HC Deb 01 December 1948 vol 458 cc2137-44

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

10.43 p.m.

Colonel J. R. H. Hutchison (Glasgow, Central)

Hon. Members may be aware that there was a collection of stories entitled, "Queer Short Stories by Well-known Authors," and when I have related the story I am about to tell of the bing at Bellshill, I think the House will agree that it should be added to that anthology. For the benefit of those hon. Members who do not know what a bing is, and who have the misfortune to have been born south of the Tweed, I would explain that a bing is a collection of refuse products from a mine piled in an unsightly heap, and incorrectly known by residents of England as a slag heap. These bings are situated all over the industrial belt in the centre of Scotland, and unsightly things they are. Furthermore, in case we are told tonight they ought never to have been there, I would say that the National Coal Board are actually creating bings at the present time.

The local authorities in Lanarkshire, anxious to improve amenities at Bells-hill, decided they would try to convert some of these bings into different shapes, smoothing them out into terraces and ramps, and I use that word "ramp" in the sense of an incline and not in its colloquial and less pleasant sense, and upon which terraces sport of various kinds, and football, might be played. Consequently they called for tenders for the purpose of getting this work done and the tenders were eventually narrowed to two, one submitted by a firm by the name of Mapco, of Glasgow, and another by a firm called Ritchie and Co., of Cambuslang. The first concern quoted some £17,000 for the work, and the second quoted some £53,000, or at any rate these were the figures which the Minister gave to me as the amount of the grant necessary for carrying out this work. One would not have thought that there was a large problem to resolve here—about £36,000 of money to be saved. Apparently, however, it caused doubts in the minds of the Board of Trade, for here the whole story takes a curious turn.

The local authority, backed I understand by the Scottish Office, recommended that the lower tender should be accepted. Someone became aware that where improvements to amenities were concerned, a grant was possible. The question was put to the Board of Trade, who have promised to pay a grant of £53,000 if the highest tender is in fact accepted. The local authority, of course, jumped at this heaven-sent solution to the problem and accepted the higher tender. They wrote to Mr. Ritchie, no doubt beginning their letter in the conventional manner "Dear Sir," these two words having an unusually accurate value in this case, and accepting his figure.

What I want to know is what are the reasons which prompted the Board of Trade to bring pressure on the local authority to carry out such a curious transaction. No doubt we shall hear from the hon. Gentleman who is to reply what these reasons were, but in the meantime certain reasons have gained wide credence in Scotland which I think I should tell him and the House. The cheaper contractor was going to use the most modern machinery—scrapers, tractors and bulldozers—and would employ 15 men on this work. Incidentally, they were going to make use, for motive power for the tractors, of pool gas—the cheapest form of motive power which exists and one which is in plentiful supply.

The two reasons which have received widespread credence are that the action was taken on the grounds that it might save dollars, and that it would give greater employment if the second and more expensive contract was accepted. The amount of pool gas which would be required in carrying out the work by Messrs. Mapco has been computed by technicians as amounting to between £400 and £450. That is the sum in dollars which is at stake. Is it conceivable that the expensive contractor could carry out the work without using any petrol or diesel oil? There is the movement of men, the inspection by his officials, and other matters. The time which this contractor would take will be 18 months compared with the six months by Mapco, and I understand it is the intention of Messrs. Ritchie to employ in certain circumstances tractors and other vehicles of this kind.

So far, therefore, as saving dollars is concerned, it is possible that we may lose over this, and putting it on the most favourable terms, the estimate is £400 to be saved in dollars at a cost of £36,000 to the taxpayer. I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman who is to reply, to answer specifically this point: Is there a ban in the contract of Messrs. Ritchie on employing vehicles using petrol or diesel oil? Are they precluded from so doing?

The second point is on the number of men to be employed. As I have said, Mapco will employ 15 men, will take one-third of the time and at a cost of one-third of the money. They could remove three bings for the same cost as Messrs. Ritchie are going to charge the country for the removal of one. So it is a question of 45 men of Mapco's against, I am told, some 200 who are likely to be employed in doing this work by means of picks and shovels and hand barrows with Messrs. Ritchie. Here, again, I ask the Minister to tell me categorically whether there is anything in the contract which says that Ritchie's shall employ a specific number of men, because if it is not in the contract, it is very much in his interest not to employ 200 men but to employ a lesser number and use more modern implements and thereby save money and increase his own profits.

