HC Deb 15 April 1981 vol 3 cc329-35
The Minister of State, Civil Service Department (Mr. Barney Hayhoe)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a further statement about the Civil Service dispute.

In my statement on 5 March, I explained that nonindustrial civil servants had been offered an increase of 7 per cent. from 1 April and that the Government had at the same time stated their desire and intention to establish for the future a new, ordered and, it was hoped, agreed system for determining Civil Service pay.

That offer and the statement of intention were not accepted by the unions. Instead they embarked on a programme of industrial action, including strikes, which has continued without interruption since 9 March. The industrial action as a whole has been designed to cause the maximum amount of damage at minimum cost to the unions. The number actually on strike has rarely exceeded 3,700. But the guerrilla tactics have included walk-outs for part of the day, protest meetings in working hours, and non-co-operation with management.

I can assure the House that those on strike do not receive any pay or allowances and that the period of absence does not count for pension purposes. Staff attending their offices but refusing to work normally are being relieved of their duties without pay. The unions' stated objective has been to damage the work of the Government, but that damages the community as a whole. Any extra cost to the Government can only be met by the taxpayer.

Further, despite assurances to the contrary, the unions have increasingly sought to disrupt services to the public. Local offices providing benefits and services to the public have more than once been closed for part or whole of the day without prior warning, meaning fruitless and time-wasting journeys by many members of the public. There have already been delays and frustrations for passengers at ports and airports, and the threat to hit the Easter traffic is to be deplored.

Despite that calculated programme of disruption by a minority of civil servants, which has hit the public and done great damage to the reputation of the Civil Service itself, I am glad to tell the House that the work of all Government Departments has continued. The bulk of Government revenue is being banked, and delays generally have been kept to a minimum. Measures have been taken to overcome the threat to the country's defence capability.

There is another side to the coin. Many civil servants have shown themselves to be loyal to their service and have worked hard and conscientiously to keep the work of their departments going, in some cases in the face of threats and intimidation. I am sure that the House will join me in thanking and paying tribute to them.

There have been suggestions that the Government should be taking steps to bring the unions back to the negotiating table. I must make the position clear. Our offer of 7 per cent. for the 1981 settlement is the most that can be afforded from cash limits this year—which means the most that we think it right to ask the taxpayer to finance. Indeed, 1½ million to some 2 million people in the public service have already settled within these cash limits. The Civil Service has had pay increases, on average, of almost 50 per cent. in the past two years. That fully rectified the adverse effects of the previous Administration's incomes policies. Against that background, and at a time when pay settlements generally have fallen sharply and are now well within single figures, we see our offer this year as being both fair and reasonable.

My right hon. and noble Friend and I know that many civil servants recognise that fact but are, none the less, concerned that future arrangements for settling their pay should not be confined by cash limits predetermined by the Government without negotiation. We understand that concern, and we told the unions before the industrial action began that they could come and talk to us about future arrangements at any time. This still stands; we are ready and willing to talk whenever they are. I hope that the House will agree that that will be a much better and more fruitful idea than pursuing disruptive industrial action.

Mr. Charles R. Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)

Does the Minister recall that when he made his statement on 5 March I warned him about the grave situation that was likely to develop as a result of the civil servants' industrial action, but, in spite of that, and during five weeks of escalating industrial difficulties and increasing public frustration, there has been no meeting with the Civil Service trade union leaders since 3 March?

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Government give the impression that they are sitting back and doing nothing in the hope that the problem will go away? Why have there been no meaningful negotiations in the past five weeks, bearing in mind that civil servants are denied access to arbitration and that the Government refuse to make time available in the House to debate the issue? Why are they gagging an examination of possible solutions to the problem?

The Minister referred to a new, ordered and agreed civil service pay system, but why after five weeks of industrial action do we know as little about the Government's thinking on it as we did when the Minister made his statement on 5 March? How will the new system differ from the present system of pay comparability for determining Civil Service pay?

Will the Minister encourage the Prime Minister to desist from her repeated attacks on civil servants? She has referred to index-linking of pensions and the establishment of the Scott committee, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that that committee's recommendations vindicate everyone except the Prime Minister? Is he aware that the Prime Minister's signal achievement in her ralationship with the Civil Service has been to transform 500,000, in the main, loyal and dedicated public servants into ½ million industrial militants?

Mr. Hayhoe

I recall the right hon. Gentleman's comments about the gravity of the situation. I repeat that it results from the decisions of the unions which are taking the action and causing the disruption and hardship. As my right hon. and noble Friend has made clear, our doors are open. We are ready and willing to talk to people who want to talk to us.

When I met the unions on 3 March, there was general agreement that it would take considerable time to work out and establish the details of the new system. The trade union leaders there had no illusions about that. Full and detailed discussions will be necessary. As I said on 5 March, we could not be sure that the new system would be in operation for the 1982 settlement. Work is actively going ahead. I hope that even now the unions will recognise that we can continue the talks. If they doubt our good faith about establishing a new system, we are happy to talk the matter over.

