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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 8 Apr 1981

Vol. 95 No. 15

Restrictive Practices (Confirmation of Order) (No. 2) Bill, 1981: Second and Subsequent Stages.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The object of the Bill is to confirm the Restrictive Practices (Motor Spirit and Motor Vehicle Lubricating Oil) Order, 1981 which was made on 4 March 1981.

The order gives statutory effect to recommendations made by the Restrictive Practices Commission in their Motor Spirit Enquiry Report, 1980. The report relates to the operation of the Restrictive Practices (Motor Spirit) Orders, 1961 to 1975, into any other matters germane to the operation of these orders and also into conditions which obtain in regard to the agreements under which stations which are company-owned but not company-run are operated.

The supply and distribution of motor spirit and oil have been statutorily regulated since 1961 following the first inquiry by the Fair Trade Commission into this trade. It was concerned primarily with an investigation into the solus system — the system under which a retailer agrees to deal exclusively in one brand of petrol. The commission concluded that, while the solus agreements between the wholesalers and retailers had merits, it was inclined to encourage the establishment of an excessive number of retail outlets. The 1961 order provided for the regulation of the system. Apart from a provision in an order made in 1972 to permit a solus agreement to have a term of ten years instead of five, the provisions regulating the system have been in force for 20 years and the 1981 order which we are confirming continues their operation.

Shortly after the 1961 order was made, the Fair Trade Commission and the petrol companies reached an agreement on guiding principles designed to limit the increase in the number of petrol stations, but this agreement did not work. The number of stations increased from 133 in 1960 to 394 in 1969. There was concern, not only about the increase in the number of company-owned stations but also the share of the retail market being taken by those stations. In 1970, the Minister asked the commission to inquire into this matter and an order was made in 1972 to give the backing of law to the commission's recommendation that wholesalers should be prohibited from operating company retail stations which were not previously owned by the companies. Initially, this ban was imposed for three years but it has been extended several times without modification until the order which was made in March.

During the 1980 inquiry it was submitted that the ban on new company-owned stations made it impossible for new wholesalers to set up a nucleus of retail outlets around which to develop a network of independent outlets. About 90 per cent of petrol stations are run by retailers who are not tied to petrol companies, but Senators will appreicate that few retailers would be prepared to transfer their business to a new wholesaler; the wholesaler would have to prove that he had a secure source of supply, that his service to the retailers would be adequate and that his terms and conditions of supply were likely to remain competitive. It is not intended to create problems for the existing wholesalers but it is most undesirable that there should be a closed wholesale market, not least because there is the possibility of a new wholesaler finding additional sources of supply — an important consideration in current world market conditions.

In the light of these considerations, there is a provision in the order that permits every wholesaler, existing and prospective, to have 20 company-owned retail outlets. Those who have more than 20 are free to retain them but others, including newcomers, can open up 20 or as many as they need to bring their retail outlets up to 20 in number.

Another submission at the inquiry concerned a provision in an existing order that allowed a company-owned station to be opened within three miles of a station from which traffic had been diverted by road developments or which had been compulsorily acquired. It was urged that this did not enable companies to respond to changed conditions in relation to new housing schemes, shops, factories, traffic flow and so on. This was fair criticism and the new order provides that a company may in any year open one or two new stations if they divest themselves of a like number of their existing stations. The provision about the three-mile limit is no longer relevant and it has been deleted from the order.

The provision for opening additional company-owned stations will not increase significantly the wholesalers' share of the retail market. And, of course, the opening of additional or replacement stations will require planning permission.

Another matter which arose at the inquiry, and which is of exceptional importance, relates to the short-term leases under which 234 out of 478 company-owned stations were held in 1978 — I am satisfied the figures have not changed significantly since then. These short-term leases have a term of three years or less and evidence was given about the legally weak position of the lessees in their dealings with the companies, particularly as regards security of tenure.

The companies submitted that, if they were to give longer leases, there would be undesirable consequences for them as long-term lessees could concentrate on other selling activities at the site at the expense of petrol sales because of the low margin on petrol. It was asserted that average through-put in existing long lease outlets is very much lower than in other company outlets.

While no evidence was found that, in general, the companies have treated their short-term operators other than in a reasonable and humane manner, it is clear that the lack of security of tenure of a station is likely to leave an operator more susceptible to pressure in such matters as trading hours, rents, promotional activities and so on — most of which will, or be likely to, add to selling costs without a guaranteed commensurate increase in profits.

