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Mrs. Liddell: The purpose is to give the Secretary of State powers, for example, to designate priority filling stations and depots. I am sure the House recognises that that is critical, especially as, although many public service and local authority users get their fuel from depots, a significant number, especially those in rural areas, get their fuel from ordinary filling stations. That is why it is necessary to designate such filling stations.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I have gone through the 25 pages of the documents, and I can find only two designated filling stations in my constituency, which is a big one with a large rural collar. There are 600 outlets nationwide. Is there a cap on the total number of filling stations that can be designated, or can local authorities, in conjunction with police, propose additional garages?
Mr. Gibb: Will the right hon. Lady explain the effect of designation? As far as I can tell, all that the lesser statutory instruments issued under the order do is provide a list of filling stations--that is it. They provide no powers other than the power to create a list. What is the legal effect of creating the list?
I must now try to address the substantial number of points made during the debate. The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) appears to have misunderstood the purpose of the order, in that he talked about ultra-low sulphur petrol and dependence. I am sure that his intention was not mischievous and that he of all people recognises the importance of these matters. It is the responsibility of the Secretary of State to ensure that fuel of whatever sort is needed is available. In September, some areas
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the price control powers were used in September. They were not. He also mentioned the use of pipelines. Pipelines are used to supply operations such as major airports, but they are expensive to install. It is unlikely that additional pipelines will be constructed in the year in which the order will apply.
The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton asked about the explanatory note. As set out in the explanatory note to each order, the depots and filling stations were designated to allow the Secretary of State to make further orders or to give directions under the Energy Act 1976 by reference to those premises. In the event, in September the oil companies agreed on a voluntary basis to direct fuel to the designated sites and to supply at those sites only the categories of persons that the Secretary of State had instructed should be supplied.
A great deal of publicity was given to those arrangements at that time. Many of the 24-hour news channels on television had text at the bottom of the screen giving details of the filling stations available in particular areas.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham for the support that he has shown to the Government on this matter. We hope that the need for the orders is academic. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the need for them may have passed, but I believe that it is prudent for the Government to ensure that we can protect the most vulnerable and the nation's prosperity. That is the reason why the orders will lie, whether or not we need them during the next year.
On the points that the hon. Gentleman made arising from his own experience, the oil industry has learned a lot from the past couple of months. It has learned how its procedures can lead to disruption. With his background, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that a certain level of stocks are held--not in the same way as the strategic supplies in the United States, but there is a minimum level of 63 days, I think, in case of a major disruption of supply in the UK. We believe that those stocks should be used for emergency purposes, not as a means of manipulating the market. They should be available, should some extraneous event cause a disruption to UK supplies.
The hon. Gentleman asked an important question about liability for tanker accidents. An indemnity has been negotiated with the oil companies and hauliers to cover losses arising from tankers being driven by service drivers. Where a service driver was at fault, the Secretary of State for Defence would be vicariously liable in any event.
The hon. Gentleman asked about price controls. Those were not necessary during the September disruption, and we hope that they will never be necessary, but the Government are determined to do whatever is necessary to maintain supplies. As this point, it is important for us not to second-guess what attempts might be made to disrupt supplies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) made an important point about the need for co-ordination and communication. I hear what he says. The Government have been examining closely the requirements for co-ordination and communication and have been taking advice from many of those with whom we had dealings during the September situation.
As regards behaviour in the marketplace, the hon. Member for Christchurch asked about the difficulties of some small filling stations. The Director General of Fair Trading is responsible for monitoring markets and considering complaints about anything that may be construed as anti-competitive behaviour. The Office of Fair Trading has received complaints about differential pricing policies and is examining the matter. The OFT has written to oil companies to ask for information on their wholesale pricing policies. I am sure that the hon. Member for Christchurch acknowledges that it is up to the Director General of Fair Trading to consider whether action under competition legislation is required.
Mr. Gibb: This is an important question, which I asked earlier. If it becomes clear in the next few weeks or months that the powers are no longer required, will the Minister return to the House with a revocation order, or will she leave them in existence for a full 12 months?
Mrs. Liddell: In considering that question, we get into interesting debates about what would make it clear that no further disruption will occur. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would expect a responsible Government to take responsibility for decisions. That means that we have to consider access to powers, in case we need them. I cannot discuss what would make it clear that no further disruption was likely. We are taking action to maintain supplies to essential users and essential industries. One of the regrettable aspects of events in September was that people at refinery gates tried to define essential and non-essential users.
The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton tried to score political points at the beginning of his remarks. I stress to him that responsible government means making decisions that mean that some people are sometimes disappointed. The Government are working to provide a long-term future for the whole economy, based on low, stable interest and mortgage rates and sound public finances on the basis of which people and businesses can plan ahead. We will not sacrifice the
The reserve powers to which the Order in Council provides access enable us to make special arrangements to safeguard supplies of fuel to essential services. I emphasise that we hope that it will not be necessary to use them in the foreseeable future. However, we make it clear that we have a duty to take appropriate precautionary measures. Given the clear potential of the disruption of fuel supply seriously to damage society, business and the most vulnerable, I see no scope for disagreement, and I commend the order to the House.