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Civilian Clothing (Shortage)

Volume 413: debated on Friday 24 August 1945

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7.37 p.m.

I am very sorry that there is no continuity to to-day's Debates, so that I could have the privilege of congratulating the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down on a truly brilliant impromptu performance on this, his first time at the Box. Secondly, I would like to begin my speech with an apology to the President of the Board of Trade for raising my subject at apparently such short notice and at this hour, but in self defence I must point out that his announcement about the new cut in clothing rations was made only the day before yesterday, on 22nd August, and it takes a day or two for the implications and repercussions to reach the ordinary Member. Hon. Members will recollect that the announcement of 22nd August stated that the 24 new clothing coupons which will become valid on 1st September will have to last eight months instead of the customary six; and, further, there is a grave danger or fear that there may not be supplies in the shops to meet these coupons.

Is that part of the quotation?

It will be agreed on all sides of the House that the people of this country were really hoping that with the termination of hostilities a benevolent Government, instead of announcing fresh cuts, would be announcing increases as rapidly and as frequently as possible. Consequently, before this House reassembles there may be considerable unrest in the country on this matter. I therefore hope that the President of the Board of Trade will agree that it is desirable that some fuller statement be made and that he will welcome the opportunity that I am giving him.

I must admit that I speak partly, and chiefly, on my own account, because I seem to have an undue number of awkward and critical friends who have a habit of turning to me and saying, "You're an M.P. aren't you? What's this mess you've got us into over the clothing situation?" Apart from weakly disclaiming any personal responsibility, I admit that I have no knowledge, and that I would like to know what is the mess we are in, if any, and how it arose. I can assure the House that I did have the courtesy to inform the present Chancellor of the Exchequer that I intended to raise the subject this evening, because there might be, by implication, some question raised of his stewardship of his former office as President of the Board of Trade.

Coming to the point, it is generally agreed in the cotton textile industry that there must elapse approximately seven months between the arrival of the raw material and its reaching its destination, the back of the consumer, as a manufactured article. Consequently, if we are inquiring into the present shortage we must look back to February or March of this year. In Lancashire during the past few months we gained the impression, particularly in February and March, when it began to appear that the war in Europe, at least, could not last much longer, that His Majesty's Government were giving serious and urgent consideration to what would be the consumer needs of the civilian population at the termination of hostilities. We also gained the impression that as a result of those deliberations definite targets of production were being set before the industry.

So I come to my first question, Did or did not the Coalition Government prior to the end of the German war give consideration to this question of civilian clothing needs? This may give the impression of prying into what, in the last Parliament, were regarded as Cabinet secrets, but surely the veil of secrecy can now be partly lifted. I suggest that it is in the best interests of the present Government that the veil of secrecy be lifted. I fully admit that I am giving the right hon. and learned Gentleman a grand opportunity at this moment, because several allegations were made during the speeches in the Debate on the Address that the present Government inherited a legacy of chaos, muddle and inefficiency. I do not think that the caretaker Government had sufficient time to create all this muddle and inefficiency, and as at the material time the Coalition Government were still in office, we can only understand that these allegations refer to them. Therefore, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will have an opportunity of confirming or otherwise the allegation that the Coalition Government were negligent in regard to what was reasonably assumed to be the future clothing requirements of the civilian population.

Reverting to Lancashire, it was all along fully apparent to my friends in the cotton textile industry that the people would be reduced almost to second-hand sack-cloth and ashes unless something was done at that time about the man-power allocated to the cotton textile industry. I understand, though I am open to correction, that my Lancashire friends and, indeed, all sections of the clothing industry, used every means in their power to make the most urgent representations to the Board of Trade, to call the attention of the President to the grave situation which was arising, and to emphasise that the bottleneck was the question of the shortage of man-power.

