HC Deb 23 March 1959 vol 602 cc1085-94

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

12.28 a.m.

Mr. M. Philips Price (Gloucestershire, West)

I want to raise the matter of industrial prospects and employment in that part of my constituency known as the Forest of Dean. People there are disappointed because the Board of Trade seems by its recent action to have forgotten the problem which exists there. The prospect of Government help in that place seems to be less than it was a short while ago. I refer, of course, to the application of the Distribution of Industry (Industrial Finance) Act. There seems to be no prospect that it will be applied to my constituency, and I want to elicit more reasons than I have heard so far why the Board of Trade considers it impossible. In the course of the last few weeks, unemployment has risen to 4£6 per cent. Moreover, as I shall show, it is likely to be persistent.

I should like to review briefly the position in the industrial part of the Forest of Dean. Up to 1938, nearly half the working population was engaged in the extractive industries—coal mining, iron-ore mining and quarrying, and in the old staple industry of tinplate production. It was an unhealthy condition, because these industries were in process of decline, partly through the exhaustion of raw materials and partly because of technical changes in industry which had made the old process of tinplate making no longer economic.

But changes have taken place over the last 22 years. During that time 6,000 people, most of whom were formerly employed in these extractive industries, have been employed in new industries. Now, only one-fifth of the industrial population is employed in the old extractive industries like coal mining, whilst formerly nearly half of that population was so employed.

This desirable change has been brought about in two ways. The first is by the efforts of local bodies which have been very active in the matter. The Royal Forest of Dean Industrial Development Association has been very active in trying to encourage new industries to come into the area. Secondly, the Board of Trade itself during the war had emergency powers which it used to direct industry to the Forest of Dean. When those emergency powers came to an end, it used persuasion, which at times has been useful. The result has been that since the war firms employing about 2,000 men and women have come into the area.

Yet today the industrial prospects are again very bad, and it is quite possible that if things continue like this we may have a return to the situation before the war when up to 40 per cent. of the insurable population was unemployed. When technical changes of the more or less permanent kind, to which I have referred take place, they cause great social disturbance. People drift away and there is a loss of social capital in the form of schools, and public investments of all kinds, including water and electricity supplies which are no longer used. In the past 18 months the process of decay of the old extractive industries has been gathering speed. They are now declining more quickly than ever

In the autumn of 1957 the last remaining tinplate industry, at Lydney, closed down. It has been transferred to the new strip mills in South Wales. The coal-mining industry is approaching a new crisis. Early this year one pit closed down and 400 men were put out of work. Two more may close in the not so distant future. One can reckon on only two, or at the most three, pits continuing to work. I will not go into the reasons for this—it is another matter altogether—but it is, as I shall try to show, a permanent state of affairs.

The industrial prospects of the Forest of Dean will, therefore, be very bad unless the process of bringing in new industries is much more rapidly accelerated than has been the case up to now. The Industrial Development Association and the local authorities have been working feverishly since the new crisis began to develop. They expected some assistance from the Board of Trade. Instead of that, I am afraid the latest development is that we seem to get nothing. A number of new places have been designated under the Distribution of Industry Act—about 19 places were recently scheduled—but the Forest of Dean has been left out.

Even the opposite to what one would expect is taking place. It has come to my knowledge that a certain small firm seeking assistance to expand from the Board of Trade has been advised that if it wants to do so it had better go outside the Forest. I have had some correspondence with the Parliamentary Secretary. Perhaps he will say whether this is really so or not. I am informed that it is so. Naturally, we are all very disturbed about this, because apparently not only are we not to have assistance but it is to be suggested to industries that they should go elsewhere. That is in spite of the fact that unemployment in the Forest of Dean is rising rapidly.

I demand that the Forest of Dean should be held to qualify under the Act because it has more than 4 per cent. unemployment. In January the Parliamentary Secretary announced—I take this from the report in The Times—that to qualify under the Act for assistance an area must have had an unemployment rate of not less than 4 per cent. and it should persist for at least one year. The Forest of Dean has an unemployment rate of more than 4 per cent., but it has not had such a rate for a year. However, I contend that it is disastrous to leave a place to decay for a year before something is done. Is it true that we have to have an unemployment rate of more than 4 per cent, for a year before we can receive assistance under the Act?

Local initiative has done as much as it can. What can it do in the face of indifference of this kind on the part of the Board of Trade? Have we really to stick it for a year? It is not good enough. With a problem of this kind it is not sound policy to wait until things become disastrous. The wise policy anticipates trouble.

