HC Deb 15 January 1979 vol 960 cc1318-29
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will report to the House on the emergency arrangements made to deal with the consequences of recent and current industrial disputes, the results of which are already being felt in the disruption of industry and in widespread lay-offs. We shall debate tomorrow wider aspects of these matters, such as their implications for unemployment and inflation. Today I am concerned with the Government's responsibility for ensuring that essential supplies and services are maintained for the community.

I deal first with the oil tanker drivers dispute. The Government were ready at any time to call on the assistance of the Services and to proclaim a state of emergency should that have been necessary. The contingency plans were kept constantly under review by Ministers. 160 Service instructors were trained and 15,000 Service men were recalled from leave over the new year holiday period and kept on short notice. Detailed contingency plans had been prepared for requisitioning of tankers and restricting the use of fuel to priority purposes. To put the plans for requisitioning tankers into effect would have required the proclamation of a state of emergency.

If necessary, Parliament would have been recalled. In the event, it has not been necessary to put any of these plans into operation. Supplies generally never fell to a critical level, and last week the prospect of a national strike in Great Britain was averted.

In Northern Ireland the situation was different. My right honourable Friend had to call on the help of the Army and requisition some vehicles to deal with the results of an unofficial strike, which has now, I am glad to say, been terminated. I should like here to pay tribute to the exemplary patience shown by the Service men of all ranks and Services who were trained, who stood by or were involved both in Great Britain and in Northern Ireland.

I turn now to the dispute in the road haulage industry. Unofficial industrial action in the industry has been going on throughout much of the country since the beginning of this month. This resulted from failure on the part of the Road Haulage Association and the Transport and General Workers' Union to reach agreement on pay settlements in the hire and reward "section of the industry, which accounts for about 35 per cent. of the total heavy goods vehicles in the country.

The unofficial action amounted to a virtual withdrawal of labour and the picketing of docks, depots and industrial premises. The effect of this picketing was considerably to reduce the delivery of goods by firms which operate their own transport—the so-called "own account" section of the industry—and to prevent many essential goods from being removed from the ports. The TGWU declared the strikes official—except for Kent and the West Midlands region—on 11th January.

That same day the Government activated their emergency organisation throughout the country. Regional emergency committees came into immediate operation. Their main role is to do all that is possible to see that priority sup-lies and services are maintained. They are working round the clock, seven days a week, and they are proving invaluable. They and their members are in continuous contact with operations rooms in the Department of Transport and other main Departments in London and are under the direction of a co-ordinating committee under my chairmanship.

Before the strikes were declared official, the Government had already drawn up a list of priority supplies to be maintained during the course of the industrial action. This list includes food and animal feedingstuffs ; pharmaceutical and medical supplies ; fuel for space heating in residential accommodation and schools ; materials for gritting and snow clearance ; and supplies in crisis and emergency situations, which must obviously be decided on an ad hoc basis.

Union leaders undertook to recommend these priorities to their regional committees. In most cases these priorities have already been adopted in the regions and the emergency committees report that the arrangements have begun to work. In some areas, however, strike committees and pickets are refusing to follow the recommendations of their union and the movement of essential supplies is still being obstructed. In some cases secondary picketing is going beyond those operations in the "hire and reward" section of the industry whose terms and conditions are affected by the dispute. But, should these priority arrangements fail to ensure the supply of food and other necessities of life, we should be ready to call on the assistance of the Services, or to proclaim a state of emergency. But it is clear that to proclaim a state of emergency at this stage would not only distract the armed forces from their normal duties but would not improve the present situation.

The House will also know that there are likely to be rail stoppages tomorrow and Thursday of this week. The rail unions are now considering the specific proposals covering productivity put to them by British Rail over the weekend. The outcome for tomorrow's threatened strike depends on discussions that I understand are still taking place. The Metropolitan Police have contingency plans to deal with parking problems in central London, but I do not underestimate the extent to which a rail strike will add to existing difficulties.

May I make clear one point on which there is some confusion? The purpose of proclaiming a state of emergency is to enable the Government to take powers which they would not otherwise have. There is no advantage in proclaiming a state of emergency unless and until such powers would enable the Government to deal more effectively with supplying essential requirements than other methods would do.

The Government will, of course, continue to keep all their contingency plans in full readiness. But, in the case of the road haulage dispute, the House should be in no doubt that any contribution that the Services could make could only provide a small fraction of the goods that can be moved under these priority arrangements. In all of this I am talking of measures that are confined to what is needed to meet the essential needs of the community. No contingency measures open to the Government will significantly ease the disruption of industry or reduce the number of men laid off as a result of these disputes.

