HC Deb 18 February 1964 vol 689 cc1161-74

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

10.31 p.m.

Mr. James Griffiths (Llanelly)

I desire to call attention to the decision of the War Office to close down the Royal Ordnance Factory at Pembrey at the end of this year. The factory is situated in my constituency, and the workers there are drawn from my constituency and that of my noble Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Lady Megan Lloyd George). Communities in both constituencies will be affected by the closure and, even more, by what happens to the factory and the premises in the future.

There is a very strong feeling in the area that Pembrey and the other areas immediately affected have been very badly treated by the War Office. I will explain why. During the First World War a very big Royal Ordnance Factory was built in Pembrey, and workers were drawn from many parts of Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. A promise was given during that war that the factory would be kept in production at some level after that war was over. As a result of that promise, many developments took place, particularly in Burry Port. For example, the Welsh Housing Association built 200 houses in one of the attractive housing areas, an area now known as a garden suburb.

After the war, the War Office, or whatever authority was responsible at the time, closed the factory and sold it for scrap. Scrap merchants knocked it about and extracted whatever metal they could. At that time it was very profitable selling scrap. But the debris was left behind, leaving the place an unsightly mess. The result was that Burry Port, which had expanded and built up its services during the war, suffered grievous unemployment in the 20s and 30s. There was a period when the unemployment rate there was 85 per cent.

When the Second World War came, the War Office returned to exactly the same site, even clearing the debris left previously, and built another Royal Ordnance Factory. It is that factory, which has served this country in war and peace, which is now to be closed.

I want to say a word about the record of this factory. During the war and the years immediately afterwards it had an excellent record. That will be admitted on all sides. It was efficient in production. The industrial relations were among the best in any Ordnance Factory or other industrial establishment in the country. The workers showed very great loyalty and cooperation. The factory was among the first of the industrial establishments to suffer from enemy bombing. It was bombed in daylight in July, 1940. Ten workers wore killed and a large number were injured; but not a moment's production was lost. I cite that as one example among many of the cooperation of the workers during the war.

After the war, when the Labour Government were returned to power, the factory was maintained in production for many years after 1945. During that time between 1,000 and 2,000 workers were employed there. This meant a great deal to the economic prosperity of the area and of Burry Port, Kidwellty and Pembrey in particular. We quite understand that changes are made in matters of defence, and that it was found that producing explosives would not of itself have maintained the employment which had hitherto been maintained in the factory. Then something else happened. It was discovered by the War Office that there was an opportunity to do good business for the nation by bringing shells and bombs full of explosives to the factory.

Part of the factory was given the job of clearing out the explosives from the shells and making the steel available for scrap. It was a very risky and dangerous job and some of the men engaged on this work lost their lives and others received injuries. But they did it with remarkable efficiency and co-operated in every possible wary. I think the Under-Secretary of State for War would agree that the War Office made a handsome profit out of it. I know something about steel and scrap, and if the War Office had not made a handsome profit then the Public Accounts Committee would have looked into the matter.

I mention those facts very briefly because I want to give my hon. Friends an opportunity of taking part in the debate. The factory has answered every call made upon it and has given full cooperation to the Government. It built up a wonderful team of scientists, engineers, artisans and workers, and it has been acknowledged on all sides that it was an efficient factory. Now changes have come about, and they will come again.

Over the last two years the number of men employed at the factory has been gradually reduced. There are now approximately 400 people working at the factory, and I want to say a word about those people. They will be out of a job before the end of the year. I will say a word about their record and about their age groups, because I think that both are very important.

Of the 382 men actually employed at the turn of the year, 105 of them have given from 20 to 26 years' continuous service; 53 have given from 15 to 20 years' service, and 134 from 10 to 15 years' service. They are fine men and splendid workmen. After 10, 15, 20 and 26 years' service to the nation, both in war and peace, they are now to be pushed out. When this final 382 come to be dismissed at the end of the year, what is going to happen to them? Will the Under-Secretary of State tell us that?

I will give their age structure. I understand that 92 of these men are between 60 and 65 years of age; 100 of them are between 55 and 60; 56 of them are between 50 and 55, and thus 248 out of the 382 are aged 50 and over. They are going to be rendered unemployed in an area which is still certified by the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Labour as an area of high unemployment.

To put these men on the road after these years of service in an area where for a man over 50 it is almost impossible to get a job is a very serious matter. For this reason we are very anxious indeed about the situation that will arise at the end of the year regarding these men.

