§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Joseph Henderson.]
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Butcher (Holland with Boston)
I count myself mostfortunate to introduce so early in the evening a subject for debate, which I believe is of considerable importance to all of us, particularly those of us who are interested in the proper expenditure of public money and the surveillance of public expenditure. I gave notice a fortnight ago that I would raise the question of the disposal of Government stores, particularly vehicles The Minister of Supply ought to be congratulated not only as an administrator but also as a skilled Parliamentarian in that on one weekday before this matter was to be raised in the House of Commons he should have summoned a Press conference to show a complete change of policy on the part of the Government. I make no complaint about the Government changing their plans. Indeed, this question of vehicles throughout the country was fast becoming a grave public scandal, and we are indeed grateful to the newspapers for their part in this matter. I will mention one in particular, the "Evening Standard." These papers with their leaders andpictures have focussed public attention on this matter. Therefore, I will not use this brief speech of mine to give a description of Government dumps which I believe would make every Member of this House almost gasp with astonishment. I prefer to try to beconstructive. I think the Ministry of Supply must at once be cleared of some responsibility, because they are not the only owners of dumps in this country. In fact, they are the residuary legatees of dumps of surplus Government vehicles owned by the War Office and the Air Ministry while the 1582 Home Office have their own special dumps on which vehicles of the National Fire Service are thrown. These vehicles are being thrown on the dumps by the various Government Departments and are left there by them fartoo long whilst the Ministry of Supply are not disposing of them in anything like the time they should.
I will take the case of one Royal Air Force dump at Spanhoe, near Kettering, in Northamptonshire. There are some 10,000 vehicles on that dump, in the open air, with an inadequate number of men to take care of them. Some of these vehicles have only recently been overhauled. One in particular—and I have the number of it—was overhauled a few months ago at a cost of £139 3s. Since then it has run 300 miles and has stood on this field at Spanhoe for four months. On this dump there are at least five Humber limousines, staff cars, standing in the open. The value of each car is quite considerable, probably over £1,000 each. What is theresult? With the inadequate number of men to look after these things, clocks are stolen, parts are taken, carpets are removed and the leather upholstery cut up by razor, blades for chair coverings and the making of handbags. I ask the Ministry of Supply,who are still supplying staff cars to the Service Departments, to adopt a firmer attitude, and to refuse them more cars until they make better use of those they have now.
What is the Government's policy with regard to the disposal of these surplus vehicles? We have not had an announcement from them, and I think I am right in assuming that their policy for the disposal of surplus Government stores is that indicated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he was President of the Board of Trade, in a statement he made in the House on 2nd November, 1943. I will not quote his exact words, but the right hon. Gentleman said that before working out plans for disposal, the Board of Trade, together with other responsible Departments, would consult with representatives of the producers and distributors concerned. I should be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary would indicate whether, in this rather radical departure from the policy which was laid down, producers and distributors were consulted on the proposal to get rid of Government surplus vehicles by public 1583 auction. Government policy is contained in Command Paper No. 6539 in which, in paragraph 10, there is laid down the three principles to be adopted, under the headings (a), (b), (c). The first may be summarised as "orderly marketing," the second as" use of the normal channels," and the third as "price control." I will read sub-paragraph (c):To ensure, if necessary by statutory price control, that the prices charged to the ultimate consumer are fair and reasonable in relation to the current prices of similar articles, to prevent profiteering on the part of dealers handling the goods, and to keep down the number of intermediaries to the minimum compatible with proper distribution.These are admirablesentiments. But if we examine the Minister's proposals for getting rid of these vehicles by public auction we find that they contravene the three principles I have just put before the House. I do not know whether that is right or wrong, but I think the Government's policy of getting rid of the vehicles by auction makes a contravention of those principles inevitable. I raise no complaint, but the fact should be recognised. Further, it is a pity that a major change of this nature in Government policy shouldhave been stated at a Press conference on a Saturday rather than in this House in the way in which the original proposals were laid before Parliament.
Let us take these three sub-paragraphs, and see how they apply to the disposal of vehicles by public auction. First, sub-paragraph (a),which deals with orderly marketing. According to a report of the Press conference, the Minister of Supply said that the Government wanted to clear the motor parks right down to the grass, that a catalogue was being prepared, and that the sale would be open to dealers and private buyers and would continue for four days a week until everything had been sold. That is speed, and it is praiseworthy, but it is not orderly marketing. It is bringing vehicles back on to the civilian market as fast as they can be reconditioned. From the moment they are sold under the hammer I take it that the Ministry of Supply loses control over them.
Next, is sub-paragraph, (b), which refers to use of the nonnal channels. Again, at the Press conferencethe Minister is reported to have said that all would have a chance of buying the vehicles they wanted, and that it had been arranged that cars in running order and those in 1584 the best condition would be sold singly, so that the small private buyer would have an opportunity of satisfying his needs. I make no complaint of that, but I think it is right that a departure from declared policy should be recognised. Third, there is sub-paragraph (c), which deals with price control, the prevention of profiteering and the keeping down of the number of intermediaries If the property passes with the fall of the nammer from the Ministry, how can they apply these principles to the vehicles being sold? The Minister suggests that side by side with this policy of disposal by public auction— which, for my part, I welcome—he is to continue the existing scheme for the disposal of these vehicles.
What is the existing scheme? It is this: Vehicles, as they become surplus, are notified by the Ministry of. Supply to the manufacturers, who offer them, at fixed prices, to their main agents. These agents examine the vehicles, and decide whether they can take them or not. If they do take them a change is added for reconditioning to bring the vehicles into a state of road worthiness so that they can be put on to the road with there months' guarantee. Then the agents add their profit. I wish to be the last person in the world to persuade a Socialist Minister against providing two profits, one for the manufacturer and one for the distributor, before the ultimate consumer gets the goods. But it is worth while asking if such a scheme can really run side by side with the new policy of disposal by public auction. The Minister said that the decision to sell these vehicles by auction was merely to supplement the agreement, which had been in effect for some years, with the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. I submit that it will cut right across the earlier scheme, and make it entirely unworkable. If, by selling vehicles to manufacturers for passing on to dealers, the Ministry of Supply arc paid less for the vehicles than they can make from public auction, is it good economy? Is not that the sort of conduct which would inevitably cause comment by the Public Accounts Committee? Would not it lay the Minister open to the risk of a charge of not securing the best prices he could for Government property?
Supposing the vehicles can be purchased for less at an auction than the fixed price, why should a dealer pay the higher fixed price? He will have no 1585 further interest in the scheme which the Minister proposes can run side by side with the public auction scheme. If we consider the unlikely possibility that prices are almost exactly the same, whether by private sale, through the manufacturer or by public auction, then every dealer will prefer to purchase his vehicles by auction. In so doing he can re-sell at whatever prices the vehicles will fetch in the open market, whether it is by cutting the fixed price a little, or increasing it a little. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us that the Ministry have second and better thoughts on this matter, and that this scheme of reconditioning vehicles, as it has existed up to now, will cease with the new scheme and policy of disposal by public auction.
