HL Deb 24 January 1979 vol 397 cc1417-27

3.54 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 Home Secretary. I am sorry to interrupt this interesting debate, but I hope noble Lords will bear with me. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a further report to the House about the effect of the current industrial disputes, in the road haulage industry and elsewhere, on supplies and services, and on the Government's arrangements for ensuring that those supplies and services which are essential continue to be maintained.

"The situation remains broadly as I reported it to the House on Monday. The code of practice is having some effect on the movement of supplies, but there remain severe problems, particularly at the ports. There are still cases where priority supplies continue to be held up.

"While there continue to be difficulties with some essential foodstuffs, the position on food generally is unquestionably getting better. Reports from a number of regions indicate that stock levels are not only being maintained but are rising, and even in the North West some shops are in a position to restock with such goods as sugar, frozen foods and canned foods. The supply of salt has eased, and the slaughterhouses continue to function despite earlier fears that some would have to close.

"So far as animal feedstuffs are concerned, the level of supply remains adequate, although, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland told the House yesterday, the supply of animal feedstuffs to the intensive production sector, particularly in Scotland, has been difficult.

"On the industrial front, the picture is complicated by the effects of the severe weather and the rail dispute, and the movement of goods has not, generally speaking, improved despite a slight relaxation in the effects of picketing. However, production generally is holding up so far, though considerable production losses are being caused in particular industries, including steel, chemicals, glass and packaging, which will, if the situation persists, cause cumulative problems throughout the rest of industry.

"Lay-offs continue to increase, and while any figures must be treated with considerable caution, the present level of lay-offs in Great Britain as a whole is of the order of 200,000. There are growing problems, particularly for small companies, of cash flow as well as supplies. Only a continued easing of picketing and a sustained improvement in the transport situation will prevent a major decline in production in the near future.

"Within the priority categories, the Government are particularly concerned that there should be no delay in moving medical and pharmaceutical supplies and the raw materials, especially chemicals, essential to them. There is evidence of some bottlenecks where supplies are not getting through. This is unacceptable.

"My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport, in conjunction with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Services, has devised new arrangements, which have already begun to operate, so that officials of the Transport and General Workers' Union will know promptly of bottlenecks when they arise and be in no doubt whatsoever that the Government require them to be dealt with immediately. If these arrangements are not quickly effective, and if there is no other way of getting these supplies moving, the Government will themselves arrange to have these supplies moved.

"This brings me to the matter of the Ambulance Service. The House will know that the National Health Service ambulancemen are now providing full emergency cover in London following the one-day stoppage at the beginning of the week, during which emergency services were provided by the Army, the police and the voluntary services, to whom the House will wish to pay tribute. At the moment I understand that, in the country as a whole, normal emergency services are being maintained.

"I should tell the House where matters stand on water supply. Despite the agreement reached in the national pay negotiations last Friday, there continue to be local problems in a few districts. The House will, however, be glad to hear that the problem in the Pennine Division has been resolved.

"Finally, as to picketing, the police tell me that reports of physical intimidation, of obstruction and of violence remain extremely rare. They will, of course, uphold the law fully whenever and wherever the need arises.

"My colleagues and I will continue to report on the situation to the House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.59 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating that Statement; and we are also grateful for the concluding words of the Statement, which promise that Parliament will be kept regularly informed about progress. We, too, of course, should like to add our tribute to that of the noble Lord to the voluntary services for the part that they have been playing. Once again, as so often in our history, it shows what the people of this country can do when they are given the chance and the opportunity to do it.

My Lords, we on this side of course welcome all the small improvements in the supply situation which the Statement told us about, but I am bound to say to your Lordships that we still sense that the Government are far too complacent about the overall position. They are complacent in two senses. Complacent, first, about the real dangers of the breakdown in supplies and trade and, secondly, complacent about the danger to the fabric of our society of having allowed responsibility for the very essentials of life to have slipped out of their hands. Do the Government not realise how distasteful—indeed, I think I could say, how unacceptable—it is to the great majority of people of this country of all Parties and of none that decisions about the free passage of the very essentials of life should now rest mainly in the hands of local strike committees, many of which do not recognise even the authority of their own unions, let alone the authority of the elected Government of the country?

May I pass to more particular questions? There are many; one could ask questions about every one of the matters raised; and if I mention only two it is not because the others lack importance. First, as I heard the Statement, it appeared to me that the Government ought to be telling us something about what they are going to do about the severe position in the ports which the Statement recorded as being very worrying. It seems to me that, naturally, we are talking about port problems mainly in terms of getting imports into the country; but what about exports? What is to happen to the balance of payments and the strength of sterling on which, among a lot of other things, inflation depends?

