HC Deb 26 March 1959 vol 602 cc1596-608

3.52 p.m.

Commander Harry Pursey (Hull, East)

I want to raise the important problem of the serious unemployment position in Hull where, since the Tory Government came into power in 1951, the number of unemployed has doubled and unemployment now affects 10,000 men, women and children. I want to press for a Government inquiry into the resources of the city to increase its productive capacity and so absorb the thousands of unemployed there. I shall quote some official figures to give the general picture, and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and National Service will not improve the position or his case if he gives other figures in the course of his reply in an attempt to score a debating point. I wrote to the hon. Gentleman to inform him of some of the points which I intended to raise so as to give him an opportunity to prepare his reply.

In October, 1951 when the Tory Party took office, the number of unemployed in Hull was 3,226, according to an Answer to a Question of mine reported in HANSARD for 6th November, 1958. In January of this year, after seven years of "Forward with the Tory Party" the number was 6,602 or over double that of 1951. This is not an advance but a serious retreat for the citizens of Hull. Moreover, this is not the whole picture because unemployed dockers are not included in these figures. Last year there was serious unemployment on the docks. Another 1,000 men were unemployed or nearly a quarter of the number on the register.

A year ago, half the number of registered dockers in Hull were unemployed. Even last month, on 20th February, the number of dockers proving attendance or "dieting", as they say in dockland, was 898. The present policy of the Hull and Goole Dock Labour Board is to allow the register to run down and at present there are about 20 dockers on temporary release. Throughout the city, overtime has largely fallen off and thousands more are under-employed. Allowing for the married men with wives and children, there are over 10,000 men, women and children reduced to the Conservative dole standard of life and denied the proper standard of living, food and accommodation, which, according to the Tory Party, is to be doubled in our lifetime. I would add a very serious question mark to that.

I admit frankly that this month's figure is down by 500. How long will this reduction continue under the present Government's restriction policy? Even now the number is nearer 6,000 than 5,000, and it is still over 4 per cent. and about twice the national average. My main point, however, is that the number should never have been allowed to double itself in our modern economic situation, where there is opportunity to prevent such a tragedy, because tragedy it is to those affected.

What are the causes of the largely increased number of unemployed in the country in general and in Hull in particular? Briefly, in an expanding world economy the Tory Government's economic policy of restriction has failed both at home and overseas. Hull is the eighth city, and until recently was the third port, in the United Kingdom. As a major port, the main employment depends on port traffic, exports and imports. Time will not permit me to give illustrations of the serious fall in both outward and inward traffic. Under the present Tory Government the picture of Hull dockland has been the forlorn one of empty berths and empty dry docks. So, in addition to the city's unemployed and the dockers, we have had serious unemployment among ship repairers, and traders who provide supplies for ships have been doing little or no business. Unless something drastic is done to rescue the city and port from this serious slump. Hull is likely to become the Tory 1959 Jarrow.

I will take three quick samples of the Ministry of Labour figures of unemployed by industries for this month. They are, transport and communication 780, building and contracting 605, engineering, shipbuilding and electrical goods 470, a total of 1,855. I drew the attention of the hon. Gentleman to these figures in my letter. Why are these 1,855 men unemployed? Why has the number of unemployed in engineering, shipbuilding and electrical goods increased by 18 last month when there was a reduction of 500 elsewhere?

Another important point is that there were 130 boys and 34 girls unemployed on 5th March. School leavers are not getting career jobs, only blind alley ones, which should be available to elderly persons. This is sure to have an effect on juvenile delinquency. With the bulge of school leavers we shall have 107 leaving school this year for every 100 last year, and in 1962 it will be 130 throughout the country. What do the Government propose to do about the Hull school leavers?

Then there is the question of the older persons and the disabled. Are these unfortunate members of our modern society to be doomed to the Tory dole standard for life? We have a Government training centre and a Remploy factory but they are only working at reduced capacity. The Blind Workshops in Hull perform a good job in providing employment for the blind, but they have just lost a Ministry of Works contract for brushes for hospitals. The result is that the Treasury will gain by the reduced price on the one hand and lose on the other by paying out dole to the blind. It is disgraceful to take Government work away from the blind in Hull.

