Cotton Textile Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th March 1967.

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Photo of Sir Douglas Glover Sir Douglas Glover , Ormskirk 12:00 am, 20th March 1967

Despite what you said a little time ago, Mr. Speaker, I make no apology for intervening. I come from an old Lancashire family of working people in Rochdale and the proudest moment of my life came when I was made President of the Lancastrian Association. I therefore feel a duty to intervene in this debate.

I understand the anger which has been expressed constructively and responsibly by hon. Members opposite about the blatant breach of Government pledges to the textile industry in a speech by the present Foreign Secretary in 1963, and in speeches in the House and elsewhere by the Ministers of Housing and Local Government and Transport. There is anger on both sides of the House at this blatant betrayal of the industry, which was given a definite pledge which has not been honoured.

The issue is even more important than the breaking of a pledge. The textile industry was over-built after the war by the then Labour Government, although I do not criticise that Administration for taking that action. It is tragic to think now that at that time this industry was able to export when our engineering and other industries had not recreated themselves after the war. The textile industry was, therefore, organised on a labour basis rather than on a production basis, with three times the labour it has today. There is no doubt that it was over-expanded.

After then, under Conservative Governments, the international pattern changed and, from being an exporting nation after the war, we became an importing nation. The problems of the textile industry were spreading like measles through a family. The Govern-meld of the day were slow, perhaps rightly, to respond, since they said, "This industry must battle its way through these problems in this new and changing modern era."

In the late 'fifties we had a new cotton reorganisation scheme and the then Government put £30 million in the "kitty". I recall that when the negotiations about that £30 million were at a very tricky stage—tricky because the then Conservative Government faced a considerable division of opinion over the issue—I, as the Chairman of the Conservative Party in the North-West of England, informed the Prime Minister that unless a scheme of that sort was introduced, he could no longer rely on my support in the House of Commons.

Hon. Gentlemen opposite who have tonight spoken sincerely and passionately about this matter should, I suggest, take the sort of action which I felt it my duty to take, because something must be done to make certain that the new Commission is given teeth so that it can bring succour to the industry. In the short-term, that is the only way in which hon. Gentlemen opposite can bring pressure to bear on the Government.

Being a believer in efficiency in industry, I suggest that both Front Benches must answer this question: do we in Britain want a textile industry? We have tried global quotas and other measures, but on every occasion when these schemes have been tried another country, outside the agreement, develops its industry, produces textiles more cheaply and floods our market. If we begin to hold Portugal, in two years' time another country—Uganda, Malawi, or someone else—will appear on the scene. We must accept that in a world of growing technology the textile industry, in a modern society, given the freedom we have given to importers, will be constantly under threat.

I rejoice in the fact that during the 'fifties the contraction of the textile industry in Lancashire was balanced all the time by the growth of the engineering and other more science-based industries. However, the textile industry has had to absorb a great deal of hardship as a result of its contraction. The Government must, therefore, face up to the fact that the textile industry as it exists today, employing only 120,000 people, is already producing goods in a far more efficient way than it did before the reorganisation of the 'fifties. Although it has efficient mills, efficient grouping, verticalisation, and so on, it is facing a contracting market in this country.

We have had this argument on the Floor of the House before, but I think that a nation of our size, which deliberately allows the textile industry to contract very much more, would be a very foolish nation. Do we know what sort of situation we will find in the years to come?

If we have an industry that is still capable, not of exporting, but of providing a balance of between two-thirds and three-quarters of the home market, it is not a very large industry. It may, therefore, be necessary that we keep a textile industry for the safety and wellbeing of the nation in future.

The Government could take a deliberate decision to allow the industry to run down until it disappears altogether. One could make a powerful argument for this action, but it would not be an argument which the hon. Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Joel Barnett) or myself, with our knowledge of the textile industry, would be likely to put forward.

The Government are, therefore, in this dilemma. Let them say quite categorically that during their period of office they will maintain a textile industry able to produce two-thirds of the offtake for the home market. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider these points which have not been made tonight, despite the length of the debate. There is not only a shocking lack of confidence in the industry at the moment, which is bound to lead to the fact that there will be no capital to continue modernisation, but unless one gets very rapidly a far greater certainty of prosperity for the industry, there is not a careers master in a school or a university tutor, or anybody else, who will recommend to school leavers that they should go into the textile industry.

The right hon. Gentleman could well find himself, in four or five years' time, with Courtaulds, Viyella, Carrington and Dewhurst, modern groups which he wants, organised efficiently, but because nobody is coming into the industry, faced with getting no qualified men although they are much more scientifically based—and the word is much—than they were 10 or 15 years ago. This crisis of confidence will have to be solved very quickly if we are to get replacement of those now drifting out of the industry.

It is not a great encouragement to a girl, even though she knows the industry is more scientifically based, and although she has got two O-levels at school, if she knows that her mother, who tries to induce her to go into the textile industry, was made redundant at the age of 45 in 1967. This is not an encouragement to someone to go into the industry with the feeling that there is a prosperous future.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that if he is not to be faced with a rebellion throughout Lancashire—and I believe that this broken pledge goes further than a party broken pledge and involves the whole of Parliament—if he is not able to give a much clearer view of what the Imports Commission will do, and give a categorical assurance that he, as the responsible Minister, will accept its recommendation for action for immediate implementation; if he cannot give an assurance about how Norway has acted over Portuguese imports; and about home purchases by Government Departments during the recession, I am sure that a great many of his colleagues who have spoken so eloquently for the industry will only be in the House until the Dissolution, when the electorate have an opportunity of telling the Government what they think.