HL Deb 06 May 1968 vol 291 cc1265-80

2.50 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper, which, as your Lordships will see, concerns the new Department concerned with labour, productivity, prices and incomes. Subject to the approval of this Order all the functions of the office of Minister of Labour will be transferred to the new office of Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, and the title of Ministry of Labour will be discontinued. This is a development of great importance because the new Department will have a clear responsibility for all the major problems which directly affect the working people of Britain and the major issues which can arise between employers and employees, prices and pay, holidays and sick pay, employment, training, productivity, safety and health at work.

I am sure that noble Lords, of whom there are some in your Lordships' House who have been connected with the Ministry of Labour (the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, for one) will wish to recall the hard and dedicated work of the Ministry of Labour and its staff ever since it was created on January 11, 1917, to play a vital part in the organisation of victory—I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, was at one time Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, but I beg his pardon. He is a man of so many parts that I assumed he had been.

The role of the Ministry in improving working conditions and industrial relations is familiar to us all. Some might say that 22 Ministers of Labour in a span of some fifty years (although it does not match the full heights of achievement of the previous Governments in regard to the number of Defence Ministers) was putting too big a premium on the merits of change. But it is a fact that many distinguished men have held this office, as well as one woman of very great distinction, Margaret Bondfield, the first woman Cabinet Minister, but not, I am happy to say, the last. At least two Members of your Lordships' House (and I now have to exclude Lord Drumalbyn from this category) have themselves played these parts. The late Lord Monckton, when he was Sir Walter Monckton, had a most distinguished part, as also did the noble Viscount, Lord Blakenham, who, if I may say so, was somewhat underestimated as a Minister of Labour. He played an important part, too.

We should also like to acknowledge the part which the present Minister of Power played in difficult conditions, sitting or lying on his bag of nails and the tolerance and wisdom he brought to bear. Under his leadership in the past three years there have been some notable extensions of the Ministry's responsibilities (the noble Lord, Lord Erroll of Hale, will have his traditional opportunity for frivolity during his speech. I do not expect a serious speech in reply from him, but perhaps he could keep his gems for that), and of course, the Ministry has, under my right honourable friend, played an important part in industrial relations and in training, in partnership with employers and unions.

We in your Lordships' House have often discussed and stressed the vital importance of lifting productivity to a far higher level, and it is plain that there is a great deal of scope for increasing productivity in all levels of industry from the board room to the shop floor. The Secretary of State and her Department will be giving every encouragement to management and unions to develop a new attitude to productivity bargaining within the framework of the prices and incomes policy which has put productivity at its centre. I imagine that your Lordships do not wish me to embark on a discussion of prices and incomes. This particularly tricky or pleasurable topic, however one may look at it, will undoubtedly come before us in due course when a new Bill appears. But the new office and the new Department make it possible for all aspects of labour productivity to be brought together, including the vital links between pay, costs and prices. There is a great deal to be done in this field, and both management and unions are inevitably becoming much more concerned about the need and scope for developing new productivity bargaining.

The new Department will be able to offer increasing help to them especially as the new productivity division is developed. Of course, the encouragement of higher productivity involves several factors—investment, technology, industrial reorganisation—and the Department of Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Technology will continue to play their particular roles here. Of course, what are sometimes known as the Sponsoring Departments, the productivity Departments, will also be concerned, and there is the work being done by Government, managements and unions in working together in the N.E.D.C. and the "little Neddies"—the economic development councils for particular industries.

It is particularly important to focus on productivity. There will be in the Department a special productivity division charged with the specific task of raising productivity through more efficient use of manpower in industry, and this division will have the help of persons with management and trade union experience and knowledge, and the support in the re- gions of a strengthened industrial relations service. The economic, industrial and technological changes, of which there are many and which I need not describe, give rise to many serious problems, and the new Department will have increased responsibilities and will have to meet greater needs, particularly in the human field. I should like myself, from my own experience as a manager in industry dealing with the Ministry of Labour, to pay tribute to the wisdom and understanding of humanity and of the problems of humanity that I have myself found in dealing with Ministry of Labour officials, and to the efforts they make, the quickness with which they respond to a redundancy situation, or any other situation, in an attempt to minimise hardship and waste of human resources.

