§ 3.24 p.m.
§ Lord CARRINGTON rose to call attention to the present industrial situations; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am under no illusion in introducing the Motion in my name on the Order Paper that anything very new is likely to emerge from our debate. One way or another we have been debating the same type of subject over a long period of time. But, it seemed to me right that your Lordships should have an opportunity of discussing the immediate, and I think serious, situation. Even if nothing very novel emerges, it is my hope that there will be a general consensus in this House about what might be done in the short term and the long term to try to extricate us from our national difficulties, a consensus which could conceivably be of help in forming and influencing public opinion.
§ Paradoxically, I think, it may well be that the rather alarming events of the past few weeks may make it easier for any Government, which have the courage to do so, to take action which six months ago would not have had the same acceptance or support as it would today. There can be no doubt that, on whatever side of the House we may sit, we can sense the frustration of the ordinary citizen; frustration at the strikes; revulsion at the sort of news we heard on the radio this morning of the picketing at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham; anger at picketing; and a feeling that things generally speaking have gone far enough and that something has to be done to stop it before this country bleeds to death from the wounds that it has inflicted upon itself. Somehow or other that feeling must be channelled and harnessed into measures which will restore the good sense and tolerance and the economic reality which 99 out of 100 people in this country want to see. It does not need to be said, I hope, that we on this side will support any Government of any Party that will do that. I do not care who does it, as long as it is done, for our salvation depends upon it.
Last weekend by chance I picked up a book of Dean Swift's contributions to The Examiner and The Spectator. The book fell open at the following passage:
There are two chief subjects of discontent in the management of public affairs which are apt to breed difference, and one is the rewarding of merit. By merit I here understand that value which every man puts on his own deservings from the public. There could not be a more difficult employment found out than that of a paymaster general to this sort of merit—or a more noisy crowded place than a court of judicature erected to settle and adjust every man's claim to that article".
§ If that were true in 1710, how much truer it is today. At any rate, nobody today could put it any better.
§ We seem, in these last years, to have created an expectancy of an increase in everyone's standard of life which has greatly inflated the value which every man puts on his deservings from the public. That is equally true of both Parties. It is partly because in our political system we understandably enough promise things in order that the electors should vote for us; and it is partly because, over the years, people have increasingly found it difficult to see the relation between the effort they put into their job and the reward that they get out of it. We do not seem to have an acceptable paymaster or judicature, however noisy and crowded.
§ Most people have had an increase in their standard of life over the years which has usually had not much bearing upon their productivity. In spite of the dire warnings of successive Governments about the need for greater production and the consequences of failure and the way that those warnings have been ignored, inexorably over these last years, with perhaps a gap here and there, the standard of living of the people of this country has increased. It has risen because we have borrowed to maintain our standard of life; it has risen because we have shared in the general increase of world prosperity; and recently it has risen because we are living on the capital and great good luck of having North Sea oil.
§ But the time is coming when those warnings from politicians of both Parties will come true, and with what consequences one cannot yet foresee. But I think that there is still a chance of avoiding it if, in the time available, we can change, or seek to change, the attitudes of those in this country who are leading their fellow men and women to what I think is disaster. It is undoubtedly disheartening that the lessons of 1975 and 1976 do 1557 not seem to have been learned. Surely it was obvious that inflation and inflationary wage packets do the greatest possible damage to the ordinary man and woman in the street. Indeed, I suppose one might say that the only people who manage to survive inflation without damage are the very rich.
§ Do those who are claiming 40 per cent. or thereabouts in this new wage round not remember what happened last time, only three years ago, and the disagreeable remedies which the Government very rightly had to impose in terms of restriction in public expenditure and increased taxation? The unpleasant fact is—and we must say this—that, like it or not, there is no God-given right for anybody in the country to have an increase in his standard of life every year. Of course it would be very nice and, of course, if we were to produce enough to make it possible, it could happen. But to suppose that a country which is slipping further and further into uncompetitiveness and paying itself more and more while it is doing so is likely to get richer and more prosperous, is absurd. Sooner or later, we must realise that an increase in our standard of life will come only if we put these things right, are more productive and are more restrained in the rewards that we seek for what we do.
§ This afternoon I have no wish, and I do not intend, in any way to be Party political, but I must make one point because it has a bearing on the future. The Party opposite bears a heavy load of responsibility for what it did in 1973 and 1974, the consequences of which are still with us. In order to win the Election and defeat Mr. Heath's Government it advocated policies, and subsequently pursued policies, which have proved disastrous. If I may say so, the present Government are fortunate to have a different sort of Opposition from that which Mr. Heath had in 1973. Therefore, it is all the more necessary that the Members of the Labour Party, however unpopular it may be, should say the sort of things that I have just been saying about the facts of economic life, which are inescapable under whatever system we happen to operate, whether it be in Russia, Romania, France or Britain. And as we discussed at considerable length only last week the creation of wealth in a notable debate opened by my 1558 noble friend Lord Trenchard, there is no need to say anything further on that point.
§ But it would be too much to expect that we can change the attitude of two or three generations overnight or create wealth overnight. In the meantime we have to find a solution to our problems. The difficulty with most of these debates is that most of us are pretty good on analysis, but a little short on solutions. I do not believe that the solution can be found in what the Liberal Party in particular is requesting, which is the return of a statutory incomes policy. I believe that there are some rare occasions when such a policy is inevitable, but over these last years we have surely seen the problems which a statutory incomes policy brings—not perhaps in the first year, but subsequently and more particularly after a longer period of time in which the unfairness which it inevitably creates becomes intolerable and unacceptable to certain sections of the community.
§ I do not suppose there to be many people in this House—though there would be some—who would disagree with the proposition that the best way of settling these problems is by responsible, free collective bargaining. The difficulty is—and this has been said often enough—that we can have free collective bargaining quite easily, but responsibility seems a little harder to achieve. It is harder to achieve because the balance of power has now shifted out of all proportion in favour of those who have the muscle, if they so wish to use it, to disrupt and paralyse our national life.
