HC Deb 03 April 1963 vol 675 cc589-600

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Simon Mahon (Bootle)

I am very happy to be able to set the statement which I wish to make this evening against the background of what I think was the very important statement made by the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer today. During his able and eloquent speech, in which many useful measures were introduced, he said that it would be proper to provide for redundancy in society and it was necessary to do this for sound economic growth. I think that is pretty well what he said. I set my statement this evening against that of the Chancellor and I also set it against the Contracts of Employment Bill which was introduced in December, 1962, and presented by the Minister of Labour supported by the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister and many other right hon. Gentlemen. That Bill is to Require a minimum period of notice to terminate the employment of those who have been employed for a qualifying period, to provide for matters connected with the giving of the notice, and to require employers to give written particulars of terms of employment. There is a firm in my constituency called Littlewoods Pools. I think I should say that the directors are Mr. Cecil Moores, Mr. Nigel Moores, Mr. L. Brierley Jones, and the executive director, Mr. A. A. George. I say that so that we shall not be mixing that firm up with Littlewoods Mail Order Stores.

These people are big employers on Merseyside. On 5th March this year at 4.40 in the afternoon a notice over a broadcast system was given out to 1,000 people. Out of the 1,000 people 850 were dismissed by the end of the notice. This was a most peremptory action, and I want to say as little about that as possible because I am rather embittered by it but I want to discuss the method of dismissal, the effect of the dismissal, and the future prospects of employment of those people who were dismissed in such a manner.

I described this, when I heard about it in the first instance as being archaic, ruthless and impersonal. I have had no reason to change my mind in the slightest degree. I feel that my description was not an over-statement in any shape or form. What I asked myself was, was this decision by this firm to sack 850 people in such an impersonal way a move of desperation? Was it made in desperation? Was it calculated? If it was a move made in desperation it was rather stupid, and if it was calculated, it was rather heinous.

What happened on this day? One would have thought that the first people who would have been notified would have been the Ministry of Labour. The Parliamentary Secretary knows my constituency very well indeed. He also knows that on the afternoon in question his manager at the local employment exchange was not told that 850 people were about to be dismissed. The Only people who were alerted were the police and the special investigation branch of Littlewoods organisation. Members of this branch were brought in from other Littlewoods works and hidden inside the building in question until 4.40 p.m., until the split second when the announcement was made that these people were to be dismissed, and then they swooped on the girls—this is no exaggeration—who barely had time to get their coats on, and ushered them out of the building.

The statement issued by the firm said that those who had been employed for more than 20 years would be kept on in the firm's employment. Those who had been there for up to 20 years would be reimbursed on the following scale: those with one year's continuous service would get one week's pay; those with two years' service would receive two weeks' pay; those with three to five years' service would receive three weeks' pay; those with six to nine years' service would receive four weeks' pay; and those with 10 to 19 years 11 months and 29 days' service would be rewarded for such loyal service with five weeks' pay.

There was a complete lack of discrimination. People who had been there for 19 years and 11 months were sacked with the same lack of consideration as those who had been there for 10 months. This firm has seven other buildings on Merseyside, and I pointed out to the firm that it ought to have adopted a fairer policy. I said that what Mr. Moores had said in reply to my complaint was … no answer to the indiscriminate dismissal of 800 people in Bootle. Obviously if Mr. Moores and his firm found themselves in trouble of any kind which necessitated reduction of personnel, surely that could have been spread over the whole of Merseyside and other parts of the country and not been kept to one building in Bootle where we have the heaviest unemployment in the area. The people employed at this place were widows, people whose husbands were sick, people who were married to war pensioners, and others in similar circumstances, but they were all dismissed with the same lack of consideration and given this most inadequate compensation. Is Littlewoods the only firm which found itself in trouble? What did the other pools firms do? They spread the load more evenly. If they had to dismiss people, they did so in a far more humane, just, and generous way.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am listening to the hon. Member with great interest, but I do not for the moment follow where the Ministerial responsibility is alleged to exist here. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would be good enough to bear that in mind.

