With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the electricity restrictions.
As the House knows, last week's energy figures showed that the sharp decline in power station fuel stocks had slowed down. This improved stock trend enabled us to restore full electricity supplies for steel production which was threatening to be a more severe constraint on output than electricity, and it held out the prospect that, if this trend was sustained, it might soon be possible to announce a more general easement of the restrictions on industry.
Yesterday's figures confirmed the trend, so that, following the consultations which we had had during the week with the TUC, the CBI and representatives of commerce and of retailers, we were preparing to announce a significant relaxation of the restrictions. These would have enabled industry to get much nearer to normal working.
But yesterday's decision by the executive of the National Union of Mine-workers has introduced a new dimension. In face of this further threat to power station coal supplies, the Government consider that it would be imprudent to introduce the easements we had hoped.
After the most careful consideration we have decided that we must maintain the three-day electricity week. We have, however, decided to make one change in the arrangements. The burden for half of industry and commerce—for employers and employees alike—in having Saturday as one of the three days on which electricity could be used has been considerable. To remove the need for Saturday working at these firms, from next week those previously using electricity on Thursday to Saturday may now, at their option, use electricity on Wednesday to Friday.
My Department is considering certain limited variations in exceptional circumstances where the benefit to industry generally would be considerable.
Is the Minister aware that his warnings about the consequences of strike action on the working week should be addressed not to the miners but to the Prime Minister, because his stubbornness is responsible for the escalation of this unnecessary conflict? What the House and the country will find utterly amazing from this statement is that the Minister can give the House a grave warning and make a grave statement without saying a single word about a new initiative by the Government that will be taken to end the dispute. By a new initiative we mean not a lecture but genuine negotiations aimed at a settlement.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that even the rearrangement of the working week will still cause anomalies in social security and unemployment benefits? Will he consult his right hon. Friends about the way in which these can be adjusted?
Is he aware that the readjustment that has been announced comes nowhere near solving the problems of the steel industry, whose under-production affects wide sections of industry? Will he be specific and give us the figures of coking coal stocks? Will he consult his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about the serious shortage of ferrous scrap, because of electricity restrictions in that industry, which is cutting its output of special steel by one-third.
May I ask the Minister about the unnecessary, petty and misery-minded 10.30 p.m. curfew on television? Is he aware that the electricity saving is little more than one-tenth of 1 per cent. of the total and that it is not only depriving people of their entertainment—the Minister's antics are no substitute for that—but is now seriously beginning to inhibit freedom of expression in the country?
The question still remains: are we to have a positive and new initiative to end this confrontation? We do not mean a sanctimonious letter from the Prime Minister which tells the miners nothing new. If the Government continue—[Interruption.]
Do the Government intend to brush aside all the initiatives that have been taken that would bring about a settlement of this dispute? Even newspapers as wide apart as The Times and the Daily Mirror today are advocating that it is possible to have a settlement of this dispute. If the Government do not move in these next few critical days but stand idly by, the country will conclude that they have now opted for confrontation instead of conciliation, and they will be judged accordingly.
That was a singularly unhelpful response. How anyone who heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he made his statement in the House on Tuesday could possibly have made the charges which the hon. Gentleman has laid against him passes my understanding. It is not the Government who have sought the confrontation. Let that be clearly understood.
The letter which my right hon. Friend wrote to Mr. Gormley before the meeting of the miners' executive yesterday made perfectly clear that the Government were prepared to go on talking to the miners with a view to reaching a settlement of the dispute, and I am afraid that it got a very dusty answer.
I come now to the various questions which the hon. Gentleman asked. As regards steel, I recognise that the electricity relaxations can go nowhere near to restoring full production of steel, because the main reason for the shortage of steel is the shortage of coking coal, on which deliveries are down to about 60 per cent. of normal. The hon. Gentleman asked about stocks of coking coal. On 13th January, assuming full production, stocks stood at about four and a half weeks' supply; at 50 per cent. production, it would be about nine weeks' stock of coking coal. The British Steel Corporation has been producing at rather higher rates over the last couple of weeks—at about three-quarters—so the hon. Gentleman can make his own calculations.
Next, the question of scrap. This point has been raised and we are studying it. It may be that this is one of the significant bottlenecks on which something could be done to the advantage of industry generally.
On the other points which the hon. Gentleman made, I wish to make the position clear to the House and the public. It is now all the more necessary that we achieve savings in the home. The message is that every little counts. For this reason, I believe that the public would not understand if at this stage we lifted the restrictions on television hours. It would be a move in the wrong direction.
In kindness to the hon. Gentleman, as I had hoped that he would avoid personal attack, may I say that if anything that I may have said in the past few days is the worst mistake that my Department makes during the next few months, we shall not have much to complain about.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the position is as follows? The Trades Union Congress has genuinely undertaken that, if the miners' claim were to be settled outside stage 3, no other claimant would use that as an argument for preferring its claim, but that does not stop other claimants from preferring other arguments which, if they were to prevail—the Trades Union Congress has said that it would not oppose them—would mean that we should be back to where we were before stage 1, with no policy against inflation whatever?
