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Petrol Supplies (Easter Holiday)

Volume 462: debated on Wednesday 16 March 1949

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

10.19 p.m.

I desire to raise the question of additional petrol allowances for motorists at Easter. I shall be very brief, because what the Parliamentary Secretary is going to say will be more important than what I have to say. At any rate, I hope so.

I believe that an additional allowance of petrol for Easter would be very desirable for two main reasons. One is to assist the rather hard-pressed holiday and seaside resorts throughout the country to enable them to carry on in very difficult conditions at the present time, and the second is to give a great deal of pleasure to a great number of people. On the first point, I would say that I have received, as I am sure have many other hon. Members, tragic letters from hotel and boarding-house keepers, especially in some of the more remote holiday and seaside areas, because they have so little business. On the second point, about the pleasure for the people, I would draw the Parliamentary Secretary's attention to the fact that if an Englishman desires to have a motoring holiday in France he can get all the petrol he wants. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary is listening to my argument.

indicated assent.

He is a cleverer man than I because he can carry on a conversation and listen to somebody else at the same time. I suggest that as we are trying to encourage the tourist trade in this country, and as that trade cannot make the hotel and boarding-house keepers throughout this country prosperous by itself, we should try to give those people who wish to have their holidays at home sufficient petrol at holiday times.

For the benefit of hon. Members, I will explain the present position. I do not believe that many hon. Members know what a basic petrol ration book looks like. I have one in my hand. It is issued for six months from December to June, and, of course, the number of coupons contained in it varies according to the horse-power of the car. I realise that there would be administrative difficulties if it were proposed to double the value of the monthly coupons for say, April and May, because the coupons can be used at any time during the six months for which they are issued. As they were issued in December last year, that means that anybody who wanted to go on a spree with their petrol could have used the whole allocation during December or January. Therefore, I admit that there would be a hardship if the Minister now said he would double the value of the April and May coupons. That being so, I do not propose to ask him to do that. I shall try to show how, in my humble opinion, these administrative difficulties can be overcome. But first of all I wish to ask the Parliamentary Secretary one or two questions.

The Russell-Vick Committee obviously did a very good job which resulted in a considerable saving of petrol in this country. Would it be unfair to ask the Minister what that saving has been during the last three months owing to the introduction of red petrol? Could he give us the figure, on a monthly basis, if possible? I do not see why he should not give those figures because there is no security value attaching to the figures of the saving of petrol through the introduction of red petrol. Secondly—and here security may come into the matter—I would like the Parliamentary Secretary to say what are the present stocks of petrol in the country. I am informed that they are very high. I am informed—I would not say on high authority, because that would mean by somebody at the Ministry—that the Ministry of Fuel and Power are rather embarrassed by the amount of petrol which they have in this country at the present time and which could be used.

I was surprised to learn that there are only slightly over two million motorists in this country. About 1,300,000 or 1,400,000 of them get E coupons, or so I am informed. That leaves a balance of about 700,000 who do not manage to substantiate a claim for additional petrol. Whether they get E coupons or only the basic ration, all motorists are desperately short of petrol.

I will suggest to the Minister two alternatives for Easter and I am firmly convinced that either of those alternatives can be worked quite easily. Anybody who has been issued with one of these basic ration books keeps the book and, I understand he keeps the cover of the book afterwards, because it says on the book:
"This book is the property of His Majesty's Government."
I believe I am right in saying that even after he has used the coupons in the book every motorist keeps the cover. I suggest that it would be quite easy for the motorist to take his basic ration book to the Post Office, to have it stamped and to be issued either with another whole book, if the Parliamentary Secretary wishes to be really generous, or, if the Parliamentary Secretary does not want to be so generous, to be issued with a book with a certain number of coupons torn out, perhaps a half or one-third. I see no administrative difficulty whatsoever about that. If by any chance the motorist has lost the cover of his petrol coupon book he could take the log book of the car along so as to make sure that there is no wangling of black market petrol. That would be a simple procedure for the Post Office to handle. I am an admirer of the Post Office and I think they would agree to handle that proposition tomorrow if it were put to them by the Ministry of Fuel and Power.

I have a second suggestion to make which may be even better. This basic ration book lasts from December to June. That is all right as far as it goes. Why does not the Minister of Fuel and Power say, "I am prepared to issue the next six-monthly ration book on the 1st of April"? That would give the motorist a bonus of two months additional petrol for the holiday period. I see no possible administrative difficulty about that. I know the coupons are marked "month of April" or "month of May," and so on, but nobody takes any notice of that because he can use the petrol for the month of May in January.

But the licence period ends on 24th March and the ration book will not have been used up by then.

