HC Deb 21 February 1972 vol 831 cc898-906
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Robert Carr)

My Speaker, with your permission, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement about the coal industry and the Wilberforce Committee's Report.

The report of the court of inquiry into the coal dispute was received in the early hours of Friday morning. I am sure that the House will wish me to express its great appreciation of the speed and skill with which the court discharged its difficult task.

The court concluded that for a number of reasons which are exceptional to the mining industry— and do not apply in industry generally"— the miners at this particular time have a case for special treatment. The court in its recommendations distinguished two quite separate elements: first, the periodic increase in wages which is normal in all industries and for which it considered the National Coal Board's offers of 7 per cent. to 9 per cent. as perfectly fair; secondly, it recognised what the report calls "an adjustment factor" meaning that— a time may come in any industry when a distortion or trend has to be recognised as due for correction". The court was convinced that on this account the miners' claim should be given exceptional national treatment and that a definite and substantial adjustment in their wage levels was called for.

Taking both these factors into account, the court recommended a settlement over 16 months from 1st November, 1971, giving increases of £4.50 for face workers, £6 for other underground workers and £5 for surface workers. The court also recommended further negotiations on a number of other issues.

During the course of Friday there were further negotiations between the N.U.M. and the National Coal Board. A number of points within the framework of the Wilberforce Report and also an issue affecting subsidised transport arrangements were agreed, but the N.U.M. pressed for an increase of £1 over and above the increases recommended in the report for workers other than those at the face. The National Coal Board rejected this claim. Talks continued at 10 Downing Street, where the Prime Minister made it clear that the Government supported the board in rejecting the claim for the extra £1. In the event, the N.U.M. dropped this claim but negotiated a concession with the board related to the 5-day week bonus.

With the exception of this concession and that relating to subsidised transport, all the supplementary issues agreed between the board and the N.U.M. were either consequential on the Wilberforce recommendations or were matters which the report recommended should be settled by negotiation.

The union is now carrying out a ballot of its membership and has suspended picketing. It is expected that the ballot result will be known by next Friday. I am sure all sides of the House will join in hoping that the settlement will be endorsed.

The Wilberforce Report emphasises that inflation presents a most serious threat to the standards of living of everyone". It is, therefore, essential that the country as a whole, and in particular all concerned with pay negotiations, should accept that the level of the coal mining settlement is, as the Wilberforce Court explains, due to reasons which are exceptional and do not apply to industry generally. It will continue to be the Government's firm policy, in the interests of greater price stability for the whole community, that the overriding need is to ensure moderation in wage settlements.

Mr. Harold Lever

Although we must defer in the public interest the detailed examination and criticism of what has happened, may I take this opportunity of saying on behalf of the Labour Party that we earnestly hope that the settlement recommended by the mineworkers' leaders will be acceptd by their members and that we believe this to be the desire of the country generally?

Without wishing to undertake the duties of a debate may I put two questions to the Secretary of State? First, is he aware that, despite what he says at the conclusion of his statement to the effect that the Wilberforce award is no warrant for other people to escalate their claims based upon what the miners have been awarded, it is an implicit warrant for saying that the Government cannot evade their duty to examine all claims on their merits and not seek to escape their duty by applying in the public sector a blanket arithmetical norm?

Second, has the right hon. Gentleman now come to see that, if the Government in good time before the strike had shown one-half of the understanding and sympathy for the miners' grievances and cause that Wilberforce did in a few days, and offered perhaps even one-half of the money that Wilberforce offered, the country would not have been subjected to the losses and inconvenience of this strike and the miners and the mining industry would not have been similarly subjected to all the loss that has been occasioned?

Mr. Carr

On the second part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, I do not accept his premise for one moment. There could have been a court of inquiry at a considerably earlier stage had such a course not been most strongly objected to by the miners' union. As was shown, even at this late stage, it was not at all easy for the results of the report to be accepted; and I do not believe that there was a moment when either Mr. Gormley or Mr. Daly would have, or indeed could have, accepted a settlement at a much lower level. All this talk to the effect that a much lower level of offer would have settled this dispute at a much earlier date is nonsense and is known to be nonsense by anybody closely concerned with the circumstances of this dispute.