But even if it is a question of a contrast between 40 and 200 "Bing Boys," this is a most extraordinary economic philosophy. Is there no work in the neighbourhood to which these men can be usefully put? What about road repairing? What about digging ditches for the pipes which will ultimately convey the gas from the local coke ovens, which is at present wasted and is badly needed? Are we to understand that these 170 or so men cannot be persuaded to enter any of the under-manned industries, such as agriculture or mining, about which we hear so much? This is really a most extraordinary new economic policy. How on earth can it square with the exhortations of Ministers, and notably those of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to modernise ourselves, and to carry out our work with the most modern tools and methods? Let me read to the House some words out of the first Report of the Anglo-American Council on Productivity: Every possible measure should be taken by both industrial managements and the Government not merely to maintain the present level of mechanisation, but also to increase it by means of the most modern tools available to British workers. How far has the Minister departed from this advice and the advice of his own Government? In Russia he would be held up and quoted as a "diabolical deviationist." At Bellshill the most modern tools have been set aside. The most modern tools to be used upon this work are hand barrows, buckets and shovels. If the Government were being logical, in wanting to accomplish the thing in this way, why do not they say that the men must do the work with teaspoons and children's buckets?

I cannot altogether blame the local authority in this matter. They have done nothing, but stand to gain. The rates will contribute nothing. The Unemployment Fund, which incidentally must be standing with a very big sum to its credit, will have nothing to pay. The taxpayer will once again be called upon to finance this task carried out in the craziest way which could be conceived by a Government Department. I can only think that the Minister must have been under so much pressure at the time this was being considered that he had no time to think at all, and I and my country, who are considerably interested in this matter, will listen with interest to his explanation and particularly to the two answers to the specific questions I have put to him.

10.54 p.m.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and Kinross, Perth)

I would like briefly to support my hon. and gallant Friend. He has put the case in regard to this most astonishing frolic—I think we can call it that very fairly—and he has asked specific questions to which I hope the Minister will reply. There is a very considerable amount of disturbance in the public mind in Scotland about this particular case, and it is far more widespread, I fancy, than the Minister perhaps realises. I hope his reply may allay these anxieties. On the other hand, it may make them worse.

There is one point I have heard mentioned in my part of the country; it is that there is a determined effort by the Government to employ these extra men in this way only to camouflage possible unemployment. I am not for one moment saying that that is the case, but I am claiming that it is widely said in public in many parts of Scotland today, and I hope we shall have a specific assurance that it is not the case. If we get that assurance, we shall get a clear statement of the real reason for this nonsense.

10.56 p.m.

Mr. McAllister (Rutherglen)

I think that I would agree with the hon. and gallant Gentlemen who have spoken that there is at least cause for some concern in this matter. On the other hand, I think that the hon. and gallant Member for Central Glasgow (Colonel Hutchison) might have given the Board of Trade a little credit for having started the formidable operation of removing the Lanarkshire bings. After all, that was a measure which awaited action for a very long time. There is the example of the Motherwell housing estate which has arisen where a bing used to be. There is, therefore, a lot to be said for the Government's initiative in this matter.

Nevertheless, I think perhaps this is not the right way to go about it, and that the case here will be difficult to justify. I should like to ask my hon. Friend to get the Government to reconsider the matter and come to a decision more in line with public sentiment in Lanarkshire itself. Bellshill is still an area of considerable unemployment. It was left derelict, and unemployment was occasioned when Stewart and Lloyd's left. There are many industrial casualties in need of rehabilitation before they can usefully work for the community in ordinary industry. No doubt the Board of Trade had something of that kind in mind, but I am not sure that the best method has been adopted. I hope my hon. Friend will be able to tell us that a different decision will be taken.

10.58 p.m.

