HC Deb 02 May 1972 vol 836 cc196-203
Q5. Mr. Atkinson

asked the Prime Minister if the public speech made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Thursday, 13th April, 1972, in London on industrial matters represents the policy of the Government.

Q7. Mr. Sheldon

asked the Prime Minister if the public speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 13th April in London on economic matters represents Government policy.

Q8. Mr. Duffy

asked the Prime Minister if the public speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on industrial disputes at the Conservative Political Centre on 13th April, 1972, represents Government policy.

Q9. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Prime Minister if the public speech made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in London on Thursday, 13th April, on wages represents the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

Q10. Mr. Skinner

asked the Prime Minister if the public speech made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 13th April to the Conservative Political Centre on wages represents Government policy.

Q11. Mr. Ashton

asked the Prime Minister whether the public speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in London on 13th April concerning industrial action represents the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

Q12. Mr. Joel Barnett

asked the Prime Minister if the public speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the Conservative Political Centre in London on 13th April on prices and incomes represents Government policy.

Q13. Mr. Meacher

asked the Prime Minister if the public speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 13th April at the Conservative Political Centre on industrial matters represents the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

The Prime Minister

Entirely, Sir.

Mr. Atkinson

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree, contrary to the views expressed by the Chancellor on that occasion, that the railway settlement should make a contribution to the creation of extra jobs on the railways? Does he further agree that the Government are morally bound to provide a substantial amount of money for this purpose, so enabling men on the railways, after the new agreement is settled, to work fewer hours for a reasonably decent wage at the end of the week, and thus enabling more people to be employed on the railways?

The Prime Minister

I understand that the Railways Board has been carrying on discussions, separately from the question of wage negotiations, about the numbers to be employed on the railways and the question of redundancies, but I understand that those discussions have not yet reached finality.

Mr. Sheldon

As the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that the CBI price initiative had been remarkably successful and as there is some doubt about the future of that policy, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to announce some sort of policy on prices and not to be content to follow the initiatives of others?

The Prime Minister

The CBI policy has been remarkably successful because it has been effectively policed by the CBI. In my view there would be no doubt about the continuance of that policy if there were an equal response in wage negotiations from the trade unions.

Mr. Duffy

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his right hon. Friend the Chancellor converted the railway dispute into a political conflict? Is he aware that until the Chancellor spoke that Thursday evening the railway negotiations had been following a known form, with no suggestion of political motives, but that as a result of his speech the Chancellor raised the temperature and soured the whole climate of industrial relations in this country?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept anything the hon. Gentleman said. In fact, in that part of his speech dealing with the wage dispute on the railways my right hon. Friend urged the unions to go to arbitration. The unions still maintained the position that they would not use their own arbitration machinery and, as the House knows, later, on the Saturday, they accepted an individual form of arbitration on the part of Mr. Jarratt though they then rejected his award.

Mr. Sandys

Is it not a fact that the Chancellor's robust remarks reflected the feelings of the overwhelming majority of the British people?

The Prime Minister

That is undeniably true.

Mr. William Hamilton

Did the right hon. Gentleman know and approve of the use of the word "blackmail" by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in that speech? Did he know and approve of the form in which the speech was made, and would he be prepared to use the same language about the BEA pilots' claim?

The Prime Minister

At the end of his speech the Chancellor put to the nation the general question whether it was to be governed by a democratic assembly here in Parliament or held to blackmail by individual sections of the community. This was a perfectly proper question to put to the nation, and the nation has made it absolutely plain that it will not be put in the latter position. Naturally, I approve entirely of what the Chancellor said. If right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite want to be held to blackmail by sections of the community, they had better tell the country so.

Mr. Skinner

Is not it despicable to label £15-a-week railwaymen as blackmailers while at the same time the property speculators are printing their own money? Are we to have a cooling off period on the stock exchange?

The Prime Minister

The offer made by British Railways Board would mean that no railway men would earn less than £20.50 a week, and that is what the TUC has been asking for.

Mr. St. John-Steyas

Descending from the railway dispute, are there not some highly important industrial issues which can constructively be discussed between the Government and the trade unions? Can my right hon. Friend say what progress has been made in that respect?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. In the two recent meetings I have had with members of the TUC General Council, we have been able to go over almost the whole range of industrial matters, and particularly those of industrial relations.

Mr. Orme

What did Jack Jones say?

The Prime Minister

I am not prepared to reveal what was said in confidence by any member of the General Council. That would not be a proper thing for me to do. But if Mr. Jones wishes to say publicly what he said at the meeting, I have no objection of any kind to his doing so. It was agreed that we should examine specific items which affect the trade unions, the Government and industry in particular. I am glad to say that arrangements for this are under way.

Mr. Ashton

Was this not a hastily contrived meeting to give the Chancellor of the Exchequer a platform to bash the unions? Would not a cooling-off period have a better chance of working if the Government did not hot up the oven first?

The Prime Minister

It was right for the Chancellor to make this statement about arbitration at the time. There would have been no point in making it when the unions had finally decided not to accept arbitration in any circumstances. After the Chancellor's speech, they accepted arbitration.

