HC Deb 08 March 1963 vol 673 cc921-32

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

4.4 p.m.

Mr. Philip Holland (Acton)

Last August, a joint statement was issued by the English Electric Company and Rolls-Royce Ltd. announcing the closure of the Acton factory of Napier Aero Engines Ltd., involving the redundancy of more than 2,000 employees. Since then those of us involved in the tragic death of this industrial giant in my constituency have tried to move heaven and earth in attempts to prevent an additional burden of work being thown on to the Ministry of Labour.

In August, we made representations to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to see whether he could persuade the companies to reverse their decision. In September, we had a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Aviation to see whether other aircraft work could be transferred to the factory. In October, we met my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade to see whether we could secure any other engineering work, or whether, alternatively, we could secure his neutrality in the event of another engineering company wishing to develop the property.

In the same month, and again in November, an approach was made to my noble Friend the Minister for Science to see whether the premises could be used for Government development works or prototype works. The premises have now been purchased by a development company, which is to convert them into smaller industrial units. The implication of this, of course, is that there is likely to be a time lag between the closing down of the present industrial activity and the opening up of the new industrial activity.

The present position of the factory is that about half the employees have now left, and it is expected that the remainder will be leaving at the rate of about 150 to 200 a month between now and the end of August. According to my figures, 543 hourly employees have already left and 435 are still to go. In the month of March, the current month, 128 of those are to leave, and then the numbers each month will decline steadily until August. I have here the month-by-month estimate for the numbers leaving, and if my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary would like to see them after the debate, I should be glad to show them to him.

Of the 1,000 or so total employees—that is, staff and works—who have already left, 65 were registered at the end of February at the local employment exchanges as unemployed. Added to these were another 11 who were registered with the Professional and Executive Register. Of the 202 apprentices involved in the rundown—because Napier Aero Engines Limited had a first-class and vigorous apprenticeship scheme—only three are as yet not matched to a vacancy to enable them to continue their training from the point which they had reached with Napier Aero Engines. According to my latest figures 176 apprentices have already been transferred to other companies and are continuing their apprenticeships; 18 have been offered vacancies; five interviews have been arranged—and according to my arithmetic that leaves three not yet matched to vacancies. There is still time for those three.

Thanks to the efforts of the local offices of the Ministry and the regional offices, thanks to the initiative and the hard work of those executives who stayed with the company to open employment and appointments offices in the works, and thanks very much to the constructive work and responsible cooperation of the shop stewards committee, all this has the appearance at this stage of the rundown of a success story—a very highly successful story.

What, then, is the purpose of raising the matter on the Adjournment at this time? First, there are already 76 people out of work and unable to find work within a reasonable length of time. They range throughout the scale. At one end of the scale, if I may so put it, there is the 60-year-old skilled craftsman who said to his friend the other day that he wished he were five years older. He would wish five years of his life away in order that he could retire honourably instead of being thrown prematurely on the scrap heap. At the other end of the scale we have a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, a projects engineer, who, at the age of 44, has been unemployed since last October because his potential employers consider that his recent experience has been too highly specialised. One of the lessons which is emerging is the fact that the more highly qualified the man, the more specialised the man, the more difficult it is to find a vacancy for him. This is rather a sad reflection, on the state of our society.

I have here a number of cases, all of good highly qualified engineers with good experience, who are today unsuccessfully seeking work in my constituency and the surrounding area—an area recognised as one of high economic activity. Indeed, in spite of the underlying weakness in the economy at the moment, Acton remains one of the most highly industrialised and certainly one of the most highly prosperous areas of the country. I intend to do everything that I can to see that it stays that way. Yet even in Acton the number of unfilled vacancies registered at the local office has fallen from 322 in Octobet to 195 in February, and the number of unemployed has risen quite appreciably in percentage, although, happily for Acton, this does not mean so heavy an increase in numbers as it might in other parts of the country.

This brings me to the real nub of this debate. The rundown at Napiers has now reached a point at which the task of finding work for those becoming redundant during the next few months will increase sharply in degree of difficulty. Basically, the reason for this is that a much higher percentage of the people leaving over the next five months will be the long service and the older employees. Indeed, I am told that three-quarters of the shop floor employees still at Napiers are in the age group 50–65.