The Board of Trade may say that we must wait and that things will get better. However, my point is that this is not a question of a temporary decline in trade. This is not a matter which will get better. As the Minister of Labour said last week, the unemployment figures are going down and the indications are that trade is improving. But that will not affect us, for we have a permanent decline due to technical changes in industry.

Nor will it be much good if we are told that in other places somewhere near the district of the Forest of Dean new industries are coming. In Gloucester, for instance, there was a problem, which at one time looked like becoming acute, because of the considerable reduction of the aircraft industry, but I am glad to say that new industries are now coming.

While it is true that 2,000 people from the Forest of Dean go to work in Gloucester, it is not good enough to tell us that the new industries going to Gloucester will have to do for us, too. It is not good enough that 2,000 people should have to travel that distance every day. Industry is required somewhere near the centres of population where unemployment is greatest.

Nor is it any use suggesting that there will be increased industry in South Wales, 30, 40 or 50 miles away. That will not help us in the Forest of Dean. We cannot expect men to travel distances of that kind every day—or does the Board of Trade think that those men should emigrate and leave their homes where their families have been settled for generations? Many workers in the Forest of Dean have smallholdings and small farms and rights to run sheep in the forest, rights which their families have possessed for generations. All this means that it is most desirable and necessary that new industries should come and that local authorities should be assisted and not hindered by the Board of Trade.

I must therefore press that the Distribution of Industry (Industrial Finance) Act should be applied to us. We need the facilities to give financial encouragement to new industries. I ask the Board of Trade to reconsider the whole position in the light of future developments, because it is not the situation that this is a temporary depression which will right itself, in the course of a short time. This is the case of the decay of old industries and the need for the coming of new. On a small scale, what is happening in the Forest of Dean is a replica of what is going on in South Wales and other areas where the old extractive industries are on the decline and where a change in the industrial make-up is necessary. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give some assurance on this matter.

12.44 a.m.

Mr. John Diamond (Gloucester)

I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for his courtesy in allowing me not more than two minutes, for I was anxious to support my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Philips Price), because his problems are very much associated with mine in Gloucester.

There is great anxiety in both our constituencies, and a number of neighbouring constituencies, about the increasing unemployment which has its worst effect and its highest percentage in the Forest of Dean. Only last Wednesday, many aircraft workers were lobbying hon. Members here and were most anxious to hear about the future, and quite properly so, too, because in one factory in Gloucester 4,000 are to become unemployed in the course of the next nine months.

It is true that, after 18 months or two years, 2,000 of those will be required again for British Nylon Spinners, but in the meantime 4,000 will be out of work, and 2,000 will be out of work permanently. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, about 2.000 people from his constituency come into mine every day in order to find work. Therefore, the increasing unemployment anticipated in Gloucester will have its effect on the Forest of Dean, and make a most unsatisfactory position.

In those circumstances, surely it is up to the Government to give greater support to the principle of taking work to the workers. It is neither my hon. Friend's desire nor mine that unemployment in the Forest of Dean should be exported to Gloucester, or anywhere else in the neighbourhood, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to say something very encouraging.

12.46 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. John Rodgers)

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Philips Price) for the very courteous and restrained way in which he put his case, and I also thank him for sending me a letter outlining the points he would raise. I realise that the matter is of great importance to him, and I share his concern. The persistence of these pockets of unemployment is one of the most serious problems that I have to contend with. I equally appreciate the related problem which has been raised by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Diamond).

The history of developments in the Forest of Dean and of the fading away of the extractive industries there is one with which I would not quarrel, except to make the comment that there has been rather more diversity of industry in the Forest than the hon. Member's account would signify. The latest analysis we have for the insured population relates to 1957—before the closure of the Eastern United Colliery—and in that year, out of a total population engaged in manufacturing and extractive industries, as distinct from distribution industries, and so on, only 26 per cent. were engaged in mining. To this has to be added 20 per cent. in the engineering and electrical industries, and 16 per cent. in the food, drink and tobacco industries. The remaining 38 per cent. are spread over agriculture, the vehicle industry, precision instruments, wood manufacture, and various other industries. Less than 20 per cent. of the whole insured population were engaged in mining. Thus, although the closure of collieries is a serious matter, and I should be the last to minimise the consequences of it, the Forest of Dean is not so much a one-industry area as many places with which we have to deal.

The problems of the area have been accentuated recently. The hon. Member referred to the closure of the tinplate works in October, 1957, which meant that 390 men and 30 women lost their jobs there. It is very significant that four months later, in February, 1958, not less than 343 of those employed at the tinplate works, or over 80 per cent., had already found, or been placed in, other work. That shows that a year ago the Forest of Dean was not, in general, a difficult area, though even at that time some kinds of labour may not have found it easy to find work. As the hon. Member knows, this tinplate works is now occupied by a new tenant, introduced by the Board of Trade, and that will have further helped to provide employment.