So I come to my second question, Can the President of the Board of Trade confirm that for some considerable time past the Board of Trade has constantly received urgent representations to this effect? I observe in the Official Report of 13th March, 1945, that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. S. Shephard) ventured to ask the President, who is the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, if his attention had been drawn to the impending clothing shortage, and what steps he proposed to take to remedy the position. The hon. Member: asked as a supplementary:
"Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that there is no danger of a collapse in the clothing coupon system?"
To which the President replied:
"Yes, Sir. A collapse is certainly not contemplated."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th March, 1945; Vol 409, c. 2–3.]
The President's original reply had been an admission that the bottleneck was due to lack of man-power. As far back as 16th January, 1945, the President had said, in reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Morley (Mr. H. Beaumont), that he was in touch with his right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour about it. So I come to my third question, What transpired in those conversations between the President of the Board of Trade and the Minister of Labour in January, February and March of this year? Did the President succeed in squeezing any labour out of the Minister of Labour, and, if not, why not? I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman will not change his ground in this matter. I suspect that he may try to do so, because, in his Press conference on Tuesday this week, if he has been correctly reported, he said, referring to a period eight months ago, that the difficulty was that mill workers who had experienced better conditions in war-time occupations were not anxious to go back to the spinning mill. I do not want to take too long, but I would like to quote from the "Daily Telegraph" report of 22nd August referring to a Press conference the day before:
"The President said, at a Press Conference later, that the shortage of cloth was due to the hard fact that eight months ago, and right up to the end of the war, workers who might have been spinning cotton yarns in the mills were doing more urgent jobs. The difficulty was that mill workers who had experienced better conditions in wartime occupations were not anxious to go back."
If the "Daily Telegraph" is in error, I tender my apologies to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I suspect that the workers were not anxious to go back to the wages that they get in spinning mills, but be that as it may, we must not forget that at that time the right hon. Gentleman was not hesitating to send boys into the not-too-pleasant conditions of the mines, or into bloody battles against unpleasant enemies in unpleasant climates in the Far East. In addition, His Majesty's Government enjoyed considerable powers over industry, and with a little drive and energy the President of the Board of Trade could have gone a long way towards establishing wage conditions in the cotton industry which would have been acceptable to the operatives. I also recollect that at this time a considerable number of workers were becoming redundant—and here the right hon. Gentleman is in a very good position to correct me if I am wrong—in such aircraft and munition factories as Avro and Vickers in the Lancashire district. So possibly the excuse or the reason of the shortage of man-power does not hold water, and it may well be that a case of negligence, or dereliction of duty, or a failure to use the powers vested in him lies against the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer who, at the material time, was President of the Board of Trade. That Gentleman is reported to have said at Boston on 19th June, 1945, prior to the General Election:
"Before I left the Board of Trade one of my last acts was to make arrangements for the new clothing coupon book. In that book there are more coupons for the next rationing period than there were for the last, and that is not including what I call 'the lucky dip' coupons, those labelled W, X, Y and Z. According to the best estimate I can make, we can count on increased supplies for the civilian population, not necessarily in the next month or two, but during the next rationing period."
This afternoon, in this Chamber, the right hon. Gentleman the Lord President of the Council made one of those brilliant speeches, to which we are becoming accustomed and to which we look forward, in which he made the bold and enjoyable claim that it was very seldom that his utterances, and particularly his election promises, could be quoted against him. I would like only to say that I hope I may be in this Chamber if the Chancellor of the Exchequer ever feels emboldened to make a similar claim.

Finally, I hope that the President of the Board of Trade will agree that I was fully justified in raising this matter this afternoon, and that he will agree that hon. Members in self-defence, and the people whom they represent, if they are to withstand the chills and rigours of this winter without complaint, must now, on this last day, have a full explanation as to how this position has arisen. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will not hesitate to go into the question of blame, if there is any, and to apportion that blame, for this reason, that during the Debates on the Gracious Speech we have sat here and listened to many hon. Members paying tributes and handing bouquets to the Labour Ministers in the late Coalition Government, and they have sat there and accepted them with due and becoming modesty and blushes, but they have not denied them. For instance, I remember hearing the hon. Member for South Leeds (Mr. Gaitskell) go to some length to
"congratulate the Labour Members of the Coalition Government on the remarkable educational work they did"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st August, 1945; Vol. 413, c. 522]
that is, in educating Conservative Ministers and showing them how to do their job and discharge their responsibilities. If it is found that these so nearly perfect creatures did on a few occasions lapse into error, where there is so much to praise, they can, I hope, take this in their stride and accept this soft impeachment.

7.59 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Major Gates) for raising this question, only I should have been happier if it had been at another time. I quite appreciate that his difficulty is the same as mine, but I am most anxious that people should understand that if there is any blame for anybody, I am not the person to hide it up, and I do think very grave blame attaches in this matter. The gravest blame attaches to Hitler and Hirohito. Those are the two people who are responsible for the unfortunate position in which we find ourselves at the present time as regards the clothing of the people of this country.

