Orders of the Day — Mobility of Labour

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th July 1951.

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

3.11 a.m.

Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Buckinghamshire South

I will now ask the House to consider a rather calmer matter than that which has recently engaged its attention. Since I see the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour is good enough to be here at this advanced hour, I shall try to make my remarks as short as possible. I wish to raise the important question of the mobility of labour in respect of the re-armament programme and also in relation to the general industrial situation.

The importance of the best use of labour for the re-armament programme is not a matter which I need underline to the House, because that has been already done on several occasions by Ministers of the Crown. In the Memorandum which the Ministry of Labour presented to Sub-committee B of the Select Committee on Estimates, special reference was made to the importance of making the best use of labour. In paragraph 4 of the Memorandum, it is stated that it is important that employers and workers should co-operate with the Ministry of Labour Employment Exchanges to ensure that workers who wish to change their employment in the inevitable readjustment of the economy are placed as far as possible on important work that will make full use of their skill.

I think, apart altogether from the rearmament programme, it has become plain during the last two or three years that one serious problem which this country faces is the fact that there is a certain amount of over-employment—that men are often employed in circumstances where they either have to work short time or else are retained only because their employers fear that if they part with them they will not get labour when they subsequently need it. All these difficulties arise from the fact that labour in this country has ceased to be mobile in the way in which it used to be.

For both the re-armament programme and general industrial purposes, it is quite clear that we shall not get the best use of the available labour unless we can ensure that it flows freely to the places where it is wanted, to the industries which are under-manned and from the industries which it is desired, in accordance with national policy, should be reduced in their staff and output. I think those are aims with which the Minister of Labour will entirely agree, and I wish to indicate a few of the courses which he could take in order to give some kind of lead and show some kind of initiative in bringing about that desirable mobility of labour.

First, I refer very briefly to the difficulty which impedes the geographical transfer of labour from one part of the country to another, and that is the shortage of houses. That is not a matter for which the Minister of Labour himself is directly responsible, but it is a matter upon which he might be able to make representations to his Ministerial colleagues. There is an absolute shortage of houses throughout the country, which puts a great premium on the actual occupation of a house and causes great reluctance on the part of a man to leave a house in which he is living.

In addition, there is the fact that the allocation of new houses is based on local authority areas, and it is well known that when a man leaves the area in which he is domiciled and goes to employment in another area, he not only leaves the house he is living in for, possibly, temporary billets, but he also has to go to the bottom of the housing list in the new area to which he has moved. Indeed, some local authorities will not take on to their housing lists people who were not living in the area at the end of the war, or upon some other arbitrary date. So there are serious obstacles standing in the way of the geographical shifting of labour, and I hope the Minister will consider, in discharging his responsibilities to procure a proper labour force, whether he could take some initiative in that respect.

Apart from geographical shifts of labour, there are movements which must be made from one industry to another, possibly in the same area. It is envisaged in the memorandum which the Minister of Labour submitted to the Select Committee that redundancy shall deliberately be created in a certain number of industries, mainly through the allocation of raw materials. "Redundancy" is a nicer word for unemployment. The intention is quite clearly to put people out of employment in particular industries in order that they may be shifted into those which are more essential.

That is one of the lines of national policy at the moment, and if it is to be successful in effecting the transfer of labour without causing unemployment, it is essential that the workers should be able and willing to move into the new industries. If there is direction of labour, they can be compelled to go, but without direction of labour there must be willing transfers, and people will not transfer willingly unless the conditions upon which they are transferred are fair.

In many cases at the present time a trade union will not accept an adult entrant. I do not want to go into great detail about that. The Amalgamated Engineering Union is one which has a restriction upon entry; it will not accept a man who is over 40 years of age. That is rule 22, paragraph 5, of the A.E.U. rules. The Transport and General Workers' Union has no fixed age limit, but in rule 20, paragraph 7, it allows its various areas and district committees to make their own age limits. In fact in the engineering industry in particular, although I think in many others also, a person who transfers from a job where he was not in the A.E.U. into another employment where the A.E.U. is the appropriate union, would not be allowed to join the A.E.U. unless he was able to comply with certain very stringent requirements.

