HC Deb 04 July 1947 vol 439 cc1758-68

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

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Braddock (Mitcham)

Those who are engaged in the production of furniture have had to put up with some of the greatest restrictions that have been imposed upon any commodities, but they have loyally observed the wishes of the Government, and have conscientiously done what was required of them That is not to say, however, that they are not uneasy about the present position I am referring to people engaged in the production of furniture as well as o people who require to purchase the furniture for their homes. For those reasons I venture to ask one or two questions, and I hope that the Minister who is to reply will do something to allay the anxieties which exist in this important section of production.

In the Debate on 26th June on the subject of consumer goods, the President of the Board of Trade said a word or two with regard to this trade. He informed us he expected there would be a greater supply of hardwood timbers in the coming year, and, as a result, he hoped that the unfortunate short-time employment and unemployment now existing would be brought to an end. I should like to ask whether there is any connection between the appearance of hardwood timber at the present time and the growth of short-time employment in the industry. In the evidence of the Working Party on furniture, printed and delivered some time late last year, this matter was referred to The Working Party was not required to deal with immediate problems but to take the long-term view. It was so long, however, in view of the position with regard to timber, that the report says, on page 8: It is a matter of the greatest urgency that an inquiry into the whole question of timber, plywood, and veneer supplies should be initiated at a high level immediately. Has that inquiry actually been initiated, and has anything been done? The Working Party drew the attention of the Government to the fact that they were astonished when they came to look into this matter and found that no information was available from the Department responsible in the matter. I hope to have time to mention this matter later. There may be responsibility there for delay in bringing forward these supplies of hardwood and thereby causing the unemployment and the under-employment that exists at the present moment.

Among people who use furniture, and in the trade, there is a feeling that there is not complete understanding between the trade and the Government Department responsible. There may or may not be justification for that feeling. This trade is not to be nationalised, and there is abundant necessity for understanding and sympathy among all sides—Government Department, workers and manufacturers. Investigation of trade papers and of meetings of workers in the trade, discloses some lack of confidence and some uncertainty as to the future. Also it is known—and this is one of the reasons for uncertainty—that firms that in the past have been making certain types of furniture have not had that type allotted to them under the present arrangements, and as the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) rightly pointed out in the Debate on 26th June, in his constituency there was a fully equipped furniture factory that had been kept permanently unemployed during the whole of the period since the war. Moreover, a difficulty does arise with regard to firms, even when licences have actually been granted, to allow them to manufacture certain types of furniture. There has not been the co-operation to enable them to get the necessary materials to carry out the work that they have been licensed to do. Things of this sort cause disquiet in the trade, and I suggest that that ought to be avoided.

Now let us look at the question from the point of view of those people who wish to use furniture. Take, for instance, the newly married couple who are allowed a fixed number of units. Under present conditions their choice of purchases is limited. They can either get a bedroom suite less a bed, or a dining-room suite, or a drawing-room suite, plus a few oddments. I do suggest that under this sort of arrangement it is almost impossible in present conditions to get a home together at all. I would draw the attention of the Government to the evidence given by the National Council on Industrial Design to the Working Party in the furni- ture industry on this particular matter. They said: The idea of the three-piece suite appears to be taken as something immutable. Yet not everybody requires a settee and two chairs, nor a wardrobe, dressing-table and chest, nor a sideboard, table and four chairs. Living-rooms are often combined living- and dining-rooms and are too small to take all the pieces in 'regulation suites'; similarly there is often not sufficient room in a bedroom to put a full suite and a bedstead, without bedmaking and room cleaning becoming awkward and inconvenient. I suggest that this idea that we should make furniture only in set suites is completely out of date, and not in accord with the best modern ideas and advice on this subject.

