HC Deb 07 December 1978 vol 959 cc1623-6

Mr. Patrick Jenkin (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a statement about the continuing disruption of hospital services by members of NUPE at West London and Charing Cross hospitals.

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. David Ennals)

I deplore the outbreak of unofficial industrial action at the West London and Charing Cross hospitals which is depriving patients of treatment. I understand that the action is a protest against the dismissal of three employees from the West London hospital. There are established procedures in the National Health Service which protect staff against unfair dismissal. These have not been used, although management has made clear its willingness to set up an appeals panel immediately.

The action of NUPE members at the West London hospital is having little effect on patient services there. Pickets from the AUEW and EEPTU at Charing Cross hospital are turning away deliveries and, as a result, shortage of essential supplies are limiting surgery to urgent cases.

I understand that local discussions are going on at present and I hope that these will be successful in resolving the dispute. I renew my appeal to the staff concerned to return to work immediately in order that services to patients may be resumed in both hospitals as quickly as possible.

Mr. Jenkin

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the House will warmly endorse his condemnation of this unofficial action? But will he go further? Will he say whether he unequivocally supports management in seeking to discipline staff who have acted illegally and dangerously in switching off the boilers at the West London hospital last month, to the immediate danger of patients?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the two union officials involved, Mr. Hunt and Mr. Penfold, who have been willing to use the appeals procedure to which he has referred in respect of members of the union, have been totally unwilling to use it in respect of themselves?

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that the area officer of NUPE, Mr. Bernie Grant, has claimed to management that whatever his union officials may have done, whether it be illegal or otherwise, they are fully protected in law under the present Government's legislation? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, if that is in fact right, he and his colleagues bear a heavy responsibility for what is now happening?

How much longer have patients in the Health Service to go on putting up with strike-happy union branches using these patients as pawns in their struggles?

Mr. Ennals

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has used this as an occasion for delivering a lecture on his experience of industrial action. He will know that I strongly condemned the action when it was originally taken and the boilers were switched off. I made clear yesterday my attitude to the action that has been taken now, and I think that it is pretty clear that the public also know the attitude taken by the Secretary of State for Social Services.

I have also made it clear that the management has offered, straight away, to set in motion the appeals panel procedure and that it applies now. I think that to make further comment when negotiations are taking place at this time would not ease the matter. After all, this is a local dispute, and it is right that it should be resolved locally.

When the right hon. Gentleman says"How much longer?" I must make two points to him. First, of course a dispute such as this receives enormous publicity. It is right that it should receive it, because I think that it is deplorable. But, in general, the record of industrial action in the Health Service is not that which is conveyed by right hon. and hon. Members of the Opposition. Secondly, in terms of what action I should take, the right hon. Gentleman well knows that, as a result of discussions that I had with the leaders of the unions and the leaders of the professions, there is now being considered by the general Whitley Council a new disputes procedure to operate at a local level, which I believe when carried out will remove this sort of disturbance.

Mr. Michael Stewart

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that at Charing Cross hospital it is not members of NUPE who are taking part in this action, as erroneously suggested by the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin)? Everyone will support my right hon. Friend's appeal for the use of the proper procedures. There is some hope of solving this dispute provided that it is not exacerbated by unnecessary questions in this House.

Mr. Ennals

I very much agree with the point made by my right hon. Friend. I hope that the House will respect this, because I hope that the talks that are taking place now will lead to an end of the dispute.

In relation to the situation at Charing Cross, pickets at the hospital, from two engineering unions, as I have said—the AUEW and the EEPTU—are preventing supplies being sent in. Urgent surgery is still taking place, but non-urgent admissions have been stopped. As supplies run short, it will be progressively more difficult to maintain services, and it is not certain that all surgical lists can be maintained tomorrow, even for urgent cases. That emphasises the importance of reaching a solution today.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call one more question from each side of the House.

Mr. Crouch

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is enormous public concern these days that whenever there is a dispute in the Health Service, however local it is, it is brought at once to his attention and the attempt to deal with it is at the Secretary of State level? The real way of dealing wih these disputes is at a local level. Will the right hon. Gentleman go out of his way to emphasise that he is devolving responsibility in this way, so that disputes are settled at a local level?

Mr. Ennals

It was certainly not my wish that this issue should be brought before the House today. It was the decision of the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) to raise it. I agree absolutely that these are local disputes. That is why I emphasise that the machinery exists for dealing with them. That machinery should be used, and it is not for this House to decide how to conduct industrial relations in such a dispute.

Mr. Faulds

Does my right hon. Friend realise that most of us on the Government Benches believe that any picketing activities, in support of unofficial action, which endanger the lives of patients are totally unacceptable?

Mr. Ennals

I very much welcome my hon. Friend's point. I entirely agree with him.

Mr. Speaker

I call Mr. Patrick Jenkin to conclude.

Mr. Jenkin

The Secretary of State has sought to challenge my right to bring this matter to the Floor of the House. Is he aware that he has signally failed to answer my point—that Government Ministers are contributing to this situation by the legislation that they have passed, and that the trade unions are claiming immunity under that legislation?

Mr. Ennals

I did not for one moment challenge the right of the right hon. Member to bring this matter before the House. I was responding to a question put by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch), who argued that these were local matters which should be dealt with locally.