HC Deb 07 December 1961 vol 650 cc1704-14

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

11.35 p.m.

Mr. John Diamond (Gloucester)

The anxiety of 4,000 families in Gloucester and the area of Gloucester constitutes a very considerable anxiety indeed, and the first thing I want to say, therefore, is how grateful I am to Mr. Speaker that it was found possible to make arrangements for the grievances of my constituents to be aired in this way on this occasion.

I am raising the matter of the closure of the Gloster Aircraft Company factory, and I would give a short indication, in the short time available, of the background of the matter. It is not a new factory. It was established in the First World War and it made many aeroplanes for the Air Force. It has made many famous aircraft. It made the aircraft which won the aerial Derby in 1921 and the aircraft which won the world speed record in 1922. It made the first jet fighter to take the air in 1941. It has made famous aeroplanes which are well-known to everybody—the Gladiator, the Meteor, the Javelin and others.

This factory is part of the Hawker Siddeley group, one of the two fixed wing groups which came into being as a result of a Government policy of February, 1960, reorganising the industry. Eighteen months later, in August, 1961, there was a merger. There is an associated minor factory which I do not specially mention because the major factory is the one which causes the greatest concern. The Gloster Aircraft Company amalgamated with Armstrong Whitworth of Coventry in order, as the management said at that time, to secure the jobs of the Gloster Aircraft Company. Three months later, in November, 1961, the announcement was made that this factory was to close within six months. That is the short and tragic history.

One can well imagine the hardship and anxiety that was caused by such an announcement, anxiety about uprooted families, service tenancies, families living in houses which they can occupy only so long as they continue to be employed by the company, problems of schooling, of leaving friends and relations, coping with hire-purchase instalments which have been reasonably undertaken on the basis of the fair pay and overtime work which has been available. One can imagine the cumulative effect of all these things on a city the size of Gloucester, and indeed on the neighbouring areas.

One immediately asks why has this tragedy arisen, why in the course of three months has what was thought to be prosperity turned out to be tragedy? The company gave a clear answer. The company says that it was due to the change of plans by the Ministry. The Ministry says—and it was said only as recently as Monday of this week, when the Minister of Aviation said: We must be quite plain about this. There has been no change in Government policy as announced by my predecessor in respect of the nature of Government support and so forth."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th December, 1961; Vol. 650, c. 907.] The company says—and I quote the company's announcement— There was positively no question of this"— that is the close-down— occurring in the foreseeable future when the merger was planned. That is the merger of three months ago. Who is right? I am not accusing anyone of lack of good faith, but if there is good faith on both sides, is it not absolutely clear that here was a tragic misunderstanding on the part of the company which resulted in this disaster? Is it not plain that, if the Government had only had a plan for the industry, a plan for these particular factories, and had communicated this plan and had made it plain to the management, this tragedy could have been completely avoided.

There are many other examples that I can give of the misunderstanding between the aircraft firms and the Government. The aircraft firms say that they were promised work if they would amalgamate. These "shotgun marriages" were achieved on the basis that only if they amalgamated would they get Government orders. They say that they have not had these orders and they feel badly let down. This has been expressed to me by all concerned.

The Government have said, and I think that I have quoted them sufficiently, that they have carried out their policy. They say that there has been no change in their plan at all. The Government say that this kind of closure, which has brought about this tragic situation in my constituency and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) and the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw), was absolutely inevitable as long ago as February, 1960, when these amalgamations were planned and it was plain to the Government that this situation would arise.

The industry is suffering a reduction in the labour force. The closures already announced account for 7,500 workers. The industry anticipates further reductions in the labour force. The Ministry of Aviation says that employment is increasing. There is a complete and calamitous muddle, as a result of which a tragedy of this kind is allowed to happen. If the managements had known what the Government's intentions were, they could have avoided a catastrophe of this kind.

The first complaint I make to the Government, and it is in the form of a suggestion too, is to ask why a clear, long-term plan could not be made for this industry and fully and carefully explained so that there is no possibility of misunderstanding. What could be more appropriate for an industry of this kind, when three-quarters of the work stems from the Government, than that they should participate in a plan and make it fully known and that a longterm plan should be made when we all know that a modern aircraft requires a period of gestation which is something nearly elephantine?

The second complaint that I make against the Government is of the plain lack of foresight which is clearly attributable to the lack of sympathy which the Minister of Aviation has shown towards the plight of these men and women who are facing the sack. He has said that this is "a commercial decision" which he is not prepared to influence. He has said that it is "not a disaster." He has said that these are "painful decisions which have to be taken." I agree that the Minister says, and we accept it, that he is now in touch with his colleagues in the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Labour with a view to finding other jobs for the men or, alternatively, a new tenant for the factory. It is clear from the answers he has given that it was not until this tragedy occurred that there was any attempt to make these arrangements.

If only the Government had felt for the men and their families and their needs, they would have taken the simple administrative action of providing in advance that there should be careful consultations with these other Government Departments so that by the time a man was no longer needed, even if the factory had to close down, there could be another job to which he would go. It is too late, unfortunately for the anxiety to be avoided. That has already been caused and these constituents of mine and those of other hon. Members, will face a most uneasy and unhappy Christmas, waiting for the axe. In these circumstances I appeal, with all the more urgency, to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation to use his best endeavours to ameliorate conditions as far as he can in the way I suggest.

The hon. Gentleman says, and I agree, that there is no likelihood of longterm unemployment in this area. Gloucester is well situated geographically for transport facilities by water, road, rail and air. It is often called the crossroads of Great Britain. It has amenities such as to be attractive to all employers of labour. There is the beauty of the Cotswolds also. All these things militate towards the likelihood of further jobs, or other employment, at this factory being available in the not impossibly distant future.

That being so, I suggest that there is no reason why the Minister should not help these constituents of mine in these particular ways. I ask him to use his full efforts with his colleagues of the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Labour to see that a new occupier of the factory is found as quickly as possible, and that local offices are set up, if necessary, in the factory for the employees so that they can go from one job to another. He should also give wise guidance to the employers. They are not bad employers, but they have been unable to understand all the functions they have to perform, because of lack of planning and information from the Government. The Government could invite the firm to delay the notices of redundancy and the closing of the factory, and should lean over backwards to help the men, so that by the time the factory is closed they will have found jobs elsewhere, or a new employer will have taken over.

That course of action would enable the Government to put their conscience at rest after their lack of planning and sympathy and foresight, and enable the firm in question to show its appreciation of these men and women who have worked in the factory for many years.

11.47 p.m.

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)

I want briefly to underline the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Diamond) for assistance to be given by the Government along the lines he suggested. I have an additional problem, for in the Forest of Dean there has been a major employment problem arising out of the closure of the pits. When I tried to get the Government to schedule the Forest of Dean under the Local Employment Act, I was told that one of the reasons why this could not be done was because of employment prospects in the vicinity—and that reference was, of course, to Gloucester.

This new situation means that many of my constituents who have been travelling to Gloucester will now be unemployed. We have also had the closure of two factories in my area within the last six months, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find employment. I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to take seriously this problem as it affects Gloucester and my constituency.

11.48 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

In considering this matter, will my hon. Friend bear in mind the extreme importance of keeping together the very highly skilled staff, especially on the drawing side, of this firm? If we disperse these teams, they cannot be readily re-assembled and that would be a very great loss to the country.

11.49 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation (Mr. C. M. Woodhouse)

I am sure hon. Members will allow me to say that there is no monopoly of concern on one side of the House—the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) has spoken shows it—at the closing of this famous factory, whose history the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Diamond) so movingly recited—a factory which has become a household word with the proud memories of historic aircraft to which he has alluded.

I repudiate most emphatically on my right hon. Friend's behalf any charge of lack of sympathy in this matter. Quite apart from sentimental concern at this loss of an historic unit, we all naturally feel disquiet at the thought of redundancy. Redundancy is an ugly word for an ugly thing, because it simply means men without jobs, even if it is only temporary.

I have the best of possible reasons for disliking that word—personal experience. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not accuse me of making a party point when I say that my experience was due to a decision of policy taken by the Labour Government about fifteen years ago, a decision which I recognise was entirely right in the national interest, hateful though it was to me. Some hon. Members may feel that I am redundant even now, and I would not dispute it, but I should like to finish my speech before I become redundant.

For the reasons that I have given, I share wholeheartedly the feelings expressed tonight. They are easy to understand, and it is impossible not to share personal feelings about individual hardship which arises in this way. What is not so easy, but just as necessary, is to recognise that in the long run the individual interest, including that of those immediately affected, cannot be separated from the national interest. The national interest is that we should have a vigorous and prosperous economy, and a vigorous and prosperous economy is one in which, inevitably, from time to time there is some transitional redundancy—another ugly expression, but the hon. Gentleman will know what I mean—as new industries take shape and new jobs are created and new factories take the place of old ones.

The aircraft industry is not a declining industry. This is a point to which I shall return. It is an expanding industry. But it is possible for a growing industry to be expanding in one area and expanding overall, and nevertheless to be contracting at the margin in certain sectors in a process of reorganisation and rationalisation such as has been in progress in the aircraft industry since the new policy was announced in February, 1960, by my right hon. Friend's predecessor. That has been the effect on the industry of the so-called Sandys policy.

If the industry is to prosper in times which are challenging and competitive, it must reorganise itself. It has to reorganise itself into fewer and larger units, and the closure of a few—and it is a very few—factories is part of that process.

How was it decided where the contraction should take place? My right hon. Friend's predecessor pointed out in his statement in February last that there was bound to be a sharp reduction in the production of military aircraft. It was only to be expected that contraction, when it took place, would take place in peripheral factories, whether one uses that word in the geographical sense or in the sense of the nature of the work they were doing. We did not say from the beginning that this particular closure was inevitable. We said that some contraction was necessary to the efficiency of the industry.

There was no automatic chain of cause and effect which was bound to lead to this closure and to no other, but obviously a factory which was primarily concerned with producing military aircraft was more likely to be vulnerable than the others, especially when the aircraft it was producing were coming to the end of their production lives.

It has been clear for some months at any rate—I would not like to say exactly how long—that the factory near Gloucester had an excess capacity as regards producing aircraft. This was clear from the fact that, apart from work on producing the Javelin, and some contracts for other aircraft firms, it was engaged in totally unrelated types of production such as slot machines, harvesting machines, fire engines, and some other types of equipment. This also shows that it was not suffering from under capacity in producing aircraft.

Nevertheless, even last summer it was judged that the threat was not immedate. This was not a judgment by the Ministry; it was a judgment of the group. At the time of the amalgamation to which the hon. Member referred there was still, in the eyes of the HawkerSiddeley Group, grounds for an optimistic view of the future. I emphasise that it was in the Group's eyes, because the decision was one that had to rest with the group; the Government could not and would not want to take a decision for them. The Government could only make sure that the group, in making up its mind what it was going to do, knew what were the prospects of Government orders and, as the hon. Member pointed out, this is a matter of great importance, because Government orders account for—here I thought he slightly exaggerated the figure—well over 50 per cent. of the work of the group as a whole.

This obligation the Government did discharge, and I must unequivocally repudiate any suggestion that we left the group in the dark about future prospects for Government orders. I do not say that the Government had no obligation beyond that; I only say, first, that that obligation was met and discharged and, secondly, that the obligation beyond that cannot be regarded as an unlimited one. Nevertheless, even beyond the obligation to make sure that the group took its decision in full knowledge of the facts, the Government took action, and in good time, to set in motion the process of easing the transition—for a transition had to come. The process started even before there was any certainty—even a reasonable likelihood—of a closure at Gloucester.

My right hon. Friend has told the House before now—and we have re- peated this in many contexts—that we are and have been in the closest touch with the Ministry of Labour and the Board of Trade on problems arising from changes in the size or shape of the industry, both generally and in specific cases. The Board of Trade takes into account information we are able to give them—and I shall be more specific about that in a moment—in suggesting to other firms where it is possible for them to recruit labour and where there are likely to be premises available for opening new factories. The Ministry of Labour, when forewarned—and it was in this case—is in a position to make arrangements for special registration of workers for other employment before they are discharged from their present places of work.

I am not talking here merely of an empty formality. This is not simply Whitehall jargon. I wanted to make sure that this was not so, because much of this happened before I came into the Ministry. I took care to go through the files relating to the Gloucester aircraft factory to satisfy myself on this point, and I noted that from the first moment when the mere outline of a shadow began to fall over the factory—the mere hint of these troubles ahead—even though it was still many months ahead, or perhaps even a year ahead, my Ministry got into touch within three days—I have checked the dates—with the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Labour, stating the problem, which was purely hypothetical at this stage, and which there was no reason to foresee arising within nine months or even twelve months. Indeed, it still will not become imminent until, we estimate, the middle of next year.

Within two or three weeks we had in reply very full, constructive letters from the other Ministries concerned analysing in great detail the possibilities of replacement and re-employment—again in a purely hypothetical situation which was still many months away, even if it came at all.

My hon. Friend knows—I am sorry, I apologise for calling him my hon. Friend; but in such a case as this I think that, at heart, we all feel the same—that there are other possibilities of employment in the area. We are talking in statistical terms, which always sound callous, but the fact is that the level of unemployment in the area is well below the national average and is about 1 per cent. As a matter of fact the immediate danger is not unemployment. It is that now it is known that the blow is coming people will move out very quickly indeed and throw the run-down out of phase. Nobody can blame them for doing so, but the fact that they are doing it shows that there are other jobs available in the neighbourhood.

Mr. Loughlin

There are not 4,000 vacancies, and there are 4,000 people involved here.

Mr. Woodhouse

There are not at the moment, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to complete this part of my argument. I suggest that the situation is far from being desperate. There are a number of existing factories in the area which hon. Gentlemen probably know better than I do. There are a number of new applications for industrial development certificates, as no doubt the hon. Gentleman knows. But what he may not know, and what I am glad to be able to tell him, is that there have been new approaches to the Hawker-Siddeley Group which is, of course, the owner of the factory from prospective new tenants. For obvious reasons the hon. Gentleman will not expect me to give details, but that is the fact. I might add, although I think it hardly necessary in view of what I have said about our dealings with other Ministries, that we shall continue to use our best endeavours, as we are doing now to ensure that this transition is made as smoothly as possible.

Mr. Diamond

If what I might call the Diamond plan were adopted there would be no question of a phased rundown. These men would not be running away and work would be found for them.

Mr. Woodhouse

That is a perfectly valid point in theory, but it is extremely difficult to move a new industry into a factory which is not vacated by the previous industry or even to let it to a new tenant when it is still not known at what dates the factory will be available.

I do not think there would be any justification for the Government to undertake a kind of emergency rescue operation. This is not a desperate situation. Gloucester is not a development district. It would be quite wrong, for instance, for the Government to place unwanted orders for aircraft merely to keep it going, or intervene to coerce the industry into spreading work more thinly over the existing factories which would mean producing aircraft uneconomically. That would be a hopeless endeavour in the present world situation when we live by exporting aircraft abroad.

I hope that this debate will not lead to people fearing that things are desperate in the Gloucester area or that the aircraft industry is in a critical situation. Prospects for the aircraft industry including the Hawker-Siddeley Group are exceedingly good, and I should like to give three indications of how good they are. The number employed in the industry has been going up steadily by a great deal more than the possible redundancy than may be caused in the Gloucester area. There are over 300,000 against about 280,000 18 months ago. Exports are up this year by 20 million, from £140 million to £160 million. Government orders are substantially higher now than they were a year ago by roughly 25 per cent. All these things show that it is a healthy industry and one in which the Government do not wish to interfere more than necessary to ensure that the national interest is safeguarded, and that if undue hardship is caused in particular cases it is mitigated to the best of our ability.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Twelve o'clock.