HC Deb 16 February 1956 vol 548 cc2657-64

10.27 p.m.

Mr. John Taylor (West Lothian)

I am presuming that the few moments which have been taken up since the Adjournment of the House was moved will be included in the half-hour Adjournment. I make no complaint because of the importance of the occasion. It is rather difficult to commence a speech in all this excitement and amidst all this hubbub, but I cheerfully allow hon. Members to leave the Chamber, leaving the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade and myself, and one or two of my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite, to discuss this constituency matter.

I wish to speak tonight about the serious state of affairs which is affecting my constituency of West Lothian. It is the entire county of West Lothian, a county which stretches from the western boundaries of the city of Edinburgh, bounded on the north by the Firth of Forth and on the south and west by the counties of Midlothian and Lanark and Stirling. Although my constituency has an active agricultural interest, it is, and always has been for the last 200 years, an industrial county, relying hitherto with confidence on the heavy industries of coal mining and shale oil production. Between them these two industries have in the past, and until recently, employed rather more than two-thirds of the wage earners of the county of West Lothian. But a blight has suddenly stricken my county because these two industries have been affected in the following circumstances.

Recently Scottish Oils Limited, which is the firm that operates the shale oil industry, has announced a substantial contraction of the industry and this contraction affects peculiarly and almost solely my own constituency. The company has decided to close down its crude oil works at Roman Camp near the town of Broxburn. Mines are also to be closed down, including No. 6 mine at Roman Camp, No. 35 pit at Hopetoun and No. 6 mine at Glendevon. These closures will take effect in the next 18 months or so and will directly affect 600 to 750 men. The indirect effect of those circumstances and others I shall mention are much more serious.

It is necessary for me to say a very few words about the shale oil industry. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Pryde), who is now sitting beside me, have spoken about it on many occasions, so I shall be very brief. The shale oil industry of the Lothians is the only considerable indigenous source of oil production. It is, moreover, the world pioneer of home-produced oils and, indeed, the first oil industry in the world. Many of the new techniques of which the Americans are so proud were pioneered in my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian.

The House will therefore understand that this has been a great source of local pride, particularly in Broxburn, which was the centre of British oil production. Thirty years ago this industry employed from 8,000 to 10,000 men, mainly in Broxburn. Today, before these closures take effect, the industry employs only 3,000 to 4,000 people. All these closures are in the Broxburn area and the position after the closures will be that practically all operations in the oil industry in the county of West Lothian will have ceased. The industry will be concentrated in a small part of Midlothian.

That has caused the citizens and traders of Broxburn and district considerable alarm and worry. I do not complain of these closures. It is in fact cheaper to carry crude oil thousands of miles overseas in expensive tankers, sometimes at dollar cost, and to refine it in great modern refineries, such as the one in Grangemouth in the neighbouring county of Stirling, than to produce it by laborious processes from our native oil deposits. The oil works being closed down are worn out and modernisation would be too costly. The old pits and mines are at the end of their useful lives and some contraction was inevitable.

We would regard this process calmly if we could get some compensating industry to take its place, but the closure of the part of the oil industry that affects West Lothian is only part of the industrial picture in my constituency. Some of the coal pits in the south-west of the county have become uneconomic. Several have already ceased operations and others are threatened with imminent closure. Developing pits such as Riddochhill and the famous Kinneil pit at Bo'ness which is extracting coal from underneath the Firth of Forth, are unable to absorb the redundant coal miners. There is, of course, employment available in other coal fields, but the fact is, as we have found over and over again in different parts of the country, that a large number of miners do not transplant themselves. Their roots in the area are too deep and they find themselves other occupations which are very much less useful to the nation.

I might say, parenthetically, that I cannot go into the question of what is an uneconomic pit in these days, but there is still coal in these condemned pits. We pay a subsidy of £2 for every ton of coal we import, and we are importing hundreds of thousands of tons. I have often thought that it might be more economic for the nation to pay that subsidy for coal extracted from the uneconomic pits and to earmark the coal for export only. This would bring new life to declining ports, such as Bo'ness in my constituency. It would, so to speak, give them a shot in the arm; but that is another subject which I cannot develop now.

The decline of the coal pits, plus the decline of the oil industry, is having a very serious effect upon local trade, commerce and morale in the constituency. Before our eyes we see this steady decline of our two traditional industries, and nothing is taking their place. We have now reached the unhealthy position that a very large proportion of the wage-earners of West Lothian must travel out of the county to work. Soon a majority of them will be in that position, moving out of the county every working day and returning to their homes each night. Alone of all the areas in the central industrial belt of Scotland, West Lothian has had no appreciable new industry for over twenty years.

