HL Deb 07 May 1980 vol 408 cc1647-51

2.51 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 whether they do not consider it appropriate to make a statement condemning the action of the Trades Union Congress to call a protest strike on 14th May, in view of the TUC's professed concern about our economic plight.


My Lords, Ministers have on many occasions condemned the absurdly named "day of action" which the TUC have urged union members to support on 14th May. The only effects will be to diminish even further the standing of trade union leaders among the public generally, to threaten jobs and to give comfort to our overseas competitors.


My Lords, while thanking my noble friend the Minister of State for Employment for his Answer, may I ask him three short questions: First, whether this action, which is called for on 14th May, is not political in essence? Secondly, has not the national demonstration one purpose—a purpose which is not connected with Parliament or the ballot box—which has already been stated by some trade union leaders and is to deter or defeat the Government in respect of their economic policy, the policy of a lawfully elected Government? I would also ask my noble friend this question: If Parliament is to mean anything, should not this action on 14th May be stated clearly for what it is; and, in a conciliatory sense, should not the TUC, in the interests of all of us, as well as in the interest of themselves, be invited to withdraw the action which they have contemplated?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, I am altogether in agreement with my noble friend; it is very regrettable that the TUC have gone as far down this road as they have. We are very fortunate in this country in having very many avenues open to us to express our sincerely held political opinions. But it is not profitable to this country in its standing in the world, if we express them by withdrawing our labour.


My Lords, is the noble Earl aware of the despair in the minds of moderate trade union leaders which statements of that kind are bound to cause? Is he aware that the TUC feel that they have made representations to this Government, over and over again, since they came to office, not only upon the Employment Bill, but also upon economic issues generally, yet on not one occasion have this Government shown the slightest indication that they are remotely interested in the views of the TUC, which is why these things happen?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, the noble Lord is wrong in everything that he said. Representations have been made to my department and to other Departments of State by the TUC. They have always been listened to with courtesy, and consultation over every issue has been welcomed. What is annoying the TUC is that agreement has not been found to be possible.


My Lords, have the Government made an estimate of the number of jobs likely to be lost, the unemployment likely to be caused, as a result of the inaction for which the TUC have called, were it to be fully observed in a week's time?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, a number of us are working very hard to try to restore foreign confidence in this country, with all that that means for investment and employment, and we have had some encouraging signs that this is picking up. But this kind of activity, especially in view of there being every kind of political channel open for protest or for the demonstration of views, is not exactly likely to help foreign confidence and, therefore, to help employment.


My Lords, will the noble Earl tell me this: Since it is the Government's policy in the process of controlling inflation to promote unemployment, why do they object to a little trade union co-operation?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, Governments have an enormous vested interest in people being in work in this country. It is a travesty to suggest that the Government are promoting unemployment.


My Lords, before the noble Earl concludes that what I am saying is wrong, will he tell us of one significant case where this Government have done anything as a result of representations made by the TUC?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, I can think of too many, which would take up a very great deal of the time of the House. In the case where I have myself been directly involved, there have been representations on, for instance, maternity issues.

Viscount ST. DAVIDS

My Lords, in the circumstances in which this Question, and the next one which is on the Order Paper in my name, have arisen, will the noble Earl agree that there is some difficulty, because a further statement on what is likely to happen on the 14th has been promised in writing by the Government to certain organisations? It has been suggested that the Government's Answer should have been made on my Question, which was to have been asked next. But in the circumstances which have arisen, obviously, these statements cannot be made at this exact moment. Will the noble Earl tell us whether such statements will be made as Government statements in the very near future?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, I am a little at a loss as to whether I am answering first Question in the name of my noble friend Lord Gridley, or whether this is a comment which is being asked of me on the Question in the name of the noble Viscount. I can say, however, in respect of the noble Viscount's Question, that my advice is that this is a matter which is sub judice at the moment and that, therefore, it would be improper for me to comment upon it.


My Lords, instead of merely making statements of condemnation, as advocated by the first questioner, would not the Government also be well advised to encourage activities aimed at obtaining a clearer understanding on the part of trade union members, that improved living standards are more likely to be achieved through continuity than through disruption of production?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, it is the Government's view that trade union members, 12 million of them, understand this very well. Our disagreement is with the views, and the methods of expressing them, of the trade union leadership.

The Earl of ONSLOW

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that it seems to several of us that the total failure of the party opposite to condemn political strikes is something for which they will be held in disrepute for quite a long time?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, I am in agreement with my noble friend.

2.58 p.m.

Viscount ST. DAVIDS had given Notice of his intention to ask the following Question:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the form of political strike being suggested for 14th May is protected by law as a trade dispute; and, if not, whether any firm or individual put to loss or damage by this action may recover damages from individuals or unions concerned.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I was going to ask the Question which is down on the Order Paper before judicial proceedings had been started. But now that judicial proceedings are before the courts, it is obviously impossible for me to ask this Question. However, one thing we can demand is that the Government, who were to have made a statement on my Question, should now consider that, as soon as these matters have been cleared from the courts, either they should make the statement independently or I should be allowed time to put my Question on the Order Paper, as it is considered to be a very valuable one by a great many people in this country.

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, I have never heard the word "however" with more foreboding in my career than just then. But, of course, the noble Viscount is quite right. He is utterly free to put down his Question again at a later stage, when perhaps, as a result of court action, the position will be clearer.


My Lords, has not the noble Viscount's Question moved from the irregular to the hypothetical?