Mr. Mahon

I thank you for your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, but I am trying to get to the point. This action by the firm more than doubled the already high unemployment figure in the Merseyside area. I have already referred to the Contracts of Employment Bill which seeks to bring in minimum standards of notice to be given to people who become redundant. Not one minute's notice, or even one second's notice, was given to these girls before they were sacked. I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to make that point.

On the day this dismissal occurred we had 3,041 men, 158 boys, 584 women and 106 girls unemployed in Bootle, bringing the total of unemployed persons to 3,889. That is the alarming fact. In those circumstances I ask the Minister what possibility there is of bringing into my constituency work which can take the place of the great loss that has been suffered. The number of vacancies on the register is very small, and our unemployment figure is growing all the time.

Much hardship has been caused by these dismissals and others. In some homes four or five people were sacked at one time. There is no need for me to embellish the point. Bootle Corporation is trying to bring in as many jobs as possible, but the peremptory action taken by Littlewoods nullifies all that the Corporation and the Government are trying to do. Much money has been spent by the Corporation in trying to create work, and the Minister has given us a great deal of help. I am also grateful for the concessions made in the Budget this afternoon. They should prove very helpful to our development district, especially the allowances, and the more attractive provisions that have been made to persuade industrialists to come to our part of the world—an area which, at the moment, is not the most attractive from the point of view of living standards.

I do not wish to moralise about the dismissal of these people, but the question of gambling has been discussed today, and if the Minister is considering what sort of industries could be directed into our area I hope that he will accept that we would rather not have any of the more ephemeral industries of the sort that we have had to rely upon in the past. We find that industries such as Littlewoods are like candyfloss. They are sordid, and their managements tend to be feudal. We would rather see these great premises used for more responsible and dignified purposes.

What has happened in Littlewoods is having a great effect upon Ministerial responsibility for maintaining peace in industry. The Minister knows that the question of casualisation in the docks is occupying much of his time. Many of the sacked girls are the daughters of dockers and ship-workers. The question of industrial relations extends over a wide field, and happenings of the kind to which I have referred can have a great effect all over Merseyside.

You have been very kind in allowing me a wide margin of latitude, Mr. Speaker, and I do not wish to say much more about this affair, which distresses me very much. I merely express the hope that the Minister, and the other Ministers responsible for these matters, will bear in mind that Bootle cannot provide work for its children. Bootle has 84,000 people, 21,000 of whom are under 15 years of age. That is why these sudden dismissals are so bad. The Ministry was given no prior notice, and it cannot possibly have planned to avoid increased unemployment. Firms like Littlewoods give themselves a social and industrial absolution. How can we hope to create a properly planned economy, with the Government, the trade unions and the workers working together, if some people give themselves this absolution? This matter has caused a great deal of trouble in my town.

I should like to quote from a letter that I have received from a lady who was employed in this firm. I am sure that the Minister will find it of interest. This girl had to write anonymously. She says: The reason being that I am employed by Littlewoods and the employment situation being as it is on Merseyside, I cannot afford the luxury of principles. That is the situation we get. This is an old phrase. We heard it said 30 years ago.

I was pleased to hear the Chancellor say that he had to take social and other considerations into account before he could make a decision on gambling. We are tired of relying on this sort of industry for our living. We are hard-working people on Merseyside. We are appealing to the Government to give us more work to do, and to let us develop some of the land that we own outside our area. We do not like our people being put into the undignified position that they have been put into by Mr. Cecil Moores and his colleagues in this sordid gambling empire.

I hope that efforts will be made to get a better type of work for our people to do. It would be better for our town, it would be better for our people, and it would be more rewarding to the country. It would satisfy the conscience of many people who are worried about the growth of gambling empires on Merseyside. It is becoming a major headache. We have chemin de fer, roulette, betting shops, and pools. We want less of them and a greater development of our natural industries. I appeal to the Minister to do all that he can to help us to reduce unemployment.

10.17 p.m.

