HC Deb 29 January 1974 vol 868 cc240-6
Q4. Mr. Molloy

asked the Prime Minister when he next expects to meet the CBI and TUC.

Q5. Mr. Clinton Davis

asked the Prime Minister what further plans he has for meetings with the TUC and CBI.

Q7. Mr. Adley

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement following his recent talks with the TUC.

Q8. Mr. Meacher

asked the Prime Minister what further plans he has to meet the TUC and CBI.

Q9. Mr. Norman Lamont

asked the Prime Minister when he next plans to meet the TUC.

Q10. Mr. Greville Janner

asked the Prime Minister what further consultations he proposes to have with the TUC.

Q11. Mr. Ashley

asked the Prime Minister what plans he has to have further discussions with the TUC.

Q12. Mr. Wyn Roberts

asked the Prime Minister when he next plans to meet the TUC and CBI.

The Prime Minister

I met representatives of the TUC on 21st January and representatives of the CBI yesterday.

We agree that the Government should continue to keep closely in touch with both the CBI and the TUC, and further meetings will be arranged as necessary.

Mr. Molloy

Is the Prime Minister aware that it now appears that the National Coal Board, which sees the justice of the miners' claim, believes that if it can have conversations with the Pay Board apropos the Pay Board's relativity report it can find an answer to the impasse, that it could well be supported by the TUC and the CBI, the miners' just claim could be met and there would be triumph for no one except the sanity of the principle of British compromise? Will the Prime Minister this afternoon give encouragement to the NCB?

The Prime Minister

I have not seen such a proposal from the NCB, but the Government have welcomed the report of the Pay Board on relativities. We published the report as soon as we could get it printed and sent it immediately to the TUC and the CBI. I explained at the TUC meeting that I was not in a position to discuss the report with the TUC on that date because of parliamentary privilege but that we would be prepared to discuss it as soon as the TUC was ready, at the earliest opportunity. I said the same yesterday to the CBI. The Government therefore stand ready to discuss this report with the two other bodies mainly concerned.

When stage 2 began we asked the Pay Board to report on the question of anomalies. There was a lot of scepticism at the time, but that report has enabled us to deal satisfactorily, without any industrial disputes, with 90 per cent. of the anomalies that arose out of the freeze and stage 2. We deliberately asked the Pay Board to report on relativities so that we could deal with the deeper problems that exist in the wage structure in British industry. I do not believe that there should be scepticism about the report. If the TUC is prepared to accept a system based on the board's report for the implementation of relativities it will be for the good of British industry in the future.

Mr. Adley

When does my right hon. Friend feel that the nation can expect non-Conservative democrats to repudiate Mr. McGahey and his alien creed?

The Prime Minister

I hope that all democrats will do so.

Mr. Davis

Does not the Prime Minister think that it is high time that he expressed to the CBI and indeed to others the view that it is utterly nauseating for people who have to risk their lives and limbs every day of their working life to be lectured, blackmailed and insulted by Tory politicians, many of whom are on five-figure salaries? Will he at the same time repudiate the statements that have been made by several of his back benchers, including the hon. Members for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) and Truro (Mr. Dixon), that the miners are the enemies of the nation—statements that are as mendacious as they are irresponsible?

The Prime Minister

I cannot be responsible for statements that are made by the CBI, the TUC or any other organisation. I have expressed my view on these matters very frequently in the House, and I did so again last night on the "Panorama" programme.

Mr. Lamont

Has the Prime Minister noticed the speech made by the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) on Sunday, in which he said that the Shadow Cabinet was agreed that it was not for others to tell the miners how they should vote in their strike ballot? Should not the Leader of the Opposition tell the country whether that is the position of the Shadow Cabinet, and is not the country entitled to expect the former Prime Minister to use all his influence to dissuade the miners from a course that will be disastrous for our country?

The Prime Minister

I would hope that the former Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, would take the earliest opportunity of expressing the view that for the miners to choose a national strike cannot be in the national interest.

Mr. Meacher

When will the Prime Minister acknowledge that whilst, as everyone now knows, the three-day week was a gross overkill measure against the overtime ban, in the event of a miners' strike no amount of three-day weeks or two-and-a-half-day weeks will save him from having to settle with the miners? When will he stop playing electoral politics with the nation's livelihood?

The Prime Minister

The published figures show absolutely that the Government were right to take the measures when they did. It was because we did so that a week ago, after consulting the TUC and the CBI, we were in a position to move to a five-day week on 80 per cent. of electricity power. The nation could have done that in safety. There is only one reason why we were unable to do it, and that the House knows.

Mr. Roberts

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if the miners accept the NCB offer they will have had an increase of 68 per cent. since June 1970? Is it not becoming abundantly clear that the action proposed by the NUM executive is politically motivated, and will my right hon. Friend call on the Leader of the Opposition yet again to repudiate this action?

