HL Deb 21 February 1979 vol 398 cc1832-9

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place in answer to a Private Notice Question on the ambulance service dispute. The Statement is being made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Department of Health and Social Security. The Statement is as follows:

"As the House knows, most ambulance authorities have been able to provide only an emergency service for nearly a month as a result of official industrial action over pay. An unofficial group have been urging even tougher action and last week threatened a 24-hour strike for today and a withdrawal of all services.

"At an official delegate meeting in London yesterday, ambulancemen voted by a substantial majority not to withdraw emergency services, though they did decide to continue their action while negotiations over pay proceed. After this decision was known, one of the leaders of the unofficial group announced that the threatened 24-hour strike had been postponed for a week.

"Yet, as honourable and right honourable Members will know from radio and television reports, in several areas some ambulancemen have ignored the advice of both their union and unofficial leaders and have walked away from their duties. I am sure that the whole House will join me in strongly condemning this reckless and irresponsible action. It will do nothing to help the pay negotiations which I hope will lead to a very early settlement.

"In London and Manchester, this unofficial action has meant that, even with the support of police and voluntary organisations, the emergency service could not be maintained. Accordingly, I have given authority for Service ambulances to provide assistance, and I shall do so in any other area where this situation arises. I also authorised the use of Service ambulances in Somerset, but further volunteer ambulances became available and the Service ambulances have so far not been used. In Liverpool, where unofficial action has also taken place, I understand that so far the ambulance authority are managing with police support.

"The Whitley Council management side put a new offer to the ambulancemen's negotiators on Wednesday of last week. This has been discussed by the staff side of the Council and more widely with shop stewards. The Whitley Council meets tomorrow to discuss this offer and any other proposals. Today's unofficial action would be irresponsible at any time, but when an offer is on the table and being negotiated it is pointless."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, for repeating the Statement of his right honourable friend in another place. May I say first how strongly we on this side of the House support the Secretary of State in condemning the reckless, irresponsible action of the ambulancemen who walked away from their jobs. We believe that today's unofficial action has been a grossly offensive act. We further believe that the unofficial group, in proposing the action of a further 24 hours' stoppage in a week's time, is something which will arouse equal and very wide public condemnation should this take place, and we hope that the Goverment will use their best efforts to prevent it. What underlines our anxiety is the situation with regard to the waiting list as a whole. May I draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell—and I am sure his attention is already drawn to it—to the general waiting list for operations in the country as a whole which stood last year at an unacceptable level of over half a million.

I do not know—and I do not wish to press the noble Lord this afternoon for any figures—whether he can either confirm or deny that that figure has been rising very sharply owing to one month's action by ambulancemen and indeed ancillary staff within hospitals and is approaching well over 600,000 now. Further, in regard to the arrangements being made for Service ambulances by the Secretary of State, can the noble Lord tell us whether it is possible to transfer additional Service ambulances to the London area from areas where the number of ambulances is in excess?

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, we on these Benches should like to join in thanking the noble Lord for having repeated this Statement. We also readily join in condemning, in the words in the Statement, the action that has been taken. We further fully support the Government in making use of troops, of police and volunteers in any case where this proves necessary.

There is reference in the Statement to the pay offer which has been made. The noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, has not referred to this in any detail—perhaps advisedly—and I shall therefore understand if he is a little guarded in any responses that he may make into the questions that I, nevertheless, should like to put to him. We on these Benches wish to support the Government in using such influence as they have with the management side of the Whitley Council in seeing that no further increase is made in the pay offer which has reportedly been made which would bring further substantial burdens on ratepayers or taxpayers.

More specifically on the question of the comparability study, which we understand is contemplated, may I ask whether this would fully take into account, if it is undertaken, not simply basic pay and earnings, but also such relevant items, as we see them, as indexed-linked pensions and relative job security? As regards any productivity payment which may be under consideration, may I ask what are the criteria under which any payment will be made? In particular, do the Government agree that such a payment should not be made until improvements in productivity have actually been effected, and that it is wrong in principle that people should be recompensed for simply doing what it is their duty to do under contracts of employment; namely, attend for work?

Finally, is it not the case that if truly self-financing productivity payments are to be made in a service like the ambulance service, then these would have to be accompanied—would they not?—by reductions either in the standard of service provided or in the number of people employed, which in this particular field presumably none of us would wish to see?

