HC Deb 19 March 1969 vol 780 cc506-14

4.13 p.m.

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 Ford dispute.

I am glad to be able to tell the House that the Ford strike is now over.

When I last reported to the House, on 12th March, talks had broken down at my Department following the rejection by the trade union side of the Ford N.J.N.C. of the company's proposals for a resumption of work and their insistence on a prior commitment by the company that the pay increases in the package deal would be improved. In an effort to resolve this deadlock, I invited company representatives, Mr. Jones of the Transport and General Workers Union and Mr. Scanlon of the A.E.F.—the two major unions in dispute with the company—and Mr. Cannon of the E.E.T.U., one of the unions which had supported the February package deal, to discuss the situation with me last weekend.

As a result of these discussions, joint talks were resumed on 15th March, and on Saturday night the following formula was agreed for recommendation to the full trade union side of the N.J.N.C. the following day:

  1. 1. Normal working will be resumed on the basis of the increased rates in the agreement which commenced on 1st March, 1969.
  2. 2. Additional holiday benefit and lay-off benefit and their qualifying clauses shall be held in abeyance pending re-negotiation but alternatives have been agreed in principle which will ensure continuity of production and payments not less than those proposed in the agreement referred to above.
  3. 3. The company has agreed that it withdraws its requirement of 21 days' strike notice.
At the outset of the discussions on Sunday, 16th March, however, a difference arose between the company on the one side and Mr. Scanlon and Mr. Jones on the other on a central point in the alternative arrangements for financing the layoff benefit and holiday bonus which it was believed had been agreed in principle: the unions insisting that the holiday bonus of £25 which the firm had offered should be paid in full to all employees irrespective of whether they had engaged in unconstitutional industrial action or whether the payments by the company into the fund, which were themselves dependent on freedom from unconstitutional action, were sufficient for the purpose.

After two days of intensive discussions on this and related points, an outline holiday bonus and lay-off benefit scheme to replace the corresponding provisions of the February package deal was agreed. The scheme is in two parts: first, the company has undertaken to set up a fund on a company-wide basis into which it will pay 4s. per employee per week in order to finance lay-off benefit. In any week in which unconstitutional action takes place in any plant, no payment will be made into the fund in respect of any employee in that plant. This sum of 4s. per employee per week should in all normal circumstances be more than sufficient to meet the outgoings and the surplus will be available to improve the benefits in the second part of the scheme.

Under this, a second fund will be created on a plant basis for the payment of a holiday bonus. This will be financed by weekly contributions by the company of 10s. per employee, which, in the same way, will not be payable in the event of any unconstitutional action in the plant. Subject to a guaranteed minimum of £15, the size of the holiday bonus payable to employees will, therefore, vary according to the extent to which plants have been affected by, and individual employees have taken part in, unconstitutional industrial action.

This outline scheme and the basis for a resumption of work agreed on 15th March were accepted yesterday by the executive of the A.E.F., the trade union side of the N.J.N.C. and by a Transport and General Workers Union delegate conference. The unions agreed to recommend a return to work today, with the exception of the Transport and General Workers Union, which, by resolution of the union's delegate conference, recommended a full return tomorrow in order to allow union officials to explain the settlement at meetings of strikers today.

I understand that production in Ford plants has restarted this morning. The House will be relieved that this protracted and damaging dispute, which has resulted in a loss of between £30 and £40 million of production, half of it for export, and nearly £3½ million loss of wages for Ford employees, is at an end, and I hope that there will be a speedy and complete return to work.

Mr. Maudling

The House is, of course, relieved indeed to know that there has been an end to this appalling strike. But, just because of the consequences, not only economic but also in terms of general industrial relations, we shall clearly wish to assess the basis on which it has been settled. May I ask the right hon. Lady about two points of Government responsibility, to neither of which she referred in her statement? The first is the incomes policy. The right hon. Lady assured the House in the previous stage of this dispute that proposals had been costed and fell within the Government's incomes policy. Can she give a similar assurance that these proposals are entirely within the ambit of that policy? Second, what action do the Government intend to take to prevent this happening again in future?

