HC Deb 02 December 1974 vol 882 cc1113-7
Mr. Madel

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment whether he will make a statement on the dispute in the baking industry currently interrupting bread supplies.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Foot)

The Bakers' Union has instructed its members employed by members of the Federation of Bakers in England and Wales to ban Sunday and overtime working from 1st December. I understand that in addition some 20 per cent. of bread production at federation plants is being lost today because of unofficial strike action.

Industrial action has followed the rejection, by ballot, of an improved offer by the federation for a new annual settlement. This would have established a new minimum rate for the main baking grade of £30 for a 40-hour week. The union is seeking, in line with its conference decisions, £40 for a 40-hour week, the end of Sunday working and a fourth week's holiday.

The federation bakers produce about 80 per cent. of all bread supplies in England and Wales, and the action will give rise to shortages, particularly on Mondays.

I understand that, following the breakdown in negotiations on Friday, the Conciliation and Arbitration Service has been in touch with both the federation and the union and has offered its assistance. I very much hope that an acceptable settlement can be quickly agreed, either with the help of the service or by the use of the industry's agreed procedural arrangements, which finally provide for arbitration.

Mr. Madel

I am grateful for the Minister's reply and for its length. As he says, this is a serious dispute which, if it goes on, will affect everyone. Are the management and the union willing to let the Conciliation and Arbitration Service try to find a solution? If both sides of the industry are so willing, will the Minister ask the union to suspend industrial action pending investigation by the CAS?

Mr. Foot

As I have said, the CAS is in touch with both parties and has agreed to assist if it has the opportunity to do so. I understand that the union executive is to meet today. I hope that it will not decide to escalate industrial action. I also hope that the CAS offer will be acceptable and that we may seek a settlement by that means.

Mr. Golding

Is the Secretary of State aware that the extent of the bitterness can be assessed by the fact that the moderate bakery workers in North Staffordshire this morning backed the unofficial strike 100 per cent.? Is he also aware that the workers are totally dissatisfied with an offer which would mean that they would have to work 40 hours in days and nights to earn £30 a week, and that they think that they should not have to work more than 40 hours to earn a reasonable living wage?

Mr. Foot

I understand the strength of feeling to which my hon. Friend refers. Undoubtedly, the action that has been taken reflects the strength of that feeling. Undoubtedly, the action that has been made which raises the pay for bakers considerably and moves towards the guidelines of the TUC. I hope that that factor will also be taken into account when consideration is given to the matter.

Mr. Peter Morrison

Is the Secretary of State aware that the absence of bread in the shops is yet another chapter in the catalogue of shortages? What is the Government's policy on rationing when shortages occur?

Mr. Foot

There is no question of our considering rationing in this respect. We hope that there will be a settlement of the dispute. I have indicated the way in which I think that can be approached, and the best thing is to approach the matter in that way and try to seek a settlement.

Mr. Tom King

Will the Secretary of State say what are the average earnings in the industry and for how many hours? Will he confirm how that figure relates to the average hours worked in manufacturing industry?

Mr. Foot

I understand that earnings currently average £45.50 for a 54-hour working week and that the offer would increase the average earnings to £55 a week. The hon. Gentleman may have seen the average earnings figure published a few days ago, which is roughly £55. It would not be the wisest course for me to comment on the claims of the contending parties. I suggest that the best way to secure a settlement is along the lines I have indicated.

Mr. Thorpe

The right hon. Gentleman will know that the whole House wants to see a speedy settlement, and the less said about the dispute the better. Has he had discussions with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection about the supply position of bread for the consumer? Is he aware that few people hoard bread—and I doubt whether even the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) hoards cake?

Mr. Foot

I do not think that I should comment on any remarks made by the right hon. Lady or even offer her and the right hon. Gentleman the assistance of the Conciliation and Arbitration Service, although that might come in useful for them, too. I agree that we shall have to watch the supply position carefully, but the best way to go about the problem is to seek an early settlement.

Mr. Hordern

Did not the executive of the Bakers' Union accept the offer made by the Federation of Bakers and, therefore, whatever the result, it cannot be blamed upon the employers? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the cost of the dispute must be met either by a higher price for bread or by an increase in the bread subsidy? Perhaps he will tell us which?

Mr. Foot

It is clear, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, that the cost not merely of the dispute but of the increased settlement will have to be met in one of those two ways. The Government have not said in which way they think it should be met. We hope that both sides will be prepared to consider a settlement within the TUC guidelines, and that the increased cost will be taken into account along with other factors in the dispute.

Mr. Prior

When may we expect from the Government some of the peace and quiet which we were promised in the General Election campaign would result from the return of a Labour Government? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the strike record of the last few weeks is the worst for many years, and that the situation is getting intolerable for large sections of the community?

When will the right hon. Gentleman condemn industrial action being taken when, as in this case, it is agreed by the leaders of the industry that the settlement is a fair one? Presumably, the settlement comes within the terms of the social contract and, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman should support it. Would it not be better for the Government and the country if the right hon. Gentleman used some of his powers of eloquence in trying to persuade people to stay at work and abide by the social contract, rather than always findings ways of not speaking about it and finding excuses for going outside the social contract which is what he has done on so many other occasions?

Mr. Foot

I do not know from where the right hon. Gentleman gets the evidence for his last accusation against me. He would find it difficult to discover any speech of mine which has encouraged people to go outside the guidelines of the social contract statement laid down by the TUC. In the debate on this subject a few weeks ago I made my view and the Government's view quite plain. As for suggesting that the best way to deal with the dispute would be to make a general statement about all other disputes that are taking place, I am doubtful whether that is the best way of getting a settlement. If the right hon. Gentleman would like to raise the matter, I am prepared to discuss further in the House the question of the industrial disputes which have occurred. There are many different causes for those industrial disputes, and we are trying to seek ways to get settlements for all of them. There are different causes for different disputes, but, undoubtedly, one cause is the hangover from the whole hideous statutory system which we had to do away with.