HC Deb 05 March 1918 vol 103 cc1876-7

I come now to shipbuilding. When I last addressed the House on this subject I stated that the difficulties which had dogged us during the. first, second, and third quarters of last year in connection with material had been overcome, that we had the material, and that shipbuilding was on a fair way to improvement. I felt then, and I still feel, that I was then entitled to hold this view. A diagram of United Kingdom shipbuilding was published in January last which demonstrated the upward trend of shipbuilding during the fourth quarter of 1917. There is no lack of material in the yards to-day. There are more men and increasing numbers of men in the yards, but whereas the average monthly output of merchant shipbuilding in the fourth quarter of 1917 was roughly 140.000 tons, it only reached 58,000 tons in January. It should have been very much larger. It is true that the weather was exceptionally bad and delays were caused thereby; also that January, due to holiday, is always in peace time a very bad month for output of ships; also that I am departing in this case from my contention that we cannot take one week or month by itself, be it good or bad. I must admit that February is, I think, going to be better; nearly twice the output of January when the figures are complete, but still only two-thirds of what the same yards and fewer men have done in a month. The number of vessels launched and outfitting is higher than usual, and these ships will be in service shortly. We were justified in looking for a steady and substantial rise in output. Men, material, and capacity were all there. Instead of a rise we have had a serious drop. Why is this? Many reasons may be advanced for it. The main fact, however, which is brought out by reports, not only from employers, but from representatives of men and representatives of Departments, is that due to labour unrest, due to strikes, due to difficulties of whatever kind, the men in the yards are not working as if the life of the country depended upon their exertions, nor are they working even as they did in the fourth quarter of last year. Employers also are not, perhaps, doing all that can be done to increase output. The long strain of the War must have its effect on the nerves of some of them as it has on everyone else. Far be it from me to suggest that the vast majority both of employers and of men are not actuated by the call of patriotism, but the serious unrest which existed in January will have its effect on completions in later months, and the January drop cannot be fully accounted for otherwise than that it was caused by unrest in its widest interpretation. I am driven to the conclusion that even at this late date the situation is not fully realised.