With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.
As the House will be aware, since a notice of intention to extend the standstill on the municipal busmen's settlement was published on 11th July, my right hon. Friends the First Secretary and the Minister of Transport have made strenuous efforts to find a solution to this dispute which would be consistent with the Government's productivity, prices and incomes policy. Unfortunately, these efforts have so far been unsuccessful. An Order has, therefore, been made today extending the standstill on the municipal busmen's settlement of 14th December, 1967.
Yesterday, my right hon. Friend informed the House that the Government were prepared to accept a new settlement which would give an immediate increase of £1 to municipal busmen as part of a wider productivity agreement, and she also made clear that if these terms were agreed any standstill would be lifted immediately.
The House will be aware that the executive committee of the Transport and General Workers' Union yesterday gave authority for a strike of municipal busmen from 12th August. In these circumstances, I should like to repeat the plea which my right hon. Friend made to the busmen yesterday to accept in their interests and those of the travelling public a settlement on the lines suggested.
We are grateful to the Under-Secretary for making a statement, but I am sure that he will be the first to agree that what he has said does not tell us very much. I should like to ask him two questions. The first is general: does he realise that what is involved here, if the strike takes place, is a strike not against employers—because unions and employers are in agreement—but a strike against the Government? Is he aware of the very serious implications of this position and can he assure the House that the Government have really thought through the implications for the public, the problems of enforcement and the future of industrial relations?
Secondly, on the merits of this case, would the hon. Gentleman agree that there are here involved two criteria— "criteria" in the sense of incomes policy jargon, namely, the criterion of the lower-paid workers and the productivity criterion? Can he distinguish these criteria for us and make clear why the productivity of the lower-paid does not apply?
As to the first question, certainly neither I nor my right hon. Friend minimises the importance of the issue which faces us, nor the repercussions of a strike in this industry. Both she and I continue to hope that before the strike date an acceptable settlement can be found between all parties which, I freely acknowledge, include the Government.
The second point that the right hon. Gentleman makes is about the criteria applied to this dispute. It is not simply a matter of dispute about productivity and lowest-paid workers. There is also an issue about back-dating, and it is only the issue of back-dating in terms of productivity that now divides the parties and the Government; and it is one of the things that encourages my right hon. Friend and I to urge upon the parties an agreement before 12th August.
Will my hon. Friend ask his right hon. Friend to desist from pursuing her present destructive and disastrous course? Is it not clear that if the Order extending the date of the standstill to 26th December is confirmed a head-on clash is inevitable, not only with the Transport and General Workers' Union but with the whole trade union movement itself?
Further, how does the new General Secretary of the Labour Party stand in relation to this matter—
I should also like to ask my hon. Friend whether his attention has been drawn to Appendix A of the Annual Report of the National Prices and Incomes Board, which clearly indicates that the whole prices and incomes policy is not worth a candle?
Let me take the final question first. I do not think that the intention of the Report which was published yesterday was that suggested by my hon. Friend. I should have thought that the entire implication of what is there written is that the policy is working and can be made to work even more successfully.
As to the General Secretary of the Labour Party, I answer for many people from time to time in this House, but the General Secretary of the Labour Party does not number among them.
The first question is the fundamentally important one. My right hon. Friend certainly does not minimise the problems and dangers involved in insisting that the prices and incomes policy should be applied appropriately and properly, but our hope is that both the specific unions involved in this dispute and the trade union movement understand both the reasonableness of the Government's position and the necessity to maintain a reasonable prices and incomes policy in the national economic interest.
Mr. Edward M. Taylor:
In view of the major chaos and strife which inevitably will stem from this, will the Under-Secretary make clear that the Government will not go into battle unless they mean business? Has the best and a binding offer now been made? Can the hon. Gentleman assure us that we shall rot have the ridiculous situation as we had over the railway dispute, of the men being given, after two weeks of major chaos, all that they were refused before?
I do not agree with the hon. Member's assumptions about the railway dispute. Between now and 12th August, and if necessary later, my right hon. Friend remains available to talk to the parties in the hope that an agree- ment can be obtained which is in conformity with prices and incomes policy and acceptable to the parties and which therefore, avoids a disastrous dispute.
