Skip to main content

Railway Workshops, Eastleigh (Redundancy)

Volume 655: debated on Monday 5 March 1962

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

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

10.0 p.m.

Tonight I wish to raise the subject of redundancy in the Eastleigh railway works. I begin by telling the House that Eastleigh is a little Hampshire town of about 35,000 people. Half of it is new and dormitory, and the older half is the railway town. Nearly half the adult workers of Eastleigh are employed by the British Transport Commission in making new carriages for the railways and in repairing locomotives. Ten years ago the Commission employed about 60 per cent. of the workers of Eastleigh, and at present it employs nearly 48 per cent. of the adult population there.

About 850 Eastleigh workers are to be made redundant by decree of the Commission, and most will be redundant by the end of the year. This means an economic disaster to Eastleigh the like of which has never happened before. I know the men that I am speaking about. The carriage works has a proud record of service to the Southern Railway and to Britain in peace and war. It has turned out thousands of railway coaches and has pioneered new projects, including the diesel-eleetric locomotive and the fibre-glass coach. Their combined skill is part of the precious wealth of Britain, and I believe that it will be a crime if half this skilled labour is frittered away this year.

The railwaymen for whom I speak have given much to the civic life of Eastleigh—many councillors and mayors, and at present an outstanding member of the County Education Committee. There is no aspect of the little town's many-sided life in which the railwaymen are not playing a vital part.

The older men concerned have literally given nearly the whole of their lives to the town and the railways. They went to the railway works as boys. The younger men have made the railways their career, on the understanding—up to now supported by British Railways—that it was a lifetime career, and that the future of the workshops was firm and secure. The county council, of which I am a member, has just built a new county technical college in Eastleigh, in the heart of what Hampshire believed was to be an industrial town, with a permanent future.

Some of the older railwaymen live in fine council houses, provided by a council which has a record of civic progress unbeaten in the South and dating back over forty years. That record is due largely to the public service of some of these railway workers. Many of the younger workers for whom I am pleading are buying their homes on mortgages, and the loss of their jobs would be a disaster. Now, at one fell swoop, the heart is being knocked out of this little town and its workshops, which have been established there for seventy years.

I am not going to talk about broad railway economics; I want to talk tonight about men with whom I have worked throughout my forty years of public life—men with wives and children, many of whom, after thirty years' service, face an economic blitz just as Eastleigh faced, with distinction, a blitz during the war years.

I believe that every employer ought to be a good employer, and that an employer in a nationalised industry ought to be the best employer. In a recent debate I attacked the old inhuman conception of men being something to be hired and fired. We cannot run modern Britain on that basis. Tonight, therefore, I make a number of pleas to the Parliamentary Secretary for the men involved, and for the town which depends on them—because if half the workers in the Eastleigh railway works go, commerce and all the ancillaries and, indeed, the whole social life of Eastleigh, is in danger. Therefore, I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to persuade the British Transport Commission to reconsider its decision.

This is a good factory. Recently much money has been spent in it on costly new equipment, and of the carriage workers made redundant throughout the country about 1,600—about half of them—are Eastleigh men. But I wish to ask the Minister why we should single out one community for an unbearable portion of the cut, even if the cut is necessary. Moreover, most of the redundancy has to take place by 31st December this year, and I ask: why the suddenness? If it must occur, I urge that it be spread over sufficient time to enable these skilled men to seek other ways of using their skill.

The men about whom I am speaking made the prototype of the new carriage in fibre glass, and I urge that they be allowed to make some of the carriages which their skill has developed. I urge that the locomotive parts of the works should get some share of the manufacture of the diesel electric engines which they pioneered. The Government boast that they are decentralising the railways, but they are centralising carriage work. These men have served the Southern Region well, and I ask why the Southern Region should not continue its own regional coach building.

One bad feature of the whole business is its soullessness. I do not blame local management; I blame top management. I appreciate the heavy responsibilities of Dr. Beeching, but I urge him, through the Minister, to realise that he is dealing not with statistics but with living men. I believe that Dr. Beeching should have gone to Eastleigh when the first decision was made. I urge him even now to go and talk to the men. I urge him to hear, as the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. D. Price) and I yesterday morning heard from about 800 men affected by the cut, what this cut means to them and their practical suggestions for alleviating it. Incidentally, I wish tonight to pay tribute to the very fine leadership of the works committee of the Eastleigh railway works and its secretary, Mr. Field. He is a young man, who, like many of his mates, has much to give to British Railways.

