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Ministry Of Materials (Transfer Of Functions)

Volume 531: debated on Monday 26 July 1954

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9.44 p.m.

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Transfer of Functions (Ministry of Materials) Order, 1954, be made in the form of the Draft laid before this House on 15th July.
It is just over a year ago that I moved a Motion, somewhat similar to this, involving the Ministry of National Insurance and the Ministry of Pensions. This time the Motion is to absorb the Ministry of Materials into the Board of Trade, and all the Order does, by Article 2, is to dissolve the Ministry and transfer its remaining functions to the Board of Trade.

The circumstances of today are very different from those of 1951, when the Ministry was established and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) took charge of it. There was then the Korean War, the accelerated rearmament programme and the stockpiling which was put in hand. Those factors indicated at that time that there might be a shortage of raw materials for many years to come and, no doubt, that was what influenced our predecessors in setting up the Ministry.

Actually, the period of stringency was much shorter than anybody had foreseen. In fact, by the middle of last year it was possible to discuss winding up the International Materials Conference which was an essential part of this organisation. So the need for this Department has rapidly diminished, quite apart from the fact that it is our policy, as a Government, to dismantle controls and to end public trading in raw materials. The conjunction of those two factors makes this Order possible tonight.

The bulk of this public trading in raw materials will have been completed by the end of this financial year. Indeed, it is already far advanced and, if I may give one figure, it is anticipated that by the end of this financial year about £1,400,000 of terminal stocks will have been disposed of, to a sales value of about £125 million at fair market prices without any serious disturbance to trade. Great skill has been shown in timing these disposals, and as we part with this Ministry we should congratulate those who have been so efficient in this disposal work.

The staff of the Ministry has already very largely been reduced. From the maximum figure of 1,850 which it reached it was down to 800 at the beginning of this month. The result is that the work which now remains to be done, though important, does not really justify the whole apparatus of a separate Department—that is to say, the higher management, the Minister, the separate branches dealing with finances, with establishment and with central services. Therefore, if the House passes this Order that Ministry will be dissolved.

The question is to whom should the remaining functions go, the remaining functions being what still remain of State trading and its disposal, the disposal of the remaining trading stocks, the stockpile policy and general work about commodities. That being what is left to do, the answer, I am sure, is quite obvious to all hon. Members, and that is that it is quite natural for the Board of Trade to take over those remaining functions. It all fits in, and it is a very neat solution.

There will not be any immediate spectacular staff reduction, of course, but comparatively soon one can anticipate at least a 10 per cent. further reduction, about 80 being dispensed with—perhaps £45,000 or £55,000 off the expenditure— and the fact that the remaining staff will go over to the Board of Trade will not, I think, be distasteful to them, because when the Ministry was originally set up about 80 per cent, of its staff came from the Board of Trade, so they are really going back home.

The Board of Trade is a large Department, but its general work is such that it can take on this additional burden quite easily. Perhaps I might point out that the Board of Trade's staff itself has been very considerably reduced. In fact, the figure is 20 per cent. since we took office. So we have got the big reductions already in the Ministry of Materials staff, and we have the reductions in the Board of Trade's staff, though now with this change-over, the Board of Trade staff will increase very considerably. I think the whole House will probably agree that this is the tidy solution to this problem, and will accept it—at least, I hope so.

I do not think I need explain the Order, because it is common form. Article 2 is the effective one, transferring the functions to the Board of Trade, and Article 3 is the routine Article dealing with a number of subsidiary matters. I hope that the House will agree that this is a wise step to take. If it approves the Order it will mean that one more of the large number of Departments which now exist in the Administration will be brought to a triumphant conclusion.

9.51 p.m.

In presenting this Order the Lord Privy Seal stated that the result of abolishing the Ministry of Materials would not lead to any spectacular reductions in staff, any more than it had led to an increase in staff, globally, when the Ministry was formed in 1951 and I was appointed Minister of Materials.

