HC Deb 14 October 1969 vol 788 cc209-11
Mr. R. Carr ((by private Notice)

asked the First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity whether she will make a statement about the unofficial strike in the coal industry.

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

About 80,000 miners employed in the Yorkshire coalfield came out on unofficial strike yesterday in support of a claim by surface workers for a shorter working week.

The National Union of Mineworkers is claiming a 40 hour week, inclusive of meal times. The National Coal Board has offered a 40 hour week excluding meal-times, but the union rejected this offer last Thursday.

Negotiations are, however, continuing between the union and the N.C.B. in the light of further wages proposals made by the union on Thursday last.

My Department is, of course, keeping in close touch with the parties.

Mr. Carr

I am sure that the right hon Lady realises that we recognise and welcome the great improvement in industrial relations in recent years in the coal industry, and I think that she would realise, also, that we are asking her this Question today largely at the direct invitation almost of her right hon. Friend the Minister of Technology and Minister of Power yesterday. Against that background, I put this question to the right hon. Lady.

How does the machinery for implementing the T.U.C. binding commitment to the Government come into operation in a case like this, particularly in view of the serious danger of the strike spreading? Has that machinery come into operation? If not, is the right hon. Lady in touch with the T.U.C. about bringing it into operation?

Mrs. Castle

The machinery is in operation. My Department is in immediate and constant contact with the T.U.C. in situations of this kind. In this situation it was not necessary. Mr. Feather had himself taken an initiative in getting in touch with the National Union of Mineworkers.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will have seen and appreciated the strong condemnation of the strike which has come from the President of the N.U.M. and his appeal to his members to go back to work so that negotiations can be continued fruitfully. It is, therefore, clear that the promise given is being fulfilled, that the T.U.C. and the union concerned would make their best endeavours to get the men back to work in a situation like this.

Mr. Shinwell

Is it not time that we in this House made a declaration that these men are entitled to what they are asking for? Is my right hon. Friend aware that in 1931 at Geneva, on behalf of the then Labour Government, I managed to secure an international convention for a 7¼hour day for miners, and that they are still asking for it? Is it not about time we considered the merits of the proposal?

Mrs. Castle

I cannot accept my right hon. Friend's priorities. In this I prefer the argument put forward by Sir Sidney Ford, when he said that the interruption by an unofficial strike of negotiations, which, after all, were going on and are still in train, could only hinder the achievement of the goal which the N.U.M. had set itself. We have a principle here, the principle that the interruption by unofficial strikes of normal procedures which are functioning effectively does not help to achieve the very ends which my right hon. Friend has in mind.

Sir G. Nabarro

Will the right hon. Lady make clear to the striking surface workers that their action is likely to imperil the use of coal in major power stations, including, notably, the Drax power station, as warned by Lord Robens the day before yesterday, and will she add all her authority to Lord Robens' earlier statement?

Mrs. Castle

No one could be complacent about a situation in which about 100,000 tons of production are being lost each day. It is true that anything which endangers the profitability of the Coal Board is bound to affect its future prospects.

Mr. John Mendelson

In view of the ill-informed statement which has just been made from the benches opposite, will my right hon. Friend accept that my constituents and those of many other Members from the Yorkshire coalfield are convinced that these negotiations have dragged on for far too long and that they are acting under a serious sense of grievance?

Mrs. Castle

The negotiations were in normal process when they were interrupted in this way. The offer made by the Coal Board was not formally rejected by the union till last Thursday, and the union has at the same time tabled a wages claim. The Coal Board is saying—rightly, I think—that the questions of hours and of wage increases must be examined together. Therefore, it is in the interests of the men that there should be a return to work so that the negotiations can be brought to a conclusion.

Mr. Emery

Is it not true that, if the powers urged by the right hon. Lady in the White Paper, "In Place of Strife", had been given to her, she would have been able to delay the unofficial strike and obtain the official working of the official machinery?

Mrs. Castle

What we were trying to do in the White Paper, and what, I think, the right hon. Gentleman in that constructive speech which he made to the Conservative Party conference said we must all try to do, is to create an attitude of mind in which the best endeavours of union leaders are thrown behind the use of established procedures. Clearly, the best endeavours are being used in this case. That being so, I suggest that it is a pity that twice in two days we should have had this matter raised on the Floor of the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes. I do say that. This strike is only 24 hours old. The union is using its best endeavours, and it is in the interests of all of us that we leave it to do so.

Mr. Carr

Is not the right hon. Lady aware that the only reason this had to be raised a second time is that her right hon. Friend yesterday refused to answer the Question on the ground that only she could?

Mrs. Castle

The Question tabled to my right hon. Friend was answered fully by him within his powers, and anybody who objectively reads the HANSARD report will find this only a frivolous excuse for tabling the Question again.

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