Sir Stephen McAdden (Southend, East)

I hope that the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Mahon), with whom I have a very good personal relationship, will forgive me when I say that I think that he has overstated his case. It is rather late in the day to talk about the sordid, ephemeral business of gambling on Merseyside when for years Merseyside has been very grateful that thousands of people have been employed by Littlewoods, Vernons and others. Their jobs have not been poorly paid. No one would suggest that they were not good employers of labour.

It may well be that in this instance he is able to argue a point with which, presumably, the Parliamentary Secretary will deal, but to suggest that this is a matter that ought to be brought to the attention of the House as something that Merseyside does not want is flying in the face of the history of what has gone on there. So far as I know, the hon. Member for Bootle has never previously made a complaint about the people of Bootle or the people of Liverpool being employed in a particular industry which he does not like.

Mr. Mahon

Will the hon. Member say something about the actual dismissal at a moment's notice of these people and justify that?

Sir S. McAdden

It is not my job to justify anybody about anything. All that I am attempting to do is to draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that this is not something which sprang up overnight. People have been employed in Bootle and in Liverpool in this form of business for years without any protest whatever from the hon. Gentleman. It is not my purpose to comment on the facts of the case. The hon. Gentleman has made his case and I have no doubt that the Parliamentary Secretary will make his. Let us not exaggerate things. Do not let us get emotional, and talk about gambling being an ephemeral or sordid business. It happens that this form of gambling is subject to a 33 per cent. tax.

Mr. Malcolm MacMillan (Western Isles)

That does not make it into a virtue.

Sir S. McAdden

I do not say that it does. But it is subject to that form of taxation. If this firm finds itself in difficulties, presumably it has to take some step to extricate itself.

I promised to speak for only two minutes. I like to keep my promises. All I wished to do was to rebuke the hon. Member for Bootle for having taken his case so far. I hope that that will not impair what has always been a friendly relationship between us. But I think that the hon. Gentleman overstated his case.

Mr. Mahon

I cannot understand the hon. Gentleman's interest.

10.21 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. William Whitelaw)

I wish to say straight away that I fully appreciate the reason why the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Mahon) chose to raise this subject. We all realise the personal problems which redundancy of any sort is likely to create for those affected, and I certainly share the hon. Gentleman's concern—as I know does my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden)—that everything possible should be done to reduce the redundancy to a minimum.

Before dealing with some of the points made by the hon. Member, I think it right that I should set out the essential facts. I understand that on 5th March the employees at the Bootle branch of Littlewoods at Irlam Road were informed over the Tannoy system that the branch would close on that day. This branch, which is one of five in the Merseyside area, had a total of 1,041 employees, of whom all but 83 were females. The firm offered alternative work at other branches to the 83 males and 128 female staff with over 20 years' service. The remainder were discharged.

The hon. Member for Bootle has stressed that it was particularly unfortunate that this redundancy occurred at a time when unemployment on Merseyside was at a high level. I fully accept the seriousness of the present situation which is indicated by the figures. In March of this year 2,632 people were registered as unemployed at the Bootle employment exchange and of these 829 were females, compared with a figure of 1,689, of whom 433 were females, in March of last year. I have no wish to play down the importance of these figures or the seriousness of the unemployment situation on Merseyside as a whole. But even in these circumstances no one should criticise the firm for closing a branch if, in its commercial judgment, it considered that necessary. This must be a matter within the discretion of the firm. At the Ministry of Labour we have to accept the position and then do everything we can to find work for those made redundant.

I wish now to consider this aspect of the problem. Since the closure of the branch 574 of the 850 women declared redundant registered at employment exchanges on Merseyside, the greater proportion of them at Bootle. Undoubtedly some of the remainder have found work on their own. Others have not registered, perhaps because of illness or for some other reason. Of the 574 who registered 66 have been found work by our local officers and 39 have found their own employment, making a total of 105 now back at work, but leaving, alas, 469 still registered as unemployed.

