HC Deb 12 March 1969 vol 779 cc1373-80
The First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (Mrs. Barbara Castle)

I will, with permission, make a statement on the present situation in the Ford dispute.

Since I reported to the House on Monday, talks with representatives of the unions and of the Ford management have continued at my Department.

In these discussions the unions represented unanimously to the company that the continuing possibility of legal action against the T. & G.W.U. and the A.E.F. was an obstacle to a return to normal industrial negotiation. In view of this, the company yesterday gave an assurance that it would not pursue further legal action and so instructed its legal advisers.

In the subsequent talks the unions put forward yesterday—I understand by a majority decision—the following demands as prior conditions for a resumption of work:

  1. (1) Implementation of the pay increases and related provisions of the 1374 package deal, but with the dropping of the so-called penalty clauses;
  2. (2) Withdrawal of a provision in the package deal that the unions should give 21 days' notice of constitutional strike action.
  3. (3) An indication that the company would improve the pay increases provided in the package deal following a return to work.
The unions also indicated that in the subsequent negotiations they would wish to query certain points in the provisions of the package deal setting out guide lines for the introduction of productivity improvements.

For its part, the company has taken the line that it is prepared to renegotiate the package deal, but only within the agreed negotiating machinery following resumption of work. It has pointed out that, since the package deal negotiated last month has been implemented from 1st March at the request of the majority of the trade union side of the N.J.N.C., about 7,000 Ford employees who are still at work are already enjoying its benefits.

The company therefore proposed that resumption of work should take place on the basis of the new deal on the clear understanding that the company would immediately negotiate with the unions the substitution of alternative provisions for any clauses not found acceptable. Alternatively, the company was prepared to revert to the previous agreement reached in 1967 as a basis for resumption of work and enter into immediate negotiations for the production of an entirely new package deal.

This morning the trade unions rejected these proposals from the company, again, I understand, by a majority, and the talks have, therefore, broken down.

The House will, I am sure, share my profound regret at this outcome and my deep concern at the continuing serious loss of production and exports. My Department will, of course, continue to keep in close touch with both sides and will be ready to help at any time when this seems possible.

Mr. R. Carr

The whole House will, I am sure, wish to underline the extreme gravity of the situation, not only for its immediate effects but for the longer-term implications affecting employment and investment in the motor industry. I am equally sure that the House will wish to make it quite clear to all those concerned on both sides that any undue intransigence, from whichever side it might come in this affair, would be condemned by the House and the country.

Having said that, would the right hon. Lady answer two questions? First, has she expressed, or does she intend to express, any view to the parties concerned on whether the union demands, about which she has just told us, would or would not comply with, and be acceptable to the Government from the point of view of, the prices, incomes and productivity policy, for it seems to many of us that both sides should know that, even if only privately?

Secondly, when will the union leaders be available again for renewed negotiations? Is the report in the Press true, that they will not be available until next Monday? If so, might it not be wise to make it clear to all concerned that first things should come first?

Mrs. Castle

I have not been asked by either side to express a view on the union proposals in these negotiations for the simple reason that the company itself has not accepted the union proposals. As I made clear to the House last Monday, the package deal was costed as a whole by my Department and was acceptable because, as a whole, it yielded savings of about 15 per cent.; and, clearly, any new agreement would have to be similarly examined.

To answer the second part of the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, it is true that the union negotiators are leaving London for York. This does not mean, of course, that my Department cannot continue to keep in touch with them.

Mr. John Hynd

Can my right hon. Friend confirm the report that the Ford Company is now abandoning its projected £20 million development programme at Dagenham? If so, has she made an estimate of what this might mean in terms of employment and exports?

Mrs. Castle

I understand from the company that it has felt obliged to urgently reconsider this plan in view of the present situation A final decision has not yet been reached. I cannot give my hon. Friend an exact estimate of the effect on employment and production that would be felt, but, clearly, there would be a loss of jobs and exports.

Mr. Lubbock

Does not the matter go much further than a single investment decision amounting to £20 million? If a satisfactory solution of this dispute cannot be reached, will not this deter other foreign investors from increasing their capacity in this country and so seriously jeopardise the future economic prosperity of Great Britain?

Notwithstanding the fact that the right hon. Lady has not been asked to consider the union proposals, will she look at them as a matter of urgency, because if she was able to announce that they did not fall within the terms of the Government's prices and incomes policy then the demands being made by the unions would be academic and they would be able to see clearly that there was no possible hope of achieving them, even if the company agreed to them?

Mrs. Castle

There are, of course, implications wider than the £20 million extension plan at Dagenham. For example, there are implications concerning the export of components to Ford firms in Europe. These are very serious for us all; for workers seeking employment and for the country, which urgently needs to improve its balance of payments situation.

To answer the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, the important point to remember at this stage is that the union proposals are unacceptable to the firm because they conflict with the constitutional procedures which the firm has always tried to honour. I have made it sufficiently clear that the package deal previously negotiated stood together as a whole and that any future package deal will have to do the same.

