HC Deb 26 June 1958 vol 590 cc732-42

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

9.55 p.m.

Captain Richard Pilkington (Poole)

It is part of the genius of Parliament that it is able in a moment to switch from dealing with a worldwide problem such as Cyprus to a matter which, in its essence, is a local one, although no less important for that. I am very grateful to Mr. Speaker for his selection of this problem tonight, since it deals with the livelihood of 600 to 700 men and their families and also affects the well-being of the area of the Borough of Poole.

The background to this problem is that since the war the Borough of Poole has become, comparatively speaking, very heavily industrialised. A large number of new firms have come to the area, and many of those new firms wish to expand. I think it right to say that those who have the best interests of the borough at heart want any further expansion done with restraint and discrimination, as otherwise we shall lose all the open spaces which at present make the borough a very distinguished one and so pleasant for those who live therein.

With that background, the Royal Ordnance Factory there has been for many years a most successful institution and also a very happy one. Tribute should be paid to both the management and men that that should have been the case. From that point of view, it is indeed sad that the factory is now to close. At the same time, I have no doubt most people would agree that it is a good thing if the nuclear deterrent, besides making war less likely, should permit economies in conventional arms, but when the application of that policy means the closing of a particular factory, in this case the R.O.F. at Poole, at once the question arises of the future of the men who work there.

The local branch of the A.E.U., which is a very efficient one, made a good case for continuing the factory as a producing unit. If that had been possible, it would have meant that there would be no breaking up of a team which had been working very well together. It would have avoided rooting up people who had lived in their homes a great many years and did not wish to move and would have kept the men concerned in employment. When the news came through originally, I said to the Minister—and I think he was not unsympathetic—that a certain number of firms to whom I have spoken about this question had plans for expanding and I thought they would be interested in the possibility of making that expansion take place in the existing factory.

That alternative, provided those firms could have taken on the bulk of the men working there, seemed a very satisfactory solution, and I hoped that it would materialise. I also hoped—indeed, I expected—that, in view of the contact I had had with him, the Minister would keep me informed as to the progress of events. I had specifically asked whether he could do this. It was, therefore, with some surprise and, to be frank, some indignation, that I heard, not from him—

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.—[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

Captain Pilkington

—but from Poole, that all had been decided and that the factory was to go to the Nuclear Graphite Limited, no doubt an excellent firm, but not a Poole firm, and, apparently, not one which was to employ anything like 600 or 700 men. I must repeat to the Minister what I have told him already—that there has been grave dissatisfaction both about what was done and about the way in which it was done.

When I learned this news I at once put down a Question which had to be for Written Answer because the Minister was at the end of the list for Oral Questions that week. A large part of the Question which I had hoped to put down appeared to be out of order. Nevertheless, the Minister gave what answer he could, and I am grateful to him for that, but I think he owes a full explanation of what has been done and why it has been done. I am extremely grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for the great trouble which I know he has already taken over this problem, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

There are three further points which I want to mention about the complaints which have already been made. These were made by the secretary of the local branch of the A.E.U., and they appeared in the Poole Herald. The first is: was the disposal of the factory widely enough advertised? Secondly, was there a proper effort on behalf of the Minister to continue the factory as a going concern? Thirdly, was it right that improvements in the factory which the union had urged for some years should be carried out, at public expense, only just before the change-over was decided upon?

Turning to what is to happen to the men concerned in the future. I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary how many men working at the factory have already left, and secondly, how many of these are still out of work. I know that that is not primarily his responsibility but the responsibility of the Ministry of Labour, but I know that he is working in harmony with that Ministry. In any event, I hope that very few of these men are still out of work. How many men previously working at the factory are to be taken on by Nuclear Graphite Limited? Finally, what are the prospects for the remainder?

There is one other question which I should like to ask and which deals with a certain proportion of the men concerned. Can the Parliamentary Secretary repeat to me the assurance which he gave in answer to an earlier Question about all the elderly established workers? I have a case in mind with which the Parliamentary Secretary is familiar. Will he give an assurance that all these more elderly established workers will be offered alternative work in other Government employment if they wish such an offer to be made to them?

I realise that the Ministry has not an easy task when it is confronted with the necessity to make economies such as this, but we are concerned with men who have served the State well, and they are entitled to every consideration that we can give them.

10.5 p.m.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

I should like to support what the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Poole (Captain Pilkington) has said, because although one normally thinks that Poole is outside the South-West—I suppose that it is really on its eastern fringe—what has happened there is happening elsewhere in the South-West, particularly in the engineering industries. I do not know precisely what Nuclear Graphite Limited makes, but it would seem that it is not an engineering concern. Further, although there may now be only about 600 workers in the Royal Ordnance Factory at Poole, at one time there were between 1,100 and 1,200 men working there.