On the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, I am glad that he underlined the exceptional nature of the Wilberforce recommendations and that they can be no warrant for anything similar anywhere else. He would realise, if he would look at the figures, that he is wrong in believing that there has been any discrimination against the public sector. The indices of earnings and weekly and hourly wage rates published by my Department—I ask him to remember that at least 80 per cent. of the input into those indices is from the private sector—show that a dc-escalation, to use the jargon word, has been occurring in the private sector as well as in the public sector. Of course there have been exceptions—for example, Chrysler—but overall there has been a de-escalation as much in the private sector as in the public sector, and it is essential that that should be so.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

Has my right hon. Friend made any representations to the National Union of Mineworkers that a full level of safety working in the collieries should be resumed immediately, even while the ballot is being held, so that the long-term damage to the industry and the loss of employment in the industry arising from this strike can at least be kept to the minimum?

Mr. Carr

This point was raised in our various talks on Friday, but it is now best to leave this sort of thing for the detailed arrangements between the National Coal Board and the union both at national and, probably even more important, at the various local levels.

Mr. Swain

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this is the first time in history that a fair deal has been given to the workers in the public sector by any Government? Will he state why the Government did not enter into the negotiations at an earlier stage, and also whether the Government intend to underwrite the whole of the expense that has been inflicted—he has used the word "inflicted"—by Wilberforce and to finance the fringe benefits so ably negotiated by the National Coal Board on Friday?

Mr. Carr

It was made clear at a stage much earlier than Friday that any recommendation of the court of inquiry would be accepted by the National Coal Board, and on Friday the Government specifically made clear that in one way and another it would be seen that the board could exercise that responsibility. As to how that is to be done and as to how much is done by prices and other methods is a subject which must be looked into very carefully.

As to the other part of the question, I do not think I can go all the way with the hon. Gentleman, but I believe he made an important point which the House would be wise to take on board. The miners always made it very clear to me, and I am sure to everybody else to whom they talked, that this very strong, bitter dispute was not a dispute of the winter of 1971–72 but a dispute arising from at least a decade of events.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

While I warmly endorse what the Wilberforce Inquiry Report states and what was stated by my right hon. Friend about the need for us all to have very much in mind the dangers of inflation, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he will give careful consideration to this point? In the light of the power workers' work-to-rule and the coal-mining dispute, we have now seen two instances where we have finished up with a court of inquiry under Lord Wilberforce. Is there not a very great danger, if we hope to get national stability—which we all yearn for—that unless we do give careful consideration to the adjustment factor right across the industry, we are likely to have a repetition of one after another of incidents of this sort, ending up with a court of inquiry? I do not ask for a definitive answer this afternoon, but I should like an assurance that my right hon. Friend will give careful consideration to this matter.

Mr. Carr

I think my hon. Friend has used some very important words. I think there must be a policy for stability, a stabilisation policy for prices. That is really what we are talking about. Of course, since last summer when, as a result of the grip which we had by then begun to get on the level of wage claims, the C.B.I. was able to take its price initiative, there have been discussions going on in the National Economic Development Council along these lines. I believe these are very important, and I very much hope that the events of the last few weeks will have given a greater sense of urgency to all the parties to this discussion in the National Economic Development Council on this problem.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we would wish to be associated with his expression of gratitude to Lord Wilberforce and his colleagues, and wish to express the hope that these proposals will be accepted?

For the future, will the right hon. Gentleman agree that delay and insensitivity, followed by confrontation and then retreat, is bad economics for the country and bad politics?

Mr. Carr

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. May I say, with respect, that it is easy when one is not involved to express these general and desirable wishes, but it is a fact of life that at no stage in this dispute—alas, until a very late stage—was there any willingness for negotiation in the normal sense of the word. This was one of the difficulties, and, as the House will see, even as late as Friday and even after a report such as that produced by the Wilberforce Court of Inquiry it was still a matter of very great difficulty to get its acceptance without an even greater confrontation which would gravely have affected the whole national interest.

Mr. John Page

In view of the equivocal statement by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Cheetham (Mr. Harold Lever) this afternoon, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he remembers that on 8th February the right hon. Gentleman said that a favourable settlement in the case of the miners must not be used by any other union for a game of industrial leapfrog? Will my right hon. Friend continue to remind him of this on future occasions?

Mr. Carr

I welcome the statement which the right hon. Gentleman made in that debate. I am reminded that the right hon. Gentleman repeated it outside the House over the weekend. I think this is immensely important. What we are engaged in is not a battle against miners or against any other section. What we are engaged in is a battle against prices, and that is a battle for the whole community. I believe that everybody, including Her Majesty's Opposition and the trade unions, must come in and cooperate in this battle for the whole community against rising prices.

