HC Deb 12 March 1957 vol 566 cc985-90
The Minister of Labour and National Service (Mr. Iain Macleod)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement on the dispute in the shipbuilding industry.

On 17th September last year the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions presented a claim to the Shipbuilding Employers' Federation for a substantial increase in wages for all male manual workers. On 30th October the unions told the employers that they had in mind an increase of 10 per cent. The employers rejected the claim on 11th December. At a special conference on 10th January the unions resolved to press the claim and they met the employers again on 13th February. On 5th March the claim was again rejected by the employers and on 7th March the unions decided to call a national strike in the shipyards to start at midday on Saturday, 16th March.

As I told the House yesterday, I have not received any direct notification of the unions' decision.

After full and careful consideration I have reached the conclusion that in the circumstances of this dispute something other than the normal conciliation action by my Department is required. Equally, in my view, the issue is not appropriate for examination by a court of inquiry or other body as the causes of the dispute are clear.

Nevertheless, a settlement must be reached and, obviously, everything should be done to bring this about without plunging the shipbuilding industry into a disastrous strike. It is my considered view that the peaceful settlement of this dispute is to be found by resort to arbitration by a completely impartial person.

Recognising the importance of the issue and in the hope that this proposal will be accepted by both the employers and the unions I have already secured the agreement of the Rt. Hon. the Lord Evershed, Master of the Rolls, to act as the arbitrator, and I am most grateful to him for this.

A copy of my statement is by now in the hands of both parties and I trust that, in the interests of the country and their great industry, they will see fit to accept my proposal.

I and my officers are, of course, ready and willing to meet representatives of the employers and the unions in order to give them any further information they may require about my proposal or to discuss with them any other aspects of the situation.

Mr. Robens

The right hon. Gentleman has told the House that he is ready to appoint an impartial arbitrator to determine the issue between the unions and the employers. It seems to me that it is for both parties concerned to determine whether they should accept this or not, and not for this House. Has the right hon. Gentleman's attention, however, been drawn to a statement made by Sir William Grant, Chairman of the Engineering and Allied Employers' (West of England) Association, in which he suggested that the Government interfered with these matters three years ago and went on to say: This time we do not want Government interference. That is quite positive. He added: We want to fight it out ourselves. We have got to stand firm and prove to these fellows that things are not done so easily. Has the Minister taken note of those remarks by Sir William Grant? If so, has he taken any action on them?

Finally, as Minister of Labour, the right hon. Gentleman has the functions of peace-maker in industry to perform but, as a Cabinet Minister and a member of the Government, he has other functions to perform. Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that the constant applications for wage advances are due entirely to the constant increase in the cost of living? As a Cabinet Minister with direct responsibility for peace in industry, there is something that he should be doing within the Government to stabilise the cost of living and to prevent many of these happenings from occurring at all.

Mr. Macleod

If I may take the right hon. Gentleman's points in turn, first, it is, of course, for the parties and not for the House to say whether they will accept my proposal or not, but I should make it clear to the House, and I hope that my statement does make it clear, that in my view, and the view of my advisers, there is no other choice here between a strike, which would be bitter and probably protracted and the outcome of which no one can foresee, and something like the arbitration that I have indicated.

As to the right hon. Gentleman's reference to the speech which I saw reported in the Press this morning, I at once dissociate myself straight away from it. But it is equally fair to say that it would not be difficult to produce statements made by people on both sides in this dispute which we might say are not wholly helpful towards a settlement. As the right hon. Gentleman knows from his experience as Minister of Labour, one of the difficulties in achieving a settlement is that people are apt to take up rigid attitudes which narrows the field within which the Minister of Labour can work.

In the atmosphere of this matter, I will not go into the last part of the right hon. Gentleman's statement. It is only fair to say, however, that I do not accept what he has said. I am very conscious, as I know the Government are conscious, of our duties in the whole field of the economy of the country.

Mr. Lee

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that within the last few hours the negotiations of the engineering section of the Federation with the employers have also broken down, a matter which could precipitate trouble in the whole of the engineering industry as well as in shipping?—Has the right hon. Gentleman anything to say about the kind of approach that he makes to that point?

As to the timing which he gave of advances by the unions in October and November, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the original resolution was passed by the engineers as early as the beginning of May of last year and that the demand by the engineers was turned down by the engineering employers even before they had time to look at the nature of the application? Is it not most difficult for trade unions to negotiate with people of that sort of mentality in the second half of the twentieth century?

Mr. Macleod

I have no statement to make about this strike, or threatened strike, except that I have acknowledged in the past that engineering and e ship-building settlements have been very closely linked.

In reply to the hon. Gentleman's other question, it is partly because these negotiations have gone on for such a long time that I believe now that only this method of settlement can be effective.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Is my right hon. Friend aware that constant increases in wages lead to constant increases in the cost of living? Is he also aware that the majority of the people rather resent these increases in wages and prices?

Mr. Macleod

If I may say so with respect to my hon. Friend. I have no intention of being provoked either by the other side of the House or by this side into any comment on the merits of the case of either the employers or the unions.

Mr. Robens

Assuming that either party refuses to accept arbitration, can the right hon. Gentleman say what he proposes to do thereafter?

Mr. Macleod

I shall take that fence when it comes, but I have made it quite clear to the House that in my view there is little choice for the parties and for the country other than the alternative that I have indicated.

Mr. Lee

Would the right hon. Gentleman make it clear that the reason for the protracted nature of these negotiations has been that, despite the refusal of the employers to discuss this in a proper manner, the unions themselves, instead of breaking, have again submitted their claim to the employers and have asked for proper negotiations on it? That was the reason for the protracted nature of the negotiations.

Mr. Macleod

With respect, I think that other parties to the dispute would put forward other arguments. I do not want to be drawn into a discussion of their merits.

Mr. Page

is my right hon. Friend aware that his offer of arbitration is very satisfactory to all reasonable people in the House, and that further questions of the type already asked, which make it more difficult for the parties to come together over arbitration, would not be welcomed?

Mr. Monslow

Would the Minister not agree that, having regard to the high rate of profits now prevailing in the shipbuilding industry, the claim of the workers is justified? Would he not further agree that the attitude of the employers is most unpatriotic, in that they have given no valid reason for rejection?

Mr. Wade

If arbitration is agreed to, and I am sure that we all hope that it will be, will the terms of reference include the consideration of a recommendation of profit-sharing schemes, or will they be limited only to a settlement on wages?

Mr. Macleod

I cannot imagine the terms of reference going so wide, but if one achieves, as one hopes, voluntary arbitration, it would, of course, be for the parties—I would hope in agreement —to present their terms of reference to the arbitrator.

Mr. P. Williams

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the north of England we like to get on with the job? The job here is arbitration, and the less said before that occurs the better.

Mr. Awbery

Can the Minister tell us what are the terms of reference?

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order, order. The Prime Minister.