HC Deb 10 December 1971 vol 827 cc1782-94

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Neville Sandelson (Hayes and Harlington)

I must of necessity be brief in what I have to say. For a long time past, as a result of the policies of successive Governments, manufacturing industry throughout the entire London region has been in decline and this process has accelerated alarmingly over the last few years. If I refer specifically to West London it is because my constituency lies there, but essentially the same conditions apply in varying degree throughout the Metropolis as a whole.

The position in Hayes, as I have previously had occasion to point out to the hon. Gentleman—and I have been grateful for his attention—is causing grave anxiety both in regard to the present and the long-term prospects. The closure of long-standing industrial firms in the area has become a contagion which shows no sign of abating and, together with unremitting waves of redundancies, unemployment hangs like a black cloud over a once-prosperous and stable industrial community. The shock effects of large-scale unemployment in areas such as this run far deeper than in areas inured to it by past experience.

Throughout London during the last 12 months the numbers of workers on the dole has risen dramatically and today there are pockets of London where the figures of real unemployment are above the national average. There is a grave danger that parts of London itself will degenerate before long into areas of industrial dereliction.

The Minister must know that closures are occurring without any sort of prior warning. Westlands, of which the Minister is aware, is a case in point. In that case 1,800 employees, including a high proportion of skilled engineering workers with deep family roots in the Hayes area, are affected by it. Some will no doubt be offered re-employment at other plant owned by the company in the West Country. But a move of this kind would mean an abnormal uprooting for many of them with long-established ties in the area in which most have lived all their lives and, in the case of some, their fathers before them. However salubrious West Country air may be, one wonders why workers and their families should be uprooted without proved justification from areas in which they have been born, grown up, married and raised families.

The Westlands site has now been sold for nearly £4 million. That represents no doubt, a princely profit to the company. It is a sale based on utterly artificial land values, and it exemplifies what is happening throughout London where industrial owners are simply taking advantage of inflated property assets and moving to other areas of the country.

There is deep local concern about the use to which this site will be put by the purchasers, Slater Walker. We in Hayes want this site for industrial uses. We want a minimum of 1,800 industrial workers employed on the site, and preferably more. By an I.D.C. concession the Government have it within their power to resolve our major unemployment problem "at a stroke", if I may be allowed to borrow that expression.

These sales for mere monetary considerations, regardless of the disastrous social consequences, could, in my view, usefully be subjected to new forms of capital taxation if they were held to be against the public interest, and that is a view which I intend to develop on other occasions.

The time is overdue when boardroom decisions to close major plant should be brought under some sort of legislative control. It is anomalous in this day and age that unilateral decisions deeply affecting the life of the community and the workers whose livelihood is at stake should be permitted without any sort of outside reference.

Workers are not bits and pieces of human scrap to be discarded at the arbitrary will and whim of management. Each closure should be considered on its merits by an independent industrial tribunal which would take into account all the public considerations involved. The right to close a large factory should be as much a matter of public interest and concern as is the right, for which consent is required, to open a factory in a particular area. I hope the time is not far off when a preliminary notice to close will have to be served on all interested parties, such as local authorities and trade unions, who in turn could take their objections to an outside independent body.

London's industrial malaise is not a temporary or passing one. It has been greatly accelerated and worsened by the economic climate arising from the policies of the Conservative Government. But the underlying causes run much deeper than the changing conditions of the national economy.

I hope the Minister will not resort in his reply to mere palliatives. London is not, to use the Prime Minister's verbal coinage, on the brink of unparalleled prosperity. On the contrary, manufacturing industry throughout the area is rapidly eroding.

For many years London and the South-East has been the milch cow for every other region in the country. In the past one could hardly quarrel with policies designed to reduce the temperature of more prosperous areas by transfering some of the heat to regions in greater need. We all recognise today the appalling problems in other parts of the country. The many unemployed in the Borough of Hillingdon, and West London generally, know what unemployment means: they have a common cause with unemployed workers elsewhere.

I am bound to ask the Minister in what way it is seriously to the advantage of Clydeside, the North-West or Wales if London is allowed to become an area of industrial dereliction. London's industry is now not merely stunted by present I.D.C. policies and other factors but is being gradually forced out of existence. The closures we are witnessing are not of old or obsolete industry but in many cases of our most modern technological firms.

I ask the Minister to state bluntly whether he sees any serious long-term future for manufacturing industry in the London area. Is it the Government's intention to continue to allow mass sellouts of manufacturing plant and their replacement, often in the face of local authority resistance, by service industries which, useful though they may be, can provide employment for only a fraction of industrial workers?

