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Employment, South-East Northumberland

Volume 640: debated on Tuesday 9 May 1961

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

12.41 a.m.

The House will know that I have on previous occasions called attention to the importance of the subject matter of tonight's Adjournment debate. Probably, if the Minister had listened to my wisdom on those occasions he would have been spared attendance here at this hour of the morning. However, I hope to be able to persuade him to give serious consideration to the plea I make and not only promise interest in the matter but be willing to take definite action to contribute to the solution of a problem which seriously worries people in my constituency and in south-east Northumberland generally.

In February, 1960, the county council and the local authorities within the area, recognising the serious decline in industrial employment, convened a conference to deliberate upon the nature of the problem and possible solutions to it. A copy of the resolution passed at that conference was sent to the Minister. If I remind him now of the essential features of it, he may be assisted in giving the reply we all hope to hear from him.

In the first place, the local authorities at the conference recognised the seriousness of the tendency of industrial decline affecting the whole of south-east Northumberland. Secondly, they expressed their disappointment at the Government's inability to recognise what was required within the ambit of the Local Employment Act and to concede this area as one needing local development action. Thirdly, they expressed the view that it was essential, in the interest of a fair competitive opportunity to induce industry into the area, that help should be given in the clearance of sites left by the declining coal-mining industry.

With those essential points in mind, the Minister may permit me to recall some of the features extant within this special area. Within the county, there is a population of 800,000 people, and within the area of south-east Northumberland there is concentrated some 700,000 of that population. In other words, the greater part of the population of the county in terms of insured personnel is concentrated within that limited area.

This is an area that is predominantly mining. The mining sector of the County of Northumberland was one of the first of the coal fields to be exploited in the early days of coal development. Over the years, there has, naturally, been a progressive tendency to exhaust the available resources and to compel recognition that in a period of time we shall be faced, not only with the challenge of a declining mining industry, but with the basic challenge of no industry at all.

In the year 1958, the available mining jobs in the area were 41,000. In 1960, they had declined to 35,000. If we take into account the Revised Plan for Coal as circulated by the National Coal Board, the prospect before us is that by 1965, the available jobs in the mining industry will have declined to 31,000.

Realism in the assessment of this position compels us to recognise that this is by no means the end of the challenge that faces us. The essential development of increased mechanisation and concentration in the mining industry in the area is reflected in a Coal Board decision that in the near future, mining in this sector will be concentrated within ten or eleven major mining units, which will produce about 80 per cent. of the available coal production.

We have no alternative industry in the area that will contribute in any measure to the deficit of jobs that is arising from the decline of mining. Therefore, we are, naturally, seriously concerned about the future economic security of our people and the urgency of enlisting Government help so that we may contribute to the solution of the problem. We recognise that this will not be easy. In the first place, to fail to undertake immediate action will result in either a continued migration of the population from the area or, alternatively, a major problem of unemployment.

The population of the area has been relatively static for many years now at a round figure of 340,000. The increase in population has been constantly offset by migration. It would be the height of folly not to recognise the need for urgent action to deal with this matter. It would be the height of national folly if the Government refuse to assess the opportunities which are now arising for the introduction of new industry into the area before it is too late. I cannot understand that consideration is still being given to the encouragement of the expansion of industry in the new town of Crawley, for example, while apparently there is a sheer neglect of recognition of the real potentialities of this sector of the County of Northumberland.

We know that in existing circumstances it is necessary to persuade industry to come into our area. In this respect the county council and the local authorities have exerted themselves over past years to introduce, by a series of major publicity efforts, a recognition of the facilities that are available for industrial developments in the area. We are faced with an immediate serious situation. There is an increase in the population and a decrease in the available jobs. In the period 1961–65 we face the school "bulge" when about 60,000 school-leavers will be emerging on to the labour market. These young people have a right to expect at the commencement of their working life opportunities for a life of secure and progressive employment.

As far as can be seen at this stage, their prospects are rather dim and it will be a real tragedy if they have to begin life on the employment exchange. That can be averted if the Minister, his Department and the Government will be willing to recognise the comprehensive nature of the problem and will take the action that is now necessary and imperative.

