HC Deb 06 November 1985 vol 86 cc99-108

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Durant.]

10 pm

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

I regret that the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Lee) cannot be here tonight because of illness, even though I know that we would have been on opposite sides in the debate. I am sure that all hon. Members wish him a speedy recovery.

The debate arises from a dispute at Silentnight, which I believe highlights the weakness and folly of the Government's policy on industrial relations and unemployment. The issues have implications for workers in many companies, other than those workers on the front line at Silentnight. If there is not an acceptable settlement to both sides, the question must be who will be affected next.

The dispute has had political overtones from the start. Tom Clarke, the chairman of Silentnight Holdings, is on record as saying that if any of his factories became unionised he would either close them or break the unions. That man owns 52 per cent. of the shares in the group and is currently the highest paid company director in the United Kingdom. It is no co-incidence that he is a prominent member of the Conservative party, and until relatively recently was president of the Skipton Conservative Association.

In 1983 the Prime Minister called Mr. Clarke, "Mr. Wonderful". During the opening of the new showrooms at Salterforth she said: I wish there were a lot more people like you and the kind of people that work for you, pulling together, not apart. I wonder whether she and the Government still feel that he is Mr. Wonderful. Perhaps they do, because he is working in accord with the worst of Tory Government policy.

Early this year the union agreed with management to forgo the pay rise due in February for four months, in return for a no redundancy agreement to run for the current year. During the first week of April the management broke the agreement and declared 52 redundancies. It is a clear case of management disregarding the agreement. It also shows the fallacy of the Government's policy that low pay will save jobs. I have never believed that to be true, and this case proves it. It will be a clear warning to other trade unionists in other factories. One of the Government's main planks in their policy for solving unemployment is the suggestion that low pay is the key. This case shows that they are guilty of having no real policies or intention to reduce unemployment.

Although 58 people volunteered for redundancy, only eight were acceptable to the management, leaving the remainder to be chosen by the company. The union conformed to trade union legislation and balloted its members. By a vote of two to one, in a secret ballot, 540 of the 800 work force who voted gave the union a mandate to take action up to and including a strike. However, the workers did not immediately strike, but chose to work to rule.

On 10 June the management, at three sites, simultaneously gave an ultimatum to the workers to increase production in 10 minutes or be suspended. Two hundred workers were suspended, and the others walked out. The strike has now lasted for 22 weeks at Barnoldswick and Sutton—an area which is known for good industrial relations and which has been a key factor in bringing new industries to that part of the country.

On 22 July, following the local holiday fortnight, the strikers were sacked. They had been told during the holiday to return on that date or be sacked. Since then, the management has claimed that there is no dispute. What nonsense that is. Does the management really believe that it can sack those workers and then claim that the dispute is over?

The second key factor arises from the Government's trade union legislation. If the union had not balloted its members, it could have been taken to court and fined. What about the reverse position? It shows how one-sided is the Government's policy and how anti-trade union they are. It cannot be said that what is happening will help to promote industrial harmony.

Having been a shop steward for a number of years, I know that, despite what is stated in the media, trade unions do not wish to bring factories to a standstill. Both sides of industry, perhaps for different reasons, in almost all cases have an interest in keeping production going. Steve Burns, the factory convener, has no desire to see the factories close, which is a different view from that taken by the chairman in his desire to defeat the trade union movement. The convener's view is shared by all the strikers whom I have met.

The company refused to go to its industrial conciliation machinery. It refused to agree the terms of reference, wanting to limit the terms to the pay offer. The management also refused to go to ACAS, and it recently blocked an attempt, led by the Leader of the Opposition, to get ACAS involved again in an effort to get both sides together. The management also refused the offer of a local vicar to mediate in the dispute. It all shows how little desire it has to resolve this dispute on an amicable basis.

