§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 3.48 p.m.
§ The MINISTER OF LABOUR (Sir Henry Betterton)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
The object of the Bill is set out in the Long Title, which reads as follows :To make temporary provision for enabling statutory effect to be given to rates of wages agreed between representative organisations in the cotton manufacturing industry; and for purposes connected with the matter aforesaid.I have prepared and brought in this Bill after very close consultation with the organisations concerned, both of employers and of employed, and I am fully entitled to say that in its broad principles it is an agreed Bill in the sense that both parties accept, and indeed, ask for the acceptance of the principles which it enshrines. Before I deal shortly with the Bill itself, I want to say that it does not in any way at all supersede collective bargaining, nor does it impose State determination of working conditions. [It does not interfere at all with the freedom of action of the organisations of employers and employed. It is nothing more than an attempt on the part of Parliament to assist the industry it-self to establish order within the industry.] As I said a moment ago, the request for this Measure came from the industry itself.
It may well be asked why it is that cotton, of all industries, was the industry which made this request. The cotton industry is a very well-organised industry. Cotton was one of the first industries to settle its differences and disputes by conciliation or arbitration. So we may ask : why is it that this industry of all others should come to the Minister of Labour and the Minister of Labour should then come to the House with these proposals? The reason is a very simple one. [In this branch of this industry the system of collective agreements is in the process of disintegration and a state of chaos is threatened which would be disastrous to the industry 1962 and indeed to the country.] I Cotton has had to face competition of a very severe character during the past few years and there has been at the same time a great contraction of world trade. The production of cloth is just about a third of what it was before the War. At the present time, therefore, the productive capacity of the plant is very much in excess of the demand. The result of this has been a reckless scramble for business, and the industry has become involved in internal dissention just at a time when the pooling of the combined resources of technique and finance was most essential. No one regrets more than the organisations concerned that the proposals that I am making are necessary. The organisations which represent the great majority of employers are prepared and are desirous of adhering to the agreements that are reached. Of that there is no question at all. But they are powerless to enforce agreements upon a recalcitrant minority and, in the absence of such powers as the Bill proposes to give them, they see no hope of a solution of their difficulties. What is true of the employers' organisations is equally true of the workers' organisations. The organisations have always represented a very large proportion of those engaged in the industry and the unions have themselves faithfully observed the agreements which have been entered into, but economic pressure due to unemployment has imposed too great a strain upon the loyalty of individual members, many of whom cannot withstand the offer of employment at a lower wage than that provided in the agreements.
So it will be observed that the question is not one of fixing wages at a higher or lower level or at any particular level. The question before the industry now is how to secure that the whole principle of collective bargaining does not break down. The great majority of the employers are anxious to honour agreements. The payment of lower wages where that has taken place, I am advised, has not resulted in the sale of a single extra yard of cloth anywhere. It merely means that employers who are faithful to the agreements, and who wish to keep them, find themselves unable to compete with those employers who either have not been parties to the agreements or, if they have, have broken away from them. The position of the employer who wishes to 1963 keep agreements is therefore hopelessly prejudiced if he is to be subjected all the time to this undercutting or what in a different connection is often called black-legging.
I speak now with some little experience of these matters and I am certain that there is nothing more likely to cause dissatisfaction or unrest in any industry than a feeling of economic insecurity and a lack of stability in wages and working conditions. That is just as true of cotton as of any other industry. The result in the cotton industry has been that the adjustment in the working conditions of the industry has become more and more difficult, and, for that reason, the industry cannot settle down to make a new agreement though they all recognise that such an agreement is necessary. Both sides pressed the point closely upon me that they cannot settle down even to consider new agreements with regard to rates of wages unless they are satisfied that they will be carried out. The present position is not merely a discouragement to both sides of the industry who desire to get down to business; it is really impossible to expect them to begin to consider these essential matters unless they feel that an agreement with regard to rates of wages will be an anchor upon which they can ride and which will give them security.
There have been in recent years some most disastrous stoppages in the cotton industry. In the prolonged and serious dispute of two years ago, in the settlement of which my Department took an active and I think a useful part, special attention was devoted to the question of honouring agreements, and the organisations on both sides agreed as to the urgent necessity of discovering means whereby conditions agreed upon by the responsible organisations could be made operative. Shortly afterwards I caused a special investigation to be made into the wage position principally in those mills where the more looms system was in operation. In this matter I had the co-operation of both sides, and the report that was made gave, I believe, a basis of facts which was of very great assistance in indicating the real position. I think that the help that we were able to give them was fully appreciated by both sides of the industry.
1964 One hoped that that would really have been the end of the difficulty so far as this wage question is concerned, but a long time, certainly over a year, has elapsed since then, and the organisations have come to realise that without the temporary assistance of the Government they cannot hope to deal effectively with the situation. There is no lack of confidence on either side that they will be able to reach agreements upon wages and working conditions. There is, however, lack of confidence as to whether, having reached agreements, those agreements will be faithfully carried out, and that there will not be in the industry those who will undercut, and therefore render nugatory the agreements which have been reached.
That is the position which was put to me by the leaders of both organisations very much in the way in which I have endeavoured to put it before the House. I did what I think I was bound to do in the circumstances. Having heard what they had to say, I made independent inquiries on my own account, and I took what advice I could. All my information and all my inquiries confirmed to the full what the organisations themselves had put to me, and I am satisfied that the case they put reflected quite truly the position in the industry. I will ask the House to consider what was my position. It was put to me that unless something was done, and done quickly, we should be face to face with chaos in the industry, with disastrous consequences upon the industry and the whole of the North of England.
The first thing I considered was whether it would not be possible to do what both sides desired, namely, to get some security for these rates of wages, through the medium of legislation already on the Statute Book with which we are all familiar, namely, the Trade Boards Acts. I did very carefully consider whether the application of the Trade Boards Acts to this industry was not the proper way to deal with it; but I came to the conclusion that the Trade Boards Acts could not be used. Without expressing a view one way or the other, I put the proposal to the representatives of the organisations who came jointly to see me for the third or fourth time. They gave me the answer which 1965 I thought they would give, and it was the conclusion to which I had come, namely, that the Trade Boards Acts were not intended for cases of this sort at all; they were intended originally for sweated trades, and later they were extended to cover trades in which there was inadequate organisation. Neither of those conditions is applicable to this industry, and I agreed with the organisations when they told me that they did not desire the application of the Trade Boards Acts. After considering all the facts that were brought to my notice, and which I have put before the House, I came to the conclusion that a Bill should be brought in upon the lines of the Bill which I am now submitting to the House, and the organisations are quite satisfied with the basis upon which I have proceeded.
