House Of Commons
Monday 23rd June 1975
The House met at half-past Two o'clock
[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]
Oral Answers To Questions
asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will make a further statement about the introduction of Concorde into airline service with British Airways.
I currently expect British Airways to start commercial services with Concorde at the beginning of 1976 simultaneously with Air France.
Will the Minister say whether he is negotiating supersonic overflying rights in the Middle East in regard to opening a service to Bahrain and whether he has such rights in the case of India and Indonesia to enable the aeroplane to fly to the Far East? Will he say also whether the aircraft might be allowed to fly to New York, and a word about fares?
Discussions are progressing with all the countries which will be concerned with a view to obtaining the necessary clearances for overflying and the other matters to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. I do not think it would be helpful, in view of the fact that the discussions are progressing, if I were to add to that at this stage.
Will the hon. Gentleman say whether the question of rights to fly supersonic aircraft on various routes has arisen in any way during discussion of the new policy guidelines for civil aviation?
The hon. Gentleman will have to await the Questions which my right hon. Friend will be answering on the matter of the policy review. Therefore, he must be patient.
Will the Minister say whether the British Airways Concorde contract contains an escape clause which would apply should operating rights in the United States not be forthcoming?
I have no reason to suppose that those operational rights will not be forthcoming. The contractual question that would arise if we were disappointed in that respect would then have to be considered. I do not think it would be appropriate for me to add to that at this stage.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will seek a meeting with his French Government counterpart in order to ensure a co-ordinated Anglo-French approach to future negotiations concerning Concorde for which his Department is responsible.
There is already very close collaboration with the French Government in negotiations concerning Concorde for which my Department is responsible. Accordingly my right hon. Friend has no immediate plans to meet his French counterpart to discuss these matters.
is the Under-Secretary aware that Concorde has some powerful and unscrupulous enemies, particularly in the United States? Does he agree that recent congressional hearings have shown the lengths to which some American aircraft manufacturers will go to promote and defend the rights of their companies? Does he accept that Britain and France have an overriding economic and political interest in Concorde? On that basis, will he at least assure the House that the support for the project previously manifested by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, which was always self-evident, is still available and as strong from those members of Her Majesty's Government who now have responsibility for Concorde?
There is absolutely no reason to question the support of my Department and the Department of Industry, under its present Secretary of State, for this project. Indeed, I made this clear to the hon. Gentleman in a debate which he initiated some little time ago. Moreover, the representations of both the British and French Governments and industries at the hearings in the United States were very strong indeed. I do not think that it would be helpful to engage in name calling against the opponents of the Concorde project. Certainly neither I nor my right hon. Friend intend to follow the hon. Gentleman in that regard.
Does my hon. Friend accept that many hon. Members think that Concorde will be a gigantic financial disaster? Will he ensure that, in any cuts in public expenditure, education and social services take priority over this huge pit into which money is being poured so that the manufacturing capacity which is at present devoted to Concorde can be released to something more socially useful?
I do not accept the premise upon which my hon. Friend bases his question. I do not regard this remarkable aircraft, which involves great technological advance, as being a disaster. Cuts, of course, are not matters for me.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many of the 2½ million people living within earshot of Heathrow Airport would heave a sigh of relief if they were to hear that the Concorde project had fallen through, because of the appalling noise that it is expected to make? Will he ensure that Concorde is not allowed to fly in and out of Heathrow until he is satisfied that its noise levels are acceptable to the people of London?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman should have sought to exaggerate the situation concerning noise. He knows perfectly well that it constitutes no greater noise nuisance than the Boeing 707 and various other aircraft. The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity, as will others, of testing the veracity of that claim when the endurance flying begins in July.
Exports (Non-Eec Countries)
asked the Secretary of State for Trade what steps he is taking to encourage British manufacturers to increase exports to countries outside the EEC.
My Department's export promotion services are being very heavily used by exporters. I am also seeking to assist exporters by ministerial visits to overseas markets and by strengthening the link between Government and industry through the British Overseas Trade Board and its new advisory council. ECGD facilities are also being extended.
I am sure that the whole House will congratulate my right hon. Friend on the energy with which he is pursuing his visits abroad to try to help firms to find and follow up markets. Does he not think, however, that as most of the CBI member firms put their eggs into the Common Market basket, and as the performance of many of the firms in the CBI is pretty poor outside the EEC as well as within it, he ought to have an investigation made of some of these firms, to see how their export departments are organised, how many people they have in the field and how many people are following up the work that he does? Does he not think that this is necessary?
I think there is a great deal of useful work to be done in firms themselves as to how they can best deploy their efforts, with particular emphasis on doing better in export markets, and I would certainly encourage firms to do that. One of the advantages of the planning agreement approach that we shall be developing soon will be to enable us to have a more structured discussion with firms about their export effort.Concerning my hon. Friend's first point, it still remains the case that a very large part—indeed the larger part—of Britain's exports is to the rest of the world and only 35 per cent. goes to the EEC.
Does not the Secretary of State's answer to this Question smack of complacency? Is he really following up all the means used by other nations within GATT for increasing exports—for example, the Australian suggestion of double tax relief for money spent on export promotion? Does he agree that it is essential that more resources should be agreed for exports and less absorbed within our public sector?
I think I would accept that latter point that more of our resources must go into the balance of payments. That is undoubtedly the case, and that is the major strategy of the present Government. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no complacency at all in the Department of Trade about the requirements of Britain's export drive—none at all. I am very willing indeed to study any relevant experience and practice that other nations have which could be of assistance to our own export effort.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade what discussions he has had with the Government of Zambia regarding trading arrangements between the United Kingdom and Zambia.
Neither I nor the Secretary of State has had direct contacts with the Zambian Government on trade matters. But there are, of course, constant contacts through our respective High Commissions on commercial matters of mutual interest.
When the hon. Gentleman or his right hon. Friend next meets the Zambian trade authorities, will he congratulate them on their trade policy in Southern Africa, especially the way that they have continued to trade with Rhodesia and South Africa? Will the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend impress upon their Cabinet colleagues that it would be to the advantage of this country if we pursued a similar policy, especially in the case of the export of Nimrod aircraft to South Africa?
In reply to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, the Government's decision about the export of arms to South Africa was made clear by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in the House just before Christmas. As for the first part of the hon Gentleman's question, neither I nor my right hon. Friend has any plans for an early visit to Zambia, which does not figure as one of our major export markets.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade what was the value of hosiery exports and of hosiery imports for the latest convenient period for which figures are available.
For the 12 months ended May 1975, exports of hosiery including knitted underwear and outerwear were £83 million and imports £133 million on the usual overseas trade statistics basis.
Is my hon. Friend aware that far too many of my constituents in Leicester who depend on this great industry, which has contributed so much and still contributes a good deal to business, are now working on short time? What is my hon. Friend doing about it, and what assurance can he give the House that the Government are aware of the crisis in this great traditional industry?
I can assure my hon. and learned Friend and right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House who share the concern of workers in the industry that something can be done to help this great British industry. The Government are taking action. I refer my hon. and learned Friend to the Prime Minister's statement on 23rd May when, among other things, he mentioned the possibilities of anti-dumping applications and said in particular that the Government would continue their powers under the Industry Act to ensure in this world-wide recession in textiles that jobs were not lost.
Will my hon. Friend accept that many people in Leicestershire and in my constituency are affected by these cheap imports, and will he recognise also that although the Prime Minister's statement was a portent of things to come in the future, nothing seems to have been done yet? Will my hon. Friend seriously re-examine the possibility of introducing anti-dumping measures and the possibility of import quotas and other action to stem the flow of imports as soon as possible?
Anti-dumping measures can be taken by the Government only on an application from a representative trade association. As for imports, we cannot take the textile industry overall. We have to look at it sector by sector. Taking two of the subjects of this Question—socks and tights—the import penetration in 1974 for socks was about 3 per cent. and for tights it was only about 10 per cent. We have to consider the problems on a central basis. Finally, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, as recently as 12th June, met representatives of the textile industry in order to follow up the Prime Minister's statement of 23rd May.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade whether he plans to publish the Government review of civil aviation policy; and, if so, what form such publication will take.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will now publish the result of his review of the policy guidelines for the regulation of civil aviation.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will make a statement on his proposed amendments to the guidelines for civil aviation.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade when he expects to announce the outcome of the review of commercial civil aviation which has been taking place.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade when he expects to announce the results of the civil aviation review.
The report which has been submitted to me represents the advice of my officials. Meetings will now be arranged with the parties mainly concerned and I intend to make a statement in this House as soon as possible.
Will the right hon. Gentleman try to give the House some idea about when the statement may be made? Will he accept that many right hon. and hon. Members hope that the statement will not be dribbled out in the last few days before we go into recess at the end of next month? Does he agree that the absence of such a statement continues to generate uncertainty in the industry? Perhaps he will take this opportunity to re-emphasise his support for the second force airline.
I should regret it very much if parts or the whole of the review dribbled out. That is not my intention. We are studying it carefully, and I am anxious to make a statement as soon as I can. I am very much aware of the hon. Gentleman's points about taking full account of the inevitable uncertainties which exist until Government policy is revealed.
Would the right hon. Gentleman like to take this opportunity to answer the question which I addressed earlier to the Under-Secretary about the introduction of supersonic flying routes in this review? If the right hon. Gentleman finds himself unable or unwilling to publish the whole report, will he consider publishing the statistical data submitted by the parties on which he will reach his conclusions? Finally, does he agree that it would be the worst of all worlds if public money were used, either as an investment or by nationalisation, to finance the operations of the second force to compete with the public money already in British Airways?
The hon. Gentleman has asked a series of quite interesting questions. First, I cannot help him very much, for the obvious reason that the report has not yet been published and, like the hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie), I should not want bits of it to dribble out. I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's second suggestion about the statistical data to see whether I can help.As for the hon. Gentleman's point about Government money being put into the second force, as he describes it, and his views on that, I should prefer not to comment beyond making the obvious point that his view on this does not seem to accord with that of many people associated with the second force airline.
Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that I welcome his plans to consult those whom he calls interested parties? I hope that they will be not only us here in Parliament but the passengers who find themselves in Europe having to pay two or three times as much to travel by air as they would if they wished to travel in identical aircraft in the United States. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that these guidelines will look after the passenger and not only the Department?
Obviously I cannot guarantee to talk to a representative body of passengers. I am not sure whether such a representative body exists. But I take into account in all my thinking the interests of the passenger as well as the airlines involved.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that some of us are interested not only in the survival of British Caledonian Airways but in its future progress? When he considers this matter, will he accept that, if there were to be any question of revocation of the licences already granted to that company to such places as Toronto, Atlanta and Bahrein, that could lead to strangulation, which would only be confirmation of the policy which some of us suspect will be forthcoming from the Secretary of State?
That again would be to anticipate, and I am not prepared to do that. One of the central features that we have to consider is the role and future of the second force concept as it emerged some five years ago. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall give very careful thought to that.
Before the right hon. Gentleman comes to any conclusions, will he accept that the security guaranteed by public money, world-wide prestige and operational cross-subsidy are inherent advantages of State ownership, and that if conditions of genuinely fair competition are to be assured for a second force airline full account must be taken of this in his review?
I shall take account of all relevant factors in seeking to make what I hope will be the correct decision.
Will the review include consideration of the present position whereby an airline can obtain a licence for a route but is then denied designation on that route? Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that the results of the review will not produce a fait accompli for this House and that we shall have an opportunity to debate the matter before final decisions are reached?
I cannot promise a debate before I make the statement. But I should be very anxious for the House to debate the matter on the basis of a statement and wish that to be done. As for the hon. Gentleman's other point about licences and designation, I think that there may be some observations on that matter, although I cannot accept the implication in what he said.
Arab Trade Boycott
asked the Secretary of State for Trade whether he will now make a further statement on his policy toward the Arab trade boycott.