Mr. C. Pannell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his use of a military metaphor in connection with this subject was most unfortunate? If he is going to use military metaphors, it is obvious that he badly underestimated the strength of what he would call his enemy. Is he aware that we on these benches do not accept his statement? Is he further aware that we consider the Government's record and his record as one of missed opportunities, bungled undertakings and inept negotiations?

Mr. Carr

Let me repeat that my only enemy, the Government's only enemy and the community's only enemy is rising prices. That is the only enemy we are fighting. As the Labour Party knew quite well when it was in power, labour costs account for the bulk of the rising prices which the ordinary consumer has to pay. The Labour Government stated that in categorical terms in their last White Paper on this subject before they went to the country. That is the only enemy, and it is the enemy which we must all fight. I believe that those who do not join in that fight will find that the community is very much against them.

Sir G. Nabarro

Would my right hon. Friend explain now and in the context of rising prices how this settlement involving an added cost of £100 million to the National Coal Board can he prevented from causing steel, gas, electricity and railways all to rise in sympathy with the coal award? Will he explain and emphasise that the only true bastion against rising prices in public industry is increased production?

Mr. Carr

On the last point of increased production, I would have added effective competition, which I still believe is the best safeguard for the community against prices.

On my hon. Friend's first point, he mentioned £100 million; I think the cost is probably £90 million rather than £100 million. It is, however, still a very large sum, and it will be very serious in its effect on the industry and on its prices over the years ahead.

Mr. Harper

May I refer the Minister to paragraph 54 on page 12 of the Wilberforce Report: …pension provision and redundancy arrangements should be reviewed. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that after 50 years in the pits our miners get only 30s. maximum pension? What help are the Government prepared to give to set negotiations going in order to arrive at a satisfactory and realistic pension scheme?

Mr. Carr

If the hon. Gentleman were to consult the leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers, he would find, I think, that they were of opinion that their preliminary talks with the National Coal Board on all the matters mentioned by Wilberforce went as far as they could possibly have been expected to go at this stage, and they are regarding that progress as satisfactory.

Mr. Tapsell

May I confirm to my right hon. Friend that the considerable number of my constituents who live on small and relatively fixed incomes fear deeply that this settlement, however justified when taken in isolation, will, if not treated as a special case, prove a real personal disaster and tragedy to them? In order to prevent his happening, would it not be sensible for the Government now to see whether it is possible to set up rather more formalised machinery to deal with special cases in future?

Mr. Carr

It is not just a special case; it is a wholly exception case. [Laughter.] That is very important, and anyone who laughs at it had better think carefully about what he is laughing at. I refer my hon. Friend to what I said a few moments ago to my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) about the discussions which have been going on since last July within the National Economic Development Council. We must think carefully and have regard to the unfruitful and disappointing experience of succesive Governments in relation to attempts to control these matters through formal machinery and formal undertakings, above all when such undertakings are backed with statutory power. This is a matter of overall concern, and one must hope that if some good may come out of the last few weeks, it will be that all parties, the trade unions and everyone else, will now see that this is a more urgent matter than, perhaps, they have been prepared to recognise hitherto.

Mr. Roy Jenkins

Reverting to the Secretary of State's reply to the first sup plementary question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Cheetham (Mr. Harold Lever), was the right hon. Gentleman seriously intending to suggest that a Wilberforce-type settlement, endorsed by the Government, would have been available to the miners three, four or five weeks ago without this strike? Second, as the right hon. Gentleman has constantly reiterated that the only enemy of the Government and the British people is inflation—which, in itself, will command widespread support—will he explain how valuable an auxiliary is the Housing Finance Bill under the direction of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment?

Mr. Carr

It would be wrong for me to go into the detailed arguments, but the whole purpose, or certainly one of the principal purposes, of the Housing Finance Bill is to give more help to the lower paid and less well off. That it will achieve. In so far as the Wilberforce recommendations, for example, are directed, above all, to helping people at the lower end of the scale, the Bill will assist that same purpose.

I come now to the right hon. Gentleman's first question. Although I cannot foretell what a court of inquiry appointed at any given time and entirely independent and unfettered would have reported, I am saying that the National Union of Mineworkers could most certainly have had a court of inquiry at an earlier stage had its opposition to it been less stringent than in fact it was; and that is not only my opinion about the stringency of the opposition, for it was exactly confirmed by Mr. Feather, too.

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