HC Deb 07 June 1957 vol 571 cc1637-51

2.25 p.m.

Mr. M. Philips Price (Gloucestershire, West)

I wish to call attention to the danger threatening workers in the aircraft industry in a number of constituencies, including my own and those of certain of my hon. Friends, and also, I believe, the constituencies of some hon. Gentlemen opposite. I wish to ask what steps the Government are taking, or will take, to meet this danger.

In the aircraft industry, many workers have been engaged in making military aircraft. For example, the company in my constituency, the Gloster Aircraft Company, is famous for the work it has done in this respect. But as so often happens, the discoveries of science have their repercussions upon industry, and the new type of warfare which is, alas, envisaged—God forbid that it should ever come—will be of a very different kind from what we have known in the past. The piloted aircraft is now on its way out, and we shall have more horrible things like guided missiles.

These developments have immediate repercussions, and will have continuing repercussions in the next few years, in causing many workers to become redundant. The Gloster Aircraft Company in my constituency is not threatened with closure, as I believe are certain firms in other constituencies, particularly those of certain of my hon. Friends, who will I hope, follow me and explain what is happening in their case, but there is in my constituency the threat of increasing redundancy, and I ask the Government to pay very special attention to it.

In July last year, there were indications of the danger when 51 toolmakers were declared redundant from the Gloster Aircraft Company, and the trade unions concerned inform me that they are afraid that, towards the end of this year, as many as 2,000 may become redundant, 700 of them by the end of this month. I believe that the management is very well aware of the danger and is doing all it can to prevent it, but help is needed in obtaining new orders for other kinds of aircraft and putting men on to other work. This is where I ask the Minister to give special help.

The whole thing, if course, is, as yet, very uncertain. The men are worried because they do not see the future. Many have settled down in the neighbourhood of Gloucester and the rural areas around, there having been a tremendous expansion there during the war and for some time afterwards. They have settled with their families, their children going to schools in the neighbourhood. The Gloucester Education Committee has a big scheme for building new schools in the area to meet the demands of an increased population. We are here threatened, as a result of the change to which I have referred, with very serious social repercussions. One cannot root people up from one area and hope that they will find jobs somewhere else, leaving families to the rough operation of economic laws such as happened, alas, during much of the last century, and particularly in the Industrial Revolution 150 years ago.

Last month, the local Ministry of Labour exchange stated that 479 had left the Gloster Aircraft Company, many of them voluntarily and some discharged. Already there is fear stalking the land, and people are beginning to look around for other jobs. Some, of course, can find them and some cannot. I am told that some highly-skilled men, especially the sheet metal workers, are very likely to be affected and not likely to find work locally. Other skilled men may do so. There is enough apprehension there to make it clear that action should be taken to forestall this situation, which, I admit, is not yet calamitous in my constituency; I believe that it is much worse elsewhere. Therefore, I am asking the Government to do something to anticipate trouble.

There is, of course, one possibility. If the piloted military aircraft is on its way out, there is no doubt the civilian aircraft is on its way in. There is an enormous potential market for civilian aircraft. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter) put a Question last week to the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation in regard to the number of air passengers using the London Airport. At the present time, the number is 3 million a year. It is estimated that by 1962 the figure will have risen to 11 million. That shows that there is an enormous possibility. We should therefore take up the slack quickly —do it as soon as ever we can—where military aircraft is declining to replace it with orders for something which is wanted and will be wanted still more.

British European Airways and British Overseas Airways are Corporations operating with Government capital and, to some extent, are under Government control. Here I think that those of us concerned with this matter are entitled to ask the Government, because their responsibility is a direct one, to do something about this. They can surely see that orders which are given for civilian aircraft go to those places where unemployment and redundancy are most likely to be suffered. I know that there is also a further large possibility of developing our export trade in civilian aircraft. There is an enormous demand overseas for civilian aircraft, and we have some of the finest aircraft in the world. I admit that the Government are not so directly able to control this, because it is largely in private hands, but I suggest that there are ways by which they can use their influence to see that in areas where redundancy is threatened orders flow in whenever possible to those areas.

If there must be some redundancy in these aircraft industries, and if it is impossible even for new orders to fill all the gaps—there may be some who cannot get jobs which they have been used to and who have to go elsewhere and others who may have to give up one type of job and retrain for another—surely here is a case where the workers should not have to bear the whole of that cost. It is a case where the industry itself and the Government particularly must take steps to see that the burden of retraining or the shifting of their homes to other places is not left solely on the shoulders of the workers.

