HC Deb 14 February 1973 vol 850 cc1283-93
Mr. Prentice

Before I ask my Private Notice Question, Mr. Speaker, may I raise a point of order? The Question was originally submitted to the Secretary of State for Employment, but I notice that it is to be answered by the Minister for Industry. I realise that you would not normally give a ruling about which Minister should answer a Question, but Members throughout the House are deeply concerned about the effects on their constituents of what is the most serious industrial situation we have had for a long time. In these circumstances, we should have had a reply from the Minister directly responsible for industrial relations.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman has put that forward as a point of order, but I think that he knows that it is not a matter for me.

Mr. Prentice

I beg leave to ask the Minister for Industry a Question of which I have given notice to the Secretary of State for Employment, namely, if he will make a statement on the dispute in the gas industry.

The Minister for Industry (Mr. Tom Boardman)

As a result of industrial action British Gas has already had to stop the supply of town gas to several hundred large industrial users and to put in hand pressure reductions affecting a majority of domestic town gas consumers.

The full extent of industrial action and of its consequences has not yet been firmly established, but it is already clear that it will significantly interrupt production and create unemployment in other industries.

The management of the industry and the unions are working together to try to maintain a safe system. Nevertheless, it cannot be guaranteed that there will be no risk to gas consumers. The potential risks are explosions from the effects of reduced gas pressure, millions of homes suffering discomfort and the threat to the welfare of the old and the ill.

The Government deplore this action and earnestly urge the gas unions to accept the restraints necessary to overcome inflation.

Mr. Prentice

I am afraid that the reply only confirms the impression given by the failure of the Secretary of State to answer at the Dispatch Box, that the Government welcome the chance to have a confrontation and are deliberately abdicating from their normal rôle, which is to try to conciliate in a serious dispute.

May I ask the Minister to confirm these two points for the record? First, that in the last five years workers in the gas industry have co-operated in massive technological changes which have had, among other things, the effect of bringing about a tremendous increase in productivity—I am told that there has been a 200 per cent. productivity increase in two years—redundancies to the extent of 22,500 men, cheaper gas for the consumer and a substantial surplus for the industry. Those facts should be put on the record and confirmed by the Minister. Secondly, that the industry has an exceptional record of co-operation and industrial peace and that there has not been any nationally organised industrial action since the National Joint Industrial Council was formed 54 years ago.

I am glad that the Minister mentioned that the unions were co-operating on the safety aspect. Will the hon. Gentleman go a bit further? Will he acknowledge that the decisions made about industrial action, which started at midnight, were deliberately made in a moderate form so as to conform to safety requirements? Will he confirm from his knowledge that the leaders of the unions have sent the strictest possible instructions to all their district officials about safety? Will he confirm that the union leaders have had talks with Age Concern and have worked out a six-point plan with that organisation for safeguarding the lives of elderly consumers?

Therefore, will the Minister pay a tribute to what the union leaders are trying to do in that respect instead of engaging in the crude propaganda in which he engaged on the radio yesterday when he had the effrontery to say that some of the most moderate trade union leaders in Britain were threatening the lives of members of the community?

May I make this appeal to the Government—and at least there is a Minister from the Department of Employment on the Front Bench—that they might try again one of the traditional techniques of resolving differences: by making conciliation services available, which have been refused so far, or by thinking again about the proposal for a court of inquiry, or by making a positive response to the unions' appeal yesterday, namely, that there was a possible approach by way of hard guarantees that the new Pay Board would consider the merits of this case at an early stage with a view to implementation early in phase 3?

Can the Minister confirm a report which reached me just before I rose to ask my Question—and therefore I have no knowledge about it—namely, that the TUC representatives may be meeting the Prime Minister today? If that is so, will the Government take the opportunity to discuss with the TUC a peaceful settlement of this dispute? Will they try to achieve peace in the dispute and not insist upon having a confrontation of their own choosing?

Mr. Boardman

I answered the Question because I have ministerial responsibility for safety, which I hope is the matter which concerns Members on both sides of the House. It is a matter of immediate and direct concern. It was highly irresponsible of the right hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) to suggest that we were seeking confrontation. I should have thought that in the present delicate situation, with the question of danger and safety being discussed, to make the suggestion which he made was quite unnecessary, unreasonable and irresponsible.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I agreed that the workers in the gas industry had co-operated in bringing about massive changes. They have. However, I remind him that the offer which they have just refused represents a larger increase than they were offered last year. It is one of the largest increases made in the history of the gas industry. The suggestion that they have been offered nothing must be refuted, and I refute it now.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the scale of redundancies. During the time that the unions were saying that they were barred from discussions they were, at my request, continuing discussions about redundancy payment terms. I am glad to say that a week ago they concluded discussions with the Gas Corporation on improved redundancy terms, which are outside the restraints imposed in the White Paper.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I agreed that the workers in the industry had an exceptional record in industrial relations. They have, and it is a great tragedy that that record is being broken now.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to confirm that the workers were taking all the action necessary to secure safety. I regret to say that they have not been able to guarantee that the risks and hazards will not be increased by the action that is being taken because, as they have pointed out, responsibility is delegated to various areas, and the action being taken in various areas is uneven and erratic. It was made clear that if their objective were to make the strike effective it could not be reconciled with making it safe, because to be effective it must operate on the consumers. To operate on the consumers must mean a reduction in gas pressure, which must mean hazards—and the right hon. Gentleman knows that. Therefore, whatever protestations have been made about safety—and I accept that large numbers of gas workers are very concerned with what is happening and about the dangers—I cannot, regrettably, guarantee that safety is assured.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I would pay tribute to the unions for their work. I would pay tribute to them for their past record, but I must express my deep regret at the course which they have now elected to take.

The right hon. Gentleman asked why there was not a court of inquiry. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there can be no purpose in a court of inquiry when there is nothing to inquire into.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] The workers have been offered by the Gas Corporation the maximum amount that is permitted under the White Paper. They have been given the choice of dividing that amount as they wish. There is no further room for a court of inquiry. They have been given the assurance, which is implicit in paragraph 33 of the White Paper and in what the Prime Minister said on 24th January, that they will have an opportunity during stage 2 to put their case to the Pay Board when it is established.

Mr. John Hall

In view of the confusion that seems to exist in the public mind about average earnings in the gas industry—a confusion which seems to be shared by hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition benches—will the Minister tell the House what are the average earnings in the gas industry and how they compare with, say, average earnings in the electricity industry?

Mr. Boardman

As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost), the average earnings in the gas industry are £35.50—[HON. MEMBERS: "How many hours?"]—excluding those whose pay is affected by absence. The average earnings in the electricity industry in April 1972 were just under £35. The annual increase to the electricity industry is 8.6 per cent. per annum on average earnings in April 1972 of just under £35. The increase that has been offered to and rejected by the gas industry is about 8 per cent. of average earnings of £35.50.

Mr. Thorpe

In view of the gravity which the Minister rightly attaches to the situation, will he accept that there is no personal criticism of him when I ask whether he is aware that the House expected a statement to be made by a member of the Cabinet?

Secondly, are we to deduce from the Minister's statement that no conciliation is going on, that there are no talks and that there is no intention on the part of the Government that there should be such conciliation? If that is so, why not?

Finally, is the Minister aware that the people of this country are getting tired of industrial relations under both Governments on the basis of confrontation followed by capitulation, which solves nothing and will ultimately destroy the political fabric of the country?

Mr. Boardman

The right hon. Gentleman asks me whether there is any conciliation going on. I have made it clear to the General Secretary of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, and to other unions, that they have the right to put their case to the Pay Board when it is established. If they wish to discuss that aspect with a view to the removal of some uncertainty there appears to be on their part, I or my right hon. Friend will of course welcome those discussions. There is no room for manoeuvre. There is no room to move from the offer that has been made by the Gas Corporation, which is the limit permitted within the White Paper.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about industrial relations generally. I am sure I shall have his support in saying that it has been the wish of the Government that the TUC should co-operate in these policies. Co-operation would have given the TUC the opportunity to express its point of view and have enabled the Government to have the benefit of its opinion and advice on various features. But the TUC has elected to withdraw, and that is not the Government's responsibility.

