HC Deb 29 October 1970 vol 805 cc418-26

Mrs. Castle (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment whether, in view of the mounting risks to public health and convenience of the public from the strike of local authority manual workers and the fact that an increasing number of local authorities are concluding local settlements, he will make a statement on the steps he is taking to end the strike.

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

Officials of my Department had separate meetings in the first half of September with representatives of both sides of the National Joint Council for Local Authority Manual Workers. It was clear at these meetings that the unions were not prepared to accept the employers' existing offer which included an earnings guarantee of £16 10s. 0d. and would have meant an increase in labour costs of 14 per cent.

I therefore felt it necessary to inform both sides that while the Department's conciliation services would be available to assist parties in reaching a settlement involving a redistribution of the offer on a more acceptable basis but within the same total cost, the Government were not prepared to allow the Department's conciliation services to be used to press the employers to make a higher offer. This remains the Government's view.

Discussions have since taken place between the two sides. I understand that at a meeting of the National Joint Council on 24th October a revised offer was not accepted by the unions, but the two sides decided jointly to appoint an independent committee of inquiry. The committee is now meeting under the chairmanship of Sir Jack Scamp.

I very must regret that, despite the union's agreement jointly to appoint and take part in this inquiry, they have not felt able pending the outcome of the inquiry to call off the strikes which have affected services in a number of local authority areas since 29th September.

I understand that out of a total of 1,600 local authorities, all but a very small minority are supporting the line taken by their national negotiators. Only some 20 have agreed to pay the increases demanded by the unions.

The Government are fully aware of the risk that the strikes may endanger public health and water supplies and have made clear on several occasions that they are ready to take all necessary measures to deal with the situation in any authority's area, should the need arise.

Mrs. Castle

Is it not grotesque that, with the strike in its fifth week, the right hon. Gentleman should just stand by and do nothing? Is he not aware that the refusal of his Department to allow his conciliation services to be used in this dispute is unprecedented in the history of the Department and is a clear breach of statutory duty to provide conciliation services which has only succeeded in hardening the attitude of the unions and the men concerned? Is it not a fact that the hopes of settlement of this dispute are now pinned on a court of inquiry which he ought to have set up but refused to do? Will he now admit that he has been wrong in his attitude and get cracking and settle this dispute?

Mr. Carr

The short answer to all of the right hon. Lady's questions is "No". I do not accept, nor do I believe that some of my distinguished predecessors—Ministers of Labour—have accepted, that the only rôle of conciliation is either to press employers to increase offers or to press unions to reduce claims. There is a proper, genuine and valuable rôle of conciliation—

Hon. Members

What is it?

Mr. Carr

—in helping the parties to discover the strength of each other's positions and feelings and to help the amount on offer to be redistributed in a way more acceptable to the parties. I made it clear to the parties in my statement and from the very beginning of this dispute that my Department's conciliation services were available in those respects and still are. The right hon. Lady should bear in mind that we are dealing here with an offer made by the employers of 14 per cent.—

An Hon. Member

Of what?

Mr. Carr

—with guaranteed minimum earnings of £16 10s. and a minimum weekly increase for male workers of 37s. to 38s. a week—and in a year in which the right hon. Lady, when she was in my position, issued a White Paper saying that the norm for increases should be between 2½ per cent. and 4½ per cent.

Mrs. Castle

Is it not also a fact that we are dealing with a union claim for an increase of 55s. a week for men, a number of whom are taking home less than £15 a week and whose wages this Government are dedicated to hold down while pursuing policies which reduce the social wage and are designed inevitably to put up prices?

Mr. Carr

The facts are that the average earnings of the manual workers in local authorities last April were about £21 a week for a working week of 43.7 hours. In other words, there is a degree of overtime less than the national amount of overtime. It is true that these manual workers include some of the lower-paid workers in our labour force. I cannot help but go back to the view expressed by the right hon. Lady and by the Leader of the Opposition, when he was Prime Minister, that the average increase appropriate in the national interest for this year should not be more than 4½ per cent.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Would my right hon. Friend indicate the attitude of the parties to the outcome of the inquiry with particular reference to the extent to which there has been agreement to accept the findings and recommendations?

Mr. Carr

I can tell my right hon. and learned Friend that the employers have stated categorically that they will accept the findings of the inquiry. The unions have said that they will take the findings into account but do not feel able to go further than that.