Mrs. Castle

The answer to the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question is that the February package deal—which, as I told the House, was costed and approved under the incomes policy—stands, except for the dropping of the 21 days' notice of strike after the procedure has been exhausted and the replacement of what were then called the penal clauses by a new financial arrangement of lay-off benefit and holiday bonus.

The company has assured me that the new scheme gives an equivalent expectation of continuity of production. This is an important element in the savings in that the productivity clauses of the deal, which still stand, give us an equivalent assurance that the saving will exceed the costing.

Mr. Maudling

Would the right hon. Lady now answer my second question; what action does she propose to take in the light of this experience to minimise the danger of a similar experience occurring in future?

Mrs. Castle

I am glad to tell the House that an important part of this matter is a greatly improved and speedier disputes procedure. This is one of the lessons that must be learned from this strike. I understand that the unions are, among themselves, considering a reform of the trade union side of the National Joint Negotiating Committee. This action will, I think, be of help, together with the incentives, now incorporated in the scheme, against taking unconstitutional action. There are now to be both collective and individual incentives to talk instead of to strike.

Mr. Orme

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the workers and trade unions in this dispute have been much maligned and that little criticism has been directed against the Ford management? Is she also aware that the Ford management has hidden behind the incomes criteria and that many people feel that these criteria, put forward by her Department, have delayed a settlement of this dispute; that they have promulgated it when it could have been resolved more easily?

Mrs. Castle

I do not believe that my hon. Friend is being fair about this. During the course of these discussions, I have avoided making attacks on either side. The key factor in this dispute has not been the level of wage claims but the inclusion of what the unions insisted on calling penal clauses, which were part of the quid pro quo for the layoff benefit, and holiday bonus, which they wanted.

The argument during the past few days has been intensively over those principles. The firm, on its own judgment, laid great store on them because it is anxious to get production up—that is the only way to get wages up—and because it can do that only if the resort to unconstitutional action is reduced.

Mr. Heath

The right hon. Lady rightly said that while this dispute was continuing she refrained from commenting on it in the interests of getting a settlement. Would she agree that this has been one of the most damaging disputes with an individual firm that this country has suffered in the last 25 years?

As she has made a few comments, as she just said, would she and her Department now do an analysis of the causes of the dispute and the conclusions which she has reached as a result of it? The right hon. Lady said that the House would naturally be relieved to hear that the dispute was at an end. Perhaps we have all too often passed a heavy sigh of relief, sat back and moved on to the next business.

Is she aware that an analysis of the matter, along with her conclusions, in a White Paper would greatly help progress in industrial relations generally? If she feels unable to do this, will she set up an independent authority to do it for her?

Mrs. Castle

I, of course, agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this has been an extremely damaging dispute; damaging to all concerned. The Ford workers have lost a great deal, as has the country as well as the firm.

As for making an analysis of the causes, one has only to live through the negotiations which have taken place over a dispute of this kind to get a good running day-to-day analysis of the causes and difficulties. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer".] Of course I shall consider the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion. I will see whether a White Paper would be helpful in this situation.

However, I really think that I must take into consideration in this matter the views of both sides in this dispute. They are anxious to heal their industrial relations. The firm is hopeful that it can get on to a basis in which this kind of dispute cannot recur, and it would be wrong of us to ignore its advice and views in this situation.

Mr. James Hamilton

Can my right hon. Friend confirm the reports we read about Ford workers being the lowest paid in the car industry?

As for the activities of the negotiating committee, will they in future be endorsed by the unions at national level to ensure that any agreements arrived at are on a basis which will enable them to be honoured by both sides?

Mrs. Castle

My hon. Friend should not jump to the conclusion that the rates here are the lowest in the car industry. I know that certain figures have been published, but they have tended to compare Ford rates, which are uniform rates, with the highest rates in other companies, which may have a range of rates going very much lower. Taking that factor and other fringe benefits into account, the task of making a comparison is not a simple and straightforward one.

To answer my hon. Friend's question about the reform of the negotiating committee, I said that one of the lessons to be learned from this dispute was that the N.J.N.C. situation needed reforming to give better representation to the larger unions. As far as I know, no union is contesting this. It seems that this is a matter for the union side to put straight and I believe that that side is anxious, just as we all are, to avoid a repetition of the unfortunate events of the past few weeks.

