HL Deb 31 January 1979 vol 398 cc159-65

3.48 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place in answer to a Private Notice Question on picketing of funeral facilities in the metropolitan boroughs of Tameside and Liverpool. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has said:

"Following last week's day of action organised by unions, selective strike action against local authority cemeteries and crematoria is continuing in certain parts of the country. According to the latest information available to me the action is most marked in the North West, in particular Liverpool and Tameside.

"I deplore this action and I made my views known to the General Secretaries and National Officers of the unions concerned at the weekend when I asked them to remove from their list of selective action crematoria and cemeteries. I was informed last night that advice had been issued by the unions to their members designed to limit the impact of action here on the public.

"I take this opportunity of urging the men concerned to reconsider their action, to understand the distress being caused to the bereaved, and the deep offence being caused to the overwhelming mass of our people, and to return to work."


My Lords, I know that the House will wish me to thank the noble Baroness for repeating this Answer which has been given in another place and will share the sentiments which she has expressed—or rather which her right honourable friend has expressed—as regards the action taken and the plea which is made for a return to work. Does the noble Baroness agree that public anger is beginning to mount against these repeated outrages against human dignity?

She has said that certain advice had been given by the unions concerned. Will she make available, if it is a lengthy piece of advice, or possibly summarise if it is not, the advice which has been given? Which are the unions concerned? Who are the persons organising this particular abomination? Is there no means open to the public to express their indignation and disgust at behaviour of this kind? Is it not time that we knew the names and addresses of those concerned and that they were published so that the public can bring to bear the full force of their anger at this particular form of conduct? Which are the unions concerned? Is one of them NUPE? Does the noble Baroness recall that during a public broadcast one of the national officers of that organisation, Mr. Fisher, expressed detestation of foxhunting on the grounds that he had compassion for what he called "the poor little fox"? Is it not time he showed a little more compassion for his fellow human beings?


My Lords, we on these Benches would like to join in thanking the noble Baroness for having repeated this Statement. Along with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, we certainly deplore this action. We find it not only offensive but, as he indicated, humiliating to be told only that advice has been issued on this matter, urging the men to reconsider their action.

One really does wonder whether the time has not come, with the public looking for action rather than words on the part of the Government, for something more to be done. The Government have said they have contemplated and indeed formulated contingency plans for the use of troops in certain cases—for example, in the gritting of the public highways. In saying this, I am conscious of the risks attendant on such action and of the danger of its being counter-productive; but I do suggest that the people feel the time has come for resolute action. May I put it in the form of a question: do the Government consider using troops, perhaps on a selective basis in these areas of Tameside and Liverpool, for this humane purpose in order to back public opinion in this respect?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I am grateful to the two noble Lords. At least we have agreement on all sides of the House that this is a very distressing mode of oppression which is being exercised by the unions, particularly in Liverpool and Tameside. We do not condone it for one moment. So far as the unions' advice is concerned, I understand that official backing is not being given to any strikes of more than one week and that appropriate action will be taken by the unions if they are advised that public health is in any way affected.

The noble Lord, Lord Rochester, asked what would happen if the union advice was disregarded and when the Secretary of State was going to step in and do something. The meeting last night was the one from which the advice has been sent out. The unions concerned were the National Union of Public Employees, the Transport and General Workers' Union and the Municipal and General Workers' Union, and I understand that advice has gone out to their members today. We hope the advice will not be disregarded, but if the burials and cremations continue to be held up the Government will give to the local authorities such support as the local authorities feel they need or is necessary.

The Secretary of State will have various options open to him in those sort of circumstances, which we hope will not arise. With permission, when my right honourable friend has made a further Statement to the other place, if that is necessary, I will repeat it in this House in the light of any future developments.

We are concerned about these delays. We think they are offensive, they are humiliating and they are degrading. Strike action is causing distress to the bereaved and we do hope that all those who are involved in the strike action will heed the advice of their unions and what we have just said. The noble Lord, Lord Rochester, referred to the question of troops. It is a little early at this time to give any definite indication of actions which the Secretary of State would feel he had to undertake; but I think I can safely say it would not exclude the use of troops if that were necessary.


My Lords, I notice the Minister referred to public health. One wonders at which point that is determined, bearing in mind the mounting piles of rubbish which are now filling the streets of our cities.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, the mounting piles of rubbish, yes, we deplore those as well; but this particular Question is addressed to the attitude of workers at the crematoria and the cemeteries.


