HC Deb 10 March 1958 vol 584 cc194-204

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

12.3 a.m.

Mr. T. W. Jones (Merioneth)

I am glad of the opportunity, even at this unearthly hour when all decent folk should be in bed, to discuss the problems of a rather old industry which can claim to be peculiarly Welsh. Two interesting facts are worthy of note. Firstly, between the two wars Welsh slate constituted approximately four-fifths of the total of British production of slate. Secondly, the regions of slate production have remained Welsh in language and culture to this very day.

During recent years there has been a great decline in this industry. Before the war, North Wales employed 8,000 slate workers. By the end of the war that number had been reduced to 3,000 and it remains at that figure. The measure of decline is clearly indicated in the Rees Report, published in 1946. It shows that slate production in Caernarvonshire fell from 164,000 tons in 1925 to 61,000 tons in 1945, and that the production in Merioneth was reduced from 72,000 tons in 1925 to 19,000 tons in 1945. Those bare figures speak far more eloquently than I can of the present trend in the industry and of the vital need for action if this industry is to survive.

During recent weeks I have questioned a number of Ministers to ascertain their interest in and attitude towards this industry. Whereas I am grateful for the replies received, I have not been satisfied with them. The replies savoured too much of the doctor administering drugs to a patient whose life can be saved only by an operation. I am calling tonight for immediate and effective action. The industry is having to resort to short-time working, amounting to one week's stoppage in four. I blame the Government solely and absolutely for that state of affairs. The fault is entirely theirs, and is due, in the main, to the credit squeeze, which has brought about a recession in the building trade, as a result of which there is a reduced demand for slates.

I am asking for action to save this industry in the interests of the splendid body of workers engaged in it and in the interests of the communities which are so closely connected with the industry. I am thinking of Blaenau Festiniog and Bethesda and also of the villages in other quarrying areas in North Wales. I wonder whether the Government have appreciated the consequences of a permanent shut-down of the slate industry. There would be eight million houses with no source of slate supply for day-to-day repairs. Those houses would in time have to be stripped of their present roofing of slate and re-roofed with other materials. The cost to the country would be enormous. It would be no less than £100 million.

A quarry owner now employing 1,300 men told me the other day that he was anxious to take on any suitable men between the ages of 15 and 30, and to train them as quarrymen. Yet in that area there is acute unemployment. This anomaly requires investigation. Why are unemployed men so reluctant to enter this industry? We should know the reasons and, knowing them, do all in our power to remove them.

I was glad to observe that the new Minister of State for Welsh Affairs rapidly realised the gravity of the situation and paid an early visit to the quarries. This was very encouraging, because I learned from the hon. Member who is the noble Lord's Member of Parliament that he has great experience of the industry. I should be glad to know if the Parliamentary Secretary can say what conclusions the Minister of State came to. Is he satisfied that the quarries are run to the best advantage? Is he satisfied that the methods of working and the machinery are up to present-day standards and that they are capable of the most economical production of slate?

It is axiomatic that if slate is to compete with tiles as a roofing material, the price of slate must compete with the price of tiles. Contractors might be prepared to pay a little more for slates than for tiles because they are incomparably better roofing material, but my fear is that the price margin between the two is at present so wide as to militate against slate, to the disadvantage of the quarry owners.

I do not pretend to be an expert on the subject, but it seems to me that the cost of slate goes to the very root of the problem. Can the slate, by better production, be produced more cheaply so as to compete favourably in the home and foreign markets with other roofing materials? Has not the time come for an expert inquiry into the methods of production? I consider this to be one of the basic needs and I am asking the Minister to be good enough to institute such an inquiry forthwith.

The Rees Committee conducted an inquiry in 1946 and its Report is still of the utmost importance. I hope that the Minister will tell the House to what extent he is prepared to implement the Committee's recommendations, especially on mechanisation, finance and marketing. The crux of the problem, however, appears to be the method of production. If two or three qualified quarrying and mining engineers were authorised to investigate and advise, I think it would be to the advantage of all parties.

