HL Deb 26 July 1954 vol 189 cc3-16

2.43 p.m.

THE CHANCELLOR OF THE DUCHY OF LANCASTER (VISCOUNT WOOLTON) rose to move, That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Transfer of Functions (Ministry of Materials) Draft Order, 1954, reported from the Special Orders Committee on Wednesday last, be made in the form of the draft laid before Parliament. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, this is the draft of an Order to dissolve the Ministry of Materials and transfer its remaining functions to the Board of Trade. Your Lordships will not wish me to expound the legal forms of the Order; you will be more interested in the intention to which these forms, I am advised, give proper effect.

As the Prime Minister indicated in another place, the dissolution of the Ministry has been made possible and desirable primarily by the progress made in bringing to an end State trading in raw materials. Within the space of the last eighteen months or so the trade in some dozen diverse raw materials has been restored to private hands, and the formidable task of dismantling these large public trading structures and disposing of the terminal stocks is now far advanced. By the end of the year, nearly 1,400,000 tons of such terminal stocks, excluding cotton, to a sale value of approximately £125 million, will have been disposed of at fair market prices, and so far, I am glad to say, without any serious disturbance of normal and regular trade. Your Lordships will appreciate that this maintenance of a stable market was a matter of prime importance to our economy and to the trades that were concerned. This orderly disposal of stocks alone, I think, if I may again quote the Prime Minister's words, fully justifies the time and care required in winding up this Ministry.

The Ministry, however, has in the last year or so also been usefully employed in other ways, besides divesting itself of public trading activities and a good many controls. Let me give one or two examples. It has played a large part in recent months in negotiating the International Tin Agreement which, as your Lordships will be aware, has recently received the signatures necessary to bring it to a stage of ratification. The Ministry has also negotiated with an industrial firm for the production of titanium, which should help to ensure that this country is not left behind in what may be the vital development of the use of titanium metal in aircraft construction, and for other purposes. The Ministry has concerned itself closely with the preparatory investigations of the Volta River Scheme on the Gold Coast, which it is hoped will lead to the development of hydro-electric power and aluminium production, to the significant benefit not only of the peoples of the Gold Coast but of this country. The Ministry has not only added powerfully to our strategic stockpiles of materials, but has recently been active in tightening up its organisation and the arrangements for the management and secure custody of these immensely valuable stocks.

I have mentioned these examples for two reasons. First, because it is right that, as the last Minister of Materials, I who am known (and I am content that it should be so) to have been anxious to wind up the Ministry as a separate entity, should make it abundantly clear that this decision to wind up the Ministry was in no way due to dissatisfaction with the way in which the Ministry has been discharging the duties placed upon it by Parliament. I have, in fact, been greatly impressed by the intimate and detailed knowledge which the civil servants have acquired of the various materials and trades with which they have been concerned, and by the evident confidence which trade organisations have shown in the integrity and helpfulness of those with whom they have come into contact. My predecessors, the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, and the noble Lord, Lord Salter, left me with a staff and a basis to work upon which greatly facilitated the task that was entrusted to me by the Prime Minister.

Further, if your Lordships will be good enough to bear with me, I must pay tribute to the business efficiency that has been shown in the disposal of these large stocks. If your Lordships will reflect for a moment what it means to dispose of 1,400,000 tons of material, or to realise stocks valued at £125 million, you will appreciate that it has been a considerable task. Much of the material involved in these disposals had been bought at varying times over the last eight years. Some of it, inevitably, had been bought earlier at prices that were much higher than those which have been prevailing during the last two years; and some of it, again inevitably, was the residue, in which the trades involved had shown very little recent interest. The disposal of such a stock calls for considerable business ability. Loss on cost prices was, of course, inevitable; but we have minimised it. The fact that we have disposed of this £125 million worth of materials at a selling cost of considerably less than one per cent. reflects much credit on those who have been in control of these operations. I must express my gratitude to all the staff of the Ministry from whom I have had every support and complete loyalty in what your Lordships will realise was the somewhat invidious task of dismembering a Ministry and dispersing a staff which had grown very much attached to the work which they were efficiently carrying out.

