HC Deb 29 July 1953 vol 518 cc1497-504

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

1.35 a.m.

Mr. H. Rhodes (Ashton-under-Lyne)

I suppose that wherever wool is produced in the world, branding takes place for the purpose of identification. I wish to deal, briefly, with the materials used in branding, which are pitch, tar and paint. The use of these materials is causing financial loss, frustration, loss of export trade and, above all, waste.

I raise this subject, not on behalf of any association but for thousands of people engaged in the woollen industry, either as employees or employers. I declare my interest and that of my employees without any hesitation, because before I came to the House this week my own employees gave me a terse and colourful brief consisting of two sentences, but I shall not risk being called to order by quoting it.

Manufacturers first petitioned this House on this subject in 1752, but without success. That must have sickened the manufacturers somewhat because, as far as I can ascertain, no sort of protestation or official representations have been made here since, perhaps for a simple reason. In our trade we do not believe in getting mixed up with Governments, politicians and the like. We work on the principle that if a Minister is very able the less we have to do with him the better, and if he is not so able it is no use bothering with him anyhow. That is no reflection on the leaders of our industry, whose wisdom and judgment, born of experience, have no equal in any other industry. They have a capacity for saying what they mean and sticking to it, as Governments in the past know very well.

I do not wish to minimise the great efforts which have been made to solve this problem by the Wool Federation, the Woollen Industries Research Association and other authorities at home and abroad; for instance, the New Zealand Government's action in prohibiting the sale of soluble marking material and the South African Government's efforts to keep contaminated wool separate. I am well aware of the efforts of other bodies in education, exhortation and propaganda. But all this has failed; we are having more trouble now than at any time since I started work in this trade when I was 12 years old.

From my experience of the last few months it would seem that at branding time the word goes out to empty all the motor car sumps and to mix the contents with tar to provide an indelible brand, with no consideration for its effect during the later stages of manufacture. For the past few months, to my knowledge, many firms have been spending 10 per cent. of their wages on the eradication of these faults. There is, in addition, a heavy cost in solvents and I may say that it does not apply to the wool in the fleece so much as to the later stages of manufacture.

For instance, if raw wool, after scouring, is dyed and made up into pieces the faults in a piece cannot be removed. A tremendous lot of our export trade with the United States and Canada is in highly selective fashion-type goods which demand the finest workmanship and materials. More often than not the material is dyed in the loose before it is woven. In that case there is a tremendous loss, and there is a tendency in the trade not to make this kind of material for fear of the loss that may be involved if the material is full of tar and pitch.

The producers are working against their own interests. Today, there is quite a lot of competition in our trade from other fibres. In the case of one of the newer industries like rayon, most meticulous care is taken with material which costs something in the region of 24d. a pound. How much more care should be taken with material that costs 160d. a pound, and I put it to the people in the Dominions that they are working against their own best interests in the long run in permitting this state of affairs to continue. Technically, the crux of the matter is that the needs of the grower and manufacturer are contradictory. The farmer demands indelibility for 12 months, while the manufacturer needs to be able to clean his wool as satisfactorily as if no brands are used at all.

I suggest that pitch, tar, or any other substance which cannot be removed by scouring should be prohibited altogether. Secondly, I suggest that the wool producers should be forced to remove all staples contaminated by these substances. Thirdly, financial penalties should be introduced. In the case of prohibition, Eire is already doing this. South Africa is trying the second proposition, and this country is trying to do the third. The Wool Marketing Board gives a premium for tar free wool, or at least it imposes a penalty of 4d. a lb. if there is tar in wool produce. But even after you have paid the 4d. you cannot be sure you can get wool without tar in it.

In the dim and distant past it was considered virtuous to daub sheep with tar. In fact, William Camden wrote in 1605: He who will lose a sheep for a ha'penny-worth of tar cannot deserve the name of a good husband. Now it is a mark of inefficiency, carelessness, and indifference to the future well-being of an industry. I can do no better than finish in the words of the petitioners of 1752: That the increasing quantities of pitch, tar, and redding now made use of by the growers of wool is an increasing evil, and therefore pray that this House provide such a remedy as to them shall seem meet.

1.45 a.m.

Dr. A. D. D. Broughton (Batley and Morley)

The problem to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes) has so ably drawn attention is one that is met with in my constituency, where woollen cloth is manufactured. In Batley and Morley it is well known that the undetected presence of even tiny pinheads of tar causes unsightly marks when the piece is subjected to heat in the later processes of manufacture. The British Wool Federation has tried for many years to educate farmers about the advisability of marketing wool in a good, clean condition, but, so prevalent has become the use of tar, that the Wool Marketing Board, which buys all wool clipped in the United Kingdom, has now found it necessary to impose a financial penalty of 4d. per lb. on fleeces shorn in this 1953 season and marked with tar.

I have made inquiries about the fleeces coming from Devon selecting that at random from among wool growing areas. I am informed that there is very little trouble with tar on the Devon breed of sheep, which are usually kept in fields, but that it is found on Scotch sheep that graze on Dartmoor, and on the Exmoor Horn sheep that roam on Exmoor. These findings support the contention that the culprits are usually hill sheep farmers who use tar, paint, or other objectionable marking substances because they are cheap, easily applied, recognisable at a distance, and capable of withstanding wet, hot, or hard weather and rough wear on growing wool.

Manufacturers in the West Riding, whose world-famous products are of immense value to the nation, are complaining bitterly about the contamination of wool with tar, pitch and paint. The petition of persons in the West Riding of Yorkshire, presented to this House 200 years ago, on 10th January, 1752, complained of the iniquitous practice of the wool growers of this county in laying upon the fleece excessive quantities of injurious marking stuff. Unfortunately, Parliament did nothing to help; the iniquitous practice has persisted, it has become more widespread recently, and I hope that the Minister will put forward useful ideas for discouraging this troublesome and wasteful practice.

