HC Deb 21 May 1969 vol 784 cc449-53
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. John Diamond)

With your permis- sion, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement about the supply of Government publications to Parliament and members of the public.

There was a delay this morning in the supply of papers to the House. This delay arose from a ban on overtime by engineers working in St. Stephen's Press. A pay claim by employees working in the Press is at present the subject of negotiations and I am sure that the House will understand that I am not, at present, in a position to say more.

At the same time, considerable inconvenience is being caused to hon. Members and to the public by the continuing strike at the publications warehouse of Her Majesty's Stationery Office. Recently, Ministers saw representatives from the chapel and the London central branch of the union concerned, S.O.G.A.T., to discuss the dispute which is about a control formula in a pay and productivity agreement.

An offer was made to the union representatives that the disputed clause should be the subject of arbitration, but I regret that this offer was rejected.

As there has been no further progress, we have decided to set up an inquiry forthwith to look into this dispute.

Mr. Maudling

I do not want to comment on the merits of the dispute, but may we be clear on one thing—that the Government must not invite the House to take business for which adequate documentation is not available? The Leader of the House is present. May we have a complete and clear assurance that those responsible will not put Government business before the House without adequate papers for that purpose?

Mr. Diamond

I can give a clear "Yes" to that question.

Mr. Turton

Although this situation is unprecedented, should not the Chief Secretary have a plan for emergency preparations of papers so that hon. Members are enabled to do their duty, as they were not able to do this morning?

Mr. Diamond

I entirely accept what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Temple

Is the Chief Secretary aware that I endeavoured to put a Private Notice Question to the Leader of the House on this subject today and—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman must not speak about the subject of a Private Notice Question which has been refused.

Mr. Temple

I was extremely exercised that I and other hon. Members were not receiving our papers as regularly as we should.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that even such documents as the Report of the Northumberland Committee, which was published some weeks ago, are still not available to hon. Members? Are not these disputes a disgrace and are they not causing disruption of Parliamentary business in the same way that industrial disputes are paralysing industry?

Mr. Diamond

I have already said that I am very conscious of the inconvenience caused to hon. Members and, with respect to hon. Members, the greater inconvenience caused to the public. I take a serious view of it and we are doing everything we can to put an end to that inconvenience.

Dr. David Kerr

Will my right hon. Friend note that to some of us this latest inconvenience is merely a manifestation of the growing dissatisfaction at all levels of the staff who attempt to serve us so well in the House for such inadequate reward? Will not my right hon. Friend extend the inquiry which he proposes to set up to take in the whole problem of salaries and conditions of work involving all employees working within the curtilage of the Palace of Westminster?

Mr. Diamond

In point of fact, that is not the case. The problem with the Press to which I referred is a national and not a local problem, concerned with the relativity of pay between two different classes of worker.

Mr. Lubbock

What machinery exists for resolving disputes of this kind? When interpretation of a clause in an agreement is a matter of argument between the employers and S.O.G.A.T., is there provision for automatic arbitration? Will the right hon. Gentleman place a copy of the agreement in the Library, so that we may study it?

Mr. Diamond

There is no provision for automatic arbitration. As I have said, arbitration was suggested but refused. I have, therefore, done the only thing left to me, which is to set up an immediate inquiry.

Mr. Higgins

The Chief Secretary gave a clear "Yes" to the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling). Will the Purchase Tax Act, 1963, crucial to today's discussion of Amendments to the Finance Bill, be available in the Vote Office?

Mr. Diamond

I am sorry, but I am not able to answer that question.

Mr. Maudling

On a point of order. We had a clear assurance from the right hon. Gentleman that the Government would ensure that documentation was available. Now the Chief Secretary cannot answer my hon. Friend. Where do we stand on this?

Mr. Diamond

If I am not aware of the precise facts about precise documents, I am sorry, but I just cannot give the answer.

The hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) referred to a 1963 publication. I naturally took the right hon. Gentleman's question to refer to new publications, to new matters coming before the House. The hon. Member was referring to a six-year-old publication. I am not saying that it is not relevant to today's business, but I am saying, as honestly and as openly as I can, that I am not aware whether it is available in the Vote Office. I will cause immediate inquiries to be made. I recognise that the House must not be unduly inconvenienced.

Mr. Maudling

The right hon. Gentleman has just assured us that the Government will not proceed with business unless the House has the necessary documents. He is now clearly departing from that assurance.

Mr. Diamond

I am causing immediate inquiries to be made. I have been asked a question of fact and the shortest way to answer it is to find out.

Mr. Shinwell

May we assume that if this dispute continues—and, personally, I deplore it and its effect—will the Government be unable to introduce the Industrial Relations Bill? If so, what would be the effect of that?

Mr. Diamond

As I have already said, my right hon. Friend may rest content that arrangements have been made for new publications and the House will not be unduly inconvenienced.

I took the question of the right hon. Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling) to refer precisely to new publications, because we are discussing a strike in a warehouse and difficulties related to the Press, two separate disputes, which relate mainly to new publications.


Sir T. Beamish

On a point of order. Are you able to tell the House, Mr. Speaker, what consideration has been given to the view that anything which seriously impedes the work of Parliament, over which you preside, may amount to a breach of privilege? It seems to me—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. and gallant Gentleman will recall that that was raised as a matter of privilege some days ago. I ruled that it was not a prima facie breach of privilege. I hope that the hon. and gallant Gentleman will not formally raise it again.

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