Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a sum, not exceeding £597,203, be granted to His Majesty to complete the um necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1920, for the. Salaries and Expenses of the Ministry of Shipping."— (Note.—£900,000 has been voted on account.)
I am fully aware, in submitting the Estimates for the Ministry of Shipping, that one of the main subjects interesting hon. Members in this House, is the question of the disposal of the national yards, and I will undertake to deal with that question in detail before I sit down. Before doing so, I think the Committee will wish me to say a word or two on two points, first, about the Estimates themselves, and, secondly, about the work of the Ministry during the past year and the work the Ministry has now undertaken. These Estimates now submitted to this Committee are unique, at any rate, in two aspects. In the first place, they are the first full Estimates that have ever been presented to Parliament for a Ministry of Shipping, and they arc unique in the other aspect that, in all probability, they will be the last. It is impossible, naturally, to make any comparison with the Estimates of the two previous years during which the Ministry has been in existence, for those Estimates have been Token Votes only. But I should just like to give the figures to the Committee in order hat they can compare them. The actual expenditure for the year 1917–18 was £195,000,000, from which has to be deducted £84,000,000 of receipts, giving a net expenditure of £111,000,000. For 1918–19, the gross expenditure was £279,000,000, and receipts £1177,000,000, giving a net expenditure of £102,000,000. The estimated expenditure for this year, 1919–20, is £85,500,000, from which can be deducted Appropriations-in-Aid, £84,000,000, giving a net estimated expenditure of £1,500,000, or, to be strictly accurate, as will be seen by the White Paper, the Ministry is asking for the assent of Parliament to expenditure in 1919–20 of £1,496,203. The Committee will understand that it has been extremely difficult to frame Estimates for this year, having regard to the gradual winding up of the activities of the Ministry, and I would ask the Committee to realise that in many items the estimated sums are only conjectural largely, but "I venture to express the confident hope that the Estimates will not be exceeded in the total amount.
I turn to the work of the Ministry during the past year, and I naturally can only hope to deal with this question very inadequately, for the work that has been done by the Ministry of Shipping has been infinite in its variety, and the activities of the Ministry have, from the very nature of its duties, been spread over every part of the globe. The Committee will remember that, during 1917, the whole of the British Mercantile tonnage was brought under control, and a large amount of neutral tonnage, at first kept idle by the intensified submarine warfare, was gradually brought back into service. The problem which faced the Ministry in 1918 was how to get the best work out of that diminished and over-diminishing tonnage. Just before the War, the British sea-going tonnage— when I say British, I mean the United Kingdom and Colonial tonnage, and I am only alluding to steamships over 500 tons gross—was 18½ million tons. On the 1st January, 1917, it was 17¾ million tons— that is to say, three-quarters of a million tons less—but between the 1st January, 1917, and the 1st January, 1918, there was a loss, counting all construction and all purchases, of 2⅛ million tons—that is to say, the total British tonnage on 1st January, 1918, was only 15¼ million tons, and at the time of the Armistice it was just over 15 million tons. That is not all, because, in addition to the losses, there were very heavy damages from war and marine causes and other causes, and, while on 1st January, 1917, there were only 100,000 tons under repair, on the 1st January, 1918, there were no less than 1,000,000 tons under repair at one time. The Committee will realise that it was with this depleted tonnage the Ministry had to do a large amount of extra work. The tonnage which was employed on military services alone during 1918—that is, with regard to troops and stores—was no less than 1,850,000 tons, while for naval services the tonnage required for Fleet Auxiliaries, for armed merchant cruisers, for colliers, etc., was no less than 2,000,000 tons, although every economy was made and the armed merchant cruisers were used very largely for carrying cargo in the North Atlantic trade. The greatest strain came on the Ministry undoubtedly during the German offensive in March, 1918, when it was necessary to dispatch. all possible reinforcements to France. This in itself was not a very serious call on our cross-Channel service, and was successfully carried out, but, at the same time, the Government ordered the largest possible number of American troops to be brought across the Atlantic. We had at that period started to concentrate in the North Atlantic in view of the urgent necessity to bring cargoes from the nearest sources. It was found necessary to use -every available ship suitable for the conveyance of troops, and between 31st March and 31st August we had put into that route no less than 124 extra ships. If I refer to the services which the British Mercantile Marine has rendered to the Allies, I do so in order that they may realise the many calls upon our depleted tonnage, and I feel certain our Allies themselves would be the first to recognise and realise the great service the British Mercantile Marine rendered them during the War. I should like to point out that during this time, after the March offensive, we carried in British ships an average of nearly 140,000 American troops per month to Europe—that is to say, to the United Kingdom and to France; 10,000 were carried in Italian ships placed at the disposal of the British Government. The total number of American troops carried in British ships up to the time of the Armistice was over. a million. In the early autumn the numbers fell off, and it was possible to restore to their trades the ships not suitable for the North Atlantic work in winter. That process has been continued since the Armistice.
I should like to point out to the Committee the measure of sacrifice which this involved of United Kingdom tonnage. The net effect was a loss of nearly 300,000 tons of United Kingdom imports per month, or over 2,000,000 tons during the period in which the transports sailed. During 1918, France had the equivalent of over 1,000,000 tons gross of British shipping in her service. We carried, in British bottoms, no less than 43 per cent. of the total imports into France and 45 per cent. of the import of coal for France in British ships. We carried for France more than one-half of the cereals for human consumption in British ships in the cereal year ending 31st August, 1918. As regards Italy, she had the equivalent of three-quarters of a million gross of British shipping in her service. We carried 49 per cent. of her total imports in British ships; 79 per cent of the coal for Italy was also carried in British ships. Nine hundred and sixty thousand tons of cereals out of a total of 2,700,000 tons, roughly one-third, was carried in British ships. Apart from that, Italy and France both had the benefit of coaling at bunkering stations abroad supplied by the British. I do not wish to use too many figures, I am afraid they weary the Committee, but it is necessary in the Ministry of Shipping to do so. I should like to say a word or two in reference to the amount of military work which has been done during the past year, or rather in the periods before and since the formation of the Ministry. In the first period 7,700,000 effective troops were carried. The British stores for that period amounted to 11½ million tons, and the Allied stores 1,600,000 tons. Since 1st January, 1917, practically the date on which the Ministry was formed, the figures arc 13,000,000 effective troops, 35,000,000 tons of British stores and 4,000,000 tons of Allied stores. These troops are exclusive of non-effectives, refugees, and prisoners of war.
Yes, they include the Americans. The effect of this might naturally be expected to be very serious on the cargoes carried to the United Kingdom. Before the War the amount of tonnage in the service of the United Kingdom for imports was 12,000,000 tons, and the total imports by British ships in 1913 were 35,000,000 tons. In 1917 the available tonnage for import work was only 7½ million tons. Yet we managed to carry 31,000,000 tons of imports to this country. In 1918, when our tonnage available for import work was only 6½ million tons, we still managed to bring into this country in British ships no less than 30,000,000 tons of imports. We only secured these results by the allocation of tonnage to the most suitable services, by improved loading, quicker turn-round, and the concentration of shipping on shorter routes. I would just turn for a moment to the work which has been done by the Ministry of Shipping since the Armistice —the policy which the Ministry of Shipping has carried out, and is still carrying out. Since the Armistice the Ministry has had a very difficult job. The general policy of my right hon. Friend has been, and still is, to release shipping from control at the earliest possible moment. It is necessary, however, first to attend to the question of demobilisation and repatriation. I am glad to say that the repatriation of the Dominion troops is proceeding very satisfactorily. In spite of an unfortunate strike of ship repairers, which delayed the work for over two months, we hope, by 31st May, to have moved about 324,000, or nearly two-thirds of the total available for repatriation, and by the end of July we hope that all the Australians, Canadians, and New Zealanders who are available for repatriation will have been returned, or will at any rate have left these shores. By the end of April about 1,000,000 British troops had been transported from France to the United Kingdom for demobilisation, and over 800,000 had been brought home on leave and sent back. Three hundred and sixty-six thousand United Kingdom and Dominion troops have been moved homeward from overseas, and 120,000 United States troops have been taken back to America. We have also had to face the problem of the repatriation of our prisoners of war. I am glad to say we have been able to meet all the demands made. By the end of January we had repatriated no less than 160,000 prisoners of war from Germany, and all that it was necessary, so far, to bring back from Turkey.
On the question of the release from requisition generally, the policy that has been pursued is to return tonnage as soon as possible to the old shipping routes from which, by reason of the War and national emergencies, it has been withdrawn. We immediately took steps to do this. In November and December we returned no less than 400,000 tons of shipping to the Australian, Eastern, and Indian trades. These movements became effective by the end of January. In regard to the release of' liner and tramp tonnage, full statements have been published from time-to time. The ships are being freed as-rapidly as possible. It has been necessary, however, in order to safeguard essential imports and exports, to maintain for the time being a system of direction as to employment and a limitation of freight rates. Up to 1st May we had released 638 transports of 2,250,000 tons gross. There are still on naval and military service seventy vessels of 230,000 tons as compared with 256, and just under 1,000,000 tons, at the end of November. A large number—266, or just over 1,000,000 tons—was still engaged in commercial and Allied services.
Can the hon. and gallant Gentleman tell us what the total number of mercantile vessels was at the date of the Armistice, and what had been released for the ordinary commercial services?
I cannot actually give that number, but it can be calculated out before the end of the Debate. I have now to come to the disposal of some of the Government property under the Ministry. There is the sale of ships. The Committee are aware that one of the activities of the Ministry was the construction of standard ships, of which 240 have been completed— that is, up to 6th May—with a gross tonnage of just over 1,000,000. The Ministry was also responsible for ordering ships abroad in Japan, the United States, and Canada. The ships ordered in the United. States were almost entirely taken over by the United States Government. At the time of the Armistice the Ministry had on service 283 Government ships, of which 147 were standard ships of about 1,800,000 tons dead weight. There were building, or on order, 595 ships of about 3,800,000 tons dead weight. It was decided by the Government, after the Armistice, that the Government ships should be sold and orders cancelled where the ships had not been started. That policy is now being carried out. One hundred and fifty-nine ships, of over 1,000,000 tons dead weight, were taken over by the builders or cancelled, and under the agreement with Lord Inchcape, on behalf of the British shipping industry, 249 contracts for 1,700,000 tons dead. weight were taken over for distribution—I would remind the Committee without any profit to Lord Inchcape—to those British owners who desired them, in proportion to their losses.
I used the word "contracts" taken over by Lord Inch-cape. There has been no loss and gain to the Government. Further, sixty-eight ships have been sold to British owners and fifty-seven to foreign owners. Further sales to French and Italian owners are in progress under agreements we have with these Allies. It has been the practice of the Ministry usually to sell the second-hand ships by auction, but the standard ships are sold by private treaty, which is really the only way in which to secure a fair price.
Now for some figures as to the amount which has been received by the Ministry for these chips which have been sold. For the 125—that is, the sixty-eight and the fifty-seven I have already alluded to—which have been sold, the sale price has been £19,600,000, and the cost price to the Ministry has been £16,500,000, showing a considerable profit to the Ministry, but the Ministry naturally sold in the market at the market price. Fourteen second-hand ships have been sold for £890,000, but I am afraid I have no cost price available.
I am only going to give two or three more figures, but I think it is very necessary to make a short statement as to the present world's tonnage position. Previous to the outbreak of war the world ocean steam tonnage over 500 tons gross was, approximately, 40,000,000, of which British owned was about 18,500,000. At the beginning of this year the world's tonnage was 36,500,000, of which British was 15,300,000 tons. During 1918 the gains exceeded the losses on the whole by 1,000,000 tons, but the British increased their tonnage only by 96,000 tons. That was mainly due to building by the United States of America, which was 2,000,000 tons. I would point out that the United States pre-war fleet was 1,700,000 tons, and her present fleet is 6,400,000. The British building during 1918 was, roughly, 1,500,000 tons. In the first four months of this year we have completed ships of 327,000 tons, which, roughly, will be 1,000,000 tons for the whole year. Undoubtedly this is not very satisfactory, but the reduced tonnage for the first four months must be put down very largely to the large number of ships which at the present moment are re-conditioning and undergoing general repairs, and there has been a certain amount of labour troubles in the yards.
Before I come to the national yards, I would like to say a word about the demobilisation of the Ministry. I would like the Committee to understand that no one is more anxious to demobilise the Ministry of Shipping and to decontrol all tonnage in the British Mercantile Marine than the Shipping Controller. He believes, and those who are associated with him believe, that we shall never return to normal trade, nor shall we return to normal freight rates, until all tonnage is free again. He has taken every possible step-he can in order to free as much tonnage and as soon as possible. There is, however, a certain amount of work still to be done. There is work to be done for the naval and military forces. There is a certain amount of work still to be done for the Allies and commitments for the Allies. There is the repatriation of the Colonial troops. There is the demobilisation question, and the disposal of the remaining ships we have and stores, and the large question of finance. The Ministry has done what is possible with regard to demobilisation, and while-the staff at the Ministry at the time of the Armistice was 3,542, it was reduced on the 10th May to 2,612—a reduction of over 25 per cent. When I say the staff of the Ministry I want it to be understood that it includes the staff at headquarters and outports, including New York and Montreal, and both the Ministry of Shipping staff and the Controller-General of Merchant Shipbuilding. I can only give the figures for New York up to the 1st March, but I know there has been a large reduction of the staff since. The latest New York figures I have are that on 11th November the staff numbered 440, and on 10th May it was reduced to 290—a reduction of 150. That is only the 1st March, but there has been a large reduction since that date.
I turn now to the question of the national yards. Before saying anything on this question I should like the Committee to look upon the whole question from what I might term the correct perspective. Last year, in June, the Select Committee on National Expenditure which had been inquiring into these yards, made its Report. The whole question of these yards was then inquired into. If
I may say what is the correct perspective I should take the point of view taken by that Committee in almost the last line of that Report, in which they state
That no justification for the scheme on a commercial basis is or could be (in the nature of things) produced.
I would remind the Committee that the construction of these yards was essentially a war emergency measure, and I would also remind hon. Members that these yards. had been laid down in August, 1917, and if they will take their minds back to those months in 1917 they will remember the very serious position which existed in the merchant shipping world at that time. They will remember that in the months from February to August in the year 1917 not one single month passed in which less than 300,000 tons of British shipping were sent to the bottom of the sea, and in April of that year over 500,000 tons of British shipping was sunk. Therefore, I do say that the Government would have been blamed, and very rightly blamed, if they had not taken every possible step at the time. It is easy to criticise now, but if the War had continued, and if the submarine menace had continued, these yards would have been of vital importance to the country. After considering every step, the Government decided that the Admiralty should undertake the construction of those yards at Chepstow. I should like very shortly to explain, as there seems to have been some misunderstanding, exactly what these yards are. There are three of them. They are situated on the Bristol Channel in close proximity to the South Wales iron and coal fields. No. 1 was at Chepstow on the River Wye. No. 2 was at Beachley on the peninsula between the Rivers Severn and Wye, with the launching ways facing the River Wye. No.3yard is at Portbury on the River Avon, facing Avonmouth Docks. The original scheme of these yards was to provide for eight berths at Chepstow, eighteen at Beachley, and eight at Portbury. In addition to the original yard known as Finch's Yard (seven berths), adjoining No. 1, has also been taken over.
As I understand the matter it was taken over as part of the National Shipbuilding Company, with which Finch's was incorporated. At the time of the Armistice no ships had been launched at these yards except Finch's Yard, and as a matter of fact no fabricated ships have yet been launched from that yard. After the Armistice the Government reconsidered the whole position. The emergency had passed, and the Government approved of the disposal of those yards. The national yards were taken over by the Shipping Controller on the 1st of November last year, and he immediately with the Shipping Control Committee, made an inspection of those yards, and as a result drastic changes were made in the programme to be carried out, and in the personnel. I do not intend to deal with the many attacks which have been made on the construction of those yards during the War. I am quite willing to acknowledge that things had to be done in a great hurry, and naturally mistakes were made and there was a certain amount of wastage. Certain statements have appeared in the Press which are entirely misleading. For instance, there is a statement I have here from the Press of the 14th March dealing with the wet dock down at Beachley in which it is stated that
When the Parliamentary Committee came down to inspect the work, provision was made for a train of empty wagons to stand on a line where they would obstruct the view of the abandoned wet dock in case the Committee should wish to see the dock,' which is not to be encouraged.'
As a matter of fact on the 13th July last in this House my right hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty dealt with the whole of this question of the wet dock, and he then informed this House that it was not intended to continue the construction of the wet basin at Beachley, but to carry on with the fitting-out dock at Portishead, and he said this would save something like £400,000.
There was another statement in the Press which said that
when Lord Pirrie came down to Chepstow this enormous empty hospital was regarded as an eyesore, and a request was sent to the V.A.D. hospital at Chepstow that they might be allowed to borrow for three hours their convalescent patients to place them in their own empty beds while Lord Pirrie was in Chepstow.
