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C And T Harris Ltd, Calne

Volume 978: debated on Wednesday 13 February 1980

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

12.12 am

I welcome this opportunity to bring before the House the problems that the people of Caine face at the moment, when 450 of them have been made redundant at the factory of C. and T. Harris.

Perhaps it would help my hon. Friend if for a minute I went into the background of the problem that the bacon pig industry is facing. Much of it results from the period of office of the previous Administration when so much harm was done to the bacon industry by the failure to revalue the green pound and the problems caused by the MCA system.

As long ago as 1977, the industry was facing dire problems because of the losses that it was suffering. One of the directors of the company wrote at that time to my predecessor, Mr. Awdry:
"The grossly unfair distortions caused by the pigmeat—green pound problem effectively subsidise imported bacon and ham into this country, particularly from Denmark and Holland, by approximately 30 per cent. This has been going on to varying degrees for nearly three years and has so debilitated our entire industry that its future is in grave jeopardy. The plight of the processors was overtaken during the summer of 1976 by a producers' flight from pigs."
Flying pigs!
"The resulting decimation of our pig herd now means that the hard-pressed processors are having to pay substantially more for their pigs whilst their end product is depressed by unfair subsidised competition from Europe."
The problems caused by the actions of the previous Administration have meant that the level of investment has not been maintained. The gross margin on a pig coming in from Denmark over the past four or five years was £356, while on our pigs it was £232.

My hon. Friend the Minister who is to reply may say that perhaps the marketing of some pigmeat products and even the quality were not all that might have been desired, but it is hard to see how the industry could have done that much better when the unfair competition that it had to face as a result of the actions of Labour right hon. and hon. Members did such harm to the industry. With respect to the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Harrison), perhaps I should not have referred to him in the plural, as he is the only Labour Member in the Chamber.

Our share of the market has dropped from 37·7 per cent. in 1976 to 32·2 per cent. now. The problems caused by the failure to revalue the green pound have made it difficult for the industry to keep up investment and productivity.

I am glad that the present Government have done almost everything to put that right and we no longer have problems with the industry facing unfair competition from Europe and Ireland. However, there are two caveats to that. The high level of inflation, coupled with a strong pound, does not make matters easy, and nor do high interest rates, particularly when the industry has not had the profitability, and, therefore, the reserves, to allow it to replace and renew.

As a result, C. and T. Harris has had to rationalise as much as possible and has had to lay off half the work force of a company that is 200 years old and one of the oldest bacon industries in Europe, with a long and proud history in Calne.

We face two problems. The first is the 450 people who have lost their jobs. I urge the Minister to do what he can to ensure that those people are offered retraining facilities. At present there are 259 people out of work in the town and 237 vacancies. That indicates some mismatch in Caine, and I believe that much of it is caused by the problem of fixing training to meet needs. With another 450 people coming on to the job market, it is important that we find how the mismatch can be put right.

I also ask the Minister to look particularly at the problems of the middle aged and those over 50, who may have worked for a company for many years and who find it difficult to get jobs, particularly in rural areas where there is not a great deal of alternative employment. After last year's redundancies in the town, there are still many people who have not found jobs.

I have listened with interest to my hon. Friend's tale of how the Labour Party has, in a sense, been the enemy of the British pig industry. I am sure that my hon. Friend's constituents will wish to know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in the Chamber to hear the important points being put on their behalf by my hon. Friend.

I thank my hon. Friend. The people of Caine will be greatly honoured to know that the Prime Minister is here to listen to the problems that they face. Not only is she here today, but she is to honour us with a visit on Friday. We are therefore doubly blessed. It will give a tremendous boost to the people of Caine to know that the Government are taking an interest, and it will also put the town on the map. It is important to encourage people to come to Caine, which can offer so much. In terms of communications, it is only one and-a-half hours from Exeter, Birmingham and London. It will be a great help, even at 70 miles an hour, for the people of Caine to know the interest that the Government are showing.

Reverting to the people who are out of work, I should like to indicate that the problem affects not only those who will find difficulty getting new work. There are also those in the villages who will no longer have transport previously provided by the company to take them to work. This indicates the size of the impact on rural areas when an industry in a town is decimated. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to announce a study into the problem to ensure the right answer.

We need to create new industry in the area. There is land available that the North Wiltshire district council would like to bring forward. No private developer has yet been found. But it would help if the council could bring forward the infrastructure, not on a speculative basis at the ratepayers' expense but only if people wish to start factories in Caine. There is reason to suppose that this desire exists.

