HC Deb 15 June 1971 vol 819 cc405-14

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

12.3 a.m.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Bodmin)

I am grateful for the opportunity to draw the attention of the House to a most disturbing and depressing feature within the Bodmin parliamentary division, namely the position of Gunnislake. It would be helpful to the House if I first described the background and geographical setting of this unfortunate community.

Gunnislake is situated in the Tamar Valley at a Bridging point of the river on the A390 Tavistock to Callington to Liskeard road. It is linked to Plymouth by a branch railway line, a line which is in receipt of a Government subsidy and whose future is thus not assured. Historically, Gunnislake is dependent upon mining, quarrying, horticulture and Devon-port Dockyard for its economic well-being. Forty men still travel to the dockyard for their employment. Only one quarry employing 62 people remains. Mining has long ceased, although there is talk, plus trial borings, which suggest that a revival could take place, but this is still at a most speculative stage. Horticulture is declining in importance in terms of numbers employed, since these activities comprise mainly family units and provide work only on a seasonal basis for women. This is the background.

Last month, I asked a series of Questions relating to the current unemployment position. On 5th April this year there were 128 people registered at Gunnislake Employment Exchange. This represents over 12 per cent. of the local insured population. This morning, 14th June, that figure stood at 105. This is bad enough, but a closer analysis of these figures shows that of those 56 have been out of work for over six months; about 40 per cent. A closer examination reveals that 26 people over 50 years of age have been unemployed for over a year. Some have been unemployed for much longer than a year, but the statistics kept by the Department of Employment only go up to one year. Anyone out of work for more than a year, irrespective of the length of that unemployment, is classified as having been unemployed for over a year. Twelve people over 50 have been unemployed for six to 12 months, so it is mainly the elderly who are suffering most in this area. I am informed that since work has been completed on the Plympton bypass an additional three men have been registered as unemployed. That is the depressing position expressed by the cold statistical terms.

I would draw the Minister's attention to the fact that this is nothing new to the inhabitants of Gunnislake. Since World War Two, while the economic fortunes of the nation as a whole and of the West Country in particular have waxed and waned but have, overall, improved considerably, and while national and regional unemployment rates have fluctuated, the position of Gunnislake has remained largely unaltered.

May I take this opportunity to include the evidence of two other witnesses of the Gunnislake scene. A few weeks ago I did an interview on the subject with the Lobby Correspondent of our regional newspaper, the Western Morning News. In introducing listeners to the subject, he said: In the 25 years that I have been reporting West Country regional affairs, the difficulties of Gunnislake seem always to have been with me. Recently the manager of the Gunnislake Employment Exchange, a man much respected for his detailed knowledge of the area, said in a telling statement: The Gunnislake total of unemployed is now rising about the 130 total, a high mark in a district where unemployment of between 12 and 14 per cent. of the insured population is commonplace. He continued: I've known some of these individuals since schooldays. Their fathers were on the dole when they were at school. I've issued them with their first National Insurance Cards, seen them get married. Now I am paying them for their children. That's how it goes in 40 years. I should not be using this occasion to the full advantage if I did not, as the Member for the area concerned, attempt to be positive and make a few constructive proposals.

First, the Gunnislake employment exchange area is at present a sub-district within the larger Plymouth exchange area and thus now has intermediate area status. The number unemployed in April, 1971, for the Plymouth exchange area was 2,882, or 4.5 per cent. I cannot but conclude that, because of this present administrative structure, the realities of the Gunnislake situation are masked. One sees, in other words, the Plymouth figure of 4 per cent., or whatever it may be at any given moment, but one does not immediately recognise that within this area there is a locality known as Gunnislake which has, perhaps, 10 per cent. or 12 per cent. or 14 per cent. unemployed.

Therefore, to any Minister based in London or to the officials of his Department the true distressing position of this village is not realised; otherwise surely a more aggressive attitude would have been adopted many years ago. Hence, I request that urgent consideration be given to the need to create a separate Gunnislake exchange area so that the position can be highlighted and be constantly before the Ministry's officials.

Second, in the formulation of regional policies I have always thought and hoped that a Conservative Government would adopt a more selective approach. Surely this is a classic situation for this viewpoint to be enacted. To the west of the Gunislake sub-district lies the majority of Cornwall, all of which has full development area status. To the east and to the south into Devon, intermediate status has already been given to Plymouth and now has also been given to the Tavistock and Okehampton exchange areas.