I have a letter from an officer whose name is well known, and who is in charge of that hospital. Colonel Carter, who forwards me a letter from the Commandant of that
V.A.D. hospital, denying that anything of the sort ever took place. I only mention these as two of the statements made in the Press which are entirely misleading and quite incorrect. Ever since the Ministry has taken over these yards, they have been constantly under consideration, and very gradually changes have been made. Only a month ago, after considerable consultation, Sir Frank Baines, one of the principal architects of the Office of Works, together with the First Commissioner of Works, assumed responsibility for all constructional work done, including houses, while Mr. Henry Boyd, a shipbuilder of considerable experience, has taken charge, at the request of the Shipping Controller, of all questions of policy, the shipbuilding programme, its execution, and the management of the yards generally. The hospital down there is the Mount Pleasant Hospital to which I have alluded, and it has now been transferred to the Ministry of Pensions. A programme of work has been approved by my right hon. Friend, and is now being carried out. That programme includes the completion of six berths on No. 1 yard, of which four are now practically complete, and the work is being done in the most economical manner. It also includes the completion of the erection of the cranes and the necessary work in these berths at the earliest possible moment. There are at present four ships under construction in No. 1 yard. These are the N fabricated type of 10,000 tons dead weight.
Under construction. The expenditure now being entailed down at Chepstow is very small, and is only constructional with the exception of the completion of these ships. The material for six ships has been delivered down there, and, therefore, it is intended to continue the completion of these six ships. There are three ships at Finch's, of which one will be launched within the next month.
I can give the approximate cost of the scheme, not up to date, but up to the end of February. The cost of the shipyards, including the purchase price of the undertakings of the Standard Shipbuilding Company, the Finch Company, and the Chepstow Pro- perty Company, is £3,210,000, and the cost of the housing scheme and of the hospitals is £820,000, making a total of £4,030,000.
No, it does not include the actual cost of the land up to-the present. The housing scheme, as many hon. Member of the Committee are aware, is absolutely essential to these national yards. There is no possibility of them being carried on as yards without adequate housing accommodation, which is not available in the proximity of the yards. There are three main housing schemes: two at Chepstow and one within, easy reach of Beachley. It has been decided to limit the two schemes at Chepstow to 200 houses on one estate and 223 on the other, and that at Pensylvania, which is on the Beachley side, to 342 houses, making a total of 765 altogether. Up to the present sixty-eight houses have been completed on the two sides of Chepstow, and 260 are in course of erection. At Beachley sixty-six are in course of erection, but there are none completed yet. The houses are well in hand now and are being rapidly pushed forward, and the work is progressing very satisfactorily. The scheme is to put only ten houses down to the acre. The policy of the Shipping Controller since taking over the control of these yards has been, in a, word, to speed up the shipbuilding, to complete the ships of which the keels have already been laid, to tidy up the yard, complete the modified housing schemes, reduce expenditure as far as possible, and leave the yards in such a condition that purchasers may be able to develop the work that has now been done as they think best in their own interests. Now with regard to the disposal of these yards. The Committee will recollect that a notice appeared in the public Press on 25th January this year. I will not read it all, but the last paragraph said:
Persona or bodies who are prepared to submit proposals for the acquisition and operation
of the yards should communicate to the Secretary of the Ministry of Shipping, stating how tar they are prepared to enlist the co-operation of labour by the adoption of the co-partnership principle or otherwise.
The Government decided, with regard to the disposal of these yards, that no one should be barred and that every opportunity should be given to labour to acquire the yards, or to take a share in the management, either by co-operation or co-partnership, and, in view of that expression of opinion by the Government, my right hon. Friend took steps in order to see whether Labour would be willing to cooperate, and, if so, in what form, although at the same time we did not close the door in any way on any offer from any other source.
As I said in reply to a question the other day, only tentative offers have been received. There are, however, still one- or two inquiring firms who are negotiating. My right hon. Friend and I interviewed representatives of the Labour Co-operative Unions, the Co-operative Wholesale Societies, the Trade Unions, the Parliamentary Committee of the Trade Union Congress, and other bodies. We placed the whole situation before them and indicated the terms on which the Government would consider the transfer of these yards or the manner in which it was thought that they could be worked upon a co-partnership basis. I confess that our advances were not received perhaps in the first place with enthusiasm; in fact, I saw one statement in the Press after we had interviewed one deputation in which it was said that we were "endeavouring to sell them a pup," and that if they entertained the idea they would probably find themselves in possession of a "white elephant." After many meetings, the Federation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Trades did not take that view, and they undertook to submit to their executive the draft proposals of the terms on which the Government were considering the transfer. I am given to understand that the executive approved and agreed to submit to the annual meeting, which took place last Thursday at Cardiff, the draft proposals which were drawn up and which were approved by the Government. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Wrekin Division (Sir C. Henry), I will publish with
the OFFICIAL EXPORT a full statement of these proposals. I also said that I would deal with them during my remarks to-day. It is only right that I should read them hi order that my hon. Friend may criticise them, if he desires to do so, and in order that I may explain them. The first proposal was:
That the national shipyards at Chepstow and Beachley be sold to the Trades Unions of the Shipbuilding and Engineering Industries at a price to be agreed upon.
Naturally, these were only draft and rough proposals, but they laid the foundation upon which the transfer could be made, if accepted. The price to be agreed upon was to be the same price that would have been received from any private firm or private individual who came forward for the yards, and the price was to be the commercial value of the yards at the present time.
That could only be ascertained by experts in the shipbuilding industry. The second proposal was:
That the whole amount of the purchase price be paid in the following manner, and until paid off be secured by a second mortgage debenture at a rate of interest to be agreed upon; that the purchase price be paid on such sum and at such intervals as the unions may elect, providing always that the unions shall pay an annual instalment of not less than the amount to be agreed.
The third point was:
That the company to be formed may borrow from outside sources such sum or sums of money as shall be deemed requisite for the carrying out of the business, such sum or sums to be secured by first mortgage debentures.
I would point out, with regard to that paragraph, that it had been naturally agreed, in order to secure the interest, that these sums to be advanced from outside sources for working capital should be limited in amount.
That had not been settled in exact proportion, but it would have to be a sum which would be sufficient in order that the enterprise could be successful. I may say that the working capital has already been practically guaranteed, not by the Government, but by private sources?
Yes, from private sources, who have practically agreed to advance the money for the working capital. The fourth proposal was:
That the Government undertake to hand -over the yards in such a condition as shall render the yards fit to be worked upon a commercial basis, any sum spent on this work to be added to the price to be agreed upon under paragraph 1.
The Committee will realise the necessity for that proviso. The first paragraph was:
That the Power House of Beachley be excepted from the proposed transaction, subject to suitable arrangements being made for the supply of power to the yards.
That was' the wish of the federation itself. The last paragraph was:
That the unions undertake that the hour, rates and conditions of labour shall be the same as those prevailing from time to time for constructional work in the North-East Coast district.
That was a very important proviso, owing to the fact that shipbuilding in the South-West has never been successful up to the present, simply for one reason and one reason only, namely, that the rate of wages in that area have always been the same rate of wages as paid in repairing yards and not in building yards. It would be quite impossible for any scheme to be successful if they were not called upon to pay the same rate of wages as for construction work on the north-east coast.
I have read in full, word for word, the proposals that were made to the unions, and I should like to say that the Ministry of Shipping has nothing to hide. It considered that it was unfair to the unions to disclose the terms of the proposal, pending negotiations. I will also point out that if -we were negotiating with any private firms or individuals we should not disclose the terms for which we were negotiating until some definite answer had been given by them, and obviously it was impossible to do that in the case of the unions. This was a business transaction. The only difference in this case was that we were in negotiation with a federation instead of with the individual capitalist, or with a board of directors. I should like to say I am convinced, from the interviews I have had personally, that the federation had no idea of entering into these negotiations without realising the many difficulties that lay in their path. They asked for no preferential treatment as regards price or conditions, but only as regards. the method of payment. Personally, I very strongly welcomed these proposals. The plan, to my mind, gave such advantages as might be claimed for public ownership while avoiding a great many of the difficulties often attributed, rightly or wrongly, to bureaucratic control. It offered an opportunity for an experiment in self-government in industry without nationalisation, and no finer opportunity ever presented itself than this, when a State-owned establishment was in question and no necessity existed for buying out the owners of the property. I would like to emphasise again, that this was entirely and essentially a business transaction. While it was in no way under Government control, the Ministry, the owners and the builders alike, were all prepared to give every assistance in their power to make this scheme an unqualified success. Definite offers indeed had been made by prominent members of the ship-owning and shipbuilding trade to co-operate, and to place their great experience and their influence at the disposal of the unions, so long as such services were required. I have no official information, but I gather from the Press—and that is all I know-that these proposals have been rejected. If that be so, then I can only say that I, personally, very deeply regret the fact. I do claim that no more fair or more generous offer could have been made; indeed, some of my bon. Friends think it was too generous. In that I do not agree, but in my opinion it is not unfair to say that it was a generous offer, and I think we may claim that we have explored every part and every avenue in order to get cooperation with labour in these yards. But we have not been successful. Still, the door is not closed. But I think there must be this condition now, that in any further negotiations, it must be Labour or its representatives who must come to us. In the meantime we have no course to pursue except to continue our negotiations with whoever approaches us, for the disposal of these yards to the best advantage of the taxpayers of this country.
I have spoken of ships and of yards, but I feel I should not be performing my duty standing here as I do, representing the Ministry of Shipping, if I did not add one word with reference to another branch of the merchant service, without which ship and yards would be of no value at all—I refer to the personnel. It would really be out of place for me to add anything to the tributes—none too high—which have been paid from all parts of the country to the work of the Mercantile Marine during the War. But I think I may say this, that the submarine menace tested the highest qualities of British courage and British endurance, and its total disregard to danger to the very utmost. We are a very complacent nation, and in peace time took so much for granted that we relied almost without thought on that great Mercantile Marine of ours to provide us with all our creature comforts. In War that reliance was not misplaced, but few of us fully realise, and few indeed realise today at their full value, the almost superhuman efforts which had to be put forward, and the very costly sacrifices that had to be made, to keep this country safe from starvation, and to supply our troops and our Allies with the necessaries of life. 14,700 non-combatant British merchant seamen gave their lives for this duty, and I would suggest to the Committee that the best way we can pay the debt we owe to the memory of these men, would be that we should take steps to ensure for all time in future, that there shall be supplied and maintained a sufficient number of well-trained British seamen to man the British Mercantile Marine.
To this end we have taken some steps already, but we require the support of Parliament, and of the nation, a support not only sentimental, if I may say so, but practical and financial. In the first place, we have taken some steps with regard to a work which has been going on in The Ministry of Shipping since November, 1917, to bring into being a National Maritime Board. This Board was brought into being as the outcome of a discussion initiated by the Ministry between the Shipping Federation, representing shipowners, and the Seamen's and Firemen's Union, representing sailors and firemen, its avowed object being the establishment of a greater degree of co-operation between employers and employed and the introduction of national standard rates of pay, and improved conditions of employment. Up to that date, the Ministry had negotiated "with the union and the shipowners on separate questions as they arose. The establishment of the National Maritime Board enabled a far more comprehensive view to be taken of the problems, and many questions of wages and conditions had been settled after full consultation and discussion with the various interests concerned. This Board has met regularly three times a week, and the rates of pay of the whole of tae personnel have been raised and the conditions of employment have been thoroughly investigated, and a large number of improvements effected, from being one of the worst paid industries in the country, the Mercantile Marina has been raised to a status, which compares favourably with most other industries. Let me give an example. The pay of an able seaman before the War was £5 10s. per month. He is now receiving £11 10s. per month, with an additional £3 a month as a war bonus when serving on a vessel plying through the war zone. Corresponding increases have been given to all other ratings. The pay of the junior deck officers and engineers has been increased from £7 10s. to £16 per month, and that of most other navigating and engineering officers has been, more than doubled, the bonus being an. extra payment in each case. The Board has met in separate panels which represent the different classes of personnel. I think I may claim this for the work of the Board, that since it has been in existence there has been no industrial dispute of any gravity throughout the Mercantile Marine. I am very hopeful, however, that in a very short space of time this Maritime Board will transfer its duties to a. Joint Industrial Seafarers' Council. Only a few days ago a meeting which will become historic in the annals of the Mercantile Marine took place at the Ministry of Shipping, which was representative of all shipowners and all officers and men in the Mercantile Marine, with the idea of a. formation of such a Council under the scheme associated with your name (Mr. Whitley). I cannot but believe that with the goodwill and intentions which exist on both sides—and I have the honour of being the chairman of the Board and, therefore, I know it does exist between the representatives of the owners and the men—the formation of such a Council will' be for the benefit of all the parties concerned. It will, I hope, have done a great, deal of good with regard to the supply of men.
That is a question for the Industrial Council to settle for itself. There has been no Government interference in any way, although we have given every assistance. It is entirely a matter for the Council whether they will take over the functions of the National Maritime Board. Then I come to the supply of men for the Mercantile Marine. Under the Education Act of 1918, Section 10, it is possible for a national scheme of training for the sea service to be established, and steps to this end have already been taken by the formation of a Committee, which is to report to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Education, I hope before many weeks are over. It is not a Departmental Committee; it is one appointed by my right hon. Friend, and the terms of reference to it are to prepare a draft of a national scheme of training for the sea service, with the object of maintaining a supply of well-trained British seamen, regard being had to the provisions of the Education Bill and to the powers and duties of local educational authorities and to the facilities provided by existing institutions. It is a very inferential Committee. It will also deal with the all-important question of full-time education, and the nautical training for boys on leaving ordinary day schools up to the age of sixteen. It will also deal with the proper conditions on board ship in respect of accommodation and of supervision during and between the voyages for boys training under the scheme. I have made a very rough calculation as to the number of ratings in the Mercantile Marine. During 1914 the total number of British ratings was,, approximately, 174,000. That included all masters, deck officers, and engineers. As another rough calculation, I think it may be said that the average service of these officers and men was ten years, which gives an annual wastage of 10 per cent. Therefore it is necessary, in order to keep up the supply, that there should be at least an annual supply of 5,000 boys for the Merchant Service. If they are given two years' training, 10,000 will have to be in training at once, and from the point of view of the future of the Mercantile Marino I consider that some such course of training as this is absolutely essential. The personnel of the Mercantile Marine, before the War, at any rate, was recruited very largely from casual labour. If the Merchant Service is to attract, as it certainly ought to attract a better type of boy, it must offer as good conditions as regards wages and accommodation as can be obtained in competing shore employment. It must raise the standard of life and comfort on board ship, and, in my opinion at any rate, the advantages of a liberal education on shore will do this to a very large extent. I am sure the Committee would be adverse to any scheme whatever which would preclude a boy from rising to the quarterdeck, and any scheme must be based on the understanding that every opportunity will be given to lads of ability and promise of being able to proceed direct from the training institution to a training school for officers, or, after service at sea, to be recommended and sent to such a school for promotion to officer rank. Another step which the Ministry has taken in this direction is included in the Estimates under the item "Other Payments, £3,000,000." There is a comparatively small sum, only £10,000, which is put down in order to provide for a school at Gravesend, which was started in September, 1918, as a war measure, to give intensive training to lads between sixteen and seventeen years of age for the Merchant Service. This scheme is supervised by a Committee representing the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Shipping, the Shipping Federation, and the Sailors' and Firemen's Union.
Yes. I am very anxious that it should be continued, and that the authority of Parliament should be given to continue it until other arrangements can be made. Although I take a great deal of interest in it, I am only alluding to it because it is an example of what can be done throughout the length and breadth of the country. I may say that already there have been requests from several of the other great ports that schools of a similar character may be set up. The course of training given is free. The boys are lodged and boarded at the sea school, and have a course of instruction which fits them to go on board ship immediately, and take their part without having to be told exactly what to do. When they go on board they know something about the handling of boats, have been taught to swim, to box the compass, and to steer, and they really know something about the practical duties connected with employment on deck or in the stokehold. There is a floating school, which reproduces the actual conditions of sea service.
I think he will agree with me that this £10,000 a year is not being wasted, and that the school is being economically run. The cost of the food for these boys is 10s. 4d. each per week. I do not think it could 'be done more cheaply. The food is excellent, as I know from personal experience. The cost of each lad works out at about £9. We have already passed through this school 430 lads, or an average of about ninety a month, and we have had demands for more lads to enter this school than we can possibly accommodate, while demands are being made by other great ports in our own country for the starting of schools of a similar nature.
I have alluded to the officers and men of the Merchant Service, but I think it is only right that I should pay a small tribute, in one sentence only, to the shipowners of this country. It is largely due to the forethought and sound policy of the kings of the shipping world in the past that we owe our escape from starvation and our progress towards victory. I would venture to say a word about the future of the personnel, as I believe Parliament and the nation are taking a deep and very lively interest in the personnel of our Merchant Service. There are two most important tasks before us. One is to increase, the output of our shipyards to the utmost extent of their capacity and of the national need. The second is to insist on the merchant seaman's calling being recognised and rewarded as it deserves. The British nation is more vitally interested in the fullest possible development of sea communications than any other, and has resources, both in its products and in its facilities for transport, which no other nation can match. We have awakened, because of the War, to a proper pride in our Merchant Service, and I am quite convinced that neither Parliament nor the nation will allow any Government Department, any individual, or any body of individuals to forget the services rendered by the owners, the officers and the men of the Mercantile Marine, and what they did to serve Britain in her hour of danger and of peril.
