HC Deb 23 June 1942 vol 380 cc1839-53

Order for Second Reading read.

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

Mr. Austin Hopkinson (Mossley)

I understand that the arrangements for today were made through something which is called the "usual channels," a mysterious road with which most of us are unacquainted, and that the programme is to be such that, in the present crisis of the nation, the whole of this day is to be devoted to a Debate on the subject of family allowances. As one of the oldest Members of the House, who has worked for, served, and loved this House for 22 years, I protest that we should earn the derision and contempt of the whole country by such an action. Last week, a whole day was wasted in discussing whether old age pensions are poor relief or not, when every Member of the House knew that they are, and to-day, in this crisis when Tobruk has fallen, Egypt is in imminent danger, and Sevastopol is on the point of falling, this House is to stultify itself by discussing a matter like family allowances! Therefore, I propose, to discuss the Second Reading of the Consolidated Fund (No. 3) Bill, and I am going to do so whether the House likes it or not.

This Bill deals with a sum of £1,000,000,000, and the question for this House to consider is what value we are obtaining for these endless thousands of millions of pounds which have been poured down the drain. This is an admirable opportunity, in view of the news which has reached us during the last 48 hours, to discuss, as we can do, on the Second Reading of this Bill the whole policy of this Government and previous Governments, which has brought us to this present impasse, due as all the world knows to the fact that our equipment is utterly defective as compared with that of the enemy, that there is not enough of it, and it is not of the right sort, that the enemy has superior equipment, superior fittings to his tanks, superior guns and superior aircraft. And this after two years of a Government which has had the most complete autocratic powers that any Government has ever had in the whole history of this country—two more years which the locusts have eaten.

The House ought to know why, when the Minister of Production made his broadcast in America, did he have to explain to the whole world the utter nakedness of the land and the feebleness of our war effort? The right hon. Gentleman informed the world that, so terrific was our production of what he called "big guns," that we were producing 40,000 a year. From the very next paragraph of his broadcast it was obvious that he, like Lord Beaverbrook in a previous broadcast, when he said "big guns," meant anything more than 303, or small arms. That is our war effort as regards guns‡ Again, he said of tanks and other mechanically-propelled vehicles, 230,000 odd a year, a miserable production at this stage of the war. Again, in regard to aircraft production, the right hon. Gentleman had to tell the world that it is to-day only 100 per cent. greater than it was in the autumn of 1940. Mark what was the position in 1940. The autumn of 1940 was the period when Lord Beaverbrook had completely wrecked the whole aircraft production programme of the country. Our production was miserable and was actually going down owing to the machinations and follies of that curse to this country, Lord Beaverbrook. That is the exposure that we had in America from the Minister of Production.

Here we are again, by this Bill throwing another £1,000,000,000 down the drain, as we have thrown thousands of millions before. The whole thing goes back to fundamental policy and nothing else. Every conceivable mistake that we made in the last war has been made in this war by this Government and its predecessor. For example, it was decided, rightly or wrongly, that in the production of munitions the profit motive must be maintained as a spur to action. Personally, I never thought it was necessary and I am convinced that those manufacturers who prefer their own pockets to the public interest are comparatively few and could be dealt with adequately. It was totally unnecessary to do, as Lord Swinton did when, as Secretary of State for Air, he went to the aircraft ring and instead of telling them, as any statesman would have told them, "The country is in danger, and is going to be in greater danger still: you have to give up any idea of your profits or post-war trade and help us out of the difficulty we are in"—the general tone of his appeal was this. "Now, boys, here we are again together. The good old times have returned. Open your mouths wide and we will see you through." That is the way our aircraft production was started by Lord Swinton several years before the war.

