HC Deb 11 December 1970 vol 808 cc817-23
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Robert Carr)

Immediately after reporting to the House yesterday, I had meetings with the Chairman and Secretary of the trade union side of the National Joint Council for Electricity Supply, and with the Chairman and the Council Member for Industrial Relations of the Electricity Council, to discuss the suggestions which the trade unions had formulated, after their meeting with Mr. Feather yesterday morning.

Following these discussions, the two sides met briefly and agreed that representatives of the Electricity Council and of the four unions concerned should meet this afternoon—the earliest time at which representatives of all four unions concerned are available.

In order to avoid any misunderstanding, I should explain to the House that it is not the unions' intention to suspend their work-to-rule concurrently with this afternoon's meeting. As the union leaders explained to me, the procedure envisaged in the statement issued after their meeting with Mr. Feather involved a preliminary and informal meeting with the Electricity Council to explore whether the Council would be prepared to improve its offer by a large enough amount for the unions to regard it as an acceptable basis for a resumption of formal negotiations. This is what this afternoon's meeting is about. If the unions regard the Council's response as satisfactory, they would then be prepared to suspend their work-to-rule.

In the light of the outcome of this afternoon's meeting, I will immediately consider whether further action on my part is needed and report to the House again as soon as possible.

Mrs. Castle

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement and promise to keep the House in touch with developments. I assure him that, as the talks are now in the critical stage, we on this side would not wish to do anything to make matters more difficult for him. But, as the earliest at which the right hon. Gentleman could report back to us would be Monday, may I ask whether he will do his best to try to keep the two sides talking until a settlement is reached, and whether, if unhappily the talks break down, he himself would feel free to take any necessary action, including the setting up of a court of inquiry?

Mr. Carr

The talks are between the the Council and the union leaders. I must stress that they are informal and not in any way part of the normal procedure of negotiation.

As I have said, and I must reiterate it for the moment, I will, if necessary, consider whether further action is needed by me. Certainly, if further action is needed, I rule out no option.

Mr. Hunt

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind, and make known to the parties concerned, that the British public, which has endured so much in this dispute, will not easily forgive a settlement which goes much beyond the very fair offer which has already been made, because it would inevitably mean that the hardship and inconvenience of recent days had been in vain?

Mr. Carr

I note my hon. Friend's remarks. I am sure that everybody else will, too.

Mr. Heffer

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman not to take the advice of his hon. Friend the Member for Bromley (Mr. Hunt)? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the Government will not easily be forgiven by the British public if they do not use their best endeavours to bring the dispute to a speedy conclusion?

Mr. Carr

I and the Government realise that the greatest single problem facing this country at the moment is cost inflation. I must keep repeating, as must all Government spokesmen, that this is the country's single greatest problem. If we wish prosperity to rise, if we wish real earnings to rise, we must all make that our first priority.

Dr. Glyn

We all want a settlement. In view of what my right hon. Friend said yesterday about giving advance warning to hospitals, may I ask whether, in the context of Question No. 50 which I have down today for Written Answer by his right hon. Friend, it would be possible to give statutory undertakings, such as sewage and water works, prior notice of power cuts? I realise that there are tremendous difficulties, because it also means giving priority to neighbouring houses on the same circuit, but it is important to give statutory undertakings and industry in general as much notice as possible of an intended cut so that they can adjust their programmes to minimise reduction of production.

Mr. Carr

I have seen my hon. Friend's Question on the Order Paper. Any matter of general directions is not for me but for my right hon. Friends. I do not even know what the powers are in that respect. I know that the Electricity Council and the constituent boards are doing everything possible in this respect, and I am sure that they will continue to keep it in mind.

Mr. Palmer

Will the right hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that at this critical stage the electricity boards are free now to make a realistic offer which could bring this bad business to an end, in the light of the present position?

Mr. Carr

As I have said before and as I say again, the electricity boards are under no instruction from the Government. What we have said, not just to the electricity boards but to all employers—public and private—is that the question of cost inflation must be in their minds in the national interest. We have said that publicly and openly. I have no doubt that we are right to say it and to keep on saying it.

Mr. Stokes

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is immensely strong feeling on this side of the House, particularly from those like myself who represent constituencies with a large working-class population, that there should be no sell-out whatever and that the Government's entire credibility is at stake on this issue?

Mr. Carr

I note what my hon. Friend says, but I think that I ought not to get involved in the merits of this. The House and the country must realise that this is a negotiation between the Electricity Council and the unions. What the Government can do, must do and have done is to state what the public interest is and expect all sides to take account of it.

Mr. Russell Kerr

As regards the Minister's reference to the dangers of cost inflation, does he agree that there can be no solution to these problems while present deflationary policies exist? Will he please read a publication called "Beyond the Freeze" which some of us produced four years ago and in which he will find most of the answers to the problems now afflicting society?

Mr. Carr

When I find some time for such interesting reading, I will take the hon. Gentleman's advice.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us greatly appreciate the moderation of his statements, which give no encouragement to those who, for whatever reason or in whatever quarter, want to revive the sterile and obsolete class war? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that contacts and correspondence with our constituencies indicate that there is growing support for the manner in which he and his colleagues are handling this unhappy matter and that there is no disposition on the part of the public to be intimidated from any quarter?

Mr. Carr

I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks, which I believe to be true. What I believe that the British public want is to see a fair settlement in this dispute—fair to the parties but also fair to the whole public.

Mr. Adley

In view of the conflicting advice that appears to be coming to my right hon. Friend from both sides of the House, will he encourage the unions to make known to the general public the names and addresses of their officers so that the officers themselves can receive the opinions of the public which Members of Parliament are receiving?

Mr. Carr

I think that we must leave union leaders to notice reports in HANSARD and elsewhere.

Mr. Pardoe

As it is the Government's intention in their Industrial Relations Bill to bring industrial disputes within the framework of the law, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are circumstances under the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act, 1875, and the Electricity (Supply) Act, 1919, in which the present action of electricity workers could be construed as being in breach of the criminal law? Has he brought this to the attention of the trade unions; and is he aware that, if he has not, his failure to do so could well be construed as a conspiracy against the best interests of the people, who are suffering not only industrial hardship but ill-health and even death?

Mr. Carr

I really am astonished at this outburst coming from a representative of the Liberal Party. I am quite sure that a nationalised organisation in Britain is able to understand and have regard to its responsibilities in this matter and to do what it has to in drawing the attention of its employees, as it does, to the requirements of the law.

As the hon. Gentleman will know and as the House will know, we on this side of the House do not believe in the detailed application of the criminal law to industrial relations. We are proposing in our Bill to set up instead a proper framework of civil law giving rights to, but also putting obligations of a civil nature on, management and trade unions, because we do not believe that our problems of industrial relations in Britain will be solved by the application of criminal law. Here we differ, I know, from the main Opposition party. I did not realise that we also differed from the Liberal Party.

Mr. Atkinson

Will the Minister ask his colleagues, including Mr. Campbell Adamson, to stop making unnecessary and unfair attacks against the trade unions about inflationary wage settlements? Will he accept that in this situation a worker receiving a 11 per cent. increase on an average wage and with an average family is merely standing still with his purchasing power of last year? Therefore, is it not true that anyone receiving an 11 per cent. increase now is not making an inflationary wage settlement? Will the right hon. Gentleman make this known to his colleagues and those in the Confederation of British Industry?

Mr. Carr

If it were true I would make it known, but it is not true. If settlements go on, the surest way of making certain that our real earnings do not rise as they could, or of making certain that prices go on rising at the rate at which they have been throughout 1970, is a continuation of the present level of inflationary settlements.

Sir S. McAdden

Would it not assist my right hon. Friend in the excellent way in which he is conducting affairs at the moment if hon. Members on both sides were to restrain their natural enthusiasm for asking questions and leave him to get on with the job which he is tackling so well?

Mr. Carr

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and it would certainly relieve me considerably.

Mr. Harold Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman concluded his statement by saying that he would report to the House again as soon as possible. I take it that that means that in any case he will be making a statement on Monday. None of us can foresee the exact turn of events over the weekend. If it becomes necessary for the right hon. Gentleman to make a statement defining the position—to make an announcement, or whatever else it may be—would he consider doing it on the record as a clear statement from his Department which the Press, the radio and the television can have, because of the danger of rumours which can worsen the situation or of various suggestions that Ministers intend to do this, intend to do that, or do not intend to do this or that? Would it not he better, if he has something to say, for him to say the kind of thing he would have said in the House by way of an on-the-record statement?

Mr. Carr

I think that the right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I will certainly accede to the point he makes, if the opportunity arises.

Mr. Thorpe

I think that the right hon. Gentleman unintentionally did not quite appreciate the point which my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) was making? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my colleagues and I opposed the attempt to increase the criminal sphere of activity when the Labour Party introduced its Bill and still maintain that we were right? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that whether the law is right or wrong, there are in fact certain Statutes which bring in the criminal law and which are, whether they are right or wrong, binding on both sides, and that sometimes it is not a bad thing if everybody involved is fully aware of the legal position?

Mr. Carr

I take that point. The enthusiasm with which the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend spoke may have led me to misunderstand the point that he was making. If so, I am sorry. But I believe that the Electricity Council and its boards are aware of this. I also believe that they make this known to their employees. They have their duties, of which they are aware. Members of the public have duties as well, and, of course, there is the duty, in an entirely non-political capacity, of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, which I am sure the House will realise he will discharge fully and faithfully.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We are to have another statement, I understand, on Monday.

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