Orders of the Day — Supply.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 10th July 1941.

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Photo of Mr Clement Davies Mr Clement Davies , Montgomeryshire

One approaches these two Votes on this occasion with considerably less anxiety than one has felt certainly since 1938, or since the formation of the Ministry of Supply. There are, perhaps, two reasons for this. There has been during the last 12 or 13 months a very considerable improvement. So there should have been. Efforts have been made by all sections of the community to increase production throughout the country, and it would be criminal if we were faced with any other situation and if one had to complain that production, instead of going up, had gone down. But in the main the sense of relief which we all feel is due to the fact that Russia has taken upon herself the tremendous burden of the onslaught which Germany is pouring upon her today. Russia, like this country, is fighting for her very life, and millions of people, who hold their ideals as sincerely as we hold ours, are determined that those ideals shall be upheld against Nazism as strongly as we intend to uphold our liberty.

There is a lesson in this, too. The tremendous battle which is now raging on that long front must have convinced everyone of the stupendous effort that has been made by Germany. Hundreds of planes, thousands of tanks, tens of thousands of gums and millions of men are engaged in a titanic struggle, such as has never before been experienced and hardly contemplated. Up to less than three weeks ago, these planes, tanks, guns and men were ready for use against us alone. We stood alone, the British Empire, facing those tremendous odds. We all realise of course that we lost six precious years before the war started, and some of us at any rate realised that we were frittering away the first eight months of this war in a sort of lethargic meandering. But with a new Government there came renewed hope and fresh energy. Britain was awakened to the danger. With fortitude it faced the collapse of four small countries, the downfall of its greatest Ally, France, and even the evacuations of Dunkirk and of Norway. The people of this country were ready for any sacrifice, and there was a spirit of national unity which was sublime.

Within ten days of the advent of the new Prime Minister, Parliament, without any comment whatsoever, except one of approbation, passed the great Act of 22nd May, 1940. But can anyone pretend that we have made any real use of that Act. and that the Government have made use of the immense powers which were given to them on that day by Parliament and by the country to mobilise, to plan, to direct all the resources, material and men of this country for the necessary production? Even for production, there has been little interference, so far, with profit — a restriction here, and requisitioning there, but that is about all. Labour has been only partly mobilised, and to a large extent the national life goes on unaffected. But Germany, even with her tremendous start, did not slacken her effort, and even to-day she is working full measure not only in her own factories, but also in the factories of the conquered countries. Curiously enough the measures of compulsion which have been taken against capital are, in the main, restricted to non-essential industries, while the measures for the compulsion of labour are in the main confined to the men engaged directly upon war operations. Can anyone pretend that even now, in this twenty-third month of the war, we are putting forward our full effort? Both to-day and yesterday, the Committee have listened to instance after instance, given by various Members, of stoppages, of full use not being made of machinery, of plant, factories, or men standing idle, and of spurts here and stoppages there. And are the supplies of tanks, guns and munitions, planes, fighters and bombers, satisfactory?

I am sorry I missed the speech of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply, but I have read it with very great care. Perhaps I may be allowed to congratulate him. It was a very full speech, and it gave quite a lot of information about small and incidental problems. But it has a very familiar ring about it. It was almost the same type of speech as those to which we have listened from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Luton (Mr. Burgin), from the right hon. Gentleman who is now Home Secretary, and from the right hon. Gentleman who is now President of the Board of Trade, when they were Ministers of Supply. The brief seemed to come from the same office although the speakers had altered. We were told that everything was going smoothly, that all the criticisms raised had been thought of before, and that measures were being taken, step by step, to tackle the problem, and that the whole thing was revolving, slowly it was true, but on a sure foundation. Was that the answer to the maiden speech made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hythe (Lieutenant Brabner)? I am yet to hear from that Box an answer to the charges he made. They certainly startled the Committee, and I am sure they also startled the country. Obviously his references to the tanks sent to Greece and the aerodromes in Crete have startled the Press judging by the prominence which was given to the speech in this morning's newspapers. The answer given by the Prime Minister, both from the Front Bench and in his message to the Prime Minister of Australia, was that we sent all we could, and that the only thing that stopped us sending more was lack of shipping space. But was that shipping space used to send tanks, 70 per cent, or 80 per cent, of which broke down before they even came into contact with the enemy?

