HC Deb 23 July 1957 vol 574 cc378-88

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hughes-Young.]

11.15 p.m.

Miss Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I am grateful to have this opportunity of putting before my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary the question of employment in Plymouth. It is, I think, appropriate that this short discussion should follow the debate on disarmament. This great city, with its well-known history of service to the nation, suffered perhaps more than any other in this country in the last war. It is now being rebuilt, but there are fears that its new glory may be built on sand and not on rock unless some definite action is taken in the very near future to safeguard employment.

I am not thinking merely of the next ten or twenty years, but of the position which might arise for those children being born today. The recent Navy Estimates announced a cut of £11 millions; the debate on the Defence White Paper, and further talks in connection with disarmament, have made the question of employment in Plymouth a matter for general concern.

While current employment is less than that of 1949, it approximates, in total, to that of 1955 and 1956, the reduction of women's unemployment being offset by the worsening in the position for men. In fact, the percentage rate of unemployment for May last in greater Plymouth was 2.5 per cent., compared with 1.7 per cent. for the South-West of England. and only 1.5 per cent. for greater Britain.

In addition, we have the problem of ex-Service men, many of who make Plymouth their home. The figures of the unemployed among those—that is, those who have been Regulars—are 14 officers, and 31 other ranks, and five women. That is a total of 50, and although that may not seem a large figure, the position may become more serious when further cuts in the Services can be expected.

The present employment position is as follows. The Admiralty and other Service establishments employ about 25,000, out of a total population of 218,000, and a total employed population of 82,721. The other day I put a Question to the Civil Lord of the Admiralty and was told that although there are more than 19,000 employed in the Royal Dockyard, only about 8,000 are established. The others could be given notice at any time; at least, that, technically, is the position, although I am not suggesting that they would. We would like to ascertain something more about this position, since it means that many of the workers in Plymouth feel a great sense of insecurity.

In Birmingham, for example, there are more jobs than people to undertake them. In fact, I believe there are about 12,000 Jamaicans helping to fill vacancies in that city and the surrounding area. In Plymouth, the next largest employers are the distributive trades, which employ 12,073 persons, and should the numbers employed by the Admiralty be cut, this next group would automatically suffer.

The building trade follows as the next largest employer, with 9,123, but builders and contractors reduced their number of employees by 389 between the middle of 1955 and 1956; although, strangely enough, the percentage in the building and contracting trades, as well as in the distributive trades, continues to run well above the national average. From a comparison with the industry groups elsewhere, this points to the need for a better balance of the city's industry. Furthermore, there is a slackening in the tempo of the building trades now. There has been an embargo this summer in Plymouth, on overtime working, beyond five hours.

The main trades which we have in Plymouth, with the numbers employed in them, are as follows. In agriculture, fishery and forestry, which still take some workers even in the City of Plymouth, there is a total of 1,239 employed. Mining and allied products employ 448. The chemical and allied trades take quite a number, 2,301. We have a small number employed in work on precision instruments, and in textiles and clothing we employ 1,788, mostly women. In the food, drink and tobacco industries, there are 3,233 employed.

We need industries other than the ones we have now. The principal industries in Plymouth now are Tecalemit, Bush Radio, and Berkertex. Each of these is a vulnerable industry, because each depends upon other economic conditions. The first depends on the motor industry; the second has already been hit by hire-purchase restrictions; and the third, which is a dress-making concern, is always likely to be hit in difficult times. When there is unemployment, people spend more on food for their families, and not on extra clothes.

There are several new projects in the city which are scheduled to start in the near future, but, unfortunately, they do not seem to be able to employ a great many people. We are now fortunate to have C. & J. Clark, who are to make shoes, James Cook, a small factory making shirts, extensions to Tecalemit, Farley's Foods, Brown & Sharpe, making precision instruments, and Western Motors Holdings and Clatworthys have started to employ a few extra people.

I quite realise that my hon. Friend cannot answer for the Admiralty, but I presume that he will be in touch with the Admiralty, through his Department, concerning our special difficulty in Plymouth. I hope that he will keep in touch with his hon. Friend the Civil Lord about it.