I do not claim that we have an unemployment problem; we have not. We have very low unemployment figures, for the very reason that the workers are finding work elsewhere—they are moving out. Indeed, the shale workers affected by the pending closure in the shale oil industry can, in the main, be absorbed in the same industry by the great modern refineries at Grangemouth, but Grangemouth is a long way from Broxburn. It involves a complicated journey by bus on inadequate roads. The journey costs both time and money. There are already indications that many of the workers are seeking—and will seek—more superficial jobs, in Edinburgh and other places, which involve quicker, cheaper and shorter travel.

Many who move to neighbouring counties to work will seek houses nearer their work and outside West Lothian. I will endeavour not to over-paint the picture, because I do not believe in exaggerating in this House. I think that it is much more effective to understate than to overstate. I do not claim that the county is on the verge of ruin. There is still a considerable future in some of our coal mines. Many will find work in the shale industry for years to come in the nearby Midlothian refineries at Pumpherston and Westwood and in the shale mines and puts which serve them.

We have an alert and efficient paper-making industry. Our several engineering foundries and works have a worldwide reputation for first-class products. We have large deposits of materials for fireclay products, we have a distillery or two and there are other light industries; but there is this obvious and alarming decline in our major industries. There is this growing obligation for our workers to move out of the county to work. There is alarm at the absence of compensating industries to replace those we are losing.

My plea to the Board of Trade tonight —and I have taken the trouble to inform the Parliamentary Secretary in advance of the gist of my remarks—is for the Department to give us its valuable, and indeed powerful, support in trying to bring new industries to this industry-hungry area. I am aware that the Board of Trade cannot direct industries to areas where it is economically to the nation's advantage to site them, but the Department has considerable influence in guiding, advising and persuading.

Here is an area with a plentiful supply of first-class labour of the highest quality. The shale miners and workers have a fine record. They have never had a strike. Theirs is labour of a very high quality, and we have similar workers in other industries, too. There are good communications and an excellent site. Indeed, it is in the main a development area. I hope I can persuade the Minister to accord the interest and support of his Department to my plea and to strengthen the interest of the Scottish Council (Development and Industry). Scottish Industrial Estates and similar pioneering bodies in it. Will the Minister particularly consult informed opinion in the county when any big new industrial development arising out of the growth of atomic energy or automation means that they have to find labour and premises?

In my part of the country we have never shared in new techniques and yet I am convinced that we have a supply of both labour and sites, in a quantity and of a quality that no other part of Britain can offer. I hope this plea will meet with the support and interest and the encouragement of the Minister.

10.41 p.m.

Mr. David J. Pryde (Midlothian)

The whole of the population in West Lothian and Mid-Lothian will accord my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. J. Taylor) their warmest thanks for taking this opportunity of raising the economic position of the area. As he pointed out, this district was the pioneer of the oil industry. The late Dr. Young made many great discoveries. He gave science a great boost with the discovery of the Torbanehill seam of rich-oil bearing material. Those days have gone and we are now dependent on Arab sheiks for the whole of our oil supply, which is a very dangerous position. We see countries in the Middle East intimidating us and telling us that unless we pay them their pound of flesh there will be no oil for us.

Under the Distribution of Industry Act three parishes were scheduled in this area, just south of my hon. Friend's constituency, in the Calder area, but there has never been an attempt to bring industry to this scheduled area. I think the Government have been rather remiss —not only this Government but previous Governments—in this respect, because, as my hon. Friend pointed out, nowhere in Scotland do the people travel so for to go to work. That demonstrates that these are industrious people. I have here a time-table for the train service in that area and the Minister can examine it and see how the girls in the Calder area pay as much as £1 per week from their wages for transport alone. Nineteen buses leave one small village before nine in the morning carrying our people to work, sometimes in Edinburgh.

While it is generally agreed that the Board of Trade does not direct industry, it is true to say that one firm in the city of Edinburgh in a very large way of business intended to build in this area but was moved to Dundee. The United States has one great problem above others—that of finding re-investment for its surplus money each year. I suggest that the Board of Trade might consider this area with a view to financing some industry to keep our people employed.

