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 Mr Albert Davies Mr Albert Davies , Stoke-on-Trent North 12:00 am, 30th November 1951

I wish to say a few words about this Bill which is concerned with the granting of a sum of £88 million for a specific purpose set out in the Supplementary Estimates the other day and, as we have seen, refers mainly to the Ministry of Materials, £47 million, and the Ministry of Materials (Strategic Reserves), £40 million.

The point which was brought out earlier in the debate is, can we be satisfied that in this process of building up stocks there is such a definition of policy available to the Government that we know precisely where we are going? The problem has all sorts of repercussions. In the last six or 12 months the grave inflationary position in the world has been due to this very process of stockpiling in various countries. Indeed, we were told by "Lloyds Bank Journal" and by our ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer that we have to face a Bill of no less than £1,000 million more this year for the same quantity of goods as we got last year and prices have risen to a very alarming extent.

I am exercised this morning to ask whether in providing this sum this is the end of the journey or at what point the journey ends? It is vital that we should have some information about this matter in so far as it affects our other imports. Here are set out a number of imports which purport to make available to private manufacturers and industrialists certain raw materials. On the other hand, we have to keep in reserve certain raw materials which are purchased at the same time and no doubt many of them are of the same kinds of material. In most cases they are in short supply.

We find ourselves that, confronted with the balance of payments position arising mainly from the stockpiling of these raw materials and the acquisition of such supplies as are going, we have to cut down our imports of foodstuffs and things which are vital to the civilian He of the nation. It would seem that, unless we can have some satisfaction that this problem has been properly examined and related to the requirements of our ordinary civilian economy and, at the same time, protecting the position should an emergency arise, we may yet be heading for bankruptcy.

During the last few days we have heard from the Chancellor of the Exchequer how he intends to deal with this situation. There are to be restrictions on credit and an increasing Bank rate. There is a restriction on physical building and on the extension of the ordinary resources for industry, and so on. This, unfortunately as is so well said in "The Times" this morning, is only the beginning of the story. In fact we have in "The Times" a letter from Lord Balfour of Burleigh who warns our trading friends against hopes of expanding their works and coming to the banks for credit, because their requests will be carefuly vetted and unless a good case is made out they will, as I understand it, be refused. In any event, Lord Balfour says that there is to be dear money.

Obviously, the financial experts of the country are frightened at the prospect which confronts us. This may sound a trifle remote from the subject we are discussing in this Vote. But I submit that the effect of it may well be very inflationary, and closely related to the situation in which we find ourselves. If, at a subsequent stage, we are asked for another £200 million for some purpose, in a world already competing for most of these raw materials, not only we and France and the other European countries, but other countries generally throughout the world may be facing catastrophe.

I submit that, without belonging to any particular school of thought, any man who seriously considers the position and who also takes into account the imminent dangers against which some of these measures are intended to provide, must ask if a careful examination of the whole situation has been made. That is why we were so insistent this morning that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the responsible Departmental Ministers ought to have been present in the House. Without this careful examination and relation of expenditure in an overall sense, and some kind of objective relation to external world conditions, we shall be in a very difficult situation. It was not because we were pernickety in any sense, but because we are seriously exercised about these matters.

The Prime Minister and his colleagues are going to Washington next month to discuss, as I understand, some of these great problems. While it may not be possible this morning to go into the details of the commodites we are seeking to acquire, for obvious reasons, I hope that we shall make it quite clear to our friends and allies that nothing but disaster lies ahead for this country unless some kind of co-ordination not only in this country but generally among the nations who call themselves allies in the common cause is to be found; so that prices and supplies may be controlled; that the amount of goods we want may have some relation to what is available, so that we shall not all be higgling and bargaining at fancy prices, and land ourselves into a condition of bankruptcy and then have to go elsewhere for assistance. That would seem to me to be very bad book-keeping and management, apart from the grave social effects which it has on our local government and other services in terms of an increased price for the money which they have to borrow.

I would comment on the co-ordination of services so far as transport and fuel, and so on, are concerned. I regret that the Ministers who are responsible for the co-ordination of these services are not available for questioning by hon. Members upon the policy and the immediate day-to-day problems which may arise. I have no quarrel with the theory and practice of co-ordination. I consider it very vital between transport and fuel and power; and I think a good case can be made out for food and agriculture being under the same supervision.

But we think it is the antithesis of Parliamentary democracy that these matters of high importance should be dealt with by Ministers not accountable to the House. Reference was made to what happened in 1947, when we had a fuel crisis, and there was a division of view about whether it was a matter for the Ministry of Transport or for the Ministry of Fuel and Power. But certainly there was a crisis, and if a similar crisis arose in the future we should have great difficulty in nailing down the responsible Minister.

That is not good enough, and I hope that notice will be taken of the views I have expressed as an ordinary back bencher elected to represent the interests of the ordinary man in the street; not because the views are mine but because they represent the voice of the people in these matters, expressed in this House, where we expect that a reply will be given.