HL Deb 18 January 1979 vol 397 cc1187-98

4.22 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department.

The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will report to the House on developments in the arrangements for ensuring that essential supplies and services are maintained.

"The broad picture has been, as the House knows, one of some deterioration in the last day or so in the supply situation, though the extent of this varies from region to region.

"As regards food, shortages are becoming more marked all over the country, more so in some regions than others. There has been some improvements in supplies of salt, but in some areas there are difficulties in the supply of some basic manufactured foodstuffs, such as sugar and margarine.

"As to animal feeding-stuffs, there has been or is expected to be some improvement in Humberside and in Wales, though the situation at Hull remains critical. The general situation is still, however, one of growing shortage.

"On the health side, there are reports of difficulties in supply to hospitals as a result of production disruptions at suppliers.

"Looking at industry as a whole, lay-offs have increased in some degree. Many industries and firms face problems in the supply of raw materials and in the storage of stocks of products which are not being moved out to customers.

"Many of these problems are the result of secondary picketing. Picketing is not being confined to drivers and vehicles in the hire and reward section of the industry, and it is interfering with the movement of essential supplies of services covered by the list of priorities which we have agreed with the unions concerned. I have had reports from chief officers of police about the conduct of the picketing. On the whole it remains peaceful, but there are beginning to be some exceptions to that, and there have in some instances been signs of intimidation.

"The police will, as always, carry out their responsibilities under the law. But the need is to confine the picketing in accordance with the code of practice described by my right honourable friend. Arrangements have been made, under my direction, for Government officials and senior officials of the Transport and General Workers' Union to meet so that any problems relating to priority supplies or extension of the dispute to unauthorised areas which is reported to the Government from the regions can be taken up forthwith by union officers. Monitoring meetings will be held daily, and the Government and the union officials will maintain continuing contacts.

"The implementation of the code of practice on picketing to be issued by the T & GWU and the monitoring arrangements I have described to the House would lead to an early and marked improvement in the movement of essential supplies and services all over the country. As my right honourable friend has said, the Government believe the balance of advantage lies in those voluntary measures to control the dispute and maintain priority supplies, rather than in the Government introducing direct emergency action. But we continue to be ready to call on the assistance of the Services or to proclaim a State of Emergency if need be, and the necessary contingency plans for this are at a high state of readiness.

"As regards the unofficial dispute in the London Ambulance Service, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence and I have already made contingency plans for emergency arrangements to be provided by the Services, if this should prove necessary.

"In the Pennine Division the North-West Water Authority is maintaining piped water supplies to the vast majority of the population and industry. Of 350,000 households in the division, about 2,200 are without piped water due to burst mains which have not been repaired. Most of these are scattered across the division in small groups. No one is without access to water. Standpipes have been erected for all except a few properties. Elsewhere, people are able to go to neighbours down the street. Nearly all sewage treatment plants are fully working, but it has been necessary to divert part of the flow at Bolton into the river. Water flow in the river is reducing the effects of pollution.

"Negotiations on pay in the water industry are taking place today and we must await the outcome. However, I can assure the House that there are contingency arrangements to help the North-West Water Authority at short notice."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.27 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the second Statement which has been made in another place. It follows in some detail the first Statement and it should be examined with care. It categorically states that there are shortages, and serious shortages, and that many of them are the result of secondary picketing and some intimidation. My noble friend Lord Carrington has already pointed out that firms and their employees not involved in disputes are being forced to stop work and that the public in this country see no reason why pickets should behave as petty tyrants.

The information in the second Statement should really have been listened to by the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, before he made his comments because the general public regard secondary picketing as indefensible, and it is clear that he was completely wrong in his assessment of the situation. There must be anxiety about shortages of essential food and about the hospitals and raw material and transport problems for industry.