10.45 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Derek Walker-Smith)

The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. J. Taylor) said that he did not intend to exaggerate his case or paint too gloomy a picture. He has certainly put his case very fairly and temperately. I should like straight away to thank him for his courtesy in informing me on the points he desired to bring to the attention of the House.

The closing of the Roman Camp Crude Oil Works and the three supporting shale mines to which he referred involved in all 589 employees. The hon. Member very fairly said that he did not complain of the closing of those mines and works which, he said, were old and required extensive repair. This particular section of the industry would, in any event, have had to be closed down in the next five or seven years.

In the relatively short time available, I want to deal with the immediate impact of this present event—it is a sad event— against the historical context of the industry, to which the hon. Member so felicitously referred. I also wish to deal with his plea for diversification of industry in that locality.

One must accept this closing as being evidence of the general vulnerability of the local shale oil industry and as reinforcing the desirability of introducing new industry if possible. The hon. Member has agreed that the unemployment figures are not serious in the locality. The latest figures in January of this year for the Bathgate, Broxburn and Calders group showed that 326 men were unemployed and 215 women, a total of 541 with a percentage of 1.8 per cent., which is appreciably less than for the Scottish Development Area as a whole.

So far as the expectations of employment of the men made redundant by this contraction are concerned, 229 out of 589 have already left the employment of Scottish Oils Ltd., and all of them, save 20 who have retired, have found other employment either in the Grangemouth oil refineries, other shale mines, or other industries. The company has made an estimate of the ultimate employment position which shows that 200 are expected to be transferred to oil works and mines, 275 to associated companies at Grangemouth, 50 to retire, leaving a total of 525 and a surplus of 64.

I appreciate what the hon. Member said about the considerable amount of daily travel to work. Three thousand are estimated to travel out of the area each day and 2,000 to travel into it. While I agree that that reinforces the general desirability for new industry, I must remind the hon. Member that the proximity of Edinburgh to the locality means that even if it had more industry the employment position would still be inter-linked with the attractions Edinburgh has to offer.

The only part of the speech of the hon. Member in which I thought he fell a little short of the very high standard of objectivity he set himself was in his statement that no new industrial development of any significance had been introduced in the area for 20 years. He will know that there are, in fact, three Board of Trade factories administered by Scottish Industrial Estates Ltd., all of which originated within the period of 20 years. There is the British Vacuum Cleaner Company, Broxburn, of 76,800 square feet, built in 1949, the Telegraph Condenser Company Ltd., at Bathgate, now of 150,000 square feet, with an extension of 58,000 square feet at present under construction, which will, of course, give further employment.

Mr. Taylor

Mainly female labour.

Mr. Walker-Smith

I agree that that is a matter which has to be taken into consideration in this context.

In addition, there is the United Thread Mills, Limited, Broxburn, of 66,000 square feet. We appreciate fully the local concern about the future both of the coal and shale industries and the desire for further employment opportunities, and we recognise the desirability of further diversification in this area. We shall certainly do what we can to bring the attractions and potentialities of the area to the notice of industrialists. A great deal of work has been done in the inspection and identification of industrial sites by the Board of Trade, the Scottish Office and the county council, in co-operation.

There are certain difficulties and certain attractions in the area. To indicate the difficulties first, there is a somewhat bleak landscape, not improved by the operations of the oil industry. There is a good deal of subsidence or danger of it from coal mining. There is to some extent also a lack of factory experience among the local population which has been following traditional industries, and, judging by the employment figures, no very obvious pool of labour which employers can see from which they can draw.

Against that, there are the attractions and advantages. The area is very well placed with regard to Glasgow and Edinburgh and has good road communications and access to ports, good housing and other amenities and it is possible, perhaps probable, that the labour at present travelling out of the area might prefer to work in the area and be regarded as an additional pool.

Mr. Taylor

It is certain.

Mr. Walker-Smith

We may hope so. I find that these things are not quite so certain in these contexts. The Board of Trade has no compulsory powers and the last word lies with industry. We shall certainly endeavour to bring the attractions of the area to the attention of industrialists. The hon. Member for West Lothian has referred to the desirability of consulting informed opinion in the county. As he knows, the county council has convened a meeting for next week on this matter, at which the Board of Trade will be represented.

We are greatly indebted to hon. Members for bringing these considerations so clearly to our notice. I hope that they will be assured that we, in our turn, have the problems of this area very closely and sympathetically in mind and will do our best within the limits of our powers and the possibilities of the situation.

Adjourned accordingly at Six minutes to Eleven o'clock.