HC Deb 17 March 1971 vol 813 cc1605-16

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

12.30 a.m.

Mr. Eric G. Varley (Chesterfield)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the question of the economic circumstances of Chesterfield. In calling for intermediate area status, I should like to explain that by "Chesterfield" I mean the complete travel-to-work area of the employment exchanges of Chesterfield. This includes not only the whole of my constituency but a substantial part of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain) and a proportion of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East here. He has been consistent over the years in pursuing the matter, with other hon. Members from the North Derbyshire area.

Chesterfield, along with other parts of the Derbyshire coalfield area, has for a number of years faced difficulties not common to the rest of the East Midlands region. Many of these problems have been getting worse. Two basic statistics highlight this trend. In February, 1963, the last time the country faced unemployment of the dimensions now current, Chesterfield's unemployment was 13 per cent. above the national average. In February this year it was 42 per cent. above the national average, and the figures to be published tomorrow will show that it has since risen by about 14 per cent. That is a token of the gathering momentum of the problem.

The position in the Chesterfield exchange area on 8th March was as follows: there were 3,201 men unemployed, and 408 women, making a total of 3,609. The provisional figures given to me on Monday by the Under-Secretary of State for Employment were even worse. They may be more up-to-date than the figures I have just quoted. The male unemployment rate on that basis is 6.5 per cent., and the overall rate is 5 per cent. It is equivalent to the February rates of the Merseyside and Welsh development areas, and worse than the rate in the Yorkshire Coalfield and Plymouth intermediate areas.

The Minister for Industry will probably refer in reply to previous representations to Governments on this matter. I have some knowledge of those representations. On the evidence available, we have a rapidly deteriorating situation. That is why I feel fully justified in asking for intermediate area status.

By its very nature the economic component of regional policies must be discriminatory—it must be, to make sense. There are areas which clearly have, and will continue to have, persistently difficult economic circumstances and need to be helped. On the other hand, there are areas in which no financial inducements to enter are necessary. Their locational advantages and industrial diversity, generally speaking, are adequate. But there are other areas which need periodic examination to determine whether the Government need to take action. Chesterfield is one of those areas. The situation there has deteriorated to one where help must be given. The Government must step in not only to arrest the trend but to reverse it.

It may help if I set out the facts. It it well known to the Department of the Minister for Industry that pit closures have taken place in North Derbyshire over the last few years. While, happily, at least, in the foreseeable future, no colliery closure is in prospect in North Derbyshire—and, indeed, the National Coal Board is conducting a modest recruiting programme—we know that, on any sensible manpower projection, the men required in North Derbyshire pits will be fewer by the end of this decade. There are, however, some new and some immediate factors which have occurred over the past few months and weeks which have made the position worse.

First, 65 men at the Sheepbridge Equipment Company were sacked. Sheepbridge Equipment makes stone-crushing plant among other things, and customers have told the company that they have to cancel orders, and they blame the Government's decision to end investment grants as the cause. I do not want to go into that now; we have already made the Minister aware of this claim made on behalf of the company, and I think he is investigating that.

Secondly, Sheepbridge Rolling Mills sacked 130 men, and, as there are no other rolling mills within the area, the prospects for these men are bleak, too. Thirdly, we had a Rolls-Royce drawing and design office in Chesterfield employing 165 highly-skilled men. On the instructions of the Receiver, for reasons about which we all know, the office has been closed; 80 men have been sacked and the others moved to other parts of Derbyshire. Fourthly, the Stanton and Staveley works, part of British Steel Corporation's tube division, have 1,800 men on short-time working at Staveley, and in the present climate in British Steel it would be a very brave man who predicted the future of any of the Steel Corporation's enterprises. We shall be debating that tomorrow.

I have tried to outline the rapidly deteriorating position, and to sum up this part of my remarks the facts, very briefly, are as follows: on 8th March, 2,201 men unemployed; 408 women registered as unemployed, and probably more women out of work who have not registered; a male unemployment rate of 6.5 per cent.; an overall rate of 5 per cent.; redundancy over the past few weeks totalling 275; 1,800 on short-time working with an uncertain future; projected manpower requirements in coal mining going down by anything up to 3,000 over the next 10 years.

