Prices and Incomes

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd May 1967.

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Photo of Mr Michael Noble Mr Michael Noble , Argyll 12:00 am, 3rd May 1967

The formal ratification of the award was delayed until 21st July, the day after the dire date of 20th, for three reasons. None of them was the direct responsibility of any part of the negotiating team. It is true that the E.T.U. wanted, as was quite reasonable, to delay ratifying the Scottish award until it had achieved the same or similar results in an agreement for England and Wales, and that agreement was ratified on 30th June. Unfortunately, a delay occurred for two further reasons. The first was that the E.T.U. had to elect its office bearers. The second one, which was also of no very great importance at the time, was that it is normal in Scotland for holidays to take place at the beginning of July and, therefore, ratification was postponed until the holidays were over.

On 5th March, 1967, 56,000 workers in England and Wales were given their 13 per cent. increase after the case had gone to the Prices and Incomes Board, which had certain comments to make about the form an which the increase was to be given, the productivity arrangements, and so on. However, it was given, in spite of the criticisms of the Prices and Incomes Board, because the agreement had been ratified on 30th June.

The people in whom we are interested today are not 56,000 in number, as was the case in England and Wales, but about 10,000 in Scotland. They were immediately put into some difficulty because the employers' association in Scotland advised its members on 6th March, which was the day after the English workers were given their increase, that its 600 members should pay the increase from that date. They had been told by their employees that, unless they could match the English position, they would create industrial difficulty, possibly resulting in strike action. The association, therefore, advised its 600 members to pay the increase, and they did.

Following that, as perhaps must have been known would happen, the award was frozen by the Order which we are now considering until some date later in the year—possibly 1st July, possibly much later; neither they nor we know. As the E.T.U. had advised might happen, that was followed by some strike action and certainly by a great deal of discontent.

In Orders of this sort, the Government have continually said to the House that they are bound absolutely by the terms of the White Paper and that they cannot possibly consider cases which were agreed after 20th July. However, I believe that the Government could have taken some action and could at least have tried to save what little face they have left in these negotiations.

I stress that these are not negotiations against any one union. Very often in these cases they are negotiations against an agreement between employers and unions who have come to an honourable settlement for the benefit of their trade in the way that these things have always been done in the past.

I want to touch on the provision in the White Paper (Cmnd. 3150) by which the Minister can invoke special measures where he believes that there is a gross anomaly. The words in the White Paper are: There may be exceptional circumstances in which some immediate improvement in pay is imperative to correct a gross anomaly. The Government have been remarkably coy in telling either the unions or the House what they consider a "gross anomaly" to me. This puts unions—as in the case of the E.T.U.—and the House in great difficulty, because the unions believed that if the increase for which they were asking, and which the employers gave, was forbidden, there would be such a gross anomaly that the position would immediately be corrected.

The only evidence that we have of the Government's views about a gross anomaly is in the speech made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan), the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, during the debate on 2nd March on the problems of N.A.L.G.O. when he said: The White Paper is very narrowly drawn on this point. The kind of case which is meant to come under this heading is that for example of the colliery overmen and deputees, when there were large groups of men working side by side, one group with a salary increase, and the other without."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd March, 1967; Vol. 742, c. 746.] Those are the only words which the House has had which have sought to define a "gross anomaly". Those were the words of a Government spokesman on that day and I ask the Minister who is to reply to the debate to say whether that is the Government's policy, and whether that is what the Government intend to do. If the Minister would like to answer that now, it will save time, but as he is shaking his head I shall continue with what I have to say.

If that is the definition of an anomaly, the case for our Prayer today to annul the Order is made out, because at Faslane, at Ardeer, and at many other power stations in Scotland, people from the E.T.U. in Scotland are working side by side with their colleagues who belong to E.T.U. branches in England. As the Secretary of State knows, this is because so many large projects are going on in Scotland—due largely to plans for regional development which have been fostered for a number of years—that, inevitably, contractors in Scotland have not been able to take on all the work themselves, and the work has, therefore, been given to English contractors who are now working alongside their Scottish colleagues.

