HC Deb 03 December 1936 vol 318 cc1519-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Sir G. Penny.]

7.27 p.m.


I promised yesterday that at the first opportunity I would raise the question of the control of prices in the manufacture of armaments. It was quite evident from the attitude of the Minister yesterday that he knew that he was being pressed upon a subject about which he did not care to say too much. Those of us who come from the industrial areas know exactly what has taken place. There can be no excuse for not knowing what should be the price of any of these articles which we are producing for armament purposes. There is a basic price for every part of an aeroplane, every part of a gun, every part of large and small shells —for every detail in the production of articles of that kind. It is disheartening and disconcerting, with a Government claiming to be so capable as the present one, to find that it is almost impossible to get any definite information in regard to prices. There is no one acquainted with the trade who does not admit that there is a tremendous amount of fraud going on and swindling of the public generally, so far as the price of armaments is concerned. That statement does not apply to every firm. That statement applies to a certain number of firms. There are firms who feel that they have a certain duty to perform and they perform it honestly, but there are a number of firms who are in combination who are simply making this the means of amassing wealth very quickly. They are the "get rich quick" type.

I know the difficulty of being able to call up the Minister to be present in a case like this, but that does not deter me one iota from saying what I want to say. On the question of the manufacture of aeroplanes, we have had statements from that bench that were made without the knowledge that they were true. Absolutely untrue statements have thus been made, and they ought to know that they are untrue, but they seem to be afraid that the public should get to know that the business people are so strong in their combinations and representation on that side of the House that they can at any time manufacture under conditions which allow them to get away with the swag. On the question of ordinary heavy and light castings, we are already being mulcted in prices for heavy castings that have no relation at all to the thing produced, and when you take the light castings that relate to the production of aeroplanes, questions put and answered in this House show that there is no desire on the part of the Government to give the slightest information on the subject.

We remember when the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence could not even reply to questions as to what was the combination of certain firms and why it was that one firm could be organised in such a way, evidently by the help of the Government, that they could become controllers of 19 firms, some manufacturing and some distributing. The danger of that is this: It is not only the question of control, but here we have a firm in control with the least possible knowledge of the manufacture. They have knowledge as to sales from the days when they began to sell bicycles up to the sale of motor cars, but in actual, scientific knowledge, in turning out, in production, they have no knowledge, yet this firm become what is called Rootes Securities, whatever that may mean. Why should it be, with all our engineering skill in this country, that highly skilled firms who are skilled in the active production of things should in any way be dictated to, controlled by, or handled by a group that does not know anything about those things, just a group of financiers, with the huge Prudential firm behind them shoving up the money? And the Prudential has never yet shoved up money without a good prospect of getting a good handful back. In fact, it always looks for two handfuls hack for the one it gives.

It would seem to us that if the nation is in distress—I do not believe it is—and if these people opposite are always boasting about their loyalty, a word which sometimes stinks, the way it is used by people who are in every sense disloyal, there should be no necessity to have questions put in this House with regard to these firms. Even from the benches opposite questions come, because they know the dishonesty that is being practised. One would have thought that the flag-waving type of patriot would have said, "For my country I will act honestly in business, and I will produce machines at the lowest possible price and profit." But what are the facts? Are they not that the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence has had to set up a special committee, just the same as in some big works, where there is destruction by rats and mice, special cats are kept to try and kill them off. That is the committee's work, to try and get a check upon the rapaciousness of these flag-waving patriots.

I regret that there is no one representing the Department on the Government Bench, and I hope something will be done, and done quickly, because on the money already set aside, there are a great many people who are quite willing now to get rid of their little businesses and retire. Why should that be in a community where we are all supposed to be trying to do our best for the nation? Why should there be such conditions existing commercially that some small firms can already sell out and retire? It shows that there is something wrong, because in ordinary, everyday competitive business you cannot do that. Unless you have some monopoly of some kind or another, it cannot be done.

