Emergency (TUC Proposals)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th January 1974.

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Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton 12:00 am, 10th January 1974

Mr. Harold Wilson (by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether the public statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the proposals made by the Trades Union Congress represents the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

Yes, Sir. The General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress has written to me this morning to confirm the text of the statement made by the TUC's representatives at yesterday's meeting of the National Economic Development Council. He has asked me and my colleagues to give the TUC's proposals the most careful consideration and to make a positive response. I have invited representatives of the TUC to meet us at No. 10 Downing Street this evening.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

We welcome that reversal of the Government's policies. Is it not a fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer turned down the TUC's proposals nearly an hour before the Prime Minister, when he intervened in my speech yesterday, said that the TUC's document should be considered more fully, indeed by both of us? Was the right hon. Gentleman misleading the House or did he not know what the Chancellor was up to?

Secondly, since the Secretary of State for Employment on 19th December opened up an approach to the TUC, and since the TUC has now responded in the two statements of yesterday, including a still more positive statement to the NEDC than the one quoted in the House, may I ask whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer consulted the Secretary of State for Employment and obtained his agreement to the rejection of the TUC's initiative? Is the December initiative of the Secretary of State for Employment still open, or is it dead? Will the Prime Minister tell us what the Government are up to?

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman's last remark is helpful in a situation of this kind. Perhaps I can explain to the House the situation which arose. At the beginning of the NEDC meeting yesterday afternoon, which was at the same time as the House was meeting and opening its debate and at the same time as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment was meeting the National Union of Mineworkers, the TUC's representatives, in the course of the discussions in the NEDC, put forward this suggestion. There had been no previous notification of it to the Government or to any of the other parties to the NEDC, or to the secretariat of the NEDC.

It was, therefore, not possible for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the other Ministers of the Government there to discuss beforehand with me or with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment what was being said in the NEDC. Therefore, I hope that the Leader of the Opposition will withdraw the last part of his remarks. There was absolutely no opportunity for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to discuss this matter with his colleagues.

Secondly, the House will wish to know that there was nearly two hours' discussion of this proposal in the NEDC, in which all present were able to ask questions as to what the assurance meant. As a result, they were able to form a judgment about the implications of this for the counter-inflation policy. It was, therefore, perfectly natural that afterwards the other parties to the NEDC, as well as the TUC, should express their current views on the matter to the Press, which is what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer did.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has read my right hon. Friend's statement in full, because it pointed out very clearly that, in his view, the proposal did not meet the needs of the counter-inflation policy. As I have said, his statement therefore represents Government policy.

The General Secretary of the TUC has now written to me asking to consider this further. I have, of course, replied that we are prepared to meet him and his colleagues, and to do so this evening. This will, I hope, be a continuation of our efforts, as I said yesterday, to find a means of dealing with wage claims which are based on reason and which support the counter-inflation policy.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

In his obvious discomfort the Prime Minister is making the situation more confused. As the House had before it only my quotation from the morning statement of the economic committee, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange to circulate in HANSARD the statement which the TUC made to Neddy yesterday afternoon on behalf of the general council? If it is a fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer could not consult the Prime Minister—although he was not very far away—and if he could not consult the Secretary of State, why is it that at about 3.30 p.m. yesterday, the Chancellor rejected the TUC's offer and yet, at about 4.15 p.m., the Prime Minister, after some needling, said that he would consider the morning proposals of the TUC? Why, after the Prime Minister had said that in the House, did the Chancellor at his Press conference again reject both statements made by the TUC? While we welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is trying to get out of an ugly situation by what he has said this afternoon, will he try to explain yesterday's timetable?

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

I will tell the House about the timetable. I received the document from the TUC as I walked into the Chamber. I read it on the Bench while other statements were being made. The document was not circulated in Neddy until after the meeting was concluded. What the Chancellor said was based on nearly two hours of discussion with the NEDC. [HON. MEMBERS: "Discussions about what?".] On a verbal proposal put forward by the TUC. That is what the discussion was based upon. If the TUC had wished the council to have the document beforehand it could have provided the council with copies. As it was a verbal proposal the discussion was based on that.

