Orders of the Day — Industrial Relations

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st November 1972.

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Photo of Mr Reginald Prentice Mr Reginald Prentice , East Ham North 12:00 am, 1st November 1972

Towards the end of his speech, the Minister reminded us of the talks now going on between the Government, the CBI and the TUC. I do not suppose that a day of the debate on the Address will pass without our being reminded of them. The talks are of enormous importance, and I was very glad, as I am sure every Member was glad, to hear that they were to be resumed this afternoon. We hope that they will succeed on some fair and practicable basis.

This debate is in danger of being obscured by a smoke-screen put down by hon. Members on the Government side. What they would like us and the country to debate is the duty which the Trades Union Congress owes the nation, whereas the debate should be about the duty which the Government owe the nation by explaining their record in the recent past and, above all, their proposals for the coming 12 months. In my 15 years' experience of the House, I have never seen a Gracious Speech so dull and unenterprising, and containing such a miscellaneous ragbag of odds and ends as this year's Gracious Speech.

This debate, concentrating on industrial problems, takes place against the background of a triple failure by the Government which is not acknowledged in the Gracious Speech and on which it has virtually nothing to say. The three aspects of the Government's failure which are closely related to each other are these. First, after two and a half years of the present Government, we face a dangerously high rate of inflation—higher than in the past under successive Governments and higher than the inflation which other industrial countries are experiencing—which is due in large part to policies deliberately pursued by the Government since they came to office.

The second aspect of the Government's failure is an intolerable level of unemployment, much higher than it has been at any time since the 1930s. The third aspect is the worst state of industrial relations since the General Strike in 1926, with a rate of time lost in industrial disputes in the recent past four times as great as it was during the Labour Government's period of office.

On those three aspects of the national crisis, the Gracious Speech contains not a word about industrial relations and merely platitudinous phrases about inflation and full employment. There is not a single new idea or indication of new thinking in the Gracious Speech on any of these vital problems. We shall be debating at length the inflation aspect during the debate on the Address and I do not wish to pursue it now, although I repeat that I think it is related to the other matters we are discussing.

As regards unemployment, the official October figures, with all their limitations, show a total of 845,000 people out of work in Britain. As we might have expected, the Minister of State made a great deal of the fact that the figure was lower than in the previous month. He spoke of his optimism about the signs he had seen in travelling the country and about the evidence that he had seen of industrial recovery. Of course there has been some improvement in the figures in view of the amount of money which the Government released into the economy before and at the time of the Budget when they were trying to make a desperate attempt to fight rising unemployment, but the Minister of State should acknowledge that this improvement has come so late and is so small. It is on that aspect that we should focus the attention of this debate.

The October total of 845,000 is, as the Minister acknowledged, intolerably high. It represents about 3·6 per cent. of the labour force, but this average over the whole nation disguises regional levels of over 6 per cent. in the north of England, over 6 per cent. in Scotland and over 7 per cent. in Northern Ireland. Those regional averages in turn disguise much higher figures in particular districts. We need to remind ourselves constantly that we are talking here about the number of registered unemployed at any one time. An attempt has been made by some hon. Gentlemen to suggest that the figures represent an exaggeration of the real unemployment, but in our practical experience they represent an under-estimation of real unemployment.