HC Deb 05 February 1947 vol 432 cc1926-34

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

11.23 P.m.

Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)

I take this opportunity to raise some of the vital issues concerning wages and production which confront us at the present moment. Undoubtedly, I think, here is one of the most difficult questions which has to be faced in this transition period, by our Labour movement, in its industrial and political wing on the one hand, and by the employers on the other hand. We have heard gibes recently that nationalisation merely means that the Labour movement wants less work and more money. If one really wants evidence of the psychological effect of nationalisation, we have seen already the magnificent effort made in this most difficult winter by the miners. It is often forgotten that already the psychological incentive of nationalisation in this basic industry of coal, has had its effect. The only justification for nationalisation is that it makes for more efficiency. That is the test on which we shall stand or fall in the long run—that it is more efficient than private enterprise. The other workers, nationalisation, while considering wages, will also consider social happiness and enthusiasm, and cooperation between management and men as vital factors in production. I claim that, although we have not had very long in which to form a judgment, in the coal industry, for instance, the "feel" of nationalisation is already being shown. I believe, too, that it will lead to more incentives being offered by the private sectors of industry. I was delighted to read in the papers that one of the most important industries in my constituency, the bleaching and dyeing industry, has adopted the five-day week, I am convinced that the people of Leek will justify the granting of this five-day week.

The main item in the courageous White Paper which has been issued—I believe the candour and courage of this Government have been second to none, and that they have nothing to lose by putting their cards on the table so far as the public is concerned—is shown in the following extract: The keynote of all our industrial activities during the immediate period ahead must be to study the cost of production, to man-up the essential under-manned industries, and above all to step up production until we have struck a balance between total demand and total supply. The essential facts given in that document are that coal, tinplate, steel, bricks, tiles, iron foundries, textiles, clothing, food, furniture, etc., are down 22 per cent. on the 1939 labour force. We are 667,000 men down for these listed industries. There is definitely a deficit. But before we talk in this issue about the importation of foreign labour I want to ask the Government, and the Minister of Labour, whether it is certain that we have a plan for using fully all the available labour in this country at the moment. According to my analysis which is for November—I have not had time to work out this week's "Ministry of Labour Gazette" figures—there seems to be a considerable loss of manpower which escapes the industrial net. Where is, it? Why is it not being used? Including the 366,000 registered as unemployed, and the 345,000 ex-Service men who have not yet taken up employment, we find that the total male working population, excluding indoor private domestic service, is below the total civilian population. The figures for June were, for Great Britain, as follow: Total civilian working population between the ages of 14 and 64 years 12.7 millions; total civilian population between the ages of 15 and 64 years, 13.8 millions. The numbers involved in the 14 year age group are in the neighbourhood of 250,000 to 300,000. What we want to know is, where are the 800,000 odd British workers, male and female, and what is the Ministry of Labour doing with regard to them.

Let us take another branch of the subject. I am convinced that the Government do not intend that the manpower statistics shall be used as a weapon brutally to freeze wages and to force standards of life lower. I have read documents in these last few weeks in most of the financial and economic papers, and it is suggested we must accept a lower standard of life. Mr. George Thomson in a broadcast last week said: It is essential that this sense of injustice tell by the ill-paid productive worker must be rectified. The onus must not be turned upon men and women engaged in productive sections of the industry only. His point is of paramount importance, and I have raised this issue because I believe every card should be laid on the table at this moment. In any discussion of wages and re-arrangements of manpower. Colin Clarke has said in his analysis of national income that the most discreditable failing of British industrial statistics relates to the figures of industrial profits. The Balfour Report, the MacMillan Report asked for these, and the Inland Revenue wished to publish them, but in this House on 27th February, 1945, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer refused, on the grounds of military security, to publish them. If management in the private sector of industry and the nationalized sector of industry want the British public to understand, the margin of profits must be put on the table now because, as the Cohen Report recognises, the danger of undisclosed reserves is one of the things that we must look into. I believe the full employment policy can be jeopardised by concealing these vital facts.

Then again, how far is the Ministry studying this problem of price control? We are in a difficult transition period. I have had the opportunity of seeing the Monet plan, though I have only had it today, and here I feel that the whole of industry should be looked at in a similar light. How far are we studying this vital issue of price control, rather than all the time looking at the wage factor? The British public and the British trade union movement have played the game because from V-J day up to last November we lost three and three-quarter million days from trade disputes, while in the same period after the last war 39,500,000 working days were lost. That is a testimony that the British workers are pulling their weight in this struggle back to normality. Therefore the Government must develop a production technique. It must be courageous and say to the 80 per cent. of private industry, "This is where you stand for the next five or ten years" so that the private sector of industry can go on with the minimum of interference, with a guarantee to the country also that there will be control of prices and profit margins.

