HC Deb 31 July 1957 vol 574 cc1335-47

7.10 p.m.

Dr. Stross

I am sure that all of us who are interested in continuing for a little longer the debate on Royal Ordnance factories are delighted to see that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply has courteously resumed his seat and is prepared to listen to us. It may well be that it will be within the bounds of order for the hon. Gentleman to speak again when he has heard a few hon. Members make their own short interventions.

I was particularly interested in hearing the Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister of Supply speak of a period of two-and-a-half years for winding up the factories that have to be closed or handed over to other authorities. If it be two-and-a-half years it will be at least some satisfaction to us, because we have been told that the Royal Ordnance factory at Swynnerton is closing in one year. That would not have given sufficient time for the displaced workers to find other occupations. We are very happy to have further confirmation tonight that about two years is the period in the Minister's mind and not about one year.

The Minister said that there are special difficulties with these filling factories. This we appreciate and understand. The Parliamentary Secretary will know that a filling factory very like that at Swynnerton was handed over at Kirby to a great local authority which has turned it into a successful trading estate. We should very much like to see the same thing happening to the factory at Swynnerton. The factory covers 2 square miles of installations, separated by large distances because of the special hazards of shell-filling. As a result, overhead charges are tremendously heavy. Maintenance charges are also heavy and only a comparatively small section of the factory could be taken over immediately by a private or municipal enterprise. Indeed, only the engineering and one other section would be of any good to anybody. Nobody would want the rest of the installations at all, unless there was a very unusual type of applicant.

Although the City of Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire County Council are, together not great or rich authorities like Liverpool, if they were brought together with the Ministry of Supply and the Board of Trade it might be possible for a scheme to be worked out that would be to the benefit of the country as a whole and of the people of Staffordshire in particular, and something that would prevent, this area becoming derelict and a tremendous loss to us all. I sincerely hope that something of the kind may be possible.

I still feel that it is a mistake to say that men who are declared redundant in the Armed Forces cannot be compared with those declared redundant in these installations. The right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill)said on more than one occasion during the war that these men and women, many of whom were decorated for their services and some of whom are still employed, were as much in the front line as any serving men. Their industrial risk has been higher than that of those in most other occupations.

Many of them, whom I used to see during the war, suffered industrial injury or disease. It is not true to say that they do not suffer handicap, even when they appear to have recovered, or that there is no prejudice against cases of industrial dermatitis not only on the part of employers but on the part of other workers who through ignorance are nervous and frightened.

A sergeant in the Regular Forces, at 35 years of age and after seventeen years' service, is pensioned off at £2 15s. 5d. a week, with a gratuity of £1,475, if he is declared redundant. At this factory the average age of the men is 49 years and of the women 42 and when they have to go and they are not established, but have served just over five years, they receive five weeks' wages. Like everyone else, I am glad to see that we can afford to be generous to the men who have served in the Armed Forces. I do not grudge the colonels, the brigadiers, the sergeants, or anyone else a farthing. How can we reduce the Armed Forces if we do not play fair by these men? If I were a brigadier or a sergeant I should be very irate if I were treated unfairly. But when these unestablished men and women who are employed in these factories and who, during the war, were described as heroes and heroines are turned off with a miserable pittance, it is not fair. We have every right to say that they have a grievance and to speak on their behalf.

7.16 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Williams (Wigan)

I am most indebted to the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary for being in their places on the Front Bench at this time, having regard to the fact that the debate apaprently was to conclude at seven o'clock. I am particularly glad because, as it happens—and in this nobody is in the least to blame—with one exception this is the first speech made from this side of the House on a case in which a clear statement has been made concerning the closing dawn of a factory.

