HC Deb 13 December 1968 vol 775 cc828-42

4.1 p.m.

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ernest G. Perry.]

Mr. Speaker

Mrs. Castle.

Mr. David Kerr (Wandsworth, Central)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have, as you know, been selected by ballot for the Adjournment this afternoon. In view of the fact that you have now called a Minister—who, presumably, had not entered her name in the Ballot—I would appreciate your guidance on what has prompted you to intervene in this way against the interests of private Members. I ask for your Ruling on the matter.

Mr. Speaker

I am not without sympathy for the point of order which the hon. Member has raised. I know from long experience how precious the Adjournment is to an hon. Member who has been balloting for it week after week, and probably gets it after a very long time.

I am faced this afternoon with two conflicting conventions. For many years it has been the practice that the half-hour Adjournment should be reserved for matters raised by private Members. Erskine May, in page 297, states: … the right to choose the subject of, or initiate, the discussion during this period on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesday and Fridays is determined by means of a … ballot held by the Speaker …. Provision for the half-hour Adjournment has been made since 1943, and arrangements for a ballot on other days was announced by my predecessor in the House on 23rd March, 1955. That is one convention—the right of hon. Members to win the Adjournment by ballot.

Against that convention I have to set the undoubted convention of the House that if any Privy Councillor rises, and particularly if a Minister rises, he must be called. If one turns to page 259 of Erskine May one finds that statements are made from time to time on a Friday, on a private Members' Friday, which do cut into private Members' time.

All I can do at the moment is to remind the House of its practice. I quote from the words used by Mr. Speaker Clifton Brown, that "the last half hour is given to private Members", but I must leave it to the sense of the House whether or not, on a general consensus, its general practice should on this occasion be set aside.

If a Minister rises, a Minister is entitled to speak. On the last occasion when we were faced with this situation, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), who had the Adjournment, had come to an arrangement with the Minister to give it up. I understand that that has not happened today.

Dr. Kerr

Further to that point of order. I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for the very fair way in which you have set the dilemma before us. I assure you and the House that I am not insensible to the pressures which are prompting the Minister to seek leave to make a statement now.

None the less, you have emphasised that the general practice of the House, until this moment, has been to preserve the rights of back benchers to enjoy their own time in the way set down by the House, and only the House, by its own decision, should alter that.

May I, with respect, draw your attention to the announcement made by your predecessor on 23rd March, 1955, in which he specifically asked hon. Members at that time to make any representations to him if they should disagree. I put it to you that that invitation should hold until such time as private Members have asked you to alter the conventions of the House.

I would further put it to you that on that same occasion, in answer to questions put to him, Mr. Speaker of that day said: I undertook my consideration of this matter solely in the interests of back benchers."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd March, 1955; Vol. 538, c. 2077.] I know of nothing, Mr. Speaker, which has prompted this House to invite you to alter that consideration and that Ruling.

Therefore, Sir, with great respect, I invite you to reconsider your decision this afternoon and say whether the Minister, who, I think, might have found a more convenient time during the day to make the statement, might relinquish her right, if such right exists other than through my courtesy, and make her statement to the House and the country in some other way.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has argued eloquently one leg of the double convention with which I am faced. I am seized of everything he said, but there is the other convention to which I must have regard.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It appeared to me that the right hon. Lady did not rise. I wonder how the convention operates, whether merely by indicating through an informal channel that she wishes later to seek to catch your eye, the right hon. Lady at once attains priority over her hon. Friend, or whether she should have risen to assert that priority as a Privy Councillor.

Mr. Speaker

That is a minor point. The House has understood during the afternoon that the Minister sought to intervene at the Adjournment time.

Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not a fact that this is the second occasion within recent weeks when the Government have slighted the House by this invasion of private Members' time?

