HC Deb 19 February 1979 vol 963 cc3-5
2. Mr. Jessel

asked the Secretary of State for Industry how far British industry has been affected in the first six weeks of 1979 by employment and industrial disputes.

3. Mr. Dykes

asked the Secretary of State for Industry when he expects the level of industrial production in the United Kingdom to return to normal following the recent industrial disruption.

Mr. Alan Williams

On the basis of early reports from industry it is estimated that about 10 per cent. of normal manufacturing production may have been lost between 7 January and 10 February as a result of the transport disputes. It is difficult to say with certainty when industrial production will return to normal, but by the week ending 10 February production was back towards 95 per cent. of normal. I believe that production may rise above normal in the next few weeks as some of the lost production is made up.

The estimated number of lay-offs rose to a peak of some 235,000 around 30 January at the height of the disruption. The last estimate made was of 85,000 laid off on 5 February. It is believed that virtually all those who were temporarily laid off as a result of the transport disputes will by now have been recalled by their employers.

Mr. Jessel

Since secondary picketing contributed to that 10 per cent. drop in production and to the 85,000 people who were laid off, why did not the Government tell the public from the start that secondary picketing amounted to a civil offence, instead of leaving it to a private individual to take the matter to court, after which the picketing melted away? Was not that an abdication of government?

Mr. Williams

No. I assume that the hon. Gentleman is, from the best of motives, over-simplifying the law relating to secondary picketing. We regret that 235,000 people were laid off. But that figure is far lower than the 1,135,000 who were laid off in January 1974.

Mr. Dykes

Does the Minister agree that there was a sharp fall in production in that limited time? Does he agree that further falls in production cannot be ruled out if industrial disruption reoccurs when other large pay claims come through the system? Does he feel, in that context, that the concordat document is a sufficient commitment by the unions to having a higher rate of growth than the low rate that we have had in recent years?

Mr. Williams

I am sure that the hon. Member, as a member of a party that has advocated free collective bargaining, appreciates that the consequence of free collective bargaining is a substantial job loss. Indeed, during the period of Conservative control in 1972–73 one-third more days were lost because of disputes than we lost in the first four years of office.

Mr. Ronald Atkins

Has my right hon. Friend noticed in the news today, and especially in the Financial Times, comment that we can easily make up the ground that was lost during the strike?

Mr. Williams

As I indicated in my initial answer, it is highly likely that much of the ground lost can be made up. But we should not delude ourselves that we can go in for bouts of national self-flagellation without creating damage and injury. There is bound to be loss of output and orders. I hope that members of all unions will bear in mind the difficulties and hardships that they may be imposing on their colleagues in their own or other sectors.

Mr. Adley

The question by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) referred to the normal level of industrial production. In the light of our levels of industrial production in this country compared with our international competitors, is the Minister satisfied that we are doing sufficiently well? If not, is it the fault of the Government, the unions or the British people?

Mr. Williams

We had a considerable debate on this last week. Both sides of the House agreed that it has for a long time been a shortcoming of the British economy that we are not able to attain the levels of productivity and growth attained by some of our competitors. One of the major objectives of the industrial strategy is to secure the competitive base to enable us to do that.