I do not wish to over-paint the picture. I am anxious that the basic facts shall be accepted, understood and appreciated by the Minister. The problem is unevenly spread in certain areas, and particularly in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth (Mr. Milne). About 7 per cent. of the insured population of Seaton Delaval is unemployed. Five collieries there have been closed. In the Blyth area only one of the four collieries remains as an active unit. There is unemployment in the West Moor area and Whitley Bay. The overall picture from five major labour exchanges in the area reveals that more than 3 per cent. of the population is unemployed. We have been told repeatedly that where there is 3 per cent. or more unemployment there is a legitimate claim for designation as a development area under the Local Employment Act.

I submit that here, on the basis of the existing facts, there is an unchallengeable case for recognising that this area should be designated as a development area under the Local Employment Act. This would give, first us, the opportunity of securing Government assistance to remove the debris of the declining mining industry and to open up the available sites for the attraction of new industry, and, secondly, it would give us a competitive opportunity, on the basis of our available resources, to attract that new industry for the provision of employment.

It is estimated by competent authorities that the area of south-east Northumberland requires, over the next few years, about 20,000 jobs to make up for the decline which is now taking place in the prospects for the immediate future. The county and the local authorities have, with realism and determination, endeavoured to publicise the opportunities for industrial facilities in the area. In 1960, they set up a campaign plan. In 1961, they extended it with an expenditure of about £10,000 a year. I hope, therefore, that the Parliamentary Secretary will not say that the county and the local authorities have not endeavoured to do all that lies within their power to attract industry. We have done all that we can in existing circumstances.

What is now needed is for the Parliamentary Secretary not merely to be prepared to tell me that there is already the possibility of seven or nine industrial projects emerging, with X number of jobs, in the near future. I hope that he will be prepared to give an assurance that serious consideration will be given to the designation of the area under the Local Employment Act, with Government willingness to assist by financial aid for the reclamation and provision of sites for industrial development, and that, in the interests of the young people, the door will be opened so that they might have some assurance of a secure future.

I am asking the hon. Gentleman to recognise that, in this area, we have a reservoir of skill and enterprise second to none; that we have, in our grammar schools and the Ashington Technical College, the facilities for the teaching of the skills of new industry; and that we are, this year, evolving a magnificent careers exhibition as part of the endeavour to publicise the facilities we can offer to new industries.

This is, fundamentally, now a question of Government action, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman can be persuaded tonight not merely once again to say what projects are in the pipeline, but to give affirmation, encouragement and support, so that we shall be able, during the coming year, to look forward to Government assistance and commendation for the furtherance of the work which the county and the local authorities are doing in the provision of security for the people—both the juniors emerging from school and those displaced by the declining mining industry.

1.0 a.m.

The hon. Member for Morpeth (Mr. Owen) has made a very eloquent appeal at this time of night for special consideration for his area. I should like to join him in saying that I believe that the local authorities have done a great deal to attract industry to the area, but we are considering the employment situation and the actual scope of the Local Employment Act. It is upon that that I should like to say a few words in the ten minutes or so available.

The area about which we are talking I should define as the area of the employment exchanges of Ashington, Bedlington, Blyth, Seaton Delaval, Morpeth, North Tyne Last, North Tyne West and Prudhoe. Let us look at the actual unemployment in those areas. The numbers wholly unemployed at April, 1961, were 7,145 out of a total insured population of 310,258. That is 2·3 per cent. as compared with 2·7 per cent. a year ago and a twelve-monthly average of 2·4 per cent. There are only two areas in which unemployment has increased significantly in that period. One is Seaton Delaval where it has gone from 111 to 217. I did not quite understand the hon. Members reference to 70 per cent. of the insured population of Seaton Delaval being unemployed. The actual percentage is 4·1 per cent. in that area. What I think he had in mind was that 70 per cent. of the insured population there are engaged in the coal-mining industry.

The other place is Prudhoe, where unemployment has risen from 85 to 112 and now stands at 2·7 per cent. That area we made a development district last year because of the impending closure of the only colliery, the West Wylam Colliery, and secondly because of its isolated position. It is difficult for people living at Prudhoe to engage in coal mining in other mines. Seaton Delaval is in a rather different position. It is true that of the five collieries there only one, Seghill, is still working and that is due to reorganisation. All the same, not many miners are still unplaced there. I am told that at the Seaton Delaval mine there are still sixty unplaced and there may be some from the Hartford mine, but most of the men from Seghill and Hartford will find work at other collieries. It is in travelling range of both North Tyne East and North Tyne West and of Blyth and not nearly so isolated as Prudhoe. So we have not yet felt it possible to list that as a development district.