I am certain that every hon. Member will agree with me that it is seldom that a Minister has presented his Estimates and has defined his policy with greater lucidity than my hon. and gallant Friend. He well deserves the friendly criticism of the right hon. Baronet the. Member for the City of London that at least we have a candid Minister speaking from that box. It is my intention to deal chiefly with the past and the future of the Chepstow national shipyards, but, before doing so, might I say to my hon. and gallant Friend that his programme as regards the future training of seamen, and the supervision of the welfare of those boys who take up the seafaring profession, will, I am certain, meet with the general approval of the Committee, and that there will be no stint in voting him the requisite funds to accomplish that object? I should like to ask my hon. and gallant Friend one question. Under sub-head "H" there is an item of £18,000,000 for passages of troops. Will that money ultimately be debited to the War Office or to the Department for whom those services were rendered? I think it is essential that later on—I do not say in the near future—we should know the expenditure of each Department as far as possible during the War, and a good deal of the expenditure of the Ministry of Shipping has been incurred, as my hon. and gallant Friend knows, for account of other Departments. I heard with some dismay that, whereas our mercantile tonnage had decreased during the War by, I think, nearly 3,000,000 tons, the American tonnage had increased from 1,700,000 before the War to 6,400,000 tons at the present time. I wish my hon. and gallant Friend would bring that as forcibly; as possible to the notice of the War Cabinet, because, in the distribution of the enemy tonnage, of which a large proportion is in the hands of the Americans, that should be taken into account. I view with grave apprehension the future of our tonnage, especially after hearing from my hon. and gallant Friend that shipbuilding, as far as regards increased tonnage during the present year, is not likely to exceed 1,000,000 tons.
Let me turn to the question of the national shipyards at Chepstow. As my hon. and gallant Friend stated, I was a member of the Sub-Committee on National Expenditure that went very thoroughly and probed very deeply into the scheme, and I say without any hesitation that the history of the national shipyards at Chepstow is one that will not reflect credit on any of those who were connected with it. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Cambridge (Sir E. Geddes) is not present. I thought it only right to give him notice that when this Vote came under discussion I intended to refer to his administration, because the responsibility of that scheme rests with him, and although he has now passed it on to the Ministry of Shipping he cannot divorce himself from it. Let me say how the scheme came into being. In May, 1917, he became Controller of Shipbuilding for the Navy. When he took up that office he demanded what I might term entirely exceptional conditions. He asked that he should engage a staff of men up to £1,000 a year without -any recourse to the Treasury whatever. The Treasury submitted to him. The Chancellor of the Exchequer submitted to him. The right hon. Gentleman, before he was Shipping Controller, had some post in the Army. He was a general. He discarded khaki and went into blue. He was right. Judging from his physical bearing, he is more adapted to an Admiral's costume than to khaki, and I think the change, from his own personal point of view, was of advantage to him. But before he made that change he demanded special latitude and special conditions. Therefore, if any scheme has not turned out right, he cannot assert that it is because he had not sufficient personnel and was restricted in the choice of staff. He has often been described as a superman. If reckless schemes, profligate expenditure, utter disregard of national finance, and divorce from the Treasury constitute a superman, I have no use for superman, especially in any Government Department, and to direct any Government policy.
I knew my hon. and gallant Friend (Colonel Wilson) would say, as some palliation for this disastrous scheme, that it was in time of war, and we were under duress. He quoted one of the concluding remarks of the Report of the Sub-Committee of which I was a member, but he did not quote the absolute concluding remarks. They were:
It is evident that the change of policy indicated must result in a postponement of production by the national yards; and it is doubtful whether the yards will assist to any extent in making good during the War the losses sustained by our mercantile tonnage.
That was really a summary of the Report. My hon. and gallant Friend read the previous sentence. He would have done just as well to read this sentence at the same time. As regards helping the country, the right hon. Gentleman (Sir E. Geddes) will admit that the scheme has absolutely failed. Not a ship has been launched during the War, and, instead of being a help, it has diverted labour which might otherwise have been employed. Not one of the original proposals that the right hon. Gentleman put before the War Cabinet has ever been, carried out. What were these proposals? They were for an assembling yard. The keels were to be constructed, and then they "were to get the angles and other parts from the bridge makers of the country and assemble them at Chepstow. Nothing of this kind was done. Instead of that, when last the Sub-committee reviewed the situation, it was found that the latest scheme was that they should have engineering shops of their own and it should be a complete shipbuilding yard. The scheme was that the construction was to be carried on by military and German labour, and for that purpose it was thought that hutting accommodation would be sufficient. It was soon found out that this military and German labour, as one could have foreseen, was absolutely useless for an enterprise of this character, and they had
to resort to civilian labour at civilian rates of pay. Civilian labour compares quite favourably with military labour as regards the work that was done. The great object in initiating this movement was not to interfere with existing shipyards. They wanted these yards to be put at Chepstow so that they should be as far away as possible from the existing yards of the country in the North and North-East. They did not want labour to clash.
But what the Sub-committee felt strongly about was that the scheme was embarked upon without any regard whatever to cost. The Sub-committee came on the scene, I believe, in October or November. The scheme was operated without going to the Treasury, with the approval of the War Cabinet, in August, 1917. In December, 1917, no estimate had ever been made, and it was only after the Sub-committee pressed for it that we were told what the cost was likely to be. We were told it would be something under £4,000,000, and that would include the construction of thirty-four berths, including a wet dock at Beachley and the hutting accommodation. That was a very big amount. It figured out at £120,000 for each berth, a much bigger amount than in any other part of the country, except perhaps Harland and Wolff's, where they constructed their berths on a very elaborate scale. It was expected that the first boat would be launched some time in 1918. At the end of 1918 not a single ship had been launched. I am rather surprised at my hon. and gallant Friend giving us the figure as regards the cost of this enterprise which he gave me in answer to a question at the end of February of this year? He told me then that, including the cost of housing and acquiring the property of the standard shipbuilding yards, but excluding the cost of shipbuilding, the amount was, approximately, £4,000,000. We are now in the middle of May, and the House has a right to ask what has been the expenditure from February till the present time? You must have it. Why withhold it from the House? Is it another £500,000, or is it £1,000,000? There is an additional amount put down for national shipyard construction of £l,000,000. In February I was told that twelve berths had been completed in the national shipyard. I did not quite follow how many berths had been completed up to the present. Six keels had been laid down, I was told, in February, but no vessels had been launched from these berths. I understand now that four have been launched.
Will my hon. and gallant Friend say how many berths are completed at present, and how many ships have been launched? I am not concerned with how many keels have been laid down, but how many ships have been launched.
There is another point upon which I lay stress—the housing scheme. At the end of February this year my hon. and gallant Friend told me that practically 358 houses were completed or in course of being completed. Has that number been increased? I should like to know to-day what is the estimated cost. My hon. Friend (Mr. Hogge), who is a member of the Cippenham Committee, heard it stated in evidence the other day that the houses were to cost, I think, £600 apiece.
What are these houses going to cost? How many are absolutely completed to date, and what expenditure has been incurred on them? I understood my hon. and gallant Friend to say it was the present policy of the Government to dispose of this undertaking. The policy of the Government changes so frequently that it is hard to follow, but I thought the policy was that there was to be a Disposal Board of the Ministry of Munitions to take in hand the disposal of factories and contracts of different kinds, and I should have thought they might have been consulted as regards disposing of the scheme, because if there is one thing more to be apprehended than another it is that there-should be overlapping as regards disposal. The right hon. Gentleman (Sir E. Geddes) is the parent of the somewhat comprehensive Ways and Communications Bill. It was a very ambitious scheme. It gives the-Minister-designate great and autocratic-powers. I am given to understand that in Committee it has been somewhat whittled down, and I should have thought that he, being the parent of the scheme, would in some way or other have brought this; scheme into that very comprehensive Bill —but he has done nothing of the kind. When he was First Lord of the Admiralty he passed the scheme on to the Ministry of Shipping. Is Lord Pirrie still in control of shipping?
The Ministry of Shipping is not part of the Admiralty. The Controller of Shipping was part of the Admiralty. The First Lord of the Admiralty had these national shipyards under his control while he was First Lord up to October, 1918, and on 1st November of that year they were passed on to the Ministry of Shipping. The right hon. Gentleman was anxious to get rid of his own child. I admire him for having got the Minister of Shipping to show such an altruistic disposition, and take over what I consider one of the most ghastly failures with which this country has ever been confronted. Now it is the intention of the Government to dispose of the undertakings. What are the terms on which they were to be disposed of. The hon. and gallant Gentleman (Colonel Wilson) says that in January he caused notices to appear in the papers asking for offers, but judging from what he said I do not think offers came forward on very extravagant terms. Then he put himself into communication with the Federation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Trades of the United Kingdom. Was the Government or the Cabinet consulted before this policy of offering the national shipyards to this federation of trade unions was adopted? That is rather important. I have always been a great supporter of trade unions, but I do not consider that the trade unions should embark upon industrial concerns of this character.
I will tell the hon. Member why the trades unions are not entitled to take these shipyards. I could understand a federation or trade union setting up a separate organisation in co-operative form to carry on industrial undertakings, but it must not be lost sight of that trade unions have unique privileges. Trade union funds are not liable to be attached.
I shall be pleased if the hon. Member will contradict me. I was under that impression, and a good many other Members are. If I am correct, then by entering into negotiations with the trade unions you are committed to a policy which I consider is most inadvisable. If there is a loss on this or any other industrial scheme which a trade union undertakes, then, in my opinion, although I may be wrong, they would not be called upon to bear the loss. The trade union might bear the loss, but it could not be compelled to bear the loss.
If there be a profit, would it go to the trade union funds, and be used for propaganda, or for other purposes? I consider that it is not in the best interests of this country or of the trade unions themselves that such a scheme should be accepted. What are the terms on which these yards were offered? The price was to be settled at the commercial value. In the course of my business experience I have heard vague expressions, but I never heard such a vague expression as "commercial value." How the commercial value is to be ascertained of a partly finished enterprise which has never started operations I am at a loss to understand. How are the yards to be paid for? This is even a more extraordinary proposition than the commercial value. Those who were selling the property were to have a second mortgage. The Government were to sell their property, but only come in as second debenture holders. The first debenture holders were to be those who were to find the working capital. Usually, when people sell property, if only part payment is made they come in for security as first debenture holders. In this case, those who were to find the working capital were to have the first debentures and the State who has the property to sell were to come in as second debentures.
Of course, we do not know the price that was going to be offered. It was to be on "commercial value" which was to be ascertained. My hon. and gallant Friend was so enamoured with this proposal which he thought would be of advantage in regard to rates of wages that one of the stipulations made was that the rates of wages to be paid for this Chepstow scheme was not to exceed the rate of wages to be paid in the yards in other parts of the country.
That means, shall not exceed. I should think these trade unions have plenty of men who could manage these yards with as great efficiency than has been shown up to the present time.
As much as the commercial men who have had to do with this Chepstow scheme I agree. It would be a great embarrassment for the leaders of trade unions if they were to be tied down to pay rates of wages because they happened to be the rates that were guiding other parts of the country. The whole idea of offering this scheme to the trade unions through the federation of engineering and shipbuilding trades was in order to get rid of it by artificial means. It never was justified, and it was a dangerous and unwise policy. I do not wish in any way to hamper the hon. and gallant Gentleman in disposing of these national shipyards. I have no settled convictions in regard to nationalisation, but if he thinks he can get rid of them let him do so, but not by measures so badly conceived. If he cannot get rid of these national shipyards without resort- ing to artificial means, I say unhesitatingly that I would prefer them to become derelict, and let them serve as a monument of one of the worst conceived schemes that was ever perpetrated by any British Government or by any British Minister. I realise the difficulty of my hon. and gallant Friend and I am certain he will have the sympathy of hon. Members, and the Shipping Controller will also have our sympathy in the legacy which they have assumed. It is a legacy in regard to which the hon. and gallant Gentleman will have a great deal of trouble and no kudos, and I am sorry that at the outset of his political career he should be saddled with such an enterprise.
Before I follow my hon. Friend I should like to associate myself with what he said in regard to my hon. and gallant Friend, who has our sympathy in defending a Department, the real head of which is outside both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and over whom we have no real control. I congratulate him on the way he introduced the Vote, and if I cannot follow the figures with which he regaled us I have tried to find out more precisely what some of the figures mean. What I liked in his speech were the proposals he outlined on the social side of the Mercantile Marine. In dealing with these Estimates we are always apt to forget the social side of the work that can be attained by our big Departments, and if the schemes which he outlined dealing with the better education of boys who are being reared for the Mercantile Marine are carried out in the spirit in which apparently they have been conceived, I am perfectly certain that everybody who knows anything about it— I do not claim to know anything about it—will be gratified that some provision of that sort is being made. I congratulate the hon. and gallant Gentleman in being associated with such a scheme at its conception.
I am surprised at the looseness with which the Vote has been drawn. We are asked to provide a very large sum of money but we are given very inadequate particulars. As an example, I would refer to the figure in Class G, where we are asked to provide a sum of £3,000,000, and the only indication that is vouchsafed to the Committee and to the nation—for we represent the nation in Committee—as to the purposes for which this money is required, is summed up in two words, "Other payments." my hon. and gallant Friend did tell the Committee that of that £3,000,000 a sum of £10,000 was to be devoted for the purpose of a particular school, but that leaves a very large sum of money unexplained. It leaves unexplained more than twice the increased amount that is asked for in this Estimate. If the hon. and gallant Gentleman will look at his own Estimate he will see that he asks for £1,496,000, which is exactly half of the remaining sum of £3,000,000 mentioned for these "other payments," which' has not been explained. I dare say there is an explanation, and I do suggest to my hon. and gallant Friend that this method of presenting Estimates, in which, out of a sum of £3,000,000, the only item which he mentions and explains is one of £10,000, is a loose method of presenting Estimates to the Committee, and one to which he ought to draw attention.
There are other unexplained items in the Vote which require more information. The increase for this year in the Vote is £1,500,000. That is made up by the fact that for Appropriations-in-Aid which are outlined in Sub-clause (M) of the Estimate the Government presume they arc going to recover no less than £84,000,000. They show an increase in the Estimates of 1919–20 over 1918–19 of no less a sum than £85,496,000, and they reduce therefore the liability to the taxpayer by deducting from that increase what they presume they will get under Appropriations-in-Aid to the extent of £84,000,000. As I am much more, interested in what the nation is going to" get at the moment than what is going to be spent, I invite the Committee to look at the items on which they expect to recover money. There is an item here of £20,000,000, receipts under liner requisition scheme. They are going to recover £12,000,000 from the Dominions and Allied Governments. We are not told how much of that is Dominions and how much is' Allies, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer the other day, in talking on his Budget, was rather doubtful as to how much money he could recover from the Allies. On the question of general loans it will be interesting to know from my hon. and gallant Friend how much he expects to recover of the £12,000,000.
Then he is going to recover a couple of million pounds from other Government Departments. After all, that is recovering it from ourselves, taking it from one trousers pocket and putting it into the other, and I do not see how that is going to affect the £84,000,000 which he puts down. Then there is the item, "Sale of ships, £48,000,000." I tried to get from my hon. and gallant Friend how many ships had been sold up to the present, and I think he said that some 579 ships had been sold. They must be extremely valuable ships to make anything like a total of this kind. Of course, I do not forget that the financial year is not completed; but if on the average of the ships that have been sold and the prices that have 'been obtained he expects to draw £48,000,000, I should be vastly surprised. Then we get the most curious phrase, "Other receipts, £2,000,000." If I received £2,000,000 from any source at all I think I could tell where it came from. My hon. Friend behind (Colonel Thorne) suggests that it might be anonymous. I am quite sure that these receipts were not anonymous. I remember an old Scottish inspector of schools who said that the word "etcetera" was the sink of ignorance, because when a student replying to questions was unable to give all the answer-he used to give all he could and then say, "etcetera" In dealing with big terms of this kind we ought to have some particulars. Where is this odd £2,000,000 coming from? Unless this is explained it means obviously that the net increase on this Estimate is going to be a great deal more than £1,500,000.
I see that the Minister who has been receiving the bulk of the criticism from my hon. Friend (Sir C. Henry) is now here. He was one of the optimists with regard to Chepstow, and I shall be interested to hear what he has got to say. Let him tell us why his optimism has failed him on tins occasion. It is interesting to remember that before the Government touched Chepstow there was a private company in operation in that neighbourhood, and it was not until November, 1917, that the First Lord of the Admiralty—I think that my right hon. Friend was the First Lord—commandeered these yards, and speaking in December, 1917, he said:
These yards are now under way and it is anticipated that the first keel of the first vessel in the national yards will be laid down in the early part of next year.
My hon. and learned Friend who is in charge of this Vote to-day has not been able to satisfy the Committee as to whether any vessel has yet been completed in any of the Government yards.
I am glad that the hon. and gallant Member agrees with my condemnation of the optimism of the First Lord at that time. Of course, Finch's yard is not Chepstow; it is not the Government scheme, but it is useful for the Government to have something else up its sleeve. Lord Inchcape—who, after all, knows something about Chepstow—wrote a letter to the "Times" shortly after this cheery, optimistic statement of the First Lord. He said:
If the company had been left alone they would have had two ships ready by October, 1917"——
That was the month before the First Lord commandeered the yard—
and would have had two ships of 10,000 tons well on the way to the water by March, 1918.