Secondly, about picketing. The only reference to picketing, the special section about picketing, is about the peaceful conduct of the picketing. That is important, but it is not only the manner of picketing, which I believe can best be dealt with by a code of practice, but the location of the pickets which, I believe, can be dealt with only by legislation. It is high time for a statement of policy from the Government about what they intend for the future—and I realise that it cannot be done immediately—about controlling the places where picketing can take place, because that is what threatens to throttle the economic and social life of the country. Lastly, may I ask a general question? What are the Government doing about the disputes? What is their policy? Are they encouraging the employers to resist the pressure to increase their pay offers in the name of the battle against inflation? Or are they encouraging the employers to offer more in order to bring the disputes to an end? I do not know. I doubt whether many noble Lords know. I am certain that the country does not know, and it is about time that they did.


My Lords, from these Benches I should like to join in the tributes paid to the voluntary services, while regretting the fact that they should have had to be brought into play at this stage. I should like to ask the Leader of the House questions on two particular aspects of the situation. First, what is being done by the Government to persuade the trade union leaders to bring the pickets under control, especially at the docks, and to make the code of practice effective? A great deal more will have to be done if the code of practice is to be seen to be working.

Secondly, there is much confusion over the facts in these different industrial disputes which are misleading the public. I should like to ask the Government whether they will do something specific. Some lorry drivers claim that they get only £53 a week, while others say that they take home £120 to £140. Could the Government not issue an authoritative statement on each of these industrial disputes so that the public are properly informed? At the present time, none of us is properly informed. I hope that they would be able to show the present basic wage, the overtime and the bonuses which are available, the gross pay and the possible take-home pay after deductions, so that the public can differentiate between lies, damned lies, and authoritative statistics. I believe that a well-informed public opinion is one of the ways of keeping these industrial disputes in proper perspective.


My Lords, if I may, I will reply to the noble Lord, Lord Byers, first, and to the noble Lord, Lord Carr, afterwards. May I say on picketing that the code of practice which I reported to the House the other week has I think improved the situation. The Statement of the Home Secretary indicates this. As to the question about the figures regarding the wage negotiations, I will see whether this can be done. I think that the noble Lord probably has a valid point here. There is a lot of confusion about this and, particularly, on the question of overtime added to the basic wage. If this can be done, I am sure that an inspired Question or something of that kind will enable us to provide the information.

If I may say so to the noble Lord, there is no complacency. Ministers are continually anxious that we should get all of this settled. I, myself, deplore the whole thing. As I mentioned the other day, I am a former Food Minister. Only on Friday, I went to see how the unit was working, getting information from the ports and from different parts of the country. In that sphere—and particularly that of animal feedstuffs—there has been a marked improvement; and there has been an improvement in the food supplies, which I mentioned. There are still problems. I accept that. The Government have been challenged about picketing et cetera and about doing something about it in the various disputes which have taken place. The Government have had ACAS at work; but, my Lords, there is a strike and we are anxious to see this settled quickly without all the bad feeling that we know can exist in a period like this. There is no complacency. The Prime Minister is anxious. He, himself, made a Statement the other day. I hope that noble Lords will appreciate that I feel it my duty to come here in this way. A noble Lord complained that I was bringing Statements to the House. The noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, thought that I should not bring Statements to the House and I had to rebuke him—nicely, because he is a very good Parliamentarian. I believe that the House should be kept informed and I hope the situation will improve.


My Lords, may I ask a simple, non-Party supplementary question? What rate of growth is necessary in the gross national product in the next 12 months to leave no inflationary gap with the wage settlements that we hear are being made or are being demanded?


My Lords, I am always suspicious of simple questions. The noble Lord as a distinguished economist will understand why I say that. I cannot answer that. I wish I could; then I would be a "prof."


My Lords, would the noble Lord realise that the plea made by the noble Lord, Lord Byers, is extremely welcome because on every occasion last week I made exactly the same plea. I pointed out that this wonderful media of ours, which costs the country a lot of money, with the marked exception not of the Sporting Life but of the Financial Times, had made an effort to spell this out in a simple form. I can help the noble Lord the Leader of the Liberal Party by telling him that it was a week ago, last Thursday. What was brought out very clearly was that the problems which faced the road haulage industry are extremely complex and would not be solved by propaganda, however justified that propaganda may be. Is the noble Lord aware, for instance, that a week ago it was forecast with great authority that there would be massive shortages, unemployment amounting to a million and he himself defended an obviously overwrought statement by the Home Secretary? The truth is that the people of this country are behaving signally well in what is, after all, an industrial dispute. Would he not agree that the law on picketing is at least 50 years old and, provided that intimidation is not used, pickets can picket where they like, provided that the picket lines can be crossed without causing a breach of the peace? That is essential. Whether it is Mrs. Thatcher or anybody else who thinks they are going to "buck" this, they are certainly not going to do it, because——

Several noble Lords: Speech!


My Lords, let me finish. What we must make up our minds about at the end of the day is on whose side we are in terms of wanting this strike settled.


