HC Deb 13 February 1948 vol 447 cc768-92

2.45 p.m.

Mr. Marples (Wallasey)

I wish to discuss the question of the future of apprentices in the building industry. This is being raised for two reasons, firstly, for the future of the apprentices themselves and secondly because the industry cannot survive unless there is an adequate flow of apprentices into it. There is a great danger apprentices may leave the industry. Apprentices are apprenticed to the industry, normally speaking, for five years, probably between the ages of 15 and 20 or 16 and 21. That is an age when they can imitate and learn. It would be useless to train an apprentice later than that age. If he leaves the industry, because there is no work for him, he will not learn another trade but will become just another unskilled labourer. That would be disastrous.

At the present moment the industry is composed of craftsmen, some of whom are rather elderly. No apprentices came into the industry during the war years or, at all events, only a few, so there have been something like eight or nine years with no flow of apprentices coming out as craftsmen. I am in the industry myself and I want to issue a solemn warning from my own experience. Unless this Government use their immense powers wisely, in order to really train apprentices, there will not be sufficient craftsmen, from 1950 onwards, to build the houses which the country requires. I would pay a tribute to the Ministry of Works, which has been reasonable in most building matters and co-operates with the industry to the best of its ability. Nevertheless, the Government, and the public, must be warned that, unless this apprenticeship problem is solved there will never be the houses that are required, and some people will be forced to continue to live in squalor. Large numbers are living in appalling conditions and may have to continue to do so.

Now I want to deal with arrangements made in the past for apprentices. The whole of the information about apprentices is contained in three reports of the Building Apprenticeship and Training Council. The first was issued in December, 1943, the second in December, 1944, and the last one in December, 1946. Those three reports were issued by the Council under the Chairmanship of Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve. The Council consisted of representatives of employers and operatives, together with representatives of professional institutions and of the Government Departments. I think a sincere tribute should be paid to the Chairman for the excellence of his chairmanship, and for the three superb reports produced.

An analysis of the three reports shows certain conclusions were reached. Let me take first, the number of apprentices needed. The trade required 625,000 craftsmen, and their average age would be between 16 and 24. The wastage of those craftsmen each year was in the nature of 4 per cent., which meant that wastage must be replaced by apprentices. Four per cent. of 625,000 amounts to 25,000. This is the wastage. Therefore 25,000 apprentices are needed in a year just to maintain the present number of craftsmen in the industry. Having reached that conclusion, the report laid down three schemes whereby apprentices were to be recruited.

The first one was the Apprentice-Masters scheme, the second was the ordinary method of indenturing people to contractors, and the third was the vocational training scheme of the Ministry of Labour. The Apprentice-Masters scheme was a scheme whereby houses were to be built, not for the primary purpose of providing houses, but for the purpose of training apprentices. Providing houses was secondary to the consideration of training apprentices. The main object was to train apprentices. In order to do this they had one craftsman to six or 12 boys, dependent on the particular type of training. Under ordinary indentures there are four craftsmen and one apprentice; but under the apprentice-master scheme there is one craftsman and anything between six and 12 apprentices. Obviously, such houses cost a great deal more. At that youthful age, the boys do not work quite as fast as they might do. They are not unnaturally thinking more of other things, such as cinemas and girl friends. The excess cost of these houses was to be paid by the Ministry of Works who would recoup the money from the Treasury. That scheme was designed to take in 10,000 apprentices and it was to be financed by the Treasury.

The second main method of recruiting apprentices is ordinary recruitment, whereby firms of contractors sign an indenture with apprentices for five years. The Council seemed worried about this method in present circumstances. It said that employers would not take apprentices unless they knew that they had sufficient work ahead. So this formed one of the recommendations of the Building Apprenticeship Training Council. They wanted a guarantee of sufficient work. They also said that the proportion of apprentices to craftsmen should be increased immediately after the war in order to help the scheme. They made two recommendations. The first, to the Ministry of Works, was that any licences granted should impose a condition that the person building should employ a certain number of apprentices. That was to be incorporated in the licence as a condition to encourage the employment of apprentices. Has that suggestion been carried out? I am sorry that I did not give notice of this question, but I would like the Minister to say whether the Ministry have issued licences with a condition that employers should employ a certain number of apprentices.

The third main scheme suggested by the Council was the very expensive vocational training scheme whereby the Ministry of Labour had 83 centres. From 2nd July, 1945, to 17th November, 1947, something like 50,000 men from the Forces were trained. While the Ministry is to be praised for training these men and giving them every chance, I. think that this scheme will prove, in the end, to have been very costly. As I will show, these men, after having been trained, are not able to find work and they are leaving the industry.

