HC Deb 08 December 1970 vol 808 cc247-55

Mr. Sandys (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will make a statement about the action being taken to minimise the dislocation caused by the electricity power cuts.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. John Davies)

The interruption of electricity supplies yesterday and today follows the rejection by the four unions representing industrial staffs of the pay offer made to them by the Electricity Council last Thursday. In broad terms, this offer represented an increase of some 10 per cent. on the men's average earnings of over £25 per week.

Although the industry's procedural agreement provides for arbitration, the unions have not followed this procedure and have instead instituted industrial action which appears to be going well beyond the work-to-rule and overtime ban that they had announced.

The effect yesterday and today has been to reduce available capacity by 20 per cent. to 25 per cent., with the consequence that voltage has had to be reduced and many consumers disconnected for several hours at a time. The prospects for the future are uncertain.

The electricity authorities are doing everything they can to maintain supplies for priority users and to spread the remaining supplies as evenly as possible. However, it is clear that so long as industrial action continues interruptions of supplies, even to some essential consumers, are bound to occur.

In these circumstances, consumers can help themselves and the essential services by keeping their use of electricity to the minimum, particularly during the three peak periods of the day. The more this can be done, the less severe the cuts will be. The Government, for their part, are taking steps to see that the use of electricity by public authorities is reduced so far as is practicable.

I have also set up an operations room in my Department, manned 24 hours a day. This is ready to give guidance to public and local authorities, and industrial and other organisations, as well as to the public through the broadcasting system. [Interruption.] There is nothing laughable about this. This operations room will keep in close touch with the Electricity Council and boards, which have responsibility for hour-to-hour operational control and to which, in the first place, inquiries should be passed, though these should be kept to a minimum in the interest of essential users.

The balance of supplies and demand is changing all the time and this inevitably makes it difficult to warn consumers of what to expect. The electricity authorities are doing all they can to give advance warning whenever possible by the use of radio and television. But difficulties are bound to continue so long as the dispute goes on, and I accordingly urge the unions to end their action and return to the negotiating table.

Mr. Sandys

While welcoming the Government's firm resistance to inflationary wage demands, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether we are receiving any additional electric power through the cross-Channel cable from the Continent?

Mr. Davies

The answer is "No." The cable is not operating at present. I would stress, in any event, that the cable's total capacity is about 160 megawatts, compared with the 7,000 megawatts which we are currently losing.

Mr. Michael Foot

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that we appreciate that there is nothing laughable about this dispute and that there is nothing laughable about the stubborn failure of the Government to try to intervene to settle it? Does he understand that what everyone in his senses in this country agrees is that we want the speediest possible settlement of the dispute, on honourable terms? Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore answer the question which the Prime Minister refused to answer a few minutes ago; namely, what steps, if any, are being taken by the Department of Employment and its conciliation officers to try to bring the dispute to an end?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the workers in this industry have probably a finer record of increasing productivity than almost any other group of workers in Britain, and certainly this industry has a finer record in this respect than most other private sectors of industry? Does he agree, therefore, that it is especially deplorable that there should be such a refusal by the Government to intervene? Will he at least tell the House that in the coming days an attempt will be made to settle the dispute and that we will be spared any further inflammatory speeches from the Chancellor of the Exchequer and any other members of the Government?

Mr. Davies

I will answer the substantive points made by the hon. Gentleman. It is incorrect to say that the Government are quite unprepared to take any action in this matter. On the contrary, the Department of Employment has seen both sides in this dispute and is closely in touch with them. The Government will undoubtedly keep a close and continuous watch on the whole situation and take such action as is necessary. [Interruption.] When the hon. Gentleman attacks the Government so vehemently in this respect, he seems to ignore the fact that there is proper conciliatory machinery embodied in the negotiating procedure which, up to date at least, the unions have steadfastly refused to utilise. It is in some ways normal to expect that they should first use the proper machinery, which is built into their procedure.

Mr. Michael Foot

When the right hon. Gentleman says that the unions have not used the proper procedure, is it not a fact that they have been negotiating in general about this claim for about 12 months? Is it not perfectly open to them, therefore—as it would be even under the legislation proposed by the Government—to take the action which they have taken? Is it not also perfectly open to the Government, if they so wished, to initiate at a stroke conciliation moves which could bring this dispute to an end this week?

Mr. Davies

I think that what the hon. Gentleman means is that it would be possible to resolve this dispute forthwith if once more there were an agreement to reach a grossly inflationary wage settlement, which does nothing but harm to the whole country.

Mr. Rost

Is it not true that this is not so much a work-to-rule as a deliberate attempt to disrupt the life and industry of the country? Is it not time for the public, who have been held to ransom for quite long enough, to demand that there should be a full return to work or that the Government should be allowed to use their emergency powers?

Mr. Davies

I am convinced that the public will make their own proper judgment of the situation with which they are now confronted. It is a situation in which a fair offer has been refused, the procedures of arbitration have not been accepted, and where there is the greatest dislocation to national life by people who—I readily accept what the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) said in this respect—have in the past shown a marked degree of responsibility and productivity. It is the more deplorable that they should be in this situation today.

Mr. Palmer

May I, as one who knows the industry well, put to the right hon. Gentleman three points which are intended to be helpful? First, has there not been an unfortunate lack of leadership and initiative on the part of the electricity boards? Second, is it not a fact that it is quite impossible for troops to run 2,000 megawatt complex modern power stations? The statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer about troops running them did not help at all. Third, should not the Government complete the process of negotiation, which has already been taken very far, by exercising the normal initiative which Governments exercise at times such as these?

