HC Deb 10 March 1969 vol 779 cc978-84
The First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (Mrs. Barbara Castle)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the strike at Ford Motor Company plants.

Following an application from the unions for a pay increase and growing pressure for the provision of a guaranteed week to insulate its workers against layoffs resulting from strike action elsewhere, the company, in November last, entered into negotiations with the trade union side of the National Joint Negotiating Committee through a working party consisting of representatives of the company and the six unions covering the great majority of their employees.

After a series of meetings and an interim report to the N.J.N.C., the company put forward on 10th February an improved "package deal" offer which the trade union representatives agreed to recommend unanimously to the full trade union side of the Ford N.J.N.C. On 11th February the trade union side accepted the offer by majority decision.

The following are the main features of the package deal: increases in rates averaging about 8 per cent.; measures to facilitate productivity improvements; lay-off and short-time payments on condition that the employee has not engaged during the previous six months in action in breach of the procedure agreed by the National Joint Negotiating Committee; a £20 holiday bonus, provided that the same condition is fulfilled during the previous 12 months; improvements in the disputes procedure, and an accelerated joint procedure for dealing with appeals against disqualification from lay-off payment and holiday bonus; equal pay for women employees, subject to acceptance of the same conditions as for male employees.

These terms, subject to certain reservations in respect of equal pay, were to come into operation on 1st March.

On 18th February, the A.E.U. Executive Council rejected the deal and demanded renegotiation. A few days later, the full trade union side of the N.J.N.C. decided to request the company to suspend the package deal pending reexamination. Nevertheless, when the company and the unions met in the N.J.N.C. on 25th February, the trade union side, by majority decision, confirmed their acceptance of the deal and requested the company to implement it from 1st March.

The company therefore asked my Department for an urgent reply to the request that it had already made for Government approval under the prices and incomes policy for implementation of the deal. This was granted on an assessment of the productivity savings flowing from the deal as a whole and subject to review after six months.

On 25th February, however, the A.E.U. had called an official strike of their members in Ford plants, a number of which were already affected by unofficial strikes. Similar decisions followed from the T. & G.W.U., the Patternmakers and the National Union of Vehicle Builders. Although about 7,000 employees have remained at work, vehicle production in the company's plants is virtually at a standstill, with serious loss of exports.

On 27th February, the company obtained an interim injunction against the A.E.F. and the T.G.W.U. restraining them from taking further action in pursuance of the strike.

On the same day, a meeting of representatives of the unions on the N.J.N.C. took place at Croydon, under the chairmanship of Lord Cooper, immediately following the T.U.C. conference of union executives. Following this meeting, an approach was made to the company requesting withdrawal of legal action, renegotiation on the basis of dropping conditional lay-off benefit and holiday bonus and consideration of alternative productivity proposals, in return for all of which, the unions in dispute with the company would instruct their members to return to work.

The company replied by offering to withdraw legal action, provided that there was a return to work on the following Monday, and the package deal was recognised as being in operation until replaced by an agreement negotiated in accordance with hte N.J.N.C. procedure. There was no response from the union side. On 6th March the interim injunction was discharged by the High Court.

On the following day, last Friday, at the T.U.C.'s invitation, representatives of the unions on the N.J.N.C. were called together, and this was followed immediately by a joint meeting of the two sides of the N.J.N.C. As, however, no basis for a resumption of work was found at this meeting, officers of my Department held exploratory talks with the two sides on Saturday, and further talks are taking place this afternoon.

Mr. R. Carr

Is the right hon. Lady aware that both sides of the House will hope for success from the further talks which are taking place this afternoon? We are sure that she will do all she can to urge on those involved the very serious nature of the strike and of the events which led up to it.

May I ask the right hon. Lady whether she will make another statement to the House as soon as she has any news and make clear whether any alternative agreement which my be made will have to provide productivity savings equal to those contained in the agreement which has now, unfortunately, been thrown overboard?

Mrs. Castle

I shall certainly impress on all sides in the dispute the very serious nature of the situation, in which about £20 million-worth of production has already been lost, half of it for export, and the seriousness of the strike, which costs about £2 million a day as it continues.

Any deal which may be negotiated by the company, as by any other, would have to be subject to the provisions of the prices and incomes policy.

Mr. John Mendelson

As the company maintained that it does not wish to reopen negotiations on the penalty clauses in the proposed agreement, because the Government would then not approve of the agreement, will my right hon. Friend also give an assurance that the Government do not create any such obstacle and would allow the two partners to have new negotiations without insisting on the penalty clauses?

Mrs. Castle

I am sorry that my hon. Friend, if I understood him aright, has completely misrepresented the position. The deal was presented to us as a whole, and we considered the savings of the deal as a whole as against the cost. We found that the savings exceeded the cost by about 15 per cent. Therefore, there is no difficulty for the company and the unions concerned in renegotiating the deal, which, again, would be subject to our consideration. The position of the company is that if work were resumed it would be prepared to withdraw legal action and to negotiate de novo.

Mr. Sandys

Does the right hon. Lady recognise that this damaging strike might have been averted if statutory powers had existed to call for a secret ballot, and a cooling-off period? Does not she now see that we cannot afford to wait a whole year more before the Government introduce urgently-needed legislation?

Mrs. Castle

I do not think that any useful purpose would be served by answering hypothetical questions at this time.