I realise that I am now "sticking out my neck" and may be severely criticised in certain quarters for making these suggestions, but I put them forward notwithstanding, for the simple and adequate reason that the industry is of such overwhelming importance to the communities connected with it in North Wales. I should not be doing my duty to a town like Blaenau Ffestiniog if I did not do so.

I now turn to the question of marketing. Very little account has been taken of the recommendations of the Rees Report. If one is to sell a product, it must be advertised. In this context, I should like to read a paragraph from the Welsh edition of the Liverpool Daily Post for 4th March. I see that the Minister for Welsh Affairs is present and I am grateful to him for honouring me with his presence during this debate. I am sure the Minister will agree that everyone connected with Wales must study daily two newspapers, the Welsh edition of the Daily Post and the Western Mail. The Minister will not be a stranger to the paragraph to which I am referring.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts, the editor of the column "Day to day in Wales," is an able and responsible journalist. This is what he says:

Why do contractors prefer tiles to slates for roofing? Many would say because they are cheaper to buy, but a reader from Llantrisant, Glamorgan, has other ideas. He tells me he took a few days off to call specially on contractors to ask why they preferred tiles. Four contractors told him that no direct representations had ever been made to them to use slate, and another said he did not know slate was available! If the virtues of slate were brought home to the contractors this reader thinks the industry would enjoy a new lease of life. At the moment other lines are being pushed by the merchants. If that is true, it shows a great lack of advertising methods for this industry. I should like them to emulate the brewers and even change one of the slogans which is so famous. Let there be plastered about the country the words "Slate is Best." It is better than any other roofing material which one can think of. I ask the Minister to make some comment on that aspect of the problem.

I hope that it will be understood that, in making this speech, I am trying to be as helpful and as constructive as possible. As I have said, I am not an expert. I fully realise that the quarries have been through a hard time since the war. Furthermore, I believe that the quarry owners—I say this quite sincerely—have done as much as they could to maintain the labour force and create good labour relations. We have not had a strike in the industry for many a long year. I know some of the owners personally, and I realise the acute personal concern that they have about the position of the industry. In calling, therefore, for a technical inquiry and asking for Government assistance, I am not casting a stone at anyone in the industry.

The last time this subject was dealt with, when it was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarvon (Mr. G. Roberts), my hon. Friend made a request to the Minister, which I shall now repeat. He asked that apprentices in the industry should be released from military service. I know that it was difficult at that time to grant that request, but we have been told by the Government that conscription will come to an end in a year or two now. I ask the Minister to promise to take up this matter again with the appropriate Minister. There are more apprentices in the industry today than at any period since the war. Once the lads leave for the Army, it is very difficult to persuade them to go back to quarrying.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarvon will agree with me that there is not a better class of worker in the entire kingdom. I cannot do better than to quote from the Rees Report: The quarry villages sprang up during a period of religious awakening, and many of them are names after the chapels around which they have grown—Bethesda, Ebenezer, Bethania, Carmel and Cesarea, Welsh remains the language of the home, the quarry, the chapel and the trade union, and the quarrying communities are noted for the richness and variety of their cultural life. The chapels continue to be the centres of all forms of social activity and there is a very close integration of the religious, artistic and political sides of life. It is by no means exceptional for a trade union leader to be a chapel deacon, for a quarryman to be a writer of poetry, for a county councillor to be a Sunday school teacher. The Committee might have spoken, too, of a Member of Parliament being a Sunday school teacher, as I happen to be. Education stands high in the quarryman's scale of values, and he can have no greater satisfaction than to have a son or daughter in college or in one of the learned professions. I should like to quote further, but I realise that if I do I shall not allow the Minister time to reply.

12.19 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Harmar Nicholls)

I should like at once to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. T. W. Jones) for the assiduous way in which he keeps the problem of the industry before the nation and before my right hon. Friend at Question Time. Tonight he has once again shown that he is a persuasive advocate, and he states his case very clearly. I should like also to say how much I appreciate the kindly comments the hon. Gentleman made on the presence of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government and Welsh Affairs who, as he says, takes a very full and complete interest in all that goes on in the Principality. It is typical of him that he is here tonight, even at this late hour.

