HC Deb 27 May 1963 vol 678 cc1080-90

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

11.26 p.m.

Mr. Charles Grey (Durham)

I am very grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to press the need to include the Durham Rural District Council area in the list of development districts under Section 1 of the Local Employment Act. I understand that a previous attempt to do this, failed. What argument the Minister used then, I do not know, but I believe that the time has now come when the whole matter should be looked at again. I am glad to see the Parliamentary Secretary for Science here, as representing the Lord President of the Council; perhaps, jointly, we can look at the topic afresh and, maybe, get a different answer from that previously given.

The whole question needs reviewing because, since the original request was turned down, the unemployment figures have risen considerably. Although there has been a slight decrease, they are still very high. Official statistics do not reveal the seriousness of the problem facing the rural district councillors, and owing to the present set-up it is impossible to expect anything else. If I may say so with respect, the present situation is completely silly. We have a local authority that cannot find out how many unemployed it has—or how many employed for that matter. Such a crazy state of things must be put right.

I appreciate that the position is due to the fact that the local government boundaries differ from those of the local employment exchange areas, and that the local authority's problem is somewhat consequential on that fact. Further, I know that any change of local government boundaries greatly involves the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Realising that, my present effort is to find a way out of the difficulty.

I hope that I may be allowed to quote the facts about the position of this local authority. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade is fully aware of the position, but I must present the full background before I state the case. The Durham Rural District Council's area is split between four local employment exchanges. First, there is the West Rain-ton parish within the Houghton-le-Spring exchange area. Then there is Shadforth parish in the Haswell exchange area, and Kelloe parish in the Wingate area. The remainder come under the Durham Employment Exchange. A further complication arises because unemployed persons are not bound to register for employment at the exchange which the Minister of Labour decides may be appropriate to their area.

The result is a silly situation, with people living in Kimblesworth probably registering at Chester-le-Street, people at Brancepeth registering at Crook, and people living in Heat and Coxhoe registering at Spennymoor, and others at the Durham Exchange. People who live in the local government area of Brandon and Byshottles, which is part of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Ainsley), sign on at Durham exchange.

This is a lopsided arrangement but the simple explanation is that these local employment exchange areas are those nearest to the homes of these people. It can he seen, therefore, that in this sort of situation the local employment figures of the Durham Rural District Council are being lost in the figures of these employment exchange areas. The only way the local authority can find out who is unemployed is to go round knocking at doors and asking people whether or not they have signed on.

This knowledge, or lack of knowledge, causes a great deal of concern to the local authority. I share that concern, as I know do the Parliamentary Secretary and the Lord President of the Council. I say this because I know the extent to which the labour force in the area has contracted. I also fully realise—and I think that the Parliamentary Secretary has been given a note about it—that the proportion of the insured population of the Durham Rural District Council's area who are dependent upon the mining industry for their livelihood is greater by far than the proportion for the county as a whole. There are six coal mines within the area of the local authority. Four years ago they employed 6,184 men. Over recent years this figure has been reduced by 1,382 to the present total of 4,802 men. These figures take no account of the considerable number of mineworkers who travel to pits outside the area of the Durham Rural District Council where similar drastic reductions in manpower have taken place and continue to take place.

Many miners have moved away to other coalfields and this is another factor which has caused great concern. Members of the council and other people in the area feel that this migration is something which needs to be stopped, because if it is not stopped we shall get another kind of problem. It is a problem which only the council would have to face. What would happen to a place like Bowburn, a mining village within the Durham Rural District, which built 613 houses a few years ago to meet post-war demand? What will happen if this migration continues, coupled with an increasing level of unemployment among those who remain? The problem will not be one building more houses or of how to build them. It will be to find tenants for the existing houses. I wonder whether the Parliamentary Secretary or the President of the Board of Trade himself have gone into this and considered this aspect of the matter. if they have they are bound to realise that this state of affairs cannot continue and demands immediate attention.

