HC Deb 26 February 1941 vol 369 cc585-604
Mr. Rhys Davies (Westhoughton)

I venture now to turn to another subject, and I trust the House will forgive me if I draw the attention of the Government and of the House to the position of the Lancashire cotton industry. I am very pleased that this opportunity has arisen to put before the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade some facts of which he may be aware but of which, also, he may not. I want to make it clear at the outset that in raising this issue on the Adjournment we are not giving away our rights to have a full-dress Debate on the Lancashire cotton industry later on if needs be. I think the position is sufficiently serious for those engaged in that industry to warrant my saying that; but before I proceed to deal with the cotton situation may I enter a caveat? Whenever there is anything wrong with coal, agriculture or engineering, the House of Commons is made aware of the difficulties at once, and a full-dress Debate can take place, especially on agriculture or coal, but that is not so in the case of cotton. Although this industry may not have the political influence in the House and in Government that is possessed by either coal or agriculture, the right hon. Gentleman will know better than I do that cotton, especially its export side, is quite as important to this country and its economy as either of the other two industries I mentioned.

Mr. Cary (Eccles)

The cotton industry is still the basic economy of British trade in the export market.

Mr. Davies

The present situation of the cotton industry in Lancashire cannot, of course, be regarded as disastrous, but I am sure it is acute; in any case, sufficiently serious to bring its problems before Parliament. Up to a few years ago the exports of this industry took first place in the records. They have recently fallen to second place, in the main because of the disturbances caused by the Great War. After some little recovery it finds itself once again in this present conflict the victim of the shipping casualties which are bound up with war.

One thing that I want to make clear before I turn to details: I think this industry is more severely affected by war than any other in the country. Lancashire manufactured goods have found their way into every market of the world." Every country knows about this product. Therefore when war breaks out the whole of its export trade is upset, especially when there are shipping difficulties, such as we are meeting with at the moment. It is well known that some time ago a severe restriction was placed upon the cotton industry in Lancashire, at a slant, as it were, when the Government decided that only a percentage of sales of manufactured cotton goods should be sold through the warehouses and shops at home. The Lancashire cotton industry felt the blast of that restriction at once, but the loss caused by that restriction was made good in a great measure by the fact that the Government used so much cotton production for the Services. Although complaints were made by the industry at that time, I do not think that they were as strong as those that emerge from the present restriction. I am not so familiar with the problem as are some hon. Gentlemen here, who are actually engaged in the industry, but I have said before that the less I know of a subject the more eloquent I can become upon it. I may, therefore, be forgiven if I put the case just as I have been told it by some of those actually engaged in the industry.

If I know the attitude of the Lancashire cotton people it is, that they do not want to be deceived by the Government as to the reasons for the restrictions which are to be imposed. They know the reasons too well. As this is not a party issue, but one which affects all parties alike in Lancashire, I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will bear in mind that, although the Lancashire cotton industry may not have the political influence of coal, iron, and agriculture, it wants the same kind of square deal as is meted out politically to those other industries. It does not want more. If there is shipping space left for other products, cotton wants its proper proportion of that space. When we come to analyse the situation, it seems to me that the industry is a little annoyed because certain Departments of State have not co-ordinated their policy in this connection. This announcement has been plastered all over Lancashire, and has been circulated quite recently. It is an invitation by the chairman of the Cotton Board. Let us see what Mr. Streat says: In this time of national emergency the cotton industry is Lancashire's trust and reponsibility. Whatever the enemy may do, its work must go on. It is the duty of everyone in Lancashire to help the cotton industry. If you have textile skill, you should offer your services at once. Of work there is plenty in waiting. This is circulated just at the very time when the right hon. Gentleman's Department is putting further restrictions on the industry. Then you have Lord Willing-don's Commission in the South American republics asking customers there to buy Lancashire-manufactured goods. While that Commission is soliciting orders there, you have the right hon. Gentleman's Department putting these further restrictions into operation. I now come to the question of implementing the restrictions about to be imposed. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will stand up at that Box fairly soon, when he has decided on his policy, to tell Lancashire what that policy actually is. But while he is shaping that policy, it is only fair to him and to the Lancashire people that he should know what is passing through their minds. I put one point, which may be the chief point at issue. When the new restriction is imposed, will he bear in mind one thing that makes some manufacturers nervous? If you close two mills out of 10 owned by a combine, the combine still survives. The closing of two mills out of 10 may not mean very much to the profits of the concern. The managerial staff may not be disturbed very much. But when you come to a single mill owned by one or two persons, or by a family, and you close that mill, you will see at once the calamity that is likely to happen to that family. I put that to the right hon. Gentleman because I think there is a conflict of opinion as to how this restriction is to be put into practice. If you spread the restriction over the whole industry and curtail production proportionately, you may get over your difficulties in that way, but I understand that while some of the Manufacturers Association are in favour of what they call the "spread-over" the tendency in Government circles is to say, "No, we want to restrict production by reducing the number of mills at work."

