Royal Ordnance Factories.

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr David Kirkwood Mr David Kirkwood , Dumbarton District of Burghs

I will not detain the House long. I have no desire to join this mutual admiration society in paying tribute to the Ministry of Supply, but I would not be true to myself unless I paid a tribute to the Ministry, because I have had a good deal of contact not only with the present Minister of Supply but every other Minister of Supply we have had since this war broke out. I have gone with every Minister of Supply to different factories, not only in my native land, but all over England. My only complaint about that is that we have too few factories in Scotland, to the standing disgrace of the present Government. The Minister of Supply is not responsible for that, but the Ministry of Supply is responsible for the carrying-out of the work in the factories. My experience leads me to say that they have revolutionised production. We are beyond the wildest dream, not of lawyers but of engineers who have made munitions, who have had charge of munition workers, and who made records in the last war in the production of munitions. The present production is away beyond our wildest dreams. I have done all I can time and time again, and I have got many concessions, not only from the present Minister, but from every Minister who has been in the job. I have got them to dispense with managements when they have found that these were not satisfactory. That never happened before. It is only -now that we are producing men in charge of a Department like this who have the strength of character which enables them to decide. Formerly it was only the workers who were said to be at fault. Now, not only on one occasion but on several occasions we have succeeded in having the management displaced.

I would ask the country, not only the House—I am dealing at the moment with the shop stewards all over the country—to remember that it is not simply the workers who have been diluted, it is not simply the working engineer and his work that have been diluted. The managerial staff has been diluted. It is really marvellous what has been done, when you think of the factories that have been put up, huge factories, and I would say to my hon. Friend that I am all out for the big factory. It has always been the wee man, as we call him, who in the past and in the present has kept down wages. Do not forget that. It has always been the big employer who could afford, not only to pay good wages, but to give decent conditions. The small employer could not do it either as a shopkeeper or as an engineer. If the House would only consider what was presented to the Minister of Production or the Minister of Supply, they would recognise that it was a situation that was absolutely deplorable. The whole tendency up to the war was to retard production. In fact, a responsible Member of this House said that shipbuilding in this country was finished. I said in reply—and you will remember the incident, Sir—that if shipbuilding and engineering in this country were finished, Britain was finished, and that I did not believe a word of it. The result of that was an atmosphere and an approach—not of the worker, because all he has got is his labour power—but of those who were in control, those who had the say as to whether the work would he carried on or not, "No, we are going to shut down the shipyards. We are going to shut down the engineering shops."

No encouragement had been given to produce engineers and shipbuilders. With all due respect to miners and everybody else, this country cannot be carried on without shipbuilders and engineers. The best engineers were driven to America. Take my own constituency, which I know better than any other constituency, though I know many intimately, particularly those concerned with engineering and shipbuilding. Where did all the engineers of the leading shipyards come from in the past? The high school at Clydebank. I asked a managing director a year ago to find out how many of his shipbuilders, either in the shipyard or in the engine shop, came from the high school at Clydebank. The answer was, "Not one." The same thing applies all over the country. The reason is that the fathers had been so badly treated that it was not worth their while to send their boys there. I said, "Where are you getting them from?" The answer was, "From the poorest localities in Glasgow." That was not the result of the workers' action, but the result of the action of many individuals, who at the start of the war were in control of industry in this country. It was they who really carried out the policy of ca'canny, with no regard to what was to be the fate of this great British Empire. Their only concern was with their own little kingdom, and they were prepared to sacrifice everything for that. When the war broke out there was a scarcity of engineers. There was not only a scarcity of the actual working engineers or technicians in the trade, but there was an atmosphere created against the idea of being an engineer. When I went into engineering it was considered by young boys a great thing to be an engineer. But a prejudice was created against it, with the result that we have nearly lost the British Empire. That terrible situation was left to the Ministries of Supply and Production to tackle. I pay tribute to them, and to the present Ministers, for having done all that men could do in the most trying circumstances. In many cases they have had to attempt to get blood from a stone.

Individuals talk about absenteeism, and sit in judgment on my class. Only a week ago last Monday, I had occasion to go to the Sheriff Court in Glasgow, to see individuals sitting in judgment on workers who happened to have taken a day off, after working seven days a week. These workers just had a break from the monotony which is affecting Members of this House so much that they will be glad to get away for a long Recess. Think of the monotony in the workshop, where people have nothing else to think of from early morning to dewy eve, from the cradle to the grave, but their work. These people are hauled up before the sheriff for absenteeism. How many hours do you think the sheriff works in a week? The case in which I was interested was supposed to come on at 10 o'clock. The sheriff turned up at 11. A Member of this House who is an advocate, was on the job too, and he can bear me out. The court adjourned for lunch from half-past 12 until two. Then they came back, and the judge said, in my hearing, to the advocate from Edinburgh, "You will be wanting to get your train at four o'clock." They finished up at half-past four, and the case is adjourned until September. The authorities could have finished it in an hour. I am telling the House this in order that Members may know the type of man who sits in judgment on the workers because of absenteeism. It is such things as this which make it all the harder for the Minister of Production and the Minister of Supply, because they create a deep-seated antagonism against those who are in authority.

I ask the Minister of Supply to carry out the policy he is adopting at the moment in recognising the shop committees. I would also ask another thing, which is very important. I have asked him privately many times, and I am now going to ask him publicly. He is evidently a very powerful man. All and sundry are paying tribute to his great power, ability and ingenuity. The hon. Member for Moseley (Sir P. Hannon) said enough to make him blush, as the hon. Member usually does. I am going to appeal to him, along the same lines as my hon. Friend has done. We do not want any hostels in my constituency; we want houses. Not one house has been built to replace those destroyed. We require a large number of houses, and we are not getting any. I would appeal to the Minister of Supply, and to the Secretary of State for Scotland and all his assistants. They inform me, and they inform my constituents as well, that they have done all that is humanly possible to get houses. I would now appeal publicly to the Minister of Supply, if he has influence, to use it to see that the folk I represent here get houses. Tribute has been paid to the Minister of Supply, and I hope that he will not let us down.

Shop stewards want me to get all they request me to get from the Minister of Supply. I know that the Minister of Supply cannot meet all their demands, but I hope that he will play the game by the men. A good many men in the workshops have not the enthusiasm in this war that they had in the last. I told Lord Aberconway, who wanted to know what was wrong, that the workers, rightly or wrongly, considered that there are employers all over the country whose only concern is what is likely to be their own fate after the war, and they are keeping their eye on how they can play the game so that their shipyards, engineering shops and their factories will be all right after the war. Unless the situation is faced very seriously by all concerned, we may lose the war, and if we lose the war, they will not have any shipyards, and the landowners will not have any land. I ask those who have influence with the powers-that-be to try and counteract that spirit which is abroad, so that we can give the workers an assurance in a definite form. In the last war our General Secretary, George N. Barnes, and Arthur Henderson, the Secretary of the Labour party, were both in the War Cabinet. They were two of the strongest men our movement ever produced. What was our fate after that war, after we had received all the promises and guarantees? I have these guarantees, some of them in the original, that even my union has not got.

But what was the result? In 1920 the wages of the engineers were less than the wages of the scavengers in the streets of London. Do you think the workers have such short memories that they will believe that after the war they will come back to a land fit for heroes to live in? This is the sort of thing they are putting up to me every day. A deputation left work at a factory and defied everything only last week to come and see me. They defied the authorities and the police, and they left their work. I want that sort of situation to be faced, and if the Minister of Supply is prepared to make some pronouncement along the right lines, then he will get the workers to work enthusiastically, and they will produce munitions far beyond anything that has ever been done before.