HC Deb 18 February 1972 vol 831 cc864-70

4.8 p.m.

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

First, I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden) for his generosity in giving up his Adjournment debate. I apologise to my hon. Friend, since he gave up his debate for the purpose of a statement to be made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. I am afraid that had he known that it was me who would be deputising for my right hon. Friend, perhaps he would have felt differently about his Adjournment debate.

I also have to offer to the House apologies from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. The National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers are currently meeting together at his headquarters, and he has judged—I am sure that the House will accept his judgment in this—that, in the delicate nature of the negotiations, it is right for him not to leave his Ministry, and to be on hand at this moment. He wishes to say, however, that had it been at all possible for him to come to the House, he most certainly would have done so. He asked me to make that statement to the House. Perhaps I should simply add to that that on Monday my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment will make a statement to the House. I give that guarantee now. I hope that the House will accept the position.

I also offer my own apologies that the statement which I promised has not been able to be made now. I am sure that the House, in the circumstances, will understand the reason.

Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House for making a statement, even though it was not as full as we had hoped, because negotiations are still continuing. Also, I am grateful to him for having given the House an assurance that there will be a statement on Monday.

May I ask the Leader of the House to consider this? Seventy-two hours must now elapse before an official Ministerial comment can be made. Would the right hon. Gentleman convey to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment the possible desirability of a ministerial broadcast between now and Monday to allow the Government position to be made clear, if that is necessary?

Second, although we cannot discuss now, and would not wish to do so, the substance of the issue, millions of people, supported certainly by my right hon. and hon. Friends, will be grateful that the Wilberforce Report has proved the justice of the miners' case and has recommended a very substantial increase in salaries and wages to them. It is to be very much hoped that this can lead to a fair and equitable settlement. As it will be considered by the parties involved, notably the N.U.M., and, if possible, there should be a rapid return to normality, I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman would comment on the possibility of a ministerial broadcast.

Mr. Whitelaw

I certainly note what the right hon. Gentleman has said about a ministerial broadcast. I shall pass that on to my right hon. Friend. As to the right hon. Gentleman's other comments, I know that he would not wish me, at this moment in the negotiations, to make any further comment, except that I naturally join with him in hoping that there will be a speedy resumption of work as a result of the report.

Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire, South-East)

As the miners have been guaranteed that the recommendations of the Wilberforce Report will be implemented, may we have an assurance that the picketing will stop right away? If not, why not?

Mr. Whitelaw

It would not be for me to answer that question one way or another at present.

Mr. Harold Lever (Manchester, Cheetham)

Would the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that, quite apart from accepting the Wilberforce Report, to which the Government are already fully committed, what is now required is that the Government should immediately show in their acceptance, that they accept it with total goodwill, that their intention is now to sit down with the miners to bind up the wounds caused by this tragedy, and to ensure that the insecurities and anxieties of the miners as to the future will also be closely considered by the Ministers by calling together the leaders of the mineworkers to meet the appropriate Ministers?

Mr. Whitelaw

I would simply say that if there is a speedy resumption of work, for which the whole House hopes, naturally I would hope that there would be good will restored to the situation as soon as possible on all sides.

Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)

I agree with my right hon. Friend that it would be wrong to comment on what has still to be negotiated, but would be agree that the talk in the Wilberforce Report of exceptional reasons and special treatment for the mineworkers should not be reflected in pay increases in the rest of industry, and that the Government will continue as strongly as ever their fight against inflation?

Mr. Whitelaw

I will make only two comments on that. First, the Court of Inquiry said that the miners were a special case. Second, I am sure that in the interests of the whole nation the Government, and I would hope hon. Members in all parts of the House, will seek to help in the battle against inflation which does only harm to everyone in the community.

Mr. Thomas Swain (Derbyshire, North-East)

I appreciate that the Wilberforce Committee has studied the case and reported with the utmost speed and efficiency, but may I support the request made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) that the Leader of the House should stress to the Secretary of State for Employment the importance of making a ministerial broadcast tonight? In every area of the National Union of Mineworkers there will be mass rallies tomorrow, and if we can have a ministerial broadcast tonight it will have a terrific psychological emphasis on the rallies tomorrow, which will no doubt be beneficial towards getting the men back down the pits at the earliest possible moment, which I know is the fullest desire of every hon. Member.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. As I promised, I will pass on this suggestion to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. Naturally, any such decision must depend upon the result of the discussions currently going on. The hon. Gentleman, with his considerable knowledge of the industry, will accept that, depending on the result of these talks, some part of the responsibility which he refers to would naturally then fall on the leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

As my constituent Mr. Graham Steel, Area Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, was one of those who was put into Saughton Prison in Edinburgh, may I ask the Lord President of the Council to make representations to the Lord Advocate and to the Secretary of State for Scotland to the effect that it is highly desirable, in cold blood at least, to look at the events which took place at Dunfermline, to look at the court procedure that surrounded those events, and in particular to look at the practice whereby procurators fiscal hold Press conferences before charges are actually given to the men in prison?

