HC Deb 20 July 1939 vol 350 cc887-94

11.12 p.m.

The Minister of Supply (Mr. Burgin)

I beg to move, That the Draft Order entitled the Minis try of Supply (Transfer of Powers) (No. 1) Order, 1939, presented to this House on 17th July, be approved. On the Second Reading of the Ministry of Supply Bill on 8th June there was available to hon. Members Command Paper No. 6034, which outlined the powers that were to be transferred initially to the Minister of Supply. The draft Order which is now tabled carries out the forecast set out in the White Paper, and I do not think it requires any explanation.

11.13 p.m.

Mr. Ellis Smith

The Command Paper says that the Royal Ordnance factories and other manufacturing establishments concerned with stores shall be transferred and shall become the responsibility of the Minister, and it refers to functions on an agency basis of the Admiralty, Air Minis try and Civil Departments. I wish to ask whether those functions will include the purchase of land. I wish to give expression to the public disquiet which exists in all areas where development is taking place. It is stated that there are conferred on the Minister powers, rights and privileges in relation to the acquisition and the holding of land. Will it be possible to anticipate the requirements in land purchased for defensive purposes? Let me give a few examples of the need for the carrying out of these Orders in the way that I have in mind. The Minister on 8th June said that the total land purchased for the Ringway airport was 638 acres and the price £53,300. The owner claimed £90,000, and yet I read in a paper called "Land and Liberty" that in 1932 he paid £8,000 for land, for which he received £53,300, or approximately £800 an acre. Do hon. Members think that we are playing the game with the taxpayer if we acquiesce in this kind of thing? The "Sunday Referee" in 1936 gave the case of land worth £20 an acre, and said that in many cases where the Air Minister was proposing to acquire land the price had gone up to £200 and to £800 in some cases of land which ought not to have been more than £50 an acre.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Clifton Brown)

I think it would save time if the Minister said whether his powers do include the acquisition of land.

Mr. Burgin

The powers do include the acquisition of land.

Mr. E. Smth

I knew that. I have read this very carefully, and it states clearly and definitely that powers will be conferred on the Minister of Supply in regard to the acquisition of land. I contend that it is not good enough to leave this to the Minister. This House has some responsibility, and we must bring into the open what has been happening in this matter if we are to fulfil our duties. I want it on record that since 1935 the needs of the nation have been exploited by landowners to an extent unheard of in our history, and it is time that the House should judge for itself. I was going to give a number of illustrations to show why this power should be conferred on the Minister of Supply, and I hope he will use it as soon as possible. There have been cases where land which has never been worth more than £20 an acre, as soon as it has been mooted that the Secretary of State for Air was pro posing to construct an airport, went up to £300 an acre in many cases and to £800 in a few cases. It means that the Secretary of State for Air, not having the powers which are now to be conferred on the Minister of Supply, has paid any thing from £100,000 up to £300,000 for an airport, whereas the real cost ought to have been 50 or 60 per cent, below that figure. That is an intolerable position. Is it to be allowed to continue? I want to ask when this kind of thing is going to stop? We have taken steps to restrict the profits of the armament manufacturers, not very satisfactorily from our point of view. If we are to restrict the profits of a certain section of industry, it is not fair to the nation to allow land owners to get away with the swag to the extent that they have done during the past few years. I want those observations to be placed on record so that the Minister can reply to them and hon. Members can have an opportunity of considering what we have been paying for land.

On page 3 of the Order, it is stated that there will be transferred to the Ministry of Supply the following duties—the right to use, occupy and control all Government factories and establishments used, occupied or controlled by any Government Department for the purpose of discharging any of the powers and duties of that Department transferred to the Minister by virtue of this Order. It goes on to say that all the rights and liabilities held, enjoyed or incurred by any Government Department in connection with the powers and duties of that Department are to be transferred to the Minister. Those are very wide powers, and it is most important that the House should know where it stands with regard to them, in order that, through the House, the Minister should be answerable to the nation.

Therefore, I should like to put a few questions to the Minister with regard to that part of the Order to which I have referred. Is it intended that the Minister should use the powers conferred upon him by the Order? Is it his intention to co-ordinate research through out industry? Is it his intention to in- crease research? Having regard to the very serious international situation, the time has arrived when there should be a rapid expansion in industry in this country, owing to the growing demands of heavy industry and of the armaments section of industry. The time has arrived for an expansion in the production of aluminium, magnesium, ferro alloys and calcium carbide. There are many people in high places in this country, who are concerned about the future of this country and our defence preparations, and who are very much concerned about the restriction on the supply of the requirements I have mentioned.

There is a suspicion in many parts of the country— a suspicion which I share to a very great degree— that, owing to the monopoly control of the production of these essentials of modern industry and modern armaments, this country is not obtaining the supplies of these essentials which it ought to be obtaining. When this great monopoly which exists in this country has cartel arrangements with certain countries which have compelled us to embark on an enormous expenditure on armaments, we are bound to be suspicious when we see restrictions placed on the production of these essentials of industry. I want the Minister to be good enough to consider the advisability of calling a meeting as soon as possible of the Imperial Economic Committee, the Electricity Commissioners and the Import Duties Advisory Committee in order that they may make an examination of the whole field of industrial development of this country and of the needs arising out of the rapid expansion of our defence forces.

