HC Deb 13 May 1952 vol 500 cc1396-406

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

6.32 a.m.

Mr. Malcolm MacMillan (Western Isles)

I apologise for detaining the House at this very late hour, but I hope that a few hon. Members will take the advice of the Chancellor when he said that a good argument is always worth listening to. The argument, in brief, is simply this—that unemployment in my constituency at this time is about six times what it is in Lancashire, and, therefore, as deserving of urgent aid. I am sorry all the Lancashire Members had to go so hastily after trying to enlist the sympathy of hon. Members for the Western Isles and other areas in solving their own particular problems.

Mr. Harold Wilson (Huyton)

Not all Lancashire members.

Mr. MacMillan

I beg the right hon. Gentleman's pardon.

On 21st April at Stornoway exchange alone there were 1,409 unemployed, the percentage of the insured persons on the register being 27 per cent. For Great Britain at that date it stood at 2.2 per cent.; for Scotland, 3.3 per cent. The area suffering from the worst unemployment in England, namely the North-Western textile area, stood at 4.8 per cent., although I believe it is a little higher than that figure now. In the other Ministry of Labour exchange, which serves the southern islands of the Outer Hebrides, at Oban, unemployment stood on 21st April at 8 per cent. In the Oban figure of 454 on 21st April must be included a number of men and women from the Isles of Barra, North and South Uist.

I maintain that the Stornoway figure of 27 per cent. is something completely out of the ordinary, demanding ex- ceptional action—something not on a grand scale like Lancashire but certainly urgent and exceptional—by the Government. Western Isles unemployment certainly must now be in the order of at least 1,600 or 1,700. We must add to that a very considerable under—employment on a basis closely related to the unemployment figure, but mainly in the textile industry in the Western Isles. I do not want to go at 6.30 this morning into the question of the D scheme or Purchase Tax. But Purchase Tax at the rate of 66ⅅ per cent. was one of the main factors in creating local textile unemployment, and in making it difficult to sell Harris tweed. The main Western Isles weaving industry finally turned to Utility and found an escape from this excessive burden. I cannot yet measure the effect the D scheme is going to have on the industry, but any new tax is certainly not going to help production or employment.

Already that industry suffers from the difficulty of heavy freight charges on all its imported materials and on its outgoing manufactured goods. The tax has always been calculated upon the total cost of products, including freight charges. The higher those freights were, the higher the tax on the goods was. Since the freight charges made higher the price of the goods and so the amount of the tax, the more the freights were the more the Treasury were going to get out of it. It has been rather an unfortunate situation that the Treasury might be tempted to hope that freight charges might not come down, in order that they may collect more tax. It is also the case that 80 to 90 per cent. of the wool used in the main manufacturing industry, Harris tweed, is imported from the mainland under the disabilities of higher freights, transport delays and risky private bulk-buying through infrequent wool sales.

One of the worst features of unemployment in the area is denial of unemployment benefit among the weavers in the Harris tweed industry. There are among them about 1,400 to 1,500 members of the Transport and General Workers' Union. Their work is like that of factory weavers. Those who become unemployed in the industry, however, do not qualify for unemployment benefit at all because they have to weave the tweed in their own homes. It is a condition that they do weave it at home if they are going to use on the cloth the Board of Trade's legally protected "Orb Mark," which is the basis of their advertising and virtual monopoly in marketing of the main supply of genuine Harris tweed, as against the many imitation products manufactured in all parts of the world.

These workers, in order to conform to the definition of Harris tweed, must work at home. They cannot work under a factory roof and they cannot satisfy technically the ordinary conditions for unemployment insurance. They are regarded as self-employed and therefore are outside unemployment insurance and industrial injury benefit. They are absolutely dependent upon the spinners, the mill-owners, for their raw materials, their yarn. They have to manufacture to a design laid down and insisted upon strongly by the employers. They must complete their job for delivery in a certain time in terms of days.

Mr. John MacLeod (Ross and Cromarty)

The hon. Gentleman would agree that it is most necessary to the whole economy of the island that that should be done.

