HC Deb 02 February 1939 vol 343 cc401-11

Order for Second Reading read.

3.52 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Cross)

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

The object of this Bill is to enable us to obtain statistics of industrial production. Its main purpose is to co-ordinate the existing powers under the Census of Production Act and the Import Duties Act. I think my best course would be first to sketch an outline of the effects of the Bill, and then to fill in some details. Hon. Members will observe that in the Schedule to the Bill, there is a passage in heavy type, and that passage contains the substance of the Bill. The rest of the Bill is for the consequential repeal of two provisos in the Census of Production Act. The Census of Production Act suffers from certain limitations upon the powers of inquiry conferred by it, and the effect of the Amendment is to add to that Act the more detailed powers of inquiry that exist under the Import Duties Act. So far as the industries covered by that Act are concerned, this involves nothing new, since those industries are already required to furnish this information under the Import Duties Act. We seek now to obtain the same information under the Census of Production Act as a matter of greater convenience both to administration and to the industries concerned. But there is also an important body of industry to which the Import Duties Act does not apply because its products are not dutiable upon importation under Part I of that Act. The effect of the Amendment, therefore, is new in so far as it brings these further industries within the scope of this more detailed inquiry.

I will now fill in the picture with a little more detail. The House is aware that the Census of Production is a general review of productive industry which is very wide in its application, although in some respects it is not very penetrating in its inquiries. In recent times, it has been the custom to take the census approximately every five years. Censuses were taken in 1924, 1930, and 1935. At present the intention is to continue to take them at five-yearly intervals, so that the next census would fall due to be taken next year. The Import Duties Act inquiries, on the other hand, are more limited in their application, as I have indicated; they are narrower in scope, although in certain respects they go into greater detail. It is necessary, for the purpose of the discharge of the functions of the Import Duties Advisory Committee, that they should be held more frequently than the Census of Production. They have been held in 1933, 1934 and in 1937, and a very limited inquiry indeed is being held for last year, while something on a much reduced scale will be held for this year. Next year an Import Duties inquiry will be unnecessary if a Census of Production is taken, and in the year after that it will be impracticable to hold one on account of the vast mass of work which will have accumulated owing to the census in the previous year.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

When the hon. Gentleman talks of the census, does he refer to the Census of Production or the Census of Population?

Mr. Cross

The Census of Production. I will describe now the scope of the two Acts. The Census of Production Act may be applied to all productive industry with the exception of agriculture, whether that industry be in private hands or under the control of a public authority. The Import Duties Act, on the other hand, applies only to factories and workshops engaged in the manufacture or processing of goods of a class or description which, if they were imported into the United Kingdom, would be chargeable with a duty of Customs either under the Import Duties Act, the Safeguarding of Industries Act, or the Silk Duties. That leaves an important list of industries to which the Import Duties Act powers do not apply, and as this involves something new, I think it would be desirable to give the House the main classes of industry concerned.

They are, firstly, excisable commodities—beers, spirits, tobacco, and so on; secondly, the articles which are mentioned in the free list; and thirdly, the group of industries to which the Import Duties Act powers do not apply—I may give as an example building and constructional work and the shipbuilding industry. I think that gives a picture of the types of industry covered by the two Acts, the whole field being covered by the Census of Production, while there are important limitations to the field covered by the Import Duties Act.

I turn now to the powers of inquiry which are possessed under these Acts. Under both Acts, it is possible to require information as to, firstly, the quantity and value of the output, and secondly, the cost of the materials, fuel and electricity consumed. But there are awkward limitations, with which I will deal later, as to the powers of inquiry under the Census of Production Act on these two points, whereas under the Import Duties Act there is no restriction as to the details which may be inquired into. There is a third point with regard to which there are powers of inquiry under both Acts, and that is the number of persons employed. Those three headings cover the powers of inquiry which exist under the Import Duties Act, but there are also certain other powers under the Census of Production Act; namely, the right to require information as to the power used or generated; secondly, the total amount paid to contractors for work given out to them; and thirdly, the number of days worked. Information on these points can only be required at the time when a census is taken; and this Bill makes no change in the practice.