Mr. Speaker

On the previous occasion, it was done by mutual agreement between the Minister and the right hon. Gentleman who had the Adjournment. Apparently, on this occasion no such mutual agreement was sought.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. On the previous occasion to which reference has just been made, the Chancellor of the Exchequer came here and made a statement at 4 o'clock, but he did so by agreement with the right hon. Member who had the Adjournment that day, the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter). At the opening of his statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said—I have not the text with me at the moment—that he was making it by courtesy of the right hon. Gentleman. He was, therefore, implying that, unless the right hon. Gentleman had allowed him to intervene, he would not have been able to do so.

I submit that it will set a dangerous precedent if a Minister is allowed to come here on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Friday, removing the time, the very short time, available to private Members. I appreciate the significance and importance of the statement which the right hon. Lady is about to make, but I appeal to you, Sir, that in these circumstances, if Ministers are to usurp private Members' time, the Government's timetable should be altered so as to provide equivalent time on another occasion.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you appreciate that the majority of Members here wish to hear my right hon. Friend? Further, would you appreciate that we wish to give my hon. Friend the Member for Wands- worth, Central (Dr. David Kerr) his opportunity for an Adjournment debate? Finally, would you appreciate that the dilemma with which you are faced is not a real one, and there is no reason why the Minister should not come to the House to make a statement to the country which it wishes to hear, provided that the time so taken does not affect the time which my hon. Friend on this occasion, or other hon. Members at other times, have for the Adjournment debate? I suggest, Mr. Speaker, that such should be the principle and that the whole House would agree with it.

Mr. Speaker

I understand and appreciate all the points which the hon. Gentlemen have made, save that I must point out that the House will adjourn at half-past four. I hope that we may now proceed.

Mr. Will Howie (Luton)

Futher to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the fact that during recent years at least, when a back-bench Member has been displaced by a Minister, he has been able to make his Adjournment speech very shortly afterwards, by convention? Second, is not the statement which my right hon. Friend wishes to make at least as important to back benchers as to any other?

Mr. Speaker

On the last occasion, I said, when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames gave way, that it would be counted to him for righteousness, and it was so counted.

3.10 p.m.

The First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (Mrs. Barbara Castle)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, and to meet the wish of the House, expressed earlier today, I wish to make a statement about the current position on the interim pay settlement in the construction industry.

In my statement to the House on 28th November, I said: The Board has ruled that the penny cost-of-living payment of March, 1968, is to be reckoned for the purpose of calculating the ceiling in the White Paper. In view of the agreed basis on which the interim agreements were implemented pending the Board's Reports, the Government look to the unions to take steps to ensure that these interim agreements are modified to bring them within the ceiling …".—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 28th November, 1968; Vol. 774, c. 185–6.] I would remind the House that the agreed basis was that both the Government and the unions undertook to accept for immediate application in the pay packet the Board's ruling on the inclusion or otherwise of the penny.

Since my statement, the executives of the building unions announced that in requesting the employers to deduct the penny from the enhanced standard rates they would couple this request with a demand for immediate implementation of incentive bonus payments to raise earnings to 20 per cent. above standard rates or, failing this, for lieu rates providing earnings of 30 per cent. above standard rates.

Before this demand was made, I wrote to the unions making it clear that such a proposal was not in accordance with our agreement, and that unless they were prepared to fulfil their undertaking to me at the earliest practicable time, the Government would have no alternative but to impose a standstill. This would necessarily affect the agreement in its entirety. This is because the prices and incomes legislation empowers me to make a direction in respect of the settlement which has been reached, but does not enable me to impose a standstill on part only of the pay increase for which the interim agreement provides.

The unions, however, put their proposals unchanged to the N.J.C. on Tuesday, 10th December, and the employers rejected them. The unions had arranged to meet on Thursday and I again wrote to them, offering to withhold statutory action if by Thursday evening I received the necessary assurances. I also said that I was anxious to dispose of this issue so that we could enter into early discussions on the constructive proposals in the Phelps Brown Report and in the N.B.P.I. Reports.

I greatly regret to say that no such assurances were forthcoming and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works and I have, therefore, today referred the interim agreements in building and civil engineering, concluded on 24th October and 22nd October, respectively, to the National Board for Prices and Incomes with a direction stopping further implementation.