Although a firm foundation has been laid for the expansion of industrial training and retraining we need larger and quicker results. I remember the Bill coming before this House—I think it was Lord Blakenham who was responsible for it at the time—and I remember our concern at the smallness of the effort as compared with that of other countries. To-day there are 21 industrial training boards and five more will be set up during 1968. There are also now an increasing number of Government training centres, 38, as compared with 25 in 1964, and by 1970 we shall have 55 centres.

In all these fields I am sure that the new Department will carry on these traditions and marry them up with its new responsibilities, and I am quite certain that under my right honourable friend the new Minister, the new First Secretary, it will vigorously meet the challenge that confronts it. I would not underestimate the problems that confront it, but I am sure your Lordships will regard this as a logical and serious step, and I hope that this proposal will receive the approval of your Lordships. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity Order 1968 be made in the form of the draft laid before the House on Tuesday the 23rd April.—(Lord Shackleton.)

2.58 p.m.


My Lords, it is once again my happy duty to thank the noble Lord the Paymaster General for introducing this Order with his customary felicity, and also for explaining it to us in such clear terms. It is almost impossible nowadays to introduce a subject of this sort without becoming involved in trying to explain in a few words the many complications of Government organisation at the present time. If any man could succeed in this task this afternoon it is the noble Lord the Paymaster General, and I am sure we are all grateful to him for this. I am only sorry that he expects nothing but a frivolous reply from these Benches.


No; just from the noble Lord.


My Lords, I shall do my best to maintain my reputation with the noble Lord, and also perhaps to say one or two words of more serious content. I want particularly to comment on two matters, first of all the new title and then, secondly, the proposed new functions, particularly those functions which deal especially with more vigorous and detailed intervention in industry. As regards the name, speaking for myself I have never been fussy about a name. I have always thought it more important to get on with the job one was given than to worry about the title, whether it is the title of a Department or anything else.

Looking back over the years it is both odd and amusing to reflect that so often it is the Socialist apostles of egalitarianism who adore the old historical titles of Government offices, and who plead most vehemently against their abolition. Before I was in your Lordships' House the late Lord Morrison of Lambeth (and I well recall reading his remarks) made a passionate advocacy for the retention of such titles as "Lord President of the Council", "Lord Privy Seal", and so on, when there was some suggestion during a debate in your Lordships' House that these titles should be abolished and new ones put in their place. They have their nostalgia and their charm, and I, from the more conservative position in your Lordships' House, would be all for keeping some of these old titles. However, it is most interesting to find that the Labour Government are all for keeping these ancient titles; indeed, I felt it was rather a sad day when the President of the Board of Education became the mere Minister of Education. As a former holder of the office of President of the Board of Trade, I am delighted that that title has been kept, although the holder's powers have been sadly diminished.

Here, however, we have a rather different case, because "Minister of Labour" was a well known and honourable title, and we cannot see that there is any real need to change it. Is the grandiloquent name of "First Secretary of Stale and Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity" better than "Minister of Labour"? Everybody at least understood what the Minister of Labour did and had to do, and if it was a good enough title for "Ernie" Bevin it is surely a good enough title for the present holder of that office.

I was glad that the Paymaster General referred to Miss Margaret Bondfield. I had a reference to her in my notes, because I felt it was a great shame that in the Press comment on Mrs. Castle's distinguished succession to this important office, when there were naturally references to her being a woman, I do not remember a single mention of Miss Margaret Bondfield, who was in her day a distinguished Minister of Labour in the Labour Administration of that time. As the Paymaster General has al ready referred to her in pleasing terms I will not say more, but I should not like this day to go by without a nod back to Miss Margaret Bondfield, and the great things which she did.

