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Agreements On Terms And Conditions Of Employment (No I)

Volume 35: debated on Tuesday 18 January 1983

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

'(1) It shall be the duty of each water authority and other statutory water undertaker to seek, either in conjunction with every other such authority or undertaker or by means of such association or other person or organisation as may represent all of them for this purpose, consultation with any organisation appearing to them to be appropriate with a view to the conclusion between them and that organisation of such agreements as appear to the parties to be desirable with respect to the establishment and maintenance of machinery for the settlement by negotiation of terms and conditions of employment of persons employed by the water authorities, other statutory water undertakers and any person referred to in section 3(4) of this Act with provision for reference to arbitration in default of such settlements in such cases as may be determined by or under the agreements.

(2) It shall be the duty of every water authority and all other statutory water undertakers and all employers coming into existence as a consequence of this Act to comply with any such agreement.

(3) Copies of any such agreement and of any instrument varying the terms of any such agreement shall be sent to the Secretary of State.— [Mr. Denis Howell.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this, it will be convenient to take new clause 9—Agreements on terms and conditions of employment (No. 2)

  • '(1) It shall be the duty of each water authority and other statutory water undertaker to seek, either in conjunction with every other such authority or undertaker or by means of such association or other person or organisation as may represent all of them for this purpose, consultation with any organisation appearing to them to be appropriate with a view to the conclusion between them and that organisation of such agreements as appear to the parties to be desirable with respect to the establishment and maintenance of machinery for the settlement by negotiation of terms and conditions of employment of persons employed by the water authorities, other statutory water undertakers and any person referred to in section 3(4) of this Act with provision for reference to arbitration in default of such settlement in such cases as may be determined by or under the agreements.
  • (2) It shall be the duty of every water authority and all other statutory water undertakers and all employers coming into existence as a consequence of this Act to comply with any such agreement.
  • (3) Copies of any such agreement and of any instrument varying the terms of any such agreement shall be sent to the Secretary of State.
  • (4) The words "such agreement" in subsection (2) above shall include any agreement made pursuant to section 26(2) of the principal Act and in operation on the date of determination of the functions of the Council, as if the parties thereto had included all water authorities in place of the Council.'.
  • This debate is one of the most important this evening, because it involves the whole question of wage negotiations in the water industry and the maintenance of national wage negotiations. Clause 1 proposes to abolish the National Water Council and to replace it with 10 authorities. It will abolish one nationalised industry to replace it by 10 others. In the old days, the water industry's national wage negotiations were always conducted centrally under the collective responsibility of the local authorities and are presently conducted by the water authorities. What will happen now? New clause 10 calls for

    "the establishment and maintenance of machinery for the settlement by negotiation of terms and conditions of employment of persons employed by the water authorities … with provision for reference to arbitration in default of such settlement in such cases as may be determined by or under the agreements."
    There could not be a more appropriate time to discuss the water industry's wage negotiations. Only an hour ago, the trade union side informed me that it had left the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service after daylong discussions. Clearly, there is a grave threat of a national water strike for the first time in our history. It will affect the whole country. We debate such issues on the eve of what may well be the most damaging industrial dispute to be seen in this country for many a long year. It puts in perspective the importance of national joint negotiating machinery for the industry.

    If the dispute should unfortunately escalate—and we must all hope and pray that it does not and that it is somehow resolved—the effect would be calamitous. Burst water mains will go unrepaired unless the Government have sufficient troops to bring in from the British Army of the Rhine or other quarters, or they can utilise the services of small contractors. In part, that will be the Government's response. I doubt whether it will be adequate. What is certain is that we have a large number of water main bursts every day, because of the age of our water service and supply industry. Many of them will not be dealt with efficiently and promptly, as the householders have a right to expect.

    Many of the householders affected will be confronted with a serious problem. Before long the Secretary of State and other Ministers will have to advise householders that it will be their duty to boil every drop of water that comes from the taps because the quality of the water cannot be guaranteed or safeguarded.

    Probably even more difficult will be the problem of the untreated sewage that will confront the water authorities. As we know from experience, and as I know from having to deal with this problem, the filters will not be cleaned. That will mean that one cannot guarantee the quality of the water going out of the sewerage system and into our rivers.

