HC Deb 04 February 1947 vol 432 cc1731-42

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

11.57 p.m.

Mr. John E. Haire (Wycombe)

I apologise to the House for rising at this late hour. I do so only because the matter which I wish to raise is one of extreme urgency. It is, in fact, the re- grettable situation which has arisen in connection with the timber supplies of this country. The situation is so serious that, generally speaking, it endangers our housing programme for the next year, and more particularly it threatens widespread unemployment and under employment in my own constituency and elsewhere in the furniture industry.

Let me first deal briefly with the soft wood position. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Health a few days ago issued a most admirable housing programme for this year, 1947. By the end of the year he hopes to build 300,000 new permanent and temporary houses, but unless the present bottleneck in timber is overcome the realisation of those 300,000 houses will not take place. It is estimated by the trade that we shall be something like 147,000 standards of soft wood short next year, which would normally go into building. At the present rate of 1.6 standards per house, we shall be something like 100,000 short of our programme for next year. Further, there are no accumulated stocks or very few stocks of soft wood in this country. Before the war we had something like two million standard imports with one million in reserve. Last year we had approximately only 800,000 standards for all purposes, building, railways, shipbuilding and so on. So, in fact, we are living from hand to mouth and unless we can maintain a steady flow of imports, up to the programme rate of house building, that programme must run down.

Our soft wood supplies before the war produce some rather interesting figures, especially when we compare them with the present imports. Our main suppliers were Finland, Canada, Sweden, and Russia. Finland has dropped to one-quarter of her 1938 supplies to us, Sweden has dropped to one-half, but the most astonishing drop of all is that of Russia, which has dropped to one-fortieth of her 1938 figures. Recently Russia agreed to send us 25,000 standards of soft woods, but up to November last only some 10,000 standards had arrived in this country owing to the normal seasonal freeze-up. Canada, fortunately, has almost regained her 1938 position, and exported to us last year some 360,000 standards. Poland, who supplied us with 100,000 standards in 1938, sent us none last year, and we had none from Latvia, from whom we had 62,000 standards in 1938.

In all, our imports of soft woods are down by over one million standards, and are now only one-third of the 1938 imports. This shortage of soft woods for building purposes affects our housing drive today as seriously as the bottle neck in bricks last year. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that the same urgency ought to be adopted to cure it.

When we turn to the hard wood position we find it is almost worse, and the same applies to plywood and veneer. This is what vitally affects the staple industry in my constituency—the furniture trade. As the House knows, the present demand for furniture is enormous. Even if we had enough second-hand furniture in this country the present inflated prices make it impossible for most people to buy it. Yet, because of the present shortage of hard woods, this essential furniture industry which employs 120,000 is seriously threatened with unemployment. Some authorities in the industry estimate this will be as high as 15 per cent. within the next month or two. For most workers in the industry—apart from those who will be unemployed—the nationally agreed 44-hour week will probably be reduced to 38 hours, or perhaps 35 hours. The effect on furniture production is going to be startling, I venture to suggest. One furniture factory in my constituency which is designated to turn out 150 dining room suites a week is even now only able to produce some 25 to 30 suites a week. It is highly regrettable that our production of utility furniture, which steadily increased during the past year, has now had this set-back.

The United States of America was our main supply of hard woods before the war, but now we are down to one-tenth of what she gave us in 1938. Russia in 1929 supplied us with £10 million worth of hard wood, but none at all now. Poland, Yugoslavia, and Japan all sent us considerable quantities, and now send none. We know the obvious reasons for this—their own domestic requirements, transport difficulties, and barter problems—but it is impossible to resist the conclusion that political reasons are largely responsible for our failure to recover our sources of supply in Central and Eastern Europe. I believe that the timber is there. I have the evidence which was provided for me during a recent tour I made in Central and South Eastern Europe. I believe there is timber in Sweden which we can get, and not just for coal. I had evidence recently of a Midlands manufacturer who went there in company with an Eire timber merchant. The Eire timber merchant bought a considerable quantity, but, unfortunately, the English manufacturer had an embargo placed upon him since he had no mandate to buy. I understand that there is a considerable amount of African timber going into Denmark. I have a picture from a Danish magazine which shows a number of the kinds of wood which have recently arrived from Africa and South America, and the letterpress says that Danish manufacturers have lacked these during the war. I believe that oak logs can be had in France, and I have a letter from one of my constituents saying he knows of a firm in France which has found large supplies of first-clas oak. There were, I understand, recent deliveries of 20,000 tons of oak from Russia to Belgium, against the last barter of steel.

