HC Deb 24 January 1983 vol 35 cc662-8 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tom King)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about the industrial action in the water industry.

The House will be aware that from last Monday night the unions representing manual workers in the water industry imposed an immediate ban on overtime and call out for emergencies. They also announced that with effect from midnight last night there would be a national strike.

The latest reports show that there have been some adverse consequences arising from last week's industrial action, which have affected normal water supplies in a number of local areas. Where it has not been possible to repair burst pipes, a supply has been maintained by stand-pipes or tankering as appropriate.

In the south-west, Manchester and parts of Wales, the water authority has advised the public, as a precaution, to boil any water to be used for drinking or cooking. Reports at midday today show that about 2,000 properties are without their normal supply. Water authorities have dealt this morning with bursts in major water mains in Eltham in south London and in the centre of Coventry. No major pollution has been reported.

My Department is in close touch with the reports from the water authorities, which are seeking to maintain adequate services to their customers. As I informed the House last Tuesday, contingency steps have been taken by the Government in the event of water undertakers asking for assistance to maintain essential services.

The House will be aware that intensive discussions have been taking place under the auspices of ACAS in an attempt to resolve this serious dispute. On Friday agreement was reached on a procedure involving negotiations under an independent chairman appointed by ACAS. It was agreed also that his powers should further extend to those of a mediator so that he could recommend terms for a satisfactory settlement. The talks began on Saturday morning. At that stage the employers increased their offer. It was rejected. After further discussions the independent chairman, acting then in his role as mediator, made recommendations for a settlement. The main recommendation was for an increase of 7.3 per cent. over 16 months plus a further 0.5 per cent. from an increase in the five-year service supplement. The employers have said that these recommendations are broadly acceptable.

I understand that the trade union side of the National Joint Industrial Council is meeting this afternoon to consider these recommendations, and that the full NJIC will meet this evening. I hope that it will be possible for agreement to be reached at this evening's meeting and thus to end, at the earliest moment, the industrial action in the water industry, which could otherwise have increasingly serious consequences all over the country.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the circumstances are potentially exceptionally grave? Millions of households are already being seriously inconvenienced and many more could face far worse hazards unless the dispute is settled quickly.

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that all of these lamentable developments are the result, specifically and solely, of his reckless meddling? On 11 November, when the employers' group in the water industry was willing to offer up to six per cent., he put intolerable pressure on it to offer no more than four per cent. That irresponsible interference was the direct cause of the breakdown in negotiations on that day. The employers did not return to the negotiating table until last week. Meanwhile, the right hon. Gentleman has been in constant contact with the employers' side and has been pressing it not to go beyond five per cent. After nearly three months of such pressure, the right hon. Gentleman suddenly says today that the present offer is reasonable. If it is a reasonable offer today, why did he veto the November offer? More than two months have been lost and a strike has come about precisely as a result of his intervention.

Will the Secretary of State give a categoric assurance that the employers' group now has the power to settle as a free agent, without any further back-door pressure from him, so that, in the words of paragraph 8 of the mediator's recommendations, the employers can make an understanding, positive and determined response."? Does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that the dispute is settled quickly on reasonable and honourable terms? Will he not take any provocative action that could prejudice any settlement? The health and well-being of the people must be paramount.

Mr. King

I accept the right hon. Gentleman's opening remarks about the gravity of the situation were there to be prolonged action in the water industry, but in his remarks about the earliest stages of the negotiation he overlooked one of the complicating factors in the dispute. In shorthand it might be referred to as "the upper quartile". Two claims were presented by the unions. One was in relation to what might be called "the going rate" for pay this year, and the other was for a fundamental adjustment in basic rates of pay.

The right hon. Gentleman totally misrepresents the history of the matter. He said that the employers' opening offer was 4 per cent. and no more. That is not correct. They offered 4 per cent. and, as was provided for under the national agreement, said that if that were not acceptable bacause of the complicated background to the claim, arbitration was available. That is the background, and the employers acted in accordance with that.