§ In the past it was undoubtedly true that the power rested with the employers; with their right to hire and fire and the social climate at the time, they had the whip hand. Indeed, the trade unions were very rightly created to redress that balance and to ensure that there was a greater fairness as between one side and the other. But, as so often happens, it seems—at any rate to me—that the pendulum has swung too far. Neither the employers nor the Government now seem to have the ability to withstand the massive rights, privileges and immunities of the trade unions.
§ In saying that, I am not in the least indulging in union bashing. I am saying 1559 that we should now do something to restore the balance—to bring the pendulum once more back into the centre. Alas! it is undeniably true that recent legislation has increased the authority of the trade unions at the expense of the State and of the individual, and somehow we have to see how that can be put right. Although I think the Prime Minister was suggesting that the trade unions should put their own house in order before some successor and wicked Government came in and did it for them, in his remarks in another place on Tuesday he acknowledged what I have just said.
§ We are really asking the Government to take action now. For if nothing is done now, when the time is right, docs anyone seriously suppose that the next time around we shall not have exactly the same series of problems? We shall once again see the ugly face of picketing—the denial of the right to work by intimidation: not necessarily physical intimidation, but, more menacingly, of the threat to black a man's labour forever or to use the closed shop, now alas! enshrined in law. We shall see the employers—particularly the smaller employers—intimidated by the fear that their firms will be on a perpetual blacklist if they go through picket lines.
§ Once again we shall see the public suffering, though they themselves have no part in the strike and only want to get on with their everyday lives. The hardship and the inconvenience which these strikes and the secondary picketing create will once again be ignored by the strikers and we shall hear—as we hear on the radio every morning—the strikers saying how sad they are at the inconvenience they are causing and how much they regret it, but it is inevitable. We shall see yet another nail in the coffin of our exporters and industrialists whose reputation for prompt delivery and service is eroded every time one of these strikes and situations occur. And though next time the Government Statements—whatever Government it may be—may still say that food is getting through and that the housewife has sugar and salt, the economic life of the country will be coming progressively to a halt, as it is at this moment, and the prospect of investment, jobs and prosperity will recede yet again. So do not let us be lulled into the 1560 belief that because this series of strikes is settled—as settled it will be—anything has changed and that the underlying problems will disappear, for they will not.
§ There are very few people in this country who do not think that the legislation on the closed shop has not gone too far. There can be no one who approves of the way in which secondary picketing has operated, and most of us believe that it is sensible and right and would be beneficial for trade unions to have secret ballots, both for their leadership and in the case of the decision to strike. If the Prime Minister introduced legislation on these lines he would have the overwhelming support of the people of this country. At the moment the Government and the public fight with their hands tied behind their back. In the end in a free society the only way in which good sense can prevail is if public opinion forces the unreasonable to take a reasonable course, but it is much more difficult for good sense to prevail if the law is weighted in favour of those who seek to be unreasonable.
§ There are very few strikes in this country which can bring the nation to its knees provided, and provided only, that the Government of the day are prepared to act resolutely and use all the resources at their disposal. They must by their actions seem to be determined men—determined in the national interest not to allow foolish men to lead us into disaster. They must not abandon the authority of the Government, as the present Government appears to have done with the strike committees, to which, cap in hand, employers have to go in order to be told whether or not they will be allowed to go through a picket-line or a dock gate. The strike committee seems to be the arbiter of what is important in the national interest; how sick a person has to be before help is granted.
§ The law on picketing, which we are going to be told about a little later on, may be obscure or may not be obscure, but I should have thought that one thing was absolutely certain—that no striker and no picket is in a position to refuse to allow anybody to go through a picket-line; and the Government, by accepting, apparently without demur, the kind of phraseology they have, appear to have opted out and abandoned their obligation 1561 to govern in the interests of everybody in this country. Very few strikes can succeed if the Government harness and use public opinion, for, until such time as the balance of the law is adjusted, it is public opinion and the common sense of the ordinary man and woman in the street which is the most potent weapon against the irresponsible striker.
§ In 1973, leaving aside what I said about the then Opposition, I am doubtful whether the British people were in a mood to undergo hardship and inconvenience in order to support the Government of the day—or perhaps at that stage had any realisation of what was at stake, though, when we look back, was not Mr. Heath absolutely right in what he was trying to do? But I believe that the mood today is different, and the Government will gravely underestimate the resentment of the British people at what is happening if they do nothing.
Dean Swift, in the essay I quoted at the beginning of my speech, began with these words:
If we examine what societies of men are in closest union among themselves, we shall find them to be either those who are engaged in some evil design or who labour under one common misfortune".
I do not believe that we are a society which is engaged in some evil design, though I have no doubt that at the present time there are some malign people exploiting the industrial unrest. But can anybody deny that we are a people who labour under one common misfortune? And yet we are not a society in the closest union among ourselves, but I think the opportunity is there to achieve just that if the Government seize it. They have a changed mood in the country. There is anger and frustration at what is happening.
§ The Government themselves recognise the problems of too much union power. They are only too conscious of the problems which a return to higher inflation will bring. They know that if they take the steps I have suggested they will have the support of, I imagine, most people in this country. They are in a unique position to take strong and positive action. If they fail, it will be a national misfortune. If they succeed, no one will be more pleased than those of us who wish to see this country restored to its once great position. But, if they are not prepared to 1562 give us the leadership, then I think it is their duty to make way for those who will. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Peart)
My Lords, may I say that I know that the noble Lord was quite sincere when he said that he did not wish to make a Party speech. I believe that he made a very constructive and thoughtful speech, and I hope I can say that I agree with a large part of what he said. My noble friend the Solicitor-General will be repeating a Statement on picketing. I think that that has already been announced to the House. The Statement has not been cleared, otherwise I would have waited. I must now begin my speech.
I hope it will be for the convenience of the House if I begin by giving a factual and objective account of the present situation—in terms of the supply of essential goods and services, and the effect on industry. I will also touch on the present state of negotiations in some of the main areas in dispute before turning to the wider issues involved—many of the issues which were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. While I do not expect noble Lords to join in spreading alarmist and exaggerated accounts of the present conditions, we are likely to hear in the course of our debate of the need for drastic action and radical measures. I think, therefore, that it will be helpful if I try to put the picture in proportion so that we can relate such prescriptions to reality.