I wish also to thank the noble Lord for his kindly references to several Conservative Ministers of Labour who certainly tried to do what they could to maintain the importance of this office. If the Ministry of Labour's functions and powers need extending, then by all means extend them, but that does not meat that the title of the Department need be dressed up in such an elaborate way. I expect that before long we shall have an appropriate "whizz kid" abbreviation. Even the Ministry of Technology is now known everywhere as "Mintech" and presumably the new department will be known as "Minprod". Indeed, we are going over more and more to the Eastern European concept of having elaborate names for Government Departments which are then interestingly abbreviated into almost equally unpronounceable versions in Hungarian, Czechoslovakian, Bulgarian, Roumanian and Russian. So, in the months to come, I shall, I hope not too frivolously, be referring to "Minprod", which is what I suggest we must now call the new Department.

It may be that the right honourable lady, being offered the appointment of Minister of Labour when she was called to "No. 10"—and we who have been fortunate enough to be invited to become Ministers know what exciting and exhilarating occasions these are—did not want to be at the head of a Ministry which had been described as a "bed of nails" and was determined to change it. The Paymaster General noticed that the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition and I were laughing slightly, because I think that in fact the noble Lord said "bag of nails". For those of us on this side of the House—and I suspect for many noble Lords opposite—the term "bag of nails" has a very special connotation which perhaps should not be discussed too much in your Lordships' presence, at any rate in the afternoon, although perhaps late at night the phrase "bag of nails" might be discussed. However, the right honourable lady was probably determined to change the old image of the bed of nails, and I wish her luck.

Nevertheless, I feel sorry for those trade union leaders—and I am delighted to see here this afternoon several important trade union leaders of former days who have now joined your Lordships' House, and I am sure they will bear me out that it will be a hard thing for trade union leaders to march boldly into the Ministry with the word "productivity" above the front door. We also have such jargon phrases as "nil norms", "3½ per cent. Ceilings", "freeze" and "squeeze", as part of the normal routine. Not for the present generation of trade union leaders are the old days of storming up to the Ministry of Labour, being photographed outside and standing up for their rights and their unions. All is now changed. They know, too, that they are no longer dealing with a Minister who was himself a trade union leader in the past, and this indicates a notable change of front.

Naturally it is difficult for me to discuss a Minister who is in another place, because clearly she cannot be present to answer anything I say. I will merely put it this way: I think that Mrs. Castle commands our respect for the remarkable work she did, for example, at the Ministry of Transport, in connection with the breathalyser. It aroused great antipathy and unpopularity but she saw it through, and now it is generally accepted. She is a bonny fighter. She has great verve and she has acquired a great deal of experience. She is, in a sense, one of my political "pin-ups". I admire the political "guts" that she has. I also admire the way she learns from her job. When she had to go to that tough meeting in Margate to address the Amalgamated Engineering Federation last Sunday week, she went by private helicopter—and a bonny photograph it was of her being strapped in. She had learned from her time at the Ministry of Transport not to try the coast roads of Britain on a Sunday morning, nor to go by British Rail.

The right honourable lady will bring to the problems of labour and productivity all the verve and skill of her past experience. I feel slightly sorry for some of the more staid trade union leaders who will now, for the first time, have to deal with somebody who is determined to "breathalyse" them into action; and probably to "breathalyse" a few employers into action as well. She will have severe tasks ahead. She has been open enough with the public to refer to herself as an impatient lady. Indeed, I must say that what rather horrified me, when reading the speech that she made in another place, was that that impatience was so strongly manifest and she was so determined to insist on more and detailed intervention in industry. That indeed was her theme throughout—"stimulus", "drive", "We cannot afford to wait on events", "We must have initiative". These are the phrases in her speech which recurred again and again. Maybe that is right when dealing with motorists or the problems of parking places; but is it the right way to go about the important and delicate problem of industrial relations in an advanced industrial country such as ours? Time will show. It may be she will do well to remember the Fabian philosophy of "gradualism", rather than that which seems to be the policy of Her Majesty's Government at the present time—fast and possibly erratic interventions.

I must say, looking at her speech—and I regard it as a speech of Her Majesty's Government and not just of a Minister—I am alarmed at the warning which the First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (it is a "mouthful") gave in the House of Commons on Thursday last. She declared that both she and her Department were going to interfere—her word—in productivity bargaining from boardroom to shop floor. Such a view does not surprise me, but particularly at such a critical time for the restoration and strengthening of the nation's economic health it does shock me. Such detailed intervention cannot but have damaging repercussions throughout industry.

