Orders of the Day — Steel Industry and Road Haulage

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th November 1951.

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Photo of Mr Frank McLeavy Mr Frank McLeavy , Bradford East 12:00 am, 12th November 1951

When the hon. Member intervened, I was speaking of the serious man-power problem. No one could have stated it more clearly than the new Minister of Labour. Speaking at a conference on training called by the British Employers' Confederation, the new Minister of Labour said that there were: at least 400,000 vacancies which the exchanges were not able to fill. Industry was also suffering from a 13.5 per cent. cut in its yearly intake of starters. Aircraft factories and Royal Ordnance Factories alone would need to increase their labour force by about 175,000. Then, speaking on the question of the proper balance of labour, the Minister continued: Our labour force just will not meet all the demands upon it, so the question is how to obtain a proper balance between the labour supply for the least essential jobs and for those which must be given priority, both from the point of view of the defence programme and the economy of the country. What are the salient points which the Minister brought out in that speech? He pointed out that there were 400,000 jobs vacant at the various employment exchanges. There was a 13.5 per cent. cut in the yearly intake of starters. Factories engaged on re-armament needed to increase their labour force by about 175,000 personnel.

Then he dealt with the need for a proper balance of labour. I ask the Home Secretary to give a reply to this question: Do the Government feel that a contribution from transport should be made to the common pool of labour as required for defence work? My own view is that road haulage can, and should, make a contribution in this field. But we cannot achieve this—indeed it will be made less possible—if the Government carry into effect the proposals contained in the Gracious Speech relating to the haulage section.

What the Government should do in connection with transport generally is to concentrate upon the great unification of the industry. The urgent need today is not for more men or vehicles in the road haulage section, but the provision of more workers and rolling stock for the railways so that they can carry increased traffic and not only reduce the congestion on the roads, but free labour and materials for other essential work. In other words, if we are to make the best economic use of the transport system, we must have less so-called private enterprise and more concentration upon unification. The Government's proposals, so far as we have been able to ascertain, mean a return to the competition, overlapping and waste of the pre-war years. As a Royal Commission on the Coordination and Development of Transport pointed out in 1930: Nationalisation of the railways alone would certainly not produce any real coordination of transport. If I may refer to the "Economist," which was referred to by my right hon. Friend in opening this debate, that journal remarked on 15th October, 1946: To regard transport as a whole appears so evident today that past resistance to this principle is the more surprising. It is obvious that this principle of regarding transport as a whole and the technical integration which followed it can only he achieved by some form of unification of ownership. And it is clear from the third Annual Report of the British Transport Commission that considerable progress has been made both in the co-ordination and unification of the various activities of the railway, road haulage, dock and waterways undertakings.

I ask the question in all seriousness—are the Government really serious in their proposals to retard progress in this field? Is the work of the Transport Commission to be thrown to the winds at the behest of private profit seekers, with a total disregard for the present needs of the nation? Really, it is fantastic for the Government to contemplate increasing the radius of private haulage, with its inevitable and immediate increased demand on the labour market, at a time when the Ministry of Labour are seeking to get a better balance of labour as between the essential industries.

The plans which the Road Haulage Association have submitted to the Government for the disposal of the publicly-owned vehicles, and set out by Mr. Frank Fowler, are wicked and objectionable from every standard of public decency; and suggest a type of malpractice which I trust no British Government will sink so low as to apply. The Association suggest that the 25-mile limit on private lorries be abolished at once, even without the repayment of the compensation which was received from the State. This would mean that undertakings which at present operate within the 25-mile radius would have a free gift of goodwill at the expense of the nation; and even undertakings which have never operated beyond the 25-mile limit would enjoy the same free gift of goodwill from the Government. I suggest that if that is true it is certainly a policy which is contrary to the best interests of the nation.

As to the proposals of the Association for the disposal of road transport vehicles owned by the Commission, I think we can dismiss them with the contempt they deserve. No one in his right senses wishes to return to the days after the end of the First World War, when thousands of ex-Army lorries were placed on the market. They were bought by ex-Service men with their gratuities, and these men were subject to no control of working conditions or charges. Some did well, others went to the wall. But the railways were brought, by the lack of transport and this unfair competition, to a position of real financial difficulty.

We remember the railway companies appealing to the Government and to the nation for a square deal, but they failed to get the measure of support they were entitled to expect. I say that this cutthroat competition did more than anything else to prevent for many years, not only the proper co-ordination and development of the transport industry, but the provision of fair wages and conditions for the workers employed in the industry. Organised labour in the transport industry—and I speak from a long association with them—will resist any attempt, either by the Government or by anyone else, to lower their well-earned improved standards and conditions of employment.

The Minister of Labour—and I make this point very clearly to the Government —will require all the good will and cooperation he can get from the trade union movement to meet all the labour problems which concern the Government today. The proposals to hand back steel and road haulage to private profit makers will not impress organised labour or encourage sacrifices on their part. The Government cannot get away with a policy of private profits for their friends and sacrifices for the workers. They must set a better example—a wiser example—of government than that. They must set an example which will encourage the workers to co-operate with the Government in order to get over the difficult times which confront us.

There can be no doubt in any part of the House that in every crisis, whether it has been one of war or of industrial difficulty, the workers have never failed to respond to appeals for loyalty and devotion to the causes which every decent citizen ought to have at heart. The Government have no right at this juncture, with the financial difficulties of the nation, to contemplate passing either steel or transport to private profit makers when undoubtedly the Government intend to ask the workers to make even further sacrifices to enable the country to get through this difficult period.

Nothing has been put forward by the Minister of Supply or by any other hon. Member opposite which has conveyed the impression that either the de-nationalisation of steel or of road haulage is connected with the greater efficiency of the industry. That point has not been made at all. The Government know perfectly well that if they interfere with the present set-up of transport—[HON. MEMBERS: "Mess up."]—it is not a mess up—if they interfere with the present set-up of transport they will be involved in very difficult labour and material problems.

They cannot go to their friends who are operating at a 25-mile radius and say, "All right, we will wipe away the limitation altogether. You can go up to 100 miles if you like." What would be the consequence of that? The result would be that a man would go 100 miles instead of 25, but he would want more vehicles and staff in order to run the extended mileage. Anyone who has had any connection at all with the transport industry knows perfectly well that the longer the mileage of a service is extended, the greater is the number of vehicles needed and the number of persons employed in the industry.

I want the Home Secretary to appreciate that he will be encouraging a policy of increasing the number of personnel in the transport industry. Not only that, but he will be encouraging the use of more material at a time when the nation really needs to conserve its labour power and to use its materials in the best interests of the country.

Finally, I appeal to the Government on at least two matters. Let us have a little practical example of patriotism at this time. Let us have less talk about patriotism and more application of the principle. After all, the nation will judge this Government, not by their platitudes about their devotion to the cause of the nation, but by their handling of these affairs. If they handle them in a way detrimental to the very best interests of the nation, then, most assuredly, when the electors have the opportunity of again expressing their opinion, they will turn out this Government in favour of a more stable and more patriotic Labour Government.