HC Deb 20 May 1965 vol 712 cc1913-22

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

4.36 a.m.

Mr. Harold Walker (Doncaster)

I hope the House will forgive me for detaining it at this late hour. I am glad to have the opportunity to get out of the heady atmosphere of champagne and caviare down to the more bread and butter question of the repair and manufacture of locomotives in British Railway workshops, particularly in my constituency of Doncaster.

There have been several recent important decisions which compel me to raise this subject. The forward new building policy announced by the British Railways Board in June, 1964, is intended to concentrate new locomotive building in the hands of two private manufacturers. This means that at the Doncaster workshops new locomotive building will cease at the end of 1965 and thus bring to an end 114 years of railway history. It was in 1851 that the church bells of Doncaster pealed out the good news of the decision of the Great Northern Railway to establish its principal workshops in the town.

Since that date such famous locomotives as "The Flying Scotsman" "The Silver Link" and the world record breaking "Mallard"—names which were once on every schoolboy's lips—have borne testimony to the unsurpassed skill and craftsmanship of the Doncaster engineers. The break with such a proud tradition is not easy for men who have devoted their lives to the industry, particularly when it is accompanied by the shadow of redundancy. Neither they nor we can overlook the fact that this is an area of workshop manufacture where the ability to be commercially competitive has been tried and proved over many decades.

To take away from our publicly-owned workshops that work for which they are equipped and laid out, and which they are supremely competent to perform, gives a faintly hollow ring to the Minister of Transport's recent statement about extending the manufacturing powers of the workshops. Clearly, giving such power is insufficient. The will to use it is also important. The motives of the Board on locomotive manufacture are understandable—to concentrate development and its related costs. The private manufacturers' ability to combine home and export production programmes certainly offers an attractive advantage, but the implementation of the Minister's proposals removes this advantage and makes concentration equally practical within the public sector. It seems not unreasonable to hope that the Board may be induced to review its decision of 1964 in anticipation of the impending Bill and thus relieve the burden of anxiety which presses so hard on our people in the workshops. I think of my own constituency but I am pleased to see present my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Ted Fletcher), because there are places such as his own constituency which are more severely affected in this respect than my own.

It is rather odd to be slicing off a large part of the production of the public sector of our industry and creating from it a new, near-monopoly in the private sector at a time when we might be expecting that advances would be made in pushing forward the frontiers of public ownership. It is hardly surprising that people tend to call this "creeping denationalisation".

I am not pleading the case for an alternative monopoly right to be vested in the British Railways Board, nor am I necessarily making a plea for my own constituency workshops to play the conspicuous rôle in this field that they played in the days of steam. I am arguing for the chance for perhaps otherwise redundant workers, within the framework of the railway workshops, to use their skill and ability to satisfy the future locomotive needs of their own industry. I hope that my plea will not fall on deaf ears and that the Board will act to stop any immediate redundancies and not lag behind other industries in introducing those social advances which might help to redistribute the work load. The shorter working week and the longer holiday sought by men in the workshops to get into step with other industries would have a useful marginal effect.

The opportunity for the workshops to make replacement components, and to be equipped for this purpose, would make a considerable contribution to the speedier handling of scheduled repairs to locomotives, in which work my constituency locomotive shops are proving themselves particularly able.

I am sure that the opportunity for the workshops to do this work would increase efficiency inside the shops and speed up the turn round of repairs. I hope that in the modernisation programme being implemented in the workshops, provision will be made for reequipping in order to enable them to carry out that kind of work.

The workshops have shown their ability to do it already, because it is in line with the traditional work they performed in the days when they manufactured their own locomotives. The present dependence upon outside suppliers must be an irksome brake on workshop efficiency. In order to ensure the continued full use of equipment and manpower in the workshops, the possibility of manufacturing for other publicly-owned industries should be investigated.

The possibility of a closer liaison between publicly-owned industries should also be carefully examined. I have in mind the manufacture of coal-cutting and other machinery required by the National Coal Board. It seems to many of us to be entirely wrong for the Board to spend large sums of public money on developing new kinds of coal-cutting machinery and on research only for private industry to reap the fruits of this expenditure. I argue the right of our workshops to manufacture this kind of equipment so that we can keep it in the public sector for the public good.

I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to recognise not only the need to hasten the proposed legislation—I am very conscious of the obstacles here—but also to make urgent representations to the Railways Board to review its policies in anticipation of the promised legislation.

4.45 a.m.

Mr. Ted Fletcher (Darlington)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. Harold Walker) for curtailing his speech to allow me a few minutes to emphasise what he has said, particularly as I represent the railway town of Darlington. My hon. Friend referred to the historic connection between his workshops and Doncaster. Darlington goes back even further in history. For over a century we have had railway workshops in Darlington and my constituents have a very great interest in this short debate.