This speech is, to my mind, a classic illustration of adherence to dangerous doctrinaire policies and out-of-date political philosophy which has little relevance to the economic needs of to-day. It is always tempting to say, "Let us intervene let us get something done", and to think that people who know their business cannot know enough and "we shall intervene". In another sense, it is repeating part of the argument which the noble Lord the Paymaster General and I had on Thursday last. What industry really wants is co-operation with the Government and not condescension. Give industry, which claims to know its job, a chance to do its job properly. If the new Department, with this vigorous new Minister at its head, can learn to collaborate with industry at all levels—and I emphasise the word "collaborate"—it will have our good wishes. If it insists on brash interference and on rough intervention, with provocative statements the country will suffer and the Government with it.

3.13 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, I hope I may point out that, in spite of all that is said about increased functions and so forth, the Order before us simply transfers existing powers and does nothing else. As regards increased powers nothing is being created or proposed. What is being proposed is to give a very long name to replace an existing short name. That is, of course, in normal pursuance of Government policy, never to use few words where many ran be substituted.

I recognise some very good qualities in the Minister who is to receive this great title, but I hope that she will not be tempted to indulge in too much jargon. The amount of jargon that is indulged in in this sphere is already alarming. If I might give one rather absurd example, I called attention, I suppose about twenty years ago, to the origins of this trouble, when Governments showed that their two favourite words were "overall", which normally means nothing, and "target" which means even less, and of course, the two words quickly became married and one got the "overall target". You would naturally think that an overall target would be quite impossible to miss, but precisely the opposite is the truth: no hit has yet been recorded. "Ceiling" is another great fa.v3urite. You do all sorts of things with ceilings. In one Government announcement some time ago—I do not think it was by the present Government, I rather think it was the previous Socialist Government—we even had people "waiving the ceiling", which was a rather novel conception. None of this indulgence in absurd verbiage really serves any cause that any sensible Government would have at heart.

One of the things that was missing from the spirited speech of the noble Lord the Leader of the House in introducing this Motion was to tell us whose productivity it was proposed to increase. There is a great deal of productivity which might well be increased in the national interest, but the only productivity which I think will quite certainly be increased as a result of this Order is in the number of civil servants in the Ministry which we are discussing. The only thing that they will produce with their increased numbers is likely to be an immense amount of forms. The amount of forms now produced already does great injury to those producers, manufacturers and providers of services who are doing their best to promote the export trade and serve the national interest in other ways. I hope very much that the new Minister, for whose talents and energy I have great respect, if she is to be saddled with this rather longwinded title, will at least keep quite clear in her head what productivity it is desired to increase and what productivity should be very definitely diminished.


My Lords, may I make a very brief intervention? I must confess that I was rather surprised by the terms in which the noble Lord, Lord Erroll of Hale, spoke. I think my noble friends the trade union leaders we have here can look after themselves extremely well, but the noble Lord referred to condescension in the Government's approach to this subject. I thought that his own speech was also extremely condescending to someone who is, after all, deeply concerned with the survival of this country. If the noble Lord does not want the Minister to be concerned with productivity, what does he want her to be concerned with? I thought his remarks about the trade union leaders now playing a different role in regard to productivity showed perhaps a mistaken view of the whole history of the trade union movement.


My Lords, may I just say that the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, seems to have made a slight error? I must point out that it is in his English, in that he was referring to productivity and talking about production. We wish to increase productivity in all manner of things, but there are, as he quite rightly points out, some things whose production it might be a good thing to reduce. The two words do not mean the same thing.


My Lords, I do not think I suggested they did. But would it not be possible, even if the intention is to increase the number of forms, to do it with fewer and not more civil servants?

3.18 p.m.


