asked the President of the Board of Trade, how many shipyards have now been closed through National Shipbuilders Security, Limited; what number of berths and representing what tonnage capacity; the capacity of existing yards, berths and tonnage; and whether he is satisfied that the existing capacity is adequate for the nation's needs in time of war?
As regards the first part of the question, I understand that the berths purchased by National Shipbuilders Security, Limited, have a capacity of about 1,350,000 gross tons annually of merchant shipping and that there remains an annual capacity of about 2,000,000 gross tons in the existing yards, excluding yards specialising in naval work. The answer to the last part of the question is in the affirmative.
Does the right hon. Gentleman really think it adequate in the present dangerous situation that we should have 2,000,000 tons less shipping, and 2,000 fewer ships? Has not the time arrived for an inquiry into the activities of National Shipbuilders Security Limited?
As the hon. Lady knows, the position with regard to shipbuilding is at present under review, but I think that a capacity for building 2,000,000 tons—leaving aside specialist yards—would be sufficient, and that the limiting factor is more a question of the amount of labour available.
asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he has any information as to the national subsidies provided for shipbuilding firms in Germany, Holland and Japan; and whether he has formed any estimate of the loss in unemployment benefit, Poor Law relief, national taxation, and local rating which this country has to find in indirect subsidy as a result of the loss of wages upon every £1,000,000 worth of shipping orders sent by British owners to foreign yards?
I am not aware of any national subsidy for shipbuilding in Holland, but I understand that in the other two countries mentioned financial assistance of one type or another is provided by the Government for shipbuilding. The answer to the second part of the question is in the negative. The position of the shipping and shipbuilding industries is under consideration by the Government at present.
Regarding the second part of the question, to which the right hon. Gentleman said the answer was in the negative, is he not aware that the Ministry of Labour used to have all these figures in their possession, and could he not get them and be a little more communicative to the House on this matter of great public importance?
The hon. Member must know that it is quite impossible to make any accurate estimate of this kind. The only estimate one can make is as to the amount of money which is being spent in building ships abroad and building them at home.
Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that this country pays indirect subsidies in this matter, and that the Ministry of Labour have an estimate of the cost to this country in Poor Relief, unemployment benefit, and so on, and could he not get the figures and let us see them?
I will give the hon. Member any figures I can, but he will realise that it is impossible for me to give an estimate respecting the rating burden, for example, without knowing in what yards the ships would be built if they were not built in foreign yards.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that the loss to this country is not only a loss represented by the actual payments made in dole and public assistance, but the loss of that very skill which the right hon. Gentleman himself was deploring a few moments ago?
I quite realise that, but with all these imponderables which cannot be valued, I cannot think that it would be possible to make a calculation which would be of very great value.
In view of the importance of this statement, may I have an assurance from my right hon. Friend that the House will have an opportunity of discussing the whole statement—not on an Opposition Vote of Censure upon the Government?
asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he is aware that during the period August to December, 1938, 22 British-owned vessels with a gross weight of 66,810 tons were sold to foreign shipbreakers for scrap-iron purposes; if he has any information to show how much of the scrap from these vessels goes directly or indirectly to Germany; and why this export is permitted during a period when scrap-iron has had to be imported by Britain from the United States of America?
According to the records of the Registrar-General of Shipping and Seamen, the aggregate gross tonnage of British vessels of 100 tons gross and upwards which were sold to foreign owners for the purpose of being broken up for scrap during the period August to December, 1938, was 44,870 tons. Of these, two vessels with an aggregate gross tonnage of 416 tons were sold to Germany. So far as I am aware, there was no shortage of scrap-iron and steel in this country during the period in question. The imports from America were in pursuance of contracts made in the previous year.
Can the right hon. Gentleman say from his records, or from information in the possession of the Overseas Trade Department, how many of those vessels which were not sent direct to Germany were sent to countries adjacent to Germany to be scrapped and the scrap sold from there into Germany; and is it right in the national interest that we should be supplying raw material for German armaments?
As I said, the only direct sale to Germany was an aggregate gross tonnage of 416 tons. I could certainly get the figures mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, but we have no evidence that, when these vessels are sold to adjacent countries and scrapped, the scrap is in fact being passed on to Germany.
Would my right hon. Friend give this matter further consideration, seeing that it is hardly a sound business proposition to be exporting ships for other countries to break up when we have facilities for breaking them up here, and are importing from those countries at the same time?
The whole question of the scrapping of ships must form part of the investigations which the Government are pursuing now into the question of shipping and shipbuilding.