Mr. Thomas Swain (Derbyshire, North-East)

My hon. Friend is not aware of this fact, of course, but there are a further 125 redundancies at Bramah's electrical components manufactory at Halfway, and every one of them is in the Chesterfield travel-to-work area.

Mr. Varley

I am grateful for that information. I was not aware of it, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend has drawn this to the attention of the Minister. It adds to the seriousness of the situation.

It is fashionable in some quarters to talk about self-help and standing on one's own feet, and there may be a suggestion that Chesterfield has not tried self-help or tried to stand on its own feet. I absolutely refute any suggestion that the people and local organisations in Chesterfield have not been doing all they can to improve the position. Staveley Urban District Council, the area in which I live, has had success with a small industrial estate, and I think the councillors and officers of that authority deserve to be congratulated. Similarly, commencing in 1965, Chesterfield Borough Council, the largest authority in my constituency, has spent £160,000 of ratepayers' money in acquiring land and laying out an industrial estate. In co-operation with Arrowhead Investments Ltd., the estate developer, £7,000 has been spent, with all-party support, with the support of the Conservative and Labour Parties on Chesterfield Borough Council, on a campaign of promotion since April, 1970.

Although 19 firms have responded to the campaign, not a single firm has decided to come to Chesterfield. The Chesterfield Rural District Council has also been determined and vigorous in acquiring land and taking action to promote industrial expansion. In spite of all this local effort the results have not been sufficient to meet the problem.

This brings me back to the need for Government help. I should like to give a few more facts acquired from Government sources by way of Parliamentary Questions which emphasise this deteriorating position. In the first six months of 1970, 15 industrial development certificates were issued for Chesterfield, and 370 jobs were expected to arise upon the completion of these projects. In the last six months of 1970 only seven industrial development certificates were issued and 100 jobs were expected. In the first two months of 1971 only the other day the Under-Secretary admitted that industrial development certificates for only 80 jobs have been issued. I do not know whether these 80 jobs are for men or for women. This is with 762 more people out of work this month than a year ago.

The House will recall that on 18th February the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the setting up of new intermediate areas, and prefaced the naming of the areas with these words: I should also mention that the Government are designating seven … areas as intermediate areas. The reason for this is that, because they have been excluded from assisted status, they have experienced increasing economic difficulties.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th February, 1971; Vol. 811, c. 2163.] I said to the hon. Member sitting next to me. "Surely he will include Chesterfield in that list", and I was utterly amazed when he failed to do so.

We had been told that the Government were having a review, and they must surely have known that Chesterfield's position had sharply deteriorated. What of the areas the Chancellor of the Exchequer named? I do not deny the problems of Bridlington, Filey, Okehampton, Tavistock or Oswestry—five out of the seven intermediate areas—but their total male unemployment is 1,776, whereas that of Chesterfield alone is 3,206. Edinburgh and Portobello, the sixth and seventh new intermediate areas, have a percentage unemployment rate, again on February figures, less that that of Chesterfield. How Chesterfield's case can be denied I do not know.

We have been told that the Government have had a review of regional policy. I expressed doubts about the nature and scope of that review from the Opposition Front Bench last Friday, and it would not be appropriate for me to go into the matter again. What I want to do tonight is to plead the case for the Chesterfield area as a back bench constituency Member.

When, along with my hon. Friends and representatives from the Chesterfield area, I met the Minister for Industry on 1st March, the most disappointing aspect of the encounter was the Minister's refusal to look at the matter immediately, which was what we wanted. He contended that the review was complete. He expressed the view that the present boundaries of the assisted areas were now fixed and that no changes were to be made.

I know only too well that the Minister for Industry will not tonight give me an answer on Chesterfield's need, namely, that intermediate area status should be granted immediately. It seems that the Government have taken an inflexible decision to let the boundaries and assistance stand without any change. Despite this, I cannot bring myself to believe that no further action is contemplated in a case or such obvious need. On any objective criteria the needs of Chesterfield are compelling. I believe, my hon. Friends believe, and the local authorities in the area believe that the case is unanswerable.

