HC Deb 18 January 1979 vol 960 cc1952-7

Mr. Michael Morris(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a statement on what advice he has given to area health authorities about emergency ambulance cover from Monday 22nd January.

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. David Ennals)

No general guidance is necessary at present. NHS authorities know that it is their responsibility to take whatever measures are needed.

I have spoken personally to the general secretaries of the unions concerned and have been assured that the unions have advised their members to maintain emergency services. I have, however, to tell the House that there is an unofficial threat to remove emergency services in London next Monday. I understand that the men are to consider the matter tomorrow. Such unofficial action could have tragic consequences, and I appeal to all those concerned to act responsibly and to maintain emergency services.

The South West Thames regional health authority, which is the authority responsible for the London ambulance service, has made contingency plans to ensure an emergency service.

Mr. Morris

As, by definition, we are dealing with matters of life and death, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that certainly the Northamptonshire area health authority has been expecting advice? Secondly, will he explain why it is to be the unions which decide what is to be an emergency, and not the medical staff concerned? Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman explain why it is that union members are apparently to be paid for next Monday although they are going on strike?

Mr. Ennals

It is certainly not wholly unions which decide whether a matter is an emergency. But there can be no question at all, whether it be a matter for unions, for administrators or for the professions, that to maintain an emergency service such as the London ambulance service clearly cannot be other than essential. Therefore, I am glad that the unions are bringing every possible pressure to bear upon their men. I hope that there will be a response.

The hon. Gentleman's second question related to pay sanctions. There should be no misunderstanding about this. Those who go on strike get no pay. The question relates to action other than withdrawing labour, where some flexibility may be necessary, depending on the nature of the action and the circumstances at the time.

Mr. Molloy

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in this dispute it is the policy of the four major trade unions involved, with particular reference to the possible situation in London—their policy and not merely their advice—that there should he complete emergency cover? Is he aware that what he can do to help them in trying to keep some form of order and a continuing exchange of views to see that this is accomplished would be appreciated by the trade unions and, I hope, everyone in the House, as an aid to the achievement of their desire that during this dispute there should be full and complete cover for emergencies?

Mr. Ennals

Quite right. It is the policy of the unions. I am in touch with them. The London ambulance service has a very fine reputation. It is a well-trained and very efficient force. I do not believe that when the men consider these issues properly and fairly they will leave London without an emergency service. I cannot believe it.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

In regard to the possible withdrawal of emergency services in London on Monday, why is it not possible to advise the public now of what the contingency plans are? With newspapers reduced in size, and a lot of news, if this is to occur, people want to know what will happen on Monday.

I have another question, which follows a point made by the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy), who asked the right hon. Gentleman whether there was anything that he could advise the unions to do to strengthen their authority over those of their members who are not following the rules. Will the right hon. Gentleman discuss with the appropriate general secretaries the "branching" of members who are disobeying union instructions?

Mr. Ennals

As to giving advice, emergency service will be provided as a contingency. There have been very productive discussions with the police force and with the voluntary organisations. I am satisfied—my Department has been totally in touch—that the authority will provide an emergency service. In any case, as I have made clear to the House, the meeting is being held tomorrow morning and I do not want to do or say anything today other than to encourage the men to act responsibly in accordance with their union policy.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is an extension of Question Time. We are dealing with a Private Notice Question. I remind the House that there are three important statements to follow, as well as business questions. I shall allow one question from each side of the House.

Mr. William Hamilton

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that every Labour Member would deplore any action by anybody outside who threatened emergency services of any kind? Does he understand that most of those who are coming on Monday have a serious grievance, namely, low pay in the public sector, and that many of them were attacked in the first instance by the Tory Government as long ago as the early 1960s? The nurses were the first victims of a Tory incomes policy and have the same grievances today. Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking to the unions that the problem of low pay in the public sector will be tackled imaginatively by the Government?

Mr. Ennals

I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House will not support the withdrawal of emergency services.

My hon. Friend mentioned a grievance. He will know that two days ago my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister outlined two important initiatives on pay. In line with those initiatives, there have been informal meetings with representatives of employers and unions in the hope that it may be possible to find the basis of a fair and reasonable settlement. I am sure that both sides of the House hope that such a settlement will be achieved.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin

The House welcomes the right hon. Gentleman's statement. I hope that he will prove right in his confidence that an emergency service will operate in London. Is he aware that if the Red Cross and St. John Ambulance and the police are prepared to play their part, they will be supported by hon. Members in all parts of the House?

Has the right hon. Gentlemen taken the advice of the management of the London ambulance service and warned the Ministry of Defence that it may be necessary to call on Service personnel to reinforce emergency services? Is he aware that his circular issued last Monday, which appeared to advise authorities not to withhold pay from those who take industrial action, gave great offence to many health authorities? It cut the ground from under their feet in deciding whether to exercise any discipline.

Mr. Ennals

On the right hon. Gentleman's last comment, I believe that there has been some misrepresentation. On the subject of strike action, the position as recognised by health authorities is clear. Unfortunately, a press report gave a totally contrary impression.

In answer to the right hon. Gentleman's earlier comments, I inform him that there has been great co-operation from the Red Cross and St. John Ambulance, and especially from the police. The question of the involvement of the Ministry of Defence is a matter with which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will deal in a later statement.