HL Deb 07 May 1981 vol 420 cc212-4

3.9 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing

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 progress has been made since their Statement to Parliament on 15th April in resolving the Civil Service dispute.

The Lord President of the Council (Lord Soames)

My Lords, I met representatives of the Council of Civil Service Unions on Thursday, 23rd April. At that meeting I repeated yet again that the cash limit which the Government have set for 1981 was final, and I reminded them that 2 million others who work in the public services had already accepted that fact. For the future, I told them that the Government would be ready to set up an independent inquiry to advise us on fresh arrangements for determining Civil Service pay. I also told them that for next year—1982—we would be ready to enter into genuine negotiations without a predetermined cash limit.

These proposals, for 1982 and for the longer term, offer important assurances on matters of particular concern to the Civil Service generally. I told the unions that we saw the proposals as a fair and reasonable basis for a settlement of the dispute and that I was ready to discuss the details with them at once. I regret to say that the unions did not respond to my invitation to discuss these ideas, beyond sending a letter that was, to say the least, unconstructive and got us alas! no further along the road.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is it not true that the last comprehensive consideration of the structure of the Civil Service and its pay was made by Sir Raymond Priestley's Commission, set up in November 1953, reporting in November 1955? Therefore, is it not desirable—if a committee is to be set up—that its terms of reference and membership should be considered by the unions and the Government at the earliest possible moment, so that we can get on with finding a solution which will make for the smooth working of the Civil Service in this country?

Lord Soames

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. In answer to the first part of his question, that is true. The methods of arranging Civil Service pay have not been looked at since the Priestley Commission report, which is now over 25 years ago, and which was in a totally different time and economic circumstances from those appertaining today. I think that we all agree that it is time to have a fresh look at this, and we think that an independent inquiry would be the best way in which to approach it.

In answer to the second part of my noble friend's question, the answer is "yes" in both instances: I told the unions that we were, of course, ready to discuss with them both the terms of reference and the membership of any such inquiry.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is widespread admiration for the firm stand that he has been taking in this matter and in the protection of the public interest? Will he bear in mind that if, in any future discussions and arrangements, he continues to protect the public interest, he will have the support of everybody?

Lord Soames

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. It is absolutely necessary that we should take the stand that we have on this. I think that it would be a great mistake if people got it into their heads that all that was necessary was to indulge in industrial disruption in order to get a pay offer reviewed. But, equally, at the same time I must say that I should dearly like to be able to discuss with the unions how best to bring this dispute to an end. I think that what I have put forward to them should be seen as a basis for just that. I cannot believe that the great majority of civil servants, whatever may be their views about the dispute, can be at all happy that their unions continue to refuse even to discuss possible ways forward for the future and appear content to maintain, apparently indefinitely, their disruptive actions, with all the inconvenience and costs that that imposes upon the public.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether these strikers are in receipt of their pay for the hours when they vacate their posts?

Lord Soames

Yes, I can, my Lords. They are not.

Baroness Wootton of Abinger

My Lords, as one of the surviving members of the Priestley Commission, may I ask the Minister whether it is necessary to have quite such a formal body as a Royal Commission to make these inquiries? Can he say whether he is considering, with the unions, something which would be more flexible and perhaps quicker?

Lord Soames

My Lords, I did not mention the Priestley Commission; it was my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing who drew attention to it. This is not to say that we foresee a repeat of Priestley. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for asking the question so that I can put this right. We seek to have an impartial inquiry. The main reason for this, given the experience that we have had over the past years, would be to advise us on fresh arrangements in order to arrive at decisions on pay for the Civil Service, in the same way, I agree, as the Priestley Commission did 28 years ago.

Lord Glenkinglas

My Lords, will my noble friend not agree that when the civil servants started this operation they assured the public that they would do everything they could to avoid disrupting the public? Although I fully appreciate everything that my noble friend is trying to do, is there not some way in which the Civil Service could be brought round the table, to discuss these problems in the very constructive manner that he has suggested?

Lord Soames

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend and I hope that the Civil Service unions will read the question that he has posed me. Certainly his idea falls in very much with mine. I hope that this will be possible.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is it not a fact that the Civil Service has had 50 per cent. pay increases over the last two years? This is a sign that the Government have wished to treat it fairly and equably. Can he say what Government areas are now suffering most from the unions calling on their members to strike in limited numbers? Can he assure the House that everything possible will be done to shelter the needy and the old if their social security payments are delayed or denied to them?

Lord Soames

My Lords, in answer to the first part of the question, yes, it is true that over the last two years the pay increases have been of the order of 50 per cent. But in all fairness, I must point out to the House that that came after two years of incomes policy during which their increases were very small. However, the figure which my noble friend gives is correct.

As to the departments where most of the action is taking place, the unions have concentrated largely upon the Inland Revenue and upon certain areas of defence. As to the benefits, so far these have not been affected to any marked degree. If any noble Lord knows of any instance where they have been affected, and he will let me know, I shall of course look into the matter. But, generally speaking, they have not been affected, and my hope is that matters will remain this way.

Lord Goronwy-Roberts

My Lords, would the Minister like to take this opportunity of assuring the House that the continuing action, which everybody deplores—whatever may be the reason for it—is not holding up payments in cash to beneficiaries, many of whom depend from week to week on prompt payments of their benefits? Secondly, will he also assure the House that the security of the country is in no way being jeopardised?

Lord Soames

My Lords, I think that I replied to the noble Lord's question before he asked it, or at least the first part of it, in my previous answer. The dispute is not holding up benefits, and I hope that that will remain the case. As to the defences of the country, I think that the House can be assured that, until now at least, there have been no ill-effects upon the main defence structure for the country. That is not to say that we do not suffer from some strikes, because we do; the whole country suffers and there is no way round that. But I think that I can safely say that our defences have not been damaged.