HC Deb 04 July 1978 vol 953 cc209-11
4. Mr. Norman Atkinson

asked the Secretary of State for Employment what discussions he has had with the CBI and the TUC in regard to the introduction of the 35-hour week throughout industry; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Albert Booth)

I am in frequent contact with the TUC and the CBI about employment and industrial relations matters, and we have a common interest in clarifying the issues involved in reduction in the working week.

My hon. Friend will probably be aware of an article on work sharing published in the April edition of the Department of Employment Gazette which covered, among other things, the costs involved and concluded that a reduction in overtime might be the first priority. I welcome the TUC's recent initiative in seeking a reduction in the amount of overtime worked.

Mr. Atkinson

I am aware of the article to which my right hon. Friend refers. Does he recognise that, if manual workers are to take a fair share of the benefits accruing from technical advances, and if we are to increase employment in industry by 10 per cent, to overcome some of the worst unemployment difficulties, politicians must now come together with wage bargainers and trade unionists with a view to reducing the working week to 35 hours?

Mr. Booth

I agree that one of the benefits that we hope to get from technological advances is the reduction of the working life—possibly the reduction of the number of working hours, as well as consideration of the options for early retirement. In the current situation we must ensure that these possibilities are organised in ways which do not mean additions to unit costs which would otherwise come about. That would militate against the very result that we want to achieve in the reduction of the number of working hours, namely, an increase in the numbers employed.

Mr. Stokes

Would it not be madness to introduce a 35-hour working week when the country cannot produce enough in a 40-hour working week?

Mr. Booth

We are not proposing at this stage to introduce a 35-hour working week. The discussions that I have had with the CBI and the TUC have been to investigate the ways in which any reduction in the number of hours could be achieved without loss in production and without loss of pay, and preferably to bring about an increase in the numbers employed and a drop in public expenditure.

Mr. Rooker

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what is necessary before there is a general reduction of the working week is some statutory control of overtime to ensure that it is not abused? Before that happens, will he ensure that the reasons for overtime—namely, degenerate payment systems and low basic rates—are also tackled?

Mr. Booth

I hope I have made clear to the House that I have given priority to considerations of overtime. This was one of the first things that I took up with the CBI and the TUC. I believe that many of the factors leading to overtime working, which my hon. Friend mentioned, could result in difficulties if the cut in hours took place by statute without some proper compensation arrangements being made for those who work overtime only in order to take home a living wage.

Mr. Henderson

Does not the Secretary of State agree that he is doing a disservice in not pointing out that there are many people, particularly in offices, who are on a shorter week than 40 hours? Does he agree that one of the objectives should be to ensure that people who are paid on an hourly rate are given the same conditions and status as office workers?

Mr. Booth

One of the priorities that one could advance in the matter of hours reduction is the elimination of differences between blue and white collar workers.

Mr. Madel

What conclusions have the Government drawn on the suggestion that plant and machinery should be used for longer periods but not by the same people on the one shift—in other words, that we should have a different system of shift working?

Mr. Booth

Certainly this is one of the possibilities, but it must be achieved by consideration plant by plant and industry by industry. It does not lend itself necessarily to a national policy. Among the many pieces of useful advice that the general secretary of the TUC sent to the secretaries of affiliated organisations, following my meeting with the TUC, was one which suggested ways of using greater capacities of the plant to bring more people into employment rather than creating more overtime working.