HL Deb 14 February 1979 vol 398 cc1271-84

3.56 p.m.

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Peart)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

"As the House is aware, the Government have been holding discussions with the General Council of the TUC to find a better way of conducting industrial relations and to reach a common approach that will secure our economic objectives. The Government and the General Council have today agreed a joint statement which sets out the outcome of these discussions. I will place the statement in the Vote Office.

"The statement reports that the TUC is on its own authority separately issuing guidance to its affiliated unions on the conduct of industrial relations covering three areas: first, negotiating procedures for avoiding disputes; secondly, the conduct of industrial disputes where they arise; and thirdly, trade union organisation and the closed shop.

"Honourable Members will find that the documents issued by the TUC on these matters are appended to the joint statement. They lay down comprehensive standards of trade union responsibility and commend the value of conciliation and arbitration.

"They say that strike action should be used only as a last resort; that agreements once entered into should be observed by both union members and management; and that when a strike does take place there is a vital necessity to maintain supplies and services essential to the health and safety of the community.

"They contain detailed advice on the identification and union control of pickets. The third guide acknowledges that aspects of the closed shop have caused concern and that there is a need for agreements to provide for conscientious objectors and certain other categories of workers.

"The Government welcome the publication of this authoritative advice by the General Council of the TUC, which their affiliated organisations are asked to accept as a basis for their conduct of industrial relations. General observance of this guidance would make for a substantial improvement in our industrial relations.

"The joint statement itself is concerned to find a better way of reaching a consensus on the economic path. We jointly recognise the anxiety about employment prospects, the need for training so that workers will possess the skills to match the new technological developments, the need for greater industrial accountability and demo- cracy and the fundamental importance of increasing productivity.

"We agree that industrial regeneration cannot rely on market forces alone and that action is needed by industry, the Government and trade unions. The document emphasises the need for a close working understanding between the Government and the Trades Union Congress and that the proper handling of this relationship imposes on the TUC the need to accept that its expanding role carries with it wider responsibilities.

"We are agreed that the British people must achieve living standards in line with those in the rest of Europe; that prices can best be kept down by increasing productivity and output and re-equipping our manufacturing industry.

"We have agreed on an important objective about the future level of inflation. It is that within three years we must reduce our annual rate of inflation to 5 per cent. or below. We are agreed that the concept of a 'going rate' with successive groups escalating the rate by building on the basis of earlier settlements is an obstacle to reducing inflation.

"The statement points to advantages that may be secured from the synchronisation of pay bargaining in certain areas, whilst recognising the difficulties of introducing this quickly.

"We are agreed that each year before Easter there should be a national assessment by Government and both sides of industry of our economic prospects.

"On the question of workers in the public services, both sides have agreed to examine means by which workers in the public services could establish arrangements for negotiating their pay and conditions which would make it unnecessary for them to resort to industrial action. And we agree as a matter of urgency to identify the groups that might be covered by such agreements.

"We have also agreed on urgent consultations into the problems of relativities and comparability in pay matters which are of course directly related to the problem of low pay and differentials, and on the continuing arrangements to deal with them.

"These objectives have been agreed between us as a guide for action now and in the future, and the joint statement asks trade unions to have regard to all of these objectives from now on.

"This is an important beginning.

"But it will of course be necessary for all sections of the community to be involved in this search for a better way. I note that the CBI yesterday published a series of recommendations that overlap some of the matters I have referred to, and the Government will be ready to have discussions with them to try to secure as much agreement as possible. I appreciate that joint discussions already take place between the TUC and the CBI, and I would welcome their extension.

"Our approach is based on the Government's conviction that the most effective and lasting way of improving the conduct of industrial relations is to secure the consent of the trade unions and their members in the manner in which it is embodied in the joint statement.

"It is only too easy to propose apparently simple legal answers to these complex issues. They do not exist.

"The value of this joint statement is that by discussion, consultation and, above all, by consent it brings the full authority of the General Council of the TUC to bear, alongside the Government, in working out a constructive approach to our economic and industrial future."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord for repeating this very wide-ranging Statement, and we shall look forward to reading the TUC's statement in full in due course. However, I must say that the history of the last 10 years, since the publication of In Place of Strife, is not wholly reassuring in this matter. I remember Mr. Healey saying at the time of the Social Contract, I think in 1974, that that was the New Deal Britain had been waiting for. Yet after all these years we find today's Statement now talking about this being "an important beginning."

