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Government Surplus Stores (Disposal)

Volume 416: debated on Thursday 12 April 1945

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Mathers.]

10.7 p.m.

Since I gave notice that I would raise the matter of the disposal of Government surplus stores the Government have done their best to take any sting out of the subject, which I might have been able to impart into this Debate. I had intended specifically to refer to the stocks held by local authorities on behalf of the Ministry of Health and to deal with them in some detail, but the Minister of Health forestalled me last week by issuing an order to all local authorities to get rid of those goods to the public as soon as possible. This new arrangement will give great satisfaction not only to the local authorities, who were getting very worried in view of deterioration, but also to the general public, who, as we all know full well, badly want blankets, mattresses, pillow-cases and the hundred and one household articles that are in those rest centres, A.R.P. dumps and stores all over the country. In some areas the situation was assuming the nature of a public scandal. In Warwickshire a member of the county council is reported to have said,' of the stocks belonging to the Ministry of Health, that rats were in the mattresses and moths in the blankets. I have not the slightest doubt that many of these goods all over the country have deteriorated considerably during the last few years. Now that the Minister of Health has ceased his procrastination, I hope that these local authorities will lose no time in getting these goods into the hands of the public.

But that is only one small part of this problem. I want to deal now with the vast stocks of surplus war stores, quite apart from the Ministry of Health stocks, which are lying in dumps, as we know in every part of this country. I have had many letters of complaint, not only of the inability of would-be purchasers to obtain these goods, but also of the wanton destruction which is taking place. I would like to quote three small extracts. These are all very reputable firms and I have no reason at all to doubt the accuracy of their statements. The first one says:
"Last week we saw a lorry from the Depot at Castle Ashby, No. L.4563111, which had a front mudguard slightly dented, otherwise we were told that the vehicle was in perfect condition. That was a Bedford Lorry of the type we use in our business, but we were told that because of the dented mudguard, the lorry had to be scrapped. We are informed that many lorries in really good condition are being scrapped, and we fail to see why this most unnecessary wastage of good material should be allowed to occur."
The second one is from a firm of engineers. It states:
"I visited the Bristol Aircraft Factory at Clayton-le-Moors, near Accrington, to buy machine tools. The whole of the machine equipment has been removed for destruction. I picked several machines out for purchase, instructed my broker to secure them, I have paid three visits this month, they are still there, still un priced and still no finality. In the stores I could see them opening paper packets of precision tools, including Carbide Tips, which cost £32 per pound. They shed the lot into a truck which I followed to the heat treating department, where heat was wasted to destroy them. The trade want these tools, to buy new both price and delivery are still prohibitive."
The third is from a firm of building contractors:
"For six months I have been trying to obtain Winget mortar mixer, and a four ton lorry and a Priestman cub digger valued at about £1,000. From time to time I have approached the Air Ministry, the Ministry of Supply and other Ministries, only with the result of being advised to apply to T. C. Jones of Shepherds Bush who are their agents for disposal. These people can only supply me with new appliances under a Government permit, and deliver in six months' time. In fact, it is impossible to obtain anything lying about at these dumps which we have inspected, such as at Hatfield where there is at least a million pounds worth of goods."
These extracts give some indication of the frustration which is felt by people who really want these goods, and who are prepared to buy them. In the plans for the disposal of Government surplus stores, which was issued as a White Paper in 1944, these goods were divided into three categories. The class to which I am making reference is Class C, which is described as manufacturing stores suitable for or convertible to civilian use. Of course, it includes a great variety of articles, as the White Paper says, from road rollers to great coats and from trucks to typewriters. Speaking in the previous year the then President of the Board of Trade said that there must be an orderly disposal of these goods, that there must be no profiteering on the one hand, and that due regard must be paid to the interests of manufacturers and distributors. No one would quarrel with those two stipulations. Many of us here can remember what happened after the last war, when there was a lot of profiteering, and when the market was also flooded. The White Paper goes on to say that the general principles to be followed in the disposal of these goods are that they are to be released fast enough to get into the hands of the consumers when they are required, and to avoid adverse effects on production through flooding the market. We all know that if the whole of these goods were put on the market today there could be no adverse effects on production, because there is no production of them. As to the point that they are to be released fast enough to get them into the hands of the consumer when they are required, that, to me, is simply farcical. They have been required for some time past.

