HC Deb 18 January 1979 vol 960 cc1957-70
The Prime Minister(Mr. James Callaghan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about the road haulage strike. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, if he catches your eye, hopes later to make a statement on the effects of the present current industrial disputes and the Government's contingency arrangements. It will be a rather broader statement.

I regret to inform the House that there appears to be no prospect of an immediate end to the strike, and the movement of supplies of all kinds is being held up. Hardship and considerable dislocation are being caused to the general public and to trade and industry, particularly because of the severe effects of secondary picketing. I therefore asked the general secretary of the TGWU, Mr. Moss Evans, and the general secretary of the TUC, Mr. Lionel Murray, to come to see me for discussions last night.

Mr. Evans made it clear that his union stands by its agreement to maintain the priority supplies of essential goods. He also repeated that it stands by its instructions to its own members that the strike and the picketing should be confined to those companies which are in dispute with the Road Haulage Association. Mr. Evans undertook to take further action to ensure that these priority supplies are maintained and that action by pickets is not extended to companies and employees who are not involved in the dispute.

Nevertheless, it is clear that some picketing practices, and, in particular, secondary picketing, have given rise to the present serious situation. I told Mr. Evans that there had been little amelioration in the position and that it was essential that pickets, and, in particular, secondary picketing, should be properly controlled. I have already made clear to the House that in the Government's view this control is likely to be more effective by a voluntary code of practice than by attempts at unenforceable legislation.

As a result of our discussion, the TGWU has agreed to a voluntary code of practice in relation to picketing during this dispute and this has been issued by it today. The code explicitly provides that Picketing should be confined to the drivers and vehicles in the hire and reward section of the industry who are employed by firms in dispute with the union —that is to say, it rules out secondary picketing. The union is making clear to all its members that no member of the union will be penalised or suffer in any way as regards his rights as a member of the union if he follows this code of practice.

My right hon. Friend will deal in his statement with the general question of contingency arrangements. But, in relation to the road haulage dispute, I should say that in the current grave situation the Government have given careful consideration to the question whether they should seek the powers that would become available by proclaiming a state of emergency today. The critical question is whether the proclamation of a state of emergency would increase the supply of essential goods and services. At the moment the Government's view is that essential supplies would be better maintained by the members of the TGWU observing the code of practice issued by their union and so putting an end to secondary picketing. But the Government will keep the matter under review day by day, and will keep the House informed of developments.

Mrs. Thatcher

Is the Prime Minister aware that the Opposition are astonished at the weakness and hollowness of his statement? There is nothing in the statement to re-establish the authority of government under the law. The right hon. Gentleman must daily be receiving reports of violence, intimidation and money passing.

Mr. Cryer


Mrs. Thatcher

I refer to intimidation as a result of which people are afraid to go to work. They can obtain no aid or comfort from the weak and complacent statement made by the Prime Minister a few moments ago.

Mr. Cryer

Give us the names.

Mrs. Thatcher

May I put a question to the right hon. Gentleman about the code of practice? Is he aware that one of the reasons for making the strike official was to give the union more power over secondary picketing? If a code of practice is to be effective from today, why has it not been effective until now?

Why has it taken so long even to get one considered and issued?

Why does the Prime Minister think that neither the TGWU's undertaking to see that food is moved nor its promise to see that own-account lorries are not affected has been followed? We all know that food has been affected and that own-account lorries have been stopped. What makes the right hon. Gentleman think that a code of practice will be effective?

Furthermore, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, it is reported that some pickets are not union pickets at all but that various other people have joined the pickets. The fact is that the strike is out of control of the union and appears to have passed from one group of militants to another. In that case, this code of practice will not be, and cannot be, effective.

I asked the Home Secretary the other day whether he had yet sent guidance, in a circular, to chief constables. If he has not done so, it is high time that he did. Perhaps he will tell the House whether he has now issued such guidance to chief constables. I have reason to think that until last night no such guidance had been sent out.

The Prime Minister always uses the argument that the law cannot deal with these matters, but he never hesitates to use the law to increase the power of trade unions. He uses that argument only when it is suggested that such power be reduced.

Finally, does the Prime Minister now think that it would be far better to reestablish the authority of Parliament by proclaiming a state of emergency in the light of this situation, with existing strikes and those threatened for next week?

The Prime Minister

I rather welcome this new non-party approach to our problems. I have no doubt that if it is maintained we shall get even more agreement between us.

As to whether there is authority under the law, the advice that I have been given—the right hon. Lady will have had similar advice—is that secondary picketing does not break the law. If the law is being broken by intimidation or in any other way, it is for the police to take action and to bring the offenders before the courts. I have no doubt that they will not hesitate to do so.