This direction will be effective from Friday next 20th December, which will allow the industries to make a final pay- ment on Thursday, 19th December, in respect of the current week at the current rates, and to make the necessary arrangements to adjust pay thereafter.

I understand that the Civil Engineering Construction Conciliation Board and the N.J.C. for the building industry will be meeting on Tuesday, 17th December, to consider the position. The Government will review the position in the light of any fresh developments.

Mr. Reginald Maudling (Barnet)

May I ask the right hon. Lady, first, on a point of procedure, whether it is not clear that this is a statement which should have been made at the opening of today's proceedings in the House? If the Government had decided that in the first place, all these inconveniences would not have arisen. Are the right hon. Lady and the Patronage Secretary aware that we expect the Government to give us an opportunity to discuss this statement at an early date?

As to the contents of the statement, is it the right hon. Lady's view that responsibility for this very sorry situation rests with the unions for breaking an undertaking, or with the Government for the dilatory way in which they have handled it and for the rigid nature of their legislation, to which she herself referred in her statement?

Mrs. Castle

I cannot accept that if the statement had been made earlier in the day, inconvenience to backbenchers would have been avoided. This is the problem about making any Ministerial statement on a Friday which is devoted to private Members' time. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] I am sorry, but that happens to be the case. If we are dealing with private Members' time, it is curtailed at whatever point of the day the statement is made.

The question of debate is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, who will be trying to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, before our proceedings end today.

Finally, I would say that the situation is a very simple one. The unions entered into this undertaking. They did it voluntarily and publicly. They did it fully knowing its implications which were made clear and spelt out in a Press statement which they approved, at a Press conference which they attended with me, and again by me in the House in my statement to the House of 15th November.

In the light of all these clear indications of what was involved, the executives of the unions, the following Sunday, endorsed this undertaking. I think that the House is, therefore, faced with a very simple proposition. Do we or do we not think that undertakings voluntarily entered into should be honoured? I should have thought that hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite would have been the first to say that this is a principle we must stand by.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

Surely my right hon. Friend is aware that this is not a simple matter, and that the so-called voluntary agreement was under immense pressure from the Government? Is she not aware that this will create disgust, anger and industrial unrest among the building trade workers? Is she also aware that this Order will be fought in the House by every possible Parliamentary means at our disposal? Would she give the House an undertaking that we will have an early debate, to clear up this whole sorry mess, which, basically, has been created by the Department she represents?

Mrs. Castle

Of course, I cannot for a moment accept my hon. Friend's strictures. I had very long, detailed and friendly talks with the unions concerned over this matter, when I discussed with them the implications for the prices and incomes policy of the interim agreement which they had reached. They wished to play it this way. They wished this matter to be referred to the Prices and Incomes Board for a ruling, and in doing so they gave a solemn and public undertaking that they would stand by that ruling and have it immediately reflected in the pay packet. We cannot be clearer than that. I do not believe we can have any kind of secure industrial relations unless specific undertakings of this kind are honoured.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the right hon. Lady aware that in a serious situation of this kind it does not help to make allegations of bad faith against either the unions or the Government who, no doubt, have done their best to arrive at an agreement on this matter? Would the right hon. Lady press upon her hon. Friends the need for moderation and to see that the utmost is done to get together with the building trade unions before Thursday so that a confrontation can be avoided?

Mrs. Castle

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is not a question of trying to make bad blood anywhere. It is certainly not my desire. That is why, as I made clear in my statement, I said to the unions that I am extremely anxious to get these issues out of the way so that we can go forward to the constructive issues which are vital to the unions and the workers in the industry—the profitability of the industry, and the constructive issues raised in the Phelps-Brown Report and the P.I.B. Reports themselves.

I do not like these arguments over these details. I want, as I always have, to go forward with positive productivity proposals. I believe that the field is open to us to do that. I would repeat to the House what I said in my statement, that we are prepared to review the situation in the light of what comes out of the meetings which are being held next week, and I can only hope that it may well prove unnecessary for the direction to proceed.

