Orders of the Day — Cotton Industry (Man-Power).

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22 March 1945.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Buchan-Hepburn.]

11.20 p.m.

Photo of Mr Samuel Hammersley Mr Samuel Hammersley , Willesden East

The opportunities of a private Member are limited, and, therefore, late though we are, I am going to take the opportunity to direct the attention of the House from the very important matter of housing to the equally important matter of the clothing of the people. I gave notice the other day to the Minister of Labour that I proposed to raise on the Adjournment the question of the inadequate supply of labour to the cotton spinning trade. There is, of course, an easy, superficial and misleading answer to all questions in relation to man-power. It is possible to say: "There is a war on," and many people take the view that because they are engaged in a war that is a valid excuse for any kind of inactivity and for any kind of mismanagement. I take the view that because so many of our people are conscribed to be in the Army, the Navy or the Air Force for that reason it is all the more necessary that we should see that there is an efficient use of the manpower that remains. I trust, therefore, that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, who is called on to reply, will not give as a reply the answer: "There is a war on."

The facts of the situation about cotton and clothing generally are fairly well known. There is the greatest shortage now of cloth and clothing that there has been since the war started. The stocks in possession of the retailers are going down. They are probably the greatest shop shortages we have ever experienced. The retailers are finding it impossible, although they have the coupons, to obtain from wholesalers the stocks which they require. The danger is that the difficulties of the retailers will be reflected in hardships for the public.

The main cause of this quite serious situation which is developing is well-known. The President of the Board of Trade has given us the reason. It is that there is a tremendous shortage of cotton yarn, and the sole reason for the shortage of cotton yarn is the shortage of labour. There is no shortage of raw cotton and no shortage of mills or machinery. There is just this one aspect of the situation, inadequate labour.

To explain the situation and to assert the responsibility of the Minister of Labour in the matter I will give a very brief resume of the war-time history of the cotton-spinning trade. In May, 1941, about 45 per cent. of the cotton-spinning industry was compulsorily closed down. The method of closing down the mills was not to say that the efficient mills should run and the inefficient mills should stop. It was not to say that the mills with the latest machinery should run and the others should stop. No; the decision was that those mills which were in the neighbourhood of places where men were required for munitions should stop, and if they were not in places where factories were required for munitions then they were allowed to continue. In other words, the cotton trade suffered a major operation in order to provide man-power for the munitions industry. Nobody is complaining about that. There is no grouse from the cotton industry. It was a necessity and the necessity was realised and the trade did what was required. But, in spite of the fact that so many people were thrown out of work, the amount of labour still needed by the munitions industry could not be obtained, and further inducements were required to get people out of the mills. Therefore, the munitions industry went in for a policy of high wages. Wages were raised higher and higher and, of course, in due time this inducement became effective. It became obviously more remunerative for a person to take a job in sweeping out an aeroplane factory at a high wage than to attend to cotton spinning machinery at the normal wage which then existed.

Then we come to October, 1941, when the Essential Work Order was brought in, and by it there was some control over the movement of labour. But by that time some 100,000 people had left the cotton industry for munitions. Again we make no complaint about that. I think it is quite right that at a time when no restrictions were put on the movement of labour —because for two years there had been no restrictions—it was quite right that labour should sell itself in the highest market, and it did so. That was the only method possible under those conditions of attracting from the staple trades the labour required for these new war industries. That was the position then. Now the position is tremendously different. The position now is that all these munitions programmes have been cut. Many munition works have been closed down: the majority are only partially employed, and my contention is that it is just as necessary now to boost the supply of labour to the cotton industry in 1945 as it was to boost the supply of labour to munitions in 1940, 1941 and 1942.

But there are differences. The differences are that now, when we are trying to get people back from the munition industries into the staple trades, we cannot use the instrument of inducement which was used on a previous occasion, unless it is suggested that wages in the cotton industry should be put up beyond the high levels in the munition industries. If that is the policy, let us say so straight away: but let us recognise that policy will kill the export trade of the cotton industry stone dead.

