§ The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the dispute in the National Health Service, the pay of ambulance staff. I regret to say that the trade unions representing the ambulance men continue to refuse to accept the invitation of Duncan Nichol, the chief executive of the NHS, to resume negotiations in the Whitley council on their pay claim. The 6.5 per cent. offer from April 1989, originally recommended by the unions to their members, has since been improved. In London, the offer is now worth at least 9.3 per cent. for all qualified staff and 20 per cent. on overtime rates. For all ambulance men throughout the country, a review of aspects of the 1986 arrangements, particularly on overtime, has been offered together with talks on local flexibility to deal with recruitment and retention problems. The 1986 arrangements were regarded at the time as a major advance in ambulance men's pay and career structure. [HON. MEMBERS: "And women."' The term "ambulance men" includes women for this purpose. If that is the heaviest point that the Opposition can make, I can understand it in view of their lack of more relevant points. I was speaking about the 1986 arrangements, which were regarded at the time as a major advance in the pay and career structure of ambulance staff.
The latest offer more than maintains the whole of that increase compared with inflation and the men have also, in 1988, had an hour's reduction in their standard working week. I do not think that the unions were in any way justified in taking industrial action against patients when negotiations on the current offer had not come to an end.
For more than five weeks, there has been a ban on overtime and rest day working which has in places damaged the non-emergency but important services offered to the public. Last week, the trade union conveners in the London ambulance service, with the knowledge and approval of their national leaders, invented 14 new rules which they said they would apply to the operation of the service. The plain intention was to create new methods of disrupting the service. It was the opinion of the LAS management that some of the instructions in the 14 points were so disruptive that they would make it impossible to operate a reliable accident and emergency service.
On Monday morning, the ambulance crews were expected to work normally so that a full and proper emergency service could be provided. In many cases the crews refused to do so and it became impossible for the management of the LAS to guarantee a reliable accident and emergency service. The LAS management therefore asked the police and voluntary ambulance services to provide the necessary cover to ensure that the accident and emergency service was maintained in London. I regret that this action needed to be taken, but I fully support the management in its decision.
The LAS management considers that the accident and emergency service that has been maintained is the best that could be provided in the circumstances. At present no undue delays of patients being taken to hospital are being reported. The police and voluntary ambulance men have answered all the emergency calls put through to them. Approximately 130 vehicles are being deployed at the moment by the police, St. John Ambulance Brigade and 670 the Red Cross. I am sure that the public owe a very great debt to the policemen and voluntary ambulance men involved for the great efforts that they are making. Plainly, however, it is important that a full accident and emergency service should be resumed. I am told that the trade unions met at 12.30 today to discuss further the 14 points that the conveners have drawn up.
I have kept in close touch with the situation throughout. I have not yet received any reports of action of the London kind spreading to other parts of the country. Neither management nor I will hesitate to take all necessary steps to ensure the continuation of an adequate accident and emergency service. I have been in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and other colleagues. As a result, the Army is now reviewing the state of preparedness of its men and vehicles. I very much hope that common sense on all sides will prevail and that it will not be necessary to call upon their assistance.
Throughout this dispute, the management of the NHS has remained willing to negotiate further with the trade unions. A further meeting between the chief executive of the NHS, Duncan Nichol, and the national officers of the trade unions will be held this afternoon at ACAS. The dispute can ultimately be resolved only if the trade unions agree to return to negotiations in the Whitley council between management and staff sides. The unions should recognise that and not continue to press their claim by taking action that is aimed at harming patients.
§ Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston)
The Secretary of State began by assuring the House that the management side is willing to resume negotiations in the Whitley council on the pay claim. Is he not aware that every invitation by Duncan Nichol to resume negotiations has specifically excluded negotiations on the offer of 6.5 per cent. on basic pay? So that the House is not misled on this point, will the Secretary of State clarify whether his offer today to reopen negotiations includes negotiations on that basic offer of 6.5 per cent.?
As to the events in London, will the Secretary of State clarify what responsibility he takes for the conduct of management over the past 48 hours? Is he aware that, throughout yesterday, the management deliberately stopped staff from answering calls, that in most stations staff were told that they would get no insurance cover if they left to answer emergencies, and that at some stations where staff were willing to respond, despite the lack of insurance, the management removed the ambulance keys to prevent them from leaving?
