HL Deb 31 March 1982 vol 428 cc1382-4

2.41 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

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 how many working days were lost during 1981 owing to industrial stoppages, compared with the average since 1975.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the provisional number of working days lost in industrial stoppages recorded in 1981 is nearly 4.2 million, compared with the annual average of 114.7 million over the six years 1975 to 1980.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, while thanking the Minister for his most encouraging Answer to my Question, may I ask him whether he would agree that the figures he has quoted reflect a growing sense of realism in the workplace, an understanding that profits maintain jobs, and that excessive wage demands damage profitability and result in unemployment?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I think that my noble friend is absolutely right. In order to ensure more employment, industry has to be competitive in price and to be sure of continuity of supply. Of course strikes militate against both those objectives.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton

My Lords, is the noble Minister aware that the President of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce yesterday stated that the level of major disputes reflects directly the recession and—as he put it—the unacceptably high level of unemployment, and that no one should be under any illusions that that will remain when the economy accelerates? Is the noble Earl aware that it is widely understood that, because of that situation, his right honourable friend has introduced in another place the repressive labour legislation which is now about to go through Parliament?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I was not aware of the quotation to which the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn of Charlton, referred. The noble Lord quoted from somebody who is perfectly entitled to have his own view. I am grateful to him for doing so. However, I disagree totally with his concept that my right honourable friend's legislation is repressive.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that these remarkably good figures are not widely known in the United States and other countries which are contemplating investment in this country, and that the wider these figures do become known the better for future investment and, therefore, for jobs in this country? At the same time could he possibly give us some figures which would show the disruption which occurs in industry and in our services as a result of go-slows, work to rules or internecine quarrels?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right in saying that if these figures are well publicised perhaps people will be keener to invest in this country. I cannot give him the figures which he requested in the latter part of his supplementary question, but perhaps he will take comfort from the fact that in both 1980 and 1981 the number of strikes was fewer than in any year since 1941.

Lord Blyton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that from 1975 to 1979 unemployment was well below the million mark? Could he not add the number of days lost, with a 4 million unemployment market, to the figures that he has quoted on the loss of work due to industrial strikes?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord the answer which he has requested without notice.

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that much of our success is due to the constructive approach of British trade union leaders who, more than ever in any country in the world, co-operate with management? Is not it time that management also looked to its own house and put in in order?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not think that there is any great value in apportioning blame. We must recognise that we are in a state of world recession and that we each—whether management or employees—owe it to each other to try to get out of this recession. The only way in which we can do that as a country is by being competitive, both in price and in work.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that what people do when they are actually at work is every bit as important as how often they miss work owing to a strike? Is he aware that in many Eastern European countries at the moment there are no strikes at all because they are illegal, but that the productivity in those countries is extremely low?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that, of course, is one of the reasons that unemployment is as high as it is now. Much of the unemployment which we see now was, in fact, carried before by firms and now they have had to slim down, so those figures, which were previously concealed, are now, regrettably, on the unemployment list.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that at a rough estimate the number of days lost by the 3 million unemployed is about 900 million, which, of course, is many times the number he quoted in his answer to earlier questions?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I would just remind the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, that even if we have a level of unemployment which is totally unacceptable in this country—as it is, in fact, and has been up to now—we have a higher proportion of our population employed than any other country in Europe, other than Denmark. That is worth remembering.