HC Deb 24 January 1979 vol 961 cc423-34
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a further report to the House about the effect of the current industrial disputes in the road haulage industry, and elsewhere, on supplies and services, and on the Government's arrangements for ensuring that those supplies and services which are essential continue to be maintained.

The situation remains broadly as I reported it to the House on Monday. The code of practice is having some effect on the movement of supplies, but there remain severe problems, particularly at the ports. There are still cases where priority supplies continue to be held up. While there continue to be difficulties with some essential foodstuffs, the position on food generally is unquestionably getting better. Reports from a number of regions indicate that stock levels are not only being maintained but are rising, and, even in the North-West, some shops are in a position to restock with such goods as sugar, frozen foods and canned foods. The supply of salt has eased, and the slaughterhouses continue to function despite earlier fears that some would have to close.

The level of supply of animal feed-stuffs remains adequate, although, as my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Scotland told the House yesterday, the supply of animal feedstuffs to the intensive production sector, particularly in Scotland, has been difficult.

On the industrial front, the picture is complicated by the effects of the severe weather and the rail dispute, and the movement of goods has not, generally speaking, improved, despite a slight relaxation in the effects of picketing. However, production generally is holding up so far, though considerable production losses are being caused in particular industries, including steel, chemicals, glass and packaging, which will, if the situation persists, cause cumulative problems throughout the rest of industry. Lay-offs continue to increase, and, while any figures must be treated with considerable caution, the present level of lay-offs in Great Britain as a whole is of the order of 200,000. There are growing problems, particularly for small companies, of cash flow as well as of supplies. Only a continued easing of picketing and a sustained improvement in the transport situation will prevent a major decline in production in the near future.

Within the priority categories, the Government are particularly concerned that there should be no delay in moving medical and pharmaceutical supplies and the raw materials, especially chemicals, essential to them. There is evidence of some bottlenecks where supplies are not getting through. This is unacceptable.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, in conjunction with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, has devised new arrangements, which have already begun to operate, so that officials of the Transport and General Workers' Union will know promptly of bottlenecks when they arise and be in no doubt whatsoever that the Government require them to be dealt with immediately. If these arrangements are not quickly effective, and if there is no other way of getting these supplies moving, the Government will themselves arrange to have these supplies moved.

This brings me to the matter of the ambulance service. The House will know that the National Health Service ambulance men are now providing full emergency cover in London following the one-day stoppage at the beginning of the week, during which emergency services were provided by the Army, the police and the voluntary services, to whom the House will wish to pay tribute. At the moment, I understand that in the country as a whole normal emergency services are being maintained.

I should tell the House where matters stand on water supply. Despite the agreement reached in the national pay negotiations last Friday, there continue to be local problems in a few districts. The House will, however, be glad to hear that the problem in the Pennine division has been resolved.

Finally, as to picketing, the police tell me that reports of physical intimidation, of obstruction and of violence remain extremely rare. They will, of course, uphold the law fully, whenever and wherever the need arises. My colleagues and I will continue to report on the situation to the House.

Mr. Whitelaw

The House will be grateful for a statement which, unlike some others that have been made, is not complacent in any way. Does the Home Secretary accept that, as a result, his statement represents both a very serious and a deteriorating situation? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Perhaps those hon. Gentlemen who talk and shout should listen to this phrase: Only a continued easing of picketing and a sustained improvement in the transport situation will prevent a major decline in production in the near future. If that is not a serious and deteriorating situation, I would like to know what is. The answer is that it is.

On the question of priority medical supplies, the right hon. Gentleman sets out a very serious and worrying situation. He still delays decisive action. Has not the time come for this decisive action to be taken instead of waiting to see whether further action is likely to improve the situation? It is too serious to permit further delay.

Would the right hon. Gentleman also agree that as the picketing and secondary picketing continue, action is now needed to give effect to the Prime Minister's fine words yesterday, when he said that the picket lines should be gone through by those who wish to do so? Is it not clear that fine words are no longer any use in this situation and that clear action is needed?

Mr. Rees

The right hon. Gentleman asks for action on picketing, but the law on picketing is clear when picketing is peaceful and in furtherance of a dispute. My right hon. Friend last week reiterated what the union had already said. No member of the union would be penalised or made to suffer in any way if he followed the code. That is a most important statement in respect of crossing picket lines in accordance with the code of practice.