I will now explain quite shortly, exactly what the Bill does. The scope of it, as the Title indicates, is confined to manufacturing, that is to say, the weaving side of the cotton industry, and it does not cover the spinning or finishing branches which are entirely different. The definition of the industry and the areas to which the Bill will apply—the areas will be found in the Schedule—have been agreed with the industry itself after a very careful survey, in which, I may say, I have been greatly assisted by the factory inspectors of the Home Office, through the kindness of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The Bill is scrupulous to avoid the inclusion of work regarded as covered by other textile industries such as the wool textile industry. The Bill leaves the industry's own voluntary machinery entirely free and—I attach great importance to this point—there is no provision at all in the Bill which has any connection with compulsory arbitration, because whatever may be said for or against compulsory arbitration, I am quite certain that at the present time industry as a whole would resent it, and would not have it. If you tried compulsory arbitration, I think it would fail in its object and far more harm than good would be done by attempting to apply it in such cases.
Therefore, I can assure the House that there is no connection whatever between the principle of compulsory arbitration and this Bill. Neither the Government nor any independent party is given any power to fix rates of wages, or to inter- 1966 fere in any way with the voluntary negotiation of wages and working conditions. I attach great importance to that, and so do the industry. That is a matter for them, and not for me or for this House, and in this Bill we are careful to secure that we do not in any way interfere with the great principle of voluntary negotiation with regard to wages and working conditions. The voluntary system, therefore, continues just as before. Further, we have made provision to ensure that no interest is unfairly treated before the force of law is imposed upon those who are not members of organisations.
I will go through the Clauses very shortly. Under Clause 1, where an agreement has actually been made, an application for an Order may be made jointly by organisations representing the majority of employers in the industry and organisations representing the majority of operatives of the class affected by the proposed rates. The organisations themselves, and not the Minister of Labour, will determine the scope of the Order and the rates of wages to be included in it. Unless the Minister is satisfied prima facie that the applicant organisations do not respectively represent majorities of employers and operatives, he must appoint a board to report upon the application. The board will consist of a chairman and two other members not connected with the industry. The parties who have made the application are required under Clause 1 (2) to give notice of their application in the prescribed manner, and to make available, to anybody interested, copies of the agreed rates which are the subject of the application. A period will be allowed during which any objections to the making of an Order may be sent to the Minister. This will provide an opportunity for all circumstances to be brought under review and any objections by minorities to be considered. The board will then consider the application with not more than six representatives from each side acting as assessors. This arrangement will ensure that the board has any technical assistance they may require.
With regard to the duties of the board, under Clause 1 the board will satisfy themselves that the organisations represent majorities. If satisfied on this they 1967 must report to the Minister on the desirability of making an Order to bring into effect the provisions of the agreement relating to wages. The board cannot make a recommendation in favour of an Order unless all three members are unanimous. The board will have no power to make any changes in the agreement which is submitted to them. The House will observe throughout the Clauses of the Bill how careful we have been to secure the principle of voluntary agreement between the organisations themselves. We do not attempt to impose upon them from outside something which they do not want. Under Clause 2 it will be for the Minister to decide on all the facts before him, including the report of the board, and of any representations made to him whether or not he should make an Order. In this matter his position is again very much the same as that under the Trade Boards Acts. Briefly, the effect of an Order is to extend the wages agreement to employers who are not members of their appropriate organisations. There are three points to be noted in Clause 3: First, the Order will make it a term of the contract between the employer and an employed person of the class affected that his wages shall be at a rate not lower than the rate prescribed in the Order. Of course, that is fundamental.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER RAMSAY
I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would like the House to be clear on this point. When he speaks of wages, does he mean that time-rate wages are the basic rate, or does he mean piece-rate wages?
§ Sir H. BETTERTON
Clearly those are all questions for the industry itself. All that I consider doing is that when they have settled this point and any other similar points, and have incorporated these in wages agreements, then the Act may come into operation; but all these points are points for the industry itself, and I should not attempt to impose any views I may have upon either side.
Then the Bill provides that the employer will be subject to a penalty not exceeding £10 on summary conviction if wages are paid at less than the prescribed rate. Employers affected will be required to exhibit in their premises a notice setting out the rates of wages payable under the Order and to keep re- 1968 cords of the wages actually paid, with a penalty if these requirements are not fulfilled. The Bill contains no provision for Government inspection; the whole object is to help the organisations to help themselves, and Government action throughout is kept to a minimum. The enforcement of an Order is left to those in the industry itself.
There is only one other thing that I need mention, and that is as to the duration of the Measure. The Bill itself is experimental, and therefore it is necessary that it should be temporary. Consequently, it is to remain in operation for three years, but it provides that if either side gives three months' notice to terminate an Order, then that Order comes to an end. The object, of course, again, is not to attempt anything like compulsion, but to leave the industry to carry out its agreements, and to continue or bring to an end an Order as it thinks fit. The Minister, however, may take steps himself to revoke an Order, if he has reason to believe that it is causing hardship to some part of the trade, or in the event of grave national emergency. Those, I think, are all the points of substance in this Bill, which is quite a short one.
Since the Bill has been printed, I have been both gratified and surprised by the evidence of approval with which it has been received. I would like to read a letter which, I think, is very significant and very characteristic of opinion which I have had from other sources. Obviously, I cannot give the name of the writer or indicate the part of Lancashire from which the letter came, but I can assure the House that the firm referred to here is one of very considerable consequence. The letter is dated 10th May, and I first saw it either yesterday or the day before. It says :I am employed by one of the oldest established cotton manufacturing concerns in the county—as manager. My firm has never associated with any organisations but honours all agreements come to by such Associations with the Trade Unions. Due to our loyalty to these agreements, in recent years, we find ourselves unable to compete with firms, many of which were instrumental in making these agreements and who have since dishonoured them and paid wages at rates which have no bearing whatever on the agreed rates.My firm look to the above Bill to put us on an equal footing with the rest of the trade, but our losses of late have been so 1969 serious that my employers are not willing to continue them indefinitely, in fact they require a definite time-limit for consideration as to whether they will wait for the above legislation or close down. The latter course means the loss of my employment.If you can give me some hope of an early order bringing the wage-cutters and price-cutters to heel, I have no doubt my employers would be willing to continue the struggle to compete instead of closing down in disgust and /or despair.That is a concrete instance of what I am sure has for some time been going on all over Lancashire. The object of this Bill as I have said is not to diminish but to strengthen the system of collective bargaining which has been built up, and which I think first made progress in this particular industry or, at any rate, certainly in the textile industry of Lancashire. The Bill seeks to establish order where there is now every prospect of imminent chaos and anarchy and the destruction of the very basis upon which the peace and therefore the prosperity of the industry depends. For these reasons, I have no hesitation at all in commending the Bill to the House, and I hope that it will not only be accepted by the House, but that it will be passed into law with the least possible delay. I am certain that, if there is either prolonged delay or if the proposal is turned down, we may be faced with chaos in the industry.
