With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the unofficial action being taken by industrial civil servants.As from this morning the industrial civil servants employed by the Property Services Agency on providing maintenance and services to Government buildings in the Whitehall area and to the Houses of Parliament have begun unofficial action for an undefined period. I understand that about 420 people may be involved. This unofficial action is being taken in support of a claim by the trade unions concerned on behalf of all industrial civil servants for an interim increase pending their next annual settlement in July. The Lord Privy Seal has recently met trade union representatives to discuss the unions' claim and pointed out the difficulties involved in reconciling an interim increase with the TUC guidelines. A response to the claim can be expected soon. My right hon. Friend the Lord President will be dealing with the possible effects of this unofficial action on the business of the House. Services to Government Departments could also be affected. In the light of the position as I have described it I very much hope that those concerned will lift the unofficial action and return to normal working.
The right hon. Gentleman's alacrity in making a statement about a dispute which concerns the House of Commons will compare very unfavourably with his reluctance to make statements concerning disputes which affect millions of people in other parts of the country. I hope that Labour Members will appreciate the feelings of commuters coming in to London about that. Does any interim increase fall within the terms of the social contract?
Dealing with the first matter that the right hon. Gentleman raised, on the last occasion, which concerned the signalmen, I volunteered a statement to the House and Conservative Members complained when I did so. Moreover, those who criticise me on this matter will realise why I took the attitude I took on the signalmen and will realise that it was a sensible course. On the right hon. Gentleman's second point, the difficulty about a proposal for an interim payment is that it would have breached the guidelines on the 12-month rule, and we were and still are concerned about that.
Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that there will be genuine sympathy for him over the regularity with which he has to come to this House and deplore unofficial strikes in support of claims in breach of the social contract to which we know he is wedded? When will the Lord Privy Seal be making a response to the claim which has been made?
The negotiations have not broken down. Discussions are continuing over the claim through the normal negotiating machinery, and that is where we say the discussions should take place. We hope that they will proceed speedily there.As for the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, I am not quite sure where he stands on the social contract, and he had therefore better think up his own view before he makes comments about other people's views.
Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that the workers concerned feel very deeply about this issue, as is evidenced by the stoppage? My right hon. Friend gave figures of the numbers involved, but I understand that this is a solid stoppage of work throughout Whitehall. Does he accept that these workers are generally very low paid and that the position has been exacerbated by increases given to non-industrial staff? These people certainly seem to have a grievance. They were caught by the pay freeze and by phase 3, I understand from fellow members of the Transport and General Workers' Union, to whom I have been speaking. Is it not obvious that Whitehall and the Houses of Parliament can no longer rely on low-paid workers and grace-and-favour circumstances?
I certainly apppreciate what my hon. Friend says. I am sure that those who are taking this action feel their grievance strongly. But it is also the case that they have had considerable increases since the settlement of last July. It is true that they were caught under the end of phase 3, but since then they have had threshold increases and some and possibly all of those taking action today have also had considerable increases in London weighting. [HON. MEMBERS: "That is the same "]. It is not the same. It is not the case that they have not had any increase since the July settlement.When the July settlement was reached —and this touches on the feeling of grievance—it was agreed that there should be a joint study of the way in which the rates of pay in the industrial civil service were compared with those in comparable work in outside industry. I cannot anticipate the outcome of that study, but of course that outcome will play its part in the discussions now taking place.
If the action today is unofficial, what steps is the union taking to persuade its members who are participating to go back to work?
The union representatives of these workers, as of other industrial civil servants, have shown a most proper respect for the procedures throughout the whole of these discussions, They have sought to secure a settlement of this matter through the normal negotiating machinery, and I think that it would be wise for those taking this action today to do the same.
Is not the situation likely to become more acute as the custody guards on Government buildings escalate the dispute by Thursday? Would my right hon. Friend agree that to meet that claim would not be in breach of the social contract?
I should have to look at that, but I think that that would be in breach in the respect that I have mentioned. Certainly it would be most unfortunate if there were any escalation of the dispute. The discussions now taking place through the normal machinery may help to end the dispute. That is what I wish, and I am sure that that is what the whole House wishes.