I do not in any way wish to underestimate the scale and widespread impact of the present dislocation—nor to minimise the inconvenience and hardship caused throughout the country, nor the growing disruption caused to industry. But we are still some way off from the empty supermarket shelves, the animal cannibalism on our farms, or the 1 million workers laid off, that were confidently forecast a week or two ago. I hope it will be for the convenience of the House if I try to spell this out.
I think we may find that the real causes for concern prompted by the present situation are not so much the immediate impact on daily life. They are rather, first, the threat that it presents to the anti-inflation policy—which was stressed by the noble Lord—that has 1563 proved so successful over the past three years and which has commanded such widespread public support; and secondly, the questions that it raises about the general framework within which industrial relations are conducted in this country, the conventions that govern industrial action, the procedures for wage bargaining and, indeed, the wage structure itself. I will return to these matters later in my speech. But first let me review briefly the present position.
Noble Lords will know that the Government's principal source of information day to day is the regional emergency committee system, which is in operation 24 hours a day and which produces comprehensive situation reports every day—often two or three times a day. This in turn is derived from contacts with industrialists, retailers, local authorities, trade unions and other bodies. It is necessarily based on selective local reports, not on a comprehensive survey, and it is necessarily generalised—there are bound to be local exceptions and difficulties that go against the general trend. But it is the best and most up-to-date information we have and I am anxious to pass it on.
Let me first take food and agriculture. I shall begin with food and agriculture first because these are of such vital and universal importance, but also because noble Lords will forgive me if I retain a special personal interest in these matters. The food and agriculture industry has been most seriously affected by difficulties in moving supplies of food and animal feeding stuffs across the country.
Throughout the road hauliers' dispute the Government have given priority to the supply of foods, and the code of practice adopted by the Transport and General Workers' Union also accepts that this must have top priority. From the beginning of the dispute, to ensure adequate supplies to the shops, the closest contact has been maintained at regional and headquarters level between the Government and those sectors of industry concerned with the movement of food and animal feeding stuffs. These include the farmers, the wholesalers and retailers, the manufacturers and the unions themselves. This constant contact has shown where the main problems are and enables 1564 special attention to be given to them. The movement of salt, sugar, edible oils and fats, both raw materials and finished products, are examples of the problems that have arisen.
There has been rigorous picketing in many parts of the country, but particularly in the North-West, Scotland and the ports. Overall, however, food supplies are continuing to get through and there are no serious shortages. Vital basic commodities such as milk, meat, bread, fruit and vegetables, eggs and poultry remain in good supply. At the start of the dispute animal feeding stuffs were clearly a critical area and strenuous efforts have been made to free adequate supplies. These efforts have had considerable success although trouble spots still exist, particularly at Liverpool and Tilbury. Farmers and compounders are showing considerable ingenuity in altering ration compositions and there are no reports of very large numbers of livestock being prematurely slaughtered. The prospects for the future will depend very much on whether the code of practice is properly observed. If it is, then there is every hope that adequate supplies of food will continue to reach the public. If it is not, the consequences are potentially very serious and in any event the full chain of production and distribution will take some time to return to normal.
Turning to industry, we find a similar contrast between last week's forecast and todays' reality, but I certainly do not underrate the potential danger. By a combination of effort and ingenuity, to which I pay tribute, industry managed to keep going last week better than it was feared. Preliminary estimates suggest that production overall held up to around 90 per cent. of normal though some firms were down to 60 per cent. or 70 per cent. of normal and in a few cases less even than this. But this was achieved only by putting a substantial part of factories' production into stock. Actual sales and exports were at a significantly lower level than production and this process obviously cannot continue. If the present situation does not change, it seems likely that firms will be faced with critical decisions this week and next on the introduction of more short-time working, lay-offs and closure of plants. Some firms are already having to operate on a disruptive stop-start basis 1565 as their supplies fluctuate. I cannot predict whether a marked deterioration will take place in industry generally, but I would expect the process to snowball.
Shortages reported by industry include a wide range of chemicals, iron and steel and especially tin plate, foundry supplies, castings, various forms of packaging, vehicle components, asbestos and timber. Besides industries making these products, industries which use them have been hit and these include the textiles and rubber industries. In general there is general concern about increasing shortages of materials for industry. Both imports and exports of industrial materials are being restricted by the action of pickets at dock gates. Inward and outward flows have varied from port to port and at different times. It is therefore difficult to assess the overall effect of this in terms of reduced imports and delay to exports. This will have a terrific impact on industry, and Lord Carrington was quite right to highlight it.
Present estimates, which I must emphasise are difficult to make so that any figures must be treated with great caution, are that about 200,000 men were laid off by yesterday. That this was less than had been expected is attributed to a number of factors: to the effect of the guaranteed working week, to the fact that many firms are operating a three or four day week rather than lay men off, that other firms as a matter of policy are retaining and paying their labour to a substantial degree although they cannot do their normal productive work, and so forth. The difference between the dire forecasts and actuality largely reflects the adaptability and resilience of British industry and the determination of firms to shield their workforce from the effects of the current dislocation for as long as possible.
I come to the railways. Official strikes by the train drivers' union, ASLEF, have taken place on three days earlier this month, and there is another strike today. The main impact has been on commuter traffic into London. Movement of freight by rail, and in particular the move of bulk goods and raw materials, has generally been maintained. Stocks of coal at power stations are adequate at present. While the Government condemn the strike, which has caused inconvenience to many travellers and to industry, it 1566 would be wrong to suppose that vital parts of the economy have been placed in jeopardy by it. The damage which this strike has inflicted on the railways is perhaps of greater significance to their own well-being and future prospects.
Now local authority services. Following the one day strike on 22nd January, which caused disruption throughout the country, the unions concerned now envisage a campaign of selective industrial action designed to cause the maximum disruption with the minimum withdrawal of labour. Schools, sewerage, burials and refuse collection are the most likely targets. The Government must of course keep in close touch with the situation so that we can anticipate points of difficulty and ensure that so far as possible local authorities are managing to cope with the strain on their services.
