HC Deb 30 January 1973 vol 849 cc1159-64
Q6. Mr. Ashton

asked the Prime Minister whether he will place in the Library a copy of the letter he sent to the General and Municipal Workers' Union concerning its wage negotiation with the Gas Council during the standstill.

The Prime Minister

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer which I gave in reply to a Question from my hon. Friend the Member for Conway (Mr. Wyn Roberts) on 23rd January.—[Vol. 849, c. 122.]

Mr. Ashton

Is the Prime Minister aware that the day after the letter was sent to the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South-West (Mr. Powell) said that it had no force of law and, in effect, that it was a sham and a nonsense. A few days later the Prime Minister changed his proposals and admitted that negotiations could take place. Was the letter a bluff? Did the Prime Minister have it in mind to change things later, or had he lost control completely?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman should be more accurate in his statements. The position I set out in the letter to Lord Cooper in answer to one he had written me—I did not take the initiative—was to ask that these negotiations should not take place beyond the point of settlement until the guidelines for phase 2 had been published. On the day that they were published the negotiations were able to start. That was a consistent position. What is more, it was a reasonable request.

Mr. Michael Foot

Will the Prime Minister now accept that in his letter to Lord Cooper he gave the same kind of general guidance as that which was given by the Secretary of State when he briefed the Press? Will the right hon. Gentleman now accept that both messages were equally misunderstood?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept either of those statements.

Mr. Moyle

As Joint Secretary of the National Joint Industrial Council for the gas industry, I put it to the Prime Minister that there has never been such widespread interruption in gas supplies this century until he put his big fat foot into it. Is it not true that the greatest success of the Government is creating militancy where none existed before in local authorities, gas workers, the health workers and the civil servants?

The Prime Minister

I can quite see that the hon. Gentleman wishes to encourage militancy wherever he can. The position was that we asked that negotiations should not go beyond the point of settlement, or up to the point of settlement, until the guidelines were issued. I cannot see anything unreasonable in that at all. If there had been a settlement which proved to be in excess of what was contained in phase 2 the hon. Gentleman would have said that friction was being caused in the gas industry because a settlement had been reached which was not permitted under stage 2.

It was to avoid that friction that the request was made.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Is the right hon. Gentleman's memory quite correct in what he has just said? He said that his letter asked that the talks should not go to the point of settlement. Is it not a fact that he asked that they should not reach a meaningful stage, in fact, to the point of an offer by the employers? Is not that what he said? Will the right hon. Gentleman check his memory on another point he raised—namely, that at the time he justified it as amounting to a direction, and answered a Question in the House as to the authority by which he did this, yet shortly afterwards his office put out that the letter was only a suggestion? Will the right hon. Gentleman make up his mind which of these statements, which were made at different times, was the true one?

The Prime Minister

I have never claimed that it was a direction under the Act. That was never claimed by the Government and it was not stated to be so in the letter. That has never been a point of issue. I have here the letter to Lord Cooper. The right hon. Gentleman is correct to this extent. I said: Negotiations whether in the public or private sectors should not be carried to the point of offers of improved remuneration. But that did not exclude, as we explained to Lord Cooper and the TUC, discussion about any other aspect of conditions of employment which they wished to raise. It is well known that in the gas industry there are a considerable number of other matters which are under discussion between the employers and the union and we said specifically that they would continue.

Mr. Tom King

Would not my right hon. Friend have been open to greater criticism if, having been approached by Lord Cooper on this matter, he had refused to give the Government's view on it, which was quite clearly sensible guidance?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. If I had refused to answer Lord Cooper's letter I would have been open to attack on that ground.

Mr. Robert C. Brown

Has the Prime Minister any legislative authority to intervene as he did in the manner of the negotiations? Will he understand that no one will ever believe him if he attempts to suggest, as he did in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. Moyle), that there are a lot of "reds" in the gas industry? No one will believe that Jack Cooper and company are "reds". Will the right hon. Gentleman now come clean and honestly admit that the disruption we are now seeing in the gas industry is directly of his making and not of the unions' making?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is quite unrealistic on this matter. Lord Cooper wrote to me and asked for the view of the Government on the matter, and I gave it to him. It was a perfectly reasonable view that the unions and employers should wait until the guidelines for stage 2 were issued, which was not a very long time. It was only just six weeks after Parliament passed the legislation imposing the freeze. Is it too long, in that situation, to ask that the unions and the employers should both wait until the guidelines on remuneration were published? In any case they were both informed that it would not be possible to implement anything until the end of the standstill. There was plenty of time for them to negotiate between the announcement of stage 2 and the end of the standstill. It was a perfectly reasonable request to make.

Mr. Harold Wilson

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for correcting the small point which I raised a moment ago. However, is he aware that the impression given by his letter was not, "Is it too long to wait a few days?". It was regarded by everyone as an instruction—not under the Act, certainly. When questioned he said that it was on the authority of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. It was not understood as asking whether it was too long to wait.

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that his letter was interpreted as having the usual relationship between the Government and nationalised industries, and that he was not going to allow an offer to be made? Will he ask Lord Cooper's permission to publish the whole of the correspondence? Will he let us know what was later said when the pretence was put forward that it was just a polite request?

The Prime Minister

As far as I know, all the correspondence has already been published. The letter from Lord Cooper to me was published when he sent it. My reply to Lord Cooper has also been published. [Interruption.] It is in the Library. As far as I know, there is nothing else to be published. However, I am quite prepared to make a further check.

I cannot agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this was unreasonable Of course, it was sent on the authority of the Head of Government and the Government, because it was the Government's reply to Lord Cooper's letter. It is a strange idea that nothing can be done by a Government except through legislation. The Government are perfectly entitled to express their view to Lord Cooper and to the gas industry. As I have stated, it was a Cabinet decision to do so.