Orders of the Day — Steel Industry and Road Haulage

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th November 1951.

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Photo of Mr George Strauss Mr George Strauss , Lambeth Vauxhall 12:00 am, 12th November 1951

The test of the qualities of the chairman is what he is doing. It was always contemplated, and I think it was stated on both sides of the Committee when we were discussing this matter, that the chairman of this big organisation would be a man not drawn from the steel industry but from outside.

I was saying that this de-centralisation and re-grouping was being embarked upon by the Corporation with the best experts in the industry. What is to happen to all this important work, and the other important and urgent work, that the Corporation are doing, with the co-operation of the steel industry for the most part, during the next six months while the proposed Bill is before Parliament? Is there to be a hiatus while all this planning stops?

And where is the responsibility for the industry to lie during this critical period? With the Corporation? They are the body to whom Parliament has entrusted this duty and the body to whom Parliament has given the necessary authority—the only body. But how can they possibly exert that authority when every vested interest in the industry, every oppositionist, indeed every director, however cooperative he might be, knows that any request and any scheme put forward by the Corporation may be reversed in six months time?

Is it really so imperative for the Conservative Party to throw this great industry into uncertainty and chaos during this critical period in our economic affairs? If the Conservative Party are convinced that it is, the consequences of their action will, of course, rest squarely on their shoulders. But let them bear in mind that one of those consequences may well be that the distribution of iron and steel products under the proposed allocation scheme will be less effectively controlled, to the detriment of the fulfilment of the armament programme.

The King's Speech talks about an … adequate measure of public supervision. Mention has been made in this House, and in one of the leading Conservative papers yesterday, which may have had a preview of what is to be announced to us today, that the Government proposes to set up, without waiting for the steel de-nationalisation Bill, a steel board similar, I gather, to the one that operated for a short time prior to nationalisation. We must await the Minister's speech before we can make any detailed comment upon the Government's proposals, but I must say that at present I cannot see what function such a new hoard can possibly perform, except to blunt responsibility and confuse counsel. But as the alternative merits of a steel board have been frequently ventilated by the Conservative Party, and by the Prime Minister in particular, the House should know exactly what the functions of the old Steel Board were.

It was set up as a stop-gap measure with the duty of advising the Minister on certain technical problems, and carrying out certain limited responsibilities which the Minister delegated to it. Apart from this, it had no power whatever, statutory or otherwise. The main activity of the Steel Board was to check the development plans submitted by individual firms, examine them technically—and they did their work extremely well—and turn down those that did not appear to be justified.

In other words, in so far as they had any authority and indeed in so far as the Minister had any authority in those days, that authority was purely negative. The Board, in fact, was an efficient policeman; all it could say was "Stop." Neither the Board nor the Minister had any power to tell any firm to do what it did not want to do, or, in particular, to spend any money on development which it did not want to spend. How could they? They neither owned the firm's money, nor had they any power over its directors. If a similar board is to be set up by the Minister, it is bound to be similarly negative and restrictive in its powers.

In spite of its declarations, the Conservative Party may be embarking upon a scheme of purely restrictive control, but we on this side of the House do not like that type of control at all. So we say today, as firmly as we have ever said it, that without ownership there cannot be that purposeful, expansionist and organic over-all planning which is so essential for the vital industry of iron and steel.

For these reasons, we propose to resist at every stage and oppose with all the powers at our command any proposal to remove from the authority of Parliament the broad, effective and positive control which it now possesses over the iron and steel industry of this country. If the present Government, nevertheless, succeed in removing that control, we will seek to restore it at the first opportunity.

Moreover, we say that, if all or any section of this industry is now to be handed over to private investors, when the time comes, as it inevitably will, to re-transfer the shareholdings to public ownership, those investors should be compensated on the principle that under no circumstances will the total compensation already paid out be increased. It follows, among other things, that in any such compensation calculation full account will be taken of any dividends which may have been distributed to stockholders in the intervening period over the 3½ per cent. provided by British Iron and Steel Stock.

There are two other observations that I want to make. The first is that the Government say that they want to bring about a better relationship throughout industry, a worthy objective which we all support. But not only in the unions primarily concerned in the steel industry—and I understand that, if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. Jack Jones) wants to say a few words about these special interests—but in the trade union movement as a whole, there are deep convictions in favour of the public ownership of this industry. On top of the other considerations which I have mentioned, is it therefore really wise and statesmanlike for the Government at this moment to flout all these strongly held convictions, or is it not, as we think, the greatest folly?

Lastly, I suggest that this proposal to transfer from the realm of public service to that of private profit part or the whole of these two important industries must be viewed in the broad political setting that faces us today. Last week, Government spokesmen told the country that they would not be able to carry out any of their promises for raising the standard of life of our people on which they won the Election; in other words, the people have been swindled out of their just expectations.