HC Deb 23 January 1979 vol 961 cc197-204
Q1. Mr. Mike Thomas

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his public engagements for 23 January.

The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

This morning I attended and addressed an industrial strategy conference organised by the Trades Union Congress to review the progress of the electronics sector working parties. In addition to my duties in this House I shall be holding further meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.

Mr. Thomas

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the House will support his firm reaffirmation this morning of the Government's policy on inflation and his statement about the continued application of pay limits, productivity bargains and help for the low paid? Is he further aware that this formula cannot work for the public sector if those workers see that every private sector group that enters into a strike achieves its objectives, often with the active support of the Opposition?

The Prime Minister

My contribution to a very good conference this morning—and it was composed of a number of representatives working in microelectronic industries—was to emphasise two points. The first was that, if firms are to plan four or five years ahead with their new investment, it is necessary that inflation should be low. That demands, among other things, moderate wage settlements. The second was that higher productivity and a willingness to change, retrain, and move into these new industries is essential if Britain is to take advantage of them.

On the last part of the question, of course the private sector is in a different position from the public sector. There is at least some operation of market disciplines in the private sector and people can lose their jobs, as indeed they are losing them at present, especially in industries where they price themselves out of work. The difference between that and the public sector is that nobody so far has lost his job as a result of wildly inflationary wage increases over previous years. It is essential to be absolutely frank, and I must point out that there are limits to what the Government are prepared to ask Parliament to vote in the way of votes for public expenditure. Therefore, if more money is taken out in higher wages because of the comparisons to which my hon. Friend correctly draws attention, there is less money for the services which the public employees are there to provide. That is an inescapable truth.

Mrs. Thatcher

Is the Prime Minister aware that there are more people on strike now than when we debated this matter this time last week? At that time we made an offer to him to support him should he bring forward legislation to deal with picketing, the closed shop and secret or postal ballots. The Prime Minister said that he did not like secondary picketing, was not a closed-shop man and would prefer to have more secret ballots. Therefore, does he propose to take up our offer of support for legislation for the future? Also, will he do anything to assert the right of ordinary people to carry on working without interference?

The Prime Minister

The Leader of the Opposition has raised a number of important questions. However, I do not think that legislation on postal ballots or on picketing would do anything to affect the fact that there are more people on strike this week than there were last week. Although she may advance these remedies for particular purposes, they would not affect that situation. As regards the present situation, I assert very clearly, as I always have done, that everyone has the right to work and everyone has the right to cross a picket line. It is not a sacred object. If, when people are stopped—if they choose to stop—they desire to go on, there is nothing in the criminal law or the civil law to stop them from carrying out their duties. I hope that they will so do.

Mrs. Thatcher

I asked the Prime Minister what steps he proposes to take to assert that right, because that right is not being honoured at present. But if the right hon. Gentleman has no immediate proposals, will he at least persuade the Attorney-General to do what the Attorney-General in the 1970–74 Government did—make a clear statement about what the law of picketing is, particularly as it has been changed by the 1974 and 1976 legislation?

The Prime Minister

I shall consider that suggestion by the right hon. Lady. But the law of picketing is well known. It is clear. It has been frequently stated. It is for the police to take action if complaints of intimidation, threats and, obviously, violence are made to them. I hope that the police will carry out their responsibilities in this matter if they see any cases of intimidation or threats of any sort.

Ms Colquhoun

Will my right hon. Friend tell us where he and members of his Government were yesterday when the low-paid workers came to see them in this House? Surely we have not reached the stage when they consider themselves too good to rub shoulders with the workers. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]

The Prime Minister

I can assure my hon. Friend that I think that I have known as many workers in Britain as she has known, and for a long period, and I rub shoulders with them very often and will continue to do so. I think that I know what a great many of them are feeling at present. They are feeling that a great deal of what is going on is totally unnecessary and should be stopped.

Q2. Mr. Gordon Wilson

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 January.