There is a hiatus in the explanation given this afternoon from the Front Bench. If Lord Inchcape was able to state definitely that that could be done by private enterprise, why was it, when my right hon. and gallant Friend touched it the ships disappeared? It always reminded me of the story of Gulliver, my right hon. Friend tramping into the Chepstow shipyards in the same way that Gulliver trampled into the land of the Liliputians, which was a great disadvantage to these little people who got underneath his ponderous weight. We arc entitled to some explanation on that point.
We got some figures with regard to the estimated cost of this yard. It is rather difficult to know exactly how much this thing has cost. The original estimate for this yard was £3,387,000, and this did not include a figure for providing housing accommodation for 10,000 of a population. It is quite true that to-day my hon. and gallant Friend has said that the housing problem is to be reduced to 765 houses. I presume that my hon. and gallant Friend is not taking more than an average of five persons per house, which is the average that has been taken at Cippenham. That will mean a population of less than 4,000. I suppose that out of that population he would not be able to obtain more than 800 heads of households, and that, with some auxiliaries, from 800 to 1,000 would be all the labour provided by the housing scheme which my Hon. and gallant Friend says they are committed to now. If the money had been spent on the housing, it could not have been done for less than another £2,000,000. But in the Estimates there are some figures in that expenditure which have never been explained. For instance, in Sub-section (k), on page 24, there is another £1,000,000 taken for National Shipyard construction. We are not told whether that is National Shipyard construction at Chepstow or anywhere else. We are not told even whether the next £1,000,000 which follows, shipyard extension, has anything to do with it.
There are £2,000,000 there under "purchase and building of vessels," which has nothing to do with vessels, but with dockyards—another method of looseness—£2,000,000 which is unexplained, on top of the estimated expenditures of £3,800,000 without the housing accommodation. Will my right hon. Friend tell us, including the cost of the land, what has been the total expenditure? My hon. and gallant Friend gave us a figure this afternoon of £4,030,000, excluding the cost of the land, so that already the Estimate has exceeded the £3,800,000 which we were given before, and it does not include the new scheme of housing or the cost of land. It looks as if taking all these experiments in shipbuilding yards, which have not yet put a single ship into the water, they have already cost the nation £6,000,000. I think my right hon. Friend the coming Minister of Ways and Communications ought to apologise to the House and to the country. After all, if we are going to trust him, as the House seems to be willing to trust him, with such an enormous new business, having given him the opportunity of showing what he can do at Chepstow, he ought to tell the House why all this has been a failure. I was an ordinary politician when the War began, but my right hon. Friend was a business man; and because we were ordinary politicians and could not do the work he and others were sent for in order that the work might be done properly. Now those of us who are not business men, or rather are not credited with being business men, find ourselves in the position of reviewing the work of those great business men who have been brought in to see the War through in that Department. What we find this afternoon is that one of the greatest of the business men of the country, who ran the railways at home, who ran them abroad, who was at the elbow of the Prime Minister every moment of his time, telling him how the War should be won, is the Minister who has involved the country in at least four to five million pounds capital expenditure at Chepstow, and we have not seen one of his ships yet. If that is a testimonial to the business men of the country, I should be very glad to keep them out of the business of the country, and to see them stick to their own business; and I should be glad to know from my right hon. Friend how he explains the mess he has made of this business. After all, if he did not know anything about shipping I could understand it, but he was at the Admiralty, and he controlled the King's Navy during the War, and therefore he ought to know something about shipping. I think the Committee is entitled to hear him on the subject. Will my right hon. Friend tell us how much in addition to the £4,030,000 this is going to cost us? What is the cost of the land? What is the capital cost of these experiments? That is the figure we really want to get. A second question is, Can we know the capacity of these yards now? I took a very careful note with regard to these yards, and I discovered this: There are three yards, one which contains eight berths, or may contain eight berths, one which contains eighteen, and another eight. If I am not wrong, at the moment when the hon. and gallant Gentleman was addressing the House, there were only six of these berths completed, and those six berths were in the No. 1 yard, the Y yard. Am I right or not?
I am not worrying about Finch's yards because the Government have nothing to do with them. They found Finch's yard there, and they cannot take any credit out of that What they went down there for was to create these other places. Six berths only have been completed out of the thirty-four which were to supply 100 ships per annum if the War had gone on. Not a single ship has yet been launched. That is an indictment which the Government must meet. They have built six out of thirty-four berths, they have spent four and a half millions of money, and they have not a single ship to show for it, except those taken out of Finch's yard, with which they had nothing to do. In view of that, can my right hon. Friend tell us what the Government propose, to do now? I am not going into the question of criticisms of the trade union agreement. After all, the trade union agreement with the Ministry has fallen through. What we want to know now as a Committee is what the Government propose to do with this yard. Are they going on to complete it? If not, how do they propose to get rid of it? I suggest that they do not know quite what to do because of their housing scheme. If their housing scheme is so limited it means that the Government, at any rate, do not intend to proceed with the scheme. If that is so, I think this Committee ought to stop the housing scheme here and now. It is quite true that some excuses may be made for these extravagances on the plea of the exigencies of the War. The same plea is being advanced every day—with regard to Cippenham, with regard to Chepstow; and it may be a perfectly reasonable argument. But if that is true, why not have the courage to cut your losses? Why throw good money after bad? I agree that we should go on if my right hon. Friend who started this thing was stopping at Chepstow. But he has cleared out of the responsibility of carrying out the scheme, and has left us in the lurch. He has got another job, and he is away on another big scheme which may involve us again just as he has involved us here. Have the Government no real policy with regard to these matters? They would not have attempted to have sold it to the trade unions if they could have sold it in any other way. I am not surprised the trade unions have refused the offer that was put up. The moment I saw it I knew that every other resources had been exhausted before they tried to unload it on a trade union. Would it not be better for the nation to cut this loss here and now, as we will have to cut our losses in a great number of the other undertakings that were necessarily forced upon us because of the War? Do not let us put up ridiculous excuses for carrying on unremunerative undertakings simply because we are frightened to say that we will stand the loss. There is a great deal more that could be said about this particular experiment. I suggest that when we have the chance of reviewing these great undertakings here on the threshold of peace; it is absolutely essential to the nation to get back to sound and sane finance, to economise all round, that we should exercise the power and influence we have in this Committee and put an end once and for all here on the spot to this disgraceful continuance of an extravagant method of conducting the nation's business.
In taking part in the Debate I want at once to say that I was deeply interested in the very clear and relevant statement of the hon. Gentleman who presented the Estimates. One has to bear in mind, in regard to the criticisms that are being levelled to-day against the Estimates, that the faults go a long way beyond the present moment. One can only sum up the statement of the hon. Gentleman by saying that there were very many things in it that we welcomed with gladness, and more particularly that part of his statement which dealt with the training of boys of our Mercantile Marine. I hope the future will at least reveal to us some good practical results. I have seen many loyal and patriotic shipowners have their ships manned by Asiatic crews. I have known shipowners engage cheap labour, black or yellow, so long as it was cheaper than white labour. We hope that that is a thing of the past. The hon. Gentleman said there were very few strikes. Yes, but we wore very nearly on the verge of many big things from the very cause I have mentioned. We welcome the statement regarding the care that is to be taken in the future. We trust it will remove the wrongs and evils of the past and give the British seaman the chance that he has a right to expect. Much of the Rebate to-day has been levelled against the scheme at Chepstow, Beachley, and on the other side of the Severn. I think I could give the House some information. On Sunday I actually did see one of those boats nearly completed. Even the name was painted on the bows. They have actually started painting the name on the second, but evidently the hooter had gone, and they had finished work half-way through. They must have known this Debate was coming on and that I was going that way. There are four there nearly completed, or rather ready for launching, which is very different. There is actually a keel laid at Beachley. It is very rusty at the present moment. I do not know whether it was put there as a sample of what could be done or what will be done, or of the hopes that lie in the future, but the keel is there. It would be very easy, if I wanted, to describe all the imperfections of the scheme. One could manage to make a fairly good speech. One could talk of that dock that was cut and filled up again, and of many other things. But I am no there to try to do anything that will hamper the development of the scheme that is there now. One has got to realise that the land is laid out. The workshops are erected, the machinery is there, the money is invested in it. There are great possibilities in that centre. I am here to advocate to the Government to give up negotiating with other people and get on with the job themselves. It is all very well for us here to-day to say that the thing has been a huge failure. Probably, from a commercial standpoint, one could say that up to the present it has been a failure, because it has not developed on the lines expected. Whose fault that is, I do not know. I was not honoured by membership of this House at that time, and I had to get my information from observation on the spot, and from newspaper reports. If the Government had picked out half a dozen good practical trade unionists who knew something of what was wanted, they could have saved millions in the laying out of the property. I am not finding fault with the Chepstow site or the laying out of Portishead on the other side of the river, but in the case of the Beachley site, it seems to me as if half a dozen experts had been called in, and as if each one was rushing to try and get his own job finished first, without respect to continuity of the work, or the real connection between one part and the other.
I am very glad to report to the House that the last of the German prisoners have gone from Beachley. We have heard of the Dockyard stroke, but you ought to have seen the German stroke. It supersedes anything I ever imagine. [AN HON. MEMBER: "Double ca' canny!"] Yes, double ca' canny, or treble or quadruple ca' canny. British labour has now been imported there, and I say to the Government, give up negotiating with trade unions, or shipowners, or ship-building foremen, and realise that this is your work, and plan, and scheme, and that you have got to go through it. I am sorry today to note, though I am not disappointed, as I never expected it was possible for it to mature, that the Federation have rejected the offer. It was impossible to carry it out. We know, from the trade union standpoint, it is one thing to build a ship, and another to sell it, and another to trade in the open market. There is such a thing as boycotting and making it impossible to carry on the work if you take it on. I can asure you that all those difficulties were within the realms of possibility. Some people were generous enough to say, "We will give you help," but shipowners do not give much help to any competitors, and you may depend upon it that the trade and commerce of the country was not going to encourage trade unionists to become capitalists. Consequently, I was glad that the Federation refused to proceed with this scheme, because we want the Government to carry out its own work to finality. Now that the German prisoners have gone, we do hope, with all the faults —and there were many—and with all the difficulties—and there were many—and all the waste that has gone on, that the Government will proceed with the work. I know there is a great deal of criticism and very alarming statements in the newspapers, and that many circulars have been sent out, and that much has been attempted to hamper this scheme. I have heard a right hon. Gentleman say that he would rather it became derelict.
Not by you. It was from the hon. Gentleman who spoke from the bench behind, the Member for The Wrekin (Sir C. Henry). He said he would prefer it to become derelict, and the hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Hogge) said cut your losses and close it down. That is equally as bad, and amounts to the same thing. I may be lacking in my power of imagination, but when one man says, "Let it become derelict," and the other says, "Cut your losses and close down," I do not know that there is very much difference in the two things, since in the finish, at least, they both mean failure and the shutting up of the shop. I hope the Government will not think of such a thing, and that they have got sufficient pluck and grit in them, whatever the faults and mistakes of the past may have been, to tackle this job and make it a success. They can do so. You cannot recover lost money and wastage in the past, but there is no reason why that wastage should continue now. The work can be done, and must be done, and, what- ever else may be the outcome of this Debate, and whatever criticisms may be levelled, I trust that the Government will carry out its plan. So far as the Labour Benches are concerned, I think I am right in saying that with all their faults we stand by them, and will help to make these yards a complete success. We hope to have the privilege, not only of seeing four boats launched in the near future there, but to see it become a busy hive of industry and centre of activity, producing-work, useful to the nation at large. I think I heard somebody say just now, "more cost," but we have got to remember when this scheme was launched the nation was in a panic, and the very people who are critising and condemning the Government to-day for what they did in a hurry, would have been condemning it equally as vigourously and emphatically if they had not attempted to cope with the national danger we were faced with at the time. I saw people with pale faces and trembling lips when we were looking up the newspapers and reading of the destruction caused by the U-boats. We were all troubled about it, and if I said I had not the "wind up" as bad as anybody else, I would be saying what was not true. We all had the "wind up," and the people who say they were not scared are not truthful. We were all scared, and shouted to the Government "get shipping anyhow, only get it, whether you build it or sneak it, no matter how, only got it." Everybody was delighted at the time, when the scheme of Government shipyards was launched and when the newspapers reported the preparations that were being made, and everybody was glad that the Government had tackled this proposition and was going to save the country from starvation. To hear some of the criticisms uttered to-day, and before today, one would think that some people almost felt that we ought to have kept the War on a bit longer to enable the Government to complete the shipyards. But that is too absurd. We are glad the War is over, and that we are within measurable distance of peace, which I trust will be a lasting peace and an honourable peace, and a peace we can be proud of.
Whatever the faults were, in this matter we have got to bear in mind, the conditions under which we lived at the time, and the rush and the demand, and the clamour and the reports coining in day after day which were creating a panic, which was becoming more serious every moment. Therefore we must have some sort of sympathy when we sit down here, when the panic is over, and the clamour is off, and when we criticise and find faults. I hope the Government is not going to be stampeded into closing these shipyards or doing anything that would be a lasting memorial to their incompetence to carry on the work of the nation. Let the Government realise what they did was for the good of the nation at the time, and although it did not materialise to the extent intended, it was magnified to a very great extent There may be a motive behind all this criticism outside of this House. There are people in the world who do not want the shipyards continued, but want to see them closed down and derelict and abandoned, and then they will come in and buy them at scrap prices and start on their own. Those things do happen. They have happened before, and will happen again. That is why we say these yards should become national yards, and they can be of use to the community, and the Government should continue to go on with them. Somebody said to me the other day, "What have you got to do with docks in the Forest of Dean?" But Beachley is part of the constituency, so to that extent we are interested, and vitally "'interested. I have paid special attention to this matter, and visited the place, and I am anxious for it to develop, and the people in the neighbourhood are anxious for it to develop, and we say to those who are trying to hamper and destroy the work of the Government, "Hands off." Criticise as much as you like any faults of the past, but do not try and influence the Government against continuing this work, and of developing these yards in spite of past failures, and of making them a success, that we believe they can become. Therefore, I think we can leave Chepstow and Beachley to the care of those in charge; but there are so many changes, that it is very difficult to prophesy who will be in charge of it to-morrow. We have had it hinted that probably the Ministry of Shipping will be wound up in the future, but there is such a thing as an Office of Works. But whoever will be responsible for it, we want that Department to continue, and I want to make this solemn assertion here to-day, that the trade unions have not accepted the offer made them, not because they believe it is a dead failure; they have not rejected it because they are in opposition to the Government or because of the expense, or anything of that kind, but on principle, because they believe it will lead to nationalisation and that it should be a national yard and continued as such.
Before I sit down there are one or two other things I wish to say. I may be out of order, but the Chairman will pull me up when I get there. The only way to find out whether you are out of order or not is to go on until you are pulled up. I am willing to admit that the Ministry of Shipping have had a very difficult task and have done some very good work, but there are some things that pass our comprehension. As we move about from place to place and from port to port, we have seen some strange and mysterious changes, and we have wondered why. Take, for instance, the great Barry Dock. I remember the Office of Works building hugeware houses there, and there was a constant, steady stream of Government traffic coming into the port, but all of a sudden, twelve months ago almost this very week, all that traffic was stopped and diverted to somewhere else, and those warehouses are lying idle for the want of traffic. I could multiply that in many ways. I have gone to other ports whore I have seen warehouses bulging out and ready to burst, with the docks full of shipping, and it has been a mystery to me why these things should occur and why shipping should not be distributed to greater advantage. I know the difficulties of the Ministry in handling shipping at the present time, but we are filled with amazement that there is not a more equal distribution of the trade of the country among the various ports. I know two or three other places which arc starving for work to-day, while other places are overloaded.
There is one other thing that seems to me to have been omitted from the statement of the hon. Gentleman to-day. Some of us would like to know what has become of the German shipping that has been handed over for us to take charge of. We would like to know who has got it, and what proportion of it goes to the United States and what proportion of it is retained for Great Britain. We would like to know what is the size of the shipping and what use it is to be applied to. We read strange things in the newspapers, to which we do not always attach as much importance as we ought to, perhaps; but when we are perplexed about these things we would like to know authoritatively and from the right quarter what is the exact position. Therefore, we hope that when the reply is given we shall have some assurance that the German shipping that has been taken over will be properly distributed, and that Great Britain shall have at least its fair share to meet the needs and shortage of shipping at the present day. I will conclude by saying that we as a Labour party are not trying to hamper the development of the Ministry or the development of Beachley and Chepstow, and Portbury, but we are here to bear our testimony to the effect that whatever assistance Labour can give they will give. Call us into consultation, not after the job is done, not after the trouble has been created, not after the difficulties have been multiplied, not after you have exhausted your experts and your clever men, but call us in at the beginning, tell us what you are going to do, let us know what are your intentions, ask us if we can give you any advice from a Labour standpoint, and we can do it. We say without boasting that we do know something of the practical labour side of the question, and we should be pleased to come in at the beginning, not at the finish, and help you to prevent difficulties accumulating; but, notwithstanding that the difficulties have accumulated, the Labour party are prepared to stand by the Government in nationalising these yards and keeping the exploiters off, so that we can get on with the work and make it a success, as I believe it can be made.