Mr. Joel Barnett

Is it honest for the Government to suggest that the railways or other nationalised industries are free to settle their own wage claims when the Government have made it absolutely clear that they will intervene and are intervening directly? Would not it be more honest and open to negotiate directly, rather than to suggest that the unions are free to settle their own claims?

The Prime Minister

No government have negotiated directly with the unions in a nationalised industry. On the other hand, every Government have accepted that they have a responsibility in connection with the financing of the nationalised industries, both for investment and for current expenditure. The view expressed by the hon. Gentleman is not the view of the Chairman of the Board of British Railways, as he has made absolutely clear —[Interruption.] He may no longer be popular with right hon. and hon. Members opposite, but he served them well while they were in Government. I want to add one point made by Mr. Jarratt —that a negotiation requires negotiation by both sides. That is what is now required in this situation, and not that a statement should be made, "This demand must be met or else ", because that is not a negotiation. What is now required is a negotiation.

Mr. Fry

Would my right hon. Friend agree that it is most interesting that the railway union leaders refused a ballot of their members? Could it not be that they felt that their members would agree that the Jarratt award was a most fair award and that they are afraid of what their members would say to their union leaders?

The Prime Minister

That is a matter for the union leaders to decide in so far as it is dealt with in their organisations. I believe that the railway unions do not have in their rules arrangements for taking ballots. But that is a matter on which union leaders themselves must decide. Naturally, I should prefer that each union had the necessary arrangements to put into action if it wished.

Mr. Meacher

As the Chancellor of the Exchequer expressed such concern in that speech about hardship caused by industrial action to the poor, the unemployed and the retired, why did the Government, only a month before, in a £2,000 million give-away Budget, give only £1 million to the poor while giving £300 million to the rich through cutting the tax on unearned income by almost half?

The Prime Minister

The fact is that the Chancellor took another two and three quarter million people, who are obviously in the lowest income range, out of taxation altogether. In the pay packets this week there will be an extra £1—the increase in personal allowances—which affects every working person in the community.

Mr. Thorpe

In fairness to the Chancellor, is the Prime Minister aware that we all realise that the Tory Party felt on this occasion that it had to let off steam and that the Chancellor was the nearest available vehicle for so doing?

Mr. Skinner

The right hon. Gentleman will be voting for the Tories today.

Mr. Thorpe

Disregarding the fact that I intend to be consistent in my principles about Europe—an issue which would be out of order in this supplementary question—may I ask whether the Prime Minister is aware that I have yet to find anyone who thinks that the timing of the Chancellor's speech was at all helpful to an intended settlement? Does the Prime Minister agree with that? If he disagrees with it, does that not indicate that we have a new system of confrontation in industrial affairs, which seems to be a rather new departure?

The Prime Minister

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman will not allow himself or his colleagues to be put off from adhering to their principles and carrying them through in action. I am sorry to have to disagree with him, but a very large number of people believe that the Chan- cellor was right to say what he did at the time at which he said it. With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, he cannot show that this speech in any way damaged the discusions which were being carried on. As I said, the Chancellor urged arbitration and, on the Saturday night, a form of arbitration, though not that agreed between the railways and the unions, was adopted. Therefore, it is very difficult to maintain the thesis which the right hon. Gentleman puts forward. Moreover, there is not a confrontation between the Government and the trade unions. That was quite clear from the meetings which I have had with them over the past month, both before and after the Budget. But surely it is right that the nation should consider the way in which industrial relations are carried on and the way in which negotiations are conducted, and that this should be done in the context of the law passed by this Parliament.

Sir G. Nabarro

While strongly supporting what the Chancellor said, does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister realise that in the context of this railway dispute and, probably, of future transport disputes, it is impossible to deal with the position properly unless we deal at the same time with the practice called working to rule? That is the nub of the matter. The law cannot decide that. Would not my right hon. Friend include that in his specific request to the trade union leaders?

The Prime Minister

This is undoubtedly a mater which could be discussed between the unions and the Railways Board. But when my hon. Friend says that this has not been dealt with, surely, whether one agreed with it or not, the court dealt very clearly with the specific point when it instructed the railway unions to stop working to rule and to return to work. As one has always known they would, because they are law-abiding, they carried out the request of the court and returned to work.

Mr. Prentice

Is there any precedent for a situation in which a Cabinet Minister, the Secretary of State for Employment, was meeting both sides and trying in those last few days to get them to a position where moderate counsels would prevail and no industrial action would take place when at the same time a senior colleague of his made a speech which was so partisan and one-sided that it made it almost impossible for moderate counsels to prevail'? Is not the only thing to be said in favour of that speech its location —the Conservative political centre—which underlines the fact that the Government were trying to get every ounce of political capital they could out of the hardships imposed upon the travelling public?

The Prime Minister

Ministers are entitled to comment on any industrial dispute at any time. I see no reason why they should not. But the right hon. Gentleman again states that this speech damaged the negotiations carried on by my right hon. Friend. The plain fact is that up to that point the unions had not moved. After that point they did not move but they accepted a form of arbitration. This is what the Chancellor urged upon them.

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