One problem is that local councils also wish to bring forward land in Malmesbury, Crickland and Wootton Bassett and surrounding towns. If resources are switched to Caine, it means that resources, jobs, and industries wanting to go elsewhere will have to wait.

I now turn to the question of the remaining 450 jobs. There is need for the company to rationalise itself and for the work force to get together with management to improve productivity. Equally, the management invested £300,000 in a slaughterhouse last year but closed it three weeks later. There has been a history of decisions that might have been better made. I hope that that situation is now behind us and that the management and the work force can get the plant going again. The board of FMC has said that, provided the company can break even, it wishes to build a modern, purpose-built plant in Caine capable of matching the best in Europe.

Because of events in the past and because money is not available, it is difficult to find the finance for the plant. I expect that my hon. Friend will be able to give me only a hope and a prayer, but soon, I hope, the climate will have changed and the company will be able to proceed with the new factory.

If we cannot produce sausages and bacon in Wiltshire, it is a sad day for Britain. I trust that this will be the final act of the saga and that we can look forward to a better atmosphere in which to work and compete so that in five or ten years Caine will once again be the booming bacon town of Britain. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to announce some hopeful, practical and positive Government plans for providing alternative work for those unable to find jobs in the bacon industry.

12.25 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Needham) on having the good fortune to secure this Adjournment debate. I also congratulate him on the measure of support that he has generated among his hon. Friends. It is the second best Adjournment debate in which I have spoken, and it is only the second one to which I have had the good fortune to reply.

Of course, the presence of my right hon. Friend the Prime Miniser is a first for an Adjournment debate. The fact that my right hon. Friend is visiting my hon. Friend's constituency this week makes it a double blessing, although I suspect that there may be some relationship between the two events.

I share my hon. Friend's considerable anxiety at the effect that the proposed redundancies at C. and T. Harris will have, not only on those who will lose their jobs but on the general employment situation in the Chippenham area. As my hon. Friend well knows, the FMC Group, to which C. and T. Harris belongs, is not alone in having to carry out rationalisation. Other bacon and pigmeat produce manufacturers have been under the same pressures. Their problems have largely arisen from the unfairly high level of monetary compensatory amounts paid in the past on imports of bacon and pigmeat products from other EEC countries.

Our industry has, on the one hand, had to pay relatively high prices for top-quality pig carcases and, on the other hand, it has been unable to sell bacon and other pigmeat products in competition with subsidised imports at prices which would give a reasonable return on investment. Low profit levels have led to a lack of investment in modern plant and buildings.

The Government came to power pledged to abolish the heavy burden of negative MCAs within the lifetime of the present Parliament. With three green pound devaluations in eight months, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has already achieved what he promised to do in five years. He has negotiated devaluations in the green pound which, with the strengthening of sterling, have led to reductions in the United Kingdom MCAs on bacon and pigmeat to nil. There are no longer highly subsidised imports, and home production now faces fair competition. My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated.

But it has long been recognised that even if MCA reductions could be achieved the industry would still have to face strong competition from, in particular, Danish bacon, which has established a reputation for quality and consistency. Well over a year ago, the sector working group of the Economic Development Committee for Food and Drink Manufacturing reported that
"United Kingdom bacon processors must without delay take positive action to improve the quality, marketing, distribution and promotion of its products if the industry is to maintain its present share of the home market, let alone gain a larger share"
The industry itself recognises that its marketing compares unfavourably with that of its competitors and I understand it is in the process of reviewing its marketing strategy in an attempt to put itself on equal terms. I am afraid that some rationalisation and readjustment in the industry are inevitable; and it is up to individual companies to decide how to go about that.

I am only too well aware that none of this offers much comfort to those at C. and T. Harris who are about to lose their jobs. It is not for me to underestimate the effects of unemployment and redundancy. To the individuals concerned and to their families, it is a very distressing experience. But I can assure my hon. Friend and those at the firm who face this prospect that my Department and the Manpower Services Commission will do everything we can to find them new jobs or retraining.

The management at C. and T. Harris has said that it is anxious to co-operate fully with us. A mini jobcentre, with vacancy display facilities, has already been set up on the firm's premises. Two of our employment advisers have been working there full time since last Monday and will stay on as long as necessary. I understand that all the employees who are to be made redundant have been told about these arrangements. The Chippenham jobcentre manager and a representative from the unemployment benefit office have been at the firm since yesterday and will remain there for the rest of the week to offer any help they can to the employees concerned.

