HC Deb 23 June 1939 vol 348 cc2644-53

12.38 p.m.

Sir Herbert Williams

I beg to move, to leave out the Clause.

I put this Amendment down merely in order that information might be given which circumstances prevented us from obtaining during the Committee stage. This Clause gives very great powers. It enables the Minister, in certain respects, to authorise people to disobey existing Statutes. But I do not wish to deal with the general aspects of it. At the request of public utility organisations, I wish to have an answer to this question. As hon. Members will be aware, municipalities and companies carrying on gas, electricity and water undertakings do it to some extent under public Statutes, and also to some extent under private acts. Those Acts and Statutes and provisional orders made under them define the areas in which these undertakings have to carry out their duties, and they also impose a variety of limitations, in the public interest, as to the way that those duties should be carried out. Some nervousness is felt as to whether orders given by the Minister might override these limitations. Clause 18, paragraph (c) interprets "articles required for the public service" as meaning: anything which in the opinion of the Minister is or is likely to be necessary for or in connection with the production of any such article as aforesaid. That clearly includes gas, electricity and water. There are all sorts of difficult problems constantly arising—as the Minister knows only too well, because until recently he was Minister of Transport, and in that capacity was connected with electricity. Those concerned with the undertakings are anxious for some assurance that, in his operation of the Clause, the Minister will be careful not to do things which will create inconvenience and which might create a position by which, when the emergency is past, embarrassment might be caused to all concerned. It is a point of substance as to how the Minister is going to use a power so great that he can authorise people to commit a felony.

Sir I Albery

I beg to second the Amendment.

12.42 p.m.

Mr. Burgin

Certainly I have no intention of doing any of the things which the hon. Member suggests that I might be able to do under the Clause. I have no intention either of committing felonies or

of generating electricity in areas that are not mine. If the Minister was proposing to generate electricity under Clause 2, he would have to have transferred to him the powers of someone who was already authorised to do it, that is, the existing Electricity Commissioners—and there would have to be an Order in Council, which would require an affirmative Resolution of both Houses of Parliament. So there is no danger of these powers being transferred surreptitiously.

Sir H. Williams

It is not a question of the Minister himself generating electricity. He might, for instance, order the Birmingham Corporation to generate electricity within the boundaries of Coventry. That could be done without an Order in Council.

Mr. Burgin

I wanted to approach the problem from the beginning. Wherever there are wide powers, it is right to give the House an indication of what use will be made of them.

Mr. Alexander

If there were a great emergency and the Coventry electricity supply was disabled, why should not the Minister have power to supply electricity for Coventry?

Mr. Burgin

Perhaps we should go on. It is the intention to allow the Minister to obtain production from any field of supply which might reasonably be expected to be able to give the production desired; and electricity and gas are articles required for the public service, under Clause 18. As regards these statutory companies, the Bill is wide enough to cover gas and electricity; but there is no power to supply without an Order in Council. There is no intention that the Minister of Supply should enter these fields, except, perhaps, in regard to the generation of electricity or gas in a Government factory, for the use of that factory; although, even in a case of that sort, it is the current practice to use the available supply. I do not think it is necessary to do more than assure the hon. Member that it is not proposed to exercise the powers of Clause 11 in any of the ways he had indicated.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

12.45 p.m.

Mr. Alexander

The Bill, which has now passed through the Committee and Report stages, will not be opposed in the Division Lobby to-day by my hon. Friends, but that is for these reasons. In the first place, at long last the Government have produced a small Measure of legislation on the principle for which we have so long contended, namely, the establishment of a Ministry of Supply to deal with the proper equipment of the forces needed for our National Defence. However inadequate we may feel the Bill to be, it would be exceedingly difficult at this stage, having already divided on a reasoned Amendment on Second Reading, to oppose its Third Reading, but that must not prevent us from expressing very briefly our views about the inadequacy of the Measure in the state in which it is leaving this House for another place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton), in the course of a longer examination of the Bill on Second Reading, drew attention to the fact that, in the long run, it could not be argued that this very small Measure could really assist in the unification and control of the necessary supplies that the nation would need. The more one has examined the details of the Bill during its passage through the House the more that statement by my hon. Friend has come to be confirmed in our minds. It is true to say that the Bill, if it remains in its present state, is merely providing an expansion to some extent of the functions of the Secretary of State for War and his Department. I am a little disturbed at the moment, if the Minister will excuse my saying so, over my last communication from him. We had been inquiring into the question of supplying commodities to the Army, and when I wanted to know something about the matter, the right hon. Gentleman wrote back and said, "If you want to know about that, you had better write to the Secretary of State for War." I have begun to wonder what real powers, after all, the Minister for Supply has in this matter. I hope that at any rate when the Bill becomes an Act every Member of this House who is anxious on behalf of constituents to inquire into matters of supply, even though it may be confined to the War Office, will at least have the right to approach the Minister under the Act and be able to get a very firm and definite reply upon particular commodities. Apparently that is not the position at the moment, although perhaps he cannot yet be said to have been equipped with full statutory powers.

