HC Deb 19 November 1918 vol 110 cc3375-85

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

This Bill has become necessary owing to doubts which have arisen as to whether the purposes for which the Ministry of Munitions was established under the Act of 1915 can be said to cover purposes connected with the demobilisation and the transfer of industries from the production of munitions to peace production. The Act establishing the Ministry in the first Section states: For the purpose of supplying munitions for the present War, it shall be lawful for His Majesty to appoint a Minister of Munitions. The second Section states: The Minister of Munitions shall have such administrative powers and duties in relation to the supply of munitions for the present War as may be conferred on him by His Majesty in Council. Some doubt has arisen as to whether, under the words which I have read, the Minister can use his powers for what I might describe as the reverse process to that which has been followed by the Ministry during the time it has been in existence. When the original Act was drafted no one anticipated the condition of things which faces us to-day, after three and a half years of the existence of the Ministry, now that the immediate need for war production has ceased or has fallen to a minimum. Certainly no one anticipated the extent to which it would be necessary for the Minister, in pursuance of the duties put upon him by Parliament, to direct existing industries into strange channels and to foster and create new industries. During these three and a half years it has been necessary to bring about an industrial revolution. I think it is an industrial revolution without parallel in the history of the world—the change over from peace production to war production. Practically the whole activities of the country, certainly the whole engineering activities, have been focussed on one object, which has now been triumphantly achieved. The Armies of this country, which, when the Ministry was established, were under-equipped as compared with their opponents, were when the Armistice was signed the most abundantly and best equipped of any armies in the field. In carrying out that work the Minister was compelled to issue Orders controlling the production of certain materials, the price of certain materials, and the direction of supply of certain materials. The necessity for these orders has greatly diminished, if not entirely passed away. But while it is true that peace has not yet been signed it is inconceivable that there can be any such renewal of the War as would require the effort which the country has been making during the past three and a half years. The Armistice has certainly made sure of that. The problem now facing the country is to get back its industry, as rapidly and as effectively as possible, to peace production. And the main object of the Bill is to make it clear that the powers which were given to the Ministry for the purpose of war production may be used to assist the reverse process of getting back rapidly to peace production. Unless that is made clear the work of the demobilisation and transfer of industry cannot be safely and effectively carried out.

While it is true that certain raw materials and articles are no longer immediately necessary for the purposes for which the Ministry was established, there is urgent demand for peace production, and the demand greatly exceeds the supply. In regard to one particular material over which the Ministry has been exercising control—namely, building bricks—I am informed that the supply is only 50 per cent. of the demand. Certainly, during recent months every brick that has been made in this country has been directed to the specific purpose of building aerodromes. With this limited supply and this greatly increased demand for peace purposes it is essential, and we are so advised by those who speak for the building industry, that power should be retained to see that the production of this particular commodity should be directed to peace purposes of a kind which are in the permanent interest of the country. Unless there is some means of seeing that the bricks which are produced are used for those purposes which are in the interest of the nation, they will go to those who are prepared to pay the highest price. That applies to a number of other articles. The Ministry is exercising control over fertilisers, and over the price of agricultural implements. And we are told that if the Government suddenly ceases to exercise its control over the price, and if necessary the direction of such material chaos will result in the industry, and the prices which will be charged to the consumer, in this case the agricultural interest, will be greatly in excess of those which prevail under the Orders. There can be no restraint of profiteering, and the industry will be at the mercy of those few fortunate persons who happen to have at their disposal a very limited supply of certain essential materials.

