HC Deb 23 November 1960 vol 630 cc1269-78

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

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Goronwy Roberts (Caernarvon)

I rise to draw once more the attention of the House and of the Ministers concerned to the continued high rate of unemployment in the County of Caernarvon. The latest figures available are for 10th October. They show that on that day 5.3 per cent. of the insured population of the county were without work. The November figures should now be available, and I hope that the Minister will quote them when he replies to the debate.

I am quite certain that these figures already show a substantial increase and one which will continue with the onset of winter. These figures mean that some 1,500 families in Caernarvonshire face yet another Christmas on the dole and on National Assistance. The percentage of unemployed in the county is four times the average for the whole of Britain, and but for considerable emigration, which has proceeded for many years and which is draining our population of its youngest and most energetic elements, the figure would be far higher. During the past 20 years, in fact, our population has barely risen at all, the natural increase being entirely offset by emigration.

Another factor is the situation which disguises the full import of the statistics is the number of pupils who stay on after reaching school-leaving age in our secondary schools, many of them after having done very well in the General Certificate examination. They stay on simply because there is nothing else for them to do—no jobs for them if they leave school. At one grammar school—an excellent school which I know very well—out of a register of about 460 pupils no fewer than 103 are penned up in the sixth form. The normal sixth form intake for a school of that size would be about 20, but it has over 100 pupils, because so many of these boys have nothing to go to once they leave school.

To understand the true nature of our problem we should recognise that the County of Caernarvon is, in reality, two distinct regions—two ridings, one might say—the area north and east of the City of Bangor and the area to the south and west of that city. It is in the southern part of the county—the Snowdonian massif and the Lleyn Peninsula—that the real problem lies. It is there, in the small, picturesque towns of Caernarvon, Pwllheli and Portmadoc, and in the rural districts of Gwyrfai and Lleyn that 62 per cent. of this chronic unemployment is concentrated. That is to say, it is in the central and southern part of the county that we find two-thirds of this unemployment, and it is for that area and the people living there that I speak primarily tonight.

What is the reason for this high and persistent unemployment? It is that for generations—indeed, for centuries—this part of Caernarvonshire has depended economically on two great industries which, for different reasons, have provided fewer and fewer jobs over the past 20 years or so. I refer, first, to agriculture, in which automation has meant that a farm which only 20 years ago employed two, three or four workers can now be run entirely by the members of the family. That is very widespread in our part of Wales, and it is a good thing from many points of view. Nevertheless, it means that there are fewer jobs on the farms for our young people.

Secondly, there is the quarrying of slate and granite. There technical difficulties and the competition of cheaper though inferior materials have caused a serious decline in the employment provided by these great opencast workshops.

Even in 1938—not a particularly good year—the quarries of Caernarvonshire and Merioneth employed about 9,000 men; today the number is barely 3,000. As the old industries have declined very few new ones have come to the rescue. That is the crux of the problem—the decline of the old and the reluctance of the new industries to come into the area. The result is this persistently high level of unemployment, and the weakening of the cultural and social life of some of the finest communities in the country.

It is clear, therefore, that this area presents a special case meriting special attention. Indeed, when I raised the matter recently at Question Time, the President of the Board of Trade agreed with that view, for he said, The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that this is a special problem."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th November, 1960; Vol. 629, c. 1202.] He did not, however, propose any special measures to tackle what he agreed was a special problem, beyond the Local Employment Act, 1960, which he seemed to think would be enough to cope with the situation. But is it? How far is this Act helping south Caernarvonshire, an area which it is prescriptively intended to assist? Or, more precisely, how far does the Board of Trade Advisory Committee, B.O.T.A.C., which administers the Act, realise that, in the words of the President of the Board of Trade, this is a "special problem"?

In answer to another Question on 15th November, the Parliamentary Secretary said that six applications for assistance under the Act had so far been received from Caernarvonshire, adding that of these, one had already been rejected—and I rather think that a second has since been rejected, too—and that none had so far been successful. That is not a very promising start for an Act which was supposed to come to the aid of precisely this kind of difficult area on the periphery of our territory and our economy.

There is, in fact, very considerable uncertainty about the criteria which B.O.T.A.C. applies to these applications. No reason for rejection is given, even privately, and there is no unanimity among Government spokesmen as to the tests which applications must satisfy. I have here a letter from an industrialist who wishes to expand in the Caernarvon district, and this is what he writes: We heard last week that our appeal to B.O.T.A.C. has been rejected. It would seem that the reported statement of Lord Brecon that 'the criterion was whether they provided employment' is his opinion and not that of the Board of Trade. We are now in the unhappy position of refusing orders from builders' merchants". That is the case of an existing industrialist who put up what I think was an excellent application for assistance in order to develop and to take on more men in a very hard-hit valley.

Let us take another case, of an industrialist who wants to enter the area and to start something new, a managing director who has had years of experience in the London area and who wishes to start a new industry in the county. He has an excellent team of workers ready, a certain amount of capital and an assurance that certain empty buildings are available where he can make a start. He has been told that unless he can now produce a full order book he cannot be assisted. When one hears of cases like this—and other hon. Members could produce other and very similar examples—one wonders whether B.O.T.A.C. and the Government are in earnest about applying the 1960 Act to help places like Caernarvonshire.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Niall Macpherson)

Can the hon. Member say who told this industrialist that he must produce a full order book?