It is proposed in the Memorandum to which I have referred that these difficulties should be overcome by processes called upgrading and dilution. I have very little to say about upgrading because, provided it is done with discrimination, no great detriment will result; but if by dilution is meant what we have known as dilution up to now, that persons moving are put into an inferior category, not fully established, always the first to go if any shortage should develop, and working perhaps on a lower scale of remuneration, then I would say to the Minister that he should not rely upon that process in the coming months for transferring labour from one industry to another.

We have had a lot of trouble already with dilutees and relaxation agreements, and I hope the Minister will observe the principle in future that dilution should be a question of skill. If a man does not come up to the requisite standard of the union concerned and is in fact a dilutor—I think that is the correct expression—it is fair to treat him as such: but if he does reach the proper standard of trade skill then, irrespective of his age or the union from which he came, he should be treated as a fully skilled and established worker. Unless that is done, men will not willingly transfer.

We know that there will have to be a large increase in the numbers of skilled workmen employed in the engineering industry. About 500.000 additional workers will be needed for re-armament, and the impression I gather from this Report is that about 40 per cent. of them will be skilled. Therefore, it is a very big problem with which the Minister is faced. If it is to be solved without direction of labour, the Minister will have to consider the attitude of the men in relation to housing and to their status when they are transferred from one industry to another.

If the Government training centres are to be used widely to train the new skilled labour, then the people who come out of those training centres should be given a chance, after an appropriate period of apprenticeship in the industry, regardless of their age—call it probation if you like. Workers going to Government training centres now are often treated as dilutees when they reach their destination, and that is a bad thing.

These are difficult points; I put them forward in no contentious spirit but in the desire to be helpful. I know that the Minister will have to do this cautiously, and in consultation with the trade unions. I am anxious to raise the matter in this way because it is one that we must keep constantly before us, and we ought not to try to repeat the wartime procedure without closely looking at it in its ultimate consequence.

The retention of old people in employment should be considered in relation to this question of mobility. There is a real risk, when older men are displaced, that they will not be accepted, in the employment of destination, in those categories the Minister wants to build up. I saw a case in the local newspaper—I believe it has already been drawn to the attention of the Minister of Transport—where a man was told that he was too old at 42 to be engaged as a railway clerk. The Transport Executive would not consider him because at that age it was not willing to take a man in 'as a railway clerk. That sort of thing must not go on if we are to get labour transferred into the industries we want to build up.

The Minister must also watch very closely the effect of the whole system of control upon industry. I know that the whole object of control is usually to divert labour, materials, and resources into the channels which are desired, but the whole structure of controls taken in mass tends to exert a conservative influence on industry. It tends to base industry on the pattern of the datum line, 1939 or 1945, because allocations and licences are always based on some past date. Inevitably a system of controls tends to freeze the existing pattern, which I believe has been frozen too long.

There has been a sort of petrifying influence at work, partly because of the fear of the Government of any sort of unemployment, and partly as a result of the vast system of controls. As a result of this petrifying system, we do not have the proper flow which ought to mark a free economy able to meet changing needs and demands. I think that one of our major difficulties at present is not really a shortage of labour but the fact that labour is not placed to the best advantage. There is under-use of labour in many instances, and there is an unwillingness to move from place to place.

If the Minister would investigate these matters we should find all the extra labour for re-armament without difficulty, and we should also find some of the extra labour that we need for many other desirable projects which are diverted at present because it is said that the manpower situation is fully stretched. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will consider these matters and see what action he can take from his Department in order to assist their solution.

3.29 a.m.

Photo of Mr Frederick Lee Mr Frederick Lee , Newton

The hon. Gentleman opened his remarks with the phrase "labour has ceased to be mobile in the way it used to be." I would only say, "Thank heaven for that." As far as we are concerned, one of our major objectives when we took office in 1945 was to see to it that labour did cease to be mobile for the reason that it was mobile in the years before the war.

The hon. Gentleman told us that the unions—and he referred to the A.E.U.—would not accept adults. He mentioned one rule of the A.E.U. which, he said, would not permit men over 40 to become members. He is quite wrong in his interpretation of what that means. The A.E.U. admit adults into many of the sections of the union. They do not admit adults over 40 into the skilled sections, and that goes for people who may have been members of the union for 20 years. They have to transfer to the skilled sections before they are 40, but there is no bar to being a member of the union itself.

