HC Deb 31 July 1974 vol 878 cc874-81
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

Before I call the hon. Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Grant) I will repeat the timings, which have been altered since the original list was issued. This debate will take place between 3.20 p.m. and 3.47 p.m., to be divided between the hon. Member and the Minister.

3.20 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Grant (Harrow, Central)

I am grateful to the Minister of State for the Civil Service Department for attending to answer the debate and for the opportunity to raise a matter that is as scandalous as it is absurd. I refer to the question of Her Majesty's Stationery Office and in particular the Stationery Office in the constituency of Harrow. The general situation concerning the trouble in the printing industry will be well known to the House. Today marks the sixth week since Parliament has been deprived of its papers as a result of this dispute.

Great inconvenience has been caused to Members, Ministers, the Civil Service and the many people and bodies outside the House who depend for the administration of this country upon the proper printing of documents to carry out their important business. In addition, the position is getting worse because the Post Office is being affected. Telephone directories are three months late in being delivered and I understand that stocks of postal orders, Giro cheques and National Savings certificates are liable to be exhausted within a few days.

I am grateful to one of my hon. Friends who winkled out of the Minister by way of a Question recently the reply that no less than £8,000 a week was being paid by the taxpayer to an agency for typists and workers to assist in the situation which has arisen as a result of the dispute in the printing industry.

I accept that those stoppages have happened before. For all the time that I have been in Parliament at some stage a Minister has had to get up and apologise for the inconvenience caused. But it has never before been on this scale in my experience. In my 10 years in the House I do not recall a longer period during which Parliament and the public have been deprived of the necessary papers with which to work.

What matters now is what the Government are to do about the future. This is an appalling way to run the affairs of our country in 1974. It is all caused by an absurd inter-union squabble within the printing industry. Not only Members of Parliament and civil servants are being inconvenienced. Worse than the inconvenience, the disputes are causing great hardship to innocent people working within the industry, many of whom are my constituents working at Her Majesty's Stationery Office at Harrow.

This brings me to the constituency interest I want to raise. The dispute in Harrow is now in its 18th week. The row is between two unions, SOGAT and the National Graphical Association. It concerns the manning of the new Linotron machine of which the only one is in the Stationery Office at Wealdstone. When it originally came the unions ordained from on high that SOGAT should man the machine in London and the NGA should man it outside London. The NGA apparently manned it successfully without trouble for 10 months.

Then in some mysterious way which I do not understand the disputes which were raging among those working on the Financial Times and I believe The Times were transferred to Harrow. I am told by the workpeople there that the dispute was transferred to Harrow because that was the only place in which the machine was operating. The SOGAT workers at Harrow came out on strike. This was a strike at national level, as a result of which the women were paid strike pay. The men were subsidised by being given extra work from the newspapers. After four weeks they told the management at Harrow that they would come in and work normally, but after working for only 10 minutes they asked whether the work in question had come from the Linotron machine and, when they were informed that it had, they immediately blacked the work. There has been no production of telephone directories since then. The men who refused to do the work are still out in dispute and at present NGA and SOGAT are still not speaking to one another to try to resolve the dispute.

The TUC is either unwilling or unable to take part in the problem. While I am not necessarily referring to the Minister present today, the Government and Ministers generally appear to be as hypnotised by this important trade union dispute as a rabbit is by a stoat. The result of this appalling inactivity is that engineers and other tradesmen in the works, mostly in the maintenance department—people who are my constituents—are being deprived of £20 a week and more, money which they need to live on. They are innocent parties and have no control over the situation which is causing them great hardship. They are so concerned that they wrote to the Secretary of State for Employment on 9th June. One of their leaders stated in the letter: I'm writing on behalf of my fellow workmates and myself from the Engineers' Department, from HM Stationery Office, Wealdstone … to ask if you are aware of the existing situation we are in. This is the tenth week of interunion dispute not of our making"— this was written on 9th June, and many more weeks have since passed— We are given to believe that this dispute came from the Financial Times newspaper, but with The Times already in financial trouble the newspapers and the unions then transferred it to HMSO, Harrow Press, and now we go it alone. The unions, NGA and SOGAT, are not talking and management are saying that it is out of their hands. The rumours and general talk is that the Harrow Press will close down or that it will die a slow death. Already the young people are leaving, and Harrow Press is now becoming like an old people's home just waiting for the undertaker … We hope you may be able to inform us, do we work and live again, or do we die the slow death the rumours say? A reply to that letter was made on 25th June from an official who stated merely that the Secretary of State was aware of the problems and that the Minister of State, who had particular responsibility for industrial relations matters had been concerned in the dispute for some time and that arrangements had been made for a general meeting with the two unions on 26th June. The meeting took place and the Minister of State took the chair, but absolutely nothing happened and the dispute still goes on.

