HC Deb 09 March 1981 vol 1000 cc626-7
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should be given urgent consideration, namely, the industrial action taken today by civil servants and the consequent disruption of essential services. I know that you would not allow me, Mr. Speaker, to explain to the House why the strike need never have taken place had it not been for the arbitrary and unilateral action of the Government. You would be even more indignant, Mr. Speaker, if I tried to quote from a letter written by the Prime Minister in the run-up to the election, in which she led the civil servants to believe that the Pay Research Unit would be sacrosanct to a new Conservative Government. However, since I want your support this afternoon, Mr. Speaker, I shall resist my Celtic temptations and confine myself to the three issues of the specific nature, the importance, and the urgency of this application.

The subject is specific. I need to establish that it is important that we have a debate, that it is even urgent that we have that debate.

The tape refers to a massive response to today's strike call. It is important to bear in mind that this is the first time that all nine Civil Service unions have agreed to respond to a strike call. Therefore, the dispute is important in scale.

The matter is also important because today's one-day action launches a long-term programme of selective action. As a result of today's events, all major airports are at a standstill, with questions arising about the adequacy of air traffic control for aircraft operating out of regional and civic airfields. Passengers are entitled to know what assessment the Civil Aviation Authority and the Department of Trade have made of the adequacy of the air traffic control system. No one wants to scaremonger, but only just over a year ago there was a major accident in similar circumstances in France.

The matter is economically important, because the Civil Service unions claim that their action will prevent the collection of revenue by the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the rate of £1,000 million a week for the duration of the strike. The matter is economically important to business men, because at Companies House the microfiche operators are on strike. Whereas, normally, 50,000 searches take place a week—searches that are essential for the conveyancing of commercial property, for commercial sales and share transactions—those searches will not be able to take place.

If those were the important issues on which I was making my submission, Mr. Speaker, I would fully understand if you said that they might be important but that you could not accept that they were urgent. I suggest that there are two other factors that make the case that this application is both important and urgent.

The first relates to defence. NATO has just started its two-yearly"Wintex" operation, an exercise that has been described as a"dry run" for total war and its aftermath, an attempt to assess the effect of such a war and the ability of the nation to deal with its aftermath. Although no one wishes to contemplate such a horrific event, one can understand the need for such testing of preparations.

It is perhaps poetic that even the Prime Minister and the President of the United States are involved in the exercise. In view of some of their statements, one is inclined to feel that it could hardly be realistic if they were not so involved.

There is a risk that that supremely important NATO exercise will be endangered and disrupted. Apparently, the Ministry of Defence has confirmed that even the one-day strike today will have a serious effect. The selective action that is due to follow will exacerbate the situation. Computer operators at key naval supply centres will be on strike, and even in the normal circumstances of the exercise those supply services would have been under strain. Now, they will almost certainly collapse.

The unions have banned on-call and standby working for their members in areas covered by the exercise, yet this exercise requires 24-hour readiness. Therefore, Britain will lose the value of the exercise. Finally, maintenance engineers are on strike at a key RAF communications centre at Portreavie, which again will undermine the military exercise.

The second reason why the matter is urgent as well as important is tomorrow's Budget. According to reports on the tape, the Customs and Excise staff are determined to"disrupt tomorrow's business". I have already mentioned that as much as £1,000 million revenue a week could be lost to the Chancellor as a result of this action. Tomorrow afternoon, as soon as the Chancellor takes his seat after making his Budget Statement, there will be a walk-out in those offices which normally implement Budget decisions. That means that implementation will be at risk.

This is not just an economic consideration, but an important constitutional matter. The House should therefore have an opportunity to debate the effect upon the defence system and upon the Budget and the other repercussions of this dispute. I believe that the fact that the Budget is tomorrow and that"Wintex" is already under way give urgency to what is clearly an important dispute. I therefore ask you, Mr. Speaker, to give us permission to debate the issue today.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) gave me notice before 12 o'clock today that he would seek leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely, the industrial action taken today by civil servants and the consequent disruption of essential services. I listened carefully to the serious case that the right hon. Gentleman submitted to the whole House. He will be aware, as the House is aware, that I do not decide whether this matter should be debated. The House has limited my discretion to deciding whether it should be debated tonight or tomorrow.

I listened with anxious concern to what the right hon. Gentleman said, but I must rule that his submission does not fall within the provisions of the Standing Order and that therefore I cannot submit his application to the House.