Mr. MacMillan

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I was going to say that this form of home weaving does fit naturally into the economy of the island since it can be done along with a certain amount of fishing, and crofting seasonal employment, local odd jobs, public works and so on. But my main concern is with the weaver as a weaver. The fact remains that because of the conditions attached to the use of the Orb Mark," they are debarred from enjoying unemployment insurance benefit when they are out of work. A large number at this moment are under-employed and unemployed, and the real Isles total is by no means restricted to a figure of 27 per cent., even though that is by far the highest figure for a long time in any part of Great Britain.

Why should the home weaver be penalised? Why is it that a commercial traveller, who may be away from his employer and home and from any sort of supervision of his work by his employer for months at a time, is in class I insurance and even qualifies for industrial injuries? It is right that he should do so. This is worth examining because the Harris tweed weaver is an example of another type of worker who is not under a factory roof or supervision, like the commercial traveller, but who for merely technical reasons meet certain requirements of the Ministry of National Insurance.

It is shameful that these men, who are on the same economic level and doing the same work as factory weavers, should be debarred from unemployment insurance. I am even more anxious about them now owing to the fact that they well may share increasingly in the heavy national unemployment in textiles and all that that carries with it in the lowering of the standard of life. I hope these matters will have the attention of the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend at the Ministry of National Insurance urgently.

My second point concerns the herring fishing industry. The fishermen of the Western Isles have always been willing to fish, given reasonable incentives. They can fish the area from the Butt of Lewis to Barra Head most of the year. It has the longest herring fishing season in the world. The Herring Board and Board of Trade have been trying to secure bigger contracts for cured herring from Russia for years. I know that for the past year or so the work of the Board in this respect has shown better hope of coming to real fruition. Given bigger Russian orders, a good deal more can be done with the encouragement of the Government in the Western Isles with regard to reviving the large scale curing of herring. On that, and the processing of herring for oil and meal, together with a certain amount of kippering, will depend the future of the herring industry. I am glad that the price of oil meal has increased, but I wish it would go up to the 55s., which I have long claimed and the Highland Panel has asked for.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will ask the Scottish Office to look again at the present unwise restrictions even upon ponding berried lobsters in the ponds in the Western Isles. There is a special recognition of the Western Isles lobster fishing needs in the fact that the previous Government had put loans—one might call them grants—at the service of the Crofters' Supply Agency for the maintenance of lobster ponds, and a system of detention of lobsters for their marketing during the winter months and the avoidance of transport during summer, when many perish because of heat and transport delays. The Treasury have put quite a lot of money into this.

If they are willing to recognise special conditions of that kind, surely they can also do something to make it easier for the lobster fishermen in the Western Isles by allowing them to land and sell berried lobsters, not direct to the market but to the Crofters' Supply Agency to be ponded until they have shed their berries? No responsible person outside the Civil Service sees any sense in this aspect of the restrictions upon lobster catching Neither the local fishermen, nor independent scientists, nor anybody else have made out a sound case why these restrictions could be removed.

In the meantime the French and other foreign trawlers are catching 6-inch. 8–inch, 9–inch and all sizes of lobsters and landing them all over Europe, while the local fishermen cannot put their berried lobsters under the responsible management of the ponds agency until they have shed their berries. Months of wild Hebridean weather impose their own close season. But in the short lobster season, supplies are abundant in the Western Isles. Only this unfair prohibition stops an expanding industry.

In present conditions, lacking all essential basic services such as good water supplies, transport services, electrification and the skill and other basic services essential to all industries, we cannot get private enterprise to come into the area. I ask the Government—particularly the Treasury, the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Labour and the Scottish Office—to consider now the urgent desirability of Government-sponsored industry in that area. If private enterprise cannot be tempted to come there, and in view of the difficulties of the indigenous industries and if unemployment there is to run at 27 per cent.—the highest in Great Britain—surely it is time the Government adopted a more responsible attitude towards the problems of the people of the Western Isles.

6.45 a.m.

Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Tradeston)

I support the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for the Western Isles (Mr. M. MacMillan). I assure him that the people of the Western Isles have the support of every hon. Member on this side of the House, and I hope that we shall be joined in that by Scottish hon. Members on the other side of the House.

