Orders of the Day — Gretna Factory.

– in the House of Commons on 9th May 1923.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Colonel Leslie Wilson.]

11.0 P.M.

Photo of Dr William Chapple Dr William Chapple , Dumfriesshire

I want, very briefly, to draw attention to the tragedy of Gretna, the town and the factory, which have cost this country more than £9,000,000. There has been frittered away at least £7,000,000 of State money in defiance of the advice of an expert Committee which was set up by the late Government in February, 1919, to advise. Gretna was chosen, in the early days of the War, because of its isolation, because of its comparative freedom from air raids, because it had good railway connections, about £18 per acre—and there were thousands of acres—and because in the vicinity there were workers available for the manufacture of munitions. Those conditions would obtain if another war unfortunately came about. Not only was the site well chosen, but the work was well done. The next great and important feature was that that town and factory was intended by its designers to be permanent. They built not only an enormous number of houses and a great factory, but schools and churches of various denominations. They set up great waterworks and great electric-light works, and made the whole thing permanent. It was intended by the Government of the day, and the architects who designed it, to be a permanent centre for the manufacture of munitions. If it were not, it was the most criminal blunder of which this or any country could be guilty. That expenditure could only be justified if it were to remain a permanent centre. I want to commend the steps which the late Government took, up to the point of February, 1919. Here I have the Report that was given to the Government, in defiance of which they have been acting ever since—and which has led to a loss to this country of over £7,000,000.

The Committee was set up in February, 1919, within four months of the end of the War, and sent in its Report in June, 1919. It was an expert Committee, consisting of members of the Ministry of Munitions, of Sir William Pearce, Sir Edward Pearson, Colonel Cobb, and other experts, so that all the Departments of State and of War were represented. I will give one or two quotations, for the whole story resides in this Report. The Committee said: Gretna, being a modern and up-to-date factory, should therefore be kept in preference to the older factory at Waltham Abbey. Waltham Abbey was open to attack by air-raids, and had brought air-raids into the vicinity of, if not actually to, London. One of the reasons for choosing this site was that it was so remote, and on the West coast of the island; that it would be practically immune from air-raids, and would not be an attraction or decoy for air-raids on London. They add: Gretna, in the opinion of the Committee, was in a position to manufacture cordite cheaper than it could be made at Waltham Abbey. It also had its own Oleum plant; glycerine distillery—ether plant and solvent recovery plant. The Report goes on to show how these things could still be used in that factory for other purposes, if necessary. They continued: The Committee recommended, if possible, that a part of Gretna ether plant should be used for other purposes than the factory requirements; e.g., the conversion of alcohol to ether and the treatment of the ether alcohol recovered.In the opinion of the Committee it was well worth while the Government considering, in view of the many industries in the country requiring solvents, the production of a supply of cheap, duty-free alcohol and ether, which would give a great incentive to all industries of this nature. Being centralised, it could be worked economically, and, furthermore, would be under close Government control. The Committee reported that they could use such part of the factory instead of Waltham Abbey for the manufacture of cordite. They could afford to scrap Waltham Abbey, and they ought to transfer such plant as was necessary to meet war needs. The whole of Waltham Abbey could then be sold, and a large number of the experts could be taken up and the houses in Gretna could be occupied by them. Then, they continue: It would be criminal to scrap Gretna"— although Gretna was scrapped— The Committee considered, however, that every encouragement should be given to induce industries to start up in the neighbourhood. This could be done by the Government offering cheap power and water, and also facilities over the factory railways. These facilities would not, in the opinion of the Committee, in any way be detrimental to the factory work, in fact, the reverse should be the case, as they should help the factory overhead costs.As some of the warehouses and stores at Gretna would not be required to the full capacity, it would be possible for certain Government stocks to be stored here, and, in view of the railway facilities and means of handling the stores, the costs should be moderate. The Committee showed that if we had done with Gretna what Germany had done with her factories, we should have left it very largely intact, so that if any future emergency should arise, it could be easily converted to ensure the manufacture of the cordite that was required. Waltham Abbey should be scrapped, but that the up-to-date plant of all kinds could be used for a double purpose, in so far as cordite and explosives were concerned, and that, having served that purpose, it could be converted without very great cost into peace purposes, and it should be done. They went on: The Committee very much regretted that they had to recommend this factory (Waltham Abbey) should be shut down as an explosives factory.…. On the other hand, having regard to the possible future requirements, and also to the fact that Gretna was a more suitable and economic factory, they could not do otherwise. No explanation has ever been given of why the advice given by that expert Committee, set up four months after the end of the War, had been abandoned, and this property costing over £9,000,000 has been frittered away at a loss of over £7,000,000 to the State. I would like an explanation to-night. I have tried and failed to discover why, after a Committee so capable as that had given advice, without any explanation whatever a change has been made. The other day I asked a question and the reply I got was that there are 454 empty houses round Gretna now. If a large number of people had been transferred from Waltham Abbey in the densely populated part those houses would have been occupied and the houses round Waltham Abbey would have been available for the relief of the shortage of houses there. The whole process which the Committee outlined would have been wise and economical and, as far as my constituency is able to see, it would have been wise to follow that advice.