I will leave that point and come to something that is a little more personal still. People have asked me—and that is why I am speaking here to-day— whether I can say something in Parliament about this particular problem. If the Board of Trade throws it upon the industry to implement the restrictions— and some of them are afraid of that— you hand the problem over to a few of the leading manufacturers in the Associations, and some of the small firms are a little nervous that they will be squeezed out even by their own leaders because of the tendencies of the time. What are those tendencies? They are to be found in banking, transport, and certainly in distribution, which I know best. The whole tendency of recent years has been towards large amalgamations and the gradual squeezing out of small firms. I would like the right hon. Gentleman to bear that point in mind in particular. There are small textile firms in my Division, and I think I can speak on their behalf. I am not at all sure that in cotton manufacturing the small firm is not more efficient, and more generous maybe to its employés than the big amalgamations.

I come to one or two other issues. The point has been made that the industry is to be restricted in order to provide more persons for munitions work. I wish the hon. Gentleman the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Tomlinson) were here, because he knows more about it than any of us, and could speakmore effectively. But I have just a little knowledge of Lancashire, and of the textile industry too. I want the right hon. Gentleman to remember that, when he closes textile mills, I am not so sure that the Government will find as many transfers of workers to munitions as they would get from some other industries. A large proportion of the workers in this industry are married women, and everybody knows how difficult it would be for them to leave their homes and go out of their own villages to work. They cannot do it as easily as men and single women. Therefore, I say that we should not build too much upon the possibility of a great mass of these people being transferred to the munitions industry.

Finally, I would say this, which is by far the most important thing of all: I believe that those engaged in this industry feel that they are not doing their duty either to themselves, their county or the State if they allow this industry to be killed by Government restriction during the war. Let us all remember the technicalities of this industry. I have been a coal miner, and coal mining is a difficult and dangerous job, but it is simple in operation compared with working in a cotton mill or in a weaving shed, where the technicalities are multifarious and for which it takes a great deal of training and skill. We have now had three or four generations of families employed in this industry, and I would appeal to the right hon. Gentleman, whatever else he does, to beware of doing anything which will destroy this fundamental part of our economy. I have had the honour of representing a seat in Lancashire for 20 years, and I have some textile workers in my division. If it is wise that Ministers should go out to consult with industrial leaders in other industries, I suggest that the President of the Board of Trade, the Minister of Supply and, probably, the Minister of Shipping too, might visit Lancashire to face the people there and tell them the truth. If they do that I am sure of one thing: they will find them as willing as anybody to suffer the inconveniences of war. They are as patriotic as the rest; but one thing above all they require, and that is a square deal from the Government.

Mr. Cary (Eccles)

I intervene in the Debate only to supplement some of the things said by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies). I do agree with him that the existence and prosperity of the cotton trade are vital to the life of this country. If disaster were to overtake that trade it would not be merely a disaster for the industry; it would be a disaster for the whole of our national life. I think that the House has treated the cotton trade as something of less importance than any other great industry, and perhaps the fault may, indeed, lie with Lancashire itself in that it has been so difficult to get agreement within the industry.

