HC Deb 04 December 1963 vol 685 cc1148-54
The Secretary of State for War (Mr. James Ramsden)

With your permission Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement about the future of the Royal Ordnance Factory, Woolwich.

As the House knows, we have recently been examining the problem of spare capacity in the Weapons and Fighting Vehicles Group of Royal Ordnance Factories. Woolwich and Nottingham are the only two factories left within this group which make guns and do general engineering. Their combined productive capacity is now considerably more than double the highest foreseeable peacetime needs. Excess of capacity on this scale represents a waste of resources in skilled manpower and idle plant, and makes good management extremely difficult. Moreover, it produces a highly unsatisfactory situation for our employees, in that it is impossible to guarantee them a full and continuous programme of work.

In these circumstances, the right course is to bring our productive capacity into line with what we need. The Government have, therefore, decided to begin to run down the Royal Ordnance Factory at Woolwich, so that it should finally close in about 2½ years' time.

Gun manufacture and miscellaneous general engineering will be concentrated at the Royal Ordnance Factory, Nottingham. The cost will be about £½m. capital and there will be savings as a result of this reorganisation of over £1m. a year.

At present, the Royal Ordnance Factory, Woolwich, has about 3,800 employees. We should, in any event, have had to declare a redundancy of about 500 men now: these will not begin to leave the factory until early 1964. A further 2,500 will ultimately cease to work there. The House will share out concern for their future employment. Woolwich is part of the Greater London area, where employment prospects generally are good. In view of the fact that the run-down will be spread over 2½ years, we do not expect that there will be difficulty in finding alternative work for most of the men who become redundant.

Retraining facilities for those who may need them are available at the three existing Government Training Centres in the London area: an additional centre will open at Stratford, north of the river, towards the end of next year. Courses of training at the factory itself could be arranged if further facilities were needed.

The Royal Ordnance Factory at Woolwich occupies only part of a War Department estate of 1,193 acres. Over half of this acreage is already vacant. Part of the remainder is occupied by the factory, and the rest has other Government establishments as actual or prospective tenants. In view of London's housing needs I propose, with the agreement of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government, to offer to the London County Council not less than 500 acres of land at once.

For the rest, the whole site must be developed to the best advantage in the interests of Woolwich and of London generally. The Government are, therefore, reviewing urgently present and future activities at the western end of the estate, where the factory is to close.

In view of the Army's long and historic association with Woolwich Arsenal, I announce this decision with deep regret. But, in the long run, two things matter most: that skilled resources should be used to the full to the benefit of the community and not kept under-employed; and that those who now work at Woolwich should have the prospect of steady and continuous employment which our factory can no longer provide.

Bearing in mind my right hon. Friend's plans for housing, and the development of the remainder of the estate to which I have referred, I believe that the future interests of those who live in Woolwich and those who work in the factory will be best served in this way.

Mr. Mayhew

Is the Secretary of State aware that his statement will cause deep regret and concern? Is he aware that the case for keeping the R.O.F., Woolwich, is not based on past services to the country, long and splendid as these have been, but on the fact that the expenditure of several millions of pounds on modernising and concentrating the R.O.F. in recent years has made it thoroughly efficient and competitive; and on the fact that the level of employment there has now reached that recommended by the Perrott Committee?

Will the right hon. Gentleman publish the results of the inquiry on which this decision has been based, so that we can be quite sure that the decision is taken on objective factors and not on any hostility to public enterprise on the part of the Government? Secondly, will he receive a deputation from the Borough of Woolwich of those affected?

In conclusion, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the building land question is totally different from that of the closing down of the R.O.F.? Is he aware that 600 acres of building land have been available there for over ten years, in spite of pressure on the Government? Why have the Government waited this time to make an announcement, and why this long delay in what is perhaps the most extraordinary example of waste of building land in the whole country?

Mr. Ramsden

This decision was taken by me as a result of an examination carried out by me upon advice and I cannot undertake to publish the results—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"]—of any inquiry. But, naturally, I will attempt to satisfy hon. Members of the reasons for our having reached the decision which we have reached. The hon. Member asks me about a deputation. Of course I would see him or any hon. Member who wished to discuss this with me. On the question of the possibility of more general representations, I would say that there are the normal staff channels by which these can be made, and I think that we should stick to them, in the first place.

On the question of the building land, it is true to say that by taking this decision we have to some extent cleared the way for a decision to be taken about the building land. This decision will help to achieve what I am sure the hon. Member wishes to achieve as much as we do—a future for the district of Woolwich which he represents.

Mr. Turner

Will my right hon. Friend say whether the land which is to be released is in addition to that which his predecessor announced, in reply to a Question which I put down, as being available for housing? Can he also assure me that everything possible will be done to meet the difficulties which will arise over lack of employment for people in the Royal Arsenal? Can he give some indication of the number of additional jobs which may be made available by the transfer of units from Kidbrooke and elsewhere to the War Office Department land in Woolwich?

Mr. Ramsden

There are about 1,000 acres in the estate. Five hundred acres are now offered to the London County Council for housing. As a result of the further examination of the possible development of the site to which I have referred, it may be possible that some further land will be thrown up. My hon. Friend asked about employment prospects. I shall be in close touch with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour and we will seek to do anything that we can do on the lines which I have already indicated, especially in the way of retraining.

Mr. Marsh

Will the Minister tell us why, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew), he stated that the taxpayers are not to be told the basis upon which he came to his decision? Will he say which operations which can be carried out under private enterprise arms manufacture cannot be carried out in Woolwich Arsenal? Is he aware that many people think that he has deliberately taken action against a public body for the benefit of private corporations?

Mr. Ramsden

The hon. Member has misunderstood me. There is no inquiry the results of which could be published, in the sense which I believe the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) had in mind.

We have reached this decision because there is no longer enough work, nor canwe foresee there being enough work, for two factories. The only course, therefore, was to concentrate the work available into one unit which can do the job efficiently, and for the purpose in question Nottingham was the most suitable.

Mr. W. Clark

In view of the fact that tank manufacturing is to be concentrated at Nottingham, will there not be an increase in employment at the R.O.F. Nottingham? Can my right hon. Friend therefore give an assurance that there will be no more redundancies in Nottingham and that those workers who were made redundant in the last year will be given preferential treatment if there is an increase in the labour force at the R.O.F.?

Mr. Ramsden

I will bear in mind the point which my hon. Friend made as we come to work out the details of the reorganisation of Nottingham.

Mr. C. Pannell

Is the Minister aware that Woolwich Arsenal probably means more to Woolwich, and has meant more to Woolwich, than almost any other factory has meant to any other constituency in the country? Is he aware that it is not for hon. Members who represent places as far away as Harrogate and Leeds, West to comment on this matter other than with the greatest degree of sympathy? Is he aware that there will be a sense of complete outrage unless he sees the civil leaders on this matter? Will he also bear in mind that a distinguished predecessor of his, Sir Kingsley Wood, had an honourable record in this regard? Will he think again on this matter, and take it from me that we have had a most insensitive performance at the Box this afternoon?

Mr. Ramsden

I fully share the feelings which the hon. Member has expressed about Woolwich and, indeed, I tried to express them myself. As for receiving representations, I want to be as helpful as I can. All that I did not wish to do—and this was my reply to the hon. Member for Woolwich, East—was to get outside the normal and accepted machinery for handling representations of this kind. I think that that is accepted by both sides of the House. I think that we should observe those in the first place, but I will certainly consider the request made by the hon. Member for Woolwich, East and the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell).

Mr. H. Wilson

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that £5 million to £6 million has been spent over the last few years in bringing this factory up to a state of high efficiency? If this is so, would he say what studies he made of the possibility of using this factory for civil and export work? Having a valuable plant of this kind, with the skilled manpower available and mobilised there, does he not feel that it could make a big contribution to exports? Why does he not put civil work into this factory?

Mr. Ramsden

On my information, the right hon. Gentleman's figure of £5 million to £6 million is rather out. It is true that £2½ million has been spent since 1955 on what was at the time a necessary measure of reorganisation and contraction—necessary because at that time there was a job of work for Woolwich to do and Woolwich had to be reorganised so as to do that job of work. The future of the factory will be one of the questions at which we shall urgently look during the course of the review which I mentioned. We will certainlybear his suggestion in mind. But I think that it would be misleading to suggest that this factory, which is a specialised factory for the production of munitions, could make an easy transition to some other kind of work.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this matter now without a Question before the House.

Mr. Dodds

On a point of order. As the information which has been given will be a shattering blow to many of my constituents, who will expect me to be able to say something when an announcement like this is made, may I not be allowed to say a few words?

Mr. Speaker

The expectation of the constituent:, of a number of hon. Members must have been similarly disappointed, but I have to remember the interests of the House as a whole and what we have to do today.