HL Deb 25 April 1995 vol 563 cc783-7

2.47 p.m.

Lord Elton asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many working days were lost through industrial action in the five-year periods ending 31st December 1979, 1984, 1989 and 1994.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the number of working days lost in labour disputes in the five-year periods ending 31st December 1979, 1984, 1989 and 1994 were 58 million, 52 million, 20 million and 4 million respectively.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does not that striking information result entirely from government policies? Is not the result of those policies to make United Kingdom industry increasingly competitive in the international market'? Does it not explain why our level of unemployment is already below the average in the European Union and falling faster than that in any other country in the Union?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, my noble friend's inferences are right. The unemployment rate in this country is below the EU average. Only ourselves, Ireland and Denmark have a level of unemployment lower than that of a year ago. It is for that kind of reason that 40 per cent. of Japanese and US direct investment in the European Community is in our country.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, will the Minister give the figures for the number of jobs lost in our manufacturing sector during the same period due to the Government's policies? Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost forever, which must have a bearing on the figures that he has quoted in respect of industrial disputes. Hundreds of thousands of people have not been in work and have had no opportunity to strike, even if they had wanted to.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, it is a matter of great satisfaction that the number of jobs in manufacturing is currently increasing. As regards the prosperity of this country, what matters is that we compete in the wider world in all sectors of the economy.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, will the Minister answer my question?

Noble Lords

Order, order!

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the admirable results of the trade union legislation that has been introduced by the Conservative Government since 1979 are caused largely because that legislation gives powers to members of trade unions to refuse to be bossed around by trade union leaders and to take decisions for themselves after holding secret ballots?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, my noble friend is of course correct in ascribing the success of our policy to the enabling aspirations which we succeeded in giving to individual members of trade unions so that they could direct events in the direction they wanted.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord should be rather less domestic in his explanations. What has happened to working days lost per 1,000 has happened in every OECD country. We have done slightly better because we have had a rather higher level of unemployment. Does the noble Lord not agree that the level of unemployment, rather than anything else, has reduced the number of strikes?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I do not believe that there is some kind of zero-sum relationship between those in work and those out of it. The key to the creation of jobs is international competitiveness. It is interesting to note that, for example, in 1984, over 27 million working days were lost due to strikes, while in 1994, just over 275,000 days were lost.

Lord McConnell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Northern Ireland has an excellent industrial relations record and that in the past five years, the average number of days lost per 1,000 employees in Northern Ireland was 24 compared with 37 in Great Britain? That information should be made available widely to industrialists who are considering setting up factories in the Province.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, is correct as regards the message which comes from Northern Ireland and its industrial relations record. That is an excellent record and that, together with the other good changes which we hope will occur there, will, I very much hope, improve greatly the economic prospects for the Province.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that last year saw the lowest number of days lost through strikes since records were kept? Does he agree further that any impairment to our employment possibilities would be jeopardised if the Government were to accept the social chapter or, indeed, a minimum wage?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, my noble friend is correct in saying that the number of strikes is now running at its lowest level for more than 100 years. Equally, as regards the future benefits for this country, we believe that the imposition of a minimum wage and signing up to the principles and implementation of the policies of the social chapter would damage the economic prospects of the country and erode the job prospects of those who work here.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, will the Minister reflect on the fact that curbing the excesses of trade unions is one thing, but crippling free trade unions in a democratic society is quite another? That may have very grave repercussions on our liberties in the future unless the point is watched very carefully by the Government. There are many examples from other countries and I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, is quite right that it is not appropriate to curb the rights of free trade unions. But we must strike a balance. During the legislative changes over the past 10 years, the Government have struck an appropriate balance, not least through the measures to which my noble friend Lord Renton referred.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, are the Government aware that, if one looks at the figures for the five years up to 1979—and the Minister quoted 58 million days lost through industrial action—approximately 1,700 million days were lost through unemployment? In the five years up to 1984, for which the Minister quoted a figure of 52 million days lost through industrial action, 3,500 million days were lost through unemployment. Those figures do not improve very much the further one goes into the period of Conservative government. When will the Government explain to their supporters and their Back-Benchers that it is far more important to consider ways of reducing unemployment rather than industrial action? Is the Minister aware that that industrial action is quite often caused not by trade union action but by bad management?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, as I explained in an earlier reply, there is no direct zero-sum relationship between unemployment and strikes. In creating jobs, it is crucial to provide opportunities to employ people. If the country has large numbers of people who are out of work when they could be in work, that helps to keep some of those who are unemployed out of work for longer. Our approach to job creation in this country is to have a flexible labour market which enables us to compete in the international world and thereby create real long-term jobs.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, while it is entirely satisfactory that the number of days lost through industrial action has reduced so remarkably, would it not be worth while to carry out an independent survey of the various factors involved, because we must try to strive for that to continue in the future? While government legislation may have played a part, other factors may have been involved; for example, changes in management arrangements in this country. Will the Government consider holding an independent inquiry into that issue?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, we always keep those matters under review but at present we do not feel that the case has been made for the formal independent inquiry which the noble Lord suggests.

Lord Elton

My Lords, when my noble friend reads Hansard tomorrow morning, as I am sure he will, will he notice that the noble Lords, Lord McCarthy, Lord Monkswell and others have all spoken as though there is a correlation between the increase in unemployment and the decrease in strikes? In fact, the reverse is true, since over a considerable period, the number of strikes has declined and during the past two years, unemployment has been falling.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right about that.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton

My Lords, in view of the fact that the Minister has put his case partly on a comparative basis, will he tell the House which are the only two industrialised countries in western Europe whose statistics do not show a major downward trend of industrial conflict in the past 10 years? If the noble Lord has looked at recent research, he will be able to tell the House which are those two countries. Will the noble Lord note that they include industrialised countries which have increased the rights of workers and trade unions as well as this country which has driven down those standards to below the ILO international standard?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, this country has seen a significant comparative improvement over the past decade. That is a matter for great satisfaction for all noble Lords on these Benches and, I hope, in the Government at large. We have not been condemned by the ILO and I very much regret any suggestion made that we have been so condemned.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, will the Minister consider carefully the fact that employers in the private sector construction industry have complained about the dramatic reduction in money for investment in public sector housing through housing associations and local authorities? In the light of that, will the Minister reconsider his view that there is no connection between unemployment and strike levels? Surely, if thousands of people in the construction industry are out of work because of government policy, they are therefore unable to strike. Many thousands of them are not even counted as unemployed because of the Government's constant tampering with the classification of unemployment.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the noble Baroness asked a number of questions but the suggestion that the problems of the construction industry are somehow related to the reform of industrial relations law and the incidence of strikes over the past few years is rather far-fetched.