Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4.59 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Gentleman, who I think represents Wolverhampton, South-East.

Mr. Purchase: North-East.

Mr. Robertson: Sorry, I mean the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase), who demonstrated a great knowledge of industry and its failings. He referred in particular to some of the weak management in industry. I do not need to declare an interest, but I worked in industry for most of the 18 years of Tory rule to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I shall return to that subject shortly.

I worked for the textile industry for many years. It faced many pressures and its decline is sad. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that its management was not all that it should have been. We must accept that if manufacturing industry is to return to, or at least approach, its former glories it must be managed better than in the past. That does not apply to all manufacturing industry, some of which is managed extremely well.

I disagree with the earlier part of the hon. Gentleman's speech, in which he referred to 18 years of mismanagement by the Tory Administration. I worked in industry in the 1980s and in the 1970s. Anyone who criticises the Conservative Government's record on industry should compare the two decades. In the 1970s, some disgraceful things went on; it is no wonder that so many jobs were lost. Jobs were lost in the 1980s and the 1990s, but many were also lost in the 1970s.

24 Jan 2001 : Column 950

Worse than the terrible demonstrations of union power in the 1970s was management's fear of managing. That emphasises how desperate matters were in industry in those days. I am proud that the Conservative Government introduced changes to trade union law and other changes that transformed industry. I would dispute the case with anyone who claimed that the predicament of manufacturing was worse after 1979 than before. It is simply not true.

I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not here, but he cannot be here all the time. His speech was contradictory. He referred to many job losses that happened in 1991-92 in what he accurately described as a recession. It was a terrible recession, which affected the businesses that I was trying to help. The small business that I ran then had a difficult time in 1991, which was probably the worst year of my working life. I therefore fully appreciate the pain.

The Conservative Government participated in a European experiment called the exchange rate mechanism, which was a disaster from which they never recovered. The Secretary of State would say that the right convergence criteria did not exist then, and that we went in at the wrong rate. There is no such thing as the wrong rate--whatever the rate, it was right but the system was wrong. The Secretary of State acknowledges that the pound is now even stronger against some currencies. Joining the single currency would therefore lock us into the wrong system for ever: not for Christmas, not for a few weeks, not for two years--the period after which we left the ERM with great pain--but for ever.

The Secretary of State listed all the companies that he claims have brought jobs to this country--if they have, I welcome that. He quoted from The Sun; I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) takes it daily. He quoted the words:

However, the right hon. Gentleman contemplates taking us into the single currency when there is no need to do that. If we joined, we would lose control over our interest rates, and be in exactly the same position as we were in the 1991 recession, which the Secretary of State condemned. I stress that his words are contradictory and simply do not make sense.

I want to consider one or two other matters, which I raised in an Adjournment debate some months ago, such is my interest in manufacturing industry. I agree with the Secretary of State about the importance of manufacturing industry to the country. I shall deal with jobs shortly.

The Secretary of State rightly referred to the industrial revolution. It happened a long time ago, but it was important because it created wealth. When manufacturing developed in terms of mechanisation, automation and productivity, we all became better off. We all know how much cheaper electrical goods are now, relatively speaking, than they were some years ago. Productivity improvements in the manufacturing rather than the service sector mean that we are more prosperous and have more goods.

Sadly, as has been said, many manufacturing jobs have been lost. In 1950, 8.3 million people were employed in manufacturing; now the figure is only 4 million at the most. Whereas in 1950, 41 per cent. of the work force were in manufacturing jobs, only 16 per cent. are in such jobs now. That is partly, but not wholly, due to the

24 Jan 2001 : Column 951

improvements in productivity, mechanisation and automation that I mentioned. The manufacturing share of gross domestic product has also declined, from 37 per cent. in 1950 to 20 per cent. today.

I have mentioned my concern about the textile industry. It remains, but it dates from the time when I lived in the north-west. Now that I represent Tewkesbury, I am particularly concerned about the aerospace industry, although it is doing well and receiving many orders. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East mentioned takeovers and mergers, which I think the Government should consider in detail. There were competition worries when British Aerospace merged with Marconi Electronic Systems not long ago, and I wish that they had been examined more thoroughly.

When noting the big orders that the industry may receive, will the Government also give careful attention to the assistance that foreign Governments give companies in their countries? I know that we have competition laws throughout Europe, but I am not entirely convinced that they are being obeyed.

There are different ways of helping industries. There is the launch aid project; and Governments in other countries, especially France, provide subsidies and other help. The Government should be aware of that. If we are to have a level playing field in Europe, we must have a level playing field in every sense of the term. I am not sure that our aerospace companies receive the same kind of help as aerospace companies in other countries. That is of great concern to aerospace companies in my constituency--Smiths Industries, Messier Dowty, Dowty Aerospace Propellers, Ultra Hydraulics and others. Smaller companies supplying those firms are also very concerned.

In an intervention on the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East, I mentioned the problems experienced by many manufacturing companies in recruiting both trainees and experienced staff. I understand from figures supplied by the House of Commons Library that about 48 per cent. of school leavers are going on to university. I am pleased that many people now go to university--I did not, and I greatly regret it--but when so many are being educated, and industry and, for instance, the technical side of the national health service cannot attract staff, something is not quite right.

