HL Deb 18 January 1979 vol 397 cc1173-80

3.48 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 road haulage strike. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary hopes to make a Statement, Mr. Speaker, when this is concluded, on the effects of the current industrial disputes and the Government's contingency arrangements.

"I regret to inform the House that there appears to be no prospect of an immediate end to the strike and the movement of supplies of all kinds is being held up. Hardship and considerable dislocation is being caused to the general public and to trade and industry, particularly because of the severe effects of secondary picketing. I therefore asked the General Secretary of the TGWU, Mr. Moss Evans, and the General Secretary of the TUC, Mr. Len Murray, to come to see me for discussions last night.

"Mr. Evans made it clear that his union stand by its agreement to maintain the priority supplies of essential goods. He also repeated that it stands by its instructions to its own members that the strike and the picketing should be confined to those companies who are in dispute with the Road Haulage Association. Mr. Evans undertook to take further urgent action to ensure that these priority supplies are maintained and that action by pickets is not extended to companies and employees who are not involved in the dispute.

"Nevertheless it is clear that some picketing practices and in particular secondary picketing have given rise to the present serious situation; I told Mr. Evans that there had been little amelioration in the position and that it was essential that pickets and in particular secondary picketing should be properly controlled. I have already made clear to the House that, in the Government's view, this control is likely to be more effective by a voluntary code of practice than by attempts at unenforceable legislation. As a result of our discussion the Transport and General Workers' Union has agreed to a voluntary code of practice in relation to picketing during this dispute and this has been issued by it today. The code explicitly provides that "picketing should be confined to the drivers and vehicles in the hire and reward section of the industry who are employed by firms in dispute with the union", that is, it rules out secondary picketing. The union is making clear to all its members that no member of the union would be penalised or suffer in any way as regards his rights as a member of the union if he follows this code of practice.

"My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department will be dealing with the general question of contingency arrangements in his Statement. But, in relation to the road haulage dispute, I should say that in the current grave situation the Government have given careful consideration as to whether they should seek the powers that would become available by proclaiming a State of Emergency today. The critical question is whether the proclamation of a State of Emergency would increase the supply of essential goods and services. At the moment the Government's view is that essential supplies would be better maintained by the members of the Transport and General Workers' Union observing the code of practice issued by their union and so putting an end to secondary picketing. But the Government will keep the matter under review day by day.

"The Government will keep the House informed of developments."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be obliged to the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating that Statement. No doubt your Lordships will take note of, and will welcome so far as it goes, the proposal that Mr. Moss Evans and the Transport and General Workers' Union will issue a code of practice about secondary picketing. However, we shall also recollect that Mr. Moss Evans said that that was precisely what he was going to do. Indeed, he said that one of the reasons for declaring the strike official was to control picketing. To say the least of it, that does not seem to have been the experience in the past few days. We also have observed in the newspapers this morning the statement made by Mr. Kitson that secondary picketing was essential if the union was to win the strike. Moreover, I do not think that the Government should under-estimate the anger of ordinary persons at what is happening about secondary picketing. They will certainly expect the code of practice to be effective. If it is not effective, they will expect the Government to ensure that it is effective, and very quickly at that.

As regards the State of Emergency which was referred to in the last part of the Statement, I think that it must be for the Government to make their own decision. We cannot possibly have all the facts at our disposal. But, certainly from our observation and from what we hear, the situation does seem to be a great deal more serious than one would suppose from some of the statements that have been made by Ministers. We see the lay-offs and the shortages in the shops. We on this side of the House—emergency or no emergency—shall expect the Government to ensure that essential supplies are kept going.

3.54 p.m.


My Lords, I must say to the noble Lord the Leader of the House that I listened to the Statement with mounting misgivings. It refers to the need to control secondary picketing. Surely what is needed is to stop secondary picketing, especially in the docks and the factories. Surely the form of secondary picketing which we have witnessed in the last few days and the obstruction and intimidation must be illegal and there must, therefore, be grounds for taking action against it.

I gain the impression that the first thing that must be done is for the union leaders to regain control of their militant members. If they do not do that, I do not see the value of a code of practice at all, because unless they regain control of their militant members they cannot put it into practice. Therefore, I ask the Government to make it clear to the union leaders that the first thing is to regain control, and, if necessary, they should use the powers which they have under the closed shop system to force compliance with union instructions, and also to force compliance with the undertakings which the union have given to the Government themself. If that is not done we have made no progress.

