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Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is the convention of the House that the official Opposition occupy the Benches above the Opposition Gangway. Liberal Democrat Members are not Members of the official Opposition. As no Members of the official Opposition are in the Chamber at present, it does not matter that Liberal Democrat Members are seated on the Benches that are normally occupied by the official Opposition, but tomorrow Liberal Democrat Members will be in their usual place. They have only a short loan of the Benches in question.



Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Following the observations that you made a few moments ago, are we to take it that if the official Opposition do not turn up tomorrow their Benches may be occupied by others?

Mr. Speaker: In this place, we take one day at a time.

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Manufacturing (Denton)

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

10.26 pm

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I am grateful to have the opportunity to debate manufacturing industry in Denton, but I am sad that I have to report the tragic state of that industry in my constituency.

In the past four months, in and around Denton, a substantial number of jobs have been lost. Just across the border, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Heyes), we have lost Celestica—the former ICL company has completely disappeared from the Greater Manchester area. Strachan and Henshaw has closed. A large number of my constituents work at Woodford and Chariton, where there have also been substantial redundancies. Other engineering firms in my constituency face short-time working.

The real blow for the people of Denton—I feel it too—is the decision by Oldham Batteries to close its operation at Crown Point. The company has been in Denton for more than 100 years and it employed more than 1,000 people not so long ago. It is a sad blow that the firm—the largest manufacturing firm in Denton by far—is about to close.

There is a sorry tale of lack of interest from a succession of the people who owned the company. As long as it was a separate enterprise, there was a willingness to invest, but as the company gradually moved—first into the Mirlees Blackstone group, then to the Hawker group and, more recently, to Invensys—there has been a lack of concern for the people of Denton.

It is especially sad that, recently, Invensys has been sending a managing director to Denton for only one day a week to run the plant. How can anyone have a commitment to a local community when they visit it only once a week? That makes it extremely difficult for shop stewards and other people to lobby and argue for more investment in the Denton plant.

We can see in Denton a microcosm of the problems facing the whole UK. We are allowing manufacturing industry in this country to get into a state of terminal decline. Who is to blame? There has been a succession of people in Whitehall—civil servants as well as Ministers from both parties—whose hearts were not in trying to protect and defend manufacturing industry in this country.

I want to examine some of the factors that are crucial for manufacturing industry. The first is the rate of exchange between the pound and the euro. That has worked against manufacturing industry. If we go into the euro system, we must find an exchange rate that is much more favourable to the industry.

It appears that it is much easier for companies to get rid of jobs in Britain than in many EU countries. I have repeatedly been told by shop stewards that employment laws in France and Germany offer workers far greater protection. Because of that, firms with trans-European interests are much less likely to consider reducing employment in those countries, but find Britain a soft touch.

Perhaps shop stewards always make that point, but Oldham Batteries' managing director, Mr. Rowson, said the same thing when he gave the management's point of

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view. It is high time the Government gave much better protection to people in British industry, and ensured that they were not the soft touch in Europe when it came to getting rid of staff.

We must also consider how the capitalist system works in this country. Shareholders seem to feel little or no concern about whether companies operate as manufacturers or whether the aim is simply to sell off land. When I look around Denton, I am sad to see the numerous examples of how manufacturing industry has been destroyed by companies that can make more money from selling sites than from maintaining manufacturing.

Such companies include Lancaster Carpets and Sainsbury. I am not quite as critical of the toilet seat company called Celmac, which is turning its site over to Morrison supermarkets. It is moving to another location in Tameside, so at least the jobs are being retained, but it is another example of a company that sees that it can make more money from turning a site over to retail than from continuing in manufacturing.

Oldham Batteries wants to sell its site for retail usage, but the company now complains that it might not be able to. That seems a sad reflection on the attitudes of companies and shareholders in this country. They are just as happy to make money from selling land as from providing jobs.

How far should the Government support industry? It is recognised, on the east side of Manchester, that there is a lack of jobs. However, instead of helping industry, the Government devote money to various regeneration packages. That money does not find its way through into encouraging innovation.

I argue that the Government should encourage innovation with regard to batteries. I accept that, since Oldham made the generating batteries for underground haulage in mines and for cap lamps, the industry was likely to contract. However, there has been great opportunity for innovation in the manufacture of electric batteries for cars, for small vehicles used in street cleaning, and so on. The Government should have encouraged innovation much more.