I am not able to say whether this new approach will be effective. However, in my view we must give it an opportunity to prove effective or, indeed—I hope that this would not be the case—to prove that it cannot be effective. It has not taken a long time to establish it. The union has had difficulty in securing control because of the widespread nature of the dispute. I think that it would be better for the whole House to encourage the union to try to ensure and secure control than to abuse it before it has even begun.

As to the food and the own-account lorries that are being interrupted, the right hon. Lady will presumably have noticed from my statement—she will certainly see in the code of practice, which is being issued—that the union indicates—I shall quote exactly what is said—that Members of the union who are working for employers not party to the dispute or who are engaged in moving priority supplies should indicate where they stop at the request of pickets that they are proceeding to move such supplies in accordance with the Union's instructions as embodied in this code and that pickets should therefore make no attempt to prevent such a vehicle from proceeding. This is a continuing matter. I hope that the union will be effective this time. I want to encourage all national and regional officers and the strike committees to obey this code of practice. Otherwise, it is possible that a code of law will be introduced with all the results that we have seen before.

On the question of a state of emergency, as I have said, we must keep this matter under review. There is a case for saying that if a state of emergency is declared the result will be positive, in the sense that, although we shall not be using many troops or lorries, many other people will then go back to work. That is a matter of judgment. I do not at the moment believe that that judgment would be true. We should find that we had accentuated, not lessened, the dispute. The time may come when that judgment will be accurate or, at least, when we shall have to make the judgment that it is accurate and will have the required beneficial, not adverse, effect. When that time comes, there will be no hesitation about declaring a state of emergency, but I do not propose to do so far pure cosmetic reasons. I say to the right hon. Lady that strong words and weak actions do not go well together.

Mr. David Steel

Does the Prime Minister accept that the House is at least entitled to expect an assurance from him that, unless there is a marked improvement in the situation in the next 24 hours, he will consider declaring a state of emergency tomorrow without waiting any further?

Secondly, on reflection, does the right hon. Gentleman consider that his statement that the union is making it clear that no member will be penalised or will suffer in any way if he follows the code of practice is a Gilbertian way of putting things? We want to know how they will be penalised if they do not follow the code.

The Prime Minister

This code is issued by the union. Therefore, it is not my responsibility to answer for it. It is for the TGWU, which at national level has, I think, shown its bona fides on this matter. If the document, as it is prepared, is carried out by union members throughout the country, it will undoubtedly substantially alter the situation. We shall have to see to what extent the union's members carry out the code of conduct.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we would consider declaring a state of emergency tomorrow. I have already made clear in my statement that we shall review the matter from day to day. That is the best way of proceeding. Whether it is tomorrow or next week will depend upon whether we judge that the declaration of a state of emergency will either get men back to work or improve the movement of goods. At the moment, our judgment is that that would not be so, and no evidence has been forthcoming from the Leader of the Opposition to show that it would improve the situation.

Mr. Loyden

Will my right hon. Friend make clear to the Leader of the Opposition, who evidently understands very little about the events that have been taking place recently, that it was the influence of the national officers of the Transport and General Workers' Union that brought the tankers drivers' strike quickly to an end and that this week those officers have been involved daily in dealing with the matters to which she referred? It is absolutely untrue that the union so far, in its instructions to its members, has not been able to penetrate the membership in that way. The membership is responding. The code of practice being issued today has the full backing of the union's executive. [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is a member of the union and therefore has a more complete knowledge of its attitude than some Opposition Members who are now shouting. It is true that the union's national officers are endeavouring to ensure that this code is carried through. If it is carried through, there will be relief at the ports and in other ways. But it is now for the members of the union to accept the code that has been issued by their union. We shall certainly ensure that it gets the maximum publicity. We trust that they will then carry it out. If they do not carry it out for their own union, the Opposition still have to answer the question: for whom would they carry it out?

Mr. Peter Walker

Further to the point made by the Leader of the Liberal Party, is the Prime Minister aware that the most staggering thing about his statement is that, having called Mr. Moss Evans to Downing Street yesterday and agreed not to declare a state of emergency because of the assurances given by Mr. Evans, it was on the basis that those who complied with the voluntary code on picketing would not be punished for complying and that those who did not comply would not be punished for not complying? Did he not obtain from Mr. Moss Evans an assurance that any member of the Transport and General Workers' Union who now indulges in secondary picketing will lose his membership of that union?

The Prime Minister

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman's object—

Mr. Skinner

Ask him about secondary banking.

The Prime Minister

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman believes that that would solve this problem or bring the strike to an end. If so, his knowledge of industrial relations must be very scant.

