HC Deb 15 February 1973 vol 850 cc1445-50

Mr. Benn (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will make a statement on the effect on industry of the present dispute in the gas industry.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Peter Walker)

My present information is that some 700 of the larger industrial users of gas have had their supply interrupted. This effect is concentrated in the Northern Region and the West Midlands, where 600 industrial users are affected. I do not yet have authoritative figures for the number of men laid off as a result of the gas dispute.

Mr. Benn

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, though perhaps he can say a little more about the situation with respect to gas. May I ask him these questions? Is it the policy of the Government to give priority to domestic consumers, hospitals and old people's homes where the safety factors indicate that that would be sensible? Are the Government consulting industry on a regular basis about the allocation of supplies, possibly on a rota basis? To set the problems of safety in perspective, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that there have been 110 explosions in the past two years and more than 25 deaths, under normal working conditions, and will the right hon. Gentleman authorise the Gas Corporation to give the figures? Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the BBC and the IBA to intensify the effort that they are putting in to give information to the public about what is likely to happen and how to handle the safety problems which may be involved? Will he publicise the arrangements agreed between the unions, Age Concern and others on behalf of old people? Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman keep the House informed?

Mr. Walker

Where possible, priority is being given to domestic users and hospitals. However, that is not possible in many cases because of the system. As for arranging quotas, I am afraid that there is little scope for doing this in view of the distribution arrangements for gas. The right hon. Gentleman asked about safety figures. In normal conditions these are regularly published and made available. As for the manner in which safety is being organised, obviously the Government must have real concern. Methods of preserving safety are being made known in regular bulletins put out by the BBC and newspapers. The Government will examine every possible means of increasing the supply of information.

Mr. Awdry

Does my right hon. Friend agree that these militant men are challenging the very authority of Government? Would not it help if just for once the Opposition supported the Government and tried to persuade these men to see reason?

Mr. Walker

With the offer available to the men, and the facilities which the Pay Board offers them, I believe it would be in the interests of the country for these men to return to work.

Mr. Frederick Lee

Does the Secretary of State agree that there are few people who understand the gas industry as well as Sir Henry Jones? Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider Sir Henry's suggestion about setting up an inquiry into the dispute?

Mr. Walker

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Sir Henry Jones, in his letter to The Times this morning, first urges the men to return immediately and, secondly, suggests a court of inquiry for phase 3. In terms of phase 2 he says that the men should return. As for phase 3, I draw the attention of the House to paragraph 14 of Schedule 1 of the Counter-Inflation Bill which allows the Pay Board to set up an inquiry.

Sir Harmar Nichols

Will my right hon. Friend ignore the phoney alibi implicit in the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) that because 25 people are killed in normal conditions it is only the number over 25 which can be put at the door of this silly strike? The fact that in a normal year, when people are on the alert and all the safety precautions are operating, there are 25 deaths is proof that the country should not be put in such a dangerous position.

Mr. Walker

I agree, and that is why the Government are impressing upon the unions their real concern for the safety of the public.

Mr. John Mendelson

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the country has had for many years a carefully devised system of industrial conciliation? Is not it utterly wrong for the Cabinet and the Prime Minister, even though there is other legislation pending which it is the Government's general policy to introduce, to refuse to use that conciliation machinery in the interests of the nation?

Mr. Walker

The previous Government decided for anti-inflationary purposes to pursue a very strict statutory wage freeze with a further six months' restriction thereafter. This Government have decided that it is essential to take steps to counter inflation. We have announced proposals which apply to all. I believe that the country requires people to comply with it.

Mr. Russell Kerr

Let us have a General Election.

Mr. Evelyn King

In the context of industrial conciliation referred to by the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. John Mendelson), is not one of the difficulties that those who work in a constituency such as mine are mostly agricultural workers who draw a wage which is just about half that of gas workers? Does my right hon. Friend agree that to give any increase to gas workers which was not equally given to lower-paid workers would cause a real and sensible sense of injustice? It cannot be done.

Mr. Walker

If in phase 2 the Government made an exception to any one section of workers because they took militant action, obviously it would be unfair on the rest of the country.

Mr. English

What steps did the right hon. Gentleman's Department take regarding safety immediately after repealing the law making strikes of this character illegal? Why is the right hon. Gentleman willing to allow the Pay Board to undertake an inquiry when it does not exist? Why does not the right hon. Gentleman call for an inquiry now since only he can do it until the law is passed?

Mr. Walker

For phase 2 we have laid down criteria applying to the whole country and we have set up the Pay Board——

Mr. English

No. It is not yet set up.

Mr. Walker

The present law is a complete freeze until 1st April. As for the future, during phase 2, the Pay Board will be able to examine all the claims for differentials together and collectively.

Mr. Marten

On the subject of explosions, to what extent does this House rely upon gas?

Mr. Walker

I shall need to be given notice of that question.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Secretary of State aware that in the middle of the so-called freeze the Prime Minister decided as a bit of window dressing to set up what might be termed in a general way a court of inquiry into the price of beef? If the right hon. Gentleman can do that as a piece of window dressing, why cannot he do it on an important matter concerning wages?

Mr. Walker

The Government have made it clear that the same rules will apply throughout phase 2 for the whole country. During that period, the Pay Board will be at work to see how phase 3 should work. We shall welcome talks with the TUC on the workings of phase 3.

Mr. Thorpe

Having voted for the Labour Government's attempts to introduce a prices and incomes policy, unlike the right hon. Gentleman, and having supported this Government in their endeavours—albeit while criticising them for wasting two years—may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he agrees that instead of shedding crocodile tears about the effect of the strike, as the right hon. Member for Bristol, South East (Mr. Benn) has done, when we are dealing with an industry whose take-home pay is on average twice the average earnings of constituents of mine in the far West, and when the present policies are attempting to control inflation, he should state that unless phase 2 is given a chance the chances of curing inflation are nil?

Mr. Walker

I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I must add that it is remarkable that the Opposition should condemn a situation in which compared with October 1969, for example, the gas workers are working on average two hours less each week and earning £10 a week more.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

Does my right hon. Friend have the statistics to calculate the total, cumulative damage to the national interest and our exports, of the gas workers' industrial action? So that the public may understand what is at stake, will he publish them on a running basis daily?

Mr. Walker

The calculation would be impossible to make. What is certainly true is that the country is enjoying fast economic growth. Unemployment is going down and overtime working is going up. That situation can only be sabotaged by irresponsible industrial action.

Mr. Prentice

May I revert to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Newton (Mr. Frederick Lee) about the letter in The Times today from Sir Henry Jones. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that he distorted its contents to some extent? What Sir Henry was suggesting was that implementation would have to wait until stage 3 but that there should be an immediate court of inquiry so that the merits of the case could be independently examined. Will the Government realise that such suggestions from a man with Sir Henry's authority and experience give them the chance, if they want a chance, to get the country out of the mess into which they have plunged it? Or are they more concerned with fighting a doctrinaire battle than with the national well-being?

Mr. Walker

Almost every utterance of the right hon. Gentleman has not been designed to try to persuade the men to go back to work and to share in the fight against inflation. As for an independent court of inquiry, it would be completely wrong, when the Government are setting up a Pay Board to examine all claims as to special problems and special need, to take one claim away from that procedure and deal with it separately.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Sir Henry Jones knows the gas workers as well as anyone, and knows that they are and have been for decades the most moderate people in the country in the matter of industrial disputes. If it is his view that to have a statutory court of inquiry now would lead them to go back to work, why did the right hon. Gentleman say that they may have a court of inquiry if the Pay Board, when it is set up, establishes one, thus maintaining the trouble and disruption of production for perhaps several months, when, on Sir Henry Jones's suggestion, the matter could be settled now?

Mr. Walker

Sir Henry Jones first says that it is the duty of the gas workers to go back and to observe phase 2. It would be helpful if we heard a similar remark from the Opposition. In the Government's view, it is much fairer for special circumstances to be dealt with by one Pay Board looking at all such cases.