HC Deb 09 December 1970 vol 808 cc508-22

7.59 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Robert Carr)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement regarding the dispute in the electricity supply industry.

Following the rejection on 2nd December by the trade union side of the National Joint Council for the Electricity Supply Industry of an improved offer for industrial employees, the trade unions concerned have imposed from 7th December a ban on overtime and a work to rule, which in the last three days has resulted in reductions of voltage and interruption of supply, causing serious disruption of industry and services, and widespread inconvenience to the public and some hardship. At the National Joint Council meeting on 2nd December, the employers' side indicated its intention, following the rejection of its offer, to use the procedure provided by the Council's constitution, which requires the reference of any unsolved difference at the request of either side to the Industrial Court or other agreed form of arbitration. This has not proved acceptable to the unions. Representatives of the employers' side, at their request, saw officials of my Department on 4th December to report the breakdown in negotiations. My officials have also had a meeting on 7th December with representatives of the unions concerned.

The Electricity Council has also reported to my Department that it has been informed that the Electrical Power Engineers' Association has instructed its members to ban overtime and to work to rule from Monday, 14th December. This decision follows a breakdown on 4th December in the negotiations on a revised salary structure for supervisory and technical grades.

I have today met representatives of the Electrical Power Engineers' Association and asked them to reconsider their decision to take industrial action from 14th December.

I have also seen officers of the trade unions representing the industrial employees and asked them to explain to me their refusal, which they confirm, to take their case to arbitration as provided for by the industry's agreed procedure.

I shall report to the House again as soon as possible.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the statement is totally unsatisfactory? [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] Is he aware that, by deciding to make an example of the power workers—[Interruption.]—as a reward for the years of peaceful co-operation they have given in the provision of electricity supply, and by failing to see that the area boards made proper contingency plans to meet the consequences of this showdown—[Interruption.]—which—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Noise from either side is equally wrong.

Mrs. Castle

As a result of failure to see that the area boards made proper contingency plans to meet the consequences of the showdown which the Government have deliberately sought, the right hon. Gentleman has exposed the people to serious inconvenience and the interruption of vital services like hospitals.

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what is the difference between this dispute going to arbitration and the setting up by his own Department of a court of inquiry, which would be the normal procedure in a serious situation like this? Is he further aware that we shall expect another statement from him tomorrow, and that if he has not in the meantime really started on foot talks or inquiries to settle the dispute we shall want an immediate debate?

Mr. Carr


Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman needs leave of the House to speak again within this debate.

Mr. Carr

May I have leave to speak again? [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] We have not sought any showdown with this industry or any other. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I must remind the right hon. Lady that she herself produced to this House a White Paper which said that the wage increases for 1970 should be within the bracket of 2½ to 4½ per cent. In this case—[Interruption.]—if the Leader of the Opposition will contain himself for a moment I can proceed—in this case an initial offer was made of almost 9 per cent. and an improved offer was made of 10 per cent., which was greater, I may say to the right hon. Gentleman, by a significant amount than the increased productivity in this industry during the year. What we have been inquiring about is why the agreed procedure should not be followed. I utterly reject the right hon. Lady's suggestion, and it is surprising to hear trade unionists in this House suggesting that it is wrong to ask an industry to pursue the procedure on which it itself has agreed.

Mrs. Castle


Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Lady also needs the leave of the House to speak again.

Mrs. Castle

With leave of the House, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware that the policy we presented to the House was a productivity, prices and incomes policy? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Is he further aware that he and his colleagues rejected it at that time because what they believe in is an incomes policy while prices are set free, an incomes policy under which workers with the record of productivity in this industry are being treated as an example and are being penalised? Will he now answer my question? If he is so anxious for this matter to go to arbitration, why does not he set up a court of inquiry and end this disruption in the country?

Mr. Carr

By leave of the House, I say to the right hon. Lady that what she and her colleagues may have presented to the House was one thing but what they achieved was, as so often, quite another. What they achieved in the first six months of this year was earnings rising six times faster than production and prices rising at a faster rate than they had done since the Labour Government of 20 years earlier. That is what they achieved. That is the answer to the first part of her question.

