HC Deb 02 December 1946 vol 431 cc171-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn." — [Mr. Michael Stewart.]

10.34 p.m.

Mr. Skeffington (Lewisham West)

I am very glad to have this opportunity of raising the matter of the medical supplies industries in connection with the new National Health proposals, because I was one of the many who were unfortunate in not being called during the discussion on Second Reading of the National Health Bill. I desire to raise this matter because I think that a statement about the future of these industries will be desired, certainly by those in the industries, and by an even larger number of people outside.

The United Kingdom is very fortunate in the possession of a number of industries in this field which have developed and extended on the basis of a very high standard of craftsmanship quite unequalled in any other part of the world. My purpose in raising this matter tonight is to see how far their resources will be linked up with the very large demand which I believe the National Health proposals will make upon them. My own interest and knowledge arose on account of my experience during the war when for a period I looked after production of a wide range of medical supplies in the Ministry of Supply, and one of my early duties was to "vet" estimated programmes and requirements of Allied countries and particularly of our own Dominions. It must never be forgotten that this country together with the United States of America supplied the whole of the non-Axis world with a very wide range during the war. I was very surprised to find the high demand which had to be met in the State of Queensland in Australia.

I believe that under the National Health proposals large demands will be made and hon. Members who question that statement might be interested to know that we checked up the figures for Queensland and found that they were high per head of the population, because in that State they had a popular State medical service throughout the territory. I believe that when our new proposals are in operation, we shall also find enormous new demands. We have to remember that in normal times a large number of people are outside any health system and only receive medical supplies relief in dire emergency.

During the war these industries were satisfactorily mobilised by the Directorate of Medical Supplies in the Ministry of Supply. Perhaps it would not be out of place to record how successful was the work which this relatively small department—I do not think that at any one time there were more than 160 persons employed—did in supervising the whole production of the major items of medical equipment, ranging from 30,000 drugs and 20,000 patterns of surgical instruments, including high pressure sterilisers, down to hot water bottles. The control and inspiration in the direction exercised by this small department was one of the outstanding administrative achievements of the war. At any rate, it could be said that for the first time since the Crimea, medical supplies were not a scandal. In no theatre of operations did any vital supplies ever run short.

I am anxious to know from the Minister tonight what step his Department, and the Ministry of Supply, are going to take to meet demands for the small, highly competitive, and even antagonistic, industries. I believe if he does not take prompt action in dealing with their demands and getting a supra-authority, we shall not get the stores we require at the right time. I would like to speak on this general problem in relation to one or two special industries. First, I want to speak briefly of the X-ray industry. The X-ray industry of this country is a small one judged by numbers of firms. I think now, after some amalgamations, there are twelve firms, two of which are large and the rest moderately sized firms, with a labour force which used to be about 1,500. Under supra-direction this small industry made a magnificent contribution to the war effort.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

. What does the hon. Member mean by supra-direction? Will he make that clear?

Mr. Skeffington

I am coming to that in a moment with some few practical suggestions. I would say, the kind of direction that we were able to give during the war. During the war we supplied thousands of sets to first-line soldiers, so that they got diagnoses very often right up to the battle area. In addition to that, we were able to supply, at a time when Russia was cut off from all other sources of supply, more than 4,000 X-ray sets. I am glad to think that now, the new hospital at Stalingrad is being equipped not only with British X-ray sets, but with a good deal of other medical accessories from this country. We only received this great output of X-ray apparatus during the war, first, by insisting on standardisation.

In this small industry, heretofore, what had happened was that if you ordered a set from any one of the 14 manufacturers, and later ordered another set to serve the same purpose, they would produce a set with many minor different accessories. If you asked them to produce the same set six months later, you would still get another result It was quite impossible to meet large demands without standardisation. The War Office did a first-class job not only in insisting on standardised equipment, but in giving standardised training in the operation of these sets. I believe there is an enormous shortage of modern X-ray equipment throughout the country. When I was at the Ministry of Supply, I tried to find out the number of hospitals in this country with obsolete X-ray equipment, or without any equipment at all. I was never successful in finding out the exact number, but I believe it cannot be far short of 500. In many cases hospitals are running with old equipment, as they did during the war, and many want to have additional facilities for X-ray, which is now being applied in the preventive field more than ever before. There will be a large additional demand, as was found in New Zealand when a State service was introduced, and as was found in Queensland.

There are one or two things I want to ask the Minister. I would like to know first whether there is any authority which can, I will not say knock the heads of the industry together, because I want to pay my tribute to the cooperation one got from the industry during the war. But they are often jealous of their powers, and they are very competitive. I would like to ask whether there is in the Ministry any authority which is coordinating output, and whether or not they have fully considered the possible advantage of a representative Working Party for this and other industries.

Notice taken that Forty Members were not present; House counted, and, Forty Members not being present, the House was adjourned at a quarter to Eleven o'Clock till Tomorrow.