I should like to put some brief questions to the noble Lord. First, the Statement announces that there will be daily meetings between officials on the code of practice, but that code of practice is still to be issued. It is stated that the meetings "would lead to an early and marked improvement" in the situation. When will the Government take further action if the code does not lead to the hoped-for improvement? Futhermore, it is hoped that the code will apply to pickets under the control of unions. What is it proposed to do about pickets who are not members of unions or who are not under the influence or control of unions? It is clear from Press reports that there are numbers of these pickets operating in the country.

With regard to what is said in the Statement regarding ambulances, can the noble Lord clarify whether the contingency plan for the use of Servicemen can be brought into action before a state of emergency is announced, should this be urgently required? Finally, with regard to the arrangements announced concerning water in the North-West of England, have contingency plans yet been made to deal with water and sewerage problems, which are important both from a health point of view and in regard to the essentials of normal life, should disruption spread beyond the North of England to other parts of the country?


My Lords, I have already made my views clear on much of this matter following the first Statement. However, I should like to question the noble Leader of the House on the aspect of the matter which particularly worries me; namely, the question of water. There does not appear to be any sense of emergency, yet the health of the people is at risk in the area which is described in the Statement. In those circumstances, surely we cannot be asked merely to await the outcome of pay negotiations which are taking place. I wish to ask the Leader of the House whether, should there be no settlement in the course of the day, the Government will put the contingency plans into operation, so that people can at least have some assurance that something is being done to look after their needs? I must say to the noble Leader of the House that this is the wettest Statement on water that I have ever heard.


I do not think that it could be anything else other than wet, my Lords. However, to be serious, I note very carefully what the noble Lord has said. We have what we believe are satisfactory emergency arrangements. The situation has improved, and I hope that something will emerge today which will mean an end to the dispute——


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that these Statements are beginning to sound farcical?


I have not finished dealing with the earlier points raised, my Lords. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, that there are serious shortages. As an ex-Minister of Agriculture, I was very worried about supplies, including feeding stuffs, to the industry. This is a vital matter, but we have acted, and the situation is being monitored daily. The shortages vary, as was mentioned in the other Statement. With regard to the question of picketing, I stand by what I said earlier. I agree with the noble Lord that secondary picketing is not an activity which we should condone, and we have not done so. I believe that I have dealt with the matter of the ambulance services. We feel that we have all the contingency plans and that everything will be satisfactory.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that these Statements are becoming farcical? All they amount to is a recital ofinformation which we have already read in the newspapers. There is nothing new in the Statements. What is contained in them is merely dressed up under the heading "Government Statement". In the light of all that is happening, is it not possible for the Lord Privy Seal to suggest to his colleagues in the Government that they should do something about the situation? For instance, the second Statement read to us has been made by the Home Secretary, who states that he has been told by the police that there is intimidation. Therefore, why does the Home Secretary not use his powers, even by way of sending a circular giving advice to the police and stating that they would have his support in carrying out the legislation that is already on the Statute Book? I am not asking the Home Secretary to instruct the police, but circulars are issued from Government Departments giving advice to the people who have to apply that advice in relation to every item that comes under the Government's purview. Merely to re-state what is already in the newspapers and to pretend that that is doing something about the matter is to cause the country to become disillusioned, and people will doubt whether they can ever be rescued from the chaos surrounding all of us.


My Lords, I am rather surprised by the extravagant language of the noble Lord. I do not particularly like giving Statements. I should like to be reading the Sporting Life elsewhere. But I am a man of several tastes, and I see nothing wrong in being interested in horse-racing. I recall that when I was a Minister noble Lords opposite were very worried when there was no racing because of certain difficulties, and I sympathised with them. However, I say to the noble Lord that I think it right and proper that I, as Leader of the House, should repeat important Statements made in another place; and I do not treat your Lordships' House casually. What I have said today is what I sincerely feel, and I believe it right that noble Lords should be here to cross-examine me as I represent the Government in this House.