With regard to this question of profit being a spur to production, and supposing—though I do not believe it is true—that it was necessary to adopt that policy and stick to it, what do we do next? We immediately arrange an Excess Profits Tax to skim off all those profits which ex hypothesi we say are a spur to production. I think the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) will, from his experience of the Excess Profits Tax, endorse this, that the Excess Profits Tax, well-intentioned as it was, is to a very large extent evaded. It is one of those taxes which honest men pay and dishonest men do not, because it is unsound in principle as it goes against all the proper canons of taxation and, therefore, it is extremely difficult to frame orders in such a way that a dishonest man cannot evade them. I have evaded it myself without having to practise any really serious degree of dishonesty. For the benefit of others who may be listening to me or who may read some portion of this speech in the newspapers, I may say that the way is quite simple. What one does is, having calculated the amount of Excess Profit Tax for which one is going to be liable in the current year, simply to work for the public service for nothing to the extent of that tax, with the result that the fighting Services get 20s. in the £ of every one of those pounds instead of the Inland Revenue getting only perhaps 6d. in the £, the rest being poured down the drain. I give that method of evasion to anyone whom it may interest, and I hope it will extend on a larger and larger scale.

But there is another mistake. It was decided, I think rightly, to set up a Ministry of Supply as soon as hostilities broke out. I happened to be at Co-ordination of Defence when all the necessary preliminary steps were taken and that extremely wise old Civil Servant Sir Arthur Robinson was responsible mainly for the drafting of the organisation. He was undoubtedly right in his view. For it stands to reason that all three fighting Services use a vast bulk of supply which is the same for all. The shape and the size of the respective mouths of airmen, soldiers and sailors is not so different that different patterns of spoons need to be used for the Army, Navy and Air Force. During a period of national peril it is possible, I believe, for a naval rating to use the same spoon that satisfies his brother in the Army or Air Force. Therefore it was obvious that a Ministry of Supply would be of immense value in producing the vast bulk of the material which satisfies the common needs of all Services. But it is a very different matter when it comes to weapons, and that has been the trouble all through.

This discussion we have had about Libya shows perfectly plainly that, quite rightly, and without any desire to hunt scapegoats, the House would like to know who is to blame for what has happened to us, and is likely to happen again. As long as you divorce a fighting Service from the supply of its own weapons, it is impossible to tell who is at fault when disaster occurs. We got it in the case of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. How can any one say whether there was a breakdown of the fighting personnel or whether it was due to lack of material, or inferior materials? As a matter of fact it was due to both to a certain extent. But to deny a fighting Service the right to supply its own weapons is a mistake which ought to be corrected, if possible, at the earliest moment. The difficulties and delays and the lack of satisfaction that one gets in one's weapons in the Fleet Air Arm arise simply because we are not responsible for the design and manufacture of our equipment. Those are things that can be put right and, if they are, even at this late stage it would be possible to arouse the people of the country and the employers in the munitions industry to a sense of the seriousness of the situation and, by making them realise that, to clear the way for a better state of affairs in the labour world, which is chaotic at present.

For we have made a perfectly hopeless mess of the whole labour question, and, after all, where is this £1,000,000,000 going? It is all going, ultimately, in wages and salaries somewhere. It may be indirectly, but ultimately it is going in wages and salaries. Therefore, it is highly desirable that the House should face up to the present labour situation. That situation has been caused—I almost said deliberately caused, but that perhaps would be unfair—by the policy adopted by the Minister of Labour ever since he took office some two years ago. I make no apologies for not waiting for him to come into the House, and I have not given him notice, because, as the House will remember, on the last occasion when, in Debate, the right hon. Gentleman was grossly impudent to me, and subsequently I took advantage of your permission, Mr. Speaker, in accordance with the usual custom of the House, to rise to refute some of what he said, he simply walked straight out of the House and refused to face the music. Therefore, I do not apologise for not asking him to be present now.