Last week the management published a press statement, probably forced on it by the knowledge of tonight's debate. Both the full version of the statement and an abbreviated version—many hon. Members will have received copies—are misleading and contain many inaccuracies. While time does not permit me to deal with them tonight, I must refer to one. That was the case of a striker who returned to work to find that his job had been put on to a new time basis. To get the same wage as he had received before the annual pay rise, he needed to produce 30 per cent. more. The result was that he lost £25 a week. That shows how misleading are the company's claims in the press release about local agreements on the payment by results element of the workers' pay.

It must be said that on the Lancashire side, at Barnoldswick, the policing has been sensible and impartial. Indeed, the convener has conveyed to the chief inspector of police at Colne the appreciation of the strikers over the way in which the policing has been carried out at that site. The same cannot be said of Sutton, only a few miles away, where the policing has been provocative and has only helped to aggravate the situation.

Mr. John Watson (Skipton and Ripon)


Mr. Pike

No, I shall not give way.

Police dogs have often been on site, and that has done nothing to help resolve the dispute. Out of seven arrests at the Sutton site, to the best of my knowledge, the first two to appear in court have been acquitted. I hope that when replying to the debate the Minister will give a commitment that the Government will go into all the papers relating to the dispute. I hope that he will also consider at this stage a reference from the Government to ACAS to look once again at the issue, following the lead given by the Leader of the Opposition in an effort to get both sides together to resolve the dispute.

The Government should think again about their whole trade union legislation, because the dispute highlights the problems that will arise from their policies, which are provocative rather than designed to lead to harmony. We must ensure that protection is given to workers when involved in disputes such as this. Whereas penalties are imposed on trade unions, the management can take whatever action it wishes without fear of being challenged in court or of being fined.

This style of management is not acceptable in 1985. Do the Government take that view? Perhaps the Government share Silentnight's view and believe, in their desire to crush trade unionism, that anything is acceptable. Do they desire to return to the Victorian relationship between management and workers, when the employees were the workers and the employers were the masters? That is not acceptable in 1985. We require Government policies designed to achieve industrial harmony so that we can get on with solving the real problems facing the nation.

This dispute has implications far beyond Barnoldswick and Sutton. Indeed, it has implications for trade unionists throughout the country. The Government must think again, and I hope that they will intervene and get both sides together.

10.10 pm
Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), who has worked so tirelessly on behalf of the strikers at Barnoldswick and Sutton, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate. I am also glad to see among my many hon. Friends my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden), who has constituency work at Sutton, and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), the Labour party's shadow employment spokesman.

The Minister knows east Lancashire and the furniture and bedding industry well. He was instrumental in helping to set up a little Neddy for the bedding and furniture industry. He is aware that the area and the industry have an unrivalled industrial relations record. East Lancashire communities and firms see themselves as families, and the idea of the family has been a powerful one for 40 years within the industry. It is therefore doubly tragic that this bitter dispute should have occurred, but the fact that it has, that quiet, decent people should have resorted to the strike weapon and now face great poverty while conducting a strike, should serve to underline how badly relations must have deteriorated to provoke such a serious occurrence.

What are the implications of the dispute for the Government's industrial relations policies? In my judgment, they are two. First, there is the question of even-handness in the approach of Ministers to strikes and industrial relations law. Secondly, there is a need for strengthened conciliation and arbitration machinery and the generation, by Ministers, of a climate in which the use of such machinery is encouraged.

No Government have placed industrial relations at the heart of their whole approach to this problem more than this one. Trade union legislation—so-called trade union reform—has been pushed through the House in virtually every one of the past six years. Central to that legislation has been the concept of balloting, especially pre-strike ballots.

The union at Silentnight held a proper pre-strike ballot. The ballot, a copy of which I have, was clear. The validity of that ballot, which could have been challenged at any stage, has never been challenged because its terms and the result were clear.

