HL Deb 26 July 1944 vol 132 cc1167-78

LORD BARNBY had the following Notice on the Paper: To call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the report of the Cotton Board Committee on postwar problems, and in particular the following extract: The Board of Trade to arrange with the Ministry of Supply for early relief for textile machinery makers from some part at least of their munitions obligations and for appropriate steps regarding materials and labour, so that re-equipment may not be unduly delayed"; and to ask if in view of the emphasis laid on the need for export, and in view of the low relative labour content of textile exports in relation to value, tonnage and cubic space, they are yet able to indicate acceptance of this part of the report and any plans for its early implementation.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we recently had a very interesting and effective debate in this House following a debate in another place on the Government's policy of full employment as set out in the White Paper. All agreed that that document dealt in an effective manner with the problem before the country. The successive debates in both Houses with regard to post-war reconstruction brought cautions from Ministers that the essential thing is the winning of the war. Those who, from their responsibility in industry, concern themselves with the achievement of the announced Government policy, feel no grounds for apology in drawing attention to post-war aims, and do not feel that their plans conflict in any way with the achievement of the main immediate object—namely, the successful conclusion of the war. The policy of full employment as was emphasized by Lord Woolton, the Minister of Reconstruction, and has been emphasized repeatedly by other Ministers, not excluding my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade, makes it clear that full employment involves an adequate supply of raw materials. These in the main have to be imported. Importation of raw materials involves payment for them. Payment for them will follow from exports.

I ask permission of the House to refer again to the Foreword of the White Paper on Employment in which industrial efficiency is stressed as a requirement of a high level of employment and a rising standard of living. I would from that pass to Paragraph 5 of the same Paper and quote: In the interest of the whole national economy our export industries must be resilient and flexible; and in the period immediately after the end of the war their claims for raw materials, labour, and factory space freed from war purposes must have a high priority. That presupposes that the general question is recognized by the Government as involving progressive steps which will have to anticipate in their initiation the conclusion of hostilities, whenever that may be. The feeling widely exists that the plans at present are insufficient, in that the opportunities for manufacturers to prepare prototypes and patterns for the type of materials and equipment they are going to export are inadequate and may indeed be described as niggardly and tardy and as robbing them of the chance of making the plans which their competence would permit them to make were the Government to give proper cooperation.

In order to illustrate the point I have preferred to select a specific industry, and I have taken the cotton industry which, in response to the President of the Board of Trade, has set forth its proposals for post-war reconstruction. It is from these proposals that I have taken the illuminating quotation which forms the subject of my question. I did that because, as I would remind your Lordships, the textile industries as a whole, before the war, contributed about 10 per cent, or more of the total exports from this country. It is an undoubted fact that, of all the industri2s in the country which can be quickly brought into full production, provided labour is made available, the textile industries rank first. That is because the disturbance of their plant and equipment, particularly in woollen textiles, have been of a minimum. These industries are capable of being expanded very rapidly. Incidentally I would remind your Lordships, in passing, of the discouraging position of those industries which have been kept down to 50 per cent. of their capacity during the war. The actual position of the textile industries is that they can make an effective contribution very quickly so the national export programme, but—and here is the caveat—the Government must make available conditions under which they can produce efficiently, cheaply and in volume. If that be done, then the most important thing is to get efficient equipment. Owing to the insane deflation policy, now so emphatically discredited, those industries, particularly in the pre-war period, had great difficulty in re-equipping themselves.

That was the pre-war position. There is now a lag of five or six years and the situation is much worse. Those industries in particular want to get new equipment and it is for that reason that I have brought forward this matter. The wool textile industry is a particularly good one to give as an illustration. I ask the House to reflect for a moment upon the present position. It is understood that the textile machinery makers have a very small part of their capacity employed on textile production, none of it naturally for the home trade. In the wool textile trade the Government are the owners of very large amounts of raw material, which after the war may amount in value to anything between £1,000,000 and £2,000,000 sterling. That industry can only be manipulated on equipment largely in this country and that equipment is out of date. There are very few makers of machinery in this country to make either for this country or for export and those firms are in the main now employed on munitions work. Their contribution to the total munitions programme must be very small because we hear on all sides that there is a rapid release of certain parts of the munitions programme and that great displacement is taking place. It is therefore suggested that these firms could be relieved of their current munitions work and given raw material and labour to start getting into their stride now on textile production.

I have given the conditions in the textile industries as an illustration of what the position is in regard to industry generally. The Minister of Reconstruction, Lord Woolton, has shown strong sympathy in this matter. I realize that it is a subject for my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade, but in talking with industrialists up and down the country I find that the feeling among them on this particular matter is very strong indeed. In view of that I felt at one time that I should move a Resolution in this House requesting the Government to take steps in the matter, but, believing that the President of the Board of Trade is very sympathetic and is limited at present by the difficulties of labour, I decided to raise the matter in the form of the question which I now beg to ask.