As for the problems in industry, I have not today revealed to the House a deteriorating situation. I said that the problems would arise at some future date. Since all the guesses and estimates that were made 10 days ago were proved wrong, it would be foolish of me now to say when the problems will arise. I have told the House frankly that if supplies do not come through the pipeline there are bound to be problems at some point.

Medical supplies are getting through. Through the DHSS we have pinpointed the problems. A list was handed over last night, and a second list this afternoon, and we now await the result of that. One case on the list that we handed over concerned supplies that were urgently needed to treat patients suffering from cancer. In those circumstances I state—I do not think anyone could possibly object—that if this system does not work—I am not suggesting that supplies are not getting through at the moment—that if in a day or two there were to be a problem which could not be resolved, I would not be prepared to say to the relatives of those suffering from cancer and other such diseases that we would stand back and do nothing. We would do something about it.

Mr. David Steel

Does the Home Secretary accept that the House and the public are becoming increasingly weary of these daily ministerial statements purporting to describe the situation in the country but containing no intention of action other than to continue to report the situation to the House? To return to what the Prime Minister said yesterday about picketing, will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the reaction of lorry drivers is that they now require their union ticket because it is their meal ticket? That is the effect of the closed shop legislation, and unless the Government are prepared to give a clear directive—[HON. MEMBERS: "Which way did you vote?"] I voted against it. The wolves shouting behind me need not worry. This legislation went through but we opposed it, and they know it.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

You kept the Government in office.

Mr. Steel

We opposed the legislation, and the Conservatives know that perfectly well. Surely the time has come to review that law because lorry drivers are now ringing up their MPs asking how they can return to work. What advice would the Government give to them?

Mr. Rees

We have a situation in which negotiations take place regionally, and by the nature of the industry these matters proceed a bit at a time. The other day the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) voted for free collective bargaining—

Mr. Steel

Not free collective bargaining.

Mr. Rees

No one on the Opposition Benches could possibly say that strikes do not take place under any form of collective bargaining. In the light of the code of practice, no one participating in the dispute can be under any illusion about what has been said. Men will not be blacklisted and they will not lose their union cards for doing the right thing in the circumstances.

Mr. Palmer

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Government generally on not succumbing to panic measures. However, will my right hon. Friend remember that the people of this country, including millions of Labour voters, expect firm leadership from the Government at this difficult time?

Mr. Rees

One way of pretending at the moment that there is firm leadership—there may be a change, because something needs to be done—would be to proclaim a state of emergency. We did not declare a state of emergency in the case of the firemen's strike or the dispute involving tanker drivers. A state of emergency, unless it gave one powers that one could use, would not be firm leadership in these circumstances. I hear of people not working to clear the Ml today. There has been a breakdown in normal behaviour. We must surmount that, but that cannot be done by using the law, as we have learned in the past.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan

The Home Secretary said with great confidence that no one who crossed a picket line would lose his union card or in any other way bear future union damage. Since neither the Government nor the Transport and General Workers' Union can enforce the code of practice for picketing, how does the right hon. Gentleman propose to make good that guarantee?

Mr. Rees

I do not know whether it is suggested that union rules should become part of the law of the land, but within voluntary organisations these matters have to be seen in the context of the union rules. The union has given its word on these matters, and it will keep it.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement at this stage of the strike makes it apparent to some of us that the Government's policy is simply to sit tight and hope that the problem will go away? On the question of chemicals and other essentials, does he accept that it is not enough, as the statement provides, to make the transport union aware of bottlenecks? It is for the Government, once they are aware of them, to take the necessary action.

Mr. Rees

I thought that I had made it abundantly clear that the first step is to make sure that all those involved know the loads that ought to be carried. The first list was given last night, and a second list this afternoon, and if it is not acted upon we shall have to carry those goods ourselves.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

What with?

Mr. Rees

There are many ways in which this can be done. The job of a Government in these circumstances is to deal with essential supplies. There are some problems with food, but we know that statements made last week by Opposition Members about malnutrition, and so on, were completely false. Essential supplies are being dealt with. That is the Government's responsibility.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of the statements being made from the Opposition Benches about the removal of union cards show a complete lack of knowledge of the constitution of the union and the procedures that take place within it?