On 15th July, the Minister of Supply said: Fourthly, on present estimates of work available, it will be necessary to close down the shell factory at Wigan and the small arms factory at Poole sometime in 1959–60."—[OFFICIA1 REPORT, 15th July, 1957; Vol. 573, c. 762.] Until this afternoon I felt that if an appeal were made in a temperate and fair way to the Minister he would be receptive of the arguments submitted to him. I hope that in receiving the contrary impression, which I did from the right hon. Gentleman's opening speech today, I was mistaken. It is in the hope that he will take into account my argument that I rise to make a short intervention now.

When the right hon. Gentleman made that statement on 15th July, he obviously thought that he was doing something which was helpful in giving what he called a long period of notice. I ask him to consider another aspect of that announcement, because it is one thing to give a long period of notice when all the arguments to which he referred apply and there is no possibility of anything happening but the factory closing down. It is quite another thing to give a period of notice like that when the factory is engaged in work which may be very much prejudiced by that notice being given.

As it happens, the Royal Ordnance factory at Wigan has become engaged in civil work. This is not a case where we are saying, "Please keep the factory open because by retooling and re-equipping we could do civil work with this labour force and do it on competitive terms." We are saying that it is a fact that the civil work is being done. Not only is it being done, but there is another point about the work. According to my information, which I submit as strongly as I can to the Minister, part of the work which is being done on the civil side is concerned with the forging and machining of Dowty buffer cylinders and pistons. So far as I know, it is only at the Royal Ordnance factory at Wigan that that work is being done and these supplies are being made, and they are being made for a private firm.

Mr. W. J. Taylor

Had it not been for the orders placed by this private firm, the level of employment at Wigan might have been very much lower than it is today.

Mr. Williams

So be it, but the order was placed and is there now, and there is a twelve months' minimum programme.

Let us suppose that the Royal Ordnance factory was not there—and I put this question to the Minister in all seriousness—where would the supplies come from? If my information is correct, and if it is only from this very well equipped and modern factory that these supplies can be obtained, is the Minister saying that, if he gives notice that he is going to close down the factory then, between now and the date when it will close down, some firm will come along and take over the equipment, some of the staff and produce the supplies through private enterprise? If that be the answer, then the Minister's claim that there are reservations in the case where the Royal Ordnance factory can do the job better than anyone else is open to very serious qualification.

If, in fact, the work is being done, why should it not continue to be done? The intervention of the Parliamentary Secretary would have had some point if this was something which was being done to help the Royal Ordnance factory. In fact, this factory can produce more competently and efficiently than anybody else. The factory is prepared to stand the test of being in competition with anybody who may come along. It is confident that, with its existing staff and equipment it can do better than anybody else. Why waste this asset? This is part of the national production, and something where private enterprise is being fed by the job which is being done, and done so well, in Wigan. Why on earth should the Government say that, in respect of work such as that, it must come to an end when, obviously, from every standpoint, everybody is benefiting as a consequence of it?

In other words, these facts being as they are, this is an argument that the Royal Ordnance factory at Wigan should continue, and not an argument that it should come to an end. Although it may come to an end in two years' time, it means not only that the people in the factory are put into an insecure position, but that the supply of these commodities to the private firm may also be jeopardised. I would have thought that the Minister would have taken this into account, and would have said that this was an aspect of the work of the Royal Ordnance factory at Wigan which was justification for it not being closed.

Let me put one other point to the Minister, since he has referred to mitigation. This afternoon he said that in respect of conventional arms, the Royal Ordnance factories were given preference, and that disturbs me very much. If it is true, I am not in the least disturbed, but it does not coincide with the information which I received concerning the position of the factory at Wigan. There, according to my information, and I have been very careful to check it, it is a fact that a certain type of shell has been and is being produced in large quantities. I think it would interest the Minister to know, if he does not know already, that during the period of research, there were forty-seven alterations of the design. That means that a terrific amount of work was done before they reached that standard of precision when they could supply this shell. The Ministry wants many more of these shells supplied, and the Admiralty also wants to receive considerable further quantities of them.

