HC Deb 20 December 1963 vol 686 cc1711-24

4.3 p.m.

Mr. Norman Dodds (Erith and Crayford)

I feel, and I am sure hon. Members will agree, that it is regrettable that owing to the sudden illness of my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) it is not possible to adhere to the original programme, which would have given us very much more time. As a consequence, and in the few precious minutes left, I will be as brief as possible, because I know there are others who would like to participate in the debate before the Minister replies.

What matters most, after all, is what the Parliamentary Secretary says. Those who have had this bombshell thrown at them on the eve of Christmas will be some of the most miserable people in Britain at this period of the year. Owing to the shortness of time, many of my caustic comments will have to be left for later.

I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary why, in the long history of this Royal Ordnance Factory, it was necessary for a Minister, who, after all, had been in his job for only a few weeks, to show this indecent haste. It would have been better if the announcement had been made earlier in the year instead of on 4th December, almost on the eve of Christmas. For about 3,000 people and their families this has been a cloud hanging over them, and, in my submission, it would have been much better if the statement could either have been made earlier or if it had been postponed until the turn of the year.

During my long years as a Member of the House I have heard many predecessors of the present Secretary of State for War, but it was never suggested that the Royal Ordnance Factory would have to close completely— restrict the level of employment, yes, but not close it up altogether. The people are far from satisfied with the statement made on 4th December. I wish to ask the Parliamentary Secretary a number of questions. On 4th December, the right hon. Gentleman said: The Government are, therefore, reviewing urgently present and future activities at the western end of the estate, where the factory is to close. "—[Official Report, 4th December, 1963; Vol. 685, c. 1150.] What does that mean, particularly when it is related to a Written Answer to a Question put on Wednesday of this week when the right hon. Gentleman said: My Department has not had direct discussions with the London County Council about the future of the Royal Ordnance Factory, Woolwich…".—[Official Report, 18th December, 1963; Vol. 686, c. 213.] Why not? Are urgent discussions taking place and with whom?

When the Minister refers to the statement of 4th December it only adds to the worry of the people of Woolwich and district who work there. He said: The question of the level of industrial employment in the Woolwich area is for my right hon. Friends the Minister of Labour and the President of the Board of Trade."—[Official Report, 18th December, 1963; Vol. 686, c. 214.] As we understand, the President of the Board of Trade is much more concerned with taking industry away from the London area to the depressed areas. We see no evidence that he is doing anything to enable industry to come into the Woolwich area. Have not we had a lot of experience of land being available in Woolwich? What have we to show for it? Little or nothing. What hope is there for the future?

In another Written Answer, on 18th December, the Minister said: Of the total redundancy of about 3,000, I estimate that nearly two-thirds will be 50 or over by the time they become redundant. About four-fifths are established. This is a very serious position, because it is well known how difficult it is for a man over 50 to get work at all. Is not this a tragedy for men who have worked in Woolwich almost all their adult lives and who have regarded establishment as something to protect them in their old age? Now they are to be thrown overboard, as a result of the Minister's bombshell, which was unexpected, not only by the workpeople but by the management, and which has been made by a new Minister.

The Written Answer continues: We shall be able to offer an alternative job in the Government service, appropriate to his skill, to every established man"— and then it adds that but not many of these jobs will be within reach of Woolwich. Is not that a shocking thing with which to face people at Christmas time? Many of these men are over 50 and they must have jobs to enable them to live in the Woolwich area. Many have no houses of their own. They live in council houses. Are they to be offered houses in, say, Leeds, Nottingham, or Bridgwater? What hope is there for them? The Answer states: The Minister of Labour and I will provide all possible help in finding new jobs… What are they doing about that? Then there is a promise: including facilities for retraining where needed. Retraining highly skilled men over 50! What does the Minister have in mind? These are the questions which I wish to ask. Finally, in the Written Answer he says: Courses could be arranged at the factory itself if necessary."—[Official Report, 18th December, 1963; Vol. 686, c. 213.] What courses? The men and their wives and families are greatly interested in this matter.

There is every likelihood of a General Election during the next month or two and the possibility of a change of Government, when there could be a different influence with regard to conventional armaments. No one who understands this problem, or thinks about it, can believe that there is not enough work on conventional armaments for Nottingham and Woolwich and that there could be much more work if there was a change of Government. In view of the things which I have mentioned, I beg the Minister to reconsider his decision. If the factory is to be closed down, let it be left until a new Government come to office who will look at the matter again. There may then be much more evidence to consider than is now available. If it is necessary to close the factory the men concerned, who have served their country for so long and so well, will be likely to get a better deal then than they would appear to be getting now.

4.9 p.m.