I have nothing to add to the statement of Her Majesty's Government's policy towards the Arab boycott of Israel which I gave on 5th May in reply to a Question from my hon. Friend.—[Vol. 891, c. 1012–13.]
I do not wish to be uncharitable to my hon. Friend, because I know his feelings on this matter, but is he aware that the boycott continues and that the pressure is mounting all the time? When does he feel that either he or his right hon. Friend will be in a position to make a far more detailed statement about the Government's policy, so that it will be quite clear to all concerned that a British Government will not tolerate these impediments to free trade?
It has already been made clear that Her Majesty's Government are opposed to and deplore the Arab boycott. I believe that more is to be gained in this matter by supporting policies and actions aimed at the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict in all its manifestations and also by discussing with firms any boycott problems they face—as my officials do from time to time—than by making statements in the House.
In the meantime will my hon. Friend assure as that neither British Leyland nor any concern in which the public have a substantial holding will bow to this deplorable boycott?
The commercial policy of firms, whether or not there is a public stake in them, is primarily a matter for the management concerned. We previously answered a Question about British Leyland and the Arab boycott, and I believe that on that occasion I was able to satisfy my hon. and learned Friend that British Leyland's policies were correct.
European Community Countries
asked the Secretary of State for Trade what plans he has for improving the balance of payments position in relation to other members of the EEC.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade what steps he is taking to promote exports to the EEC countries.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade what steps he has taken to promote exports to the EEC countries.
It is primarily for British industry to respond to the opportunities of this large and increasingly tariff-free area. As for all major markets, the full range of my Department's services for exporters are available to them and they are being used on an extensive and increasing scale.I have the benefit of the advice of the European Trade Committee of the British Overseas Trade Board in the development of export promotion programmes in these markets.
Now that the referendum is behind us and there is no point in trying to make political mileage out of the worrying deficits in this area, does my right hon. Friend agree that the National Institute's opinion that the effect of our membership of the EEC on this matter was marginally probably a more correct interpretation of the figures than those adduced by my right hon. Friend?
I do not wish at present to go over the ground of the causes of our trade deterioration with the EEC. However, I am very glad that my hon. Friend acknowledged that this was indeed a very worrying deficit. I emphasise that it is extremly worrying, and, of course, we shall be doing our utmost about it. Indeed, the problem would have been substantially the same, although not totally the same, if we had had a free trade area. As I have often made plain to the House on previous occasions, the problem of our manufacturing industries' trade with the EEC was one which under either outcome of the referendum would have been a matter for us to concentrate upon and on which to seek to find a major improvement.
Does the Secretary of State agree that neither import controls nor any other form of protectionism will improve the productivity or efficiency of British industry, but rather the reverse? Will he confirm that the Government have firmly set their face against import controls as a means of eliminating our present trading deficit with the EEC countries?
I do not believe that import controls are the right way to proceed, and that is the Government's policy. We want to improve trade or change the trade deficit through the encouragement of our own exports. One point which I believe deserves to be stated here, as it was stated on behalf of the Government at the Paris meeting of the OECD, is that the opportunities that we and other countries have of exporting depend very much upon the kind of policies which are being pursued by major industrial countries. It is very necessary that countries which are in surplus in their balance of payments should not be running restrictive policies in respect of demand management.
On the EEC dimension, why has it been apparently impossible for successive Governments over the years to bring pressure on Denmark, with which we have had a deficit running over many years and which totalled £150 million last year?
I do not believe that our trade deficit with Denmark, certainly in the past year, has caused us particular concern. It has been much more even. However the pattern of our trade with Denmark has always been greatly influenced by the fact that we have been Denmark's major agricultural customer.
Will my right hon. Friend give us the export and import figures for the Common Market and compare them with the rest of the world? Do they not show that, although there was all this promise about our membership of the Market, it has to date benefited our partners in Europe more than ourselves?
I shall not give the precise figures because that would be to anticipate another Question on the Order Paper. My hon. Friend is quite correct. The magnitude of our deficit with the EEC stands out in sharp contrast to the progress that we have been making in reducing deficits with other areas of the world.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if the current account of this country is brought into balance, it will be impossible for this country to borrow net from abroad? Does he view that prospect with equanimity?
I do not believe that that is a question that should be directed to a Trade Minister. It would be better directed to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade what is his latest estimate of the balance of trade for the current year between the United Kingdom and the eight members of the EEC.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade what is his latest estimate of the balance of trade in the current year between the United Kingdom and the rest of the EEC.
In the first five months of this year our crude balance of trade with the EEC, on an overseas trade statistic basis, was in deficit by £938 million. While I cannot forecast the outturn for 1975, the annual rate based on the first five months would produce a deficit of £2,250 million.
Does the Secretary of State envisage a substantial improvement in the balance of trade between the United Kingdom and other members of the Community over the next five years? Will he confirm that the question of import controls is no part of the policy of Her Majesty's Government, and neither would it accord with the policy of the EEC?
I have already dealt with import controls on an earlier Question. The hon. Gentleman rightly says that import controls are extremely difficult within the context of the EEC Treaty. As for his other question, I cannot anticipate the future course of Britain's trade with the EEC. As far as I am concerned, the present situation is very unsatisfactory. British firms must make an all-out effort to improve their trade balance with the EEC.
Despite the difficulties relating to the EEC Treaty, is it not quite clear that the time has come for the Government to negotiate a system of selective import controls with the EEC countries? This is preferable to a growing level of unemployment in industries which are badly affected by the present situation regarding imports. Is it not clear that the Government will have to think again about this matter, whether they like it or not, despite the vote which took place on the Common Market?
I thought that the earlier questions dealt with import controls across the board, and what I said previously applies. In view of what my hon. Friend has said about selective import controls, I should point out that there is provision, both within the Treaty of Accession and, indeed, under GATT, for certain uses of import controls relating to particular market disturbances and regional problems. We are prepared to consider particular cases on their merits.
Now that the referendum is over, will the Minister admit that the trade gap with Europe will not improve until the Government start to do something about inflation, allow the country to live within its means and stop the import of goods which the country cannot afford by curbing inflation rather than trying to make excuses in other directions?
I am quite certain that inflation is a very serious problem for the whole country and, indeed, the whole of our exports regardless of the markets to which they are directed. I should, however, point out, in case the hon. Gentleman gets carried away with the point, that we have managed to make a substantial improvement in our trade with virtually all other markets. Therefore, some very special effort is required, particularly by British industry, to deal with the trade deficit which now exists with the EEC.
Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the important role that the Development Corporation for Wales has played in developing exports from Wales to EEC countries? Will he, in conjunction with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, consider extending aid to the development corporation to enable it to increase the number of its full-time representatives in EEC countries?
I shall certainly consider any measure which would be of assistance to exporters in any part of the United Kingdom relating to the EEC market.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he is responsible for national policy on import substitution, and has he any policy or plan for assisting the development of specific British industries, such as footwear, which have the capacity to produce goods which are at present being imported in increasing quanties from Common Market countries?
I am equally concerned, because the other side of the coin of our balance of trade involves import substitution, and that applies not only to existing British industries but perhaps to the possibility of developing new British industries. Wherever possible, we shall encourage import substitution as well as giving assistance, and continuing to give assistance, to our export drive.
Shipping Safety (English Channel)
asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he has any plans to introduce new safety regulations for supertankers and VLCCs operating in the English Channel.
Not at present, but the safety of large tankers operating around our coasts is being carefully studied. Improvements have been and continue to be implemented and we are in close touch with the French Government regarding Channel safety.
Is the Minister aware that many of the supertankers now passing through British waters operate under flags of convenience? As a result they sometimes tend to have inadequate safety regulations on deck as well as poorly qualified officers on the bridge. In view of the enormous environmental damage which could happen if a supertanker collision occurred in the congested waters of the Channel or the North Sea, will the Minister urgently seek to tighten up all the relevant safety regulations and will he also consider following the Canadian example of establishing a system of ship traffic control comparable to the air traffic control procedures which have been in operation for many years?
So far as the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question is concerned, we are certainly anxious to consider any constructive ideas wheresoever they may arise. So far as flags of convenience are concerned, my Department has said on a number of occasions that what it is really concerned about in this respect is substandard ships. Indeed, an initiative has recently been taken at IMCO in that respect, as the hon. Gentleman may be aware, in order to enable us to identify substandard ships and to take effective action against those that are identified. Certainly we are concerned about the adequacy of the training of those who serve on board tankers, and, indeed, any other ships. Regarding ships, I should add that a short while ago my Department established a study group designed to consider the construction and operation of tankers which might contribute to hazardous situations. In that respect it is considering the questions of hull strength, crew training and operational methods.
It is clear from the Under-Secretary's reply that he has gone into this matter in great detail, but there is one point about which I am not clear. As international law exists, surely our jurisdiction can operate only within territorial waters. Is the hon. Gentleman doing anything about that point?
This matter has certainly given us a great deal of concern, and I have been studying it with my officials. We have taken certain initiatives, but it would be premature at this stage to discuss how we shall seek to enforce our jurisdiction. It may have to be by voluntary arrangements. However, it would not be right for me to go into the matter in detail at this stage.
David Bainbridge (Manufacturing) Ltd
asked the Secretary of State for Trade whether he will inquire into the affairs of David Bainbridge (Manufacturing) Limited, now known as Tool-Glo Limited, of Morrison Trading Estate, Annfield Plain, Co. Durham, following the company's failure to file its annual return.
Formal inquiries under the provisions of the Companies Acts do not appear to be justified in this case. If my hon. Friend has any additional information which he would wish me to consider, I shall be happy to do so.
Is my hon. Friend aware that this company, which among other features owes thousands of pounds in unpaid wages to its workers, recently changed hands and no one seems to know who the present legal owner is? Will he look into this matter?
If my hon. Friend has any specific evidence to which he wishes to draw my attention, I shall be happy for him to do so, either orally or by correspondence, and I will look into any allegations which might justify the kind of inquiry that he is urging me to take.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will make a state- ment on the renegotiation of the Anglo-Russian trade agreement when it ends in December.
Notice of termination of the 1969 Long-Term Trade Agreement with the Soviet Union will have to be given by the end of September 1975.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the fact that the Russians tried so hard to save his job for him after the referendum, because they thought that the Anglo-Russian trade agreement was in the interests of Russia, gives further strength to the view held by many of us that in the past Anglo-Russian trade has been far more to the advantage of Russia than of this country? Will he submit to the independent group of persons a study whether Anglo-Russian trade has been worth while, when export credits and other things are taken into account, before concluding a further agreement?
I take it that the hon. Gentleman will expect me to ignore the first and slightly unworthy introductory part of his question——
No, I want an answer.
—and I turn to the more serious part about the benefit to Britain of the Anglo-Russion trade agreement. I take the view, and I believe that other hon. Members would, that we have had an unsatisfactory level of trade and an unsatisfactory balance of trade with the Soviet Union, and my concern, which I hope would be the concern of any Secretary of State for Trade, is to improve the volume of our trade with the Soviet Union, to improve our balance of trade, and to make sure at the same time that there is mutual advantage. I believe that that can be achieved.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that our trade deficit with the EEC is about 20 times as large as our trade deficit with the Soviet Union?
I am aware of that, but our trade with the Soviet Union is a very small part—in my view, an unnecessarily small part—of our total trade.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that what is important is not only exporting but being paid for exports? Is it not a fact that the arrangements recently negotiated by the Prime Minister with the Russian Government enable the Russians to equip their industry on far better terms—given the rates of interest, the protection against inflation and likely changes in the exchange rate—than competitive industries in this country can have for their investment? That being so, and, in particular, given the difficulty of having any firm criterion regarding dumping from the Soviet Union into this country, is it not clear that on balance this agreement was not in Britain's favour?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman realises already that British concerns would not conclude agreements on a firm basis unless they thought that it was broadly in their interest to do so. That is how they normally make decisions in trade matters. Second, on the question of whatever credit arrangements are made with the Soviet Union, the principal factor here, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is what is internationally available to the Soviet Union, and our only aim in these matters is to see that British exporters are not put at a disadvantage.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade what recent negotiations he has had with the Government of the USSR on the development of trade.
