HC Deb 30 April 1958 vol 587 cc539-48

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bryan.]

11.50 p.m.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

I am sorry to keep the House at this late hour, but it is a matter of considerable importance in the City of Cardiff that leads me to do so.

The House has been considering today the question of employment in various parts of the country. I am particularly concerned with one aspect of the employment problem in the City of Cardiff. When the decision to close the Royal Ordnance Factory, Cardiff, was taken by the Minister of Supply he must have expected trouble from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) and myself. We have almost worn out the carpet in the Parliamentary Secretary's room during the past year. That is why I am surprised to see the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Llewellyn) present for the debate, because during the past year, as the Minister knows, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East and I have had to conduct the defence of the factory, or of industry in Cardiff, alone.

Mr. David Llewellyn (Cardiff, North)

The Minister also knows that that is completely inaccurate, from his own files and from my personal visits.

Mr. Thomas

I could devote the remainder of the Adjournment debate to enlightening the hon. Member for Cardiff, North. There is a file with the trade union as well as with the Minister, and the trade union has its own attitude towards this question.

The threat of the closure of the R.O.F., Cardiff, has hung like the sword of Damocles over the workers for a long time. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East and I have had many interviews with the Parliamentary Secretary but, after our long and considerable correspondence with him, at the end the Ministry misled us. The Parliamentary Secretary visited the factory, Cardiff, on 19th February, and about that time the Western Mail, which is a very important paper in the City of Cardiff, published an official statement, issued on behalf of the Department, describing as "irresponsible" any talk that the factory was to be closed. The Minister of Supply himself stood at the Box early in March and assured my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East that there was no basis at all for the talk that the factory, Cardiff, was to be closed. Nothing could have been more reassuring than the Minister's statement to my hon. Friend.

To be doubly sure, I tabled a Question, which should have been answered on the Monday before Easter, asking the Minister whether he would deal with the future pattern of employment at the R.O.F., Cardiff. The Parliamentary Secretary knows that I had a telephone call to my home telling me that the Minister would not be able to answer on the Monday, and I at once said that to meet the convenience of the Ministry I would postpone the Question until after Easter, which I did. The House was in Recess for only ten days, but the Minister chose during those ten days, when the House was in Recess, to issue his statement that he had decided to close the major part of the factory.

My inquiry was, therefore, answered before the House had returned from the Recess. I do not altogether blame the Minister of Supply. I do not believe that he is master in his own house. The real culprit is the Minister of Defence. He seems to have gone berserk. He seems to be running in every direction, and all the Government Departments are running behind him, not knowing where he is going.

This closure is a public humiliation for the Minister of Supply. His reassurances were well reported in the South Wales Press, and they raised hopes which were only to be dashed later. The House will know that I do not want these skilled men to be kept on work of a military nature, or to see the factory at Cardiff kept open but idle. Nor do I resist the changing pattern of employment; indeed, I support it; but the Western Mail's leading article describes those of us who have taken the stand that I have taken as Luddites who seek to halt the oncoming tide of new ideas. I am very sorry that this newspaper published this, because I am one of its faithful readers; but I am not a Luddite. It should have shared our agitation, because what a loss it is to South Wales to scatter like chaff this company of unrivalled skilled labour.

Nobody knows better than the Parliamentary Secretary of the shining reputation of the labour collected at this Ordnance factory, but when the Minister of Supply came to the House and made his statement I did not detect any sense of urgency in the replies which he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East or to myself on future activities at Cardiff. This factory space at Cardiff is among the best in the United Kingdom, not only among the best in Wales. The people in Cardiff have a right to demand that the Government shall use their full resources to provide a basic—and I emphasise "basic"—industry for that factory. We are not willing to be fobbed off with what I would call a "tuppenny-ha'penny" industry which will close at the feel of the first real wind of recission. Already, South Wales is paying the price for having too many secondary industries.

