Orders of the Day — Unemployment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th November 1958.

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Photo of Mr Victor Yates Mr Victor Yates , Birmingham, Ladywood 12:00 am, 17th November 1958

Tonight, I have the opportunity of raising the vital question of increasing unemployment in Birmingham and the Midlands generally. Recently, the House debated for two days the subject of unemployment, and you will recollect, Mr. Speaker, that apart from Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Lancashire, the various areas of the country had no opportunity of presenting their views.

I want to bring to the notice of the House the vital importance of this matter from the point of view of Birmingham, the heart of industrial England. It is important not only that we should consider what is happening in the so-called depressed areas, but in and around Birmingham. Certain measures could be taken even now to assist them and, ultimately, the whole country.

Unemployment in Birmingham and the Midlands area is worse today than at any period since the fuel crisis of 1947. In October of this year the number of unemployed in Birmingham and throughout the Midlands had doubled since October, 1957. It had risen from 5,752 to 11,126 in Birmingham and from 20,619 to 40,907 in the Midlands, which meant that the whole of the Midlands had an unemployment figure 5,000 in excess of that for the whole of Wales and more than half of Scotland.

I realise that in terms of percentages it is true that in Birmingham, not so very long ago, we had less than ½per cent. unemployed, but that figure has gone up to 1·9 per cent., and for the whole of the Midlands it is, of course, higher still. That raises important and fundamental matters.

Whereas we in the Midlands have been able to take into our industry unemployed from Wales, Scotland, Ireland, India and Pakistan, today we are facing a much more difficult situation. In Birmingham, there are 2,600 coloured workers unemployed, so it will be realised that it is difficult for us now to assist the country in that way, as we were able to do a short time ago.

I want to refer to the length of time of unemployment. It is rather alarming that the length of the period of unemployment of many of the workers has increased enormously, so that in the last year, again from October, 1957, to October, 1958, the number of unemployed who have been out of work for more than two months has increased in Birmingham from 1,778 to 4,750.

When one looks at the number of unemployed who have been unemployed for more than six months, the position is even more alarming, because in the past ten months that number has trebled in Birmingham from 566 to 1,692, and, of course, the figure is much higher in the Midlands.

I spoke the other day to a man in my my constituency who had been unemployed for two years. When we get high figures of men and women who have been unemployed for a long period—and I call six months a long period—it raises a good many problems. There is also concealed unemployment, that is, of people who are not registered, for example, married women. Many married women, of course, are not registered and are not counted as unemployed if they have left industry within the past year. Many hundreds of married women have left industry within the past year.

Many industries in the Midlands have gone on short time, and I and my colleagues, having met the Minister of Labour and the chamber of commerce and made investigation into this problem, are convinced that the unemployment percentage would be very much higher, and certainly above the average, if the employers, at the request of the trade unions, had not agreed to share the work. We have short-time working on a considerable and increasing scale.

I will mention some firms which have gone on to a four-day week or where part of the factory is on a four-day week. They include Fisher and Ludlow Ltd., Morris Commercial, Stewarts and Lloyds Ltd., B.S.A., Co. Ltd., the Rover Co. Ltd.—on the Land Rover—Morgans Drop Forgings, who have gone to a three-day week, Joseph Lucas Ltd., Bur Metals and others. The firm of A. E. Griffiths of Smethwick is reducing its staff for the first time since the war. The whole of the Black Country and the Midlands is disturbed at these tendencies. Only today I have been informed that the Metropolitan-Cammell Carriage and Wagon Co. at Saltley, in the Midlands, which produces railway rolling stock, has informed the shop stewards that it will have to carry out substantial redundancies in 1959.

Cannot something be done to prevent this? We appreciate that in Scotland, for instance, it is difficult to solve the problem without industry being taken to Scotland, but in Birmingham we have the machinery, the equipment and the capacity, and if action were taken now in an issue such as the production of railway rolling stock—which is a question of investment—surely it would be possible to prevent these redundancies from adding to the problem of Birmingham and the Midlands.

Why should the British cycle industry be brought to the serious pass in which it is today? I want to quote from a letter which I received, dated 11th November, from the British Cycle and Motor Cycle industries' Association, Ltd. This letter informs me of the grave position of the cycle industry—an industry which the Government could assist by taking action even now. I am informed that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury recently received a deputation from the British Cycle and Motor Cycle Industries' Association, Ltd., and questioned the deputation as to whether the removal of hire-purchase restrictions had benefited the cycle trade. The letter states: …We were able to say that the effect had been negligible. This is in line with the industry's long-held belief that the main impediment to cycle sales is the incidence of Purchase Tax rather than hire-purchase restrictions…The general situation in the cycle industry is still very grave, as is evidenced by the fact that in Birmingham between three and four thousand workpeople have been made redundant, and in Nottingham, the other main centre of cycle production, Raleigh Industries, Ltd., are working only a four-day week. Home deliveries of bicycles this year are likely to be the lowest recorded for twenty or thirty years, and the industry's production is now only a little over 50 per cent. of its peak in 1951 when four million units were produced. When I heard the President of the Board of Trade talk in the House the other day about the increasing confidence of employers, I could not help but think that he certainly could not include in his con- sideration the British cycle manufacturers.

That is a very serious position. Today, we have an industry working to only about half of its capacity. The Government could, and should, help it to compete in the export market and also give it a better opportunity to develop the home market, which would, ultimately, benefit the export market additionally.

For the first time since the war, such skilled workers as pattern makers are unemployed, and are accepting unskilled work, and though the trade unions in Birmingham are not in a panic, they are very disturbed and despondent, not only about the present position but about what the next year or two may hold for them.

In my maiden speech I referred to Birmingham as a city of a thousand trades. It has always been known as that, but it has now changed the pattern of its industry. Even since I made that speech, the city has changed its character. Although we have a very large variety of industries, our fortunes have been increasingly linked to the motor-car industry, and it would be fair to estimate that between 80,000 and 100,000 Birmingham workers are affected, directly or indirectly, by that industry.

That means that, perhaps, a quarter of a million of the population—the trade unions would put the figure higher—have come to depend to a large extent upon the prosperity of the motor-car industry. But even though it has been flourishing—and had it been otherwise, Birmingham's position would have been very grave—there are within its ranks 933 unemployed workers. That shows that not even the motor-car industry has been able to function to full capacity, and if it somehow fell down on the job in the next few months, Birmingham could be faced with, perhaps, the biggest unemployment problem of the century.

Therefore, not only is action necessary in the cycle industry and in other industries that are finding things extremely difficult—and Purchase Tax and the like add to their difficulties—but the motorcar industry should also be assisted to increase its productivity, reduce its cost of production per vehicle and so increase its exports.

That is the case I put to the House tonight. We are disturbed because the unemployment figure in Birmingham and the Midlands has doubled in a year, and because individual periods of unemployment for both men and for women have trebled in length in a year. This is a very important barometer. Birmingham is the centre of the greatest industrial activity, and the Government certainly ought to take some action to enable the city's industries to increase their productive capacity.