HL Deb 11 December 1917 vol 27 cc103-11

LORD TENTERDEN rose (1) to ask His Majesty's Government and the Air Ministry to afford greater facilities for the construction of small tools of precision indispensable to aircraft; to inquire whether the Minister for Air has now decided who are to be the members of the Air Council; and, if so who will be entrusted with the speeding up of the output of precision tools essential to the construction of a big Air Force; (2) to inquire whether there is any truth in the rumour that the Government contemplate taking control of the whole output of precision tools, and the effect of such a measure upon the output of aircraft; (3) to inquire into the conditions of the small tool trade generally, and the present position of the machine tool trade.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I trust that the noble Lord (Lord Rothermere) will absolve me from any desire to embarrass him by putting these Questions at such a comparatively early stage in his appointment as Air Minister. The noble Earl who leads the House, on the occasion of the Second Reading of the Air Force Bill, alluded in particular to the undesirability of stating the amount of the anticipated increase of output of aircraft, but he did not allude to the particular object of my remarks—namely, greater co-ordination between the Government and the factories. It is in connection with this want of greater co-ordination that I have brought these Questions forward to-day.

So long ago as July 10 I asked His Majesty's Government to give greater facilities for the construction of aircraft. In that demand I was strongly supported not only by the technical papers but by some of the leading London newspapers: and letters from manufacturers have appeared in the Press corroborating my remarks with regard to the difficulty experienced in getting certain materials manufactured. On the last occasion on which I spoke upon this matter I alluded more particularly to reamers, and small tools of that description, without which it is impossible to construct any part of an aeroplane. I cannot say that the result has brought forth very satisfactory results, and that the difficulties in connection with extensions and the supply of machinery have been overcome to the extent to which I hoped they would have been. It is an unfortunate fact that very little encouragement has been given in respect of this tool industry. I should like to ask the Government whether it is true that upon the importation of these tools from America the importers are allowed a profit of 15 per cent. as against a profit of 10 per cent. allowed to home manufacturers. If that is the case it is obvious that there is more inducement to import these things from America than to have them manufactured at home.

A good deal has been said about the labour difficulty, which I have no desire to minimise in the slightest degree. But I must congratulate the Government upon the introduction of women labour, which has achieved marvellous results. It is extraordinary, as I have, seen with my own eyes, what women can do in the way of helping to build essential machines connected with the output of aircraft. Further men recruited from the Polytechnic, the Battersea Training School, and from the Brixton Training School (of which I have personal experience)—semi-skilled men—have, after two or three months' training in a factory, accomplished most excellent work. Therefore in my opinion the obstacle is not the labour difficulty, but is, or was, the lack of encouragement given by the late Air Ministry to factories engaged upon this important work. It has been made almost a hardship to endeavour to get any machinery at all. Manufacturers have complained that they have had to give up the attempt as a bad job. Personally I did not give up. My persistence has been rewarded by success, and as far as my own factory goes I have nothing of which I can complain. But I do not know how other people have come off; yet it is not so much a question of that as a question of how the country is coming off under such a régime.

This question has become so acute that I am in a position to tell your Lordships—I wish I were not—that manufacturers of tools and things of that nature are being asked not only to work at the highest possible pressure, but to build up reserves of supplies of standardised parts and small tools. Such a proposal means, as far as I can see, asking manufacturers to turn themselves into retail houses. In my opinion that is not a businesslike proposition. Who is going to pay the overhead charges; who is going to pay for the steel, for the labour, for the rent, rates, and taxes, and so forth, whilst this accumulation of small parts is taking place—I do not know where—to meet all possible requirements of the Air Ministry? I should like to be told whether the Air Ministry will ever want these things, for it is quite possible, on account of the every varying designs of aircraft, that they may not be required at all. They may say, "We are very sorry; we have changed our designs, and we will scrap your material and make the best of them." I do not call that a business proposition. But there is one business proposition, and this I had the honour and pleasure of putting before you on July 10, and it is to encourage home industries and afford the facilities necessary for extensions and for manufacturing, without manufacturers being asked to do the impossible.

My second Question on the Paper deals with a rumour—it is a very strong rumour, or I should not have alluded to it—that the Government contemplate commandeering the whole output of precision tools, apparently on the suggested idea of a 10 per cent. profit all round. Now, this may look very well on paper, and it may theoretically be splendid, but when it comes to practice I doubt the feasibility of it. What represents a profit of 10 per cent. to one firm may represent ruin to another. There are certain factories, to my knowledge, which before the war and at the outset were equipped with very special plant. How is any ordinary firm which has been forced from another trade to go on with this war work to compete in price with firms equipped with special plant? Then, again, you have large factories and small factories; the large factories command probably more money and certainly more machinery, and money, particularly at the present moment, means much higher skilled labour. Therefore you would stop the whole of the smaller factories. You may say, "Let them go," but if you do the greater part of the trade goes. The larger factories are engaged in manufacturing engines and all the large parts of aeroplanes, and they have not the time to make their own small tools. They depend upon a vast number of small factories, distributed throughout the country, to supply them. Without these implements they are unable to do their own business. They cannot make engines without these implements, and they cannot themselves make the implements.