Mr. Howie

Is not the real tragedy of this sorry situation the fact that the unions and the employers, in an industry which is notorious for its inefficiency, were unable to reach agreement, based upon productivity, which would have brought it within my right hon. Friend's White Paper and would have made it easier for her to grant the improvements in earnings desired by everyone on both sides of the industry?

Mrs. Castle

I think that the Prices and Incomes Board Report gives us the basis on which we can go forward to strengthen this industry, improve its productivity, and raise the standard of life of its workers.

Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

In view of the fact that as long ago as 11th November the Leader of the House accepted that to proceed further in this matter without taking the views of the House might amount to an abuse of Parliament, can the right hon. Lady explain why she did not take the initiative and make her statement in the normal way at 11 o'clock this morning?

Mrs. Castle

I can only tell the right hon. Gentleman that it was not until late last night that I was aware that the unions had turned down my request and that it was necessary to proceed urgently with a direction. I felt that it was only fair to the unions to make it clear to them that this would have to be done unless they could honour their undertaking. As soon as I found that there was a desire by the House, which was communicated to me, for a statement today, I took every step to make myself available, and I seem to have been greatly criticised for my pains.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this reference to the P.I.B. is concerned only with the nationally negotiated increase and does not mean that there is a wage freeze in the construction industry? Will she, therefore, make it perfectly clear that every building and construe, ion worker is able and allowed freely to negotiate any arrangement for total earnings with his employer?

Mrs. Castle

The reference affects the interim increase, as my hon. Friend says. I am the last to be against genuinely costed productivity agreements. That is what I am after, but all of them will have to be properly costed.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

May I remind the right hon. Lady that she made a statement at 11 o'clock on Friday, 15th November? The fact that she did not make a statement this morning shows an intolerable disregard of the interests of the House, the construction industry and the position of her right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. Will the right hon. Lady tell us that she is prepared to keep an open mind until time is found—and it must be found before the Christmas Recess—for a debate, so that the feelings of hon. Members and the vote of the House can be taken on this most important issue?

Mrs. Castle

I have already dealt with the question of a debate. The House has many facets and many elements. One can be accused of insulting one section of the House by making a statement at the beginning of the day and be accused of insulting another section by making a statement at the end of the day. It is extremely difficult. I can only say that when the desire of the House, which I took to be a unanimous desire—I was clearly wrong—was conveyed to me, I took every step to put off other things in order to make it.

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

Does not my right hon. Friend now see the dangerous madness of this legislation, which has landed her and the people who earn their livelihoods in the building industry in this absurd and difficult position? Does she not accept that here were a group of workpeople and employers who had reached agreement and that the Government felt obliged under this dangerous legislation to step in and prevent them from carrying out the agreement? Is not that the basis of this particularly tragic situation?

Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that, even at this late hour, she will call back the parties concerned and try to get a further agreement, perhaps by accepting the increase for this year and looking for arrangements for next year, or in some other way, before she assumes the grave responsibility of imposing this freeze?

Mrs. Castle

I do not share and I never have shared my hon. Friend's views of this legislation. He holds his views sincerely; so, I ask him to believe, do I hold mine. I sincerely believe that it is in the genuine interests of the workpeople that wage settlements should not be inflationary settlements, but should be real settlements which give an increase in real wages and not the nominal increases which are given if these settlements are not based on proper productivity and other criteria.

It is, of course, open to the industry to negotiate new agreements superseding the old and providing standard rates at 1d. an hour less than the enhanced rates. If that is done, my right hon. Friend and I will be willing to withdraw the direction and the reference.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

Does the right hon. Lady appreciate that one of the problems was her slowness of action in the first instance? Does she not realise how she is upsetting the good relations in the building industry? Does she not further appreciate that her decision will lead only to more labour-only sub-contractors which neither side of the industry wants to encourage? How will the freeze affect holiday stamps which have already been printed?

Mrs. Castle

Again, the criticisms rather cancel each other out. One moment I am accused of the dilatoriness of my action. Then by another hon. Member I am accused of the excessive speed of my action. We have to strike a balance, giving full time for consultations and considerations. Then, eventually, decisions have to be taken and action has to ensue.

Mr. Raymond Fletcher (Ilkeston)

Does not my right hon. Friend, even at this late hour, begin to realise that the built-in rigidities of this policy are an open invitation to be the kind of industrial dispute with which we are now faced, because these rigidities impose rigid postures on all three participating parties in an area which is normally fluid, which has been fluid, and which offers fields for manœuvre to both the contending parties in normal industrial negotiation?

Is it not time that we had another cold, hard look at a policy which does not control anything but simply adds up to persistent, petulant interference in an area which should be open to free negotiation?

Mrs. Castle

Again, I am very interested to hear the criticism that I am applying the policy rigidly. In other quarters the accusation is that I am so flexible in the application of this policy that I am undermining the Government's whole economic strategy. I believe that the truth lies somewhere in between. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that there must be flexibility in the application of this policy. We have shown flexibility not only in this case, but in innumerable others. Of course, it must be administered with understanding of the human issues involved.

On the other hand, there are certain make and break points. Otherwise, we give up the attempt to influence wage settlements at all. We have, I am afraid, in view of the undertaking given to us very solemnly by the unions, got no choice at this moment but to stand firm, unless they will abide by their undertaking. I repeat that, if they do, I would be the first to be pleased to tell the House that it was not necessary to have a direction.

Several Hon. Members


4.27 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Silkin)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, perhaps I may be allowed to say, in the absence of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, which I am sure the House will understand, that on the question of a debate, which was asked of my right hon. Friend a moment ago, he would certainly wish to meet the wishes of the House, despite the extreme pressure of business next week. His hope is that time may be found before the House rises for the Christmas Recess and his present intention to make a statement about this as soon as possible.

Mr. Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairn)

I welcome the statement which has just been made by the Deputy Leader of the House. Does he agree that this is a case of clumsy mishandling by the Government of the situation and that a full day's debate is necessary to deal with this before Christmas?

Mr. Silkin

I cannot agree with that. I rather thought that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House had done his best to understand the feelings of the House and to meet its wishes.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, when making her statement, said that until Thursday both sides had an opportunity to reconsider the matter. Will my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House explain how we are to have a debate before we know what the findings are on both sides?

Mr. Silkin

I think that we had better wait until my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House returns. I have no doubt that he is capable of understanding the feelings of the House and the situation.

Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that this evening she will be the toast of every Trotskyite in the building industry? Is she further aware that her inability to give a straight answer to the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) clearly indicates that there is plenty of scope for earnings to be increased by unofficial action as a result of the Government's decision today?

Mrs. Castle

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is actually inciting unofficial action. I only wish that right hon. and hon. Members opposite would decide to speak with one coherent and consistent voice on the issues of industrial relations.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

As the right hon. Lady knows, here reference to the National Board for Prices and Incomes is effective as from the date it is announced in the London Gazette. The implementation of the agreement will not be unlawful until the moment of that announcement. Will she give an undertaking to the House, in conjunction with the Deputy Leader of the House, that the debate will take place in the House before that announcement is made in the London Gazette?

Mrs. Castle

As I explained in my statement, the payment will be unlawful from Friday next, 20th December.

Mr. John Page

The right hon. Lady must confirm the fact that she has already given a reference and made a direction. That is what she said in her statement. Is this to appear in the London Gazette, which is published this evening?

Mr. McNamara

On a point of order. Are we now to assume that we are reverting to asking questions of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the statement that she made?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

The Deputy Leader of the House intervened to make a statement, but the right hon. Lady was, in fact, answering questions. I called Mr. John Page.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. John Page

May I repeat my question—

Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I understood the hon. Gentleman to be addressing the House.

Mr. John Page

May we have clarification of the position? I understood the right hon. Lady to state that she and her right hon. Friend had made the reference and given the direction. The making of the reference is merely by being published in the London Gazette. Is it or is it not to be published in the London Gazette tonight?

Mrs. Castle


The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.