What is the part played by the Ministry of Labour? Well over a year ago this serious urgency was foreseen, but meantime these munition works have been closing down. The Ministry of Aircraft Production had engaged in munitions thousands of persons whom they could release, and that is also true of the Ministry of Supply, though to a lesser degree. But though representations were made by the Board of Trade to the Ministry of Labour, nothing was done. Months have worn on and, of course, clothes have worn out, and now the operatives in the cotton spinning trade have been asked to work overtime—and this in the sixth year of the war—and they have refused. I do not blame them: they have had an extremely difficult time and they see the unfairness of their lot. They see someone in a similar position before the war who has gone off to a more attractive job. So they say, after all these years of black-out and monotonous occupation that they will not work overtime.

Photo of Mr Tom Driberg Mr Tom Driberg , Maldon

Apart from the question of wages will the hon. Member say something about the conditions in the cotton trade?

Photo of Mr Samuel Hammersley Mr Samuel Hammersley , Willesden East

Certainly.I ' was just going to touch on that. Since that time someone conceived the idea that it would be well to set up a Committee They have done more than that they have set up two, one in Manchester and one in London, and with the Minister of Production in charge. Consultation—a welter of consultation—is taking place and as a result of that orgy of consultation it has now been finally decided that four stock mills should open. But as far as I know there has been no promise from the Minister of Labour that he will find any labour to start them. I would venture the opinion that not one per cent. of the 100,000 people who have left the trade are going to be returned as a result of the steps which have been taken up to now. I hope I am wrong about that.

I am sorry the Minister of Labour is not here, though I appreciate that at this late hour one can hardly expect him to be here, but I want to refer to his taking some offence the other day at my using the word "muddle." I have looked up the word "muddle" in the dictionary, and it says "To busy oneself in a confused unmethodical, ineffective manner." I think that word is singularly well chosen to describe his operations in connection with the cotton spinning trade.

There are two other matters I will briefly touch upon. One was the remark of the President of the Board of Trade—what I would call a slur on the whole cotton industry—when he talked about the cotton industry being an "unattractive industry." Why is the cotton industry an unattractive industry? It is not unattractive by reason of its wages. The wages on the whole are above the general level. It is not unattractive by reason of its conditions—although the conditions are not as good as they ought to be. I could take the right hon. Gentleman to places in my mills more attractive and healthy than, say, the offices of the Ministry of Labour. It is unattractive for the reason that for twenty years it has been a declining industry and therefore. the prospects of improvement and advancement in the industry have been practically nil.

Photo of Mr Tom Driberg Mr Tom Driberg , Maldon

Presumably the factories are not lighter than the modern munition factories, and not so well ventilated.

Photo of Mr Samuel Hammersley Mr Samuel Hammersley , Willesden East

That is perfectly true, but in spite of that there is a good deal being done to improve the conditions, and on the whole, although it is not true of all, the conditions are not bad and they are improving very quickly. The reasons why they have not improved as quickly as they might have done is because of the limited supplies, of which we all know. The point is this. It was a declining industry and because of that it was an unattractive industry. If we have this increase in exports we talk about, the cotton trade should no longer be a declining industry, and therefore the main cause of its unattractiveness should disappear. In my judgment the President of the Board of Trade ought to be the first person to realise that, and he ought not to come to this House and turn round and say,, pointing his admonitory finger as he does, saying "This is an unattractive industry."

I turn from what I consider to be a slur on the whole trade to the slur on myself, personally, which was made by the Minister of Labour the other day—from the half truth to the no truth. He said that I had some responsibility for the difficulties of the cotton trade. That is a most fantastic statement. There is not a shadow of truth in it, not even a suggestion of truth in it. I am a person of no importance. It is true that I, with others, control and am responsible for the direction of some three-quarters of a million cotton spinning spindles, but I have no control over the industry as a whole and no control over its labour. Note, however, that neither in connection with these three-quarters of a million spindles nor in connection with any other business in which I take an active part, has one single person been disadvantaged by my activities. Quite the contrary. But the Minister of Labour is not in that position in respect to his activities. In any constituency, one finds a long list of allegations of difficulties that have been caused to individuals by the activities for which he is responsible. I say that it is not right for the Minister to make allegations of that character against a private Member. He is in a very different position. I have not responsibility. He has. He was given that responsibility by this House. He has power, and he has responsibility. More than anybody else he is responsible for the cut in the clothing coupons which is imminent. More than anybody else he has the responsibility of seeing that the difficulties which are caused do not degenerate still further. Respectfully but firmly I say we are entitled to say to the Minister of Labour: "Why are you making such a muddle of the job?"