My Lords, in the appeal which has gone from the Government through the unions to the people who are doing this awful thing has any time limit been laid down as to when they must desist from doing it or else the action to which the noble Baroness referred will be taken?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, no deadline was suggested by my right honourable friend when he met the union leaders last night, but it is his intention to see the general secretaries again before this week is out and find out what is happening.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether I heard her correctly—I was not sure. Did she say that the union leaders had sent, if you like, instructions or advice to the people concerned, and that they would not make official any strikes which lasted for longer than a week? If so, does that mean that strikes which last up to six days—just to get the point—are not going to be condemned?

Baroness STEDMAN

No, my Lords, we condemn strikes whether they are of one hour, one week, or one month; but the advice which has gone out is that they should not give official backing to the strikes for more than one week. We hope these are only token strikes. The situation is becoming a little difficult in two places referred to. In Tameside, I understand that all the cemeteries, except two, and all the crematoria are shut and in Liverpool all the crematoria and the cemeteries are shut. These are not conditions under which we can sit down: they are something on which we shall have to take action, and my right honourable friend will be doing that.


My Lords, I think it is very important that we should take the most urgent notice of these particular happenings on which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, pronounced words with which I think we can all strongly agree. However, arising from this, I think it is perhaps up to somebody to ask something about the future. On, I think, 7th December, a Minister answering a Question arising out of the strike at the Charing Cross Hospital hinted, or perhaps went a little further, that studies were being made of ways of preventing and circumventing these unacceptable strikes in the Departments of Government in order to see whether some way could be found of preventing, not through the use of force but by some new machinery, the occurrence of these strikes which ought not to happen at all. It is high time that somebody said that also.

I should like to ask the noble Baroness to decide that this is not going too far from the original Question for her to give me some indication that somewhere in the Government urgent work is being done on this question, since, if we leave the arrangements as they are now, all these things will happen again.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, so far as the Health Service workers are concerned, I am sure that if that assurance was given in another place, then that work is going on. No such representations, to my knowledge, have been made concerning the grave diggers and people at the crematoria, but it is an interesting point, and, if there are any occupations which can undertake not to strike, this is one of the sections of the community that we ought to be approaching. I shall certainly bring this matter to the attention of my right honourable friend.


My Lords, is there not another step which might be taken to deal with this disgraceful strike at crematoria? Is it not possible for the strikers to be prosecuted for conduct that is likely to cause a breach of the peace?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I think that I should like notice of that question, and I should also like to take advice on it. But I shall certainly inquire about it, and will write to my noble friend.

The Earl of ONSLOW

My Lords, can the noble Baroness please give an undertaking that, in this particularly distressing picketing situation, the Government will encourage people to go through the picket s? Secondly, will the Government please give an undertaking that chief constables have been encouraged to enforce the picketing law in its strictest sense, as opposed to the recent examples of its laxest sense?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, we certainly hope, if people are bereaved and they want to attend—as I am sure they do—the funerals and cremations of their relatives, that every possible help will be given to them to do so. But at the moment we have very few crematoria that are open in the districts concerned. While it is distasteful, to me at any rate—and I am sure to the rest of the House—to know that, at the moment, there is in some parts a restriction as a result of which you are advised to have a private service at your house or at your local church and then the vicar and the undertaker can do the actual committal at the crematorium, this is really just a question of sheer size, and of helping the fewer crematoria open to deal with the number of bodies that there are to deal with. It is something which we deplore, and I am sure all people, whatever their walk of life and whatever their Party, are outraged that the bereaved should have to suffer in this way. We do not condone it. We certainly hope that the advice which the unions have given will be taken and we also hope that the unions will be very strong with their members and will encourage them, and that they will take note of what has been said in this House and in another place and go back to work.


My Lords, can the noble Baroness throw a little light on one situation? A few days ago, it was explained in the papers that there were in Liverpool 100 bodies awaiting burial, and that they were having to be put into plastic bags in the mortuary. Has that number been increased, and are they still waiting for burial? Also, when she said that the crematoria were shut, I take it she does not mean that the mortuaries are shut as well?

Baroness STEDMAN

No, my Lords. So far as I know, the mortuaries are open. The position in Liverpool as at this morning was that there were 150 bodies awaiting burial or cremation. Arrangements are being made and, in so far as my Department can help, it will assist the local authorities. But it is a pretty state of affairs when bodies have to be stored up awaiting the time for disposal.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness this question—it may be a small point, but it strikes me as an important one: These men—not necessarily those in this strike, but the men in all these very serious strikes—are told to come out on strike. They are not asked to do so. But they are asked to go back and do not. Can they not be told to go back, as they are told to come out?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, this is a matter of individual union discipline, and I hope we shall see some discipline within our unions.