Mr. William Clark

Have the unions decided to pay strike pay? If not, is it not unfair that the British taxpayer should subsidise strikers in the form of supplementary benefits?

Mr. Boardman

I understand that it is an official strike. I am only reporting what I have read, I think in the Press, but I think that some strike payment is being made under certain conditions.

Mr. Ashley

Is the Minister aware that nothing whatever is to be gained by gagging a great and moderate trade union, of which I was once a member, and that, by refusing to allow the union even to state its case before a court of inquiry, he is creating anger and resentment at the very time when cool heads are needed?

Mr. Boardman

The position of the union is no different from that of every other union and every other industry in the public and private sectors. There is no question of gagging the union, selecting it, or treating it in any way differently from anyone else. I repeat that the union has been assured that it will have the opportunity of stating its case to the Pay Board when it is established.

Mr. John Page

Does my hon. Friend agree that until the passing of the Industrial Relations Act it would have been illegal for gas workers to strike? Secondly, will he inform the House whether the gas unions in calling this dispute are in contravention of Clause 5 of the Counter-Inflation Bill?

Mr. Boardman

The answer to the first question is that I believe that is so. The answer to the second question is, "No".

Mr. Palmer

Will the Minister say whether his Department has made any calculation of the extra load that is likely to be placed on the electricity supply system due to the gradual slowing of gas supplies and whether he is satisfied that the electricity supply system will have the generating capacity to meet it?

Mr. Boardman

Yes, estimates have been made of the additional demand that may be made upon the electricity system. There has been close co-operation and consultation between the two industries and the Government to try to meet such extra demands as they arise.

Mr. Burden

Does not it appear that hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition benches consider this to be a special case? Have conditions of work and pay of gas workers deteriorated considerably since the Labour Government were in power? If they have not, and if this is a special case now, it must have been a special case then and why did the Labour Government do nothing about it when they were in power?

Mr. Boardman

I cannot, off-hand, give the detailed figures, but I believe what my hon. Friend has said is absolutely right. The wages and terms compare relatively with those in operation when the Labour Government were in power.

Dr. John A. Cunningham

Will the Minister say on what legal basis he was able to write to the trade unions and the Gas Corporation before the Government proposals on wages were published, to prevent negotiations taking place?

Mr. Boardman

The letter which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister sent to Lord Cooper was in response to a letter from Lord Cooper to the Prime Minister, and it was the inquiry raised in that letter that my right hon. Friend answered. In the letter which I wrote to the Chairman of the Gas Corporation I pointed out that pending publication of the White Paper it would be inadvisable to raise expectations or to negotiate until that White Paper was published and the parties knew the parameters within which they could negotiate.

Mr. J. H. Osborn

How many firms have been affected and what is the number of workers in other industries who are prevented from undertaking gainful employment?

Mr. Boardman

I have no detailed information at the moment. The latest figure I have is that about 530 firms in the West Midlands region have had their gas supplies interrupted. There have been considerable interruptions in the East Midlands and in the Northern region. There has been a reduction of gas pressure in six of the gas regions which is likely to affect at least 3 million homes.

Mr. Orme

Is the Minister aware that his rigidity in this matter matches the rigidity of the Government's current policy since it removes the possibility of trade unions trying, through collective bargaining, to negotiate a settlement? Is he further aware that, in face of the standstill, the White Paper and the Counter-Inflation Bill, a ceiling has been set under which it is impossible for the unions to operate and that until that ceiling is removed and free collective bargaining takes place industrial troubles will only escalate?