I ask the Government to give us a little more information with regard to these vehicles as they come on to the road. What about road safety? Are any steps to be taken to make sure that these vehicles are roadworthy before they are put on the road? That is a proposition that could be examined in two ways. In the case of vehicles sold to somebody else and re-licensed, there is no obligation on the purchaser to make them roadworthy before they are licensed. On the other hand, to think of large numbers of vehicles being improperly reconditioned and put on the roads at the present time, when the toll of life and limb is so high, is not an attractive proposition. I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that he should invite the cooperation of the leading insurance companies in order to have an examination of the reconditioned vehicles before they are submitted for registration.
I would like to have some assurance, and some further details, as to what steps are to be taken to make sure that the small man gets a chance of buying these vehicles. I hope the Minister will set his face against selling these vehicles in large lots of 100 or more, or the equally undesirable practice of selling one lot with an option on a substantial number of subsequent lots of a similar type. I hope every step will be taken to make sure that the small man wishing to buy one vehicle or two vehicles will have an opportunity of so doing. Unless proper arrangements are made for getting these vehicles away, they willeither drop very largely into the wrong hands, or they will go to the large 1586 firms. Itrust that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to indicate one of two things, either that a reasonable quantity of petrol will be available for getting away thevehicles that will go under their own power, or that arrangements will be made to load the vehicles, for a fixed charge payable by the purchaser, at a railway station, so that they may be consigned and sent away by rail.
Finally, what other goods is it proposed to dispose of by public auction in this way? The old scheme of getting rid of Government stores only through the producers and distributors has now been broken. The Minister broke that scheme when he announced these public auctions. If an auction is the right way of getting rid of vehicles, it cannot be too bad a way of clearing other Government stores which are now occupying badly needed factory space all over the country. Is the same policy to be applied to surplus motor parts, which it would be right and proper to dispose of at the same time as the surplus motor vehicles are disposed of? What about workshop equipment? What is the policy with regard to machine tools? Are they to be put on to the open market, or is the Minister going to confine arrangements for the disposal of these goods to the machine tool industry?
These are points in which the House and the country are taking a keen interest, for the disposal of Government stores has moved far too slowly in the past. An enormous quantity of factory space is now occupied by stores that sooner or later will have to come on to the market. The test of the present arrangements for marketing is, Do they work? It is true they are working, but we are living in a time of urgency, and they are working far too slowly. I believe that the Minister, by making his announcement of the sale of vehicles by public auction, has taken a great step towards clearing these dumps which have been an eyesore and were developing into a scandal, but equally he has reversed Government policy on the disposal of Government stores, and we now wish to know whether public sales of vehicles are to be followed by public sales of other surplus goods.
§ 6.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham)
I do not propose to follow the remarks of the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher), although I am grateful to him 1587 for raising this matter. I wish to mention only two small but exceedingly important aspects of the matter. The first concerns the disposal of reconditioned vehicles. I think it is generally accepted that these reconditioned vehicles are, at the moment, one of the best bargains available in the motor market. They are allocated on a system of priorities, and it seems to be impossible to ascertain what the priorities are. I should have thought that the first priority would have been disabled ex-Service men who need a car for the purpose of getting a job and keeping a job. I was interviewed yesterday by one of my constituents, a 40 per cent. disabled man, travelling from Oldham to Bury and back each day to work, in circumstances of the greatest difficulty. He applied for one of these vehicles and was told that, because he was not 50 per cent. disabled, he was not on the priority list, or at any rate was not sufficiently advanced on the priority list to have any chance of getting a vehicle. I am sure the Minister will look into that matter and do something about it.
I should like to express my agreement with the concluding sentences of the hon. Member for Holland with Boston. The question of the retention of factory and business premises as stores for Government stocks is becoming a grave national problem. In my constituency, engineers are out of work because factory premises are not available, and most of the available premises are being kept as stores for maintaining stocks which may never be of any use to the Government. I appreciate the problem and the difficulty, but having regard to the great attention which the Minister has always paid to representations from hon. Members, I hope he will look into this matter as one of first priority, and see how far it may be possible to dispose of the stores as quickly as possible and make the premises available, or transfer them to some of the many empty aerodrome hangars in other parts of the country, which cannot be used as factory premises. May I apologise that I shall not be present to hear the Minister's reply because of another engagement of some importance in another part of the House?
§ 6.38 p.m.
§ Mr. W. J. Brown (Rugby)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher) for raising this issue, because I think that a 1588 Debate on this subject is necessary; but I think the kind of Debate we want is one of a very much wider character than my hon. Friend has chosen to introduce.
§ Mr. Butcher
My hon. Friend will appreciate that I anticipated this matter would be raised at the customary time for the Adjournment, and not at this hour.
§ Mr. Brown
I quite understand that, and I do not make any complaint; indeed, so faras I have any emotions at the moment, I am grateful for any opportunity, however narrow, of discussing the matter; but I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, in guiding the Debate, will allow hon. Members to travel pretty widely. What we need in the House is to rediscuss the policy of the White Paper on the disposal of surplus Government stocks, in the light of our experience since that White Paper was adopted. We need to take stock of the whole position about the disposal of surplus Government stores, and consider all the elements that arise out of it. One element, for example, is price. The second element is the speed of disposal. The third element is the reclaiming of wastage storage and factory accommodation, to which the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale) referred.
The fourth concerns the direction in which we release supplies of those commodities which are short; the fifth concerns the relative claims of this country and Europe in the disposal of our surplus; Government stocks. There are five-issues, each of them of some substance, and I have no doubt that many Members can think very easily of other aspects of this problem, which really need thorough and free discussion in this House in the light of our experience in the last few months.
I do not share the point of view that the Government have necessarily done wrong here. I would go so far as to say that whatever they do they are bound to be shot at, because they are caught in a series of contradictions which are inescapable. It might be well to consider what happened at the end of the first great world war, number one in the series. It is roughly true to say that then we got rid of the stuff as quickly as we could, any old how. The result was that all kinds of financial thugs in Britain—if the word "thug" be not too tender a term—got in quickly, bought up huge stocks of 1589 Government surplus goods, and landed them on the market at an immense profit to themselves. Vast fortunes were made out of public property at the end of the last war. And I can quite understand the Government, after the recent war, number two of the series, taking the view that they wanted to avoid a repetition of what took place after world war number one. In taking that precaution, however, they may easily fall into the opposite error of disposing of the stuff so slowly that first of all you get complaints from all over the country of stuff rotting in dumps—and everyone could contribute his mite of experience on that subject—and secondly that supplies urgently needed by our own people reach them either not at all, or only at a very inadequate rate. In avoiding one error, it is easy to fall into its opposite. I think that the Government may be in this position at the present stage, and if they think it well to revise the policy of the White Paper they will not find me an opponent. There is room for second thoughts, in the light of our exprience on this matter. Let me put it this way. It may be a great evil that someone should make profit, but it is a greater evil that all sorts of people who want the supplies cannot get them at any price. We are steering here a passage between Scylla and Charybdis and we had better get nearer the middle of the channel if we are to get through it without undue damage.
