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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 972: debated on Monday 29 October 1979

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asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on his policy on gas collection and flaring.

I refer the hon. Member to the announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 5 July about a feasibility and design study being made by the British Gas Corporation and Mobil North Sea Limited of a new gas gathering system. Restrictions on gas flaring are kept under review in the light of all relevant factors including the oil supply situation. In the case of the Brent field, the gas flaring consent for the next three months will restrict oil production by up to 1 million tonnes in order to reduce the level of gas flaring.

I congratulate the Minister on the decision to curtail oil production in the Brent field in order to save gas. Is he aware that through the failure of the previous Administration to face the international oil companies in respect of wastage about £1,000 million worth of natural gas has been wasted? Will he explain the Government's proposals for gas collection by way of other pipelines to make sure that gas is available not only for the national grid but for petrochemical developments to ease the employment situation in Scotland?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. Until the result of the survey being carried out by the BGC and Mobil is known it is difficult to elaborate further. However, flaring this year is running at an average daily rate of 668 million cu. ft., which represents about 15 per cent. of gas supplied by the BGC annually. In oil equivalent terms, it is equal to about 7·5 per cent. of United Kingdom production in the first eight months of this year. It is a serious situation and the Government are monitoring it carefully.

Can the Minister explain how such a situation has been allowed to arise? The fact that 7½ per cent. of our total North Sea output is being burnt sounds a scandal beyond description.

The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that the line is narrow. If the Government had decided to impose restrictions on flaring at an earlier date, there would have been a danger that the oil supply situation would be adversely affected.

My hon. Friend is aware that 17 per cent. of the gas available from the North Sea is flared. He referred to the Mobil pipeline. When that has been completed, what will the figure be reduced to? If that line is not built, will he make the gas available to third parties who may be able to use it?

My hon. Friend will appreciate that until the result of the survey is known it is difficult to make positive predictions. However. I assure him that when the result is published the Government will consider carefully what is the best course to follow.

Does the Minister agree that the present situation may be a good deal worse than he has suggested? Can he confirm that the amount of gas flared in recent weeks has been the equivalent of about one-third of total gas consumption inland? In view of that serious evidence of profligacy, may we have a far firmer and clearer assurance from the Minister, and far firmer and more decisive action to stop this frittering away of essential assets?

The hon. Gentleman is hardly being fair. The Government have taken positive steps at every opportunity to deal with the situation, and it will be watched on a continuing basis.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy whether he will consider an overall strategy for reducing energy imports.

The Government's review of overall energy strategy will include the question of the optimum balance between imports and indigenous energy supplies.

What action is proposed on the NCB's request for investment in the phurnacite plants in Aberamon in Aberdare to produce smokeless fuels for the Ancid process? Would it not be ridiculous to import smokeless fuel when we can produce it ourselves? Has the Secretary of State received representations from the NUM in South Wales about the large imports of coking coal into South Wales, where 15,000 to 17,000 tons are being stockpiled each week?

I am satisfied that the NCB has submitted a report to my Department. That is being studied. I cannot say more at the moment. I recognise the concern on coking coal. The British Steel Corporation and the NCB have been asked to engage in close discussion about their mutual requirements, and this they are now doing. They are reaching a view which I hope will be to the benefit and interest of both industries. When they have reached that view they will put it to the Government. We shall look with open minds at the needs that arise from their proposals.

Can the Secretary of State say why, when Britain has the most developed coal industry in Western Europe, we are having to import coal to sell to the Central Electricity Generating Board? Is it true that productivity is being damaged by the fact that machine time underground is reduced by 30 per cent. because of mechanical failure?

On the last point, that is not entirely so. Face productivity is up sharply—I think by 8 per cent.—on the year. There were some component shortages arising from the engineering strike last month, but I think that the picture that my hon. Friend paints is not entirely fair. On the question of overall imports, we have had a very cold winter, and we need all the coal that we can get—all the coal mined in Britain. There is also bound to be a need for some imports. We had a cold winter, and we are bound to need all the coal that is available.

Will the Secretary of State bear in mind that the output from British mines is higher than ever before, considering the number of men working in them? Output per manshift is increasing. We have never produced so much coal as we are doing at present, taking into consideration the manpower level. Will the Secretary of State consider the ridiculous situation that he mentioned, namely, that British Steel is importing subsidised coking coal into this country, to the detriment of the mining industry? Does he not consider that we should subsidise our coking coal, as the Europeans are doing?

