HC Deb 31 January 1974 vol 868 cc607-12
Ql. Mr. Norman Lamont

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

Q3. Mr. Adley

asked the Prime Minister if he will seek a meeting with the TUC and CBI to discuss productivity during the three-day week.

Q4. Mr. Skinner

asked the Prime Minister if he has any plans to meet the CBI and TUC.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Edward Heath)

As the House knows, I have put forward proposals to both the TUC and the CBI that we should make urgent progress in implementing the Pay Board's Relativities Report. I hope that they will be willing to move forward on the basis of these proposals so that we can meet for very early discussions. I remain ready to meet the CBI and the TUC, either separately or together, to discuss any other matters of common concern.

Mr. Lamont

Does not the relativities report make it clear that before an individual case can be considered industrial action should stop? Will my right hon. Friend make it clear once again that the report is a serious attempt to examine the problem of differentials and is not just, as the Leader of the Opposition seems to think, a short-term expedient for a super-Wilberforce?

The Prime Minister

The House will have had the opportunity to study the report in detail. It points out the difficulties of dealing with matters of relativities. It sets out machinery by which not only the position of a particular group of workers can be considered but their relationship to other groups as well. We know, of course, from the discussions on anomalies, that a number of groups of workers wish to be considered in this respect. The report proposes permanent continuing machinery. I have proposed urgent action to the TUC and the CBI and have suggested a meeting, if they accept the principles of the report, in order to get the machinery set up.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Prime Minister aware that all these meetings which have taken place between the CBI and the TUC, organised to save his own political skin, have not deceived the nation, least of all the miners in their ballot today? If the right hon. Gentleman wants to settle the miners' dispute he will take some cash with him to the next meeting. Does he recall that when he dragged Britain into the Common Market it cost the taxpayers £100 million for the French farmers, and that it has cost another £105 million to buy off the Shah of Persia? Why cannot the right hon. Gentleman find £90 million for the British miners?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong in the allegations he has made. He does no credit to the members of the TUC, who have carried on with these meetings over a period of 21 months, when he suggests that in fact they were being deceived.

Mr. Adley

While welcoming the relativities proposals as what could be a major social reform, may I ask my right hon. Friend to inquire whether the Leader of the Opposition will accept them now? Does not my right hon. Friend agree that if, instead of waiting 18 months after an industrial dispute had been festering, the Leader of the Opposition had repudiated the likes of Mr. McGahey from the start, we might not be in the present industrial situation?

The Prime Minister

I indicated on Monday that we welcome the report We asked the Pay Board last March to make a report and we published it at the earliest possible moment. We sent it to the CBI and the TUC, and I indicated last Monday and again on Tuesday that I believe in its value and importance for dealing with these very difficult problems of relativities. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, in the letter he sent to me, also urged that the CBI and the TUC, and others concerned, should meet at the earliest opportunity in order to get efforts under way. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that if the CBI and the TUC can accept the principles of the report we can get down to business.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I warmly welcome the fact that he responded speedily to the letter I sent him on Tuesday evening—[Interruption.]—a point made by the Secretary of State for Employment on television last night? Would he agree that the House should not at this stage rush to a quick judgment on the proposals put to the TUC and the CBI or prejudge the very important decisions they have to take? Does he agree that the proposals are far-reaching and need a great deal of careful consideration, which all of us hope the TUC and the CBI will give them? Does he further agree that in certain aspects—not all—these proposals are essentially medium-term, as the right hon. Gentleman has made clear, and would carry with them long-term implications? Therefore, they must be seriously considered.

Because they are mainly medium- and long-term, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that they provide no answer—this was the point in my letter—to the coal dispute, which is of transcendent urgency? Is he further aware that neither of his proposals in respect of coal, which assume a prior and unconditional withdrawal of any strike action which there may be and a return to systematic overtime working, meets the situation, because his first alternative—that is, to take the stage 3 coal board offer and then to have discussions about a rosier long-term future for the industry—has been rejected fiat by the NUM a dozen times? [Interruption.] This is an important matter, and I hope that hon. Gentlemen will shut up.