Let hon. Members observe what has happened to labour during the war, and particularly since the war began to take on a more serious phase with the invasion of Norway. It was noticeable to all those engaged in the production of munitions that no sooner had that terrible news come from Norway—before the present Government came into office—than there was an awakening throughout the workshops of this country such as I have never seen before. I noticed it with my own men, and my manager, when consulting managers in other local works and factories, found exactly the same thing. There was a sudden realisation by the people of this country that they had this war on their hands and that there was no time for slacking any more. That went on until the formation of the present Government. Let hon. Members notice the policy which was then adopted. Here were men working their very best—as I have never seen them working in the forty-five years of my experience of British workmen—working willingly and determinedly, knowing that they were up against it at last, and then the Minister of Labour introduced a policy involving, in some cases, hours of work up to 70 and 90 a week, and Sunday work at double pay, and Saturday afternoon work at double pay, and all that sort of nonsense—the sort of things that no man who knew anything about work would have even dreamed of introducing. And that killed the effort dead, and we have never recovered. And what, after all, does the right hon. Gentleman know about work? What experience has he to qualify him to direct the labour of hundreds of thousands of highly skilled engineers and their assistants? Ever since that policy was adopted, there has been the utmost difficulty in getting the fullest possible productive effort out of our workmen. I am not throwing the blame upon the workmen. Far from it. I am throwing the blame where it is due—upon the mistakes of policy of a Government which has again and again shown its total incapacity to understand the people of this country, and particularly the workers of this country.

A very considerable portion of our contracts is still on a basis which is absolutely fatal to economic and full production; a considerable portion is based upon the wages cost of the job, plus a fixed percentage for standing charges. I venture to call attention to the Report of the Auditor-General, which was recently issued, in which he pointed out that in several cases there were standing charges of over 200 per cent., and in one case of over 300 per cent., on the total wages paid. For the information of the House, let me say that last year at my own works, engaged mainly on aircraft production and a certain amount of experimental work, the standing charges were 67.3 per cent. on the wages charge, and they will be very much less this year. Yet there are these gigantic sums of money dished out to utterly incompetent manufacturers in the form of standing charges on wages. Every man in those works, as I have pointed out again and again for six years, is in this position. Everybody, from the office boy upwards, knows that the less work done and the more wages paid, the better it will be for everybody about the works, and that the man who puts his best effort into the work and tries to save time is disloyal to his employer and deprives his employer of his hard-earned money.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke)

That is not true.

Mr. Hopkinson

That is the position. That is why, in one works after another, I get complaints that nothing seems to be done during normal working hours, but that as soon as overtime, and particularly Sunday work, begins, everything seems to get a move on, because, without any intention or deliberate desire to cheat and rob the country, the whole atmosphere of the system is such that it is almost impossible for men, except of the highest and strongest character, to resist the influence of this absurd system. Those standing charges are not subject to taxation of any form or kind They simply mean that if a manufacturer runs up standing charges, he can employ at exorbitant salaries all his poor relations and all the people to whom he has obligations. That is what is happening. One has only to go into some aircraft works and look at the size of the office staff compared with what they are doing, and one must agree, if one has any experience of industry, that standing charges of not more than 120 per cent. at the outside on the wages bill should be ample to cover every standing charge in the industry. It should be remembered that one of the chief standing charges on industry in peace time is the cost of the selling organisation, the cost of the organisation required to sell the goods and bring new inventions to the notice of possible customers. All that has been done away with. The customer is there, the orders are there—more than can be taken. All of that most expensive item has been swept away. I maintain again that there is no excuse for these exorbitant standing charges.

Let it be noted that those standing charges are calculated on grossly inflated wages; for wages in the munitions industry are grossly inflated, in spite of what hon. Members above the Gangway may say. Again and again, hon. Members of the Labour party say, "The workers of this country have sacrificed their all, they have given up everything for the sake of their country." I challenge any Member of the Labour party to give me a single specific example in which labour has sacrificed any mortal thing of any sort or kind without being paid up to the nose for it. I am making this speech in protest against the cant and humbug which are rife in the country and in the House. I hear that sort of nonsense from the Labour Benches, but from my close association with the workers in the North of England, I know that they resent it and loathe it. When the Minister of Labour, during the "blitz" period 18 months ago, used to say in the House, "You heroes of industry"—you fellows who are going as far as the refuges and then playing cards at double wages all night long—"you are the heroes of this war." That sort of thing is regarded with utter contempt by nine-tenths of the decent workers of the country.