In November the Federation of British Industries and the Employers' Association combined. Here is an organisation as powerful as the trade union movement. The T.U.C. lays all its documents, all its resolutions on the table for the public to see, but this combination should likewise be prepared to put all the cards on the table when they have their annual conference to encourage a feeling of confidence amongst our people. I believe that the Ministry of Labour will have to give a lead in its own industries. Our women should have the rate for the job. Could not we, in our own industries, encourage that? Last, but not least, it is time that something was done about this fictitious cost of living index.

In any analyses of national income—and I have looked at every one since 1880—whether in a period of slump, or boom, the percentage of workers' wages has always averaged 40. We want the public to know what are the profit margins. I believe the Trade Union movement has the knowledge and sense to work with the Government on a wage policy and wage structure system which will bring the country through this difficult transition period.

11.36 p.m.

Mr. Hollis (Devizes)

I am sure the House owes a great debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) for raising this extremely important topic. I wish we had time to debate it at greater length. Since time is limited, I am sure he will excuse me if I do not attempt to follow him in all the interesting suggestions he made. With some of them I entirely agree—for instance his suggestion of a revision of the cost-of-living index. Large issues, such as the question of whether or not nationalisation makes, on the whole, for efficiency, he would hardly expect me to debate in the few minutes in which I can address the House.

I would like very strongly to associate myself with him in his general demand that all cards, from every side, should be put on the table. I will give two instances where it is most important that all the cards should be put on the table. I have no quarrel with his demand that greater information should be given about profits. I think it also most important that much fuller information than is at present available should be given about the Government's own borrowing policy, to what extent the Government are borrowing out of genuine bona fide savings and to what extent out of created credit from financial institutions. It seems very difficult to know how we can follow the wage structure the hon. Member advocates, if we are kept so much in the dark about the volume of money coming on to the market.

The other instance is one which I daresay the Parliamentary Secretary will say is beyond his scope, so I will make a request which is more within his Department. The hon. Member for Leek spoke in terms of praise of the White Paper. It is an extremely interesting White Paper, I agree, but it is a somewhat negative statement rather than a statement of policy. There is one very extraordinary and serious omission from it to which I should like to call the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary. There is a good deal of talk about the sum total of labour, the number of people available in various industries—more here, less there, and so on—but nothing about what changes have taken place in the productivity of labour per man. That is an all-important factor which I think the public must know. Otherwise, it is very difficult for us to form any intelligent opinion on the policies the hon. Member has been discussing. We want to know to what extent it is true that there has been—as is generally believed—a general decline in productivity per man. We must know the facts and, if there has been a decline; we must have all the information we can get, to enable us to make up our minds on what is the cause of that decline.

Certain people hold that there are four quite separate reasons for the decline. There are those who say that the cause is greater absenteeism on the part of the worker; that for whatever reason, he is not working as hard as he used to. Then I was interested in an article written by the hon. Member for West Coventry (Mr. Edelman) who placed the main part of the fault on inefficient management. Then there are those who think that productivity has declined because machinery is inadequate; there are those who blame it on a shortage of raw materials. It is probable that there is a degree of responsibility in all four causes, but it is important that we should have some authoritative statement about the various percentages of responsibility, because the remedy depends on a correct analysis of the facts. If it is the case that the worker himself is not producing as much as he used to, then there is a great deal to be said for giving him some extra incentive to produce. But we can only do that, if we throw more consumer goods on the market at the expense of having fewer raw materials and less new machinery. If the real trouble is inadequate machinery or lack of raw materials, we shall only be making things worse by giving our attention to what is only a subsidiary cause by increasing the incentive to the workers. I am not saying at the moment which of the four causes I have enumerated is the most important, but I think the Parliamentary Secretary, if not tonight then at some other time, should give the House as full an analysis as he is able to give, of these causes.

11.47 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Ness Edwards)

I am sure it will be appreciated that even a Parliamentary Secretary at the short time at my, disposal, could not give a full analysis of the situation. But there are some points on which I am able to give some information. There was the last point raised by the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis) with regard to the general productivity of labour, not only per man shift but per man hour. The situation is so uncertain these days and there are so many points involved to ensure that the production machine runs smoothly and efficiently, that this would be the wrong time, in our view, to try to measure what is the actual productivity either per man shift or per man hour. It is no fault of employers or workers that we are not able to do so. It is the circumstances under which all are trying to do a job of reconversion and housing, without the machines the employers would like, and with the shortage of raw materials and the shortage of fuel and electricity. These are things that have not escaped our attention. They have been discussed on a number of occasions with the representatives of employers and with the Trades Union Congress, and at the appropriate moment, when the situation is easier and freer, we shall get some real statistics about the matter raised by the hon. Member, because it is the kernel of the whole situation as regards productivity and the manpower problem.

