HC Deb 15 February 1944 vol 397 cc143-52

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Beechman.]

Mr. Mckinlay (Dumbartonshire)

I wish to raise a question of which I have given the Secretary of State for Scotland notice. This case arose from a Question addressed by me to the Secretary of State on the subject of a meeting held at St. Andrew's House, Edinburgh, during January. In answer to my Question the Secretary of State stated that the meeting was called to discuss technicalities. I challenged that statement and I challenge it again. It would appear that what is between the Department and myself is whether officials of local authorities were called to Edinburgh to discuss what was policy or to discuss technical subjects. As a member of a local authority I am very jealous of local authorities' rights, and if I may say so it is causing some apprehension not only throughout Scotland but I think South of the Border, that local authorities' rights are being slowly filched away from them. The Secretary of State in his reply said he had a transcript of what transpired at the meeting. I had a minute drawn up by the City Engineer and the Chief Engineer of the Housing Department of the City of Glasgow. That minute was drafted from memory. Since the minute was in my possession the local authorities have had a meeting with the Department in Edinburgh and have accepted one or two minor details. The minute supplied to the Glasgow authorities by their officers is substantially the same.

The local authorities in Scotland are disturbed, and when the City Engineer reported that there was a proposal to transfer large-scale civil engineering organisations engaged at the moment on Government contracts to prepare the roads and services for future housing development in Scotland they wanted to know, and I want to know, why large creations and large organisations which were granted substantial Government preferment during the war should be given a preference—I say "preference" deliberately, because a preference is being given by the very conditions imposed under the scheme—to construct roads and services, in anticipation of housing development. Housing development is purely a matter of policy: the construction of roads and sewers and the putting-in of services is clearly a matter of policy. A suggestion was made at that meeting which confirmed my suggestion that it was the large-scale operators who were going to get the preference—a suggestion for a purely new type of road construction so far as Scotland is concerned, namely, substituting a seven-inch concrete bed in an 18-foot road for the method adopted in Scotland of bottoming and dressing with metal. That is a departure from practice. I do not say that a departure from practice is a bad thing, but I do say that those large-scale operators have hatching plants, I presume, for which employment must be found. That suspicion is aroused by the suggestion of constructing roads in Scotland with concrete. They have bulldozers. It might be interesting to get the figures of the amount of Lend-Lease stuff that those contractors are operating, and the conditions under which they are operating; but that is a side issue. The local authorities are to supply to the contractors: Lay-out of roads, with levels and sections; levels and diameters of sewers and drains; sufficient information as to lay-out to enable drains to be constructed"— I am reading now from the minutes supplied by the officers to the local authorities— information as to any special requirements (e.g., prohibition of combined drains, special construction of roads); any available information as to the nature of the subsoil level of rock (if any). All these things are to be supplied by the local authorities to the contractors. But the strange thing is that, while the officers reported to the local authorities that the proposal was to bring large-scale developments to these operators, who, mark you, it was intended would have a redundancy of labour in the early spring, a list has been circulated to the local authorities of Scottish contractors who might be asked to quote for this work. A later paragraph says that there are other contractors who have offices in Scotland.

I want to say, without offence, that so far as the Scottish contractors are concerned, a condition is imposed which almost puts them out of court right away, because it is conditional upon their having had recent experience in large-scale Government development work and having the necessary plant. Some of the firms I have in mind had some of their plant requisitioned and handed to their competitors. If there is a redundancy on this class of work, why not direct the men to Scottish contractors, to do the work in their own way? The argument is that we do not want this force of labour to be dispersed. I was associated with one big undertaking who had not only their workmen but their technical assistants dispersed and put into the service of these large-scale operators. Local authorities in Scotland object to the introduction in road construction of what is known as the designated craftsman. How many craftsmen do you ordinarily employ in road construction? The point I want to make is that, if these men are available, why not let the Scottish authorities issue their own schedule? Why not direct the men—5,000 of them, I understand—to the contractors from whom many of them were taken, and let the Scottish contractors do the developing themselves? There is this other point. We had some trouble recently in getting a clear-cut statement as to the relation of the Ministry of Works and Buildings in connection with Scottish house construction. There is a paragraph here which says: The Ministry of Works could decide, in conjunction with the Department of Health, areas to be covered by individual tender. What I want to know is—since when did the Ministry of Works have the right to interfere with Scottish housing development? If the Ministry of Works have no right to interfere in the actual erection of the houses—and you can build houses, but they are useless without roads and services—I want to know what right has been conferred on the Ministry of Works, for if my reading of the situation is correct, the Ministry of Works is the Department which controls this mobile labour at present employed by the large-scale operators. It is that or nothing, and, because of the fact that they have control, they presume to determine what is to happen in road development in Scotland. I want to warn the Under-Secretary that Scottish local authorities will treat this proposal with a stepmother's breath. I do not think you will find a single word of comfort from any local authority in Scotland. They are supposed to lay in sufficient services and construct sufficient roads for a two years' programme after the war. As a matter of fact, it involves a departure from long-established practice suitable to Scotland—the substitution of concrete.