It is true that the Timber Control have representatives in foreign countries—I believe in as many as forty—but the fact is that they have very largely failed to provide the timber, and that is the grievance of the furniture industry in this country. I believe that a member of the Timber Control has recently gone to Canada with instructions to find timber, and that he has said that "the sky is the limit." Well, all I would say is that in spite of his gambling spirit, I wonder if he will get the timber. Fundamentally, the solution of this problem has lain with Timber Control. In 1943, the Furniture Industry Postwar Reconstruction Committee issued a warning about the possible postwar situation, and in 1944 they referred again to the grave anxiety they felt with regard to the re-availability of timber and other raw materials on which depended the whole future of the industry, the re-employment of labour, and the satisfaction of the urgent needs of the public.

Last September it was made clear by the report of the working party concerned with furniture and the future of the in- dustry, that that future was based on the supply position. What have Timber Control done about this? Last September they cut the allocation to the furniture industry by 25 per cent. Before that, in July, they had the waste allowance withdrawn, and that amounted to about 20 per cent. There was a cut of 20 per cent. in hard wood, and 40 per cent. in soft wood last December, so that it is true to say that there has been a cut of about 60 per cent. in the last six months and on top of this there is delay in honouring the certificates of allocation. I do think it is true that these cuts in such rapid succession give the impression that the policy of Timber Control is makeshift and muddle-headed.

The President of the Board of Trade, and I would say his Parliamentary Secretary, should ask themselves "Are we being properly served by Timber Control as at present constituted?" I would ask how can control consisting of timber merchants and brokers—people representative entirely of private enterprise—be a satisfactory arrangement for this Government? This is a private monopoly which the Government have sponsored. No consumer interests are represented, whether they be manufacturer, builder, or employee. All the timber brought into this country from abroad by Government representatives goes through the hands of Timber Control, who apparently enjoy a rake-off. Recently, under pressure, Timber Control agreed that private manufacturers and others could go abroad and see for themselves if they could find any timber. Any timber found would rightly have to go through Timber Control channels, but only two per cent. would be allowed on such purchases, and the rest of the profit would go to Timber Control.

While the present scarcity continues, it is right that a Government control should continue. But must it be a set-up such as the present? Let us, if necessary, have a control of civil servants, freed from the taint of personal motives, with an advisory committee representative of all parties concerned in timber. I understand that this was promised by the President of the Board of Trade in November last, but has not yet been set up. If we cannot reconstitute the Timber Control we might do even better to consider sending a mis- sion to Russia and the Eastern European countries to investigate the supply position. Also, will the hon. Gentleman indicate any results of the Colonial survey of timber at present being carried out, and will he consider the present policy regarding furniture imports, which I understand are restricted to £6,000,000. This must to some extent prevent foreign suppliers from sending us their timber. Will he give an assurance that this timber crisis is being treated as a matter of grave urgency, because, without timber we cannot build houses, and without furniture we cannot make homes.

12.12 a.m.

Mr. Edelman (Coventry, West)

The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing before it in so cogent a manner, the grave difficulties in which both our building programme and also our furniture programme are placed because of an impending timber shortage. Recently the Minister of Health reduced the amount of timber required for a house from two standards, which was the normal amount before the war, to the present level of 1.6 standards. Despite that fact, we are still faced with grave difficulties in providing the necessary soft woods, in particular, for our housing programme. Consequently, we have to consider whether at the present time we are doing everything possible to obtain, from all available sources, the maximum amount of timber. I cannot help feeling that largely through the intransigence of the Russians, we have not Deen able to obtain the soft woods which we normally consider to be the staple of our programme from the Soviet Union, and from Eastern Europe and North-West Europe. In the past, we derived the great bulk of our soft woods from sources which are now controlled by the Soviet Union. I think we made a small contract for about 25,000 standards of timber, but I believe that the bulk of that quantity has not been shipped to us.

