§ Mr. Harold Lever (by Private Notice)
asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement about the industrial dispute in the coal industry.
§ The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Robert Carr)
On 21st January—last Friday—I met at my request representatives of the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board to explore at first hand whether any practical step was possible which could help to resolve the deadlock. These meetings followed an account given to me by Mr. Victor Feather, the General Secretary of the T.U.C., of the meeting which he had arranged earlier in the week between the union and the Board at which there had been no indication of the possibility of productive talks between them.
I thoroughly explored the present position of both the parties. The representatives of the union told me that only a substantially improved money offer could provide a basis for any further meeting with the Board or of any prospect of a settlement being reached. For their part, the representatives of the Board explained that the last offer they had made in negotiations had represented the maximum the industry's financial and commercial circumstances could allow. The statements made by both parties following these meetings clearly showed that they had been unable to make any change in their positions.
I had therefore reluctantly to conclude that at the present time there was nothing further I could do to help them towards a settlement. I shall however continue to consider any possibilities of further action and have told the parties that I shall be keeping in touch with them.
§ Mr. Lever
The right hon. Gentleman appears to believe that his rôle is to 969 explore the position of the contending parties, and not to seek to guage the position of the parties. So long as he contents himself with exploration instead of constructive intervention and conciliation, is not it clear that he will preside over a deadlock, as both parties maintain their position? Has he made clear to the National Coal Board that he will encourage it to look again at the position it has taken up, to see whether there are flexible concessions it might offer to the miners? Has he probed what the mineworkers' leaders mean by a "substantially improved money offer", to see whether there is the basis for the resumption of discussions? Will he bear in mind that the nation expects all the parties concerned—the right hon. Gentleman, the Board and the mineworkers' leaders—to do everything possible to bring about a reasonable settlement of a dispute which, if it lasts, will have the gravest consequences for the nation and possibly disastrous consequences for the coal industry?
Will he move from the attitude of detached, lofty impartiality as to the outcome, revealed by his statement, and move into a position of active conciliation, in which he seeks to impress upon the Board the possibilities of a flexible adjustment in its position on the one hand and examines with the mineworkers' union what is meant by talk of an increased offer—what the size of that offer will have to be to get constructive discussions under way?
§ Mr. Carr
I made very clear to both parties the very serious nature of their dispute, from the point of view not only of the future interests of their industry and all those who work in it but of the whole country. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I stressed that very strongly. The right hon. Gentleman advises me to move from my position of detached impartiality. If anyone holding my position were to do that, his ability to conciliate would quickly disappear. To conciliate, there must be some flexibility. To decide whether there is flexibility, there must be thorough exploration, and that is exactly what I have been carrying out. The right hon. Gentleman must take it not only from me but from the adamancy Mr. Victor Feather found as well, and from the statements made by both parties pub- 970 licly after their meeting with me—such as the statement by the union that it would not consider any court of inquiry or any independent means of resolving the dispute—that the position on both sides is very hard at present. I can only repeat what I said in my statement, that I am watching very carefully for any possibilities, and have told the parties that I shall be keeping in touch with them and looking for some sign of flexibility.
§ Mr. Cormack
Whilst I appreciate all the difficulties, I hope that my right hon. Friend will see the parties again very soon and try to persuade them to agree to a court of inquiry being set up.
§ Mr. Carr
I shall keep my hon. Friend's point in mind, but both parties have made it very clear to me that they saw no value in a joint meeting unless the situation changed in some way, and they specifically did not want me to suggest further meetings unless there was something new to say, some new question to ask for some definite message to communicate. They felt that meetings without a well-defined purpose in the present state of affairs could be counter-productive rather than productive.
§ Mr. Lever
I know that the right hon. Gentleman has carefully explored the position. What I want him to answer is the point I made before: what is he doing to seek to move both parties from their position of inflexibility, which, if it continues, must mean the continuation of a disastrous strike? Has he made it plain to the Board—after all, the Government cannot regard the dispute as if it were one in private industry—that he would not stand in the way of a modification of its offer if it brought about a settlement? Has he asked the mineworkers' union what it means by a "substantial money increase"? Any money increase that occurs in this matter is necessarily substantial, but has he asked the mineworkers what they have in mind, so that he may judge what advice he might give the Board?
§ Mr. Carr
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I have probed very deeply into the different parties' positions. But I gave them an assurance, which I believe is right and think to be normal, that anything they might say to me in reply to my probings would be locked in the secrecy 971 of my mind and would not be discussed until an appropriate moment.
§ Mr. Burden
Does my right hon. Friend remember that the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), laid down very strong guidelines in these matters on 24th July, 1967, when he said:If there were devaluation in this country, any effort on the part of the organised workers to counteract it by securing higher wages should be ruthlessly resisted."?—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th July, 1967; Vol. 751, c. 100.]That was the policy of the Labour Party then.
