HC Deb 08 May 1956 vol 552 cc982-6
4. Mr. Owen

asked the Minister of Labour if he is aware that the introduction of automation in industry is giving rise to serious misgiving among the organised workers; and whether he is now in a position to make a statement.

7. Mr. Woollam

asked the Minister of Labour what action his Department is taking to consider the consequences of automation in the employment field.

9. Mr. Lee

asked the Minister of Labour whether he is now able to state when the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research Report on the Effects of Automation will be ready; and whether in view of the industrial unrest now arising, he will now indicate the policy of Her Majesty's Government on the matter.

Mr. Iain Macleod

Technological development has been for many years a feature of our economic life, and automation is its latest and most novel form. It is welcomed by the Government and responsible opinion on both sides of industry as essential to our future efficiency and, therefore, to the continuance of full employment. We should also recognise the very natural anxiety that its introduction may cause. There are bound to be employment problems involving the redeployment of labour. New skills will certainly be required.

These problems can be satisfactorily resolved if the Government and both sides of industry work in close co-operation with each other. It is essential that firms which are contemplating the introduction of automation should in their planning consider from the beginning how it will affect their workers and bring them into early discussion. On their side the Government accept a continuing responsibility for maintaining the general level of demand. They will also help to meet the special effects in the employment field of technological changes by making provision, as they have already announced, for a wide extension of technical education; by encouraging opportunities for training and by assisting, through their employment services, workers who have to change their employment. These problems are being studied by universities and other bodies and by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.

The Report by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research is completed and will be issued this month. In the light of that Report I intend to discuss the whole question with representatives of the employers, trade unions and nationalised industries on the national joint advisory councils and, as appropriate, my colleagues will have similar discussions with other advisory bodies.

The Government believe that if all those concerned play their part in this way these new changes, with their unlimited possibilities for the future, will prove of immeasurable benefit to the prosperity and happiness of the nation.

Mr. Owen

I am sure the House welcomes those observations on this important matter. Is the Minister aware that organised workers are by no means limited to the philosophy of the Luddite movement these days but welcome the development of a new technique in modern industry? However, they are seriously concerned with the probable economic and social effect of the new machines unless there is—as the Minister has indicated—a real possibility of early consultation between both sides of industry, with Government co-operation. Is he not aware that that may ensure the limitation of the effects of automation on the people concerned?

Mr. Macleod

I recognise what the hon. Member has said. These consultations from the very beginning are of the first importance. Of course, there are anxieties, most natural anxieties, in this field, and we and, I am sure, the representatives of the employers and the trade unions want to do everything we can to meet them.

Mr. Russell

Has my right hon. Friend seen an article in today's Daily Mail which gives more information about what has happened with automation in the United States? Does he not agree that there is a great deal to be learned from that country about the effects of automation?

Mr. Macleod

We have, of course, especially in my Ministry, studied the experience and the conclusions of other countries, but they are not exactly applicable, and we must work out our own solutions in the light of the special problems we have in these islands.

Mr. Lee

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the statement he has made is encouraging but that it is pretty useless in the short term to expect employers and workers in any one factory to find a solution to the problem? Indeed, it is quite impossible at national level for trade unions and employers to do it. We welcome his statement of Government interest, but will he try to give us a considered policy statement on behalf of the Government as soon as he can, because it is quite wrong to believe that a sort of Pontius Pilate attitude of washing one's hands of the matter is possible in these circumstances?

Mr. Macleod

I have never said or thought that the Government have no responsibility in this matter. Of course we have, and I gladly recognise that. It is fair to say that this is a matter which, although it has come into prominence in the last few days, is not one of which Government agencies and Ministries have thought only in the last few days. The Report from the D.S.I.R., which is of the first importance—and an admirable Report it is—has been in preparation for about two to two and a half years. I am certain that when we have it—and that will be in a matter of only two or three weeks—we shall be able, in the light of that Report and with all the advisory bodies playing their full part, to feel our way towards a solution.

Mr. G. Brown

Does not the Minister remember that in the debate we had recently on the employment situation he did wash his hands of this, saying it was a matter for industry and that the level of unemployment and short-time working were matters for the employers after talks with the workers? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we require something more than a statement that the Government are interested? We need some indication that the Government are planning to have the jobs available for the men who may be affected by automation. We need some indication that the Government are planning to arrange for the workers' transfer and for their travelling and for their new houses if they have to move from their present homes? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us when he can say anything further about these practical matters?

Mr. Macleod

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman does not wish to misrepresent what I said in the debate on the employment situation. We were dealing with the level of manpower in a particular industry, and I said that it could not be laid down by the Government unless there were direction of labour, which it was impossible to have. I have acknowledged over and over again in statements and in reply to Questions that the Government have a responsibility, and a continuing responsibility. So far as the rest of the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question is concerned, it is precisely this problem that we are studying and have been studying for some time, and particularly now in the light of the very informative reports, including the recent one from the D.S.I.R.