Royal Ordnance Factories.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 5th August 1942.

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Photo of Mr Arthur Woodburn Mr Arthur Woodburn , Clackmannan and Eastern

I would like to congratulate the Minister on the way he has received this Report. He has received it in the way that the Select Committee and the House would like a Minister to receive a report, not as something antagonistic but as a report to the House of investigations which are intended to be helpful. If I may refer to the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Colegate), I would like to make one or two explanations with regard to the work of the Select Committee. The Committee had for their purpose the asking of questions on behalf of this House. The questions are asked in private and the evidence is taken in secret, but that has the enormous advantage that people speak to the Select Committee without reserve and say what they think. Even the Minister could not go to his officials or to any Department under him and be quite sure that they would speak to him without reserve and make criticisms and suggestions about what should be done and should not be done. That power is given to the Select Committee. Therefore, on frequent occasions the Committee have been able to obtain information about what is going on in the country that even the Ministry itself could not obtain.

More than that, the Committee have visited factories in all parts of the country, and they not only ask questions but see things for themselves. Very often they have been able to help the Ministry without reporting to this House at all. The very fact that the Committee ask a question and elicit that something is wrong makes it unnecessary to report to the House in order to have it put right, because fortunately everybody in the industry and the Ministry wants to put things right. The Minister has been able to tell us to-day that a number of things discussed in this Report have been put right. That willingness has in my experience always been exhibited by the Departments. I would like the House to realise that the effective work of this Committee is not what they report to the House. The fact that they are in existence, that they are going to make investigations or are making investigations means that people keep a critical eye on themselves, which is far more important than anything which even the Select Committee could do. I remember an occasion when a Member of this House was anxious that the Select Committee should conduct a certain investigation which could not be done immediately. A fortnight or three weeks later he became greatly alarmed because the Committee had not begun investigations, and he said that unless they did so quickly all the things would be put right because it was known that the Committee were coming. I say that to show the importance of having such a Committee in existence. The fact that they exist has a deterrent effect on carelessness and it is an incentive to keep up to scratch.

With regard to ordnance factories, it is not a question of blaming the Government or of being wise after the event, but I think the Minister himself will agree, looking back, that these factories were too big for efficient handling. When you are thinking of a factory of 40,000 people you are thinking of a town, but it is a town which has to be built in a scattered fashion with far fewer people to the acre than would exist in a normal town. The physical difficulty of managing such a factory is an obstacle in itself. The transport difficulty is a further obstacle. As the Minister said, some of the people have to travel 40 and 50 miles to work in an ordnance factory. The complications involved in that and in bringing transport into new parts of the country make it difficult to bring efficiency in a factory of these dimensions. It is, however, no good crying over spilt milk; we have to make the best of it. For that reason, perhaps, hostels were being built in these isolated places. I can speak from personal knowledge of the hostels when I say that, except that they hardly give the people enough width to go along the passages, they are remarkably fine places, and I have assured people in my part of the country whose daughters have been going to the hostels that they would be very happy from the point of view of social life and the general facilities provided. I think the Ministry have done a good job in the matter of hostels, and that those who are going to the unoccupied ones will find them very satisfactory.

An earlier Report of the Committee with which I was rather more closely associated than with this one dealt with absenteeism in Royal Ordnance factories, especially the filling factories. At that time the word "absenteeism" had been coined. It conveys the impression of culpable absence from work. All absence from work is not culpable. Think of these factories which were working a seven days' week, with married women travelling 20 to 30 miles a day to work. Such a woman had to work seven days a week and was at the same time in charge of her home and responsible for purchasing goods for the home. How could she ever get anything from the shops if she had to work seven days a week? It was impossible. Therefore she was absent from work some part of the time in order to get to the shops. That was put down as absenteeism and called "culpable absenteeism." It makes a farce of an investigation of absence from work if such cases are mixed up. We found-that in one factory, not a filling factory, absence from work over the whole workshop was 0.7 per cent., and I was at a factory recently where the absence was 0.1 per cent. I think those are very creditable figures from the point of view of real absenteeism. Statements were made about there being 25 per cent. absenteeism. When a careful investigation was made into that allegation it was found that there was only about 5 per cent. real absenteeism. People who make these loose charges, including some employers, I am sorry to say, do great disservice by giving a misleading picture of the actual situation.