Ministry of Supply

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th July 1947.

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Photo of Mr Charles Hobson Mr Charles Hobson , Wembley North 12:00 am, 24th July 1947

I fully appreciated the length of the Minister's speech, and I am sure we were all very interested in his description of the various ramifications of his Department. But, like other hon. Members who have spoken, I was appalled and shocked at the complacency contained therein. There was a certain degree of pride which was quite rightly expressed in regard to research work in the realm of aviation, and a reasonable case was stated in regard to the change over in the Royal Ordnance Factories. But, when it came to certain crying necessities, he glossed over them very smoothly. I refer particularly to the shortage of electrical power plant and allocations of steel. The shortage of power in my submission is far graver than the shortage of fuel. I believe the shortage of fuel will be solved in a couple of years' time, but that will not be so in the case of the shortage of power. The power needs in Britain today are at least 1,725,000 kilowatts, or the equivalent of 15 medium power stations.

That is a tremendous task. But it is no new position; it has not been sprung on us overnight. The right hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Lyttelton) was well aware of the position as far back as 1943, but obviously in the height of hostilities he could not give power equipment top priority. There were other things that had to come first, and I would be the last to make debating points in attacking him on that score. But the making of generating plants is in the hands of private enterprise. It is true that under the new Bill the Government seek to take power to make generating sets. What I am particularly concerned about—and here is a direct responsibility of the Minister of Supply—is the allocation of steel, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, to the industries and firms engaged in the making of generating plant. There I think we can quite rightly attack him.

A question was asked in the House last week about the total number of generating sets erected in Britain during the last 12 months. The answer given was eight, which is a lamentable performance. It means less than one set for each firm capable of making generating sets in Britain. Is anyone satisfied with that situation? If there is no improvement in eight years' time, we shall still be shedding the load. I am convinced that while the Government and the Cabinet have given a directive that generating plant must have top priority, that directive has not been carried down sufficiently low. Engineering firms concerned in making generating sets are experiencing great difficulty in getting steel, and this is causing a tremendous number of bottlenecks. We do not know what the right hon. Gentleman's Department is doing. We were certainly not told in his long speech, and I shall be very interested to hear the reply by the Parliamentary Secretary. The fact is that firms making this essential plant who are dependent upon the Ministry of Supply for raw materials are held up at the moment, and that situation is not good enough.

Reference has been made by previous speakers to red-tape. I want to know if it is necessary for a large firm—after all, these are reputable firms who make these large generating sets—to have a permit for floor space allocation? I was told there was to be a certain degree of standardisation, and that it is not so much in standardisation of pressures, but of design. If that is so, we should get a certain degree of increased production. I hope everything is being done to ensure that they get the supplies of steel.

We were told that in order to economise on fuel there were to be large-scale conversions of boilers burning solid fuel to oil fuel consumption. What is the position, how many boilers have been converted in generating stations? Up to April there had not been a single boiler converted to oil fuel in any station of the Central Electricity Board. There has been a tremendous waste of time because boilers which have been steaming and providing the energy could not steam up because they were waiting for parts for conversion. If the Ministry of Supply, or firms who supply the parts, have not metals, I say the whole of that policy should be reversed. I never liked it, and I thought it a foolish decision. But the decision having been taken, it is the prime duty of the Ministry of Supply to ensure that they get the necessary equipment.

We hear a lot of talk about plans for exports and imports, but we shall not be able to increase exports if we have to continue shedding the load, and the only persons who can avoid that are those responsible for getting the supplies. The steel position is not too bad. A few moments ago I looked up the Statistical Digest. I expect that we shall be told that the reason for shortage of steam turbines particularly is the shortage of steel castings. I took the trouble to look up the figures and found that production last year was 3·7 millions, which was an improvement on the previous year. I am convinced that there is something wrong, in the machinery of that Department which is not giving these firms the priority they desire.

I wish to say a word about other sections of heavy industry. Wagons have been mentioned, and they are a prime need. In point of fact it would be interesting to know, and worth while spending some time in finding out, to what extent last February's fuel crisis was due primarily to the shortage of wagons, because many pits, even last summer, were lying idle because of shortage of wagons. Not only were they short of timber, but they were short of axles and tyres for the wheels. I do not think everything possible has been done there. That also applies to shipbuilding, which is enjoying prosperity at present, but is not going full blast. It is having to go fairly easily because of the shortage of the allocation of steel plate. I know that it is difficult for the Ministry, and I appreciate all the difficulties, and I would not like to be the person who has to make decisions, but something must be done about this question of the allocation of steel plate. The export of motor cars at the present level will not be permanent, but we have always been able to make ships, and for many years ahead there will always be a market for ships. Therefore, I plead that everything shall be done by this Ministry to ensure that the heavy engineering industry of Britain gets a better and fairer allocation of steel.