HC Deb 08 April 1964 vol 692 cc1170-80

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

11.25 p.m.

Mr. John Parker (Dagenham)

Three and a half years ago the American Ford Company obtained control of 100 per cent. of the shares in the British Ford Company. Previously, it had been in possession of only 54.6 per cent. of its shares.

On the 21st November, 1960, the Leader of the House, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, made a statement to the House that the Government had given their consent to the American purchase of the British-owned shares in the British company. The main argument he advanced in favour of the Government's action in giving that consent was that if 100 per cent. of the shares in the British-owned company were owned by the American company the American company would be more disposed to expand and develop the British company than if it did not have such a large holding in the British company, particularly as the German Ford Company had 100 per cent. American ownership of its shares.

In the subsequent debate, the Leader of the House said: the intention is that Ford's in the United Kingdom should become bigger than all the other activities of Ford's outside the United States put together. That gives the Ford Company of the United States a very big incentive to maintain and increase the value of its British undertaking."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1960; Vol. 630, c. 829.] Later in the debate which took place later that day, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said: I have also received assurances on the following matters. I was told that the programme already announced of expansion on Merseyside, al Basildon in Essex, and elsewhere, involving an expenditure estimated at £70 million, would go forward. The United Kingdom Company has always ploughed back a high proportion of its profits for future development and that policy would continue. I was assured that there would be continuity in management and employment policies. The majority of the members of the Board would continue to le British.… There would be no change in employment policy and no intention to tale control of that policy out of the hands of the Board of the United Kingdom company. The United Kingdom company already obtains nearly 100 per cent. of the components in the United Kingdom. That policy would continue and full American ownership would indeed put the United Kingdom company in a better position to compete in world markets for the sale of components made here."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1960; Vol. 630, c. 769–70.] My case is that these undertakings have not been honoured. In a speech I made in that debate I explained that there was great disquiet in Dagenham at the prospect of 100 per cent. American ownership of the shares in the British company. I said: There is a feeling that whatever the terms may have been made there are no sanctions to see that they are carried out. Later, I added: There is a strong feeling that with increase of American control there will be more Americanisation of methods of handling labour and an increase in the bad relations which have been responsible for so much of the trouble that has taken place from time to time in Ford's." [OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1960; Vol. 630, c. 856–7.] Unfortunately, these fears have been justified by events. Employment policy in the last three and a half years has been 100 per cent. Americanised. There has been an increase in the number of Americans employed in the British company. I am told that at present about 100 to 150 Americans are now employed in the administrative, technical and advisory positions in the British firm. There has been an increase in dictation in the matter of policy from Detroit. The result has been that there is no room for chargehands on British lines in the firm and they have had to go. The position of old employees has altered.

In the past it was assumed that if a man had a good employment record with the company and his health then deteriorated, a job might be found for him as a cleaner, doorkeeper, or something of that kind; but now, he is immediately pushed out at once if it is found that he is not 100 per cent. fit. Further-more, the "green card" system does not work satisfactorily because, for example, if a man with a hernia has an operation and then recovers, he is given a green card although now 100 per cent. fit; our disability laws are thus got round in a way which is an abuse of the law.

American advice and specifications frequently cut right across the provisions of the British Factory Acts. There is continual pressure from Detroit to ignore the law of this country and there is a continuing need for our Factory Inspectorate to see that the law is enforced. Furthermore, the American policy of "hire-and-fire" is ruthlessly enforced. That may go down well with American labour, but it is not liked in this country, where men feel the need for security of employment. With our long history of industry there is felt to be a primary need for security, but the present policy at Ford's does not give that and this lack of a sense of security is causing very great disquiet at present.

The whole labour policy at Ford's is hopelessly confused. This appears to result from some conflict between Detroit and Dagenham. One must ask "How silly can Ford's get in their labour policy?" Simultaneously, with talk of redundancy due to a forthcoming rearrangement of work between Dagenham, Hailwood, and Basildon, there is a demand for more overtime to be worked despite the large turnover of staff, and natural wastage. With this demand for more and regular overtime, there is a refusal of longer summer holidays. There is also an increasing tendency for Ford's to place out work on contract instead of doing it in the firm. These various policies have created a fantastically bad labour image for Ford's.

I would like to know whether it is true that work on a new tractor is to be transferred to Antwerp despite undertakings which were given at the time that the Americans took over 100 per cent. control at Dagenham that nothing of that kind would happen. In the matter of the supply of components, I would like to refer to the promise given to the former Member for Lincoln, Sir Geoffrey de Freitas, in November, 1960, when the then Chancellor of the Exchequer said: …the purchase and manufacture of components in the United Kingdom will continue as at present, which means nearly 100 per cent. of the components used".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1960; Vol. 630, c. 830.] I am told that a large number of components are increasingly obtained from abroad.

