HC Deb 15 February 1979 vol 962 cc1305-10
Q1. Mr. Wrigglesworth

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

The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

I met the general council of the Trades Union Congress yesterday. Further meetings will be arranged as necessary.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

Does the Prime Minister recall the statement made by the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition four weeks ago in which she said that she would support action on secret ballots, picketing and other matters mentioned in yesterday's statement? Is not it therefore deeply disappointing to those who want to reach agreement and consensus on these matters that there has been neither a shred of support nor a word of welcome for yesterday's statement by my right hon. Friend?

The Prime Minister

I get the impression that the people of this country want the proposals contained in the document to work and that therefore they are more concerned with that than anybody's instant reactions. They want to see us move into a new approach both to industrial relations and to reaching a proper economic assessment.

I was glad that the CBI spokesman said that the CBI was willing to begin discussions on the basis proposed, so that the TUC, the Government and the CBI will be able to start talking about these matters.

Mr. Powell

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the objective of the TUC and the Government to see a 5 per cent., or lower, rate of inflation in three years is fully attainable provided that non-inflationary Budgets this year and next are proposed by the Government and accepted by the House?

The Prime Minister

There is no doubt that a non-inflationary Budget has an important part to play in this matter. However, it is necessary to work towards these desirable instruments. That is why a period of three years was set down.

Mr. Whitney

At his next meeting, will the Prime Minister seek to clarify the concept of the authority of the TUC to which so much reference was made in the soggy document he produced in the House yesterday and on which the temporary cease-fire is based? Will he also explain to the House what changes are in prospect in the relationship between the general council of the TUC and the constituent unions so that the concept of the authority of the TUC may be realised?

The Prime Minister

The relationship between the TUC and its constituent unions is neither a matter for me nor a matter that I should answer at the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Norman Atkinson

Is the Prime Minister aware that there is considerable opinion among some trade unionists who were present yesterday that the Government have now reached the conclusion that they should introduce import controls as recommended by the sector working parties? Will he confirm that, where reference is made in the statement to the introduction of statutory planning agreements, the document is not as bogus as suggested by the Opposition?

The Prime Minister

Whenever the sector working parties have recommended import controls, they have been carefully examined by the Government and on occasion have been introduced. I know of no outstanding case—although I would want to refresh my memory—where there is a serious dispute. My hon. Friend may have been referring to the fact that the sector working parties have set what they call import penetration targets, and that is a different matter.

Q2. Mr. Blaker

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

The Prime Minister

I refer the hon. Member to the reply which I have just given to my hon. Friend the Member for Thornaby (Mr. Wrigglesworth).

Mr. Blaker

Is the Prime Minister aware that two trade union leaders have said that the concordat contains an escape clause? Does it contain such a clause? If so, by whom can it be invoked? Is the Prime Minister sure that the concordat should not be given its French meaning—an agreement by a bankrupt with his creditors?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman's last remarks go to show how wise I was—but entirely in ignorance—in refusing to adopt this name as the title of the document. I had to say yesterday that this name is an invention of the media and, as far as I know, has never been used by anybody else.

The document sets out several objectives. It is now for the Trades Union Congress, the Government and the CBI to try to clothe some of those concepts and to give them real meaning. I believe that we have an opportunity—[Interruption.] I do not expect to convince Conservative Members, but I believe that we have an opportunity to give those concepts real meaning.

Mr. Stan Crowther

Will my right hon. Friend make clear that the Government and the TUC are now agreed that this country cannot go on indefinitely getting its public services on the cheap and that, if we expect to have an efficient local government service, if we want wholesome water at the turn of a tap, and if we want a Health Service worthy of a civilised nation, we shall have to pay for them, even if it means spending a little less as a nation on something else?

The Prime Minister

It is always the case that there must be balance between private consumers' expenditure, investment, savings and public expenditure. As to the public services, there is now, and has been for nearly a week, the basis for an honourable settlement on the pay of the employees of local authorities. I hope that the employers and the unions will come to grips with this matter quickly and achieve a settlement. I believe that it could have been obtained during the middle of this week. I ask the parties most urgently to get together and bring this matter to a conclusion.

Mrs. Thatcher

Does the Prime Minister recall saying last July that he was not a closed shop man? In his discussions with the TUC, therefore, did he seek any assurance whatever that the unions would now be prepared to reinstate workers who have lost their jobs because of the closed shop? In the light of the Prime Minister's own views, how did he come to agree to a document which permits blacking as a means of achieving a closed shop?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Lady is quoting only one half of the statement and I should like to quote the other half, which is the part that I prefer, namely, that it is for the unions to convince workers in industries and companies, by the merits of the unions, that they should be members of those unions, rather than to rely on any other method. That is what I believe should animate attempts to secure a closed shop.

Mrs. Thatcher

In that case, the Prime Minister cannot have approved the document which came before us yesterday.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Lady is wrong. The document is approved by the Government as a whole, and it will be necessary for all the elements of that document to be taken into account in future negotiations on the closed shop, on secret ballots, and on all the other issues that it contains.

Mr. Grimond

As the Prime Minister has said that an honourable settlement in the public authorities dispute is obtainable, will he spell out quite clearly at what level the settlement should be now, since the public authorities are still defending the Government's policy, not their own, and that, only a week or two ago, was for a 5 per cent. increase?

The Prime Minister

With respect, I should like to repeat what I said yesterday, that I do not wish to go into the details of these matters when negotiations are taking place. The local authority employers are fully aware of the Government's attitude and position. So, I believe, are the unions. I hope that they will come to an early and swift agreement and put an end to what is now taking place.

Mr. John Ellis

Will my right hon. Friend continue to press on along the lines that he is suggesting, as it is obvious from the contributions from Conservative Members, and especially those of the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition, that while the nation is looking for a resolution of these difficult problems—[Interruption.] One of the problems that faces us as an interdependent society is that some people are getting 100 times the amount that other people, who are very necessary to our economy, are getting. Is it not clear that the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition has nothing to to contribute except "My God, we'll confront them"?

The Prime Minister

I note my hon. Friend's view. I have no doubt that a degree of patience on this matter is vital if we are to secure the absence of confrontation that I believe is best in the interests of this country. That is what we are working for. The TUC and the Government, and now the CBI, are ready to begin discussions on this basis, and that is the best way forward.