HC Deb 23 January 1979 vol 961 cc207-22
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Bruce Millan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on essential supplies and services in Scotland during the current industrial disputes.

Supplies of food remain, in general, adequate, especially fresh foods such as bread, milk, meat, fruit and vegetables. The main items in short supply, varying between localities, are sugar, salt, margarine and cooking fats, cereals and frozen foods.

The difficulties experienced with some food items have been reflected in the Scottish islands. Although there are shortages, no major or unusual problems have been reported. Supplies are reaching the Orkney and Shetland islands from Aberdeen, but there is a problem over catering supplies for Sullom Voe. Difficulties have arisen, too, over transport of supplies to Arran, but I am hopeful that these will be resolved following discussions between the chief executive of the district council and the local strike committee.

The agriculture industry in Scotland has in general been able to obtain adequate supplies for its needs, although the supply of animal feedingstuffs to the intensive production sector has been difficult. Liquid milk supply has remained satisfactory. Livestock markets for store and fat animals have continued, but at a reduced level. After an initial setback, the export market is now improving.

Bad weather has prevented some Scottish vessels from fishing, but most fleets have been operating. Virtually all landings have been sold and fish markets have been cleared, though at a slower rate than normal, by merchants and processors who have their own transport, On the whole, fish supplies are moving. But some fish processing plants have closed down because of distribution problems. About 760 fish process workers have been laid off, mainly at Aberdeen and Fraserburgh.

The effect on the Scottish economy is becoming increasingly serious. The interruption in the regular flow of raw materials and finished products has caused many firms to lay off workers and others to cut back production and concentrate on maintenance activities. To date, the estimated total of workers laid off is some 32,000 in manufacturing industry. This number is likely to rise sharply if the dispute continues. Small businesses are particularly badly affected and the flow of exports from manufacturing premises through the docks is severely curtailed.

Good contact has been established both centrally and locally with officials of the Transport and General Workers' Union and we are in frequent touch with them over the operation of the code of practice. The indications that I have yesterday and today are that the code of practice is increasingly being applied in Scotland.

Industrial action yesterday by other unions badly affected hospital and health services. In those parts of Scotland where ambulance men totally withdrew their labour—much of the West of Scotland and parts of Fife and Grampian regions—the police appear to have coped admirably with what was fortunately a very low level of emergency calls, and the community is once again much in their debt. In other areas ambulance men heeded their union's advice to ensure that essential services were not interrupted. Indications this morning are that in most areas the full normal service is being provided.

In general there were no laundry, portering or domestic services in hospitals and catering services were greatly reduced. Administrative and senior nursing staff helped to serve meals. Operating lists were reduced or cancelled and admissions restricted. Some outpatient clinics functioned. I understand that today hospital services are returning to normal, but the prospect of further industrial action remains.

Other services also were affected. Many schools in Borders, Fife, Grampian, Lothian and Strathclyde regions were closed, as were some elsewhere in Scotland, and a wide range of other services provided by local authorities were not functioning.

There were no serious effects on water and sewerage services as a result of the one-day strike. Some discolouration of water supplies was experienced, mainly in the west of the country. It was found necessary to direct some sewage into rivers.

I shall continue to keep closely involved in all aspects of the current disputes as they affect Scotland.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Is the Secretary of State aware that the House will be very grateful for his statement, which at least accepts the seriousness of the situation facing industry, commerce and the whole community in Scotland?

First, as regards yesterday's strike in the public services, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that some hospitals were kept open only by the devotion of administrative staff, some of whom worked for 24 hours without sleep, and that such efforts could not cater for any prolonged disruption? In this connection, has the right hon. Gentleman noted the reported statement this morning by Ron Curran, the Scottish organiser of the National Union of Public Employees, that the union is planning to take out on more lengthy strikes key groups such as boilermen and telephonists, which would have a devastating effect on public services, particularly hospitals and schools? What contingency plans are being made to cope with such an alarming possibility?