That is the last point that I wish to make, and I believe that the Ministry has done something in this matter. There was a statement in the House not long ago which went some one to show that the Government are aware of this problem. I am, therefore, making use of this opportunity to ask the Under-Secretary to make a further statement about this to assuage the fears of those who see before them the expense of having to retrain and even shift their homes in order to get employment. This is a responsibility which the Government cannot shirk, and how they handle this situation will be a proof of their outlook on our modern industrial problems. This is a serious problem which is bound to occur in our modern world where scientific inventions are piling on us one after the other and causing serious industrial dislocation. This must not be allowed, as it has been in the past, to fall on the shoulders of those least able to bear it.

2.37 p.m.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)

This is a very big subject, and we have only a brief time to discuss it. If we are to have, as we hope we shall have, large defence cuts, we must be thinking of the alternative work which must be provided for those who have been engaged in aircraft construction or armament production.

I want to speak particularly of the firms in the Hawker-Siddeley group which so far have been the worst sufferers. The group has factories at Kingston, Langley, Dunsfold, Blackpool, Woodford in Cheshire, Langar in Nottinghamshire, Coventry and Brockworth, Gloucestershire, as well as the Gloster Aircraft Company to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Philips Price) has referred. The two main sufferers so far have been Hawker Aircraft at Blackpool and at Langley in my own constituency. At Blackpool, 4,000 workers were employed. The production shops are to be entirely closed this month, and the repair shops and stores will only be open until October. The reduction of workers since January this year will be from 3,800 to between 200 and 300.

At the Hawker Aircraft works at Langley the number of workers is not so large—800—but there production has been entirely stopped. What impressed me when I visited that factory was this. It is a modern factory with every kind of equipment for the production of engineering goods, from a refrigerator to a locomotive, and the whole place has been closed down. Production has stopped entirely. In addition to that magnificent floor which is now entirely idle, there are two hangars with 300,000 square feet which are empty except for being used as stores.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply (Mr. W. J. Taylor)

Is this at Blackpool?

Mr. Brockway

No, it is at Langley in my constituency—the Hawker Aircraft works. A deputation recently came to see Members of Parliament in this House from the joint shop stewards committee of the Hawker Siddeley combine, and I think that all of us were impressed by their constructive approach to this problem. I must put the case telegraphically because of the shortage of time.

The first thing that the deputation said was that despite the effect on themselves they welcomed the defence cuts. They put the cause of peace before their own personal interest. Secondly, they asked for a national plan for the aircraft industry instead of the haphazard closing down of factories and dismissals which now takes place. I will not emphasise what my hon. Friend said concerning the anxiety and uncertainty among men who often have been employed in the industry for as long as twenty years as to whether their opportunities for the future should be closed. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary, although I cannot develop the point now, to pay particular attention to the plan which the Confederation of Engineering Unions has prepared for the industry.

Thirdly, the deputation made a series of proposals for alternative work. It suggested that as an immediate measure factories and workers should be kept together by subcontracting the work of firms which find it difficult to meet delivery dates. The deputation asked— and I should have placed the greatest emphasis on this had my hon. Friend not concentrated upon it—for the manufacture of civilian aircraft instead of the military aircraft on which they have so far been engaged. I need not underline the enormous scope to which my hon. Friend has referred.

The next suggestion for alternative employment, and one which is very near my own heart, is development in the colonial field. Development in that sector would make a demand on exactly the kind of goods which could be made in these engineering factories—power stations, wells, railways and bridges, for example.

Under this heading, the deputation asked for the extension of foreign markets and suggested in particular that we should increase our trade with China, which would also result in demands for engineering goods. I am afraid, however, that we are rather late in that direction.

The deputation's fourth constructive proposal was that orders should be placed where workers are available rather than that workers should be transferred to where orders are placed. Frequently, there is a tendency to regard workers just as though they were goods like coal and steel, for example. When an order is given, coal and steel has to be provided. In the same way, workers have to be provided just as though they were material goods. When they are shifted from place to place, their whole life is destroyed, they lose their friends, their children have to be transferred to new schools and there is the difficulty of getting accommodation.

Blackpool is an illustration. In March, there were 2,616 unemployed workers at the employment exchange at Blackpool as a result of closing down in this way. Very often, these people have to be transferred to other industries and their skills cannot be used.

The fifth point urged by the deputation was that there should be a comprehensive survey of the whole industry. If there are too many factories and workers for aircraft, other work should be drafted into the areas now engaged on aircraft production, otherwise as a result of the defence cuts great depressed areas will develop. That is all that time allows me to say, but I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to pay attention to this problem because it is one that will grow and, unless plans are prepared now, it may grow to a scale which it will be very difficult for the Government to handle.