As for the National Health Service, it is difficult to give any precise estimates of the effects of industrial action on the NHS services because the scale of action varies so widely across the country. But a rough estimate so far as the hospital service is concerned might be that a quarter of the service is working normally, a half is suffering minor disruption, which is not seriously curtailing services, and about a quarter is restricted to emergency services only. Between a third and a half of the Ambulance Service is now on an emergency only basis. Action may well intensify. Nurses are in many cases reported to be considering selective action.
I turn to the stage reached in the attempts to settle the disputes from which the present difficulties arise. Inevitably, many of these negotiations are complex and have been much prolonged. I can summarise them only very briefly and I may not do justice either to the unions' case or to the employers' attempts to find a settlement. But the House will want to know how things stand and what progress has been made.
I begin with the case of the water manual workers. This group of workers, whose work is of such importance to every member of the public, have not been on official strike. There has been unofficial action in the North-West, Yorkshire and Wales which, particularly in the Manchester area, has caused such difficulty to those living there, but meanwhile the rest 1567 of the industry has remained at work while pay negotiations continued. Last Friday the trade union agreed to recommend to their members the acceptance of a new national pay offer. This is now being put to a vote by their memberships, and there is certainly no justification for continuing the unofficial action while that vote is being taken. Most of the men in the Manchester and Liverpool areas have decided to return to work, but there are still difficulties in some localities. The recommended offer includes a sum of 6.9 per cent. which is accounted for by the savings from a new self-financing efficiency scheme, and also reflects the additional provision for the low paid announced last week. The total comes to just under 14 per cent. of the pay bill. The Government have made it clear that they will not increase the cash limit on water industry borrowing to reflect anything other than the 5 per cent. guideline plus the £3.50 underpinning for the low paid.
Turning now to the road haulage dispute, it will be seen that the picture is far less encouraging. The dispute here results from failure of the Road Haulage Association and the Transport and General Workers' Union to reach agreement on pay settlements in the "Hire and Reward" section of the industry. Yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Byers, asked me to give the House some factual information about the levels of pay obtaining in this area, and I am very ready to provide this. The basic wage is indeed £53 per week, as the noble Lord surmised, but this does not take account of the many fringe benefits such as subsistence allowances, guaranteed overtime payments, and so on. In fact, very few drivers earn nothing but the basic wage. Average earnings in the industry are now £84.20 per week, and a typical driver currently takes home about £64.00 per week.
The union originally asked for £65 for a 35-hour week, amounting to a 48 per cent. rise. Even for a 40-hour week, £65 would represent an increase of over 22 per cent. The Road Haulage Association current offer of £60 for 40 hours amounts to some 13 to 15 per cent. and would mean an increase of £10 to £12 for the driver who does, or is credited with, the average of just over 50 hours 1568 a week. In other words, acceptance of the offer would result in the average driver earning not far short of £100 per week. I hope that the figures which I have given will satisfy the noble Lord's request.
On Sunday 21st January, ACAS brought the Road Haulage Association and the union negotiators together for talks in an attempt to resolve the dispute at national level. Unfortunately, those talks broke down late on Tuesday night, and negotiations are now likely to be resumed on an area basis. It is difficult to assess those prospects at this stage.
With regard to the railways, this would not be the occasion for me to give your Lordships a long description of the negotiations between the Railways Board and the unions, aimed at settling the current dispute, or an account of the events which gave rise to it. In recent weeks, there have been several meetings of the Railway Staff National Council, the top negotiating body for the industry. The main issue is an inter-union dispute over bonus payments. The General Secretary of the TUC has used his good offices in an attempt to resolve this impasse, and, as a result, a meeting of the Railway Staff National Council took place on Tuesday night and made some progress with the general issue of the 1979 annual pay claim, but there was still deadlock on how to deal with the question of productivity. The Government are not parties to the Railway Staff National Council negotiations, but my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport has had meetings with the board and the unions, and has made the Government's view very clear to them. We deplore the continuation of this irresponsible strike, and we urge the railway unions, and, in particular, ASLEF, to think about the general welfare of the economy and about the future of the railways. Once again, we urge the unions to address themselves seriously to the proposals which the board have put forward for higher productivity, since only in this way can higher rewards for those who work on the railways be justified.
As to the local authority manual workers, the Government have discussed both with the unions (on 19th January) 1569 and with the local authority employers (on 22nd January) how best their proposals for a comparability study might be put into effect in this sector. Both meetings made good progress and we have every hope that the employers and unions will be able to reach agreement on an inquiry into comparable pay for comparable work, which should set a better framework for future pay determination.
The Government's concession on the low paid will benefit 97 per cent. of local authority manual workers. I understand that the employers offered an 8.4 per cent. increase on Friday, which equates with the change in the Retail Price Index over the past year. It is hoped that this offer, combined with the study of comparability, will provide the basis for constructive negotiations, and that the unions will not proceed with their campaign of selective industrial action while such negotiations continue.
Turning to the National Health Service——
§ Lord PEART
My speech is taking rather a long time, my Lords, and I should prefer to proceed, as a Statement is to be made later this afternoon. The noble Lord may have an opportunity to speak later, but I should prefer to continue at this stage, particularly as I am giving your Lordships factual information.
With regard to the National Health Service, both sides of the Ancillaries and Ambulancemen's Whitley Councils are meeting the Secretary of State for Social Services and other Ministers at 4.30 p.m. today to make representations to them that it is impossible to make progress within the confines of the Government's pay limitations. Offers at 5 per cent. have been rejected. Informal discussions have followed about the prospects offered by the concession on low pay and a study of comparability. Both sides welcome the idea of a comparability study. With regard to pay policy and the Government's position, I have tried to set out as clearly and as briefly as possible the present situation as it affects the daily life of the community and its effects on industry.
