HC Deb 25 January 1979 vol 961 cc670-7
Q1. Mr. Corbett

asked the Prime Minister when he last met the TUC.

The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

I meet representatives of the TUC from time to time at NEDC and on other occasions. Further meetings will be arranged as necessary.

Mr. Corbett

Will the Prime Minister confirm with the TUC and the CBI that there is no evidence that secret ballots result in fewer decisions to strike? Is it not a fact that the reverse is often the case? Does he agree with the Donovan Commission report of 1968 that the better way to proceed is to extend individual involvement and responsibility for industrial democracy at the work place?

The Prime Minister

It is the case that some unions already have ballots for strike action. I suppose the most prominent example is the National Union of Mineworkers. It can be argued that a ballot may lead to a more accurate result of the feelings of those concerned, but it does not necessarily lead, as the miner's ballots show, to greater industrial peace, which is what the House is particularly concerned about at present. Certainly we would be ready to discuss these matters with the TUC and the CBI and to facilitate them if it seems likely to help.

On industrial democracy, this country is not in the forefront in involving workers in the operation of their own works and plants. We have room to move on industrial democracy, which is a shorthand term for this, and we should undoubtedly aim to achieve that.

Mrs. Thatcher

As it is now a fortnight since the Prime Minister returned from the Caribbean, no one could accuse him of taking precipitate action. Therefore, how much more damage must be done to industry, how many more jobs must be in jeopardy, and how many more hospital patients must suffer before the Prime Minister decides to act?

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Lady knows, action is being taken on a great many fronts in trying to settle some of these disputes. However, in the case of the road hauliers' dispute the Government have no standing as this is an example of free collective bargaining between employers and workers which the right hon. Lady has now espoused. We have seen the consequences of this in the dislocation caused in the country. On the maintenance of essential supplies, the regular reports that are being given by Ministers to this House every day have shown that the Government, through various means, but not necessarily through declaring a statse of emergency, are ensuring the flow of those supplies. Although there are difficulties in a number of areas, basically supplies are being maintained.

Mrs. Thatcher

Is the Prime Minister aware that what he says is very complacent? Many raw materials are not getting through to the factories and many exports are not getting away. Is he not aware that the Government have a duty to enable supplies to be kept coming and going to and from the factories and they have full parliamentary authority to do that? Why have the Government not made use of that authority? Is it a fact that the Prime Minister no longer has the courage to act and, if that is so, will he not at least have the courage to resign?

The Prime Minister

I somehow thought that was behind the right hon. Lady's real desires. She just cannot wait. There are plenty of statutory powers, but I do not know that any Government have sufficient power when the road haulage industry goes on strike to replace it. That is the simple truth of the matter. That is why the Government are using good sense to try to ensure that essential supplies are kept going. The right hon. Lady, of course, has a solution. If the claim is conceded in full, there is no doubt that the men will go back to work and, equally, there is no doubt that we would be in for another round of inflation. That is the dilemma which the right hon. Lady will never face.

Mr. Steel

When the Prime Minister next meets the TUC, will he ask if it now realises that it would be in the interests of the greater number of its members, especially those who are the lowest paid and those who settle within the 5 per cent. guidelines, to accept that the Government should themselves intervene directly on the pay front?

The Prime Minister

The Government do intervene directly on the pay front in relation to all public sector and public service workers, who account for about 30 per cent. of the total. One of the problems at the moment is that settlements in the private sector, under present free collective bargaining, are feeding through into the public sector. If carried through, they would have very serious consequences for our total revenue and budgetary expenditure. These are long-term problems. I believe that the present dispute, if it focuses the attention of the TUC, as well as the Government and others, on these matters, will show that it is usually out of a crisis that we begin to get some solution in this country. I hope we shall do so on this occasion.

Mr. Weetch

When my right hon. Friend meets the TUC, will he tell it that increased levels of import penetration are due to the fact that some sections of British industry are highly uncompetitive and that wage increases above and beyond what industry can bear will make the system more uncompetitive with a further loss of jobs?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. The TUC is aware of this, as is the CBI. It is important that both should operate on this matter. Hence the importance of the industrial strategy under which we are able to communicate at plant level and sector level with all those concerned to point out the importance of additional investment, up-to-date design, good quality and proper deliveries. Both sides of industry have a full part to play in all these matters.

Mr. Rost

As the Prime Minister has advised people to cross picket lines, why does he not take his own advice and go through the picket line at one of the ports or factories that are being blockaded and get the country moving again?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that gestures are the best way in which to handle these matters. I have stated the law as I understand it, and the Attorney-General will be making a further statement on the law, in response to the request by the Opposition, after questions. There is no reason to alter the view that I have expressed.

Q2. Mr. Terry Walker

asked the Prime Minister, when he last met the TUC.

The Prime Minister

I refer my hon. Friend to the repely which I have just given to my hon. Friend, the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Corbett).

Mr. Walker

Will my right hon. Friend meet the General Council of the TUC as a matter of urgency and try to come to an agreement with it about future policy and the way in which we can overcome the present industrial situation? Will he make clear to the general council that the Labour Government are the only ones who can overcome the present problem by agreement with the trade unions? Will he make clear to the trade unions that due to the way in which they have co-operated with us over the last three years, and mainly due to their efforts, we have been able to keep down the rate of inflation? Will he also make clear that the policy of confrontation coming from the Opposition makes it impossible for the Conservative Party to work with the trade union movement at all?

