HC Deb 15 December 1950 vol 482 cc1475-8

11.5 a.m.

Mr. Summers (Aylesbury)

I do not think I need spend much time emphasising the vital importance of the subject to which I wish to draw the attention of the House this morning, namely, the supply of raw materials. Suffice it to say that upon adequate supplies of raw materials depends the whole of our rearmament programme, and, probably, our foreign policy, and, through both, the preservation of peace. The situation has already been prominent in the national Press, and I want, in the limited time that I propose to take, to deal with just three aspects of it—the present position and the prospects, the responsibilities of the Government in this matter, and certain steps which I suggest are indispensable in order to provide some improvement in the situation.

Taking, first, the present position, notably as it applies to metal, a good deal of information was given by the Minister of Supply in reply to a Question on 7th December. In that reply, he told us that, as far as zinc was concerned, in the first quarter of next year the supply was not likely to be more than 50 per cent. of the quantity of zinc used on the average in the first nine months of 1950. To reinforce the concern with which this situation is regarded, I should like to quote a brief extract from a letter I have received from a manufacturer who is prominent in this business. He says: My principals, the most efficient zinc oxide manufacturers in the country, have notified me that they must close their works next week as they have no more zinc left. I am the largest supplier to the drug and chemical industry, and surgical dressing manufacturers and allied trades, and it means that ere long these industries will be without zinc oxide, for which there is no substitute. I turn now to copper, and in that commodity, early next year, a cut of no less than 10 per cent. is expected, quite apart from the very serious situation which is arising in the special shapes which apply particularly to certain industries. In aluminium, there will be a cut of 12½ per cent. next year, and we are told that there is no prospect of any increase in the supply of nickel.

Turning to the raw materials that affect steel, there is at present considerable concern, to put it no higher, over the situation in Europe in this respect, as compared to the conditions prevailing before the war. Nowadays, the United States are taking three times the quantity of iron ore from Europe which they did before the war, and, whereas they were normal exporters of scrap to Europe, they are now importers of scrap from Europe, and this change in the situation is undoubtedly causing a great increase in the pressure for the supply of the limited raw materials available in Europe for that purpose.

Probably even more serious than that is the doubt cast on the supply of coke during next year. In the debate the other day, we heard a good deal about the coal situation, and I hope hon. Members will appreciate that it is on the coal trade that steel production depends, in so far as coke is an indispensable factor in maintaining the production of that industry. As a result of the emergency arrangements which necessarily have had to be made regarding coal, there has been greatly increased pressure on shipping, which affects the situation, not only as regards tonnage, but in the drastic effect which it has on the freight rates that are prevailing.

Turning now to the question of chemicals, the position in regard to sulphur is extremely serious indeed. We are told that next year there may be a cut of anything from 30 per cent. to 50 per cent. in the supplies likely to be available.

I do not propose to say anything in detail about cotton but, if he is forunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, one of my hon. Friends will have something to say on that subject. In a reply to a Question yesterday, the indications were that next year the supply of American raw cotton would be one-third of that to which we have been accustomed and, surprisingly enough, only one-third of the supplies which are to be sent to Japan from the United States of America.

There are other materials less well known, which also give rise to concern—molybdenum, cobalt, tungsten and columbium—and in the chemical industries there is a series of key products the names of which I find the utmost difficulty in pronouncing—and which I have no intention of trying to pronounce this morning. There are hon. Members who are, I know, very knowledgeable on that side of the subject and I hope they may have a chance to inform the House of the very serious situation in a number of these key products, the quantity of which may not be very large but which are quite indispensable to many of the important aspects of our rearmament programme.

If the situation is already causing widespread concern at the initial stages of our rearmament programme, how much more concern ought we to have as the rearmament programme develops? Where are the raw materials to come from for that programme if there are not even enough to go round at present? To what is this position due? It is difficult to generalise, with so many materials under review, and any generalisation may not be applicable to any particular one of them, but there are certain generalities which, I think, it is safe to say apply in most cases.

I think the position has unquestionably been aggravated by the failure of the Government to do their duty in strategic planning and, by concentrating on interfering with the machinery of procurement, they have denied to others the opportunity of dealing with the matter for themselves. Secondly, by giving an unnecessary predominance to the price aspect they have diminished the quantity of materials which otherwise could have been obtained. We had an instance of that in connection with timber when we saw how unreasonable regard for price alone, had resulted in far smaller quantities of timber being brought to this country than could have been obtained.

I think the Government's failure to tell manufacturers just what is expected of them has made it infinitely more difficult for firms to indulge in any form of self-help and to arrange things as best they could for themselves. Let no one imagine that this situation has arisen quite unexpectedly and that no warnings were given from this side of the House of what might be expected. We had a debate on defence on 26th July, and I think it is relevant to quote an extract from the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury and Radcliffe (Mr. W. Fletcher) who spoke on that occasion. After reviewing the situation he said: I am forced to the conclusion that our position today"— that is, in the matter of raw materials— is incomparably worse than that in 1939.

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