Three weeks ago I put down a Question to the President of the Board of Trade to ask him the value of sales of Government surplus stores. I was fobbed off with a most ambiguous answer. It completely evaded the question. All I was told was I hat the value of surplus stores was in excess of £20 million. I was not told the value of the surplus stores that had been sold. It is more than two years ago now since the Surplus Textile Corporation was set up, in conjunction with the Board of Trade. to deal with and sell certain categories of surplus goods. The members of that organisation were led to believe that soon after the war they would be dealing with millions of pounds worth of goods. What really has happened, is that up to a very recent date, all they have dealt with was 34,000 reject khaki jerseys, a few red stockings, and half a million industrial overalls. I understand that other corporations have been set up to deal with surplus goods. I do not know what they are, and it would be interesting to know how much they have dealt with up to date. But—I imagine as a result of recent publicity and there has been a lot of publicity over this matter recently—it was announced that the Board of Trade were releasing 239,000 white hospital blankets and they were going to be sold to the Surplus Textiles Corporation. An official of that body next day said they knew nothing about it until they saw it in the evening paper. He went on to say:
"This is typical of the muddled and dilatory way in which the release of millions of pounds worth of goods is being handled. No private organisation, however big, would dare to leave such a wealth of consumer goods for which there is such an urgent demand, lying about unused and deteriorating."
Last year the Board of Trade said they had several new plans, and in the Press today new plans were announced. Frankly, I could not see any difference between the new plans and the old plans. Presumably, they are going to be disposed of through the same sources, but I did see that they intend to set up an official disposal commission and the Government's spokesman told the Press conference what I was very surprised to learn, that he wanted to remove an erroneous opinion that Government Departments were holding back vast quantities. I am sure we are of sufficient intelligence to know that these goods are being held back. We all know of cases in our own constituencies where there are dumps of goods, some of them deteriorating month by month and no effort is made to move them, or even to sell them.

I would like to know from the Minister whether in fact there is any departure from the principle of the White Paper with regard to the selling of these goods in the future. I know that under the White Paper the Ministry of Supply were responsible for the sorting, catalogueing, and assembling and for making the contracts of sale and I know that the Board of Trade were responsible for fixing the prices, and deciding on the rate of sale. I would like to know whether there has been any change there and also the value of sales in this country up to a recent date, and what positive steps are being taken to speed up release. The public are rightly disturbed. They look upon the handling of this matter as inept and lackadaisical; they are horrified to hear of the waste of goods, that are rotting away, and that public money is being treated as if it were of no consequence. In my opinion this is only one more instance of the present Government's complete inability to tackle the problems which face this country.

10.20 p.m.

I have listened with great enjoyment to the hon. Gentleman who has raised this question, but I wonder what he meant by constantly referring all the way through his rambling speech to "goods." He has mentioned about three items. I could mention 103 if there were time in this brief Debate. For him to keep on referring to "goods," without defining what it is he wants to get on to the market, is hardly helpful to the House or to the nation. We know that there are dumps such as those to which he has referred. What we are anxious about arises from the announcement made by the Ministry of Health, which is not a Board of Trade Department at all, that blankets and commodities out of stores to which he has referred, are coming on the market in the next day or two. We hope that they will not go to men's sisters, cousins, aunts and other relatives, but that they will be legitimately distributed through commercial undertakings and stores. If the hon. Gentleman had told us what specific goods he had in mind, it would have been more helpful. I hope he will have another opportunity later on, because I am sure that he is hardly helping the Minister to give us the kind of information for which we are waiting.

10.22 p.m.

