Royal Ordnance Factories.

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

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Photo of Miss Irene Ward Miss Irene Ward , Wallsend

That was made perfectly plain by my right hon. Friend. I would make this observation on the remark of my hon. Friend about the length of time that the replies take. The Committee would be delighted if the replies could be forthcoming the next week. The length of time is the responsibility of the appropriate Government Departments and not of the Select Committee, and I hope that the Government will take note of what has been said. If I may digress, we have been waiting for a long time for the reply from the Service Departments to the Select Committee's report on the medical services for the women's Services. The Select Committee reported last March, and we have still not received the reply from the various Service Departments. Actually, the argument used by the hon. Member was very effective, from the point of view of the Select Committee, and I thank him for his intervention.

I should like to say a word about absenteeism. It is a very difficult matter to handle. One recognises that in these tremendously large factories, with a vast amount of green labour, the problem presented to those who are trying to control the labour is very difficult. I find a weakness in co-operation between one Government Department and another, and indeed that is one of the fundamental weaknesses of our whole war machine. Let me give one very simple illustration. Everybody has referred in very sympathetic terms to the problems of married women, for example to their problems of shopping, and looking after their children. Let us take the problem of war-time nurseries. Suppose my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour says that a war-time nursery ought to be established. He is dependent for his information, in relation to Royal Ordnance factories, upon information from the Ministry of Supply. Instructions go out to the local authority. It then becomes the responsibility of the Minister of Health. I have never found strong action taken by the Ministry of Health against local authorities, who are not prepared, without very great pressure, to establish these war-time nurseries. Therefore, in spite of the fact that both the Minister of Supply and the Minister of Labour believe that in certain districts war-time nurseries should be established in order to help women who have children and who have also undertaken responsible war work in the factories, they cannot help them, and it reacts upon absenteeism.

I am thinking now of ordnance factories in the North of England It is two years since the first attempts were made to establish war-time nurseries. I realise that there have been many problems and difficulties in the way of local authorities in setting up these nurseries, but I should feel much happier if the responsibility for action was vested in one Department. The whole tradition of the relationship of the Ministry of Health with the local authorities prevents such quick decisions as could be the case if pressure were exercised direct from the Ministry of Supply. It is not at all an effective piece of machinery at the present time, and all Government Departments would be very well advised to look at the divided responsibility on matters of this kind as between one Department and another. More adequate Governmental co-ordination would probably help in the solving of this problem of absenteeism.

Take again the shopping question. Into it come the Ministry of Supply, the Ministry of Labour, the Home Office and the local authorities. Again, we have divided responsibility. Until recently these rather individual problems of women have not been tackled with that sympathetic understanding of which one found traces in the speech of my right hon. Friend. But in fact he should not be called upon to consider relatively small details of that kind. I appreciate that he has vast and weighty problems to consider, vitally affecting our war effort. A Minister charged with the responsibility that he has should not have to consider for one moment details of that kind. I only wish that, somehow, some machinery could be devised which would give some power to somebody to take really effective action, so that we should not have this perpetual playing at ball between one Government Department and another. The, Government may not believe me, but I am sympathetic, when I write to the Minister on shopping and war-time nursery problems.

When my right hon. Friend is looking into the question of organisation of ordnance factories. I hope that he and his Parliamentary Secretary will try to decide that whoever has to look into the problems I have mentioned has the authority to settle them straight away. The hon. Gentleman who spoke from the other side of the House referred very sympathetically to absenteeism. I know how complicated these problems are in relation to ordnance factories. I want to point out however that there have been factories built up by private enterprise, with a first-class system of organisation, employing green labour and with a comparable number of people as are employed in Royal Ordnance factories, but they have a lower percentage of culpable absenteeism. I cannot help feeling that it is easier for a decentralised body, with responsibility, to cope with the difficulties that arise, rather than for a centralised Government Department to do so.

Have my right hon. Friend and the Parliamentary Secretary realised how very—"obstructive" is not quite the right word, but damping-down a governmental machine can be upon initiative inside factory life? I know there are some grand people inside the Ministry of Supply doing a full-time job, conscious of their responsibility and struggling to improve matters. On the other hand, it seems to me that the machine sometimes overwhelms initiative inside the Department. I should very much like to hear from the Parliamentary Secretary whether, in headquarters organisation, he has taken the evidence that we have taken, and if he has come, on balance, to the conclusion to which we have come whether he has the power to put right the things that are wrong. That, in my own mind, is what I question. The whole gigantic machine of government is so vast and complicated that sometimes it impedes its own efforts. I wonder whether it would be possible for the Parliamentary Secretary, who looks after the Royal Ordnance factory side, to accept responsibility and have full power to reorganise the internal machine.

The Minister said, with regard to absenteeism, that the labour management department of the Royal Ordnance factories has been charged with the responsibility of dealing with absenteeism. Here I would like to pay a tribute to some of the men and women who are engaged in labour management at the Royal Ord- nance factories. The Ministry of Supply have taken out of private industry some of the very best and most experienced labour and personnel managers, both men and women, and I have gained the impression, as I have gone round those factories, that they have not got jobs comparable to their experience. They are very experienced in the handling of people, but the usual channels of communication sometimes make life extraordinarily difficult for them. It is even difficult for Members of Parliament, who after all have free access to anyone they like to see, but the usual channels of communication for taking effective action inside the Royal Ordnance factories sometimes take a very long time to set in motion. Although my right hon. Friend has now charged the labour management side of the Royal Ordnance factories with the responsibility of an investigation into absenteeism, I should very much like to know who will be responsible for putting their findings into operation.