My hon. Friend's figures of unemployment in his Parliamentary division are startling. Because of their effect, it is important that there should be some display of unity in the House with regard to the problems facing the Western Isles. We have recently had an example of the importance of a stand taken by other hon. Members in dealing with a similar problem.

We have seen unemployment descending on Lancashire. We appreciate what that meant to the people there. I am sure that what was done by the Government to alleviate that problem had the support of every Scottish hon. Member. Unemployment in the Western Isles falls just as sorely on the people there, and I hope that the Government will look upon the Western Isles in as helpful a manner as they did in regard to Lancashire. I trust the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give us that guarantee.

6.47 a.m.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

I should like to support the pleas made by the hon. Members for the Western Isles (Mr. M. MacMillan) and Tradeston (Mr. Rankin) in this early morning sitting in which Scottish hon. Members are participating. This is a test of our capacity to govern in respect of a small area. It will be a test of our ability to cope with a profound human problem.

Stornoway is not the easiest place in which to conduct an experiment of this kind. The efforts made by the great organiser of industry, the late Lord Leverhulme, to persuade the people of Stornoway to make a good living for themselves were unsuccessful. He devoted a good deal of capital, energy and leadership to Stornoway, but it produced little practical fruit comparable with the great success of the Unilever enterprises in the United States, Holland and the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for the Western isles rightly speaks for his people, but they are gey thrawn people. They present a personal and human problem which is just as much one for the Ministry of Labour—

Mr. M. MacMillan

The late Lord Leverhulme was also a very thrawn old autocrat. He insisted in uprooting the crofters from the crofts for which they had fought for generations to get security of tenure.

Sir W. Darling

I will not enter into a controversy as to whether Lord Leverhulme was more or less thrawn than the people of Stornoway. I should say that if there were an hon. Member representative in that respect, it is the hon. Member for the Western Isles who is a typical representative. This problem is one which calls for a width of approach which the hon. Member can help to give. The present percentage of unemployment is appalling, all the more because of the difficult situation in which the unemployed men and women are placed.

I support the examination of this relationship, which has not been made easier by the Transport and General Workers' Union, who cannot expect these men to be trade unionists on the one hand and independent workers on the other. I have never been able to enjoy the advantages of being both an employee and an employer and I do not see why they should, and if the hon. Member for the Western Isles would persuade them to give up these strenuous attacks in connection with the Transport and General Workers' Union and to become individualists, it might be more in keeping with their traditions and their way of life. I venture to suggest that if there are people who are individualists and who are opposed to the Socialist conception, then they are the people of Stornoway.

These few words have been uttered in order to encourage the hon. Member for the Western Isles. He lives in a remote part of the land, and these problems which he raises are discouraging things. I think they form a challenge to the Ministry of Labour to try to make some arrangements to deal with them, and also to the Secretary of State for Scotland to do something notable in this small, experimental area so as very much to lower the percentage of unemployment, which already bears very heavily upon the area.

6.52 a.m.

Mr. John MacLeod (Ross and Cromarty)

I will not delay the House for more than two or three minutes, but there are two points which I should like to make in support of the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. M. MacMillan), who, I thought, made two important points about, first, weaving, and secondly, lobster fishing. I hope we shall find that the D scheme will work to the advantage of the tweed industry in the outer islands. They were forced to go into the Utility market, which I think was a great mistake, and they should find that the D scheme is greatly to their advantage.

The second question I want to raise concerns berried lobsters. I want to ask the Minister whether the lobsters in these ponds respond to the treatment which they may receive and whether they grew to maturity so as to be suitable for the market.

6.54 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Sir Peter Bennett)

I have allowed the Scottish hon. Members to have their full say because, after all, they know so much more about this matter than I do. I live as far from the sea as it is possible to live, I am a mere Sassenach and I would not eat a lobster if anyone paid me to—it is one of the things which is poison to me—so that I am just about as suitable as possible to reply to the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. M. MacMillan). The hon. Member has given a good many years of his life to work for the islands as Chairman of the Highlands and Islands Advisory Committee, and we all honour him for the work which he has done.

