HL Deb 19 November 1930 vol 79 cc229-37

VISCOUNT MERSEY rose to ask His Majesty s Government whether any development can be made in the employment of British labour and material in the quarrying industry, more particularly as regards road construction; and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, my Question will not take very long, for I am aware that your Lordships are anxious to proceed to the next debate. It is not a very technical question, and it is one which, I think, deserves some little attention because it might perhaps, under different treatment, benefit employment in this country. The position appears to be this. As your Lordships are aware, a good deal of road construction is at present going on in this country. For this purpose, kerbs, lengths of cut granite, are used along the edges of the road. There are three great groups of granite quarries in Great Britain—in Cornwall, in the Midlands and in Scotland—and it would naturally be the wish of the authorities who are employed in making roads to utilise this material. What is in fact the case, as I am informed, is that quarry owners, or persons to whom quarries are leased, cannot come anywhere near meeting the requirements of the local authorities.

The Unemployment Grants Committee, of which my noble friend Lord St. Davids is Chairman—and I may say that it is with his full approbation that I am putting this Question—cannot, of course, make grants of public money to the purchase of materials which are not British materials (with special exceptions), and they are very much concerned at the present position, which is that all the granite kerbs, or very nearly all, come in from Norway. The gravamen of the complaint against the quarry owners is that they will not cut for stock. They require notice of three or four months before they will produce the kerb lengths required. Another complaint is that they will not cut the lengths required by the local authorities. Different lengths, of 3, 6, 9 and 12 feet, are required, and the quarry owners do not produce the lengths which the local authorities need. There is also a difference in price of 12 per cent. to 15 per cent., both c.i.f., as between the Norwegian article, landed at the place where it is to be used, and the British article. That, however, is the least of the complaints.

The main complaints are the inability of the British quarry owners to produce the article in anything like reasonable time, and their inability to produce the lengths that are required. I should say that this is an ex-parte statement, and if any noble Lord is a quarry owner I should be only too glad if he would meet some of the objections that I am putting forward, but the only noble Lord I have found who is a quarry owner will not come into the open. The answer, I am told, of the quarry owners is that there is not sufficient skilled labour available for them to cut these lengths. I believe that the Norwegian quarries produce machine-cut lengths for which they employ only semi-skilled labour. Our own quarry owners apparently have to employ fully skilled labour. Another of their answers is that they suggest that local authorities might make use of some other material, and that there are various sorts of other stone which might be used instead for kerbing. That is the whole question. It is not put in any spirit except that of trying to find a possible remedy for unemployment, and on behalf of my noble friend the Chairman of the Unemployment Grants Committee, who is very much exercised at the position. He says that personally he would be inclined to approve of the Government opening up a quarry of their own. I do not advocate that, but I would like to ask the noble Lord who is going to reply if be can throw any light upon this alleged incapacity of the British quarry owners.


My Lords, I am not a quarry owner, and I confess that such knowledge as I have on this subject is not up-to-date, but some years ago I was extremely familiar with this question, because I was Parliamentary Candidate in a division where some of the chief granite quarries were at work. I think my noble friend above the gangway has been rather unfair to the quarry owners, unless things have entirely altered in the last fifteen or twenty years. The real fact of the matter is that owing to our persistent free trade policy in the past we have killed the granite interest. When I was a candidate in Aberdeenshire, I knew of businesses which had been practically wiped out, so far as workmen were concerned, simply by the importation of Norwegian granite, which was sold at a much cheaper rate than our people could produce, with the result that our skilled granite workers left the country in large numbers and went to America, or elsewhere, and the industry was practically being killed.

The noble Viscount suggests that the quarry owners are in default in two ways. First he says that they cannot produce the labour. That is for the reason that I have given. The labour has left the country. The labour has been crushed out of the industry by our policy in the past. I am not at all surprised that the quarry owners are unable for that reason to produce labour in sufficient numbers to meet certain demands, such as they are now asked to provide for. Then the noble Viscount complained that they are not able to produce the right lengths. That is exactly for the same reason. In order to introduce the machinery which is used in Norway it will be necessary to incur considerable expense, and that could not be done, it is plain, without some sort of security with regard to our policy in the future. It is really most unfair to come down to the House and complain of these quarry owners who, as I have said, have had their labour taken away and crushed out by the policy of the country—I am not saying whether for other reasons it is good or bad. The British industry has been killed, and it is consequently only sympathy that we ought to give to the quarry owners when, without any security that the demand will continue, they are being told they are ineffective and inefficient.


