HC Deb 14 February 1968 vol 758 cc1505-20

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

11.39 p.m.

Mr. E. S. Bishop (Newark)

I am pleased to have the opportunity of raising the subject of the desirability for increased Government initiatives towards diversification of industry and science. This debate is about problems which arise in the process of turning swords into ploughshares. We should try to discuss it in such a way that the thousands of workers who now fear redundancy and uncertainty following the order to slow up making swords may feel that they might have an exciting rôle to play in the challenging times ahead.

In recent years the House has spent many hours debating, amending and approving such unexciting legislation as that concerning the N.R.D.C. and the I.R.C., and now the Industrial Expansion Bill. This legislation is vital to give Ministers some help in painting an industrial and commercial panorama on the backcloth of the national scene. But what concerns people, especially those now gloomy about the future, is the speed and the way in which we paint in the details, and that is what we should be discussing now.

Everyone talks about the technological and scientific revolution as though it is something coming in a few years' time. But many of our current problems are due to the fact that it is already here and its changes are affecting every aspect of our life—some would say morally and spiritually as well. We are going through a tunnel of change, as it were, and cannot yet see the exit. This not only worries the British but other nations as well. As one of the delegates to the North Atlantic Assembly of 15 nations, and as Vice-Chairman of the Economic Commission, I know that many European M.P.s are warried about this as well.

This debate is not really unconnected with the one I had the privilege of initiating on 29th January last, dealing with the effects of American investment in British industry, because both subjects concern the economic changes involved and how we should deal with them. Due to the inherent defects in our own economy—our limited national resources and the restricted markets for our products—our technological future lies in Europe. This realisation is shown by the links we have forged, for example, with France in the production of the Concorde, the airbus, the helicopter deal and tie Jaguar and other joint projects. Our greatest contribution. I believe, to the vision of a European Technological Community, as envisaged by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, is our own national inventive genius and the skill and initiative of our managements and workers.

These great assets will only find true expression and development if the Government provide the opportunities. But thousands of skilled workers are being sacked by Hawker-Siddeley at Coventry and Chelmsford, and G.E.C. factories at Woolwich, Harlow, Black-heath and Sydenham are affected by the merger with A.E.I, while the Ford workers at Dagenham and Dunton are worried. Mine workers in the so-called prosperous East Midlands are also worried.

We need not only a scientific revolution but a managerial revolution as well. Many workers are being made redundant without consultation, and very often little effort is made by firms to provide alternative work and there is often little co ordination with other manufacturers. Many workers are thrown on the scrap heap at short notice. It is no wonder that, in these circumstances, many people are becoming disillusioned by what ought to be exciting changes.

I want to refer briefly to my constituency as being typical of the kind of problems we have to deal with. Diversification of industry is basically a matter of switching resources of money, men, material and manufacture from one area and one task to another as quickly and as smoothly as possible. My constituency covers 300 square miles of the East Midlands, and most of Nottinghamshire, and will be affected by the changes in fuel policy. Notts County Council and Southwell Rural District Council are concerned that this "grey" area does not get the help given to development areas and the respective clerks, Mr. R. A. Davis and Mr. S. Lynds, are urging local M.P.s to act.

I will deal with some of the problems. Within the parishes of Bilsthorpe, Boughton and Ollerton, for instance, we have isolated settlements entirely dependent on the coal industry. Nearly 70 per cent. of the male population depend on the mining industry, there being few other jobs. Now hundreds of textile workers, mostly women, are being threatened with redundancy in nearby Mansfield and districts like Ollerton. This is typical of the East Midlands. In the grey areas the Board of Trade and other Government Departments should consult the local planning authorities and the regional and economic development councils about industrial development certificate applications. As the local newspapers demand, now is the time to think of the future by actively campaigning for new industries to come to these areas.

Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)

I am sorry to intrude on the short time available to my hon. Friend, but while he has villages in his constituency where there is a 70 per cent. mining interest, I have a town of 70,000 people whose only industry, is mining. I have been to my constituency today and I have been amazed to find what a disastrous result will follow from the N.C.B.'s fuel pricing policy. The N.C.B. is now considering putting on the jeopardy list even pits which are economic.

