HC Deb 27 November 1950 vol 481 cc906-16

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

9.59 p.m.

Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)

I hope the House will forgive me while I confine myself for a short time to a constituency problem which is giving us a great deal of anxiety, namely, unemployment in Lowestoft. I am very well aware that seasonal unemployment in coastal resorts is common, but in Lowestoft it has assumed a character that is not only persistent but has become fairly chronic. Seasonable unemployment is inevitable in a great many of the seaside resorts which depend upon certain types of industry, but it is rather a sad reflection that in my own constituency this recurrence of unemployment has assumed such a degree—

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. Sparks.]

Mr. Evans

Already I have taken this matter up with the Parliamentary Sec- retary to the Minister of Labour, and I am very grateful to him for the interest and help he has taken in the matter. I have no desire to exaggerate the position. I should not like the House or my constituents to assume that Lowestoft is "on its uppers." It has a lively social and economic life, but the position is serious. The local authority, the chamber of commerce, the trade unions and all concerned with the welfare of that borough feel a great deal of anxiety. I must say at once that it is not nearly as bad as it was in pre-war days, when, including Great Yarmouth, which I know particularly well, the neighbourhood was virtually a distressed area.

Lowestoft is a town of 41,000 people. The popular conception of it is that it is a small fishing town or small coastal resort. It is perfectly true that it is a fishing town, and also there is drifting for herring particularly during the autumn herring season. It is also a seaside resort with a number of first-class hotels, a large number of boarding houses and a number of holiday camps on the periphery. It stands on the outskirts of the incomparable Broads.

The town depends in very large measure for its economy and prosperity on those two major industries—fishing and catering for holidays. That is by no means all. There is in addition a considerable industrial activity. There are shipbuilding and ship repairing yards, a number of engineering works of various size and capacity, several canning factories for both fish and vegetables, a progressive co-operative factory, a large number of undertakings, which are ancillary to the fishing trade, and about a dozen establishments employing 100 or more men and women.

Lowestoft played a very important part in the prosecution of the war. The whole town was given over to military and naval requirements. The two large industries, fishing and holiday traffic, were killed dead at a stroke, and it has taken a long time for them to recover. It became an evacuation area and a restricted area. It was constantly subject to air raids and it became a naval establishment of first-class importance. During that period the shipbuilding yards were wholly engaged in building marine craft for the Royal Navy. Our vessels, including the fishing fleet and the drifters, were deflected from fishing to minesweeping. The holiday accommodation was requisitioned for Service personnel.

Both the holiday traffic and fishing are seasonal in character. The holiday season, owing to the climatic condition prevailing on the East Coast, is a very short season. The air is glorious; it is our finest asset, but towards the end of September and the beginning of October it is very difficult to enjoy the evening entertainments or sit on the front, because of the nip in the air. The fishing season lasts only about 10 weeks or so.

Inevitably, from these two causes alone, there must develop a persistent regular pocket of unemployment. The incidence is high, much too high. It is as large as 4 per cent. and is likely to increase, and is second only in the country to Merseyside. This is a serious liability on the town and on those who have its welfare at heart. Before the summer season, in January, the figures rose to 977 on the live register, and, in October, at the end of the holiday season, they were 768. During the time of the fishing season, the slack is taken up a good deal, but we fear that by January next these figures will rise to at least 1,500. In January, 1949, the figure was 1,450. and in January, 1950, 1,461.

I suggest that there are several ways in which the position can be alleviated. First, by attracting new industries of a non-seasonal character. The town council has done all it can, and with a certain amount of success, to attract smaller industries into the borough and neighbourhood, and I want to say a little more on that subject later. Secondly, by providing existing undertakings with enough work to occupy them to their full capacity; that is to say, particularly in engineering establishments, which are able to do a great deal more than they are doing at present. They have the machinery and can recruit the staff.

In addition to actual unemployment, there is today a considerable amount of under-employment. I suggest that it would be possible in our rearmament programme, to place contracts with these engineering and shipbuilding firms. In regard to shipping, the Admiralty could give us more of the repair work than it has been doing in the past. It could give us contracts for marine craft like mine- sweepers and other light craft for the construction of which the town is particularly adapted. We have two parent firms well known in shipbuilding—Brooks Marine and Richards Ironworks —and they have a great many subcontractors, who could take up the leeway in the smaller engineering firms, who themselves could take on a great deal more by direct contracts. In this regard, we ask that Lowestoft, having served the country well in wartime, should not be forgotten in peace-time.

