§ 3.38 p.m.
§ MINISTER of STATE, DEPARTMENT of INDUSTRY (Lord BESWICK)
I My Lords, with permission, I would repeat a Statement on the supply of bread:
304 "Industrial action by the Bakers' Union has had the effect of reducing commercial supplies of bread by about 75 per cent. I regret the inconvenience, even hardship, suffered as a result. The independent Conciliation and Arbitration Service has been exploring urgently with the two sides the possibilities of resolving the dispute. A reference to arbitration was agreed this morning and I understand that the arbitrator will begin to hear the parties this afternoon. I very much regret however that the Union did not recommend an immediate return to work."
My Lords, that ends the Statement.
My Lords, the House will be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, for repeating that Statement, because this is a situation which is causing, as he well knows, grave public concern. I welcome the fact that arbitration has been agreed to; this is a good step forward. But, my Lords, is it a fact that the bread strike is caused by a demand for a 66 per cent. wage increase? If this is so, would the noble Lord say whether this is a breach of the social contract? As arbitration has been agreed, why is it that the Secretary of State for Employment has been silent upon urging publicly a return to work by those who are involved in the strike, both to preserve the social contract and also in order to ensure—which is the Government's very direct responsibility—that there is an adequate supply of bread to the people of this country? The Secretary of State for Employment has been remarkably silent upon that. We should have expected the Government to take a sincere and direct lead.
§ Lord WADE
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating this Statement, and I welcome the fact that arbitration is taking place. On the other hand, a 75 per cent. cut in supplies is a very serious matter. With regard to supply and distribution pending a settlement, is there anything that the Government can do to help in this respect? Would the noble Lord agree that there are certain categories of people who are particularly seriously affected, such as a family with small children, where both the father and mother are going to work and neither can queue at the shops where there is bread? Secondly, is there any hope of those on 305 strike being persuaded to go back to work pending a conclusion of this arbitration? I would hope that they might be so persuaded. Lastly, is there much evidence of people buying up supplies unjustifiably, in so far as there are supplies?
§ Lord BESWICK
My Lords, replying to what the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said about my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment, he has not been silent and, in fact, made a Statement on Friday of last week. I of course recognise that there is concern, and I accept, as the noble Lord says, that the situation is serious. The difficulty here is the practicality of setting up a rationing system overnight, and especially a rationing system on the selective basis which the noble Lord understandably suggested. What the Government have concentrated upon, in the first place, is setting up an arbitration and conciliation service. Thankfully, it is apparently working and the possibilities are that it will achieve a settlement much more effectively, I might suggest, than the arrangements that were in existence a year ago.
My Lords, could the noble Lord answer the question I asked him? If this strike is caused by a demand for a 66 per cent. pay increase, is that a breach of the social contract? Can he also say whether his right honourable friend has either publicly or privately advocated a return to work while arbitration is going on and, if he has not, will the noble Lord do so?
§ Lord BESWICK
My Lords, I deliberately did not answer that part of the noble Earl's question. It is a delicate area. It is delicate from the point of view of those who had responsibility for affairs last February. The basic pay of these bakers happens to be £23.80 a week for a 40-hour week. That is the situation left behind by the statutory pay code of noble Lords opposite; and it is a percentage on top of that that makes the figure demanded appear to be so great. Obviously, even 66 per cent. of that figure does not result in a very large absolute award. These are the facts of the situation. I did not want to go into it, because I do not think it is seemly and useful for the Government to get involved in an arbitration process.
§ Baroness YOUNG
My Lords, I quite appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, does not really want to answer all my noble friend's questions, but would he say whether or not the Secretary of State for Employment will urge a return to work? This is an extremely serious position for the housewives of this country, for those with small children, for those who are working and who cannot spend hours in the bread queue; and this is not really a matter on which the House wants to hear debating points.