The Prime Minister

I refer the hon. Member to the reply which I have just given to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Thomas).

Mr. Wilson

Will the Prime Minister try to take time off today from his other troubles to look at the drastic increase in unemployment in Scotland, where the number has risen by 18,500? Even allowing for the fact that many of these are school leavers, Scotland seems to be the worst affected area of the United Kingdom. Will he, therefore, say whether the Government have any intention of honouring the promise that they made at the last election to give economic powers to the Scottish Assembly to make it a powerhouse for Scotland? Will he seek to transfer those powers from the Treasury immediately after the referendum?

The Prime Minister

The position is that seasonally adjusted unemployment in Scotland, which is generally regarded as the best trend to look at, was stable or falling throughout 1978. That is the truth of the matter. There has been an increase this month, which is due partly to normal seasonal factors and to the flow of school leavers at Christmas. Therefore, I think that we can take comfort from the fact that the rate of unemployment has been declining steadily over the past 12 months. But, of course, the hon. Gentleman will know better than I about the adverse weather conditions which have existed in Scotland, which have had an impact on unemployment.

As regards giving additional economic powers to the Scottish Assembly, the Act is quite clear on the powers of the Assembly, and it would be quite foolish to say that we intend to change that.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that, in a very difficult industrial situation, the way in which the Leader of the Opposition and her cohorts vent their spleen on strikers and spew bile into the situation can only exacerbate this very difficult situation? Would it not be much better to concentrate all our efforts on finding constructive ways in which we can assist the lower paid?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I agree that it is far better that we should try to do this. Indeed, in my speech last Tuesday, I put forward certain proposals, which stretched over the whole range of the public service and the private sector.

Concerning public sector employees, a very fair proposal has been made to study the conditions and pay of public service workers to see how far they are comparable with those of other workers. That offer should be taken up. In conjunction with the pay negotiations that are now being undertaken, I believe that it will both do justice to the local government workers and, at the same time, enable the Government to continue with the primary task of overcoming inflation, and not increasing the money supply in order to pay out confetti wages which would have no value at all.

Mr. Mates

Will the Prime Minister take time today to have a discussion with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the intimidation which accompanied yesterday's action by the National Union of Public Employees, whereby a school which many of my constituents attend was forced to close although the headmaster and all the teachers were determined to carry out their statutory obligation to educate our children? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that the headmaster was told that, if that school opened, there would be heavy picketing of both the teachers and the children—[An HON. MEMBER: "Rubbish."]—and that his school would be indefinitely blacked? How does this match up with the Prime Minister's oft-proclaimed boast that only his Government can come to terms with the trade unions?

The Prime Minister

I have never made that last remark. What I have always said and continue to say is that I believe that the trade union movement would work with any Government of this country. That has always been my approach and my principle on the matter.

Of course, I do not have details of the school to which the hon. Member has referred. He did not name it—probably very properly. However, I really do not see why anyone is forced to cease work in this situation. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]

Mr. Mates

May I tell the right hon. Gentleman why?

The Prime Minister

I am using the word that the hon. Gentleman used. Everyone in this country is entitled to cross a picket line if he disagrees with the arguments that are put to him. There is nothing to stop any citizen—I would not hesitate to do it myself—from crossing a picket line if he believes it to be right to do so.

Mr. Fernyhough

When my right hon. Friend replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Thomas), he said that this morning he met representatives of the microelectronics industry. Will he please tell me whether at that meeting there was any discussion about Inmos, and where the factories that will arise from this industry are to be situated?

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend promise me that he will send to the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition a copy of annex 6 to the Royal Commission's report so that she can see how useful legislation is in relation to industrial disputes?

The Prime Minister

There was no discussion at the TUC conference which I attended this morning about the situation of Inmos, although there was support for the Government's decisions to give it financial backing. As I think my right hon. Friend knows, the headquarters will be at Bristol, but the factories to which he refers—they, of course, will provide by far the overwhelming proportion of the employment—will be in the development areas, although I believe that the sites have not yet been chosen.

