HC Deb 24 May 1965 vol 713 cc200-6

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

12 m.

Mr. Michael McGuire (Ince)

In raising the question of the employment prospects for the people of the new town of Skelmersdale, I would remind the House that I briefly referred to the matter on 18th February last, recorded in columns 1484 to 1487 of HANSARD for that date. I raised it then for the same reason that I raise it now, namely, the feeling of resentment by what I would call the indigenous working population of the old town and the apparent unfairness of the system of the allocation of jobs in the new industry which is coming into Skelmersdale.

Skelmersdale new town is not a development district as such, but industry coming into it can obtain the benefit of the grants and loans available under the Local Employment Acts, 1960 and 1963, provided that it employs the bulk of its labour from the North Merseyside development district. Indeed, this is the reason for the plan; to have some of the overspill from the North Merseyside area. Work which is coming in will mean new jobs and a demand for new houses.

Workers who have lived in Skelmersdale for years have had to travel out to seek work and many have been employed in the mines as, for example, at Sutton Manor Colliery, where I was for seven years the branch secretary. I would say at once that I do not make any constituency point as when an hon. Member tends to eulogise about the people in his constituency; but I know that these men have sterling qualities and that if they are successful in getting work in the new factories the National Coal Board will mourn its loss.

The Coal Board does not want to see them go. Those working in the pits and in other jobs in the neighbouring town, where they have worked for many years also think that they should have a better share of the jobs. At last, they think that they can see an end to many hours of unproductive, tedious, and costly travelling time which they spend every week in travelling to and from their work. They see jobs in modern factories, with all the advantages which go with such conditions, and there is small wonder that the residents of old Skelmersdale welcomed the prospect of the new town of Skelmersdale.

The new town is planned for modern, gracious living, designed for the twentieth and, indeed, the twenty-first century. Its completion cannot come soon enough for the residents. They are looking forward with supreme optimism to the day when the population reaches the planned 80,000 or 90,000 and, again as supreme optimists, are even now making plans for celebrating the elevation of Skelmersdale United Football Club to the First Division. Who knows! We might even have a combination of the Mersey-sound and the Skelmersdale sound, though whether that will be so pleasant I do not know. I hope that it will. I am looking forward to Skelmersdale Town being a member of the Rugby League and making its name as one of the best teams playing the best game.

But the question of employment is causing deep resentment. The position ha, improved since I first received many letters from my constituents about employment in the new factories. A good proportion of those then asking for jobs have been fitted up, but I am led to believe that there is still some resentment because industrialists just cannot afford to take on all the local labour they would like—and it is not a very considerable amount in a town with a total population of about 6,000. The people feel that they could be "mopped up," as it were, with the incoming labour force from the North Merseyside overspill area and that it would not upset the plans at all.

The industrialists just cannot afford it, in many cases, particularly when it comes to retraining labour. Men coming from the pits have to be retrained for modern factory work, for instance, and industrialists find it difficult to afford all this because, I understand, it costs about £9 a week for each man for a certain period. They cannot afford to take these people on in the numbers they would like and this is causing some of the resentment.

The idea of having a successful integration of the old town and the new is that the people of the old will welcome the people coming into the new and that eventually they will all be simply the people of Skelmersdale. But if there is a situation in which those living in the old town still have to travel and spend weary, unproductive and costly hours of travel when they feel that they should be able to get jobs on their own doorstep, then feeling of the old against the new will still exist.

The people of Skelmersdale welcomed, and still welcome, the concept of a new modern town. But I believe success will be enhanced and quickened if we can find some way of dealing with this problem of a small town and of giving employment to those who feel that they could have it on their doorstep. When one develops a new town one demolishes much of the old—the houses in which local people were born and bred and in turn raised their own families. These houses were little palaces and many had had modern facilities put in.

These places are having to be demolished to make way for the new and the rents of the people who lived in them have accordingly jumped by three and four times. Unless they can get jobs in the new factories they have to face extra expense in travelling as well as the extra rent.

I ask my hon. Friend to look at this problem. I know that I will be told, as I have been told by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour, that if a new town had not been planned in Skelmersdale, factories would not have come in and the local labour force that has already been employed would not have had the opportunity to take employment there. Therefore, the argument goes, the position would have been as it was before the new town was developed.

I suggest, however, that that is not a very satisfactory answer. The people do not accept it. They say that the jobs are there now and ask why they cannot have at least a better proportion of them. I know that another answer will be that in the fullness of time, with the wastage that will take place in the factories, everyone in Skelmersdale will be on parity and will all be able to get jobs.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give some comfort to the people of Skelmersdale who have asked me to raise this problem. I have had quite a few letters on the subject, including an advertisement from the Evening Express, which talks of good jobs for people. These people have inquired and been told they were not for them because of the reasons I have given, mainly that the grant for retraining cannot apply to them and that it can only be given when the employer takes on people from the North Merseyside area.

12.17 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. George Darling)

My hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. McGuire) has been very reasonable in the issues that he has put forward. While these are complicated matters, I can understand the resentment of the local people who see the local issues and, perhaps, do not understand the rules and regulations under which we have to work. My hon. Friend has talked of the unfairness of the allocation of jobs in Skelmersdale new town and has put the issue clearly and simply. Here is a new town which is obtaining industrial development because it is designated a new town, but the local people, who are out of work, say that they cannot find employment in these industrial developments.