§ Lord BESWICK
My Lords, that is exactly the reason why I did not take up the points made by the noble Earl opposite in the debating way in which he posed his questions. But as for his point about the Secretary of State for Employment, the fact of the matter is that he made reference to this situation last Friday. In my answer to the question, I said that I very much regret that the union did not recommend an immediate return to work. These are words which were agreed with the Secretary of State for Employment. He regrets the fact that they did not agree to an immediate return to work while the arbitration process is taking place. It is possible —I put it no higher—that by tomorrow there will be an award by the arbitrator, Professor Thomason. I agree with the noble Baroness that it is unwise to stir up debating points, if there is a chance of getting an agreed settlement by tomorrow.
§ Baroness EMMET of AMBERLEY
My Lords, could the noble Lord tell us whether there is a sufficiency of flour and yeast to fill the present gap of bread which is not available?
§ Lord BESWICK
Yes, my Lord. That is a very practical question. There is a sufficiency of both flour and yeast. The difficulty is that it is in a form that does not make it easy to distribute. Packaged flour is being distributed as quickly as possible, and is being taken up very quickly. Certain yeast is being distributed in packaged form. Clearly, if the dispute is to continue something will have to be done about the stocks of yeast that are not in the sort of packages that make retail distribution easy.
My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the General Secretary of the Bakers' Union said that unless a 307 miracle happens he cannot see any bread being available until a week on Saturday? From the answers the noble Lord has given—and I do not wish to make debating points—is he aware that we can only conclude that the Secretary of State for Employment has not, and does not, urge a return to work while this arbitartion is going on? With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, I think the Government have a great responsibility to housewives to see that there is bread available.
§ Lord BESWICK
My Lords, they have a responsibility and they are discharging that responsibility—and I rub in this fact —much more effectively than noble Lords opposite a year ago. This is so, and you cannot escape this fact. We have set up a Conciliation and Arbitration Service. The Conciliation Service worked quite quickly; it failed to get the two sides together but it did get them to agree to an abitrator, Professor Thomason. The arbitrator has been appointed; he started work at two o'clock this afternoon and he intends to work on as long as is necessary. It is a possibility—I cannot put it higher than that—that there may be an award which is acceptable. In those circumstances, I really think the noble Earl should take advice from the noble Baroness who sits beside him and not make debating points.
§ Lord DRUMALBYN
My Lords, would the noble Lord assure us that both sides have agreed in advance to accept the award of the arbitration?
§ Baroness YOUNG
My Lords, would the noble Lord therefore not agree there can be absolutely no guarantee? In view of what the General Secretary of the Bakers' Union has said, that there is a strong possibility that there will be no bread until next Saturday, there is an extremely serious situation of the country doing without bread for two weeks which calls for some kind of contingency plans? We have Christmas only ten days' after that, and what plans have the Government in mind for dealing with this situation?
§ Lord BESWICK
My Lords, possibly the experience of the noble Baroness in industrial affairs is not extensive; but 308 if one talks about contingency plans at this point it does not help the atmosphere within which arbitration takes place. That is the first point. The difficulty here of putting anything into effect is that Governmental machinery is not really appropriate. What is appropriate is the ordinary distributive process. My understanding is that those companies, concerns and shops who are distributing bread are co-operating extremely well without any great dramatic show. Most of them already have a voluntary rationing system in operation. Everything that can be done is being done to distribute flour and I have said that, if possible, something will be done about distributing yeast. I think that it will be better to accept that, although there is no great, dramatic Government operation, the appropriate steps are being taken.
§ Lord CARRINGTON
My Lords, why is it provocative to ask the people to go back to work while arbitration takes place in order to avoid hardship?
§ Lord BESWICK
My Lords, I have said that in the first place the Secretary of State regrets that they have not agreed to go back immediately to work when accepting this offer of arbitration. I have said that. If the noble Lord wants to know what is provocative and what is not, I suggest that he should read Hansard tomorrow in order to see what the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, has had to say.
§ Baroness LLEWELYN-DAVIES of HASTOE
My Lords with the leave of the House, may I say there will be no second Statement as I had previously announced. This was owing to a misunderstanding.