Unemployment (Doncaster)

– in the House of Commons at 9:50 pm on 13th February 1986.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Neubert.]

10 pm

Photo of Mr Michael Welsh Mr Michael Welsh , Doncaster North

The subject I am raising in the Adjournment debate is the unemployment problem in Doncaster metropolitan borough area following the closure of Youngs Seafoods and other undertakings. Before I start, may I welcome the new Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Front Bench? I hope that he enjoys it. They do say, I do not know if it is true, that success comes to Ministers who take cognisance of the people who move Adjournment debates and try to help them.

Unemployment is not new to me. The pit I worked at was closed about 16 years ago and only last year the workshops in my own village were closed, with 400 young people put out of work. Both of those were profitable. It seems strange that we close profitable undertakings in south Yorkshire, but that is what happened.

In tonight's debate I should like to speak about different issues from those of my own village. There are two particular areas in my constituency which cause me great and special concern—the mining community of Askern and the township of Thorne. I understand that the employment statistics are not readily available for those communities, and I accept that. Even if they were, they would not reveal the hard facts of those who suffer the indignity of unemployment. However, what is on record is the appalling level of unemployment in the Doncaster travel-to-work area of which those two communities are a part. In that area there are more than 20,500 people unemployed and, unfortunately, the local job centres have only 238 vacancies advertised. At the same time, the skillcentre in Doncaster has been closed. When you were a Minister, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you had the privilege of opening it. They have closed that, so we cannot even have trades people in Doncaster, which is a great pity. Fifty jobs were advertised at the Queensgate job centre and 500 people turned up for those jobs. There were not enough forms for them to fill in. Not only that, but the jobs were only for 13 hours a week, part time. Therefore, one can see the problem in Doncaster and that the people there want the opportunity to work but find it very difficult to obtain it. In Thorne the local authorities tried to get the exact figure of unemployment. It has been put as high as 50 per cent. in that small township. That is deplorable.

Before coal reserves were discovered in the south Yorkshire mining village of Askern, its claim to fame was the mineral springs from which people believed they could receive a cure or treatment for their ailments. What we need is treatment for the ailment of unemployment. The local colliery has been saved from closure, and we all hope that it will have a long and secure future. Next door to the colliery is the Coalite and Chemical Company Limited. It has a processing plant which produces chemical by-products from coal and the smokeless fuel known as coalite. Because the company owns other plants similar to Askern, it has decided to close that plant. This means a loss of 300 jobs in a small mining village.

The reason given for the closure is that demand for the product has fallen off considerably. This is yet another spin-off from the hard-line attitude taken by the Government towards local authority expenditure. One of the casualties of local authority programmes has been the creation of smokeless zones. I am told that the declaration of smokeless zones has been delayed to the point where the United Kingdom's poor rate of progress has attracted adverse comments from our friends in the EEC.

Because coalite is an excellent smokeless fuel, the plant would have a secure future if smokeless zones were fully implemented. All must recognise and realise the sheer impracticability of piped gas to all households in the United Kingdom. Askern needs help quickly or the village will have only the colliery to depend on.

The colliery of Thorne closed in the 1950s, and in the 1970s the NCB invested in the colliery to bring it into production again. Will the Minister persuade the Minister of State, Department of Energy to pursue the opening of the colliery as soon as possible? It will take 10 years to open the colliery, because a new shaft must be sunk. I am pleased to hear that the coal board has remained firm on its commitment to open the Thorne colliery, but I ask that a formal assurance is given that the colliery will open, and open as soon as possible.

The county and borough councils persuaded the Development Commission that the problem of Thorne warranted the township being designated as a rural development area. I am pleased to be associated with that initiative and grateful for the opportunities that the designation can offer. However, there will be no overnight miracle from the designation of Thorne.

Last year, the people of Thorne brought themselves together in a wonderful example of self-help and determination to try to resist the decline in their economy. At one time, a major employer in the area was GEC, but its factory lies empty, another victim of the folly of allowing the imports of consumer durables from the far east. Lord Weinstock of the GEC was so impressed by the people's determination that he met the expense of opening the factory for a short period, so that it could be used as the basis for a publicity campaign to encourage industrial development and investment in Thorne. Although the campaign did not produce any miracles, it sowed the seeds of optimism to such an extent that the community will try again this year, to see whether it can get industry in Thorne.

