HC Deb 24 January 1968 vol 757 cc546-54

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

10.1 p.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

Having tried unsuccessfully for many weeks to draw a place in the Ballot, I have had the good fortune to acquire this place tonight. I am extremely glad, therefore, to have this opportunity of directing the attention of the House to the problems of Tyneside.

Whenever I have spoken in the House on matters affecting the Northern area I have tried, for many years, to deploy the case for the area as a whole and to discuss the strengthening of the economy of the area and the solving of the problems which have arisen in this part of the country. I have decided tonight to concentrate particularly on Tyneside because in recent months I have watched, with great regret, the decline on the Tyne and the over-emphasisr—although I put it this way I hope that I will not arouse controversyr—on the development of Tees-side.

Last year I asked, in a Parliamentary Question, what proposals the Minister of Transport had for the development of the Port of the Tyne. I had notice that a great deal of money and organisation was going into the development of ports throughout the country, while nothing seemed to be going to developing the Tyne. The right hon. Lady replied, in her usual way, that no proposals had been forthcoming from Tyneside for her consideration.

Since then, many of us in the North of England have been waitingr—and, at the same time, trying to stimulate the Government into action in this matterr—for the right hon. Lady to tell us what the Government intended to do about Tyneside, because there are some outstanding problems which must be resolved before we can go forward with the future development of the Tyne. The right hon. Lady's Answer on that occasion was off-putting because she must have known full wellr—as the Chancellor of the Duchy must also knowr—that certain decisions must be taken if we are to go forward to protect the interests of Tyneside.

This is not a party matter and I regret that this debate is of such short duration that many hon. Members will be unable to take part in it. I wish to deal, first, with the future of the iron ore industry on the Tyne. The Government must come to a decision on this urgent problem facing Tyneside. Many Questions have been put to the Government on this issue, many arguments have been adduced and many letters have been written.

It has been clearly pointed out that we have been unable to get a clear decision about the future of the Consett Iron Company. It is imperative that such a decision is made. We are losing so much trade on the Tyne that we cannot afford, under any circumstances, to be deprived of the valuable services of the iron ore industry on the Tyne.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that in this next year we shall be deprived of petrôum and oil shipments because the Shell Refinery is to be developed on Tees-side. One of our difficulties on the Tyne is that we are very short of land. If more land had been available we might have got the Shell Refinery, just as we might have got an aluminium smelter. It is therefore all the more important that we should know where we stand.

The iron ore shipments go from the Tyne to Consett. During the last year, after a very successful and co-operative conference with the Tyne Improvement Commission, the Commission carried out investigations of the sea bed and the tidal reactions. The result has been very satisfactory, and shows that we could provide the facilities for the shipment of iron ore not only to the Consett ironworks, but also, if a proper railway system was provided, to the South Wales steel industry.

What is causing the greatest anxiety is what is said in the Benson Report. I know that the right hon. Gentleman wants to do the best he can for the North, because he knows that we have the highest rate of unemployment in England, Scotland and Wales. It is very nearly double the national average. Dealing with the big integrated steel works, the Benson Report says: These works will require easy access to large ore unloading ports with deep water; and for this reason…the most suitable 'growth centres' will be North Lincolnshire, Tees-side and South Wales. No mention at all is made of Durham or of the Tyne. We have quite failed to get any assurance from the Government about our iron ore shipments.

At one time, the Tyne exported enormous quantities of coal all over the world, but we can no longer expect that trade to build up and provide employment. That being so, any threat to our iron ore position would be absolutely disastrous. It is therefore time that the Government made up their mind to ensure that our future is satisfactorily safeguarded in this respect.

As I have said, I do not want to raise controversy between Tees-side and Tyneside, but I regard it as my duty as a Tyneside Member to do all I can, with all my Parliamentary colleagues of all parties from that area, to protect the interests of those who look to the Tyne for their livelihood. I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that not only is our iron ore position very uncertain but the railway centre, so to speak, has been moved from Newcastle to York. That centre arose from the amalgamation of the old London and North-Eastern Railway with the Great Eastern Railway, and the move has caused a great deal of difficulty and anxiety.

This begins to isolate Tyneside and Northumberland. The movement is towards Tees-side and further south rather than, as has always been regarded Government policy and as it was under the former Government, that we should expand our area in Northumberland, on Tyneside and Tees-side and in the whole region. The situation is full of anxiety for all of us who feel that we must protect our interests on Tyneside.

