HL Deb 07 April 1943 vol 127 cc60-7

THE LORD BISHOP OF ST. ALBANS asked His Majesty's Government whether the manufacture of contraceptives is officially regarded as a matter of national importance from the point of view of the recruitment of labour. The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, I rise to ask His Majesty's Government the question that stands in my name on the Order Paper. Some few weeks ago I received a letter from the honorary secretary of what is known as the Christian Social Council in a country town in my diocese. This Council represents, I should say, all the Christian communities working in that place — the Free Churches, Roman Catholics and Anglicans. The letter called my attention to the following case. A married woman in the town had registered in 1941 Under the National Service Acts as one of the 1914 class. She was at that time occupied with the care of evacuated children. At the end of June, 1942—that is, last year—she asked to be relieved of the care of these evacuated children and was given deferment till the second week in September. She was then directed to a certain firm in the town and she was told on reporting herself to that firm that they had no vacancies at the time but took part-time workers.

She was then offered by the employment office the choice of work in three firms. The hours of work of one of these firms were more suitable to her and so she naturally chose to work there. She was told that the work she would have to do in this firm was packing. She interviewed the manager, or the manager interviewed her, and she reported for work. She was informed by the manager that her work would be packing surgical dressings. On this understanding she commenced work on September 7, but she discovered from the girl who was working next to her—a girl of the age of sixteen—that the work consisted of packing contraceptives by machine. On the next day, September 8, she called at the employment office and asked to be released from this work to which she had religious and moral objections. She was told then that if these objections had been known at the time she would not have been sent to this firm; but she was also told that she must work out her week and then give a week's notice before she could be allowed to give up the work.

After some correspondence with the local employment office, my friend took the matter up with the Eastern Regional Office of the Ministry of Labour at Cambridge and eventually obtained an assurance that the policy of the Ministry was to give an opportunity for employment elsewhere to any woman expressing conscientious objection to the manufacture or distribution of contraceptives, and that in future every effort would be made to ensure that women submitted to the firm in question by the Department should realize the nature of any work that might be involved. So far so good, but in the same letter in which this assurance was given the following passage occurs: With reference to your letter of the 2nd January, 1943, it must be pointed out that the employment to which you referred was only offered when it had been ascertained that the worker's services were not required at Messrs. King's in a part-time capacity. You will appreciate that it was then necessary to consider her for submission to other firms engaged wholly or mainly on work of national importance (if not actually munitions). Now from this it would appear that work of this sort—that is to say, the manufacture and distribution of contraceptives—is, in the opinion of the Ministry, of the same importance as work which is classified as of national importance, and that women and young persons called up under the Registration for Employment Order may be submitted for such work. Hence my question.

I have made further inquiries, so far as I have been able to do so, with regard both to the number of persons employed in the particular firm concerned and to the daily output of these particular goods. I am informed that in this packing shed alone in this firm about twenty-four girls are employed on four machines, wrapping and boxing these goods, to which are added instructions as to their use, and sealing them in cartons. The daily output, is said to be 75 gross or possibly more of these cartons or boxes, and each carton or box contains twelve of these contraptions. This particular packing department is concerned solely with the wholesale distribution to retailers. There is also, I am informed, a separate mail order department that employs a number of women and girls. I have not been able to discover, nor have my friends, what the number of women and girls employed in that department is, but I am told that this is the more popular of the two departments. Others are employed in the laboratory and besides them there are the mechanics who service the machines and also those who run the power plant necessary to drive the machines.

I understand that this work in this firm is said to be a sideline. Even so, apart from the mail order department, the number of these particular contraceptives is, I am sure your Lordships will agree, simply amazing. Seventy-five gross or more a day of boxes, each containing twelve of these articles, at five days a week means an output of over 33,500,000 a year. I understand they only work five days a week, because on the sixth, or Saturday, it is necessary, I suppose, to overhaul the machinery. I have no means of knowing how many other firms in this country are manufacturing these things. No doubt the Ministry of Labour and National Service either have this information or can get it, but I believe their number must run into hundreds. But even if the total number of such firms does not exceed one hundred, then on a basis of what is happening in this particular firm as a sideline the number of persons employed in the manufacture and distribution of these articles would run into thousands, and this at a time when every available man and woman is needed for the vital work of winning the war, to say nothing of the raw materials that are involved, especially rubber, in the use of which all of us have been enjoined to observe the strictest economy.

I was walking yesterday to a meeting half a mile or less from this place and two posters on a wall caught my eye. They were in close proximity one to the other. The first was an appeal to the women of Britain, saying that every hour is vital and that they are urgently needed for part-time work and should apply to the nearest employment exchange. At the bottom of this poster were the words "Issued by the Ministry of Labour & National Service." The second poster showed a picture of a wheel with its rubber tyre on it, and underneath the picture were these words: "Rubber for salvage means tyres." Every hour is vital and every bit of rubber salvage is also vital!

As I walked and thought of these posters, some of the words of the Prime Minister in his great broadcast to the nation and to the world on March 21 came back to me and I wondered. My Lords, I am still wondering. You will, I hope, forgive me if I remind you of what the Prime Minister said on the subject of the dwindling birth-rate in this country: One of the most sombre anxieties which beset those who look 30 or 40 or 50 years ahead, and in this field one can see ahead only too clearly, is the dwindling birth-rate. In 30 years, unless present trends alter, a smaller working and fighting population will have to support and protect nearly twice as many old people: in 50 years the position will be worse still. If this country is to keep its high place in the leadership of the world, and to survive as a great Power that can hold its own against external pressures, our people must be encouraged by every means to have larger families. The women of Britain are told that every hour is vital and that they are urgently needed for part-time work. And what then? As things are, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that women who may be sent to do work, may find, if they do not express any moral or religious objection, that this work vital to the winning of the war is the making or packing of contraceptives, the output of which will certainly not encourage people to have larger families but will result in birth prevention. I could say a great deal more on many aspects of this question, but I do ask His Majesty's Government to face this question from the point of view of the recruitment of labour and the using up of raw materials vital to the winning of the war. I only hope and trust that in the reply on behalf of the Government we shall be assured that drastic steps will be taken to deal with this matter which I think is a scandal.


My Lords, I desire very briefly to support what has been said by the right reverend Prelate. I cannot help feeling that there must be some mistake or misconception somewhere. From reading the correspondence and from the letter from the Regional Controller on January 12 certainly the inference to be drawn obviously is that this manufacture is regarded officially as of national importance. I cannot believe that that really is the view. It is, as the right reverend Prelate pointed out, so completely opposed to Government policy. We have been told that the present small surplus of births over deaths will within a generation disappear and be replaced by a deficit, and quite apart from theological considerations it is in the national interest that that must be stopped, especially with the example of France before us. We cannot surely approve a regulation which does not merely tolerate but encourages the prevention of births. I would definitely urge that whatever view may be taken on general grounds of this matter, those who are the manufacturers should have at least to find their own labour.


My Lords, had I to reply on behalf of His Majesty's Government to the right reverend Prelate in another place my answer would be simply No. But it is customary in your Lordships' House to make a reply in somewhat broader terms. I might mention to the right reverend Prelate and to my noble friend who has just spoken that no arrangements of any kind whatever have been made for the recruitment of labour for the manufacture of contraceptives. I have been informed that these articles are usually produced by firms who are mainly engaged in the manufacture of surgical rubber goods and of medical supplies, and the right reverend Prelate will probably be aware that special arrangements have been made for the protection of labour manufacturing medical and surgical supplies which are so vital for the use of the Armed Forces of the Crown. The case which the right reverend Prelate mentioned is one with which I also happen to be familiar. The general outline of the right reverend Prelate's statement with reference to this woman was correct, but let me make it quite clear that when she objected to the form of work on which she was engaged, the Ministry immediately allowed her to leave. She was registered as available only for part-time duties and for very light work. At the time her name was submitted to the firm theirs was the only notified vacancy which, in view of her limitations, she could have filled.

Let me make it quite clear that this firm was not solely engaged in making contraceptives but, even if it were, and if there were 24 women employed in this work, that is really no concern of the Ministry of Labour at all. The right reverend Prelate quoted the case of one girl being employed at the age of 16. That girl presumably entered into this work of her own free will and is working under a normal contract between employer and employed. There are no statutory regulations to stop anyone of that age so working and she would not have had to register under the various Orders which have been submitted from time to time to your Lordships' House. The right reverend Prelate mentioned also the severe shortage of rubber, but the amount of rubber which is used in the manufacture of these contraceptives is an infinitesimally small portion of the amount used by the country, chiefly by the Armed Forces of the Crown. I think I have said sufficient to explain this case to your Lordships, but I do wish to make it abundantly clear that of course the Government have not made, nor would they in any circumstances make, special arrangements for the recruitment of labour for the manufacture of these articles which the right reverend Prelate has described.


My Lords, I must beg the indulgence of the House inasmuch as the matter which I raised was put down ill the form of a question and did not end with the words "to move for papers." If your Lordships will be so kind as to allow me to do so, I would like, although, of course, I have no right to reply, to have the opportunity of Saying one word in answer to the noble Earl who has just spoken. I am perfectly well aware that the manufacture of contraceptives may not be the main work of this particular firm or of other firms. I am not objecting to labour being provided to produce surgical or medical appliances. But I do not think, with all due deference to the noble Earl, that he has really answered my point which is that, apart from the younger girls, part-time women labour is being used on these things. If that is so, then it means that part-time women labour is not available for other things. I quoted a poster which stressed the need for labour, and stated that "every hour is vital". I am not in the least satisfied that the Government have tackled this question at all. The noble Earl has told us that the amount of rubber used for contraceptives is infinitesimal. Have we any figures about that? Has the Ministry of Labour and National Service gone into the question of how many part-time or whole-time workers are actually engaged, in vital hours, in this particular industry throughout the country?


My Lords, might I interrupt the right reverend Prelate to ask if he is speaking of part-time workers who have gone into the factories on their own account or if he is referring to part-time labour which has been directed into these factories? I have told him that there is no labour directed into these factories to work either part-time or full-time on the manufacture of these things. These workers go in entirely of their own will; they may be over age or under age, and it may be that they are not suitable for any other form of work.


The fact remains that they are being employed, and if every hour is vital it seems to me to be simply shirking the difficulty to say that they are not directed. As a matter of fact, this particular woman, to whom I have referred, was directed, and I noticed that it was stated in the reply of the noble Earl that she referred to the fact that she was unable to do anything but very light work. She is now, I understand, working in a munition factory and doing her work all right. As I say, surely it is only shirking the question to say we are not directing labour into this work. I submit that the Government ought to direct that no labour should be used on the manufacture of these things. I am sure that the Government do not believe them to be vital to the winning of the war. If you cannot use otherwise the labour that is being used on these things, I do not think that posters ought to be put up stating that "every hour is vital," and appealing to the women to do part-time work. The situation does not seem to me to be in the least satisfactory, I am sorry to say, and I am sure that the matter must be pursued.

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