I am also grateful for the friendly references the hon. Gentleman made to my noble Friend the Minister of State for Welsh Affairs. As he rightly said, my noble Friend has a special knowledge of the quarry industry, and I am certain that as far as it lies within the power of any Government to be of assistance, the presence of my noble Friend as a member of the Government will ensure that no opportunity is passed by for want of practical knowledge at the highest level.

Having said this, I would add that I know that the hon. Gentleman is under no illusions as to the problems that exist in the slate industry. They are problems which, for the most part, one can say are due solely to the march of time. In recent years not only has slate been affected, but there has been a remarkable development of new building materials, and we have found that there are cheaper and more easily produced products which have replaced the older traditional materials. I know that is understood by the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends who have raised this question in the past.

Nowhere is this change more marked than in this field where the clay tile and now the concrete tile have taken over a market which was once almost exclusively the domain of the quarry slate. That is why there has been no year since the war that has equalled the end of the 19th century for slate production. Indeed. 1957 production was down to 79,000 tons and we had 3,500 men employed where 16,000 men had worked before. That is because of this march of time.

As the hon. Gentleman said, my noble Friend has paid particular interest to this industry in recent months and he has expressed to me the view that he hopes that there will not be any sharper decline in the next few years. He expects the industry to stabilise itself more or less at its present level.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, my noble Friend recently paid a visit to North-West Wales and it was very helpful to him. He spoke to the owners, to trade union officials, employers and representatives of the local authorities, and this, added to his own personal knowledge, enabled him to take a very well informed view of all the matters put to him.

One of the smaller points which the hon. Gentleman may be interested to hear was that my noble Friend mentioned to me that a mild winter had allowed owners, by continuous working, to build up stocks which are probably larger than normally would be the case. The larger stocks do not show a falling off in demand, as might have been assumed.

Her Majesty's Government have taken practical steps, where possible, to help. In particular, I would make reference to the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Welsh Affairs in his answer to the hon. Gentleman on 11th February last when he explained that his Department would henceforward allow any local authority in England and Wales the additional first cost of using Welsh slates on its housing schemes. This is quite a point because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the extra cost of a slate roof is at least £50 per house more than would be the case with a concrete tile.

Having said that, it remains for the industry to sell its products, by using modern methods of salesmanship and, above all, by ensuring that orders are promptly met. Even at this moment when orders are said to be few, my noble Friend says that he has come across certain cases where very large sizes of slates could not be delivered in nine months. That is an example of some of the little quirks that appear. Usually slates that are difficult to get are large ones. I have no doubt that when those points are brought to notice in a debate such as this it will cause the industry to try even harder to persuade potential customers to change to the smaller sizes. My Department continues to specify slates wherever they are the most suitable material in all the circumstances surrounding any particular job we have on hand.

I know the hon. Gentleman does not need me to tell him that the Government cannot be the main support of the industry, for at this time, even more than in 1946, at the time of the Rees Committee to which he referred, it is clear that the industry must work together if it is to have the new equipment and aggressive selling power to face its competitors, the clay tile and particularly now the concrete tile. I am afraid I have to emphasise, as did the Rees Committee, that these fundamental matters of the industry's structure, such as mergers and greater mechanisation, must come from within the industry itself, but it is fair to say that since modernisation following mergers would, as set out in the 1946 Report, entail an outlay of about £400,000, and since it can be seen that the alternative materials show no signs of losing their popularity, I think one can understand the reasons which have so far caused the slate companies not to be able to merge or take on the responsibility of raising this extra capital. I say that only because I think it is reasonable to keep in mind the problem they have to face.

