HC Deb 10 February 1949 vol 461 cc646-54

9.39 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Austin) said that there is a wide field of opportunity in this country at present from which the Minister of Labour should organise entrants. The Reading Committee might very well be called on to consider the question of building trade labour in Scotland, and the Department should seriously consider referring to the Reading Committee the whole question of the organisation and direction of building labour in Scotland. I have no fault to find with the case that the Parliamentary Secretary has put up in reply to the lion. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter). I think he answered the questions directed to him and dealt with the individual cases to the satisfaction of the majority of hon. Members in the House. I would say to the Parliamentary Secretary that if his Department handled other questions in the same far-seeing way there would be far less criticism from Scottish Members as regards the activities of his Department.

I hope that he will ask his right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour to give a little more attention to the grievances which were brought up at Question Time on Tuesday about the calling up of workers from the building industry In that connection we in Scotland have a very serious grievance. We believe that the Minister of Labour is calling up people from the building industry into the Armed Forces at a time when they are——

Brigadier Prior-Palmer (Worthing)

On a point of Order. Has the calling up of men from the building industry into the Armed Forces anything whatever to do with the Question under discussion?

Hon. Members

We are on the Adjournment.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

I do not think that it has.

Mr. Hughes

But I understand the rule is that on the Adjournment of this House Members may discuss wider questions. I should not have dreamt for a moment of raising this matter if the Minister had not been present. But the Minister is present. I suggest to the hon. and gallant Member for Worthing (Brigadier Prior-Palmer) that on some occasions he may be very anxious to raise some question dealing with the Armed Forces. I am as interested in the building workers as the hon. and gallant Member is in the Armed Forces. I suggest that he should not try to draw the attention of Mr. Deputy-Speaker to the fact that I am trying to divert the discussion on to some subject, when he himself might be only too glad to use a similar opportunity on another occasion in order that the responsible Minister may have his attention directed to a grievance.

The Ministry of Labour has taken up what I consider to be a very reactionary attitude as regards the building industry in Scotland where 17,000 people are to be called up this year. Of that number there are a certain percentage of people who should be engaged in the building of the houses so badly needed in Scotland at the present time. I know that my right hon. Friend does not think I am bringing any indictment against him personally—but I ask him to convey to his right hon. Friend that in his refusal at Question time on Tuesday to promise that he would not call up building workers who are badly needed on the housing front, he is really doing a disservice to the people of Scotland which will ultimately have a serious effect on the production of houses, which will be revealed some time in the middle of this year.

Last Friday, for example, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland pointed out that there were at least 600 joiners badly needed on housing schemes at the present time. The difficulty about building material is now solved. We now face the problem of the organisation of the necessary building labour. In Scotland 600 joiners and 400 plasterers are needed for work on the housing schemes now taking shape. The curious feature is that while we badly need these 1,000 workers, we have an unemployment problem developing among bricklayers. It is safe to assert that by the middle of this year, if not before, we shall have the paradox of unemployment among bricklayers in Scotland at a time when there is a serious lag in our building programme. Yet despite this shortage the Ministry of Labour are indiscriminately calling up building workers for the Armed Forces. That is where we part company with the Minister. We say that under no circumstances is the Minister justified in calling up further workers from the building trade until there is greater progress on the housing front.

I pay tribute to the Ministry. When they get an individual case they consider it favourably and show common sense. I brought to the notice of the Minister the case of a village blacksmith who was called up for the Armed Forces from a little district where the National Farmers' Union had protested because he was needed for agricultural purposes. The Ministry considered the case carefully and decided that the man should not be called up as he was needed for agricultural purposes. If he went into the Forces the farmers would not be able to have their horses shod and their tractors mended. The Minister of Labour said that the blacksmith should be given deferment for six months and that if the circumstances were unchanged at the end of that time he would be prepared to consider a further deferment. Common sense was applied, and I am grateful to the Minister for his assistance.

But if the blacksmith is to be exempted for six months on the ground that his labour is needed for agriculture, surely it is reasonable to say that we need houses for agricultural purposes and that we should defer the call-up of plasterers, plumbers and other urgently needed workers. I ask the Minister to apply the same common sense and to say that if the blacksmith is to stay in his shop then the workers in the building industry are to stay to build houses which are so desperately needed. I warn the Government now—I have been doing so for months—that they will face complete chaos in the building industry if they allow the drift to continue. There is a serious housing situation in Scotland. Houses are urgently needed in all the big towns, the mining villages, the agricultural hamlets and the isolated fishing villages. I make no apology for raising this matter on every possible occasion. We cannot get these houses unless we mobilise building labour. I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that he should say to his right hon. Friend, "There is something in what these people from Scotland are perpetually harping upon."