I led the British delegation to the meeting of the Anglo-Soviet Joint Commission in Moscow last month. My discussions at that time with Soviet Ministers clearly indicated that there are good prospects for a significant improvement in our trade with the Soviet Union.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, with the onward march of inflation and the continuing deterioration in the exchange rate, to go on supplying goods on traditional terms means that we are effectively giving our goods away and subsidising the Russian economy? Are we not coming perilously close to the situation in which we are involved in free exports to Russia with love?
I think that the hon. Gentleman has got hold of the wrong end of the stick. The problem of inflation is undoubtedly real, but it is not so much a question of subsidising the Soviet Union through our inflation. The difficulty is that if we cannot contain our export prices more rigorously we will simply not get the business which is undoubtedly available with the Soviet Union. I hope that we are all interested in avoiding such a situation.
Can my right hon. Friend explain to the Conservative Front Bench that British industrialists are in the main pleased about the new trading arrangements with the Soviet Union?
I thank my hon. Friend for that suggestion. I thought that there was an uncharacteristically surly note in the supplementary question of the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby). Surely the House welcomes expansion on reasonable terms of our trade with the Soviet Union. It is certainly the case that the CBI is very anxious that British firms should have a much larger share of the expanding Soviet market, and that is what I, too, want to see.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking to the House to give a progress report on the Russian trade deal made earlier this year?
I am happy to report to the House from time to time on the progress of our trade with the Soviet Union and I hope that this year, 1975, the figures will show a significant increase over those of last year and previous years.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that in October a trade mission will be going from the north of England under the auspices of his Department and the North of England Development Council and that it is already over subscribed by business men from the North-East who are anxious to trade with Soviet Russia? Would he not agree that if there were a more pugnacious approach by British industry to this vast market, we should do far better than will result from the sniping that we have just heard from the Opposition Front Bench?
I am glad to hear of this trade mission from the North-East. I know that many trade missions are planned by British industry for the course of the coming year. Because I should not like there to be any doubt about it, I should like to emphasise that there is now a very good atmosphere in Anglo-Soviet relations and, therefore, opportunities for doing business on a more satisfactory scale than we have had hitherto
European Community Trade Ministers
asked the Secretary of State for Trade what plans he has to visit other Ministers for Trade within the EEC.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade when he next expects to meet the other Trade Ministers of the EEC.
I shall attend tomorrow's meeting of the Council of Ministers in Luxembourg, where I expect to meet some of the Ministers responsible for trade in other EEC countries. I also intend as time permits to have discussions on a bilateral basis with other European Trade Ministers.
Will the right hon. Gentleman make clear to the other Trade Ministers at the meeting tomorrow that he totally accepts the result of the referendum, and will he therefore make clear also, in expressing the British point of view, that we shall do our best to ensure that the EEC continues to prosper?
The first assurance is in no sense necessary. I shall not go round among my colleagues in the EEC telling them about my views on the result of the referendum—of course not. What I shall say, as they would expect, is that my task will be, as it has been in the past year, to support those efforts which make sense in terms of the EEC and the rest of the world and expanding world trade in a way beneficial to all. Secondly, I shall seek, as I have done in the past, to defend the United Kingdom's interests inside the EEC in a way which, I hope, will not be unacceptable to the others.
Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that acceptance of the decision of the British people to remain in the Common Market does not mean that Ministers, or Members of Parliament who may go to Strasbourg, have to go on their knees to their colleagues in Europe but that the best interests of Britain and the best interests of the Common Market will be served by Ministers and Members of Parliament fighting for the interests of the British people within the Common Market?
I am certain that that is what most people in this country would wish their Ministers to do in attending meetings of the Community.
Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that his lukewarm answer to my hon. Friend the Member for the City of Chester (Mr. Morrison) about his attitude towards the EEC will not help us in our relations with the other member countries, and is it not now incumbent upon him to convince his fellow Trade Ministers that he is at one with the Government in being an enthusiastic supporter of the EEC?
Provocative questions deserve and receive lukewarm answers. I am reasonably well known, I assure the hon. Gentleman, in both Brussels and Luxembourg, and they will know very well what my position is.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade when he hopes to make a further visit to Brazil.
While no date has been fixed, I look forward to a further visit to Brazil in due course as part of the closer governmental consultation provided for by the memorandum of understanding between our two Governments which will be signed here next autumn.
What is the Department doing to promote joint industrial ventures in Brazil?
We have given all kinds of assistance, technical and financial, to British firms which are seeking, as indeed they must in the Brazilian context, to establish joint ventures or partnership ventures so that they can build up their trade with Brazil. I must say that I am considerably encouraged by the progress in the increase of our exports to that country.
Will the right hon. Gentleman go to Brazil as soon as he possibly can to study how the Brazilians have managed to control inflation in a quite remarkable way—a way which, one hopes, his own Government will very soon follow?
I went to Brazil last summer and took the opportunity to study many aspects of the Brazilian economy. Although I should not in any way seek to understate its achievements in containing inflation, I think the hon. Gentleman should be aware that the major result of Brazilian policy lies in how to live with inflation rather than how to abolish it, and I am not at all sure that that is the lesson we should wish to learn.
From his experience in Brazil, does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Brazilians were extremely successful in reducing their rate of inflation, from three figures down to a level which is, in fact, lower than the rate at which ours is now running? Is that not, therefore, an experiment which we should watch with care?
We should always be prepared to look and to learn from other countries, but, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the experience of Brazil 10 years ago was of inflation running at three figures—a quite fantastic rate—and Brazil's success was one of reducing inflation to a rate of 20 per cent. or 30 per cent. a year. That is an enormous relative achievement, but I hope that we shall be able to do far better ourselves.
Export Credits Guarantee Department
asked the Secretary of State for Trade whether he is satisfied with the workings of the Export Credits Guarantee Department.
Yes, Sir. In the past 12 months our export credit arrangements have been reinforced by a number of new facilities. It is my intention that the services to exporters available from ECGD should, overall, stand comparison with those of any other country.
What use is a first-class ECGD system when the Government from time to time ban exports to countries whose regimes they do not like? Cannot the hon. Gentleman realise that to be excessively doctrinaire in banning exports costs money and jobs?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is a little confused. We have banned the export of arms to certain countries. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would think that appropriate in certain cases—for example, the Communist bloc countries. We have not banned the sale of any non-arms goods to anywhere, but there are certain countries where our exports are under restricted cover—for example, because of credit risks and so on.
Why was the new ECGD preshipment finance policy announced in the Budget when none of the major details had been worked out? Will this policy require new legislation? What is the likely total that it will underwrite on a yearly basis?
The change will not need legislation. Since the final details of the new policy have not yet been worked out, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any forcast of the likely cost. At this stage I can add nothing to the reply which I gave last week to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton). We have drawn up an outline scheme, but there are several financial problems and until our discussions with the banks are concluded—successfully, we hope—we cannot make another statement.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade what was the total of exports to and imports from South Africa in the most recent annual period for which figures are available; and if he will make a statement.
During the year ending May 1975 exports to South Africa were £616 million and imports £503 million on the usual overseas trade statistics basis. Our exports increased by 46 per cent. over the previous 12 months.
Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that these very good figures are one of the few bright spots in our gloomy trading position, and that trade with South Africa is good for this country and the preservation of jobs? Will he use his best endeavours to persuade his colleagues to avoid giving unnecessary offence to South Africa and its people in order to appease the extreme left wing of the Labour Party?
We would like to see our trade figures improve in every market, not merely South Africa. We have at long last lost our leading position as South Africa's major supplier, having been overtaken by West Germany. This has happened in a number of other countries and it is not necessarily related to the political feelings involved about the country concerned. Secondly, South Africa still remains one of our main markets. Thirdly, just before Christmas my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made a forthright, clear and unambiguous statement about the political implications of trade with South Africa, and I have nothing to add.
Since they are relevant, will my hon. Friend give the comparable figures for our trade with the rest of Africa?
I cannot do so without prior notice, but I can say now that our trade with the rest of Africa has to be divided between trade with Nigeria—one of our great growth markets and a major oil producer—and a rather smaller quantity, both in exports and imports, with the rest of black Africa north of South Africa.
Will my hon. Friend tell the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) that a great procession of our people view with utter repugnance the type of racialist society existing in South Africa, and that any economic or trade deal seen to be bolstering up such a corrupt and immoral society would not be acceptable to that opinion?
My hon. Friend puts the point succinctly and I have nothing to add.
Will the Under-Secretary also explain that the vast majority of our people are interested only in keeping their jobs and conducting trade with everyone, whoever it may be, that trade with South Africa is of great importance to us and that Her Majesty's Government should stop taking steps to try to cut it down?
We have taken no steps to cut down our trade in non-military goods with South Africa. We have banned arms exports, and I believe that such a policy is generally acceptable in the country as a whole. We have taken no steps to hinder the expansion of our trade in both directions with South Africa.
Travel Security Precautions (Northern Ireland)
asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he is satisfied with the effect of security precautions upon the comfort and convenience of travel to Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement.
Security precautions inevitably cause some inconvenience, which I regret, but the first priority must be to protect passengers and crew. All measures are kept under review.
Will the hon. Gentleman take an early opportunity of making a personal examination of the working of these arrangements, particularly at Heathrow, where they frequently involve women with children having to stand for considerable periods because there is literally no sitting room for them? Will the hon. Gentleman take up this matter personally?
I will, of course, look into the matter. The right hon. Gentleman's observations will be conveyed by me to the British Airports Authority. Both my right hon. Friend and I have questioned passengers to various destinations, including Belfast, about the security precautions which are undertaken and the inconvenience which people inevitably suffer. So far as we can ascertain, there has been overwhelming support for the measures which have been taken.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that on the other side, at Aldergrove, the security checks and so on are carried out with great courtesy but that there are also delays, whether for families or for individuals, and sometimes people passing through on their way to the baggage check have to stand for a while, perhaps in the rain or snow?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has confirmed that the searches are carried out with courtesy. That was my information. I will ensure that delays and inconvenience are investigated to see whether it is at all possible to mitigate the difficulties. I am sure that all appropriate steps will be taken.
British Railways (Pay Settlement)
(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the settlement of the pay claim by the National Union of Railwaymen.
As the House will be aware, the British Rail Board opened its pay negotiations with the railway unions in April by offering an increase to match the movement in the retail price index over the preceding year, an offer which it considered to be in accordance with the TUC guidelines objective of ensuring the maintenance of real incomes.This offer was rejected by all three unions which then, however, accepted without commitment British Rail's proposal to refer the matter to independent arbitration under the railway's negotiating procedure. The Railway Staffs National Tribunal, after a full examination of the evidence given by British Rail and each of the three railways unions, recommended on 29th May an increase in basic rates of 27·5 per cent. and other improvements including a higher minimum earnings level for railmen. This award was accepted by ASLEF and TSSA, but the NUR Executive rejected it and gave notice to the board of its intention to call a national strike from 23rd June unless the board conceded an increase of 30 per cent. to all railwaymen on rates above £36 per week and 35 per cent. to those whose rates were below that figure. After lengthy negotiations in which the NUR indicated a willingness to move from its claim, the board made an offer which in the view of the union negotiators was acceptable, and this was subsequently unanimously accepted by the NUR Executive. Under this agreement the arbitration award will be payable from the settlement date, 28th April, and there will be a further increase in basic rates of 2½ per cent. from 4th August. In addition, from the same date there will be a temporary allowance on a sliding scale to the lower paid railway workers. British Rail estimates that the total cost of the settlement, which includes consolidation of threshold payments valued at £4·40, will be 29·8 per cent. in the current year. The cost to the industry's pay bill will be £123 million, which is some £9·3 million higher than the cost of the RSNT award. The House will join with me in welcoming the fact that the two sides reached an agreement by negotiation and that a damaging rail strike has thus been avoided. The Government would of course have preferred that a settlement had been reached on the basis recommended by the Railway Staff National Tribunal, even though the settlement was significantly less than the NUR claim. In making its original offer British Rail drew attention to the serious financial problems facing the industry and has made it clear that the cost of this settlement will have to be met by economies and improvements in productivity which will be worked out by the board in consultation with the unions.
