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Pottery Industry (Development)

Volume 462: debated on Thursday 3 March 1949

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

10.22 p.m.

Tonight I want to draw the attention of the House to a matter of great concern to the people engaged in the pottery industry with particular reference to North Staffordshire. As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade will know, this matter has been under consideration for a considerable time now, and great disappointment is felt in the area which I have the honour to represent, particularly by the organised workers and by people who are directly concerned with the industry, because the Government have been so diffident—I will not say dilatory—in setting up what we had hoped would be a development council which by this time would be working and producing results.

It will be remembered that under the Industrial Organisation and Development Act, 1947, it was proposed that some kind of machinery should be devised for certain of this country's industries, which would enable the best experience and the best methods to be available to the in- dustry generally, and particularly to the little producers. A great deal of work has been done by way of research in the pottery industry, and as far back as January, 1945, the National Society of Pottery Workers produced a valuable document on the reconstruction of the pottery industry. What did it say? It said:
"The pottery industry must be completely reorganised during the reconstruction period. But a plan for the pottery industry cannot be worked out in isolation; it must be part of a national plan for the general development of industry."
It said that the first and most obvious need was a drastic slum clearance of a large number of obsolete and unhealthy factories and the modernisation of the remainder. It proposed a system of licensing when new factories were to be brought into being and suggested that such licensing should have reference to the lay-out and the suitability of the premises to be used. That is a particularly important aspect, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hanley (Dr. Stross) will show if he has the opportunity of catching your eye, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, when he will refer to the medical and welfare aspects of the conditions under which the generality of workers in the pottery industry are engaged.

The intention was that there should be some sort of condition to determine whether or not a licence should be issued, that the conditions of the factory should reach a certain standard, that the factory should be better in terms of lay-out and that there should be more factory inspectors, and that in matters of price there should be some sort of control exercised by the Board of Trade. The report went on to speak about the mass production of standardised ware of a higher quality and better design at rates cheap enough for the home and export markets. It said that if production was to be cheapened, it was to be done through increased efficiency and not lower wages. It went on to say that the first essential was for the Government to accept the principles of planned exports and to begin preparing the way for future trade agreements. It made a lot of other useful suggestions and the report was widely commented upon. A distinguished journal, which is by no means always sympathetic to the Government, the "Economist," had certain things to say to which I might usefully refer. It said:
"The pottery industry is not an industry which is likely to reach a satisfactory state by being left alone. There is a general case for intervention by public authority. The nature of the intervention is a matter of the greatest concern to the 80,000 men and women workers attached to the industry whose life is so closely tied up with the fortunes of pottery manufacture in this country. About 67,000 of them live in the Stafford-shire District. Pottery is one of the most localised of English industries, and the workers have little chance of beautiful alternative occupation if the pottery industry fails them. Lack of contact with other industries has contributed to the survival of old customs and methods and the comparative absence of alternative occupation has led to depressed pottery wages and conditions."
It quoted a statement made as far back as 1915 that in the whole of the Staffordshire District over 60 per cent. of the potteries ought to be scrapped and modern works put up.
"With notable exceptions, such as Wedgwood's new factory at Barlaston, the inter-war period has seen so little scrapping and reconstruction,"
says the "Economist" but of course since the war there has been a considerable amount of rebuilding and alteration in the pottery industry. My point is that while licences have been forthcoming, there has not seemed to be any machinery for co-ordinating the work to any plan either from the Board of Trade or from any responsible body on the spot and it would seem that in reference to new, economical development and the future of the industry that is a very essential matter indeed.

We have pressed this matter with the Board of Trade on many occasions. But before I go on to refer to those occasions and to show how very patient we have been, I would say that in addition to the excellent report which was produced by the workers—the Reconstruction Report—there was a Working Party set up which reported as far back as 1945. It was the first Working Party report to be published. It, again, made very great criticism of some of the conditions to be found in the industry. It also made a series of recommendations. True it did not propose the setting up of a Development Council, but it suggested some sort of pottery advisory board. They were prepared, I think, to consider that there should be some kind of independent representation of the outside world, and that possibly the Government point of view should be listened to.

That, I think, was one of the reports which persuaded the Government that the pottery industry, and other small industries in the country which in total are very important to the economic life of the country, should be provided for in the Industrial Development and Organisation Act of 1947. But alas, although we were led to expect that some fruitful results would emerge from this legislation, we have not seen anything of a tangible nature yet. As far back as 18th December, 1947, questions were asked in this House as to what progress had been made. We were then told by the President of the Board of Trade that discussions were proceeding with the several industries, and that though they had not hitherto gone as far and as fast as he would have liked, he intended to press them forward and hoped to be able to lay proposals before the House early in the New Year.

Again on 29th January, 1948, the President of the Board of Trade said:
"We shall certainly press forward without delay."
Again on 18th March, I asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he would announce the date of the setting up of the Pottery Development Council, and its composition. He replied:
"I am not yet in a position to announce the date of the setting up of the Pottery Development Council, or its composition. Discussions with the British Pottery Manufacturers' Federation have been unavoidably delayed for a few weeks. I hope shortly to have final discussions with them, as I am most anxious to see the Council established."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th March, 1948; Vol. 448, col. 2291.]
I pressed the Minister again, and he said that at a meeting with the Pottery Manufacturers' Federation last month they advanced certain proposals as alternatives to those which I put forward, on which they considered agreement on both sides of the pottery industry could be reached. The Minister added:
"Though I remain of the opinion that a Development Council is desirable in this industry, I agreed that the employers should discuss there new proposals with the union concerned, and I arranged that they should report the result of these discussions to me at a joint meeting with representatives of the union to be held soon after Whitsun."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th May, 1948; Vol. 450, col. 195.]
We pressed the matter further in June, and on the 17th of that month I asked what progress was being made with the setting up of development councils generally, and in particular in reference to the formation of a development council for the pottery industry? The President of the Board of Trade said:
"As I told my hon. Friend on 11th May the reason for the hold-up in the pottery scheme was that the British Pottery Manufacturers' Federation were discussing with the National Society of Pottery Workers an alternative scheme they had formulated. The proposals were not in fact acceptable to the National Society, but they have now been formally referred to me by the Federation, and I have undertaken to consider them and am at present doing so."
Pressed to take decisive action, the President said:
"Yes, it is certainly time for decisive action, and I can promise that to him before the House adjourns …"
that is, for the Summer Recess. The President went on:
"The delay has been caused by the illness of the president of the Pottery Manufacturers' Federation and by the somewhat havering attitude of the trade unions concerned. Certainly I can promise some action in the near future."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 17th June, 1948: Vol. 452, c. 634.]
In September of last year, he said, in an Adjournment Debate, that the pottery manufacturers declared themselves as irrevocably opposed to a council under the Act, or to any executive functions being given to any non-statutory body which might be established. Equally, on the other side, he said the unions were implacably opposed to the establishment of any body which was not scheduled under the Act and which did not possess the functions set out in the draft order submitted to both sides of the industry earlier last year. He added,
"That is the position at the moment …
it had been the position for many months,
"and, in view of that position, and the fact that discussions are still proceeding, I do not think it would be very helpful at this stage to say anything definite about what I expect to happen in the course of the next few weeks, but, I promise my hon. Friend that I will keep both him, and the House, very fully informed of the progress of the negotiations, and I will do all I can from now on to speed up some settlement of this long overdue and extremely urgent matter "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th September, 1948; Vol. 456, c. 50–51.]
In addition to these questions, I can cite correspondence and other reports of other negotiations with, and visits to, the Board of Trade in order to press the point of view which the pottery workers were wanting expressed and for which they were pressing. Now, I think that it is quite obvious that we have been fobbed off for a sufficiently long time. Surely, what the record clearly shows is that the pottery manufacturers now have come to the view, which they have clearly stated, that they are irrevocably opposed to the setting up of a development council. The Parliamentary Secretary, when he replies tonight, may say, as the President of the Board of Trade—now the Chancellor of the Exchequer—said in introducing the Industrial Development Bill, that it is the desire of the Government to obtain the goodwill and co-operation of all sides of the industry; but it is clearly demonstrated in other industries, besides pottery, where it is proposed to set up a council, the employers and workers are opposed. Further, I think they have come to the conclusion which has been stated, and I hope that the Government will realise that it is little use prolonging the argument any more. Some action is called for to deal with the outstanding problems of the pottery industry. We cannot go on hoping that the sellers' market will continue. There are great strides being made in the mechanisation of the industry and, in April, 1945, the "Economist" reported on this.

In 20 years' time, with increased mechanisation, and competition from overseas, there may be a contraction of 30 or 40 per cent. of the labour forces necessary to conduct the industry. We are pressing this case because it means the opportunity of a better life for so many of the workers in North Staffordshire. If there is to be a contraction of industry, those responsible for the conduct of this industry should not be opposing the introduction of new industries in the area because they say this will abstract female labour. If these people continue to be so obtuse and so obstructionist, I say that the time has come for the Government to listen to the substantial number of people engaged in the industry who, under the Act, have the making of a decision to set up a development council.

Surely this is a matter of great moment to some 70,000 people in North Stafford- shire and to 10,000 people in the outposts of the country elsewhere engaged in the manufacture of pottery. They should know what is going to happen to the industry. Moreover, I would say that it is most essential that the Board of Trade, with all its resources, should place at the disposal of the industry all the information that it has relating to world conditions, and to the methods which should be employed to extend and conserve our markets and to advise them as to what are the best principles of procedure in terms of factory lay-out and in the supply of materials. It should pay attention to the very cogent arguments adduced after hard thinking as to the necessity for setting up some large-scale organisation which shall have reference to this twin problem of whether we should concentrate (a) and quality or (b) on quantity in production, as those are two distinct matters.

Above all, some research is wanted by responsible Departments and unless we have a development council set up which shall bring all these industries together, which shall give us this experience, which shall give us the benefit of advice from the Board of Trade, give us a chance of seeing what the future of the industry will be, and also attend to the planning of the city and our industry, we shall find ourselves sunk.

10.42 p.m.

I want to say a word about the human aspect of this problem. I must declare my interest by saying that for some 23 years I have been medical adviser to the Pottery Workers Society of Great Britain and I am therefore conversant with the aspect on which I wish to touch. I wish to support what my colleague has said because the health of the workers, the men, women and children in the industry, is involved in the setting up of the development council. The council would have, it was proposed, executive powers and there would be collaboration between worker and employer in order, this time, to take this very serious problem in hand once and for all. We have a saying in the area that lead has killed its thousands, and dust its tens of thousands—and indeed that is very true.

As a result of public agitation and Government action in the past, we have eliminated completely today the hazard of lead and there are no more cases of lead poisoning at all; I have not seen one for three years in the area and if there were any they would have been brought to my notice. But there are slum factories which we still possess and which we shall go on possessing—factories in which the old wooden floors reverberate with every footstep and clouds of dust arise from the clay trodden in and dried every day, factories with windows that do not open, factories built 200 years ago. Far too many of them are still in use and with such environmental factors it is not safe or reasonable for our workers to continue and expect to retain their health. What I am pleading for is indeed for the benefit of the industry as a whole, for output per man-hour cannot really be substantial and cannot be improved so long as there is no improvement in the type of factory in which the workers are engaged.

This is not to say that there has not been great improvement in some factories in the last few years, and particularly since the war. But since 1945 new slum factories—if such a term may be used—have come into existence and have been given licences. They have, as it were, slipped through. This is something we cannot contemplate very much longer. It is not reasonable that we should wait for what is called healthy competition to eliminate these slum factories, because healthy competition is very unhealthy for the workers, and means sickness and premature death. It is a subject on which one could speak at length, but we should like my hon. Friend, the Parliamentary Secretary to be able to give some answer.

10.46 p.m.

I appreciate the reasons which have led my hon. Friends to be so persistent about this matter. I suspect that if I were in their places I should be quite as persistent. I understand at least some of the factors which were outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Burslem (Mr. Edward Davies) at the beginning of his speech. Doubtless there are many things in the pottery industries which have to be put right. I should not like it to be thought, and I do not expect my hon. Friends would think, that nothing has been done. A good deal has been done. I am told that more than £1 million of new building has taken place and we have been trying also to plan the export trade, and to do what we can to tackle the problems which arise. Whether the existence of a development council would mean that we should be able to deal quickly. with these things I do not know, but I should certainly subscribe to the view that a good development council, backed by the industry, would give us another instrument for dealing with the problems of planning the industry and with those important health considerations, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Hanley (Dr. Stross) has just been talking.

I know that my hon. Friends have some grounds for saying that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has not quite lived up to some of the expectations he put into their minds, but I assure them that the fact that there has been no move recently on the question of a development council for this industry does not mean that it has been shelved. I can restate the opinion of my right hon. Friend that there should be a development council with a constitution and function suitably adapted to meet the needs of the industry. I appreciate the anxiety of my hon. Friends and I understand as an old trade unionist the views of the union and the large number of workers they represent. My right hon. Friend, holding this view as he does strongly, is anxious to proceed if he can by way of agreement, because the chances of the council functioning properly would be greater if we could get substantial support for it from both sides of the industry. Therefore, my right hon. Friend will shortly be re-opening the subject with both sides, to see if some accommodation can be reached so that we can go forward united in setting up the development council which it is agreed is desirable. I am sorry that greater progress has not been made up to date, but I assure my hon. Friends that I shall keep them in touch with any subsequent development.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Ten Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.