It is perfectly simple to get over the licence difficulty. The motorist must take the licence out. He would have to prove when he went along on 1st April—not a very happy day—that he had his licence for the following six months. I suggest that the next issue of the petrol ration books should be made on 1st April and should last for six months, until September. This should give every motorist two months' "buckshee" allowance of petrol in order to take a holiday. Obviously the next sixmonthly books have been printed. It is not beyond the wit of man to get these sent round to all the post offices and have them available for issue by 1st April. I regret to say that after tonight there are no important by-elections pending. I do not want to upset the Parliamentary Secretary, as I hope to get something out of him tonight, but the Minister of Food has not given us an Easter egg. He has delayed the de-rationing of sweets until after Easter, until 24th April. I know the Minister of Fuel and Power and the Parliamentary Secretary would like to make themselves the most popular chaps in the country today. I believe they would do so if they followed one of the two suggestions I have made.

10.32 p.m.

I would like to ask the Minister who is to reply if, in any concession he can make either at Easter or later in the Summer, he will bear in mind the special needs of rural districts. They have not the transport which the towns possess and the basic ration to them is worth much less than the same ration in towns. Better still, sweep the whole thing away—that would solve all he Minister's problems.

10.33 p.m.

I would like to say how grateful we are to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor) for bringing this question before the House. I should be glad if we could both go back to our respective constituencies of Eastbourne and Yarmouth and tell the people of these seaside resorts that they are going to have an influx of visitors during the Easter week-end. I would like to impress on my right hon. Friend on the Front Bench that we who represent the holiday resorts represent a great industry and that the oil that goes into the internal combustion engines of the small old cars, like the one I own, is the grease that makes the wheels of this business turn smoothly. The short period during which we can make our money begins at Easter and if we could get a little extra petrol at Easter that would let the holiday season start with the swing it needs. In the East Coast resorts the season is all too short. We know that we must go on having petrol rationing, that people should not have petrol to go gallivanting about; but the small people with cafés, restaurants, boarding houses and small hotels must get people to patronise them during these vital months. We know that the country is having a fight for dollars, but after all we are getting rid of austerity bit by bit, or should I say, by-election by by-election.

This is a vital question and we shall go on pressing the urgency of a decision of this kind as the months go by. I think if a bit extra could be given, it could be done without the difficulties mentioned by the hon. Member for Eastbourne. There is no need to go to the post office and make arrangements about new books. If the last two pages of the present ration book had a double value and motorists could use them during the six months, that would solve the question. Most of them are small people who do not get all their petrol in one burst in January. I feel that they do make it spin out. If they could have a hint that a favourable decision might be made, my constituents tomorrow would be cock-a-hoop.

10.35 p.m.

I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor) said. Just a year ago, I raised the same question on an Adjournment Debate. I would also particularly like to endorse what the hon. and gallant Member for Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) said regarding rural areas. The county from which I come, namely, North Devon, is one which attracts tourists but which is best served by road rather than by rail. Small parties or families can pack themselves into a little car and travel to one or other of the seaside resorts for a quarter of the cost charged to travel the same distance by rail. Therefore, I strongly endorse all the hon, and gallant Member has said.

10.36 p.m.

I have followed with great interest all that has been said on this matter. I am here tonight to talk only about petrol for Easter, and so I think I may as well be forthright at the beginning and say plainly that there cannot be any extra petrol for Easter this year. I am going to say why. I was intrigued by the ingenious administrative arrangements which the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor) thought it would be easy to put into effect. I am not sure that, if we took a line like that, we should find it as easy as the hon. Member suggests.

The hon. Member was right—and I think the hon. and gallant Member for Great Yarmouth (Squadron-Leader Kinghorn) was not correct—in saying that the standard ration book, which was issued and is available from 1st December to 31st May, may have been used up in its entirety by a large number of motorists. But even if only a few motorists had done so, it would still be an injustice that they should he left outside any increase in coupons towards the end of the rationing period. Therefore, it would not be possible to increase petrol for Easter while the present ration books are in operation. In any case, to have given extra petrol this Easter, it would have been necessary to make a decision in October. In October, I can assure the House, we looked at this question earnestly. We had to look at the estimates of savings and it was not possible when we considered those estimates in October to do anything about increasing the petrol ration for Easter this year.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne was anxious to have figures of savings. I am glad to give them to him. Monthly savings are not a good guide because variations take place from month to month for reasons which are fairly well known. But annual savings give a better estimate of the real position. When, in October, we looked at this position, we found the savings from the black market were running at the rate of 370,000 tons a year. That of course is an estimate. We gave the standard ration to those people who had no supplementary ration, because although the standard ration was given to every motorist it was in fact "docked" from those getting supplementary petrol. Many people thought that was a hardship. I have never felt that that was the case, and I have defended that position from this Box. Nevertheless, that took up 120,000 tons. Therefore, over our original estimate we were in fact saving 250,000 tons a year out of the black market, which shows how right our judgment was when we introduced the special Bill making a difference between commercial petrol and petrol for private use.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne asked about stocks. With great respect, I must say that obviously it is impossible to disclose petroleum stocks. It would be wrong to do so; certainly it would not be in the national interest. I can, however, assure him of this. The Government are not a bit embarrassed by large stocks of petrol; I only wish we were; the personal position of my right hon. Friend and myself would be better, and easier, if it was. Of course, there are lots of rumours about large stocks of petrol. We have, it is true, built up stocks, but we certainly are not embarrassed by large stocks of petrol. We had, therefore, this 250,000 tons a year, over and above the 120,000 tons we distributed in the form of the standard ration. We disposed of the 250,000 tons by arranging that, as from 1st May, the deduction of the standard ration from the supplementary issue would cease. That decision will, in fact, take that 250,000 tons. So we shall have distributed the whole of the 370,000 tons saved from the black market by the method of the standard ration over that period, and now, by giving everybody as from 1st May, the standard ration without deduction from their supplementary allowance.