Mr. Cyril Smith

Go and ask the drivers.

Mr. McNamara

As well as demonstrating bad manners, they show a complete lack of knowledge of the rules of the union and the way the disciplinary procedures operate upon members. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the union has beeen co-operating in cases such as ICI, at Runcorn, in the transporting of important medical supplies? It is no part of the union's policy to prevent the passage of essential drugs and services to the sick and dying. It is doing all in its power to make sure that they get through.

Mr. Rees

What my hon. Friend says about medical supplies is right. Last evening we decided that the procedures that were being followed in that respect were not good enough, and therefore, because of the seriousness of the situation, we had to have a different system. Supplies were moving before, but it is not our policy to leave it to the old arrangement—the arrangement that was reported to the House the other day.

I turn now to the question of the removal of union cards. Allegations are being made. When the dispute is over, it will be interesting to discover whether those now making the allegations bring forward examples showing where this is happening.

Mr. Amery

Is the Secretary of State aware of the report, on the tape, of a major clash in the Labour Party between the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Energy on a European issue? Is he aware that this is rather curious at this time of crisis? Can he assure the House that there is no corresponding difference in the Government's approach to the present industrial crisis, and that he is speaking for a united Cabinet?

Mr. Rees

My answer to the right hon. Member's last question is "Yes". When I consider the type of politicians with whom he mixes in Europe, I think that he is the last person to talk about democracy.

Mr. Roy Hughes

Has the Home Secretary noted how the Opposition are trying to exacerbate the situation created by the road haulage dispute? Does he agree that thre is an urgent need not to break the strike but to settle the dispute? Does he agree that the Prime Minister and the present Leader of the House showed considerable statesmanship during the miners' dispute early in 1974? Will he now prevail upon them to intervene in this dispute with a view to achieving an early settlement?

Mr. Rees

Arrangements have been made to ensure that essential services are provided. That is the role of Government It would be so if oil were involved and it was so during the firemen's dispute. The present dispute involves a free collective bargaining argument between two sides.

Mr. Adley

It is a free collective picketing argument.

Mr. Rees

It is a free collective bargaining argument. Those who support free collective bargaining must live with it.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

Is the Home Secretary aware that I told an official at his office this morning that a company with which I am connected has 27 containers locked up in Felixstowe, Southampton and Tilbury docks? Is he aware that companies that are not in disagreement with the TGWU are prepared to collect the merchandise but that pickets are turning them away? Is he aware that when the union official was contacted at Southampton he used a four-letter word and put the telephone down? What can be done to stop several thousand people being put out of work because this merchandise is not being delivered?

Mr. Rees

My office will have passed on that information to the appropriate emergency committee. If the hon. Member is suggesting that essential supplies are being held up—supplies that it would be the responsibility of Government to get through in a state of emergency, no more and no less—of course I shall look at the matter personally.

Mr. Speaker

I shall take four more questions from each side. The subject is to be debated in the House tomorrow.

Mr. Loyden

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement about cancer sufferers will cause great concern to hon. Members on the Government Benches? In that sense my right hon. Friend is being unfair, in view of the co-operation of the union so far on such matters. Does he agree that an assurance has been given that the union will respond to any approaches that he makes on such matters?

Mr. Rees

Certainly. I was not being unfair. I spoke to union officials about this and they readily agreed to co-operate. What I am saying is that if the arrangements, with the best will on earth, do not work properly, the Government must step in. It must be so.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

Is the Home Secretary aware that the Royal county of Berkshire has had no salt for its roads for the last week; that yesterday the county sent a convoy of 55 lorries to ICI, Winsford; and that they were allowed into the depot and salt was loaded, but that when they left the depot the pickets said that they could not go through the picket line with the salt on board? Is he aware that they were forced to unload and return without salt? Will the Home Secretary promise that the Government will ensure that salt is provided to the county council so that the icy roads can be made safe?

