HL Deb 08 February 1979 vol 398 cc841-9

3.55 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement which is being made in another place in answer to a Private Notice Question on local authority wage negotiations. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has said this:

"The employers made an offer of 8.8 per cent. at the National Joint Council Meeting yesterday. The offer embodied the £3.50 underpinning arrangement for the lower paid proposed by the Government but was rejected by the union side. I regret that a settlement was not reached yesterday. I am in close touch with both sides and I trust that negotiations will be resumed shortly."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for repeating the Statement in this House. Of course, we share with the Government their dissatisfaction that the negotiations did not reach a satisfactory conclusion. We hope that the Government will resume those negotiations shortly, by which we hope that they mean tomorrow. It would be appropriate if some publicity were given to the fact, which it very rarely is, that "the employers" here mean the democratically elected councillors acting for the ratepayers of the appropriate authority concerned. The strike is therefore against the ratepayers.

There are two other questions which I should like to ask the Minister, and they are these. First, are the health and fire hazards caused by the accumulating piles of rubbish being suitably monitored? I draw particular attention to the fires which occurred recently in Cambridge. Secondly, are the Government considering the matter of school closures, a point which was raised in our debate yesterday by my noble friend Lady Young, in regard to their overall responsibility for ensuring that every child has over 200 schooling days per year?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, in so far as the hazards referred to by the noble Lord are concerned, Yes, we are are aware that there are problems. We are in close touch with the local authorities and we have promised them such assistance as they need from the Government in order to meet these problems. In so far as the educational position is concerned, I have nothing to add to what was said last night by my noble friend Lord Wells-Pestell when he repeated part of the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science the day before, when she said that they had at least got an arrangement at the moment that there would be two days' notice of closure and that she had urged on all local authorities to keep their schools open; to obtain alternative accommodation, where that was possible, in order that those who were doing preparatory work for examinations would be able to continue to do so; that homework should continue to be set and that the matter was being kept under constant review by her Department. I have nothing further to add to that at this time.


My Lords, we on these Benches also would like to thank the noble Baroness for having repeated this Statement. We offer our full support to the Government for the firmer line that they have at last taken in stating that they will not finance pay increases beyond the present offer. We very much trust that local government negotiating bodies will now take the same line so that, as the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, indicated, no further pay increases will have to be paid for by the ratepayers. We are glad to have the assurance in regard to schooling that the noble Baroness has just offered. If I may reinforce the question already asked by the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, in relation to rubbish collection, can the Government give a firm assurance that as soon as any substantial health or fire risk arises they will not hesitate to call for voluntary help, and if necessary use troops to dispose of it?

May I ask one further question: In so far as volunteers are called for in any of these disputes, are the Government prepared to state categorically that those who make and those who respond to such calls will be given the full protection of the State, if necessary, in any case where a closed shop is in operation?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, in so far as waste collection and disposal is concerned, the position is that the pickets remain active in that particular field. Strike action by waste collection and disposal operatives is leading to a further gradual deterioration in the level of service that is available. Workers in almost 25 per cent. of some of the 300 collection authorities about which information is available are now on strike. The authorities are continuing to encourage public self-help; in some cases they are reported as having used private contractors to move the waste. There are as yet no reports of public health hazards but the Westminster City Council is already reported as having used contractors because of a fire risk and this is the sort of action which we expect local authorities will take, with Government approval. In the last resort, we would certainly not rule out the use of troops. We have a certain duty to the public at large in regard to fire hazard, health hazard and the other parts of the public service, and we will maintain and be answerable for those responsibilities which we have by such means as are possible, by the encouragement of voluntary help and, where and if necessary—and we hope it will not be necessary—by the use of troops.

With regard to the last question about protection raised by the noble Lord, I should want to take further advice on that. My own personal reaction would be that we would stand by people who helped us in a time of emergency, but at this point that must not be taken as a clear Government statement as I have not taken advice on that particular aspect.