I referred just now to the limitations upon the powers of inquiry that there are under the Census of Production Act into questions on the quantity and value of output, and, secondly, the cost of fuel and electricity consumed. Under proviso b of Section 3, Sub-section (1), of the Census of Production Act, which we propose to repeal under Clause 1, Subsection (1, b) of this Bill, information as to quantity or output can only be required in the detail specified in the import and export list. Here is an example of what occurs under that provision. Take the case of bread. Bread is an article which is not imported or exported in sufficient quantities to merit specific mention in the import and export list, and consequently there is no power to require quantitative information as to the output of bread. The same thing applies where the gas and electricity trades are concerned. The second limitation of the powers of inquiry under the Census of Production Act is in proviso b of Section 3 (1) of that Act, which we also propose to repeal under this Bill. Under that proviso the cost of all materials used and fuel and electricity consumed can only be required in one aggregate figure. That means that there is only power to require one figure covering the following items: all raw and semi-manufactured materials; all component parts that are worked up into more finished articles; all tools for replacing worn-out tools; all packing materials; all materials used for maintenance, construction and repairs; all coal, coke, gas, petrol, heavy oils and electricity. The House will see that a lump-sum figure of that kind is perfectly valueless except for the purpose for which it was originally intended, namely, to ascertain the net value of production without duplication.

That covers the powers under both Acts and the limitations in respect of the Census of Production Act which we propose to repeal. In 1935 the census of production was held by means of making use of the powers of both these Acts independently, the Board of Trade having been advised that there would be legal objections to issuing a form under the joint authority of both Acts. For instance, firms which were required to make their returns under the Import Duties Act had to be asked to provide voluntarily such information as could only be compulsorily required under the Census of Production Act. At the same time they were notified that the failure to supply these particulars voluntarily would necessitate the issue to them of another form under the Census of Production Act, under which the information could be obtained compulsorily. There were other difficulties with which I need not trouble the House, which had their origin when it was necessary to take this census under the dual powers of the two Acts.

The explanation which I have so far given covers Clause 1, Sub-section (1). As I have said, its provisions have the effect of adding to the Census of Production Act the powers of inquiry contained in the Import Duties Act. Sub-section (2) deals with the disclosure of information obtained. The extension of the powers of the Census of Production Act contemplated in the Bill would make it unnecessary to hold an Import Duties Act inquiry in the year when a census was taken, but the disclosure of individual returns under the Census of Production Act is expressly prohibited to any person not engaged in connection with the census. The result would be that the information supplied by individual manufacturers would be withheld from the Import Duties Advisory Committee and the Government Departments concerned with the administration of the Import Duties Act. The right to information obtained from Import Duties Act inquiries is at present accorded to the Import Duties Advisory Committee and other authorised persons under Section 10 of the Import Duties Act and under Section 11 of the Finance Act, 1934. Those powers have been transplanted into this Bill in order to afford the Import Duties Committee and the Government Department concerned the same rights with regard to information obtained from a census of production as already exist in regard to information obtained from Import Duties Act inquiries. These Clauses do not import any other added right of disclosure.

The Census of Production information has been of great use in the past not only to statisticians but to manufacturers. Manufacturers' associations use these figures in calculating the demand of other industries for their products. Individual firms find them a useful guide to the consumption of their customers. Moreover, without the additional information we cannot require information as to the total consumption of coal, coke, fuel oil, electricity, petrol and gas. Finally, this Bill has its Defence aspect. In making plans for controlling supplies in the event of war it is necessary to know what supplies of raw or semi-finished materials are required for industries which are making essential commodities. The 1935 census has already proved of great value in this connection, and, indeed, has proved to be invaluable to the Board of Trade. The Defence Departments frequently require this kind of information. This is a small Measure, but, in my submission it is a necessary and valuable one; it is not, I think, controversial, and I hope the House will readily give it a Second Reading.