In asking the Government, as the hon. Gentleman has done tonight, to interest themselves in this industry I am sure he is not asking the taxpayer to provide this money in the form of a direct subsidy. The figure of at least £400,000 is mentioned. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is asking for a direct subsidy, because both sides of the House have already shown that this could not be contemplated. It was the Labour Government he supported who first had to consider the Rees Report and Dr. Hibberd's Report which followed, and both sides found it impossible to justify a subsidy. I think it was the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson), who in those days held the position I now occupy, who had to give that opinion. He may not have said it in words. The fact that they were not able to give the subsidy gave the sort of message that I am having to repeat tonight.

Having said that the Government cannot accept full responsibility for helping the slate industry against its new competitors, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the undoubted merits of slate, particularly its durability to which he referred—he referred to "Beer is best" and "Guinness for strength," and the one thing we can say about slate is that its durability is unquestioned—will always be kept in mind by my Department. I repeat that Government Departments will use slates, and we will recommend their use on Government buildings, when they are the appropriate material. In all the circumstances which surround this complex industry of building I do not think the hon. Gentleman would expect us to go any farther than that. Clearly with my noble Friend's special knowledge any new potentialities which might show themselves will be sympathetically considered. I think his membership of the Government will ensure that.

I think I have two or three minutes in which to comment on one or two other points the hon. Member referred to. If time cuts me short I will certainly write to him a letter on any of the points where I think I can help him further. He asked if there was any possibility of another inquiry into the methods of production. I can only say that the slate industry has been more exhaustively investigated than any other building industry of comparable importance. It was meticulously investigated and reported upon by the Rees Committee which covered the whole ramifications of the industry. Later we had Dr. Hibberd's Report on the more technical side of it, and I think that those two investigations, relatively recently made, plus the contacts and the negotiations which have followed upon them, give us a very clear diagnosis of the whole position.

Frankly, I cannot feel that at this minute any useful help could come from any further investigations, but my right hon. Friend the Minister for Welsh Affairs has heard the hon. Gentleman's plea. I will certainly talk to my right hon. Friend and pass on the points made by the hon. Gentleman, but I must say that in all the circumstances of the case I feel that there would be no real justification for yet another investigation.

The hon. Member asked about the implementation of the Rees Report. I think that, on investigation, he will find that we have not done too badly on this. By "we" I mean the Governments who have had the responsibility of looking at the Report since it was made. The recommendations included that skilled men from the forces should be encouraged to return to the industry, that training should be available for new labour, that asisted travel schemes should be encouraged and that local schools should encourage their boys to become apprentices. Action was taken on all those points. It is true that the result on some of them was disappointing, but I do not think that one can uphold the charge that there has been no attempt to carry out the Committee's recommendations.

Similarly, on welfare matters, the Committee recommended canteen services, packed meal services and heating and drying facilities, and all these have been considerably improved. Hon. Members who interest themselves in these matters and have the knowledge will support what I have said. The annual holidays were also extended as was recommended in the Report.

I think that the hon. Member showed some disappointment about the priority given for machinery and special hire facilities. That was perhaps what he had in mind when he said that the general production side had not moved as fast as he would have liked. Dr. Hibberd, when he investigated plant requirements in detail, recommended certain courses, and as a consequence priority was given to those machines ordered by the quarries as a result. On the question of the hire of plant, because of the cost involved it is true that it was not possible to produce an attractive scheme. However, I think that it will be seen that by and large the recommendations of the Rees Report were considered by successive Governments and that real action was taken on them.

There were many other points with which I should have liked to deal, but, as always, we are hampered by the amount of time available for an Adjournment debate. Perhaps I can best say in conclusion that we will do all possible within the realm of what is practical to help the industry to help itself and that on all Government projects we will remember the merits of the ancient slate. I cannot help feeling that a debate such as this plays a very big part in ensuring that all the problems and possibilities are taken fully into account.

The hon. Member's last point was in connection with the plea put forward by an hon. Friend of his on a previous occasion. I will certainly ensure that that point of view is brought to the attention of the appropriate Department. I could not at this stage say that there are any hopeful signs that such a plea would be acceptable—it is one section of a great problem—but I will ensure that it is taken into account, although I cannot give any promise that anything tangible will come from it.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday 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-seven minutes to One o'clock.