My Lords, I feel so strongly on this that I must ask a question. Do the Government agree that we have now reached a position where there is a deliberate attempt to wreck industry in this country and to ruin democracy as we understand it, and may I ask whether it is not true that many who have what they consider to be genuine grievances now find themselves caught up in a frenzy of self-destruction, of the whole country as well as of themselves, and that those union leaders who unleashed this torrent now realise that they have no means of controlling it? May I beg the Government, even at this late hour, to realise that the country wants action? Is it not possible for all Parties to come together under the leadership of the Prime Minister and with no conditions at all, and to take steps to prevent this catastrophe before it engulfs us all?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I share my noble friend's sentiments about the situation which we are in at the moment. The interesting thing about this is that where, according to the Press, trade unionists are asked to give answers in opinion polls, they are all for maintaining the norm for wages; they are all for doing all the things that we want to do. Then they become part of the organisation which is involved in asking for wage claims and a slightly different attitude seems to creep in at that point.

The Government are trying to do what they can by peaceful persuasion, and even if we had as many joint committees as might be wanted, of as many organisations or as many political Parties—indeed who- ever anyone wanted to call in—I am not sure that we could get any more action than we are getting at the moment. We have tried all along the line to be reasonable, to talk to the trade unions, to get the trade union leaders to accept their responsibilities and to impose such disciplinary action as is necessary within their unions and within their rules. We do not want an outright confrontation with every trade union in this country.

We have tried our best over the last few weeks and shall continue to try to work in co-operation with the trade unions. The Prime Minister and his colleagues are meeting the senior members of the Trades Union Congress now: they are trying to hammer out a policy which the Trades Union Congress will then, we hope, sell to all its members. But at this point I am sure that peaceful persuasion such as we are trying is paying off much better than open confrontation.


My Lords, notwithstanding the last words uttered by the noble Baroness, will she make clear, as I think her original Statement indicated, that the Government will give full support to those local authorities who arrange to hire private contractors to shift the rubbish which is disfiguring our streets and is an ever growing menace to health?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, we have already made it plain to all the local authorities that we will support them in any way they require in order to enable them to meet their responsibilities.


My Lords, does the noble Baroness realise that the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, express views which are held very strongly by, I think, everyone on this side of the House? It is not a question of Party politics but it is the fact that the whole of society and the nation and parliamentary government and democracy are at stake. Will she impress upon her right honourable friend the Prime Minister that we would welcome—as indeed would the leader of the Liberal Party—the opportunity of trying to get together with the Prime Minister to see whether there is not some common ground upon which we can get out of this mess?—because otherwise this situation will engulf everyone. Is the noble Baroness aware that I entirely support the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, it is nice to have this degree of co-operation in front and behind me. I shall certainly make the views of the House which have been expressed here today known to my right honourable friends in another place. More than that I cannot promise at this time. As I have said, we do not want an outright confrontation with all the trade unions of this country if we can solve it by peaceful means, by persuasion, and if we can only persuade them that they are doing a lot of damage to their own services and to the country as a whole by pushing up their wage demands and getting us back into a high inflation rate again. We do not want that.

The Earl of ONSLOW

My Lords, is it not true that the trade unions have been given everything for which they have asked by Her Majesty's present advisers? Is it not true that they have been given the closed shop, the Employment Protection Acts and this, that and the third thing, and that they still have not delivered; and that now Mr. Fisher, the General and Municipal Workers and COHSE are in confrontation with the rest of us—not only with the Government but with the rest of us? That is what is so distressing and it was well underlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, such powers as the trade unions have received in the lifetime of this Government have been given to them by Parliament as a whole. Parliament has given the powers which the unions have to use. I must remind the noble Earl that the people who are on strike at the moment—those whom NUPE and the Municipal and General Workers and, to some extent, the Transport and General Workers, represent—are among the lowest paid people within our country. They are the ones who see salaries rocketing at one end and find themselves falling further and further behind. They are the ones who have the case for consideration and what we hope for out of this is that we shall have some sort of comparability report.

