HC Deb 30 June 1950 vol 476 cc2727-38

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. J. R. Bevins (Liverpool, Toxteth)

I rise to draw attention to the shortage of cement and bricks throughout the country at the present time, and more particularly in the Merseyside area. That there is a shortage throughout the country there can be little doubt. I have in my hand a letter received very recently from the Director of Housing for the City of Liverpool, in which he says: The supply position of both cement and bricks is no better. We have received numerous letters from contractors informing us officially that they are in desperate need of both materials. All contractors tell the same story, namely, that jobs are slowed up and that they have to pay men off. Unless the situation improves during the next month the output of houses during 1950 will be very seriously reduced. As we know, the output of houses during 1950 has in fact already been reduced, and the view expressed in that letter has been endorsed, on the workers' side by Sir Luke Fawcett, and on the employers' side, as I see from the Press this morning, by the National Federation of Building Trades Employers.

The effect of these two shortages is to endanger employment in the building industry, to retard the tempo of building work, to increase the price of building, and of course to aggravate the housing problem. All those factors, of course, are completely incompatible with the declared aims of His Majesty's Government. I had always understood that Socialist planning sought to equate supply and demand by physical control, to co-relate the quantum of building authorised at any one time with the resources available in order to produce a balance.

This is another case which illustrates the weakness of economic planning, which always assumes that those who do the planning can interpret the future, whereas in fact they often find it very difficult to interpret even the present. In the present case the position is that throughout the country various Government Departments are authorising building work, but they are at the same time taking a hand—I do not put it any stronger than that—in preventing the builders from getting on with the job.

Let me say a word about the cement position. According to the Monthly Digest of Statistics, during 1946 the average monthly production of cement was 548,000 tons. During the first four months of the current year production has been running at the rate of 777,000 tons a month, which hardly indicates that the cement industry itself is in any sense blameworthy in this shortage. When one looks at the export figures in the Trade and Navigation Accounts one finds that for the first five months of this year the estimated exports of cement totalled 640,000 tons, or 16 per cent. of the total output for the first five months of the year. I understand that the predecessor of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Works fixed an export target of two million tons of cement for 1950, which I believe represents about 20 per cent. of the total estimated production of cement during the year. I give the House those figures because I think they have a very important bearing on the situation.

As I see it, there are only three courses open to the Minister. He can reduce the volume of exports, or he can increase the imports of cement, or possibly he can change any system of priorities in the allocation of cement that may exist. I hope that in his reply to the Debate the right hon. Gentleman will tell the House how far it is possible for him to scale down exports during the current year, and how rapidly he feels that the effects of that scaling down might be felt by the building industry. I hope he will tell us to what extent substantial imports of cement are possible, and what the position is about priorities.

I appreciate that cement is a very valuable export for the country at present. I believe that it is bringing in about £7 million, not to any extent in dollars, but it has an equivalent value. While we on this side of the House would be very loth indeed to reduce exports from this country, we feel that if exports were to be scaled down the bad effect from the point of view of the balance of trade would be more than offset by the increased rate of building activity throughout the country. I hope the Minister will show some sympathy towards that point of view.

Recently Liverpool Corporation, in concert with the Minister's regional officers, made a most exhaustive survey of the brickmaking industry in Lancashire especially south Lancashire. The conclusions to which they came were that there were virtually no stocks of bricks in the north-west part of the country, that in every brickworks in the county of Lancashire bricks were being loaded hot from the kilns on to vehicles, but that the industry has been prejudiced by the supply of inferior fuel; and, most important of all, that because of the oscillations in the Government's house building policy there was not that confidence in the future which should exist among brickmakers.

It is vitally important that the Minister should make a serious attempt to take the brickmaking industry into his confidence, to use his not inconsiderable powers of persuasion on his right hon. Friends to guarantee that we have during the next few years stability in the development and expansion of the housing programme. I realise perfectly well that the Chancellor referred to a stable programme for a period of three years but the Minister must go a stage further and prove to the brickmaking industry that if they will deliver the goods the building industry will be able to take that quantity.

4.8 p.m.

Mr. Marples (Wallasey)

The whole House must be grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important matter, even though it is at the end of the week. On Merseyside, which is opposite my own constituency, the shortage of cement and bricks is having an appalling effect on the housing programme. It is for that reason I am a little astonished that no Labour Members representing Merseyside are here to listen to this important Debate.