Mr. Bishop

That is relevant to considerations of the area with which my hon. Friend and I are both concerned. Now is the time when something should be done to help these areas for the future.

While we appreciate the priorities of the development areas, since our election a few years ago my colleagues and I have been concerned to ensure that something is done to diversify and bring new industries to areas like mine where skilled miners, their wives and their adult children could be usefully employed in new work if given the opportunity. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Marquand) in particular with me have been pressing in that direction.

I want now to return to the national position. In the last 15 years, at least half of our resources in scientists have been busy on defence projects and last year research and development projects cost £260 million. These skills must be switched to civil projects following the cuts in defence research. Not only that, the technical spin-off from defence must be exploited in civil work wherever possible. Even the much criticised Polaris work has created an undreamed of bonus of new techniques—new steels, reinforced plastics, fuel cells, new designs and much else which should be used in other ways.

This is something which a Select Committee might consider. It is not an easy task to switch skilled engineers and designers and workers to such sophisticated work, but it must be done. Where possible, design teams must be kept together and new jobs found for them, because once these teams of skilled people are dispersed, it may take a year or more for them to regain the team efficiency and the understanding which are necessary to their jobs. Status and rewards are also important, as is the feeling of doing something exciting with the necessary facilities. Although that aspect is vital, this is not the opportunity for me to develop the subject.

All this is the background and one asks where the Government can provide the initiatives. First, I warn the Minister —if he needs warning—that it would be disastrous for the Government to provide a scientific and industrial feather bed. What is needed is a spring board environment where, given the chance, initiative can ensure that the sky is the limit. The points I want to make fall under three headings.

First, there is the improvement of existing techniques. Wherever possible, industry must be encouraged to get on with the job itself of improving existing techniques in a technical environment, with, for instance, micro-electronics as compared with transistors. When firms are in danger of falling behind in international competition, they should expect some help from the Government through the N.R.D.C., the I.R.C. and Government Departments generally.

Secondly, it is very important that non-technical industries should be helped, because the advantages of technology instilled into a non-technical environment can help enormously by improving methods and increasing cost effectiveness and overcoming obstacles, such as making it possible for the construction industry to use difficult land. Automation in warehousing and computerised production are two more examples of the ways in which non-technical firms can get a scientific injection, or even a scientific blood transfusion.

The problem in such firms is that they may not be aware of the ways in which they can be helped, or, more serious, not aware that they can be helped. The Ministry of Technology and the advanced technology firms should get together to assess the position and report and follow up with small study contracts to systems type, multi-skilled firms who could assess what technical help could be provided for non-technical firms. I would be grateful if the Minister could let us know what is being done in this direction. Here are a few examples of such action.

The Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, of which I am a member, heard a lecture a short while ago on ocean engineering and the need for a study of fish farming. It asked whether we knew the best methods of fishing, the right kind of vessels to use, the best ways of trawling, the technical and scientific aspects, temperature, density of fish, breeding, and so on. I would like to know whether enviromental studies are taking place. In view of recent events and tragedies, many of us feel that much remains to be done now on the safety aspects.

Another aspect which springs to mind on the section dealing with the help that we can give to non-technical industry would include traffic controls, building and running hospitals, sewage and rubbish disposal, automation of warehousing, air pollution, electric vehicles, pedestrian aids, noise abatement and so on. These are matters which need a good deal of study.

Another important point is the creation of new industries and products. Here there is the greatest scope for technical advance. The opportunities are available to industry and commerce. The more unique they are, the less chance they have of being taken seriously, and many accepted needs of today are being satisfied with what were once thought to be cranky inventions. It may well be that the ability to spot a potential winner among these cranky inventions is another "uncranky" way of backing Britain.