There is another point about the Bill as it leaves this House. While the House to-day was debating the powers of Clause 9, most of us felt extremely dissatisfied with the present state of affairs with regard to the control of production costs and the prevention of undue profits arising. My hon. Friends on this side of the House have been pressing constantly for the establishment of an adequate Ministry of Supply ever since 1934. That is five years ago, and I regret that the impression left upon my mind in the course of subsequent debates in this House, and in the examination of the profits of companies engaged in armament production, is that the failure between 1934 and 1939 to set up an adequate Ministry of Supply has already led to a very widespread exploitation of the public purse which might have been avoided if our advice had been taken earlier. It is now still a matter of great regret to us that, while the Government in this matter, as in so many other matters in the course of the last three years, have at long last given way to the overwhelming pressure of public opinion to some extent, they have not given way to the extent of entering fully, as they ought to enter fully, into the principles that we have adumbrated for a Ministry of Supply, which would provide a really effective check not only upon certain classes of services and commodities for the War Office Department alone, but upon all the requirements and necessities of the country in connection with the preparations for emergency.

It is not right on the Third Reading to advance detailed arguments of that kind because, in order to support that contention, we have already put them forward in Committee and upon the Report stage. It only remains for me to express regret that the Bill is still so inadequate in its provisions. I prophesy that, just as in the realm of foreign affairs the Government try, wholly inadequately, gradually to adopt piecemeal what has been Labour's foreign policy, and, as in the case of this Bill, they have at last been kicked by public opinion into making a small advance in the direction of really effective Government control of supplies, as we get nearer to a state of emergency they will be bound to accept finally the whole case which Labour has put in detail for the proper organisation of a Defence Ministry and Ministry of Supply which could do the work required for the nation in making adequate preparation for and maintenance of national Defence thoroughly, efficiently and economically.

12.53 p.m..

Sir P. Harris

I want to express the satisfaction of my hon. Friends that we have reached the Third Reading stage of a Bill for which, with hon. Members above the Gangway, we have been calling for many years. It would be ungrateful, now that we have obtained this very substantial contribution towards that for which we have asked, to be critical or to express regret. We had the satisfaction of voting for the Second Reading of the Bill, and we believe that, if vigour, energy and imagination are used in putting the Bill into operation, great service can be done towards ensuring national safety, and that the expedition and acceleration so long overdue can be achieved. I agree that the powers might have been greater. I regret some of the provisions in Clause 3. I would have liked to have seen a department more on the scale of the Ministry of Munitions taking under its umbrella the other two Service Departments. But everything depends upon the right hon. Gentleman. He has a colossal task before him if he likes to undertake it. The mere setting up of this Ministry in itself does not necessarily mean a large increase in output, but if the Minister uses his powers and obtains an adequate staff by securing the best men available to carry out these duties, we may see the arrears in supplies made up in a way that will give that security to the nation for which it has been calling so vigorously in all parts of the country.

May I make one suggestion? One of the greatest responsibilities of the Minister will be the manning of his Department. The great danger of all Government Departments is bureaucrasy, red-tape and officialism. I have the greatest respect for Civil servants. We have a national pride in their honesty and ability in the discharge of their own particular work, but this kind of work is not a job for the ordinary official mind, and I hope that the Minister will call into his service the best brains that are available in the country. We must have results, and secure the confidence of industry and trade on the one hand, and of labour on the other. That wants tact and leadership and, if he is prepared to give industry and the workers of the nation real leadership, we can get an output which will secure our Army, our Navy and our Air Force that equipment, both in clothing and in armaments, which will give us that safety that the serious international position so badly requires.

12.56 p.m.