It may be contended that the existing Orders, having been issued while the power of the Minister extended only to the production of munitions, do not apply to and are not valid for the new problems which are now facing industry, and it is in order to set that doubt at rest and to obviate the necessity for the re-issue of existing Orders that the Bill provides that the Orders are to have effect as though they had originally been issued at the time when the Minister's functions comprised the functions conferred on him by the Bill. I should like to make it clear that there is no desire on the part of the Ministry to continue any existing Orders, a moment longer than is necessary in the interests of industry. There is no gratification to the Minister in the issue of these Orders. It may be decided to transfer the exercise of these Orders to some other Government Department. For instance, the control of fertilisers and agricultural implements may be transferred to the Board of Agriculture, and the control of bricks may be transferred to the Board of Trade. I am advised that that transfer cannot take place immediately. There would be a delay running into weeks, or possibly months, in the interval before it could be made, and we are told there would be a state of chaos in those industries if the control were suddenly cut short. The urgency of the problem is immediate. A Committee of the House is now sitting to consider war emergency legislation and what steps shall be taken in regard to it. The Dissolution makes it impossible for the Committee to report for some time. It has not yet concluded its deliberations, but when it has concluded and makes its Report and Parliament decides what action shall be taken upon it, it is clear that an interval of months must elapse. There must be some way of bridging over that interval, and this Bill provides the bridge. If there is any substance in these doubts which have been expressed—and I think there is—as to whether the powers of the Ministry can properly be used in the reverse process, it ought immediately to be got out of the way. Representations have already been made to us from several industries as to the chaotic conditions which might arise if a sudden end is made to the Regulations which have been issued affecting these industries. The Bill does not prolong the life of the Ministry. That is determined by the Ministry of Munitions, 1915. I will read the words— The office of Minister of Munitions and the Ministry of Munitions shall cease to exist on the termination of a period of twelve months after the conclusion of the present War, or such earlier date as may be fixed by His Majesty in Council. Nor does the Bill extend the duration of any existing Orders.


Does this Bill come to an end within twelve months after the conclusion of the War?


Certainly. Any powers given by this Bill will come to an end with the ending of the Ministry. Every Order, so far as the Orders of the Ministry have been made under the Defence of the Realm Regulations, unless previously revoked, expires on the conclusion of peace. I hope the House will let us have the Bill, for which there is urgent need. I have not thought it necessary to develop particular instances, because I feel sure the House will recognise that the Bill would not have been brought forward under these circumstances unless we had sufficient concrete examples to show the need which exists for it.

5.0 P.M.


The House will be rather disposed to regard with some suspicion any Bill which extends existing powers of control into the peace period. They have been acquiesced in by the nation from the necessity of the case, but control is not enjoyed. It is resented, and I think that people of all classes are looking forward at the earliest possible date to recovering their much-prized liberty. But I think my hon. Friend has shown us—indeed, the fact was patent before—that some measure of control is essential during the transition period. When the War is over it does not follow that war conditions immediately terminate. Peace may be signed one day, but it may be weeks or months before shipping and labour supply are restored to their normal condition. Meantime, there may be a scramble for goods and prices will soar. Prices depend upon supply, supply depends upon labour, and this country largely depends upon shipping, and until there is an abundance of shipping and an abundance of labour the supply may be restricted and fall short of the demand, with the result that prices, instead of falling, as everyone hopes, may, in respect of certain commodities, remain at their present height or even rise higher. If that result were to occur, I think the Government and this House would be blamed for not having taken steps to prevent that eventuality. My hon. Friend has given us an illustration in the case of the manufacture of bricks. The whole House is keenly interested in the proposals for dealing now, once and for all, with the defects of the housing of the working classes. We look forward to a very large measure being adopted immediately on the termination of the War to supply not merely a small number but literally hundreds of thousands of houses both in town and in country to supply, once and for all, the crying evils that have existed for so long. If, meantime, all control over the production of bricks is relaxed, it would simply mean that the brick manufacturers would be able to ask what prices they chose for the execution of contracts essential for the carrying out of these building schemes. The Government are well advised, therefore, in maintaining in the national interests, even into times of peace, the control which now exists over this particular trade, and no doubt there are many similar examples which could be given.

I had some doubts as to the working of the Bill when I first saw it—it was only circulated to-day—as to whether it did not, in fact, extend powers under the Defence of the Realm Act beyond the date at which they would expire, and that when the country and Parliament thought that the Defence of the Realm Act had gone, and all the Regulations under it had disappeared, it might be found that by this Bill we had perhaps unwittingly, carried forward certain of the powers now exercised by the Ministry of Munitions. I am assured on this point after the words of the hon. Member I am assured that the words in line 17, "until they expire," really meet this point, and that there is no concealed danger of the kind mentioned. This Bill has a most beneficent and welcome object, the conversion of our industries of war back to the more fruitful and beneficent industries of peace, and the only suggestion I have to make in regard to the Bill is that perhaps a more suitable title than the Ministry of Munitions Bill, 1918, might be found, and that the Bill might be called the Sword into Ploughshare Conversion Bill, 1918.