Jules Verne is not quite so odd nowadays, so one is inclined to ask what about the progress being made in underwater engineering. There is the "Kraken" project, the underwater house being developed by B.A.C., Imperial College, London, and shipbuilding and ventilating firms and scientists, to provide an acceptable artificial environment on the sea-bed, where oceanological and marine study can be carried on for long periods, without any physical damage. There are also other projects, such as the optical computer projects, holography, hydrofoils and space communication studies, all of which could make greater progress if they received more help and facilities in various ways.

I recognise that the N.R.D.C. does give a stimulus to various projects in many ways, but it could go further, being satisfied that the need and the potentiality exist. The defence industries, and especially the firms formerly employed on guided missiles with system capabilities, could be given study contracts, which might be shadowed to ensure that progress was kept within certain limits, with decisions as to whether to back projects being taken jointly with Mintech and others concerned.

Money must be made available early on for these projects on a proper and reliable assessment of the projects. I wonder what greater progress could be made with hydrofoils, hover-trains, underwater schemes, fluidics, new dock installations, traffic control and much else, if the cash and research facilities had been made available. While we appreciate the immense amount of work being done by "Mintech and the legislation made available by the Government to provide assistance, it is the application which is vital to the successes which we hope to have.

I have mentioned but a few ways in which greater progress might be made in harnessing the energy and the scientific potential to non-technical industries, of ways of helping advanced technology, and, in the process, ways of really backing Britain. Let us not forget the less sophisticated areas, the pot and pan, and the common cold areas. For instance, there is the problem of sickness, industrial and otherwise. If research in medicine, even in common cold and bronchitis prevention, proceeded and succeeded, we might balance our economy by making very substantial cuts in the 300 million working days now lost annually. That, I submit, is something which should not be sneezed at.

We have a world where half the people go to bed hungry nightly, and where the birth rate ensures that there are roughly 200,000 more people needing bed and breakfast every day. Progress is urgent. In short, what we are trying to do is to put a man on the moon and at the same time to ensure that those on earth have their place in the sun.

Whether we can afford to do both at the same time remains to be seen. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for being prepared to answer this debate at this hour. His comments will be studied closely by those affected by these changes.

11.55 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology (Mr. Gerry Fowler)

I am indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Bishop) for having raised this topic at so appropriate a time and pleased that it falls to me to reply to him.

I can assure him straight away that the Ministry of Technology is as much concerned with "ploughshare" as it is with "sword" technology and is hence well suited to deal with the problems of a period when defence requirements are running down and in which it is vital nevertheless to expand our industrial production. above all for export.

My hon. Friend was right to stress less sophisticated "low technology" areas, as he did at the end of his speech, and the Ministry supports his view that this area should not be overlooked.

For example, the Ministry's Warren Spring laboratory at Stevenage has done much valuable work in connection with the recovery of valuable industrial metals from alloy scrap, and has developed a technique for the recovery of metal powders from metal hydroxide slurries. The Laboratory has also evolved separators employing air fluidisation techniques which are likewise being used in the scrap recovery field.

Or to take a somewhat more sophisticated technology, the Ministry is greatly concerned with tribology, which is the science and technology of friction, wear, lubrication, and bearing design. My hon. Friend should be interested to know that the Committee on Tribology is examining ways in which no less than an estimated £500 million a year could be saved—even the common cold does not cause us so great an economic loss—and these problems are being treated as a matter requiring urgent attention.

A National Centre of Tribology is being established at the Reactor Engineering Laboratory of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at Risley, and what are known as Industrial Units, specialising in tribology, and providing advice and assistance to industry on tribology problems, are being established at Leeds University and at the University College of Swansea.

My hon. Friend said that other forms of work might benefit from the effects of "spin-off" and, of course, there is a "spin-off" from defence projects; but this is not normally such that, as he seemed to be half suggesting, a particular factory can switch overnight from defence projects to similar civil projects. It is rather a case of, first, developments covering a wide range of industrial applications, as, for example, microelectronics and guided weapon development. Or, secondly, particular and limited applications of developments made with other uses in mind, such as the water-cooled suits developed by the Royal Aircraft Establishment for use by R.A.F. pilots, which have also been tried out by surgeons in a hospital operating theatre. They will also be used by the United States moon-landing astronauts.