Mr. Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)

This Debate is surely not confined to Merseyside? There are hon. Gentlemen on this side of the House who wish to say something about the subject.

Mr. Marples

I quite agree, and I am sure that the Merseyside Labour Members will be grateful to the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) for taking their part in their absence. It is nice for them to know that they have a substitute if they do not wish to be present.

My first point is that the shortage of bricks and cement affects not only the building where there is a shortage. The reason for that is that the men who are working on the site will not subsequently work fast and hard on another site because they will fear that there will be a shortage of material. I recently paid some bricklayers 4s. 2d. per hour, with a bonus, to lay 86 bricks in one hour on a fairly simple bricklaying operation. Brick supplies ran short. The first repercussion was that they were put out of work for a short time, and we had to put them on to another job. When the brick supply was re-introduced, the bricklayer appeared to the naked eye to be working just as hard, but the number of bricks he laid had dropped from 86 an hour to 46. Every time I passed that bricklayer, he was working furiously, but he was not laying bricks. He was not going to work himself out of a job, and frankly, I do not blame him.

The operatives of this country have worked extremely hard, considering that the supply of materials has been erratic. It is natural that a man should want to protect his own job and that is all that the bricklayer is doing. He will not work unless there is an enormous pile of bricks that he can see on the site. It is no good arguing about it. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to bear in mind that the incentive schemes which his Department are urging building trade unions and employers to adopt are being wrecked because there is not an even flow of materials.

I should like to refer to the responsibility of the Ministry of Works in this connection. The right hon. Gentleman may try to ride out of this shortage by saying that it is not his responsibility but that of private enterprise. That would be absurd. We had a Debate on 26th November, 1945, in the last Parliament, when the Minister of Works, who is now the Minister of Education, introduced the Building Materials and Housing Bill, which was to give His Majesty's Government a sum of no less than £100 million to purchase and stock building materials, so that the prices would come down and there would be an even flow of production.

The hon. Member for Stockton-on-lees who is going to try to catch your eye, Sir, will remember that Debate because it was the one in which he made his maiden speech. I would remind him that the then Minister of Works said on that occasion: Let there be no misunderstanding; it is the intention of His Majesty's Government to go into business both in the manufacture and in the distribution of building materials and components in a big way. He went on to say, later on: The sum of £100 million has been chosen as representing a reasonable figure for the working capital required."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th November, 1945; Vol. 416, cols. 904 and 906.] Here we have a Government of planners and added on we have £100 million. The net result is that we have a shortage of cement and bricks.

It is no use whatever the right hon. Gentleman saying that the shortage need not exist. If the Minister of Health will send a directive to the contractors asking them to substitute concrete for timber, obviously more cement will be used to make that concrete. There are more than one million standards of timber short each year, each weighing 2½ tons. That will give us some idea of the amount of cement that is needed to replace the construction work formerly done by timber. The shortage of bricks and cement not only affects the particular buildings to which they are not supplied when they ought to be, but incentive schemes and the output of the men considerably. I do not blame the men. It is no use the right hon. Gentleman saying that it is not his responsibility. It is, and I should like from him an explanation of what he has done with the £100 million.

The Minister of Works (Mr. Stokes)

Spent it.

Mr. Marples

If he has spent it, then we should have some cement and bricks. The right hon. Gentleman should not try to ride out by saying that it is not his responsibility. I hope that in the future on Merseyside, where there is great unemployment, we shall have an even flow of materials.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)

It is not my duty to make any alibis for the Minister or the industry in this Debate, but we should bear in mind that the shortage of cement, which is serious—no one would try to minimise it—is in part a reflection of the accelerated tempo of the building industry. I would rather at this stage have a shortage of cement and a lot of building work taking place and causing the shortage, than very little building work and a surplus of cement.

The regrettable thing is that, now that the building industry is getting into its stride again after the war and is really going all out, the objection raised by the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) is perfectly valid, that unless there is a regular assured supply output is sure to go down again. We have to ask ourselves what can be done about it at the moment. It seems that we can hope for very little expansion in the industry itself at home, and, therefore, we have to make up the supplies of cement which are needed by either increased imports or decreased exports. It is on those two points that we ought to have some information.