The Government can do many things to help the manufacturing industries, but the biggest thing they can do is stay out of the way. We have heard a great deal about competition with companies in Europe, and the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) spoke about the difficulties of competing with companies further afield--I think that he mentioned Korea. Therefore, the last thing we need is the Government piling more and more regulation and taxes on to industry in this country. That is the most stupid thing that anyone could imagine.

The Government have already introduced the climate change levy, as it is euphemistically called. It is actually a tax on energy, and many companies have no option but to use the energy sources involved. If one is deeply concerned about the environment, as I am, and wants to persuade people not to do something, one should provide them with an alternative rather than tax them. In the absence of an alternative, they will not stop doing what they are doing, no matter how much one taxes them.

24 Jan 2001 : Column 952

If we have not realised that in relation to the duty that is added to petrol, it is about time that we started to learn a bit more quickly.

Many of the other laws and taxes that the Government have imposed on businesses have hit industry particularly hard. Such regulations and taxes should be abolished. If the Government are serious about helping the manufacturing industries, the best thing they could do is to stop hindering them by imposing more taxes and laws, which is the last thing they need.

5.11 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): I am grateful for this opportunity to address the House so soon after being returned as the Member for Falkirk, West.

Hon. Members might know that my predecessor, Mr. Dennis Canavan, continues to serve the Falkirk, West constituency in his new capacity as the Member of the Scottish Parliament for our area. That adds an extra element of interest to my job and to my new professional life. I notice that in his maiden speech, Mr. Canavan referred to his predecessor as someone who was very independent-minded. That was true, and it is fair to say that during his own career in the House, Mr. Canavan emulated his predecessor in considerable style.

Mr. Canavan made many contributions while he was here, most notably perhaps on issues of international development and foreign affairs. He also argued the case strongly and vigorously for the creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament. His career here followed an arguable logic, and he is now in the appropriate place. I look forward to developing a good, solid working relationship with such an experienced parliamentarian over the coming months and years.

The manufacturing industry of the United Kingdom is important to the people of Falkirk, West, as it is to everyone else in the UK. Another of my predecessors, now the noble Lord Ewing, referred in 1971 to the Falkirk area--in which my present constituency is located--as solely an iron town. He was referring to the ironworks that provided a great deal of employment in the area over the years, and that led to "Falkirk" being stamped on many iron objects across the world today, including cannon in India and Pakistan and the engine blocks of many ships--some still sailing, some long out of service.

Since 1971, in just one generation, the ironworks of Falkirk has been in decline, like the mining industry of central Scotland, and has now closed. Unemployment in my constituency is therefore a considerable enemy today. However, it has fallen sharply in the past few years, and continues to do so, primarily for two reasons. First, some of the secondary industries, the manufacturing industries related to the former iron industry, continue to be very successful--most notably Alexanders, the bus builder, which maintains a strong export order book and whose buses will soon be seen on the streets of New York for the first time.

Although unemployment is still a problem in Falkirk, and there is a great deal further to go, there has been a sharp decline recently. The second reason for that is the expansion of service industries, particularly telecommunications, east along the central Scottish belt towards and beyond Falkirk. Very soon, a new telecoms centre will be established in Falkirk, providing some 700 jobs. That is clearly greatly to be welcomed.

24 Jan 2001 : Column 953

In both industrial sectors, the people of Falkirk are responding well to the new challenges of change. We are extremely well served in that by our local tertiary education institution, Falkirk college, which I believe is a college of the first order. The challenge for individuals and for colleges such as Falkirk is to ensure that workers and future workers develop strong core literacy, numeracy and technological awareness skills, which will enable them to compete on the job market, enable the local economy to compete and, ultimately, enable the national economy to compete on the world market.

Equally, employers have a responsibility to ensure that they involve themselves in that local and national economic and human development. That means taking a close interest in the content of the courses taught in our schools and colleges and also involves the way in which employers run their firms. That means intelligent governance based on sound partnership with the work force, unions and, of course, the local community.

Stretching the indulgence of the House a tad further, may I refer to local heritage in Falkirk, West, which is important because it provides a great many jobs? Falkirk is the home of perhaps Scotland's finest municipal park, Callendar park, and the Antonine wall built by the Romans runs the length of the constituency. The same geographical logic that led to its construction also led to two famous engagements--famous in Scotland, at least. The battles of Falkirk took place in the Jacobite period and, much earlier, in the time of William Wallace.

In addition, and on a more contemporary note, my constituency is unique in Scotland, and possibly the United Kingdom, in having not one nor two but three senior football teams and two junior teams. One team, Falkirk FC, is, I hope, about to get a brand new stadium.

Added to all that will be the Falkirk wheel. Many hon. Members may not have heard of it, but, when it is completed next year, it will represent one of the finest engineering achievements of the early 21st century. The Falkirk wheel will connect two canals that do not quite meet. They run from east to west--or west to east, depending on the direction in which people travel--across Scotland. People will be able to sail from one to the other, although I do not know whether I should call what people do in boats that go along canals sailing; and, again depending on the direction in which people travel, they will be either lifted or dropped 130 ft in one smooth motion. That remarkable achievement will add considerably to the economic life and physical landscape of Falkirk, West. I am sure that every Member present will want to see the wheel, and I can organise a visit should Members so choose.

The people of Falkirk, West look forward to the developing 21st century with considerable optimism, but never complacency, especially in respect of jobs and our manufacturing, engineering and service industries. I am proud to have been allowed to make my maiden speech on such an important topic, and I thank hon. Members for the way in which they have received me.

Next Section

IndexHome Page