The first pointis the question of price and pace of disposal. The second is the direction of surplus stocks in cases where supplies are short. I take one example of this which every hon. Member will at once recognise from his postbag. There is a great shortage of soft goods in Britain—blankets, sheets, pillows, mattresses, table-cloths and so on. And there is a tremendous demand for them. I do not know what is the experience of young people today but I should say that the obstacles in the way of getting married and setting up a home are more formidable than at any'stage in my lifetime. We make a mistake in this House in imagining that the population outside think as we do. We divide ourselves, naturally, into political categories, defenders of liberal capitalism, social democrats, and protagonists of communist totalitarian-lsm What people outside are thinking 1590 about is how they can make ends meet, how they can get a job at a better rate of pay, get married and furnish a house on the coupons; and "Ought I to have a baby in existing circumstances?" That is what the ordinary man and woman outside is thinking about.
I have some financial interest in this matter and it is part of the tradition of the House that when one refers to an industry in which one is financially interested one should openly proclaim the fact. I am interested in the holiday camp industry. It is the case that during the war the Government commandeered practically the whole of the soft goods of the holiday camps. Now the Government says to the industry that there will be a terrific demand for holidays this year, and there will because every one of us knows the deep and urgent need of a break for people who have been held down to the grindstone for six years past. Therefore, the Government are urging the industry to lose no opportunity of opening as quickly as possible this year. If the holiday camps are to open they need sheets, pillowcases, mattresses and so on. And I am bound to inform the House that the allocation which has been made by the President of the Board of Trade to the holiday camp industry is a frivolous irrelevance to the needs of that industry. The allocation made by the Board of Trade is 75,000 pairs of blankets, 100,000 sheets and about the same number of blankets. This is hardly enough to stock out the two biggest holiday camps in Britain. I must tell the House with gravity that unless something more can be done then this industry will not be able to function this year. The camps will just not be able to open. It may be said—and it is true—that there are all kinds of other claims to these sheets and blankets. I recognise this fact, and it is no part of my case that the holiday camps have any kind of priority over anyone else. If it were the case that only so many sheets and blankets could be given to the holiday camps because the others were going to meet the immense demand of domestic consumers that might be an adequate answer. But are they? How many sheets, and blankets have gone from this country to Europe? I am told, I do not know how accurately, that recently the Office of Works made 2,500,000 blankets available to the Board of Trade. 1591 Where have they gone? I think we must have some sort of reasonable judgment of the needs of the industry and some reasonable allocation of surplus stocks where there is a shortage to be considered
The Americans have taken a very different line in disposing of their surplus Government stock. In Europe they own literally hundreds and thousands of millions of pounds' worth of surplus stocks and, broadly speaking, they are taking roughly the line taken by us at the end of world war number one. They are selling the stuff regardless of where it goes, and of who subsequently makes a profit out of it. But there is one thing to be said. By their method they are getting rid of the goods. These are finding their way into the hands of the consumer, although at one or two stages removed, and though profit is made in the process. Nevertheless, they do effectively reach the consumer who needs them. In Britain that is not true to a large extent
As I said when I rose, I do not wish to attack the Government on this matter. I think it is an extraordinarily difficult problem and that whatever they do they are liable to attack from one side or the other. But I would commend to their earnest attention the three or four points I have raised. First, what is to be the relationship between pace and price in determining the procedure for the disposal of Government stocks, because they are closely connected? If the emphasis is put on pace it cannot be oh price, because the faster the stuff is sold the less money will be received for it The decision as to the social weight to be attached to these two factors respectively in working out' a general disposal policy, is very important. Next, the direction of surplus stocks to where supplies are short. Third, the relationship between supplies distributed in Britain and those distributed in Europe.
I do not want to say a word to dry up the bowels of compassion, or the fountains of mercy, of the Government front bench. But I beg them to see that if there has to be a choice between our own folk and other folk, they should give our own folk the first chance. Our people have had six years of rough, hard work, and their supplies are worn out The coupon system has not sufficed to replace what has worn out. There is a vast short- 1592 age of all kinds of commodities in Britain.. We ought not to make up the shortages of other people before we make up the shortages of our own folk. I hope that the Government will take into account those three or four points.
§ 6.21 p.m.
§ Mr. Christopher Shawcross (Widnes)
I desire to return to the rather narrower compass of Debate as it was opened by the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher), namely, the projected disposal of surplus vehicles. I was startled, indeed, horrified, at his-suggestion that the Government were about to let loose upon the roads large numbers of vehicles which might not be in a roadworthy condition. As far as I can recall, it is a criminal offence under the Road Traffic Acts and regulations made thereunder to put upon the road, and to use, a vehicle which is not roadworthy. There are already far too many unroadsworthy vehicles of all types being driven around daily, causing accidents with loss of life and serious injury. That arises from several causes, I understand. Perhaps a vehicle has been laid up for a long time, or spare parts were not available, or skilled labour was not obtainable to effect repairs It is also caused by the shortage of manpower in the police force as a result of which these offences—they still remain offences—are not checked.
As I understood the suggestion which came from the hon. Member, it was at least a possibility that the vehicles to which he referred will be sold by auction and, if petrol can be made available, will be driven away straight from those dumps. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary for an assurance—I cannot conceive that he can possibly refuse to give it—that no vehicle which is unroadworthy should be disposed of for immediate use upon the road. In other words, I want an assurance that there will be, as there would be in the case of a private retailer, a warranty that the vehicle is in a safe and roadworthy condition. If it is not possible to give such a guarantee or warranty, some condition should be imposed to make it certain that those vehicles will be taken to a proper repairing organisation before they are put upon the road at all and will be made safe and roadworthy.
I do not know whether the hon. Member has any further details than those 1593 which have appeared in the Press about the terms upon which this disposal will be made. It has certainly appeared in the Press that if the would-be purchaser can secure sufficient petrol or the coupons with which to buy it, he will be able to drive the vehicle away. This point may seem small in relation to the wide range of subjects introduced by the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown), but in my respectful submission to the Parliamentary Secretary it is a most important point. It is a matter of life and death to hundreds of innocent women, children and old people, who not only may, but inevitably will, be struck down by those vehicles if they are disposed of in an unroadworthy condition without any check such as I have suggested. I hope I can take it as certain that the Parliamentary Secretary will give an assurance that this Government would not for one moment think of introducing such a menace upon the roads.
§ 6.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Dumpleton (St. Albans)
One aspect of this matter is troubling a great many people and it would be helpful if the Parliamentary Secretary would give us some clarification upon it, I believe, from letters which I have received, there is a widespread impression that a far too wholesale and indiscriminate smashing up and breaking down of good vehicles is taking place. I understand that there were N.F.S. vehicles at the Crystal Palace upon the breaking up of which until recently 100 Italian prisoners were engaged. At Great Missenden there was, I am told, one vehicle broken up which had no other defect than a dent in the wing.
I am aware that Service vehicles are very much like hon. Members of this House, in that it would be a mistake to judge their capacity for work by their external appearance; but the policy of indiscriminate and none too careful smashing up and breaking down of vehicles appears to the public to be a complete waste of good material, at a time when vehicles are badly needed by many members of the community. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will give me an answer on this point.