The trouble is this, that we are gradually rotting the very fibre of our people at the present time by the policy of the Government and the way these matters are now carried on. In Lancashire there is a sort of cynicism among the workers. They do not believe anything. They do not believe what they are told. Not very long ago, a Government speaker came to a town in my neighbourhood and, at a mass meeting of munition workers, said, "At any rate, this time you cannot say that your employers are getting away with it; there is the Excess Profits Tax." My informant told me that there was one yell of derision from that great audience. That shows the cynical way in which our workers are driven to regard their country and the war. I see the Home Secretary on the Treasury Bench. I should like to draw attention to his case as a cause of this cynicism. It is known to every member of this House what were his activities in the last war. Some Members have actually taken the trouble to preserve some of the leaflets which he wrote at that time and which I can only regard as rankly seditious. That Minister has the power to imprison me or any other Member of this House without charge or trial for an indefinite period for offences such as he was guilty of for a long period in the last war. That makes people absolutely cynical. A workman said to me not long ago, "This war began as a workers' war, a people's war, and the tragedy of it is that it is becoming a Government's war." That is unhappily true.

The people, as I say, are cynical. They see all this appalling waste of money. They see all these scallywags—there is no other name for them—getting away with immense sums of money, some of them Members of this House, and notorious Members, who are getting incomes far in excess of anything they could earn by honest labour in normal peace time. When inquiries are made they never come to anything. The various committees which are set up get on the scent of something but they never follow it up. The fox goes to earth and the hunt goes home. If some of these Select Committees were to employ terriers they might possibly do more killing than they do at the present time. Take the example of the Ministry of Works and Buildings. Everybody knows from one end of the country to the other that that Ministry is a crying scandal at the present time. Again and again the trouble has been brought up in this House. But then some Member of the House who wishes to advertise himself has thought that there was something there that might give him a chance of self-advertisement with an ultimate view to office, and, as I have seen happen again and again in the last 20 years, a perfectly good case is ruined, as any good case can be ruined, by those who advocate it. Again and again those who are a disgrace to this country get away with it and you cannot break them because they are attacked by people such as those I have mentioned.

That is the position. What are we going to to do about it? The first thing is for this House to give up the canting humbug such as it uses at the present time. Let the Prime Minister take the country into his confidence. Those of us who have known the Prime Minister for 40 years know his great qualities, but we know his weaknesses also. We know how he enjoys moving armies and fleets about the world. Like a child with a lot of tin soldiers he is never happier than when doing that. It is a quality of great importance during war, although it is a quality which needs very careful watching if big disasters are not to happen. Superficial studies of Marlborough's campaigns do not qualify a man to command the Fleet, the Army and the Air Force in person in actual warfare. I am the last person to do anything to weaken the position of the Prime Minister. I regard him as an absolute necessity to us at the present time. Suppose he does not return from the United States. Think of the stinking mess of political chaos and corruption that would confront us. Think of those people who believe they are going to be Prime Minister. Who are they? We can see them in this House, see them asking for the reversion of the job. I say, therefore, that as long as we can keep the Prime Minister going, in spite of himself, it is the duty of the House and the country to keep him going.

Miss Rathbone (Combined English Universities)

Why is the hon. Member doing his best to injure the right hon. Gentleman's prestige?

Mr. Hopkinson

The right hon. Gentleman is in a very dangerous position. I see you looking at me, Mr. Speaker, as if I were getting wide of the subject of the Consolidated Fund Bill, but I think I can get back to it. I pointed out that our military disasters were largely due to deficiencies in number and quality in aircraft, tanks and guns. What man is responsible for that? Who was appointed by the Prime Minister to be in control with almost infinite powers over the whole of our aircraft production? The right hon. Gentleman appointed a man whose slimy trail has been across the whole public life of our country for the past 30 years.

Mr. Speaker

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will moderate his language.

Mr. Hopkinson

I think I am entitled to use metaphor. I am speaking purely metaphorically.

Mr. Ellis Smith

The hon. Member was not speaking metaphorically when he was attacking the working-class.

