HL Deb 15 April 1981 vol 419 cc982-90

11.24 a.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Lord Soames)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make a further Statement about the Civil Service dispute.

In my Statement on 5th March, I explained that non-industrial civil servants had been offered an increase of 7 per cent. from 1st April and that the Government had at the same time stated their desire and intention to establish for the future a new, ordered and, hopefully, agreed system for determining Civil Service pay.

This offer and the statement of intention were not accepted by the unions. Instead they embarked on a programme of industrial action including strikes which had continued without interruption since 9th March.

The industrial action as a whole has been designed to cause the maximum amount of damage at minimum cost to the unions. The number actually on strike has rarely exceeded 3,700. But the guerrilla tactics have included walk-outs for part of the day, protest meetings in working hours, and non-co-operation with management.

I can assure the House that those on strike do not receive any pay or allowances and that the period of absence does not count for pension purposes. Staff attending their offices but refusing to work normally are being relieved of their duties without pay.

The unions' stated objective has been to damage the work of Government, but this of course damages the community as a whole. Any extra cost to the Government can only be met by the taxpayer.

Further, despite assurances to the contrary, they have increasingly sought to disrupt services to the public. Local offices, providing benefits and services to the public, have more than once been closed for part or whole of the day without prior warning, meaning fruitless and time-wasting journeys by many members of the public. There have already been delays and frustrations for passengers at ports and airports and the threat to hit the Easter traffic is to be deplored.

Despite this calculated programme of disruption by a minority of civil servants which has hit the public and done great damage to the reputation of the Civil Service itself, I am glad to tell the House that the work of all Government departments has continued. The bulk of Government revenue is being banked and delays generally have been kept to a minimum. Measures have been taken to overcome the threat to the country's defence capability.

There is another side to the coin. Many civil servants have shown themselves to be loyal to their service and have worked hard and conscientiously to keep the work of their departments going, in some cases in the face of threats and intimidation. I am sure that the House will join me in thanking and paying tribute to them.

There have been suggestions that the Government should be taking steps to bring the unions back to the negotiating table. I must make the position quite clear. Our offer of 7 per cent. for the 1981 settlement is the most that can be afforded from cash limits this year—which means the most which we think it right to ask the taxpayer to finance. Indeed, some 1½ million people in the public service have already settled within these cash limits. The Civil Service has had pay increases of almost 50 per cent. in the last two years. That fully rectified the adverse effects of the previous Administrations' incomes policies. Against that background, and at a time when pay settlements generally have fallen sharply and are now well within single figures, we see our offer this year as being both fair and reasonable.

I know that there are many civil servants who recognise this fact but are none the less concerned that future arrangements for settling their pay should not be confined by cash limits predetermined by the Government without any negotiation. I understand that concern and I told the unions before the industrial action began that they could come and talk to us about future arrangements at any time. This still stands; we are ready and willing to talk whenever they are. I like to think this will be a much better and more fruitful idea than pursuing disruptive industrial action,

My Lords, that is the Statement.

Lord Goronwy-Roberts

My Lords, the House will wish to thank the Lord President for the Statement that he has made. It is, however, a very serious and disturbing Statement in that it emphasises that the position is one of deepening deadlock. He has indicated that the Government are prepared to talk to the unions, presumably on comparability and a new system as well as on wage and salary levels. But something more is needed if this industrial action is not to escalate in the next few weeks and months, and possibly bring on the country incalculable adverse results which none of us would wish to see happen.

I ask the Government, therefore, to give fresh consideration to making a new approach to the unions, asking them to sit down and discuss two things: first, the institution of a new comparability pay system, the old one having been abandoned unilaterally by the Government; secondly, to look at the question of the 7 per cent. This cannot be sacrosanct because in both the public and the private sectors lately it has proved not to be sacrosanct. Why should it over the past few weeks have been insisted upon by the Government in the face of the representations of the civil servants?

I was glad of the noble Lord's tribute to the great mass of the civil servants in this country for their loyal and conscientious services. Those of us who have seen how other countries fare in regard to this service will agree with him. We are in danger, I fear, of converting half a million fundamentally loyal, hard-working people into half a million militants. This affects the higher echelons as well as the middle and lower echelons. That is a factor that I believe the Government should increasingly take into account. None of us would wish to say anything that would exacerbate the position, and make it more inconvenient and difficult for people to move about at this time of the year, and place upon them other burdens which are already a fact in many a family as a result of this action.

