HC Deb 29 January 1958 vol 581 cc372-8
Mr. Robens (by Private Notice)

asked the Minister of Labour and National Service whether he will make a statement about his rejection of the proposal to set up a committee of inquiry in connection with the. London busmen's wage application.

The Minister of Labour and National Service (Mr. Iain Macleod)

Yes, Sir. I first received a formal request for such a committee on 21st January in a letter from the Transport and General Workers' Union in which it was stated that the London Transport Executive did not dissent from this course. I considered this, and a reply was sent on 24th January in the terms of a letter which has since been made public.

This letter explained my inability to agree to the request and referred to the possibility of a more general inquiry into the wages situation in the whole of the road passenger transport industry, as well as to the fact that the normal process of arbitration still remains available for dealing with the London dispute.

On receipt of this letter the union asked for an interview with me and I saw them yesterday when I confirmed my decision and expressed the hope that the union would consider the alternatives set out in the letter.

Mr. Robens

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate the very dangerous industrial situation into which the country is now slowly drifting as a result of this decision by him and other decisions taken previously by the Government? Does he not also realise that he is making the task of responsible trade union officers, who wish to maintain industrial peace, well-nigh impossible?

Does he not appreciate that, when his chief conciliation officer, in an attempt at mediation, makes a proposal which is accepted by both sides, both sides then proceeding to make arrangements to carry out that proposal, and the right hon. Gentleman then rejects the very proposal which his chief conciliation officer has made, he debases the currency of the Ministry of Labour and weakens his chief conciliation officer's efforts not only in this but in every other industrial matter on which he is asked to mediate?

Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to consider, once again, a formula far better than the one he has proposed in his statement, arbitration, which he himself destroyed by what he said in the House about railwaymen's wages? Unless he wants a direct conflict in industry, does he not think that it would be wise for him, at this stage, to call both sides together to have an informal talk about the whole situation and try to preserve peace? Is he not aware that if industrial war breaks out, the consequences, not only in this but in all other industries, will be disastrous for the nation? Is he not aware that he has responsibility?

Mr. Macleod

The right hon. Member has raised some important matters with which I will try to deal one by one. The first was the question whether this was the right thing to do. That is something which must be a matter of judgment and that judgment must be exercised by the Minister of Labour.

How this proposal emerged was made plain in a statement issued after the talks I had yesterday, that is to say, that at all these meetings a great number of proposals were discussed. This one, as a matter of fact, did not emanate in the first place from my Chief Industrial Commissioner. It was one of a number brought up. As he at all times made clear, because he is a very wise and experienced civil servant, the final decision in this roust be a matter for the Minister. It was in the light of those discussions that I took my final decision as soon as I could when the formal application came to me.

On the Question whether this is the right form of inquiry, I believe that we will not have a satisfactory settlement of this issue if we try to isolate one part of the case—and that is what the letter of 24th January, in the first place, points out. In the second place, it points to arbitration. The right hon. Gentleman said that I and the Government had destroyed the railwaymen's faith in arbitration. It is a very odd thing, in view of that, that today the railway unions have announced their intention to go to arbitration.

Mr. Robens

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is not aware that the railwaymen are prepared to go through the machinery but that that does not mean to say that they have any faith in the arbitration proposals at all. We are not out of the wood when we know beforehand that any decision by the arbitration tribunal is to be negatived by the Government, because the right hon. Gentleman has already said so in the House. The fact that the railwaymen have been prepared to go through the machinery is a clear indication that the trade union leaders are doing all they can to preserve industrial peace and that the right hon. Gentleman is doing nothing to help them.

Sir R. Grimston

Reverting to the bus dispute, is my right hon. Friend aware that there is much concern among the general fare-paying public about this continual leap-frogging of wage claims by provincial and London busmen, and that he will have considerable public support for insisting that any inquiry shall embrace the whole subject and not be confined to the London dispute?

Mr. Macleod

It is true that I have had that consideration very much in the forefront of my mind, as have many other people, including, at least at one stage in the discussions, the leaders of the unions themselves.

Mr. Collick

Is it not the case that the Minister's Chief Industrial Commissioner supported the proposal which the Minister himself has now rejected? Why has it been necessary for this matter to have consideration at Cabinet level? Is not the Minister aware that the Prime Minister himself told us in the House that, in the light of the new policy, it was not intended that all wage applications should have to be considered by the Government? Why, therefore, has that been done and why has this been regarded as an industrial problem quite distinct from the rest?

Mr. Macleod

No, it is not. It is not as the hon. Member suggests. The position is as I have made plain and, if I may say so, Sir Wilfred Neden also made plain to the Press, that at all times—and, of course, rightly—he reserved, and made it clear that he was reserving, the Minister's decision. Whatever view the House may take about whether I was right or wrong, no one, I hope, will assume that the Minister's decision in this case is a formality. He must examine it and make his judgment as he thinks best, and that is exactly what I have done.

Mr. Robens

The first Minister of Labour to do it.

Mr. Macleod

It would be kinder not to take up that interruption.

On the second question, I was asked, at the beginning of a very forthright talk that I had yesterday with Mr. Cousins, Mr. Nicholas and Mr. Townsend, whether this was my own decision or somebody else's. I replied in words which mean precisely what they say—although some people have read more into them than I meant—namely, that this was my own decision and my own responsibility, and I believe in it. But naturally, in an issue like this, one consults some of one's senior colleagues.

Mr. J. Griffiths

I should like to refer to the first sentence of the right hon. Gentleman's reply, in which he said that this request for a committee of inquiry which was put forward by the union carried with it the consent of the employers, or, at any rate, was not dissented from by them. May we therefore take it that this was a request from both sides of the industry to the Ministry of Labour to set up a committee of inquiry to deal with a specific dispute?

Am I not right in assuming that this is the first case in which the Ministry of Labour has taken up this attitude? Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that when trade union leaders and employers, negotiating round a table, reach a stage where they cannot carry their negotiations any further, and have to consider what stops to take, they go to the Ministry of Labour and very often the suggestion of a committee of this kind comes from the Minister's officials, and is very often accepted by the men?

When the proposal is put forward by both sides and the Minister, with the support of the Government, rejects it, does the Minister realise that he is taking away from every trade union officer—and here I speak with experience—one of his strongest arguments for pleading with the men that constitutional steps should be taken? Does he not realise that what he is doing is to make certain of industrial trouble?

Mr. Macleod

The right hon. Gentleman has raised the very important point of precedents in this matter. As far as the approach is concerned, the position needs stating with some little care. It should not be assumed that it was a joint approach, in the sense that, as both the Press notices and the letter from the union made clear, it was an approach from the union from which the London Transport Executive did not dissent.

On the question of precedents, in most cases the suggestion that a court of inquiry should be set up comes from the Minister himself, and he invites the two sides to co-operate with him. There are certainly precedents for suggestions made to me for setting up a court of inquiry being rejected, the most recent example being the Covent Garden dispute. The precedents are quite clear. In this case, what the right hon. Gentleman forgets is that this proposal for a committee of investigation to report to the parties—as it finally emerged—is unprecedented, as far as I know, and as far as my Ministry know. It is, therefore, perfectly true that a refusal would be unprecedented; so, for that matter, would an acceptance.

Mr. Griffiths

I want to put this strongly: Does not the Minister agree—and I speak with some experience in this matter—that where both sides are agreeable to a certain procedure, for his Ministry to destroy it is to take away from them perhaps the only opportunity of a peaceful settlement? Therefore, the whole reputation and influence of the Ministry of Labour in the matter of instituting peaceful negotiation is seriously impaired by the action that he has taken.

Mr. Macleod

I gladly go as far as this with the right hon. Gentleman. It was a very serious decision of mine to turn down this suggestion for a committee of investigation. I knew that when I turned it down. If I may use in the House the words that I used to Mr. Cousins and Mr. Nicholas yesterday, one of the arguments that weighed most heavily in favour of adopting the procedure of a committee of investigation was the very hard and successful moderating work that Mr. Nicholas, in particular, put in, but I decided, in the exercise of my judgment, that it was not possible to take in isolation this part of what everybody knows is a much wider problem. I believe that the solution that I have put before the country is the wisest one.

Mr. D. Price

Will my right hon. Friend make it clear to the House that there are three and not two parties to this wage claim? There is the public, as well as the employers and the employees. Is not there a danger that those who work in industry may gang up to increase their earnings at the expense of the third party—the public?

Mr. McLeavy

Does the Minister appreciate that his decision to turn down the suggestion of an inquiry into the claims of London busmen will be interpreted by the men concerned as a political interference with what should have been the operation of a conciliatory policy through the Ministry of Labour? In view of the fact that the responsible trade union leaders of these men have taken every possible step to avoid a conflict and a strike, does the Minister think that he is acting in the best interests of peace in the industry by refusing what was agreed by both sides—an inquiry into this problem? Further, does not he agree that to try to extend the scope of inquiry is not in the best interests of all transport workers?

Mr. Macleod

I have taken what I believe to be the right decision in the interests of the people in the transport industry, among others. I think that this is the right answer. As for conciliation, it was clear—and I think that it was agreed between all parties at an early stage—that in view of the attitude of the London Transport Executive—which was a quite proper one for it to take—conciliation in the normal sense was not of any particular value. We therefore came down to the two issues of arbitration or some form of inquiry.

I have reminded those responsible that the arbitration provisions, whether for a compulsory or a voluntary arbitration, remain. As for the committee of inquiry, the real issue between Mr. Cousins and myself—I do not put this in a personal sense—is that I should consider this dispute by itself. I take the view that that would be an unreal thing to do, and that it is in the interests of everybody that the matter should be considered in a wider setting.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We have had a very good run on this Question.