What they must feel now is beyond my understanding. A few days ago, there was the loss of 200 more jobs, when Young's Seafoods Ltd. decided to close its food fatory. The Thorne community cannot take much more of this. People there have a positive attitude towards work. Industrial relations are not a problem, environmental conditions are pleasant, the motorway network is superb and we have none of the problems associated with the M25 in the south-east. Traffic moves easily to the east coast ports, to the west, south and north. Thorne needs help now.

The Doncaster local authority has been classed by a leading newspaper as a Labour-controlled council in the hands of good progressive thinkers. That is right. It does not practise extreme policies and it is concerned to improve the quality of life. Thorne is part of the Doncaster metropolitan borough, which has a population of 300,000.

Hon. Members may ask why the unemployed of Thorne do not travel to work in Doncaster and the short answer is that the unemployment figure for the Doncaster travel to work area reached the disastrous level of 21·1 per cent. in January. Now, there is a major threat to employment prospects as British Rail Engineering Ltd. in Doncaster, Central constituency, which you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, represent has come up with a reorganisation plan, and the Confedertion of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions said that the BR board: were unable to offer any statistical evidence to justify their proposals, nor could they provide any information as to how their proposals would affect jobs. That relates to British Rail's decision on the organisation of British Rail's works and plants at Doncaster. It would be a disaster of the first order. The unions have considered the plans and they estimate that of the 3,000 people who work there, more than 1,500 would be made redundant if the plans were accepted. That cannot be allowed to take place. The plant has been in the forefront of engine building. It has built some of the great engines of our time and the workers have the skills needed to build engines.

I ask the Minister to consider the issue and not to allow the rape of industry in Doncaster to take place. My right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Mr. Walker) has already been in touch with the chairman of British Rail and we are hoping for an early meeting with him.

I condemn British Rail's invitation to foreign companies to tender for £1·5 billion worth of diesel and electric locomotives that could be built in Doncaster. Doncaster is capable of building them and it is only right that they should be built there. I ask the Minister to give whatever help he can.

Youth unemployment in Doncaster is as bad as in the third world countries. Only 10 per cent. of young people coming out of school find employment. The under-achievers in the education system are currently provided for by training workshops operated by the council under the youth training scheme. I ask the Minister if it is possible for the scheme at Thorne to continue. Personally, I am pessimistic about the matter. I realise that the Minister will not be able to tell me this evening if the Manpower Services Commission can continue with the scheme, but perhaps he will write to me.

The Government continue to limit the contributions of local councils to economic regeneration. They are trying to ensure that, excluding the run-up to parliamentary elections, local authorities will be starved of resources and denied access to their funds of capital, which could reduce unemployment and improve the infrastructure. When the upturn in the economy comes, that will be needed to get Britain off the ground.

South Yorkshire council has worked hard. It has helped with factories and factory units being created in Thorne, but we must try to get people into them. This is not the occasion to debate the demerits of the Government's economic strategy. Those who wrote it and who are ensuring its implementation cannot be blinded by the appalling human problems in my constituency. The Government are the servant of the public, and Members of Parliament are here to serve. We have no right to inflict hardship, distress and despair. I hope that the Minister will give an undertaking to carry out an urgent inquiry into the issues that I have raised. The Government must use all available resources to stop the rot and to improve job prospects, which would provide hope for the future of our industries.

The Government are a major employer. I hope that they will take account of constituencies such as Doncaster, North when they are identifying areas of location and relocation for Government enterprises and administration. I hope that the Government's initiative will not be confined to the statement that a few jobs have been provided at the new prison at Lindholme. However much those jobs are needed, they do little to ease the distress or to give hope for the future. The people of Doncaster want the right to work. It is up to the Minister and the Government to ensure that right.

Photo of Mr Martin Redmond Mr Martin Redmond , Don Valley 10:14 pm, 13th February 1986

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Welsh) for allowing me to participate in this Adjournment debate. I also thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Minister.

I intend to say three nasty words to the Minister. They are "long-term planning". I thought I saw the Minister cringe when he heard those words. I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for using those blasphemous words in the Chamber, but long-term planning has not been practised by the Government since 1979. In West Germany, when new technology is proposed to be introduced into a company which would make men redundant, discussions take place on where that manpower will go to after the technology has been introduced. With planning, no one is thrown onto the scrapheap.

When the Government came to power, they lifted exchange controls and allowed money to flow abroad to create manufacturing jobs at the expense of jobs in Britain. Had that investment been made in our manufacturing base, we would not be in this decline. The entire Doncaster area has been hit extremely hard by the Government's policies, especially Don Valley. The Mexborough and Conisbrough area has an official unemployment rate of 23 per cent. It would be higher but for the Government's manipulation to mask the true figures. In 1985, of 520 school leavers, only 65 found jobs: 370 are in temporary employment; and 70 will become unemployed at the end of their YTS courses.