My Lords, may I intervene briefly? I am really entranced by the ideas some people have of productivity. The noble Lord, Lord Erroll of Hale, really was his old self; I have heard him like this on more than one occasion in private. He talked about the new term "Minprod". I should say that "Miniprod" would be better, because "mini" is applied to skirts which reveal whether the wearer is bow-legged or knock-kneed. I am not quite sure whether the management of this country is bow-legged or knock-kneed, and it is one of the reasons why we cannot make progress in regard to productivity. I sat on "Neddy" for a number of years, since its inception until I retired. In "Neddy" we had close regard to what could be achieved by way of productivity. Always the question arose as to the number of men or women who were employed in making certain things, but very rarely as to the number of management.

Maybe it is just as well that we are a little forthright in this House when we deal with a question like this, because as one of the old guard of whom the noble Lord, Lord Erroll, spoke, I had to deal with this subject for quite a long time. I remember on one occasion I was called upon to answer for the large number of employees in a certain steelworks compared with the number employed in America and on the Continent. I leaned across the negotiating table and said to the employers: "I will take any steelworks you like in this country and examine the reasons for its having more men and making less tons, as you have put it, as compared with Europe or with America". There are many technical reasons for this. It depends on the state of the plant. The plant with the least number of employees is not always the most profitable, and I think it is time that people who simply talk about "men" and "tons" started to talk about the profits that are made in that particular industry, and why they are made, and why they are not made. When I said that I would undertake to examine the number of men employed in any steelworks in this country for the purpose of achieving productivity, I laid down a condition. I said, "I want to examine the men right up to the managing director." I never heard another thing about it.

Do not let us imagine that the excess manning that is alleged to exist in this country is simply that of the worker, because when dealing with the incomes and prices policy how often do people start by talking about a wages policy? That is what they mean. They do not mean an incomes policy; they do not mean a prices policy; they mean a wages policy. Until the workers in this country are more involved in the management of industry than they are to-day, we shall not get the co-operation we want. They will ask questions about the cost of production.

Here let me bring in another point. At the Prime Minister's Conference some two years ago we were dealing with this question of productivity, and I asked that in regard to any industry in this country, whatever it may be, we should select different firms, look at their balance sheets and find out why some firms could make a bigger profit than others. This was a fairly simple question. I suggested that we should then do what I had to do some thirty years ago; that is, to examine the costs of departments. I suggested that we should have to take big firms with similar departments in different parts of the country, or sometimes in the same part of the country, and look at one department as compared with the equivalent department in another firm to find out where the weaknesses were. Not only should the directors find out where the weaknesses were, but the workers should also find out where the weaknesses were; and we should have before us not a balance sheet but a statement of costs, to find out where the labour costs were high and where the investment costs were high and whether you were putting too much money into the wrong department of the works or into the wrong sector of the industry. How much of this examination has been carried out in any industry in this country?

I do not mind people dealing with this question humorously, but I am getting a little tired of this scepticism about productivity being achieved by Government help. Government help is needed to get productivity, but if the managements of the different firms do not co-operate you will not get that productivity. It is as simple as that. Some firms are making good profits without looking at this question as closely as they might.

I would suggest that coupling the Ministry of Labour with the Ministry of Productivity can involve the workers, because when they are discussing the rights or wrongs of a wage increase they will be coupling with it the rights and wrongs of a prices increase. How are you to control wages if the workers have no conception as to what is happening with regard to prices? I am not talking about controlling prices now; I am talking about knowing what is happening so far as prices are concerned. I read in a news- paper over the week-end that in one industry the retail profit margin was 80 per cent. I do not know whether that is so or not. But I should like to see such a statement followed up to find out whether it is true; and if it is, why it is. If the profit margin is going to be that, how do you expect the workers to have any regard to an incomes policy in circumstances of that kind?

I have spoken previously on a similar subject in this House. I said then that if you have a bank rate of 8 per cent. there is not much use talking about productivity. If you want better productivity invariably you need better investment. I gave as an instance a plant which cost £100 million. If £100 million was borrowed in order to put up a plant of that particular character, 1 per cent. interest would obviously be £1 million, and if the bank rate were 5 per cent. it would be £5 million. I hope your Lordships will listen carefully, and will not smile, because if you do not solve this problem you will not solve your productivity question. If your bank rate is 8 per cent., then the interest will be £8 million. That is a difference of £3 million on the investment cost.

