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Welsh Slate Industry

Volume 531: debated on Thursday 29 July 1954

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

11.47 p.m.

I wish to raise the problems of the slate industry. I am sorry that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works is not in his place. I am wondering whether the new Financial Secretary to the Treasury, whom I congratulate on his elevation and welcome to the Front Bench, on this first occasion in his new office, is going to reply.

By location, extent, and social character, the slate industry can practically be described as a Welsh industry. Much more than 80 per cent. of the slate produced in the United Kingdom is quarried in North Wales, in the counties of Caernarvon and Merioneth. Welsh slate is the best roofing material in the world. It is found roofing palaces, universities, schools, hospitals, and homes in almost every land. There is Welsh slate on the roof of this building. It is a natural product, processed for ages by nature herself for its protective task, and as a result it has withstood the test of centuries. It has considerable aesthetic appeal, too, especially in some settings. It is durable and dependable. One could almost say that Welsh slate is capable of resisting the rigours even of an English summer.

Why is it that this industry, which produces this fine product in a country bound to make the best use of its resources, has declined so much in the last 50 years? Why is it that in the last half century the annual output has dropped from more than 600,000 tons to fewer than 200,000 tons?

I pass to the human and social aspects of this problem, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Conway (Mr. P. Thomas) will speak in support of me in this respect. The number of slate workers in North Wales has declined from 14,000–50 years ago—to barely 3,700 today. The industry is well-served by its management and its union, and yet when I, with my hon. Friend the Member for Conway and my hon. Friend the Member for Merioneth (Mr. T. W. Jones) who will, I know, speak on this subject on a future occasion, met representatives of the industry last February in Caernarvon, we learned that, even in a period of building boom, orders for slates were falling fast, that there was short time in the industry and that 8 million roofing-slates and 4½ million slates for damp courses had to be held in stock. This has meant a tying up of a disproportionate amount of the capital which is badly needed in the industry for development.

The Minister may say that the position in the industry is now slightly better and that slate is moving again. That may be true, but the basic conditions of steady prosperity are still lacking. The industry still feels far too insecure; operators still have large stocks, particularly of the small-size slates for damp-courses, on their hands, and no-one can say that the position will not worsen once more. All this inhibits investment and recruitment in an industry which, with a very little official encouragement and help, could be revitalised, with great moral and material advantage not only to Wales, but to the United Kingdom as a whole.

When we look at the reasons for the decline and the insecurity in the industry we must remember that the slate industry was very badly damaged in the two world wars. In the last war in particular it received very heavy blows indeed. Its manpower was dispersed and its markets were dislocated. In 1945, the industry was told that it could not supply slates for new buildings and that priority would have to go to the supply of slates for war-damage repair work. The roofing of new buildings became the prerogative of the tile manufacturers. In this way, long-established markets for the slate industry were lost, some of them irrevocably. In that sense, the slate industry is a war casualty and is entitled to a little first-aid.

What I have described is serious enough, but in the post-war years even worse was to come. Local authorities have been encouraged officially to substitute tiles for slates in their housing schemes; not directly, perhaps, but indirectly and very effectively; and not because local authorities prefer tiles—more often than not they prefer slates—but in order to effect economies which will bring the tender price per house below the ceiling fixed by the Ministry of Housing. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give his special attention to this problem.

The saving from substituting tiles for slates in a house costing £1,400 to build is only about £35, or, about 2½ per cent. of the total cost. The extra cost of putting in slate damp courses is only about £2 10s. There is really no comparison between this small initial cost and the future saving in repair bills, yet the fact remains, that, whenever a tender has to be cut, the Ministry of Housing officers immediately attack the roof and the damp course, probably the two most vital aspects of a new house.

I have here a letter from a Liverpool building merchant, to the managing director of a large quarry in my constituency, stating that an important rural district in North Wales, the home of the slate industry, is, after many years, reluctantly discontinuing the use of slates in the roofing of its houses, because of the difficulty of keeping down to the Ministry's prices. What a short-sighted policy this is. For the sake of a few pounds now, we are laying up a lot of expensive trouble for ourselves in the future—and in the near future, too.

It is well known, that the vast influx of cheap tiles which afflicted our roofs about 1935, are now already rotten—ripe for replacement, at very great cost. Faulty damp courses and leaking roofs also account for much of the dry rot in the buildings of Britain and for the colossal annual bill, amounting, I am informed, to more than £20 million per annum, for making good that dry rot. Where is the real economy in all that?

Then there is the quite unjustified importation of foreign slates. When nearly 10 million Welsh slates lay in stock in 1953, we were importing slates, to the value of £106,000, into this country and they were disastrously inferior to our own. Some of the roofs, which were slated with these importations, have had to be stripped and re-roofed.

One contractor told me many of these foreign slates are so brittle, that he was able to crumble them to dust with his bare hands. How can these importations be justified? How can we justify, also, the importation of hessian from the Far East when we have, or had until quite recently, redundant stocks of slates, suitable for damp courses to the extent of 4½ million units?

What the slate industry needs is a reasonably steady market which will enable it to plan development and recruit manpower on a reasonably secure basis. It cannot do that—no industry could do that—when Government policy appears deliberately to throw such obstructions in its path. But it can do so if action is taken at appropriate levels on one or two simple points.

The first is that a proportion of new roofing should be allotted to slate. That proportion need not be more than a minute percentage of the whole, but it will be enough to revitalise the industry. I am told that the Scottish slate industry has precisely that guarantee and, in addition, that it has received considerable advances from the Treasury towards development and the clearing of debris and overburden.

I ask whether that is the case, because, if it is the case, the Welsh slate industry has an absolutely equal claim to similar treatment and I and my hon. Friends will expect the Parliamentary Secretary to deal firmly with that point tonight. At the very least, I would press him to consult his opposite number in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to see that, in Wales at least, not only are local authorities not dissuaded from including slate in their specifications but are actually encouraged to use it for roofing and damp courses.

My second suggestion is that the hon. Gentleman should talk seriously to the Board of Trade and to the Treasury about importations of foreign slate. The amount involved is very small compared with the total trade of the United Kingdom, but it is of great importance to the turnover of the slate industry.

Thirdly, I wish to say a word or two about manpower. As I have said, the war took away hundreds of skilled quarrymen, many of whom have never returned to the industry. The age old rhythm of recruitment, whereby son followed father and grandfather into this industry, has been shattered, and we find it very difficult to attract apprentices to it today. Conditions in the industry have never been better. The relations between management and men are excellent, and the terrible threat of silicosis is now practically mastered by the introduction of dust suppressors, at considerable cost, I may add, to an industry which is largely organised in rather small units. Nevertheless, young school leavers are still holding back from entering the industry.

I think that the Ministry of Labour could help, partly by publicising the improved conditions and partly, also, by taking a sympathetic view of applications for deferment of National Service by slate workers. A skilled quarryman needs to go through an apprenticeship of five years. If that apprenticeship is interrupted, it is extremely difficult to start the training again and to complete it satisfactorily.

I personally consider that slate quarrymen should be grouped with coalminers in the matter of National Service. They are already grouped together in the matter of safety regulations and legislation. At the very least, I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to take up with the Ministry of Labour the question of the sympathetic consideration of all applications for deferment of National Service for slate quarrymen.

In conclusion, I wish to say that to Britain this industry is an asset, but that to Wales it is vital. The House will easily grasp the economic implication of the decline of the industry, but I also want to emphasise the incalculable social and cultural importance to Wales of the slate industry. These quarries are located in the heart of Wales, in Snowdonia, which is the reservoir of all those things which distinguish the Welsh race as a separate and significant element in the world.

In Bethseda, Llanberis, the Nantlle Valley and Ffestiniog there are communities whose democratic way of life is a thing of beauty. Here the Welsh language flourishes as a modern tongue, and among its people there is a deep passion for the simple graces of life, for literature, music, education and religion. Their lives are patterned by the influence of two great fellowships, the Church and the quarry.

I ask that action be taken to see that these unique communities do not disappear from the Welsh scene, for their loss would not only be economically serious, but socially irreparable. We are determined that that shall not happen, and we appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary, who knows North Wales very well, to come to our aid and to give to this gallant little industry the help and encouragement that it so richly deserves.

12.5 a.m.

The hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. G. Roberts) and I have been closely connected with this problem for some time, and I congratulate him on his good fortune in getting the opportunity to ventilate these problems on the Motion for the Adjournment. I wholeheartedly agree with what he has said and fully support him. He has described the slate quarrying industry as being a Welsh industry and that, of course, is so; it is indigenous to North Wales industry.

In the past, the quarrymen of North Wales have made an immeasurable contribution to the social, cultural and educational life of Wales. The continuance of what is sometimes described as the "Welsh way of life" in my opinion depends to a great extent on the future of the quarries of North Wales, for in the quarrying towns there you find almost the only urban industrial societies in Wales where Welsh is still the unconscious and unaffected language of the hearth.

From every viewpoint it is important that this industry should be given security for the future. The hon. Gentleman has given the problems in a succinct manner. He has posed the reasons for the decline of this industry from one of 14,000 men employed in 1885 to about 3,700 today. He has described it as a war casualty and that is so. After the war the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in their wisdom decided that a directive should be issued that no new house should be roofed with slate. The small number of quarrymen employed at that time were required to repair existing war damaged houses. That was a great blow to the industry because the Government have given great assistance and encouragement in every manner to the synthetic tile industry which now, of course, forms great opposition to the future of the Welsh slate industry.

I should like to reiterate what the hon. Gentleman said about certain matters. I do not ask the Ministry to deal with this matter from any Welsh point of view. It may be difficult for them to do that. I ask them to look at this problem from the point of view of hard common sense. We have heard about how a slate roof will last for about 150 years. A synthetic tile roof which, admittedly, is £30 to £35 cheaper will last only about 30 to 40 years. A damp course, which is admittedly superior when made of slate, costs £2 10s. more. It will last immeasurably longer than any synthetic damp course. The subsidy which the Government spends on a new house is about £35. It is only common sense that the Government should insist that the materials put into a house should at least last as long as the period of the rent they are subsidising. That is all we ask.

As far as the import of foreign slates is concerned, it seems to us who are interested in the slate industry of North Wales absolute nonsense that we should be imparting thousands of pounds worth of foreign slates when we in North Wales depend so much for our welfare and livelihood on the production of slates. I would ask my hon. Friend to put these matters as strongly as he can before the various Ministries concerned.

There is security for a number of people for some time on the repair of existing houses, but what we need is new entrants and here, I believe, the Government can do something to help. Safety in the mines has greatly improved of late; there are dust extraction appliances; and the old fear of silicosis has been largely removed. The pay compares favourably with many other industries, and all that is needed is some assistance from outside to give people who want to enter the industry a feeling of security.

12.10 a.m.

I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. G. Roberts) for his interesting speech, and also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Conway (Mr. P. Thomas) for his contribution. If I speak quickly I hope the House will forgive me, but time is short.

The hon. Member for Caernarvon was right to refer to the rather calamitous effects of two world wars on the slate industry in North Wales, but even before the First World War the Welsh industry was contracting. Many things contributed to this. Perhaps the two most important factors were the changes in house building and the competition of the tile-making industry.

We should bear in mind that during the last century most of the houses built in this country were back-to-back working-class properties. Streets were narrow and it was not easy to see the roofs from street level. Nowadays, as we know, roads are wider and the Jones's of 1954 demand semi-detached houses with gardens back and front. In the main, the roofs of the new houses are more conspicuous than used to be the case in the 19th century, and that is one reason why the demand for coloured tiles, in preference to slates, is so much stronger than it was.

Is my hon. Friend suggesting that a tile roof is more beautiful than a Ffestiniog roof?

I am simply suggesting that it is more colourful and it appears to be in harmony with current demand.

That, of course, is a matter of taste and a matter of opinion. I am simply recalling the fact that today there is a preference, by and large, for tiles rather than slates, for reasons of colour and on various other grounds. It is not, of course, the only reason; there is also the question of relative costs. The slate industry, as the House knows, is an extractive industry which works under diminishing returns, whereas the tile industry is a manufacturing industry and is able to take advantage of modern processes and mechanisation.

What the hon. Member said about the decline in the industry and the impact on the labour force in North Wales is true. What he said about the incidence of silicosis, or what we know now as pneumoconiosis, is also true, and I am sure we are all glad to know that so much progress has been made in the provision of dust prevention plant in the sheds attached to the North Wales quarries.

Perhaps I may come rather quickly to one or two of the questions which the hon. Member asked. First of all, the question of imports: for both hon. Members appeared to think that it was wrong that imports of slate should be allowed into the country. I thought that doctrine came a little strangely from hon. Members representing North Wales constituencies, but the fact is that this industry is already protected by a 10 per cent. tariff and I hardly think it my duty to make representations on the subject to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade. If there is any question of representations to my right hon. Friend, it is open for the industry itself to make them in the ordinary way. It is only right that I should add—and I think this is pertinent—that at present we are moving towards the liberalisation of European trade rather than in the contrary direction.

The hon. Member also asked about financial help for the industry. I should like to make it clear that there is no financial subsidy to the slate industry in Scotland. It is true that in 1948 money was made available for Scottish re-equipment and development in this field. That money was advanced out of the Building Materials Fund then in being to stimulate the production of building materials. Following the improvement in the supply of building materials generally, that fund was wound up in 1953, and I am sorry to say that there are no Government moneys available for the purpose which the hon. Member had in mind.

The principal point which was put forward in the debate was the question of a partially guaranteed market for the products of the North Wales slate industry. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government, quite rightly, allows local authorities in England and Wales a free choice in the matter of roofing material. Whether we like it or not, we have to face the fact that, generally speaking, local authorities prefer tiles to slates. Even in Wales, where we have tried to encourage the use of slates rather than tiles, the efforts of Her Majesty's Government have been frustrated by the costliness of slates.

There is one rather hopeful feature in the recent legislation affecting rents and repairs. I hope and believe that this legislation will create an increased demand for slates from the North Wales industry, for many of the rent-restricted houses which are affected by that Measure are slate roofed and essential repairs carried out by landlords will often include roof repairs. The slum-patching provisions will also be helpful to the industry.

As to questions of labour, apprenticeship and National Service, I do not think that there is any real analogy between the position in this industry and the coalmining industry. Nevertheless, my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Labour and National Service, whom we have consulted, will continue to consider any applications for deferment from men undertaking courses of training based on the customs and practice in the trade.

I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful than, possibly, I have been, but I assure the House that I shall bring to the notice of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government all that has been said on the question of a guaranteed market. If there is any other way in which the Government can help the industry we shall gladly do so.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Seventeen Minutes past Twelve o'Clock a.m.