11.36 p.m.

Photo of Mr George Tomlinson Mr George Tomlinson , Farnworth

The hon. Member, in raising this question, hoped that in my answer to the charges he has made against the Minister I would not remind the House of the fact that there is a war on. I have no intention of doing so, but I could hope that that would eliminate the war altogether. I am prepared to admit right at the beginning that there has been and is a shortage of labour on the spinning side of the cotton industry, but I am not prepared to admit, in spite of the fact that the hon. Member has looked up in the dictionary the meaning of the word "muddle," that there is or has been any man-power muddle so far as the Ministry of Labour is concerned. With regard to the suggestion he made of an aspersion cast upon him by the statement, made in answer to a supplementary question, that there had been muddle in the cotton industry, I think the very definition he has given us to-night bears out what was said about the industry. The reference to the individual in that answer only, meant, that as he was associated with the industry in some capacity, he had contributed to the muddle. I do not think he need take that to heart personally. But I think he will admit that there has been in days past some muddle in this industry.

Photo of Mr Samuel Hammersley Mr Samuel Hammersley , Willesden East

Will my hon. Friend allow me? He will appreciate the difference that, though he was connected with the industry some time ago, he got out of it, and I, on the contrary, stuck to it in spite of the difficulties.

Mr. Tomfinson:

As a dilutee member of His Majesty's Government at the moment, but as a trade union secretary still associated with the cotton industry, I have not got out of it in the sense the hon. Member has suggested. The labour shortage is due to a number of factors, but I agree with the hon. Member that the biggest, probably, is the presence in the spinning areas of Lanacshire of extremely important munitions industries. He explained clearly how the shortage de- veloped. We know, too, at the Ministry of Labour that the production of cotton yarn is still below requirements, and we know, also, quite well that the difficulty in increasing production is one primarily of labour. Since 1942 the labour force in the industry has gradually dropped. Wastage has been very high. I do not want to give many figures, but in the year ended October, 1944, despite transfers into the industry from other work, the total labour force dropped by over 8,000 in the industry as a whole, and by over 7,000 in the spinning and doubling sections. It has been suggested by my hon. Friend that the industry was over concentrated; but I want to say that the mills left running after concentration were capable of producing the target volume of yarn had they been fully staffed.

Now, unfortunately, concentration was accompanied by an unexpectedly heavy loss of labour. A number of the younger workers went from the nucleus mills into munitions and it was not possible to transfer many of the older workers from closed mills to the mills left running. My hon. Frien4 told us that it was October, 1941, before the Essential Works Order, which ties people to the industry, was applied. I want to say that it was not the fault of the Ministry of Labour that it was not applied sooner. The facilities were there when the industry had qualified to come under the Order. I have referred to the high rate of wastage in the industry, and this is due to two causes in the main. The first is the high average age of the workers employed and the second the fact that large numbers of them are married women with household responsibilities. We must also face the fact that employment in the cotton industry is unpopular owing to the possibility of earning higher wages under better conditions in others forms of employment. I know that my hon. Friend suggested that many of the cotton mills could be compared favourably with the offices of the Ministry of Labour. I have worked in both and I am sticking to the Ministry of Labour as long as I can.

