Air Estimates, 1940.

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply. – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th March 1940.

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Photo of Mr Walter Higgs Mr Walter Higgs , Birmingham West 12:00 am, 7th March 1940

The Minister referred to the question of economy, and I am sure that we are all delighted to hear that that is one of the principal questions in his mind. It is not a matter of how much money we are spending, but of the value that we get. Debating this Vote on a token sum, we have an admirable opportunity to put forward the necessity for economy. Un- fortunately, the demand for aircraft now exceeds the supply. Therefore, the Minister has considerable difficulty in forcing economy upon his various departments. His economy has to be obtained by supervision. One of the difficulties with which he has to contend is the labour shortage. This shortage of labour increases the competition for labour, and, therefore, increases the price of the commodity. I have been elected a member of the Select Committee on National Expenditure, and I am serving on the Air Committee; but I am not using any information that I have obtained in that capacity in the course of any remarks that I may make in this House. The Minister will agree that one man fully equipped is worth a dozen without equipment.

It is obvious that, under present conditions, labour will not be available to supply the equipment required by the Air Ministry. There are more machine tools idle at night at the present time than there are at work. It is very necessary that the Minister should see that those machine tools are put to work before more money is expended on the importation of further machine tools from abroad. Machine tool makers in this country are inundated with orders, yet we are still importing; and using our foreign exchange in doing so. I have personal experience of this. Two months ago one of these instruments was for sale, and the offer made for it was £25. Within the last week that same instrument has been sold second hand for £285—not on a competitive basis, but to a dealer who bought it privately. That shows the demand for machine tools. They are absolutely essential for the manufacturers of aircraft. We have the plant standing idle at night, and I believe that, if the Minister were to relax certain regulations, that plant could be put into operation. I understand that the Government and the trade unions are agreed that during the war regulations regarding the employment of women and young persons at night might be suspended. If that were done, it would be possible to employ at night many of those who are now employed by day. This is a very important point on production. The aircraft factories could dilute their labour more by doing so, and it would give us the greater production that is so necessary. Semi-skilled workers are quickly learning their trade, and it is not only machine tools that should be made more use of at night but the jigs and so forth which are a very expensive portion of the plant.

Night work may be unpleasant, but we have to remember that women to-day are working in the black-out under similar conditions to night work, and there is no reason at all, provided there is proper supervision, why women and young persons should not work at night and the law be suspended as it was during the last war. With the regulations as they exist the limit for persons under 16 is 44 hours a week. These young persons help the gangs. If a young person between 14 and 16 is working in a gang, the other people in the gang cannot continue with their work without that young person. If we could only suspend regulations of this description for the time being, I feel convinced we could get a considerably greater output. I know a White Paper has recently been issued, from which I understand that only 57 orders have been made throughout the country, whereas there are about 10,000 persons to-day making aircraft parts. We have to make a greater effort. We had the restrictions moved during the last war, and before we conclude this war we shall have to do the same. Why not do it now, and take action before it is too late? Soldiers are useless without shells.

I would also refer the Minister to another difficulty that industry is experiencing, and that is the enticement of labour from one firm to another, quite unnecessarily. We are getting some glowing advertisements in the Press which should not be permitted to be inserted. One which appeared in a local paper read as follows, abbreviating it slightly: We found a nice little place at a cheap rent just outside Coventry and easy to work. Mary and the kids were O.K., and they were all glad they came. Plenty of good sport and plenty of beer. And so the advertisement went on. If we get competition of this description, and take skilled men off the particular operation where they have been working for years and move them to another factory, we are not going to maintain the efficiency of output which is so essential at the present moment. I know of a factory in my own locality where the trade union rate is 1s. 7d. an hour, but they pay men 1s. 10d. an hour plus 10 per cent., plus 10 per cent. increase every six months for the duration, plus one pound for everybody they can induce to go into their factory from other factories. I am not objecting to the just reward for labour; I am not objecting generally to the remuneration that is given to labour; what I am objecting to is the expensive rates that are being paid in the aircraft industry to-day. The other workers who are not receiving those rates are dissatisfied. I abide by trade union rates. I agree to 25 per cent., 50 per cent. or 75 per cent. bonus as the case may be on piece work. But I do object strongly to wages being paid of the order of £10 and £15 a week. There is no justification for it in the industry. The aircraft industry is the culprit, and other industries are suffering by it. Aircraft factories are often located adjacent to agricultural districts where labour is paid for of the order of 32s. to 40s. a week. It is not just, it is not reasonable, and unless something is done about this wage ramp we are going to have very serious difficulties in all other industries. We cannot bring the rate of other industries up to that which is being paid in the aircraft industry to-day.

I know it is exceedingly difficult for the Minister to tackle the problem, but the nation has to tackle more difficult problems than this before the war is over. Unless the Minister says something about it, unless he brings some pressure to bear, we shall have inflation far more rapidly than we have it at the present time. I had a personal experience the other day where a man operating a machine was earning £4 or £5 a week and turning out 1,000articles on his particular lathe. He was induced by an aircraft factory to move, and the man who was put on that lathe to take his place turned out 300 articles a week and was paid the same rate. The firm lost, and I do not think the man gained much from it. We have had experience of cases where the increase has gone up 25 per cent. and the output has gone down 25 per cent., entirely owing to the enticement of labour from one factory to another. This labour award is not just for the railway workers, for instance, for clubs, for shop assistants. They are getting no increase in rates, and yet the aircraft industry is settling the rate for all these other industries and set- ting a pace which we cannot stay. If the Minister would express his dissatisfaction at these high rates of wages, I think it would have a considerable influence upon those people who are responsible for paying them. It is often Government Departments which are paying them, and unless something is done in those Government Departments, as has had to be done in industrial departments when we feel competition, we shall get this ramp increase continued, and, as I have already said, add to inflation.

Owing to the late hour, I will cut out the remainder of my remarks and will conclude by reminding the Minister that every Department in the Government is emphasising the necessity for export trade. Our main exportable commodities are coal and the products of labour. The products of labour often resolve themselves into engineering problems, and if these rates are paid in the aircraft industry, which is a typical engineering industry, those same rates have to be paid in exporting industries, and therefore our British prices will rise at a higher rate than the world prices, and no selling organisation in the world will dispose of our product unless we are giving value for money. This is a most important factor. I have not heard the matter brought forward in the House before, and I hope other hon. Members will follow it up and realise the importance of it. I am very pleased indeed that my hon. Friends opposite have not interjected and suggested that the rates were not too high. I agree that the cases to which I am referring are probably only 1 per cent. of the engineering industry, but they are setting the pace for the others. I hope that the Minister in his reply will have something to say on this important point.