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Ministry Of Materials (Dissolution)

Volume 530: debated on Thursday 15 July 1954

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I will, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement about the Ministry of Materials.

On a point of order. I have just heard the Prime Minister make a statement to the effect that he has obtained your permission, Mr. Speaker, to make a statement to the House in connection with the Ministry of Materials. It is a custom and practice that any statements that are made with your permission are matters of urgency and public importance which are rightly given to the House as a matter of courtesy.

I wish to raise with you, and perhaps with the Prime Minister, the question whether the right hon. Gentleman is aware of the fact, and whether you, Sir, are aware of the fact, that quite frequently in recent weeks statements have been made, as is the case with this one, after the Press has been given a full report. In each of the mid-day papers today there is a full report of the statement which the Prime Minister has now asked permission to make.

Is it really in order, and will the Prime Minister give us an assurance that this was not an official leak? Or was it in fact inspired and sent out by this Department prior to the House of Commons having this statement made to it? Will you, Mr. Speaker, please try to safeguard the privileges of this House and see that statements are made here and not given first to the Press?

Further to that point of order. Could I then ask you, Mr. Speaker, what is the position about the rights of back benchers? We all know that statements are made with your permission, and the time is taken out of the normal debating time which back benchers have. If Ministers are allowed to make statements on matters which they have already given to the Press, and which have been widely publicised, and make these statements at the expense of back benchers' time, surely that is depriving back benchers of their debating time?

I have not read the statement in the Press; I know nothing about it and it is not a matter for me in any way, unless the hon. Member is raising a point of Privilege, which I cannot conceive. A statement is about to be made by the Prime Minister. It seemed to me to be a proper statement for a Minister to make. As for the consumption of time in his doing so, there are more ways of consuming time than one.

You, Sir, have just said, "unless the hon. Member is raising a point of Privilege." I understand that all matters of Privilege must be raised immediately, so I give notice that I shall raise with you the fact that notice of this matter was given in the Press today, in order that I may raise it at the earliest opportunity when the Prime Minister makes his statement.

I know nothing about any disclosure which has been made or that has leaked out to the Press. I have not heard anything about it until this moment, but I will have an inquiry made. I certainly wanted to have the whole opportunity and the advantage of surprise in making this statement myself. I should have felt very much disturbed if I had gathered that there was any proposal to leak it out to the Press. The Press are very active and there is no doubt that they do find things out and from time to time they make their information public. Now, perhaps, with your permission, Mr. Speaker—and with the permission of the hon. Gentleman—I can make this statement.

A draft Order in Council dissolving the Ministry of Materials and transferring its remaining functions to the Board of Trade from 16th August has been laid before both Houses of Parliament today.

This step has been made possible and desirable by the progress which my noble friend, Lord Woolton, the Minister of Materials, and his predecessors have made in bringing to an end public trading in industrial raw materials. Within the space of the last 18 months or so, the trade in lead, zinc, aluminium, copper, magnesium, hemp, sulphur, pyrites, tungsten, raw jute and cotton has been restored to private hands—

and the restoration of the timber trade has been completed. To dismantle these large and diverse trading structures and dispose of the terminal stocks has been a formidable operation, but by the end of this financial year the great bulk of these disposals will have been effected at fair market prices and without so far any serious disturbance to trade. Nearly 1.400,000 tons of the above materials—excluding cotton—to a sales value of about £125 million will have been disposed of, including the transfer to reserves of substantial quantities of vital strategic metals.

The absorption of the Ministry of Materials by the Board of Trade will, of course, result in economies in administration, as reorganisation becomes effective. But the functions to be transferred, although not extensive enough to justify any longer a separate Department, are of great importance—for example, the management and custody of the immensely valuable strategic stockpiles of materials—and care will be taken to provide the staff needed for the efficient discharge of these responsibilities.

This achievement is creditable to all concerned and fully justifies the time and care required in winding up the Ministry.

The House will be obliged to the Prime Minister for promising to inquire into the extraordinary leakage of this information, which appears in all three evening newspapers. When he has come to a conclusion as to which Minister or Ministers were responsible for this leakage, will the right hon. Gentleman be good enough to inform the House, because it really is discourteous to the House that when a statement is made it has already appeared in the public Press'? I am not blaming the journalists—their business is to get news; the Prime Minister's business is to prevent Ministers from blabbing.

If my inquiries elicit any noteworthy result, I will certainly share my information with the House.

May I ask the Prime Minister whether he appreciates the great joy with which his statement will be received on this side of the House and by the whole of British industry? May I ask my right hon. Friend whether he will continue this policy and bring to an end at the earliest possible moment the two major raw material restrictions which remain, namely, the grave restriction upon newsprint and the restriction upon, and Government control of, the import of manufactured jute goods, which is of special importance to branches of the textile industry?

I am very glad to hear of my hon. Friend's joy, and I shall be very glad if any further information which comes to my notice adds to it.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, who has a past knowledge of the jute industry, to be careful indeed before he follows the advice of his hon. Friend, because the control of jute goods coming into this country protects the whole welfare of the City of Dundee, which the right hon. Gentleman once represented.

I must bear in mind the plea of the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Lewis) against consuming the time available to back benchers. This statement will necessitate the laying of a draft Order in Council upon which further discussions may be held more properly than at this moment.

May I ask your permission, Mr. Speaker, to thank the Prime Minister for his kindness in agreeing to have an investigation, and to tell him that I could not inform him that I was proposing to raise this matter because I had not been previously informed—as had the Press—that he was making this statement?