We feel that it is important to debate this Order this afternoon because the issue is not just simply whether these 10,000 people should be given a rise which their colleagues across the Border have been given, but because of the effect which this will have on a great deal of the rest of industry in Scotland at the moment. I know that within the limitations of order it is difficult to develop this as fully as one would wish, but one of the effects of Orders of this kind is that the only way in which people can get extra is to cross the Border from Scotland to England where different rules and different rates apply, perhaps, as in this case, just for a question of one day.

We know, too, that in its operation the freeze is bound to have the effect, particularly in respect of the big contractors, of helping those who come up from London where high rates of pay have been allowed. We have debated this on other occasions, but today in this Order the main disadvantage, which is perfectly clear, is that it is not necessary for workers to cross the Border to get a rise in wages. All that they have to do is to cross a building site.

There is already a shortage of skills in the electrical contracting business, and if Scottish firms are to lose their key men to their rivals working on the same site, or nearby, the long-term effect on the electrical industry in Scotland is bound to be disastrous. There is nothing that we can see, either in what the Government have said up to date, or in what they are trying to tell us in these Orders, which gives these businesses any real satisfaction that the problem will be tackled in a month's time, in three months' time, in six months' time, or in nine months' time. There is no certainty in this, and if there is no certainty for the contractors, how much less is there for the men who are affected?

It may be right that at times of economic crisis a total wage freeze should be made over the entire country. If that were done, none of these Orders would be necessary, because it would apply to everybody in the country, and that might be rough justice, but where the justice is not clear is in the fact that during the first three months of this year about 4 million workers were given an increase in pay of about £1,700,000. I know that in the same industries last year only 2,700,000 people got a rise of £930,000, which was considerably less. I know, too, that if one looks at the overall picture one sees that there has been a saving of about £1 million on wages paid out this year compared with last year and that there is practically no difference between this year's figure and that for 1965, but whatever these figures show, one thing which is abundantly clear is that these 10,000 people have been affected because of a purely technical problem of one day.

The First Secretary of State has said that the policy behind these Orders is to make certain that greater justice is brought to the workers. It is, therefore, impossible to see why the Government have brought this Order in now, or, indeed, at any time, because this is not a case, as with some other Orders, of giving increases to the lower-paid workers. The evidence is that these people are in what one might call the medium level scale, but what is intolerable—and it is intolerable not just becuse these happen to be men who live in Scotland; it would be equally intolerable if it were the other way round—is that people working side by side, day after day, on almost identical work find that one gets an increase and the other does not.

This is intolerable, because the aim of both the association and the trade unions in negotiating this agreement was that the two countries should move together. They realised the importance of having a level rate on both sides of the Border. They wanted this, and the employers were willing for this to happen.

The Government, however, have decided that because one agreement was signed on 30th June it can go through, but because the other was not signed until 21st July it cannot. They have decided to be obstinate about it. They have decided that in spite of all the arguments which have been advanced by the trade unions, by the employers and by others, they will stick to the technical detail of being 24 hours late in signing the agreement.

Later today we shall discuss another Order, so I shall only touch on it now. In the case of the second Order the Government may technically have a slightly better case because the Order was a little later than just one day, though they have morally a rather worse case. However, this will be debated later.

I think what is intolerable to this side of the House—and I hope the same feeling of revulsion is shared by a good many Members opposite—is that, in a case where there is perhaps the clearest possible example of anomaly having taken place in the series of anomalies that have been debated in the House, the Government should fail to take any action. I believe that they have done this simply and solely because they were afraid that if they gave way on this one they would then have to give way on the N.A.L.G.O. case, too. If this is so, then that makes it even worse—that in one quite separate case quite different people should be penalised so as not to cause the Government greater embarrassment in another one.

I cannot help believing that the Government feel as guilty about this as they do about any action they have taken during the last few months. I hope very much that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, if he is to reply to the debate, as I think he is, will throw away the note which he has been given by his Department explaining the various reasons, which we have heard so often, why the Government can take no action, and realise that this is an appeal made with great sincerity by the House which itself believes that in this case justice has not only not been done but cannot possibly be seen to be done.

I hope that it will not be necessary to divide the House, but if it is I am certain that my hon. and right hon. Friends will do so, and that a good many hon. Gentlemen on the benches opposite, if they follow what they know to be right, will follow us into the Lobby.