§ 4.18 p.m.
§ Mr. ARTHUR GREENWOOD
I find myself in the very embarrassing position, and it is no doubt also embarrassing to the right hon. Gentleman, of having to sing the same tune. I believe that this is the first occasion that that has ever happened in this Parliament. It is true that I may not sing in so high a key or with so loud a voice, but I hope that I shall sing in harmony in the lay which he has just delivered to the House. Those of us who are acquainted with the Lancashire textile industry know that for the last 12 years at least it has been crippled by adversity. I should have liked to have seen the right hon. Gentleman or one of his colleagues produce a Measure to deal with the root economic problems of the cotton industry. This Bill does not do that. It is concerned with the results of 12 years of serious economic difficulty in Lancashire.
It is easy to see what has happened. I remember that before the War there was no better organised industry in the country, either on the employers' side or 1970 on the workers' side, than the cotton industry. It was one of the first industries to feel the full shock of the economic depression about 1920 or 1921. What has happened since has happened in other industries, but perhaps—and I think that the Minister will agree with me—in no industry more seriously than in the Lancashire textile trade. There have been defections from employers' organisations, and defections from trade unions. Men out of work and anxious to get work are prepared in very desperate economic circumstances—I think that they are wrong and that it is short-sighted—even to take jobs which they know cut at the roots of existing agreements. They are men whom we describe in Lancashire by the most obnoxious term in the working-class vocabulary as "blacklegs." They are men who are prepared to work on terms less favourable than their fellows are obtaining. I am not blaming them in those circumstances. It is due to the position in which they are placed. Precisely the same kind of thing has happened with employers, who normally, whether members of the trade organisations or not, would have honoured agreements, and that was a common thing before the War in Lancashire. They found themselves because of shrinking trade driven to every kind of expedient. Unfortunately, some of them adopted the easiest way of trying to depress wage rates. They are "blacklegs" among the employers.
The problem has therefore become a dual problem—a problem both to the employers in the industry and to the workers in the industry. It was a very unfortunate situation, but it was one that obviously had to be dealt with, because the fact that certain men obtained orders by sweating workpeople did not mean a new addition to the trade of this country. It meant a transfer of trade from an honourable employer to a dishonourable employer. There was no economic gain. There was a certain moral loss. That is the case which the employers themselves feel, and they are strongly of the opinion—and I have discussed the matter with them myself—that there ought, in circumstances such as those under which they are suffering now, to be some protection for the good employers and for the men with the team spirit and their employers who are prepared to play the game by their fellows, against the bad employer 1971 who is not prepared to act as he should do. That is their case.
There is the case in which I am particularly interested, that of the workers in the cotton industry. They have suffered now for a dozen years and more from very serious unemployment. They have suffered very exceptionally, and in a way no other workers have suffered, from the fact that they may have worked for a 48-hour week and received at the end of it the wages of half a week, because, instead of working their four looms, they have only been working two. They have felt that some steps ought to be taken to stop this degradation of the standard of life of the people by the undercutting of wage rates and wage standards not called for by the economic circumstances of the industry, because the majority of the employers are prepared to continue to pay them. They appeal to be protected from this undercutting of wage rates because of a minority of employers acting against the decisions of the majority.
We have had to deal with this problem in Parliament before. It was because of the sweating employer that we had to introduce our Trade Boards legislation. It was because of the fact that in our highly complex industrial system we still had trades which were badly organised both on the side of the employers and on the side of the workers that our conception of the Trade Boards had to be extended, but the purpose of it was to secure a uniformity of working conditions and wages universally applied and operative in regard to everybody in the industry. I think that that policy is sound and that wages ought to be taken out of the competitive sphere altogether. An employer's orders ought not to depend on the lowness of the wages that he pays, but on the efficiency of the firm. The Trade Boards have tried to do that. This Bill is a new departure, and is of a kind which is different from any industrial Bill that we have ever placed on the Statute Book. It is a Bill which has been called for by the exceptional circumstances of the times.
I scrutinised the Bill very carefully. I do not like the Bills of the right hon. Gentleman as a rule. I was afraid that there might be provisions in it to which we should have to object, but I am bound, after what I have said about his Unem 1972 ployment Bill, to admit that this is the most workmanlike piece of work for which he has been responsible. It is a well-drafted Bill and a much more carefully conceived Measure than the Measure which left him for another place only three days ago. First of all, there is no intention to supersede collective bargaining. I cannot imagine the organisations with which he has been dealing ever agreeing with a Bill that undermined, or in any way tried to undermine, that principle. It does not interfere in any way with the freedom of trade unionists and employers' associations to arrive at any agreements they like in the way they like and on the terms they like. It is an attempt—and one to be welcomed—to try and save collective bargaining from complete collapse in one of the most highly organised industries in the country. I regard that fact as important. I cannot conceive how our modern industrial system can go back to any kind of system of individual bargaining. I would like to see, without any compulsion, every workman in his trade union, and every employer in his appropriate organisation—both sides organised 100 per cent. strong. We cannot go back on organisations; we must rather go forward. This Bill is based on enforcing the considered decisions of majorities on what the Minister called recalcitrant minorities. To that no reasonable person can take exception.
The Minister pointed out also that there was no hidden motive in the Bill which might involve compulsory arbitration. It is because there is no interference with collective bargaining, because the Bill is to try and strengthen the hands of those engaged in collective bargaining, because there is no hidden hand of compulsory arbitration that we are prepared to support it. If I could find a single word in the Bill which looked like a limitation of the rights and freedom of the trade unions I would ask my hon. Friends to go into the Lobby against it. If I thought there was any suspicion of compulsory arbitration in the Bill, I should feel it my duty to vote against it. I am satisfied that there are no sinister intentions in the Bill. That is the highest compliment that I have ever paid the right hon. Gentleman.
There are certain hon. Members, not distinguished for their connection with 1973 Lancashire or the textile industry, who feel themselves called upon to move the rejection of the Bill. I have not had one word of consultation with any Lancashire Member—I am no longer a Lancashire Member and, therefore, I speak with an independence which they cannot——
§ Mr. GREENWOOD
I am a Yorkshire Member, and I will include Yorkshire in what I say. There will be no Lancashire Member and no West Riding Member who would dare to vote against this Bill.