Without suggesting that the unemployment situation in Acton and West London generally is in any way comparable with the situation in the north of England or Scotland, let me say that the level of unemployment here is undoubtedly much higher than we have known it for quite a long time. In addition, we have a very noticeable amount of short-time working, which is certainly not helpful to those seeking employment. Unhappily, there are few signs as yet of an appreciable recovery in the local engineering industries. Indeed, only this week we have news of yet another engineering firm in Acton that is contemplating redundancies in the near future.

I know from my own visits to many factories in the area that in the long term these things will improve, but how long does it take for the demoralising effect of enforced idleness to take the heart out of a skilled man accustomed to hard work? How many setbacks can be endured by a man who is nearing but has not yet reached retirement age? How much wastage of skill and experience can this country afford at a time when we are fighting to improve our position in a highly competitive world?

During the months that I have been in close touch with this situation I have learned that the Ministry officials have been anxious to co-operate to the full with the company. I know, too, that the company has been working hard and effectively to supplement the work of the employment exchange. In paying tribute, as I do, to both these organisations I should also like to say how very much I applaud the wholly responsible attitude and the constructive endeavours of the works convenor and the individual members of the shop stewards committee with whom is has been my privilege to work in very close harmony for these months. Nevertheless, in spite of the effective combined operation during the first half of the rundown at Napiers, much more will have to be done to achieve anything like this success during the second half upon which we have now embarked.

Normally, the function of my hon. Friend's Department is to match applicants with vacancies notified to the exchanges. This, I fear, will be inadequate to cope with the current phase of Napier's rundown. I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to consider ways and means of developing a more positive and more active sales drive to sell to industry the accumulated skill and experience of these men. Whilst saying this, may I also ask him not to overlook the shortcomings of his Department's Professional and Executive Register, a register that has now had on its books for more than a couple of months a number of highly qualified and experienced senior executives, both technical and sales executives, willing to go anywhere, without, it appears, any prospect of placing them?

It is not my wish to be critical of the past or present efforts of the officers of the Ministry of Labour at either national or local level. I have a great respect for their work and know that they do all they can within the limitations of their terms of reference. My purpose in this debate has been to bring to the attention of my hon. Friend the dangers inherent in what is certainly a worsening situation in Acton and to urge him to seek ways and means of stepping up still further the activities of his Department. I sincerely hope that he will do just that.

4.14 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington)

I am very glad indeed to have the opportunity of adding a few words to the very sincere plea that the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Holland) has made in connection with the unfortunate situation due to the closure of Napiers. The factories are in his constituency, but many of those who work or who have worked for Napiers live in my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Feltharn (Mr. Hunter). They number some of the most highly skilled and respected of our citizens.

One of the real sadnesses in contemplating this case is that so many of those who find themselves without work are not only highly skilled, but have given a lifetime of service to the firm. In the one group we met there was not a man who had been with the company for less than 10 years—and he was regarded as rather the baby of the group. Others had put in 30 or 40 years. So, while we must mourn the passing of this firm, which had such a great reputation throughout the world in engineering, we must be even more concerned to see that everything possible is done for the men with this high degree of craftsmanship, particularly those who are in later life and to whom the additional hardship of having to do less skilled work, perhaps further from home, will constitute an additional hardship.

I must restrict my remarks, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Feitham wishes to lodge his plea to the Ministry. In one respect, the result of what has happened at Napiers is the result of Government policy. I am not now arguing whether this was right or wrong, but the consolidation of the aircraft industry was originally considered to be the right and proper course to follow. I do not think that it was intended to work out in this way with respect to Napiers, and to have had this effect. But there can be no doubt that what is happening to Napiers has been the result of an attempt to concentrate the industry and it seems that, on that ground, we can properly appeal to the Ministry to make special efforts to give whatever assistance is possible to those who are the unfortunate victims of that policy.