Photo of Mr Rupert Gwynne Mr Rupert Gwynne , Eastbourne

The hon. Member for Dumfries (Dr. Chapple) has made out a case, as he thinks, against the late Government One can conceive circumstances in which one could not defend the late Government, but in this instance I have no difficulty in doing so. This was a decision come to as long ago as 1921 by the late Government to do away with the colossal cordite factory at Gretna. The hon. Member complains that the Government did not follow out the recommendations of the Peason Committee. That Committee was set up just after the Armistice and before Peace was declared. At that time no one knew what would be the future requirements of the Army, and the Committee reported on the assumption that we should continue to want a vast quantity of cordite per annum. After the Committee reported, the matter came before the Army Council, and there was set up the Departmental Committee which went into the whole question on the altered basis after the Peace Treaty. Further consideration was given to the question by the Cabinet, and on 6th June, 1921, it was decided that it would not be in the public interest or in the interests of economy to continue this factory at Gretna, but that Waltham Abbey would be sufficient for all future requirements.

It is rather difficult to understand the reasoning of the hon. Gentleman that we should, in the altered circumstances of the present time, again start this factory, which is only suitable for the manufacture of cordite and which can only be run economically if an enormous quantity of cordite is manufactured. Last year our requirements of cordite were something like 100 tons. Gretna cannot be run economically unless we produce at least 150 tons of cordite a week.

Photo of Dr William Chapple Dr William Chapple , Dumfriesshire

The Report says that a large part of the premises might be converted to peace purposes.

Photo of Mr Rupert Gwynne Mr Rupert Gwynne , Eastbourne

The Report says that, except as a cordite factory, the Committee saw no useful purpose to which Gretna could be put. If this factory—no one disputes that it was carried on upon a vast scale—

Photo of Dr William Chapple Dr William Chapple , Dumfriesshire

I have allowed the hon. Member plenty of time, but I want to call his attention to that part of the Report which says that if the recommendations of the Committee are carried out they would not compete with any existing trade, but would be of the greatest assistance in helping existing industries.

Photo of Mr Rupert Gwynne Mr Rupert Gwynne , Eastbourne

No; that refers to the various ingredients required for the manufacture of cordite, and they say that except as a cordite factory they saw no useful purpose to which it could be put. Gretna could only be carried on economically as one to produce cordite on a large scale, so vast that under our present requirements we should only want it for one week in the year. I do not think that that applies especially when comparied with the desire for economy which the hon. Gentleman preached during his election campaign, for I noticed during the time he was going around his constituency he was a great advocate of economy. In the same campaign the hon. Member condemned the spending of money on armaments and in Iraq, and he gave his views with regard to the settlement of international disputes. In spite of all this, he desires us to go on making 150 tons of cordite per week. The hon. Member further stated during his election campaign that he was a believer in the League of Nations and the settlement of disputes by conference and not by cordite.

Photo of Dr William Chapple Dr William Chapple , Dumfriesshire

What has that got to do with the question? I cannot allow such a statement to pass. The whole essence of the report which I have quoted is that such part of Gretna as was not necessary for the manufacture of cordite should be turned to peace purposes as the report advises.

Photo of Mr Rupert Gwynne Mr Rupert Gwynne , Eastbourne

What peace purposes does he suggest?

Photo of Mr Rupert Gwynne Mr Rupert Gwynne , Eastbourne

But these are in connection with munitions of war. How can an advocate of the League of Nations ask us to set up this vast factory—it makes no difference whether it is for cordite or other manufacture of that kind—that we should shut up Waltham Abbey and carry on Gretna Green, which is a much bigger undertaking?

Photo of Dr William Chapple Dr William Chapple , Dumfriesshire

Not as a cordite factory.

Photo of Mr Rupert Gwynne Mr Rupert Gwynne , Eastbourne

I have been quoting from the Report of the Pearson Committee, which said distinctly that it could only be carried on as a cordite factory. At any rate, whatever munitions may be manufactured there, I still contend that the hon. Member cannot on one day say he is an advocate of economy, of cutting down armaments, and of settling international disputes by conference, and on another day invite the War Office to start again this huge war machine for manufacturing cordite.

Lieut.-Colonel HODGE:

He never suggested it.

Photo of Mr George Hardie Mr George Hardie , Glasgow Springburn

If this factory were taken in relation to the demand for industrial alcohol, every gallon of which must come into this country, and if the Government were sincere in their statement about the reorganisation of industry, instead of paying 5d. per gallon allowance to the Distillers Companies, Limited, and other people like that, they would have been employing practically the whole of the men who have knowledge of the manufacture of industrial alcohol and would have been supplying all your power for motors and everything else.