Therefore I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary specifically whether he has made any approach to the Soviet Union for shipments of a quantity of that timber from the open water ports of the Soviet Union, from which, before the war, the Russians used to ship even when the Baltic was closed by ice. I am thinking particularly of Odessa and Murmansk. Before the war I had some association with the timber industry, and shipments were in fact made, by arrangement, from the Southern ports, and from the ice-free Northern ports. I would also ask whether the Parliamentary Secretary has impressed on the Russians our need for timber shipments from those ports, and finally whether he has tried to make any reciprocal arrangements with the Russians for the supply of portable saws, so that the Russians could cut the timber on the Yenisei River round the port of Igarka. I ask that, because I believe that if these two steps were taken for obtaining timber from the ice-free ports and developing the areas which have been undeveloped in the past, we might be able to obtain a substantial contribution from them.

12.15 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Belcher)

I am very grateful for the opportunity afforded to me by both my hon. Friends to say something about this extremely difficult and vexed question of timber supplies. If I fail to go into very great detail on a number of the points that have been raised, it is only because of the limitations of time. The facts of the timber situation as set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. John E. Haire) are, as far as I can see, accurate. It is the case that there has been a shrinkage in world exports. In 1928–29, world exports of timber were nearly 6 million standards. By 1934–38 this had become 4½ million standards. All these figures exclude Germany for purposes of comparison, since one could not compare prewar years with 1946 if one included Germany. Last year the total world exports had diminished to 2 million standards. Prior to the war, this country took about 2¼million standards, but in 1946, the total imported into this country was under one million standards. 'In other words, the total world supply has shrunk, and with it, of course, our share.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe mentioned that in a recent tour in foreign parts, he had seen plenty of timber, but I would remind him that there is a difference between growing trees and sawn timber, and he has to take into account, particularly in those countries to which he was referring, difficulties arising out of the war. Roads, railways, power stations, vehicles, production equipment of all kinds, neglected or destroyed or damaged during the war, have to be repaired or renewed, and renewal of these in many of the great timber-producing countries has made only slight progress. Our own heavy industries, of course, could make a contribution, and so could coal, if we had sufficient coal to export to the countries which need it. Many of the most important sources of supply are still dislocated, and have their own very serious reconstruction problems. A particular example of that is the Soviet Union, one of our greatest suppliers in the years before the war. May I say here to my hon. Friend the Member for West Coventry (Mr. Edelman) that we need no urging to buy timber from the Soviet Union, but it does take two to make a bargain. My right hon. and learned Friend the President of the Board of Trade has made it plain in the House many times that we are only too anxious to deal with the Soviet Union in a number of things, and particularly in timber. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe asked, quite legitimately, what we are doing. He made some criticisms of the Timber Control, one of which was that the Timber Control consists of timber merchants. I cannot imagine anybody more suited and fitted to go abroad and buy timber than people who have spent the whole of their lives buying timber, and I certainly would not be prepared to suggest that this job should be handed over to amateurs who might have the advice, which they might or might not take, of a panel of professional people. The hon. Member criticised the fact that there was no representation of the consumers on the Timber Control. He may or may not know that I have recently received several deputations, and on several occasions I have suggested to these people that if they would provide us with somebody who would be prepared to come into the Timber Control on the same terms as those who are already there—to come into the Timber Control and give us the full time use of their services—we should be only too glad to see them, but, unfortunately, none has yet been forthcoming.

What, in fact, are we doing? The hon. Member referred to the fact that we have a mission in Canada at the present time. That mission is headed by the Timber Controller, and, as he is reported to have said, his terms of reference are to buy all the timber he can get, and those are his only terms of reference. One cannot go further than that. Sweden and Finland were important prewar suppliers, and we are negotiating with them at the present time, but it is the case that unless Sweden can get coal, we cannot have Swedish timber. We are unable to give Sweden coal, and, therefore, Sweden is using the timber which is being produced for fuel. In Finland, I am advised that there is a necessity for iron and steel, without which the timber will not come out of Finland.

