HC Deb 02 August 1935 vol 304 cc3061-76

2.11 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel CHARLES KERR

I am glad to have the opportunity of raising the question of distressed areas—what are now called special areas. Most of my remarks will be about the conditions in my own division. I feel strongly that this should not be a party question at all. Therefore, I propose to be as non-controversial as possible. I can see nothing good arising out of the abuse of the Government or in making statements about what should be done and what can be done, unless those who criticise are able to bring forward constructive ideas as to how their ideas can be carried out. This problem is a world problem, and I am not overstating it when I say that there are about 40,000,000 people in the world out of employment. Other countries have failed to solve this question. Some of them have relieved it to an extent by forced labour akin to slavery, and by enlisting a lot of people into their great armies. I do not believe that ideas of this sort will do any good in this country. Hard business problems and practical details have to be tackled. Light-hearted general schemes are no good. They have to be worked out in detail. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) said in a speech some time ago that he was told, when he came into the House, that he should always be constructive when he spoke, or not speak at all. I seldom speak here, and although I am old in years I am young enough to try to carry out that advice by endeavourtng to be constructive in anything I say.

The other day when this subject was discussed I found very few constructive ideas coming from those who spoke. There was the idea of nationalisation, but on looking up the results of nationalisation I really cannot support the idea. I would just give one or two figures showing what has been lost by States trying to run businesses. The United States of America lost £670,000,000 in shipping, Canada £16,000,000, Australia £14,000,000 and France £43,000,000. In State railways and mines you have the same story, and State trading in Australia is very much the same story.

There are those who seem to wish to spend a great deal of money. I do not dispute for a moment that if we spent enormous sums it would undoubtedly do good for a time, but money will run short and then bankruptcy and more unemployment will result. We all know what is wanted. We all know of the distress and misery, and it is our duty and every citizen's duty to try to help the Government to produce some scheme to relieve the situation. We all have our distressed areas, and I have no doubt that when the Bill was brought in to deal with the special areas there were requests to other hon. Members from their areas to have some of that £2,000,000 spent in their divisions. In fact we Scottish Members had a general request that the whole of Scotland should be made a special area. I pointed out in reply that no doubt England and Wales would want the same thing if it were granted to Scotland, and that if you spread this £2,000,000 throughout the whole country it would amount to a shilling a week perhaps for a short time, with no experience gained and nothing coming out of the expenditure.

I am sure that the House will agree with me that the acute suffering of the individual in other distressed areas is just as bad for the individual as in the special areas. I look on with the greatest admiration at the patience with which those all over the country in these areas have waited, hoping against hope that out of the experiment in the special areas something good would come to them. The figure in the special areas as regards unemployment is 439,000; that means that in the rest of the country we have a million and a half at least of unemployed spread out in our various constituencies.

The Government have perhaps been too much inclined to concentrate on these special areas, as in my view there is no doubt that no real good can come out of any scheme unless it is going to assist the whole country and not only certain areas. What I mean is that the special areas are mostly coal areas, and unless the whole country is going to benefit by any scheme you are not going to have an increase in the consumption of coal and you are not going to have benefits brought to these special areas. Although I have great admiration for and appreciation of what the Government have done to relieve unemployment, I feel that now the time has come when some definite move should be made. No matter how small, there should be something for all of us to get hold of, some idea that we can help to push throughout the whole country and so bring a little hope into our constituencies for these suffering people. I do not know whether the Government have up to now come to any conclusions in regard to the Commissioners' Report, but I do hope that my right hon. Friend will this afternoon be able to say something which will enable us to go back to our divisions and give a note of hope to our constituents.

The constructive proposals which I am about to make are the result of hearing the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. D. Grenfell) and the hon. Member who discussed the distress of the Rhondda Valley. What is it that causes industries and factories to establish themselves in certain areas, and what is it that causes some of them to wish to move from those areas? There are various reasons—local rates, raw materials, markets, harbours and so on—but the most important reason of all is the question of transport. The hon. Member who referred to the Rhondda Valley spoke of the difficulty of getting good cheap sites for new factories. That is not only applicable to the Rhondda Valley but to other places also. I make this suggestion to the Government, that they should very carefully look into the possibility of subsidising freights to the special areas and the great distressed areas in regard to raw materials and conveying manufactures to the various markets; and I feel that that would help very much indeed as an incentive to start new industries in those areas. The Government might also look into the question of being able to provide cheap sites for new industries in those areas. I believe that these two ideas, if carried into effect, would materially assist in bringing new industries to these distressed areas.

