HC Deb 13 July 1961 vol 644 cc739-48

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

11.11 p.m.

Mr. John Brewis (Galloway)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the question of unemployment in Stranraer, which is causing great bitterness and bewilderment among my constituents.

From the end of the war until 1957 Stranraer was a prosperous place and the unemployment figures continued to be approximately 2 per cent. in summer and perhaps as much as 4 per cent. in winter, which is about the definition of full employment, given by the right hon.

Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, of 3 per cent. overall. At present the unemployment figures in Stranraer are 6.9 per cent. in summer and 7.9 per cent. in winter. The figures show a movement contrary to the figures for the rest of Scotland which have gone down from 5.4 per cent. to 2.8 per cent.

The depression which has come to Stranraer is caused entirely by lack of co-ordination among Government Departments in the closing of their establishments in the neighbourhood. The seaplane base at Wig Bay was closed by the Air Ministry five years ago. Seaplanes are now obsolete for Air Force purposes, and it is no part of my argument to say that the Ministry must keep the base open even though there is no use for it. On the other hand, so far as I can see, no effort was made to find an alternative use for the installations there. They were left to rot away or to be ransacked until 1960 when there was a disposal sale and a ludicrously small sum was raised for these very important installations.

At one time a good deal of interest was taken in the place by a firm which wished to can meat there, but when, as a newly elected Member of Parliament, I went to the Air Ministry about it I was told that it was impossible to use the depot for such a purpose. Because of the Crichel Down decision the site would have to return to the previous owner as soon as its use was no longer required.

I turn secondly to the great military port of Cairnryan, which was closed down by the War Office in 1959 when 300 men lost their jobs. Anyone who has seen the immense possibilities of Cairnryan would be very distressed at this decision. It cost more than £4 million to build at 1941 prices. It is a deep-water port and has a throughput of many thousands of tons of goods a day. It is connected by railway with England and also with the central area of Scotland. It is 400 miles nearer the ports of the American Atlantic seaboard than is London. I feel sure that with a little imagination a great new commercial port could have been created there. It is notorious that delays in the docks at Glasgow and Liverpool are very great. A great new commercial port could have been established, but the War Office put the port out to tender and eventually it was knocked down to the highest bidder, a comparatively small firm of ship breakers in Portsmouth.

At various times such firms as Fisons, with their fertiliser interests, and Thos. W. Ward, a great ship-breaking firm of Sheffield, showed great interest, but the port was knocked down to the highest bidder, the small firm of ship breakers in Portsmouth. Since then it has been quite derelict and no work has been brought to the place. This is at a time when ships at Inverkeithing and Faslane are waiting their turn to be broken up. It is announced in the papers today that five aircraft carriers are to be scrapped. I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to use the entire influence of his Department to see that at least one of these ships comes to Messrs. Pounds at Cairnryan. The present practice is that these ships are handed over to the British Iron and Steel Corporation as salvage. While I cannot enter into this in tonight's debate, this will not result in the Government getting a competitive tender. They will be relet to Inverkeithing and Faslane.

Lastly, I come to the proposal of the Ministry of Aviation to close its base at West Freugh, which is a large establishment employing 300 men. It is threatened with closure at a time when unemployment at Stranraer is about 7 per cent. In the last few years at least £1 million has been spent on West Freugh in lengthening the runway and turning it into a thoroughly modern and very efficient station. It has hangars, workshops, a cinema, tennis courts and houses and quarters of the most up-to-date kind. This is at a time when we hear so much about poor Service accommodation at other stations. It is an open secret that the Ministry has set up a committee to look into the question of how work at West Freugh can be transferred to Boscombe Down in England and Aberporth in Wales.

In 1955 in France, where the same problems of depopulation and unemployment existed, the Government appointed the Surlaut Committee to inquire into what military and scientific establishments could be moved away from the big urban centres and transferred to the Provinces. When the Committee reported in 1957 the list of such establishments was very long. Indeed, the French School of Telecommunications was moved out of Paris to a disused aerodrome in Brittany where immediately 500 men were employed, which considerably helped the local situation, and following that several small electronic firms were attracted to the area by the fact that there were skilled men available for their sort of work. Why cannot we do something like that in this country? For example, I would have a considerable wager that the Committee set up by the Ministry of Aviation does not include in its terms of reference any inquiry into some system by which the Boscombe Down research station could be transferred to West Freugh. It always seems to be the other way round.

If West Freugh is closed, unemployment in Stranraer will be about 11 per cent. in the summer and as much as 13 per cent. in the winter. These are incredible figures compared with the figures of unemployment in the rest of the United Kingdom and in particular with those in England.

I am very glad that in the last few days it has been announced that a meat canning company intends to set up a small factory at Stranraer, but I must tell my hon. Friend that this small factory, employing perhaps fifty men, would be no substitute whatever for the closing of West Freugh.

Can my hon. Friend give any reassurance about whether Dr. Beeching has his eye on closing the railways in the area? There are rumours of closures here, too, and the railways employ 400 men in Galloway. if anything of that sort happened it would be a catastrophe and we should have a haemorrhage of depopulation draining away the entire lifeblood of the district.

What is to be done? First, the Board of Trade has the powers under the Local Employment Act, and I feel that it should use them very much more vigorously to bring Stranraer to the notice of industrialists who wish to expand. As far as I am aware, during the years in which Stranraer has been a scheduled area only one industrialist has been sent to look at the place by the Board of Trade.

Secondly, my hon. Friend should see that a substantial advance factory is built on the new industrial site at Stranraer—and a factory which is financed by the Government. It is very easy to say, "Let the Town Council of Stranraer do it," but for one thing the council has not the power at the moment and, secondly, it is entirely due to the unco-ordinated acts of Government Departments that this once-prosperous area has this high rate of unemployment, and it is up to the Government to do something about it.

Thirdly, I feel that there ought to be far better co-operation between Government Departments in order that one Department, such as the Ministry of Aviation, knows what the War Office is doing at another establishment in the area. It is not very much good one Government Department closing down an establishment in order to make an economy of some quite small sum if it throws 300 men on the dole or National Assistance at a far greater expense to some other Ministry.

Fourthly, the Board of Trade should work much more through local associations, such as the Stranraer Development Association and the Dumfries and Galloway Development Association. At present, these local associations have no funds and no information. So, in a sense, they are working in the dark, because they do not know what industries are looking for a site and, if they did find that out, they have no way of encouraging them. I will not enter into ways in which it could be done, but one way would be to allow them to take subscriptions, with interest guaranteed by the Government at, say, 5 per cent.

Fifthly, although the Local Employment Act has done splendid work in reducing unemployment in industrial areas, in highland areas like mid-Wales and Galloway where there is depopulation it is less successful. For example, it does not provide for any other areas except development districts. We must have a different category of area, which in other countries has been called a critical area, where bigger subsidies can be given, such as is done in Italy under the Vannoni Plan, although Italy is a much poorer country than ours. These subsidies might include help towards transport costs. After all, giving a subsidy would not hurt the railways very much, because the carriage of the goods would not take place if the subsidy was not given. Unless we look into this very carefully indeed, we shall find areas of the country such as the Highlands becoming deserts of depopulation.

11.27 p.m.

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

In the few minutes remaining to me, I want to say, first, that my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway (Mr. Brewis) has brought to the Floor of the House tonight a problem which I know he has had very much in his mind for a long time, namely, the growth of unemployment at Stranraer. He has discussed this problem very frequently with my right hon. Friend and myself. Indeed, long before I went to the Board of Trade he was discussing it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and myself at the Scottish Office. These are not the only Government Departments with which he has been in constant touch ever since he became a Member of Parliament. If the problem has so far defied a solution, it is certainly no fault of my hon. Friend's. So far as I know, he has left nothing undone which he should have done or even might have done.

In the efforts he has made, he has undoubtedly had the co-operation of the Stranraer Town Council and the efforts of independent associations such as the Dumfries and Galloway Development Association. However, it is only right to recognise the inherent difficulty of the problem. My hon. Friend did not really do justice to this. Since the Local Employment Act came into force on 1st April, 1961, we have not received a single application for loan under the Act. The reason is simply this. This is a place which, partly because of its handicaps from the point of view of peacetime development, assumed very considerable importance in time of war. It has a remarkable harbour, as my hon. Friend said. Has it the immense possibilies that he said it has? Taken by itself, it undoubtedly has a very fine roadstead. Its special importance lies in the fact that it is a unications link between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But it has no natural resources, such as mineral wealth, for the port to serve. It has no hinterland of industry. It is in agricultural country, but it has not a great wealth of rich agricultural land carrying a large population which could use the port. It is for that very reason that it was useful to the Air Force and to the Royal Naval Air Service during the war, just as the Shetlands were useful, and in the period of the cold war it continued to be used.

My hon. Friend said that the growth of unemployment had been caused entirely by lack of co-ordination between Government Departments. I can assure him that there has been no lack of coordination whatsoever. For example, at the time when the future of Cairnryan was being considered all the Departments interested in the subject were brought in to examine the situation, including the strategic aspects. There was absolutely no lack of co-ordination. The difficulty has lain purely in the geographical situation of Stranraer.

As far as Cairnryan is concerned, when the War Office decided to put it out to tender, tenders were received from nine firms. Seven of the firms were interviews separately by the War Office. Some firms acknowledged that they were tendering on the basis of the break-up value only, since they were uncertain what use they could make of the port. None of them offered such good employment prospects as the successful tenderer to whom the port was sold.

To the best of our knowledge, it seems clear that the successful tenderer who bought Cairnryan did so in order to use it as a port, and, secondly, with the idea of obtaining the "Vanguard" and breaking it up there. He was not successful in obtaining the "Vanguard", and, as my hon. Friend says, the port so far has not been used for ship-breaking.

There are undoubtedly handicaps as far as the use of Cairnryan for ship-breaking services is concerned, because the cost of transporting the scrap would be higher than from other shipbreaking ports. My hon. Friend says that ships are waiting to be broken up elsewhere at the present time. I cannot confirm that.

My hon. Friend asked if I would use my influence at the Board of Trade to see that one of the aircraft carriers is allotted to this firm. He said that ships were being handed over to B.I.S.C. In fact, of course, on the 'last occasion tenders were invited for the scrapping of Her Majesty's ships. I understand that no decision has yet been reached about how or when the ships to which he referred will be sold. I shall bring my hon. Friend's views to the notice of my hon. Friend the Civil Lord.

I may say that the successful tenderer for Cairnryan Port was invited to discuss with the B.I.S.C. the whole matter of his being able to obtain ships for breaking up. I have no reason to suppose that that offer to discuss the matter fully does not remain open.

My hon. Friend also referred to Wig Bay, which was the seaplane base closed in December, 1957. There, again, my hon. Friend said there was an entire lack of co-ordination between Government Departments and that no efforts were made to find an alternative use for the base. I am sure my hon. Friend is not suggesting that it is wrong that agricultural land acquired compulsorily, or under the threat of compulsion, in time of war should be offered back to its previous owners. In any case, as I think my hon. Friend knows, the Wigtownshire County Council, as the planning authority, told the Air Ministry that it was opposed to the industrial use of the land, although it was not averse to the sale of three hangars that existed there for industrial purposes.

Accordingly, the Air Ministry were prepared to offer the hangars separately, but the potential customers were not interested unless they could get as well the land to be offered back to the previous owner. The land was finally sold back at the appropriate price to the previous owner, together with the hangars.

My hon. Friend also pointed out that if West Freugh closed the employment situation would become much worse. That is fully appreciated by the Government. It does not come within the responsibilities of the Board of Trade, but I can assure my hon. Friend that a decision will not be taken until my right hon. Friend the Minister of Aviation has personally considered it. I am also authorised to say that if the establishment is closed down there should be no difficulty in finding jobs elsewhere for at least the established staff, and that lobs could probably be found for the non-industrial staff and skilled industrial staff if they were willing to leave Stranraer.

My hon. Friend mentioned that the French School of Communications had been moved out of Paris as a result of studies made by the French Government, and suggested that there had been other similar moves. I suggest that that move is hardly comparable with a move of the Royal Aircraft Establishment from Boscombe Down to West Freugh; they are not exactly on all fours.

My hon. Friend's suggestions will be carefully examined, but we do not consider that to put an advance factory in Stranraer would be desirable at present. It would not serve the host interests of Stranraer, because if we were to put it up there it might well not attract industrialists; it might stand empty. There is no evidence to suggest that an advance factory would be occupied if we were to put it up there, but there are these two hopeful signs. First of all, we have been able to interest an overseas firm in the area, and there is also the Ulster Fatstock Corporation to which my hon. Friend referred. These should help, but I do not think that his other suggestion of an advance factory could be pursued at the present time.

The desirable thing is to find the right industrialist to come to the area, and then to meet his needs with a factory of the size that suits him in the place that suits him. As to the greater activity of the Board of Trade, I assure my hon. Friend that we shall go on doing our very best to interest industrialists in the area. There will be no lack of co-ordination between Departments.

I note his suggestion about local associations, but as to the different category of critical area I can only say that it would not be possible to give bigger subsidies to such areas without further legislation, nor do I think that it would necessarily be appropriate. In fact, the form of the Local Employment Act, through the building grants at any rate, ensures that the remoter the area, by and large, the larger the sum will be, but each application has to be judged on its merits from the point of view of the employment it can bring to the area and its ability to become economic and pay its way in the long run.

My hon. Friend has undertaken to bring the Stranraer Town Clerk to see me next week, and I believe that he is also to see my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation. I hope that at this meeting we will be able to explore further the problems he has raised. We are entirely sympathetic towards all the problems of Stranraer, and I assure him that if an industrialist comes along, we will examine most carefully any application by him for the Board of Trade to build a factory or, alternatively, to grant him assistance towards building the factory himself. In addition, he will be able to apply for loans.

We have not lost hope of industry coming to Stranraer. As I say, there are these two prospects, one of which has already made application for us to build a factory in the area, and we are awaiting further information before a decision can be taken. The right thing to do is to get the right firm to the area and to build the right factory for it, rather than to build a factory purely speculatively which we would have no certainty would suit what must always be the rather small number of industrialists who could contemplate going to an area which is, unfortunately, remote.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Twelve o'clock.