I want to say a word or two about Parsons transformer section. I took this matter up firmly with the Minister of State, Board of Trade, because there was a suggestion that the transformer section of Parsons would move from the Tyne to an area which was not a development area. That seemed an extraordinary situation. I have had a reasonably satisfactory letter from the Minister, in which he tried to ride two horses at once. I have a feeling that perhaps the Government will win in this matter.

When I was discussing it in the North of England last week, I was told by my friends to whose views I always try to pay attention that if we advocated the retention of the transformer section of Parsons on the Tyne and made more and more speeches in favour of it, we might annoy those who are responsible for running the Parsons works. I do not for a moment believe that.

We are all in this together. Although I have a hunch that perhaps the Government have been able to deal with this matter because we are a development area, whatever is going on behind the scenes in Government or industrial circles at managerial level, those who work on Tyneside, and have done a marvellous job for many years in Parsons works, deserve to be told what their future will be. We cannot have workers in industry left in a vacuum. It is tremendously important that they should be told whether their future is secure, or whether what appeared to be a decision of Parsons to transfer the transformer section to another part of the world is to be carried out.

I take my courage in my hands on this. Although I was advised that it was perhaps not a good thing to raise the matter again, I raise it because the workers on Tyneside deserve to have their anxieties put at rest. When the right hon. Gentleman was appointed as a sort of overlord Minister to try to help us, one of the reasons given for his appointment was that he would be able to get action when there was any unnecessary hold up and when it was vital that action should be taken. I ask him if he can give a clear assurance that without any further delay he will deal with this vital situation on the Tyne.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to realise that, proud as we all are of the development of Tees-side, he should not just state in his reply the number of jobs in the pipeline, because jobs in the pipeline may be anywhere in the region and l hey may not be on Tyneside.

We want decisions on these specific points. I hope that the Chancellor of the Duchy will be able to assure us that we shall know what our position is, that we shall be permitted to develop, and that we shall have something which will enable the people of Tyneside to make up for the loss of their home shipments and also for the fact that we do not seem to be getting such favourable treatment as is being accorded to Teesside.

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

I support what has been said about the Tyne. This very closely affects my constituency. We are very eager to develop the deep berths which we could easily provide for the larger ore shipments which are needed to ensure the continuity of trade at the Consett Iron Company.

10.16 p.m.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Frederick Lee)

I thank the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) for the constructive way in which she presented her case. I assure her that the Government are not deliberately trying to load what we do in favour of the Tees as against the Tyne. I know that the Report to which the hon. Lady referred mentions treating the Tees as a growth centre. Throughout the whole of the Northern Region there is a need for much more industrial development than we now have. I assure the hon. Lady that the Government as a whole look upon the problems of the Tyne as a great challenge. I will do everything in my power to assist in solving this problem. I repeat that the Government are not deliberately loading the dice against the Tyne in favour of any other part of the Northern Region.

The hon. Lady said that unemployment in the region was twice the national average. Nothing that I say should be taken as indicating that we are complacent. The levels of unemployment are completely unacceptable. We are faced with a huge task in reducing the figures. I suppose that the comparable period when a squeeze had to be exerted was in 1962 –63. The figures that I shall give are not seasonally adjusted. In January, 1963, the unemployment level was 6.4 per cent.; in February, 1963, it was 7 per cent., as against the latest January return of 5 per cent. The increase in unemployment this year has been considerably less than it was last year—650 fewer. It was about one-third of the increase which occurred in the same period in 1962 –63, the relevant figures being 2,723 as against 7,539. Although the total number unemployed is higher than it was last year, the trend is much more encouraging now than it was then. The rate of increase is levelling off. The increases which are to be expected at this period of the year are much less than they have been in previous years.

Mr. R. W. Elliott(Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the North-East Development Council has accurately stressed that only in 1964–65 did we get into the area of 15,000 new jobs which we need each year.We have not done it since.

Mr. Lee

I quite agree. That is a point to which I shall come in a moment.

If I may summarise what I have been saying, the unemployment level at Tyneside gave cause for great concern but, taking the region as a whole—which I have to do because there is not a breakdown in the figures for the sub-regions as yet—the rise in the number of wholly unemployed, if we exclude school leavers, over the past four months, has been 25 per cent. less than the normal seasonal increase.

I am now coming to the point raised by the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North (Mr. R. W. Elliott). There is a far more encouraging side to this. Since October, 1964, the I.D.C.s approved for Tyneside alone cover 4.14 million sq. ft. The firms concerned estimate that these projects would provide 12,000 jobs, 70 per cent, of them for males. There are 7,760 jobs in prospect on Tyneside, 60 per cent, of which are for males, from the manufacturing industries in the next four years. In addition, we have 4,800 jobs in prospect in Cramlington New Town, which is to the north of Tyneside. According to the shipbuilding employers, employment levels in shipbuilding will start to improve after next March. They anticipate an increase of about 1,000 by next May, which is a pretty reasonable expansion.