Now equate that with the workers: that is the year's wages of 3,000 workers at £20 a week. Are you asking the workers to accept an incomes policy with a bank rate of 8 per cent. that is costing £3 million—the wages of 3,000 men at £20 a week—and asking the men to save a handful of pounds? This sort of stupidity will not achieve productivity. I will tell you that now. I am talking about the workers of this country, who are not bothered unduly whether you have a Ministry of Labour or a Ministry of Productivity. They ask that if you do have a Ministry at least it should talk sense and should give us some facts when it asks us to have some regard to the well-being of the country. In short, I am saying that not only the workers should be concerned with the well-being of the country, but the investors and the employers also.

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Erroll, was being characteristically—I hesitate to use the word "frivolous", and I do not know that I knew the "Bag o' Nails" better than he did. He deliberately distorts words to make a joke, and he must not be surprised if some of my noble friends regard this as a subject of some seriousness. On the other hand, I acquit the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, of ever being anything but serious when he is devoting his attention to the proper use of the English language. He attempted to bring us back to the transfer of functions which is the subject of this particular Order. He then himself wandered into his favourite subject, which always gives us so much pleasure. I think one day his speeches on the English language should be bound together as an awful warning to us all.

Let me say that I listened closely, and I am particularly concerned to seek his approval in regard to the use of the English language. I think he would also agree that a title serves some value if, in a convenient and short form, it reveals what the subject is all about. I believe that the title of this new Ministry does precisely that. The fact that it was suggested by a group of Conservative Back-Benchers in 1964 is no doubt unknown to the noble Lord, Lord Erroll. May I say that good ideas can come to people in all Parties, even if occasionally they are rather sparse on the other side of the House.

I hope that the noble Lord, having paid a sort of tribute to my right honourable friend, will now recognise that this change is right and desirable and that it recognises the new responsibilities of Government in partnership with industry. I hope that the noble Lord will play his part in taking these changes seriously, for we depend very much on the work of the Ministry of Labour. I sometimes wonder whether the noble Lord ever listens to anything I say, since he is always in permanent conversation.


My Lords, as a matter of fact it was my fault. I was saying that the noble Lord the Leader of the House was being a little waspish this afternoon.


My Lords, I do not know what to say to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, since I have so often accused him of being tetchy. Perhaps I am a little waspish with the noble Lord, Lord Erroll, because I get a little tired, and so do my noble friends, of the slight air of condescension. My noble friend Lady Llewelyn-Davies made it very clear that we feel that these are important matters. I am not even sure that I welcome the noble Lord's remarks about Margaret Bondfield. I do not think that he has a clue about what Miss Bondfield had to cope with, or the conditions that existed in those days.


My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Lord, I should like to inform him that I was an apprentice in an engineering works in the North of England at that time. I have a great deal of knowledge about labour conditions at the time and about what she tried to do.


My Lords, then I acknowledge that the noble Lord is perhaps unique in that. In fact I wonder why he sits on the Benches opposite. These proposals are quite serious. They do not involve a great increase of civil servants; they involve the transfer of 38 civil servants from one Department to another. There may be a small increase in the productivity field. I hope that the noble Lord is not still saying how tetchy or irritable I am to-day.


My Lords, I will gladly tell the noble Lord exactly what I was saying. I was saying to my noble friend that he could not win, because if he praises somebody he is told that he should not, and if he attacks somebody he is told that he must not.


My Lords, I do not think the noble Lord can win, and I do not think he deserves to win. I would only say that once this Order has gone through we shall have our new Department. I appreciate the sincerity of the remarks of the noble Lord in regard to my right honourable friend. She has shown herself to be a person of very great energy and, if I may say so, a person of elegance even when getting into a helicopter. Her work for this country and her responsibilities during the next few months are of such great importance that I hope we shall pass this Order, conscious that she will need all the support which we can give her.

On Question, Motion agreed to: The said Address to be presented to Her Majesty by the Lords with White Staves.