HL Deb 08 December 1970 vol 313 cc804-10

4.4 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like now to read a Statement which has been made in another place by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. It is as follows:

"The interruption of electricity supplies yesterday and to-day follows the rejection by the four unions representing industrial staff of the pay offer made to them by the Electricity Council last Thursday. In broad terms, this offer represented an increase of some 10 per cent. on the men's average earnings of over £25 per week. Although the industry's procedural agreement provides for arbitration, the unions have not followed this procedure, and have instead instituted industrial action which appears to be going well beyond the work-to-rule and overtime ban that they had announced. The effect yesterday and to-day has been to reduce available capacity by 20 to 25 per cent., with the consequence that voltage has had to be reduced and many consumers disconnected several hours at a time. The prospects for the future are uncertain.

"The electricity authorities are doing everything they can to maintain supplies for priority users and spread the remaining supplies as evenly as possible. However, it is clear that so long as industrial action continues interruptions of supplies, even to some essential consumers, are bound to occur. In these circumstances, consumers can help themselves and the essential services by keeping their use of electricity to the minimum, particularly during the three peak periods of the day. The more this can be done the less severe the cuts will be.

"The Government, for their part, are taking steps to see that the use of electricity by public authorities is reduced so far as practicable. I have also set up an operations room in my Department manned 24 hours a day. This is ready to give guidance to public and local authorities and industrial and other organisations, as well as to the public through the Broadcasting system. This operations room will keep in close touch with the Electricity Council and Boards, who have responsibility for hour-to-hour operational control, and to whom in the first place inquiries should be passed—although these should be kept to the minimum in the interests of essential users.

"The balance of supply and demand is changing all the time and this, inevitably, makes it difficult to warn consumers of what to expect. The electricity authorities are doing all that they can to give advanced warning, whenever possible, by the use of radio and television, but difficulties are bound to continue so long as the dispute goes on, and I accordingly urge the unions to end their action, and return to the negotiating table."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.


My Lords, may I thank my noble friend for the reply to my Private Notice Question? I have two questions to ask. First, the Statement says that the industrial action is going beyond the work-to-rule and overtime ban which was originally announced. What exactly is meant by that? Secondly, are the Government aware that if this dispute is to go on for a very long time the general public will get a little impatient at getting only advice from the Government, and will expect the Government to take whatever powers they can to mitigate what is happening, particularly in view of the enormous hardship which has been caused in many homes where there are old people who may be left in darkness, and almost hunger, by this action? There is also, as we have been told on the wireless, the danger to certain patients in hospitals where therapeutic machines have to be used. Their lives may be put in danger. Will the Government hear that in mind?


My Lords, may I answer my noble friend? He asked what was meant by going beyond the overtime ban. It is difficult to give precise examples of this, but one example is that men are not being replaced when they are sick. I recognise that the public will be impatient at receiving only advice. The purpose of the operations room is to give them at any rate early warning, and to give every possible help to make certain that the best use is made of such electricity supplies as are available at any one time.


My Lords, I join with the noble Lord, Lord Grimston, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, for repeating the Statement. May I say to him, on behalf of my noble friends on this side of the House, that this is a very disappointing Statement. There is to-day great inconvenience, and considerable hardship, in this country as a consequence of this industrial dispute. Clearly, the country requires some action by Her Majesty's Government. Can the noble Lord say why it is that it was only yesterday—the first day of the strike—that the unions were called into the Department of Employment in order that the union position could be put to the Government? With all the inconvenience and hardship of this strike, why have the Government waited to such a late hour?

Secondly, I should like to ask (and this is in line with the supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Grimston) what advice the Government gave to hospitals, who demand in their intensive care units certain supplies of current, prior to the danger arising yesterday? May I ask the noble Lord whether he will make a further Statement in the course of this week on what the Government intend to do to bring this strike to an end, which is, as we all know, an industrial dispute?