The Prime Minister

The figures are that if the miners were to accept this offer the increase since 1970 would be 68 per cent., the increase in pensions is 55 per cent., the increase in average earnings is 48 per cent. and the increase in prices is 34 per cent. The miners' increase, therefore, would be double the increase in prices.

Mr. Janner

Is the Prime Minister prepared to admit that the emergency powers contained in the Industrial Relations Act are totally useless in time of emergency?

The Prime Minister

It depends entirely on the situation in the individual unions. The NUM has always been able to have its own ballot. I wish that this time the miners had followed the procedure they followed in 1973, when the offer which was being made to the miners appeared on the ballot paper. The ballot paper also stated that the executive rejected the offer. Despite that, the miners voted for the offer. In a ballot of this kind it is right that the offer should be included in the ballot paper so that each miner knows what it is.

Mr. Ashley

Is the Prime Minister aware that a few months ago in Stoke-on-Trent thousands of moderate miners were talking about a reasonable, honourable settlement by the National Coal Board, but that I have now seen their mood gradually change until, a few days ago, they told me that they would never fly the white flag of surrender? Does not the Prime Minister realise that by his insensitive handling of this sensitive issue he is directly and personally responsible for driving thousands of moderate miners into a bitter battle which can give aid and comfort only to the men who fly the red flag?

The Prime Minister

There is no question of asking the miners to fly either a white flag or the red flag. Every commentator I have read—and most of the industrial correspondents agree and said so at the time—takes the view that if, when the offer was made by the National Coal Board to the miners three months ago, the matter had been put to the miners on a ballot, it would have been accepted at once—in exactly the same way as 5 million other trade unionists have accepted stage 3. What those who have been handling these negotiations have seen over these weeks is the way in which moderate miners who wished to put this matter to the ballot were prevented from doing so in an attempt to spin the matter out. As a result of overtime bans they believed that the miners would suffer and finally would come to the point where they hoped they would go for a strike. This is the history of the past few weeks and we have seen it at close quarters.

Mr. Harold Wilson

I have been asked to reply. I would refer the Prime Minister to the statement issued last Thursday afternoon with the authority of the Shadow Cabinet, which said in particular that the country does not want a strike, the miners do not want a strike; the country and the miners want a settlement. If the Prime Minister, having rejected every initiative for nearly three months, now refuses to intervene actively to secure the necessary settlement, then any worsening of the situation will be the Prime Minister's responsibility.

The Prime Minister

I have rejected no initiatives. I have also seen the statement put out today by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), Chairman of the Labour Party, and the General Secretary of the Labour Party. It is quite clearly equivocal. It gives no indication at all that to go for a national strike would not be in the national interest. I now give the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition the opportunity to tell Parliament and the country that it would be against the national interest for the miners to vote for a strike.

Mr. Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman claims to have read the statement by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) and no doubt has also seen the motion in my name on the Order Paper on this subject. Is he aware that, far from being equivocal, they make clear that the extremists in the situation are the Vice-President of the National Union of Mineworkers and the Prime Minister? Is he further aware that the one right hon. Member of this House who has not got the right to speak as he was trying to speak just now was the man who tried to order the TUC to reject the Labour Government's policy and to back the doctors against the Government? Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that last Thursday we agreed that it was not for any particular leader to give a lead to the miners in this matter? Is he aware that that would become counter-productive, but not as counter-productive as was the Prime Minister's provocation on television last night?

The Prime Minister

Will the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition now give the nation the answer to my question?

Sir Gilbert Longden

Arising from the Prime Minister's last but one answer, will he make clear to the House and the nation who is responsible for organising the strike ballot and who frames the questions to be answered—and will he say whether it will be a postal ballot?

The Prime Minister

As I understand the situation, the union is responsible for everything up to the point where the ballot boxes are delivered in London and are counted by the Electoral Reform Society.

Mrs. Castle

But is it not a fact that the Deputy Chairman of the Pay Board, who is the author of the report on relativities, is on record as saying that the report could be operated quickly to secure a solution of the miners' dispute? In view of the fact that the Chairman of the National Coal Board has written to the Secretary of State for Employment asking the Government to do just that, will the Government face up to their responsibilities, take the initiative and take the necessary steps to secure a settlement on the report—or is the nation to be sacrificed to the Prime Minister's blind bigotry?

The Prime Minister

The deputy chairman said that this was possible if the will was there. The will of the Government is there, and we have told the CBI and the TUC in sending them the report that we shall deal with it at the earliest time that they are ready. If the TUC and CBI are prepared to accept the report and to say that they will accept the settlement of differentials in industry by the machinery proposed in the report, they, too, will have the will, and it can be operated.