HL Deb 17 March 1987 vol 485 cc1309-12

2.38 p.m.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many official industrial disputes occurred in 1986.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Lord Young of Graffham)

My Lords, there was a provisional total of 1,063 stoppages of work in progress due to industrial disputes in 1986. With the exception only of 1985, this is the lowest annual figure since 1940.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that most encouraging information. Can he by chance put the figures into working days and say how they compare with other years?

Lord Young of Graffham

Yes, my Lords. There were 1.9 million working days lost during the year 1986. That was the lowest figure for nearly 20 years—since the 12 months which ended in August 1967, which had 1.8 million days lost. This compares with the 10-year average of 11.1 million days to December 1985. I should add that one-quarter of the days lost in industrial disputes last year were lost due to the teachers' dispute and a dispute in the aerospace industry.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that in fact the total number of strikes has been going down for the last 16 years? The significant thing about the total number of strikes this year is that it is 8.4 per cent. above what it was last year. Nobody wants to suggest that that is the Government's fault. The noble Lord surely would agree that whatever happens to the number of strikes or working days lost has little to do with the Government and little to do with legislation, and a great deal to do with whether or not there happens to be that year a major dispute in the public sector?

Lord Young of Graffham

No, my Lords. Perhaps I may take this opportunity of agreeing for one of the first times ever with the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, and then also disagreeing with him. First of all. to disagree, the number of strikes has not been going down for the last 10 years. In some years it has shown a significant rise. Secondly, the number of industrial disputes is solely due, I believe, to the opportunities we give to individual trade unionists to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to go on strike.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, in view of the supplementary from the other side, can my noble friend say whether it is a pure myth that during the winter of discontent there were a considerable number of strikes just before the 1978–79 election? Certainly we are led to believe by all the press that that was a significant time and had a considerable effect on the election which followed.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I should report as a matter of record that in 1976 there were 2,034 stoppages; in 1977 there were 2,737 stoppages; in 1978 there were 2,400 stoppages; and in 1979 there were 2,100 stoppages. I would rather like us to look at the period after the 1980, 1982 and 1984 Bills came into operation. In 1985 there were 903 stoppages and last year of course just over 1,000.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, will the Secretary of State acknowledge that if the Government had adopted the policy advocated by the Alliance parties three years ago to extend the application of secret postal ballots in the election of members of union executives there might have been even fewer disputes in 1986? Does he agree that the incidence of industrial disputes is due as much, or more, to the quality of management as to that of trade union leaders?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, there are those of us in your Lordships' House who may be a little unkind and confess to finding difficulty in deducing exactly what Alliance policies are. In this instance I do not believe that the problem is due to weak management, although that is a very important contributory factor. More important than that, our policy gives members of trade unions the opportunity to decide for themselves whether their jobs are worth putting on the line in the cause of a particular industrial dispute. There are occasions when they will so decide, but there are many more occasions when they will not.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, may I ask the Secretary of State whether the teachers' strikes of half a day will come into the figures next year?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, in many instances they are unofficial strikes and I do not believe they will come under working days lost. I shall have to look at that point to determine exactly what the action is, but in many cases the employers do not recognise such action as a strike.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, would it not be better if the noble Lord did not make selective quotations from particular years but looked at general trends? We can all take selective quotations from particular years. I notice that he does not quote from 1984, when 27 million working days were lost—the third largest number since the General Strike.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I do not think anybody in your Lordships' House needs reminding about the activities of the National Union of Mineworkers and the effect of those activities on the total number of days lost through strikes. In 1984 there were 1,221 stoppages in progress and the enormous total of 27 million days lost by strike action—a strike which contributed to no more than the shrinkage of the mining industry.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, since the Secretary of State has started electioneering, will he confirm that the greatest problem facing this country is that there are 3¼ million people out of work, most of whom have become out of work as a result of the policies of the noble Lord opposite?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, noble Lords opposite will have to decide what the greatest problem is in this country. Although unemployment is regrettably affecting many industrialised nations, I think all in your Lordships' House will agree that the steps this Government have taken are having effect. We have seen a reduction of 100,000 in the number of unemployed over the last six months—a trend different from that in most other industrialised nations.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, is the Minister aware that this discussion about the number of strike days reminds one very much of the late Ernest Bevin, who once said that any fool could go on strike but it is a very intelligent man who knows how to get people back to work?

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, as the noble Lord has introduced the subject of unemployment, can he again tell us where Britain stands in the unemployment league among major industrial nations, considering the percentage of unemployed in the country?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I hate to correct the noble Lord, but it was those opposite who introduced unemployment; but that is not the Question here today. I think unemployment is rather wide of the Question. I should be more than happy to answer him if he would but put down a Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, will the Minister tell us the exact number of people unemployed at the moment?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, that is another question. But, seasonally adjusted, the figure is some 3,160,000. Noble Lords will correct me if I am wrong within 10,000 or 20,000. It is a very high figure, but it is coming down and I suspect that we shall see it continue to come down.