HL Deb 14 December 1970 vol 313 cc1186-93

3.46 p.m.


My Lords, with permission I will repeat a Statement which has just been made, or is being made, by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"I have just been informed that the trade unions representing industrial staff in the electricity supply industry have decided to end their work-to-rule and overtime ban forthwith. I am sure the whole House will welcome this decision.

"The House will realise, however, that the dispute still remains to be settled. Both the unions and the Electricity Council have become convinced that there is no hope of further progress towards a solution by negotiation. After many long hours of discussion with them, I have been forced to conclude that this is indeed the case. The matters in dispute can now only be resolved if they are submitted to independent judgment which can consider all the issues involved. The unions are not prepared to make use of arbitration but, like the Electricity Council, have asked me to refer the problem to a Court of Inquiry.

"In these circumstances, I have decided to appoint a Court of Inquiry and in doing so I have been able to accept suggestions from both parties about possible terms of reference, including the suggestion from the unions that reference to the industry's productivity should be included. At the same time, I must make clear that the terms of reference must also expressly ensure that the Court of Inquiry takes into account the public and national economic interest.

"The membership and terms of reference of the Court will be announced as soon as possible and I should like to add that I have agreed to lend my support to the wish of the parties that its hearings should be in public.

"In these changed circumstances, the Emergency which, as the House knows, was proclaimed on Saturday will not, we hope, need to be maintained for very long. The Government will keep the position under close review; and meanwhile the Emergency Regulations and the Order prohibiting the consumption of electricity for advertising, shop window displays and flood-lighting will remain in force."


My Lords, I am sure that again your Lordships will welcome this indication of a measure of progress towards a settlement of this dispute. Perhaps your Lordships will particularly welcome the fact that the proceedings, as I understand it, are to be in public. The members who compose the Court of Inquiry will not have an easy task. I should like to ask the noble Lord whether in fact this break in the situation and this line of development does not in fact derive from the initiative taken in the course of last week, and referred to on the last occasion the noble Lord made a Statement to us on the subject—the initiative taken by Mr. Victor Feather.


My Lords, we, too, are delighted that the work-to-rule should be ended. Can we assume from the Minister's Statement that the Court of Inquiry will consider the possible inflationary consequences of any settlement that may be arrived at? May I ask the Government also whether they would not agree that the trouble we have been having in the last few weeks only shows how essential it is to arrive at some new system for settling disputes in what might be called monopoly industries, and that if such a system is not forthcoming, perhaps in some new legislation which may be put forward in the near future, we shall be heading for real trouble in the future?


My Lords, I should like to thank both noble Lords for the points they have made and for their approach to this matter. With regard to the first point made by the noble Lord, Lord Delacourt-Smith, it is not within the power of my right honourable friend to determine whether the proceedings shall be in public or not; that is for the Court to decide. My right honourable friend said that he would bring this point to the attention of the Court and lend his weight to the suggestion put forward. With regard to the noble Lord's second point, as to whether the outcome derives from the initiative of Mr. Victor Feather, I do not think it would be practical or helpful to go back and say what contribution any particular person made to the course of these negotiations up to the present stage.

The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, asked whether the Court will consider the possible inflationary consequences of any settlement. The terms included are "the national economic interest", and I think it can be safely deducted from that that they will do so. As to the need to devise some new system of settling disputes, the noble Lord will be aware that the Industrial Relations Bill is being discussed in another place on Second Reading to-day.


My Lords, may I say how pleased we are that the unions have withdrawn their work-to-rule? This intimates once more the good sense of the trade union movement. Looking back on their record, on many occasions when there has been difficulty they have shown a remarkably statesmanlike approach. Would the noble Lord please explain why it is essential that the words, "in the public and national interest" should preface the Inquiry's investigation? Is he also going to say that it is necessary in the public and national interest that a Field Marshal, who on April 1, 1970, is in receipt of a salary of £10,494, should have an increase of £3,500 on January 1, 1971, to £14,000? This reflects itself also in the various scales for Generals, whose salaries go up by from £1,250 to £3,000 between April, 1970, and January, 1971. Would not the noble Lord feel that in the national interest it would be essential that another look be taken at these figures? It is no use saying that they are forgoing 50 per cent., because the 50 per cent. is £1,500 in the case of a Field Marshal and corresponding figures for others according to Command Paper 4351. I am sure that it would have a great influence on the electricity workers if they knew that the Government were going to take that action, too.


My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will recognise that the present proposals are limited to the setting up of a Court of Inquiry with particular terms of reference. I am sure that the Court of Inquiry will take all relevant considerations into account.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there will be great relief in hospitals all over this country at his Statement? And would it he appropriate at this moment to pay a sincere tribute to everyone who has been looking after the sick and disabled during these very difficult and dangerous times?


My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for what he says, and I am sure that the Government would wish to join in the tribute he has paid.