The third way is by easing the supply situation, especially in regard to steel and tinplate. I am sorry to have to report to the House that only lately I have been engaged in endeavouring to get more steel for one of our shipbuilding yards. They have had to close down one of their slipways because of their inability to get steel, which is now supposed to be uncontrolled. In view of the large canning industry in the town, we should like to get more tin, which is very essential for this growing industry. When we hear, as we did today, that we are importing canned vegetables in the very tinplate that we are exporting, it does seem to me that the Ministry of Supply should be able to look into this matter and see that our supplies, at any rate in this very vital and growing industry, are adequate.

Building is one of the black spots, and that could be assisted by the authorisation of new building. Over 100 building workers have had to be found work outside the town, and I suggest that the Ministry of Health should give an authorisation to bring forward the allocations of housing, and that the Ministry of Works should plan their building a little ahead of schedule in order to prevent these operatives becoming out of work, which is, of course, the source of very great dissatisfaction.

One of our biggest anxieties is the position of our young lads now leaving school. It is increasingly difficult to place these boys in an apprenticeship in a skilled trade, particularly in ship repairing and general engineering. It has now come to such a position that one of our prominent citizens the other day advised boys that, if they wanted to get on, they should get out of the town and go to other places. That is entirely wrong.

With regard to attracting new industries, we have available in the town a vacant site of 27 acres, with over 138 thousand square feet of buildings with water, power, rail, and wharf facilities. During the war, this fine factory was requisitioned by the Admiralty and used as a demobilisation centre. I think most of the men who passed through the Royal Navy went to Lowestoft to be demobilised. I put it to the Minister that this site might be requisitioned under the Requisitioned Land and War Works Act 1945, as amended by the Supplies and Services (Transitional Powers) Act of 1945 and the Supplies and Services (Extended Purposes) Act, 1947. This would enable undertakings to lease the whole or part of these buildings under central or local authority.

The employment position is liable to deteriorate. When a great deal of reconstruction and rehabilitation work has been accomplished, we shall find a further fall in work for skilled men, particularly in the building trade. I ask the Minister to consider Lowestoft and the surrounding area, particularly Great Yarmouth—and I am sure my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Squadron Leader Kinghorn) will bear me out—as a development area for the purposes of the Distribution of Industry Act, 1945.

I know I have the support and sympathy of the Parliamentary Secretary. I urge the Government to do all in their power in this respect, through the various Departments. I ask them to act through the Admiralty for contracts for the building and, particularly, for the repair of vessels. That work is capable of division into a great deal of sub-contracting, which will give much work to the smaller engineering firms. I ask the Government also to act through the Ministry of Supply with contracts and supplies, through the Ministry of Health in facilitating building projects, and through the Board of Trade in encouraging new industry.

I hope my hon. Friend will get into contact with those Departments and put the case as strongly as he can to secure their co-operation in trying to ease the situation there. If trouble comes, as it may, we shall be glad of the help of these brave little towns. Let us not neglect them now as they have been neglected in the past. They could play their part, and, from their history. I am sure that their record deserves the sympathy and help of the Government.

10.13 p.m.

Squadron Leader Kinghorn (Yarmouth)

I regret very much that, at this my first opportunity to speak in the new Chamber, I cannot make the speech I should have liked to make on behalf of my constituency. However, if people listening to or reading this debate substitute Great Yarmouth for Lowestoft in the speech we have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans), that would Dye a good picture of the situation in my own constituency.

In reinforcing the argument of my hon. Friend, I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give the very closest consideration to the matters raised already, and also try to bring the various Government Departments together to embark upon a policy of including Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft in the plan in which they should have been included before the war. In other words, Great Yarmouth should have been regarded as a distressed area. It just missed by a few points being so regarded when war broke out.