§ 6.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Collins (Taunton)
I would like to introduce a point to which reference has not so far been made. I hope the Minister 1594 will not be stampeded by pressure of various kinds into the creation of unemployment by the overspeedy or uncontrolled release of this surplus. I represent a small industry on a disposals panel. Last year 1 sat with members of the Ministry staff and devised a scheme for the orderly disposal of certain surpluses. It happens that the industry had, for several years during the war, been concentrated on the production of certain stores. In our view, it was, therefore, desirable that there should not be any very largescale or over speedy release.
At the time, we did not know with any degree of accuracy the quantities that would be for disposal. A certain rate of absorption was agreed upon. Later we found that the quantities would be much larger than had been expected, owing to the decision of the Government greatly to speed up releases of stores, as was and is very necessary to facilitate the derequisitioning of premises. We were asked to handle a very much larger quantity in a very much shorter time. It was felt that substantial quantities of those goods could be exported. That hope was not realised. Within the last two weeks the industry have been informed that a very substantial quantity would be released immediately, not, as had been expected through the machinery that has been created, but by ordinary open tender.
We felt, and said, that would inevitably create unemployment in certain sections of the industry, but we have been informed that our views on that matter are not upheld, although one would have thought that experience in this industry would count. I hope, therefore, that this matter will be very seriously considered, because I believe it was one of the prime essentials of the original disposal scheme that any disposals of surpluses would be made in a way which would not seriously affect employment in any industry.
There is one other point which, in the light of experience, I would put forward to the Minister, and that is in the disposal of goods where there is a very ready demand. We are all aware that in a great many of these dumps the goods which are now lying in so many parts of the country are very difficult indeed to dispose of at all, and some, in fact, have little or no commercial value. However, 1595 there are, in many instances, trade goods which canbe readily disposed of without having any effect upon current employment. It has been my experience that the process of disposal is very slow indeed. The system which we have followed is that the committee should advise the disposals branch of firms who are willing to accept surpluses on terms and under conditions which have already been agreed. Now when those names and quantities are advised to the disposals branch, they are then forwarded to the contract department of the Ministry, and eventually contracts are issued to the various firms, who then are expected to pay for the goods before delivery, which is perfectly proper. However, the time taken between advising the firms in question and their receipt of the necessary contract appears to me to average some eight weeks.
That is not the end of the story. Once the account has been paid the process goes on and the Service Department which is in control of the goods in question then has to play its part in delivery. That period of delivery by the Service Department takes a further indefinite period of anything from two to three months, as far as my experience goes, which is a total of four to five months for the delivery of goods which are needed when allocation has been made, and where a price has been determined. I would suggest that that is far too long and that this needs to be looked into very seriously. I know of one firm which is still waiting for the delivery of goods for which they paid last January, and which actually only need to be put on a lorry or train for delivery. In my view one of the main reasons for this particular delay is lack of liaison between the Ministry and the Service Department whose responsibility it is to receive the order for despatch and get the goods away.
Now, if it is imperative, as it is, to empty these various stores, then most stringent instructions should be given that when an order is received for a quantity of goods of a known type, which presumably are ready for immediate despatch, they should be immediately despatched to the consignee in order that distribution which is already arranged for, should proceed.. I hope that the Minister in his reply will deal with that particular point.
§ 6.35 p.m.
§ Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)
I think the House should be grateful to the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher) for raising this important question, and I am grateful to him in that it may well mean a revival of interest in the subject of public economy which at one time was more associated with his party than it is today. This is really a very grave question. It will not have escaped you, Mr. Speaker, that speakers on the other side, while able, eloquent and well informed are none of them business men, and they are engaged, to the best of their ability, in grappling with a simple situation which the ordinary commercial men of this country have dealt with for the last 100 and 150 years. Until the advent of theories of mass buying and mass distribution, the goods and services of this country were, by and large, generally and freely available to everyone. A queue was not known until within the last few years. The ordinary manufacturing and distributing system of this country has served its purposes very satisfactorily, and it is only the introduction of this Fabian system of buying collectively and endeavouring to sell collectively that brings us to this shocking impasse which disgusts the public and which even concerns the House of Commons.
There is, of course, a reason for it, Mr. Speaker, as you well know. The reason is that there might be a profit to someone somewhere if the ordinary methods of disposing of goods and services were resorted to, and that, as you know, Sir, is a high crime. After the last war, as the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown) has reminded us, we faced a dilemma either of having what is now called orderly distribution—which means dumps and no distribution at all—or having helter skelter distribution. We had helter skelter distribution. I was told that many men made large fortunes out of war supplies after the last war. What happened to these fortunes? Persons who are concerned about the profit motive never follow very far what happens to profits. But profits cannot be earned, let me remind the House, first of all without the public being served. The public are served freely. They need not buy if they do not want to do so.
Perhaps I may take an example for hon. Members who are too entrenched 1597 in the finer political theories of these days. I would remind them of the sale of the balloon cloth at the end of the last war. Many millions of yards of this fabric had been brought into manufacture for the purpose of making balloons, etc. At the end of the war millions of yards of it were available, and the Government of that day sent round a number of nicely dressed civil servants with black jackets and striped trousers and small patterns asking drapers to buy 50 yards of it.
§ Sir W. Darling
They were members, doubtless, of the profession of which the hon. Gentleman is such a distinguished member.
§ Sir W. Darling
They were well dressed by the standards of those days but were not so well dressed by the standard now imposed upon us by the Board of Trade. Anattempt was made by the Government to undertake so-called orderly distribution of this fabric and it was completely unsuccessful, so they found a bold man who put down £1,000,000 and bought many millions of yards of balloon cloth. In two years this balloon cloth, which nobody would buy in the first instance, was advertised, new uses were found for it, the dexterous and intelligent housewife thought of new purposes wherewith to use this balloon cloth, with the result that every table was covered withit, every napkin was made of it, screens and curtains, unobtainable today, were made from it, children's overalls and garments of every description were made of it. It is true that, although the public was served in a way which was very satisfactory and gratifying, somebody made a profit, and I hope, a very handsome profit.
Following my argument, what happened to the profit? There is a very elaborate and complete and exact system of taxation in this country, and if it was an exorbitant profit, if it was a profit of a highly reprehensible character, it returned to the national Exchequer. Everyone was pleased by this helter skelter distribution. The goods were removed from the dumps, the women got them for purposes they wanted, the man got his profit. 1598 and the Chancellor of the Exchequer got his tax. That is a simple elementary system of distribution which has stood the test of time. It is a worthwhile system of distribution which I defend in contrast to this fantastic system of no distribution at all. It has outstanding merits with which even my hon. Friends opposite will agree.
The present method is of course the inevitable consequence of the application of a system of bureaucratic control to the free natural processes of industry. Why should these many surplus stores not find a needy market? In a world hungry for goods here and overseas, famine struck for goods of every description, His Majesty's Government are holding up millions of pounds' worth of commodities. For what purpose? To get a better price?That might be excusable. But rather they are holding them up through sheer ineptitude and incompetence and because they do not understand the method of distribution. The system to which they have pinned their faith and hopes is, in the essence of things, inadequate to the purpose. There is no proper impetus. Where is there a civil servant who has an inducement to sell? He has little incentive for such a task; he has no commission to encourage his efforts.