I wish to put very simply to the Under-Secretary of State—I hope I may have another opportunity to return to the matter when we debate the Army Estimates—why, if some Ordnance Factory had to close, it should be Pembrey. That is a fair question. Why should Pembrey have to suffer once again as it did after the First World War? I gather that it will be moved to Bishop-ton in Scotland. I should be the last to say a word against Scotland in her desperate need for work, but if this is the Government's planning—moving work from one scheduled area to another—it is not what we mean by industrial planning. It is said that part is going to Scotland and part to Bridgwater, which is not scheduled. Why Pembrey? It is not on the grounds of efficiency or on the ground that Pembrey does not need the work.

If it is to be closed, what is to happen to the factory? We understand that the War Office propose to put it up for sale and that offers have been made for part of the factory and have been turned down. I do not want to deal with that tonight. It will be adding injury to insult and insult to injury if this place once more is closed down as it was at the end of the 1914–18 war.

I should like the War Office to consult the Board of Trade on the matter. We have put to the War Office over the last two years and to successive Secretaries of State for War and Presidents of the Board of Trade that it would make an admirable trading estate. It is a splendid site with good rail communications with Swansea, Cardiff and London and—on the basis that the central Wales line would be kept open—with Central Wales and right through Wales to Birmingham. The ports are nearby and there are good roads. There are excellent services available—roads within the factory, water, gas, electricity, and all that is required. Here is a ready-made trading estate in an area which badly needs industry. I am told that almost overnight it could be turned into a factory for fertilisers—and how badly the world needs fertilisers. What a shocking state of affairs. We have a factory which could be turned to the production of fertilisers at a time when the hungry world cries out for them—and it is not being done. There is no end to what could be done here.

I hope that the Minister will continue to provide employment for these men until the Government are ready to provide them with alternative employment. I hope that he will not push them out on to the market saying, "We have done our best but we cannot sell you".

I pay tribute to these men and I stress that they and this community have a very strong case. I speak for them in telling the Parliamentary Secretary that we expect the Government, out of gratitude for what these men have done, to look after them and to keep them in employment. Out of regard for this community they should see that this splendid factory on this splendid site, with all these services available, is not scrapped but is used to the benefit of the nation and of the community.

10.43 p.m.

Lady Megan Lloyd George (Carmarthen)

I want to add a word or two to what has been said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) and to emphasise how much this matter concerns my constituency. The R.O.F. at Pembrey draws its workers from a very wide area, which includes Kidwelly, a very hard-put town in my constituency. The R.O.F. has made an important contribution to the area over a number of years. At its peak it provided 1,000 to 1,500 jobs and even now, at the very low ebb which it has reached, it is providing work for about 400.

In answer to questions put by my right hon. Friend and myself, in December the Under-Secretary of State said that the entire position in the area had improved considerably over the last few months. We rejoice that this is so and we hope that the improvement will not be temporary. The hon. Member went on to say that he hoped very much that it would be possible to provide alternative employment for those who became redundant as a result of the closure of Pembrey. I hope that he will tell us where this alternative work will come from and, in particular, where it will be found in Carmarthenshire. I do not know whether he expects that these men and their families will uproot their homes and go elsewhere, perhaps even over the Border, as so many in that area have had to do before. Certainly the jobs are not available in Carmarthenshire.

There is at the moment unemployment in the Llanelly area, including Pembrey and Kidwelly, of 1,337, and I am sure that the Under-Secretary is enough of a realist to know that it will not be possible to absorb these men in an area where the figure of unemployment is of that nature. Only a new industry can take the place of the R.O.F. in that part of the country. The Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary have acknowledged that the War Office has an obligation in this matter towards its employees in Pembrey. They have said it to my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) in the House and when we have met them on an earlier occasion.

I ask the Under-Secretary to tell us how the War Office is going to carry out that obligation. He will say no doubt, with justice, that it is not the function of the War Office to steer industry to Pembrey or anywhere else. We realise that, but it is for the War Office to exert its influence and bring pressure to bear on the Board of Trade if that obligation is to be honoured, otherwise it is just so much paper to be torn up.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will take very seriously the suggestion put to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly that the Board of Trade should take over this site and develop a trading estate there. It is a valuable site, as my right hon. Friend has said. It was considered as a possible site for the giant steel mill now established at Llanwern. It is an ideal site for development. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give to the workers at the R.O.F. and to the towns of Kidwelly and Pembrey some lope that the Government will at least honour their obligation and pay the debt which they owe to these men who have rendered signal service to the country.

10.47 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War and Financial Secretary to the War Office (Mr. Peter Kirk)

I am very grateful to the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) and the hon. Lady the Member for Carmarthen (Lady Megan Lloyd George) for giving me this opportunity of going into some little more detail than I was able to do in Question and Answer in December on the very difficult question of the closure of the Royal Ordnance Factory at Pembrey.