I have explained the position on coking coal to the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend. I do not think that I have anything to add. With regard to the overall performance of the industry, we want to see a new coal industry built out of the old. That is our need for the future. It must, however, be on a competitive basis, as I am sure everyone in the industry recognises.

Fuel Supplies

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what recent representations he has received from the National Farmers Union about the energy crisis.

I received a number of approaches during July and August from the National Farmers Union and its branches stressing the importance of ensuring that adequate fuel supplies were available for harvesting.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but will he confirm that there were hiccups, particularly in my part of the country, during harvest time? Will there be adequate consultation between his Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if the energy crisis that we experienced earlier this year should be repeated?

I confirm to my hon. Friend that at that time there was the closest co-operation between the Department of Energy and the Ministry of Agriculture. I also confirm that, although there may have been a number of local shortages, the situation was kept carefully under control and there were no serious shortages during the harvest.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the grave concern in rural Wales and in other parts of Britain that half of the petrol stations in the rural areas would close if the oil companies' rationalisation programme were implemented. What plan has the Minister to make sure that petrol filling stations will not close?

This matter has caused my Department considerable concern. We have had meetings with the companies about it. My Department has received assurances from the oil companies that, for the time being, they will continue to supply existing outlets which wish them to do so while they look for alternative sources of supply. This should help to safeguard the supply position in rural areas. The two leading companies concerned have also given my Department an assurance that, if local stations continue to find difficulty in obtaining supplies, where there is no alternative filling station within a reasonable distance they will enter into further talks with the stations concerned to try to overcome the problem.

Is the Minister aware of the difficulties experienced by farmers in the East Midlands area in obtaining agricultural fuel? Is he satisfied with his Department's arrangements to assist them? Does he propose any immediate changes?

No immediate changes are proposed. The arrangements made by the Department of Energy during the harvest proved satisfactory. The Government are continuing to have consultations with the companies on the whole question of the supply situation. I am glad to tell my hon. Friend that the situation, so far as we can assess it in the meantime, is satisfactory.

Pressurised Water Reactors


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate has concluded its investigation into the safety aspects of the pressurised water reactor; and if he will make a statement.

The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive has completed a generic safety review of the PWR system. Any proposal to construct and operate a commercial PWR in this country will be subject to detailed consideration by the inspectorate, which will be carried out in the light of the generic review. The Health and Safety Executive would not grant a licence for a PWR unless it was satisfied that the reactor could be operated safely.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of us who support the steady expansion of the British nuclear industry are alarmed at the apparent conversion of his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the American pressurised water reactor? Is he aware that those of us who support the British nuclear industry, based on British technology, would campaign against the massive introduction of PWRs into this country? Will he publish the report?

The position on the choice of reactor system is as it was before. We have the further advanced gas-cooled reactors to build, and licensing arrangements for the PWR are still being actively explored and pursued by the parties concerned, mainly the CEGB. Nothing has been finally settled. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the report. If he is referring to the generic safety review, which was a report to his right hon. Friend in July 1977, I understand that a short version has been published. A slightly longer version is available on request from the Health and Safety Executive.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many hon. Members on this side of the House deplore the Little Englander attitude adopted by those on the Labour side over the AGR? We would welcome a decision by the CEGB to make a series order for PWR reactors.

I note my hon. Friend's view. I think that we have to await the views of the main customer, the CEGB. and also the SSEB. When they come forward with their views it will be possible to make a decision.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the most important priority is to ensure that the AGRs that have already been ordered are constructed to time and cost, and that all this uncertainty and press speculation about the PWR does not help the AGR? Will he reassure the House that, if any decision is taken to go for PWR, this will be subject to a wide-ranging public inquiry, in which the whole issue of a comparison between AGR and PWR could be brought out, and not simply to a limited planning inquiry?

It is immensely important to get on with the present programme of the advanced gas-cooled reactor. That is one reason why there is a need, after some neglect in the past, to strengthen the nuclear construction industry in this country. As to the future, it is premature to take a view on what the choice of reactor will be. I have explained that nothing has been settled. When a choice is made, and if the CEGB wishes to build a nuclear reactor, there will have to be full consents, licensing and planning inquiries. All that will follow.

