HL Deb 14 February 1963 vol 246 cc1059-61

3.5 p.m.


My Lords: I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the electricity supply industry and the public have recently suffered from the practice called "working to rule"; whether those who indulged in this practice were in fact obeying the rules governing their employment; and, if so, why the employers keep in existence rules which they hope that the men will not obey.]


My Lords, the work-to-rule during the three weeks up to January 20 by a small minority of employees of the Electricity Boards was a major factor in the London area in reducing the supply of electricity and in causing inconvenience to the public. However, the great majority of the men gave service far in excess of what could reasonably be expected of them in conditions of great hardship caused by extreme weather. The rules of the industry necessary for the efficient and proper operation of plant and the safety of employees and the public were observed in the normal way, but there was nothing to suggest that generally it was the rigid application of these rules that caused the trouble. The minority taking part in the miscalled "work-to-rule", however, deliberately withheld the necessary cooperation which usually exists between men and management.


My Lords, may I thank my noble friend for that Answer, which deserves careful study? Do the Government agree that it would be inexcusable for employers to keep in existence rules which they hope the men will not obey; and have Her Majesty's Government satisfied themselves by inquiry that the electricity supply industry, whatever other faults it may have, is not guilty of this absurdity?


My Lords, the answer to both my noble friend's questions is, Yes.


My Lords, will the noble Lord not agree that in many industries—I think of my own industry, the railway industry, although it applies in electricity and many others—employers, as a result of the old employers' liability legislation, place on the shoulders of the worker the responsibility of making the decision whether he is taking a risk or not, and are therefore hiding behind a rule? On the railways, a shunter should walk all the way round the train instead of going underneath the couplings; a guard should test every door of a train before it moves. It is true that in the electricity industry there are many rules which, if a worker observed them strictly and did not use his own initiative as to when it was safe to break them or not, would mean that the work would not be done as efficiently and effectively as it might be. Rule books ought to be revised by employers, now that we have the Industrial Injuries Act, which has undermined much of the old employers' liability legislation.


My Lords, I can see nothing about railways in the original Question. We are advised that the rules by which the electricity power stations work are for the men's safety, and we hope they will be obeyed.


My Lords, I want to say nothing in defence of people who use working to rule for the purpose of mischief and obstructing industrial production, but did not the Chairman of the Central Electricity Board say on television that the unofficial factor was an important but a minor consideration in the upsetting of supplies to the public? The noble Lord in his Answer seems to have said both things: that it was an important factor, and that it was an unimportant factor. Is there not something in the original Question of the noble Lord indicating that these rules need looking at, to see whether they are necessary and right in the circumstances or whether they are overdone and possibly asking for trouble at a moment of industrial stress? I do not prejudge upon it, but is this not a question which arises?


My Lords, although I did not see it, I think the television interview to which the noble Lord is referring dealt with electricity in the country as a whole. This was a matter of London. Perhaps I had better add that there were only a small proportion of the men involved in this non-co-operation. The difficulty was that those men were concentrated in the London area, and the non-co-operation occurred at a time when all plant was needed to meet the unprecedented demand for electricity. In normal winter weather this lack of co-operation would probably have had no effect at all.


My Lords, would the Minister agree that the whole question of what rules should be changed, superseded and altered is much best settled between the employers and the trade unions and is a proper subject for their mutual consideration?


My Lords, I am much obliged to my noble friend. Of course, that is the case. This is not a Government matter. I was trying to answer the Question on the Paper, but it is a matter which should be settled, of course, between the management and the trade unions.


My Lords, could the noble Lord not tell us in quite simple terms whether what he has referred to as the non-cooperative minority were keeping rules or breaking them?


My Lords, they were, in fact, keeping the rules. Perhaps it is rather difficult to describe non-co-operation, but it probably varies from what is sometimes known as "playing stupid" to what used to be known in the Army as "dumb insolence".


My Lords, are we to draw the inference that the object of rules is to promote non-co-operation?

Back to