In this as in other cases where industrial action threatens the life of the community the Government fully accept their responsibility for taking whatever measures are necessary and available for the maintenance of essential supplies and services. Contingency plans have been made covering a wide range of possible situations and they can be brought into operation at short notice. The Government can and will bring these plans into operation if in their judgment there is a need to do so.

Mr. Whitelaw

The major issues raised by the present industrial strife are fundamental to the life and stability of our nation and will rightly be debated by the House, at the instigation of the Opposition, tomorrow. I shall concentrate my remarks on the Government's clear duty to maintain essential supplies. We are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for assuring the House that that is the determination of the Government throughout the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, despite the welcome end to the tanker drivers' dispute there, I understand that the position continues to be difficult.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman appreciates that in seeking to maintain essential supplies the Government can rightly expect to have the full co-operation of the Opposition and the House as a whole. Because people in some areas in the North-West, in addition to the effects of the lorry drivers' strike and the prospects of a rail strike, are also suffering considerable difficulties with water supplies, will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that on any of these issues the Government will not hesitate to take emergency measures whenever they appear to be necessary?

We have received reports that, contrary to the agreement arrived at between the Government and the TGWU, essential supplies are still not getting through some picket lines and that secondary picketing of firms and vehicles not involved in the dispute still continues. Since the right hon. Gentleman, unlike sonic of his Labour colleagues, appears to appreciate, though somewhat late in the day, the dangers of secondary picketing, will he assure the House that the Government will take urgent steps to deal with this extremely dangerous development?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. I have already made clear the Government's overall position, but I must also make clear the experience in Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland told me that a number of people in Northern Ireland were seeking a proclamation to deal with the lack of petrol, but it was then found that the arrangements did not embrace the supply of petrol to industry. The Government always have to deal with the basic needs of the community on a life-and-death basis.

On the supply of oil, in relation to which the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition last week sought a proclamation, I would inform the House that we fell to 50 per cent. of supplies on one day but that on most days supplies were over 80 per cent. The House might wish to know that the maximum that we could supply, using 15,000 soldiers, was 30 per cent. of the petrol used. In view of the various routes to be followed, it would take six or seven days for this to be done. That was the strong advice given to the Government by the Services. Therefore, I stress that we are talking of essential services.

On water supplies, which were affected by an unofficial strike, I would inform the House that the National Union of General and Municipal Workers is working hard on that problem in the North-West. We are ready to deal with the position in that area and are discussing the matter.

On secondary picketing, I would inform the right hon. Gentleman that the TGWU has told its regional offices that its dispute is only with the Road Haulage Association. I remind the right hon. Gentleman, who was Secretary of State for Employment in 1974, that at that time the Conservative Party's view on the matter was quite clear. Secondary picketing is not a new phenomenon. In the 1974 election the Conservatives said that there was no need for a change in the law.

Mr. Roy Hughes

Would not the Government now be wise to give priority to the settlement of the just claim of the road haulage drivers, on the lines of the settlement arrived at with the BBC staff, who so convincingly broke the Government's guidelines—or are our standards now so devalued that it is more important for people to be able to watch "The Sound of Music" on television than it is to ensure the conveyance of essential supplies?

Mr. Rees

I believe that my hon. Friend is in favour of free collective bargaining. I remind him that free collective bargaining is taking place between the TGWU and the Road Haulage Association.

Mr. Pardoe

What is the Government's position on secondary picketing? Do they believe that such picketing is illegal, and, if so, will the right hon. Gentleman advise chief constables accordingly? Secondly, what are the Government asking the country to suffer for? Do they believe that a figure of 5 per cent. is as much as the nation can afford, and what steps do the Government intend to take to enforce that view?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman state clearly, on behalf of the Government, that there is no group of workers, and no combination of groups of workers, whose labour is indispensable to the life of our nation?

Mr. Rees

I have no power to instruct chief constables in their duties. They know the law. [HON. MEMBERS: "What is it? "] I was about to instruct some hon. Members on that topic. Picketing is in general in breach of the criminal law only if it involves obstruction or a breach of the peace. I have been informed that so far in this dispute picketing has, in general, been peaceable. So long as that is the position, the police have no grounds for action.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) seeks to instruct me on pay policy, I remind him that in December he voted for free collective bargaining. Those who believe in free collective bargaining must live with its consequences.