Mr. Roberts

Persons who interviewed him when he had put forward his first statement of application.

I wish now to put forward some suggestions for the improvement of this situation. They are based on the knowledge and experience of those who know the area best—local authorities, trade union leaders, chambers of trade, employers and others. First, we strongly urge the construction of an advance factory in the Pwllheli-Portmadoc district, which the Minister for Welsh Affairs has often visited and knows well.

I particularly want to press that suggestion on both Ministers as it is supported by expert opinion as the only effective way to break the deadlock in the district, a deadlock which may continue unless this kind of action, which has proved successful elsewhere in North-West Wales, is taken. Sites are available, so is labour in varying grades of skill and, what is just as important, an abundance of clean water, which modern industry so often needs.

Last year, an advance factory, one of three for the entire kingdom, was sanctioned in Holyhead as part of an experiment, so we were told by the then President of the Board of Trade, which would demonstrate whether or not vacant premises in difficult areas are an attraction to industrialists."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th March, 1959; Vol. 601, c. 56.] That question has been answered. That experiment has proved conclusively successful, because the Holyhead factory was snapped up by an excellent firm almost before construction began. We are convinced that exactly the same result would be obtained if an advance factory were sanctioned for Pwllheli.

The two cases, the two districts and the two problems are very similar. I beg the Minister and his colleagues to consider this suggestion, to consult the local authorities, which are themselves in touch with industrialists who are interested in the county, and to consult also trade union leaders, who have investigated the position in this part of the county and who have themselves advanced this as a proposed solution. The Minister will, I think, find that informed opinion is unanimous on the proposal. This is precisely the kind of area where an advance factory is the answer, or a substantial part of the answer.

The second suggestion is this. We feel that Ministers should make a fresh review of the slate industry, its needs and potential, or, at least, go into conference with leaders from both sides of the industry. This industry is far from dead, although it is greatly reduced. It has had ruthlessly to rationalise itself over the past 25 years or so, but it is now led by keen, young, vigorous minds who are looking to the future. They are eager to develop, they are experimenting with new techniques and machinery and new uses for slate, both artistic and utilitarian, and they are developing an aggressive marketing campaign. They have even begun exporting slate—I think for the first time since before the war. In all, there is here a very gallant attempt to bring an old and honoured industry into line with modern requirements; but they need help, encouragement and advice.

I sometimes wonder, how much do Ministers know of this industry, the slate industry, and its problems and its possibilities? They know far too little, I fear. I want to invite them now, to invite the the President of the Board of Trade—I know that the Minister for Welsh Affairs has already visited the area more than once—and the other Ministers at the Board of Trade to go to Caernarvon, and to take a good look at the quarries there—they are worth looking at, those gray, gaunt quarries, cut out of the Caernarvon range—and to meet the leaders of these fine men who work there, and to investigate the possibilities of giving this old industry new assistance to face the modern period.

I understand that assistance of this sort has been rendered to the slate industry in Scotland. Why has it not been done for the Welsh industry? I hope that when Ministers do go to Caernarvon they will explain to the Welsh slate quarriers why, although we have a Minister for Welsh Affairs and the Scots have only a Secretary of State, there has been this discrimination.

What I have said about the slate industry is also true of the granite industry, the great granite quarries of Penmaenmawr and Trevor. I think that a review is required in relation to the problems of that section of the quarrying industry also.

Thirdly, we feel that there is scope for afforestation in the county, particularly in the Lleyn Peninsula, where suitable land and labour are available for the purpose and where new plantations might serve to help arable farming, providing badly needed shelter. Very few acres have been planted in this part of the county by the Forestry Commission, and we cannot understand why this is so. Perhaps the Minister will tell us if the Commission has any plans for this in the future in south Caernarvon.

Fourthly, our county council wishes the Minister to consider the establishment of a nuclear research station related to the atomic power station in Trawsfynydd.

There are other points I should have liked to raise, but I think it would be well to give the Minister a chance to deal with the points I have actually made. I will close by saying that if he has any hard information he can give us, for instance, about some of the promising signs of advance in the county, the proposal to set up a big new factory in Caernarvon district, the possibilities of expansion in Penygroes, the possibilities of utilising the former Air Ministry premises in Llanberis, we would welcome the information. If, more than that, he is able to give to this hard-pressed county, one which has sustained a very high level of unemployment for far too long a period, aid and assistance, so that our young people in particular are able to find livelihood and sustenance in their own county, he will be doing something more than contributing to its economic rehabilitation: he will also be assisting in the preservation of a way of life which we feel—and others agree—is well worth preserving.

11.5 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Niall Macpherson)

I should like to thank the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. G. Roberts) for the courtesy with which he has raised this question. It is a pleasure to listen to his Welsh voice. This being the first occasion on which I have had to deal with Welsh affairs, I should like to say how pleased I am to have tonight the support of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Welsh Affairs and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, both of whom are so vitally interested and do so much for Wales.

