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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 961: debated on Tuesday 23 January 1979

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British Exhibition Contractors Association


asked the Secretary of State for Employment what increase in unemployment he estimates will result from Her Majesty's Government's sanctions against the British Exhibition Contractors Association.

None. Discretionary action against companies is no longer taken.

Does the Minister recognise that, if the Government had persisted in sanctions against the British Exhibition Contractors Association, all official work would have been placed with foreign contractors and inevitably British men would have been made redundant? May I turn to another of the Government's punitive policies? Does the Minister realise that at a time when unemployment is the second highest for January since the war, the safeguard regulations safeguard investment and jobs and should be upheld by any Minister who represents the interests of employment?

I shall deal with the hon. Member's second question first. I do not wish in any way to minimise the seriousness of unemployment. However, the hon. Member must recognise that January is the worst month of the year. Serious as the figures announced today are, they are significantly lower than the figures were at this time last year.

As to the first of the hon. Member's questions, I must tell him that I do not answer hypothetical questions. The behaviour of the Opposition when they attempted to pull the plug out of the Government's pay policy was irresponsible. They must carry a heavy share of the responsibility for what is now happening.

Does not the Minister realise that the real attack upon the Government's pay policy is coming from his hon. Friends below the Gangway? Is it not absurd to suggest that the vote of the House on sanctions had any significant effect on the present pay demands and industrial unrest?

If the hon. Member believes that, he will believe anything. By their repeated and sustained attacks on the Government's pay policy, culminating in the defeat of sanctions, the Opposition are heavily responsible for the present state of industrial relations.

Health And Safety At Work Etc Act


asked the Secretary of State for Employment whether he is satisfied with the operation of section 6 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

I am generally satisfied with the operation of section 6 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, but I am informed by the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission that the matter is of course kept under review in the light of the Health and Safety Executive's enforcement experience.

Is it not correct that there have been practically no prosecutions under this crucial section, despite the fact that manufacturers, designers, importers and suppliers are still marketing goods which are dangerous for use by other people at work?

There have been about 50 prosecutions. I do not think that we should try to measure the effectiveness of legislation by the number of prosecutions. That might be a good measure of the prosperity of lawyers, as my hon. and learned Friend will agree, but it is not the right way to measure the effectiveness of legislation.

As section 6 requires that there is extensive research before a substance is marketed for industrial use, are the Government satisfied that imported substances from EEC countries undergo as rigorous research as they would if they were manufactured here?

I am assured by the chairman of the Commission that the same conditions or qualifications and the same tests are applied to imported substances as to manufactured goods and substances from this country.

Does not the Minister agree that more action needs to be taken before goods are in the distribution chain? So often, we find that defective goods are on sale and perhaps on the point of causing injury before action is taken. Could section 6 be a real means of ensuring that imports are properly controlled by perfectly valid and legitimate means? Should we not now exercise it? Will he pass on these views to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade?

Yes, I will certainly pass on those views. If my hon. Friend is suggesting that there should be more examination at the port of entry, that would involve a considerable extension of the Health and Safety Executive's resources.

Unemployed Young Persons


asked the Secretary of State for Employment how many young people were unemployed at the latest available date.

At 12 October 1978, 141,885 young people under 18 years of age were registered as unemployed in Great Britain.

Is not the figure for youth unemployment still unacceptably high, especially as the youth opportunities programme has now been going for some time? When does the Minister expect to be able to make a statement about the review of the programme to which he referred late last year?

The youth opportunities programme is proving very successful. All the reports from the Manpower Services Commission show that we are on target. The figures that I have quoted include some not covered by the Government commitment to school leavers.

Will the youth opportunities programme fully achieve by 1st April this year the targets originally set for it? Will the balance of provision within the programme be that which was originally intended?

We believe that the target set for Easter will be met, but we do not believe that the balance of the programme will be that forecast when the scheme was announced.

Is the Minister aware that considerable numbers of young people in Plymouth are unemployed because jobs in the catering and service industries which would otherwise be open to them are taken by citizens of the Common Market who come over on short term engagements, pay no tax and take off after making maximum use of the Health Service? We all know that the indirect effects of Common Market membership on unemployment have been disastrous, but would the Minister care to comment on the direct effects, such as those that I have just mentioned?