Most of us realise the appalling cost of freightage. Every week I send my mother a basket of vegetables from Newbury, which is not very far from London, and the cost of the transport from the station at Newbury to my mother's house is far in excess of the value of the vegetables. When one thinks of that one must realise that transport, and the cost thereof, is of enormous importance in this problem. I feel that what I have suggested could be done without any vast expenditure, and as the Government have told us that they are willing and anxious to spend money on something that would help, here, I believe, is an opportunity. I want to touch also on shipping, because it affects my own division particularly, though to nothing like the extent that it affects other divisions. I will make only one observation upon it. I feel that the time is coming when, in regard to shipping, we must do unto others as they do unto us—when is suits us.

There is another constructive idea which I wish to bring before the House. It is not the first time I have spoken on it, because I made my maiden speech on it, and, although it can only be started in a small way I believe it ought to be tackled again. I refer to emigration to the Colonies and the Dominions. I know that there are difficulties, but I do not believe that they are insurmountable if we here take full responsibility for the failures. The cost of maintaining a man and his family here cannot be less than £80 to £90 a year, which means 3 per cent. on a capital sum of £2,500, and I feel I am putting it high if I say that we can settle people on the land here or in the Dominions and Colonies for at least £1,200. I am particularly anxious about the populating of our Dominions and Colonies by foreigners. In Canada in the last 10 years over 600,000 foreigners have settled and made good. I believe that what they do we can do. It is said, "You are going to drive people from their homes." Nonsense. It will be all voluntary. And I myself do not believe in the idea, which is so often put about, "Oh, yes, but the foreigner will stick it where our fellows will not." I spent the early part of my life doing manual labour with all sorts and conditions of men, of all nationalities, and I have yet to learn that the Britisher is not as tough as any foreigner I ever came across.

The spirit of enterprise which has made our great nation into the great Empire it is to-day is still inherent in our young people, still inherent in a great many of the men who are now at work and are ambitious and wish to get on in the world. It is quite certain that our Empire, which is now sparsely populated, will be populated far more than it is to-day. We all know that there is room in it for hundreds of millions more people, and there ought to be a continuous effort going on, not only to develop the Empire, but also to relieve unemployment, and, incidentally, make new markets for our manufactures from this country. I know that great numbers of people cannot be dealt with, but let us get in the thin end of the wedge, so that we may feel that at least something is being done.

I feel that there is a sort of gap between the Commissioners and the Executive, and I should like to see a department instituted, with a Minister in the Cabinet, such as my right hon. Friend the noble Lord the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy), who is Minister without Portfolio, which should be continually sitting, receiving deputations, receiving schemes, studying this question and doing nothing else. I believe such a department would bring out a lot of information from people all over the country who at present do not know where to go. The Minister to whom I have referred is called facetiously by some, "The Brains Ministers". I know of nobody whom I would more like to see in that position. If such a Department were started it would help new industries, it would help the development of our Empire, it would help to relieve our unemployed and help manufacturers in this country, and, what we so sadly need throughout the country, would bring a bright cloud on to the dark horizon of many of our people.

2.34 p.m.


Hon. Members must feel very grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for Montrose (Lieut.-Colonel Kerr) for having raised this question and given us an opportunity to discuss it. I, too, represent another nonscheduled distressed area. The average number of persons in receipt of poor relief throughout the country is 269 per 10,000. In Anglesey, according to the last available figures, they number 473 per 10,000 of the population, which is higher than in any other county in England and Wales except Durham, Glamorgan and Monmouth. The numbers in receipt of relief on account of unemployment is 155 per 10,000 of the population, and this is higher than in any county in England and Wales, except Durham, which has 156. It is a curious thing to find depressed areas in an agricultural part of the county, although it is not as curious as it was some years ago. There is a great deal of distress in the agricultural part of the county, although most unemployment distress is in the town of Holyhead. That town is almost entirely dependent upon the cross-channel traffic to the Irish Free State, and it is now a victim of the Anglo-Irish dispute. It can, and I have no doubt that it will, be argued that Government action has been directly responsible in many ways for creating unemployment in some areas, but there can be no doubt that Government action has been directly responsible for the grave state of unemployment in the areas to which I am referring. I make no particular complaint about that, because when this issue last came before the House I voted in support of the Government. I would ask the Minister to recognise that the Government, when they close a dockyard, have a certain responsibility to see that measures are taken to relieve unemployment in the area. I hope that the Minister will be able to treat this area as a special area, and perhaps to give it special consideration.