I ought to start by saying, as I am sure the House will be aware, that having to take this sort of action gives the War Department no pleasure at all. We are only too well aware of the immense service rendered by the people who have worked at Pembrey in two world wars. One of the reasons why I am grateful for this opportunity to speak for a few minutes is that I am conscious of the fact that considerable distress was caused by the earlier decision in 1918 to close down the factory. We hope to avoid anything of that nature occurring again this time.

The right hon. Member for Llanelly asked, very fairly, why it had to be Pembrey. The answer is that it is one of the four factories in the explosives group of the Royal Ordnance Factories, the other three being Bishopton, Bridgwater and Ranskill. The primary purpose of Pembrey, as opposed to the other three, was to provide capacity for the manufacture of T.N.T. During the rearmament period about the time of the Korean war stocks of T.N.T. were built up to a high degree, indeed to such an extent that we have now, and have had for many years, long inactive, quite enough for foreseeable future need. The factory also had capacity, which was active, for the phosphorus filling of ammunition and other minor chemical activities which it was convenient to carry on in association with the main activity. But the major rôle of Pembrey always was, in its secondary reincarnation, if I may put it that way, the manufacture of T.N.T.

For some time before the closure was announced in April, 1962, the main work of the factory had been, as the right hon. Gentleman said, not the manufacture of explosives at all but the break-down of surplus ammunition, and it was only because of this that Pembrey was kept going for as long as it has been. Indeed, it might be said that it has been fortunate in surviving until now the impact of the major contraction of the Royal Ordnance Factories which was begun, as the House knows, in 1957. Had it not been for the significant and somewhat fortuitous buildup in the amount of surplus ammunition calling for break-down, the factory might well have suffered redundancies, if not complete closure, at an earlier stage.

In 1962, the amount of ammunition break-down work was steadily declining, and there was no prospect of any improvement in the situation. As regards the factory's main original activity, explosives, the capacity of the factory was quite out of scale with the foreseeable requirements for T.N.T. There was no prospect at all of getting production orders for high explosives which would have justified retaining the large plant at Pembrey. Accordingly, the Departmental review of defence manufacturing capacity, which, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, went on between 1960 and 1962, reached the conclusion that the most economically efficient course would be to make alternative arrangements for the future production of T.N.T. on the very much smaller scale which is now required as part of the total capacity of another factory. This would mean that the explosives capacity of the R.O.F. Pembrey would be abandoned and that its residual activities should be dispersed as required. I hope that that explains to the right hon. Gentleman why the decision was taken.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Can the hon. Gentleman explain why the Government could not have closed down Ranskill, which is in a fully employed area, and transferred the work from there to Pembrey?

Mr. Kirk

These factories are not strictly comparable one can make certain types of explosive at one factory and not at another. I think that that would be the reason for it. Pembrey was geared to this particular explosive.

Mr. Jay

Has the hon. Gentleman considered or investigated whether it would have been possible to make a transfer from Ranskill to Pembrey?

Mr. Kirk

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the whole question of the Royal Ordnance Factories has been reviewed more than once since 1957, when the policy of the then Ministry of Supply was announced. Ranskill was certainly taken into consideration.

I come now to the question of how we are disposing of the factory, what we shall do with the site, and, lastly, the most important question of the labour force.

Both in letters and at Question Time, we have told right hon. and hon. Members opposite that we have decided to offer the factory as one lot in December, 1964, probably by public tender, and it will, of course, be widely advertised. We did try, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, to sell the ammunition breakdown area separately, even though it was contaminated, but none of the offers which we received came up to what seemed to us to be a suitable figure. In any case, we felt that the sale of the ammunition break-down area as a going concern was just acceptable only so long as there were firm and long-term employments prospects and only as long as the contaminated area was to be used only for ammunition break-down. But it would have meant handing over to a private concern land in a contaminated and possibly dangerous state. This could have resulted in serious disaster should an accident have occurred. We have had unfortunate experience in relying upon unsupported promises of future employment possibilities which, in the event, could not be substantiated. We could not, in the absence of firm prospects, continue to overlook the other factors at Pembrey.

A lesser but important consideration was that the continued use of the site for ammunition break-down would have meant a serious depreciation in the value of the rest of the factory and might even have deterred prospective purchasers completely. For these reasons—finance, employment and safety—the tenders received for the ammunition break-down area were unacceptable. Decontamination of the whole site is now going ahead so that the factory may be offered in a safe condition in one lot at the time of closure.

Mr. J. Griffiths

If the War Office cannot find a private enterprise firm to take it over, will it then be handed to the Board of Trade to be worked as a trading estate?

Mr. Kirk

I shall certainly consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry and Trade about that point, but at present our plan is to put it up for sale as a whole lot in December.

The moat important point, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree, concerns the existing staff, to whom, as I have said in the House, we fully recognise an obligation. Since the closure of the factory was announced in April 1962, nearly two years ago, its labour strength has been reduced from about 1,000, including about 200 non-industrial staff, to less than 500, including 100 non-industrial staff.