Blyth is a different problem. There about one-third of the insured population is in coal mining and one-seventh in shipbuilding. Four pits are being worked and none has the prospect of immediate closure. The shipbuilding company has obtained two orders, one for a vessel of 20,000 tons and the other for a vessel of 2,000 tons. There is no reason to expect high unemployment there at present. There is no other area in South-East Northumberland of which it would be possible, in the view of my right hon. Friend, to quote the words of the Act:
"a high rate of unemployment exists or is to be expected within such a period that it is expedient to exercise the powers of the Act and that such a rate of unemployment is likely to persist."

The hon. Gentleman has placed a great deal of stress on the unemployment figures. Is he not aware that those figures are greatly cushioned by the fact that no jobs are available and that people are leaving the area to find jobs elsewhere? That is a matter to which we want the Ministry to pay most attention.

That is a phenomenon that exists in other parts of the Kingdom, but it is not directly covered by the responsibilities under the Local Employment Act, which looks to actual unemployment and the unemployment that can be expected.

The hon. Member for Morpeth would like the whole area to be listed as a development district because of the decline—

—in employment in the coal and shipbuilding industries that he foresees. As he said, if the demand for coal runs at about 200 million tons a year there is the possibility of about one-sixth of the employment in the coal mines in south and central Northumberland being reduced over the next five years. There may be some redundancy, although the Coal Board hopes that most of the men displaced can be offered jobs elsewhere.

The prospects in ship-repairing are, of course, something that depends very much on the competitiveness of the various shipbuilding firms of the Tyne. There are 500 fewer employed than a year ago. In commercial shipbuilding, however, there were 300 more employed last month than there were a year ago. If Swan, Hunter, and Vickers were to win the tender for the Cunarder—and they have just as good a chance as have any of the other four tenderers to do so—the situation in the area would be very good, at any rate for the foreseeable future.

For all those reasons, it is not possible to say that we expect a high rate of unemployment in shipbuilding in the North-East—

I am listening to my hon. Friend with very great attention, but I do not honestly think that it is really a fair argument to bring in the question of the possibility of our obtaining the Cunarder. We all hope that we shall, but he cannot deploy his argument for our future on that possibility. What will happen if the Cunarder goes elsewhere? Are those development districts immediately to cease being development districts? That is not a fair argument.

I brought that in to show that there was a possibility of a very considerable reduction in unemployment through this, but it still does not follow that with an unemployment ratio of 2·3 per cent. we could consider the whole area as one in which we expect high and persistent unemployment. We simply cannot do that.

The decline of an industry does not necessarily result in unemployment. New industries come to take the place of the old—they do not always have to be brought in. The activities of the county council and the Regional Board for industry, and the Development Council have all helped in that, but there are 3,000 new jobs in prospect arising from new and expanding industry in the area, of which 1,800 are for men. There is none in Morpeth or Prudhoe, but in North Tyne East and North Tyne West there are some 1,175 jobs in prospect in each group, and some 722 in the Bedlington and Blyth group. In addition, forty-three industrial development certificates have been issued in the last twelve months for a total area of just over 1 million square feet, and a matter of 1,500 jobs.

My right hon. Friend cannot list a locality as eligible for assistance under the Act unless it has, or may have in the future, high and persistent unemployment. He is not satisfied that there will be such high and persistent unemployment in Northumberland. I am glad that that is his view. I hope in that we are right, but my right hon. Friend will certainly watch the position very carefully, particularly in relation to Seaton Delaval and Blyth

There is no lack of interest at the Board of Trade in the area, and it is certainly an exaggeration to talk about the sheer neglect of the County of Northumberland. My right hon. Friend and I visited it recently. The enthusiasm of the regional controller and his staff is well known and much appreciated in the area.

In conclusion, I would just say that my right hon. Friend will be glad to see more industrial expansion in South-East Northumberland by firms already in the area or which are unable to go to areas with more serious unemployment. We shall certainly watch the situation most closely, but with the level of unemployment as it is just now and with the prospects as we see them we certainly cannot say that at the moment this area should be listed as a development district.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past One o'clock.