My Lords, apparently I have to apologise to the Leader of the House for a slip of mine in confusing the Financial Times with the Sporting Life. Both papers are concerned with gambling, but one is more respectable than the other. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, seemed to think that what the Minister has said contradicts what I said—nothing of the kind! The Minister said that the police have reported that there are some excesses. Of course there are. I said that I had carried out a detailed check in the Eastern region covering the food factories there, and there was no secondary picketing. Of course there will be excesses. Is the Minister aware that there must after all be a settlement of the strike at some time?—or is it going to go on for ever? If we want a settlement of a strike, the men involved in it must feel that they are getting a fair deal and that someone is speaking up for them.

I came into politics for one purpose, and for one purpose only: to defend the beliefs trade unions stand for. There was a time when the Labour Party did that, but sometimes it becomes a little faint. I am here today to say that of course there is a strike, but the men on strike have a case, and that case has not been presented. The Press take good care that it is not presented; indeed, the whole media take care that it is not presented. When there are excesses they arc of course distorted. The Tory Party, which after all has always wanted to slam the unions, makes the most of it——

Several noble Lords

No, no.


Yes, they have always done that, and they are doing it again today.


My Lords, the noble Lord has made his point, but I want to see a settlement: I think we all do. The sooner we settle the strikes in which we are involved, the better it will be for the country, and for trade unionists, too.


My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that on the whole both my noble friends the Leader of the Opposition and Lord Campbell of Croy have deliberately sought to take a constructive and a conciliatory view, and that there has been no attempt on this side by this Party to exacerbate the situation, whatever we may feel? What we were really saying about the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, was that the Government Statement confirmed what we have been reading in the Press, and that therefore the noble Lord's attack on the media was wholly unjustified. The media are one of the most responsible sources of information in the world, and what the Government have said in fact confirms what the media have been saying about the present situation.


My Lords, I agree with the noble and learned Lord about the responsible attitude that has been taken, including that adopted today in this House and in another place, and I hope that this will continue. But, above all, I am sure we all wish that we can get the dispute out of the way and have it settled amicably.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware—as I am sure he is—that he has today repeated a Statement which is of very considerable gravity? He has indicated that there is a growing threat to the jobs of many hundreds of thousands of decent trade unionists Who are in no way directly involved in the dispute. He has alluded also to the serious situation in the North-West affecting water supplies and sewerage, as well as the growing threat to the London ambulance service. Will my noble friend give an undertaking to make regular Statements to the House about this developing situation? As a result of accident so far as our procedure is concerned, this is the first Statement we have had on this matter this week, and I think it desirable to have regular Statements as the situation develops.

I should like to ask my noble friend a second question. Will he make inquiries into the issue raised by the Leader of the Liberal Party regarding evidence of extortion by pickets who have apparently been demanding money in return for allowing lorries to cross picket lines? This is an extremely serious matter, as I am sure my noble friend will agree. Will he make inquiries about it with the appropriate chief constables and include the matter in any Statement that he may make next week?


My Lords, I shall certainly follow up and inquire into the allegation of extortion by pickets. Such a thing would be deplorable. On the question of regular Statements, I am here merely repeating a Statement made by the Home Secretary—and the noble Lord was recently in the Home Office. If it is necessary, we will make a Statement. Whether it should be a regular procedure, I cannot say. I have been attacked today for making Statements.


My Lords, with great respect to my noble friend, what I said was that, notwithstanding the situation in another place, this is the first time that this House has had a Statement from a Minister about this very serious situation. All I am asking him is to give an undertaking to keep this House informed, if necessary by Statements next week, so that we can keep in touch with this situation.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord a question with regard to sewage going into rivers? Will he have this very carefully monitored and, if it is going into rivers in great quantities, could he have notices put up warning people not to drink the water? Because a lot of people will be fetching water, perhaps, because they have not got any in their own homes.


My Lords, may I say to the noble Baroness that we are doing this.