What is happening to these three admirable schemes? Under the Apprentice-Master scheme in London alone there are 513 apprentices employed on 23 schemes. Some of these schemes have been delayed because the Treasury have prolonged the negotiations in regard to the granting of money. What will happen to these apprentices when the work is closed down while the long negotiations go on between different Government Departments? Recently I brought to the attention of the Ministry of Works a case of delay in my own constituency, and the right hon. Gentleman acted fairly quickly. Even then, there had been a delay of almost three months during which time the apprentices were out of work. One cannot keep a boy of 18 or 19 out of work for three months and still hope that he will remain in the building trade.

The first reason why the Apprentice-Master scheme may break down in practice is because the Treasury will not pay the excess costs which they agreed to provide quickly enough. I want to know how the negotiations are proceeding now. Is the Treasury paying the excess cost—because these are costly houses—or is it going to abandon the scheme and let the men go to some other industry? I must express my astonishment at the reply which the Minister of Works gave to a Question in this House last Monday. In reply to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland), the right hon. Gentleman said that he had no information of any serious matter arising in respect of lack of work for apprentices. He added: … the number of apprentices so far have been below the number necessary to maintain the numbers in the industry."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th Feb., 1948; Vol. 447, c. 8.] I want to show that the Minister has got hold of wrong information. At the moment employers are not able to find sufficient work for apprentices. I will give three specific examples. In the first example I must declare that I have an interest in a building firm. My firm has 40 apprentices. On one site, we have 10 apprentices in a total labour force of 18. The apprentices do not learn very much from the craftsmen when the proportion is like that. On another site, we have seven apprentices out of a total labour force of 12 men. These 40 apprentices will find, in the near future, that they have not sufficient work to do. By the end of this month about 35 of them will have no building work in London so that they cannot be taught their trade. What is an employer to do with those 35 men if he has no work for them?

It must be borne in mind that the indentures are signed for five years and can only be broken by going to a committee and giving reasons. As far as I can see, a firm has two alternatives. The first is to break the indentures. In that case an apprentice may have done three years apprenticeship and then be thrown out of work. He will be on the streets and eventually he will become an unskilled labourer. If the Parliamentary Secretary thinks that these boys will go into agriculture, or something like that he is mistaken. They will not go into another trade. The second alternative is to pay out £100 a week in wages for these apprentices for a year or so during which time they will do no work and get no training.

I assure the Parliamentary Secretary that this situation has arisen, and if he wishes I will send him details. What am I to do as the employer of 35 apprentices for whom I cannot find work? It is not unreasonable to ask the hon. Gentleman to answer that question. A number of economists consider that building labour is mobile: it is not. Building labour is about the most fixed labour in the country, with the possible exception of agricultural labour. To provide work for these London apprentices we offered accommodation at Brighton—a desirable seaside resort where many excellent conferences take place—to the 40 apprentices. At Brighton they would have been able to have excellent technical training. Only two of the 40 boys volunteered to leave home. The other 38 would not budge an inch. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that he can move building labour about the country he is very much mistaken. That is my first example of where the Ministry of Works is wrong in its ideas that there is plenty of work for apprentices.

The second example concerns a constituent who asked my advice last Saturday. He is a youth of 22. His history is that in 1940 at the age of 15 he was apprenticed as a bricklayer. In 1943, aged 18, after three years in the trade, he was called up to the Army. In August, 1947, aged 22, he was demobilised. So in 1947 he still had to serve two years of his apprenticeship. Since August, 1947, until now, that man has worked for only eight weeks in the building trade. He has been unemployed for the rest of the time, and he came to me for advice last Saturday, asking what he should do. He asked, "Shall I go to sea, or stay in the building industry?" He has had three years' training, and has only two more years to go. It is no use the Minister of Works saying that the trade is not finding a difficulty in finding work for apprentices at present; it certainly is, and particularly on Merseyside. This boy wrote to the Ministry of Labour and to his union, and, so far, has received only one acknowledgment. I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary if I may send him the details of that case, and if he will look into it, so that we may be able to give proper advice to these young boys in order that they might not be lost to the industry?

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Durbin)

indicated assent

Mr. Marples

The third example where the right hon. Gentleman is wrong is this. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland) has passed on to me a thick file of papers, one of which is a letter from the Skegness and District Building Apprenticeship Training Council, to which I have already referred. In the first paragraph of that letter, dated 19th December, they say that this question of apprenticeship was raised because of the inability of a number of local builders to find work for their indentured apprentices, consequent upon the restrictions placed on the building industry and the limitation of licences, both for new building and repairs. Another concrete example from the Eastern Counties.

I claim to have given to the Parliamentary Secretary three specific examples to show that the right hon. Gentleman is wrong. I am now going to ask a series of questions, of which I gave notice to the Parliamentary Secretary last evening, and, perhaps, I should apologise for the shortness of that notice. First, what number of craftsmen does the Minister anticipate will be employed in the industry in the next five years? In other words, what is the figure of craftsmen in the building industry that the Ministry wants? Secondly, what will be the number of apprentices required to maintain that figure? It is no use having a building force of 500,000 craftsmen unless it is constantly replenished by young people at one end to replace the ageing craftsmen who retire at the other.

