HC Deb 17 May 1939 vol 347 cc1397-400
48 and 49. Mr. Ellis Smith

asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (1) whether he is aware of the large number of machine tools purchased from abroad, many of which are specialised machines; and what steps have been or are to be taken to deal with the urgent need to manufacture these specialised machines, and to organise the machine-tool production of this country;

(2) what steps have been taken to deal with the evidence given before the Select Committee on Estimates in 1938 by officials of the War Office, the Air Ministry and the Admiralty with reference to the cost and delivery of machine tools; and is he satisfied that the time has now arrived for the creating of shadow factories for machine-tool production and the urgent need of the production of specialised machine tools in particular?

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. W. S. Morrison)

The matters referred to in the first part of the second question have been forming the subject of negotiations with the Machine Tool Trades Association which are still in progress. As to the other points raised in the questions, I am aware that, by agreement with the Machine Tool Trades Association, considerable purchases have been made abroad for the purposes of the rearmament programme, both of special machine tools and of tools where delay in delivery from makers in this country was apprehended. There is, I am glad to say, a continuing process of developing manufacture in this country of improved types of machine tools. As at present advised, I could not commit myself to the provision of shadow factories. I may add that the implications of the increased demand for machine tools resulting from Army expansion are constantly under review.

Mr. Smith

As no answer is given to that part of the second question which asks what attention has been given to the evidence before the Select Committee on Estimates by the representatives of the War Office, the Air Ministry and the Admiralty, is the Chancellor of the Duchy aware that thousands of pounds are being paid out unnecessarily for these machine tools, and has not the time arrived when they should be manufactured either in a nationalised factory or in a Government controlled factory?

Mr. Morrison

With regard to the evidence to which the hon. Member refers, my answer states that that matter has been forming the subject of negotiations with the Machine Tool Trades Association and that these negotiations are still in progress. I am not aware of the facts contained in the second part of the supplementary question.

Mr. Attlee

Is it not the fact that we are still dependent upon Germany for very important machine tools, and that if there is a prolonged delay in taking any action whatever to restrict that dependence, it may be very serious in case of war?

Mr. Morrison

I would say in general that the proportion of machine tools imported from abroad is not large compared with the amount of manufacture at home. With regard to the particular position of Germany, I would not like to give an answer as to the proportion without notice, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the position is improving, and as the result of the negotiations which are now in progress I hope it will improve still further.

Mr. Attlee

It is not so much a question of the bulk of the machine tools as that certain specialised machine tools are not made in this country which are of the utmost importance.

Mr. Morrison

I am aware that certain highly specialised machine tools are required for purposes of rearmament, but I do not think that there is any substance in the allegation that we are dependent upon any particular source abroad for any particular type of machine tools.

Mr. Lawson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that people who know this industry well state that we are still as much dependent upon external sources of supply for machine tools as we were, and that things are not getting any better in this connection?

Mr. Morrison

I am not aware of what has been stated, but the position is that the capacity in this country has in recent years expanded enormously for the production of machine tools. At the same time, our requirement for machine tools has also expanded, and it is specially for that that we require to import machine tools from abroad. That is the general position, but I assure the House that the position with regard to the home supply is improving.

Major Milner

Is it the fact that in the negotiations now in progress the machine tool makers have refused to produce their books?

Mr. Morrison

These negotiations are still in progress, and I am anxious to say nothing at this stage to prejudice their successful conclusion. I will answer the particular point raised by the hon. and gallant Member by saying that it is not the case.

Mr. A. Edwards

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that more than two years ago a Middlesbrough company offered to the Government through me to lay out their entire factory for the production of these tools and that the Government gave them no encouragement?

Mr. Morrison

I am not aware of that particular case, and I hope that the hon. Member will give me particulars of it.

Mr. Benjamin Smith

Is the House to understand that the evidence given by Civil Service officials on behalf of the armed forces to the Estimates Committee was untrue? That is the statement they made, and I know, as I am a member of that committee.

Mr. Morrison

No, Sir. This is not a question of whether that evidence and these statements were true. The question I was asked about the production of books does not refer to past practice about which evidence was given to the Select Committee, but to the present negotiations.