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 Mrs Barbara Castle Mrs Barbara Castle , Blackburn East 12:00 am, 30th November 1951

I am coming to that. I am seeking information. Surely there is no crime in trying to clarify this important issue of prices.

Hon. Members opposite talked a lot about rising prices during the Election campaign. It was their great stock-in-trade on the Election platform, and, therefore, I should have thought that it was part of their Parliamentary duty, when returned to this House, to examine very closely the question of prices of every kind. We on this side of the House are passionately concerned with the increased cost of living. I am not going to be put off by that kind of question. My constituents in Blackburn will only be too thankful to me for attempting to probe this very serious matter.

I am going to ask some specific questions on this matter. and I hope that the news I receive will be good news. I hope that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bury and Radcliffe (Mr. W. Fletcher) will be able to supply his hon. Friends on the Front Bench with a whole catalogue of good news for us on this question, because the rise in prices is of serious concern to us on this side of the House: but I doubt very much whether it will be easy for him to do so.

I submit that we must know this afternoon much more clearly what part of this increase in the Estimate is due to the element of increased prices. The Secretary for Overseas Trade, in reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson), said that it was true that we were getting, as a result of the International Materials Conference, increased supplies. He paid tribute to that Conference. What concerns me is that it would appear that we are now facing something of a crisis in the International Materials Conference.

I was very interested to read a most constructive article in the international edition supplement of the "New York Times" on 28th October. The article was headed: "West Faces New Crisis on Strategic Materials.—Crucial Test is at Hand on Controls Needed for Defence Programmes," and began: Nearly a year after the free world decided to end the frenzied scramble for commodities that followed the Korean invasion, the International Materials Conference, which symbolized that effort, faces its first major crisis. It may be its last. The outcome may decide whether the free countries are to hang together or separately. The issue is already clear. It is whether the twenty-seven member Governments can agree on a system of international price controls. Experience to date has shown that allocations alone are not sufficient to curb prices where political programmes call for guns and butter, too. In that reference to political programmes the article is clearly not referring to this country. We shall be lucky if we get guns and margarine. We had fairly clear evidence in the debate yesterday that we cannot even have guns and a Christmas bonus of cooking fat. Therefore, the reference to political programmes calling for guns and butter too is not to this country, but to the United States of America.

What interests me about this matter is that, during the General Election, when hon. Members opposite fought their campaign almost exclusively on the cost-of-living issue, the speeches which I made in my constituency were to the effect that what had caused us our cost-of-living headache was primarily the pressure on world supplies of raw materials that had been forcing up prices and creating the very crisis which is here now. We said then. and we told the people of this country, that the real answer to the cost-ofliving problem was to get an extention of price controls in the international field. We paid tribute—a tribute never paid by hon. Gentlemen opposite—to the great action taken by the former Prime Minister when he went to Washington to raise this very point with President Truman.

We made the point that it was absolute nonsense to talk of solving the cost-of-living problem in this country in the easy terms used by the Conservative Party, about getting rid of Government buying and the cutting of Government expenditure. We said that the real answer was the extension in the international field of a more stringent policy of price control.

That was pooh-poohed by our opponents. They poured scorn on it. and they fell back on their slogan "Set the people free." I want to know whether it is true that the International Materials Conference is now up against the fact that the system of international allocation of raw materials is not enough to solve this headache of stockpiling and cost of living in all the countries of the West, and that it ought to be followed by a policy of international price control.

I want to know the policy of the Government on this point. Is this to be another case when they reverse the policy on which they fought an Election? This is a point on which I passionately hope that there is going to be a reversal of that propaganda, because the situation is extremely serious. If we do not get action in the international field from the Government, this Estimate will prove to be quite inadequate. The "New York Times" is not a Socialist paper, not a paper that would ever propagand for the Labour ticket, but in this serious article it objectively states the problem that faces us in regard to strategic and other materials.

The article goes on to say: Unless the free nations can agree among themselves on what they will charge one another for the ingredients of military production they separately control, the squeeze will come on food, clothing, housing and other essentials. There is real concern both here and abroad that if costs continue to nibble away at living standards, people may ask: 'What are we fighting for?' The industrialised free countries were well on their way toward cutting their collective throat after six months of some of the most feverish buying the world has ever seen when Mr. Truman and Mr. Attlee, then Prime Minister, decided last December that the time had come to call a halt It sounds like one of the Election speeches that we on this side of the House made, and which were pooh-poohed so casually by hon. Gentlemen opposite.

I notice that the hon. Member for Bury and Radcliffe has left the Chamber. I promised him I would come to his point later, but apparently he is not sufficiently interested in it to remain. This is what the article goes on to say: Prices of rubber and tin had more than doubled in the interim. Most non-ferrous metals had tripled in cost, and some of them, like wolfram, had gone up fivefold.Other Governments followed the example of the United States and placed large defence orders in which price was no object. On top of these came new orders for stockpile purposes. Consumer prices began their steady climb. The Governments around the free world found their appropriations for defence went only half as far as intended, and Charles E. Wilson, Defence Mobiliser, proclaimed inflation the No. 1 enemy.If the need for collective action was apparent in Britain. it screamed for attention here. The article is, of course, headlined from Washington, and goes on: United States consumption was chewing up 50 per cent. of the world's production of copper, as against 30 per cent. before World War II; 50 per cent of the world's zinc, as compared with 40 per cent. before; 60 per cent. of available aluminium, as against 30 per cent. before the war.American industries also were consuming 55 per cent. of the world's rubber against 45 per cent. before the war; 75 per cent. of all the pulpwood, as compared with 48 per cent.; 26 per cent. of the total wool against 18 per cent., and 35 per cent. of the world's cotton and sisal, as against 23 per cent. before the war. In other words, the picture which the Labour Party painted during the General Election was correct, that the great surge in prices which had taken place during the last few months was not due to Socialist extravagance in this country or to Socialist internal policies, but to the extraordinary pressure upon the supplies and, therefore, the prices of raw materials. We said then—we repeat it now—that the answer is not the outworn Tory slogan of "Set the people free." The only answer is the extension in the international sphere of the controls which the Labour Party has so successfully applied internally. [Laughter.]

Hon. Gentlemen may laugh, but everyone in the country who is concerned about the cost of living wants to know what hon. Members really believe. Do they propose to make a genuine success of the International Materials Conference? Do they propose to fight for the policy which is described in this article as "essential." a policy of price controls as well as allocation controls? We cannot institute international controls successfully upon a basis of national uncontrolled free enterprise, for the two are incompatible. In order to deal with a situation which requires not fewer controls but more controls, the people of this country have returned to power a Government which does not believe in the principle of fair shares, whether it be internationally, or nationally, but believes in economic chaos and in using public money for private needs.

We have a right to ask what sort of policy will be pursued internationally by the new Government and whether hon. Gentlemen opposite will once again be eating the words which they uttered during the General Election. The alternatives are either that hon. Gentlemen opposite shall continue to eat their own words or that the people of this country will not eat at all.