HC Deb 03 June 1949 vol 465 cc2519-28

2.34 p.m.

Mr. George Ward (Worcester)

I am glad to have the opportunity this afternoon of raising the important matter of the shortage of industrial overalls. For some time past this has been a matter of considerable interest to hon. Members on both sides of the House, and in the last 18 months no fewer than nine Parliamentary Questions directly concerning industrial overalls have been asked, quite apart from those indirectly concerning the heavier types of industrial drill. Of those nine Questions, four were asked by hon. Members opposite, three by Conservative Members, one by a National Liberal Member and one by an Independent Member. That shows that this is a matter which is not confined in interest to any particular quarter of the House.

This interest in the subject is not extraordinary, because protective clothing is a necessity in these days. No man can work under modern conditions without protective clothing. Its use is not confined to what we understand generally by industry; it includes a large variety of activities, for example, milk and food distributors, dairy and agricultural workers, workers in foundries, tanning and other dirty jobs, hospital workers, local authority employees, hotels and catering, etc. A wide range of activities are concerned.

All the answers given to those Questions, some by the President of the Board of Trade himself, others by the Parliamentary Secretary—of course, not always the same Parliamentary Secretary—have on the whole been very much the same over the past 18 months, and none of them has been at all satisfactory. All the answers blamed the export drive for the shortage of industrial drill available for the home market. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will not pursue that hare too far; we are getting a little tired of it. It is by no means the only cause of the shortage, although it is the main one. We would, however, like to hear another excuse. Four of the answers have assured the House that all practical steps are being taken to increase the production of industrial drill. I hope that we shall hear what are those practical steps which are being taken.

Twice we have been told in the last 18 months that there was no evidence of any shortage of industrial drill. On the other hand, we have twice been told that the Minister was perfectly well aware that there is a shortage of industrial drill, which seems to indicate that the Board of Trade does not take this matter quite as seriously as it should. The position in regard to industrial drill has in fact been steadily deteriorating since 1944, despite continuous pressure on the Board of Trade, not only by Members of Parliament but by the industry itself. Figures which I have taken from the Board of Trade Journal, of 7th May last, show that the monthly rate of heavy overall cloth going to the home market was 3½ million square yards in 1946, and only 2.8 million square yards in January and February, 1949. Yet, with this serious reduction in overall drill the total yarn and cloth production has increased from 31.3 million linear yards per week in 1936 to 39.9 million linear yards per week in February, 1949, which seems to indicate a fact which I shall point out in a few minutes.

I have also figures given by some 50 representative overall manufactures regarding deliveries of cloth to them in the 311 grade, that is, the type of cloth used for industrial overalls. Taking the four months September to December, of 1947 and 1948, the total in 1947 was 4,228,000 yards, and in 1948 the figure was only 3,105,000 yards, showing a reduction of 27 per cent. in the supply of this cloth. Of course, there are many other examples. For instance, a firm in my constituency making overalls reports that its production dropped from 1,347 dozen in 1947 to 1,107 dozen in 1949. This compares with 2,585 dozen before the war. That particular factory is working at only 55 per cent. of its capacity. Its workers have now been on short time for 19 weeks, and they would not even be working 55 per cent. of their capacity were it not for a large export order which they have just completed, and for the fact that the firm have had to do a good deal of sub-contracting.

I have also had letters from people all over the country—not in my own constituency—on the subject, and with the permission of the House I will give one or two examples from those letters. One manufacturer has orders nearly two years old which cannot be completed, and he is inundated with calls from all over the country for supplies of garments. Another manufacturer reports that in the last two months he has refused orders from two local authorities for over 3,000 overalls. Another reports that orders totalling 173,800 garments were rejected from August, 1948, to January, 1949. Yet another says that orders totalling nearly 50,000 garments have been rejected during the last six weeks, and that he has orders for 25,000 overalls which he cannot complete until cloth supplies are available. That same firm has orders dating back to August, 1948.

Those are sufficient examples to show the gravity of the situation. Of course, many of the people who write to me point out, perfectly correctly, that if they could increase their production, not only would they be able to supply more overalls, but would also be able to supply them cheaper, when the working man would be able to get his overalls at a considerably reduced price under the more efficient methods of production which would then be possible. At present, not only does the working man have to pay an unnecessarily high price for his overalls, if he can get them, but, if he is unable to get them, it means that his ordinary clothing deteriorates, becomes damaged and has to be replaced. We all know what it costs to buy clothing today.

There is no doubt—indeed, there is a great deal of evidence in support of my contention—that this acute shortage is having an adverse effect on the production of manufactured goods in this country. I cannot see the sense of exporting this heavy industrial drill in the piece if, in so doing, we cause a serious reduction in the production of manufactured goods for the export market. That does not make sense. I agree that certain limited measures have recently been taken by the Board of Trade to try to improve the situation, but those measures by themselves will not solve this difficult problem. Supplies of the necessary cloth have lagged behind consumer demands for so long now that there is an ever-widening gap between supply and demand, and, unless something is done about it very quickly, the situation is going to get out of hand.

