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Funeral Facilities (Picketing)

Volume 961: debated on Wednesday 31 January 1979

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(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will make a statement on the disruption by picketing of funeral facilities in the metropolitan boroughs of Tameside and Liverpool.

Following last Week's day of action organised by unions, selective strike action against local authority cemeteries and crematoria is continuing in certain parts of the country. According to the latest information available to me, the action is most marked in the North-West, in particular Liverpool and Tameside.

I deplore this action, and I made my views known to the general secretaries and national officers of the unions concerned at the weekend when I asked them to remove, from their list of selective action, crematoria and cemeteries. I was informed last night that advice had been issued by the unions to their members designed to limit the impact of action here on the public.

I take this opportunity of urging the men concerned, whatever their grievance, to reconsider their action, to understand the distress being caused to the bereaved, and the deep offence being caused to the overwhelming mass of our people, and to return to work.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there are now 225 bodies in Liverpool and 38 in Tameside awaiting funerals and that the strike appears to have spread, having, I understand, been going on since 19 January in Tameside? Is he aware, further, that the procedure for funerals in Liverpool now is that the local area medical officer of health has to inspect each body, that if he certifies that it is a danger to public health a committee of the union is consulted to seek its agreement that the funeral may proceed, and that that agreement may or may not be forthcoming? May I remind the Secretary of State that on Monday the Home Secretary told the House that the Government were not prepared to stand by idly, that they were not prepared to have dead bodies kept in a disused factory in Speke, and that the trade union leaders would not accept it either? The position remains the same; indeed, it is probably rather worse than it was on Monday. The whole House agrees with the Secretary of State about the shattering effects that this action must have on relatives of the deceased, but may I ask him whether he now thinks it appropriate that he should come back to this House, at the latest tomorrow, with proposals for firm action on behalf of the Government to deal with this totally regrettable and unnecessary state of affairs?

I do not think that the issue of public health, as such, is the one upon which we need concentrate, simply because I do not believe for one moment that there would be any objection there. This goes much more widely than matters of public health. It involves the inevitable feelings of people when they are affected by death in the family and in their community. I do not think, therefore, that we ought to judge this matter against the background of hazard to public health.

I have, of course, been in close touch with the two local authorities concerned, and I shall no doubt be in touch with them again today. However, I advise the House and the hon. Member, in the light of the information and advice given to the authorities yesterday by the unions concerned and, I hope, in the light of the expressions of view which this House has already made to the men directly concerned, to wait perhaps until a little later to see what response there is. In the meantime, as I say, we are in touch with the local authorities concerned, and we are prepared to take such action as we and they agree.

I am sure that the whole House would want to accept the advice of the Secretary of State if he felt able to assure us that he would make a further statement on this matter tomorrow.

Of course, I shall consider what the hon. Gentleman says. However, as I said to him a moment ago, it is perfectly reasonable for me to say to him that it might perhaps be a little better to wait 48 hours than to say "Tomorrow".

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Government supporters who wish to see these workers get a decent living wage and who support them in their claim for one nevertheless are deeply concerned at the distress that is being caused to bereaved families? Is he aware also that it is not just attacks on the workers that are required but speedy action to bring this matter to a settlement? Is he aware, finally, that some of us are taking urgent steps to arrange a meeting with the workers concerned in order to discuss the matter and endeavour to get a settlement at the earliest possible moment?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am very glad to know that my hon. Friend, as a Member of Parliament for the city principally concerned, has been using his personal influence in order to resolve the situation there.

I think that the House understands that the men concerned are among many groups of low-paid workers, and there is no disposition anywhere not to consider their claim very seriously. However, I believe that the nature of the action that is being taken is not one that is likely in any way to assist them in the solution to their grievance.

Is the Minister aware that fear of confrontation between mourners and pickets is resulting in funeral services not being continued in the chapels of the cemetery? I should like to join with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) and go with him to see the gravediggers, so that we have a joint approach from both sides of the House.

Perhaps I may leave it to the hon. Gentleman to carry out his bilateral negotiations. But, again, the hon. Gentleman represents the area concerned, and I am sure that he will use such influence as he has to bring about a solution.

Does the Secretary of State agree that if there is clear evidence by tomorrow morning that those involved have not taken the advice of the union leaders and that this bizarre situation is to continue, it will be his duty to make a statement telling the House what the Government intend to do about it? The situation will be entirely unacceptable to the people if they are no longer able to bury their dead.