Will the Secretary of State say what proportion of this settlement will be paid for by higher taxes, higher railway fares, or the cutting of railway jobs and available services? Secondly, would he not agree that the settlement demonstrates yet again that militancy pays handsome dividends and has undermined the authority of wage arbitration and the credibility of the ASLEF and TSSA leaders who bravely honoured the arbitration award? Thirdly, does he realise that the Government are making themselves an international joke by punctuating their strong and abrasive weekend cries and speeches for wage restriction by repeated examples of the most humiliating surrender to militancy?
The hon. Gentleman's description of what has occurred is a travesty of the situation and a travesty of what has been said. It has already been indicated by British Rail—and I said it in my statement—that of course the extra cost of this settlement will have to be borne in extra fares or by rearrangements in manpower and productivity. So the hon. Gentleman should not have made the statement in his first question.The figures do not bear out the suggestion that this was not a negotiation, which is apparently the implication of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. The settlement is above the amount proposed by the arbitration award, and certainly we should have preferred the arbitration award to be accepted. But although it is above the amount proposed by the award, it is below the amount claimed by the NUR. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I am sure that the only thing that many Opposition Members wanted was a strike. All they wanted was not merely that the whole country should be held to ransom but that we should have a national strike of the most serious proportions. That seems to be the implication of their remarks. But that certainly was not our view. We wished to see a negotiated settlement, and I am glad that that has been secured.
Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the agreement was based on fair play and justice for the basic rate railwaymen? In spite of the hysterical shouting by the Opposition, does he not agree that the new money element involved in the settlement is still one of the lowest to be reached in the public sector over the past 12 months? Would he not also agree that the leaders of the NUR have said repeatedly that they believe in a pay policy but—[Laughter.] —Hon. Members opposite may smile, but is not one of the gravest problems facing the country how to have a basic pay policy that can be seen to be working? Is not the basic reason why the leaders of the NUR wanted a settlement the fact that they could not and cannot accept a policy based on their members subsidising cheap railway fares or services at the expense of their wages?
I fully accept my hon. Friend's statement that the NUR had a strong case, which it put with great strength. I must tell my hon. Friend and the House, however, that that case was put to the arbitration tribunal. As I have said, the Government would have preferred the arbitration award to be accepted, but the NUR made it clear before the issue was referred to arbitration that it was not necessarily committing itself to accepting the arbitration award. It also made clear that it would continue to press its case in negotiation. It had a case, and that case was accepted in negotiation, and that has led to this award.
Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the settlement is within or without the social contract? If it is outside the social contract, can he say what proposals the Government have to ensure that future wage settlements are made within the social contract? Finally, can he say whether there is any assurance from the NUR that it will take part in meaningful discussions with British Rail on the manpower reductions to which the right hon. Gentleman referred?
The NUR has always been prepared to engage in meaningful discussions with British Rail, and I am sure that it will be prepared to do so in future. The figure at which the settlement has been reached is certainly outside the guidelines of the social contract. Indeed, the award of the arbitration tribunal was outside the guidelines of the social contract. I am not seeking to conceal these facts. They are evident to anybody who examines the matter.As for future policy, as the House knows the Government have been having discussions with the trade unions and others concerned about how we may produce a better observance of the guidelines in future than we have had in the past, and what we are seeking to do, and what I advise the House to continue to seek to do, is to secure by consent and persuasion results that certainly cannot be achieved by force and statutory provisions.
Does my right hon. Friend recall that the people who are now urging that we should have a brutal confrontation with the railway workers are the very same people who, when confronted with a series of one-day strikes by the signalmen, were repeatedly, continually and vociferously asking my right hon. Friend to interfere and to prevent a strike? Does it not seem that the Opposition want to have their cake and eat it?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for recalling that series of occasions on which Opposition Members urged upon British Rail that they should abandon the agreement they had reached with the unions and proceed to make a special agreement with the signalmen. We resisted that because we said that these matters must be dealt with in the discussions between British Rail and the unions, according to the normal negotiating procedure. Part of our policy and part of our understanding with the unions is based on our agreement to restore collective bargaining between British Rail, other nationalised bodies and other employers and unions. We have restored free collective bargaining, and we cannot be interfering with it right and left, as Conservative Members seem to suggest.
Will the right hon. Gentleman now admit that the so-called social contract has completely broken down? Will he pay attention to what Mr. Scanlon is saying, because it seems to make a great deal more political sense than what he and his right hon. Friends are putting forward? Is he aware that the proposals for a new social contract are just so much gobbledygook in view of the complete failure of the present arrangements?
I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman has followed as closely as I have what Mr. Scanlon said last week. What he did at his national committee meeting was to uphold the social contract. Unfortunately, he was defeated in the vote, as happens in other places. People are sometimes defeated in the vote. We have to repair the situation as best we can when such things occur.That does not mean that the social contract has failed or that the whole idea of trying to secure agreement between the Government and the unions, not merely on wages but on a whole range of policies, has broken down. It is the only way in which we can secure a democratic solution to the problem. I think that some Conservative Members want a quite different kind of solution.
Order. We cannot have a debate on this matter or on the social contract now. I am determined to maintain the Opposition's rights with their Supply Day. I will take one more question from each side.
Does my right hon. Friend realise that there will be general satisfaction that there is no railway strike? Does he recall that last week it was said that if there were a strike it would be disastrous? Should there not be some sign of appreciation from Conservative Members that a strike has been avoided? Does my right hon. Friend realise that he is more likely to secure the future of Britain by pursuing a policy of cooperation and conciliation in industry than by pursuing a policy of conflict and confrontation, such as we have had from the Conservatives?
We believe that the best way to settle these problems is by conciliation and negotiation and restoring faith in these procedures. We intend to persist in this policy despite all attempts to push us into a quite different policy which could lead only to ruptures and to the destruction of our industrial relations—a position we knew a year or so ago. That is the fact of the matter. The House had better face the choice. Either we do these things by consent or we seek to use dictatorial methods which will never succeed.
How can it ever be fair if the Government give way to the strong and then hammer the weak, which is what is happening in our society? If the right hon. Gentleman now admits that this settlement is outside the social contract, may I ask him to give one example of a pay settlement in the public services that has been within the social contract? Can he also tell us what guidance the Government gave to the Railways Board when it said that there was no more money other than that which was available to meet the arbitration award? Is he not ashamed of the fact that his inaction in dealing with the inflationary wage situation, now totally out of control, means that thousands more people will be out of work this winter, including a large number of school leavers? What does the right hon. Gentleman intend to do about it?
If the right hon. Gentleman wanted a serious debate on this subject I am surprised that he did not select today's Supply Day rather than this tuppenny ha'penny motion which is on the Order Paper. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer".] It is the right hon. Gentleman who is running away from real debate on the subject. He could have had a debate on the subject today. I will certainly be happy, at any time that the House decides and it is so agreed, to have a debate and general discussion on these matters.The right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that we are hammering the weak and letting the strong through is a complete caricature of the situation, particularly when it is allied with the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that there have not been settlements in the public sector within the guidelines of the agreement——
I could start with the agreement made by the local authority manual workers last November, which was within the guidelines laid down by the TUC. On the occasions when we have had a debate on the matter I have sought to elucidate this as best I can for the benefit of Conservative Members. But they are not very eager to learn. That is one of their troubles. The right hon. Gentleman asked me what I said when British Rail said that there was no more money to meet the claim. I do not know what he has heard from British Rail. As I understand it, British Rail was conducting these negotiations, and that was the right way to go about it.
Orders Of The Day
[20TH ALLOTTED DAY]— considered.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Pendry.]
Trade Unions (Postal Ballots)
It would be helpful it I were to give some indication as to the scope of this debate. I have considered the rules relating to debates on the Adjournment as stated in "Erskine May" at pages 356–7. Only incidental reference to legislative action is permissible on motions for the Adjournment. Therefore extended argument for legislation regarding the system of holding ballots for trade union appointments would be out of order. In particular, it would not be in order under the rules on anticipation to propose including legislation on this matter in a Bill at present before the House. I understand that amendments have been discussed in Standing Committee F to the Employment Protection Bill. It would not be in order in this debate to refer to the debate in the Standing Committee or to discuss possible amendments to that Bill.That means, in effect, that the debate on the matter must be in general terms, on the general principle.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that everyone must now recognise that the House is put to great inconvenience through having a debate on this subject when the confines of the debate are so narrow. Perhaps you would assist the House further by saying what would be in order.
I think a debate on the general principle as opposed to particular amendments to legislation.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for your ruling. I do not believe that it will present any difficulties on the Conservative side of the House. I hope that the Government will not shelter behind your ruling to avoid discussing this matter properly.I begin by commenting on what the right hon. Gentleman said in answer to questions about the railway dispute. I wonder what he would have said if on the Thursday before there was any agreement or settlement in that dispute the Opposition had notified the House of their intention to have a Supply Day debate on the railway industry this afternoon. The Secretary of State would have been the first person to say that such a debate, in the middle of difficult negotiations, was an attempt to sabotage any arrangements that might be made. I hope that on reflection the right hon. Gentleman will think it fitting to withdraw his accusation. Perhaps he can also find Government time for a discussion about what has just happened in the railway industry settlement and in other settlements which have far exceeded the social contract guidelines laid down by the Government. As the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Bagier) pointed out, we cannot expect one section of society to settle readily when other sections are seen to be getting a lot more. That underlines the problems into which the Government have got themselves. I want to start the debate in a quiet manner—suitable for a debate that is taking place on the Adjournment—in which a general discussion can take place and in which all hon. Members will feel free to put their points of view without the fear that there is to be a Division at the end or that a motion is before the House. Experience has taught me that the House of Commons is at its best when it is discussing matters of general importance without the fear of a Division at the end. On a matter of this sort the House should seek the maximum amount of agreement possible. There is no doubt that all hon. Members believe that maximum democratic participation in union elections is desirable and that everyone should be encouraged to take part. There is a motion, which deals with trade union postal ballots, signed mostly by Labour Members:
I am quite certain that that motion reflects the overwhelming view of all hon. Members. It must be right to make it easier for people to take part in union elections. Labour Members, quite rightly, insist on management being accountable to the public for every tiny exercise in decision-making, but they insist on the unions alone being excused from public accountability. It is not my purpose to show the inadequacy of such a view. However, if unions insist on being responsible only to their members, there should be fuller opportunity for all their members to take part in the decisions they have to take. In recent years there has been a steady decline in those taking part in union elections. I quote figures from the Amalagamated Union of Engineering Workers. A total of 8·6 per cent. took part in the last election for a general secretary before postal balloting was introduced and in the last election when Mr. Boyd was elected 30·1 per cent. took part. That is not a very high figure, but it is an enormous improvement on what had gone before. Methods which were appropriate when unions were small bands of keen volunteers do not suffice in times of the closed shop and the enormous numbers of people now involved in the unions. Members are not free to attend branch meetings on all occasions, because of shift work, and inconvenient times and places. Most branches do not expect very large attendances from their union members. If more than a very small percentage of union members turned up at a branch meeting, it would be impossible to hold that meeting in the room generally used for that purpose. Therefore, no one expects a great number of people to turn up at a branch union meeting. I should like to quote—and it will be the only quotation of the afternoon—from Lord Donovan's report. He said:"That this House, in the interests of maximum democratic participation, urges the Government to introduce legislation to ensure the provision of financial aid for postal ballots in trade union elections."