Mr. Ward

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a number of the messy situations that have arisen in the last few days are due to appalling communications in a very difficult situation? Did Mr. Moss Evans indicate whether he intended to do anything to improve communications between his district officers and the local press and employers and the Government's own regional staff?

The Prime Minister

That is a matter for Mr. Evans, but certainly the staff of the various Ministries are working well together and are in touch in order to ensure, as far as possible, that essential goods go through. That communication is complete, and we get up-to-date reports regularly.

Mr. Paul Dean

Does the Prime Minister recognise that he has totally failed to give any leadership to the moderate majority in this nation? Does he accept that it is his first duty, at this grim moment, to demonstrate his resolve that this country shall be governed by the elected Government and Parliament and not by small groups of bullies and blockaders?

The Prime Minister

I think that it has always been my responsibility. I have tried to carry it out to give leadership to moderate opinion of all sorts. That is what I am continuing to do. I do not intend to fall victim to any cheap gestures that might look strong but would not produce a result. That is the test. If a state of emergency were declared in present circumstances, newspapers might tomorrow say "How strong!" and by Tuesday they would be saying "What a ghastly mistake!" This is a matter of judgment. If we believe that the moment has arisen when the situation will be improved by a state of emergency, the hon. Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean) need have no doubt that we shall declare one, but I have still to hear any evidence why people believe that a state of emergency would improve the flow of goods from the ports, through the warehouses and into the shops, or, indeed, would get the men back to work. There has been no evidence of that at all.

Mr. Norman Atkinson

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if this whole series of disputes proves anything it proves clearly that the Conservative Party is the party of the employers? It will not have escaped his notice that all the proposals made by the Conservative Party, in the last four days, for legislative changes would have strengthened the employers' bargaining power. Is it not a disgrace that the Conservative Party should seek to exploit the class struggle—[Interruption]—when uppermost in the minds of all of us should be a solution to the problems of inflation?

The Prime Minister

The real question, if hon. Members jeer about the class struggle, is that we are all engaged in a national struggle at the moment.

Mr. Lawson

The right hon. Gentleman is not.

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman suggests that I am not, he mistakes very much my approach to this question. That it is not a strident approach does not mean that I do not care as much as he does about the welfare of our nation—about getting men back to work and ensuring that there is justice and fair play for all our citizens. The hon. Gentleman must give me the credit for believing that what I am doing is the right way to conduct this nation through a most difficult situation.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. A wider statement on the current situation is to follow. I propose to call three more hon. Members from either side.

Mr. Edward Gardner

Is the Prime Minister aware that the effects of the present strike on the North-West of England have produced a state of crisis that is now beginning to show symptoms of anarchy? In addition to being threatened by poisoning from contaminated water, people in that area are now threatened by malnutrition, due to the interruption of food supplies. Does he know that supplies of the necessities of life are being controlled not by the agencies of government but by the bully-boys of the unions? What steps is he prepared to take immediately, as a matter of urgency, to deal with that situation?

The Prime Minister

I would be astonished if the hon. and learned Gentleman's rather extravagant language about people suffering malnutrition were found to be true. We are all threatened with malnutrition in the long run, but it is absurd to use language of that sort in present circumstances, as the hon. and learned Member knows.

It is true, according to the reports that we have received, that the North-West has suffered particularly. We have to try to ensure that the normal food and water supplies are restored as quickly as possible. People are having to walk 200 or 300 yards to get water, which is a disgrace in a civilised community.

But I would point out to the hon. and learned Gentleman and to Opposition Members in their present, if I may call it, union-bashing mood—[HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] All right, I withdraw and apologise. I have not heard a word said against unions this afternoon. But when Opposition Members criticize—if they will accept the word—if not attack, the unions, they should recognise that the action being taken in many cases is not under the authority of the union. It is outside its authority. It is unofficial, and therefore the problem is all the greater—unless we intend to put a few thousand citizens into gaol—to try to get a sense of responsibility back into society, which is what I intend to do.

Mr. Heffer

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the simplistic demand for a state of emergency made by the Opposition could actually lead—they must think about this for two or three minutes—to a withdrawal of labour from the docks and from the airports, and could freeze the situation entirely? Will they stop making these simplistic demands? Is it not time that the Department of Employment, despite ACAS, got the people involved in the dispute round the table in order to reach a settlement? No matter how long this strike goes on, a settlement has to be reached. The most positive thing that we can do at this moment is to concentrate on reaching a settlement and not make the sort of demands that are coming from the Opposition Benches.