Mr. Watson


Mr. Straw

The union won a majority for industrial action and a strike took place. Wherever pre-strike ballots have led to no-strike decisions, Conservative Members and Ministers have been quick to applaud the trade unions' decision against strike and their so-called responsibility. The Conservative party, in its last manifesto, said: All of us have a vital interest in ensuring that this power is used democratically and responsibly. The Government clearly anticipated that there could be a democratic and responsible pre-strike ballot in favour of a strike. This is one such occurrence. I ask the Minister why, when the Government are so ready to aplaud the result of strike ballots which go against strikes, should they be silent when a democratic and responsible ballot leads to strike action? Do Ministers not understand that, if they wish to encourage responsibility in industrial relations, they must be even-handed? If they wish people to have faith in the machinery that they have established and the idea of balloting, they must applaud it when it works, even if it works against what they see as a narrow position; otherwise people are bound to have the view that the idea of balloting—so dear to the hearts of Conservatives—is a cynical manoeuvre not to enhance, but to undermine, trade union rights,

On the issue of even-handedness, if it is true that the company has been losing so much money that it cannot afford £200,000 to pay the claimed wage increase, was it not morally wrong for it in the same year to pay an unchanged dividend which ensured that the family shareholders alone received three times the amount of the pay rise—£600,000?

The dispute raises the issue of the Government's attitude towards conciliation machinery. The bedding and furniture industry, under clause 24 of its national agreement, has well established conciliation machinery. The union has always said that it is ready to submit the dispute to conciliation or arbitration.

The company has been ambiguous, to say the least, in its attitude to conciliation. For four months it remained silent. Now, because of public pressure, it has started to send circulars to Members of Parliament. It is clear from those circulars that the company has been very misleading in its offer to put the matter to conciliation, because it involved terms of reference that were wholly impossible for the union to accept. The company refused the idea of conciliation without preconditions. It is clear from the circulars sent out by the company that there are so many points of dispute with the union that the only way to solve the problem is by arbitration and conciliation.

Are we to hear from the Minister this evening that he supports the idea of conciliation and arbitration in the settlement of the dispute? We do not want to hear from the Minister as a mouthpiece for the company, however close his personal association, and that of other hon. Members, with Mr. Clarke. We want him to use the power of his office, in the great tradition of his Department, to secure conciliation and arbitration and an end to this grave and damaging dispute.

10.16 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. David Trippier)

There is no doubt that the dispute that occurred at the Silentnight bedding factories at Barnoldswick and Sutton this summer, and its sad consequences, are a matter for regret on both sides of the House, as well as for the people concerned.

The company has for many years been a successful one in terms of profitability and providing jobs for about 2,800 people in the group as a whole. It is very sad that the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) did not pay tribute to Tom Clarke, who was solely responsible for setting up the company in the first place, and his success in developing the company. I know that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) referred to the matter when he wrote his article in The Times. He mentioned that Mr. Clarke had set up the company 40 years ago in a very modest way, but he quickly went on to rubbish the fact that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had praised Mr. Clarke.

My right hon. Friend was right to praise Mr. Clarke. We need more people like Tom Clarke to form businesses and expand in the way that he did. It has been an incredible achievement. It has been of great benefit to the company, to the employees and to the local community. Therefore, it is all the more unfortunate that it did not prove possible for both sides to resolve their problems satisfactorily before matters reached the sorry conclusion that we are discussing today.

As all too often happens in situations of this kind, we have seen and heard some wild statements about the circumstances of the dispute and seen some silly conclusions drawn from it. We are doing nobody any favours—least of all the workers concerned—in turning to those issues with the blind passion and rhetoric that we have heard tonight.

Inevitably, some of the facts in the case are disputed, but I shall try to set out my understanding of what occurred. In December 1984 the joint industrial council for the bedding industry agreed an increase in the minimum rates of hourly and weekly pay for its workers. The average production earnings at Silentnight beds were at that time significantly above the minimum rates fixed by that agreement. Unfortunately, the company was already experiencing difficulties, and during January this year asked the work force to forgo any increase in wages for three to four months. The company says that it undertook during that time to attempt to avoid any job losses. The union claims that there was a "no redundancy" guarantee. I am told that that is incorrect.

