are a glut in one place and scarce in another, due to the lack of transport. Then there are the bus companies. I happen to live in an inland county, Wiltshire. It is now six years since our children have seen the sea. Why do not the Minister of Fuel and Power and the Minister of War Transport put their heads together and sweep away these restrictions on day trips to the seaside? The children of Swindon and Chippenham would benefit greatly.

Right hon. Gentlemen on the Government Front Bench always have official cars and aeroplanes at their disposal. They live in a perpetual puff of priorities. They easily forget the humble citizen who on a fine Saturday afternoon has to look out of his garden gate and go no further, for want of a gallon or two of petrol. In saying this I am perhaps not being fair to the Foreign Secretary. Just at the end of the last Parliament he came down to this House, and made a most eloquent appeal for the large family car of a size suitable to his own considerable proportions. That was a very human appeal. I ask the right hon. Gentleman not to be behind the Foreign Secretary in his humanity in this matter, and to do his best to give us this increase at once. I ask him to double the basic ration and the supplementary ration. There is no administrative difficulty. The coupons are made out for units not gallons. Each unit can perfectly well be cashable for two gallons instead of one. I am sure that if the right hon. Gentleman will only tell his advisers to be a little more bold and expansive he will find that he can finance this period, while he is switching the tankers, out of the very ample stocks which must be on hand at the end of a war such as we have seen end so suddenly.

3.36 p.m.

I rise to associate myself with the Observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles). Here is a clear opportunity for prompt and positive action on the part of the right hon. Gentleman. I feel that he should welcome this in a week spent, so far as Ministerial statements are concerned, in an atmosphere of Maña-na, mañana. It is true we have got through the Debate on the Address without actually hearing any right hon. Gentleman opposite proclaiming his inability to produce rabbits out of a hat, but there have been times when I felt that the statement trembled on Ministerial lips. We on this side of the House quite appreciate that time is required for the maturing of the more ambitious plans of right hon. Gentlemen opposite. What we cannot subscribe to is the theory that, because the people cannot have everything at once, therefore they can have nothing at all. This increase of the petrol ration is surely something which can be done for them now. The whole circumstances of petrol rationing were obviously revolutionised by the conclusion of hostilities; and the great flow of petrol necessary to carry our Armies to victory has now been checked and throttled down to the comparative trickle—a steady trickle perhaps, but a trickle by comparison with the previous flow—necessary for the maintenance only of our Forces of occupation.

We ask the right hon. Gentleman opposite to make some part of the difference in these totals available to the civilian population in this country, who have deserved so much by their efforts and sacrifices in war. I had not the good fortune to be a Member of this House in the last Parliament, but I understand that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Fuel and Power achieved a considerable reputation as an apostle of decisive action. I suggest that in the easier circumstances of peace, he should not shrink from the physic he then prescribed for others. On Tuesday last this answer was made by the right hon. Gentleman:
"I am anxious to relax, and, as soon as possible, to discontinue petrol rationing.…"
I pause there, with permission to observe that there are two sorts of anxiety. There is the passive quality of anxiety which is generally distilled by the sufferings and discomforts of others, and which normally is found to be not incompatible with a degree of composure, and even complacency. But that is not the anxiety we look for in the right hon. Gentleman.

We look for the anxiety which goads and drives into action, the action which in other cases he was so zealous to prescribe. He continued in his answer:
"—but this cannot be done until arrangements for the import of future supplies have been reviewed in the light of the changed conditions brought about by the end of the war with Japan. At present the bulk of our supplies are coming from the United States under Lend-Lease arrangements, and considerable readjustments will have to be made in consultation with our American Allies."
In view of the statement of the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister this morning I say nothing on that point, which is obviously now a part of a much larger undertaking.

But the right hon. Gentleman continued:
"As regards stocks in this country considerable amounts are held on military account, and I am not yet in a position to publish information about these stocks."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st August, 1945; Vol. 413, c. 455]
Perhaps he will tell the House precisely what it is which inhibits him from doing so, because I have very lively memories both as a regimental and as a staff officer during the war, which are no doubt shared by other hon. Members, of the detailed accounting in petrol that was required by military procedure. I remember later as an instructor at the Staff College that it was one of my less congenial tasks to have to impress upon polite but sceptical officer students the necessity for this detailed accounting. It seems to me that there is little jusification for the labour spent in time of war if the right hon. Gentleman is now able to come and give this dusty answer to the House.