Secondly, since various statements have appeared in the Press that all that this Ministry was doing was exercising an unwanted control over newsprint and preserving the jute trade of Dundee, I think it right that I should make public the quite formidable commercial enterprise with which the Ministry has been concerned, and which is now within sight of conclusion—to the considerable advantage of the public purse. Furthermore, whilst, for reasons which your Lordships will appreciate, I cannot disclose the extent of the stockpile for which this Ministry has been responsible, I can assure the House that the amount of public money involved fully justifies the size of the staff employed in its supervision. I have made these references to the continuing functions of the Ministry to show that, although the functions to be transferred are not extensive enough to justify any longer a separate Department, the Government by no means underestimate their importance or the need for finding for them a home where they will be assured of adequate supervision and attention of the right kind. I can assure your Lordships that my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade is well seized of this aspect of the matter, and also of the need, in reorganising the combined Department and dispersing the staff, to preserve satisfactory continuity in relations with the trade and industry that is concerned with materials.

I do not think I need enlarge further on the proposal to dissolve now the Ministry of Materials. It would rather be a matter for explanation if this were not being done. With the easement in world material supplies and the abandonment of so much of public trading and of control, the staff of the Ministry has already shrunk from about 1,850 at the end of 1951 to about 800 now. The volume of work thrown up cannot continue to be sufficient to occupy the undivided attention of the higher management of a separate Department. Separate Finance and Establishment divisions and central services of this kind become an unjustifiable extravagance; the need to continue to co-ordinate the activities of one more Ministry and Department with those of others becomes an unnecessary obstacle to the speedy and efficient discharge of Government business. I hope your Lordships will agree that it is obviously sensible to put an end to these things.

The Government felt that in doing so—and, if I may, I would direct especial attention to this—it would be advantageous to keep Government responsibility in regard to materials together in one place, under one Ministry, rather than to disperse them—as was done before the creation of the Ministry of Materials—between the Ministry of Supply and the Board of Trade. The choice of the Board of Trade as a home is a natural one. Although it is already a large Department, its size and load have contracted in the last year or two, and the President is satisfied that the Board of Trade can now absorb these additional functions without undue strain on the higher management or loss of higher direction in the material field. The Government's continuing responsibility in regard to materials are more cognate to the existing responsibilities of the work of the Board of Trade than to those of any other Department. Indeed, the connection between the two responsibilities in the textile field is so close (as your Lordships will not have failed to observe in dealing with the Cotton Bill earlier this year, and last week with the Cotton Order), that there is an overlap of responsibility which was sufficient to excite the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, to recall the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. The amalgamation of the two Departments will now remove this.

This is the last occasion upon which I shall speak on behalf of the Ministry, and I should like to conclude with a public expression of thanks to my noble friends Lord Swinton and Lord Salter, whom I followed in office, and, if I may, particularly to my Permanent Secretary, Sir Eric Bowyer, to the Deputy and Under-Secretaries with whom I have come most in contact, and to my two personal secretaries. They have throughout been unfailing in capacity and have made the task entrusted to me by the Prime Minister as pleasant as possible. I am deeply in their debt. I beg to move.

Moved, That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Transfer of Functions (Ministry of Materials) Draft Order, 1954, reported from the Special Orders Committee on Wednesday last, be made in the form of the draft laid before Parliament.—(Viscount Woolton.)

2.56 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Viscount has read the last rites over himself as the Minister of Materials with characteristic good humour and cheerfulness, and, like all condemned men, appeared to me to make an excellent case as to why he should not go to the scaffold, since the Department over which he has presided has been so efficiently run. I can assure the noble Viscount that we on this side of the House are not going to oppose this Order. In fact, on the whole we welcome it, because in our view the Board of Trade can do the job just as well. With their business experience of the various functions that will be handed over to them, in my view the Government have, strange to say, made a wise choice of the Department which is to carry on those functions.

The noble Viscount has given us some interesting figures, and I am glad he has mentioned one specific thing—that is, the custody of the remaining stocks. I do not want him, and I will not ask him, to give any figure of their value. We can all guess that they are very substantial, and our past experience over many years has always been that these stocks have an unhappy knack of "self-liquidation." I hope that, whatever happens to the rest of the staff, Her Majesty's Government will see that there is sufficient staff to make the custodianship of those stocks as secure as possible. I do not know whether the noble Viscount would like to inform your Lordships what will be the net saving to the taxpayer in civil servants resulting from the demise of this Ministry and the transfer of the functions to the Board of Trade. That is a popular subject of conversation and debate to-day. It may not be possible, but from my knowledge of the Board of Trade and its excellent organisation I should think that they can absorb all the functions of the Ministry of Materials without any addition to the existing staff.