If that be the position, will my right hon. Friend make it clear to the country, since there is wide misunderstanding about the whole situation?
I welcome the opportunity to make this clear. First, I remind the House of what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in the course of his statement on Tuesday:
But the fact remains, and the TUC representatives agreed, that in present circumstances their initiative would not protect us against the use of industrial power, by those who might be minded so to use it, in pursuance of settlements at a level which the country cannot afford. That is a risk which in present circumstances we cannot run."—[OFFICIAI. REPORT, 22nd January 1974; Vol. 867, c. 1447.]
I must make it abundantly clear, as we have already both in the House and outside, that the Government are seeking to protect the people of this country against the ravages of inflation, and one of the major causes of inflation—this has been recognised by successive Governments—has been the pressing of pay claims far in excess of what can be afforded. That has been and remains the essential policy of the Government, and I agree with my hon. Friend that we should lose no opportunity to make that abundantly clear to the people.
The right hon. Gentleman has made clear that he has now rejected the advocacy of leading employers and the trade unions that there should be a percentage reduction rather than an order for a three-day week. Why has he rejected this view, put forward by the trade unions and leading employers? Does he think that his decision will help to reduce the balance of trade deficit, or in what way is it designed to help in terms of inflation?
The possibilities of relaxing the electricity requirements were put forward by the Government, and we discussed them with both sides of industry. The hon. Gentleman is quite right; they urged that we should move to a percentage reduction rather than three-day working. We had hoped that we might be able to move in that direction, but we have not been able to do so because the threat to fuel supplies at the power stations is now looming very much larger, and it would be most unwise and imprudent if we were to relax at this stage.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, just as Mr. Gormley has now become the lackey of Mr. Daly, the Labour Government, from 1966 onwards, gave into the Trades Union Congress in the battle between the Labour Party and the TUC and thus became a lackey of the Trades Union Congress? Will my right hon. Friend invite the Opposition to state what they will do if it happens that the ballot results in a full miners' strike?
The last part of my hon. Friend's question is hypothetical, so perhaps I may leave that. But I put it to hon. Members opposite—especially to right hon. and hon. Members on the Front Bench—that in 1969 they were given—were they not?—a solemn and binding promise which the country recognised was intended to lead to the voluntary curbing of wage claims, but in fact it did not. I do not doubt the sincerity of the TUC, but, as my right hon. Friend said on Tuesday, it recognises that there is nothing that it can do to prevent individual unions using industrial action to press their claims. Nothing would do more to resolve the present dispute than if the Opposition were to use their influence and friendship with the miners to persuade them to accept the offer and to return to normal working.
Is it not clear that from the word "go" the Government have refused to negotiate genuinely with the miners, they have rejected the TUC's efforts, they have rejected the proposals put forward by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, and they have rejected the proposals of the chairman of the miners' group in this House? Is it not clear, therefore, that the Government want a confrontation, they want a strike, in order to con the people, as the people were once conned on the Zinoviev letter, and that is the strategy behind their policy? Is it not clear also that it is time we had an election, since we are sick and tired of the abdication of real responsibility by this Government?
I am absolutely astonished at the hon. Member. The Zinoviev letter happened before I was born. It just shows how the Labour Party lives in the past. It is totally untrue for the hon. Member to allege that the Government have refused to negotiate. On the contrary, the provisions of the code for stage 3 have provided a very much better deal for the miners than for almost any other group of workers. The vast majority of those who are now reaching settlements within stage 3 are doing so within the terms of the code. Four million workers have had settlements up to last week and there have been three more settlements in the last week. But how can it conceivably be fair to those who have settled within stage 3 that they should see the force of industrial power being used to break the code? It is untrue for the hon. Member to say that we do not want a settlement. The dispute is doing grave damage to the nation's economy, and the sooner it is ended the better.
The Government have always recognised that the miners are a special case. The provisions of stage 3 were specifically designed to recognise that. It is a matter of great regret that the miners have not yet felt able to accept the settlement which they have been offered. There are other longer-term proposals which could recognise still more the special case of the miners and the offer lies on the table to look at the pension provisions, to look at the long-term position of coal and the part of the miners in winning that coal.
I am sure that it is in the context of the long-term guarantees, underwritten by last year's Coal Industry Act, that a settlement must be found.
Many Labour Members are violently opposed to the political claims of certain militants within the trades union movement and some of us have fought them for many years. Will the Minister explain whether, when the Prime Minister wrote his last letter to Mr. Gormley inviting the executive to see him, the Prime Minister had anything further to offer the miners or was it simply a political exercise?
Is the Minister aware that the three-day week has already cost the country £1,000 million in lost production for ever? We have lost exports worth £300 million which are badly needed to pay for oil. Will the Minister say how much more damage the Government intend to do to the British economy before the Prime Minister is removed by his colleagues and we have a fresh start?
The country is perfectly clear that the Government cannot yield to the brute force of industrial power to override the expressed policy sanctioned by this House. Of course the right hon. Gentleman is correct that grave damage is being done to the economy and to exports as a result of the three-day week. However, these restrictions are vital if we are to maintain essential services to the community and if we are to maintain our endurance.