HL Deb 03 July 1978 vol 394 cc639-42

2.48 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they plan to introduce the policy on the construction industry set out in the Labour Party's pamphlet of 1977 entitled Building Britain's Future, including those parts involving nationalisation.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, Building Britain's Future provides a serious and thoughtful analysis of the construction industry's problems, but, as the document itself explains, it is only an interim statement to the Labour Party. We shall pay close attention to it as our policies evolve, but as my right honourable friend the Minister for Housing and Construction has made clear in another place on 29th June, we have no proposals to nationalise the building and construction industry.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Baroness for that reply, may I ask her whether that means that consideration is no longer being given to the proposals to establish a national construction corporation and a building materials' corporation—or is consideration still being given?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, we had no proposals at all to set up a public procurement agency. The employees' and employers' organisations have accepted in principle proposals for decasualisation and my right honourable friend will be carrying forward consultations on the details of their implementation. Over the past 18 months we have done a considerable amount to boost the construction industry.


My Lords, when the Government are considering this policy document, will they bear in mind first that the cost of the proposals in it has been estimated at £1½ billion; and secondly, that in 1950 Mr. Aneurin Bevan, who then had some responsibility for these matters, told the Party conference that nationalisation of the construction industry would mean very few houses being built during that dislocating process?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, we have not costed the proposals in the document because they were only general ideas put to us, but I know that someone else has worked out and costed the supposed proposals in detail. What I can say is that the construction industry, as we all know, has suffered violent fluctuations over the past few years. We want greater stability in our construction industry. Both the industry and the Government place this as a very high priority. The Government themselves have added £800 million to public sector programmes up to 1980 both to raise the level of spending and to provide stability. Building Britain's Future is an interim document presented to the Labour Party and is being dealt with, presumably, in the same way as the recent interim document on the nationalised industries presented to the Conservative Party, which talked about selling off pits to miners' co-operatives, handing over civil airports, and the de-nationalisation of car manufacture, buses and freight. It is on precisely that level that this document is being looked at within the Labour Party.


My Lords, are not noble Lords opposite quite wrong in suggesting that the approach of the Labour Party to the construction industry is one of monolithic nationalisation? In fact, is not the essence of the policy statement one of flexibility and variety of method, including the establishment of workers' building co-operatives? Have not such co-operatives been highly successful, for instance, in France and Denmark for many decades? Is it not perfectly right that the Labour Party should examine the problems of the construction industry anew and seek to learn from the successes in other countries?

Baroness STEDMAN

My noble friend is quite right, my Lords.


My Lords, will the noble Baroness say how she finds that a form of nationalisation is likely to give stability to the industry? Is this the evidence which comes from the steel industry, in which already 57,000 people have been shed since vesting day? Is this the evidence which comes from British Leyland, in which the TR 7 factory at Liverpool has been closed, and in which other factories have been closed in a rundown of personnel? What makes the noble Baroness think that nationalisation produces stability?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I did not say that. I said that we have no proposals for the nationalisation of the building and construction industry.


My Lords, in considering these proposals, as, presumably, the Labour Party and the Government will be doing, will they take into account two factors? The first is that the nationalisation of two, three, or four of our major building and engineering construction contractors would un doubtedly reduce very substantially the enormous export business which those companies do at present. Secondly, will the Government bear in mind that public opinion polls have shown that a very large majority of people of all Parties, and of none, are wholly opposed to these proposals?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, the proposals in the document have been considered by both the employers and the employees in the industry. The trade unions have, on the whole, welcomed the document, but they have attached much more importance to the proposals for greater stability of demand and of employment than to those on public ownership. The employers still do not accept the Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend and repeated by me today; namely, that we have no proposals to nationalise the construction and building industry.


My Lords, the noble Baroness mentioned decasualisation, rather implying that that was going to go through. Can she reassure us that at this moment that is only an idea, rather than a solid proposal, and that in any case the Government are taking careful note of the difficulties that have arisen over decasualisation in the docks, which have led on the whole to problems and expenses on all sides?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, with regard to decasualisation, I said that my right honourable friend was carrying forward consultations with the industry. What Building Britain's Future proposed was a statutory decasualisation scheme with registers of employers and employees, and fall back pay for temporarily unemployed workers administered by a statutory Construction Industry Manpower Board. The Construction Industry Manpower Board itself was set up in 1976 and was asked to advise on the desirability of such a statutory decasualisation scheme. It reported in December 1977 that a voluntary scheme, if fully supported by both sides of the industry, would be preferable. The TUC and the main employers' federations have accepted the voluntary principle, and that is the line on which the Government are now working, and which they are pursuing in consultations.