HC Deb 06 February 1969 vol 777 cc728-38

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

10.39 p.m.

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham)

My remarks will be brief, Mr. Speaker, both because of the lateness of the hour and also because I am anxious, before my hon. Friend the Minister rises to reply, to allow time for my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) to catch your eye and to give the House the benefit of his great knowledge of the building industry, which is the industry we are concerned with in this short debate.

The matter I wish to raise is the industrial dispute at the Ivy Bridge building site in the London borough of Hounslow, which has now been at a standstill for nearly 17 weeks, with some 500 building workers locked out and—even more important—with some 1,000 families, many of them my constituents, still unable to be admitted to the homes they have waited for for so long.

The question hon. Members may well ask is, how has this tragic situation come about? Obviously, simple answers to questions like this are seldom possible. My experience as a long-standing and senior trade unionist tells me that usually there are complex reasons behind industrial trouble and that one's first assessments are frequently not one's final assessments. Situations are seldom black and white.

But, looking into the facts of this dispute between Turriff's and the building workers, who are fully backed by their unions, so that this is a 100 per cent. official dispute, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Turriff's has acted in a way offensive to every acknowledged canon of good industrial relations and which, indeed, might well have been rejected by Herr Alfred Krupp in dealing with his slave labour during the Second World War.

In the time at my disposal, I cannot set out in detail the events which led up to the total stoppage of this 1,000-plus home units site. Suffice to say that the situation took a sharp nose-dive following one particularly arrogant action by the local management—which, it is interesting to note, has been changed four or five times since the job began, as sure an indication of poor quality top management as it is possible to come by, if my experience is anything to go by.

For its own reasons, the management, it seems, was anxious that the job should proceed with maximum speed and, after detailed negotiations, concluded a bonus scheme with the men and their unions to bring this about. The scheme worked extremely well for a while and, though it meant extremely hard work for them, the men were prepared to accept the speed-up because they were being well paid, though not excessively, under the agreement.

Out of the blue, one day last autumn, the management announced, without any prior consultation with the men or their unions, that a substantial section of the work force, mainly the semi-skilled and unskilled workers, would be no longer paid in accordance with the agreement. Inevitably, this led to a major disruption of industrial relations at the site, followed by an outrageous succession of blunders by the management, including, believe it or not, the positioning of a squad of Securicor "toughies", plus Alsation dogs, on the site in order to prevent the men from getting on with the job of providing homes for people desperately in need of them.

The whole seamy story of this firm's utter cynicism towards its responsibilities—to the council, to the workers it has so cavalierly locked out and, above all, to the thousands it is keeping homeless by its actions—has been recounted at length, and quite fairly, in national papers as diverse politically as the Morning Star and the Daily Telegraph, as well as in the local Press.

Twice the matter has been before industrial tribunals and each time a verdict against the firm was recorded. The matter has also been before the appropriate committee of the Conservative-controlled Hounslow Borough Council, which, with a procrastination that makes Nero look like a gritty, purposive man of action, though still no doubt an excellent fiddler, has felt powerless to act, despite the acute shortage of council housing in many parts of the borough.

My purpose in raising this matter is simply to draw to the attention of the Government a very serious situation which is gravely affecting the welfare and happiness of some thousands of my constituents and which cannot be allowed to continue. Whether or not the Government think they have adequate powers of intervention, I remind them that there is more than one way of killing a cat and that, if they feel their present powers leave them feeling legally a little impotent, then perhaps they should begin to reflect upon other, less formal ways of insisting upon industrial good manners from Turriff's—not excluding, one would hope, the consideration that a very sizeable part of the firm's business comes from Government sources.

May I pay my tribute to the men on the site, and their union leaders? Despite a whole series of provocative actions by the management, which someone uncharitably suggested was to be a prelude to the firm withdrawing from the contract because it turned out to be unprofitable, the men have remained cool throughout, and highly responsible. They have played every round in this wretched dispute according to the rules, and with their union's support. If there is to be talk of "wildcat" action in this case it is an epithet which must be firmly pinned on to Turriff's, a firm which has yet to learn the meaning of the words "industrial relations".

I hope that the Department of Employment and Productivity will use its best endeavours to obtain a return to work, and an end to this firm's arrogant behaviour.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

I want to support my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham (Mr. Russell Kerr) who has done an excellent job on behalf of the workers in the industry, and the people in his constituency, in raising this matter. My particular interest in this matter is that a considerable number of workers involved, those who were locked out and who went on official dispute, are members of the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers, the union to which I belong. I have read all the documents in this case, supplied by the unions and the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives.

I have never read a worse case of industrial non-relations. We in the building industry are used to tough employers—it is a tough industry. We have a very difficult time existing under decent conditions on any building site. I was amazed to find that in this case an agreement had been arrived at and successfully operated for approximately 18 months, and, because on the basis of a productivity agreement, the workers were earning a reasonable amount of bonus, the employers felt that this was too high. Without any prior negotiations they broke this agreement and terminated the previous scheme.

