HL Deb 13 November 1973 vol 346 cc586-93

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to deliver to your Lordships a Message respecting the Declaration of a State of Emergency. The Message is as follows:

"The Emergency Powers Act 1920, as amended by the Emergency Powers Act 1964, having enacted that if it appears to Her Majesty that there have occurred, or are about to occur, events of such nature as to be calculated by interfering with the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel or light or with the means of locomotion, to deprive the community, or any substantial part of the community, of the essentials of life, Her Majesty may by Proclamation declare that a State of Emergency exists: and the present industrial dispute affecting persons employed in the coal mines and in the electricity supply industry having, in Her Majesty's opinion, constituted a State of Emergency within the meaning of the said Act of 1920, as so amended:

"Her Majesty has deemed it proper, by Proclamation dated the 13th day of November, 1973 and made in pursuance of the said Act of 1920, as so amended, to declare that a State of Emergency exists."

My Lords, with the permission of your Lordships I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary's Statement reads as follows:

"The Government consider that the present situations in the coal and electricity generating industries constitute a threat to the essentials of life of the community which is sufficiently serious to justify taking immediate emergency powers to maintain essential services. They have therefore thought it right to advise the proclamation of a State of Emergency under Section 1 of the Emergency Powers Act 1920, as amended, followed by the making of Emergency Regulations under Section 2.

"The Regulations will be laid before Parliament and will come into force at midnight tonight. Published copies will be available tomorrow. My right honourable friend the Leader of the House will shortly announce the arrangements for debating the Motions on the Address and on the Regulations. The Regulations are almost identical with those made in August, 1972; the only significant additions are to Regulations 19, 20 and 21 extending the powers of the Secretary of State over water and sewerage.

"The use of the powers will be limited, as always, to what the essential public interest requires."

My Lords, that concludes the Home Secretary's Statement.

4.28 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful, though not particularly pleased, with the Statement we have just heard, and I must say that I am somewhat mystified at this stage, when the power stations have 12 weeks' reserve of fuel and when negotiations are still going on in certain industries, that the Government have seen fit, so soon after the by-elections, to announce the introduction of Emergency Regulations. I must say I do not myself recall such early action at this stage. I hope it will not exacerbate the situation, but I am bound to say quite sincerely that it could be thought, even if the Government do not intend it in this way, that they are taking up a very hard position and giving up hope of finding solutions in these areas.

I gather that there is no Emergency Regulation intended with regard to oil. We have, of course, been assured repeatedly, with optimistic statements, that there is unlikely to be petrol rationing. My Lords, we shall of course have an opportunity to debate these Regulations. I am not quite sure what the emergency with regard to water and sewerage is, but no doubt we shall be told what caused the Government to extend the Regulations in that direction too. It obviously cannot be anything to do with the rather appalling balance-of-payments figures we have heard to-day. Perhaps the noble Lord would be good enough to tell the House when we shall have an opportunity to debate those Regulations. The noble Lord is aware that we always seek to facilitate action with regard to Emergency Regulations, and it would seem to me that in view of the fact that they have to be approved within a pretty limited time it might be a good idea if time could be found this week, even if it meant some slight rearrangement of Business. This is certainly a matter that we have discussed through the usual channels, but it would be helpful if the Leader of the House could give us some indication now.


My Lords, I also should like to thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement which has been made in another place. I would associate myself with what the noble Lord, Lord Shackle-ton, said in asking whether this is not taking too hard a line at the present time. This is the only thing I can say, but I am sure your Lordships will agree that we hope that this State of Emergency will be brought to an end as soon as is humanly possible.


My Lords, it is rather a change to be criticised for acting too early. Governments are usually criticised for acting too late in matters of this kind. It seemed to us that it was the right action to take because of the coming together of three influences: the dispute, which has been going for some time, with the power engineers; the new dispute with the coal miners, and the continuing uncertainty in the world oil situation. These powers are, as noble Lords will remember, enabling powers and a number of provisions can be made under them. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, that there is no question of the Government's giving up hope of reaching settlements in both these disputes. My right honourable friend the Minister for Industry is in fact meeting representatives of the Electrical Power Engineers' Association later to-day to try to make progress with that particular issue.

The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition asked when the regulations should be debated. They need to be debated within a period of days, and if it is convenient to the House I would suggest that we should do so on Thursday. That would require some rearrangement of the programme. The Land Registry Bill is down to be debated that day, but if those noble Lords who are due to take part in the debate on the Second Reading were agreeable, we might pursue matters on that basis. I have dealt with the point of substance raised by the noble Lord, Lord Amulree; but I hope he will say to the noble Lord, Lord Byers, how much we miss him on these occasions and how much we hope to see him back in his place before long.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House whether he is aware that in the case of coal and electricity the disputes arise over a threat to ban overtime, and in both cases negotiations are likely to take place? In view of the possibility, indeed the probability, of negotiations, why was it necessary to propose these emergency powers? As regards the subject of oil, in view of the Statements which have been frequently made and asserted in your Lordships' House and in the other place—and all over the place, in the Press and elsewhere—that the Government have received assurances that there will be no reduction in the supply of oil to the United Kingdom from the Arab countries concerned, why emergency powers? Would it not be better to wait until negotiations have been completely and thoroughly ventilated before emergency powers are asked for?