What are the Tory Government, what is the Minister of Labour, what is the Parliamentary Secretary doing for the unemployed in Hull—the older persons, the disabled, the school leavers and the blind? Practically nothing. This Government have spent millions of pounds on national developments and factories elsewhere but practically nothing in Hull.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office, speaking in Glasgow on 5th March, said: Seventeen new projects have been approved in Scotland in the past year giving jobs for almost 3,500 people. Ten applications for loans and grants totalling £200,000 have been recommended in addition to £2 million offered to Scottish projects in recent months. The only Government expenditure in Hull has been the dole. In the 12 months ending April, 1958, nearly £500,000 was paid out in unemployment benefit and National Assistance This year it is likely to be £750,000 or more. In 1958 the national figure for unemployment benefit and National Assistance was double that for 1956.

In January this year the Government announced the inclusion of Hull, Filey, Bridlington—the hon. Gentleman's constituency—and Scarborough in the Distribution of Industry (Industrial Finance) Act, 1958, scheme for financial aid for industrial development. The Hull Daily Mail came out with a front page banner headline: State to help Hull jobless. They were almost counting the new factories to be built by the Government and the thousands of men who were to be employed.

What has been the result? I am sorry to say that it has been nothing. On 16th March, in answer to a Question, I was informed that there had been only one firm and eligible application, and that was only under consideration. The mountain had laboured, but it had not even brought forth a mouse.

The position is crazy even from a Tory Government point of view. Hull, North is a marginal seat previously held by Labour. The loss of this marginal seat, and others, because of unemployment in Hull, especially on today's showing of the result of the Norfolk, South-West by-election, will cause the defeat of the Tory Government, and the Parliamentary Secretary will lose his job.

I want to make nine suggestions for improving the parlous position in Hull. First, the Government should forthwith stop their policy of restriction and decide on expansion in order to put more spending power in the pockets of the workers, particularly the underpaid workers and those forced on the dole.

Second, the Government should forthwith adopt a policy of expansion in foreign trade, both export and import, and again bring life to our stagnant ports. The obvious example is to increase East-West trade, particularly with Russia and Poland. If barter trade is necessary, Russia can provide timber and grain. Hull is the major port for the Baltic and can deal with all the sea traffic the Government can put there, particularly timber and grain.

Third, there should be a major project for Hull. The Government are spending millions of pounds on big contracts in other parts of the country. Why should they not steer a major project to Hull? For example, why should there not be an oil refinery in Hull? We have jetties for tankers and large sites ready for development. Why concentrate oil at Southampton? Southampton will be just as vulnerable as Hull in another war.

Fourth, there should be sub-contracts for Hull. If the capacity of Hull firms is such that they cannot compete for large contracts, why should there not be subcontracts? Hull has a certain capacity, and there is overwork in other areas with unnecessary overtime and delayed deliveries. Why not spread such contracts by sub-contracting, with advantage to all? Light industries, in particular, should also be steered to Hull.

Fifth, the Admiralty should provide ship-repairing facilities for Hull; sixth, the city council should have approval to build factories to let and to develop a proper trading estate; seventh, there should be a Government Department for Hull. The Government policy is to decentralise Government Departments and there is a Pensions Department at Blackpool and an Insurance Department at Newcastle. Why should there not be a Government Department at Hull to absorb clerical workers and provide new careers?

Eighth, a Cabinet Minister should visit Hull. No Cabinet Minister connected with the problem of unemployment has visited Hull to deal with this serious situation. It is doubtful whether some of them know where Hull is. Most assume that it is out on a limb in the Sahara Desert of the East Riding of Yorkshire. The idea appears to be, "Hull is near Bridlington which is Dick Wood's constituency and it will all be all right on the day—election day." It will not be all right on that day.

Admittedly, we have had a visit from one of the Tory second XI, when we were visited by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, who was in his place a few minutes ago, but who has now left us. He came last month, but he could not pull any rabbits out of the hat. He was something of an anticlimax after the great hopes, falsely built up, that Hull was to be included in the development of industries scheme. Why should not one of the Government's first XI, a Cabinet Minister, visit us, as did a Minister of Labour under the Labour Government?

