HC Deb 14 June 1955 vol 542 cc421-5
45. Mr. P. Roberts

asked the Prime Minister what changes are contemplated in the allocation of Ministerial responsibility in relation to the steel and engineering industries.

The Prime Minister (Sir Anthony Eden)

Yes, Sir. After consultation with both sides of the industries concerned, Her Majesty's Government have decided to transfer to the Board of Trade the responsibilities hitherto exercised by the Ministry of Supply in relation to the iron and steel and non-ferrous metals industries and the engineering industry. The change will take place in about a month's time. An Order giving effect to the transfer in the case of the iron and steel industry will be laid before this House in due course. Thereafter the staff now dealing with these questions in the Ministry of Supply will be transferred to the Board of Trade. The Minister of Supply will continue to exercise his responsibility in respect of the aircraft and light metal industries, and further consideration will be given to the question of the electronics industry.

The purpose of this change is to relieve the Ministry of Supply of duties extraneous to its prime task of supplying the Armed Forces, and to associate the Board of Trade more closely with certain major industries which are of great importance to our export trade.

Mr. H. Morrison

Will it now be the case that the work of the Iron and Steel Board will pass under the jurisdiction of the President of the Board of Trade? if that is so, and if the Board have the practice of acquiescing in fixed prices for tenders to public authorities, will the position be that the President of the Board of Trade will be involved in a policy of fixed prices under a monopoly arrangement and, at the same time, administering the Monopolies Act which ought to prevent that being done?

The Prime Minister

The transfer will take place. Broadly speaking, the object of this arrangement is to enable the Board of Trade to deal with that aspect of these industries which grows steadily larger—that is to say, the export side of the business. When the transfer was made in the other direction at the end of the war, the right hon. Gentleman will remember that at that time the supply of materials was the most important aspect of the whole business. We have carefully reviewed this in conjunction with industry, with representatives of employers and employed, and we are satisfied that on balance—it is a matter of balance—the advantage will lie in transferring this section of the Ministry of Supply's work to the Board of Trade because of the paramount importance today of the export position.

Mr. G. R. Strauss

May I ask one or two questions arising from the Prime Minister's statement? First, is he aware that, under the old system, the Ministry of Supply was extraordinarily successful in raising the exports of the engineering industry, often against the desires and views of the engineering industry, particularly motor cars and other products of the industry? Secondly, does not the right hon. Gentleman feel that the Board of Trade already has far too much to do and that it is a mistake to transfer these additional responsibilities to the Board of Trade? Thirdly, in view of the fact that the Ministry of Supply is responsible for the engineering industry chiefly because it is so integrated with the whole of the armaments industry—aircraft, guns and everything else—is this not really a foolish step to take?

The Prime Minister

No. This step has only been taken after very careful consideration by the Government and in consultation with both sides of the industry. It is true that there is more than one view on the subject within the industry itself, and in making this change there was no kind of charge against the Ministry of Supply—nothing of the kind. The Ministry of Supply will, in fact, owing to new technological developments, have very much more work in that field than it had before, and we thought it right that these industries, which now form about 40 per cent. of our export trade, should be with the Board of Trade whose responsibility it is to deal with the export trade.

Mr. Stokes

Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether his later reply means that the engineering industry, as distinct from the iron and steel industry, welcomes this change?

The Prime Minister

There has been consultation with both sides of the industry, and a number of views have been expressed by the industry. Not everybody is in favour; not everybody is against. I do not want to give an unfair picture. I think it would be reasonable to say that on balance industry as a whole is not against this change. As I have explained, so far as the iron and steel industry is concerned there is an Order which will be laid before the House. This is an important matter to which we have given great consideration. I am not putting it forward in any partisan sense, but on balance we think that the national advantage lies with the change that we propose.

Mr. Shinwell

In view of the step which the Government contemplate taking, which has been advocated by many people for many years, and which in my view is a very desirable step, and in view of the fact that the Ministry of Supply will now become primarily responsible for armaments production for the Army and Air Force, including research, has not the time arrived when the Ministry of Supply should also become responsible for research and production in the Admiralty, thus coordinating the whole of our research and armaments production in one Department?

The Prime Minister

That is leading me to an important but slightly different aspect of the question. The right hon. Gentleman is undoubtedly right when he says—as I tried to explain—that new technological developments will place an additional burden on the time of the Minister of Supply and those who work with him; and that was one of the elements in the situation which made us think this transfer desirable.

Mr. Strauss

Does not the Prime Minister realise that there is a conflict of interests here? Surely it is desirable that there should be one authority which decides what resources in the engineering industry should go to export, to development, to research and to work for the Armed Forces? If we have two Ministries dealing with one industry and these three integrated problems, we shall have difficulty and may get into a serious mess.

The Prime Minister

I do not think so. I should have thought that hon. Members would agree with the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell). This development is largely due to the increasing importance of the export trade in relation to supply for the Services. These industries are to a large extent the heart and centre of our export trade and it seemed right that they should be the concern of and should be looked after by the Board of Trade.

Mr. Ian Harvey

On a point of order. When the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. a R. Strauss) asked a supplementary question of the Prime Minister he said, "Arising out of the statement by the Prime Minister." As a result of that he then asked three supplementary questions, followed by a couple more. Is not that a gross abuse of Questions?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order. I thought the matter was of sufficient interest to allow it to go a certain distance, but I cannot go far beyond half-past three.