Mr. Haire

Is Eire supplying Sweden with coal for the timber she is getting from Sweden?

Mr. Belcher

I am afraid I do not know the answer to that question. I have heard the case quoted by my hon. Friend of an Eireann manufacturer who went to one of those countries and was able to buy timber which was not available to British manufacturers. All I can say about that is, that when that case was brought to my notice said, "Please provide me with factual evidence, and I will have the whole thing inquired into." But I have not yet received that factual evidence, and until I do there is nothing I can do about it. That is not the only case of allegations of that kind, quite unsubstantiated by factual evidence on which I might be able to act.

We are buying a certain amount of soft wood from the United States of America, and Czechoslovakia and Austria—not as much as we should like; but, here again, we are bound by the amount of timber that those countries are prepared to let us have. If they do not want us to have more than we are getting there is nothing I, or anybody else in the Board of Trade or in Timber Control, can do about it. We have been trying to buy timber in Jugoslavia for over a year unsuccessfully. A question was answered about that in the House on Thursday last. The House has been informed it has not been possible to buy from Roumania.

I have left till last the question of Germany, possibly one of the most important. We did not import a great deal of timber from Germany in prewar years. In fact, Germany was, on the whole probably, an importing country itself. But we decided that we would avail ourselves of whatever timber there was in that country. We set up the North German Timber Control, and put the Director of Home Timber Production, Sir Gerald Lenanton, in charge of it. But that could not be expected immediately to begin delivering the goods. There was a number of problems—the problem of staffing, the problem of providing food in an impoverished country, in the British zone, for the people who were going to hew, cut and transport the timber. It was necessary to provide transport. There was a slow start; but we are proceeding, with a measure of success. We are concentrating on producing from Germany, either cut in Germany or imported here in logs, timber of housing size; in the main soft wood; and we have been successful in getting some timber out of the American zone of Germany, somewhat better placed than we are in the British zone. [AN HON. MEMBER: "Are we getting any from the Russian zone?"[No. Last year we got 55,000 standards out of Germany. That is considerably more than was exported out of Germany in prewar years. We hope, and, indeed, we are pretty sure, we shall do better this year.

On hard woods, I would ask hon. Members who are interested in this subject to glance at the "Board of Trade Journal" for 23rd November last, in which the situation was set out very clearly. Before the war there was little home produced hard wood, but during the last two or three years the greater part of our supplies of hard wood have been produced at home; but these supplies are now declining—inevitably, because of the inroads made in them in two world wars.

We should like to cut down consumption to a minimum of hard woods in order to conserve our stocks, but so far that has not been possible; but, as it is, the decline in home production, unaccompanied by an increase in imports, has meant, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said, drastic cuts in the allocations of hard wood to our furniture manufacturers. We did import, prewar, large quantities from the United States of America, our largest supplier, but here we are limited by the home demand in the United States, which, in fact, are importing hard woods themselves, and have a ceiling placed on export licences. This, of course, applies to most of the other countries that are normally suppliers of hard woods.

We have expanded to a very considerable extent imports from West Africa, and we shall go on doing our very best in that direction. We are trying a number of new and unfamiliar timbers from a variety of countries, including timbers which we have had almost to force upon manufacturers who are quite unaccustomed to dealing with particular kinds of wood we are importing from these new sources.

May I say, to conclude, that the available supplies of timber, whether of soft wood or hard wood or plywood, have to be shared out between housing, furniture, and other requirements. It is unwise to hope for a spectacular improvement, and I should be rash if I speculated now, at the beginning, or just before the opening, of the buying season, as to what is going to happen. We are doing our very best. We are scouring the world for these supplies of timber, and it is not easy; but we shall go on trying. But British industry can make a contribution. In so far as we can increase our exports of those things which the people in the timber producing countries want, so shall we be able, I hope, to get increasing supplies of both soft woods and hard woods.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-six Minutes past Twelve o'Clock.