I suggest also that production at the present time is limited to too few so-called utility designs. It really means that since the rigid and comprehensive control of furniture that was imposed in 1942 there has been very little opportunity for designers, apprentices and craftsmen to develop and keep going one of the oldest and greatest of British industries. I think that hon. Members will agree with me that it is rather an extraordinary thing that there should be this insistence on standardisation in furniture, when in respect of such things as motor cars, sanitary fittings, and electrical equipment, which surely are amenable to such treatment, there is no insistence on standardisation. Yet furniture which has almost the same individualistic and personal appeal as clothing, is still very strictly limited so far as design is concerned. If this really resulted in the production of greater quantities of furniture something might be said for it, but that is not the case. In fact, often the opposite is the case.

It does not necessarily lead to economy in material. Designers, if allowed to use their own designs, in many cases can produce with less material a greater number of pieces. These utility designs are only suitable for production in certain types of workshop with a certain type of machinery, and do not give opportunities for the full employment of the skill of the craftsman. Many workshops using equipment already installed, I suggest, if allowed a greater freedom in design, could produce very attractive pieces and perhaps more of them. If left to their own individual methods of using the material they could produce articles at least as good and, probably, in many cases better than those produced under the utility system, and use up less material. Moreover, workshops, if allowed this freedom of design, could follow that with a far greater flexibility in the use of materials, and could combine them freely with metal or plastic parts. Here again, I should like to refer to the report from which I have already quoted. They emphasise with regard to plastics: The great strides made in the processing of plywood, plastics and light metals, all of which materials can be used to produce articles formerly only made in wood. … None of these materials should be considered merely as a substitute for wood; they are within limits, capable of replacing wood. The suffer from none of the disadvantages of wood … and possess many unique advantages. In the past they have been accepted only as substitutes … but now, being new and possessing adaptability of shape, and very considerable scope for development Now, two years after the war is over, it is time that this great opportunity for the use of these new materials should be taken advantage of.

I now turn to the question of the importation of foreign furniture which is proceeding at the present time. This is a new aspect of the furniture trade, and I doubt very much whether it is wise on the part of the Government, or even necessary, to allow such importation. A special Government control committee has been set up, which has had instructions to place orders for something like £6 million worth of furniture. About £2½ million worth has actually been ordered, and something less than half of that has been delivered. There seems to be difficulty about delivery, and for that reason it does not seem that this has actually effected the bringing of the much needed furniture into the country at the present time. However, it is difficult to understand why this should have been started at all. If we have £6 million to spend on this trade, surely it would have been better to have spent that £6 million in importing timber into the country, and so keeping our own manufacturers and workshops employed.

In the Working Party report on furniture recommendations were made with regard to tests when furniture was again free from restrictions. Unfortunately, at the present time the Government are allowing a certain freedom to certain manufacturers, but without introducing the necessary tests. I have had brought to my attention some information about the sort of thing which is produced at the moment. I should like to quote from a letter received from a gentleman who is engaged as an agent with regard to this particular type of furniture. He says: Three weeks ago I took up an agency for the sale of non-utility furniture and sold from illustrations fortified with the knowledge that it was allegedly made to Board of Trade specifications. … Several orders have now been fulfilled, and I have inspected the rubbish. Never in my life have I felt so humiliated and ashamed at having to be associated with this Government-controlled swindle. I do not say that this applies in all cases, but it is a danger which is likely to arise. After all, the Government have controlled this trade, and I think we must all agree that the time for control is ending, and control must cease in the near future. I know the Government are already decontrolling the trade, but they are decontrolling without essential and necessary safeguards. I ask the Government, when they are dealing with this industry, to have regard to the best section of the industry. The majority of people engaged in this trade, both workers and employers, take great pride in their work. They will give the Government in the future, as they have given it in the past, every possible support to see that it is developed on the best lines. I will not say any more, as time is pressing and others wish to speak before my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary replies to the Debate.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Heywood and Radcliffe)