In April this year the company announced that there would have to be 52 redundancies to reduce overheads and improve the prospect of a return to profitability. In the event, there were only three compulsory redundancies. Nevertheless, a go-slow began at the factory, and the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades Union balloted its members on the question of strike action. Those who voted split three to two in favour of industrial action up to and including a strike although it seems that there was by no means a majority of the work force in favour of a strike.

Hon. Members who have spoken have made a great deal of the ballot that was held. It says something for the improvement in industrial relations practices under the Government that the union saw fit to ballot its members at all, but the question on the ballot paper did not make it clear, as required by the Trades Union Act 1984, that the industrial action proposed to the membership would involve them in breaching their contracts of employment. Furthermore, the ballot paper referred generally to the action of the company in refusing to honour the 1985 wage award for the bedding trade which is a highly partial account of what the strike action, which eventually followed, was about.

In further discussions with the union the company agreed to pay the rates set out in the agreement, backdated to the first full pay week in January. Unhappily, that concession did not resolve the dispute. The union appears to have expected that the increase in minimum rates provided for in the national agreement would automatically be reflected in increases across the board. The company's position is that it has honoured the national agreement in full, and that it cannot afford a more general increase.

Mr. Straw

It is a disgrace.

Mr. Trippier

Attempts have been made to refer the matter to the bedding industry's conciliation machinery, but the parties have not been able to agree to terms of reference. [Interruption.] The majority of my information is straight from ACAS.

Discussions were held with officials of ACAS, but clearly they did not resolve the matter. On no fewer than four occasions after the ballot the company wrote to its employees warning them that those who were taking industrial action were in breach of their contracts of employment. In the last two letters, written on 4 and 17 July, the company warned that those who did not return to normal working on 22 July would be dismissed. Many did not return to work, and on 25 July the company dismissed 346 employees—not 500. At present picketing continues, and claims for unfair dismissal will shortly be brought before an industrial tribunal by some of the workers concerned.

The hon. Members for Burnley and for Blackburn, and the local Labour party, have sought to make political capital from the Silentnight strike. In an article in The Times the hon. Member for Blackburn stated that there had been no mobs, no mass pickets, no baton charges, and no cracked heads, but, miraculously, he failed to refer to the masked men who ambushed two vehicles belonging to Silentnight a week before the article was published.

The hon. Gentleman failed to refer to the stone catapulted at one vehicle, which penetrated one of the vehicle's body panels—

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

That has not been proven.

Mr. Trippier

Nor did the hon. Gentleman refer to the three men with stockings or balaclavas covering their heads who ambushed one of the firm's delivery lorries on the main Keighley to Skipton road at Junction Cross Hills. Two windows of the lorry were smashed by stones, but fortunately the driver escaped unhurt.

Mr. Prescott

Did ACAS tell the Minister that?

Mr. Trippier

I appreciate that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) is desperately trying to intervene. I welcome the fact that he is present, because I shall refer to an article in Socialist Worker which referred to him. It is entitled, "Wake up John", and states: Labour shadow employment spokesperson John Prescott really should read Socialist Worker. At the TUC conference John repeatedly referred to the 530—the number is going up all the time—strikers from Silentnight's Barnoldswick and Sutton factories as picketing 'Sleeptight'. A month later at Bournemouth he continued stirringly to argue the case of the Sleeptight strikers. To give credit to his hon. Friends, at least they got the name of the company right.

If we are to discuss the facts of the case, let us discuss the full facts. Why did the hon. Member for Blackburn not refer to the paraffin bomb which was hurled at the Sutton premises after the police had tried to calm a group shaking the perimeter fence? All of that, and more, was recorded in the local newspaper, the Craven Herald and Pioneer on Friday 11 October—[SEVERAL HON. MEMBERS: "It is not proven."] Are the hon. Members for Burnley and for Blackburn associating themselves with the Socialist Workers party, which has tried to inflame the situation with two publications, which are again recorded in the Craven Herald and Pioneer on that date? One, headed "The Silentnight Striker", is described in the publication as, "produced by militant supporters", and the other is a letter headed, "Socialist Workers Party", and subheaded, How do we beat the bosses offensive? The letter attacks not only my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Mr. Tom Clarke, the chairman, but the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock), the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Prescott

What is the Minister going to do about it?

