After establishing that the position of both parties remained unchanged, I suggested to each in turn that they might consider resuming talks on the basis that if a settlement ran for a Period longer than 12 months this might provide a possibility for some improvement in the cash offer. I also suggested that if this were accepted, talks might be held in a joint meeting under my Department's chairmanship. The board agreed to this suggestion, as did the union representatives after consulting their executive.
In the joint talks which followed yesterday evening, the board said that, for an 18-month agreement from the date of resumption of work, it was prepared to offer an increase of £3 a week on the basic rate of all surface workers and £3·50 a week on the rate for those employed underground on the 1955 Day Wage Agreement. This means that the lowest paid worker underground would receive a minimum of £22·50 for a full week, compared with £19 at the moment.
In addition, a guaranteed minimum of £22 a week would be established for the lowest paid surface workers, which would have provided an increase of £4 a week on the present minimum of £18. For workers on the coal face and other "task workers" as they are called, the board proposed an increase of £2·75 a week, providing a new basic rate for face workers of £32·75 compared with £30 at the moment. The board was also prepared to discuss adjustments of certain differentials.
At the conclusion of these joint talks I again met the board and the union separately. The union representatives told me that they would be reporting the board's proposals to their executive this morning and that they hoped that the executive would agree to further joint discussions. The board told me that it would certainly be ready to meet the union again.
This morning, I understand, the N.U.M. executive rejected the board's new proposals but agreed that further joint talks should be held with the board. These are now taking place at my Department.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his very full statement. I would not of course want to say anything which might be in the least degree prejudicial to the negotiations which are being held. However, I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to ensure that the Government and the board do not go into these negotiations inhibited or encumbered by any postures so far taken. I would also urge upon the miners that they do not allow the emotions, which have been very understandably inflamed by recent events, to deter them from the earnest search for the just and honourable settlement which the nation's needs require.
Order. I would ask hon. Members to bear in mind what the right hon. Gentleman has just said—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I am not attempting to close down this questioning. I am just asking for a measure of restraint. My view is that there can be a fairly wide debate next Monday, on all these matters.
Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that, although the talks are continuing, the new offer by the National Coal Board in many respects is worse than the previous one? It is not inaccurate to claim that it is an 18-month agree- ment? In essence, it is a 22-month agreement, because the award starts on the commencement of work, whereas the previous offer was retrospective to November. Does the right hon. Gentleman also realise that the differential between working underground and working on the surface would now be 50p?
Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Coal Board has knocked out of the package, for example, the question of the additional week's holiday or the five rest days? Is he aware that the national executive unanimously rejected this offer? Therefore, without prejudicing the negotiations, I hope that the Secretary of State will impress on the board that the miners want a better offer and not an offer which is worse than the previous one.
I said in my statement that the board would be prepared to discuss further matters regarding differentials, so may I leave differentials at that point? The hon. Member referred to this being, in effect, a 22-month agreement. Talks are going on. No doubt, if this is one of the matters which the union wishes to negotiate further with the board, for all I know they may be raising this sort of point now. But I cannot usefully comment on it.
The question is one of fact. I do not believe that the lion. Gentleman is right in saying that this could conceivably be represented as a worse offer. The effect is that, in the first 12 months, the National Coal Board would be adding some £48 million to its wage bill, rather than £32 million. That is the total sum involved in the first 12 of the 18 months. In other words, the board is prepared, in return for what it believes to be the genuine benefits of a long-term agreement, to sustain a very much bigger immediate financial strain. That is a fact which ought to be accepted and understood by the House and the country.
I do not believe that an offer which gives—or which would have given if it had been accepted—a substantial extra cash payment immediately to all miners can really be described as a worse offer, particularly when the absolute minimum guaranteed is £22 for the lowest paid, or £2 above the T.U.C.'s own target for minimum pay.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that many hon. Members, at least on this side of the House, are receiving letters from constituents urging as urgent as possible a settlement of the coal strike, but that running through many of them is the fear, particularly on the part of pensioners, that the price of coal will rise —[Interruption.]—a matter about which they are very worried indeed?
I am aware of that. I am sure that my hon. Friend and the House will not expect me to comment further, except perhaps to mention that these are the sort of considerations which I have had in mind in all our debates and when answering Questions on this subject, particularly when I have talked about the difficult double duty which this or any Government have in dealing with a problem of this kind.
In this connection, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to keep in mind what has been frequently pressed on him in the House, namely, the need to reconsider the balance sheet position of the N.C.B. and deal with the interest burden which, if relieved, would prevent the anxiety expressed by the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. R edmond)?
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the offer made yesterday is at least £2 less than the last three settlements made to private enterprise industries? Apart from Chrysler and the Ansell Brewery of Birmingham, I could quote such settlements at length. Does the right hon. Gentleman really believe that this is an honest offer to the miners; or is he again putting forward a confidence trick to "con" the miners back down the pits? If so, I assure him that he does not have a cat in hell's chance of succeeding.
In a system of free collective bargaining, which I believe the hon. Gentleman and the unions support, there will always be variable amounts, some larger and some smaller, regardless of what anybody may think of the merits. This matter is under further discussion, and I therefore think that I should not comment further. However, I do not believe that one can describe as derisory an offer which includes £4 a week extra for the lowest paid——
—£3·50 a week extra for the next lowest paid, £3·00 extra a week for those in the middle range and an additional £2·75 a week for those at the top of the scale. There may be—indeed, there are—strong differences of opinion about whether these sums are adequate, but by any normal average standards they are surely high rather than low additions.
Order. I ask the House to help me in this matter. Is had to decide whether or not to allow this Private Notice Question. I thought that there was a strong reason for not allowing it, because negotiations were still continuing. I decided to allow it. We have been told that negotiations are still continuing. I must, therefore, ask hon. Members not to persist—[Interruption.]—with this issue.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. While agreeing, as we all do, with your advice to the House, may I ask if we are to take what you said earlier about next Monday's debate as indicating that you will allow the debate to go beyond just the question of whether emergency powers are needed and the terms of the Instrument concerned? Will hon. Members be able to discuss the situation which has arisen and why it has arisen, including the whole question of any negotiations which are taking place this week and which may or may not be taking place next week?
My provisional feeling—I have not yet had an opportunity to examine the matter closely—is that the background must be relevant and must, those circumstances, that the House will now allow me to call the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy therefore, be discussable. I hope, in Jenkins) to ask the next Private Notice Question.