While everyone must still hope that an honourable settlement can be reached in this dispute, will my hon. Friend recognise that large numbers of hon. Members on this side of the House, and even greater numbers of people in the Labour movement outside, are still bitterly opposed to the application, or any considered application, of the penal sections of the Prices and Incomes Act? Therefore, will he, on behalf of the Government, give an undertaking that if at any point the application of that part of the Act appears conceivable Parliament will be recalled so that a matter of great constitutional significance shall be discussed?
Parliament has already decided that what my hon. Friend describes as "the penal parts of the Act" shall be passed into law. The implications of that decision are that the actual mounting of such an operation is not one for the Government, but for the Attorney-General operating in a judicial capacity without the pressures which are perhaps appropriate on other Ministers on other occasions. Therefore, because of the special considerations which properly involve the so-called penal powers, I can give the House no assurance about them except that the law, through the functions of the Attorney-General will be applied.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that he and his right hon. Friend will have the best wishes of everyone in continued negotiations with the unions? What continuous planning is being done to prevent chaos and hardship for the travelling public?
One of the features of previous local bus strikes has been that the travelling public have been singularly successful in making alternative arrangements. Even allowing for that, I do not deny that if there is a strike on 12th August there would be some disadvantage, inconvenience and hardship for the travelling public. The Minister of Transport has that in mind, but the main aims of my Ministry are bent towards ensuring that a strike does not occur.
Does my hon. Friend recall that during the proceedings on the Prices and Incomes Bill I asked him on a number of occasions what was the rush and whether the purpose of the rush was to catch the busmen? Does he recall that finally, after some pressure, he said no, that was not the case? In view of the fact that within hours of the Act coming into law action was taken against the busmen—I shall not ask him, because it would be out of order whether that statement was a manifest untruth—but may I ask him, instead—
—whether he was not misleading both the House and the busmen and making his task of negotiation all the more difficult?
Finally, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he looks forward with pleasure to the visit, for which there are honourable precedents, to Mr. Frank Cousins, in Wormwood Scrubs, in order to negotiate a settlement of the strike?
My hon. Friend is assuming many things and I make none of the assumptions which underlie the second part of his question.
As to the first, the rush, as he described it, was dealt with in Committee by my right hon. Friend on 28th May and by me on Report on 26th June. My right hon. Friend and I specified to the Committee and the House the settlements which might come under Section 3(4) of the Act. There was no attempt to delude the House or to keep from the House that this agreement and that facing draughtsmen might be included under Section 3(4) if it were carried.
What we both said on those two occasions was that it was our dearest wish that the Clause would be unnecessary, if carried, because agreement would be obtained in these disputes. I said that on that very day discussions were going on to bring the dispute to an end and that it was our wish that the powers would not be used because a voluntary settlement might make them unnecessary.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that months earlier in the year the citizens of Liverpool suffered from an unofficial bus strike? Are they now to suffer from an official one? Is it not time that we had a statutory cooling-off period before a strike occurs?
Does my hon. Friend realise that his announcement today will cause great dismay in South Wales and force South Wales busmen to strike at a time when the economy of South Wales is in great difficulty? As to the penal powers, what is the position of representative bodies like the Cardiff constituency Labour Party and bodies like mine which have passed resolutions recently expressing support and giving sympathy to Cardiff busmen? Will they be in the same position as Mr. Frank Cousins and fined £500 as well?
I am loath to make judgments as to the application of the law in this matter, certainly to parties only vicariously concerned, but I think that the members of the Cardiff constituency Labour Party can sleep safely in their beds. It is unlikely that the powers will fall on them.
Can the Under-Secretary confirm that the dispute now entirely and exclusively turns on the issue of back-dating? If so, will he confirm that there is nothing in the Prices and Incomes Act, 1968 which prevents the back-dating of claims once that Act falls, as it is planned so to do, in 1969? Does he realise the immense significance of narrowing this issue merely to one of back-dating in relation to the law as it now stands?
Certainly, when the powers of the current Act lapse at the end of next year there will be nothing to prevent any employer back-dating any agreement and paying retrospectively, although every employer will be encouraged by the Government not to do so. As to the area of dispute between the parties and the Government in the municipal busmen's dispute, the hon. Member is right in believing that one of the principal features is a wish by the parties to back-date. But he will understand that, since the back-dating involves retrospective payment, if my right hon. Friend were to accept a productivity payment dated back to over six months before the agreement was realised, the agreement would be making nonsense of all the productivity statements and plans on which the Government's policy is largely based.