I would like to put two points to the Parliamentary Secretary. First, I hope very much that my hon. Friend will be able to make a statement about the security of supplies of timber for this country's furnishing industry, especially hardwood. This year we are receiving only 40 per cent. of the hard wood supplied to the industry last year when it was even then working at only 60 per cent. capacity. Second, I hope my hon. Friend will be able to indicate the scope and duration of the import furniture programme, which is causing the greatest anxiety in the industry. At present, we have an import programme of £5 million or £6 million. Originally, that programme was to be completed by the end of last year; now it looks as though it will not be completed even by the end of this year, and the industry is very anxious about the position. Canada has established two special factories for the manufacture of furniture; we have given Poland contracts for the export of furniture to this country which exceed her total furniture exports before the war; we have given Czechoslovakia a contract for more than £1 million worth of furniture, whereas her exports before the war were little more than £100,000. There is anxiety in the industry lest we should be establishing furniture industries in other countries which, in due course, will compete with ours. I appreciate that, viewed against the general background of world trade, there may be good reasons for the attitude of the Government in this matter, and if there is, I hope my hon. Friend will be frank with the House about it, and allay some of the consternation which prevails throughout the industry.

4.18 p.m.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham (Mr. Braddock), in his closing remarks, referred to the necessity for the Government to keep in close contact with the reputable leaders in the furniture industry, employers and trade unionists. I hasten to assure him that everybody connected with the industry knows that there is the closest possible contact between the Board of Trade and both sides of the industry. I myself have frequently met both sides, and have discussed with them ways and means of remedying what, I agree, is an extremely difficult situation.

In the limited time at my disposal, I would like to try to deal with the points which have been raised in this Debate. First, on the question of designations, firms were designated in the early days of the utility furniture scheme, and as supplies of raw materials increased so the number of designated firms was built up to the present total. Then, as Members know, we ran into a shortage of timber, and in the middle of 1946 it became essential to reduce allocations to the designated firms. At the same time, it became obvious that with this reduction, it would not be right to extend the number of designations. At present, the supply of hardwood and plywood is not sufficient to enable us to extend the number of designations. The firms which are awaiting designation will be designated as soon as timber supplies make that possible. On the question of timber supplies, in 1946 the total imports of hard wood amounted to 14.9 million cubic feet. For the first five months of this year, the figure is almost 1,500,000 cubic feet higher than in the corresponding period of last year. There is every reason to believe that this year we may be able to reach a figure of 17 million cubic feet. So far as an increase, over and above that figure in 1948 is concerned, that is largely a question of balance of payment considerations which are always very much in our minds at the present moment. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said on 30th June: There must be some limit to the expenditure of hard currencies upon raw materials, any necessary economies will be so designed as to cause the minimum of difficulties to our industry."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th June, 1947; Vol. 439, c. 961.] We are taking every step to develop the procurement of hardwood from soft currency areas and particularly from our own Colonies. This depends not so much on the existence of hardwood in soft currency areas, and particularly in the Colonies, as on supplies of cutting and transportation equipment, and this must take considerable time. That is the answer to any suggestion that there has been dilatoriness on the part of the Timber Control in the acquisition of timber. It is only two years since the end of the war. Many of these areas of supply were seriously interfered with during the war and it may take some time before we can get the necessary equipment to enable us to acquire hardwood.

Mention has been made of the report of the Working Party, calling for an inquiry into the future prospects of obtaining raw material for this industry. That inquiry has begun, and I am well satisfied with the composition of the main committee and the various sub-committees, and I am certain they will do a valuable job of work. We are anxious to maintain and build up our supplies of essential raw materials for this industry, but that must depend largely on the extent to which other countries will be prepared to let us have the timber they possess

On the question of standardisation, this was imposed in the utility furniture scheme for a variety of reasons. First of all, and most important, it was to ensure that the public get furniture of sound construction at strictly controlled prices, and I think it can he generally accepted that the utility furniture scheme has secured for the public a sound job, having regard to all the factors, at a reasonable price. Secondly, it was to ensure that we make the best and most economical use of all the raw materials, and to cut out all unnecessary frills which might absorb material which could be better used in another direction. We want to see that utility furniture is of a type which can be suitably made by small manufacturers. We have endeavoured to get away from the idea that only two or three people in the furniture industry can be trusted with this programme, and utility furniture is so designed as to make it possible for small manufacturers to do the job, and for the larger manufacturers to have a long run which is essential for cheap and efficient production.