I could quite understand the Minister saying that they will not want them indefinitely, but they will want them for perhaps another two years or so, and then the orders will be tapering off and will come to an end. The sad fact is that in this case a very large capital sum has been invested in a private firm which has demonstrated its incompetence at this job, and which has had to go to the Royal Ordnance factory seeking for help and even for equipment. Even today, this private firm would not be in a position to perform this work. That being so, would not the Minister feel that the right thing to do would be to say that, since we have got a team of workers there and equipment there, and that they are doing the job to the highest standards of precision, work should continue?

Certainly, as we run down the arms programme and need fewer shells, the point will arise at which we shall have no need for the contribution of these shells from the Royal Ordnance factory at Wigan. But there is no case at all for saying that, because we are running it down, we must take all this work and put it into incompetent private hands, and build up the efficiency of a private firm on the basis of something which is being done so well in this modern and well-equipped factory.

Further, I put it to the Minister that he knows as well as I do that, without going into the details of the factory itself, the air conditioned gauge room in the Royal Ordnance factory at Wigan is probably one of the finest things one will find in any factory under private enterprise or even in any other Royal Ordnance factory. I am delighted to see the Parliamentary Secretary nodding his head in agreement. Here is a first-class factory, which has been fully equipped in the most modern way since the end of the last war, and in which a great deal of equipment has been installed in the last two years. Why waste these assets at the very time when we want all the production that we can get and when we need so badly the contribution which nobody can make better than the Royal Ordnance factory at Wigan? No private firm or combination of private firms can do this job as well as it is now being done and could continue to be done in this Royal Ordnance factory.

My final word concerns the Minister's observations about being under a moral obligation to workers. What saddens me, and I think it will sadden him, is that in this disturbance, much of it inevitable, the closure of the Royal Ordnance factory at Wigan is not in the least necessary. In this matter there are human factors from which he cannot escape. I have submitted to him particulars of one case. There are others, but I think the House should know about this case. I am not going to refer to the person by name, because that would miss the point. It is the nature of the case which is of importance.

It is the case of a man 61 years of age, who has served the country, in this case in a clerical capacity, for over seventeen years. What is going to happen to him and his wife and family now, since he is declared redundant and has to go? The Minister of Supply expressed his regret in the clearest terms to me, but very little can be done on the Ministry of Labour side in the case of a man with specialised experience like that. Therefore, he has to go. We have to send him out as a consequence of Government policy, and this in an area which has suffered in the most ghastly way from unemployment and where even today the figure of unemployment is higher than the national percentage.

We have had enough of this in Wigan in past years, and we do not want to see it happen again. I think that the Minister will make a most ghastly mistake, cause very grave hardship and harm and do no good at all if he pursues his decision to close this factory.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. W. T. Proctor (Eccles)

The most hopeful statement made by the Minister this afternoon is that the implementation of this policy dealing with the Royal Ordnance factories will take about two and a half years. By then we are hopeful on this side of the House that somebody else may be able to deal with the question.

In my Division the Patricroft Royal Ordnance factory employs 1,000 men. It is in an industrial community, and the staff take a great interest in their work and in the affairs of other Royal Ordnance factories throughout the country. They feel that the nation is not dealing fairly with the personnel of the R.O.Fs. The workers have no security, and security is one of the most vital things in the life of a community, especially for the workers.

The factory in question was a private enterprise one before the war. Immediately war started it was taken over by the Government and was used for the production of guns. Subsequently it produced tanks and a great variety of war materials. It made a great contribution to our war effort, and at the end of the war, still under public ownership, it returned to civil production. It produced railway equipment, steel railway wagons, oil tanks for converting coal-fired boilers to oil burners, lamp standards for British Railways, mining equipment and a host of other civilian products. The factory was doing well until 1951 when, as a result of the Korean War, it went back to armament production. Machinery was introduced on a large scale.

I have no information about how much capital was used, but I have been told that a very large sum was spent on re- equipping the factory. At the present time it has a steel-making plant, with heavy forge and heat treatment shops, full laboratory equipment, a well-equipped tool room and general machine shops. It covers approximately eighteen acres, and of this there are ten acres of buildings. It is felt that the factory should remain in public hands, that there should be no redundancy and full-time employment.