Sir David Renton

The Home Secretary referred to the Government's responsibility in using their powers. Is not the real trouble that the trade unions have immense power and no responsibility and that their power in recent years has been increased by Government action? Will the Government now face the reality of the situation, namely, the need to examine the responsibilities of the trade unions and their powers, and the reduction of those powers?

Mr. Rees

There is no doubt that, arising out of the complicated nature of modern industry, an unofficial strike in the North-West, against the strong advice of the municipal workers' union, can cause trouble for a large number of people. But, until this phase, in the last two or three years great responsibility on pay policy has been shown by the trade union movement. The Government's job is to continue to work with the trade union movement and to harness its power in the service of the community.

Many strange things have been said about picketing laws—indeed, the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) made some comments on the subject yesterday. Apart from one dfifference in the law that we brought in, which constrains picketing of people's homes, I must inform the House that the law on picketing has been exactly the same ever since the Act of 1906.

Mr. Jay

Is it not perfectly clear that the Opposition's irresponsible vote in December on pay policy sanctions has contributed a great deal to the present situation?

Mr. Rees

I have no doubt that the Opposition, who argued that sanctions were very important and then voted against them, gave a signal to the community, so that we are now faced with "Thateherised" free collective bargaining.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan

Since the TGWU made the lorry drivers' strike official only in order to have control of it, and since that control seems slightly tenuous, will the Home Secretary consult the TGWU and other unions and reconsider the question of the extension of secondary picketing that recent legislation has allowed? I am not suggesting that he should go against the unions, but there is very grave disquiet within the trade union movement itself at the extent to which a small number of workers, acting without the authority of their unions or their colleagues, are able to cause disruption and put other people out of work.

Mr. Rees

There is no doubt that unofficial strikes by small groups of people can cause great problems to the community. We have not changed the law on secondary picketing and we have not made it easier. It is right to co-operate with the unions. They are passing advice right down the line, but it is too early to tell yet whether it has got through. However, from the meeting that I had with them a few moments ago, it is obvious that the advice is getting down to the pickets, and we shall watch for an improvement later in the week.

Mr. Faulds

Since our unions rightly claim involvement in deciding national economic policies, how can one of the main union leaders disclaim any responsibility for the management of the economy, as Moss "Machismo" Evans did the other day?

Mr. Rees

I do not know how it can be done, but I know that all of us—the trade unions, the employers and the political parties—have a responsibility for this in the modern world.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Will the Home Secretary consider the position at Liverpool docks, where the control of movement is in the hands of a committee of the TGWU known as the dispensation office? That office did not open until 11.45 this morning, and this held up many hundreds of lorries trying to get into the port. Will he get his co-ordinating committee to see that that office opens at 6 a.m. tomorrow?

Mr. Rees

I shall pass that on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that at the beginning of the dispute there was an immense amount of panic buying by people, which has helped to create difficulties? This panic was caused by the media giving lists of commodities that would be in short supply in the coming week. Is it not true that there has been a great deal of irresponsibility by the media aggravating the panic that was generated by the Conservatives? Is it not also true that the law on secondary picketing has not changed, despite what the Conservatives say? There were suggestions that there should be a change, but these were not accepted, and were never agreed even by the Trades Union Congress. Let us get that on the record.

Is it not also true that the lorry drivers have a very good case? We should be trying to settle the issue rather than create emotionalism about the power of the unions, as if the workers have no rights at all.

Mr. Rees

With free collective bargaining, the dispute is between the employers and the unions. The employers have offered 15 per cent. The argument is between that figure and one of more than 20 per cent. Yet everyone has been talking glibly about responsible collective bargaining. If everyone has 15 per cent. this country will be on the royal road to heavy inflation, such as we inherited in 1974.

On the question of panic buying, last week the oil companies told me that there were days when the petrol tanks of the cars of this country carried two days' supply. This caused problems, particularly in north London. Panic buying, whether of food or petrol, does not help. However, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food tells me that while it is not true in some parts of the country, panic buying has been much lower than was expected.

Mr. Henderson

The Home Secretary referred to contingency measures. Is he aware that old people are not in a position to take part in any panic buying or substantial buying of any kind? If the situation deteriorates, does the Secretary of State have any contingency plans for issuing food ration books?

Mr. Rees

We have no contingency plans for issuing food ration books. However, it is most important that the local authorities are brought in to discuss these matters, as I found when I visited the Leeds regional office yesterday. When I arrived in Leeds, I read a report in the paper saying that 20 schools in the city would shut because of the dispute. The number was not 20, it was eight, and as a result of the regional office talking to the chief education officer those eight were dealt with as well. Therefore, it is most important to go to the regional offices.

