HL Deb 14 February 1973 vol 338 cc1559-64

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the House if I now reply to the Private Notice Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Champion. I shall reply in the words used by my honourable friend Mr. Boardman, the Minister for Industry, in another place. The Answer is as follows:

"As a result of industrial action British Gas have already had to stop the supply of town gas to several hundred large industrial users and to put in hand pressure reductions affecting a majority of domestic town gas consumers.

"The full extent of industrial action and of its consequences has not yet been firmly established, but it is already clear that it will significantly interrupt production and create unemployment in other industries.

"The management of the industry and the unions are working together to try to maintain a safe system. Nevertheless, it cannot be guaranteed that there will be no risk to gas consumers. The potential risks are explosions from the effects of reduced gas pressure. Millions of homes suffering discomfort and the threat to the welfare of the old and the ill.

"The Government deplores this action and earnestly urges the gas unions to accept the restraints necessary to overcome inflation."


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the words used in another place in reply to a similar Private Notice Question. I am sure the whole House will welcome the steps that are being taken to safeguard the public by the management and the unions. We should pay tribute to the unions for the clear instructions they have given to try to keep every action, or failure to supply, within safety limits.

As the concluding part of the Statement dealt with the dispute itself, I will with the permission of the House quote from to-day's Daily Telegraph, which put the position in words very much better than I could find. It said: Ironically, it has fallen to the gas workers, hitherto rated among the least militant of trade unionists, to present the Government with its first major test over Phase Two of its counter-inflation package. They have, admittedly, a case: the gas workers are among the few groups which were conspicuously caught out by the freeze. Thus the electricity workers, whose pay negotiations they normally follow, got a significantly larger increase than the Gas Corporation's offer allowable under Phase Two rules. We expressed the view originally that the Government should try to deal with anomalies of this kind during Phase Two. May I ask whether the Government will reconsider their decision, in the light of the clearly recognised injustice to an important and usually very reasonable body of workers, and at least agree to the setting up of an Inquiry which might hold out some hope of an adjustment to bring these workers into line with the electricity workers? I am, in other words, asking the Government to take up the traditional role of Government in this country in such matters, which is to try to bring an end to disputes of this sort in order to lessen the suffering and hardship to the public as a whole.


My Lords, while admitting that the gas workers have in the past been a very responsible union, may I ask the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, to bear in mind also that any weakening at the present time would have the most serious effects on the anti-inflation measures which are in the interests of the country as a whole? In view of the dangers outlined in the Statement and the very grave public concern about safety, has not the time come for Parliament to look into the different forms of industrial action and to take some decision on the policies which should be adopted in the event of loss of life resulting from this form of industrial action? I do not believe that we have yet appreciated the grave dangers which are before us, particularly for old people living alone, in the next day or so.


My Lords, I cannot dissent from what the noble Lord, Lord Byers, has said. We are faced with a very serious problem here, a problem which Parliament will have to look at. But we are, of course, concerned at the moment with the immediate issue on which I understand he is in no disagreement with the Government. I do not think anyone would disagree that the gas manual workers have a case, but there are circumstances where the public interest as a whole must prevail over a particular case. I think that this is one such case, for the reason stated by the noble Lord, Lord Byers;—namely, that if one were to weaken on one case there would be a flood of other cases. The mere fact that the gas workers are comparing their case with the electricity workers will not prevent others from comparing their case with some other industry which also has just managed to get in before the chopper came down, if I may put it in that way. I hope that the House as a whole will support the Government in doing two things; first, in maintaining a firm stance, and, secondly, in doing their utmost to limit any damage that may come from this action.


My Lords, does not the Minister feel that this confrontation with the Government could result in losses in the productive effort of industry of a far greater sum in terms of the inflationary situation than would result from meeting the claim of the gas workers, and would not the previous Ministerial code governing industrial relations of this kind have avoided this particularly difficult situation?