Naturally there was a large amount of questioning, and rightly so, about what the assurance meant. The CBI expressed its views, as all members of the council are entitled to do. After nearly two hours of discussion my right hon. Friend said that in his judgment the answers which had been given did not provide a basis for dealing with the counter-inflation policy. I have now said that I and my colleagues are fully prepared to see the TUC this evening. [HON. MEMBERS: "What for?".] To see whether the TUC can go further and can give assurances that the counter-inflation policy will be preserved. It is essential that that policy is preserved. The Government are determined to preserve it.

Photo of Mr Evelyn King Mr Evelyn King , South Dorset

Will my right hon. Friend accept that niggling little questions about timing fall far below the level of events? Does he agree that what the country most hopes is that the talks will take place and that they will succeed?

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

I think that that is exactly what the country wishes. It wishes to see a settlement which maintains the counter-inflation policy and stage 3. It is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that that is so. The General Secretary of the TUC in his letter to me refers to the position of the coal mining industry. As I explained yesterday, and as my colleagues have said on previous occasions, there are different ways in which that position can be recognised. It is already recognised in the offer which has been made. It is already recognised in the proposals which I and the Secretary of State for Employment have made directly to the National Union of Mineworkers. If the TUC wishes to discuss the matter further, all of us are delighted to do so.

Photo of Mr Jeremy Thorpe Mr Jeremy Thorpe , North Devon

Will the right hon Gentleman say how the Cabinet can give careful and objective consideration to proposals which have already been instantly rejected by the Chancellor? Either he must confirm that the Chancellor's view does not obtain now, which is contrary to what he has just said, or he must say that it does. He cannot have it both ways. Does he agree that this is at least a helpful move towards a settlement? As the Government want a settlement more than an election, is it not a proposal which he should welcome? If the Chancellor's instant obstinacy is added to the Prime Minister's long-term obstinacy, God help this country.

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

I repudiate completely the outrageous statement made by the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe). The Chancellor did not instantly reject anything. There was a discussion, lasting two hours, by a responsible body—namely the National Economic Development Council. It is a gross distortion of the facts for the right hon. Gentleman to speak in those terms. In his statement to the Press, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said that he was grateful for the suggestion of the TUC but, as he explained to the TUC, it did not seem to him to provide an answer. That was a perfectly reasonable statement for my right hon. Friend to make after a two-hour discussion with a responsible body such as the NEDC.

The Government are dealing with a counter-inflation policy. If the TUC, in discussions with the Government, can give a complete assurance about the maintenance of the counter-inflation policy, the Government will be able to take action in those circumstances. We are not prepared to accept, and nor are employers, any situation unless there can be guarantees about the counter-inflation policy.

Photo of Mr Anthony Fell Mr Anthony Fell , Yarmouth

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether it is his feeling that during the past three years anything has happened which gives the Government, at any rate, any confidence that the TUC will be able to commit its membership to any such guarantees?

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

That is a very important question which was discussed in great detail and at great length by Neddy yesterday. Many questions were asked by the employers and other members of the council about the meaning of the assurance. I am prepared to go over this ground again and in full with the TUC when it comes to a meeting either tonight or at any other time. I am prepared to meet the TUC on a bipartite basis, if it does not want another meeting which includes the employers. I am prepared to meet the employers to hear their views. I am prepared to listen to all of them.

The question how any assurance which is given can be implemented is naturally one which we must discuss again with the TUC. It has been discussed many times in the past. The TUC has always said frankly that it cannot implement an assurance in that way. The situation may have changed by tonight. The TUC could not give such an undertaking yesterday. If it is able to discuss the matter and to show how assurances can be implemented fully, I am willing to discuss the matter with the TUC. We can then, perhaps, get a policy based on reason and moderation.

Photo of Mr Jack Ashley Mr Jack Ashley , Stoke-on-Trent South

Is the Prime Minister aware that the TUC proposals are a lifeline for a beleaguered Government? If he is not prepared to accept these proposals now, could he tell us when he is prepared to accept similar proposals, since he has now spoken to an American correspondent about holding out until the spring? Given the mood of the miners today, he may have to hold out until the summer or the autumn or next winter. How long does he propose to hold out, assuming that the situation goes on past next spring?

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

I have told the House that it is the Government's responsibility to ensure that industry can be carried on to the maximum possible extent in an orderly fashion with electricity supplies. That is our job, our responsibility. The whole House knows that, when it comes to the spring, the domestic demand falls greatly, as indeed does demand for electricity in industry. It will therefore be possible for greater resources to be made available to industry. But as I told the House yesterday, this is not of the Government's wanting ; it is forced upon the Government by necessity. This is something which the House has to face as long as the coal supplies do not come forward.