I am very glad to see the Minister for Welsh Affairs in his place tonight. We did not expect to see the right hon. Gentleman, so the pleasure is all the greater. He will know that one of our major anxieties in South Wales is that the industries which have come in the postwar years have largely been secondary, with the mother industry based in England; and, when the winds of a deflationary economy blow, these secondary industries are the first to close.

In South Wales the average unemployment rate is already 3.8 per cent., compared with 1.9 per cent. for the rest of the United Kingdom. I cannot give the exact figure tonight, but Cardiff has rising unemployment which is worrying me very much. Skilled men are joining the unskilled in the queue at Westgate Street, signing on for unemployment pay. In a deflationary economy it is bound to be the secondary industries which close first, and I say to the Parliamentary Secretary that the Ministry cannot shuffle off the responsibility for our future in South Wales.

Cardiff workers have served the Department well and we have the right to expect that they shall have a guarantee for the future. Let the Minister lend his weight to getting work from such organisations as the Central Electricity Authority, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, or from one of the great steel concerns.

We do not want light industries that will be blown away with the winds of recession. We want something solid and substantial. We have the labour. We have the factory space—for which my hon. Friends have been crying out in other parts. We have factories already empty, as the President of the Board of Trade could tell the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply. We have been worried about the B.S.A. factory at Cardiff, and also a light engineering factory there; all over the area there are signs of empty factories.

The Government themselves could provide skilled, peaceful occupation for these men. Fear has already hit the R.O.F. at Cardiff and the workers are beginning to scatter. I know that notices were held up for a fortnight because of trade union pressure. I think that the normal machinery had not been followed, and the Parliamentary Secretary is, rightly, a stickler for doing the right thing in regard to trade union machinery.

But what of all the employees? We divide them, naturally, into two categories, established and unestablished, and these categories in themselves fall naturally into two parts, the skilled and the unskilled. Some will be fairly well off with the protection which the Treasury scheme affords them. Some who are reaching the age of retirement will draw their lump sum and probably elect not to leave Cardiff. But nearly all of them are in their own homes, and this is a major problem for their families if they are now to be uprooted and scattered to the four corners of the United Kingdom, or, indeed, within the Chancellor's scheme, overseas.

It is not easy for people who have to move to another part of the country for work to sell their house. Let them try to get a mortgage, and they will find that it is the hardest thing in the world to do today. But if they are to retain their rights as established civil servants they may have to let their property go for a song. They may have to lose heavily.

I earnestly hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to assure me tonight that work as near as possible to Cardiff will be found for those who have to leave their present jobs. My main emphasis is, however, this. For over twenty years the Ministry of Supply has taken for its use one of the nicest parts of Cardiff. Now it says, "Thank you. We have had enough. We are going." But it is not quite as easy as that in a civilised community. The Government must face their responsibilities. There is plenty of good, solid, constructive, peaceful work which can be guided to the factory space at the R.O.F., Cardiff, if enough initiative is shown by the Department.

I would not wish to resume my seat without saying to the Parliamentary Secretary that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East and I have received from him and his predecessor help and courtesy. We are mindful that this decision is not his. I believe that it was perhaps forced on the Minister of Supply, or he would not have made a fool of himself a fortnight previously when he stood at the Dispatch Box and said that he did not think that the place had to be closed. Since it is to be closed, let us ensure that the Ministry of Supply combines with other Government Departments to protect the economic interests of the people in a city which has never failed to pull its weight for the Government of the day.

12.5 a.m.

Mr. David Llewellyn (Cardiff, North)

I should like to join the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) in the tribute he has paid to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply for the interest and help he has given to hon. Members on both sides of the House, including myself, in this very difficult matter.

