HC Deb 23 June 1977 vol 933 cc1734-40
Q2. Mr. Canavan

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for 23rd June.

The Prime Minister

This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be holding further meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. This evening I shall be greeting Her Majesty the Queen on her arrival at Barry Docks.

Mr. Canavan

Will the Prime Minister find time to visit the Grunwick picket line to get a fairer assessment of the situation than the Tory Leader, who sends her lackeys and message boys to support a ruthless employer, or the other member of the Shadow Cabinet, the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph), who does not have the guts to withdraw his unsubstantiated allegations about the Secretary of State for Employment using unfair, very foul and illegal methods to coerce people into joining trade unions?

The Prime Minister

I shall not visit the picket line at Grunwick. I understand, and I am very glad to hear, that the General Secretary of APEX has now decided—I think that I made the suggestion to him first—that he should identify pickets by arm bands or in some other way so that those who latch on to this in order to turn an industrial dispute into a political battle—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—that applies to the National Association for Freedom as well as to the International Socialists—can be kept clear of this industrial dispute. [An HON. MEMBER: "Identify the police."] I hope—I say this because I think that this situation is getting extremely serious —that legitimate pickets, properly identified, can be allowed to operate. Those who wish to demonstrate in support of the workers who have been dismissed at this factory should be separately organised into a demonstration and clearly distinguished from the pickets. That would make the job of the police very much easier in trying to sort out this dispute.

As regards the interjection about identifying the police, every police officer carries a number as a means of identification. [HON. MEMBERS: "Not plainclothes men."] If there are complaints about their behaviour, they can be properly investigated through the new machinery which has recently been set up. That is the way to handle it.

Mrs. Thatcher

May I ask the Prime Minister, arising out of the answer he has just given, whether he is really asking people not to join the picket lines —he recognises that numbers themselves can be intimidating and can obstruct— and that he wishes to give his full support to the police in the way in which they are carrying out their dangerous duties?

Mr. Flannery

They are hooligans: we saw them.

Mrs. Thatcher

What action does the right hon. Gentleman propose to take to protect the right of the law-abiding citizen to go peacefully to work?

The Prime Minister

I notice that the right hon. Lady issued a statement to the Press last night, although it was totally unnecessary to do so. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] It was another example of politicians latching on to this dispute. The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and his officers are in no doubt about the position and the Government's support. This is my reply to the right hon. Lady, because she may have overlooked the fact that her deputy leader asked a question about this on Monday and was given a clear reply about the support which was being given by the Home Secretary and by the Government to police officers.

I am glad to know, from the statement that the right hon. Lady issued, her indication of support for the Government's attitude in this matter. [An HON. MEMBER: "Now answer the question".] I am answering the question by saying that the right hon. Lady, with her statement last night, was doing no more than repeating the statement which had been made by the Home Secretary. But now that she has intruded on this dispute which has been going on for 44 weeks, and now that she is supporting this matter, will she also make it clear that she gives total support to the view that anyone is entitled to join a trade union and should not be dismissed for doing so?

Mr. Mike Thomas

She is an opportunist.

Mrs. Thatcher

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the scenes which have been shown almost daily outside Grunwick have been and are most alarming to the public, and that so far we have had no total condemnation of intimidation and violence on the picketing lines from the Prime Minister—no condemnation at all? Will he now answer my question about what action he proposes to take to protect the rights of the law-abiding citizen to go to work peacefully? Will he also remember that, when he was asked about Ministers joining the picket line before, he did not condemn them for joining it but even invited other people to go as well?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Lady reinforces my view that she is trying to turn this matter into a political battle. I agree entirely that this is a most serious issue, and that is why I resent the politicians who latch on to it. As regards the members of the Administration who went on to the picket line, they were members of APEX, members of the union, at a time when the dispute was being peacefully conducted. Now, it is not being peacefully conducted, and I therefore believe that it is necessary to separate legitimate and authorised pickets from those who latch on to it. That seems to me the best way of doing it.

As regards protecting the citizens who want to go to work, it is the job of the police to do that and also to protect the right of peaceful picketing.

