HC Deb 21 November 1972 vol 846 cc1082-7
Q3. Mr. Norman Lamont

asked the Prime Minister if he will seek to arrange a meeting with the Trades Union Congress to discuss a long-term policy for controlling cost-push inflation.

Q7. Mr. Adley

asked the Prime Minister when next he intends to invite leaders of the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry to meet him, in order to continue with the joint discussions.

Q12. Mr. Edward Taylor

asked the Prime Minister what plans he has for holding further discussions with the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress on inflation.

Q14. Mr. Meacher

asked the Prime Minister what further plans he now has to meet the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry.

The Prime Minister

I am ready to meet the TUC and the CBI either together or separately at any time.

Mr. Lamont

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a number of opinion polls have suggested that there is a wide gap between the opinions of members of trade unions and the opinions of leaders of trade unions on the subject of the Industrial Relations Act? Is not this impression confirmed by the experience of the two trade unions which have bothered to consult their members about the issue of registration under the Industrial Relations Act? Will my right hon. Friend, therefore, with the backing of both the majority of the public and a substantial number of trade unionists, continue to insist that the main substance of the Industrial Relations Act is not negotiable?

The Prime Minister

I have told Parliament, as I told the TUC and the CBI, that after the Act has been operated for a reasonable time, and has been fully in operation so that it can be judged properly, we are prepared to consider any amendments that they wish to propose. We have not so far received any proposals of this kind.

Mr. Harold Walker

When the right hon. Gentleman meets the TUC will he explain how and why he has cut unemployment at a stroke by fiddling the books? Is it not clear from the Government's instant acceptance of the Civil Service report, without consultation with the TUC or anyone else, that by eliminating from the figures—for the first time in their history—the temporarily stopped, the right hon. Gentleman is seeking to deceive the public and the TUC?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir, and I think that the country will be interested to know that the hon. Gentleman is deriding the very great fall in unemployment which has taken place in the past three months. The analysis of unemployment is set out in the White Paper, and everyone knows that when one is dealing with the unemployment figures from the point of view of running the economy and what measures are needed to be taken for it, the temporarily stopped, who are mostly the result of those who are on strike for one reason or another—*

Mr. Harold Walker


The Prime Minister

There is no point in the hon. Gentleman's working himself up into unnecessary hysteria. Perhaps he would look rationally at the figures in the White Paper, in which case he would have a proper basis for dealing with the economy.

Mr. Harold Wilson rose—

Mr. Speaker

There are hon. Members who have Questions on the Order Paper.

Mr. Edward Taylor

As the health and strength of the economy will depend greatly on getting the maximum benefit from technical advance and modernisation, will my right hon. Friend discuss with the TUC and the CBI some of the recent difficulties on the railways, where a major technical development is being held up by trade unions?

The Prime Minister

Discussions are taking place this afternoon between the union and British Railways. I should not like to comment now on specific aspects of this matter. On the more general question, I indicated to the TUC and the CBI a long time ago that I am prepared to discuss all the questions of adjustments to the changes which are the result of the introduction of modern technology.

Mr. Adley

When my right hon. Friend gets round to discussing the agenda for his next meeting with the TUC and the CBI, would he try to persuade the TUC to allow the discussion of certain items which call for positive assistance from the TUC rather than the Government? Will my right hon. Friend raise the point of industrial subversion, which troubles many people in the trade union movement?

The Prime Minister

In the tripartite discussions that we had, as I think I indicated to the House at an earlier stage, we covered a very wide ground, including the question of industrial relations; but in the final part of the talks we were discussing the proposal that the Government had put forward and the changes which the CBI and the TUC wished to make.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Will the right hon. Gentleman look at the question of the unemployment figures? I agree that the matter should be looked at in a cool manner. Is he aware that the temporarily stopped figures have been traditionally published now for half a century and that, apart from strikes and the effects of bad weather in winter, they have often been regarded by analysts of these figures as an important indication of changes in trends, and short-time working, up or down, ahead of the wholly unemployed figures?