Had this happened a few years ago there would have been less concern, because industrial Middlesex was then one of the lucky areas. But, according to figures given to me in reply to a Question on 27th February—and because of the time element I will not detail them—the number of men and women unemployed in the various areas of the county has at least doubled, and sometimes trebled, during the last year or so.

Because Napiers and those who work for it are the victims at least to some extent of the Government's policy, and since we now face a totally different employment situation in Middlesex, we are entitled to ask and receive every possible help from the Ministry of Labour and other Government Departments.

4.12 p.m.

Mr. A. E. Hunter (Feltham)

I wish to associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington) and thank the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Holland) for raising this matter.

The Napier premises are in the Borough of Acton, but a number of my constituents have worked for the company for many years. I know, from the heartbreaking letters I have received from them, how sad the story is. We are speaking of one of the oldest firms in aircraft engineering—a firm with a famous name—and apart from the human tragedy of the men who are losing their jobs, it is a national tragedy that Napiers is to go.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington, the hon. Member for Acton and myself met the shop stewards and we know their feelings. At one time there were about 2,000 employees at Napiers. I understand that about 1,000 are left and that they will go by August. I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to do all he can to help to find suitable jobs for them. There is a great human and social side to this story and I appeal to the hon. Gentleman to urge the Ministry to do all it can to find suitable and satisfactory jobs for the employees of Napiers who become redundant.

4.20 p.m.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Holland) was good enough to let me have some details of the points that he wished to raise this afternoon and I should like to thank him for his courtesy. I am sure that both he and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington) and the hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter) will feel that it has been worth their while to have this debate. I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend on what I think would rightly be regarded as a very reasonably and carefully presented case.

My hon. Friend raised several important points and I will do my best to reply to them. I know, too, that my hon. Friend and the other two hon. Members have been working very hard for some time on this problem, which closely affects their constituencies. I am glad, in particular, that my hon. Friend has decided to use the Adjournment to press his case still further because he, having the factory in his constituency, is the one most closely affected. The closure of a factory of this size in any area, I agree at once, is a serious development not only for the community in which it takes place, but also for the employees which it affects.

My hon. Friend has chosen to concentrate in his speech on this latter question of the effect on employees. I am sure that this is right, since nobody who has spent any time at the Ministry of Labour can have failed to be made aware of the hardships and problems of adjustment to which redundancies of this size give rise. I agree both with the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington about the problems of adjustment and with the hon. Member for Feltham about the human hardships which arise in such cases.

I hope to show to the House that in this case a good deal has been done towards alleviating this hardship. I hope, also, to be able to give them an assurance about what will be done in future. Such problems, of course, can only be tackled through the combined efforts of all those concerned. The success which has been achieved in alleviating hardship so far proves that such co-operation has been very evident in this case.

The firm itself has taken seriously its responsibilities to its employees and has done a good deal to help them to find alternative work. The firm has operated a redundancy scheme which includes basic severance payment of half a week's pay for each completed year of service, with an extra half a week's pay for each year of service beyond twenty-four years. The firm has also been particularly helpful in assisting the Ministry of Labour to find alternative employment for those who were looking for it. I should like to pay tribute to the assistance which the firm has given us at all times since this redundancy was announced. It is an example which one would wish very much were followed in all such cases in all parts of the country.

The firm, from the very start, allowed us to register employees in advance of discharge and enabled us to set up an office in the factory for this purpose. Full particulars of all workers about to become redundant were furnished in advance to the employment exchange officers, and the firm agreed to channel through the Ministry of Labour all inquiries that it received for labour from other firms. This arrangement has done a great deal to assist local officers in affording ail possible help in dealing with this redundancy.

I was grateful for the tributes which my hon. Friend the Member for Acton generously paid to the work not only of our local officers in Acton, but also of our regional offices. I should like to pay tribute to the employers, to the trade unions concerned—as did my hon. Friend—and, indeed, to all the other interests in the area who have helped to find alternative employment for the work-people who have so far left the firm. The efforts which have been made have produced what is a reasonably satisfactory situation at this stage, and 1,308 of the original labour force have left either voluntarily or through discharge. This means that about half the firm's original labour force still remain in employment, and of the 1,308 who have left only 76 are registered unemployed. These figures speak for themselves, particularly as this rundown has been carried through, as hon. Members have mentioned, when unemployment in the Greater London area and in the country as a whole has been rising.

