Royal Ordnance Factories.

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

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Photo of Mr Herbert Williams Mr Herbert Williams , Croydon South

Then my right hon. Friend drew attention to it generally. It may be a good lawyer's point that he used to make in the old days before he ascended or descended from the legal profession. There is severe condemna- tion in the Report about the hostels policy. It was in May of last year when some of my colleagues and I visited two Royal Ordnance factories in the North of England. We went with nothing in particular in our minds. We had one or two complaints in mind connected with the construction of the factories. We had nothing before us and no advanced information with regard to operations. There is no harm in saying what I am saying. Herr Hitler knows all about these factories. The bulk of them were started before the war, and I am certain that there were full reports in Berlin about their magnitude long before the war started. I want the House to realise what one of these places is really like. Imagine a fence of anything from 12 to 16 miles in length, perhaps, rather irregular or circular or a quadrangle, an unclimbable fence. Inside there was what was to be an electrified fence. It has never been electrified. We drew attention to that in our report and to the fact that they had wasted a lot of money, but we will forget all that as my right hon. Friend had nothing to do with it. What is there inside? There is not a factory as hon. Members understand it, but from 1,200 to probably 1,500 separate buildings, most of them rather small and separated from one another by huge banks of earth so that if one should blow up, it would not damage the rest. There were 40 miles of roadway on the site. If one of the superintendents tried to walk through all the shops it would take a fortnight. How could any human being manage such a place, sited in some rural area to get to which the workpeople had to travel many miles? The mistake was made in 1936. They ought not to have built them that size. Most of my right hon. Friend's troubles arose from the mistakes of predecessors. I do not know how anybody could decide to build a factory of the magnitude I have described to employ 45,000 on a three-shift system when it could not possibly be supervised effectively by any human being.

That is the fact which dominates this problem, and my right hon. Friend and his colleagues have no responsibility. It all happened before the Ministry of Supply came into being. We went on a visit to the place in the North of England to find out about things, and we had not been inside more than an hour before we realised that absenteeism dominated the whole situation from some points of view. We took a great deal of trouble and invited the works committee and everybody whom we thought could give us information to help us, and they all gave their information separately. Everybody knew that what they said to us could not go back to anybody above them. That was a great advantage. They had perfect freedom of speech. We came back and wrote the Seventeenth Report to which reference has been made. In that Report we said we wanted to see the rapid extension of the hostel system, but these hostels are now not wanted. On what evidence did we do that? We went to a great factory. My right hon. Friend knows it, and I do not need to indicate the place. It was designed to employ 45,000 on a three-shift system. At least that is what the superintendent and his colleagues told us. They were at that moment employing about 18,000. They were rather more conveniently situated with respect to transport than some of the other factories. They were near a main trunk road and a railway, and the general circumstances were rather good, but they realised that, if they were to have 45,000 people, they would have to take a large number of people from other parts of the country and have to house them in hostels. Therefore, in the light of the fact that this factory was going to employ, according to official evidence, another 27,000 people, naturally we recommended that hostels should be provided With the utmost expedition. What is the position at that factory to-day? I have not the precise information. My right hon. Friend referred to a factory employing 25,000, and I think we must be talking about the same factory. I think that that 25,000 is going to be reduced.

Therefore the situation described to us by officials of the Ministry 13 or 14 months ago, is now altered by the policy of the Ministry. Why has the Ministry changed its policy? Filling factories fill many thousands of shells, and we have not used a great many shells, and nobody could anticipate that. We were producing shells long before the war and we must have a vast store. That is obvious to anybody, and I am not disclosing any secrets. At some stage or another it was decided that it was not worth while seeking to extend the production of that particular article, so a decision was taken at some time by somebody that this fac- tory—and it is true of others—was not to employ 45,000 people but only about 20,000. When that decision was taken certain consequential action should have been taken that does not appear to have been taken. I do not know what day the decision was taken; all I know is that in May, 1941, there were to be 45,000, people employed. The number now employed, I believe, is 25,000, and it is likely to drop to 20,000. That is a complete change.

In our Report, in which absenteeism is dealt with, we also recommended the abolition of excessive hours of labour, on which I have been reporting now for two years. Excessive hours of labour have been the greatest curse of the whole matter; they have forced up prices, tired people, upset the whole balance of production and wrecked our wages policy. The first Report I was associated with, early in 1940, drew attention to this excessive overtime and all the rest of it, but everybody being afraid to say, "We will go back to more or less pre-war hours," because they thought somebody might point the finger of scorn at them and say they were not doing their bit, it was allowed to continue. If I had my way, I would go back to the 47-hour week to-morrow. People are now working excessive hours. You can reduce hours too much, I agree, but I think the 47-hour week in operation in peace-time industry, generally speaking, gave efficient results. All this overtime is wrong; it is demoralising, and it leads to profiteering in wages and waste. Here am I, rather a right wing Conservative, taking a view that ought to be a prerogative of the Labour party, but my colleagues and I have been convinced of this from the beginning. [An HON. MEMBER: "The Labour party is always right."] No, you want to go too far, and then you get into trouble

We recommended piece-work hesitatingly, because filling work carries with it an element of danger. It was quite obvious output was bad, but it was also obvious that the bulk of the work was not dangerous, so we deliberately recommended piece-work in this Report. Ultimately, the Ministry diffidently agreed, and they have been surprised to get a much bigger output, but they never assumed that unless they expanded the programme they would not want so many people. Between these reports I remem- ber receiving a written statement saying, "If we introduce piece-work, we shall not have enough components on which people can work." The feeling was that piecework must not be reduced because it would lead to a big output. That is on record, I think. I do not say that the Minister has seen it himself. That is one of the disabilities of our procedure—