HC Deb 17 January 1974 vol 867 cc909-14
Q3. Mr. Horam

asked the Prime Minister what future discussions he intends to have with the TUC on economic policy.

The Prime Minister

I am always prepared to discuss economic policy with the TUC, Sir.

Mr. Horam

Is it not clear from yesterday's meeting that the TUC is telling the Government that it regards the miners as a special case and that it will give only token support to other unions which may regard themselves as a special case? Is this not a remarkable piece of moderation in all the circumstances, showing concern for the national interest? If the Government do not accede to the initiative, will they not be showing that their motives in encouraging talks were dishonourable from the very beginning?

The Prime Minister

I cannot accept the last part of the hon. Gentleman's statement. The Government have made it clear from the beginning that they regard the miners as a special case. The award which they have been offered by the NCB is better than almost any other group has been offered under stage 3. What is more, it puts them into a better position than they achieved directly after the Wilberforce inquiry. Furthermore, the same thing would not happen as happened after Wilberforce ; their position would not be eroded. They would maintain their position in relation to those engaged in manufacturing industry, whereas after Wilberforce their position was rapidly eroded.

Mr. John Page

When my right hon. Friend is considering any undertaking that may be given by the TUC in present circumstances will he remember that when the Labour Government received a solemn and binding undertaking from the TUC the number of days lost by strikes in that year doubled when compared with the previous year and the rise in weekly base rates more than doubled?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is quite correct.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that that agreement was honoured and that as a result of one of the main parts of it, namely, the action taken to deal with demarcation disputes—which account for a large proportion of days lost—this form of dispute was virtually ended? Will he also confirm that that has been a great help to the present Government as well as to the previous Government? In view of the right hon. Gentleman's statement on Tuesday, when he certainly gave the impression that as soon as the TUC conference of yesterday was over he would be taking early steps to meet the TUC, will he confirm that it is still his intention to meet representatives of the TUC?

The Prime Minister

What I said was that I would consider this. My colleagues and I are now considering the outcome of yesterday's meeting with the TUC and in due course we shall decide whether it is appropriate to invite the TUC for another meeting. Of course I have by no means excluded this, and the TUC knows this.

Mr. Wilson

If the right hon. Gentleman says that he has not excluded it, he is certainly resiling from what he said last Tuesday. Is he aware that he gave the strong impression then that he would meet the TUC? Is he to do so or not?

The Prime Minister

I have made no arrangements yet to meet the TUC.

Mr. William Hamilton

Why not?

The Prime Minister

Because we are considering the results of the TUC meeting of yesterday. On previous occasions right hon. Gentlemen opposite have accused my colleagues and myself of an over-hasty reaction. Of course we have been in touch with the TUC, but we have not arranged a meeting.

Mr. Thorpe

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Cabinet meeting continued until approximately 1.30 pm this afternoon? Surely the Prime Minister and the Cabinet must by now have deduced from yesterday's TUC meeting whether there were matters of significance to be considered. How much longer will it take the Government to decide whether they wish to continue on the path of conciliation or choose confrontation instead?

The Prime Minister

It was a perfectly normal Cabinet meeting today and it did not go on until 1.30 p.m. As to the question of trying to find a solution to this industrial dispute, the Government are perfectly entitled to give the matter full consideration, which they are doing.

Q6. Mr. Strang

asked the Prime Minister how many times he has met representatives of the TUC.

The Prime Minister

I have had 27 bilateral meetings with representatives of the TUC and its committees and the Scottish TUC. In addition I have had 17 tripartite meetings at which representatives of the CBI were also present, including six meetings of NEDC. I have also had numerous meetings with individual members of the TUC on both formal and informal occasions.

Mr. Strang

Do the Government still take the view that last week's initiative by the TUC might form a basis for resolving the miners' dispute?

The Prime Minister

There are many aspects of this initiative and problem. What happened yesterday, we understand, was a confirmation of the TUC's position that it would give an assurance that the special circumstances of the miners would not be quoted in any other negotiation or claim. But what the TUC again has not bean able to say, as we so far understand, is that others, seeing that militant action was able to produce something outside stage 3, would not then take similar action. So it is very important to examine the nature of the assurance given and what it means from the point of view of inflation in this country and our counter-inflation policy.

Mr. Winterton

In the many meetings that the Prime Minister has had with the TUC and its representatives, has mention been made of British agriculture and the serious plight facing many farmers? Does not my right hon. Friend agree that our agricultural workers are just as essential as the miners—perhaps more essential—to the country? Will he consider looking at the level of wages in the agricultural industry as well as treating the miners as a special case?

The Prime Minister

Agriculture has not recently been discussed. It was discussed a year ago because of the problems that then arose over the agricultural wages award. Those problems, fortunately, were sorted out and settled, and the matter has not since been raised.

Mr. John Mendelson

In view of the decisions taken yesterday by the TUC, is not this an appropriate time, if the Government wish to improve the atmosphere and background against which wage negotiations are to take place, to return to the proposals of the TUC to introduce food subsidies—it has been widely predicted that in the next nine months there will be a large increase in food prices—and to take other social measures that the TUC has put to him in those discussions? Would not this also help to get negotiations going between the National Coal Board and the NUM on an agreed target by which they can resolve the present industrial dispute?

The Prime Minister

From the point of view of improving the climate of discussion, there are the points which the hon. Gentleman raises on which there are differences between the two sides of the House as to the policies which should be followed. We have always made plain that food subsidies were not a matter of principle or dogma. We are at this moment subsidising some foodstuffs. For example, we are subsidising milk very heavily.

The Government have done more than any Government to try to create a climate of negotiation for the miners by the commitment of £1,100 million of public money made to the industry at the beginning of last year and by the special and improved arrangements made for redundancy and the treatment of disease, and so on. In addition to stage 3, the miners have been told both by me and by the Secretary of State that we are fully prepared to discuss with them and to help on questions which affect the health of all those who are engaged in the industry, the position of pensions in the industry and, after the settlement of stage 3, the whole of the future pay structure, manning and investment in the coal industry. It is difficult to think of more actions that should be taken by a Government for a specific industry to create a climate in which successful negotiations can take place.

Dame Irene Ward

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the country as a whole is extremely grateful to him for the care he has taken to examine all these problems in a way which is just to all people in the country? Will he also accept that on all these matters we have never had such a first-class Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I thank the House for the support which her remarks have received.

Mr. Jay

In view of the constructive attitude taken yesterday by the TUC at its conference, will the Prime Minister today invite the TUC to meet him again?

The Prime Minister

I have already dealt with that question in reply to the Leader of the Opposition.