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman has raised very wide issues, particularly with regard to the administration of the law. It is very important that any Minister of the Crown should be careful about making any comments as to the administration of the law. The right thing for me to say is that I will see that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are conveyed to the Secretary of State for Scotland and to the Lord Advocate.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there are many hon. Members present in the House for a Friday and that they wanted to hear a statement from the Government Front Bench following the publication of the Report of the Wilberforce Committee. We appreciate—I certainly appreciate—that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment is properly engaged in the consideration and the deliberations following that report.

One of the reasons why so many hon. Members are gathered here is that we would have wished to have expressed the opinion from the House that, when a decision has been made between the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers, it will be to ensure that as a result the miners gel back to work as soon as possible. We are denied the opportunity of expressing that opinion this afternoon.

We should not lose this opportunity of saying to my right hon. Friend that we hope that, although it will not be until Monday that we hear a statement from the Front Bench, between now and then we shall hear a favourable decision from the National Union of Mineworkers to the effect that the men will get back to work without delay.

Mr. Whitelaw

Naturally it is not right for me to comment on the attitude of the parties while negotiations are continuing. However, my hon. Friend has certainly voiced a feeling which has already been voiced from both sides of the House. He has also been able to give expression to it, perfectly properly, and I will, immediately I leave the Chamber, inform my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, not only of what was said from the Opposition Front Bench, not only of what was said by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain) with his considerable knowledge of the mining industry and his importance in it, but also of what has been said by my hon. Friend.

I assure the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment will certainly have this feeling reported to him; and no doubt he will find himself able to make known to the parties the feelings which have been expressed to me in the House. I will see that that is done.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

The Leader of the House will report these messages to his colleagues in the Cabinet, but will he also, in the light of the way Wilberforce is phrased, undertake to ensure that the House has an opportunity to debate the whole question of pricing and the financial structure of the National Coal Board before any announcement is made about the price of coal? In other words, will he undertake that there will be no announcement about the price of coal before there is a debate in the House?

Mr. Whitelaw

I could not give such an undertaking off the cuff. We do not yet know the result of the negotiations, we do not yet know whether there will be a resumption of work, though we all devoutly hope that there will be—we do not know any of these things, so it is much too early for me to give any undertaking of that sort. What must be right for me to say, however, is that later, at the appropriate time, if events turn out as we hope and there is a resumption of work, naturally, there will be an opportunity to debate all these matters, as the House will undoubtedly wish.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, Central)

In the right hon. Gentleman's opinion, is there any early prospect of an easing of the obviously grave burdens and difficulties of the electricity supply industry?

Mr. Whitelaw

That will depend on the outcome of the present discussions. What arrangements are made about any decision to return to work, about the ending of picketing, and the rest—all this must depend on the result of the talks now going on.

Mr. Benn

I endorse what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson). At an appropriate stage, we shall want to look at this matter retrospectively and have a proper debate. As regards Monday, depending on what happens over the weekend, will the Leader of the House confirm that, were it necessary, he would make a statement about a change of business—which we devoutly hope will not be necessary in that sense—and, further, may we take it that the statement on Monday will include not only the matter of today's talks but also the industrial situation following the power cuts, since there are some millions of people and many firms which, even if matters do end happily, as we hope, will still face serious difficulties over a period and will want an authoritative statement from the Secretary of State about the power cuts to be made and any possible easement of them?

Mr. Whitelaw

What I said yesterday about any possible change of business still stands. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry promised a statement on Monday on the industrial situation, and that statement will be made.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, North-West)

Whatever be the result of the current negotiations, may we hear from the right hon. Gentleman now that the Government have learned a lesson from this very sad matter—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—and that they will never again allow a confrontation of this kind, which can destroy the country through Government inaction?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have been most careful not to make any comments whatever in the interest of doing nothing which might hinder a return to work. I think it most unfair that the hon. and learned Gentleman should then seek to provoke me. I am much too cautious a person to be provoked in that way, and I think that he knows very well that I will not be, but, equally, I think it very unfair that he should seek to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Four o'clock.