HC Deb 31 October 1966 vol 735 cc203-14

11.50 p.m.

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

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

The fact that this Adjournment debate has the interest of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison), my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark (Mrs. Hart), my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), who, I hope, may catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, perhaps indicates that this is not just a parochial Bathgate problem. It is a central Scottish problem and indeed fairly typical of the present situation in some development areas, in Scotland, England and Wales.

Before saying anything else, may I express my appreciation for the presence of the right hon. Gentleman the Lord President of the Council, the Minister of Technology and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology, the Minister of State, Scottish Office, and other Ministers. This indicates, perhaps, the importance that I know that the Government attach to these difficult matters, and difficult they are. There are 9 per cent. unemployed and six advance factories with a total of 40,000 square feet for which no work has been found. There is local authority debt. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour gave further facts today which showed that at the moment there are 2,267 people registered as unemployed at the Bathgate Employment Exchange. The corresponding figures in October 1965, 1964, 1963 and 1962 were 596, 704, 982, and 1,031, respectively.

The only question worth asking in an adjournment Debate is: what constructively and usefully can we do about it? In asking for the setting up of a new kind of machinery of Government, I do not just ask this for my own constituency but I would ask for the same for Llanelli, or Doncaster, or North Devon, the problems of which we heard about in the debate earlier.

It is reasonable to ask that there should be a small group of people who can give their full time and attention to the totality of an area's problem. Perhaps two politicians should be involved and a small task force of civil servants. It is quite legitimate to ask precisely what they would do. In the first place, they would make recommendations for emergency action and put them up to the many Government Departments involved, because this is a multi-dimensional problem. No one Ministry can solve the problems of Bathgate, or Llanelli. It would be the obligation of the Ministers to give reasoned replies saying what they could or could not carry out, although the Ministers must have a power of veto. I am not naive enough to believe that the power of veto should be taken away from Ministers.

The problem has been with us for a number of weeks and, in the case of Bathgate, some months, and there has been too much delay. This is the major issue which I take with my own Government. Perhaps, if things had been faced up to rather sooner the problem would have been a good deal less. A "task force", along the lines I suggested in the redeployment debate, would have powers of decision making which are not easily used by the Departments at the moment, which act far too separately. I have given notice to the Parliamentary Secretary that this kind of argument would arise. I hope that she will be able to persuade the House either that I am misguided or that something can be done in the future to overcome this problem.

Specifically, what would the task force do and what kind of problems would it look at in the context of Bathgate? We turn, first, to the question of retraining. A great deal of correspondence has gone on between us on this issue. I ask two questions. What is the Ministry's attitude towards the proposals of the A.E.U. on this matter? Some fairly detailed proposals were put forward on behalf of the A.E.U. by Mr. John Boyd. In particular, can my hon. Friend say anything about the very important suggestions of the Minister of Labour as reported in column 686 of HANSARD on Monday last, because many of us in, the development areas regard this as an extremely important step. I have been informed today by the Minister, in a Written Answer, that he is also examining with the industrial training boards ways in which they might help with the immediate adult training problem "and that he" will make an announcement as soon as possible. We look forward to this announcement as a matter of extreme urgency, because it may include part of the answer to our considerable problems. I ask my hon. Friend one precise question. Can she say anything about the mechanism by which firms receiving incoming workers are to be approached? Who, in this situation, will act as the catalyst of action? If she could clear that up to night it would be extremely useful.

The second proposition which might be discussed by a task force concerns credit. Is it possible, as we have been putting forward, in some way to make regional use of different credit schemes? Are discussions taking place with the Bank of England? Has the Ministry, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had time to consider the various ideas put forward by myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Luard) on the possibilities of seasonal variations in hire purchase and Purchase Tax to attempt to level out demand for the motor vehicle industry?

The third question, and this again might be tackled by such a task force as I have outlined, is the possibility of using the Selective Employment Tax as an instrument of regional development. This seems to be realistic. I understood the Chancellor's difficulties when he first introduced this complicated measure. It seems that fairly soon variations in the Selective Employment Tax would help situations like that of Bathgate.

