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Iron And Steel Prices (Mr Hardie's Letter)

Volume 497: debated on Monday 10 March 1952

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7.

asked the Minister of Supply if he will publish the letter of 24th January addressed to him by Mr. Steven Hardie in which he conveyed the unanimous decision of the Iron and Steel Corporation opposing any immediate increase in iron and steel prices.

10 and 19.

asked the Minister of Supply (1) whether he will publish the correspondence which has taken place since 1st January, 1952, between himself and the Iron and Steel Corporation in connection with the recent rise in iron and steel prices;

(2) what advice the Iron and Steel Corporation tendered to him in connection with the projected increase in iron and steel prices in the letter from the chairman dated 24th January, 1952.

It is not the practice to publish confidential correspondence between the Government and the Board of a nationalised industry.

However, I can tell the House that the purpose of Mr. Hardie's letter of 24th January was to place on record certain arguments advanced by him in the course of a meeting on 23rd January between himself, the Deputy-Chairman of the Corporation, myself, the Parliamentary Secretary and senior officials of the Ministry of Supply, at the conclusion of which a schedule of increased steel prices had been agreed.

I must, however, add that Mr. Hardie subsequently denied that he had agreed to any such price increases and rejected the minutes of the meeting. In view of this apparent misunderstanding, I referred the matter back to the Corporation.

At a subsequent meeting, Mr. Hardie informed me that the Corporation by a majority confirmed their agreement with the price increases approved at the meeting of 23rd January, at the same time expressing, as before, their regret that the Government was unwilling to re-introduce a subsidy for imported steel.

In view of the fact that Mr. Hardie has publicly stated that he conveyed in the letter of 24th January the unanimous decision of the Corporation rejecting the immediate increased prices, does not the right hon. Gentleman think that his statement to the House that there had been no difference on policy whatsoever was very misleading? The right hon. Gentleman's refusal to publish this letter will be very much resented.

Not at all. I have looked very carefully into what I said in the House the other day and I am perfectly satisfied that it was entirely correct.

Will the right hon. Gentleman then say why, despite his long and detailed statement on 25th February, he suppressed the evidence, even of the existence of the letter of 24th January, in which Mr. Hardie, on behalf of the whole Corporation, opposed the proposed increase in steel prices?

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman means by "suppressed" the letter. There is a thick bundle of correspondence between the Corporation and not only myself but also the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. G. R. Strauss) about increases in prices. Had I mentioned them all, the debate would have been much longer than it was.

Does the right hon. Gentleman's answer mean that he denies the statement of Mr. Hardie that in the letter which he sent to the Minister on 24th January he expressed the view of the full Corporation that there should be no increase in prices whatsoever? Does he say that that is untrue?

What I said was that the letter of 24th January placed on record a number of arguments made by Mr. Hardie in the course of a meeting on the 23rd, at which meeting it was agreed—or all present except Mr. Hardie thought it had been agreed—that a schedule of price increases was to be introduced. This was an argument in the course of a discussion.

But the right hon. Gentleman does not answer my question. Mr. Hardie made a very definite statement. I have not seen the letter, but the right hon. Gentleman has it. What I am asking is this: does he deny that in that letter of 24th January, on behalf of the Corporation, Mr. Hardie expressed general disagreement with any increase in prices?

It is very hard to answer that, since Mr. Hardie had himself agreed, only the night before, that there should be an increase in prices. I find it very difficult to answer this question. The whole correspondence is confused and, in places, contradictory.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the debate which took place, the House firmly gathered the impression that a freely-arrived-at decision of the Corporation was at variance with Mr. Hardie's view, whereas it is now alleged that the agreement of the Corporation with the Minister was reached after considerable pressure by the Minister on other members of the Corporation?

I completely and flatly deny that any pressure was brought on the members. If hon. Members opposite press me too hard, I might change my view and publish this correspondence. I think it is most undesirable to publish confidential correspondence between a Government Department and a nationalised board, and if it is published I warn hon. Members opposite that they might find it somewhat of a mixed blessing.

There is some confusion about this correspondence. Would it not be in the interests of the right hon. Gentleman, in order to clear up the confusion, that the correspondence should be published? Since it has been asked for, those who have asked for it must, of course, accept the responsibility, which we do.

I still think it is most undesirable to start a precedent of publishing confidential correspondence between a Government Department and the board of a nationalised industry. It would be bound to impair the frankness and freedom with which they exchange views and advice on these questions, and it is only for that reason that I resist this request.

What the right hon. Gentleman has just said is quite proper. We agree that confidential correspondence should ordinarily not be published, but if he gains the consent of Mr. Hardie to the publication of the correspondence, would he not then agree to disclose it?

I have consulted the Corporation about it and they are strongly opposed to the publication of this correspondence.

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the right hon. Gentleman's reply, I beg to give notice that I will raise this matter at the earliest possible opportunity.