The Don Valley is a coal field community in change. The future for coal is uncertain. The pre-strike manpower for the south Yorkshire coalfield was 28,000. The projected figure for March 1986 is 18,000 men. I see that the Under-Secretary of State for Energy is in the Chamber to hear the debate. Yorkshire Main colliery closed with the loss of 1,200 jobs. That pit, which had 20 years' reserve of coal, was shut because one man—the area director—decided it. Cadeby pit now employs only 350 men and, unless the NCB agrees to invest in new seams, it will close. Manvers pit now employs only 820 men, and will close unless it receives investment.

I could give many more figures for my area and for Doncaster, but I hope that I have already shown the terrible consequences of the National Coal Board's policy. NCB (Enterprise) Ltd. is operating in the Doncaster area and has processed 16 loans for a total of £155,000, which has created 61 jobs. But there have been no loans for the Mexborough and Conisbrough areas. The latest regional development grant figures from the Department of Trade and Industry show that of the £1,738,000 grant for Yorkshire and Humberside, only £45,000 will go to the Don Valley.

In your constituency, Mr. Deputy Speaker, British Rail has threatened to close its engineering plant, which has been famous for more than a century, and has been a byword for quality of work. The Flying Scotsman and other engines are fine examples of that quality. About five years ago, the men and management at the plant agreed to make changes in the work practices which British Rail wanted. The estimated profit for the fiscal year 1985–86 is £2,262,000. Yet under BR or BREL they are under a cloud with a job loss of between 1,500 and 2,300. They do not want charity, only the right to work and to compete. They are confident that they can take on all comers, given the chance.

Case International promised 2,000 extra jobs at its factory, but that has yet to be developed. English Estates is helping with its small starter units policy. No one area of help is needed rather help is needed in every area.

The Minister should take note of the following points. First, he should consider motorway provision which would open up the Dearne area to industrialists. Secondly, an increase is needed in the urban programme allocations for community and industrial projects. Doncaster currently receives £320,000 for the whole borough which includes the Conisborough and Mexborough area. That £320,000 comes from the Department of the Environment for urban industrial development, but more money is needed. Thirdly, the Minister should be aware of the need to increase the derelict land allocations. Fourthly, there must be special help from the Invest in Britain bureau, and the regional Department of Trade and Industry to encourage new growth industries into the area. Fifthly, there must be more houses. The lifting of the restrictions on capital receipts would help. Doncaster council is currently exploring joint projects with the private sector. Sixth, there should be tourist grants to exploit Conisborough castle. Seventhly, there should be more Manpower Services Commission assistance to develop further training workshops and for an information centre for new business. Finally, there should be the removal of the moratorium on English Estates to enable the next phase of its development on the Denaby industrial estate to commence.

The Department of Employment is sending out inquiries directly to the council, as the county council will no longer exist. I ask the Minister that they be sent out only to development areas. The desperate situation that I have briefly outlined shows that if there is to be any improvement in the morale and in the employment situation in Mexborough and Doncaster all the points I have mentioned must be considered and action must be taken quickly before there is further deterioration.

I ask the Minister to galvanise the various Departments to ensure that collectively help can be forthcoming. We have the manpower and the skills. Please give us the opportunity for those skills to be used in the Doncaster area.

Photo of Mr Ian Lang Mr Ian Lang , Galloway and Upper Nithsdale 10:23 pm, 13th February 1986

I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Welsh) for his kind welcome to me on this my first appearance at the Dispatch Box and I take careful note of the advice that he gave.

I welcome the opportunity afforded by this Adjournment debate to deal with the serious issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I fully appreciate his sincere concern over the problems that many of his constituents face. I shall try to answer as many of his points as possible in the time available. It was also interesting to have the contribution from the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond). I note that the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) has been present throughout the debate. It is particularly appropriate that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central, should have consented to take the Chair.

Unemployment is not just a local or even a national problem but one faced by most of the industrialised world. There are, however, parts of the country that have been particularly badly hit by market conditions and the consequent need for structural change. Employment in the Doncaster area has been dependent traditionally on a few big manufacturing employers. There have been a number of plant closures and contractions in recent years, particularly in mining and engineering. Doncaster is not unique in this respect but that, of course, is no comfort to those affected.