The main reason for my concern is that recently, in Her Majesty's dockyard. there was quite suddenly the discharge of 58 men and 34 women. They were mostly from the civil engineering departments, and these were 11 carpenters, 25 painters, 9 masons, and 2 plumbers. I am glad to say that, following representations which I made to the Civil Lord. 11 others were taken back, but there are still others, particularly 13 who are over 65, who are finding it extremely difficult to find employment. Since 1956, 100 people have become redundant.

Ail this makes people very nervous for their future. There is a good opening still for industry in Plymouth. I know that it is 211 miles from London, which means that industrialists have a long journey, but we have quite good trains. Also, we have an excellent harbour, which could, I believe, be developed far more. There is the Cattedown, Sutton Pool, Mill Bay, Stonehouse Pool and Hamaoze.

Plymouth has always had very good industrial relations, and has some extremely good workers there, probably a higher percentage of skilled workers than most other towns in Britain. Also, they work very hard, and have a good record for having few strikes. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be glad to hear that, despite low earnings, we have a higher average for National Savings than the country as a whole, our figure being 15s. 8d. a head compared with the average of 11s. for the general population.

Apart from the problems I have mentioned, there are two main categories which have difficulties in obtaining employment. First, it is very hard to find work for people over the age of 65. When people are living longer and are more active, it is depressing for them when they reach an age at which they have to leave their work, but feel capable of carrying on.

There is, furthermore, the difficulty of the future of young people. Plymouth has been a city with a long record of apprenticeships, both for the Royal Navy and in the dockyard. Parents are beginning to wonder what they can do with their sons and daughters, to what type of work they can put them, or whether, to use a West Country expression, it is necessary for them "to go up the line" to find work.

In two years' time, because of what has been known as the bulge in the birth rate, with the extra numbers of children now passing through school, many more young people will be coming on to the labour market. I shall be grateful if my hon. Friend will take an early opportunity to discuss this matter with his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and point out the great need for a change of industry in the area. I would also like him to press his hon. Friend the Civil Lord to get the Nihill Report published as soon as possible. It might arrest many of our difficulties and prevent people from feeling as nervous as they are at the present situation.

The employment question is becoming even more urgent, because the Avon dam project, which employs a large number of people from the Plymouth area, is nearly completed. The uncertainty, too, concerning the future of the dockyard and how many employees may be put off also worries a great many families. We have, as my hon. Friend will agree—he has been very good in coming to Plymouth to see the situation for himself, and I thank him—very good sites on which to build further factories. I shall be grateful, therefore, if his Department, together with other Departments, will do all that they can to encourage further industry to come in future.

I also suggest that my hon. Friend might try to persuade the Admiralty at least to keep on some of the workpeople by not putting out such a lot of its work to contract. I asked a Question the other day and was told that 17 contracts were put out to private contractors. By not putting the work out to private contract, we could provide more work, as well as relieving my hon. Friend's Department of the work of placing these people elsewhere.

The citizens of the City of Plymouth have helped their country in many ways in the past and now, if given the chance, they can help again by working this time for the export trade, which the country badly needs, and in which, I am quite certain, they are willing to do their share if given the opportunity. I thank my hon. Friend for the courteous manner in which he has listened to me and I look forward to his reply.

11.28 p.m.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

I support the plea of the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers)that consideration should be given to the great and important City of Plymouth, which has risen like a phoenix out of the ashes since the war and produced one of the finest city centres in the world. I can echo what the hon. Lady has said, that there are fears of unemployment not only in Plymouth, but in the South-West generally, and particularly in West Cornwall, where the redundancies which are arising from disarmament are causing great anxiety.

I stress the point made by the hon. Lady that the Parliamentary Secretary might bear in mind the principles of the Distribution of Industry Act, so that the South-West will not be forgotten when new factories are to be built and new industries come into being. Some of us who come from the West Country through the environs of London are rather shocked at the amount of new factory building going on all around London when the West Country is being starved.

11.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Robert Carr)

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers)has spent the day at sea in one of Her Majesty's ships. I do not know whether the voyage was long enough for her to gain her sea legs, but, obviously, it was not rough enough to weaken her ability or characteristic pertinacity in bringing forward the problems and needs of her constituency. I am glad that my hon. Friend has given me the chance of saying something about the employment position in the Plymouth and Devonport area.

