HC Deb 22 February 1979 vol 963 cc615-21
Q1. Mr. Molloy

asked the Prime Minister when last he met the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry.

The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

I meet representatives of the TUC and CBI from time to time at the National Economic Development Council and on other occasions. Further meetings will be arranged as necessary.

Mr. Molloy

With reference to the dispute of local authority manual workers and the trade unions recommending acceptance of a settlement, what was the role of the TUC? Will he enlarge on the terms of the comparability studies?

The Prime Minister

There was a turn for the better the week before last when Mr. Murray, the general secretary of the TUC, made an approach to me with certain proposals that I thought the Government would be ready to consider. He spoke to the negotiating officers of the unions following that approach. I pay tribute to the valuable part that he has played throughout the whole dispute in trying to bring the parties together and trying to help to formulate a good settlement. I believe that the settlement is a fair one.

My hon. Friend asked about comparability studies. There is agreement that there should be an independent standing commission that would be willing to review not only local authority workers' pay and conditions compared with others but, if it was so wished, the pay and conditions of Health Service employees of the same level, university "manuals", as they are called, and Health Service ancillaries. All these categories could come before the independent commission. Its terms of reference and its composition have to be worked out. We would wish to consult the TUC and other bodies.

Mr. Gow

When the right hon. Gentleman last met the TUC did he discuss the changes that will be made in the operation of the closed shop following the agreement of 14 February? Following that agreement, may we take it that representations will be made by the TUC to British Rail for the reinstatement of the 43 railway men who were dismissed without compensation from British Rail because they did not want to join a union?

The Prime Minister

I did not discuss these matters in detail. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment discussed them with officials of the TUC and members of the general council. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman tables a question to my right hon. Friend on individual matters.

Mr. Hoyle

When my right hon Friend meets the TUC and the CBI will he draw to their attention the speech of His Royal Highness Prince Charles? Does that not underline the fact that—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that it is not our custom—indeed, it is unparliamentary—to mention the names of members of the Royal Family in furtherance of argument in this place.

Mr. Hoyle

Will my right hon. Friend draw to their attention the speech of a certain personage in which reference was made to British management lacking much that is desired in industrial matters? Does that not underline what many of us have said in the House on numerous occasions?

The Prime Minister

I am glad to be relieved of the responsibility of commenting on all the speeches on which I am asked to comment at the Dispatch Box. The management of British industry has come under certain strictures from time to time, with almost general agreement. Rather than both sides casting stones at each other, it would be far better in present circumstances if we were to cooperate and if management were to take employees fully into their confidence and if employees were to recognise some of the difficulties that management have to face.

Mrs. Thatcher

May I return to a supplementary reply the Prime Minister gave to one of his hon. Friends? If I understood him correctly, the right hon. Gentleman said he would discuss the terms of reference for comparability studies with the Trades Union Congress. Does he fully stand by the undertaking he gave to me from that Dispatch Box last week that any comparability study would include studies of manning levels, of job security and also of the relevance of the entitlement to inflation-proofed pensions? Those three matters are absolutely vital. I hope that there will be no retreat from them in any comparability study that is made.

The Prime Minister

I do not know why the right hon. Lady needs to make that suggestion. I gave her an answer last week and I have not said anything today that differs from it. She is, perhaps, not fully seized of the width of this commission. If it is set up, it would include, according to ideas that are being bruited but not finally agreed, not only public sector but also private sector industries where there are few examples of inflation-proofed pensions. The terms of reference would clearly have to be adjusted to the needs of the case.

Q2. Mr. Corbett

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

The Prime Minister

I met the general council of the TUC on 14 February. Further meetings will be arranged as necessary.

Mr. Corbett

Will the Prime Minister discuss with the TUC and other bodies a speech made to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee yesterday in which it was said that many managers and managements paid too little attention to the human factor in industry? Will he bring forward early proposals to try to deal with this matter through the extension and encouragement of industrial democracy.

The Prime Minister

The basis of the Government's policy on industrial democracy is that there is a gap in many companies and firms between managements and employees. That gap relates both to knowledge of what the company is doing and the impact on the lives of its employees of the plans of the company. I believe that the step forward to providing industrial democracy will be an important one. I hope that we can legislate on the matter in due course.

Mr. Andrew MacKay

When the Prime Minister next meets the TUC, will he draw to its attention the events that occurred two weeks ago at the Cowley plant of Leyland during recent industrial troubles? On a show of hands, the strike call vote was indecisive. Yet the following day, when there was a secret ballot, an overwhelming majority of workers voted against the strike call. Bearing in mind the Prime Minister's strongly held view that secret ballots should be held before strikes are called, is he managing to persuade the TUC that there should always be a strike ballot in such circumstances?

