HC Deb 23 October 1972 vol 843 cc786-91

Mr. Rhodes (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will appoint a conciliation officer to intervene in the industrial dispute at Swan Hunter Shipbuilding Consortium on Tyneside in view of the fact that there appears to be a willingness on the part of all sides of the dispute locally to accept such machinery to settle the matter, which has already resulted in several thousands of redundancies and unemployment in the area.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Maurice Macmillan)

Since 5th September, the 3,800 boilermakers employed by Swan Hunter on the Tyne have been on strike in support of a claim for a wage increase of 171 per cent. The strike was unofficial, in breach of the industry's agreed procedure for the resolution of disputes, and sought to reopen the existing wage agreement with the company which runs to May, 1974. Some 2,400 other employees have had to be laid off in consequence.

From the outset, the company was prepared to begin negotiations on a cost of living claim provided that normal working was resumed and the agreed procedures followed. The strikers persistently ignored their union executive's instructions to return to work.

On 18th October, negotiations began between the company and the union, with the shop stewards in attendance. The company finally offered an immediate increase of £2.50 a week with a further increase of £1 a week in June, 1973; the agreement to last until the current agreement ends in May, 1974. This offer was rejected, the union refusing to put it to its members. I understand that the union negotiators indicated that they would settle for an immediate increase of £3 a week, with a further increase of £1.50 in January. They then made the strike official.

It was only at this point that the union requested conciliation.

In considering this request against the history of the dispute and the known attitude of the parties, I have had to conclude that the involvement of officials of my Department would be wholly inconsistent with safeguarding the objectives agreed by the CBI and TUC in the talks in which they are currently engaged with the Government. It would be inconsistent also with the Government's expectation that all those concerned with pay and price determination will not take any action inconsistent with the proposals made to secure those objectives.

Mr. Rhodes

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that this is now an official strike, that his rigid adherence to the £2 mark shows an attitude stubborn to the point of utter stupidity, that, after seven weeks of strike, this great Tyneside industry is sinking into a morass of confusion, and the management, may I say, is not all that happy with the way the Government are handling the matter? Does he not appreciate that what the Government have decided will jeopardise even the negotiations with the Trades Union Congress later this week? Is he not playing with fire in such a ham-fisted way that he will burn his fingers unless he does something different pretty quickly?

Mr. Macmillan

If anyone is playing with fire, it is the hon. Gentleman. He has pointed out that the strike is now official. For seven weeks, it was an unofficial strike, and then, when the union leaders were unable to get their members to agree to their instructions, they followed the militant element and made the strike official on Friday, 20th October. The hon. Gentleman is endorsing this attitude of weak leadership by the attitude which he is taking in the House.

Mr. R. W. Elliott

is my right hon. Friend aware that the company continues to suggest that it is wholly desirous of settling this matter? Does he consider that any attempt to gain political capital out of this situation, at national or local level, is to be deplored?

Mr. Macmillan

Yes, I do deplore it, and that is precisely why I answered as I did the supplementary question put by the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Rhodes). If the company is willing to continue negotiations and talks with the unions concerned, I hope that both parties will bear in mind the Government's request that the objectives which have been jointly agreed by the CBI, the TUC and the Government will not be prejudged in the course of these negotiations.

Mr. Prentice

Will not the Secretary of State clearly acknowledge that, on Wednesday, after 11 hours of talks in which the gap between the two sides was narrowed to the figures which he gave just now, a situation was reached in which the request for conciliation would have been accepted in any normal circumstances, and would have been accepted but for his own hamfisted attempt to preempt the result of the talks with the CBI and the TUC?

Will he further acknowledge that the experience of all Governments has been that any attempt to distort the role of conciliation officers and turn them into policemen for Goverment wage polices leads not to reduced inflation but only to the discredit of the conciliation service? Even if such an attitude were justified after agreement with the CBI and the TUC—which I do not concede for a moment—it is certainly not justified in advance, and will not the right hon. Gentleman's clumsy attempt to proceed in this way rob the Government at Thursday's talks of whatever credibility they might have had and damage the prospects of the talks themselves?

Mr. Macmillan

I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman's diagnosis. The conciliation services of my Department are in no way discredited, as is shown by the fact that there has been more demand for them in 1971, and continuing into 1972, than ever before, and that a higher proportion of those requests have come from union sources.

Requests for conciliation have always been considered by successive Governments in the light of all the prevailing circumstances. There is no change here. Part of the prevailing circumstances is the request by the Government not to prejudge the outcome of talks between the Government, the TUC and the CBI by acting in a manner inconsistent with any agreement which is likely to be reached.

Dame Irene Ward

Will my right hon. Friend observe to the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Rhodes) that it would be better if, before putting Private Notice Questions, he understood some of the real facts on Tyneside? However difficult industrial relations may be on Tyneside—and they are quite difficult—would it not be much better if the hon. Member stopped trying to intervene in things about which he knows very little?

Mr. Macmillan

My hon. Friend has given a harsh judgment, but I would support her general view that at a time like this such interventions are not helpful to the eventual settlement of these disputes.

Mr. Robert C. Brown

Is the Secretary of State aware that my constituent Mr. Dan McGarvey, the president of the Boilermakers' Society, has worked long and hard to try to resolve this dispute, and that he sees the Minister's action last week as clearly sabotaging his efforts? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that 2,000 of the 3,000 members of my union, the General and Municipal Workers, have been laid off as a direct result of the dispute, and that we do not think any more kindly of the right hon. Gentleman than the boilermakers do at the present time. Will not the right hon. Gentleman's attempt to pre-empt the discussions between the TUC, the CBI and the Government later this week manifestly make the reaching of successful conclusions more difficult?

Mr. Macmillan

I am not pre-empting the outcome of any discussions. I am trying to prevent other people from so doing. The hon. Gentleman referred to the duration of the strike and the number of people put out of work as a consequence. This is, of course, a serious matter, but there were seven weeks in which the boilermakers' union was unable to prevent an unofficial strike putting members of his union out of work, and it was only when it was clearly demonstrated that that was impossible that the leaders of the boilermakers' union were forced to join with the militants and make the strike official, because they were not able to keep the union to the agreed procedures.

Sir P. Bryan

Will my right hon. Friend say what were the exact reasons the union leaders gave for declaring the strike official when they had declined to declare it official for seven weeks?

Mr. Macmillan

I was not aware of any particular reasons given for so doing, other than that they were unable to prevent it going on.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Throughout Tyneside, with the exception, perhaps, of the constituency of the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward), there is a general feeling that intervention by the Government's officers might have been of value and of help. Should not we use the opportunity when we came so near to an agreement?

Mr. Macmillan

The hon. Member is forgetting that the official strike started only very recently after a very long unofficial strike. It started as a result of the inability of the union leadership to ensure that the correct procedures were complied with. In those circumstances, and in the circumstances of the discussions which will take place on Thursday, I do not believe that an intervention such as the hon. Members describes would have been helpful.