Happily this is not one of the factories listed for disposal, but the staff feel insecure and, as I have said, these people take an intelligent interest in what is going on. They tell me that one of the most disturbing features is the building of a new factory by Beans Industries Limited of Tipton, for the sole purpose of producing the type of shells that could be produced at Patricroft R.O.F., and that these shells are for the Admiralty.

Is there any truth in that statement? If it is correct that capital is being used to build a factory to do work which could be done by the R.O.F.s, it is scandalous. The Navy is the Senior Service. I hope that that information is not correct, and I should like an answer from the Minister when he winds up the debate. Certainly there is a strong case for an inquiry as to whether the Navy is making the use of the R.O.F.s which it could make.

As regards Royal Ordnance factories generally, I suggest that we should use them for the benefit of this nation. They represent valuable capital equipment. Whilst there is a difference of opinion between the two sides of the House on public ownership and private enterprise, we on this side are concerned about private enterprise from the point of view of the wages and conditions of work and the welfare of those employed in it. We on this side of the House are not prejudiced against private enterprise from the point of view of dealing with it fairly and efficiently and helping it to serve the true interests of the nation. However, I have always a suspicion that hon. Gentlemen opposite are prejudiced against public ownership and that efforts are made not to give it the same chance as would be given if those opposite had a greater affection for public ownership. The thing which struck me most during the period of the Labour Government was when the late Stafford Cripps was responding to the call for increased production. He used the R.O.F.s to help private industry. He said, "If you fall down on any job, let me know what it is, and I will hand it over to the Royal Ordnance factories." In that way many production bottlenecks were solved. That is still a sensible proposition. Private enterprise has not the same resources for research as the nation has, and it would pay the nation to use these factories for experiments, research and development in order to help private industry to become more efficient.

We all hope to see fewer armaments produced, and we should take a broad international view on these matters. There is no more wonderful story than that of the creation of the Royal Ordnance factories in this country and their use in both the First and Second World Wars. Now that we are speaking in terms of peace in the world, we ought to use this valuable capital equipment for producing needed goods. This nation could do nothing better than use it for the development of the undeveloped areas, for providing capital goods for export and also for the Point Four American programme. Therefore, I ask the Government to think not in terms of closing down the Royal Ordnance factories but of using them as a framework for British industry, since they are amongst our most valuable assets. These factories can be used to boost our industrial output, to increase our research resources, and can remain a great reserve potential in case of any emergency. The staff are eager to serve the nation. All they ask in return is fair conditions of service and reasonable security of employment.

7.38 p.m.

Mr. Stephen Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I want to make three short points. In the first place, I ask the Minister to carry out a ruthless investigation in his Department into the application of the principle of preference for Royal Ordnance factories, which is of special importance to those which are to be maintained, such as Radway Green.

Since the announcements have been made, those who represent workers employed at the R.O.Fs. have had presented to them a large amount of evidence that the principle of using R.O.Fs. as a preferred source of supply is not being applied. The Minister will have heard in the debate today more allegations that work is still being given to private firms which could be carried out in the Royal Ordnance factories.

I firmly believe that arms manufacture should be brought under public control. That is why I want the Minister to make a thorough inquiry to ensure that the work which the existing R.O.Fs. can do will be concentrated in them, and that there will be a reduction of arms manufactured by profit-making private enterprise.

The second thing I want to say is that I deeply deplore the sterile attitude of the Minister towards the conversion of these factories. We all welcome the reduction in the manufacture of armaments. Here is a great opportunity. Here we are presented with a number of assets and a considerable labour force which can be liberated from the inflationary process of making shells or tanks or guns and can be put to peaceful, constructive work.