That is all I have to say on this Order, but, if your Lordships will forgive me for doing so, I should like to end on a personal note. Far be it from me to enter into the topical game of reforming the Government. We now see one Minister going. Speaking for my colleagues and myself on this side of the House, I sincerely hope that it will be a long time before we see the Chancellor of the Duchy go, because he has endeared himself to us with his unfailing courtesy, his very good temper, his ever-attentive ear and his constant endeavour to do what he can to meet the wishes and the arguments of the Opposition—and, believe me, that is something which we appreciate very much. We hope that his stay in your Lordships' House will be a long one, so that we may continue to enjoy his speeches.

3.0 p.m.


My Lords, like the noble Lord who has just spoken, I rise to support the Motion for the Humble Address. I do so as one who has been interested in at least two of the major functions of the Ministry which is about to die. It so happens that after the First World War I was chairman of the Liquidation Committee of the Ministry of Munitions, in, I think it is only fair to say, less favourable circumstances than the post-war situation from the liquidation point of view. Therefore, I know something about the difficulty of liquidating very large stocks which are abnormal in relation to the ordinary economic functions of the country. I should like to congratulate the noble Viscount on having completed that liquidation with so very little disturbance to the price situation in the country as a whole. He has thoroughly justified any claim of credit to those who have administered the Ministry of Materials. In saying that, I of course include his two predecessors, the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, and the noble Lord, Lord Salter.

But my more immediate concern is with the one substantial remaining control that is to be transferred, bag and baggage, to the Board of Trade—I refer, of course, to the newsprint control. I am sure that the noble Viscount is as sorry as some of us are that he was not in a position to wind up that control before he handed over to the Board of Trade the remaining control exercised by the Ministry of Materials. But although it has been a convenience to the Press of this country to have so much of the attention of the Minister as we have had in the last three or four years, obviously we could not expect the Ministry of Materials to be kept alive purely for the benefit of the newsprint control. Whether the control of newsprint and of jute, and the looking after of the stocks should go to the Board of Trade, whether that is the right place for them or not, is a matter which it would be interesting to discuss on some other occasion.

For myself, do not feel that the Government have yet discovered the right and correct articulation of all the economic Ministries. It is not quite clear whether the functions should be divided up, so to speak, by vertical divisions or by horizontal divisions. Whether all that appertains to fuel, and so forth, should be in one Ministry and so on, in sections, or whether there should be a horizontal division is a matter for discussion. For my own part, I have long held that the proper division was the horizontal one, between a Ministry of all industry and a Ministry of Commerce. After all, it is a principle which has been adopted by almost every country in the world except our own. However, as I say, now is not the moment to develop that theme. The Board of Trade is over-busy; it has a large staff and an enormous number of functions to perform, but I am quite sure that newsprint control will have no less attention than it has had in the past. To some of us the word "newsprint" is like a red rag to a bull, but I do not propose to charge on this occasion.

I intend to-day to make only three comments. The first is to express the thanks of the Press—and I am sure that here I speak for the whole of the Press—to the Minister who is handing over, as well as to his predecessors, for the understanding they have shown in the difficult conditions in which they have had to exercise that control. Since the Ministry of Materials came into existence, the supply of newsprint available for the Press has risen from a little over 500,000 tons to 700,000 tons this year; and it will be 800,000 tons next year. All of that increase has come in increased imports which the Ministers concerned have persuaded the Treasury to finance and for which they have secured exchange—no mean achievement in the situation of the last few years, and in face of the difficulties of the import programme. The second point I wish to emphasise is that the Press, so far as newsprint is concerned, is not yet free. The present situation of control is quite anomalous. I say that for this reason. The periodical Press is decontrolled; it can buy what it can get; its position is free, with the result that a steadily increasing proportion of the newsprint available is being taken by the perodical Press. The newspapers and those who are in the newspaper section of the publishing business of the country are the only section which is still controlled.

