Ministry of Materials (Stockpiling)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th November 1951.

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Photo of Major Geoffrey Bing Major Geoffrey Bing , Hornchurch 12:00 am, 30th November 1951

So far as the Secretary for Overseas Trade is concerned he can deal with raw materials, but I should have thought that he would realise that he could not deal with the sort of questions that are now being dealt with within the general framework of the Bill in relation to the general economic situation. Unless he wants to distort the whole discussion, I should have thought that he should have said to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, this is a matter when a senior Minister should be present. It would at least be courtesy to have present a Minister who was what was elegantly called "above the line"— if not of Cabinet rank, at any rate someone who thinks he is in the Cabinet.

What is to be the way in which we determine what is to be stockpiled and what is not? Otherwise we have no idea of the limit we should set on it. Is it a global total or a total for each particular material? If so, it is not only a question which can be decided in relation to the materials themselves. If the questions must be decided in relation to everything else, then who plans the stockpiling and how is it co-ordinated with the rest of our economy?

Let me take just one example. Suppose we stockpile food, and suppose we stockpile timber. Both are commodities particularly liable, as the last war showed, to destruction because once they are ignited in one way or another they are self-destructive. They have to be dispersed. They are very delicate and have to be defended against the weather. That involves an immense dispersion and therefore a considerable amount of building in which to stock-pile if it is to be increased beyond existing capacity. It also involves a great deal of strengthening of our transport position. The fuel crisis, hon. Members will remember, was as much a crisis of transport as it was a crisis of fuel.

But who is to decide on that? Of the three individuals we have, as I understand it from the somewhat confused description we had on the Estimates, dealing with planning, the Paymaster-General is in fact the adviser on defence expenditure; he is the man who deals with the economic side of defence. He advises the Minister of Defence—the Prime Minister—on how he is going to make use of his economic defence.

Who co-ordinates the Paymaster-General? How does he fit in with the general plan? Who arbitrates if there is a difference of opinion between him and the Minister of State for Economic Affairs who is not in the Cabinet and is not therefore able to speak on behalf of the whole of our civil economy? Is it to be the Cabinet? If so, it just reduces this problem to an ad hoc decision of no particular merit which is determined by the strength of the personalities who happen to be assembled in the Cabinet on that particular day. Really the economic situation of the country is sufficiently serious for us not to proceed in that way.

What, on the other hand, is the coordinating plan, if that is not so? Who has made a co-ordinating plan to work all these things together. This is the sort of thing on which we are entitled to have an explanation on an occasion such as this when we are discussing a Consolidated Fund Bill. It has been the tradition of this House for a couple of hundred years that we get a major statement of policy from the Government on various aspects of matters on a Consolidated Fund Bill and it is quite extraordinary that on this occasion we are not to have any. I ask the hon. Gentleman to tell us—because whatever else is kept from him he ought to know this—does such a plan exist, or not? Is the reason why we are not having any statement on what the co-ordinated policy is merely that there is not a co-ordinated policy, or because there is one but it is not thought fit to reveal it to the House?

Is there a co-ordinated plan which it is decided now the people in the country and the House of Commons should not know, or is there not any plan at all? This issue is very important even within the very limited sphere in which right hon. Gentlemen opposite sometimes think—the limited sphere of stock-piling itself. Of what does stock-piling consist? Making a collection, a hotch-potch, of commodities we may think we may need in wartime, is not the only kind of stockpiling that must be done for defence, even if one is thinking in the most limited terms of defence. The fixed assets of the country are just as important as the stock-piles if one is thinking in purely defence terms. Railways, roads and buildings are just as important for national survival in war as a whole collection of individual commodities.

Of course, the one factor which really counts in defence, and which counted in the last war, is the total productive capacity of the country. Who is to decide which commodities which if used might increase our national production should be put aside in a stock-pile for a future war? Who is to weigh the increase of productive capacity against the mechanical need for having a sort of reserve which is dictated to us by the Paymaster-General? Is anyone studying the effects of this? Take even the limited question of buildings for the housing and dispersal of the stock-pile? We have been told that there is to be no building for three months. Who determines the exceptions to this? Is it the Paymaster-General who in his sphere of defence planning can go into the building field, or is it the Minister of State for Economic Affairs, or is it the Minister who is absent and ought to be conducting this debate, the Chancellor of the Exchequer? If there is one reason for the absence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer I should think it is becaue he is unaware of his own functions.