I was told in a letter from the Minister a few days ago that Tees-side would have immediate substantial increases of cement. It seems to me that if we are to have them—we have not got them yet, and I should like to know why—we must be robbing somebody else. We may be robbing some one else whose needs are not as essential as ours, but we cannot get cement out of the air.

Mr. Marples

Perhaps it is Merseyside which is being robbed.

Mr. Chetwynd

I do not think so. I understand that imports are coming into Tees-side and the Hartlepools from, I believe, Germany, and I am told that we could get cement there if we paid £6 2s. a ton on rail at West Hartlepools or 7 guineas a ton loaded on lorry at Middlesbrough. I understand that the cost of home cement is £3 8s. 6d. a ton.

In reply to Questions the other day, the Minister told the House that imported cement would be sold to the home user at the same price as domestic cement. What I want to know is how it is that we have this discrepancy in price. It may be that the cement at the increased price which is being used now is part of the cement which is coming in. I understood the Minister to say that a comparatively small amount was entering under private arrangements and was being sold at higher prices.

We ought to know why it is that certain people can get this cement at higher prices when local authority housing schemes are held up for lack of it. If my right hon. Friend could give us some information on that, it would ease the minds of local authorities about the present position. Is the cement which is being imported subject to price control or is it being brought in under general licence when it can command an open price in the market? I believe that the price of home cement is controlled by agreement with the industry.

As regards the level of exports, we really want to know whether the export of cement is a dollar earner or a saver, because if it is not being exported for that purpose, we could probably make better use of it at home. That is subject to the proviso that I believe that the bulk of it is going to the Colonies and may be going for the purpose of maintaining our markets overseas for the future, and in such cases it would be quite shortsighted to cut off our supplies of cement and lose markets which we shall wish to have when we get over what I believe is a temporary shortage.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to give us some idea of when the supplies are likely to catch up with the demand and when it will be possible for the industry to build up some stocks, because, unless we have stocks of cement on hand, it is impossible to achieve a smooth flow in the building industry. Although I am putting the problems of my constituency forward, I hope that my right hon. Friend will not resort to robbing Peter to pay Paul in this instance, because that would only lead to a continuous barrage of questions from hon. Members. If he can give us some reassuring news on this subject it will be very welcome.

4.19 p.m.

The Minister of Works (Mr. Stokes)

I will endeavour to deal as succinctly as possible with the points which have been raised and to answer the hon. Member for Toxteth (Mr. Bevins), who gave me due warning that he was raising this subject, and at the same time answer one of the main points of the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples).

Whatever hon. Members may say, we cannot get away from the fact that I do not completely control this industry. I only advise. The production of cement and bricks is in the hands of private enterprise. The Government do their best to indicate what they believe the programme is likely to be. It is revised from time to time in the light of altering circumstances. I give the trade due credit for the fact that they do their level best to meet what we believe to be the demand. But of course there are all sorts of imponderables, especially in connection with the consumption of cement, which have led us to the position in which we are today where, in certain instances, and not very seriously there have been some shortages.

It is not true, as the hon. Member for Toxteth (Mr. Bevins) indicated, that the housing programme has been reduced and that we are slowing up on it. It may be true to say that in individual cases there has been a slowing up because of the fear of shortage. Nobody knows better than I, as an industrialist, what happens in a factory when men are afraid that materials will not be forthcoming. However, the overall programme of the Government is for 200,000 houses a year, this year, next year and the year after, and I am sure the hon. Member will agree that it would be a mistake if it went out from this House that anything else is the intention of the Government or that anything else is happening.

When it is suggested that some of the trade union leaders have led hon. Members to suppose that the cement position is so unsatisfactory as to cause them despondency and alarm, all I can say is that the same persons have told me that there is nothing to worry about except in isolated cases.

Mr. Bevins

I do not know whether the Minister has seen the report in the "Manchester Guardian" about three weeks ago of a speech by Sir Luke Fawcett in which he said that there was a serious shortage of material principally in bricks, cement and timber?

Mr. Stokes

I am sure that what Sir Luke Fawcett had in mind particularly was timber. Of course I agree, but I can assure the hon. Member that cement is the least of the three problems, as anyone who knows the material position will agree.

On the cement position generally, I can tell the House that the output today is higher than the industry themselves expected they could deliver. It is more than was planned for delivery when we added it all up last year. The fact of the matter is that cement consumption has been much greater. At present we are delivering for the home market at a rate of 160,000 tons a week of home production, on top of which, for the past two weeks and for the future six or seven weeks, there is an importation on the average of 10,000 tons a week. That is of the order of 8,500,000 tons being consumed in the country from home production.

