HC Deb 10 July 1974 vol 876 cc1370-6
The Minister of State, Civil Service Department (Mr. Robert Sheldon)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

The supply of Government papers to Parliament and members of the public is still being affected by the industrial action of members of the National Graphical Association in Her Majesty's Stationery Office's printing works in support of a claim for improved pay and conditions.

HMSO has sought the assistance of the conciliation services of the Department of Employment to try to resolve the issue, but despite meetings with the officials of the National Graphical Association no settlement has been reached. The NGA members, who represent about 40 per cent. of the staff of the Parliamentary Press, have now imposed a stoppage until midnight tomorrow.

Copies of the documents essential to the business of the House will continue to be made available, in limited quantities, in one form or another.

Members may also wish to note that, to assist those outside the House specially interested in the Finance Bill, a limited number of copies will be available at the Treasury on the basis of one or two copies per caller.

Mr. Prior

Is the Minister aware that I have only just received a copy of his statement? I do not know whether that is due to the printing dispute. What is the reason for this industrial action? Can the hon. Gentleman say what is the cause of it? Can he also say what extra efforts can be made to ensure that copies of the documents which are available, as he says, in one form or another are improved? If the hon. Gentleman cares to look, for example, at the copy of the Rent Bill which is now available, he will see the reason for my question. It is in a form which is fairly impossible to decipher.

This is a great inconvenience to the House. It is the kind of inconvenience to which industry and commerce have been subjected for a long time, and this House is now having to put up with it as well. Month after month and year after year, we as a nation are getting these problems. It is time that the nation as a whole took a grip on itself and surmounted them.

Mr. Sheldon

I must apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for the lateness of his receipt of the statement. It was due to an effort to give to the House the latest information available and an attempt to give the fullest possible details that were available to me personally.

The right hon. Gentleman asks whether the form in which papers are being produced can be improved. Some improvement has taken place. The right hon. Gentleman will recognise some of the improvements which have been made in the production of the Order Paper as well as in producing the Finance Bill which came subsequent to some of the other Bills that were produced in this way.

I regret as much as anyone the inconvenience to the House. This is a matter which we have to deal with, as it had to be dealt with by the previous Government. We have tried to produce papers in the way best suited to hon. Members.

As for the cause of the dispute, as I said in my statement this is a dispute over the terms and conditions of the National Graphical Association by comparison with those alleged to have been received by members of the NGA in other parts of the London area in particular. It must be seen against the background of recent disputes in the printing industry generally, and especially in the area of London itself.

Mr. David Steel

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that this House has been very tolerant over these matters, both currently and in the past? Will he see whether an attempt can be made to improve the flow of certain documents which are not available at all? I understand that there are no reports available of meetings of the Scottish Grand Committee—even for the limited number of Scottish Members who would want them, assuming that they are not generally required by the House. Are there individual matters in which limited quantities of documents might be made available?

Mr. Sheldon

In fact a wide range of documents is available. Concerning the specific items to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, the Housing (Scotland) Bill comes to mind a number of copies are available. If there are particular shortages that we have not been able to identify, we shall do our best to make sure that copies are available.

I want to pay tribute to the work both of the House and of those concerned in making sure that every arrangement which can be made is being made for the convenience of the House. There is a large amount of work involved. The process of getting documents right to the counter in the Members' Lobby is an immense task, and we should be grateful for the way it has been performed.

Mr. Cryer

Does not this dispute show that no government is possible without the consent and co-operation of working people? Will my hon. Friend comment on whether the situation is made better or worse by the fact that apparently this House is surviving on blackleg labour? Is he quite sure that this is not making the dispute worse?

Mr. Sheldon

All these essential papers to enable us to continue the business of the House from day to day are produced under the aegis of the House. This has been the practice in the past. We are not taking this work out of the control of the House, and this enables the work to proceed.

As for my hon. Friend's other comment, he is quite right. The dispute shows how democracy in this country works by consent. One of the problems which have arisen would have been much more readily solved if we were not living under the shadow of the pay policy of the previous administration.

Mr. Amery

The hon. Gentleman said that we had to look at this dispute in the context of the London decisions on pay. Ought we not also to look at it in the context of the survival of parliamentary democracy? Should not this House recognise that whereas the Nazis were never able to stop the publication of parliamentary papers we are experiencing such a stoppage now and that it is not possible for Parliament to continue for very long in these circumstances?