Mr. Rees

I shall check that. I need to know the precise details. Two unions are involved. The Opposition bash the TGWU but the United Road Transport Union is also involved. A question was asked earlier about Suffolk. I have checked, and I am told that the Suffolk county council has seven days' supply of salt.

Mr. Terry Walker

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the situation in the South-West has improved in the last week or so? Will he acquaint the House with the position at Avonmouth docks, where picketing has improved, thanks to the strong action of the TGWU, which has overcome last week's difficulties?

Mr. Rees

I understand that the situation has improved. Nevertheless, at my meeting later this afternoon I want to check on the supply of derv, which was causing particular difficulties yesterday.

Mr. John H. Osborn

Is the Home Secretary aware that the position is probably more serious than he implies, and that food manufacturers cannot guarantee indefinitely that goods will remain on the shelves? Is he further aware that in Sheffield industrial leaders are finding it difficult to obtain raw materials and to send out goods? Does he know that at the British Steel Corporation there will be 14,000 lay-offs unless action is taken immediately?

Mr. Rees

The steel industry in particular is experiencing problems, but under a state of emergency and the laws laid down by the House the responsibility of Government is to ensure essential supplies. Certain industries would not be affected by a state of emergency. As for food, I report to the House the information that I receive from all parts of the country.

Mr. Edward Lyons

I welcome the improvement in the flow of food supplies and animal feedingstuffs, particularly in Scotland, but will the Secretary of State bear in mind that the cardinal effect of such disputes is that working people and their families are damaged by the action of other working people? When offers to settle are made, will my right hon. Friend stress that aspect?

Mr. Rees

We are not involved in the discussions. It is clear that people in industry are affected. That is the situation that the country faces.

Mr. William Clark

Is the Home Secretary aware that the people are fed up to the back teeth with little unelected committees up and down the country determining which goods should travel and what priorities should be given to different types of goods? Does he agree that if there is something wrong with the laws action must be taken? Does he also agree that the country is suffering today not from free collective bargaining but free collective bullying?

Mr. Rees

Many people want to see the laws altered, but I do not think that such an alteration would help, because the industry involved is so complicated. In such an industry a dispute is bound to have an effect. The Government decide priorities. The supplies are better than they would be under a state of emergency.

Mr. Arthur Latham

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a declaration of a state of emergency at any time represents a breakdown in the democratic processes which many of us who are reluctant to give greater powers to the Executive do not welcome? Does he agree that the record of the Conservatives when they were in Government and declared five stages of emergency in three and a half years is nothing to be proud of? Does he agree that although a declaration of a state of emergency might provide an emotional thrill for some Opposition Members it is not the best way to achieve results?

Mr. Rees

I have said before that states of emergency have been used in the past but have had very little effect. The point is that if we were in a position—which we are not—in which essential supplies were not being provided, the Government would have to proclaim a state of emergency. That time has not yet arrived.

Mr. Norman Fowler

Is not one of the most objectionable features of this dispute, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Clark) has just said, that people who want to move their goods are forced to get permission not from Government but from local strike committees? Does the Home Secretary realise that under the emergency powers regulations of 1973 it would have been the Government who dealt with the problem of getting the goods through? Does he not agree that it is better to have the rule of Government than the rule of strike committees?

Mr. Rees

On the latter point, I hope that the hon. Gentleman has applied his mind to the question of the large number of vehicles involved in this industry and the question not only of the movement from A to B but of broken-down loads from B to C onwards. If he has done that—there may be laughter about this, but what he and other Opposition Members have to consider are the implications of the Government taking action before the situation becomes worse. In the days when we had the oil problem, Opposition Members were asking for a state of emergency. Had we declared one, the supply of oil would have been far worse than it was under the arrangements that were made.


Mr. Higgins

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that the Secretary of State for the Home Department in his statement said that essential supplies to the pharmaceutical industry were getting through the picket lines. Having made inquiries, I understand that that is definitely untrue. I should be grateful if you would let me know when would be the earliest opportunity that the Secretary of State would be in order in correcting that statement and making a further statement.

Mr. Speaker

It is not for me to say when the Home Secretary would wish to correct a statement that he had made. The hon. Gentleman knows that the House will be debating this matter tomorrow. That may be an opportunity, if he seeks and is fortunate enough to catch my eye, for him to make his point.