Secondly, with regard to the serious problem facing the island of Arran, which the Secretary of State mentioned, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the problems stem from a road haulier on the island making public the fact that he had been invited to make payments to the strike committee for each lorry going on the ferry and had made such payments, and that since that disclosure a total ban has been placed on his lorries carrying even essential supplies, such as drugs to the local hospital?

Thirdly, is the Secretary of State aware of the enormous damage being done to education, particularly at an important examination time in Scotland, when we have had lengthy closures, partly owing to the weather, partly because of the oil shortage, and now because of the public service strike? Will he take all possible steps to ensure that in any future sporadic strikes by NUPE schools will be kept open as far as possible?

Fourthly, on the growing shortage of some items of food, to which he referred, can the Secretary of State report on the discussions with the Retail Consortium to ensure that pensioners and others unable to accumulate food will get special consideration in the distribution of what supplies are available?

Finally, is the Secretary of State aware that there has been some resentment at his own and his officers' response to reports of acute problems? To give just one example, last night I was advised of an urgent telex from the Edinburgh fruit market on 12 January appealing to the Secretary of State for help over secondary picketing, which was disrupting supplies. The response was a five-line letter—which I have here—from the Scottish Development Department dated 16 January and advising that the situation had improved—which it had not; the pickets are there this morning in greater numbers than ever—and adding that specific difficulties might usefully be taken up with the local strike committee. Is this not a negation of responsibility, and will not the Secretary of State at least confirm that in Scotland and England the Government and Parliament, and not local strike committees, are responsible for the maintenance of essential services?

Mr. Millan

On the question of food supplies, particularly to the elderly, I was in touch with the social work departments of the local authorities about this early last week. I have also been in touch with the Scottish Grocers' Federation, which has promised full co-operation in seeing that where there is hardship preference is given to elderly people and disabled people, who may not be as able as other citizens to fend for themselves.

I discussed the Edinburgh fruit market with the chief constable for Lothian region last Saturday. I understand that the position there has improved.

On the schools situation, I agree that it is extremely unfortunate that there should be this continued closure of schools, particularly as there were earlier closures because of the weather and difficulties over fuel supplies. I would certainly ask regional authorities to make every effort to keep schools open, even if this kind of industrial action should continue.

On the question of Arran, the situation is being discussed with the chief executive of the district council concerned and I hope that we shall get a satisfactory solution there. I accept, of course, that if essential supplies should be cut off it is the responsibility of the Government, ultimately, to see that such supplies get through to Arran. I have made that clear and I make it clear again. We shall see that that island is not cut off from essential supplies.

As for the hospitals, I mentioned the help that we got from administrative staff yesterday, but if there were prolonged disputes there would be very serious disruption. I understand that the unions concerned are meeting tomorrow. I should deplore it very much if they were to take decisions that had the effect, as one union official has been quoted as stating to be his aim, of evacuating major hospitals in Scotland. I think that would be absolutely deplorable behaviour, and I am sure that the people of Scotland as a whole would resent it very much indeed. But I hope very much that that kind of action will not be taken.

Mr. David Steel

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the losses in foodstuffs, which he did not mention in his statement? I know that these have occurred in my area, certainly in meat and potatoes. What assessment has he made of the loss of exports, which he mentioned in passing but did not quantify? Thirdly, what directions or advice is he giving to local education authorities? Is he aware that in the Borders region all schools were closed, including those attended by my own children, where no strike action was contemplated? Surely this is an unnecessary measures if some schools can continue despite these difficulties.

Mr. Millan

This is, of course, a matter for the regional council. I think that the right hon. Gentleman ought to take it up first with the council. But if no industrial action is contemplated there is no reason at all why schools should close, and I would appeal to all education authorities to keep open as many as possible.

It is not possible to quantify the loss of exports, because it is not certain at the moment whether it is simply a delay in exports or whether in some cases export opportunities will be lost altogether. What I am saying is that the trouble in the ports is certainly having a substantial effect on exports, and that is a very worrying feature of the present situation.

