HC Deb 04 November 1965 vol 718 cc1363-72

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Ted Fletcher (Darlington)

On 19th September, 1962, it was announced that the Darlington Locomotive Works would be closed. At that time there were well over 3,000 workpeople employed in the locomotive workshops. They were engaged on an extensive programme of diesel locomotive building and the repair and maintenance of main line and shunting locomotives, as well as the maintenance and scrapping of all classes of steam locomotives. I want to emphasise that at that time the shops were modern, and still are modern, and up to date. A good deal of capital had been introduced to provide the latest equipment and techniques. Even today, although the number of employees has been reduced to about 1,200, although contraction has taken place, there is still a modern layout and plant which can compare with any other workshop in the country.

Since diesel locomotives were introduced into the railway system, Darlington has produced 385 diesel shunters and 85 main line locomotives. In case anyone should imagine that the reason why the shops are to be closed is that they are uneconomic, I must emphasise that these orders were the result of competitive tenders. They were secured in open competition, not only with British railways workshops, but with private manufacturers. Therefore, Darlington was, and is, a competitive workshop.

Everyone recognises the need for change, and I should be the last to suggest that industries which have outlived their usefulness should be sustained for sentimental reasons or merely to keep people employed. This is as senseless as employing men to dig holes and to get other men to fill them up. The Darlington works cannot be regarded in any sense as uneconomic or inefficient. In the long history of the North Road shops at Darlington, which goes back well over 100 years, there has been continual adaptation of new skills and techniques to meet modern requirements.

I want to stress this point. The shops cannot be regarded in the light of an uneconomic coal mine where the seams have been worked out and on which the National Coal Board or the community are losing thousands of pounds a week. Right up to the announcement of the closure, modernisation was carried forward at Darlington, and the British Railways Board has never said on any occasion that the reasons which prompted it to issue the closure notices were that the works were not competitive or were uneconomic.

Why, then, did the Board decide that the Darlington workshops should close? I wish that I knew the answer. Indeed, the workpeople wished that they knew the answer. The trade unions have inquired for the answer, but they have not had it, apart from the suggestion that there was too much workshop capacity and that some of it had to be lopped off. Why should Darlington be chosen? It is certainly not because of the employment position. Other railway workshops situated in Derby, Doncaster, Crewe and so on have better employment prospects in the locality. It remains a complete mystery why Darlington was chosen for closing. One can imagine that someone used a pin to stick in a list of names and decided that Darlington was the one to be crossed off the list.

I shall examine the Board's case that there is too much capacity. It is quite apparent after the history of the last three years that the capacity which would be required has been underestimated. This is reflected by the fact that the shops last November were given a 12 months' reprieve. Until the final notice of closure was given overtime was actually being worked in the shops.

I give an illustration of what has happened in one department of the works, the spring shop. In June, 1964, the management notified the unions that the spring shop was to close and that springs of locomotives being repaired at Darlington would have to be manufactured at another centre. The shop was closed and the machinery and equipment were put up for sale. Serious delays immediately commenced. Other sources of supply failed the management and eventually they had to reopen the spring shop. Meanwhile, the skilled men had got other jobs and the shop had to be carried on on a part-time basis. In a very short period orders for springs poured in from other railway centres and the spring shop had to be reopened for normal work.

One could cite many other examples of how the British Railways Board underestimated the capacity it would require. What does the Railways Board mean by too much capacity? Does it mean too much public capacity as against private capacity? We have to bear in mind that even when the B.R.B. was refusing to defer redundancies contracts were going to private industry. Two years ago a huge contract went to A.E.I. for locomotives of the same type as an order which was being completed in the Darlington workshops.

One would like to know why jigs, templates and fixtures manufactured and perfected in Darlington workshops were transferred to a private firm, Messrs. Beyer-Peacock in Manchester, so that it could fulfil a sub-contract on part of this order. This is the sort of thing that was going on at the time when the Railways Board was explaining to the people at Darlington that it had too much capacity and orders were being placed with private firms for locomotive repairs and new locomotives. A few days before the final closure notices were issued to employees, an order was placed with a Loughborough firm for work which could have been done at Darlington.

This action was taken by the Railways Board in spite of an assurance given by Sir Stewart Mitchell to the railway subcommittee of the Railways National Council. Sir Stewart said: Everything possible will be done in the granting of new orders to alleviate the necessity for redundancy in Darlington. That assurance was given to the men, but it was not carried out by the Railways Board. Work that could have been sent to Darlington was given to private industry. No doubt a decision has been made; it has to be made for future planning, but has some executive member of the Board decided what proportion of locomotive work should go to the public sector of the industry and what proportion should go to the private sector? Have they decided, for instance, that 60 per cent. or 70 per cent. of the work required should go out to private industry and that 40 per cent. or 30 per cent. should remain to fill the present capacity which they require?