I think this is the sixth time I have had the pleasure of replying at this box for the national shipyards, and on this sixth occasion I find myself compelled to repeat what I have said before. I have heard nothing new in the Debate to-day except the very kind personal references to myself. Apart from that, what we have heard to-day about the national shipyards is exactly what we have heard on other occasions. When the decision was taken that we should increase the shipbuilding capacity of the country, as my hon. Friend the Member for the Forest of Dean (Mr. Wignall) has said, we were not in the happy position we are in to-day. Sinkings by the submarines were going up each month, and the number of submarines which were being sunk was not increasing. At that time, in July, 1917, the estimate of the loss of world tonnage—and I will ask this Committee to recognise that at that time it was world tonnage and not British tonnage we had to look at; it was a world war and we were the world carriers; we filled up the blanks for everybody—the estimate given us of the losses of world tonnage was put at between 8,000,000 and 9,000,000 tons a year for last year and this year if the War went on. This Committee is considering the situation in a very different atmosphere. In 1917 I was told that in 1919, so-far as the naval experts could give us their opinion, we could not count on less than a gross loss of between 8,000,000" and 9,000,000 tons this year, and that is what I had to reckon on. We had turned out in the first half of 1917 approximately 500,000 tons of shipping, and we were losing world shipping at the rate of 500,000 tons a month. Now it is a very different atmosphere to-day. At that time things were going fairly well with the War on land, and the estimate which was put before the Cabinet of the shipping situation, the statement of the shipping situation, was not merely a sketchy statement. It was a carefully compiled document of twenty-six pages, which reviewed the whole situation, and on that we decided, having regard to the American possibilities—and they "were not probabilities then, they were possibilities—in shipping, and that our estimated loss, a compared with the world estimated loss and as distinct from it, was between 4,700,000 and 5,700,000 tons per year, that we should aim at 3,100,000 tons output. That was the situation that we had to face then.
I will repeat the figures, because it is only on the figures that I can get the Committee really to see the situation we had to face. The estimate given us was a gross world loss of between 8,000,000 and 9,000,000 tons a year, and that was to goon this year. Our actual estimated British loss was between 4,750,000 and 5,750,000 tons a year, and we were actually turning out for the first half of 1917 500,000 tons, or 1,000,000 tons for the year, if the rate did not improve. On those figures the Cabinet decided that we should endeavour to get 3,100,000 tons of shipping capacity created which did not exist. In the boom shipbuilding year in this country, which was 1913, the merchant yards turned out 1,900,000 tons of merchant shipping, and the warship output, calculated on the most approximate basis we can get, was 362,000 tons. We had to reckon on a 3,100,000 tons output. That is what we had to estimate for, and at the same time we had to maintain a 1,500,000 ions output of warships. Compare that with the boom year. In the boom year of 1913 our yards did 1,900,000 tons of merchant shipping and a calculated figure of 362,000 tons of warships. To meet the programme, even to the extent we thought we could meet it, we had to turn out 1,500,000 tons of warships from the yards and 3,100,000 tons of merchant ships. It was estimated then that that could best be done in this way, that the existing merchant shipbuilding accommodation could, with the simplified standard ship which was then in existence, turn out 2,500,000 tons. It had never turned out more than 1,900,000 tons before, and in this particular year it had to do 1,500,000 tons of warships as well. It was estimated that the existing yards could turn out 2,500,000 tons, that extensions could be put down for another 250,000 tons, and we had to find capacity for another 360,000 tons somewhere else. We found that in the yards at Chepstow and Portbury. That was where we believed we could get it.
If the Committee will consider the situation with these figures before them, and the fact that the Army was doing pretty well in France in the autumn of 1917—we had just taken the Vimy Ridge, we had just got past Peronne, and we were going to attack Messines—we said we have got an estimated Joss of merchant shipping of between 8,000,000 and 9,000,000 tons in the world, and we are going to lose the war at sea. Someone had to decide the proportion of effort to be put into warships and anti-submarine ships, and the proportion to be put into the merchant snips, and someone had to decide what steps we were to take to improve and increase our capacity. Now the responsibility for that is hardly realisable to-day, and that responsibility was mine. I have been asked to-day to apologise here, in this atmosphere, for the decision I took in 1917, and I do not wish to apologise. I was right, and I would do it again. We reckoned that if the submarine sinkings went on, we would have to stop the supply of men for the Army, and we would have to withdraw men from the Army, because the sea was the weakest front—not the Royal Navy sea, but the mercantile sea. The Royal Navy could not keep the submarine under. We had to reckon that, if the submarines went on increasing, our vital cord would be cut. We had to reckon that if we did not build destroyers, we might find it impossible to get the Americans across the Atlantic, and it was because we went on with the destroyer programme, and kept men on that work, instead of spreading them on other yards, that we got the Americans over, and it was the British Navy that did it.
Where could we have got the men had the ships gone on going to the bottom as fast as they did? We could have got the men for Chepstow and Beachley by getting them from the Army, but when these yards began to arrive at the state when production could start, I would ask you to think what had happened in France. Think of March, 1918. Were we going to bring men back then and hold drafts here, and put men to the yards to build ships? Who could have foreseen it? You could not have foreseen it in 1917. We can all see it now. We can all be wise after the event. If we had not built these yards and provided for increased shipbuilding facilities where would we have been? When the War ended there was a larger number of German submarines coming into commission than ever before. There were more submarines on the stocks in Germany than ever, and the biggest submarine effort of the War was coming on. It was because their armies broke that that did not materialise. If their armies had not broken, where would we have been but for Chepstow and Beachley? The reason these yards had not produced— and we have heard a great deal about it—was because they were not necessary, and the men were wanted elsewhere, and they went to their graves elsewhere. That was why these yards were never developed. You might just as well say what was the use of having a reserve of shells. The yards were to provide against contingencies, which, thank God, never happened. If the War had not ended, we should be requiring the shipyards now, and not discussing it in this atmosphere. As to the future of these yards, I believe they are a good scheme. I have the best reason for saying so. There is no shipbuilder in this country who has a better right to speak than Lord Pirrie, and Lord Pirrie is convinced that they are a good scheme— a wise provision.
His opinion, I think, in July, 1918, was given in the letter I have already read to the House. This was Lord Pirrie's letter, in reply to a request from me:
You put two questions to me, and I answer them with pleasure. The first is—Was the national shipyard scheme a wise and prudent undertaking a year ago? My reply is—that taking all the circumstances as they were, I am decidedly of the opinion, even in the light of all the helpful criticism which has been made and looking at the question in a more deliberate way than was then possible, the decision taken by the Cabinet was absolutely correct.
The second question is: With the modification of circumstances——
That is, after a year had passed—
since the undertaking was embarked upon, and 'with the modifications consequent or otherwise in the general scheme, is it a wise and prudent undertaking to-day? My reply is—The necessity for the national shipyards is even of more importance at the present day than in 1917, when it was felt something must be done with a view to furthering production. On account of the serious losses sustained, many berths in the private shipyards must be occupied for a considerable time to come by ships building for the important Transatlantic and other shipping companies, and while the existing shipyards can be utilised to a great extent for the building of such ships, the national shipyards will he able to produce purely cargo-fabricated boats, the material for which will have been largely prepared in the various bridge yards. In my opinion, the undertaking on its present basis is a wise and prudent undertaking which will be of immense benefit to the country in the continuance of the War."—(OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th July, 1918, col. 299, Vol. 109.)
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying that I cannot say that to-day. I have had nothing to do with the national shipyards for a great many months now, and I only entered into this Debate "because my responsibility, first, as Controller, and, secondly, as First Lord of the Admiralty, was to say why we started these yards. I do not know in the least. I am not in the counsels of Lord Pirrie on the subject now. I do not know that I can usefully add much more to the Debate. The situation at the time these yards were decided upon, we all know, was very different from what it is to-day. I do not deny that prudent formalities, which any business man, even one who has entered the Government, would go in for, were omitted, because there was not time to indulge in them. There were no detailed estimates, as the Committee knows. Under normal circumstances that would be inexcusable; in the circumstances that existed, it would have been inexcusable to have waited. And when we discuss a matter of this kind, with the Warover, with the shipping situation stabilised, at any rate, with no dangers surrounding us at all, it is a very different thing from discussing it when there are coupons and queues.
I only desire to make one or two observations on this subject, because I myself was at the Admiralty as First Lord when my right hon. Friend came there as Controller, and I think if the House would realise what we were going through at that time, they would be able to bring themselves back to something like what we had to contend with. We were losing ships through the intensive submarine warfare at a rate that it was impossible to provide against, and we had many anxious consultations as to whether, at the rate ships were able to be built, we would really be able, after a few months, to continue the transfer of troops and stores to France, and at the same time, above all things, to feed this country. The situation was one of the gravest, if not the gravest, that had arisen throughout the whole war, and I remember that the very first consultation my right hon. Friend and myself had was when we agreed that he ought to devote his time to making an elaborate report after long inquiry as to what was the possible output that we could get from the private yards in this country. I remember, after several weeks, he produced a report which was certainly a very disappointing one, and one which even increased the anxiety that we felt before. Under those circumstances, what were the Government to do? Was there any course open to them if they were to be a sane Government, but to take—whether it was economical or un- economical—any steps that were necessary? Nothing, I think, is more unfair, and nothing, I think, is more harmful at the present time than to be trying to create irritation amongst the public, and a feeling against the Government amongst the public in consequence of what I may call now surplus arrangements, which have ceased to be necessary in consequence of the cessation of the War. I notice, no matter what it is, whether it be an overplus of shells, or an overplus of aeroplanes, or an overplus of ships, or whatever it is, a certain class of newspapers take that as an opportunity for abusing the Government, whereas we know perfectly well that one of the matters that stirred the country more than anything else was when in 1915 we found the country without sufficient ammunition, because there had not been sufficient "foresight in seeing what would be required as the War progressed.
I quite agree with my hon. and gallant Friend opposite. In my opinion, the Government would have been guilty of criminal negligence, of the greatest crime towards this country, and particularly towards our soldiers who were fighting in France and elsewhere, if they had not—whether it did or did not pay—taken every effort that was possible for the purpose of supplying the country with ships. Then came the Armistice, much more quickly than most of us thought, and there are people who now imagine that they foresaw, or that the Government ought to have foreseen, that the Armistice would suddenly come, and that therefore we ought to have stopped all the arrangements before the month of November last. I think that of all the arguments, that kind of argument is most misleading and mischievous to the public. I believe the Government were absolutely right in the course they took, not only as regards these shipyards, but as regards all the other preparations which have cost the country, no doubt, a great deal of money. But if to-day we were still at war, what would have been said when you were getting your extra output of ships? You would be saying that this was the most splendid Government ever seen. Look how they foresaw this! I only thought it right, as having some re- sponsibility myself in the matter, to make these few observations. The question of what ought to be done with these yards is an entirely different question. Whether immediately the War was over the Government ought to have cut their losses and given them up, I am not prepared, because I have not sufficient information, to form an opinion, but as to their original institution, I have no doubt whatsoever.
As one who has had a close and intimate knowledge of what has been discussed here this afternoon, I should like to make a few remarks. I am in a good deal of agreement with what the right hon. and learned Gentleman who has just sat down has said. I should be the last one to cast a stone at the Government for having taken too great precautions or exercised too great foresight. However, I did not come here to criticise this aspect —[HON. MEMBERS: "Speak up!"]— of the case. I cannot quite agree that there is no reason for criticism to be offered to the scheme of the Government. The hon. Gentleman the Member for the Forest of Dean-talked about the whole country being in-a panic because of the want of ship-building yards. Well, at that time Chepstow was in the hands of a private concern, Lord Inchcape and his company, preparations were being made for an immediate-output of tonnage. I believe to this day that had that yard been left in the hands-of that company there would have been a great deal of tonnage, whereas there has been none. At that time those of us who had thoroughly considered this subject and were deeply desirous of adding to our fleets in view of the steamers we had lost, in the submarine warfare, were considering matters, and were anxious; and the shipbuilders themselves considered that if the money that was going to be spent on Chepstow was spent on enlarging these other yards, many of which had extra slips and accommodation for building, it would have been better. There would have been better results had that been carried out, and Government schemes such as Chepstow put to one side. However, I do not want, now that the whole thing is over, to cast stones or to rake up the embers of the past. Undoubtedly there was a great deal to be said for the other idea. Chepstow was not the only alternative, and had some of our suggestions been adopted, and the other plan put forward tried, we would have been much further ahead with ship-building when the Armistice was declared. There was no panic among those interested in ship-building; but there was anxiety. We were told that while the great trouble was the lack of men, that in respect to Chepstow the Government would supply the men, namely, military and German prisoners. I do not know personally, I could not get up and contradict what has been said, but I understand from statements which have been made, that there was really no military and no German prisoners of war available for this work. I can only add that a great many of Lord Pirrie's confreres and shipping friends entirely disagree with both his past and present opinion about the undertaking at Chepstow.
We come, then, to the point of what are we going to do? The hon. Member for East Edinburgh said, "Cut your losses." With that I entirely and absolutely agree. The hon. Member for the Forest of Dean seemed to think, because the hon. Gentleman said "Cut your losses," that he meant "Scrap the thing, put it on the dustheap, break it up, or let it stand stagnant." He did not mean anything of the kind. He suggested what the Government will have to do. They cannot let the yard lie fallow. They will never get from the trade unions, or the private owner, anything like the money they have spent on the yard. Commercially it would be ruinous. I do not think it is quite fair on the part of the hon. Member for East Edinburgh to say that this offer, that has been read, was only made to the trade unions as a last resort and after nobody else would take the yard over. That is totally untrue. There are quite a number of private firms quite willing to make an offer for the yard. But I think that the Government did the right thing in saying to the trade unions: "Here is a spendidly equipped yard; take it over and work it"—that they said this to those who are always clamouring for the nationalisation of this, that, or the other, or for things to be worked on a co-operative basis: "We are prepared to hand over to you this yard on very favourable terms"—what has been characterised as one of the finest ship-building yards in the world —and a ship-building yard that no private capitalist would ever have thought of laying down. This beautiful and highly equipped yard is now in the market. During my election I was constantly being asked by co-operators, who are is abundance in my Constituency, about this yard. I told them what a glorious chance they had to show what they could do. "Why," I said to them, "do not you people show to us what the administration of labour can do in a matter of this sort. Labour is everything in your eyes; show us, then, that you can do without the hated capitalist. Go in and abolish his profits. Take the opportunity offered to you. Take your chance now you have it." But I felt perfectly certain that the trade unions would not accept the offer. They did not want to be put to the test. They know the difficulties. They know what they would be up against. They would be up against themselves in the first place. Your scheme, Mr. Whitley, has been highly commended by the Government and advocated on all hands. One part of your scheme is that both sides should be highly organised—employers and employed. Suppose this shipbuilding yard is taken over by the employers, and that employers on the one side and employés on the other are highly organised; what is going to happen when a strike takes place? Behind the employers will be the Government. That is the point. Why do not they accept this offer? The price would have been arranged. I know for a fact that the Government were prepared to be very reasonable in this matter, and in the matter of working capital. They would have run no-great risks. The terms of payment would have been easy. Not only so, but they had been offered the assistance of some of the most highly trained ship-building-people at the present time in the country. Why, a more glorious chance cannot be imagined for those who believe in their own ability. I can see in their declaration, what some of us have believed all along— that they have no belief in their own ability to organise and conduct the great businesses of this country.
It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to laugh. I think he would not do so if he went in and took some of the risks that ship-builders have taken for years past. In many of the contracts made no money is paid till the vessel has passed her trial trip, and conformed to the specifications and terms of the contract. These are often very onerous indeed. What happens to the private builder if he makes a mistake in regard to a vessel is—it may be that she is too large of beam, or top-heavy, or in some way does not conform to the specification? There is the chance of the vessel being left on the builder's hands. These risks every ship-builder has to take. I think, therefore, our friends opposite, so far as I tan see, came to a very wise decision not to take any of these risks. I would have liked very much indeed to have seen them start. They think there would have been a feeling against them, and opposition, and perhaps boycott on the part of other ship-builders. That is a great mistake. Many of us were quite interested in the experiment, and would have given orders to them on quite the same terms as we gave them to other builders. There would have been no boycott by the steel works or the forge people. The Labour party has shown a good deal of ability, in the use of very strong measures, but I want to assure my hon. Friends that they would have got their contracts from the steel works and the forge on the same terms as anybody else. They would probably have realised from the experiment that that unnecessary person, the capitalist, could not very well be done without.
However, hon. Members opposite have had their chance. They have not taken it. They will not, therefore, be called upon to come forward hereafter and urge what they would have done. The unions would not have had the difficulty that employers have, the heavy competition, or when trade was slack the trouble to get orders. Many times in my life I had to hunt about for orders. At a time of slackness the shipowner does not come to you; you have to follow him, and not only in this country, but to other countries. The worst thing the country can possibly do is to embark upon national ship-building or national anything else. Now that they have finished their negotiations with the trade unions I am perfectly certain that there would be no difficulty in getting enterprising ship-builders to come forward and give them better terms than those upon which they have offered the yard to the unions. There is no need whatever to think about scrapping, or breaking up, or anything of that kind. This well equipped yard can be made a success by those who have been accustomed to work of the kind.