Mr. Boardman

I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman make that last remark. He has taken part in the debates on the Government's counter-inflation policy and he knows the need to secure a growth in prosperity—an objective we all seek—to protect the old and weaker sections of society who have been so vulnerable to the pressures of the strong.

On the question of the power to negotiate, the hon. Gentleman knows that we have moved from phase 1 to phase 2, and that we shall move into phase 3. The Government have already said that it will be possible during phase 3 to look at any anomalies which have been created. Therefore, we would welcome the cooperation of the Trades Union Congress, but so far, regrettably, this has not been forthcoming. I hope that it will be.

Mr. Waddington

Will my hon. Friend invite the public to be on their guard against a ploy that is often used during strikes—and it was used during the miners' strike—when people appear on television to protest that they have tiny minimum wages when those wages bear no relation whatever to actual earnings? Will he take every opportunity to stress within the terms of the White Paper that this union and other unions can help the low paid if they wish to do so?

Mr. Boardman

Yes, it is important that the figures are put in perspective. I have already given the average earnings——

Mrs. Renée Short

Tell us how many hours.

Mr. Boardman

I am asked about hours, but we are now comparing the present rates with rates which were current when the Labour Government were in office.

Mr. Robert C. Brown

Will the Minister accept it from me, as somebody with 30 years' experience in the gas industry, that there is no set of employees more consumer-conscious than are the gas industry employees, and that they will resent the Minister's inference that it is only the Government who are concerned about the wellbeing of the elderly? Does he not agree that his provocative attitude yesterday, and his truculent performance this afternoon at the Government Dispatch Box, is calculated only to inject heat into a situation in which at the moment there is a lot of anger, but it is cool anger. I hope the Minister will reconsider some of the things he has said in the last 24 hours in order that he may prevent heat being injected into the situation? Will he not give further consideration to the just appeal made by my union, the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, that this matter should be referred to a court of inquiry? If, however, the Government feel that they cannot agree to that suggestion, will they give some assurance that, at the end of phase 2, there will be a clear recognition of the special case of these workers, bearing in mind that in a five-year period when industry generally increased productivity by 25 per cent., the gas workers increased their productivity by 200 per cent., accompanied by 22,500 redundancies?

Mr. Boardman

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a very large number, and no doubt the vast majority, of members of the gas union are very concerned about the hazards about which I have been talking. The reports that are coming in today show that in regions there are a very large number of workers who have been brought up in the high traditions of the gas industry, who have a loyalty to it and a regard for safety considerations, and who are extremely concerned about the procedures and methods by which it is suggested they should operate during this difficult period. I hope that the attitude of those workers, to whom I pay tribute, will prevail and not the attitude of those who perhaps look on this matter as a battleground.

Mr. Edward Short

Is the Minister aware that the Opposition regard it as utterly irresponsible by the Government, as well as demonstrating a wanton disregard for this House and the seriousness of the situation, that the Secretary of State has not come to the House to make a statement? Could we have an assurance, from the Leader of the House or from the Minister for Industry, that tomorrow the Secretary of State will be man enough to come here and make a statement on the situation and not send the Minister for Industry, who has done his best in the last 24 hours to stir up the situation—no doubt on the instructions of the Prime Minister—and to make an already serious situation more serious and more intractable?

Mr. Boardman

I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that until industrial action started, with the consequences to which I have already referred, there was no question of any statement being made that could be in any way so construed. And since industrial action has been taken, it has been the Government's right and duty to warn the public of the hazards to ensure that everything possible is done to preserve public safety and to make the appeal we have made. I again make an appeal for good sense, which has so long been a feature of this union, to be restored—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short) may feel that the stirring up has come from his side of the House. The Government's position has been absolutely clear. The gas industry is having no better and no worse treatment than is any other industry in the public or private sector. The terms which have been offered to the gas industry compare not unfavourably with those offered to other industries, and they know that they will have the opportunity to put the matter to the Pay Board. We feel that this is fair and proper and it is an attitude which the public as a whole support.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the other business of the House, which includes an Opposition Supply Day.

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