HL Deb 15 March 1979 vol 399 cc748-52

3.9 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to harmonise United Kingdom law relating to the payment of supplementary social security benefits to strikers with the laws prevailing in other EEC countries.


My Lords, we have no such plans to harmonise the law relating to the payment of supplementary benefit to those involved in trade disputes. Nor has the Commission of the European Communities made any proposals for harmonisation in this field.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that rather surprising reply. While acknowledging that the Treaty of Rome may not demand the precise harmonisation of social security benefits, is the noble Lord aware that, out of 150 or so countries in the entire world, Britain is the only one to subsidise strikes in this manner? Is he further aware that this practice is not one of long standing but has only been going on for twelve and a half years or so, since August 1966? Would he not agree that this happens to coincide with a period during which this country's standard of living started to decline quite sharply relative to that of other industrialised nations, and cannot certain conclusions be drawn from this?


My Lords, I cannot accept what the noble Lord has just said. If he saw the Financial Times on 28th February (which is only a fortnight ago) he would have seen—and I quote just the first paragraph—the following: Strikers in Britain receive on average no more State benefit than strikers in most other Western European countries".


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whose Answer, if I may say so, I thought somewhat disappointing, whether there is any question of subsidising strikes by providing social security benefits to people who need them? What sort of reply do we give to people who indulge in language of that sort? Leave it to me; I shall reply!


My Lords, the principle that the State has the ultimate responsibility for preventing hardship in these circumstances—and I am referring now to the dependants of strikers—has been part of the social administrative law in this country for the past 80 years.


My Lords, would the noble Lord say why he had to quote from the Financial Times for the statistics that he gave? Why have not the Government adequate, reliable and, if one likes it, convincing evidence of the same sort?


My Lords, the Government are quite certain that the statement made in the Financial Times is perfectly correct. One of the difficulties in collecting statistics in this matter is that no two countries operate in the same way. In a good many countries social security is given by local authorities and it is very complex to try to get statistics.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister this question: Rather than harmonising, should we not advertise the way we deal with social security during strikes? We are an example to the world on this and we should be proud of it. I absolutely agree with my noble friend Lord Shinwell.


My Lords, while it might be perfectly reasonable when it is necessary to pay social service benefits during a strike, would it not also be reasonable that those payments should be repaid by the persons who have received them after the strike is over and they are back at work?


My Lords, we are continuing a principle which I said a moment or two ago has been in operation in this country for 80 years. It has never been challenged. Successive Governments have accepted that—even the Government of the Party of the noble Lord—and when it comes to strikes it is perfectly clear the striker himself does not get any benefit by way of supplementary benefit. His needs are not taken into account: only his dependants get it.

So far as the single striker is concerned, he gets nothing at all. What is required of him is this: If on a Friday he takes, for the sake of argument, £70 and goes on strike on the Monday, then he has to make that money last for five weeks because his needs for supplementary benefit are assessed at something like £14 per week. If after that period he can show exceptional need—only exceptional need—he can get £10.50 a week in supplementary benefit. In the whole of last year the amount of money which was paid to single men on strike came to only £6,000.


My Lords, can the Minister say whether any reductions were made in the benefits available to the families of strikers during the Conservative Government's period of office from 1970 to 1974? If the answer to that is, No, is it not important that the people of this country should be informed of any change of attitude by the Conservative party which might have grave repercussions on these families in the event of a Conservative victory at the forthcoming Election?


My Lords, we would welcome knowing what the Conservative party policy is on this matter.


My Lords, if we provide social security to families whose husband or bread-winner happens to be in prison, does that mean that we are subsidising crime?


My Lords, on the question of international comparisons, could the noble Lord confirm whether or not some European countries confine the payment of such benefits to those involved in official strikes?—which, if that is right, is rather different from the situation in this country. Could the noble Lord confirm whether or not that is right?


My Lords, I think this is so, but it is an isolated matter.


My Lords, may I put a question to the noble Lord the Leader of the House? The Minister replied to a question asked of him by quoting figures from the Financial Times and based his answer on an extract from a newspaper. Surely any noble Lord who asks a question of the Government asks for the Government reply, and to me it is a completely new precedent that we should start quoting newspapers.

Several noble Lords


The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Peart)

My Lords, I am rather surprised that the noble Lord should have asked me this. It is quite legitimate for a Minister to use an extract from a paper, a book, or anything if he feels it is necessary to strengthen his argument; but my noble friend answered specifically the question that he was asked.


My Lords, would the Minister not agree that the trade unions ought to take more financial responsibility for supporting the dependants of strikers, and also the strikers themselves? Would the Minister not agree that that would be better than putting all the burden on the State?


My Lords, in fact some trade unions do make a strike- pay allowance each week. It varies, but I am bound to say it is certainly not adequate for the needs of the strikers' dependants.


My Lords, would the Minister not agree that, whatever the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, may have said, the Crossman Diaries revealed that the Labour Government of the day conceded in private that the 1966 legislation has had unforeseen and undesirable effects?


My Lords, we on this side, if I may say so, have not always regarded the late Richard Crossman and his views as being acceptable.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister why we have not had an answer from the Opposition Benches as to why, if they believed in a change, they did not operate the change when they were in power?