My Lords, do Her Majesty's Government realise that our experience of Courts of Inquiry recently has been extremely unfortunate? In the case of such Inquiries as those presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and by Sir Jack Scamp what has happened is that there has been very much less than an objective inquiry into the facts, and a compromise has been reached in order to buy off a strike. Do the Government realise that it would be extremely unfortunate if this Court of Inquiry resulted in the same kind of surrender to excessive demands as has taken place on two previous occasions?


My Lords, I am sure my noble friend will bear in mind the difference between arbitration and a Court of Inquiry; and I would at once again draw to his attention the fact that the present Court of Inquiry will have in its terms of reference the need to have regard to the national economic interest.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the decision which the Government have taken, to accept the advice of the trade union side to appoint a public inquiry, is the most sensible and most intelligent action they have taken since the beginning of this dispute? May I repeat now the question that I asked earlier? Why did not the Government decide at a very early stage in this dispute to order a public inquiry, and so avoid all the inconvenience and hardship that the public have suffered in the last few days?


My Lords, I do not believe that the present stage could have been hastened. The noble Lord will, I am sure bear in mind that the first objective was that the work-to-rule should be ended. And the indications were that had my right honourable friend set up a Court of Inquiry earlier, with the sort of terms of reference he has indicated in his Statement to-day, normal working would not necessarily have been resumed.


My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that if the views expressed from the Liberal Benches by my noble friend Lord Gladwyn, and also by the noble Lord, Lord Molson, are accepted the hands of those who have to go into this matter and examine it from all angles are going to be tied?


My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment made up his own mind on this and set up the Court of Inquiry at the first opportunity at which it could be set up in appropriate circumstances.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Government are to be congratulated on setting up this Court of Inquiry, and that the terms of reference suggested will accurately reflect the general feelings of people in this country? Is he further aware that, in striking the right balance between the degree of hardship the public have suffered, their concern with inflation and the balance of the industrial disputes, the Government will be regarded as acting very successfully?


My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for pointing out, as I said in the Statement, that points that were suggested by both the unions and the Council will be incorporated in the terms of reference, as well as the points the Government had in mind.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether the terms of reference now indicate that the Government have abandoned their free-for-all policy and are beginning to pursue some sort of incomes policy?


My Lords, this is a dispute which needs to be settled, and I think we should concentrate on that.


My Lords, since the terms of reference provide for productivity being considered, will they include an inquiry into the amount of money that has been poured into the industry from public sources in order to increase productivity, so that that expenditure is taken into consideration when the contribution of labour is being assessed?


My Lords, my noble friend will, I think, be aware that figures are prepared to show the amount of labour productivity, and it was of course on this basis that the previous settlement was made.


My Lords, while I appreciate the desire of the noble Lord, in response to my question about the contribution of Mr. Victor Feather, not to go into the past in this matter, or to seek to identify the opinions of individuals, may we have his assurance that while this Court of Inquiry is being set up, and while it is doing its work, nothing will be said by Government spokesmen that will make a difficult task more difficult? Further, will he repudiate the criticisms made by the noble Lord, Lord Molson, of some of the previous Courts of Inquiry, which have rendered valuable services in the national interest? Will he further give us an assurance that when this Court of Inquiry has completed its work it will not be subjected to retrospective criticism by Government spokesmen for having done the task for which it was set up?


My Lords, I think the noble Lord knows that it would be difficult to give all those assurances. But I would just say this: that we trust our arbitrators and our Courts of Inquiry to act fairly in the light of their terms of reference and the facts before them.


My Lords, does the Minister really think it is in the national interest for the Government to take such an intransigent line with essential public employees like the electricity workers, or even nurses?


My Lords, I rather think that the noble Baroness is already asking me to make one of the statements that the noble Lord, Lord Delacourt-Smith, deprecated.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that it is absolutely essential that these Inquiry proceedings should be publicly reported—because the electricity workers' case has not yet been understood by the vast majority of the British public who are unable to form a considered opinion? My other point with regard to the terms of reference is that they should not be so loaded, in either one direction or the other, as to produce a result which could fairly be regarded as unacceptable by either side.


My Lords, as to the first question, on the assumption that the Court of Inquiry will accept the recommendation of my right honourable friend and that the evidence is heard in public, I should think that the organs of the Press, radio and television, and so on, can be relied upon to report fully. I have rather forgotten the noble Lord's second point. I am sorry.


My Lords, the second point is that the terms of reference should not be loaded in any direction.


No, my Lords. I am sure that they will not be loaded in any direction; but they will contain the points that my right honourable friend has broadly indicated in his Statement.


My Lords, in view of Lord Delacourt-Smith's remarks about retrospective criticism, would not my noble friend agree that the last Labour Government indulged in retrospective legislation, which is a far more serious matter?