I do not think that it is possible to quantify food losses, but the general situation in Scotland during the whole period of the strike is that the majority, at least, of fresh food supplies has been moving freely.

Dr. Bray

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, following representations from Transport and General Workers' Union officials and members of other trade unions, secondary pickets seem to have been withdrawn in Lanarkshire? I have checked this myself. Is he further aware that the statement by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) that there were cases of secondary picketing and extortion at Stevensons' dairy, Bellshill, is totally false? I checked myself at the dairy and have assurances from the manager that there have never been any pickets on the dairy. Is my right hon. Friend further aware that this kind of irresponsible statement by Members of the Opposition only aggravates the very strong feelings?

Mr. Millan

Some charges have been made about extortion which in the event have not been substantiated, but I have made the general statement, which I repeat here, that if there are suggestions of extortion or intimidation the proper course is to inform the police. I have been assured by the chief constables that they will pursue these questions quite rigorously. It is not any use presenting me with these allegations, particularly in these wide and rather unsubstantiated terms. The proper people to complain to are the police. I repeat that they will look into these allegations, and if they are substantiated I have no doubt at all that the Crown Office, the Lord Advocate and the local procurators will see that prosecutions take place.

Mr. Henderson

Is the Secretary of State aware that we welcome the fact that he has made this statement today, since this is the first chance that Scottish Members have had to question him on the situation in Scotland since the troubles began? Can he say a little more about the question of foodstuffs and food processing? Has he any information on the supply of containers, canisters and bottles, which has been a serious problem for the food processing industry? On the supply of food in the shops, are small grocers getting supplies as easily as large ones?

Finally, has the right hon. Gentleman any indications at this stage that he can usefully give the House that there might be a settlement on a regional basis in Scotland before too long?

Mr. Millan

I do not think that I can give any information on the last point. I understand that the possibility of regional discussions, which would mean Scottish discussions, follows from what happened yesterday during the national negotiations, but I really cannot comment on that.

The question of containers for the food industry has been a problem. We have take up individual problems and in some cases have managed to solve them, but the situation is by no means completely satisfactory. Where difficulties are reported to us, we do our best to eliminate them, sometimes with success.

On the retail side of food distribution, I think that some small shopkeepers have suffered very badly compared with the larger supermarkets. Again, the situation is very patchy, but where there are particular difficulties we are very happy to try to solve them. In many cases we have been able to solve local difficulties.

Mr. William Hamilton

Can my right hon. Friend give the House any estimate of the number of jobs likely to be lost permanently or otherwise if this strike goes on for another week or fortnight? Is he in consultation with the trade union leaders concerned, not on negotiation of the wage but directly on the effect of their action on other workers? What will his response be in respect of the rate support grant in the event of the local authorities offering a substantial wage increase to the lower-paid manual workers?

Mr. Millan

It is possible to make an offer now. Indeed, an offer has been made taking account of the low pay provisions. That is a considerable step forward for low-paid workers. There are also opportunities for a comparability exercise. These are matters best left to negotiation between the local authority representatives and the trade union representatives. On rate support grant, we have said—this is a general statement—that settlements outside the Government's guidelines and without Government approval will not receive RSG support.

I gave the figures for the effect on employment in my statement. The figures are likely to increase if the dispute is not settled. I am not able to say what the ultimate permanent effect will be, but there will be instances where those laid off will not be taken on again when the dispute is over. I have made that clear to the trade union concerned. I met regional officials and other officials of the Transport and General Workers' Union at the beginning of the dispute.

Mr. Michael Clark Hutchison

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what reply he gave to the telegram sent to him by Rankin's Fruit Markets? As the right hon. Gentleman will know, that undertaking has a large number of shops and branches, and was in considerable difficulty.

Mr. Millan

Without notice I cannot say what reply was sent in response to that telegram. I have had a large number of telegrams and letters over the past few days.

