Industrial and Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th February 1974.

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Photo of Mr Alan Fitch Mr Alan Fitch , Wigan 12:00 am, 6th February 1974

Obviously conditions must have changed. However, I maintain that it would be unthinkable and completely wrong. I am sure that even the most reactionary Conservative Government would not think of taking that step.

I vividly recall, in the early 1960s, accompanying the late General Secretary of the Lancashire miners, Mr. Edwin Hall, to meetings held in various parts of the Lancashire coalfield to launch a campaign sponsored by the Lancashire miners to persuade local authorities, clubs and industry to heat their buildings by coal-fired rather than oil-fired plant. At that time and, indeed, in the decade that followed, the oil industry had been successful in getting industry and local authorities to install or replace coal-fired plant by oil-fired plant. The miners' leaders unceasingly warned the country about the danger of relying on supplies of fuel from a politically unstable area like the Middle East at the expense of our own indigenous coal. Unfortunately, that advice fell on deaf ears—Members representing mining constituencies were often accused of tedious repetition because their speeches always contained that warning. Our views were listened to politely, but were completely ignored.

Times have changed since 1970. Oil prices have risen to such an extent that coal is now cheaper than oil. Only a year or two ago the National Coal Board estimated that the price of oil and coal would coincide by about 1978. That process has already taken place. The price of coal can go up at least £2 a ton and still be competitive with oil.

I believe that the whole country realises that our most reliable form of fuel is coal. On the other hand, it would appear that our future oil supplies could depend on the passing whims of the sheikhs.

It is against the background of the increasing importance of the coalmining industry in the energy crisis that we ought to consider the mining dispute.

In view of the new situation, I cannot understand the inflexible attitude of the Government in their dealings with the miners and the TUC. Every constructive proposal that has been put forward by these two bodies has been rejected by the Government.

The first lesson to be learned from the present energy crisis is that the miners should be at the top of the industrial tree as regards both pay and social benefits. If this crisis teaches us nothing else, it ought to teach us that.

It is as well at this time, when the miners are being unjustly criticised for their lack of patriotism and for putting, as we are told, sectional interests before the interests of the community—we hear a lot of these sentiments expressed by Members of the Conservative Party—to analyse coolly and rationally what the miners have contributed to (he industrial peace of this country since the war.

I was working underground when the five-day week was introduced. No sooner had that taken place than we were asked to forgo it and work six days, which we did without a murmur, without any opposition, in the national interest. Then followed a period when miners' wages were in the middle-rated group—perhaps eighth, ninth or tenth. Certainly we did very little about that. There was no industrial action whatsoever.

That was followed by a period of drastic pit closures. Whilst the NUM very properly and rightly objected to many of the closures, as far as my memory serves me, there were no large-scale industrial disputes. There may have been certain industrial disputes about the closures, but they were not widespread.

Therefore, during the last 25 years the miners have shown great patience and have contributed greatly to the industrial stability of this country. Is it any wonder that the great majority of miners, who are politically and industrially moderate, are tired of being fobbed off with promises of jam tomorrow, but never today?

I should have thought that a hard-headed businessman like the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry would at once recognise the validity of the miners' claim to sell their labour at the market rate, especially now that the oil crisis has made coal even more essential to the economy, or, to put it another way, that the miners should be paid the market value of the coal that they mine. I should think that philosophy would appeal to such a hard-headed businessman as the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

I come now to what I consider the real crux of the problem. The way to industrial peace is to get our priorities right. I do not think that we shall ever have industrial peace—I am not talking particularly about the mining industry, but industry in general—until we get our priorities right.

I should like to illustrate what I mean. Six months ago a young miner and his wife—constituents of mine—came to see me. They were worried and perplexed. They had put down a deposit of £700 or £800 on a new house which was to cost about £3,000. During the time that the house was being built the builder kept increasing the price. The house was eventually completed, but the builder maintained that it was not completed and, as justification, pointed to the fact that such things as doorknobs had not been fitted. The house remained vacant for another 12 months. Then the builder said that the young couple could have the house for £6,000 although they had signed an agreement to buy it for £3,000.

That was rank profiteering. How could I ask that young couple to abide by phase 3—not that I would—when the Government have blatantly assisted and encouraged land speculators in building property and have done little or nothing to eliminate the many spivs who remain in society. Until we get these things right and until our priorities are got right there will not be, and we cannot expect there to be, industrial peace.

I refute the charge that the National Union of Mineworkers is defying the law. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) touched on this question. The overtime ban and the strike following on a perfectly proper ballot are not illegal. They are legal weapons. There is too much loose talk about workers in general defying the law and too little talk about the vast majority of trade unionists who gain their objectives by legal means.

The Government have not invoked the Industrial Relations Act, because it is in disrepute. The body of men most responsible for making this ridiculous Act look irrelevant and unworkable—I do not think that sufficient tribute has been paid to them—were the railwaymen who in their dispute in May and June 1972 implemented the provisions of the Act. The railwaymen had a cooling-off period, they had a ballot, and they voted to strike. The Government could do nothing about it. Ever since then the Government—perhaps wisely—have not resurrected the Act.

Those Conservative hon. Members who are happy at the thought that we are about to embark on an election should remember that the vast majority of gains made by the unions have been made in a perfectly legal way. The Industrial Relations Act has been proved to be highly irrelevant and bad for sensible industrial relations.

I appeal to the Government to re-open talks with the NUM leaders with genuine proposals to go some way to meet the miners' claim. The offer of the Trades Union Congress was genuine. I believe that the 6 million trade unionists who have settled under phase 3 are the same people who have said openly that the miners' case should be treated as a special one. If the Government were to give the miners extra cash, I do not think that there would be any discontent amongst those who have already settled or any demand that they should have more money.

Any election on the theme "Who governs the country?"—I know what is in the Government's mind; obviously it is a question of the Government versus the trade unions—would be a non-starter. The Government seem to have overlooked the fact that we in Britain live in a mature democracy, and that the people will not be fooled by such a slogan. Ever since the Government took office in 1970 their relations with the trade unions can be described as a general botch-up. They have failed psychologically and literally in their dealings with the trade union movement. Even at this late hour I ask the Prime Minister to think and think and think again.