2.45 p.m.

Mr. G. A. Pargiter (Southall)

I do not propose to detain the House long, except to say that my union is much concerned with this problem and also with the wider problem affecting Ordnance factories generally. We do not complain about running down the arms programme, but we feel that the Government have been lacking in providing anything like an orderly plan for the use of this highly-skilled labour which is no longer to be used for the production of armaments and aircraft.

Reference has been made to the possibility of producing civilian aircraft instead. The successful producers of civil aircraft, whose order books may be full for the next five years, will not readily agree to transfer work which would leave their order books full only for two years. It is, however, essential for the future of the industry that work should be transferred, although that viewpoint is understandable. I should like to know whether the Ministry of Supply and the Government generally are doing anything to bring pressure to bear on the firms which have this long back-log of work which they find difficulty in completing, to utilise the reservoir of skilled labour which is becoming increasingly available in the aircraft industry.

Two types of labour are principally concerned. First, there are the people, to whom my hon. Friends have referred, who have spent their whole life in the industry and who have developed a peculiar skill which is useful in the aircraft industry and is, perhaps, useful engineering skill but which does not have the wider application of the skills of others in the industry who have been trained, perhaps, in other than aircraft work. They might present less of a problem, but they nevertheless present a problem.

I should have thought that, in the factories which are closing down, the Government would have been concerned about the tremendous amount of capital goods that lie idle. The machine tools should be put into use, and it should be the Government's job to see that they are put into use in the shortest possible time. Another factor with an important bearing is the fact that Government decisions are given haphazard and willy-nilly. I appreciate that when there is a change of policy the Government must do something about it, but the speed with which the Government sometimes give decisions and run down work at factories, before anything can be done to effect a changed outlook in the factory or to secure alternative work, is beyond the comprehension of managements. Consequently, there are great upheavals, which would not arise if a little more forethought was exercised by Government Departments in looking ahead.

If the Government would think ahead a little more, many of the difficulties might be avoided and the transition to other types of employment more easily effected. All this should be receiving the Government's attention. They should consider how to bring pressure to bear on possibly unwilling people in the civil aircraft industry with a view to spreading some of the available work to the factories where the skilled labour now exists. In addition, by treating orders for aircraft not as orders for ships which can be completed in three years, but as something to be fulfilled rather in three or four months, the manufacturers of aircraft would be all the better equipped to meet world competition and to fulfil their orders. This is one of the most pressing items to which the Government should give their attention.

2.50 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply (Mr. W. J. Taylor)

I very fully appreciate the concern of the hon. Members who have spoken in this debate about the possible effects of the reductions in defence work in the Gloucester area.

The Government realise that their plans for reducing defence expenditure may well mean hardship to some individuals, though these should represent only a very small minority. But it is an essential part of the plan announced in the Defence White Paper that the resources released from defence work should be absorbed quickly into civilian industry, and the Government Departments concerned are doing all they can to ensure that the transfer takes place as smoothly as possible.

The House has, I believe, generally accepted the Government's aim to reduce defence expenditure, which has been absorbing an undue proportion of our industrial resources and skilled labour. The Defence White Paper, in paragraph 69, said: The volume of defence work of many kinds will be curtailed … Later, it said: The manpower and industrial resources released must be absorbed into productive use as quickly as possible; and the Government Departments concerned will do all they can to secure that this switch is effected smoothly. There is, however, a feeling, which has been expressed by the hon. Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter), that the cuts in our aircraft programme are being made too quickly in some cases, and are allowing too little time for firms and individuals to readjust themselves. I must say, however, that for many months before the White Paper was issued Ministers have given repeated warnings to this House that the military load on the aircraft industry would decline, and that firms must seek other work.

For example, on 29th February, 1956, during the defence debate, the former Minister of Supply discussed the new situation which we were facing, and said: The demand for military aircraft is falling. In fact, the production of military aircraft will decline substantially in number over the next few years, as I have on more than one occasion told the House."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th February, 1956; Vol. 549, c. 1233.] This afternoon we are concerned particularly with the situation in the Gloucester area. Under the impetus of the rearmament programme, the aircraft industry in that area has doubled in size since the beginning of 1950. Firms wholly or principally engaged in work for the aircraft industry now employ about 19,000 people out of a total insured labour force of about 107,000. Of the various firms involved, the two of which the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Philips Price) spoke as being those principally concerned are both members of the Hawker Siddeley group, namely, the Gloster Aircraft Company, which makes Javelins, and Armstrong Siddeley (Brockworth) Limited, which makes the Sapphire engines to go into them, and also into the Victor Mark I. These two firms, between them, employ rather less than one-half of the total labour force of 19,000 which I have mentioned.

