HC Deb 22 February 1979 vol 963 cc622-30
The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about the strike action planned by two Civil Service unions for tomorrow. Seven other unions will not be taking action.

The two unions concerned, the Civil and Public Services Association and the Society of Civil and Public Servants, have called on their members not to work tomorrow, in support of a pay claim. They have taken that decision in spite of assurances already given to all the unions concerned that the Government will implement a settlement based on a joint evaluation of the evidence submitted by the independent Civil Service Pay Research Unit. That work is now going on. The unions concerned have also been informed that any increases will be staged and that the staging will be the subject of negotiation. Moreover, the present pay settlement has not yet expired and will not do so for another five weeks, on 1 April.

I also understand that tomorrow's action may be followed by an orchestrated campaign of disruption designed to achieve maximum disruption to public business in the forthcoming weeks, arranged to ensure the least loss to the unions' members. Rarely can there have been a more unnecessary and unjustifiable strike. This action and any continuing disruption are wrong both in principle and in practice. They are against the best long-term interests of the Civil Service and are contrary to the guidance recently issued by the TUC—to which both unions are affiliated—which emphasises that strikes are to be used only as a last resort. In no circumstances can the present position on negotiations be interpreted in that way. The civil servants who go on strike will suffer a loss of pay for the day or days concerned.

Even at this late stage, I ask the two unions to show a proper sense of leadership and responsibility, and I express the Government's thanks in advance to those civil servants who will remain at their posts tomorrow and thus maintain the traditions of service to the public.

The Government regret any inconvenience that will be caused to the public. Contingency action will be taken, as far as possible, to mitigate the effects.

Mrs. Thatcher

May I put three points to the Prime Minister? First, does his statement not cast considerable doubt on the agreement that he reached with the TUC about a week ago, in that the two unions should be in breach of it so soon? Is he aware that we join him, agreement or no agreement, in condemning a strike that takes place before a current agreement has run out and while negotiations are still in progress?

Secondly, the Prime Minister has given us few details about the preparations that he will be making to keep going some emergency services in vital areas. Can he give us a few more details about that? For example, a press statement released today says that the Royal Courts of Justice will be picketed and that there will be attempts to disrupt hearings at courts and industrial tribunals. What arrangements is the Prime Minister making to ensure that the administration of justice continues? In addition, what arrangements is he making to ensure that there are minimal services for air traffic control, defence installations and immigration control? Those are vital matters, and unless the public are certain that there will be a minimum of manning there could be serious effects.

Thirdly, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his announcement shows the wisdom of resisting a closed shop in the Civil Service? Will he give the House an assurance that anyone who crosses the picket lines and carries on working will not be victimised in any way?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Lady raised a number of red herrings, but I shall do my best to answer her other points.

The proposed strike shows the importance of keeping the agreement with the TUC. I promise the right hon. Lady and the scoffers on her side of the House that there must be a sense of responsibility when agreements are entered into because nothing but a sense of responsibility will keep people at work. I hope that the unions concerned will bear that in mind in future considerations. I have done my best, and the Lord Privy Seal has done his best, to remind them of that fact.

On contingency plans, I am told that what is planned by the unions is "a demonstration of what we can do". I hope that the right hon. Lady will not press me to say what the Government's response will be. There is no doubt that the unions propose a series of guerrilla actions to try to discomfort the public and to get at the Government machine in the most vulnerable areas. I ask the right hon. Lady not to press me to say what we are doing in response. I do not want to give those who are planning these strikes any more ammunition than I have to.

The question of a closed shop is a matter for discussion. Talks have been going on for some time. The Government have put forward certain proposals, which the unions have not so far accepted because they have thought that the conditions are too stringent. We shall continue those discussions on the basis of which the House is already aware.

Mr. David Steel

Is the Prime Minister aware that the secretary of one of the unions involved admitted in a radio interview at lunchtime today that the proposed action was irresponsible, but added that the only way to get anything done with the Government was to be irresponsible? Since that appears to be the unions' view, will the Prime Minister think again about trying to create an effective long-term pay policy and a framework of industrial relations, backed by the authority of the House, to deal with matters such as holding ballots before strikes take place? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the whole process of subcontracting the authority of the Government and the House to other bodies will not work?

The Prime Minister

If it is the case that people believe that the only way that they can get anything is through strikes, it is important that the Govern-men should make clear that they cannot be subjected to pressure in that way when claims are irresponsible. As I have said before, almost everyone in this country is central to the needs of the community. Almost any group can upset the whole of the community and bring things to a halt.

