HC Deb 06 November 1968 vol 772 cc895-902
Mr. R. Carr (by Private Notice)

asked the Minister of Public Building and Works whether he will make a statement regarding the decision to block the wage settlement recently agreed between the employers and trade unions in the building and civil engineering industries after it had already come into force.

The Minister of Public Building and Works (Mr. Robert Mellish)

In answering this Question, I have to inform the House with regret that my right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State is indisposed.

On 14th October the building industry's Wage Negotiating Committee decided to recommend to the National Joint Council for the Building Industry an interim increase to take effect from 4th November. The National Joint Council was to consider the recommendation at a special meeting on 24th October. This development was notified to the Department of Employment and Productivity on 17th October, and at a meeting on 23rd October was discussed by officials with the two rides.

At this meeting it was pointed out that the industry's calculation of the interim increases as representing slightly over 3½ per cent. could not be accepted as it disregarded a cost of living increase paid in March, 1968. This represented an increase of per cent., thus bringing the total increase to just under 5 per cent., which is well above the 3½ per cent. ceiling.

No conditions were attached to the increase which was justified only by a reference to rising output in the industry. In these circumstances, the parties were asked to defer the proposed increase pending receipt of a report from the National Board for Prices and Incomes which had been examining pay and conditions in the industry.

The National Joint Council for the Building Industry ratified the recommendations of its Wage Negotiating Committee the following day and informed the Government of the action taken.

After careful consideration of all the circumstances, the Government decided to refer the settlement to the National Board for Prices and Incomes as the increases were above the ceiling and without acceptable incomes policy justification and as a report from the Board on pay and conditions in the building industry was expected before the end of November.

A similar settlement in the civil engineering industry was made on 22nd October, although a request had been made by the Department of Employment and Productivity to defer action pending the discussion with representatives of the building industry on the following day.

Mr. Carr

We understand and regret the reason for the absence of the First Secretary of State. We realise that Ministerial responsibility for this action rests with her and not with the right hon. Gentleman. May I put three points to him?

First, is he aware that employers and unions in this industry gave the Government a whole 12 months' notice of their need and desire to make a proper long-term settlement and that the only reason why they have had to come forward at this juncture with an interim settlement is the delay and dithering caused by the Government's action, notably waiting six of the 12 months' notice before putting the matter to the Prices and Incomes (Board? Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is evidence of a 5 per cent. rate of growth in output per man hour in the industry?

Thirdly, is he aware that in these circumstances and at this stage, after the agreement has come into operation, this action is calculated to cause industrial strife and disputes, is a slap in the face for responsible trade union/employers' leadership and is a disgrace to the Government?

Mr. Mellish

The right hon. Gentleman must understand that the action taken by the Government is in line with the policy already explained in the House, and which has received the consent of the House. It is, therefore, Government policy. There were discussions between both sides of the industry, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, and they were informed as long ago as March that it was the Government's intention to refer the claim to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred to the Prices and Incomes Board.

It is true that there was a delay in referring this matter until May, but there can be no doubt that they were aware of the intention of the Government on this matter. Indeed, there were long discussions in which I was very much involved.

The policy of the Government is quite clear. In our view, it would have been an abrogation of Government policy had this interim award been made in spite of the fact that they only had to wait, as they were asked to do, until the end of November for the report from the Prices and Incomes Board, upon which there could then have been a discussion and, perhaps, final settlement of the problem. What the Government have said is fair and proper. It is in accord with Government policy.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the decision of the Government is unjust, stupid and a threat to industrial peace in the building and civil engineering industry? Is he also aware that building and civil engineering workers work in rotten, lousy conditions, that the so-called cost of living rise in March amounted to 1d. per hour and that these negotiations have taken 12 months? May I now ask the Minister to withdraw this reference immediately, before further damage is done to the industry and to the economy of the country?

Mr. Mellish

My hon. Friend's views about the Government's prices and incomes policy are well known in this House. He has every right to his point of view, and so have the Government to theirs. The fact is that they are implementing a policy which has been endorsed by the House. My hon. Friend cannot talk to me about his personal regard for those in the industry. No one has done more as a Minister than I have done to try to help them.

I must, however, make it clear that the industry was aware that the matter was before the Prices and Incomes Board and that it had to wait until the end of November for a report. In spite of that, the two sides decided, against advice, to implement the interim award. That in itself was a challenge to the Government. I hope that a great deal of good will is still left, because the final decision about any standstill will not be made until Monday. Discussions are going on with both sides of industry and I hope that good sense will prevail.

Mr. Biffen

Is not the position at least this much clear: that employees want more money, the employers are prepared to pay more money and the Government now intervene in this industry, of all industries? Is not one way for the industry itself to resolve this dilemma an increase in self-employment in the form of labour-only contracting? Was not this one of the consequences which faced the right hon. Gentleman when he considered Government action?

Mr. Mellish

The hon. Member has broadened the argument, and is talking about the Phelps-Brown Report, which has still to be discussed on the Floor of the House and on which we shall be glad to hear from him. Let us keep the argument as it is.

This is a case in which both sides of industry were negotiating a wage increase. Both sides of industry knew that the Prices and Incomes Board was considering the whole impact on the industry, and the original claim dated from last October. The hon. Member is perfectly right to complain about delay—I do not deny that—but the fact is that both sides of the industry knew that this matter was going before the Prices and Incomes Board. All that we are asking for at Government level is that they should wait for the P.I.B. report before coming to any decision.