I would suggest to him that there is a feeling that in this matter the public well-being is waiting upon administrative convenience, and I ask the right hon. Gentleman, with that zeal for action which he has associated with himself, to cut through such difficulties and administrative inconvenience, and to meet the needs of the people in this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham has referred to the various cases. I am not concerned with getting more petrol for rich and pleasure-loving motorists, if such there be in these days. I am concerned with the difference it would make to transport in the rural areas and to the legitimate recreation of hard working people who have been hard pressed by six years of war. I am anxious also to see an improvement in retail distribution, which would bring some measure of relief to hard-pressed housewives. There is the further consideration of petrol for demobilised officers and officers who are now seeking to establish themselves in civil life. In that connection it so happened that I received a letter this morning from a constituent, who says:
"I trust you will do all you can to have the petrol rationing abolished as soon as possible."
I am trying to meet his wishes.
"I am a demobilised officer trying to get established in a personal business that means my calling on many firms. I am completely hamstrung by lack of petrol."
There are many deserving cases such as this in which an increase in the petrol allowance would make a substantial difference. These are ways in which the right hon. Gentleman can make a positive contribution now to the happiness of the people, which I know him to have at heart. I do not overlook the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is compelled to give the greater part of his time to the framing of those vast plans for the future which he is fashioning for us. But I would invite him for only a short time to withdraw his gaze from the cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces of the future Socialism which he is working out for us, and bring his attention to bear on this humdrum matter, in which he can contribute to the happiness of the people at this time. I would remind him of the old Latin tag Bis dat qui cito dat which I can translate on this occasion perfectly literally as "He gives twice, who gives quickly." If he is going to be in a position to give at all, I ask him while he is yet in the way with us to make an announcement to the House before it adjourns that will do something to meet the legitimate hopes and aspirations of the people of this country.

3.45 p.m.

I am obliged to the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles) for having raised this matter at an early stage of the Debate on the Motion for the Adjournment. I have to proceed to an important engagement art Cardiff very shortly, and I hope hon. Members will forgive me if, after I have made my statement, I am allowed to go. I congratulate the hon. Member for Chippenham and the hon. and gallant Member for Hertford (Lieut.-Colonel Walker-Smith) on their excellent speeches, and, in particular, the hon. Member for Chippenham, who, at seems to me, was in better form in Opposition than when he sat on the Government benches. Presumably, he prefers more freedom rather than the meagre amount of responsibility he had when he sat on this side. As to the hon. and gallant Member for Hertford, it occurs to me that he was more concerned in discussing the alleged stormy petrel of the last House of Commons than he was in discussing increasing the basic ration, but the stormy petrel of the last House of Commons is not now under review.

We are concerned with the simple facts of the petrol situation. What are those facts? If right hon. Gentlemen and hon. Gentlemen expect me to disclose the actual facts in our possession, they are likely to be disappointed. It was not a custom, even in peace time, to disclose our petrol stocks, because of strategic considerations, and that applied obviously during the war period and applies with equal force now, in a situation in which we are about to readjust our position in respect, not only of supplies of petrol, but of the Lend-Lease position. In fact, the hon. and gallant Member for Hertford rendered a service in reading to the House the reply I gave to a Question the other afternoon, but which, because it came at a very late stage, I was precluded from reading to the House personally. What the hon. and gallant Member has just quoted from that reply, is a complete answer to the case that has been presented in the two speeches we have heard. Are there adequate supplies of petrol in this country? The answer it that it depends on the circumstances. In certain conditions, we have more than an ample supply. If we had not to concern ourselves with the needs of the Army of Occupation, if we were assured as to the period during which the Army of Occupation would function in Europe, and, if, over and above that, we could be assured that the needs of the liberated territories—and we are bound to consider the position, both for humanitarian and economic purposes, of the needs of the people in the liberated territories;—would not increase but would diminish, then, obviously, no difficulty would present itself.

May I interrupt the right hon. Gentleman? Is it not a fact that all the tankers in the world are now being used, but, if they are not, there is a surplus that could be put to Europe if necessary? Are they in use or not?

Perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me to proceed and develop my argument, and I think he will find, at the end of the day, that there is a complete reply to the demand for the doubling of the ration in September. We were compelled to switch over a large amount of petrol at the end of the European war. That was necessary for service in the Far East, and it was a decision, not of this Government or of myself, but of the Coalition Government, and a decision about which no one could make any complaint. We are not yet fully advised on whether we can switch back to this country the supplies that were diverted at that time, and, obviously, it would be impossible in the first days of September to divert supplies of petrol now in stock, but which may be required at a subsequent stage for perhaps more important purposes than private motoring. It would be quite impossible for us to do that without reviewing the whole position.