Mr. Kelley

My right hon. Friend's statement referred to the maintenance of essential services. Would it not be advisable to approach the trade unions involved in the disputes that are now interfering with essential services in order to come to some agreement with them? Does he agree that the services that are now being maintained by military personnel should be politically involved with the dispute and liable to picketing by the unions involved?

Mr. Rees

No essential supplies are coming from the military Services. We have discussed our priorities with the trade unions and our list has been sent out. The Secretary of State for Transport tells me that discussions are taking place regionally because it may be found that the priority list needs broadening for some reason or other. It is impossible to get it absolutely accurate from the start. The trade unions are involved in this.

Several Hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker

Order. There will be a debate on this tomorrow. I propose to call only three more hon. Members from each side of the House, because we also have a Standing Order No. 9 application.

Mr. Tebbit

Will the Home Secretary get right to the heart of the problem and tell us whether the Government desire that the employers or the strikers should win the dispute?

Mr. Rees

We learned in the House of Commons in December, in a vote which the hon. Member supported, that OUT influence over the private sector should be removed. Therefore, this is a matter for free collective bargaining. If that hurts the hon. Member, he should not have voted in the way that he did.

Mr. Skinner

Will the Home Secretary confirm that the powerful 2 million-strong Transport and General Workers' Union has managed to get for its member lorry drivers £52 a week on the basic rate, while only a few months ago the top salaried people, with their special closed shop agreements and powerful lobbying system, managed to get massive pay rises? Is it not time that the Government listened to the voices of the workers instead of the hysterical cries of the Tories and the media, who are engaged in electioneering?

Mr. Rees

I listen to the people in my constituency and they tell me that if everyone gets 15 per cent. they will be no better off at the end of the day. They learned that four years ago.

Mr. Cormack

Will the Home Secretary answer two very simple questions? Do the Government consider that we are facing a crisis, and do they feel in control?

Mr. Rees

They are rather simple questions, which I would expect. We are not near a crisis.

Mr. Molloy

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the combination of frenzy and glee about this situation that has been exhibited by some sectors of the Conservative Party, who on the one hand have condemned the entire British trade union movement as having too much power and exerting it wrongly but, on the other, moments after that accusation, have suggested that my right hon. Friend should have further talks with some of these unions? Does the Home Secretary agree that over the past three years there has been remarkable co-operation with British trade unionists in the fight against inflation? Will he now consider an approach to the TUC to try to enlist from them the same sort of support and co-operation as existed in the fight against inflation in order to terminate the present difficulties?

Mr. Rees

The Government are always ready to talk with the trade union movement. My responsibility is contingency planning. At an early pitch we showed the movement the plans that we had for oil and petrol. We have discussed the plans with it. That is by far the best way of proceeding. Although there are problems with the law, the best way of proceeding in the modern world is to co-operate with the trade unions. With few exceptions, the trade unions have no wish to bring hardship to those in the community who are the hardest hit.

Mr. Mayhew

Surely the greatest evil comes from the secondary picketing of firms with which no bargaining is taking place, free, collective or otherwise. The right hon. Gentleman has said that the chief constables know the law on picketing. If the right hon. Gentleman knows the law on picketing, why is it that only in the past few days he has sought the Law Officers' advice on the question whether secondary picketing is lawful?

Mr. Rees

No. On many occasions there has been talk about the problems that arise from picketing. As for secondary picketing, the Transport and General Workers' Union has made it clear to its members that it is in dispute with the Road Haulage Association and with nobody else. I accept that problems arise. There may be those who are carrying goods in "own account" vehicles who formerly were having the goods carried by the Road Haulage Association. There are problems that are being brought to my notice. The problems can be ironed out by the regional official. It is clear that the union knows that it has a dispute with the association and nobody else.

Mr. John Ellis

My right hon. Friend talks about inflation, and no one wants to see that get out of hand, but will he bear in mind that the present concern is take-home pay? Many drivers face the prospect of not being able to work overtime because of Common Market legislation. That is something that will have to be dealt with at the bargaining table. That is a material factor that is worsening the present situation.

Mr. Rees

If there are problems, it is important to overcome them and to take corrective action. However, if everyone takes the same action, I repeat that we shall reach the pitch of printing confetti money and everybody will be hit by inflation.