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Basic Petrol

Volume 443: debated on Wednesday 22 October 1947

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Snow.]

9.59 p.m.

I beg the leave of the House to raise a question of great importance to this country—the abolition of basic petrol. It is a matter which concerns the rural constituencies, one of which I represent, to a very large degree——

It being Ten o'clock the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Snow.]

At the outset I should like to say that I fully appreciate that a reduction in the consumption of petrol is necessary. I do not believe that the finances of the nation are in a condition to permit of the consumption of the amount of petrol which was being consumed in recent times. We have arrived at this difficulty very largely because of the procrastination and muddle of the Government. They should have seen where we were being led some time ago, and if they had done so, such drastic remedies would not have been necessary now. By doing away with the basic ration they are causing hardship to one section of the community. I do not agree with the suggestions that have been made that they could have done away with one-half of the basic ration. Halving the basic ration would have meant that a basic gallon would have gone 200 instead of 100 miles, it would have increased the black market in petrol, and it is not the right way to ration petrol. The way to ration petrol is the way in which rationing of many other commodities should be undertaken, namely, by price.

It would have been fairer to have raised the price of petrol to such a figure that people who wanted to take a ride, whether for pleasure or business, would have considered seriously whether the journey was really necessary. It would have meant that neighbours who wanted to make a journey would double up for that journey. It might mean that someone contemplating a journey would hesitate and do two jobs the next week, thus restricting the use of petrol all round. Doing away with the basic ration hits the country community to a very great extent. Several speakers in the Debate today have mentioned that aspect and I want to emphasise it. In a town or in the suburbs of a town where there are trams, railways and buses, the hardship is not so apparent, but to the people living in remote country districts it is going to cause extreme hardship.

They have not got the facilities of road transport and they do not get easily to railway stations. The result is that they are isolated from their friends during the whole of the long winter, and in view of the volume of protests which have been made up and down the country, I trust the Government will reconsider their decision to restrict the consumption of petrol by abolishing the basic ration, and thus causing hardship to one section of the community. Let us all share the hardship evenly. I appeal to the Government to reconsider the matter from this point of view. I have nothing further to say. I got up on the spur of the moment to deal with this point, and I hope other Members on both sides of the House who feel with me on this matter will voice their opinion.

10.5 p.m.

I should like to take this opportunity of bringing to the notice of the Minister the effect of the cut in the basic petrol ration on rural communities. I know that this matter will be raised on a future occasion, and we just want to ask the Government tonight a number of questions as to why they suddenly decided to impose this drastic cut on this particular section of the community. I should like to point out tonight that once again the hardship will fall on people living in remote country districts, and I hope the Government will take the opportunity of thinking this matter over. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary will not be able to give an authoritative reply, but this Debate does give the Government the opportunity of thinking this matter over to see if they will alter their decision. Many more powerful voices and arguments than I can advance tonight have been brought to bear on this problem already, and I am sure that the Government are convinced that they have made a mistake. The country are looking to them to see if they are really big enough to acknowledge the fact that they have made a mistake and will alter this decision.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) has said perhaps one of the best ways of dealing with a commodity in short supply, if it is not a completely essential commodity—and in this respect, of course, there are supplementary allowances for those essential users of petrol—is through the price of the commodity. One of the things I should like the Government to tell us is what is going to be the precise saving in dollars through this move that they have taken. Would it not be possible for them to consider that people should have an option of using the dollars for the purchase of tobacco or for petrol? I can think of many people who would be prepared to give up a packet or two of cigarettes if they could get a gallon or two of petrol. I know many people who would be prepared to pay three shillings, four shillings or five shillings a gallon for their petrol, and it would not be an exorbitant price at the present day when one considers what one has to pay for a large number of other pleasures and articles. I ask the Government to reconsider this decision in view of the hardship to rural communities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) said this evening, it is not necessarily only the farmers in the rural districts who are the most consistent users of motor transport. All those who can contribute in any small way to the life of the rural communities should be given full consideration. I was talking to a constituent of mine in Yorkshire the other day and he told me that when he wrote to the local petroleum officer and told him he has to go 30 miles to do his shopping, he was not believed. Nevertheless, in some of the remote districts of Yorkshire that is most certainly a fact.

I appeal to the Government to consider these people just as much as they do those who live in the towns, for they are entitled to their share of amusement and recreation. In many of these country districts there are no cinemas and unfortunately there are very few rural amenities. The promises by which they were led to put their trust in this Government two years ago, whereby they would get these amenities, have not materialised and appear to be further away than ever before. For that reason, because they have not the same facilities as exist in the towns, I ask the Government at least to give instructions to the appropriate petroleum officers in order that they may realise that a little entertainment in the lives of those who live in the rural communities will add as much to our productive drive as have other ideas in industrial centres. That would be a very useful contribution and assist greatly in the effort that is being made in the rural districts to help the Government in their drive for production.

