§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. R. I. Taylor.]
§ 10.1 p.m.
§ Mr. J. Langford-Holt (Shrewsbury)
Inside and outside the House there has been a considerable amount of talk and discussion on the question of rules, regulations and restrictions. We on this side of the House have often been challenged by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite to give an example of where these rules and restrictions are operating in the way in which we say they frequently operate. One of the frequent targets for attack is the system, which is found all too frequently within the Civil Service and Government Departments, of what is commonly known as "passing the buck" from one Department to another, and one Ministry to another.
The particular incident to which I desire to draw attention tonight is, in my view, unparalleled, and is the absolute height of fatuity. I hope the House will forgive me if, during the course of what I have to say, I quote fairly largely from correspondence. The story concerns the Malehurst Barytes Company, of Minsterley, Shropshire, manufacturers of all sorts of barytes, which is comparatively unimportant at this stage. The story begins on 19th September last year, on which date the company wrote to the Board of Trade and asked if they could receive an application form for the purchase of towels for the use of their miners. These miners number exactly 45, no more and no less. On 1st October the Department wrote back to the Malehurst Company saying:As the contents of your letter of the i9th instant are not within the responsibility of the Board of Trade, it has been sent to 479 the Ministry of Fuel and Power at Millbank, which is the address you should use for any further communication on this subject.I would like the hon. Gentleman who is to reply to remember that at a later stage when we come to discuss his Department. I cannot quite understand why the Board of Trade sent this to the Ministry of Fuel and Power. What has barytes to do with either fuel or power? The only thing I can imagine is that either the Board of Trade do not know what it is or the word "miner" attracted their attention and so they sent the letter to the Ministry of Fuel and Power. On 8th October, the Malehurst Company received a letter from the Ministry of Fuel and Power in which they said there were no arrangements for the provision of towels from their Department and continued:If, however, you are under an obligation to provide washing facilities for the workers, application should be made by you to the local factory inspector.On 10th October, a letter was sent from the Malehurst Company to the Inspector of Factories and in the last paragraph, the pertinent one, they stated:For your information we beg to advise you that we have 45 miners in our employ and should be pleased if you can grant us the necessary permit to purchase towels for the above employees.That was on 10th October. On 11th October the Inspector of Factories wrote back to the Malehurst Company:As your mine is not subject to the provisions of the Factories Act, 1937, I regret that I am not authorised to issue towel coupons for the persons employed therein, and recommend you to write to His Majesty's Divisional Inspector of Mines in Birmingham to see if he can help you.So on 14th October the company wrote to the Inspector of Mines. They said:We have since received a reply from the local factory inspector stating that as our mine is not subject to the provisions of the Factories Act, 1937, he was not authorised to issue towel coupons for the persons employed therein, and suggested that we apply to you to see if you could help us in any way.The following day the Divisional Inspector of Mines wrote to the Malehurst Company:In reply to your letter of 14th instant, I have no jurisdiction in this matter, which should be addressed to the Mining Supplies Branch, Ministry of Fuel and Power.So we are back to the Ministry of Fuel and Power. We have gone right back to Millbank, where we started. On 16th 480 October the Malehurst Company started a new method. They telephoned to the Divisional Inspector of Mines to the effect that they had originally applied to the Ministry of Fuel and Power and had been unable to make progress. The Divisional Inspector suggested that the matter be referred to the company's trade association. This was done and the company was informed by thee trade association, and informed the inspector, that a permit had been refused in a similar case. On hearing of this the Inspector of Mines undertook to make a further effort. On 12th November he telephoned the Malehurst Company and said he had received a reply—he did not say from whom—to his request for a permit for towels, but that it had been said that as there was no provision in this connection for metalliferous mines, he was sorry there was nothing that could be done. He intimated, however, that the question had been taken up with the T.U.C. and the Ministry of Health but could not give any hope for a considerable time, and even doubted whether in the end anything could be granted. On 17th November the company went back to pen and ink again, and gave up the telephone. This is what was said to them in a letter from the Divisional Inspector of Mines:With reference to our recent conversation on the 'phone, for your information I am now informed that it is possible that a supply of towels for your mines may be obtained on application being made by yourselves to the Regional Welfare Officer of the Ministry of Labour and National Service.So on 18th November the Malehurst Company wrote to thank the Divisional Inspector