Mr. Hopkinson

The nobleman in question is said to possess a certain quality known as "dynamic energy." That is what we call it in this House and in the Press. In the United States of America they shorten it and they just call it "ballyhoo" and nothing else. I ask those who know anything about aircraft production to tell me, straight, whether we ever had anything while that man was at the Ministry of Aircraft Production and the Ministry of Supply but what can be termed "ballyhoo" and nothing else. Both those Ministries were thrown into chaos in order to produce advertising values of one sort and another. The present Chancellor of the Exchequer, when Secretary of State for Air, undoubtedly used those advertising values for the purpose of debate in this House. The figures he loved were those of so-called completed aircraft, and he had no affection for aircraft equipment or spare parts. It is no use a Minister coming to the House and saying, "I have So many gross of spare exhaust valves for Merlin III engines." It leaves the House of Commons cold. But if the whole of the labour and material which should have been devoted to these spares had been devoted to producing one air-frame, possibly without an engine, that would be good advertising value. That was the policy when the Chancellor was the Secretary of State for Air and it was developed by Lord Beaverbrook.

I have pointed out what seems to me to be the fundamental mistakes of policy that force us to provide these gigantic sums of money for the use of the State during the war. The policy is making it inevitable that we shall go through a prolonged period of real suffering in this country when the war is over. We cannot go on consuming without producing on the present scale without having to pay for it sooner or later. Instead of providing funds to enable those who suffer from the rabbit complex to have large families, as we propose to do to-day, we should devote our attention to devising some means of reducing the population of this country to a figure which will enable the people to enjoy at any rate a reasonable standard of living without constant fear of want after the war. For this House to pass this Measure, as it proposes to pass it through to-day, without any inquiry, without any criticism, without any discussion, is an instance of this House neglecting its bounden duty to the people of this country, the duty of investigating how the money of the people is spent, whether it is wasted or whether it is devoted to its proper objects.

There is a very much graver side to this matter, at which I have already hinted in the course of my remarks today, and that is the effect upon the morale and upon the very soul of this country when people see in positions of the highest power and responsibility men for whom they cannot but feel contempt. It is no use burking it. There are men in the highest positions for whom no man who knows anything of their career can feel anything but contempt and disgust, and when they see our Prime Minister, with the whole load of responsibility which he bears, and which we were glad to give him, constantly attacked in every way by a former colleague, his position undermined in the controlled Press, and every mortal thing done to make his task more difficult, I say it is time for this House to protest, even if we can only protest in the form of metaphors. Only this last week-end, in one place the Home Guard and the Fire Service and others were turned out to do honour to Lord Beaverbrook and enable him to put forward, once again, as he has been doing for months, his demand for more and bigger disasters.

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes (Portsmouth, North)

I want to suggest to the Chancellor of the Exchequer a way of cutting down the enormous expenditure which is being poured out day after day, and to suggest to the Government a way of putting a stop to a great deal of dissatisfaction and jealousy which prevails among working people. I have been about the country a good deal and have met it everywhere I go. I will not follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mossley (Mr. A. Hopkinson) in all his arguments, though I must say that I agree with a great deal that he said. I do not always agree with him, because I remember that whenever I try to get a Naval Air Service he at once rises to his feet—

Mr. Hopkinson

After all, I think the hon. and gallant Gentleman will realise that anyone with two wavy stripes seldom gets a chance of saying exactly what he thinks.

Sir R. Keyes

Well, the hon. Member has said it to the Government as well as to an Admiral of the Fleet. The men of the three fighting Services get a moderate wage with family and other allowances, but even when taking all these into consideration they receive considerably less than men and women, boys and girls can earn in war industries at the present time, and so, apparently, do the miners. Those high wages are upsetting the whole balances of the country's wage standards and are causing dissatisfaction and unrest everywhere, and in addition they result in rising prices which make it very difficult for other people, including old age pensioners, to live. Why should not all the wages for National Service be stabilised in grades at a reasonable rate? It was done by the Labour party in Australia directly their country was threatened.