The hon. Member has told a very pathetic story tonight. We have every sympathy with him in having to deal with these people who are most anxious to remain on their own land, where their fathers have been before them, and who find increased difficulty in earning the livelihood which they earned in the past. The figures which the hon. Gentleman gave were not exaggerated at all because, in addition to the figures which he gave, there is, as he said, a hidden unemployment figure. It is a grave problem.

What has been done? Development has proved negligible. A small woollen factory has been built, and there has been the extension of others, but they have found only a small additional amount of employment. The Highlands and Islands Advisory Committee held a conference in Stornaway in the spring of last year, and it concluded that if the island was to maintain its present population in reasonably stable employment, its dependence on casual and intermittent occupations must be lessened. Extension of the native industries of fishing and textiles seemed the obvious step to take. These are the opinions of people who know. As an industrialist from another part of the country, I would not dare to quarrel with them, because I would have the utmost difficulty in persuading manufacturers from other parts of the country to move out there.

What can be done to help the position? I do not think that reference has been made to what has been done by the Herring Board. That Board is endeavouring to popularise herrings. There is, I am told, a brand known as the Stornaway herring. A 50 per cent. grant, up to a total of £87,000, has been given by the Government to help the work of popularising the herring. The effort has shown results, and there was an increase from 440,000 to 485,000 crans in 1951. The Board is endeavouring to improve Stornaway kippering on the United Kingdom market, and a new freezing plant and a store have been installed. Associated Stornaway Kippers, Ltd., a co-operative organisation, is being encouraged to develop the market in Stornaway kippers.

The Herring Board is endeavouring to expand the export of cured herrings. I am advised that the Minch herring is very suitable for this purpose. I know something about kippers, as I am very fond of them. I do not know whether those that I get come from that part of the country with which we are dealing, or from Loch Fyne; but wherever they come from, I hope that the efforts I have mentioned will be continued, because I believe that the herring is not only a splendid food, but its consumption provides a business for our people.

With regard to lobsters, an organisation has been formed by the Scottish agricultural organisation, with the assistance of the Development Fund, to enable lobsters to be kept for marketing in conditions which will enable them to be sold in the winter when the prices are higher. Lobsters have to be delivered to London alive. A great many die on the way, but that problem is being tackled. There is a transit tank on the way, storage ponds are provided, and the fishermen have been shown the use of improved packagings. Endeavours have also been made to sell lobsters on the Continent, as people overseas are very fond of them.

The decision with regard to berried lobsters was taken in order to conserve the fish. It was decided that if the present practice went on, future trade would be ruined. The matter has been explained and we hope that the results will prove satisfactory. I will put before my right hon. Friend the point with regard to foreigners.

I rather gathered that the hon. Member for the Western Isles regarded the Harris tweed industry as depressed. The fact is that since the fall in wool prices and the introduction of the new scheme, Harris tweed has been one of the bright spots in the textile industry.

Mr. M. MacMillan

Since Utility.

Sir P. Bennett

Since Utility, and with the D scheme which has been introduced. Our report is that there is a better prospect for Harris tweed than for any other textile; it is one of the bright spots. Sales are going up, and the markings, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, show that 1.22 million square yards were stamped in the first four months of 1951, against 1.32 in the corresponding period this year. At the end of last year they were making for stock. Now they have used up their stocks and are quoting some time for delivery, so it looks very much as though Harris tweed is on the up-grade.

We appreciate that none of these things by itself will settle the problem. I have heard the hon. Gentleman arguing this case when he was sitting on this side of the House, and I have no doubt he will continue to press it. We shall do all we can, because it is one of the most difficult problems, when we realise that there are unemployed over 1,000 men in this small community—it is largely men who are out of work; it is not women—and the interests of those men are being very carefully considered by my hon. and right hon. Friends at the Scottish Office. My hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State has sat here throughout the night in order to be able to hear what the hon. Member for the Western Isles had to say, and no doubt he will pass those remarks on to his right hon. Friend. I can assure all those who are interested in this problem that there is no complacency. We appreciate the human nature of the problem, and we shall do everything we can to assist these people to earn their living in the place in which they live.

Adjourned accordingly at Two Minutes past Seven o'Clock a.m., Wednesday, 14th May.