As regards shipping itself, I do not know about the selling of standard ships. During my election campaign it was a very high offence on the part of the Govern- ment to think of handing these ships over to private owners. The suggestion implied they were likely to be a gift to private owners. I can only say this: The Government have got prices for these standard ships which a good many of us think scarcely justified. The Government have come out of the whole transaction splendidly. They have done a very wise thing. Tonnage is scarce and prices high. They have done well to clear out and not wait till afterwards, when probably they might have had to take from £10 to £15 less per deadweight ton than now. I think Lord Inchcape and some of our hon. Friends here—Sir Owen Philipps amongst others—did a very, very great thing for the Government in coming forward as they did, with splendid enterprise, and taking these vessels off their hands at their own risk. There could not be any possibility of making a bargain. Lord Inchcape told me at the time that he did not want to make profit, and that if he made a loss he was quite prepared to suffer that. Those associated with him and himself, however, thought it right that the Government should be relieved of these ships that they were prepared to sell at the time, because private enterprise could, fortunately, put these ships to better use than could the Government. I had the honour of being president of the Chamber of Shipping of the United Kingdom during two of the most serious years of the War. I know something of the anxiety of the First Lord of the Admiralty, and of his predecessor, the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I know a little about the management of the Ministry of Shipping, and I know that during a great war you cannot conduct shipping on the same basis as in times of peace. Risks have to be run, and vessels have to be diverted, and this could only be justified on account of war. A great deal of the success of the Ministry of Shipping is due to the shipowners, who gave up their businesses and offered their services to the Admiralty, which were accepted, and throughout all those years a great deal of the management of our shipping was done by practical shipowners, who gave their services, most of them gratuitously. I can corroborate the statement that no one is more desirous to demobilise the Ministry of Shipping than the Shipping Controller, and we shall be glad when we get rid of Government control of shipping.
The Ministry have done very well up to now, but we know that for a long time to come there will be difficulties. Throughout all the restrictions and the taking over of nearly every ship we possess, there never was the slightest resistance on the part of British shipowners, who gave their full co-operation, and often against their better judgment did the things they were requested to do by the State Department I will not follow the hon. Member opposite in his diatribes about the employment of Asiatic labour, because most of them are totally untrue. Having inquired into this question, I have no hesitation in saying that we have had no more faithful servants than these coloured men, who took their chance on all occasions of danger, and I never heard of a refusal on their part to go to sea. I have never heard anything but praise in regard to their bravery. Many of them are really British. I think the Ministry of Shipping deserve well at our hands, and I commend the decision to clear out the ships at the earliest possible moment and to sell every ship they have built at the best possible price, and I think it will be found in the end that the British Government have made money out of their ships. I do not quite think that the British nation realises the cheapness of the transit of men and material in this "War, because thousands and hundreds of thousands of tons have been carried to various ports of the world for nothing. You may imagine that it is romance but it is absolutely true. They took one of my vessels on a time charter and sent her to the depot at Port Said. They placed coals upon her at 25s. per ton and she was sent to another port, and when I came to the end of my account I found that for the use of a 9,000-ton vessel I did not get anything, in fact I found I had to pay something, and that cargo was carried out of Port Said for nothing. There are thousands of cases of the same kind. Do not imagine that the much-abused Government officials do not know how to make grist for the Government mill. My complaint is not against them, but against the Treasury. I could go on speaking for a great deal longer, "but I will conclude because I have now mentioned my main points.
I hope the Government are not going to take the advice of the hon. Member who has just sat down. One would conclude from his last few sentences that the shipowners during the War have been living on their losses, but I think they have made more profit during the War period than anybody else.
The hon. Member said that the Government had been carrying a good deal of material for which they paid nothing at all, but, in spite of that, I think the shipowners have done fairly well during the War period, although a number of them had their ships commandeered. I think the balance-sheet exposed through the various newspapers has made it perfectly plain that, so far as the shipowners are concerned, they have nothing to complain about. The hon. Member opposite said he hoped that the Government would get rid of the national yards at the earliest opportunity. So far as we are concerned we take the opposite view, and we hope the Government will hold tight and do the best they can to develop the shipyards and build more ships than they are doing at the present time. We are told that the Government cannot build ships for the Mercantile Marine, and it is stated that they are only entitled to build ships for their own use, such as warships and torpedo-boats, and the other component parts of the Navy, and it is stated that once the Government start outside that business they are going beyond their powers and functions. On these benches, however, we take a different view. I want to point out that at the meeting of the Shipbuilding and Engineering Federation, held last Thursday, when we considered the whole scheme as to whether it would be wise or not to take over those shipyards from a trade union point of view, we had a very excellent report from a man who knew what he was talking about, and a man who has traversed all those works from top to bottom. Personally, I have never visited those shipyards, but a committee of the Shipbuilders' and Engineering Federation paid a visit there on Wednesday last. They went over all the berths, and examined for themselves every piece of machinery that is there at the disposal of someone, and the decision of that Committee was unanimous that these berths are up-to-date, and that the machinery in those works is the best it is possible to obtain, in any part of the country. There are very good railway facilities and waterways, so that you can get your ships away, and get your raw material in very easily.
The point I want to bring forward is that we have been condemned by a very large number of newspapers on account of the delegates turning down the offer made by the Government. My right hon. Friend said there was a good offer of a perfect shipyard, with the best up-to-date machinery, and he said that he thought it would have been advisable for the trade union movement to have taken over those yards, and to have commenced building ships in order to show their business capacity, and in order to show the world whether they could not turn out ships just as easily as the shipbuilders themselves. The hon. Member said he did not think there was any possible chance of people boycotting those responsible for work in that yard, but, as they say in the North, "I hae ma doots." My hon. Friend will remember that when the engineers' strike happened in 1896, there was a universal strike in the engineering trade, and there was the case of the Thames Ironworks in my Constituency. The management of that shipyard gave eight hours to their engineers and in consequence of making that concession to the boiler makers and engineers in that shipyard from that very day until the time the whole yard was dismantled it was boycotted by all the shipbuilders throughout the length and breadth of the country.
What happened when they built the "Thunderer"? As a matter of fact the armour-plate manufacturers hemmed this firm in all the time, and the result was that when the final cost of the "Thunderer" was arrived at, it was found that there was £20,000 of a loss outside the amount of the contract, and this was due to the way this firm was hemmed in by this armour-plate ring. If these ships were taken over at Chepstow, it is true the armour-plate ring would not come in, but if the trade union movement took over that shipyard they would have to rely upon private enterprise for their raw material. My hon. Friend is not going to make me believe that, with very few exceptions, any of the men engaged in shipbuilding or in supplying raw material will give any encouragement to the trade union movement to build ships in competition with private enterprise or give them the same facilities as they give to their own combination. It is not a question to-day of individuals, but of one huge combine supplying each other within the combine with the raw material. Supposing we were not hampered in this way, we should have to compete in the open world. It is a question whether the Government would give us a chance of building some of the war vessels or some of the vessels that may be required for the Government. It is the aim of us all to cut down armaments as speedily as possible, and we hope that the time will arrive when we shall not want any more ships, and we should have to compete in the open world. Therefore, although we might have as good workmen as in any other yard, still, having to compete in the open world I should not advise entering into that form of co-partnership at all.
I am an old Socialist of about thirty-five years' standing, and I have advocated the nationalization of the land, shipping, mines, railways, and things of that kind, and it would be inconsistent of me and some of my colleagues to embark upon the scheme suggested. We are not going to enter into that competition. I hope the time will arrive when we shall not have the same inhuman competition as we have to-day. I recognise that it is not so keen to-day, but when Peace has been ratified we shall have it as we had it before, and I want to see it eliminated, because wage-earners have suffered more from it than, anybody in the country. I quite admit that this was a very good offer and that the Government would give facilities for the borrowing of the money, but surely if money were borrowed those who were responsible for running the yard would have-to pay it back in some shape or form? I would never be a party to borrowing money unless I could see my way to paying it back. I am not that dishonest, although I know there are a large number of unscrupulous men in the country. Every one of the organisations in the trade union movement has its rules and regulations, and those rules and regulations will not allow us to spend money in that direction. We are under an Act of Parliament, the Trade Union Act or the Friendly Societies Act, and we are in duty bound to carry out our rules and regulations. If any money were taken from the common or central fund, or if any organisation attempted to invest in such an undertaking, although) they might form themselves, into, a com- pany, I suggest that one or two cantankerous members would obtain an injunction to restrain us from running the yard.
My hon. Friend forgets that if a company were formed from the trade union movement we should be denounced from all quarters unless we invested certain sums of our own in the enterprise. We have not arrived at that state of perfection yet, and I do not think the trade union movement on any occasion will take up this venture. A great deal has been said about the money that has been spent on the shipyard at Chepstow. I thought the ex-First Lord of the Admiralty gave a very good explanation this afternoon. Twelve months ago everybody was in a panic. It is just twelve months since the last German aircraft came to London, and I know we got an awful hammering at West Ham. People at that time were very much concerned, not only in consequence of the visits of German aircraft, but also on account of the tremendous amount of shipping that was being sunk. The Government were absolutely wise in doing what they did. Supposing they did waste £2,000,000, how many millions have been wasted in other directions? It is a mere drop in the ocean. If the Armistice had not come so suddenly, and the War were still going on, the Government, if they had not carried out this scheme, would have been condemned from every side for not having had the foresight to put down a shipyard. It is an excellent shipyard, and the surroundings are beautiful. [Laughter.] Why should not the workers have beautiful surroundings? I quite recognise that the housing question is one of the difficulties, and someone has got to spend a lot of money on building houses. You cannot expect people to go to any locality, whether for shipbuilding or any other building, unless there is proper housing accommodation.
As a matter of fact, the gentleman who gave us all the information that was at his disposal said, and the delegates believed, that there was a good venture for someone. Of course, it depends upon how much money a private firm, assuming that the Government make up their mind to sell it to a private firm, have to pay for it. If they have to pay more than they think they ought to be asked to pay, it will mean that they will not be able to get their 5 or 10 per cent. They will not 'be content with 5 per cent., because they can get that in War Loan. The surroundings are beautiful; there is every facility given for waterways, railways, and all the rest of it, but the housing problem will have to be tackled, and the Government would be wise to build even more houses. I have given the Committee the reasons why the trade unions have turned the matter down. We do not feel that we are justified. We do not say that we are not qualified; personally, I think we are qualified. It is against our national policy and trade union money cannot be invested in undertakings of this kind. Personally, I am exceedingly glad the Government made provision for turning out many more ships. Last Thursday we were told that there are about thirty or forty slips, including slips on which ships can be built to a length of from 600 to 700 feet. I quite understand, if things had boon otherwise and it had not been absolutely necessary to construct these slips very speedily, if proper estimates and bills of quantities could have been got out, that they would have been built cheaper, but the same remark applies to many public buildings. Huge factories were built without any specifications or estimates being submitted. It was merely said, "Get on with the work and build as quickly as you can." Why, therefore, should the shipyards be singled out for this criticism? There has been a little money spent, but the money was well and wisely spent.
The Debate has been very interesting, and I agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for West Ham (Colonel Thorne) that the Government were justified when the time Chepstow was undertaken. I know that much of the criticism has been based on political antipathy. It was evidently a good bird to fight, and I am glad that the ex-First Lord of the Admiralty made such an admirable answer to the criticism this afternoon. A few days ago I heard it sarcastically suggested that Chepstow would want a now Goldsmith, not to sing of "The Deserted Village," but of "The Deserted Town," that will be known to history as "The Geddes Town," and stand for the failure of the Government during the War. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Havelock Wilson) will be grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for the tribute that he paid to the Mercantile Marine for their conduct during the four and a half years of agony through which we have passed. I am glad to know that the appreciation is not going to end with the cessation of hostilities. It is perfectly true that there is hardly any body of workers who were so neglected and badly paid as the Mercantile Marine before they gave to the world such examples of heroism and devotion to their country in their hour of need. The hon. and gallant Gentleman went on to say that the Goverment had a small item of £10,000 tucked away somewhere in an Estimate of £3,000,000. There ought to be; a closer association between the Navy and the Mercantile Marine, and I hope arising out of their community of sacrifice and their association in peril that the toast that is given upon the battleship or upon the merchant ship will combine the two services, and instead of being, "The Navy," will be "The Navy and the Mercantile Marine," in every fo'castle and cabin of every ship that leaves these shores.
I am all in favour of the educational scheme. The hon. and gallant Gentleman said that the school at Gravesend had not only given great satisfaction and had proved its utility but had excited the desire in other great ports for the establishment of a similar agency for the training of the youth of this country to follow the sea. He stated, that according to a rough estimate, it would require something like 5,000 youths per annum. That is not an extravagant estimate of the needs of the Mercantile Marine. We have heard in the discussion about Chepstow of the need of a greater Mercantile Marine. I am greatly perturbed about the immediate needs of this country as a great carrying power in the world. I was aghast when I saw it published that the great German Mercantile Marine tied up in New York harbours had been taken over by the United States. We have lost somewhere in the neighbourhood of 7,000,000 gross tonnage—that is not an accurate way of putting it, dead weight would be better than gross tonnage—and the United States have lost somewhere in the neighbourhood of 350,000 tons. There was lying in New York harbours 660,000 tonnage belonging to the German nation, America has been permitted to take that tonnage and has thus become a formidable competitor in the carrying trade of the world. I am not for a moment seeking to create any trouble between this country and America. I know you can have success all the time if you always give way to the other fellow. It is easy to get success if you let the other fellow have it all his own way. Let us see the position we are in to-day. We are denuded of all our great mercantile fleet to the tune of 7,000,000 tons. We are conscious of the fact that while we have been fighting for our very lives America, by coming in late, has had very great advantages. She has not the financial burden to carry that we have in this country. And yet at this supreme crisis in our national history, when we are staggering under this heavy load of debt, when it is a very matter of life to us to recover as speedily as possible, someone in authority has allowed the United States to take to her own use this mighty German fleet that was lying in her harbours. Let us be under no delusion. Most of the ships she has taken are ships which cannot be replaced at very short notice. Take a boat like the "Vaterland." I am told that it will be difficult to build ships of that class for many a long day to come in this country. I know her tonnage, but I am talking about the difficulty of building that class of ship. She is a great Atlantic steamer, and we have lost many of ours. She can carry a very large amount of cargo. We have quietly, and, as far as I know, without any protest, allowed the United States to capture this great mercantile navy, and as surely as the night follows the day it will be used in international competition to the detriment of this country, and will increase our burdens, our responsibilities, and our difficulties. One of the chief reasons why I have risen to intervene in this Debate is that I may at least call the attention of the Committee to the real danger that this transaction presents to this country. I hope that, if the bargain is not finally clinched and if America has not said definitely and irrevocably that she will not give up any ships, it will at least be one of the duties of the hon. and gallant Gentleman who has so ably represented his Department, to see to it that overtures are made so that part of that fleet may be brought to this country to help us to recover, and to find places for those men whom we anticipate training for our Mercantile Marine. I would also call the hon. and gallant Gentleman's attention to the fact that, owing to our great losses of ships, there "are many sailors unemployed in the various ports of this country. How they are going to get employment if he is going to increase their number, in face of the shortage of ships, is a conundrum which I am not prepared to answer. If, however, overtures could be made to get part of that fleet handed over to this country we should not only ease the difficulties arising from shortage of ships, but give an assurance to those young men who are going to be given a nautical training that, after they have been trained, they will not be unemployed. I think we are entitled to that, because we have been the greatest sufferers in this War from loss of tonnage. I sincerely hope that as a result of this Debate we shall at least realise that what the Government did, whether at Chepstow or anywhere else, in keeping up our mercantile fleet, was sound policy in the interests of the country. If there was a loss, let us thank Heaven the loss was not greater, and that we are not under the heel of Germany at the present moment, instead of bemoaning the loss of a few millions that were spent in preparation for eventualities which never came to pass. I want the hon. and gallant Gentleman also to bear in mind that the Mercantile Marine, having been recognized and appreciated at something near its full value, will claim in the days to come a greater appreciation from the country than it has had in the past. That means that the Government, if they are going to train young men for a sea life, should take steps to ensure that there are ships for them to go to sea in.
