HC Deb 11 February 1947 vol 433 cc325-36

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

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge (Bedford)

I am very glad that the Minister of Labour himself has come along to reply to this Debate, and I wish more time had been available to deal with the subject on which I wish to speak tonight. In the course of his recent statement to the House, my right hon. Friend stated that, so far, only about 2,000 of the 142,000 Poles still in this country have been placed in civilian employment. It was because I and many other hon. Members on this side of the House considered that, in present circumstances, this was extremely unsatisfactory, that I gave notice I would raise the matter again. There is, of course, no short cut to the rapid absorption of any large number of foreigners, whatever their nationality, into our national life. I do feel, however, that much more might already have been done to speed up the elaborate machinery which has been set up for this purpose in relation to the Poles, for whom we have, in some quarters willingly and in some quarters reluctantly, accepted a responsibility.

Let me briefly give the House the background facts as they are known to me. The Poles in our midst—of whom roughly two-thirds were Allies, in the full sense, all through the war—at present have three courses of action open to them. Firstly, they can, as one recently put it to me, "take a chance" and return to Poland; secondly, they can volunteer for and join the Resettlement Corps; or, thirdly, they can play a game of "wait and see," which is linked in some cases with a looked and longed for chance to emigrate. Some 20,000 of these Poles have already opted to return to Poland; and more among the doubters, I feel, might do so if more impartial news of those who have gone back to Poland were readily available. Encouragement from Warsaw would, I think, help here. In the second category I have mentioned there are about 58,000 men. The remainder of the Poles in this country have still to make up their minds about their future. There is evidence that among the officer class in particular there is a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, which I think is a not unnatural thing. But this I suggest should be very carefully watched, if only because the high proportion of men in commissioned rank enables them to exert a more than usual influence on their comrades. I have reason to think that in some cases the prospect of becoming mere alien civilians themselves, if they lose their flunkies, has at least led to discouraging enrolment in the Resettlement Corps, and to the preference of so many Poles for what can only be called a "no man's land" status. There is also some influence, which I believe actually to be quite small, which seeks to discourage men from going back to Poland.

All this, of course, is more a matter for the Secretary of State for War than for my right hon. Friend. But it has relevance to this Debate, I think, because it is important that my right hon. Friend should know at the very earliest moment just how many men out of the grand total are actually available to him as a permanent labour force in this country. The sooner the doubters and those who are hesitant make up their minds, or can be persuaded to make up their minds, the easier will be the Minister's task. Far from discouraging it, the controlled influx of foreigners into our labour market should be very much pressed on with as one of the best, and possibly the only means open to us of surmounting our present economic difficulties. And in the Poles already here lies a ready to hand labour force which should, as soon as possible, be supplemented by displaced persons in Europe, the bulk of whom, of course, are the fellow countrymen of the Poles among us.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able tonight to give me an assurance that he will use all his influence to see that the screening, sorting, and making-up-their-minds process, as applied to all Poles in this country, is greatly speeded up. It was on 22nd May, 1946, that the Foreign Secretary announced the formation of the Resettlement Corps. Yet, to give just one example of inactivity, it is only in recent weeks that any attempted enrolment to that Corps has been begun of the 8000 members of the Polish Forces in the North-West Region of the Ministry of Labour. An accurate classification of those opting for the Resettlement Corps is the next urgent step, and this, I am told, has been hanging fire in various parts of the country. Other problems thenceforward facing the Minister lie in such direction as finding jobs for the volunteers, fixing them up with accommodation, and so on.

The undesirability of using these Poles as gang labour should be obvious to everyone in the House; and this, of course, means that they must be absorbed individually. It is not, I feel, detracting in any way from their courageous bearing, and their bravery in the war, to say that they are not the easiest people to acclimatize to our British way of life. The mental atmosphere of medieval romanticism in which they often appear to dwell, makes them psychologically difficult. We must, however—and this is perfectly clear —honour the responsibility that we have assumed; and it is, of course, quite true that they are good and very hard workers. An hon. Member on this side of the House talked to me this afternoon about the magnificent work which the Polish Forces have done in Lancashire during the past week in clearing snow from the Lancashire to Yorkshire main line railway. He said, "I do hope you will mention this, as evidence of the fact that they are prepared, when given the chance, to get down to a job."