I feel that this is the kind of Debate which we are going to have increasingly in the future. His Majesty's Government, rightly or wrongly, have pledged themselves to the collectivisation of our industry, and we are now embarking on a series of difficulties and problems with which countless thousands of business men have been familiar every day of their lives. The Government have produced, very successfully, masses of commodities of all sorts and descriptions necessary for the war effort, and they are unable, apparently, to deal with the disposal of the commodities which are now surplus. The reason is that they are rather afraid of what they think was the mismanagement of this problem at the end of the last war. I am not among those who agree that there was mismanagement. The late Lord Melchett was at the head of the Commission, and in 18 months he disposed of the commodities which were surplus at the end of the last war. Many people made a lot of money out of them; that was no crime. Many people got a great deal of advantage out of them; that was a great public service. If I had to choose between the present attitude of doleful dumps, which is the present Government's attitude towards them, and the helter-skelter distribution which took place at the end of the last war, I know where I and the public would prefer to put our support.

The hon. Member for Newark (Mr. S. Shephard) was asked what he specifically-had in mind. I venture to say that the public of this country are hungry for almost any commodity. The shops, warehouses and factories are empty. We are anxious to buy anything, so hard up are we for goods. I will give some details of what I and hundreds of like people such as merchants and owners of factories, would be willing to buy. I have been trying to get filing cabinets, for example, during the last year. They are very much in demand. There are in the possession of His Majesty's Government mountains of filing cabinets which are used for filing documents of no importance. The manufacturers are not allowed to make them for me, and I am not allowed to get them from Government disposal boards. Is there any other item which the hon. Member for Don-caster (Mr. E. Walkden) would like to know? I have been looking for a comptometer during the last five years. What have I had to do? I have had to pay £I a month for the hire of a comptometer; I am not allowed to buy one because of the regulations of the Board of Trade. In shame the man from whom I hired the comptometer said to me, "You had better have it now. You have paid for it several times over" There are thousands of comptometers in Government Departments.

Does the hon. Member for Doncaster want any more particulars? I can give him further examples. Arising from the ill-advised efforts of the Ministry of Food, all up and down the country very expensive canteen equipment was imposed upon local authorities. They were only prepared to take it because the Government, through the Ministry of Food, guaranteed them against loss. Lots of us want to start canteens now for our expanding businesses, because the people coming back from the war have been accustomed to these services in the factories, but we cannot get them. I can name three businesses that cannot get canteen equipment, which is, however, lying idle, rusting and unused in Government Departments. Does the hon. Member for Doncaster want any more examples? I could give him a number. I will, however, move from the subject.

:Will the hon. Member give us a few more? He has only mentioned three items. Do let him tell us what he wants. I could mention 153.

The hon. Member will have his opportunity. He is closely associated with the Minister and has the Minister's ear. Let him impart his great knowledge to the Minister, and I shall be grateful, as well as the Minister. I am not concerned with this aspect of the matter at the moment, but with other Departments, and particularly with the extravagances of the Ministry of Food.

I must remind the hon. Member that the Minister has only a very few minutes left in which to reply.

:I have a very heavy subject to deal with, and I was —[HON. MEMBERS: "Get on."] I am advised, Mr. Speaker, to finish what I am saying. I am glad that I resisted the temptation of following the hon. Member for Don-caster, who wanted me to give a catalogue of things, and that might have been out of Order. I will bring my remarks to a conclusion. These stores are not confined to the articles mentioned by me or by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark. They include many other stores, including food in tins and cartons, which are not only becoming wasted but are occupying in warehouses valuable space which could be used for other purposes. I hope that on this general question, consideration will be given to the inability, and I hope it is only a passing one, on the part of Government Departments to handle these matters. The Government have committed themselves to a programme of collectivisation. Let them learn the simple elementary rules of business, which any small shopkeeper would be only too glad to teach them.

10.28 p.m.