It must also be said that the Statement contains its fair ration of platitudes. I am sure that most of us would, as the Statement puts it, commend the value of conciliation and arbitration". Most of us believe that, strike action should only be used as a last resort…". Almost all of us would agree—and here is a supreme irony— that agreements once entered into should be observed by both union members and management". It would indeed be something if we could achieve that. I do not think that that was what the other side were saying when we debated this question in relation to the 1971 Industrial Relations Act, if my memory serves me right.

However, we can certainly welcome the Government's declaration of the vital necessity to maintain supplies and services essential to the health and safety of the community", and the identification and union control of pickets". Further, it seems to me a rather belated repentance to talk about possible limitations of the closed shop. Again, I doubt very much that that was the kind of advice which the TUC was giving to the Government at the time of some of our previous debates on industrial relations legislation.

Unfortunately, to recognise some of these problems is not to solve them. They are simply not going away. Again, it is welcome to find the Government and the TUC saying that they recognise the limitations of the TUC's constitutional authority, and they talk about giving it wider responsibilities. However, I suggest that it is possibly a little facile to talk about apparently simple legal answers to these complex issues", and to say, "They do not exist." Anybody who has ever had anything to do with the law knows that it is seldom simple and very rarely intelligible. It is also true to say that surely in our present situation exhortation has been demonstrated as not being enough. How can we have confidence that what the Statement refers to as the "common approach" will really secure anything?

I am afraid that for me the Statement reinforces a conviction that by their inaction the Government are missing a national opportunity to secure all-Party support for what I believe should be stern and binding measures, even if of a temporary or emergency character, to curb some of the wilder excesses of certain elements of society, who have allowed their sense of grievance to outweigh their sense of responsibility, their compassion and their common sense.

4.7 p.m.

Baroness SEEAR

My Lords, we on these Benches also wish to thank the noble Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made in another place. We welcome many of the items included in it, yet we must at the same time say that it leaves, perhaps inevitably, many questions unanswered, and, from our point of view, in many respects it does not go far enough. Outstanding among examples of the questions unanswered is the fact that it has nothing to say about the immediate situation which confronts us, and with which everyone in your Lordships' House, and indeed throughout the country as a whole, is greatly concerned. Perhaps in the proposals put forward here there are hints of matters which might have a bearing on the present situation. For example, may we interpret the hope that by 1982 the inflation rate will be down to 5 per cent. as a suggestion that those people who in the present pay round receive a much higher rate of increase than is granted to other people will in the years between now and 1982 be prepared to accept a lower rate, so that there may be some hope that the 5 per cent. inflation rate is other than the pious hope to which the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, has already referred?

Of course we welcome the fact that the TUC is prepared to lay down guidelines for behaviour in relation to strikes and the other matters mentioned in the Statement. But again I wish to ask the noble Lord—as I have asked in your Lordships' House on a number of occasions in the last week—what has the TUC said to the Government about the way in which it proposes to deal with breaches in the guidelines? We on these Benches, like the noble Lords opposite, would far rather see voluntarily agreed procedures governing our industrial relations, if they will indeed govern them; but voluntarily agreed procedures which are not in any way backed by sanctions used by the TUC, or by the appropriate trade union authorities, are not at all procedures which are worth anything more than the paper on which they are written.

We ask the Government to tell us what is happening, and what action is being taken by the trade unions where there are breaches of these voluntary agreements. If we are not given some understanding that something will be done, then, indeed, reluctantly, one will have to say that it is necessary to resort to the legal procedures which the noble Lord says cannot be made to work but which, after all, in other countries, do on occasion work.

We welcome the reference to modifications of the closed shop. Where it says that conscientious objection will be accepted as a reason for not entering a trade union, may we take it that the very rigid interpretation of religious objection has been abandoned and that a wider interpretation is now to be accepted? It would be a most welcome introduction if this were so. And if there is to be a modification of the attitude towards the closed shop, may I also ask whether, in line with the question asked by my noble friend several times in the last days, this will extend to protection for those people who are breaching the strike regulations of the unions at the moment in order to carry on their duty?

We on these Benches are also glad to hear that there are to be some steps taken towards setting up machinery for establishing relativities, but we would urge that nothing less than the reintroduction of the Prices and Incomes Board, so lamentably abandoned by the Conservative Party, should be considered. We would also say that no agreement which is reached by only one Government, by one Party, can hope to endure. We have seen this again and again during recent years; and one of the few points made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, with which we on these Benches can agree is that there is need for all-Party agreement—all-Party agreement along with the agreement of the trade unions and the CBI, so that we can rely on that agreement enduring. Finally, my Lords, let us say that a concordat between the trade unions and the Government is a useful thing, but the final authority must rest with the Houses of Parliament.