I repudiate utterly the right hon. Gentleman's snide attack on my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Let it be clearly on the record that we wish to ensure that civil servants are considerably better paid than they were with the pay increases under the previous Administration.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

A large number of Northern Members hope to speak in the main debate, and it will be almost impossible to fit them all in as we have to follow a further statement and an opposed Ten-Minute Bill. I therefore propose to allow a quarter of an hour for further questions on this statement.

Mr. Paul Dean (Somerset, North)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the increasingly militant attitude advocated by some trade union leaders is widely seen inside and outside the Civil Service as wholly contrary to its best traditions and damaging to its good name? Against that background, is he aware that many civil servants would be prepared to accept the 7 per cent. offer as long as they had assurances about future procedures about pay, conditions and pensions? Can my hon. Friend assure us that he is pressing ahead as fast as he can with the details of the new arrangements?

Mr. Hayhoe

I agree with my hon. Friend that the militant attitude and comments of a small minority involved in the industrial action are intensely damaging to the high standards of the Civil Service. I pay tribute to the great service that we get from our civil servants in normal times. Although they are disappointed at the level, a large number accept that 7 per cent. in present circumstances is fair and reasonable. Of course, as I have indicated, our doors are open and we are prepared to have further talks with the unions on assurances about the establishment of an agreed system for the future determination of pay and indeed about arrangements for the 1982 settlement, which I know concerns them.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. As I have imposed a time limit for questions on this statement, I hope that we shall have brief questions and brief answers.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Will the Minister admit that he is operating an incomes policy exclusive to the public service and it is therefore not surprising that there is a great deal of resentment within the Civil Service? Does he agree that there is no justification and almost no precedent for direct action to imperil the defence of the country? Is he aware that even those of us who disagree with the Polaris strategy believe that it is for the elected Government to decide when naval vessels should put to sea and not for the Civil Service unions?

Mr. Hayhoe

I reject the suggestion that this is an incomes policy. We are doing what we said, namely operating a cash limit policy for the public service. I note and am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments about the defence of the country.

Mrs. Peggy Fenner (Rochester and Chatham)

I welcome my hon. Friend's realisation of the part of the bargain which concerns civil servants most, namely, the future of pay negotiations. He used the words "threats and intimidation", so clearly he knows that they are occurring. What is he prepared to do to defend loyal civil servants who wish to go to work?

Mr. Hayhoe

So far as the Government are concerned, arrangements are always made so that those civil servants who wish to work are able to do so. I think that picketing, generally speaking, has been in accordance with the code of practice and certainly in accordance with the new legislation passed in the last Session. If there are departures from those practices and if there is unlawful picketing, the Government will of course not hesitate to take the necessary action.

Mr. K. J. Woolmer (Batley and Morley)

Does the Minister recognise that his statement, in tone and content, will be regarded as negative and provocative by many workers and a serious misjudgment, certainly in relation to the Inland Revenue service, of the mood of the vast majority of workers? If the Government are convinced of the pay justice that they have dealt out, why did they unilaterally tear up the agreement? Why did they not agree to arbitration? Why will they not publish the pay research findings? Do the Government really wish to negotiate? If they do, why do they not put a document on the table so that serious negotiations may take place?

Mr. Hayhoe

It is perhaps illustrative of the absurdities of some of those who criticise the Government's action that the hon. Member should criticise me for being negative and provocative in saying that my right hon. and noble Friend's door is open to talk at at any time with union leaders about the future arrangements for Civil Service pay.

Mr. William van Straubenzee (Wokingham)

I understand my hon. Friend's proper concern to keep this matter in perspective, but does he understand the intense irritation caused to the constituents of hon. Members on both sides of the House by the action being taken, particularly that planned over the Easter weekend? Will he seek other, additional ways to make known to members of the Civil Service those very constructive parts of his statement relating to the future negotiating machinery, perhaps through the internal methods available to him within the service?

Mr. Hayhoe

I hope that the fact that the statement has been made in the House means that it will be widely understood that the Government are sincere about wishing to establish an ordered system for the determination of Civil Service pay. We believe that that is desirable. Our doors are open to discuss with the unions if they require greater assurances of our good faith in these matters. I agree with my hon. Friend that there is intense irritation and annoyance that the Easter holiday traffic may be seriously interrupted and disturbed as a result of Civil Service industrial action.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Thornaby)

Is the Minister aware that neither I nor my colleagues will condone industrial action which in any way threatens our national security or damages the poorest members of society who depend upon social security or other benefits for their living. However, does he not agree that these disputes will proliferate so long as there is no settled system of pay determination for all workers? Will he start down that road by putting his proposals on the table for discussion instead of talking about a new system without outlining it?

Mr. Hayhoe

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments about not condoning industrial action that would in any way interfere with essential defence services. It is worth remembering that the last time that Service men were used in regard to Polaris submarines was in July 1978, under the Labour Administration. They are being used to maintain the essential defence services. It is a travesty to suggest that they are being used as strikebreakers.

Mr. Vivian Bendall (Ilford, North)

As my hon. Friend has pointed out that single-figure wage increases are taking place in the private sector, will he point out that a job in the Civil Service has fairly good security as well as an index-linked pension, which no private company could afford to provide?