Is the Secretary of State aware that at one station yesterday management warned the crew answering an emergency call that they would be charged by the police if they removed an ambulance from the station? Does not that evidence make it clear that the decision not to use London ambulances to answer London emergencies was a decision by management? Therefore, will the right hon. 671 and learned Gentleman tell the House whether those were his instructions to management? Did he approve this escalation of the dispute by management? If not, will he now instruct management to put through emergency calls to the ambulance staff who, right now, are at every ambulance station waiting to answer such calls?
The Secretary of State said that there had been no undue delay so far in the police responding to calls. Is it not clear to the Secretary of State and every hon. Member who has seen the television that police vans equipped with duvets and first-aid kits can be no substitute for the skills and equipment of the ambulance service? The solution is not to call in the Army to substitute for the police substituting for the ambulance service but to solve the dispute. Therefore, I welcome the announcement that the management side is to attend talks at ACAS. I press the Secretary of State to clarify which service it is seeking from ACAS. Does it intend to request arbitration, conciliation or advice, or does the management side intend only to repeat a pay offer less than the rate of inflation to an emergency service already so underpaid that it cannot fill its vacancies?
Why is the Secretary of State so afraid of arbitration? Is his case so weak that he cannot risk taking a second opinion on it? Half the staff of the NHS have access to an outside opinion through the pay review body. What is so special about the ambulance men that they are to be denied an outside view?
The dramatic events of the past few days have shown that the dispute could yet end in tragedy. The Secretary of State could end it today by agreeing to arbitration. He should take the opportunity to do so now.
§ Mr. Clarke
As for the basis on which negotiations might be resumed, plainly it is not sensible for me to negotiate across the Floor of the House. The 6.5 per cent. offer, which was made in the Whitley council, was recommended by the trade unions to their members two or three months ago. There has since been an improvement in the management's position. As far as the management is concerned, those negotiations never ended. I hope that the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) will join me in saying that the proper course is to resume the negotiations in the Whitley council and not to press the union's claim in the way that he has.
The hon. Member for Livingston made the extraordinary allegation that it was the activities of the management in London yesterday which withdrew the accident and emergency service. It is plain that that view is accepted by many of his right hon. and hon. Friends. It was the conveners of the trade unions in London who drew up 14 invented points which they would follow in operating the ambulance service. The only purpose of drawing up the 14-point plan was to disrupt the service. Not one of the 14 points was intended to improve the service. The conveners decided to devise 14 new ways of reducing the service to the public.
The hon. Member for Livingston said that yesterday men were stopped answering accident and emergency calls. The hon. Gentleman knows that instructions from the trade unions included such absurdities as not using the radio telephones and not allowing two men sitting in separate stations to get together to take out an ambulance. It was sheer hypocrisy on the part of the trade unions, and 672 repeated by the hon. Gentleman this afternoon, to say that they were prepared to operate an accident and emergency service that involved their men sitting around in the stations during the day and refusing to operate the vehicles and the emergency service seriously.
If the hon. Member for Livingston were being responsible, he would join me in paying tribute to the management of the London ambulance service, to the police and to the voluntary ambulance men who stepped in and provided a vital service for the public of London.
I hope that the talks which the trade unions have been holding among themselves since 12.30 pm today will lead to some common sense returning to the situation in London. I am glad to say that, as I have already told the House, there is no evidence that the approach in London is spreading anywhere else in the country. I am sure that the management will get together with the trade unions during the day. I trust that they will work out a basis upon which the accident and emergency service can be restored to the people of London in a proper way.
Of course the police vans are not adequately equipped for the purpose. It was forced upon the police to take part in the service yesterday. The National Union of Public Employees and other unions had decided to step up their action and to place the public at risk. I was kept in touch throughout by the management; I know what it was doing. I think that it was right because I believe that it had no alternative. Its first duty was to ensure that an accident and emergency service of the best sort in the circumstances was provided to the public of London, and it was the unions which were getting in the way of that.