I hope that the Minister will say tonight that he will at least talk to his Secretary of State and put to him the case which I have made. I hope that the Secretary of State in his turn will recommend to his colleagues the designation of Chesterfield as an intermediate area. If he will do that, it will go some way to help to restore much-needed confidence to those not only in my constituency but throughout North Derbyshire.

12.45 a.m.

The Minister for Industry (Sir John Eden)

The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Varley) has on many occasions shown his concern for the employment or unemployment statistics in Chesterfield. The House knows that the hon. Gentleman has a most intimate knowledge of the area.

At the outset I should say that I fully understand the disappointment of the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends that the Government were unable to include Chesterfield in the list of additional intermediate areas announced last month.

The hon. Gentleman drew attention to what he described as "the rapidly deteriorating situation." The rise in unemployment in March has gone to the figure of 5 per cent. in the Chesterfield travel-to-work area. The hon. Gentleman put it in somewhat more lurid terms, but it is probably better, for reasons which I shall deploy later, to keep to the figure of 5 per cent. However, we should be clear what that figure is about. These are the total register figures. The increase since February has been largely due to short-time working in the steel industry. The figure for wholly unemployed was 4.6 per cent., and I think that that is the key figure to watch.

While I fully understand the reasons that the hon. Gentleman felt it necessary to deploy in his case tonight, I think there is a danger that one can take too gloomy a view. The prospects for Chesterfield are much brighter than the deployment of the case by the hon. Gentleman would lead people to believe.

Mr. Swain

Before the Minister leaves that matter, perhaps he will allow me to make one point which my hon. Friend did not have time to develop. The Minister will be aware that the Chesterfield travel-to-work area is sandwiched between the Alfreton, South Yorkshire and Worksop intermediate areas, which makes it 100 per cent. more difficult for us in that area to encourage industry to come in.

Sir J. Eden

But there is no evidence, to answer that point directly, that the existence of the neighbouring intermediate areas has detracted from the natural attractions of Chesterfield itself. In some areas this may have been the case and it may be so now, but this does not apply to Chesterfield. The point I am making is that one can easily overdo the gloom in trying to state the case.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield is aware of the problems which confront the Government in trying to select areas for this special type of treatment. When the hon. Gentleman was a Minister at the Ministry of Technology he came up against just these problems. I have fairly good reason to believe that if the hon. Gentleman had found himself in my place tonight he would be giving much the same kind of reply as I am giving. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman was the Minis- ter in the previous Administration who had some responsibility for bringing in the Local Employment Act, 1970. The hon. Gentleman piloted that Measure through the House. The hon. Gentleman was associated then with the selection of areas designated under that Act—and that was only a year ago. He had the unenviable and difficult job, which falls to any Minister in this field of responsibilities, of explaining to deputations from disappointed areas why they had been excluded.

I think that, at about that time, he had to receive a deputation from Chesterfield, and he and his right hon. Friend who was then Minister of Technology found it necessary to reject its claim for intermediate area status.

Mr. Varley

This is fair comment, which I had expected, but my case is that, when the intermediate areas were set up, Chesterfield was a borderline case, but that the position has rapidly deteriorated since that time The Government have had a review. By any yardstick now, on the basis of the new intermediate areas, Chesterfield should have been included.

Sir J. Eden

I fully understood the hon. Member's point, but it is right to emphasise that all Governments in operating this type of policy are to some extent in a dilemma. I do not seek to hide from that fact, and this is one which the hon. Gentleman himself should fairly recognise. In Standing Committee A on the Local Employment Bill on 20th November, 1969, he said, in respect of another area: … it is a question of priorities and we believe that to spread assistance to industry and thereby to widen it must lessen the impact in the areas of greatest need."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th November, 1969, Standing Committee A; c. 61–2.] That is just the point.

I have no wish to embarrass the hon. Gentleman. I understand why he has made the case as he has. I respect the difficulties of his position, but I ask him to accept that it is impossible to draw boundaries of assisted areas which will satisfy everyone. He will remember the arguments for excluding Chesterfield in the first place and I think that many of those arguments still apply, despite the points which he made about the deteriorating situation.

