HC Deb 02 June 1942 vol 380 cc631-40

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. J. P. L. Thomas.]

Mr. Arthur Jenkins (Pontypool)

I wish to raise a question with regard to the closing of a works in a certain part of the country the name of which is well known to the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade. The closing of these works was intended to provide storage for certain war undertakings. I think that, on the principle of war necessity, no exception can be taken to the closing of works in these circumstances, even though it involves discomfort to people, the upset of their homes and various other things. I have always taken the view that we have to put up with these inconveniences in the period of war: But I think there is definitely a principle involved in the closing of works, and that unless that is satisfied such a project should not be carried through. This subject has been under the consideration of the Prime Minister, as a result of previous harsh treatment in the closing of works and the requisitioning of premises. The matter was referred to Mr. John W. Morris, K.C., some time ago and his Report was published in 1941. In a memorandum by the Prime Minister, referred to in that Report, it was stated: The Prime Minister's attention has been drawn to complaints that requisitioning powers are often exercised harshly. He regards it as of the utmost importance that the national war effort should not be impaired by any suspicion that the wide powers necessarily entrusted to Government Departments are exercised without due consideration, or in any way inflict unnecessary hardship. Mr. John Morris considered that suggestion and he reported that if a proposed requisitioning involves interference with the activities of a going concern or with the occupation of residential or business premises I think that the exercise of the powers should only be decided upon if the need is imperative and if no alternative and less disturbing course seems practicable. That directive of the Prime Minister seems to have been totally disregarded in this case. The President of the Board of Trade received a deputation, and, as a result, he agreed that an investigation should take place in the district, to ascertain whether or not alternative accommodation was available. That investigation took place on the following day. The space available in the factory, which it was proposed to requisition, was 25,000 square feet. The following day upwards of 40,000 square feet were shown to be available in buildings that could have been used—not in one building, but in a number of buildings. That was regarded as not suitable. Therefore, the works was closed. Some of the men employed there were put to work in other places. I think I ought to stress this because we have to give consideration to the question of whether or not the war effort is being advanced by actions of this kind. Some of the men were transferred to other works. Their production fell by no less than 69 per cent. What they are producing is a war requirement. Some of the men were sent to yet another works. Shortly after, that works was closed. The output of that works has to be made up somewhere.

I recognise the difficulties that the President of the Board of Trade will have in coming to a decision on matters of this kind, but in this case there is not the slightest doubt that our war effort was not being served by the action which was taken. Some of the men who were transferred have to travel by bus. I have made a calculation, and it is a very conservative estimate, that the consumption of petrol in conveying those men to that less productive works will be somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 gallons per annum. There is also a considerable use of rubber, and men have to be employed in driving those buses. No bus was required when the men were employed in the other, more productive, works. The step was taken, and the works was closed. But now it has been discovered—it was known before, but apparently very little attention was paid to it—that there is no road access to the works. Anything which has to be taken to or from that works will have to go by rail. It is intended to store things there which may be, on occasion, very urgently required. It would take a long time to get them there by rail. If there were a road they could be taken in an hour to the place where they were wanted, but there are great difficulties about taking them by railway, and that is the only means unless a bridge is built across a small river. I understand that a representative of the Ministry of Supply has been there, and that he has expressed great surprise that there is no road access. It is rather disturbing that we should have reached such a position.

This matter has given rise to considerable feeling locally. I am sorry about that. We are all anxious to get maximum production at present. Working men, looking at this matter, say frankly, "Does production matter so much after all when we can afford to allow a substantial output such as these men were getting to be lost? Does it matter so much in the other industries?" It takes away the reality of our claim upon these people to produce. This is not an argument which applies only to men employed in this industry. It applies to men employed in many industries. One hardly likes to say this, but it is said locally this action has been taken on the part of the big combines, for the purpose of securing their positions in the post-war period. I cannot prove that, but that statement is bandied around pretty freely.

The production of the combines has been reduced to about 55 per cent. of their capacity. The capacity of the industry was reduced by 50 per cent. by voluntary arrangement before the commencement of the war. The combines are still producing round about 55 per cent., whereas this particular firm has had its output reduced by 18 per cent. There is some favourable treatment here, but to what extent it goes on I do not know. I understand that one of the combines at the present time, in spite of the shortage of materials and labour, is in the process of making arrangements to produce this particular commodity four times in excess of the production of the works which has been closed. Whether that will be carried out or not I do not know, but-they are in process of preparing for it. Some of the big firms have vast sums of capital employed and they know well that, in the post-war period, unless they get a big production, they will not be able to meet the financial demands upon the money invested in these big concerns. It inclines one to the view that some steps are being taken to secure the positions of these big firms when the war is over.

