HC Deb 14 May 1957 vol 570 cc217-22
The Minister of Labour and National Service (Mr. Iain Macleod)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement about the proposed changes in the local office network of my Ministry.

As I informed the House in a Written Answer on 24th July last I have recently undertaken a comprehensive review of the network of local offices of the Ministry of Labour, which number 1,144 full-time and 129 part-time offices.

This network has been established over the years in response to the needs of particular times. There has been no similar comprehensive review since 1921. Meanwhile, changes in the level of unemployment, in population and in public transport, both generally and in particular areas, have considerably affected the pattern of needs.

It has been my aim in this review to maintain a convenient and efficient service. After giving careful consideration to the local circumstances of each office concerned, including both the long-term and the immediate employment situation, I have come to the conclusion that it should be possible to amalgamate some offices which are close together in areas where transport facilities are good and to close a number of offices where the volume of work is now very small.

I am now referring proposals to my local employment committees for their consideration. One hundred and one full-time offices and 46 part-time offices are in the field of consideration for closure, and 39 full-time offices for conversion to a part-time basis. I wish to emphasise that no decisions will be taken in advance of these local consultations. I am writing today to hon. Members concerned individually to let them know of offices, the closure or conversion of which would affect their constituents, and I shall give a list of the offices tomorrow in answer to a Question which has already been put down to me.

To maintain a more flexible organisation in the future the need for individual part-time offices will be kept under periodic review, and in addition, there will be comprehensive reviews of the whole network at longer intervals.

Further consideration is being given to the best means of providing a satisfactory and efficient service to the public in the light of modern methods— for example, by making use of mobile vans. It is my intention to introduce a limited number of experiments in suitable areas.

Mr. Robens

I should think that when the House, the trade union movement and industrialists have had time to consider this statement they will view with very great concern the action which the Minister proposes to take in the further de-Bevinising of the Ministry of Labour. This is in addition to the reduction of the number of labour attaches, the abolition of appointments officers and the loss of a number of staff employed in dealing with disabled persons. Has the right hon. Gentleman taken into consultation the trade union movement, the Federation of British Industries and employers' associations?

I should also like to ask whether the Minister has considered the effect of these closures— which, apparently, concern about 10 per cent, of the full-time offices and one-third of the part-time offices— on the problems arising out of the new defence programme and the other large number of changes which he has already indicated will take place, and whether we may have an opportunity of debating the whole question of the Ministry of Labour?

Mr. Macleod

On the general question, I agree that we would want to look closely at these important proposals. It seems to me that as there has been no review of this sort since 1921, and the whole network is geared to deal with heavy unemployment, the network today should be geared to full employment. No decision will be taken— I would emphasise that— until local people have had the fullest opportunity of expressing their views.

On the question of consultation with industry, at the last meeting of the N.J.A.C., I informed, in confidence, the trade unions and the British Employers' Federation of the outline of the statement I was making to the House.

Mr. Robens

Is the right hon. Gentleman accurate when he says that there has been no review since 1921? In fact — I do not refer to the committee over which the Parliamentary Secretary sat— the late Ernest Bevin went to the Ministry of Labour in the Government of the right lion Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) and made a comprehensive review of the services of the Ministry. He built them up into a real public service, and now the right hon. Gentleman is trying to close them down.

Mr. Macleod

The right hon. Gentleman knows that that is quite wrong. There has been no review of this sort since 1921. If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that it is right that the pattern built up to deal with heavy unemployment should continue, he can hold that point of view. On this side, we hold a very different point of view.

Mr. Walter Elliot

Is it not a good thing that diminution of unemployment should continue and that a state of full employment should be reflected in the review of the machinery to deal with it?

Mr. Macleod

That is exactly the point. Some of these proposals are very much needed. They affect large offices where there are other offices that can conveniently take the load. To give one example, there is one full-time office which has one man on the register. Surely no one in the House will argue that I should maintain that position. Such a review is clearly needed. There are 150 concerned.

Mr. Shinwell

Will the right hon. Gentleman reply to a point of detail? If this change should involve men having to travel some distance to employment exchange offices, will they receive their transport costs?

