Housing

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st June 1978.

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Photo of Mr Arthur Jones Mr Arthur Jones , Daventry 12:00 am, 21st June 1978

I want to refer to the question of the nationalisation of the building industry. It is a matter that was avoided by the Secretary of State during his speech earlier today, and I suspect that the proposals that are contained in the document "Labour's Policy on Construction" are somewhat of an embarrassment to him. I sense that that is the case in respect of a number of Labour Members, and when the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller) gets on his feet to talk about nationalisation it is always by way of trying to explain away the content of this document.

I have been interested to look through the Socialist Party's proposals for the building industry, the material producers and suppliers and the professions which create the activity and provide the support for about 2 million people employed in construction and related activities. For the last-mentioned, the so-called "constructional professionals", to use the jargon in the document, the Socialists propose that their education should be taken out of the hands of professional institutions and controlled by a body representing the whole industry, perhaps the Construction Industry Training Board". That proposal is contained in recommendation No. 54 of the policy background paper to which I have referred. It is an example of the fallacious and irresponsible submissions which appear throughout the document and in its 60 proposals to which, according to Mr. Ron Hayward in his foreword, his national executive committee has given its broad endorsements to the basic policies set out". The text is in no way attributed to its authors or those who comprised the study group.

We are told, again by the general secretary of the Labour Party, that Ministers, Members of Parliament, trade unionists and individual party members made available their experience and expertise. It would be helpful to know in what particular field their expertise lies. The absence of any reference to active responsibility for running a successful enterprise begs a question or two. Incidentally, no death-bed confessions are in evidence from any of the intended victims.

With a colleague, I have been in the building industry for about 30 years. We have never had more than 60 or 70 employees and have always backed our judgment with our own money or that which we borrowed from the banks. I assure the House that this document is no more than an academic exercise, put together, I suspect, in the main by those with little or no practical experience of the building industry or, for that matter, of anything else which is the subject of their research. Its purpose is to try to justify the long-term objective of active Socialists.

I quote from the booklet. Paragraph 6, under the heading "Public Ownership", states: A central tenet of Labour's philosophy is the need to take out of private hands and bring into social ownership the 'commanding heights' of the economy. There is no question, it should be noted, of building up State-owned companies. That would be the hard way of proving whether publicly owned enterprises could be made successful. Instead, the document suggests in paragraphs 43 to 46 that it should be done by the acquisition of a whole series of major and successful companies, including English China Clay, Redland, Consolidated Gold Fields—that clearly proved irresistible—Ready Mix Concrete, Hoveringham, Pilkington, BP Industries, Associated Portland Cement, one of a number of companies in the cement business which would be taken over, and London Brick. The Socialists had already promised us in their October 1974 manifesto that they would nationalise mineral rights.

We see no indication here of the costs involved. They do not tell us, the country and the taxpayer what it will all cost. A vast amount of money will be required from the British people by way of rates and taxes. It will be a forced investment for all of us and an outgoing commitment by way of undefined administrative costs.

No estimate is given of the outcome in building costs, an important factor here. Home and overseas output was £875 million in 1975–76. Therefore, what the industry is being threatened with is not only the takeover of its home-based operations but the risk to which a vast enterprise overseas will be subject.

Furthermore, we are told nothing about increased effectiveness of the labour force and the need for its mobility. Indeed, the competitive nature of the industry is deplored. Recommendation No. 22 says that competitive tendering should be used much less. This is really a sop to some direct labour organisations.

Among the recommendations, there are a number of real gems. In No. 14 we see: The construction implications of public expenditure plans should be more effectively communicated to the industry, and procedures for assessing construction implications strengthened. In No. 14 we have this: The best forward planning systems for capital programmes already operating in the public sector should be extended more widely. No. 16 is: A proportion of future public expenditure on construction should be guaranteed against spending cuts. How that is to be done, there is no explanation. We are not told how a Socialist Administration would have coped with the decline in the industry's output by 25 per cent. in the last four years. Registered unemployment (seasonally adjusted) in construction as such rose from 80,000 in November 1973 to 214,000 in February 1977, including some 66,000 skilled craftsmen. There is a summary going with the building materials sector on page 50, and it reads just like an academic exercise. It says: We have outlined in this section a strategy for introducing public accountability into the building materials sector—a major sector of both of our manufacturing and extractive industries—and thus ensuring an adequate and planned supply of material inputs for the construction industry. We believe it will be an early priority of the new State holding companies in the contracting and building materials sector to investigate whether vertical integration between the production and assembly sides of the industry, which some large private contractors are already developing, can yield further improvements in efficiency and in planning. That really is jargon of the worst description. I was hoping to intervene in the Secretary of State's speech to ask him to explain the word "oligopoly" which appears on page 36: We note that there is a much higher degree of oligopoly"— that rhymes with "monopoly"— in the industry than is immediately apparent from the overall statistics of the number of firms. I must confess that I had to look the word up, and I found that it is a State of limited competition between a few producers or sellers". That is an indication of the academic exercise with which we are concerned.

I recognise that the proposals in the document are not as yet, in their totality, Socialist Party policy. Whether they will be, I make no judgment. However, they are such that the country must be warned. They are the unavoidable face of Socialism and must be vigorously opposed by every proper means. The industry itself has an important part to play, as, indeed, have those who work in it. Two million people are affected; they must be fully informed. I judge that, if provided with the facts, they will scornfully reject them. This, I think, is an indictment of the document, and I can well understand the embarrassment of the Secretary of State and his senior colleagues and many Labour Members.