The Minister must, I feel, go all out in getting these men into jobs, for the manpower gap, in coalmining, especially, in spinning and in foundry work is becoming enormous. It will soon—and very soon—exist in agriculture, and in such things as brickmaking, both of which are so notably represented, incidentally, in my own constituency. I ask the Minister tonight to use all his influence with the Trades Unions, so as to ensure that the new realism of the more far-sighted leaders about this foreign labour question permeates to every branch of the rank and file, and removes what is, in our present plight, an absurdly conservative approach to some of these labour questions. It is right, of course, to insist that no foreign workers shall become a cheap labour force, impeding improvements for our own people, or threatening unemployment; and there must, again, be safeguards against the Poles, or anyone else, forming any enclave or cell in our national life.

But it would do good and not harm if that anti-foreigner complex and the nationalistic and illiberal outlook, which still seems to haunt the Home Office in their attitude to would-be immigrants, were once and for all cut out. Manpower, in the lower age groups of our own people, is bound to shrink for some years ahead, and because of that, we can do with all the physical help we can lay our hands on. In addition to those already here, it is pertinent to point out that there are some 380,000 Poles, many with first-class industrial and agricultural experience, waiting to be used who are now sitting in idleness in the British and American zones of Germany. This huge labour pool should be tapped, and should be tapped quickly, before other countries like Belgium, which are already awake to this situation, steal a march on us. The Poles already over here should be removed at the earliest moment from a military atmosphere. This, I recognise, depends very largely on the speed with which my right hon. Friend presses on with their absorption into civilian life. It is obvious that in the interests of morale, efficiency and discipline the present arrangement cannot he changed over night, but it would help our relations with the Warsaw Government—and I am one who wants to see those relations very much improved—if the difficulties accounting for the present situation were more carefully explained than they have been.

Finally, I want to ask the Minister to give me an undertaking tonight to make a regular progress report to this House. I even hope that he may be able to offer some encouragement about the actual placing here and now, in view of the miserable figures which he gave us on 28th January as far as those who are actually engaged in civilian occupations in this country are concerned. I recognise that the difficulties in connection with this problem are very considerable, but they are there to be faced, and they are there to be overcome, and they will only be overcome by the development of a long overdue spirit of drive and urgency in tackling them. We cannot possibly afford any longer to keep a costly contingent of Poles in our midst, either in voluntary or in enforced idleness, and the sooner the Government push on with their absorption into useful activities, the better it will be for all concerned.

10.59 p.m.

The Minister of Labour (Mr. Isaacs)

I welcome the opportunity of giving some further information upon the question which has been raised by my hon. Friend, the Member for Bedford (Mr. SkeffingtonLodge). May I first express my appreciation of the spirit in which he has brought the matter forward and given the facts? I hope to be able to give him most of the information for which he has asked, and I hope I may be able to give the assurance and the undertaking lie desires. He, quite rightly, said that there is no short cut to the employment of Poles. We found that in endeavouring to tackle this problem. I repeat what I said the other day, that the principle of accepting them and placing them is fully accepted, but it is a question of machinery and ways and means?

There is a widespread impression that because there is a labour shortage and because there are 140,000 Poles available, it is simply a question of putting them into jobs which are vacant. I do not want to use the analogy of square pegs in round holes, because someone might ask if the pegs were Poles. First, we have to make sure that we are putting willing men into suitable jobs. It is no use just getting hold of a bunch of these fellows and shovelling them into jobs. They are human beings, men of a fine type. I took the opportunity, a few days ago, to go into one of the camps to see the screening at work, and the selection of these men for employment. I saw clean, healthy, decent men who have been through the fire of war side by side with our men, or, if not that, have been in our Armies. Once they got into our workshops with our British workers I am sure that the first antipathy of our working men to them would melt away once they realised that these Poles are, after all, human beings. Once we get the scheme started these men will, I am sure, be welcomed and received wholeheartedly. But we are anxious not to rush on, and upset things by being too hasty. Our aim has been to find the suitable job for the suitable man, to ensure that he will be able to carry on without opposition. If we make a mess of things in the beginning we shall create problems which will make absorption more difficult. The movement up to now has, I admit, been slow, slower than we would have hoped. We badly want to get these men at work. Not only that, but we want them to be earning their keep, instead of being kept at the expense of the State. It is a piece of two-way traffic that will help in both directions.

