Orders of the Day — Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11th March 1947.

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Photo of Mr George Isaacs Mr George Isaacs , Southwark North 12:00 am, 11th March 1947

Before I proceed to lay before the House the information regarding the manpower of the country, which I have been asked to give on behalf of the Government, there are two primary matters which I should like to mention. The first is my concern at the comments that have been made about the length of speeches and the obvious desire of many hon. Members to speak in this Debate. I have very full notes, and I promise that I will stick very closely to those notes and avoid any wandering from them so that I will finish my task as quickly as possible. However, I warn the House that I suffer from a very peculiar disability which is that I talk very, very fast, so fast sometimes that nobody can understand what I am talking about. Therefore, I will have to steer a middle course going slowly enough to let hon. Mmebers understand what I am talking about, and yet not taking up too much time, so as hot to disappoint others who wish to speak.

The other point I should like to mention is this. We listened at the end of the Debate last night to an excellent, well-balanced speech delivered in splendid tones, I want to say first of all that it is the kind of expression that this House expects from the Senior Member for the City of London (Sir A. Duncan). The right hon. Gentleman used a powerful argument about the extent to which it is proposed to allocate our resources for the purpose of capital re-equipment and maintenance, and referred to the vital importance of our credit-worthiness when the American and Canadian loans run out. I want to say to the right hon. Gentleman that this matter will be re-examined by His Majesty's Government, having in mind considerations of the kind advanced by him. I certainly am in agreement with him in one thing he said—that we must do away as soon as we can, with the frustrations which beset us today, and in order to surmount our present difficulties, we must do everything possible to increase productivity.

I want to deal mainly with what are, I think, accepted as the two most fundamental of our economic problems, namely, coal and exports. Before doing so, I desire to say a word about what has happened in the field of manpower since the end of the war. The President of the Board of Trade yesterday gave an indication of the remarkable change-over we have effected since the end of the war. He told us that 4½ million men and women have been released from the Forces; about 3½ million men and women have ceased making equipment and supplies for the Forces; and he also mentioned that the number engaged on exports had increased from 410,000 to 1,466,000, an increase of almost 50 per cent. over prewar. These last changes have been effected with very little industrial disturbanće, due mainly to our admirable system of industrial relationships in this country, which we claim as the best in the world and the envy of the world. Merely as an indication of the good relationships, may I mention that from VJ-Day to the end of February, 1947, a little less than 4½ million days were lost through trade disputes compared with 41½million in the corresponding period after the 1914–18 war. That is due entirely to the improved relationships between leaders of industry on both sides, which, the country is now happily enjoying.

While the change-over of manpower has, on the whole, been carried out with great success and much more rapidly than we expected would be practicable, it has not been possible to effect the distribution of manpower so that it fits exactly the requirements of industry. In consequence, we have a number of industries which are under-manned, of which coal is the most important to our economy. But it must not be thought that our only problem is one of distribution of manpower, nor must we exaggerate the extent of the maldistribution. Even if our manpower were distributed to the best advantage, we should still be faced with a very serious problem, namely, a general shortage of manpower. As a result of the fuel crisis of the last few weeks, the shortage of manpower has taken second place in people's minds after the shortage of coal. It is true that for the immediate future, coal, the shortage of which derives mainly from manpower difficulties in the mining industry, is our major problem, but it would be wrong on this account to ignore our continuing difficulties in the manpower field. Unless these are kept firmly in mind and satisfactory solutions found for the problem, the long-term economic consequences will be most serious. Indeed, our manpower problem will be made more difficult in some ways as a result of the fuel and power situation. As the House knows, one consequence of our shortage of generating plant is that a proportion of industry may not be able in the immediate future to work on the ordinary system of day work, but may have to turn over to double day shift working so that hours, and, consequently, electricity loads may be staggered. I am discussing with industry this whole problem of the staggering of working hours, and the extension of double day shift working.

May I interpolate here that the contacts already made with industry show the same readiness that they have displayed over past years, to do the best they can in the interests of the country in this matter. One consequence may be some reduction in working hours, and if that should happen, our economic situation will be seriously worsened unless output per man hour is increased to offset the reduction in hours. Both sides, I know, are fully aware of this and will, I am sure, do everything they can to avoid any unnecessary fall in output as a result of the rearrangement of hours which may prove necessary. The fundamental fact is this. We have not sufficient people to do all the things that need to be done, and to produce all the goods that require to be produced. The effect of a certain amount of maldistribution is to intensify the shortage of manpower in certain industries. We have, therefore, to increase our total manpower and to effect a certain measure of redistribution.