Mr. Ogden

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the whole House appreciates the efforts which she and her Department have been making to bring this dispute to an end?

Is it correct that the future investment programme of the company involves not only Dagenham, but South Wales and Merseyside?

In my right hon. Friend's efforts to achieve a solution to this problem, has she considered asking the Prime Minister to ask the C.B.I. and the T.U.C. to see whether they can bring pressure to bear on both sides to reach a solution?

Mrs. Castle

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments about the work of my Department's negotiators. They are extremely wise and skilled in these matters and work tirelessly in a situation such as this. I am, therefore, glad that my hon. Friend paid that tribute to them.

Because they are wise and experienced, I do not think that at this stage there would be any advantage in calling in the T.U.C. and the C.B.I., though, of course, I would be prepared to consider any possibility which might enable us to get an early resumption of work.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Would the right hon. Lady consider inviting or challenging the unions to hold a secret ballot of their members to find out whether they would find acceptable the terms proposed?

Mrs. Castle

This suggestion was put at an early stage by the company to the unions which said that their members found the package deal unacceptable. The firm suggested that they should consult their members by ballot, but the unions said that it would take too much time to go through the executives and they were not prepared to pursue the suggestion. I understand that the firm tried to explain the situation in a personal letter to each employee.

Mr. Atkinson

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the Ford workers have a justifiable claim for a wage increase above the 3½ per cent. norm, particularly as Ford skilled workers are no better off today than they were 30 years ago? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That is a claim which Ford workers are prepared to prove by facts.

Will my right hon. Friend inform the Ford management, therefore, that there is no future in trying to negotiate conditional bonuses and advise both management and unions that there is a possibility of getting together to negotiate entirely new agreements on productivity?

Mrs. Castle

The package deal agreed and negotiated, and approved by us, provided a pay increase well above 3½ per cent. It provided an average increase of 8 per cent. and it was possible to approve that because it was part of a deal which ensured continuity of employment and greater productivity. These are the criteria which must be observed when we are assessing the costs and savings in any such agreement.

As for my hon. Friend's other point, surely if he had listened to my original statement carefully he would have heard that I said the firm has offered to renegotiate every clause in the agreement or the whole package deal following a resumption of work and to do so urgently, but it is saying—and I think that it is surely legitimate in saying—that it either has the new agreement negotiated last month or the current agreement negotiated in 1967, and, therefore, this should be done constitutionally through the constitutional negotiating machinery following a return to work.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The right hon. Lady referred in her original statement to loss of exports involved. Can she quantify this? How much a week?

Mrs. Castle

As I told the House on Monday, £20 million worth of production had been lost up to that point, half of which is for export, and there is a continuing loss of £2 million a day, again on a fifty-fifty basis; so there is a current loss of £1 million of exports a day.

Mr. Howie

Can my right hon. Friend tell us whether or not the statement made on television last night by one of the trade union leaders closely involved in this dispute, that the so-called penalty clauses would not have cost anybody a penny, is correct or not?

Mrs. Castle

I heard that statement made and I was a little mystified. It was made by Mr. Scanlon. If Mr. Scanlon was implying that there has been no unconstitutional action by the firm's employees during the last 30 years he is being wildly optimistic, because in 1968 alone 137,000 working days—about I million man hours—were lost by unconstitutional action in the firm itself.

So if these bonus clauses had been in operation and this action had not taken place the firm would have paid out about a quarter of a million pounds in lay-off benefit last year in addition to the fact that every one of the 46,000 employees at Ford's would have had the £20 holiday bonus.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

While the house can understand the Minister not wanting personally to intervene further at this stage, has not the time come when, in the national interest, the Government should give a clear lead? For example, on the evidence of her balanced statement today, would the right hon. Lady say whether the unions or the management are being unreasonable?

Mrs. Castle

No, I do not think that that would be helpful. I think the House is pressing me to see that my Department continues its efforts in this field. We shall do so wherever the parties are and however difficult it is to reach them. This is our policy and I have made it sufficiently clear that there are constitutional points here of very great seriousness and importance.

Mr. Paget

Will my right hon. Friend agree that this lamentable state of affairs illustrates the folly of trying to bring the law into an industrial dispute?

Mr. Castle

I am sorry, but I think that my hon. and learned Friend has got the situation confused. The law was not brought in at the stage when the dispute started. This is the difficulty we face. The trouble has arisen because of the attempt by the firm to find an alternative to legal action by putting inside its agreement both a guaranteed week for its own workers, who have been complaining about loss of employment as a result of other people's unofficial strikes, and, at the same time, clauses in the package which meant that certain bonuses and the lay-off benefit would be forfeited if they took part in unconstitutional action. That was an attempt at negotiation across the bargaining table to find an alternative to the law. It is the spirit in which the firm proceeded.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the House.