HC Deb 22 March 1948 vol 448 cc2730-40

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

11.47 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Marshall (Bodmin)

I apologise for bringing this matter forward at rather a late hour, but it is a matter of national importance. About a fortnight ago I asked the Lord President for time to debate the Report on the china clay industry which has been before this House for some time now. He was not able to find time, and that is why I raise this subject on the Adjournment tonight. On page 3 the Report refers to the location of china clay. In three separate Parliamentary Divisions china clay plays a part—in my own Division, in the Division of the hon. Member for Tavistock (Mr. Studholme), and it plays a very great part in the Division of the hon. Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Mr. King). All Members present will be sorry to know that the hon. Member for Penryn and Falmouth is in hospital for a slight operation, and I feel certain that we all wish him a speedy recovery and a return to this House at the earliest opportunity.

I wish to stress that this matter of china clay is a matter of national importance and I bring it to the notice of the House tonight in order to pay tribute to those men who work in the industry and at the same time to bring certain matters to the attention of the President of the Board of Trade. It is a highly specialised industry and its basic raw material is of vital importance. If we look back on the course of years before the war—for 30 years—we find that on an average 70 per cent. of this material was exported abroad, about 800,000 tons in a year, which brings us in £3,500,000, with an additional freight of £1,000,000. The Board of Trade sponsors this industry and I sincerely trust that, with the great ramifications and difficulties which in the future this industry may have to overcome, it may never depart from the responsibility of that Ministry. I would not like to see it go to the Ministry of Fuel and Power. The earning capacity of this industry is extremely interesting. It is extremely good as a hard currency earner. I am told that about a ton of coal yields something like 400 dollars and when one realises that this industry works on a £750 per man yield, which I believe is against a figure of £500 in the case of coal, one must recognise that these are very interesting figures indeed. The labour force required for this industry is between 3,000 and 4,000 and while I am mentioning the question of labour' I think a tribute should be paid to the industry for the fact that, in spite of its difficulties, in spite of the very hard work it has to do, as far as I know, in every case, they have a full percentage of disabled men.

Now this Working Party Report has been in the hands of the Government for about six months. I believe it was about August, 1947, that it first reached the Board of Trade. I wish, first of all, to deal with the labour problem, because, although it is mentioned in this Report, I cannot see that the Board of Trade has as yet done anything about it. No doubt, the President of the Board of Trade is fully aware that at the present moment there are about 20o men coming from Redruth and Camborne to the St Austell district. That means 6o miles a day. Part of the payment of travelling time is paid to the men and the cost to the industry amounts to about £15,000 per annum over and above the normal wage rates, but the point I wish particularly to bring to the Minister's attention—and I am glad to see a representative of the Ministry of Health is here—is the question of houses. At least 30o are required for these labour forces alone and are needed urgently in that area, apart from the very great normal demand, which is very heavy indeed, to house these people. Before the war, about 76o houses were built by the industry itself.

This is a scattered industry and it is difficult to put it on the same plane as any other industry. On the question of the actual building, a great part of the material comes from the china clay sand itself and I suggest that with the enormous natural desire of these men to have these houses, the President and some of his colleagues should consider the possibility of getting these men to volunteer to build their own houses. I believe that the position is so desperate that the local unions might look favourably on this proposal.

Now, as to food, this is a very exhausting industry and hon. Members can imagine, in winter time, the change from dealing with icy trucks and dealing with boiling clay in drying kilns. The workers have always required a heavy portion of meat, but because of the scattered nature of the industry they cannot have the normal canteens. They can have only mobile canteens. Therefore, they want extra rations of meat. There is a certain extra ration, but not much, and I hope the President of the Board of Trade will look with favour on what I am going to suggest. The Cornishman likes his pasty, but the President, knowing his Cornwall, knows the variations in the liking for the pasty. One likes it with onions and another without, etc. That is an important factor and these present pasties are not like those that used to be made by their wives and mothers. Could not the President of the Board of Trade consider giving an additional ration on the ration card so that the wives and mothers could make their men the pasties they like. No doubt the importance of the pasty is realised by the right hon. Gentleman, who probably remembers the old Cornish tale that the Devil put a foot in Cornwall, but, learning that everything there is put into a pie, he withdrew it hastily, and has never been seen there since.

