HC Deb 16 June 1978 vol 951 cc1329-35

Mr. Patrick Jenkin(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Social Services whether he will make a statement about the threatened strike by electricians in the National Health Service.

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

I wish to take this opportunity of informing the House about the dispute with the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union affecting its members who work in the National Health Service. The dispute arose in the course of pay negotiations and has come to a head within the last two weeks. Formal notice of withdrawal of labour with effect from 19th June was received from the union on 6th June.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and I have had urgent discussions with the union negotiator, Mr. Adams, and I had a further meeting with him last night. We both recognise the seriousness of the situation and the grave damage to the hospital service, including the lives of patients, which could result from an industrial dispute as threatened by the union.

Last night I presented new proposals to Mr. Adams which I hope will form the basis of a settlement. They respect the wishes of the electricians for rates of payment comparable with those outside the Health Service, and they are within the Govenment's pay guidelines. Mr. Adams agreed to consider these new proposals. He also put to me points which I am considering with my colleagues.

I have appealed to the union to keep uppermost in its mind the welfare of patients. I am confident that both sides fully recognise the gravity of the situation and are anxious to reach a solution as quickly as possible. I shall be in touch with the union later this morning. Naturally, contingency plans are being made by the hospitals in case the industrial action should take place.

Mr. Jenkin

I thank the Secretary of State for that helpful statement. Will he accept that the Opposition more than endorse his view that the key issue here must be the well-being of patients? As he recognised, patients' lives would be seriously at risk if the dispute were to go ahead.

Has the Secretary of State heeded the warning given yesterday by Sir John Donne, chairman of the South-East Thames Regional Hospital Authority? Will he be a little more specific about the contingency plan which the health authorities are making to deal with what would be an extremely serious situation if hospitals have to be evacuated or substantial numbers of patients moved?

Looking a little deeper into this dispute, will the Secretary of State say why the electricians have no representation on the professional and technical staff's council B of the relevant committee of the Whitley Council when here we have them, at a few days' notice, able to wreak havoc in the Health Service by a failure to reach agreement over their pay and conditions?

Finally, can he tell us, in connection with the initiative that he has taken—and which we have welcomed—to try to avert these damaging disputes in the Health Service, whether the electricians have been among the trade unions he has been consulting to try to establish a code of practice whereby this kind of thing can be prevented?

Mr. Ennals

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) for the way in which he posed his questions and for the support that he has given to the position that I have adopted.

It is right that the House, the country and the union should be aware just how grave would be the consequences of industrial action. It could be catastrophic. I think that the House would want to know the consequences.

We are heavily dependent on the maintenance of electrical supplies through mains and peripheral connections in practically all areas of the Service. The effects could be fatal for patients in intensive therapy units, coronary care units and special baby care units, where ventilators, pacemakers, blood pumps, kidney machines and other equipment supporting vital functions could become powerless.

Operating theatres could be made unworkable, as would a great deal of the equipment contained therein. Accident and emergency departments would be severely handicapped, particularly in the more critical aspects of emergency treatment, such as resuscitation. Similarly, the ability to defibrillate patients on cardiac arrest would be affected, and there would of course be an effect on radio therapy and X-ray departments.

I am not saying that any of these things will happen. I hope that we shall be able to resolve the dispute, and I do not think that any right hon. or hon. Member would want to say anything that would damage the delicate negotiations.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about contingency plans. Local managements in the Health Service have plans for dealing with emergencies, and each in its own way is making preparations. Some hospitals have been informed by their local electricians that they may be the victims if industrial action takes place, and others have not, so the degree of preparedness depends on the information at their disposal. I am satisfied that at this moment the health authorities are being very vigilant in helping to protect the interests of patients in advance of the prospect of an industrial dispute.

I shall not proceed further with the point made by the right hon. Gentleman concerning membership of the Whitley Council. These are matters which can be dealt with on another occasion. Nor shall I list the particular unions which have been involved in the important consultations which I have been having not only with leading Health Service unions but also with the professions. My anxiety at the moment is to be able to deal with this emergency situation. As I said, I shall be in touch with the union, having important talks later in the morning, and my anxiety is that we should achieve a settlement.

Mr. Pavitt

Does not this case highlight the gross injustices which have persisted for a quarter of a century in the National Health Service, whereby electricians, plumbers and a number of other people vital to the Service have always had a lower rate of pay than they would have if they worked outside the hospital gates? Therefore, while the whole House will wish my right hon. Friend well in averting what can be a tragic state of affairs on Monday, may we ask whether he will at the same time consult at the highest possible Cabinet level to get the situation straightened out once and for all, so that when we come to the new range of wages arrangements in the country, at lest workers in the National Health Service will not find themselves, as always hitherto, in a position inferior to that of others doing the same jobs outside the NHS?

Mr. Ennals

I take note of the point that my hon. Friend makes, and I remind him that I said in my statement that the proposal made to the union yesterday is designed in part to meet the wishes of the electricians for rates of payment comparable with those outside the Health Service.