Mr. Silverman

They have got it now.

Mr. Cary

That may well be, but I feel that the Government have a difficult task in that they have to take drastic steps to bring the necessary energy to our war machine and at the same time safeguard the interests of a great industry like the one we are discussing to-day. As far back as 1925, the cotton trade, in terms of money, represented an annual turnover of £200,000,000, a figure far beyond that reached by any other trade in the country. In the space of 10 years, it declined to an annual turnover of £60,000,000, but even at £60,000,000 it still remained one of the most basic and vital industries of the country. I hope it will continue to do so.

I want to put to the President of the Board of Trade two points which I hope he will bear in mind before presenting proposals to the House. The first is this. When he presents those proposals, I hope he will show clearly the approximate number of workers who will be taken out of the home trade of the cotton industry and placed in new employment in war industries. It is stated in some quarters that the Government anticipate that they will obtain as many as 100,000 workers from the cotton trade to be diverted to war work. Is that figure anything like the truth? In other quarters—and according to the pamphlet to which the hon. Member for Westhoughton has drawn attention—it is stated that there is at the present time a shortage of labour in the industry as it exists, not only for the work that is being done in the export trade, but in some sections of the work that is still supplying the home trade.

The second point I want to make concerns not only the present, but is vital for the after-war years. I think it may be proved more beneficial in the end to the national interest that what is left in the home trade should be spread over as great a number of businesses as possible rather than concentrated in the hands of a limited number of businesses. I feel that if too much in the way of individual business were destroyed in an industry like the cotton trade, one would destroy the vital machinery of business that would be most valuable to the nation in the immediate post-war years. Those years may be the grimmest years ahead; against them the war years may be comparatively easy. This much, however, is well known in any industry. If one destroys the machinery of a sound business, the rebuilding of that business may take as many years as it took months to destroy it. I hope that when the President of the Board of Trade presents his proposals—he cannot say any- thing about them this afternoon, because he is dependent upon the industry in the framing of them—he will show clearly the number of workers who are to be switched from the cotton industry to war industries, and show us that there is some principle underlying the spread of the remaining trade in the home industry.

Mr. Rickards (Skipton)

I feel that the present situation is the biggest thing that the cotton trade has ever had to face. Therefore, I have tried, in my own constituency, to get in touch with employers and employés. It is very difficult to discuss, let alone criticise, a policy of which we are not sure, but there are two or three points on which everybody seems to agree. If there is a great cutting-down in the trade, let it be spread over and not confined to certain firms. All seem to be agreed on that point. Obviously, it is easier to cut down in a combine or a large business than it is in the case of a firm which possesses only one small shed. A small firm is faced with an intolerable difficulty after the war if it wishes to re-enter the trade. Another point which arises, if a mill is closed down and the Government take it over for munitions, is what they are to do with the machinery. In almost every town it is impossible to find anywhere to store it. Obviously, firms cannot build places to store it and machinery cannot be left out in the yard.

The only alternative seems to be to sell this valuable machinery as scrap, but if that is done, nine-tenths of its value is gone. Just imagine the difficulty of a firm. Supposing it had £20,000 worth of machinery and only receives £2,000 for it. Where is it to find the money to re-enter the trade when the war is over? I hope also that thought will be given to the varying conditions in towns. Some towns are crying out for labour and in their case, if mills were closed down, employés could soon find work. That is not so in every case because in my own town of Skipton, where about 90 per cent, of the operatives are women, we should find there was no other industry which could absorb them if they were turned out of the cotton trade. Out of this 90 per cent., 75 per cent, are married and cannot leave their husbands and children and start fresh households elsewhere. That means they have to "stay put" and that they will very likely have to join the ranks of the unemployed, which is what we want to avoid. I hope that before the Government offers us a fait accompli it will be possible to have a full and careful Debate in this House.

