§ 57 Mr. JOHN BECKETT
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer (1) whether, when the Government factory at Billingham for the fixation of nitrogen was advertised for sale, it was stated that information procured by the Government Commission to the German factory at Oppau would be included; and whether there is any proviso dealing with this information in the private treaty under which the factory was sold to Messrs. Brunner, Mond;
(2) on what date the contract with Messrs. Brunner, Mond for the sale of the Government factory for the fixation of nitrogen at Billingham was signed; who are the signatories; what are the terms of the agreement; what was the price paid; and what was the cost to the taxpayer of building and equipping the factory;
(3) which Department was responsible for sending a commission to Oppau to investigate the German method of fixing nitrogen from the air; what was the cost; who were the members; when was a report received; and when did the Government agree to allow Messrs. Brunner, Mond access to this report?
With the permission of the hon. Member, I will answer these questions together. As I should like to take this opportunity of dealing with the matter somewhat fully, and as the reply is therefore very long, I am circulating it in the OFFICIAL REPORT.
§ Mr. JOHNSTON
Could the right hon. Gentleman say if it is the case that the French Government retained this process for use in the State national factories in France, and how the price at which this product is sold in France compares with the price at which it is sold at Billingham?
I have no information as to the position in France, or whether this process is being used in the French factories, but I have evidence that the information received at Oppau is practically valueless and no use is being made of it in this country.
§ Following is the reply circulated:
§ The position was that on the 22nd March, 1918, the Minister of Munitions received sanction to proceed with the erection of a factory at Billingham-on-Tees for the production on a large scale of nitrogen and hydrogen and for combining nitrogen and hydrogen so obtained for the production of ammonium nitrate to the ultimate extent of 60,000 tons per annum.
§ Owing to the shortage of labour and of building materials not much progress had been made with the actual building of the factory at the Armistice. Consideration was given to the scheme as a post-War measure, but it was found that, owing to information which had been obtained since the Armistice, particularly in respect of chemical works in the German occupied area, the original scheme, if proceeded with, would have to be much modified.
§ The matter was submitted to the Cabinet in October, 1919, with a recommendation that the property should be advertised for sale on the basis of the Government interests in the production of nitric acid for service explosives being safeguarded.
§ On Cabinet approval being obtained, the property was extensively advertised in the London, provincial and technical Press. It was not stated in that advertisement that the information procured by the Government Commission to the German factory at Oppau would be included, but applicants were informed that further particulars would be supplied on application to the Ministry of Munitions. There were no suitable applicants other than Messrs. Brunner, Mond.
§ In the agreement with Messrs. Brunner, Mond and Company there is a proviso by which the Government undertook, on completion of the purchase, to give all available information in its possession as to processes, etc., to the purchasers.2021
§ The contract was signed on the 22nd April, 1920, by the then Minister of Munitions, Lord Inverforth, and by two directors on behalf of Messrs. Brunner, Mond and Company.
§ It is not in the public interest to disclose the terms of the agreement, nor am I prepared to depart from the usual practice of refusing to disclose the sale price of surplus Government property or stores. This rule has always been observed in view of the possibility of prejudicing the purchaser in the event of his wishing to re-sell. I may, however, say that, having regard to the circumstances, the price was, in nay opinion, a satisfactory one, and there appeared no probability whatever of obtaining such a price from any other source.
§ The factory had neither been built nor equipped, but land had been acquired, roads made, and foundations laid, etc., and certain orders for plant, etc., given. The commitments for land, stores, plant, etc., amounted to approximately £1,000,000.
§ The Commission was sent to Oppau and other chemical factories by the Ministry of Munitions. I cannot ascertain after this lapse of time what the cost was. It is not in the public interest to disclose who were members of the Commission, whose report (a confidential document) was received in February, 1919. It was, as already stated, part of the contract that Messrs. Brunner, Mond and Company should have access to the report and such other information as was available to the Government, and in this connection, I would refer the hon. Member to Article 172 of the Versailles Treaty, which provided that the German Government should disclose to the Allied and Associated Powers the nature and mode of manufacture of all such chemicals as are here in question.