Orders of the Day — Cotton Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28th June 1962.

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Photo of Mr Fred Blackburn Mr Fred Blackburn , Stalybridge and Hyde 12:00 am, 28th June 1962

There was nothing in the speech by the hon. Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Leavey) with which I wish to argue. I enjoyed much more his speech on 6th June, when the President of the Board of Trade made his first statement. The speech was much shorter and the result of spontaneous combustion. Today, the fire seemed to have died down.

Since I represent what I think is the largest cotton textile constituency outside Lancashire, I am very glad to have an opportunity to speak. Since I have been a Member of Parliament, in the industrial field cotton has always been my greatest anxiety. During the past few years while we have been indulging in the luxury of a Conservative Government, 14 cotton textile mills in my constituency have closed down. I am always worried about where the next blow is likely to fall. Only last week the managing director of a firm in my constituency told me that at present he was running at a loss because, to keep the factory going, he had been compelled to accept a contract at Hong Kong prices.

Every hon. Member knows that that cannot continue for very long, and if that mill closes down in that part of my constituency, there is no alternative employment. We do not find in the cotton constituencies the glossy factories which we find in the South. In fact, the Board of Trade will not give I.D.Cs. for them. Of course, there are new industries in many of our former cotton mills, and we are grateful to industrialists who have come there and taken them over.

The President of the Board of Trade's statement on television the other night, that all of the 250,000 people who have left the industry have been found alternative employment, is only half-true, because many of the married women who have left have not returned to industry at all. Moreover, as must be known to the Board of Trade, there has been a great migration from the cotton towns into the Midlands and the South. The right hon. Gentleman must realise that this is a social as well as an industrial problem. What chance is there for women in their forties and fifties, who have spent the whole of their working life in the mills, to find alternative employment?

I wonder whether the Minister still thinks that Lancashire was not disappointed when it read his speech of 6th June. Does he think that Lancashire will not be disappointed when it reads what he said today? Personally, I have never known the management and workers in the cotton industry so angry and so frustrated as they are at present, and if the Government have no more to say than the President of the Board of Trade said on 6th June or than he said today, we are wasting our time in having this debate.

What are the Government's views? Is it true, as some have said, that they have written off the cotton industry but for political reasons dare not say so? Does the President of the Board of Trade think that his statement of 6th June or his statement today will overcome the present crisis of confidence? There is only one way to restore confidence, and that is by putting a ceiling on imports. Has the right hon. Gentleman received any other advice, or have any other views been expressed to him from any quarter?

I should like to call attention to the last sentence of the Report of the Estimates Committee and I join with all other hon. Members in expressing my gratitude for the work which the members of that Committee did in producing their Report. The sentence reads: Nevertheless, they feel bound to record their conviction that, failing a speedy and satisfying solution to the related problems of imports, marketing and the fuller use of plant and machinery, much of the expenditure incurred will have been to no purpose. These words have been incorporated in the Opposition's Motion. I do not know what hon. Members opposite feel about the Amendment in the name of the Prime Minister, but I think that it is an insult both to hon. Members and to workers in the cotton industry if the Government expect us to welcome the assurances on imports policy which have been given in their statement.

The concluding sentence of the Estimate Committee's Report refers to "the related problems of imports", on which I will say more in a moment, and to "marketing"—and I will not deal with the latter point, because to be brief I shall limit my remarks to criticisms of the Government and not deal with points which could be put right by the industry. We have a self-denying ordinance, and we are trying to make short speeches so that as many hon. Members as possible may take part in the debate. I will, therefore, leave that aspect.

The third point made by the Estimates Committee is the fuller use of plant and machinery", and that is dependent upon the level of imports. We cannot have plant and machinery working full out on three shifts if imports are at too high a level. Has the President of the Board of Trade received any advice or heard any views expressed other than the fact that unless a ceiling is put upon imports we shall never restore the confidence which the industry lacks? Have not they received that advice from every single body with knowledge of the industry—for example, the British Spinners and Doublers Association, the United Kingdom Textile Manufacturers' Association and the United Textile Factory Workers Association.

Le Syndicat Général de l'Industrie Cotonnière Française regárds Britain as a country which has accepted the destruction of one of its most traditional industries. That, I think, is a measure of the general criticism of the Government. The hon. Member for Heywood and Royton objected to someone saying that the Cotton Act, 1959, was a political stunt. Let us leave that there, but was it an attempt to help the industry, or was it an attempt to reduce the industry in size in order to leave the field open for cheap Commonwealh imports, or was it a mixture of both?

If it were to help the industry, then the scheme was based on the then level of imports. The hon. Member for Heywood and Royton said that although it was not said in so many words, it was generally understood that there was a distinct connection between the level of imports being received at that time and the reorganisation and re-equipment scheme.

I remember that when we were discussing the Bill I said that unless the voluntary agreement with Hong Kong, India and Pakistan were renewed at the then level of imports at the end of the three-year period, the whole problem would arise again. I think that my words have been proved true. Now the Government want us to accept a much higher level of imports. The least that the Government can do is to impose the 1959 ceiling to give back to the industry a measure of confidence.

Personally, I am in favour of a much lower figure, and I say that the least that the Government can do is to impose the 1959 ceiling—and I use the word "impose" because I strongly believe that that is the way in which it should be done. Let us have no more of this bargaining either by the two industries or by the Government. I think that the Government have a duty towards the industry, and it is to impose a ceiling.

We all wish to help the underdeveloped countries. Every hon. Member subscribes to the idea that we must do our best to help underdeveloped countries. But who decided that the best way was to murder one of our own industries? It is no good the Government saying that the arrangements must be voluntary because of the Ottawa agreement. That argument is no longer valid, because the Government are prepared to sacrifice Ottawa in order to join the Common Market, and they have made the first inroads into it.

What does the President of the Board of Trade mean when he says that countries with no traditional trade in cotton textiles should not count on being able to build up a new market in Britain? Was he referring to the Commonwealth countries which have recently gained their independence? If so, does that mean that they will not have the same favourable treatment as Hong Kong, India and Pakistan? If he does not mean them but means other countries, are we to expect a flood of imports from the newly-independent countries, such as Nigeria, which are developing their cotton textile industries?

No one can say that the British cotton industry has not done more than its share in helping India, Hong Kong and Pakistan. Must it now be called upon to make still further sacrifices? No one under-estimates the problem of Hong Kong, with its huge mass of Chinese refugees but should the major burden be thrown upon our cotton industry?

We cannot be expected alone to solve the Commonwealth problems and at the same time to solve the Chinese refugee problem. The time has surely come to put an end to voluntary agreements and to say that generous as we have been in the past, there is a limit beyond which we cannot go and we must fix a ceiling. We are prepared to give quotas up to the 1959 level, but without murdering our own industry we cannot do more than that. That will be the test of the Government's sincerity, for in no other way can confidence be restored. If the Government fail to respond, the industry will know how to judge.

The French Cotton Association was right when it said: So long as a system of quotas is not adopted by the British, the crisis of the cotton industry in Lancashire will continue. If we are to have nothing more than the barren statement which has been made on two occasions by the President of the Board of Trade, the outlook for Lancashire is gloomy. I hope that when the Minister of State replies to the debate he will have more comforting words to say than have been said before.