HC Deb 18 July 1989 vol 157 cc209-10
7. Mr. Colvin

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how many days were lost through strikes in the first quarter of the current year and in the same period of 1979; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Fowler

In the first quarter of this year, 175,000 working days were lost through strikes. During the first quarter of 1979, in the period of the last Labour Government, the number of working days lost through strikes was 6,724,000.

Mr. Colvin

What is all this talk about a summer of discontent? On the basis of those figures, the position during Labour's winter of discontent was 40 times worse than the present situation. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that industrial disputes in the public sector are three times more likely than in the private sector and that if we want industrial peace in public transport, whether among railway workers or air traffic controllers, we should either ban strikes or privatise the industries, or both?

Mr. Fowler

I have already said that privatisation is a longer-term issue. We are reviewing industrial relations law and will make our announcements in due course. I think that most hon. Members want an end to the current dispute and want the NUR to accept the offer that is now being made.

Mr. John P. Smith

Does the Minister recognise that the primary reason for the reduction in strikes since 1979 was mass unemployment—topping 3 million—and the decimation of whole tracts of the industrial sector? Does he recognise that much of the legislation passed during that time has been irrelevant, which is why we now have an upsurge in strikes?

Mr. Fowler

I do not accept that. Every opinion poll has shown that the public value the changes in the law that have been introduced since 1979. I know few people who want to return to the kind of conditions that we had before 1979. The only exception is the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher).

Mr. Roger King

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the great changes that has occurred since 1979 is that working people and management have worked much more closely together in providing pay and conditions based on productivity and an understanding that unless they produce the right goods at the right price their jobs and future prosperity are at risk?

Mr. Fowler

That is right. Over the past year, there has been a record increase in the number of jobs created. One of the lessons learnt from the 1970s was that industrial action and strikes not only lost jobs but exported our jobs overseas. I do not think that anyone wants to return to that situation. That is why it is so eccentric of the Labour party to put forward proposals to extend secondary action and secondary picketing.

Mr. Fatchett

Does not the Secretary of State realise that later figures for this year show a substantial increase in the number of days lost through industrial action? How does he explain that increase? Is it because of the Government's failure to handle inflation? Is it because senior management are paying themselves up to a 200 per cent. wage increase? Is it because the present Secretary of State believes that he has a personal career interest in generating conflict in industry?

Mr. Fowler

I make it absolutely clear where we and the Government stand. We want to see an end not only to this dispute but to other industrial disputes. The public certainly want the railway dispute to end, as do most railwaymen. The most indicative part of the debate this afternoon has been the way in which the Opposition Front Bench avoided every opportunity of condemning industrial action and of urging the NUR to follow the example of the other two unions, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, and to accept the tribunal's arbitration decision. The public will draw their own conclusions about the Opposition's attitude.

Mr. Gow

Is it my right hon. Friend's view that today's strike and any future strike called by the NUR are unjustified and unjustifiable? Is it his view that it is in the best interests of every member of the NUR, of every employee of British Rail, of British Rail and of the travelling public that this strike should cease at once?

Mr. Fowler

Yes, that is entirely my view, and it is also the view of the overwhelming majority of the public and of all the travelling public. I think that the message that should go out is that this strike should be called off. It is against the public interest, and the sooner it is called off, the better it will be for everyone concerned.