Mr. Burke (Burnley)

I wish to stress what has already been said by other hon. Members that before the proposals are brought forward, this House should have an opportunity of discussing them at considerable length. We have had fairly lengthy debates on the question of coal and agriculture, but the great industry of cotton receives rather scant consideration. The cotton trade is still our chief export industry, and if we want currency abroad and means of exchange, we shall have to rely upon it more and more. Lancashire would like to be told quite frankly and early, but not by some regulation issued through the Cotton Control Board, what is the idea of these negotiations. Is it really, as has been suggested, to put people into war industries or is it for other reasons connected with shipping? Very much will depend on the attitude of Lancashire as to which of these two reasons is to be given. If it is a question of closing down the mills because of raw material supplies, has the Minister taken into consultation the people who run them? I have a very shrewd suspicion—in fact it is more than a suspicion; it is almost a conviction, and one which will be shared by many in Lancashire—that once these mills are closed many of them will never reopen and, if that happens, there will be calamity after calamity.

If mills are not to be closed, how is the problem of reducing the available amount of employment going to be carried through? There are some villages in Lancashire where the entire population lives on the mills. If it is left to the combines to declare which mills shall be closed, and they are closed in some of the smaller places, there is no alternative occupation for the people. There is nothing else for them to do. Many of them cannot travel distances. They are married women. The small wages earned, even by two people, will present a very difficult problem and increase unemployment very much. On the other hand, if it is to be a question, not of closing down but of spread over, you will revert to the serious problem of people working for 48 hours, getting only half pay, working two looms instead of four, or something of that sort.

On the other hand, if the intention is to take the people out of the cotton industry and put them on to munitions, the Minister ought to tell us how that is to be done. Is any provision being- made for the people to receive a wage adequate to the double wage that is going into the homes at present? If the woman stays at home, if she will not travel a considerable distance, is she to be penalised? Have arrangements been made for the trades union organisations to accept the transfer of cards and, when the munition works close down and we get back to normal times, are any arrangements to be made for bringing the cotton industry back? There very serious problems are the kind of thing you hear being discussed with great fear and a good deal of doubt in every town in the county, and Lancashire would appreciate a full and frank consideration of the matter by the Minister. We have had an exhibition in Oldham in order to draw parties into the industry. It has met with a measure of success and I understand it is going round to other towns. It is no use trying to get people into the industry, if it is to be reduced and the material is not given it to carry on. I hope the Minister will tell the Minister frankly whether this is a question of munitions or of supplies and will let us know exactly what we are up against. If he will tell us frankly the difficulties and say that discussions are to take place with all sides of the industry, I think he will get the response he wants, but he will not get it in the same way if he proceeds as he has been going on for some little time.

Mr. Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

If we are to have a Debate later covering the whole subject-matter which has been touched upon to-day, obviously it would be a mistake to labour the points now, but I join with all who have spoken already in urging that we should have a properly arranged Debate and that in that Debate the Government should treat the industry with complete frankness. The Government will not find the people of Lancashire backward in "making do" with whatever sacrifices the exigencies of the war situation demand"! provided they feel they are being dealt with fairly and frankly and are satisfied, too, that what- ever sacrifices may be necessary for them now their livelihood will not be sacrificed for all time. Lancashire has some bitter memories of the last war and what followed. During the last war, as now, the industry was necessarily contracted, and while people complained about that they did not grumble about it, because they recognised that it could not be helped. In the years just after the war the war slump was followed by a period of boom. Then everybody was making money, and this Lancashire industry became the victim of what one of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessors, Lord Runciman, described a year or two afterwards as "a financial ramp." There are people in Lancashire to-day still suffering from the after-effects of it. I am not thinking of the after-effects upon the industry as an industry, but of the personal, individual tragedies involved. Workers in the industry who had been making a little more money than usual invested it in some very doubtful ventures and lost it all.