The closing of the Eastern United Colliery is, as I well appreciate, a much more serious matter. I know that the Chairman of the National Coal Board has been in touch with the hon. Member about it and has assured him that he realises the serious consequences of closing down this colliery, and that it is the Board's aim to ensure that when closures inevitably take place as little hardship is involved as possible. The coal reserves in the Forest are limited, and production costs have been much higher than the average for the Board's collieries. I am informed that it is unlikely that any further collieries in the Forest will be closed this year, but I should be less than frank if I did not acknowledge that one colliery employing 250 men is very near exhaustion, and that the Board is entering into negotiations with the unions concerned with a view to its closing in about 1960. Naturally the National Coal Board and the Ministry of Labour will co-operate to do everything they can to find alternative employment for the men thus released.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, the closing of the mines is not the only difficulty with which his constituency is threatened. There is likely to be a further reduction in the labour force now engaged in the Gloucester area in the aircraft industry, and there may be some consequential unemployment in other engineering firms in the district, although it is too early to say what the figures are likely to be. To turn to the better news, three or four firms already in the Forest of Dean are expanding their activities and as a result expect to provide a further 300 or thereabouts with jobs.

This is the prospect for the Forest itself. I cannot share the argument that an expansion of industry in Gloucester is of no concern to people living in the Forest of Dean. We know of four large industrial concerns which will shortly be starting up there. British Nylon Spinners is taking over the Ministry of Supply factory at Brockworth and Thos. Walls, Bryce Berger and Daystrom are all going to establish themselves in Gloucester. Each of these will have large labour requirements. How far they will be met from any redundancies in the aircraft industries or from those locally unemployed, and how far they will have labour requirements which the Forest of Dean can meet, remains to be seen. But, putting it at its lowest, I would hope that when these new factories are in operation at least as many residents in the hon. Member's constituency will be finding work in that area as are finding it now, or perhaps more. I thought it would be useful to outline the employment situation and prospects as we see them, because it is only in the light of the past, present and future that we can outline the prospects of Government assistance.

Unemployment in the Forest of Dean averaged just under 2½ per cent, over 1958. I agree that the rate at which unemployment may persist in the future is a relevant factor, and we have recognised that in our policy. The fact is, however, that the rate throughout 1958 was little above the national average. In the first three months of this year the rate of unemployment has increased. In January it was 3.5 per cent. and in February and March it was 4.6 per cent., though it may be a hopeful sign that in March over 10 per cent, of the unemployed were classified as temporarily stopped compared with only 2 per cent. in February.

If we were satisfied that unemployment in the Forest of Dean was going to continue for a long period at the level of February and March we should not wait for months before adding it to the list. But there will be a number of changes in the employment situation in the surrounding area and we cannot at this stage have any idea what the outcome will be. I have mentioned the four large firms which are going to Gloucester, and are expected between them to provide over 4,000 new jobs in the next year or two.

I now come to the point about the advice the hon. Gentleman alleged we gave to one firm in his constituency to move out. We would do nothing to discourage firms from setting up in the Forest of Dean. If any suitable firm wanted an industrial development certificate it would be freely granted. The hon. Gentleman referred to a conversation between one firm in his area and a representative of the Board of Trade who suggested that the firm should leave the Forest of Dean and go to one of the places where unemployment was higher. We cannot give details of what went on in a conversation between a firm and the Board of Trade because they are confidential, but it is certainly no part of the Board's policy to encourage industry to move out of the Forest of Dean, and the official concerned did not try to do so.

The hon. Member has, I think, met the Board's Regional Controller in Bristol and knows of the efforts he has been making to try to get new industry to that part of the world. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman paid a tribute in his speech to the work of the Forest of Dean Development Association, which is working closely with our Regional Controller.

Both hon. Members will realise that, with or without the inducement of the Distribution of Industry Acts, there are a limited number of firms which wish to extend and which are able to go to new localities. We do our best to steer them to the areas where the unemployment problem is most difficult, but the more places we add to the list, the more difficult it is to steer these few footloose firms to the places where unemployment is even more serious than in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

While I recognise the claims of the Forest of Dean and shall watch the situation carefully over the next few weeks and months, I cannot at this time say that the situation there is such that it should be immediately added to the D.A.T.A.C. list. But I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no time limit. Places can be added to or extracted from the list as the situation reveals the need. I should be prepared to reconsider what I have said tonight about the Forest of Dean if I thought the situation had deteriorated to such an extent that further action on the part of the Board of Trade was warranted.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to One o'clock.

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