Will the hon. Gentleman make clear what is on offer now? Did he say, as I understood him to say, that the £1 on the basic rate is now accepted by the Government and that the only point now in dispute is back-dating?
Certainly, if the dispute were ended today, and if the parties came to an acceptable agreement today, it means an immediate £1 in the bus man's pay packet. [An HON. MEMBER: "Basic?"] Ten shillings of it would be basic and 10s. would be bonus for one-man operation, but whether it is calculated as basic or bonus it means an immediate £1 as soon as the settlement is reached.
The Undersecretary has said that he recognises the inconvenience which will come to the general public and that the general public will have a lot of self-help, as in the past, to minimise it. If there were a stoppage which looked like being protracted, can he assure the House that there are blueprints in existence which, at any rate from the centre, will set about providing some sort of skeleton service so that the general public can get about their normal daily business?
As it is still our hope that the dispute will not come about, I am certainly not going to give the House and the country any assurance about skeleton blueprints at the centre which I am sure both parties to the dispute would regard as an inflammatory operation and something which they would interpret as an extension of the Government's belief that the strike would continue. We stand on the position that between now and 12th August we still hope that the strike can be avoided.
May I raise with my hon. Friend the question of the St. Helens Corporation transport undertaking? This undertaking and the trade unions concerned have a productivity agreement covering single manning, overtime and standing room. Is not this a case where the payment should have been made and can be made right away?
I honestly cannot give my hon. Friend an immediate judgment about the St. Helens situation, but I promise him that I will look at it and consider whether it is a special exception. I will examine the position in some detail.
What would be the position if busmen in county services normally staffed by members of the N.U.R. were to come out in sympathy with their fellow busmen in municipal areas, as has frequently happened? What action under the Prices and Incomes Act would be taken by the Government against such men acting in sympathy?
It is clear from the Prices and Incomes Act that it is an offence to take any action which is intended to promote the breach of an Order. That is the general position. As to what action would be taken by the Government, the hon. Gentleman must simply rely on my earlier statement that this is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General acting in his judicial capacity, and one on which it would be wrong for me to comment.
Will my hon. Friend explain to me why a policy which proved to be a scrap of paper in relation to the railwaymen should be transformed into a blade of steel when it is applied against the bus workers? Are we to understand now, if the issue at stake is the simple one of back-dating, that the well-known ingenuity of his Department is completely exhausted?
I do not believe that the ingenuity of my Department is exhausted, even though it has been operated extensively over the last few weeks. Even more strongly do I not believe that my hon. Friend is right in saying, or implying, that the prices and incomes policy was breached by the agreement in respect of the railwaymen. Several questions have been based on that assumption, and that assumption is entirely wrong.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the introduction of single-manned buses in municipal services would be a major contribution to productivity in the public transport sector and that in view of this the 10s. bonus, if not paid retrospectively, would be rightly regarded as miserably inadequate and inevitably lead to a protracted and bitter dispute?
I think that it is important to understand what the 10s. bonus amounts to. The 10s. is an acceptance bonus which we ask busmen to take simply as part of a deal in which their only concession is a statement of agreement to accept single-man operation. In those undertakings where single-man operation is applied and where single-manning becomes common, the men actually participating in the single-manning will get substantial increases above the 10s. The 10s. is no more than an acceptance bonus.
May I remind my hon. Friend of a point made at the very beginning of these exchanges, namely: why are the Government going to throw away all the advantages we are now getting from devaluation by running into a head-on clash with the trade union movement? Is he aware—and can I make him aware beyond any reasonable question of doubt —that should the penal sanction be imposed against the Transport and General Workers' Union the Government will meet with the most resolute opposition from many of us on this side of the House and by the movement in the country?
I am very well aware of the resolute opposition that the Government would meet with from my hon. Friend. Indeed, I am aware of the resolute opposition they have met in the past over similar matters. I must say to him, in terms of throwing away the advantages gained from devaluation, that the Government have to take a number of decisions about devaluation. One of the ways in which we might throw away the advantage is were we to allow inflation, costs and prices, to go ahead at such a rate that the benefits obtained from that decision were dissipated. The entire objects of the prices and incomes policy is to ensure that that dissipation does not come about.