The Prime Minister

I hope to meet the general council of the TUC on Monday. I shall point out the dislocation that is occurring in the country as a result of the present position on ay claims and pay settlements in which negotiations seem to be preceded, on occasions, by strikes and in which, contrary to the view often expressed by certain hon. Members in this House, trade unions do not seem to have sufficient control over their own members. It is a salutary reminder to hon. Members in this House that it is not the leaders of the unions who are failing in their attempt to try to co-operate. It is groups of independent minded subjects of this country who are acting on their own. I would have thought that the Opposition at least might have some lessons to learn from that.

Mr. Henderson

Looking ahead of the present dispute to what might be coming, will the Prime Minister give the House an indication of how damaging could be a strike by Government computer operators?

The Prime Minister

I could not do so in reply to that supplementary question. But there is no doubt, as I have said at this Dispatch Box on many occasions, that our society is now so complex that an increasing number of relatively small groups of people can say to the country "We are going to hold up your operation." That is why we should examine all proposals, such as those for taking particular groups out of the strike area, if that is possible. None of us should be dogmatic, although when they were removed originally it was because it was thought that this had no particular value. We should examine all these matters, but, basically, the question is what kind of society we want in this country. This is a totally acquisitive society, and some people are now practising what the Opposition preaches.

Mr. Tebbit

Is not the Prime Minister's problem over the road hauliers' strike made more difficult by the fact that the Transport and General Workers' Union holds 2 million votes at his party conference—[HON. MEMBERS: "One million."] All right, a million. The union is a prime contributor to his party's funds. It controls the nomination of more than a score of his party's Members in this House. Does he find that this inhibits him in saying whether he wants the Transport and General Workers' Union to be defeated in this strike and for the employers to get their men back at the present offer?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentlemen's question was well up to his usual standard. As was rather noisily pointed out to him, he is only 100 per cent. wrong on the number of votes—not that that, if I may say so, is significant, because the Government of this country will carry out their responsibilities—[HON. MEMBERS: "When?"]—irrespective of their affiliations to any particular group. I believe that would be true of the Conservative Party in relation to the many contributors to its party funds, just as it is true in relation to ours.

Mr. Mellish

Again and again, the Leader of the Opposition claims that simple Government intervention is a panacea and would solve all these problems. Many people outside this House believe that. Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that, while the Government are prepared to intervene when they think that it is absolutely necessary, the most dangerous and terrifying result of Government intervention is that the position would get worse?

The Prime Minister

There are insufficient vehicles at the disposal of the Government and, indeed, people to drive them, especially because of the complicated loads that exist today. Those hon. Members who shout loudly should examine this problem a little more and see what the difficulties are.

The Government are approaching this matter in a way which is keeping the flow of supplies moving. We shall continue to do that. If there should be a real crisis, of course the country would be far worse off than it is today. I hope that the dispute is settled soon on a basis that will not give rise to further inflation. Perhaps the Opposition will make their position clear on that.

The longer the dispute goes on, the more certain I am that it would have been totally wrong—and a gesture—to have declared a state of emergency: it would have made things much worse. I beg hon. Members to believe that that is a judgment which is borne out by nearly everybody who has had anything to do with the dispute.

Mr. Pardoe

Does the Prime Minister accept that if this is an acquisitive society we are making a pretty poor job of it? Even East Germany and Czechoslovakia have now overtaken us in terms of income per head.

Will the Prime Minister tell the TUC that the only alternative to an acquisitive society is a rational incomes policy and that that must be enforced either by the TUC or the Government? Will he tell the TUC that, if it will not enforce an incomes policy, or cannot do so, the Government must do so now with a wage freeze in order to escape astronomical rates of inflation?

The Prime Minister

I take the hon. Member's point. We have been through these proposals on many occasions before. We have been through wage freezes and the rest. I cannot say that they ever form a universal panacea. I hope that Opposition Members below and above the Gangway, if they should ever come to power, will take into account that they will find it essential to work closely with the trade unions and the TUC. I beg of them, if they hope for a chance of doing that, to restrain some of their more absurd criticisms.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I call attention to the fact that unfortunately you were unable to call any hon. Member for the North-West. Many of us wished to raise with the Prime Minister the serious state of the water supply in the North-West which is becoming worse every day.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Lady cannot ask a question now. I am sorry that I did not call an hon. Member from the North-West. Almost every part of the country has its own problems.

Mr. Evelyn King

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Might I ask you, with due respect, having regard to the enormous number of hon. Members who wish to be called from all districts and for a variety of reasons, whether it is entirely reasonable for you to call two members of the Liberal Party?

Mr. Speaker

One of the prime duties of the Speaker is to try to the best of his ability to guard minority rights while bearing in mind majority rights. I try to achieve a balance.


Mr. Noble

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. At the end of Questions to the Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) sought to raise a point of order and implied that water supplies in her constituency were in jeopardy. I understand that the hon. Lady has been given the same information as I have by the chairman of the water authority, which is that the water supply situation in Lancaster is perfectly normal.

As the proceedings of this House were still being broadcast at that time and many listeners in Lancaster will have heard the hon. Lady, should not the hon. Lady withdraw her statement?

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I sought to raise the overall position of the North-West water authority. I was in touch with the chairman of the authority shortly after one o'clock. The point that I wished to raise with the Prime Minister was that the Pennine division went back on Monday after 10 days, but that it will be a week before it gets into order, that the Ribble—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot go into this matter now. The hon. Lady has made her position quite clear. She has been in touch with the water authority this morning. I think that clears that matter.