Lucas Aerospace

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12 February 1979.

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Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Keighley 12:00, 12 February 1979

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise what is one of the most important moral crusades that this country has seen in the twentieth century. I refer to the Lucas Aerospace combine shop stewards' committee, its corporate plan and the work it has done over the past three years. The shop stewards' imaginative method of tackling the question of providing jobs for peace and not for destruction is an important moral crusade of which the House and the nation must take note. I say that against the background of the Iranian contract for the production of means of extermination, a contract worth about £2 billion, which is grinding to a halt.

Time after time some of us on the Back Benches have raised these points. Indeed, only a short time ago I discovered from the Ministry of Defence that among the thousands of people that it employs there is not one person who devotes his or her time and energy to the possibility of substituting production for extermination with production for peace.

One of the difficulties faced by the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards is that, by and large, people do not wish this sort of question to be raised. They prefer to go for soft, easy contracts to sell 500 tanks to a reactionary regime in some distant land—the further away the better.

The Lucas Aerospace shop stewards have said that when they raised the question of the morality of the work being done by Lucas Aerospace, allied to their concern for jobs, they were told by the executive elite that runs Lucas Aerospace—as it runs all our big corporations—that the work carried out by Lucas was quite adequate for jobs.

In a recent press release the confederation trade union committee said: The 'Corporate Plan' initiative, launched in January 1976 was rejected by the management, who maintained that the Company's present product policy was the best guarantee of employment; the shop stewards point out that almost exactly two years later the Company announced the closure of its Liverpool, Bradford and Coventry sites. So who was right? Was it the highly paid corporate executive elite or the lads on the shop floor, albeit rather sharp lads with penetrating minds? As a matter of fact, their minds seem sharper than those of the corporate elite when it comes to the actual experience people have had.

This is an important debate. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister is here after our pressure on Thursday for a debate. Unfortunately, he was not able to meet our request then, but I am pleased that the debate is now taking place.

It is worth pointing out also, against the background of the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards' views and their corporate plan, that one of our greatest commercial rivals is Japan. We know that, because we see Japanese products such as motor cycles, televisions, sound centres, and motor cars everywhere. Indeed, people become very concerned about the level of importation of Japanese cars, and Members for areas where there is a motor industry are concerned about the number of commercial vehicles imported from Japan.

What is the position with regard to Japanese defence expenditure? In July 1976 in the Financial Times, the Far East editor, Charles Smith, talked about "A dilatory phoenix". He said: The first is that Japan's defence spending is never going to get very big (it is currently 0·87 per cent. of the GNP), and may indeed grow more slowly in the next few years than in the recent past because of the expected slow down of the growth of the Japanese economy. The Japanese have been very sensible. They have taken a moral view very similar to that of the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards. Because of their experience as the only nation in the world to face the horror of a nuclear holocaust, they have kept their defence expenditure down.

We spend about 5 per cent. of our GNP on defence. The Japanese are putting their expertise and development into products that people actually want. That is why we see their products on the streets of this country and virtually every other developed nation as well as underdeveloped nations.

Therefore, the attitude of the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards is a vital matter that we must take notice of. It is a pity that because of the structure of our Government the nation sometimes seems able to accept such ideas only in a crisis. If the Iranian arms contract is not to be renewed or extended, as seems likely, there will be a crisis for many employees in the armaments industry.

It is true that over the past three years the shop stewards' committee has discovered a number of difficulties. Institutions, whether of Government or of the trade union movement, have not responded as rapidly as the shop stewards thought desirable and as the nature of their views demanded. We should change our institutions if they are incapable of meeting the sort of attitude expressed by the shop stewards' committee. We are talking about men and women who have got together in their spare time and thought up plans for alternative production.