The Prime Minister

The agreement entered into last week by the TUC with the Government calls—I paraphrase the words—for strike ballots to be secret wherever appropriate. Experience has shown all of us that secret ballots in the case of every strike could be a hindrance to a settlement and would not necessarily make for an accelerated settlement. That should be taken into account.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

When the Prime Minister next meets the TUC, will he tell it that the decision taken by the Cabinet today not to continue supporting the Kirkby workers' co-operative is not a final decision and that, in the light of the heavy unemployment on Merseyside and at Kirkby and the many hundreds of redundancies in the pipeline, the Government will reconsider their decision and will continue support of the co-operative and the 700 people employed there?

The Prime Minister

I regret that I cannot give that assurance. The basis of the Cabinet's decision is not merely that a lot of money has been put into this cooperative. We would have liked to see it succeed. The basis of the decision is that the Cabinet believes that to put the cooperative into receivership at present is more likely to preserve the jobs of those concerned and the interests of commercial organisations than to continue putting in money on the present basis.

Sir Paul Bryan

When the Prime Minister sees the TUC, will he be able to explain that the offer now being made to local government employees is in line with the formula which he approved at the local government conference at Newcastle and which he disowned three days later at Question Time in this House?

The Prime Minister

I agree that there has been a certain amount of confusion, but not on the Government's part. The trouble is that we are not negotiating as principals. We provide the money, but we do not negotiate. The agreement into which I entered with the trade union negotiators and general secretaries provided for a 9 per cent. increase in the pay of the grades concerned. That was the offer that was made. The local authority negotiating employers then went away separately with the trade unions and decided to offer something further. That is, unfortunately, not an area in which the Government are directly concerned. But the Government have made clear that we are not prepared to pay our part of the finance of that extra offer between now and August. We stand by the 9 per cent. which we originally offered and on which there was agreement.

Q3. Mr. George Rodgers

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

The Prime Minister

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply which I have just given to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Corbett).

Mr. Rodgers

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to discuss with the TUC the various and often helpful schemes introduced by this Government to provide employment opportunities, especially for young people? In view of the fact that many of these programmes are due for renewal, particularly the job release scheme, was he able to assure the TUC that these programmes would be extended and maintained?

The Prime Minister

I have not discussed this with the TUC, but the Secretary of State for Employment has been active in the matter. I hope that he will be able to make an early announcement on an extension of the job release scheme which I believe has been of great benefit and can be extended further.

Mr. Tebbit

Do the Prime Minister's remarks about the local government pay negotiations mean that the Government will not increase the cash limit for the rate support grant beyond that which is needed to finance the basic 9 per cent. increase?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman will wait, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury will be making a statement and answering a question on this matter in due course. I know the answer, but I prefer to stick to the doctrine of ministerial responsibility whenever I can.

Q4. Mr. Whitehead

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

The Prime Minister

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply which I gave earlier today to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Corbett).

Mr. Whitehead

Reverting to the speech by an eminent member of one of our smaller trade unions, will my right hon. Friend, when he next meets the TUC, get it to discuss with British management the possibility of a crash course in communications which would benefit both sides? One of the problems of industry is a failure of vocabulary and communications. Has not that been abundantly shown in the class system in miniature seen in the lamentable dispute at Times Newspapers Limited?

The Prime Minister

The problem of communications in British industry is very real and is generally acknowledged. I am glad that it has been given further prominence recently. It is an area in which everybody, I believe, accepts that more work must be done. By financing the work of the sector working parties, and setting aside a considerable sum of money to help translate the decisions and recommendations of those working parties to company level, the Government are giving direct assistance.

Mr. Stanbrook

During the silent watches of the night, if not at other times, does the Prime Minister have any qualms of conscience about the power of the monster of irresponsible trade unionism which he has spent his political life building up? Has he no better proposals to cut it down to size than those contained in the concordat?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

In view of my right hon. Friend's comments on the speech yesterday to which reference has been made, will he look at one of the suggestions made for improving the situation, namely, the introduction of single status in British industry? Will he discuss this matter with the TUC and see if the Government can do more to implement this across British industry?

The Prime Minister

The Government may, and certainly do, have a view. On the other hand, it is for industry itself to take these matters by the scruff of the neck and try to get some new thinking in questions of staff status. It is not the Government's responsibility to decide who shares canteens, who goes into which lavatories, what overalls are used, and similar issues. If British industry and management have any common sense, they will press ahead on all these matters and bring us more into line with what happens in the United States, Japan and some other successful countries.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

The Prime Minister has been asked to discuss many matters with the TUC. When he next meets the TUC, will he have meaningful discussions on the basis of figures produced by the "Think Tank", comparing world industry with world industry, about the potential number of redundancies in this country, in order that we can get an idea of the overmanning problem that we face?

The Prime Minister

At the last meeting of the National Economic Development Council, the TUC and the CBI began work on that matter, especially in relation to the microprocessing revolution which will undoubtedly make big differences to our industrial system. The Government are also making investigations into this matter and, if we can get any useful information, we shall communicate it to the House.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Prime Minister refused to answer a question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) on the grounds that it was to be answered later by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The Prime Minister said that he believed in the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, but, as he is First Lord of the Treasury and, therefore, head of that Department, why did he dodge the question?

Mr. Speaker

Every Minister answers as he will, and the Prime Minister gave his answer.