We have had a good many debates on textiles in this House, and this afternoon I wish to call attention to what is perhaps a rather narrow issue but one of the highest importance to those of us who are concerned with the rayon section of the textile industry.
I raise it because in my constituency I have an area which is peculiarly vulnerable to any recession in the rayon industry. I may say that the towns of Flint and Holywell are largely dependent on rayon for their livelihood. We have at present a situation where last week workers with less than 20 years' service in the industry were dismissed, and only those with more than 20 years' service were able to carry on with their work. That gives some indication of the seriousness of the position in my own area.
I do not wish to lay undue stress upon the employment difficulties in this industry at the present time. I hope they are temporary. I know the Parliamentary Secretary is well aware of them. I came to this subject of the alteration of or addition to specifications of Service Departments so as to use more rayon textiles and fabrics through the needs of my constituents, but I very soon decided that it was one which merited attention on its own. I need not persuade the Parliamentary Secretary that synthetic fibres have their own special uses and advantages. He has an up-to-date outlook in these matters, and I will not stress that point beyond saying that very considerable advances have been made recently in the rayon industry.
It was perhaps unfortunate that the industry came out of its adolescent stage, so to speak, just before the last war and a good deal of wide-scale development was held up owing to the war. Utility specifications have some restrictive effect on wide-scale development, although that did not stop technical and scientific research, in which much progress has been made in the last few years. What we are asking is that that progress should be recognised by those who are responsible for entering into contracts for purchases by Government Departments.
I find that there are still extraordinary misapprehensions about the position of rayon, which has never quite lived down its early name of artificial silk. It is, therefore, apt to be considered as something which is a substitute or second-best. This, I believe, is today entirely unwarranted. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary recognises that there are certain definite advantages in synthetic fibres in that they can be fashioned to meet required specifications.
For example, in the early days it used to be suggested that if one put rayon fabric into very hot water it would immediately disintegrate. Today, we have a rayon mixture sheeting which can be boiled and sterilised without detriment. The industry realised that treatment of that kind was a necessary requirement for hospital sheets, and it set about making a product which would fulfil those requirements. I will not go through the long list which I know that the Parliamentary Secretary has had an opportunity of studying. In many of the articles concerned there are positive advantages in the use of rayon either by itself or, more often, in combination with one or other of the natural fibres of wool or cotton. One then gets the best of both by combining the qualities of both.
During the past few weeks, when my interest in rayon has become manifest, many people have said to me, "Surely, if you push rayon, will you not do so only at the expense of Lancashire and Yorkshire, which have their own problems? Will you not therefore be adding to unemployment in those areas even though you may quite properly be doing something for your own constituents?" To that there is the answer that that is not necessarily so.
It is true that continuous filament yarn is not completely interchangeable with wool or cotton in its processing, but the main arguments which have been going on recently between the trade and the Department have not, on the whole, been concerned with the specifications for filament fabric. The main arguments have been concerned with the use of rayon staple in conjunction with other fibres.
We believe that that is not in any way detrimental to employment in either Lancashire or Yorkshire. Staple is designed precisely to be used on the same machines as wool or cotton. Therefore, the spinners and weavers in Lancashire and Yorkshire can feed their machines with one fibre or the other. To them, as far as employment is concerned, it will make no difference. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) says, it will positively help.
Apart from that, rayon has positive advantages which should be stressed. It is, of course, made in this country. It does not have to be bought for dollars as does cotton. Normally it is very much cheaper than either wool or cotton. It is in the public interest that it should be used. It is not subject to anything like such violent fluctuations of world markets as the natural fibres. It has these positive advantages, I would urge for this reason that it is in the interests both of private buyers and public buyers that they should use rayon fabrics wherever possible.
Discussions on this matter have been going on at what one might call fairly high level for a matter of at least two years since the dollar aspect of this question was realised to be one of considerable importance. What I hope that we shall have today from the Parliamentary Secretary is some account of the situation which has now been reached in this matter. He was present yesterday at a useful discussion which we had at the Ministry of Supply. He knows that certain points were raised then.
I was extremely glad to find that the Minister of Supply had decided that a working party should be set up consisting of officials and representatives of the industry, with the Parliamentary Secretary in the chair. We hope for great and rapid results from this working party. I am sure we shall not be disappointed. There are, after all, degrees of leisure-liness which can be permitted to public departments. What was perfectly reasonable last year when the order books of the rayon industry were full, would be quite unreasonable today, although even then I should have thought that the dollar aspect was one of urgency.
What we are asking is that, wherever possible, alternative specifications should be allowed for these contracts to permit of rayon taking its place with other materials. We are not asking that it should necessarily displace them, unless it can be shown to be better. All we want is that rayon should have its fair place in the specifications which are allowed. Where it is felt that sufficient trials have not been given for outright alternative specifications to be possible, we ask that sufficient orders should now be placed to enable large-scale user trials of the shirting, sheets, blankets and the other items with which the hon. Gentleman is acquainted, to go ahead.
We should like to know from the Minister what steps are to be taken in future to see that there is better coordination between the different Government Departments which make use of these articles and textiles, and that, where one Department, for example—in this instance, the Post Office—has made very extensive tests of the articles, the result of those tests should be brought to the attention of other Departments concerned, which should not begin their own tests all over again.
We should also like to know from him whether it has been decided that it will be possible to reach a conclusion as to the wearing qualities of certain articles without having to wait possibly two or three years until they have arrived at what the Services call destruction point. I believe that an intelligent guess may be made long before that period has elapsed. We also hope that the working party will be able to make suggestions to other Departments, not only the Service Departments which may be concerned in public purchases, so that they may themselves become aware of the advantages of the use of rayon in textiles.
For instance, we shall have a Coronation next year, and the Ministry of Works will be responsible for some of the decorations. I suggest that it might be possible for the Ministry of Works to see whether the materials which may be used—bunting and so on—would have the advantages which I suggest are to be found in rayon material.
The plea I put forward now is definitely a plea for rayon on its merits. I believe we can make a very good case for the use of rayon on its merits. We are not asking that it should be used where other fabrics are more suitable, but we believe, at any rate, that tests have shown the considerable advance which has been made in rayon development. The fact of the matter is that at the moment there is a degree of urgency, because of the unemployment situation, but that is only one part of the case put forward for the consideration of the Government, which we believe to be a very strong case indeed.