4.12 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, welcomed the Statement in parts. I think he should recognise that this is really a tremendous step forward. After all, the CBI, the employers—and they are important—welcome this, and this is mentioned in the Statement. So I cannot see why we should have this niggardly approach to the Statement. If the noble Lord will forgive me for saying so, I thought he was labouring his questions to me. In fact, what he said became almost a speech. I hope he will carefully read the guidelines. I could quote from this document what the trade unions have accepted in the picketing field. There is a whole section on it, and I hope noble Lords will look at it.

I therefore hope that the Opposition will be really constructive if they desire to improve industrial relations—and I know the noble Lord wants to have good relations. We do not want to have a repetition of the frustration which has occurred because, if we are going to get productivity going, and if we are going to have good management, et cetera, it is important that we should have good industrial relations. We believe that these can be achieved by the voluntary method.

I welcome the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. I think she was much more constructive than the official Opposition. I did not quite agree with all that she said, but, nevertheless, she put it courteously and constructively, and welcomed the Statement. She asked about the immediate situation, and talked about the three-year period being, or possibly being, a pious hope. I hope that will not be so. On the guidelines affecting picketing, there is a whole section in the White Paper, as I have said. I shall not read it out now; no doubt noble Lords will return to this question on another occasion. She also mentioned breaches of the voluntary, agreed procedure. Here, again, I hope that, by voluntary methods and by exhortation, and with the CBI, the trade unions and the Government involved, this can be successful.

Specifically on the closed shop, I have been responsible, as the noble Baroness knows, for negotiations in the field of the Civil Service unions, both the Civil Service industrials and the Civil Service as we know it. I and the Government want to achieve a liberalisation of the definition, and not just to confine it to one category; in other words, to have other categories. So I do not think there is any difference of opinion between us on that. Generally speaking, I am glad there has been a welcome of most parts of the Statement.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend two questions? First, in view of the importance of the Statement that he has just made to the House, are we likely now to be given an opportunity to debate it? That is the first question. The second is: Is my noble friend aware that the Statement he has made, important and welcome though it be, appears to have little or no bearing upon the current pay round? Is he aware that his reference to a study of the application to the public sector of the principles of fair comparability was made in the light of the fact that the principles and the methods of applying fair comparability to the Civil Service were agreed under my chairmanship as long ago as 1955, and remained unbroken and unsuspended until they were put into cold storage by the present Government? Is he aware that there is a threatened Civil Service strike due to begin 10 days from now, and will the promised consultation on the application of fair comparability be finished in time to avert that tragic occurrence?


My Lords, my noble friend is quite right: he played a leading part in this, and we had a debate on it in this Chamber. But we restored the Pay Research Unit, and the structure is there now. It has been assessing, for the Civil Service, analogues in sections of industry. I, being responsible for it, met the unions only recently. Some of them wished to strike before negotiations had begun. I deplore that, and I hope my noble friend does. It is absurd that civil servants, who have an agreed procedure, should decide to take industrial action, or threaten it, before talks, or before the information has been assessed.

I hope my noble friend, with his great experience and the great work that he has done for the Civil Service unions over many years, will use his very powerful influence to make them see the light of day. On the question of a debate, all I can say is that I do not want a debate now, but I believe we should have discussions on this matter through the usual channels. I agree that it is a very important subject.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Statement he has just made has no relevance to the immediate problems which are hitting the country, and ought not to be taken as the Government's answer? They ought to be dealing with the immediate problems. On the Statement, which is a long-term one, can the noble Lord guarantee that the spirit behind the Statement will still stand up and remain intact when there is a Government other than a Labour Government in power? Further, in order to ensure that that is so, can he guarantee that, out of office, the Labour Party will not try to sway the unions away from the spirit of this Statement for purely tactical reasons, as indeed they have done in the past?


My Lords, in reply to the noble Lord I would say that I do not indulge in hypothesis. I am thinking in terms of his views on which Party will form the next Administration. I believe that this Statement, bringing in the attitude of the Trades Union Congress, will be of vital importance, so I hope the noble Lord will not use extravagant language when he criticises.


My Lords, will my noble friend assure us that, if the Statement he has just read has the importance to the nation which I think it has, he will urge his colleagues in the Government to launch a campaign to make the public aware of what is actually being proposed and what is in fact said in the Statement? I think the public are very confused at the moment, and the confusion arises on two topics: the immediate topic of the current industrial disputes and the long-term topic of how we avoid falling back into the same chasm. Will he urge his colleagues to make a great effort to make this known to the public?


