HC Deb 05 December 1974 vol 882 cc1938-41

Mr. Raison (by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he would make a statement on the supply of bread.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Fred Peart)

Industrial action by the Bakers' Union has had the effect of reducing commercial supplies of bread by about 75 per cent. I regret the inconvenience, even hardship, suffered as a result. The independent Conciliation and Arbitration Service has been exploring urgently with the two sides the possibilities of resolving the dispute. A reference to arbitration was agreed this morning, and I understand that the arbitrator will begin to hear the parties this afternoon. I very much regret that the union did not recommend an immediate return to work.

Mr. Raison

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the statement. We on the Conservative side share his regret that the union has not chosen to recommend a return to work now that arbitration has been agreed. May I have an assurance that the Secretary of State for Employment and the Minister of Agriculture will press this point as hard as they can? How long will it be after the strike ends before it is possible to go back to normal working? What is the position on supplies of alternatives to bread, including flour? What would be the effect on prices of the settlement offered and the settlement demanded by the union, and have the Government any plans to increase the bread subsidy? Does the Minister not agree that it is a fair commentary on life under the social contract that when the rather absurd provisions for displaying maximum prices for bread come in on Monday there will be precious little bread in the shops?

Mr. Peart

On arbitration, the size of the award and its costs are matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. I do not wish to say anything that would harm discussions now being conducted by the arbitrator. We should leave this up to the arbitrator and see what emerges. There is plenty of flour in bulk; the problem is how to transport it to the retailers and bag it. We are looking at the situation carefully but I hope that as a result of the two sides going to arbitration the strike will soon be over.

Sir David Renton

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the small independent bakers are providing the public with a very necessary service? Will he do everything he can to encourage them to continue with that service and ensure that nothing is done to prevent them from providing it?

Mr. Peart

I welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman's statement. These bakers have done a fine job in difficult circumstances, and I pay tribute to them.

Mr. Torney

In addition to the small independent bakers, most of the large Cooperative bakers are still working and producing bread. Since the workers in these bakeries are trade unionists, does it not follow that the blame cannot be put just upon the members of the Bakers' Union? Rather, does it not indicate that some fault lies at the doors of the great multiple bakers who are not providing proper conditions of employment?

Mr. Peart

I agree with my hon. Friend about the Co-operative bakers, but it would be wrong at this stage to apportion blame. Let us try to get the dispute settled.

Mr. Pardoe

Without wishing to apportion blame, may I ask why the bakers are not prepared to go back to work even though arbitration has now been started? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me in confidence — [Interruption.] — afterwards, if he wishes, or in writing, what will be the next half dozen essential food items for which my wife will have to queue?

Mr. Peart

I think that the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) is being totally irresponsible, and he knows it. I do not know why the union has not recommended a return to work. I wish that it had, but at least it is now going to arbitration.

Mr. Skinner

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the bakers are taking a leaf out of the book of the hospital consultants who are seemingly holding out for another £2,000 a year in exchange for the phasing out of a limited number of pay beds?

Mr. Peart

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) must appreciate that this is now a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment.

Mr. Tebbit

Since the Prime Minister has ruled that all his Ministers are responsible for the Government's efforts to enforce the social contract, will the right hon. Gentleman remind us whether the TUC guidelines suggest that where a claim goes to arbitration the workers involved should remain on strike or go back to work during that arbitration?

Mr. Peart

I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment will answer that question when he makes a statement.

Mrs. Hayman

Will my right hon. Friend suggest to the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) that he might well in these days of hardship and sex inequality share the load with his wife and do some of the queueing himself?