I would put two points to the Minister at this stage. First, all parties and the state will support Her Majesty's Government in making all necessary provisions to ensure that the national security is not endangered, but we hope that there will be no undue provocation and confrontation in making this perfectly clear to the public and to the unions. Secondly, we hope very much that special efforts will be made for people who depend from week to week on their benefits—old age pensioners, the disabled and the weak generally. To them, the regular payment of benefit is of crucial importance, and even a day's delay may create a financial crisis in an ordinary household. I should like to be assured by the Minister on those two points, when he finally replies to the points that we are making.

In conclusion, may I once more strongly suggest that the Government themselves should today approach the Civil Service unions, with a view to sitting down with them to consider two things: first, an immediate examination of a substitute comparability system, the absence of which is causing very great uneasiness at all levels of the service; and, secondly, consideration of the question of 7 per cent. de novo, on the basis of what has been achieved—they are not lavish adjustments, by any means—not only in the private sector, but in certain parts of the public sector as well.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, from these Benches we should like to join in thanking the noble Lord the Leader of the House for having made this Statement. On an earlier occasion, we gave the Government our support in deploring industrial action by civil servants and in concurring with the Government on the main issue of the overall increase in pay being limited to 7 per cent. We now again support the Government on both those points and, also, in their use of naval personnel to service nuclear submarines. We very much regret the decision of the Civil Service unions to call all their members out on strike yesterday, and we gladly join in thanking and paying tribute to those civil servants who have continued to work hard and conscientiously, as the noble Lord put it, to keep the work of their departments going.

Having said all that, it is, nevertheless, now nearly six months since the Government dispensed with the Pay Research Unit and we are sorry that in this Statement there is no indication of how the Government think that it might be replaced. I would remind the House that the Liberal Party believes that there is an urgent need to establish long-term arrangements for pay determination which are much more comprehensive than those required to cater for the Civil Service alone. I should like to be as constructive as possible.

Have the Government considered the possibility of consulting with employers, trade unions and, indeed, other political parties, with a view to establishing a single independent body to determine the pay of people employed in certain key occupations which are essential for the immediate support of life, or for the security of the state? Has not the time come for the Government to seek an undertaking from all concerned that, whatever the circumstances and irrespective of incomes policy, the findings of such a body will be honoured?

Lord Soames

My Lords, I wonder whether I may perhaps answer those two noble Lords first. The noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, asked me two specific questions and made two specific points as well. On the question of whether we would be prepared to sit around the table and discuss with the unions the institution of a new pay system, as I said in my Statement, we are ready, whenever they feel ready to come and discuss these matters with us. As to the second question that he raised of looking again at the figure of 7 per cent., I must point out to him that this flows from a cash limit of 6 per cent. for pay, within which already more than 1½ million—nearly 2 million, in fact—public servants have already settled.

I am slightly surprised, in view of this and in view of the fact that pay settlements generally in the whole country are coming down into single figures, that he should think it right that this should be reopened merely because the unions are taking industrial action. As I understand what he was saying to me, it was that because industrial action is being taken we should therefore reconsider this. I know that noble Lords will bear in mind, and are very conscious of the fact, that the more that goes on public expenditure, the more that goes on consumption, the less there is available for investment and this, also, is a vital point at the present juncture of our economy.

I was grateful for the support which the noble Lord gave to the action that is being taken to maintain our defences. He went on to say that he hoped there would be no undue provocation. I absolutely agree with him. It is one thing to move the Services in to do the job of the Services—and this we felt it right and proper to do for the defences of the country—but it is quite a different matter to move the Services in to do jobs which have nothing at all to do with defence. The noble Lord mentioned his anxieties about retirement pensions. For the moment, these have not been affected by any industrial action and I can only say that I hope very much that this will continue to be the case. More than that I cannot say at this juncture. There is no sign, as yet, of them being affected by any industrial action.

