HC Deb 29 November 1973 vol 865 cc586-98
The Prime Minister

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

I invited the National Executive of the National Union of Mineworkers to meet me at 10 Downing Street yesterday. My right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of Stale for Employment, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry were also present.

I explained to the national executive the economic background to the Government's counter-inflation policy. I said that if the country was to maintain growth and a high level of employment and to take advantage of the opportunities which were open to us in export markets, we needed all the production we could get, and particularly in present circumstances the maximum production of coal.

I reminded the national executive that the Government had demonstrated their confidence in the future of the industry by committing to it over £1,100 million of public money : £450 million to write off capital debt and accumulated deficit, and nearly £700 million to bring it up to date and improve the contribution which it could make to our prosperity.

I pointed out to them that, if one compared average weekly earnings in coalmining with average weekly earnings in manufacturing industry on the basis adopted by the Wilberforce Report, the NCB's full offer would more than restore the relative position of the coal miners established as a result of the Wilberforce recommendation.

I also pointed out that a settlement under stage 3 would not only restore the relative position of the coal miners and give them an improvement in their real standards of living but would also ensure that these advantages were not subsequently eroded; whereas a settlement which went beyond stage 3 would inevitably lead to a free-for-all which would erode their gains as surely as the free-for-all after Wilberforce eroded the gains they secured from that.

Thus a settlement under stage 3 could be expected to help the coal industry to recruit and retain manpower—the need for which was strongly argued by the NUM executive.

I made it clear that there is no question of a settlement outside the terms of the Pay Code for stage, 3, which has been approved by Parliament.

Following our meeting, the national executive held a private meeting at 10 Downing Street and decided to maintain their overtime ban. I hope none the less that they and their members will give serious consideration to the points which I put to them. In the meantime the Government will continue to take whatever action is necessary to conserve the nation's energy supplies.

Mr. Harold Wilson

The nation will be saddened that the meeting at No. 10 led to no progress yesterday on the coal industry dispute. Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance that he will try to keep some degree of momentum going and authorise fresh negotiations to take place under his aegis? Failing that, since he has admitted that the Pay Board alone and not he himself has all the power that there is to decide these matters, will he encourage the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers to reach what they consider to be a realistic and responsible settlement and to submit it to the Pay Board so that if the Pay Board, which is unaccountable to Parliament, rejects it the country will then know who is responsible and why there is no settlement?

Arising out of the right hon. Gentleman's attitude yesterday as he has just described it, will he say what proposals he has not only to maintain manpower in the industry which is now falling at an annual rate of one-eighth of the total but to increase the manpower which is so essential if coal is to play a part in the future?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether in his view the miners are breaking the law?

The Prime Minister

It is open to the miners to negotiate with the National Coal Board any changes that they wish to make within stage 3. The board has made this plain to them, and I explained it again to them yesterday. Within stage 3 they are free to negotiate. If they want to change any of the arrangements made so far in the offer, they are free to do that.

I am not prepared to urge the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers themselves to reach a settlement which would be outside stage 3. If I may say so, I hope that on further reflection the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw any suggestion that two responsible bodies should deliberately make a settlement which they believe to be outside stage 3 in order that the Pay Board might point out that it is outside the code and then that the Pay Board should be blamed for it. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw any such suggestion.

As for manpower, the recruiting figures are remaining steady, and they include a number of people who, I am glad to say, are returning to mining. As for those leaving the industry, the numbers have been fluctuating over past weeks. I have studied the figures carefully and, as I said in the debate, there is no doubt that one factor causing men to leave the pits is that they do not wish to lose overtime earnings, let alone the loss of earnings resulting from complete stoppages. They are interested in the security of the industry, and that has been assured by the commitment of money that the Government have made with parliamentary support. It is the taxpayers' money—£1,100 million of it—and it is there to show that the country has faith in the future of the coal industry.

The last part of the right hon. Gentleman's question raises a legal matter dealing with contracts of service about overtime which is used for maintenance. Here there is an important point, because I am advised that the overtime which is used for maintenance is part of the contract of service and is different from ordinary overtime.

Mr. Adam Butler

While I welcome the improvement in the relative position of the miners which these proposals will give, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he considers seriously that any commitment can be given for the future to hold that relative position and preferably to improve it?

The Prime Minister

I discussed this yesterday with the miners' leaders, and it is what I described as an orderly improvement in incomes within the framework of stage 3 which will ensure this. It is the only way of ensuring that they maintain their position under stage 3. They are able to take advantage of many aspects which other groups of workers will not get, and the offer is already 13 per cent. If an efficiency agreement is negotiated, that will add another 3½ per cent. That will be self-balancing from the point of view of the national economy. This is a high figure. The only way of maintaining and, as my hon. Friend says, improving it is to carry on with the orderly improvement of incomes in this country.