I should like to approach this Debate at an entirely new angle, that of a naval officer who had a good deal to do with the Ministry of Shipping when serving at the Admiralty during the War and also when on convoy work in the Mediterranean. I have heard the Minister of Shipping criticised and praised, and I want to say that from one point of view, namely, that of the strategical handling of our ships in face of the submarine menace, the Ministry of Shipping did admirably. It was one of the causes that helped us to pull through and defeat the very grave submarine menace, which almost lost us the War. Particularly I should like to say that important work was done by the representatives of the Ministry of Shipping, many of them men of affairs, owners of large businesses, who left this country and went out to the different ports of the world as representatives of the Ministry of Shipping. They did a very great work indeed in speeding up the handling and turning round of ships and formation of convoys, and were of the greatest assistance to the Admiralty representatives in the different ports. I am sorry that the hon. Member who has just spoken (Mr. Seddon) has left the Committee, as I should have liked to join with him in saying that the Navy fully appreciates, and I think has the best reason to appreciate, the magnificent services rendered by the Mercantile Marine during the War. The King's Navy sprang from the Mercantile Marine, which is the older Service, and I think there is no naval officer who will not take off his hat with great pride whenever he passes a merchant ship in the future, after all that the Merchant Service has done during the last four and a-half years. As regards the college for the training of youths, I hope steps will be taken to see that all of those youths get employment, and that those steps will be different from and additional to the steps proposed by the hon. Member who has just spoken. If aliens are going to be allowed to be employed in British ships, in the British coasting trade and in ships trading with British ports, there is a chance that those young men trained at the expense of the. State will not get berths. The reason why aliens have been employed—I am not going to mention the countries they came from, but they were not only Germans—is that they would work for less money and under worse conditions than the British, seafarer. I am sure that we in this Committee all hope that the British Mercantile Marine will be a well paid, healthy occupation, attracting the best type of young Englishman, and it that is the case there must be no undercutting by cheap alien labour. I am afraid certain shipowners—I hope there are not many—will employ the cheap alien, both on the quarter-deck and before the mast and in the stokehold, if permitted to do so, and I think early legislation should be introduced to prevent that.
What is going to be the future of the Ministry of Shipping? We all want to see the number of Government Departments reduced as soon as possible, but I think the Ministry of Shipping might be transferred and take over the functions at present carried out by three other Departments—three stools between which the Mercantile Marine, which after agriculture is our most important industry, has fallen heretofore. Those three stools are the Board of Trade, the Admiralty and the Foreign Office. I think it would be a most admirable thing if a separate Ministry of Marine could be formed in this country. We are the only maritime country that has not a Ministry of Marine, solely charged with looking after the Mercantile Marine. There is divided responsibility, and I believe that if such a Ministry were formed—it need not be a big one and might be presided over by an Undersecretary of State, in view of the need for economy in the future—it would be a very fine investment. It is a fact that there is a great feeling amongst the officers and men of the Mercantile Marine that their interests should be looked after by such a Ministry.
I wish to place before the Minister of Shipping a point which has so far not been mentioned, namely, the question of the freights charged by his Department since the Ministry of Shipping was first brought into operation, and particularly during the past twelve months. In order to make my point clear it will be necessary for me to go back into a little ancient history. At the outbreak of the War the Transatlantic freights for timber —I speak of timber because I am acquainted with it, but what I am saying applies also to other goods—were on the, basis of 20 cents per 100 lbs. Shortly after the commencement of the War the shipowners found very great difficulty in getting freights. Steamers were going from Pensacola to New Orleans and other ports in the Gulf of Mexico and were picking up cargo anyhow, and freights as low as 15 or 16 cents per 100 lbs., were being taken by the shipowners. Then came the passage of munitions across the Atlantic, arid freights rose rapidly to so and even 150 cents. That was owing to shortage of tonnage. That, as has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Colonel Thorne), is how such large profits were made by the steamship owners. For instance, the Cunard Steamship Company, and also, I think, the Leyland Line, showed balance sheets with profits of over £2,000,000, after paying Excess Profits Tax. When the Ministry of Shipping took over the ships, freights had risen as high as $3.50 for the same goods. The policy which was adopted by the Ministry of Shipping at that time was to take over the entire shipping space, on which they gave the shipowner, as I under- stand, the Blue-Book rates, which were 40s. a ton or 80s. a ton, the latter figure being for ordinary space and the former for dunnage The Ministry charged the ordinary trader as much as $7. What I want to know, and I cannot see it anywhere 'in the figures which have been placed before us, is where those profits have gone to? It seems an extraordinary thing, because there must have been enormous profits made. Profits made by the steamship owners in many directions were transferred to the Ministry of Shipping, and, in addition to that, they were charging higher freights than the steamship owners were charging previously.
It seems to me a very extraordinary thing that profits of that kind are not clearly shown. This question is one really of ancient history, and if the attitude of the Ministry of Shipping in the days before the Armistice was remarkable, in my opinion it has been still more remarkable since. Shortly after the Armistice was signed they reduced their freights to three dollars fifty cents, a very sensible thing to do, for they ought never to have gone up to seven dollars; and almost immediately afterwards they reduced them to one dollar, also a more or less reasonable thing to do, but now, owing to the shortage of tonnage, they have raised them to two dollars fifty cents. Thus we have had fluctuations from seven dollars down to three dollars fifty cents, then down to one dollar, and now up to two dollars fifty cents. That kind of fluctuation is very bad for the country and for trade. I would like to remind Free Traders that this is in effect a tax on imports in a very insidious form. It is the worst form of tax, and one which no Tariff Reformer could approve, because it amounts to a tax on raw material and on the. foodstuffs of the people. I have yet to learn, however, that any of my hon. Friends opposite have spoken of this tax from that point of view, although they would have done so undoubtedly had we suggested a similar tax. My criticisms so far have been largely of a destructive nature. I now want to put forward a constructive proposal, and that is that as soon as possible all ships should be released from Government control and everything be placed on the economic basis of competition.
I have only one reference to make on the question of Chepstow, and I wish to say in reply to my hon. Friend for West Ham who told us that one result of trade unions taking "over the shipyards would be that they would suffer from a boycott. I happen to come from a constituency where a trade union has taken over a factory and run it for a period of ten years and has not suffered in the way which has been suggested. The union took over a silk works in Macclesfield, and ran them, and the only point which may be of interest to the House is that the works have not been a great financial success, and that the only period during the whole ten years in which they have paid dividends has been the last accounting period during the War. I think the right hon. Gentlemen the Members for Cambridge (Sir E. Geddes) and Duncairn (Sir E. Carson) have quite misunderstood the criticisms with regard to Chepstow. They seem to think the criticism was that the scheme should not have been started, and that we did not want the ships. But the real objection was very different. The objection was to the introduction of wrong methods—to the introduction of bad business methods. For the first time since I have had the honour of being a Member of this House I have been in entire agreement with every word that has fallen from the lips of the hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Hogge), who was right in saying that if the Government are to adopt proper businesslike methods as far as Chepstow is concerned they will cut the loss, and get the best price for it as a going concern. I happen to be Chairman of the Timber Disposal Board, who are taking every means they can to get the best prices possible, but are cutting their losses as quickly as they can. I want to see the same principle applied to Chepstow, and I hope the Government will not listen to the arguments advanced from the Labour Benches and run this yard as a national factory, seeing it would mean a national loss. I am quite sure the proper method is to cut the loss as quickly as possible.
I should think the hon. and gallant Member who represents the Ministry for Shipping will be glad to escape from the stormy waters of Chepstow and to steer into the comparative calm of the Western Seas, and I hope that in drawing attention to the matter I propose to raise I shall not be considered lacking in a sense of perspective or proportion in taking hon. Members' attention away from the larger question to the smaller one of steamer communication with the Western Isles. Let me say at once that when I have approached Government Departments concerning this steamer service I have always been sympathetically received, but my answer has usually been, "Next Department, please." The Post Office, the Ministry of Food, the Secretary for Scotland, and the Ministry of Shipping are all involved in this question. But the basis of it is the shipping problem, and I hope hon. Members will for a moment turn their attention away from questions which may involve millions of money, and look to the condition of things in the Western Isles. This is no academic question. The people on the Western Isles need to live, move, and have their being very much in the same way as the inhabitants of the British Islands generally, and if it were not for the steamer service they would run the risk of being starved. Indeed, during the past few years and especially since the cessation of hostilities, the people in many parts of the Western Isles have been in danger of starvation owing to the defective character of the steamer communication. Practically, it must be admitted, private enterprise has failed in this particular direction. The people who live on these Isles are dependent on the steamers for the necessaries of life, and they have just as much right to consideration at the hands of the Government as have people who are supplied by the railways. I trust that, at any rate, the Ministry of Shipping will take this view, and will regard it as part of its duty in the future to provide a proper steamer communication for this deserving portion of our population.
Before the War things were bad enough. The steamboats were too small. When I spoke just now of the comparative calm of the Western seas, I used merely a poetic expression. It cannot fairly be applied to those seas in the winter. The boats which the people depend upon for carrying both food and passengers to and from the mainland are far too small, and by no means safe in the storms which prevail in these parts. They are also generally very insanitary. Before the War, the economic life of the Western Isles was largely dependent on the migratory habits of the young people in the islands. These fishermen and fishergirls crossed to the mainland in their thousands, in order to go round to the various fishing ports on the East coast of Scotland and England where they found employment, and the consequence very often was that in these boats hundreds of women were huddled together with the sheep and cattle without shelter, and many of them suffered seriously in health through the exposure. This is really a very urgent question for the people of these islands. They require the provision of proper and adequate steamer communication with the mainland. During the War things became much worse. The cargo steamers were wanted elsewhere, and their sailings were limited in number. The mail boats, which also carried goods and food, had their sailings reduced by one-half, and in some cases, where there were six visits of mail boats within a week before the War, there were only two in seven days now. But the people of the Western Isles were quite willing, with the rest of their fellow countrymen, to put up with these inconveniences and privations during the War. Like other folk, they had greater anxieties occupying their minds, for their men were away in the War. But now the War is over surely they have a right to expect some improvement?
What, however, do we find? I may, perhaps, be permited to read a sentence from a communication which was sent to the Secretary for Scotland from a meeting presided over by the Laird of North Last—and lairds are not a class of men apt to make exaggerated statements—in which he declared that, during the past winter, since the Armistice was signed, the communication between Glasgow and Greenock and these islands has been so defective as to result in acute distress among the inhabitants of the islands. No improvement has yet been effected. Even in the town of Stornoway, the capital of the Western Isles, within recent weeks there has been a shortage of food and other necessaries, owing to the defective steamer accommodation, and partly owing, no doubt, to the fact that a certain large contractor is building houses in that direction and for that purpose is taking up a good deal of the cargo space which is really required for food. I think the Ministry of Shipping should see to it that foodstuffs have priority over building material in a case like this. I think by this time we ought to be gradually getting away from war conditions. Considering all that they have done in this War and, considering the peculiar economic conditions of these islands, and the many things we have to put up with, it is not too much to claim that all these islands should have daily communication with the mainland, and I hope the Post Office, the Ministry of Shipping, the Ministry of Food, and the Scottish Office, between them will see to it that that is done.
I brought this under the notice of the Ministry of Food some time ago, and drew attention to the fact that there is an acute shortage of food. They were very sympathetic, and told me there was an additional boat to be provided to carry foodstuffs to the Western Islands to meet immediate wants. I have been to the Western Isles since then, and that boat has never been seen there. I heard she was seen in some other islands. I have no doubt the piratical instincts of some of the islands are still active. In any case I discovered that this boat, which was supposed to have gone to my Constituency, was stolen by the Constituency of the Solicitor-General, and went to the Island of Skye. It was a firm promise to me that she should have gone to the Western Isles. I do not think the Solicitor-General should take advantage of his position in the Government to have grabbed that steamer from my more deserving Constituents in the Western Isles. I hope that will be put right, and that the Ministry will take this up as a very serious matter and see to it that there is proper provision made for carrying food and passengers to and from the Western Isles. The passenger traffic is not a mere matter of tourists, but is a matter of life and death to the economic life of these islands and therefore a matter for the Ministry of Shipping, and I trust they will see to it that proper passenger traffic is developed in these islands and that the boats will be of a suitable character. I do not complain of the services we have had from the individual men who have been doing the work on the West Coast of Scotland. When we pay compliments to the merchant seamen who have sailed the high seas, we should not forget these men, who day in and day out, night and day, have been working the West Coast of Scotland—quite as dangerous an area sometimes as the high seas. I should like to pay a tribute to those men. Not only for carrying food, but for carrying mails and passengers and in developing the natural resources, which are fishery resources, of these islands it is necessary to have a steamer service on modern lines. I would put it as the second element, as the land question is the first element in reconstruction. One of the most important elements to us in reconstruction is a development of the transport services on the West Coast of Scotland. Schemes have been sent in to the Ministry of Shipping and I hope the Ministry will give them their most earnest attention. I have heard it suggested that there is to be a conference of various Departments. I hope it is not only the steamer companies which will be consulted with regard to these services, but that representatives from these islands will be taken into council before the schemes are finally decided upon, and that the advice of business men will be taken. The Ministry should not be entirely guided by these steamer companies, which have been in charge of the communications in years gone by.
I should like to say a word also on the question of freights. People who are served by railways have not suffered one penny in the matter of freights through this War, but on everything we get freights have gone up from 200 per cent. to 500 per cent. I will read one or two figures. A bag of sugar, for instance, before the War, was half a crown, now it is 8s. 3d. Bread was Is., now it is 6s. 4d. A cask of paraffin was 2s. 6d., now it is 10s. That is a tax upon light. Flour has gone up from 9d. to 2s. 6d., and oats, per bag, from 2s. to 7s. 1d., and we live on oats. The carriage of cattle, which, is a very serious item, because it affects the welfare of the people of the Southern islands particularly, has gone up in the same proportion. The people served by the railway throughout the whole of Scotland have these things carried without a 1d. of additional freight. Of course, they cost more, but the country paid for that—we paid for it, while we have had to pay our own extra freight as well. I hope the Ministry of Shipping will see to these questions and have the freights reduced to a reasonable figure. The Minister should also see to it that the steamer companies are in future regarded as common carriers. That involves a very big principle. If people who are served by rail get any goods damaged in transit they get compensation. If I get a case of whisky to Stornoway and the whole thing is broken. I get no compensation. I get the smell out of the box, and that is all. It does not matter what happens to goods carried by the steamers. They may be thrown overboard but there is no compensation, while a man who loses goods carried by rail gets compensation. That is an unfair disadvantage that we suffer from in the parts served by the steamers.
These may seem small matters to hon. Members, but to a constituency on the West Coast of Scotland, seventy miles from the mainland, they are serious matters which intimately concern the welfare and comfort of the whole people. We were willing to put up with it during the War. The only thing that excited our indignation during the War was the way our soldiers and sailors were treated when they came from France and then had to-travel seventy miles by sea in an open, shelterless boat. It was a disgrace to our country that that should have occurred. A terrible thing occurred also at the mouth of Stornoway Harbour, when 200 of these gallant seamen were drowned. I do not cast any blame, but these things throw a lurid light upon the defective character of the steamer communication with the mainland. Therefore I appeal to the representative of the Ministry of Shipping to apply himself with sympathy to this question, and if he does so he will get a little more gratitude than lie has obtained from some hon. and right hon. Members who-have spoken to-day.
I also desire to raise a small point from the West of Scotland which affects the output of the shipyards. I am not absolutely certain whether it actually falls within the sphere of the Ministry of Shipping, but if not, I suggest that the point may be brought to the attention of the Admiralty or the Ministry of Labour. Many reasons have been put forward why there is a shortage in the output of our shipyards, and this one has been brought to my notice from a shipbuilding centre which I represent. It is said—and there is every reason to suppose that it is so that there is a great shortage of shipwrights for shipbuilding. The numbers are quite inadequate to overtake the amount of work, and there is actually a demand made by other men themselves for overtime labour. The reason of this shortage is that the Admiralty took over a large number of shipwrights, who were drafted into the dockyards for the purpose of building warships. These men had been employed on mercantile work, and it is suggested that the attention of the proper authorities should be drawn to this matter, and that all these men should be released' as soon as possible and find their way back to the mercantile shipbuilding yards. Those who have brought this matter to my notice say that they are quite satisfied that with an increased supply of shipwrights the output of mercantile tonnage would be very greatly increased. If this matter does not affect the Ministry of Shipping it is certainly a matter which the -other Departments ought to attend to. This relates to a very important shipbuilding centre where they are extending their slips every day, and if they could only get the labour they would be able to go ahead at a very great rate.
A rather eloquent appeal was made for the nationalisation of the yards at Chepstow, Beachley, and Portbury. I hope the Government will not nationalise these yards, and the reason I have to give is a good one. I believe we should lose a great deal of money over it. I think we ought to carry our minds back for one minute to the inauguration of those yards. They were inaugurated as assembly yards for fabricated ships. That is to say, at a time of great stress, when we were in dire stress for shipping, a scheme was put forward for fabricated ships, the component parts of which were manufactured or were to have been manufactured in the bridge-yards of the country. One of the merits of that scheme was that unskilled labour could be used in these yards while skilled labour was extremely difficult to obtain. The idea was that in these yards at Chepstow these component parts could be put together, and the yards were fitted up for that particular purpose. That scheme was absolutely sound, in the position in which we found ourselves as a country faced with the German menace, but I do not believe it is sound to start shipbuilding pure and simple there. I think the Government will be very well advised if they can find any private shipbuilder who will take over the yards and pay them a good price for them. I should be very much surprised to see Lord Pirrie take them. In the letter quoted this afternoon, which is rather an old one now, I think Lord Pirrie was rather alluding to these yards as assembly yards for fabricated ships, and I am not quite sure that he has ever pledged himself definitely to saying that these yards would be a great success as ship-building yards pure and simple. For that reason I sincerely hope we shall not have these yards nationalised. I have no prejudice against nationalisation, and if these yards had been situated in another part of the country I would say nationalisation would be the proper thing; but I do not want to see the first start in nationalisation carried out in a place which I personally believe would be very detrimental to nationalisation. I believe it would be a bad start for nationalisation. It would be starting on a scheme which would not be successful.