Mr. Marples

How much more is that than was planned?

Mr. Stokes

The total planned production was estimated at 9,200,000 tons including exports and is running at about 400,000 tons above what was first anticipated. By the end of this year the total production rate will be 10 million tons, which was the planned target of some years ago. On the other hand, the export side has gone the other way. During the first five months of this year we have exported some 57,000 tons of cement less than was at first planned. While I know it is easy to say, "Stop exports and turn all the supplies to home," there are great disadvantages in that which anybody with business experience will realise.

As soon as I took office and learned the position, which was in the spring of this year—it was not the fault of my predecessor and I am not laying the blame on anyone—the first thing I did was to consult with the trade as to what it was necessary to do to bridge the gap. We decided that the importation of 60,000 tons would meet their needs. When the position did not look so good as at first anticipated, that was increased to 80,000 tons and that is where it stands at present. The trade assured me, and still assure me, that when that has been effectively delivered, which it will be by the middle of July, they anticipate that this and the increased production, which is coming in at the rate of 100,000 tons a year as from the beginning of July, will provide all that is needed even at the present rate of consumption.

On the export question, this is a very delicate subject and I do not want to say too much about it. I assure the House that I have had this matter very much in mind over the past few months, and that I have taken such steps as were obviously necessary to shave our export programme. The position is such that we can make a switch of a small quantity, without seriously interfering with the export programme, at comparatively short notice; and that small switch should be sufficient to meet our needs, if the steps taken to import and to increase production by the beginning of July, do not prove as effective as we expect.

Mr. W. J. Taylor (Bradford, North)

Might I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he might look at the priorities given to the collieries, because there are undoubtedly stocks held down at the colleries which are not being used quickly but which could be effectively used in the building trade in this weather?

Mr. Stokes

That, of course, is a matter which we have under observation, but it is somewhat difficult to decide whether hoarding is taking place. If any specific cases are brought to my attention, it would be helpful and I will deal with them, but I am assured that, by and large, there is no serious hoarding so far as can be ascertained. I do not employ an army of officials running round looking into all these things. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That really is so; I have not got an army of officials for the purpose of going round looking into these matters; quite seriously, I do not believe in an army of officials. The trade itself is responsible for distribution; they tell me what they want, and I do what I can to help. It is perhaps a little unfortunate that this Debate is taking place today and not a month hence, when the position will be much better.

Mr. Macdonald (Roxburgh and Selkirk)

What steps is the Minister taking to co-ordinate the distribution programmes of private enterprise firms, so as to avoid short supply situations and to see that they do not cause disorganisation of the building programme in different areas?

Mr. Stokes

That is a frivolous interruption, because anybody who studies the cement industry will know that the production and distribution of cement is in the hands of a very few people and that those concerned know exactly what they are doing up and down the country. I am surprised that there should be such a resounding yell from the other side for nationalisation and bulk purchase by the Government.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Stokes

I cannot give way, because I have only two and a half minutes left and I have other points to answer.

With regard to the question of bricks and encouragement given to brickmakers in the Lancashire area, with which we are particularly concerned today, in May, the deliveries of bricks were 69.6 million against 58.8 million in 1949. My regional officers have done their best to communicate my plans to the local brickmakers, who should be able to supply the bricks, since the housing programme is fixed for the next three years, which is about the time when this Government will be retiring and seeking re-election.

Regarding cement in the Liverpool area, in the 11 weeks ending 17th June, 1949, on the average the deliveries were 15,880 tons per week, and in the corresponding period of this year, the deliveries were 15,567 tons a week, which is almost the same figure, but what ought to comfort the hon. Gentleman is that in the four weeks ended 17th June this-year—cutting out the first seven weeks—the average deliveries to Merseyside and the Liverpool and Manchester area were 17,653 tons per week for those four weeks. I hope that the effect of this very much increased supply in the Liverpool area will have eased the situation about which the hon. Gentleman quite rightly complained.

I agree about the danger of shortages, and will do everything in my power to increase the flow of materials so that the workers on the job may feel that they are properly supported with adequate supplies.

The Question having been proposed after Four o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-nine Minutes to Five o'Clock.