I should like to thank the hon. Member right away for his invitation to visit Caernarvonshire, which I shall have the greatest pleasure in accepting. I should be happy to see not only the quarries which he suggested I should see but also other problems in his county and not only in his constituency. First, the hon. Member asked me about the current figures of unemployment. The November figure for Caernarvonshire is 6.1 per cent. as against 7.6 per cent. last year. Normally one has to expect some seasonal increase at this time of year and there has been an increase, as the hon. Member expected, of 0.8 per cent. since last month's count. This represents 276 on the roll.

The annual average is 5.6 per cent. As the hon. Member rightly said, this figure masks a considerable difference between different parts of the county. The north-east, relatively near the big markets of Merseyside and not I think in the hon. Member's constituency but in that of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, has an annual average of 3.2 per cent. while the south has an annual average of 5.5 per cent. and the north-west an annual average of no less than 7 per cent.—that, of course, is a serious figure, but it represents a considerable improvement.

If I may say so, I thought that the hon. Member was a little too gloomy about the position of youth. The youth employment officer for Caernarvonshire said the other day, I am informed, that the prospects for young people in the county are better now than they have been for many years. That, at least, is cheerful. As for the seasonal aspect, the area which the hon. Member represents is one of great beauty and it therefore attracts tourists. Inevitably it attracts them more in the summer months. Hence the area is liable to suffer from seasonal unemployment. Nevertheless, I am sure that the hon. Member would agree that it would be a great mistake not to do everything possible to make the most of the tourist trade.

I agree with the hon. Member's essential analysis of the problem of Caernarvonshire, and of course it is not an unusual one. It is that of an area with one dominant industry, apart from agriculture, and that industry has been declining over the years. I am told that the slate industry once employed as many as 16,000 and the hon. Member mentioned 9,000 employed before the war. Now there are 2,700 employed. It is not that the industry is turning away labour, I understand. In some cases firms have difficulty in getting the labour they need because of the alternative employment offered, for example, at the hydro-electric and nuclear power station schemes.

The hon. Member suggests a review of the whole industry. I thought that he was a little unfair in suggesting that Ministers do not know about this industry or have not shown sufficient interest in it. My right hon. Friend assures me that both he and the Minister of State have been in touch with the industry and that there have been conferences.

I was glad to hear from the hon. Member, and it rather confirmed information that I have received, that there is a new outlook in the industry. There is good reason to hope that the present labour force will remain roughly at its present level and might even rise. There has even been some tendency to export this year—to Trinidad and Canada. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government has tried to help the industry by encouraging local authorities to use slates on at least a proportion of their houses, and I believe that the authorities in Caernarvonshire are doing so. The Minister has said that the extra cost due to the use of slate will not be a reason for withholding loan sanction.

The hon. Member also mentioned the granite industry. I hesitate to try to pronounce these names, but I believe that Penmaenmawr—

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. G. Roberts

That effort deserves an Alpha.

Mr. Macpherson

—I am obliged—I believe that Penmaenmawr is flourishing. I wish that I could say that the prospects at Trevor are as good. This also is an industry in which my right hon. Friend is taking a particular interest.

The hon. Member also mentioned, in passing, assistance being given to slate quarries in Scotland. I am not certain where he gets this information from. I am sorry to say that the main slate quarry in Scotland is completely derelict and closed down. The only one I know of is a small one on an island which, as far as I know, is not getting any assistance.

I agree that what Caernarvonshire needs is new industry. That, of course, is exactly what the Government have been trying to provide. But it is not just new industry but new industry with a good prospect of giving employment on a growing scale for a long time to come that is needed. The county has already attracted some, and the Board of Trade is trying its best to steer such industry there.

The Board of Trade has suggested Caernarvonshire to 43 firms since January last, and 24 of them have visited the county to inspect sites and premises. Some of these firms, and some firms already established in the area, have made application for Board of Trade Advisory Committee assistance—B.O.T.A.C. assistance.

The hon. Member was quite right when he quoted the Minister of State as saying that the purpose of the Local Employment Act was to promote employment. Indeed, that is in the Preamble to the Act. But it would be of no service to his constituency if encouragement and assistance were given to firms which, in a few years or few months, had to close down or lay off their employees. Nor would it be right to give Exchequer loans, the taxpayer's money, to firms with little prospect of paying them back. For both these reasons, it is essential that applications should be most carefully scrutinised by B.O.T.A.C.

I should add, in passing, that it is not always B.O.T.A.C. that refuses assistance. It is sometimes the applicant who refuses assistance which B.O.T.A.C. offers. I was a little puzzled by the hon. Member's reference to a full order book, and I wonder whether what his possible constituents had in mind was the standard question which I believe is put to all applicants, "What do you estimate your trading prospects to be for the first three years?" The reason for that question is to judge whether and how soon the firm will be able to service the loan for which it is probably applying.

As I told the hon. Member the other day, five applications are before B.O.T.A.C. at present. He thought that one had already been refused. If that is so, I am not, aware of it. These applications are being dealt with as quickly as possible.

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

Adjourned at fourteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.