Several Hon. Members:

rose——

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

Order. I have the names of over 50 hon. Members who want to take part in the coming debate, which seems to me to cover very much the matters which are now being discussed. I can allow only one or two more questions.

Photo of Mr Stephen Hastings Mr Stephen Hastings , Mid Bedfordshire

Would my right hon. Friend care to ask the Leader of the Opposition whether, with his famous memory, he recalls 1969 and the "solemn and binding" agreement from the TUC, and how far that got him and his Government?

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

I have already said that one of the important things to discuss with the TUC is, first, the nature of the assurance. Questions were asked yesterday afternoon—did it mean that other groups would therefore adhere to stage 3?—and the answer was "No". A large number of questions must be clarified before any action could be taken in this matter. I have already said that, as for the implementation of any assurance, we must understand from the TUC how such an assurance will be enforced.

Photo of Mr Charles Loughlin Mr Charles Loughlin , Gloucestershire West

Apart from any political differences that there may be in this country, is not the Prime Minister aware that we are facing literally the breakdown of the industrial and commercial life of Britain? Is he also aware that, as long as the miners are working five days a week, there is no possible way in which they can be beaten? The miners are working five days a week. They cannot be beaten. Would it not be better, even if the Prime Minister lost a little pride—we all lose pride at times: he would not be unique in that—to grasp the opportunity of these discussions with the TUC to get a settlement of the miners' issue, lest, in not doing so, the right hon. Gentleman drives Britain right into bankruptcy?

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

This Government have shown, by all the actions that they have taken towards them, that the miners are being offered the most generous settlement that they have ever had. It is a more generous settlement than other groups are getting——

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

They have been offered a full and detailed discussion of their situation after stage 3 has been accepted. They have been offered this by the Secretary of State for Employment direct and by the Government as a whole.

I suggest therefore that, first, the miners are not able to work their full time because the safety maintenance is not being carried out. That is the main reason for the reduction in coal supplies. Second, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman also asks the miners to accept this settlement.

I fully accept the responsibility of the miners in the past. If they are responsible today, they can show it again by accepting this settlement, as 4 million other workers and trade unionists have already done, and then we will discuss in full the future of the industry and their own part in it. This Government have already demonstrated their good faith when, at the beginning of this year, they worked out with the industry its future, by stabilising output and by making a commitment of £1,100 million to it. After that, the country is entitled to expect that it will get a response from the industry. I believe that the miners, in their own interests and the interests of the country, would be wise to accept the present offer and then to discuss again the future of the industry.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

It would help the debate which you want to get started, Mr. Speaker, if the Prime Minister would now give clear answers to two questions which he has not answered properly. First, with regard to yesterday's debate, when Parliament was debating this issue, we had from the Chancellor of the Exchequer outside Parliament a public statement at odds with what we managed to drag out of the Prime Minister himself in Parliament, which we thought was binding. Would the right hon. Gentleman explain which of the two was and is the true position of the Government? Second, would he tell us whether the statement of the Secretary of State for Employment before Christmas, as quoted by me yesterday, is still the policy of the Government?

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

The Secretary of State is about to address the House and he can deal in detail with the questions about what he himself said before Christmas. There has been no change in Government policy throughout. As for yesterday afternoon, I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider that, in a responsible body such as the NEDC, where the Chancellor is in the chair, he is perfectly entitled to give his views after a two-hour discussion. He is certainly entitled to give his views, as a senior member of the Government.

As I told the right hon. Gentleman, I was going to consider the statement further. I did so directly the right hon. Gentleman sat down, and it has been considered further by my colleagues. We have had time to do it. I have now said to the TUC, in response to its invitation, that I will gladly discuss it with the TUC. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will therefore accept that, yesterday in the NEDC, all parties in the council gave serious consideration to what was said verbally by the TUC representatives, asked many questions about it and formed their attitudes as a result of the answers to those questions.

What the Chancellor said was that the assurance and the answers to the questions did not meet the Government's policy. That is what he said. He was perfectly entitled to say it in Neddy and he was entitled to say it to the Press afterwards. The right hon. Gentleman is now trying to create trouble without any justification.

Several Hon. Members:

rose——

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

Order. Mr. Harold Wilson, business question.