    On previous occasions, members of the staff side of the water industry, NALGO members and others, have thought it their duty to clean the water filters and safeguard this aspect of the service. In the present dispute, NALGO has made it clear that it will not be prepared to offer that support to the water authorities. That is a new and difficult problem that will confront the authorities.

    The result of all that will undoubtedly be that before long, in many of our water authority areas, and particularly in the Thames water authority, raw sewerage will find its way quickly into the river system with devastating effects. That will be contrary to the statutory requirements of water authorities, under both British and European legislation, to maintain the quality of the river system. This will happen very rapidly in any national dispute. Before we get ourselves into a national dispute, I feel that it is right to spell out these facts so that everybody knows exactly what the consequences of this lamentable problem will be.

    Why has this dispute come about, and how have we got ourselves involved in this serious problem? It is a potentially most damaging problem, and it has come about as a direct result of Government interference in the wage negotiating machinery in the industry. The Government have to accept the full responsibility for having brought the position about.

    We discussed this at length in Committee, so I shall not go into too many details, but I reassert the position. I am glad to see the Secretary of State here, because when he was a Minister of State he was directly responsible for the water industry and felt it right to intervene directly in the negotiation procedures.

    The chairman of the National Water Council has made it clear that the Government intervened. As I have said on the Floor of the House and in Committee, the essential position is that the water chairmen were prepared to make an offer that they thought was negotiable and might be the basis of a settlement in this most essential of our industries. The offer was thought to be about 6 per cent., but on the day of the negotiation the Minister intervened by ringing up people involved in the negotiations and instructing them to offer 4 per cent. At the same moment, the Prime Minister was telling the House that the negotiators were completely free to reach their own decisions. That is now known not to have been the case. The Prime Minister had been sadly ill advised.

    9.15 pm

    The Government have got themselves into an absolutely hopeless situation. In recent months, there has been a total confusion of purpose and a total lack of principle in wage negotiations in the public sector. There has been a complete sense of expediency in the determination of judgments. If one follows this cycle—it is appropriate to use the word "cycle" when we are dealing with the water cycle as well as the wage cycle—we can see the impossible situation into which the Government have got themselves.

    The Government used to belabour the previous Labour Government—I am glad to see that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Varley), responsible for employment matters, is present—when we had difficulties during that awful winter about the vital importance of free collective bargaining. When the Conservative Government took over, they made it a first principle of industrial relations that they would always maintain free collective bargaining. The Government are therefore not in any position to complain if many of those on the trade union side of industry believed that there was some common purpose between the free collective bargaining that the trade unions wanted and the free collective bargaining that the Government stated to be their policy.

    Very soon, as a result of the pursuit of the monetarist policy, which is the economic base on which they stand, the Government found that decisions and agreements reached by free collective bargaining were unacceptable and, indeed, embarrassing to them. When the Civil Service unions asked only last year that these matters should be resolved in a civilised manner and that they should be referred to arbitration, the Government, having first said that there was free collective bargaining and then having intervened, declared that there would be no arbitration for people in the public sector. Those events formed the backcloth to negotiations in the water industry. They were followed by blatant interference in free collective negotiations within the water industry which has brought about the present impasse.

    It is extraordinary, now we are on the edge of this precipice, that the water authorities are saying, no doubt with the support of the Government, that they want to go to arbitration. It is inconceivable that the water authorities would go to arbitration if they did not have the support or possibly the prompting of the Government. The issue has gone full circle. The Government are now meeting themselves coming back in wage negotiations. It is a dilemma that the Government face not only in the water industry but in other industries. It would, however, be out of order for me to discuss those other industries under the new clause.

    The message I have received from today's union meeting is that the way out of the dilemma is not the arbitration that has been proposed. The simple reason is that the unions will not go to arbitration until they have first enjoyed what they believe is access to free negotiations with the employers' side. They say that they have not yet had any negotiation. Perhaps the Minister would care to reply to that. I hope that he will. The unions are saying that they have not yet had access to free negotiation with the employers for the water authorities, and ask how therefore they can consider entering into negotiation or anything of that nature until they can exercise the right of negotiation.