Mr. Stephen Ross

Will the Secretary of State take it that the whole country will be surprised at the speed with which this dispute seems to have arisen? According to his statement, the notices were given about 10 days ago, but according to reports in the newspapers the situation appears to have been realised only last Monday. Whatever may be said about the merits or otherwise of the dispute, is there not need for more time in negotiation? My right hon. and hon. Friends and I wish the right hon. Gentleman every success in his negotiations, and we agree with his appeal to the union that where life might be imperilled it surely must hold back, but, if all else fails, more time should be given for efforts to resolve the dispute.

Mr. Ennals

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right, and if we find ourselves in a situation today where there has not been agreement, I shall, naturally want to persuade the union that there should be more time and that we should explore every means—but every means, of course, within the basis of pay policy and the Government's guidelines. I do not imagine that anyone would think that we should make some dramatic change because there is a threat of industrial action. My hope is that we shall be able to reach a settlement, and if more time is wanted the Government will be very anxious to see that that is given.

I should add that there was no unreasonable delay. Once notice of industrial action had been received, hospitals were alerted on Monday 12th June and advised about the state of play in the negotiations. I believe that to have sent out advice earlier might have prejudiced the negotiations.

Mr. Christopher Price

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the administrative resources of the districts, areas and regions, which are relatively inexperienced compared with other administrative resources, will be equal to carrying out any contingency plan which he may have in mind? Is his own Department ready to arrange co-ordination between regions just in case—especially in the London area—it may be necessary to shift patients across regional boundaries rather than try to deal with the whole matter within individual regions?

Mr. Ennals

Yes. I do not want to go into the details of contingency plans, but I agree with my hon. Friend and wish to make clear not only that the resources of my Department are at this moment stretched in the hope of reaching an agreement, but that we shall offer every possible assistance as between hospitals, areas and regions in dealing with the problems if the industrial dispute is upon us on Monday. I repeat that my hope is that that will be averted.

Mr. Crouch

I am a member of the South-East Thames Regional Health Authority and was a party to the statement issued yesterday, after several hours of discussion, by Sir John Donne. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the way in which he has spoken to the House about the severity of the issues at stake. By his very words this morning, he has revealed to the House and the nation that we have been taken to the brink in the past few days.

Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the trade unionists concerned appreciate the risks which they are running? They are not playing with fire here; they are playing with people's lives. Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the report in the Daily Mail this morning of the statement by Mr. Peter Adams, following his meeting with him, in which Mr. Adams said "Of course, we do not want to put people's lives at stake, but it takes this sort of thing to force action to be taken"? Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that such a remark is disgusting and disgraceful in any negotiations? When people's lives become a bargaining point in pay disputes, have we not reached the end of the line? I do not care how serious this may sound, but we cannot tolerate that sort of thing in negotiations with trade unionists, however worthy their cause may be.

Mr. Ennals

I have not seen that Press report, and I have seen nowhere else that quotation from Mr. Peter Adams. In the series of discussions which I have had with him, including the meeting last night, Mr. Adams was taking no such position. I believe that he fully recognises the gravity of the situation, and, as I said in my statement, I believe that he wants to find a fair basis of settlement.

Mr. English

Does my right hon. Friend realise that the Government have agreed to reinstitute the principle of comparability between the public and private sectors for their middle-rank civil servants and clerical grades? Does he recognise that it will be impossible to do that, as is already agreed, unless the principle of comparability is to be at least noticed in other fields? One cannot expect that in other fields, such as that mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt), workers 'will not notice if they are paid less in the public sector than the rate in the private sector?

Mr. Ennals

I simply say that I take note of the point made by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Higgins

Is not the right hon. Gentleman a little ashamed at the contrast between, on the one hand the reality of this dispute and the case of a constituent of mine which was reported on yesterday by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner and, on the other, the grossly misleading propaganda in the Labour Party's party-political broadcast last night, which immediately preceded the 10 o'clock news and which was directed precisely to this question of industrial disputes in the National Health Service?

Mr. Ennals

I do not think that it would help the dispute with which I am concerned to answer the hon. Gentleman's question.

Mr. Goodhart

Within the past hour, I have talked to a doctor from the children's department of King's College Hospital, who confirms that children will die if the supply of electricity is cut off and that some of the children there cannot possibly be moved to other hospitals. If the worst comes to the worst and industrial action is taken on Monday, are there plans to use technicians from the Armed Forces to provide protection for patients?

Mr. Ennals

I am not prepared to make any statement about such contingency plans. As for the first point raised by the hon. Gentleman, I indicated in my statement the gravity of the matter if industrial action took place with its full force—if we were to find ourselves in industrial dispute, and if the union were not prepared to take action which would prevent damage to lives, which we all hope it would be prepared to do. I think that I have clearly emphasised the grave dangers which lie ahead.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin

The whole House has been seized of the immense gravity of the situation. If it is not resolved over the weekend, will the right hon. Gentleman make another statement about it on Monday?

Mr. Ennals

Yes, of course. I have made it clear that all my time is available to try to deal with the dispute. I shall certainly report to the House at the earliest possible moment if we have not been able to resolve the difficulties.

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