I am grateful, also, to the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, for the support that he gave to the general tone of what I said. He asked me a specific question, in which I think he was really asking whether no-strike agreements can be built into any future system. This is always a matter that can be discussed. There are certain areas of our national life where there are virtually, no-strike agreements. But, of course, strikes are not the only form of industrial action. As the noble Lord knows, it is not absolutely black and white as to what is a strike and what is other industrial action. But this is certainly something which, for certain aspects of our public services, we very much bear in mind.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, while not asking the noble Lord to enlarge on the matter at this moment, would he consider being rather more positive and, if possible, a little more earnest in his invitation to the unions to come and meet him? Also, would he indicate as clearly as possible the scope of the discussions that might take place? I fear that when Ministers say that they are ready to see people as soon as those people are ready to see them, the invitation is not warm enough. Could he be a little more forthcoming on that point? I think he should put himself in the position of making a formal request, to see what is the reaction of the unions

Lord Soames

My Lords, I of, course, respect very much what the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, says on these matters. He has enormous experience in this area. But I really think that I made it perfectly clear that we are ready to talk. I cannot force people to come and talk to us, but we are ready to talk. We hope that they will be ready to talk. When they are, we shall be more than ready to receive them and to have discussions with them. We should like to discuss with them how in future pay settlements should be arrived at, because this year is this year; 1st April has gone by. I know what is occupying their minds and the noble Lord himself knows very well what is occupying the minds of numbers of civil servants who do not want to take industrial action but who nevertheless have considerable anxieties about the prospect of pay being settled by Government fiat in the future. That is not what we are seeking to do, and we are very ready to discuss it with them.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, in view of the somewhat disquieting observations of the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, about the 7 per cent. figure, is my noble friend aware that those in the private as well as in the public sector on both sides, employers and employed, who have made reasonable settlements in the last few months would feel betrayed if the Government were, in this area of their own direct employment, to depart from the 7 per cent. limit because of the kind of action which the Civil Service unions have seen fit recently to take?

Lord Soames

My Lords, we have this very much in mind. I think that the spirit of what my noble friend has said so well was also in the reply which I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts. I go along very much with my noble friend. What is more, settlements are coming down constantly. They are now well into single figures. As I have said before, there are many millions of people in this country who would be glad of a 7 per cent. increase and who also take into consideration the degree of job security, which is to a very large extent the name of the game these days, which exists within the Civil Service.

Lord Wilson of Langside

My Lords, without wishing to introduce a parochial note, may I ask the Minister whether he is aware that among the less publicised consequences of the Civil Service strike action is that the administration of justice in the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow has been brought practically to a standstill? Is the Minister also aware that it is widely felt up there that, if this had happened in the Old Bailey, action more effective might have been taken so that Master Rumpole and his brothers might have been getting on with it? Is the Minister further aware that it is widely felt up there that a little more managerial skill and perhaps a little more effective planning ahead might well have reduced significantly the disruption of the administration of justice in these cities?

The administration of justice, particularly criminal justice, is not unimportant in the City of Glasgow. If the noble Lord the Minister is aware of evidence contrary to that view, which is widely held up there, then the people of those cities would be glad to hear of it. If there is no such evidence, would he be prepared to discuss the matter with his Scottish ministerial colleagues and to suggest that in this context their sinews might be the better for a little stiffening?

Lord Soames

My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord, I think I can but say that we all deplore the action in the courts in Scotland. It is meaning long delays and that a number of people are not being brought before the courts. This we deplore. In answer to his question, I am in close touch with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that he will have the support of much of the country for the firm and diplomatic line that he has taken in this matter? We know how conscientious he is and how good he is at sorting out very difficult problems, of which this is one. We remember very vividly his success in Zimbabwe. Can he therefore, before we rise for the Easter Recess, assure this House and the other place as well that the door of his office will be open to start talks at any time, even when Parliament is not sitting, since that would perhaps be a further encouragement to those who wish there to be a settlement to make an approach as soon as possible?

Lord Soames

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for the kind things which he has said. Of course I shall do my best. What I should like to see is this dispute brought to an end as soon as possible. I can assure my noble friend that both the door of my department and the door of my own office are open from now on—as, indeed, they have been hitherto.