Last week we debated the scheduled areas. The hon. and gallant Member who has initiated this debate pointed out that by far the larger section of the unemployed are outside those scheduled areas. It is not unreasonable, on this last day before we separate, if hon. Members ask the Government whether they have any proposals to deal with areas which, although not included in the special areas or within those arbitrarily drawn lines, still respond to every test of heavy unemployment. We heard a great deal about transference from the Noble Lord the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy) in the debate last week. Far too great emphasis is laid upon transference at this time. Unless the volume of trade increases, transference simply means spreading unemployment over a larger area. As the Under-Secretary for the Home Department pointed out, in his very interesting report in regard to transference, The limiting factor must continue to be the capacity of the more fortunate districts to absorb workers from depressed areas without arousing local hostility. I gather that that means without prejudice to those who are already in the labour market or who may have to enter it. Spreading unemployment over a wider area cannot be considered a solution to the problem.

One or two constructive suggestions were made by the hon. and gallant Member for Montrose, who said he wondered whether the Government could provide cheap sites for industries. The Prime Minister appealed to industries the other day to move to the distressed areas, where that was possible and practicable, but the only result of that appeal so far has been a movement in the opposite direction. One of the great industries in South Wales has announced an intention of moving to a more prosperous area. The burden of rates in distressed areas must weigh heavily in the balance against a movement of industry towards them, but apart from that, no industry or business man will extend to or open a branch in a distressed area unless he is reasonably assured of a market for his produce. The question we have to ask is where that new market is to come from. That is fundamental and basic in the problem of unemployment at this moment. It does not seem as though the new market were coming from foreign sources, if the increase in our export trade continues as small as it was last year. Are we to find it in the home market? The President of the Board of Trade said some time ago that the home market had reached saturation point. The greatest hope is in the distressed areas themselves. They can and will provide a potential new market for the new industries which must be established there, but it is impracticable for new industries to establish themselves in those areas until the new market has been created.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman who raised this subject has made constructive suggestions to the Government, who have been greatly assisted from time to time in this House by suggestions, some of which they have not thought wise to adopt. Suggestions have been made by the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Macmillan), and the Government have also had the assistance of my right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), some of whose plans have been considered and rejected by the Government. Because the Government have disposed of the plans, they have not disposed of the problem. The Chancellor of the Exchequer spoke some time ago of the danger of sacrificing the substance for the shadow. Where is the substance? We have not seen it. Where are the Government's alternative proposals to those which have been rejected?

The Government have delegated their responsibility for providing work in the distressed areas first of all to societies and now to a Commissioner. I gather from what the Minister said last week that, after some months of study of the problem, the Commissioner has discovered that among his powers to alleviate unemployment the provision of work does not seem to be one. In spite of everything that has been said, only £2,000,000 has been apportioned to the distressed areas, and we are separating without voting another penny. Hon. Members may say that £2,000,000 is something. It is. So is a shower in the drought. It is very refreshing, but it does not get to the root of the trouble. The Government say they are agreed—or perhaps I may put it in this way, that at any rate they say they are not in disagreement—on public works, and they say that finance is no obstacle to a sound economic scheme. What, in the opinion of the Government, is a sound economic scheme? This week the Chancellor of the Exchequer has signified an intention of continuing a subsidy to keep an uneconomic industry alive. Is that a sound economic scheme? He is prepared to spend £6,000,000, which I am told will give direct employment to 20,000 men, and indirectly, it has been suggested, will give employment to another 20,000. Is that an example of those sound schemes which some day we may expect from the Government?

