HC Deb 08 February 1988 vol 127 cc25-7 3.43 pm
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the Ford dispute.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Norman Fowler)

The House will be aware that a dispute is currently taking place at the Ford motor company. The resolution of the dispute is a matter for the company, its employees and their union representative.

Mr. Meacher

Is the Secretary of State aware, first, that this dispute would now be settled if the Government's antiunion laws had not required a final ballot? Is he aware that "ballotitis" can block solutions which would otherwise have been achieved by patient, work place negotiations?

On the substantive issue of pay, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the company is now forecasting a 10 per cent. increase in productivity this year? Is it not therefore reasonable that Ford workers should participate fully in the benefits of their own efficiency?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the paintshop and assembly workers, who comprise the majority of Ford workers, have had a real pay increase of only 3 per cent. since 1979, when average real earnings in industry as a whole have risen by 18 per cent.? Is he further aware that, by contrast, in 1986 — the last year for which information is available—Ford directors paid themselves a 19 per cent. increase, the Ford chairman had a 41 per cent. increase over the two years before that, and Ford shareholders had a rise of 206 per cent.?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that average earnings at Ford, currently £193 a week, are far below the national male average wage of more than £224 a week? Is he also aware that Ford's latest offer would lead to falling unit labour costs, so that the deal would be self-financing? Clearly, there is more money available.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that productivity at Ford is now rising very fast—it was 8 per cent. over the past two years—and would fully cover the extra costs of the deal? Does he accept, therefore, that the Ford workers' claim is far from excessive, and that the 7 per cent. pay offer means that, compared with directors and shareholders, they are not being offered a fair share in the company's rising prosperity?

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether there have been any Government communications with the Ford motor company, telling it not to budge? Will he now use his influence urgently to get both sides back into negotiations? Does he accept that passively to allow this strike to proceed would be the biggest abdication of responsibility on the industrial scene for many years?

Mr. Fowler

I wish again to emphasise that there is no ministerial responsibility in this dispute. The responsibility lies with the company, the employees and the unions. Individual pay negotiations are matters for the parties concerned.

The hon. Gentleman's point about industrial relations ballots is, quite frankly, absurd. A ballot gives immunity if strike action is taken; there is no compulsion to take strike action following a ballot. Indeed, in this instance, the national union negotiators recommended acceptance of the revised offer.

The one matter about which we can be absolutely clear is that the public do not want a return to the days bequeathed to us by the last Labour Government.

Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

Will my right hon. Friend accept from me, as someone who represents many Ford workers at Dagenham, that the position outlined by the Government is absolutely right? There has been a welcome increase in productivity during the past 10 years, but even now Ford lags behind equivalent works in Europe. Will not the consequences of the dispute be, sadly, the loss of both money and work for this country? Component manufacturers will also be affected and our country's competitiveness will be damaged.

Mr. Fowler

I very much hope that all the parties involved will take account of what my hon. Friend has said. I repeat that I do not believe that it is either sensible or helpful for me to intervene.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool. Mossley Hill)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the only way that the antediluvian practices of confrontation can be put behind us is by having more democratic practices in companies such as Ford, where workers really can have a share in any increased profits? Does he realise that that is the only way to put the days of the cloth cap behind us?

Mr. Fowler

The dispute is entirely a matter for Ford, the employees, the unions and the negotiators.

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

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is sad to see us going back to the times when Ford workers were more concerned with exporting their jobs than exporting cars?

Mr. Fowler

There is, of course, always that risk. Industrial disputes destroy jobs. We all know the consequences of strikes, but, as this is the first day of the dispute, it is too early to make assessments.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

Is it not clear that the Government insisted that there should be a ballot before workers took action? The workers have had two ballots and have decided to take action. [Interruption.] Conservative Members have always insisted that it should be placed in the hands of the workers and not of the trade union bureaucrats. As the workers have said that they do not even like the settlement put forward by the trade union leadership and are not prepared to accept it, why do the Government complain? This is the action of the workers themselves and I support them in their struggle.

Mr. Fowler

The responsibility for industrial action lies entirely with those people taking industrial action. The first ballot gave immunity if strike action was taken, There was no compulsion to take such strike action and the national union negotiators recommended the acceptance of the revised offer. The second ballot is entirely unaffected by industrial relations law. To do this by plants, which was the previous way, is a very precarious arrangement for deciding these things.

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Ford was right to try for a three-year wage deal and that other motor manufacturers would be right to try for that too, because it brings a period of stability? Further, it ought to be easier to achieve because of low inflation. As the Government are an employer, should we not all move towards three-year wage deals?

Mr. Fowler

We must aim for more flexibility in these arrangements, but it is a matter for the parties concerned. Ford should aim for the stability to which my hon. Friend refers, as should any other company.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Does the Secretary of State accept that it is perfectly reasonable for a group of workers, who have done so much to increase productivity at Ford and the total profits of Ford worldwide, by the contribution from the United Kingdom, to press for a fair share of the profits? I do not see why Conservative Members should disagree with that.

Mr. Fowler

I hope that those who take that view will also take into account the likely profits over the next few years and the impact of industrial disputes on those profits.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that, on previous occasions, when hon. Members on both sides of the House have attempted to put questions to the Prime Minister, for which she has no ministerial responsibility, those questions have been disallowed? Is my right hon. Friend not astonished that he should be answering a question today for which he has no ministerial responsibility?

Mr. Fowler

I have said that I have no ministerial responsibility for this, but the rest of the question is not a matter for me.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Secretary of State aware that this is like a rerun of a 10-year-old film? In 1978, the Ford workers were after 17 per cent. The right hon. Gentleman and his hon Friends, headed by the Prime Minister who was then Leader of the Opposition, tabled a motion. The Ford workers ought to get 17 per cent. now. The Secretary of State says that it has nothing to do with the Government, but they have already put up the bank rate by 0.5 per cent. and the chances are that it will go up even more if the Ford strike lasts seven weeks, as it did in 1978.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Briefly.

Mr. Skinner

The stock exchange has lost 40 points today. It has much to do with the Government. They were responsible way back.

Mr. Fowler

The comparison with 1978 is absurd, for the reason that, in 1978, we saw total chaos, with unions attacking the last Labour Government's pay policy. One thing that we have learned, and that the public will want, is not to go back to the days of 1978 and, indeed, the days of the last Labour Government.

Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South)

Is it not ridiculous for Opposition Members to raise the matter in the fond hope that the era of beer and sandwiches will return to my right hon. Friend's Department? Would not Opposition Members be far better employed in condemning the strike and using what little influence they have in trying to get the work force back on the job?

Mr. Fowler

As my hon. Friend said, they would be far better involved in trying to reach some sensible conclusion to the dispute.

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