HC Deb 07 July 1970 vol 803 cc497-501

Mrs. Castle (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity if he will make a statement on the dispute at Lucas's Forman Road factories in view of yesterday's vote to continue the strike and the imminence of large scale lay-offs in the motor industry.

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

650 members of the General and Municipal Workers' Union have been on unofficial strike since 18th June at two diecasting and plastics factories of the Lucas Group in Birmingham. As a result, 10,000 Lucas employees and several thousands at motor assembly firms have been laid off.

The strikers are claiming an increase of £9 a week. In negotiations before the strike the company had offered increases, according to grade, of up to £3 5s. to come into effect in stages by December. This offer in the company's judgment was in line with the increases already accepted for the majority of its other employees in the company's Birmingham factories, in the main members of the T.G.W.U. and the A.E.F.

Since the strike began, a series of discussions has taken place to try to find a basis for a resumption of work. There have been direct discussions between the company and the G.M.W.U. My Department has had talks with the two sides. Mr. Victor Feather has also kept in touch with the situation.

In addition, the Motor Vehicle Joint Council has held meetings which have brought together the major car assembly firms affected by the dispute and the unions, the position of whose members in the company's Birmingham factories could be affected by the terms of any settlement of the current dispute and whose members in the car industry have been affected by lay-offs.

In these discussions the company has indicated its willingness to negotiate following a return to work with a view to bringing forward the date of payment of the full increase. But it has insisted that any settlement for the employees on strike must be in line with the pay of its other employees and indeed negotiated jointly with the two other unions mainly concerned, the T.G.W.U. and the A.E.F.

Following these discussions, the G.M.W.U. has called meetings of the employees on strike and urged them, as it has throughout the dispute, to return to work. At the latest meeting yesterday this recommendation was rejected after a secret ballot by a narrow majority. Following this rejection, the company is today, at the suggestion of the Motor Vehicle Joint Council, meeting all three unions to consider any outstanding claims, including that of the strikers.

In view of the serious threat to employment and production, I very much hope that it will be possible through these negotiations today, which I am following closely, to secure a return to work.

Mrs. Castle

While welcoming the initiative taken by the Motor Vehicle Joint Council and wishing it every success, may I first ask the right hon. Gentleman under whose auspices the secret ballot was held yesterday and what was the difference between the vote and the ballot which was taken in the open meeting of the strikers? Secondly, will he agree that the most strenuous efforts have been made by the union leaders and by Mr. Victor Feather to secure a settlement? Is he satisfied that they have both used their best endeavours to persuade the men to return to work?

Mr. Carr

I would like to pay tribute to the initiative of the Motor Vehicle Joint Council and to the G.M.W.U. which has throughout used its best endeavours and also to the part which Mr. Victor Feather has played. As to the secret ballot, I cannot answer the right hon. Lady precisely. I understand that the ballot, which was rather an ad hoc arrangement, was generally regarded by those who participated as being fair and satisfactory. That secret ballot showed a majority of 13 against returning to work, the figures being 228 to 215. I do not know what the hand count showed except that it was obviously close and was what gave rise to the suggestion for a secret ballot.

Sir G. Nabarro

Would my right hon. Friend have regard to the fact that this particular strike, which went on right through the General Election and had its origin even before the election—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes. As this strike is one of a long series of strikes in the motor industry where disturbances have proliferated in recent years and where demands have been excessive, as is this £9 per week demand, what is my right hon. Friend proposing to do as a medium-term measure to apply himself to these perpetual disturbances and disruptions of production in our most important exporting industry?

Mr. Carr

As a matter of factual record, my hon. Friend is right in that the strike first started on Thursday, 4th June. There was a return to work on Monday, 15th June, but then, unfortunately, the workers came out on Thursday, 18th June, and have been out ever since. As to the general situation in the motor and associated industries, it is indeed extremely serious. We believe that the final revocation of any sort of a statutory incomes policy will do good in improving the atmosphere. We are also convinced, as we have made clear in the Gracious Speech, that a measure providing a more orderly framework for the conduct of collective bargaining is an absolutely essential long-term solution.

Mr. Edelman

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the deplorable relations in the motor industry by which piecemeal disputes can put tens of thousands of men out of work is now the subject of grave national concern? Is he aware that the piecemeal negotiations through "Little Neddies" and so on is no longer adequate? Will he now try to call a national conference of all the interests involved to produce some method by which there is an internal discipline within the labour movement in association with the employers and the Government to prevent this catastrophic state of affairs?

Mr. Carr

I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman in drawing attention to a very serious state of affairs. I have certainly not ruled out any suggestions, although I would rather not comment on them today. What I am most hoping for today is that the negotiations going on will lead to a solution of this dispute. The Motor Vehicle Joint Council may go some of the way at least to meet the sort of objective the hon. Member has in mind. Certainly its influence in this dispute has been to the good and we have been better off with it than we were without it.

Mr. John Page

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the great sense of relief throughout industry that he is now holding this responsible position? Would he agree with me that the present anarchistic situation in the motor industry would not have existed if the right hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) and the present Leader of the Opposition had not funked the issue of industrial relations legislation a year ago?

Mr. Carr

Compliments are always pleasant to any of us in the House, however undeserved. I hope that I shall live to deserve them. To solve, as we must solve, the problem of human relations in industry, we must keep away from statutory incomes control. We must also have an orderly framework for collective bargaining, because it is only through the development of independent collective bargaining that in a free society we can have order and participation and sound economic results.

Mr. Hattersley

If the more orderly framework to which the right hon. Gentleman refers includes a legally enforceable contract, against whom would he recommend action in this case—the union leadership, which does not want the strike, or individual men?

Mr. Carr

There will be plenty of time to debate these matters at great length. Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that I am much looking forward to those opportunities. We have made absolutely clear from the beginning that we believe that one of the most important things in the orderly conduct of collective agreements and their keeping is that corporate bodies—the company and the union—should feel fully committed to using their best endeavours to see that agreements entered into are maintained.

Mrs. Castle

Is the right hon. Gentleman really suggesting that in this case the corporate body concerned—the General and Municipal Workers Union—has in any way failed to use its best endeavours to get the men back to work? Does not the statement which he has just made totally jeopardise a peaceful solution of this dispute?

Mr. Carr

No. I have already publicly in the House paid tribute to the fact that the union on this occasion has used its best endeavours, as the same union did in the Pilkington dispute. There are, and always will be, in a free society occasions when there will be strikes, whatever best endeavours are used by employers or unions. This is part and parcel of life in a free society. However, I am sure that the right hon. Lady, of all people, will know from her experience that if management and unions always used their best endeavours there would be fewer strikes than we have been used to recently.