Sir G. Schuster

I only wish to say a very few words because I think the best service that any of us can do in this matter is to allow the right hon. Gentleman to get on with his job which is, after all, what the Bill is for. The few words that I want to say are rather in answer to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander). Like so many others, his criticisms have been really criticisms not of the Bill but of the White Paper. It seems to me, however, that the Government has been very wise in not trying to thrust too wide duties on this new Department in the beginning. We have heard the Bill described as an inadequate measure. I think those are inaccurate words. Many of us who are wholehearted in our desire to see the right hon. Gentleman receiving every possible support in getting on with his job, nevertheless feel a fundamental dislike to this type of legislation. I would suggest to him a little exercise which might be instructive. If he goes through the Bill and underlines with a blue pencil all those passages such as "to do all such things as appear to the Minister necessary or expedient," or "if in the opinion of the Minister," and so on, he will find that we have given him a very large number of blank cheques. In principle phrases of that kind are objectionable for they make the Minister sole judge, and there is practically no appeal. That is one test that I would suggest. Another is to visualise the powers that are created by the Bill in the hands of some individual in whom perhaps he may have less confidence than he has in himself. If we look at the thing in that way we may rather feel that the measure goes too far than not far enough, and I should have expected to hear sentiments of that kind put forward by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris). Of course, if we get involved in a great emergency, all these powers will merge in wider and necessary measures of control. But if that contingency should be avoided, I hope the Government will consider, in the light of experience, whether it will not be possible to fill in some of these blank cheques and make more precise some of these wide discretionary powers that are given. Apart from that, it seems to me that the only thing worth saying is that the success of the Measure, and indeed the success of every kind of undertaking the necessity of which now lies on the country, depends on a full measure of co-operation between all the interests involved. I believe the Minister has done a very valuable thing for getting that co-operation in meeting the desire expressed as regards the provision for arbitration in the case of appeal. The business world will welcome the concession very heartily, and I should like to express my appreciation of what he has done. Beyond that, I only join in what I feel is the sentiment of the whole House in wishing the right hon. Gentleman God speed in his new efforts.

1.1 p.m.

Mr. Viant

It is interesting to hear hon. Members opposite expressing their regret that the State has to endow a Minister of Supply with even these limited powers. It is just as well that they, as well as we, should face the actual position. No one with an intimate knowledge of what is taking place in the factories that are producing armaments can help regretting the lack of organisation that obtains. We are confronted with a set of circumstances where, should an emergency arise, nothing but organisation will enable us to achieve success in our objective. I regret, not that the Minister has taken such powers as he has, but that he has not taken greater powers because, should an emergency arise, within 24 hours we should be confronted with something in the nature of a stampede in our efforts to bring organisation in where chaos obtains at present. We should be taking a longsighted view of things and be giving the Department powers at this moment which will bring co-operation and organisation into our midst. Men working in the factories are painfully aware of the short- comings of to-day, more especially those who have experience during the last war. The same chaos obtained then and it was not until we established a Ministry of Munitions that we got organisation in place of chaos. It is for that reason that I sincerely regret that the Bill is not wider and that the Minister is not taking greater powers.

I hope that, even with his limited powers, he will appreciate that we are far short of organisation in the factories which are carrying out contracts for the Government. Limited as his powers are, none the less we are pleased to give the Bill the Third Reading, because it is a start. We can hope that the emergency that we fear will not arise, but, none the less, we should prefer that the Minister had been taking greater powers with the sincere intention of creating organisation which would have met a possible emergency with undoubted success, instead of being left in doubt as to whether these powers will enable us to do all that is required.

1.5 p.m.

Mr. Burgin

It will be discourteous, after what has been said and the large measure of collaboration there has been from all parts of the House, if I did not say a few words before the Bill passes from this place. There is still a good deal of misapprehension as to the width of the powers conferred by this Bill. I should not like anyone, from any words used by the hon. Member for West Willesden (Mr. Viant), to draw the conclusion that the supplies and the organisation of this country are not fully ready for the emergency, should the emergency arise. Of course, there are immense powers granted by this Bill, but the problem of striking a balance between the industrial life of the country and its abnormal defence needs is a limitless one. The powers given by the Bill in the area over which I wield jurisdiction cover every stage from the raw material to the finished article of anything required for the public service—the whole field of imports, the whole field of industry, of manufactures, industries, basic, light and heavy transport and storage all come within the picture, and the irresistible conclusion from the practical point of view of business is that if these articles are required. the full and abundant powers given by this Bill are necessary for the Minister of Supply.

Mr. Viant

I hope he will use them.

Mr. Burgin

The first task is to deal with War Office requirements and with the accumulation of general reserves of essential materials. The Ministry can begin by the exercise of its initial powers, and by the measure of its success in the handling of those powers it will be possible to decide whether, as a matter of business or as a matter of theory, it is desirable that those powers should be augmented. I express my gratitude to hon. Members in all parts of the House for making the passage of the Bill such an easy one. I value greatly the different contributions which have been made during the Debates; and in the exercise of the powers given to me after the Royal Assent has been given to the Act, I shall have regard to the various counsels offered to me from all parts of the House.

Sir A. Southby

May I remind my right hon. Friend that he said he would say a word in regard to the suggestion, which I think met with approval on both sides of the House, in regard to the appointment of a deputy-chairman of the board of arbitration.

Mr. Burgin

I have accepted that.

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

Bill read the Third time, and passed.