First, I urge reconsideration of the basic policy. Then I ask, or rather we ask—because I am supported in this appeal by my colleague, the hon. Member for Eastleigh, who has been fighting the battle of these men with every ounce of energy and ability he possesses—that the Government should make speedy provision for alternative kinds of skilled work for the men who are to be displaced. I hope that if the hon. Member for Eastleigh manages to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, he will develop this further.

I speak for the men of the works, for all parties represented on the borough council and for the county council of which I am a member, when I ask the Government to treat as a matter of urgency the provision of work for skilled men on the 30-acre site generously released by British Railways, and on the 4-acre site available in Eastleigh for which the local council seeks planning permission to establish a precision industry which could employ at least some of the skilled men. Above all, I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to say to the British Transport Commission, "Do have some confidence in the men who have served you well. Take them into your confidence when you make decisions of this grave nature affecting their livelihood. Do not scrap their life work."

I say of the men for whom we are pleading tonight that the railways and the railway factories are their industry as much as that of management and of the former shareholders, or now of Britain. It is a truism that without the skilled work of the men in the factories the British railway industry would not exist. It is not right that these men should bear the full cost of solving Britain's attempt to find a place for railways in the age of the motor car and the aeroplane.

These men face unemployment in Southern Hampshire where the aircraft industry has shrunk, where shipping and ship-repairing are shrinking, and where a post-war swollen population—which in Hampshire has increased more than in any county other than, perhaps, Hertfordshire—may yet find enormous difficulty in providing work for an equally swollen juvenile population. If these cuts take place in their present form and at their present speed, whatever the general picture in Hampshire, certainly Eastleigh might well become a depressed area.

Those of us who speak in this debate want to save Eastleigh. Tonight is indeed a cry from Macedonia: "Come over and help us". I hope that the Government will respond to the debate which we have inaugurated tonight in the spirit in which we make this appeal, a human appeal for human beings who have served British Railways well. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) and the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Popplewell) for raising this question briefly in Committee on the Transport Bill last week. My hon. Friend in this matter, the hon. Member for Eastleigh, will support this plea to the Government to treat this matter as one of great humanity and great urgency for the people of Eastleigh.

10.12 p.m.

I wish to congratulate the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) on his good fortune in securing this debate tonight. As usual I was unsuccessful in the Ballot, and I thank him for his generosity in sharing the time with me.

Since the announcement by British Railways that they would construct no new coaches at Eastleigh on completion of the current programme, the hon. Member and I have been working in double harness with the common aim of avoiding, if we can, and mitigating, if we are unsuccessful, the resulting hardship to our constituents. Only yesterday we shared a platform at a meeting organised by the works committee in Eastleigh Town Hall.

In the short time available, I wish to try to cover additional points to those made by the hon. Member. I want, first, to reinforce his main argument, why Eastleigh? Even if we accept that British Railways have a case for reducing coach-making facilities for the railway system, why pick on Eastleigh? It is certainly not because the works there are inefficient, at least not by the standard of railway workshops. If this decision goes through, as the hon. Member has pointed out, there will be no new coaching facilities anywhere on the Southern Region system. As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, the Southern Region has coaching needs peculiar to itself not shared with the other regions.

I wish briefly to make five general points additional to and in extension of the points made by the hon. Member. I should very much like to have a reply from the Parliamentary Secretary on those five points. First, as to the extent of the redundancies. British Railways spoke originally of about 850 payroll staff being eventually redundant as a result of this decision. The figures I have received suggest that as at 10th February, 1962, 474 men then employed would be redundant by the end of the current year. Am I to understand that that is merely the first stage and that in 1963 there will be additional redundancies, or is this to be the limit to redundancy? My hon. Friend will appreciate the importance of an answer being given to that question.

Secondly, I raise the question of more repair work. Is there any likelihood of more repair work coming permanently to Eastleigh carriage works? I have heard rumours to this effect, and I should like them confirmed or denied, because, if they are true, that would reduce the numbers likely to be made redundant and it would be of great importance to my constituents in their current anxieties.

My third point has been made by the hon. Member for Itchen, and it concerns phasing back. In view of the heavy concentration of redundancies in the months of November and December, would it not be possible to phase back these redundancies so that there is a better chance of the men concerned finding alternative work? On present showing, Christmas, 1962, will not be a very cheerful season for the people of Eastleigh.

The fourth point concerns the diversification of industry. If British Railways adhere to their decision, our main hope must lie in getting new industry into the borough of Eastleigh. For many years the Eastleigh Borough Council has wanted to reduce the borough's dependence upon British Railways by diversifying its industrial base. We have always been turned down on the argument that there was full employment in the Southampton area, but it has always been added that should the railways contract their activities, action would be taken in time. I quote from the official minutes of a meeting held in Reading on 1st May, 1952—a minute taken by the Government Department and not by the borough council:
"Mr. Young (Regional Controller, Board of Trade) denied that it was the Board of Trade's intention to sit back and await the arrival of unemployment at Eastleigh. … He felt sure that if there were any long-term proposals to reduce employment at the Railway Workshops at Eastleigh, either through technological or other reasons, the Department concerned with the location of industry would be adequately warned beforehand."
The redundancies are now upon us. The Departments concerned with the location of industry do not appear to have been adequately warned beforehand.

Nonetheless, we have been encouraged in our hopes for new industry by the decision of British Railways to release thirty acres of land near the carriage works in Chickenhall Lane for industrial development. May I have my hon. Friend's assurance that British Railways will press ahead with the development of this land? Will he also assure us that all other Government Departments—because, as far as I can see, this covers a whole gamut of Departments—will cooperate enthusiastically in bringing suitable new industries to this site? I emphasise the words "suitable new industry". We neither expect nor want just any form of industrial development. I do not expect my hon. Friend's Department to give a blanket permission for anyone to go there, because if we had a factory to make dolls' eyes it would not help our problem.

I want an assurance from my hon. Friend that he and his colleagues on the Treasury Bench will assist in bringing the appropriate industries there, because we want industries suitable to the rather particular skills which will become available from the carriage works. Ideally a man should get his cards from the carriage works on a Friday and take up his new job in one of the new factories on the following Monday morning. Will my hon. Friend undertake to do everything within the power of Government to make this ideal come true?

My final point concerns the chances of finding alternative work. May I point out that the chances of finding alternative work are not as good as appear from general figures for the Southampton area? First, the Southampton area is large—substantially wider than reasonable travelling distance to work from Eastleigh. Secondly, general figures do not indicate the job opportunities for the particular skills likely to be redundant. Thirdly, this decision in conjunction with previous decisions taken by British Railways and by the planning authorities, has reduced substantially the job opportunities for Eastleigh people. Fourthly, Eastleigh is not a part of Southampton—with respect to the hon. Member for Itchen. It is a borough in its own right, with life and character of its own. It has grown around the railway. If railway activities are to be reduced, it must have new industry to compensate, otherwise we shall become a town of commuters and unemployed.

10.19 p.m.

The unanimity of view on this subject which has been expressed from both sides of the House is a warning to me to look out. I must be very careful what I say, because either I shall be attacked, as one might expect, from the other side of the House or I shall be attacked from the benches behind me.

I must begin by saying where my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport stands in this matter, because this is essential to any understanding of the situation. Decisions made by the British Transport Commission for the procurement of equipment for its railways or indeed for any of its activities are matters of management solely for the Commission. Similarly, decisions that the Commission makes about the employment of its workshops and what use it makes of particular workshops are for the Commission alone. My right hon. Friend the Minister has no direct responsibility here. But he has a general interest in the problem of surplus capacity which exists throughout the rollingstock industry.

As the House probably knows, this surplus capacity is largely there because of historical reasons. We have taken the view that, since this capacity must be reduced, we must resist any attempt to place the full burden of the reduction of capacity upon either the railway industry alone or upon the private repairers and manufacturers alone. We must see what we can do to keep things even.

It is clear that as the modernisation programme for rollingstock nears completion some surplus capacity will have to be cut out. Our colleagues on the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries went into this matter with some care in their recent Report on British Railways. I should like to quote briefly what they said in paragraph 262 of their Report:
"In the circumstances of the industry today, some adjustment of the workshop facilities is inevitable. The Commission are right to go ahead with this now, for otherwise the contraction in size of the industry will coincide with the end of modernisation orders (now at their height); the dual effect of this on the workshops' labour force could be very considerable indeed, if allowance were not made for it in advance."
This paragraph comes at the end of a long and interesting passage on the railway workshops in the Report. I think one can fairly summarise what our colleagues thought by saying that they broadly approved the process of rationalisation of the railway workshops which the Commission is now carrying out.

I come to the present proposals relating to Eastleigh. Following meetings with the staff, the Commission announced on 19th January last that on the completion of the current orders, construction of coaching stock would cease at Swindon and Eastleigh and construction of locomotives at Horwich. Therefore, the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) was not correct when he said that Eastleigh had been singled out. Three main manufacturing places were concerned in the announcement.

The Commission estimated then that the resulting redundancies at Eastleigh would be not likely to exceed 850 and they would be spread over the period between mid-1962 and mid-1963. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. D. Price), I have no further information as to the numbers than is contained in the Commission's original announcement. It was, however, clear that the rundown in employment would be spread over this period of twelve months. Some of these men may well be re-employed on other work at the Eastleigh shops.

My hon. Friend mentioned repair work which might come to Eastleight. I understand that, as part of its general proposals for Eastleigh, decisions were taken by the Commission with regard to repair work at present done at Lancing. The decisions were taken in the light of the knowledge that some repair work would be going to Eastleigh instead of to Lancing.

Some of the men affected may be reemployed elsewhere on British Railways. This has frequently happened when similar proposals have been made. We know that some of these men have already left and have found alternative employment in other industries in the area. About 140 have already done this in the last month or so.

In the light of this situation I honestly think that it was some exaggeration on the part of the hon. Member for Itchen to talk in terms of "economic disaster" and "a crime". I do not think that the facts bear such an interpretation.

The fact is that the Southampton industrial complex is within a very few miles, and my information is that specialised tradesmen—and, in particular, tradesmen like these—should be able without too much difficulty to find alternative employment outside the railway industry if, in fact, they cannot be re-employed inside it. My hon. Friend said that Eastleigh wanted to remain as a manufacturing borough on its own, without being considered in relation to Southampton. Of course, if men can find alternative employment within a few miles of their homes, that is nothing new. Many people come to London to work, commuting a great many more miles than there are between Eastleigh and Southampton.

In any event, I am advised that the Ministry of Labour is prepared to watch the whole situation extremely carefully, and will make all necessary efforts to fit any such cases as there may be into suitable vacancies. There are already a number of vacancies for men in trades similar to those to be found in the railway workshops in the Southampton area at present, and I believe that the number will grow as time goes on.

Both hon. Members asked that the rundown be phased over a period longer than twelve months to enable new industries to come to the district. I hope that they will appreciate that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has no power to require that to be done. He cannot order the Commission to phase the operation over a longer period. I must not refer to legislation, but legislation is at present going through the House which would give my hon. Friend something like that power, but he does not have it now.

The problem of excess capacity is not something from which we can run away. The problem is there, and the burden has to fall somewhere. If work does not stop at Eastleigh it will, of course, have to stop somewhere else. Where-ever the cuts are made, someone is bound to be affected. The Commission has selected the shops to be closed only after reviewing the whole of its needs and capacity. My hon. Friend asked, "Why pick on Eastleigh?" Obviously, the Commission has decided that it is much more advantageous to concentrate, if cuts are to be made, on a limited number of centres rather than to dissipate its effort over a very wide field.

Both hon. Gentlemen suggested that the Government should assist in providing alternative employment. As I have said, there are already a number of unfilled vacancies in the Southampton area, and I understand that a larger number will be present themselves as a result of new development, new building and industries coming to the Southampton area in the next few years. The Board of Trade estimates that there should be over a thousand new jobs coming there within a very short time. There are undoubtedly considerable natural and industrial advantages for development at Eastleigh. For many firms going to that area there is, at the moment, a shortage of labour; that is a problem for them, but, at least, if there is a shortage of labour, it presents opportunities for many of the men who may be displaced from Eastleigh.

My hon. Friend asked whether the Commission would release some of the land it has near the carriage works for industrial development, and he asked whether Government Departments would co-operate to bring new industry to the site. The House knows that the development of land is a subject on which the local authority will first have to give planning consent and, if the land is to be developed for industrial purposes, the Board of Trade's permission is also required. I can only suggest that my hon. Friend pursue that issue with the Board of Trade.

I have investigated this matter with some care, and I have no doubt that the Commission has, in this case, acted as a good employer—to use the words of the hon. Member for Itchen. It has given the maximum possible notice, it has kept in the closest possible contact with the staff, through the established consultative machinery, and with the local authorities. It has kept the Ministry of Labour and the Board of Trade fully informed, and it has tried to lessen the effect of redundancy by controlling recruitment and allowing the numbers to fall by natural wastage. It has also tried to fit redundant staff into other jobs.

I do not think that the Commission has anything to be ashamed of in what it is doing to deal with the problem at Eastleigh. It will certainly keep the matter under review, and I sincerely hope and believe that, in practice, the problem will not prove to be so severe as both hon. Members have suggested tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.