The volume of work which these two firms are doing for the Ministry of Supply is now declining steeply. This is not a sudden state of affairs that emerged with the Defence White Paper although, of course, the policy decisions announced in that Paper have affected the prospects of alternative Government work. As far as I can see at present, there is little prospect within the next few years of our having any requirements upon which a major new Ministry of Supply production contract with either of these firms could be based. However, since they have had long warning of the present state of affairs, both firms are already energetically seeking other work both inside and outside the aircraft industry and have already met with some success.

I hope that they will continue their efforts in this direction. It is, indeed, vital in their own interests and in the interests of the country that they should do so. Their excellent equipment, high reputation, and the skilled labour force that they have built up over many years render them highly qualified to carry out other engineering work. The other firms in the Gloucester area are concerned with the development and manufacture of equipment, and the future level of their work seems to be reasonably assured.

At this point, I should like to clear up any possible misunderstanding of the powers of the Ministry of Supply in relation to the aircraft industry. We can place orders for military aircraft and equipment only to meet the requirements of the Services. We can advise our main contractors, when they seek our guidance, about where sub-contracts may be placed. We can, and do, assist firms in obtaining export orders, and we also play a part in the development of civil aircraft to meet the requirements of the airways Corporations. But we do not place production orders for those aircraft. That is a matter for the Corporations themselves—

Mr. Philips Price

But surely, even if the hon. Gentleman's Department cannot place orders, it can use its influence to ensure the orders are there.

Mr. Taylor

My right hon. Friend regards it as a moral, if no other, responsibility to sponsor and encourage the aircraft industry wherever he possibly can. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that any influence that my right hon. Friend can use in the direction just indicated will certainly be used.

I should not, however, like the House to think that we have done nothing to assist the Gloster Aircraft Company and Armstrong Siddeley during the present difficult period of transition. As long ago as the middle of 1956, when it became clear that the Royal Air Force's Javelin requirements would not be sufficient to sustain production for many years more, we allowed the Gloster Company to reduce its rate of production so as to spin out its work. More recently, we have accepted a further reduction in the delivery rate. These adjustments have, of course, been made in agreement with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air. Similar measures have been taken with Armstrong Siddeley.

Indeed, we have taken considerable risks in slowing down production of engines to the bare minimum necessary to meet Service requirements. I think that I can confidently say that the measures we have so far taken have been successful in the sense that they have allowed workers made redundant to find other jobs, and have given the companies as much time as possible to seek other work.

The problem of redundancies was referred to by the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West. The number of redundancies and the rate at which they come forward is, of course, primarily a matter for the companies concerned, but I must say that I did not quite understand the figure quoted by the hon. Gentleman. I think that he said that 2,000 were threatened—

Mr. Philips Price

By the end of this year.

Mr. Taylor

I must say that my information is that the firm's estimate is very far short of that figure. Its figure is about 800 more, that is, in addition to those already discharged. I do not have the precise figure of those already discharged. I think it will, in any case, be less than the gross figure mentioned by the hon. Member.

Mr. Brockway

The subject of the debate is not limited to one works in Gloucestershire. The subject is the danger of redundancy as a result of the withdrawal of military orders. Has the hon. Gentleman any information about anything else? I am very glad for my hon. Friend, but will not the hon. Gentleman say something about the others concerned in this matter?

Mr. Taylor

Perhaps the hon. Member will wait until I have completed my speech. I hope that I shall have something of a more general character to say, but I was entitled to assume that this question related primarily or principally to those firms in the area which the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West represents.

I was saying that I would not like the House to think that we have done nothing to assist the Gloster Aircraft Company and Armstrong Siddeley during the present difficult period. We have had further success in avoiding difficulties in Gloster's in other ways.

On the question of the export orders, the Gloster Aircraft Company has made and is still making great efforts to obtain export orders for the Javelin. Both the West German and Belgian Governments at one time expressed a keen interest in this aircraft and if they had placed orders the future for aircraft work in Gloucester would be brighter than it is today. However, although the Government were ready to make special facilities available in aid of the purchasers, these allied Governments have decided to meet their requirements for all-weather aircraft in other ways.