Mr. Bob Brown

Is the Minister aware that something in the region of 26 per cent. of municipal employees earn less than £15, including overtime and bonuses? Is he further aware that the very responsible men in municipal employment have been forced for the first time into a national stoppage? Is he also aware that it is not conciliation to say that they can negotiate within an offer made by the employers and within that alone?

Mr. Carr

What I am aware of is that this offer included an offer of a guaranteed national weekly wage of £16 10s. a week. This is a figure which the T.U.C. said was a target at which to aim. I am also aware, as I told the House earlier, that the average earnings for just under the 44-hour week were £21 last April and will be of the order of £24 if the employers latest offer is accepted.

Mr. Emery

Would my right hon. Friend agree that nobody in the House would want to exacerbate the situation? That is the traditional rôle of this House, and it certainly was not helped by the whooping up of the right hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle). Would my right hon. Friend tell the House what the average wage increase would be on the basis of the offer made by the employers and the average increase demanded by the unions?

Mr. Carr

I think that the average increase resulting from the employers' latest offer would be of the order of 15 per cent. If the unions' claim were met in full, the average increase would be over 20 per cent. I believe that it would be 23 per cent., but I speak from memory and I may be wrong about the precise figure.

Mr. Roy Jenkins

As the right hon. Gentleman has made a good deal of the fact that the average earnings among this group of workers is £21, would he tell us, since he must have been consulted about this and considered it very carefully in present circumstances, how he thinks a man in average family circumstances with earnings of £21 comes out of the package announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Tuesday?

Mr. Carr

I am quite certain that the manual workers in the local authorities, if they were to accept the employers' latest offer and had average earnings of £24 a week, would be significantly better off than they were with £21 when the Labour Government were in office.

Mr. Frederick Lee

Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that many thousands of the people in question would be eligible to draw the supplement announced the other day? In other words, they are among the poverty-stricken people whom the Government believe may need help to the extent of £3. The anomaly is that, whereas he will give them by charity that which they are not getting from their employers, he will not give them the virtues of conciliation?

Mr. Carr

Whatever the right hon. Gentleman may think about the proposal for a national income supplement, a great many workers will be better off with it than they were without it when the previous Government were in office. What the right hon. Gentleman, and the whole House and country, must bear in mind is that the offer on the table started at 14 per cent. and is now 15 per cent. The Government offered their manual workers in the National Health Service 14 per cent. because they were included among some of the lowest paid workers in the community. What the House and the country must realise is that if we have average earnings increases over the whole economy of that level we shall be in very serious trouble indeed. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and all his hon. and right hon. Friends will use their maximum influence to make sure that if the lower paid workers in this country get rises of the scale of 14 and 15 per cent. the higher paid workers do not put in claims for equivalent amounts.

Mr. Finsberg

Is it not a fact that since the last increase awarded, by agreement, by the Whitley Council prices have gone up by 7½ per cent. whereas the latest offer made by the employers is more than double that percentage? Should not that be taken into account in these discussions?

Mr. Carr

That is certainly one of the factors which I took into account in making my decision about conciliation.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Since the right hon. Gentleman enunciated his policy on conciliation a few weeks ago, is he aware that it has been interpreted as meaning that he is not denying conciliation but that the statutory function of conciliation will be available only within the employers' latest offer and not about the real issues in a particular dispute?

Secondly, since the right hon. Gentleman has said, as he did yet again this afternoon, that it is not the function of conciliators, certainly in every case—and one would agree with him—to lean on employers to pay more in a particular situation, is he in a position to assure the House that none of his right hon. Friends has leaned on employers not to increase their offer—for example, perhaps at the Conservative Party conference and in communications with the Association of Municipal Corporations? Is he not aware that many people have been outraged by threats of blackmail by the Government, referred to in the Prime Minister's letter to an hon. Member published this morning, that they will reduce grants to local authorities if they pay more than the odds which the right hon. Gentleman considers to be appropriate in this case?

Mr. Carr

With some of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I had meetings at the beginning of August with the public sector employers, the private employers and the Trades Union Congress, and I gave them precisely the same message. I made it public on behalf of the Government what the Government believed was this country's immediate crucial need, namely, to bring down the pace of cost inflation. That is pressure, if one likes to call it pressure, which we have put on all employers equally, because we believe that if we are to have a free society, unless both employers and unions are prepared to take these overall considerations into account, there is a very poor future ahead of us. The Government have a duty to make these matters of national interest clear, and so did the right hon. Gentleman when he was Prime Minister. He did it in the form of a White Paper which said that increases should not be more than 4½ per cent. a year.

