HC Deb 13 June 1952 vol 502 cc737-48

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

4.2 p.m.

Mrs. Eirene White (Flint, East)

We have had a good many debates on textiles in this House, and this afternoon I wish to call attention to what is perhaps a rather narrow issue but one of the highest importance to those of us who are concerned with the rayon section of the textile industry.

I raise it because in my constituency I have an area which is peculiarly vulnerable to any recession in the rayon industry. I may say that the towns of Flint and Holywell are largely dependent on rayon for their livelihood. We have at present a situation where last week workers with less than 20 years' service in the industry were dismissed, and only those with more than 20 years' service were able to carry on with their work. That gives some indication of the seriousness of the position in my own area.

I do not wish to lay undue stress upon the employment difficulties in this industry at the present time. I hope they are temporary. I know the Parliamentary Secretary is well aware of them. I came to this subject of the alteration of or addition to specifications of Service Departments so as to use more rayon textiles and fabrics through the needs of my constituents, but I very soon decided that it was one which merited attention on its own. I need not persuade the Parliamentary Secretary that synthetic fibres have their own special uses and advantages. He has an up-to-date outlook in these matters, and I will not stress that point beyond saying that very considerable advances have been made recently in the rayon industry.

It was perhaps unfortunate that the industry came out of its adolescent stage, so to speak, just before the last war and a good deal of wide-scale development was held up owing to the war. Utility specifications have some restrictive effect on wide-scale development, although that did not stop technical and scientific research, in which much progress has been made in the last few years. What we are asking is that that progress should be recognised by those who are responsible for entering into contracts for purchases by Government Departments.

I find that there are still extraordinary misapprehensions about the position of rayon, which has never quite lived down its early name of artificial silk. It is, therefore, apt to be considered as something which is a substitute or second-best. This, I believe, is today entirely unwarranted. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary recognises that there are certain definite advantages in synthetic fibres in that they can be fashioned to meet required specifications.

For example, in the early days it used to be suggested that if one put rayon fabric into very hot water it would immediately disintegrate. Today, we have a rayon mixture sheeting which can be boiled and sterilised without detriment. The industry realised that treatment of that kind was a necessary requirement for hospital sheets, and it set about making a product which would fulfil those requirements. I will not go through the long list which I know that the Parliamentary Secretary has had an opportunity of studying. In many of the articles concerned there are positive advantages in the use of rayon either by itself or, more often, in combination with one or other of the natural fibres of wool or cotton. One then gets the best of both by combining the qualities of both.

During the past few weeks, when my interest in rayon has become manifest, many people have said to me, "Surely, if you push rayon, will you not do so only at the expense of Lancashire and Yorkshire, which have their own problems? Will you not therefore be adding to unemployment in those areas even though you may quite properly be doing something for your own constituents?" To that there is the answer that that is not necessarily so.

It is true that continuous filament yarn is not completely interchangeable with wool or cotton in its processing, but the main arguments which have been going on recently between the trade and the Department have not, on the whole, been concerned with the specifications for filament fabric. The main arguments have been concerned with the use of rayon staple in conjunction with other fibres.

We believe that that is not in any way detrimental to employment in either Lancashire or Yorkshire. Staple is designed precisely to be used on the same machines as wool or cotton. Therefore, the spinners and weavers in Lancashire and Yorkshire can feed their machines with one fibre or the other. To them, as far as employment is concerned, it will make no difference. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) says, it will positively help.

Apart from that, rayon has positive advantages which should be stressed. It is, of course, made in this country. It does not have to be bought for dollars as does cotton. Normally it is very much cheaper than either wool or cotton. It is in the public interest that it should be used. It is not subject to anything like such violent fluctuations of world markets as the natural fibres. It has these positive advantages, I would urge for this reason that it is in the interests both of private buyers and public buyers that they should use rayon fabrics wherever possible.

Discussions on this matter have been going on at what one might call fairly high level for a matter of at least two years since the dollar aspect of this question was realised to be one of considerable importance. What I hope that we shall have today from the Parliamentary Secretary is some account of the situation which has now been reached in this matter. He was present yesterday at a useful discussion which we had at the Ministry of Supply. He knows that certain points were raised then.