During the war, Yarmouth was the most raided town in this country. It bore the brunt of the last war and of the previous war. I still see notices in the town warning people to take cover against naval bombardments. On those grounds alone, we should have consideration. The problem could not be better stated than it is in a letter which I received from the Great Yarmouth and District trades Council. The letter states: We felt that the figures of unemployment. even so early in the winter they mean this winter— were alarmingly high, more so as the number has been increasing over the past two or three years. The majority of the delegates were of the opinion that the Minister of Town and Country Planning, also the President of the Board of Trade, should be approached, in addition to yourself, with a view to industries being placed in the town which would help to combat this danger. It was felt, furthermore, that there were a number of industries which cater for women workers but that there was very little of a similar nature for men. We need more permanent, all-the-year-round work for the men, who have families to support. If the Parliamentary Secretary can convey to the various Government Departments concerned the wishes on my hon. Friend and myself, and also the wishes which have been expressed by the town council through deputations to the various Ministries concerned, I am sure we can enable our two magnificent, brave little towns to share in what the rest of the country has been enjoying since the war—full employment. I will conclude with that, because I understand that other hon. Members wish to speak.

10.16 p.m.

Commander Maitland (Horncastle)

I want to endorse what has been said already in the debate. As the Minister knows, this is not a simple problem but one which extends all over the country. It is a blot on our copybook of full employment; it must be considered, and it is best that it should be brought into the open.

I want to emphasise two points. First, the situation is extremely difficult for towns on the East Coast which have a very short season. In Skegness, in my constituency, we have an extremely short season, which means that for a very long period of the year a number of men and women, comparable with the number mentioned by the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans), are out of work. I have approached all the relevant Ministries, as the Parliamentary Secretary knows. We have done our utmost to try to attract industries to Skegness and to the district. So far we have failed. We hope that soon we may have these industries for all-the-year-round employment, and we will do our best to see that they are manned.

My second point is that it seems hard to these people, who are being very hard hit at the moment, that this time should have been chosen to introduce regulations to cut down the amount of unemployment benefit they receive.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. Edgar Granville (Eye)

May I, in one minute, reinforce the appeals that have been made by the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans), the hon. and gallant Member for Yarmouth (Squadron-Leader Kinghorn) and the hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland)? Unfortunately, some industries, or some firms, have been transferred from East Anglia to South Wales, and I want the Parliamentary Secretary, if he can, to give me an under taking that this will cease and that there will be no further transference of important industries from East Anglia to development areas. I should have thought that the skilled labour which is available in the light engineering industry could have been used had the Ministry of Supply, in particular, considered whether they could give engineering contracts of an educational character, which the Parliamentary Secretary fully understands, to these two towns where an abundance of labour is available.

10.19 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Frederick Lee)

I have a great deal of sympathy with hon. Members on the question which has been raised—the question of seaside towns in which there is not sufficient of the type of work which can be spread over the whole of the 12-month period. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) pointed out, his constituency has had a rather higher rate of unemployment, especially at certain periods of the year, than that which is common to areas outside those now classed as development areas. My hon. Friend has raised this issue with me on many occasions and I, in turn, by consulting my colleagues in other Departments, have tried to attract a more regular type of work to Lowestoft.

In the next few minutes I will try to tell the House some of the things which we have been able to do. The Board of Trade and my own Department, together with all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, are extremely anxious that, as far as humanly possible, we should get rid of this seasonal unemployment which causes considerable hardship in towns such as those we are discussing tonight. The problem is quite a difficult one, especially on account of the seasonal nature of much of the employment in Lowestoft. Although a certain amount of the fishing based on Lowestoft is carried on throughout the whole year, the herring season itself is comparatively short. I understand that it is operative from about mid-September to the end of the year. Consequently, there is normally a large addition to the unemployed during January and the following three months. This year however, the lay-up of trawlers continued very much longer because of the difficulties of the fishing industry in all the principal fishing ports following the removal of controls in the early part of this year. The various interests throughout the country concerned with the catching and marketing of fish have been invited to consider what might be done to re-organise, and so establish the industry on a sounder basis.