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that the gravest doubts have been cast upon the registration figures by the publication of the census figures? This has been taken up probably since the Government's working party reported. In my constituency I have had correspondence now over six months with two of the right hon. Gentleman's Secretaries of State about a discrepancy of some 23 per cent. in Kirby of those who were not working in the census week against 10 per cent. or 11 per cent. registered unemployed, and they cannot explain the discrepancy. In these circumstances in relation to the importance of this—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."]. It may be too long, but this high level of unemployment has lasted for too long. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider referring the White Paper to a Select Committee? We are all concerned with accurate publication of the figures, and so is the country.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman will agree that the civil servants are also concerned with the accurate publication of the figures. This examination was carried out over some time with the Central Statistical Office as well as the statistical departments of individual Ministries. Regarding consideration by a Select Committee, I shall ask the Leader of the House to consider that. I have absolutely no objection to considering it.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman approached this problem in a cool way, because many other aspects are now developing, in particular, students who want vacation employment, and the number of students in universities and technical colleges amounts to several hundred thousands, and this could inflate unemployment figures at a particular time when it does not have a direct relationship to the economy as a whole.

Regarding the alleged discrepancies between census figures and the unemployment figures this is dealt with in Section 5 of the White Paper. A number of things go to explain the discrepancy, particularly those who are sick and those who are in between jobs and, therefore, naturally not registered as unemployed. The right hon. Gentleman's complaint about the figures in his constituency has been dealt with in detailed correspondence with him. I am sorry that there is this difference.

Mr. Harold Wilson

The figure was 23 per cent., against 10 per cent. or 11 per cent. registered unemployed—a much wider difference than in neighbouring districts. All I got from the two right hon. Gentlemen who studied this was that there was an error in the census, which reduced the figure to 21½ per cent. There is still 10 per cent. unemployment to explain in my constituency, which is a matter of interest not only to civil servants but to all of us.

The Prime Minister

I am quite prepared to look into the matter in regard to the right hon. Gentleman's constituency if he still does not regard the explanation as satisfactory.

Q4. Mr. Skinner

asked the Prime Minister if he is satisfied with the progress of his Government's policies to combat inflation; and if he will make a statement.

The Prime Minister

I would refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer which I gave in reply to a similar Question from the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) on 7th November.—[Vol. 845, c. 814–22.]

Mr. Skinner

If the Housing Finance Act is non-inflationary and fair, as the right hon. Gentleman and so many of his colleagues tell us, will the Prime Minister say why the October retail price index shows the highest ever increase for 18 months, council house rent increases accounting for half of that increase? Why is it that when he talks about not touching this particular piece of legislation, the new Minister for Housing and Construction tells us that 150,000 private tenants will have their increases postponed from 1st January? Why is he making fish of one and flesh of the other? Has he got something in for council tenants?

The Prime Minister

There is no difference in the arrangements for private tenants which the hon. Gentleman described and to which my hon. Friend referred. Regarding the private controlled tenants who are passing into the fair rent regime and the increases due to occur on 1st January, that is covered by the standstill. The other increases in rents took place before the standstill, in October.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

On the general question of negotiations, will my right hon. Friend keep in mind that his willingness to meet the trade unions and the CBI will be well received, because many are accepting the present statutory squeeze only in the hope that during the interim there will be a voluntary agreement which will get the right answer?

The Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I made it plain at the beginning that we would welcome further talks with both the TUC and the CBI—even if they feel at the moment that they are not able entirely to support a voluntary arrangement—and for them to discuss with us the second phase. I repeat that assurance now.

Mr. John Mendelson

Will the Prime Minister now report to the House that in the recent discussions with the TUC he admitted at one crucial stage of the discussions that in the second half of next year there will be an increase beyond 5 per cent. in certain prices, including food prices and, having made that admission, he refused to give any guarantee that the Government were prepared to take special measures to deal with the situation? Was that not the crux of the matter, and the reason why the negotiations foundered.

The Prime Minister

No, the hon. Member is wrong. I did not give any estimate of the course of movements of food prices next year. We said that the undertakings given by the CBI—to keep their members' price increases down to 4 per cent.—and by the retailers, would allow us to take an average of 5 per cent. for all prices. As a safeguard there would have been a threshold agreement at 6 per cent., so that if prices had gone further than the TUC, CBI or the Government anticipated, the threshhold would be there as a guarantee to all workers.