I hope very much that the Army is not used. The Army has not been used in providing an ambulance service since 1979, when the then Labour Government brought it in to provide the ambulance service in the middle of an industrial dispute. I hope that the present dispute will be resolved and that we shall not have to use the Army. At the moment my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is merely inquiring into the state of preparedness of the Army, and we await progress today.
There is to be a meeting at ACAS today. Duncan Nichol has agreed to meet national trade union officers to see whether there is a basis upon which talks can be resumed. He is, in effect, resuming talks which he initiated about a week or more ago. They are now being resumed under the auspices of ACAS. The only way in which we can make progress is to return to the negotiating table with a suspension of industrial action. We shall see how we get on this afternoon.
To grant the men arbitration on their claim when the union is refusing to complete negotiations in the Whitley council where everybody else has settled such matters would undermine management's position. Management cannot hand over the control of pay of large groups of people to third parties when it also has a responsibility to spend its money on the provision of patient service.
The only reason that the hon. Gentleman is arguing for arbitration is that these men are taking industrial action and he would respond to that by giving this particular group of workers arbitration as a reward. That is not a reward that the Labour party ever gave when it was in government. I look forward to the day—it has not arrived yet in all my years of experience in the Health Service—when the Labour party will not back to the full any group of Health Service staff who take action against patients for any kind of pay claim whatever.
673 The Labour party's support for pay claims and for industrial action against patients contrasts clearly with its record in government. The previous Labour Government never gave arbitration to the ambulance men. They never linked the pay of ambulance men with other groups. In the last four years of the Labour Government, ambulance men's pay fell behind inflation in three years out of four, and in the fourth year it gave ambulance men 9.9 per cent. in a year of 10 per cent. inflation. They referred the issue of comparability to Clegg and, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord President of the Council said a moment ago, comparability with the other emergency services was rejected by Clegg.
The Labour party's record in government on ambulance men's pay is shabby and its record in opposition is downright irresponsible in its preparedness to support patients being put at risk by men pursuing industrial action in pursuit of a pay claim.
§ Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)
Since 94 per cent. of NHS staff have this year settled all their pay claims without any strike action, and since nearly all of those settlements were for increases of 6.5 per cent. or about that figure, would it not be an open invitation to play ducks and drakes with patients' safety if the NHS staff saw that damaging and destructive strike action resulted in an 11 per cent. pay settlement?
§ Mr. Clarke
My right hon. Friend is right. If those who take industrial action receive higher pay awards as a result, it will obviously encourage others to choose that route. That is exactly how the Labour party contrived eventually to put half the NHS on strike in 1979 and we had a winter of discontent.
The management has demonstrated that it is prepared to be reasonable in negotiations with those many dedicated NHS staff who have a particular claim. Details of the settlements that others have achieved without industrial action show that all operating department assistants received well over 10 per cent. and some received up to 30 per cent. and junior clerical staff received more than 10 per cent. That is because their claims were recognised in negotiations in the Whitley council and a settlement was reached which the Health Service could afford without damaging patient care.
The Labour party is now taking up the cause of people who received a huge pay increase in 1986 which has been more than sustained and it is now saying that because those men are prepared to put patients at risk they should be offered arbitration and it would no doubt support a double figure pay settlement again.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
Will the Secretary of State understand that the unions say that what Mr. Crosby said about radio telephonic communication is just not true? Will he please check that? They say that they were referring to the use of radio telephones in certain circumstances, not as the right hon. and learned Gentleman said. Is the Secretary of State aware that the Balaam street ambulance station in my constituency had an emergency call from an address in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) at 10.20 am yesterday and that the ambulance officer threatened the staff with calling the police if they went to that call?
Will the Secretary of State now reply to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) 674 about such an industrial management decision? Was it taken by the London ambulance adminstration after consulting the Secretary of State or the NHS administrator, and, if not, why not? Why has he allowed that administration to take such a major step of principle in its reactions without his being consulted, or was he not consulted?
On the matter of ACAS—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Spearing
Can the Secretary of State tell us, even if the provision is not in the Whitley arrangements, what is to prevent the matter being sent to a body designed both to prevent and resolve such matters? When will the Secretary of State remove this civic spectre from our capital city?