Mr. Tomney

Would not my right hon. Friend realise that he is allowing events to run ahead of him and out of control? Here was a chance to achieve a long-term settlement with the building industry. In view of the adverse vote at the T.U.C. and at the Labour Party conference on the Government's incomes policy, and his own position as a former trade union negotiator, does not my right hon. Friend now think that it would have been better at this stage to have made a settlement?

Mr. Mellish

I am one of those who happen to believe in collective Government responsibility. I believe, also, that the Government's policy on prices and incomes is right and courageous.

Mr. Costain

I have a good deal of sympathy with the Minister in having to answer concerning this hot chestnut, but will he appreciate—as, I know, he does—the good relations between unions and employers in the building and civil engineering industry? Does he realise that what has happened will inhibit those good relations? Will he make it quite clear that the employers feel that they have a moral obligation to pay this money? What action will the Government take against those who have decided to pay it without the Government imposing a freeze? Will the Minister make the position clear?

Mr. Mellish

The hon Member should know the Act as well as I do. If the Government introduce a standstill, there are dangers associated with such an implementation by any individual employer. In my view, the National Federation of Building Trades Employers are very responsible people and I am sure that they will see that the Government's wishes are observed. I hope that this action does not in any way damage the relationship between the unions and employers. I agree with the hon. Member that they are first-rate and I hope that they remain so.

Mr. Lawson

Will my right hon. Friend also bear in mind that the public interest, too, should be protected and that since there has been an extraordinary, steep and rapid rise in the cost of building, something might be done to put a ceiling or a stop to this rise in the cost of building?

Mr. Mellish

The Prices and Incomes Board is looking at the whole question of the building and civil engineering industry. Its report is expected at the end of this month, in a matter of a few weeks. I hope very much that both sides of industry will see the common sense of themselves applying a voluntary standstill order on this interim increase. I assure my hon. Friends and others of my hon. Friends that a great deal of good will exists, but I hope very much that they will exercise this restraint.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Is the Minister aware that many substantial wage settlements have been concluded recently after threats of trouble or disruption? In view of this attitude to a responsible claim by an industry with a splendid record of productivity, does not the Minister appreciate that this kind of decision will help to persuade the unions that the only way to get more money is to cause trouble and disruption?

Mr. Mellish

That is one of the arguments. On the hon. Member's argument, whichever way it goes, the Government cannot win. When they try to do what is right in industry and make all industry conform, they are accused of interfering. If they did nothing at all, that would be the negation of government.

Mr. Orme

Following what my hon. Friend has just said, to the effect that the Government cannot win, does he not agree that the disaster and the odium of the policy on which they have embarked will now fall upon the Government because of their direct interference in the oasis of free collective bargaining, and that the sooner we get back to that the better? The Government would be well advised, at this late hour, to drop the reference to the Prices and Incomes Board and, perhaps, prevent disaster in one of our major industries.

Mr. Mellish

I know that my hon. Friend will not agree with what I am about to say, but let me point out to him and to others of my hon. Friends who say that the collective bargaining principle is sacrosanct that we have had a collective bargaining principle in this country for many years and that there are hundreds of thousands of our people who are almost at the other end on the poverty line because they do not have the power to get a good economic wage.

Mr. Ridley

Is the Minister aware that if there is a strike it will be entirely the fault of the Government? As, therefore, large numbers of people on both sides in the industry will lose large sums of money, including building employers and those commissioning buildings, will the Government be prepared to compensate people, since it will be they who have started the strike?

Mr. Mellish

I do not think that there will be a strike. I repeat that discussions are at present going on between both sides of the industry and my right hon. Friend's Department, and my own, until a final decision is made on Monday, 11th November. I hope very much that we can arrive at a settlement which will be helpful to the industry as a whole. I know that there is a great deal of good will. It is a question of harnessing it.

Mr. Barnett

How many of the very large number of small firms in the industry are now paying this increase and, indeed, paying rather more than the increase? Is not this another meaningless exercise which can only result in causing further agonies of industrial unrest for a very modest increase and a very marginal increase in the total increases in wage costs?

Mr. Mellish

I know a fair amount about the building and civil engineering industry, but I do not know enough to answer these questions.

Mr. Carr

May I renew the appeal which has come to the Minister from both sides of the House to reconsider this action? May I ask him to do so on this ground above all others? Does he not agree that one of the chief needs in industry today, particularly, perhaps, in this industry, is to strengthen the hand of the responsible, constitutional union leadership, and that to take this action, after an agreement has come into force, is the best thing he could do to discourage the responsible elements and to encourage the irresponsible?

Mr. Mellish

The leaders of the N.F.B.T.E. and the N.F.B.T.O. are known to me personally. I think that the relationship between them and the Government has been extremely cordial, but I can only say to them, in answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question, that I find it rather sad, since they knew that the P.I.B. report was coming at the end of November—I know about the story of delays—that this interim award was made, with all the difficulties about which they were told in October.

I would just say this to the right hon. Gentleman, that I hope very much that, between now and 11th November, the discussions which are now taking place will result in the sort of agreement to which we are all looking forward.