We are hearing all the time the cry, "Production, production, production". The Minister should therefore have seized this opportunity. The Government were responsible for this labour force and for the factories, and I believe that the Government should have taken the responsibility themselves for converting these factories to peaceful purposes and for providing alternative employment for the workers in them.

One can only conclude from the Minister's statement that purely doctrinaire reasons have led to this policy being rejected. The Minister has been head of the Department of State which is most closely concerned with the nationalised industries. He knows full well of the shortage of capital equipment and of the great need to improve the tools of those industries. He knows full well that although he may not issue directions to these industries as to where they should buy machinery and equipment, the Minister and the Government have great influence with the boards of the public corporations. Here was an opportunity to call the heads of those boards into consultation and to say to them, "Here we have a number of assets and some excellent sites, with a labour force of engineering workers available. How can we best plan the peaceful use of these resources to overcome some of the shortages of capital goods which exist in the publicly-owned industries?"

For doctrinaire reasons the Minister has rejected that policy and is determined to hand these assets over to private enterprise. That being so, I want to ask him some questions about Swynnerton. Last week the Minister told me that he expected that all production will have ceased at Swynnerton within twelve months. Is that correct in the light of what the Parliamentary Secretary said about giving two years' or two-and-a-half years' notice? Are we to take it that there will be a longer period of rundown at Swynnerton or is it correct to assume that it will be closed as an R.O.F. within the next twelve months?

We should like an answer to that question, because it is a very serious question for north Staffordshire. There is 2½ per cent. unemployment in my constituency and 2 per cent, unemployment in north Staffordshire generally. The rate has been higher than the national average for a considerable time. We have been faced with a gradual decline in the pottery industry. The President of the Board of Trade knows well that there is a great need for more variety of industry and employment in north Staffordshire.

The Minister's policy will therefore be a serious matter for those workers and their families, because alternative employment does not exist and will not exist unless it is created by the Minister's own action. That is why we ask the Minister, before he decides on any definite programme of run-down at this factory, to call a conference locally in the West Midlands, calling together the heads of the local authorities, who are deeply concerned about this, and the representatives of the trade unions in order to discuss what is to happen. He should do that before we disperse this labour force, which consists of a group of workers with very high morale who made a very big contribution to the war effort.

Mr. Ellis Smith

Is my hon. Friend aware that an announcement was made at the factory yesterday—and I have been awaiting an opportunity to say this—that 1,000 would be discharged by the end of November, another 1,000 by the end of next June and that the rest would be transferred?

Mr. Swingler

I thank my hon, Friend for that information. It is a very serious matter indeed in the light of the present unemployment figures there and the lack of alternative employment. I know that the Minister of Labour is fully conversant with the unemployment situation because we have been making him conversant with it for the last couple of years—in fact, ever since the Government reimposed the Purchase Tax on pottery, with the effect which we all know.

I therefore ask the Minister either to stay his hand in closing the R.O.F. or to take immediate action to call together those who are locally concerned in north Staffordshire—the local authorities, the leaders of industry and the leaders of the trade unions—in order to discuss this situation, unless he is to take the responsibility for accentuating an unemployment position which is already grave. This is a matter on which we shall press him strongly tomorrow.

Mr. W. J. Taylor

If I may speak by leave of the House, I should like to say that my right hon. Friend and I have listened with interest and attention to the further points which have been made by hon. Members opposite and——

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

On a point of order. Is not this intervention, for a second time, by the Parliamentary Secretary a calculated insult to those of us who are still waiting to speak, and who might have points to put to him about our own R.O.F.s which we have not yet had an opportunity to put? Is the Parliamentary Secretary trying in this way to closure us on a free debate?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Sir William Anstruther-Gray)

The Parliamentary Secretary can speak for a second time only by leave of the House. I understood that that had been granted.

Mrs. Castle

In view of that, I should like personally to refuse that permission to the Parliamentary Secretary until those of us who have points to put have had a chance to put them.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That being so, the Parliamentary Secretary is prevented from speaking. Mr. Wigg.

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