The House will notice from my statement, which I hardly think could be described as provocative, that I hope that it will be possible for agreement to be reached at this evening's meeting. This afternoon I do not wish to enter the post-mortems into which the right hon. Gentleman might like to lead me. It is important for the country for the dispute to be resolved on a sensible basis. Under the terms of an agreement jointly signed by both parties, the mediator has put forward his recommendation. I hope that it will be considered seriously.

Mrs. Shirley Williams (Crosby)

Will the Minister accept that we share his view that the strike will have grave repercussions to many if it continues and that it is intolerable that in a civilised country people should have to boil water in order to be safe?

As this is a traditionally moderate union which has not struck in recent history, might it have reached the conclusion that the Government's policy is to yield to those with muscle, such as the miners, and to stand firm against those without, such as the National Health Service workers? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider the possibility of recommending that an additional small sum should be paid, in an attempt to achieve a no-strike agreement in this crucial public service industry, along the lines that follow from accepting arbitration as a rule in such industries?

Mr. King

I would make the small point to the right hon. Lady that three unions are involved in the matter, not one, although I accept that there is one major union.

The right hon. Lady will be aware that the complicating factor—if I may put it that way—in these negotiations has been around for some considerable time, and it is the growing sense of grievance over the upper quartile issue which the unions particularly requested should be included in the independent chairman's terms of reference. That is the background to the dispute, whether or not it is an historically moderate union. It is obviously important that the independent chairman, acting in his role as mediator, should be able to make some pronouncement on this difficult issue.

At the moment I do not wish to enter into the pros and cons of no-strike agreements. Whatever system is adopted, it is fundamental that basic agreements should be offered if there is any question of paying a premium for them.

Sir Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)

Will my right hon. Friend give the public some guidance on the use of water? Is it not a fact that there is no shortage of water over vast areas of Britain? Is my right hon. Friend aware that many well-intentioned people in such areas are advising, and to some extent directing, people not to wash their cars or use water in the normal way? Is not that advice ill-conceived?

Mr. King

There is good sense in showing economy in the use of water at present. It depends on the part of the country that is involved. Where there is filtration, such economies lessen the load on the filter plants.

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for drawing attention to the fact that from reports of bursts or other problems it is easy to imagine that an alarming situation is developing, well beyond the extent of the real problem. I reported to the House that about 2,000 houses are without normal supplies today. I have sought to ascertain how many houses are normally without supplies, but that figure is not available to me at the moment. I believe that in the course of an average day there is one major and about 70 small bursts. It is extremely important to put the matter into perspective. For the vast bulk of people services will continue without any interruption whatever.

Mr. Robert C. Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, West)

I agree that it is extremely regrettable that people have to boil water in a civilised country, but is the Minister aware that that would not be necessary if the Government had acted in a civilised manner?

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that his right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) is very keen on lecturing the trade unions about ballot votes and that my union balloted 4:1 in favour of strike action because of his intervention with the employers? Will the right hon. Gentleman now take the advice that I offered him last Tuesday evening in the House and stop lying on the employers and give them an opportunity to enter into honest negotiations with the employees to settle the dispute today?

Mr. King

I wonder where the hon. Gentleman had been during the last week, because intensive discussions have been taking place. The hon. Gentleman talks about procedures in a civilised country. I should have thought that in the circumstances arbitration was a civilised way in which to resolve matters of this kind. I hope that the agreement which was signed on Friday by both parties and witnessed by Mr. Pat Lowry, the chairman of ACAS, on the procedure to be followed, and which was entered upon on Saturday, will now be followed through. That is a civilised and appropritate way to resolve a difficult dispute and I hope that it will lead to a satisfactory conclusion.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

Will the Minister quantify the risk of drinking unboiled water? Is it a practical proposition for children to drink only boiled water in some primary and secondary schools in the remoter parts of Britain? In many such schools one fears that facilities do not exist to produce cooled boiled water for the children to drink.