I ask the hon. Member to talk to employers and hoteliers in Plymouth to rectify that situation.

Technologically Advanced Industries


asked the Secretary of State for Employment what steps he is taking to create employment in technologically advanced industries.

Success in achieving the objectives of the industrial strategy, for which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry has overall responsibility, should help provide an economic climate in which new jobs in the technologically advanced industries can be generated. The Department of Employment and the Manpower Services Commission are ensuring that the appropriate employment and training services are contributing towards the success of the strategy.

Is the Minister aware that skilled engineers, particularly in the aerospace industry, who have found themselves particularly hard hit by the Government's incomes policy, are hardly likely to throw their hats in the air over that reply? Will he at least give a categorical assurance that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and all his Department fully support the Prime Minister's determination to sell the Harrier aircraft to China? This will create technologically advanced jobs in British industry. Will the Minister say what he is doing to bring that to fruition?

The answer to the first question is "Yes". The other question is a matter for other Departments.

Is not the corollary of creating employment in technologically advanced industries that employment in the more traditional and labour-intensive industries will decline and that, overall, there will be a decline in demand for employment, particularly in manufacturing industry?

We believe that it is absolutely essential to develop technology in order to cerate wealth, from which services and jobs can be provided elsewhere within the community.

Is it not the case that many employers, even with today's unemployment figures, cannot find men with sufficient skills for the jobs they are able to offer? Does the Minister recognise that, unless differentials are altered to reward skills, the situation will get even worse?

All the examination that I have made of what I recognise as a special problem of skill shortage leads me to believe that differentials are not the most important aspect of the question. The most important aspect is the insecurity felt by many craftsmen and technicians in the engineering industry compared with jobs in other occupations.

How many extra jobs does my hon. Friend think will be necessary to offset the effects of silicon chip technology during the next five years?

Unemployed Persons


asked the Secretary of State for Employment what is the latest rate of unemployment.


asked the Secretary of State for Employment what are the latest figures for unemployment; and if he will make a statement.

At 11 January, the unemployment rate in Great Britain was 6 per cent. and 1,391,220 people were registered as unemployed. On a seasonally adjusted basis, this results in an increase of 17,600. This is disappointing, but does not invalidate the picture that has emerged over the last 16 months of a general downward trend. However, we must not relax our efforts to reduce inflation still further and improve our industrial performance. In the meantime, the special manpower measures continue to make a substantial contribution to alleviating the worse effects of the recession.

In view of such depressing statistics, which make these the second worst January figures since the war, and particularly in view of the further rise in the number of unemployed school leavers, is it not time that the Government started to implement the policies of the Labour Party and the TUC by introducing the 35-hour week, by lowering the retirement age, and by increasing public expenditure in order to provide better social services and also more jobs?

The figures that I have quoted represent a drop of 81,000 on the seasonally adjusted figures of last January and 94,000 on the crude total figure. They should be seen in that perspective. The numbers of unemployed school leavers—there is a slightly different pattern in Scotland due to the different school leaving age—have been declining rapidly, due to the success of the youth opportunities programme, of which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has just spoken. I could not agree more with my hon. Friend about the desirability of operating joint policies with the TUC and this is a matter of continuing discussion.

Whatever the Secretary of State's intentions, his reply must seem extremely complacent to the 190,000 people out of work in Scotland, which seems, as usual, to have been hardest hit by the latest troubles? If the present measures that he has introduced are not satisfactory, will he come back to the House with fresh measures to deal with the situation?

I certainly did not intend to indicate any sign of complacency about unemployment anywhere in the United Kingdom, particularly in Scotland where we have been giving special attention to the effectiveness of measures run by my Department. Up to now, these have had a considerable impact. I have checked and find that nearly 136,000 people have been assisted by measures, including 56,000 helped by the temporary employment subsidy. I will certainly continue to consider how these measures can be expanded, developed or refined to be more effective.

What advice is the Secretary of State giving to his parliamentary colleagues about the likely consequences for the unemployment figures of the complete collapse of the Government's pay policy? Does he still maintain, in the light of the figures he has given, that he has a unique and special relationship with the trade union movement?