My Lords, could the noble Lord add to what the Statement said about intimidation? If I heard it right, the Statement admitted that there had been incidents. Would the noble Lord not agree that all of us, whatever our political position, are very concerned that these incidents of violence should happen, and that their happening should be confirmed by the Government? Some of us, I think, in the interests of civil liberties generally, are anxious to know what steps the Government propose to take to monitor these incidents, to record the facts, to obtain police reports on them and so on. Could he perhaps help us about that?


My Lords, I think that is an important point, and I shall inform the Home Secretary accordingly. I will link it with the request that has been made by my noble friend Lord Harris. Yes, this is important, and I think I should follow it through.


My Lords, I think the Statement mentioned ambulances. I realise that making exceptions does not help the Government generally. None the less, there is now such a strong feeling in the country about any interference with hospitals that I hope that this matter will be given a special place in the considerations of the Government, in the measures they take and in the statements they make, and that if there is interference with hospitals then action will be taken as quickly as possible whenever it becomes necessary.


Certainly, my Lords, and I am glad that the noble Lord has raised that point. Yes, I give that assurance.


My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House two brief questions, first of all about secondary picketing. In reply to a supplementary question from my noble friend on the Front Bench he said that this is something which in his opinion we should not condone. From that, do I take it that he thinks that a code of conduct which is not being complied with is insufficient, and that legislation is necessary in this very important field? Secondly, can he give noble Lords a little more information about lay-offs and short time? He said almost nothing about that, and presumably the Government have the latest figures.


My Lords, I am afraid there is nothing about that in the Statement. My view on secondary picketing is this: let us examine how the code of conduct works. I cannot commit anyone here to legislation. I think I know what the noble Lord is thinking, but I cannot go further than that. On supplies and stocks, et cetera—I know that this has been raised—and also on issues like intimidation, what is remarkable is that there has been so little violence in this dispute so far compared with scenes in other cases and considering the extension. I hope that we do not get any violence.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend about the general situation, as to which none of us can feel very happy? What action is being taken by the Government through the medium of the General Council of the TUC in order to bring the existing disputes to an end and also to take whatever measures are within their authority in order to deal with the disputes which are impending and are likely to occur? What action is being taken? If meetings are taking place between members of the Government and the TUC, can we be informed what is in fact happening? Have the Government left it entirely to the TUC to do whatever it wishes, or to do nothing at all?


My Lords, in reply to my noble friend Lord Shinwell, the Prime Minister has met the General Council of the TUC. Also, we have been in continual touch with the TUC. We believe that they are anxious, as we are, to see that there is an end to the dispute, and that no damage is done, not only to the trade unionists concerned but also to the citizens who are affected. So there is no attempt on the part of the Government to dilly-dally, if I may use that phrase. They are anxious to have positive action supported by the General Council of the TUC, and the General Council have been very positive.


My Lords, is the Minister not aware that in the debate yesterday we spent a long time discussing the actual figures and that I quoted, from Manchester alone, an additional 50,000 lay-offs this week and the fact that the chemical industry estimated one-fifth of a million by next week? With great respect, I should have thought that Ministers would have been informed on these matters, not least because I gave them from authoritative sources—for Manchester, the President of the Chamber of Commerce, and, for the chemical industry, the Chemical Industry Association.


My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. I in fact said that lay-offs have increased, though I did not give any specific figure. But I am grateful to the noble Lord for the remarks he made yesterday.

Lord W1GG

My Lords, did I understand my noble friend the Leader of the House to say in his supplementary remarks that there have been no reports of violence at all?

Several noble Lords



My Lords, I am sorry. Then perhaps he would be good enough to repeat what he said.


No, my Lords, I did not say that. The noble Lord has had a good innings today, and I have been very tolerant—quite rightly. I respect the noble Lord, and I know his sympathies; but I think I have gone far enough. I think we should get on to the next business.


My Lords, we are in the same difficulty—the other Statement has not been cleared from the other House; they seem to be taking a long time over it all— so if noble Lords are with me I think we should again resolve ourselves into a Committee on the Arbitration Bill.