My Lords, the Government of course recognise the very great inconvenience and hardship that the public is suffering at the present time, but the noble Lord will know very well that it is always a question of judgment at what point exactly the Government intervene in matters of this kind, and this is necessarily a matter for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment. The noble Lord asked what prior advice the Government gave to hospitals. Such private generating plant as is available of course is being made available to supplement supplies. I am aware that there have been some difficulties with hospitals. Every possible step is being taken to give hospitals at least one hour's notice of any cuts which are likely to occur; and, in view of the fact that the unions themselves have said that they wish to protect life, I have every confidence that the unions will honour that by ensuring that that one hour's notice can be given.


My Lords, will the noble Lord please answer my supplementary question? I asked him what advice the Government gave to hospital authorities prior to the strike as to what steps they should take to ensure that their intensive care units could be maintained.


My Lords, I cannot give a precise answer to the noble Lord on that question. But I have no doubt that the hospitals satisfied themselves as to what steps they ought to take in view of the notice that was given as to when the "go slow" would take place.


My Lords, did the noble Lord not see on television an eminent doctor responsible for, I think, some thirty patients on kidney machines? Clearly he is now able to get generating equipment. He had not got it yesterday. I asked the noble Lord what advice had been given prior to this strike. If the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, cannot answer, I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, can help us.


My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the industry's procedural agreement providing for arbitration, which had not been followed. Am I to understand from that that it is the Government's wish that this dispute should be settled by arbitration? I understood that in another place the Government rather regretted the fact that in another case a settlement had been reached by arbitration.


My Lords, it is entirely a matter for the parties concerned to decide at what point to refer disputes to arbitration. If I may reply to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, my noble friend informs me that hospitals were advised to make ready for the eventuality which seemed to be coming forward and did in fact come forward, and to get their generating plant in order for that eventuality. As to the last question the noble Lord asked, may I convey that to my noble friend, because of course if any Statement is made in another place it will be repeated here.


My Lords, while we all regret this type of stoppage taking place, we are hearing quite a lot of rumours that increased productivity in the electricity industry has gone up by a very large amount, with a reduction of 26,000 in manpower. Is the noble Lord able to relate this increase in productivity to the 10 per cent. wage increase that has been offered to the workers in the industry?


No, my Lords, I am not in a position to give that information, and I think that at this stage of a dispute of this kind it is probably not wise to go into the details of the dispute.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether, during this emergency, any action is to be taken, or is contemplated, to stop the use of electricity for advertising in shops, stores and so on, when at the same time households in congested areas are having electricity cuts? This action has been taken in Northern Ireland. Surely something should be done here which would help to minimise the cuts made to ordinary householders.


My Lords, this is a matter which of course the Government have very much in mind, but I would rather not give any definite answer on that point at the present time.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether these men are being paid full wages while they are "going slow"?


My Lords, I should, I am afraid, need notice of that question. This is obviously a matter for the Electricity Board.


My Lords, do Her Majesty's Government realise that one of the most serious aspects, which has not yet been alluded to this afternon, has been the traffic chaos caused when traffic lights have failed, as they did at every major road junction in London? Can any steps be taken to provide emergency supplies in this connection?—because I can say from my own experience that I saw a considerable number of near-accidents during yesterday and if this happens again the already lamentable number of road casualties in London is bound to rise very considerably.


My Lords, this of course is one of the inevitable consequences of the "go slow", but my noble friend will be aware of the very strenuous efforts the police are making to keep the situation under control.


My Lords, may I ask whether the noble Lord would not agree that it would be to the interests of the nation if not too much is made of this particular action that is being taken? We cannot condone these people coming out on strike as they have done on this particular occasion. We should not "play" with this matter in this House or even in the other place, when their own unions have asked them not to do this, and so on, and have said that to carry on with their formal negotiations would be the best line of approach. It would be as well if we moved on to the next business.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I do not think he would wish me to add to his words, but I will certainly convey what he has said to my right honourable friend.


My Lords, can the noble Lord tell me how many hospitals in London, and indeed throughout the country, are provided with independent generating plants?


My Lords, I am informed that all but 150 have such plant and they are being supplied by the Ministry of Defence.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in most countries abroad, especially on the Continent, public utility companies are not allowed to "go slow"—certainly they are not allowed to strike—but employees can send in their notice. They are definitely not allowed to "go slow" or to strike. This is especially so in the Netherlands.


My Lords, I am grateful for that information, but we have to deal with the situation as we find it.