HC Deb 09 May 1938 vol 335 cc1379-82

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Lieut.-Colonel C. Kerr.]

11.23 p.m.

Mr. A. Edwards

I wish to raise a matter of grave importance. Last week I put a question to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade concerning the damping down of blast furnaces on the North-East Coast. The reply I received was very unsatisfactory, for the right hon. and gallant Gentleman said that the President of the Board of Trade could not see his way to give any Government assistance. Committed as we are to a tremendous rearmament scheme the House ought to realise the grievous nature of this neglect on the part of the Government, for since 1st February last year 22 blast furnaces have been damped down. Blast furnaces are not very easily lighted once they are damped down.

A year ago there was such a shortage of pig iron in this country that it had to be rationed to customers. I was going to America, and in order to be quite sure that I had sufficient stocks until I came back, I wanted to buy 1,000 tons of pig iron; but not a company in this country could sell me one ton, and I had to buy 1,000 tons of iron at a premium of 25s. a ton, in order to be sure. Yet, between July and December, such a vast change came about that blast furnaces are being closed down at a terrific rate. In my constituency this week, 400 more men will be put out of work, and I have received a message that two other blast furnaces will be put out this week. Will the House try to visualise what will be the position if we do get into a war? If we have to use ships to bring iron ore to this country, and if they have to be convoyed, as they were during the last war, it is easy to see what the position will be. Yet to-day we are deliberately damping down blast furnaces, instead of building up a store of pig iron which might be invaluable to us in the near future should we get into war. It is sheer suicide, and no potential enemy could do more damage to this country than the Government are doing by neglecting this great problem. It is inconceivable to think of a greater disservice to this nation. If we are in the danger that we are told we are in, no greater disservice could be done than that which is being done to-day by the people who sit on the benches opposite and who profess to be patriotic. I only say that, in order to emphasise the seriousness of the case, and I want to appeal to the right hong Gentleman to compel the Prime Minister to give his personal attention to this matter. In his answer last week the Parliamentary Secretary said: My right hon. Friend cannot see his way to adopt the suggestion."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd May, 1938; col. 673, Vol. 335.] Has his right hon. Friend really considered the matter? Has he discussed it within the Cabinet; and, if not, why not? There is scarcely any matter more important than this at the present time. What is the use of storing food if you will not store iron? We have made arrangements to pay a heavy cost for storing food. Now is the time when the Government ought to be storing stocks of pig iron, which would be invaluable if we got into trouble. It is no use waiting until we get into trouble and then wishing that we had bigger stocks of pig iron. When we see blast furnaces being destroyed and consider the effect upon the country to-day, it is almost as though the Government were dropping bombs on those blast furnaces.

I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to take this matter up. If he will bring it to the notice of the Prime Minister, he will have done a service not only to this House but to the country. The imports of pig iron from foreign countries have increased from 20,000 tons a month to nearly 80,000, and the difference involves 10,000 men. It is not only a question of the 400 men who will be out of work this week just when they were expecting to get holidays with pay. Instead they are to have no work and no holidays with pay. But in addition to them 10,000 men are involved in the increase of the importation of pig iron. I want the Parliamentary Secretary to give an undertaking to bring this matter to the attention of the Prime Minister.

11.28 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Captain Euan Wallace)

The hon. Gentleman who has raised this question will realise that he has not left the representative of the Government very much time in which to reply to his rather unnecessarily long explanation. He might at least have split the time equally. In his question the other day he made two suggestions—first, that the Government, if I understood him aright, should buy up all the pig iron produced in this country and store it, and secondly, that we might revive the practice of what was called, before the War, warrant stores. As I said in my answer, the question of reviving warrant stores is entirely a matter for arrangement with the trade. The idea has not been forgotten, but the industry has so far declined to revive the practice.

Mr. Edwards

I definitely deny that.

Captain Wallace

It does not matter whether the hon. Member definitely denies it or not. That is the fact. They have declined to revive the practice. If they wish to do so, it is open to them to revive it; it has nothing to do with His Majesty's Government. If it were considered by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence that it was necessary at present to build up a store of pig iron, I might have had a different answer to give, but actually at the moment, the production of iron and steel is ample for the requirements of the rearmament programme, and we have in addition caught up with civil requirements. There is an application in front of the Import Duties Advisory Committee, which, if they look favourably on it, and if this House does also, will restrict what has become an excessive import of pig iron into this country. But at the moment, I am informed by my right hon. Friend, there is no cause for anxiety in relation to either present or prospective Defence needs in regard to pig iron. The difficulty is not, I think, in obtaining pig iron, but in working it up, and a very small proportion of the cost of the aeroplanes that we want is attributable to pig iron. I admit that certain furnaces have been blown out since the peak period of last November, when there were 135 in blast—

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