Dr. M. S. Miller

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his calm and reasonable statement does not minimise the seriousness of the situation and contrasts markedly with the forecasts of doom, gloom and disaster coming from the Opposition? Will he take into account that public sector workers in Scotland will have to be concerned in the problems that we shall have in the days ahead in no less favourable a way than those in the private sector of industry, they being deeply involved as they are often low-paid workers?

Mr. Millan

What has been said about a comparability exercise is relevant to my hon. Friend's question. During any pay policy there are special problems about the relationship of the public sector to the private sector. What we have suggested on comparability represents a possible way forward. I am well aware of the trade unions' views in Scotland. During the lobby that took place yesterday I met senior officials from Scotland from the four unions concerned. We had a useful discussion about the various problems.

Miss Harvie Anderson

Will the right hon. Gentleman re-examine the position of exports? Will he give consideration to the exports awaiting shipment and the imports necessary to fulfil the present export orders within the time scale written into the contract? There is lamentable failure on both scores. In the end, that can result only in massive lay-offs and, more important still in the long term, no repeat of export orders from these quarters.

Mr. Millan

Some of the difficulties rest at the ports, and that is where there has been in particular the problem of secondary picketing. Yesterday's reports suggested that there may be some slight easing of the position at certain ports. I am anxious to ascertain whether we can get the code of practice fully implemented and secondary picketing much reduced. If that can be achieved, the problem of the ports will be considerably lessened. That will have its effect on exports. I am anxious about exports, because at the end of the day a loss of exports could mean a loss of jobs.

Mr. Welsh

There have been reductions and cancellations of hospital operations. Will the right hon. Gentleman give assurances on critical and necessary operations and outline the action that he will take should the situation worsen?

Mr. Millan

In an emergency, when the services are much reduced, it is possible to perform only emergency and essential operations that cannot wait. If such operations are allowed to take place, some restrictions on other operations will have to be put into effect. That is what happened yesterday. It is worrying. I said yesterday that if there were major disruptions of major hospitals in Scotland many patients would suffer and many operations would not take place. Even if these were not in the normal sense of the word emergency operations, there would be involved a considerable amount of pain, inconvenience and discomfort to patients. I should like that to be avoided.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Has my right hon. Friend yet had a report from the procurator fiscal on the tragic incident in which a picket in Aberdeen was killed? Will he follow up his remarks about having discussed with the representatives of public service employees the offer that has been made of an increase plus comparability? Taking into account the disruption that has been caused, we must not only condemn action that has led to tragic results in hospitals but deal with the root cause and follow up what seems to be a helpful suggestion and a constructive way forward.

Mr. Millan

Offers are now available for low pay payments and for comparability. I believe that they represent a way forward. I had a preliminary report from the police following the death of the picket in Aberdeen last week. My hon. Friend will know that reports to the procurator fiscal and the subsequent consideration of the reports are matters not for me but for my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate. I hope that the full explanation of the circumstances of that death will be made available as soon as possible. I shall pass on my hon. Friend's comments to my right hon. and learned Friend.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. If hon. Members will ask questions that are as brief as possible, I hope to call those who have been rising to be called.

Mr. Fairgrieve

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that my constituency of Aberdeenshire, West is heavily dependent upon the paper-making industry, and that the situation has deteriorated as a result of its reliance on such a large percentage of its raw materials being imported, there having been an effect both on goods coming out of the factory for export and on goods for internal use in the United Kingdom? The right hon. Gentleman probably knows that the two main newspapers in the area, The Press and Journal and the Evening Express, are probably more reduced in size than any other newspapers, for allied reasons. Does he appreciate that the position in Aberdeenshire, West has not improved; it has deteriorated?

Mr. Millan

I accept what the hon. Gentleman said. What he said about the paper-making industry applies to many other industries. Industries that are not at the top of the priority list as essential industries are suffering substantially. It is for that reason that we have had an increased number of lay-offs and difficulties about imports and exports. If we could reduce secondary picketing and get the code of practice fully implemented we could improve the situation, but we could not restore it to normality.