We shall have saved, by 1st May, we estimate—and, of course, all these figures are estimates—some 200,000 tons from the black market, which we have not distributed. Hon. Members may well ask why we have not distributed that petrol. The answer is that, first, because there was the necessity to build up stocks for defence and other purposes; we have been, and still are, doing that. Secondly, the Berlin air lift has made inroads on our petrol stocks. But I am of the opinion, by and large, that we can say we have seen the end of the black market. There may, of course, be some small amount of black marketing, but it would be extremely difficult to stop that. Apart from this there is no other source from which we could begin, to distribute more petrol at this stage; except with that to which I have referred, and which we have used to build up stocks.

What have we done for the motoring public in Great Britain? First, there was no basic ration; we went from there to introduce the standard ration. It was small, but we introduced it, and that allowed 90 miles a month for all motorists from 1st June. Now, from 1st May, and this is the second step we make, there are allowances irrespective of the supplementary issues which are made. So that it will be seen that there is a steady improvement in the situation. The hon. Member for Bournemouth—[Interruption.]—I am sorry, because the hon. Member might have cause for complaint if I pursued that error; I should have said the hon. Member for Eastbourne, spoke about the number of registered vehicles on our roads. Our information is that there are two-and-a-half million, and that includes motor cycles, of which total, one-and-a-half million received supplementary allowances. So, from 1st May, one has a greater proportion of motorists who will be considerably advantaged by the issue additional to the supplementary allowances.

What hon. Members now want to know is, "What of the future?" This problem of petrol is not one which we are looking at from time to time, but one with which we are faced all the time. We are always giving very careful con- sideration to the question of petrol for industry and private users. We have had, and we continue to have, the very valuable assistance of the committee over which Mr. Russell Vick presides but we must, as a Ministry—and I am sure hon. Members will agree with this—be most careful when we are dealing with, after all, a substance which has a dollar aspect whatever the source of supply or for whatever purpose we use it. There is a dollar element all the time. Whether it comes from a sterling area or not we must take into consideration the economic situation of the country generally, especially when there is a dollar saving or dollar earning. Whenever those kind of things are involved we have to give the matter special consideration. All I can say, finally, is not very much, except to quote once more that famous remark of Mr. Asquith which he made, I believe, in 1910, when he said from this Box: "Wait and see."

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down will he indicate whether he will give some consideration to rural areas?

I can assure the hon. Member that we do consider very carefully the rural areas. I imagine that the proportion of motorists drawing supplementary allowances in rural areas will be considerably greater than in cities like London or provincial cities where there is much more public transport. All our regional petroleum officers act on the basis of the public transport that is available and I am sure he will find that a great many motorists draw supplementary allowances in rural areas and that they will be advantaged by the decision to take effect from 1st May, when they will have the standard ration in addition to supplementation.

Before the Parliamentary Secretary sits down may I say that I am very disappointed in him tonight. I know he did not have the advantage of knowing about these two ingenious schemes I put to him tonight but I hope that after the Debate is over he will study it to see if he cannot do something on those lines.

I can assure the hon. Member that after these debates I always study again very carefully in the OFFICIAL REPORT all that has been said and I undertake to read his speech once again. But I must confess from my own administrative experience that it is too easy to talk airily about the post office being able to do this and that. I would say: do not press me tonight but just wait and see. I think the House might be satisfied with that. I know it is not too palatable but if the House would he prepared to wait just a little longer then, if there is anything my right hon. Friend can do, he will come to this Box and announce it to the House and to the country.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twelve Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.