If the right hon. Gentleman means that it may drip away, that is what we all hope for, as long as it does so very quickly. I am referring to the Government, of course. Perhaps I misinterpreted the right hon. Gentleman to that extent. In that case, it must be hope deferred.

When I introduced the Bill setting up the Ministry in 1951, I never for one moment suggested that it would lead to any reduction in staff. All I said was that I hoped it would not lead to any increase, and I do not think I am overstating the position when I say that we succeeded in forming a Ministry without any substantial increase in the number of civil servants employed.

The right hon. Gentleman also said that the staff is now going back to the Board of Trade. My own view, as an industrialist, is that the Board of Trade is already far too large. The whole organisation is far too complicated. I have not yet seen a Minister—I have not been appointed myself; of course, I should then recognise him—who was capable of conducting the Board of Trade. I do not think it is humanly possible. At this moment, to say, "This Ministry is no longer necessary; we will wind it up and give back the staff to the Board of Trade," is small comfort to those of us who are interested in seeing a more efficient handling of our trading conditions.

I did not detect anything which was said by the Lord Privy Seal to be a criticism of the action of my right hon. Friend the then Prime Minister in deciding to form the Ministry of Materials, with the possible exception that he might have criticised my appointment. The fact is that we were then faced with very acute shortages. The Board of Trade was very much overburdened, and I think it was right to change over then, so that somebody, at a time when raw materials were short, prices were high, the scarcity was likely to become more rather than less acute, and the danger of war was far more intense than it is today—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—through no fault of any Government of this country, could give his mind to the vitally important matter of focusing attention upon the supply of essential raw materials, the greater proportion of which—I was going to say 90 per cent., but that may not be the right figure; it includes everything but coal and iron ore—comes from outside the country, when demands upon our industrial machine were becoming ever greater.

I agree that times have changed—thank Heaven. If the hon. and gallant Member for Knutsford (Lieut.-Colonel Bromley-Davenport) will think about it before putting his "swede" on the "downy" tonight—the hon. and gallant Gentleman is a friend of mine and will understand the implication—he will have to accept the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has done a bunk, probably because he was afraid of what I was going to say, had it handed to him on a platter.

At the time when, to the disadvantage of this country, the Labour Pary lost office, in 1951, prices were high and materials scarce. One of the things that has happened is that the price of materials all over the world have dropped and supplies correspondingly have become more plentiful. That is not as a result of the wizardry with which the Chancellor is now credited. It is not the result of his great intelligence. I accept that he is a very intelligent and capable Chancellor. I accept all that, but, goodness gracious, he did not know for certain this was going to happen, any more than I did.

I did not know, because I am not the Almighty. No one knew these prices would drop and that materials would become more plentiful as and when they have. All the nonsense that politicians talk—[Interruption.] Hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite are now the Government, and I know that hon. Gentlemen opposite applaud the nonsense the Government talk. However, the Chancellor could not possibly have foreseen that prices would drop and that materials would become plentiful. If hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite take the trouble to study those minutes of evidence that are available to them behind the scenes they will find that my right hon. Friend who was President of the Board of Trade and I were practically entirely right in our anticipation of what was likely to happen.

However, leaving that aside, because there is no use boasting about this, if the Government insist on pursuing the charge of the Gadarene swine down the unstoppable slope towards a return to private enterprise everywhere, this is not the time for me to attempt to stop them. Nor do I wish to do so. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] Not for the reason that hon. Gentlemen think. I know that the intended sneer is that I am a great supporter of private enterprise. Well, I am, within reason. I am frank about it. I am, within reason; but I am wholeheartedly in favour of the restriction and control of private enterprise where it interferes with the welfare of the people as a whole. [HON. MEMBERS: "Even of the right hon. Gentleman's own business."] Hon. Gentlemen can have all I have got if that should be for the general welfare. If right hon. Gentlemen opposite and their supporters are prepared, as I suppose they are prepared, to career down this non-stop slippery slope, the sooner they get there the better, as far as I am concerned.