But will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the generic report on the PWR reached me in 1977, that since then we have had the Three Mile Island episode with a PWR, that there are now widespread reports of cracks in the PWR pressure vessels in France—confirming everything that Sir Alan Cottrell said—and that there has been a major leak at Windscale, on which we are still awaiting a full report, in which 20,000 gallons of unconcentrated high toxic waste were released into the ground? Before any major statement is made will the right hon. Gentleman disclose all the documents relating to those three episodes, so that the House and the country can determine whether an accelerated programme is desirable at all, and particularly whether the PWR is safe?

I cannot comment on what the right hon. Gentleman calls the "widespread reports" about matters in France, because those are matters for the French Government. As to the American situation, the Kemeny report to the President is about to appear. When that appears, I am extremely anxious to see that all relevant reports and all discussions and analyses of the Harrisburg incident are set before the House and the public, so that there can be full discussion. I fully recognise the need for that. As for the Windscale leak, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate is still conducting its inquiry into that matter.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the British public have great confidence in the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, which is probably more advanced and more definitive in its requirements than any form of nuclear inspectorate in the world? Secondly, will he ensure that in any negotiations for a PWR—if that should be approved and be the wish of the Government—the Government will ensure that there are no restrictions in any licence granted to this country about British production for export, and that if we were to produce PWRs we would be able to go into the export market with them in order to obtain greater work from overseas for our nuclear industry?

The second point is looking rather far ahead and assuming that decisions will be taken which have not yet been settled. However, we have everything to be proud of in regard to safety and the record of the NII. These are standards that have been maintained, and must and will be maintained in future. Of course safety is paramount without a doubt.

With respect to the proposal to build a further nuclear reactor on Severnside, is the Minister aware that last Friday night in my constituency there was a well-attended meeting which expressed wholehearted opposition to this project on environmental and safety grounds? Will he try to ensure that the Government change their nuclear strategy, especially in the light of the abundance of coal in this country?

No proposal has been put to me about building a nuclear power station on this site, so it would not be right for me to comment on the matter.

We were seven minutes on that question. We shall have to take less time on the rest.

Fuel Supplies


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement regarding the supply of fuels for the coming winter.

Given average weather and no external interruptions in production or supply I do not foresee any general difficulty in meeting our fuel requirements this winter. However, the need for exercising the maximum restraint in our energy consumption remains as important as ever.

Does the Minister realise that that answer will be looked on by the public as somewhat complacent, in that we are once again in the hands of the weather? The answer implied that Britain's energy requirements will be on a knife edge again in the forthcoming winter. Has his right hon. Friend done what the Secretary of State for Industry has done—written to those chairmen of nationalised industries for whom he has a responsibility on the subject of wage restraint? If not, how does the hon. Gentleman expect to overcome some of the problems that could happen in the coming winter, given the nature of our close balance of energy requirements?

Happy though I am to think that everything happy happened on 3 May, total control of the weather was not one of those things. However, the weather, as happened under the previous Administration, has an impact on fuel supplies. My Department, in common with other Departments, has excellent relations with the nationalised industries.

Is my hon. Friend aware that for many people living in rural areas the supply of petrol for their cars is threatened by the aim of some of the major oil companies to close rural petrol stations? Is he aware that some of us think that the oil companies are abusing their powerful position by doing this? Will he tell them that if they want the Government's co-operation it would be helpful if they would at least understand this view, which many of us express on behalf of our constituents?

Although one can appreciate people's concern, I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the earlier remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister of State about the specific assurances that have been received from the oil companies on this important issue.

Can the Minister assure us that although supplies might be adequate now they will not suddenly dry up in the first week of December before the OPEC meeting so that those who are sitting on the stocks can make a killing, as they did last June? If they do that again, what action will he take?

It does not help people's concerns and worries about supplies of fuel this winter when, as in any winter, the weather cannot be guaranteed in advance, to encourage fear on the subject. Fuel supplies are adequate to meet the conditions which one could normally expect this winter.

National Union Of Mineworkers


asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he expects next to meet the president of the National Union of Mineworkers.

No date has been fixed for my next meeting with Mr. Gormley, but I should be glad to see him at any time.

When Arthur Scargill speaks of us having sufficient coal to last for 1,000 years, compared with the usual estimate of 200 or 300 years, does that mean that he has discovered fresh deposits that were previously unknown or that he foresees a much lower rate of depletion than at present? What prospects can the president of the NUM himself offer for the production of coal reaching target levels in the immediate future?

We should recognise the enormous deposits of coal that we have and the extremely good job that the mining industry—both union members and the NCB—has done, especially this winter, to ensure that massive movement of coal has taken place, in adidtion to the coal being produced. Consumption for the 29 weeks to 21 October was 44·08 million tons, as opposed to 39·61 million tons for the same period last year—a massive improvement and an indication of the size and quality of our coal resources.

Will the Minister take into account the fact that we still have 300 years' supply of coal? Will he bear it in mind that the Government's policy, which evidently is for a tremendous increase in nuclear power, should not interfere with the future of the mining industry?

We must not forget that coal is underground and we need to produce it profitably. That is in the interests of all parts of the industry. Government policy on energy strategy relies on a successful coal industry as well as a successful nuclear and conservation policy.

Departmental Organisation


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what specific steps he has taken in the six months since he assumed office to eliminate waste in his Department.

My Department is participating fully in the various economy exercises which the Government have initiated. These include identifying options for reducing staff and related costs, contributing a study for Sir Derek Rayner's current exercise, and an examination of the councils and committees advising my Department, as well as a continuous inspection programme of existing staff posts.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. What does BNOC actually do that taxation of the oil companies could not do? As part of his attempts to identify costs, will my right hon. Friend give the approximate administrative cost of keeping in existence this brainchild of the previous Secretary of State?

To set out the full range of duties and activities of the British National Oil Corporation, Mr. Speaker, would trespass too much on your patience. However, the Government have described their plans for the future of BNOC. They include the attraction of private capital into the support of the corporation, which to that extent must reduce the burden of public funds. As to the administrative details of the corporation, I ask my hon. Friend to refer to the chairman of BNOC. As he knows, a new appointment has just been made to that post. I am very pleased indeed to have Mr. Ronald Utiger as the new transitional chairman for a period during the months ahead, when we shall be putting the BNOC on a new and more constructive footing to meet our requirements.

Commissioner Brunner


asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he expects next to meet Commissioner Brunner.

I expect to meet Commissioner Brunner at the next meeting of the EEC Energy Ministers, which is expected to take place in December.

Will the Minister explain why, pre-tax, premium petrol is 65p per gallon in Britain, 48·5p in Italy, 57·5p in France and 60p in the Federal Republic of Germany? Why should there be those differences?

The hon. Gentleman has quoted from a recent answer given by my Department, but prices are changing all the time and the differences are considerable within the different countries. If he considers the position after tax, he will find that at the pumps in the forecourts—and this is what matters to consumers—our prices are now among the lowest in Europe.

Does the Minister agree that it is part of his responsibilities to ensure that there is not an undue degree of profitability? In the summer, when prices were raised to exhorbitant figures, was there not a 27 per cent. decrease in Italy for regular petrol and a 12 per cent. decrease, on average, in other Community countries for premium petrol? Does not that totally justify our allegation that there was an unfair rip-off of prices both by the oil companies and the dealers? Can the Minister justify the substantial differences between the United Kingdom and the other EEC countries?

He does not need to justify any such thing. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman does any motoring. If he had been out and about he would have noticed that prices are being cut in some garages as competition does its work. Competition is the best protector of the customer and is helping him at present.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I hope to raise this matter on the Adjournment.



asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will state his estimate of the rise in the price of paraffin following the removal of price controls.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement about the price and supply of paraffin, with regard to the effects on elderly people and others on low incomes.

Following decontrol in July, premium paraffin prices have risen by 25 to 30 per cent. to reflect crude oil price increases and to restore retail margins. I am assured that the overall supply position is adequate to meet normal demand this winter.

Is the Minister aware that even the conservative estimate that he gave well exceeds the average rate of inflation and the proposed increase in welfare benefits for this winter? Now that, as a result of a happy accident, the hon. Gentleman has had an opportunity to reflect on his policy on this matter, will he take note of the point made in last week's debate that a large number of elderly and disabled are dependent upon paraffin for their heating? Will he at least give them a transitional period in which to adjust before he brings back the order that was responsible for the increase?

The events of last Wednesday were the result of procedural confusion. I do not believe that they truly and fairly reflected the will of the House. The Government accordingly propose to give the House a further opportunity to consider paraffin price control. An announcement will be made in due course.

Is the Minister aware that thousands of tenants are trapped in high-fuel-cost dwellings, with no fireplaces? Their only solution in the past was to use paraffin. Now that the Government are taking that away as a cheap fuel, will the Minister make available a programme to put fireplaces back into these dwellings so that people may burn wood or anything else that they can scrounge if they are disconnected by the gas or electricity boards? Or is he determined to disconnect all fuel from those houses?

The important point that has escaped the attention of the hon. Gentleman is that if these measures had not been taken there would have been a serious danger that the number of suppliers would have dwindled so rapidly that no paraffin would have been available for those who needed it.

Is the Minister aware that as a result of the confusion several hundred retailers and small business men are liable to a fine of £400 under the energy legislation? May we press him further on what he intends to do about the situation? Will he have second thoughts and bring in some form of subsidy or control giving a reasonable profit to retailers, without leaving the matter to the free market?

The hon. Gentleman has a weakness for trying to create trouble where trouble does not exist. The significance of last Wednesday's vote is that the Government are obliged to revoke by order the Paraffin (Maximum Retail Prices) (Revocation Order) 1979. That will be done at the earliest opportunity. Until then paraffin prices will not be controlled.

Given the Minister's incompetence the other night in failing to confirm the paraffin price rise, would it not be a good idea, for the protection of the British people against inflation, if he were put in charge of price increases?

Oil And Gas Exploration


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he is satisfied with the current level of oil and gas exploration activity in United Kingdom waters.

The Government were not satisfied with the position they inherited and have begun the task of recreating the conditions which will encourage drilling. They have removed certain arrangements introduced by the previous Administration which discouraged exploration. We are confident that the industry will respond to those initiatives. Indeed, there have been encouraging signs in recent months of growing interest in drilling activity.

I congratulate the Government on the success of their policies in encouraging exploration, which I believe is about 65 per cent. up this year on 1978. Does my hon. Friend recognise that this accelerates a much bigger problem—that of facing up to the measuring out of precious oil and gas resources? At the present rate, when will oil and gas production start to decline? Are the Government satisfied with that? If not, what will they do about it?

On present estimates, we should be self-sufficient and, indeed, a net exporter, throughout the 1980s. The Government are continuing to monitor the situation. The question of depletion is very much in the mind of the Government. We are examining the question. Indeed, the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) at the beginning of Question Time today was significant on the question of the serious attitude that we take on the subject.

Is the Minister giving the House an assurance that we shall continue to produce oil throughout the 1980s at a rate in excess of 2 million barrels a day? Is he aware that if we accelerate the exploration rate there will be a serious deficiency in Britain's oil drilling capacity? That will produce a situation in which we shall be paying American companies across the exchanges. When will the Government ensure that there is a British drilling company with muscle in operation in the North Sea?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises that there has been a decided upturn of interest in drilling. Exploration wells drilled over the past four months numbered 13, compared with only seven in the corresponding period last year. The Government are aware of the present situation and are having talks from time to time with those who might be interested. However, these are matters for commercial judgment in which the Government do not wish to interfere.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Wood Mackenzie report supports his analysis, and that due to the higher price of oil and the more favourable terms for licences more work is likely to be done in the North Sea?

I accept what my hon. Friend says. The Government have set up a committee to examine the question of the marginal fields. That could be beneficial in the long term.

Is the Minister aware that an oil depletion policy is becoming increasingly important? The problem is that it is becoming more realistic to keep part of that oil under the North Sea than to allow it to boost our foreign exchange earnings and create the disadvantage of our becoming a petro-currency, to the disadvantage of British industry and the exports that we expect from it?

The Government are fully aware of that situation and are taking steps to overcome the problem. It is amazing to hear from a Treasury Minister in the previous Government that they took such a long time to realise that.

Coal Industry


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what has been the increase in labour productivity in the coal mining industry over the most recent 12-month period for which figures are available.

Productivity measured in terms of overall output per man shift was 2·27 tonnes in September 1979 compared with 2·18 tonnes in September 1978, an increase of 4 per cent.

Does my hon. Friend expect productivity in the coal industry to continue to increase in the next 12 months? If so, will he give an estimate of by how much?

It is difficult to give figures for the next 12 months. I am happy to say that over the past 13 weeks, for the period ending 13 October, overall output per man shift increased by 3 per cent. The industry should be commended for that increase. Beyond that I should draw a distinction between face and overall output per man shift productivity. Face productivity over the past full year increased excellently—by 7·8 per cent.

Does the Minister agree that if there is to be increased productivity there must be increased investment in the industry? Is it not true that Britain is lagging behind France, Belgium and West Germany? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that West Germany is investing over £1 billion in privately owned industry in Germany, whereas we have invested only £100 million by way of subsidy?

I agree entirely with the proposition that the coal industry needs a great amount of long-term capital investment. I am delighted to say that that has occurred in the past. We expect it to occur in future. I take issue with the contention that our industry is under-invested compared with the industries of other European countries. The British industry is unique in enjoying a commitment on both sides of the House, and from previous Governments and the present Government, to long-term expansion and investment.

As productivity is allied to safety, and as the hon. Gentleman is the sponsoring Minister for the coal industry, may I ask what representations have been made to him about the Golborne disaster inquiry report? Is he aware that the inquiry was handled in such a way that the men became so incensed that the colliery suffered a complete stoppage for one day? Further, is the hon. Gentleman aware that Sid Vincent, the general Secretary of the North-Western area, has sent a letter of protest to the chairman of the Health and Safety Executive? Why was a press conference held two days before the coroner's inquest and — [Interruption.] This is a question of safety, and it is extremely important. Will the hon. Gentleman carry out an investigation? A proud record of union co-operation and safety has been damaged by apparent bureaucracy.

I share the hon. Gentleman's legitimate concern with safety, which is associated with long-term productivity in the industry. I take note of what he says and, as the sponsoring Minister, I shall be more than happy to investigate it.

Energy Policy


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will publish a White Paper setting out the energy policy of Her Majesty's Government.

Our energy strategy has been set out in a number of statements and speeches. I shall continue to expound the Government's thinking on the necessary policies to meet our energy problems. We shall keep under review the best way in which these can be presented most effectively to Parliament and the public.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it has been suggested in some quarters that the energy policy of the present Administration is not to have one? Is that comment accurate or otherwise?

I sometimes think that there is a tendency to confuse energy policy with merely writing down in hope a great many targets and figures for the future and imagining that one thereby has a strategy to meet them. That is not so. Our energy strategy consists of tackling vigorously, by a number of means, all the problems relating to energy matters, in a way that does not seem to have been done with much vigour in recent years.

Although it may not be necessary to have another White Paper at this stage, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is necessary to push forward with conservation measures to the greatest possible extent? Will he assure both sides of the House that the watchwords are still "Save it" rather than "Shelve it"?

I agree that conservation has a central part in our strategy. It is not the Government alone who can bring about the necessary conservation. As a nation we shall have to learn to make the most of energy and to maintain, and possibly to improve, our high living standards with a smaller growth in the supply of oil. That is the reality, to which all minds, including those of the Government and industry, must be directed.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a good deal of confusion in industry about his energy policy, especially the supply of gas to industry? Is he further aware that industry in my constituency and in others is being delayed because of the refusal by the British Gas Corporation to supply gas? That, in turn, is preventing jobs from being created.

As a result of doubts about oil there has been a considerable growth of interest in and demands for gas connections. I am aware that the hon. Gentleman has a problem in his constituency, involving an industrial estate. I understand that the developer gave undertakings that there would be gas connections and then found that the gas could not be supplied at short notice. That is inevitable. It is a problem for the developer, which in the instance to which I refer was the local authority.

Organisation Of Petroleum Exporting Countries


asked the Secretary of State for Energy whether he will seek to attend the next Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries meeting.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House why the United Kingdom is not eligible, if it is not, to become a full member of OPEC? If the United Kingdom could become a member, would not that be helpful, bearing in mind that we are now exporting certain grades of oil? Is my right hon. Friend aware that OPEC membership would enable us to take part in discussing future pricing policies with other OPEC countries?

The rules of OPEC are that applicants must not only be substantial net exporters of crude petroleum—which we are not—but have fundamentally similar interests to those of existing members. We do not satisfy either of those criteria. I recognise the argument that my hon. Friend is advancing, which is that we must have constructive discussions with OPEC members. As both a major producer of oil and a consumer, we are in a position to do that. I have attended a number of functions at which OPEC members have been present. I have had constructive and useful discussions with them. I intend to do more of that.

House Of Commons

Sub Judice Rule


asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will refer the issue of sub judice to a Select Committee on Procedure.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

When a Select Committee on Procedure is next appointed this matter will be within its scope.

Will the right hon. Gentleman take steps to refer the matter to the Committee? Is he aware that litigation on important issues of public policy should not be allowed to gag the House? Does he appreciate, for example, that the aftermath of the SPG action in Southall and the Blair Peach inquest prevent the House from discussing a range of issues that it should be able to discuss? There will be problems until the issue is finally solved. It is an issue which the recent Select Committee on Privileges, to whose sittings the right hon. Gentleman made such a notable contribution, failed to solve.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his latter remark. I am not unsympathetic to the important matter that he has raised. It is generally best to leave a Select Committee to decide its own priorities and programme of work. I have noted the hon. Gentleman's concern, and I shall ensure that any Committee is aware of it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, on the whole, the sub judice rule should be confined to criminal cases which attract juries and the very few civil cases which also attract juries?

I do not wish to define exactly the scope of the sub judice rule, which has extremely complex ramifications. Unlike my hon. Friend, I am not a practising lawyer but a retired academic lawyer.



asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when he proposes to bring forward a further motion implementing further recommendations of the Select Committee on Procedure.


asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what proposals for reform he plans to introduce to the House of Commons.


asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when he expects to announce the groups of recommendations which he expects to place before the House pursuant to the proposals in the report of the Select Committee on Procedure in the last Parliament.

There will be a debate next Wednesday on the Select Committee's recommendations on the organisation of Sessions and sittings and certain of those relating to Public Bill procedure, together with the outstanding reports of the Sessional Committees on Procedure.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he tell the House when he proposes to bring forward a motion supporting recommendation No. 71 of the Select Committee on Procedure, which is that on opposed specified business 200 Members must vote to suspend the Ten o'clock rule if a Division is called? As an increasing number of Select Committees will be meeting in the mornings, is not that recommendation especially important for those who are members of Select Committees? If they are to do their job properly, they will have to be bright and alert, and not up at all hours for four nights previously.

I do not wish to anticipate next Wednesday's debate. However, it is not the Government's intention to introduce such a motion. It is an issue that will have to be decided by the will of the House.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his reply. Does he agree that the form of the motions tabled for Wednesday might, with advantage, be adjusted? Has he specific plans for other groups of recommendations that he will bring before the House? Is he able to give us any indication when they might arrive?

The procedure that we have followed may not be ideal, but it was the procedure that we tried when the previous debate took place before the recess. It seemed to work satisfactorily on that occasion. As for further batches of measures, it is my intention, having had consultations with hon. Members on both sides of the House, to make further progress. In the few months that we have been in office we have proceeded with as much haste as could reasonably be required.

Did the right hon. Gentleman adopt the customary practice of consulting the Department of the Clerk of the House over the drafting of his motions? If he did not, is it accidental or intentional that two of them contradict each other?

I cannot answer the second part of the question, but of course I consulted the Clerk of the House on the drafting of the motions. All those who are customarily consulted on these matters were consulted, and the hon. Gentleman—who is an institution on procedure—while not being consulted on the drafting, was consulted on the issue.

Now that there are more Privy Councillors in the House than ever before, and since their number will dramatically increase as occupants of the present Treasury Bench are tested for competence and acceptability, would it not be appropriate for the Select Committee to consider or to clear up finally the question of Privy Councillors' privileges in this House?

As a comparatively new member of the Privy Council, I am not an enthusiastic advocate of cutting down whatever privileges they may have, but I understand that any position they may have in this House is a matter purely of convention and is not a rule of this House as such. As to the increase of Privy Councillors, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that some are gathered, while others are left behind.

Is it not a cause of concern to the Leader of the House that when we have our debate on Wednesday and come to a conclusion, there will be many right hon. and hon. Members who will not, on the vitally important issue of the procedure of the House, be allowed a free vote? Does he not think that disgraceful in this Mother of free Parliaments?

As I understand the position, it is clear that Members of the House will have a free vote. But if Government propositions are put down, one would expect that members of the Government would support them.

Parliamentary Papers (Printing)


asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will revive his earlier decision to continue the printing of the Official Report and the Order Paper and Notices of Motions by Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

In consultation with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Civil Service Department, I keep under continuous review the service provided by Her Majesty's Stationery Office. There are no plans at the present for any changes in the existing arrangements.

I regret that my right hon. Friend has not found it possible to give a different answer. Is he aware that in another place their noble Lordships charter out to private enterprise the responsibility for producing their papers? Will my right hon. Friend accept that total inconvenience can be caused to this House through reliance on a monopoly service that could so easily be given out to private enterprise?

No one is better aware than myself of the difficulties in which we are placed by this matter, but it would, I think, be premature to take such a radical decision as my hon. Friend suggests.

Scottish Select Committee


asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what progress has been made in the establishment of a Scottish Select Committee.

The hon. Member will have seen the motion which is now on the Order Paper.

Is the right hon Gentleman aware that in the course of the debate on Wednesday the opportunities for Scottish Members to put their points of view are likely to be restricted? Does he recognise that Scottish Members feel very strongly, for instance, that the size of the Scottish Select Committee should be much larger than is proposed by the Government and that its terms of reference should be much broader? In the circumstances, does he agree that it would be preferable to have a full-scale debate on this matter in the Scottish Grand Committee?

I shall consider what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I understand that it is the desire of the vast majority of Scottish Members that rapid progress should be made in this matter. The number is basically the same as for the other Select Committees.

Can my right hon. Friend say whether the proceedings of the Scottish Select Committee will be broadcast and televised, whether the meetings take place here or elsewhere?

Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider his answer? Much more important than speed is to get the right decisions. It is totally inadequate, is it not, for a Department covering about nine equivalent United Kingdom Departments to have a Committee of only 11? We would expect at least 21, and I would compromise on 17.

In all these matters I am in the hands of the House, but one has to start somewhere. If this number does not prove satisfactory, no doubt representations can be made for a change. I am also considering, in the inter-party talks on Scotland which are taking place, all kinds of reforms in procedure.

Information Services


asked the Paymaster General if he will make a statement on the working of the Government information services.


asked the Paymaster General if he is satisfied with the performance of the Government's information services.

It is the role of information divisions in Government Departments to provide a service of factual information and policy explanation to the media and to the public. In addition, they are responsible for the preparation and publication of a very wide range of official reports, together with leaflets and other publicity material, informing the public of the services available to them. With the help of the specialist divisions in the Central Office of Information, they also organise publicity campaigns on a number of issues such as road safety and energy conservation. The COI produces material to support the role of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British Overseas Trade Board in projecting British policies and British industry overseas. As to the quality of performance, I hope that I should never be completely satisfied with any institution which is capable of improvement. Of course there is room for improvement, and consultation with my ministerial colleagues and their officials is already producing results, but I am satisfied that the Government information services perform a difficult task with considerable skill and provide a helpful service.

Order. I am not sure whether the answers are getting longer or just seem to be longer.

I shall not attempt to match the length of the answer. On the first part of my right hon. Friend's answer, has he listened recently to BBC radio and heard the regular lurid accounts of the effects of the Government's so-called cuts, and noticed that there is never any attempt, apparently, to give the reasons why it is necessary to equate national expenditure with national income? Will my right hon. Friend either boost the information that he is sending out, or possibly make a couple of telephone calls to ensure that the facts do not just stop when they leave his office?

The question of who appears on BBC television or radio is a matter for the BBC. Representations are made to try to ensure that the balance is kept. Departments do everything possible to ensure that the information gets through.

Does the right hon. Gentleman feel that his Department is winning or losing the battle to con people into thinking that public expenditure cuts will not hurt millions of people?

I am certain that the public are beginning to understand what the Labour Party and the previous Government tried to conceal, namely, that if we are to control inflation it is necessary to control public expenditure.

In view of the considerable contribution made by the external services of the BBC in disseminating Government information, will my right hon. Friend say whether he is for or against the proposed cuts in those services?

That question should be addressed to Ministers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Because it is not my departmental responsibility. It is the responsibility of my noble Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. It would therefore be improper for me to pre-empt it.

Press (Meetings)


asked the Paymaster General when he intends to meet the press in his official capacity.

I do of course, as all Ministers do, frequently meet representatives of the media. Since it is my responsibility to ensure that the Government's information services provide the best possible service to the media and public, I am always open to approaches from any representatives who believe the service could be improved. But it is not part of my job to convene formal press conferences or hold briefing meetings myself.

In this matter of communication between the Government and the press, will the right hon. Gentleman and the Foreign Secretary review the arrangements at the Lancaster House talks and the propaganda effort that the Government are making in the media? Is he aware that it is quite unusual to use faceless civil servants to put forward the Government's point of view after each session of the conference? That is not the way in which things are normally done. According to our constitution, Ministers are meant to take responsibility for their actions. Will the right hon. Gentleman make sure that, in press releases and appearances on radio and the television, Ministers defend their actions rather than hand that responsibility over to people who are not available for scrutiny by this House?

I do not accept that it has always been the case that Ministers should conduct all press conferences and briefings. This has never been so. Foreign Office Ministers are always ready to explain their policies and what is happening at the conference. Inevitably, while they are occupied at the conference, some press briefings must be handled by information officers.