Thirdly, will the Minister be able to recruit that number, and, what is more important than recruiting them, will he be able to keep them in the industry and turn them out as craftsmen at the end of that time? It is quite useless having 25,000 apprentices at the commencement of the five year period if we get only 5,000 craftsmen and 20,000 spivs at the other end. It is most important that the Parliamentary Secretary should assure the House that we can provide sufficient work in order to train the new entries into the industry.

Fourthly, what immediate action should employers take if they have not sufficient work for their apprentices? What is the best for the country, for the trade and for the employees themselves? These people have been encouraged to go into the building industry because of the enormous amount of work that lies ahead of it. My fifth question is this. What will be the future of the apprentices if there is no building work for them to complete their training? What is going to be done with apprentices who have served three years, and who are now 18 or 19 years of age? What is the Ministry of Labour going to do about that, and what scheme do they envisage for meeting that situation? Sixthly, I think the Committee to which I have referred has already made three reports, and is now sitting to consider the matter afresh in the light of the decision on cuts in capital expenditure. If so, when will their report be published?

Having asked these questions, I wish now to make a few suggestions to the Parliamentary Secretary which might help him in this very difficult matter. The first bunch of these are short-term suggestions, because the matter has reached such a pitch that a speedy decision is necessary at this moment, rather than waiting for the correct decision in nine months' time, when the apprentices may have disappeared. The first suggestion is that immediate help should be given to the Apprentice-Master scheme. The second is that immediate help must be given to contractors so that apprentices in the building industry who are under normal indentures shall not be lost because of lack of work.

My third suggestion is, would it not be possible for the Parliamentary Secretary to increase the limit on repairs? This limit was fixed on 1st August, 1945 at £10. Since that date, there has been a 36 per cent. rise in the cost of building materials and a 28 per cent. rise in the cost of labour. Therefore, the amount of building work that could be done for £10 on 1st August, 1945, was very much greater than can be done at the present moment. The amount of work which can be done for £10 now is infinitesimal.

Furthermore the small builders, in particular, are having a great deal of difficulty completing the necessary forms when applying for licences. The small jobbing builder is going out of business because he has not the staff with the necessary knowledge to complete the forms. That means that jobbing work is coming to contractors, such as my own firm, because they have the people to fill up the forms, although they really do not want jobbing work. The £10 limit is crippling the jobbing trade at the present time, and could well be relaxed with advantage.

So far as their long-term plans are concerned, will the Government fix a minimum building force below which, whatever happens, the industry will not be reduced, and will they make long-term plans instead of these disjointed efforts for that minimum number of craftsmen? Let them make it three quarters the number we have at the present moment, but let them fix a minimum below which it will not fall whatever happens. For heaven's sake give the industry a fixed minimum to which it can work.

My second suggestion is that, when these capital cuts take place—and it is obvious that some must take place owing to the general economic situation—the Minister should see that the first consideration is to retain in being a building force which can build after the year 1950. The first consideration in regard to capital cuts should not be whether this or that building should be built because it is socially desirable, and that this or that building should not. It is not a question of social priorities. The first consideration should be whether we can maintain the present number of apprentices, and the cuts should be made, if possible, in such a manner as to maintain a nucleus in being in the building industry.

I have spoken for a long time, and have asked a number of questions. The Parliamentary Secretary always replies very courteously to these Debates, and it would be improper if I did not congratulate his Ministry upon trying very hard to meet this difficult situation. But the building industry has been battered from pillar to post by the disjointed efforts of the Minister of Health. It lies in the power of the Minister of Health to ruin the industry in such a way that it will be useless for the next 10 years. Without care it can be smashed beyond repair within the next two years.

I wish it to go on record that I, personally, am very worried about the future. If we are not careful, the people of this country will never be housed, because we cannot have a planned boom and then a planned slump. The Minister of Health used to grumble about private enterprise and the old economic evils between the two wars, which brought boom and slump. But they are nothing to what he has done to the industry and when he comes forward with his dialectical skill and casts aspersions on the building industry, it is really adding insult to injury, because he is far more responsible than his right hon. Friend the Minister of Works for the disturbance to that industry by creating a boom and then a slump. I beg the Parliamentary Secretary to stand up to the Minister of Health. Let us have capital cuts, but let us have them so that the building industry will not be completely ruined.

3.10 p.m.

Mr. Norman Smith (Nottingham, South)

The hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) has said he is worried about the future. Maybe he is worried because, as he says, he thinks that the next Government will be formed by Members of the Opposition. I cannot agree with the hon. Member when he moans and complains about the harm my right hon. Friend may or may not be doing to his industry. His industry has done a lot of harm to me. It cannot even put in plumbing which will not make a noise. Whenever I stay in a hotel in any part of England, I find that the plumbing is such that if some one turns on a tap in one room, you hear the noise in all the others.