What is provided for in the order is that all short-term operators of company stations should be the holders of licences which would run for three years with a right of renewal on fair and reasonable terms unless the company discontinue the operation of the station for a stated reason and in accordance with prescribed procedure. In general terms, the reasons for terminating a licence are: failure of the licensee to perform his statutory duties; failure to pay money due to the company; serious breach of contractual obligations; failure or inability to run the station satisfactorily; reaching an age limit set by the company; or the decision of the company to dispose of their interests in it, to close it down or run it otherwise than through a licensee.

Where the question of a breach of contractual obligations or the failure or inability of the licensee is disputed, the licensee has the right to go to arbitration. And where the company decide to dispose of it, close it down or run it otherwise than through a licensee, the licensee will be entitled to compensation. The notice to be given is prescribed. Ordinarily, it will be three months but in exceptional circumstances — if there was a serious threat to property or life or any other incident classifiable as force majeure— the notice can be reduced to whatever, in the circumstances, is reasonable.

All existing licences will be deemed to contain provisions indicated in the order and the existing licences should be — in practice — in all respects the same as licences drawn up after the order comes into force.

Where the question of compensation on termination of a licence arises, the amount of the compensation will consist of (a) payment of 1/15 of the licensee's net income for the previous 12 months for each year a licence or short-term lease has been held continuously, plus (b) the full cost of redundancy payments due by the licensee to employees, plus (c) payment of the wholesale price of stocks held by the licensee. There is a provision which applies where a company say that they propose to dispose of a station, close it down or run it otherwise than through a licensee and it turns out that this reason for not renewing a licence is spurious. In that event the compensation will be doubled.

The order provides that disputes in the matter of rents, trading hours, engaging in other activities — that is other than the sale of petrol or oil — should also be arbitrable.

The arbitration arrangements will be binding on both parties and the arbitrator will be a person appointed by the President of the Incorporated Law Society. In the Dáil some reservations were expressed about the constitutionality of the provisions relating to arbitration. In particular, the question was asked whether the provisions prevent, or purport to prevent, either a licensee or a supplier from exercising his rights of access to the courts. I undertook to get advice about this matter and I am advised that these rights are not threatened and that there is no possibility of contraveniig the Constitution.

What I have outlined are the main provisions to give better security to short-term occupants of stations. Needless to say, I would have no objection to them all getting long-term tenancies which would have the protection of the Landlord and Tenant Acts, but this is not something which could reasonably be imposed on the companies and — perhaps more important — fair terms and conditions on which long-term leases would be offered would often be beyond the capabilities of short-term operators. Many of them, I feel sure, simply could not afford to pay the higher charges which could reasonably be expected when a company tied themselves under a long-term lease.

During the course of the inquiry, one of the petrol companies issued letters to retailers saying that the company proposed to change their conditions of supply. The intention was to introduce a minimum delivery of 5,000 litres — 1,100 gallons — of one grade or 7,000 litres — 1,500 gallons — where more than one grade of petrol was involved. The commission considered this development very relevant to their terms of reference and they re-opened the inquiry to deal with it.

A representative of the company which made the proposal accepted that the setting of a minimum delivery of 5,000 litres — 1,100 gallons — would automatically exclude those stations which, at present, have storage for only 1,000 gallons. In fact, it appeared to the commission that stations with 1,000 gallon tanks could consistently take deliveries of no more than about 4,000 litres — 888 gallons — because these tanks can contain up to 70 gallons of slurry and, in addition, the order would be even less than 930 gallons since allowance has to be made for a carry-over; the trader would not want to run out of stock before a delivery was made.

There is a large number of stations with 1,000 gallon tanks and it was not accepted that their level of efficiency was so low as to justify their disappearance from the market. Furthermore, their disappearance would cause problems for consumers. For these reasons it was decided to agree with the commission that the proposed 5,000 litre — 1,100 gallon — minimum delivery could not be accepted.

However, it was accepted that the few 2,500 litre — 500 gallon — tank stations are in a different class, and it is quite probable that, in any event, they will not remain in business much longer because they are unlikely to meet the cost of converting to metricated petrol pumps — something which has to be faced shortly.

