HC Deb 04 November 1977 vol 938 cc159-62

Mr. Ryman (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement concerning the power workers' dispute and its effect on energy supplies.

The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn)

As the House knows, the dispute in the electricity supply industry has led to a shortage of capacity of around 20 per cent. at peak demand times and, as a result, rota cuts have had to be introduced throughout the country.

The dispute arises because of claims made for concessionary electricity, greater shift allowances, and travel allowances for workers in the industry.

The National Joint Industrial Council met yesterday and of the three issues to which I have referred it was agreed that the travel allowance point should be put to me by both sides for consideration.

I met both sides yesterday and the Government consider that the problems of remote power stations already catered for in the 1974 agreement might best be handled by an allowance system rather than the subsidised public transport system which has proved expensive and ineffective.

The transport problems of remote power stations have long been recognised as deriving from the technical developments in the industry and the Government believe that negotiations to meet this problem, compatible with pay policy, are both possible and right. On this basis the Government join with the council and the unions in hoping that a return to normal working can begin at once.

Mr. Ryman

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, which is helpful to some extent. I ask him to consider the following points, which, in my respectful submission, are extremely important.

First, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that there are no interruptions in electricity supplies to hospitals that do not have generating machinery or where that machinery is too small to maintain a reliable electricity supply? Secondly, what steps are the Government taking to ensure an uninterrupted electricity supply to essential medical equipment outside hospitals, such as kidney machines?

Thirdly, why on earth has the Secretary of State not made some kind of public announcement prior to today? The nation, industry, hospitals and all our people are suffering great hardship for progressively longer periods each day and night. Although the negotiations no doubt are complicated, why on earth were the public not informed before I raised this question in the House? The position is intolerable. It is intolerable that the public should have to put up with this hardship and inconvenience without some leadership from the Government and the industry.

Mr. Benn

Discussions have been in progress and I have kept in continual contact both with the Council and the unions concerned. If the statement that I have made today is helpful, as I believe it to be, it offers the best way forward.

When they make disconnections, all electricity boards do so selectively with the object of maintaining supplies to vital consumers. However, it is not possible to guarantee supplies in all circumstances. That is the nature of the difficulty. Obviously, people should minimise to tin greatest extent possible the use of electricity in these circumstances for inessential purposes.

Mr. Hannam

Will the Secretary of State take note of the very widespread concern about the point raised by his hon. Friend the Member for Blyth (Mr. Ryman) that it appears that the Government have shown a great deal of apathy about the dangers of this dispute to many people and to many businesses and industries'? When will he acknowledge his responsibility to safeguard the public interest by ensuring that some system of early warning of these cuts is brought into effect?

Mr. Benn

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says. Where it has been possible, in circumstances of this kind, to prevent cuts in essential supplies, or, in the case of kidney machines, where they may not he in an area that can be protected in this way, the electricity boards have been doing their best to reduce the risk.

The real answer to this problem lies in an end to the dispute. My appeal today, both for people to minimise their use of electricity and for a resumption of normal working, is in my judgment the best way of dealing with the problem.

Mr. Pardoe

Does the Secretary of State agree that this action is as much against the men's own union as it is against their employers, but that, of course, it is the public who get hurt, as always? Is it not a fact that the unions and the employers are in negotiation and that the union is satisfied with both the progress and the pace of those negotiations so far'? Will the hon. Gentleman therefore condemn this practice of taking industrial action before normal negotiating procedures have had a chance to succeed?

Mr. Benn

I have appealed for a return to work. The House will know that the problems of the remote power stations are difficult for two reasons. First, the decision to move to the bigger stations has led to a reduction in the number of power stations of over half in the last 10 years. Secondly, in the case of nuclear power stations there are environmental reasons why the stations should be a long way from places of residence. This was recognised in 1974 when the subsidised public transport system was introduced for remote power stations. It has not proved effective, for reasons which I think are known to anyone who is familiar with the industry.

I hope that my statement today will be seen to recognise that special problem. However, we hope that on the basis of what I have said those concerned in the unofficial action will now resume normal working.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

When the Secretary of State pleads with the workers, who are defying their own union as much as their employers, will he make a particular point about the suffering of the very elderly? I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman has that in mind. The other day I came across the instance of a 90-year-old woman who has to use a walking stick and who is quite incapabie of lighting a candle, which makes it very difficult for her. Therefore, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reinforce the plea of both sides of the House to those on unofficial strike and will ask them not to do this to their fellow men and women.

Mr. Benn

I think that what the hon. Gentleman says—and I underline it—is that the electricity supply industry is engaged in providing essential services on which very large numbers of people, including the category to which he has referred, depend. That is very much in my mind and lies behind my statement today.

Mr. Eyre

Will the Minister particularly bear in mind the harm in densely populated areas of the Midlands which is caused to elderly and disabled people who live in large tower-block flats and are placed in an impossible situation when the essential services are denied to them?

Mr. Benn

Yes, of course. The problem of remote power stations is principally a Midland problem. Therefore, my statement today may go some way to meet the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.

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