"However, a very low level of participation runs the risk of placing power in the hands of unrepresentative minorities and weakening the authority of elected officers.
In many unions polls are low because voting in all elections continues to take place at branch meetings, although the focus of union activity has now shifted from the branch to the workplace. To conduct elections at branch meetings in such circumstances is virtually to ensure a low poll. Some alternative method must be found by these unions if more members are to be persuaded to vote.
That makes extremely good sense. I understand that the leadership of the unions wishes to be representative. It is not my purpose to make life more difficult possibly by having legal sanctions against trade unions. The fewer legal sanctions there are, the better. However, a method which would enable postal balloting to take place if a union so wished would be of great help.One such method is the postal vote. In several unions ballot papers are sent to every member by post. This means that an impending election is brought to the attention of each member and provides him with an opportunity of voting with the minimum of personal inconvenience."
Is it the view of the Opposition that every union official should be elected by a total ballot of the membership, or is it their view that, perhaps, some trade union officials could be appointed, or elected by annual conferences, as at present?
I shall deal with that point later in my remarks, but if I do not answer the hon. Gentleman's question perhaps he would remind me of it. If the leadership of the unions wishes to be representative—and I think it does—it has to recognise that at present there is, according to some people, widespread public hostility, and, according to others, just public hostility against unions as a whole.A recent Opinion Research Centre poll—and I do not always go by such polls, but they are tolerably accurate—showed that only 18 per cent. of the public had a great deal of confidence in the way unions are run. Therefore, with the great power that unions wield, it is important that they should be seen to be representative. For example, of the 345 members of the executives of our 13 largest unions, 50 are Communists, yet we know that about 0·1 per cent. of the trade unions vote Communist. There are no Tories. I hope very much that the Tories can improve that record and I am encouraging every Tory not only to belong to a union but to play a part in the union. That would help us get our fair share of people on the executives, considering that about 30 per cent. of trade unionists vote Conservative. I do not think that anyone can say that at present the executives of the unions are representative of the people by whom they are elected. It is not my purpose to prove that the unions would necessarily be less Left-wing if we had postal votes. It is only the protestations of some of the Left-wing that make me believe that this must be the case. When I recently heard the deeply moving plea by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) that postal voting would cost a great deal of public money and, therefore, he was against it because it would increase public expenditure too much, I realised only too well that his motives were much deeper than the cost of the public money involved.
Is the right hon. Gentleman now advocating increased public expenditure? That is not the view that his party repeatedly puts forward.
I shall come to that matter as well, but in this case I am certainly advocating increased public expenditure. For the sum involved, this would be the best possible way to help this country get out of some difficulties. I recognise as well that we do not get democracy by the post alone. I want to enlarge on one or two other ideas in this respect.Certainly cost has been an important factor with certain unions in deciding whether to continue or to move to a system of postal balloting. No one can now underestimate the fact that if the post goes up to lop or 11p, there will be a considerable addition to union expenses. But at the moment, judged on the 5½p stamp, a postal ballot every 12 months for all unions, and for just the election of their national officials, would cost, I am told, £1·1 million if everyone voted. That is a small price to pay for greater participation by the membership. It is not easy for a union in these inflationary times——
The right hon. Gentleman has quoted only a ballot for leading officials. If we extended democratic procedures to the election of district officials, which we should if the principle is correct, would not that £1 million be an insignificant part of the total cost?
The cost then would obviously be more significant. We should be prepared to discuss figures, which the Secretary of State can no doubt produce, but I do not believe that, whether the cost was £1 million or £5 million, that sum of money could not be saved by the Government. One of the last times that I stood at this Box was to attack the £10 million that the Government decided to refund to the trade unions under the Finance (No. 2) Act 1974. That money would have been better used for this purpose. So Labour Members should not get too touchy, on grounds of cost at any rate. It is not easy for a union——
Would the right hon. Gentleman allow me?
No, I will not give way to the right hon. Gentleman. Why he cannot keep quiet for a few minutes I cannot understand. I see no reason at this stage why I should give way to him.
The right hon. Gentleman knows why. The last time, he gave figures that were wrong.
It is not easy for a union in these inflationary times to decide to have a postal ballot. What we want to do is help the leaders to find a representative point of view and to take away from the minority the excuse that their unions would be democratic if they could afford it.
Would the right hon. Gentleman give way to me for a moment? He could greatly assist the House by some simple clarification of his aim. Does he seek to impose upon the unions a system of postal ballots or is he simply advising that the Government should make finance available for such unions as might decide through their normal executive decisions to take advantage of such Government finance if it were offered to them? Would he clarify that point, so that we know which direction the debate is taking?
I am coming to that. The hon. Member's patience would have been rewarded in a short while. Of course our view is that the facilities should be made available to unions which wanted them. There is no element of compulsion in the proposal that we put forward in another place at another time and in our election manifesto of October 1974.Another constant objection is that it is the activists who attend branch meetings and that therefore they have a right to decide who should be elected, and that it is up to everyone to go to a branch meeting if he wishes to vote. Nowadays, people have many other things to do, and not everyone wishes to go to meettings. The argument that one should be allowed to vote only if one takes part in the activities was advanced in the eighteenth century against the extension of the franchise. No one should put forward that argument today. We are concerned to try to get more people to take part. There may be strong arguments for holding meetings for union elections in employers' time and on their premises. I like to think of this as a twin exercise. We should enable those unions which wish to take advantage of the postal ballot to take the chance of having those expenses paid. Where we are talking about branch elections or shop floor elections where a branch is not confined to one establishment, it would be right for the employer to provide a place for the meeting and to allow it to take place in his time. The combined effect would be a remarkable help to greater participation in elections for union office. I hope that the Secretary of State will not argue that Parliament cannot attempt to tell a union by statute how to conduct its affairs and what rules it should have. We are not saying what unions must or must not do. We would simply give the union the right to organise its affairs in that way if it wished. That would meet the views of the enormous majority of people. Of course all these things are much better done by consultation and agreement. I do not agree that the Conservative Party should not put this forward. We have had similar proposals in our last two election manifestos and we have a perfect right to put this proposal forward. Some Labour Members seem to find it almost impossible to believe that the Conservative Party could make any constructive suggestion about the trade unions. In the light of the present economic situation, and what has happened in recent months, many people might be wishing that the Conservative Party were still able to put their views into effect. So what are we asking the Government to do? I repeat that there would be no compulsion but, we would hope, encouragement, and I believe that the vast majority of the House of Commons agree with that. The strange thing about the House is that it has proved time and time again that it is not as unrepresentative of views outside it as some people would have us believe. The referendum was a very good example of that. The power of the unions is immense, in relation both to the public generally and to their own members. The closed shop has increased it. It has made many people join who have had no particular interest in joining a union. It is all the more important that in the election of officials the greatest possible number of members should be encouraged to take part.
The right hon. Gentleman has often referred to the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers and percentage figures. For the benefit of the House, will he state which national trade unions other than the AUEW elect all their officers?
That would take some considerable time. In my experience, nearly every union adopts a different method of selecting or electing its union officers. In fairness to the AUEW, it has one of the most democratic constitutions of all the unions and I would not in any way want people to get the impression that I was attacking the AUEW on this point. All I have tried to do is to point out that since the AUEW adopted the postal ballot system the number of people taking part in elections has risen from about 6 per cent. or 7 per cent. to 30 per cent. or 40 per cent., and I understand that at district level many of the close contests there have resulted in the numbers taking part amounting to 40 per cent. or 50 per cent.To sum up, we believe, first, that elections should be regular and should be contested; and secondly, that if they are by post the State should pay the cost of postage for the ballot. I go one stage further and say that I think that there should be one free post for the election address of candidates involved. If the election is not to take place by post—and many unions may decide that they do not wish to do it in that way—I believe that it would be right for it to take place on employers' premises and in employers' time. Voting, of course, should be secret and administered by an independent group such as the Electoral Reform Society. This means cash from State or employer. The principle of State subsidy finds much favour among hon. Members opposite, but not so far when applied to union democracy. We shall encourage them to see the light.
Will the right hon. Gentleman make it quite clear to the House whether in what he is saying he is dropping the proposal he raised in Standing Committee of involving the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, which many of us think would have been disastrous for this purpose?
I have purposely not mentioned the ACAS because, although I think that it would be a perfectly reasonable way of doing it, it meets with objections. The important thing in a matter of this sort is that the House of Commons should try to speak as a House of Commons and that we should look for the widest possible measure of agreement between the various sides of the House. For that reason, I have not mentioned that proposal, today.I want to see the Government come forward, after consultation with the TUC and other interested parties, with a proposal to put before the House. This is such a vital matter that we should not delay long in bringing it forward. The whole purpose of a debate on the Adjournment is to enable hon. Members to put their point of view without having to vote against or vote for a motion. We want action to be taken. The sooner it comes the better. We are not particularly worried as to what form it takes or how the body is set up which is to make certain that the money when allocated is properly spent. Whatever happens, we want to see action.
Will the right hon. Gentleman now answer my question, as he promised? Is the Tory Party advocating the abandonment of the appointment of officers or their indirect election in favour of the direct election of officers in each union? If he is not, is he aware that the appointment of officers is the practice in the moderate unions and the election of officers is the practice in the more militant unions?
I am suggesting to trade unions that if they wish to be truly representative of the people that they represent there is much to be said in 1975 for new systems of election, whether they be by post or whether they be on the shop floor in the employer's time. I am not trying to dictate to unions whether they should have elections. It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to wave his hand, but a great many people believe that some new systems should at least be tried and the systems made available for them to take part. If unions do not take advantage of them, that is up to them. Our job in the House is to make it possible for those new systems to be used if unions wish to use them. That is the purpose of this debate. It will be of interest to the country outside to see how the House reacts to a suggestion of this nature.
If the House of Commons chooses to have a debate on the question of postal ballots in trade unions, I have no ground for complaint. It is evident that hon. Members in different parts of the House wish to discuss the subject and have thought it to be one of considerable importance. They have tabled a motion which has raised the matter and, therefore, I certainly have no complaint about a general discussion on the subject.However, I think that I am entitled to underline that this debate occurs in peculiar circumstances, to state it no higher. I always try to be as self-restrained as I can in these matters. I may be wrong, but in all my experience in the House I cannot recall a debate of this character which was proposed for discussion in the House as a whole in the middle of Committee proceedings elsewhere. It was for that reason that Mr. Speaker gave his ruling beforehand. It was a ruling which was in perfect accord with the rules of the House, and, if I may be impertinent enough to say so, they are very good rules of the House. People sometimes deride the rules of the House of Commons and sometimes the rules deserve to be derided. However, often the rules of the House have been devised on reasonable grounds. A rule of the House to the effect that there shall not be references in the House to Committee proceedings whilst the Committee proceedings are continuing, and in particular that there shall not be duplicated debates on the subject, is a very intelligent arrangement. It is designed to avoid duplication. It is designed to ensure that there shall not be one decision and one answer given in Committee and something else happening on the Floor of the House. It is designed to fit in with the whole of the Committee proceedings and Report proceedings in the House. Moreover, the Committee proceedings and Report proceedings, which I know are sometimes criticised in some quarters because of the slowness of the operation, are also designed to enable Governments to take account of what is said by the House of Commons and to return on Report and to give a reasoned comment, perhaps in the form of a fresh amendment, on what has been said in Committee. For all these reasons, on which I need not elaborate, the House of Commons has laid down as some of its rules that some separation shall be preserved between what happens in Committee and what happens on the Floor of the House. It is a very sensible arrangement. I believe that this debate, despite all the skilful efforts of the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) to avoid the difficulties, is a defiance of that commonsense principle. Debates in Committee are proceeding. All the arguments put forward by the right hon. Gentleman were rehearsed in Committee and replied to by Ministers and others who participated in the debates. The debate was left suspended. I am sure that everyone who is serving on the Committee will agree that there is no more skilful, knowledgeable and expert Minister than my hon. Friend the Minister of State. On neither side of the House of Commons is there anyone more capable of carrying the Bill through Committee than is my hon. Friend, and he made the position clear by saying that we would consider the matter. Therefore, it is strange for us to have a debate which disrupts that procedure. Moreover, it is no good the right hon. Gentleman's saying that he is merely following normal practice in this respect, because he is specifically asking for legislation. That is the whole point of the debate. What the right hon. Gentleman wants cannot be done by administration or by the Government deciding to administer the law in a different way, which is one of the functions of debates on the Adjournment. It can be done only if the Government bring in a new law, and we should have to debate how such a new law would operate and whether such a new law could be devised. I repeat that the procedures of the House of Commons are precisely designed for that purpose in Committee and on Report and not on the Adjournment of the House.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) has not been interrupted by the Chair nor fallen foul of the rules of the House, would it not be better to get on to the substance of the debate rather than objecting to the fact that it is taking place?
