HL Deb 05 November 1940 vol 117 cc599-606

LORD DAVIES rose to draw attention to the high incidence of unemployment in Northern[...] Ireland and to urge His Majesty's Government to take immediate steps to alleviate the position by the establishment of factories for the production of war material; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name. I have put this Motion on the Paper in order to draw attention to the abnormal incidence of unemployment in Northern Ireland. I regret that this matter has not been brought to your Lordship's attention by some member of your Lordship's House who is more familiar than I am with the conditions in that part of the country, but I make no apology for doing so because the figures of unemployment which I shall give are so alarming and distressing that no one can help being impressed with the urgency and seriousness of the matter.

Everyone is agreed, I am sure, that unemployment, not only in Ireland but everywhere else, is a curse. It is the greatest blot on our economic system or, as some people prefer to call it, our capitalist system. I maintain that every person has a right to work, and, if his services cannot be absorbed by private enterprise, it is the duty of the State to find employment for him on some work of public utility rather than allow him to become dependent on the "dole." I imagine that most of your Lordships will find yourselves in agreement with this general principle. It is, however, a principle which has been consistently ignored and flouted by the Governments of this country during the last twenty years. Not one of them has seriously applied this principle to the question of unemployment.

I ventured to point out in this House a few months before the outbreak of war that, whereas the number of unemployed in this country was at that time 1,300,000, there were practically no unemployed at all in Germany. I urged the noble Lord opposite to utilise the services of our unemployed in strengthening our national defences and in increasing the output of munitions in anticipation of the struggle which was then so rapidly approaching. It is bad enough that there should be unemployment in peace-time, but it is nothing short of a public scandal that it should exist in time of war, when the services of every man and woman should be mobilised in defence of the country and when it is the right and privilege of everyone to participate in our war effort. It is true that since the outbreak of war the unemployment figures in this country have fallen from 1400,000 to 867,000, but with all the talent at the disposal of the Government the problem has not yet been solved. There are still nearly 900,000 persons on the unemployment register. This is the position after twelve months of war, the most stupendous struggle the world has ever witnessed, when we are fighting for our very existence. There are still not far short—only 100,000 short—of a million persons who cannot find a job of work at a moment when there are so many urgent jobs to be done.

Now we come to the position in Northern Ireland. There, the percentage of unemployed for July was 22.2 per cent, compared with 5.7 per cent. for the United Kingdom. The latest returns available are those for the month of August and the comparative figures are: Great Britain, 5.4 per cent.; Northern Ireland, 20.9 per cent. I regret to say that the next highest figure is that of Wales, which is 10.3 per cent. What it means is that out of every 100 insured persons in Northern Ireland twenty-one are unemployed, and the percentage of unemployment there is four times as great as it is in Great Britain. May I give your Lordships another comparison? Unemployment throughout the country fell from 1,326,000 in July, 1939, to 898,600 in July, 1940, a decrease of 427,000. The figures for Northern Ireland, however, during the same period actually increased from 69,700 to 71,400. I am sure your Lordships will agree that this is a most unsatisfactory and tragic state of affairs.

The responsibility lies with the Government here. The Government in Northern Ireland are helpless in the matter. However willing and anxious the latter may be to play their part in our war effort, they have neither the resources nor the powers to establish more industries and munition factories. The question we have to ask ourselves is how this waste of man-power can be best utilised to promote our war effort. That, I venture to suggest, is for the Government of this country to decide. How many, for instance, of those unemployed persons are fit for service in the Army? Why is it that conscription has not been applied to Northern Ireland as it has to the United Kingdom? What steps have been taken by the Minister of Supply, in collaboration with the Minister of Labour in Northern Ireland, to establish war industries there? It may be objected, of course, that Ireland is not a particularly safe place in which to plant war industries, but I would remind the Government that up to now Ulster and the adjoining counties have been practically immune from air raids. As the crow flies I believe the distance from Belfast to the nearest point in enemy occupied territory is about 400 miles. The distance from the French coast to Coventry, for example, is only 200 miles. Consequently it would appear that the risk from bombing attacks is far less in Northern Ireland than in some of the industrial centres of this country.

In conclusion, I may also point out that this is not the first time that attention has been drawn to this matter. It has been repeatedly raised in another place. As far back as February questions were asked and vague promises made by the Minister of Supply that some action would be taken to terminate unemployment in Northern Ireland, but so far, with the exception of placing a few Government contracts, nothing appears to have been done. It seems to be another example of drift. The Government cannot plead that they do not possess the powers to remedy this unfortunate state of affairs. What they apparently lack is the will do it. May I therefore appeal to the Government to deal with this urgent matter at the earliest possible moment? After all, the loyal people of Ulster are entitled to play their part in winning this war. We are responsible for the defence of their country, and we are also responsible for giving them an opportunity of pulling their weight and of utilising their services to the best advantage. I beg to move.


My Lords, I should like, in a few words, to associate myself with the observations that have fallen from my noble friend, who has, I believe, rendered a good service in bringing this matter to the attention of the House. The domestic concerns of Northern Ireland are of course the province of the Northern Ireland Government, but it is no derogation of their status or authority for this matter to be raised here, first because Imperial defence throughout the whole of the United Kingdom is a matter for the Imperial Government, and. secondly, because all industry throughout the United Kingdom is at present very largely controlled by the Imperial Government. Since our war effort is totalitarian and the distribution of industries in Northern Ireland and elsewhere is so closely affected by the decision of His Majesty's Government, I trust that the noble Lord, whom we welcome in his present position, will be able to make a reassuring statement on the matters to which my noble friend has drawn attention.


My Lords, I should like formally to associate myself with what the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, has said and to join him in welcoming the noble Lord opposite.


My Lords, in answer to my noble friend opposite, I would like to take the part of his Motion which I consider is the most important—namely, to urge His Majesty's Government to take immediate steps to alleviate the position of unemployment by the establishment of factories. The Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Supply in another place—as perhaps your Lordships realise there are two Parliamentary Secretaries of the Ministry of Supply—held a conference on August 29 with a deputation of officials from the Northern Ireland Government who stressed the points raised by the noble Lord opposite in his speech. His Majesty's Government are anxious to make the maximum possible use of the man-power and resources of Northern Ireland. The whole question has been under review, and, in addition to the appointment to Northern Ireland of a representative of Gun and Carriage Production, senior members of other Production Departments of the Ministry of Supply have been despatched to Northern Ireland to discuss on the spot the possibility of increased orders being placed there.

I am glad to say that these visits are already showing definite results. I am sure the noble Lord would agree with me that the best method for taking immediate steps to alleviate unemployment is to place large orders with those firms who are able to take them. The noble Lord will realise that in questions of unemployment, if you want to solve them quickly, the matter of importance for the time being is to give out fresh orders rather than to build new factories which takes a long time. The noble Lord will also realise that if one wanted to help his country to reduce unemployment one is able to get that done much more quickly on the lines I have indicated than by proceeding along the line of starting right away on a long-term policy. Representatives of the Clothing and Textile Departments of the Ministry of Supply who have just returned from Northern Ireland have succeeded in reaching agreement on a scheme for making up soldier's clothing and equipment which should provide employment immediately for approximately 8,000 workers. This about doubles the work placed with the textile industry in Northern Ireland for Army supplies, and should result in a substantial easing of the unemployment problem. Moreover, by these measures continuous employment is being provided involving none of the difficulties which arise from the transference of labour.

A point which I hope your Lordships will observe is that this is a first result of these representatives going over to Ireland. The three main engineering firms in Northern Ireland are already heavily loaded with orders and two smaller firms have been given orders. With regard to those sections of the textile industry more directly affected by the supply of flax, very little relief can be hoped for in the spinning section until the supplies of flax are increased. The linen industry in Northern Ireland has acquired world-wide fame in our export markets, and it is essential that the supplies of flax should be increased, as by doing so we are helping to maintain a most important and basic industry in Northern Ireland. I am sure noble Lords will realise what the flax industry and the linen industry mean to Northern Ireland. As noble Lords probably know, the employment ratio in those sections of the textile industry which use flax is a high one. That is a point which I would like your Lordships to bear in mind when discussing this question because you will realise that it is better if you can to get people to work in the trade to which they are accustomed. It is better to get coal miners back into the mines than into any other occupation.

We have specially in mind that the employment ratio in the flax industry is a high one and we have arranged to double the acreage under flax next year. I hope that we shall be able further to increase the acreage in other years. I am not really a farmer, nor am I really an industrialist—I am probably a cross between the two—but I have tried, with the aid of my officials, to get a figure relating the increased acreage under flax to increased employment. I think the figure of extra acreage should give an increase in employment of about 12,000 or 13,000 people. The question of growing flax in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom should be seriously considered as part of our post-war policy. As regards weaving, arrangements have already been made for 6,000 looms to be changed over to the weaving of cotton. One would have liked to have gone into the question of munitions and shipbuilding in greater detail, but the noble Lord will understand that it is difficult to do this in open discussion. I shall be only too pleased to give the noble Lord further information if he will come and see me. In conclusion, I would like to say that His Majesty's Government have this question of unemployment in Northern Ireland very much before them, as they realise the unswerving and unstinted support they are giving in their war effort.


My Lords, before I ask leave to withdraw my Motion, may I thank my noble friend opposite for his reply, and perhaps I may be allowed to congratulate him on the first speech he has delivered to us since he was appointed to his present important position in the Ministry of Supply. I must confess, however, that I am not entirely satisfied with all that he has said. I am sure we are all glad to know there is to be a considerable increase in orders given in Northern Ireland, but the noble Lord did not answer the question as to what extent it might be possible to adapt existing factories so that they should be able to turn out munitions and other supplies which are needed especially by the fighting services. Another point I would like to make is that the erection of factories would de- crease unemployment to some extent, even though it might be some time before the factories came into production. The fact that this part of the country apparently does not suffer from air raids to the same extent as other parts would suggest that it is a place where some of our war industries could be expanded. A further point I would like to put to my noble friend is that we ought to know why conscription is not being applied to Northern Ireland in the same way as to other parts of the country. Of course, I cannot expect him to answer that question, but I should be grateful if he would bring the point to the attention of his colleagues in the hope that they may be willing to reconsider the decision which I think was taken some time ago on this matter.


My Lords, I think that perhaps I did not make it plain to my noble friend, when I was speaking about factories, that the whole question has been under review since a deputation came over from Northern Ireland at the end of August. Certain members of the Production Department who have been over to Northern Ireland are now coming back to report. The extra orders to which I referred were given the day before yesterday, and I am very thankful that they were given before I had to reply to my noble friend.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply and I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.



Report from the Special Orders Committee, That no Petitions have been presented praying to be heard against the Special Orders, and that there is nothing in these Orders to which they think it necessary to call the attention of the House: Read, and ordered to lie on the Table.

House adjourned.