Therefore, I must make clear, as I do now, that we shall examine the claim—though none has been put in yet, because the evidence is still being evaluated —on its merits, reach a conclusion on its merits and implement a settlement on its merits. That is the most important thing. We shall get into a dangerous situation if any group thinks that it has the power to push the community around. How many groups nowadays have that power? We have seen some signs of that attitude recently, and the community must stand up and say "Thus far and no farther".

Mr. Ovenden

As we all approve of trade union democracy, will the Prime Minister confirm that his recent statement was not an invitation to trade unionists to defy the agreed policies of their trade unions by going to work on Friday? Will he also confirm that he has been unable to give the trade unions involved any assurance that the Government will this year implement in full the proposals of the Pay Research Unit as those proposals relate to pay not next year or the year after, but to the level that should exist now? Will he further confirm that the strike on Friday is not in defiance of agreements but in defence of agreements and of the idea that the agreed procedures on pay research should be implemented in the Civil Service?

The Prime Minister

No. I disagree with my hon. Friend, who I know has a particular interest in this matter. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend is entitled to have a particular interest in this matter. I know that he has an interest, but I must disagree with him on every point that he made.

We shall reach a properly negotiated agreement without duress on either side, I trust. We have already indicated that, as with the Armed forces, the police and the firemen, it will be staged. That staging is the subject of negotiation.

I am asking civil servants not to defy their unions but to keep to their contract and to come to work.

Mr. William Clark

The Prime Minister is right to deplore this strike. As the pay agreement does not expire until 31 March, will he have urgent discussions with the TUC to see whether a change in the law should be introduced to make contracts legally binding?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I have already explained my position and that of the Government many times.

Mr. Molloy

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Civil Service unions which are not yet involved in this form of action have some real problems? Will he use his influence and assist his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to meet the leaders of these unions, who are on the lip of an agreement, to try to seal that agreement before they are compelled to take similar action?

The Prime Minister

I am not aware of the problem that my hon. Friend has in mind. In the two cases that I am discussing this afternoon, there is no reason for a strike tomorrow. Work is steadily going ahead on trying to get the evidence evaluated, and the negotiations will then take place. I have no words of defence for what is to be done tomorrow. I cannot find any words to excuse it. If there is any possibility of expediting the work, or if there is a criticism or feeling that it will not come into operation by 1 April, I suggest that those concerned all work hard to see whether they can get it done by then. But this agreement does not expire for another five weeks.

Mr. Emery

Does the Prime Minister consider that instead of refusing to reveal what he and the Government are going to do about the strikes tomorrow it would be more helpful to inform the public that the Government will take every possible step to ensure that such action will not limit or inconvenience the public? In particular, will he consider the position at London airport, through which 50,000 to 70,000 people will be passing tomorrow? Can he assure us that the Government will do everything possible to ensure that the traveller is not inconvenienced?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman knows that he is asking an impossibility. Obviously he did not hear the last sentence of my statement: Contingency action will be taken, as far as possible, to mitigate the effects of the strike. That is what the Government are doing.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful to the House, to union members and to the public if we could have some proper information about the findings of the Pay Research Unit? So far we have had only press leaks from sources that may not be reliable. Therefore, will my right hon. Friend arrange for the findings of the Pay Research Unit to be published, so that we can make our own judgments on them?

The Prime Minister

I do not see any objection in principle to doing that, but it is for the Pay Research Unit to decide what it does with the evidence. It is made available to the unions and to those on the Government side involved in the negotiations. It will be a matter for the Unit whether it decides to publish. There is no difficulty in principle about it.

Mr. Baker

Does the Prime Minister accept that most people agree that this strike is unnecessary and irresponsible? I should like to refer to an answer that the right hon. Gentleman gave a few minutes ago. A Civil Service union leader said "We are striking because this is the only language that the present Government understand." Is that not a damning indictment of the lack of authority of the Government? Does the Prime Minister appreciate that while he speaks strongly and acts weakly, the unions will continue to look upon him as a pushover?

The Prime Minister

If it were true, it would be so, but the hypothesis is untrue. Therefore, the conclusion is unfounded.

Mrs. Wise

May I express the hope and ask for my right hon. Friend's confirmation that this matter will be dealt with on its merits? Some of us would welcome that very thing. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the refusal to deal with cases on their merits is at the root of a good deal of the present unrest? Dealing with cases on their merits involves meaningful negotiations and free collective bargaining not pre-empted by Government instructions and norms.