Ninth, there should be a Government inquiry. Nothing will ever be done sufficiently to improve the productive capacity of Hull and adequately to absorb its thousands of unemployed until there is a full-scale inquiry into the resources and lack of resources of the City of Hull. I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary, for his own sake, for the sake of the East Riding and for the sake of his own constituency, as well as for the sake of Hull, to press among his Ministerial colleagues the need for a full-scale Government inquiry into why Hull is neglected and stagnant, and to find ways and means of increasing and using the full capacity of local resources and labour, in particular to provide a better life for the 10,000 men, women and children now being denied the proper standard of living to which they are entitled in this period when, if properly planned, there should be more than enough work for all.

4.7 p.m.

Captain M. Hewitson (Hull, West)

I shall take not more than a few minutes to support my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hull, East (Commander Pursey) in his plea that some assistance should be given to our unemployed in Hull. I wish to suggest two or three things which could be done and which would give some form of immediate relief.

There is a barter agreement between the Soviet Union and this country under which we supply herrings to the Soviet Union and in return receive tinned salmon and tinned crab to the tune of £1 million a year. Our herring supply has a short-fall of approximately £500,000. We cannot supply the herrings, because we cannot catch them.

I suggest to the Minister responsible for the barter agreement that he should extend the agreement made last year, when we sold 6,500 tons of white fish fillets from our fishing ports to Russia. This year, no order of any description has been placed. There is an opportunity to reduce unemployment in the fishing industry in Hull by agreeing, under this year's agreement, to supply frozen white fish fillets to the Soviet Union.

Another aspect of the problem concerns the British Transport Commission, which is closing the Hull and Barnsley Railway. The Commission tells us that this is streamlining, and that it is being done to save £x per year on streamlining. The Commission is to put the transport of coal from mid-Yorkshire to the docks at Hull on to the main line services, and whereas now it takes approximately four hours' engine time to bring a coal train to the docks at Hull, on the new service, over the main lines, it will take about 12½ hours. That is the Commission's idea of economy.

When this economy takes place, a number of men will be thrown out of work. We would suggest that an effort should be made to use Hull, which has always been a medium for the export of coal, by the "most favoured nation" kind of treatment, to which it is due because of its position and its high number of unemployed, and that the Commission should also keep open the old Hull and Barnsley Railway, so that men will not be thrown out of work.

My third point concerns the Hull fish docks. At the end of the docks, we have slipways which take three trawlers, but these slipways were put in about 1860 and were designed for the trawlers of that day. Today, these slipways, which are owned by the Transport Commission, are absolutely useless for modern trawlers. We cannot refit modern trawlers on those slipways in Hull. We can deal with the obsolete ones, but not with the modern ones. If it is necessary to lift a boiler or move heavy machinery, the work has to go somewhere else. That work could be done in Hull, and if a start was made on building extensions to these three slipways it would mean immediate work for the unemployed in Hull.

My fourth point, again, is connected with the fishing industry, which is my particular interest. We have a rebuilding programme amounting to approximately £15½ million for the trawlers sailing out of Hull. The White Fish Authority, to which we pay extensive levies in Hull, does not subscribe anything at all to trawlers of above 140 ft., but we have nothing going out of the docks at Hull which is less than 140 ft. This means that we cannot have any subsidy at all from the White Fish Authority to help that building programme of new trawlers.

I say at once that the trawler owners of Hull have no desire to receive any subsidy from the White Fish Authority, but this is a job on which the Minister could step in and use his imagination in finding ways and means by which the trawler owners could have advances made to them at cheap rates of interest, so that they may scrap some of the obsolete trawlers and refit the modern ones which still sail out of the port.

These are simple suggestions which we are able to make after trying to find ways and means by which we could improve the present situation in Hull and find employment for the unfortunate people now out of work. I therefore hope that the Minister will take notice of some of the suggestions which have been made by my hon. Friend and myself, and will use every possible means at the Ministry's disposal to relieve our present problem. It is a terrific problem indeed, because our nearest means of employment is 50 or 60 miles away. We are an isolated community, and therefore, something must be found for the relief of our present unemployment situation.

4.14 p.m.

