HC Deb 19 February 1917 vol 90 cc1065-71

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £100, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1917, for the Expense of the Ordnance Factories, the cost of the production of which will be charged to the Army, Navy, Ministry of Munitions, and Indian and Colonial Governments, etc."


This Estimate for the year I take to be merely a rough conjecture as to the cost of the ordnance factories for 1916–17. I am sure that while the majority in this House are prepared to vote the necessary money, they want to be sure, just as the people outside want to be sure, that it will be spent well, and that we shall get the best in the way of rifle, shells, and other munitions that can possibly be obtained. I am one of those who take an interest in the Small Arms Factories, and, in regard to the rifles supplied to our troops, I think they have the very best weapon that could have been furnished to them since the War began. Not only the Expeditionary Force, but the large Armies which have followed it, have been supplied with the best rifles and the best guns, though not always enough of either one or the other. I am very glad that the Enfield rifle, with its strengthened mechanism, has proved itself to be such an excellent weapon. Before the outbreak of the War there was an intention to change the rifle, but luckily the Government did not do so, and it is now felt that the Enfield rifle has stood well the strain of the campaign. In the year immediately preceding the outbreak of the War the Royal Ordnance Factories were being brought down to the lowest level-perhaps not so much at Woolwich, though, at any rate, the Small Arms Factories at Enfield and Waltham were brought down to a low level indeed—in regard to the number employed and the work turned out. Machines were standing idle, with the result that apprentices who had served their time could not be taken on to earn the higher wages when they came to be twenty-one years of age. With the help of the High Commissioner of Australia, the present Member for the St. George's Division, Hanover Square (Sir George Reid), I was enabled to get some forty of these apprentices emigrated to Australia, not to take positions as skilled workmen, but simply as agricultural labourers.

That was before the War. Apprentices who had served their time at the Small Arms Factories were ready to take up more valuable positions. What happened at the outbreak of War? The number employed rapidly increased from 2,000 to over 8,000. Men in all sorts of positions—nursery gardeners, and so on—flocked to the factories, ready to do their bit as well as the men in the trenches. Afterwards, as hon. Members know, it was found necessary to adopt a process of "combing out" men who had gone into these Small Arms Factories, and, undoubtedly, some delay occurred at Enfield and at Waltham, as there did up and down the rest of the country. What happened at these Small Arms Factories was that married men who had worked there for a great number of years, having risen from the position of apprentice, were combed out and sent into the Army, while in a great many cases, I am sorry to say, single men—some of whom had only entered the employment at the outbreak of the War—were retained. The question has been a burning one in the two districts to which I refer, Enfield and Waltham, and it has come before the tribunals of Enfield, Brentford, Chingford, and Edmonton, and the parties concerned, backed by the workers' union, have sent protest after protest to the Minister of Munitions and to the Commander of Ordnance about this retaining of single men and the dismissal of married men who had been employed at the factories. Only at their last sitting the Enfield Tribunal were so dissatisfied with what was happening that, as a protest, they adjourned the consideration of the cases of the married men that came before them for a fortnight, until they could get from the Ministry of Munitions some information as to why so many single men were being retained at the Small Arms Factories. The Secretary of the workers' union was also requested to go before the tribunal, and make complaint as to the matter.

I have been given a list of forty names in one department alone of the Enfield factory, and they are, I am told, the names of single men who are at this moment employed in this one factory. The forty men do not represent a complete list of the single men still employed in the departments of the Small Arms Factory, and only yesterday I had an interview with a man, aged forty, who has been employed at the factory for twenty-five years, and will be called up probably in the near future. I could give the Committee other instances which have come before the tribunals, but will not do so, as I do not desire to detain the Committee. This, of course, is not a new subject. A deputation from these local tribunals was received by the Minister of Munitions last November. I was with the deputation, and the Minister went into the whole matter with us very fully, patiently, and carefully. He promised that the list of names of those employed in the two small arms factories should be carefully and closely gone into, and, unless there was sufficient reason for retaining single men, they would be discharged before the married men were taken. I cannot say, however, that since then things have been going quite well in that respect. Undoubtedly the feeling of grievance has extended, and, of course, this causes dissatisfaction amongst the employés. In these lists I find about eight names marked with a cross. I wrote to find out what the cross meant. The reply was that the cross meant that these single men retained were relatives of the foremen of the various Departments. It is believed that because these single men were relatives of foremen they were being kept back. I do not believe that, however. I do not believe that men in the position of foremen in the small arms factories, either at Enfield or Waltham, would do such a thing as that. I suggest that when it was seen that single men were being retained and married men discharged, people began to ask why, and if they found out that a certain single man was a nephew, son, or relation of a particular foreman, they would say that was why he was being kept back, and thus discontent arose—a discontent which was prejudicial to me factory.