The fourth issue which might well be discussed is the question of small public enterprises in areas of persistent underemployment. I realise that there are difficulties in starting from scratch. This is no immediate answer to the problem, but I find that there are variations, which is the policy of the Labour Party, and in particular combinations between private enterprise and public enterprise. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark (Mrs. Hart) knows of some firms in the Bathgate and Lanark area which would certainly co-operate in this kind of joint venture.

I ask about the possibilities of re-phasing public works, and not least developments in the new town of Livingston. What those in the situation in which we find ourselves want above everything is some kind of contingency planning. A very good opening for contingency planning is a new town. Ministers concerned about this—the Minister of State, Scottish Office especially, will bear this out—will know how very co operative the staff of Livingston Corporation and the chairman of the development board can be in this matter. They certainly will be because without doubt they are as keen as I am to see the kind of development we are asking for tonight.

Again, I must ask about the question of using the power of the public purse. Here, I should like to be specific. I refer to the Kenning Coachwork Company, which is opposite B.M.C., in Bath gate. That company states: With regard to regional development, we suggest that we have full co-operation as far as the capital programme allows to fit in with regional policies. Therefore, in view of the present situation and the fact that B.R.S. operate their vehicles in Scotland, we feel that we are in a position to tender for their work. We shall therefore be pleased if you will raise the matter with the Ministry of Transport. This is an example of the multi-dimensional approach to the problem that is necessary. There is no answer in terms of a single Ministry.

In particular, this is true of my last suggestion. This concerns the way in which aid to developing countries—I am not asking for more of it—could be tied up to under-utilised capacity in this country. This has been gone into at great length and the Government know all about my detailed views. There are various possibilities in this matter.

I should like to make one further point on linked aid from under-used capacity If a scheme were worked out along these lines it would help this country's standing both with the International Monetary Fund and with the World Bank. This is not the moment to go into detail on the speeches of Pierre Paul Schweitzer and George Woods, though here the Treasury has had an opportunity to study this in detail. If we were to go for some plan linking under-used capacity in this country to such aid as we do give, it would have the sympathy of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and might induce them to help us in the various problems that we may have together with the international monetary organisations. A clear plan on linked aid would help confidence in sterling.

My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian also has his problems, so I shall end on this point. West Lothian constituency Labour Party, myself and many of the organisations in West Lothian support the Government's policy. We have to be quite clear on that. In many of the unpopular things that have been done the Government have the wholehearted support of political organisations of West Lothian. But one thing that we cannot have is massive unemployment, and as long as I am their representative I shall be putting on constant and persistent pressure, awkward though it may be, in order to fight the battle against the evil of increasing unemployment.

12.3 a.m.

Mr. Alex Eadie (Midlothian)

I do not have the opportunity to develop on such a constructive theme as my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). I only have time to state, more or less, in probably a very destructive way, the problems that affect my constituency. But whilst my hon. Friend was talking about plans, and so on, particularly concerning overseas matters, I recollect that in 1964—I do not say this in any conceit or arrogance—I submitted a plan to the proposed new Ministry of Overseas Development. I understand that it was fairly favourably received.

It appears to me that this is perhaps a time when we should seek to examine it because no doubt we could do something. It could go some part of the way to alleviate the problem that we have as a consequence of the redundancies at B.M.C., at Bathgate. My main interest in this debate is that in my constituency I have about 100 people who will be redundant. Also, about 150 of my constituents are on short time. I have already interviewed some of them, and it was significant to me, as a miner before I came to the House, that some were former miners. They had left the coalmining industry, probably in the main because of the crisis of confidence created by the Government and the National Coal Board.

There is bitterness amongst some of my constituents who met me, because they made it clear that they had been hunted out of one industry. They thought that they had found refuge in another and now, as a consequence of redundancies, they find themselves unemployed. This is a very human problem, because some of them are in an age range that makes future employment difficult. They made it clear to me that although they had been hunted out of the mining industry they are not prepared to be hunted back into it as a consequence of Government policies.