To-day we are separating for three months; we hope that eventualities which might bring us back sooner will not arise; but when we meet again we shall be facing another winter, and, what is much more important, the unemployed will be facing another winter. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman would be prepared to say that there will be a substantial decrease in unemployment after the customary seasonal Christmas decline. I wonder whether he or the Government really contemplates that unemployment will remain substantially the same for the whole period of the next winter. I can only say that, if they do, those of us who represent distressed areas, scheduled or non-scheduled, feel the intense urgency, as I believe the great mass of the people of this country feel the intense urgency, of taking action, and taking action before this next winter—the fifth winter of the National Government.

2.48 p.m.


I am very glad that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Montrose (Lieut.-Colonel C. Kerr) initiated this debate on areas which do not come within the ambit of the special areas, because we all realise that unemployed men and women in any industrial district are individually suffering as much as those in the scheduled areas, though possibly not in the same numbers. I was very interested in my hon. and gallant Friend's reference to emigration. It is well to remember that, if emigration from this country since 1914 had proceded at the rate at which it normally proceeded in previous years, we should have had to-day in this country no unemployment problem at all. In other words, I believe, that if emigration had not been interfered with by the War and in the years subsequent to the War, we should have had to-day a shortage of workers in this country to overtake the business which the country has in hand. I cannot hope that it will be possible for the Minister of Labour to adopt all the suggestions of my hon. and gallant Friend, but I consider that this emigration question is well worthy of the most serious consideration of His Majesty's Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Miss Lloyd George) referred to the position in the distressed areas, and pointed out that, so far as home trade is concerned, it has been reported that saturation point had already been reached. That, indeed, was a statement which was made last year, but, if my hon. Friend had been present in the House earlier this week, she would have heard the President of the Board of Trade state that that was an observation, made by him last year, the accuracy of which he is now prepared to reconsider, because all the signs apparently are the other way. My hon. Friend has asked the Minister what will be the position of unemployment at the end of this year. I do not know what he will say in reply, but I should like to observe that already we have made a very good start for August, because the figures which I saw published in the papers yesterday register a decrease of some 20,000, which brings us under that hateful figure of 2,000,000 of which we all wish to get rid.

I wish to refer to another subject, upon which I have frequently spoken in this House in days gone by, and which has a direct connection with the question of unemployment. About a fortnight ago I asked a question regarding the future status of Rosyth dockyard, and was told in reply that the matter was under consideration, but that no change was contemplated. That reply was repeated a week later by my right hon. Friend, the First Lord of the Admiralty. I raise this question to-day out of no personal discourtesy to him, because he has always been most helpful, and I have appreciated his services to the great Department over which he presides. When he gave his answer, however, I only heard, owing to some conversation which was going on around me at the time, the second part of the answer, which was that no change was contemplated. My suggestion to-day is that a change in policy so far as the Rosyth naval base is concerned ought to be contemplated, and that for one or two reasons which I shall give.

It may be within the recollection of several Members in the House that in 1922, as a result of the Washington Conference and of economy measures then considered necessary in the national interest, Rosyth was cut down from a standard dockyard to a care-and-maintenance basis. I took the view then, and I hold it now, that in January, 1922, there was an unfair discrimination in favour of Chatham and against Rosyth. In the southern dockyards there was a reduction in personnel of something like 12½ per cent., and at Rosyth of about 50 per cent., and it seemed to me at that time that that was a policy which was extremely difficult to justify from almost any point of view. One consideration was that the menace of the German Fleet in the North Sea had disappeared, and at that time there was not considered to be the same need for maintaining a naval base of importance in those northern waters.

