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 Sir Walter Fletcher Sir Walter Fletcher , Bury 12:00 am, 24th July 1947

I do not intend to follow the speeches which have been made largely on the subject of the Royal Ordnance factories except to make one remark. There is one of these Ordnance factories quite near the constituency which I represent, and a good many of the workers live in my constituency. One of the reasons why we are not getting the best out of those factories is because those who work in them feel that they have no security of tenure. They do not know what the future holds for them. That arises from the simple fact that the Government, as yet, have no policy regarding the final use of those factories. They have not yet made up their minds whether to retain them for purposes of scientific development, or for producing a mass of goods in competition with private enterprise; and, so long is there is no such policy, the Ordnance factories will not attract people to work in them who are looking for their life careers. At present they are very largely being manned and worked by people who are taking a short-term view of industry, and trying to earn the maximum wage, which is quite natural and correct, but who have not got in them the spirit, which the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale) was so eloquently trying to evoke, of recreating industry on a new basis. I ask the Minister in no contentious spirit, to try to make up his mind sooner or later what is the final destination of the Ordnance factories, and, if necessary, to allocate some of them for atomic energy purposes, return some to private industry, and use others for Government industrial purposes. Until the mind of the Government is solidified on this point, we shall not get the best out of these factories.

I shall break the tradition of this Debate and return to the matter of tie Ministry of Supply and its expenditure. It seems to me that our discussion has erred and strayed over a very wide field. Before I do so I am going to make a plea to the Minister. One of the new phrases which has come into being in recent years —and most of them are not very grammatical or attractive—is "the Ministerial level." That is a sort of stratosphere to which people are elevated, are shot up in a lift to the £5,000 a year floor from the £1,000 floor, and where they have a very great tendency to lose the common touch. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Lyttelton) pointed out, the Minister in his previous, and possibly his most useful incarnation, was the watchdog of the expenditure of public money in private companies. Now he has been lifted to this new level, and it seems to me that there is reason to fear that he is losing the very valuable point of view that he had before. I was a member of the Committee which worked on the Companies Bill, and everybody there paid a considerable tribute to the work that he had done, a good deal of which was the basis for what we did upstairs. I am going to ask him to step down from the Ministerial level, and to examine with me some of the activities of his Department.

I would like, first, to examine the question of bulk purchases. I wish the Minister of Food, who was present some time ago, had remained here to hear some of my observations, because in the food Debate the other day he "got away with murder." He produced arguments which, unfortunately, were never refuted during that Debate. On this question of bulk purchases, I would like to turn to the Civil Estimates and to refer to page 27 where all the bulk purchase items, with which the Minister has to deal, are enumerated. This note appears: The above figures represent mainly the difference between the selling price of materials and the cost to the Ministry. They also reflect changes in the level of stocks. I could paraphrase that note by saying; These figures are neatly camouflaged so that one cannot tell whether there is a trading loss or whether there is a change in amount because we have got rid of some of the stock. In his previous incarnation, if a board of directors had dared to put a note like that at the bottom of their balance sheet, the Minister would have been rubicund with indignation. His voice would have been heard through the land pointing out the wickedness of directors in not telling their shareholders plainly in language they could comprehend what they had done with their affairs during the year. I regard this as a disgraceful thing because the public, the shareholders in this instance, cannot possibly tell how their Government have administered or maladministered their affairs during the year. I think committees that have to deal with public accounts should take note of it, and ask Ministers how they have managed the public's affairs, in presenting the accounts to the shareholders.

A little while ago the right hon. Gentleman's Ministry was responsible for rubber. There is a cracking loss on the Government's stocks of rubber at the present moment. By, stroke of good fortune the right hon. Gentleman has transferred an extremely unfortunate amount of rubber, on which there was a loss of £30 to £40 a ton, to his right hon. and learned Friend, the President of the Board of Trade, so I cannot within the Rules of Order discuss it here. But I should like to point out this to him, and to reinforce the argument of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot. Bulk purchase is in itself a wrong, and I think, a rather offensive phrase, for it should be called a government-to-government purchase. When the right hon. Gentleman is undertaking it, I think he should bear the following points in mind—that almost the same rules with regard to purchases between ordinary individuals or companies should apply to these; that there is risk in bulk purchases in many instances—and I am not going to be doctrinaire and say they have always been wrong and are always bad—but in this field the level of morality in dealing is not the same between the parties.

In the British Empire, in dealing in non-ferrous metals or anything else, we are on a safe wicket, because the other party has the same level of morality as we have, but that is not so in dealing with countries mostly not within the Empire. It has resulted in big losses in dealings with countries outside the Empire. One of the great dangers in making these contracts—and we have had instances in connection with the Argentine, Ceylon, Siam, with many other countries—is that they do not intend to keep the contracts longer during currency stringency. They are always seeking the whole time—and there have been questions in the House in the last few days—for some "smart Alec" method of getting out of it.

But the Government are so naive that they think that everyone is going to carry out their contracts as fairly as the British would. I can show them a good many instances of that. The Government know themselves in this matter that during periods of scarcity in any commodity the Government must retain control and use it in a greater or less degree, having advisers inside the Ministry, or firms outside or companies as agents, during periods of scarcity to act as buyers and distributors. The danger is the end period of scarcity. When the period of scarcity is over, there comes a period of surplus, and that always comes in spite of the Canute-like attitude of the present Government in this matter, and their belief that what they say will reverse the tides. They go on with their bulk purchases, which are admittedly necessary during shortages, and they go on too long until a range of stocks is left on their hands on which there is a loss as the market declines; and then they have to go cap in hand to the headmaster's office in the Treasury, and they know what is going to happen when they get there, and, like everyone else who has been in that unfortunate position, they put off the visit as long as they can.

I believe that if these accounts were carefully examined it would be found that most of the losses which will have to be written off next year, and which are now being written off, arise from the tendency, which all Government Departments have, to go on too long because one routine is established, and it is known that when the committee meets on Tuesday morning Mr. A, Mr. B, Mr. C and Mr. D will be there. The routine is there practically in perpetuity, and the Minister must make a little note and go over all his bulk purchasing activities. I am glad to see the right hon. Gentleman getting his pen out to look into it.

The next point is that of scientific research. I listened very carefully to the Minister on this aspect, and I can see a really grave danger. The danger lies in regarding scientific research as something in the nature of a higher civil servant who may one day perform a remarkable conjuring trick to get us out of a difficulty, by producing some new weapons, or some remarkable practical result out of a hat at any given moment. Scientific research must not be looked at from the point of view of the practical results at any given time. That is the unscientific way of regarding its use. There is no better example which I can quote than one from America, of the great firm of General Motors who, throughout the whole of their worst periods of slump, maintained a scientific research department, with 650 scientific research employees under one roof when the firm was doing extremely badly.

What was the result? The result of taking that correct view of scientific research was to produce some of the greatest inventions, which were not directly connected with motors. Ethyl petrol vas discovered in those laboratories; knee-action springing, and all sorts of other remarkable things resulted. That was only because that great firm knew that scientific research must not be regarded as a maker of hats out of which rabbits might come at any moment, but as a purely research institution out of which, in the ordinary course of time, much may result, if there are enough people carrying on the hard grind of day-to-day research and experiment, and not just the flash of Hollywood inspiration, which people imagine it to be. If that is done, if research is carried out correctly, and if the Minister resists the pressure of those who want to get quick dividends out of it, he will get bigger and more dividends in the end, and will help to direct this country and the world through some of the dangers which surround us.

I now turn to something with which I think the Minister will agree. This is the Ministry of the seven veils, and I am drawing them aside one by one. Whether we shall like what we see underneath I would not like to say. It is also a "Topsy" Ministry, which grows on a sort of political form of artificial insemination. In any case, it is a difficult Ministry to explain. Only this week I asked the Minister a Question, namely, what was the average wage of the pool drivers—the male drivers, not the female drivers—in London. They are the drivers who are in charge of the motor cars which have the high honour of transporting Minister high officials, and various other people round London. I do not wish the Committee to think that I am trying to score a silly point, by suggesting that Ministers should ride about on bicycles in these hard times—although possibly the film rights of that might get us a few dollars. I am looking at it mach more from a really important point of view. The answer the Minister gave me was that the average wage was £9 13s. per week, taking overtime into account.

That is a really appalling figure, and I say to the Minister that he must put on his shareholder protection spectacles and look at this, which must be one of the cushiest of jobs. The Minister appears to be doubtful, so perhaps I ought to explain why it is cushy. It is one of the cushiest jobs which any ordinary driver would take on for £6 or £7 a week. Yet the pool drivers receive £9 13s. per week; that is very largely overtime at about 3s. 9d. an hour. I assure the Minister that if he looks into this thoroughly, he will find out surprising things about it. I have been to two of the new garages in which these cars are housed. and I advise all hon. Members to go there too. The Minister will undoubtedly give them a permit, because he does not want to hide anything. If the Minister looks into this, he will, I think, find out for himself the things that are going on; the little pools of drivers who pay for an empty garage out of their own pockets, and push these officials' cars into these garages when they have to wait three or four hours for a Minister or official, and charge overtime. The Minister will find that this figure of £9 13s. is a very dangerous one.

We have been debating, in the rather indeterminate period when night and day merged into each other, the question of transport. It is obvious that a very large number of drivers will be needed for the movement of goods in industry. What is to be the result when they know their average wage, and learn that the other chap who is transporting officials and Ministers in London is receiving £9 13s.? I think that I am doing the Minister a service in pointing this out to him at the present moment, and I feel that Members on all sides of the Committee are justified in asking about this very large figure in connection with transport, which appears in this disregarded document no one has referred to, namely, "Transport Charges by road, £4,421,000." The reply to my question does really call for a good deal of investigation, for it is most inflationary. If we are to set the remuneration of the driver at something like a tenner a week, the Minister would be entitled to queue up and ask that his own salary be raised from £5,000 to £10,000 a year.

I wish to mention something to the Minister, which I believe he knows about. It concerns his allocations. He talked a lot about allocations today, and there was a mention of steel. I want to put in a short plea for those manufacturers of extremely large machinery, like paper-making machinery, which manufacture only five or six machines a year, mostly for overseas, at a cost of £200,000 or £300,000 each. If they do not know what their steel allocation is to be several quarters ahead, they are not in the same position as the man who is making repetition articles, who can cut down his production. They find that their work is more or less brought to a complete standstill. It means that the most highly skilled specialists are put on such ridiculous jobs as cleaning up. We had a bad dose of that in the recent fuel crisis. Not only when there are small steel allocations, but when there is uncertainty of steel allocations, which is even more serious, is this wastage brought about of some of the best and most skilled labour in the country. It means that a great disservice is being done, and that a considerable loss in hard currency results.

I ask the Minister to look over the men in his Ministry, like the 16 men whom the Minister of Food has to advise him—"Sixteen men on the dead man's chest." Incidentally, one of them told me the reason he was there was not the reason given by the Minister of Food, but to see that the Minister did not make too many mistakes, and that the civil servants did not do what they like doing best, which is nothing. I am going to ask the Minister most seriously to review the whole of the activities of his Ministry. I do not believe that by nature he is an expansionist whose secret ambition is to absorb the Board of Trade and a few other Ministries as well. I believe that the modest disappearance of his Ministry, on a progressive scale, which might result from certain examinations, would be the greatest feather in his cap. I do not say that political hara-kiri is a very palatable dish for all Ministers. Finally—and this is a question on which he must automatically agree with me—let him see that the presentation of the accounts of his Ministry are better, and that the public, which is a shareholder, has an adequate explanation of every item and that those items do truly represent the activities of the Ministry. If he will do that, we will let him off with a caution this time, in the hope that next year we may be able to reinstate him one degree higher.