The hon. Gentleman has missed the point—I am not altogether surprised. If he examines the facts he will see that what I am saying is indisputable. The right hon. Gentleman is asking me to give an indication of the legislative reaction of the Government to what he proposes. Were I to do that, it would be an infringement of the rules which Mr. Speaker made clear at the beginning of the debate. If I am not to do that, and if I am not to be permitted to answer that question, it is difficult to see how the matter can be dealt with.
As the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior), like myself, represents a fishing port, would it not have been more sensible to have used this valuable time to debate the state of the fishing industry?
Order. We are getting disorderly. The right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) knows that we like only one intervention at a time. Mr. Speaker listened to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, which obviously was in order. I advise the House that it is being asked to discuss the principle of postal ballots,
I assure the House that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) was merely pointing out that the debate, not being a fishing debate, was a red herring.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson), like the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan), is quite out of order.
During this Session there are five or six more Supply Days. I hope that very soon we shall be able to have a half-day debate on fishing, for which I have made the necessary representations.
We are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his assurance that he will do better next time. I shall now proceed as best I can to deal with the subject.I must insist that I cannot deal with the question of what the Government will do by legislation, because that would be out of order.
Come off it.
That is the fact of the matter, and the right hon. Gentleman should have found that out before he started the debate.I turn to what the right hon. Gentleman said about cost. Estimates have been given before on this subject, and our estimate of the cost of postal ballots as they are at present carried over in union elections is about £250,000. If postal ballots were to be extended on the scale suggested by the right hon. Gentleman to cover a whole series of unions—presumably the purpose of his proposal is to encourage unions to resort to this method—the cost would be greatly increased. If we were to go further and, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, arrange for free postage for candidates' election addresses, the cost would be greater still. As my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) said, questions of public expense are involved. If we were to carry out the right hon. Gentleman's proposals in the way he described, the cost would be very considerable. There are other bodies which would be entitled to say "If the trade unions are to be given free postal facilities, we also should be considered for those facilities". A large number of bodies are already saying that special postal facilities should be made available to them—newspapers and others. That is not an infallible reason for not embarking on this course, but it is a reason for considering the matter, which is what the Government have said they are doing.
The Secretary of State is a member of an administration whose borrowing requirement is £9,000 million. Is he saying that the £1·1 million suggested by my right hon. Friend is relevant for discussion at all?
I was answering the question because I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was entitled to an answer on the specific point he raised. He asked me to comment on his figures, and I am doing so. I am saying that it is not even a question of £1,500,000 which he specified but a considerably greater figure. It is not easy to calculate the total figure but it is very much bigger than anything the right hon. Gentleman has in mind.
Will the Secretary of State inform the House whether there is a valid reason why, should there be postal voting, trade unions should not pay this charge themselves? They are stiff with money and quite rich.
That is a view which the hon. Gentleman takes, but it happens to conflict with the proposal put forward by his right hon. Friend on the Opposition Front Bench. The hon. Gentleman's torpedo may have been aimed at me but it has hit his own Front Bench.Let me refer in more general terms to the whole idea of ballots. The right hon. Gentleman said that he thought that the public generally would favour such an extension of postal ballots and that there was a general sentiment amongst the public that ballots might be a successful method of dealing with strikes and other industrial troubles. Until a few years ago there was a widespread view amongst some sections of the public—how widespread no one can tell for certain, but there was a general feeling expressed in some newspapers—that ballots might be successful in making strikes less probable, that if a ballot were enforced before strike action occurred it would be revealed that leaders were more moderate than their followers, or the situation in various unions would be exposed. That was one of the arguments that were used. It has some plausibility if the view is taken that it might reveal more clearly the view of trade union members. I am not saying that there are not circumstances in which it is right and proper, advisable and necessary for there to be ballots. Of course, a number of unions have ballots. I am talking now about strike actions and not postal ballots for executive offices. None the less, a similar point is involved. I am not saying that ballots are wrong in all circumstances. There are some unions that lay down in their constitutions that there should be ballots. They have varying rules as to how it should be done. The National Union of Mineworkers has always operated a ballot system. It is difficult to determine whether that union would have had fewer strikes or more strikes if it had not used the ballot system. I am not making any judgment on the matter, but a few years ago there was a general feeling that one of the ways to ensure that strike action was never taken, unless fully backed by a union's members, was to ensure that there should be ballots. The Opposition, when they introduced the Industrial Relations Act, ensured that ballots should be enforced in certain circumstances. The Act provided that those circumstances should be determined in the end by the Secretary of State for Employment. We all remember well the occasion when that happened. It was decided by the Secretary of State for Employment that a ballot should be ordered in the case of the railway workers. I shall not be so sadistic as to recall in exact terms what happened. However, that event disproved the claim, or helped to do so, that ballots would make strikes less likely or that union leaders did not have their followers behind them. The ballot to which I have referred had exactly the opposite effect to what was intended. Certainly the right hon. Gentleman's administration never again resorted to that weapon. There may be some comparable situations as regards postal ballots. Again, I am not passing any judgment. There may be cases where it is better to have postal ballots for the election of officers. I am not criticising those unions which have such a procedure, nor am I criticising the unions that do not. I point out that it is a great mistake to think that in some way the postal ballot is a panacea for the ills that Conservative Members sometimes describe, or that it is likely to be successful in all cases. It is a mistake to think that we can apply the same system, or encourage the application of the same system, in many different unions and in many different circumstances. To say that shows a misunderstanding of how different unions conduct their business. In some respects, I sympathise with those unions which do not have postal ballots but elect their officers on a different basis which is conducted properly and democratically. Many unions conduct their affairs—and have done so for years—on a democratic basis without postal ballots and without anyone making accusations to the contrary. Now it seems that the quality, character or eligibility of their leaders is somehow suspect. That is the implication of what some people say when they talk of postal ballots providing a complete remedy. So that there is no misunderstanding, I repeat that what I have said does not mean that I am against postal ballots, and particularly in cases where it has been found by experience to be the most successful way in which unions can conduct their business. Equally, I am not saying that there is not a case for the extension of the postal ballot procedure. All I am saying is that it is much better for hon. Members to approach these matters without being so dogmatic and without thinking that the solution will have to be applied in all circumstances. There are some difficulties involved. If public money is to be provided to the unions it must be given under certain provisions. Certain rules would have to be laid down as to how it was to be supplied. I am not saying that means could not be devised by which that could be done without infringing the unions' rights, but we would have to be careful. Although I am not allowed to refer to the amendment tabled by the Opposition in Committee, I think that I am able to indicate my prejudice. I believe that the amendment provided a clumsy way of proceeding. We would have to ensure that we did not intervene in such a way as to infringe the rights of the unions or in a way that would exacerbate the problems that we are seeking to solve. Not merely is that necessary in the interests of justice and intelligence, but it is also part of our obligation under the ILO. I must draw that matter to the attention of the Opposition. I am not quite sure how enthusiastic they may be about the conventions laid down by the ILO, but I hope they will not care to repudiate them in any way. Before I go further, I must point out that I am not suggesting that this is the proposal put forward by the Opposition. All that we are discussing is the general principle. I must underline that one of the dangers to be avoided in an attempt to control by statute the election procedures of unions, either by requiring ballots to be held or by requiring that elections should be valid only if a certain proportion of members vote, is union resentment. I must point out that such an approach would be bitterly resented by many unions, and probably by most. It would also probably be contrary to ILO Convention No. 87, ratified by this country, which provides in Article 3 that
In practical terms, attempts to lay down minimum voting percentages might encourage the use of delegated or block voting procedures rather than secret ballots. Indeed, any interventions would have to be carefully designed so that they did not breach that ILO convention. I hope that Conservative Members would not wish to move in that direction. I do not say that they have always been great enthusiasts for ILO conventions. However, the convention to which I have referred was signed by one of my predecessors way back in 1948—namely, Mr. George Isaacs. If there had been anything wrong with the convention a number of Conservative Ministers could have intervened in the interim—for example, Lord Monckton, Mr. Iain Macleod, the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), Lord Blakenham, the right hon. Member for Carshalton (Mr. Carr), the right hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber), the right hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Macmillan) and the right hon. Member for Penrith and the Border (Mr. Whitelaw). They have all been at the Department of Employment and they have accepted that ILO convention in their time. I dare say that some have even been to Geneva and given their general acclamation and support for it. I hope that they will not suggest now that we should depart from the excellent principle, in my opinion, that is laid down in the convention."workers' and employers' organisations shall have the right to draw up their constitutions and rules, to elect their representatives in full freedom…The public authorities shall refrain from any interferences which would restrict this right, or impede the lawful exercise thereof."
I must point out that not one word of what I had to say necessitated the right hon. Gentleman's having to read out of all this elaborate stuff.
I thought that the right hon. Gentleman, to keep himself in order, was discussing the general principle of postal ballots. I thought that he was determined to discuss the general principle. I am discussing the general principle because it happens to be impinged upon by the ILO convention. The convention deals precisely with one aspect of the matter. If the right hon. Gentleman does not understand that what he is proposing is impinged upon by the convention his proposition may sound all the more sinister. That must be the result if he does not understand what he is proposing, or what might be the result of the proposition.Perhaps I should point out that what the right hon. Gentleman proposed in Committee could have had the result that I have suggested. Equally, some of the suggestions that have been made today could have that result. I shall quote one of the suggestions made by one of the right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends. I hope that it will not be considered too offensive to do so. I have the document with me, if I can find it. I refer to the speech that was made yesterday on this subject. It is rather difficult to follow the various speeches that come out from day to day. If I cannot find it, I shall have to paraphrase it. I must search a little further, because I am sure that nobody would be more disappointed than the right hon. Gentleman in question if I did not quote him. I am referring to a speech made by the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker). Therefore, I refer to his words with considerable diffidence. The right hon. Gentleman is caught between the two sides. I am not sure whether he is a Thatcherite or a Heathite. I do not know whether he would own up to being a Walkerite, but I can understand anybody who takes such an attitude. The right hon. Member for Worcester in a speech at the weekend referred to the subject of postal ballots, the principle of which we are now discussing. There is no doubt what he was saying—namely, that the Government should provide facilities whereby such an important area of British life can make its major decisions by properly conducted postal ballots. The implication of what he said was that it is improbable that this area of British public life could be properly conducted unless by means of postal ballot. That is a very dangerous implication for the reasons I have given. If Conservatives come to the House and say that the only way in which real democratic decisions can be made is by means of the postal ballot, they are saying that they know better than the individual unions themselves. Those Conservatives are saying that they wish to impose their wills upon the unions. If that is the case, we should once again be back to the nonsense of the provisions of the Industrial Relations Act 1971. Nobody is a greater authority on that legislation than the hon. and learned Member for Southport (Mr. Percival), to whom I shall now give way.