When the idea was introduced, the committee circularised a number of academics to see what sort of response they would receive, and they got about half a dozen ideas. They circularised the shop stewards in the various factories throughout the Lucas group and received over 150 practical ideas on what production and resources could be put to. That is the basic, practical, down-to-earth background of the corporate plan, which the shop stewards titled A contingency strategy as a positive alternative to recession and redundancies. It took the shop stewards three years to meet the management to discuss the corporate plan, because they were challenging the hierarchical nature of our society, which is that the bosses shall make the decisions and the workers shall accept them, and woe betide workers who question those decisions and perhaps even produce better ones. That sort of attitude challenges the whole nature and structure of our society. That is why they took three years to meet the management, and then it was only in a television studio because the plan had received such widespread publicity and sympathy.

The moral strength of the plan is clear and basic. People ask "Why on earth cannot the common sense of this plan be discussed?" It was not until that publicity and the pressure from outside organisations was realised that the Lucas management was driven into a television studio, after three years of pressure, to discuss the corporate plan. That is a serious indictment of the management, and to some degree of the Government for not putting more pressure on the management to get to grips with the matter and enter into discussions with the shop stewards.

What did the plan contain? I cannot go into it, because although we have, happily, a fair amount of time, it would take too long. It is a comprehensive, detailed and practical plan. The shop stewards were probably the first to coin the word "microprocessors". Now it is part of our language and people are talking about the microprocessor revolution. The Lucas shop stewards were discussing that very subject almost four years ago.

Perhaps I may give just one illustration of the sort of thing the shop stewards were advocating. They said on page 21: The increased speed of both road and rail vehicles and the larger payloads which they will carry, both of passengers and goods, will give rise to stringent braking regulations during the coming years. This tendency will be further increased by Britain's membership of the EEC. The EEC is now introducing a range of new braking regulations. These specify not only stopping distances, but calls for minimum standards of braking endurance over a continuous period. In addition, the regulations lay down conditions for 'braking balance' between axles in order to prevent a dangerous sequence of wheel locking. They go on to say: In Britain public attention has been dramatically focused on the weaknesses of existing braking systems by the Yorkshire coach disaster which claimed 32 lives in May of this year. The Sunday Times of June 1st stated 'Last week's crash might have been avoided if the coach had been equipped with an extra braking device, such as an electromagnetic retarder which is being fitted to an increasing number of coaches in this country '. That is the retarder which is advocated in the corporate plan.

They also say: This problem"— that is, the loss of braking operation because of heat— can be greatly reduced, if not totally overcome, by using a retarder. A retarder is basically an electro magnetic dynanometer which is fitted usually to the prop shaft between the engine and the back axle. They add: In fact it would appear that only 10 per cent. of Britain's 75,000 buses and coaches actually have retarders fitted to them. If we examine the history of coaches between 1976 and today, we find that there have been a number, albeit a small number, of spectacular crashes, almost in every case due to braking failure. There was the crash of a police coach at Wakefield, with the loss of several lives, as a result of inadequate maintenance. Because of inadequate maintenance, there was no braking, and no reserve braking by means of the retarder advocated by the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards' committee in its corporate plan.

That is the kind of imaginative development that was put forward. As the days go by, we see examples where the application of their ideas would save lives and be a useful addition to our safety standards. That is the attitude which they had and which they put forward.

What does it mean in terms of jobs? The Lucas Aerospace shop stewards' committee set up a special working group, which reported. It has been reported on in The Guardian today. It means, for example, the proposed closure of the factory at Bradford. My hon. Friends will discuss the other proposed closures. The Bradford factory closure has been modified by the provision of a new factory to replace the old one. However, the report which has just been produced, and which I know the Department of Industry will discuss shortly with the group, says that the closure of the Bradford factory has a number of disadvantages.

It is said that the engineers are not willing to move to Hemel Hempstead. That was the proposal put forward. Insufficient engineers may move to Hemel Hempstead to ensure the continuity of the generating systems business. The engineers concerned at Bradford do not accept the necessity for the integration of design and production. They operated separate design facilities successfully for years on constant speed drives produced at Netherton. The company's intention on the engineers required at Hemel Hempstead is to deploy some of them in production engineering and quality control areas.

The Bradford labour force is prepared to accept a new actuator factory, but insists on the retention of all surplus labour in Bradford in the new site, the existing site or new rented premises.

Mr. James Blyth told Members of Parliament on 6 April 1978: It could well be that in Bradford we shall absorb the entire work force, or what is left of it, with an amount of natural wastage, if we manage to get more business—for example, if the McDonnell Douglas work comes along. The McDonnell Douglas work did come along, and so the report comments that presumably the company could retain the entire labour force.

The report picks out a number of points. A further one is that the relocation offers, especially house price differential repayments, will cause industrial relations problems at Hemel Hempstead. Bradford is designated as a grey area with few opportunities for those who lose jobs. That is very important. Bradford is an intermediate area. Over the past few months the trend of unemployment in Bradford has, against the national trend, been increasing. One of the reasons is that Thorne, another large profitable multinational, closed down a television factory last year, with the loss of 2,300 jobs. That is the sort of decision, made in the executive suite, which ordinary working people cannot possibly shape.

The emphasis of the report is that all the jobs at Lucas Aerospace in Bradford should be retained. The reasons why are set out very cogently. That is the sort of basis that is being argued: that jobs should be retained to ensure that there are opportunities for learning skills in the future, that an area is not depopulated and does not drift along an avenue in which the skills are taken away and only semi-skilled and unskilled job opportunities are available.

I want to mention the Government's position in this context. The view of the combine shop stewards' committee is that the Department of Industry has been too close to the management and not close enough to the shop stewards. The committee points out, for example, that, as in Bradford, a new factory is proposed, but it will lead to a net loss of jobs in current circumstances. The committee points out that the Victor works at Lucas is on a broken back of concrete and that the works requires extensive renovation and extensive expenditure, yet a new factory is to be provided by the Department of Industry.

The committee is very concerned—so am I—that a former permanent secretary at the Department of Industry, Sir Antony Part, instead of retiring to his garden in Sussex, or wherever, should go on to the board of Lucas Aerospace. There have been a number of moves by a permanent secretary, Sir Anthony Part, and deputy secretaries neatly out of the Department of Industry and into some rather cosy well-paid jobs on private enterprise boards.

The committee makes the claim, which I think can be substantiated, that this demonstrates a closeness between senior civil servants in the Department of Industry and the management of a company. The shop stewards point out, for instance, that discussions are going on between the Department of Industry and Lucas on planning agreements, but the unions have not been consulted. The basic purpose of planning agreements is to get an arrangement between the Government and the major important company with the trade unions being involved as well.

There is far too much of a tendency for the senior civil servants at the Department of Industry always to approach the management rather than to approach both sides of the shop floor in industry, the management and the trade unions. The shop stewards argue that in their case it is absolutely essential that they should be approached and should have discussions on every occasion. It is not good enough simply for senior civil servants to have an understanding and a continuous relationship with the management, because the management has been shown to he at least less than competent over the past two or three years and is now actively trying to reduce the number of the work force at Lucas.

I know that representatives of the Department of Industry will very shortly be meeting representatives of the combine shop stewards' committee. I very much hone that it will not be simply the Department of Industry that is represented at this meeting but that it is wider, because it involves very important considerations. One of them is employment. Energy is another Department which should be involved, because many aspects of the corporate plan are concerned with the better use of energy and energy saving. Therefore, it is important that such a Department should be involved.

It is important that the Department of Employment should also be involved. One of the arguments that is always put forward about expenditure by the Department of Industry is "There has to be a curtailment. There must be a minimum. Public expenditure is limited, and, therefore, expenditure should be cut." But in fact, if the Department of Industry does not spend money on saving jobs, for example, what happens is that people are put on the dole, they are then paid money by the Department of Employment, they get supplementary benefit from the Department of Health and Social Security, the local authority loses rate revenue and the Inland Revenue loses tax revenue, and instead of it simply being a saving on one Vote, it is a transfer from the Vote of the Department of Industry to the Vote of the Department of Employment. In those circumstances, it seems to me that the Department of Industry could usefully determine to be prepared to spend money in order to preserve jobs and to encourage the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards to move along their various ventures.