My Lords, it is possible for siren voices of that sort to be raised. It is the Government's duty to resist siren voices in the interest of the country as a whole. As I said, if we yield on one we shall have to yield on many.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the pleasure with which we heard the Home Secretary on the wireless this morning say that the Government would stand firm? Is he aware that this is essential both in the national interest and for the continuing credibility of the Government themselves?


My Lords, I am greatly obliged to my noble friend.


My Lords, in his reply the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, did not comment on the point I made about the Government's traditional role of conciliator in matters of this sort. Is not this a case where such a role should be taken up again by the Government: that they should stand in this sort of relationship with the people of this country?


My Lords, I think the House will appreciate that in its offer the Gas Corporation has gone to the limit of what it can offer within the terms of phase 2. That being so, there is really nothing into which to inquire. It has gone to the absolute limit. In addition to that, of course, negotiations on redundancy have taken place, I understand successfully.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, as a matter of public relation and in the national interest, to convey to the Government that it is not helpful for noble Lords and others who are quite well off to talk about standing firm when they themselves financially will be much better off this year as a result of tax reductions than the maximum awards possible to the trade unionists concerned?


My Lords, I do not think the noble Lord is being as helpful in these matters as he might be. We have to take a stand and accept the standstill measures and those which the Government are proposing at the present time for phase 2.


My Lords, are not the Government taking their stand on legislation which has not yet been approved and which is not law? Are they not therefore dropping their traditional role of conciliator before the time comes when they should drop it? If they wish to take decisive action against the first breach, I would ask: was there not a previous breach, the one to which the former Leader of the Liberal Party referred in his letter to The Times yesterday? If The Times was correct yesterday in saying that the Government have already decided to take their decisive battlefield against the gas workers, may I ask how far that will help conciliation and what plans the Government have if this attitude forces the gas workers to come out entirely?


My Lords, it is plain that if the Government give way on this occasion the whole attempt to control inflation through phase 2 will be in ribbons before hardly getting off the ground. This surely underlines the need to get back as soon as we can to a tripartite voluntary way of settling these affairs so that the unions are backing the kind of policies which we must have if we are to control inflation. Does the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, agree that it is quite useless to talk about the Government reverting to their previous role of conciliator while they are themselves the sole party producing the policies on which wage claims must at present be settled? In other words, the Government cannot be, on the one hand, the head of the conciliation machinery and, on the other, the sole party who lay down what the wage policy is to be. There is an inevitable conflict of roles here and the only answer is to return to the tripartite position, without which their role as conciliator cannot work.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl the Leader of the House—


My Lords, may I reply to the two questions that I have been asked? The fact is, of course, that phase 2 will give the opportunity to seek out the kind of solution to which the noble Baroness referred. But we are not concerned with that at the immediate moment. As the noble Lord, Lord Hale, said, the terms of the £1 plus 4 per cent. are not yet law, but they go as far as it is possible to go with any hope of containing inflation. I think it is right to remember that these terms are designed to give an overall average increase of something like 7 or 8 per cent. I understand, in this particular case, that on basic rates this is the highest increase that has ever been offered.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl the Leader of the House whether he heard the speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and whether we are to accept the permission granted her to make that speech as a precedent to be followed by others, or whether others are to be told that they must limit their observations to questions?


My Lords, the Standing Order, if I recall it correctly, states that short statements are permissible after speakers on the Front Benches have made their contributions, and I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, was just within the definition of "short". But I suggest to your Lordships that we are perhaps in danger, on this very important Statement, of straying into a debate and I hope that we shall shortly be able to return to the very important debate on the Criminal Law Revision Committee.


My Lords, as the Deputy Leader of the House has made a statement which will be taken as law to be obeyed by Members of this House, may I ask whether it is not a fact that the Standing Orders provide for statements to be made by Front Bench spokesmen immediately following a Government Statement or Answer to a Private Notice Question? Is it not a free-for-all for the whole House?


My Lords, if the noble Lord will kindly look at the Standing Orders, he will find that short statements are permissible from Back Benches, as well as from Front Benches.