I was once the editor of a trade journal connected with the building industry. It had a large circulation, which it secured by making a feature of question's and answers. The editor did not answer these questions, but paid experts to do it. I saw these queries as they came in, and I was impressed by the the state of near illiteracy among craftsmen and apprentices in the building industry. I cannot help contrasting the amount of technical training that apprentices receive in the building industry as compared, for example, with the engineering industry. I found that employers of labour in the building industry were indifferent whether the boys went to, evening classes or not.

I formed the impression that it was the exception for a building trade apprentice to have anything like a long and comprehensive course, in theoretical subjects in evening classes, or, still better, in day classes during the employers' time. One would have thought that at least one day a week would have been utilised for this purpose, as is done in the case of the enlightened engineering industry. No boy should finish his apprenticeship in the building industry without having a really comprehensive knowledge of such subjects as practical mathematics. Every boy should be able to use a slide rule and logarithms just as he uses his A.B.C.

I feel that there is a gross and serious neglect in the technical training of these boys. Whose fault that is I do not know, but I place on record the conclusions I have reached from my contact with the industry. The theoretical course for every apprentice should be very wide, and should include a certain amount of art and design. It should even include subjects which hitherto have been reserved for architect students. I believe that if the Parliamentary Secretary will look into this question of apprenticeships, he will find that there has been indifference in the past on the part of the young men, and culpable indifference on the part of employers generally.

3.14 p.m.

Mr. Sparks (Acton)

I listened with interest to the remarks of the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) on the question of apprenticeships in the building industry. He appealed for a degree of stability in the labour force in the industry, and asked that the intake of apprentices be regulated so as to supply the industry in future years. I thought that he was rather inconsistent, because he subsequently alleged that the Minister of Health was likely to pursue a policy which would very seriously jeopardise the stability of the industry. I would like to remind him that the Minister of Health is pursuing a policy which will stabilise the building industry for many years to come. Already, he is stabilising the industry on the basis of 260,000 houses at present under construction, with a further 90,000 in the tender stage, and he proposes to stabilise the figure at a minimum of 140,000 dwellings per annum thereafter.

Mr. Marples

if we are to have this great stability from the Minister of Health, would the hon. Member reinforce my plea that the Minister of Works should maintain a minimum number of craftsmen and let us know what that number will be?

Mr. Sparks

As the building industry is to be stabilised at a certain minimum figure I think that will give the Minister of Works an excellent opportunity to stabilise the number of apprentices and trainees. I disagree, however, with the inference of the hon. Gentleman that the policy of the Minister of Health is likely —as, I think, he said—to destroy the proper functions of the industry in the next few years. I think the hon. Member is wrong in that conclusion, and that my right hon. Friend is laying down a basis of stability which will considerably assist the recruiting and training of apprentices in the years to come.

The hon. Member spoke of having a minimum building force, below which it should not fall. I believe that the Minister of Health is aiming towards that object and, in co-operation with the Minister of Works, will meet the hon. Gentleman's wishes in this matter. The industry is to be stabilised at a figure which is far higher than that which existed between the two wars, and I am sure the hon. Member will agree that the proposed basis of stability by the Government is a good one, and will lead to good results.

On the question of apprentices and trainees, I remember, some time ago, visiting a housing scheme, where I was surprised to find that a number of trainees had left the job because they found that older craftsmen had not appeared to be willing to teach and show them their job. I do not know whether they were afraid that the younger trainees would be likely to reduce their status, or endanger their standards of wages and employment, but it was most regrettable to find that this had occurred at a time when the industry was in need of the maximum number of men that it could obtain. I appeal to those engaged in the industry to extend a welcome hand to apprentices and trainees who are trying to pick up the essentials of their craft.

It is most important that young men should be encouraged to take the place of the older men as they leave the industry. The only way in which that can be done is by better co-operation between the older men and the younger men who are trying to pick up the threads of their job. I have a great respect for the knowledge which the hon. Member for Wallasey has of the building industry—it is based on practical experience—but he rather spoils it by introducing political prejudice towards the Minister of Health.

Mr. Marples

I suggested that the Minister of Health has it in his power to ruin the industry.

Mr. Sparks

I am glad that qualification is made, but the mere fact that the hon. Gentleman mentioned it appears to indicate to me that he thought the Minister of Health would exercise that power in a way detrimental to the industry. I do not believe that he will. He would be a very foolish Minister if he did. I think that the Minister's policy must be to encourage the development of the industry, if only to prove his success in solving the housing problem. He would be very unwise to follow any policy which would be likely to jeopardise the future of the industry. I think the hon. Gentleman's fears in this respect are unfounded, and he will find that, eventually, the Minister's policy will contribute very considerably to the stabilisation of the industry and to putting it upon the basis that we all want. I am sure that, as the result of the course the Minister is now pursuing with regard to the stabilisation of the industry, in a few years it will contribute much more effectively to the solution of our housing problem than it has been able to do for many years.

3.22 p.m.