If that is the case, then the long-term prospect for thousands of highly-skilled workers in my constituency is bleak indeed. I feel considerable anger and no little desperation that a cohesive work force, highly trained for employment in special fields of production, and in itself a major industrial asset to Britain, should be pitchforked like so much industrial scrap on to the labour market to queue with thousands of others for the few jobs that become available in hotels, offices and warehouses.

There is a further aspect of the problem. What is to be the effect on London's already overburdened transport system if millions of people, no longer able to obtain industrial employment in the areas where they live, are compelled to work in offices long distances from their homes? One can imagine the social anarchy and utter chaos that will ensue if we arrive, as seems likely, at the stage where, with local industries gone for ever, the people of London must criss-cross daily from one side of the capital to another to earn their living. This already presents very serious problems of social and public service dislocation.

I know that my concern at what is happening to London's industry and the communities we represent is shared by many of my hon. Friends and not least by the local authorities in our constituencies. In particular my concern is shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Southall (Mr. Bidwell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham (Mr. Russell Kerr), both of whom have shown a deep awareness of these problems. I am grateful to them for their assistance to me since I entered the House a few months ago. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) is equally concerned, and wishes to take part in the debate. He has, of course, greater knowledge and experience of the area than I have.

The time has come, in my view, when a development council should be set up to introduce a proper pattern of economic activity for the area of the capital. I ask the Minister to recognise the seriousness of the problem. I seek a firm assurance, at the very least, that a fresh look will now be taken at the strategic planning of London and the whole South-East Region so that a proper industrial balance can be retained and, indeed, restored to the area.

4.11 p.m.

Sir Ronald Russell (Wembley, South)

I am not certain whether Wembley can be geographically described as North London or West London, but the firm of Glazier Metal has threatened to move from my constituency, and that would be a serious blow.

In Wembley last month the number of vacancies increased by about 10 per cent. compared with October, and the number of unemployed workers placed in jobs also increased by 10 per cent., which is a comforting sign. I hope that the same increase in jobs will occur in the rest of London.

4.12 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

I should like to support what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson). His constituency is at the western end of the industrial belt built in the inter-war years and mine is at the eastern end. This belt has firms of various sizes—many of them small, and a small number of them large—and a reservoir of skill. By and large the work people live in the area.

We are told in the statement of the Greater London Development Plan that in 1966 no less than one-third of the population of London was in manufacturing industry. That proportion has very much decreased since then, and the re-written G.L.C. Plan will accelerate the trend.

Paragraph 4.13 of the statement says: … The Council continue to encourage the decentralisation of factories which can function equally well elsewhere. The Council will continue to fulfil its existing commitments for the movement of industry by voluntary negotiation to expanding towns, to match the needs of the population which is moved. That will only accelerate something which is happening in any case by natural planning and changes in the industrial structure. We have changing technology, a changing size of firms, which is happening in any case in constituencies like mine, a coherent social structure bereft of suitable employment and, in particular, a lack of chance of skilled employment for the children of the area. In my area three well-known firms with family traditions extending over years are closing down, either because of rationalisation or because they are moving out of the area. What is not always known is that in this zone of industry many people go home from their factories for their lunch: they walk out, and walk back again. We have a closely knit society of which these firms and the manufacturing skills they represent are really part.

To say that we have warehouses or offices or some sort of service industries as a substitute is not good enough. If the G.L.C. turn London into a vast office and service centre we shall have a very unbalanced community.

I appreciate that the Under-Secretary represents the Department of Trade and Industry, and that this is a matter which is just as much the concern of the Department for the Environment. Though the hon. Gentleman is not entirely responsible, I hope that he will give us some indication that when the 1971 census figures are available he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will make a particular study of the change in industrial occupations in London over these last five years. This will be revealed only when the census figures are produced, not just for the Greater London area as a whole but for various parts of London in particular.

I believe that the trend which these figures will show will continue for some time whatever we do. I hope that the Minister's attitude to the Greater London Development Plan statement, whatever may come from the panel now sitting, will take these points into account, because society runs on stable employment and the prospect of skilled and well-remunerated employment, which has been the tradition in this area of London for many years.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Southall)

Briefly, I reinforce what has been said by my hon. Friends the Members for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson) and for Acton (Mr. Spearing). I ask the Minister to address his mind to one or two very pertinent questions. It has been very difficult to find out where skilled workers go when closures of the Westland Aircraft character occur, and when other firms close. This gives rise to considerable anxiety in West London and the West Middlesex area in particular.