My Lords, this may seem a relatively small matter, but owing to the enormous increase in road construction it certainly is one of importance, and I thank the noble Viscount who raised this Question, because I think that a certain amount of publicity given to the state of affairs which at present exists may be helpful. The noble Lord who has just addressed the House has taken up the cudgels for the quarry owners, and I do not in any way desire to attack them, nor do I think the noble Viscount who raised the subject really did attack them, or charge them with being unpatriotic. The condition of affairs as it at present exists is, however, very disappointing, and I think the remedy is perhaps not so remote as might be supposed from the statement of Lord Cushendun that this industry has been crushed out of existence.

I would draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that there has been an enormous increase in recent years of road construction. In addition to the annual amount which has for some years past been spent on road construction, the present Government have approved the expenditure of £50,000,000 during the last year for the construction and widening of classified roads. Definite approval has been given to about half that amount, the work on which is now going on. In addition to that, £20,000,000 has been approved for the maintenance of classified roads, and another £10,000,000 for the improvement of rural roads and unclassified roads. That will give your Lordships some idea of the enormous amount of material which is required. To begin with, there is broken stone for the roads. That is not a question which need really exercise our attention very much. A gigantic amount is required, for there are 40,000 miles of classified roads with which the Ministry of Transport is concerned, and about 12,000,000 tons a year of broken stone is required. When I say that only 172,000 tons in the last nine months have been imported that will show your Lordships that, with regard to broken stone, no particular problem arises. The amount imported is absolutely negligible.

But the question of granite kerbs is different, and that really is the point to which the noble Viscount addressed his remarks. Granite kerb can be produced in Great Britain. It is undoubtedly superior to concrete kerb, which is being manufactured now under the orders of some local authorities in their anxiety not to import foreign granite; but all experts are in agreement that the granite kerb is far more durable, and far more satisfactory. Of course, hundreds of thousands of feet of this granite kerb are required. When I say that a road which is now being constructed in Kent wants eighteen miles of this granite kerb it will show your Lordships that we are dealing with very large quantities. There are several centres in this country: Cornwall and South Devon, Shropshire, North Wales, Lancashire and Yorkshire, Scotland in the neighbourhood of North Queensferry and Inverkeithing, the Channel Islands, and Leicestershire. If I might say a word with regard to Leicestershire it will be to show that there is a case there where very satisfactory progress has been made. There is no unemployment. About 4,000 men are employed, and the Chamber of Commerce is anxious to receive applications from those who are willing to serve an apprenticeship in the dressing of the granite. During the past three months 400,000 tons of granite were produced in Leicestershire, as compared with 350,000 tons last year; and they are making every effort to get their organisation in a more efficient state, to get publicity, and to put their house in order, and they are succeeding.

No blame need be attached to the local authorities for any desire to get granite from abroad rather than from at home. They make every effort to get it from British quarries; they prefer it to the foreign manufacture. But unfortunately they are very much hampered. First of all by the price, secondly, by the delay in delivery, and very often by a pure incapacity to take up the contract. They are therefore driven to get the imported granite. Your Lordships will realise that in the Eastern Counties it is a great deal easier to have granite shipped over from the Continent than to have it transported from the distant counties in the West. And therefore the local authorities have been more or less forced—not desiring to go in for extravagance—to accept the foreign material. I have seen some correspondence from the local authorities and from the contractors on this point, and it certainly does seem a matter of some regret that more is not clone, as it can be done, to meet this great demand. All sorts of excuses are made—that there is not sufficient output to meet the order; that they have a great many orders and cannot take any more; that they will not quote or tender because there is no chance of their delivering. In fact, it must be said, in really examining the question of granite kerb, that the available output of British granite is disappointingly small. Importation therefore—although not on the increase—has been resorted to by a great, number of local authorities.