Mr. Macleod

I have been taking that up in conjunction with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance. The number so involved will be very small indeed. Many people may, in fact, have to attend less because— the right hon. Gentleman probably knows the rules— if, as a result of this, they are between four and six miles away, they only attend once a week and if they are over six miles they are dealt with by post.

Mr. J. Rodgers

Can my right hon. Friend say that before any office is closed the consultations will be wider than the local employment committees, and include such bodies as local disablement advisory committees, youth employment committees and the British Legion?

Mr. Macleod

Yes, Sir. I have suggested to local employment committees that, where appropriate, they can bring the chairmen of local disablement advisory committees, and perhaps youth employment committees, into consultation.

Mr. Robens

The right hon. Gentleman gave us an outstanding case in which one full-time officer was running an employment exchange, which he thought should be closed down. I would not disagree with that, but why does he consider it necessary to make a statement after Questions to deal with a purely administrative task of that kind? Is not this a case where, instead of the Ministry of Labour being built up as a service to men and women in industry, it is being deliberately run down, so that employment exchanges will become once again what they were in the 'thirties— merely places where men signed on and drew their unemployment pay?

Mr. Macleod

That is quite untrue. I informed the House because this is a very large decision and the constituents of very many Members are affected. I have written personally to each of them and they should receive the communications tonight. I did not want to give a full list of offices in advance of the letters which are now going to the chairmen of local employment committees, because I thought that they should be informed personally by me before they read about the proposals.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

If the full programme outlined by my right hon. Friend is, in fact, carried out, how much does he estimate will be saved in manpower, money and materials?

Mr. Macleod

If the full programme is carried out— and I shall take no decision on any of it until I have the views of local people— the saving might be about £150,000 and 200 staff, but, in addition, there is a very large saving— about which I cannot be precise— in premises and equipment.

Mr. Lee

Can the Minister say how much it will cost to transfer civil servants and people of that type? How much of that cost will fall upon the Ministry? Is not it quite misleading to tell the House that the only service of an employment exchange is to deal with unemployment? Does not the Minister agree that most of the statistics that the Board of Trade uses for its distribution of industry policy, and that kind of thing, are amassed at Ministry of Labour offices? Is it not quite wrong for the Minister to break down the best service that we could possibly have merely to get the plaudits of the people behind him?

Mr. Macleod

Far from breaking it down, I think that it will be possible to provide a much more modern service by these methods, particularly in rural areas. If we can develop some of the experiments that I have talked of, by such means as mobile vans, there will be a much better service than the isolated part-time offices which now operate.

Major Legge-Bourke

I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement. Can he say, particularly in regard to rural areas where there is a considerable variation in seasonal demand for labour— such as horticultural areas— whether he will take into consultation representatives of the National Farmers' Union and other growers' bodies, and also county agricultural executive committees?

Mr. Macleod

Yes, Sir. I hope that local consultations will be as wide as possible.

Mr. Redhead

Is not the confident view that the right hon. Gentleman has expressed about the increased efficiency of his Department as a result of these proposals completely contrary to the view which has already been expressed to him repeatedly by the staff of his own Department, through their staff associations? Have not they repeatedly expressed the gravest apprehensions that the proposals will militate against the quality and efficiency of the service?

Mr. Macleod

Obviously, those are matters of opinion, as the hon. Member says. I know quite well that sonic of these proposals will be extremely unwelcome. But I still believe that they are right, and I intend to carry them through.

Mr. Gibson

In view of the importance of these proposals to the industrial world, will the Minister make sure that adequate and full discussions take place with trade unions, and not merely with local representatives but also with the Trades Union Congress itself?

Mr. Macleod

Local trade union representatives, or representatives of workers, are, of course, represented on local employment committees, as are local employers and other local interests. That is why I am consulting them before I take decisions in individual cases.

Mr. Nicholson

Have other Departments been taken into consultation, with a view to seeing whether economies can be achieved by the common housing of various regional services?

Mr. Macleod

The question of regional services is a wider one, which does not arise upon the statement that I have made today.