The advice that I give to colleagues about the collapse of pay policy, if that is the way that the hon. Gentleman wishes to describe it, is that this must have serious implications for problems in a number of areas. But these are matters to be taken very much into account when claims are being presented and when we are seeking to settle disputes. It should have been taken into account by this House when it voted on the issue of the Government's use of powers to deal with the pay policy situation.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the lack of purchasing power of a large number of low-paid people is, in many ways, directly responsible for their inability to buy the goods that are being produced and will therefore create a great deal more unemployment? Does he also accept that we had many thousands of people lobbying hon. Members yesterday and complaining bitterly that, although they had supported us through thick and thin, they were taking home less than £40 a week and that they can no longer face that? Further unemployment will be on the agenda unless something is done quickly about that state of affairs.

I accept that the purchasing power of a large number of very low-paid people is an important factor in the level of demand in our economy, but if we have a rapidly rising inflation rate it will reduce the effective purchasing power of those people. We need to be able to increase the supply of goods and services in order effectively to use increased demand to reduce unemployment, otherwise such an increase may result only in more imports being sucked in.

Why has the Secretary of State avoided giving the House the true increase in unemployment, which, according to his Department, is 90,968? Does he not agree that, in view of our present strike-bound circumstances, that augurs badly for next month?

I resent the suggestion that I have not given the House the true figures. I gave the figures that I was requested to give, together with the seasonally adjusted change—the figure normally taken by the House as the best indication of the way in which unemployment is moving.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the Governor of the Bank of England and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury that their speeches yesterday implying cuts in public expenditure are completely unacceptable to the Labour movement, particularly as what they implied would be bound to increase unemployment and thereby add to the Treasury's expenditure? Will he explain that, on the contrary, we think that a 2 per cent. increase is not enough and that more public expenditure should be used to help in housing, health, pensions and the social services?

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that I am more likely to be guided by what he says than by the remarks of the two gentlemen to whom he referred. In discussions of the effects of public expenditure, I shall certainly express to any colleague the view that any reduction in public spending is likely to be detrimental to the employment figures.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, if every demand made upon us yesterday by the local authority workers is to be met, there will have to be a massive increase in the rate support grant for rural counties because otherwise unemployment will continue to rise in those areas?

If some of the demands being advanced were met, it would mean a massive increase in the wages bill for a number of public service employees, including those in local authorities. That is one of the reasons why I and other Ministers are seeking to reach an agreement about solving some of the problems of lower-paid public servants without bringing about the undesirable effects to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Will my right hon. Friend institute an inquiry into the relationship between unemployment and illness, so that his Department is not stimulated to take that action following a forthcoming Granada Television programme?

I see it as part of the role of my Department, working with the Health and Safety Executive, to watch carefully the relationship between unemployment and illness and to take steps to institute good health and safety practices to avoid loss of employment in that way.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I had intended to ask why he could not be more communicative and give up his Trappist vows? However, having heard his answer to his hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) about the Financial Secretary and the Governor of the Bank of England, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to maintain the silence that he has managed to maintain in the past few weeks while unemployment has gone from bad to worse?

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman, as an ex-Minister, should not expect me to be influenced and guided by hon. Members in the first instance.

Times Newspapers Limited


asked the Secretary of State for Employment how many representations he has now received about the continuing dispute at Times Newspapers Limited.


asked the Secretary of State for Employment what further talks he has had with the management of Times Newspapers Limited.

Since March last year I have received 32 letters about the dispute at Times Newspapers Limited from Members of Parliament, trade unions and others. I have also had discussions with the parties, most recently on 13 and 15 December when I held joint meetings to seek an agreed basis for further negotiations.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, if Times Newspapers closes permanently, the secondary unemployment effects could involve well over 10,000 people and that this is a serious matter? Does he recall that about 13 years ago, Lord Thomson pledged to the Monopolies Commission the whole of his considerable personal wealth in this country to continuing Times Newspapers in being? Since he has taken nearly all that personal wealth to Canada—[HON. MEMBERS: "He is dead."] Since nearly all that wealth has gone to Canada, is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government bear a heavy responsibility to make proper arrangements if the titles of Times Newspapers, which are all they own, are sold to someone else?

I certainly accept that permanent closure of The Times would have serious secondary effects on employment in a number of places, including Odhams Press. It is, of course, the aim of the Government to seek to keep as many titles as possible in existence. I refer, of course, to newspaper titles. It is our aim to keep as many in existence as possible, in the Provinces as well as on Fleet Street. All my efforts so far to bring about an agreement between the parties have not succeeded, but we have defined a way in which negotiations could proceed to resolve the dispute and I urge the parties to implement that agreement.

As a month has gone by since my right hon. Friend's last discussions with the management of TNL, is it not time to draw in the parties, because, with every week that goes by, more people are being dismissed and many of them were not parties to the original dispute? Is it not clear that we are losing two great national institutions in what is really a management virility symbol?

I do not think that I could help in achieving my hon. Friend's first suggestion by endorsing his second proposition. The dispute is very complicated and it is only too easy to apportion blame to various parties. That is not what I am trying to do. We have agreed a way of proceeding to negotiate to remove many of the barriers to the recommencement of publication of The Times. That is what I want to do as speedily as possible.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, in many parts of the world, The Times, because of its special tradition, is regarded as very much more than a newspaper and that its continued nonappearance is doing great harm to Britain as a whole?

Yes, I accept that, and I would regret any dispute which prevented anything which carried the name of good British products and British contributions abroad from continuing. We shall not see The Times back in production, in the way in which the hon. Lady and I would wish to see it produced, without resolving this industrial dispute.

Is not the main reason why The Times is not being published that the management has gone on strike? With the support of Conservative Members, will the Secretary of State summon the chief executive of that newspaper and instruct him and his colleagues to end this strike as a contribution to settlement of at least one of our industrial disputes?

No. I do not think that I shall summon the unions or the management to end the dispute, but I will call the attention of my hon. Friend, and many others who are seriously interested in the dispute, to the degree of agreement that was reached in the talks in my Department. I know that my hon. Friend and others have some influence with the parties concerned and may help me to persuade them to go along the lines of that agreement.

Is the Secretary of State aware that we support the true and real efforts that he has made to bring about a settlement to the dispute, and that we shall go on supporting him? If the time is ripe now for a fresh initiative, will he please take it?

Yes, I will watch for any occasion when a direct initiative from me or from ACAS might produce an advance along the lines that I indicated previously.

Wages Councils


asked the Secretary of State for Employment when he intends to meet chairmen of wages councils.

Will the Minister confirm that wages councils set the basic rate for many thousands of low-paid workers in the private sector? Will be give a clear assurance that he will not call in or otherwise seek to delay any awards made by wages councils substantially in excess of current incomes policy guidelines?

I entirely agree with the first part of my hon. Friend's question. The wages councils have had their attention drawn to the Government's White Paper and now to the latest low pay provisions which the Prime Minister announced recently. We shall do no more than that.

Does not my hon. Friend agree that a little more action would be appropriate at the moment? Does he not further agree that those wages councils which fail to take advantage of the provisions for low-paid workers should be specifically and quite definitely reminded of these provisions?

We do not intend to interfere with the independence of wages councils in that way. The provisions which have been announced were targets. They were not binding on anybody.

Northern Region


asked the Secretary of State for Employment whether he is satisfied with the level of unemployment in the Northern region.

No. The level of unemployment in Northern region remains far too high, but we are determined to do all we can to reduce it substantially. The Government's special employment and training measures have so far benefited over 91,000 people in the region.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. How does he account for the increase in unemployment in the Northern region over the past month? How much of it was due to the road haulage dispute, if any?

It is too early for me to be able to state the reasons for the redundancies which have been declared and which have led to that increase in unemployment.

On a day when, for instance, there is still hardly any movement out of the Manchester and Liverpool docks, and hardly anything going into the Winsford and Kirkby districts, will the Minister recognise that in the North-West region and in the Northern region, and in all the regions affected by regional unemployment, the present stoppages are causing more unemployment than anything the Government have yet done?

When will my hon. Friend recognise that the policies being followed by the Government in relation to regional and general unemployment are simply not working? When will the Government adopt policies as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) in order to deal with the problems of the North-West region and the Northern region, where private enterprise is closing down factories and creating redundancies at an alarming rate?

The Government are aware of the problems faced by the regions in this country and have pursued their regional policy because of that.

If the Minister is not able to give us the information today, will he make an early statement to the House about the number of people in the Northern region who are unemployed as a result of the present industrial disputes, and indicate the number of people who have lost their jobs permanently as a result of those disputes? Will he also accept the fact that today there is no significant improvement in the position, in spite of the code of the Transport and General Workers' Union, and that secondary picketing continues particularly in respect of petroleum sites on Teesside?