It would be a very wise decision, I suggest, if the Parliamentary Secretary would say to us tonight that Durham will be placed on the active list and scheduled as a development district. I am hoping that he will consider this request very carefully. We all know that the President of the Board of Trade has power under the Act to schedule certain areas. We have differences of opinion about what amount of unemployment there should first be, but there has to be a certain level of local unemployment, or it is imminent. I will put it no higher than that. It could be a satisfactory arrangement to have the local government boundaries and the local employment exchange areas covering the same area, but it is a very unsatisfactory arrangement where they do not, and that is the position of Durham R.D.C., and, as I said earlier, and I repeat, it is a silly situation and needs putting right.

What the Parliamentary Secretary has in mind tonight I do not know. I hope that it is something good, but I am assuming the worst. I assume that he will tell me, "We have already done this. We have put Houghton-le-Spring on the list, and Haswell and Wingate, and these areas surround Durham Employment Exchange area and, therefore, Durham should benefit as a consequence." But why leave this unscheduled island? That is what it is. It is surrounded with scheduled areas and is an unscheduled island, although we have some of the best sites in the county. But because they are unscheduled there is not financial inducement to industrialists to go and they are not shown the sites in this area. They are shown only the sites in the areas which are scheduled.

I feel convinced that I am right in saying that we should schedule the Durham Employment Exchange area. I am prepared to say that it would he an advantage to the areas I have mentioned. Some of the sites within the local authority areas are close to the A.1 Road, and, as the Parliamentary Secretary knows, that road is a tremendous advantage to industrialists. Also, the scheduling of Durham could establish a growth point which would be of benefit to the whole neighbourhood. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will bear that in mind too.

Within the local authority area coming under the Durham Rural District Council is a population of 36,700. The council has done a wonderful job for these people. It has carried out its functions with a high degree of success, giving much satisfaction to the people there. It has built houses—perhaps not sufficient to meet all demands, but it has done a good job. It has built 6,000 houses, 3,000 since 1945, which, as the House will appreciate, is no mean achievement.

But the sad fact is that the council has new fears, fears of unemployment. It wants to take effective steps to deal with this serious problem, but it cannot do all it could, for two reasons. First, it cannot find out how many unemployed persons they have. Secondly, it is hampered because the whole area is not scheduled as a development district. For these two reasons, and in the light of the set of circumstances which I outlined earlier, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary is prepared now to say that Durham will be placed on the list.

11.41 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. David Price)

I am very happy to reply to the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Grey), who has, as I know my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for Science will agree, deployed his arguments with the sincerity and charm which we all associate with him.

I wish to make clear at the outset that both my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and I realise that the area around Durham City is one which has traditionally been dependent on the coal mining industry and which has, therefore been hit by the contraction of coal mining in recent years. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is precisely because the Government have recognised that special structural problems have arisen in the North-East, due, in particular, to the contraction of the two basic industries of coal mining and ship building, that we are making a detailed study of the region in order to see what measures further to the Local Employment Act are necessary to deal with these problems on a regional basis.

I cannot say tonight what these measures will be. We await the detailed proposals of my hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council, but I make that point at the beginning of my speech, because I wish to emphasise that the Government recognise that, where there is a structural imbalance in the economy of an area as a whole, as in the North-East and Central Scotland, for instance, additional and special steps may be necessary to offset the effects of the contraction of the traditional heavy industries and to restore the economic balance of the region as a whole through improvements in the social, economic and industrial infrastructure.

The hon. Member has requested that my right hon. Friend should list the Durham rural district as a development district. This raises a question of principle under our present policy. As he knows, this policy is based on the Local Employment Act, under which our assistance is concentrated on the development districts. Indeed, if it were not so, the hon. Gentleman would not be asking us to make the Durham rural district a development district. These districts, which for sound administrative reasons are defined in terms of the Ministry of Labour employment exchange areas or groups of areas and not by local government boundaries, are those parts of the country where high and persistent unemployment either exists or is threatened. They are, therefore, by definition the areas of the country where in recent years there has been least industrial development proportionate to the size of the working population.