As regards the impact of legislation on trade unions and on the behaviour of individuals, I have always expressed my scepticism about its efficacy. Indeed, we have had practical experience of it. There do come times when a nation's patience may run out, and then, despite the unwisdom of the legislation, it might be shackled upon the trade unions, to the overwhelming dislike of the country in the long run and, I believe, to a great disintegration of our society.

Mr. Brotherton

Will the Prime Minister today make arrangements to meet his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and tell him two things—first, that the complacent statement made by the right hon. Gentleman in the House yesterday, particularly on the subject of animal feeding stuffs, was quite intolerable and, secondly, that the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is a member of the Transport and General Workers' Union, and that he is sponsored by the TGWU, in no way precludes the right hon. Gentleman from condemning violence and excesses against the law which have been perpetrated by various members of the union to which he belongs?

Hon. Members


The Prime Minister

I repeat again that, if examples of violence are known to the hon. Gentleman, and which can be vouchsafed, they should be brought to the attention of the police. I have repeated my hope that the police, who are independent in these matters, will not shrink from taking action if there are cases that they believe should be brought before the courts. Knowing the police, I do not believe that they will hesitate to do so.

As to the supply of foodstuffs, the situation varies from day to day. I am told—I can only repeat the advice that I am given by those concerned with these matters—that there seems to be some improvement today, including the supply of animal feeding stuffs and also the movement of salt and sugar, which apparently were in rather short supply. Indeed, the principal concern today, where I hope that those concerned will stop any picketing in respect of this matter, is about chemicals needed for pharmaceuticals. In some areas they are being held up. I know that the union itself is doing its best to ensure that they are moved. If it cannot ensure that, of course in the long run we simply cannot permit an interruption in the supply of raw materials for pharmaceuticals which are necessary for medicine, and we would have to take the necessary action.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I shall call one more hon. Member from either side.

Mr. Pavitt

In his grasp of the very real problems which face the lower paid after three years, will my right hon. Friend accept that the nurses are not just a special case but that they are an exceptional case? However, they have no intention of withdrawing their labour at this time. Will he bear that in mind in his economic policies in relation to the nurses?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I shall bear that in mind. I would be very happy indeed to look into that matter in greater detail. But I am bound to say that every special case becomes an exceptional case until it runs right across the economy. In view of what is happening at present in the private sector in respect of pay negotiations and pay settlements, it is doubly essential that the Government give no indication that they are likely to depart from a very strict application of their monetary and fiscal policies. I repeat that now, because that is bound to affect the extent to which we can assist public service employees in the way that they think is right.

Mr. Prior

Is the Prime Minister aware that with regard to the crossing of picket lines, a number of people have the very real fear that their union cards will be taken away and that they will be excluded or expelled from a trade union without any recourse to a court of law, thereby losing their jobs without being able to claim damages for the loss of their jobs? Is he aware that this is a direct result of the legislation that was introduced by his own Government and that this is industrial relations legislation which he has put on the statute book? In view of what he himself has said today, would not it now be right to accept the offer from the Conservative Opposition to reform this piece of legislation, so that the practices which the Prime Minister says are correct can be followed?

The Prime Minister

It is a matter of dispute between us as to whether the action taken by this Government has led to the kind of picketing to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. In our view, it is the case—certainly history bears it out—that this kind of picketing, but not in this intensive way, went on long before any amendments to the Act. It is a matter of very great doubt as to what extent the law can deal with this issue. I assume that the right hon. Gentleman is now moving his position. I understand that recent events may have made him do so. But up to 10 days ago he was saying that it was the policy of his party to reaffirm the existing law and to try to secure a voluntary code. I quite understand that he may have changed his mind, but at least it is only in the last 10 days that he has done so.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am afraid that Question Time must come to an end.