My complaint is that Ford's are not honouring the undertakings given by them when the Government gave permission for the Americans to purchase the British owned shares. I ask the Government to press the firm to carry out the undertakings that it originally gave.

11.34 p.m.

Mr. Tom Driberg (Barking)

I should like, in the few minutes at my disposal, to support very strongly what my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) has just said, since a large number of my constituents also work at Ford's. I would follow his example in taking the House back to that debate on 21st November, 1960, and hope that the Parliamentary Secretary who is to reply tonight has got HANSARD with him.

We were than repeatedly given the assurance by two senior members of the Government—the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and the President of the Board of Trade—who have now moved to other positions in the Government, but who held those positions at that time. Both of them most emphatically gave this undertaking to which my hon. Friend has referred.

As the Chancellor put it: I was assured that there would be continuity in management and employment policies.… There would be no change in employment policy.…" —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1960; Vol. 630, c. 770.] And the President of the Board of Trade said very much the same thing. I take it that they must have been rather easily convinced in the preliminary inquiries they made, and which my right hon. Friend the present Leader of the Opposition described in his speech in that debate, as the "most perfunctory inquiries".

This is, after all, a rather serious matter for Parliament. It is, of course, in one sense, an industrial matter of a kind which is very often thought to be outside the purview of this House, but, on the other hand, as, clearly, a very great national interest was involved here, it was right that the Government should have made the statement which was made and should have taken part in the debate, in which my hon. Friend and I also took part. But, unfortunately, it is not only a question of Ford's having clearly misled the Government during those perfunctory preliminary inquiries. It is also a question of the Government having misled the House. I do not say they did so deliberately. They did so because they did not bother to go into the matter and really get cast-iron assurances in advance.

As my hon. Friend said, there has been since then an intensive Americanisation in Ford's of Dagenham, Americanisation of methods. In everything from accountancy onwards there has been radical and drastic change, and not always by any means for the better. A large number of American personnel have been brought in, so that the dissatisfaction is not felt only by the workers on the shopfloor; it is also felt at various levels in management as well, amongstexecutives.

I want to leave plenty of time for the Minister's reply, so I will close simply by quoting one short passage from a letter which seems to me to prove beyond doubt that when we were told that there would be no change in employment policy, and that this would remain under the control of the British company, we were misled: we were told a falsehood. This is a letter referring to quite a small detail of employment policy, a decision by the company to transfer part of an operation from hourly paid to salaried staff status. The letter comes from the manager of the industrial relations engineering staff at Aveley to the organising secretary of the trade union concerned, who had made inquiries. The letter brusquely brushes off the inquiry and says it has nothing to do with the trade union, and then explains that there has been some delay in arranging for this change of status.

He writes that the transfer of this operation to salaried staff involves a succession of essential procedural stages, including final ratification by the American Company of the changes to budgeted headcount involved. Complications at this latter stage have been the sole cause of the recent delay in obtaining final approvals, but all concerned were told at the outset that it would be impossible to predict with certainty how soon this stage could be accomplished. This final stage has now been cleared. That final stage, as the letter shows, was the final ratification by the American company of this relatively quite small detail in employment policy. If that is not employment policy, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell us what the phrase means.

11.40 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) and the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) have raised a subject of very great importance to their constituents. There can be no doubt of the immense contribution which the Ford Motor Company at Dagenham makes to the prosperity of the surrounding area. The general employment position in the Dagenham area is very good. There is no short-time working in the area and nor do we know of any future redundancies. Indeed, there is a general shortage of labour in the employment exchange areas around Dagenham—as in the Greater London area as a whole.

We should, also, not forget that the activities of the Ford Motor Company in Britain are not confined to the Dagenham area. A large factory is being developed at Halewood, near Liverpool, and the company has other establishments at Southampton, Leamington, Langley and many other places.

Both hon. Members opposite have suggested that the assurances on employment policy which were given in November, 1960, to my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Privy Seal, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, have not been fully kept. It is important when considering this matter to be quite clear as to what these assurances were. I will, therefore, read two extracts from the OFFICIAL REPORT of November, 1960, which set out the position plainly.

The first, which was also quoted by the hon. Member for Dagenham, was a statement made by my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal, who said: There would be no change in employment policy and no intention to take control of that policy out of the hands of the Board of the United Kingdom company. The United Kingdom company already obtains nearly 100 per cent. of the components in the United Kingdom. That policy would continue and full American ownership would indeed put the United Kingdom company in a better position to compete in world markets for the sale of components made here. The second quotation of importance is from the speech of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was then the President of the Board of Trade. He said, in reply to an intervention by the hon. Member for Barking: I said at the beginning of my speech that no company can ever give an assurance about the level of employment because it depends on ability to sell its products in a competitive market. There is a great difference between employment level and employment policy. Clearly, it means employment policy and not employment level."—[OFFICIAL. REPORT, 21st November, 1960; Vol. 630, c. 770–904.] I shall, therefore, deal with both of these matters; with both the question of what might be described in this context as employment policy and with the position of the employment level, along with the related matters to which the hon. Member for Dagenham referred.

