HC Deb 11 March 1893 vol 9 cc1759-66
CAPTAIN BOWLES (Middlesex, Enfield)

wished to refer to a matter affecting his constituents. Last year, a great reduction was made in the Government factory at Enfield Lock, the wages bill being reduced from £160,000 to £120,000 a year. He held that the policy of employing private firms for the manufacture of rifles was not one that recommended itself, whether on the ground of economy or of expediency. The first contract that was given to private firms was for 100,000 rifles at £5 10s. per rifle. Rifles were now manufactured at Enfield at a cost of £3 10s. each. He knew that future orders to be given to the trade were to be given at a less price, but he wished to point out that no less a person than Mr. Rigby, the superintendent of the factory at Enfield, in a paper read before the Society of Engineers, summed up the matter in these words, showing that it was necessary to the success of the factory that all hands should be fully employed and the machinery not allowed to lie idle— The success of the whole system depends upon a large output. The staff is necessarily expensive, so great vigilance is required to prevent material from being spoiled, and to prevent labour from feeing wasted on faulty material and for various Other objects. All the costs of staff, adminis- trative and clerical, lighting, heating, and power, maintenance of machinery and buildings, stores and depreciation, besides tools of all sorts, gauges, cost of inspection by the factory viewers, costs of store department, work-takers, police, rates and taxes, subscription to church and schools, &c, are charged to indirect expenditure; and, as such, are added as a percentage to the direct cost of the production of the year. If the output is large, the burden of indirect charges is spread over it and easily borne; with a restricted output it becomes heavy, and the costs of all articles produced are correspondingly high. Last year he had to complain of the most unfair advantage which had been given by the Government to the Small Arms Factory at Birmingham, and he was sorry to see this year that the factory at Birmingham was even in a worse position than the factory at Enfield. Therefore, he could not help thinking that it must in some way be due to private trade that these large reductions were taking place in the Government factories. He hoped before long that if the Secretary of State, or those who controlled the War Department, did not see their way to economise by employing the Government factories in preference to private trade, that the Treasury would bring some pressure to bear on them, for he felt, and we have the authority of the Superintendent of the Enfield factory, that there must be a certain output if the work was to be done economically. It was necessary, in the interest of economy, that the Government factories should be given a larger share of work than he thought they were likely to receive during the coming year. With regard to pensions, he could not help thinking that an establishment was a good thing for those who worked for the Government, and for the country at large. He believed the reason the Admiralty paid pensions was that in the time of war they might have a certain hold over employés in the different departments. On the subject of the advantage of pensions, Mr. Rigby said— The system of pensions, to which all men were formerly entitled on completing a full term of service, aided to attach the men to the locality, and many of the men now in the works are of the third generation of employés. To such an extent did the men get attached to the district, that knowing that when their years of labour in the factory were over they should remain in the district with their pensions, many of them, out of their savings, had bought plots of land and built freehold cottages. It would be well, therefore, for the Government to see whether there should not be a system by which these men, who had served many years in the Government factory, should get pensions in their old age, and be kept off the rates. Owing to the large reductions that were made in the Government factories during recent years, a number of men who had been a long time in the factories had been discharged, and had in the end become chargeable on the rates of the locality, so that not only had a large number of his constituents lost employment, but the burden of the ratepayers of the district had been increased. He would raise the question more fully on another occasion, but he thought it well to say those few words before the Speaker left the Chair.