We must have a much bigger army of building labour mobilised if we are to build the new towns and villages which are so urgently needed. We shall go home to our constituencies this week-end and shall be immediately faced with queues of people who are living, in some cases, four or five in a room. I have a case in my constituency where there are three miners and seven other people in a single apartment house, and other hon. Members can bring other illustrations of this type of case. There is a desperate housing situation in Scotland, and we say to the Minister of Labour that it is his job to organise the building labour of this country so that this problem is adequately faced. When other Ministers such as the Minister of Defence and the Foreign Secretary come along and tell the House that we have commitments in Malaya, Greece, Transjordan and in other parts of the world, we say to them that we have commitments in Scotland on the home front, that we need the houses, and that it is priority No. 1. We warn the Government that the problem is getting more acute, and we therefore ask the Minister of Labour to organise the building force, and not take men away from the job of building the houses so badly needed.

9.51 p.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

I make no apology for following my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) in the very mild plea which he has put forward in calling attention to the organisation of the building industry in Scotland. It is only a fortnight or three weeks ago since, from the Front Bench, the Minister of Labour gave me a reply that there were 288 bricklayers unemployed in Scotland, and since those few weeks have passed I am sure that the number has gone up by 50 per cent.

At Kilmarnock at the week-end, I was approached by the organiser of the bricklayers, who drew my attention to the fact that there are bricklayers unemployed in Scotland. At the same time, we were told by the Secretary of State for Scotland in this House on Tuesday, when we put down Questions regarding housing, that there is no shortage of materials, including bricks, but that there are shortages in certain of the finishing trades in the building industry, and that houses are being held up. I recently looked at a block of houses which has been standing unfinished for three years, owing to the shortage of joiners, plasterers and plumbers. At the same time, we find out that the Ministry of Labour started schemes for training people in these trades, but they have been closing down their training centres in Scotland, until at the present moment there is only one in operation and only 50 men in that centre. I doubt if there is a single plasterer or joiner now being trained.

Against that situation, we have the position of the continued call-up of trained men who could help to get these houses finished. The Parliamentary Secretary shakes his head, but it is perfectly true. If men are coming out of industry into the Army, they are not working on housing, and it simply means a further deterioration of the situation and the probability that the number of bricklayers unemployed will be even greater.

What is the present position? The position in Scotland is that, unless the Minister defers the men in these particular trades who are badly needed on housing in Scotland today, and also follows up that action by training men for these trades, we are going to have a reduction in house-building, and perhaps, added to that, we are going to lose the building labour that will be necessary to carry out the building programme in Scotland. I passed through Stoke Newington the other day and saw, on a site on which a week ago there was no evidence of building, that a hoarding had been put up with a demand for bricklayers: "116 flats going up; bricklayers wanted." What is going to happen if the Ministry of Labour do not wake up to what happened before the war? We shall have Scottish bricklayers finding work in England, and at the same time people in Scotland wanting houses to be built there.

I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to realise just how vital this matter is to Scotland and to Scotsmen. Our housing conditions have always been worse than those in England. Only the other day we heard the Secretary of State for Scotland talking about the people, not in agricultural areas, but in the city areas of Scotland who are paying water rates and have no water in the houses. That is in the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Our housing conditions are appalling and yet, at the same time, we see the depletion of the building industry, failure to get the houses completed, and the men who could complete them going into the Army.

I think there is a case for the deferment of the service of those specially required building operatives, and further that we should, with the help of the trade unions, rely upon a scheme of training. I have already told the bricklayers and the other building operatives concerned that it is up to their colleagues to help them. The failure to train and to defer these men means that more and more bricklayers are going to be unemployed. I sincerely hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will bear this in mind, and will have a talk with the Secretary of State for Scotland and with his right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour on the subject.

9.57 p.m.

Mr. Carmichael (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

It would be very wrong of me not to intervene in a discussion of this kind because I represent what is probably one of the most overcrowded districts of Glasgow, and Glasgow is unquestionably the worst housed town in the country. At the moment, according to the official figures, Glasgow requires 100,000 houses. I question if, even in our best year, we shall ever be able to top 4,000 per annum, even with all the possible labour and material we can get. Interfering with the young building workers means that the young people today have little hope of getting a new house.