§ Mr. Collins
Is the hon. Member aware that those same members of the Civil Service who do not get a commission on the sale of surplus goods now did not get a commission when with the utmost enthusiasm they produced goods for the wax effort?
§ Mr. W. J, Brown
I might add that not only did they not get a commission, but their pay was and is extremely bad.
§ Sir W. Darling
I have fortunate reinforcements from both sides of the House in my view that without this commission, which is considered so desirable apparently by the hon. Member for Rugby, we cannot expect,nor is it reasonable to demand, the businesslike impetus which comes from the profit motive. I am grateful for the intervention and for the support it gives to the view I am expressing.
It is astounding to me coming from many political meetings to hear this strange story by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins) about Italian prisoners engaged in destroying motor cars in the neighbourhood of the Crystal 1599 Palace. I think the Parliamentary Secretary will remember occasions onwhich he has told me of bags of coffee being burned. Here is not modern capitalism engaged in destroying essential goods and services, but a Socialist Government of 1946 employing alien prisoners of war in the confines of the London County Council area itself to destroy not a few bags of coffee, but property of which the world is in great need and worth many thousands of pounds. During the war the little railings of the spinsters and widows and the good folk of the City of Edinburgh were taken by the Minister of Works, and I harangued the citizens to that end. But the change in Government policy is difficult to follow. It seems to be to save in times of war and squander in dmes of peace. The hon. Member for Holland with Boston reminds us of this catalogue, the White Paper. There is not an illustration in it, not even an attractive description of the merchandise. No one would buy anything from that catalogue I can tell the Parliamentary Secretary of a printer in his own city who will produce something which would attract people
These are the principles of orderly marketing. It is orderly marketing right enough, orderly, but not marketing—slow motion but not selling. It is to be done through the usual channels. What are the usual channels? The usual channels have not been asked in many instances to operate. I have complaints from retail traders that they can get disposal stores from the Americans and the Canadians but cannot get them through His Majesty's Government in a country which is hungrier than Canada or the United States. This is an example of the failure of the theory of His Majesty's Government. This afternoon we have heard of a proposal to set up a collective cotton buying body. It would be well if the President of the Board of Trade could look at this collective selling body which is already so much failing in its endeavours.
I think it is right to say that hon. Members opposite are caught with this glamorous picture of the planned world, but though they have great vision they have not the vision to see the interaction of the real plan; the plan which for thousands of years has given men and women on this planet food and shelter and the needs of life. Because they have been looking at the far horizon, they have 1600 not seen how well this plan has worked in generations gone by. Now these fantastic theories of persons inexperienced in business possess the minds of the Government. Let us get rid of every store which the Government possess. Let us have a great bargain sale and get into the homes and garages of the people, who want them, every single commodity we have for disposal. We bought them by the taxpayers' money in the war and do not want the goods in peace. They ought to be distributed where they are needed.
These seem to me so simple and obvious conclusions that Iam sure the Parliamentary Secretary will not be discouraged at questions on his own side of the House as to whether this is a change of Government policy. Let us dispose of the stores with the utmost celerity. I cannot close without referring to the hon.Member for Rugby who referred to my class, the business class, the people responsible for the organisation of society and the people who find employment—
§ Sir W. Darling
—find employment for the men who are returning from the war. That obligation is laid on the so-called capitalist class, the State does not undertake that responsibility. It has to be undertaken by people I represent; the middle class who have been responsible for organisation of the supplies which the Government are in process of destroying. That class is described by the hon. Member for Rugby as "thugs." He thought "thug" was too gentle a term.
§ Mr. W. J. Brown
I must say I am enjoying this speech, but the hon. Gentleman is giving my humble remarks a much wider application than I myself gave them. I merely said that at the end of the last war there were a lot of financial thugs who made a lot of money out of surplus stocks. That is not acondemnation of the whole capitalist class. We are not tonight discussing the relative merits of the capitalist class as a class, or any other class. I was reciting a fact which I thought was well known in any community.
§ Sir W. Darling
I think the description "financial thugs" is an offensive one and, coming from one who is only now entering business for the first time 1601 in connection with an adventure in holiday camps, following the adventure of Mr. Butlin, I think it is an improper word.
§ Sir W. Darling
Thanks for the correction. It bears out what I was saying that persons not engaged in business are very free with ideas, but it requires a person with business knowledge to have a balance sheet and to put the ideas into production. The hon. Member for Taun-ton told us what many Members on this side know to be true, the difficulty of doing any business with the Government. The reason is that it is not a business Government. How many business men are there on the Front Bench opposite and how many worth while ones are there on the Benches behind it? Very few indeed. He told us that though goods have been paid for in advance—in dealing with the Government one has to put one's doubtful money down before they take one's order—that although goods were bought last January, no delivery has yet materialised. More than 13 months have passed—
§ Sir W. Darling
Even so, this Government which claims that it is a Government that gets things done, having taken people's money, cannot give delivery in three months. This discussion is a proof of the falsity of the theory which this country is going to pay dearly to prove to be wrong. Governments cannot conduct public business in the individual sense in which individual traders can. They are wise Governments which leave it to those who are competent to discharge it. Control them, regulate them, tax them, insult them if you like, but do not be so unwise as to enter into the business of distribution and exchange. Thatis not the business of Government, and this Debate proves it.
§ 6.53 P.M
§ Major John. Morrison (Salisbury)
I also offer my congratulations to the hon. 1602 Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher) on raising this subject tonight. I endorse what has already been said in expressing the hope that we shall hear from whoever is to reply to the Debate, that safety precautions are to be laid down in respect of these vehicles that are going out of the motor car dumps. I also hope that, if possible, the ex-Serviceman who is setting up in business, will be given a chance of getting these cars. Up to the moment he has not had the chance which he feels he has a right to expect after years in the Services. There are two points on which I wish to touch. The hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown) mentioned the difficulty of the shortage of blankets for holiday camps. There are also thousands of young married people who cannot get blankets and sheets. Yet I heard ten days ago—I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this—that there are between 500,000 and a million blankets stored somewhere in Olympia. I do not know whether they are the concern of the hon. Gentleman's Ministry or of the Army. Some are the best airborne blankets. Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling) mentioned the railings which had been taken down from countless small gardens. This morning I went by, and I go by it frequently, an enormous pile of barbed wire—indeed three great piles as high as this Chamber—between Slough and Maidenhead. Before it becomes thoroughly rust ridden, I feel it should be boiled down and made into iron utensils of the essential kind, of which we are short.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Earl Winterton (Horsham)
I wish to ask the hon. Gentleman one question. About a year ago I called the attention of the then Home Secretary, the present Leader of the House, to a dump of 100 vehicles, mostly cars but including some lorries as well, standing in a place called Park Hatch, in the parish of Dunsfold, in Surrey. This is a particularly scandalous instance of the neglect of Government property. It is only fair to say that it occurred during the time of the Coalition Government. I wrote to the then Home Secretary, saying that I did not wish to embarrass him by asking a question, but that I hoped he would look into the matter. When I saw it, the dump was unguarded, the rain was pouring down on the vehicles and there was no one within 1003 half a mile. It would have been possible for car thieves to have takenthe vehicles away even if they had had to tow them. About two months ago I had occasion to pass the same place, and they were still there, though I believe that there was someone in charge.