It is always very difficult and a little unfair to criticise machinery when one is not concerned in it, but I have gained the impression, and I know I am right without going into any very great detail, that labour management—and if I may say so the medical side as well—has not been properly integrated with the production side in the Royal Ordnance factories. As has happened in many other Government Departments, the whole policy of the Department has been to concentrate on production, and I believe that the superintendents have been told that if their production is up to the target figure it does not matter how much labour they use in reaching it. That is not the right approach, and I am perfectly certain that my right hon. Friend would agree with me on that. Efficient management is vastly important, and you can only get efficient management if due attention is paid to the human machine. Time and time again when people have been in a position to talk to me frankly and freely I have heard expressions of regret that Government Departments always concentrate on the machine and never on the human machine.

It would not be unfair if I said that part of the labour problem inside the Royal Ordnance factories is partly the result of lack of welfare, although I am glad to say there has been very real improvement lately. This lack of welfare is due to the fact that in the past the "Woolwich mentality" has been accepted by the Government as a standard. Those of us who are progressive in our views on the handling of labour are not very much impressed with the "Woolwich mentality." My right hon. Friend referred to the question of long hours, and expressed a very enlightened view which we all knew he held. Again I apologise, because I do not think that he ought to be bothered with matters of this kind, but has he ever, as an individual and as a matter of interest, investigated the Woolwich approach to welfare, the Woolwich approach to hours, the Woolwich approach to safety, or the Woolwich approach to medical work inside factories? I am not blaming the people who are responsible for Woolwich, but I am blaming past Governments, and past Houses of Commons of which I have been a Member, because we have never realised as we ought to have done the background against which the workers of this country ought to have been asked to make their contribution.

A great deal of lip-service has been paid by various Ministers to the effect of shorter hours. Only the other day in the Debate on factory legislation my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour said that there would be a tightening up, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply said in all truth that the Government ought to set a standard. May I take one very small illustration, that is, the question of the employment of nurses in the Royal Ordnance factories? Is my right hon. Friend aware that a Parliamentary Secretary who is no longer associated with the Government, in excusing to me the fact that the Royal Ordnance factories were not paying the standard of wages which they ought to have been paying to their nurses, did so by stating that there were so few of them? I never knew that justice depended on numbers. I then turned to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour, and told him that I was surprised that he was using the Royal College of Nursing as a training ground for nurses in industry, while at the same time he did not subscribe to the standards and conditions under which they thought that nurses ought to be employed. I may say that the Ministry of Labour took action, and I am glad that there has been an improve- ment in the conditions of nurses in the Royal Ordnance factories, but the standard should have been set there for nurses throughout the country.

The standard with regard to hours also should be set by the Royal Ordnance factories. You cannot bring pressure to bear on private employers unless you can show your own example, because private employers have exactly the same problems of the lack of skilled labour in building up their war production, and, what is more, employers cannot exercise as much pressure on Government Departments as Government Departments can exercise on themselves. Therefore, I think that my right hon. Friend would do well reexamine exactly what is the position with regard to hours, and to learn also what welfare, labour and personnel management really mean in the factory. I am quite certain that if he has time to do that he will set the standard which he himself admits is the standard which ought to be put into operation by an enlightened and progressive Government.

In conclusion, I hope that we shall get our headquarters organisation right. I hope that when people wish to voice criticisms, those criticisms will be listened to. I am not at all impressed by the type of Governmental machinery that operates in this country at present, under which someone who may have a very wide experience of industry finds himself, as a temporary civil servant, in a Government Department, but unable to give the benefit of his experience to that Department except by working through about 10 other people who may not have as much experience. I know it is very dangerous for me, with my little knowledge, to express a view of that kind, but we are all trying to make a common contribution to the biggest cause for which this country has ever stood in the whole history of our civilisation. It is very frustrating to people who have never been used to the deadening effect of a machine to find that their ideas and knowledge can be thrust aside because those who are responsible for the running of the Department cannot somehow get over the difficulties that have grown up in this vast and gigantic machine.

We are all out for a common purpose, we all want to make a common contribution. I sometimes wish we could have more Parliamentary Secretaries who could undertake specific jobs and really see them through from the beginning to the end. I rather feel that the Parliamentary Secretary who deals with the Royal Ordnance factory side with a very wide experience should not be asked to undertake any other routine work, but should be able to concentrate the whole of his experience on the management of the Royal Ordnance factories. I cannot see why he should not have got all the evidence which was made available to the Select Committee. The Ministers have such a volume of work that it is difficult for them to attend to the detail, and I cannot help feeling that arising out of this Report of the Select Committee there is nothing wrong with the major policy; it is detail that is wrong, and we all know what a long time it takes to put small details right individually. I end by saying how grateful I am to my right hon. Friend for the way in which he has received the Report. It is very valuable to have experience on the Select Committee properly used. I am conscious of the responsibilities resting on individual Members of Parliament. It is a valuable asset if one can talk to people with complete frankness, if people can come along and say, "This is what is worrying us," if there is no question of giving away a superior or a subordinate, no question of protecting themselves against dismissal, if they can talk perfectly freely and frankly. Though perhaps the Select Committee's Report may have caused some consternation in the Ministry of Supply, I cannot help feeling that at the bottom of his heart the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary realise that we tried to make a very real contribution in the knowledge that once we get our machinery effectively organised, the sooner will come the end of the war.