I now come to the points raised by the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies). I was very pleased to hear him pay that tribute to the new feeling in the mining industry. In the past there was too little heard about the miners; now the time has come to give them credit for the grand job they are doing. There is today more general recognition of the economic situation with which the country is faced. I welcome the reference which has been to the White Paper that has been issued for it does represent some months of consideration. It was necessary when such a statement was to be issued that both sides of the industry should be carried with us, and we have done that. We have arrived at a conclusion satisfactory to both sides, who recognise that a serious situation has to be faced. Once we got that recognition it was only from that point forward that we could hope to take the necessary steps to remedy the situation. I quite agree that all the cards should be put on the table. The White Paper that has been issued is merely a prelude to the manpower budget that is coming before this House, some time this month or early next month. We hope to get a very full Debate on the general economic situation with which this country is faced, and it is from that point forward when all the facts are known—and they will cover a much wider field than the White Paper which has been issued—that we hope to get it disseminated among the masses of the people, from which we should get material results.

The other point was the reference to the under-manned industries. We are very well aware of this manpower gap, and all we could do in the White Paper that has been issued, was to get the fact recognised that some steps must be taken in any industry which was not vital to the country, and in which there was a greater proportion of the manpower force engaged than in that other section of the industry which was vital to the country, and which was undermanned. Then the question arises, how are we to get a redeployment of this manpower force? That is a problem which will have to be faced if we are to get out of our maximum difficulty. We can do that without freezing wages. I think I ought to make it clear that it is not the policy of the Government to freeze wages. There are certain industries which, in our view, must try to bring themselves into the general average of wages paid in this country. Wages, however, are not the only factor; there are welfare conditions and so on. Then we are up against the fact that when we tell some employers to improve the amenities of their industry, they say, "Give us the building trade labour to build canteens; give us equipment; let us have licences to do this and that." Of course, those things are not available so freely as we would like them to be. So hon. Members will see it is not only the question of wages but of general amenities.

Mr. Martin Lindsay (Solihull)

I notice that the Government realise that the problem of the redeployment of manpower is a problem that must be faced. Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that the Opposition have been telling the Government that for 18 months, that when the crisis comes upon the country the Government will still be facing those problems instead of having solved them?

Mr. Ness Edwards

That is a queer interpretation of what the Opposition have been telling us. At the beginning, they wanted us to get the men out of the Army; then they told us we were getting them out too quickly. Next they wanted all controls taken off—"Let them go where they like" they said—and now we are being told that we should not do that. If we had followed the policy advocated by the other side of the House, the disequilibrium of the manpower forces of this country would have been far greater than is actually the case today. Instead of building houses, we should be building cinemas. Instead of rehousing the people from the slums and those who were blitzed from their homes we should be building hotels. Instead of producing utility goods we should be producing luxury goods.

Mr. M. Lindsay

The hon. Gentleman never heard advice anything like that from this side of the House.

Mr. Ness Edwards

I am afraid that that is a definition of the policy which has come from the other side of the House. However, let us go on to the general position, which is bad enough. The question was raised of the profit margins, but that is not a question for the Ministry of Labour, and I suggest to the hon. Member for Leek that he should raise it with the appropriate Department. Then there was price control. That again is not a matter for the Ministry of Labour but for the Board of Trade, but it will be one of the subjects that can be discussed I believe in the general Manpower Debate which is to take place soon. Then reference was made to the cost of living. I am pleased to say that the first meeting of the Advisory Committee took place last week, and another meeting is to be held next week. We hope to get a report at an early date on what can be done in connection with the provision of a cost-of-living index figure and the basis of calculation.

There was one other point and that was the reference to the Employers' Federation. There is no compulsion upon workmen's associations to publish any account of their activities and I do not think we can expect to impose that upon employers. Some employers' organisations have been pulling their weight in this matter of our immediate rehabilitation. Others are perhaps doing not quite so well. We should not have publicity only for employers' organisations; trade unions should be entitled to refrain from giving publicity to their proceedings. I am afraid I have not covered all the points that have been raised. I see that my time is up. I hope that this discussion will be regarded as a preliminary run before the general Debate upon the economic situation.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Nine Minutes before Twelve o'Clock.