HC Deb 20 April 1953 vol 514 cc645-8
47. Mr. Brooman-White

asked the Minister of Supply, in view of the shortage of steel plate, what steps are being taken to increase production and to ensure the better distribution of available supplies.

The Minister of Supply (Mr. Duncan Sandys)

Since the answer is long, I will, with permission, answer it at the end of Questions.

At the end of Questions

Mr. Sandys

With your permission, Sir, and that of the House, I will now reply to Question No. 47.

The steel industry have for some time been taking active steps to increase the supplies of steel plate. Whereas, a year ago, production was running at the rate of just over 40,000 tons a week, it has now risen to nearly 47,000 tons. It is expected that production in 1953 will be over 2.4 million tons, nearly 200,000 tons more than last year, and it is hoped to increase output by a further 100,000 tons or more during 1954 and 1955.

I am assured that this is the utmost that can be obtained from existing rolling mills. Any further substantial increase in output can be secured only by the provision of additional rolling capacity. I have recently approved a scheme for the extension and modernisation of a plate-rolling mill on the North-East Coast which will product an extra 100,000 tons a year. This should come into operation in 1956. Plans for other expansions are being made, but these cannot become effective before 1957. In addition, there is the possibility of importing more steel plate from abroad. While the shortage of plate is not confined to the United Kingdom, it should be practicable to obtain somewhat increased supplies from certain countries.

Nevertheless, there is still likely to be a marginal shortage of steel plate for some time to come. I have, therefore, recently discussed with the steel industry what action can be taken to mitigate the effects of this shortage and to ensure the best use of available supplies. As a result it has been decided to introduce a steel-plate distribution scheme, to be operated on voluntary lines by the industry itself with guidance from the Government.

An Inter-Departmental Committee composed of officials of the Government Departments principally concerned has been set up. Its task will be to keep under review the needs of the plate-using industries and to consider any adjustments in the pattern of production and deliveries which may be desirable. Mr. Robert Marshall, a Director of Colvilles and a member of the Iron and Steel Corporation, has been good enough to accept my invitation to act as Technical Adviser to the Committee and generally to assist in the operation of the scheme.

On their side, the steel industry have appointed a group of plate-makers to act as a clearing house for consumers' requirements; and they have assured me that they will, to the fullest extent practicable, take all necessary action to comply with any requests made by the Inter-Departmental Committee.

I trust that these arrangements will ensure improved distribution and that they will be of benefit to the shipbuilding and other important plate-using industries.

Mr. Brooman-White

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will give considerable encouragement to the consumers, and particularly to the shipbuilding industry, which has recently been having special difficulties, and that it will be hoped that, in addition to the measures to increase production and to improve allocations, he will be successful in obtaining an increase in imports to tide over the most immediate shortages?

Mr. Sandys

The steel industry is, of course, very well aware of the importance of supplementing home production at this juncture with imports as far as is practicable, and I can tell my hon. Friend that the British Iron and Steel Federation has recently secured about 10,000 tons of shipbuilding plate from Austria.

Mr. Willey

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the evidence has shown that he is not completely doctrinaire in that he is willing to resort to Government interference in the industry to ensure increased production capacity where it is needed in the national interest and to use allocation machinery if material is in short supply? We hope that this will considerably assist us in the North-East.

Mr. Sandys

I thought I made it quite clear that this is a distribution scheme organised on voluntary lines by the industry itself with guidance from the Government. [An HON. MEMBER: "A rose by any other name—"] We believe that that sort of scheme is better than straightforward Government control.

Mr. G. R. Strauss

Does it not really boil down to the imposition of an allocation scheme for steel plate? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in all past allocation schemes—I am not blaming the right hon. Gentleman for imposing the scheme now—the views of the consumers were always taken fully into account before the Government decided on the allocation? Is not this, in short, a straightforward allocation scheme working as far as possible, as it has always done in the past, with the advice of the consumers concerned?

Mr. Sandys

It is not an allocation scheme in the sense of general steel allocation. There will be no attempt by the Government to allocate so many tons of plate to each consumer. We intend to watch the position and to ask the industry through the machinery which is being set up, to make any adjustments which may be necessary, but it is not our intention to introduce a detailed allocation scheme firm by firm.

Mr. G. R. Strauss

If the demand exceeds supply, surely it means that some people who want certain quantities will be prevented by a committee or body from getting the full quantity which they require in favour of someone else who needs it more. Does not that mean a decision on the part of some authority to allocate steel according to needs?

Mr. Sandys

I thought I had already explained quite clearly. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Then I will tell hon. Members again. What it means is that the industry is to be given certain general lines on which to proceed by the Government; that is to say, certain priorities. Within that they will make such adjustments as they consider are necessary. Over and above that, there will be this Inter-Departmental Committee to which I have referred, which will be able to deal with any cases of difficulty which may be submitted to the sponsoring Department. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, each Department sponsors certain industries. The Departments which sponsor the plate-using industries will be represented on this Committee and will be able, through this machinery, to give guidance to the industry; but there is not to be a detailed allocation.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I do not think we can carry the matter further at this stage.