HL Deb 06 February 1979 vol 398 cc608-14

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement now being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on pay in the water industry:

"I wish to make a Statement about pay negotiations for manual workers in the water industry.

"The House may recall that on 19th January the water industry employers made a revised offer for manual workers representing an increase in earnings of 13.9 per cent. of which a substantial element—6.9 per cent.—related to a new productivity agreement. After lengthy negotiations the trade union side of the National Joint Industrial Council agreed to recommend acceptance to their relevant decision-making bodies. That offer was not in the event accepted by union members and negotiations resumed on 2nd February.

"In the early hours of this morning I learned that after long dicsussions the National Joint Industrial Council had not found it possible to reach a pay settlement for the manual workers. The offer—representing an increase in earnings of 15.9 per cent—made by the employers was not acceptable to the union negotiators as a basis for a pay agreement. This offer is worth an increase in average weekly earnings of £9.81 a week immediately rising to £12.70 from 1st April 1979. This is a major setback and disappointment with potentially very serious implications for industrial relations and for the British economy. I have therefore thought it right to request those concerned to reflect further and to consider whether in the national interest negotiations should be resumed. The House will not wish me to say anything further at this stage."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.


My Lords, the House will indeed be grateful to the noble Barones for having repeated the Statement made by her right honourable friend in another place. From this side of the House, I too, will be circumspect in my remarks. That the talks of the National Joint Industrial Council should have been terminated at a very late hour last night after no less than 13 hours of discussion is a source of great dissatisfaction. We have, however, heard about one matter which is not specifically mentioned in the Statement but which has been reported in the Press; namely, that a further offer has been made. As I say, this is not specifically referred to in the Statement. I do not know whether the noble Baroness would like to comment on that matter, or whether she can say that the Press statement was inaccurate.


My Lords, we on these Benches would like to join in thanking the noble Baroness for having repeated this Statement. We share the view just expressed that the situation in the water industry is indeed serious. We support the Government in their view that those concerned should reflect further on the situation. We, too, have no desire to say anything which would in any way make further discussions more difficult. However, I think that I should add on behalf of my noble friends that if the Government, as seems to be the case, do not find it possible—as on all sides of the House they were advised to do last week—to consult with the Opposition Parties regarding these disputes in the public services generally, will they themselves now take responsibility by giving a firm and a clear lead to the negotiating bodies, advising them that they should not settle with the unions at the expense of either taxpayers or ratepayers, beyond certain specific limits? At the same time are the Government now prepared, in defence of the community at large, to state categorically that in the last resort they will take such action as will ensure that water supplies are maintained?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for the responsible way in which they have received the Statement at this rather delicate stage of the negotiations. There have been certain Press comments this morning which I have discussed with the chairman of the National Water Council, and the offer made by the employers was just under 16 per cent., as I have reported to the House. It would seem that there may be some misunderstanding on this matter because I understand that in the course of negotiations one tries various permutations and combinations, finding how they work out; but the firm offer was for just under 16 per cent. and that is where the employers have stuck at the moment.

With regard to the Government intervening, it is of course a matter for the National Water Council, as the employers, and the appropriate trade unions representing the employees. The chairman of the National Water Council has kept in very close touch with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State throughout the whole of the negotiations on the manual workers' pay. The Secretary of State has informed him from time to time of the Government's views and where we think it would be appropriate to stick in the light of what is right and proper in the present circumstances. Like all other public authorities, the Water Authority is expected to act in the public interest in the same way as the other nationalised industries; and indeed they do and are doing at the moment. Therefore they had to know the Government's views on the specific pay proposals, which they were told, and the Government were prepared to accept the offer up to 16 per cent.


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the views expressed by the Secretary of State will command the general support of all sides of this House, I am sure, and indeed of the whole country? Is she further aware that the traditions of the water industry are those of constant service to the whole public, and will she ensure that both sides, employers and trade union leaders, are made aware of the expectation of the public that this great water industry will continue to serve the public with one of the basic needs of life, as they have always done? And will she make sure that not only the national leaders on the trade union side—who I know are doing their best—but also the local leaders on the trade union side will exert their influence to reflect the views of the majority of the workers in the water industry, who would wish to keep at work and would wish to continue to serve the public in the way they have always done?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord is right in the sentiments he has expressed. We find it impossible to believe that the men, if asked, would turn down what is really a generous offer in the present circumstances. We also accept that if the offer is accepted there may still be some difficulties in some parts, where there may be some unofficial action for a short period. The Government will accept their responsi- bility; they will maintain as good a service as possible. But we hope that the men themselves will realise what a good offer has been made to them and will ensure that their union leaders accept the offer on their behalf.


My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Baroness one question which I think is very important. Does the Water Authority include sewerage workers, because they are vital also? The subject of sewerage is rather divided: the main sewage plants I think come under the Water Authority but I believe I am right in saying that the collection of sewage comes under the boroughs and districts. Would the award be the same for the sewerage workers as for the water workers?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, the award is for the manual workers in all sections of the water industry. In some sense action by the sewerage workers would pose a rather greater health hazard to us, perhaps, in the immediate future than action by the ordinary water supply workers; but we hope that they too will be influenced by the size of the award that has been offered and that they will accept it.


My Lords, I do not want to embarrass the noble Baroness, but will she convey to her colleagues the view, certainly on these Benches and perhaps more widely, that the country will expect the Government to have contingency plans of the most important kind and that they are incurring a very heavy responsibility in the present circumstances by keeping us—the Opposition and the Liberal Benches—almost completely in the dark except for these public statements?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, while negotiations are going on it is very difficult to keep consulting with all Parties and all organisations. We have done our best from the Department to make these statements available as and when there is some movement in the position, and we shall continue to do so. I hope that the next Statement we may make may be one of acceptance of the offer and that we shall be back to normal in the water industry. Certainly if the worst arises the Government will have contingency plans; we have a duty and a responsibility to maintain the water and the sewerage services and that we shall do.


My Lords, if through unofficial action—or perhaps official action—water was cut off to some of our big cities, would that not be a criminal act? If one endangers life, and that certainly would endanger life, surely it would merit action under criminal law, would it not?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I think we should have to wait until some sort of action took place before making a decision on that.


My Lords, has the noble Baroness by any chance got any information on how much of the 15.9 per cent. offer was productivity and whether the productivity element is intended to be totally self-financing? Has she also got the rough earnings of the workers concerned, related to the number of hours worked?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, the productivity element of the award is 6.9 per cent. and my understanding is that it is self-financing, which means that there is something like 9 per cent. left in the ordinary pay increase, which is the figure that we have in mind in so far as settlement for the other local government manual workers is concerned when their claim comes up. I am not able to give the noble Viscount figures of the actual earnings for the hours of work in the water industry. I will get them and will let him have them. What I can say is that this increase at the moment would be worth £9.81 a week immediately and when the consolidation takes place on 1st April, they would get another £12.70 a week, which I think is a fairly generous award in the present circumstances.


My Lords, did the noble Baroness say £9 and then another £12?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I believe that I said £9.81 a week now, rising to £12.70 on 1st April.