With regard to the production of aeroplanes, it is well known that certain things should not be made public, and yet when we had an exhibition of a 320miles an hour machine, carrying 20 tons, what did we do? Did we say it was to be kept secret? No; the Government allowed this to be done; There was a special exhibition held, and the representatives of all other nations were called in to see this wonderful new thing that we had produced, and we were told that it was done to get sales. I ask any sane body of people, Has it come to this, that we are so honest in our ideas of warfare that we are only going to have the same brand of things that all the world knows about? We have seen that the idea of keeping certain things secret is not so much to advance the nation's interests as to advance the interests of certain commercial firms. Already they are trying to get agreement that the parts of an aeroplane, which is a very intricate thing, can be made at a great distance from each other and then assembled. As a practical engineer, I know how wrong that is. I do not care what they say to the contrary.

The difficulty is this, that we get appointed in this House a man, a capable lawyer, to co-ordinate all the different departments with regard to war service. Just imagine having a Defence Minister who has never been inside a workshop in a practical sense, and who has no sense of physics or engineering such as is required in making war material. And we say that this gentleman is going to be capable of co-ordinating all these things. The man who is going to co-ordinate things is one who understands what these things are. When the heads of departments talk to the Defence Minister in their own scientific and technical language, he cannot understand what they are talking about. It is impossible, because he has not got the training. The pull between one Department and another depends on who can make the best impression on the lack of knowledge of the Minister for the Coordination of Defence.

How does the Minister know that things are going well, as he says they are? Suppose you showed him six or seven different kinds of new aeroplane engines, and he had the power to say whether their manufacture was going on well or otherwise. He does not know, but he has to take the word of someone else. That is not control. You are not co-ordinating unless you know that the thing is right, but if you have to take someone else's word, it is a waste of time, and it is not making progress at all, nor is it in any way putting production on a business basis. In conclusion, let me say that I have raised this question for the purpose of trying to get something done now in relation to prices. I repeat that there is not one article being made for which there is not a basic price in existence, and supposing anyone should challenge that statement, here is my reply: Every employer wants to get his work done by piece work. Why? Because he knows the cost of every part. I hope that whoever represents the Government will take my remarks to the proper quarter and ask for something to be done in regard to meeting them.

7.40 p.m.


I should like to ask whoever is representing the Government whether there is a possibility of anyone representing the Department referred to by the hon. Member for Springburn (Mr. Hardie) replying to the charges which he has made with regard to the co-ordination of defence and the method of operating that Department. It is not only an engineering matter, although that is serious enough, with regard to the provision of the various materials and products that have been referred to many times in this House, but there are also textile and other materials that are being purchased at this time. We have had no statement up to the present as to what method is being adopted in order to see that the Government are having a fair deal and a square deal with regard to the enormous orders that they have given out.

We have been told that there is a Coatings Committee and a committee such as was described by the hon. Member for Springburn, that is supposed to watch for people who are believed not to be acting quite fairly and honestly, but surely that is not enough. We ought to be quite sure, not only in the matter of costs, but in the matter of the article produced, that it is being produced in such a way that if a moment ever comes when it has to be used on behalf of this country, we shall find that it is capable of carrying out all that was intended when the order for it was given. We know very well, from past experience, that when many things which were ordered and stored had to be used, they were found not to be up to the standard that their makers had been paid for. I would ask, if it is the Patronage Secretary who is going to reply, that he will make, not only this House, but the country assured that everything that is being engaged upon by the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence is being done in such a way that the country may be satisfied that, whatever it expends, it will be to the advantage of this country and will not be wasted.

7.44 p.m.


Knowing the capabilities of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, I think I can give a full assurance, not only to the hon. Gentlemas opposite, but to the House as a whole and to the country outside. I give that assurance in the absence of the Minister, who, I regret to say, was not informed by the hon. Member opposite that this Debate was going to be raised to-night. I am not complaining of that, because it has arisen owing to the fact that the business has been got through at an earlier hour than was anticipated. I have heard certain parts of the discussion, and I shall see that my right hon. Friend's attention is drawn to what has been said.