I ask the Minister in all sincerity to consider the possibility of singling out Gunnislake with its peculiar and long-established problems and grant it some form of special development area status similar, possibly, to that recently given to parts of Central Scotland. This is what selectivity is all about in the context of regional thinking—not to designate vast areas, but to highlight the real pockets requiring assistance on a highly localised scale.

My third and final point is to recommend that the possibility of siting an advance factory at Gunnislake be considered, possibly designed with the development of traditional pursuits in mind in consultation with the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas, which has had a successful record in Cornwall of late. I believe that this could have beneficial results as, bearing in mind the past economic strength of the Tamar Valley, this kind of economic venture might prove to be the most suitable for the area.

In conclusion, I express the hope that the Minister will recognise the seriousness of this grave local problem. It will not be sufficient to extend the hope that with the recovery of the nation's economic fortunes so will those of Gunnislake rise. Unfortunately, recent history over the past 25℃35 years will not support the validity of that argument. I suggest that only by an aggressive policy of selective action will real hope be brought to the unemployed and their families living in Gunnislake to prevent my successor as hon. Member for Bodmin in 40 years' time having to raise the same problem again.

12.15 a.m.

Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

In congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks) on both the subject and quality of his case, I suggest that the name of Gunnislake typifies the West Country situation rather than merely identifying a very attractive geographical location. In the way that Jarrow is now accepted as typifying the unemployment of the past in the North-East, Gunnislake symbolises the industrial impotence and the despair of half-a-dozen small Cornish towns and the people who live in them. They find their pleas and their position constantly obscured by the overall statistics of the area, the sub-region, and ultimately the region in which they are placed. Thus it is that 13 per cent. unemployment at Redruth is telescoped into the far less spectacular 4.5 per cent. regional figure. The urgent need for a cure and the case for compassion therefore appears, because of this system of masking, far less urgent and the level of employment far more tolerable.

What my hon. Friend has said is perfectly right. Development policy on a rigid basis is totally useless. What we must have is the courage and the compassion to create precedents where they could be the realistic alternative and solution to the problems we now endure.

Successive Governments have told the Gunnislakes of this world, "When the nation is entirely sound and prosperous and financially healthy, so will you be." But the remedy and the need for that remedy is more basic, and our plea is far more eloquent. How can we begin to build a sound and healthy nation unless first we create hope and security for the people of the Gunnislakes of the remote regions?

12.17 a.m.

Mr. Robert Adley (Bristol, North-East)

Ulster, Scotland and Wales have their vociferous lobbies, but in the West Country we are fairly tolerant and do not make too much noise. None the less, we are sincere in airing our problems.

I come from a more fortunate part of the West Country, but I want to support my hon. Friends in saying that our long, thin region seems to attract less attention as it tapers westwards. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will have listened carefully to the sincere pleas of my hon. Friends.

12.18 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks) not only on his persistence in making sure that this subject came before the House but also on the way in which he presented his case for his constituents in Gunnislake.

I do not think that any of my hon. Friends are right to imply that the Government are not acutely aware of the problems, very often in small pockets, that they described in theirs and other regions. We do our very best to deal with the difficult pockets of unemployment such as exist in Gunnislake.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin that the longstanding history of this unfortunate area has made it perhaps a more difficult case than others, because it must be very difficult and unhopeful to live in a place where there have been high levels of unemployment for a long time, even though the total numbers are not great. So my hon. Friends were absolutely right to raise the question.

The Government, of course, feel the greatest sympathy for those who are affected in the area. But I should like to say a few words about the figures. My hon. Friend used the unemployment percentage for Gunnislake; I think that he said that there was 13 or 14 per cent. unemployment in the town. But in total that works out in the latest count, in May, at 116 persons, of whom 100 were men, and that is a slight drop on the previous month's figures. So we are talking about a small number of people relatively, though I hasten to add that, of course, the fact that their number is small does not in any way lessen the individual hardship which they suffer.

My hon. Friends made a strong plea that we should not try to mask these figures in the overall figures of the Plymouth travel-to-work area. There were 4,002 unemployed in May in the Plymouth travel-to-work area, which was 4T per cent., and that includes Gunnislake and other peripheral areas outside Plymouth. The reason for taking these travel-to-work areas is not in the least to try to mask the worse pockets of unemployment. It is done for the good reason that people do travel to work back and forth within the area which is designated.