    That brings us to the question how the Government propose to get out of the impasse that has been created. It is a matter of vital importance to the House and the country, as well as to the industry. Will the negotiators now be completely free to negotiate? As I understand the position, ACAS is going back to see the employers tomorrow, having spent all today with the trade union side. From my discussions with the trade union side, I have no doubt that ACAS will now ask "Are you in a position freely to negotiate? Is this a meaningful negotiation, if we get both sides together again?" I beg Ministers to understand that that is what the Opposition want. Wherever the political advantages lie, those of us who have been responsible for the industry, as I was for five years, know how horrible would be the effect of a prolonged strike. It would impose intolerable burdens on women with young babies, on old people, and on others. It is the duty of every right hon. and hon. Member and of the Government to try to prevent that. I am glad that the Secretary of State, the Under-Secretary and I are in agreement on that. It would be an abhorrent situation.

    We must allow both sides of the industry to solve the matter freely by negotiation in a responsible manner. There is no industry in the country which, throughout its long history, has had more responsible negotiators conducting its wages settlements than those in the water industry. Indeed, some of the difficulties that have now arisen about comparability with workers in gas, electricity, and so on, have arisen because of the sense of responsibility of the negotiators. So the question is: what settlement is open to the employers' representatives to negotiate with the trade union side? If the Government can make it clear today that there is completely free negotiation, and that the instruction to stand firm on a wholly unrealistic 4 per cent. has gone, we may at last begin to make the progress that we all want.

    In case that does not prove possible, I take this opportunity to ask the Government what contingency plans they are making in the event of this catastrophe hitting the country. How do they intend, for example, to maintain the wholesome supply of clean water, which is their statutory duty under law? The statutory duty of the water authority is to supply people with a wholesome supply of clean water, and we want to know whether the Government intend to maintain that obligation. How do the Government intend to deal with the questions that I have raised involving a serious burst of a water main, the quality of the water in the taps and in the rivers, and the effect of untreated sewage, as well as flooding, drainage, and many other questions that I have not raised in detail.

    I raise these matters because they all arise directly from the national joint industrial council. In dealing with new clauses 9 and 10, I hope that the Government will say something helpful about national joint industrial councils.

    Will it be convenient if I intervene at some stage on the first issue that the right hon. Gentleman has raised? I am not sure whether this will be for the convenience of the House. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will reply to the general argument that the right hon. Gentleman is advancing in moving the new clause. I shall be happy to intervene if that is convenient.

    I seek your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that I can speak only once and I am about half way through my speech. I shall be happy to give way to the Secretary of State, who rightly discerns that I am moving on to the general principle.

    If it is for the convenience of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall seek to catch your eye when the right hon. Gentleman has completed his remarks.

    I am pleased to hear that. I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman any encouragement by suggesting that I shall be quicker in the knowledge that he wishes to intervene. I take note of the fact that he is trying helpfully to intervene.

    I move on from the immediate issue, which I think it was right to raise. Indeed, it would have been a dereliction of duty if I had not raised it. I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to Mr. Speaker, for allowing me some latitude.

    The general issue that the new clause raises is the abolition of national negotiating machinery. This will be the inevitable consequence of destroying the National Water Council. In future, under the Bill we shall have 10 nationalised industries instead of one. That will mean that we shall have 10 pieces of negotiating machinery. There will be nine for the English regions and one for Wales instead of the present one.

    We were told in Committee that these matters were being discussed by the chairmen and that they would come to a conclusion. I presume that their decision and the Government's decision will be reported to the House. In my judgment any decision to replace the central joint negotiating machinery in the water industry will be disastrous for the nation. It is inconceivable that anyone can believe that 10 separate water authorities should even consider holding 10 separate series of wage negotiations. The undermining of the national authority of the unions in those circumstances would be extremely embarrassing.

    The action of leapfrogging is well known and is an obvious danger which one would have thought the Government could understand. The most important consequence that will flow from not having national negotiating machinery is that the position of the central negotiators, who have been so responsible over the years in their negotiations, will be undermined. Is that what is wanted? I think sometimes that it is what some Ministers want. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield is listening to the debate. Having read some of the proposals by the Secretary of State for Employment for the Labour party, I came to the conclusion, as an ex-president of a trade union, that he was seeking to undermine the influence of the moderates within the trade union and labour movement. Irrespective of whether he wants to do that, that will be the inevitable consequence of his proposals. This is another example of people moving into areas that they do not understand and in which they will inflict enormous harm on the very causes and policies that they are seeking to espouse.