It seems to us that the future of railway workshops should be considered in the context of the new policy laid down by the Labour Government since last October, namely, the review of line closures, and also the Minister's intention to allow British Railways workshops to compete in the open market for tenders. In these circumstances, it is necessary for the Railways Board to review the position as to the future of the workshops. There is a growing volume of evidence since 1962 that British Railways workshops have completely underestimated the volume of the repairs which will be required to maintain the present fleet. It has completely over-estimated the number of redundancies that should take place. This is borne out by the fact that many railway workshops now work a considerable amount of overtime. This includes some shops in Darlington. As much as 30 hours a week are now being worked in overtime in many workshops.

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to the campaign waged by the previous Administration against a nationalised industry. I draw attention to what has happened at the Darlington locomotive works. Even whilst the Railways Board was refusing to defer redundancy, contracts were granted to outside industry—to the A.E.I. in particular—for new diesel locomotives, when an order was being currently completed in the Darlington works. As far as I am aware, A.E.I. has not got any locomotive building works. Much of this work is put out to subcontractors. The jigs, the tools, the templates, and the fixtures in Darlington North Road shops were transferred to a private firm—Beyer-Peacock in Manchester—so that it could fulfil a subcontract for part of the order for diesel locomotives. This action was taken by the Railways Board in spite of the assurance given by Sir Steuart Mitchell at that time to the Railway Shopmen's National Council that everything possible would be done in the granting of new orders to alleviate the necessity for redundancy at Darlington. Machinery and equipment were disposed of to private enterprise. At the same time, the manpower in the workshops has been allowed to run down.

I did address a Question to the Minister on 22nd March asking him what reduction had taken place in the manpower of the railway workshops over the last five years. I was informed by the Minister that 24,000 jobs had disappeared in British railway workshops over the last five years. So it seems to us that over the five years of Tory rule preference has been given to private enterprise, and publicly-owned industry has been deliberately sabotaged for doctrinaire reasons and, as a consequence, the labour force has been allowed to run down too rapidly.

I do not want an assurance that under any circumstances the railway workshops in Darlington, due to close at the end of 1966, will remain open, but an assurance from the Minister that a detailed look will be taken at the capability of the North Road workshops to see if they are a viable undertaking.

I believe—and I have had many opportunities since October of looking into this matter—that the railway workshops can compete with private industry. No one would expect the workshops to be kept open for the sake of sentiment, but I believe that given an opportunity to tender in the open market for contracts, with the reservoir of skill we have in Darlington, locomotive work and repairs could be executed at competitive prices.

I do hope that we can have some assurance that if this review is undertaken a decision will be made at an early date. Over 1,400 men are wondering what is going to happen to their accumulated skills after the end of 1966. It is only right and proper that assurances should be given of continuity of employment for these people.

We have already had in Darlington the closure of Stephens and Hawthornes, a private firm with 1,000 men, and 1,000 have been dismissed from the railway workshops in Darlington.

The 1,400 men who remain are still a viable workshop unit, and I would urge upon the Minister the necessity to have a detailed look at the situation in Darlington. Facts and figures can be brought to the attention of the Railways Board and the Ministry to prove a case for the continuation of the North Road workshops.

I am certain that if we can get this assurance from the Minister we can convince him that we have a good case. I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster for having left me a few minutes for this intervention in order to be able to add to what he has said.

4.54 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

At the end of a long debate we have reached a most important subject—that of the future of the railway workshops. I want straight away to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. Harold Walker) for the points of which he has given notice, and to say to the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Ted Fletcher) that the matters which he has raised will be most carefully investigated. Any points which I cannot cover in my reply, I can assure him I will deal with in correspondence, and they will be very carefully reviewed.

This subject which the hon. Member for Doncaster has raised is one which I know is of great importance to him and to his constituents. I understand that in Doncaster the railway workshops are known very simply as "the plant", despite the fact that apart from the railway workshops Doncaster is no mean industrial centre.

I think this term of affection reflects not only the pride which the people of Doncaster feel in the historic traditions of these great works—there can be few who have not heard of "Mallard" and the "Flying Scotsman"—but also the part which they play in the economy of the district.

My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster has referred to two quite separate but nevertheless connected subjects, and I move straight away to the question of the manufacture of locomotives. I am aware of the interest on this side of the House in the removal of the statutory restrictions on the manufacturing powers of the nationalised industries. This is a matter that falls within the sphere of legislation. I notice your sharp eye upon me, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and on this occasion I cannot therefore do more than call my hon. Friend's attention to the Minister's statement that it is the Government's intention to remove the statutory restrictions on the powers of the nationalised workshops at the earliest opportunity to enable them to compete on the same basis as other kinds of workshops for whatever business in the home or export market that they can do.