Some day we shall probably come to nationalisation in various industries of this country, and it seems to me it will not be a good thing to start on one which does not give the whole idea a fair chance. I would like to join in what has been said about the Mercantile Marine. During the War I saw a great deal of the Mercantile Marine, both in Salonika and in France. I was associated with it for many months and years, and I would like to reinforce everything that has been said to-night about it. I do not think this country has ever grasped what it owes to the Mercantile Marine or they would gladly join in euologising the work that has been carried on by our sailors. I hope some day the country will recognise what it owes to the merchant sailors of this country.
In rising for the first time to speak in this House I am going to assume a very pleasant duty. I am in rather a peculiar position in performing that duty and paying a tribute to work admittedly well done, but if I fail I must claim the indulgence of the House. I am for the time being a Civil servant, and I occupy a position of responsibility in regard to Government transport. For the last three and a half years I have been responsible to the Minister of Munitions for the transport from overseas of all the raw material for the manufacture of munitions. It may not be known to every Member that that has involved us more or less directly in the movement from oversea to these shores of approximately 1,000,000 tons of material per month. We in this country, and I think it safe to say we in this House, do not fully understand or appreciate the immense work of transport from overseas, of food, raw material and troops in the service of the Allied cause during the past four years. As I have been so closely in touch with the work I feel, speaking quite individually, that I must seize this opportunity of paying a tribute which I feel is so justly deserved. I have been daily in clone con- tact with all the executive heads of the Ministry during the last three and a half years. I have known their difficulties, I have taken a part in their discussions, and right through from the early days, when the shipping stringency began to be felt in 1915, when Mr. Graeme Thomson was Director of Transport at the Admiralty, right down to the splendid administration of the present Ministry of Shipping, I have been closely in contact with that body, and everyone, from the Prime Minister down, who has seen the excellence of the work done by the Ministry of Shipping during the War, will agree that it will go down to history as one of the greatest achievements of the British Government in that time.
Again, I must associate myself with all that has been said with regard to the Mercantile Marine. Too much cannot be said about the services which they have rendered to the country. The hon. Member for Hull advocated a Ministry of Marine. I do not suppose that this is the time for me to put forward views as to what ought to be done by the abolition or creation of Government Departments, but I do feel strongly that there is an improvement to be brought about in dealing with the personnel of a Mercantile Marine. Up to now the examination for certificates of competency, the personnel, welfare, lifesaving appliances, and the whole life of the men on board ship, have been looked after by a commercial Department—the Board of Trade. I have long felt that as a war Department looks after the life of the soldier a sea Department should look after the life of the sailor, and I cannot understand why long ago those powers of the Board of Trade in regard to welfare and equipment and the life generally of personnel of the Mercantile Marine have not been administered by, I would suppose, the Admiralty. For there is a very strong feeling in the Mercantile Marine to-day that a change should be made if only on the ground that the Board of Trade is a commercial body. These matters are superintended by ex-sailors, very much ex-sailors a great many of them; very old men, quite out of touch with the sea life with which they are dealing, who cannot know the changes that have taken place since they left the sea, and with their admitted shortcomings. Now the Admiralty are always at sea. They are right up to date in everything. We have heard a great deal about bringing the Navy and Mercantile Marine to- gether, which is all desirable. It would go-far to raise the tone of the Mercantile-Marine, and I speak as an old sailor—I was ten years at it. I believe that it would raise the tone of the Mercantile Marine, that it would bring about closer brotherhood between two services, and would increase efficiency. This matter will be brought up in a very active way before long, but I have been drawn into it by the remark of the hon. Member for Hull, and I will conclude by renewing my tribute to this Department which I know so well and of which the Department I serve has been, probably one of the biggest customers during the War.
I desire to refer to the item of £10,000 set aside for erecting a sailors' school. I think that it would be a very good thing if these schools were built at various ports, not only throughout England but also in the North of Scotland. There are many bright, intelligent young men who are very glad to get on the sea, and it would be a good thing that these boys should have the very best education. As an educationist I hope that this matter will not be laid aside and that every effort will be made to make it a success. A good deal has been said during the Debate about the Chepstow business. I was very sorry that the Amalgamated Society of Engineers refused the very handsome offer in connection with handing over the yard to them. This is not the first time that a society undertook to go into commercial business. Many years ago a strike occurred in a quarry in a district with which I am acquainted. The quarrymen thought that the best thing to do was to open a quarry and start operations themselves. They formed a small company and went to work and for many years they did very well. Unfortunately the very thing happened that some of us suggested would happen. There were so many clever men among them that they all wanted to be gaffers, every man wanting to conduct the quarry on his own method. The result was that by and by it was an absolute failure. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why the members of the society have thought it well to leave' things as they are, because by too many clever men being among them they might get into difficulties by everyone trying to be a manager. In any case it is a great pity that with this thing before them they did not take advantage of it and start it, as I am quite sure they would have made it a success.
It has been to me a great source of anxiety to see from the newspapers in connection with the distribution of the various vessels which were interned in America that America is likely to get the larger portion. I sincerely thrust that there is no truth in what we have heard and that our Ministry of Shipping and our Cabinet will see that we get fair play in the matter. I was sorry to hear the Member for the Western Islands (Dr. Murray) speak as he did in connection with the various members of the community in his district in the Highlands, and that one class of Highlanders "have been stealing from the other. This is a very serious matter when we hear of one class of Highlanders stealing even a ship from another class, because we are very hard up for shipping at present and the Ministry of Shipping will require to see that no more ships go in the way suggested. I think that the Ministry of Shipping deserve great credit for the way they carried on operations during the War. I wish to congratulate them on the many things that were done by them to bring us through the very great crisis. When the system of convoys was instituted it was to me a great source of surprise that at last a system had been started that would very likely operate in such a way as to bring about the discomfiture of the Germans in their submarine menace, and I think that the Minister of Shipping and those associated with him deserve great credit for having inaugurated that scheme. To most of us who were watching it was plainly seen that after a short time this method was successful. We saw that the submarines doings were getting less every day. In connection with the Mercantile Marine I happen to know a good many people. The officers who were taken from the merchant ships and given the operation of ships belonging to His Majesty's Service I think did excellent work. I am sure of this, that had it not been for the services thus rendered we should not have got through the War so easily. I do not wish to say that nothing has been brought out of the Debate that has been a credit to the Government. It is quite true that when things began we had to make all efforts to be ready for emergencies. Who of us will say that nothing has been done amiss? I think few of us but must admit that it was impossible to go on without making some mistake. A year ago we were anxious that no amount of money should be spared in order to bring about victory for our arms. I think the Government would have been very much to blame had they not had the foresight to start shipyards and factories and everything else needed for the purpose of bringing about victory. A good deal has been said about the blunders made, but on the whole I think we have to congratulate ourselves that through it all we have come out top-dog, and if we have spent a few millions that we need not have spent the fact remains that we have done very well. I think the best thing the Government can do is this: Now that the War is over, and this Chepstow shipyard is a good shipyard, they should accept for it the highest offer, cut the loss, and have done with it. There are plenty of private traders who would be glad to take it up, and make a success of it. Reverting to the question of education, I would ask the right hon. Gentleman that if he does begin this scheme the North of Scotland and Greenock will have good schools erected, so that we may have boys educated in the rudiments of warfare, and in the methods that will make them good, substantial men, fit to take charge on the sea.
The Ministry for which I have the honour to speak is naturally very grateful indeed for many kind things which have been said about It to-day. I would particularly like to acknowledge the words of those hon. Members who alluded to the voluntary work done by so many officials at the Ministry. It is perfectly true that the large majority of the heads of Departments at the Ministry of Shipping have given voluntarily their services during the War. I am particularly grateful that so many hon. Members have recognised the services which have thus been rendered. My hon. Friend the Member for North Lanark has anticipated my own desire. I am most anxious to see these schools. I quoted an example of the schools which I would like to see established, and I can assure my hon. Friend that if I have anything to do with it, Scotland will not be forgotten. Before I refer to other questions, I should like to remain Scotland for a moment, and allude to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for the Western Isles on the subject of the communication with the Western Isles. The Ministry of Shipping fully agrees that this is not a matter of small concern. We have been considering this question for a considerable time. The difficulties are due mainly to two causes: Firstly, the general shortage of tonnage naturally and largely affects the situation, and secondly, the delays which are caused are due to a very large extent to the delays in turning round. During the last two seasons we have been. giving special assistance to the Stornoway herring trade. We have given one steamer to this trade at the request of the Ministry of Food. At any rate, I am informed that all the requirements as regards Stornoway have been met. It has also been found possible to augment the service with the aid of a trawler and a requisitioned drifter. I am not saying that this assistance is in any way adequate, because I know it is not. I have had this matter under consideration with other Departments for several weeks, and, is a matter of fact, I have received very strong representations from hon. Members who represent that part of Scotland. As a result the Scottish Office is arranging to hold an interdepartmental conference on the subject at an early date. By an "early date" I mean this week. The whole subject is to be discussed. At the conference representatives of the Ministry of Shipping will be present. Schemes for sailings have been received already, and I believe they will be submitted to the conference. I would like to assure my hon. Friend that we fully recognise the great difficulties which do exist with regard to communications with the Western Isles. I would point out that some of the questions on which he spoke are questions which affect the Treasury as well as ourselves, as they may lead to bigger expenditure. My hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew raised the question of the shortage of shipwrights—a question which has been brought to my knowledge. The question of the shipwrights who were 9.0 P.M. taken for Admiralty work at the Royal Dockyard is essentially a question for. the Admiralty, and I will not tail to convey to my right hon. Friend the First Lord the hon. Members' views on the matter, and also of the desire which is felt by all who are anxious for the speeding up of shipbuilding construction, that every possible assistance should be given in the matter by every public Department. My hon. Friend the Member for Hull and my hon. Friend who made a maiden speech, on which I would like to offer him my respectful congratulations, alluded to the question of the future of the Ministry of Shipping. The hon. Member for Hull advocated the formation of a Ministry of Marine. It is not for me to say what the future control of the Mercantile Marine is going to be. I need hardly inform the Committee that the subject is one in which naturally the Ministry for which I speak has taken the greatest interest, and it is a subject on which it holds certain ideas. Whatever ideas it may hold, it is a question for the Government to settle, and I am not in a position to say what the Government decision is going to be on the question. I may say this, that my right hon. Friend the Shipping Controller realises to the full that a great opportunity exists at the present moment to put the Mercantile Marine on a sound, sure, and stable basis, and I feel sure that in any steps which he may take he will have the support of all who are interested in the welfare of the Mercantile Marine of this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Remer) raised the question of freights, and I gathered that he rather made the charge against the Ministry that various fluctuations which had taken place on the North Atlantic trade were due to some action taken by the Ministry. The rates to which he was alluding were entirely commercial and had nothing whatever to do with the Ministry of Shipping. Before the Armistice the space on the ships of the North Atlantic trade was very much restricted, and amounted, I think, on an average to 10 per cent., and consequently there was a very large demand for cargo space and a very small supply, and as a natural consequence the commercial rate was a very high one.
The Government paid the Blue-Book rate on all Government commodities, while on commercial and free cargo the commercial rate was paid. My hon. Friend therefore probably imported something which could not be classified as an essential commodity or one necessary for the carrying on of the War.
Without Government sanction, or otherwise I think it would have come in at Government rates. My hon. Friend asks, Where has the profit gone? As I explained in answer to a question the Blue-Book rate charged for Government stores and commodities was a rate which was based on the rates that included any profit that might be made out of the commercial rate. The consequence was that it was possible to charge a lower rate on Government stores and thus equalise the freight on commercial cargo, and, as a consequence, with no loss and no gain to the Government. The fact that freights went down was due to the fact that the Ministry was able to leave more, available cargo space on the Atlantic trade. I thoroughly agree with him when he says that if it were possible to release all shipping from control, that would undoubtedly be the best policy to pursue, but as I explained to the Committee, there is a considerable amount of work yet in demobilisation and repatriation which has got to be performed, and until we have performed all that work, it would be impossible, I am afraid, to decontrol all mercantile tonnage.
I come back to the question which has occupied the Committee most of the afternoon and that is the question of the national yards. I should like to say I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Plaistow (Colonel W. Thorne) for answering my hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Hogge). The hon. Member in doing so saved me a considerable amount of trouble. My hon. Friend the Member for Plaistow very rightly defended the value of the Government property which had been decried by my hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh. I should like very shortly to repeat again what the policy of the Government is in regard to these yards. I am not going to make any further answer with regard to the policy in the past. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Sir E. Geddes) has fully answered that this after- noon, and the late First Lord of the Admiralty, the right hon. Member for the Duncairn Division (Sir E. Carson), also spoke on this subject. As to our policy for the present and for the future, I should like the Committee to understand that we are not pressing on either yards or shipbuilding at the present time, because the houses have to be provided first. We maintain, and I think quite rightly, that the housing is the first consideration, and it is no good us going on laying down yard after yard and slip after slip with no houses for the workers to go into. It might be all right for the next few months, but it would not be all right for the winter, and we cannot expect men working thereto live in the huts of the prisoners' camp, nor can we expect a large number of men-to live in the hostels. Therefore, it is our policy to continue with the housing in the first instance. An hon. Member asked me a question in regard to the expenditure which has been incurred since February last up to the present date. It is £200,000—that is, since Christimas—and this expenditure has been reduced to a minimum except on housing. As I explained this afternoon, our main object is to finish off what work we have in hand, especially at Chepstow. We are tidying up generally and putting the yards in such a condition that anybody could take them on as a going concern, but in such a condition also as anybody could alter the yards as they thought best in their own interests. In regard to the future of the yards, the policy of the Government, as I have already stated, is to dispose of these yards to the best advantage of the taxpayer. It is not the intention of the Government to continue to manage these yards in the future in order to build their own, ships.
I do not wish at this hour to deal with the whole question of nationalisation. It is a very large question, but I would point out to hon. Members like my hon. Friend the Member for The Forest of Dean (Mr. Wignall), who advocated nationalisation, that it is almost impossible for the Government to nationalise one portion of such an industry as shipbuilding without nationalising all the shipbuilding in this country, and you are going a long way further, perhaps, than you think when you propose to nationalise one yard. If you nationalise one yard you must nationalise all the shipbuilding in the country, and if you do that yon will inevitably come to the nationalisation of shipowning. That is a very long step to take, and it is certainly one which the Government is not prepared to take at the present time. For my own part, it will be many years, I hope, before nationalisation of shipowning or shipbuilding in this country takes place. I could give many arguments against it. But one of the greatest arguments is this, that there is not one representative of the officers and men in the British Mercantile Marine to my knowledge—and I meet them all continuously—who desires the nationalisation of British merchant shipping, and whatever demands may have been made in regard to mines, or minerals, or railways, it can at any rate be said about those industries that the demand has come from the men engaged in them. There is no such demand in regard to the nationalisation in any shape or form of shipowning or shipbuilding from those who are best qualified to speak for the officers and men of this great Mercantile Marine of ours, and that is one of the strongest arguments against nationalisation of this great industry, the key industry of the whole of our British Empire.
Adverting to what the hon. Gentleman has just said about the nationalisation of shipping, I think he is overlooking the Ministry of Ways and Communications Bill, which gives to the Minister power to own all means of transport, including water transport, so that the policy of the Government in this as in other matters appears to suffer from a certain lack of cohesion. But it was not in reference to that that I rose, but to ask the hon. Gentleman concerning a matter which is appropriate to this Vote, and that is the position of shipbuilders who have been encouraged to put down slips by the Government during the War in order to increase the possible output of shipbuilding. A case of this kind came to my notice in the north of a small firm who desired to open a new dock and were encouraged by the Ministry to do so. They went a good deal further than they would have been justified in doing if they had only their own resources to rely upon. They were told by the Ministry that if they put down a certain amount of accommodation for building ships they would been titled to support from the Ministry, but before they had managed to put down that accommodation the Armistice happily arrived, and now they are told that they are not entitled to the monetary support that they were previously promised. I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman, whose extremely lucid statements have been, I am sure, of great interest to the whole Committee, what is the position of a small firm like that. I am not putting it in any querulous or complaining spirit, but it does seem hard if people who, to meet the national need, expended money and made outlay which they could not have done with their own private resources, are by the mere happy accident of the War coming to a conclusion deprived of the financial assistance to which they looked forward.
In reply to my hon. and gallant Friend, with regard to his first point, I may say that Amendments have already been moved in Committee which have considerably altered one of the Clauses under which it might have been possible for the Minister of Ways and Communications to take over a large amount of coastal shipping. It is not intended, and it has been amended in Committee, so that, as a matter of fact, now the only powers given to the Minister of Ways and Communications as regards shipping are those powers with which he is vested because of the shipping already belonging to the railway companies which that Ministry is taking over. With regard to the second point, I freely acknowledge that it is a very hard case indeed in regard to any firms who have undertaken this work of shipyard extension, and then the Armistice arrives. Of course, as my hon. and gallant Friend knows, the Armistice having come, they would be entitled to 30 per cent. on the extension of their yards. Of course, many hardships have been caused because of the Armistice, although it sounds an extraordinary statement to make. I could not possibly give him a definite answer tonight, but if he will be good enough to send me the name of the firm I will inquire into it and do the best I possibly can in the matter.