Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab): First, I associate myself with the comments of the mover and seconder of the loyal address. My hon. Friends addressed the House with grace and wit, and created a sense of fun. Of course, we do not really come here to enjoy ourselves; anyone who wants to leave the Chamber now is free to do so, before I start boring hon. Members to death.

This Queen's Speech contains many measures and, in common with what has been said in the newspapers over the past few days, I believe that it is a Queen's Speech for an election. I am reliably informed by the Sunday papers that it is based on the themes of security and opportunity. Those are certainly fine sentiments. We have talked about being British and I believe that we are entitled to expect any British Government to ensure that we can enjoy both security and opportunity. Those will be the themes of Labour's general election manifesto.

It seems to me that not much changes. Once again, the election will be fought, won or lost on the economy and how people feel about their personal circumstances. It was interesting that the Gracious Speech opened with the sentence:

Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear me say, as I have before, that at the heart of that economic strategy must be the continuing development of a manufacturing strategy. I believe that the Government have paid proper attention to that, but more needs to be done. I want to say sincerely, not just in passing, that the manufacturing advisory service, set up by the Government, is now working effectively across the nation. In my region of the west midlands especially, it is making an important contribution to companies and firms that wish to take on innovative processes, find new ways of doing things and share that information with the particular sector in which they are operating. There is no question but that the service has made a serious contribution to companies and I pay tribute to it.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): My hon. Friend represents a black country constituency and I represent a Lancashire constituency, both of which are heavily dependent on the manufacturing sector. My hon. Friend welcomes current developments, but is it not also important for the Government to do even more for research and development, especially if we are to advance the sharp-end industries such as aerospace, pharmaceuticals and so on?

Mr. Purchase: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the similarities between our constituencies. We both have aerospace sectors, which indeed provide the cutting edge of research and development, that are greedy and anxious for further investment in new products, blue-sky thinking and, most importantly, innovation. Our companies must innovate and bring useful products to the marketplace, which can also help the rest of the industry. I entirely accept my hon. Friend's point; we share the same view on that matter.

I should like to make a couple of points about manufacturing. First, it has been tremendous to see the productivity gains that have been made by
23 Nov 2004 : Column 38
manufacturing industries. Many of those gains were forced by necessity as a result of difficult competitive conditions in Europe and worldwide. Despite those conditions, we have seen an annualised rate of something like 5 per cent. growth in manufacturing productivity while the economy as a whole has also improved, but only by about half that annualised rate.

Manufacturing employment, of course, has fallen by nearly 5 per cent. in 2003 alone, even though output has risen. That accounts mathematically for the improvement in productivity, but the loss of employment is keenly felt in my constituency. I cannot give the complete story, but I have to tell the House that a very important company in my constituency will make the sad announcement of its closure tomorrow. The company has manufactured in Wolverhampton for close on 100 years, but its last 150 jobs will be lost to the area tomorrow.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the jobs that will be lost in his constituency. He and I are as one in our support for manufacturing. Will he state clearly that the Government can play a major role in ensuring a satisfactory and prosperous future for manufacturing industry by minimising social and additional on-costs? In addition, should not the Government ensure that, where possible, contracts are placed with UK manufacturing concerns? In this connection, I am thinking particularly about textiles and the Ministry of Defence. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that such contracts should not be placed with dubious holding companies or shell companies that place manufacturing overseas?

Mr. Purchase: The hon. Gentleman describes the unacceptable face of capitalism when he talks about shell companies. It is unfortunate that some companies on the international stage feel that they can compete only by stripping out all the major costs incurred in an advanced economy like the UK's. I do not accept that the social costs of employment should be stripped out. When he uses the word "minimising", does the hon. Gentleman mean that adequate provision will be made for workers? If so, I am with him entirely. However, I do not want such provision to be cut away to the level sometimes evident in the far east or Latin America, where workers are nothing but units of production with no social or economic life of their own. That is not the way forward for us. In fact, it was a member of the Conservative party who said that Britain would be lost if it had to compete only in terms of rates of pay for workers. We cannot win by taking that approach.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): On that point, does the hon. Gentleman agree that companies have a lot to gain from the motivation and loyalty of their staff? Employers, especially in the textile industry—and the Laura Ashley company has been creating uncertainty about employment in my area—must recognise that the UK is a superb employment base, where workers will render loyal service as long as they feel that they are being treated like people.

