HC Deb 31 July 1957 vol 574 cc1421-30

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

It is now 11.30 and I have sat here since 2.30. I welcome an opportunity to use the right of an elected Member to speak on behalf of his people. I am not saying this is any complaining sense, for those of us who belong to the working class, and who speak on their behalf, will be tested more than we have been in the past. Knowing the historical development of the movement of which I am a humble member, I am determined to play my part in accordance with our democratic rights which we have won at such terrible sacrifices.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey)has made some startling revelations. I have seen a great change. I have known the days when this House was dynamic, and when support would have been given from both sides of the House to a demand for an undertaking by a Minister, representing the Government of the day, that at least a searching investigation would be made into those startling revelations. If there is any truth whatever in those allegations, they constitute a grave national scandal and a reply should be received tonight, or, failing that, my right hon. Friends should seek an undertaking that before we break up for the Recess the Government will make a public statement in answer to those allegations as soon as possible.

The Minister of Supply, who should be present, stated that approximately 7,000 people would be discharged from Royal Ordnance factories within the near future, including those at Swynnerton within a few yards of the border of my division. There, 2,500 men and women served in the last war and made their contribution as other people have done. I take second place to no one in my admiration for our young men who served in our Armed Forces during the last war, but, at the same time, credit should be given to those who served in the Royal Ordnance factories and provided the Forces with the tools to enable them to save us all. They died that we may live.

An undertaking was given that those who served in the forces and in the Royal Ordnance factories would be treated in accordance with certain terms. An announcement was made yesterday afternoon—not in this House, but in the factory itself. Question after question has been asked by my hon. Friends in the House, but a definite answer has not been given to them. The answer was given in the factory itself yesterday. It was said that 1,000 would be discharged at the end of November this year, 1,000 more would finish by the end of June next, and the others would be transferred in accordance with the arrangements made.

Not a word has been said in this House about how they are to be treated with regard to the payment of their rents, when they have got to move, and so on. There is ample generosity in the payment of compensation to officers, but the people whom we on this side of the House represent have to go to the employment exchange and get a mere pittance, after their service in the last war. It would be cowardly of us to sit silent, having established our right after many years to raise grievances. I am not complaining, for, after my experience in the school through which I have passed, one becomes steeled to this sort of situation and does not complain when faced with a matter of this sort.

I owe a great deal to one of the finest men who ever served in this House. The working class has good reason to thank a small group of aristocrats and members of the middle class. We give credit where credit is due, and I have no hesitation in giving it to Colonel Josiah Wedgwood, who was as good as a father to me and helped me in my early life in many ways. Colonel Wedgwood, Arthur Hollins and Will Bromfield time after time went to various Ministries before the war about the unemployment we were suffering in our area. I played only a modest part in those efforts.

The Secretary of State for War won the good will of almost every hon. Member in this House for the modest manner in which he spoke just now and for the way in which he dealt with questions in his speech. I only wish that there were more of that kind of thing, for that is the way to win people's good will. He dealt with questions as they should be dealt with, giving reasoned replies, instead of handling them in the way too often heard in the House today. Moreover, he replied question by question, not treating his questioners as we have been treated when presenting our grievances about how the Royal Ordnance factories are to be affected.

Having been called, I intend to state the case as it should be stated, so that it shall be on record. My friend Josiah Wedgwood and others went to Ministry after Ministry. I played only a modest part because I was very young then, though I learned a good deal, and supported them in every possible way. We had pockets of severe unemployment in the area at that time, as my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough)will be able to confirm, since he was born and lived there in those days. All the time, we were told by different Ministers and Ministries that the international situation was worsening, and that they would see that, when necessary, should things come to that, two Royal Ordnance factories would be sited in our locality. As a result of those assurances, our agitation for further action was staved off.

In 1940, two large Royal Ordnance factories were sited in our area, one at Swynnerton, employing 30,000 during the war, and one at Radway Green, employing approximately 25,000. Those two factories have a record which will bear the closest investigation; indeed, we would welcome it. The situation then growing worse, the Ministry also took over a large number of factories which had been closed and, ultimately, we had a hive of activity there.

It was acknowledged by all those who knew about these things that what was most urgently needed in the north Staffordshire area was the diversification of industry. Government Department after Department was sympathetic, and they were on the verge of taking special action on Development Area lines when the war came. As I have said, the result was that these Royal Ordnance factories were sited in our area.

We have now been given notice that one of the factories is to be closed. Radway Green is to be kept in being, and we welcome that. All we ask is that it should be given an opportunity to compete for orders with firms in other parts of the country. I have sufficient confidence in the management and the men of Radway Green to believe that, given a square deal, that factory will hold its own in any competitive tendering that takes place.