Incidentally, in reply to the Leader of the Opposition, I believe that I referred to "overtime for maintenance "It is overtime for safety and maintenance which is involved.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Prime Minister aware that the latest National Coal Board figures show that the net manpower losses in the last three quarters have been respectively 2,000, 5,000 and 7,000 miners? Do not those figures give the Prime Minister cause for concern? Has the right hon. Gentleman suggested to the union the possibility of an inquiry into future recruitment and security in the industry, possibly coupled with a moratorium on future closures for at least five to seven years? Is not the Prime Minister more likely to get an immediate settlement under stage 3 now if he gives some indication that the Government are giving consideration to the future security of those currently employed in the industry?

The Prime Minister

The offer made by the Coal Board puts miners not only back to the Wilberforce position compared with those in manufacturing industry but to a better-than-Wilberforce position. If the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the board should go even further and break stage 3, my reply is that he must indicate how we are to pre- vent the leap-frogging that happened after Wilberforce.

Mr. Thorpe indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman indicates that that is not his suggestion. If he wishes to keep stage 3, well and good. I am in entire agreement.

I told the miners' leaders yesterday that the National Coal Board is fully prepared to discuss with them the future of investment and manning in the coal industry. They discussed the arrangements which were made at the beginning of this year in which the Government accepted responsibility for finance. The NCB will discuss with them the future investment and manning in the coal industry. That means that stage 3 will not be broken, but the board will discuss the future.

Sir John Hall

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems in the coal industry is an outdated pay structure? Did he suggest to the NUM that there might be an opportunity now for a thorough-going review of the whole pay structure and career opportunities within the industry?

The Prime Minister

In referring to an outdated pay structure one is referring to a number of individual anomalies in the structure of the mining industry at the moment. In the negotiations between the NCB and the NUM, the union took advantage of the opportunity to remove some of those anomalies. The NUM is using its flexibility allowance to remove one of the holiday anomalies. It is also using the unsocial hours arrangement to put emphasis on higher pay for those on night shifts, an anomaly which it had previously said it wished to have removed. Therefore, already in stage 3 we are making progress in dealing with some aspects of the structure to which my hon. Friend referred.

If it is a question of the lower paid relative to the higher paid, within the total a different balance can be negotiated. The National Coal Board has told the NUM this already. Some unions are already doing it. It was done under stage 2 when the civil service unions involved deliberately accepted a lower proportion for the higher paid than for the lower paid. If the miners wish to do that, they are free to do so under stage 3.

Mr. Ogden

Will the Prime Minister bear in mind that the annual earnings of a coal miner are much less than might be thought from consideration of only his weekly earnings? That is because of accidents, injury and disease. Will he keep in mind the date, Monday, 10th December, which ought to be the beginning of the Christmas "bull" week? After that there will be a period until some time in January when it will be much less easy to get any settlement. Will he resist with all his power any pressure to order a compulsory ballot? The miners have their own way of telling their leaders when they want a ballot. Any ballot imposed from outside would be strongly resented.

The Prime Minister

I told the miners' leaders yesterday at the beginning of our discussions that they had their machinery for dealing with their own affairs and that it was for them to handle their own machinery. I did not propose to indicate to them in any way what they should do or how they should handle the situation. It was entirely a matter for them.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the present pay agreement with the NUM does not expire until March 1974? If so, does he agree that the people of this country should be forgiven for believing that this dispute is as much about politics as about remuneration for miners?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is correct; the present agreement does not expire until March 1974. The negotiation with the NCB is about what takes the place of stage 2 under stage 3 beginning in March 1974. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this matter. I think that most people will agree that there is time ahead for negotiations without anybody trying to bring pressure on the National Coal Board.

Mr. Kelley

The right hon. Gentleman has made it clear to the House that he had no proposals whatever to make to the NUM yesterday. Will he take this opportunity to explain why the exercise was entered into in that case? Will he further give the House an opportunity to understand why, if he thinks a ballot is necessary to consult the miners about the future of this dispute, he should not take the powers with which the law provides him to conduct a ballot?

The Prime Minister

I have already made plain that in my discussions with the miners' leaders yesterday I said it was for them to decide how they handled their own internal affairs. This they accepted absolutely and completely.

The miners' leaders and I agreed that the talks had been valuable because they enabled us to go over the whole ground. I much prefer that those who are concerned with matters of this kind, who represent an important element in our community, should understand fully the Government's views about this country's economic position and the counter-inflation policy.