The answer to the second part is still this: when an industry has an agreed procedure it is, in my view, and, I should have thought, in the view of many Min inters of Labour of both parties before me, right to try and see and persuade the industry to use its own procedure on which it has agreed. As to what may happen now, I ask the House—at least, I ask any hon. Members who are more interested in getting a settlement than causing trouble—[Interruption.]—to remember that I have completed my discussions with the unions only within the last hour. I want to consider what they have said to me and I am sure that the unions will think about what I have said to them.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool Walton)

What did the right hon. Gentleman tell them?

Mr. Carr

One would have thought that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), a trade unionist himself, might have known enough about these procedures to know that the basis of this sort of consultation is very often confidence, and that is what I am keeping.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

. In view of the disastrous effect of the power cuts upon both domestic and industrial life, can my right hon. Friend give us the reasons why the trade unions decided not to follow the agreed procedure?

Mr. Carr

By leave of the House: I should like to repeat what I said at the end of my last answer, namely, that discussions did and should take place in confidence. I wish to consider what was said to me and I think that the unions wish to consider what I said to them.

Mr. Harold Wilson (Huyton)

I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman would help the House on the question of arbitration. One may have misunderstood one's reading of the constitution of the Joint Industrial Council—I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman has studied it—but does it or does it not provide that either side may take an issue to arbitration, a majority on the employers' side? If that is so, and he will tell us whether it is, have the employers invoked this procedure, or is there something in the procedure which makes it impossible for them to do so?

Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the whole House would feel that if he were to set up a court of inquiry, or some other suitable inquiry, which it is within his power to do, the trade union side would then be right to drop all industrial action pending the working by the court of inquiry which I proposed to the right hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friend yesterday? Will he also emphasise this before he himself takes a decision in this matter? Is he prepared to accept that?

Thirdly, as there is some doubt about whether it is the Government who are behind the so-called confrontation, or whether they are leaving the matter entirely to the employers, has the right hon. Gentleman studied the broadcast of his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture yesterday in which the used the words, "We have offered 10 per cent.", in which "we" must mean the Government, for it is a Minister who is speaking? Is it in fact the Government who have offered 10 per cent. and who are standing on it, or have the employers some degree of negotiating freedom?

Finally I put this to the right hon. Gentleman. He will be aware, as the whole House is aware, of the concern about the position of hospitals. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] This is not a laughing matter for hon. Members opposite. I think that most hon. Members opposite are as concerned about this as we are. In that case, they might join with us in asking the right hon. Gentleman to give up his stiff-necked attitude and to deal with the problem.

I recognise that a question about hospitals should not be directed to the right hon. Gentleman's Department, but I hope that he will take charge of it as he is now answering in the House. Many hospitals are concerned because they have not been given notice when power cuts were to be made, although they were on a previous occasion.

I think that I am right in saying that facing a very difficult situation, the Electricity Council is planning the power cuts by zoning first one area and then another, on a basis which it regards as fair over the whole country. It must have some idea in advance in its own mind of which area is to be affected. I do not press the right hon. Gentleman for an answer now, but will he undertake, through his right hon. Friend who is responsible for these matters, to represent to the Council that if it is to make cuts, if it is forced to make cuts in one area or another, it should, as on a previous occasion, give two hours' notice to the hospitals? All of us recognise the difficulties for baby incubators, those in iron lungs, those on kidney machines, and so on. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to do no more than to say that he will press his right hon. Friend to see whether that can be represented to the Electricity Council.

Mr. Carr

By leave of the House; I will, of course, go into the last point raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, but I think that I can assure him that such requests have already been made long since. The reason for the difficulties which the boards are having in giving notice is, as I understand, entirely the result of the nature of the work to rule and the unpredictability of the work to rule in the different areas. The boards are doing all they can and as much as they ever could before to give notice, but, owing to the unpredictability and the nature of the work to rule, it is that much more difficult for them on this occasion than in the past, but they have been asked, and I must stress that they are doing their best and will give notice wherever possible.

I turn back to the procedure in the industry. I made it clear in my initial statement that the Joint Council's constitution required the reference of any unsolved difference, at the request of either side, to the Industrial Court, or other agreed form of arbitration and that the employers' side tried and wished to take that initiative, but it was not acceptable to the unions. I presume that the employers could have insisted on doing so, but I ask the right hon. Gentleman and the House whether it is sensible for one side to push ahead with arbitration like that against the wish, or at least the willingness, of the other side. [HON. MEMBERS: "The Industrial Relations Bill"]. The Council decided that it was not wise or sensible to do so.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, Central)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Carr

I will not.