I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks, which I take as intended to be a compliment. However, he is in danger of turning what should be a useful discussion of a matter in which this House might assist those who are interested in the subject and wish to see greater democracy in our unions into something quite different. He is either deliberately or accidentally misunderstanding my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior). It is clear that we are not seeking to impose anything on anybody in any way. What is proposed springs from the suggestion by some people—and a good many trade unions are of this view—that postal ballots might be useful. The question is whether the House can do anything to assist those unions which wish to try such a suggestion. Surely this is a matter which we should discuss seriously rather than on the wrongful basis adopted by the Secretary of State for Employment, who is acting in this debate in a niggling way which ill-becomes the holder of so great an office.
I was not discussing the matter in a reprehensible way, but was quoting the right hon. Member for Worcester. I was fully entitled to do so. The right hon. Gentleman made a clear declaration on this subject—much clearer than anything said by other Conservatives. The right hon. Gentleman said in a speech made at the weekend that the way in which the country could be rescued from its present economic difficulties was by adopting the postal ballot system, which he thought should be spread much more widely over the whole field so as to he regarded as democratic. I know that all my hon. Friends, of whatever shades of opinion, take the view that it is nonsense to talk of a universal system which should be imposed. It is nonsense to suggest that unions by conducting elections under the present system, which may be non-postal, are adopting a less democratic system than that adopted by other unions. It is nonsense to raise the question of postal ballots as a way of handing out medals to the unions. It is nonsense to put forward the idea of postal ballots as a way in which unions must conduct their affairs in order to be democratic. Those who speak in that way—and I have quoted the right hon. Member for Worcester—do great damage to their cause. I do not believe that it is possible to conduct the matter fairly in that way.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the explanation is much simpler—namely, that the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) heard this matter discussed elsewhere, picked up some ideas which met with general approval, and thought that this was a good thing to hitch his wagon to, so that we have been landed with this debate this afternoon?
I have studied carefully not only what was said by the right hon. Member for Lowestoft, but what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Park), and I recommend to the whole House that when those proceedings are reported to the House everybody should study my hon. Friend's words.I can add nothing to what has been indicated elsewhere since I am not entitled to refer to those matters in this debate. I should like to add one word in view of the terms in which this matter has sometimes been discussed. It is extremely dangerous to suggest that if elections are manipulated in this way it will give moderates a better chance to win elections. In the discussions on these matters there is one word which I should almost like to see banned from the dictionary. I refer to the word "moderates". I have always been very suspicious of the word "moderation" in politics. I have always tried to go back to the sources to see what it means. I was gratified to read the other day—I came across it entirely by accident—some words by William Hazlitt, the best journalist who ever sat in the Gallery of the House of Commons, who looked down on these matters and studied them with great care. Let me quote what he said about moderates:
Some of our difficulties can be traced back to that kind of effect. I hope that none of us will talk in terms of moderates or extremists. I do not believe that is the proper way to approach these matters. The proper approach is to see whether there is some facility that can be provided which does not infringe in any way the rights and independence of trade unions. That is the basis on which the Government are studying the matter. I think that we are dealing with the matter properly, and we shall report to the House after we have carried out the study. I think that the Government should abide by the Standing Orders and the rules of the House—namely, to make our declarations in Committee and then report according to the proper customs and traditions of the House."An affected moderation in politics is (nine times out of ten) a cloak for want of principle."
My right hon. Friend has quoted Hazlitt on moderation. There is not one of us who does not see in my right hon. Friend a very considerable democrat. Would he like to give us his views on extremism and what he would define as an extremist?
My hon. Friend tempts me to go further into the matter. Most of the great reforms in history have been carried through by people who originally were extremists. They were extremists when they started in a minority of one, they had to convert others, and then they became a little less extreme. That is how the world goes. I brought in the quotation from Hazlitt only because I believe that the word "moderates" has been used in a manner which has debased the currency of our politics. I have tried to put the matter right by insisting that the dictionary term should be used in a more sensible manner.I was saying that the House should deal with this matter according to its traditions and not by the method which the right hon. Member for Lowestoft and his Conservative colleagues have sought to advance—namely, by the interpolation of this debate in the normal proceedings of the House.
Before I call the next hon. Gentleman, it is wise to remind the House of what Mr. Speaker said earlier. It is not in order to refer to the debate in Standing Committee, nor is it in order to put forward an extended argument for legislation.
I am sorry that I canot compliment the Secretary of State on one of his best performances. I have certainly heard him on other occasions in better form. He spent the first 15 minutes arguing whether there should be a debate at all, and something like 10 of the last 15 minutes on matters which had nothing to do with the point at issue.The Liberal Party is in favour of the State encouraging unions—I stress "encouraging"—to have postal ballots for officers. I hope that the Secretary of State also read my speech, which simply supported the view that I am expressing now. My party would support any move by the Government which enabled the cost of the postage involved in such elections to be borne by the State. But I would envisage the State bearing only the cost of postage not the whole cost of the ballot. I do not advocate that the printing of ballot papers should be part of the State cost. That should be properly borne by a trade union, as it is at the present time. I do not, however, take the view that it should be mandatory upon a union to have a postal ballot. I would be totally opposed to any suggestion that a union must have a postal ballot. In my view it is for each union to decide for itself whether it would be in its interests to take advantage of any facility that the Government were able to put at its disposal. I think that this is the view that has been expressed from the Opposition Front Bench this afternoon. The rules prevent me from referring to what happens in other places, so I cannot comment on any change of atitude that may have occurred between one place and the other. As I understand the Opposition view this afternoon, it is that postal balloting should not be mandatory on unions. Neither I nor my party would be prepared to support a suggestion that each trade union must have a postal ballot—provided always that, when a union determines whether or not to have a postal ballot, that decision is taken legally and democratically. I see no reason for this House to be concerned with anything which may be done illegally by a union or by a union official. Recent events have proved quite conclusively that the courts have the power to deal with that situation already, and that no further action by this House is necessary. It would be ridiculous and ill-founded for this House to assume that all that is needed is to have postal ballots in unions and then all will be well with industrial relations and trade union activity. There is no guarantee that postal ballots will lead to a greater number of people voting. An examination, for example, of the experience of the National Union of Seamen would not seem necessarily to prove that postal ballots mean more people voting in elections. What we are trying to discuss this afternoon is much more fundamental, and the sooner this House gets down to the real issue, instead of shadow boxing, the better for it we shall be. What we are really discussing is how to ensure that trade union leaders properly project the views of their members, and how to ensure that power is where it should be, in the hands of Parliament, elected by the people—albeit by a crazy, out-dated electoral system—rather than, as it appears to be at present, in the hands of bodies outside this House. That really is the issue we are all trying to debate, but in a shadow-boxing way, instead of getting down to the real issue. If we can get down to the issue of where power is, and where it should be, then we get down to the very basis and survival of democracy itself. I do not believe that we can effect the change that is required and desired by taking on the unions, or by taking on onyone else—in other words, having a fight with them or legislating against them. I do not believe that that would achieve anything. Equally, I do not believe that merely by insisting on postal ballots we would effect the change that I suspect we are all trying to effect. I do not believe that we would effect that change in the country, or in Parliament, or in the unions. The change we are seeking to effect is to ensure that trade union leaders reflect the views of their members. I believe that, for example, there should be ballots for trade union officers on each factory floor, in working hours. In my view, that would ensure a much higher representative vote even than the introduction of a postal ballot. Workers should vote at their place of work, according to the union to which they belong, in whatever election is taking place. Employers should provide time for that kind of vote to take place on the factory floor. We need to design some sort of industrial system of worker participation in industry that ensures that workers have the power, rather than trade union bosses. There is much to be said for plant bargaining as opposed to national bargaining, certainly in the sphere of private industry, though again that can come about and be effective only when we have restructured the whole democratic process of industry itself—when workers and management can work together for their mutual good. This debate is nibbling at the real issue. It is not taking the bit between its teeth. It is not grasping the nettle. One thing is abundantly clear to any Member who mixes with his constituents, particularly in the industrial parts of this country. It is that the workers of this country do not want strikes. They are fed up with strikes. The sooner trade union leaders get this message the better it will be. If trade union leaders were more representative of the views of their members they would get that message. I had telephone calls last week, as the Secretary of State knows, from members of the NUR, telling me that they were not prepared to take part in a strike today, even if one had been called. I agree that they represent only a very minute part of the NUR in numbers, but nevertheless I believe that the workers of this country are genuinely seeking to evolve a better way of solving industrial problems than the method of striking. What we are anxious to do is to devise a system which makes sure that the trade union leaders of this country get that message, and to try to evolve methods that will do away with strike action. The question whether there should be postal ballots in unions, whether this might be a good thing, is really not in itself the issue before us. The issue is how to devise a system to make sure that trade union leaders properly reflect the views of union members, rather than their own particular views or the views of a very small number of union members, whether it is the national executive or any other group. I believe that the whole basis of our democratic structure should be reviewed; how candidates are selected for elections; our whole crazy electoral system; how Parliament works; worker participation in industry; and devolution of power. These are all parts of the same problem. It is part of the same cancer which is eating away at democracy itself, and any democrat, whatever his or her political persuasion, should be deeply concerned about the situation facing the country and the whole basis of our democratic structure. My Liberal colleagues and I want to see a radical reform of the system—not one dealing with postal ballots in unions as an issue in itself but a radical reform of the whole system. If this Government wish to uphold and to prove their belief in the maintenance of democracy, they will turn their attention to these matters urgently.
In addressing the House on this subject, those of us who served on the Standing Committee dealing with this matter are in considerable difficulty. As the House is aware, we have had a lengthy debate on the subject, so much so that it is almost imposible to say anything which is new.As the outset of my remarks, in the best traditions of this House, I have to declare an interest, in that I am a Member sponsored by the AUEW. Let us be frank with each other. This debate is about the AUEW alone, despite anything to the contrary said by Opposition Members. The right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) could not answer when I asked him how many national trade unions elected all their officials. The answer is simple. It is done by no other union than the AUEW, and it is about this that we are talking in this debate. But again I am in considerable difficulty because, unfortunately, I cannot prove that the right hon. Member for Lowestoft spent the first hour of the proceedings in Standing Committee berating the AUEW about its procedures. But there is no doubt what we are discussing today, and we all realise why. It is because of the events which occurred in the national committee of my union. I wish to make it clear that I am one of the few in this House with some experience of conducting ballots at branch level. For five years I was a branch teller of the AUEW. One of our greatest problems was to get our members to attend branch meetings in order to vote. If we succeeded in getting a 15 per cent. vote, we reckoned to have the support of 100 per cent. of those members who had turned out to attend the meeting. There are a number of reasons why trade union members do not attend branch meetings. We see increasingly the system whereby the employer deducts union subscriptions at source from a man's pay. For many years there has been a movement of population away from urban areas where branches held their meetings in pubs and clubs. There is the problem of shift work, which is widespread. One of the current arguments on all sides in the AUEW—not simply the extremist Left or the moderate Right—is how to conduct our affairs. Many of us in the union have always felt the branch to be the cornerstone of the union and of its policy making and philosophy. Others have felt that, because of the events which have occurred in past years, we should shift the rôle of the branch to the workshop floor. It is deeply divisive arguments of this kind which have been troubling my union colleagues for a number of years. Only recently we changed the system to one of balloting by post. It is very interesting to hear the Opposition insisting that they will not force unions to have ballots. Why, then, do they get their bowels into such tremendous uproar? It is not because the AUEW sought to abandon ballots. It is simply because it sought to change the method of voting. It would still leave the power in the hands of its members. I repeat that it is the only major trade union which elects all its officers. We simply decided to go for voting at branch level, and our decision was dictated by reasons of cost. I support the general principle of the Government making finance available to the trade union movement to conduct ballots, but whatever method is adopted it must be decided in consultation with the unions. They must decide whether to take advantage of Government assistance. Also, it must be left to the unions to decide whether to have postal ballots in the first instance or whether to change their methods. It ill-becomes the Opposition to get themselves into a tremendous uproar simply because the AUEW sought to change its method. I repeat that there was no attempt to do away with the ballot. The union simply wanted to change the method of voting. The right hon. Gentleman and the how Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) have made a great deal of play with proposals for voting at work and the fact that trade unionists should have a right to vote for their officers at the point of contact—the place of work itself. It is all very well for right hon. and hon. Members to state general principles with which everyone can agree, but what about an industry like shipbuilding and ship repairing, where there is a multiplicity of trade unions? An employer in that industry would spend more time assisting the trade union movement to conduct ballots than he would building or repairing ships, bearing in mind that there are between 15 and 20 unions involved. What about a union like ACAT, with members spread up and down the country on different building sites? How would it operate? It is easy to state broad principles and to make flowing speeches. Men and women on the factory floor are attempting to carry out their daily work, their political work and their trade union work. In many instances they work in the best interests of the people. They do not ask Parliament to intervene in their affairs. They look to Parliament at times for guidance, of course, but the general principle is that over the years the trade union movement has had to defend itself from attacks by this place. For that reason it is not surprising that the movement views with great suspicion any suggestion coming from the Opposition. It may be out of order to say so, but I suggest that this debate is a complete waste of parliamentary time. There are far more important issues which we could be debating. We should not be spending time today discussing this ridiculous motion.
