Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Grimston.]
§ 10.47 p.m.
§ Mr. A. Edwards (Middlesbrough, East)
I put a Private Notice Question some time ago to the Minister of Supply asking about delays. The answer indicated that the Minister was satisfied that there were no delaying methods in his Department, and I rather felt it my duty to give notice to raise this matter on the Adjournment. It is important that Ministers should protect permanent officials, and it is important that Ministers themselves should be protected, but it is equally important that Members of the House bringing matters of national importance to the notice of Ministers and the House in pursuance of their duty should also be protected. I want to put before the Minister some instances of deliberately delaying methods which are a very serious menace to the output of munitions. The right hon. Gentleman should be glad to receive the assistance that hon. Members can give in pursuance of their duty. The replies that he gets are not always satisfactory to him if he did but know it. In answer to a Question only to-day, he received a reply to give to me, a very flimsy truth in which was conveyed a colossal untruth. if he will go into the matter, he will find that out. It was with regard to returns made by Alfred Herbert and Co. Being connected with the importation of machine tools myself, I know a good deal about it, and it is not through mere mischief-making that I am raising the question, but that I wish to help the Minister and his Department.
One instance of delay is the question of a process which I brought to the attention of the first Minister of Supply, I think immediately after the war broke out. It was offered to the Ministry by a German, a member of an American firm, who had spent some time in this country, and after the process had been rejected, was encouraged to give further information. It took until 31st May to get any satisfactory action on the part of the Ministry. At that time I told them that I thought we were entitled to know whether or not they really wanted to test this process. As I have mentioned before 359 in the House, the process concerns the production of ferro-chrome. At the present time, the chrome has to be sent from Africa to America for conversion into ferro-chrome, and then has to come to this country, and the cost to the Ministry is about £100 a ton. The process to which I am referring, if successful—I do not profess to know anything about its merits, and am complaining only about the delays—would produce the ferrochrome at a figure of £25 a ton. A saving of £75 a ton would be of some considerable importance to the Ministry, and would amount to a total saving of some £2,000,000 a year. It would be of very considerable importance to the Ministry of Shipping, who have now to arrange for this material to be taken from Africa to America and from America to this country.
In a matter of this importance, I felt it was right to have a decision one way or the other. One of the officials of the Department, at my request, had a conference with two outside experts, and the Minister's private secretary was present to be quite sure that the position was fairly considered. On the merits of that conference, it was decided that this man should be authorised to go ahead with the tests, and that if the tests were satisfactory, the Government would provide the money to put down the working plant to produce the ferro-chrome. [Interruption.] I am stating the facts. The Minister can say what he likes. The Minister was not there, and he may dispute what I am saying, but I think most of the people who were at the conference would agree with me. In any case, the capital for the working plant—which would have cost £50,000 to put down—is immaterial, because I am speaking about the test. The test was agreed upon, an independent scientist was appointed to carry out the test, and his word was to be accepted as final. The man concerned got busy. He could have been safely in America. He was a German, but a member of an American company; he remained in this country, at a rather dangerous period perhaps, because he was encouraged to think that the process would be a useful one.
When the test was about to be made—I think it was at the end of May—the man began to get his things together. 360 He was willing to spend his own money, if necessary, to carry out the test. When he was all set for the test, he was interned. The police did not want to intern him, the Home Office did not want to intern him; all they wanted was a word from the Minister. The technical man who had had this matter in hand throughout gave a letter, which was perfectly satisfactory to everybody, saying that the man was occupied on a very important test which would be of real national importance. Then another official of the Department sent another very confidential letter which caused the man to be interned. After a great deal of trouble, we managed to have the man brought back to London, where he could be ready for consultation. The position now is that the man simply cannot do the job, the Ministry still profess to want the thing to be tested, but to this day not a thing has been done to implement the undertaking to carry out the test. My complaint is that if the process has an outside chance of being satisfactory, it is the Minister's job to chase the man and the process, and to have it tested. Instead of that, I have been in the position of going to the Minister as though asking a favour for somebody. I object very strongly to being put in that position. The Ministry should have endeavoured at all costs to have the thing proved as quickly as possible. It is now 12 months since the matter was put to the Ministry.
If that were an isolated case, one might pass it, but it so happened that two days earlier I had a similar case of a man who had a process for the production of aluminium. No one will pretend that aluminium is not wanted. Every Minister is saying that we must sacrifice everything to get aluminium. This man had a process for converting aluminous clays. It happens that the big dumps at the South Wales coal mines, which are an eyesore, contain about 30 per cent. of alumina, which represents about 15 per cent. metallic aluminium, all of which can be converted into aluminium. There again there was a dispute. Someone in the Ministry said that it would not work. It was turned down, and again I was not satisfied. A conference was agreed upon, and the matter was to be put before two experts. It was stated to be uneconomical, but we are not considering economies; we are discussing and considering a matter 361 of life and death—the production of aluminium. We have lost the bauxite deposits in France, and our main access to deposits is thousands of miles away, adding a further strain upon our shipping resources. It was agreed that it should be tested and carried out as quickly as possible. I waited a week, and then wrote asking how the matter was getting on. I had a reply, but I think it took from 8th June to gth July to tell me. they knew nothing about it. That is a very serious matter. If there is a method for producing aluminium, it is the Minister's duty to do something about it. At least it was his job, unless it has been transferred to the Ministry of Aircraft Production. At any rate, it was somebody's duty, without waiting for some Member of Parliament to ask about it.
I have had two contradictory letters. One says they are sorry for the delay. My secretary, in writing the letter, spelt the name wrongly. Instead of being something like Seailles, it was spelt as Saeilles. That is absolute humbug. If I bad known we should have had so much tine, I would have brought the letter with me, but perhaps the Minister has it and will read it. At any rate, no honest man in that Ministry could possibly have mistaken the process. There is only one process to which it could refer. To this day, as far as I know, no one has made a serious attempt to test out that process and to find out whether we can or cannot convert these dumps into aluminium, of which this country is in such need.
I could give the Minister about six cases. If this had been an isolated case, I would not have raised the matter, but it is the habit of the Ministry to put people off deliberately. It took the Minister a month to find out whether another matter, involving £20,000,000, had anything to do with his Department, and that is a very long time. I wrote a letter about a question of certain refineries. It was a month before the Minister stated this matter had nothing to do with him, and that it must be pursued through the Minister of Petroleum or the Secretary of State for Air. Both Ministries denied any knowledge about it. Eventually the Minister for Aircraft Production took up the matter, and I received a letter by return post. There was to be an investigation, and there was £20,000,000 involved in the result. By making oneself a little bit 362 of a nuisance, at least an investigation had been obtained.
These are not trifling matters. I always investigate very carefully anything which I take up with the Ministry. It is not easy to get to Ministers; one has to go a round-about way. I used to correspond with one official who would write to me and send letters. But as a Member of Parliament I was told I had no right to do that. When Ministers insist on these formalities it is their duty to go out of their way to speed a matter up. I hope the Minister will not look upon these things as being an attack upon him. He could not be responsible, because he was Rot there.
It being Eleven of the Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
Motion made, and Question again proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Holdsworth.]
We may have all kinds of discoveries which would be of benefit to the nation, and Members may go to considerable trouble to go to the Ministry about them. Are they to be treated in this way? If they are, instead of Members going to the Ministry, as the Minister asked us to do, we shall sit down and take no notice of these things, and there may be considerable loss to the country as a result. There is another matter in which there has been great delay. I am associated with some people who import a machine tool which is different from anything that has been put on the market. I could quote a number of instances of processes in which this machine could effect enormous saving in time. These people were in the position in which they felt they could do good service, and in spite of the 100 per cent. Excess Profits Tax, they were prepared to work night and day without making an extra penny with this machine. It was such a wonderful thing, and people had begged for delivery of them and asked for more. It is a honing machine which does a skilled job, and it cuts the work down by hours. These people are anxious to supply these machines, but they cannot get the petrol to enable them to do it. They told the Ministry this, and when I came into the job I asked the Ministry to take a chance and let them have a few gallons of petrol. If there was a chance of these people making good what 363 they claimed, a few extra gallons would not have mattered. A gentleman in the Department, however, had made a decision, and at no price would he change his mind. The result is that this firm has in travellers with 10 motor cars working only a fortnight in each month because they cannot get enough petrol to get round with this machine. I got them to send to the Ministry such statements as they professed to require from firms. I took one myself which related to aircraft production, and an official said, "Give me two or three more like that, and you can have all the petrol you require." We did our best to get some similar letters and wrote to 50 or 60 firms. All the replies were satisfactory. The point is that I was put in the position of having to beg for extra petrol for this firm when the Department ought to have been doing it in view of the work the firm was doing. I want to fix the responsibility for this state of affairs.
I have time to mention one other matter only. It has been mentioned before. It is a question of the production of gun-boring machines—horizontal borers. I have talked with people who have protested that if only the Minister would relax the specification, they could produce a machine which would double the output. Whereas he gets one machine a week they would produce five a fortnight. Perhaps that is extravagant, but at least it can be safely said that they would double the output. I had a talk with the engineer, and I said, "Do you know what these people are claiming?" What I am trying to bring out to the House is the mentality of certain officials. This man—I can tell the House his name if it is necessary—talked to me on the telephone, and said, "If they are so very clever, why don't they come down and propose something?" I said, "You are the customer; you want these things quickly; surely it is your job; you are the people to benefit. If there is an earthly chance of getting twice as many guns, is not it your job to look into it?" The answer was, "Oh, no. We know what we want. If they can do it better, these clever people"—that is the offensive manner in which he said it—"let them come here." I have a drawing in my bag if the Minister would like to look at it.
§ The Minister of Supply (Mr. Herbert Morrison)
My hon. Friend will appreciate that I have not had notice of this particular matter, and it is not fair to bring it in.
§ Mr. Edwards
Then I will drop it, only it was mentioned in the House several weeks ago, and the Minister has taken no notice of it. He has had every opportunity of reading in the OFFICIAL REPORT everything that I said. Surely it is his duty as Minister to have someone looking up in the OFFICIAL REPORT matters affecting his Department which are raised in the House.
§ Mr. Edwards
You have had notice in the OFFICIAL REPORT. Several weeks ago I mentioned the matter. I will not say more about it now, but I think it is perfectly fair that I should have raised it, in view of the neglect to pay attention to it. I think it is important, because the Minister's assistant has just said that he wanted to use 100 per cent. of the machine tools available.
There was another matter that I raised in the House. It took me several weeks arguing with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to get the duties removed from imported machine tools. I told him that there were machine tools at the docks which customers were waiting for, and that they had to be told that it would be three weeks before they could get them. Eventually the duties were removed. The Minister should know—and I will help him if he does not know—that at this moment there are in docks and warehouses in this country machine tools which have been there for weeks and will be there for weeks. Is it fair for me to raise a matter like that in the House if I can help him? They have fallen providentially into our lap, but nothing is being done because the Department has not yet allocated them, and yet people are waiting to be supplied with them. There are other things taking place in his Department of which he ought to know. It is no good the Minister being peevish about what I am saying. He was one of my leaders when he was on this side of the House, and one whom I always appreciated, and I appreciate him more to-day than ever before. I saw him doing from this side of the House what 365 he felt to be his duty, and I feel it is my duty, as a junior Member, to follow in his footsteps. I want to see that he does not go to sleep and that the people in his Department do not mesmerise him by telling him half truths and something a little worse than that.
§ 11.10 p.m.
§ The Minister of Supply (Mr. Herbert Morrison)
My hon. Friend in opening this discussion forthwith misrepresented what I had said in this House. I did not say that there never was delay. Any Minister who said that, would be making a bold and sweeping assertion. There are delays in the Department from time to time and there are delays on the part of Members of Parliament. The Question which my hon. Friend put to me was whether I was aware that the dangerous delaying methods persisted in my Department. I answered that I was not prepared to accept the general accuracy of the allegation contained in the first part of my hon. Friend's Question and I finished by saying, that specific allegations as to any such delays, had received and would continue to receive my energetic attention. What I did was to reject the sweeping implications in the Question of my hon. Friend. Other things were said afterwards but that is the material point which my hon. Friend raised at the beginning of his statement.
It would be more accurate to say that my hon. Friend is not complaining so much about the delays as about the fact that he does not get his own way always. If I cannot always agree with my hon. Friend, that is not necessarily criminal. I think he has often assumed that there is delay when there has been much consideration of the representations which he has made, but he has not got his own way in these matters.
§ Mr. Morrison
If my hon. Friend will give me time I will deal with the merits of these cases as I see them. We may not agree about them. Perhaps I may come to the question of the Seailles process. It is true that there was an unfortunate delay between 8th June and 9th July, although, as I will tell the House, no time was lost in the investigations that were made. That delay was 366 in part due to my hon. Friend. It must be remembered that this Department of Scientific Research gets about 300 letters a day, many of them from wise people but a number, I am afraid, from people who think that they have inventions, and have not. These are not always to be taken quite seriously—not that we refuse to take them seriously, but we get all sorts of letters from people about inventions. Anybody with experience of inventions will know that is true, but they all have to be looked at. Even in the case of some apparently unbalanced people there may be a perfectly sound invention. I think my hon. Friend's own rather unbusinesslike methods contributed to the delay. I can show him, because I have the letter in front of me.
§ Mr. Morrison
I am sorry, but it has. My hon. Friend has made the attack and he must hear the reply. He is rather impatient at hearing the other side of the case. The letter was not sent on House of Commons' paper; it was sent from his private address. It was rubber stamped. It was addressed to "The Minister of Supply, Ministry of Supply, Adelphi." It referred to our previous conversation, whereas no previous conversation had taken place between him and me on this particular matter. As the letter apparently came from a private person who was not known to the Department, it went through the ordinary machine, and did not get the priority which Ministerial correspondence gets. Secondly, the name was spelled wrongly in rather more particulars than my hon. Friend indicated. All these things are filed alphabetically, and thus delay in identification was caused, for which I am sorry. I wish my hon. Friend would take some measure of responsibility for that delay.
§ Mr. Edwards
That was only referring to my letter which asked them what they were doing about it, not to the agreement to carry out the tests.
§ Mr. Morrison
The test is all right. That is being taken care of, quite apart from the hon. Member. There are other 367 people who have been having a go at this as well as the hon. Member. It is surprising, but it is so. As a matter of fact, that was partly the cause of the delay. Nevertheless, I am sorry that there was the delay there was, but when it is remembered that this Department is getting 300 letters a day, some of them readable and some not, from all sorts of people, I think a little patience should be extended in a matter of that kind. Coming to the merits of the case, I think it will be admitted by the hon. Gentleman that he is fully aware of the following considerations in connection with his claimed but not established invention: that it would take nine months at least to erect the necessary plant, that the plant would cost three-quarters of a million pounds, that the process would not, in working, be economical but would be justified solely on the ground that the necessary means were not available for deriving aluminium from the more familiar processes, and that long tests of the pilot plant would be necessary. A test is being made, but I cannot spend money on a speculative venture until its efficacy is established.
Now I come to the Musso process with which the gentleman from America, who has since been interned, was concerned. Discussions between the hon. Member, my predecessor and myself proceeded for a very long time, I agree. In this matter interviews and discussions took place. The position is that the technicians and the experts—the scientists, the practical steel people and engineering people—do not believe that this is likely to succeed. If every time a claim is made the Department is to set aside everything else that it is doing in order to devote all its time to that claim our life would be interesting but we should not produce munitions of war, and it must not be thought that because the hon. Member for East Middlesbrough (Mr A. Edwards) comes along to the Ministry of Supply with a proposition, everything else must be stopped. The experts are very doubtful whether this invention will succeed. However, with the assistance of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Private Secretary a further interview took place soon after I took office. It was then agreed that a trial should take place and that an independent person who was an 368 expert should be brought in. He was brought in, and it was a specific part of the agreement—I have asked my hon. Friend and his memory conflicts with that of the hon. Member—that a certain person should undertake the cost of the trials—
§ Mr. Morrison
I was under the impression that the hon. Member said there was a promise of Government money forthcoming, but I am told that there was no such promise. There are all sorts of people walking about with inventions, who want me to give them money in order to finance them. I cannot do it until a prima facie case is made out. If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman is a little simple in dealing with people who make all sorts of claims. I cannot afford to be simple. As far as we are concerned, we have given every facility for those tests to be made.
§ Mr. Morrison
I am sorry, but we have. We have given opportunity for the test to be made. Not by the order of an officer of the Ministry of Supply in the least, but by an order of the Home Office, a gentleman who was not the inventor, not the technician, was interned. My hon. Friend then said that it was necessary that he should be released, in order that these experiments might proceed. All we could say to the Home Office was that this man was not the inventor or the technician, but that he was the promoter, that if the claims he made proved to be true, the invention would be of importance, and that his freedom would possibly facilitate matters. But we could not conscientiously go to the Home Office and say that it was vital that this German should be freed from internment. It was not our business to do so. We gave the facts, and it was for the Home Office to decide.