My Lords, I agree. This is why we are making this Statement today in both Houses. No doubt noble Lords will study this carefully and, even if they are critical at this stage, I hope that they will come to accept that this relationship is something worth achieving, and that the guidelines that they will read in the White Paper are important—and important because we wish to increase productivity, which is one of our main targets, and to reduce inflation. So far as I can, I will persuade my colleagues to conduct a campaign on the two issues that the noble Lord mentioned.


My Lords, the Statement says that the Government assess the possibility of a 5 per cent. rate of inflation being reached in 1982. Is the noble Lord aware that that assessment must be based on some assumptions as to the level of wage increases during the three years between now and 1982? Can he at least tell us what is now the Government's target for the level of wage increases in lieu of the past 5 per cent. for the current year?


My Lords, as the Statement says, within three years we must reduce this. Our aim this year must be to have the level as low as possible, as I have said, in relation to the target put forward. Unfortunately, certain unions have talked of 20 per cent., 30 per cent. and even higher. We stick to the figure that I mentioned.


My Lords, what figure?


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, for long, power has gone from the centre, from the TUC and the Executive of the unions, into the localities, and that collective bargaining under those conditions is bound to lead to the kind of anarchy that we have seen, and that those who have been campaigning to break down the incomes policy and to return to collective bargaining must not run away now from the responsibilities that they have incurred? Is my noble friend further aware that the kind of so-called collective bargaining that we now see is quite anomalous? The "going rate" for the whole of industry is not collective bargaining. Collective bargaining means that within each firm or industry one negotiates a rate which can still leave those firms or industries in a solvent position. A position in which we wait for one powerful employer to concede a very large increase and then demand that everyone else should get that is the very negation of collective bargaining.


My Lords, most noble Lords will agree with my noble friend who has long experience in these matters. I reiterate that within three years we must reduce our annual rate of inflation to 5 per cent. or below; and, as was said in the Statement, we are agreed that the concept of successive groups escalating the rate by building on the basis of earlier settlements is an obstacle to reducing inflation.


My Lords, may we take it—and I am sure that we may—that the Prime Minister has a unified Cabinet behind him on this occasion?


My Lords, if the Cabinet was not united then inevitably there would be some resignations.

Several noble Lords: Oh?


My Lords, it is not unknown in a Conservative Administration. I can remember the dismissal of Cabinet colleagues by one very ruthless Prime Minister. It is an agreed document by the Cabinet.


My Lords, does the noble Lord the Leader of the House recollect that in recent days there have been repeated requests from all parts of the House that all political Parties should join together in attempting to solve the problems that are dealt with in this Statement? Does the noble Lord recollect that on each occasion what we have been told is that the suggestion will be conveyed to the noble Lord's right honourable colleagues in another place? Can the noble Lord now tell us what is the response?


My Lords, I hope that the response will be that if we have an agreed discussion at a later period the Opposition will be responsible in their opposition to these proposals. I cannot go beyond that. The Government as a Cabinet must be responsible for the governing of this country. That is right. You cannot farm out a responsibility of that kind to Parties in the sense that I think the noble Lord is thinking. But if the Cabinet goes wrong, then another Party will seek to criticise the Government—and they have that right—with the desire to overthrow the Government by constitutional means in General Election. That remains the policy of the Government.


My Lords, is my noble friend not aware that what has happened is that the Government, in pursuit of policies to get rid of inflation, have got caught up in the drive for dependence upon market forces and that we have slipped into what we now may call free collective bargaining, leaving the political forces represented by the Labour Party to pay the price for it; while those who have generated the forces which created it tend to slide away from it? In his Statement my noble friend will be aware that he made reference to the fact that we cannot depend upon market forces exclusively.

That being so, will my noble friend be good enough to tell us whether the Government intend to tackle the alternative—which is, at least, some degree of planning—in order that inflation shall not only be defeated but that there should be a rising standard of life? Is he not aware that if, by 1982, we have got inflation down to 5 per cent. without creating comparable productive forces, there will be massive unemployment in this country which will threaten the roots of our democracy; and that that must be faced up to? Therefore, would my noble friend urge his right honourable friends not to listen to the siren voices from the other side who talk glibly about unity but who are never prepared to stand up for their corner when the barricades are reached?


My Lords, my noble friend appreciates that I stressed that industrial regeneration cannot be related to market forces alone. He asked what we were seeking to do. We want the development of industries. Here the employers have a leading part to play. The CBI have a responsible part, and are playing it. I am thinking in terms of planning agreements and other matters which we have discussed previously. In view of the fact that I am going to have discussions about the possibility of raising this again with another debate and the fact that we have interrupted a very important debate which I do not want to spoil, I would hope that I could leave it at that for the time being and that I could have discussions through the usual channels.