I turn now to some of the wider implications. I was glad to note that the noble 1570 Lord stressed this. I suggested at the outset of my speech that the most serious threat is the damage that may be done to our anti-inflation policies. My noble friend Lady Birk pointed out in the debate last week that these policies had succeeded in reducing the rate of inflation progressively from the disastrous peak of 27 per cent. in mid-1975 to around 8 per cent. last year. At the same time, thanks to this success, coupled with reductions in personal taxation and increases in benefits, real personal incomes increased by at least 6 per cent. in 1978. Increases of that kind are worth having; they are real increases, not confetti money. The policy set out in the White Paper Winning the Battle Against Inflation published in July last year, laid down the basis for continuing this moderate and rational approach to pay settlements.
The 5 per cent. guideline was not plucked from the air. It was the Government's best estimate of the increase in the level of earnings that the country could afford if there was to be a sound basis for maintaining inflation in single figures or reducing it. Of course it is difficult for any one group to see that their own claim can have such effects, but the cumulative effect of many such settlements is undeniable, and in the end devalues them all. This is the message that the Government have been trying to get across, and, whatever the contrary pressures, it is still the right message and the right policy for Britain. We have no intention of abandoning it; and I made that clear to the House yesterday. As I have said, the Government have been concerned to provide the flexibility that will facilitate moderate settlements. What we are seeking is the basis for a long-term approach to moderate and equitable pay settlements which should command the confidence and support of negotiators on both sides of the table. But there is no doubt that this confidence and support not only can be undermined by irresponsibly inflated settlements, but could also lead to a much worse climate for subsequent negotiations. This is the danger that now confronts us, and the Government are determined to do all they can to ensure that the progress made in the past three years is maintained.
A moderate approach to pay policy is in the interests of the community. It is at least equally in the interest of the 1571 community that modertation and a sense of responsibility should be shown in the way in which collective bargaining is pursued. Even if, as I have suggested, the present difficulties have not yet endangered the daily life of the community, there is certainly cause for great concern at the methods that have been adopted and the evident intent to disrupt the life of the community, even to the point of abandoning essential services.
The Prime Minister has spoken out very forcefully and repeatedly against action of this kind, and the kind of attitude that it represents. Speaking in another place last week he said that:…the community has an over-riding right against all sectional interests.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/1/79, col. 1547.]He urged the road haulage drivers to:…measure their sense of grievance against the effects that their actions are having on the community at large";and I must add that since he said that on 16th January the Transport and General Workers' Union have tried very hard, and on the whole successfully, to get that message through to the men on the picket line.
But we have seen other examples in the last week or two of action by workers in the public sector where there is a deliberate decision to enforce their claims by imposing deliberate hardship on the community—sometimes a specific local community—or by withdrawing emergency services whose loss may cause severe suffering or even death to an individual in distress. This is indeed a desperate situation, and totally incompatible with a humane and tolerant society. It is a kind of violence which cannot be tolerated when it is wielded by a group any more than when it is wielded by an individual. So I say that these are difficult problems, but those who have been involved in such actions in recent weeks should ask themselves whether they want to see society run in this arbitrary and callous way. It cannot be in their own interests, either in pursuing their legitimate interests as employees or in their enjoyment of the benefits of a peaceful society.
If I may sum up the Government's position, the situation is still very serious, not so much for today but in prospect. The food production and distribution 1572 network has stood up remarkably well during the past two weeks, and—I must be fair to the union concerned—the Transport and General Workers' Union have worked hard to ensure that it is not seriously disrupted. They are working with us to ensure that particular local difficulties are solved. If this co-operation is maintained at both central and local levels, the position should not deteriorate. But, naturally, we must look carefully at the situation day by day.
Industry has also shown remarkable resilience so far; but key shortages are developing, and the position could worsen rapidly. This means that those on strike will have succeeded in forcing fellow workers out of work. That will be the remorseless and inevitable result of their action. And it may well not be a short-term effect. Some companies, particularly small firms, could well be forced out of business. Export orders lost may well not be recovered. Firms, large and small, may run into cash flow problems that they cannot survive. I hope that those who are on strike and who are stopping other firms with whom they are not in dispute realise what they are doing. It does not need a million laid off to make the point.
Against this background, the Government's anti-inflation policy is even more relevant than it was last July, when the White Paper was first published. The final sentence said that the policy would:…encourage the regeneration of industry, guarantee living standards and make possible a continuing fall in unemployment, bringing lasting benefits to all sections of the community".That approach would be undermined by extravagant and unrealistic pay settlements. They could result in damage to our prospects of industrial growth, damage to our standard of living and damage, most of all, to the community and the weaker members of it. We must restore a sense of reasonableness and responsibility, both in the pay claims and in the way in which they are pursued. Those involved in pay negotiations and those contemplating industrial action have an obligation to respect the interests of the community and the rights of the individual. In the end, it means recognising that talk of industrial "muscle", "strength" and "militancy" is irrelevant and destructive, and that what is relevant is the interdependence of everyone in the community.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Viscount SIMON
My Lords, the present industrial situation, to which the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, has directed our attention this afternoon, could I think aptly be described as intolerable were it not for the fact that the unhappy people of this country are having perforce to endure it. It is deplorable, it is indefensible; and I think the noble Lord the Leader of the House has, in his own words, made the same point. As the Prime Minister said the other day:The patience of the public is nearing exhaustion".When patience is exhausted, very grave dangers are lying only just over the horizon, so I am sure that your Lordships will be glad of the opportunity to debate our problems in, I hope, a calm and objective manner, as indeed was done by the noble Lord who introduced this Motion.
Some have suggested that the seriousness of the position has been exaggerated, and it seemed to me at the outset of his speech that the noble Lord the Leader of the House was taking the same point. We have been told that the picture we get from the news media is distorted. My Lords, of course it is, because it is inescapable that the harsher impacts of these strikes on the public are what get the headlines. But, even if the shocking incidents of which we have been reading recently were repeated only ten times, and not a hundred times and more through the country, that would in my book be serious enough. Indeed, I do not think it is now really disputed that we are facing a serious crisis. As I say, at the beginning of his speech the noble Lord the Leader of the House appeared to be rather talking it down, but he became pretty firm at the end and I am sure we all warmly support what he said.
A week ago, the Prime Minister reported that the movement of supplies of all kinds was being held up and that hardship—that was his word; not "inconvenience ", but "hardship"—was being caused to the general public. On that same day, the Transport and General Workers' Union produced its code of practice. The Government, believing that this would be observed and would rapidly improve the situation, decided it would be better at that stage to take no 1574 further action. On that day, it may well have seemed right to them so to decide, but what has happened since then? A week has passed, and it is now clear that in many places the code is not being observed. This was admitted by the Home Secretary in his Statement yesterday. So I was hoping that the Leader of the House would be able to tell us what the Government were going to do about it. It does not seem to me to be quite sufficient just to be told that when difficulties arise the Government will take them up. I should like to know—and maybe the noble and learned Lord who is to wind up on behalf of the Government could tell us—whether, when they take them up, they get satisfaction. That would be one step in the right direction.
Before I pass from the present lorry drivers' dispute I want briefly to refer to exports. Exports have not been included in the priority list, and we all recognise that they have not the emotional appeal of medical supplies and food. But exports are essential in the country's battle against inflation. The noble Lord the Leader of the House made that point himself; and remember that if we let down our overseas customers we do not merely lose current business but we jeopardise all future business.
I should also like to put in a special plea for the smaller firms, who do so much of our export business. I was talking to a small firm only yesterday. It is clear that a small firm can very rapidly run into serious cash-flow problems if export business is frustrated. That is particularly the case where a one- off order has been taken, perhaps a very large one, and when that is held up it may be that the buyers throw the order back in their faces and they are left with something that they cannot even sell after the strike is over because nobody wants it.
I am sure that the most urgent task before us all is to get the present outstanding disputes settled and get the men back to work. I feel that in saying that I am carrying the whole House with me. It has sometimes surprised me that the Labour Party which have been, to their great credit, in the forefront of advocating settlement of international disputes by discussion, conciliation and arbitration 1575 in preference to the hideous and wasteful alternative of war, have not felt able to adopt the same outlook towards industrial warfare. As we see today, industrial warfare can also be hideous and inhumane; and it is wasteful, too. It is terribly wasteful of human resources. If I may come down to a more mundane plane, how many trade unionists realise—and, I might add, how many trade unionist' wives realise—if the employer offers them 5 per cent. and they reject it and they go on strike and then, after three weeks, the employer comes back with an offer of 10 per cent. and they accept it, that they will at the end of the year have received less money than if they had accepted the 5 per cent. in the first instance. It is a remarkable position that the additional 5 per cent. that they earn over the remaining 49 weeks of the year is less than the three weeks' wages that they have lost by being on strike.
I want to turn for a moment to the future—and I do not want to speak for long for we are all awaiting a Statement. What are the long-term measures that we should adopt to get this position right? As the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, reminded us, the Party for whom I am speaking favours a statutory pay and prices policy. I believe that I was bold enough to advocate this before I came to sit on these Benches. I thought then, and I think now, that it is a fairer policy. I was surprised to hear the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, say that he preferred a voluntary policy because he thought it fairer. So we are both aiming at the same thing but finding very different ways of getting there. After all, it is only a statutory policy that can really prevent the selfish and the strong from stealing advantages over their weaker and poorer fellow beings.
The objection commonly offered to a statutory policy is that it would be too inflexible. I see the force of that argument; but I thought it was dealt with extremely well in the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Brown, in last week's debate. He showed how flexibility could be provided in a statutory policy. There are alternative methods of introducing flexibility in legislation. It might be possible, for instance, for us to resuscitate the Prices and Incomes Board which we on these Benches, and, I think, noble Lords opposite think it a great pity was dismantled. If something like that were resuscitated, 1576 it could adjudicate on special cases, on people who claimed that they were suffering as a result of the statutory incomes policy. The advantage of this over having committees of inquiry on every occasion is obvious; because the Board would establish a general philosophy and could make consistent recommendations.
At the end of that speech by the noble Lord, Lord Brown, I found myself in complete agreement with him. As he is not speaking today, I hope that I may be allowed to read that paragraph to your Lordships. He said—and I am sorry the noble Lord is not in his place:I end what I have to say here by pointing out that, unless the political Parties of this country can get together and realise that in the interests of the consumers of this country, and of the position of this country in the world economic setting, there must be statutory limits on the amount by which the wage bill can go up, coupled with the type of arrangements of flexibility which I have suggested…".—[Official Report, Col. 1041 17/1/79].As your Lordships are aware, the proposition that we should try to get agreement among the Parties in the country to a policy of this kind is one that is strongly supported by the Liberal Party and was advocated in a speech by my right honourable friend in another place only the day before yesterday. I have always felt that Lord Brown's thoughts on industrial relations were stimulating. At one time, I used to sit at his feet and learn about industrial relations from him and, even when I could not fully agree with him, he was always a stimulating teacher. With the thoughts he expressed in the last passage in his speech I fully agree. It is in line with what the Liberals have said and with what my right honourable Leader in the other place has said. If the other Parties can be persuaded to join in, so much the better. The more we can reach agreement on the steps to be taken to put industrial relations in this country into better shape—and this reflects what the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, has said—then the more power will we give to the Government of the day, of whatever Party, to exercise authority in this field.
But, of course, my Lords, a statutory pay and prices policy is not enough. What we need, and need badly, is a new spirit in industry. That is very much easier to say than to implement; but a move in the right direction would be to 1577 see a wide extension of worker participation. I prefer that expression to "industrial democracy" which can be very misleading. I was very disappointed at the reactions of industry to the Bullock Report. We on these Benches objected to its proposals but we believe that its appearance should have given industry more than a nudge in producing their own proposals. In this context I recall the advice that I had from that great man, Seebohm Rowntree, whom I was privileged to call a friend. As your Lordships will know, in his works at York he had perfected long ago a system of worker participation. I remember his saying to me: "It is the right thing to do …" And then, after a pause, he added: "and it pays!" I wish that instead of waiting for more reports or for legislation, there were more firms who would follow the example of those who have already made such a success of worker participation and in that way improved the atmosphere in which we can make progress towards better industrial relations in this country.
§ 4.29 p.m.
§ The Lord Archbishop of CANTERBURY
My Lords, there is legislation going back, as I understand it, for over a century which enshrines the right to strike and this is a right much to be prized. The legislation has taken different forms at different times but there it is, written in, and we may be grateful for it. If we claim to be fair-minded men and women, we must be aware of certain parts of the community whose basic wages are still too low: men who suffer from insecurity of conditions of their work, insecurity of pay in the face of rising costs, insecurity as to the continuation of their jobs, insecurity from the threat of having to move their families to some other location with interruption of their children's schooling and so on. These are genuine worries to many of the members of our trade unions, including the lorry drivers.
However, the main points that the strikers have been seeking to make have been made. I believe that the average Britisher has the right to say "Enough is enough" and to look for a return to normal procedures for settling disputes. The right to strike is now being used far too soon, far too readily and far too irresponsibly. Strikes are a last resort 1578 when all else has failed, not a kind of game of monopoly with no moral issues involved. Power is a dangerous thing; it can be harsh and it can be pitiless if it is used irresponsibly. In the past few weeks, I have tried to let my mind range over some of the issues facing this country, and those of us who are in the ministry of the Church are in pretty close contact with all areas and strata of society. The sheer pitilessness of much that is going on now has imprinted itself on my mind, and the damage that is inflicted on parties who are in no way involved in the disputes. The public are being made to suffer—often those sections of the public who are most defenceless.
The story on the front page of today's Telegraph—and when shall we see another copy of The Times and breakfast be worth while?; but we will let that go!—is one of the nastiest things that has stained a British newspaper for many years: the story of 65 human beings suffering from cancer and turned out of their hospitals because of a senseless strike. No one has the right to use power in such a way as to damage third parties with whom he is in no way in disagreement.
I hold in my hand a letter which reached my desk this morning from a part of my own diocese, that little island of the diocese of Canterbury which is Croydon. I received a very level-headed letter from teachers telling me how their children are being damaged by a strike which has hit their school. Responsibility goes with power, and when these are divorced then chaos and suffering ensue. I believe that many people up and down our country today are tired of the cry, "My rights!" when that cry is not married to an insistence on right for the larger community. Personal and sectional interests are made to appear more important than the welfare of the whole community, of the nation at large.
This introduces a kind of cancer into our system. Ours in an increasingly technological age is an inter-dependent society; one cannot damage one part of it without damaging another. I believe that here is a matter of the deepest moral significance for our whole people. Love or care for one another—or, my Lords, call it what you will—demands self- 1579 sacrifice and justice. Love is not love if it is not inclusive of justice. Without justice, love is sentimentality. Love is always sensitive to hurt that is done to the helpless.
It seems to me that there are very large sections of our nation at the moment that are feeling their desperate powerlessness. I think of the sick; I think of the elderly; I think of the children. Here we see the pitilessness of our system at its worst. But there are great numbers of men within the trade unions who care about the community, who care about the old, who care about the weak, who care about a right combination of love and justice but who feel totally powerless to do anything about it because our power structures have gone wrong.
Only a fortnight ago I was talking in Deptford, where I spent six hours or so very much at the grass roots level, talking to a friend who is a church warden and a train driver. He said to me, "I do not want this strike. I am a Christian; I object to the issues involved, but I simply cannot do anything about it." Here he becomes, willy-nilly, a pawn within a power structure which he cannot help. Men like this—and there are many of them; more perhaps than we think—know that the strident cry of: "More, more! and hang the consequences to others!" is a cry which leads to the destruction of their country and, in the end, of themselves. But they feel that their voice is so feeble that their protest dies in their throats.
They see with a clarity which some of us seem to lack that an acquisitive society has the seeds of death in itself, but they can scarcely make a protest. They know that the verb "to be" is more important than the verb "to have"; that the verb "to give" is more important than the verb "to get", but they do not know how to make their voices heard. They have a sense of British fairness almost inborn in them. It cannot become vocalised; it cannot make itself heard. There are two pleas which I would put forward for the consideration of your Lordships' House. The first is that we might see in a way which we have not done for all too long a getting together of our three Parties at this time of crisis.
1580 Let me say in parenthesis that it seems to me the height of folly to say that there is no crisis or to try to blur the issues involved. They are there for all to see. But could we not in this hour of crisis and urgency set aside Party politics and build on the very large element of what all three of us have in common? Secondly, would it not be possible to think out the creation of an independent body—call it a commission if you will, my Lords—a continuing body, a fact-finding body, a body representative of employers and of the trade unions, a body representative of the public, the man in the street who gets hit and has had enough, a body that is able to adjudicate impartially on special cases—including pay—which are referred to it, a body which is commissioned to undertake a review of the present processes of arbitration, prepared to face the fact that if inflation increases, our money is worthless, that our present power structures have got out of control, that there has entered into our society an element of pitilessness of which some of us seem to be singularly unaware, of acquisitiveness which has gripped us and which is a disgrace to any civilised nation? It would be a commission which realises that one can only build a healthy society on the basis of love and justice, committed to point the way to reconciliation and unity and to produce guidelines for new legislation. I plead that this might be very seriously considered, and on all-Party lines.
I believe that in speaking as I have done on these moral issues, I speak not only in the name of the Church of England, which I primarily represent, but in the name of all the Churches of our land; and I believe, if I may dare to say so, that I speak in the name of the vast majority of our Jewish fellow citizens and in the name of a great company of people who, without any religious commitments, long for a better day for our country and for our world.
§ 4.40 p.m.
§ Lord SMITH
My Lords, having listened to and much profited from the expertise displayed by noble Lords and by the most reverend Primate the Lord Archbishop who have preceded me in this debate, I feel even more than I had anticipated in need of that customary measure of kindly indulgence with which 1581 the inadequacies of the beginner are overlooked by this House. That does not necessarily mean, though, that it is solely a wish to avoid unfavourable comparisons that leads me to pursue a line which is different from the mainstream of this debate, for I believe it is extremely important that someone today should speak specifically of the plight of patients within our hospitals at this time of industrial unrest.