On a point of order. I consulted you, Mr. Speaker, before this debate took place, about the scope of the debate, and you informed me, very kindly, that this scope was exceedingly narrow, merely the administrative act of transfer of the remaining functions of the Ministry of Materials to the Board of Trade. In those circumstances, if the right hon. Gentleman's speech, ranging over the whole of the economic implications of raw material supplies, is in order, will it not be in order to discuss jute and newsprint?

The answer shortly to the hon. Member is in the negative. As I understood it, the right hon. Gentleman was arguing that materials are more plentiful nowadays than they were when the Ministry of Materials was instituted. That struck me as relevant to the Order, but further digression into wider questions of economics would be out of order on this little Order before us.

You have kindly ruled, Mr. Speaker, that the right hon. Gentleman's argument is that materials are more plentiful. May I say, with great respect, that that was precisely my argument to you—that newsprint and jute are more plentiful—and is it not, therefore, in order for me to speak on these matters?

That would be going far too far. The existing controls are merely transferred by this Order. This Order does not in itself affect the existence of the controls, nor does it bring in the discussion of materials which are now affected by the controls. Therefore, these two branches of the discussion are out of order. The general argument that the Ministry of Materials was properly set up at one time and is now being properly abolished is, I think, germane.

I am obliged to you, Mr. Speaker, for that Ruling, and I will endeavour not to stray. I said that I would endeavour. If you, Mr. Speaker, would like an assurance, I will undertake not to digress from the economic problem into the panacea of the taxation and rating of site values tonight.

One always likes to remind the House of what one said before. What I said on 27th June, 1951, when talking on this question of the formation of the Ministry of Materials, in concluding a speech on which I had better not comment, was this:
"There is no permanent cure for the Communist menace by force. There is no such way out, although we may deter it for the time being. The long-term cure is the steady improvement in the standard of living of the masses of the people everywhere. That surely means better use, better availability and better distribution of essential raw materials."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th June, 1951; Vol. 489, c. 1411–12.]
That is the note on which I want to conclude my remarks tonight. What I want to learn from the Lord Privy Seal, if he can get permission from the House to speak again, or from some other Minister, is this: What is their intended policy with regard to the long-term problem? We know perfectly well that there is no cure for this long-term problem except by increased supply of capital goods everywhere, and we know—

On a point of order. The right hon. Gentleman is now referring to the long-term problem and policy for raw materials. That is exactly what I am anxious to refer to. You have ruled me out of order, Mr. Speaker. Why is it in order for the right hon. Gentleman to discuss that?

I should like to call attention to the fact that this Order does not really affect the long-term policy of the Government with regard to materials. It merely changes over the control of these materials from one Department to another. The Order itself mentions no change of policy, and, indeed, there is no policy in the Order at all; there is merely machinery and nothing else.

The machinery was organised in my day for the purpose of focusing attention on the essential problem of supplying raw materials for all needs the world over. I do not want to go into foreign affairs at all, but I want to know what the Lord Privy Seal intends, and who is to be responsible for seeing to it that what we regarded—and surely I am entitled to argue this when the Ministry is being dissolved—as an essential point when the Ministry was formed, namely, that not only should it look after the short and long-term needs of materials supplied to this country—taking them out of the Board of Trade because we thought that the Board of Trade had too much to do—but also that it should pay attention and prod, prick and poke the various Departments responsible for development in the Commonwealth Relations Office and the local office into making greater efforts to produce more. That surely is germane to this discussion. While I do not want to argue on quantities and values, I do want to know what the Lord Privy Seal is proposing shall take the place of this Ministry which, until today, was focused, but was not focused as it ought to have been, on the essential problem of ensuring that these raw materials within the Commonwealth are sufficiently supplied to enable us to meet the requirements of the backward nations.

I want specially to emphasise that in his considerations the Lord Privy Seal should leave out the humbug of finance in replying to me, as I hope he will. It does not look as if he had any intention whatever of getting on to his feet again, but I seriously ask this question. I had the matter particularly at heart when I was Minister, and it led to the meeting of the Commonwealth Ministers to discuss the problem. Who is now to be responsible? Is it to be the President of the Board of Trade?

