HC Deb 07 March 1995 vol 256 cc130-2
6. Sir David Knox

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will meet the Confederation of British Industry to discuss the long-term improvement of industrial relations.

Mr. Portillo

I have no current plans for such a meeting, but that is no reason for us to neglect the fact that the number of days lost in strikes last year was the lowest since records began in 1891.

Sir David Knox

Although there has been a great improvement in industrial relations in recent years, does my right hon. Friend agree that, in that sphere as in all others, there is no room for complacency? Does he agree further that employee participation plays an important part in the consolidation of that improvement in industrial relations? Will my right hon. Friend discuss that point when he next meets the Confederation of British Industry?

Mr. Portillo

That might be a good subject for discussion with the CBI. I agree with my hon. Friend that consultation with employees is a hallmark of good employers. The important point is that that should be a matter for employers and employees; it should not be imposed upon them either by Governments or by Brussels. It is extraordinary to see Labour Members wishing to sign up to things like the works councils directive, which would impose a wholly inflexible, wholly rigid superstructure on companies, and thus make them less able to respond to the marketplace. I do not believe that my hon. Friend would want anything like that.

Mr. Pike

Does the Secretary of State recognise that there is considerable concern among the work forces of privatised utilities, who see their job opportunities slashed by managements who give themselves massive pay awards? Is that not criminal? Should not the Government take action to stop it now?

Mr. Portillo

I have noticed that customers of the former nationalised industries used to worry day to day and year to year about their security of supply, but that is no longer the case. Whereas in the past, people were afraid that there would be strikes in the gas or electricity industries, on the airlines or in the coach companies—all the important services that were provided to the public—they no longer fear such strikes, because privatisation has improved industrial relations in those essential services. We shall continue that policy in some of the other essential services. Doubtless, by that means, we shall restore industrial peace in those sectors, too.

Mr. Anthony Coombs

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the reason why there are only 1 per cent. as many strikes now as there were in 1979 is that people on both sides of industry realise that the only beneficiaries from strikes are our foreign competitors? In the increasing climate of co-operation rather than confrontation, is it not appropriate to say that works councils imposed upon industry either by Brussels or, potentially, by the Labour party are a total and absolute irrelevance and a waste of time?

Mr. Portillo

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the figure given by my hon. Friend that there are 100 times fewer strikes now than there were in 1979. In January 1979, there were 10 times as many days lost to strikes as in the whole of 1994. The Labour party had a miserable record.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend was right to say that that is now accepted by both sides of industry. Bill Morris recently said that he wished to repeal a dozen pieces of Tory legislation on industrial relations.

Mrs. Helen Jackson

indicated assent.

Mr. Portillo

There have been only a dozen pieces of legislation. I see the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) nodding. Perhaps she could tell us whether the Labour party's policy is to repeal all of the pieces of legislation which have brought peace to British industry.

Ms Harman

Does the Secretary of State think that it will improve industrial relations—(Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The House must calm down. Members on both sides are much to noisy.

Ms Harman

Does the Secretary of State think that it will improve industrial relations at British Gas that its chairman Cedric Brown has had a pay increase which takes his pay up to £475,000? Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister that such increases are distasteful and that legislative action may be necessary to prevent them, or does the right hon. Gentleman stand by what he said only last week, that there should be no Government intervention in those matters?

Mr. Portillo

The hon. Lady ought to quote the Prime Minister accurately, as she ought to quote me accurately. That is the courtesy that she owes to every Member of the House. If the hon. Lady can make her case only by misquoting people, we must draw the conclusion that she does not have a case at all.

Let me tell the hon. Lady about British Gas. When British Gas was nationalised, the Opposition told us not to privatise it. We were told that the service was as good as it could be, and that prices were as low as they could be. Since then, the service has been improved, the number of customers has increased and prices have been slashed in real terms. The company has improved its efficiency so much that it is able to make profits.

The hon. Lady—who has been wrong year after year and whose every premise has been proved wrong—now complains that people who knew better than she and who could manage better than she are being rewarded. She wants to unleash the politics of envy, but I tell her that those politics will gobble up her and her party.

Forward to