Orders of the Day — State of the Nation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th August 1947.

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Photo of Mr Meredith Titterington Mr Meredith Titterington , Bradford South 12:00 am, 7th August 1947

I want to congratulate the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the very fine statement he made, and to take up the points he has suggested to us. I want also to offer some constructive and, if necessary, critical comments upon his observations. While my speech may appear to be special pleading, it is nevertheless stating the case for a cooperative effort from the wool textile industry. The wool textile industry, which covers the whole field of operations from the raw materials, to wool combing, distribution and marketing, is in a position to render a very great contribution towards the export drive. Before the war, we outstripped all our competitors in the export of wool cloth. The quality and style of British cloths made them predominant the world over. I hope that we shall be able to do that again. The volume of exports was limited only by hostile tariffs with which the industry had to contend. At the present time, there is a sellers market unprecedented in the history of the economic development of this country. At the moment there are limiting factors in production, and in the requirements of the home market.

The wool textile exports now represent about one quarter of the production of the industry. In the other processes of the industry the percentage is rather higher. In 1946, the value of our exports of tops, yarns and fully manufactured goods was two-thirds greater than in 1938. During the first six months of this year, the value has been 85 per cent. greater than in 1938. Of the exports of cloth, which is the largest item, no less than 31 per cent. goes to hard currency countries, and that is a far higher percentage than most other exporting industries. I do not wish to be tedious, and therefore I will endeavour to summarise the statistics which are in front of me in regard to the position of the wool textile industry. I am sure that the President of the Board of Trade is more or less au fait with all these details, but for the purposes of record they should, I think, be mentioned. On our export side, for the six months in 1947, our woollen and worsted, tops, yarns, and manufactures were in the region of £24,750,000, in contradistinction to approximately £13,500,000 in 1938. Of woollen tissues we sent out 24 million square yards in the first six months of 1947, as against 29½ million in the corresponding six months of 1938. Then corresponding figures for worsted tissues are 11⅓ million square yards, and 15¾ million. . The discrepancy there is indicative of the lack of facilities to which I shall refer.

Now the raw materials of the industry come almost entirely from within the sterling area. Some of its wool supplies come from the stocks held by the United Kingdom-Dominion Wool Disposals Ltd., which is the organisation formed to dispose of wartime accumulations. The British Government have a half interest in the financial proceeds. There is no shortage of raw materials in the wool industry. On the contrary, there is a large surplus from wartime stocks. The Board of Trade could, through the Wool Control and ancillary organisations, intensify the drive for exports, and a programme could be adopted with the object of releasing the maximum possible amount of cloth for shipment abroad, even at the expense of the home market. That programme cannot be carried out unless more coal is available than was the case last winter due to the fuel crisis. The fuel crisis cost the industry from two to four weeks' production despite the fact that it was helped by "windfall" supplies from our local Municipal Sewage Department. There must also be adequate supplies of soap, starch, dyestuffs and bichromates.

As an example of the interdependence of our industry one might quote the case of soda ash. This is essential to the scouring and combing process, and to the finishing of cloth. As a result of representations, an increase in the total allocations to the industry was obtained a few weeks ago. It was at once rendered abortive by the announcement that the suppliers, Imperial Chemical Industries, could deliver only at the rate of 70 per cent. of the allocations, due to shortage of coal. A four weeks' reprieve has been obtained, but the industry cannot afford to have a repetition.

The labour force of the industry before the war was 224,000. The Wool Working Party has set a target of 200,000. The present number is just over 181,000, or nearly 20,000 short of the target. Since last September there has been an increase of about 9 per cent., or 1 per cent. per month. Unless there is a positive incentive to go into the industry it is unlikely that the rate will increase. Further, the increase has been augmented by part-time workers. Over the next 12 months it would be over optimistic to expect an average increase in the labour force of more than 5 per cent. Any large increase in export trade, therefore, can be effected only by a transfer from the home market to overseas markets. The wool textile industry works a 45-hour week, which means nine hours per day. The operative, of course, is in the mill, factory, and dye-house for more than nine hours. In the opinion of many people nine hours is too long for the maintenance of efficiency. If an extension of hours takes place obviously it must mean Saturday morning working. That means getting up steam for half a day's work, and would require more than a pro rata increase in coal. It would not mean a corresponding gain in production either, because many of the women must do their shopping under difficulties, and if they work on Saturday morning they will tend to take a half day off during the week for shopping purposes.

The Wool Working Party's report made suggestions for an increase in the labour force and efficiency of the industry. In the main, these were for better and more attractive mill, factory, and dye-house conditions, the use of automatic looms, and a scaling up of efficiency to the level of the best firms. These are long-term remedies, and cannot have any appreciable effect during the next 12 crucial months. Staggering of hours may appear essential, but there is the doubt that it would reduce production. Any disturbance tends to cause a loss of workpeople, and more absenteeism. Even the Control of Engagement Order would not prevent some workers, for example, married women, leaving the industry if they had to work at inconvenient times. Moreover, there is a bottle neck shortage of production in worsted spinning, and more worsted looms could be run if more yarn were available.

A number of employer-spinners mainly running on electricity have set up evening working periods of 3½ to four hours, and by this means have attracted back to the industry some former employees, principally married women. The additional production has been very helpful, but if hours are staggered it must necessarily cut across these evening arrangements and, in most cases, abolish them. The same plant cannot be used efficiently by day, evening, and night. It has been suggested that if firms running by electricity had to stagger their hours firms running on steam should do likewise, otherwise there will be a movement of people from one firm to another. This is bad policy and bad efficiency. The coal users have had to bear the whole of the burden of shortages during and since, the war. If they get a little advantage out of staggering it will not recompense them for the disadvantages of the past. Longer working hours would bring more production, though not to a corresponding proportion, and would not be welcomed because they would mean the abandonment of the five-day working week. In the circumstances may I epitomise?

The wool textile industry is in a position to render exceptional service in the drive for exports, particularly in hard currency markets, but the sellers' market will not last for ever. Even now we are shipping machinery abroad to enable other countries to make their own tops, yarns, and cloth. Some of us take exception to this. Our competitors, France and Belgium, are going ahead with production at full tilt.

If the industry is to make a prompt and effective, contribution five things at least are essential: (1) adequate supplies of coal and other requirements; (2) no staggering of hours, or at any rate as little staggering as possible; (3) temporary starving of the home market; (4) longer working hours; (5) assurances regarding profit allocations. As an exporting industry, the wool industry ranked sixth or seventh before the war. Its raw material supplies are plentiful, and obtained from sterling sources. The market for its products abroad is still almost insatiable. Nearly one-third of its exports go to hard currency markets. These are the strongest possible reasons, therefore, why the wool industry should be accorded the highest possible priority for coal supplies and other essentials. Even then, there seems no alternative but to reduce the supplies of coal and clothing available for the home market.

Yorkshire people like to pay their way, and those in the industry with which I have been long associated will do that to the best of their ability. Argumentatively, I shiver, with other Members, at the prospect of being deprived of further clothing, but I would much prefer that we should deprive ourselves of suitable materials at home and supply foreign markets, rather than that we should go about for the rest of our lives in sackcloth and ashes. I have put these points forward in no carping or critical spirit, in the hope that they will be of some assistance in meeting the problems which we have to face, and as a modest contribution in the form of helpful criticism.