We are trying to place the maximum number of these men into work as civilians, and the minimum number into uniform, to work in gangs. We want them to get out of uniform, out of the military atmosphere. We do not want them to settle down in any kind of employment where they are engaged under any kind of semi-military control. We want them to be under the orders and directions of foremen and overseers, and not sergeants, sergeant-majors, or commissioned officers. We must remember that these men are being treated, in this scheme, as free agents. We want them to be placed as volunteers, because we all remember the old saying about a free man being better than a pressed man. We want them to come in willingly. The fact that they have been enrolled in a corps means that they are willing to come in as free men. This makes the placing of these men a little different from placing prisoners-of-war. If we wanted to send a gang of prisoners-of-war to clear a road, or anything of that kind, we could order them to do the job. But we do not want to treat the Poles like that. We want them to come in as volunteers.

Another big problem is the fact that a high proportion of these Poles do not speak English. For most of our occupations, a knowledge of our language is essential. Instructions have to be given to these men, and if we want to use them on the skilled work which many are capable of performing it is essential that they should understand the instructions, and be able to read the directions, which are given to them. It will be easier to hesitate a little, and teach the Poles English than to try to teach their instructors the Polish language. If we added that to the burden of our instructors and overseers we should find ourselves in great difficulties.

The next point upon which my hon. Friend touched was the necessity of obtaining co-operation. It has been a matter of obtaining co-operation not only with the trades unions but also with the employers. In addition to the agreement of the trade union to the employment of the Pole and of the British workman to work with him, we have had to get the employers to agree to have him. In the beginning we attempted to achieve this co-operation by means of the various Departments of the Government handling their own particular sections. The Ministry of Fuel dealt with the coal mines, the Ministry of Supply with their industries, the Ministry of Agriculture with theirs, and so on. Very soon, however, we came up against the peculiar difficulty that each of the industries concerned gained the impression that that they would be required to take all the Poles, or very nearly all, and each of them said, "Before we make up our minds, let us see what the other fellows are going to do." At that point it was decided to place the matter in the hands of the Ministry of Labour, and we proceeded by meeting the Joint Councils of the industries. Here I should like to inform the House that at the outset the National Joint Advisory Council, which consists of representatives of the British T.U.C. and the Federation of Employers organisation, very readily and willingly agreed to the principle of the employment of Poles. Thus, right at the top, we had encouragement to continue our efforts. Then we had to get down to the industries.

We have done so, and we have found a very ready acceptance of our proposals and a desire to help. I can therefore assure my hon. Friend that the influence he has asked me to use with the trades unions has already been exercised. I have had many years' experience in the trade union movement and I am happy to say that we are receiving very cordial co-operation from that quarter. If hon. Members will read an article published in the current issue of a T.U.C. organ called "Labour" they will find there a very clear indication of the desire that this work should be continued. The industries with which we have had successful negotiations so far are agriculture, coal mining, building and civil engineering, gas, retail bespoke tailoring and parts of the iron and steel industry. They have all agreed to take men. The next thing is to arrange when and where they shall take them, and other details.

Some of the Poles who have registered for those industries have said that they have skill in a particular occupation, but here we have found ourselves up against the question of what really was their trade. In the centre which I inspected I found that a great number of these men were registering themselves as "locksmiths." It began to be somewhat surprising to find that there were so many locksmiths until we discovered that the term "locksmith" was synonymous to the Poles with the term "engineering" in this country, and that when a man spoke of himself as a "locksmith" he really meant what we mean by "engineer." That was one of the problems, and although we overcame it it shows that if we are to ask a firm to take a man who describes himself as a certain type of craftsman we must be satisfed that he is in fact what he says. We should probably kill this scheme if, when an em- ployer asked for half a dozen engineers, the men we sent to him turned out to be nothing of the kind. He would be likely to send them back and to say, "If that is the kind of men you are going to send me I do not want any more." That is another reason for going steadily in this matter. If men were sent back in such a case we should have to return them to the resettlement corps, and as soon as we did that they would dishearten other men who had not yet come out.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, Southern)

Surely the Minister is not suggesting that as a formidable difficulty. Is it not simply a question of reference to a dictionary to discover exactly what the men are?