Finally, I would ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House whether it is not essential that the union leadership should take immediate action against those who indulge in corrupt practices by extorting cash from employers through a Mafia-type protection racket which I never thought we would see in this country.

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, first, may I say to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, that I am grateful for his positive approach. This is a difficult situation and he is quite right in saying that it is for the Government to decide, because inevitably we are involved. If the facts show the need for something more urgent, then we shall be entitled to act. Therefore, I am grateful for the remarks which he made. I accept what he said about the code of practice. However, before we receive biting criticism which I think the noble Lord, Lord Byers, made of the code of practice, and before the noble Lord makes a final judgment, he should read the code of practice. I hope that there will be copies of it available for noble Lords to study carefully.

I believe that if there can be voluntary action it would be far better than thinking in terms of legislation, because it would take a long time to get legislation through. So, we feel that the course that we have followed is the right course in the present circumstances; but if the situation became worse, then naturally we may have to take other action.


My Lords, will the Minister be good enough to realise that the kind of picture one has depends upon one's sources of information. If, therefore, one relies upon the media—the BBC, radio or television—or one reads the Press, with the honourable exception of the Financial Times, which has tried to be objective, one receives the type of picture painted by the two Front Bench speakers.

On the other hand, not being a devotee of the Press as an unadulterated force of truth, I did some checking myself. Does the Minister realise that last night and this morning I made checks in the Eastern region—that is, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, which are areas which have a very great number of food firms? There is not one single food factory which is not getting its supplies, and that is because of the energetic and competent action of the Transport and General Workers' Union. Therefore, the pictures about secondary picketing are grossly overstated, as indeed are the reports about bribes and all the other fun and games. If noble Lords would take the trouble to make inquiries they would find that to be so.

Is the Minister further aware that the Press, with the honourable exception of the Sporting——

Several noble Lords



My Lords, I shall own up to noble Lords that I read the Sporting Life; that is perfectly true! And if I have made a Freudian slip I am proud of it. I should have said "With the exception of the Financial Times". The Press in this country has made no effort whatever to present the simple fact that the lorry drivers have a case—indeed, a very substantial case—which has been grossly distorted. Will the Government bear in mind that in so far as the Press does not present objectively the lorry drivers' and the strikers' case, it embitters the strikers and that is one of the main causes of vicious picketing?


My Lords, I have noted carefully what the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, has said. I shall repeat another Statement which deals with the state of supply of goods and services and contingency arrangements. I hope that the noble Lord still receives his Sporting Life.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of the danger of the phraseology used in the Statement? It uses the term "unenforceable legislation". What is unenforceable legislation? It cannot be legislation unless it has the approval of the whole of Parliament, which represents the interests of the whole nation. Who is in a position to make unlawful legislation which has passed that test? Does not the phraseology which the noble Lord has used mean that the Government are not in charge of the situation, even in the area that they should be covering? If the Government are so dispirited as to what they can do within their proper powers, ought they not to hand over to someone who is not so dispirited? Is not that one of the contributions that could be made at this difficult time?


My Lords, I should not have thought that that was a positive suggestion. The noble Lord is a member of a Party that has had some strange difficulties in the area of industrial relations, as he knows only too well, and which led to the fall of one of its Prime Ministers. The noble Lord is an old Parliamentarian. He knows very well that sometimes legislation which is passed cannot properly be enforced as those who initiated the Act thought.


My Lords, as the Government are apparently going to back the code of practice, will the noble Lord ensure that the widest publicity, in simple language, is given to that code? To be quite frank, trade union language is often so complicated that I cannot understand it. The people of this country seem to have an extraordinary idea of the power of pickets and do not realise their own rights. Therefore, if a code of practice is to be put into effect, will the Government ensure that it is fully understood, or understood as fully as possible, by those who are affected by it in this country?


My Lords, that is a good, positive point. As I have said, I hope that the code of practice will be available to noble Lords. However, I agree that it must be simple, clear and understood by rank and file trade unionists, which is very important.

My Lords, I understand the next Statement has not yet been cleared.


My Lords, we are in a difficult situation because we do not yet have clearance for the next Statement. Therefore, perhaps we ought to resume consideration of the Arbitration Bill.


My Lords, I think that that is probably the best course to pursue. We are dealing with quite a short Amendment. If that is convenient to both sides of the House, I should not propose to detain the House very long and perhaps other noble Lords will adopt the same course.