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Woolwich Arsenal (Future)

Volume 526: debated on Wednesday 7 April 1954

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10.1 p.m.

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

I am very glad to have this opportunity of raising the question of Woolwich Arsenal and of asking the Parliamentary Secretary a number of questions about the new proposals which his Department has put forward for its future. I am sorry that by raising this matter tonight I have deprived the hon. Gentleman of some other engagement of an enjoyable personal nature, that I have compelled him to put guns before butter this evening. But I am sure he agrees with me about the importance of this subject, and I hope very much that he will be able to give some answers to my questions, which will relieve a great deal of the anxiety in Woolwich and neighbouring boroughs.

After all, Woolwich Arsenal is not just another Royal Ordnance Factory. It is Woolwich Arsenal and is part of British history, with a remarkable record of work for the nation throughout the centuries. Indeed, I feel that an Englishman's liberty owes far more to the broad acres of Woolwich Arsenal than to the playing fields of Eton. I hope, therefore, that it is in the light of the great history of Woolwich Arsenal that the Minister will arrive at his decisions about its future.

I want to make it clear to begin with that I am not standing here for the status quo of the Arsenal. I do not believe that my constituents or anyone concerned with this problem wants that. I think all of us feel that in past years there has been a great deal that has been unsatisfactory about the working of the Arsenal in particular. A point that has been brought up over and over again by those who represent the workers in the Arsenal is that there has also been underemployment in it and that has led to a high cost of production, which, in turn, has led to the drying up of orders which have gone elsewhere. This has created a vicious circle which needs to be broken.

I think everyone agrees that the situation is changing. Instead of Woolwich Arsenal being one of three Royal Ordnance Factories in 1947, it is today one of 20 Royal Ordnance Factories which are working in the country. It is wrong not to recognise these facts. Most of us also agree that the proposals of the Minister of Supply contain a number of constructive features. The new role he has laid down for the Arsenal in his statement of 26th February is a sensible and satisfactory one, namely:
"… experimental and development work in connection with armaments and ammunition, batch production, modifications and reconditioning of equipment and the manufacture of tools and gauges." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th February, 1954; Vol. 524, c. 64.]
I think that is a sensible aim for Woolwich Arsenal in the new conditions in which it finds itself, and one for which it it extremely suited. I think, also, that the proposal for making a trading estate out of 100 acres of the site is constructive, provided it is carried out properly.

I think that all of us feel that whatever the decisions of the Minister may be, he and his Parliamentary Secretary have been accessible and courteous in receiving representations from those interested. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will bear witness to that. What really matters, and is the main source of worry, is what is to be the future level of employment at the R.O.F. in its new role? That really is the crux of the matter, and that is what I want the Minister to concentrate on if he will.

There has been talk of a target employment figure of 3,500 in the R.O.F. I hope the Minister will say that there is no question of this figure being aimed at by the Ministry. To bring down the numbers to that level would be a real disaster. It would be to throw away a great national asset which we have in the tradition of experience and skill and loyalty of those who work in Woolwich Arsenal.

A few minutes ago I had a few words with my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. Jack Jones) who, when he was at the Ministry of Supply in the position now held by the Parliamentary Secretary, formed the highest possible opinion of the efficiency and public spirit of the workers in the Arsenal. If we look at the absenteeism or sickness rate or at the record of industrial relations in the R.O.F. Woolwich we shall find that they are probably the best of any in the country.

That is something which does not go out of date, something which cannot be built up quickly and which, if it is not carefully and sensibly preserved, will lose the nation a big national asset, so we would all like a reassurance from the Minister on that point.

It would be particularly foolish to dissipate this great national asset in favour of giving these orders too much to private firms who, in my opinion, have not the same qualifications as to security and efficiency for carrying out the work required in our defence effort. I therefore want the Minister to explain a little more fully the meaning of his statement on 26th February that his proposals will give a more important and distinctive role to the Arsenal in our armament production system. That seems to me an important pledge and to be inconsistent with any idea of running down the labour force in the R.O.F. to 3,500.

I also want the Minister to give us further facts about new types of work which can be and should be given to the R.O.F. One part of the Report of the Select Committee which dealt with this subject recommended that the R.O.F. should get manufacturing and reconditioning of machine tools as an important part of its work. I will quote from one of the able statements put out by the Shop Stewards Committee at the Arsenal, who pointed out that the work of manufacture and reconditioning of machine tools has already been undertaken successfully. They said:
"Large numbers of machine tools, including Lathes, Milling Machines, Grinders. Slotters, etc., have been repaired and rebuilt to the standard of the Schlesinger tests (which is the test used in the trade for the highest quality work.) for the use of the Armament Research Establishments all over the country. We have a number of men, therefore, who have now the necessary technique and 'know how' for this work. The machine tool industry has been unequal to the task of supply meeting demand, and the use of a national factory such as ours would in no way imperil private industry engaged in this work."
Then there is the question of the R.O.F. manufacturing heavy electrical equipment. Again, this Report, which is constructive and sensible, points out that the demand for heavy electrical equipment is still rising and is unlikely to be satisfied for many years.
"Firms engaged in the manufacture of heavy electrical equipment have full order books, and the British and colonial demand for this equipment will also remain unsatisfied for a long time to come. Woolwich Arsenal has undertaken the manufacture of steam turbines in the past for Metropolitan-Vickers, Manchester,… Early in 1952 Metro-Vickers were desirous for the Arsenal to resume work on turbine manufacture. … We are confident that much of this work could be undertaken in State factories in the event of armament orders not being available on the market. The Arsenal has the men, … the machines and the floor capacity. All that is required is good will on the part of the Minister and the Ministry of Supply."
I should be very glad if the Minister would comment on this suggestion, which seems to me constructive and sensible, and if he could give us an assurance that the Ministry will take it seriously.

The Minister said, on 26th February:
"In the course of the consultations to which i have referred," —
that is, with those primarily concerned in Woolwich—
"a number of constructive suggestions were made about the use of particular buildings,.. about additional types of work suitable for Woolwich…. In carrying through the reorganisation, all these suggestions will be most carefully considered." — (OFFICIAL REPORT. 26th February, 1954; Vol. 524, c. 64.]
I should like to know how fax that consideration has gone and what are the Minister's views of the subject at the present time.

It is a little disturbing to those of us who are concerned with Woolwich affairs to notice that the new apprentices intake at the R.O.F. has been cut down very drastically. A few years ago it was about 80 and last year it was 40. This year, it is under 30. That seems a little onerous, and I should like an assurance from the Minister that that is no withdrawal from the pledges that Woolwich would do more important work which was contained in the statement on 26th February.

I should like some information from the Minister about the phasing of these changes. It seems to me that if these proposals are properly carried out they can and should take place without causing any redundancy, leaving a high level of employment in the R.O.F. and over the whole site a higher labour force engaged than was engaged when the proposals began to be carried out. Therefore, a great deal depends on the way in which the proposals are carried out and its timing. Does the Minister intend that the three points which I mentioned should be fulfilled?

I should also like to ask the hon. Gentleman specifically about the L.C.C. trading estate. It is a little disturbing that there has still been no clear decision to buy. It may well be that London County Council is willing to take over the 100 acres as a trading estate, but there is some delay and I understand that it comes from the Ministry of Supply. There may be good reasons for it, but we should like to be reassured that there is no obstacle, that the Ministry is not putting any difficulties in the way about price and conditions and is pursuing this matter with the speed which it deserves.

Will the Minister give an assurance about the type of work that will be carried out on the estate? The Ministry cannot altogether avoid responsibility for the general employment situation in Woolwich as a result of the big changes which it is proposing for the R.O.F. there. I hope that I have listed my questions in a moderate and constructive way and that the Minister will be able to reassure the people of Woolwich. They are genuinely anxious that the R.O.F. should be efficient and should be reorganised in a way that will be in the national interest but, naturally, they are a little anxious about all these very big changes.

10.15 p.m.

I was very interested in what the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) had to say. He made some very big points and put most constructive questions to the Minister. I am quite confident that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply will be able to give the hon. Member the answers that he requires. I shall be very interested in the reply, because I also am very much interested in the welfare of the Arsenal. I should like to pay a tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply for the very thorough consultations which he has had with all concerned and to express my pleasure that consultations with the workers will be continuing.

I welcome the fact that the Government have closely examined the problem of the Royal Ordnance Factories in Woolwich and the Arsenal, as it is by no means a new problem, and have proposed a constructive solution which will bring advantages to the Woolwich area, for example a new industrial estate, and better equipment and facilities in the Royal Ordnance Factories. I also welcome the spirit shown by the Minister in his statement in a Written answer on 26th February, in particular when he said:
"every effort will be made to avoid causing hardship to the workpeople of the Arsenal." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th February, 1954; Vol. 524, c. 65.]
The Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary are doing a grand job in trying to find a solution to this difficult problem and I wish them well in the continuance of their efforts, which, I am sure, will end in satisfaction to all concerned.

10.16 p.m.

I do not intend to detain the House, because other hon. Members wish to speak and the Minister is in the same boat as I used to be when I held his position. He can search the records of R.O.F. employees for the last 50 years and he will find that those who have served the State best are the men at Woolwich. They have been good and faithful servants to this country in the times of its greatest need when, bombed, shot about and with plant destroyed, they had to show exceptional skill because they were dealing with some of the oldest plant in the country. Some of the machinery is prehistoric.

They deserve well of the Minister and of the country. Their absentee record and their sick pay and labour relations records put them right at the top of the R.O.F. league. As an ex-Minister who had charge of these problems, I wish to put on record what the State owes to them and to say that they have given of their best.

10.18 p.m.

I am sorry for the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Reeves), who has a close interest in this subject, but I feel that I must answer the questions that have been put to me.

In dealing with Woolwich, one can never really answer questions satisfactorily unless we are all at one as to the background to this very difficult problem. As the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew), who opened the debate, said, and as my right hon. Friend indicated on 26th February, the problem of Woolwich is by no means a new problem of the 1950s. There has been a problem for many years. I suppose that problem was aggravated in the 1930s, by which time the increasing variety of weapons and equipment required for modern war, together with the exceptional vulnerability to air attack of the Greater London area, made it necessary to expand the R.O.F. organisation outside London. The hon. Member had that very clearly in mind, as have other hon. Members who have studied the matter.

It is because of that change and because of the fact that at the end of the war about 20 of the new Royal Ordnance Factories were kept in being with reduced employment compared with war-time—as indeed was the case with Woolwich—each with a clearly defined rôle and equipment and facilities needed for that rôle, that we are faced with this problem today. At that time no clear-cut decision was taken about the part the Woolwich factories would play in the Royal Ordnance Factory organisation in peace-time or in war. In that state of uncertainty expenditure on modernisation could not be justified. So many of the buildings have become dilapidated and much of the line production plant has grown more or less obsolete. The 1951–52 Select Committee on Estimates noted this.

I should add, as I think hon. Members who have studied the matter know well, that it would be quite wrong to think that the whole of Woolwich is in that sorry state. There are important shops there which are well equipped with efficient plant and in which most important defence work has been carried out over the last few years and is still being carried out.

Perhaps more important, and very fortunately, the special skills of Woolwich have never dilapidated or grown obsolete. What I mean by the special skills of Woolwich is the traditional ability of workpeople, working together in Woolwich Arsenal under the experienced and skilled management of successive chief superintendents—their ability to tackle a highly intricate engineering job. We are all agreed about their record. I am glad that the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. Jack Jones), a predecessor of mine in my present office, mentioned their sickness record. It is very remarkable compared with what happens in other places.

The plan which my right hon. Friend has approved is a constructive and workable solution to the Woolwich problem, and has been recognised as such. The hon. Member for Woolwich, East and others have accepted it as such. It takes account of all those factors which I have just mentioned. The new role, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned with approval, given to the Royal Ordnance Factory is exactly the role which can make best use of the special skills of Woolwich. That will justify the provision of new plant and better facilities for those engaged in work there.

In addition, a new civilian industrial estate will be brought into being capable of providing substantial employment. In addition to that, over a longer period, other parts of the valuable riverside site are to be progressively freed for more productive uses. The plan is a good one, and we are determined that the method of its implementation shall be as good. In its implementation, every effort will be made to avoid personal hardship.

The hon. Member put certain detailed points to me of which he was kind enough to give me notice; I thank him for that. The first, and possibly most important, was about the level of employment. The hon. Gentleman wants a high level of employment in the reorganised Royal Ordnance Factory. I think he was seeking from me an assurance that my right hon. Friend had not set a low target figure, and, in particular, that we had not a figure of 3,500 in mind. I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. My right hon. Friend has no such figure in mind as a target.

It would be a complete misunderstanding of the way in which we have approached this problem to suggest that we have deliberately set out to reduce the strength of the Royal Ordnance Factories at Woolwich to a particular figure. Our object is to organise into an efficient Royal Ordnance Factory with a clear-cut role. The number of men who will be employed at any given time in the new Royal Ordnance Factory will depend entirely upon the level of orders placed upon the Ministry of Supply, as indeed it does in the case of all the Royal Ordnance Factories, including Woolwich, at present. Therefore, although I have given the assurance that we are not aiming at that figure as a target, I cannot give any assurance about any figure at all: it depends upon the level of orders.

I would stress that under our plan, in the experimental, batch and reconditioning work which is the chief part of the new role ascribed to Woolwich, the new Royal Ordnance Factory will be the main R.O.F. for that work in the country. Taking into account all that is done in the Royal Ordnance Factories and the very uncertain role which Woolwich still has until this plan is implemented—and has had for several years—I think I may truthfully say that this is a more important and distinctive rôle.

Then the hon. Member urged upon me the need for careful phasing of the plan. I think I can do no better than repeat what my right hon. Friend said on 26th February:
"Since the reorganisation will necessarily be spread over several years, any necessary reductions will, to an appreciable extent, be brought about by the process of normal wastage. In any case, the plan will be kept flexible and the timing of the various stages will be phased with due regard to the employment position in the locality." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th February, 1954; Vol. 524, c. 65.]
And, as the hon. Gentleman himself said, one of the expected results of the plan is that when the reorganisation is completed, whilst the number of Government employees on the whole of the Arsenal site may be smaller than it is at present, the labour force on the site as a whole, including the trading estate, will in total be larger than it is today.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the efficient reorganisation of the factories is a very intricate operation, and the more steps we take in an effort to avoid human hardship the more intricate it becomes. I can assure the House that everyone concerned in the Ministry of Supply is determined to do everything which can be done by administrative action to reduce human hardship to a minimum.

The hon. Gentleman asked me what types of new work we plan for the Royal Ordnance Factories in addition to the arms rôle laid down by my right hon. Friend. That arms rôle, of course, includes experimental work. The answer to his question is that we have at present no plans for any other new work; but we are always ready to consider and examine any suggestions which are consistent with the main rôle of the R.O. Fs. We can discuss the point about machine tools and the other points mentioned by the hon. Gentleman in the consultative committee, and of course we shall do so.

If a specific proposal were put, about heavy electrical equipment, for example, may I ask whether the Minister would give serious and favourable consideration to it?

I cannot answer that "off the cuff" as it were. A contribution to work of that kind has been made at Woolwich from time to time. We must look at the matter on its merits, and that is what we shall do in the discussions with the trade union representatives at the consultative committee. I think it would be better if I left the matter there.

The hon. Member put a question about what progress was being made in the negotiations with the London County Council, about the proposed new trading estate. The situation is that these negotiations have now reached the stage at which we are discussing with them dates by which certain parts of the site are to be freed and certain buildings are to be cleared. The hon. Gentleman will understand that the working out of these dates has not been easy. We are not putting any difficulties in the way of any one. We are doing our best to get a decision as quickly as possible, and once agreement has been reached on the details, the whole question will be submitted to the County Council for decision. I wish to say a word about consultation, and I am grateful for the kind things that have been said about the action of my right hon. Friend and myself, in that matter. We have paid particular attention to it.

The problem in deciding upon the right plan was not simply a problem of organisation, but also a human problem affect- ing a number of men and women working within the Woolwich Royal Ordnance Factories. It was also a problem in which the workpeople, imbued as they are with the well-known traditions of Woolwich, were bound themselves to feel an exceptionally close interest. My right hon. Friend therefore consulted them very fully. He personally took the chair at five meetings. We took special steps to consult local bodies and hon. Members of this House who were interested.

I think I should mention my hon. Friend the Member for Bexley (Mr. Heath) who as deputy Chief Whip is under an enforced silence in this House for the time being. I am grateful to him as well as to other hon. Gentlemen for the help they have given. But there is still need for continuing close consultation with the workpeople on a number of detailed points. My right hon. Friend has invited trade union representatives to form with Ministry of Supply officials a special consultative committee under my chairmanship. The object of this committee is to consider the various problems which may arise during the progress of the reorganisation. In the light of the special nature of the problems involved, it was thought wise to superimpose this special consultative committee on the normal joint consultative machinery. We have had one meeting which we found of great benefit.

It should be made clear that this consultative committee does not take away from or lessen the responsibility for the decisions to be taken by my right hon. Friend and those working under him. There is, however, great value in explaining what we want to do and in making certain that we have all the relative facts and opinions before us. It takes two to make a success of consultations and I must pay a tribute to the combination of sound common sense and suitable firmness of the trade union leaders concerned and to the way in which they have joined in our discussions. We shall try to combine both those qualities and to bring to the discussions a full understanding of the human side of our joint problems.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.