§ Mr. GREENWOOD
I would ask hon. Members whose varied professional experience is far removed from the textile industry to think twice before they take the step of opposing a Bill which has the unanimous support of all the trade organisations concerned, both employers and workers. This Bill is a result of their appeal to the Minister to try and help them out of their difficulty. Therefore, I ask hon. Members to think twice before they obstruct the progress of the Bill. My last word is to re-echo what the right hon. Gentleman said. I hope the Bill will have a speedy passage to the Statute Book and that it will carry with it the support of all Members of the House of Commons, whatever their party may be.
§ 4.34 p.m.
§ Mr. MANDER
I think the Minister of Labour has made out an unanswerable case for the Bill, and I heartily congratulate him on having brought it in, more so because on the various occasions when I have endeavoured to get the same principles carried through in a Bill dealing with industrial councils generally he has shown a very great lack of sympathy and, indeed, has rather thrown cold water on my endeavours in that direction. Although there are a large number of trades in this country who are just as anxious as the cotton trade to have machinery of this kind in operation, making for the first time voluntary agreements come to between organisations of employers and workmen, compulsory, and giving them statutory authority, one is forced to ask the question why it is with all the difficulty that has been experienced in the past my right hon. Friend has at last given way, as it is 1974 obvious he would have to do when faced with a trade of this kind. Surely it is because he is now dealing with one of the most important trades in the country and one of the most highly organised trades. When they come and ask for machinery of this kind it is politically impossible for the Minister to refuse to see to their wishes, whereas when other trades have come to him in the past, much smaller in size, he has felt able to neglect the appeal that has been made to him.
No doubt one of the arguments that will be used against the Bill is that it is undesirable that a majority should coerce a minority. The argument really is exactly in the opposite direction. The point is that the employers and the employed by a vast majority have agreed and desire that certain things should be done and they are being obstructed and held up by a small minority. It is the minority that is forcing its will upon the majority and the object of the Bill is to free the majority from the tyranny which is now exercised by an obscurantist number of black-leg employers. I think that is the answer in any case, even if there was anything in that argument. Surely in these days when we have marketing boards and other bodies where the majority is given, quite rightly, compulsory powers to override the minority, an argument of the kind to which I have referred cannot be brought forward.
There is one criticism of a general kind that I would make of the Bill, and that is its extreme timidity. My right hon. Friend having been forced to bring in a Bill of this kind has done it in the most tentative and experimental way that he possibly could. At the same time he has set a precedent, and there can be no going back upon it. I believe the precedent will be used and that gradually, and I hope rapidly, this legislation will be extended to many other industries which are as keen as the cotton industry to have powers of this kind. It is a fact that 20 or 30 industries organised in joint industrial councils have since the War, at one time or another, asked for powers of this kind. I rejoice that a breach has been made at last in the wall of obstruction. A' precedent has been set which is bound to be followed as the success of this experiment is seen, because I believe that it will be a very successful experiment.
1975 When I speak of other industries asking for this kind of power I might perhaps be allowed to mention one in my own constituency, where the whole of the lock trade of this country is concentrated. The joint industrial council of the lock, latch and key industry have for years been asking for these powers because of exactly the same kind of difficulties that have been experienced in Lancashire. Certain employers, limited in number, undercut the agreed rates and thereby do a serious injustice to their more honourable competitors, and in that industry their case, although it is a small one, is just as unanswerable as that of the cotton industry. I believe that this Bill brings their day of success appreciably nearer. I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) said, that this Bill does not interfere in any way with collective bargaining. I should oppose it if it did. It is a complementary Measure to collective bargaining. It says that collective bargaining shall operate effectively. I should like to see the time when every workman is voluntarily a member of his trade union and every employer voluntarily a member of his trade association.
If I might deal with certain criticisms of the Measure, which no doubt will receive consideration when it is going through Committee, I would say, in the first place, that it is a temporary Measure. Perhaps that is not of very great importance, because if it is a success, as I am sure it will be, I presume it can be carried on in the Expiring Laws Continuance Act for many years to come. I think, however, that the Minister might have been more optimistic and might have made the Measure a permanent one. Then there is the question of area, the definition of the industry by limiting its area. I am not sure that there are no considerable dangers arising from that provision. There is the possibility that a particular employer desiring to get outside the restrictions of the Measure might rent some factory or even erect one just outside the area referred to in the Bill. It would be necessary in that case to bring in an amending Measure in order to extend the provisions and to prevent such a person getting round the provisions of the Act. I wish the Minister would consider the possibility of dealing with the matter by definition of the industry itself, 1976 which I cannot help thinking would be a much better way and certainly a practical proposition. If that were done the matter would have to be considered whether to include the weaving of artificial silk and of silk and cotton mixtures. These are points which, no doubt, will receive consideration in due course, and I am certain that they have been before the Minister.
The next point is, that I think it is a pity that the Bill is confined solely to the question of wages, and that it would have been better if it had been made to apply to all those conditions which are usually negotiated between employers and employed in Lancashire, such as the general conditions of work, hours, holidays and other things of that kind. I do not know what matters are dealt with by negotiation in Lancashire but whatever they are they ought all to come in. I would also mention one point which does require to be dealt with in order to prevent evasion. I understand that it is the practice in certain cotton factories in Lancashire now to make it a condition of employment that a worker shall allow a certain sum to be deducted from his wages weekly for the purchase of shares in the particular company where he works. That is a method of evasion and I hope that something will be put into the Bill to prevent getting round the Measure in that respect.
I cannot help thinking that the board itself is an unnecessary institution. The Minister has to satisfy himself that the demand is made by a majority of employers and employed in the industry, and one would have thought that that was sufficient. They ask for it and one would have thought that that would be enough. In any case, I should have thought that the board, having been appointed, had no need to act unanimously and that all the duties they would be called upon to perform would be to verify the facts and see whether it was really a majority of the employers and the employed who were asking for it, and not to go into the question of the expediency of it, and so forth. The board does not, however, interfere with the effective working of the Measure, but it is an additional safeguard. It is a further protection which can be included without really doing much harm to the efficiency of the Measure. There is also a point in Clause 3 to which I would draw attention, and I hope the 1977 right hon. Gentleman will deal with it. There is to be a fine of £10. Does that mean that there is only to be a fine of £10 for all the offences committed by any one employer or does it mean that £10 is the penalty for each offence? I presume that it is the latter. Certainly it ought to be the latter, because if £10 is going to be the penalty to cover everything that is done it will be no use at all. There are cases where at the present time reductions amounting to £30 or £100 a week below the proper rates are taking place. We want, therefore, the penalty to apply to every single worker and to every occasion when an improper payment is made to him.
