Royal Ordnance Factories.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 5th August 1942.

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Photo of Mr Lewis Silkin Mr Lewis Silkin , Camberwell Peckham

The Debate so far, and particularly the speech of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply, must have made it quite clear to the House that a Report of the kind now under discussion has a peculiar value not only to the House and to the country, but to the Department which is under consideration, because a Committee which is independent of the Executive, which is responsible to the House alone, and which is able to get evidence with a pledge of confidence, is in a far better position to get at the truth of what is taking place than any inquiry which a Minister himself might undertake. My right hon. Friend, in the course of his remarks, about which I make no complaint whatever, because I think he dealt with the subject in an admirable way, started by suggesting that some of the facts contained in the Report were not quite accurate. I listened very patiently and carefully to the rest of his speech to ascertain the particular facts about which he complained, and I am bound to say that I missed them. My right hon. Friend did not like some of the conclusions that we came to, but as far as my memory goes, there was not a single fact contained in the Report that he challenged, and if the Parliamentary Secretary intends to deal with the subject, I should be very grateful to know what facts are challenged.

I think it is fair to the sub-committee, of which I have the honour to be chairman, to tell the House of the great care that was taken not only in providing accurate facts, but in getting all possible explanations of those facts. The House might say that we took too much care, because in all we took evidence from 98 witnesses, of whom 40 were representatives of the managements, 36 representatives of the workers, and 22 headquarters witnesses; and may I say about the headquarters witnessess that, apart from some of those whom we saw locally, all the headquarters witnesses were chosen by the Department. If their evidence was not what it should have been, the Department is to blame and not the sub-committee. In addition to the large amount of evidence that we took, we received a considerable number of memoranda all of which were relevant to the inquiry. We visited 16 factories, which was a very good sample of the total of 42. Those factories were spread over all parts of the country, and we were in every region, the regions being the regions into which the Royal Ordnance factories were divided. Therefore, I am sure the House will agree that this was a very careful and comprehensive investigation, and I may claim that it was carried out in an impartial manner and without any preconceived views. The House may have its own opinions as to the ability with which the inquiry was conducted, but I hope there will be no two views as to the impartial manner in which it was conducted. In reinforcement of that, may I say that the sub-committee consisted of representatives of all parties who, probably, before the war could never have been induced to put their names to any single document, but who in this case were unanimous about the Report. Furthermore, the procedure was that the first draft was prepared by me, as chairman; it was accepted by the sub-committee with, certain minor modifications; and it was subsequently considered by the full Committee on two occasions and again, with amendments which did not affect the principle of the Report, they accepted it unanimously. Accordingly, I may claim that this Report does represent the fully considered view of the Select Committee after a very full and comprehensive inquiry.

I do not disagree at all with my right hon. Friend about the importance of the Royal Ordnance factories in our war production and the great part they are playing to-day. The Minister gave us a very interesting account of the work that is being done in these Royal Ordnance factories, and it was rather interesting to get the complete details that he gave us, because I had always been led to believe that it was contrary to public security even to state the number of Royal Ordnance factories in the country. My right hon. Friend came out glibly with this very secret information, and also told us all the things we are doing in these factories. If we had only known that it was all right to say it, we might have said something more in the Report. While I would not attempt to vary one word of what my right hon. Friend said about the excellent work that is being done in those factories, it is the business of the Select Committee to discover and inform the House of the weaknesses and inefficiencies which exist in those factories, some of which, I agree, are inherent in the rapid and indeed spectacular way in which the factories have grown.

But while it is the duty of the Select Committee to place these weaknesses and inefficiencies before the House, we should be rendering an ill service if thereby the true picture were distorted. It was a source of great regret to me personally to find that in certain quarters, including the Press, the particular weaknesses to which we thought it necessary to draw attention were emphasised, but on the contrary, the good work, to which also we drew attention, that is being done by the Royal Ordnance factories was either passed over quickly or totally ignored. I think it is fair to my right hon. Friend and to the Ministry which he represents that the House should have a true picture, in its right proportions, of what is taking place. In fact, as we said in the Report, there has been a very great improvement in the past year in the Royal Ordnance factories, since my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) reported on them, and possibly due to his report; and particularly in regard to the engineering factories, about which little is said in the Report, because, in fact, there is not very much scope for criticism, I think it right to say that some of the new engineering factories are among the most efficient in the country and that their costs are among the lowest. But we consider that by drawing attention to the deficiencies we are making the best contribution to the further development of these factories, and my right hon. Friend would be the last to say that they are not capable of further development. That is the atmosphere in which this Report was prepared.

I would like now, like my right hon. Friend, to say a few words about some of the specific matters dealt with in the Report. The first thing which my right hon. Friend mentioned was the question of redundant capacity, and may I say that I thought he was very kind to him- self in dealing with this question? He talked about the spare capacity constituting a necessary, valuable, and wise insurance, but nobody knows better than he does that one can pay too big a premium for an insurance, so big a premium as to make it perhaps hardly worth while insuring; and the premium that is being paid in respect of the filling factories, in particular, is 37 per cent. of idle capacity. The figure of 37 per cent. is very high indeed, and I should like to ask my right hon. Friend whether it is his deliberate policy to provide that amount of spare capacity as an insurance, or whether it is not the fact that it has come about quite accidentally as a result of the lack of balance between the production of components and filling.