§ Mr. Clarke
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that lives are at stake in this dispute. I hope that he will consider carefully what he is saying. Perhaps he will put himself in the position of someone who has just witnessed a road accident, who thinks that lives might be at stake and who wants to know on what basis the ambulance staff are operating. It would not be very encouraging to such a bystander to hear that there is an argument about the circumstances in which the ambulance men may or may not operate their radio telephones, about whether a two-man crew can be put together and about what contact they will maintain with base while they are operating the ambulances. Certain managers on the ground, who had to deal with that immediate crisis, were faced with men who were sitting in the station and who wanted to take ambulances away, but who were extremely unclear about the circumstances in which they would use those ambulances once they were out of the station.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who is usually a sensitive and humane man, will realise that the management had no choice but to say that it must guarantee a reliable accident and emergency service and that it must, therefore, seek the help of the police, the Red Cross and St. John Ambulance to do so. The management kept me in touch, so I knew exactly what was happening, although I did not know, of course, about day-to-day, hour-to-hour incidents in individual stations. The management of the London ambulance service was given no alternative by the representatives of the ambulance men, who had deliberately drawn up 14 new points with the intention of disrupting the service in London. I hope today that discussions between the London management and the London conveners will resolve that and bring back the accident and emergency service.
The management is, of course, willing to go to ACAS. It is going today and there have been contacts with ACAS before, and between the Whitley chairman and the men. However, everybody should realise that this dispute can be resolved only in negotiation. The union's position is that it will not resume negotiations and that it will not go back to the Whitley council. As long as it maintains that position, it is necessary for the management in all parts of the service to maintain the best possible service it can for the patients in its care.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The House knows that this is an Opposition day, and there is a further important debate in which there is a great deal of interest. I ask for brief questions on this important matter.
§ Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that all Londoners hope that the talks to which he has referred will be productive and that the dispute will shortly be drawn to a close. Is it not the case that the strategy of the National Union of Public Employees over the past few weeks was clearly getting it nowhere and that over the weekend it decided to escalate the action by introducing on Monday the so-called 14 points, which made management of the service quite impossible? Against that background, is it not hypocritical of Mr. Poole to describe the management action as "evil"?
§ Mr. Clarke
I agree with my hon. Friend. The NUPE position was straightforward. It had five weeks of industrial action, which had not damaged the patient services. Local conveners, therefore, drew up a list of points that they thought would damage the patient services. Mr. Poole then had the utter hypocrisy to say that that was somehow an evil caused by management. It is up to Roger Poole and his colleagues to sort out today how they will get back the accident and emergency service after they took action to disrupt it yesterday.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
Is the Secretary of State aware that, after 10 years of Tory Government, morale in the ambulance service is extremely low as a result of cuts in the service and the low pay of ambulance workers? Is he aware that the dispute with management has enormous support from the public? That is why he has authorised this high-handed action of trying to impose a settlement by bringing in the police and now threatening the ambulance workers with bringing in the Army. Should he not take account of the fact that the ambulance workers have never refused to deal with 999 calls, and should he not send the dispute to arbitration, as has been requested by the workers' side, rather than trying to smash the dispute in the high-handed way he has chosen to adopt?
§ Mr. Clarke
The offer from the management would raise ambulance men's pay by 28 per cent. since 1986, compared with 20 per cent. inflation. I have already contrasted the way in which the ambulance men have been rewarded and seen their earnings increase under this Government compared with under the Labour Government.
In the hon. Gentleman's constituency, the offer to the London ambulance men who have caused all this trouble is at least 9.3 per cent. for all qualified men. They have a better offer in percentage terms than the police have had this year, a better offer than the firemen, and a much better offer than the nurses. They have no justification for agreeing to 14 silly points which were drawn up for them with the intention of disrupting the service.
§ Sir Ian Lloyd (Havant)
As the standard of equipment and the ambulances used by the police has been criticised by the Opposition, as the majority of the ambulances in London are, I imagine, public property and do not in any sense belong to NUPE, and as most are built to a standard design—they are built in my constituency and I have seen that this is so—would it not be wholly appropriate, and 676 certainly right, that as many of those ambulances as were required by the police were made available to them by the management of the service?