But. happily, the position is not as bad in the Durham Employment Exchange area as in other parts of the North-East. I do not for one moment pretend that there is nothing to be worried about or that the Government would not like to see new industry in the area to offset the decline of the coal mining industry, which has for so long been the chief source of livelihood in the Durham area. It is also true that unemployment in the Durham Employment Exchange area has risen over the past year, particularly amongst men, but at the April count the unemployment rate was 3-5 per cent., which is still well below the rate prevailing in the surrounding development districts. and, indeed, in development districts generally. While one does not like to see anyone out of a job, the fact is that one cannot describe unemployment in the Durham Employment Exchange area as serious by comparison with the development districts.

As the hon. Gentleman has reminded us, most of Durham rural district falls within the Durham Employment Exchange area which goes wider than both the City of Durham and the hon. Member's rural district, because it also includes Brandon and Byshottles. As to why the Ministry of Labour grouped these parishes and the city together, the hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that the 1951 census showed that over 1,500 residents of Brandon and Byshottles worked in Durham and only just over 90 went across the border into Crook. From looking at the map, one might have expected more to have worked in Crook than in Durham. The Ministry of Labour work out the employment exchange areas on the pattern of travel to work. From time to time we have these censuses and the Ministry adjusts the boundaries accordingly. It tries to reflect the pattern of where people go to work. Whether one agrees with the distances people travel or not, this is what, in fact, happens. It is best to be realistic.

As the hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out, three parishes in the Durham rural district are in three different employment exchange areas, all three of which axe development districts. The insured population of the Durham employment exchange area was 28,600 at the 1961 census. The hon. Member may like to have the latest unemployment figures for the Durham Employment Exchange area. In April of this year the figure was 948, which represented 3.5 per cent. of the working population, compared with the year previously when the figure was 2.4 per cent. consisting of 646. The hon. Gentleman might also like to have the figures of the annual averages over the last three years. In 1960, it was 2 per cent.; in 1961, it was 1.7 per cent.; in 1962, it was 2.5 per cent.

The hon. Gentleman has pointed out that conditions in Durham City and in the surrounding countryside are not the same and that the relative prosperity of the former to a large extent masks the severity of the problem in the rural district. I would not deny that there is something in what the hon. Gentleman says, but, as he has rightly pointed out, there is no separate record of the insured population in the rural district, so one cannot say precisely what the rate of unemployment is in the rural district as distinct from the whole employment exchange area.

I agree that, if one could exclude Durham City, the unemployment percentage would be higher for the rest of the employment exchange area, but it is not the policy of the Government to designate small areas as development districts, except in special circumstances—for example, where they are remote from the larger centres of the population. In the case of rural Durham, which surrounds a prosperous city and is at many points within daily travelling distance of other parts of the County—we have mentioned a number—this does not apply.

I said a moment ago that there are administrative reasons for basing a development district on the Ministry of Labour employment exchange areas or groups of areas, as we have done recently in the case of Tyneside. The hon. Member will recall that before 1960 the policy had been to seek to deal with the regional problems of unemployment by making large areas—the development areas—eligible for financial assistance. This policy had two consequences. First, industry naturally chose the localities most attractive to it because of good communications, labour and amenities, to the neglect of localities less well endowed and often more remote. Secondly, because of the high percentage of the total insured working population contained in these areas, total available assistance both by way of financial assistance from the Exchequer and through the amount of steerable industry which could be located there, was spread very thinly. In the Local Employment Act we introduced a new policy of concentrating available assistance on the particular black spots of high and persistent unemployment. It would be equally wrong to designate very small areas which do not comprise a single and viable economic unit. The question of defining boundaries has always been one to inflame local passions, and inevitably whatever system is chosen it will seem to those who have the misfortune to be just the wrong side of the line to be lacking in both logic and justice. Equally, if one is to pursue a policy that discriminates in favour of some parts of the country—and since our resources are limited, it is clearly right to do so—there must be some such system. The Ministry of Labour employment exchange areas, or groups of areas, which we have chosen, take account of established patterns of travel to work and provide an objective formula which can be uniformly applied throughout the country for determining the localities in which the benefits of the Act should apply. I would not go so far as to say that we would not in any circumstances designate a small area such as the Durham rural district, merely because local authority boundaries do not coincide with the employment exchange boundary, but before doing so we would have to be convinced either that there was a high rate of unemployment in the area which was not likely to be reduced by recruitment for industry within the area as a whole, or that there was a probability of persistent high unemployment in the future. We are not at present satisfied that this is the case. I understand that there are at present seven pits—not six—in the Durham rural area. Of these, four are classified by the National Coal Board in their manpower profile for the Durham division as category A collieries where there will be a need to recruit men either to maintain or to increase manpower. It is not, of course, possible to say what their ultimate prospects may be, but I understand that the "Adventure" pit is the only one which is currently scheduled for closure.