If I were to write to all small employers in the Northern region, asking them for the reasons for the redundancies which have been declared, there would be an outcry from the Opposition for a further inquiry. I do not think that it is possible to give details month by month of the reasons for the redundancies, and it will not be possible in this case.

Manpower Services Commission


asked the Secretary of State for Employment how many people are employed in the Manpower Services Commission; and for how many people they are providing some kind of employment.

I am informed by the Manpower Services Commission that at 1 December 1978, it employed some 25,600 staff. The MSC is responsible for the operation of the public employment and training services, and of certain programmes of special measures introduced by the Government to combat unemployment. These include the youth opportunities programme and the special temporary employment programme. As such, the MSC serves the entire working population of some 26·5 million people.

Will the Minister answer the question? How many people are involved in these programmes? Does he not agree that those employed at the MSC and the people on those programmes should be added to the true figure of those put out of work by a combination of the Labour Government and the union activities?

I answered the hon. Gentleman's question. I will now try to answer his other and different question by saying that I thought the Opposition were fully in support of the Government in introducing a programme of special measures to diminish the effects of unemployment. Currently, 255,000 people are benefiting from those programmes.

As the job centres are working successfully at this time of high unemployment, will my hon. Friend encourage all employers to use the job centres, and to notify them of job vacancies, rather than going to the private agencies?

I welcome what my hon. Friend said, because it is now becoming clear that the recent substantial investment in job centres has had a significant effect on employment placing. If we could place the people seeking jobs in their work one day earlier than might otherwise have been the case, that would result in a saving of production time which would be in excess of what is lost in the industrial disputes in an average year.

Could some of the 25,000 people be employed to draft the Bills to ban secondary picketing straight away, so that this House can make some contribution to increasing the number of people employed?

The hon. Gentleman has shown once again his cynical indifference to the plight of the unemployed and his abysmal misunderstanding of the problems.

Intermediate Areas


asked the Secretary of State for Employment what is the average level of male unemployment in intermediate areas.

At 7 December 1978, the latest date for which figures are available, the number of males registered as unemployed in the intermediate areas was 175,345, a percentage rate of 6·4.

Is the Minister aware that in Hove and Brighton the male unemployment level is higher than the average level in the intermediate areas? How, in those circumstances, does he justify the wide range of Government incentives—including those under section 4 of the Development of Tourism Act 1969, recently extended to intermediate areas, and others operated by his Department—being available in areas with lower unemployment than Hove and Brighton?

The designation of assisted areas is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry, and I will draw the hon. Gentleman's views to his attention. Unemployment is only one of the factors taken into account in deciding which areas shall receive assisted area status. That has been true not only of this Administration but also of the last Conservative Administration.

With regard to the cotton textile industry, which is largely in an intermediate area in the North-West, will my hon. Friend tell us by how much unemployment has increased among textile workers arising from the inefficiency of the industry in the face of competition from the Common Market, where our balance of trade deficit last year increased by 400 per cent. compared with the preceding year? Will my hon. Friend approach the Department of Industry with a view to setting up, as a matter of urgency, a sector working party for that industry?

Knowing my hon. Friend's concern for employment, not only in his constituency but throughout the North-West, I shall draw his views to the attention of the Secretary of State for Industry.

Since the outlook for jobs in the intermediate areas is being made worse daily both in the short term and in the long term by the current round of trade union actions against Government policy, why did the Government not feel able to trust the unions to bargain responsibly in the first place?

There are two sides to a bargain. The difficulty that the Government faced was the vote by the Opposition against sanctions before Christmas.

Government Measures


asked the Secretary of State for Employment what further measures he has for reducing unemployment; and if he will make a statement.

Consideration of a programme of measures for 1979–80 is at an advanced stage.

Is it not apparent to my right hon. Friend and others in the Cabinet that, as free competition could not solve unemployment, and as bribing private enterprise to the tune of £12 million a day is not solving the problem, the only way out is to plan unemployment away completely? Does he agree that the proposals laid out in the Labour Party's draft manifesto, namely, the 35-hour week, planning trade, restoring cuts in public expenditure, early retirement and mandatory school grants are the only way forward? If my right hon. Friend takes these on board, urges his hon. Friend sitting next to him to vote for them on the National Executive and challenges the Tories, we might get back into power in order to plan unemployment away.

I am highly interested in my hon. Friend's manifesto proposals, as I am in those of other members of the National Executive, including my colleague in my Department. But we have considerable experience in this Government of the exent to which we can use special measures, including those that my hon. Friend calls bribes. We have experience on which to judge whether we want to include more extensive measures of planning, including planning agreements, in an election manifesto with a view to dealing with specific employment problems.

Do the Government's plans for dealing with unemployment in 1979–80 which are at an advanced stage, take account of the likely cuts in public expenditure which the Prime Minister seemed to indicate would be necessary?

No, they are not based on propositions for cuts in public expenditure. They are based upon ways in which we might make more effective some special measures that we are already running, and upon introducing other measures which will take over the role of the temporary employment subsidy, which has to be terminated as a result of the restrictions placed upon us by the EEC.

I represent an area which has one of the highest concentrations of unemployment in the country, namely, Sunderland. Does not my right hon. Friend agree that, if there is a continuation of vastly inflationary wage increases, it will only exacerbate the problems of places like Sunderland?

If we have highly inflationary wage increases, particularly in the manufacturing industry sectors which put up our unit costs, they will certainly seriously exacerbate the situation.

Is it not abundantly clear to the Secretary of State from all the questions that have been asked today by his own supporters that they are absolutely split on their policy? Is he not aware that the Government are being constantly undermined by the Left wing of the Labour Party? We have now had five wasted years in which unemployment has got steadily worse. Have we not now reached the end of the road for the present Government?

No. What is clear from the questions that have been put to me this afternoon is that my hon. Friends are deeply concerned about the continuing problem of unemployment, about the effectiveness of measures which we have already introduced, and about finding ways, including better planning, of bringing about a return to full employment in this country.

Prime Minister (Engagements)


asked the Prime Minister if he will list his public engagements for 23 January.

This morning I attended and addressed an industrial strategy conference organised by the Trades Union Congress to review the progress of the electronics sector working parties. In addition to my duties in this House I shall be holding further meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the House will support his firm reaffirmation this morning of the Government's policy on inflation and his statement about the continued application of pay limits, productivity bargains and help for the low paid? Is he further aware that this formula cannot work for the public sector if those workers see that every private sector group that enters into a strike achieves its objectives, often with the active support of the Opposition?

My contribution to a very good conference this morning—and it was composed of a number of representatives working in microelectronic industries—was to emphasise two points. The first was that, if firms are to plan four or five years ahead with their new investment, it is necessary that inflation should be low. That demands, among other things, moderate wage settlements. The second was that higher productivity and a willingness to change, retrain, and move into these new industries is essential if Britain is to take advantage of them.

On the last part of the question, of course the private sector is in a different position from the public sector. There is at least some operation of market disciplines in the private sector and people can lose their jobs, as indeed they are losing them at present, especially in industries where they price themselves out of work. The difference between that and the public sector is that nobody so far has lost his job as a result of wildly inflationary wage increases over previous years. It is essential to be absolutely frank, and I must point out that there are limits to what the Government are prepared to ask Parliament to vote in the way of votes for public expenditure. Therefore, if more money is taken out in higher wages because of the comparisons to which my hon. Friend correctly draws attention, there is less money for the services which the public employees are there to provide. That is an inescapable truth.

Is the Prime Minister aware that there are more people on strike now than when we debated this matter this time last week? At that time we made an offer to him to support him should he bring forward legislation to deal with picketing, the closed shop and secret or postal ballots. The Prime Minister said that he did not like secondary picketing, was not a closed-shop man and would prefer to have more secret ballots. Therefore, does he propose to take up our offer of support for legislation for the future? Also, will he do anything to assert the right of ordinary people to carry on working without interference?

The Leader of the Opposition has raised a number of important questions. However, I do not think that legislation on postal ballots or on picketing would do anything to affect the fact that there are more people on strike this week than there were last week. Although she may advance these remedies for particular purposes, they would not affect that situation. As regards the present situation, I assert very clearly, as I always have done, that everyone has the right to work and everyone has the right to cross a picket line. It is not a sacred object. If, when people are stopped—if they choose to stop—they desire to go on, there is nothing in the criminal law or the civil law to stop them from carrying out their duties. I hope that they will so do.