Mr. House (St. Pancras, North)

I would like to deal with the charge made by the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) that the present Minister of Health has done as much to damage the building industry as almost any other person. I think that is a very unfair and unfounded statement; it is a prejudiced statement. The hon. Gentleman should know better than that with his experience of the building industry, which is moving along much more harmoniously than during the inter-war years. I need mention only, for example, that the Government have built since the war some 300,000 dwellings of all kinds as against 15,000 of a comparable type following the first world war. That is 20 times more production than was obtained under similar conditions under a Tory Government. That production has been carried through under the most extreme difficulties—the difficulties of the economic situation of the country, of labour and of materials. One should not let that pass through ones mind glibly, because in the period that has passed since the last world war, practically the whole world, apart from America, has been in dislocation so far as industry is concerned.

I think that the achievements by the Government, as guided by the Minister of Health, in the building industry are quite commendable. I am interested in what they have done because I have some experience of the building industry, and I reflect with sadness on the position of the industry during the inter-war years. I remember in 1930 or 1931 attending a meeting of building trade workers in London in the depth of the trade depression of that time. London was the best part of the country from the building industry point of view, and yet the unemployment among the men in the in- dustry who attended that meeting was 27 out of 28—for every one person employed 27 were unemployed. [Interruption.] I am not saying that the general unemployment was 27 to one, but that the unemployment in London was very bad at that time.

Mr. Marples

Was not that under a previous Socialist Government?

Mr. House

The hon. Member ought to be a little more fair than that. He knows perfectly well that so far as the control of the country was concerned, there has been no Socialist Government prior to the present one.

Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)

I think we ought to clear up this point. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the years 1930 or 1931; he was not quite sure which, but at least he will admit that there was a Socialist Government in office in the years between 1929 and 1931.

Mr. House

I am obliged to the hon. and gallant Gentleman, in his confusion, for trying to clear up the point. He should have listened more carefully to what I said. I said that there has been no Socialist Government in power in this country prior to the present Government. Whether it was in 1929, 1930 or 1931, the fact remains that it was under a Government with Tory control.

Commander Galbraith

Oh, no.

Mr. House

The hon. and gallant Gentleman is afraid to face the hard fact. Lack of courage in facing facts does not help one in Debate. I offer that advice to the hon. and gallant Gentleman.

Commander Galbraith

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am not often challenged with lack of courage. I think other hon. Members will agree with me. I cannot follow the hon. Gentleman's reasoning at all. It is nonsense for him to keep repeating that a Socialist Government has not been in office or in power or in control of this House before the present Government. It is nonsense, and he should know it. I repudiate entirely the hon. Member's statement.

Mr. House

I appreciate that the hon. and gallant Gentleman is an expert in confusion. He still refuses to face the fact that the power in office at the time was the Tory Party. The hon. Member for Wallasey is perfectly well aware of the terrible condition of the building trades, particularly in the depressed areas, during those days of depression, as well as in the days of depression between 1922 and 1924, and, in fact, almost throughout the inter-war years.

The hard fact is that having regard to the difficulties which have confronted this Government since the war—the difficulties of shortage of materials and the industrial and economic condition of the whole world—this Government has done much better than anything that has been achieved by the Tory Party in any period in which they were in power. The statement that the present Minister of Health has prejudiced the prestige and the prospects of the building industry is completely unfounded and could not possibly be substantiated.

3.28 p.m.

Commander Galbraith

I am absolutely astounded by the remarks that have been made by the hon. Member for North St. Pancras (Mr. House). They have no relevance to fact whatsoever, and I will prove that to the hon. Gentleman. It is well known to every citizen in the country that the remarks he has made about the wonderful efforts which have been made by this Government in housing the people are quite unworthy. He said that the Government have succeeded in providing 300,000 dwellings of all kinds in a period of some 2½ years. I do not think that is anything to be proud of.

Mr. Sparks


Commander Galbraith

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue. That is nothing to be proud of when we consider that during the years before the war we were building some 330,000 permanent houses each year.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

Not in the first two years after the first world war.

Commander Galbraith

Hon. Members opposite always like to go back to the first two years after the 1914–1918 war, but they do not tell their audiences the conditions existing at that time, which have no relevance whatsoever to the conditions which were inherited by the present Government.

Mr. Sparks

Conditions then were better.

Commander Galbraith

The hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks) says that conditions then were better. Let me remind him of the condition of housing in 1914 when the last war but one broke out. I do not suppose he is aware that in one of the most overcrowded cities in the country, Glasgow, there were 19,000 empty houses at that time.

Mr. House

Who built those slum houses in Glasgow?

Commander Galbraith

That is another kind of statement that people make from absolute prejudice. Does the hon. Gentleman maintain that anyone ever set out to build slum houses?

Mr. House


Commander Galbraith

If the hon. Member will only use his commonsense, he will see that no builder ever set out to build slum houses.

