HC Deb 01 April 1925 vol 182 cc1465-72

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Commander Eyres Monsell.]


I wish to draw attention to the sale in 1920 of the Government factory for the extraction of nitrogen from the air, and also to the circumstances in which the Government sent a Commission to the German factory for the fixation of nitrogen in order to discover the German process known as the Haber process for extracting nitrogen from the air. I have asked a series of questions extending over a month from the Secretary of State for War on this matter, and I find that, in regard to almost every key point which would give us some clue as to the nature of this very mysterious transaction, we are told it is not in the public interest to give information, or that the Minister has not the slightest idea of the information we want, or that the matter is now so old that information cannot be secured from the Disposal Board, and so we go on. This subject is not only of interest because of the rather mysterious nature of the transaction, but it is also of very great interest to the agricultural industry and to the chemical industry.

The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the TREASURY (Commander Eyres Monsell)

May I ask the hon. Member who is the Minister concerned, and has he given any warning that he was going to raise the question?


Yes. Notice was given formally to the Speaker two days ago, and one of the Whips opposite was informed a little while ago, when it appeared that the matter could be brought up, and I understood he had given the information necessary. As far as I can trace the history of this trans action, the Government, after sending a Commission to Oppau, to discover the German method of the fixation of nitrogen, sold the factory, which had certainly cost the British taxpayer a very large sum of money, to Messrs. Brunner, Mond, Ltd., who were the firm paying for the exploitation of this invention, at a figure very much below the price which the British taxpayer had been called upon to pay. I want to put to the Minister responsible—I am not quite sure whether the War Office is still handling it, or if he has referred the matter to the Exchequer—who were the members of this Commission? I have already asked that question through the ordinary procedure, and have been told that it is not in the public interest for either the House or the country to know who the members of this Commission were who were sent to Oppau. I want to know whether the Chairman of that Commission is now a director of the firm exploiting the Haber process. I want to know if any report was received from that Commission that reported from Oppau to the War Office or any other responsible Department? If such a report has been received, I want to know when it was received. I should very much like to know, and I am sure that the public would be interested to know whether the report was received from members of this Commission before or after they left the Government service and entered the service of Messrs. Brunner, Mond and Company?

I am sure also we should be interested to know whether the report was received by any responsible Government Department before the sale of the factory under private treaty to Messrs. Brunner Mond. In reply to a question the Secretary of State for War said this factory was very widely advertised before it was sold by private treaty, the terms of this treaty again being against the public interest to disclose. I want to know if, when that factory was advertised, other people knew that the Haber process was being thrown in with the factory like a pound of tea? I also want to know whether the private treaty contains any reference to the Haber process being included? The information I have, which I shall be the first to withdraw if it is wrong, is that immediately on the return of the Commission from Oppau its members, who were already in Government employ, resigned their commissions and took up remunerative posts in the employ of the company that had bought up the factory, and I am further informed—and again I hope I am wrong—that this report was not received by any responsible Government Department.

In view of the fact that Members of the present Government were in the Government at that time, and that Members of this House were concerned with both the original purchasing company and with the directorate to exploit this new invention, and concerned with the new importing company to import Chile saltpetre, which was the main factor for obtaining nitrogen before this new method was obtained, I should like the Government to tell us what price was paid for this information, and how many of the members of the Commission are on the directorate or in the employ of the company. It would also be extremely helpful, and would clear up a lot of mystery about the transaction, if we could be informed whether there was any Clause in the Treaty making it a condition that the firm obtaining the factory and the Haber process were obliged in any way to obtain a certain minimum production and to sell the produce at any minimum or maximum price. In view of the fact that Germany and France a-re now practically self-supporting in this matter, and that the French Government deemed this process important enough to use a national factory for the purpose, it -appears to me that we should get the information which I desire, and I should be very glad if we could have that information. [HON. MEMBERS "Answer!"]

Captain DOUGLAS KING rose


Are we not to have a reply from the array of Whips on the Government Bench: from the Cabinet which is now sitting on the Front Bench?


Whips that cannot crack!


Surely they can make some reply to the statements that have been made.

Captain KING

I rose, but I understood that you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, had called upon the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Maclean). I should like to explain, in the first place, that I have had no notice that this question was going to be raised to-night. Notice was given about 10 days or a fortnight ago, and I was here to answer, but after 11 o'clock the Motion was postponed until some future occasion, when notice was to be given and there would be a Cabinet Minister to answer. I do not like to say that no notice was given on this occasion, but I have explained to the hon. Member for Gateshead (Mr. Beckett) and other hon. Members opposite, that the question really is one for the Treasury. The whole question of selling this factory to Messrs. Brunner, Mond and Company was carried out nearly five years ago, in 1920, so I understand it, by the Disposal Board. The War Office had not at that time, and never have had, and have not at the present time, anything to do with the question. It has never come under the War Office at all.

The Disposal Board, of course, is now a defunct body, and their legal executors are the Treasury. If the hon. Member requires any information of transactions carried out by the Disposal Board, I can only recommend him to put a question down, or give notice of such a Motion to the Treasury, so that they may make inquiries. I understand that the documents dealing with the transactions of the Disposal Board are, I think, stored in a warehouse at Manchester. Consequently, to obtain any such information would involve a considerable amount of time and public expense to obtain the documents wherewith any information could be given. But, as representing the War Office at the moment, I can give no information on the subject. The only Government Department, I imagine, that can give any information would be the Treasury as the legal executors of the Disposal Board.


Do I understand that the hon. and gallant Member has given the House an assurance that this information is not in the possession of the War Office?

Captain KING

To my knowledge there are no documents at all at the War Office dealing with this question. Neither the ownership of the factory nor the sale of the factory came under the War Office. It has never been a War Office question. It was dealt with, first of all, before the Disposal Board came into being by the Ministry of Munitions, and, after that, the sale was carried through by the Disposal Board.


I would ask your ruling Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I have been in formed since I came into the House that this afternoon my name was mentioned ix, connection with a particular question re garding a statement I am alleged to have made in connection with the administration of unemployment benefit. I would like to know if I am in order in raising this matter now, and if the hon. Member who raised the question is present in the House, so that I might have on opportunity of meeting him face to face.


The hon. Member is in order in raising this question, but I cannot compel the attendance of the hon. Member to whom he refers and of whose identity I am unaware.


I would like to know if I shall have an opportunity of raising this question, because I object to being stigmatised as a liar in my absence. I would like to be called a liar to my face, if I am to be called one.


I doubt if it would be in order to say that to the hon. Member to his face, but I think the hon. Member might confer with Mr. Speaker and, if the matter is of a serious nature, an opportunity might be found for a personal explanation.

Mr. MACLEAN rose


Has not the hon. Member exhausted his right to speak?


I have not spoken.


Possibly the hon. Member's utterance was only interrogative.


It is very nice to have such a long memory as to be able to recall what I said about seven minutes ago. I want to put this point to the representative of the War Office. He said, in reply to the statements of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Gateshead that the War Office never handled this matter. Will he kindly explain why, if that be so, the Secretary for War has himself undertaken to reply to every question that has been addressed to him on this particular subject? Why has he here, when any question was addressed to him, intimated that the proper authority on the question was the Treasury? He has always stood at that box and answered every question in a manner that gave no information—that it was not in the public interest to reveal the terms of purchase, that it was not in the public interest to let the names of the different officers who went on this Commission be known or how much was paid for it, and whether the patent was included in the matter or whether the sale was advertised.

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.