I am not on this occasion going to attempt to enter the field of naval strategy, because I do not think that anyone should speak on a subject of that kind except with authority and expert knowledge. But I do want to point out to the House how very important the Rosyth naval base is, and what it costs to bring into existence. I do not think it is realised that the Rosyth naval base cost this country something approaching, if not exceeding, £7,000,000. What is its position? What does it comprise? Its dockyard accommodates the largest battleships and battle cruisers. An entire fleet of battleships and cruisers can be moored in its basins. It includes slipways on which the largest ships can be built, a basin for submarines and torpedo boat destroyers, coaling and oil stations, three graving docks, each 850 feet in length, arsenals, naval stores, workshops, wireless telegraph stations and so on. That was built, and at the time the promise was definitely made by the Admiralty that it would be maintained in the future as a great naval base. To-day it is a phantom dockyard. While I have no title to be heard on the value of the right location of dockyards, it is well to remember that distinguished men like Earl Beatty and Earl Jellicoe and others have spoken in the very highest terms of Rosyth. Earl Beatty described it as the most up-to-date and efficient dockyard in existence, and declared that it must be maintained to preserve the fleets of His Majesty's Navy efficient and ready to perform the work for which they have been built.

I will not detain the House by reading other testimonies to the same effect, but there was one notable speech delivered as recently as April of this year by a very distinguished naval authority, Vice-Admiral Sir Barry Domville, President of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, in which he stated in the clearest possible terms that from the point of view of adequate defence Rosyth was essential to the interest of this country. After he had made that speech, Earl Jellicoe, who was in the chair, expressed regret that high official people were not present to hear this very important lecture of which he evidently himself approved. Vice-Admiral Sir Barry Domville said this: At Rosyth ships can be refitted in comparative immunity from risk, since they would be beyond the range of the most ambitious gun, and aircraft would be faced with a far more formidable task in getting there and back, especially in view of the warning of their advent that would probably be given. At the present time I am informed that our Southern Dockyards are all within gun-range of the Continent, and it seems to me while making no charge of inefficiency or lack of foresight on the part of the Admiralty, that there ought to be an inquiry into the whole position of our dockyards in this country.

I press the Government to take this matter in hand, and I do so for two reasons. One is on the ground of strong opinions expressed by naval authorities that Rosyth is necessary for the purposes of adequate defence; and the other on the ground of the help which even the partial opening of Rosyth would be to unemployment in Scotland. I do not know whether the House realises that while the administration of the National Government has resulted in the strengthening of the industrial position in the South, it has not had quite the same effect in Scotland. We have not benefited to the same extent, and there is still the southern drift of industry. It is my suggestion that if naval defences are necessary, and no one regrets more than I do that they should be necessary, Scotland ought to have its adequate share, if it is in line with an approved system of naval requirements and strategy. So far as Rosyth is concerned, I would very much rather see that site, if not required for defensive purposes, developed for some great commercial enterprise, which would help in many ways my own county and the well-being of Scotland. But as long as there is a German Fleet, and a growing German fleet, in existence, as long as modern warfare has developed in a manner that was not anticipated 20 years ago, it is my suggestion that this country should play for safety and at least give a fresh consideration to the whole question of the claims of Rosyth from the point of view of adequate naval defence.

3.1 p.m.

The MINISTER of LABOUR (Mr. Ernest Brown)

It is a tribute to the keenness of the hon. Member who has raised this question and to the efficiency of the procedure of this House that the views of the areas not included in the Special Areas Act have been heard in this debate, on the day of the Adjournment for the Recess. It is clear that the basis in the Special Areas Act Schedule was an arbitrary one. That was clearly recognised when the Bill went through the House and became law. I, myself, have good reason to know that, for, like hon. Members whose areas are areas of heavy unemployment, my own constituency is in precisely the same position. Its position is somewhat masked, because being now a part of the City of Edinburgh, it is included in the larger figures of the City, and the gravity of the figures, which are very large, is, as I say, masked.

