HC Deb 17 March 1978 vol 946 cc926-32

3.43 p.m.

Mr. Tom Litterick (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

I beg to move, That this House regrets the rejection by the Department of Employment of an arbitration decision made by an independent adjudicator appointed by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service; and considers that the basic rates of wages paid to certain categories of building trades craftsmen employed by Cadbury-Schweppes Ltd. at its factory in Bournville, Selly Oak, Birmingham, should be raised in accordance with the mutually agreed job evaluation criteria used in that organisation for the purpose of determining basic wage rates and generally acceptable wage differentials. I say at the outset of the few remaining minutes that it gives me particular pleasure to be in the Chamber today to speak on behalf of some of my constituents. It is precisely 12 months since I was struck down by a heart attack, which almost killed me. It happens also to be St. Patrick's Day. Although I am not a believer, during the past 12 months I have been prompted to think that either the Old Boy has it in for me or that he stood by me when I needed him most. However, I come to the point.

The motion concerns a dispute between 27 building trades craftsmen employed by Cadbury-Schweppes Ltd. at Bournville factory in my constituency—Birmingham, Selly Oak. The dispute is concerned with the upgrading of their jobs to the next highest grade in the job evaluation system used by the company. The dispute has been going on for more than seven years. We are examining the case of a group of workers who can at least be said to be patient. It cannot be said that the group has been militantly rampant. It has been patient. Indeed, it has been patience itself.

In the limited time that is available, I shall indicate that the group has exhausted every conceivable procedural means by which the grievance could be settled. As a result of the ultimate intervention of the Department of Employment, it has discovered that its efforts over the past seven years or eight years have been in vain.

I shall attempt briefly to sketch the progress and character of the dispute. Cadbury-Schweppes uses for its manual worker grades a job evaluation system which categorises jobs into 11 different pay grades ranging from A to J, each category representing a pay spectrum.

When the system was first inaugurated in 1970, there was an explicit disagreement between the categories of building worker craftsmen—the people to whom I refer now—and the company about the initial grading of their jobs. I mention that deliberately because at a later stage in the dispute the company sought to obscure that important fact. There was—I direct this comment to the Minister—an original dispute when the pay grading system was first introduced. That dispute is still outstanding.

The company and the workers' union, UCATT, went through the usual procedure within the company of attempting to bargain and so forth. Eventually they mutually agreed to call in an ACAS conciliator. That was done. Beyond that, the workers sought the intervention of an ACAS arbitrator. That was opposed by the company on rather strange grounds, as I shall indicate later. The ACAS arbitrator gave judgment in favour of the 27 workers. At that point, the State intervened and efforts to resolve the dispute were thereby rendered nugatory.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be prepared to take a lesson from or to comment on that matter, because it has implications for workers who are prepared meticulously to observe established procedures. It certainly suggests that, if the observance of these procedures is to lead to nothing, people might reasonably ask, why bother with the procedures at all?

I suggest that the Minister and his Department and, indeed, the Government have unwittingly—I say this with as much emphasis as I can muster—played into the hands of the company by their part in this matter. They have played a part which has worked out to the company's significant advantage, because at all stages in the dispute the company has resisted the men's claim that their jobs should be upgraded.

The people concerned are bricklayers, painters and decorators, scaffolders, tilers and slaters. Virtually all are time-served craftsmen. Within Cadbury-Schweppes are other time-served craftsmen in the building trades whose jobs are graded as grade A. There are, of course, other time-served craftsmen in other trades whose jobs are also in grade A, but that is another matter to which I shall refer shortly.

In the initial attempt to grade all the manual jobs, there was, as there always is in such job evaluation exercises, a lot of jockeying for position and so on. Inevitably, although Cadbury-Schweppes used a joint exercise procedure to determine job grades, one consequence was that the largest unions dominated those early formative discussions. That in turn meant that the crafts, the trades and the occupations represented by the larger unions were able, in effect, to influence the character of the criteria used in the job evaluation system. Indeed, UCATT members argued, as they have argued for years, that the weightings used for the different job factors within this system were such as to be favourable to engineering workers and unfavourable to building trade workers.

That is what I am getting at when I say that one consequence of having large and small unions in the same place of work is that in sophisticated, complex negotiations of this kind one is likely to have decisions which favour the larger unions and operate to the disadvantage of the members of the smaller unions. This, in my view, has happened at Cadbury-Schweppes, and the UCATT members have been living with the consequences ever since.

In the course of the argument the company said that no changes had occurred in the content of the jobs in dispute. This is a familiar argument which employers use when there are disputes about job evaluation systems. But that was an evasive argument, as the argument was never about whether the jobs had changed. The argument was from the outset about the system itself and whether or not these jobs should have been in category A or category B in the first place. The argument was a spurious one. The gradings have always been in dispute.

At another stage of the proceedings the company challenged the workers' rights to go to arbitration, with the result that when the arbitrator was finally appointed he had first to arbitrate on whether the workers had the right to call him in to adjudicate in the dispute. To outsiders it may seem a very surprising event to take place, particularly in a company which prides itself on being a model employer, but the arbitrator appointed by ACAS judged that these workers had a right to go to arbitration and he then proceeded to arbitrate on the substance of the dispute.

The judgment of the adjudicator was That the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians has the right to raise a claim for the upgrading of bricklayers, painters/decorators, scaffolders and tiler/slater in order to achieve parity with other skilled building trades. He said That the claim for upgrading from grade B to grade A by the bricklayers, painters/ decorators, scaffolders and tilers/slaters is justified and that they should be graded accordingly. The adjudicator, in arriving at his decision, did not consider these various occupational groups as a homogenous group. He was careful to consider each occupational group as a separate group. Having done so, he came to the conclusion that all of them should be upgraded from grade B to grade A. That took seven years. In that time, the workers could have been forgiven for believing that at long last they had achieved the justice for which they were looking. But the company took it upon itself to write to the Department of Employment, and, in effect, it was the company which deliberately sought to torpedo the arbitration award.

The company knew very well that by doing so it would draw the attention of the Department to the matter and that, given the pay structure involved, it was very likely that it could rely on the Department of Employment to take its side, as it continued up to the last moment to oppose the upgrading of these people.

As the company expected, a letter came back from a civil servant saying: On the basis of the information provided, it would therefore not, in our view, be consistent with the policy to regrade the Bricklayers, Painters/Decorators, Scaffolding and Tiler/Slater except at the next annual settlement when the additional cost involved in implementing this change must be taken in account in the cost of the settlement which should be such that the average earnings of the group concerned do not increase by more than 10 per cent. The wage differential involved here is £3 a week. What these men are asking for is that their jobs should be regraded upwards according to the established system to the tune of £3 a week. The Department of Employment is arguing implicitly that to do so would be a breach of the existing pay policy.

I do not have time now to explore the ramifications of this matter, but I put this point to my hon. Friend the Minister. It is not enough for his Department simply to reject such an arbitration decision. That is purely negative. It does nothing to help the state of industrial relations in the company concerned. It does nothing to help the people involved to see at least part of their way through the difficulty. Without doubt, this is a genuine and objectively recognisable grievance, but, in effect, the Department offers no help. On the other hand, it offered help to the company, as that letter clearly shows. It enabled the company to go on resisting.

In my view, therefore, the Minister and his Department have some obligation to make constructive suggestions. For a start, it seems to me that they should recognise the merit of the arbitrator's decision and, for example, suggest to the parties concerned that the jobs should be upgraded, and upgraded now, with the company entering into a binding agreement to rectify the differences which exist in many rates between the different groups of building trade craftsmen either at the next annual review—the present one is hanging fire because of the dispute—or at some intermediate point during the forthcoming 12 months.

That is as far as I can go, in view of the time, but I hope that in the few minutes left to him the Minister will be able to offer some hope to the 27 building workers at Cadbury-Schweppes.

3.57 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Harold Walker)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Litterick) said, I have very little time, so perhaps I should try to cut through some of the issues and come to the core of the matter.

First, however, I should say a personal word to my hon. Friend. He reminded us that today is the anniversary of his unfortunate heart attack. It would be quite inappropriate of me to wish him "Many happy returns", but I am sure that the whole House is glad to see him restored to his full characteristic vigour—and long may it continue.

It is not for me or for my Department to say what pay structures would be appropriate for any particular company or any group of workers, or what the relativities should be either between individual workers or between groups of workers, especially in a situation such as my hon. Friend has described in which relativities are in dispute.

My hon. Friend's case hinges, I suggest, on the outcome of the arbitration, and, if he will forgive my saying so, I think that he omitted to acknowledge the significance of the note appended to the arbitration decision, which was made in November 1977. The arbitrator said: The parties should note that I am not empowered to give an authoritative ruling as to whether any Award conforms with the pay policy, and if they have any doubt on this aspect they should seek advice from the appropriate authorities. The "appropriate authorities" in this case are my Department, and our only role in the matter is to say to what extent the arbitrator's award would be compatible with the requirements of the policy. Rightly, the employer, who had such a doubt, wrote to the Department. It would have been wrong if he had not done so. My hon. Friend says that the Department took sides with the employer. That is wrong. We took sides only with the requirements of the pay policy.

Throughout the period of the policy since 11th July 1975, arbitration awards have been subject to the constraints of the policy in exactly the same way as have negotiated settlements, with the two limited exceptions of, first, those few cases in respect of which reference to arbitration was made prior to 11th July 1975 and, secondly, where awards are based on statutory requirements, such as the requirements of the Equal Pay Act or Schedule 11 to the Employment Protection Act.

In this particular case, neither of those exceptions, provided for in paragraph 8 of the White Paper "The Attack on Inflation', Cmnd. 6151, applies. Incidentally, those exceptions have been consistently maintained over the successive phases of the policy.

I regret just as much as my hon. Friend does that he finds it necessary to bring this problem before the House, but I think that one way out—my hon. Friend suggested it—may lie in the current pay negotiations. The phase 3 settlement has not yet been made in this company although, I understand, the anniversary date is January. I think that there is the possibility for those concerned in the current pay negotiations to see whether there is scope for this arbitration award somehow to be accommodated, or at least partly accommodated. However, as I have said, that would be entirely a matter for the parties, and it is not for me or my Department to advise on the content of negotiations.

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.