Mr. Walters

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is genuine concern and sympathy for the miners but that there is also deep concern about combating inflation without control of which the economic future of this country, including -hat of the miners, cannot be saved? Once the fairness of the offer is indicated I am sure that the country will support the Government's stand, and it is to be hoped that that will also influence the miners' decision.

The Prime Minister

In my statement I said that I hoped that the miners would give further consideration to the points which I made to them yesterday and to the answers which I gave to the varied questions which they put directly to me. I was glad to have the chance of giving them the answers to the questions which were in their minds.

Mr. McGuire

Is the Prime Minister aware that he has distorted the figures for wastage in the industry—a wastage which he suggests has been taking place since the prospect of an overtime ban was on the horizon? Men had been leaving the industry at a great pace long before that and will continue to do so. Does he agree that one of the most dangerous things to come out of this conflict is the proposition which has been floated, who governs the country? The right hon. Gentleman should ask himself the question : who will dig the coal that we shall need in future?

The Prime Minister

The lion. Gentleman is right that the wastage in the coal industry did not begin recently. I said that according to figures for recent weeks this rise had taken place at this particular point. In the 5½ years of the Labour Government, 185,000 miners left the pits.

Mr. Burden

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the attitude of the Opposition regarding the 15 per cent. to the miners, who received a big increase early last year, is extraordinary when, during the period of the Labour Government, their wages and the wages of all workers were frozen for a considerable period and at no time increases of more than 4½ per cent. in a year were allowed until their last six months in office and they had not the powers to debar any particular group from getting increases whatsoever during their period of office?

The Prime Minister

As a matter of fact, looking at the comparison between miners and manufacturing industry, the miners reached their lowest point in the middle of 1970 just before this Government came into office. Taking the figures for 1960, for the Wilberforce award and for what is now offered under stage 3, the miners are in a better position under stage 3 than they were under Wilberforce or in 1960.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Prime Minister aware that, on the question of the five-day week agreement and maintaining safety, if the miners are breaking that agreement, it follows that as Head of the Government he should see to it that appropriate action is taken under the Industrial Relations Act, which provides certain measures which he can take? Why is he not doing that? Why does he not order the ballot? Is it like the situation that we had over the Common Market when he was quite happy to rely on full-hearted consent? Does that apply to Joe Gormley as well?

On the question of wastage, would not a reasonable Prime Minister look at his Department's statistics of a few days ago in HANSARD which showed that the work force in the mining industry had fallen from 267,000 to 250,000—not in the last few months but over the whole of the year?

Hon. Members

Too long.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that if he continues he will be simply cutting out some of his hon. Friends because there will not be time for them to ask supplementary questions.

Mr. Skinner

Finally, why is it that the Prime Minister was unable to tell the NUM executive yesterday why the NCB allows the Cementation Company and other private developers in the mining industry to pay £15 a day to men doing similar jobs to miners who receive £7 a day?

The Prime Minister

I am glad to say that this was not the manner in which the discussion yesterday was continued with the miners' leaders. Regarding action with the staff, it is a matter for the NCB to decide how best to deal with this situation. It is entirely in the hands of the NCB, and rightly so.

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, that matter was discussed at the meeting. It was pointed out to the miners' leaders, when discussing the particular case that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned several times in the House, that these are specialists employed by the NCB from time to time to do particular jobs. They work extremely long hours. They have none of the security or fringe benefits of those permanently employed in the mines. In no way is their position comparable. That was explained to the miners' leaders yesterday, and they accepted it.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the mood of the nation is in no way reflected by the excited partisan questions which have just been put to him? What the nation recognises is that there is a clear difference of view between the mineworkers and the Government and the NCB. They hope that the door is still left open for sense to prevail by continuing the talks which the Prime Minister had yesterday.

The Prime Minister

The NCB is perfectly ready to discuss with the NUM any negotiations that it wishes to discuss, within stage 3. It is perfectly prepared to discuss further with the NUM any particular points which the NUM wants to raise. I hope that if the NUM wishes to raise particular points, it will not hesitate to do so.

Mr. Ewing

Is the Prime Minister aware that there is a growing public feeling that the Government, and particularly the right hon. Gentleman, are not aware of the serious situation which is developing? Is the Prime Minister aware that the miners can take what is on offer at present and that because no one can make a person work overtime, the miners need not work overtime and, therefore, the fuel situation will be no better than it is at present in this state of emergency? Is the Prime Minister so determined to have a confrontation that he will carry on in this way?