I had a little doubt when I first read the Bill as to what actually it might do. It is not at all clear, and therefore on that point I was very doubtful. The first doubt was as to the duration of the Bill. On first looking at it, it did not appear to have a time-limit at all, and the second doubt was whether or not Orders already given by the Ministry of Munitions might not be extended indefinitely. I am glad to say that the explanation given by the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Kellaway) is quite clear, that the Bill will not extend for more than twelve months after the signing of peace, and that the orders will expire in the ordinary way under an Act which is already in existence, and will not be renewed by any Clause in this Bill. I think that is right. Therefore the objections which seem to me to be rather important have been got over by the hon. Gentleman's remarks. The only question I would like to put in regard to the Bill is whether it would not be possible to make the period six months instead of twelve months. Six months after the signing of peace may be nine months from now, or possibly a little longer, and it seems to me that it would be better to make it a little bit shorter than to continue it for twelve months, which might possibly mean fifteen months from now. I do not think it would be longer, but it might be a bit longer than that. There are two sets of opinions in the country in regard to the continuation of these powers of control. A very large number of people are strongly averse to it. I have received two or three letters this morning from persons engaged in trade, asking me to do my best to bring the period of control to an end as soon as possible. On the other hand, there are people who think that while it is necessary to continue the control, and while they would desire it to be terminated, they realise that there must be a certain period during which a certain amount of control must be kept on. Both parties are more or less right.

The only question is how long should the period of control be, and I am inclined to think that the period in the Bill is a little too long. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman can make any concession in regard to that. The powers are very drastic, because apparently the Minister will be enabled to control the production of bricks or to pass his powers on to another Department, and he may control the production of agricultural implements and the production of fertilisers. In regard to the control of the production of bricks there may be something in it, but I am rather doubtful whether the control of agricultural implements and fertilisers can result in any good. It is quite possible by control to keep the price down a bit, but what is required at the present time are fertilisers, and if a slightly higher price has to be paid it would be better to pay the higher price and get the fertilisers than to do without them. The same applies to agricultural implements. I hope the powers under the Bill will be exercised reasonably and not in too drastic a manner. I hope the hon. Member will be able to give us some assurance as to the period.


I think the House should welcome this measure as being necessary. The House is aware that the Munitions Department took over the factories of this country in order to transfer their work from peace work to war work, and powers were given to the Department to bring that about. Now the necessity arises for transferring the work back again in these factories from war to peace and the Munitions Department find that they have not the powers necessary to carry out that transaction and they have brought this measure before the House in order to get the powers. That is a matter which the House should welcome. I had a fear, and I think other hon. Members had the same fear, that this measure might extend the powers and life of the Ministry of Munitions too far, but we have learned that that is not so, and that the Bill will in no way extend the life of the Ministry of Munitions and the interference of that Department with the trade of the country. At the same time it will give the Department the necessary powers to transfer work back to peace methods, and that being so the Bill should be accepted readily.


I confess that this Bill to a certain extent makes me uncomfortable. I have a good deal to do with the chemical industry, and nearly every branch of the chemical industry is controlled at the present time. I had occasion to see a branch of the Ministry of Munitions as one of an advisory committee only a few days ago, and I understood then that it was under consideration whether this particular branch might not finish. A great many of the activities of the Department of Munitions have become unnecessary, and we understood it was the intention of the Government to get rid of them very quickly. It is quite possible that the work they have been doing could be transferred to another Department. I do not think the House realises how absolute the control of many industries has been during the War. The industry I have to do with could buy nothing without the consent of the Government and could sell to nobody without the consent of the Government, and every month had to render a list of their customers and what had become of everything that they manufactured. One does not want in a vague Bill of this kind to give the Government powers which Members of this House do not realise at the moment. I am not attacking the intentions of the hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill, but I do say that a Bill of this kind, which is very vague, does bring a sense of discomfort to me, because there may be very much more serious control arising out of it than is apparent in the wording of the Bill. I did not hear all the speech of the Minister in charge, because I was engaged elsewhere, but I do think he might give us a little more information and let us know really how the matter stands. How does this Bill affect the powers at present held, and how will it affect the industries in regard to control in the future? This Bill may carry great consequences, and I think we ought to have more information about it. I did not know that it was to be introduced. The chemical industry knows nothing whatever about the Bill. It may be perfectly harmless, but on reading it and having heard something that has been said here in regard to it I have my doubts about it.