Mr. Colin Turner (Woolwich, West)

I see that the hon. Members for Nottingham, South (Mr. W. Clark) and Greenwich (Mr. Marsh) both wish to speak, so I must be brief. I wish to ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he can comment on the allegation being made by people in the factory that the contract for the armoured personnel carrier was given to private enterprise, Sankeys, when the work could have been done in the R.O.F. at Woolwich, Nottingham, or elsewhere.

I wish to emphasise what has been said by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds) about people who will be redundant. Some people, even at 50 years of age, may find it worth while to move to Nottingham and elsewhere, but I am worried about the cases of people who had four years to go before retiring and who now will be left with only two years. Are they to throw out their rights under Civil Service establishment and sacrifice some of their pension? Or are they to tear themselves out of a town, a place they know and love and where probably they have children in the final stages of education, and have other difficulties?

I hope that the Government will look at the matter sympathetically. Even if it is not possible to find absolutely equivalent employment for these people during the last remaining years, I hope that some concession will be made to enable them to carry on at the same standard of living and to receive the same pension as they otherwise would have received.

I understand that the inquiries which the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford mentioned are inter-departmental inquiries about the future of the west end of the Arsenal site. I believe that eight or nine Government Departments are tenants there. I hope that the Under-secretary will ask his right hon. Friend to expedite these inquiries, because no plan for the future use of this area, including the Erith Marshes, can be made, nor can we have a grand new town in part of the borough of Woolwich, unless there is comprehensive planning not only for industry but for housing over this vast area.

I emphasise the importance of this to these people who have been established so long in the R.O.F. and who have made it their home and lifework. It is very difficult for some of these people in the upper age groups to think of transplanting themselves. I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to their position.

4.12 p.m.

Mr. Richard Marsh (Greenwich)

Nearly 1,000 of my constituents are involved in this closure. The suggestion that these men could be accommodated with employment elsewhere is hypocritical humbug. It is manifest nonsense to tell a man in Woolwich that he can have a job in Nottingham if he chooses to go there, or in Somerset. These men will be unemployed if the Government proceed with their present policy. Lord Poole recently visited West Woolwich and according to newspaper reports informed an audience there that there was no real problem because this area was bursting with jobs. This, too is nonsense. It is not bursting with jobs.

This south-east London area is facing the possibility of becoming something of a distressed area itself. At first sight, the possibility of building tens of thousands of new houses in the area appears attractive, but I ask the Government to give a little thought to planning and development. At the same time as they are shutting down 4,000 job opportunities, they are providing for bringing into the area thousands of new people. Already, people have to travel from the area into central London to work. They travel like cattle. Is this to be how people are to get into central London to seek jobs if this is the policy that the Government intend to pursue?

When was this decision first taken? All the evidence is that in recent times hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money have been poured into this factory. [An Hon. Member: "Millions"]. Millions of pounds have been invested in the factory quite recently. We are entitled to ask when the decision was taken and how the Government were so thick-headed that they authorised public expenditure on this level knowing full well that the factory was to be pulled down. I understand that machinery and equipment imported from Germany specifically for this factory is to be dismantled and sent elsewhere. This is a disgraceful waste of money and the taxpayer is entitled to ask who is responsible.

The other point is this. What, in the matter of conventional armaments, is Woolwich Arsenal incapable of doing that private enterprise can do? There is a large body of opinion in the area that believes that, faced with the need to cut down to some extent expenditure on conventional armaments, the Government have been faced with a choice between profits and private enterprise, on the one hand, and publicly-owned industry, on the other. Faced with that choice, they ensure that the taxpayer bears the loss, and no orders have been cancelled with private industry.

If this is what happens at present, we are entitled to ask how the Government can conceivably handle the slightest move towards general disarmament if, on a small scale like this, their only answer is to declare 4,000 men unemployed.

4.16 p.m.

Mr. William Clark (Nottingham, South)

Two factories are working under capacity, Woolwich and Nottingham. Whether Woolwich or Nottingham had been closed, we would have had the same human problem, If Nottingham had been closed we would have had the same problem as we shall have with the closure of the Woolwich factory.

I think that we should look a little further and consider why the Ministry took this decision. There has been criticism for the past 15 or 20 years that London has become a sort of magnet for industry. Questions have been asked repeatedly by Members on both sides of the House about the dispersal of industry away from London. Bearing in mind that we have a human problem, whichever factory closes down, and the added advantage there would be in moving this work to Nottingham—I am sure the House will not think that I am saying this out of any vested interest and simply because there is an ordnance factory in my constituency—we should recognise the need for the dispersal of industry away from London.

In addition, we have to bear in mind the shortage of land for housing in and near London. London housing is bursting at the seams. Regrettable though it is that any human misery should enter into this, question, particularly in the case of older people, I hope that the Ministry, having taken this decision, will not now vacillate but will hold firm to its decision and will move this factory to Nottingham, thus ensuring continuity of employment in Nottingham and, indeed, increased employment for these people who would otherwise be made redundant.