These suits have enabled men to tolerate the hot—up to 200 degrees Centigrade—atmosphere near a glass furnace and in a steel ladle, for a much longer time than would otherwise be possible.

Other work at the Royal Armament Establishment at Fort Halstead, Kent, has resulted in the development of arc plasma equipment for industrial applications, ranging from automatic plasma spray-forming units to mobile workshop units of a capacity up to three KV. These small, low-cost, self-contained units are operable from standard 15 amp, 230 volt, plugs, and may be used for cutting, spraying, and welding operations.

My hon. Friend also referred to the need to bring computers into industrial production processes. I can tell him that the Aldermaston project for the application of computers to engineering has been established to teach the use of computers, and to act as consultants to industry in the fields of computer-aided design, production control, numerical control of machine tools, and management generally in the engineering field. We now provide many such services designed to improve the performance of industry as a whole.

There is the Numerical Control Advisory and Demonstration Service which will be operated on behalf of the Ministry by the Royal Aircraft Establishment and the Production Engineering Research Association. This service will provide impartial advice on the adoption and use of numerically-controlled machine tools and equipment. The Ministry is providing capital support to Airmec-A.E.I. Ltd. for a complementary numerical control advisory demonstration centre. The Ministry also provides a Production Engineering Advisory Service organised regionally and operated on behalf of the Ministry by the Production Engineering Research Association and, to encourage the wider application of simple but effective automation techniques, we are setting up low cost automation centres at a number of universities and technical colleges. In each of the regions there is a Ministry regional office which draws on the resources of the Ministry, the universities and of research associations to help local industry directly.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, the central problem is one of communication, ensuring that firms, particularly small ones, are aware of the help available to them, and these services are designed to do exactly that.

It is sometimes possible to provide help for the community as a whole. My hon. Friend referred to air pollution. The Ministry's Warren Spring Laboratory is doing considerable work in this. Perhaps the most important part of the work is the National Survey of Smoke and Sulphur Dioxide organised by the Laboratory on a sound statistical basis and carried out in co-operation with local authorities and others to provide data on the distribution of pollution throughout the country and its dependence on emissions of pollutants, weather conditions and other factors. The Atomic Energy Authority is also doing work in this sphere of activity.

Then there is the assistance provided by the Government and public agencies to particular industries. My hon. Friend referred to the need to improve existing techniques. The recent announcement of I.R.C. support for Reed Paper for their de-inking process is an example of the sort of support that can be available; in this case, there is an important import-saving consideration.

The Ministry's machine tool preproduction order scheme is an example of another kind of support. Contracts worth over £2 million have already been placed, and further contracts of the same order are being negotiated.

In this context, I will turn briefly to the fishing industry, which my hon. Friend mentioned. Studies of the marine environment of the type that he appears to have in mind are constantly in progress in the Fisheries Research Laboratories of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland, under the general co-ordination of the Natural Environment Research Council.

My own Ministry also has some interests in this area. The Ministry's Research Station at Torry is concerned with problems arising from the transport and storage of fish at sea and on land. It seeks to determine the properties that contribute to the quality of fresh, frozen and cured fish, and to improve methods of preservation; and to improve the equipment and methods used in handling, storing, processing and distribution of fish, and so obtain better products and reduced costs. British fisheries make an important contribution to the national diet, but our total fish supply is heavily dependent on imports, whereas exports are negligible by comparison.

It is not suggested that work at Torry could eliminate the need to import fish, but application of knowledge already available at Torry, to say nothing of further work specifically directed to such ends, could do much to reduce the incentive to import. For instance, seasonal shortages of particular species could be minimised by really adequate cold storage operations, that is, operations in which there was no appreciable loss in quality. Alternatively, attractive presentation of more abundant species might well lessen the demand for expensive, scarce varieties.

The Ministry's National Physical Laboratory also plays a role in this industry by its work on ship design.