In addition, the training services division of the Manpower Services Commission is standing by to see what it can do. It is early days yet, of course, and we are still in the process of finding out from the employees concerned what their needs are. Training opportunities advisers will be available, however, to interview redundant workers and to give them guidance on the training opportunities available.

The nearest skill centre is at Swindon, where 128 places are available for 12 courses, two in construction trades and the remainder in engineering skills.

My hon. Friend will appreciate that one of the problems we face in the area is that the skillcentres are at Swindon and Chippenham. Swindon is 15 miles away and Chippenham is seven or eight miles away, and it is not easy to get there as a result of the problems we are experiencing with transport. Can my hon. Friend give any indication of how that particular problem can be got round?

I can assure my hon. Friend that there are arrangements for taking people to skillcentres. But if there is a particular problem and special circumstances we shall look at them.

The House will know that everybody has sympathy with the plight of the people of Caine, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Prime Minister's visit on Friday will not save the bacon? The only way to save the British bacon market is to get out of the Common Market.

What I am sure of is that the Prime Minister's visit to Caine will draw attention to English bacon and, it is hoped, will do the industry some good in marketing.

Places are also provided for Government-sponsored trainees on a variety of courses, mostly secretarial and clerical, at local colleges of further education, including Chippenham technical college. But the TSD has assured me that it will consider laying on special courses for retraining the redundant workers if these are needed.

As for the future employment prospects for the redundant workers, it is difficult to be very precise until we have more details of the people concerned, their skills, the type of jobs they want and the area in which they live. From the information we have so far received, we know that the redundant workers travel to Caine from quite a wide area. This will obviously make it somewhat easier for them to find new jobs. I am told that a large number are skilled or semiskilled, which, again, is an obvious advantage in the current employment situation. And I believe that some will probably want only part-time work.

Following the publicity about the redundancies organised by the Chippenham jobcentre, a number of local food firms have already expressed an interest in taking on redundant workers from C. and T. Harris. About 100 suitable vacancies have been notified within the last 48 hours, and there are currently over 300 other unfilled vacancies which have been notified to our Chippenham office. They are in a wide range of occupations, some in food processing, some in the service industries and others in electrical engineering and construction. Some are for part-time work, others are suitable for school leavers and young people; and we must remember that the vacancies notified to our offices are probably only about one-third of the total number of vacancies available.

In the longer term, I understand that there is the prospect of at least 350 new jobs in the Chippenham area over the next year or so arising out of new developments and expansions which are known to be taking place. We must not lose sight of the fact that the Chippenham area is in a relatively better position than many areas. The whole of this part of Wiltshire has traditionally had below-average levels of unemployment, and that is the case today.

In saying all this about the job opportunities that are available in the area, I do not want to give the impression that I underestimate the problems facing the redundant workers. Nor do I want to suggest that the future will be all plain sailing for them or for the area in general. I recognise that some of those who are made redundant will find it difficult to get other jobs. But I hope those employees at C. and T. Harris who view the future with anxiety will take heart if I point out that, despite high levels of unemployment, jobs seem to be available, although the opportunities are not as evenly spread as we would like.

It is a fact that most unemployed people are able to find jobs reasonably quickly. I urge the people at C. and T. Harris not to delay in seeking the help of the employment service and to be as flexible as they possibly can in the type of jobs they will take and the area in which they are prepared to work.

We live in an age of rapid industrial change, and it is a fact of industrial life that the labour forces of firms and enterprises will vary from year to year as the demand for their goods and services changes. In the process many people will be forced to change jobs. It is no good blinking at this fact. It is worse than useless to attempt to freeze the pattern of employment rigidly by opposing all closures, all restructuring and all redundancies.

My hon. Friend mentioned land in Caine available for new industry. I will draw the attention of the Departments of the Environment and Industry to that fact, because such development is clearly part of our overall philosophy. The Government believe—and I am sure that my hon. Friend will support me on this—that the only way to find a lasting solution to the problems of unemployment is to improve our industrial performance so that our industries are competitive in the trading community. That is the basis for providing more permanent jobs in Caine, Chippenham and elsewhere in the country. This is what the Government's economic policies are all about.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to One o'clock.