My Lords, I feel that in calling attention to the necessity for re-equipment in regard to the textile industries the noble Lord, Lord Barnby, has performed a very useful and important service. The noble Lord has pinned his remarks very largely upon the textile industries, but it is not only the textile industries which have reason to make their voices heard in this matter. In several directions many industries are anxious about this question of reconstruction and re-equipment, and we do not always get any very satisfactory reply from the Government upon the subject. Perhaps I might refer for one moment to the question of shipping and the shipbuilding industry. I say this with no sense whatever of any grievance. I think the noble Lord, Lord Templemore, will know I have had a Motion on the Paper since, I think, last November or December, on this subject. Owing to requests which have reached me I have postponed bringing forward the question of the re-equipment and reconstruction of those two industries, and now, apparently, it will be October before the Government are prepared to give a reply upon the subject. Naturally doubts arise in the minds of those concerned as to how far the Government are active in this matter in regard to such important industries as shipping and ship-building. There is a delay apparently of a year before the Government are prepared to make any statement whatever on the subject.

I must say that does lead one to feel that the Government have no very clear policy or plans or programme for the reconstruction and reconstitution of industry. No doubt the Government have done something, but we get no very clear picture of what they have done and what they have not done. As regards re-equipment it may be that industry sees its way so far as plant and equipment are concerned. That may not be the most serious difficulty. But there is a time factor involved in this matter. British industry requires reconstructing and modernizing if we are to get a fair start in the post-war world. As regards the ship-building industry that industry started the war with its equipment ment largely obsolete. I believe that when the war broke out only one ship-building yard in the country had a lift of more than five tons on the berth. The equipment was obsolete when the war broke out. It has been working under an unusual and excessive strain during the war and quite clearly the shipbuilding yards are going to end this war with their plant and equipment very largely worked out and in urgent need of re-equipment.

The more important point in regard to this matter of the re-equipment of industry is this, that reconstruction and modernization of plant and equipment depend upon invention, upon research work and upon development work. Those three things, invention, research and development, all require the release of small quantities of raw material, of labour and of research workers. Otherwise it cannot proceed. We ought to be building now in many industries the prototypes of the new machines, the new tools and the new equipment which will be required. Work of that sort is hindered and I believe is, to all intents and purposes, at a complete standstill because the Minister of Production and the Minister of Labour will not release the very small quantities of raw materials and of labour and of technical advice which are required in order to carry on that development work. If we cannot get on now and complete prototypes, if we can only begin with prototypes after the war is over, obviously we are going to be at a most serious disadvantage compared with our competitors in the post-war world. Whenever we raise these questions about the release of raw material or of labour we are told that we have to get on and win the war. I will come to that argument in a moment or two. If the Government say they cannot release the small number of technicians and designers required, I can only say I hear constantly of many techicians and designers who certainly are not fully occupied by the work upon which the Government are employing them at present.

In the transition period of which my noble friend Lord Barnby spoke, speed will be vital and the question has got to be considered in its long-term aspect. Steps should be taken in my opinion immediately, and pressed on with urgency, in order to facilitate the switch-over of war production to peace production. The Americans are doing it. There is no doubt whatever about that. If anyone takes the trouble to study the American Press or American technical journals, they will find convincing proof of the fact that the Americans are doing that. Can the Minister of Labour say he is releasing any technicians or designers or labour for this purpose? I can quite see his difficulties and I am quite capable of appreciating those difficulties, but this should be done, and I ask if the Minister can say that he is in fact releasing technicians and labour for the purpose of carrying on development and research.

Everything possible should be done to prepare for peace production. It should be one of the most urgent questions at the moment, and the Ministers concerned should be doing all they possibly can to prepare for speedy transition to peacetime production. I confess that I for one do not believe that enough is being done in that direction. If that is contradicted perhaps the Government can tell us what is being done. I know that the Board of Trade circularized many industries about a year ago asking what were their postwar plans and what would be their requirements in labour and machinery during the first six months after the war. I imagine that all replies have come in now. I admit the point at once that some of the industries circulated do not know very clearly what it is they want, but generally the replies which have been received should enable the Board of Trade to formulate a policy here and now regarding the release of labour and materials which industries will most urgently need when the end of the war comes. From the information that reaches me I am afraid that preparations have not gone very far, although' the information the Board of Trade have received should enable a decision to be made regarding what machinery will be required, how much of that machinery can be produced at home and for what machinery we shall have to rely upon America.

I mentioned the argument that we must win the war first. A great many Ministers make that reply when asked about postwar plans, and I have a feeling that they like to look rather Napoleonic and say that all that matters is the war and that we must win the war first. But many of the Ministers who make that reply really have not got to occupy themselves with questions of winning the war. It is not their job. We are not back in the days of 1940 when, owing to the fact that Admirals and Generals and Air Marshals had not got quite into their stride and winners had not got quite to the top, we had to rely upon what was called the gifted amateur. That was the period of our most resounding defeats—Dakar, Greece, Crete, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya. We are through all that now. The right men have appeared at the top in all tae Fighting Services, the professional; are in the saddle and they are conducting the war very well. We have begun to win the war and the professionals are going to go on winning the war for us. We can safely leave the matter in their hands. Ministers who make that reply about winning the war first, as if it depended upon their personal efforts, would be far better occupied in concerning themselves with the post-war problems of their Departments.

When we ask about these things, what happens? To-day we are going to have a reply from my noble friend Lord Templemore, but frequently the answer is given by my noble friend Lord Woolton, who conies to that box—I sometimes think of it as a soft-soap box—and makes a speech full of tie most amiable platitudes which amount to crooning a melody "Go to sleep baby, Mother is near" and covers the whole gamut of clichés—the matter is being investigated; it is receiving the earnest attention of the Government; it is being reviewed by a sub-committee of a sub-committee of a committee; the Government hope to bring in a Bill before the next 29th February, or to issue a White Paper before the next All Fools Day. That is the sort of reply we get, but of hard fact we get very little indeed. We have heard a great deal about what has been described as the criminal negligence of the Baldwin Government and the Chamberlain Government in their faulty preparations for the war. Believe me, my Lords, it will be equally dangerous if this Government fail to prepare properly for the transition to the post-war period.

As I have mentioned America, let me say in conclusion that there is no doubt—I repeat it—that America is going ahead very quickly with her preparations for peace, and day in day out, week in and week out, is giving facilities for the switch-over from war to peace production. America came into the war in 1942 and that means that her industry and commerce were working on a peace-time footing for two years longer than our own. Therefore in any case America is that two years ahead of us. If we are to be told that we can do nothing because of the necessity of winning the war, I would point out that since America came in in 1942 she has taken over a considerable share of the war in Europe, is taking part in another great war in the Pacific, has got this country out of the jam about merchant shipping, has got the Fleet Air Arm out of a jam about aircraft, and has got the Army out of a jam about tanks. America has done all this whilst not ceasing to press ahead mast actively and most urgently with her preparations for the post-war period. It is for reasons such as those that I most warmly support my noble friend Lord Barnby in calling attention to the necessity for the re-equipment of industry. I hope that now far more urgency will be manifested by the Government in consideration of this problem and that an end will be made to this process of putting off inquiries by talking about the necessity of winning the war.


My Lords, I am sure your Lordships will be very grateful to my noble friend Lord Barnby for raising this subject and also for putting down a question instead of a Motion, although I gather that the latter course would have been preferred by the noble Lord who has just spoken. I am rather nervous in coming to this box for fear of being accused of administering soft soap, as my noble friend Lord Woolton was accused, quite wrongly, of doing in his speeches to your Lordships. However, I must do my best.

This recommendation of the report of the Cotton Board Committee on Post-War Problems is an extremely important one, and my noble friend is very well qualified to deal with it. It is one of a number of closely related recommendations made in this report. My right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade, in consultation with other Ministers concerned, has been giving very close consideration to the problems dealt with in this report, and to its recommendations, and these have been discussed with representatives of the industry. The efficiency of the textile industries of this country is a matter of direct concern to every citizen, not only because he or she is a user of their products, but also because textiles are still our largest export, and we cannot achieve the level of export necessary after the war to maintain our standard of living unless our textile industries are equipped to play their due part.

The future of this particular industry presents difficult and very controversial problems which it would not be in place to discuss here and now. There can, however, be no doubt that there is room in all sections of our textile industries, as in others, for extensive modernization of plant. This particular point was stressed by my noble friend Lord Winster in the interesting speech which he made just now. He spoke more particularly, I think, about the shipyards wanting modernization. Well, the textile industries are in just the same case. At the outbreak of the war, of course, modernization was long overdue in many sections of these industries, and the need for it has been intensified by five years of war, during which little, if any, replacements have been possible and repair and maintenance have necessarily had to be very largely curtailed. Whatever other measures may be necessary to help the textile industries to play their proper part in the post-war economy of the country, and to compete effectively in export markets, all will be in vain if they have not the advantage of the best machinery that modern invention and experience can offer. The Government can thus have no hesitation in recognizing the vital importance of enabling the textile machinery manufacturers of this country to resume their normal lines of production as soon as circumstances permit. The problem is to discern how quickly this can be achieved without prejudice to the rapid defeat—I hardly dare to mention this—of Germany and, after that, of Japan.

The problem is vital not only because of its importance for our own textile industries, but also because of the value of our exports of textile machinery. Before the war the greater part of our output of textile machinery was exported, and in 1937 exports of textile machinery and textile machinery parts and accessories were worth over £8,000,000. We are looking to the textile machinery industry after the war to help to achieve the needed increase in our total volume of exports by improving very considerably on their achievements before the war. We hope too that by improvements of design and manufacturing technique, our textile machinery manufacturers will be able to produce satisfactory machinery at satisfactory prices, of some at least of the types which before the war we had to import.

There will be a big demand for textile machinery from overseas countries after the war. Their textile industries, like our own, have had to defer normal replacements and extensions because we and other exporting countries have not been in a position to supply. Their existing machinery has had to work long hours to meet essential wartime needs, and although we have done our best to meet essential demands, the pressure of war production has inevitably made it impossible for us to keep pace with their demands for repair and maintenance. While the supply of textile machinery after the war falls short of demand, we shall certainly have to ensure that our own textile industries get their proper share for necessary replacement and re-equipment. But it is also vital that as soon as possible we should be in a position to begin to supply the machinery which overseas countries will want to buy from us after the war. If we are not in a position to supply, there are other countries who will be anxious and able to do so.

The report of the Cotton Board Committee also includes a recommendation dealing with this problem. The section containing the direct recommendation to which the noble Lord called attention also recommends the Board of Trade to agree with the two industries a suitable proportion of the total output of the textile machinery industry which would be reserved on priority for meeting the needs of the home cotton industry, and no doubt other home textile industries, the remainder of the output to be allowed for export trade. In answer to a Parliamentary question in another place on February 22 last, my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade has already indicated that while textile machinery remains in short supply, an appropriate allocation, as between the home and export markets, will have to be made. To-day our makers of textile machinery are necessarily engaged almost entirely on the production of munitions of war. Only a very snail proportion of their capacity is still engaged on their normal lines of production, and this is largely occupied on the production of spare parts for the maintenance of our own textile industries and of the textile industries overseas which have previously been equipped with British machinery and depend on us for their repairs and maintenance.

The problem of arranging the cancellation of existing contracts and the placing of new contracts so as to free first the capacity that will be most urgently required for civilian production, is one on which the Board of Trade, along with the Ministry of Supply and other Departments concerned, have been working for some time. The textile machinery industry must clearly enjoy a very high place among the various industries whose early release from war contracts is important to our future national economy. It has, however, to be recognized that the speed at which a particular industry or firm can be released from war contracts must depend not only on the importance of its peace-time products, but also on the extent to which it may be required for the production of war stores which cannot be made elsewhere.

Although it is as vet impossible to indicate when additional capacity can be made available for the manufacture of textile machinery, this does not mean that much preliminary work cannot be and is not being done in preparation for the time when the future trend of war demands on the textile machinery industry can be more clearly seen. The report of the Cotton Board Committee refers to certain estimates which had been prepared on post-war requirements of plant and equipment. Other sections of the textile industry have also furnished, or will be furnishing, similar estimates of their post-war requirements. At the suggestion of the Board of Trade, the cotton industry and the woollen industry and other sections of the textile industries, have been discussing these estimates of requirements in detail with representatives of the textile manufacturers, and reports will be made to the Board of Trade in due course. Simultaneously, steps are being taken to obtain from the textile machinery manufacturers a picture of the volume of orders both for the home market and for overseas likely to fall on them during the immediate post-war period.

It is only natural that the textile industries both in this country and overseas should be getting impatient to know how soon we shall be able to supply them with the textile machinery they will need to instal as quickly as possible after the war. I only hope that this debate will serve both to explain why we cannot undertake to satisfy these demands at any given date, and to demonstrate our realization of the importance of our being able to resume production on a scale sufficient to provide adequately both for the home market and export as quickly as our primary task of defeating the common enemies in Europe and then in the Far East permits. This is a complicated subject and a most important one. As my noble friend and the House know it is difficult for anyone like myself, who is not an Under-Secretary or connected with the Department, to deal adequately with the subject. I should very much have liked, had I had a little more time for preparation, to have answered more of the points which my noble friend Lord Winster raised about the Government Departments being asleep and that sort of thing. I can assure him that he is quite wrong, and I could have produced proof if I had had more time. I hope that I have answered the questions to the satisfaction of my noble friend Lord Barnby.