I do not know whether the Minister's Department or the Department of Employment have any figures to show exactly what is taking place. There is great emphasis at present—this is not immediately applicable to the Minister's Department—on training and retraining facilities. What is now taking place in light engineering in our area is that many workers are prone to take redundancy payments, an enormously wasteful thing from any Government's point of view. It will not be good enough if the Minister, when he replies to the debate, merely points to expansion of activities in the area which is on the stocks. We are concerned about what is taking place at present, the redundancies recently declared and redundancies currently being declared. We are asking for the active intervention of the Department to stay the hands of those who now wish to take jobs away from our areas before other expansionist activity has got under way.

4.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Anthony Grant)

Perhaps I may first say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wembley, South (Sir R. Russell) that I have no knowledge of any prospective redundancies in the firm to which he referred. But we shall certainly make further inquiries, and we will maintain contact by correspondence with him.

It must indeed be a rare, and possibly unique, occasion for the House to be discussing declining industry in the Western part of the London area. I should have liked hon. Gentlemen opposite, perhaps, to have made their speeches in the debate we had on the development areas earlier this week. But I congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson), who represents an area I know well, on his initiative in raising a cause he has persistently championed during the past months, and one which I know gives serious concern to other hon. Members whose constituencies lie in and around West London districts.

The hon. Member will not be surprised when I say that I cannot accept the underlying thesis of his speech, in particular his reference to the Government in some way taking powers of some sort to review factory closures. I am not certain to what end that would be, because there could be no surer means of putting jobs at risk than to compel firms to keep factories in production which do not pay their way.

Nevertheless, I accept what the hon. Gentleman says that factory closures bring personal problems and in some cases considerable hardship.

It is incumbent on all concerned to do what is possible to minimise the consequences. I urge on any management faced with the unpalatable task of declaring redundancies the need for consultations at the earliest possible stage.

There is much that the Department of Employment can do to help those who seek new jobs, and its services can be brought to bear most effectively if there is a reasonable amount of prior warning. If I have time I shall refer to the Westland case. In spite of the disagreement we have about the fundamentals, I have listened attentatively to the hon. Gentleman's arguments and I readily acknowledge the vigour with which he always puts his point over.

As the hon. Member has asserted, there have been a substantial number of closures and redundancies in the West London area in recent years, with a loss of many jobs. Almost half the closures and jobs involved have occurred in the Willesden employment exchange area, which, not surprisingly, has the current highest total registered unemployed— 2,346—of the six employment exchange areas we are considering this afternoon which, together, currently comprise 6,291 total registered unemployed.

These figures are too high. I am sorry to note the rapid rise that has occurred over the past year in this area. I am sure that the recent development of this adverse trend has sharpened the impact in an area which until recently has enjoyed a high level of employment in manufacturing industry. Nevertheless, it is essential to view the matter in a balanced perspective. Despite the sharp rise in unemployment in West London, the fact remains that the area's current percentage of unemployed is still only about the level for the G.L.C. travel-to work area as a whole—that is, 1.8 per cent.

Concurrently, there has been a drop of 45 per cent. in the number of unfilled vacancies in the West London district, as compared with a 33 per cent. drop in the G.L.C. area. But the overall position of West London, and certainly of the G.L.C. area, of which it forms part, is incomparably better than the South-East Region, or even more, than of the development areas and other parts of the country with long-standing persistent problems of unemployment, dereliction, and so on.

I take the hon. Member's point that it is desirable to have a job near one's home. This relieves the burden on roads and public transport, and leaves the individual with more money in his pocket and more leisure in which to enjoy it. I am sure the hon. Member would not press his argument to the point of criticising those who travel some distance to work. I would expect him to commend the initiative of people who are prepared to look further afield to find the job best suited to their abilities and preferences. This is in fact what happens. The travel-to-work pattern over the whole of the Greater London area is immensely complex. It is unrealistic, therefore, to take too parochial a view of unemployment and job vacancies in any one part of London.

In the Greater London travel-to-work area there are at present nearly 35,000 vacancies notified to the Department of Employment, more than half of them for men. There are nearly 1,000 vacancies in mechanical engineering, over 1,200 in electrical engineering, over 1,500 in vehicles and aircraft, and over 1,000 in other metal goods manufacture. The construction industry has nearly 1,800 notified vacancies. In other fields, 5,500 jobs are available in the distributive trades, and 3,500 in professional and scientific services.