Under the legislation which we have inherited, the Transport Act, 1962, each of the four nationalised transport boards, including, of course, the Railways Board, shall from time to time submit to the Minister proposals as to the manner in which their powers of construction, manufacture and production … are to be exercised, and shall exercise those powers in accordance with those proposals as approved by the Minister with or without modification … Hon. Members will recollect that in February 1964 under the Conservative regime the Railways Board submitted proposals to the then Minister of Transport and he approved five of the six paragraphs of the proposals, except that he reserved his judgment on them, in so far as they concerned locomotives, until April of last year, when he approved them also in that respect. But he turned down the sixth proposal concerning the manufacture of wagons for private owners to use on nationalised railways in the country.

As the House knows, the Railways Board resubmitted the sixth proposal when the present Government assumed office and my right hon. Friend at once approved this proposal, as we made clear through our manifesto that we would do immediately we came into power, namely that we would remove by administrative means the restriction imposed on nationalised industries.

I should like my hon. Friends to note two points with regard to the operation of this Section of the 1962 Act. First, our position is that the initiative in the submission of proposals rests at the moment with the British Railways Board. Secondly, once the Minister has approved the Board's proposals, modified or not as he considers necessary, these proposals become binding upon the Board and the Board must act in accordance with them.

The current approved proposals merely state what has been the existing practice in the railway workshops. They are now assembling rather than making locomotives, as my hon. Friend has said. They are making the frames, bodies and bogies and so on and then incorporating the mechanical and electrical parts bought from private industry. These parts make up three-quarters of the total cost of the locomotive. The fall-off in new locomotive building is having repercussions in the railway workshops, as we well know. The present programme of replacing steam locomotives with diesel and electric is now almost complete. After the end of 1966 the only home demand for main line locomotives will be made up almost entirely of replacements. This compares with an annual delivery at present to British Railways by their own workshops and trade together of about 400.

I must stress two further points. First, the responsibility for assessing tenders and placing orders, subject to anything which may be laid down by the approved manufacturing proposals, rests solely with the Board. The Minister has no say in the placing of orders. Secondly, Section 13 of the Act gives the Minister no control over repairs and maintenance, only over manufacture. This is because repair and maintenance, being connected with operational decisions, are essentially matters of management.

In this connection, may I take the opportunity of dealing with the point which my hon. Friend raised about the manufacture by Railways Workshops of spare parts. There is nothing in the Act or in the proposals which prevents the Board from making spares for their own purposes. But the exercise of the power, and the source from which the spares are obtained, is a matter for the Board's own managerial judgment. As regards the question whether there has been a shortage of spares, I am sure that the Board will note what my hon. Friend has said and will investigate it and take any appropriate action.

May I say one or two words about the question of "The Plant" itself. Under the plan for the modernisation of the Railway Workshops, published by the then B.T.C. on 19th September, 1962, Doncaster was selected as one of the main workshops for retention. The present position is that the staff strength in Doncaster Railway Workshops is 3,632. National investment in the modernisation of workshops as proposed by the present plan has been approved to the tune of £17 million. This includes £1,220,000 for Doncaster, a substantial investment. With regard to staff in 1965, the original forecast for Doncaster was that the fall-off in new building of locomotives would affect about 325 men but that with adequate retraining the redundancy should not be more than 100. It has been pointed out in this connection that, at Doncaster and certain other works, it was essential that more men should be available to work on diesel repairs. The trade unions were asked to look at the problem of retraining men who would otherwise be declared redundant, to enable them to acquire the necessary skills outside their existing crafts.

I should have liked to have been able to say that there will be no redundancy at Doncaster in 1965 and that this problem had been eliminated; but, with proper consultation, and retraining schemes, I am informed by the Railways Board that redundancy at Doncaster in 1965 will be fewer than the one hundred to which the original forecast had been reduced. It is impossible as yet to say what the final figure will be.

Therefore, I conclude by saying that the Doncaster works have inevitably been affected by the falling off in the building of new locomotives, although this is partly balanced by the increasing need for workers skilled in diesel repairs; but the Board has had to give warning of possible redundancy. The relatively small scale of the redundancy should not blind us to the fact that, in greater or lesser degree, very real personal problems can be involved; but, the Board's record shows that everything possible will be done to see that any staff who might be affected are fairly treated, and everything done for their resettlement in the shortest possible time.

We hope to give the railway workshops an expanding future in spite of the situation we have inherited. We have removed the previous restriction——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening 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 six minutes past Five o'clock a.m.