MR. JESSE COLLINGS (Birmingham, Bordesley)

said, the hon. Member for Enfield had stated very truly that in the Estimates for the coming year the Sparkbrook factory would fare worse than the Enfield establishment. This was a question in which he was specially interested, because Sparkbrook was situated in the division of Bordesley, which he had the honour to represent. The present Estimates meant the discharge of something like 500 men, a very serious fact to contemplate. Of course if the demand for rifles was smaller than formerly, there must of necessity be a discharge of men, but he maintained that the reduction should be made fairly all round. The late Government reduced the wages account at Enfield from £200,000 to £160,000, and at Sparkbrook from £75,000 to £60,000. There was thus a reduction of 20 per cent. all round. It was, however, now proposed to reduce Enfield by 25 per cent. and Sparkbrook by between 40 and 50 per cent. That was not fair to Sparkbrook. Sparkbrook did not ask any favour from the present Government. Unfortunately, Birmingham was not specially in favour with the Government. [Cries of "Oh!"] Well, he could tell the Government that there was a very widespread feeling in Birmingham that its treatment resulted to a great degree from want of favour. He did not suggest that that consideration weighed with the right hon. Gentleman, but he was telling the right hon. Gentleman that a widespread feeling amongst the artizans of Birmingham was that if Birmingham had returned eight Separatists instead of eight Unionists there would have been a difference made in its favour in the Estimates of the present year. He was also ready to admit that the agitation in Birmingham against the War Office during the time of the late Government was very great. They were charged with favouritism, sweating, and other things. All those charges were absolutely untrue. They were not formulated by the artizans and workmen in Sparkbrook, but by political agitators for political purposes. The leader of those agitators was an adopted candidate of the Gladstonian caucus in Birmingham. That gentleman quoted statistics which were absolutely incorrect, and made charges which had not the least foundation; but he received his reward, for he was now one of our local labour correspondents. He did not charge the President of the Board of Trade with any cognisance of the matter; but he warned the right hon. Gentleman against the adoption of that pernicious American doctrine of the spoils for the victors. The questions which had been asked of the Secretary of State for War during the last two or three days had thrown no light on the subject of the unfair treatment of Sparkbrook. When asked for the reason of the decrease in the Vote for Wages at the Small Arms Factory, the right hon. Gentleman said that if they put the increase on the Bagot Street establishment, which was a small repairing shop, to the Sparkbrook Vote they would find that the reduction was about equal to that at Enfield. The statement was not correct. The reduction was very considerably more than that made at Enfield. For years the normal Vote for Bagot Street had been from £25,000 to £28,000 per annum. Last year the late Government reduced the Vote to £16,000. The present Secretary of State had submitted that £17,000 was to be spent in Bagot Street during the present year, so that the conclusion was that, although £26,000 was put down for Bagot Street, it was a mere paper increase. Bagot Street had nothing at all to do with Sparkbrook. It was merely a repairing shop, and had no connection whatever with the Small Arms Factory. If there happened to be a glass manufactory at Birmingham, and the right hon. Gentle- man increased the Vote for it, he might just as well have said:—" We have reduced the Votes for the making of guns, but we have given a larger Vote for glass bottles." Then it was asked if the works at Bagot Street were to be removed to Sparkbrook, and the right hon. Gentleman replied, "Not for another year." That meant that in a short time the repairing works were to be removed from Bagot Street to Sparkbrook, and that Sparkbrook was to be discontinued as a manufacturing place. The hon. Member for Enfield, quoting Mr. Rigby, stated truly that the success of a manufactory depended upon the output, because the fixed charges were so large. Sparkbrook was equal to the turning out of from 700 to 1,000 rifles a week, but when the reduction contemplated by the Government took place it would turn out about 200 rifles a week. It would, therefore, be seen that when they put all the fixed charges of a great manufactory on 200 instead of 700 rifles, it would make the cost of the rifles correspondingly greater. Next year, if this Government were in power—for the sake of the working classes in Birmingham he trusted they would not be, and if one might judge from present appearances they were not likely to be—what would happen? The right hon. Gentleman would say, "Oh! the rifles at Birmingham cost £4, whereas at Enfield they cost £3," the difference being the result of the restriction of output as a consequence of the policy of the Government. In reply to another question the right hon. Gentleman said the cost of rifles at Enfield and Birmingham was about £3 15s. He asserted that rifles were produced at Birmingham 2s. 6d. cheaper than