4.10 p.m.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

It is a long time since the first proposals for taking a census of any kind, and when they were originally put forward they met not only with civil opposition but with ecclesiastical opposition. We remember the story in the Old Testament and what punishment was visited upon King David for his efforts in that direction. I believe I am right in saying that when the first Census of Population was taken in this country, there was a very considerable religious opposition to it; and that opposition had gradually to be overcome before the Census became a common and established fact. Of course, I recognise that there is a fundamental distinction between a census of population and a census of production. If the proposals for a Census of Production had been brought forward during the last century, they might not have been met with ecclesiastical opposition but I think they would have met with opposition from the religious dogma of laissez faire, and it would have been said that it was a monstrous inquisition to force upon the people engaged in industry a proposal that they should disclose to any one the details of what they were doing. However times have changed in both these matters, and the Census of Production rather than the Census of Population is now accepted as a step taken in the interest of the knowledge of the country.

I am glad to see that there is no proposal to alter the quiquennial period which has applied roughly in times gone by to the Census of Production. I only wish that the Government had been equally enlightened in the matter of a Census of Population. However, that does not specifically arise on the Bill. The proposals of the Bill are of a comparatively small character. They do not so much alter the amount of information which can be obtained as the method by which it can be obtained and the specific Act of Parliament under which it is obtained. Therefore, I do not think the House need have any great qualms in regard to it. We are recognising more and more that if we want to have a fully employed country we must have a great deal more planning than we have had in times gone by, and before we can plan successfully we must know the facts. Therefore, in general, statistics of information with regard to industries are valuable things. I also recognise, on the other hand, the obnoxious character of inquisitive action which may be unnecessary. Some of us took a very strong line with regard to the other question of the Census of Population and the facts to be disclosed under it, and the Minister of Health of that time, now the Secretary of State for Air, very wisely bowed to the obvious feeling that was shown throughout the House. But in the main I do not think that that applies to this Bill.

As the Minister has pointed out, only to a very small extent does the Bill give additional powers of inquisition. In so far as the information which he is seeking to obtain is concerned, we can say that nearly all of it is obtainable to-day under a different Act. It is only in a small number of cases to which that Act does not apply that the proposals of the Bill go outside what can be obtained already. In these circumstances I do not think the House need have any fear that the Bill confers any serious extension of the powers of inquisition which are already possessed by the Government, and for my part I shall not divide the House against the Bill.

4.15 p.m.

Sir Arnold Wilson

There are one or two observations which I would like to make. I entirely agree as to the great value of these figures; they would be much more useful if they could also be presented in the quinquennial reports by regional areas, as adopted by the Ministry of Labour. As the right hon. Gentleman has just said, it is most important that we should have more planning in the future, and if the Census of Production could be dealt with on a regional as well as an industrial basis, it would certainly help. I regret that the President of the Board of Trade has not taken powers in this Bill to obtain certain further figures such as the Ministry of Labour and other Ministries may reasonably require, but which they can hardly be expected to obtain from individual employers every year. For example, how many firms are employing ex-service men of 50 per cent. disability? How many ex-service men who have lost an arm or a leg are being employed? The value of the King's Roll, would be much increased if we knew how many of the ex-service men employed are really disabled, and to what extent. The Minister of Labour has repeatedly said that he has no information on that point. The quinquennial census could obtain that information.

The Census will not be complete until we have information as to average wages disbursed in any given industry upon the same basis as that applied to the use of materials. One great industry, the mining industry provides the fullest information as to wages and it is indispensable. The Import Duties Advisory Committee and Members of this House would certainly find their hands strengthened in dealing with applications by various industries for assistance in one form or another. We cannot do so unless we also know the amount of wages paid.

