HC Deb 05 March 1918 vol 103 cc1877-9

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackfriars (Mr. Barnes) in this House, on the 26th of last month, appealed to the working men of the country with far greater authority than I can claim to "put their backs into their work." I believe that the individual piece-worker works as hard now as he did last year— when he is actually at work—but he seems more ready to-day to take holidays, and we cannot afford holidays while there are food queues. Any estimate of output for the future must depend almost entirely upon the determination of employers and men in the shipyards and marine engineering establishments. The production of merchant ships in the United Kingdom during January, 1918, even making the most generous allowance for weather difficulties, fell so far below the average per month in the preceding quarter that, if improvement is not speedily made, the point where production balances losses will be postponed to a dangerous extent, and even when that point is reached we shall still have to make good the accumulations of losses of the past. During the critical period that confronts us we must rely in the main upon our own ships and upon ourselves. Our Allies are making every effort to increase the production of ships, but in spite of the glowing reports of representatives of the Press in the United States, and great doubtless as the effort of that country is, there is no doubt —and it is not questioned in official circles in America—that a considerable time must elapse before the desired output is secured. I should like to add here what I know will be a source of satisfaction to the House—that the Canadian Government are prosecuting the shipbuilding programme with the utmost vigour, and will fill berths as they become vacant at existing yards. Satisfactory arrangements have been concluded with the United States authorities for the supply of steel; and everything is being done to push forward the programme of new construction. To reach an ultimate production at the rate of 3,000,000 tons per annum is, I believe, and am advised, well within the present and prospective capacity of our shipyards and marine engineering shops. But I wish to make it perfectly clear that these results cannot be obtained unless maximum output is given in every shipyard and marine engine shop by everyone concerned. If employers hesitate to play their part, or if men anywhere "down tools," or go slow for any reason, they will now do so in the knowledge of the grievous extent to which they arc prejudicing the vital interests and life of the community. The ranks of the skilled men must be enlarged without delay by men and women who at present are unskilled. The unskilled must become skilled, and interchange ability must be pressed on with the good will of employers, foremen, and men, and full time must be worked.

The Board of Admiralty had hoped that before the end of the second quarter of 1918 the output of world tonnage would have overtaken and passed destruction by the enemy. That is still possible. It can only be attained if we all pull together on the rope. The principle of one front must be recognised in the shipyards just as with the Fleets and in the trenches. Every ship which is launched and fitted out is an addition to the food-carrying resources of the Allies, and the rations which are just being introduced in this country will bring home to us all the urgency of this problem. I am confident—and my colleagues both in the Government and on the Board of Admiralty are convinced—that when the position is fully realised, people of all classes will take this matter seriously to heart and do everything possible to improve it. We are, therefore, arranging to bring home to the employers and workers in every yard, and to all classes who can affect the issue, the tonnage output figures of the United Kingdom from time to time, and to publish output of tonnage not only of this country as a whole, but district by district.