§ Mr. Clarke
That and other possibilities will have to be considered if the ambulance men in London cannot be persuaded to operate a reliable accident and emergency service. My hope, which I am sure is shared by the majority of hon. Members, is that the talks this afternoon between the London management and the trade unions will so modify these 14 points that, at the very least, we can return to a reliable accident and emergency service on the streets of London being operated by the men.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman sound a bit less like the Secretary of State for Employment, the Home Department or Defence or the Chancellor and a bit more like the Secretary of State responsible for the Health Service and support the people, to whom he should have paid a tribute, who for years have done a good job in the Health Service for low pay? Given that the talks are starting at 4 o'clock, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman perhaps pay his tribute by making it abundantly clear that, if necessary, more money will be available? Instead of the pay ranging between £7,000 and £11,000, ambulance personnel whose pay has fallen behind parity with that of workers in other emergency services will then know that they are likely to get more money so that they are rewarded, as the public wish, for a service that deserves money as well as mere words.
§ Mr. Clarke
As Secretary of State for Health, my prime concern must be for the safety, health and well-being of the public. The hon. Gentleman is obviously most concerned with pursuing a pay claim of a particular group of the staff, which is not quite the same thing. In my opinion, the pay claim can satisfactorily be resolved when the ambulance men return to the negotiations in the Whitley council. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's idea that somehow, in the interests of the Health Service, we should give them more money until they agree to call off the industrial action. Presumably the hon. Gentleman has no idea how much they want, but he would pay whatever they demanded and then wait for the next group to take industrial action in the Health Service.
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that the bulk of the ambulance men in this country get and deserve a full tribute from the public. They provide an essential service. That work should be properly rewarded, which is the purpose of the pay negotiations that we carry out inside the Health Service. Most other workers in the Health Service provide a vital service and are dedicated. It is only fair that the pay of all of them is resolved through bargaining machinery and that NUPE does not try to get an advantage for one group by taking action against the patients.
§ Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)
Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the ambulance staff are Health Service workers and that for many years their pay and conditions of service have been determined within the Whitley council structure? What would the proposed 9.3 per cent. increase for the London service give in terms of salaries?
§ Mr. Clarke
The 9.3 per cent. increase for London staff, contrary to what was said a moment ago, would give the 677 leading ambulance men £13,000, qualified ambulance men £12,100 and an ambulance man or woman £9,020. On top of that, one can expect at least two hours overtime to be worked and we would expect average earnings each week to be about £244. Incidentally, that pay is not very far out of line with that for firefighters in London. This is no doubt why, when drawing comparisons, the union side tends to pluck out of a hat the pay of fifth-year firefighters, who are about £3 a week better off than ambulance men under the present offer.
§ Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)
The Secretary of State has twice skirted round the crucial question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook). Will he answer it now? Did he have prior knowledge of and give prior approval to the decisions by London management yesterday to lock out the ambulance staff who were prepared and willing to carry out emergency services?
§ Mr. Clarke
The managers did not lock out the staff, and it is a travesty of the truth to describe what happened yesterday as a lockout. I had full forewarning of what the London management felt it was obliged to do yesterday. I believe that it was given no sensible choice if, unlike the Opposition, it wanted to continue to put the interests of the public before the interests of a strike in support of a pay claim.
§ Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)
The people of London who are currently at risk will not have been impressed by the sight of the Leader of the Opposition giggling on the Opposition Front Bench throughout the statement made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State. However, they will be impressed if the dispute is brought to a speedy conclusion and they will be even more impressed if, after the dispute, my right hon. and learned Friend will bring forward measures to stop strikes and industrial action in certain essential services where health, life and safety are at risk. Will my right hon. and learned Friend heed my comments?
§ Mr. Clarke
I listened to the Leader of the Opposition enjoying himself by trying to whip up feeling about a strike in the public service about which he knew little and trying to urge on the union in its pay claim. I hope that I have put the matter into perspective. I have explained that the position in London yesterday was contrived by the trade union conveners, and we hope the position can be rectified today.