Lord Plant

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that the difference between the 2 million people who settled at 7½ per cent. and the Civil Service dispute is that when the Civil Service were offered 7 per cent. the PRU was destroyed and arbitration denied? That is what makes the difference. It leads me to underline what was said by my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby and to plead with the noble Lord the Leader of the House that he should do everything possible to convince the national staff side that he is now absolutely ready with a scheme for discussion upon how the 1982 pay settlement can be reached. Would the noble Lord the Minister indicate, therefore, whether the scheme is actually ready? In the newspapers last weekend I read that the Civil Service Department were working very hard, half a day a week, on preparing the new scheme. That, in the minds of civil servants, seems to indicate that the scheme is not ready. I should like to press the noble Lord the Minister on whether the scheme is ready and whether therefore discussions would be fruitful.

Lord Soames

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord who, like his noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has great experience of these matters. He went along with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in saying that he hoped that I would be more specific. I hope that lack of warmth is not one of my failings. Any invitation that I give is of a warm character, I like to think. As to the half day a week, the noble Lord knows as well as I do that he should not believe everything he reads in the press. I can assure him that we have been working long and hard on these matters for some while. There is the immediate future to be thought of and the more distant future to be thought of. On both of these matters I should welcome discussions with the unions.

Lord Goronwy-Roberts

My Lords, I think we should all agree that lack of warmth is not one of the Lord President's characteristics. Perhaps on occasions there is a surplus of heat, but that is not characteristic either. In the spirit of a number of the contributions made on both sides of the House—I repeat, on both sides of the House—may I ask the Lord President whether he would consider this morning sending a message to the unified Civil Service organisations saying, "I am ready to see you today"? There are people who are worrying about movement over Easter—not just holiday movement but movements for purposes of health, consultation and so on. People have got on to some of us about these arrangements. There is great uneasiness among the population. There is also very great anxiety, as the Lord President quite rightly accepted, in all echelons of the Civil Service. This is the best Civil Service in the world. Let us take very great care that it does not become the most discontented Civil Service in the world.

Lord Soames

My Lords, I must take up the noble Lord on his last point. Why should it become the most discontented Civil Service in the world? It has got a pay offer which is in tune with the times, which is both fair and reasonable and which is seen to be such and thought to be such by the vast majority of our citizens. That is what we believe. Secondly, have said, and I have no doubt that the unions are well aware of what I have said—if they are not, they will be within the next minute or two and I have made it abundantly clear in my Statement—that I really do not think that it is necessary for me to add anything at this stage.

Lord Morris

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend the Minister whether there is any truth in the report on the front page of The Times yesterday that some 15 sailors prepared HMS "Resolution" for sailing, whereas it took some 50 employees of the Ministry of Defence to do the same work? Even if that story were partly true, does it not give comfort to those who believe that there is serious overmanning in the Ministry of Defence?

Lord Soames

My Lords, I am afraid I do not have that sort of detail at my fingertips. All I know is that the necessary work has been done and, as I said earlier in the week, I only wish it had been done by those whose job it was to do it. If it had to be done in other ways I am sure it was in as practicable and effective a way as possible. I am not after nit-picking in this; it is too big a matter for that and I hope we can set about resolving it in all seriousness.

Lord Walston

My Lords, I apologise for prolonging this questioning but this is a really important matter and I should like to take the Minister up on the last but one answer that he gave to my noble friend Lord Goronwy-Roberts. He said that it would be known "in a few minutes" to the Civil Service leaders that he would be ready to see them. Would he not agree, if he is really anxious—as I am sure he is—to discuss this matter with them, that rather than let it go out on the tape or by some indirect means it would be more forthcoming and warmer, more in keeping with his character, to send them a specific invitation: "Will you come this afternoon or tomorrow morning?"

Lord Soames

My Lords, I want to talk to the unions when the unions want to talk to me. There is no earthly point in my asking to talk to people who do not want to talk to me.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, in view of the last question, I think that my noble friend needs some support. The morale of the nation is also involved in this and it is quite clear that in the tactics of the game, which are understood by most of us who have had any dealings with it, if my noble friend goes any further than the very forthright statement that he has made now, tactically it would be looked upon as going back on the offer which he has said is the most that we can afford at the present time. I think he should keep in mind that the Statement he has made is very clear and well understood and that the movement ought to come from the people to whom he has sent his message today.

Lord Soames

My Lords, I am always grateful for support, particularly from my noble friend. Perhaps the House will forgive me if I suggest that it would be in the interests of the House if we were to move on to other business.

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