I also support the hon. and gallant Gentleman's appeal because I know that in my own constituency and elsewhere in the South-West, particularly, say, in Gloucester, people are extremely apprehensive about the future. The local authorities are disturbed because they have to provide the capital for all the social services. This closure means that although this factory may not be entirely abandoned, the men whose skill has gone into it will have to move elsewhere. Although Poole may be growing industrially, I should imagine that it has not a very great industrial future. Placed as it is close to Bournemouth it would have no easy access to fresh work for the men displaced—

Captain Pilkington

It has a very distinguished industrial future.

Mr. Hayman

I am glad to hear it. I am always very glad to hear of any place in the South-West that has an industrial future.

One feels that, perhaps, the Government are committed, for doctrinaire reasons, to giving up State factories, but this is a case that the Parliamentary Secretary might ask his right hon. Friend and the Government to look at afresh, because I believe that the private firms that manufacture articles similar to those that this factory has manufactured have full order books for years to come. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reconsider this and do what he can to give his hon. and gallant Friend what he asks for.

10.7 p.m.

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

First, may I thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Poole (Captain Pilkington) for the compliments that he has paid to the Royal Ordnance factory organisation. Since I have been at the Ministry, I have had a great deal to do with both managements and workpeople at the R.O.F.s, and have visited many of the factories. I can most warmly endorse what he has said about their efficiency and about their excellent industrial relations.

I fully appreciate that the subject we are discussing is one of great importance to many of my hon. and gallant Friend's constituents. I know that he has taken a keen personal interest in the future of the factory and in the welfare of the workpeople employed therein. He has been in constant touch with my right hon. Friend and myself about this matter for many months past. I appreciate his kind words about the attention that he felt my right hon. Friend and I had given to it, and I assure him that after this debate we shall continue to co-operate with him, and, indeed, with all the local interests, to make the impact of this very severe blow to Poole as light as possible.

Perhaps I may now briefly state the reasons for the closure of the factory. The background to this decision, which was announced by my right hon. Friend on 15th July last, has been explained in this House on several occasions. That announcement was the outcome of a careful review of the production capacity in the Royal Ordnance factories in the light of the probable future requirements of the Service Departments.

The review led to a clear conclusion that the total capacity that we had available was much greater than would be required either for current production or for emergency capacity so far as we were able to assess it. The only way to reduce capacity economically was to close complete factories and to keep the remainder at as high a level of utilisation as possible. This is largely an industrial matter. I must say that it would have been completely uneconomic and would have imposed an unnecessary financial burden to leave all the factories open by running them at a very low level having regard to the orders we had in hand or in prospect.

Poole was concerned principally with small arms production, and the decision as to which factory to close lay between Poole, Enfield and Fazakerley. I assure my hon. and gallant Friend and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) that the decision to close Poole was taken after the most expert examination of all the factors involved and was, in fact, inescapable on technical grounds.

My hon. and gallant Friend asked why the factory was not retained for the production of civil goods. I have explained my right hon. Friend's policy in this matter on several occasions, and on the last occasion on 6th May, 1958, in an Adjournment debate I went into it in some detail. I explained then why we were not prepared to retain entire factories for the production of goods for the civil market. There are many reasons, which I do not want to repeat here, why that is quite uneconomic and, indeed, impossible to do in the new competitive world in which we live.

I was a little concerned to hear the strictures which my hon. and gallant Friend placed upon my Department in connection with the disposal of this factory and the arrangements which have been made to deal with it. My hon. and gallant Friend expressed regret that the factory was not taken over by a local firm, and I know that he will expect from me a direct and clear answer to his questions.

May I give him the facts. Last August, shortly after the closure was announced, he wrote to my right hon. Friend enclosing a letter from a solicitor who is a director of a local firm, and this letter expressed an interest in the premises. In response to this letter, my Department wrote to the solicitor concerned offering to make arrangements for representatives of the firm to see the factory and to discuss the matter. Only a formal acknowledgement was received to the Department's letter and, in fact, the offer was not taken up.

In February of this year the Department wrote again to the solicitor, and also to a number of other firms who had shown interest in the factory, stating that the premises were about to be advertised in the Press and offering to send particulars of the property if his firm was still interested. We received no reply to that letter. Advertisements were duly placed in a wide selection of local and national newspapers. I cannot accept the charge that this matter was handled in any inefficient way. We really would not deal negligently with a matter of such financial importance.

After a suitable interval, when the time came to make a decision, there was only one firm in a position to make a firm bid for the factory. Negotiations were accordingly opened with this firm, and I am glad to say that arrangements have been made for it to take over the factory on 1st October this year; that is, on completion of its work for the Ministry of Supply.

I can well understand my hon. and gallant Friend's desire that this factory should have been taken over by a local firm, but I am sure that he will see that in the circumstances the Department took the only course that was open to it. I should like to take this opportunity of recording my personal satisfaction that it has been possible to reach a solution as favourable as this one from the point of view of the workpeople and from the points of view of the taxpayers and of the Department. I shall be glad indeed if we can find equally satisfactory solutions for the other Royal Ordnance factories which are being or have been closed and are available for disposal at the present time.

