HL Deb 22 February 1979 vol 398 cc2007-12

3.42 p.m.

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Peart)

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

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about the strike action planned by two Civil Service unions for tomorrow. Seven other unions will not be taking action. The two unions concerned, the Civil and Public Services Association and the Society of Civil and Public Servants, have called on their members not to work tomorrow in support of a pay claim. They have taken this decision in spite of assurances already given to all the unions concerned that the Government will implement a settlement based on a joint evaluation of the evidence submitted by the independent Civil Service Pay Research Unit. This work is now going on. The unions concerned have also been informed that any increases will be staged and that the staging will be the subject of negotiation.

"Moreover, the present pay settlement has not yet expired and will not do so for another five weeks, on 1st April.

"I understand also that tomorrow's action may be followed by an orchestrated campaign of disruption designed to achieve maximum disruption to public business in the forthcoming weeks, arranged to ensure the least loss to the union's members. Rarely can there have been a more unnecessary strike. This action, and any continuing disruption, is wrong both in principle and in practice. It is against the best long-term interests of the Civil Service and is contrary to the guidance recently issued by the TUC to which both these unions are affiliated—which emphasises that strikes are to be used only as a last resort. In no circumstances can the present position on negotiations be interpreted in that way. Those civil servants who go on strike will suffer a loss of pay for the day or days concerned.

"Even at this late stage, I ask the unions to show a proper sense of leadership and responsibility. And I express the Government's thanks in advance to those civil servants who will remain at their posts tomorrow and thus maintain the traditions of service to the public.

"The Government regret any inconvenience that will be caused to the public. Contingency action will be taken as far as possible to mitigate the effects."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peart, for repeating this very important Statement which his right honourable friend has made—one, indeed, in which the noble Lord himself has played a very considerable part. The fact that day after day we have become accustomed to first one Minister and then another coming to the House to explain that yet another body of people are going to strike should make us reflect on the deep seriousness of the situation: first, that a deep sense of grievance must have arisen all the way around throughout the present Government's tenure of Office; and, secondly, how serious it is that once a sense of frustration is allowed to grow it cannot be removed. That is the measure of the seriousness which is faced all the way round and of which today's Statement is one part.

My Lords, the fact that the noble Lord has told us that the Civil Service, of all people, are to go on strike is a matter of great regret and is wholly contrary to the public image, through public service, which these people have traditionally enjoyed and portrayed. It is a matter of great regret that they claim (as the Statement said) that they intend to conduct the maximum disruption to public business which will ensure the least loss to the union members.

I would ask the noble Lord to tell us, if he can, what parts of the Civil Service are to be so affected. Is Defence to be affected? What about the immigration authorities; are they to be affected? Will computers be affected?—because this could be devastating. And if they are to be affected are they going to be undermanned or are they going to have the plugs pulled out? If the latter, will the noble Lord confirm that that will wipe out the memories of the computers? The noble Lord is shaking his head, so I may assume that that will not happen. If that is so, I shall be glad to know it. Does not this Statement today indicate a breach of the agreement which the noble Lord and his right honourable friend the Prime Minister came to with the unions in the announcement of the concordat? Is this not, in effect, taking strike action while negotiations are still in progress and before the agreement has run out? Is it not therefore a straight contradiction of the agreement announced a week ago?

As two unions are affected and seven unions are not, can the noble Lord give an assurance that those civil servants who continue to work will not be victimised and that they will be permitted to go to work? And will the noble Lord carry out the words of his right honourable friend the Prime Minister and, with him, lead his people across the picket lines, if that should be necessary?

3.48 p.m.


My Lords, we on these Benches should like to join in thanking the noble Lord for repeating this Statement and in deploring the action that is planned for tomorrow by the two unions involved—and all the more because, as the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, has said, that action is to be taken before the existing agreement on the pay of those concerned expires on April 1st. We support the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, also in what he said about this being in breach of the joint statement which has just been issued by the Government and the TUC, and we offer the Government support in any action they may take to safeguard essential services in this area.

My Lords, I have two questions to ask the noble Lord, neither of which will occasion him any surprise. Does not the action that is now planned highlight the need for means to be agreed between the political Parties on how we can together ensure the general observance of negotiating procedures under which work would be continued throughout the period prior to the expiry of existing agreements and strike action used only as an instrument of last resort? Secondly, does not what is now in contemplation also show the need in the longer term for the pay of civil servants to be determined not in isolation as at present by the Civil Service Pay Research Unit, but by a single, independent and permanently constituted body which would deal with the pay of people employed in a number of key occupations which are vital to the support of life or, as in this case, it may be to the essential operations and even the security of the State itself?

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, became partisan in this matter. I do not complain when politicians behave like politicians, of course. But when he talks about a sense of frustration, I cannot understand this because most of the Civil Servants are not going on strike. This is only two unions and I believe they should be deplored because we have not properly started negotiations. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, for the Liberal Party. It is a breach of the agreement which the Government and the TUC have made. I remember being cross-examined on this not so long ago in this House. It is a breach of the agreement and we regret it. I hope that this Statement made by the Prime Minister will be listened to very carefully and that civil servants will respond.

It has been said that we should think in terms of longer term arrangements; but we did reactivate the pay research unit. They wanted this. I have a responsibility in this matter, being responsible for the Civil Service Department, and I think it is a good system; but the system has to be allowed to work. Moreover, the trade unions are represented on that unit, so I see no sense in this strike. I hope, without wishing to score Party points, that noble Lords will condemn it.


My Lords, would the noble Lord be kind enough to answer the questions that I specifically asked him, such as, are the computers to be affected, and what about Immigration and Customs?


My Lords, I do not want to be drawn too much on this issue because obviously we have contingency planning. In a dispute of this kind I must be careful. There are certain sectors of the work in the Civil Service which are difficult from the point of view of interruptions, and I recognise that. However, I cannot reveal contingency planning.


My Lords, would the noble Lord say whether strike action by these unions extends to spheres other than direct employment by Government Departments? For example, a good many members of these unions work for the Civil Aviation Authority. Are these people involved in the strike or not? Secondly, while I fully understand his unwillingness to disclose contingency plans, can he at least reassure people proposing to travel tomorrow that the airports will be open and operating?


My Lords, I think that I can give that assurance, yes. It is true that some of the civil servants are employed in different parts. Anyhow, only two unions are involved, as I stated: the Civil and Public Services Association—which I admit is a large union with a membership of about a quarter of a million—and also the Society of Civil and Public Servants, which has a membership of over 100,000. We believe, especially when we are now busily preparing the information for negotiation, that this is an unnecessary strike, and it really is deplorable.