These figures do not by any means reflect the total demand for labour. Many vacancies arise and are filled without appearing on the Department of Employment's books. The daily, evening and local papers which circulate in London and which the hon. Gentleman and I read, carry many columns of vacancy advertisements. Private employment bureaux are active, mainly in the field of clerical employment, but by no means exclusively so. The market for jobs in London is far from static.

Not all of these jobs are in West London, but it is simply not the case that job opportunities do not exist in West London or within reasonable travelling distance.

I would expect to come under very heavy fire were I to accept that the employment situation in West London bears any resemblence to that of some of the worst-hit areas of the country. Any consideration of the employment position in West London cannot overlook the employment opportunities available at London Airport, not to mention the employment provided by the services, such as hotels, in the vicinity. Many of the jobs available in and around the airport are entirely within the field of the service industries; but in the immense complex of the airport, devoted to the high-technology industry of air transportation, there is a demand for a wide variety of craftsmen of many skills.

In any case, it is wrong to decry the significance of the service industries, as though they were some kind of poor relation of manufacturing industry. It may be that the trend of employment in West London is to some extent away from manufacturing industry and towards the service industries. I cannot accept, however, the double inference which the hon. Member draws—first, that this is a bad thing and, second, that the Government ought to do something to oppose the trend. Preservation of the status quo is not the invariable answer; if change is taking place, the sensible thing to do is to recognise it, adapt to it and grasp the opportunities which it offers.

I was interested to learn from the hon. Gentleman that the Hillingdon Borough Council is setting up a "strategy committee" to consider the changes in the industrial structure of its area. This is a useful initiative, with a continuing value for the healthy economic life of the Hillingdon district and I welcome it.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Westland works. It would not be appropriate for me to discuss individual cases here, but as regards Westland Helicopters' Hayes factory—and I recall the number of occasions when I have harangued noisy meetings outside those famous gates—I think it right to point out that in a Press statement issued on 22nd November, following a meeting between management and unions, the company indicated that the run-down would be so arranged that the majority of employees would be with the firm until early summer next year, thus allowing them as long as possible to look for other work, and spreading the impact of the closure over a period of several months.

The statement also referred to the offer of jobs at Westland's other plants in the West Country to 400 employees. It may be that it is not an attractive place for them to go to. Nevertheless the offer existed, and those who agreed to move would be assisted financially and given help in finding housing. Moreover, for those employees who accepted redundancy the company was prepared, with the acceptance by the unions and employees of the programmed closure, to provide redundancy terms more favourable than those legally required.

On the general question of I.D.C. policy I would remind the House that no I.D.C. is normally required for the occupation of premises which have an existing industrial use and that no I.D.C. is required for projects of under 5,000 sq. ft. in area. The hon. Member has referred to the fact that some of the vacant industrial premises in West London are old and outworn. Although the I.D.C. policy has to be strictly operated in the London area, we recognise the need of industry for modern premises in which production can be carried out efficiently, and I.D.C. policy is operated flexibly for modernistion and rebuilding projects which will not result in any substantial increased demand for labour in the vicinity.

I am strongly of the opinion that although the adjustment to changing patterns of employment in the West London area is bound to cause problems in the short term, the outlook for these districts is generally very promising indeed. It seems certain that the area's own service industries will expand further, especially in and around London Airport, thus offering alternative employment for many of those displaced in recent redundancies. At the same time, no one can doubt that the tremendous attractions of the London area for manufacturing and service employment, including its excellent communications, ensure that the whole G.L.C. area, of which the West London districts are an integral part, is well placed to benefit from the general stimulation of confidence and investment throughout the national economy to which the Government's measures have been so strongly directed.

A great deal has been done by the Government in recent months to stimulate the economy generally, apart from the measures aimed specifically at the problems of the assisted areas. Personal taxation has been cut by £1,400 million. The burden of company taxation has been reduced and S.E.T. halved. Purchase tax has been cut, and restrictions on hire purchase removed, with, as I told the House earlier this week, encouraging results already. Consumer expenditure is on the increase; many manufacturers are keeping their prices under restraint; industrial profits are showing an improvement. There is more progress still to be made, but we are progressing, and West London is well placed to be in the vanguard of this progress.

I must say to the hon. Gentleman who represents a constituency not dissimilar from mine, geographically, that successive Administrations, over many years have recognized—

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock, 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-nine minutes to Five o'clock.