HL Deb 24 February 1983 vol 439 cc830-2

3.31 p.m.

Lord Sandys

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 other countries have withheld the right to strike from those employed in essential public services.

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

My Lords, a number of countries have legislation which restricts the ability to strike of employees in essential services, including the United States, France and Italy. However, it is not possible to give a total figure because the nature and the extent of these restrictions vary greatly from one country to another. Most countries withhold the right to strike from the police and the armed forces, and in some cases from public servants, but there is no common pattern to the legislation which governs other essential services.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for his very interesting Answer, may I ask whether he can tell the House what the Government are doing in regard to preventive measures for the future in regard to strikes in essential services? Can we draw any comfort from the experience in Western Germany?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the Government are considering the question of strikes in essential services very carefully in the light of recent events. We shall not hesitate to take any measures which we are convinced would be both effective and beneficial. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State's mind is not closed on this. We all wish, I think, that our trade unions followed the example of Germany where trade unions exercise voluntary self-control in all essential services.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, when the Minister mentioned other countries why did he fail to mention the Soviet Union?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, there are a number of other countries which I did not mention for very obvious reasons, of which the Soviet Union is one.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that this Question constitutes a serious source of confusion unless one distinguishes between the temporary withholding of the right to strike under "cooling off" and permanent withholding under mandatory statutory arbitral provisions? Will my noble friend the Minister also agree that the experience of other countries does not readily transplant over here to us?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend that other countries have their own organisation and their own statutes which apply to the circumstances of those other countries. It may be that they will not, as he says, readily apply in this country. However, it is correct that we should take a note of what other countries do to see whether that could be applicable in this country in the different circumstances we have.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, instead of outlawing strikes in essential public services, might it not be wiser to try to establish agreed pay determination procedures of such a kind that will mean that those employed in those services no longer have reasonable cause to take industrial action?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that is certainly one option which my right honourable friend will consider. As I explained, his mind is not closed on this. It comes down in the end to what are essential services. A lot of people fall into that category.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, would not my noble friend agree that it is an abuse of industrial power—they have been behaving very well lately. But supposing that the men in the power stations, who are only a handful compared with the total population, by turning a few knobs decided to stop the trains, stop the factories, plunge thousands of homes into darkness and have demented housewives unable to cook. Does not my noble friend agree that it is high time that we had an agreed disputes procedure between nationalised boards and their employees—

Lord Molloy

We have, my Lords.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, it does not have the force of law, but it should have, to prevent strikes in the public utilities and public bodies.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, there have been laws to prevent strikes, but the fact is that they have not been used very often. That is why Section 4 of the 1875 Act was repealed. But I think that my noble friend's imagination runs away with him. We would all hate the hypothesis to which he refers, but we hope that union leaders, employers and workers will use common sense.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that, if the Government should go along the path of removing the right to strike, it would be accompanied by protection for those workers involved in the wages field, so that no worker, as happens now in the health service, can go home with less than the supplementary benefit rate?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that really is going quite a long way down the road of one proposition. I can assure the noble Baroness that if my right honourable friend has any ideas in that direction which he wishes to incorporate into the law there will be plenty of opportunities to discuss it.

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