I have referred to several points which do not interfere with the admirable nature of the Measure. We on these benches shall give it every support and hope that it will get through at the earliest possible moment. Its objects are sound. They are to protect the good employer, to prevent his exploitation by the blackleg, the disloyal employer, whose operations are harmful to masters and men. The valuable precedent which is created will in the course of time have far-reaching and beneficent consequences in the legislative and industrial life of the country.
§ 4.46 p.m.
§ Mr. HERBERT WILLIAMS
I beg to move, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question, to add "upon this day six months."
I listened, as I always do, with the greatest care to the Minister of Labour in presenting the Bill in the admirable way in which he always presents a measure, but on this occasion I am sorry to say that he is presenting one of the worst Bills brought before this House in modern times. I say so with the greater regret because of the profound respect and admiration I have for the way he has handled another Bill for so many weeks, which is now on its way to the Statute Book. So far we have had a trio entertaining the House, singing in harmony except for a few sharps and flats by the last performer. A great statesman once warned us that if the two Front benches were in agreement it was invariably true that the measure was a bad one. On this occasion we have two and a-half Front benches in agreement, and that arouses my suspicions even more. The 1978 Minister has said that collective bargaining is collapsing and that chaos will follow. That may be true; and it may not be true.
The Lancashire cotton industry has been organised in the sense we are now discussing for a longer period than any other industry, indeed, it has organised itself apparently into destruction. Organisation which, after the trade collapse in 1921, devises a system of short time working and an arrangement whereby endless firms which should have been cut out have been kept alive, does not commend itself to me, and if you push the matter a little further and consider those industries which are not organised you will find that they are industries in which employment is growing most rapidly. If only you have an industry properly organised you can ruin it for certain within a limited period of time. The vast decline of employment in coal mines, on the railways and in the cotton trade, does not make us believe that organisation is necessarily a good thing for an industry.
But the Bill does not apply to the people most concerned. There is a Schedule to the Bill, but pending a commercial agreement with Japan there is no provision that it shall apply to the parties in that country. The Bill should bring in the real serious competitors, the real blacklegs and scabs, to use the right hon. Member's attractive phrase. I agree that so far as the Bill is a bad one it has been carefully drafted as regards safeguards. The Minister of Labour quoted an anonymous manufacturer; later on I propose to quote a manufacturer who does not desire to be anonymous because he has written a letter to a number of hon. Members. The right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) commented on the fact that the six hon. Members who have bad the temerity to table a Motion for the rejection of the Bill, not a pleasant task, do not come from cotton constituencies. That is true, but we are not primarily concerned with the fact that the Bill relates to the cotton industry, we are concerned because the Bill contains a principle which is being put forward for the first time by the Government in this House and, therefore, issues of great importance are involved.
It is a Bill which people from other constituencies ought to support. If it becomes law there is a good chance that an honest employer might establish his 1979 cotton mills in a new constituency, adopt new methods and obtain a higher degree of prosperity. Instead of being so economically conservative as the Lancashire manufacturers and trade unions seem to be, they might adopt entirely new methods and save themselves from destruction. There are some people who favour centralised control of industry. During the last two or three years of his life, I was closely associated with the late Lord Melchett, who was regarded as the arch rationaliser, and I was struck by what he wrote on the allied subject of import boards. This is what he said :For instance, if a board makes up its mind that wheat is going to rise in price and purchases the entire requirements of a country on this basis, while events prove that world markets, instead of rising, fall, the error of judgment is transferred on a huge scale and involves enormous sums. With the present practice, where there are many individual buyers, some will take one view and some the opposite; whichever is right or wrong, some kind of average result which is not so far from the actual truth will be arrived at, and therefore the amount of error in either direction will never become of an extravagant nature. The risks of higher prices to the consumer or heavy loss to the taxpayer are outstanding and ever present weaknesses of schemes of bulk purchase.It is true that that only applies to bulk purchases, but it, nevertheless, applies to the principle underlying this Bill, which is to take away from large numbers of people, employers and workmen, any right to determine the conditions under which they shall enter into contracts. The Bill proposes that A, B and C can enter into a contract which shall be enforceable against D and E, who are not parties to the contract or to the negotiations. That is a new principle, it is a bad principle, and I think it ought to be challenged. The hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) has stated the real situation; he made no bones about it. He regards the principle as good, and his regret is that it is not going to be extended. He says that it is to override an obscurantist minority. I shall look forward to his next speech on foreign affairs dealing with minorities in certain countries. It is a new doctrine of Liberalism that you should pass Acts of Parliament to override obscurantist minorities.
§ Mr. WILLIAMS
Equally a small minority in certain countries are holding up the wishes of the vast majority. In the Bill you are taking from an obscurantist minority rights which they have always possessed in the past, and therefore I say it is a new doctrine.
§ Mr. WILLIAMS
I have never held the doctrine of laissez faire. I think that every principle should be applied with due sense and moderation. It has been said that what Lancashire thinks to-day the rest of the country will think tomorrow. Five years ago, when I was a guest at one of their organisations, I suggested that the sooner they abandoned that doctrine the better for the good health of Lancashire. Now they are introducing a completely new doctrine, different to anything they have believed in the past. I do not like quotations because I think that a man's own words are much better than the words of someone else, but I have an interesting quotation which I should like to read. It is this :But there is another danger of which we should be warned in good time, and thereby avoid its main consequences. We should be very cautious about making too many arrangements which are in the nature of rings.This is a definite ring. [HON. MEMBERS. "No!"] Anybody who comes under the provisions of the Bill will sell a certain commodity at a fixed price. If that is not a ring I do not know what a ring is.
§ Mr. WILLIAMS
But none the less it is a ring :Rings in the old days bore within them the seeds of their own demise. We all know the very simple story of the Tings from which someone broke away. Some one trades at a lower price, but still at a profit. He does it once or twice, and in a very short time he is followed by others, and so the ring crumples up. So by natural evolution, like a chapter of natural history, the rings were saved from doing harm.That is not an inadequate description of the Bill.
§ Mr. RHYS DAVIES
Does the hon. Member suggest that a girl leaving school at the age of 14 and entering a cotton mill in Lancashire should be entitled, 1981 without any protection from a trade union, to enter into negotiations as regards her wages with her employer?
