HC Deb 21 April 1958 vol 586 cc737-46

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

9.59 p.m.

Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker for allowing me to have this Adjournment Motion, which deals with a subject which falls under Section 2 (4) of the Baking Industry (Hours of Work) Act. 1954.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

Mr. Ridsdale

It would be best if I began by saying how this Section came to be introduced, but before I do so, may I say how very much I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood) for his inheritance of so sticky a problem after so short a time in his new post?

I was a member of the Standing Committee which dealt with this Measure. Indeed, it was the first such Committee of this House which I attended. I remember so well my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) raising the question which we are discussing tonight. I quote the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Standing Committee. My hon. Friend said: I hope he may give us some assurance that in the case of seasonal resorts, he will treat reasonably in all circumstances the bakeries supplying those resorts—necessarily those actually in the resorts themselves, but sometimes those situated outside—and that they will receive fair and proper consideration at his hands in order to meet the enormous demand placed upon them at the peak of the holiday period. The Minister replied: I am quite prepared to give an assurance—indeed, I have already given one—that one of the purposes of subsection (2, b) is to allow the bakery opting under Clause 2 in a holiday resort to use all their ration of night work during the period of the summer peak demand … I am quite prepared to look at the matter again to see whether or not something could be inserted in the Clause to provide a further safeguard …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D. 27th May, 1954; c. 3045–6.] That is the background of how this provision came to be inserted on the Report stage of the Measure.

When the appropriate Amendment was introduced on Report, the Minister said: … there was a slight doubt that, as holiday resorts are not specifically mentioned in the Bill, they might be considered as not being allowed the special considerations, which, I think, they undoubtedly need in the Bill. I want to underline the point that holiday resorts should be given special consideration. The Minister went on to say: … the Minister's discretion is not limited to holiday resorts and is available where necessary to meet other special needs."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd July, 1954; Vol. 529, c. 1717.] I mention that, because I am speaking on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport) as well, in case the Minister suggests that Colchester is not a holiday area in the sense of the coastal towns of north-east Essex. I am making my case largely on the effect which the Act is having in north-east Essex as a holiday resort area.

It is on the interpretation of this Section that I have brought this matter to the attention of the House. I must say at once that I have been most disturbed at the Ministry of Labour's unsympathetic attitude towards this problem. I took up the matter with the Ministry in early December. Since then, in spite of the fact that I have pointed out the damage to the small baker, I have found little understanding of this problem in the Ministry. I point out that I am not speaking on behalf of the Master Bakers' Association alone, but also on behalf of the employers and employees in small bakeries, with many of whom I have been in contact. I have found that trade unions have little or no representation in the area, and that in cases where there is trade union representation the trade unionists themselves are in agreement with the proposal which I am putting before the Minister.

In my part of north-east Essex we are asking for a concession to allow night work during the season, in order to supply the necessary demand of the coastal area. It is generally agreed, both by bakers in the coastal area and those inland who are engaged in the seasonal trade, that without this concession it will not be possible to meet the seasonal demand. I am most concerned at the fact that the Ministry has been taking its advice from sources other than the independent employers and employees who represent the overwhelming majority of the baking trade in northeast Essex. I would point out again that what we want is a continuous period of night work during the season to meet the demand. In addition, it is extremely important that the Minister should use his powers under the Act to enable such seasonal bakers, once the night work period ends, to be again classed as day bakers, as work is otherwise not allowed to begin again until 6 a.m.

If bread supplies are to be maintained it is essential that until the season arrives the bakery should be allowed to operate as a day bakery, with a 5 a.m. start, and dough-making at 3 a.m., then as a night bakery for the season and then, when the season has finished, once again to operate as a day bakery. I am convinced that neither of the concessions for which I have asked would be against the wording or the spirit of the Act: indeed, as I said, when moving the Section about which I am speaking the Minister recognised that holiday resorts required special consideration. Without this help many small bakers will not be able to maintain their production out of an "in" season.

Is it the Minister's intention to push out of production the small country baker? This is what he will be doing. With such a Section as this in the Act it is wrong for the Ministry to say that bakers have had plenty of time since 1954 to reorganise. In any case, voluntary agreement is very difficult, if not impossible, as the unions will not agree to any alteration in the time at present, although I hope that they will be sympathetic when they realise the importance of what is happening to small country bakers.

Mr. Alfred Robens (Blyth)

Has there been a meeting between the employers and the bakers unions in the area mentioned by the hon. Member?

Mr. Ridsdale

No, because the unions are not represented. A trade union official from Romford has talked with the employers. But the unions are not represented in the area of which I am speaking.

Under Section 2 the bakers claim that they never considered that the Ministry would be so unsympathetic to their needs, yet this is what is happening, and the Ministry, by a deliberate act of policy, seems intent on pushing out of business the small baker in such seasonal areas as north-east Essex, because it will not listen to the advice of the independent employers and employees.

