HC Deb 15 January 1974 vol 867 cc339-41
1. Mr. Thomas Cox

asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will list the leaders of trade unions he has met officially since taking up his present office.

9. Mr. Tom King

asked the Secretary of State for Employment how many meetings he has had with leaders of trade unions since taking office.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. William Whitelaw)

I have already had a large number of meetings with trade union leaders but I do not think it would be right to detail them all.

Mr. Cox

I s the right hon. Gentleman aware from these meetings that many trade union leaders and members find it unbelievable that men have to work seven days a week to get a decent wage and that the moment they stop doing so industry grinds to a halt? Is he further aware that the Government cling like drowning men to the remnants of stage 3, as a result of which the worsening industrial relations are costing the country hundreds of millions of pounds a year? How much more destruction will the Government cause?

Mr. Whitelaw

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's first point. On his second point, I ask him and the House to reflect on the offer which has already been made to the National Union of Mineworkers, to which he refers. That offer in itself shows that the miners are recognised as a special case. It gives them a position which cannot be eroded under the proposals by other unions seeking to catch up. This is a very important position and one which Labour Members should recognise.

Mr. King

I welcome the number of meetings which my right hon. Friend has already had with trade union leaders. May I urge him to meet the widest possible cross-section of union leadership, not merely of unions at present in dispute but of all unions, and particularly the officers of unions throughout the country, at different levels?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have met leaders of unions which are not involved in disputes, and I will continue to do so. I am only too pleased to discuss all the problems which those unions face. It is perfectly proper and right for me to do so. But I maintain the position which I put to the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox).

Mr. Prentice

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Government had a historic opportunity yesterday? It is a great tragedy that they threw it away. What was the point of meeting trade union leaders except to seek their co-operation, particularly towards a constructive and restrained atmosphere for finding a way out of the present crisis? After the TUC leaders had gone as far as they constitutionally could in order to meet the Government, why were they turned down? Does not that leave the impression in the country that all those meetings were nothing more than a public relations exercise? [An HON. MEMBER: "By whom?"]

Mr. Whitelaw

Not at all. There is no question of anyone being turned down as the right hon. Gentleman suggests. Nor is there any question of not considering very carefully what was said. I hope I made it very clear to the Press and to the country, on television last night, that I regarded the offer made by the TUC as a genuine offer and as an effort from its point of view to seek to solve a difficult problem. Equally, the Government must state the facts for the nation, namely, that they are standing by a counter-inflation policy which, in the current circumstances facing the country, is of vital importance to us all. To take any action that would go back on that, unless one was very sure about it, would be a disaster, because it would inflict grave hardship on our country and on jobs for our people in the longer term. These are problems which we must face and examine carefully in considering all the proposals. The Government realised that the TUC had put forward a genuine offer, but we did not believe that it would in itself meet the requirements of a successful counter-inflation policy.

Mr. Prentice

I f that is so, what was the meaning of the right hon. Gentleman's statement to the House in the debate just before Christmas, when he asked that the TUC should make it clear that if the miners were treated as a special case it would not be used as a precedent for other cases? Has not the TUC met the right hon. Gentleman's point? If the right hon. Gentleman meant something more in December, will he say what it was and what else he expects from the TUC?

Mr. Whitelaw

Will the right hon. Gentleman, who is always fair in these matters, read the whole of what I said? He has referred to only one part of my statement. I do not have the statement before me, but I said in another part that, if there were to be more for one group of workers, leaders of other groups would have to accept that their members would need to take substantially less. That was what I said before I made the other comment to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred.

Mr. Russell Kerr

Disgraceful, Willie!

Mr. Whitelaw

I f the hon. Gentleman thinks it is disgraceful he had better read the full quotation, which I quoted again last Thursday. I did say that. The hon. Gentleman can check it.

Sir P. Bryan

Last night's meeting was obviously particularly important. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it was only one of a very long succession of meetings between the Government and the trade unions and that no Government, and in particular no Prime Minister, have made such efforts to keep in touch with and consult trade unions as have the present Government and Prime Minister?

Mr. Whitelaw

No one can deny the facts my hon. Friend has stated. They are absolutely true and are much to the credit of the Government.