4.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Peter Kirk)

I share the regret of my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Turner) at the absence of the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew), not only because of the cause of his absence, but also because it means that I have to talk rather quickly to answer the points which have been raised.

The House will realise that nearly all the points which have been raised must require a very short description of the circumstances leading up to the decision to close the Royal Ordnance Factory at Woolwich. This decision was one of the most painful that any Government have had to take, and particularly painful for my Department, which is only too conscious that Woolwich is a good deal older than it is. Nevertheless, ever since the then Minister of Supply my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Aubrey Jones) announced in this House on 15th July, 1957, the prospective closure of seven Royal Ordnance factories over two-and-a-half years, involving the displacement of 7,000 workers, the future of the Royal Ordnance factory is bound to have been in the balance.

Another factory was closed down in 1960 leaving 15 factories in operation of which the War Office, on the dissolution of the Ministry of Supply, took over 13. It was, however, still clear at that point that some of these factories, among them Woolwich and Nottingham, were under-employed. It is a fact that modern weapons, even those described as conventional, are becoming progressively more sophisticated, expensive and powerful, and that many of them are required in smaller numbers, with the consequence that there is a reduced call on factory production.

Accordingly, a major review of defence manufacturing requirements and capacity was set in hand and completed in 1962. This resulted in the decision to close one of the factories in the explosives group, Pembrey. As regards the weapons and fighting vehicles group of factories, the review foresaw that after a few years there would be surplus capacity in funs and general engineering, the fields in which Woolwich and Nottingham specialise.

At that time, however, it seemed that there would be enough work to keep Woolwich and Nottingham going for two or three years because it was expected that part of the order for the new armoured personnel carrier would be allotted to them, and it was, therefore, decided that the future of these two factories should be considered again towards the end of 1964.

But then, of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Turner) has pointed out, the A.P.C. order was not all, in fact, allotted to the Royal Ordnance factories, but went to Sankeys instead. I say at once that the reason for this was that by so doing we saved the taxpayer up to £1 million. The House will know that the so-called preferred source policy is applied by the Government, particularly with regard to the Royal Ordnance factories, whenever the difference in cost is marginal; but in this particular case it seemed to us that the difference was so great that we should not be justified in allocating the orders to the Royal Ordnance factories when so big an extra burden would have been laid on the taxpayer.

This does not imply that Woolwich or Nottingham was an inefficient works, but only that they could not compete with outside industry in certain fields, particularly in vehicle building. This particular armoured personnel carrier is very much like an ordinary commercial vehicle.

Since the suggestion has been made, both implied in Questions in the House about Sankeys and directly by the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Marsh), that the Government have been benefiting private industry at the expense of the Royal Ordnance factories, I should say that, on average, over the last five years, the Royal Ordnance factories got about four-fifths of all the orders which they are equipped to undertake. This comparison excludes the A.P.C. order which was a special case— a very heavy one—but, in the normal course of events, they have been getting four-fifths. Moreover, it is quite clear that the remaining one-fifth which has gone to private industry is not a fraction of the amount which would affect the closure of Woolwich.

The result of the loss of the Sankey order was that the review of the W.F.V. group was brought forward to 1963. As my right hon. Friend has already said, it became apparent that the maximum level of orders which this group could expect over the next few years and beyond was considerably less than half the combined capacity of Woolwich and Nottingham in the types of product which these factories are equipped to make, and I should emphasise that this is taking a very optimistic view indeed of circumstances which might arise. We decided to close Woolwich because the factory at Nottingham is more compact and economical to run, and its capacity is closer to the forecast level of orders.

I should say here, with regard to the timing of the announcement, that it has been well known, I think, in both Nottingham and Woolwich, for several months, that some decision about their future should be taken. Morale in both factories was suffering, and it seemed best to make the announcement at the earliest possible moment. In fact, the announcement was made very shortly after the decision was reached. It was made a full three weeks before Christmas, and I realise that, at whatever time of the year it was made, it would have caused undoubted distress.

In reaching this decision, my right hon. Friend had the advantage of independent advice from Sir Eric Mensforth, the Chairman of Firth Brown Tools and Westland Aircraft. We are very grateful to him for the careful study of the problem which he made.

Mr. Dodds

Why has this information not been made available to Members? Members are not yet satisfied that there is a case. We do not have enough information.

Mr. Kirk

It would be impossible to make the detailed comments of Sir Eric Mensforth available, but I have his authority to say that, with deep regret, he endorses the decision to close Woolwich.

Mr. Marsh

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that private industrialists can have information relating to a Government industry which Members of Parliament cannot have, or even have any knowledge of?

