HC Deb 20 February 1990 vol 167 cc766-8
5. Mr. Hague: T

To ask the Secretary of State for Health whether pay disputes involving any group of National Health Service workers have been to arbitration since 1974.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

No, Sir.

Mr. Hague

I welcome today's talks on the ambulance dispute, but does not my right hon. and learned Friend agree that his answer exposes the double standard of Opposition spokesmen and union leaders in calling for it to be referred to arbitration, while never referring any dispute to arbitration when Labour was in office? Will my right hon. and learned Friend take this opportunity to point out that referring one claim to arbitration would be very unfair to the majority of Health Service workers, who settled their claims without recourse to industrial action?

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend that it would be unfair to other workers, and an impossible way of running the Health Service, if groups of people only had to go on strike long enough to win their way to arbitration. I do not believe that the people who demanded arbitration ever seriously expected that it would be resorted to. Nor do I imagine that the Labour party, in supporting them, ever expected that either—Labour never went to arbitration in similar circumstances. We are all glad to hear of the talks today. The management has always made it clear that it is prepared to re-enter talks to resolve the dispute on the basis that it described—and talks have started today on that basis. I trust that every right hon. and hon. Member hopes that those talks will succeed and that the dispute will be resolved.

Mr. Strang

I hope, as the Secretary of State does, that the talks will succeed. I put it to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, judging from his utterances earlier in the dispute, the best contribution that he can make throughout the talks at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service is to keep his mouth firmly shut on the respective merits of the management and trade union claims.

Mr. Clarke

My remarks throughout the dispute have been consistent——

Mr. Tony Banks

Yes—consistently bad.

Mr. Clarke

In attempts to inflame the dispute remarks were attributed to me that I trust those who attributed them will not repeat.

The Government and the Health Service management have made it clear that they are anxious to see talks resumed, and the basis on which they could resume has also been clear for some weeks. I am glad that common sense has dawned and that talks have restarted.

Mr. Bowis

Does not my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, rather than invoking arbitration, the concept of pendulum pay bargaining may be worth considering? That may be a way of meeting the public demand that disputes in which health, life and safety are put at risk should not be part of our industrial relations system.

Mr. Clarke

I am keenly in favour of pendulum arbitration in small manufacturing companies, and so on—linked usually with single-union deals and no-strike agreements. The ambulance dispute involves so many issues that it is unlikely that those elements could play a part—and the unions with which we are dealing would never enter into a no-strike agreement of the sort that some companies have entered into with unions.

Mr. Robin Cook

Does the Secretary of State accept that the whole House will welcome the fact that his Department has now begun talks with ambulance staff, and the whole country will want those talks to continue until they succeed? In the light of his own repeated refusal to intervene to find a solution, on the ground that management must be free to manage, will he assure the House that management is now free to negotiate and, in particular, that if management wishes to include arbitration or a pay mechanism in the solution, he will not invervene to prevent that?

Mr. Clarke

As I said in my earlier answer, not only did no Labour Secretary of State ever refer such a dispute to arbitration, but no Labour Secretary of State ever intervened in the way that the hon. Gentleman has been urging me to throughout the dispute. If he took the office of Secretary of State for Health, to which he aspires, and then decided that if a strike went on for long enough he would intervene to tell managers to pay the claim, I can only say that he would be a disastrous holder of that office, from the point of view of the National Health Service.

Mr. Hayes

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the best possible way to facilitate a speedy and honourable end to the dispute is not to make party political comments—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Hayes

Such comments inflame the situation and a sensible silence by Ministers, officials, Opposition spokesmen and everyone else involved will lead to a quicker end to the dispute.

Mr. Clarke

Of course, advice from my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) about the need to keep silent on these grave matters is welcome, and I shall certainly take note of it. On the earlier part of his question, negotiations today are being carried on by the chief executive on behalf of the National Health Service executive, and they will ultimately no doubt move on to the Whitley council. Those concerned are free to negotiate there, and that is where the dispute should be resolved. It is the desire of many hon. Members to bring in a party political and a Government context and to keep attributing to me every aspect of the dispute that gives rise to the feeling that has been described.