I was extremely glad to find that the Minister of Supply had decided that a working party should be set up consisting of officials and representatives of the industry, with the Parliamentary Secretary in the chair. We hope for great and rapid results from this working party. I am sure we shall not be disappointed. There are, after all, degrees of leisure-liness which can be permitted to public departments. What was perfectly reasonable last year when the order books of the rayon industry were full, would be quite unreasonable today, although even then I should have thought that the dollar aspect was one of urgency.

What we are asking is that, wherever possible, alternative specifications should be allowed for these contracts to permit of rayon taking its place with other materials. We are not asking that it should necessarily displace them, unless it can be shown to be better. All we want is that rayon should have its fair place in the specifications which are allowed. Where it is felt that sufficient trials have not been given for outright alternative specifications to be possible, we ask that sufficient orders should now be placed to enable large-scale user trials of the shirting, sheets, blankets and the other items with which the hon. Gentleman is acquainted, to go ahead.

We should like to know from the Minister what steps are to be taken in future to see that there is better coordination between the different Government Departments which make use of these articles and textiles, and that, where one Department, for example—in this instance, the Post Office—has made very extensive tests of the articles, the result of those tests should be brought to the attention of other Departments concerned, which should not begin their own tests all over again.

We should also like to know from him whether it has been decided that it will be possible to reach a conclusion as to the wearing qualities of certain articles without having to wait possibly two or three years until they have arrived at what the Services call destruction point. I believe that an intelligent guess may be made long before that period has elapsed. We also hope that the working party will be able to make suggestions to other Departments, not only the Service Departments which may be concerned in public purchases, so that they may themselves become aware of the advantages of the use of rayon in textiles.

For instance, we shall have a Coronation next year, and the Ministry of Works will be responsible for some of the decorations. I suggest that it might be possible for the Ministry of Works to see whether the materials which may be used—bunting and so on—would have the advantages which I suggest are to be found in rayon material.

The plea I put forward now is definitely a plea for rayon on its merits. I believe we can make a very good case for the use of rayon on its merits. We are not asking that it should be used where other fabrics are more suitable, but we believe, at any rate, that tests have shown the considerable advance which has been made in rayon development. The fact of the matter is that at the moment there is a degree of urgency, because of the unemployment situation, but that is only one part of the case put forward for the consideration of the Government, which we believe to be a very strong case indeed.

4.13 p.m.

Air Commodore Harvey (Macclesfield)

I am glad to support the hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) in what I think is the very strong case which she has represented to the House. In so doing, I should like to thank the Minister of Supply and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who will reply, for the interest they have taken in this matter, which has been raised mainly through the activities of the hon. Lady in recent days.

There is no doubt that the situation in the rayon industry is acute. In my own constituency of Macclesfield, which was known throughout the world as a great silk producing town, we now produce more rayon than silk, but at present we have very serious unemployment in that borough, which we think is just as badly off, in proportion, as are other places in Lancashire.

It seems to me that the Ministry of Supply could speed up the tests, not only in the Post Office, but by the Prison Commissioners, who have made considerable use of rayon. Exhaustive tests have been made, and I should have thought that the benefit of these tests could have been used in assessing the value of this fibre. Spinning machinery is going to be used in Lancashire, and it will continue to be used. That is important. We have also heard that in America specifications are issued to the Forces for rayon for parachutes used for dropping equipment, not human beings. Could the Minister see that we accept the American specifications? It may not be easy, perhaps, but the possibility could be looked into.

Then there is the case of khaki shirting, a tender for which has already been issued, where the specification is 60 per cent. wool and 40 per cent. cotton. The mixture of 60 per cent, wool and 40 per cent. rayon is considerably stronger and cheaper, and the firms who are making this fabric have given it exhaustive tests. They are very knowledgeable people and know their business, and I would ask my hon. Friend to take note of their tests and to get particulars of them as quickly as possible.

The same can be said with regard to socks. They are much cheaper with the rayon blend, and tests in this respect have now been taking place for two years. All hon. Members know that socks do not last very long. A soldier, I believe, is issued with four pairs of socks a year. Could not a complete quarter's supply be made in the rayon mixture? That would be a great help in trying out wool and rayon socks in one large sample.