Mr. King

The warnings that have been given so far—as, for instance, in Manchester, where advice was given as a precaution—were given not so much because it was thought that there was any concern about the quality of the water, but because of worry about the maintenance of some of the precautionary arrangements to check on the chlorination of the water. In other words, the warnings were the result of worry about the reliability of the control systems rather than about the quality of the water.

I hope that the water authorities will always err on the side of caution. I cannot quantify the exact health risks in any particular area, because they depend upon the nature of any incident. However, I give the undertaking to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that I will do all that I can to ensure that if the dispute persists—I hope that it will not—the water authorities will err on the side of caution in giving advice to their customers.

Sir Albert Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

Will my right hon. Friend give some guidance to local authorities about water supplies for swimming pools and fountains?

Mr. King

I shall certainly bear my hon. Friend's point in mind. That is one of the matters that would arise under our contingency provisions were they to be necessary.

Dr. John Cunningham (Whitehaven)

Is it not a singularly inept achievement of the Government that, as with the steel workers, they have brought an historically moderate and reasonable group of workers to a national strike? While I accept what the Minister says about the current talks, which we all hope will succeed, will he say now, unequivocally, that he has withdrawn all pressure on the employers to enable them to reach agreement in the talks without any strings?

Mr. King

Without wishing to enter into the particular attitudes and posture of an individual union, I should tell the hon. Gentleman that the claim that was under consideration was for an increase of earnings of about 20 per cent. It will obviously be for hon. Members to determine whether that is an appropriate response in the present case, but that is why there have been difficult discussions.

The matter is now under the auspices of ACAS and a mediator has made a recommendation. The employers have said that that is broadly acceptable to them and there is no question of Government involvement. The matter must now be resolved between the employers and the unions.

Mr. Tim Renton (Mid-Sussex)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the rule book of the General and Municipal Workers Union—the union most involved—says that no cessation of work shall take place unless two-thirds of the members belonging to the branch or body immediately concerned vote in favour? Is he further aware that only 60 per cent. of the national membership voted in favour of the strike and that in my region—the southern region—only 57 per cent. of those who voted were in favour? Does that not show a clear need for independent supervision of national strike ballots in public sector monopolies? If the NJIC does not vote to end the strike tonight, is there not a crying need for a new national strike ballot, to be independently supervised, on the basis of the revised wage offer?

Mr. King

I am aware that anxiety has been expressed about the ballot and the proportion of those who voted in favour of strike action. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not go into that more deeply. My first interest is to see whether there will be a satisfactory outcome to this evening's meeting.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)

Does the Minister agree that, on the first day of the dispute, 3 million people were affected by it? Will he undertake to give the House daily reports of the number of people who are without a water supply or who have to boil water? Will he reconsider the provisions of the Water Bill, which abolishes the National Water Council, and which may have created a climate in the industry that has contributed to the dispute?

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman has made a brave attempt, as a Whip to the Committee on that Bill, to remind everyone of its existence. Nevertheless, he cannot drag it into this dispute. I shall try to keep the House informed of any important developments in the dispute. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is present, I do not want to anticipate the frequency of those reports, but I hope that I shall discharge my duties directly to the House.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am mindful of the fact that the first main business for today is an abbreviated debate which the Liberal party has initiated. I propose to call three more hon. Members from each side and then to move on.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

As the unions have chosen to go on strike, and as water authorities have a statutory responsibility to provide householders with piped water, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a strong case for ensuring that people who are without a water supply should be helped and that registered private sector plumbers should be brought in to repair leaks and reconnect the water supply?

Mr. King

That depends on the stage of the system at which leaks occur. It is for water authorities to consider those matters. They are anxious to maintain their services to their customers. It is proper that they should try to do so in the most effective way.

