(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Power whether he is aware of the effects that the gas and electricity power cuts have now had on industrial firms and what action he is taking to remedy the situation.
The Minister of Power (Mr. Frederick Lee)
A number of firms in the area of the West Midlands Gas Board were asked yesterday to stop taking gas as a necessary measure in the interests of public safety. The Board is restoring normal supplies today, and all industry in the West Midlands should have full supplies for the night shift. The electricity boards were obliged in the late afternoons on Monday and Tuesday to disconnect some consumers in certain areas for short periods. Both the electricity and gas industries are making every possible effort to bring in the additional capacity which is currently being installed or overhauled and will thus be better able to deal with a repetition of severe weather and high demand later in the winter.
While thanking the Minister for the hope that he holds out at the end of the present crisis, may I ask him whether he is aware that gas supplies were cut off from the great Midlands motor car manufacturers without any previous warning in the middle of yesterday, thereby causing many thousands of men to be put off? Will he tell the House what was the cause of this and what steps he is taking to ensure that this situation is not repeated?
The cause was a major breakdown at Coleshill gas works and the late commissioning of new plant at Tipton, which meant that the West Midlands Gas Board was unable to cope with an increased demand of 40 per cent. It is not the case that firms were not warned; they were warned. Only when there was no response to that warning was it necessary to cut certain supplies.
Mr. Gresham Cooke
Could not the Electricity Generating Board import electrical current from Germany? The German factories close at four o'clock in the afternoon and, by their more efficient economy, there is surplus electrical power at four or five o'clock in the afternoon. Could not that be imported here?
No matter what expedients one resorted to now, one would still be faced with the fact that there was a shortage of investment a few years ago when the Conservative Party was in power which has never been made up. The position would be even better if hon. Members opposite would get their friends in private enterprise to honour the contracts and the dates of them.
Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a gas shut-down of this kind is much more serious nowadays than, for example, in 1947, because there are now so many gas-automated furnaces used in the engineering industry of the Midlands, some of which take two or three days to warm up again after such a shut-down, and that thousands of pounds worth of components will have to be thrown away and written off? Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether the gas boards will pay proper compensation to the firms concerned?
I cannot comment on compensation. I can promise a better performance than was done in 1962–63.
Will the Minister give a general direction to responsible boards and authorities to discontinue spending millions of pounds on encouraging members of the public to use appliances which are then not capable of being used because of these power cuts?
While I doubt whether I have power to intervene too far in this, may I say that I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says, and I will do what I can to be of assistance.
Sir J. Langford-Holt
The Minister mentioned a major breakdown and lateness in commissioning. Could he tell the House exactly what these two items were?
I said that there was a major breakdown at Coleshill gasworks and the late commissioning of new plant at Tipton.
Sir J. Langford-Holt
That is where— not why.
I must press the right hon. Gentleman on this. Does not he think that my hon. Friends and the rest of the House are entitled to a far more detailed statement of the causes of this very serious breakdown? He has made —I do not know with what backing— some aspersions about private enterprise concerns failing to keep to their contract dates. But do let us have full details about Tipton and about what happened at Coleshill. Does the right hon. Gentleman recall what his right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood) in January, 1963, namely, whether he was telling the people that whenever we had a few days' cold weather in January we should immediately be short of gas? May I now ask the right hon. Gentleman: since there is a great deal more plant in operation. provision for which was made by the previous Administration, what on earth will happen in January under this Administration?
The hon. Gentleman has good reason to know of the shortcomings to which I have referred. If he wants a list of the failures of private enterprise to comply with delivery dates, if he will put down a Question I will try to provide him with a full answer.
Mr. William Hamilton
Can my right hon. Friend say to what extent these cuts were due to failures of private enterprise to fulfil contracts? Were there default clauses in those contracts to provide for a situation such as this? If so, will my right hon. Friend ensure that they are fully implemented?
I could not give my hon. Friend details of a penalty clause. [HON. MEMBERS:"Why not?"] If hon. Members opposite are saying that the failures of private enterprise should be considered so endemic that we must have penalty clauses, I will accept that. But, as far as I know, there are no such clauses for this situation.
Mr. William Hamilton
Well, there should be.
Is the Minister aware that this is yet another deterrent to export orders and that we have had hundreds of unofficial strikes as well as the trouble at the docks? Is he taking this matter to Cabinet level, because it is terribly important?
If the Tory Government's record in exports were half as good as ours, our balance of payments situation would not be as bad as it is.
Several Hon. Members
Order. I suspect that there is matter for debate here. May we move on to the next business?