The problem will not be solved until the Board of Trade adopt a new and realistic policy as regards the exporting of this cloth. Even if a comparatively small quantity were diverted from the export to the home market, it would make a tremendous difference; it would make the difference between plenty and famine. We know that the real cause of this difficulty is excessive exports of cloth in the piece; and something can and must be done about it by reviewing the whole export programme. That review should take place at once. But that is not by any means the only cause, although it is the favourite excuse of the Board of Trade.

Another equally important reason is that in the cotton industry it is relatively unprofitable to make this heavy drill cloth for the home market, and the productive capacity which could be used for producing it has been diverted to the production of other types of cloth. There has also been created a shortage of weavers, particularly in Lancashire, because the making of this heavy cloth is an unpleasant business. A man can walk out of a factory making such cloth and can equally easily get a job making other types, such as shirting, poplin, and so on. The only way to deal with that situation is to review the whole wages system of the cotton industry, and to try to make the manufacture of overall cloths more attractive and to provide greater incentives to people to make it.

Finally, we should be told today what the Minister means when he says that all practicable steps are being taken to increase the production of overall drill. As long ago as November, 1947, we were first told that all practicable steps were being taken, and we have been told the same thing at intervals ever since. Yet supplies of this material have been steadily decreasing. What, then, are these alleged steps which are being taken? The House has waited very patiently for some signs of improvement in the supply of this material, but none is apparent. On the contrary, as I have said, the situation is getting worse, and meanwhile British industry is suffering under a severe handicap through the acute shortage of protective clothing. We cannot wait for ever for the Board of Trade to make up their mind what they are going to do. Let the Minister take this opportunity this afternoon to tell us exactly what he proposes to do about it.

2.48 p.m.

Mr. Skeffington (Lewisham, West)

I am sure we are very grateful to the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Ward) for raising this subject of the shortage of protective clothing for certain industries. I want only to refer to the matter in so far as it affects the food trades and food shops, because it is from those interests in my constituency that I have received representations on the subject. I think it unfortunate that, at the very time that the Ministry of Food is rightly engaging in its "clean food" campaign, we should find in London, at any rate—and I believe it is so elsewhere—the very greatest difficulty in getting protective clothing for those serving and processing food.

We all know that a great deal of sickness is caused through the fact that standards of cleanliness in these industries have not been of the highest in the past. Figures have been given to show that more than 1,000 people a year lose their lives and that many other illnesses are caused as a result of it. Therefore, proper clothing which can be frequently changed and washed is essential. In many cases where people try to carry out the new suggestions and comply with the new standards, they meet with great difficulty. The West Lewisham Chamber of Commerce wrote to me on 10th May sending a resolution which commented on: the general acute shortage of white aprons for the use of food shop assistants. The resolution added that: in the interests of clean food the Board of Trade be urged to increase the allowance of these garments on the market. The Sydenham and District Grocers Association also wrote to me in May about the difficulty of obtaining industrial aprons. Their secretary said: My wife tried eight shops in Croydon last week without any success. One of my assistants had tried three shops in Smithfield. … Our President, who has always obtained his requirements from a local trader, has had to go further afield, even writing to the manufacturers who advertise in our trade Press, but with no results. There is little doubt that those who are trying to do the right thing and to take every opportunity of giving the best possible and cleanest service to the public are experiencing great difficulty. I do not want to suggest any action which would have the effect of reducing the goods which we are able to sell abroad. Many of our standards will be radically reduced if we do not maintain our level of exports. I should have thought, however, that it was possible to see that there was a greater allocation of the materials required for manufacture or that the distribution was more efficiently done. I have taken up this matter with the Board of Trade, but they tell me that they are not responsible for distribution and that they cannot devise any scheme of priorities. Something must be done if we are not to make a mockery of the "clean food" campaign. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Worcester for raising this subject. I hope that we shall get a rather more encouraging answer from the Minister this afternoon.

2.52 p.m.

Mr. Drayson (Skipton)

I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. G. Ward) on raising this subject. I wish to put in a special plea for the workers in the textile industry, just as the hon. Member for West Lewisham (Mr. Skeffington) spoke on behalf of those engaged in food distribution. It is pleasant to go through a textile weaving or spinning shed and to see all the operatives dressed in suitable clean overalls. In fact, in one of my own concerns, we endeavour to do that, even going so far as to have our own laundry in order to ensure that the overalls are kept clean and that replacements are made on suitable occasions. But it is extremely difficult to carry on this practice. It is even more difficult for anyone who wants to adopt a similar scheme.

In these days, when standards are higher as a result of the progress we have made, people like to go to work in attractive clothes and they can do that if they know that they can put on an overall to protect themselves from whatever process they are engaged in. Indirectly, I believe that this is a stimulus to production. People work with a better will if they know, for instance, in the textile trade, that their clothes will not become impregnated with the waste material resulting from the various processes.

This problem has been discussed many times in the House, and I hope that today the Minister will have something helpful to say. The possibilities of exporting these types of materials may not be quite as favourable as they were. There is foreign competition in this field and it may be that foreign products are cheaper than our own. I ask that, if possible, there should be a greater release of material for the home market. The Minister would help all those engaged in industry, especially those who are trying to raise morale and generally to improve the working conditions in their own establishments, if he could do something of that nature.