The hon. and gallant Member has got rather wrong ideas—I say this with respect—as to how these matters are dealt with and settled in any Government. Without disclosing any Cabinet secrets, I am sure I can say that when such a matter as the distribution of man-power is concerned it is not left to the powers of persuasion of one Minister over another. It is left to an orderly consideration of how, for the purposes in hand, the man-power can best be utilised. He will recall that in the year 1944 it was decided by the Coalition Government that during that year we were to make the greatest possible effort to try and finish the war in 1944. We were to throw in all our reserves for that purpose. I think we were very successful, though a few months late. As a result of that the civilian industries during that period of time were skinned of every conceivable bit of man-power that could be got from them. The textile industries and the clothing industries lost during the war 530,000 people, who went over to war production or info the Forces or matters of that kind.

In view of the statement which the right hon. and learned Gentleman is now making, is it not rather astonishing that the Chancellor of the Exchequer foreshadowed a greater supply of clothing?

I will come to that when the time arrives, and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to make my speech in my own order, and not in his. I was just saying that at that time the whole of the industry was skinned of all the labour that could be found and I am afraid I as Minister of Aircraft Production at that time was responsible for urging the scheme which took place, my right hon. Friend, sitting as supreme arbitrator in these matters, taking the view, and very rightly taking the view that, if we were really going to make our great effort during these years, we must give special attention to it. At the end of 1944 and in the beginning months of 1945 the position in these industries was a very serious one indeed. Following that period, as everyone in the House knows, there was a more optimistic attitude. We were able to contemplate the getting back to the beginnings of civilian production in certain lines. I think everybody hoped that after VE Day, which we anticipated would not be long delayed, we should be able to have a very considerable turnover into civilian production, though realising that for some time we should still need to devote a great deal of energy to the carrying on of the war against Japan.

When we reached that stage things started to open up a little and then we encountered—and both my predecessors are fully aware of this and took measures to deal with it—the difficulty of getting the people back into the cotton industry. It was rather at a later date than I so stated in the speech I made and of which I have a copy here. That was the insuperable difficulty. During the course of the war the other industries had been able to develop both wage rates and conveniences which were more attractive, and actually during that period I went, as Minister of Aircraft Production, into Lancashire into some of the factories for which I was responsible and tried to persuade the girls to go into the cotton industry. I found, as did other Ministers who were equally trying to do this work that they were not willing to go. In these circumstances both my predecessors took the decision that the only way by which this could be remedied was by doing something to make the cotton industry more attractive in order to get workers back into the industry.

I think the Government were optimistic that by urging the cotton industry to take certain steps in that direction we should remove this blockage. I do not think that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was otherwise than entitled to think in June that this blockage would be removed, and we should get into an easier era in the latter part of this year. I should certainly myself have so thought and, indeed, we might actually have done it, had it not been for the end of the Japanese war, because, although perhaps hon. Members will not appreciate this at first sight, the expediting of demobilisation which comes with the end of the Japanese war is one of the most difficult problems so far as the provision of clothing is concerned.

As hon. Members know, everyone who comes out of the Forces, man or woman, gets a very large number of coupons. They also have to be provided with civilian clothes through the depot at Olympia; and that puts a tremendous strain in these coming months on the clothing ration. Had it not been for that extra strain, which is being placed upon the clothing ration, I think it might have been possible to take the chance of allowing a better ration than in fact has proved to be possible. It was those two factors—first, that the cotton industry have not been able to recruit the labour as it was hoped they would, and are still unable to recruit the labour for spinning the yarn, and secondly, the very heavy extra load that is coming as a result of the expedited demobilisation, that made it impossible to guarantee the cashing of more than 24 coupons in the next eight months. It would have been quite possible to have taken a chance, to have said, "Well, let us say six months as before and let us hope that by the end we shall be in better circumstances and we shall be able to produce some more goods," but the Government were not prepared to do that because we believe that if you take chances on ration systems, you destroy the ration system.

May I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman a question? I always admire (the way he makes the best of an indifferent brief, but does not he really think that his right hon. colleague the Chancellor of the Exchequer painted an unduly glowing picture during the Election, and would not it have been better for him to have placed the matter in the light in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman is putting it now?