I turn to plant and equipment. The President of the Board of Trade knows that all through the Working Party's Report mention is made of the need of filter presses, mechanical dryers, handling and loading machines. He will also know that a great deal of commercial planning is necessary before submitting the plans for approval to his Department. Hon. Members can imagine how exasperating it is when the Department lets these plans lie for over three months without a decision. That is the kind of thing which is damping the enthusiasm of the people engaged in the industry.

On the question of coal, I think it will be remembered that the coal position in August, 1947, looked a little better; but it was not until January, 1948, that allocations were made to the china clay industry and then they were "laced" to particular exports to go to particular countries. This is really nonsense, because clay suitable for one market is not suitable for others, and when a pit is in operation, it is necessary from time to time to work first one side of the face and then on another in order to prevent the "overlay" from falling in. Consequently, percentages of different types of clay are produced at the same time, and it is impossible to know beforehand what the percentages will be. How can the Government, without the technical knowledge of a lifetime, arbitrarily state that coal should be "laced" in allocation to a particular type of clay produced for export to a specified country? Can anyone imagine anything more aggravating to an industry than to hear, as the china clay industry did, in a recent "Progress Report" on the B.B.C., that a sale of £5,000,000 worth of tractors was made to a country to which they personally had not been allowed to export their clay?

It is very strange to notice, as regards the shipping position of the china clay industry with reference to continental exports, that 80 per cent. of these shipments are carried in foreign bottoms. This means that £500,000 is paid to foreign interests. I do not suggest that everything should be carried in British bottoms, but it seems unbalanced that 80 per cent. should not be so carried. I trust that my shipping friends will take due notice of this fact. There is also specialised work to be done in improving the dock facilities, etc., for handling china clay at Fowey, Charlestown and Par. There may be a great deal to be said for setting up a South-East Cornwall commission or committee to deal specifically with the ports I have mentioned.

I would like to mention a matter dealing with the truck situation. We might well get more trucks available if we took a more liberal attitude to truck repair. It might have been said in better times that it was wise to scrap trucks rather than repair them, but in our straitened circumstances today, we have to make use of all the trucks we can get hold of, in order to secure accelerated production, and therefore I suggest that we should carry on with a "make-do" policy. Does the Minister fully realise the position of the Eric engineering shop and the repair shop at Drinnick? The first was erected over 100 years ago, and was only intended for minor work, and with the acceleration of mechanisation it is inadequate in comfort and work for the men. Furthermore, tools and goods of all descriptions are lying open to the weather, when at quite small cost in labour the storage facilities could be improved out of all recognition, provided the licences were forthcoming.

There are two specific instances of delay which I would like to bring to the Minister's notice. The first is that of the L.A.I.R.A. Wharf. I see that the hon. Lady for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Middleton) is present; this wharf lies in her division. As the Minister will know, £350,000 has already been spent in modernising the pit and works which serve this wharf. On 9th December, 1947, application on the appropriate form was made to the Ministry of Works to proceed with construction. On 7th January, 1948, a month later, a notification was received from the South-Western Regional Officer of the Board of Trade that the building licence application had been sent to them and would receive immediate attention. On 9th January, the china clay industry wrote to Bristol giving reasons for the urgent need of these shipping facilities. On 26th January the Board of Trade called to ask the industry to reduce costs and steel requirements; on 27th January people came to view the wharf. On 3rd February, the Board of Trade office at Bristol wrote for further particulars. On 27th February, the Board of Trade called for further information—since when no information has been received from any Government Department.

There is the question of the Old Beam Clay Kiln. No doubt the President of the Board of Trade knows about it, and if I may say so, when I first heard that I was getting this Adjournment I made inquiries about the industry. Here is a case where there was only a requirement of 10 tons of steel in order to complete a drying kiln which was going to produce 160,000 dollars a year for the export drive. Letters passed backwards and forwards on the question of whether a permit could or could not be granted, until 15th March, when it was said that it could not be granted. Then a letter was sent straight away to the effect that the matter was being raised on the Adjournment, and on Friday last the permit was granted. It could have been granted a great deal earlier. These delays should not happen.