In any plans that are necessary now, I am sure the Government will not forget that when this war is over it will still be a very important matter to revive the export industries of this country, and cotton and coal have always been our basic export industries. We may be compelled to do things now, but once markets are lost, once an industry is restricted, it is difficult to get back to the old position. Here I would refer to a point mentioned by the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Burke). If restriction is introduced by the method of closing down some milk altogether, the Government should remember that it is extremely unlikely that all of them will be reopened. The only course left is to spread the work over the others.

You may then get what would, in other industries, be short time, but in this industry is short work, at short wages, over the full time. The Minister knows that the wage system in the industry is peculiar. You are paid for the looms you work. You might spend—that was, of course, before the war—the whole of a 48-hour week standing by idle looms, for the most part, and you went home at the end of the week with no more money in your pay envelope than you could Have got from the Employment Exchange, had you stopped in bed, at home the whole time. Over and above that, there was no way of making up the deficit under unemployment insurance. You worked full time, but you got only a portion of your wages, and no unemployment benefit of any sort or kind. If there is to be a spread over, that position must be avoided.

I have heard talk about mills being closed. It would be wrong of me, and perhaps impudent, to go into this matter in great detail, but in my constituency, there is a modern, well-equipped mill, which is one of the latest and best mills in Lancashire. It was taken over by the Ministry of Supply, for storage purposes only. Representations were made to the Ministry chat plenty of space was available in near-by mills, and in other places, and that these places were suitable and ready to be used for storage, without the best mill in the town being taken. The Ministry said: "Find us alternative accommodation, and we will release the mill." We spent weeks, searching out alternative accommodation. We found alternative accommodation, and the Ministry accepted it. They paid us the best compliment open to them by using all the accommodation we offered them, but they kept our mill just the same, and they still hold it. If our industry is to contract, other industries will be required in Lancashire, and they were ready to come at that time. This mill was ready for them to use, and there was an opportunity of making this town less of a one-industry town than it used to be. That is the end to which public policy has always been directed, but in this case the Ministry of Supply lost an opportunity.

These matters have to be taken into account. If the industry is to remain contracted, what are the Government going to do about introducing new industries to take the place of that which has been closed down? I hope that at another time we shall have a full Debate, and that the Government, bearing these points in mind, will not make the mistake of having a Debate only when a fait accompli is before us. It has been stated that it is Lancashire's own fault that the cotton industry is the Cinderella of industries and, in my view, that was true, but it ceased to be true before the war, when the agreement was reached. That agreement was not put into operation be- cause the Government suspended it for the period of the war. Do not delay things further, and do not make the problem worse. Let us have our Debate and make our plans, and let this industry cease to be what it has always been, the Cinderella of the industries.

Mr. Graham White (Birkenhead, East)

I rise for the purpose of saying two or three sentences, because they do not happen to have directly fallen from the lips of anyone who has spoken so far, although they may have been raised by implication. There are numbers of people who have given up their occupations and proceeded into other occupations or into the Armed Forces of the Crown with the belief in their minds, supported by such assurances as have been given to them by their employers, that when the war is over they are coming back to their old jobs. These people and their families have been heartened by that belief and by those assurances. But we are considering a great displacement of labour, probably the greatest displacement of labour that has ever taken place. The people who have gone believe that they are coming back into their old industries. We know that that will be an impossibility.

My next point is that if there is anything on which there is common agreement between all parties in this House, it is that when the war is over there shall not be the grinding misery of unemployment which we had after the last war. The simple deduction taken from those two facts is that by what we are doing to-day we are in fact committing the State of this country in future to being by far the greatest employer of labour and to having the responsibility for the employment of labour on a direct scale which is far beyond the contemplation of anybody in this House. If we are to do that, we must recognise it, take such steps as will make those conditions possible, and consider on what terms we can in those conditions preserve the initiative and responsibility which have made this country what it is up to the present time.

