HC Deb 20 March 1918 vol 104 cc1031-3

I will not refer, except incidentally, to the recent manifesto of employers and employés on the subject of the organisation for dealing with labour matters. I have read again several times the words I used in this House, and I cannot see that they were unjustifiable. Immediately after I made the statement it was announced in the Press that a meeting was to be held, and that it would publish a manifesto in reply to this so-called unjust charge which has been made by me. I do not wish to enter into a controversy, or to indulge in recrimination—or, indeed, to make detailed charges or distribute blame. But if it were necessary or profitable, I could fully justify any criticism I have made.

I would turn now for a moment to the question of labour supply. During the summer months of 1917 the yards undoubtedly suffered from a shortage of material, but the arrangements which were being made by the Ministry of Munitions to augment the output of plates had not fully matured. To-day, as I have already stated, the material position is satisfactory, and steel is not holding up output. Taking areas as a whole, the stocks in the yards are more satisfactory than they have been for years. The need to-day is "skilled labour"; in a few weeks I hope there will be no such complaint. We have increased the labour of the shipbuilding and marine engineering industries materially during the last few months, although not to the extent we had hoped. I should say—although the fact that labour in certain works is interchangeable with work not connected with shipbuilding makes it a little difficult to give exact figures—that during the last seven months the net addition to labour has been round 18,000—mainly unskilled. I am speaking of private yards—not of the national shipyards, nor of royal dockyards. This additional labour has not, of course, gone entirely into new construction. In fact, at one time, I should say it went largely to strengthen repair personnel. It is difficult to record fairly the fluctuating division between men in yards doing repair work, and those employed on new construction. Obviously the return must be compiled on a specific day, and there may on that day be an abnormally largo or abnormally small number, say, on repairs. The returns for February are not yet all in, but sufficiently so to enable one to make a reliable statement as to the labour employed on the new construction of merchant ships.

Compared with the month of January, there was in February a net increase on new construction, hulls and machinery, of over 2,500, which is as much as the merchant yards could digest in the time with the skilled men available. I am hoping that this rate of increment will steadily increase as the skilled men ordered by the War Cabinet to be released from the Army, become available. But it must be remembered that the withdrawal of skilled men from the Army is in itself a slow and difficult process. The vast majority of the men who possess skill in one or other of the shipyard trades now serving in the Army are engaged as artificers.


At the front?


Yes; and in order to prevent their withdrawal occasioning a sudden drop in the efficiency of, say, the Artillery, it is necessary to effect their withdrawal slowly, and as they are withdrawn, to replace them by efficient substitutes.

We are, however, gradually getting back from the Forces all men who are skilled or semi-skilled in the shipyard trades, and who, before enlistment, were employed in shipyards, unless they are now employed in exceptional positions where their skill is essential. This process has been in force for some weeks, and up to the 18th of March, 1,811 men have been returned to the shipyards and engine shops—and 785 are waiting at the depot for the completion of their demobilisation. The addition of skilled men will facilitate the absorption of more unskilled labour; but it must at all times be a matter of adjustment as to the number of unskilled men which the shipyards can absorb at any one time.

The Ministry of National Service has arranged with the Admiralty, War Office, and Air Ministry to secure as rapid a flow of skilled men back to the shipyards as is possible. Even, however, if we had obtained back from the forces all the skilled shipyard workers who can in any way be spared, there would still remain a considerable deficiency in our requirements for skilled men in the shipyard trades. This deficiency can only be met by up-grading, dilution, and the education of men within the shipbuilding industry.

As what I have already said clearly demonstrates—we are, in fact, already achieving a total shipyard effort infinitely greater than anything that has been attained even in peace time, and we are aiming at something very much higher. As regards training men as riveters, five schools for pneumatic riveting are approaching completion; the unions and employers must now work vigorously together to make full use of the schools in training up men at present unskilled. We rely on these newly-trained men to supplement the skilled shipyard workers who are to be set free from positions in the Army and Navy in which their skill is not essential