Mr. Hayhoe

I think that most civil servants, if they look at the situation dispassionately, recognise that their job security is very much better than that of many of their colleagues and opposite numbers in the private sector. Of course, there is a running down of the number of jobs in the Civil Service. We hope to slim the service down to 630,000 by April 1984. That is being done not by compulsory redundancy but very largely as a result of natural wastage. The level of compulsory redundancy among civil servants is very much lower than that which, regrettably, has occurred in many other sectors of the economy.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

Does the Minister realise that, so long as he refuses to publish even a paragraph in writing about what his proposed future arrangements for pay negotiations will actually mean, the suspicion of the Government's intentions and the bitterness in the Civil Service will continue to grow? As a first step to getting negotiations started, will the Government publish a statement for negotiation on what they mean by future agreed arrangements for Civil Service pay?

Mr. Hayhoe

I thought that we had made clear that matters which I know concern the unions—such as independent fact-finding, comparison with pay levels outside, arbitration arrangements and matters of that kind—are not excluded from the discussions. Equally, matters concerning the supply and demand of staff, the relative security of employment to which I have referred, the relative attractions of terms and conditions as a whole—pay, pensions, leave and the like—as well as the cost and general economic circumstances of the country must be taken into account in establishing the new system. As I said earlier, it will take a very considerable time for this to be done. I do not know whether it will even. be possible for such a new system to be in place by 1982. As I have made clear, however, we are prepared to talk to the unions if they wish to talk to us about both the distant future and the 1982 settlement if that is what they wish.

Mr. John Bruce-Gardyne (Knutsford)

Is it true that Inland Revenue employees who are not doing their jobs cannot be sent home until they have been notified in writing that they will be sent home and that the union organisers are preventing such letters arriving? If so, is it not high time that such an arrangement was terminated forthwith? Will my hon. Friend also assure the House that on this occasion we shall not repeat the error that we have sometimes made of achieving a settlement of one dispute at the cost of setting up a highly inflationary long-term wage settlement process?

Mr. Hayhoe

Our intention in making the new arrangements is that they should form part of the Government's general policy which is designed to bring down inflation.

With regard to sending people home and relieving them of their duty when they are not carrying out the normal duties of the grade, we follow the TRD procedures, as they are called—and it is right and proper that we should do so—acting always within the law, as I am sure that my hon. Friend would wish.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Is it not yet clear to the Government that if this dispute is to be brought to an end there will almost certainly have to be some form of outside intervention? That being so, should it not be sooner rather than later instead of allowing increasing bitterness to build up in the unions and growing frustration among the public?

Mr. Hayhoe

I do not accept that ouside intervention is inevitable to resolve this dispute. I believe that if the unions concerned would call of their action and get round the table—come through the open door, as I have described it, of my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord President of the Council—and discuss these matters, we could come to conclusions of which the vast majority of civil servants would approve. I hope that therefore they would be supported also by the trade union leaders involved.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Has the work that the Government have done over the last five weeks been such that they will be able to be more specific on the items to be included in pay research than they were ac the meeting on 3 March? Can my hon. Friend explain how the computers that pay money to the Government and to contractors do not work, while the computers that pay Civil Service salaries appear to work?

Mr. Hayhoe

Perhaps my hon. Friend was not listening at the relevant moment, but I specified a number of factors which the Government and, I believe, the trade unions would wish to have considered in the review of future arrangements. A large number of computers are involved. On one or two occasions, when the suggestion was made that a particular computer ought to be allowed to run to make a selected number of payments which suited the unions but which were discriminatory against others— for example, forms in the private sector—the management concerned utterly refused to agree and insisted that no such discriminatory payments should be permitted from any computer complex.

Mr. John Grant (Islington, Central)

As relations between the Government and the Civil Service are now at an all-time low, and as the whole House is clearly very concerned about the plight of Easter holiday makers, will the Minister, instead of telling us that the door is open to the unions, go from the House this afternoon, pick up the telephone and invite the trade unions in for meaningful discussions to try to resolve the dispute?

Mr. Hayhoe

The hon. Gentleman cannot understand the real world. The union leaders know that the door is open. If they want to come and talk, we shall be there to talk to them; but I do not see much point in inviting people to talks unless I know that they wish to talk. The position about talks is fully understood by the union leaders. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will join me and my right hon. and hon. Friends in asking the unions to call off the action, which is designed to cause hardship to Easter holiday makers. I hope that that clear message will go from this House.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

Is it not a fact that most members of the public and, indeed, many civil servants think that a settlement of 7 per cent. or so would be fair? But is it not also important in the future, in determining Civil Service pay, that the reference should be not just to the previous year, which in many cases might be an inflationary reference, but to a bracket of years, which would allow a fairer comparison with the private sector?

Mr. Hayhoe

I believe that factors like that should be taken into account, and I hope that the new pay system, when it is established, will be a much quicker response system than the old pay research and pay agreement, which attracted, it should be remembered, a great deal of criticism within the Civil Service, from Civil Service unions, and from outside. It had lost public confidence, and it was necessary that it be replaced. It is with that that the Government are involved.