Of course, it is essential that we should know this, because some of us on this side of the House have not been elected to see the public sector shrink for the benefit of private enterprise, but this is what is happening so far as the railways workshops are concerned. I think it is a scandalous state of affairs when we are witnessing creeping denationalisation of the work of the railway workshops.

I know—my right hon. Friend has told me in correspondence I have had with him—that day-to-day management must remain with British Railways, that they should make the commercial decisions. I do not think anyone quarrels with that, but I am suggesting to this House that the Railways Board is making political decisions and not commercial decisions. The Board is deciding in fact how big the public sector of the industry shall be, whether nationalisation shall be extended, whether it should contract, and what proportion of the assets of a nationalised industry should go out to private enterprise. It is wrong that the Board or the executives of the Board should make political decisions of this nature. I think that a Minister of this Government should say that, as far as overall policy is concerned, a directive should be issued that the Board should get its requirements for rolling stock and new equipment and for repairs from the private sector of industry only when every step has been taken to see that the capacity of the railway workshops has been used to the utmost.

Therefore, I hope that my right hon. Friend will have a look at this matter again, that he will have the courage to set up an inquiry to call a halt to the wasting and rotting away of the public sector of a nationalised industry, because the men employed in the shops, the men in the trade unions, cannot accept that there is not capacity to do the work at Darlington, because there is capacity, but orders are not being directed to the nationalised sector of the industry but are being directed to the private sector.

Let me turn to another aspect. It is the fact that we on this side of the House have been agitating for many years for the railways to be given opportunity to tender for outside contracts, an opportunity which was denied to them by the previous Administration. I cannot anticipate what the Queen's Speech is likely to say, but I think there is no doubt, on the basis of speeches which have been made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister as well as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport, that legislation will be introduced to give opportunities to the Railways Board and the workshops to tender for outside contracts, but if the British Railways workshops' pattern is tailored—and it is being tailored—only to undertake the volume of railway work which some executive has decided is appropriate for the public sector of the industry, where will they find the capacity to undertake outside work?

What is the point of wasting Parliamentary time to give power to British Railways to tender for outside contracts if they cannot take advantage of the legislation because they have not the facilities and the space to compete for outside orders?

This is what will happen, because at the moment several workshops are working a considerable amount of overtime. I understand that at Derby locomotive works now some sections of the works are working 40 hours a week overtime. So that, if Darlington is closed, British Railways workshops will be filled to capacity and, as a consequence, the new Act will not be worth the paper that it is written on, if it grants powers to the Railways Board which cannot be exercised.

I want to appeal to the Minister to have another look at the position at Darlington and to say to the railways management that Darlington should be given an opportunity of another reprieve until the new legislation has had time to bite. They have a highly-skilled labour force at Darlington, they have the capacity, and they have the machines. I am certain that, if they were given an opportunity to continue in being until the new Act is on the Statute Book and given an opportunity to tender for heavy engineering work, the Darlington railway workshops would have an immense future. The present labour force of 1,100 or 1,200 men could be built up again to 3,000 or 4,000, because there would be some possibility of obtaining contracts.

I am not suggesting for a moment that it is going to be easy. It means new tech- niques, new salesmanship, and a new approach to many questions but, given the opportunity, I am certain that the publicly-owned industry can show that it can tender for and win orders, in competition with private enterprise.

There is a great deal of feeling on this side of the House at the way in which the matter has been handled. My right hon. Friend knows that quite well, because he has had a letter signed by 30 hon. Members on this side of the House respectfully urging him, in the public interest, to ask the Railways Board to review immediate and long-term closures, particularly at Darlington where closure is due in April, 1966. They have asked him to exercise his powers under the 1962 Act by issuing directives to that end.

The two reasons that I put forward tonight for a review of the problem are, first of all, that the capacity exists for Darlington to continue to undertake railway work; and, secondly, that it should be given an opportunity to tender for outside contracts. Accordingly, as the legislation is not yet on the Statute Book, there should be a further reprieve to allow the new legislation to bite and to enable orders to be directed to Darlington.

I want to make a final point about the employment position. Figures were issued yesterday which show that unemployment in Darlington at the moment is slightly below that of the national average. Incidentally, I may say that it is the only place in the North-East where the unemployment figure is below the national average. However, I want to analyse that figure a little more closely, because Darlington is a catchment area. People from within a 12 or 15-mile radius of Darlington travel in every day to seek employment in the town. Taken in isolation, Darlington's figure of unemployment does not convey the real situation. One has to take into consideration many of the surrounding towns, particularly the coalmining towns of South-West Durham, in order to arrive at the true position.

I want to point out, too, that the Dean and Chapter Colliery at Ferry Hill is due to close within a few months. As a result, 600 miners will be redundant, and they will be seeking work in the nearest industrial conurbation, which is Darlington. Here again, we are faced with the position that there will be intense competition for jobs.