I should like to read a letter which I have received from a small baker in north-east Essex, which puts the case very clearly. He says: My contention is that under the Night Baking Act I should be able to work as a day bakery before the season starts, change to a night bakery during the season, and change hack again to a day bakery when the season is finished. It is necessary for me to do this in order that, first, I may be able to do my share in supplying the holiday population, and the only way that I find it possible to do this is by working nights. However, in order to supply my regular customers out of season it is necessary to work as a day bakery in order that I can start my dough maker at 3 a.m. so that I can get my first batch of bread out of my ovens by 8 a.m. If I am forced to work as a night bakery though, I am not allowed to start until 6 a.m. on days and, consequently, could not get my first batch out of my ovens before 11 a.m. This, of course, is far too late. As a small baker I do not employ enough staff to work a shift system and, consequently, if I am not allowed to change over to a day bakery out of the season, it will just about put me out of business. My staff, one of whom is a trade union man, is quite prepared to work under these conditions… I do not feel that this would in any way defeat the main intentions of the Act. If the Ministry insist on this attitude and do not give way on the points which I consider reasonable, I shall endeavour to get a petition signed and brought to the House, on behalf of small bakers who work in seasonal areas. I consider it wrong that the Ministry should act against their interests. I realise that this is a time when, for the sake of large-scale production, we should take advantage of amalgamation. But in this case I consider that there is every justification for helping the small baker, and I shall do all I can to see that justice is done. I press the Minister to modify the stubborn attitude adopted by his Ministry up to now. I hope that he will be able to make the concessions which I have asked to be made on a number of occasions. If this does not happen I am convinced that the small bakers will be put out of business, with social consequences that I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House would not wish to see happen.

10.13 p.m.

Brigadier Sir John Smyth (Norwood)

I wish to support my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) and to quote an example of the way restrictions on night baking have affected a constituent of mine. I took up this case with the predecessor of the present Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Mitcham (Mr. Carr), and I wish to pay tribute to the attention which he and the Ministry have given to the case.

My constituent is the manager of a small bakery and confectioner's shop. He employs an assistant cook who works with him all day from 7 o'clock in the morning until 5 o'clock in the evening and a night baker who works on the night shift. It so happens that this baker is deaf and dumb. His wife is also deaf and dumb. He prefers to work on the night shift, which is convenient for himself and his wife. He has been doing this to the great comfort of the manager, the assistant cook and the customers for the last eight years. Now, by the provisions of the Act, the man is forbidden to work on the night shift more than once a week.

The baker is allowed to start work at 3 o'clock in the morning, but in this case, being a disabled man, it is extremely inconvenient for him to do so because there is no means of waking up the baker, or his wife, as they are both deaf and dumb and respond to no form of alarm. The Minister is negotiating with the Deaf and Dumb League for some apparatus which will be attached to the toe either of the baker or of the baker's wife and which will deliver a shock at the required hour in the morning and have the effect of putting them on the alert.

I would only ask the Minister that the shock administered should not be so strong as to project my constituents into outer space, where they might revolve like Sputniks until this Act is repealed. Despite the suggested gadget, it does not get over the difficulty of the baker getting to his job at 3 o'clock in the morning, when public transport is not running.

The restrictions have brought considerable inconvenience and very great hardship to a little bakery. I beg my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to convey to his right hon. Friend the comfort it will bring to the manager, the assistant cook, the baker and the baker's wife, as well as to all the customers, if there could be some relaxation of this very strict and rather unjust restriction on night baking. It is causing hardship to constituencies next to mine; my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. H. A. Price) have also examples of hardship. I ask my hon. Friend to give the matter his very earnest attention.

10.17 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and National Service (Mr. Richard Wood)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) for raising this matter. I will take the opportunity to clear up some of the misunderstandings which have arisen since this Act was put on the Statute Book. I will try to state the Government's view on the matter.

I am grateful also to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Norwood (Sir J. Smyth) for speaking about the case of his constituent, of whom I had already heard. I promise that I will carefully study the difficulties of this case which he has expressed to us with great clarity, and I will let him know the answer as soon as I possibly can.

It has been a little difficult in the six-and-half days I have been at the Ministry of Labour to master a subject of such great complication which, I understand, has been a matter of difficulty for considerably more than one hundred years. If I have another week or two I may do a bit better.

I do not think that my hon. Friends will want me to go in great detail into the history of the matter. They will realise how many attempts there were in the last century to restrict or prohibit night baking and they will be well aware of the number of committees in the last thirty or forty years which have tried to deal with the subject. The Committee with which we are mostly concerned is the Rees Committee which sat in 1950 and reported a year later. It came to the conclusion that the total abolition of night baking would lead to very serious difficulties.

Therefore, it unanimously recommended that night baking should be restricted on the basis that no one in the baking industry should be legally required to work at night for more than half the year. It is worth mentioning that, in the six years before the Rees Committee was set up, there had been a voluntary agreement on these lines in Scotland and that it had been working perfectly well. In 1951, seven years ago, the Committee proposed that employers should be asked to choose between two systems. One system was that night work should be prohibited, with certain exceptions, but an early start, as both my hon. Friends mentioned, should be allowed for preparatory working. The second system was that night work should be allowed, but no one should be allowed to work at night for more than half the year.