Accordingly, in the interests of efficiency and economy in distribution, petrol suppliers should be free, within reasonable limits, to decide on levels of minimum deliveries and we are satisfied that the commission's proposals are fair and reasonable. The order provides that, where a wholesaler decides to fix minimum deliveries, they may not be lower than 4,000 litres — 888 gallons — of one grade or 5,000 litres — 1,100 gallons — where two or more grades are a delivery. The provision merely empowers the companies to introduce these minimum deliveries and I hope that, in so far as possible, companies will adopt a more liberal policy than the letter of the law provides for. In particular, I would urge the companies to give the smaller capacity outlets reasonable time should they opt to increase their storage facilities.

The 1961 Motor Spirit Order as amended by the 1972 order provides that a solus agreement shall not be for a term in excess of ten years and that no mortgage, hire-purchase agreement or loan agreement may contain any provision which requires a retailer to tie himself to a supplier after the expiry of his solus agreement. This is a very necessary provision so far as it goes. Where, however, a loan is given by a company to a dealer which is repayable over a period longer than ten years, or where part of the loan is repayable after the end of the solus agreement, the freedom of the dealer is curtailed. This is especially the case where there is no provision for early repayment of the loan and the company refuse to accept early discharge. Following a commission recommendation a provision has been included in the order to enable a retailer to pay off in advance, and in a single payment at any time he chooses, money due to a supplier whether the amount was due in one payment or in instalments. The order provides that, where there is interest payable, it should be reduced by such amount as may be appropriate having regard to the date and the amount of the repayment; but the interest — whether or not it is reduced — has to be repaid at the same time as the repayment of the capital sum.

Submissions about trading hours were considered by the commission. They accepted that a supplier should be free to require a solus retailer to keep a petrol station open sufficiently long to meet reasonable consumer needs, but the commision recommended and the order provides that the times of opening and closing should be left for the retailer to decide.

In the course of the inquiry, one supplier considered that the use of their brand name and trade mark should be restricted to the contracted independent and company-owned stations. They said that, during the petrol shortage in 1978, some stations were selling petrol which purported to be their brand whereas it was obtained from another supplier. They considered that this could lead to quality control problems and was not fair to their image. I am satisfied that the company had a grievance in certain respects and there is nothing in the order to prevent a supplier from recovering, or requiring the removal of, any sign which would convey to the public that a special degree of association existed between that station and that supplier. On the other hand, however, the public are entitled to know which brand of petrol is being sold from a pump and there is a provision in the order that a wholesaler shall not prohibit, restrict or penalise the display on a pump used for dispensing motor spirit an indication of the brand being dispensed by the pump.

There were eight orders relating to the distribution of motor spirit and motor vehicle lubricating oil and the commission recommended that they should be consolidated in the interests of making it easier for interested parties to interpret the provisions. The first half of the 1981 order merely reiterates such basic statutory rules as the ban on differentiation between traders of the same class; the circumstances in which suppliers may and may not apply different terms and conditions to different classes of traders; exceptional circumstances in which supplies may be refused; provisions relating to solus agreements; the prohibition of certain agreements and arrangements to restrict persons' rights to trade; and so on. The basic rules have been in force for 20 years and, except for some minor additions and amendments made mainly in 1972, they have stood the test of time and are still appropriate.

I am satisfied that the order we are confirming contains all the provisions required to regulate in a fair and equitable way the trading relations of petrol wholesalers and retailers. I commend the Bill to the House.

I listened to the Minister's speech with interest. It was largely the same speech which he made in the other House, apart from the fact that he dwelt in the last part of the speech with the comments made by Deputy John Kelly about the possible unconstitutionality of sections of the Bill. I accept the legal advice which he apparently has got since the debate took place in the Dáil.

This is a technical Bill. It is entirely non-controversial as we see it so we are not in dispute with it in any sense. It is merely updating the previous measures which the Minister mentioned and which have served the country for the last 15 to 20 years. It deals with simple matters. One in particular which probably gave rise to its introduction was the attempt by one of the petrol pump companies to reduce minimum deliveries and about which there was an outcry. While it might not affect major urban or metropolitan areas such as Dublin, Cork, Limerick or major towns throughout the country if the petrol companies were allowed arbitrarily to reduce substantially minimum deliveries it would obviously have a damaging effect on rural life and the position of petrol retailers in outlying areas with limited sales, limited facilities and limited capacity to invest in larger tanks because of the size of their trade. For that reason we support the Bill in putting in the minimum delivery at 888 gallons rather than the 1,100 gallons which had been attempted.