One of the things which I have clearly been exploring is whether it is possible and fruitful to get these discussions back on the proper rails laid down in the industry's own agreed procedures. It is better to get it on to its own agreed procedure if that is possible. If it is not possible, other possibilities will have to be looked into.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement that both sides of the House would stress to the unions the importance of resuming normal working if all parties were agreed to, say, the court of inquiry, or any other means. I will hear this in mind and I thank the right hon. Gentleman for saying what he did. I should thank him a great deal more deeply if he showed a little more care in some of his other remarks.

An Hon. Member

Tell the truth.

Mr. Robert Mellish (Bermondsey)

Do not be provocative.

Mr. Speaker

Any debater can do without the help of noise.

Mr. Carr

The Opposition Chief Whip says from a sitting posture that I must not make provocative statements; perhaps he will pass that message to his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.

The Government have not been, nor have I been, nor have any of my officials been, stiff-necked, I think was the right hon. Gentleman's phrase, in dealing with this matter. Since the negotiations broke down last Wednesday evening, my officials have seen the employers' side twice and both divisions of the union, and I have seen them and that is not stiff-necked and that is not withholding the proper services of my Department.

Mr. Harold Wilson


Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman requires the leave of the House to speak again.

Mr. Wilson

I ask the leave of the House simply to ask the right hon. Gentleman to reply to my question about the statement of the Minister of Agriculture in which he said "we" have offered 10 per cent.

Mr. Carr

By leave of the House. I have not studied or seen that statement—[Interruption.] I am not disputing that my right hon. Friend said it. It is quite clear what the Electricity Council has offered. We do not need his nit-picking on words. [Interruption.] That is precisely what the right hon. Gentleman is doing in the middle of a national crisis. He knows as well as I do that the Electricity Council made the offer, just as it made the offer when he was in power, and we have leaned on the parties and given them instructions much less than he did.

Sir Derek Walker-Smith (Hertfordshire, East)

In his answer my right hon. Friend referred to the work-to-rule procedure in regard to which there is some puzzlement in the country. Can my right hon. Friend say what is the status and authority of these rules under the agreed procedures, how they are related to basic rates of pay, what are the provisions for their supervision and enforceability, when they were last revised and whether they are to be revised again?

Mr. Carr

By leave of the House. I cannot answer my right hon. and learned Friend in detail but I am aware of the fact that, I think it was the chairman of one of the boards, or a leading member of the Electricity Council, said in a broadcast last night that the men were not working to the industry's rules but to their own rules.

Mr. Palmer

Would the right hon. Gentleman assist the House by unravelling a little further this mystery of why the electricity boards did not refer the dispute to arbitration? This has often been done in the past. Would he say whether the boards were under any pressure from his Department not to refer the matter to arbitration?

The boards have a statutory obligation to maintain continuity of supply. To do that, they must make agreements with their employees. Would he say whether the boards are at present free to make their own terms with the unions even if it involves an increase on 10 per cent. or are they under instruction from the Government not to go beyond 10 per cent? If they are under instruction from the Government will the right hon. Gentleman say what statutory authority he has for giving that instruction?

Mr. Carr

They are not under instruction from the Government.

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham)

They are being led.

Mr. Carr

At no time has any pressure been put on them not to go to arbitration. As I said earlier, at the breakdown last Wednesday, the Council suggested arbitration and it has not proceeded with it only because it thought it unwise to do so—

Mr. Palmer

Very foolish.

Mr. Carr

—in view of the unwillingness of the unions. That is the point that I have been exploring today.

Mr. Palmer

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the second point I put to him, whether the electricity boards are free in negotiating a settlement even if it means an increase on the 10 per cent?

Mr. Carr

I answered that point when I said that the boards were not under instruction.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)

Is it not a fact that the kernel of this problem is the refusal of the unions to go to arbitration? Did not the unions tell the right hon. Gentleman that the reason why they would not go to arbitration was that he and his right hon. Friends had preempted any satisfactory agreement coming from any arbitration—

Hon. Members


Mr. Orme

—by the statement on the 10 per cent? Is he aware that unless he sets up an independent board of inquiry he will not have the confidence of the unions in dealing with this matter?

Mr. Carr

With the leave of the House. The suggestion as to why the unions would not go to arbitration is absolutely untrue—

Mr. Heffer

Tell us why.

Mr. Carr

—because the unions have much more reason to have faith in arbitration today than they had prior to 18th June when there was a statutory prices and incomes policy in being with detailed criteria laid down in the White Paper which said that for 1970 the maximum increase was to be 4½ per cent. They were offered 10 per cent.

Mr. David James (Dorset, North)

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that many of us on this side of the House feel that any inflationary settlement is a direct fraud on old-age pensioners in this country—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]. Will he also agree that it is fair to say that the mantle of the old-fashioned Victorian industrialist grinding the faces of the poor has now descended on certain trade union leaders?

Mr. Carr

With the leave of the House. Of course we realise the effect of inflationary wage settlements. Indeed, that is the reason why we have been saying since the summer that unless we can reduce the level of inflationary wage settlements those who will suffer most will be the pensioners and those on fixed incomes and secondly the lowest-paid workers. We will not advance real earnings or real prosperity until we bring down the level of inflationary wage settlements.

Sir Gerald Nabarro (Worcestershire, South)

Will my right hon. Friend not agree that this Government have made it perfectly clear ever since 18th June last that they intended to control the rate of increase of prices in the nationalised industries, as in the case of the Post Office and the coal industry? Would he make it abundantly clear now that a settlement in excess of 10 per cent. would be highly inflationary and would be regarded by the overwhelming majority of the general public as an extortionate settlement by a monopoly group of workers in the electricity industry?

Mr. Carr

By leave of the House. We have made it absolutely clear that inflationary settlements above what are already generous offers can only bring hardship instead of prosperity to the people of this country. That is why we must ask the country to realise the implications of what is going on and to understand the absolute importance of halting this onrush of inflationary settlements which we have had in the last 12 months.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that those of us who agree with him that inflammatory speeches in this situation are not helpful will have every sympathy with him in the increased difficulties he has been caused by the inflammatory speeches of some of his own colleagues in the last few days? May I ask two questions. First of all, if the two groups concerned are not willing to go to arbitration, is it not a fact that the Industrial Court has made it clear that in reaching a decision it would have to apply what are the Government's presumed policies and therefore there would have to be a ceiling. That is why there is a disinclination to go to arbitration. If the right hon. Gentleman will say quite clearly that the Government wish the arbitration to be unfettered and that it will not be subject to a ceiling but is a matter for open negotiation he may create a very different situation.

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman once again use his good offices in regard to the hospital supplies mentioned by the Leader of the Opposition? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardue) there has already been an undertaking that hospital supplies to a particular hospital will be guaranteed and that notice of cuts will be given? Will the right hon. Gentleman use his offices in pursuing that matter?

Mr. Carr

On the latter point, we believe that the boards are doing and will do everything that they can to make sure that the hospital services are maintained. But we will impress on them once more the importance which everybody attaches to the matter.

The right hon. Gentleman surprised me a little by the first part of his question, because I thought that he and his party believed in an incomes policy. If one has an incomes policy and sets precise norms and figures, one is constraining arbitrators to the maximum extent. We have very deliberately not set a norm: we have not published a norm. I therefore maintain that arbitrators are less shackled than they have been for the last six years.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South-East)

What does that mean?

Mr. Carr

The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) had a lot to do with his party's statutory policy. I meant precisely what I said. Unlike the time when the right hon. Gentleman's party was in office, arbitrators are not now shackled by precise figures, percentages and criteria. We believe that that is too great a rigidity to impose on industry because it breaks down, as it broke down when his party was in power, and great damage is done. Therefore, we have deliberately not imposed precise criteria and levels, as the right hon. Gentleman's party tried to do when it was in power.

What we have done, what we believe it is our duty to do and what we shall continue to do is to say to the country, to employers and to trade unions that in making and judging and replying to claims the national interest comes somewhere, and the overriding national interest of all of us, but, most of all, of those at the lower end of the income scale, is that the inflationary wage increases which were started off a year ago by the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) should now be damped down.

Mr. Thorpe

With leave, may I clear up one point? Did I hear the Secretary of State say that the Government's view was that an increase of over 10 per cent. was inflationary? If so, does not that constitute a declared norm?

Mr. Carr

I have said—and I do not think I have said anything different tonight—that we have not set any precise, rigid norms. We have made absolutely clear that we believe that public and private employers should take into account the need to reduce the inflationary pressure and the excessive inflationary wage settlements which have been typical of the last 12 months and which until the last few weeks were getting bigger. We have never given a precise figure in this or in any other case.

We have said, and we believe that it is right to say, that, in view of the overall national need and of the productivity, the offer made in this case by the employers seems to be, in the circumstances, as far as we can judge, reasonably fair. But I repeat that, far from preventing the parties from going to arbitration on that point, I have spent quite a considerable part of the day trying to get the parties to do that.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

The Opposition seem to have made as their touchstone for helping to bring this trouble to an end the setting up of a court of inquiry, and my right hon. Friend seemed to indicate, in answering the Leader of the Opposition, that he would look into this. May I remind my right hon. Friend that if he is persuaded to move away from the procedures laid down by setting up a court of inquiry he may well break the procedures which exist in many other industries, and we shall all be blind and stupid if we do not recognise that when this trouble is over other trouble will blow up?

If my right hon. Friend sets a precedent by moving away from the procedures laid down, he may well have to set up innumerable courts of inquiry, which itself could bring this country to a standstill. Before my right hon. Friend is pushed off the correct line of allowing the procedures, freely agreed, to work out and grants a court of inquiry, I urge him to give the matter a great deal of thought.

Mr. Carr

It would be as wrong for me to be rigid about not setting up a court of inquiry as it would for me to be rigid in saying that this was the method which ought to be adopted in the first place. The first task of anyone who occupies my position in this sort of affair is to try to get the parties to settle the matter for themselves by their own agreed procedures. I do not believe that a rigid departure from those procedures—and here I agree very much with my hon. Friend—helps the long-term cause of good industrial relations.

Mr. Alex Eadie (Midlothian)

Many of us on this side of the House are not concerned about the debating points and who first suggested the best idea for bringing the dispute to an end. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider very seriously the setting up of a court of inquiry, because he seemed to indicate to the House that he would consider this? Although within the next hour or two a situation may arise where arbitration is devalued in the eyes of the unions, can it be made clear that the House does not devalue the rôle of a court of inquiry? Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman say why hospitals are in this plight, when his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry told the House at the outset of the dispute that there was a committee or an operations room looking into this matter?

Mr. Carr

On the hospital point, Mr. Speaker, by leave of the House, the Government made standby generators available to hospitals which needed them. Boards undertook—and scarcely needed asking to undertake—to give the maximum notice, particularly to hospitals. I do not want to labour the point, but as I said earlier, the reason for failure in this has been the unpredictable nature of the working to rule. I am convinced that electricity boards have genuinely done their best to give the longest possible notice whenever and wherever they can.

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I said earlier that I am considering what the unions have said to me. I hope that they are considering what I said to them. I have deliberately made it clear that I rule out no possibilities, while believing that it is important for industries to keep to their own agreements wherever possible, and I am sure that is right. All I ask is that the House should give the sort of consideration which in the past it normally gave to people who have held my position and not create atmospheres and force people in my position to make firm statements about what they are or are not going to do in the middle of a dispute.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We have intervened in a Foreign Affairs debate, and ought now to get back to it.

Mr. Harold Wilson

On a point of order. In view of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, and seeing that his mind is not absolutely inflexible and rigid on some of the suggestions put to him, may I ask whether he or another Minister will undertake to make a statement tomorrow after Questions so that in this difficult situation the House may be kept informed? If there are signs tomorrow in that statement that the right hon. Gentleman's re-thinking may lead to some fructifying on the lines he has indicated we shall not want tomorrow to press for a debate. If there are signs of total inflexibility, then I give notice that we shall press for an immediate debate.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. William Whitelaw)

Further to that point of order. In response to what was said by the Leader of the Opposition, I wish to say that I was pressed at 3.30 for a statement to be made, and a statement has been made. I now say to the House, in answer to the Leader of the Opposition, that a statement will be made tomorrow. I do not think it would be right to go further than that.