My third comment is that we have a long way to go in increasing the supply of newsprint before it can be said that the condition of scarcity has been overcome. I have just mentioned that the supply of newsprint has risen from 500,000 tons to 800,000 tons a year. That is only two-thirds of what we consumed before the war. Seeing that the circulation of the Press has increased by from 60 to 70 per cent., if we were consuming newsprint on the same basis as before the war, we should be consuming 2 million tons a year, whereas we have crept up from 500,000 tons to 800,000 tons. It is a long way from the position where newsprint will be really free, both for existing newspapers and for those which could possibly be established. There is a very considerable problem still to be solved. I should like to conclude by expressing the hope that the Press will still have in the Cabinet, and in the Ministry generally, the interest of those Ministers who during the past three years have been so helpful and kind to the newspapers of this country.

3.8 p.m.


My Lords, I think that all those members of your Lordships' House who are intimately connected with any of the Ministries, especially those in association with the Ministry of Materials, would, as we do in this House now, wish to express their felicitations and thanks to the noble Viscount who has moved this humble Address. He has brought to bear on this subject talents which have been long associated with him in these commercial matters. It is true, as my noble friend has just explained, that the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, handed over to the noble Viscount, Lord Woolton, and that the Ministry is the successor of previous controls. But all those concerned with the raw materials that have been controlled by this Ministry would wish also to express what they feel towards the noble Viscount, Lord Woolton, and would echo what the noble Lord, Lord Layton, said in his tribute of appreciation for the work done through the period from 1939 to the present moment by the temporary and permanent civil servants who have been associated with the onerous duties which these controls imposed.

With regard to Lord Woolton himself, like the noble Lord, Lord Layton, I cannot help reminiscing. It is now nearly forty years since the noble Viscount, Lord Woolton, first came intimately in touch with the responsibility for the control of a raw material. Through that long period, in and out of office, he has had exceptional opportunity of forming sound judgment and, more particularly, of appreciating the talents and virtues of the civil servants, often abused, who have had most difficult tasks to discharge. The wool textile industry, in which I personally am interested, was concerned with a raw material which contributed one of the largest amounts to the operations during the war years; and I think it is natural that anyone who had no responsibility for this control, as was the case with myself, should admire Sir Harry Shackleton and all his assistants for the able way in which they discharged this important task, the more particularly because of its vital and intimate relationship with the Dominions. In particular, Lord Woolton was a happy choice for the conclusion of this work, and to him falls the pride of moving this Order.

I suppose that few Ministers would move an Order for the dissolution of their Ministry with greater thankfulness or happiness than does the noble Viscount. As we all know, there is no desire on his part to hold on to an office. But it is right that we should pay tribute to him at this moment, because had this responsibility been placed in other hands, hands less historically associated with private enterprise, there might have been a less swift conclusion. Fortunately, as I say, the task fell to him. This is a momentous occasion because, while it is true that he hands over to the Board of Trade, the fact that his Ministry is coming to an end shows that it has been decided as high policy that there is no need for the continuance of this control. Although the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has said that he is pleased to see this Order, it does not alter the fact that many noble Lords opposite would be in favour of controls in general.

There is one point that I should like to refer to with regard to this Order. It hands over to the Board of Trade control of one industry to which the noble Viscount referred—namely, the jute industry. I mention this matter because I think that the reason why this particular industry has not been included in the winding up is that to do so would be to throw the labour in the jute industry immediately open to the full competition of low-cost wages in the countries that would supply manufactured jute. I believe that that is something in which the Socialist Benches will be intimately interested in the future, because as and when wider evidence of the effect of competition with British labour, let us say from Japanese production, not necessarily in this market but in the markets to which we export, becomes a critical matter, I suspect there will be strong demands from the Socialist Benches for some kind of protective action.


Why not?


I am glad the noble and learned Earl suggests that there should be protection—I believe in it; it is for that reason that I raise this matter now. Let us bear in mind, however, that it has difficult implications from the Commonwealth point of view, because while we think it right to impose duties to protect the British working man against the product of low wages elsewhere, the fact remains that Canada faces competition from exports from the United Kingdom where wages are only one-third of those paid in Canada today. That is one of the problems with which the successors of the present Ministry—that is, the Board of Trade—will have to deal, and I suspect that it will be no easy matter to handle tactfully as and when it arises. In conclusion I wish to repeat my thanks and felicitations to the noble Viscount, and emphatically to support this Motion.

