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Control of Engagement Order

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd November 1947.

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Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Stafford 12:00 am, 3rd November 1947

The hon. and learned Member for the Combined English Universities (Mr. H. Strauss), like many other hon. Members on that side of the House and some on this side, has treated this order as if it was an order introducing the wholesale regimentation of labour. If I accepted that interpretation I would vote against this order, but on the Minister's explanation of the contents of the order, and agreeing too, with the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for North Battersea (Mr. Jay), I do not accept the interpretation that this is a measure introducing the wholesale conscription of labour. Nor do I accept the argument which has just been put forward again vehemently by the hon. and learned Member for the Combined English Universities that it is an infringement of personal liberty on a large scale. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Battersea that this is an order for the control of engagement. It is, in the first place, an order for guiding people into certain kinds of jobs, because it is Government policy to have a considerable transference of labour from some industries into other industries. I agree that there is the sanction of compulsion behind this order, but I accept what has been said by the Minister—his interpretation of the way in which the order is to be operated, and its purpose.

I would like to say a few words about the purpose of this order, because I do not believe we can get a proper view of it without considering that purpose. This order has, after all, been introduced because of the serious position, much more serious than it was six months or nine months ago, in the essential undermanned industries. I believe that nobody who is considering this matter today should get away from what I regard as the stark facts in the essential undermanned industries, which may jeopardise the whole of the production and export programme of the Government. Last week the Minister for Economic Affairs, whose speech made such an impression on the opposite side of the House; gave some figures to a Press conference. It is a fact that during the next six months we need to recruit another 90,000 new workers to the coalmining industry in order to achieve the manpower target. Another 60,000 new workers must be found for agriculture if we are to be successful in developing our policy there. Thousands of new workers are wanted for the iron foundries up and down the country and, in addition, there is a grave position in the cotton industry.

This position, which was diagnosed last February in the Economic Survey for 1947 to which some hon. Members have referred, is far more serious than when it was diagnosed, but what is more serious today is that we still have not approached a solution to the problem. When there is full or relatively full employment, a policy must be produced to recruit new workers into dirty, dangerous and disagreeable jobs. That is something which was diagnosed in the Economic Survey for 1947, but the White Paper propounded no solution. What there was in that survey was a certain amount of wishful thinking about the possibilities of increasing the size of the working population in order to recruit additional workers to the labour force. Hon. Members will recall that there was set out the possibility in this year of recruiting an additional 100,000 workers to the labour force by persuading more women to return to industry, by absorbing a certain amount of foreign labour in some industries, and by getting those who would normally retire to remain at work. But none of these appeals could really affect the position in the essential undermanned industries.

In the West Midand region of the Ministry of Labour, there are 67,000 unfilled jobs. More than 1,000 of them are in the iron foundries of the Black Country and this may cause a bottleneck in engineering. More than 2,000 vacancies exist in the coalmining districts there. That is the position which must be faced. Those who have argued that when Parliament has given the Government sweeping powers to deal with the economic crisis they should not have used these powers to introduce this order in this way, but should have waited and introduced the power in some other way, are disregarding the fact that in dealing with this situation speed is of the essence. If the policy itself is justified, it is certainly justifiable to get on with the job and to apply it as quickly as possible.

It is absolutely vital to produce a policy which will get a transference of manpower into the essential industries. Earlier, on the lines of the economic survey, the Government suggested some possibility by increasing the total size of our working population. It was suggested that with measures such as that the Government might be able to solve this problem of undermanning inessential trades upon which the rest of our manufacturing and export industries depend. But we know today that owing to increased use of manpower in other respects—the fact, as hon. Members opposite are so fond of reminding us, that we have 670,000 more people in the administrative services than we had before the war, and, more important still, 700,000 more in the Armed Forces—these gaps in the manpower budget cannot be stopped by any increased recruitment to the total labour force.

Therefore, the job must be tackled, it it is agreed that it must be tackled, by transferring workers from one kind of job to another. There are only three ways in which that can be done. The first is by positive direction by the State, a system of positively directing persons from the jobs in which they are now to other jobs in the essential undermanned industries Some hon. Members opposite have suggested that this order is designed for that purpose. If it is designed for that purpose it is a most inefficient order. I accept entirely what the Minister has said—that it is not an order designed to carry out a policy of positively regimenting labour in order to stop the gaps in the manpower budget.

The second policy that could be pursued is what I would call the negative direction of labour, that is, displacing persons from jobs in which they are now engaged by cutting down the supply of raw materials to unessential trades, and leaving it to chance as to what jobs these people go into. This would produce the anarchic state which is sometimes called "a pool of unemployed," it being left to chance whether these people went in to fill essential jobs or not. The only other way in which this problem can be tackled, I believe, is by getting people voluntarily to leave the jobs in which they are now engaged and to go to essential jobs, jobs more essential in the undermanned industries, which can only be done by tackling at its roots the question of incentives to do dangerous and disagreeable jobs. The most striking thing to me about the whole picture is that, when one looks down the list of the average weekly earnings in various industries and trades in this country, and tries to compare them one with another, one has to look a long way down the list to find iron founding and cotton.

But this is not only a question of incentives, about which, as the Lord President told us, a lot of bunkum has been talked by some people; it is not only a question of creating well-paid jobs, but it is also a question of directing the housing drive in certain ways in order to provide accommodation in certain areas, as, for example, in the Midlands, where there are these jobs. It is also a question of various other amenities in connection with the jobs, to overcome the fact that there is the disincentive of the dirty, dangerous or disagreeable character of the jobs themselves. It is because, in my opinion, the Government have not produced a relative wages policy, or what should be a profits and wages policy, and are merely seeking to control the process of engagements, that they are compelled to fall, to some extent, between two stools, and to produce this order to control the flow of labour which is going to be displaced from industries for which there is not a sufficient supply of raw materials, or which are considered unessential by the Government. It comes down to this—guiding the flow of labour into essential trades the control of engagements, but, at the same time, offering certain choices of jobs.

I believe, therefore, that this order is not a substitute for a policy of manning-up the under-manned industries. I believe it is a purely temporary expedient, and it cannot but create some hostility from those who may be threatened with direction, and that, unless it is supplemented and eventually replaced by a policy of incentives in relation to these industries, there will be no solution and the situation will remain critical. On that basis, and accepting the assurances of the Minister in regard to the choice of jobs to be offered and the way in which it will be administered, I shall vote for this order.