As my hon. Friend said, I had the pleasure of visiting Plymouth and Devon-port earlier in the summer and of hearing the views of many local people as well as of my Department's officials in the area. Therefore, I feel that I know something about the position at first hand and have, perhaps, a clearer picture in my mind of what is involved, both in terms of fact and feeling, than it is possible to get merely by studying figures and written reports.

It is true that ever since the war unemployment in Plymouth has been above the national average rate, usually by about 1 per cent. of the insured population. By the same token Plymouth, unlike many parts of the country, has consistently had more people unemployed than vacant jobs waiting to be filled.

Therefore, we recognise that Plymouth has an employment problem which cannot be regarded as solved, even though one should also remember that, with the exception of a few isolated months, the level of employment in Plymouth has been well within any accepted definition of what constitutes full employment.

While I thought it right to make the point in order to keep the position in perspective, I am not for one moment seeking to convey any impression of complacent satisfaction. On the contrary, as I have said, we do not regard Plymouth's employment problem as being fully solved, and I recognise that the imposition of substantial defence cuts must at the present time create a special feeling of anxious uncertainty.

Let me examine briefly the recent trends of employment and here let me make clear that in speaking about employment figures for Plymouth I am using not just the figures for the Plymouth Employment Exchange, but the combined totals for the four exchanges of Plymouth. Devonport, Saltash and Torpoint.

At the beginning of this year unemployment was higher than usual, and in February reached the level of 3.2 per cent. However, I am glad to say that it has fallen progressively since then, and the latest figure for June is 2.1 per cent., which is slightly less than it was at the same date in 1956, and is, in fact, the lowest June rate for any previous year with the single exception of 1951 when it was 2 per cent.

Unlike the country as a whole, Plymouth has less unemployed than a year ago. Therefore, the current situation in Plymouth is satisfactory in relation to the past record, but within the total figure for unemployment there are one or two trends to which I should like to draw attention and to which my hon. Friend referred.

What has caused most concern in the past has been the restricted opportunities of employment for women. In 1956—the last date for which figures are available—women and girls formed only 30 per cent. of the insured population, as against a national average of 35 per cent. For several years the female unemployment rate has been close to 4 or 5 per cent., but recently there has been a marked improvement. The rate of unemployment among women and girls in June this year was down to 2.6 per cent. compared with 3.7 per cent. only twelve months ago, and this is the lowest rate recorded on the present basis of insurance.

As my hon. Friend said, it is this improvement in the employment situation for women and girls which is responsible for the overall improvement in the unemployment rate for the district. As far as men are concerned there has unfortunately, as my hon. Friend said, been some increase in unemployment compared with one and two years ago. The June rate of male unemployment was 1.9 per cent. compared with 1.5 per cent. in June, 1956, and 1.3 per cent. in June, 1955.

To try to discover the cause of this the Ministry has recently made an analysis of the industries in which these unemployed men and boys last had jobs. This analysis shows that the increase has been due not to any specific redundancy, but to a general slackening of activity, and the industry most affected is the building trade, in which unemployment has occurred amongst unskilled workers. I emphasise that it has been among the unskilled workers because, in contrast, the shortage of building craftsmen is more acute than it was a year ago, so that today there are about six vacancies for every building craftsman unemployed, compared with fewer than three vacancies at the same time last year.

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from this fact not only in relation to Plymouth and to the building trade, but in relation to almost every industry and almost all parts of the country, because the same story is repeated over and over again, namely, an acute shortage of skilled workers even in places where the overall supply of labour is greater than the number of vacancies available.

During the next few years Britain must greatly increase the number of people it trains to become skilled workers. That is necessary in the interests of the national economy and in the interests of providing good and regular employment for all our people. It so happens that in the next few years we have a unique opportunity of doing this because of the great increase, no less than 50 per cent., in the number of boys and girls who will he leaving their schools and seeking employment.