That is the charge which has been made. What was the answer? Is it the one suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes), that although the tanks had been sent the spare parts were not? What is the answer to the charge that the guns which had been sent there could not reach the dive bombers? What is the good of production, unless it is production to meet the enemy, and meet him on fair grounds? The hon. Gentleman opposite seems to think this is a laughing matter. It was not a laughing matter for the men who died in Greece and Crete, and it was certainly not a laughing matter for the men who volunteered from the Dominions for the defence of themselves and this country. What is more, if things are, as suggested by the Parliamentary Secretary, why has Lord Beaver-brook been made Minister of Supply? If things were being done so well by the President of the Board of Trade, why move him? If everything was going well, as he would ask the Committee to believe, why take a good man, who is a good organiser, away from that office? The very fact that he has been removed and Lord Beaverbrook put in his place is the complete answer to the speech which was made from that Box yesterday. We know Lord Beaverbrook is a quick-moving mobile force who is put into the breach when danger is threatened. He performed miracles, as all know, when he went to the Ministry of Aircraft Production. I have not the slightest doubt that he will perform prodigious feats in the production of tanks, but tanks are not the only need of this country. What I am hoping is that we shall have balanced production, not a rush for this, and then a rush for that. The needs of the Navy, Air Ministry, and certainly cargo-shipping space, must not be unduly sacrificed. As far as cargo-' shipping space is concerned, that must not be sacrificed, even for tanks or aeroplanes.

Can anyone pretend that we have that steady rhythm which was referred to in the speech of the Minister of Labour when he plaintively begged employers to release 30,000 men to go back into the mines? It seemed to me when I read that speech that the right hon. Gentleman mistook his position. He is not the chief mendicant for this country. He ought not to take up the position of being a poor beggar. He is the Minister of Labour, and we expect him to lead and to take the necessary measures which will give us the production, and not to go cap in hand and beg. There has to be rhythm. There has to be a balance of material, factory space and machinery. Can anyone pretend that the factories are working with smooth regularity to-day? We have had instances of factories and works going on short time, often stopped, often waiting for fresh orders. That is not working to rhythm. That is working to a sort of peculiar syncopation, and in any event the tempo is far too slow.

Our system is still based, even now when we are approaching the second anniversary of the war, upon the individual firm as the unit of production. Tenders are still invited, contracts are discussed and ultimately bargains are struck. Competition and profit-making are still regarded as the main incentives. So long as we continue to guide ourselves by the finances which used to form our guide in the pre-war period and do not turn to economic planning, so long as men have to bear their own losses and carry their own obligations individually, so long will they continue to struggle for profit, and what might seem to many, unfair profit, in order to recoup themselves and protect themselves against individual calamity. It is perfectly natural. The corollary, too, is perfectly natural. Is it then to be wondered at that the trade unions, even in a time of national crisis calling for national unity, should feel strongly that they are an essential part of the community and that they have to continue to watch with the utmost vigilance the interests of their members with regard to hours, conditions and wages, just as they did in time of peace, in order to prevent exploitation? Is it to be wondered at in circumstances like that that there is continuous bickering and that capital and labour, even in a time like this, abuse one another, and that abuse is in the sacred name of patriotism and in the name of production?

Absenteeism and bad management have been mentioned by many. I do not think there is much absenteeism. The employers are accusing the men of absenteeism and the men, on the other hand, are accusing the employers of bad management and lack of proper mental capacity. That, in itself, would be an evil at a time like this, but it is rendered all the worse when the Minister of Labour himself joins in the battle of bickering and gives fresh slogans for the contestants to carry on the battle. I blame neither the men nor the employers. The vast majority in both sections are good and the failures are a small minority, but if there is any absenteeism or bad management which is stopping production the remedy is in the hands of the Government. The power has been given to them and it is for them to act and act quickly. Whenever a charge of this kind is made there should be an immediate inquiry into the bad management or absenteeism, finding out whether it is avoidable or unavoidable absenteeism. I quite agree that a large part of what is known as avoidable absenteeism is due to the very causes which bring about unavoidable absenteeism. Let the inquiry be made and, if the charges are found to be true, let the Government act firmly and quickly. The power is certainly within their hands. Even with this tremendous fight that Russia is putting up this war can easily be lost. It would be a crime against humanity in any event if it were lost. It would be a bigger crime if it were lost because of lack of firmness in action against inefficiency.

We are entering now upon a stage of the war when, in regard to the production of many articles, there will be a shortage of raw materials. This is due to many causes, and that stage has unfortunately been brought forward by wasteful use of materials in the past, wasteful use of stocks, and of course it has been brought forward to-day by the decrease in our shipping space owing to the very large losses which we have suffered and are suffering. The time is approaching when there will be not only short time, not only intermittent unemployment, but I am afraid regular unemployment. What is the position with regard to production? The factors essential for production are material, management of machinery and tools, labour, transport, food, coal and petrol. Many materials, of course, are common for production, for war operations and for civilians. At the moment, they are the subject of competing users, though under the distant direction, I agree, of the Production Executive and of the body about which an hon. Member spoke yesterday which is under the chairmanship of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport. But they deal only with these matters in large quantities. They just settle a sort of general priority or division. Not only-do civilian needs compete with war needs but, whatever be the scheme of the Ministry of Supply on paper, we know that, in fact, war needs compete amongst themselves and are competing daily to-day. Why should there be this dual control? Why should there be, for example, a Director of Materials for Army Clothing? I assume that there will be soon a Director of Materials for Civilian Clothing, which, has now been rationed. Why should not all that be under one person? How can a man ration materials when he does not know the whole scope of the quantity that he has for distribution?

