27 Jan 1999 : Column 257

House of Commons

Wednesday 27 January 1999

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Textile Industry

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

9.33 am

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about the United Kingdom textile industry, because of a meeting that I had in the Christmas recess with the management and union representatives at John Heathcoat, a very important company in my constituency.

Let me begin by putting into context the company's importance in my constituency and the contribution that it makes to the UK textile industry. In the early 1800s, John Heathcoat invented the revolutionary plain net-making machine and he set up a company to manufacture net in 1808, moving down to Tiverton in 1816 following problems with the Luddites in the midlands. That is the end of the history lesson.

The company is well established and has been in my constituency for a great many years. It is a private company, with all the share capital residing in the Tiverton area. That gives it the freedom to move quickly to get new products into the marketplace. It has a varied manufacturing base, with weaving, warp knitting--both industrial and apparel--weft or jersey knitting, and dyeing and finishing.

Last year, the company had a turnover of £37.8 million and achieved a pre-tax profit of £3.9 million. Although still profitable, the company, along with most in the manufacturing industry, is finding the present situation difficult and is doubtful that last year's profit figures will be matched this year.

The company continues to reinvest heavily in new machinery and techniques, and over the past five years has averaged more than £2 million a year in capital investment, all financed through its own resources. It currently provides 550 jobs in the south-west, spread across all levels of operative administration, technical and senior management. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It has products that people want to buy and keeps its work force fully employed.

John Heathcoat operates mainly in niche areas of business and runs its own research and development unit, focusing on customers' needs and the solutions that they require, with a degree of confidentiality that many other companies find it difficult to match. Among its products are woven fabrics for car airbags and toothed load-transmission belts; parachute fabrics for the Ministry of Defence and other countries; geotextile mattress fabrics; sailcloths--its sailcloth was on Lisa Clayton's

27 Jan 1999 : Column 258

"Spirit of Birmingham" for her single-handed round-the-world trip; specialist seating fabric for the new Mercedes smart car; and fabrics using knitted spacer technology, now extensively used in cot mattresses to help to provide airways for the baby if it rolls onto its face. A development of that technology is now being trialled for intimate apparel.

Heathcoat is one of the largest producers of bridal and dress net in Europe and supplies those fabrics globally. Heathcoat net fabrics are used by the Kirov, Bolshoi and National ballet companies. Its industrial warp knits are used in hose reinforcement in high-temperature and high-pressure hose manufacture and in protective garments for chainsaw users.

The company has deliberately chosen to invest in and make products for a wide variety of niche markets. It is not merely producing mass products that might have competition from the far east; it has deliberately invested in producing quality, value-added products that are needed both at home and abroad.

The company's jersey fabric is used for a wide range of garments sold in the larger UK retail stores and it has an export trade in specialist fabrics for riding wear. It also produces fabrics for career wear--uniforms--used by banks, building societies and retail outlets, and apparelfor use in hostile working environments, including fire-resistant and acid-resistant treated fabrics.

As well as providing an in-house service, the company's dyeing and finishing unit offers a commission dyeing service to other manufacturers and converters selling to the major UK chain stores.

Last year, 45 per cent. of the company's turnover was direct export. It has been very successful and has not rested on its laurels or been overtaken by commercial or scientific developments; rather, it has been involved in innovation in this country's textile industry. It has also paid attention to its environmental performance, being sensitive to the area of great natural beauty in which we in Devon are privileged to live. Last year, the company achieved accreditation to the international environmental management system ISO 14001--becoming the first textile company incorporating dyeing and finishing processes to achieve that accreditation in the UK. All staff on site received environmental awareness training as part of the programme.

On the quality side, the company has been registered to ISO 9002 since 1989, and is currently working to achieve ISO 9001--design and development aspects for quality systems--which it hopes to achieve this year. For many years, the company has enjoyed a good working relationship with its recognised union, the Transport and General Workers Union, with which the company works closely to ensure that it remains at the forefront of technology and achieves the best productivity commensurate with its chosen role in niche markets. At my meeting at the beginning of January with unions and management, I was worried that such a company should be concerned for the future of the industry.

Last week, the Prime Minister was asked about job losses at Wrangler jeans by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), who suggested that the crisis facing the entire clothing and textile industry in this country was

27 Jan 1999 : Column 259

due mainly to high interest rates and the high value of sterling. That view has been commented on by the British Apparel and Textile Confederation, which said recently:

    "Whilst the recent fall in interest rates is to be welcomed, it will be at least six months before its benefits begin to flow through into the economy and thus into the industry. The damage had already been done with the high interest rates we have had to endure over many months."

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Does my hon. Friend accept that, as regards niche markets, exports are important for the industry as a whole--particularly in the east midlands? We accept that there are problems with sourcing by major retailers, but the industry has managed to capture a number of niche markets. My hon. Friend mentioned a firm in her constituency, and a number of firms in the east midlands have also looked at those niche markets. That is why the export market is particularly important to the textile industry, and that is why it is particularly vulnerable when we have high levels of sterling.

Mrs. Browning: My hon. Friend is exactly right. The strength of sterling has led to exports becoming increasingly difficult, and that has been compounded by economic problems in some of our major markets. In addition, imports have become cheaper.

Over the first six months of 1998, exports of clothing and textiles were 20 per cent. down on the comparative period of the previous year. At the same time, consumer confidence in the UK market has been dented. At a time when UK manufacturing industry is having to contend with increased costs, it has also had to contend with social legislation, including the working time regulations and the national minimum wage. The British Apparel and Textile Confederation has stated that

That is a very worrying statement. The TGWU estimates that 500 jobs are being lost in the industry every week. If one looks at the pattern of job losses in the last six months of 1998 alone, one sees that there has been an acceleration.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Will the hon. Lady acknowledge that that is exactly the problem for some very respected companies, such as the one that she has mentioned and Laura Ashley in my constituency which, through no fault of its own, has found itself having to downsize simply to stay afloat?

Mrs. Browning: Indeed. That trend is gathering momentum, and that is why it is good to have an opportunity to debate the matter on the Floor of the House. I have a long list, covering two whole sides of A4, of the job losses in the past six months in the industry. These are spread throughout the country, but particularly affect the midlands, the north of England and Scotland.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): Has my hon. Friend given any thought to the level of interest rates in the UK? I am sure that the Minister will remind the House that interest rates in the UK are at their lowest for a long time.

27 Jan 1999 : Column 260

Is not the real problem that while in the rest of Europe interest rates are at 3 per cent., our interest rates are at more than 6 per cent.? In fact, we are increasingly seeing the level of the euro go down and the level of the pound go up. The Government must intervene, and not simply leave it to the Bank of England.

Next Section

IndexHome Page