So far as design is concerned the House may be interested to know how this is organised. There is a Design Panel which is guided by a Utility Furniture Advisory Committee. This includes representatives of furniture manufacturers, designers, distributors and the furniture trade unions, and a houswife is included. We believe that the housewife has some ideas on this subject which can be valuable. Within the general principles laid down by the Utility Furniture Advisory Committee and in collaboration with our technical officers, we aim to produce designs of articles which the public need, which conform to the minimum standards of construction for the manufacture of articles which will serve the purpose for which they are intended, which will be pleasing in appearance, and which will lend themselves to the maximum productivity of the industry as a whole.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

These are designs, not furniture?

Mr. Belcher

Design of furniture. We know that there is a desire for a larger measure of variety, and as and when supplies of raw materials improve, we have it in mind to increase still further the variety of furniture which may be obtained within the utility scheme. Of course, that entirely depends on the availability of the raw materials.

Sir W. Darling

Has the hon. Gentleman considered the utilisation of native woods for rustic furniture or imported woods for bamboo furniture, which was a characteristic in the Victorian period and which would be available if there were not hard woods?

Mr. Belcher

I do not think anyone has thought of returning to the bamboo furniture of the Victorian era and we might be able to investigate and see if there is any public demand for it. I rather doubt it myself, but we can look at it.

On the subject of the imports of furniture, I know that this is very unpopular with manufacturers in this country. It is bound to be so in an industry which is restricted to 40per cent. of its potential output of furniture because of the lack of raw materials. More than once the industry has spoken to us about the bringing into this country of imported furniture and they are bound to feel that there is something lacking when we do not import hardwood instead of the finished furniture. We realise all this, and if it were merely a question of deciding between importing furniture and importing hardwood we should not hesitate for one moment. The right thing to do would be import the hardwood.

Mr. John E. Haire (Wycombe)

Has my hon. Friend considered the possibility of only importing a certain amount of furniture and also a corresponding amount of hardwood with it?

Mr. Belcher

Each one of these imports is decided on its own merits. There has never been a case where we have chosen to import furniture rather than wood. In fact, we have been able to obtain some supplies of raw materials solely because we have agreed to import certain types of furniture. Had we not imported that amount of furniture we should not have got the hardwood. We insist that all the imported furniture conforms to the utility specifications. It would be quite wrong for us to allow foreign manufacturers to export to this country something which we do not allow our own manufacturers here to make.

On the question of the figures of imports, they have been much smaller than seems to be generally realised. In two years of importing, all deliveries to date, plus deliveries expected from contracts and agreements so far made, will add up to 3½ million units of utility furniture costing £3½ million c.i.f. This is equivalent to about one month's production of utility furniture. With the exception of Canada the whole of this expenditure has been in soft currency areas. On the general issue of the importation of furniture, I feel bound to say that we have a duty to the people of this country who are grievously short of furniture. There are a large number of people who are not in the priority class. They have not been married since 1939 nor have they been bombed out, but they require furniture by reason of the fact that their homes are wearing out. We have to some extent to import furniture because the industry's output of utility furniture falls short of pressing demands and we are sure it is right to supplement that output with imports. It will remain our policy so long as the Chancellor is prepared to find the foreign currency to import this furniture in order to give satisfaction to some of our people.

The final point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham was on the question of some non-utility furniture which he said was hawked around by someone. We are not responsible for any non-utility furniture nor do we make any allocation of raw materials for non-utility furniture, except for a small number of people who are known as working masters, and they are a very small number indeed. I agree entirely about the trials and tribulations of this industry. They have had more to put up with than any other industry in this country. Raw materials are very short and that is the reason, but the co-operation between both sides of the industry and the Government is first class and they deserve credit for the way in which, despite their difficulties, they have managed to keep up the production of utility manufactures.

Mr. Haire

Would my hon. Friend give an indication of the likely trend of imports from either the United States or—

It being Half-past Four o'Clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.