10.10 p.m.

In supporting the plea put forward by my hon. Friends for a reconsideration of the abolition of the petrol ration I should like to make a general point—that there is a growing feeling that this abolition will slow down the wheels of industry and will halt the production drive of agriculture. That is in a general way. I should also like to put to the Government two very quick and precise points, which I do not think have yet been answered. There have been various calculations made as to the amount of money which will be saved by the abolition of the basic petrol ration. The Prime Minister put one figure on it, but the nation has not been told whether the calculation was on the retail price or on the f.o.b. price of petrol coming into this country.

The second question is, What has become of all the petroleum from the sterling area? I think that the Fleet was fuelled at Alexandria, Port Said and Haifa during the war with oil from our own area. I am certain that all the petroleum needed for the Eighth Army was found in our own area. We seem to hear nothing about that in these days. I would like to ask the Government whether it would not be sounder economically and commercially to expend capital on tankers to bring our own oil into this country, without any regard to the dollar situation. I would ask them whether that equation has been solved.

10.12 p.m.

No one who has a rural area in his constituency can fail to appreciate that the abolition for the time being of basic petrol will inconvenience many people. On the other hand, it displays a certain lack of proportion to suppose that amusement and recreation will be provided for all, or even for the majority, of the members of a rural community if basic petrol is restored for those who happen to have cars in that community. There are many humbler people who are anxious to have some amusement and recreation which, for obvious reasons, they will be unable to get in that way. Those who represent rural constituencies represent those humbler members of it just as much as they represent the owners of motor cars. Obviously the stoppage of basic petrol is a dollar economy; £7,500,000 has been given as an estimate of the saving effected by it.

For the purpose I am pursuing now, it does not matter whether it is the delivery price or the f.o.b. value; it is the total saving estimated by the Ministry. I desire to emphasise the point, which appears to have been overlooked by hon. Members opposite, that the gap between imports and exports has been running at the rate of £600 million a year.

If every person who is affected by one or other of these dollar economies were to have his way and to get back the particular economy which happened to hit him, what would be the result? It is perfectly obvious. We must get from the United States the necessary imports—and I mean the necessary imports. I take as instances wheat and cotton, both necessary, for which we depend upon the United States. The effect of giving back this or that economy to this or that particular class of persons for their particular form of amusement or recreation, would be to deprive their fellow countrymen of that amount of food and raw material.

Take cotton. Is it seriously suggested that the mills of Lancashire should be stopped and unemployment brought into that area again solely in order to restore basic petrol? Why should basic petrol have preferential treatment when we are short of paper for books? Why should motorists complain that they are the only people who have been affected by a total cut when many humble people who wished to take their holidays abroad have been similarly affected by a cut. It seems to show a sublime disregard for the national interest to regard this cut as something which calls for particular mitigation or something which ought to be given back because some part or another of the community has to take its share of the common burden. It is disregard of the national interest, because the effect of what is being asked in this and similar cases would, on the figures which have been given, allowing for any margin one likes, inevitably be depriving this country of sheer necessities.

Would the hon. and learned Gentleman not agree when he talks about the sheer necessities that dollars might just as well be saved by not buying grapes as by not buying petrol? Does he not think we could save money with less hardship to the country by not buying these surplus things that we do not really want?

That economy has already been made, and that and all other economies are obviously necessary at the moment when the gap has been running at the rate of £600 million a year. I am tempted to think that hon. Members opposite cannot count above some figure or other. I do not quite know what it is. I wish they would use their imagination a little and consider the magnitude of the gap which has to be met. This is no new matter. It is something which was troubling, and seriously troubling, those who gave thought to it—and there were many of them—even before the war, at a time when we had foreign investments and when loans and a certain amount of international credit were easier than they are today. The situation at the end of the war arises from things which, as has already been said today, have been growing for generations. As a result of the world war a crisis has come with a suddenness and a gravity which ought to be an invitation to all responsible and patriotic people to take their share of the nation's burdens and not to seek either some special relief or some special political advantage by making capital out of a matter which obviously at the moment will inconvenience some people.

It is fatally and dangerously easy for people to go up and down this country and say that this, that or the other should be restored. Of course, they will appeal to some class of the community. It may be a numerous class. What are they really doing? They are at the moment really making political capital out of difficulties, which affect the country as a whole, raising a cry which means that the majority of the people of the country, depending as they do on certain necessary imports of food and raw materials, will be sacrificed unnecessarily to restore, to quote an hon. Member, "the amusement and recreation" of what is, after all, a smaller body than the whole mass of the population. No one here would wish basic petrol not to be restored if it were possible to do it without damage to the community, but to say at this moment that it can be done seems to show a blindness and lack of proportion which throw little credit on those who make the suggestion.