To summarise, a considerable amount of research in connection with the fishing industry is being carried out by Government research establishments. I hope that industry will not fail to take up the results of this research. Fishing is an old industry, but should not for that reason turn its back on technological change.

The Government, too, are providing help for specific projects, or for developing new products, too numerous to detail. My hon. Friend mentioned the electric car. The Ministry has had extensive consultation with industry about lightweight rechargeable batteries suitable for traction, and negotiations for a development contract with a leading firm are at an advanced stage.

On the subject of vehicles, the Ministry's National Engineering Laboratory has taken a lead in the application of hydrostatic transmission to motor vehicles, and progress is being made in its exploitation.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, it is the exploitation of innovation that is crucial. Too often, as has been said many times in the past, we are too slow in taking up and exploiting innovation. It is true that it is difficult to form a reliable assessment of the potentialities of an idea in the early stages of research and development. However, we in the Ministry of Technology have begun to tackle this problem. For example, the Programmes Analysis Unit, jointly established between "Mintech" and the A.E.A., is now engaged in detailed studies, using the most advanced computer techniques, to evaluate the likely return on the many research and development projects for which we are responsible.

This need to ensure the application of modern technology throughout British industry at as fast a rate as possible is one of the reasons for the introduction of the Industrial Expansion Bill. As my right hon. Friend the Minister has said, the Ministry should be in a position to provide "launching aid" for industries other than the aircraft industry.

My hon. Friend is right in saying that in many fields this country's technological future must lie in co-operation across national frontiers, especially with Europe. This need for co-operation arises partly because of the high cost of developing a particular technology or product, but also because of the need to ensure a market of the right size, the need to tie common production to common purchasing. This need is shown most clearly in the case of the aircraft industry. We are already engaged in collaborative projects and perhaps we will go on to build a European family of aircraft.

The possibilities of a European Technological Community and a European Technological Institute as a major instrument both for the examination of the scope for industrial integration and re-organisation and for subsequent translation of its recommendations into effective action indicate the framework within which greater collaboration could be achieved.

But, of course, this may mean the growth of European rather than national firms which is, given the political implication—the need for political machinery to control a new form of industrial power—one of the reasons for securing early entry to the E.E.C. With international firms the fear may arise that work formerly done in one country might go to another country.

This kind of apprehension has arisen among Ford's British employees, for example in relation to the Ford Engineering and Design Establishment at Dunton. However, the recently announced redundancies have nothing to do with the setting up of Ford of Europe. Ford have assured us that it is simply not true to suggest that the major part of the design and development work previously carried out here has been, or will in the future be, transferred to Germany.

Ford's have, of course, been expanding their production in Merseyside, a development area. And again, one of the consequences of the G.E.C.-A.E.I. merger and subsequent rationalisation is that some work will be moving into their development area plants.

Though we as a Government approve of this, it is equally important not to lose sight of the social and human problems of those made redundant, nor of the economic need to utilise their skills to the full, although new applications of skill may have to be learnt because of the pace of technological change.

The Ministry of Labour placing service is, of course, available to help redundant workers. Here the policy of the Ministry is to encourage employers to give advance notice of redundancies in sufficient time for the redeployment machinery to act effectively. For this purpose about four weeks is all that is normally necessary, and I hope that employers will give this sort of notice.

It is also important that when rationalisation is to take place the rundown will be planned so as to give employees a reasonable chance to find other jobs, and that there should be consultation with those affected, their unions and others concerned.

Finally, there is the question of the mining areas. The Government is fully aware of the problem, hence the provisions of the Coal Industry Act and the creation of "special areas" within development areas.

But this leaves the problem of those districts heavily dependent on this one industry, but not in a development area. I.D.C. applications are confidential, but the Board of Trade do consider representations from local bodies who wish to discuss industrial development policy. And, of course, the Hunt Committee is considering this very problem of the "grey areas ". I hope that local authorities in the areas represented by my hon. Friends have already made submissions to that Committee.

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

Adjourned at nine minutes past Twelve o'clock a.m.