Mr. George Brown

I declare 37 years' membership of the Transport and General Workers' Union, and more than 20 years as an official. Will not my right hon. Friend make it plain that until agreements entered into are honoured by the unions we shall always run into this trouble, and that there is no way out of this by another set of negotiations unless our people, as well as the employers, will accept that, having made an agreement, they honour it for the period for which it is made and then enter into a new set of negotiations?

Mrs. Castle

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that progress in the improvement of industrial relations must depend on the honouring of agreements that have been entered into. But in this situation what the company is saying is that discussions should now go back into the approved procedure of the negotiating machinery, and that the matter should be reconsidered there.

Mr. Richard Wainwright

The right hon. Lady spoke of an urgent reply. It was no doubt very helpful that she sent Ford's an urgent reply to their request for approval or disapproval of its proposals. Now that her Department has had rather more time, would she consider sending a second reply to Ford's, spelling out in much more detail the conditions which it regards as absolutely essential, so that the Ford package shall have her approval?

Mr. Castle

No, Sir. I do not think that that would be the right approach. The company put a specific agreement to me, which had just be reconfirmed by the trade union side of the N.J.N.C. My Department considered it on its merits and in the light of the productivity savings flowing from the deal as a whole. That is the basis on which we shall consider all future agreements.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright

In this very delicate situation, will my right hon. Friend take it that many hon. Members deplore the fact that the agreement signed was not accepted? Will she make certain that her Department does not do anything to prevent negotiations continuing satisfactorily? Will she bear in mind that other similar agreements may be made because representation on the committees is not weighted as it should be, and will she examine any future agreement?

Mrs. Castle

Certainly, my Department will not do anything to impede the progress of the negotiations. On the contrary, as I have already told the House, we called the two sides to the Department on Saturday and are meeting the two sides of the N.J.N.C. separately again this afternoon.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Is not it the essence of a package deal that it be accepted or rejected as a whole? As, in spite of this obvious truth, there is a temptation for parties to wish to extract the plums from agreements and reject the less attractive features, does not that confirm the urgent necessity of making collective agreements, like all other contracts, enforceable at law?

Mrs. Castle

What this situation does show is that it is very necessary for the intentions of the parties to a collective agreement to be in no doubt. That is why the White Paper provides that the intention of the parties that an agreement should be legally enforceable—if that is the intention—should be positively spelt out in writing in the agreement. That is a different proposition from that of the Opposition, and, I think, a wiser one.

Mr. Orme

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the two major unions—the A.E.F. and the Transport and General Workers' Union—which have made the dispute official represent 75 per cent., of trade unionists involved? That is the answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. George Brown). Does she agree that it is the Ford management's sticking to the legal implications and threatening to take the unions to court that is the barrier to arriving at fresh negotiations?

Mrs. Castle

The question at issue is negotiating machinery to which all the unions concerned agreed.

I have never made any comment, public or private, on the merits of the legal action, and it certainly would not be appropriate for me to do so at this moment.

Mr. John Page

Is the right hon. Lady aware that there is a real danger under present circumstances that the Ford Motor Company will be induced to carry out future investments in Germany and elsewhere rather than in this country? Will she try to use her influence to get that point of view and information put across to the employees of the company?

Mrs. Castle

It is my duty to use my influence to try to get a peaceful settlement of the dispute and the best possible industrial relations in the company, and that is what my Department is endeavouring to do.

Sir G. de Freitas

Is it correct that the two big, important unions now so opposed to the agreement had previously made agreements containing similar penalty clauses?

Mrs. Castle

I think that the phrase "penalty clause" is misleading. [An HON. MEMBER: "You used it."] That is so, but it is not a phrase that the firm uses. It prefers "bonus clause".

It is true that there have been other cases where this type of clause has been included in agreements entered into by these unions. For example, there was the agreement reached only last December by the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and 11 unions, including the A.E.F. and the T. & G.W.U. That agreement included a no-redundancy guarantee which was subject to forfeit if unofficial action took place.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Could it be made clear to those involved in the strike that their action has brought about the unemployment of several thousand workers in Belgium? This must have a far-reaching effect on our trade and the whole implication of British relationship with the Common Market. Will this be pointed out?

Mrs. Castle

I am glad that I am not the Minister of Labour for Belgium.

Mr. C. Pannell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that not many helpful questions have been asked this afternoon, and that the sooner we get back to the negotiations the better? My right hon. Friend carries with her the good will of all of us.

Is my right hon. Friend also aware that in the present atmosphere hypothetical questions about world trade and all the rest will not have much effect upon the men on the factory floor? It does not matter what agreements have been made in other cases. We are speaking about the dispute at Ford's, which should rapidly be brought to an end.

Mrs. Castle


Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker


Mr. Tilney

On a point of order. Considering that Ford's produce more employment on Merseyside than any other industry, is it not possible for a question to be asked for Merseyside?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am grateful to the hon. Member for calling my attention to something that I had not noticed. Mr. Tilney.

Mr. Tilney

I am grateful, Mr. Speaker.

With further reference to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page), may I ask the Minister what action her Ministry has taken to alert the employees of Ford's to the danger of an export drive being undertaken from another country and the grave detriment to employment on Merseyside?

Mrs. Castle

The duty of my Department at the moment is to concentrate on the negotiations, which, we hope, will restore the work at this factory and, therefore, meet the position which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.