I take the point concerning the 500 gallon tank, I suppose there is a limit in an age of rationalisation and distribution costs but, competition being what it is, I expect that some of the petrol companies while not required to do so, but in order to maintain trade, will continue to supply many petrol retailers with tanks of less than this particular size. I wonder what is the reason for the arrangement under which an existing wholesaler is given the capacity to extend his number of stations to 20 if he has fewer than that at the present time, or alternatively a new wholesaler setting up in business is given the right to 20 outlets. We have been talking about restricting the number of outlets in recent years and perhaps it is a little inconsistent to start talking about new outlets now. Perhaps the viewpoint is that the new wholesalers coming into the field are providing more healthy competition in petrol distribution that might affect prices. I am not certain, but I wonder if that is the reason.

The question covered by the Bill of a company being able to open two petrol stations if they close two in a given year for reasons that may have to do with dislocation of traffic or traffic rerouting or to do with the location of shopping centres, is again eminently sensible and one would not want to complain about that. The single controversial part of the Bill is that dealing with the question of the short-term lease, the three-year lease in the provisions which the Bill sets out in this regard. That is a complex matter because areas covered by Acts such as the Landlord and Tenant Act have given rise to great controversy. Obviously there are two sides to the story in every case of the three-year lease with this new right of renewal. The Minister's speech does not set out what renewal consists of. I am presuming that renewal in this case is the right to renew for a further three-year term but I would like him to clarify that matter. Is it simply the right to renew for a further three-year lease? Presumably if it is the right to renew, it is again another short-term lease which is not covered under the Landlord and Tenant Act.

Presumably if an initial three-year lease is renewed for what I presume is this three year period, the right to renew continues after that period and that again goes into a third-year period. I am wondering whether this continual right of renewal of three-year leases is regarded legally as a three-year lease or whether at any stage it comes under the scope of the Landlord and Tenant Act.

The Minister said the commission accepted that a supplier should be free to require a solus retailer to keep the station open sufficiently long to meet reasonable consumer needs. The commission recommended, and the order provides, that the times of opening and closing should be left to the retailer to decide. In a sense that paragraph is really superfluous.

This is a non-controversial Bill about technical matters which in a broad sense we support.

There is nothing exceptional or objectionable in the Bill. It helps to tidy up some areas. I am glad to see that the efforts by one company to restrict their deliveries to a minimum of 1,100 gallons have been resolved by, I presume, negotiations and through the commission. I suppose the minimum of 888 gallons is adequate. If one takes off the balance of slurry — perhaps up to 70 gallons or even more — it leaves the supplier with a margin of about 140 gallons before he can take the maximum or the minimum supply. If it is in an area that is fairly far removed from the source of supply I wonder whether that retailer might be left in a situation of not having any petrol for a couple of days to supply his customers. I do not know, but it seems to be a very narrow margin depending on the geographic situation. May I ask the Minister what is the situation regarding the limited number of 500 gallon retailers in view of the supply and regulations? Are there many of them and are they assured of supply at the present time? In general comment, one should agree with the Minister's restraint in not trying to enforce fixed hours. First of all, those who are supplying this service, the retailers all over the country, are providing a very good social service, bearing in mind how essential it is in many parts of the country to have a continuity of supply. In some of the areas I know in the country the question of hours of trading is much better left to local demand and local requirements rather than having fixed hours. Indeed, the local retailer will also conform to what he feels are the needs of his customers rather than to any rigid regulations. Generally I commend the Minister on the Bill and give it our full support.

Much has happened since this review started in 1972 and much has certainly happened in the petrol outlet business also. The results of the review are encouraging but the short-term outlet dealers or short-term holders are still at some disadvantage even with an extension from a one year to a three-year period. They still do not have that security of tenure in what is a very precarious business and the profit margin is not great. They have not improved considerably in that regard but the extension from one year to three years in most cases is some improvement.

Certainly the most welcome aspect for these small outlets is the compensation factor if the worst happens and if they have to go out of business for a number of reasons. The Minister has given some of the reasons which can operate and the compensation terms seem attractive. As regards the pressure which the oil companies put on the small outlets about not giving deliveries if their capacity was less than a certain size, it is good to see that the order asks the oil companies to be a little reasonable in their attitude on this point in future. I hope they are reasonable but one has to bear in mind that in the event of a future petrol scarcity which we probably will have to face up to, that pressure will be again put on the small dealers by the oil companies. The oil companies will have a limited supply of petrol to give out at any particular instance and naturally they will be more inclined towards the larger outlets rather than the smaller ones. I certainly hope the oil companies will act reasonably in this matter in future.