By April, the strength will be reduced to 450 and by October to 330. Of the present strength of the factory of just under 500, some 370 are established, including 70 non-industrials, and of the established employees, upwards of 100 are more than 60 years of age. These, of course, will be entitled to retire can the superannuation which they have earned. Established employees under 60 who wish to remain in Government service will be offered alternative jobs, but here, of course, we have the difficulty that there is scarcely any Government work available in the neighbourhood of Pembrey. There are suitable jobs available in other parts of the country, but we know from experience that people do not generally wish to up sticks and move with their families, even though other jobs would be available for them.

Perhaps I should now outline the steps which the Department will take on behalf of those who become redundant. Established employees retiring at the age of 60 or more will receive the pension and lump sum payment which they have earned. Those aged between 50 and 59 who do not wish to take up other Government work will have the pension and lump sum which they have earned put into cold storage until they reach the age of 60 to safeguard it for them, so hat if they move into other employment, they will still have the pension and lump sum which they have earned. Those who are under 50 and who cannot get other Government work locally and who wish to leave the service may qualify for terminal grant—this also applies to those who are over 50 and who wish to leave the Government service, of course, but it is assumed that they will want to have their pension and lump sum frozen, for that would be worth more—and those who are unestablished will get a gratuity for five or more years of service.

Although the level of unemployment in the Llanelly area was higher in December—the last month in which I have absolute figures—than the average for Great Britain, 3.3 per cent. as against 2.2 per cent., only a small number of those under the age of 60 who have left the R.O.F. since the closure was announced are still registered with the Ministry of Labour as unemployed. The Llanelly area is a development district and the full benefits of the Local Employment Acts are available to any firms setting up or expanding there, and new jobs are expected to become available in the coming year with the expansion of industries in the area. In consultation with the Ministry of Labour, we are making every effort to assist any redundant employees to find suitable jobs in local industry.

Employment prospects in the Llanelly employment exchange area, which includes Pembrey, are, on the whole, encouraging. There are currently more than 1,300 jobs in prospect including 900 which are exclusively for male employees resulting from developments in a wide variety of industries. Recruiting by Fisher and Ludlow will continue to help the employment situation for some time, and jobs will also arise in light engineering, mining machinery, electronic components and other industries. The fall in the number of workers wholly unemployed from 6.7 per cent. last February to 3.3 per cent. at the end of the year reflects to a large extent the jobs which have already materialised there, and we expect these developments to continue.

There are still some 16 good industrial sites in the Llanelly area which are easily accessible, ranging in size up to 13 acres—leaving out the R.O.F. site. In the last twelve months, 55 industrialists have had their attention drawn to the area by the Board of Trade's office in Wales and 15 have visited the area. Firms setting up or expanding in the area are entitled to the free depreciation and other financial assistance given under the Local Employment Acts and since April 1960 the Board of Trade has offered more than £5,500,000 for projects in the area, estimated to provide more than 4,600 jobs. Llanelly has plenty of good sites for industry and we are confident that industrialists will continue to be attracted there.

The Board of Trade—and I emphasise that this is primarily a matter for the Board of Trade and not for the War Department—is also doing its utmost to interest industrialists in taking over the R.O.F. itself. Its office for Wales has mentioned it to industrialists on suitable occasions and some of the 15 whom I mentioned and who have visited the area in the last year at the Board's suggestion have seen over it. The Board can give assistance in adapting a factory which in its present condition might not be wholly suitable for other means of employment. There are, of course, a limited number of industrialists whose needs will be met by a factory of this kind without extensive adaptation being necessary, and the Board of Trade is being pressed to find a purchaser likely to provide as much continuing employment as possible.

It is generally felt—though, as I said, I shall ask my right hon. Friend to look at this again—that the adaptation of the factory as a trading estate would cost too much in relation to its possible future use by industry and the employment which will be created. And even when adapted it will still be attractive only to specialised industrialists, but the War Office and the Board of Trade are keeping in close touch on all these points, and will continue to do so.

As I said, both in answer to questions in December and at the beginning of my remarks, we recognise in all cases where we have to close a R.O.F. that we have a very considerable obligation to the employees, and in this special case we recognise how strong that is. I hope that what I have said will at least convince the right hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend and I are very conscious of the problems of this area. We are doing everything we can to ensure that suitable alternative employment will be available to everybody, and we are very encouraged by the fact that nearly all those who have left so far—and they are more than half of the total employees there—have found alternative employment.

There is a problem, particularly with the older employees. This is a problem which we have found with all R.O.F. closures, but we hope that it will be possible to ensure that they are suitably catered for.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned, at one minute past Eleven o'clock.