I know that in Plymouth opportunities for apprenticeship are relatively good compared on a percentage basis with opportunities in other parts of the country and I know that the Local Youth Employment Committee has been taking a strong initiative in trying to get these opportunities increased. Therefore, what I have been saying during this last moment or two has certainly not been meant in any way in criticism of industry in Plymouth. It is simply that I want to take this and every opportunity which presents itself of driving home the vital importance of increasing our opportunities for training so that we fulfil the duty which we owe to the rising number of boys and girls who will be looking for jobs, and so that we provide our industries with the skilled people they need and correct the present unbalance in the supply of skilled and unskilled labour.

I turn from the actual employment figures to a brief consideration of the underlying characteristics of the employment situation in the Plymouth area. Of course, the most notable feature, as my hon. Friend said, is the dependence on Admiralty employment. The Royal Naval Dockyard at Devonport employs well over one-third of the male working population. I fully appreciate that where defence work bulks so large in the local economy as it does in Plymouth there is bound to be particular anxiety about what the future may hold. I also realise there is bound to be considerable impatience that the decisions should be made, so that one can see how the defence cuts will be implemented and know to what extent Plymouth and Devonport may be affected by them.

I cannot give my hon. Friend and her constituents any fresh news tonight. As my hon. Friend the Civil Lord of the Admiralty said in a debate a month or so ago, the assessment of the dockyard capacity which will be needed for the future is not a simple matter. I can assure my hon. Friend that decisions will be taken as soon as possible and that they will be taken in full consultation with the Ministry of Labour, so that any cuts which have to be made will fall, so far as choice is possible, where redundancies present the least difficulty. I can certainly give my hon. Friend the assurance for which she asked, that I will keep in touch with the Civil Lord on this and on the other aspects of the employment situation which she has mentioned.

It is because the Admiralty is so overwhelmingly the largest employer in Plymouth and Devonport that the provision of new industries and new employers is, as my hon. Friend has said, such an important matter. Indeed, as she also pointed out, the importance of this factor is further emphasised when one looks at the higher than average dependence in Plymouth on the distribution and services industries. I can assure my hon. Friend that I and my Department are well aware of the strong local concern about this, to which she has referred not only tonight but on a number of occasions when she has come to see me to discuss the position.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government have been by no means inactive in brining the possibilities of the Plymouth area to the notice of firms seeking sites for new projects. We shall continue to be active in this matter in the future. Already, between 5,000 and 6,000 people are employed at firms which have come to Plymouth since the war, and we can expect that another 1,300 or so additional jobs will become available in the next few years.

I realise that this will not be sufficient to abolish unemployment in the area—particularly in view of the number of boys and girls who will be leaving school during this period—and I know that people rightly worry about the future as well as about the present. Therefore, although the Government cannot direct manufacturers to Plymouth they will continue to inform firms concerned with new projects about the plentiful supply of labour to be found in Plymouth and the area's other advantages. I will undertake that the position is kept clearly before my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade.

The success of these efforts of persuasion by the Government will depend to a great extent on the welcome and the facilities offered to prospective employers when they go to Plymouth to make inquiries. Almost every firm contemplating setting up in a new area will go and have a look at a number of alternative places. Its final choice will be influenced largely by the facilities it finds in each one. Speed in development is often the important factor in the economics of a new project. Therefore, when a firm comes to an area, it expects to be shown a choice of sites for its factory, and to know definitely that it can have one quickly. It also wants to have full and definite information about the provision of basic services, such as water and power supplies, and housing for its key employees.

My final words to Plymouth, therefore, would be, "Make sure that you are fully competitive with other areas in offering these facilities to any prospective employer." I assure my hon. Friend that, although it is impossible to answer tonight all the points that she has raised, they will be kept in mind and that, as far as I can, I shall do what she has asked of me.

11.43 p.m.

Sir Henry Studholme (Tavistock)

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers)has raised this matter on the Adjournment, because I know how very assiduous she is in her care for the interests of Plymouth people. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour has shown by what he has said that he is well aware of the employment needs of Plymouth, and I am quite certain that the Government will bear those needs constantly in mind.

I was particularly interested in what the Parliamentary Secretary said about the need for skilled labour. The training of young people for skilled labour is certainly one of our greatest needs. I know that the Government are doing everything they can to encourage this training. In it lies one of our greatest hopes for prosperity in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.