HC Deb 02 November 1966 vol 735 cc461-6

Sir G. Nabarro (by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Labour what action he is taking in regard to the dispute which has now resulted in 30,000 motor car workers at B.M.C. plants in the Midlands and elsewhere being stood down from today.

The Minister of Labour (Mr. R. J. Gunter)

One hundred and ninety employees of Morris Radiators, Oxford, have been on strike since 20th October in protest against the management's decision to make 69 employees at the factory redundant.

As a result of the strike, workers have been laid off at a number of B.M.C. plants, including Longbridge, where employment has already been affected by the strike of car delivery drivers. Production at the Corporation's car assembly plants is now virtually at a standstill.

In all, about 30,000 workers have been laid off. Employment in firms supplying components will be progressively affected.

The employees on strike are members of the A.E.U. and T. & G.W.U. I understand that the unions have not given the strike their official support. In my view, there is no scope for useful intervention by the Ministry at this stage.

Sir G. Nabarro

Does not this anti-redundancy strike arise directly from the policies of the Government and is not the strike likely to worsen? Is it not the prognosis that 50,000 men will be out of work by the weekend? How grave does a situation of this kind have to become before the Minister decides that it is propitious to take some constructive action?

Mr. Gunter

The operative words are "propitious" and "constructive action". It is always a matter of balance and judgment about when to interfere. If one intervenes at the wrong moment, one can find oneself in a far worse mess than at the beginning. The cause of the redundancy declared by the British Motor Corporation is the strike of 190 employees at Morris Radiators, and the Corporation has regarded these and the other redundancies which it has announced as inevitable in the present circumstances.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Prime Minister, the First Secretary and I met the union's representatives earlier in the week and explained the position to them. I do not think that it would be useful for me to intervene now. It must be remembered that this strike, which is having such appalling effects, is an unofficial strike. The workers at the factory affected, at a meeting of employees of Morris Radiators, Oxford, accepted the need for redundancy and voted against strike action.

Mr. Chapman

Is not one of the root causes of this trouble the failure of B.M.C. to carry out proper consultation about its policy of redundancy and dismissals and about the respective levels of the two? Would my right hon. Friend consider setting up as soon as possible a full top-level inquiry into industrial relations at B.M.C, which are among the worst in the country?

Mr. Gunter

As my hon. Friend knows, industrial relations at B.M.C. have been a matter of concern to the Ministry of Labour for a long time. Certain steps were taken at one time, with some success, to ease the situation, but the position is that 69 men out of a total of 1,200 manual employees at this factory were declared redundant. Whether the consultation was of the appropriate kind, or the right nature, is a matter of opinion. B.M.C. holds firmly to the view that eight weeks' notice was given, but, on the other hand, there is the doubt whether that length of time having been given, the channels of communication and consultation were as clear as they ought to have been.

Sir K. Joseph

Will not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the National Plan was torn up by the 20th July measures announced by the Prime Minister without much consultation with industry or the country? I accept entirely that it is for the Minister to judge when it is propitious to intervene, and that this is an unofficial strike, but, in view of the overwhelming vote by the workers of Morris Radiators against a strike against redundancy, has the right hon. Gentleman any hope to offer the House and the country that the union officials are doing their best to get these unofficial strikers back to work?

Mr. Gunter

The Executive of the Amalgamated Engineering Union yesterday reaffirmed its decision and instructed the men to go back to work. I am in close, intimate and daily touch with both unions and B.M.C. about the dispute.

Mr. Orme

Has not the figure of 69 now been reduced to 28 and has not Sir George Harriman, the Chairman of B.M.C., agreed with the stewards that he would be in favour of work-sharing in this department, although that would be against the firm's policy in other departments? Have not the men in this department shared work in the past in the interests of the firm? Why cannot the Government now have work-sharing in the interests of the men in the industry?

Mr. Gunter

I have no authority over commercial matters such as that. That is a matter for management. There are arguments about whether, in the long term, work-sharing is efficient and economical. The figures adduced by my hon. Friend to arrive at 28 are not within my knowledge.

Captain W. Elliot

Is it not an appalling reflection on the Minister and his Department that this situation can happen and he says that there is nothing that he can do, either before or after, until the right moment? Is not this an overwhelming argument for speeding up the hearings of the Royal Commission on the Trade Unions and Employers' Associations?

Mr. Gunter

I had thought that it was accepted on both sides of the House—it has been accepted at the Ministry of Labour for a very long time—that it is a very delicate thing indeed to interfere with an unofficial strike, because the authority of the unions is very often at stake.

On the question that authority ought to be vested in the Ministry of Labour for dealing with unofficial strikes, the Ministry of Labour has already submitted evidence and the hon. Gentleman can read our conclusions.

To deal with speeding up the Royal Commission, I would only say that the House has always left that sort of thing in the hands of a Royal Commission.

Mr. Christopher Price

Will the Minister agree, first, that this is a very uniquely serious situation, not just for B.M.C. but for the whole of the future export potential of the British motor industry? If he feels that he cannot at the moment usefully either intervene or set up an inquiry into B.M.C., would he give an assurance now that he will keep the matter under day-to-day, even hourly, surveillance, so that the moment he thinks that his officials can play some useful part in solving the situation, the machinery can be put into effect?

Mr. Gunter

I gladly give my hon. Friend that assurance, but I must repeat that it is always a matter of judgment when to move at a certain time so that one does not exacerbate feelings rather than cool them. One has to be very careful in this matter.

Sir G. Nabarro

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the paralysis of the motor car manufacuring industry, with 30,000 workers stood off and prospect of 50,000 out of work by next weekend. My submission to you, Sir, is shortly expressed in that the reply of the Minister of Labour, a few moments ago, is superficial in character because the real consideration of this House ought to be directed to Government policies and the effects that they are immediately having——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not argue the merits of the issue that he seeks to raise. He must argue to the question whether he should get the Adjournment.

Sir G. Nabarro

Shortly expressed, this is a fundamental matter of Government policy and not a matter of Ministry of Labour conciliation at this moment. Motor car production in the Midlands will be reduced by about 300,000 cars this year in the instance of the British Motor Corporation——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must address himself to the question that he is submitting to me, that the matter is definite and of urgent public importance. He must not proceed to debate the issue now.

Sir G. Nabarro

The decline in motor car production will gravely affect our export prospects and will lead to further large-scale unemployment both in the peripheral industries which supply components and accessories and in the production of motor cars. Unless there is Government action to alleviate this situation, and immediately, especially having regard to the sudden throwing out of work in the last 48 hours of this huge number of men, then the nation will be very much the poorer during the course of the next few months.

My submission is that this unemployment situation will worsen in the early future, and that the situation is calamitous and ought to be attended to by the House at once.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the paralysis of the motor car manufacturing industry with 30,000 workers stood off and prospect of 50,000 out of work by next weekend. I fully appreciate the submission which the hon. Member has made to me and I appreciate the anxiety which he feels in view of the circumstances which he has described. The House knows that the powers given to the Chair are circumscribed by the practice of the House and the Rulings given by my predecessors. I have to take account of precedents in coming to my conclusion on whether to submit the hon. Gentleman's application to the House.

It is a firm rule that if a matter is not raised at the earliest opportunity it fails in urgency in the Parliamentary sense, and the fact that new information has been received regarding a matter that has been continuing does not itself make that matter one of urgency. As the House knows, industrial troubles and strikes at the British Motor Corporation's factories began on 20th October and therefore, in view of the precedents, I must rule that the hon. Gentleman's submission was not made at the earliest opportunity. Therefore, I cannot submit this application to the House.