Four years ago I suggested real National Service with a stabilised wage and family allowances, and allowances also for contractual obligations, so that people who had been thrifty should not be penalised. I did it again at the time of Munich; in fact, I would not support the Government at the time of Munich because I knew they were not going to make that effort which I considered was absolutely necessary. I did it again after the war began, and I have done it since. If the Government had had the courage to put such a measure into operation a good deal of the troubles we are experiencing to-day would have been avoided. The whole country would have accepted it loyally, particularly after Dunkirk, and now they would do so, I should say, after Tobruk, when things have been going badly. The country accepted conscription, in spite of a great deal of opposition, without any difficulty at all. Why should people be conscripted to fight whilst those in reserved occupations are left free to strike and to absent themselves? The fighting man works and fights the clock round. Why should we not put an end to all this inequality of sacrifice? Thousands of young men have died or are now in prison camps owing to the inferior equipment, and thousands more will die when this second front is launched. We do not deserve to win this war unless the people of the country as a whole make sacrifices comparable with those which our fighting men make for us.

Mr. Tinker (Leigh)

Statements were made to-day by the hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. A. Hopkinson) to which one ought to reply. First he said that we were wasting Parliamentary time by dealing with family allowances. Then he made a remark, which I resented very much, to the effect that last week we wasted a day in dealing with old age pensions. When I questioned him just now he said it was nothing but cant and humbug, that something like poor law assistance was being given to aged people and that therefore we should not waste time upon it. I resent such a statement being made by any responsible Member of this House. If we are to carry on the war successfully we must have regard to the many classes of suffering people in the country. If we disregard them as being of no consequence, ultimately the country must go down to defeat. I take the opportunity of saying that I thought Parliament used last Wednesday in a way that was a credit to the country by examining the position of old age pensioners in the hope that we could do something better for them. As to the other points in his speech, naturally he has a right to express his views, as everybody has, but what troubles me is that in one breath he was trying to praise the Prime Minister and in the next trying to pull the right hon. Gentleman right down to the bottom. It has neither been praise on the one hand nor open opposition on the other hand. If the hon. Member does not believe in the Prime Minister, I would rather he said so, but, as it is, he has only damned the right hon. Gentleman with faint praise.

I hope to-day we shall have some regard to the present position of affairs. I do not want us, when we do come across a set-back or a defeat, to lose all control of ourselves and start blaming everybody. It is far better that we should realise that we are up against a most powerful and well-equipped enemy and that there will be occasions when we shall meet with reverses. The right thing for an Englishman to do then is to stand up to events and try to make them better for the future. Never let us give way to depression as we are doing now. I deplore what has happened in this Debate. Here are we, the people who as Members of Parliament should be telling the nation to have courage and endurance, acting as though we were beaten. [Interruption.] Yes, we are doing so. Well, that is how it appears to me. If it is not so, I am glad that I have brought out that retort. It appears to me that because we have suffered a reverse in Libya everybody is depressed and wandering what the next blow will do. Let me tell hon. Members this: We shall come through this struggle all right. We shall rise above this temporary set-back, and Britain, in my belief, will come out victoriously.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke)

I want to place on record my resentment at the speech of the hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. Hopkinson). I consider it was one of the most irresponsible and mischievous speeches I have ever heard delivered in this House. I claim to be in touch with the people of this country as much as any Member, and I know that they are far from feeling, as the hon. Member described. I resent very deeply the attack and the libel which he has just made upon the workpeople of this country. Never did workpeople work harder or longer than they are doing. His speech is an indication that he does not know British industry. He is managing—or he has others to manage—a factory which is not engaged in competitive industry such as that with which many of us were closely associated not very long ago. Had he been more in touch with industry, he would have known that workpeople are engaged upon the piece-work system, which was perfected in the competitive world before the war and that that determines the speed at which the workpeople work.

The attack which he made upon the workpeople is unworthy of him and of this House and ought not to be made, particularly in the presence of representatives of other nations. The workpeople of this country have formed the core of British resistance. It was most unworthy of the hon. Member to attack them in the irresponsible way that he has done. Coming from the same district as he, I want to place on record my resentment, on behalf of the workpeople and the people of the country as a whole.

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

Bill read a Second time.

Bill immediately considered in Committee; reported, without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed.