HC Deb 14 February 1962 vol 653 cc1474-84

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

11.12 p.m.

Mr. Robert Woof (Blaydon)

I need hardly say there is nothing that gives me greater satisfaction than being given the opportunity to speak on the need for new industries in the constituency of Blaydon. In frequent conversations and communications which I have had with many earnest and conscientious workers, including clergymen, they have often asked me, "How is it that no new industries are built in the Blaydon area?" Accordingly, I have endeavoured to fix attention and lay particular stress on the provisions of the Local Employment Act, 1960. At the same time, while I accept there is always a psychological current which accompanies the course of economic causes, I must say that the present economic order of things in Blaydon requires some appreciable consideration, by taking into account the exceptional degree of the decline in its main industry.

Formally, everything must have its cause, and the principal consideration as to why it is essential to take a serious view of the decline and deterioration of industrial employment opportunity in Blaydon chiefly arises from my previous questioning of the Parliamentary Secretary's right hon. Friend's predecessor. In seeking an answer, and a reason for Blaydon not to be scheduled as a development district, it was indicated that in the opinion of the Board of Trade the locality was not one in which a high rate of unemployment existed; neither was it expected, or even likely, to persist.

That reply may have been thought sufficient to help us over doubts about the future, but I am bound to submit that the perceptible impression given falls short by subsequent happenings, which conform in many ways to the changing aspect of the industrial structure. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will not want me to mislead him and I have no wish to fall into the vicious circle of error, but I regard this as a matter of common observation and current experience of the displacement of labour due to industrial change.

When I have had the good fortune to speak in economic debates, I have endeavoured to concentrate attention on the restricted industrial development of Blaydon and the need for appropriate measures to be taken to offset the serious lack of industrial occupation. To recount in detail the public misfortune which has emanated from industrial decay would take mare time than I am allowed to devote to the subject now. However, I can say that there has been a bewildering metamorphosis consequent on circumstances entailed by adverse changes in industrial activity.

For instance, practically every aspect of the mining industry in Blaydon has been so much localised and specialised that in the daily experience of the rapid decline certain significant facts cause common anxiety. It is a plain fact that circumstances not only demonstrate the distinctive interests of the mining communities which are at stake, but show that much thought must be given to the non-mining communities which are suffering from the process of the change. One needs to be at close grips to get a vivid conception of these non-mining communities which have grown up and which represent a general order of sequence of livelihood by which they are fastened to the industry's slippery slope.

I used to think that only when people had reached a full comprehension of social and economic development could they attain that higher communal life and fraternity which we all so earnestly desire. On the contrary, when one feels able to form conclusions through feelings of frustration, considerations of another kind present themselves, especially when the odds are in favour of deep impressions which are made in the changing interplay of local economic conditions.

In the trend of such circumstances, something must be said of the men's endeavours, Which should be credited to their willingness to work, but it seems to me that the most patient of men will become despondent if they have to suffer the disadvantages and irritations which arise from travelling many miles from home to take up periodical employment which leads to nowhere.

These circumstances enable me to submit considerations which are relevant to the question of industrial change. A firm hold is taken on the minds of men in areas where the decline in industrial activity is serious and where the prospect of alternative employment is poor. It does not require any vigorous effort of imagination to appreciate that lately there has been a deep impression on the instincts and sensibilities of people which has resulted from the disturbances to regular life which have swept over the whole area and from the fact that the mining industry is being hurled from its place of prominence, either through economic notions of competitive power, or through the natural exhaustion of reserves.

One inescapable result is that many workers are of an age that counts as a disqualification far other employment. It often happens that the well-being of these unfortunate victims of change is marked by the fact that they cannot easily find alternative employment for which they are able and suited and that, ultimately, their standard of living falls for the rest of their lives.

The House will appreciate that in any purposeful analysis it will be accepted that the double tendency of any undesirable economic and social consequences of industrial change is so closely interlaced that it is difficult to discuss the two separately. However, I feel justified in pointing out that while there are numerous examples that I can quote, in the light of accumulating signs, one of the familiar facts that weigh heavily in the minds of people is the lingering economic fear that stalks across the portents of more redundancy to come, creating for the area nothing else than an unrivalled whirlpool of disillusionment. This is a pregnant fact, and what we see emerging into view is of profound public concern.

When we reflect for a moment, it will probably be accepted that manifestos of academic economists show how displacement of labour has been going on ever since the Industrial Revolution, for ever seeking improvement in productive efficiency, recognising at times labour-saving machines that would temporarily displace labour. Even in periods from depression to normal adjustment in economic activity there was always the prospect that redundant workers would, in the end, be absorbed by the expansion of other industries.

There is nothing intrinsically new in that—it is an old economic order that has always touched upon the question of human existence—but, whatever great foundations have been laid in the past, the crucial point I want to make resolves itself on the area to which I am referring, where it is tacitly accepted that factors of deep change have been introduced into people's lives by the remote prospects to work in alternative industries.

The substance of their social conceptions remains a common characteristic. They carry along with them their maxims and preserves to the extent that there are innumerable other considerations Which serve to conform to the same conclusion, but even in moderated sensibility, just as they cannot secure the status they want, they are naturally conscious of the dismal economic outlook.

We know perfectly well that in any economic calamity, when upheavals bring worrying problems, the undeserved loss of livelihood spreads into all age groups. It is this very thought that is certainly one of the greatest dreads and aversions. As a consequence of natural apprehensions, it will be found practical in some circumstances that migration to other districts tends to influence people's minds to better themselves. This involves decisions of fundamental concern, and such steps in many instances, I do not doubt for a moment, will be many times justified.

On this account it is perhaps correct to say that there are advantages and disadvantages in all states of life, but before any deductive interpretation can be made in this respect there remains the general induction of comparing populations in their geographical context. For a tolerably wide and mixed section of my constituents this represents concern of the highest importance. Anyone observing the drift of such things will see that facts on numerical reckoning could be brought equally to light by the defectiveness of expecting the structure and collectivism of whole populations of anywhere from 3,000, 4,000 and over 5,000 inhabitants to migrate in default of economic insecurity.

Unlike the nomadic tribes of the Arabian Desert, who follow a pastoral life, with the love of liberty to fold up their tents and disappear in the night, I make a special point and say that it is not a question of continuance of those deep laws of human nature involving people's habits and routine, but that, of necessity, something more is required whereby the means of industrial readjustment to meet the challenge of changing conditions can be brought into existence.

It necessarily follows, in trying to abridge this account of the vicissitudes and reaction in my constituency, that I cannot claim not to know the drill of the 1960 Local Employment Act. Neither do I boldly claim there to be mass unemployment, but I do attach great and serious importance to what is evidently regarded as the inevitable closing of more mines, including the backwash of previous redundancy, coupled with the proof of the relics of other industries that have seen better days and have come to an abrupt end.

Further to that, I do not think that it would he out of place to stress, in relation to those who have never had the good fortune to benefit in any other kind of productive industries, that at present many are engaged on what I would term the kind of work which is based on the temporary fleeting needs of labour. But because all this is a major problem in the lives of workers and their families, they are enduring what they cannot cure. In the circumstances, are we to assume that they are to be told to make the best of things as they are, or is the area to generate into spiritless stagnation?

If existing indications are not to be misinterpreted, in my lay judgment and as far as I can see, the symptoms rest on what I think, quite rightly, to be unquiet times that may be destined to grow more serious if no solution in one way or another is forthcoming.

Having attempted to identify events and effects, I might add that in so far as public service and interest arise, the only fresh opening to take place is the agreed scheme for the building of the new Scotswood Bridge. This I regard as the greatest event in Blaydon since Garibaldi visited the town during the last century. But as the general mind is no longer engaged in past aspects, and even although the future is yet to come, either at best or worst, I venture to affirm in the stress of economic force the difficulties to control the policy of industry, whether it is to decide what forms of production shall take place or the amount of capital to be raised.

I fully realise that it is impossible to look around us at the present time without perceiving how far-reaching is the process of change. Such large problems are registering in the duties of hon. Members in becoming more and more preoccupied with all the immense issues ultimately involved. Whatever else is disagreeable that puts us in the mood which disposes us to conceive what adversity means: first and foremost, as a national necessity, it is at a time when we are continually being told that economic improvement must, in the main, be effected through massive expansion and that such a high rate of growth depends on the British people in the exercise of personal responsibility.

With such a premium to be placed on vital needs, and for what I have taken the trouble to outline, I would plead with the Parliamentary Secretary to consider with his right hon. Friend how far the Board of Trade will display its responsibilities in the need for grafting improvements to succeed the old industrial structure. Meanwhile, I maintain that precisely because of the stimulus given by the North-East Development Association in serving its full purpose to elicit the need for industries, as anything gained by valuable co-ordination would be equally shared by public interest, by taking into account any industrial development that would play a more direct part in promoting and furthering the prospects of employment opportunities in Blaydon.

11.28 p.m.

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

I have listened with attention and with sympathy to the eloquent and, at times, passionate plea for new industries advanced tonight by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Woof). I should like to thank him for his courtesy in having given me notice of the subjects he was proposing to raise and for the way in which he put his case.

I know very well the depressing effect and the feeling of frustration in a town and a district caused by the decline of a great industry. I know very well the strains and stresses of change that take place. But the first thing I looked at when the hon. Gentleman gave notice of his intention was the figure of the population in his area.

The hon. Member spoke of industrial decay, but the census of population figures for the three urban district council areas in his constituency showed an increase of 2 per cent. in the ten years from 1951 to 1961. He quite rightly said that there has not been a tremendous lot of development of industry in all parts of those urban districts in recent years, but one has to bear in mind that labour is far more mobile now than it used to be when the coal industry was expanding in North-West Durham, and Blaydon itself is less than five miles from Newcastle. Practically the whole of his constituency is within travel-to-work distance of the main centres of employment on Tyneside.

The main object of us all, I am sure, is to ensure that the men and women of his constituency and elsewhere find suitable employment not far from their homes, Many of the hon. Member's constituents have industrial employment within the constituency apart from the mines, for example, in Churchill Gear Machines, which was established in the area in 1956, J. W. Ellis & Co., which does constructional and general engineering, and other firms making building materials, bedding, plastics, and so on. Nevertheless, there is no doubt, I agree, that as things are the welfare of Blaydon and North-West Durham generally is linked with coal and steel. I can assure the hon. Member that we keep in the closest touch with the Ministry of Power and that the Minister keeps us fully informed of prospects in the coal mining industry.

The hon. Member referred to the exhaustion of coal reserves and pits which are to be closed, but I am told that the Coal Board hopes to offer alternative work to the great majority of men who are now employed at those pits and wish to continue to work in the mines. The Board expects that only a small number of those at present employed will be redundant. That does not, of course, mean that they will necessarily be employed immediately in their own area, but if we add those expected to be redundant to the numbers of those now unemployed we still could not regard the resulting total of unemployment as qualifying the area to be classified as a development district under the Local Employment Act.

The hon. Member said that closures will tend to mean that people will migrate away from the area. It may be that some will take jobs in pits elsewhere and move. It may also mean that some will prefer to seek jobs in other industries in other parts of the country. But there are jobs in prospect in the South Tyne West, Consett and Stanley Employment Exchange areas which number about 2,500 in all. This figure may be compared with the total average unemployment—at the moment, of course, it is higher—in these areas during 1961 which amounted to just over 2,500. There are also prospects in the Gateshead Employment Exchange area, part of which is covered by the hon. Member's constituency. There is also Ransome and Marles, the ball-bearing firm in the Consett area.

In view of these prospects, the Government cannot conclude that the high and persistent unemployment which must exist before we can classify an area as a development district is likely in this area. The hon. Member told me of the construction in progress to modernise the Consett Ironworks and tonight he referred to jobs likely to come to an end. This work is likely to be completed by the end of this year.

The hon. Member said that many of his constituents, most of them ex-miners, are working on that construction, but there is a great deal of construction work to be done in the area, much of it not yet started. For example, there is the Tube Investment factory to be built at Washington, and there is also a good deal of building to be done at the Team Valley Trading Estate, which is just outside the hon. Gentleman's constituency and which has done so much to revive and sustain the area. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that this estate does not give to those who see it the impression of a stagnating area.

In this estate there are many progressive, expanding industries whose employment requirements are likely to increase. The Team Valley Trading Estate is one of the oldest established in the country, and it continues under the able management of the Industrial Estates Management Corporation for England to provide valuable and varied employment opportunities for the surrounding area. Among the 80 Board of Trade tenants on the estate are firms engaged in electronics production, the manufacture of pumps, rubber goods, mining equipment, thermoplastic tiles, cork products, electric lamps and the like.

These are new industries. This is not a picture of stagnation. I understand that only last week a firm of instrument makers, Baird and Tatlock, has taken over a factory on this estate. I should like to welcome the firm very warmly and to wish it all success. I hope that it will find its new surroundings congenial and will bring more work there. There is also the Newburn Estate, just beside the hon. Member's area.

I realise that the hon. Member would like us to list as development districts South Tyne West, and perhaps other employment exchange areas which fall partly or wholly in his constituency. But from what I have said he will recognise that we do not consider that the prospects known to us warrant such pessimism. Indeed, with the probable advent of further industry to the district, we have felt justified in putting Prudhoe, which is next door to him, on the stop list. I am sure that as de-stocking ends and demand rises in the steel industry, an efficient firm such as Consett Ironworks, newly modernised, will be able to take full advantage of the upturn.

Of course, the fact that we cannot see our way to put Blaydon and Stanley on the list of development districts does not mean that we should not encourage firms to go there if they could not go to development districts. We shall be very willing to give suitable firms industrial development certificates there. What it means is that we think that the prospects are more encouraging than seems to be thought in the area itself.

I assure the hon. Member that I appreciate the feeling which can come to an area and parts of an area when no industry is coming actually into it, but with all these prospects round about surely it would be impossible for the Government to treat this as an area of high and persistent unemployment.

I can also assure the hon. Member that we are far from being unsympathetic towards the area's problems. Indeed, as he knows, Durham was one of the first areas which I visited when I took my present appointment. We shall certainly continue to watch the position most closely, and if a threat of high and persistent unemployment arises, the President of the Board of Trade will certainly consider making the area a development district. But on the evidence as we see it just now, there are good reasons to hope that it will not develop high and persistent unemployment. I hope that the hon. Member will take comfort from that. I know that the Consett Urban District Council has been making representations, too, in this direction, and I know that the regional controller, who has been here today—indeed, he is here now—will be looking very closely at this situation. I hope that the hon. Member will take comfort from this and that the whole of his area will do so too.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Twelve o'clock.