We cannot view the closing of the Royal Ordnance Factory at Llanishen with anything but great regret, but it is not a problem which one can look at in isolation. We must face the fact that changing patterns of defence have cast a shadow of uncertainty over the factory for many years. Instead of adopting a Luddite attitude to change, which, earlier today, the right hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens) condemned, and instead of producing what would be useless ordnance, we must now, before these very skilled workers are dispersed, ensure that an engineering firm takes over which can offer the prospect of continuous work for years ahead.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply and to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the steps they have taken together to mitigate some of the hardships to which the hon. Member for Cardiff, West referred. I would remind the House of a Question which I put to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury on 28th April, a fortnight after I had an interview with the Minister of Supply about this matter.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, East)

Which year?

Mr. Llewellyn

This year, and in previous years also, if the hon. Gentleman is interested.

I asked the Financial Secretary to the Treasury: whether he will make a statement about the position of established civil servants who become redundant because of the closure of substantial reduction of defence establishments under the policy announced in the White Paper on Defence of 16th April, 1957. My hon. and learned Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury replied that To meet the exceptional circumstances certain new arrangements will be introduced at a very early date. These include provision, within the framework of the existing Superannuation Acts, for payments to be made in certain circumstances to established civil servants who become redundant in this way at their place of work and leave the Service."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th April, 1958; Vol. 587, c. 12.] Then he went on to refer to the recent agreement on the Joint Co-ordinating Committee for Government Industrial Establishments, which is a complex document into which I have no time to go now.

I hope that my hon. Friend will say a few words about the difficulties of apprentices tonight. It is a matter which I have discussed with representatives of the trade unions in Cardiff and with him.

12.8 a.m.

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

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) for the very reasonable way in which he made his case tonight, and for the complimentary things which he said about my right hon. Friend and myself. I very much sympathise with him and other hon. Members who represent Cardiff in this matter. The closing of a factory or, as in this case, the major part of a factory is a very sad occasion. As the hon. Member knows, I visited the Royal Ordnance Factory at Cardiff myself not many weeks ago. When I was there, I met the shop stewards committee and representatives of the staff side. I discussed their problems with them. I realise that many of the workpeople have given long and faithful service to the Ministry of Supply in that factory, and it is with keen personal regret that I see them faced with this misfortune.

The question is asked: why close Cardiff as distinct from any other of the Royal Ordnance factories in this gun carriage and tank group? Unfortunately, the decision to close the Royal Ordnance Factory at Cardiff was, from the engineering and industrial point of view, quite inescapable. Following the reductions in the size of the Armed Forces, War Office orders for ordnance equipment over the next few years are expected to be substantially below the level of orders in recent years. During the last few months we have been making a careful review of the production capacity in the gun carriage and tank group of Royal Ordnance factories against the background of future Service requirements, so far as we can foresee them. It was quite clear, from this review, that our capacity for producing guns is much greater than we are likely to need.

This is a long-term problem, but there was also the immediate problem of the Cardiff factory. This factory has recently been engaged mainly on the manufacture of 20-pounder tank guns and Bofors L70 guns, also the 76 mm. gun for armoured cars. The running down of War Office orders for these weapons has produced a serious shortage of work in this factory right from the beginning of this year. The problem which faced us, therefore, was whether we could take special measures to transfer work into Cardiff from other factories, but since we know that our overall capacity in the Royal Ordnance factories is greater than we require this would have meant closing down parts of other factories, particularly the one at Nottingham, which is engaged on a similar type of work.

Cardiff is, however, a relatively small factory largely specially equipped for the work on which it has been engaged. There is nothing that Cardiff is equipped to do that Nottingham is not already equipped for, but the reverse is not true. The work which is available to these Royal Ordnance factories in the future is predominantly of the kind for which Nottingham is already equipped but Cardiff is not. In concentrating the work it is easy to put Cardiff into Nottingham, but Nottingham could not by a very long way be put into Cardiff.