For those in the late fifties finding employment is a special problem. It is a traumatic experience to meet men who know that their future employment prospects are very slim. It is a traumatic experience to hear a man say that probably this means a substantial period of unemployment for him.

I am talking about the West Calder area, which has suffered as a result of the entire closure of the shale mining industry. It suffered because of the contraction of the mining industry, and the people there have found employment prospects very difficult for some considerable time. I hold "surgeries" in the area and they are the only ones in my big constituency where people ask me, "Can you help me get a job?". This happened before the B.M.C. redundancies. One does not have to be a prophet to predict that when I hold "surgeries" in the future more people will ask if I can help them find employment. No human being, whether he is in his fifties or is younger, should be placed in the humiliating position of having to tot around and look for work.

My final point concerns the West Calder Employment Exchange, which is functionally inadequate for the staff to work in. If my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary examines it she cannot be very proud of it. It is not a question of the additional "signings" rebelling at their signing-on conditions; it is the staff who should be rebelling.

Although I believe in full employment and am in favour of the abolition of the employment exchange, we have the problem with us now and we are entitled to see that both the staff and the people who must go to this employment exchange at least have buildings, and so on, that are adequate for the job.

I wanted to take up another point in relation to how the Ministry is calculating on the basis of the 5-day week, but I know that time is getting on. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian for allowing me to take part in the debate. I only hope that our words will not be in vain and there will be action to alleviate some of the problems I have described.

12.10 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mrs. Shirley Williams)

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) and for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), and also my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark (Mrs. Hart) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison), all of whom have raised, either publicly or privately, the problems arising in the Lothian area. I shall try to deal with the points which have been raised in the debate, but I hope that my hon. Friends will forgive me if I have to do so necessarily rather briefly as I have only nine minutes in which to reply.

I should say that I am, perhaps, being treated as something of a team because my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian has raised questions which relate to—on a quick count—seven different Ministries. I shall do my best to answer them.

I take, first, those which relate to my own Ministry, the Ministry of Labour. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that of the 9 per cent. unemployed, the figure for October, 1,470, or about 4.6 per cent., were people who were temporarily stopped. In other words, they were B.M.C. workers on short time. The true figure of wholly unemployed is 4.4 per cent. for October. I do not for a moment pretend that that is what it ought to be, but it is not quite as drastic as, perhaps, the 9 per cent. implies. The present position is that 423 of the 718 discharged at Bathgate have been submitted for jobs, 83 have been placed, and 91 have found work on their own account.

I come now to the point my hon. Friend made about advance factories, and here I am indebted to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade. My hon. Friend, in a Question on 27th October, said that there were six advance factories which, he said, were empty at present. He may be pleased to know that four of these, which are West Lothian County Council factories, are to be occupied, one by John Collier Ltd., with an estimated additional employment of 180 people, one by Davis & Timmins Ltd., with an estimated additional employment of 18, and two by units of Supermetal Stampings Ltd., with an estimated additional employment of 100. These factories were officially opened on 11th July and are now simply waiting for production to start.

It is right that there is one factory of 20,000 sq. ft., built by West Lothian County Council, which is not so far occupied, but this was only recently finished, and the Board of Trade is now doing its best to bring it to the attention of suitable firms. There are to be two further factories, both of 10,000 sq. ft., in the neighbouring local office area. These will be completed towards the end of the year, and both will allow for expansion of 100 per cent. in addition if this is required.

Now, the question of training. Perhaps I may mention two points here. My hon. Friend referred to the proposals of Mr. John Boyd of the Amalgamated Engineering Union about training at Bathgate. We have looked very carefully at this scheme. The main taker-up of trained workers under this scheme was to be the Cameron Iron Works, at Livingston. The Cameron Iron Works has already been given a sum of money by the Board of Trade under the B.O.T.A.C. scheme which covers not only the cost of setting up the factory but also the cost of its training needs.

The position as we understand it from the firm is that a carefully worked out training programme has been built up on the basis of financial support from the Government which will enable it to take a good many semi-skilled workers into the firm over the next few months. At the moment, the firm does not wish to depart from this expansion programme, with which it is satisfied.