Mr. Sheldon

Naturally I regret as much as anyone in the House the interruption to the normal flow of papers. But it is not true to say that parliamentary democracy is being brought to a halt. The right hon. Gentleman exaggerates the position. We have available in one form or another all the essential papers required for our business from day to day. I think that that will continue to be the case.

Dr. M. S. Miller

In that connection, accepting that the House is under strain and that difficulties are involved, may I ask my hon. Friend to convey to the people engaged in producing those papers that they have our congratulations and thanks for the way in which they are producing them? We are not anything like as badly off as Opposition Members suggest.

Mr. Sheldon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for an opportunity to offer my congratulations to those people, some of whom are working as much as an 18-hour day, who have been responsible for the efforts to produce the papers of the House.

Mr. Michael Hamilton

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Ministers of whichever Government are in power make identical statements with depressing regularity about the printing situation, and that in all parts of the House we are getting rather tired of that situation? When will the hon. Gentleman tell us that he has plans for installing a printing works in our own premises?

Mr. Sheldon

It is a matter for the House and for you, Mr. Speaker, to make provisions of an alternative kind if necessary.

Mr. Rossi

The Minister has referred to the inconvenience to which Members are put. We are reaching the point at which it will be impossible for Members to do their work. I draw the Minister's attention particularly to the Bills with which I am concerned. The first is the Control of Pollution Bill [Lords] which has been out of Committee for almost two weeks. We have not seen one printed report of that Committee, but we shall have reached the Report stage within a week. How can hon. Members possibly prepare for the Report stage without seeing the report of the Committee to ascertain the Minister's assurances and undertakings?

The Rent Bill [Lords] has reached us as a photostat copy with clauses marked and struck out, other clauses inserted, whole pages inserted but not numbered, and with lines unnumbered. How can hon. Members possibly find their way through a document of that kind in order to deal with the Bill at the Committee stage, which I understand the Government are anxious to bring on as quickly as possible? How can hon. Members consider that Bill in detail when they have had no opportunity of studying what the other place did with it during the Committee and Report stages, because the copies of those reports, too, are not generally available?

Mr. Sheldon

The reports of the second and third sittings of the Standing Committee on the Control of Pollution Bill are now available in the Vote Office. The third sitting was completed only last week and the report will shortly be available. I shall go into the question how soon this can be made available in the Vote Office for the use of Members.

Regarding the form in which some of the Bills have been presented, I regret as much as anyone else that documents have not appeared in the normal printed form to which we are accustomed. But hon. Members will see that the documents are perfectly legible. This matter can, of course, be debated.

I am grateful to those people who have made it possible for us to discuss these Bills.

Mr. Skinner

Would my hon. Friend agree that this is another example of the cant and hypocrisy of Members opposite, many of whom do not turn up for work half the week any way? Does the inconvenience suffered not pale into in significance in comparison with the inconvenience caused to millions of working people throughout this country a few months ago when the then Government put those people on a three-day working week?

Mr. Sheldon

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend concerning the relative scale of the inconvenience suffered by Parliament and the people of this country.

The other thing that might be said with some value is that the pay policy which produced the three-day week has also been a contributory factor to this debate.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

Could we have an assurance that when the problem is over we shall receive printed copies quickly? There seems to be some doubt about that at the Vote Office. We shall all be patient if we know that we shall receive our copies eventually.

Would the Minister ask his ministerial colleagues, when replying to points and referring to dated copies, to give us some guidance? When one receives an enormous document one finds it very difficult to discover the answer.

Lastly, is this not perhaps an example of the over-centralisation of printing? Would the Minister consider that a solution might be to spread the work around so that we are never dependent on one industrial area?

Mr. Sheldon

If the hon. Lady is concerned that work should be done out of London, then she has a great supporter in the present Government who are anxiously pursuing this aim in the more general sense.

I am happy to give an assurance that the OFFICIAL REPORT and other essential Parliamentary papers will be printed when the dispute ends.

The hon. Lady asked for further details to be given so that Members could find their way about the documents and some of the papers being produced. I will go into that suggestion and consider what might be done.

Mr. Goodhew

When the Minister of State, Civil Service Department, spoke just now he suggested that it was a question for you, Mr. Speaker, whether there should be any change in the arrangements for the printing of our papers such as the installation of a printing press here. Could you enlighten hon. Members whether they have the power to ask you to do that or whether it is the responsibility of the Government?

Mr. Speaker

I think hon. Members have the power to ask me to do anything. Whether I would answer the question is another matter. I am, of course, prepared to take advice from the usual channels and the Services Committee, on the work of the House. But I would take no action such as proposed unless it had the authority of the House.