Photo of Mr Rupert Gwynne Mr Rupert Gwynne , Eastbourne

This was not a decision of the present Government, but of the late Government, of a number of the Members of which the hon. Gentlemen who raised this question was a supporter. The fact is, he has no grievance at all against the present Government. He knew perfectly well when he stood for his constituency, in which Gretna is situated, that Gretna had been definitely handed over months before to the Disposal Board, and he knew it so well that I will quote a speech of his in which he said: I have travelled widely, and nothing has interested me so much in my travels as ruins. (Loud laughter and cheers.) He had visited ruins before, and he assured them that during his own campaign there was no problem that interested him in the whole of Dumfriesshire like that of Gretna. Because of his temperament the restoration of things to something better than they were would always interest him, and for that reason he thought he was the Member for Dumfries. The hon. Member knew, however, that Gretna was then in ruins, as he called it, and had been handed over to the Disposal Board; that 15 per cent. of Gretna had been sold; and he must, or should, have known that if returned to Parliament he would have no chance of setting up that factory again once it had been disposed of.

Photo of Dr William Chapple Dr William Chapple , Dumfriesshire

I made special inquiries on that point, and was advised that no change had taken place in the factory which would interfere with the carrying out of this Report. I have since been told by experts who know the facts that no change has taken place, oven now, that could not be easily restored if the Government were prepared to carry out that Report.

Photo of Mr Rupert Gwynne Mr Rupert Gwynne , Eastbourne

Before the hon. Gentleman began making promises to his constituents he ought to have known that that Report had been wiped out, and that another Departmental Committee had considered the matter and recommended quite differently, that the Cabinet had turned it down, and that it had been in the hands of the Disposal Board for nine months or a year before he took on the job. He ought to have known that when he pledged himself that one of his first acts would be to get a Committee set up to reconstitute this factory.

It would have been wiser not to say that, and to couple with it at the same time the determination whole-heartedly to support the League of Nations and settle international questions by conference. [HON. MEMBERS: "That is not fair."] It is my way of dealing with it. Is there a single Gentleman opposite who, if I on behalf of the War Office asked for a Supplementary Estimate to spend some millions in setting up this big cordite factory at Gretna, would support me? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Then do not let us waste any further time in trying to make out that the War Office should have pressure put upon it to start again this factory which the late Government, to my mind, did very wisely in closing down. I commend this specially to the Labour party, who always pose as looking after the interests of the working man. Would you be willing to throw out of employment the whole of the men who have been employed for years at Waltham in order to start this factory at Gretna?

Photo of Mr Alexander Lyle-Samuel Mr Alexander Lyle-Samuel , Eye

In the last two minutes, may I express the hope that when the representative of the War Office has presented to him a case as simple as that submitted by the hon. Member for Dumfries-shire, that he will see his way to deal with the simple and fair case. He has tried to manœuvre my hon. Friend, who is a supporter of the League of Nations, and who hopes that the policy of this country will enable us to continue in peace, into having made a request to the House that we should condemn the Government for not re-opening at Gretna a factory capable of producing 150 tons of cordite per week. I say in the presence of every hon. Member here of whatsoever party that there is nothing in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries to justify that perfectly absurd reply. I have rarely heard, and I have heard many speeches from the Government, a reply from a Minister so deliberately determined to avoid every purpose, every moral and serious argument, as that we have heard to-night from the Financial Secretary to the War Office. I rose to put one point, and he said, "I refuse to give way," yet every moment that he stood at that box he absolutely refused to deal with the subject we have to consider. Talk about manœuvring my hon. Friend into being reported in his constituency as a man who wants a cordite factory reopened at Gretna, why, the fact is that he wants the factory opened, not for the manufacture of cordite, but for things required for industrial purposes.

Photo of Mr Rupert Gwynne Mr Rupert Gwynne , Eastbourne

How can the War Office deal with an industrial factory?

Photo of Mr Alexander Lyle-Samuel Mr Alexander Lyle-Samuel , Eye

The hon. Gentleman does not seem able to understand that point. It does not say that the factory can manufacture only cordite.

Photo of Mr Alexander Lyle-Samuel Mr Alexander Lyle-Samuel , Eye

The hon. Gentleman has washed out the Committee himself, and now he says, "Do not refer to the Report; there has been a subsequent one." Here was a factory capable of producing industrial alcohol, ether and various other things. The hon. Gentleman says we cannot restart that factory and run it at a great loss to manufacture 150 tons of cordite a week, which, happily, we do not require If the hon. Member for Dumfries says the Government has made a bad bargain, I was not a member of the Government that made the bad bargain, and I can understand his complaint. I have paid him the courtesy of explaining what we have done.

It being Half-past Eleven o'clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'Clock.