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

I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for Hull, East (Commander Pursey) and his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hull, West (Captain Hewitson) for having discussed the problem in which, as the hon. and gallant Member for Hull. East pointed out in his speech, they and I have a common interest. When the hon. and gallant Member for Hull, West was talking about Hull being isolated, I was entirely in agreement with him. In fact, my constituents who are looking for work are that much more isolated than are his. Therefore, I have been anxious to try to find a solution to this problem on many of the lines which the hon. and gallant Gentleman has suggested.

I assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman that I have no wish to score party points, but it is profitable to consider the problem from the point of view not only of Hull but of Hessle, because there is a great deal of movement between the two places. Although I have no quarrel with the figures produced by the hon. and gallant Member, mine are based upon the two employment exchanges taken together. They show much the same picture.

I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman for having been kind enough to give me notice of the points that he would raise. At the beginning of his speech he said that unemployment, which, in October, 1951, was 3,226, or 2.3 per cent., had increased in January, 1959, to 6,602, or 4.5 per cent. I am glad to say that the figure for March, which is the latest figure available, shows that there has been a decrease to 5,817. That, based upon the old figure of the insured population—on which he was basing his percentages—is exactly 4 per cent. Again, I do not want to score any party point, but, in fact, a later figure for the insured population in Hull has become available, which brings the percentage of unemployed slightly below 4 per cent.

The hon. and gallant Member referred to unemployment among dock workers. The point that he made in connection with Hull is familiar to us all. There are always some dock workers for whom work is not available, but neither this Government nor the Labour Government have ever considered them as being unemployed in the same sense as the other workers whom we are discussing, mainly because certain arrangements are made for their general employment. and also because they are not normally available to take other work. The figures for unemployment among dock workers at the recent peak, at the end of last November, was 684, or 15 per cent. I am glad to say that the March figures are quite good. On 7th March there were only 47, which is just over 1 per cent., and on 14th March there were 212, or 4.7 per cent.

I have already told the House that there was a considerable decline in unemployment between January and March. The largest industry in which there was a decline was the building industry, where the fall was from over 1,000 to 623. There have also been reductions in the Hull and Hessle area in agriculture, shipbuilding and ship-repairing, sea transport and distribution, and all those are welcome.

The hon. and gallant Member also talked about the difficulty in relation to boys and girls, especially those leaving school. I am aware that the so-called bulge in Hull is rather larger than the national average. I cannot check the hon. and gallant Member's figures, but I have no reason to doubt that his figures of 107 and 100, for school-leavers leaving this year and next year, respectively, are accurate. Last Christmas, in Hull nearly 1,000 left school, and in January 88 of those 1,000 were registered as unemployed. In February, 20 were so registered, and in March only five.

I am glad to say that during the three months of this year there has never been among the unemployed more than three of the boys or girls who left school last summer. Although the placing may have taken longer and the choice of employment has not this year been as wide as before, I think that the Youth Employment Service deserves to be congratulated, as I am sure the hon. and gallant Gentleman will agree, on having got so many of these boys and girls into employment.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman made certain suggestions and asked questions about what the Government are doing. May I say, first, to the hon. and gallant Member for Hull, North that the suggestions which he made seemed to be sensible. Although they are not matters for which I am responsible, I will undertake to bring them to the attention of, I think, the four Government Departments concerned, so that they may be given careful consideration.

The hon. and gallant Member for Hull, East asked what the Government were doing and he will know that they have taken general measures in the direction he suggested, including the stimulation of purchasing power and the ending of the credit squeeze. We hope that that will have the effect of stimulating a greater volume of economic activity. He will be well aware, as I am, of the economic difficulties caused by a circumstance out of the control of any Government, the falling off of trade abroad, which is bound to have grave effects on this country, and particularly on a great port like Hull, which is so dependent on foreign trade, ship-repairing and ship-building, and so on. But in the last few weeks there have been signs of a recovery—I cannot put it higher than that.

Certainly, the figures which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour was able to announce, revealing a reduction in the number of unemployed, were encour- aging. It is too early to make a careful analysis of how much extra economic activity that represents, but if there is an increase, I hope that Hull, with the rest of our great cities, may share in it. It would appear that Hull is sharing in that increase by the reduction in the figures beween January and March.