I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sir J.Jarvis), who represents the area in which the dump is situated, has been in communication with the hon. Gentleman on the question. According to private information brought to my notice, the hon. Gentleman said that he would go down and look at it. This really supports what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling). It is inconceivable that any private individual or private firm would show such a gross neglect of his or its property and it is the worst possible advertisement for Socialism. The fact that these vehicles are the property of the public—one can make a joke of it but I see nothing funny about it—makes it a scandalous thing and one which reflects discredit on the Coalition Government, on the Leader of the House and on the hon. Gentlemen that these cars should be left there, and that after a whole year the Government still do not know what to do with them. I hope the hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong in any particular, but I can vouch for the fact that these vehicles were there in the first instance and again the other day; and I hope he will say what is the explanation of this scandalous state of affairs.
§ 6.57 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aircraft Production (Mr. Woodburn)
I am grateful, as I think the Government are, to the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher) for raising this matter in Debate. It has been quite clear to me, from reading the Press for a considerable time, that this subject has been full of misapprehensions and that there is great difficulty on the part of the public in understanding what is happening all over the country with regard to surplus stores. Therefore, I sympathise with hon. Members who have had difficulty in the matter, and have raised it tonight. I was interested in the speech of the hon. Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling), with his special interest in balloons—
§ Mr. Woodburn
After they have burst they become balloon fabric, of course. I know the hon. Member's great ability and his charm of expression, and there is no doubt that he provides great amusement for Members on this side of the House with his caricature of capitalism, which he continually introduces into Debates. Hiscontribution would have been of more value, had he inquired into the subject a little more deeply before making his contribution to the Debate. It is obvious that most of it was based entirely on misapprehensions he has gathered through what other people have described, and that he has not himself investigated the matter. Otherwise, he would have made my speech for me tonight.
I would like to say a word about coffee, to which the hon. Member referred. The difference between coffee and scrapped cars, is that one cannot eat scrapped cars.
§ Mr. Woodburn
Coffee can be consumed. That is the great problem about it. I hope hon. Members will allow me to treat the matter with the seriousness with which it has been raised by a great number of Members tonight. If I deal with all the points raised, hon. Members will agree that they will take me over a very wide field, but I think it due to the House that some kind of picture should be given of this matter. The hon. Member for Holland with Boston asked me whether the Government had departed from the White Paper. The answer is "No." The White Paper is still the policy of the Government. "Departed is the wrong name for what we have done; we have modified it slightly, or supplemented it, but we have not departed from the main principles. We still maintain them.
I have had some personal connection with this question of surplus stores for some time. The hon. Member for Holland with Boston will remember that, with me, he was a member of the Select Committee on National Expenditure. I was invited to be the chairman of the subcommittee which inquired into the then Government's scheme for the disposal of surplus stores. Natur- 1605 ally, the Select Committee examined the matter with the most critical eye possible, believing at that time that the Government were not proceeding quickly enough to get rid of what was even then a tremendous problem. In connection with these investigations, I had to read the reports of what happened after the last war. I assure the hon. Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling) that if he went into the scandals that took place after the last war, he would be the last person on earth to stand up here, and defend that kind of system—
§ Mr. Woodburn
Nobody here objects to people making a reasonable profit, but when they conduct rackets at the expense of the general public, that is a different matter altogether. The scandals were worse then than those described by the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown). As a result of the publicity given to Great Missenden, some people have been out there trying to bribe with £50, the men guarding the cars at Great Missenden to allow them into the dump, as it is called. The public have to be guarded against the thugs, as the hon. Member for Rugby called them. I think the hon Member for South Edinburgh is making a mistake in trying to defend them. The Select Committee went into the whole question. It explained in its report that the Government's policy at that time was to secure a proper distribution of surplus stores to the public advantage, and the avoidance of the scandals which accompanied the disposal of such stores after the last war. Whether or not the scheme requires modification, can only be seen after it has started to work. Now, it so happens that fate has placed on me special responsibility for carrying out the policy regarding surplus stores. I have had to inquire into it from the Government angle, and I must say that I feel great pride in the way that the machine has worked. It is true that the hon. Member for South Edinburgh has not seen it working, or heard it working. He thinks, because no noise is going on, that nothing has been 1606 done. I would remind him that a Rolls Royce makes very little noise, and a "tin lizzie "makes a great deal. This scheme has been working very much like a Rolls Royce so that nobody has noticed it.
§ Mr. Woodburn
Oh yes. Blankets are being distributed to the public. I shall come to that in a moment. As I was saying, this was the policy initiated in the Coalition Government. it was the policy adopted for the safeguarding of all the points of view raised in the House. Nobody had been able to suggest a wiser or better policy. Having had experience of its working, it is true that the Minister on Saturday announced a modification in regard to certain surplus vehicles. Here I would like to say to the hon. Member for Holland with Boston that my right hon. Friend had not the slightest intention of being discourteous in regard to this Debate. This is a matter which has been engaging the attention not only of the Minister, but of the Cabinet itself, for some time. This policy was decided upon, and the Minister did consider whether the hon. Member might think it a discourtesy if he made his announcement before this Debate. We took the view that the announcement should be made at the earliest possible moment, and that the hon. Gentleman would not object to its being speeded up.
§ Mr. Butcher
May I offer my con gratulations on the step being taken at the earliest opportunity? I have no feelings in the matter at all.
§ Mr. Woodburn
I thank the hon. Member. If I proceed to describe the problems that exist, I think all the points raised by hon. Members will arise as I go along, and I shall deal with them. The principle is that the Forces declare their surpluses. Here we come to the first difficulty. The Forces are beginning to know only now what they are going to need themselves for peacetime requirements. Therefore, the Forces have been in the position that, if they gave up things, they might require them later and might have to repurchase them. The result has been a tendency for the Forces to throw up vehicles that were quite obviously down and out, and ready for the scrap heap. The system adopted in 1607 regard to these vehicles was adopted in agreement with the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. That society agreed with us that they would take the vehicles as they came along. They, in turn, sent them to garages and factories where engineers were employed repairing them. However, as the worstvehicles came through first, the garages were clogged up with vehicles that took a large number of labour hours to repair, with the result that the machine was bound not to work smoothly at the beginning. Now, I am glad to say, that scheme is working muchmore quickly, and there is the possibility that the motor traders and manufacturers will be able to make the supply of vehicles flow to the public at a much greater rate. I would caution hon. Members not to expect a great number of motor cars. There is adistinction between motor vehicles and motor cars. Many of the things in these dumps which are being described as cars have no relation to motor cars. Relatively speaking, the number of motor cars is a very small one, and the number of cars fit for people to run is still smaller.
