HC Deb 29 January 1987 vol 109 cc487-91 3.32 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) [by private notice]

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a statement on the latest developments in the industrial dispute at J. E. Hanger and Co. Ltd., artificial limb maker.

The Minister for Social Security and the Disabled (Mr. John Major)

The industrial dispute at J. E. Hanger & Co. Ltd. has centred on the company's manufacturing facility at Roehampton, one of 23 Hanger establishments throughout the country. There has been no sign of the dispute spreading to other Hanger establishments or to the other intermed limb companies Vessa and Kellie of Dundee.

I understand that yesterday, following weekend discussions at ACAS, proposals for the settlement of the dispute were put to a mass meeting of the company's former employees at Roehampton by national officials of the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades Union and of the Technical Advisory and Supervisory Section of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers.

It is not clear whether the national officials recommended acceptance of the proposals, although they had resulted from discussions between the unions at national level and the company. In any event, the local work force apparently rejected the proposals on a public ballot at a mass meeting.

Following this rejection, the company issued a statement that it now proposed to make alternative manufacturing arrangements to continue its service—although Roehampton is to remain the headquarters of the company and will continue to operate a clinic and repair service only.

The Government's primary interest is to ensure that a prompt and efficient limb service remains available to patients. Accordingly, last night I invited the managing director of J. E. Hanger to meet me this morning to discuss how this might be maintained. I made it clear at that meeting that I expected every action to be taken to protect patient service and clear the current backlog.

In order to achieve this I sought and obtained a number of assurances this morning. First, it has been agreed that a joint team will be established immediately between the Department and the company so that we may monitor the service to patients and ensure that urgent cases receive priority treatment. This is in addition to the procedures I established last October.

Secondly, I have received detailed assurances that alternative facilities are available to cope with the manufacture of those specialist limbs for adults and children that were previously undertaken at Roehampton. Such cases can, and will, be dealt with without delay.

Thirdly, I am assured that the specialist spare parts facility at Roehampton can be replicated elsewhere within the firm.

Fourthly, the company proposes to recruit an additional 80 staff throughout the country to maximise production capability, and this process is now well advanced.

This is a very regrettable dispute that could, and should, have been resolved. It has delayed some services to limb patients, although such delays are not widespread.

Any patient facing difficulty should not hesitate to contact his local limb centre or my Department so that urgent action can be taken to deal with emergencies.

The Government will continue to regard the interests of patients as their first concern.

Mr. Dobson

That was a most unsatisfactory statment about a most unsatisfactory situation. It betrayed the continuing complacency of the Government and the pretence that, in some way or other, the dispute is not in any way their responsibility. I remind the Minister that the contract for the supply of limbs is not between J.E. Hanger and those who need limbs but between J.E. Hanger and the Government.

Will the Minister confirm from his Department's records that no fewer than 111 limb fitting appointments have had to be postponed because of the failure of the company until now to supply repaired or new prostheses on time, in breach of the contract that J.E. Hanger has with his Department? Will he confirm also that the number of patient attendances for fittings in the months affected by the dispute, compared with the number of attendances in the same months in the previous year, show that there were 487 fewer in October-November, 325 fewer in November-December and 145 fewer in December-January, giving a total of 957 fewer people getting fittings? Will he confirm also what I was told today, that the number of people getting primary fittings—that is, people who have just had an amputation and need a first fitting—has markedly declined? How has this reduction come about?

Are amputees being kept waiting, or are surgeons postponing amputations that can be postponed, even at some risk to patients? Is it not plain, from the history of this dispute, that the owner of Hanger, BTR, which every hon. Member was convinced was totally unfit to take over Pilkington, has demonstrated also that it is quite unfit to have a virtual monopoly of the supply and fitting of artificial limbs for people within the National Health Service? [HON. MEMBERS: "Is this a question?"] Yes.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this is a private notice question, not a statement.

Mr. Dobson

It is an important matter.

Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)

The hon. Gentleman does not have a leg to stand on.

Mr. Dobson

We could do without jokes from Conservative Members about my not having a leg to stand on. This is a serious matter.

When will the Minister, as a party to the contract for the supply of limbs, act to make sure that limbs are supplied to those who are entitled to get them? When will he talk not just to the managing director of J. E. Hanger? When will he show some impartiality and talk to representatives of the work force, to try to find a satisfactory solution to this dispute, instead of leaving them standing on the pavement when they would far rather be inside the factory doing what some of them have done for 20 years, and that is providing a good, decent and dedicated service to limbless people? When will the hon. Gentleman act and look after these people?

Mr. Major

I am in no single sense complacent about the difficulties created by the dispute. That is precisely why I set out a series of detailed actions to be taken last October. Those actions have been followed through on a daily basis since then. I regard the dispute as serious. I have made no secret of the fact that I wish to see this dispute resolved without delay.

The hon. Gentleman's figures are correct in broadly two cases out of the three that he cited. The number of appointments postponed over a period of 18 weeks is 112. That needs to be set against a total of some 3,000 appointments per week throughout the service during that period. There were about 420 fewer patient attendances rather than the 900, or so mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

I am not aware of delays in primary fittings of the sort set out by the hon. Gentleman. However, it is precisely to ensure that that does not occur that I have established the extra procedure that I outlined in my statement. I wish to ensure that primary amputees and those in special need are given the priority treatment which both the hon. Gentleman and I wish to ensure they receive.

On the matter of complacency, if the hon. Gentleman cares to examine yet again the statement that I made in answer to his private notice question in October he will see a series of actions set out, which have been maintained, and I have built upon those today.

On the hon. Gentleman's final point, I have declined before, and I decline again, to take a stand in the dispute between employer and employee. I am prepared to discuss with those with whom we have a contract how they are to maintain the contract and meet it. That is what I am doing.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that there are other companies which manufacture artificial limbs? Are we not reaching the point where their services should be used, rather than let patients suffer?

Mr. Major

I am aware of my hon. Friend's point. I reiterate that I am keeping the matter under careful review. The service to the patient remains my first concern.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Is the Minister aware that he is wrong when he says that he declines to take a stand between the employer and the work force, because this is not an industrial dispute? The Government are the sole customer of this firm, and it is the Minister's responsibility to intervene to obtain a settlement. A settlement could be achieved quite easily if the firm will accept the fundamental principle that no self-respecting trade unionist will go back to work while some of his fellow members are locked outside. That is what this firm is trying to do. If the Minister will accept that advice and intervene in the dispute, it can be settled, disabled people can be helped and they can get their limbs. He must intervene and not say that it is none of his business.

Mr. Major

I cannot accept the right hon. Gentleman's comments. It is an industrial dispute. It is precisely for that reason that at this Dispatch Box some time ago I urged the first reference to the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service, which has repeatedly been in touch with both sides in the dispute, separately and collectively since that time. I cannot determine whether the dispute can be settled. It was certainly my understanding that a concordat had been reached between the national officers of the union and the company, and that it was at the local work place that that agreement was rejected.

Miss Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)

I have every confidence in my hon. Friend's ability to deal with this dispute. However, I urge him to look closely at other firms which may be able to supply the goods and services, and, if they do not exist, he should encourage them to be invented.

Mr. Major

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her remarks. She echoes some of the observations of the McColl report about monopoly supplying, and I take her remarks to heart.

Mrs. Elizabeth Shields (Ryedale)

Has the Minister arranged for someone in his Department to take a personal interest in the dispute on a day-to-day basis so that we can look forward to a resolution of the conflict?

Mr. Major

I can give the hon. Lady the confirmation that she seeks. Several officials in my Department have direct day-to-day contact with the company and with the hon. Lady's proposition. I am receiving daily reports of the circumstances so that we may judge whether the dispute is capable of solution and take any action that may be helpful.