§ Mr. Carr
As I told the House in the debate last week, I have a double duty, which is not peculiar to me; my predecessors had it as well. That double duty, which is not easy, is to regard the overriding public interest, particularly to have stability of prices, and the need to get a settlement which both parties to a dispute regard as fair and acceptable.
§ Mr. Speaker
I am sorry, but I meant the other Mr. Grant, the Member for Morpeth (Mr. George Grant).
§ Mr. George Grant
If the Minister is not further to harden the attitudes of the mining communities, will he take into consideration that this wage application does not arise just from the events of the last 12 months but goes back to 1956, since when miners' wages have slid back considerably compared with those of others? Will he also consider that successive Governments restricted the National Coal Board in increasing the price of coal, and that during the last 12 months imported coal has cost this nation between £5 and £15 a ton more than our own indigenous fuel?
§ Mr. Carr
I am certainly aware, and I think that probably the House and the country were aware beforehand, of what certainly the miners' leaders made very clear to me again when I saw them on Friday, that one of the major elements in this dispute is not some sudden issue but the boiling up after a long period 972 of feelings that the miners were being relegated compared to other people in the work force of this country. I am very well aware that that is one of the strong feelings.
§ Mr. Redmond
While accepting that this situation is extremely delicate and one which one would not want to do anything to exacerbate, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he had any discussions with the National Union of Mineworkers regarding the level of picketing which has caused such ill feeling throughout the country?
§ Mr. Carr
Yes. I think it is fair to say that this matter did come up in my meetings with both parties, and I think that this has also appeared in public statements—at least, one of them, as far as one incident, namely, at Doncaster, which caused, I am sure, very great public disquiet last Friday. I am glad, and I am sure the whole House will be glad, to see that the union has taken action about that—
§ Mr. C. Pannell
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that whatever has happened about picketing is the result of the strike and not the cause of it, and will he bear in mind that past holders of his office have not necessarily waited for one or other of the parties or both to agree before setting up an inquiry? Is it not the position at the moment that we have a strike and the Minister seems pixilated and does not seem to know with whom to agree?
§ Mr. Carr
It would be a very rash holder of my office who appointed any inquiry or any machinery of that kind when he has been told very bluntly by both sides that they are not prepared to consider that as a means for resolving the dispute. It is for that reason that my predecessors, sometimes, of both parties—alas, no doubt reluctantly—felt it wise to wait a long time, because once one has played that card one cannot play it again, and if it does not take the trick it is very serious.
§ Mr. John Page
Can my right hon. Friend give any information about dealing with safety conditions in any of the pits due to the reduction of maintenance being carried out at the moment?
§ Mr. Carr
I am afraid not in detail. I really think one must leave this to the National Coal Board to deal with with the National Union of Mineworkers. I hope that the whole House will agree, and show evidence of agreement about it, that to both parties this is an immensely important subject, because if it is not given proper priority the consequences can be extremely serious for the future of employment and of the industry.
§ Mr. Eadie
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the miners believe that it is his administration which is responsible for the present strike because he interfered with the National Coal Board during negotiations? Since the National Executive of the N.U.M. meets tomorrow—and I am a member of it—will he give a declaration now from the Dispatch Box that he will say to the N.C.B., "You can negotiate without the Government peering over your shoulder, and let us have a settlement which will be suitable to the people of this country and suitable to the miners"?
§ Mr. Carr
—when I was replying to another hon. Gentleman a few moments ago, and also, in the debate last Tuesday, many hon. Gentlemen opposite, including those with the closest connections with the miners and their industry, went out of their way to emphasise that this was a culmination of a number of years of 974 feelings of being pushed about and so on and so forth and was not a quarrel with this Government, nor a quarrel by this Government with the miners. As for the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I can only say, as I told the House last week, and as I told both parties again last Friday, that the National Coal Board has been free to negotiate, it has negotiated, it is under no more duress or less than the industry was before under both Governments; and indeed, of course, it is under considerably less duress than it was under the last Government's statutory incomes policy.
§ Mr. Edwin Wainwright
Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that this is no longer 1926 when the miners were driven underground and that there is no black-legging taking place in this industry? Would he not realise that it is time that the dead hand of the Government should be taken off the National Coal Board, and that the Government should give a little bit of easement so that a settlement could be brought about, which would be to the benefit of the people of this country and not just to the benefit of a nationalised industry?
§ Mr. Carr
I do not really think that the hon. Gentleman helps matters when he speaks as if there has been great rigidity or that the Coal Board was in a fixed position. Whatever may be said about the merits of either the claim or the offer, it remains a fact that the offer of the Coal Board has been adjusted and raised at least three or four times, and that genuine negotiations went on till 48 hours before the strike, and that the negotiations were at levels far above any maximum level which his Government provided when they were in power.