West Midlands (Industry)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:38 am on 20th June 1980.

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Photo of Mr John Stokes Mr John Stokes , Halesowen and Stourbridge 11:38 am, 20th June 1980

I welcome the opportunity provided by this debate today, as the West Midlands is the industrial heart of this country. I begin by saying how much I agree with the remarks my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve) about the damage done in previous years to the West Midlands by excessive cosseting—particularly by Labour Governments—of other parts of the United Kingdom to the detriment of the West Midlands.

I represent a constituency which is wholly industrial. Almost everyone in it earns his or her living through industry and commerce. I am lucky to represent these people because they are hard working, down to earth and patriotic. They seldom complain. Labour relations are generally very good, particularly in smaller factories which are often managed by the owners, and there is a close bond of interest between management and employees.

Much of West Midlands industry—at least one-third—is dependent on the motor industry. I know that the British Leyland plant at Longbridge has a sorry history, but that is not all its own fault ; and under Sir Michael Edwardes a new and better spirit is growing up, not only in Longbridge but throughout the group. Many Longbridge employees live in my constituency. I know many of them, and many of them voted for me in the last election. They are not the bad people that the press and others sometimes make out. They may have a few black sheep among them, as in any community. However, with proper leadership and management, and given the fullest information, there is no reason why the labour force at BL should not be as good as any other in the country.

British Leyland needs to make and sell good cars which people want to buy and which are well engineered and designed, carefully inspected before despatch and delivered on time. That is the answer to the crisis in the motor industry, not the defeatist call for import controls.

The country's economic difficulties have affected all of us with seats in the West Midlands. Private steel producers, for instance, have additional problems. They have to try to sell against BSC, which, they tell me, is often selling below market price in order to regain old customers. I am surprised that the Government, with their devotion to private enterprise, should tolerate that and be prepared to see the ailing BSC ruin the hitherto thriving private steel sector. I hope that when the Minister replies he will give me an answer to that serious and well-founded complaint. Private steel companies also have to absorb the higher gas and electricity charges, which they tell me their competitors in Germany do not have to pay to anything like the same extent.

The main point of the non-complaining firms in my constituency is that the Government seem to be looking to them to pull their chestnuts out of the fire for them, in particular in respect of wages and employment. They see very high wage settlements in the public sector, sometimes over 20 per cent., which makes it very hard for them to get their unions to settle for less. They see over-manning in the nationalised industries. They see the scandal of the enormous charges by the water undertakings, which appear to act as if they were responsible to no one. They see the cuts promised in the Civil Service very slow to come. They say that the Government talk a lot, but they wonder whether they do enough. I have some sympathy for their point of view. As I said in a parliamentary question, the Government must not expect industry to do their dirty work for them.

Local industry feels that cuts in Government expenditure were slow in coming and should be accelerated. I agree. Local firms also expect the Government to be tough on spendthrift local councils whose high rates are such a burden on industry in the West Midlands and elsewhere.

Many industrialists appreciate that a high rate for the pound is inevitable when there are high interest rates. However, the high rate for the pound has been held since last November. Industrialists are dearly hoping for a reduction soon, as I am. I am against bringing the rate down too soon and then having to increase it again, but 17 per cent, is a crisis rate, and one cannot live for ever with a crisis rate. On the other hand, we must never forget that good, well-managed companies are still exporting satisfactorily. Exports have held up remarkably well. The export effort from my constituency, often from small firms and sometimes very small firms, is worthy of the highest praise, and it is not mentioned enough.

One of the great benefits from the Government's measures is the change of attitude taking place among management and employees. There is much greater realism. The need to contain costs is everywhere appreciated. There is no wish to strike. After 35 years of what I can only call "softly, softly" Governments, whether Labour or Conservative, people are beginning to realise that a profound change is taking place. This island has to earn its living in a hard, competitive world. The days of unearned handouts are over, and should be over for ever. The Prime Minister has put that across to everyone in simple and telling words.

Many of my constituents are trade unionists. I believe that one reason why so many of them voted for me was that they wished to put an end to the appalling strikes that the nation suffered during the winter before last. After a year of this Government, they expect determined action against abuses of union power over the closed shop, picketing, secondary, tertiary and "quartiary", or whatever the word is, blacking, and so on. We shall never get the agreement of some trade union leaders to the steps that the Government must take, but I do not believe that that matters, provided that we have the agreement, as I believe we have, of the ordinary trade unionist on the shop floor. He above all is most critical now of the attitudes of some trade union leaders. If the Government do not firmly grasp the nettle now, and if there are similar strikes next winter, the Government and not the unions will be blamed. That is my serious warning to the Government and the Minister concerned.

I hope that the Government will do even more to help the self-employed and small business men. We have many small businesses in my constituency. Much has been done to help them, but more remains to be done. There is still too much form filling. Greater simplicity is required. Taxation, even after the reductions of the Budget, is still too high. Those who risk so much—often their all—to set up a new business expect a better net reward.

I hope that the banks are lending wisely and well. In my view, the service that they provide to the ordinary customer continues to decline, but bank charges continue to increase, and the banks make large profits that they have done nothing to earn. I hope, however, that they are taking seriously their duty to help the small man. We do not want money from the Government. Where the risk is genuine, we want it from the banks.

In general, in spite of these problems, I am hopeful. I believe that in the next few months we shall have seen the worst, and by this time next year there will be a marked improvement in morale in industry and commerce. The country's huge, successful export effort shows what we can do. As we know, the country is stiff with brains. We have an excellent work force, provided that it is properly led. We still need to attract some of the country's best young people to industry and commerce, and perhaps reduce the numbers going into the Civil Service and the professions. We must hope that the shake-out of employment from the larger and, I am afraid in some cases, less efficient firms must be taken up by the smaller firms and self-employment. The Government should do all that they can to encourage that trend.

Above all, we need a revival of national pride. I believe that there are already signs of that. When I was a young man, the sign "British made" was a hallmark all over the world for the excellence of our products. We must return to that situation. Our standard of living depends on the efforts of those engaged in industry and commerce, and that includes most of my constituents. I hope that neither I nor the Government whom I am proud to support will let them down.