I will consider what my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) has said about strikes in essential services. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment is sitting beside me now and the subject comes up for discussion frequently in the House when irresponsible action like that embarked upon by the London ambulance service yesterday occurs and therefore puts public safety at risk. Obviously I do not have responsibility for policies about such strike action. My main aim at the moment is to get the accident and emergency services in London working normally once more.
§ Mrs. Rosie Barnes (Greenwich)
The shortfalls exposed by the overtime ban in London show that there is a shortage of ambulance men in the capital city and that they are poorly paid. It is also clear that the Whitley council has failed in its obligation to the ambulance men 678 and to the public. Does the Secretary of State agree that binding pendulum arbitration, which is not inflationary, is the only fair and sensible way of ensuring that the emergency services are always maintained and are not subject to action of this kind.
§ Mr. Clarke
I concede that there is some evidence of staff shortages. We made an enhanced offer in London so that it is at least 9.3 per cent. for all qualified personnel arid 20 per cent. on some overtime rates because we wanted to try to tackle those recruitment difficulties. The management have made an offer which is higher than the settlement accepted by London Underground workers.
I do not believe that the Whitley council can be said to have failed. It produced a management offer three months ago which NUPE and the other trade unions were then recommending to their members. However, they are now refusing to negotiate about that. When I was a Minister in the Department of Employment I was attracted by the idea of pendulum arbitration in certain circumstances. However, as the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes) will be aware, that tends to occur within the kind of settlements reached by people such as the electricians in which there is a no-strike agreement, single-union recognition and pendulum arbitration. There is no prospect of getting a no-strike agreement or anything else from NUPE, or the Labour party, with which NUPE is in close alliance on this occasion.
§ Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)
Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that if the dispute ends in tragedy, as the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) suggested it might, the responsibility for the tragedy will rest fairly and squarely with the ambulance men and their conveners as a result of the escalation yesterday which threatens people who live in London and those who come in to London to work?
§ Mr. Clarke
I agree with my hon. Friend. To hear a trade union leader on the radio and television explaining that he is advising his members to take action which puts the public at risk and then saying that he regrets the inconvenience caused and that the fault is not on his side brings back all the worst memories of the 1970s. That is really unacceptable in such an important service as the ambulance service.
§ Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)
Will the Secretary of State consider his own example of the man lying injured after a road accident in Leyton, perhaps? Would he tell him that the ambulance cannot arrive because the management have taken the keys from the vehicles and are not putting through 999 calls? That is what happened in my area of Whipps Cross. How can the Minister justify that action by management, which he said he supported? Of course he supports the management: he is the management. They are jumping to the Minister's tune in escalating this dispute.
§ Mr. Clarke
I advise the hon. Gentleman to look at the 14 points which were ingeniously devised by the trade union conveners last week. I will mention some of them. They will not use the radio telephone. They will not double up manning. If there are no red blankets at the scene, they wait for them. They will not take out a defective vehicle. They will not take out one with defective brakes—I do not mind that—but if a light bulb is missing, they must wait for a fitter to replace it. The police, St. John Ambulance and 679 the Red Cross are doing their utmost to provide a reliable service. The management want to go back to relying on their own men to provide it.
It is not true to say that, yesterday, the union instructions were enabling anybody to provide a reliable accident and emergency service, using only some of those men who were obeying their own union's instructions.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I must have regard to the subsequent debate. As I have already said, there is great demand to take part in it. I will call two more hon. Members from each side and then the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, and then we must move on.
§ Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)
Has my right hon. and learned Friend received a clear assurance from the ambulance men that, if there were a serious incident on British Rail or the London Underground, normal ambulance services would be resumed at once? Should not such a clear assurance apply also if there were a serious incident at a factory, particularly one dealing with hazardous substances?
§ Mr. Clarke
My confidence in the ambulance men is such that I am quite sure that, if we get news of a major incident this afternoon, everybody will turn out and take part and temporarily ignore the dispute, as they did at the time of the Deal bombing. It will be no thanks to NUPE if they do. We all know that ambulance men can be relied on in such situations. That is why we want a fair settlement, negotiated properly in the Whitley council, which has always dealt with their pay.
§ Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)
How can the Secretary of State tell caring ambulance workers in London and throughout the country to take a pay cut when, on 21 July 1987, in a Division which I forced in the Chamber, he and his two junior Ministers voted themselves a pay increase of between 11 per cent. and 20 per cent.—£80 a week—to take his salary up to £1,000 a week? It is no good praising ambulance workers at the time of the King's Cross and Clapham disasters and treating them like dirt now.
§ Mr. Clarke
The ambulance men got a settlement of well over 10 per cent. in 1986, and the offers that have been given to them since have more than maintained the value of that settlement. They have also had an hour taken off their normal working week.
We are not dealing unfairly with the ambulance men. They have been dealt with better than some other Health Service staff in recent weeks. This year other Health Service staff are being given priority in negotiations by management negotiators. The offer is fair. The hon. Gentleman's comparisons are ridiculous. I would not dream of comparing my own increase. As it happens, my own increase was 3 per cent. this year, but I am not complaining about that.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
I commend my right hon. and learned Friend on his excellent statement. I agree that a normal ambulance service should be restored while discussions and negotiations go on at ACAS. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there is increasing concern about the Whitley council procedure? I 680 take up the point so excellently made by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) that, perhaps, a special system for the future should be considered for those in essential public services such as the ambulance service.
§ Mr. Clarke
The Whitley council is the system which we have had and which the trade unions always defend. It has weaknesses. I am always surprised that on the staff side of the ambulance Whitley council the Association of Professional Ambulance Personnel, which has a large membership, is not represented at all because that association will not affiliate to the TUC. In my hon. Friend's part of the country, APAP probably has more members than some of the trade unions organising industrial action and, at the moment, parties to negotiations.
The Whitley council is the best we have. It is the agreement with both sides. Normally, NUPE vigorously and vehemently defends Whitley council procedures. It walked out this year only because it decided that it wanted to take industrial action to see whether it could do better than it would otherwise have done by sensible negotiation.
§ Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)
Is the Secretary of State aware that, for all his bluster, union bashing and petulant behaviour on television last night, the public will blame him if there is a tragedy because they know—it is quite clear—that he has been gearing up all weekend for this confrontation? Indeed, he seems to be enjoying it. I hope that he is aware that the blood will be on his hands and not on those of low-paid ambulance workers.
§ Mr. Clarke
The dispute has been going on for five weeks, in the course of which I have played very little part in the public debate. Both the management and myself have done our utmost throughout not to inflame feelings or to spread the dispute but to try to get back to negotiation. If the hon. Lady casts her mind back, she will find that continually the statements made by Mr. Roger Poole, on behalf of NUPE, throughout those five weeks have been attempts to inflame feelings and to centre public attention on the claim. Our continued aim is to get people back to the negotiating table and to sort out the dispute. I have no desire to have any dispute with ambulance men and nor has the management of the NHS. We remain confident that, if common sense prevailed, the whole matter could be sorted out through discussion.
§ Mr. Robin Cook
May I share with the Secretary of State some information which has been passed to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing)—that within the past half hour management in London has agreed to lift the suspensions immediately and to pay the wages of those suspended? Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that development? Did he have prior knowledge of it? If so, why did he not share that knowledge with the House? Does he agree that this latest development demonstrates that London ambulance management has adopted such a provocative stance that even it could not sustain it?
§ Mr. Clarke
The hon. Gentleman will find that the unions have modified the silly attitude that they were taking yesterday and that discussions have taken place—[Interruption.] My information is almost as good as that of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). When I rose to make my statement, I was 681 passed a note saying that management hoped to be able to reach an agreement this afternoon. That agreement involved facing the conveners with the implications of their 14 points, getting them to reconsider those points, and getting back to a basis on which the service could be resumed. That is what I said I hoped would happen in my original statement, and in all my replies.
I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman is disappointed, but the fact is that the accident and emergency service has now been resumed. I hope that if anybody threatens to put the service to patients at risk again, the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends will not leap in excitement to support such action. I hope that if their lines of communication with the unions are so good they will urge that this afternoon at ACAS the unions should agree to return to the Whitley council negotiations, where they should have stayed five weeks ago.