With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.
Faced with the disruption of coal and electricity supplies caused by industrial action in the coal industry, the Government must take steps to discharge their responsibility to maintain essential services and to minimise the threat to the life of the community. They have therefore thought it right to advise the proclamation of an emergency under Section 1 of the Emergency Powers Act, 1920, as amended, followed by the making of regulations under Section 2.
The regulations will come into operation at midnight tonight. Copies will be available this afternoon. My right hon. Friend will be making an announcement tomorrow about the arrangements for debating these regulations next week. They are based on those made in 1970, with some modifications, and confer on Ministers enabling powers which they will use only to the extent that necessity requires.
I am sure the Home Secretary will be aware that we have not yet seen the regulations. I trust that they will be available a little later this afternoon. I am bound to say that we on this side of the House regard this emergency as being very much of the Government's own creation, with the worsening position for employment in the steel, textiles and other industries as a result of falling stocks of coal. May I ask the Home Secretary, first, whether the Government now intend to make an effort to solve the coal strike by means of allowing the National Coal Board to make an additional—a fresh offer?
May I ask him, secondly—he will understand that I must ask this question tentatively because we have not seen the regulations—whether the Government have any intention of using the Armed Forces in a situation which might involve them in moving through picket lines, and whether he is aware of the considerable crisis this would bring, granted the history of the coal mining industry?
May I ask him, thirdly, whether, in the light of the statement made by the Miniser for Industry yesterday, when he said that the question of public order rested with the police, the Government are not now asking the police to undertake an impossible task, in the light of public sympathy, and feeling among the miners?
On the first point, I think the hon. Lady recognises that this is an emergency situation in which there is need for special powers. As for efforts to solve the crisis, as the House is aware, discussions are taking place, and I would not want further to comment on that at the present moment.
The Government would contemplate the use of the Armed Forces only if that were absolutely essential to maintain vital services to the nation.
On the point about the law of picketing, let me make it quite clear that it is well known and established that peaceful picketing is acceptable under the law; intimidation is not. It is the responsibility of chief officers of police to enforce the law. It is not for the Government to instruct them in any way about how to carry out their duties.
In view of the discussions which are now taking place today, would not the right hon. Gentleman consider it to be wise momentarily to withdraw the state of emergency, because of the effect of the suspicions which are being aroused in the mining areas of Great Britain, on the ground that a state of emergency is a machine by which the Government intend to break this strike?
No. I do not agree with that. The Government have a responsibility, obviously, to maintain essential services. Part of the problem with this dispute is not only the present circumstances, but, as I understand it, that even when this dispute is settled it will take a long time to get back to normal production.
Would my right hon. Friend like to make a statement on the extent to which subversive and extremist elements, which have nothing directly to do with the miners' cause, have taken control of picketing?
I do not think I should like to add to what I have already said about picketing. The law provides complete freedom for peaceful picketing. but anything beyond peaceful picketing is illegal, and the police forces of this country, under their chief officers, are carrying out the law.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this is now the third proclamation of a state of emergency in the last two years by this Government? It could become a habit. Would he point out for the benefit of his bemused supporters why the Industrial Relations Act was not able to take care of this matter? Or is it, perhaps, that this kind of all-embracing, industry-wide, American-type strike is what the Government prefer?
With regard to the opinion expressed by the Home Secretary on the regulation of picketing as being a matter for chief consables, will his Department, as the central authority, take note of the very uneven treatment being given to pickets up and down the country? Quite obviously, some chief constables have interpreted the law in a way in which trade unionists understand it; others are interpreting the law in a rougher and tougher way not envisaged by this House.
I think the House recognises that this is a very difficult problem indeed. The police are faced with great difficulties in dealing with particular situations. I think that, by and large, they are handling them with great tact and good sense. They have both to ensure that peaceful picketing is permitted and that intimidation is not permitted, but it is not the job of the Government, under our constitution, to order chief constables how to do their job.
On the last point, I cannot accept what the right hon. Gentleman appears to have put to the House several times, both now and previously, that it is no duty of the Home Secretary to ensure that there is uniformity of behaviour between chief police officers throughout the country in a national matter of this sort.
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman about the serious danger to public order which has arisen at the Saltley gas depôt, of which he is aware? There is here a grave danger of injury both to police and pickets. There is great danger of this becoming a semi-local battleground, and there is great local concern. Does he understand—as I understand from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—that there is a system of Government priorities by which coke or coal is allowed out for hospitals and similar institutions?