of Mines very much for his letter, and said that they would get in touch with the Ministry of Labour. On 18th November the Malehurst Company wrote to the Ministry of Labour:We have been advised by His Majesty's Divisional Inspector of Mines, of Birmingham, to approach you with regard to the supply of towels for our miners. We have had correspondence with a number of Government Departments "—that is wonderful moderation on their part at this stage—on this subject, but unfortunately metalliferous miners are not specifically provided for, and it is for this reason we are asking for exceptional action to be taken.On 8th December there was a letter to the Malehurst Company from the Regional Controller of the Ministry of Labour: 481With reference to your letter of 18th November, regarding permits to purchase towels for the use of metalliferous miners, we have referred the matter to the Board of Trade headquarters and we will advise you of their reply as soon as possible.I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will remember that his headquarters had previously told this company to address their communications to the Ministry of Fuel and Power. After three weeks' delay, there was a letter to the Malehurst Company from the Regional Controller of the Ministry of Labour:Further to our letter of 8th December, 1947, the Board of Trade regret that you are having to wait for a reply to your inquiry regarding towels for the use of metalliferous miners. Your application has raised issues that will require further examination.There was a further three weeks' delay and then the Malehurst Company wrote to the Regional Controller again, saying:We very much regret that we have heard nothing further from you in this connection, and hope in the meantime some action has been taken. We would like to remind you that our first application in this matter was to the Board of Trade on 19th September, 1947After two weeks a letter was written to the Malehurst Company from the Regional Controller of the Ministry of Labour:With reference to your letter of 21st January regarding your application for towels for the use of metalliferous miners. The delay in replying to your request is regretted, but we are still waiting for a decision from the Board of Trade.That was on 4th February.
We have been debating the Budget for two days, so it would not be inappropriate for me if I were to strike some sort of a balance here. This question has gone through four Ministries—the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Fuel and Power, the Home Office arid the Ministry of Labour. Nineteen letters have been written, three telephone calls made and the number involved is 45 workers. There have been six authorities consulted, the chief accountant of the Board of Trade, the Minister of Fuel and Power, His Majesty's Inspector of Factories in Shrewsbury, the Divisional Inspector of Mines, the Regional Welfare Officer of the Ministry of Labour, and the Divisional Controller of the Ministry of Labour. The whole matter has taken 29 weeks, which is seven months, and the 482 Malehurst Company still do not know whether they are going to get their towels or not. That was the information I received from them yesterday.
What I should like to know is what the Parliamentary Secretary proposes to do in this particular instance. Is this company going to get its towels? It is a very small point but it raises very big issues. Who is to be responsible for this appalling muddle which has been going on for seven months? Lastly, what steps is the hon. Gentleman going to take to put his house in order, even if he cannot put in order other houses which are involved?
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman stops to think what is happening when this type of behaviour is magnified hundreds of thousands of times in hundreds of thousands of firms all over the country. It is no good he and his right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer standing up in the House and rather pathetically saying that people are leaving this country with capital that we cannot afford to see go out of the country. It is this type of behaviour that is causing that to happen. I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider the three points I have made—what is he going to do in this particular instance; whom is he going to hold responsible for this happening; and, lastly what is he going to do to put his own house in order?
§ 10.15 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Belcher)
I am aware of the need to put my own house in order in many directions. I would be the last to claim that everything about the Department which I represent is perfect. In this case, I agree, there has been delay and confusion, and I can quite understand the desire of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Langford-Holt) to find out what it is all about. We have always recognised at the Board of Trade the need to provide towels at the place of work in industries covered by the Factory Acts where the worker suffers a special risk of infection. In the case of miners or quarry workers, the need is for individual towels for use either at pithead baths or at home. But until late in 1946 towel supplies for the home market were not sufficient to justify an individual issue in addition to the ordinary ration. In March, 1947, when the supply had improved somewhat, it 483 was agreed that coalminers should be given a supplementary allowance of two coupons per head per annum for towels. The scheme was brought into operation in July, 1947, with the co-operation of the Ministry of Fuel and Power.