In any case now we have a substantial loss of output, a 50 per cent. reduction in men's wages, unnecessary use of labour and petrol, over 40,000 square feet of unused space available, loss of working time owing to men having to work in great heats and having to travel by 'bus considerable distances and being exposed to bad weather, causing the incidence of sickness to go up very considerably. These factors ought to be taken into account when consideration is given to the closing of works. My sympathies go out to the President of the Board of Trade because he has a whole network of interests to consider. The Ministry of Supply will say they want space. They consult the Iron and Steel Control. They make a list of works which is sent on to the factory and storage people, who make an examination and decide what is and what is not suitable. They then come back to the poor President of the Board of Trade, who has to reach a decision. He has my sympathy. I would not have raised this matter if I believed for a moment that the national interests were being served. I am absolutely convinced that they are not being served and that very substantial damage is being done by the closing of these works.

Mr. Cove (Aberavon)

We are discussing this very important matter under great disadvantages, with a time-limit, whereas with proper notice of such a Debate, a full and proper discussion would take a number of hours. There is no doubt that in the closing of this works a great principle is involved. This was clearly revealed in the courteous and prolonged discussion in which the President of the Board of Trade took part in his Department. What is the issue? It is whether the trusts and combines are to embed themselves more strongly or whether they are to be controlled and run for the public service. The tinplate works in my Division was closed not because it was uneconomic—the irony of the situation is that when there was an investigation into the cost of production there, it was found to be relatively cheap. In spite of that, however, the works had to close, leaving the whole village desolate. Think of the effect that has on the minds of the people in South Wales. It is said that they will be transferred to other places, but they see that their employment and livelihood have gone. They do not believe that they will have any better time, owing to the action which has been taken, or more security at the end of this war, than they had following the last war. They are firmly convinced that this action was dictated by those who are in control of the big units of the industry.

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

indicated dissent

Mr. Cove

I am afraid my right hon. Friend is just the handmaiden of these people. The impression one has is that he is carrying out the dictates of the big people in the steel control. There is great suspicion of the steel control in South Wales. It is suspected that they dominate the whole position. I ask my right hon. Friend to get on with the job of making this a public concern. At present there is nothing but desolation and the morale of the people who see their industry going is being destroyed. At the conferences I have attended the overwhelming impression in the minds of people in South Wales is that this action has been taken at the dictation of the big trusts. It is a big trust policy, not only for the period of the war, but a policy in order to entrench themselves when the war is over. We expect the right hon. Gentleman to stand four square against that.

Mr. Dalton

I will do my best in the short time remaining to deal with the points raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Pontypool (Mr. Jenkins) and Aberavon (Mr. Cove). First of all, I should have thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon would know me well enough not to charge me with being the handmaiden of a large combine in the tinplate industry, and seriously, there is no foundation whatever for that view. I have to consider the evidence that is put before me. I do my best to come to a fair judgment upon the evidence, and indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool knows, one of my first duties in relation to this matter, when first I took up my duties at the Board of Trade, was to decide between the closing down of two firms. On all the evidence before me, I decided that one should be closed, and in fact, that' one was associated with the large combine which is in the mind of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon.

What I have to consider, in relation to the demand for accommodation in South Wales, is which of these factories should be closed, having regard, on the one hand, to the need to maintain the essential output of tinplate, and on the other hand, to provide storage accommodation suitable in "character and suitable in location. The particular case raised by the hon. Member for Pontypool has, as he admits, been the subject of prolonged consideration. No fewer than three deputations have visited the Board of Trade in relation to this matter. My hon. Friend has been there on three occasions. The hon. Member for Aberavon came with him on one occasion. On two occasions he saw me, and on another occasion he saw the Controller-General of Factory and Storage Premises. I have looked at this matter from all angles and in the light of all the evidence. What is required is to get a substantial amount of storage accommodation in existing buildings in one unit within convenient distance of a large Royal Ordnance Factory. It is in order to meet those requirements that the particular works in my hon. Friend's constituency has, greatly to my regret, had to be closed. I would like to mention that during the past 12 months, the Control of Factory and Storage Premises at the Board of Trade have been asked to provide for other Departments—we act in this matter on behalf of other Departments, and not of our own free will—70,000,000 to 80,000,000 square feet of space, and to do that we have had to take over from 7,000 to 8,000 premises. I must say frankly that if there had been as much reluctance and resistance all over the country as there has been in this group of tinplate works in South Wales, the; war effort would have been very greatly slowed down.