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Denis Howell), who is there and has just been in touch with me by telephone, said that the chairman of the gas board is unaware of such a system applying to coke, but that the board would be prepared to operate such a system. My hon. Friend also informs me that the pickets would be prepared to accept such a system provided that the Government would act and give some guidance to the chairman of the board. A dangerous situation could thereby be avoided. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that he will act to co-ordinate matters with his right hon. Friends and ensure that the situation is not allowed to deteriorate through indolence?
The right hon. Gentleman, who has held the office which I hold, must know perfectly well that the Home Office issues guidance to chief constables and police authorities on the interpretation of the law, but the fact must remain—as it was in his day and is in my day—that the actual carrying out of those responsibilities rests upon the chief constables of police. I have said no more and no less than that.
On the second point, at Saltley the police are doing their constitutional duty of allowing peaceful picketing but preventing illegal picketing. This they must do under the law, and it is not for me as Home Secretary to interfere with the police in carrying out the law.
May I come back to the urgent matter which I put to the right hon. Gentleman in the form of a question? I apologise for the question being long, but this is an extremely important matter. I put to him a dangerous situation and, in my view, a way of avoiding the acceleration of the danger. Surely the right hon. Gentleman can assure us that he will immediately consult his right hon. Friend and others concerned to see whether a solution can be found on a basis which does not involve a continuing great danger to life and limb of both pickets and police? Will he act in this matter straight away?
As I said before, the job of the police, which they are doing, is to ensure that peaceful picketing, which is legal, is allowed and that intimidation and unlawful picketing are prevented.
The right hon. Gentleman has still failed to answer my right hon. Friend's question. While he is Home Secretary and can answer for the police, he is also Chairman of the Cabinet Emergency Committee. Surely he does not sit there considering points about the police and not looking at anything else. In that capacity will he tell the House that he will take up urgently with his right hon. Friend the point put by my right hon. Friend, that a system is in operation for the movement of coke and other supplies which does not seem to be known of on the ground? Is there any reason why the right hon. Gentleman 10 minutes ago could not have given the House an assurance that he will take up this matter? If there is not a reason, will he do so now?
I must go on repeating the simple point that peaceful picketing is allowed and is within the law of the land, and the job of the police is to ensure that peaceful picketing can and does take place. Anything beyond that is not permitted by the police. The management decisions of the National Coal Board or of anyone else are not for me.
Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that the position in Saltley is grave and difficult for the Birmingham police as well as for everyone else. Is he not capable of a spark of imagination, instead of merely repeating these dicta? As Deputy Prime Minister, as I believe he is, and as Chairman of the Cabinet Emergency Committee, will he not try to find a way—for which I have offered him some guidelines—to help to solve this dangerous position?
I am giving the House the facts. People are entitled to use peaceful picketing and are not entitled to use unlawful picketing. It would be quite wrong to say that we should persuade people, because of unlawful picketing, to make judgments which they would not otherwise make.
The time of the House is being wasted. We are not getting answers to questions on an important issue which involves the safety of life and limb. The right hon. Gentleman is speaking for the whole Government, not just for the Home Office, yet he informs the House that it is not a matter for him. The Minister responsible is sitting next but two to him. In these circumstances, Mr. Speaker, may we ask either that the Prime Minister, whose writ presumably extends beyond his own Department, should answer these questions, or will you permit questions to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to enable him to answer my right hon. Friend's question?
Is not the law quite clear on this matter, based on the distinction which my right hon. Friend has made between peaceful picketing which is legal and intimidation which is not? Is not the application of the law in each case dependent as a matter of fact and degree on the individual circumstances of the case? If that be so, is it possible for my right hon. Friend to issue guidance which would govern in advance every particular situation?
Is the Home Secretary aware that at Saltley picketing has been taking place, with about 20 arrests daily? Will he accept that it will not do for him continually to pass the responsibility to chief constables? Will he not make sure that those who are picketing can talk to those who are being picketed, and will he also interfere and force the West Midlands Gas Board to close down the plant forthwith?
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that some of us could give him reams of evidence of intimidation—and this intimidation is not from the pickets themselves, but from other people'? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Yes, and we can produce that evidence. I ask the Home Secretary to be very careful about bringing the Armed Forces into this strike because, as a former member of the British Armed Forces, I can assure hon. Members that many members of the Services are former trade unionists, or have trade union members in their families many of whom are miners. I can tell the House that this is a very sickening thing to ask the British Army to do.
