HC Deb 10 December 1970 vol 808 cc683-9

4.5 p.m.

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

Before coming to the issues which are the concern of my Department, I should first like to assure the House, in view of what was said yesterday from all sides, that I have this morning confirmed with the Chairman of the Electricity Council that everything which is humanly possible is being done to ensure that advance warning of cuts is given to hospitals and other consumers for whom interruptions of electricity supply produce immediate and critical difficulties. Sir Norman Elliott also informed me that electricity boards are doing everything in their power to warn consumers generally of impending cuts.

The House will recall from my statement yesterday that there are at present two disputes in the electricity supply industry; one affecting industrial workers, which has already resulted in the present work to rule, and the other affecting supervisory and technical staffs, who are threatening to work to rule from Monday next.

As regards the latter, I reported yesterday that I had seen representatives of the Electrical Power Engineers Association and asked them to reconsider their decision to work to rule and the possibility of returning to negotiations. I can now report that following that meeting there have been discussions between the Electricity Council and the Association, and that this possibility is being further explored between them in discussions this afternoon. The House will, I know, join me in hoping that there will be a successful outcome.

In my discussions this morning with Sir Norman Elliott, to which I have referred, I also reviewed with him the situation in relation to both disputes. Following this, I decided to invite the unions representing industrial staff to meet me this afternoon, and I am glad to say that they have accepted this invitation, and I am meeting them as soon as I can leave the House following this statement. At the same time, I have invited the Electricity Council to have a further meeting with me later this evening, following my talks with the unions.

Subsequently Mr. Victor Feather got in touch with me and said that he would like to come and see me and report on the meeting he had had this morning with the unions representing the industrial workers. I have seen Mr. Feather this afternoon, and he reported to me that the four unions concerned had indicated that they would be willing to consider suspending industrial action if negotiations could be resumed and the possibility was not ruled out in principle of improving the current offer.

Mr. Feather then said that he wished to communicate this to the Electricity Council, and I said that I would be happy for him to do so, while stressing, of course, that I could not in any way anticipate what the reaction of the Electricity Council might be.

I ask the House, in view of the important meetings I am about to have, not to press me further this afternoon.

Mrs. Castle

Does not that statement confirm how unwise and ungenerous— [interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must discuss this matter quietly.

Mrs. Castle

—how unwise and ungenerous hon. Gentlemen opposite were earlier this afternoon in jeering, as they indeed jeered, at the value of T.U.C. intervention in industrial disputes—intervention which, in this dispute, has opened up the hope and possibility of a just settlement?

Is it not a fact that following their talks with Mr. Victor Feather this morning the unions concerned have indicated their willingness to resume normal working, if normal-type negotiations can be resumed and if the Government will give an undertaking not to interfere with the outcome of these negotiations? May I now ask the right hon. Gentleman, therefore, for an assurance that the Government will not interfere with the vital negotiations which are about to be resumed?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the claim of the Electrical Power Engineers' Association traditionally follows that of the manual workers in the industry and that therefore if a just settlement can be obtained for the manual workers we shall avoid any repetition of the disruption which might otherwise take place?

Mr. Carr

"Normal negotiations" are difficult to define. Normal negotiations, according to the procedure agreed in the industry, mean that when negotiations have broken down there should be recourse to arbitration. That was the point that I was investigating yesterday. I regretted, and still regret, that the normal course of negotiations has not been followed, certainly through no fault of either the Electricity Council or of the Government. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman, in his usual sitting posture, talks about last weekend's speeches. I remind him that the decision of the unions was taken three days before the speech to which he refers. I hope that the House will not press me to comment further on the merits of the case now. I saw the unions yesterday, and I saw the employers this morning. I am seeing again this afternoon the unions representing the industrial workers, and I am then seeing again the employers. I believe that that is the right course to take, and that it would be wrong for me to say more at present.

Mr. Tugendhat

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, much as we welcome the progress which has been made and much as we wish him good fortune in the future discussions today, many hon. Members on this side believe that the interests of the economy and social justice demand that the settlement should not be inflationary?

Mr. Carr

The Government have made that repeatedly clear, and I certainly do so again.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the whole House will wish not to provoke discussion too far this afternoon, at a time when, following the initiative of Mr. Feather which was announced yesterday afternoon, there is a real hope that we can get not arbitration, not an industrial court, which both sides discussed yesterday, but a resumption of normal working under certain conditions? The right hon. Gentleman is right, I think, to stress that we should not press him further on that matter.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware, however, that those of us who have been trying to get a resumption of normal working—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] This is not a matter for joking by hon. Mem- bers opposite. Those of us who have been concerned with this have had it made absolutely clear to us that trade union leaders who are anxious to get a resumption of normal working on reasonable conditions have found their task made immeasurably more difficult by last weekend's speeches—hon. Members may have heard this stated with authority at lunch time today—including particularly the question of blackmail. It may have been that the unions did not go for arbitration three days before the speeches. It is equally the case that the employers did not go for arbitration, which they had every right to do under the agreement, before those speeches. They did not decide to go to arbitration. Those in the union movement who have been trying this week for a resumption have found that the reference to blackmail made it much more difficult, and the right hon. Gentleman should withdraw it on behalf of his right hon. Friend.

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the question put by my right hon. Friend? Is it not a fact that in the decision of the unions today, communicated to the right hon. Gentleman by Mr. Feather, one of the conditions for resuming normal working immediately, with all that that means for eliminating hardship, is that the Government should give an assurance that they will allow the negotiations by the Electricity Council, the Boards and others to be unfettered, and that there will be no more pressure by the Government telling them what figure they can offer?

Mr. Carr

I have made it clear before, but I am delighted to make it clear again, that the Council is not under instructions from the Government, that what the Government have said about negotiations has been said strongly and openly and has put less detailed pressure and confines on nationalised industry negotiators than the confines placed on them by the right hon. Gentleman when he was in power. I repeat that they are not under instructions, nor will they be.

As to arbitration, we should make the facts clear. I should have preferred not to go into the detail, but the right hon. Gentleman has pressed this point and therefore I think that the House should have the full facts about arbitration. I think that the right hon. Gentleman said that the employers had not been prepared to go forward to arbitration.

Mr. Harold Wilson indicated dissent.

Mr. Carr

If I misunderstood the right hon. Gentleman, perhaps he would repeat his question on that point.

Mr. Harold Wilson

I put this question to the right hon. Gentleman last night. I said that some of us were confused about it and asked him to state the position. I asked whether it was not a fact that under the agreement the employers could go to arbitration on their own. I was not clear about that from what the right hon. Gentleman said last night. What I said today was—[Interruption.] Hon. Members opposite had better leave the right hon. Gentleman to get on with this. They are in a big enough mess already with their shouting. What I am putting to the right hon. Gentleman, in response to his request, is what I put to him last night and again today. I understand that the employers did not demand or go for the arbitration which they can do on their own. I asked the right hon. Gentleman about this last night. Will he now give us the facts?

Mr. Carr

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman and the House the full, detailed facts, because I confirmed them this morning with Mr. Roberts of the Electricity Council, who is its negotiator in these matters. I was told that these were the facts: that the Electricity Council made clear in the Joint Council that it wished to follow its procedure and to resort to arbitration. There was then a break in the Joint Council's sittings and therefore the motion was not formally moved. When the Joint Council reassembled, the union members did not return in sufficient number for there to be a quorum, I understand. I may have slightly misled the House last night, and I apologise if I did. The position is not that either side can demand arbitration, but that if it is moved in the Council and a majority is in favour, which normally means if one side votes for it, then if there is a proper, formal meeting of the Council in which that is moved by either side, and if there is a majority of the Council—

Hon. Members

On either side.

Mr. Carr

But there must be a properly constituted meeting of the Council. If those conditions are met, then the arbitration goes forward against the will of the minority and the results are binding. But for that to happen there must be a proper meeting of the Council, and, as I have said, the members did not come back. We know about these things in the House. Therefore, there was not a properly constituted meeting of the Council in which the employers could formally move that motion.

An Hon. Member

What about blackmail?

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

Whilst I do not want to press my right hon. Friend, will he bear in mind that although this go-slow, which has been on for only a few days, is still thoroughly unpopular with the general public. I had a letter this morning—[Interruption.] Any hon. Member can see it—from someone who is affected by the go-slow as a sick person but is prepared to continue to be affected and put up with it in the hope that the Government, or the Electricity Council, will not give in to what might be a thoroughly inflationary settlement.

Mr. Carr

I note what my hon. Friend says, and I note from the expressions of opinion from many members of the public that the views he has expressed are widely and commonly held. I can only repeat that the Government have made abundantly clear their position about the need to reduce the inflationary level of settlements, and that stands.

Mr. Harold Wilson

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Last night I gave notice that we might, following the right hon. Gentleman's statement today, want to move the Adjournment of the House in order to debate this matter. However, in view of the activities which have followed this morning's initiatives and meetings, it would be inappropriate for us to do so. Indeed, I think that it would be inappropriate to press the right hon. Gentleman further since he is due in a few minutes' time to meet the trade unions on the manual side of the industry.

Can we have an assurance that there will be a statement tomorrow morning on the progress made this evening and overnight? It is very important that the House should not go away leaving what could be either a hopeful or a very difficult situation to develop over the weekend. If we can have that assurance, I hope that the House will leave the matter where it is so that the initiatives started this morning can be followed through.

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

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I note what the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition has said about a statement tomorrow. Naturally one will be made. I think that the only possible question I should raise is that it might be difficult to make it at a particular point of time in the negotiations, and if that is the case I am sure that the House will understand. But it will be made at 11 o'clock if at all possible.