Mr. Davies

I do not believe that it is reasonable to speak of a lack of leadership in an industry which has been so warmly complimented by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale on the subject of its productivity. Productivity is not achieved by a single side of industry.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer certainly never said that troops could take over and run the generating stations. It is not practical; my right hon. Friend and I know that.

In relation to the completion of the negotiating procedure, I have said again and again that there is provision within this procedure for this matter to be resolved in a proper and orderly way: at present it is the unions which are failing to do so.

Mr. Turton

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the imposition of the cuts at milking times in rural areas is causing disproportionate hardship to the agricultural industry, endangering our food supplies, particularly milk, and causing great cruelty to the animals involved? Will my right hon. Friend request the electricity supply bodies so to arrange their cuts as to minimise the dislocation of the dairy industry?

Mr. Davies

The very unpredictability of the power cuts and the disconnections is of a kind as to make it virtually impossible to give adequate advance warning of what will happen. Moreover, as the power cuts become more severe the discretionary capacity of the boards to select those areas to which they direct current becomes progressively less effective. I believe I am right in saying that many of the users to whom reference has been made are equipped with stand-by plant, and I hope that to some degree this will be an alleviation.

Mr. Atkinson

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Minister for Industry said on 17th November that it was the Government's policy to make an offer once only and that never again would the offer be increased? Is this still the Government's policy, or are the Government likely to make another offer to those involved?

Mr. Davies

I stress that the Government are not the negotiating element in this matter. The negotiating element is the Council. The Council is, of course, in receipt of such guidance as the Government feel it correct to give. When it comes to making offers the ball is strictly in the Council's court.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Is there any evidence anywhere that the Labour Party has recommended its trade union friends to use the conciliatory machinery, or is all that we have had on the record the inflammatory intervention by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) and the almost hysterical apology on the B.B.C. News by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer)?

Mr. Davies

If there has been such advice by members of the party opposite it has certainly escaped my attention.

Mr. Heffer

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) for what he said about me. Is the Secretary of State aware that the trade union involved in this dispute—

Mr. Orme

One of them.

Mr. Heffer

The main trade union involved—has one of the moderate, so-called responsible leaderships which hon. Members opposite are so fond of? Therefore, will he indicate to the House why such a responsible, moderate leadership finds itself in this position after one year of negotiation of having to take the action it is taking? Is it not an absolute scandal that the Government are refusing to bring in the arbitration machinery? Is this not a very clear indication that the Government are determined to take on the unions in a political battle at this time?

Mr. Davies

I have said nothing condemnatory of the union's general behaviour. I only regret that it has taken this misguided course. It is true, none the less, that this is an industry which enjoyed a 10 per cent. increase last year, which has been offered a further 10 per cent. this year, and which has rejected it, to the grave disadvantage of the country as a whole. I reassert the fact that the arbitration procedure is within the hands of the union to exercise.

Mr. Pardoe

I fully endorse the Government's determination to stand up to inflationary wage increases, particularly in view of the effect that higher electricity charges will have on people whose incomes are substantially below those of most of the electricity workers. However, do the Government realise that an incomes policy that is confined to holding back public service incomes while allowing the private sector to go untrammelled lacks credibility and can only result in private wealth and public squalor?

Mr. Davies

The level of settlements in the course of the past six months does not bear out the hon. Gentleman's contention.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Does the Secretary of State agree that, although it is certainly a matter of regret that electricity supplies have been interrupted, it would be even more deplorable if the Government gave up their efforts to contain a runaway inflation inherited from their predecessors?

Mr. Davies

Not only do I agree with that, but I most steadfastly believe that it is in the interests of every part of the country and of both sides of the House, certainly, to try to contain it.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Having regard to the history of this union in past years, of which the right hon. Gentleman will be aware and which must convey a warning at this time, is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that this already inevitably difficult dispute has been embittered and aggravated by a certain number of recent speeches? An example is the speech which the Chancellor of the Exchequer made, even though we are glad that there was a lot of back-tracking over the weekend about what he meant; and the right hon. Gentleman confirmed that back-tracking.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware also that this dispute has been made much more difficult and bitter by the repeated indications given by a number of Minis- ters that they were looking forward to this dispute because this would be the one which was the showdown? The right hon. Gentleman will not deny that this has been the systematic story put out. [An HON. MEMBER: "Unstatesmanlike."] It was very unstatesmanlike for Ministers to put this out; and the right hon. Gentleman cannot deny that they have done so.

In view of all that we have been able to read on this coming from Government sources, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm at least that it is the intention of the Secretary of State for Employment to consider setting up an industrial court? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if that were done everyone in the House would agree that there should be a resumption of normal working conditions?

Mr. Davies

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made some very telling speeches—

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. If shouting would solve this problem we could all shout.

Mr. Davies

My right hon. Friend has made some very telling speeches about the grave dangers we all run from the gross rate of inflation which we are suffering. I am very surprised to find that people should still be prepared to add fuel to those flames. As to looking forward to a dispute of this kind, I found it hard to believe my ears. The expression seems to me to be of the most utter mischief. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition also questioned the possibility of a court of inquiry or industrial court to look into these matters. This obviously is a matter which occupies our attention continually, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment is certainly prepared to keep this under his own close watch.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the pay offices of the various electricity boards will also be working to rule?

Mr. Davies

I shall need notice of that question.

Mr. Frederick Lee

Is not the real weakness of the Government's position that having for four years refused to accept the idea of a maximum in incomes increases their present position in trying to impose one is utterly incongruous?

Mr. Davies

The Government have noted that over many years the Opposition when in Government regularly fixed maxima which were then automatically converted into minima.

Several Hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We have a lot of work ahead.