With regard to the provision of machine tools, unfortunately the position here is also in a very unsatisfactory state. I have a letter from the Chairman of the Engineering Employers' Federation, and I will read one or two passages from it. He says— At the commencement of the war the output, of machine tools for the production of munitions was far below the requirements of the country, and a Machine Tool Department was set up by the Ministry for the purpose of obtaining a sufficient number of machine tools. This Department immediately went to the United States and placed large orders with American manufacturers of machine tools, and were thus enabled to get an increased supply. Unfortunately, they omitted to lake any steps to encourage the British manufacturer to increase his output. Now that America has come into the war and needs her own output of machine tools for the production of her own war materials, it is impossible for her to export to the same extent as she had arranged to do before the war. Then the letter goes on to say— The facilities for the production of machine tools are now very little greater than they were, at the beginning of the war. For my own part, I think that the Government did perfectly right to obtain from America what they could not get here and which they needed to have here; but why they did not at the same time take a wider view and pursue a safer policy, from my point of view, and encourage, home industries to produce what they found they had to import, I am unable to understand. The import of these goods cost a great deal more money, because of the cost of freight, and it must also be remembered that it was money going out of the country for the improvement of the trade of other countries instead of remaining in this country for the improvement of our own trade. If the money had been kept in the country we should have had much greater developments of home industries, and probably should not have been in the position in which we are now. It is a matter which I thought it my duty again to bring to the notice of your Lordships, although I have already drawn your attention to it before. In fact, I am aware that in bringing forward the matter again I may incur the displeasure of the Government at a time when, in view of the possible reform of your Lordships' House, they may be in a position to deal drastically with offenders. The question is, Are you going to have what we all earnestly desire, a large and powerful Air Fleet which will command the world? What depends upon such an Air Fleet? Upon it depends victory and fair fighting conditions for the men at the Front, and the prevention of invasion, because a powerful offensive is the best defence you can possibly have.


My Lords, the noble Lord opposite has raised this question from the standpoint of one who is intimately concerned with and interested in the manufacture of aeroplanes, and it is quite unnecessary for me to add anything to the force of his concluding sentences, in which he urged the necessity for all activity in this particular direction. I only desire to make one or two general observations on the subject, feeling at the same time the doubt which, I think, must afflict most of us in these times, as to whether it is worth while in either House of Parliament, at any moment, to make general observations on any subject whatever.

The position of the machine tool industry or trade is one of extreme importance to the country. Many of us have lately fallen into the habit of speaking of trade rivalry of all kinds as though Germany were the only country concerned, and as though we had only to think in the future of putting economic pressure upon Germany, or of engaging in educational methods, many of them, as some desire, borrowed from Germany herself, in order to check that competition. But in this particular matter, as the noble Lord opposite has pointed out, the fact that the machine tool trade is so dormant as it is in this country, and as it has been for so long, in comparison with the trade in America, is due to the greater activity which for many years past has been exercised in it in the United States. That goes back many years. It goes back to the days after the Civil War, when the United States advanced a very large sum of Federal money for the foundation in every State of a college, of which the main purpose was to be the encouragement of agriculture and of the mechanical arts—that is to say, engineering. Those colleges were founded in every State. In all cases, so far as I know, they flourished and in many cases reached the most important dimensions. One of the best known of them before very long, by a private benefaction, developed into the famous Cornell University, and now in every State these great colleges exist. In some year in the 'nineties, another quarter of million a year was added, again from Federal funds, as a subvention to such colleges. The result is that in America there does exist an atmosphere of encouragement for engineering in its different forms which has led to the practical absorption by American industry of various branches of manufacture, of which that of machine tools is by no means the least. It has also happened from the existence of this atmosphere that manufacturers as a class have been more interested in the scientific development of their manufactures than has been the case in most countries of Europe, including this.