No workers are prepared to accept this arbitrary action on the part of employers. We often hear about workers taking unofficial action, strike action, as though there was nothing preceding it. This was a very good example where employers were responsible for this action by the workers. Because the workers were not prepared to accept a future, imposed, agreement the employers have locked out 86 of the workers.

Subsequently, the rest of the workers took action in support of their colleagues. This, incidentally, is very rare in modern times. I am not surprised to hear that the building trade unions reacted in this way. There were two disputes commissions held about this. In the industry such a commission is made up of operatives and employers, in equal numbers. Both commissions—the regional commission and the national commission—have, in essence, come down on the side of the operatives, and urged the firm to accept a return to employment of these workers.

The trade union officials and the employers' representative designated by the commission to go on to the site to try to get a resumption of work have failed up to now to get the firm to allow these workers to resume working. The firm has put all kinds of fantastic conditions in the way which make it obvious that it has no intention to agreeing to the dispute commission's findings. I have seen this amazing document of procedures which the firm says should be adopted by the workers for dismissal or for any problems of industrial conflict. With all my experience in the building industry, I could never have operated on the job if I had to operate under the procedures suggested by the employers. It was obvious that the trade unions could not accept such a dismissal procedure. It was put forward to try to make certain that there was no quick resumption of work.

I know that my hon. Friend has very little power, but perhaps what power and influence the Government have they can use to knock a few heads together—I refer to the employers—in an endeavour to get them to accept the terms of the commission's findings and get a speedy return to work, not only in the interests of the workers who are being deliberately kept out of employment, but in the interests of my hon. Friend's constituents who are not receiving the homes that they ought to be receiving because of the continuation of this dispute. Once again, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for raising this matter in the House this evening.

10.52 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (Mr. Roy Hattersley)

My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham (Mr. Russell Kerr) has done his constituents and the House a service by raising this matter tonight, although, as his and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) said, in terms of powers there is perhaps little that the Government can or should do to intervene. Part of the service that my hon. Friend has done is to give the House the opportunity of considering some of the morals which we may well draw from this unhappy affair in the hope that, if the morals are drawn sufficiently clearly and objectively, we may both bring the present dispute to a speedy end and encourage similar disputes in future to be preceded by the sort of thought and preparation which can prevent them coming about.

To explain what I mean, I must briefly go over the history of the dispute, for it is concerned not with one bonus scheme but, in a sense, with two. The story begins with an incentive scheme organised and implemented, with the approval of the unions, on the initiative of the management based on work measurement which was carefully calculated and costed. That was the first incentive scheme, which all Members of the House would approve and endorse.

That was followed by a variety of ad hoc additions, few of which were costed, and virtually none of which were based on the sort of calculations that modern industrial opinion would regard as necessary to make them viable commercial propositions. They in fact constituted a substantial departure from the agreed bonus scheme, although they were agreed from time to time both by the men on the site and by the management. It was this second plethora of individual bonus payments which, on 11th October last year, the company discontinued, because, in its opinion, they no longer bore any relation to productivity and costing.

It was the second scheme which it decided was improper—I see the point about it deciding the matter arbitrarily—and which began the sequence of events which my hon. Friend has outlined. It resulted in the men on the site refusing to operate the original costed bonus scheme. It resulted in the men on the site working to rule, and according to the company that work to rule so disturbed the phasing of the building operation, that by 14th October there was no possibility of the work continuing in its planned form. That is the explanation given by the company for the decision on 14th October to dismiss 80 employees, who, the company said, it could no longer employ because the previous work to rule had made it impossible for their work to continue.

Two days before that the company had withdrawn its recognition of the works committee. It was at that stage that the company first consulted the regional manpower advisers of the D.E.P., and the advice given to the company was the advice which I am sure my hon. Friends would hope and expect the staff of my Department to give. The company was urged to work closely with the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives. The company was encouraged to return to the costed, well calculated, adequately measured work standards, and it was encouraged to put the dispute—for by this time dispute it was—into procedure.

The dispute was referred to a regional disputes commission, under procedure, and the commission confirmed the facts as I have outlined them, including the problem of the ad hoc additions to the original bonus scheme. The commission urged negotiations on a properly costed bonus scheme which must be renegotiated at regular intervals to make sure that both the unions and the company were operating a scheme about which the costings were mutually agreed, and which could be related to a realistic payments system.

As my hon. Friend said, the regional disputes commission did not by its intervention bring the dispute to an end, and again, under procedure, the argument passed to the national commission, which took very much the same line and made very much the same judgment. On 15th November this commission urged a joint working party to visit the site to consider two points, the re-negotiation of the bonus scheme according to acceptable lines, and a resumption of work by reopening the site.

Those two points, both of which it is equally necessary to resolve if the dispute is to be brought to an honourable conclusion, are the bones of contention which remain, the company considering that normal working and the removing of all restrictions is necessary before reemployment can begin, and the union regarding reinstatement of its suspended workers as the first priority.