First, employment policy. It would be fair to say, in the context of my right hon. Friend's statement, that employment policy clearly refers to the formation and application of the conditions of work which form the contract of service. On this, I have received a categorical assurance from the Ford Motor Company. It states: The employment policy of the United Kingdom Ford Company is still entirely within the control of the British Board of Directors—in line with the statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1960. That is a categorical assurance which I have been given and which I am authorised to give to the House tonight.

Mr. Driberg

Does the hon. Gentleman believe it?

Mr. Whitelaw

Naturally, I believe what I am given in a categorical assurance, but I also have some facts to support it.

I am further told that in May, 1961, the trade unions represented on the company's National Joint Negotiating Committee were given an assurance that they would still be able to negotiate with the firm on the understanding that the British directors were their own masters and that the sale of shares in no way affected the existence, status or functions of the National Joint Negotiating Committee. That position has not altered. It is fair to read into this categorical assurance that the Ford Motor Company has every intention of standing by the undertakings which it gave in 1960 on employment policy.

I should like, at this stage, to refer to what the hon. Member for Dagenham said about questions of safety, health and welfare and about the Factory Inspectorate. I assure him that the Factory Inspectorate are most careful to ensure that the Factory Acts are properly observed in our factories, and I give him the assurance that they naturally pay attention to this at Dagenham as, indeed, everywhere else.

There is no doubt from what the hon. Members have said that they are also concerned with the somewhat separate question of employment levels at Dagenham and, therefore, I can do no better than give them some of the figures. The total number of Ford's employees in the country as a whole in November, 1960, was 54,310. In February this year, it was 60,578, an increase of over 6,000. At Dagenham, the number of employees in November, 1960, was 39,223 whereas in February of this year it was 37,959. The decrease of over 1,000 at Dagenham is explained by the policy of dispersing production to other parts of the country. In the three years in question employment at Halewood, for example, has grown to 8,226, to the great benefit of Merseyside, a development district where more jobs were badly needed.

An indication that the firm is planning for the future is also given by the figures of the number of apprentices it trains. That number has increased from 738 in 1960 to 930 this year. The sales figures might also interest the House as they show that the level of Ford's activity in the United Kingdom has increased considerably in the last few years. The value of the sales of Ford's of the United Kingdom increased from £268 million in 1960 to £347 million in 1963. Included in that is a most important contribution to the nation's export trade.

As for the future, I understand that in the long term the firm has no fears of any decline in the level of employment. In fact its forecasts indicate that over the next 10 years there is more likely to be an increase in its total strength in this country. There may well be fluctuations, however, from time to time in different localities or on different components, depending on changes in demand for various products.

The hon. Member for Dagenham questioned the assurance about components. The assurance, as he said, was quoted by my right hon. and learned Friend, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, that The United Kingdom company already obtains nearly 100 per cent. of the components in the United Kingdom. That policy would continue …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1960; Vol. 630, c. 770.] I am assured that that policy has continued and that nearly 100 per cent. of the components are still produced in the United Kingdom.

There is then the question of the British directors on the board, which also is relevant. The position is that there are 11 British directors on the United Kingdom board and four American. All seven of the executive directors and four of the non-executive directors are, in fact, British.

The hon. Member for Dagenham raised the question of the manufacture of tractors in Antwerp. In pursuance of the assurances which had been given, Sir Patrick Hennessy, then the chairman of the company, sent a letter in October, 1962, to my right hon. and learned Friend the then Chancellor of the Exchequer explaining the company's forward plans for tractor manufacture. He said that the new factory at Basildon, Essex, would manufacture tractor engines, hydraulics and front ends and assemble all tractors for world markets except North America and certain European countries. He said that the existing Ford factory in Antwerp would operate as a branch of Ford Motor Company in this country and would manufacture tractor transmissions and rear axles, using castings and forgings imported front the United Kingdom, and assemble tractors for certain European countries.

I think that hon. Members will agree that the figures I have given are satisfactory and show that, since November, 1960, the Ford Motor Company has increased its already very substantial contribution to the British economy. Taken together with the renewed undertaking on employment policy which I have quoted, they should reassure both hon. Gentlemen and those of their constituents who have expressed anxieties to them.

Mr. Driberg

How does the hon. Gentleman square that new assurance with the passage in the letter saying that even a quite small change had to have final ratification in America?

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman will be the first to appreciate that, when this matter was raised, I sought from the Ford Motor Company the assurance which I have been given. What the hon. Gentleman has said on a particular detail of employment policy will, no doubt, be noted by the company. I think that it is right that I should confine myself to the sphere of our responsibility and give the categorical assurance which has been given to me by the Ford Motor Company.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.