I cannot express too strongly my regret that this Bill was not introduced a few days earlier. A Bill of this importance ought not to be introduced on the last day of the Session, and certainly not if there is anything behind it. It is very difficult, as the last speaker said, at a moment's notice to see whether or in what respect it does extend the powers. The chief instance that the hon. Gentleman gave in introducing the Bill was the brick trade and the control of prices. Does he tell us that without this Bill under the Defence of the Realm Act there would be no power to control the price of bricks? That is a case in regard to which the House is thoroughly agreed. We are agreed that this is no time to permit profiteering, or the holding up of the essential supplies of the nation, but that is quite a different thing from extending the powers of a Department to control and to a certain extent inevitably, with the best intentions in the world, to hamper independent initiative in trade. We quite recognise the great work which this Department has done and the able officials that it contains, but it is inevitable that many of them would like to feel that if they are doing good their powers should continue. That, I think, is a matter which ought to be discussed thoroughly on the Floor of this House, and not leave to the very last twenty-four hours of Parliament to rush a Bill through all its stages. If it is so urgently needed, it is a great pity it was not discovered a little earlier. I quite appreciate the remarks of my hon. Friend in introducing the Bill and in instancing certain cases where it is most desirable that these powers should be extended, but the House wants some reassurance that the powers will not be used for the purpose of hampering trade or continuing the Department longer than is absolutely necessary, because in all departments of trade and commerce it is recognised that as soon as control can be dispensed with it is essential in the interests of the nation that that should be done.


With the leave of the House I would like to reply to some of the points that have been raised. No one knows better than I that control is unpopular, and we should all be glad to get rid of control if it could be done, but there is a consensus of opinion that to make a clean cut now of all control would, in a certain number of instances create chaos. There is, however, nothing in this Bill which extends the power of the Ministry, or can extend the duration of the life of the Ministry. This Bill is intended to do nothing more, and can do nothing more than bridge over the interregnum when the Orders made under the Defence of the Realm Regulations cease altogether, or, as may be the case. Parliament may decide that they should cease altogether. The right hon. Baronet (Sir F. Banbury) asked if we could not shorten the period. There is no period in the Bill; these powers must come to an end with the end of the Ministry, but in all probability most of them will come to an end earlier, because the necessity for them will, we hope, have passed away. But to put in a period—


If the hon. Gentleman will look at the Bill which we have just passed—the Wages (Temporary Regulations) Bill—he will see that at the beginning of Clause 1 these words, "during a period of six months from the passing of this Act." That would not be an unreasonable limit.


I would like to know whether the powers, which now belong to the Ministry of Munitions, can be transferred to some other Department like the Board of Trade or the Board of Agriculture? That point is being discussed with reference to certain commodities at the present time, and one does not know what would ensue if there is power of transfer and the powers did not come to an end when the Ministry of Munitions ceased, but were transferred.


The transfer of powers under the Defence of the Realm Regulations would not affect the matter. They must come to an end at the conclusion of peace. I hope the right hon. Baronet (Sir F. Banbury) will not press me any further in regard to a limited period, as the statements which I have made show that the period cannot go either beyond the conclusion of peace or the end of the Ministry.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a second time.

Resolved, "That this House will immediately resolve itself into the Committee on the Bill."—[Colonel Gibbs.]

Bill accordingly considered in Committee.

[Mr. J. W. WILSON in the Chair.]

  1. CLAUSE 1.—(Extension of Purposes of Ministry.) 2,075 words