I ask the Minister of Munitions to take up this question of the employment of single men who are retained at small arms factories while married men are discharged. Of course, formerly the small arms factories were under the Army Council, but they are now under the Ministry of Munitions, represented by three civilians, and I do not think that the employés have quite realised that fact. I urge the Minister of Munitions to go very carefully through the lists of those employed at the small arms factories and see why it is that single men are kept back while the married men are dismissed and called up. I would utter this word of caution. If he is told that a particular man is under notice he should not rest satisfied with that information, but should put the further question, How long the man had been under notice and when he was going? For it is the fact that though a man is under notice he sometimes does not go at all, but is still kept on. After all, we can get substitutes from all quarters. Indeed, since the War began over a thousand women have been taken on and still more are to be employed in the future. This question is a very grave one and is causing a great deal of discontent. The people see hundreds of unmarried men kept on while married men with families are sent away. I urge the Minister of Munitions to take up this subject most earnestly with a view to removing causes of discontent and seeing that single men, wherever that it is justifiable, are taken before married men.



I know this subject is one in which the lion, and gallant Member for Enfield (Major Newman) has taken a great deal of interest; indeed, he has raised it here on more than one occasion, and we could not possibly object to the question being brought up in Committee because it is a good thing it should be discussed here. I will not follow the hon. and gallant Member into what he said as to what happened before the War at Enfield. It would no doubt be a very interesting chapter, but time is urgent and we cannot now go into it. But when the hon. Member went on to speak of the footmen, innkeepers, and shopkeepers who flocked into Enfield let it be remembered that they did so in response to a national appeal, and the country undoubtedly owes them a deep debt of gratitude for having put aside their ordinary occupations in order to assist in meeting the demands— the clamant and increasing demands—for supplies for the Army in the field. I am quite prepared to admit there may be men in Enfield who, if we could know all the circumstances, ought to be combed out. Possibly, too, some have been combed out who ought to have been allowed to remain. But I do not think it is fair to bring to this House a list of forty men and say, "I am told that these forty men are single men employed in one particular branch of the factory," and then expect such a list to be dealt with by anyone standing at this box. If the hon. and gallant Member will give me the names I will undertake that every case is examined into. He spoke of eight men of whom it was said that they were kept there because they were relatives of foremen. I can only say in regard to that that the decision as to the retention of men does not rest with the foremen. It is recognised it is too big a decision for them to take, and it therefore rests with the head of the factory who, it is quite true, may act upon what the foreman says. But how can that be avoided in any properly conducted undertaking? If I can have the names of the eight men who, it is alleged, have been kept on because they are relatives of foremen, I hope I shall be able to give the hon. Member some good ground for keeping them there, or else see that they are combed out.


I am not saying it is true. I am quoting this as one of the things which breed discontent.


If the hon. Gentleman finds it is true, will he comb-out the foremen as well?


I can only say I hope I shall be able to satisfy the hon. Member that we are doing all that is required. But I do suggest that my hon. Friend is not fair in making statements of this kind unless he is prepared to accept responsibility for them. I have had figures supplied to me with regard to the number of skilled men employed at Enfield at the time the last deputation waited on the Minister of Munitions. There were at that time 1,220 single men between twenty-one and forty-one there employed, and the Minister for Munitions gave an undertaking that he would have every case examined and the attendant circumstances inquired into, and would comb out those who did not possess skill regarded as indispensable, or in regard to whom there were other circumstances which made it desirable that they should be moved. It was discovered that 535 men were indispensable. I may be asked why. I will deal with that point presently. Twenty-seven were placed in low categories—C 3 men and so on. It is obviously undesirable that C 3 men, who cannot be of much use for the Army, should be removed from Enfield, where they are doing useful service. Two hundred and thirty-six men had been rejected for military service or had been discharged. That gives a total of 798 men accounted for, leaving 422 single men, who it was admitted ought to be replaced. I submit you cannot replace 422 men all at once without disorganising the work of the factory. Since that date, out of the 422 men, 253 have been discharged, leaving 169 still to be dealt with. I do not think that is a bad record for just over two months. Out of 422 men, 253 have been discharged and substitutes have been found for them.

I now come to the question of indispensability. The real question in which the Minister of Munitions is primarily interested is not whether men are married or single, but whether they can produce munitions of war better than other men who might be put in their place. If they possess a class of skill for producing bayonets or rifles which is really indispensable for the conduct of the factory, then the management has to consider not whether a man is married or single— although I agree that if other things are equal, if you are dealing with men of equal aptitude, then the single men should go first—but indispensability is the guiding consideration at Enfield. I am confident it is the only consideration that guides the management in coming to a decision in regard to these cases. We cannot, in the interests of the Army in the field, allow these indispensable men to be taken out of our factories. We should be making what, I think, was the greatest mi stake the country has made in this War in underestimating the importance of material in this fight. This is as much a war of material as of men, and to-day Germany is bringing back from the trenches large numbers of men to work in the munition factories. We should be doing poor service to the Army in the field if we allowed to be combed out of our factories, under the influence of cases where prejudice has been created, men whom we regard as indispensable for the production of munitions. I ask my hon. and gallant Friend to believe that the one consideration that guides us is whether these men are really necessary for equipping the Army, and if he likes to come to me and let me go through his lists of cases with him, I think I shall be able to justify to him the way in which we have dealt with the Enfield factory.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolution to be reported To-morrow.

Committee to sit again To-morrow.