Mr. Kirk

In this particular case, I am.

I come now to the way in which the disposal of the Royal Ordnance Factory will be effected and the way the decision to dispose of it will be related to the larger problem of disposing of the whole of the Arsenal area. My right hon. Friend has already said that we are offering 500 acres at the eastern end to the London County Council for housing development. For the rest, no comprehensive planning can be done until we have taken a decision about what Government activities, including defence activities, can usefully continue to be carried on there. To this end, as the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds) said, a review is now being carried out by the War Department and by the other Government Departments interested.

The chairman of the review committee is the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for War, and the duties of the review will be to secure the right location for present and predicted Government activities at the western end, the future of the industrial buildings in the R.O.F. itself, the policy to give other Government Departments first claim on surplus land belonging to the War Department, the great need for housing land in London, and the possibility of other development in the interests of London and Woolwich generally. This, I think hon. Members will agree, is a fairly comprehensive review. It has already begun and a report will be made to my right hon. Friend at the earliest possible moment.

In the last few minutes I should like to say a word or two about a problem which I know is troubling hon. Members on both sides very greatly and which, indeed, is troubling the War Department. I refer to the resettlement of the workers who will be made redundant when the factory finally runs down in two-and-a-half years' time. We must remember that this is a fairly long and slow period of run-down. We have deliberately adopted—

Mr. Dodds

It will be run down next year, not in two-and-a-half years.

Mr. Kirk

Yes, but some run down will not take place until 1966 and that is something which we must bear in mind.

Hon. Members will be aware that in the course of the reorganisation over the whole field of Royal Ordnance factories carried out in the last six years or so we have devised arrangements, in consultation with the trade unions and staff associations concerned, for carrying out redundancies in a fair manner and for ensuring that every assistance is accorded to displaced workers to find new posts and to obtain payment, where applicable, of superannuation benefits. The hon. Member for Woolwich, East paid tribute to my Department in this respect during a debate in the House in May.

The Minister of Labour co-operates to the fullest extent whenever redundancies occur and he has arranged to give us help in this case in finding new jobs and, where necessary, in providing retraining for the men who will be leaving our employment. Our first thought is to provide alternative employment in Government service for established workers. We can, in fact, offer suitable employment in this country to every established worker at Woolwich, but, as the hon. Member said, we appreciate that, since many of these alternative jobs, though by no means all, will be at a consider able distance from London, many industrial workers may prefer not to move. These workers will receive the superannuation benefit to which they are entitled and will be helped in every possible way by the Ministry of Labour to find jobs appropriate to their skills within reach of their homes.

The Royal Ordnance Factory at Woolwich has already received inquiries for labour from a number of outside firms and from other Government Departments. In consultation with the Ministry of Labour, these have been brought to the attention of the men, all of whom are only asked to volunteer. I do not suggest that they should go, but some of them have already had interviews with prospective employers. From that point of view, the voluntary part of the resettlement is already under way.

Turning to the question of the elderly workers concerned—and I know that this particularly worries hon. Members—it is perfectly true that a very large number are over 50 years of age. They will be entitled to the assistance that we can give, and will give, in these cases. We do not anticipate very much difficulty in finding the skilled workers alternative work in the London area; there are jobs available. There may be difficulties in a few cases in finding jobs for non-skilled workers, but, on the whole, the prospects are not discouraging, and we feel that there are good possibilities for resettling the labour force at Woolwich.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West raised the question of the pension rights. The established workers over 50 years of age have this advantage: they can get a frozen pension—that is, they will get the pension and lump sun which they have earned when they reach 60. It is put aside for them now for when they retire.

Finally, I should refer to the point raised by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford at the end of his speech as to why we took the decision now before the General Election. As I say, rumours have been flying round for months about the future of the Woolwich and Nottingham factories. It seemed necessary to us to put an end to this uncertainty at the earliest possible moment. We have reached the situation in which, at the most optimistic forecast of future requirements, there is a work load for only one factory. It is estimated that the saving from concentrating on a single factory will be about £1 million a year. In these circumstances, we would not be justified in postponing a decision and failing to achieve savings which could be made, and I must honestly say to the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford that, even in the unlikely event of his right hon. and hon. Friends being returned to power at the next election, I do not believe they would come to any other conclusion.

I apologise for having galloped through this, but I have tried to give the House as much information as I could about this extremely painful decision for the War Department.

Mr. Dodds

What about retraining?

Mr. Kirk

The hon. Member will be aware that under the Ministry of Labour retraining scheme there are retraining facilities in the neighbourhood of Woolwich for anyone who wishes to take advantage of them. Perhaps it will be unnecessary for those with highly technical skills to do so—

The Question having been proposed at Four 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 Four o'clock till Tuesday, 14th January, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 17th December