As my hon. Friend said, in Lowestoft the holiday season is quite short, and this year it was affected by the very inclement weather. Our problem is to find another seasonal industry having an employment peak in the off season for the fishing and holiday industries, and this presents very many problems. The seasonal nature of Lowestoft's unemployment is revealed by the large increase which occurs around January. As a matter of fact, in looking at the statistics, one finds that invariably the unemployment level doubles during January. In June, 1948, there were 382 unemployed, being 332 men and 50 women; in 1949 it was worse, with 509 men and 82 women, a total of 591 unemployed; in June this year there were 762 men and 246 women unemployed, making a total of 1,008 unemployed, or some 6.5 per cent. of the insured employable people in the district. I at once agree that that presents a very great problem. The effects of a bad season, when added to the ordinary conditions of seasonal employment, make conditions very bad indeed.

As my hon. Friend said, there are other industries in Lowestoft, notably engineering, motor body building, ship building and repairing, and canning and food processing. I assure my hon. Friend that Lowestoft has been given quite considerable thought by various Government Departments, and enjoys a preference in the placing of contracts, including defence work, in common with the development areas, and certain other districts experiencing unemployment in which there are better prospects of recruiting more workers. At 16th October of this year the number of unemployed men registered at Lowestoft whose last employment was in ship building and ship repairing was 40. I know that is not a great number, but it is a problem in a comparatively small district.

Contracts have now been licensed for the building of five mine-sweepers, and that job has been allocated by the Admiralty to Lowestoft. This should have quite a favourable effect on the prospects for the placing of men who are now registered as unemployed whose background is in the shipyards. Although there is some unemployment among building workers, the number is comparatively small. There are some 70 people registered as unemployed. It is, of course, recognised that some building workers have obtained work elsewhere, as my hon. Friend said. Of course, it must be remembered that mobility, is, in fact, a special feature of the building industry, and the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Works are very well aware of the position. I do not know whether, in fact, all the building allocations assigned to Lowestoft have been taken up there. Perhaps, my hon. Friend will look at the local aspects of the matter, and ensure that everything possible is being done to make sure that the allocations granted by the Ministry of Health are taken up locally.

My hon. Friend mentioned the question of tinplate. The Ministry of Food recognise that the general shortage of tinplate limits the activities of firms engaged in canning. As far as possible they endeavour to help such firms in areas such as Lowestoft where there is a rather high level of unemployment. I will personally see the Minister of Food again to find out whether there is anything that can be done for Lowestoft in that particular direction.

My hon. Friend mentioned the question of unemployment among boys and girls. Well, the figures I have show that there are nine boys and 11 girls unemployed. Of those, two boys want to be building apprentices and two engineering apprentices, while in addition 14 boys already in employment want apprenticeships, eight in building, one in boat building and five in engineering. The building apprenticeship position, on the whole, does not differ greatly from that in other parts of the country. I am told that one building firm in Lowestoft is prepared to consider any boys who are suitable for training purposes.

Broadly, the position in the Lowestoft area, I agree, is rather worse than it is on the average throughout the country. As my hon. Friend said, Lowestoft's chief problem is the seasonal unemployment problem. This is, in fact, a problem to which the Government have given much thought, for it affects to some extent almost every holiday, fishing and coastal town in Britain, and the fact that hon. Members other than my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft have taken part in this debate emphasises that fact. Seasonal unemployment presents difficulties of which we know of no ready-made solution.

In paragraph 89 of the White Paper on the Distribution of Industry it is stated that the Board of Trade on numerous occasions have received claims by holiday resorts to be accorded development area status, but the problem is not one for which the policy of scheduling development areas was designed, and the Board of Trade felt that it could not make any exception in favour of Lowestoft in the present economic situation.

The Government has long recognised the great need for the establishment of new industries, as well as taking such other steps as are within their power to increase the prospects of employment in the district, and some success has attended our efforts. Six new firms employing about 420 workers were accommodated in existing factory premises. It has not been possible to persuadeany large industrialists to establish factory undertakings in recent years. The Board of Trade did put a number of industrial concerns in touch with the owners of the vacant factory premises known as the Oulton Silk Works, but there have been difficulties concerning compensation following the de-requisitioning of the premises in February, 1949. Efforts will, however, continue to be made to get an industrialist to go into the district to utilise the factory space available in the best possible awy.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Ten o'Clock.