I must clearly take some account of the views of the local authorities concerned in this matter. Also, clearly, I have to consider the wishes of the bereaved families concerned. The House should bear in mind that while obvious solutions are available to the Government, those solutions in themselves might lead to a situation in which those who are principally concerned, the bereaved, could be more upset by what was being done than they are even by the present situation.

In an effort speedily to end the strike, will my right hon. Friend indicate to the employers' side the Government's view on its latest pay offer to the men involved, which is between £2·15 and £2·45 a week? Incidentally, the offer includes an increase in pay of a miserly 60p a week for the lowest grades of manual worker. This Scrooge-like attitude is contrary to the Prime Minister's recent statement on the lower-paid.

I simply say that while the course of negotiations is still far from satisfactory—I shall have something to say about that, perhaps, Mr. Speaker, in a few minutes' time—my hon. Friend should look again at the Prime Minister's statement of 16 January. There he will see that the particular underpin arrangement would certainly apply to low-paid workers up to the level of £70 a week; indeed, it postulates a £3·50 payment.

Having regard to the well-known fact that on Merseyside the strike committees do not follow the advice of the trade unions, is not 48 hours too long a period for the House to wait for the Government to take really active steps to relieve the situation there? Forty-eight hours will take us into the weekend. That means that we shall not have anything done until, perhaps, early next week.

I have noted what the right hon. Gentleman said, as I have noted what one or two other hon. Members said. Certainly I shall consider the matter further.

I should like to take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Scotland Exchange (Mr. Parry). What is needed is a quick settlement of the dispute. What steps are being taken by the local authority? It appears to me that an Alice-in-Wonderland situation is developing. Local authorities are saying that they are not prepared to offer 8½ per cent. because that would be rejected by the union, and they continue to offer 5 per cent., which they hope will be accepted. When will the Government make it clear that they are not standing between employer and worker on the question of the low-paid?

I shall be working for and encouraging a reasonable and early settlement, but I do not think that we can, as it were, say that the settlement and action to deal with this question can be time-related. I think that the question of dead people remaining unburied in parts of the North-West must be settled without delay.

Is the Secretary of of State aware that at a meeting of the Greater Manchester council this morning the council decided to invoke section 138 of the Local Government Act 1972? That was because Councillor Fieldhouse, the leader of the council, stated that the council was concerned with the protection and preservation of people suffering as a result of the present situation caused by industrial action by local government employees. Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that other councils could be urged to take the same sort of action?

I think that that is a general power that the Greater Manchester council has. It relates to the services for which the county council is responsible. I would certainly need to look very carefully to see whether there were implications here for the exercise of powers that belong to the metropolitan district councils.

This is an extension of Question Time. I shall call the hon. Members who have been rising.

Is not it a fact that on this occasion we are witnessing, albeit with a few exceptions, the whole House indulging in a bout of utter hypocrisy? Is it not also a fact that the House of Commons and the Government could resolve this matter, could get rid of these dead bodies, and could ensure that people were buried properly if the Opposition would encourage the Government to pay a decent wage to those concerned in the dispute? Is not it a fact that no one in this House—no one—would do the job that these people are doing for a take-home pay of about £40 a week? Instead of indulging in these bouts of hypocrisy, is not it time we resolved the matter? We have it in our power to do so. It is time that the present Government understood where their supporters are. They are not on the Opposition Benches; they are amongst the many local government workers who are fighting for decency and a decent wage.

I hope that my hon. Friend, at a later stage today, will consider very carefully his sense of priorities and values.

Beyond that, I simply say this to him: hypocrisy—no; death is not hypocrisy. Nor is human grief. Nor is the sense of common humanity that people have when they share these experiences. Therefore, some sense of common fellowship and decency—

Is the Secretary of State aware that almost the whole House totally endorses his last remarks? As Her Majesty's Secretary of State, will he make it quite plain to the House and the country that the Government just will not tolerate this situation beyond tomorrow?

I think that the views expressed in the House, almost unanimously, will be a very helpful factor in the situation.

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that there will be widespread acceptance of the view that he has put forward and the way that he has sought to handle a very difficult situation today? However, does he also appreciate that in this matter of very great concern to many people, and so, rightly, to this House, it really is very important that he should report to the House tomorrow on what has happened? In the interests of the whole House and the people concerned, I hope that he will feel able to do that.

The right hon. Gentleman was kind enough to say that it is a difficult matter. It is a very sensitive matter. I ask him to let me reflect further on the pleas made by the House to make a statement tomorrow, but not to pin me at present to an absolute and specific promise.