There is little else in this Bill. It may not go all the way that the smaller outlets would have liked in regard to giving them that better security of tenure but in the compensatory factors it is welcome. The restriction to 20 outlets is a fair figure. This business has seen many changes in the past decade. At the beginning of the seventies there was quite an influx of people, small and large, into the petrol outlet business. One even saw small shops seeking to have petrol pumps installed but suddenly the bonanza attitude that prevailed at that time seems to have gone. It is good to see a restriction on the number of outlets. I know that the introduction of a new oil company into the business in the last couple of years has necessitated the fixing of a figure of 20 to allow them to build up to that number of outlets. Even those companies which have a figure in excess of that at the moment will be allowed to continue. The matter should be kept under review for the future. Particular attention should be paid to the situation of the small outlets as they are still in a rather precarious situation. We should try to ensure that they are encouraged as far as possible by the oil companies to keep in business.

I am tempted to contribute to this discussion by virtue of the line-up that is in this particular business. We were discussing a somewhat similar situation here last week. We are talking now about giving a measure of protection to the small businessman who is engaged in the retail sale of petrol. On the other side of the coin there are the large oil company monopolies with vast resources. When we come to discuss legislation to cope with this kind of a situation we should always examine it and be satisfied that we are giving the full measure of protection to the small businessmen. I am satisfied we are giving a certain measure of protection in law to the petrol retailer, but I wonder are we doing enough. When I listen to the Minister's reply to this stage of the debate perhaps I will be satisfied on a few points on which I have misgivings at the moment.

I welcome the extension of the period of the lease from one year to three years, but even at three years are we giving adequate security to a person who, for example, has devoted 20 or 30 years of his life to building up this particular business, who has invested heavily in it through labour and perhaps through money? Are we providing adequate protection for that operator when his licence comes up for renewal? The Minister in his speech listed eight separate reasons for terminating a licence. It is not necessary for me to go through all of them. Some of them can be subject to arbitration, but one reason states that a licence can be terminated because the operator has reached an age limit set by the company. I am not clear from listening to the Minister if that condition is subject to arbitration. There is then the question of the decision of the company to dispose of its interests in the station, to close it down or to run it otherwise than through a licensee. My reading of the Minister's speech does not clarify to my mind whether these reasons can be submitted to arbitration. I am sure that the Minister will deal with these points when the occasion comes.

I am also concerned that we do not appear to be providing for the licensee to have an input into the new type of agreement that may be presented after three years. We can always conclude, and it is possible, that the oil companies can produce a type of agreement at the end of three years which would make it impossible for the operator or licensee to trade. I believe it would have been very desirable to have included a provision which would provide for the licensee or the operator to play his part in sorting out an agreement. What we are dealing with here is not just a general type of licence. This licence is the passport to a person's livelihood. It is the means whether that livelihood can be continued or it is a means by which a person can be deprived of his livelihood. It is a very serious issue, and I wonder if there are sufficient safeguards provided in this Bill, first of all in relation to the security of tenure of their operations and, secondly, as to the conditions which will be drafted in a new licence at the end of the three-year period.

I recall the Minister in his speech referring to an attempt some time ago by some oil companies, and one oil company in particular, where it was decided that where tanks were below a certain capacity such operators had no future part to play. If they were allowed at that particular time they would have simply written off these operators and discontinued service. I know we are providing in the Bill that people whose tanks are below a certain capacity are now being phased out. Perhaps I regret the passing of such operators. Many of them operated in remote rural areas, and in areas not so remote, and they made a great contribution.

While I accept that the minimum limits being set by the Minister at this point in time—888 gallons for one grade of petrol and up to 1,100 gallons for cheap grades — probably appear reasonable, nonetheless it is obvious that the phasing-out process has being going on. We have to anticipate that after a certain period of time the oil companies will be back again saying that that type of outlet is uneconomic and they will want the minimum capacity upgraded. That process, if it is allowed to go unchecked, will eliminate further operators and further business.

I welcome the decision to contain the number of retail outlets which will be opened by the oil companies. I know the figure has been set at 20 and that 20 outlets per company, as I understand from the Minister, when utilised fully will represent a share of the retail market of from 15 to 37 per cent. I believe that we can accept that as being a reasonable share of the market. If it is contained to that I will be reasonably happy if by doing so we have ensured the balance of the retail market will continue in the hands of independent retailers. If I have any reservation about it, it is whether we are giving sufficient protection to the retailers. I wonder why we are failing to ensure that the retailers will have an opportunity to have an input into the preparation of the new agreement that will succeed the three-year agreement.

