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Direct negotiations began yesterday between the Shipbuilding Employers' Federation and the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions on the Confederation's wages claim, but broke down late in the afternoon. Representatives of both sides were then invited to the Ministry for further discussions with my officers. It became clear that no progress was possible by way of conciliation and I decided to appoint a Court of Inquiry to inquire into the dispute. In view of this decision the unions were asked to call off the strike. The unions have not given their answer to that request, but both they and the employers have indicated their readiness to co-operate fully with the Court. The union representatives have had meetings with me and my officers today and further discussions with both sides, which will relate to both the shipbuilding and to the engineering disputes, are due to take place later in the day.
The whole House will share the disappointment which the right hon. Gentleman, no doubt, feels that the high note of optimism which was struck yesterday was not borne out by reality. Does the Court of Inquiry depend upon the stoppage of the dispute so that it can meet, or does the right hon. Gentleman propose to hold the Court of Inquiry whether or not the dispute continues? May I say to the Minister that we hope that the further discussions that are taking place today with both sides might result in agreement despite the present little setback?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said. It is quite true that I had high hopes yesterday, and so had everybody closely concerned with the dispute, but the direct discussions broke down and it seemed to me that we must try, as I did, another approach at once. It is important that both sides have agreed to cooperate with the Court of Inquiry. What we are now endeavouring to do—and talks are going on now—is to find a formula by which the strike may end. Whether those discussions succeed or riot, I intend to go ahead with the Court of Inquiry, having received the undertaking that both sides will co-operate with it.
Is it the right hon. Gentleman's purpose that the Court of Inquiry should discuss the dispute as it now is and as we all know it, or will it discuss the background against which the dispute arose? The right hon. Gentleman will remember that hp said earlier that there was not a lot of purpose in having a Court of Inquiry because the issues were clear.
The purpose of the Court of Inquiry would be to examine the dispute, and that largely is the position as it is now. The two main elements in that are, no doubt, the agreement, which has not yet been made public, which was tentatively come to between the two sides and the gap between the offer and the claim on which talks broke down yesterday.
It is not possible to give an exact answer. I intended last night, when I set up the Court of Inquiry, that it should be confined, in the first place, at least, to the shipbuilding industry, but certain proposals have been put to me by the unions which are now being discussed with the employers and on the outcome of those talks will depend whether we have one Court of Inquiry, two Courts of Inquiry or, perhaps, two Courts of Inquiry composed of the same people taking place simultaneously.
As regards the second part of my hon. Friend's question, it is, of course, true that some of those matters are referred to in the document which was the basis of agreement on which wage negotiations were reopened yesterday.
In considering the terms of reference of the Court of Inquiry, has the Minister made up his mind about the advisability of allowing the principle of mutuality to operate, so as to get the best results from both sides? Before the right hon. Gentleman finally decides, will he consider doing it by consultation with both sides?