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Volume 961: debated on Tuesday 30 January 1979

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I met the general council of the Trades Union Congress yesterday.

I welcome that fact, but will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether he received any response to his repeated requests for advice on how to contain inflation in this pay round? Did he discuss these problems with regard to the next pay round? Did he receive any indication from the member unions about whether they were considering following the lead of the TGWU in issuing a code of conduct which would turn picketing into something more like a rapier and less like a blunderbuss?

We discussed both those issues yesterday. On the economic front, we discussed how to keep inflation down and I expressed some views on the aims that the country might set itself when the present burst of wage claims has run its course, as I dare say it will, although I hope that it does not do too much damage to the country in the process. We decided, therefore, to have fresh discussions on this matter. A small group of Ministers will be meeting the TUC to discuss this.

On the question of industrial action during disputes, which has caused a great deal of justifiable concern in the country, as well as in the House, it was agreed that a small group of Ministers, led by the Secretary of State for Employment, should meet representatives of the TUC to draw up, I hope quickly, a justifiable code of practice during such disputes that would protect essential services and prevent individuals from being harassed as they went about their daily work. I explained to the TUC my strong conviction that it was necessary that these issues should be brought to a conclusion very quickly.

Will the Prime Minister say whether the speech of the Secretary of State for Transport in his constituency at the weekend represents Government policy?

My right hon. Friend was explaining that past history shows the consequence of unbridled wage settlements. They have led in the past to a wage freeze, and that could be the conclusion now. But the Government have no intention of introducing a wage freeze, certainly not at this stage of the wages round. On the other hand, it is our determination to try to ensure that we get settlements as close as possible to the Government's acknowledged view that 5 per cent. is right, a figure at which many people have already settled. The closer we get to that, the less will be the prospect of inflation.

The Secretary of State for Transport's speech on a pay and prices freeze was specific. Will the Prime Minister be equally specific and say whether or not he agreed with it?

Had the right hon. Lady not been so anxious to get in a second supplementary question, she might have listened to my answer. Shall I repeat it for her? The Government have no intention of introducing a wage freeze at this stage of the wages round.

The answer therefore is "No'. What has happened to the doctrine of Cabinet responsibility?

Individual Ministers are entitled, certainly in circumstances like this, to put forward considerations which will lead, instruct, guide and inform public opinion. I have defined collective Cabinet responsibility on many occasions, and that definition remains the same.

How can the Prime Minister go on saying that the Government's guidelines is 5 per cent. when, for example, there has just been a 21 per cent. settlement in the lorry drivers' dispute in the West Country? In the light of that, has he yet received any proposal from any of the union leaders along the lines of the philosophy that, at the end of the day, if there is no voluntary agreement, Parliament must lay down the framework within which wage as well as price increases can be allowed?

I go on saying that this is a guideline, because that is precisely what it is. The Government are not involved in negotiations between trade unions and their employers. What we can do—as we have done and have spelt out on innumerable occasions—is to suggest the best settlement for the conquering of inflation in this country. Let me repeat it once again. If everyone's increase averages 15 per cent., he will be no better off than if the increase averaged 5 per cent. That is a simple fact. But we live in a democracy. Statutory policies of the sort espoused by the right hon. Gentleman have had their place in the past, but they have been shown to be no more successful than periods of free collective bargaining. The plain truth is that neither solution is acceptable. Therefore, we in this country must practise a little self-discipline.

Did my right hon. Friend discuss with the TUC the role and motives of the media, not least the BBC, in creating the image of a crisis situation which has had nothing in common with what was really happening in the country? Will he consider suggesting to the BBC and ITV that when their interviewers interview those on strike they should themselves disclose their own total incomes?

I think that the opinion of the country is clear. That is why the high tide of hysteria, which was demonstrated in some parts of the media, is now receding. But that is not to disguise the fact that in relation to exports, orders and lost production the country has had a most serious setback as a result of the disputes over the last few weeks. In no sense has it been the kind of hysterical situation which, I am afraid, has been fomented in some quarters. However, that is not to disguise the seriousness of it.

Does the Prime Minister accept that in relation to industrial unrest no one in this House wishes the Government to be guilty of provocation? Nor does anyone wish them to be guilty of political cowardice. But the line between the two is very thin. In so far as the Government hesitate to enforce the law, and do not enforce the right of citizens to go about their daily business without fear, it is on the second charge that they are likely to be guilty.

Of course, we stand that risk. As I have said many times—the hon. Gentleman states it correctly—the line between provocation, where one makes the situation worse, and cowardice, where one does not carry out one's duty, is very thin. Governments must be the best judge of that. I can only leave it to the citizens of this country to determine whether or not we are drawing the line correctly. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I do not expect the Conservative Opposition to think so, but that is what they are there for. As to enforcing the law, the hon. Gentleman perhaps wanted to say that it is for the police to enforce the law. Certainly, the Government do not stand in the way of the police carrying out their duty. They are encouraged to carry out their duty where they think that it would be appropriate to intervene.