Mr. Harold Wilson

That is very interesting. Will the right hon. Gentleman now answer the question? Will he confirm or deny that his colleagues have been leaning on the employers, telling them not to offer more than 14 per cent., including going as far as blackmail about State grants to local authorities if they did? Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether that has happened or not?

Mr. Carr

There has certainly been no blackmail at any point. We have put no pressure on any employer which other Governments, including the right hon. Gentleman's Government, have not put in the past. We may have done it more openly and publicly than the right hon. Gentleman's Government.

Mr. James Hamilton

Would the right hon. Gentleman agree, on reflection, that what he has said today makes it indelibly clear that he aligns himself with the employers and therefore does not function in a conciliatory capacity? Is he aware that many local authorities, particularly Labour-controlled authorities, have granted the increase in the interests of the people who work in the authorities and of the health of the nation?

Mr. Carr

I do not accept that. Nor do I think that any hon. Member, if he were to talk to the unions involved, would feel that I leant on one side or the other in the dock dispute in July. It is simply not true to suggest that either I or the Government have aligned ourselves with one side or the other.

Mr. Burden

When the last Government introduced a White Paper saying that increases should not be more than 4½ per cent., was not that instructing the employers that that was the amount which they wanted them to offer?

Mr. Orme

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about recent history, can he recollect the number of occasions, when leading from the Opposition Front Bench as shadow spokesman, when he called on the Department of Employment and Productivity to return to its rôle of conciliation which it had lost through the prices and incomes policy? Why has the right hon. Gentleman adopted the double standard that he is putting before the House? Where is the honest government that he and his right hon. and hon. Friends talked about? The right hon. Gentleman has now implemented an incomes policy by the stand that he has taken. I feel that he should come clean with the House.

Mr. Carr

It is true that I have condemned—and still do condemn—the sort of statutory incomes policy operated by the Labour Government. It had disastrous results, for which the whole country is now suffering. But all Governments, Labour and Conservative, have always had to take a view of the national interest in the question of increases in incomes, and all Ministers of Labour before me have had to take this into consideration, and have done so in the attitudes that they have adopted in particular disputes, however unfortunate they may be. I believe that, however difficult it may have been, there are at least some people, even on the union side of this dispute, who have some respect for the fact that in the name of the Government I went to them honestly and openly and told them that conciliation could not involve putting pressure to increase the total offer, rather than let them find it out when they got there.

Mr. David Stoddart

On a point of order. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has made reference to a letter that an hon. Member received from the Prime Minister which stated that grants to local authorities may well be affected by the settlement made. The Minister tended to deny that any pressure had been put on local authorities. As a recipient of that letter, let me make it absolutely clear that the Prime Minister did, in that letter, state quite categorically that the level of grants to local authorities must be a concern of the Government and would be considered. It is therefore absolutely true that the Government have been putting pressure on the employers.

Mr. Speaker

Order. That may or may not be true. It must be true, if the hon. Member says so. But it is not a point of order.

Mr. Harold Wilson

On a point of order—[Interruption.] On a new point of order on the same issue—[Interruption.] Mr. Speaker, you will rule whether I am out of order. In view of the fact that this letter is being referred to and is not generally available to the House, could not we considerably shorten this discussion and proceed with other business if the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House would indicate that he will have the letter published in HANSARD or in other ways made available to the House?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order for me. It is a matter between the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Gentlemen on the Government Front Bench.

Mr. Tom Boardman

Is it not the case that any increase awarded that is not matched by equal productivity can only be at the expense of the ratepayers, many of whom are worse off than those on whose behalf the claim is being made? Is it not the duty of local authorities to pay no less regard to ratepayers than to their employees?

Mr. Carr

Yes, Sir. It is true that the burden of this increase, or any increase that has to be paid, will have to be borne to a large extent on the rates. Local authorities have made that clear. I expect that I am not the only hon. Member of the House who heard in one connection this morning that there had been an 8d. increase in the rates.

Mr. Harold Walker

Can the Minister say by what statutory authority the Government undertook to indemnify local authorities against legal action? Is not this an unwarranted intervention? Will he also recognise that a fundamental difference between his policy and that of his predecessors lies in the new doctrine that he has enunciated in respect of prices, namely, that market forces will determine price levels? Ought not that to apply to the price of labour as much as to the price of anything else?

Mr. Carr

I do not believe that the question raised by the hon. Gentleman arises under the Private Notice Question to which I am addressing myself. It is a matter for one of my right hon. Friends.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on.