One hon. Member suggested that some special use might be made of petrol from the Middle East. I would call his attention to this: subject to questions of transport, it comes to exactly the same thing whether you bring your petrol home from the Middle East and use it here, or whether you sell it for dollars in the United States, and with those dollars buy petrol from across the Atlantic. Petrol at the moment is dollars, it is an international commodity and it is as good as dollar notes for all purposes.

In that connection I would call the attention of the House to some figures which were given recently in "The Times." Those figures show a considerable increase, I think of 20 per cent., in the oil imports into this country. The increase is for an object which I feel confident must appeal to all Members of the House. It is a necessary and desirable part of the fuel programme that conversion to oil should take place as far as possible. For that purpose additional imports of oil are required, and the result at present is that additional imports of oil are coming into this country. If basic petrol were to be restored, one incidental result would be to lessen the imports of oil for the purpose of conversion to oil burning in place of coal.

Is the hon. and learned Member suggesting that it is still the policy of the Government that fuel oil shall be used for steam raising in the factories and mills?

I have no more right to speak for the Government than has the hon. and gallant Member for Antrim (Major Haughton) but I remember perfectly well that in the White Paper on the Economic Situation of the country, conversion to fuel oil was rightly described as a necessary saving of fuel, and surely it is obvious to any one that conversion to oil fuel, where it can reasonably and practically be done, is an economy in the coal which we so sorely need both in the factories and in the homes of this country. Those who urge that basic petrol should be restored at the expense of cutting imports of oil fuel are thereby in effect demanding that people shall have less coal next winter, for that would be the effect of substituting imports of basic petrol for imports of fuel oil for the purpose of conversion to oil fuel.

If this were a possibility it might be discussed further, but we all know perfectly well that the tanker tonnage available for the transport of oil and petrol is, so far from being any larger, rather smaller than it was before the war. At the moment we are finding the greatest difficulty in getting across the oil and the petrol needed for absolutely essential purposes, and if basic petrol is to be restored at the moment, then it must be at the expense of fuel oil for industry. I appeal to all those hon. Members who are concerned both with the provision of fuel both for industry and for our own domestic needs, to reflect on what they are doing when they urge in effect that imports of oil should be restricted and basic petrol imported instead. I believe I am in Order in turning to a completely different subject. As far as I am aware there is no fixed subject for this Adjournment.

The Minister is funking it. He has got no case.

On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. The House would appreciate your guidance on a particular matter which arises from what has been said by the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison). As you know, notice had been given by the hon. Member for Upton (Mr. A. Lewis) that he proposed for the second time to raise on the Adjournment this evening the dispute I believe he is waging with the Savoy Hotel. I understand this is the second occasion on which he has given notice, but for some reason he has not been present to take the Adjournment. In view of the importance of the Adjournment, in particular to back benchers, I would ask you whether there are no means of preventing in future any possibility of that very valuable Adjournment being to a considerable extent wasted owing to an hon. Member not being present to take it.

Further to that point of Order, I approached Mr. Speaker just before the Adjournment and said that I desired to speak on the subject of the Savoy strikes, and he notified me that as the Minister was not present, there was no case to answer, and I could not raise the matter.

That is not a point of Order. In reply to the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), the position is that if the Adjournment is not taken by one hon. Member, it is in the province of another hon. Member to raise a further subject, and the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) did so.

Further to that point of Order. I am not reflecting on my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin), who acted with great initiative. The point is that this is the second time the hon. Member for Upton has put the House in this position, and I was asking whether any protection could be given to hon. Members to prevent a repetition of this.

That is not a matter for me. The Adjournment has been taken, and consequently the time has not been wasted.

The hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) was raising the question of saving 7¼ million dollars. Is he aware that the importation of pears has been 1¼ million pounds?

With great respect, may I point out that it is highly undesirable that there should be a case like that of the hon. Member for Upton (Mr. A. Lewis), who has twice failed to turn up, and when other hon. Members are allowed to raise a matter on the Adjournment, it is very difficult to get any reply from any Minister?

It is quite obvious that if no notice is given to a Minister, an answer cannot be given.

I thought I was being accused of talking out the Adjournment Motion—[An HON. MEMBER: "You were."] The question raised by the hon. Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling) has already been answered. The last matter I wish to raise is a matter entirely unconnected with basic petrol; it is the question of village colleges. Although we are concerned tonight with matters related to the rural areas, I notice with some amusement that hon. Members opposite are so interested in the subject that they show a certain reluctance to discuss the progress of education in village colleges. Recently I had occasion to take some educational experts over village colleges——

On. a point of Order, I understood your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to be that if there was no Minister present to reply to a particular point, it was not possible for an hon. Member to raise it.

The hon. Me Tiber entirely misunderstood me. I said that we could not expect a reply from a Minister unless he had been notified.

If I may be allowed to proceed with the question of village colleges, I feel that at the moment there is some risk——

It being Half-past Ten o'Clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.