My Lords, I have noted my noble friend Lord Wigg's advice to me. I have even read, since he recommended it, the Sporting Life. On other matters, I accept what has been said about picketing, 73 years and the law. I accept it has been a long time and so we have to bear this in mind.


My Lords, I must press the noble Lord on two specific questions that I asked to which he did not even refer. One, what are the Government going to do about the ports' position, bearing in mind exports as well as imports? What is their policy? Are they encouraging employers to settle or to resist?


My Lords, I cannot answer that. Where there is a negotiation I cannot say that the Government will favour one side or the other. All I have stated is that there are difficulties in the ports. They are affecting many ports: London, Hull, Liverpool and Glasgow. This is a very serious matter, and we are giving it top priority.


My Lords, could the noble Lord help the House a little more? He will remember that last week, after his Statement, I suggested to him that it might be valuable if cases of physical intimidation were monitored. He was good enough to say that that was a constructive suggestion and that he would pass it on. Can he tell us what it means when he says that physical intimidation cases are extremely rare? Are they as rare as a bank robbery or are they as rare as a mugging? When he says that the police will uphold the law, does it mean that they have not done so up to date? If they have, what have they done about physical intimidation when it has occurred?


My Lords, the report comes from the Home Office. What they have said is that this is what the police in particular areas have reported to them. As I said on picketing, I have nothing to add to what I have already said and made clear to the House. The police will ensure that the law is upheld.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord would be good enough to clear up some confusion in my mind as a result of what he has said. When my noble friend who sits behind me asked what side the Government were taking about this issue, the noble Lord replied that they were taking no sides in the course of the dispute. Does this mean that the Government are no longer seeking to maintain the 5 per cent. limit?


My Lords, we take the view that the 5 per cent. was essential to recovery and to the battle against inflation.

But it is obvious that in certain sections negotiations have led to different results. I am saddened by this. This is why I have always taken a firm view that the 5 per cent. was right for this country. But I am afraid that we have been knocked off course.


My Lords, surely the Government would like to go further on that and say that in any event they wish employers to resist giving in to excessive wage demands?


Yes, in principle of course, my Lords. That is absolutely right.


My Lords, I have already asked questions about hospitals. I do not wish to embarrass the noble Lord or the Government in any way, but what has horrified the public most, I feel sure, is some of the actions which have been taken by a minority of the ambulance people, a small minority but there it is none the less. May I ask the Leader of the House whether he can assure us that accelerated consideration is being given in the Government to certain changes in the rules governing the behaviour of that profession which will make it impossible for this kind of thing to happen again?


My Lords, we have, as you know, acted quickly on the ambulance services. I deplored the situation myself, last week. We are now providing full emergency cover. Statements which were made by one or two people on this matter should never have been made. It has created unhappiness and uneasiness. I accept what the noble Lord has said; but the full service is now there.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that one of the points about picketing which is particularly worrying the general public is the report of threats by the pickets to a driver, that if he goes through the picket line—he being a member of the union—he will be "blacked"; that he will lose his union card and his job? Will the noble Lord tell us what he can do to protect a driver who wishes to carry on his job and make his deliveries against such dangers, and to what extent this is a typical instance?


My Lords, the code of practice is partly aimed to deal with matters of that kind.


But, my Lords, is it doing so?


My Lords, from reports that we have received from the police, yes. There have been very few incidents of voilence or intimidation. I know that there have been arguments about people paying money out, et cetera. It is not easy to prove that; but it has been relatively peaceful in that sense.


My Lords, is it not the case that the threat to "black" a man is neither violence nor intimidation? Therefore it is not intimidation for the purposes of the Statement which has just been made. Does not then my noble friend's question deserve very careful consideration? The Prime Minister has said that a man is entitled to cross a picket line if he wishes. Is it not an unjustifiable threat that he will lose his livelihood if he does so?


My Lords, I agree with the noble and learned Lord, who has put the matter very clearly. I have the Prime Minister's Statement here on picketing. Noble Lords will have seen this in Hansard. So I take the view of the noble and learned Lord.


My Lords, are the Government prepared, in the interests of national unity, to consult immediately with Opposition Parties to see whether any agreement can be reached concerning the need to enforce or amend existing legislation so as to alleviate secondary picketing, which in the North West (from where I come) is still particularly severe and intimidating in the ports?


My Lords, the concept of national unity is a very noble one. I take the view, as Leader of the House, that it is my duty and right to inform colleagues on both sides of what is happening. We are to have a major debate tomorrow on this matter and 1 think some of these issues might well be brought up then. I do not want to spoil the debate today; I think the House has a very good debate and I must not monopolise this. I do not mind answering questions all afternoon, but I feel that is the type of question which should be raised in the debate tomorrow. My Lords, may we proceed now?