There has been a large amount of picketing, much of which has been wholly legal. The job of the police is both to ensure that illegal picketing is stopped and legal picketing allowed.
In regard to the essential point made by the right hon. Gentleman about peaceful as against illegal picketing, may I ask whether he is aware that along with other Members from Yorkshire constituencies I received a telephone call from a member of the Executive of the N.U.M. about events yesterday morning outside the Saltley plant, where a number of my constituents, who were peacefully picketing, were prevented by police officers, with the use of a good degree of force, from making contact with lorry drivers in exercising their legal right to point out the situation to those lorry drivers? Will he issue instructions and guidelines to chief constables, as is his duty, to make sure that police officers do not prevent our constituents from exercising their legal rights?
Would not my right hon. Friend agree that the comments made by the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. John Mendelson) a moment ago underline the danger that, when these disorderly scenes occur, the legitimate rights of men to picket can be affected? Does lie appreciate that my constituents, and constituents throughout the country, want the police to back the legal rights both of pickets to picket and of ordinary decent working men and women to go about their legal and legitimate business?
When the House comes to debate the state of emergency, could the right hon. Gentleman say whether the House will be given a full and frank statement on the exact electricity supply position? Over two-thirds of the electricity generated depends on coal and, however a power station is managed, it cannot be run without fuel. It is important that the House should know the facts.
Is the Home Secretary aware that many hon. Members on this side of the House know only too well from personal experience all about the law on picketing? Is he aware of the fact that it is not the duty of the police to use force to enable lorries to get through? Will he advise the police that its job is not to assist the strike-breakers in getting the lorries through, even though they might think it is their duty so to do?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I had the impression that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was about to attempt to answer the question put to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins). Will you give the right hon. Gentleman permission to do so, if he is now willing?
Will the Home Secretary think more seriously about this problem? Is he not aware that in some parts of the country chief superintendents, and even chief constables, are allowing their police officers to arrest and handcuff pickets, whereas in other parts of the country they are simply arresting individuals?
Is he aware that we received information yesterday that pickets in Birmingham were not allowed even to talk to lorry drivers and were manhandled by police, thus further aggravating the situation? Surely he should be more consistent and issue directions to ensure that the situation involving the arrest of pickets and others is more consistent than it is at present.
May I give the Home Secretary an opportunity to correct the impression he gave to the House a short time ago? This is a difficult situation which affects the police and for which the Home Secretary has some responsibility; it affects the Government's system of distribution for which the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has some responsibility. This could become a still more dangerous situation. I have ventured to put to the Home Secretary a way out which could ease this position. Surely he can at least give the House the assurance that he will immediately, in his capacity as Chairman of the Emergency Committee, discuss this matter with his right hon. Friend and with anybody else concerned.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has heard that suggestion, and I shall be happy to discuss it with him. What I am saying is that my responsibility at this Box is as to the duties of the police, which I believe they are carrying out very well. If there is any evidence to the contrary, I shall be happy to receive it from hon. Members.
Do the recommendations already issued by the Home Secretary to police officers define peaceful picketing as meaning that strikers are empowered to try to stop a lorry or to approach the lorry driver to speak to him? If these instructions do not make such a recommendation, would the Home Secretary consider publishing in the OFFICIAL REPORT the instructions which have been given to chief police officers?
I will certainly consider that suggestion. The law on picketing has been laid down in various court decisions, and the line between peaceful picketing and intimidation is not all that easy to lay down.
Since there is no one who has been in this House for a quarter of a century who has even seen a Minister refuse to answer for the whole of the Government, which it is the right hon. Gentleman's duty to do, especially when one bears in mind that this is a grave occasion involving a declaration of a state of emergency, would you, Mr. Speaker, accept a Motion for the Adjournment of the House for 15 minutes to allow the Prime Minister to come to the House, or to allow one Member of the dozen Ministers on the Government Front Bench, to give an answer to my right hon. Friend on behalf of the Government?
A question was asked by the right hon. Gentleman about a particular situation in a particular plant and whether that matter could be looked into. I must tell the House that I have received an application for a Standing Order No. 9 debate on that matter and the absence of any kind of assurance to look into that specific case may guide me in the decision I give.