Mr. Radford (Manchester, Rusholme)

I feel that we have some difficulty in talking to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade on this subject, because we do not know what he is going to do, and, without knowledge of what he is going to do, we are urging him not to do it, or at any rate to be very circumspect in what he does. I must admit that from conversations which I have had in Lancashire I have gathered that there is a widespread feeling that there is a lack of consistency in the treatment which the industry has received—I will not say from my right hon. Friend, but generally from the Government. First of all, there was a cutting down of the trade that was permissible for home consumption, and the general idea was that that was to leave a greater scope for export. Even on that particular point I do not think that the Board of Trade were well advised, because any practical spinner or manufacturer in the cotton trade will tell you that they have got to preserve a certain balance in the production of their respective mills of goods suitable respectively for export and for home trade. Now we understand that the further curtailment of raw cotton supplies means that we are to cut down deliberately a big proportion of our export trade.

Assuming that that is what my right hon. Friend proposes, has he carefully considered all the repercussions of this action? Has he discussed with the Chancellor of the Exchequer what effect that will have on his budgetary proposals as far as concerns Income Tax, and in some cases Excess Profits Tax, when there are no longer any profits? On the question of consistency, a Commission has been sent out to South America to try and develop further outlets for our cotton goods. Are we now going to take appropriate steps to prevent the industry from producing and delivering the cotton goods orders secured in South America?

My hon. Friend the Member for Skipton (Mr. Rickards) referred to the possible closing of cotton-weaving sheds and spinning mills, whose buildings might be used for munitions purposes, but said that that would involve scrapping the plant. But if a spinning mill is closed down and the building is not required for munitions purposes, it costs about £60 a week to keep the standing machinery clean and in order. My hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Tomlinson) is present, and I looked across just then for an appreciative nod from him, but he is not giving anything away. It is, however, a fact. A standing mill can cost its proprietors about £3,000 a year merely to keep it clean and warm. It may be that "needs must when the devil drives," but I feel that deliberate action to cut down and partially kill what has been the principal export industry of Britain in order to provide additional hands for munitions production is a very serious course to adopt. I cannot help thinking that in our country there must be a tremendous number of females who are not actually engaged at the present time on work of national importance and who, if a sufficient appeal were made, could be persuaded to come forward in greater numbers for munitions production. It is a terrible course for us to have to follow to kill what has been for generations the industry providing the principal export of British goods.

Again, we hear that the two things required are the production of the requisites for the successful prosecution of the war and the production of exports in order to maintain our dollar exchange. Cutting down exports will not maintain the dollar exchange. It is true, as my right hon. Friend has no doubt carefully considered, that the raw cotton has to come over here in ships—much of it, incidentally, from our Allies in Egypt as well as our friends in the States. But the ships bringing the materials we require must go back, largely empty, which seems a thousand pities. In a short-sighted effort to secure more female labour for munitions production, are we going to sacrifice those exports which are possible to us, which will help to keep up our exchange position, and whose absence may mean the death of the industry after the war?

It so happens that I am a part-time director of a spinning combine, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) knows. I mention that, although I have no self-interest in what I am going to say, except that I think it is better, if the spreading-out of business is to be attempted, to do it by cutting down among concerns which can close individual branches. You cannot run a branch half-time. Take an individual spinning company with only one mill: you cannot run it economically half-time. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton will agree with me. It is all very well to talk of spreading the work, but as soon as you have to produce the goods, whatever they may be, you have to produce them as far as possible at the lowest economic cost.

You cannot do that in a mill which is only working half-time or less than half-time.

Major Procter (Accrington)

I am sure the President of the Board of Trade is fully aware of the great anxiety which exists in Lancashire regarding the curtailment of the cotton trade. I would like to ask him that whatever he has to do he should do quickly, because so long as this anxiety goes on, and so long as there are only rumours of what is proposed, just so long will the trade be retarded and the owners and employés of the mills unable to do their best work. I understand that the Government's desire is to find more female labour. Are all the resources of the luxury trades exhausted? Is there no excess female labour in other industries where female workers are not so expert, and have not that dexterity which has made the Lancashire cotton workers the greatest producers of exports from which our national wealth has come? Whatever is done in the way of taking female labour from the cotton mills must be done carefully. The President of the Board of Trade must approach this situation as a virtuoso and not as someone trying to play the piano with a sledge-hammer, because if he makes a mistake, he will ruin Lancashire, throw thousands out of work, and paralyse the trade which has helped to build up the British Empire.