Mrs. Nichol (Bradford, North)


Commander Galbraith

I will not give way. The hon. Lady can speak later. To prove my point, I have known places which throughout the whole of my life I have regarded as slums, and yet recently I have seen references in the public Press in connection with demolitions to the effect that that type of house was considered the finest advance in modern housing when it was built.

Mr. N. Smith

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker, has this anything to do with the training of apprentices?

Mr. Speaker

This has not been within my control. The Debate started on apprentices and has now got a little bit wider.

Mrs. Nichol

Would the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) say that the houses which were built on the back-to-back principle, with no indoor sanitation, with two rooms up and two rooms down, with no through arrangements, no back door, and built in rows and in hundreds, were not slums to begin with?

Commander Galbraith

We could go back over some hundreds of years. The hon. Lady will agree that the kind of houses built then are not suitable in modern conditions. I doubt very much whether the type of house to which she has alluded has been built within the last hundred years. I believe that if the hon. Lady will be good enough to inquire into it, she will find that my statement is more accurate than hers.

The point is that an attempt has been made to divert this Debate from its proper subject, and I am replying to complete misstatements which have been made. The hon. Member for North St. Pancras has been trying to prove that this Government has been doing very well. He referred to what happened at the end of the last war but one. The conditions which existed in 1919 and 1920 have no connection with the conditions existing in 1945. I would remind the hon. Gentleman that in 1939 we had approximately one million men in the building industry. The industry had been building 330,000 permanent houses a year.

Mr. Sparks

Will the hon. and gallant Gentleman agree that they were not available in 1945?

Commander Galbraith

The hon. Gentleman will know that the whole of the organisation was there to be built up. That was something which did not exist in 1920. In fact, the building industry had been running down in the years immediately before 1914 and required to be built up again. In addition to that, there was nothing like the urgency for houses in 1918 that there was in 1945. We had had a cessation of building for a period of about four years instead of a cessation for six years during the last war, and we had not the damage from the effects of the war which we had in 1945.

When hon. Gentlemen claim that this Government has done very well, and that the Minister of Health is not running down the industry today, I cannot agree. Due to the complete unbalance of the building industry into that which it has been allowed to get by the present Government, we have some 250,000 houses in various stages of completion, If I understand the Minister of Health aright, it is his intention to complete these houses before doing anything else and, in the meantime, to reduce the level of the annual rate of construction to 147,000 houses a year.

Mr. Sparks

That is a minimum.

Commander Galbraith

The hon. Gentleman can call it a minimum or what he likes, but that is the figure which the Minister put. I would like hon. Gentlemen to consider what the state of the building industry will be if we are to have a minimum of 147,000 permanent houses a year. Let hon. Gentlemen consider the difficulties there will be—nay, the impossibility, if building gets down to that level, of building it up again to a level where we can build some 300,000 houses a year, which is the minimum requirement of this country; indeed, I believe it is below the minimum. I think the Government having set that level of 147,000, is crippling the building industry for many long years ahead, and I do not know if we shall be able to build it up again to a level at which it will be able to produce anything like the number of houses required.

Mr. Sparks

If the hon. and gallant Gentleman believes that 147,000 houses a year to he completed in the next few years is a low standard, can he indicate where the additional materials, such as timber, are to come from in order to increase that number?

Commander Galbraith

The hon. Gentleman asks the position in regard to timber. If he will be good enough to go round the timber yards of the country today, he will find that they are all stacked full. The question to be decided is where the timber is to be used. There is plenty of timber in the country at present to build far more than 147,000 a year. But let me take the hon. Gentleman's point. Why is there not more timber available today? Because the Government did not go to look for it in time. That is proved by the arrangements made by the President of the Board of Trade when he was put to it. If the normal sources of supply had been allowed to operate, the shortage would have been discovered far earlier than it was, and would have been provided for.

Mr. Sparks

We want dollars.

Commander Galbraith

The hon. Gentleman says it needs dollars; is there not timber in countries other than the United States and Canada? A great deal of timber might have been extracted from Germany, if only the right measures had been taken at the right time. There is also plenty of timber in Scandinavia to be bought, and if right hon. Gentlemen opposite had only taken the necessary steps, that timber would have been available to us also. Indeed, if we can only get a little more coal, there will be plenty of timber coming to us from Scandinavia in the future. Hon. Gentlemen opposite are quite unjustified in trying to get away from the subject set down for Debate by making statements such as those which have been made today by the hon. Member for North St. Pancras and, to a lesser degree, by the hon. Member for Acton. It has resulted in my having to intervene, I hope with a little effect, and with some desire to correct the misapprehensions held by the two hon. Gentlemen to whom I have referred.

3.39 P.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Durbin)

I am sure the House, and those interested in the fate of those large numbers of boys who are being brought into the building industry, will be grateful for the first nine-tenths of the speech made by the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) in the course of which he asked me a number of questions which I shall do my best to answer. I think the last tenth has been adequately dealt with by my hon. Friends. If I am asked to assess the relative difficulties which faced the Government after the first world war and after the second world war in the matter of reconstructing our industrial life and securing scarce supplies of raw materials from abroad, I cannot conceive of a student of these matters who would hesitate to affirm that after this war the difficulties have been far greater than after the first.

First I wish to dispose of the not unimportant but less important matters to which the hon. Member of Wallasey directed himself at the end of his speech. I did not quite understand his point about licences. The nature of the scheme proposed by the Building Apprenticeship and Training Council was to attach a training clause to contracts, not to licences. He would find that the problem is difficult. The fact that any contractor could escape from a contract by not recruiting a sufficient number of apprentices to satisfy the clause means that no very practicable scheme of this kind has yet been suggested to us.

The hon. Gentleman also asked what immediate action employers should take who found themselves with a number of apprentices for whom they had no imme- diate prospect of work. The answer is clear. The employer can either keep them, transfer the indenture or agreement to some other employer who has work to offer the apprentices, or he can apply through the apprenticeship committees to bring the indenture or agreement to an end. If there were any large number of such applications, with the consequences which the hon. Member suggested, and a considerable number of apprentices who have partially completed their apprenticeships, were finding themselves without work or opportunity to continue their apprenticeships, I think that that would be a matter more appropriate to the Minister of Labour.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether or not the Building Apprenticeship and Training Council and the National Apprenticeship Board could be called together and asked to report on the future of the apprentices in the industry. That step has already been taken. The report has not yet been received, and I am not in a position to give the date when the report will be made.

Mr. Marples

I said I understood that they have been called together, and I asked it the hon. Gentleman could give the date and when we could expect them to report.

Mr. Durbin

it is not yet possible to give a date.

The two main questions with which the hon. Member and other hon. Members are intimately concerned are—what is happening to the existing body of appentices in the building crafts in view of the cuts in the building programme imposed by the White Paper, and what steps are being taken to maintain an adequate supply of fully trained apprentices for a longer period of time? Evidence reaching the Ministry, the Building Appenticeship and Training Council and the National Appenticeship Board, does not bear out the rather alarming state of things which the hon. Member has put to me. Of course, I say at once that I shall be delighted to look into all this evidence, and into any particular cases which the hon. Member brings to my attention, but the fact is that no applications have yet been received by the National Apprenticeship Board from any employer for a release from indentures. That, no doubt, is a tribute to the extent to which masters have felt under obligation to maintain their apprentices as long as they can. It is, however, a startling piece of evidence on the other side.

Nor, so far as I can obtain the figures, is there any substantial increase in the number of indentured and registered apprentices applying for release from their indentures and agreements.

Commander Galbraith

But the hon. Gentleman will take into consideration the harm which is being done to these apprentices by being kept idle, as many of them may be, if the statements which have been made by my hon. Friend are correct? It is a desperate state of affairs, and I am sure that the hon. Member will take that into account.

Mr. Durbin

Of course, but if a boy found himself so discouraged by his experience in this occupation in the course of his training, the inevitable consequence would be that he would apply for release from his indenture.

Mr. Marples

May I point out that in some cases these boys do not necessarily apply for release, they disappear—go to sea or somewhere else? They do not apply formally to the Board.

Mr. Durbin

Yes, but as a measure of the extent to which there is an outflow from the industry I have a concrete figure to give, which is that out of 4,400 registered apprentices in London only 55 applied for release in the second half of last year. That is a very small figure indeed, much below the normal average rate of turnover in almost any occupation or job. From these two lines of reasoning I find it difficult to believe that the whole situation is yet as grave as the pieces of evidence that the hon. Member for Wallasey quoted. May I explain at once that these are not recent figures? They relate to the second half of 1947.

May we turn to the second question, which is what about the future? Is it or is it not possible to maintain a reasonable inflow of apprentices to keep up the size of the skilled labour force which it is anticipated will be needed? That at once involves an estimate of the size of the future demand for apprentices which is precisely the question which I have been asked from both sides of the House. It is not easy to assess this at the moment. It is only possible to say that it must remain very substantial, for reasons which I shall give in a moment.

If I may follow the figures which the hon. Member for Wallasey quoted, it was estimated at the end of the war that to man up the building industry 625,000 craftsmen would be required, and that it was to be anticipated that the rate of loss would be 4 per cent., giving his figure of an intake of 25,000 apprentices per year. Upon this is imposed the cuts of the White Paper, about which it is necessary to remember two things. Firstly, it is extremely easy to exaggerate their scale. The actual reduction in the rate of expenditure on building operations was of the order of £150 million from mid-1947 to the second half of 1948.