The position of apprentices is always a matter which must give rise to special concern when redundancies of this sort occur. I am sure that we are all particularly anxious that young people at this very early and important stage in their industrial lives should suffer as little disruption as possible. Once again, I can let the figures speak for themselves as a measure of the success which has met our efforts here.

According to my figures—which differ very slightly from those of my hon. Friend—of the 205 apprentices in the factory when the closure was announced suitable vacancies in comparable apprenticeships still need to be found for only four. Many of the apprentices at Napiers who were in lodgings in Acton have now found alternative apprenticeships nearer their homes.

Also, I am glad to be able to say that the youth employment situation generally in Acton has remained comparatively good. This month 16 boys and 7 girls were unemployed as against 7 boys and 7 girls in the same period last year. Furthermore, none of the 157 young people who left school at Christmas is still unemployed.

Now I want to look at the problems that remain, and I do so against the background of the employment position in the area. It is, of course, true that Acton is an extremely industrialised part of Greater London, which itself is an area in which demand for labour of all sorts, and particularly for skilled workers, is reasonably high. This has remained true generally although, of course, the level of unemployment has followed the upward trend in recent months.

It is fair to say that employment opportunities, one trusts, should materially improve as the months go on and—as is now happening—the weather improves; I hope that the opportunities for the people being discharged from Napiers will correspondingly improve in these months ahead, as I think they ought to.

My hon. Friend asked me particularly about the future, the positive side of this problem. He stressed that we are likely to be faced with an increasingly difficult problem in helping to find alternative employment for the remaining employees at the factory. He emphasised the problem of dealing with the growing proportion of older work people who have yet to leave the firm, and also those who are likely to be dealt with by our Professional and Executive Register. He mentioned some of the difficulties which had already been created in this.

I am afraid that older workers are inevitably a special feature of redundancies of this sort, and we share his concern that everything possible should be done to help these people. I can assure the House that we in the Ministry of Labour are very much alive to this problem and that we shall continue to spare no effort to find alternative employment for these people. For those who have skills in demand in industry there should, of course, be less difficulty.

I have also noted what my hon. Friend said about those who have technical and professional qualifications. I accept that we are likely to have to deal with a further large number of people of this sort, and I also accept that this is likely to be a special problem, particularly since it is often the case that these people have developed through the years special skills and experience which are of value only to their present employer. I am bound to agree with what he said about that.

I hope that it will be some comfort to him if I tell him that in our experience of other cases of this sort these people rarely create a lasting serious problem of unemployment, and this is true even in the areas of traditionally high unemployment. It does often mean, however, that such people have to be willing to accept work which is not absolutely comparable with what they have been doing in the past, or that they must be prepared to travel further afield to find new employment. We for our part recognise the problem we are likely to face, and we are determined to do what we can to help.

Perhaps at this point I could take up my hon. Friend's remarks when he urged me to see that our Professional and Executive Register is giving sufficient attention to this particular type of problem. I am sure that he appreciates the particular difficulties in this field. At the same time, I will look personally into this to see whether anything more can be done to help.

I hope that I have said enough to show that we in the Ministry of Labour fully appreciate the nature of the problems with which we shall be faced in the remaining stages of this rundown. On the whole, we do not expect that, with the economy expanding as we all trust it will, there will be any serious problem of general redundancies. I hope that, at the same time, I have made it clear that we fully recognise the nature and extent of the adjustments people at this factory will have to make.

I realise how very easy it is to talk about adjustments while not appreciating the personal difficulties to which these adjustments give rise. I should, once again, like to say that, whatever I may say about the need for adjustments, I very much realise the problems they inevitably create for the people concerned. If we are to solve all the individual difficulties, as we must, then the joint efforts of everyone concerned must not only be continued, but actually reinforced.

I want to assure my hon. Friend and the other hon. Gentlemen who have spoken that the Ministry of Labour will certainly play its part to the full.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to five o'clock.