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Railway Workshops (Employment)

Volume 497: debated on Friday 21 March 1952

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

4.1 p.m.

My object is almost to continue that railway discussion which we have had today, but my appeal is a rather wider one on railway development generally, in its particular application to towns in my constituency which for 100 years have been famous in the realm of railway construction. I do not think that anyone would disagree with me when I say that railways are the safest means of transport in this country today. They are a tremendous asset in peace and in war. I hope, as do all other people, that we shall never have another war, but we have always to reckon with the possibility of it, and therefore to see that the railways are as good in times of war as they are in times of peace.

When we consider the railway construction programme today, we have to realise that, so far from every effort being made to bring the railways right up to date, all railway carriage construction has stopped and railway wagon construction has been hindered. There are other grievous delays which have resulted in checking about a quarter of the forward policy of the Transport Commission. It has been very difficult for me to ascertain the facts with regard to railway construction.

There has seemed to be a shroud of secrecy around the railways since 1947. It has been almost impossible to get Questions past the Clerks at the Table and almost impossible to raise the subject in the normal way in the House of Commons. I want to extend my thanks to you, Mr. Speaker, for the latitude that you have shown me in allowing one or two Questions past the Table during these last few weeks, and for pointing out that the one way in which I could raise this subject was on the Adjournment.

It was only just over a fortnight ago that I at last began to get at the facts, through the kindness of Lord Hurcomb, Chairman of the Transport Commission. I must confess that I was shocked when he told me that railway carriage construction was to be suspended completely for the rest of the year and that there would be a considerable set-back in wagon construction. I am glad to see with us the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Smithers), who is responsible for the great railway yard there.

Lord Hurcomb went on to say that this would mean the dismissal before next July of 300 or 400 men from Wolverton carriage works and probably another 500 from Eastleigh, not to mention some thousands of men up and down the country, including some of our finest skilled craftsmen. These men are skilled not only because of their apprenticeship and of many years spent in railway construction, but because Wolverton is a place where, for at least a century, the best railway construction has taken place. It has the traditions of at least four generations of superb railway craftsmanship.

This decision of the Transport Commission would mean these men being dispersed to the four corners of the country, with absolutely no alternative work for them within easy range of Wolverton. Not only will the men be upset, but their entire homes. One might say that if this policy were carried out in all its ruthlessness, it would be a catastrophe for Wolverton and the surrounding villages, that have found so many workmen for the carriage works.

I then asked Lord Hurcomb whether it was not possible, rather than dismiss those men, for the railway workshops to take on work for the re-armament drive. That was a fair question, but it was a morning of astonishments, and I was astonished when he pointed out to me a Section in the Transport Act, 1947, which nationalised the railways, completely and utterly forbidding the railways to give a helping hand to the country in its rearmament drive. Section 2 (2, iii) says:
"the Commission shall not … construct, manufacture or otherwise produce anything which is not required for … the purposes of their undertaking."
That was a shock and I do not mind confessing that it immediately made me want to find ways and means of getting round an Act of Parliament. I have never encouraged anyone to drive a horse and coach through an Act of Parliament but, for the first time in my life, I had an urge to see if there was not a way round it. In conversation with the Minister of Transport, who has been most helpful in every way within the limits of his limited powers in this respect, I put down a Question for last Monday, asking if there was any way of getting round this Section in the Nationalisation Act. His reply was:
"As in the late war the capacity of railway workshops will be tilled for re-armament work where it is suitable and where it is necessary to supplement existing industrial capacity. The British Transport Commission would undertake such work by a direction issued under Defence Regulation 55 (2A).—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th March, 1952; Vol. 497, c. 175.]
I looked up that Regulation immediately. While it gives the Minister of Transport power to give the railways orders or directions to carry on with such work as he may specify, I have the suspicion that this power can only be used in a national emergency. As far as I am aware, there is not what is legally termed a national emergency at the moment, and, therefore, there are considerable doubts in my mind whether the Minister of Transport could utilise the powers given under the Defence Regulations to compel the Transport Commission to do its utmost to get rearmament work for the railway workshops from which men are being dismissed.