I do not want to minimise the seriousness of this problem, but I think, too, it is only right to take account of the facts which suggest a brighter picture. I realise that even in these pits there has been a run-down in mining employment over the past two years of over 1,000. I am not suggesting that there will be no further redundancies, but I think that the hon. Member will agree that the National Coal Board has an excellent record of redeploying workers made redundant by pit closures over other parts of the coalfield and I am confident that they will continue to do all they can in this direction in the future.

It has been suggested, however, that but for migration the position would be worse than it now is. The Local Employment Act was never intended to cope with the problem of depopulation. It would be useless to pretend that migration has not occurred in the past and, indeed, I believe that we must recognise that an increasing mobility of labour and travelling to work is an integral part of any modern industrial society. As the then President of the Board of Trade said in the House during the Committee stage of the Local Employment Act: Our resources are limited … as long as they are limited, however, we must concentrate them on the areas where help is needed … and where people are seeking jobs." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd December, 1959; Vol. 614, c. 1300] In fact, if we look at Durham rural district we find that there are a number of jobs in prospect from developments known to the Board of Trade. It is now extremely likely that a firm which has been granted an I.D.C. for a project in the rural district area to employ 700 workers, 600 of whom will be men, will go ahead in the near future. Of this labour force the majority will be drawn obviously from the surrounding development districts but some will come from the rural district. Three other firms already in the area are undertaking expansions which will provide nearly 200 further jobs, although in this case most of these will be for women.

In all there are about 1,200 jobs in prospect for the Durham Employment Exchange area, whereas at the April count there were 948 registered unemployed. In addition, the Post Office Savings Department is to be moved to the Durham area. A start has already been made, and the Post Office hopes to build up a staff of 600 over the next eighteen months, over 400 of whom will he recruited locally. I can tell the hon. Member that the Post Office has informed me that 200 will be recruited locally this year, and that of the 400 or so jobs available locally over half are likely to be for men.

More jobs—particularly for men—are needed, but a good start has been made, and I believe that the prospects for the area as a whole are good. As the hon. Member has said, the rural district is surrounded by other local employment exchange areas, which are development districts, and there is considerable movement between these areas—Houghton-le- Spring, Haswell, Chester-le-Street, Spennymoor and Crook—and between these areas and the Durham rural district.

In practice, this means that virtually any worthwhile project in the rural Durham area would be eligible for assistance under the Local Employment Act to the extent that it would employ workers from the surrounding development districts. Development assisted in this way will clearly benefit the area as a whole, including rural Durham, even though it is not listed as a development district itself. Where residents of the Durham rural district register at nearby employment exchanges rather than at the Durham Employment Exchange they will obviously stand to benefit from projects assisted under the Act.

While my right hon. Friend could not agree to put the Durham rural district: area on the list of development districts at the present time, I can assure the hon. Member that this list is kept under constant review—

The Question having been proposed after 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 four minutes to Twelve o'clock.