§ Mr. WILLIAMS
I am not saying anything of the kind, I am dealing with the Bill, which is based on the assumption that trade unions are not competent to do the job :Let us be quite sure that, in granting to our industries enabling Bills which are to compel everybody in the industry to work to fixed prices without internal competition, and, of course, naturally at the expense of the consumer, we are not actually doing harm when we are intending to do good. After all, the break away of men from rings in pre-War times was one of the safeguards on which the consumer could rely. I fear that there are some who are engaged, and very rightly engaged, in the reorganisation of our industries who would like to get rid of that safeguard as far as it is in the public interest. That phrase, 'as far as it is in the public interest,' ought to be interpreted in its widest form. The truth is that we have rather in these days under-estimated the value of competition, forgetting the fact that it was by competition that we begat many new industries. It was under pressure of competition that we employed more and more machinery in our works and factories, and that we improved the design and equipment of our ships. It was competition, and still is competition, that turns depression to good account. In the struggle for profits we naturally bring about a reduction in costs.These results have brought untold benefits to our people as a whole. Without competition there would have been no cheap silk stockings or small-powered motor cars. It is in the preservation of competition, acting under its main stimulus, that we can not only preserve the prospecity of our great industrial and commercial organisations, but can confer further blessings upon the democracy over which we rule." That is rather an interesting quotation, and no one will say that it does not apply to the principle of this Bill. It is critical of the principle of the Bill.
§ Mr. WILLIAMS
The President of the Board of Trade, speaking at the annual dinner of the British Bankers' Association on the 9th of this month. I wish my right hon. Friend the President was here, because it fits so admirably the case against this Bill in principle.
§ Mr. WILLIAMS
It is not my business to explain the economic views of any right hon. Friend, for whom I have a profound regard and admiration, because I see two of his Cabinet colleagues and four other members of the Government, all of whom are satisfied that he is a sound protectionist. I have another quotation here but I will paraphrase it. Its author is an hon. Member who is in the Chamber at this moment, and whose connection with the cotton industry is not that of a manufacturer of cotton but of the machinery which the industry uses. He was speaking only a few days ago at the annual meeting of his company. I refer to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Sir W. Preston), who expressed the view, rightly or wrongly—he is in a position which makes him well able to judge the situation—that one of the troubles in the industry was that it had not been modernised. Some may say that he is wrong. But he submitted the point that the purchase of cotton machinery by the British industry had been trifling in recent years compared with the purchases of their foreign competitors. He expressed the opinion that with modern automatic machinery it might very conceivably be possible to compete effectively with Asiatic competitors, those people in Asia who have recently developed this industry with such great success.
Let us imagine that this Bill has become law. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich (Mr. A. Ramsay) interrupted the Minister to ask what he meant by wages, whether he meant hourly or piece rates. In this case obviously many of the rates prescribed in the agreement would be piece rates. The moment you introduce a new method of working quite properly you must revise your piece rates. If automatic weaving machinery is a great success—I am not an expert but I understand it may be very successful—obviously it involves at once new piece rates. But the agreement having been drawn up, not by the obscurantist minority but by the majority who may not have adopted these methods, would be in operation. The individual manufacturer, having established his works on entirely new methods, would be compelled to pay piece rates far in excess of what were right. As a matter of fact he could fix lower piece rates to enable him to sell his product much more 1983 cheaply, and at the same time provide his workpeople with higher wages. But under the Bill that becomes impossible.
This Bill means the end of progress. It will make every manufacturer work on exactly the same lines as every other manufacturer. I regard the Bill as a real challenge. It is a Bill which, if followed, is going to mark much more serious things than we realise now. It may represent in principle the future dividing line in the politics of this country. It is not just a Bill affecting the defeatist minority of a despairing industry in one or two counties of this country. The Minister in moving the Second Reading quoted a cotton manufacturer who had written to him anonymously.
§ Mr. WILLIAMS
Then he was on the managing side. I have had a letter from a firm, Messrs. Birtwistle and Fielding, Limited, Great Harwood, who write :We are pleased to see from the paper that you are opposing the enabling Bill for cotton pacts. We are a non-federated firm. We should like to place a few facts before you. It is very questionable whether the Manufacturers' Association or the trade unions represent 50 per cent. respectively of the people in the trade. It only covers a specified area; those outside will be free to mate separate agreements. It will hamper, impede and restrict progress and initiative. It fails to take into consideration conditions which affect the earning capacity very appreciably. It will tend to increase costs of production, thereby throwing more people out of work.That is a perfectly frank expression of opinion from a manufacturer who definitely does not approve of the Bill but who belongs, I suppose, to the obscurantist minority, who in the name of Liberalism have lost all their rights in this wide world. I cannot on this occasion congratulate the Minister on his Bill or on the fact that it is a novel idea. There is nothing novel about it. It has been very extensively adopted in several other countries. It has been advocated in this country under the title of national planning, whereby people busy themselves in telling other people how to conduct their business, as in one sense I am doing at this moment. We have in Italy the corporate State. This is the first step towards the corporate State here. I have still to learn that we 1984 have anything to gain by following the example of Italy, which seems to be doing rather badly at the moment. I do not see any advantage in following the example of President Roosevelt or Mr. Hitler or Mr. Stalin. They are all engaged in the same attempt to control industry from above. You may call it a five-year plan in Russia, the corporate State in Italy, or the new deal in America. They all involve the same principle, that you can successfully dominate industry from above.
§ Mr. MOREING
Has my hon. Friend had any experience of negotiating a trade agreement in any of the countries to which he has referred, especially Fascist Italy?
§ Mr. MOREING
In recent years I have had to carry out negotiations for wage agreements under the corporate State in Italy, and the advantage of being able to deal through employers' federations and federations of trade unionists has certainly made the task of arriving at a satisfactory conclusion a much easier one.
§ Mr. WILLIAMS
I do not doubt that it is a great convenience to do it in that way. But what is the ultimate result, and is it beneficial? On the very day that we were able to announce that our taxes would be reduced and that benefits would be restored in part to those who had lost them—on that very day or within two or three days there was the annuoncement in Italy that everyone's wages would be cut. I am comparing the ultimate result of the two systems, not whether at the moment of making the agreement it is less trouble for the manufacturer to have behind him, in effect, the policeman, in carrying cut negotiations. During the campaign in this country to abandon Free Trade it was universally the case that the Free Traders who were drawn from the Socialist wing or the Liberal wing of the Free Trade party denounced Protection as being the parent of trusts and combines. I have always thought that that was a delusion, and I still think so. I do not see the slightest reason why the adoption by this country of a Protectionist system should of necessity lead to the formation of undesirable trusts and combines.