3.55 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for the temperate way in which they have dealt with this particular matter. The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, raised the question of waiting lists. It is no good my pretending that they are not rising. They are rising and this is a matter of very great regret. Regarding Service ambulances being available in London, if there is a need for Service ambulances to be used or others to be brought in, this is certainly in the mind of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

The noble Lord, Lord Rochester, referred to the pay offer and wondered whether I am able to say something about it. I think that your Lordships are entitled to know what the situation is. The offer which has been made would provide for increases in pay of 9 per cent. from the settlement date of 1st January this year. The question of comparability between the pay of this group and that of others outside the public sector would be referred urgently to an independent standing commission which the Government have agreed to set up. This will report by 1st August this year, and 50 per cent. of any further increase recommended—if there was such a recommendation—will be paid from 1st August of this year, and the remaining 50 per cent. will be payable from 1st April next year.

The management side have also offered urgent talks on the possibility of a self-financing productivity payment. With regard to the criteria of the comparability, which I think was another point raised, I cannot give the noble Lord any information about that. We do not have it ourselves. This is something which has to be looked at very carefully. It is not going to be easy to make these comparisons between manual workers in the local authority and ancillary workers and ambulance workers in the National Health Service, but it will be done. However, I cannot help the noble Lord by saying anything more than I have already said.


My Lords, we have had evidence recently of trade unions disciplining workers who stay at work when the union has declared a strike with serious consequences in a closed-shop situation. Has my noble friend any information as to whether unions are applying similar disciplinary action to workers who go on strike when the union policy is to remain at work?


My Lords, I have no information at all regarding that.


My Lords, in his Statement the noble Lord seemed to pay special regard to the problems of Liverpool, and he gave a good response to my noble friend regarding London. Has he anything further to say on the arrangements for service in Manchester? Has he had any encouragement from the local authorities that they would welcome that? If they are prepared to accept it, has he the facilities ready to put into Manchester in order that they may get over their problems, too?


My Lords, so far as the Greater Manchester ambulances are concerned, from midnight 19 stations were providing emergency service and 15 providing none at all. During the day four more stations have withdrawn services, so 15 are now providing cover. None of the eight stations covering the Central Manchester area is providing a service. During the night, cover was provided in the areas normally served by the strike-hit stations by 32 police vehicles and by four vehicles provided by the St. John's Ambulance Brigade which were driven by policemen. They coped with services until 10.00 hours, when the vehicles were required for the urgent transfer of patients between hospitals that are some distances apart. The Regional Health Authority were authorised shortly before 10.00 hours this morning to call upon the services for assistance. Emergency services are being maintained throughout Greater Manchester.


My Lords, I do not want to pursue the noble Lord with demands for an immediate answer to this question and I shall be perfectly content if he simply says that he will take advice from his colleagues; but is it not obvious—and I speak only of the withdrawal of emergency services now—that it is intrinsic in the nature of such a withdrawal that human life is quite certainly in danger, and if not human life human serious bodily injury? Is it not also obvious that it is in breach of contract? Does it not follow inexorably from that that an offence has been committed by those who are now guilty of such conduct against Section 5 of the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875? While I am sure that all Members of the House will concur with the Government in condemning such irresponsible conduct, is condemnation quite enough? Is there not an Attorney-General and is not his duty either to enforce the criminal law or, by civil process, by means of an information, enforce it by way of injunction?


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for allowing me to say that I will obviously take this point and see personally that it is drawn to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, who will, I know, read with some interest what the noble and learned Lord has said.

The Earl of ONSLOW

My Lords, if the comparability board says that public service employees and the ambulance employees are being paid more than is the case in the private sector, will there then be a corresponding reduction in salaries of 50 per cent. in August and 50 per cent. next year?


My Lords, it is quite clear that the noble Earl does not know the basic pay of either of those groups.

The Earl of ONSLOW

My Lords, has not the noble Lord seen the figures published in various newspapers, showing that in fact there is considerable doubt whether the public sector are paid less than the private sector?


My Lords, when one sees the figure of average earnings one needs to look very carefully at how those earnings are made up. A leading ambulance man's basic wage is £47.32 per week. The rest of the money comes as a result of shift work, weekend work and overtime. You have to look not at the figure of £84, or whatever it is, but at the basic pay.


Would the noble Lord bear in mind, in addition to the other matters that have been brought to his attention, that the present absence of ambulance services has in fact revealed that in many cases services formerly provided by the ambulance services were not strictly necessary? It is a fact that large numbers of people who were being taken regularly to hospital for treatment or for outpatient appointments are now getting there quite happily under their own steam. I recognise that this has no relevance to emergency services, but I think it is a point that should be borne in mind.


My Lords, it is nice to know that something good may come out of a situation of this kind. Obviously we shall all learn lessons from it—at any rate I hope so.