Hon. Members have raised various questions, and I will do my best to answer them in a sentence or two. They will not expect me to make any general declaration of policy more than was said last week about the reports so recently received from the Special Areas Commissioner, except to deal with one point. They will know, and it is apparent that knowledge has prompted their moving in the matter, that in the course of the report the Commissioner called attention to the fact that the areas were limited to the Schedule, and that there were areas with heavy unemployment outside the Schedule. That is a fact, and in the consideration to be given by the Government to the Commissioner's Report I can assure my hon. Friends that that point will not be overlooked. Of course, it is another thing to say that it is possible to find a scientific definition for an area of heavy unemployment that would not raise some line which would cause some hon. Member to complain that, whatever basis was chosen, his own particular constituency was left out.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Montrose (Lieut.-Colonel Kerr) has raised several interesting questions, and I had better reply to them at once. He has raised the question of freights. There is already some arrangement in the Local Government Act, 1929, with regard to the freights on coal. That, of course, is a matter for the President of the Board of Trade. The problem of immigration affects other Departments than mine, but I will make sure that my right hon. Friends particularly responsible for these particular policies have their attention called to the remarks made by my hon. and gallant Friend in his most admirable speech. In regard to the hon. Lady the Member for Anglesey (Miss Lloyd George), she has put the case of the distress of her own area, and indeed the case in a wider sense, with her customary charm and lucidity, and with very great force. The question of the relations between ourselves and the Irish Free State is a matter of policy that has been decided upon, and she and I have this in common, that we both welcomed the resumption of the trade between cattle and coal, with which I had something to do last year. I am happy to see, in looking at the figures for Holyhead in regard to men, that there is a slight improvement there. She has put a wider question and asked me for my forecast of employment next year. I am not prepared to make any promise of that kind. There was a Member of the House who once mid, "You cannot argue with a prophet. You can only disbelieve him." I will not venture to prophesy further than December, but I will say a word or two before I sit down up to December, and risk making a prophecy about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline (Sir J. Wallace) has once more raised the question of Rosyth. He has done it with great keenness and force, and has put the case as strongly as anyone could put it, but I am afraid I cannot give him much comfort. I can only repeat what was said before. Rosyth has not been abandoned and put on the scrapheap. It is on a care and maintenance basis. If and when, in the opinion of the Board, it is advisable or economical to do more work at Rosyth, I can assure him that it will get its fair share. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend says he would like something more original from me. He is asking a question which affects the Board of Admiralty. The Admiralty has not only to do with services concerned with danger. It is concerned with safety also. I have given him the accurate answer from the point of view of the Admiralty at the moment, even although it may afford him scant comfort.

With regard to the general situation, the House generally tries as much as it can to agree on the eve of the Recess, and I think we can find agreement upon a good many things. I think we ought to find agreement that there has been a genuine industrial improvement, and that must never be left out of reckoning in any objective account of our present situation, whether in the distressed areas or outside them. We shall all agree that particular areas, from different causes, have been specially hit through heavy unemployment and its results, and that some of those areas are not contained in the schedule of special areas. I think we should agree also that these problems cannot be wholly dissociated from the national position but are eased, on the one hand by any measure of improvement which may take place in the general position, while, on the other hand, their own special problems are thrown into bolder relief because of unemployment elsewhere, and they are very difficult to solve, as successive Governments since 1920 have found.

I am sure hon. Members would like to feel that the Government share their concern and they can go away for the Recess sure of three things. It is the intention of the Government to maintain and extend by every means in their power the recovery that has taken place. It is a very encouraging recovery, and in world circumstances a very remarkable recovery when you remember always that we are not really dealing with plans, solutions, problems, areas and schedules but with men and women who understand in their households, as indeed some of the heads of industry understand in industry, how grave that problem is and how it has its repercussions in millions of simple homes. We are determined to take, as quickly and energetically as possible, all practical steps to deal with the problems not only of the special areas, but of the areas of heavy unemployment provided that they will not conflict with our determination to maintain the sound basis upon which the recovery, so hardly won, has at the moment been based.

I come back to the desire of my hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey for a policy. From my watch tower in the Ministry of Labour, at the end of July—the House knows very well that July on the whole is not a month when the Minister of Labour is usually optimistic; it is not one of the best months of the year for making forecasts, as the visibility is not always good—surveying the field of employment, as I can see it from my contacts with those who are able to talk about the future, I would say that we can look forward with a very great deal of confidence to a still further improvement in national conditions, which could only be checked should there unhappily be any untoward happenings either abroad or at home. I am in the very happy position, as I sit down, to be able to confirm what I saw in the Press this morning that, when next Wednesday morning hon. Members look at the figures of the unemployment and employment return for the month of July, they will find two things, first, that the employment figures will be better again, and, secondly, that for the first time since the month of June, 1930, the unemployed will fall below 2,000,000 souls.