Mr. Isaacs

No. It has to be understood that these people are speaking their own language, which has to be interpreted to our officer who is registering their particular kind of work. When we became used to the synonymous terms to which I have already referred, and we asked one man who said he was a locksmith if he did not really mean "engineer," he pointed to a lock and made it perfectly clear that he meant what he said. In that particular case the man was in fact a locksmith. I merely mention this to show that you cannot just get these men from the Resettlement Corps, put them in a wheelbarrow and take them off to a job. We have to know what we are doing. In coal mining, training is essential; there must be training before the men are put into jobs. Then there is the other problem, that they must have some knowledge of English before they can assimilate training; that is another problem that crops up. But I want to make it clear that the major obstacle is accommodation. As time is short, perhaps the House will permit me to make a brief statement rather than amplify it. Housing is very short in all areas; the alternative accommodation is in camps, but that is not so easy as it sounds. The Army and the Air Force are quite willing to give us camps, but many of our camps are built in very remote parts of the country for safety reasons, away from the centres of industry, and when we get the camps many of them are so far away that it is very difficult to get the men to the jobs

Mr. Peake (Leeds, North)

Are there not, all over the country and especially in the coalfields, the hostels built by the right hon. Gentleman's Ministry during the war for the accommodation of trainees for the coal and other industries?

Mr. Isaacs

Yes, but perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will not mind my saying that at that moment I had departed from coal; I do not think there is as great a problem so far as coal is concerned as there is for the vast number of other industries. If the House will permit me, I will show where we are getting to in this. The camps raise other difficulties well, for when we have the camps we have to have somebody to run them; what we are hoping to do is to put in them the Poles who have wives with them, and so arrange things that the wives will he able to take over the running of the camps so that we shall not have to draw on other British labour for this purpose. These administrative difficulties are being overcome.

Now as to progress. The number of enrolments in the Resettlement Corps is now 62,000 and it is hoped that enrolment will be completed in the first quarter of this year. They have to be screened to find out whether in fact they are Fascists or not; they have to be enrolled in the Corps and then we step in and register them for employment. Skilled employment officers see them and find out their capacities and then go about finding places for them. I can report an improvement; it is not a very big figure in itself but it is an improvement; placings have now reached 3,200—that is 1,200 up on last week, but of course it is only a small number. We are however confident of accelerating that rate of placings. We have already planned, and have arrangements to place many hundreds—I would not like to give an exact figure—in the immediate future in the brickmaking industry, in building materials. forestry, and road schemes. Other vacancies are already earmarked, as soon as we can get the right types, in tin-mining, cotton, iron-stone mining, building and civil engineering, various sections of the iron and steel industry, and agriculture. These vacancies are immediate. and will be filled as soon as the fuel difficulties have been overcome. Many of these industries are fuel-using industries and as soon as we can get that moving these men will be available and will he placed.

Arrangements for the first batch to go into training for the coalmining industry are now going forward. It is hoped that we can arrange for an intake of 300 a week for the coalmining industry. Time does not permit me to go much further, but I said I would give an undertaking to the House. I have given an undertaking that the screening machinery will be proceeded with rapidly, and I can give the undertaking asked for that I will make a periodical report. At the, moment I think it could be a monthly report, and I think I can make it as from the end of the current month. I will keep the House fully informed of exactly what steps are being taken, the progress that is being made, and any difficulties that have arisen. I hope in that very brief sketch, I have been able to draw attention to the human problem that exists here, and to assure the House that it is the Government's intention to make use of the greatest number of these men that can possibly be used.

11.14 p.m.

Mrs. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)

There is just one further assurance that I would like to have from the Minister. I hat is that, in no circumstance, will Poles be put in competition with unemployed British people asking for work.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Order made upon 13th November.

Adjourned at a Quarter-past Eleven o'Clock.