May I intervene? Was not the statement of the present Chancellor of the Exchequer to the advantage of the late Coalition Government?

I think we shall get a little bit out of Order, if we conduct a tripartite discussion on this. What I would say is this: I should say, if I am: asked for my judgment, as I am by the hon. and gallant Gentleman, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was perfectly entitled in June, with the knowledge that he had of what was being attempted in the cotton industry with the demobilisation that was ahead, to anticipate a freer supply of cotton goods.

In the Coalition Government. I do not think that really this attempt to denigrate the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a very successful one because, if there were any faults, they were faults of the Cabinet.

I was only shaking my head in a despondent way, and hoping that this method of devaluing the clothing coupon, would not foe pursued by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his new sphere.

That may be humorous but it is not relevant, like so many of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree that if there were any responsibility at all it was Cabinet responsibility. All responsibility in the Government is Cabinet responsibility, and I was just as much responsible in the Government for the arrangements that were then made as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or the right hon. Gentlemen opposite. As a matter of fact, this has nothing to do with any muddle or any inefficiency in administration. It represents the hard facts of a very unfortunate situation. The only way in which it can be remedied is by the cotton industry putting itself in the position of being able to attract labour which is now available but which is still not going into the cotton mills. However much we may desire more yarn, however much we may urge here that more yarn should be spun, it will not be spun by the humour of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Lyttelton) nor by goading by people in this House. It will be spun by the people of Lancashire when they get conditions which induce them to work in the mills. It is upon that that the Government are now trying to assist the industry in Lancashire to put itself into such a condition that that flow of labour may come back. Fortunately we have sufficient supplies of raw materials, we have the mills and machinery—everything except the labour to man the machines. If only we could get that labour, then, in the course of seven or eight months, as has been said, we could get the goods out. But we cannot get them out any quicker, even if we get the labour in the spinning mills to-morrow.

I should not like the House to think that this difficulty with cotton yarn is the only one. There is the same position, though not so acute, in the wool industry, in the hosiery industry, which depends upon cotton yarn for its goods, and in the footwear industry, in all of which there have been difficulties which make shortages inevitable. Whatever we can do by way of getting special people out of the Forces in order to "man up "particular bottlenecks in industry, or by way of encouraging industry to put itself into a condition in which that labour will flow back again, we will certainly do it. We have no desire to court unpopularity by announcing cuts in the clothing ration——

I respected the Minister's request to make his speech in his own order, land I would like to ask him whether, through deliberation or by accident, he has missed out my very laborious second question as to whether the Board of Trade had been receiving, throughout 1945, urgent representations from every section of the clothing industry that nothing could be done, and no coupons could be honoured, unless the necessary man-power was released in 1945?

In the early part of 1945 and in the months of 1944 everybody was pointing it out; the President of the Board of Trade was most plaintively pointing it out to those responsible for the distribution of man-power in the Government. There was a natural rivalry between the Supply Services, who were continuing the urgent task of war, and the President of the Board of Trade, who consistently: asked for more labour for the clothing and other indus- tries, and pointed out that unless it could be obtained there would be an inevitable shortage.

We hoped when the war ended that not only should we not cut the clothing ration, but we should greatly expand the clothing ration. That went out of view a long time ago. There was the persistent difficulty of transferring labour, wherever possible, especially in the cotton industry, and a special drive was made. Then the Ministry of Labour made a special drive to get labour back in the Spring of 1945 into the cotton industry. It was in that relation that I was: asked to try to get some of these people to go to the aircraft factories. Everyone in industry was anxious to get labour, and they, no doubt, told the Board of Trade that they wanted labour, but unfortunately the labour was not there.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will appreciate that it is quite impossible to reconcile that statement with the former claim that the President of the Board of Trade was fully justified in making the remarks which he ventured to make as late as 19th June this year.

Not at all. That was in the Spring of 1945, and everyone naturally contemplated that as a result of VE-Day, everything would be much easier as regards labour. One hoped that if labour had then gone into the mills in the beginning of June, that, before the end of this period we should have had extra cotton goods, and we could then have taken risks fairly and properly on the stocks available of having a shorter period or even more coupons. It is these few months that passed by without any substantial improvement, from June to the present date, in the spinning of yarn that has made it impossible for the next eight months to do anything more.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Seventeen Minutes past Eight o'Clock till Tuesday, 9th October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of yesterday.