HC Deb 08 February 1983 vol 36 cc869-71
11. Mr. David Atkinson

asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he has plans to introduce legislation which will make wage agreements legally binding contracts.

Mr. Tebbit

I have no plans to introduce such legislation at present. It is already open to negotiators to make collective agreements legally enforceable, but virtually none has done so. The possibility of legislation to make collective agreements about pay and conditions of employment legally binding was canvassed in the 1981 Green Paper on trade union immunities but it did not attract widespread support.

Mr. Atkinson

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Will he confirm that more British firms are entering into two-year and even three-year wage agreements with unions and that this does nothing but good for industrial relations? Does he agree that legally binding contracts would make a major contribution in this respect?

Mr. Tebbit

It is for the parties concerned to decide whether they wish to make their contracts legally binding in general terms. I agree with my hon. Friend that the progress we have made in reducing the rate of inflation to a more tolerable level has made it possible for wage bargainers and managements to come together and to make longer term pay agreements. That is good for industrial relations and for the stability of the firms concerned.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

In view of the disturbing situation that is arising in the power industry and the water industry, has the Secretary of State considered the possibility of legally binding agreements in the public sector based upon a payment above the norm? Will he reflect, in making remarks about inflation, that the Financial Times has today reported that heavy increases in raw material and wholesale prices are rapidly coming down the track?

Mr. Tebbit

When the right hon. Lady looks at the water industry, she will see a long trail of agreements that have been voluntarily entered into and ruthlessly broken by the unions concerned. That gives some cause for concern about how such agreements would be legally enforced. As is typical of the right hon. Lady, if I may say so, she failed to notice that the Financial Times also reported that we have just had one of the lowest figures in the annual rate of increase in factory gate prices for many years.

Mr. Needham

Does my right hon. Friend not think that because these collective agreements, established over many years, have been broken, it is absolutely reasonable to bring in the protection of the law, as in any other civil contract, to stop these agreements being broken and to give some redress to the parties that have to suffer as a result of the breaches of agreement?

Mr. Tebbit

I am well aware of the fury and rage that has been created over the manner in which some of these agreements have been broken. I receive letters from a good many people who are unemployed telling me that they would be very willing to take £140 and £150 a week for doing the jobs of many of the water workers.

Mr. Douglas

Name them.

Mr. Tebbit

The hon. Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Douglas) seems to suggest that there are not unemployed people willing to work for £150 a week. I take a different view. My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Needham) must face the problem of the actual sanctions that would be used in the event of a breach of such contracts. It may be that we shall find a way.

Mr. Greville Janner

Has the Secretary of State not yet learnt that the right place to settle industrial relations disputes is on the shop floor and not in courts of law?

Mr. Tebbit

I suggest to the hon. and learned Gentleman that it is also wrong to settle them on the picket line. I was appalled by the manner in which a one-day strike was called in the water industry well over a month before the settlement date, without any reason or provocation whatever.