I want, therefore, to put a direct question to the Minister this afternoon. I believe in being frank on these occasions and, frankly, I do not want an answer full of soft words and gentle phrases. I want an answer which will give the truth and nothing but the truth, although I realise that life is too short at times for the whole truth. My question is this: Will my hon. Friend ask the Minister of Supply to issue immediate directions that re-armament work shall be carried out in railway construction centres like Wolverton?

I want to build up from that because I realise that even if the Minister could get the Minister of Supply to issue those directions immediately, this work would only be a stopgap. It would mean that perhaps for a period of months the 300 to 400 men I have mentioned would be on full time, doing re-armament jobs, but inevitably the time would come when they ought to be back upon their proper railway construction work. There is no guarantee that the Transport Commission has that forward policy for railway construction that ought to have been put in hand this year to help to bring the railways up to date.

I therefore want to put a second question. Will the Minister make representations to the Transport Commission that the policy of abandoning the construction of railway stock is bad for the country and disastrous to towns such as Wolverton, where there is no alternative employment for some of the finest craftsmen in the land? Those are two fair questions to put.

What I am so anxious to avoid, and what ought to be avoided, is that at a time when there is need for every skilled craftsman to be employed on the job for which he is most fitted, owing to these decisions of the Transport Commission some of our finest men should not only be thrown out of work but, possibly, have their homes disrupted, with the result that the whole economy of towns like Wolverton is thrown into the melting pot. People there begin to ask not merely whether we ought to go on with our housing programme, but whether we dare go ahead with other construction. It is not only Wolverton which is affected, but probably, also, Eastleigh and a dozen other great railway centres.

I make no apology for delaying the House this afternoon, because I feel sure that every hon. Member will sympathise with the case I have put forward. I hope that the Minister will answer my two questions fully and with truth.

4.12 p.m.

The House must be much indebted to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Buckingham (Major Markham) for raising this matter. In my constituency of Winchester, my constituents who are primarily concerned—those who live in Eastleigh—are aware of the problem similar to theirs which also exists in Wolverton. The unions concerned have cited Wolverton to me as a parallel case, and I should like to associate myself with all that my hon. and gallant Friend has said and, in particular, with his remarks about the human aspects of this matter.

In a sense, the railways called these towns into being and the Transport Commission, as heir to the railway companies, is responsible today for the welfare of these communities. Therefore, I address myself once more to the Minister in this matter, in the hope that his influence with the Commission will be able to help us.

I have received formal representations from the Mayor and Corporation of Eastleigh about the basic trouble in their borough, which is that it is so much de-dependent on these great industries. They hope that the time will come when it will be possible to have more diversity of industry in their borough. But until that time arrives—and we all look forward to it—it is vitally necessary that the Transport Commission, whose responsibility this is, should exercise their functions, not merely as a hard-fisted business concern, but with some regard to the welfare and interests of the men and their families who are in this matter their particular charge.

We all know that steel is very scarce. That is not the responsibility of this Government. We know that the Transport Commission has its allocation and that its division between the various transport activities is the responsibility of the Commission. Since I last had the opportunity to raise this matter, I have been reading in the Press something which may, possibly, bring a new light upon it.

I have read in the Press that there is some chance that the steel supply situation may improve towards the end of this year. I know that what appears in the Press is not always true, but everybody in Eastleigh, and I for one, most devoutly hope that that is so. If it be the case that there is some hope of improved steel supplies, there is all the more reason for not dispersing this highly skilled, highly trained staff at this time.

Redundancies have already begun and are planned to continue until July. I cannot believe, if it be that there is any question of more steel to come in, that it is wise for this process to begin and to be allowed to continue over the period of six months, when it appears at least conceivable that rescue is in sight.

I ask the Minister, who has been most painstaking, hardworking and careful in his investigations into this matter, to pursue it once again with the Commission to see whether, in all the circumstances, it would be possible to make exceptions in the case of towns such as Eastleigh and Wolverton. I cannot believe it to be right to apply the same rigid rule of 100 per cent. cessation to every railway carriage works, regardless of where it is situated, what other industries are in its neighbourhood, and of how heavily the burden will fall on any particular establishment.

Therefore, I beg the Minister, if he cannot give us any comfort today—although we all hope he may be able to—to return once more to the question with the Transport Commission and see that in the special circumstances of Eastleigh and Wolverton, a respite may be given until we know for certain that the drastic cut enforced by the Commission is absolutely necessary.

4.17 p.m.

I wish to support the plea put so well by hon. Members opposite. They have stated the case for retention, as far as possible, of highly trained personnel in various railway workshops throughout the country. In my constituency, which includes the great workshops of Derby, we are in danger of losing really first-class people—men who have spent many years of their lives in the industry—as a result of the shortage of steel and the prevention of that great work, which is so urgently necessary, of thoroughly re-equipping our railway industry.

Everyone who has spent any time in the railway industry is fully aware of the fact that so much of our equipment is so badly out-of-date that it is obsolete and that to bring our transport industry to a reasonable standard of efficiency and up to the standard we should all like to see, a great deal of work needs to be done in these workshops.

We all understand, also, having regard to the shortage of steel, that there might of necessity be some cuts in the work to be performed, but, in the circumstances, if we cannot get that steel immediately for railway purposes, I wish to support the plea put forward that we should at least have a share in the work of rearmament which is going forward. That at least would help the men in those workshops to an extent and would ensure that this valuable personnel is not lost to the railway industry.

I must admit that I was surprised that it is possible to get round Sections of the 1947 Act by means of the Defence of the Realm Act and Regulations made under it. We remember this was put in to safeguard private industry in competition with great nationalised industries and perhaps it is understandable in the light of that, but in those circumstances it will be of some advantage and some relief to people working in these shops if the Minister will give an undertaking that he will do his best to ensure that some re-armament work is given to these shops.

I will not take up more time as I realise that the Minister wants at least 10 minutes in which to reply and I am grateful for having had an opportunity of supporting the plea which has been put forward today.

4.20 p.m.

It is purely fortuitous that I have to inflict myself on the House for a second time within the hour. I think that fact may be responsible for so many hon. Members having fled from the stricken field, being unable to stand up to the ordeal.

When my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Buckingham (Major Markham), was restored to us at the last Election we were all delighted; and if there were any danger that we should overlook the fact that he is back it has surely been dispelled by his activities on behalf of his constituents, and this particular matter is an excellent example of it. I have recently been fully aware of the problem at Wolverton from the urgent representations made to me by my hon. and gallant Friend. I was also well aware of the problem at Eastleigh regarding which my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Smithers) has also been active on behalf of his constituents.

I am sure that my hon. Friends and, indeed, the House will appreciate that under the existing system which the Government has to operate the function of the Minister of Transport is to obtain for the British Transport Commission their steel allocation. Having done that he has no jurisdiction over the use, or the uses, to which it is then put. If my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Buckingham will permit me, I will take the second of his questions first because it flows from this fact of the steel allocation.

He has asked for the blunt truth. I am sorry he felt that I was likely to haul down the flag of truth after our long and friendly association, but I must tell him with bluntness, and that is what he asked for, that the Ministry of Transport endorses the policy under which carriage construction is temporarily suspended in order to give first priority to track and wagons, and thus concentrate on railway safety and efficiency.

My hon. and gallant Friend was present during the previous debate when that was strongly brought out by hon. Members on the opposite side of the House in connection with the better redistribution of commodities. I must remind the House that track is still below pre-war standards, which means, as perhaps the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion), knows better than most hon. Members in the House, an unduly high number of speed restrictions.

Hon. Members may be alarmed to know that there are still about 100,000 over-age wagons, representing 10 per cent. of the total fleet in operation. Both these factors seriously affect the efficiency of railway working at a time when a higher volume of freight is being carried than ever before in peace-time, and when the railways are being asked to ensure that they continue to move an increasing volume.

For obvious reasons, it is impossible to shut down completely all locomotive construction, but a serious reduction has also been made there. There is, of course, a limited field for retrenchment in civil engineering, but this is already reduced to little more than the reconditioning of structures necessary for safety. In other words, in the process of elimination the harsh fact is that the only point where the cut can be borne without loss of operational efficiency is the carriage construction programme.

Here let me stress that the railways are most reluctant to lose their skilled staffs. They are doing all they can, by the allocation of repair work and by other means, to keep them usefully employed. Even so there must be some redundancy and by the end of February 1,274 carriage building staff had already been affected, together with 509 from the wagon shops, which are also cutting down output.

As a temporary expedient, work on repairs has been found for 677; 131 have been temporarily transferred to other departments, and 580 have found temporary work or retired. During the next six months, it is calculated that 1,720 additional staff engaged on carriage building and 170 on wagon building will become redundant. At Wolverton itself, nearly 100 men have retired or found other temporary employment, and the Railway Executive have provided jobs for about 25. They expect redundancy of rather more than 300 between now and August.

The hon. Member for Winchester referred to a statement which has found considerable prominence in the Press, to the effect that large supplies of steel will shortly be available, and the hon. Gentleman will have noticed today that the British Iron and Steel Federation does not support the statement, attributed to one of its officials at a meeting in Birmingham on Wednesday, that there will be a surplus of steel, other than alloy, later in the year.

In the view of the Federation, although supplies are likely to improve in the second half of the year, steel will continue to be scarce. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply concurs in this opinion. It is only fair to the Chairman of the British Transport Commission to say that he is fully alive to the situation. I saw him earlier in the week, and he made me aware of his anxiety to take ameliorative action to help in this problem.

My hon. and gallant Friend will have studied the reply given to him on Monday last by the Minister to a Question dealing with the possibility of Government orders for railway workshops. Here I come to his first question, in which he asked me to make representations to the Minister of Supply on this matter. I am glad to say that that has already been done, and it was not necessary for him to initiate this Adjournment debate for that purpose. We have been on to that matter.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply is fully seized of the potential resources available in railway workshops, and is already in touch with officers of the Railway Executive. If I may give the House a concrete example, I might mention the work that is already being done in the locomotive shops at Horwich in Lancashire, and that the Ministry's policy is to use the capacity of the railway workshops for re-armament work, where it is suitable and where it is necessary to supplement existing industrial capacity.

I therefore, conclude by informing my hon. Friends that the repair of locomotives and coaches required by the Minister of Supply is normally placed with the workshops. Two locomotives have recently been overhauled, and several coaches are also about to be placed for overhaul, and it is expected that this work will be allotted to Wolverton. I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend will feel that his representations have not been in vain.

Before the Minister sits down, may I ask him if his answer means, among other things, that the dismissals from Wolverton can be avoided, because of this additional work going there from the Ministry of Supply?

That, as my hon. and gallant Friend will appreciate, is really a matter for the Railway Executive. All I am able to report is the placing of some work, but how it will fall on the staff I cannot say.

The Minister did say there was a cut in coach building. The running of over-age coaches is a very expensive and extravagant kind of running, and I therefore hope that he will bear that matter in mind in any further representations which he may make.

If my hon. Friend will look in HANSARD tomorrow, he will see that I used the qualifying word "operational."

May I add that the people of Wolverton are very grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for the efforts he has made to right the position, and that we wish him speedy success?

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Four o'Clock.