I ought to say as an aside, as the idea has been canvassed in a lucidly produced, indeed expensively produced, leaflet which has been circulating in London during the recent weeks of this dispute, that to suggest that the argument is because the National Board for Prices and Incomes regards the payment on the site as too high, is palpably and totally untrue. The argument on the site may be about a number of things which, as my hon. Friend says, are shades of grey, rather than black and white, but it is not about either intervention by the Board or the Government, or the result of the prices and incomes policy.

Mr. Russell Kerr

My hon. Friend must have misunderstood me. I was saying that in the normal way industrial disputes are shades of grey rather than black and white. In this instance it came very close to being black and white.

Mr. Hattersley

I take the point that one side had a good deal more to commend it than the other, but, even in an argument of this sort, where it is understandable that the parties have strong and passionate views, one can produce an argument for both sides, and it is my duty this evening to put the arguments as objectively and as clearly as I can. It is certainly my duty to explain that on a number of occasions the intervention of my Department has been offered, and I emphasise the word "offered". It is often the case that the D.E.P., and its predecessor the Ministry of Labour, is accused of standing idly by, waiting for one or both parties to make a formal request for its intervention. Because of the nature of this dispute we have approached both parties asking if they felt that our intervention was possible; if our intervention was necessary; if our intervention would be fruitful—and both parties, and I emphasise that it is both parties, told us that they would regard our intervention at this stage as being inappropriate.

The contention remains on the company's side that normal working must be resumed before negotiations can begin and on the union's side that reinstatement must take place before negotiations are possible. But I can tell the House that on 12th February there is to be a resumed meeting between the parties and it is the hope of all of us that that meeting can bring some sense into this senseless dispute and enable work to go on.

I hope that it is some consolation to my hon. Friend that we have made inquiries during the day about the allegations which he told the House were prevalent and were repeated in the Morning Star of yesterday, that the company is anxious to abandon work on this site because it seems unprofitable and therefore any excuse would be welcome in terms of avoiding its obligations to complete the contract. I am happy to tell him that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government tells me that to the best of his knowledge—having made inquiries through the local council—there has been no attempt, no suggestion, no implication, and no hint from the company that work should be abandoned; indeed, its attempts, along with those of the union, as part of the recommendation of the national commission, to work through national council auspices to get a solution of this dispute suggests that the firm is more than anxious to complete work on this site and provide the 1,100 homes which are so badly needed and the completion of which has been so sadly and disastrously delayed.

Three morals—if morals is the right word—remain. The first is that problems must inevitably arise if, on top of a properly organised and co-ordinated bonus and incentive system a company, through the weakness of its management, allows additional ad hoc haphazard payments to be so imposed that the entire payments system is thrown out of gear.

The second moral is that if a dispute over such a technicality develops any intemperate action which might be taken by one or the other party leads to more and more disastrous action, and the moment that action is taken which is less than thoughtful, less than considered, less than objective, one begins upon a course of events that produces the most disastrous outcome

The third moral is that whilst the responsible parties make every endeavour to bring the dispute to an end and get the men back to work on the site it is essential that all of us who have the interest of the unions and of the prospective tenants at heart should turn our minds to the attempts to reopen the site on or after 12th February rather than concern ourselves with apportioning blame and condemnation. It is an enormous temptation to do that in this case but it is a temptation which must be resisted, for our only objective is to get the site open and the men back to work.

It is not the intention of the Government this evening to apportion blame, but simply to say that our obligations lie not in that luxury but in doing all we can to get the site reopened and the men back to work. I give the House the absolute undertaking that all our offices will be used between now and 12th February to get work started again.

11.4 p.m.

Mr. Tom Driberg (Barking)

We would all agree with the last few words of my hon. Friend. I want to direct my remarks to two brief points and allow time for my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) to make his points. First, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary seemed to have some doubt whether it was right to use the word "morals". It is right in both senses. As The Times might say, it is a moral issue. The treatment of workers by their employers is a moral issue.

I did not entirely like the Minister's use of the word "senseless" as though it applied to both sides in this dispute. It is not at all senseless from the point of view of the workers, if their treatment has been correctly outlined tonight, as I gather it has. But I am very glad that my hon. Friend has been able to deal with the question as he has and I hope that his efforts will be successful.

11.5 p.m.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)

It is not good enough for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to walk the tightrope in this way and lean over to the employers' side. He and his Department are very quick to criticise the actions of workers very explicitly when they think that they are wrong, and it is their duty to say to the employers, "It is your responsibility to reinstate these men and then negotiations can start." The employees and unions are only asking for the social justice of their members being reinstated and are then prepared to negotiate.

My hon. Friend's Department is supposed to be a conciliation Department. Surely they should take a public stand on this, if the facts are as stated by my hon. Friends, who know more about this matter than I do. There is a moral obligation on the Department to come off the fence and say clearly where the first responsibility lies, and then negotiations can start. My hon. Friend should recognise that this is an official dispute by major trade unions in the building industry: his Department should take some cognisance of that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Eleven o'clock.