I must resent the activities of my hon. Friend, especially in regard to the letter he has written to a civil servant. This is a threatening letter. If any hon. Member wants to make threats, he can make them against the Minister, and not against civil servants. I will protect my servants against any form of pressure from any hon. Member of this House, or from 369 anyone else. This letter, written to the civil servant, said:I received a permit to see Mr. Hansemann, but I would like to know what steps you are taking to ensure that the test you arranged can be carried out. This is not my business, but yours, and as you undertook it I hope it will not be necessary again for me to refer the matter to the Minister.That is a threat to report him to the Minister; and it is not right. The letter goes on:Will you please take steps to arrange for Mr. Hansemann's release, as you are the man who had him interned and are the only man who can have him released.That is patently ridiculous and monstrous. No official of the Ministry of Supply could have a man interned or released. That is a matter for the Home Office. The letter goes on:As weeks and weeks have been wasted for no reason whatever, I hope you will treat this matter seriously, otherwise I shall have no option but to raise the matter in the House.That is a demand by a Member of this House that a specific person should be released from internment.
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Member has spent 25 minutes making a case against the Minister. Now the Minister must be allowed to answer.
§ Mr. Edwards
There must be some means of protecting myself against such statements. I said that I would report him to the Minister, only if he did not take the matter seriously.
§ Mr. Morrison
I say that if an hon. Member writes to a civil servant demanding the release of a particular internee, and says that if that does not happen and the matter is not attended to, he will report the matter to the Minister, and finally that he will raise the matter in the House, that is not the way to deal with a civil servant. If a threat is to be made, it should be made to the Minister. The officer did not have the man interned. The only complaint that could possibly be made—and I do not think it could be substantiated 370 —is that he did not state the case to the Home Office as strongly as he could. But I do not think he could have stated it any more strongly than he did. That is why I wrote to the hon. Member, and asked that he should raise such matters with the Minister.
I come to the case of the petrol supply. I am bound to say that this firm have taken the most active steps, together with my hon. Friend, to get an addition to their petrol supply. My hon. Friend, in a letter to Lord Beaverbrook, stated that he was associated with this company. He referred to "the company with which I am associated," to "our men" and "our service engineers." That firm's request for more petrol has amounted to a veritable campaign. They have applied through my hon. Friend to the Air Ministry, the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and the Mines Department. They have applied through my hon. Friend and also directly, to the Ministry of Supply for a recommendation for more petrol. These people have applied for more petrol on the basis, officially, that they are commercial travellers. It is arguable that they are more than commercial travellers, but to put them in the category of the vital key people in the country would be a ridiculous exaggeration. They were classed as commercial travellers by the firm and not by me. We admit that they do something more than commercial travelling. They have got an allowance now and they have had it for some time. It is more than the ordinary allowance that the commercial traveller gets. They are treated no worse than commercial travellers. They had their case considered and an award was made.
We do not actually certify. That is done by the Petroleum Department, but if there is a case in which they think more petrol should be allowed in the national interest we can say so. But there is no case here for that to be said. It is not a matter of delay, but a. matter in which my hon. Friend cannot get more petrol for a firm with whom he is associated. Every hon. Member of this House will have his own taste. If I were an hon. Member associated with a particular firm, I would not go chasing round State Departments trying to get more petrol for that particular firm. I do not think that it is activity which is altogether suitable to the dignity and position of a Member of this House, and I do not think it ought 371 to be done. The officer did not think that he could justifiably recommend more, and he has not done so. I have stood by the officer, because I think he is right. I am responsible to this House. But to class this as a terrible case of shocking delay, which is endangering the whole machine tool position is really a little bit preposterous.
Let me say, by way of conclusion, that I welcome at all times the suggestions, help and criticisms of hon. Members of this House. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) always enjoys these little excursions and ventures. I do not complain at all, but if hon. Members are taking these things up, I do think they have a responsibility to "vet" them beforehand, otherwise it means taking up a lot of the time of the productive people and myself when we are needed on the urgent task of producing munitions for war. To get ready for this Debate to-night I have had to spend hours on preparation for a 20 minutes' speech. My hon. Friend's activities have taken a great deal of the time of my 372 officers in relation to the importance of the subject. I had another case—that of an employee who wrote to a Royal Ordnance factory complaining against the factory. It took the superintendent a day and a half to look into these complaints, which should have been sent through the ample machinery provided, and which were found to be groundless. All I can say is: Criticise by all means; go for me if you like—it is partly what I am paid for and I am not grumbling—but do have a sense of proportion and a sense of consideration.
§ Mr. Morrison
My Department wants to do its job—and it is rapidly improving—and it ought not to be obstructed unduly in the very great task which lies ahead of it.
§ Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.