HC Deb 14 December 1970 vol 808 cc953-60
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Robert Carr)

I have recently been informed that the trade unions representing industrial staff in the electricity supply industry have decided to end forthwith their work-to-rule and overtime ban. I am sure the whole House will wish to welcome this responsible decision.

The House will realise, however, that the dispute still remains to be settled. Both the unions and the Electricity Council have become convinced that there is no hope of further progress towards a solution by negotiation between themselves. After many long hours of discussion with them, I have been forced to conclude that this is indeed the case. The matters in dispute can now only be resolved if they are submitted to independent judgment which can consider all the issues involved. The unions are not prepared to make use of arbitration provided in the procedure but, like the Electricity Council, have asked me to refer the problem to a Court of Inquiry.

In these circumstances, I have decided to appoint a Court of Inquiry and, in doing so, I have been able to accept suggestions from both parties about possible terms of reference, including the suggestion from the unions that reference to the industry's productivity record should be included. At the same time I must make clear that the terms of reference must also expressly ensure that the Court of Inquiry takes into account the public and national economic interest.

The membership and terms of reference of the Court will be announced as soon as possible, and I should like to add that I have agreed to lend my support to the wish of both parties that hearings should be in public.

In these changed circumstances, the Emergency which, as the House knows, was proclaimed on Saturday, will not, we hope, need to be maintained for very long. The Government will keep the position under close review; and meanwhile the Emergency Regulations and the Order prohibiting the consumption of electricity for advertising, show window displays and flood-lighting will remain in force.

Mrs. Castle

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on this side of the House welcome the statesmanship of the unions in calling off the work-to-rule? Is he also aware that we welcome the wisdom of the Government in setting up this Court of Inquiry? Those two points meet the ones that were proposed to the right hon. Gentleman by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition as long ago as last Tuesday. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House why the Government did not take this way out a long time ago and thus save millions of people from six days of unnecessary hardship?

Finally, can the right hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance that the composition of the Court, as well as its terms of reference, will be agreed with both sides in the dispute?

Mr. Carr

The essential and vital reason why I have been able to announce the setting up of the Court of Inquiry only today rather than last week is that last week there was no question of the unions being able or ready to call off their work-to-rule or their ban on overtime without first being assured that, if they did so, as a precondition they would be guaranteed a substantial increase in the amount already on offer to them. They have today changed that decision. That has entirely changed the situation, and I have immediately agreed to appoint a Court of Inquiry.

As to the membership and the terms of reference of the Inquiry, the right hon. Lady will know as well as I do that under the Act a Minister in my position has a responsibility for fixing the terms of reference and for appointing the members. That is a matter for which I and I alone can and must take responsibility.

I have already listened at length—and I shall continue to do so—to the views of the parties about these matters. I made it clear in my statement that I felt no difficulty in envisaging that the things which they wished to have included in the terms of reference would be included, and I mention particularly productivity, but, as will be clear from the statement that I made earlier this morning, in spite of many long hours of discussion yesterday, it was impossible to obtain the unions' agreement—and I know that far from objecting to my making this clear their hope was that I would make it Clear—to the express injection of the public and national economic interest into the terms of reference. This is something which the Government not only feel it their duty to have included, but which they are absolutely certain an overwhelming majority of public opinion in this country demands should be included.

Mr. Tapsell

While expressing my great admiration for the personal qualities which my right hon. Friend has shown in the handling of this matter, an opinion which I am sure is shared by the whole country, may I voice a disquiet which has been put to me by many of my constituents? How will any Court of Inquiry be adequately equipped to judge the national interest?

Mr. Carr

That is an important point. We have in this country a tradition of men of skill and public service who no doubt find it difficult to do these difficult jobs perfectly but who will, I am sure, have a very adequate shot at it.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there will be general pleasure that there is a return to normal work and also general approval for the setting up of the Court of Inquiry? Without seeking to press the right hon. Gentleman on any matter which may well be a matter for negotiation, may I ask how the public and national economic interest will be made known by the Government to the Court of Inquiry? Will the Government, for example, be represented by someone appearing before the Court? Will they provide one of the assessors? In any event, will the right hon. Gentleman concede the general principle that if the Government are to make known these criteria they should be made known publicly so that they can be generally examined?

Mr. Carr

I have already said, on the last point, if I may reassure the right hon. Gentleman by repeating it, that I have agreed to lend my support to the request of the parties that the hearings of the Court, when it is set up, should be in public, but it is for the Court to decide. I cannot order the Court, and that same principle really answers the most important part of the right hon. Gentleman's question. I cannot order the Court how it shall carry out its terms of reference. We must get the Court appointed and let it consider how it should do its job in the light of its terms of reference. I can only assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that the Government will obviously be ready to give the Court any assistance that it requires.

Mr. Biffen

Arising out of that last question, either on his own initiative or else if requested, will my right hon. Friend seek to give evidence to the Court indicating what, in the Government's view, constitutes the national economic interest?

Mr. Carr

I must ask my hon. Friend and the House to be a little forbearing. I only had this news from the unions just before lunch. The decision, therefore, has only just been taken. These matters, I think, do need some calm and careful consideration. I really believe that it is proper that a Court of this kind, when set up, should first of all have the chance to consider its terms of reference and make up its own mind about the ways in which it wants to proceed. I do not think that it would be helpful if I tried to do that job for it before the Court is set up, but clearly, as I told the Leader of the Liberal Party, the Government will be ready and willing to assist the Court in any way that it requires.

Mr. Palmer

Will the Government accept the Court's findings, irrespective of whether those findings are favourable to the Government's previous arguments or otherwise?

Mr. Carr

The hon. Gentleman and the House must realise that there is one difference—there are others, but this is one of them—between a Court of Inquiry and arbitration: that a Court of Inquiry is essentially to inquire and inform. Arbitration may or may not—sometimes does, sometimes does not—require the parties to it to accept the conclusion. I think that it is right and proper to preserve the freedom of all parties in dispute—and the main parties concerned are, of course, the employers and the unions—to see and think about whatever conclusions the Court may reach. I do not think that anyone can bind himself in advance, and I believe that it would be contrary to the Court of Inquiry procedure and Act to ask that anyone should.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Are there any matters, and if so what, which can be taken into account by the Court of Inquiry which could not have been taken into account by the normal prescribed arbitration procedure? What reasons, if any, were given by the trade union for objecting to arbitration? Will my right hon. Friend be vigilant that arbitration is not eroded as the normal method in collective bargaining?

Mr. Carr

I think that the main difference is that in arbitration the issues which are normally considered are normally narrow. They need not be, but in practice they normally tend to be confined to the much more limited aspects of the particular dispute. When it comes to a Court of Inquiry, by means of the terms of reference one can ensure that a wider sphere is taken into account. It would not be proper of me to go, even if there were time, into the reasons why the unions were not prepared to consider arbitration, but it is important for the House and the country to realise that the Court of Inquiry procedure allows these much wider issues—including the ones that I have made it clear the Government regard as so important—to be taken into account. That would not, of course, have been possible in the case of normal arbitration.

Mr. Orme

Is not the key question in relation to this still the issue of the 10 per cent.? Is it not a fact that the unions would not go to arbitration because the Government had closed the door in relation to the 10 per cent., and the arbitration tribunal would almost certainly have followed that. Therefore, will this Court of Inquiry be free to look at the electricians' claim in full, to make recommendations, and not be circumscribed by the statement which the right hon. Gentleman has already made about the national interest? Will the national interest in fact stop the tribunal from going above the 10 per cent.? That surely is the key issue.

Mr. Carr

The Court of Inquiry will be free, as all courts of inquiry always have been and, I hope, always will be, to take into account all the issues it wishes which are encompassed by those terms of reference. I have already said that while we, the Government, have felt it our duty in the national interest, and, I am sure, in line with strong public opinion, to make sure that the public and national economic interest is one of the factors, so equally I hope it will be found that the terms of reference will meet the union's wish that the productivity record of this industry shall also be specifically taken into account. The Court of Inquiry will certainly be an independent body, free to take all these matters into account. I cannot admit that under arbitration an agreement would have been inhibited.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I would remind the House that there is an important debate ahead.

Mr. Tom Boardman

Would my right hon. Friend make it clear that the terms of reference will permit the Court of Inquiry, if it considers it appropriate, to recommend that the increase, or any increase, should be of an amount less than that already offered by the Electricity Council?

Mr. Carr

I can only repeat that the Court of Inquiry is absolutely free, without restrictions in any direction, to come to its own conclusions about these matters in the light of its terms of reference.

Mr. John D. Grant

The right hon. Gentleman has not been able to define to the House today the criteria which constitute the national interest. What definition did he give of the national interest to the trade unions, who after all will be the guinea pigs in this case?

Mr. Can

I think that the hon. Gentleman makes a mistake in talking about the trade unions or the employers as the guinea pigs. I should have thought that for some years now it might have been the public at large who had felt that they were in the position of guinea pigs. I believe that when one trusts a Court of Inquiry to do its job it must be allowed to ask for all the information, take whatever evidence it thinks is relevant and make up its own mind on these issues. I do not believe that it would be right—nor do I believe, incidentally, that I would get the thanks of the trade union movement or, I hope, of anyone else—if I tried to write vast, lengthy terms of reference trying to limit and define precisely the national interest.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Of course, I fully understand why my right hon. Friend has felt it wise to set up the Court of Inquiry, but will he also bear in mind that the improvement in productivity in the industry was presumably taken into account in the original 10 per cent. offered by the Electricity Council? Therefore, may I express the hope that my right hon. Friend will not assume automatically that if the Court were to recommend a higher recognition of that improvement in productivity it necessarily should be accepted?

Mr. Carr

That is certainly the case of the Electricity Council, that they have made provision, and, as they think, fair provision, for the productivity gain in the industry. But this, of course, will no doubt be a case which the Electricity Council on this point will wish to make before the Court, just as the unions will wish to make their case that it has not been adequately taken into account. I think that we must leave it to the Court to form its own judgment on these matters.

Mr. Driberg

When the right hon. Gentleman speaks of the public and national interest as in some way qualifying or limiting the terms of reference of the Court of Inquiry, as he did, would he bear in mind that these workers, like millions of other trade unionists, are also members of the public and citizens of this nation and are as entitled to a just wage and a good life as anyone else?

Mr. Carr

Of course, that is true. They are so much a part of the public and national interest that I should be very surprised if the Court is not able to take that point into account.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind in drafting the public interest aspect of the terms of reference that on the last occasion on which reference was made to public interest in a court of inquiry, namely, the Pearson Inquiry into the seamen's dispute, it was by no means clear to most observers that the end result took very much note of the public interest? In view of the fact that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has described the 10 per cent. offer as already inflationary, would it not be difficult to reconcile a large offer with the concept of the national interest?

Mr. Carr

I must ask my hon. Friend to bear in mind what I have said about this point—that the terms of reference expressly ask the Court of Inquiry to take into account the public and national economic interest. It is our duty to see that the terms of reference expressly require that; but I really believe that we must leave it to the Court of Inquiry.

Mr. Bidwell

Since this was never a strike but merely the application of a policy of work-to-rule and a ban on overtime, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman how he proposes to record in his Department's statistics what happened so as to reveal the dislocation that is likely to arise out of disputes of this kind, both now and in future, under his trade union legislation?

Mr. Carr

I suspect that the public will be more interested in avoiding such dislocation in future than in my finding out how to record statistics about it.

Mr. Longden

While in no way wishing to impugn the statesmanship of the unions, to which reference has been made by the right hon. Lady and which will be needed in large measure in the coming weeks, may I ask my right hon. Friend to say whether at any stage during these negotiations the unions have denied that the national and economic interest was a relevant factor to be taken into account by the Court of Inquiry?

Mr. Carr

As I have explained to the House, they were not prepared to agree to the specific mention of these in the terms of reference. They felt that it could be assumed that the Court of Inquiry would do this. I wish to make it clear that at no time did they argue that the Court should not do it; simply that they felt that it should be assumed. I believe that, just as on many previous occasions it has been thought right to draw attention to particular matters which the Government and the country would wish to be taken into account, so it was right and absolutely essential—indeed, would have been strongly resented by public opinion if we had not said so in this case—that the public and national economic interest should be expressly referred to.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the Business of the day.