The most disappointed man in this House now is myself. I had gone to a lot of trouble so as to be able to give the hon. Member who raised this matter some satisfaction, but I cannot do so within the seven minutes that are left to me, as the time is not sufficient to deal with such a big subject. When the hon. Member says that he will be raising the subject on numerous occasions in future, I can say that we shall welcome it being raised at any time. The hon. Member fully supported the White Paper when the Debate took place, as he will see if he refers to Hansard of 25th July, 1944, in cols. 687 and 688. He will find there the speech that he made, fully supporting the White Paper. Hon. Members will also see that on the same occasion I had the privilege of speaking on behalf of our party and that we welcomed the fullest investigation into this matter. The hon. Member said that the Government had done their best to take the sting out of the Debate. I do not blame him for saying that and 1 can well understand it, but I can assure him that the steps taken by the Government were not taken just because this Debate was going to take place. As a matter of fact, the Ministry of Health have been dealing with this matter for weeks, in consultation with other Government Departments. As a result of those consultations the circular referred to was issued and steps had already been taken to bring about an improvement.

In regard to the new plans, what has happened is that there is an adaptation of the White Paper, based upon our experience and the lessons that we have learned. I would remind hon. Members that it is only four months since the war finished. During that period, as a result of the experience gained, plans had already been made to apply the lessons that have been learned. The hon. Gentle man has made charges about wanton destruction. I ask for the co-operation of all Members of the House in this, and I would say that if they can make any specific charges of this description we will gladly look into them—

I think that is a most ungenerous observation. It is not the sort of remark that is usually made by hon. Members of this House when they are asked to co-operate in matters of this kind. We all have public interest at heart and are usually prepared to do our duty to the public in order to safeguard the interests of our people and to safeguard public property. There is only one personal point I am going to make. The hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Shephard) spoke about business people and business policy. Let me make it clear that I was brought up in big-scale industry in this country and, as a result of that experience, I say we take second place to no business people, with regard to organising and running matters of this kind.

That is a true saying, and by their fruits the country knew the works of the last Government and showed that knowledge at the last General Election. Returning to the point about wanton destruction, I repeat that if any hon. Members of this House can give any specific instances we shall gladly look into them. With regard to machine tools, we have already received a letter from a right hon. Member, and are making an investigation into the matter. With regard to dumps, I myself have felt uneasy about them. As one travels about the country and sees these huge dumps, many of them in the open air, and deteriorating as a result of the weather, one has reason to be very much concerned about them. But in this matter all should do their duty, and as far as the Government are concerned, we shall have these dumps surveyed from time to time. We have other Government Departments to deal with, when considering these matters, especially Service departments, because the international situation is still fairly serious, and we are bound to have regard to that. If we receive any complaints, I will give an undertaking that they will be investigated as quickly as possible in order that we can avoid the mistakes of the past.

Unfortunately, I cannot deal with the matter more adequately tonight, but no one would have been more pleased than I to do so if I had the opportunity. I had gone to great trouble today to go into this question with all the people concerned, in order to arm myself adequately to deal with the case. What I will do is this. If there is no improvement in the situation—and even accepting what the hon. and gallant Member has said, if there is no improvement from his point of view or from the point of view of any other hon. Member—and if the question is raised again within a reason- able time, I will try to give them an answer, telling them about the plans prepared, and how we have adapted the White Paper in order to take advantage of our experiences, so that we can do our best to safeguard national property in this country. I was fortunate enough to be a member of the Select Committee on National Expenditure, and I always did feel that not enough justice was done to the reports of that Committee. In the ninth report a recommendation was made which has been put into operation; that the final choice of a disposal department and a negotiating department for each class of goods should be made as soon as possible. In addition to that, the circular sent out by the Ministry of Heal this a big step in the right direction. All that I am hoping is that the local authorities, when they carry this out, will see that there is a minimum of inconvenience to our people, and that the goods get to the people as quickly as possible. Our people have suffered long enough. We have strained ourselves in this country, and hon. Members can depend on it that this Government, representing the people, composed of men born of the people, will look after the people's interest to the very best possible advantage.

:Before the hon Gentleman sits down, will he answer the specific question I put to him as to the value of the surplus goods that the Government have disposed of in this country up to a recent date. Why was I fobbed off with a very ambiguous answer when I put the Question on the Paper.

The hon. Member was given an answer. I think—I am speaking from memory now—it was £20,000,000. Since then there has been an increase.

It being half an hour after the conclusion of Business exempted from the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House), Mr. SPEAKER' adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, as modified for this Session by the Order made upon 16th August.

Adjourned at Twenty-three Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.