Mr. Purchase: The hon. Gentleman makes a point that I would be proud to make myself. He is absolutely right. One of my big disappointments is that my colleagues in this Labour Government have found it
23 Nov 2004 : Column 39
necessary to wait on legislation from Europe before improving the condition of workers in this country. In my view, a Labour Government should have been able to achieve that improvement on their own, but the improvement is being made, in the way that has been described, and I support that.

I was talking about statistics. The fall in manufacturing employment is a serious problem, but output has risen by 5 per cent., which accounts for the improvement in productivity. Manufacturing investment continues to rise, and national surveys reveal considerable confidence in manufacturing circles. That confidence may not be as high as it was a couple of years ago, but it is still quite strong. We have lots to build on, and lots to do. I believe that the manufacturing base in this country still represents the most important engine for growth of any sector in the whole economy.

I want so speak briefly about Wolverhampton and the surrounding area. As a recent survey by the local chamber of commerce set out, the paradox is that although sales and profits are rising, there is a lack of growth in real confidence. That is mainly explained by cash-flow difficulties and falling revenues, but also by business investment itself showing some strength.

It is a mixed picture, but what is important is that the Government give as much support as they can. That means creating an environment in which companies feel able to take on new workers and to cope with the legislation that we rain down on them from time to time. In the majority of cases, I believe that we do that for perfectly good, sound, sensible reasons, but sometimes we may not give enough lead-in time before laws take effect, and that can create difficulties, particularly for smaller companies that simply cannot cope with some of the legislation that we ask them to deal with, particularly that relating to what my colleagues describe as the work-life balance.

I have told one of my right hon. Friends about a company in my constituency that employs 20 women on hand presses and one or two smaller hydraulic presses. Two youngish men are employed as setters, and they also clean up the tools a bit and make sure everyone has enough work to do. There is one woman, in the office, doing the bits and pieces, and she has a little computer to get the payroll done and one or two other things. Finally, there is the owner of the company. It just so happens that both men—nice men, married men—have wives who are having babies. I really do not see how that company, which has 20 women to keep moving on the presses, can afford to have the two setters off at the same time on paternity leave. I hope that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will recognise that not all industry is made up of massive companies with enough resources to bring in different people at different times. In particular, the west midlands and the north-west have a plethora of smaller companies, sometimes with no more than half a dozen or 20 workers. If one person is out of that work force, it creates quite a difficulty. I hope that the Government will understand what is said by people such as me who have spent 20 or more years in industry and who try to understand the difficulties created when we introduce legislation. However laudable, sensible and honourable that legislation may seem—much of it can
23 Nov 2004 : Column 40
be embraced and worked through with a little flexibility and a little help—we must bear it in mind that it can create pretty serious difficulties.

Our manufacturers are doing very well on exports. They are working damned hard. They are creating markets and going out to exploit the opportunities that arise. But we should tell the manufacturing sector how we see the future and that we know that that sector is where the real wealth of the country is produced. We should tell it that we want to give it all the help and support we possibly can.

There are many measures in the Queen's Speech, and many will be addressed later in a far more detailed way than I can even attempt today. I shall confine myself to two or three more points. I feel particularly strongly about educational opportunity and allowing all individuals to realise their full potential. I shall absolutely resist going down one particular route on that; those on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench are already smiling at me, but I will resist them, because that subject would not be helpful to what I want to say. My point is that my Front-Bench colleagues seem absolutely intent on change, change and more change, but I am not at all sure that all that change is compatible with improving opportunity or that people can continue to cope with it.

I am absolutely convinced that the way to offer the widest possible opportunity for excellence in both academic work and practical and technical work is through the comprehensive education system. Where we can bring together on one site the skills, abilities, experience and dedication of our teachers, who can offer the wide curriculum that all children deserve an opportunity to take, we avoid the falseness of the intake into grammar schools. I have two good grammar schools in Wolverhampton, one for girls and a mixed one that is now private. They do excellent work; I have no quarrel with that. I want that excellence extended right across the secondary state sector. The only practical way to do that—it remains as true now as it was in 1966—is by bringing the skills that we need on to one site and to offer the curriculum choices that will, as it says in the Queen's Speech

for the benefit of this country.

Next Section IndexHome Page