My final point is this. Anyone who knows anything about industry in this country knows the great need that exists for the utilisation of home-produced fuel. People who are competent to speak on the subject are concerned about the relative lack of development in Britain as compared with France, the United States, Germany and the Soviet Union. I wish to ask the Minister whether these powers will enable him to embark upon a policy of making fuller use of the fuel resources of the country, and whether he will consider consulting the Minister of Mines and the Fuel Research Department in order to secure the maximum of results in the minimum of time?

11.26 p.m.

Mr. Stokes

While I support my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke (Mr. E. Smith) in his appeal to the Minister to take control of what is, I agree, the biggest racket of all—the land racket— I do not wish to go into the details of that matter tonight. But I would call the Minister's attention to two points in connection with supplies for the Militia camps. On 18th July I asked the Secretary of State for War whether he was aware than in certain camps on Salisbury Plain, stoneware glazed pipes were being used at 9s. 7d. per yard instead of concrete pipes which can be purchased at 6s. The Secretary of State gave me the surprising reply that concrete pipes were not manufactured under 9-inch diameter and that most of the work on these camps required pipes of 4-inch and 6-inch diameter and that the health authorities were not satisfied to use concrete pipes for these purposes. I do not suggest for a moment that the Secretary of State was attempting to mislead me or the House, but the answer is grossly in accurate for the reason that concrete pipes are in fact, made in diameters down to 4 inches, and that they are glazed and just as good for sewerage work as earthen ware pipes and that they are being used in many sewerage schemes at present. Why the War Department should consider concrete pipes unsuitable, I fail to under stand. A great waste of public money is involved, and I hope the Minister of Supply will examine it.

The second point concerns the price of bricks. I called the attention of the Secretary of State for War to the fact that bricks used in the construction of those camps were being purchased at 70s. per 1,000, whereas they could be purchased at 52s. 6d. per 1,000. I subsequently learned that they could be purchased at 44s. per 1,000. The right hon. Gentleman replied that no source of sup ply of bricks at 52s 6d. per 1,000 delivered at site, was known to the War Department. We must be living in a lunatic asylum. I learn that since February, 1938, the right hon. Gentleman's own Department has been supplied 5,000,000 bricks at prices from 43s. 9d. to 51s. 3d —

Mr, Deputy-Speaker

It is a question of transfer of powers and not of the price of bricks, which is under consideration.

Mr. Stokes

All I want to do is to impress on the Minister the urgency of this matter which is awaiting his attention and to ask him, in view of this gross waste of public money, to take it into consideration immediately. I refer him to columns 163 and 164 of the Official Report of 18th July for particulars.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Burgin

The hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. E. Smith) has special know ledge on these matters, and I have listened to his observations with great interest. I have power to acquire land under these transferred powers for any of the purposes of the Ministry of Supply, and I quite appreciate the importance of buying in secret and at a fair price, and of not having the fact that the Government are in the market blazoned abroad. I would ask the hon. Member to counsel some of his friends to enable me to negotiate sometimes not in the full glare of publicity, because if I am questioned as to exactly where land that I am about to acquire is, what is its acreage, who is the vendor, and what is the price, it does not tend to render my actions of a secret character or to make it easy to carry them to a successful conclusion.

Mr. Stokes

Will the right hon. Gentle man state on what basis he is going to make such purchases?

Mr. Burgin

Not in advance. I in tend to buy in the open market as far as possible, without revealing the fact that the purchaser is a Government Department, and I have very little doubt but that, with capable assistance, I shall be able to acquire land at fair prices ruling in the neighbourhood and without the occurrence of those more extravagant in stances which have occurred in the past. The hon. Member for Stoke's second question was whether I was in favour of increased and co-ordinated research. Certainly I am a whole-hearted believer in research and I believe that it is right to spend adequately on research in order that production may be efficient. Whether research throughout industry can be co-ordinated is another story. It is re search in the armament industry that I am primarily concerned with, or research in matters of the supply of articles required for the public service.

Mr. Tomlinson

I am a little concerned at the implications behind the Minister's words. Is he laying down as a suggestion to this House at this time of so-called national crisis that it is essential that we should retain secrecy as to whether the Government are requiring land for defensive purposes in order to get that land at a reasonable price? Is that behind the Minister's mind?

Mr. Burgin

Not in the least. What I was saying was that if questions were put in this House while matters were still in negotiation, it was not likely to facilitate the acquisition of land at the original price, and I had in mind a particular question that was put within the last two or three weeks and to which the answer had to be given that it was inadvisable to say more at the moment. In fact the question was put, and it caused considerable inconvenience. What I was making was a perfectly general request that it should be realised you cannot negotiate to the best advantage if you are doing so acompanied by question and answer before there is any binding contract. I had no sinister meaning at all.

The third question was whether I would convene a meeting of the Imperial Economic Committee, the Import Duties Advisory Committee, and the Electricity Commissioners. Without giving any undertaking as to which bodies are to be convened, I say at once that I intend to act in collaboration with industry, and there will be published in a very few days details of advisory committees and matters of that kind, showing that I am fully alive to the importance of taking the various bodies into consultation and endeavouring to arrive at mutually satisfactory results. The fourth question was whether I was alive to the necessity of developing re serves of home-produced fuel. Yes, I am. and I have already been in contact with the Minister of Mines and will remain in contact with him and with the Fuel Re search Department. The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) has raised again on the question of the transfer of these powers matters which he has put to the Secretary of State for War by way of question and answer. I am aware both of the questions and the answers, and of the implications and the facts behind them, and will take them into consideration.

Resolved, That the Draft Order entitled the Ministry of Supply (Transfer of Powers) (No. 1) Order, 1939, presented to this House on 17th July, be approved.