As to the number of workers to be employed by the new firm, my hon. and gallant Friend will appreciate that my right hon. Friend has no responsibility for the staffing of a private firm which leases the factory. I can, however, confirm his statement that the new occupiers hope to employ up to about 200 people.

I have given some details about the progress of the negotiations. I am very sorry that my hon. and gallant Friend should feel that he has not been treated with due courtesy by my right hon. Friend. I can assure him that no discourtesy was intended. When a decision has been reached in a matter of this kind both the Minister and I endeavour to inform hon. Members concerned before a public announcement is made, and it was my right hon. Friend's intention, as he said in his letter to my hon. and gallant Friend on 22nd April, to make an announcement about the future of the factory through a Question tabled by him. My right hon. Friend did write to him as soon as the negotiations had been completed.

Unfortunately, although no announcement was made by the Ministry to the Press, they had already obtained the news through their own efforts. I think hon. Members will agree that it is very difficult in large industrial establishments of this kind, as indeed elsewhere, to control the workings of the "jungle telegraph." Much as I regret any offence which this process has apparently caused my hon. and gallant Friend, I cannot agree that the Minister of Supply should accept, in addition to his already arduous duties, responsibility for controlling local rumour or its progress from factory level to the Press.

I was asked some specific questions about the labour position at Poole. When the rundown began in October last year there were 686 industrial employees at the factory, of whom 282 were established. Since then the industrial strength has been reduced by 344. I am glad to say that at present only 30 of those are registered as unemployed at the local offices of the Ministry of Labour.

The remaining 342 employees, of whom 278 are established, will leave the factory at the rate of approximately 120 a month between now and the end of September. An office of the Ministry of Labour and National Service has been set up in the factory to provide redundant unestablished employees with the earliest advice and help in getting other work. The figures which I have quoted speak for themselves in showing how successful our efforts have been in easing the difficulties at local level.

As to the position of established workers over 60 years of age, my hon. and gallant Friend referred to a small number of established employees at Poole who were over 60 and who wished to transfer to another Government establishment. It is the Government's policy to encourage the employment of elderly people, both in their own Departments and in outside industry. Nevertheless, as my hon. and gallant Friend will appreciate, the present circumstances of our Royal Ordnance factories are quite abnormal.

The Royal Ordnance factories organisation has been steadily contracting and will continue to do so for some time to come. Indeed, no fewer than eight factories are at this moment running down to closure. The result is that the age distribution of workpeople, which is already very high, is steadily worsening and is causing much concern to managements. We shall have to aim at a more balanced age structure if the factories are to do their work efficiently and economically.

We do not help matters if we transfer to the remaining factories men over 60 years of age, the great majority of whom are able to retire and draw pensions. Nevertheless, I have a certain sympathy with the men at Poole who wish to transfer in these circumstances. Arrangements are being made to transfer them to other establishments provided that the numbers are small and the men concerned are suitable for the work which can be offered to them elsewhere.

The unestablished employees will receive the improved gratuities which became applicable from May last year. These are not ungenerous. I think that my hon. and gallant Friend will have already the information in detail about these gratuities, but in brief I would say that the redundant employees are now much better off than they were before May of last year, in the matter of the terms of compensation.

I should like to say a few words about expenditure on the factory since the decision to close it was announced in the House. It is not a bad principle when one has an asset, particularly a real estate asset as this is, to maintain it in reasonable order during the period between the end of the old use and the beginning of the new, and we have really not spent excessive sums on items which are not required to maintain the premises in good order for the new lessees. Many items with which we would have proceeded, such as a large central heating plant, have been cancelled as a result of my right hon. Friend's decision to close the factory.

The closing of a factory is a sad business and it is a task which no one enjoys. It brings many problems for workpeople and management alike, and it means the break-up of an industrial team which has given valuable service for many years. My right hon. Friend and I are very conscious of the difficulties and problems which face workpeople in such circumstances, and we have tried to do all we can to make the run-down and take-over of the factory as smooth as possible. I believe that our efforts have met with a large degree of success so far, and I assure my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Poole and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne that we shall continue to do our best to ease the difficulties that remain.

Captain Pilkington

Before my hon. Friend sits down, and in thanking him for what he has said and for his sympathy, may I ask him a question? Although I realise it is not his responsibility, can he suggest to Nuclear Graphite Limited that they should take over as many men from the old factory as they can?

Mr. Taylor

I am glad that my hon. and gallant Friend has asked that question. We will make a request to Nuclear Graphite Limited to that effect, and we will do all we can to induce them to take on the maximum number of people.

Mr. Hayman

Just as the hon. Gentleman was finishing his speech he referred to lessees. Can he say whether the factory is being leased or sold?

Mr. Taylor

It is being leased, but we hope that at the end of the lease, or during it we might make a suitable arrangement to transfer it permanently to the new users.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Ten o'clock.

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