1.47 a.m.

Mr. William Paling (Dewsbury)

The subject of this debate has created quite an interest in the woollen textile areas. I am happy to associate myself with my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes) on this matter, because I come from an area where much wool is used. Although my last speech on textiles was on shoddy, we also use much wool. I come from an area which also makes many blankets and rugs, and the wool used there is of such a nature that, very often, pitch, tar and paint is found, which causes a considerable amount of trouble in the industry.

They use skin wool—that is, wool obtained from the skin of sheep which have been killed for meat—and although the puller is supposed to pull and sort this wool, on many occasions, despite great care, a lot of wool passing into the mass of the wool growing industry is smeared with tar or paint, and it inevitably gets into the product which is being made up. A patch of tar of the size of a 3d. piece will break up in the course of manufacture into many many scores of pinheads—quite tiny specks.

Much of this wool causes a stain in the heat and wet processes of scouring and milling, and that is where the industrialists and workers in the woollen mills have to face up to the problem. In one factory, I have been told, 20 operatives are employed who do nothing but remove the tar and paint staples which have come out.

The Minister of Materials (Sir Arthur Salter)

Is the wool about which the hon. Member is complaining produced in this country or in other countries?

Mr. Paling

Very much of it is wool pulled from skins; it is British wool. However, I am coming to the other shortly.

As one might imagine, a very considerable cost is involved in operatives having to go through the product and sort out, cut out or clean out, wherever they can, the stains that have shown up in the process of manufacture. It is fair to say that the trouble is not confined to British wool. The particular firm I have in mind have productions of what is called New Zealand slipe wool and they have tar and paint patches in the locks just the same, so the same difficulty occurs. Anything the Government can do to help the woollen industry in ridding themselves of this difficulty, and in helping them to reduce costs by not having to employ staff to cut out all these tar stains, will be of great assistance to the woollen industry and a great help to the export schemes they are trying so hard to further.

1.52 a.m.

The Minister of Materials (Sir Arthur Salter)

The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes) speaks, as is known to all of us, and as he explained, with direct, personal and expert knowledge on this subject. The hon. Members for Batley and Morley (Dr. Broughton) and Dewsbury (Mr. William Paling) also represent constituents who are very much interested in this problem and obviously spoke with great technical information at their disposal. I can add very little, by way of describing the problem, to what they have said, and certainly nothing to their knowledge.

The question is: what should be done about it, and how? I did not understand the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne to ask me or this Government to take any action; and while his two hon. Friends suggested that perhaps this Gov- ernment might do something, they rather asked for suggestions than made them. I will make only these few comments. Quite obviously, in one form or another this is a trouble that has persisted for a very long time. The hon. Gentleman went back at least two centuries. The trouble has persisted in a very varying form and degree, but, as he said, at present it has recurred in a rather more serious form. I think he realises the rather narrow limits of my responsibility and power of action in this matter, certainly so far as the trouble arises in wool produced in other countries.

The hon. Member gave some reasons, which he said he thought were convincing, as to why the wool trade had refrained for the greater part of the two centuries to which he referred from asking for action from the Government. Either at some periods they thought the Government was so good it did not need prodding, or at others it was so bad that it was useless to prod. I will not inquire which would be the more relevant consideration at the moment.

The trouble to which he refers can sometimes be, and perhaps sometimes is, very serious indeed. It involves loss and waste of the kind the hon. Gentleman described, and it is highly desirable that anything possible should be done to put an end to that. The action required is representations by the consumers to the producers. The representations may be more effective perhaps if they are made by trade organisations than if they are made solely by individual consumer to individual producer. So far as Government action is required or desirable, the action is, of course, action by the Government of the producing country. If action which is not now being taken in the interests of wool consumers, represented, for example, by the British Wool Federation, is desired to be taken by this Government as regards wool produced in this country, I should be very glad to see the suggestions if the trade thinks desirable. I will say nothing, of course, in anticipation of any such specific request.

I very much agree with one remark of the hon. Member, that while, on a narrow view, the immediate interest of the producer may seem to conflict with that of the consumer—he wants something which will give an indelible branding and in the pursuit of that purpose uses a material which causes a great deal of trouble to the consumer—on the longer view, looking at the interests of producers in general, it is obviously very much in their interest to do their utmost to eliminate that trouble. If action by the Government of the producing country is required, that Government has an interest in seeing that whatever is practicable is done.

This question has been raised actively recently and in regard to the principal producing country the hon. Member had in mind very active discussion and investigation are taking place. I should be quite sure that the Government of every producing country would desire to eliminate the trouble and that the producers as a whole would desire that. It is in their interests, as well as in the interests of the consumers, to see that every possible help is given to research associations which are trying—not entirely without success—to find a material which would meet the purpose of the producer in getting something which is reasonably indestructible and therefore serves to identify the animal, but also something which does not give trouble to the wool consumer later. The hon. Member will be aware of the production of the material known as lanolin basic emulsion in the research industry of this country, which is used to a considerable extent and which perhaps can be used more by producers in other countries.

All I can say is that if specific proposals are made by those who represent the wool users in this country as to action which they think it desirable that this Government should take we will very carefully consider such suggestions, recognising, as everyone who has been in contact with this problem knows, that it is extremely important to do everything that is humanly possible to eliminate this source of loss and waste.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at One Minute to Two o'clock, a.m.