First, there is no dispute that unemployment in Chesterfield is undesirably high. I said that clearly to both hon. Gentlemen when they came to see me in a deputation not so many days ago. On the other hand, the area has tremendous local advantages, and they should be emphasising the positive points here. It is heavily dependent on coal mining but that position is much better. It has no reason to fear from the cuts in the manpower requirements of the National Coal Board such as took place during a period of coal surplus. For example, since the designation of the Erewash Valley, a substantial number of I.D.Cs. have been approved in the area.

But it does not seem to me that the area is currently suffering from major structural deficiencies. It is certainly not a remote area. Nor does it appear to be losing out to any marked degree to the competitive pull of any nearby intermediate areas—

Mr. Swain

Only because there is no footloose industry.

Sir J. Eden

This may be so, but the deterioration which has taken place is a reflection of the state of the national economy and for this the present Government do not take responsibility. The hon. Member knows as well as anyone that the real threat to employment is the erosion of jobs which comes about because of wage-led inflation, and it is to do battle against this inflation that we are firmly pledged. We are determined to bring it under control, and in doing so we shall lay the foundations for sound industrial expansion.

There is every reason to believe that unemloyment levels in Chesterfield would quickly respond in an expanding economy and that the Government's policies for restoring conditions to a national economy in which growth can occur are much more relevant to Chesterfield's immediate problem than whether it should be given special assistance in the form to which the hon. Member for Chesterfield referred.

Hon. Gentlemen opposite are absolutely right in observing that the biggest single restraint to progress in restoring economic prosperity to areas of need is the shortage of mobile—the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain) called it "footloose"—industry. When it is not expanding, then obviously the less prosperous areas lose out because their own indigenous firms are unable to expand and fewer firms are able to respond to the inducements to move into them.

These constraints were the biggest single factor in our minds in the course of our review, and the announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 18th February showed that it has been our determination to give first priority to the older industrial areas in Central Scotland, the North-East and South Wales. We have made some additions, albeit modest ones, to the intermediate areas, but it is clear that these have demonstrably special problems, both as regards unemployment rates and, in some cases, remoteness.

I know that hon. Gentlemen opposite recognise that Ministers of this, like Ministers of the last, Government are equally sensitive to the difficulties of the special areas of rising unemployment. Nobody has a monopoly of concern in these matters, and we are just as anxious to try to even out, through the operation of these policies, the effects of regional disparities.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield had some strong words to say last Friday, but I will not go over that debate, which was replied to so effectively by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. We have made it clear, both on taking office and subsequently, that we had major reservations about the regional policy of the Labour Government and that we recognised that it was important that industry should know as quickly as possible our decisions, both on the measures and on the coverage of assisted areas, and that is why we went ahead to make the announcement which we made.

I said at the outset that it is possible—this is a point which the hon. Member for Chesterfield should note—to be too alarmist over these matters. He rightly drew attention to the amount of self-help of the Chesterfield people, and I applaud that. They have made a tremendous effort and I see no reason why, if not immediately then within a short time rather than in a long time, those efforts should not yield additional dividends.

The hon. Gentleman argued for the designation of Chesterfield as a special area. One of the difficulties which he has obviously found arises from the fact that he is arguing the case in isolation from the totality of the national situation. I am certain that he recognises, from his experience of these issues, the difficulty of treating an individual area without regard to the overall situation. Any addition to the list of assisted areas, especially another area in the Midlands, would only be at the expense of areas where the problems are of the greatest severity. I make no apology for saying that the Government believe that there must be no unnecessary dilution of the priority of Scotland, Wales and the Northern Region by the designation of areas which, by comparison, offer soft options to mobile industry.

Chesterfield has strong locational advantages. It is close to the M1, giving easy access to the large markets of the Midlands and the South. Its short-term prospects are not unfavourable. No further pit closures are likely during the period of coal shortage. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman said, the area is trying to recruit miners. Estimated additional employment from I.D.Cs. approved since mid-1969 is encouraging.

I promised, when I saw the hon. Member for Chesterfield and also when I wrote to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East, that I would consider sympathetically I.D.C. applications for projects suited to the needs and resources of the area. I undertake that we shall continue to keep a close watch on the situation and that we shall be ready to take action should the circumstances justify a change in priorities as between areas. At present I do not believe they do.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at One o'clock.