The Government have been appallingly complacent and ineffective in this dispute. It is not sufficient for a Minister to take a chair at a meeting and then for the Government to hope against hope that the matter will be resolved. The Government are the employers in this case. This is not private industry. The Government have a duty to the public and to the innocent work people concerned to resolve this farcical union row.

If this is to be the pattern of union activity and Government inactivity in the future, woe betide us if we get more nationalisation. What has happened to those brave words about the Government being able to deal better with the unions and with cases of intransigence in interunion squabbles which affect many people? I ask the Minister to say what comfort he can give those of my constituents who are innocent parties to the dispute but who are losing £20 a week because of flatters outside their control. These people want to work normally. I ask the hon. Gentleman what the Government are doing to give Parliament and the public the services which in this day and age they are entitled to.

2.30 p.m.

The Minister of State, Civil Service Department (Mr. Robert Sheldon)

The hon. Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Grant) has used some very colourful language in describing the problems of Harrow. I do not wish to refer to those remarks, but I take the opportunity of correcting some of the mis-statements he has made about parliamentary papers in particular. That is a rather different matter from the one he raised concerning the Harrow Press. Parliamentary papers are produced at St. Stephen's Press. The dispute is not, and has not been, an inter-union dispute at all.

I also offer my gratitude to the staff of HMSO for the magnificent work that has been carried out by the use of emergency arrangements whereby, in one way or another, we have been able to produce the essential parliamentary papers without which much of our business could not have been done so effectively.

Although these problems have occurred in the past, this year they have been greater than on any previous occasions. They have been all the greater because, coming at the end of the Session, they have arrived at a time when a large amount of legislation was going through the House, entailing an inordinate amount of extra printing. When Bills are amended, for example, they have to be reprinted. The sheer physical amount of papers presented for the use of hon. Members presented great difficulties because the management of the Vote Office does not usually allow for this kind of bulky storage.

I come now to the Harrow Press. It is one of our older presses. It was started up in 1917, on the present site. It is also one of the largest of our presses, of which we have eight. We employ about 750 staff at Harrow, where they print telephone directories, and so on. The Harrow Press started to print telephone directories in 1920.

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

Before the hon. Gentleman goes to Harrow, will he give an assurance that copies of HANSARD will be retrospectively published?

Mr. Sheldon

I am happy to give that assurance. All the printing will be completed at the end of the dispute, including all the printing required in permanent form—HANSARD, Bills and other publications forming the permanent record of the House.

With the enormous increase in printing requirements, a new press was set up in Gateshead in 1969, and it, too, prints telephone directories. The method of printing was very different there from that undertaken at the Harrow Press. At Gateshead we use the latest techniques in photo-composition, rotary presses and mechanised binding. There are over 400 employees there. We have enjoyed harmonious relations in the past, but at Gateshead we had the advantage of not having to introduce new techniques. We enjoyed great success in Gateshead. In view of our happy experience there, naturally, when considering the old machinery at Harrow, we sought to bring about a comparable change in the Harrow Press. The new machinery which has been installed there was to provide the necessary mechanisation and improvements.