I asked the Prime Minister what steps he proposes to take to assert that right, because that right is not being honoured at present. But if the right hon. Gentleman has no immediate proposals, will he at least persuade the Attorney-General to do what the Attorney-General in the 1970–74 Government did—make a clear statement about what the law of picketing is, particularly as it has been changed by the 1974 and 1976 legislation?

I shall consider that suggestion by the right hon. Lady. But the law of picketing is well known. It is clear. It has been frequently stated. It is for the police to take action if complaints of intimidation, threats and, obviously, violence are made to them. I hope that the police will carry out their responsibilities in this matter if they see any cases of intimidation or threats of any sort.

Will my right hon. Friend tell us where he and members of his Government were yesterday when the low-paid workers came to see them in this House? Surely we have not reached the stage when they consider themselves too good to rub shoulders with the workers. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]

I can assure my hon. Friend that I think that I have known as many workers in Britain as she has known, and for a long period, and I rub shoulders with them very often and will continue to do so. I think that I know what a great many of them are feeling at present. They are feeling that a great deal of what is going on is totally unnecessary and should be stopped.


asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 January.

I refer the hon. Member to the reply which I have just given to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Thomas).

Will the Prime Minister try to take time off today from his other troubles to look at the drastic increase in unemployment in Scotland, where the number has risen by 18,500? Even allowing for the fact that many of these are school leavers, Scotland seems to be the worst affected area of the United Kingdom. Will he, therefore, say whether the Government have any intention of honouring the promise that they made at the last election to give economic powers to the Scottish Assembly to make it a powerhouse for Scotland? Will he seek to transfer those powers from the Treasury immediately after the referendum?

The position is that seasonally adjusted unemployment in Scotland, which is generally regarded as the best trend to look at, was stable or falling throughout 1978. That is the truth of the matter. There has been an increase this month, which is due partly to normal seasonal factors and to the flow of school leavers at Christmas. Therefore, I think that we can take comfort from the fact that the rate of unemployment has been declining steadily over the past 12 months. But, of course, the hon. Gentleman will know better than I about the adverse weather conditions which have existed in Scotland, which have had an impact on unemployment.

As regards giving additional economic powers to the Scottish Assembly, the Act is quite clear on the powers of the Assembly, and it would be quite foolish to say that we intend to change that.

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that, in a very difficult industrial situation, the way in which the Leader of the Opposition and her cohorts vent their spleen on strikers and spew bile into the situation can only exacerbate this very difficult situation? Would it not be much better to concentrate all our efforts on finding constructive ways in which we can assist the lower paid?

Yes, Sir. I agree that it is far better that we should try to do this. Indeed, in my speech last Tuesday, I put forward certain proposals, which stretched over the whole range of the public service and the private sector.

Concerning public sector employees, a very fair proposal has been made to study the conditions and pay of public service workers to see how far they are comparable with those of other workers. That offer should be taken up. In conjunction with the pay negotiations that are now being undertaken, I believe that it will both do justice to the local government workers and, at the same time, enable the Government to continue with the primary task of overcoming inflation, and not increasing the money supply in order to pay out confetti wages which would have no value at all.

Will the Prime Minister take time today to have a discussion with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the intimidation which accompanied yesterday's action by the National Union of Public Employees, whereby a school which many of my constituents attend was forced to close although the headmaster and all the teachers were determined to carry out their statutory obligation to educate our children? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that the headmaster was told that, if that school opened, there would be heavy picketing of both the teachers and the children—[An HON. MEMBER: "Rubbish."]—and that his school would be indefinitely blacked? How does this match up with the Prime Minister's oft-proclaimed boast that only his Government can come to terms with the trade unions?

I have never made that last remark. What I have always said and continue to say is that I believe that the trade union movement would work with any Government of this country. That has always been my approach and my principle on the matter.

Of course, I do not have details of the school to which the hon. Member has referred. He did not name it—probably very properly. However, I really do not see why anyone is forced to cease work in this situation. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]

I am using the word that the hon. Gentleman used. Everyone in this country is entitled to cross a picket line if he disagrees with the arguments that are put to him. There is nothing to stop any citizen—I would not hesitate to do it myself—from crossing a picket line if he believes it to be right to do so.