Photo of Mr George Tomlinson Mr George Tomlinson , Farnworth

The pre-war years of depression too, which resulted in a chronic state of unemployment and under-employment, had much to do with the development of the strong feeling among parents in Lancashire against letting their children enter the industry. It goes without saying, I think, that in view of the high average age of the workers now employed, it is essential to obtain an increase in the recruitment of juvenile entrants. The Cotton Board, I am pleased to say, have set up a special department with this object in view, and during the year ended May, 1944, 2,690 juveniles entered the spinning and weaving sections of the industry compared with 1,525 for the previous year. This increase will have to go a great deal further before the intake of juveniles can be described as satisfactory; and I think I may add the fears of parents born of bitter experience will need to be removed before this result can be achieved.

Many devices have been resorted to in an attempt to build up and maintain the essential labour forces during the past three years: all along we have realised the necessity for building up that force but you must remember that the claims of cotton have been in competition with other claims of equal or higher priorities. A special registration of female cotton workers under the age of 55 took place in September, 1943, but this revealed that over 50 per cent. of the total were not in full-time employment. Appeals have been repeatedly made to persons who were not directable to come in and help. I want to say that they have come in and have helped in large numbers.

Withdrawals from other essential trades and occupations of cotton workers have been arranged, where prior substitution could be made, but the scarcity of manpower always rendered substitution difficult. So that although I freely admit a labour shortage, I would strenuously deny there had been any man-power muddle, much less that the responsibility for the shortage can be laid at the door of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour.

Now let me give briefly a picture of how we are facing this problem. In the first place it has now been agreed that withdrawals from other essential occupations can take place without prior substitution. This is a big step forward which has not been possible before. But I want to remark that if you withdrew every person who has ever been in cotton spinning, you would still be a long way from solving the problem of getting the numbers you need. It was this which led the Minister to meet both sides of the industry in Manchester last January, and advise them of a number of things which must be done if an adequate labour force is to be provided for this section of the industry. Amongst the things he asked them to consider, in order to make the industry more attractive, were these. I have not time to go into them now, but he asked them to consider the question of a guaranteed wage, which unquestionably has been a boon during the war. He asked them, further to consider the continuity of employment. Any one associated with the cotton industry knows from the experience of the inter-war years 'something of what unemployment can mean in Lancashire. He also suggested that they should consider the question of a training scheme for it is quite obvious that we shall not get for a long time the number of juveniles necessary to implement the labour force, and, therefore, there is the necessity of a training scheme in order that we might draw recruits at a higher age and train them in modern conditions, which is one of the things they are now examining and which we hope will bring, if not better at least as good, results as those which have happened in the engineering industry during the war.

It was suggested that there should be an experimental mill, where new ideas about machinery, wages and the deployment of labour could be tried out, all, I think, very practical measures which I am sure my hon. Friend will agree are necessary. I am happy to say that a liaison committee to look into these things has been established and it is proposed to invite it to come to London at an early date to give the Minister an account of its progress. It has also been agreed to reopen four additional spinning mills in areas where, it might well be that non-mobile and non-directable labour can be brought in to assist in this much-needed production.

Finally a matter which may eventually have some bearing on this problem is the setting up of a Departmental Committee on double day-shift working and I would' like to announce here in the House that the following personnel have been appointed:

  • Professor J. L. Brierly, O.B.E., M.A., D.C. L.,L. L. M.
  • Bailie William Eiger, J.P.
  • Miss Dorothy Elliott, O.B.E.
  • W. Hope Pilcher, Esq.
  • H. L. Johnson, Esq.
  • Andrew Naesmith, Esq., O. B. E.
  • J. R. Pheazey, Esq.
  • Professor J. A. Ryle, M.A., M.D., F.R.C.P.
  • Miss Barbara Ward.
They are to inquire into the economic need for and the social consequences of the double day-shift system in manufacturing industry and the changes in the existing law that would be necessary to facilitate its wider adoption, and to make recommendations. Professor J. L. Brierly is to be appointed Chairman and Mr. D. C. Barnes, of the Ministry of Labour and National Service, is to be Secretary of the Committee.

It being half an hour after the conclusion of Business exempted from the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House), Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, as modified for this Session by the Order of the House of 30th November.

Adjourned at Twelve Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.