HC Deb 10 March 1942 vol 378 cc1020-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. J. P. L. Thomas.]

Mr. David Adams (Consett)

I desire, in accordance with notice given a considerable time ago, to raise the question, which has many considerations worthy of attention, of the transference of the Royal Ordnance Factory at Dalmuir to Messrs. Beardmore. This took place on 1st August last year, and the cause of it was that the workers were dissatisfied with the output of the factory and called the attention of the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Supply to the situation. Lord Beaverbrook was then Minister of Supply. He came to the factory in person, and without much ado decided upon a change of management, and indeed a change so far as the employees were concerned. Without giving any intimation to those who might be considered as somewhat primarily concerned, the workers, he effected this transaction. The first news appeared in the Press, and protests resulted from that from the Amalgamated Engineering Union, whose workers were directly concerned, and the Trades Union Congress, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, and various other organisations. The two main grounds of protest were, shortly, that the trend of the nation was towards the nationalisation of essential industry, and this transference of a Royal Ordnance Factory, with all that was therein, including the staff, to Messrs. Beardmore, was in a contrary direction. Then, the Ministries of Labour and Supply had continually inculcated the doctrine that the management would be expected to take the workers into their confidence in order to create as much interest in production as possible.

I was invited by a delegation from the Amalgamated Engineering Union to raise the matter in the House. I addressed a Question to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply. My Question asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply whether he had any statement to make relative to the control of a certain Royal Ordnance Factory being placed in the hands of Messrs. William Beardmore and Company. I had a pretty long reply from the Parliamentary Secretary to the effect that while there had been a certain amount of discontent in the factory at this remarkable transference, yet matters had now settled down and were working smoothly. As soon as that reply appeared in the public Press there was a telegram addressed to me, and possibly to other Members of the House, to the effect that the Royal Ordnance Factory's staff unanimously refuted the statement in the House re harmony in the factory. The telegram said that harmony did not exist. The next stage in the proceedings was the staff appeal to the Ministry of Labour against their dismissal from this Royal Ordnance Factory and their transfer to Beardmores under the Essential Work Order. Their grounds of appeal were that as not only the management but the whole of the employees were transferred to Beardmores, the position of the workers of that Royal Ordnance Factory was that there was a loss of status to many of them. Many ceased to be Civil servants and would not receive regular increments where current rates being paid provided for this, and that prospects of establishment and of promotion through transfer to other ordnance factories had disappeared. Then, they alleged, there were longer hours to be worked without extra pay, shorter holidays and lower sick benefits.

There was an undesirable wage situation set up, as it will exist where there are in the factory pre-war temporary personnel alongside temporary war-time entrants on flat rates. Pre-war personnel will, in some cases, receive lower rates than wartime entrants, without the advantage of incremental progression in future. The workers transferred from the Royal Ordnance Factory to Beardmores do, in fact, retain their original payment, but the recruits from Beardmores receive only the lower rates for local engineering in the Glasgow district. That will cause unrest, as there are two rates operating in the same factory at the same time. The staffs, both technical and clerical, allege that they are worse off under Messrs. Beardmore than they were in the old days when the factory was a Royal Ordnance Factory. A question which might well have been put to Lord Beaverbrook was: if he wanted a change, why did he not take over Messrs. Beardmore which was fairly contiguous and handy, instead of allowing Beardmores to take over the Royal Ordnance Factory? Another, question which might arise is: why not other gun-making firms, and other high technical organisations which could provide suitable management, be invited to do so? Why was this transaction limited to Messrs. Beardmore? It will be for the Minister concerned to look into these grievances which the workers undoubtedly have, and which should have been looked into long ago. I was informed only last week that discontent prevails, and it probably has a detrimental effect on production. The situation appears to have gone from bad to worse so far as output is concerned.