I deal, first of all, with the breakdown dumps. The hon. Member for West Willes-den (Mr. Viant) reported to me a place at Willesden where cars had been broken up which were reported to him as having been in good condition. I at once invited the hon. Member to go with me and examine the matter on the spot. We went round the whole place and at the end the hon. Member agreed with me that there was not one car being broken up there which was of use for anything but the scrap heap. It isa question whether we ought to spend as much labour as we are spending, even in breaking them up, at this moment, for the scrap heap. A large number of cars which we see throughout the country are of no use and only good for the scrap heap. Other vehiclesare of no use for civilian purposes at all. There are cars which take so much petrol, and carry so little weight, that it would be a crime to sell them to a civilian user. There may be a few odd people who have to climb the Grampian hills, and who might find a use for them, but the average consumer could not use them. It would be putting a liability upon him to sell him one of these vehicles
A great many of the dumps are not dumps in the sense that the same cars are there permanently. I went to one near 1608 Edinburgh, about which a complaint had been made. I found that instead of being a cemetery for cars, it was a place where cars were coming in at one end and going out at the other. All round the city of Edinburgh men were employed in garages putting these cars in order, so that they could be put back into service with the Army, sent to U.N.R.R.A., or disposed of on the public market. When the question of Park Hatch was raised, it was brought to my notice as such a serious matter that I invited the Director of Disposals in my Ministry to go with me personally to Park Hatch to examine this-apparent scandal. What happened was that one day a road was blocked; a tree fell across the road and as a result the police asked the fire master in charge of the Depot whether the road through the estate could be used by the general public. Because of that my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) had the privilege of riding through the estate in the midst of cars. But the place was under guard—
§ Earl Winterton
I do not want to deal with a personal incident. I am not controverting what the hon. Gentleman says. I must not, of course, reveal a conversation I had with the Leader of the House. I pointed out and he accepted it that there was no one on guard at all. There were no men stationed there, the road was not blocked. Cars were out in the road with no one guarding them.
§ Mr. Woodburn
Well, of course, that is different information, because the fire-master in charge had been told the circumstances,and had given his permission, but the right hon. Gentleman could see no reason why the public were inside the park. The fire master gave me the reason that the police had approached him, because the road had been blocked by a tree, as a result of which traffic was allowed to come through, and so people were able to see the cars; otherwise, nobody was allowed inside the park. That is the information I got and I can-only give it as I received it. The hon. Member for Guildford (Sir J. Jarvis) raised the matter, and I have replied to him by saying that this is a Fire Service depot, and I understand from my right hon. Friend that these Fire Service depots are required as centres for collecting all sorts of fire brigade material which is given up, and that it is necessary to 1609 maintain a stock of this material until the brigades are re-established. Unless something of the kind was done, the brigades would not be able to get replacements until industry is revived. Therefore, for some time, these depots will require to be maintained. In regard to cars, all I can say is that we are removing these to be disposed of for scrap as quickly as possible, as well as those which are to be reconditioned. A general movement is taking place.
§ Earl Winterton
May I ask the hon. Gentleman one question? Has any punishment been imposed upon the persons responsible, in the first instance, for leaving these vehicles, which the hon. Gentleman has now admitted, and leaving them unprotected in every way? Will he look into that?
§ Mr. Woodburn
There cannot be any question of this Government's responsibility; the Government which was responsible is no longer the Government. This was a Government responsibility and they had to decide whether to use space for factories or for storage of vehicles, and whether to destroy the vehicles or take the risk of their being destroyed, in order to get a factory started, and that Government, for good or ill, made the decision that they must get industry started and took the risk with the cars because there was no space available to house them as well.
There are at present 41,000 vehicles in the country, but that figure includes 12,500 cycles. The problem is whether to use labour in repairing these cars. It takes more skilled engineering labour to repair cars than to build new cars, and we took the view that there could be no justification for using factories, which could build new cars for export which would pay for food, in order to repair cars which, when repaired, would probably not be much good on the road and might be a danger. Therefore, we decided against using labour to repair cars, and, rather than use labour in that way, we were prepared to leave the cars where they were if they were not in a sufficiently good condition to be ready for use.
The question of safety has been raised. One of the reasons for this scheme was that, through the manufacturers and traders, they could be put into condition 1610 so as to be safe for the roads, whereas we could give no guarantee. This, I agree, is a most importantquestion, and, in view of the public disquiet, and in view of the fact that there are a large number of small people with garages—little engineers and soldiers coming back who have an engineering shop of a small kind—we have authorised these people to purchase cars in the normal way and take them away and repair them in their own time and make them available for the road. Most of us are familiar with the small garages where men work on cars when there is no profitable work coming in, and many of these garages might be used for that purpose. It is for this reason that the Minister has agreed to the sale.
May I make a few observations about this auction sale? Yesterday, about 5,000 people turned up at Great Missenden, some having come as far as200 miles. Some of them broke through the fences. A great strain was put on the people in charge of the park in maintaining order and keeping things within their control. Therefore, I would say to the House and to the public that there is no possibility of these cars being sold until the beginning of May. For some time before that they will be on view, but, at the present time, probably nobody who goes to a place of that kind will be able to see the cars in the way they ought to see them if they are going to purchase them. Everybody will get a proper opportunity, when once the cars are catalogued and put in proper order, and I ask the public to wait a further period before they rush to Great Missenden. Yesterday was not a very pleasant day, and, if next Sunday is pleasant, there is no saying what numbers might come.
§ Mr. Woodburn
This is a very important point. There are no skilled technicians to examine these cars and say in what sort of order they are. When the sale takes place, it will take place with the cars as they are, and the Minister can offer no guarantee that any car can be driven away from the field under its own power. Any person who purchases a car there, must be prepared to take petrol and see whether the car can be driven, and, if not, must be prepared 1611 to tow it from the field The suggestion made by the hon. Member for Holland with Boston, who asked whether we were prepared to put them on rail if peoplepurchased cars is rather an important one, and I will have it examined. I could not give a reply at the moment, but it is a constructive suggestion and I will have it looked into, because it is a problem how these cars are to be taken away from the field.We are prepared to do a great deal to help, and it will be a big effort of administration to organise this sale. We have been fortunate in that the Auctioneers' Society have recommended first-class people to deal with it, and they will deal with it promptly. We have already had attempts at bribery and attempts at breaking in, and it would be much wiser if his business was done in an orderly and proper way. There are 2,500 of these vehicles reserved for the Ministry of War Transport, and U.N.R.R.A. and for sale to our Allies. There are 4,500 trucks and lorries, and only 700 cars many of which will not be in good condition,' so that there is quite an exaggerated idea as tothe number of cars available, There is a great number of trucks and lorries, some of which will be very serviceable. We will try to arrange the sale in such a way as to suit purchasers. We have sold 300 cars since the 1st January—cars, trucks and lorries.
May I be excused for making reference to the city of Leeds canteen? It was handed over to as in order that it should be sent, with these other vehicles, to U.N.R.R.A., and it is being used today as a canteen in the park for the personnel guarding and locking after the storage of these vehicles, and I think the people of Leeds will bequite pleased to know that it is not being misused and that the Minister has said today that, if they want it back, it will be handed back to them.
§ Earl Winterton
Has the Minister been able to fulfil all the vehicle requirements of U.N.R.R.A., because this is a humanitarian question of great magnitude? Has he supplied U.N.R.R.A. with all the vehicles required?