The quinquennial does not coincide with the general decennial Census. The Government have power under the Census Act to have a quinquennial Census by Order in Council but the last general Census was in 1931 and the next one will probably be in 1941. Would it not be possible to have the next Census of Production in 1941, and every five years thereafter so that the two would, thereafter, always coincide? The occupational Census which is undertaken every 10 years is of the greatest value, but it does not correspond with the Census of Production, because it is taken in a different year and on a different basis and does not cover the same ground. I know that efforts have been made by the Board of Trade recently to co-ordinate the work of the general Census with that of the Census of Production, and I should like the President of the Board of Trade to satisfy himself that nothing more can be done to make the two more effective. We might economise considerably on certain major and essential matters, and possibly obtain alternative information, and obtain it more quickly.

One other suggestion which I have to make is that the President of the Board of Trade should spare no effort to get out the Census of Production figures in a preliminary form a little more quickly than heretofore. The position in this respect is far better now than it was, but there is still room for improvement. Of the value of a preliminary report to industry there can be no doubt; it would be twice as valuable if we could get the information within six months instead of after 18 months.

4.21 p.m.

Mr. Marshall

As a matter of information, I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he is satisfied with the proposals for obtaining information with regard to the amount of electricity consumed in individual processes. It will be a rather difficult task, inasmuch as many different industrial processes are served from a common source of electricity. I appreciate the fact that it may be possible to do it, but it may well involve the firms concerned in some expense and I would like to know whether the hon. Gentleman has yet satisfied himself as to the method which will be employed.

4.22 p.m.

Mr. Cross

I would not like to answer the hon. Member categorically on such a point of detail. I will inquire into the matter and communicate with him later, but I may say, generally, that to the best of my knowledge and understanding the questions which we are putting in order to obtain this information are not questions to which the various industries concerned are likely to find any real difficulty in replying. My hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson) has raised a number of points which, I think, are all points of administration, and has made certain suggestions as to the manner in which the census might be made more effective. I take it, however, that he is satisfied with the general principle of the Bill, and I can assure him that I will look carefully into the points which he has raised in order to see whether we can improve the administration of the Measure by adopting any of his suggestions.

4.24 p.m.

Mr. Lawson

Would it not be possible to keep this Census more up to date than it is at the present time? Conditions at present are changing swiftly and I take it that the report which is to follow on this Census of Production will not be available in a complete form for about two years, or some period like that. In view of the almost kaleidoscopic changes which are taking place in industry, this information, when we get it, may be approximately useful but it will not be possible to rely upon it absolutely as data on which decisions may have to be made. Those who know the general condition of the country and particularly those who have followed the proceedings of the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Population must be aware that the present condition of industry, the point of view of Government direction and in- fluence, cannot remain static. At the Ministry of Labour previously we had difficulty with this matter. One wanted to know exactly what changes were taking place but found it difficult to obtain up-to-date information.

I do not know whether legislation would be required for this purpose or not, but I suggest it might be possible for the Board of Trade, perhaps under this Measure, to take steps from time to time to get the necessary information from employers as to changes in machinery for example, and their effect on industry and to keep such information up to date. I understand that in America they have some means of getting such information. I do not know what their method is and I do not want to suggest that the Board of Trade should necessarily descend to their methods, but I have always understood it that they find it possible there to state at a given time in a year the approximate production in any of the big industries. I suggest that some means might be devised whereby this Census of Production could be maintained in a more up-to-date condition.

4.26 p.m.

Mr. Cross

I find it impossible to answer categorically the points which have been raised by the hon. Member, but I would call his attention to the fact that since he was at the Ministry of Labour we have had the Import Duties Act and the inquiries which have been held under it every year have placed much more information about industry at the disposal of the Government. He raised the question of the rapidity with which the report of the census could be produced. I am sure he realises as well as I do that it is impossible at any time to be completely up to date in a matter of this kind, because no matter how quickly the work is done, by the time you have collected and collated your information it is inevitably to some extent out of date. I would only add that the greater the speed with which the work is done the greater is the cost of taking the Census of Production. I think that is a sound generalisation, and there is one other consideration concerning the point which the hon. Gentleman has raised. It is a matter for later consideration how far the Census of Production will be affected by the great volume of rearmament work which is going on to-day.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.