I would like to make a concrete suggestion. If the President of the Board of Trade proposes to take female labour away from the mills, let him consider taking away those who are engaged in coarse weaving only, and not those working on the fine counts. A girl whose fingers have been trained from childhood to work in cotton has fingers that are like those of a violinist or pianist. If you put her on munitions work handling shells, you will destroy that girl's skill as a weaver in fine counts for the rest of her life. The chances are that if you take these women from the cotton industry they will never go back to that industry again. Lancashire has had a great struggle during the last 10 years to re-establish the cotton industry. Do not let us make the mistakes which followed the last war.

I ask the President of the Board of Trade to see, if it is at all possible, that the cotton trade is exempt from supply- ing female labour at all. I know that both the men and women in the cotton trade will do their patriotic duty if what is proposed is shown to be a national necessity, but before any of the female workers are taken from the cotton mills, I ask the President of the Board of Trade to be quite sure that there are no surplus operatives in the luxury trades. Let the cotton industry, which is so vital for our export trade, be the last industry to be interfered with. If the workers are taken away in any great numbers, it will lead to the closing of mills, and when peace comes there will be great unemployment. Finally, will my right hon. Friend consider the incidence of rating on the mills which will be closed through his action? The overhead charges must be met and rates paid. Will these closed mills have the benefits of derating, or will their rates be increased because they are closed, and therefore regarded as warehouses holding idle machinery?

The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Lyttelton)

I hope that the House will excuse me if I deal only in a general way with many of the points which have been raised. I am not in a position to make a general statement on Government policy, but I have some hopes of being able to do so shortly. Nevertheless, I feel that some general observations are called for. I am aware that there is uncertainty in Lancashire about the policy which the Government have to pursue to meet our necessities. I am prepared, as far as lies within my power, to resolve those doubts as quickly as they can be resolved. The hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Burke) and the hon. and gallant Member for Accrington (Major Procter) asked what were the reasons for the proposed restriction. Those reasons are numerous. The first is that the demand for labour for munitions, taking into account the draft made upon our general labour force for the Fighting Forces, is so great that we shall have to provide labour for munitions from all available sources. The hon. Member for Burnley asked whether the difficulty was one of shipping. There is also a shipping difficulty. We have to import vast quantities of raw materials; and as our munitions effort grows, the strain upon our imports of raw materials becomes greater. There is an insistent demand for further industrial plant and storage space. All these things combine to create a difficult situation for every industry.

The matter is entirely outside controversy—we are dealing with one of the most difficult industrial problems, not only in cotton but in many other industries—and the objective at which we have to aim is perfectly clear. That objective must be to use the plant, labour, and raw material which are available, in the most efficient way possible. The objective can, in theory, be reached only if the working portion of the industry is able to work full time. If, for instance, you had a small industry with 100 firms in it—a luxury industry, perhaps—working at only 33⅓ per cent, of its normal activity, it would be folly to suppose that you could get economic working, and not increase losses over the whole of the firms, if you spread out the 33⅓ per cent, of business amongst them all.

In theory the best result would be for 33 firms to produce the whole output. That is only theory. There are a great many problems overlaying the theory. First of all there is the question whether the firms producing the 33 per cent, of luxury articles are in places which are not safe strategically. Then there is the possibility that the other firms who are now closed down were making specialities. Is the demand for labour in the areas where same of these plants are closed down great and can it readily be absorbed? Are we putting an extra strain on the transfer of labour, another difficult problem? However clear the theory may be it must be recognised that it is complicated by a great many other factors all of which have to be carefully weighed if the use of our resources in war is to be scientific and cause as little dislocation after the war as possible. I think we have to look back to the lessons of the last war as well as forward to the lessons of industry in this war. In the last war a system was in force under which labour was "played-off." This meant that operatives worked for a certain number of days and remained in their homes on others. It became a very popular system of work, but in this war the very word "played-off "must be repugnant to us. We cannot possibly envisage such a situation.