The Prime Minister

I thought that we had been going through a period of free collective bargaining, with results of which the House is aware.

The Pay Research Unit is an independent body. It produces independent evidence, made available to both sides. Both sides then proceed to negotiation and, we hope, reach an agreement. There is nothing in the procedure here which, on any rational grounds, would lead any- body to believe that there was a case for withdrawing labour tomorrow.

Mr. Mayhew

Is it not the case that the Government can be and will go on being subjected to pressure so long as a strike that the Prime Minister has roundly condemned as indefensible can be carried out with complete immunity from any civil legal procedure? The Prime Minister said that he had made his position clear. Is not that just the trouble?

The Prime Minister

All Governments are subject to pressure. This Government yield to less than most—[Hon. Members: "Oh!"]—including our predecessors, who called in a distinguished legal luminary to get the dockers out of gaol when they put them there.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Prime Minister aware that this matter has been boiling up for a period of not less than three months, to my knowledge? There have been questions on this matter in the House to the appropriate Minister on several occasions and warnings to the Government of the consequences of the failure of the Pay Research Unit to deal with this matter as these people require. Is he aware that many of these civil servants—indeed, the great proportion—can be categorised as low paid? When the Prime Minister refers to people not having the right to strike or not agreeing with their right to strike, does he not understand that these people live in an environment in which, only two or three years ago, they were being subjected to cuts in public expenditure, which they did not like, as a result of which thousands of sackings took place? Is not the only way in which—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is developing a statement rather than a question.

The Prime Minister

I should like my hon. Friend to point out to me how many thousands of sackings from the Civil Service in recent years he is aware of.

My hon. Friend is wrong again about this issue boiling up. It is untrue to say that the Pay Research Unit has failed to deal with this matter. I hope that my hon. Friend will listen to me. The Unit has dealt with it in accordance with—

Mr. Skinner

It has not.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend does not know anythting about it. The Unit—

Mr. Skinner

I have been to meet it. That is more than my right hon. Friend does.

The Prime Minister

The Unit has dealt with it in accordance with the normal procedures. The discussions are going on, and the evaluation is taking place. The discussions can continue and can, I hope, be concluded by 1 April. It is about time my hon. Friend stood by some of the agreements which are made instead of trying to have them broken.

Mr. Forman

When this inexcusable strike is over, will the Prime Minister undertake to have his officials look carefully at the results of the strike to see whether the services of a considerable number of these civil servants who will be on strike tomorrow are not indispensable?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I do not believe that. A great many staffing investigations are made from time to time. The level of efficiency in the Civil Service is as high as we shall find in a great many other institutions, both private and public. Certainly it is higher than in some. However, there is always room for improvement in these areas. That we shall continue to try to undertake. I would not want to cast any general aspersion on the general level of efficiency, or, indeed, on the attitude, of the Civil Service in its approach to public affairs.

Mr. Speaker

I propose to call one further speaker from each side.

Mr. Arthur Latham

My right hon. Friend said that we had come through a period of free collective bargaining. Is not the truth of the matter the fact that unions have been free to make claims but that the employers have claimed that they were not free to make settlements? As we are going through a period of discussion about communication and human understanding, does my right hon. Friend accept that many members of these unions have lobbied Members of Parliament over recent weeks? They certainly did not appear to be taking action in the spirit that the Prime Minister described. Will he make a last attempt to allay their genuine fear that they are likely to be cheated over the Pay Sesearch Unit?

The Prime Minister

I thought that my hon. Friend gave a perfect definition of free collective bargaining—where one side made claims and the other side either accepted or rejected them. That is what it is about.

As to the fear expressed by my hon. Friend, there is absolutely no occasion for fear unless it is spread by those who have a desire to do so. I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept my assurance on this and will do his best to allay any misplaced fears that may have been spread by other people.

Mr. Burden

Will the Prime Minister be a little more forthcoming on a matter of great importance? What arrangements will be made at the ports of entry tomorrow to ensure that customs and immigration clearance facilities will be available to travellers? Many passengers from abroad will not be able to cancel their journeys. They should be able to know whether they will be able to clear customs and come into this country, or whether they will be totally blocked tomorrow.

The Prime Minister

Without going into detail, I can say that contingency plans have been made on matters such as immigration controls, the airports, and in other areas, including the courts of justice. I do not wish to disclose details of those actions. I do not know that they will be 100 per cent. successful, but we shall do the best we can with the resources that are available.