HL Deb 09 December 1965 vol 271 cc389-92

3.10 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 what steps they propose to take to arrest the cost to the nation in strikes.]


My Lords, my right honourable friend the Minister of Labour has taken exceptional steps to improve industrial relations in two stikeprone industries; namely, the motor industry and the docks. The prospects of progress in all industries must depend primarily on constructive thought and action by managements and unions. My right honourable friend's industrial relations officers are always ready to assist managements and unions.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord for that reply, and ask him two short supplementary questions? As the number of days lost through strikes so far this year is 2,697,000, almost double the figure of only two years ago, will Her Majesty's Government try to live up to the promises they made and display a greater sense of urgency in dealing with this serious matter? Secondly, will the noble Lord invite the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to repudiate his statement in a speech which he made at Brent-ford on October 13, 1964, when he said: What we can truly say is, ' If you want more strikes, vote Conservative '"?


My Lords, no one regrets more than I that we have not yet accomplished all we should like to do in this field. I am happy to report that between July and October there has been a considerable improvement in regard to days lost. They were just about the same as in a comparable period a year ago, so there is a slight improvement. As to anything my noble and learned friend may have said before the Election, I am positive that he would not have imagined that we could change the climate of opinion that exists in this whole difficult field in the short space of just about one year. If the noble Lord will put down the same Question at the end of our period of five years, I shall be happy to answer him on my own behalf and also on behalf of my noble and learned friend.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there are fewer strikes in England, with our organised unions, than in many other parts of the world, including America? Is this not a good reflection upon the members of these organisations, even if some kick over the traces—and sometimes it is essential to do so.


My Lords, may I answer one question at a time? This is the better method at Question Time. The fact is that our figures are pretty good, when viewed in the world situation in this relation. The only thing I would say is that they are just not good enough and we hope to improve them.


My Lords, may I ask a question about the motor industry, which the noble Lord mentioned just now? Is he aware that the figures of days lost in this industry are well above the national average. They are, in fact, more than three times as much as they were two years ago. Can he assure us that Mr. Scamp, the Government's "trouble-shooter" in the industry, is getting all the co-operation he ought to have from both sides of the industry?


Yes, my Lords; we feel that Mr. Scamp is doing a first-class job. We are glad to see that he is accepted by both sides of the industry, although inevitably from time to time local branches may say that he is leaning towards the management, because of his old associations. But I do not think that this is really so. I think that most of the trade unions have accepted him as a first-class man, doing a first-class job, in a difficult industry.


My Lords, would my noble friend agree that, while we all deplore unofficial strikes, the majority of these disputes are not caused by just one side, the workers, and that there is in most cases trouble and blame on both sides? Is my noble friend surprised to see this Question on the Order Paper, after what happened on the Front Bench opposite a couple of nights ago, when because of something they disliked, they just "downed tools" and walked out? Was that not an unofficial strike?


My Lords, my noble friend is provocative, which is the last thing I want to be in this House.


My Lords, would my noble friend please bear in mind that the number of working days last through strikes this year is only one half of the number lost in 1962, when the noble Lord, Lord Erroll of Hale, was President of the Board of Trade, and that the number of workers involved in strikes this year is only one-sixth of the number involved in strikes in 1962, when the noble Lord was partly responsible for British industry?


My Lords, I think that my noble friend is giving information and not asking a question; but I would agree.


My Lords, although the figures may be what the noble Lord has quoted, would the noble Lord, Lord Champion, agree that the fact remains that we were not complacent about those figures, whereas his answers appear to indicate a high degree of complacency?


My Lords, that is entirely untrue. We are not at all complacent about this matter. This is one of the topics that has been exercising the mind of the man whom I regard as a first-rate Minister, Mr. Gunter. We recognise the seriousness of this problem, and we are doing everything in our power in order to bring about better industrial relations.


My Lords, could the noble Lord, as a start, ask the Government to follow certain Continental countries, particularly the Netherlands, where strikes are not allowed in public utilities? In these industries, the workers have to give six weeks' notice of their intention to strike.


My Lords, this is one point that is being considered by the Royal Commission. My own experience in this field teaches me that the possibility of the enforcement of collective agreements through labour courts, by legislation and by means of prosecutions is not really a good way to try to do this. But this is a matter for the Royal Commission.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend if he could tell us whether the days lost because of industrial sickness are far more than those lost by strikes? And ought there not to be a constructive contribution towards this problem by the extension of industrial health centres?


My Lords, that is another question, but it has a bearing on the general industrial problem. I believe that what the noble Lord has told us is correct, and we should like to do something about reducing the number of days lost from sickness.