HC Deb 07 March 1979 vol 963 cc1242-4
10. Mr. Dykes

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what discussions he has had with local authorities in the Greater London area on the co-ordination of measures to clear up the backlog of refuse which has accumulated in different boroughs, as a result of the re-fuse collectors' industrial action.

Mr. Shore

We have kept in close touch with local authorities in the Greater London area. Particular authorities have had difficulties, but none has sought direct assistance from the Government. There has been a gradual improvement in refuse collection and disposal services in most London boroughs since the final offer was made by the local authority employers on 22 February. Now that union members have endorsed the pay settlement, that improvement should be greatly accelerated.

Mr. Dykes

I thank the Secretary of State for that detailed reply. In view of the bad effect on morale in the London area, where there is still a great deal of rubbish lying around in different boroughs, does he think it would be right for the Government to go further and encourage local authorities to bring in private contractors to assist in clearing up the backlog and to make a RSG payment, which would not be very large, to help this exercise?

Mr. Shore

I do not think that ad hoc machinery would now be appropriate. London's refuse collection is, in any case complex, given the different responsibilities for collection and disposal that exist. I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about morale. It affects people's morale to find piles of litter accumulating over a long period of time. However, I think that the existing procedure is well established. This is not the first time that there have been refuse collection strikes. There are well established procedures for dealing with this problem. Where competent authorities decree that there is a fire hazard or a health risk which is sufficient to warrant urgent action, they have a duty to act and, if need be, to call in contractors and to use any other method to meet their statutory obligations.

Mr. Ernest G. Perry

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that, following the recent agreement between the trade unions and the local authorities, the piles of rubbish, especially in South London, are already beginning to disappear, in spite of the fact that the agreement is only 36 hours old? It is a great credit to the local authorities, the associations and trade unions that this agreement has been reached.

Mr. Shore

I am glad to hear that there is noticeable improvement in South London. However, there are some areas where the accumulations are large and where it is important that people make an early return to work.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

To avoid a repetition of this disgusting affair, will the Secretary of State encourage local authorities to consider refuse collection by private contractors? Is he aware that the district council in Essex which decided to go over to private contract did so with the full co-operation of the regions and that there has been no interruption of refuse collection? The work force is contented and there has been a huge saving in public money.

Mr. Shore

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. The best way to prevent a repetition of this affair is to establish the kind of fairness in pay determination which I believe the comparability arrangements will achieve. One additional feature of this comparability agreement, to which I attach great importance, is the acceptance in advance by the unions and employers concerned of the findings of this independent body.

Mr. Fernyhough

Before he considers the suggestion that has just been made may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he realises that, if we exclude the past three months, the vast majority of strikes occurred in the private, not the public sector? Therefore, we may be storing up more trouble for ourselves if we transfer this public work to the private sector.

Mr. Shore

I am not encouraging any such movement. The best way to ensure peace in sensitive parts of the public services is to have a method of pay determination which is fair, and is seen to be fair.

Mr. Heseltine

Will the Secretary of State deal with the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison)? Will he look again at the benefits that will accrue to the ratepayers of Maldon by using the private sector for the collection of refuse? Will he examine the benefits that have occurred and put forward the arguments fairly to the House so that Members of Parliament may make a judgment based not on mythology but on savings to ratepayers and benefits to union members involved?

Mr. Shore

The hon. Gentleman is being mischievous. He is obviously trying to stir things up in a totally unhelpful way. This is a matter for local authorities to decide. If the hon. Gentleman is serious about wishing to avoid a repetition of this wretched business he should welcome the progress that we have made to establish comparability.