Recent successes in obtaining orders hold out a very real promise that the shipbuilding industry will improve its competitiveness and take advantage of the opportunities which devaluation presents in world shipping markets. For our part, we are doing everything we can to promote the success of the rationalisation of the industry by a large measure of practical help. For instance, there is the guarantee that we have given of 80 per cent, of the bank loan required for the construction of three large tankers. The Swan Hunter and Tyne Shipbuilders Ltd. group, the formation of which has the blessing of the Shipbuilding Industry Board and of the Ministry of Technology, is eligible for assistance under the Shipbuilding Industry Act, 1967, and the Shipbuilding Industry Board is awaiting the group's main proposals for assistance in reorganising. The Board has already announced its agreement in principle to help the group in providing facilities for building the very large tankers ordered by Esso and Texaco.

The Government have decided to locate a substantial new printing press employing eventually about 400 staff at Team Valley, Gateshead. This is required by Her Majesty's Stationery Office to meet the increasing demands on its services, including the expanding work of telephone directories for the Post Office. The news of this new Government printing works at Gateshead will be very welcome throughout the region. It provides a significant long-term increase in jobs in Gateshead, including a considerable number of jobs for skilled men, and it is an example of the Government's intention to exercise a forceful policy of development in places where the level of economic activity is lower than it should be.

As the Minister with special responsibilities for the Northern Region, I am glad to show in this difficult time that the Government are pressing ahead with the location and deployment of Government establishments in development areas. We have already located the Land Commission headquarters in Newcastle, the Board of Trade Investment Grants office at Billingham, and we have announced plans to move a sizeable part of the Department of Education and Science to Darlington. All these add to the substantial amount of Government work already being carried out in the Northern Region.

I badly want to come to one or two specific points which the hon. Lady mentioned—for instance, the point which she made concerning deep water berths. At the moment there is no proposal for port development before any Ministry. It: is for the port authority or for other port operators to put forward any such proposal. We do not at this moment expect any such proposal for handling ore to come forward before decisions are taken on Consett's future. But assurances have been given by the Minister of Power that before any decisions on the future of the Consett Iron Works are reached full account will be taken of their social and economic implications, including their effect on associated industries, such as the shipping trade. But, in fact, the British Steel Corporation is still in the relatively early stages of considering its rationalisation and future investment programme, and it is too soon to draw any conclusions on its likely plans for industry.

Dame Irene Ward

May I impress on the right hon. Gentleman that no proposals for deep water berths for the shipment of ore can be put forward until we know the future of the Consett Iron and Steel Company? This is the main point on which I want an answer.

Mr. Lee

As this moment the Steel Corporation is doing its assessment of where capacity shall be. Until it has completed that assessment, none of us will know the future of the Consett Iron Works. I am not saying that we should have deep water plans before us. The people who want to put these plans to us cannot possibly do so until they know the decision on Consett. But the moment that it is possible for the Steel Corporation to make its proposals we will——

Dame Irene Ward

Cannot the right hon. Gentleman act?

Mr. Lee

How can one act?

Dame Irene Ward

The right hon. Gentleman is a Minister.

Mr. Lee

I am trying to answer the hon. Lady's point that we are not putting as much weight on Tyneside as on Tees-side. I have given the hon. Lady a list of very important projects planned for Tyneside and I have stated the prospects for the shipbuilding industry.

Government assistance to the development areas is now on a quite unprecedented level and is unaffected by the recent cuts on public spending. The regional employment premium and the exemption of development areas from the withdrawal of the Selective Employment Tax premium should do a great deal to make Tyneside more attractive as a location for new industry and to strengthen the industry already there. At Cramlington New Town, which falls within one of the new special development areas, the Government are to establish a major industrial estate. Although the primary purpose of this estate is to provide jobs for ex-miners from the colliery districts further north, it and other industrial developments at Cramlington should provide employment opportunities for a great number of Tynesiders.

Road improvements are already completedr—I am thinking of the £13 million project for the Tyneside tunnel and the Durham motorway which is going on. These are playing a very considerable part in helping Tyneside with one of its major problemsr—the lack of communications between Tyneside and its markets in the Midlands and the South. Already on Tyneside we have allocated r£1.7 million for major improvements to roads this winter out of the Northern Region's £7 million share of the mini-works programme.

I hope that the hon. Lady will agree that within the time scale we have in mind we are doing everything humanly possible to get this awful problem of high unemployment solved as rapidly as we can.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.