HL Deb 01 February 1983 vol 438 cc695-8

3.55 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)

My Lords, with the permission of the House, I beg leave to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Statement reads as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about the industrial action in the water industry.

"Since my Statement last Monday there has been some increase in the number of people advised to boil water, as a precaution. This figure is now approximately 5½ million. About 20,000 properties are without their mains water supply, but arrangements have been or are being made to provide supplies from standpipes or tankers. Some properties that had lost supplies have been reconnected.

"The quality of effluent from some sewage treatment works has deteriorated, but so far without serious effects on rivers. No significant pollution incidents have been reported. I am glad to tell the House that so far it has been possible to avoid or avert risks to public health.

"In my previous Statement, I expressed the hope that agreement would be reached that day at a meeting of the Water Industry National Joint Industrial Council. I would remind the House that both parties to the dispute had already agreed a procedure with ACAS for reaching a settlement, involving negotiations under an independent chairman, mediation by the chairman and, in the last resort, arbitration.

"An independent mediator was appointed by ACAS. He made a number of specific recommendations, which were subsequently accepted by the employers. They therefore made a further offer, reflecting his recommendations.

"They offered an increase of 7.3 per cent. to run for 16 months from 5th December 1982 together with an increase in the service supplement for manual employees with more than five years' service. The mediator, in paragraph 8 of his report, suggested further talks about increased earnings opportunities through bonus schemes and greater efficiency. I have placed in the Library copies of the agreed procedure, together with the mediator's report.

"Although the unions specifically requested mediation and agreed the mediator's terms of reference, they rejected the employers' offer based on his recommendations. On Saturday, they announced the continuation of strike action, without any reference to the agreed procedure for the resolution of this dispute, which, as a last resort, provides for arbitration. ACAS met the employers' side yesterday. There have been further discussions today. I understand that ACAS is seeing the unions this evening.

"Mr. Speaker, the whole House will hope that the efforts of ACAS will enable this damaging dispute to be brought to the earliest possible conclusion. In the meantime, I know that the House will also be anxious to see that the emergency cover continues to be provided and that hardship and distress are not caused. Whatever the dispute, there cannot be any justification for actions which hurt those least able to help themselves.

"There are clearly two main options to achieve an end to the dispute and an immediate return to work. Either the recommendation of the mediator is further pursued of urgent discussions on the various ways in which the earnings opportunities of water workers can be improved, or, if this course is unacceptable, then the terms of the national agreement regarding arbitration should be followed. The way is there. It must be taken.—

That is the end of the Statement, my Lords.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord the Minister for repeating the Statement which was made in another place. I understand that ACAS met the employers' side yesterday and that certain options were put forward. Perhaps two of the most important options were the rapid implementation of ways of improving earnings and of extending, improving and developing the industry's productivity scheme. We hope that those options will be discussed by ACAS with the unions this evening.

It would be wrong of me to enlarge very much on the Statement, because the last thing one wants to do in a crucial dispute of this description is to cause recrimination on either side. But I think it is important to draw to the attention of the Minister that there does seem to be some feeling in some circles that perhaps consultation is not fully taking place, that there are what we might call off-the-cuff meetings with certain waterworks chairmen. If that is the case, we hope the Minister will see that it does not continue, because obviously any conflict makes the job of the negotiator much more difficult.

I think it is important to remember that the trade unions in the dispute took their decision on a secret ballot in which 81 per cent. of the members participated; with the decision to proceed with the national strike by a majority of four to one. They as a union are as concerned as anybody else that people are being deprived of their water supplies, that there is a danger of pollution, though I think it must go on record that the guidelines laid down by the trade union are being fully carried out by the workers in the industry. If they were not perhaps there would be greater public anxiety than exists at the moment. I do understand that there is public concern. I think what is important is that we should recognise, or perhaps the Minister should recognise, that there appears to be some kind of Government intervention in the arbitration. Those of us who watched television at the week-end saw Sir William Dugdale on a programme; I think I took down what he said, to the effect that the employers were reliant upon Ministers for the strategic decisions in the dispute. However one interprets that, one would feel that for Sir William Dugdale to make that statement shows there is some kind of pressure from some source in government. Any statement of that description obviously leads to the belief that an improved offer could be made by the arbitrators if only the Government gave their blessing.

Therefore, one would agree with the Minister that there are two main options open. One would hope that these workers in the industry, unaccustomed to militancy, will be able through the arbitration service to get a satisfactory negotiated settlement. One recognises the problems, the difficulties and perhaps health hazards that may arise if the dispute goes on for a very long time. What is important is that the settlement is one agreed on honourable terms and that the consumers have a restoration of a pure water supply at the earliest opportunity.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, we on these Benches would like to join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, for having repeated this Statement. Before now I have made it plain that we cannot subscribe to the Government's policies, or, in our view, lack of policies, in the field of pay determination. For my part, as dispute follows dispute in one public service after another, I feel more and more confirmed in the view that there is an urgent need, in place of the present series of ad hoc arrangements applying in turn to particular public services, at least to seek agreed long-term procedures for pay determination over the widest practicable area in these services.

However, it is the current dispute on which we must express our view today, and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, I am most anxious to say nothing which could in any way hinder the obviously needed urgent settlement of the dispute. As the Statement says, the ACAS formula to which both the National Water Council and the unions recently subscribed, provided that in the last resort there should be arbitration. In the field of industrial relations at least, is it not of the essence of arbitration, as opposed to conciliation or mediation, that its outcome should be accepted by both sides in a dispute? In the light of the hardship which is being suffered by an increasing number of people, and with the serious damage to industry that is drawing ever nearer, are we not rapidly approaching that position of last resort?

4.6 p.m.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, it is interesting, is it not, that the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, complained that she was concerned that there was too much Government intervention, whereas the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, was concerned that there was not enough Government intervention. I think we will have to get the two acts together.

May I say on the points raised, first of all, that in the main the guidelines for emergencies are being followed, but there are, especially in Wales, situations where that is not so. But in the main I would accept what the noble Baroness says; I think that is right. On the extent to which there is Government intervention in arbitration and the comments made by Sir William Dugdale on television, which I also saw, I do not think anything can be drawn from that; I think he was expressing the generality of what has always pertained in this type of situation. The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, said that if the Government would give the go-ahead the arbitrator could see that more money be given. The whole point of arbitration is that the arbitrator must decide on his or her own. What the Government are saying is that agreements clearly laid down, signed by all sides, are that the matter should go to arbitration, and we are still saying that that is the position. We have had the situation where a mediator called in and approved by both sides gave his ruling; the employers decided to accept it but the trade unions would not do so. Now we are saying that arbitration is an agreed procedure and that that should be the next step, and hopefully that is what will come about if there is no settlement.

Like both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, I, too, have no wish to say anything to exacerbate the situation. I said negotiations are taking place this very day, and to add to that could not be helpful. Clearly, everybody in your Lordships' House wishes to see a speedy end to this situation. It is always those who are on the receiving end who are worst affected, and there is no one in your Lordships' House who does not want to see them quickly put into the position where they are not having to boil water, or whatever it may be.