HC Deb 07 March 1969 vol 779 cc845-9

Mr. Howie (by Private Notice): Asked the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity if she will make a statement on the dispute which has arisen from the strike of 10 men at Vauxhall Motors in Ellesmere Port.

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

Yes, Mr. Speaker.

Production at the Vauxhall plants at Ellesmere Port and Luton has been seriously affected by shortage of components caused by a strike of 10 platers employed at the Ellesmere Port factory. The strike, which began on 26th February, has resulted in 11,000 employees being laid off, 6,000 at the Ellesmere Port plant and 5,000 at Luton and further lay-offs are threatened.

The men are claiming an additional payment because of the conditions in which their work is done. The company maintains that it has an understanding with the union side of the joint negotiating committee that claims of this nature will be considered only in the general review of the company's whole pay structure for manual workers, at present under discussion in that committee, and that, therefore, it is unable to deal with this particular claim in isolation. The company has, however, expressed its willingness to consider this matter at a meeting of the joint negotiating committee on Tuesday next.

Officials of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers, to which the strikers belong, have made several attempts to secure a return to work, but these have so far been unsuccessful. I understand that after the failure of the latest of these attempts yesterday, the company has stated that it now considers the men on strike as having terminated their employment with the company.

I am deeply disturbed that a stoppage this nature should have resulted in such widespread stoppage of production and loss of employment. Officers of my Department have already been in touch with the union and the company and they are seeking urgent consultations with both sides to see what further steps can be taken.

Mr. Howie

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of the provisions of her recent White Paper fit this situation like a glove? Has she been informed that local trade union leaders in Luton, where some 5,000 people have been laid off because of this strike, have been highly critical of the strikers and, indeed, have been rather hawkish about it? Would she agree that the union concerned, the A.E.F., has been somewhat ineffective in controlling these men and will she encourage that union to take whatever steps it can to protect the many thousands of its members in my constituency who are now unemployed?

Mrs. Castle

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that it is this kind of situation with which we should try to deal; and we should deal with it, first and foremost, by trying to help the union to see that its members follow the sort of procedures that the union has negotiated. It is certainly this sort of situation that I had in mind in introducing my White Paper to the House last Monday.

Mr. Orme

Would my right hon. Friend agree that legal sanctions will not help and that this matter has to be resolved within the industry? Could she say what current negotiations she is having with the A.E.F. and if she is having any other immediate negotiations?

Mrs. Castle

It is not for me to have negotiations with the union, but certainly my Department has had and will continue to have consultations. We have been doing our best to reinforce the union's endeavours to get these men to return to work. It is a central theme of the White Paper, that what we want to do is to get the union to exercise control over its own members to see that other trade unionists are not laid off work in this way.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright

Will my right hon. Friend agree that it is more and more deplorable that there are such bad relations in industry between trade unions and employers? Would she consider, very deeply and seriously, bringing forward some of the White Paper proposals—the non-contentious ones—to make certain that a better relationship develops between the two sides?

Mrs. Castle

I cannot accept that there have been bad relations between the company and the unions in this case. What we are talking about is an understanding entered into between the company and the union. In this situation the company is abiding by that understanding, and the problem we face is that 10 members of the union are just taking the law into their own hands in defiance of the procedures their union has negotiated. The problem here, not everywhere I agree, is the relationship between the individual members of the trade union and the union's official representatives, who have negotiated understandings which a minority of individual workers are defying.

Mr. Scott

Is the right hon. Lady aware that we welcome her remarks, particularly her last remarks, and that we share her disturbance at this unofficial and unconstitutional action? Is she further aware that we are glad to hear that officers of her Department are involved? Is not the real lesson that we need to learn here is that we need to take action now on proposals to bring some modern framework of law to industrial relations and that we cannot afford to allow this state of affairs to continue?

Mrs. Castle

I cannot say that any steps taker now to introduce the proposals of hon. Gentlemen opposite would help the situation at all, because the framework of law—[Interruption.]—this is a very important element in the discussion—the framework of law that hon. Gentlemen opposite are proposing is one which would bind the union officially, but it is not the union officials who are breaking the agreement, it is individuals. This shows how much more apposite are the proposals in the White Paper for a conciliation pause than the legal framework to which hon. Gentlemen opposite have always referred. My hon. Friends will remember that the conciliation pause is linked to a power to restore the status quo, which in this case would involve reinstatement of the men and the resumption of work while discussions continued—give and take on both sides.

Mr. Ogden

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this is another example of the gap between the national unions and the people of the shop floor? Can she tell us a little more about the immediate aim of the consultations that are taking place through her Department? Is this to ensure that the company will withdraw its dismissal notices, the men will resume work and then negotiations can take place, exactly as is proposed in her White Paper?

Mrs. Castle

My hon. Friend will realise that the powers of the White Paper are not yet available. The purpose of the consultations we are having with both sides is to get a resumption of work. I am sure that hon. Members would not wish me to go into any particular details at this stage as to what form the consultations would take. This has to be left, as a matter of flexibility, for the consultation processes.

Certainly the aim must be to get a resumption of work. I repeat that the company has agreed to discuss this matter in the joint negotiating committee next Tuesday. It is a matter of tragedy that that offer has not been accepted. It is a major tragedy that 6,000 people at the Ellesmere works and 5,000 at Luton should be laid off when the offer of discussion has been made by the company.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

Since it is clear that the firm concerned has been forced to adopt sanctions to defend not only its interests but those of all the workers in the firm, is it not clear that if the right hon. Lady will not accept the need for national sanctions which have some legal effect, at any rate the union should have sanctions? It has failed to persuade these men to return to work. What will the union do beyond persuasion to get the men to return?

Mrs. Castle

To reply to that question would involve reopening the whole of Monday's debate, and this is not the appropriate occasion. We are in a delicate situation over these negotiations. I repeat that what we must be concerned with now is to get the men back to work in the interests of other workers in the plant, and other plants, to prevent loss of production and the further loss of employment which threatens unless we can get a resumption of work so that talks can continue.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the House.