I come to the question of redundancies and the position of the workpeople. We estimate that about 190 established people and about 250 unestablished will become redundant as a result of the closing of the factory. The first discharges will not take place until towards the end of May. Every effort will be made by the local officials of the Ministry of Labour and the factory management, working closely together, as they always do, to resolve the problem of redeployment. Joint efforts by teams such as this have been markedly successful in other areas where factories have had to be closed in helping redundant workpeople to find other employment. Arrangements have been made for the Ministry of Labour to set up an employment office at the factory as soon as the actual redundancies are declared.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Llewellyn) mentioned the question of apprentices. I would put in a personal note here, if I may. This is the question which really hurts me most, because I realise what a serious thing it is to interrupt the training of a young man who has already set his sights to make himself a really first class skilled workman, and to move him has emotional as well as practical effects upon him.

There are about 70 apprentices who will either be transferred to other Ministry of Supply establishments to complete their training or, if the boys and their parents so desire, they will be allowed to terminate their apprenticeships with the Department to enable them to complete their training with some outside firm of the parents' own choosing. I give the assurance that my Department and my right hon. Friend and I personally will do what we can to assist in this process.

Mr. G. Thomas

If apprentices have served for one year at the R.O.F., will that count towards their apprentices' service?

Mr. Taylor

I shall be very surprised if a good private employer declines to take that time into account.

The position of the unestablished employees is that they will have the improved gratuities which became applicable from May last year. Work can be provided elsewhere for all the established workpeople, but the Government have also decided to give further help to those who, although they freely accepted the liability to transfer when they became established, now find themselves, for one reason or another, unable to transfer.

The new arrangements broadly provide that an established man at Cardiff who wishes to leave the Government service and find employment in the same area, so that he does not have to move his home, may, like his unestablished colleagues in similar circumstances, now claim a termination payment calculated according to his length of service. The new rules will be introduced with effect from 16th April last year. The surplus established men at closing factories such as that at Cardiff are, therefore, now better off than under the old arrangements, and I am sure that this improvement will be welcomed with general satisfaction.

I was very sorry to hear the charges which the hon. Member for Cardiff, West made against my right hon. Friend in saying that he and his hon. Friend had not been kept fully informed about our plans for the Royal Ordnance Factory at Cardiff. There could be no good reason why my right hon. Friend should seek to deceive hon. Members on a matter of this kind. Politics are not involved and there is no good reason why he should withhold information. However, I appreciate how keenly hon. Members feel about matters of this kind, which are of such great importance to their constituents. I regard it as part of my duty to keep hon. Members informed about these matters as promptly as possible.

On the other hand, a decision cannot be announced before it is taken; nor is it useful to attempt to forecast a decision while a review is in progress. Furthermore, in the Ministry of Supply we believe that the first to be told of decisions such as this should be the workpeople themselves and that they should get the news at first hand from their own factory superintendents. This was done at special meetings of the joint factory committees which were held in each of the factories affected by the statement of my right hon. Friend earlier this month.

I have discussed the future of this factory with the hon. Member for Cardiff, West and the hon. Member for Cardiff South-East (Mr. Callaghan) on several occasions and I have been at considerable pains to explain to them that because of declining requirements and orders the need for all the capacity comprised in the factories in the engineering group was under review. Inevitably, there was very considerable personal anxiety about the outcome of the review.

I conclude by saying that the rundown of the factory will no doubt present many difficult problems. I shall be glad to discuss these problems as they arise with the hon. Members concerned, with any other hon. Member, or with interested persons outside the House, if I can help. I can assure them that I shall give my personal attention to ensuring that any difficulties are resolved as smoothly as possible and with as little hardship as possible to the workpeople.

Mr. Callaghan

This is the second body blow that Cardiff has had in the last three months. I am very glad that the Minister for Welsh Affairs is present. The B.S.A. factory has closed and now this factory has closed. Compassion and sympathy and arrangements for compensation are all very well, but what we want is work. Heaven knows, there is a small enough pool of skilled workpeople.

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

Adjourned at twenty minutes past Twelve o'clock.