Several hon. Members have referred to the post-war problem. In all the things to which necessity drives us to-day, whether it be concentrated production or the trans- fer of labour, we must always keep in mind the structure of the industry, and that one day—and we hope it will be soon — it will be necessary to change from war to peace and re-transfer labour back to their old occupations. We must ensure that those who have to deal with the post-war problem will feel that we had it always in mind and will say that their predecessors had sufficient foresight to make the post-war problem soluble.

The general question of the mobility of labour is of course always with us. I know that many of the operatives of the Lancashire cotton industry are married women. We shall have to secure that where transfer takes place to the munition industries single persons—the mobile power of the labour force—are first taken for this purpose. Yet I think that there will be in the neighbourhood of the mill a certain amount of employment in munition industry which even the married women will be able to take up without involving the difficult problems of rehousing and transport and so forth.

The hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Cary) asked whether it was true that we estimated that 100,000 workers would be transferred from the cotton to the munition industry. That figure refers to the total labour force which we think might be released by the Limitation of Supplies (Miscellaneous) Order, which does not, of course, cover the cotton, linen, rayon or silk industries. No estimate as far as I know has been given for the release of labour from the cotton industry. I think it would be very dangerous to make too rigid an estimate, or to work out a programme in a magisterial way.

Several hon. Members have referred to the export trade, and this is not a very easy subject. It is quite clear that in the situation in which we find ourselves our exports must be directed with discrimination. We are not in a position to pour them out in a lavish way. There is such an immense demand on our material, labour and capacity that we cannot countenance such a policy, but we still have the capacity and labour to keep up a substantial export trade, and we must discriminate carefully to secure that so far as possible it fills the need of our customers, maintains our connections for after the war and provides us with all the useful exchange that it can. It must be remembered that some of our exports go to the Dominions, it is an extremely difficult thing for us to ration our friends from this side of the world, but if they could do without some of the things which they have been accustomed to have, it would be of very definite help to us in waging the war. It would help us to maintain our exports in other markets which may, for the moment, be of greater value and which may be more difficult to regain if they are lost.

The hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) referred to combines and said that where concentration of production takes place, was it not the combine which got the best part of the bargain? I think we must confess that it is very much easier for a concern which has several mills to concentrate production into a smaller number. However, this is one of the most difficult problems we have to solve, and it cannot be solved in a rough and ready way. The thing must be balanced so that any concentration among individual firms is effected with the least dislocation. It is one of the most intractable parts of the problem with which we are faced, but I would like to say how much we are impressed with the need for speed in announcing our policy. I have hopes of making a statement shortly, and as soon as that statement is made we shall be in consultation with industries on the specific measures which they recommend, always bearing in mind that we must reserve the raw materials and labour force necessary for the successful prosecution of the war.

Mr. Rhys Davies

When the right hon. Gentleman talks about making a statement in the near future, will that be open to Debate in the House?

Mr. Lyttelton

I am afraid I cannot answer that question.

Mr. Cary

I take it that there will be no actual proposals for the industry? My right hon. Friend has not that in mind?

Mr. Silverman

Would the right hon. Gentleman say, if he can, whether a Debate will be possible or not on the statement which he will make? If the statement is made on the Motion for the Adjournment, we may have a word about it if we like, but if it is made simply in answer to a Question or in response to a Private Notice Question, there will be no opportunity for Debate at all.

Mr. Lyttelton

The statement that may be made is one dealing with the problems of a great number of industries, and the question of a Debate on the cotton industry will have to be raised through the usual channels. I have no reason to suppose that such a request would be resisted if the time was available.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.