What is the situation at the moment? Three weeks ago, when the final six months' notice of closure was given by the Railways Board, some 1,250 men were employed in the workshops. Up to the present time, 140 have left employment with the North Road Works. The local labour exchange has established an office in the shops and, to date, 65 jobs have been found by it. Forty other men have found their own jobs, and the remainder have left because they are in the 60 to 64 age group and have retired from the industry.

Most of the men in the shops have been interviewed for jobs, but only 65 jobs had been found after the first four weeks. The district committee of the Amalgamated Engineering Union has circulated all the firms within a 15-mile radius of Darlington to find out the employment possibilities. Only three firms have written to say that they have vacancies, and the number of vacancies is less than a score.

In the main, the people who have gone are highly skilled toolroom fitters, toolroom workers, and so on, and it must be pointed out that possibly one-third of the labour force at Darlington consists of men over 50 who will have some difficulty in finding new jobs, and certainly some difficulty in being retrained. Some of the men who have left the employment of British Railways are working on Teesside, about 20 to 25 miles away, in the shipyard. Some have drifted south to join the 10,000 people from Northumberland and Durham who every year migrate South because jobs are not available in the North.

During our campaign to keep the railway workshops open we have had the backing of the North-East Development Council, and the Director of the Council, a former Member of this House, Mr. George Chetwynd, has written to my right hon. Friend on this matter. He said that he would like the Minister to consider a further deferment of the closure so that some consideration could be given to the view.

that the capacity at North Road will be needed by British Railways for a considerable time and that the opportunities for the Workshops contracting for private work may be considerable. He says that on the evidence he has available he is not satisfied that British Railways have adequate capacity without the Darlington works.

It has been possible for us to secure new industries in Darlington. We are delighted that new industries are coming there and that new opportunities are arising for fresh employment for the citizens of the town but, in spite of this, it must not be forgotten that in addition to the closure of these workshops a very old-established private firm, Stephen Hawthorn, closed about 18 months or two years ago and 900 people became redundant at that factory. This has meant that new industries have absorbed only part of the labour force that has become available as a result of these redundancies. The closure of the railway workshops and the loss of 1,200 jobs will be a grave blow to the town.

I understand that even today British Railways are advertising the North Road Works for sale. They are trying to bury the body with indecent haste, even while there is still life in it. They have decided to advertise the works for sale in spite of the fact that they know we are negotiating with the Minister and asking him to have another look at the situation.

We have met my right hon. Friend on two occasions and he has given a most sympathetic and courteous hearing to the representations that we have made to him. We know that he is considering this matter at the moment. It was only yesterday when we last met him, and I know that he will want an opportunity in the next few days to consider the representations that we have made. The purpose of my intervention in this Adjournment debate was merely to emphasise that this is a vital matter for the town. It is of great importance to the men employed by British Railways in the workshops, and I am certain that my right hon. Friend recognises that the solution to this problem must be treated as a matter of urgency.

I hope, therefore, that as a result of the remarks that I have made this evening I shall have helped to make further representations on behalf of a body of people who are looking to the Minister and to the Government for continuity of employment at Darlington. I am convinced that if the facts are looked fairly and squarely in the face and a decision is arrived at based on those facts, that decision must be that the Darlington railway works should be kept open.

10.25 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Tom Fraser)

When I first met my hon. Friend a year ago, on the morrow of his election as the hon. Member for Darlington and my appointment to my present post, he approached me about Darlington workshops. Now, on the last effective day of his first Session in Parliament, he has pleaded the case once again. He has done so not on grounds of sentiment; his case tonight has been that the interests of British Railways and the nation would be better served by retaining the works.

As he has just indicated, he brought a deputation from Darlington to see me yesterday. Today I had a meeting with representatives of the N.U.R. and the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions. I have had other representations, to which my hon. Friend referred. For instance, I have had a letter signed by 30 hon. Members, and representations from the North-East Development Council.

It would be a mistake if I were to seek to make a reply this evening to the many representations made to me. Better that I should consider very carefully the strength and weight of the representations that I have received recently about the decision announced by the Railways Board in September and that I should discuss with the Chairman of the Board the strength of the representations made to me. That is what I propose to do. I will not waste any time. I take the point made by my hon. Friend that the matter is now one of some urgency. I merely ask him to bear with me.

Let me think about the whole matter and discuss with the Chairman of the Railways Board the decision which the Board has taken. Under the Statute the decision is for the Board to take. None the less, the Government and the Minister of Transport in particular have a responsibility to consider whether the decision that has been taken is in the public and national interest, and in any case to see whether there is not something to be said for the representations which have been made against the closure.

I propose to have my discussions with the Chairman of the Board at a very early date. If my hon. Friend would like to leave it at that I will let him know as soon as I can the outcome of these discussions.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock, till Monday next, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day.

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