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Glasgow Refuse Disposal (Drivers' Dispute)

Volume 887: debated on Monday 3 March 1975

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With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the strike by the drivers of Glasgow Corporation refuse vehicles.

The drivers have been on strike since 13th January, seeking a further pay increase. The strike is unofficial. It has resulted in the accumulation of large amounts of uncollected refuse in the City.

The wages of local authority drivers throughout Great Britain are negotiated in the National Joint Council for local authorities' services. Agreement on a new annual wage settlement was reached in the National Joint Council on 7th November, only four months ago, giving the drivers an increase of £7·78—including consolidation of threshold payments. That agreement envisaged that there would be further discussions on the unions' claim for a review of the grading structure. Last Thursday, an offer was made to increase the pay of the local authority grades, which include the Glasgow drivers. This was rejected. I understand that the local authority employers are considering asking the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service for its assistance in this national dispute and also the local disputes related to it.

The action is being taken against a nationally negotiated agreement. To treat separately with these drivers would threaten the agreed national negotiating procedures for all local authority workers, leading inevitably to leap-frogging claims and fragmented bargaining.

In these circumstances, I hope that the House will join with me, and with the Glasgow Corporation, in urging the drivers to return to normal working.

We are grateful for the small mercy that, after a seven-weeks strike which has resulted in appalling living conditions in some parts of Glasgow and the accumulation of 50,000 tons of refuse and a major health hazard, the Minister has at least made a statement. But will the right hon. Gentleman now answer four detailed questions?

First, as the concern now is primarily about the health hazard, will the Secretary of State invite his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to make a statement about what plans can be put in hand to help remove from Glasgow the 50,000 tons of rubbish? Second, as this strike is entirely unofficial, may we know whether the Transport and General Workers' Union, which has always supported the social contract, has condemned the strike and has urged the men to return to work?

Third, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Glasgow Corporation has said that, if it conceded this claim, it could add £10 million to its rates and, more important, open the floodgates to a further claim by 20,000 other employees of the local authority?

Fourth, will the right hon. Gentleman strongly urge the Secretary of State for Scotland to make an immediate statement on steps which can be taken, in consultation with Glasgow Corporation, to remove the rubbish, which is becoming a serious health hazard? Is it not utterly outrageous that, after seven weeks of strike, a request for an official visit from even a junior Minister to assess the situation for himself has been rejected, and this at a time when we had half the Cabinet at the strike-bound Glasgow Airport at the weekend?

I shall take, first, the hon. Gentleman's questions about the health hazard. The Secretary of State for Scotland has kept the closest watch on all the reports about health hazards. We could not agree with the terms in which the hon. Gentleman stated the matter, but, if action has to be taken about that, the Secretary of State for Scotland will take it, and I assume that the hon. Gentleman will therefore address to my right hon. Friend any further questions he may have on that subject.

I come to the hon. Gentleman's second question. The strike is unofficial, and I am sure that the Transport and General Workers' Union, which has from the beginning stated that the strike is unofficial, is doing everything in its power to try to bring the dispute to an end. The union wishes to see the end of it, just as the Government and Glasgow Corporation wish to see the end of it, and I am sure that the whole House should give support to Glasgow Corporation in seeking an end to the dispute as speedily as possible.

The figure which the hon. Gentleman gave has been mentioned by the Lord Provost. It is undoubtedly true that, if the claim were to be met in full, the figure would be very large, not only for Glasgow but for the whole country. The main fact here is that the whole matter must be settled in a national agreement, and if there were any attempt to settle it locally or by a specialised agreement applied to a particular area it could lead to all the difficulties which I described in my statement.

However uncomfortable it may be for the city of Glasgow, will my right hon. Friend lose no opportunity to point out that if he were to step into this kind of dispute, the dispute in Glasgow and that of the signalmen in London and every other dispute would end up with beer and sandwiches at Downing Street?

I am not sure about the beer and sandwiches—I have not been offered them recently—but I think that what my hon. Friend suggests is correct. It would be quite wrong to seek a settlement of this dispute by separate negotiations or in a separate way, and, as I tried to indicate as strongly as possible, we support the attitude which Glasgow Corporation has taken in the matter.

Is the Secretary of State aware that many people in Scotland feel that if the same amount of rubbish were piling up in Trafalgar Square as is piling up in Glasgow streets the whole mess would have been cleared up a lot sooner? Will he reconsider his earlier point about separate representations? Industrial problems in Scotland should be settled in Scotland, not remotely, in London.

Of course we are expecting this matter to be settled in Scotland, but the hon. Gentleman is quite wrong in his supposition that similar events have not occurred elsewhere. This is not only a Scottish strike. A similar strike for a similar claim is now taking place in Liverpool—and that partly disproves the hon. Member's claim. Some years ago there was comparable difficulty in London. The hon. Gentleman, like the rest of the House, must apply his mind to how we may get a solution. It would be no good having a solution for Glasgow if that disrupted the situation throughout the rest of the country. That would be no good for Glasgow or for anybody else.

While the situation in Glasgow is grim, the situation in Liverpool is deplorable. Will the Secretary of State take urgent action to enable local authorities to repay to ratepayers the money paid through the rates for the clearance of refuse when refuse is not cleared up after, say, four weeks?

I do not think that is a solution to the problem. The solution, as I have suggested, is that all of us in this House should seek to secure respect for the national agreement which was approved by all the trade unions concerned in the negotiations. The more that hon. Members representing seats in Glasgow, Liverpool or anywhere else join with me in that appeal, the sooner we shall deal with these troubles.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that, while there is grave inconvenience caused to the citizens of Glasgow, at least the question of the health hazard is being kept under close scrutiny and that the medical authorities have stated at this moment that there is no health hazard?

We are all rather amazed that every week the Secretary of State has come to the House and made a statement such as the one he has just made. We understood that the social contract and the abolition of the Industrial Relations Act would make all sweet and reasonable in industry again. Would he not be serving the interests of the country better if, instead of making this sort of statement, he supported the statements made by his right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Education, and perhaps began to tell the country some of the truths they have been telling instead of the pettiness with which he treats the House.

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong on every count, and I suppose that the House will not be surprised about that. I went to Glasgow at the weekend and I made a statement about the social contract in the discussions which we had with the Scottish Trades Union Congress. We held lengthy discussions on these matters. We discussed the social contract among other matters. In my speech on Saturday afternoon I referred in detail to the social contract and urged that everyone should abide by its guidelines as laid down by the TUC. I did it then just as I have done it in the House again today. What I said on Saturday, therefore, is perfectly consistent with what I said this afternoon.

Will my right hon. Friend assure both the official and the unofficial Opposition that we on the Labour side are just as concerned as they are, if not more so, about the accumulation of rubbish in the streets of Glasgow? Is he aware that we also deplore the rubbish that is emanating from the mouths of some members of the Opposition, particularly from the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Crawford), who would be better employed supporting my right hon. Friend's statement and trying to bring this serious situation to an end?

I am grateful for my hon. Friends promise of support. As for his reference to opposition from the other side of the House, we have scarcely noticed that opposition.

The Secretary of State is intolerably complacent about this whole matter. Just how many more weeks is he prepared to let this strike go on before he takes action? Will he delay over this strike in the same way that he has delayed over the weekly railway strike? Will he send one of his Ministers to Glasgow to report back about what action should be taken?

Of course the Government have the most complete and detailed reports about the situation in Glasgow, Liverpool and in the other parts of the country which might be affected. It is quite irresponsible for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the Government do not have that kind of information. When he suggests, as he apparently did, that I should have intervened in the signalmen's strike, I am compelled to ask Conservative Members to consider the matter carefully. Is it the policy of the Opposition that the Government should intervene in a strike of that nature, because if it is, they are recommending a general recipe for industrial chaos in Britain.

Does the hon. Member wish to proceed with his application under Standing Order No. 9?

I wish first, Mr. Speaker, to ask a brief question of the Secretary of State. It involves two specific points. First, in view of the crisis in Glasgow, will the Secretary of State send a Minister either from his Department or from the Scottish Office to study the situation? Secondly, will he tell the people of Glasgow whether there are any contingency plans to deal with the accumulation of rubbish should a serious health hazard arise?

I replied to the hon. Member on these two aspects at the beginning of supplementary questions on the statement. It is highly irresponsible for the hon. Member to suggest that the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Scottish Office are not in the closest touch with the situation. They have been in the closest touch all the time, and for the hon. Gentleman to suggest anything different is merely to attempt to mislead the people of Glasgow. I do not imagine for a moment that he will succeed.

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration: namely,

"the need to remove 50,000 tons of rubbish which has accumulated in Glasgow in consequence of a dispute in Glasgow's cleansing department."
The matter is specific because there has been a seven-week strike in the city's cleansing department and an appalling accumulation of rubbish. Anyone with normal vision or a normal sense of smell will be aware that this matter is specific.

It is also an important matter because over the weekend the professor of community medicine of Glasgow University expressed the view that there was a serious health hazard, and there was a statement this morning from the sanitation department saying that it was expecting a large number of rats to appear in those areas where the refuse is concentrated.

This matter demands urgent attention because, in spite of the statement by the Secretary of State for Employment and Written Answers from the Secretary of State for Scotland, we have not the slightest idea whether there are any contingency plans to deal with this serious and deteriorating situation. In those circumstances I believe that I should be failing the people of Glasgow if I did not submit this application to you.

I have listened carefully to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) in his application for a debate under Standing Order No. 9 to discuss a specific and important matter that he thinks should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the need to remove 50,000 tons of rubbish which has accumulated in Glasgow in consequence of a dispute in Glasgow's cleansing department".
I have listened carefully to the hon. Member and to the exchanges which have taken place in the House today. I have to decide whether the situation would be alleviated by a debate in the House today or tomorrow. In my view the answer is "No".