I would refer the President of the Board of Trade to page 36 of this Report, of which no doubt he is well aware. He will notice that the matter there is mentioned as follows: We might mention the case brought to our notice of a loading machine which would save the work of approximately six men; the cost of this machine purchased abroad is approximately £1,000, of which about £250 represents import duties. I sincerely trust that if in this industry another 12 of these machines are wanted, there will be no hold-up for licences, because the President well knows what their value is. As to why there should be Import Duties on them, I do not know, because we do not make them at all in the United Kingdom. Perhaps the President of the Board of Trade will mention something about that tonight. I want to give the right hon. Gentleman plenty of time so that he will be able to give an answer to most of these matters, and I hope he will also take advantage of the occasion to make reference to the fact that, although the china clay industry happens to be located only in Cornwall and Devon, it is of national importance, and therefore the management and the men engaged in the industry are playing a vital part as part of the shock troops in the "battle of the gap."

12.3 a.m.

The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Harold Wilson)

I should say right away that we agree with what the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. D. Marshall) has just said, that though at this late hour we are discussing a localised industry and a very small industry in terms of manufacturing, we are discussing an industry of great national importance. The hon. Member has raised a considerable number of points, and I am afraid that I should not have time to deal with them in detail tonight, but I will undertake to go into those which I cannot discuss now and write to him. Perhaps later I may have a discussion with him about them.

I should like to deal now with one or two of the general points he has made about this industry. As he said, it is an earner of dollars for this country as an exporting industry, though it is perhaps right to say that, while it has exporting importance, we sometimes overlook its importance in the supply of raw materials for very many of our home industries. Of the 625,000 tons produced by the industry in 1947, about 40 per cent. was exported. This year we are hoping that production will rise to somewhere between 800,000 and 850,000 tons and that 6o per cent. of that increased figure will be exported. The hon. Gentleman referred to the exports to dollar areas. In 1947, the industry exported 83,000 tons to the United States alone. Over 110,000 tons, or 45 per cent. of its total exports went to the hardest currency markets like the United States, Canada and the Argentine. A further 35 per cent. went to other hard currency countries such as Belgium, Switzerland and Sweden. I agree with the hon. Gentleman when he remarks that there are great possibilities for increasing exports to North America this year, especially the United States, and the target to which the industry is working very conscientiously to increase its total exports to the United States in this year is 275,000 tons, a very high figure.

I agree there are the difficulties which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. It is not so long ago that the industry was actually exporting 350,000 tons a year. That was in the twenties, and if we look back to those days we see that the Cornish industry held about 6o per cent. of the U.S. market in paper clays. Now it is less than ro per cent. At the same time it held 6o per cent. of the U.S. market in pottery clays. Now that is down to 4o per cent. We would like to see those figures restored, particularly as there is some reason to believe that U.S. indigenous production might fall over a reasonable period of time. We are therefore calling on the industry for an all-out effort this year in regard to its dollar exports. Although there are the difficulties mentioned by the hon. Member in reference to the production of particular kinds of clays best suited to particular markets, I think it is possible to make too much of that argument. The coal allocated last year, as an act of faith that the industry would greatly increase its dollar exports, was allocated on the prospect of a very big increase, and after full discussion with the company who, knowing the difficulties referred to, were still confident this high target could be achieved.

In addition to the export target of the industry, it is of great importance for meeting home requirements. Again I would like to pay tribute to the fact that the industry has fulfilled its pledge to keep essential home industries supplied with their requirements. There is a wide range of industries using Cornish china clay. I will not go through them all. The chief one is paper—168,000 tons last year. Pottery is very much less with 65,000 tons. Rubber, paint, cement, are all industries which, without this clay, would have serious difficulties in maintaining production.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the major problems of the industry in increasing its production. The first is manpower. Last year just under zoo prisoners of war were engaged. We are now trying to replace them with Pales.