I am a surgeon, and on Tuesday morning of this week I operated upon a lady who, in consequence of a serious internal ailment, was in constant severe pain. She had in fact been admitted over the weekend and I should have liked to operate on her on Monday morning; and she would have appreciated that, too, for even an extra 24 hours seems a very long time to wait in pain in a hospital bed. But it would just not have been safe, for the one-day strike of all our ancillary workers left us very vulnerable in the face of the unexpected, and in high-risk surgery one cannot in all conscience accept additional hazards.
Of course, my hospital was not unique on Monday. That was the day when there was no normal working in any of our hospitals, and I would dearly like to be able to tell you that since this was just a one-day strike all is now back to normal, but I am afraid this is very far from being the case. Not only has the all too familiar work to rule followed but there is also hanging over us the threat of lightning strikes with a 10-minute warning, and this threat may effectively stop all routine working at a number of our hospitals, for many consultants—surgeons particularly—have already taken the view that, while emergencies must be dealt with as they arise, it would not be safe to admit patients from the waiting list with the risk that before their treatment had been completed a sudden unexpected withdrawal of services by key technicians might create a situation of real hazard.
The interruption in the treatment of the sick in our hospitals is on this occasion the direct result of trade union action. As I comment upon it—and I cannot conceal my feelings about it even though I believe the actual claims for consideration by those involved in industrial action may have much merit—I can almost hear 1582 the ministerial comment that has been repeated more than once in this House: "Don't let us forget the work to rule, or perhaps more strictly the work to contract, of doctors, including consultants, a few years ago". I hope I shall not give offence, because none is meant, if I say that I have never quite seen the logic of suggesting that the present sin of A becomes less culpable on account of the past sin of B. Perhaps I may the more readily be forgiven for saying this: I feel I must add that in my belief any industrial action, from whatever direction it comes, that diminishes what we can do for the sick is never less than deplorable and often deserving of adjectives a good deal more emphatic than that. If, then, in the present situation I appear to support the belief that some trade unions or their members are deserving of criticism, this does not mean that I am unaware of or unmoved by some of the changes in the practice of medicine that have come upon us during the last few years—in fact, many would say ever since that disreputable word "overtime" was allowed to sidle unobtrusively into the vocabulary of doctors.
I believe that every speech should have a purpose, and the purpose of my speech today is certainly not to ask your Lordships to join with me in a kind of communal wringing of hands over changes in our society, many of which are perhaps already beyond recall. My purpose is a practical one and it is to ask you to give your most careful consideration to a fundamental question which I now put to you. Can we not do more to protect patients from the results of strife when it occurs in our National Health Service, or must patients just take their chance until each dispute is settled? For this is the position at the moment, and it is not something which one can explain easily to someone with heart failure in an oxygen tent, with the oxygen supplies running low.
Is it really a task beyond the intelligence and ingenuity of our society to devise some way in which at least the safety of patients in hospital, incapacitated by illness or by injury, might be guaranteed? Let us acknowledge that the best way of helping patients is, of course, to employ a system for examining disputes which leads to their speedy resolution. But surely, while the dispute is being resolved, it ought to be possible to find some way of protecting patients from the worst of its 1583 effects. Let me give an example regarding discussions elsewhere relating to the examination of disputes within our Health Service. I would make the suggestion that in any hospital where industrial action of one kind or another appeared imminent, it ought to become accepted practice that there would promptly be set up within that hospital a small ad hoc working party of perhaps just three or four members—say, a doctor, a nurse, a union representative and an administrator—who would meet daily and, keeping right away from the merits of the dispute itself and not getting tangled up in that, would address itself solely to the question: What needs to be done today to ensure the safety of our patients? For example, there must be oxygen for patients who might die without it, blood for transfusions, warmth, food, essential drugs: just these.
It seems to me that at the local level, at the grass roots, one might awaken—or perhaps "re-awaken" is a better word, for this is something hospitals used to be proud of—re-awaken, and enlist on behalf of patients, some feeling of pride in our hospitals and some sense of responsibility that would be valuable. Had such a scheme been in operation, there would at least have been a chance—I believe, given the involvement of the right people, a good chance—of heading off the disastrous breakdown in the treatment of patients with cancer in Birmingham of which we read today.
Lest this House should underestimate the seriousness of what has occurred at this hospital, let me say just this without involving myself in any way in apportioning blame. It is not disputed that some patients have had their treatment interrupted and have been sent home. If we accept what the experts in the treatment of cancer tell us, that continuity of treatment is, at least, of some importance—and I think that we have to accept this—then some of these patients will live less long than they would otherwise have done, and this conclusion is inescapable.
Disappointingly, an initial encouraging measure of support for the suggestion I made was followed by an obvious cooling off, as the implications sank in, though it is perhaps not for me to do more than just ask this question. Even if not deliberately sought, is not the 1584 plight of patients a most effective bargaining counter, and is there in the minds of some possibly some reluctance to yield it up? The reason I was given for the evaporation of support was that discussions which were in progress were going to produce such a good code of practice for the resolution of disputes in the Health Service that everyone would work normally while the code went into action and, therefore, there was no need for such a scheme. Am I being unduly cynical in asking whether recent events support the thesis that, provided a good code of practice is there, workers with a grievance will inevitably obey it?
I should not want to emphasise the advantages of any one scheme over another, and, after all, various ways have been suggested already for improving the present unacceptable situation. For instance, there are those who, fitting the problem into a more general need of the community, would ask those working in our Health Service to give up their right to strike in return for some special concessions in regard to the method of calculating their pay. Whether this idea should be pursued is, I believe, a political decision and to express an opinion upon it is outside my competence. In general, with some notable exceptions, doctors do not make good politicians. Whether it would be helpful, again, to support some examination of the possibilities within Parliament is a Parliamentary decision. But to decide whether there is, indeed, a need to do more to protect the innocent sick from the malign effects of the deficiencies of the society in which we live is not a political decision, nor a Parliamentary one. It is one which is dictated by conscience and by humanity, and this House should not miss the opportunity of saying that whatever the difficulties it is something that must be done.