This is the situation which my hon. Friend would like me to rectify. But, as he has pointed out, the situation is improving from the point of view of the local people and will continue to do so. Of the jobs provided by the factories established in Skelmersdale new town, more than half have been taken by local people. The real starting point for a proper review of the employment policy in this regard is that Skelmersdale new town is being developed as an overspill town for Liverpool.

My hon. Friend did not, perhaps, emphasise the fact that if it were not for the fact that the new town is designed primarily to find jobs for people living in the North Merseyside development district, there would be no Government assistance for industrial projects in Skelmersdale. Skelmersdale is not itself a development district. Its unemployment rate, partly as my hon. Friend said, because people travel out to work, is, fortunately, too low to have it designated as a development district.

As my hon. Friend says, the development of the new town will provide additional work with the increasing local services, in addition to work being provided by the new factories. I do not know how long this will take to get going on a really big scale. I hope that it will not be too long. Certainly, this is the kind of development that could be well speeded up.

Because the purpose of the new town is to help to ease Liverpool's serious problems, the assistance given by the Government towards financing industrial projects must be governed to some degree by the amount of employment that is likely to be provided for the benefit of the people in the development district. The Board of Trade does not say that all the jobs arising from the assisted projects must be earmarked for people coming from Liverpool or the Liverpool development district. What we do say—and the Local Employment Act enforces this obligation upon the Board of Trade—is that to qualify for assistance, a project must provide the bulk of its jobs for Liverpool people in order to justify the expenditure of public money on the project.

There is a rough and ready guide to all this, which I should be willing at any time to explain to my hon. Friend, about how we work out the cost per job and all the rest of the calculations to bring us within the terms of the Local Employment Act.

Briefly, the Board of Trade finds out from a firm desiring to start a factory in Skelmersdale, and wishing to take advantage of the grants and loans available, how many people it intends to employ and how many of these are likely to be recruited from the development district. The estimates for this employment must, of course, be realistic. There needs to be a fair degree of assurance that the jobs will materialise and that they will be maintained for some years at least. We do not want any fly-by-night arrangements. I am sure that in the selection of applicants and the help that is given to them, all these realistic estimates are taken into account.

The estimates are then checked with the Ministry of Labour and the local housing authorities, but the Board of Trade does not expect that all the jobs should be filled from Liverpool. Indeed, any firm starting up in Skelmersdale would get the benefit of free depreciation wherever the workers might come from.

My hon. Friend raised another point about the training or retraining of employees to go into the new factories. He said that resentment is caused by the fact that the new industrialists coming in cannot afford to provide for training for the people who live in Skelmersdale old town. This is really a question for the Ministry of Labour, but I have looked into it with the help of the Ministry. I must point out that the Ministry of Labour scheme for labour training grants is one of the forms of help offered by the Government as an inducement to firms to set up in development districts or, where they are already in such districts, to expand their businesses there. The object is to create additional jobs for people living in the development districts.

The scheme has really been designed for the benefit of firms operating inside development districts, but as a concession it has been extended to firms which are within a reasonable travel-to-work distance of a development district or to firms in those areas such as Skelmersdale new town which have overspill agreements with a development district, to the extent that they give additional work to people living in those districts.

That, I am afraid, is as far as my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour feels that he can go. To extend the scheme to the training of workers not living in the development districts could not be done without defeating the whole object of the scheme and would be out of line with what the Board of Trade is empowered to do under the Local Employment Acts.

I can best sum up the position by repeating that the Board of Trade does not exercise its powers under the Local Employment Acts in such a way as to compel firms, in this instance, to recruit all their labour for Skelmersdale projects in Liverpool. No doubt firms, knowing that the amount of assistance they are likely to receive will depend on the number of workers they recruit in Liverpool, will tend to put their estimates of recruitment at the highest figure that they reasonably can.

I can assure my hon. Friend that if the Ministry of Labour or the Board of Trade consider that an applicant is adopting special measures to distort what might be considered the natural pattern of recruitment from the Skelmersdale point of view, they will scale down a firm's estimate accordingly and make sure that employment is found for people living in Skelmersdale itself.

Like my hon. Friend, we want to see the new town grow at a reasonable rate and to be a successful development in that part of Lancashire. This is something which could contribute a great deal to the social environment of that part of what has been to some extent, because of the closing of collieries, a rather difficult district to deal with. The figures for recruitment bear out the statement I have made that recruitment is not confined to the Liverpool development district because more than half of the the jobs so far provided have been taken by local people. I am sure that that kind of ratio will continue.

I can assure my hon. Friend that the criticisms which he has levelled against the working of the overspill arrangements and the views which he has put forward will be considered by the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Labour to see whether we can do anything to put aside the resentment that the local people feel. Some of the resentment may be due to misunderstandings.

Mr. McGuire


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Dr. Horace King)

The hon. Gentleman has exhausted his right to speak to the House. He can put a further question to the Minister if he wishes.

Mr. McGuire

My hon. Friend mentioned the Ministry of Labour. All my correspondence has been with the Ministry of Labour. Would not my hon. Friend agree that the position in Skelmersdale is special to it and does not apply to other new towns? In view of the smallness of the numbers, could not further consideration be given to this special problem?

Mr. Darling

It is not peculiar to Skelmersdale new town. We have similar situations in other places. It may be that we can consider the smallness of the numbers. We will consider that aspect.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Twelve o'clock.