Mr. Watt

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what talks his emergency committee has been having with the union to introduce some rationale? In the North-East it is necessary for men to make a 140-mile round trip merely to get a permit to enable them to get stuff moved. Does he realise that the situation is deteriorating daily, as fish boxes are not being returned from the ports in the South? Secondly, slaughtering will have to stop because no salt is getting through to the slaughterhouses.

Finally, what does the right hon. Gentleman propose to do to recompense the hauliers for their loss of earnings during the strike? Will he ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to make a refund of road licence fees for the lorries that have been laid up for so long?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I ask for even briefer questions than that.

Mr. Millan

I cannot give any promises on compensation. We were in touch with the union about fish boxes, and I gather that the position at Aberdeen has improved slightly this week. Conditions tend to vary from one day to the next. Sometimes there is an improvement and a subsequent deterioration. However, I believe that there has been some improvement at Aberdeen. I shall consider the difficulties brought about by distance in the North-East.

Mr. John Home Robertson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that branches of the National Farmers' Union in my constituency are broadly satisfied with the relationship that they have with the TGWU in the present situation and that essential feedstuffs are geting through to farmers from sources not only in Scotland but from the Liverpool docks? However much the Opposition might like to have a crisis, there is not a total crisis as yet. Is my right hon. Friend interested to know that there are many lorry drivers in my constituency who would like to settle for 15 per cent., which is now being offered?

Mr. Millan

I gather that there are a number of drivers who would like to accept. It is a generous offer. It is well beyond the Government's guidelines. I know that there are some areas where local arrangements made between the NFU and the local union have worked well right from the start of the strike and where local difficulties have been settled at local level. Through my emergency arrangements we have maintained contact not just at regional level but at local level, and most of our contacts and the solution of most of the problems are taking place at local rather than at regional level.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Would the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State acknowledge that, but for the stupendous voluntary effort of countless individuals throughout Scotland yesterday, the effects of yesterday's strike would have been even worse than they are? Despite that, does he realise that such strikes affect the voluntary services, such as meals on wheels, and is it not crazy that it should be the old, the housebound and the sick who are suffering as a result of this industrial action?

Mr. Millan

I agree that it is a tragedy that the old and the sick should suffer in these situations. Unfortunately, when action of this kind is taken these sufferings are inevitable. I was particularly concerned that the unions' own recommendations to their members that they should maintain emergency services, for example in the ambulance service, were not always followed locally. Again, the situation yesterday was patchy. There were areas of Scotland where there was no strike action at all in the whole of the ambulance service, and the emergency and non-emergency services operated normally yesterday.

Mr. George Robertson

Will the Secretary of State continue to use his good offices and influence to persuade those presently on strike to go back to work? In doing so, will he remind them that the kind of so-called free collective bargaining in which some trade union members believe—a belief in which they are aided and encouraged by the Opposition—can lead only to lower living standards for everybody in the community, and especially the lower-paid?

Mr. Millan

I can only say that I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, who speaks from his own experience as a trade union organiser before he entered the House. The idea that free collective bargaining is a panacea or a help to the low-paid worker is not at all borne out by past experience. I believe that offers of the kind now being made to low-paid workers, of special payments and a comparability exercise, are a much more fruitful way forward.

Mr. Rifkind

Contrary to what the Secretary of State has said, is he aware that the Edinburgh fruit market has confirmed in the last half-hour that picketing is far more serious than it was previously and that his own efforts as Secretary of State have done nothing to ameliorate that? Will he indicate whether he, unlike the Home Secretary, has at least given advice to chief constables on ways of ensuring that members of the public have free right of access to property that they wish to visit, rather than that this should be at the whim of strike committees?

Mr. Millan

I do not believe that chief constables need that kind of advice from me. They are very well aware of the law on picketing in Scotland, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I have discussed the situation with representatives of the chief constables in Scotland. They are well aware of the picketing law and of the respective rights of strikers and those wishing to work. I was informed that the code of practice of the TGWU had been distributed to policemen who are involved in these matters.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

It has no legal effect.