But the problem is exactly that which we are faced with for British workersaccommodation—though I hope we are going to be able to overcome that difficulty. There is the very special problem, for those who have to come from a distance, of travelling expenses. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are looking at this matter, and hope to get some settlement one way or the other fairly quickly.

He naturally referred to the particular problem of housing. The rural district council of St. Austell, as opposed to the urban district council, covers an area in which three-fifths of the population consists of clay workers and their families, and the housing programme for that area has to have special regard to the needs of the workers in the china clay industry. The housing programme of that council, which was worked out in 1946, was for 65o houses over five years. I think the hon. Gentleman would agree that that covers little more than the replacement of houses which are becoming uninhabitable for one reason or another. This is a very real problem in the St. Austell area. The housing facilities for a long time have been grossly inadequate for the needs of a district serving an important industry. I do not want to go into the inadequacy in detail, or to impute blame for the responsibility, over a very long period, for the neglect of housing in this area. It is a sad story, and I am sure we would agree there is no purpose in going into it tonight. The local councils and the Government responsible in that period must bear a heavy responsibility for our difficulties. I am afraid the councils concerned before the war were very laggard in this respect, as in so many others, but I am sure that under the stimulus of the hon. Gentleman and the Minister of Town and Country Planning, these councils are now very different from what they were before the war.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman would be the first to realise it is very much more difficult now because of manpower and materials difficulties to do all we would like to do in this matter. I am in close consultation with the Minister of Health, who himself has been in touch with the local authorities to see what can be clone about it. The china clay industry have themselves offered to build some additional Cornish unit houses for both the TT.D.C. and R.D.C. concerned for alloca- tion to china clay workers. This matter is being gone into at the present moment and I hope to see it settled very quickly.

The hon. Gentleman referred also to the question of the industry getting additional coal to produce another 175,000 tons, with export strings attached, to which both he and I have referred. He also asked about machinery. The industry, of course, was heavily concentrated in the war and naturally got behindhand in the work of development and mechanisation, and certainly it has not yet caught up with the backlog caused by those difficulties. But I think from the evidence we have had from the industry and from what was said by the representatives of the industry when granted building licences, machinery has not been in fact a bottleneck. There have been individual difficulties and we have helped where we can. In two recent applications put forward by the major combine in the industry, it was stated that the quantities of machinery required had all been ordered and delivery had been promised by June, suggesting that not machinery delays, but building difficulties, were responsible.

Mr. D. Marshall

The first thing is the delay in the submission of plans when different plans have been put forward to the Board of Trade to see whether or not they meet with approval.

Mr. Wilson

There have been difficulties. The principal difficulty in relation to building licences is steel. There is not enough steel in the country for a whole host of highly desirable dollar earning or dollar saving schemes in other industries as well as the china clay. The steel industry is going full blast, but its capacity is not big enough to meet all the needs of this country. That is why there is the scrutiny of programmes to which the hon. gentleman referred.

The hon. gentleman asked a number of other questions which I am sorry I have not time to deal with. In regard to food, I am sure he will realise the difficulties of allocating an additional meat ration in order that pasties can be made at home rather than on mass production lines, I recognise the importance of individuality in this matter of pasty supplies, but I am sure the hon. gentleman will recognise that repercussion in other industries would be so great that his suggestion is not a starter this time.

I will look further into the question of dock facilities. He also raised the question of trucks—I take it he refers to railway wagons. The position has improved considerably, but I would like to get the facts in relation to the china clay industry. On shipping I have had a number of discussions on this question with the industry. Of course, it does seem anomalous that we have to have so many foreign vessels, but the chief difficulty, as the hon. gentleman knows, is the long delays caused in loading and discharging china clay, which does make it cheaper for us to send ships in ballast, than to load up return vessels with china clay. There is more I could say, but my hon. Friend is an expert in shipping and knows it as well as I do. I should be very glad to have a discussion with him some time after this Debate.

Adjourned accordingly at a Quarter-past Twelve o'Clock.