We shall have most carefully to husband our materials and conserve our stocks. We shall need every bit and every ounce of them in the coming months. But we must do something further, and this is what I am begging of the Ministries concerned to do. They can use substitutes, however expensive they may be in labour, so long as they can be efficiently used. Let them go into this matter and see what substitutes which are in this country can be used, so that nothing shall be brought on ships except those things without which we cannot possibly go on. There has been a considerable change during the last 12 months. When the war started the Government Departments were in the main buyers from the manufacturers, but stocks have now run down, and individual firms are finding it more and more difficult to obtain the necessary materials, and distribution is uneven. No wonder, therefore, there are these stoppages; keen competition for some necessary material to complete a contract; a bottleneck here and a bottleneck there; some small gadget, without which the main article cannot be completed, very often some article which has been earmarked for a particular job, taken off that job and given to another, or, conversely, perhaps another article very vital for something which is immediately urgent cannot be used because it has been earmarked for something less urgent.

What is the remedy for all this? There must be more control over materials and a more unifying control, less of these dualities and less fighting for position and priority. There must also be more direction and control of industry itself. Let each industry be regarded as a whole and not as a mere conglomeration of competing individuals and of firms fighting for supremacy and even for their very existence. That is the next phase to which I believe the Government will have to come. Treat an industry as one and give it the duty of producing the articles which the individuals in the industry now produce and for which they are competing among themselves. Do away with tenders and individual contracts. Let there be only one contract with the industry itself, and leave the allocation to be made by the industry to the individual firms and companies. Do away with sealed samples and sealed patterns. The Government in these circumstances would regard itself not as the buyer from competing firms, but as the supreme director and manufacturer throughout the country, the actual work in each branch being carried out by each industry as a whole. Only then will the Government be able, not merely to control production, but to mobilise labour. There have been many disputes between us in the House with regard to the moment for more compulsion with regard to labour. I have never advocated compulsion for labour unless industry is compelled too. Until we have taken industry and directed and controlled it, I shall be sur- prised if any hon. Member comes forward and says that labour ought to be controlled and mobilised.

If once we have taken hold of industry and directed it in this way, labour will not need compulsion, but at any rate, we can mobilise it. We can, however, do that only if we get a fair wage policy covering the whole of labour. That is the answer to so many questions which have been thrown from one side of the House to another. We cannot blame anybody refusing to work for less wages or slackening down because he has less wages than another man. There ought to be a fair wage policy, with commensurate proper payment for each person according to his class of work. When we have that, when we have industry and labour organised and materials under the control of the Government, there will then be no jealousies and no invidious comparisons which lead to bickering and slackening. Let there be no competition between the Services. We cannot, for example, have the Navy and Air Force sacrificed to the Army. Do not let one gain at the expense of the other. The danger, as I see it, is that the vigour, the ruthless energy and the driving methods of Lord Beaverbrook will over-ride the First Lord and the Minister of Aircraft Production.

The right remedy has already been suggested by hon. Members, and that is to have one Minister of Production. I have in and out of season asked for this. I asked for it as long ago as October or November, 1939. I have repeated that request from time to time, so that all these matters can be considered as a whole, whether they concern the Army, the Navy or the Air Force, or whether they concern the civilians— because their morale and their continuation on the best standards of living are as essential for victory as are the Army, the Navy and the Air Force themselves. All these things ought to be under one control, just as the Defence Ministers are under the control of the Prime Minister. In that way only shall we be able to do away with this disputing about position and priorities where one is pulling one way and another is pulling another, although undoubtedly every man has the desire to give the best account he can of his own Department, and we should "have one man at the head of all Departments taking a proper and fair view of them all. I do not think that there is anyone more capable to fulfil that position than the Noble Lord who is Minister of Supply. His driving force and energy will get all these other Departments and Ministers upon a level, and no one will have a privilege above another. Only in that way can we get the whole country mobilised as it still has to be mobilised. A real danger at the present moment is that the great fight and the wonderful success of Russia against the full might of Germany thrown against it may lead us to a sense of complacency. This is a moment above all others when we should give our very best. We are given an opportunity now which must not be missed. Every man, every bit of material, everything should be turned to that production which will ensure the victory which we all desire.