As my hon. Friends know, in July, 1952, about a year after the Committee reported, the then Minister, Lord Monckton, announced that a Bill would be introduced. That Bill was introduced in January, 1954. Under Section 1 of the Act which was to apply unless contrary notice was given, no workers were to be employed between ten at night and five in the morning, save that preparatory workers could start at three in the morning. Under this Section workers could also work one night a week and an extra night before a public holiday. Under Section 2, which applied to bakeries which gave notice of doing so, work could be done at any hour of the day or night, but no workers could work between six in the evening and six in the morning for more than 26 weeks in the year. This did not count the extra nights I have mentioned. Under this Section workers were also required normally not to work at nights for more than four weeks consecutively.

The Bill was read a Second Time in 1954 and it was announced that it would be brought into operation in either three or four years' time, depending on the decision of the Minister of Labour. Even the earlier date, January, 1957, was longer than was recommended by the Rees Committee, which had reported three years before the Act was put on the Statute Book. My right hon. Friend, now Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation, who spoke during the course of debates on the Bill, drew attention very strongly to Clause 9, which allowed bakers and workers in bakeries to be exempt from its provisions if suitable voluntary agreements about night work had been reached by the time the Act came into force, or later.

When my right hon. Friend announced that the date of operation of the Act would be in January, 1958, he gave as his reasons for allowing a considerable lapse of time before the operation of the Act, first, the need for undertaking various physical alterations in bakeries, reorganising and retraining and, second, the need for allowing time for the conclusion of those voluntary agreements. Unfortunately, except in two cases of which I think my hon. Friends are aware, those voluntary agreements have not been concluded, but that does not detract from the anxiety of my right hon. Friend to grant further exemptions on the basis of effective agreements if such agreements are put to him.

In the absence of those agreements, one has to look at the present situation. It appears that the larger bakers are able to work the Act without great difficulty, but the medium and smaller bakeries are generally not attempting to alternate their work between day and night work in so far as alternation is allowed by the Act. Most smaller employers are working under Section 1. My Department's wages inspectors have had no complaints or inquiries from the great majority; the others seem to a large extent to be in difficulties because of misunderstandings about the provisions of the Act.

Therefore, I should like to say a word about my hon. Friend's bakers in seasonal resorts, with whom I have a great deal of sympathy, having certain connections with a seasonal resort myself. He rightly told us that Section 2 (4) of the Act provides for applications for permission for continuous night work during the season at coastal and other seasonal resorts. I am glad to say that substantial agreement has been reached to allow this continuous night work for longer than four weeks at a time in some parts of the country. Many bakeries, however, are anxious to work both under Section 1, that is, between five in the morning, or three in the morning for preparatory workers, and ten at night out of season, and, during the season, under Section 2, that is, during the night from six in the evening through to the following morning.

This could mean that workers who had worked at night for half the year would be required either to start at three in the morning or work until ten o'clock at night for the other half of the year. It has been made plain on many occasions, as my hon. Friends know, that we would regard such an arrangement as contrary to the main purposes of the Act which was passed in 1954.

Mr. Ridsdale

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but is he aware that the employees themselves are willing to operate nightwork?

Mr. Wood

I can only say to my hon. Friend that if that is so, I hope that it will be possible for the employers and employees associations in his area to conclude one of these voluntary agreements, which would really remove a great deal of the difficulty.

Mr. Ridsdale rose——

Mr. Wood

I am sorry, but if my hon. Friend interrupts again, I shall not be able to finish. I think I must say that this is an Act of Parliament which is based on the unanimous recommendation of an impartial Committee and agreed to by this House without a Division. It was brought into operation four years after it was discussed in the House of Commons, five and a half years after the Minister announced that he intended to introduce legislation, and seven years after the Rees Committee reported.

I am convinced, having studied it as carefully as I can in the short time that has been available to me, that many bakers still do not clearly comprehend the full possibilities and the flexibility of the Act in allowing alternation between night and day baking within the framework of Section 2. I say to my hon. Friend that there can be no question of amending the Act, but I should like to assure him of two things. First, that the wages inspectors of my Department are only too anxious to help, and have succeeded in many cases in helping to clear up misunderstandings which have arisen. I would ask all bakers who are in difficulties to consult the inspectors and I think that in many cases they will be able to help.

Secondly, I say that naturally our intention is that the Act should work as smoothly as we can make it. This being the first debate in which I have had the pleasure of replying on behalf of my right hon. Friend, I can assure my hon. Friend that I shall take a very close interest in the affairs of the baking industry, and will do my best whenever he puts any points to me to see that the transition from the system that operated before the Act came into force to the new system is as smooth as possible.

10.29 p.m.

Mr. John Barter (Ealing, North)

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has referred to the fact that bakers have not given sufficient attention to the possibility of the introduction of automation. I think I ought to remind him of the fact that this Act came into force during a period when there have been credit restrictions. The opportunities for a small man to develop automation in his industry during that time have been extremely limited, and one of the objections which bakers generally feel on this issue has been on that very point.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.