Is my hon. Friend aware that this argument about back-dating which he has put to the House as the only problem in the settlement is the problem because the busmen have been negotiating for so long for a settlement and that, in fact, they have been exceedingly patient and conceded many points to the Government? Does not my hon. Friend agree that it is time the Government got out of these negotiations and allowed the industrial process to take place in the normal manner? Perhaps then we could get some industrial settlement and his Department could return to its original job of being a conciliatory body.
I reject the idea that back-dating arises only because the Government have postponed an agreement. We are prepared to accept a payment for one-man operation from the date at which one-man operation became acceptable to the industry. No blame for any delays can be placed at the Government's door. All we have sought to do thoroughout the negotiations is to explain to the parties how they could get a substantial increase in conformity with prices and incomes policy. That seems to me to be our proper rôle and our proper task.
Has my hon. Friend made any estimate in his Department of what the economic cost will be if there is a national bus strike and if this in turn leads on to sympathetic strikes in the rest of industry? Is my hon. Friend really aware, even now, of the sense of outrage that is felt in the Transport and General Workers' Union and other unions? May we have an assurance that if a national strike is pending the House will be recalled to consider the situation which would then arise?
The question about the recall of the House is certainly not for me, but for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. It is very difficult to make a calculation of the economic cost of such a strike. It is equally difficult to make a calculation of the costs involved in allowing bus fares to increase and in allowing the situtation to develop in which cost increases appeared to be acceptable to the Government. The task of my right hon. Friend is to decide which of these two unpalatable alternatives is the least disastrous; and it is not a decision which she can take lightly.
The hon. Gentleman said something very important when he undertook to look at the St. Helens case as a special one. I am sure that one of the troubles here is a lot of special cases. Will he undertake to look at it town by town and, therefore move in the direction of Donovan, which would get away from meaningless industry-wide agreements to significant special ones?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, as a general principle I am very much in favour of what he has described as the Donovan attitude. I will examine the possibility of this; but I have to tell him and the Home that there are other long-term implications. One is the status of the negotiating agreement and the negotiating machinery in this industry. Certainly, neither my right hon. Friend nor I would want to do anything to undermine the accepted negotiating machinery througth which we have continued to work and which we hope will prosper. If we were to examine agreements town by town we would have to be careful not to do it in way which would in any form erode the responsibilities of the unions and of the national bodies.
Further to the point of order. I fully recognise, Mr. Speaker, that in normal circumstances Standing Order No. 9 does not operate on a Friday. I submit that this is not a normal Friday. This is the end of the Session prior to the Recess. Therefore, no hon. Member will have an opportunity of raising this matter on Monday, because the House does not meet on Monday. I think that this is a special circumstance. I therefore ask that this matter be looked at again.
On a slightly different point of order, Mr. Speaker. I did not want to interrupt questions on an issue about which hon Members felt strongly, but may I ask that during the Recess you have a look at the supplementary questions which have been asked this morning and see how many of them breach the well-known rule by being completely hypothetical. I refer particularly to the supplementary asked by the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery).
I shall say no more than that this morning, because I had the somewhat painful personal experience of being pulled up by Mr. Speaker Morrison for the same sort of thing. I believe that this rule is being breached by hon. Members asking remote, hypothetical questions which no Minister can be responsible for or answer.
I did not hear all that the right hon. Gentleman said, but the hypotheses which have been referred to in the questions are, if not probable, at any rate not utterly impossible. May we proceed?
Further to the point of order put to you Mr. Speaker, by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool Walton (Mr. Heffer). May I make a respectful submission and ask for your guidance? One of the difficulties in connection with Standing Order No. 9 is that it provides for a debate on the Adjournment, and today we are on the Adjournment anyway. I see that difficulty. But, Mr. Speaker, as you are always so kind in guiding and helping hon. Members, can you suggest any way in which this matter, which is one of the gravest urgency, could be debated shortly today?
We have a number of subjects set down for the Adjournment debate. While all of them are important to the House and to the country, some of them are manifestly less urgent. Is there any way by which, although time has already been allocated, it would be possible to make some reallocation of the time to permit, during the normal course of the Adjournment debates today, a small amount of time to be devoted to this subject?
All that the hon. Gentleman says amounts, in effect, to a request for a small Standing Order No. 9. There can, however, be neither a small Standing Order No. 9 nor a big one on a Friday. There is nothing I can do unless the business set down for the day is finished before 4.30.