The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) gave evidence of overcrowding in some of the villages in his constituency. Let me say without exaggeration that I could take anyone to hundreds of houses in my constituency where there are 10, 12 and more people living in single apartment houses, and 14 living in two-apartment houses. It is very difficult for people in England to understand what we mean by "two-apartment" houses because our standard of housing, I regret to say, has always been far below that of England. Not only have we the overcrowding, but also a number of houses in Glasgow, without light of any kind, other than the old paraffin lamp. If we decide to take more young men into the Armed Forces because of our commitments abroad, not only are we depleting the numbers employed, but we are taking the most active members of the building trade away.

As indicated by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), there are two problems here. First, serious representations must be made to the building operatives themselves. There has been a serious closing down of the work associated with trainees, and I make no apology for saying to the trade union movement that this is the most vital——

It being Ten 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. R. Adams.]

Mr. Carmichael

The building trade operatives must realise that this is the most important social service before the community, and that methods rightly operated during the scarcity of employment—restrictive practices—should not be allowed to continue at the present time. I know it will be hard for bricklayers who are unemployed at the moment to be asked to make concessions and to take a broader view of their responsibilities. Why are they unemployed? It has been indicated already—because there is already a shortage of other workers in the industry. I know of any number of houses in Glasgow that have been standing incomplete for months because the tradesmen required to finish them are unobtainable. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary has a limited responsibility tonight for all this, but I hope he will not attempt to say that it is impossible to have a discussion of this serious matter.

Already the Minister has deferred the call-up of miners and agricultural workers because, we have been told, their jobs are respectively Priority No.1 and Priority No.2. We have also been told that houses for them are priority number one in housing. Yet we call up the very people who are to build those houses. I do not understand it. Why do not the Government tell the miners and agricultural workers, "It is quite impossible to give you priority in housing because we have not the available labour to build the houses." Oh no; they do not do that.

Since I came to this House, I and other hon. Members have constantly been receiving complaints about all phases of our social services. There have been complaints from people about the National Health Service, about hospital treatment—complaints regarding all kinds of immediate problems; but the postbag has always carried more complaints about housing than about anything else. Some of us tried to tell our people that the responsibility for the supply of houses rested with the local authorities. Ordinary folk, however, who have suffered for years in overcrowded conditions, are of the opinion that every public representative should exercise his power and authority to ease this very serious problem. I do not know why it is that always all the social burdens rest most heavily on the people of Scotland. We have the largest army of unemployed, more than any other part of Britain. There are over 63,000 unemployed in Scotland.

Mr. W. Ross

And the number is rising.

Mr. Carmichael

And the number is rising. Moreover, the unemployment is amongst the people who have not the opportunities for alternative work in industry that we should like them to have. As the Minister recognises the problem, I say that he and the Secretary of State for War and the Secretary of State for Scotland should meet together to discuss the whole problem of employment in Scotland. No stronger argument could be made for that than was put by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire. We have commitments in Malaya and in almost every corner of the world. To us there is something strange in the make-up of a Government that discovers that it has commitments in every corner of the world other than the spot in which we are living from day to day. I think this Adjournment discussion will impress upon the Government how urgent this housing problem is in Scotland and the necessity of making it possible for the people who live there to believe that, in their lifetime, we may manage, not to solve the problem or remove its evils, but at least to give them evidence that we are making a serious attempt to tackle it in a serious way.

Mr. Speaker

I gather that there is no Minister here who can reply to this Debate and that no notice has been given to the Minister. It is within the rules that up to 10.30 p.m. anyone may talk, but it is contrary to the spirit of the House to raise matters to which no Minister can reply and of which no Minister has been given notice, and, therefore, I protest.

Mr. Carmichael

I admit, Mr. Speaker, that this Debate was very quickly arranged, but as you know we have raised this matter not suddenly but constantly. I admit the limited notice given to the Parliamentary Secretary that we would raise this matter. I agree that we could have had a better opportunity had the Minister been here, but we had ample time. I hope, Sir, you will appreciate the fact that we regard this matter very seriously and that even if we have stretched, we have not broken, the procedure on Adjournment. We have not done so to put anyone at a disadvantage, but rather to make known to the Department and to the Minister how seriously we feel this position.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Perhaps I ought to make some explanation and offer an apology to you, Mr. Speaker, for the way in which this matter was raised. It was raised on a Ministry of Labour answer to a Question that I put. As the Minister of Labour was represented here, I thought we were in Order in asking the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour to draw the attention of the Minister to this urgent question. Arising out of that, I can quite understand how, in the process of the Debate, the matter may have approached the wider question of housing in Scotland. We did our best to draw the attention of the Minister to that matter, and the Minister for that Department was here, and that was how it arose.

Mr. Speaker

I do not say that this is out of Order, but I do not think it is quite in accordance with our practice. That was all I wanted to say.

Adjourned accordingly at Nine minutes past Ten o'Clock.