From that, however, it is necessary to make certain deductions as a heavy rate of spending at the beginning of this period was on contracts, etc., arising out of the temporary housing programme. Secondly, a part of the reduction in expenditure is upon road maintenance and not upon what is properly called the building industry. When a full allowance is made for these proper deductions it is found that the reduction in the building industry loss is of the order of 10 per cent. only. These cuts follow from the supplies of scarce materials which were then in sight. I do not wish to refer at any length to the difficulties experienced in that field, either that of making steel available or in securing timber largely with hard currency. There is every reason to suppose that these material shortages will pass, and so it is with a temporary reduction that we are concerned.

Commander Galbraith

When the hon. Gentleman refers to 10 per cent. does he mean there will be an actual reduction of the building labour of 10 per cent., and could he say what the total number would then be? What is the reduction from, and to what figure?

Mr. Durbin

I am pointing out the implications of the cut in expenditure implied in the White Paper, that they are of the order of 10 per cent., and is temporary in nature. From that I am led to conclude that the demand for apprentices, even leaving out the fact that these cuts are probably temporary, is of the order of over 20,000. The arithmetic of the matter is that an entry of 22,500 a year is needed to maintain a force of craftsmen, which is in balance with the temporarily reduced expenditure—though of course it may be considerably higher than that. This is the nature of the inflow of apprentices to the industry which is necessary to keep the scale of the labour force in balance with the new level of expenditure laid down by the White Paper. It is somewhere near a minimum of between 20,000 and 22,500. That is the scale of the problem which we have to resolve.

To what extent is it being resolved, and what is happening to the inflow of apprentices to this craft-training? The figures on the whole are encouraging. Between October 1945 and September 1946 the inflow was 22,400. Between October 1946 and September 1947 the inflow was 20,100. The main reason for that decline between those two years was the raising of the school-leaving age in March 1947. The most recent figures available, which are for the last quarter of 1947, after the impact of the August crisis was beginning to be felt, show an annual rate of entry of nearly 17,000, and that in a quarter when the number of school leavers is at a very low level. The peak period in the year for recruitment is obviously that quarter which contains the months of July and August. We therefore arrive at what may be thought to be the surprising conclusion that there is no substantial reduction yet in the inflow of apprentices.

I would mention that the present age distribution of the workers in the building industry has undergone a marked change as a result, in part, of the activities of the Building Apprenticeship and Training Council. It is no longer an industry in which the average age is high. Sixty-six per cent. of the men employed are under 40. The whole age balance has been restored as a result of the remarkable success which has attended the efforts to build up the labour force. Han. Members will remember that at the end of the war—whatever the size of the building industry may have been in 1939—there were approximately 440,000 men employed.

Commander Galbraith

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us the figure for 1918?

Mr. Durbin

No, I have not got that information with me.

It is impossible to deny that the building up of the force from 440,000 to well over 1 million men in less than two years is a tribute to the energy of the Depart- ments and the voluntary bodies associated with this work. Without that energy, the remarkable achievement in the provision of accommodation for the people could not have been completed. Therefore, on this matter the conclusion must be that although the age distribution in the industry is now reasonably in balance, a continued inflow of boys is needed and that, by and large, the need is being met.

The last point with which I wish to deal is in reference to the contribution which the Government hope to make towards maintaining these conditions from the point of view of recruitment. I think hon. Members will agree that, on the whole, they are favourable. The hon. Member for Wallasey paid a tribute, with which I should like to associate myself, to the energetic and devoted work of the members of Building Apprenticeship and Training Council, under two distinguished chairmen Sir Trustram Eve, and his successor, Sir George Gater. They have concerned themselves especially with the problem, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Nottingham (Mr. Norman Smith), of raising the standards of the educational provisions for these boys. It is one of the necessary clauses of the agreement approved by the Council, under which some 25,000 boys are registered, that at least one day a week, or its equivalent, should be provided for further education. Many of the improvements in the provisions for technical education are to be attributed to the work of this body. That work will continue.

The Government are making a special contribution, with the co-operation of local authorities, in the Apprentice-Master Scheme. I hear the most widespread and generous tributes to the success and efficiency of this scheme. Two hundred schemes are now going forward, 43 have been completed, and 31 are being extended and further schemes, up to 50 in number, will be sanctioned as they are presented for approval. As the hon. Member for Wallasey knows, the difficulty is that these schemes are expensive. We are taking various steps to bring down the percentage of excess costs from the comparatively high level which it has reached in the last 12 months.

It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Durbin

The conclusion of the whole matter is that the building industry is passing through a difficult period, but it is impossible to have capital cuts and not have difficulties in the building industry. These difficulties are bound to have one of their first effects upon the training of boys entering the industry, but, so far as we can see, the effects upon apprentices are not yet grave, and, looking ahead, it is possible to forecast that there will be a sustained and substantial demand for the entry of properly trained boys into the industry. I would, therefore, like to issue an appeal to contractors, to trade unions and to all those persons who are now co-operating in this voluntary machinery, to do their utmost to see that these boys come forward in sufficient numbers, and, having come forward, are given the opportunity to attain the high degree of skill and satisfactory form of work which this industry offers to those who come into it.