Mr. Trippier

Unlike Mr. Clarke, the right hon. Gentleman is not even afforded the courtesy of his christian name or, "Mr.". He is referred to only as "Kinnock", and is accused of spending more time attacking the miners' picketing than trying to win support for them.

Mr. Straw

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Trippier

With respect, I shall not give way, as I have a lot of ground to cover. I noticed that the hon. Gentleman did not give way to my hon. Friends who were trying to intervene.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Burnley said at the outset of his speech. It is with genuine sadness that I find he has raised this Adjournment debate at a time when my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Lee), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement, who knows more about the background to the strike than the hon. Gentleman or the hon. Member for Blackburn will ever know, is in a hospital bed recovering from a serious operation.

The hon. Member for Blackburn referred to the dividend paid by the company to its shareholders and suggested that it could have been used to meet the union's pay claim. Well-paid jobs are not conjured from thin air. They exist in part because people, such as Tom Clarke, set up firms in the first place and because shareholders are prepared to risk their capital and thus contribute to the company's growth and success. The company has to balance paying more wages today against providing secure jobs for tomorrow. I wish that more companies, trade unions and Opposition Members were more aware of the need to get that balance right. In any case, one cannot compare one dividend distribution paid out of past profits with a commitment to pay higher wages for the indefinite future. In any event, the hon. Member for Blackburn chose to ignore the fact that the company had waived the distribution of the dividend from 1945 to 1972. The company has recently announced its half-year results, showing a loss before tax of over £800,000. Nevertheless, it is continuing production. It employs more than 700 workers, including the majority of the original work force, and hopes to be back in profit before the year end.

Some Opposition Members do not like the fact that production at the factory continues and that the majority of the company's original workers are still in employment. That single fact—that the majority of the workers continue in gainful employment—is one of the few good features of the dispute. Industrial action has destroyed so many jobs over the years that we must take some comfort from the companies, production and jobs that have survived.

What are the lessons of the dispute? The first—it is a tragedy that we have not learnt it already—is that it is disastrous to believe that there is a God-given right to automatic increases year after year in our average earnings regardless of whether the market exists for the goods that we produce and how profitably we produce them. I am genuinely sorry for the 346 workers who have lost their jobs in such a public way. However, unlike Opposition Members, I am also thinking of the thousands, perhaps millions, who have lost their jobs, without anything like as much publicity, because their employers pandered to the naive belief until it was too late.

All of us have a responsibility. The Government have constantly urged pay negotiators to negotiate with an eye to the consequences for jobs. Clearly, we have to try harder to get that message across. Employers need to redouble their efforts to involve their employees and keep them informed of the business realities on which their future depends.

The second lesson is that no Government can alter the fact that strikes put jobs at risk. The law cannot keep jobs open for people who break their contracts of employment. That is the principal point that was missing in the addresses that we heard from the hon. Members for Blackburn and for Burnley. That principle has been recognised under successive Governments, both Labour and Conservative. What the law can and does do is to protect individuals on strike from selective dismissal, which is a quite different matter.

The third lesson is that, although Governments cannot change the realities of life, they can give back to individuals the responsibility for deciding for themselves how to face them. The Government have given union members the right to be consulted before a strike is called. That may seem a modest achievement in the context of this case; none the less, it is a real achievement. I do not think that anyone seriously believes that a yes vote in a strike ballot—even in a ballot conducted within the law—automatically means that an employer has to accept whatever the union demands. Whatever the deficiencies of the ballot, the workers at Silentnight were consulted before putting their jobs at risk by striking. It is now their right to choose. Many decided to take that risk. Whatever Opposition Members may now like to pretend, the risk was there when the Labour party was in power; the right to choose was not.

In short, 346 people have lost their jobs. Against that, 700 people are working and hope to be working profitably next month. It is not easy to draw up a balance sheet of the effects on people's lives of such disputes or—

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.