3.16 p.m.


My Lords, it is not often that I find myself in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Barnby, but in broad outline on this occasion I do—except that he said that the Socialist Party desire controls. If he means that they desire controls for the sake of controls, then I can tell him that that is entirely untrue. If, on the other hand, he means that they are perfectly ready to nave controls to surmount difficulties and so on, then he is perfectly right. As to one particular matter that he mentioned—perhaps I ought to be ashamed of admitting it—I certainly think that we should take whatever steps are necessary to prevent our labour from being subjected to competition from grossly ill-paid labour. I have no doubt at all in saying that. I have always thought that the more serious competition we have to meet is from the highly-skilled labour of Massachusetts rather than from the low-paid labour of certain Oriental countries. I do not believe it is economically sound or sensible to pay your labour the low wages that, unhappily, are paid in some parts of the world. I am perfectly certain that the noble Viscount, about whom I am going to speak in a moment, would be the first to agree with that statement.

I think that the administration of this office shows that so long as you have a small office and a competent Minister in charge you have a fine instrument for doing public service. I am not going to debate the question whether it is right to take these functions away from the Ministry of Materials and transfer them to the huge Board of Trade. I once presided over a large Ministry—the Ministry of National Insurance. Thereafter, speaking in terms of numbers of staff, I presided over a very small Ministry. If I had a choice, I should much rather preside over a small one, because I believe the Minister can exercise his authority and get to know the people concerned very much better. I only hope that the Board of Trade will do the job as efficiently as it has been done in the past. I say no more about that.

This is not an occasion when we are proceeding with the dissolution of a Minister, though it is true that we are proceeding with the dissolution of a Ministry—there is a small, but not un-important, distinction. During the course of the war I worked for many months with the noble Viscount, Lord Woolton, in very difficult times. It therefore gives me great happiness to pay this personal tribute. So far as the Opposition are concerned, we have always found that the Minister—the Chancellor of the Duchy, we must call him now—approachable, and he meets our arguments with counter-arguments, always with the utmost courtesy. I should like to tell him from this side of the House how appreciative we are of that fact. Of course, we cannot expect—it would be foolish for an Opposition to expect—that our arguments or our Amendments much necessarily be accepted. When we are trying to be sensible and serious we expect our sensible arguments to be sensibly and seriously met. From the noble Viscount who sits opposite we have always had that response. I should like to express to the noble Viscount, on behalf of this side of the House, our deep appreciation of the way in which he has always, to the best of his ability, met us.

3.21 p.m.


My Lords, I am indeed grateful. When I started this funeral oration on the Ministry I did not expect I should be met with such words. It would be foolish of me to disguise the fact that I am very grateful and deeply touched by what has been said from different parts of your Lordships' House. The noble Lord, Lord Barnby, and I were together in Wool Control in the first World War. We are both getting a little older as a consequence—


And a little more woolly?


I subsequently adopted only one part of the wool. The noble Lord, Lord Layton, has referred to a problem which I am sorry to hand over to the Board of Trade. I have had, as the noble Lord said, a large number of conferences with the Press. The figures he has quoted to-day—that we probably will want two million tons of newsprint a year—


May I interpret: that is, if we are to get on to the same basis as pre-war and have papers as large as pre-war papers.


I was assuming that we should, at some time, restore full freedom to the Press. I am grateful to the noble Lord for having told his friends of the Press as well as your Lordships' House the extent to which the demand may run. I can assure the noble Lord that my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, faced as he has been with the difficult problem of the balance of payments, has done his best to meet them; and I am sure that when they have the advocacy of the Board of Trade instead of mine they will continue to meet with the same treatment. I am most grateful to noble Lords for the things they have been good enough to say to me. And now, as the noble and learned Earl opposite has remarked, I have the advantage of going to a Ministry, as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, which is very small in the number of its staff. I will try to carry on that Ministry with efficiency.

On Question, Motion agreed to: the said Address to be presented to Her Majesty by the Lords with White Staves.