The second proposal—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman takes this matter seriously. The second proposal, not even to be freely negotiated with the coal board, means the preparation of a case and its submission to the relativities board, which is not yet set up, and which would require legislation and a great deal of organisation. Knowing, as he does, that industry is facing great problems and the country is facing acute industrial peril, will he agree that the Government ought to have, as I asked in my letter, proposals relevant to what could easily become a four- or five-day time scale?

While the TUC and the CBI are seriously considering the proposals, as we hope they will, will the right hon. Gentleman consider the problem of providing for the possibility of serious negotiation after the ballot, if the executive gets the authority to hold a strike, before the beginning of any such strike?

Mr. Jennings

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it right that any hon. Member of this House, whether from the Front Bench or the back benches, should take up so long, whatever the merits of the question? Is it right that he should take up such a long time in the 15 minutes allowed for Prime Minister's Questions?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a matter of order.

The Prime Minister

The House will recall that I said on Monday, and again in the House on Tuesday, that I believed that the relativities report from the Pay Board provided the right way of building on the proposal of the TUC, because it covers the relationship between all the related groups and does not take one group in isolation. The House knows that the TUC said that it could not go further at that stage. I believe this is the right way of dealing with it. In this I thought I was in agreement with the right hon. Gentleman, but I must say that there seems to be a considerable difference in tone in what he has been saying now compared with what was in his letter. In the letter he asked me even as we have urged, while the miners' ballot is proceeding, to bring together, as a matter of urgency, and to consult, all the parties relevant to the relativities report". I understood that I was in agreement and in accord with him in what I have done in asking the TUC and the CBI to come together and agree on the principle, so that we can then set up the machinery.

Surely this is the right way of proceeding. Under the incomes policy at the moment, we have stage 3, under which, as I constantly tell the House, more than 5 million people have settled. Any offer under stage 3 is available to the miners. Beyond that, if they believe that their relativity is not right, they can immediately go to the board—whatever is agreed between the TUC, the CBI and the Government. Alternatively, they can immediately start discussions with the NCB and the Government on pay structure. They have these two very clear alternatives. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will pursue the line of thought in his letter rather than what he has been saying, and urge the miners to do that.

Mr, Wilson

Briefly—of course, I agree, and I said I welcomed the response to the letter. In his attempt to speed things up the right hon. Gentleman was responding. Is he not aware that what he has asked the TUC and the CBI to consider, even apparently as a qualification for having a meeting, is something so fundamental and long term that he is asking them to carry through major changes which will last for a long time in the future? Could not he have interpreted the relativities report as I hoped he would, in terms of the emergency procedure suggested rather than in terms of fundamental changes in the whole legislative machinery of the country?

The Prime Minister

As for the point about setting up machinery, it is clear that as soon as it is in operation it can deal with cases which come before it. Is it asking too much that the miners should take the offer within stage 3—either the offer that they have been made or, as they are entitled to do, one which they may re-jig at their own arrangement with the NCB, and then, if they believe their relativity is not right, to use this machinery? Is it asking too much that they should do that rather than, if the ballot allows them, plunge the nation into a national strike?

Sir R. Cary

May I ask whether the relativities report would enable cash to be put on the table within a reasonable time—so reasonable that the miners' leaders would be unwise to refuse to negotiate?

The Prime Minister

My view is that if the miners' leaders believe that their relativity is not satisfied under stage 3 it would be unreasonable if they did not then go to the relativities board—it remains to be settled whether it would be the Pay Board or another board—and put their case. As to the result, obviously I cannot anticipate. It is right that the board should consider it in relation to other working groups.

Mr. Edelman

While the longer-term question of relativities is being discussed will the right hon. Gentleman consider appointing an ad hoc conciliation commission, under a neutral chairman, similar to the Buckmaster Commission, which was extremely successful in settling a national coal strike? Will he use such machinery to obtain an interim agreement as a matter of urgency? Is he aware that he now has a choice between conciliation and calamity?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman has a Question on the Order Paper to be answered later dealing with this matter. What he is proposing as an ad hoc arrangement is something which deals with a single case in isolation and pays no regard to others related to it. The net result of that is that we would immediately get leap-frogging with other groups who were discontented with their relativity. That is bound to be an inflationary process. It was to get away from this inflationary pressure that we asked the Pay Board to examine the question of relativities. It is in answer to that request that it produced its report, which sets out, in our view, in basic principle the right machinery for dealing with this question.