In 1946, the Board of Trade issued a statement about our area. Solemn undertakings were given to us by various Government Departments that if only we would accept their proposals they would see that this work was carried on after the war. I now challenge the Government to reply to what I am going to say. The Government are under an obligation to fulfil their oath to the people living in that area that they would maintain full employment, our people having served so well during the war and having such a great record in these two factories, as have the people in the other factories which are to become derelict.

The Government are equally as much under an obligation to these men and women as they were to the officers whom they are now to compensate. Therefore, if the treatment proposed for the officers in the White Paper is correct, it is equally correct treatment for the men and women to whom we belong.

I have before me the results of the Development Area policy. The number of unemployed in the North-East is 1.4 per cent.; in South Wales it is 2 per cent.; in south Lancashire it is 1.5 per cent.; and in north-east Lancashire it is 1.1 per cent., whereas in our area it is 2 per cent. of the total insured population. When these 2,500 people are discharged the percentage will be even greater. In our area we have one of the finest motor tyre concerns in the country, employing approximately 3,000 people. It has an enlightened management with a business outlook, excellent relations between management and men, and it was pro- posing to extend its factory with a view to employing another 700 workers. Yet the Board of Trade comes along and suggests that this factory should be sited in northeast Lancashire—and uses its influence to see that this is done—where the unemployment figure is only 1.1 per cent., thus taking it away from our area where the unemployed represent more than 2 per cent. of the population.

These are the facts. This year there are approximately 12,000 fewer people employed in the pottery industry than there were in 1937 in spite of the fact that, at the same time, we have an increase in population of approximately 40,000, roughly half the people living in the north Staffordshire area. These are the results of the industrial favouritism which has now been meted out for far too long—in the North-East, where unemployment is 1.4 per cent.

No one supported this policy more strongly than I did before the last war, but there has been such a change since the end of the war that I am now contrasting one area with another in order to place on record the need for justice being done to the areas which are suffering in the way that our area is suffering. In the North-East, where, as I have said, unemployment is 1.1 per cent., £16½ million has been spent; in South Wales, where unemployment is 2 per cent., £21¼ million has been spent; in Scotland, about which we hear so much, and where the unemployment figure is 2.5 per cent., £24,843,000 has been spent, whereas in our area, where, prior to the recent discharges, the unemployment figure was 2 per cent., not one penny has been spent of this enormous sum of £71 million.

It is understandable, therefore, that some of us have a sufficient grievance to take advantage of our constitutional rights on this Consolidated Fund (Appropriation)Bill to state our case. It is for that reason that my hon. Friends have been asking Question after Question during the past fortnight to get the figures officially on record so that we can deal with the matter in the way I am doing tonight.

This morning, I received this letter from the Urban District Council of Kidsgrove. It says: You will probably recall that before the war, Kidsgrove was hit more than anyone else and total unemployed at one period reached 76 per cent. of the insured population. Since the war steps have been taken by the Council to see that there should be no recurrence of this and, as a consequence, a number of new industries have been introduced. Unfortunately, the position is by no means as satisfactory as it appeared likely to prove … because factory after factory is now closing down. When one remembers that, before the war, 76 per cent. of the insured population was unemployed, it is understandable that the indignation should reflect itself in speeches such as mine, because we are determined that there should not be a recurrence. While one cannot do very much, we ought to do all we possibly can to ventilate the grievance of these people to prevent a similar recurrence.

The two Royal Ordnance factories are magnificent sites and have valuable capital equipment. I dread Swynnerton being made a modern Gretna Green. I remember often travelling to Clydebank and seeing the "Queen Mary" rusting away there until this House took action, largely as a result of the then David Kirkwood and others speaking in the way that I am speaking tonight. It was because of that kind of action that the Government undertook responsibility for the building of that ship, which has earned its great record. What could be done in those days with the "Queen Mary" can equally be done in these days if we are determined to do it.

As I travelled to Clydebank and passed Gretna Green, after the First World War, I saw that valuable site and equipment being allowed to rust, until weeds of all descriptions, shrubs and trees grew over it. I thought what a tragedy that was. We must be determined not to let that occur at Swynnerton, where our people have served so well.

There are excellent communications for this valuable site, measuring approximately four miles by three miles. It has excellent transport communications and a railway station in the centre of the site. Running parallel with the site is one of the finest railways in the world from north to south and sidings which are a credit to all concerned.

There is at Stafford one of the largest electrical concerns in the country, whose managing director, Sir George Nelson, checked my work when I was young and has worked his way through on merit. The company is considering increasing its capacity.

I am asking the Government to regard this matter with a sense of urgency, because the House will be adjourning in a day or two and we do not want our skilled labour to be sent ruthlessly to the employment exchanges, or be broken up and sent to various parts of the country. This is capital equipment which is too valuable to be treated in the same old way, but that is what will happen again unless hon. Members representing these areas assert themselves in the House of Commons.