1985 It is a curious thing that at the moment a very large proportion of the people, I believe a majority of the people who are active at the moment, are deliberately trying to impose on this country trusts and combines. I have actually received letters in which people say that if you are to have a completely satisfactory protective system you must have trusts and combines. I do not believe it. I do not believe that the trust with a statutory monopoly is a good thing for the country, but that it is an evil thing. Because I regard this Bill as a first step in that direction, I am opposing it. I always try to apply to every Measure those principles which in politics I happen to believe to be sound. We all have our political faith. Most of us base that faith on some group of principles, some creed. We may never have written it out. Sometimes we have written it out. Fifteen years ago I was one of a committee of six people, of whom my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Essex (Mr. Raikes), who is to second the Amendment, was another. Our task was to turn into a few sentences the creed of the Conservative party, which had been obscured after four-and-a-half years of war and three years of coalition. We were trying then to build up the Junior Imperial League. We prepared that statement. I do not say it was perfect, but it was a clear-cut statement, and I see no reason now to alter a word of it.
As far as I can make out, this Bill does not fit in with that statement. I believe that you can apply the touchstone of fundamental principles to any Measure, and, if you do, in the long run you get better government than you do when everything is a vague kind of compromise. My view is that a good deal of the so-called progress that we are now making is a progress not to the higher regions but to the lower regions. Progress is sometimes regarded as looking in the same direction as your face is looking. That is not necessarily progress. I believe in progress without pauperisation. That would bring me at once into conflict with some hon. Members. I believe in liberty without licence. I certainly believe in security without slavery. In this Bill we are working for security with slavery. I challenge that principle. I believe that at the moment the principle has a great many adherents in this 1986 country. But some of us oppose it. Some of us believe that ultimately we shall persuade the majority of the people to agree with us that the principle of dominating the people's mind and depriving them of the enterprise and freedom which they have enjoyed in the past, is wrong. It is because we hold those views and because this Bill is a symbol of a new direction of policy, that we oppose it and ask for its rejection.
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ Mr. RAIKES
I beg to second the Amendment.
I identify myself with some, but not with all, of the criticisms of my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon (Mr. H. Williams). It was suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) that it was a little curious that hon. Members who were not experts on cotton should address the House on a Bill of this kind. My apology and my excuse is that if no hon. Member ever spoke on any subjects except those on which he was an entire expert, the eloquence of my hon. Friends on the Labour benches would often be silenced and we should lose a great deal in this House. Without being a complete expert on any particular industry one is able to consider the question of general principle where principle is involved. Again, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield, I think, was a little unfortunate when he said that no one in the House who sat for a Lancashire or West Riding seat would dare to vote against the Bill. I venture humbly to suggest that hon. Members who are supporting the Bill are supporting it, not because they are afraid that they are going to be injured in their constituencies, but because, rightly or wrongly, they believe that they are right. At the same time we who are critical of the Bill have an equal right to deal with the problem and with the question of principle.
I was impressed by the way in which my right hon. Friend the Minister put forward the case in favour of the Bill. All Members of the House realise that there are great difficulties in the cotton trade and that there is a need for something to be done—I go as far as that—by the Government to enable that industry to become more prosperous. What I fear 1987 in regard to the Bill is not so much its effect as a temporary Measure to deal with difficulties in a great industry under exceptional conditions, but the danger of an extension of the principle of the fixation of wages by bare majorities over the whole industrial field. I tremble at the idea of the day coming when one will see written large all over the country that Manderism in industry has become the order of the day. I am glad nevertheless to see that the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) has cast off one old vice this afternoon. He has uplifted his voice in favour of majority rule. I wonder how long it will be before the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton and his hon. Friends on the second bench below the Gangway, cast away their old vice of Proportional Representation which would mean killing any majority rule at all. It may be that that time will come.
There is another matter which is even more important, as regards Government policy, than the observations of the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton. There is a certain periodical known as the "News Letter" which I understand represents or purports to represent the mind of the Prime Minister and to some extent presumably of the Government. I saw that the "News Letter" last week not only supported this proposal, as it was bound to do but went a stage further and suggested that this hybrid method of the fixation of wages should, with that genius for compromise which we are told is characteristic of the British race, be extended throughout the whole industrial sphere. If the proposal in this Bill is going to become a precedent and a principle then I would say that I would rather see Socialism at its most vigorous come in at the front door, than see it slip in by the back door.
I think every hon. Member here would accept two principles. I think we would agree as to the value of using trade boards as a method of dealing with industries in which wages are exceptionally low and in which, on the other hand, there is no machinery enabling the workers to insist upon a fair deal with their employers. But I think that almost every hon. Member would go a stage further and accept this principle also—that if you have, in any big industry, a small intransigeant minority, holding up the progress of the industry as a whole, 1988 that small minority should be checked and the vast majority, whether employés or employers, should have the power to deal with them. I go as far as that. But in this Bill it is not proposed that the vast majority, say say 80 per cent. or 90 per cent. of the industry, shall have power to ask for an inquiry in order that the 20 per cent. or the 10 per cent. who are keeping things back, shall be brought into line. What we are proposing to do here is to allow a bare majority, 51 per cent. if need be, in this industry—or if the principle is to be extended in any other industry—to demand an inquiry and to seek to impose their will on the 49 per cent.
If that principle were to be carried out in the industries of the nation generally it would mean that we would set up new vested interests. It would tempt powerful organisations of employers or of employés for that matter, to try to kill new competition by persuading boards to insist on fixing wages at such a height that new industries, in the first instance, would not be able to employ men. The result of that would inevitably be that men would fall out of work. We know how men have fallen out of work, in Yorkshire particularly, in the course of the last 10 years because, owing to rigid regulations, industries have been brought to the verge of crashing, which by a temporary reduction could have been saved from that position. But the reduction has not been permitted and in consequence men have been obliged to go out of work who might otherwise have remained in work. That is borne out in a book which many hon. Members may have read, "A Modern Tragedy," which gives a sad picture of what this want of elasticity in regard to wages can do in industry in hard times.