We took it away from the President of the Board of Trade because we thought that the Board of Trade had too much to do. Now the Government are giving it back because the Department has too little to do. My experience of the Board of Trade is that it already does a great deal too much and my suspicion is that this essential work will go by default. I should like to hear from the Lord Privy Seal that there really is something in the mind of the Government to deal with the matter.

The second point about which I should like to hear something, if the right hon. Gentleman will be good enough to inform me, is what is to be done about the very important question of the international share-out of raw materials. It is no use thinking that because there is a plentiful supply at cheap prices at present that state of affairs will continue indefinitely. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take the trouble to read the Paley Report. I do not suppose that he has read it, and I doubt very much whether anybody on the Government Front Bench have, either. It is a most portentious Report, and anybody interested in the supply of raw materials should give time for it. By these remarks, I do not mean to suggest that the officers in the Board of Trade have not read it.

The Paley Report states that by 1975 there will be a 15 per cent. overall shortage of the essential raw materials judged on the basis of today's progressive increase in demand. That statement has not been altered by anything which has happened since the Labour Government left office. Who is to attend to that matter? This is really important. I am not playing politics about whether the Board of Trade or the Ministry of Materials should do it; but at the time I had something to do with it. My tenure of office was unfortunately interrupted by my sortie to try to assuage the ambitions of Dr. Mossadeq, and that interfered with my progress at the Ministry of Materials, after which there was a General Election.

However, I conceived the main importance of my job to be the solving of the long-term problem—not merely the international materials conference problem, and so on, but the long-term problem of this comprehensive survey, introduced as a result of the initiative of President Truman which showed that there would be a 15 per cent. overall shortage in 1975. The job was to deal with that problem and to decide how that shortage was to be met. As far as I have observed, nothing whatever has been done in the Commonwealth or in the Colonies to attempt to put this right. There are enormous resources which ought to be developed which, while they could not primarily be the responsibility of the Minister of Materials—

Before you resumed the Chair, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, it was ruled by your predecessor that questions affecting the availability of raw materials and the method of procurement did not come within the provisions of the Order. As the whole of the right hon. Gentleman's speech has become a dissertation on the availability of raw materials, can it possibly be in order?

If the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) had given me a moment I was just about to stop the right hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes).

With great respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, the Order deals with the transfer of the Ministry of Materials to the Board of Trade. The reason why the control of materials was taken away from the President of the Board of Trade was not because he was incompetent. He was highly respectable, very intelligent ex-Law Officer of the Crown when I was given the job. There was nothing incompetent about him, but it was a case of overloading the camel. My right hon. Friend will forgive me for calling him that, but you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, will understand what I mean.

What I am trying to say to the House is not that I insist that the Government should drop this Motion. No, what I am asking for is some indication to us of an assurance that provision will be made whereby these very essential requirements, which we had so much at heart when we formed the Ministry of Materials at the time when the Board of Trade was equally overloaded as it is today, will be properly and efficiently carried out. I could go off into a discussion of foreign affairs, but you would not allow me.

I think the right hon. Member could argue that one more straw would break the camel's back.

Without pursuing the exact description of my late right hon. Friend—which of course does not apply at all—with great respect to the hon. Member for Kidderminster, I want to hear what Her Majesty's Government are to do about seeing that the right developments take lace, not only in the Commonwealth and Colonies, but that the share out at an international level is done on a proper basis to ensure that we do not have frightful waves and slumps which upset the whole economic structure of the world, but that some Minister of the Crown shall be definitely responsible and have his mind focused on the question so that these things can be ironed out and fair shares given to all the nations in order to overcome the Communist menace.

I am sure the right hon. Member does not wish to mislead the House, but he said that the only raw materials in this country are coal and iron ore. I hope he will not forget tin in Cornwall.