Obviously, the hon. and gallant Gentleman is most interested in the measures the Government have been taking to help difficult areas like Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire where there is a great shortage of manufacturing industry. He will be aware that over the years, under the Labour Government as well as this Government, there have been a number of investigations into the problems of Hull which resulted in the conclusion that it is most essential to get new manufacturing industry on to the north bank of the Humber.

I understand that in 1948 the then Labour Government considered scheduling the whole area as a Development Area, but eventually they decided against it. Since 1948, and under both Governments, the Board of Trade has brought the claims of Hull to the attention of industrialists contemplating expansion, and in many respects those claims are good.

I understand that there are a number of easily developable industrial sites which, I hope, will come into use. The hon. and gallant Gentleman suggested that nothing had happened under the provision of D.A.T.A.C. These are early days for that because, as he knows, Hull was added to the list only in January. I understand there has been an application for assistance under the Distribution of Industry Acts and I hope that as time goes on industry will be steered to Hull.

As the hon. and gallant Gentleman realises, and as I think he said, neither my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, who is sitting by me, nor any other person in this country, can pull rabbits out of a hat. The purpose of the Distribution of Industry Act was to reduce the difficulties of industrialists who are contemplating expanding their businesses into places where unemployment was high.

I understand that there has been quite a lot of development in Hull since 1945, although, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman made quite clear, not enough development. There have not only been new firms coming into the area, but quite a number of sizeable factory buildings and expansions. In the thirteen years since the war between 3 million and 4 million square feet of factory space have actually been completed. The best measure of the success which the Government and private industry, and anyone else who has been co-operating, have had in providing jobs in Hull is presumably shown by the numbers at work, as against those who are unemployed. As I have said, and as the hon. and gallant Gentleman said, there had been an increase of unemployment up to March since 1951, but there has been a recent decrease. The figure of increase was about 2,600.

I am glad to say that the numbers working have increased a good deal quicker than that. Over the whole of Hull the insured population in 1952 was 140,100 and the number of those at work was 136,000. That represents an unemployment figure of just over 4,000. In mid-1958, the insured population had increased to 148,700, an increase of about 8,600, and the number at work had increased to 143,800, an increase of 7,800. There has been an increase of employment since then. The net increase in those at work betwen 1952 and 1958 is about 6,800.

That is an important fact. Although the increase in employment is not sufficient and there has been grave unemployment, it is a measure of what the Government and other bodies, and private industrial development in the Hull area, have been doing over that period. It is, therefore, not true to say that there has not been an increase, in particular for those who live in Hull.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman made suggestions, apart from those made by my hon. Friend, that the Government should adopt in trying to solve the problems of Hull. With many of those suggestions I am not in great disagreement. He suggested that we should try to expand purchasing power. Although I have no knowledge of the situation, if the hon. and gallant Gentleman will wait for ten days he may get good news in that direction. As to the expansion of foreign trade with Iron Curtain countries, he will have heard the statement by the Prime Minister that that is precisely my right hon. Friend's objective. If my right hon. Friend is successful, then Hull, like a good many other towns in the country, will benefit.

Other suggestions were made by the hon. and gallant Member. Some of them are not within my responsibility, but with many of them I am not in disagreement. He suggested that a Cabinet Minister should visit Hull. I do not know whether or not that would be possible. I hesitate to let the hon. and gallant Gentleman know, because it might come as a bit of an anti-climax to him, but I was intending to visit Hull myself. I am not suggesting that I am a Cabinet Minister; far from it. The hon. and gallant Gentleman was suggesting a humbler job even than that which I have.

It might be a start if I went, and a Cabinet Minister could visit Hull later. I have been anxious for some time, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman knows, to visit the city and have a general discussion about its employment problems. I was hoping to do so at the beginning of this month but could not; but I hope to be able to do so early in May.

I can, therefore, assure both hon. and gallant Members that we are not in the least complacent about this matter. We are very much concerned at the Ministry of Labour about any growth in unemployment as there has been over the last few years, but we are delighted at the reduction that there has been in the last two months. We are confident that that reduction will continue and we draw the attention of the hon. and gallant Member for Hull, East not only to the numbers of unemployed, but to the number of those at work, which has increased very considerably during the last seven years.