I do not wish to detain the House further on this subject. All I would ask is that the Government should emphasise, as strongly as they can, the fact that this is an experimental Measure and that they do not propose to extend a principle which, though it may be found of use in the cotton industry at the present time, is one which many of us in the Conservative party would fight against as a political principle, and one which we believe we shall be obliged to fight against in the future as much as we have fought against it in the past. I would ask the Government, indeed, when the 1989 Bill is in Committee, to go to the extent of altering the provision which allows a bare majority to have this power and to provide instead that only a substantial majority should have the power to compel a small minority to come in, because it is only a small minority which would hold up an industry. If the Government make the Bill apply to the big majority and the small minority they have a case which no one could seriously criticise. But, on the ground of the danger of the extension of this principle, I venture, not with the desire of embarrassing in any way the Minister or the cotton industry, to support my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon, and I hope that these criticisms, which represent the views held in a number of quarters, will receive the attention of His Majesty's Government.
§ 5.22 p.m.
§ Mr. HAMMERSLEY
I think everyone will agree that the two speeches to which we have just listened were interesting and they would have been valuable had they been addressed to some other Measure. But it appears to me that a great deal of their value is lost because they have been based on a misapprehension of what this Bill proposes. Nowadays we hear a great deal about the necessity of reorganising the cotton trade. There are many conflicting opinions about that, and there is a great deal of ill-informed criticism. I do not think, however, it can be seriously contested that, if we are to raise that industry to the higher level of efficiency which is necessary in the national interest, we must ensure that its foundations shall not be continuously disturbed by disputes between employers and employed. This Bill proposes to make those foundations secure. It says, in effect, that when the trade is satisfied and only when the trade is satisfied, on a reasonable wage basis, that basis shall not be disturbed.
It is not a Bill which necessarily stabilises existing wage agreements. Nothing can be done until the Bill becomes an Act. It may be that there are existing wage agreements which are considered desirable and necessary. But, when the Bill has become an Act, employers and employed in the industry will have to get together and arrive at agreement and it is only when they arrive at agreement, having a full knowledge of the facts, that 1990 the Measure becomes effective. Therefore it is not true to say that the Bill perpetuates any unsatisfactory features which may be said to exist at the present time. Nor is it true to say as has been said by the hon. Member for South Croydon (Mr. H. Williams) that the Bill sterilises progress. Let us assume the case which he himself suggested of a new invention or a new method whereby the wages cost in production could be considerably decreased. The individuals concerned, the employers and employés organisations, have merely to give notice within approximately three months and it is obligatory on the Minister, once notice has been given, to take action under Clause 4 which deals with the revocation of orders. It is clear that the Bill does not, in fact, impose anything on the industry at all.
Personally I consider it highly desirable that the rights of minorities should be protected and I have considerable sympathy with what was said by the opponents of the Measure on that point. I do not believe, however, that it is right that a small insignificant minority should hold up progress, prevent organisation and interfere with the proper Government of a large industry. I agree that a substantial minority ought not to be overruled by a bare majority. It may be that a substantial minority would represent the go-ahead section of the industry. There is nothing in the Bill, as I read it, to justify the apprehension that a substantial majority would be over-ruled, but I would like to see the Minister, at a later stage, strengthening Clause 1 so as to make it obligatory on the board to hear substantial minorities. I know that interested parties, as is usually the case in connection with these trade boards, can write to the Minister, but it would be important, if possible, to make it necessary for the board itself to hear substantial minorities who have points for their consideration.
The hon. Member for South-Croydon suggested that this was a Bill introduced by a despairing industry in a defeatist mood. That statement is untrue. The cotton industry is not despairing. If we compare the production of Lancashire in the last few years, with that of any other cotton-producing country in the world—with the single exception of Japan—you will find that the Lancashire cotton trade is in a state of considerable vitality. The 1991 Lancashire cotton trade is continually being accused of inefficiency. I would like to know how that criticism can be substantiated. We must consider that it takes its raw material from thousands of miles away, makes that raw material into manufactured goods, sells its manufactured goods, in greater value and volume than any other manufacturing industry in this country, and exports them to all parts of the world—and it does that to-day just as much as it did in the past. [HON. MEMBERS : "No!"] It is still the largest manufacturing and exporting industry in the country.
§ Mr. H. WILLIAMS
The engineering industry, if taken in the same wide sense, is definitely a much larger industry.
§ Mr. HAMMERSLEY
That argument is based on considering the engineering industry as including the manufacture of motor cars and many other new manufactures which, previously, were not considered normal engineering activities but even with that addition the value is approximately the same.
§ Mr. HAMMERSLEY
Not in the least. The Lancashire cotton trade has suffered a decline but that decline has taken place in consonance with the decline of the cotton trade of other countries, with the single exception of Japan, and the rate of decline in Lancashire has not been as great as the rate of decline in other cotton-producing countries—again excepting Japan. Therefore the general argument of inefficiency cannot be substantiated. Obviously the industry can be improved. In fact it is being improved. The slackness which came over the industry in the post-War period has in my view been eliminated and although there is much to be done, much is being done.
I would like to make a reference to a charge, which was dealt with by the hon. Member for South Croydon, of general inefficiency made against the Lancashire cotton trade by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Sir W. Preston)—I have given him notice that I intended to refer to his remarks—at the annual meeting 1992 of Messrs. Platt Brothers, of Oldham. Those observations received great publicity, and they were the subject of a question and answer in this House yesterday. They amount, in effect, to the accusation that a large proportion of the machinery in Lancashire is obsolete, and they constitute a grave reflection on the business ability of those responsible for the conduct of that great industry. The hon. Member said—and I am quoting from the published report :It is the sad truth that for spinning coarse or medium counts there is not a mill in the British Isles sufficiently well equipped to compete with any one of numberless foreign mills which have been erected during the last 15 years.I challenge the accuracy of that statement. There are cotton spinning companies in Lancashire equipped to give a greater production of yarn—that is to say, working to a higher level of mechanical efficiency—than in any other country in the world.
§ Mr. HAMMERSLEY
My information is that there are scores of mills in Lancashire working to a higher level of mechanical efficiency than that of any of the foreign mills which have been erected during the last 15 years. There are mills in Lancashire of which I am a director working to an efficiency of production which is considerably greater than Messrs. Platt Brothers or any other firm of textile machinists will guarantee from their latest machinery. If what the hon. Member said is true, there is an easy way in which his contention can be proved. Let Messrs. Platt Brothers equip and run a mill according to their most modern methods and with the most modern machinery. I guarantee that there are mills in Lancashire that, given the same kind of cotton to spin and spinning the same quality of yarn, will beat to-day the production of Platt Brothers' most modern mill. Nothing that I have said should be taken as suggesting that it is not necessary for Lancashire to keep herself thoroughly up-to-date and thoroughly in touch with modern methods and modern machinery, but I do say that the. general charge levied against Lancashire by the hon. Member——