I think I am safe in suggesting that the specifications and methods of carrying out the work are something dictated by the Ministry of Works and Buildings, and the Ministry of Works and Buildings are determining who the successful contractors are going to be and are also to determine the grouping that takes place. Is there any redundancy in March and April of 15,000 men? Why cannot the quota be transferred and Scottish local authorities given the undertaking that; if their technical staff produces the levels and the plans, and reports on the sites, as they do in the ordinary course of their deliberations—why cannot we have an undertaking that, when the Department of Health has indicated acceptance of the proposals and the contractor has been fixed, the requisite labour will be directed? There is another complication which involves the Essential Work Order and it involves the Uniformity Agreement and the 60-hour week without working on Sundays. What are you going to do in places where the conditions of employment are far in advance of anything given in the Uniformity Agreement, which was rejected by the Uniformity Committee in Scotland for practically every housing development which has taken place in Scotland during the war?

There are the complications, the piece work on road construction, and all these things are apparently under the control and direction of the Ministry of Works. If the Department in Scotland has got to the stage when the Ministry of Works is prepared to confer an honour or favour on it, the sooner we know about it the better. I can say with truth and without fear of contradiction, that there is not a local authority from Stornoway to Stranraer that desires the Ministry of Works to have anything to do with any of their housing developments either during the war or immediately after. I say that in the presence of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works; it is not aimed at the Parliamentary Secretary or the Noble Lord. It is an encroachment which will not be for the development of good housing in Scotland. I want an assurance from the Under-Secretary that the Department will at least explore the possibilities of getting the Ministry of Works to agree to transfer a sufficiency of labour to Scotland, when it becomes available, to cope with the road construction and the services required for our post-war housing development.

What is the position of the Glasgow Corporation, who have £60,000 worth of civil enginering plant literally eating its head off, and has been doing for years. I understand that the Corporation, had it indicated to them that they could carry on, but they cannot carry on without the necessary labour. Can we have an undertaking that, just as superannuated employees, willy-nilly and without regard to how long they had been superannuated, were directed and transferred to work for big monopolies and private contractors, arrangements will be made to transfer the necessary labour so that they can proceed with the work?

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Westwood)

I can assure the hon. Member and the House that any action that has been taken in the calling together of officials of some of our larger housing authorities in Scotland was for only one purpose—to try to obtain what advice we could from them and their assistance in dealing with what I believe is, as will be admitted by my hon. Friend, one of the greatest problems to be faced in Scotland at the present time. There was no attempt on the part of the Department really to deal with policy as policy. It is a common practice of the Scottish Office that, when we are discussing problems affecting Scotland, we call to our aid expert advisers. They may come in the way of advisory committees dealing with various problems or they may be, in other cases, unofficial advisory committees called together so that we can obtain their views on some of the ideas we may have, to see whether they are practicable or not, to hear their objections, if there are any, and to consider their advice, as and when it is given—all this being done for the sole purpose of enabling us to administer these things in Scotland to the best advantage of the Scottish people. That is exactly what was done on this occasion.

There was a big problem facing us, the problem of housing, and at the moment there was a shortage of labour. Organisations had been built up for the purpose of providing aerodromes in order to enable us effectively to prosecute the war. It was expected that in the very near future most of that work would be ended, that organisation having accomplished its task, and we were desirous of considering how we could best help in the servicing for the housing areas. We had set for ourselves the target of building 500,000 houses in ten years: we wanted on an average to build 50,000 houses per year. On many of the old methods, such as putting out separate schedules or engaging even small contractors, and the competition between local authorities, we wanted to try to get some agreement, so that it would be possible to switch over, from the work now being done and almost completed, the labour that would then be available to service at least the sites for 50,000 houses and have at least one year's programme in hand so far as the servicing of the sites was concerned. That was the purpose of this meeting out of which has arisen the present Debate. I may quote from the notes which have been referred to by my hon. Friend.