The bringing of new processes to areas where existing methods have been used for a long time cannot fail to be other than complicated. The working practices have fundamentally changed. Before the introduction of the new techniques, we had hot metal typesetting, and old printing machines using metal printing plates. That equipment is to be replaced by new computer-assisted typesetting and magnetic tapes with large rotary printing machines using photopolymer printing plates.

Arrangements were made to inform the staff accordingly and to try to effect the transition from one method of printing to another. Progress was made over a number of agreements for the operation of the new machinery, but it was not completed. In certain respects we were not able to make satisfactory arrangements. Meanwhile, printing continued on the old machines. Recently the progress has been hampered by the dispute.

It is of crucial importance in industrial relations to understand what happens as a result of the introduction of new techniques. The members of the unions concerned undertook years of apprenticeship of the most skilled kind, expecting a lifetime career in the use of those skills. The threat to their expertise and craft hit them very sorely. Problems arose not only because of the redundancy which would follow from the greater efficiency but because of the fundamental changes in techniques, possibly more fundamental than those concerned with the introduction of almost any other techniques in modern industry. We tried to make the changes more acceptable by retraining. We believe that change is, and should be, an ally, but it must be understood that the position of people whose skill has been acquired over many years poses great problems.

I turn to the question of the present production of the telephone directories and the settlement of the dispute. Phase 3 problems arose throughout industry, and the rigidities inherent in this method of trying to determine income posed particular difficulties for the Stationery Office. When trying to introduce a new technique, the last thing one wants is the rigidity of pay control. One tries to do a deal with people anxious about their future. The only way to settle their anxiety is by having the maximum amount of flexibility available. One can settle their natural anxiety and also seek to make long-term changes in pay structure to enable a number of things to be possible which may not otherwise follow.

When there is in existence a pay control which says rigidly that pay cannot be increased by more than X per cent. one cannot do a long-term deal, without which no rearrangement or restructuring will be possible. That is the reason for the difficulties in HMSO. Those difficulties are closely connected and indeed intimately associated with the viewpoint of the Conservatives and the legacy which they left us involving rigidities of pay and lack of flexibility. When the hon. Gentleman referred—and rightly referred—to the problems of the Department of Employment in trying to reach an understanding, he left out the fact that the law of the country precluded the kind of arrangement which should have been possible. Up to the past few days that flexibility has been denied to negotiators and the fact that we have been unable to reach any kind of agreement is a direct consequence of that legislation.

We must remember that a system of rigid pay controls works well in industries which do not change and which year by year continue to produce the same articles and to use the same methods. In such an industry it is easy to compare one person's work with another, but the system is negated in an industry where change occur constantly. In an industry, such as HMSO, where printing presses are involved and where there are fundamental changes affecting the basis of a worker's skill and his future and where the maximum amount of flexibility will be required, the phase 3 regulations hit most severely.

The view of the Stationery Office is that when we are able to resolve the outstanding issues successfully the production of telephone directories will be undertaken at Harrow. Workers will continue on the same scale as previously and there will be an opportunity in future for increased output—which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome in the interests of his constituents.

With regard to the ending of the problems which we have had to face, it must be said that the conclusion of phase 3 and the passing of the rigidities involved will mean that negotiations will now take place. I look forward to discussions aimed at reaching a solution of these serious matters.

The hon. Gentleman sought to compare the Stationery Office printing presses with the situation in newspaper production, particularly newspapers in London. He was right to say that it is not easy to isolate problems in the printing industry in the London area. We saw the problems experienced at IPC in Watford, for example, and those in the newspaper industry in London. In passing, I point out that the Sun did not appear this morning. We are not immune from changes of this kind. In fact the very basis of the way in which the Stationery Office works is rather one of comparison than of setting trends in the commercial printing world, and that means that this is an even more important factor than would otherwise be the case.

Phase 3 has ended. Negotiations will take place. I hope that they will be conducted in a spirit of good will and with the understanding that many more opportunities are available in the negotiations which will start this week than were available last week. In view of those factors, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will find himself able to welcome the ending of phase 3 and the difficulties that it brought about.

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