Mr. Roy Galley (Halifax)

Does not the dispute suggest a marked lack of compassion by a small number of workers and trade union officials for the least fortunate and most vulnerable section of our community? My hon. Friend is quite right not to intervene in the detailed matters of the dispute, and he has taken some positive and reasonable steps today to help further with the matter. I join my hon. Friends in urging him to take action soon to allow a greater element of competition in the contracting for this work.

Mr. Major

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. It is my firm judgment that a solution was available yesterday and I share the regret of my hon. Friend that the opportunity was not taken.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

Is the Minister aware that many people in the Hanger work force are ray constituents? There could not be a more dedicated work force in the country. These people have dedicated their lives to helping disabled people to benefit from artificial limbs. What the Minister has said is a tragedy, because, in effect, he has announced that the factory will be closed and that people who require limbs will no longer have them made adjacent to Queen Mary's hospital. Does that not mean that, inevitably, there will be a poorer standard of service for disabled people?

Mr. Major

My discussions this morning were precisely to ensure that the service throughout the country would not be poorer. If there is a tragedy, it is that a solution that was there yesterday has been rejected.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

Can my hon Friend assure me that the actions that he has taken, and the actions that he will take in future, will lead to more hope for families, especially families with growing children, who are being affected by this serious dispute? Can he offer hope to my constituents, the Elsegood family? Growing children need limb replacements at regular intervals. Whoever is at fault in this dispute, it is causing a great deal of distress and I appeal to my hon. Friend to do all that he can to bring it to a speedy conclusion.

Mr. Major

There is no doubt that in some cases this dispute is causing distress, worry and inconvenience—a dispute of this nature will do that. That is why it is imperative to have it resolved as speedily as possible. The people most seriously affected are those requiring primary limbs and those left without a limb. The emergency actions that we have taken ensure that people are not left immobilised. If any hon. Member hears of a case in which someone is immobilised, I hope that he will draw the case speedily and personally to my attention. Delays thus far appear to relate to replacement limbs, and although that is unsatisfactory, it is not as difficult a proposition as the unavailability of primary limbs.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)

Does the Minister agree that this dispute has probably more to do with McColl, the re-signing of the contract with the DHSS and the case now before the court about contracts? Does he not think that drastic needs require drastic action? Will he try to approach the chairman of BTR and tell him that this dispute is not doing his company any good at all?

Mr. Major

The whole House knows the hon. Gentleman's deep concern in this matter and of his long connection with the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association. We admire his commitment to that cause. The reasons for this dispute are many and complex and it would be unwise of me to be drawn into them.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Will my hon. Friend take it from me that my mother-in-law suffered as an amputee for 10 years because of an ill-fitting limb from that establishment? I have had a long association with the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades Union, and there is written into that union's national agreement a binding arbitration system which ought to be invoked so that no more people are made to suffer because of the shortage of properly fitting limbs.

Mr. Major

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those helpful remarks.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

First, will the Minister condemn the Tory MP who, when my hon. Friend asked his first question, joked about his not having a leg to stand on? That lowers the tone of any debate on a dispute like this. Secondly, will the Minister confirm his first answer, in which he spoke about the company recruiting, I think, 80 specialist workers? Will he confirm that no Department of the Government such as the Department of Employment, is involved in assisting this company to recruit strike breakers while the dispute is going on? Will he say that, from its monopoly position, a well-known, vitriolic, anti-union firm, BTR, is trying to destroy the trade union agreements at Hanger and that in its lust for profits it is trying to make sure that these suffering, disabled people have to wait all this time for replacement limbs? BTR is the guilty party in this dispute and the hon. Gentleman ought to condemn it.

Mr. Major

It would not be helpful or productive to deal with each of the hon. Gentleman's points in turn. He asked whether we proposed to employ fresh personnel. That is a matter for the company, not for me.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that this is a private notice question. I am sorry that I am unable to call any more hon. Members, but perhaps business questions will provide another opportunity.