The hon. Member for Doncaster, North particularly mentioned the announcement of the closure of the Youngs Seafoods factory at Thorne. I understand that the reason for this was increasing production costs and the effect of stiff competition. The loss of 190 jobs is very regrettable, but that decision is and must be a matter for the commercial judgment of the company. We would be deceiving the workforce if we pretended otherwise. I understand that work will be transferred to the Grimsby plant and the cold storage depot at Thorne will, in fact, be retained and expanded. It remains true that the frozen food industry in general is doing well with a steadily growing volume of sales.

Doncaster has traditionally been a railway town and British Rail Engineering has been a major source of employment. The BR board has been seeking to reorganise BREL into a more efficient, independent company with two distinct business groups with Doncaster as part of the maintenance group. BR is still working out the detailed implications of the new policies. I know that in seeking cost-effective use of its assets it will take full account of the expertise and facilities at Doncaster. BR has already announced that its new national store will be based at Doncaster.

I welcome the presence of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy. I know that there has been a significant reduction in job opportunities in the area. The NCB of course maintain its policy of ensuring that there is a job for every man who wishes to remain in the industry. Also, under a £10 million contract signed in May last year the Skillcentre Training Agency agrees to provide training for people leaving the mining industry under the NCB's voluntary redundancy arrangements. The agency provides work assessment, occupational training and training for self employment to meet individual and market needs. I understand that there are no further closures under consideration in south Yorkshire at present and, with production records being broken every week, there is a healthy future for the coal industry.

Doncaster has clearly been through a hard period of readjustment, as the traditional sources of employment have been contracting. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that there are no grounds for optimism. It is never easy to adjust to major shifts in market conditions, but Doncaster has a number of factors going for it. It is a fact of life that the service sector is becoming a more and more important generator of employment. Doncaster is a retailing centre with a large catchment area. Sainsbury's opened its first northern store in Doncaster and Hillards plans to open a new superstore in Doncaster which could create up to 250 jobs. The first phase of a £22 million leisure centre at Doncaster airfield is due to start in March. Facilities will include a £14 million water sports centre and a hotel and shopping centre. Such a major enterprise is bound to attract jobs and have a knock-on effect in attracting firms to the area. Doncaster has good communications—it is one and a half hours from London by train and within easy motorway driving distance of the Humberside ports as well being alongside the Al and close to the M1. The countryside around Doncaster is varied and attractive ranging from Forestry Commission plantations in the south to the flatlands in the east. There is real potential for tourism here—not yet exploited — with such attractions as the improved south Yorkshire canal and Conisbrough castle. I am glad to see that Doncaster local authority is working hard to sell the area's undoubted advantages.

Although there are those encouraging signs, I fully accept that a great deal more needs to be done to bring about a turn round in Doncaster's fortunes. Of course, the Government must play their part. The whole of the local authority area has assisted area status with Rotherham and Mexborough having development area status, thus attracting the highest levels of regional aid, receiving over £8 million by way of regional development grants since 1979. For the Doncaster and Rotherham and Mexborough assisted areas as a whole, regional assistance has helped create over 5,000 jobs and safeguarded over 4,500 existing ones.

The assistance is now focused directly on job creation, rather than on encouraging capital-intensive investment by firms which would not significantly expand employment. Also, since last November, some service sector activities are eligible for regional aid for the first time. All this I believe shows the Government's practical concern to help those areas which have been hardest hit by unemployment to adapt to structural change, new markets and to attract investment there.

Enthusiasm and hard work are essential for enterprise to succeed. Sound advice is also needed and so is training. The Government's adult training strategy and their youth training scheme have an important role to play. The extension of the YTS to two years from April represents a major step towards ensuring that all young people under 18 are either in jobs, in full-time education or undertaking high quality training.

As well as young people, we are particularly concerned about the problems of the long-term unemployed, in Doncaster as elsewhere. The community programme—our major scheme to help the long-term unemployed—has been expanded by 100,000 places nationally this year, with an increase in places in the metropolitan district of Doncaster to 2,407, double the figure for last year.

There are many ways in which the Government are giving support and encouragement to the Doncaster area in meeting the challenges it continues to face. Doncaster has high unemployment and declining traditional industries. It also has a great deal of potential for revival and expansion. Regional aid and employment and training measures represent a firm Government commitment to the future of the area. That commitment, together with the efforts of the people of Doncaster themselves, is beginning to pay off. There is still much to do to adapt successfully to change and I hope that the people of Doncaster will agree that we have done a great deal to help.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.