HC Deb 25 July 1978 vol 954 cc1364-8

Mr. Banks (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the worsening situation arising from the blacklisting of three Polaris submarines.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Frederick Mulley)

Yes, Sir.

Attempts to persuade the work force at the Royal Naval Armament Depot, Coulport, to resume normal working have not yet succeeded, although I naturally hope that an early settlement can be achieved. To ensure that our contribution to the alliance strategic deterrent is maintained, the Government must ensure that preparations for HMS "Revenge" to sail are completed very soon. We are therefore today informing the work force that naval and management personnel will complete the loading of HMS "Revenge", starting tomorrow, and that in the interests of safety the depot will be closed temporarily to all except certain specially authorised personnel from 26th July until the loading has been completed. As regards "Repulse" and "Renown", there is as yet no operational problem, although I shall of course keep the situation under review.

Mr. Banks

Whilst thanking the Secretary of State for that reply, may I ask him to recognise that this dispute has been going on for too long? Will he further recognise the significance of the fact that a small number of men have effectively prevented the deployment of our nuclear deterrent, on which the whole of our defence strategy and our national security rests? Will he further understand that we respect his position in bringing the Navy in to release these ships, and will he give an assurance that this situation will be prevented in future and that he will take every step necessary to ensure that the national security of this country is continued?

Mr. Mulley

As the hon. Member and the House know, this is part of a much wider industrial dispute affecting the pay of all industrial employees of the Civil Service. I hope very much, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said a few moments ago, that through the proper trade union machinery we can find a solution to this problem. As regards the particular impact of the problem on essential defence operations, I give the House the assurance that we shall take all steps necessary to ensure that our operational efficiency is not in any way impeded. I give the further assurance that up until the moment, and up until the time when we expect this operation to be concluded, there will have been no operational penalty whatever. This is the way in which we shall proceed until, as I hope, the dispute is concluded.

Mr. Campbell

While recognising the problems of the defence commitments involved in the particular position announced this afternoon, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether the Government are looking closely at the problems involved in the overall wage claim of the industrial civil servants concerned, not just in my constituency but in other constituencies throughout the country?

Mr. Mulley

I assure my hon. Friend, in whose constituency this unfortunate dispute has arisen, that the Government are well aware of the very strong feelings of the men involved. As I said, it is a wider dispute than merely the Ministry of Defence. The lead, therefore, is with my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal and the Civil Service Department. But I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government will do all that we can with the trade unions to see whether we can find a way of bringing the dispute to an early conclusion.

Mr. Hooson

Whilst we commend the action that the Secretary of State has authorised today, will he not agree that this dispute illustrates the great danger to this country of our defence effort being rendered nugatory by industrial action? Is there not a need for a national effort in this matter and possible negotiations with the TUC to see that this kind of thing does not happen—otherwise, in the Kremlin they would be laughing?

Mr. Mulley

I thank the hon. and learned Member for his concern, but I think that—unusually—his choice of language was inept. It has not been rendered nugatory. It has not happened. The Government have the means of taking the necessary steps, and we shall take all steps, to see that our military efficiency and our contribution to the alliance are not impaired.

Mr. Robin F. Cook

Since we have survived the last few weeks quite satisfactorily without three of the four nuclear submarines, does my hon. Friend believe that the history of those weeks would have been remarkably different if none of the four had been at sea? Does not this episode underline the futility of his country attempting to have a second generation of nuclear weapons, with all the other economic challenges that we have to face?

Mr. Mulley

I understand my hon. Friend's views about the deployment of the present Polaris force and whether we should have a successor to it. I am sure, however, that he would agree with me that this is not a decision to be taken as a by-product of an industrial dispute.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Apart from the Front Bench, I shall call one more hon. Member on either side. It is a Private Notice Question.

Mr. Viggers

Why has such a large gap developed betwen the non-industrial civil servants and the industrial civil servants who work within the Department for which the Minister is responsible? Does the Minister think that an offer of £46 a week basic rate for a skilled man is sufficient?

Mr. Mulley

I cannot speak for all the industrials concerned, but the average earnings for a 40-hour week are greatly in excess of £46 a week. Nevertheless, I accept that there are problems because of the commitments and understandings given to the non-industrials which the industrials wish also to have considered. But such gross exaggeration as the hon. Gentleman has just indulged in does not help the matter.

Mr. Madden

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that until today the Tory Opposition have shown remarkably little interest in the low pay of industrial civil servants? Will he not also acknowledge that those workers themselves have shown remarkable patience over their low pay for many years? Can he tell the House what active steps are being taken to resolve this dispute and to give the lowest-paid section of public employees a square deal?

Mr. Mulley

It is not my immediate responsibility. Naturally, however, since we employ the greatest number of industrial civil servants, my Department is extremely concerned. Every effort is being made to bring about the kind of negotiations which may lead to a settlement. whether the Opposition show interest in the matter is of no great concern to me. I want to do the right thing for my employees and for the country. This is not the first time that the Opposition have sought to exploit every possible difficulty, if they think that there is any advantage in it.

Sir Ian Gilmour

We on this side of the House warmly welcome the decision which the right hon. Gentleman has announced this afternoon. We were also welcoming the general attitude he was displaying until his answer to the last question.

Will the right hon. Gentleman agree that in view of the enormous importance of these three submarines, whatever the merits of the pay claim may be, what the trade unions are seeking to do in relation to these submarines is a shameful abuse of industrial power? Will he bring home to the trade unions concerned that whatever the merits of the claim, what they are doing is utterly wrong?

Mr. Mulley

I would not, myself, use such provocative language. It is necessary for everyone to understand that the Government are determined to carry out our commitments to the alliance and that we shall not be sidetracked by industrial action, although we shall take every possible step to try to find a solution to the current industrial disputes.

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