I understand that the unions have agreed to a comparability study and that the employers have told my right honourable friend the Secretary of State that they would co-operate if such a study were put in train. We are now waiting for the formal application from the two sides to get that study started, but a comparability study, comparing the jobs within local government with jobs in other sectors of industry is not something which can be completed within 24 hours. I think when I was last at the Dispatch Box I said that it would not be in a day or a month or perhaps even a year. If we are going to do the job, we must do it properly; it must be the sort of job which stands the test of time and which lays down the right sort of rates for the job so that these people are satisfied in their employment.

Baroness SEEAR

My Lords—


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that it is simply not true that the workpeople of this country have taken everything and given nothing in return? The fact that inflation has been reduced from the catastrophic heights left behind by the last Administration has been brought about simply and solely by the working people of this country. They have borne the burden and my sympathies are on the side—and have always been—of the lower paid worker.

I would say this to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton: when she lost her seat—

Several noble Lords: Order!


When she lost her seat—

Several noble Lords: Question!


Is the noble Baroness aware that when the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, lost her seat many in the Labour movement marked it down as—


My Lords, before the noble Baroness replies to a terminological inexactitude, will she recall that when the Conservative Party left office the rate of inflation was 10 per cent. and the catastrophic height—if that is not a contradiction in terms—took place within six weeks afterwards?

Baroness STEDMAN

And, my Lords, if the Government give way now we shall again be back at 10 per cent., and we are not at 10 per cent. at present.


My Lords, may I put a question from another angle? I do not want to be accused of strike breaking. Is my noble friend aware that the general body of ratepayers, although they dislike the possibility of rates being increased, would be—I will not say delighted or happy, but willing to accept an increase in rates if only we could put an end to this piling up of rubbish? This is one element of the dispute which in my opinion is horrifying. I wonder what visitors to London will be thinking of us when they look upon these horrible piles of rubbish in Oxford Street. We are now informed by the Press that rats are scampering all over the place. On the question of asking for assistance from the Forces or from volunteers, is my noble friend aware that the Attlee Government, when faced with a dockers' strike which was very troublesome—and Mr. Ernest Bevin, a trade union leader of distinction was a member of that Government, and I happened to be a member of it at the time—agreed to send troops down to the docks in order to ensure that goods could be removed? If that could be done under an Attlee Government, is it not possible that the Prime Minister might consider a little more resilience and agree to something in addition to what has been offered, even if the ratepayers have got to meet part of the burden, in order, not to deal with the whole of the dispute, schooling and the rest, but to stop this terrible, horrible spectacle that we are now asked to endure?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, may I remind my noble friend that one side of these negotiations, as the noble Lord opposite said, is the democratically elected people representing the local authorities. The negotiations are between that side, of the people, and the trade unions. What the Government have said, and said quite clearly, is that they are not prepared to go into double figures and to underpin that in the rate support grant. It is for the elected representatives themselves to decide if they want to go above that level. Anything above that has to be borne on the local rates. That is something which the elected representatives representing the employers have to make up their own minds about. What the Government have told them is that in an extreme emergency and to allow flexibility they would underpin an amount up to 9.9 per cent. Beyond that the ratepayers must bear the whole cost.

Baroness SEEAR

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness agrees that the bargaining power of the representatives of the local ratepayers depends on what kind of action the Government themselves are going to take? If the Government refuse to take emergency action the bargaining power of the ratepayers is greatly reduced.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, we are not refusing to take emergency action. We have told the local authorities, who are responsible within their own areas for these services, that we will give them what support they deem to be necessary. We are willing to do that. The ball is now in the court of the National Industrial Council, and it is for the ratepayers' representatives to decide, in the light of the Prime Minister's Statement that the Government are going to keep inflation below 10 per cent. and in single figures, whether they want to offer more to get people back to work. The extra over 9.9 per cent. must fall completely on the ratepayers and not part of it on the Government.

Baroness SEEAR

My Lords, do I understand the noble Baroness rightly, that if the local authorities ask the Government to send troops in to remove rubbish they will agree?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, if there is no other means of meeting their responsibilities, which the local authorities want to do, if they cannot get the necessary contractors or volunteers to do it, in the very last resort we would have to consider moving in troops.


My Lords, I think I sense the wish of the House that we should now proceed to the next business.