It is impossible to try to solve the problems of an area like this unless one takes the area as a whole. The extent of travel to work is much greater in Gunnislake, I think, than my hon. Friend realises. For instance, my figures are that between 100 and 200 people travel to Plymouth by train from Gunnislake every day to work, and between 200 and 300 travel by road in one form or another. Out of an insured population of 537, that represents an extraordinarily high proportion of the working population travelling in that way.

Whether that is desirable or not is not my point. I am merely pointing out that it is a fairly strong justification for taking the travel-to-work area as a whole for the purpose of trying to cure unemployment and the shortage of job opportunities rather than isolate a little village like Gunnislake and give it special treatment. Inevitably, the problems of the area as a whole are wider than just that. Indeed, in all parts of the country, it will be found that there is a much greater travel pattern than many people would be prepared to acknowledge.

The actual definition of travel-to-work areas is determined by the Department of Employment and is based on information from the Census. From our point of view in the Department of Trade and Industry, it is right that we should look at the travel-to-work area as a whole, because this is the only way that we can develop an area economically; and it would be wrong to isolate a small area such as this and give it special advantages.

I am all for the selective approach which my hon. Friend stressed. Indeed, if he had a map of Great Britain coloured to show special development areas, development areas, intermediate areas and non-development areas, he would agree, I think, that we have been extremely selective. There are those who argue that we have been too selective. But there are two qualifications to be made: one, that one must not alter the boundaries of areas frequently, for this causes confusion and difficulties for industrialists; the other, that one must not draw one's areas too small.

I can demonstrate the truth of what I have just said by considering my hon. Friend's request that there should be special development area status, or at least development area status, for Gunnislake. In considering the 116 unemployed at the May count, we must remember that on the Tyne and on the Clyde there are vastly greater numbers, over 30,000 on the Clyde, for instance. When my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) talks about Jarrow, he will, I am sure, be the first to accept that the scale of the problem there is totally different from that in Gunnislake.

The area is an intermediate area. It has all the advantages of intermediate area status, including the building grant of 25 to 35 per cent. and the local authority grant for clearing land of 75 per cent. It needs only one factory, with perhaps about 100 jobs, completely to cure the problem in Gunnislake. If the factory was bigger, it would soon come up against problems of shortage of labour.

Out of the 100 men unemployed, 38 are unskilled or labourers, 16 only are engineers or clerical workers, and 11 are administrative, technical and professional people. Therefore, the number of people who are available to work in a factory is very small. Thirty-four of the unemployed are over 60 and 21 over 55. To bring the full scale of special development area benefits to a problem of this size, without in any way trying to minimise the difficulties for the individual concerned, is not appropriate. The problems in the industrial regions of the North, Wales and the North-West are of such a different order that, although the incentives designed for those areas are suitable for them, I doubt whether it would be right to apply them to a problem of this size.

My hon. Friend asked about an advance factory. We have not an advance factory in the area. But it would hardly seem appropriate to put one there at this time, particularly bearing in mind what I have just said. But the generous building grant, would always be available if any firm wished to build a factory. The Department is always prepared to assist in any way it can if the problem of an industrialist is to find the accommodation needed to carry out his work. I do not believe that the absence of an advance factory is a deterrent in the area of Gunnislake.

My hon. Friend adjured me not to make anything of the economic argument or to say that if there is an upsurge in the economy there will be better chances for an area like this. I do not intend to do so, except to say that the best chance for Gunnislake lies in there being a greater number of mobile firms seeking locations in the assisted areas. It is notable that there is a shortage of such firms.

Gunnislake could solve its problem with just one new firm—and not a very big firm at that. I advise my hon. Friends not to paint too gloomy a picture of Gunnislake. I believe it has many advantages. With a little effort on its part and by presenting the brightest side of the picture, it could well be successful in attracting the one business it needs. We in the Department have brought and will continue to bring the area to the attention of anybody who is looking for a site to build. I believe that there is no reason why this problem should not be solved.

I am sure that my hon. Friend has done a great service in bringing this matter to the attention of the public tonight and I hope that as a result of this debate he will be lucky in finding somebody interested in going to his area. But we can do a disservice to an area by painting too gloomy a picture of it. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government have no intention of trying to mask the difficulties. We welcome the debate which has drawn attention to them and we hope that the result of my hon. Friend's efforts tonight will be that sooner or later the necessary firm will appear which will put the picture right for this unfortunate town.

Question put and agreed to.

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