Industrial Relations (White Paper)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd March 1969.

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Photo of Mr Robert Carr Mr Robert Carr , Mitcham 12:00 am, 3rd March 1969

Nowadays, Parliament is sometimes criticised for failing to debate matters while they are still topical. I hardly think that that criticism can be made about out debate on this subject today. As we have this debate today, the House would do well to remember the mood and opinion of the country, because there is overwhelming evidence, which has been accumulating for a long time, that a great majority of the public, including a majority of the industrial workers themselves, believe that the present state of affairs in some of our major industries cannot be allowed to continue and that the Government—whatever Government are in power—must take radical and speedy action to bring about a change.

The right hon. Lady has made a speech which, in large part, was notable not so much for advocating the White Paper's policy as for some shallow sermonising, some fictional history and the setting up of a number of mythical Aunt Sallies, first, about hon. Members on this side of the House and then about some of her hon. Friends. I do not intend to exchange party political gibes with the right hon. Lady. I am content—as are all my hon. Friends—for the country, and especially those who know, to judge the right hon. Lady's speeches with ours, and to judge her White Paper in comparison with "A Fair Deal at Work".

My object today is to find common ground—because I believe that that is what the public desires, since the problem is a national crisis and should be treated as such—and, at the same time—because it is helpful in the endeavour to find common ground—to bring out and not to shirk places where there are real differences of policy. My object, therefore, is to make sure that the House and the country know exactly what a Conservative Government would do if they were in power tomorrow.

Before I analyse the subject matter I must make one thing clear. What should be the central theme of the debate? The central question, surely, is: how do we recreate in this country a situation in which collective agreements, once made, are honoured? This means, among other things, that we must have better agreements, more closely related and better explained to those who have to work under them. Responsibility for achieving that rests not only with trade unions, but, equally, with managements and the Government in their carrying out of their duty to create the right environment for responsible voluntary action to flourish. No employers, no trade unions, and no Government can stand in a white sheet and point a finger at the others.

Let us have hard bargaining in industry, by all means, but, once made, an agreement must be kept, and those responsible for breaking agreements and leading others to break agreements must expect to be held accountable.

The Opposition welcome the Government's acceptance, implicit in their White Paper, that a radical reform is now required of our industrial relations system and that a new industrial relations Bill has an essential part to play in that modernisation process. That is what we have been saying now for more than three years, not just in general terms, but spelling it out in increasing detail, culminating in the publication of our policy document "Fair Deal at Work" almost a year ago.

But although the White Paper is a step in the right direction, the recommendations in it are in total seriously incomplete and in some respects positively wrong and harmful. We also believe that the Government are still lacking the necessary sense of urgency. In the Government's eyes, next year is time enough, and one even wonders from some of the right hon. Lady's concluding remarks whether, in the Government's eyes, after the next General Election is not time enough.

I cannot help comparing this with the promise given by the right hon. Lady's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Southwark (Mr. Gunter), that any necessary legislation would be introduced in this Session of Parliament, and that is what we still call for—legislation this Session. If it were possible in the complicated and controversial matters of prices and incomes policy, it is equally possible, indeed, easier, in this matter.

I now want to get away from the question of timing, vital though it is, and return to the substance of the problem with which the White Paper deals. If we are to deal with the cure, we must quickly recite and be sure that we are at one about the symptoms. There are two particularly serious symptoms of what is wrong with British industrial relations. The first is the symptom of inflationary wage increases. Let us remember that this is not unique to Britain. It is a problem which has been shared by every major industrial country since the war. The second symptom is that 95 per cent. of all our strikes are unofficial and nearly always also in breach of agreement. That is unique compared with other major industrial countries.

Moreover, the frequency of our strikes is high compared with most other countries and the frequency is rising. Excepting coalmining, the number of strikes in our economy has about doubled in the last five years and in 1968 was between three and four times as many as 10 years earlier. It is this rising trend, coupled with the particular nature of the strikes, which is so damaging and dangerous, and it is only too obvious that this trend is continuing in 1969. Something must be done and urgently, and the question is what.

Both inflationary wages increases and unofficial wildcat strikes are symptoms of the same disease, namely, the growing failure and weakness of free collective bargaining, particularly at company and plant levels. I believe that there is and for some time has been unanimity about this diagnosis and that there is also unanimity in the view that the only proper remedy for us as a free country is to strengthen and develop voluntary collective bargaining so that it can in future meet the economic and social needs of the modern industrial age. The question is how can that best be done, and that is where the differences, naturally, begin to appear.

We feel that action is required under three main headings, but only two are dealt with in the White Paper. First, absolutely necessary but absent from the White Paper, is the repeal of the statutory incomes policy. Here, the views of the Government and Opposition are diametrically opposed. How can collective bargaining be voluntary or responsible when agreements once reached are subject to veto from Whitehall? In terms of economic gain in the short run, to attempt to control wages by law is futile. But it undermines the authority of official union leadership and it stimulates militancy and causes injustice. For all these reasons it weakens collective bargaining when the urgent need is to strengthen it.

Therefore, the Government must reverse their present policy, because until they do so, nothing else will have a chance to succeed, and until they do so, they will be pursuing mutually conflicting policies. The incomes policy weakens collective bargaining while they are telling us in another breath that the urgent need is to strengthen it.

The second essential line of action, about which there is a large measure of agreement between the two sides of the House and, I think, in the country, is the need for the provision of voluntary services to assist both sides of industry in this task. The old Ministry of Labour rôle was long established, excellent and widely accepted, and the further development of the Department's services, already put in hand or proposed by the Government, is very much in line with Opposition thinking, as can be seen, for example, from the recommendations contained in pages 29 and 46 of "Fair Deal at Work".

In addition to the Department s services, we now have the new initiative proposed by the Donovan Report, namely, the Commission for Industrial Relations. I want to make clear that we welcome this and believe that it can do much to help, provided that it is under positive and imaginative leadership. We note that some of the functions for the new C.I.R. are similar to those which we propose in "Fair Deal at Work" for the body which we said should replace the Prices and Incomes Board.

We believe that, in anything but the very short run, the activities and functions of the Prices and Incomes Board and the C.I.R. are overlapping and that there will be grave danger of their treading on each other's corns. Once the statutory incomes policy is abolished—and we believe that that should be immediately—there will in the near future be room for only one body with all the remaining functions brought within the C.I.R. with terms of reference slightly different from those proposed in the White Paper. But on the whole in this second field of action there is not much fundamental disagreement between the two sides of the House, nor, I suspect, within the country.

We now come to the third respect in which action is essential, namely, the need for a new comprehensive industrial relations Act to replace the present antiquated hotchpotch of trade union law. For more than three years the Opposition have been absolutely convinced that, while in the end, of course, the problems of human relations in industry must be solved by responsible voluntary action within industry itself, that voluntary action will have a proper chance to succeed only when the Government have first provided a new legal framework within which our industrial relations are to be conducted.