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Glasgow Refuse Disposal (Drivers' Dispute)

Volume 888: debated on Monday 17 March 1975

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With permission, I should like to make a statement about the health hazard in Glasgow.

As a consequence of an unofficial strike by the drivers of refuse vehicles in Glasgow, there is estimated to be about 60,000 tons of uncollected refuse throughout the city. Some of it is in dumps, but much of it is in streets and back courts. There is already a health hazard, and if no action is taken this will reach very serious proportions with the daily increase in rubbish and the advent of warmer weather.

Last Friday the men rejected a bonus scheme related to the clearance of the rubbish which had been worked out between the corporation and the representatives of the men. On Saturday the corporation decided at a special meeting to confirm its request for Government assistance and I announced that the Government had acceded to the corporation's request.

Action is now being taken to bring in Army units to remove the hazard to the health of the people of Glasgow. It will take a little time to bring into the city the plant and equipment required, but I suspect that the troops from elsewhere in the United Kingdom as well as from Scotland will begin to move the rubbish on Wednesday. Thereafter there will be a rapid build up in their numbers to be completed by the end of the week.

I still hope that even now the men will decide to go back to work so that the corporation can do the job which is properly its own. If the men go back to work, the troops will be withdrawn. Indeed, it is still possible that the use of troops could be avoided altogether.

I deplore the circumstances which have left the Government with no choice but to take this disagreeable step, at the request of the corporation. But our first priority must be the health of the people of Glasgow.

I echo what was said by the Secretary of State in deploring the circumstances which make the statement necessary. I welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is no longer dithering, as he was on Friday, and is at last taking some action. Why cannot this clearing-up work start until Wednesday? Given the health hazard, which the right hon. Gentleman has acknowledged today, and the fact that the situation has been building up over the last nine weeks, were the right hon. Gentleman's contingency plans in such a state of unpreparedness that the plant and equipment were not immediately available? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that over the past year the people of Glasgow have been subjected to dispute after dispute and inconvenience after inconvenience? Is it not time that he and his right hon. Friends took a hard look at their social contract and the consequence that it is having for the people of Glasgow?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that there has been any dithering on the part of the Government. He must know that last Friday there was an important meeting. I trust that he, with the rest of the House, hoped that the result of that meeting would be that the men would go back to work. To take any action in advance would have been a matter of provocation and would not have been helpful. I must make the same comments about the other remarks made by the hon. Gentleman.

As a result of a meeting that I had with the strikers and the union officials on Saturday, it was clear that the excellent bonus scheme worked out with the help of the Minster of State could not operate because nearly half the 600 drivers on strike work for the education and lighting departments and could not, therefore, have benefited from the extra money for clearing the refuse.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, because of the wide discrepancies between statements made by Glasgow Corporation and the trade union involved, there is an urgent need for an inquiry? I think that an inquiry would help the trade union to advise the men to go back to work and prevent what we all deplore —but find necessary because of the health of the citizens—amely, the Army coming into Glasgow.

It is not for me to say whether there is a need for an inquiry or the nature of it. My main concern is the health of the people of Glasgow. With every day that passes, more rubbish is piling up, the hazard is getting greater, and the longer it will take to clear up.

I understand that Mr. Kitson, of the Transport and General Workers' Union, has this morning asked for an inquiry by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. How it responds to that request is entirely for the ACAS.

Is the Secretary of State aware that all of us accept that he had little alternative but to bring in the troops to prevent this health hazard? As the employer is the Labour-controlled Glasgow Corporation, may I ask whether he is satisfied with labour relations in the city?

The corporation may be Labour-controlled, but we are talking about the whole corporation, which, by a vote of 84 to 10, decided at a special meeting to bring in the troops. The hon. Gentleman must appreciate that labour relations are not merely for the corporation but for all concerned. It is certainly much easier for us sitting on these benches than for those who have to deal with the problem on the ground.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, while we recognise the enormous pressures that both he and the Glasgow Corporation have been under regarding this strike, all of us must regret that the authority has felt it necessary to take this action? I hope that my right hon. Friend will not be pressurised into neglecting any opportunity to dither, to use the word of the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith), but what I should describe as intelligent delay, if there is any hope of either an inquiry or a successful result. There are complications in this matter. Not all the drivers would have been affected by the bonus scheme. Some of the men are contract drivers. There is perhaps an avenue for success, and I hope that hon. Gentlemen opposite will recognise that in an extremely difficult situation.

My hon. Friend is right to express the regret of all of us that we have come to this situation. I hope that he will appreciate the onus on the Government regarding the health hazard in a heavily populated city, particularly those parts, mainly working class areas, where the back courts are piled up with rubbish. I was in Glasgow for practically the whole of Saturday. I assure my hon. Friend that the Lord Provost promised that every effort that could be made, within the limitations of the position, would be made by the corporation to ensure that there was a settlement.

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that his decision, belated as it is, will be welcomed by those in Glasgow who are living in intolerable conditions because of the strike? Did the military advise him that it was not possible to start work until Wednesday or was there some other reason? Does he agree that this is only one of a series of strikes, the latest of which is marooning a number of elderly people at the tops of multistorey flats because of a strike by electricians? As this is the tenth of a series of strikes in 18 months, is there not a case for having an inquiry into labour relations in Glasgow to see what is going wrong?

The hon. Gentleman should appreciate that many of the strikes are not purely Glasgow strikes. That is the answer to the last part of his supplementary question.

Regarding the question whether there was delay in bringing in equipment and so on, I should inform the hon. Member that the problem is not men but equipment. There is very little of the necessary equipment in Scotland. It has to be brought from different parts of the country. That was the factor which determined when the rubbish would begin to be moved. However, that did not stop the preparations for the management of the operation. They began almost as soon as I acceded to the request made to me by Glasgow Corporation. There has been no hold up.

Does the Secretary of State accept that many people in Glasgow think that he has been astonishingly complacent over the last nine weeks and that his failure until last week to send a Minister there was a serious mistake? Why is it that in last week's ministerial statement there was no mention of a health hazard, yet it has suddenly become serious? Lastly, will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that when our Service men are off duty they will have good quarters in which to live?

The last matter referred to by the hon. Gentleman is for the Army to deal with, and I am sure that it will be able to make satisfactory arrangements.

The hon. Gentleman talked about complacency. He must know how difficult and provocative it can be to intervene at the wrong time. I was concerned that there should be a last opportunity to get the men to face their responsibilities and change their minds. That was done during last week, and their meeting was held on Friday. Glasgow Corporation was seized of the importance and gravity of the situation, and, uniquely, it called a special meeting on Saturday afternoon. I fancy that the hon. Gentleman was several hundred miles away from Glasgow at the weekend. My guess is that such was his concern about the situation that on Saturday afternoon he was at Twickenham rather than in Glasgow.

As we have constantly been told by the right hon. Gentleman that the cause of all industrial strikes has been the Industrial Relations Act and the statutory incomes policy of the Conservative Government, may I ask to what he attributes this latest strike?

It is not my task to attribute anything to anything. I do not think that that would be helpful. My task is to try to deal with the health hazard to Glasgow. The right hon. Genleman should disabuse himself of any thought that the efforts of the Conservative Government over industrial relations have been anything other than a handicap to us in trying to build up decent industrial relations in this country.