HL Deb 18 January 1979 vol 397 cc1163-7

3.24 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the long-drawn-out strike, they will set up an independent inquiry into the conditions of service and responsibilities of social workers.


My Lords, local authority employers are responsible for the terms and conditions of service of their own employees. They are at present negotiating with representatives of the social workers in the National Joint Council for Local Authority Administrative, Professional, Technical and Clerical Services. While these negotiations are continuing, it would not be proper for my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Social Services, who play no direct part in these negotiations, to try to intervene.


My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that reply, may I ask whether she is fully aware that the strike started six months ago in two authorities and has escalated to 14 authorities and that during these long months it is the most vulnerable and those without a voice in society who have been suffering? By that I mean children waiting for adoption, the mentally ill and handicapped, the elderly and the disabled. Would not the Minister's right honourable friend reconsider the position regarding setting up an inquiry to look into not only the conditions of pay but the management and structure of the social services?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I note the concern of the noble Baroness opposite, and we in the Government share it. However, to set up an independent inquiry while the negotiations are still in progress is a hypothetical question just at this time. It would be a very serious matter if the Government decided at this point to take these negotiations out of the hands of the independent employers and unions. I understand that they had a meeting yesterday. They will be reporting to the NALGO full committee on 26th January. I can only hope that they realise the damage that they are doing not only to their own profession and service but to the unfortunate people who depend upon them so much. I hope that the strikers will not continue their action but will go ahead with their negotiations with all speed possible.


My Lords, in view of the length of time these troubles have been going on, is it not the province of government to see that the provisions of statutes such as the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act and the Public Health Act are carried out?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, we are doing our best. This applies at the moment to 14 authorities. What I am afraid of is that some of these authorities may decide—because they have not seen the damage which is being done since they have not been able to contact cases—that there is not the need for so much in the way of social services and welfare services as there really is. I can only hope that the strikers will realise what a charge they have in terms of looking after these people—who are usually the inarticulate who need their help and need it desperately—and that they will also realise that they are doing their service no good and their authorities no good by continuing with the strike.


My Lords, while the noble Baroness stresses, no doubt accurately, that these negotiations in respect of their own employees are handled by the local authorities, may I ask whether it is not a fact that these local authorities are subject to the Government's pay guidelines and that this has been made clear to them and will be reflected in the level of the grants that they receive?

Baroness STEDMAN

Yes, my Lords, but further advice has also been given to them. The Secretary of State for the Environment has made it clear to the negotiators on both sides that the pay policy ought to present no significant obstacle to continuing and concluding these negotiations. We gathered in the course of informal discussions that at one time they thought that they would have to wait for any regrading, because it would be classed as a mass regrading which they could not get until their next pay round was due. My Secretary of State has now made it plain that these will not be regarded as mass regradings and that if they will only get on with the job we can get it done.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that the progress of the negotiations has shown a degree of indolence which would not be put up with by any other body of workers and that it is principally because it falls upon people who are not in a position to hit back that we think that these negotiations have been so protracted and delayed?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, negotiations, particularly when they affect pay, are often protracted and are often, so it would seem to the outsider, unduly delayed. The National Joint Council is comprised of representatives of the local authorities as the employers and all kinds of people who are local authority employees. The social workers are only one part of it. NALGO are another part of it. It is much more difficult to negotiate when you are covering the whole field of local government employees, as this national council is, than when you are dealing with just one straightforward part of it. There can be repercussions from one part to the other.


My Lords, I gather from the reply given to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, that the Government have indicated to the employers that they need not stick to the 5 per cent. guidelines. If they do give more than 5 per cent., will that be reflected in any increase in the rate support grant?—because, if not, then surely an award higher than 5 per cent. simply means that the local authorities will be able to afford to employ fewer social workers.

Baroness STEDMAN

No, my Lords, what we have indicated is that these need not be considered as mass regradings. If there are regradings some of them will get quite a bit more than 5 per cent. We have indicated that they are not to be considered as mass regradings and therefore any regradings that are agreed by the National Joint Council can be implemented right away and need not wait until the round on pay talks.


My Lords, can the noble Baroness say whether the Government have formed an opinion about the demand of the strikers for local negotiation rather than national negotiation?

Baroness STEDMAN

No, my Lords. At this stage this is a matter between the local authority as the employers and the unions as the employees. It is not at this stage for the Government to intervene.


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that I fully support the Question put by my noble friend Lady Faithfull, and is she further aware that I honestly do not think that she has given a very satisfactory reply? The noble Baroness will be aware that I come from that part of the country where we have the head quarters of the Social Services Department. It seems to me, from certain experience during 38 years in another place, that the noble Baroness would have done much better to cut out many of the odd things she has said and accept what my noble friend said, because some interesting letters have been written by very important people—

Several noble Lords



I am not at all satisfied, my Lords, and I intend to say so. I do not think that the answer given by the noble Baroness is satisfactory.


My Lords, I know that the House appreciates the indignation felt by the noble Baroness, Lady Ward of North Tyneside, but I think we really must have a question and not a speech. I feel that she has made her point and, as we have three Statements to come, I feel sure the House will agree that we should proceed.