I do not want to mislead the House, or the hon. Member for Bootle about the prospect of finding alternative work for these people. The figures of unemployed which I gave earlier make clear that the prospect of finding work is not good. This is particularly true of clerical workers, and I understand that most of the women declared redundant by Little-woods have special clerical skills which would not be of great value to other employers in the area. I can assure the hon. Member for Bootle that our officers at Bootie and elsewhere on Merseyside are doing everything in their power to find work for these people, and will continue to do so—

Mr. Mahon rose

Mr. Whitelaw

I am sorry, but I must get on. I cannot give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Littlewoods have themselves told us that those made redundant will have priority for vacancies in the firm's mail order business.

The hon. Member rightly drew attention to the need for more jobs in the Merseyside area. I quite accept that. Merseyside is a development district and so can qualify for aid under the Local Employment Act. There is undoubtedly a need for further industrial expansion on Merseyside as a whole. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer indicated this afternoon, the Government are anxious to see such expansion take place. I am grateful to the hon. Member for the generous manner in which he acknowledged the value of my right hon. Friend's measures.

Perhaps I may be allowed to touch briefly on the particular remarks made by the hon. Member about industrial expansion in the Bootle area. First there is the future of the premises in Irlam Road. He raised that question when he came to see the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade and me. My hon. Friend undertook to see whether there was anything the Board of Trade could do to help. It has offered its services to the firm should it wish for assistance in finding an industrial tenant, but, as I think the hon. Member knows, the firm is unable to say at this stage what it wishes to do with the premises. I assure him, however, that the Board of Trade will keep a careful watch on the situation and will be very willing to offer any assistance it can.

The hon. Member also mentioned the anxiety in Bootle that it should be pos- sible to find room locally for some industrial expansion and so create more jobs. He knows that his suggestion would involve some alterations to the proposals made by Lancashire County Council for the Merseyside green belt. These proposals are being considered by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government in the light of the regional studies which are being made of Merseyside's land needs. I can do no more this evening than undertake to see that the hon. Member's remarks are brought to the notice of my right hon. Friend the Minister.

The hon. Member also criticised the way in which the firm handled this redundancy. When he came to see me last month, I undertook to arrange a meeting between the firm's representatives and one of our Ministry's industrial relations officers. The firm agreed to this and a meeting took place almost at once on 13th March. We have had the benefit of a full report from the official concerned which has been most helpful to me in preparing my remarks for this debate. I understand that the first intimation given to the workers was an announcement over the loudspeaker system on the afternoon of the day on which the whole branch closed down. The local employment exchange was given no more notice of redundancy than were the workers. Apparently it has always been the practice of all branches of this firm that workers to be dismissed are discharged, given payment in lieu of notice and never retained to work out their notice on the job.

I understand that the firm adopted this policy because of the nature of the work in which great accuracy and integrity is required from the employees. The firm takes the view that in those circumstances there would be a risk if it engaged in prior consultations about redundancy or gave advance notification to the workers concerned or to the local office of the Ministry of Labour. For similar reasons it did not feel able to continue to employ workers under notice. It may be that there are special considerations because of the nature of operations at Littlewoods. Even so, I am bound to say that the announcement of redundancies over the loudspeaker system seems to have been unfortunate. Surely it would have been better to give the staff an explanation face to face or to convey the information in a personal communication to this effect.

It also seems a pity that the actual redundancy terms were not better understood by the employees. Misunderstandings could have been avoided if the firm's redundancy terms had been made known in advance to the workers, or at least conveyed to them in writing rather than announced to a stunned audience over a loudspeaker. This is all the more important because in fact reasonable payments were being given. I feel sure that if these details had been fully appreciated in advance, there would have been less feeling of shock and distress at the time of the announcement.

The hon. Member and others have suggested that the firm could well have spread the redundancies over several of its branches in the area instead of closing down one complete branch and thus cause less hardship. I understand that the firm takes the view that it redundancy were spread it would have been compelled to have discharged even more staff to achieve the necessary safeguard.

I think it only right to point out that this case raises a general point of some importance. It emphasises the value of the Contracts of Employment Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend. I entirely acknowledge the hon. Member's tribute to its importance. It emphasises the urgency and importance of improving our arrangements for handling redundancy generally. This, of course, is the Government's—

The Question having been proposed at 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 half-past Ten o'clock.