When my right hon. Friend replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Thomas), he said that this morning he met representatives of the microelectronics industry. Will he please tell me whether at that meeting there was any discussion about Inmos, and where the factories that will arise from this industry are to be situated?

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend promise me that he will send to the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition a copy of annex 6 to the Royal Commission's report so that she can see how useful legislation is in relation to industrial disputes?

There was no discussion at the TUC conference which I attended this morning about the situation of Inmos, although there was support for the Government's decisions to give it financial backing. As I think my right hon. Friend knows, the headquarters will be at Bristol, but the factories to which he refers—they, of course, will provide by far the overwhelming proportion of the employment—will be in the development areas, although I believe that the sites have not yet been chosen.

As regards the impact of legislation on trade unions and on the behaviour of individuals, I have always expressed my scepticism about its efficacy. Indeed, we have had practical experience of it. There do come times when a nation's patience may run out, and then, despite the unwisdom of the legislation, it might be shackled upon the trade unions, to the overwhelming dislike of the country in the long run and, I believe, to a great disintegration of our society.

Will the Prime Minister today make arrangements to meet his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and tell him two things—first, that the complacent statement made by the right hon. Gentleman in the House yesterday, particularly on the subject of animal feeding stuffs, was quite intolerable and, secondly, that the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is a member of the Transport and General Workers' Union, and that he is sponsored by the TGWU, in no way precludes the right hon. Gentleman from condemning violence and excesses against the law which have been perpetrated by various members of the union to which he belongs?

I repeat again that, if examples of violence are known to the hon. Gentleman, and which can be vouchsafed, they should be brought to the attention of the police. I have repeated my hope that the police, who are independent in these matters, will not shrink from taking action if there are cases that they believe should be brought before the courts. Knowing the police, I do not believe that they will hesitate to do so.

As to the supply of foodstuffs, the situation varies from day to day. I am told—I can only repeat the advice that I am given by those concerned with these matters—that there seems to be some improvement today, including the supply of animal feeding stuffs and also the movement of salt and sugar, which apparently were in rather short supply. Indeed, the principal concern today, where I hope that those concerned will stop any picketing in respect of this matter, is about chemicals needed for pharmaceuticals. In some areas they are being held up. I know that the union itself is doing its best to ensure that they are moved. If it cannot ensure that, of course in the long run we simply cannot permit an interruption in the supply of raw materials for pharmaceuticals which are necessary for medicine, and we would have to take the necessary action.

In his grasp of the very real problems which face the lower paid after three years, will my right hon. Friend accept that the nurses are not just a special case but that they are an exceptional case? However, they have no intention of withdrawing their labour at this time. Will he bear that in mind in his economic policies in relation to the nurses?

Yes, I shall bear that in mind. I would be very happy indeed to look into that matter in greater detail. But I am bound to say that every special case becomes an exceptional case until it runs right across the economy. In view of what is happening at present in the private sector in respect of pay negotiations and pay settlements, it is doubly essential that the Government give no indication that they are likely to depart from a very strict application of their monetary and fiscal policies. I repeat that now, because that is bound to affect the extent to which we can assist public service employees in the way that they think is right.

Is the Prime Minister aware that with regard to the crossing of picket lines, a number of people have the very real fear that their union cards will be taken away and that they will be excluded or expelled from a trade union without any recourse to a court of law, thereby losing their jobs without being able to claim damages for the loss of their jobs? Is he aware that this is a direct result of the legislation that was introduced by his own Government and that this is industrial relations legislation which he has put on the statute book? In view of what he himself has said today, would not it now be right to accept the offer from the Conservative Opposition to reform this piece of legislation, so that the practices which the Prime Minister says are correct can be followed?

It is a matter of dispute between us as to whether the action taken by this Government has led to the kind of picketing to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. In our view, it is the case—certainly history bears it out—that this kind of picketing, but not in this intensive way, went on long before any amendments to the Act. It is a matter of very great doubt as to what extent the law can deal with this issue. I assume that the right hon. Gentleman is now moving his position. I understand that recent events may have made him do so. But up to 10 days ago he was saying that it was the policy of his party to reaffirm the existing law and to try to secure a voluntary code. I quite understand that he may have changed his mind, but at least it is only in the last 10 days that he has done so.