HC Deb 22 March 1949 vol 463 cc212-20

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper in the name of Mr. ERROLL

65. To ask the President of the Board of Trade if he will now announce a further general revocation of industrial controls.

The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to answer Question No. 65.

Yes, Sir. I have recently given special attention to quota controls, that is the arrangements which limit, firm by firm, the volume of materials they may acquire, or use, or sell. So long as there is a serious shortage of any important industrial material, it has to be rationed. It is often the case that a trade has no common measure by which it may be rationed except that of past performance —sometimes going back to pre-war years. Other quota systems derive from the need to restrict hard currency purchases by import licensing.

All quota arrangements tend to hold back efficient firms and sustain the inefficient. It has therefore been the Government's policy progressively to do away with quotas wherever the supply position permits. Since last November, 25 materials for use in more than 100 industries have been freed from this form of control.

I will, with the hon. Member's permission, circulate the details in the OFFICIAL REPORT. Some of these controls have already been relaxed; and I informed the House about paper in reply to a Question from my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) on 18th January. The removal of export licensing from cotton piece goods, the abolition of furniture permits, and the relaxations of the control of asphalt, building board, leather, footwear repairs, packaging, surgical rubber gloves, willows, photographic stills, and silk goods have already been announced. The most important items in the list are paper; most types of leather; a number of paint materials; the industrial uses of cloth, formerly rationed; and nearly all types of hardwood.

About a dozen species of hardwood are still scarce and most of them cost us dollars. These species account for 10 or 15 per cent. of total usage but they will have to remain subject to licensing. Hardwood will continue to pass through Government stocks as at present and the Timber Control will exercise discretion in selling their stock by paying special attention, in the case of the better grades, to the use for which the buyer seeks to acquire them. Neither the price control of hardwood nor its purchase on Government account will be affected.

I have also decided on some further relaxations of other kinds of control the most important of these is the decontrol of the distribution of matches which will take effect in about four months. Some commodities—tanning materials, synthetic rubber, rosin, pin oil, turpentine, oak veneers, and building board will revert from public to private purchase.

The amendment of the relevant statutory instruments cannot all be done at once. The date from which these relaxa- tions will take effect will therefore be announced separately.

Mr. Erroll

Can the Minister give the non-political reason for revoking these controls en masse and not one by one as each becomes redundant; and can he say how many civil servants will be freed by these revocations?

Mr. Wilson

In answer to the first question I think I made it pretty clear that a large number of these controls—cotton piece goods, asphalt, building board, leather, footwear repairs, packaging, surgical rubber gloves, willows and photographic stills—have already been revoked case by case as soon as it became possible, without waiting to do it en masse. So far as the release of civil servants is concerned, I estimate that the total number involved, apart from the 1,000 released by clothing rationing, will be about a further 300.

Mr. Oliver Lyttelton

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in following the doctrines and policy of the party on this side of the House, and in carrying out in a hesitant way, measures which we have repeatedly urged upon the Government, he will find general support on these benches, and may we also ask him to continue with a little more boldness the good work he has begun?

Mr. Wilson

I am aware that in these decontrols we are, as always, a few steps ahead of the Opposition. In fact, the committee which the Tory Central Office set up in 1946 has still not reported on the controls they want to take off. Indeed, with one or two exceptions, not a single one of the decontrols announced this afternoon have ever been suggested by any responsible leader of the Opposition?

Mrs. Mann

Will my right hon. Friend explain why he held up the announcement until after the election?

Mr. Wilson

I would refer my hon. Friend to the supplementary answer I gave to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Bristol (Mr. Stanley) a week ago.

Mr. Maurice Webb

Would my right hon. Friend tell the House his intentions in this field in respect of the wool textile industry, particularly the Wool Control Board?

Mr. Wilson

Yes, Sir. I am watching this situation on wool very carefully. I am reviewing the degree of control required by the woollen and worsted industries. The supply position in respect of worsted yarns is still very difficult, but I hope I can make early progress on the decontrol of woollen yarn and cloth, provided that we can find a way of doing that while still leaving the utility programme properly safeguarded.

Mr. Bellenger

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether he proposes to continue the present system of steel rationing, and whether he can hold out any hope, that because of increased steel supplies, he can alleviate the present situation at an early date?

Mr. Wilson

I would ask my right hon. Friend to put that question to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply.

Mr. John E. Haire

Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that he is retaining sufficient power to maintain the control of maximum prices with minimum qualities for hardwoods, and would he ensure that, when hardwood is released freely for the furniture industry, there will be no leakage to other industries?

Mr. Wilson

I hope I have made it clear from my answer that, as soon as this Order comes into effect, hardwood will be quite free for consumption by all purchasers, and not only the furniture industry. Certainly, we have kept on the fullest possible control of prices of hardwood. So far as quality is concerned, my hon. Friend knows the position in respect of the furniture utility scheme.

Mr. Collins

Can my right hon. Friend say whether he is satisfied that the sup-

Commodity Main end-use Commodity Main end-use
North American Brake linings Borax Adhesives
Asphalt Car batteries (non-statutory) Glass
(import quotas) Floor compositions Leather
Paint Pottery
Printing ink Metal and flux
Tank linings Vitreous enamel

plies of hardwood will be sufficient to ensure the manufacture of sufficient utility furniture?

Mr. Wilson

I would not have taken off this control, or any other control, unless I had been satisfied that the supplies are sufficient, and, indeed, when hardwood supplies are sufficient, I hope there will be a substantial substitution of hardwood for softwood and steel.

Mr. Charles Williams

Can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he has now discovered that the Willow Control Order was completely useless?

Mr. Wilson

No, Sir; as with all other cases, we have removed the control at the first moment that it was safe to do so.

Mr. Harrison

Will my right hon. Friend take the precaution to see that the removal of these controls will not adversely affect the prices of the various commodities concerned?

Mr. Wilson

Yes, Sir. Price control is, in fact, in the main maintained by the arrangement I have made.

Mr. Shepherd

Are we to assume from the Minister's answers that the Government are now convinced of the merits of private trading as against bulk buying?

Mr. Wilson

No, Sir. I have said that, in certain specific cases, we feel that it is reasonable and right to revert from public to private purchase, but that does not prejudice the other cases where public purchase is retained.

Mr. Erroll

Could the Minister say how many controls are still left on?

Captain Crookshank

Can the Minister say whether any alternative job has been found for the willow controller?

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