A further difficulty about these suggestions is that they involve the use of redundancy payments as a means of financing retraining. There would be a legal difficulty, and, I think, a genuine difficulty in justice, in depriving B.M.C. workers of the redundancy payments which they would otherwise get, which would be the case if they were simply passed on to the Cameron Iron Works payroll without any intervening point of redundancy at all. They have a right to a redundancy payment, and under Mr. Boyd's scheme this redundancy payment would be paid to Cameron's. In consequence, B.M.C. workers in Bathgate would be alone in not having entitlement to redundancy payment. This presents a number of problems, including legal difficulties.

I turn now to the proposals made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour in his speech on Monday, when he referred to the possibility of doing more about the retraining of workers for higher skills. There is no doubt in our mind that the great bulk of retraining needs to be done at the semi-skilled level. We feel that it will best be done in most cases by the new employer in order to adapt training to the production lines and processes of factories requiring workers.

My right hon. Friend pointed out that we were in urgent consultation with the industrial training board on this matter and said that he would make a further announcement as soon as possible. I regret that I am not yet in a position to give further details to my hon. Friend, not because I do not wish to do so, but because certain matters still remain to be finally confirmed. My hon. Friend is, I am sure, aware, but it is worth putting on record, that anybody who is trained in Bathgate for new employment can, because it is a development area, already attract the existing form of financial grants from the Government and, in addition, free instruction under the direct assistance scheme.

I would like next to deal with some of the points raised by my two hon. Friends, apart from those on which I have touched. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian suggests that there should be a task force within the Government to deal with the various problems arising from redeployment. It may well be that this idea contains a good deal of force, but my hon. Friend will appreciate that it is not one on which I could give a carefully conclusive answer at present.

My hon. Friend referred also to the position about credit. I remind him that it is the case that the Scottish banks pay 1 per cent. on deposit funds whereas English banks pay 2 per cent. and that this type of difference between the two is, perhaps, something which could be taken further.

My hon. Friend referred to the Selective Employment Tax. On this, I again remind him that the question of possible regional variation of this tax is one of the matters which are being discussed by the committee now reviewing the tax. My hon. Friend referred, too, to a possible seasonal variation in hire purchase. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Technology, whom my hon. Friend said he was glad to see present tonight, as also am I, has pointed out that one of the difficulties would be that if the seasonal variation was great, people would not buy in the period when hire purchase was high, but would wait, perhaps, a few months until it came down again. It is, however, a suggestion which might be looked into, although in rather modified form. That is, perhaps, the most that it could bear. I will certainly pass it on to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Finally, I want to say a word about the broader position. It is fair at this point to quote one or two things which have been said about B.M.C, which is by far the major employer in the Lothians, and which also affects the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian, who spoke with much force in this debate.

I remind the House that the West Lothian Courier of 21st October quoted the management director of B.M.C, Scotland, as saying that too much had been attempted too quickly at B.M.C., Bathgate, for the amount of skilled labour and technicians available. He said that this accounted in large degree for the difficulties experienced at the Bathgate plant and that the only remedy was drastic steps by the company to ensure a viable unit within the near future. He added that the company had been operating at a large loss for over one or two years, and that this could not go on for ever. That was said by Mr. Raymond Smart, in an address to the Rotary Club at Bathgate, a week or so ago. The problems, therefore, are not simple.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian pointed out, what we have seen in Bathgate was a position where, when the oil shale industry was in full capacity use and the seven collieries which are now closed were in operation, unemployment in Bathgate was, on the whole, slightly less than unemployment in Scotland as a whole. That was the case until 1958. After 1958, with the effective closure of the oil shale industry and the closing of a great many collieries in the area—seven to be precise—unemployment in this area rose to above the Scottish national average, and it has stayed there fairly steadily in most months from 1958 to the present time.

The car industry was persuaded to go to this area of Scotland under the previous Administration in an attempt to try to make good——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday 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 twenty minutes past Twelve o'clock.