I must really answer that because I was brought up in Cornwall. The tin miners of Cornwall know my concern about their position. Had it been in order, I would have asked the Lord Privy Seal what on earth the Government will do to encourage the tin miners, because they have done nothing yet.

10.14 p.m.

I hope that I shall have 10 per cent. of the licence which the right hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) has taken on this Order so that I can make one or two remarks. I view this Order with some mixed feelings. I am always glad when action is taken by my right hon. Friends to reduce Government Departments and, however small the gain may be—here, it is small—to reduce the population of the Civil Service.

I did not like one phrase the Lord Privy Seal used after referring to the small reduction, that the remainder would be going home to the Board of Trade. Some of us would be happier if they were going home to industry instead. I am a little perplexed because, under the Order, the Ministry of Materials is being dissolved and the functions of the Ministry are being transferred to the Board of Trade. The right hon. Member for Ipswich spent a lot of time talking about things which, in addition, he would like transferred to the Board of Trade. I think that opposite to that view from this side of the House is the feeling that some things, such as newsprint—of which we are short and of which the Government are holding up supplies by these regulations—should be transferred and go "into the dustbin" so to speak.

I gather that I cannot continue very far in that direction. I do notice, however in the Order, in Article 3 (2) it is stated:
"Anything in process of being done by or in relation to the Minister of Materials at the time of the coming into operation of this Order…may be continued by or in relation to the Board of Trade."
I do feel, in view of that, that we are entitled to ask, as I do ask, my right hon. Friend or whoever is to reply to the debate, what precisely those functions are. Is there anything in those functions that gives any hope, for instance, that some of the restrictions on newsprint and jute can be reduced? I mention that because those are the two functions to which my right hon. Friend referred when he said that the question was to whom the remaining functions were to be passed. I do not wish to pursue that line—

Anything in process of being done is transferred to the Board of Trade. Are we not entitled to ask what process is going on, and what is being transferred, and not have to accept the Order without the slightest knowledge of what is being transferred. That is what is honestly and legitimately concerning some of us here tonight.

I do not think we can discuss that. It is simply transferred from one Department to another.

I accept your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I only want guidance.

It seems to me extraordinary that the Government can come to this House and get an affirmative Resolution, as this is, to transfer various functions, etc., from one Ministry to another, and we are not allowed to discuss, or literally to know, what these precise functions are.

On a point of order. In Article 2 of this Order the words appear:

"The Ministry of Materials is hereby dissolved and the functions of the Minister of Materials are hereby transferred to the Board of Trade."
What my hon. Friend and I are anxious to know is why it is out of order for us to argue against the transfer of those functions.

I did not say that that was out of order. In fact, I said that the argument that one more straw might break the camel's back was in order.

Am I to conclude from what you said, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that it is in order to argue against the transfer of certain specific functions?

I do not know whether my hon. Friend is clear on that point. I am not, because I should have thought that we could, on what you have just ruled, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, argue that these functions should not be transferred in order to draw attention to the fact that we do not consider that those func- tions, particularly in regard to newsprint, should be carried on, that it is about time they were all scrapped. If we can have an indication tonight that it is the intention of the Government to scrap those regulations and functions so far as these forbidden subjects are concerned, I should feel very much happier than I am in supporting the Government tonight.

On a point of order. Before we go any further, do you not think it would be wise, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, if you defined what is actually in order to discuss on this Order for the benefit of those of us who wish to contribute to the discussion?

No. I think it sufficient if I tell hon. Members when they are out of order.

10.20 p.m.

We have here an Order which transfers certain functions from one Ministry to another. I submit that it is a transfer of particularly vital importance to this country. I do not wish to get out of order too soon—I know I shall do so sooner or later—but we have listened to a debate in which the importance of the technical knowledge of this country was stressed. This will entail the provision of the raw materials necessary to further the country's interests. What some of us are anxious to find out is why this Order is necessary and what advantages will be gained if it is carried. All we are told, in effect, by the Lord Privy Seal is that a few civil servants may be dismissed or found other appointments.