The Secretary for Overseas Trade (Mr. Bottomley)

I think the hon. and gallant Member for Central Glasgow (Colonel Hutchison) rightly said that he wants an explanation, and I shall endeavour to give to his satisfaction the reason we came to the decision to use what might appear at first to be the wrong method of clearing this derelict slag heap—[HON. MEMBERS: "Bing."]—known as a bing in Scotland. I think that the hon. and gallant Member knows that under the Distribution of Industry Act it is necessary to give some consideration to clearing derelict sites in order that we may provide amenities. The Act lays down that that clearance may be carried out by the local authorities with the help of grants from the Board of Trade. I am sure we are all agreed that the clearance of sites for amenity purposes is a desirable object.

In July, 1946, we found we were in difficulties in the matter of the mechanical equipment which was necessary for doing much work of this kind, and a decision had to be reached which laid down that only important factory sites should be cleared by mechanical means in the first place, and if, after this, mechanical apparatus was still available, it could be used in other directions. In the case of this area there was some unemployment, just as there was unemployment in other Development Areas, and it was thought that while saving mechanical equipment we could also do a dual job by using the available unemployed. Therefore, we told the local authorities that in the case of clearing derelict sites for amenity purposes they should call for two tenders, one for the work to be done by mechanical means, and the other for it to be done by manual labour.

In April, 1948, the Lanarkshire County Council said they had this colliery bing which covered an area of roughly 17¾ acres which they wanted to clear for the improvement of amenities, and in due course for the development of a housing scheme. We asked them to call for the two tenders, and the figures for these which I have and the ones given by the hon. and gallant Gentleman show no great disparity. The lowest tender for mechanical clearance was £19,319, and the lowest for the manual method £53,000. It was anticipated that by using manual methods 170 men would be employed over a period of nine months, and I think hon. Members must agree that it would be much better to employ these men rather than leave them doing nothing. Also, we were short of mechanical equipment.

The point has been made that we wanted to save dollars. Yes, we do not want to buy machinery from the United States if we can avoid it. We have got some machinery from the United States—for instance, excavators and industrial crawler tractors—but we have now in- creased home production. Army surplus stores have been released, too, and these machines also help to improve the position. Therefore, we feel that in all the circumstances it is now possible to meet the hon. and gallant Gentleman's requirements by releasing some of that mechanical equipment for employment on this site. In all the circumstances, in that democratic way in which we carry out our proceedings in the House of Commons, I can say that the Government will see to it that assistance will be given to have sites cleared by mechanical means.

Lord John Hope (Midlothian and Peebles, Northern)

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us before he sits down whether the Government are always going to decide for the more expensive and non-mechanical means, and if that is so, what is the use of asking for two tenders in such cases?

Mr. Baldwin (Leominster)

What is the value per acre of this land, because it is costing £3,000 an acre to level?

Mr. Bottomley

I could not give an answer to the last question, but obviously it is desirable work, otherwise the Lanarkshire County Council and the Government would not support it. In regard to the first question about inviting tenders, it is still necessary to invite two tenders until we are assured that there is sufficient mechanical equipment and that the labour position in the district is such that it does not warrant the work being done by manual labour rather than by mechanical means.

Sir Wavell Wakefield (St. Marylebone)

Could the hon. Gentleman tell us what is the labour position in the district? Is it not possible that more useful work in farming or mining, to mention but two industries, could be found for these men? Does the hon. Gentleman mean by his reply, when he says that now mechanical equipment is to be used, that the unemployment position has eased there, and that some of these men will be used for jobs which are urgently needing to be done at the present time? Could we have an indication of what the position is.

Mr. Bottomley

At present I have not the Ministry of Labour figures with me so I cannot answer that question precisely.

11.3 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot (Scottish Universities)

It is quite clear that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Central Glasgow (Colonel Hutchison) has done a very useful task this evening by securing the concession which the Minister has just announced. I think it is pity that we had to wait until this question was raised before we extracted this concession from him. I trust that in future it will be possible to give these concessions with more speed and rapidity, and that it will also be possible for the hon. Gentleman to confirm the estimates of what mechanical appliances are available, so that it will not be necessary for these two tenders to be asked for in cases where mechanical appliances are available. This Debate tonight shows very clearly the value of the representations made by my hon. and gallant Friends and I can only congratulate them on the great success of their effort in such a very short time.

Adjourned accordingly at Five Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.