HC Deb 06 February 1979 vol 962 cc203-5
Q2. Mr. Gow

asked the Prime Minister when he last met the Trades Union Congress.

The Prime Minister

I met representatives of the TUC yesterday and will meet them again tomorrow when I take the chair at a meeting of the National Economic Development Council.

Mr. Gow

Has the Prime Minister yet discussed with the TUC the offer of support from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and from this side of the House for new laws and new practices to deal with picketing, the closed shop and secret ballots before strike action? If not, why not?

The Prime Minister

These issues are being discussed with the trade unions at present. However, there is a difference between us as to whether the law is the best method of handling this situation on these matters.

The hon. Gentleman referred to "practices". I assume he meant codes of practices as distinct from the law. There is a more fruitful avenue of advance. Certainly that is a matter for discussion between us.

Mr. Roy Hughes

Does not the Prime Minister agree that the real issue at present is not about the strength of trade unions or picketing but rather the fact that a high percentage of people receive very low wages indeed? Is not the answer to this problem to give these people a realistic wage?

The Prime Minister

Both issues cause concern at the moment, especially the way in which members of trade unions are able to hold up the life of the community. That is a very serious matter. Secondly, there is public concern about the low pay of many public service and other workers. Hence the Government's offer to finance and increase the part of the contribution paid to the local authorities.

I conclude with the general statements that I have made on so many occasions. It will not advantage the low-paid workers in a free collective bargaining situation if those who are the strongest get the most.

Mrs. Thatcher

Will not the Prime Minister now accept that recent events have shown that codes of practice on picketing are just not enough? If he has not already done so, will he take time to read the recent speech of the chief constable of Greater Manchester, who pointed out that the law at the moment is not sufficient to protect the right of the worker to go about his ordinary business without interference, that it is virtually unenforceable without the presence of the police on every picket line—they cannot do that—and that sweeping changes in the law are needed?

The Prime Minister

I promise the right hon. Lady that if the country went down that road we should be in no better case than we are today. I was putting the matter at its lowest. I beg the right hon. Lady to consider very carefully before she calls for sweeping changes in the law. I agree with her that the trouble with some codes that have been published has been, not that they were deficient, but that they were not observed. The right hon. Lady runs the danger that she might bring the law into contempt if it is not observed.

Mrs. Thatcher

The danger that the country runs is that the Prime Minister will do nothing about the situation. Does he not realise that if the law is unenforceable he must change it so that it is easier for the police to enforce? The chief constable of Greater Manchester says that the law is virtually unenforceable at present.

The Prime Minister never hesitates to use the law to increase the power of the unions both against other people and over their own members. Why does he hesitate to use it to redress present-day grievances?

The Prime Minister

This argument will go on. I am glad that it will do so. I do not wish to see the country repeat the fatal mistake that was made with the legislation of 1971–72. Surely we have all learned from those experiences.

It is not enough to put the law on the statute book. We must make certain that there will be sufficient acquiescence not to bring the law into contempt. The better way to do this is the way that I intend to pursue. We must ensure, through the good sense of our fellow countrymen—I remind the Opposition that trade unionists are fellow countrymen, too—that they do not abuse the strength that they have through collective action but use that great strength with restraint. That is the better way and the more historic way for this country to proceed.

Mrs. Renée Short

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the crude attitude of the Leader of the Opposition to the trade unions would mean that the present situation would look like a vicar's tea party compared with what it would be if she were ever in office?

The Prime Minister

It is always my hope that any institution, and certainly the trade unions, will accept whatever laws are passed by Parliament. That having been stated as a principle, we know that there must be assent for these laws. I beg the Opposition to consider the past in these matters and try to find a voluntary way forward. That will be better for our country in the long run.