When this Order is put into force will the country's technical interests be safeguarded? I am not concerned about jute, newsprint, carpets, or anything else, but only with the general overall needs of the nation. I could talk in detail—I should be out of order in doing so—about things that were easily accessible to this country before, but, as the international situation develops, will become more difficult to acquire. We should be told what advantages will accrue to us if this Order is carried tonight.

10.21 p.m.

I will not keep the House more than a few minutes, but I wish to make one observation and to ask two questions of my right hon. Friend. I agree with the right hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) that the Board of Trade is far too big a Department for one man to control, and it appears to me that we are adding a burden to an already over-burdened Department. I differ from the right hon. Gentleman in that I think the Board of Trade is doing far too many jobs, and that it would be better for that Department and for industry as whole if many of its present functions were removed.

I think my right hon. Friend said that there will be a reduction in staff of about 10 per cent. as a result of this Order, and that 90 per cent. of the staff would be "going home." Afterwards, my right hon. Friend said that that, of course, did not make much difference, because 80 per cent. were originally from the Board of Trade and would be going back there. I wish to ask why the extra 10 per cent. is required in the Board of Trade to carry on fewer functions than existed before the Ministry of Materials was set up? My right hon. Friend said that there would be a reduction of only 10 per cent. and that 90 per cent. would be going back to the Board of Trade—[HON. MEMBERS: "Immediately."]—I thought my right hon. Friend said on a long-term basis.

Before this Order can become operative, about £125 million worth of stocks are being sold, so that the functions to be transferred to the Board of Trade may be lightened. It was said earlier that the total losses of the Department had been roughly, £55 million. It was also said earlier that when the right hon. Member for Ipswich was responsible for this Department which is now about to die, it was making considerable profits. I wish to ask, if it is in order, what were the total profits made when prices were rising and the Department was charging industry more than current prices—

Order. I do not think that that point arises. This is only a transfer. Whether there were losses or profits, they have to be transferred.

All I am asking for is information. I think it important that we should know and all I ask is that before the functions are transferred from one Department to another—

Order. I did not say that it was not important. I said that it did not arise on this Order.

In considering whether the functions shall be transferred from one Department to another, it is important to know the amount of profits and losses which have been accruing. I should have thought that we were entitled to ask for that information, but if it is out of order I shall resume my seat.

10.25 p.m.

As I happen to represent one of the functions being transferred, namely, newsprint, I wish to say a word—which I hope will not be out of order—of valediction to the Ministry which is about to disappear. We have been in the hands, first, of the Ministry of Supply, then of the Board of Trade, and, for the last three or four years, of the Ministry of Materials —in fact, throughout the whole life of that Ministry.

I think it would be ungracious if someone did not say a word of thanks for the courtesy with which we have been treated over the many problems with which we have had to grapple in conjunction with the Ministry.

Yes.

We have had discussions with successive Ministers. There is only one with whom I cannot recall having had an official meeting, and that was the first Minister, the right hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes). It was only by an unfortunate accident that we did not have the meeting. My chairman and vice-chairman and I went to the new Ministry one day. It was before the vast new building in Horseguards Avenue was fully organised. We were shown into a waiting room upstairs, where we remained for some time, and we might have remained there still if we had not got back to the methods of private enterprise to find out why we were still there and that we were lost and to make our way out. I do not blame the Minister for that happening. However, changes occurred—my hon. Friends and I must regard them as fortunate changes—which deprived us of the opportunity of a return engagement.

In the difficult problems which we have had to face we have been treated with uniform courtesy and efficiency by the successive Ministers and by the civil servants. Like the civil servants, in the words of my right hon. Friend, we are now going home to the Board of Trade, but not, we hope to spend a long time there. Although it would be out of order for me to say anything on the subject, we hope that our stay with the Board of Trade will be brief and that we shall once again soon be able to set up house for ourselves and manage our own affairs.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Transfer of Functions (Ministry of Materials) Order, 1954, be made in the form of the Draft laid before this House on 15th July.

To be presented by Privy Councillors or Members of Her Majesty's Household.