The Prime Minister

There is no question of the Government or myself wanting any confrontation. The hon. Gentleman is distorting the truth if he is so suggesting. What is more, it is evident that the whole country realises that the Government have done everything possible to avoid any sort of confrontation. What the House and the country have to make up their minds about is whether stage 3, as approved by the House, is to be maintained—and the Government will maintain it.

Mr. Farr

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the resolute attitude which the Government have adopted so far in relation to this pay claim? I hope that this resolution will continue without qualification as these negotiations drag on in the future. Will my right hon. Friend give the House some indication whether he thought that the miners' leaders may possibly be agreeable, at an early date, to a voluntary ballot on their initiative?

The Prime Minister

Mr. Gormley, who presided at yesterday's meeting for the miners' leaders, has said publicly that he believes that the time has come when miners should ballot on the offer made to them by the NCB. Following the meeting held after my meeting with them at No. 10—which I was glad to offer them for this purpose—they announced that discussions took place in which the proposal for a ballot was made, but that the proposal was defeated.

Mr. John Mendelson

With regard to the suggestion made by one of the Prime Minister's hon. Friends that this is regarded as a political conflict, would not the Prime Minister be making a great mistake if he ignored the opinion of many rank-and-file members of the NUM, who are profoundly convinced that this is not a political conflict but that the Government have allowed inflation to run ahead and are now using the majesty of the law and hiding behind the pay code to escape their responsibilities? Is it not, therefore, the Prime Minister's duty to allow the two sides to have further negotiations without let or hindrance from him, to see where the two sides can get? As a former Minister of Labour, does not the right hon. Gentleman see some wisdom in this position, instead of rigidly saying, "You cannot negotiate further because I say so"?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is completely misrepresenting the whole situation. The NCB and the NUM are free to negotiate any arrangement within the code for stage 3. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that there should be no code and no stage 3, he is entitled to argue that, as he was entitled to argue in the House previously. But Parliament has now approved it. It is the law of the land and it is the stage in which negotiations now take place. That is the situation, and it is quite clear.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

Is the Prime Minister aware that when I was a young man I lived in as close a proximity to miners as many hon. Members on the Opposition benches who are as old as I am? I can remember the time when miners were badly paid and badly treated, and when large numbers of them were out of work. The people of this country now understand, appreciate and accept that the miners should now be among the best paid people in the community and that they should be properly treated and give a reasonable pay in crease. [HON. MEMBERS : "Too long."] The people also understand—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is getting very near to making a speech.

Mr. Lewis

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. The Government's offer to the miners is recognised by the people of this country to be reasonable.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask a question.

Mr. Dormand rose

Mr. Speaker

Is the hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand) seeking to ask a supplementary question?

Mr. Dormand

Yes, Mr. Speaker. Is not the central issue of this dispute that by the very nature of the dangerous and disagreeable work that miners have to do, apart from our dire need for coal at present, they should for the foreseeable future be at the top of the industrial wages scale? Will the Prime Minister cut out the verbiage and turn his attention to ensuring that they are?

The Prime Minister

It is not for me to decide who should be at the top of the range of industrial earnings in this country. What I have said is that under the offer made by the NCB the miners will be put, comparably, in a better position than they were after the Wilberforce award. That is the position on the figures that have been offered.

Mr. Benn

Will the Prime Minister confirm that the only law passed by Parliament which is involved in this matter is not the pay and price code, which does not have the force of law, but the powers given to the Pay Board to make an order in the event of a settlement exceeding phase 3? As no order has been made, the miners are not in breach of the law. Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, with regard to the safety overtime, this could be in breach of the law only if the NCB brought a complaint under the Industrial Relations Act?

Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that under the legislation which Parliament has passed Ministers have the power to override the Pay Board at any time they choose? As the Fuel and Electricity (Control) Bill, which we shall be debating today, takes away the power from the Price Commission by controlling the price of oil, would not it be sensible for Ministers now to assume direct responsibility, on the same basis, for the pay of miners, and to settle on a fair basis?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir, it would not. If the right hon. Gentleman is asking for a fair basis, the offer which has been made by the NCB is by any criterion not only fair but generous. If the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that, in an economy which has an expansion rate of 4 per cent.—one of the highest rates of expansion for a decade—there can be wage increases of 16 per cent. right across the economy, then he is quite wrong. I was asked about Ministers taking powers to exempt coal miners from the law. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman explained the position as regards Ministers' powers and asked whether miners should be exempt, to which I reply, "No", because it would be impossible in this situation, with an offer of this size, to maintain a counter-inflationary policy if they were exempt. That is the justification for not making the change which he suggested.