I am sure that the House was interested to hear the middle part of the speech by the hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Evans), because he pointed to some of the practical difficulties in adopting a postal ballot system in certain of our trade unions. That was really the object of the Opposition in initiating this debate. It gives the House a chance to assess the advantages and disadvantages of the different methods. We were hoping for the assistance of Government supporters such as the hon. Member for Newton, who have experience in these matters.I do not see anything wrong in discussing general principles in this House from time to time. We spend enough time as it is on the nitty-gritty of clauses in legislation, so much so that the whole place is almost collapsing under the weight of legislation currently going through the House. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Member for Newton will agree that there is a purpose to be served by discussing general principles from time to time. We hoped to hear from the Secretary of State how far he had got in his consultations on these matters since they were raised earlier this year. On 17th March, my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne-mouth (Mr. Trotter) asked the Secretary of State whether he would introduce legislation to provide for free postal communications to be made available for union elections. In reply, the Secretary of State said that the matter was currently being considered. On 21st May, the Prime Minister said that he was in favour of postal ballots. Therefore, we looked for some indication from the Government about how their consultations with the unions were progressing. There has been public concern about the way that ballots are organised, and the Government would be taking that public concern on board if they could spell out more than they have so far how their consultations were progressing. There is nothing new in the general debate on and interest in union elections and associated topics. In paragraph 632 of the Report of the Donovan Commission we find:
I do not think that anyone in the House will dissent from that comment. We are trying to think of ways whereby each trade unionist will have a better opportunity to take part in his or her union elections. As my right hon. Friend said, the Opposition want to go a little further, after consultation, and to see whether something can be done to assist candidates for appointments in unions to be able to get across more clearly to those whose votes they seek those matters of which they are or are not in favour. Conservative Members accept that it is not easy to get a high turnout in union elections. I refer to paragraph 633 of the Donovan Report, which underlines our point when it says, that a constantly changing membership is one of the main reasons for a low poll in union elections. The question we should ask ourselves is: if we adopt or make available this system whereby unions can claim costs for postal ballots from the Government, will it result in an increase in the total number of people voting in elections? The Opposition believe that it probably will. That is why we think we should pursue this matter in greater detail. I accept straight away that there is difficulty over the cost. The cost of a postal ballot sometimes deters a trade union from introducing a postal ballot. The Donovan Report is very succinct about this matter when, in paragraph 635, it says:"The low polls typical of union elections are an unsatisfactory feature of union life."
The words "perseverance with postal voting" are very apt, because it is only by perseverance that one will be able to get a higher turnout for union elections. The Secretary of State for Employment mentioned the cost factor, and mention was also made of the estimate that appeared in the Economist of 24th May which said:"Unions considering introducing a postal vote might think that the cost is justifiable only when the election is for senior posts, or where there is some reason to believe that perseverance with postal voting will progressively increase the polls".
We look to the Secretary of State for Employment to tell us whether those figures are right, or whether his mathematicians and statisticians have come up with anything different. If we could have had more detailed figures from the Minister it would have added to our debate. There is a need, as the Donovan Report has said, for perseverance with regard to postal ballots. I can envisage that a union having tried this system for two years might find the cost enormous and that that may be a sufficient deterrent for the union to drop the scheme. It is for that reason that we believe Government money should be made available for such arrangements. The hon. Member for Newton mentioned the question of voting at the work place. Time off for union activities and facilities for union officials and trade union meetings during work time are all bound up with some of the aspects which have already been discussed—and some which have not—of the Employment Protection Bill, which I know we cannot go into in detail now. Conservatives want to stress that they have never said that there should be a compulsory postal balloting system. We accept that, very often, the right place to vote will be at the work place. However, when people are working shifts, and there are a number of unions within certain industries, there are practical difficulties which cannot necessarily be overcome by a postal ballot. Moreover, there is the further difficulty that if we have voting at the work place and there is a 24-hour shift system in operation, we do not expect the union easily to be able to provide people to—if I may use a colloquialism—"man the polling stations" throughout the whole of that time. Therefore, there could be a partial postal ballot by those working certain shifts, whilst others could vote at the place of work. I am not saying that that method is perfect, but it may have to be considered. The whole object of our debate is to try to get these practical difficulties brought out into the open and properly considered. We are not overdramatising the case. We are not saying that there is tremendous malpractice throughout the British trade union movement. We agree with The Times editorial of 19th May, which says:"Suppose all unions held a postal ballot every 12 months and all members voted … then the second-class postage cost would be £1·1 million. But the net resource cost would probably be under £100,000 (since it will be hardly necessary to open new post offices or employ extra postmen)".
I emphasise the words "from time to time". We are not saying that malpractices are rampant; they are not. We are merely saying that if we had a postal ballot system it would increase interest and remove a great deal of the doubt or suspicion that arises from time to time. The trade union movement is interested in discussing this matter with the Government. An article in the Observer of 25th May says:"British unions have been more free from scandal than many others, but there are disturbing reports from time to time of faked elections. It is essential for the good name of British trade unionism that there should be a lively awareness of this danger."
We are entitled to say that the TUC is never backward in coming forward with ideas about the way in which the Government could improve matters, or how we could improve many facets of our national life. Here is a case where the House of Commons is making a suggestion—not giving an order—that the adoption of postal ballots, in certain circumstances, and giving unions right to claim the money back from the Government would be a good thing for British trade unionism. In no sense is our motion an order to the British trade union movement. It is a suggestion. From time to time it is the duty of Parliament to make suggestions to the TUC just as it is inevitably the duty of the TUC to make suggestions to Parliament."The General Workers' general secretary, Mr. David Basnett, says carefully that if the Government wants to talk about postal ballots, the union will listen, though without enthusiasm."
I speak as an appointed union official of many years' standing. I was appointed by a national executive council which itself was elected at an annual conference of delegates directly elected from their branches. My appointment was subject to the ratification of that conference. I think that my brother officers and I in the Post Office Engineering Union are living examples of the virtues of that system.Having declared my interest, I listened with astonishment to the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) advocating the democratic nature of postal ballots. The thought immediately came to me: was he adopted as the Conservative candidate for Lowestoft as a result of a postal ballot? I doubt it. My guess is that he was adopted in competition with other candidates at a convened meeting. I asked myself: was the right hon. Gentleman, in advocating the democratic basis of postal ballots, elected to Parliament by a postal ballot of all his constituents? I doubt it. I have reason to believe that only those who, by virtue of occupation, could not be present in the constituency, or those who were too disabled to attend the polling station, voted in a postal ballot in that election. I went further, and asked myself: was the right hon. Member speaking in this debate by virtue of a decision of the British people? No; he was speaking by virtue of the fact that he had been selected or nominated to speak on behalf of Conservative Members, by the leader of the party who, herself, had been appointed by an indirect method of election. Thinking of the way in which the right hon. Gentleman came to be speaking this afternoon, I could only conclude that if postal ballots were for the trade union movement, they were not for the Conservative Party. It has always been my view, as a union official, that the problems that those of us in the trade union movement present to the politicians arise out of the democratic nature of the trade union movement. These are problems about pressure of pay, disputes—including demarcation disputes—and protective practices. All these matters press upon us because of pressure from rank and file members. Therefore, it is because of the democracy of the trade union movement that we face difficulties. If we were trade union "bosses"—if we had the power that people attribute to us—we could more easily give Labour Governments, and other Governments, copper-bottomed guarantees. Our problem, as leaders, is that we lead truly democratic organisations and have to win consent from the rank and file before we can carry them with us. I think that each union should be free to choose the method of election, nomination or selection most suitable to its circumstances. The British trade union movement has within it a great variety of circumstances, institutions and conditions. It would be impossible to lay down guidelines to suit them all. That is why the Industrial Relations Act crumbled from the start. It is essential that each union should be allowed to pursue the method of recruitment that it wishes. It seems odd that the Conservative Party, if it is pressing for an extension of direct election, should be pressing for a method of trade union control which, over the years, has produced greater militancy than otherwise. The Opposition must face this situation. I am a moderate. I do not know whether or not Hazlitt, to whom my right hon. Friend referred, is a member of the NUJ. As a moderate, I appreciate that it is much easier for a union official to contain the pressures put upon him at a particular time by his members if he is not subject to election within two weeks. If the Opposition want the trade union movement to become more responsive to the pressures from the rank and tile from week to week, they must continue to campaign for the abandonment of representative democracy and methods of indirect election within the trade union movement and go along the road that they have chosen this afternoon. I refused to put my name to the motion which supported the Government's giving money to unions to assist with postal balloting. If a union wants to pursue that course, so be it. However, I refused to put my name to the motion because there are many better ways in which unions can use money at this time. As a union education officer, I used to teach students how trade union democracy could be improved. One fundamental truth that I tried to drum home was that it was no use giving people the right to vote if they did not know what they were voting for. In order to have a democratic institution there must be availability of information and discussion before the vote is cast—unless the Opposition are advocating a pure machine-type system of election. I believe that there is a great need for the development of trade union education and the improvement of research facilities. The general level of communication within unions is unadequate. In short, I believe that there is still a case, put by the Labour Government between 1969 and 1970, for a trade union development fund to make it possible for unions to improve the general effectiveness of their organisations. I certainly want the Government to bring out their own ideas on this subject at some time and reexamine them. I am certain that the payment of money—whether £500,000 or £1 million—for postal ballots would fall in priority below grants for research, educa- tion, and the improvement of communications. I certainly do not want the Government to take a decision on giving money for postal ballot purposes in isolation, without considering alternative uses to which the money could he put to improve the effectiveness of trade union organisations. I believe that the Opposition ought to get off that tack and think more seriously about the way in which we can improve industrial relations.
In his opening speech this afternoon the Secretary of State clearly intended to try to be impartial. I believe that he had come to the House determined to neither say "Yes" nor "No" to the idea of postal ballots. But the fence on which he was trying to sit—no doubt a little surprised at finding his presence upon it—eventually collapsed under his weight, since, by the time that he sat down, he gave the clear impression that if there were a race to bring in union postal ballots he would be content to be the last, or not to cross the finishing line.No Member of this House is better able to destroy an idea with faint praise than is the Secretary of State. Indeed, when he was quoting from Hazlitt, I could not help recalling the remaining words of Pope's famous comment upon Addison's attitude, which seemed so close to the right hon. Gentleman's attitude this afternoon: