HC Deb 19 February 1947 vol 433 cc1185-90
The Prime Minister

I propose, with Mr. Speaker's permission, to make a statement on the fuel position.

The position has improved. In spite of the weather 3,747,700 tons of deep-mined and opencast coal was produced last week, which is 119,600 tons more than in the corresponding week a year ago. This reflects great credit on the miners. It is being moved by rail, sea and road, and stocks at power stations are slowly but steadily being built up. Those engaged in transport by rail, road and sea did very fine work, especially over the week-end, in moving a very large tonnage of coal under very hard conditions.

As I stated previously, it is the object of the Government to restore power for industrial production in each of the areas where it is now restricted at the earliest possible date. But the Government does not regard it as safe to do so until two weeks' stocks have been built up at the power stations in each area. The weather is still icy and the getting, loading and movement of coal is still difficult. The thaw, when it comes, may bring flood and fog.

If present restrictions on domestic and non-industrial use of electricity are rigidly maintained over the whole country, it is estimated that the consumption of coal at power stations controlled by the Central Electricity Board could be kept down to an average of 580,000 tons a week for the rest of the winter. At this level of consumption the Government expects that in tile Central England area, i.e., the Midlands, it will be possible to provide all stations except three with two week's stocks by tomorrow. At the three stations there will be a minor deficiency which can be made up during the week ending 1st March.

This position having been reached in the Central Area, the Government feel justified in allowing a general resumption of the use of power by industry in that area as from Monday next.

I am not yet in a position to make a statement about the other two areas, but the position is under daily review and I will inform the House as soon as I can announce the dates for the resumption of the supply of electricity for industry in either of those areas. I must repeat that the resumption of industry depends on fully maintaining the present restrictions on the use of electricity by domestic and non-industrial consumers.

Industrial undertakings in the central area will need information as to the expected deliveries of solid fuel in order to make production plans for the immediate future. They may expect to receive during the first two weeks after resumption 30 per cent. of the allocations of solid fuel which were in force prior to 20th January. Those undertakings which immediately before the electricity cuts were receiving assistance from the regional pool may expect to receive supplies on the scale then arranged. In individual cases where there are exceptional stock levels adjustment will be made on this account.

In order to avoid a recurrence of the frequent and unpredictable load shedding necessitated by the national shortage of generating plant capacity, it is desirable to spread the industrial load as much as possible by staggering the hours of work. This may raise difficult problems, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour and National Service has arranged to meet representatives of the two sides of the National Joint Advisory Council later this afternoon to discuss these questions with them.

The increase in unemployment over the figures I gave last Thursday in the regions where the use of electricity for industrial purposes has been restricted is estimated at about 310,000. There has been a net decrease of 230,000 in those unemployed who are not claiming unemployment insurance benefit. A comprehensive count of the insured persons registered as being unemployed is being taken today.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what reduction in coal consumption has been achieved since these cuts were imposed?

The Prime Minister

I am sorry I have not those figures with me, but I understand it is about 250,000.

Mr. Bowles

Can my right hon. Friend name the three places in the Midlands to which he referred and which are not going to be able to produce electricity for a little while longer? Will he consider the serious position arising from the shortage of generating plant, and ask the Government to consider stopping the export of generating plant for some years ahead?

The Prime Minister

I cannot give the names of those stations without notice. They are only just under the two weeks' supply, and they will be brought up to it. With regard to the other matter, the whole question has been very carefully gone into, but we have commitments in respect of the export of generating plant which we are not entitled to break.

Sir Arnold Gridley

Has the right hon. Gentleman considered that industrial establishments would much prefer that an effort should not be made to restore power too soon, but that it should be further delayed, and present conditions allowed to continue, rather than have a partial resumption with the danger of having to go back in two or three weeks' time to the conditions under which we are now suffering? Would it not be better to err on the side of caution rather than rashness?

The Prime Minister

I quite agree with the hon. Member. We have looked at this very carefully, and I am advised that it is safe to resume in the central area. I will notify the House when it is thought to be safe to resume in the other areas. I quite agree that it would be a great mistake to have to go back again, but on the other hand it is urgent that we should not allow people who can produce to be kept waiting just because of timidity. I do not want rashness and I do not want timidity; I am acting on the best advice available.

Major Poole

While assuring the Prime Minister that the announcement he has made will be very gladly received in the Midlands, may I put two points to him on the question of generators? Would he not agree that the position in those areas where current cannot at present be restored might be appreciably helped if many small firms could get possession of generators? While I am aware of the procedure which exists through the Minister of Supply, does not the Prime Minister agree that for very small businesses it is a definite hardship to ask them to purchase these generators, as they have not the necessary capital, and if they purchased them they might find them left on their hands in a fortnight's time—[HON. MEMBERS: "Speech."] Well, it is a very important point. Could not these surplus generators be made available on loan to industrial concerns, in order to ease the position and put many small firms back into production which at the present time are still idle?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. and gallant Member will let me know where these surplus generators are, and other particulars about them, I will have the matter looked into. As far as I know, we are taking all steps to get all effective generators into production.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in many rural areas the coal supply is non-existent, and villagers without any other alternative form of cooking are suffering great hardships? Can he hold out any hope that some provision will be made for supplies for these rural areas?

The Prime Minister

I am not quite sure whether the hon. and learned Member means supplies of coal or electricity.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

I mean coal, where neither electricity nor gas is available for cooking.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Everyone seems to be rising at once. Does the Prime Minister wish to reply?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. and learned Gentleman will give me information I will see what can be done. I am not aware of the cases.

Mr. Wilson Harris

Does the resumption in the central area mean that weekly periodicals will be free to appear next week?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir.

Mr. Eden

With regard to what the right hon. Gentleman had to say about the resumption of power for industry, can he also hold out any hope that—or give any indication of any date when—there may be some resumption for domestic purposes, particularly in the Midlands?

The Prime Minister

I am afraid I cannot say anything at present on that.

Mr. John Lewis

In order to avoid unnecessary unemployment on Monday next, would the right hon. Gentleman consider permitting industrial concerns to use electricity for lighting and auxiliary services 12 hours before the time of resumption?

The Prime Minister

I shall have to look into that. I could not answer a question like that offhand.

Mr. Austin

In view of the misleading estimates of fuel consumption given to the Government recently by the Central Electricity Board, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that in future there will be no misleading again on this matter?

Mr. Stanley Prescott

Even if the Prime Minister cannot give any definite date for any area except the central area—and I do not wish to press him too much—is it possible for him to give any forecast as to when other areas may get industrial electrical power, particularly the North-West?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I think it is better, when I make a statement to the House. that it should be a definite statement. I do not want to indulge in speculation, either optimistic or otherwise.

Mr. Wyatt

Can the right hon. Gentleman say, when the restrictions on electricity supply are removed from industry in the Midlands on Monday, what coal allocations will be in operation on the same date?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Member will read the statement he will see that point is covered.

Major Lloyd

Will the right hon. Gentleman recall, as the country will assuredly recall, that the Minister of Fuel and Power assured the House and the country that this crisis would not last more than five days?

Mr. Gallacher

You know he has done a good job.

Mrs. Castle

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that textile firms in Lancashire are very anxious to have a small allocation of power or fuel as soon as possible, in order to enable their preparation departments to get going, such as tape rooms and card rooms, ready for a general resumption? Would he bear that point in mind when deciding on the resumption?

The Prime Minister

That refers to another point. I will take the matter up.

Mr. Gammans

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the promise that he gave to the House last week in answer to a Question of mine, that adequate supplies of paraffin would be made available, has not been fulfilled, and that there is not more paraffin in the hands of dealers now than there was three weeks ago, so that they cannot satisfy their registered customers, let alone others who are in need of it for lighting or heating?

The Prime Minister

I understand that no complaints of that nature have reached my right hon. Friend the Minister of Fuel and Power. If the hon. Member has some specific instances in mind, perhaps he will send them to the Minister of Fuel and Power.

Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas

In view of the conflicting statements in last night's Press, can the Prime Minister give any information as to what arrangements, if any, are being made with regard to the employment of displaced persons or German prisoners of war in the mining industry?

The Prime Minister

I have not seen those conflicting statements. I would advise my hon. Friend to deal only with official statements on these matters.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I think we must now proceed with other Business.