2.56 p.m.

The Secretary for Overseas Trade (Mr. Bottomley)

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Worcester (Mr. G. Ward) has shown that this matter has been continuously under review. A number of Questions have been put and I can assure him that each Question put to our Department receives very full consideration and the best possible answer is given. He said that there had been different answers. That is an indication that at different times there were various changes. That itself shows that action has been taken. I agree that there is a tremendous shortage of this kind of cloth, especially of the drill necessary for making overalls. I have to repeat the same old story with some additions. The main reason is because we are exporting. Is there any hon. Member who is prepared to say that we should stop exporting? If so I think he will have to face up to the outcome of doing so. If we fail to export the goods which we can sell overseas, it means that we fail to get food in return, and factory workers cannot keep going unless they get food to eat.

Mr. Ward

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not like to misrepresent what I said. I made it clear that the position must be reviewed and that there must be a proper balance. It is no good exporting a lot of cloth if, by doing so, we sacrifice other exports of manufactured goods, because this shortage of overalls is having an adverse effect upon the production of manufactured goods.

Mr. Bottomley

I intended answering that point. Clearly, you made the sug-gestion——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Bowles)

The hon. Gentleman must address the Chair. He must not address hon. Members as "you."

Mr. Bottomley

I am sorry. I was saying that the suggestion was made that we ought not to export, but that we should release supplies for the home market. I was trying to show that that would result in our not getting food for the workers in the factories or the necessary raw materials required to increase production. Inevitably, I must repeat, the export drive has first place. The President of the Board of Trade who has just returned from Canada tells me that the demand for this kind of cloth is as great as ever. It is a good dollar earner. In addition, we send a large amount of material to the Colonies. If we did not supply those cloths the Colonies would go to the United States or elsewhere and pay dollars, so that not only is this a dollar earner but it is a dollar saver.

There are other reasons for the increase in the demand. In industry it sometimes happens that people are encouraged to seek employment by the offer of free overalls. That creates an additional demand. It is true that there are now higher standards of cleanliness and protection, and that involves a further increase in the demand. I know from my own experience as a trade union official before the war, of the struggle we had to get this kind of protective clothing. It is gratifying to know that at long last as a result of trade union action many more workers now get supplies. In particular, the railwaymen are now supplied with overalls. They did not get them before the war. Therefore, there is a general increase in the demand from the more limited supplies available. Hon. Gentlemen may be entitled to say to me, "We know the difficulties as well as you do, but what practical steps are you taking to help in this problem?" Primarily, we are trying to increase production. Our first emphasis is on that. We hope to increase production—indeed it is being slightly increased at present—by a recruiting drive. Unless we get the labour we shall not have sufficient workers to do the jobs in the factories. As a result of our drive we are getting more and more labour.

We are putting European Volunteer Workers into this kind of industry in order to make up for the lack of labour from our own resources. As the hon. Member has rightly stated, some of the machinery is not as efficient as it might be. We are giving priority in cases where additional machinery is needed, and also for the supply of accessories to keep the machines working. As a temporary expedient, in order that we may meet the demand, we are seeing if we can get the cloth required for manufacturing overalls from markets in soft currency areas or areas where it pays us to trade. In that connection, we have imported 450,000 square yards of material from Germany and we are making arrangements to import 200,000 square yards from Italy. It is hoped that by our production effort, and the additional steps which we are taking, we shall have more material available to make the overalls which are required.

On the question of wages, I can only say that this is a matter which must be considered. The House cannot expect me to report upon it this afternoon because the Cotton Manufacturing Commission have asked both sides of the industry to come together, and they are in consultation. We must await their decision before any further statement can be made. As to conditions of service, we are doing what we can to help. Hostels have been provided for the workers, and day-nurseries and schools are available to enable women who have children to come into industry and give us their help.

The export drive necessarily means that we have to sell those goods that are wanted by the overseas customer in order to earn the money with which to buy the raw materials and food which we require. We are doing what we can to increase production, to get supplies wherever available from easy markets and to make conditions better in order to attract the labour which is necessary if we are ultimately to increase our production.

Mr. Drayson

The hon. Gentleman says that he has imported some 400,000 square yards of material from Germany. Is that regarded as a soft or hard currency country?

Mr. Bottomley

I said that it either comes from countries where, as a result of bargaining, it pays us to get it, or from soft currency countries. In the case of Germany, it pays us to get material from that country.

Mr. Skeffington

Can my hon. Friend say whether the shortage is due purely to lack of labour or to lack of materials? I understood from the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. G. Ward) that there are manufacturers not working to capacity at the present time. Is that due to shortage of materials or shortage of labour, or neither?

Mr. Bottomley

We are certainly short of raw materials but we are more short of labour. If we were to follow the proposals of the hon. Member for Worcester, we should have still less raw material, which would add to our difficulties. It is raw material in part but primarily labour difficulties which are responsible for the shortage of cloth.