I am asking that the great industrial monopolists such as Associated Electrical Industries, English Electric, Imperial Chemical Industries, General Electric, huge concerns of that kind, should be now called upon to accept some social responsibility in taking over these sites, so that full employment can be maintained in areas as mine. This is now a matter of great urgency.

The City of Stoke-on-Trent, to its everlasting credit, has two industrial estates for which, up to now, it has not received a penny from the Government. I now ask the Government to consider taking over those municipal industrial estates, to give them the same concessions and inducements as are given to other Development Areas. I say "Good luck" to the Development Areas. I have supported them in every possible way in this House.

First, twenty years ago, there were the Special Areas, and then, later, there were the Development Areas under the Distribution of Industry Acts. However, if in those days, and under that legislation, it was right to apply a special policy to those areas, it is equally right now to apply the policy to the more limited areas of the character of that for which I am speaking. Therefore, I ask the Government to give urgent consideration to the need to take over the Newstead and Stoke industrial estates, to give them the same facilities and inducements as are given to the Development Areas.

My hon. Friends and I spent Friday visiting the Swynnerton site. I admit right away that it would be no bad thing if a bulldozer were to be run into some of the buildings, but a number of them are very valuable, and I refer to those in what is known as Group 10 A, with their engineering facilities. I am a judge of them. I cannot judge everything, as some legal people can, but I can judge something I know something about, and I can judge those buildings. In that Group 10 A there are excellent engineering facilities, including a drawing office. It would be a business proposition for any firm which requires to increase its capacity to take them over en bloc. I ask the Government to give early consideration to that.

Although the Newstead estate has been designated for industrial development for many years there is hardly a building standing, but a few yards from there is one of the finest pottery manufacturing firms not only in this country but in the world. I refer to Wedgwood's. That factory was started when it needed great courage to start one. I give great credit to men like the Wedgwoods, who had the great courage to embark on that large-scale capital expenditure in 1938 and 1939, when the world was in such a serious situation. But courage always pays, and that venture has proved to be a great business proposition.

It is in a lovely environment, and that induces the workers to give of their best, and the relationship between the management and the men and women workers there is among the best industrial relationships in the entire country. The result is that output has increased remarkably. Output there per man-hour has gone up as output per man-hour has not gone up in any other factory. That is an indication of what can be done by applying mid-twentieth century methods.

If we are serious about the need to increase our exports, and especially to the dollar markets, we ought to be encouraging other pottery firms to modernise themselves in the way Wedgwood's have. I have sufficient confidence in my fellow countrymen employed in that area to say that, if that were done, our exports of pottery would be increased to a great extent to America and Canada, and to other Commonwealth countries such as New Zealand and Australia.

The Board of Trade Journal records the large numbers of industrial buildings that were built in the last quarter of last year. That building has continued this year and I ask that some of it should be carried out at Stoke-on-Trent, where so much industrial work is done and so much export trade is carried out, where the output per man employed at the coal face is as high as, if not higher than, that in any other part of the country and where enormous developments in mining are taking place. In view of all these local developments, the area should have every encouragement from the Government.

If the Government feel themselves to be under an obligation to officers of the Armed Forces, how much more are they under an obligation to those who served them so well in industrial life during the war and suffered in consequence. Many men and women employed at Swynnerton risked their all in explosions at the factory and in the preparation of various powders, in the course of which they contracted industrial diseases. These people have now reached an age at which they cannot hope to have other employment. I say without hesitation that no one can deny that the nation is under a moral obligation to these men and women and that it should treat them in a manner similar to the treatment offered to those named in the Government's proposals for dealing with redundancies in the Forces.

I recently received letters from the Lord Mayor and the Town Clerk of Stoke-on-Trent. On the closing of the Swynnerton Royal Ordnance factory, the Lord Mayor says: I feel that it is useless to press the Government that the factory should be continued on its present basis as an arms factory, and I think that the Council should take the following steps: … to ask the Government to take all possible steps to transfer the factory for industrial work; to press the Board of Trade for new Industries to be allocated to the district; and to ask the Board of Trade to give the same assistance to the city as they would give to a development area. The Town Clerk wrote today and said that he understood that I and my colleagues were seeing the Minister of Supply this week and he hoped that if we had the opportunity of speaking today we would put forward the main points contained in the Lord Mayor's letter.

I have done that and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government will undertake to report to the President of the Board of Trade and the Minister of Supply. I have now had the satisfaction of doing what little one can do. I have had the privilege of having retained the confidence of the people of the area for a fairly long time. I hope to continue to serve them in the way I have done hitherto. We owe so much to one another. They served us so well during the war that the least we can do now is to speak on their behalf.

Back to