My Lords, I answered that point. This is a precautionary measure and, in the judgment of the Government, it is one that is necessary now.


My Lords, may a trade unionist say that many of us think that the miners' union leaders, or some of them, are pushing it too hard? They have an offer which many of us as active trade unionists would have been more than delighted ever to have got. It is I think inconceivable that any Government, of which my noble friend who has just addressed the House or I myself or anybody else had been a member, would allow the situation of our people to be threatened in a case where, as the noble Lord just said, the issue is a threat. Is the noble Lord aware that some clever gentlemen have now discovered that you do not go on strike, which requires a ballot; you disrupt the whole situation without having to ask your members; and our citizens, our people, our Labour electors as well as anybody else, are therefore put to enormous hardship, even when the people in the industry have an offer which could mean very nearly a 20 per cent. increase in one year?

May I say that it is, with the greatest reluctance, hard to support a Government opposing trade union decisions, but I have been a member of two Governments which did that. In the first case, I supported them when the proposal was made by my noble friend who has just preceded me. Sometimes Governments must govern, and I think it would be a good thing if Mr. Gormley and many of his friends were told that Mr. Daly and his friends are not going to be allowed to reduce this country to disaster.


My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with great authority as a former Minister and as somebody who has had long experience of labour negotiations. What he has said will have struck a responsive chord outside the House as well as inside it.


My Lords, may the Minister be assured that the observations made by the noble Lord who has just sat down indicate the distance he has travelled since the days when he was respected in the Labour movement? Will he be further assured that his observations are not entirely shared by those people who will be involved in these negotiations? Is he aware that the indications of the Government's taking this action at this time of threat or discussions, before any results have been finalised, are of a complete lack of faith in their own Phase 3 of their economic policy? Is it not also indicative of the complete failure of the Industrial Relations Act in regard to bringing industrial peace; and in so far as oil is concerned, is it not also indictative of the failure of the Government to take a firm stand at the initial stages when a stand was expected? Now the nation is going to receive the worst of both worlds, as it were—despised by the Arabs, with increases in the price of oil and possible rationing, and despised also by the Israelis because they did not take a firm stand on a matter which was a major dispute.


My Lords, it is not for me to intervene in differences of opinion on the Benches opposite. As to the action the Government are taking, I repeat again that this is a preliminary step to laying regulations before Parliament. I suggest that the noble Lord should wait and see what is in the regulations. They will be tabled, as I say, later to-night and will be available for debate, if your Lordships wish it, on Thursday. The other comments of the noble Lord went a good deal wide of what was contained in the Statement.


My Lords, will the noble Lord give an undertaking that when he introduces the regulations on Thursday he will be kind enough to relate the matter to the general economic situation which to-day has caused bank rate to be raised to 13 per cent., and which involves the largest deficit this country has ever known? Moreover, will he realise, although the fault has not penetrated the minds of some as it should, that the miners once again, rightly or wrongly, feel that they are being asked to pay the price of the failure of Her Majesty's Government to tackle the overall economic problems of this country? Will he also bear in mind, however much lie may sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown—and here I speak with authority equal to his, because I joined a trade union on the day I left the Army, and furthermore I sat in the House of Commons for many years representing miners, and I still live in a coalmining area—that the leaders of the miners lead a democratic organisation and, however wrong they may be, the facts of this situation will be governed not only by what the miners think but by what they feel. They have a tendency here to feel that they are ostracised and that they are being beaten over the head with a stick, and nothing that the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown, has said to-day or whatever agreement comes from those Benches, can do anything to diminish those facts.


My Lords, I am sure that when we debate the Regulations noble Lords will be able to discuss the general economic situation. Recently, on the debate on the gracious Speech, in discussing the economy, we referred to the paramount need for Britain to have an effective policy to counter inflation. One of the points of conflict is where the interests of one group in society clash with the remainder. I am sure these are the sort of issues which can be debated by your Lordships on Thursday. I would not want it to be thought that this action in any way implies that serious attempts will not be pursued to reach a friendly settlement on both disputes. As I have said, the Minister for Industry is having a meeting later to-day with the power engineers and I understand that there will be a further meeting between the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board later this week.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware—and I say this without any malevolence—that some of us believe that had the same draconic action been taken over the small profiteers with their vulpine avariciousness in connection with profits, as has been taken to-day, the British housewives, the miners and the electricity workers would not have been in the position that they are now?


My Lords, we are now going very wide of the subject.


My Lords, is my noble Leader aware that the vast majority of the people of this country are getting sick and tired of being held to ransom by organisations which, as the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown, has pointed out, are not democratically controlled and amount almost to dictatorships, and that the great majority of the people will stand behind the Government if they have decided in their wisdom to declare a State of Emergency?


My Lords, I hope that will be the conclusion of the majority of the Members of your Lordships' House and of another place. I believe it will be. As I have said, this is a precautionary measure and it would be a great mistake to read more into it than is in the Home Secretary's Statement and what I added to it in reply to the first comments from the Benches opposite.