§ Mr. Woodburn
No. Any number of new demands are coming in. We are doing our best, and we have reserved and taken over very large quantities of stores, which will help further with this great problem. Many of these vehicles are going to U.N.R.R.A. There will be no doubt 1612 about our doing all we can with regard to U.N.R.R.A. If I might revert to the safety point for one moment, I would like to make it clear that a person who takes a car on to the road is responsible for its being in proper order. Since we are not going through the manufacturers and traders, we have no method of ensuring a vehicle's road worthiness, and the person purchasing it must accept the responsibility.
Returning to the soft goods, we have a scheme with the Textile Corporation and another great organisation. The initials are R.S.C.M.A., but I am not sure what they stand for. I believe it is -a clothing association—
§ Mr. Woodburn
In any case, there are two great organisations formed by members of the trade to take surplus clothing and textiles from us and they dispose of them through the trade. In other words, we have adopted the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that we should use the capitalist system. We hand the goods over to them and give them a reasonable profit. This arrangement has been working so successfully that we have already disposed of over 19 millions of these goods of various kinds to the different organisations. Some have gone to U.N.R.R.A., some to the textile corporations and a great number have now reached the general public. We also have a great number more which are sold by the ton. Over one thousand tons of oilskins and 700 tons of wiping rags have gone to U.N.R.R.A., and 1,500 tons to the Wool Control for making new clothes. We hold about 44,000 tons and 7,000 tons are already out to tender. In addition we have over 1,000 tons some of which is going to the Wool Control and some will be disposed of through depots. We are making a slight modification in dealing with these goods because where there are small lots all over the country we shall no longer bring them to the centre, but allow them to be sold on the spot if that does not interfere with the normal trade.
§ Mr. W. J. Brown
These figures are very interesting, but I would ask my hon. Friend to explain a concrete problem. Here is an industry from which the Government took all its sheets, blankets and pillow cases, and so on. Do the 1613 Government recognise the moral obligation of replacing that stuff in order to enable the industry to get going again and, if they do, when are they going to give the industry the material?
§ Mr. Woodburn
All I can say, as the hon. Gentleman knows is that the Government are very interested in the question of providing holiday camps, hotels and boarding houses with the necessary materials with which to restart business. These surpluses do not exist in such quantities as people seem to think, and they are not sufficient to supply all the needs Therefore, it is only as surpluses become available that they can be disposed of to industry and to holiday camps, and so on.
§ Mr. Brown
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but the President of the Board of Trade made a statement as recently as last Thursday or Friday in which he told us what the maximum allocation of these soft goods was which he was prepared to make to this particular industry. I say that that allocation in relation to the requirements of the industry is insignificant and cannot be compared with what the Government took away from it.
§ Mr. Woodburn
The point is that the Government took these goods away from the industry for use by the Army, Navy and Air Force and they have been used. During this war the Forces have been kept so short of materials that the surpluses which were available after the last war do not exist today. The President of the Board of Trade said, in effect, that that wasall he could fairly give to that particular organisation because of the claims of other organisations. I think the hon. Gentleman had better approach the President of the Board of Trade himself, and I am sure he will do as much as he can, in fairness to all other sections of the community, in giving the hon Gentleman what he requires. Soldiers coming home who wish to set up house need sheets, pillows and other things of that kind and we have also to supply U.N.R.R.A. and our Allies who are in desperate straits. We sent a lot of pillows abroad, some of which the people here would not have purchased but which were gratefully received abroad.
We have departed from some of our schemes in other respects as well. In 1614 regard to valves we must send them back through the makers because if there are radio valves which are not properly tested the public might be swindled. In regard to radio sets we have already sold over 100,000 of these and we are going to put 174,000 watches on the market. Tenders are already out to the trade, to shopkeepers and others, and these goods will be arranged in small lots so that small people can buy them, and we are endeavouring to make a fair geographical distribution. Although we are making these arrangements, we are not departing from those made with the trade. We are merely trying to supplement them, and if the trade is working too slowly we are prepared to go to the public direct.
§ Mr. Benn Levy (Eton and Slough)
Can the hon. Gentleman tell me whether a controlled price will be placed on the resale of these goods?
§ Mr. Woodburn
My right hon. Friend has made a Statutory Order fixing the price at which these goods can be sold to the public. Tenders will be accepted, but the price to the public must be at a particular rate. I think I have dealt with all the points raised; that deals with the question of the controlled price. With regard to cars it is a question as to whether someone can make use of them. If they can, we do not propose to deprive them of the opportunity. The question of price does not matter in regard to cars because if the motor trade cannot use them and some small person can make use of them we are prepared that they should have the opportunity of reconditioning them. As hon. Members know, General Lindsell has been asked by the President of the Board of Trade and the Government to speed up this business and to co-ordinate activity between the different Ministries.
I have, of course, only dealt with the matters for which our Ministry is primarily responsible, but I can assure the House that the scheme which was drawn up by the Coalition Government and which was looked into by the Select Committee has worked well on the whole, and I think hon. Members will agree that there has been very little trouble about it. I do not deny that mistakes have been made and, of course, mistakes will be made in any huge undertaking of this kind but, on the whole, every section of the community and every 1615 section of the Government have worked smoothly together. The proper machinery has been established and is working satisfactorily, both from the point of view of the public and that of the State. The State desires to recover some of the cost of these things for the benefit of the general taxpayer and from the point of view of the community that is a good thing.
§ Mr. Butcher
Can the hon. Gentleman say whether the disposal of surplus stores through the motor manufacturers and traders will go on at the same time as the auctions?
§ Mr. Woodburn
The Minister met the Society of Motor Traders lastweek and discussed this scheme with them, and they are willing that this method should be adopted in regard to the type of vehicles for which they are not prepared to take responsibility. I am sure that a supplementary method of this sort will be welcomedby everyone. It takes a great deal of labour to dismantle and recondition vehicles and there is not that labour in the country, but to the best of their ability the Government will clear these fields of cars and get rid of the cluttering up of factory space which is at present taking place in many parts of the country.
There is one point which I did not mention. It is a very important point. It is the question of machine tools. The Government have as their main policy with regard to machine tools, the re-equipping of British industry. It is true - that the Government want to recover some money, but their main purpose is to try to persuade the British engineering industry to modernise itself and bring itself up to date. Therefore, with that end in view, we are offering machine tools at very reasonable rates. For example, a Webster and Bennett high power boring and turning mill, the current price of which new is £1,240, is being offered at £616. A Kearns horizontal borer, the new price of which is £1,459, is offered at £750. A Cincinatti radial arm drilling machine, the American price of which is £1,050, is offered at £510. We are doing that with the object of inducing engineering firms not only to purchase new machines for new works, but to get the old machines out of the works and to bring the industry up to date.
1616 Anything we can do to assist the engineering industry to equip itself will be done, and the method by which this is done is as follows. First of all, if a firm is taking over a factory in which the machine is situated it gets the first offer of the machine at a price settled. If on the other hand it does not want the machine and is leaving the factory, any new firm going into the factor' will have the next offer. After that the machine is offered to the general public. Then we may have auctions" of some of these machines, and try to speed up the distribution of them in some way. Those not sold will be brought to central stores and will be open to examination by the general public. This scheme is working very well, we have had several big sales which have been very successful. We hope the engineering industry will take advantage of the opportunity offered at this time to re-equip itself, so that we can start on the policy of expanding exports with every facility and with the necessary tools to do the job.