Mr. Adley

Without bottles.

The Prime Minister

Of course without bottles. Why does the hon. Gentleman make such obvious remarks? Does he think that it is necessary for me to stand here and defend the police from being hit over the head with bottles? [Interruption]. Hon. Members should try to calm this thing down. It could become extremely serious. I am not addressing myself to anyone in particular except, for the moment, those who are bellowing from the Opposition Benches. I have suggested that Mr. Grantham should try, with the Commissioner of Police, to limit the number of pickets in this matter, that they should agree who they should be, that they should be easily identified and that others should stay away or demonstrate in a different way. There is really no need to try to make this situation worse. It will get bad enough and we should try to keep the temperature down.

Mr. Pavitt

May I assure my right hon. Friend that, except for last Monday week, there has been a clear distinction between the six Gujerati pickets —girls of about 4 ft. 8 in.—and the large mass demonstration which exists on the other side of the picket lines? May I thank the police for their courtesy? When I and my colleagues seek to talk to the picket lines, we are permitted to do so and we do so and we come away.

May I also assure my right hon. Friend that we are most grateful for the fact that, when there was a breakdown of communications with the police last Monday week, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was able to repair it and Mr. Roy Grantham was then able to speak to responsible officers, which he had not been able to do before that time? As a result, although there have been problems with the demonstration since then, the relations between the official union and the police have gone on very well in spite of the difficulties which both sides are suffering

The Prime Minister

I am obliged to my hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about this matter and has not tried to exacerbate the issue in any way—in contradistinction to some others. I want to make it clear to him that the police have very clear instructions. They are carrying out their difficult task. Complaints will be investigated. If they are made in the proper form, they will be carried through.

On the general situation, it seems deplorable that after this dispute has been going on for 44 weeks, and on three occasions at least in the last few years people have been dismissed for joining a union, it has had to come to this before we could get people talking about it, as they have been doing this afternoon.

Mr. Brittan

Does the Prime Minister agree that one reason why this dispute has become violent, when it was not violent before, is that it has attracted a great amount of publicity? One of the reasons contributing to that publicity was the presence of three Cabinet Ministers on the picket line. In view of that, will not the Prime Minister agree in retrospect that the presence of those Ministers was most unwise?

The Prime Minister

No. Anybody is entitled to picket peacefully—even the hon. Member, the Leader of the Opposition or myself. I hope to hear from at least one hon. Member opposite this afternoon that the Opposition deplore what has happened in this factory, where workers who simply wanted to join a trade union were dismissed for that reason.

Mr. Skinner

I have been invited on two or three occasions to visit Grunwick at a time when very few people were taking much interest in the situation there. Does the Prime Minister agree that the fact that there are 1½ million people on the dole has not helped and that it is inviting people like Mr. Ward to recruit cheap labour? We passed the Employment Protection Act to deliver the basic freedom for people to organise. Is the Prime Minister aware that on 16th May this year the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior), who is Opposition spokesman on employment, issued a letter in which he urged acceptance of the ACAS Report at that time? The Leader of the Opposition should stand up today and announce that she agrees with the acceptance of that report—not five weeks ago, as her right hon. Friend did, but now, when the matter is most important.

The Prime Minister

I have already expressed my view. I have always felt that the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) had an understanding of industrial problems. I was not surprised when he issued a statement before the court case saying that in his view, ACAS should be recognised. Is there not one man to be found on the Opposition Benches who will stand up and say this this afternoon.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Before I call the Private Notice question—[Interruption.]

Mrs. Thatcher

Am I right, Mr. Speaker, in thinking that the ACAS Report is in dispute and that the matter is before the court and has been set down for hearing?

The Prime Minister rose


Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Lady is quite correct. As I said in my ruling last week, any reference to the ACAS position would be out of order because the matter is sub judice.

The Prime Minister

Are you aware, Mr. Speaker, that the question that I asked the Leader of the Opposition was whether she supported the management of Grunwick in dismissing workers who join a trade union? That has nothing to do with recognition.

Hon Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Before I call the Private Notice Question, let me remind the House that it is concerned solely with the Post Office side.