Mr. Millan

The hon. Gentleman says that that does not have any legal effect. I know that absolutely, and so do the chief constables. They are really not quite as stupid as the hon. Gentleman apparently believes them to be. They are perfectly well aware of the situation and they know the rights and duties of pickets and of those wishing to work, respectively. I have discussed these situations with them and they are well content with the discussions that they have had with me. I will again look into the situation in the fruit market, but I did discuss this position specifically at the weekend.

Mr. Dewar

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there will be a very wide welcome for his information that the voluntary code on picketing is now being widely observed in Scotland? Will he join me in hoping that if, as would appear to be the case, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) has been energetically spreading stories about specific incidents that are not well founded, that hon. Member will withdraw them at a very early date? Secondly, will he urge particularly upon the lorry drivers in Scotland that if there is a settlement that is to any significant extent above the offer that is now on the table, it will make it very much more difficult to give as just a settlement to the lower-paid as I believe the trade union movement as a whole would wish?

Mr. Millan

I believe that those who are on strike in the road haulage dispute are not among the lower-paid in terms of their average earnings, and if we are to have special protection for the lower-paid it will mean that those who are not themselves lower-paid will have to exercise a certain amount of responsibility and restraint. If that does not happen, we shall simply have runaway wage demands and runaway inflation, which is not to the benefit of any member of the community. On my hon. Friend's first point, I have already told the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) that if he has specific information he should ensure that it is passed to the proper authorities. Being a law-abiding citizen, which I believe he is, no doubt he will have done that. We shall be interested to see the results.

Mr. Younger

Is the Secretary of State aware that those who allege that they have been and still are being required to pay money to pickets for going across picket lines have been told quite clearly that they will be blacked permanently if they complain to the police? What is the right hon. Gentleman able to do, as Secretary of State, to relieve them from that situation so that they can exercise their rights as citizens?

Mr. Millan

I believe that the unions have said that there will be no blacking of that nature, but the hon. Gentleman has been very free with his allegations. I have told him, and I tell him now, that if he has information he should pass it to the police, who I am sure will look into it.

Mr. Monro

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that milk is still not allowed to go by private hauliers from farms to creameries in South-West Scotland, and is he also aware that non-union drivers are not permitted to take livestock to the SMP slaughterhouse or to haul feeding-stuffs generally throughout the area? Is this within the code of practice?

Mr. Millan

I believe that some of the things of which the hon. Gentleman has spoken probably are not. If he will supply me with further details, I will look into them.

Sir John Gilmour

Will the Secretary of State ask his officials to pay particular attention to the information about increased secondary picketing that has been given to them today by the Fife and Kinross branch of the National Farmers' Union?

Mr. Millan

Again, I will look into it, but it is absolutely impossible for me to know exactly what is happening at any time everywhere in Scotland. There have been particular difficulties in Fife, because the strike committee there has been taking a very hard line on the code of practice. We have made representations there, and we are in touch with the union on the matter. If I have information on particular instances, I will see that my Department looks into them.

Mr. Fairbairn

Does the Secretary of State not consider that for a Government such as this one to have passed a law that enables anybody to victimise innocent citizens, and for that law to have to be interpreted by codes of conduct so that it is not too severe in its application, is an abominable condemnation of the Government? Does he appreciate that in my constituency there are farms—I will give him details—to which hauliers and contractors and grainsmen refuse to allow goods that belong to them to pass, despite the fact that they are accompanied by police officers, because of the threat by pickets that if they do so they will never get supplies when the strike is over? If I give the right hon. Gentleman details, will he act upon them?

Mr. Millan

Certainly, I shall act on any information that is supplied to me, but, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said a little earlier this afternoon, there is a perfect right for people to go through picket lines and there is nothing legally to stop them doing so if they wish to do so. On the law of picketing, I do not accept what the hon. and learned Member has said. Not for the first time, he shows a rather inadequate grasp of the law.