Let it be clearly understood that no injury is likely to be inflicted on industrial users. The hon. Member for Chippenham seemed to allege that people were precluded from obtaining the necessary-supply of goods because insufficient petrol was available for industrial use, but that is not so. Even the Minister of War Transport, only the other day, made an announcement which makes it abundantly clear that provision will be made for industrial users. As regards provision for buses, it is well known that even if we made available a larger supply of petrol we have to consider the shortage in labour supply, the absence of drivers and conductors, and, if my hon. Friends wish to know the actual position on that head, I would refer them to what was said by the Minister of Labour on the speeding-up of demobilisation plans.

May I ask a question? The right hon. Gentleman mentioned industrial users. Do I take it that he includes agriculture? Will there be any difficulty for the future in getting as much petrol as we want in agriculture?

All I want to say to the right hon. Gentleman, whose interest in agriculture is well known, is that, if any difficulty should emerge, as regards facilities for petrol supply for agriculture in this country, the agricultural interests have only to make representations and I hope they will be met satisfactorily.

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but there is a slight distinction. Those of us engaged in agriculture have, I think, very naturally and properly, been doing our level best to reduce our demands to a minimum, even at the cost of considerable inconvenience, and, too often, some delay. I am sure it would make a very great difference if we were told that supplies were sufficiently easy without going to the extent of abolishing rationing, so that the extremely careful scrutiny of every gallon we use could be slightly modified in the course of the next few months.

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman and, in reply, I can say, and I think it is a fair reply, that we should deal with every case on its merits. If submissions are made to this Department, or to the Ministry of War Transport giving the facts of the situation, we shall give them very active consideration, and do our best to satisfy the interests concerned.

It is rather important, and I was wondering whether it is realised by the Area Controllers, who are the Petroleum Controllers, that they can look with a slightly less jaundiced eye on normal applications for a little extra petrol for tractors and lorries.

I am satisfied that my regional officers will take note of what I say, and that must suffice for now. The hon. Member for Chippenham said that I might adduce certain arguments as reasons for not responding to his request, and he suggested that I might say that there was a scarcity of tyres. I shall do nothing of the sort, because it has nothing to do with the case, nor am I likely to say that there is difficulty about mechanics, because that also has nothing to do with the case. All I am concerned about is that we are about to terminate the Lend-Lease system, and that presents very grave difficulties, financial and economic, for this country, and, I should add, not merely for Members of His Majesty's Government but for hon. Members of this House and the people we represent outside. We have to consider our exchange position, and, if difficulties should arise in respect of that position, we might even have to diminish supplies to motor users in this country. I hope that will not arise.

Supposing I were to respond to the request of hon. Members and other people who have written to me on the subject, and to the newspaper scribes who write, but are usually ill-informed, on matters of this kind? If I were to respond in September by doubling the ration, and then find, in October, that I was in the position of having to remove it, there would be much more criticism than there is at the present time. If I may say so to right hon. and hon. Members, I would rather abolish the petrol rationing system altogether—not relax it, but abolish it. It may be that I shall not be in that position for some time, but, at any rate, I must be permitted to review the position, and readjust myself to the new circumstances, and I hope that hon. Members will allow me to do so.

As I understand it, my hon. Friends are anxious to satisfy those people who desire me to give them a holiday in the month of September. I share with them the desire that everybody should have a well-earned holiday. I shall not have one myself, for obvious reasons, but that is by the way and I am not making any complaint. Clearly, if we were to prepare for the holiday season at all, we should have prepared long ago, and not have waited until the end of August. We should have prepared in the month of May. [Interruption.] It is all very well for hon. Members to speak of the termination of the Japanese war, but that is only recent—the other day. Surely, they will not expect us to readjust our position throughout the range of social, economic and industrial policy, in the course of a couple of weeks? They will get action soon enough. Let them be under no illusion. There will be plenty of action, and decisive action, from the Government on these benches—perhaps more than some hon. Members care for. I hope that, when that action comes, the hon. and gallant Member for Hertford will get up and glorify this Government instead of criticising it, but we shall wait and see.

It is quite impossible for us now to prepare for the holiday season. It is perfectly true that the decision which I implemented the other day, namely, a meagre increase in the petrol allowance, was a decision of the Coalition Government. It might be argued that the Coalition Government of that time might have considered the holiday situation in September, but that is our position now. I am very sorry that I cannot respond to the demands that are made for an increase in the petrol allowance. I wish I could, but I am unable to do so because of the stock position and because of the diminution of stocks. I cannot disclose the actual figure, but there has been a steady decline in the stock position over recent weeks. Because of the stock position and particularly because we must adjust ourselves to the termination of the Lend-Lease system, I ask hon. Members to be patient for a little while. I hope when we resume after the Recess I may be in a much stronger position, on the basis of the facts submitted to me, to offer a little more encouragement to the House.