The main reason for that is that, unfortunately, the company was unable to provide sufficiently early deliveries for fully operational aircraft to meet the foreign requirements. There are still prospects of sale to other friendly countries in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere.

The Ministry of Supply and other Government Departments concerned have given, and will continue to give, every possible assistance to the company's efforts to obtain export orders. We are, for example, endeavouring to adapt the necessary security precautions affecting the Javelin and its highly confidential equipment so as to allow potential customers to make a full assessment of the aircraft. We have also, by the release of aircraft and in other ways, assisted Gloster's in the export of reconditioned Meteors.

Since the hon. Member has rightly laid such stress on the importance of export orders, I shall take this opportunity of explaining some of the ways in which the Government seek to assist firms to obtain foreign orders—and this goes for firms outside the Gloucester area as well as inside it.

Mr. Brockway

Thank you.

Mr. Taylor

Our commercial and Service attaches at foreign embassies supplement the efforts of the firms' own overseas agents in transmitting information about our products. Classified information may be passed through official channels to friendly Governments and special security agreements have been negotiated to permit equipment developed in this country to be manufactured under licence abroad. Reports of trials and tests are supplied and special trials arranged on appropriate terms and, where necessary, training facilities are offered by the Royal Air Force or Fleet Air Arm.

Aircraft, engines and equipment are sometimes diverted from Government orders or stocks to enable attractive export deliveries to be offered where that can be done without causing unacceptable delays in supplies to our own Services. In short, the Government are fully aware of the vital importance of these exports to the national economy and play an active part in assisting them.

The hon. Member asked what could be done to provide further contracts for civil aircraft. I have already said that the Ministry of Supply does not place production orders on behalf of the civil operators. At present the Gloster Company has no significant orders for civil aircraft work and does not itself design civil aircraft. It takes several years to design a civil aircraft of any size and establish its success and even if the firm were ready to act as prime contractor and were entrusted with a project, whether as a private venture or with Government aid at the development stage, it would be years before the effect could be felt in terms of employment on the shop floor.

The company is, however, a component part of the important Hawker-Siddeley group, which has a current interest in two projects—this, again, is part of the reply to the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway). First, through its member company, Armstrong Whitworth, at Coventry, it is developing a freighter aircraft known as the A.W.650. Production of this freighter is still some way off and it is too early for any orders to be placed.

Secondly, the group is competing for the contract to design and build a medium-range jet aircraft for British European Airways Corporation. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation said on 29th May, in reply to the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick), that British European Airways has not yet completed its examination of the possibilities of that aircraft.

These two projects should reach the production stage in the early and mid-1960s. The supersonic aircraft, to which I referred during the Adjournment debate last Monday, would come later. It is too early to say whether the group will secure the B.E.A. project, or to estimate the size of the orders which they will receive for their own freighter. In any case, we cannot say what share the group will give to Gloster's.

However, even on the most optimistic assumptions, namely, that Gloster's secure a major share, the time which must elapse before production gets under way makes it impossible for these projects to provide early relief to the present labour force, except to the design staff. For more immediate relief the company will have to rely on such civil aircraft sub-contract work as it can attract, but I should be misleading the House if I gave the impression that the main contractors have a great deal of this work to place.

The point was made by one hon. Member that the new defence policy will mean the breaking up of many highly expert teams, with a consequent loss to the country's technological resources. This subject was dealt with, I hope fully, in the Adjournment debate last Monday. It is the view of the Government that too much of this skilled labour is being used on defence work and that enterprising aircraft firms using adequate foresight should be able to find other work and use a proportion of the skilled labour force on production of greater importance to the economy under present circumstances. Where this is impossible, the skilled workers must be prepared to leave their jobs, and they will be assisted in this matter by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour.

I have tried, in the short time available to me, to give the House a fair picture of the prospects for these firms so far as I can see them. It is, unfortunately, inevitable that the decline in Service orders should cause temporary dislocation in those firms and localities immediately affected. I greatly regret this, but I believe that most hon. Members will agree that this readjustment is essential if the country is to maintain her economic strength.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour will make every effort to place people in other suitable employment. When this cannot be found within the area, he will apply the measures which he described to the House on 7th May, in answer to a Question by the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton). It is the aim of the Government to reduce hardship to a minimum, and I assure the House that we shall do all in our power to achieve that aim.

The hon. Member for Eton and Slough referred to the plan of the National Federation of Engineering Unions for the future of the aircraft industry. I will draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to this plan. I assure the hon. Gentleman that it will receive the consideration which undoubtedly it deserves.