I want to thank the Senators for the manner in which they have accepted this Bill. It is a Bill to confirm an order already made by the Minister. I will try to deal as briefly as possible with the questions that have been raised. One of the things that everybody seems to be happy about is the fact that the question of supplies to small stations will now be guaranteed, at least for the stations having 1,000 gallon tanks. We believe there was an injustice there and that the companies who took it on themselves to disregard the rights of these people were going beyond the limits and certainly would, as some of the Senators have said, cause severe problems for retailers in rural areas in particular. The fact that these people will now be attended to — the small retailers in rural areas — means that a service which has been provided over a long number of years will be continued in these areas. On the question of people with smaller containers, 500 gallon tanks, I think that in my speech I outlined the reasons why we did not see it desirable to compel them to make deliveries in these cases, but at least we have asked them to be reasonable and to try to treat them as fairly as possible.

Senator Brugha asked a question in relation to the number of these small stations. I am sorry I do not have that information and I cannot say exactly how many of them are in the country at the moment.

Senator Staunton raised the question of the lease and the right of renewal. This is for a further period of three years. As to the landlord and tenant legislation, I am happy about any rights that might be acquired with the exception of the right of assignment. It is not the intention that this right should be acquired, and I do not believe that the order would concede this. Because of the fact that it is a lease it would be rather rigid to be any more firm than that with the terms of the lease. We have here something that the lessees did not have up to now. They have at least some guarantee, some power, that they did not have inasmuch as the lease has been extended from one year to three years with a right of renewal. This was also raised by Senator Markey. The order will be closely monitored and its operation will be kept under review by the Restrictive Practices Commission, and should there be any irregularities in it in relation to the matter then it can be dealt with in the ordinary way.

Senator Staunton also asked why 20 new stations. Here we are primarily concerned with the problems confronting new wholesalers. As I mentioned in my speech the commission came to the conclusion that 20 was a reasonable number of stations to establish. We could not give this right exclusively to new wholesalers. That would be unfair discrimination, and therefore we had to expand the concession to existing wholesalers. It is estimated that this will do no more than increase the wholesalers' share of the market from about 36.5 per cent to about 37.5 per cent.

In reply to another question by Senator Markey, the provisions of the order are designed to ensure that a licensee in a petrol station who is at least reasonably efficient will automatically get his licence renewed at the end of each three years. An efficient operator can be sure that he will have his licence renewed and that the companies will not be able to squeeze him out if they feel like doing so.

As regards age limits, the order says that the minimum age is 65 years. It is not mandatory to reinstate the licensee at 65. It just says that the minimum age is 65.

Senator Howard also mentioned the question of the protection which the lessee has. As I have stated already, he is protected in a manner in which he was not protected up to now. The question of hours and so on was also raised. I agree with the Senators that it is desirable that the hours which these retailers operate should be left to the discretion of the retailers themselves and to the demand in the area. I am sure many of us have had the experience of having been able to get supplies at various times, at late hours and so on, from some of these small suppliers who remain open after business hours. It would be a pity if we were to make any hard-and-fast rule which would discourage that practice. This is why the commission decided that it was advisable that we should retain that position and give this freedom to retailers which already exists where they are providing a service which all of us accept is very worthwhile.

I think I have dealt with most of the points raised. I am grateful to the Senators for their contributions. We hope that with the emphasis which was laid on the question of facilitating the small holders the oil companies will continue to look after these people, even the very small ones. My Department will try to ensure that they will still get supplies, not for the sake of keeping them in business but for the sake of maintaining a service which is needed, particularly in rural areas.

May I raise a question with the Minister now or at the next Stage regarding the smallholders?

You may ask a question.

I do not know how many small retailers there are, but in view of the policy of the oil companies — which is understandable, that it is not economic to deliver less than certain quantities — I wonder if the Minister could use his good offices to try to ensure that if there is a significant number he might prevail on the oil companies at least to allow a minimum period of delivery such as three months, six months or thereabouts to enable such individuals to make whatever changes they may need to make.

I am sure these people will realise that it will be necessary for them to adjust and to try to have larger tanks provided which would come under the order. Certainly we would hope that the wholesalers would give every assistance to these people to try to adjust. We will be asking them to do that.

Question put and agreed to.
Agreed to take remaining Stages today.
Bill put through Committee, reported without amendment, received for final consideration and passed.