Mr. Cove


Mr. Dalton

Indeed, it would, considering the amount of time that has had to be devoted to this matter. I do not grudge that, but I say that if I and my officials had had to devote as much time, in connection with cases all over the country, to receiving deputations, conducting discussions in London, visiting the area and inspecting various alternative sites, the war effort would have been choked.

Mr. Jenkins

Is it not a fact that a number of works have been taken over in connection with which no contentious points arose such as I have mentioned? In no other cases where the Board of Trade have tried to take over works have these things arisen to the same extent. That is the whole point.

Mr. Dalton

These have been extremely difficult cases in terms of the amount of time taken up. I want now to deal with the particular points which my hon. Friend raised. He quoted the Morris Report. I entirely accept that report. I entirely accept the Prime Minister's dictum. Operating on the great scale that we have been doing, I am prepared to maintain that the exercise of these powers is decided upon only when the need is imperative and when no alternative and less disturbing course is practicable. I have to satisfy myself in each case, and I did so in this case. My hon. Friend does not agree with my decision, but it was reached after prolonged consultation, in which he was continually taking part, with his friends. It is said by my hon. Friend that there were more than 40,000 square feet of available space in the neighbourhood. I am afraid that that is not in accordance with the information I have received from more than one quarter. In the first place, there was no one unit available, and in the second place a considerable amount of the accommodation was not suitable for the storage of the commodity which we are discussing. If we had plenty of labour and material and were living in the easy times of pre-war economics, it would, no doubt, have been possible to have furbished up these rather derelict buildings, by putting roofs on and so on.

Mr. Cove

If the Ministry had had plenty of storage, would they have closed them down?

Mr. Dalton

It is because we have not got storage space that we have had to take these premises over, and I can give no undertaking that, as the war develops, we shall not have to take over a lot more storage space in many other parts of the country, including South Wales. The war must be continued. I have had the most careful reports made, and officers in whom I have every confidence have inspected these alleged alternatives on the spot, and I say that they are not fit alternatives for the purpose. In saying that I am guided not by agents of big combines, but by those who know for what purpose they desire the storage—in this case the Ministry of Supply. With regard to what my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool has said about the conditions of labour and the transference of labour to new works and so on, that is not my concern; it is the concern of the Ministry of Labour. My hon. Friend must distinguish between the responsibilities of one Minister and another.

Mr. Jenkins

That is one of my complaints. There is no co-ordination between the different Departments. When the Minister of Labour is approached he says that it is not his business and that it belongs to the President of the Board of Trade, and now the President of the Board of Trade says that it does not belong to him but the Minister of Labour. Surely, we could have co-ordination by Government Departments on a question of this kind?.

Mr. Dalton

The decision to take these works over is my decision, following consultations with other Departments. That is my decision, and I stand by it. As to what happens to the labour which is displaced, that is not a question for me. So far as employment is concerned, that is for the Ministry of Labour, and, so far as output is concerned, that is for the Ministry of Supply. My hon. Friend has not, as far as I know, put down Questions on this matter to either the Minister of Supply or to the Minister of Labour. It is, no doubt, true that initially inconveniences may arise from the movement of labour. I am afraid that I cannot take very seriously my hon. Friend's calculations about petrol, because what we are getting from the works in his constituency is of much greater value to the war effort than the quantity of petrol he mentioned. That matter has, of course, been taken into account, as have other matters. As long ago as 8th April, I stated in a letter to my hon. Friend that it was quite impossible for me to reverse my decision. I am sure he will agree in his heart that if I dilly-dallied and because of local pressure and other persuasions continually altered my mind, we should not be carrying on the war and I should not be occupying the post which I now hold. Ministers should take their decisions after listening attentively to all the evidence put up, as I did in this case, and I am satisfied, if my hon. Friend looks at the matter in all its aspects, he will be convinced—although it is distasteful to me and more distasteful to him—that it was the right decision, in view of the need for storage accommodation in the close neighbourhood of this important factory.

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