I am informed that the difficulties stem from work rosters for domestic staff at the Manor Hospital, Epsom. These were agreed and implemented by members of the other unions concerned but proved unacceptable to a few members of the Transport and General Workers' Union. After considerable discussion, 30 members of this union were eventually suspended on full pay at the end of February, but the suspension was lifted on 21st March on the understanding that staff would then return to work. As, however, they were still unwilling to accept new rotas, they received notice of dismissal as being in breach of contract.
The 30 domestic workers were joined by about a dozen catering staff and pickets were established. Action spread to another four hospitals in the mid-Surrey health district. Although this action was unofficial, TGWU officials discussed the problems with local management late last week but felt unable to accept a temporary solution or a formal approach to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service unless the area health authority first reinstated the 30 staff and agreed to restore the former rotas. Management was reluctant to accept this latter course, which would in any case have had to be put to the other staff who are content with the new arrangements.
Interruptions to supplies gave rise to fears for the well-being of patients, and preliminary steps were taken by the area health authority to seek an injunction to restrain allegedly illegal picketing. On Monday the Transport and General Workers' Union declared the dispute official.
In view of the apparent risk to the health and welfare of patients, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State decided to intervene in order to cool the situation, to protect patients' interests and to get talks going again. He took three steps. First, at my right hon. Friend's suggestion the chairman of the area health authority called the parties together yesterday. Secondly, again at my right hon. Friend's suggestion, the chairman agreed to defer action on the application for an injunction in relation to picketing. Thirdly, my right hon. Friend asked the Transport and General Workers' Union for its part, to assist in cooling the situation by ensuring that picketing was peaceful and avoided action that would put the health of patients at risk. The union gave an assurance that action along these lines was already being taken.
In this connection, my right hon. Friend and I deplore the savage personal attack that was made yesterday by a certain newspaper on the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, Mr. Jack Jones. Mr. Jones has a fine record of campaigning in the cause of the elderly and in relation to this dispute has done nothing to conflict with that record. Officials of the union have taken steps to ensure that picketing is kept within the proper bounds and that essential supplies are allowed through. This is entirely in line with the request made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State yesterday.
Following my right hon. Friend's initiative, talks took place yesterday and a joint statement was issued last night by the area health authority and the Transport and General Workers' Union in the following terms:
An agreement has been reached on immediate appointment of a mediator through ACAS to look into the dispute in the domestic department at the Manor Hospital, Epsom. A further meeting has been arranged for tomorrow, Wednesday at 5.0 p.m. in an effort to reach a final and satisfactory agreement.
It would not be helpful for me to make any further comments while negotiations continue, but I am advised that although about 100 staff are still taking action essential supplies are now reaching the hospitals concerned, and I am assured that there is no immediate risk to patients. I shall continue to keep in close touch with the situation.
Is the Minister aware how abhorrent it is to members of the public and to many members of other unions working in these hospitals that a mere duty roster dispute should lead to suffering for some of the most unfortunate people in our society—the very old, the young and the mentally deficient?
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that there have not been serious breaches of the law, as many people have suspected? What did he mean by saying that somebody will ensure that the picketing will be peaceful? Is not all picketing meant to be peaceful, and why has picketing that was not peaceful been tolerated at any time?
Naturally an industrial dispute in the National Health Service is to be deplored, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman should concentrate on the fact that the parties are meeting to try to resolve the dispute. He should not make the situation worse by raking up what might have happened in an earlier part of the dispute. It is important that picketing is peaceful, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman should concentrate on the fact that that has been achieved.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it takes two to create a dispute and that it will need two to strike a reasonable bargain? Does he agree that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and members of a party that has been clamouring for the massive expenditure cuts that have resulted in the run-down of mental health hospitals and the impossibility of building others should be the last people—together with parts of the media—to raise such a clamour now and to demand further public expenditure cuts at the same time?
It has always been my experience that it takes more than one person to make a dispute, but negotiations and discussions are proceeding and we should leave the parties to get on with it.
Is the Minister aware that hospital authorities at Schiff Hospital in my constituency were given 24 hours' notice by unofficial strikers to evacuate patients? Does he realise that the patients include geriatric and serious post- operative cases? The strike has subsequently been made official.
Does the Minister condemn such action? Can he say whether the normal procedures for appeal against dismissal exist in area health authorities and whether there is subsequent right of appeal to industrial tribunals? If so, why has the procedure been bypassed?
An appeal on grounds of unlawful dismissal or anything else, outside the Whitley Council machinery or any other machinery in the Health Service for the resolution of disputes, is a last resort. We should make every attempt to ensure that disputes are settled within the organisations in which they occur.
As for the action that has been taken. I do not think that condemnation will help. The important thing is that the parties will now get round the table to discuss the issues, and that is the way that we should encourage things to develop.
Does the Minister accept that many of my constituents who have relatives in these hospitals will be grateful to the British Press—notably the Daily Mail—for drawing the attention of Mr. Jack Jones to the crimes against humanity being committed in the name of his union? Should we not be grateful that there is a free Press in this country that is prepared to champion the rights of innocent patients who are being used as pawns in what seems to be a routine industrial dispute?
Does the Minister accept that in the eyes of many people the Secretary of State's intervention has been both too late and inadequate? Is it not quite appalling that a section of the community that is least able to defend itself should be exposed to such behaviour? Will the hon. Gentleman condemn clearly, simply and unequivocally such behaviour affecting the care of the sick? Does he think that the structure of the trade union negotiating procedures is adequate for health matters, and will he look into this?
On the question about the machinery for trade union negotiation, trade unions and management are negotiating and that is the essential point. As for the Secretary of State's intervention, it was nicely timed and wholly adequate in that it achieved everything that it set out to do and got the dispute back on to the right lines again.