There are two ways in which we can increase the total manpower available for all the work that has to be done. The first is by remobilising our own work-people; the second is by the use of foreign labour. We are doing both those things. So far as British labour is concerned we are endeavouring to get back into industry many of the women who went out at the end of the war. We shall carry out a series of publicity campaigns in selected areas where industries are in urgent need of women workers. We are urging the undermanned industries to adjust their conditions of work to suit, so far as possible, the convenience of women with household responsibilities. A number of industries or industrial establishments which changed over to the five-day week, leaving the Saturday morning free, found that they had already created a very impressive inducement to women to go back into those trades and establishments. We are making efforts also to persuade those who can do so, to help the country in its present difficulties by staying on at their work for the time being instead of retiring. The Government themselves are encouraging older workers to remain in industry by providing in the National Insurance Acts, pension arrangements which offer special inducements to workers who have reached the retiring age to post pone their retirement. We are asking employers in industry who have schemes of a similar character, to consider following that example.

We are also taking special measures to ensure that, as far as possible, disabled persons are employed. The great majority are capable of employment under ordinary working conditions, and about 650,000 are today so employed. Every effort is made to submit suitable disabled persons for vacancies notified by employers, and in particular to suggest the engagement of disabled men for some forms of work ordinarily undertaken by women. A small number of disabled persons are so severely disabled as to need sheltered employment. The Disabled Persons Employment Corporation has an extensive programme of factories, designed to secure employment in sheltered conditions for those persons, and this is being pressed forward as energetically as possible.

With reference to foreign labour, one source available in this country comprises members of the Polish Forces who fought with us during the war. Some of these men and women were in this country at the end of the war; others had to be brought here after the end of the fighting in Europe. As the House knows, the Government decided that those Poles who wished to remain in this country, should be helped to resettle in civil life, but this is not a simple matter which can be left to solve itself haphazard. To facilitate their resettlement in civil life on an orderly basis, the Polish Resettlement Corps was formed in September of last year. There are now, approximately, 80,000 Poles enrolled in that Corps. There is a local office of the Ministry of Labour in liaison with each unit of the Corps, and after enrolment full particulars are taken of the experience of each individual and the type of work for which he or she appears to be suitable. Well over 60,000 Poles have been registered for employment, and there is no delay in this process after a man has enrolled in the Corps. As soon as a job is found for a member of the Corps he is relegated to the reserve and becomes to all intents and purposes a civilian.

There is, however, one overriding rule that a member of the Corps must not be submitted for any vacancy for which there is a suitable and willing British worker registered locally. In many industries it has been found necessary to hold joint discussions with the employers' and workers' representatives about the conditions upon which Poles would be accepted into the industries. In the great majority of industries where there is a serious shortage of labour these discussions have been successfully concluded, though in a comparatively few cases they are still in progress. In spite of the very serious difficulties caused by the recent severe weather and the fuel shortage, the number of Poles now placed in civilian work is approximately 3,900. But there are, in addition, 57,000 employed on Polish administration, camp maintenance, service tasks of one kind or another, or on loan for civil employment such as agriculture.

The prolonged bad weather and the fuel shortage are bound to set back our plans for placing Poles, but the machinery has been set up, and there is reasonable hope that there will be enough vacancies during the coming months to offer a job to all in the Corps. It is impossible, of course, to say for certain, because the effect of the weather and the fuel shortage on industry cannot be accurately predicted. Accommodation does, however, present a serious difficulty. The camps where the Poles are accommodated are, in general, a long way from the industrial areas. We are endeavouring to obtain camp accommodation close to the places where the work is available but this is not an easy matter and, in any case, it is only a temporary solution. The fact is that the Poles have to be absorbed into our population, and we must find billets and homes for them in our industrial areas. I would appeal to the people of this country to help the Government in this matter and to find homes for those who fought so gallantly in the Battle of Britain, at Tobruk, and in Italy. I should like now to say something to the House about displaced persons.