At that time, the position of quarry workers and miners other than coalminers was briefly discussed, but without very much pressure being brought from outside. Therefore, the situation was not discussed at any great length or in any great detail. However, when we made the distribution to coalminers, it attracted applications from employers of other miners. After some negotiation we at the Board of Trade agreed in principle to extend the concession, distribution to be undertaken by the regional offices of other Ministries.
I agree that this particular application was subject to delay. I agree that the timetable which the hon. Gentleman has produced is open to some criticism, but there are some mitigating factors which I hope he will bear in mind. The first is that, while the Board of Trade are ultimately responsible for towel issues—we are responsible for an awful lot at the Board of Trade—we must get the advice of the Department primarily responsible for a certain industry on its need for towels. That Department usually acts as our 'agent for distribution but, most unfortunately, industries, through sheer perversity, do not fall into distinct grooves. Where there is a works covered by the Factory Acts and where, therefore, the Ministry of Labour are responsible, the works may be attached to a mine for which the Ministry of Fuel and Power are responsible. That is the sort of thing which causes the confusion to which the hon. Member has referred, where we have this shuffling about from one Department to another. It is most difficult to see how that kind of thing can be avoided. It may not be clear when the firm applies to the Board of Trade precisely what types of workers are employed. We are bound to have this dichotomy between one Government Department and another when we are trying to cater for a variety of industries.
The other point is that during the time referred to by the hon. Member, when these applications were being made, we 484 at the Board of Trade were seeking the advice of other people about the needs of miners other than coalminers. While all this was going on, the other Departments concerned were discussing the matter with the Trades Union Congress and we could not get the answer we wanted. At the start of these applications, Malehurst Barytes Company, Limited, were told that there were no arrangements for metalliferous miners as such. I think that it might have helped had they written to the Board of Trade, and said, "We learn that we are not covered by the Factory Acts and that there is no towel issue for our people as such—why not?" It might have helped. I might have been able to go into the question, find out why, and make some arrangements for them.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but has he not overlooked the fact that his Department was the first Department to receive a letter and that they said, away back in September, that all further communications should be addressed to the Ministry of Fuel and Power?
§ Mr. Belcher
That is true, at the beginning, but they were subsequently told differently, and, had they then written back to the Board of Trade and said that they were informed that they could not have the towel issue and asked why not, it would have been possible for me to have gone into the question, and if necessary, made the right arrangements. I am not using that as an excuse for any delay that has taken place. The point is that it has now been decided that these people shall qualify. Letters have been sent to the British Employers' Federation and the Trades Union Congress telling them to advise their individual members to get in touch with the regional offices of the Ministries concerned and to apply for the towels.
In this case, and in equivalent cases entitled to a grant of towels, an allowance will be made in the form of a coupon-equivalent certificate for two coupons valid for towels only. The hon. Member may like to know that these people can buy a large bath towel for one coupon or a smaller one for half a coupon, which means that workers in these industries can have the equivalent certificate for two 485 bath towels or four small ones. It will be given to workers at all mines and quarries, except the clerical, managerial and supervisory staff, who may be expected to keep their hands clean and not require extra towels.
I am sorry there has been delay, and I would have liked to have avoided it. I think it is in a large measure inevitable because of the difficulty of working out schemes of this kind to give special advantages to particular kinds of people, and it arises from the fact that it is so difficult to pick out one particular section and say they need it as against another section which do not need it. There is the additional complication of having 486 different Government Departments responsible for different industries, with the Board of Trade, as usual, carrying a responsibility ultimately for giving the things which these people require.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied with the explanation I have given. I am sorry that there has been this delay, but I hope the matter has now been put right, and that it will not be necessary for him to refer to it again at any subsequent stage.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-four Minutes past Ten o' Clock.