The delegation met one or two engineers in this House, including myself, last week, and pointed out that a most serious situation had arisen in this factory in the matter of non-usage of valuable machinery. The workers allege that the transfer has caused no improvement in production; and they sent a deputation here, which, I understand, after seeing Members of Parliament, saw the Minister of Supply; and inquiries are to be set on foot. While the workers pledge themselves most specifically to do their utmost to get the maximum output, they think that the public generally ought to be advised of what is happening in the factory. They give an account of the idle machines. I will give one or two cases as an illustration: Bays 1 and 2 medium turnery…The state of idle machinery is this: —Of four grinders we have two working and two completely idle. Of 10 lathes one and sometimes two are on small production. The rest are on maintenance and other odd jobs that can be picked up. Eight of these machines are double shifted. Of eight milling machines four are working, four are idle. Only one is in production. The others are on odd jobs. Two Butler planes—one is working, the other idle. There are 30 machines. Of these, we have one turret lathe idle and one single-shifted. Six gear cutters are completely idle, two shapers, two vertical drills, three slots are also completely idle. Two horizontal borers and two automatics are only single-shifted. The automatics are only working periodically. One Bullard lathe idle, while the Craven lathe has only been used on a few occasions. One grinder idle. Then they refer to the other bays in the factories, going through them all, and the situation is presented so that it might well be alleged that from 50 to 75 per cent. only of the very valuable and necessary machines are being utilised. It is mentioned further in this communication that the heavy Department has some of the finest machinery in the country laid down, of which there are lathes capable of machining a gun-barrel forging of 100 tons in weight and 120 feet in length. Some of these lathes were originally destined for Soviet Russia under contract, but were retained because of the exigencies of the war. They have not so far turned a wheel. A gun-shrinking pit has two large cranes 150-ton capacity which have never been used. They add, as a finale to this letter, that on 6th September, immediately after the transfer of the factory, the management laid down a programme. They said, presumably to the workers, that they could man all the machine tools of the factory, and that their programme would require, in addition, five lathes No. 5 cap-stan; eight lathes 8-inch centres; 11 vertical mills No. 2; five horizontal mills No. 2; five 3-inch radial drills; three double - ended boring machines—in all,£ 31,650 worth of new machine tools. These new machine tools, however, were not delivered, and the position is, as I have stated so far as the factory generally is concerned and the idle machines therein.

These workmen, who are patriotic people, who have declared again and again to the management their anxiety to speed up the factory, are entitled to know who is responsible for the present situation. If one factory more than another should have been an example of great production, it should have been this Royal Ordnance factory at Dalmuir. There does not seem to have been any particular answer given to the question whether the trouble is just slackness on the part of the management, or whether there is incompetence to maintain and distribute the necessary orders which have been forthcoming. Whatever the cause, the matter is of most serious moment. It might have been reasonable for Lord Beaverbrook to apprise this House that he was making this transfer, which was supposed to be in the public interest, but he pursued the course that he has pursued on other occasions, of directing attention to output without considering other factors. If the Parliamentary Secretary is able to answer some of the questions and set this factory going as it was before, although not perhaps too well handled, I shall have done something useful.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply (Mr. Assheton)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. David Adams) for giving me the opportunity of saying a few words on the question of the management of this factory. The House will appreciate, I am sure, that the transaction to which he refers took place some seven months ago, in the days before I had left the Ministry of Labour for the burly-burly and bustle of the Ministry of Supply, and the House will also agree that at that time the Ministry of Supply was in the charge of a Noble Lord who has never, so far at any rate, been accused of lack of speed and decision. I approach the matter therefore from the point of view of giving to the House a clear historical account of what took place and of reciting to hon. Members the reasons which led the Minister to take the decision which he took and to make a change—a change, I should like to make clear, it is not intended to reverse.

In the first place, the House should appreciate that this factory has not been transferred to private ownership, but Messrs. Beardmore have been appointed as the agent of the Minister to manage this factory, which still remains a Royal Ordnance Factory. It was considered at the time, and it is still considered, that there were very great technical advantages to be gained.

Mr. David Adams

That is to say, that not only was the management changed, but the whole of the employees were dismissed from the Ordnance Factory and re-employed by Messrs. Beardmore.

Mr. Assheton

I will touch upon the employees in due course. I want to make it clear at the start that this factory has not been transferred to the ownership of Messrs. Beardmore, but that they have been appointed agents of the Minister to manage the factory, and, as I was saying, there were technical advantages in making this; transfer. In the first place, it brought together under one control all the gun production in that area, and it will be remembered by hon. Members who are interested in this problem that this factory was originally one of the Beardmore factories working in conjunction with the main centre of gun production, which is near by. Secondly, as my right hon. Friend the present Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies said when he answered a question which the hon. Member for Consett put to him, the transfer of certain of the managerial staff helped the Ministry of Supply to overcome the urgent and the difficult problems of providing sufficient trained management for the ever-growing number of Royal Ordnance Factories with which they are concerned. The reason for the transfer was not a theoretical reason but an entirely practical one. The agreement which was made with Messrs. Beardmore contains a clause that the agents shall carry out their services without any financial reward, nor do they have any option in that agreement to purchase the plant or the buildings, and, in addition, a statement was made on the authority of the late Minister of Supply with regard to the position at the end of the war. It was a statement made by Sir Patrick Dollan, late Provost of Glasgow, and it said: I am authorised by Lord Beaverbrook as Minister of Supply to give his personal guarantee in writing that on the day that the Near ends the factory will revert to the control of the Director-General of Royal Ordnance Factories and as such will become a permanent establishment under State control and management. And now a word about the staff. As far as the non-industrial grades are con- cerned, the permanent established staff, they were all transferred to other Royal Ordnance Factories, and their pension rights have not been in any way prejudiced. The Minister was very glad indeed to have their services to help him overcome shortages in other Royal Ordnance Factories. Nearly all the unestablished staff exercised their option of transferring their services to the new agents, and some 20 of them, for personal reasons, preferred other employment and were immediately placed in it, with the assistance of the Ministry of Labour. Transferees retained their Royal Ordnance Factory rates, and their service under the management of Beardmores will rank as service which qualifies them for any award or gratuity under the Superannuation Acts for which they would have been eligible if they had served throughout in a Royal Ordnance Factory, as it had been, and where the scales were in operation enhanced rates were introduced by agreement with the staff concerned instead of incremental scales. Other conditions with Beardmores were substantially the same as in Royal Ordnance Factories. With regard to industrial employees, practically all were taken on by Beardmores at the same rates as in the Royal Ordnance Factory.

The hon. Member put a specific point with regard to new entrants to the factory, and to-day I have consulted the management of Messrs. Beardmore and have ascertained that all new entrants to the factory receive Royal Ordnance Factory rates. I read the other day a speech made by a noble Lord, who is a member of the same party as the hon. Member for Consett, in which he used these words: I do not think we shall set the utmost production out of our splendid industries if we approach the problem with political leanings, whether Socialist, Conservative or anything else. There is only one problem, I take it, before the Minister—how is he best to do it—and I am quite sure he will he the man to put no other consideration before him. I have to assure the House that nothing but the furtherance of the war effort was in the mind of the Minister when he made this change. There are three times as many agency factories as Ordnance factories, and, therefore, no question of principle was involved. I would remind the House, if I may, that when circumstances demand it the Ministry of Supply takes over private firms and under Regulation 55 appoints an authorised controller. This has been done already in several cases. In addition, under Regulation 78, there is power to remove directors and to purchase shares of companies, and this also has been done in cases where circumstances have demanded it.

I merely say this to show that the one consideration in the mind of the Ministry of Supply is to secure the best results in getting production and in prosecuting the war as vigorously and as sternly as it is possible to do.

I cannot accept all the criticisms which the hon. Member made in the latter part of his speech with regard to present conditions in the factory. He made some charges with regard to machinery which, he said, was not being properly used. Well, the representatives of the men who have this week been interviewed at the Ministry of Supply were satisfied that the non-use of certain machinery was appropriate, and that there were adequate reasons for its non-use, although these are reasons which it would not be proper for me to state in public in the House. I will, however, be happy to make them known to the hon. Member if at any time he cares to come and see me about them.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.