HC Deb 09 July 1979 vol 970 cc31-5
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about industrial action being taken by some staff working in the Palace of Westminster beginning today.

The Institution of Professional Civil Servants has instructed its members employed at the Palace of Westminster to strike for a fortnight from today. Thirty-two staff are involved and most are expected to obey the strike call. These staff are engineers and technicians responsible for the maintenance and operation of virtually all services in the Palace of Westminster. They supervise about 170 Department of the Environment industrial staff who are not in dispute and expected to continue to work so far as they can. It is expected that they would respond to any situation involving serious risk to health or safety. The Property Services Agency will make every endeavour to maintain at least a minimum level of service.

As Members will be aware, this action is only one part of the current campaign by the IPCS. It is as a result of action taken by overseers at St. Stephen's Parliamentary Press, who are members of the IPCS, that certain material for the House, including the Official Report, has not been produced in its customary printed form since 18 June.

I am sure that the whole House would wish to express thanks to the authorities of the House who, in accordance with previous practice, are making the necessary arrangements to ensure the continued production of essential supplies on an emergency basis.

I deeply regret the inconvenience that is being caused to Members.

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Gentleman's statement is singularly uninformative. I must assume that that is intentional. However, will he tell us the scale of the inconvenience that he envisages as a result of the dispute? What is the nature of the dispute? He has hardly said a word to describe the nature of the dispute. Further, and most important, will he tell us what immediate steps are being taken to try to secure a settlement? Finally, will he give an undertaking to report regularly to the House? We would like to know what steps the Government are taking to try to ensure a settlement.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am concerned about the effect of the dispute on hon. Members. I did not go into the details of the dispute because that is a matter not for me but for my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Civil Service Department, or for the Lord President of the Council in another place. It is a complicated dispute and I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman, of all people, should urge me to move into the centre of and give details of such an industrial dispute. I thought that he was a strong upholder of Governments not involving themselves in industrial dispute.

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Gentleman has misinterpreted what I put to him. I am not asking him to enter into the detail of the dispute; I am asking him to make a report to the House on the nature of the dispute and on what steps are being taken to try to overcome it. If the right hon. Gentleman says that he is not responsible, will he arrange for the responsible Minister to be cross-examined on this issue?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I have no ministerial responsibility for this dispute, or its settlement. Although I received a delegation from the IPCS, the responsibility for bringing the dispute to an end rests with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Civil Service Department. He is pursuing this matter vigorously.

Mr. Cormack

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is widespread concern throughout the House about the nonappearance of parliamentary papers? Will he make arrangements for his hon. Friend to make a detailed statement on this issue tomorrow? May we have an indication that alternative facilities will be considered if the dispute is not quickly resolved?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I shall convey the views of my hon. Friend to the Minister of State. However, I do not see the point in having statements unless there has been some development on which it is necessary for the House to be informed. The provision of other facilities for undertaking this work is a complex question. Before I embarked on that I should have to be satisfied that we had reached the end of the road with the present arrangements.

Mr. Beith

Is the Minister aware that many of us have considerable sympathy with the position of the IPCS—not least because it seems to be treated differently from other groups in the Civil Service? Does he accept that the way in which this dispute is being pursued in the House is not likely to further the claim, any more than actions threatening Britain's defence commitments, which also have been taken during this dispute? Is he sure that the necessary facilities exist for the House to continue to sit unimpeded?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I cannot give a guarantee as to the future. The situation alters from day to day. However, I am satisfied that Members of Parliament can pursue their work here. They may be subject to inconvenience, but certainly not to danger. I am keeping the matter under constant review.

Mr. Latham

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are considerations that affect a Minister making a statement to the House other than whether he has information to give—for example, the opinion of the House, which it is useful to hear? Will my right hon. Friend consider the effect on those outside the House of the non-appearance of Hansard and the Order Paper, which are extremely important to many people?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Yes, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, but Members of the legislature are principally inconvenienced. I am in constant touch with my hon. Friend in an endeavour to get the dispute settled. I fully realise how gravely inconvenienced everyone is by the absence of these papers.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those Members who have been rising.

Mr. Cryer

Will the Leader of the House explain how the recent Budget tax concessions failed to help solve the dispute?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

That is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor.

Mr. Adley

Will my right hon. Friend say whether this dispute is an extension of the dispute that was referred to by the Leader of the Opposition when he was Prime Minister and condemned roundly and firmly by him? Is this the same dispute? If so, will my right hon. Friend consider eliciting from the Opposition whether they are as robust now in their view as they were then? The right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) referred to alternative arrangements. Is my right hon. Friend aware that were the right hon. Gentleman sitting on the Government Front Bench he would be answering questions about private enterprise undertaking the printing of Parliamentary papers? Is my right hon. Friend giving any consideration to that?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I find it difficult to follow those suppositions and changes of place. I would not try to interpret the right hon. Gentleman's views even when he is in opposition—let alone if he were in government.

We are doing our best to settle the dispute. The Opposition are equally concerned. I have no complaint to make about the co-operation that I have received in this matter.

Mr. Foulkes

Does the Minister agree that, in effect, he said nothing today? In future, when a statement is to be made to the House, will he arrange for it to be made by the appropriate Minister, who will be able to say something about it?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

No. I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman that my statement said nothing. I informed the House of the extension of the industrial action to a strike by a number of the staff. It is not my business to go into the details of the dispute.

Mr. Michael Brown

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this dispute affects the rights of Members of Parliament on both sides of the House? For instance, the non-appearance of notices of motions, on the basis of which hon. Members table early-day motions, means that fewer early-day motions are now being tabled. Therefore the rights of Members of Parliament are affected as a result of the dispute. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that immediate steps are taken to enable a private enterprise printing press to print the notices of motions?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Of course I am aware of the inconvenience caused to hon. Members. I am doing what I can to bring that to an end. However, I do not think that it would be wise to make alternative arrangements until it has been established beyond reasonable doubt that the arrangements for printing the papers of this House under the present arrangements have permanently broken down.

Forward to