The Prime Minister

I shall certainly discuss this prospect with the Secretary of State for Employment. The Road Haulage Association made a proposal yesterday which, I understand, was unacceptable because of the negotiating practices that exist in that industry. In some ways, they are rather strange practices, perhaps because of the history of the industry. The association made a proposal that was not acceptable, but if it were possible to get the parties round a table and get a settlement, the Govern- ment would certainly lend their best offices towards achieving that.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Is the Prime Minister aware that since he saw Mr. Moss Evans yesterday the strike of lorry drivers has been made official in the West Midlands? Secondly, the secondary picketing of the salt works in Cheshire has increased, with serious consequences for the people.

The Prime Minister

My understanding was that the salt works position had eased, but I shall look into what the right hon. Gentleman says. We were given assurances about the movement of salt. As for secondary picketing, if the members carry out the code of practice laid down by the union that should cease.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Are not the questions of the Leader of the Liberal Party and the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) based on a mishearing of the words in the statement from Moss Evans? Does not that passage relate not to the pickets but to the people who go through the picket lines, as long as they go through the picket lines in accordance with the instructions of the unions? In that sense. is not that passage absolutely vital? Does it not rob the picket line of its authority to stop people who are not involved?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend, with his legal mind, has stated the position exactly as I understand it. [HON.MEMBERS: "No."] At least I have the advantage of having read the statement, and those who are shouting have not. I shall gladly read my statement again, because I do not want any misunderstanding about it. Having said that secondary picketing is ruled out, the statement goes on: The union is making clear to all its members that no member of the union will be penalised or suffer in any way as regards his rights as a member of the union if he follows this code of practice. My understanding is that it is alleged that some people have been threatened that if they go through a picket line they will suffer afterwards by the withdrawal of their union card. Therefore, when I read that sentence it seemed to me that that was a protection and advice to those who go through the picket lines that in no circumstances will they be penalised or suffer in any way.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I should like the Prime Minister to clarify one point beyond doubt. His hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon) said that the picket line had authority to stop—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Those were the words he used. The Prime Minister, inadvertently perhaps, endorsed or accepted those words. Will he make it absolutely clear to the House and the country that a picket line has no authority whatsoever to stop anybody?

The Prime Minister

With respect. I do not think that I—

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Before my right hon. Friend replies, may I say that I did not say that? [HON. MEMBERS: "The hon. Gentleman did."] I did not. What I said was that the picket line had authority. The authority comes out of the loyalty of the trade unionists or out of the power of the union to withdraw the card of any member who violates the picket line. That is all.

The Prime Minister

I think that if the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) studies what I said—we must not get this wrong, nor must we try to make points that are not relevant—he will agree that I certainly did not endorse any suggestion of the kind alleged. As my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon) says, he did not intend to make such a suggestion, nor do I believe that he did make it. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows the law as well as I do.

There is no need for any dispute about this, and I am happy to repeat that there is no right of a picket to stop anyone. It is at the decision of the person who is approaching the picket line, as the statement says in two places. It refers on the first page to those drivers who are approaching a picket line and on the second page it says: Members of the union … should indicate where they stop at the request of pickets". They themselves decide to stop, at the request of pickets. As I understand it, that is what the law of picketing is about, and always has been. There is no need for false differences over this issue.

Mr. Cryer

Will my right hon. Friend confirm and make clear whether he has received any evidence of a tacit or explicit conspiracy between the Tory Party and the Road Haulage Association deliberately to prolong the strike so that the Tories can make the maximum political advantage, as they think, as they did in their party political broadcast last night?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I have received no evidence of that sort.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I raise this point of order with some deference to you. One of my hon. Friends was trying to put a Question to the Prime Minister and failed to do so. I recognise that it is your right to choose hon. Members to ask questions, but this failure puts those who represent Scottish constituencies in some difficulty, for the following reason. The next statement will be made by the Home Secretary, who has no responsibility whatever for Scottish affairs, and I doubt whether he will be able to add any comment about the emergency in Scotland. In those circumstances, what can Scottish hon. Members do if the Prime Minister cannot answer their questions?

Mr. Speaker

I think that the whole House is aware that I lean over backwards to make sure that minority party interests are heard. The Scottish National Party can have no complaint against me.

Secondly, when so many right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to ask a question, it is impossible to watch, on a regional basis, who is called.

Mr. Wilson

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I rise again with humility and deference. As you will know, the SNP has not been very audible in relation to selection or otherwise in recent weeks. We on the SNP Bench do not have the opportunity of putting any questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland, because the right hon. Gentleman, who represents a national area of the United Kingdom, has not come forward with a statement of the position in Scotland and the way in which people are affected by the strike.

Mr. Speaker

I understand that the Secretary of State for Wales also will not make a statement. It is the Home Secretary who will be making the statement.

Mr. Tebbit

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You do yourself an injustice. It will be within the recollection of the House, even if it has slipped your mind, that you called the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel), who is the best of our belief is a Scottish Member.

Mr. Speaker

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman.