HC Deb 03 February 1983 vol 36 cc426-9

4 pm

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tom King)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a further statement to the House about the water industry dispute.

Since my statement on Tuesday, there has been a further increase in the number of people advised to boil water as a precaution. The figure is now 6.75 million. Approximately 23,000 properties are now without any water supply, but arrangements have been made, or are being made, for alternative supplies. There has been some further reconnection of properties to the mains supply. The quality of effluent from more sewage treatment works has deteriorated, but there has been no serious effect on rivers and no significant pollution incidents have been reported.

In my statement on Tuesday I informed the House that there had been further discussions between ACAS and the employers and that ACAS was to see the unions in the evening. Following those talks the employers confirmed that they were ready and willing to have immediate negotiations about higher earnings in relation to improved productivity under the terms recommended by the mediator in paragraph 8 of his report. I understand that the unions have not accepted this proposal and that industrial action is, therefore, continuing.

I believe that there is no longer any justification for the continuation of this industrial action which is causing such inconvenience and distress to those affected by it. The offer to the water workers of an increase on average of £10 per week, together with the prospect of a significant increase in earnings in return for productivity, is by any standards this year a very fair offer indeed.

There should be an immediate end to industrial action and the unions should decide which of the two options that I outlined to the House on Tuesday they will pursue. They can either accept the employers' offer to negotiate as a matter of urgency on the issue of higher earnings for productivity as recommended by the mediator, or, if they are unable to accept that, the agreement reached through ACAS must be honoured and the terms of the national agreement requiring arbitration followed. Either way, it is possible for the industry to resume its full responsibilities and services to the public at the earliest possible moment. That is now what must be done.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Opposition place the greatest importance on an urgent resumption of negotiations that could lead to a speedy and honourable conclusion of this serious dispute? It is hoped that the Secretary of State will adopt the new tone that has been evident today in some of the statements coming from the employers. We welcome the emphasis given by the employers to paragraph 8 of the mediator's report that has been taken up by the Secretary of State.

As the House knows, the Opposition have, from the first day of the dispute, emphasised and drawn attention to the central importance of paragraph 8. Throughout this period my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) and I have been in close and regular touch with both sides in the dispute. Although the Secretary of State has referred to a new offer in his statement, and Mr. Len Hill said in a radio interview today that the offer would be worth a minimum of a further £5 to £10 a week, no offer has been made to the unions today or at any time this week. As a result of our discussions during the past hour, I can say that as soon as the employers make this offer direct to the unions rather than on the radio the unions will stand ready to negotiate immediately upon it.

The Opposition do not believe that any further exchanges across the Floor of the House today can assist. Will the Secretary of State encourage all parties concerned to get together without delay to negotiate? It is the duty of the House to ensure that this dispute is settled quickly and honourably, so that the growing dangers of pollution can be avoided and so that householders and industry may have the reliable and safe water supplies that the law entitles them to expect.

Mr. King

I much prefer the right hon. Gentleman's approach today to that which he adopted on Tuesday. He asked whether this is a new offer and welcomed the new tone of my statement. He will be aware, as he has a copy of my statement, that my previous statement said exactly the same thing about the new offer. What I said to the House on Tuesday remains the position. The employers have said that they are happy to accept urgent negotiation under paragraph 8 of the mediator's report. It is for the unions to decide which way they want to go. I apologise for the length of this answer, Mr. Speaker, but it relates to a very important point.

I heard the comments of Mr. Len Hill on "The World at One". I do not recall him using the word "minimum", but I have not seen a transcript. Undoubtedly significant increases in earnings are available if agreement can be reached on the number of productivity proposals that the employers are ready and willing to discuss. That was made clear on Tuesday, and I make it clear from this Dispatch Box today.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will say that, if that is the way to go, he accepts the mediator's report and the need for negotiations under paragraph 8. On that basis there can be no justification for further industrial action. There is no need for further loss of earnings by the workers involved. There should be a resumption of work immediately and the negotiations can then proceed.

Mr. Kaufman

I hope that the Secretary of State and I will avoid any temptation to negotiate across the Floor of the House today. The potentialities for a settlement will not be assisted by extemporary exchanges in the House. I strongly suggest that what is required is that the Secretary of State, with his responsibilities as I with mine, should urge both sides to get round the negotiating table immediately so that the potentialities of paragraph 8 may be explored and this strike can be concluded as quickly as possible in an honourable way.

Mr. King

I give the assurance that at no time would I ever seek to negotiate with the right hon. Gentleman across the Floor of the House. I understand why he said that, but I hope that he will join me in calling for a return to work. If he does not feel able to do so, I shall not press the matter now. It is something that the country hopes to hear. As I said on Tuesday, the employers are ready and willing to enter into negotiations.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I propose to call two questions from either side and then to move on. I think that that will be enough, in view of the statements made.

Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many water workers believe that the present offer is adequate? Can he tell the House how much money strikers are losing by staying on strike?

Mr. King

I am concerned. The loss suffered by each man is substantial. It will take a considerable time to recover those losses. Every day he spends on strike will further extend that period of recovery. I hope very much that there will be the earliest possible resumption of work.

Mrs. Shirley Williams (Crosby)

Is the Minister aware that the House has noted the remarkable change in tone of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) compared with his tone earlier this week? Does the Minister recognise that the position is becoming more serious than his statement suggests? Both the North West water authority and the South West water authority have warned consumers that lead levels in water are going beyond the normal safety limits.

Will the Minister urge the Labour party to suggest that the trade unions should now negotiate on productivity? Will he give the House the assurance, for which I asked him on Tuesday, that there will be no Government interference with the National Water Council in respect of arbitration?

Mr. King

I give the right hon. Lady that assurance. If the matter goes to arbitration, it must be discussed by the arbitrator and the two representatives agreed by both sides. If I ever gave the impression that the dispute was not serious and did not cause real hardship in some parts of the country, I apologise to the House, because I regard it as a very serious dispute that is causing real suffering to many people.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the lead content of water. Warnings have been given about the need to flush pipes, especially where pregnant women and young children are concerned. Lead is especially serious as an accumulating poison, so one must put the matter in perspective. However, the problem is serious, and that is why I am anxious that the dispute should be resolved as early as possible.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

Is the Minister aware that in some parts of the country no water means no back boiler, and no back boiler means no heat? Is he satisfied with the emergency provisions and will he talk to those in the Cabinet who are responsible for social security to see whether compensation can be offered to people to meet the cost of simply keeping warm?

Mr. King

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point because the emergency cover must take account not only of public health but of public safety. There is a risk that the dispute will affect heating and cause hypothermia. That is another reason why the dispute is serious and why it should be ended as soon as possible. In the meantime, those responsible and available will do what they can to help with the problems mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

Will my right hon. Friend, for the House's benefit, remind us about the increase in water workers' pay levels compared with the retail price index since 1979?

Mr. King

The increases have been significant. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister mentioned an increase of about 54 per cent. since April 1979. This further increase will be significantly above the rate of inflation and will advance the position of water workers in relation to the increase in the retail price index. Water workers' wages were about 5 per cent. above the retail price index then and, if the offer is accepted, will be significantly more than that now.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. In view of the exchanges, does the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Williams) wish to make her application under Standing Order No. 9?

Mrs. Shirley Williams

In view of the exchanges, although I can think of nothing more urgent or important than this matter, I shall not press my application. However, I make it clear that that is done in the light of the good faith expressed by the Minister and the change in tone of the right hon. Member for Ardwick.