Mr. McKinlay

I have not quoted the Report at all.

Mr. Westwood

Well, I am going to quote from our notes; I am not going to challenge the point made by the hon. Member. Let me point out that there were eight representatives of the Department of Health present and only two representatives of the Ministry of Works.

Mr. McKinlay

I have the Report here.

Mr. Westwood

The House has not got it and I am trying to give the House the facts. There were called together representative officials from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Lanark County, and Dumfermline, so that we could discuss these problems and try to get their advice. It was made perfectly clear at the meeting at the very outset that the local authority representatives had been invited as experts with wide knowledge of the preparation of housing sites and not primarily as officials of their local authorities; that the discussion would be based on the preparatory plans that we had and the ideas we were going to submit for their consideration and, when the proposals were fully matured, the local authorities would be formally consulted.

I know how jealous are Members who have spent years in local administration, of the rights of local authorities. I share that feeling with my hon. Friend. We have both spent most of our years of life in local administration. I do not complain about it when problems like this are brought up and discussed. All I say is that in this particular case there is no justification for thinking for a single moment that there was any attempt on the part of the Ministry of Works to interfere with the rights of Scottish local authorities, none whatever. There is, however, an earnest desire on the part of the Secretary of State and myself to get assistance from anywhere and everywhere to enable us to deal with this problem, which is greater than almost any other problem we have to face in Scotland at the present time. I want to say, without any fear of contradiction, that we have had the whole-hearted support of Lord Portal, the Parliamentary Secretary and the Ministry of Works and their unreserved assistance in dealing with this particular problem.

When we wanted to carry through experiments in Scotland in the conversion of hostels into houses for our people and in the reconstruction of Nissen huts we did not have any difficulty with the Ministry of Works in getting all the assistance we required. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I would be false to our duties if we were not willing to accept all the help we could get from any Department. We can accept this help all the more gratefully because of the generous way in which the Ministry of Works have come to our aid in dealing with this problem.

I want to assure my hon. Friend that there has been no attempt of any kind to impinge upon the rights of local authorities. Following on the meeting referred to we had a meeting with the local authorities, and I find, on reading the transcript of what happened, that they were not all hostile to the idea of getting any assistance from the Ministry of Works. There would be almost interminable delays if we had the smaller housing authorities all competing to get the work done, instead of having a proper organisation. Therefore, we asked these local authorities to combine, so that reasonable-sized units could come into being. On sites of less than five acres we say that the small contractors can do the work quite well. But we are trying to use organised units where 2,000 to 2,500 houses are to be serviced. Our ideas will not be forced on the local authorities. My hon. Friend referred to concrete roadways. They may be something new, but that does not debar us from considering them.

Mr. McKinlay

They are not new.

Mr. Westwood

I understood my hon. Friend to say that they were something entirely different from what had been put down in the past by local authorities in Scotland. Further, we shall be able to check up in connection with prices if we have a uniform standard, a common schedule and an organisation that is able to do this work. We made it clear that Glasgow would be allowed to carry on with direct labour. So far as the Department of Health are concerned—and I have the approval of the Minister of Works on this point—we will explore the possibility of transferring labour, but not to the breaking up of industrial units. If an organisation which is already built up does not get the contracts and the labour is available, that labour will be directed to those who do get the contracts in Scotland.

Mr. McKinley

Whose labour is it—the Ministry of Works, or is it the prerogative of the large-scale operators?

Mr. Westwood

As long as they can keep their units together, the direction is through the Ministry of Labour. I want to make it perfectly clear that we will explore the possibility of transferring when it becomes available any labour that will help us. I trust that with that explanation my hon. Friend will be satisfied that there was no attempt to impinge upon the rights of local authorities but that there is an earnest desire on the part of everyone to get all the co-operation we can, from the Ministry of Works or from anyone, to enable us to deal with Scotland's greatest problem—housing.

It being half an hour after the conclusion of Business exempted from the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House), Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, as modified for this Session by the Order of the House of 25th November.