Mr. Reg Race (Wood Green)

Does the Secretary of State realise that workers who usually receive less pay than the national average must sometimes wade through raw sewage to do their job for the community? Does he agree that it is time that the Government recognised the longstanding and important claim from that group of workers for comparability with gas and electricity workers? Does he further agree that the claim has not been dealt with properly by the national negotiating machinery? On whose authority did the Secretary of State intervene in the negotiations and insist that the employers reduce their offer to 4 per cent.?

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman has raised another point about which there is much misunderstanding. He referred to wading through sewage. The House will be aware that local authorities are responsible for most sewerage work and that it is not the main responsibility of those who are involved in this claim.

With regard to the claim for comparability with other groups of workers, which the hon. Gentleman feels has not been dealt with satisfactorily under the negotiating arrangements hitherto and in the NJIC, I understand that the claim for comparability was incorporated in the independent chairman's terms of reference at the specific request of the unions. Under the agreement the independent chairman became the mediator, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that he commented on that claim.

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South)

As further negotiations are scheduled, does my right hon. Friend agree that hopes of progress depend upon the imaginative interpretation of the bonus and efficiency payment schemes that were suggested by the mediator? Does he also agree that it is up to local management and local unions to develop procedures to deal quickly with local emergencies? Does he further agree that if the strike drags on the Government are entitled to ask the TUC to intervene to end it?

Mr. King

I hope that, as the procedure was agreed and the statement on it was signed by both parties under the covering signature of Mr. Lowry, there is no question of asking for further external intervention.

With regard to my hon. Friend's second point about a positive response, which was obliquely referred to by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman), the employers have made it clear that there is scope for increased earnings in the water authorities and water companies. I do not wish to say any more about that now. Employers have made clear their willingness to respond constructively in that respect. I hope that some progress can be made.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Government appear to have a highly selective view of arbitration? Does he remember that for month after month the National Health Service workers wanted just that and yet the Government held out against them? Is not the lesson to be learnt that workers have been forced to go on strike due to selective intervention on the employers' side by the Government? Will he assure the House that he will keep his nose out of these affairs and allow the dispute to be settled between employers and employees as soon as possible?

Mr. King

By a slip of the tongue, I may have said "offered" when I meant "honoured" in an earlier reply. Arbitration is specifically included in the national agreement for the industry. Unilateral access to arbitration was specifically included. The honouring of agreements is important, whatever terms and arrangements may be included in them.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, bearing in mind the legend that water workers are moderate, caring and compassionate, the settlement that has been offered is generous when one compares it with the wage settlements that many people in my area are forced to accept? Does he further agree that there comes a time when those who have a monopoly power should not be allowed to abuse it, especially when they have been offered an arbitration award which most people who work in industry in the west midlands would regard as the dreams of avarice?

Mr. King

I have given the relevant figures. I am anxious not to enter into a discussion of the merits of the claim, as I do not want to prejudice the outcome of this evening's discussions. Against the background of industrial circumstances in the west midlands, of which I am fully aware, I hope that people in the water industry feel that this is not an unreasonable settlement.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

Will the Secretary of State reconsider the figures that he has given the House? Is he aware that he has grossly misled hon. Members on two counts? First, does he agree that local authority sewerage workers will be influenced by the settlement that is reached with water workers? Secondly, is he aware that he was wrong to say that the money on the table, arising from the claim, amounts in aggregate to 20 per cent.? Will he explain why the present 5¼ per cent. year-on-year offer is much lower than the original one? Is that the result of his intervention?

Mr. King

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, there is some confusion in the questions that he has just asked. The 20 per cent. is the basis of an assessment which could be made of a claim which involves some comparability and some adjustment for the going rate for the year. That is different from the offer that is on the table. With regard to local authorities, the bulk of sewerage work is the responsibility of local government. The offer, which the independent chairman, acting as mediator, said should be on a 16-month basis, is not at all unreasonable.