Upgrading is not something which suddenly came into being during the war; it has taken place as long as there has been an engineering industry. The hon. Gentleman said that dilution is causing a lot of trouble. I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that dilution helped us to win the war to an appreciable degree. Many thousands of people now permanently employed in the engineering industry as skilled men could never have obtained employment in that industry had is not been for the dilution agreements, which stood us in such excellent stead during the war period and have done so since. I agree that mobility of labour is an essential prerequisite of any permanent state of full employment.

Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Buckinghamshire South

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the question of dilutees, will he not agree that those people he described as permanent employees in the engineering industry are in a deferred category and are still not established?

Photo of Mr Frederick Lee Mr Frederick Lee , Newton

Theoretically, that may be so, but so far as we can see into the future there is no conceivable period in which there will be a need to ask dilutees to leave the industry.

On the question of mobility, I think the hon. Gentleman is taking far too pessimistic a view. When we find that there are fewer than 200,000 people unemployed in Britain at the present time,.9 per cent. of the working population, I think the hon. Member will agree that a considerable mobility of labour has already been achieved. A few years ago, prior to the time when we started our schemes in the development areas to bring work to the people who previously had suffered mass unemployment, it would have been impossible to achieve such a low figure of unemployment.

The success which has been achieved in taking work to the people who needed it, and in getting people who need work to go where the work is, has been astunding. The Distribution of Industry Act, under which so much has been done in the development areas, has accomplished far more in helping to keep labour mobile than the hon. Gentleman thinks.

So far as my Department are concerned, we assist financially small numbers of key men to go into the development areas to train "green" labour or to set up new industries. The employment exchanges also circulate lists of vacancies difficult to fill in the localities where they occur to other districts where we know that labour is available, and in approved cases we pay the fares of workers who are transferred to other districts. In some cases, we pay lodging allowances to their families when they have to take their families along with them. The Government training schemes referred to by the hon. Gentleman help to fit many workers to be mobile, in the sense of not having to stay in one industry and be out of work, and of training them to start again in some different industry.

The hon. Gentleman repeated what many of his hon. Gentlemen said yesterday on the question of trade unions and their attitude towards these vexed questions. It has been said before that the trade unions are indulging in all kinds of restrictive practices. I absolutely deny that. One hon. Gentleman yesterday talked about a 10 per cent. increase in production if trade unions would lift their restrictive practices. I can never find any hon. Gentleman who will give the slightest information on what he bases such conclusions. Only a few months ago in the House we had a discussion on the restoration of pre-war trade practices. The fact is that there is not a single trade union in Britain which has ever asked for the restoration of its pre-war trade practices. Every one agreed that they would not ask for those practices to be restored.

It is unfair at a time when the trade unions are doing so much to assist the country by the manner in which they accepted dilution after the war and the way in which they have agreed not to ask for the restoration of their pre-war trade practices, all of which is reflected in the figures of increased production, of which everyone is so proud, that we should have repeatedly stated these allegations that in some way trade unions are indulging in restrictive practices.

I know that one can pinpoint instances in certain localities; but they are the exceptions which prove the rule. Hon. Gentlemen opposite do not serve the country well when they antagonise trade union leaders, who are doing excellent work in difficult conditions, by asserting that we are suffering from the fact that trade unions are carrying on restrictive practices. I agree that there is much to be done. Neither my right hon. Friend nor myself is complacent about this. We recognise that this is not the time when people in responsible positions can tell the Government or industry what they will not do. The time has come when the background and history in which that antagonism grew up has to be forgotten and there has to be an approach to the problems which face us.

I wish the hon. Gentleman could come and attend some of the N.J.C. meetings and hear the leaders of industry and the trade unions discussing with my right hon. Friend and myself how to get over our difficulties. He would get a new conception of the spirit which animates industry. We can only get co-operation in the great problems which lay before us if hon. Gentlemen instead of denigrating the efforts which industry makes and continuing to make statements which are not borne out in fact, would understand the revolution in thought which has animated the trade unions.

Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Buckinghamshire South

I do not think I said anything about denigrating the spirit of cooperation with the trade unions. I thought I spoke rather to the contrary. It may be that the hon. Gentleman was attacking someone for something else that had been said. I do not think he was dealing with anything that I mentioned.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-one Minutes to Four o'Clock a.m.