From this also has grown the fact that it is the custom in most of the great manufactories in the United States to settle down and specialise upon one particular development, instead of, as has happened almost invariably here, trying to make every type. Take machine tools as an instance. Those who make them here have tried to make a vast number of different types, whereas you will find in the United States that a firm adheres almost exclusively to the manufacture and the perfecting of a single type. I have been told that of late in the North of England attempts have been made to follow this example, and that it is now becoming a custom among groups of firms to unite for scientific purposes, as for instance in working by and through one engineering laboratory, while each firm concentrates upon one single kind of manufacture. I have not the least doubt that this will tend to produce the right kind of competition with the manufacturers of the United States which we desire to see exercised. Of course, as the noble Lord opposite said, the Government were perfectly right in importing into this country in the crisis of the war every machine tool that they could possibly obtain. Some unluckily, as we all know, must have gone to the bottom of the ocean in company with other losses through enemy attack, but those who have been—as many of your Lordships undoubtedly have—round some of those institutions where fine work is going on, in gauge-making and the like, will have noted that almost without exception the best machine tools that are at work have come from America, and most grateful we are to our American cousins for having been able to provide us in this respect. As the noble Lord also said with equal truth, now that they are in the war themselves and manufacturing on an enormous scale, it obviously cannot be so easy for them to send tools here.

As regards the point of the second Question, as to whether the Government intend to take control of the whole output of precision tools, the word "control," of course, is a somewhat uncertain one. It is used now in Government utterances in more than one sense. But if thereby is merely meant that the supply and use of such tools is still to be under Government supervision, I can hardly suppose that anybody is likely to object. That the Government should endeavour now or in the future to become either the principal manufacturer or the principal user of machine tools would be, in my humble judgment, the greatest possible misfortune. There is no subject, as I think any competent engineer will tell you, in which the play of individual minds—the tendency towards particular small improvements, sometimes almost daily and weekly carried out—is more prominent than in this business of machine tool making and machine tool using. Therefore I hope that any further Government control which it is intended to apply will be of a loose and elastic sort, and not such as in any way to interfere with enterprise and invention, either of firms or of individuals.


My Lords, I have been asked to reply to this Question, as it relates to the Ministry of Munitions to a very much greater extent than it does to the Air Ministry. When I first read the Question as the noble Lord put it on the Paper I could not help feeling that there might possibly be some slight misconception in his mind when he asks, as he does, that the Air Ministry should "afford greater facilities for the construction of small tools of precision indispensable for aircraft." The facts of the situation are that the whole output of small tools is and has been dealt with by the Ministry of Munitions alone, and that a special section of the Machine Tools Department of the Ministry was set up for that purpose some time ago. It is the function of that section to increase supplies, to accelerate deliveries, and generally to control the distribution of the small tools required by the Aeronautical and other Government Departments. When the noble Lord asks that greater facilities should be given for the construction of small tools, I can only say that every possible facility is being given now for that purpose. I can assure your Lordships that the, Ministry of Munitions are fully alive to the importance of this question, and to the necessity for increasing the output from every possible available source. I would add, however, that, equally with that, the Ministry of Munitions are bound, before affording heavy financial assistance or providing machine tools which are urgently required elsewhere, to satisfy themselves that there is, at any rate, a reasonable prospect that this assistance will be made use of to its fullest extent, and that the maximum advantage will be obtained from the financial assistance or from the machine tools. The noble Lord then asks who are to be the members of the Air Council and what their respective duties are. That, of course, is outside my province entirely, and I understand that my noble friend Lord Rothermere has a word to say on the point if the House desires.

The noble Lord, in his second Question, asks whether there is any truth in the rumour that the Government contemplates taking control of the whole output of precision tools, and the effect of such a measure upon the output of aircraft. This was also referred to by the noble Marquess, Lord Crewe. The Government, through the Small Tools Section of the Machine Tools Department, has controlled the supply of machine tools for a period now of over two years. The Small Tools Section was established in September, 1915, and deals with small tools of all descriptions, whether of home origin or imported. It is their function to deal with any question of shortage experienced by any Department of the Government or by any contractor who holds a contract for Government work, and there is no intention of altering that procedure in any way. It is found to work very satisfactorily. That applies also to the question of machine tools, which are equally controlled in the same way and have been for two years.

The noble Lord inquires also as to the condition of the small tool trade and the machine tool trade. I am unable to give any figures, but I can say that the position generally is considered to be satisfactory. The output has increased very largely since 1915, and so far as can be seen at present it seems possible that all the demands can be dealt with by the Ministry of Munitions. I am unable to give any financial figures, but there has been a very large, increase over those of the preceeding year; and what is more satisfactory still is that during the six months, the average time which has elapsed since the last financial year closed, the increase has been on an even larger scale than the year before. As regards the machine tool trade, that also is in exactly the same condition. The output has increased to an enormous extent since the beginning of the war, and everything is being done to increase the dilution of labour so that the skilled men employed may be utilised to the best advantage. I trust that this answer will be considered satisfactory by the noble Lord.


My Lords, I can inform the noble Lord (Lord Tenterden) as regards the composition of the Air Council, that an Order in Council—under Section 8, subsection (1), of the Air Force Act—will be issued at a very early date. This Order will define the constitution of the Air Council, and it is contemplated that it will provide for a representative of the Ministry of Munitions to be associated with the Council. That is all I can say at present.