Mr. Lubbock

Will the right hon. Lady lose no opportunity of underlining the grave damage which this dispute has done to our economy, since there may be many workers who engage in unconstitutional action of this kind who do not see the consequences of their action in one industry to the national economy as a whole?

Reverting to the suggestion of the Leader of the Opposition, and since the right hon. Lady mentioned that the disputes procedure was thought to be ineffective and that some revision of the machinery of the N.J.N.C. was being contemplated, will she at least make a fuller statement on these two matters?

Mrs. Castle

The answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question is that I have lost no opportunity, in the Press and on television, to stress the economic implications of this matter. I believe that all those involved are well aware of them.

I will certainly consider, to answer the second part, if there is an opportunity for me to convey to the House the progress that has been made under those two headings.

Mr. Ford

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of her hon. Friends congratulate her on the part she has played in mediating in this dispute?

Will she consider publishing in the OFFICIAL REPORT the details of both the original agreement, about which the negotiations broke down, and the recent agreement so that hon. Members and the public generally may judge whether or not a somewhat Pyrrhic victory has been obtained?

Mrs. Castle

To answer the second part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question, I have set out quite fully in my statement the details of the final agreement. I appreciate that these details are difficult to absorb on first hearing, but they are on the record for study.

To answer the first part, I will certainly consider whether it is possible to make a comparison with the original package deal.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the kind things he said about me.

Mr. John Page

Does the right hon. Lady realise that in her statement she said that the expectation of continuity of production had been added to the other criteria against which wage increases should be judged? If this is the case, can that be applied to other wage increase propositions that are put to her?

Mrs. Castle

The saving from the point of view of continuity of production always forms part of the costing of a package deal, just as it forms part of this one. All that I would add on this question is that I must consider all settlements on their merits; and I certainly will do so.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. Friend not aware that it is now quite clear that workers will not accept penal clauses in this or an other industry, and will she, therefore, resist the siren voices from this side and the other side asking her to bring in the proposals contained in the White Paper at the earliest possible moment? Is it not clear that her efforts on this occasion, which have been mainly conciliatory, have been far more sensible and have helped to solve this dispute rather than any suggestion of the future imposition of clauses which would not be acceptable to the trade union movement?

Mrs. Castle

I believe, generally, that the use of emotive words has been one of the contributory causes of this strike. By labelling these arrangements for financing lay-off bonus and holiday bonus as "penal clauses" feeling has been aroused quite unjustifiably. The firm calls them "bonus clauses", and we still have bonus clauses in the agreement. It is true that they are different in incidence to a certain extent, but the fact still remains that there can be both a collective and an individual loss of benefit under these proposals. One may call them what one likes, but the fact is that, after having stirred up a lot of feeling about the so-called "penal clauses", the unions have, in some cases unanimously, accepted this scheme, which has similar provisions in it.

I would say to my hon. Friend that the lesson as far as the legislation I am proposing is concerned is exactly the same. A lot of misunderstanding has been aroused against it by the use of emotive words, and I hope that the lesson of this strike is that people will look behind the slogans to the reality and the merits of the case. I am confident that when that happens the trade union movement will come to accept my legislation as a whole.

Mr. Crouch

May I put to the right hon. Lady that she does have the advantage over other hon. Members of the House and over members of the public in having been very close to this dispute? I am sure all hon. Members are grateful to her for the part she has played in bringing this dispute to a final conclusion; but I would support the contention of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that this House and the public would greatly benefit by the publication of the details such as she herself has seen, since they are greatly bewildered by what has been going on to the great distress and disaster of the country.

Mrs. Castle

I appreciate that this was a very serious, major dispute, which had some new and interesting aspects to it. I will consider whether there is any way in which an analysis can be published, but I repeat that I must bear in mind the industrial relations factor here, and not jeopardise them.

Mr. Horner

Would my right hon. Friend accept from me a warning, wholly deficient, I hope, in emotive words, that she should draw no hard conclusions about the outcome of the Ford strike in relation to the attitude of the trade union movement to her White Paper?

Mrs. Castle

I am still having difficulty in convincing my hon. Friend of the merits of that White Paper and of the legislation which will be based upon it. I still have not given up hope of converting him.

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