I recognise that this will not be very easy. The Lucas company is a very large corporation, and it is seeking to operate that corporation in the traditional way by a small group of directors making decisions which have to be accepted by the work force. It will be very difficult for the Department of Industry to break away from its traditional links with the management. I make no criticism or individuals in the Department. I am saying that it is traditional for the Department of Industry to see itself as an ally of management. Many senior civil servants would not easily conceive of being allies of the rank and file on the shop floor. There is not much machinery whereby the rank and file can see senior civil servants in the same way as management can call on their knowledge and expertise and even buy it permanently when they get hold of someone such as Antony Part.

There is not much opportunity for trade unionists to meet civil servants in the ordinary course of events. That is one of the differences between the Lucas combine shop stewards' committee and most ordinary trade unionists. Many trade unionists would not dream of asking a Labour Minister to attend their trades council or meet them as the combine shop stewards' committee. They would argue that Labour Ministers are very busy and that they are very important people carrying out important work on their behalf in Whitehall. They would not dream of intruding on them. Managements see it as a matter of right that Ministers should go to their functions and that they should have a constant consultative capacity with senior civil servants. That is the difference.

The Lucas combine shop stewards have taken this notion of their position in society and torn it apart. They have said that they have as much right as anyone to be consulted, that they have as much right as the management to enter into discussions about decisions which will affect their future, and that they will not simply accept a notice in their pay packets at the end of the week to the effect that that is the end of the day for them and that they are out on the streets looking for jobs. They are saying very clearly that they have to be consulted, that they have to be involved in decision making and that if that means going to the Department of Industry and becoming involved in consultations to the same degree as the Lucas management, that is what must happen.

I say that that is what must happen, because Labour Governments are not elected to uphold the traditions. A Labour Government may not be articulated by many millions of people. But we get a Labour Government against the trends because many working men and women see a Labour Government as being on their side. When we get into office, we have to recognise that, whatever the difficulties, these traditional patterns of negotiation have to be pushed to one side and that political initiatives must be taken sometimes. That may cause a little difficulty with the CSEU, although recently the CSEU has shown commendable initiative. But working men and women—organised trade unionists—have as much right as managements to that close consultation.

I hope that the meeting which is to take place very shortly between the combine committee and the Department of Industry—and, I hope, the Departments of Energy and Employment—will represent a new initiative. It will be difficult because of the traditional patterns, and I am sure that Ministers at the Department of Industry will be having a lot of advice fed to them that they must not make any promises or say anything which will give an indication of help to the combine shop stewards, that it is the management which is taking the initiative and that it is management decision making.

The combine shop stewards are turning that argument on its head. They say that that is not the case at Lucas. They say that decision making should be taken at least jointly. Of course, that will be resisted. Everyone says that it is a wonderful idea. People pour out sympathy and say that it is a splendid idea with great moral virtue—but nothing seems to get done.

The reason is that if the Lucas combine shop stewards' committee should open the door of the elite of the Civil Service talking to the elite of management and making decisions in concert, many more trade unionists will also want a say in decision making. They would be right. If the Lucas Aerospace plan is adopted, it will mean an alteration in our society, and the Iranian contract may cause that degree of crisis that produces a change in our society. It is reckoned that it takes about 10 years for an idea to be taken hold of and put into practice. It may be that the general economic difficulties and the crisis in the arms industry will produce a rather shorter period in this case.

I understand the difficulties of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary in replying to a debate at relatively short notice, but we represent a movement which is headed towards change. It may not take place next week or the week after, but it is irresistible. Change will take place. That is the message which goes out from this House.

We have talked to the shop stewards involved. They have met setback after setback. They do not look on us as noble saviours from Parliament. They look on us with a certain amount of suspicion because we are in Parliament and we represent the sort of establishment that they have been fighting for the past three years. They are still dedicated because they have the right ideas, and people with the right ideas will win in the end, no matter how many times they are put off. That is the message that we put out. The shop stewards will win, and they will have us behind them all the way.

I hope that in the next few weeks we shall be able to stand proudly—as we have not always been able to do in the past—and say that the Departments of Industry, Energy and Employment are behind those shop stewards. Perhaps it may even be possible, though it seems unlikely, that the whole Government will give their backing to these sorts of ideas.