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 Duncan Sandys Mr Duncan Sandys , Wandsworth Streatham 12:00 am, 12th November 1951

Naturally we do not go into action on a matter of this importance without taking the best possible legal advice upon it. I am satisfied, so far as one can ever be satisfied about the law, that this direction is in perfect conformity with the Act. Not only have the Law Officers been consulted, but the Corporation itself has consulted its legal advisers on this question.

Before our policy can be put into legislative form, we shall have to consult the principal bodies representing the main interests affected. In addition to the Iron and Steel Corporation itself, those include the British Iron and Steel Federation, the T.U.C. and the representatives of the steel consuming interests. Until those discussions have taken place I am sure the House would not expect me to put forward detailed proposals. [Interruption.] I do not think the House would expect me to put forward detailed proposals until we have had these consultations. When this party was in power before, again and again when something was announced somebody used to get up from the Opposition Front Bench and ask whether the trade unions had been consulted. If everybody had not been consulted before the announcement was made there was always criticism. Therefore, it seems to me that this is the right way to proceed.

It is no good suggesting that we are not going ahead quickly enough, that we ought to have produced all our proposals cut and dried when Parliament opened. I would remind the House that it took the party opposite about three years to produce their proposals for nationalising steel. If we manage to produce our scheme in about three months we shall not have done too badly.

However, I should like to say something about the two main problems which confront us and to which the Bill must find a solution. The first is the question of finance—that is to say, the financial problem of transferring the industry to free enterprise. These are the facts. Since February the Corporation has been in direct or indirect control of some 290 companies. Some of these companies are wholly owned by the Corporation. Others are subsidiaries in which the Corporation only has a controlling interest. Then there is the question of compensation. Some £240 million have either been paid or are to be paid in the form of Iron and Steel Stock guaranteed by the Treasury. Much of that Stock has changed hands in the intervening months. Meanwhile, as I have already explained, the Corporation has made many alterations in the financial structure of the companies concerned. I mention these facts only to show some of the problems which we will have to take into account in formulating our proposals.

The other main issue is that of public supervision—and the machinery through which that supervision is to be exercised. We, on this side, have always recognised that there must be public supervision, particularly in the field of development policy and prices. We have never, on the other hand, accepted that adequate public supervision can only be obtained at the price of nationalisation with all its restricting effects on the industry. We are supported in this by the much quoted report of the T.U.C. last year, in which the view is clearly expressed that public ownership is not the only practical form of securing adequate public control and that a board, possibly on the lines of the former Iron and Steel Board, if necessary with additional powers, offers an effective alternative to nationalisation. That view was expressed in a report of the Trades Union Congress.