As regards blankets, the 45 per cent. rayon blend is 6s. 4d. a lb. whereas the 100 per cent. wool is 7s. 2d. a lb., and I am told that the shrinkage of the blend blanket is 17 per cent. as against 26 per cent, for the all-wool. I realise that the rayon industry as a comparatively new industry and that in the past it may, perhaps, have over-stated its case. But I am confident from the discussions we have had with the industrialists that they are only anxious to put forward fibres which they know and can trust to carry out the work for which they recommend them. It will ease the balance of payments position of this country because home products will be used, and it will bring the emphasis on the smaller textile companies which are not all in Lancashire.

I should like to say again that I have the greatest sympathy with the Lancashire problem, but nevertheless there are small towns throughout the country which are equally hard hit, though the distress is not so concentrated. If the Government can give some assistance in that direction, they will assist the morale of the people running the businesses and that of the workers, and may well encourage civilian buyers to place orders. I am confident that the Government and my hon. Friend, who has taken a great interest in the suggestions I have put to him, will do their utmost to see that rayon is used in greater quantities than before.

4.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply (Mr. A. R. W. Low)

I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) initiated this debate and my right hon. Friend has asked me to say how grateful he is to her for the interest she has taken and also to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Air Commodore Harvey) and one or two other hon. Members for the interest they have taken in it and for the time they gave up yesterday in bringing to him the valuable deputation which discussed this matter.

Before I come to the immediate steps which we are taking—and I regret that I cannot announce anything very concrete today—I should like to refer to some of the more general issues. The point has been made that there is an advantage to our balance of payments in encouraging the use of rayon so as to reduce the amount of cotton which we have to import. This is true. One of various calculations made shows that each one million lb. weight of rayon substituted for natural fibres saves £250,000, largely in dollars.

Rayon uses imported materials, but the cost of these is much less per lb. weight of rayon than is the cost of importing cotton or wool. It has also been argued, and was today by the hon. Lady and by my hon. and gallant Friend, that rayon is cheaper than either cotton or wool, and that an admixture of rayon will reduce the price of a textile material. This is probably true in general, but, as the House will be aware, prices will depend partly on the proportion of rayon used and partly on the current prices of the various fibres. All Departments of the Government are, of course, well aware of those two factors. I will see that the points that the hon. Lady made at the end of her speech are brought to the notice of my right hon. Friend.

I should like to say a few words about the size of Service orders. By now most of the cotton and wool cloth required for the re-armament programme has been ordered. The percentage of rayon in cotton-rayon mixture would vary but the average would not be more than 30 to 40 per cent. and in wool-rayon mixture it would be less. One pound of rayon might produce about five yards of pure rayon fabric and therefore one million pounds of rayon might be used in about 15 million yards of rayon-cotton mixture. Even if orders could be placed on this scale they would provide only a small direct help to the industry which has a potential output of 440 million lb. weight a year.

As I understand, however, the argument for increasing the quantity of rayon in clothing and materials ordered for the Services does not rest on the direct impact which that might have upon the rayon industry, and particularly upon employment in the rayon industry. I am glad that the hon. Lady appreciates that we are all aware of the unemployment situation in that industry and that we are anxious to give as prompt help as we can.

The argument rather is—and I agree with it—that an increase in the amount of rayon used in Service orders would have a psychological effect upon the industry and upon possible consumers of rayon. I should add here—as the hon. Lady explained—that the substitution of rayon for cotton or wool will have little or no adverse effect on employment in Lancashire and Yorkshire in particular. Rayon is spun and woven on the same machines as natural fibres.

In the past comparatively little rayon has been used by the Services. Its use has been virtually confined to men's summer vests, to a number of items of women's underwear, stockings, ties, lanyards and ribbon, to linings and to parachutes. I understand that the mess dress of the W.R.N.S. has contained rayon. In 1951–52 the expenditure by the Ministry of Supply on rayon mixture clothing was £16,500, only part of which was for rayon itself. So far, orders for 1952–53 have been on much the same scale and represent one-fiftieth of 1 per cent. of the expenditure on clothing and textiles generally.

There has been discussion from time to time about the use of rayon in parachutes and it might help the House if I gave a few facts. Eighteen months ago, following satisfactory trials, the first production order was placed for a number of light-weight escape type parachutes to be used in jet aircraft. There has been some difficulty in the manufacture of this fine and light-weight fabric, but progress has been made recently and it is likely that there will be further orders. Nearly 10,000 flare parachutes made of the same type of light-weight yarn have been ordered.

Paratroopers' parachutes are still made of nylon. Supply dropping parachutes have been made mainly of nylon in the past, though there has been a small order for some rayon parachutes of one type. It would be of advantage to the national economy if more rayon could be used and less nylon. Experiments are to take place with a rayon yarn for supply dropping parachutes. These trials will take some months——

Mr. T. Driberg (Maldon)

In connection with the point which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) about using the result of research by other Departments, is the hon. Gentleman aware of the fairly encouraging answer I had yesterday from the Minister of Health about the progress of tests in the use of rayon in surgical dressings? Will he see what can be done in that respect by Service Departments and the R.A.M.C?

Mr. Low

I am aware of the answer my right hon. Friend gave yesterday. The hon. Member may not know that the Minister of Health was present at the meeting we had in the morning. We and the Ministry of Health and the Service Departments are co-operating in this matter. I think the hon. Member can be certain that we are alive to the importance of co-ordinating Departmental action in these matters; and if improvements have to be made on what was done in previous years we will quickly make them.

What more can be done? We must accept the fact that however desirable it is that rayon should be substituted for cotton or wool, the Services cannot accept a change in the materials which are used for Services clothing unless they are satisfied that the new materials will meet in full their necessary specifications. The clothing must be able to stand up to wear in the climates for which it is designed, and often to very hard wear. It must also stand up to somewhat rough laundering treatment. It must not lose its toughness if it gets wet. and there are other needs, too: and one cannot altogether exclude considerations of taste.

Before a new type of material is adopted, therefore, there has to be a thorough test of the qualities of that material, and this must be followed by trials by some of those who will wear or use the clothing. The hon. Lady made the point of the time taken up in all these processes. I will certainly have a close look at that and see what can be done, if anything, to reduce it.

Two years ago a technical advisory committee was set up in the Ministry of Supply with these terms of reference: To examine and report on the extent to which use can be made of synthetic fibres in the economic development of clothing and general stores for Service Departments. This committee includes representatives of the Admiralty, of the Air Ministry and of the industry. The Ministry of Supply keeps closely in touch with the War Office. Though this committee has concentrated a great deal of its efforts on rayon, it has also had to investigate the use of nylon and other synthetic fibres. The object of the committee was not a short-term object, and it remains so. We are grateful for its hard work, although little has so far resulted. However, trials of 25 materials are now taking place with rayon.

During the first year of the life of this committee the demand for rayon appeared to be well in excess of supplies. There was not the present urgency to hurry on with the trials, and, therefore, most of the trials of important materials did not begin until towards the end of 1951. In several cases these trials have proceeded far enough to be hopeful, or even more than hopeful, that the material will be acceptable to the Services.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

Does that include denim?

Mr. Low


In normal circumstances it might be desirable for all these trials to be carried on to their full conclusion and to be followed by careful examination by the Service Departments. However, in the present state of the re-armament clothing programme, and as a result of the acceleration of orders in that programme, there may be a case for departing from the normal rule and for taking decisions to order a small or large quantity of the mixed rayon material for more extensive trials in the Services. In some instances there may be a case for taking the decision now to include rayon mixture in the specification required for particular cloth that may be being ordered.

Yesterday, as the hon. Lady said, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply received a deputation led by her. The deputation included my hon. Friend and some other hon. Members and also leaders of the rayon industry. I have already said that there were other Government Departments there represented by Ministers, including the Board of Trade and the Admiralty. The deputation gave my right hon. Friend their views and their experience, for which he is grateful, and which he welcomed. My right hon. Friend then set up a working group under the chairmanship of myself, to include representatives of the Ministry of Supply and Service Departments as well as leaders of the industry, to examine the possibility of including rayon mixtures in some of the orders which remain to be placed.

Conclusions will be reached by this working group before the end of next week. Results will be rapid. I cannot say how great they will be. I must stress again that in this matter the Ministry of Supply has to carry with it its customers, the Service Departments, and that we accept completely that their specifications must be fully met. Moreover, we accept that no permanent change in the type of material used for Service clothing can be made without the fullest trials.

But our attitude to the general problem is plain. We want to help the rayon industry first, because we want to help to reduce or remove unemployment—and our actions may help to increase confidence in this way—and second, because we should welcome the increased use of rayon for balance of payments reasons, and our leadership in this matter must be of some importance.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes to Five o'Clock.