I shall not go on much longer, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne wants to make a few comments. However, I hope that the Government will act quickly to ensure that companies in Britain cannot get rid of their labour force more quickly than firms elsewhere in Europe.

My second plea to the Government is that, if we are to protect manufacturing industry in this country, we must look at the exchange rate. We cannot consider joining the euro at the present rate.

At present, Oldham's work force is working with the local Tameside council to see whether a rescue package can be produced. One possibility is that the manufacture of miners' cap lamp batteries could continue as a small operation in Tameside. I plead with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for at least some help in that regard. It would be much appreciated.

A small number of manufacturers have an attitude different from the one that I have described. For example, the Hyde group that operates in Tameside does not have to worry about making a profit this year and satisfying shareholders in the short term. That is because of the way the shares are held in the company. The group has a

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record of investing in manufacturing industry in Tameside. The Government should work hard at finding ways to help the group with that, and they should recognise the large amount that it does to help the area.

I spoke to Tony Hodkinson, the managing director of Harvey, which is a part of the Hyde group that wants to make machine tools for the aircraft industry. During September and October it was on short time, but it has the necessary long-term commitment and is trying very hard to fight its way through what in manufacturing terms is a recession. I plead with the Minister to offer some hope to those companies. The Government should realise that some companies are trying to fight the system and keep manufacturing in place, and they should give them some recognition for doing so.

It would be easy for the Chancellor to provide much better allowances for the investment, but the message that I want to get across in this Adjournment debate is that manufacturing industry is in crisis across the country, of which Denton is a microcosm. We cannot go on just with service industries; we need to keep our manufacturing base.

When I was brought up in Greater Manchester, one of the best things that a youngster could do was get an engineering apprenticeship. Over the years, we have destroyed almost all the apprenticeship system because of the decline in manufacturing industry. We now have at least to tell the companies that are trying to do something about that that the Government want to help them, so I have some requests for the Minister. Please let us do something about changing the redundancy regulations in this country, so that we give workers some protection. Let us consider our exchange rate policy, so that it provides manufacturing with some protection. Let us ensure that some help is provided in the Budget to keep manufacturing industry going in this country.

10.36 pm

Mr. David Heyes (Ashton-under-Lyne): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) on securing tonight's debate on this most important matter, which is hardly less important to my constituents than to his. I am pleased to have the opportunity to make what I promise will be a very brief contribution.

My hon. Friend and I are, of course, next-door neighbours, with the larger parts of our constituencies sitting in the borough of Tameside. Many of my constituents travel to work in Denton, and I am sure that many of my hon. Friend's constituents travel to work in Ashton-under-Lyne. That travel-to-work pattern has been made easier in the past year, since the opening of the final section of the Manchester outer ring road. Junction 22 at Hollinwood and junction 23 at Ashton- under-Lyne serve my constituency, and junction 24 serves Denton in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Although that road's completion was 20 years behind schedule, we all had great hopes that improved access to the national road network would give a much-needed boost to efforts to attract industry and employment to our part of the world. In fact, the reverse has been the case. Despite the energetic and persuasive efforts of local partners—I single out for special mention our local

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authority in Tameside—there has been an exodus of relatively high-tech manufacturing jobs in the past six months. In some cases, those jobs were located just a few yards from the new motorway.

My hon. Friend has spoken of the problems in Denton, and I share his sadness about hundreds of job losses at British Aerospace in Chadderton and Woodford, where many of my constituents and his are employed, and at Siemens in Hollinwood. More than 800 electronics jobs have gone at Celestica—the remnants of the once mighty ICL, which bestrides the boundary between our constituencies. Many other jobs have gone or are currently under threat.

So how are we to explain what has been happening? One thing is certain: in none of those cases should blame be laid at the door of the workers or trade unions. Productivity levels can match those anywhere else in the United Kingdom or western Europe. Our industrial relations climate has been exemplary. Our labour costs, given the highly skilled nature of many of these jobs, are among the keenest. That, coupled with the skill, dedication and experience of many of our locally based managers, has often given us the competitive edge, until recently.

The global economic forces, structural shifts and exchange rate problems that we have witnessed being played out locally, which my hon. Friend has mentioned, are frankly beyond the ability of our constituents or local agencies to control. My hon. Friend has given his explanation for what has gone wrong and his prescription for action to hold the situation and to start to turn it round. I need not repeat that; I simply wholeheartedly endorse what he said. For the benefit of my constituents, as much as his, I join him in requesting that serious attention be given to what has been said in this debate. I know that I can count on the Minister to take on board our plea.

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