at Enfield, and as 92,000 rifles were produced at Sparkbrook in 1892, there was thus a saving of between £11,000 and £12,000. Sparkbrook was the most perfectly-equipped small arms factory in the world. When it was sold to the Government, owing to having been starved through the lack of orders, for £55,000, having cost £150,000, there was a distinct understanding that it should be kept up as a small arms manufactory. He had a letter proving that point, but he would not trouble the House by reading it. [Ministerial cries of "Read!"] He was challenged to read the letter by some new Members, who seemed to think that the turning of 500 artizans and their families out of employment was of little consequence. The letter was dated October 9, 1883, when the question of the purchase of the manufactory was under consideration, and was written by the Chairman of the Committee of Liquidators. The letter stated that the proposed transfer of the factory to the Government might be advocated on the grounds of economy, and pointed out the advantages of Birmingham as a manufactory for arms on the grounds of its local safety and its central position for the rapid and cheap distribution of arms over the Kingdom. As a further argument, when the Government took over that there were £30,000 at least spent on new machinery on the understanding that the work would be proceeded with. Even the great steam hammers were taken up and reset, clearly showing that then the factory was intended for something more than repairing locks and browning gun barrels. There was every means provided for turning out 1,000 rifles a week. But soon steps were taken to dismantle the factory and transfer the work to Enfield. The late Secretary for War then received a deputation on the subject, and he listened to the arguments in favour of retaining the factory, the arguments and representations placed before him being general, and none of them local. The defects in our military system were pointed out, and the advantages of a factory at Birmingham clearly shown. The late Secretary for War yielded to the arguments, and in consequence the wages item in the Estimates for 1889–90 rose from £35,000 to £65,000, and the increase was sustained until 1892, when there was a 20 per cent. reduction. The reduction was a fair one, because there was a similar reduction at Enfield. The present reduction, however, everyone must see, meant the starving of the place as a manufacturing centre, and he hoped the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State would frankly say whether it was the intention of the Department to do that. The right hon. Gentleman might repeat the statement that it was never intended that this place should be more than a repairing shop; but 12 mouths ago there was a great crusade against this factory on political grounds—a crusade carried on by a certain newspaper—a paper published in London by the friends, or rather masters, of the right hon. Gentleman the present Secretary for War. The late Government were accused of corruption for doing that which, in the public interest, was really a good thing. The newspaper paragraph contained this significant sentence— Now we ask the Liberal Leaders what are they going to do? Will Mr. Campbell-Banner-man, who, probably, before long, will have this matter under his control, allow this latest War Office job to pass without inquiry or protest? The desire of the writer of that paragraph had been fulfilled and the grant for Birmingham had been cut down to starvation point, with a view to ultimate suppression. He did not wish to say a word against Enfield, but he would remind the House that Enfield had other work, and had a much larger percentage of work. According to the Ordnance Report for 1892, work to the extent of £448,000 had been given to Enfield, whereas Birmingham had only received £113,000. In regard to the magazine rifle the cost of labour in proportion to the total cost of production was 49 per cent., whilst it was only 43 per cent. at Birmingham. In regard to the ordinary rifle this proportion was 43 per cent. at Enfield and 36 per cent. at Birmingham. Enfield was much more expensive, while Birmingham was the natural centre of skilled artisans. Enfield was a bottomless pit of expense to taxpayers. Created 40 years ago as an experiment, it had been an official pet ever since. Even inventions of Birmingham gunmakers were appropriated without acknowledgment. The "protector" for the new rifles was invented by a Birmingham maker 20 years ago, patented, and offered to Government, but now the patent being out the Department appropriated it without any acknowledgment. What he asked for was an inquiry into the whole matter. He did not know whether it was too late, but he asked, now that the right hon. Gentleman knew the injustice that was being done—if he did not know it before —would he remedy it and provide the means by which Sparkbrook might be put in the same position as Enfield? The right hon. Gentleman might rely upon it that they would not allow the matter to sleep. An injustice was being done to his (Mr. Collings') constituents without reason. They would not submit to this injustice. They would, if necessary, press the demand for inquiry by some other means until this great manufactory at Sparkbrook was treated with the same consideration as other factories.