It does seem disappointing, because the quarries are there, the raw material is there, the labour surely can be made available, and yet the finished product is not turned out in adequate quantities. Of course, regularity and speed in delivery are very important, and in these respects the foreign producer certainly is far in advance of the British quarry owner. But the question is not absolutely simple even then, and perhaps I might draw your Lordships' attention to a position which shows that one cannot say straight away: "We must have no foreign granite, we must have nothing hut British granite." There is a British firm which owns granite quarries in Norway, and also has considerable coal interests through an affiliated firm. The quarries have been developed with British capital and the granite therefrom is imported on colliery vessels, which take coal or coke back to Norway as a return freight. If vessels are chartered for this trade it is found that the shipmasters can only bring back granite to the extent that they can get coal freights hack to Norway, and, if it were not for the English trade in Norwegian granite, it is alleged that it might be cheaper for Norwegian customers to purchase coal from Germany or Poland. That is the sort of side issue that shows that there are parts of this subject which are not quite so simple as might seem on the surface.

I quite admit that the quarry owners have difficulties. I have met them and talked over this question with them, and it would be most unfair not to realise that they are up against difficulties. To begin with, they have this very large demand rather suddenly put upon them, and perhaps they are not entirely to be blamed for not having adequate machinery to meet it. They have the difficulty of getting apprentices and of getting skilled workmen to dress the granite. It is hard and difficult work, and they do not find it easy to get a sufficient number of men. They find that the cost of carriage is very considerable. The cost of carriage from Cornwall to London is a great deal more than the cost of carriage from Norway to London.


Why not bring it by sea?


That is one of the things that I think they might go into. Coastwise steamers might carry the stone. That is one of the points that they really have got to look into. The Ministry of Transport has recommended that they should set up within their industry an organisation devised to secure efficient propaganda in favour of British quarry products; that they should display the value of British material on trial sections of road and get local authorities to see it, and therefore to order it; and that they should adopt a policy of standardisation. This is what the noble Viscount referred to. They have at present got a great number of different sizes into which they cut their stone. It is unnecessary and expensive and it would be far better if they had a standard specification. The British Engineering Standards Committee is going into it, and is engaged on it now with a view of seeing whether a recognised standard cannot be arrived at. They must secure co-operation between the industry and the various transport agencies—that is where the noble Viscount's suggestion comes in—and prompt and reliable deliveries, if need be, by sea-borne transport. There are indications that steps are being taken to improve matters, but there is no question that a great deal remains to be done. There is no question of a subsidy, because neither from the Unemployment Grants Committee, nor from the Road Fund, nor from the Development Committee, could any grant be made to these quarry owners. Nor, if I may respectfully say so—and may I differ from the noble Lord who spoke last—is it any question of tariffs or Protection of the British industry.

It is in this case, as I am afraid in a good many other cases, a lack of efficiency, a failure to realise the great opportunity that is within their reach, and a want of the development of more business-like methods which would allow them to meet the very great demand for this particular material which at present exists. I feel sure that they can put their house in order and that they can gradually meet the demand. The price of British granite is going down. The price of Norwegian granite is slightly rising. Road construction is increasing in volume, and I feel sure that quarry owners all over the country, following the example that has been given by the Leicestershire quarry owners, will do their utmost to employ more men and to set up machinery which can adequately deal with this problem. I may say that I have no Papers to present.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord who replied for the Government whether he said that 134,000 tons was the total importation of Norwegian granite? I should like also to ask what period that covered and whether it was entirely in the form of granite setts? I ask those questions because my noble friend Lord Cushendun referred to a quarry in Aberdeenshire in which a great many quarrymen have been put out of work. Their complaint, as I understand it, is that the importation of Norwegian granite setts has cut their trade.

LORD PONSONBY OF SHULBREDE My Lords, I did not perhaps make it quite clear, and I think that the noble Lord has misunderstood what I said. The 172,000 tons was of broken road stone, not granite.


My Lords, might I supplement that question? Can the noble Lord say what the importation of granite setts from Norway amounted to?


I regret, my Lords, that I cannot give that figure with any, accuracy.


My Lords, I have to thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for the information that he has given. May I say, with regard to the remarks of my noble friend Lord Cushendun, that perhaps he was a little bit heavy on me. I did not accuse the quarry owners. I said that there was a certain lack of efficiency, but I prefaced my remarks by saying that it was an ex parte statement and that I was most anxious that some quarry owner should come into the open and give us a little more light from the other side. That the noble Lord very kindly did. I think, however, that he rather rode off on the Free Trade horse and saddled me with remarks that I certainly did not make. As I say, I am much obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and with leave of your Lordships' House, I will withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.