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Advisory, Conciliation And Arbitrationservice

Volume 888: debated on Tuesday 18 March 1975

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asked the Secretary of State for Employment what are the criteria for the intervention of the Conciliation and Arbitration Service in an industrial dispute.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service can help in a dispute only if both parties accept its assistance. In most cases, the service becomes involved following a request by one or both of the parties, but it will sometimes take the initiative by offering assistance. In determining whether to intervene a major consideration is often whether the appropriate procedures for resolving disputes have been exhausted, or whether procedures have conclusively broken down. In all cases the decision rests with the service.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he tell me whether the criteria he has laid down would be sufficient to justify the early intervention of the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service in the dispute now going on at Westminster Hospital? In the meantime, will he take this opportunity to deplore the use of the sick, rich or poor in the interests of an industrial dispute?

We are always concerned that the sick and the poor should not suffer as a result of any activities. Trade unionists who take action have this very much in mind. The criteria I have outlined do not of themselves prevent the use of the ACAS in the case mentioned, but in any case where the dispute is unofficial the official union machinery has to be consulted because the conciliation officers of ACAS have to maintain a proper relationship with the official machinery if they are to be able to help in a great number of official disputes.

Does the Minister not feel it appropriate to go rather further than that with the Westminster Hospital? Is it not absolutely outrageous that the working of this great hospital should be interrupted because of an unofficial dispute of this kind, apparently with no consideration whatever for the well-being of the patients? Is the Minister aware that there is a grave threat to National Health Service patients as well as to private patients? Does he not recognise that if the arbitration service is to carry some credibility we must have a rather stronger statement from the Government about such behaviour?

I am always willing to examine any dispute and to get in touch with ACAS to consider with it whether the service can be of assistance. I readily give an undertaking to do that in this case. I must, however, insist that discretion must lie with the ACAS conciliators on the question whether they can help, once they have examined all the circumstances. There are particular difficulties applying to unofficial disputes. It would be bad for the service as a whole and for industrial relations generally if, by intervening in certain unofficial disputes, ACAS totally disrupted its relationship with unions, with the result that it could not help in future official disputes.