    My right hon. Friend, who has served on a local authority, will understand that the Government's proposals will take us back to the bad old days of the immediate post-war years. During that period I well recall authorities in the north-east fighting for what were then known as sanitary inspectors, who are now described as health inspectors. They offered salaries that were over the odds and sanitary inspectors moved from authority to authority to receive £5 and £10 increases. The local authorities were literally falling over one another to get the staff that they required. this is what will happen in the water industry. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is nonsensical to set man against man and area against area with people climbing over one another?

    9.30 pm

    I entirely agree with all those considerations. However, transcending those considerations, which are personal and therefore vital to the people concerned, is the national interest. If we do away with national negotiation we shall undermine the national interest throughout the water industry.

    There has been a period of comparative silence on the matter from the Government. We tried to deal with it in Committee. It was right to table the new clauses because it is essential that the Government have the opportunity to tell us their conclusions and what they are doing. One of the signs that the Government might not be acting in the best interests of the industry is the fact that although they propose to abolish the National Water Council and have nothing to say in the Bill about national joint industrial negotiations, none of the people involved was consulted by the Government about their proposals in the Bill. That resulted in a terrible loss of morale and undermining of confidence.

    I hope that the Under-Secretary or the Secretary of State will be able to satisfy us on questions that I have been asked to raise by the staff side. Those questions are important to the National Water Council. Will the staff be offered alternative jobs? What are their prospects? Will their pension rights be protected? What about their redundancy payments? Those are all the usual questions. The replies are essential to those individuals, who are entitled to ask the questions.

    One of the other aspects of national joint negotiations that is of great concern is the training programme in the water industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Campbell) has a special interest in that matter and talked about it on Second Reading. We have not been told what will happen to the training schemes on the industry, which are of the highest quality and are a great credit to it. They have served us well. Is it suggested that the overall training scheme for the industry should be broken up and replaced by ten separate training schemes? I know that some of the regional water authorities would like to do that, but it would not be in the best interests of the country.

    I am conscious that many hon. Members want to speak. I have probably spoken for too long. I hope that I shall be excused for that in view of the gravity of the questions that have been raised. We are concerned about the matter. I am glad that the Secretary of State will respond immediately about the strike in the water industry. I hope that the Under-Secretary will assure us that the national joint industrial councils will be maintained with the responsibility for wages, negotiation and training, which the situation demands.

    It might be for the convenience of the House if I intervene briefly to respond to the comments made by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) in his fair preamble to the new clause about the future negotiating procedures for the water authorities. I hope that the House will be agreeable if I leave it to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to reply specifically on the future arrangements and to respond to the new clause. I shall confine myself to commenting on the right hon. Gentleman's earlier remarks about the current situation, which is germane to negotiating arrangements. I entirely endorse his comments about the gravity of the situation. He is familiar from his own experience with the effects that limited industrial action had in certain parts of the country at the time of the Labour Government.

    As the House knows, the unions concerned have now given notice of certain forms of industrial action immediately, with effect from tonight, with overtime bans and refusal of co-operation, and of a national strike with effect from midnight on Sunday. As the right hon. Gentleman fairly said, both sides are having discussions with ACAS, and I wish to say nothing from the Dispatch Box today that might in any way impede, interfere with or confuse those very important discussions. I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman, too, chose his words carefully. I intend to say nothing more about those matters now as they are the subject of direct discussions.

    There are procedures in the water industry for settling disputes and I hope that they can be observed. In view of the gravity of the matters that might otherwise be involved, I think that the country is entitled to expect that those procedures are observed. I hope very much that the Opposition will feel able to lend their support to encouraging the observance of agreed procedures. No one in the House needs any further emphasis of the gravity of what might happen if serious industrial action took place.

    The right hon. Gentleman raised the important question of contingency plans. As soon as we received notice of the decisions taken by the unions at their meeting yesterday, announcing the immediate industrial action that they proposed to take and the fact that from next Sunday they would propose a national strike, the Government took immediate steps to put contingency arrangements in hand. I can inform the House that contingency arrangements, which I imagine are very similar to those that the Labour Government had in place for such situations, were immediately put in hand and troops are on notice of standby to be available. I should say at once that it is my very earnest hope that they will not be required and that the matter will be sensibly resolved without any need for their involvement, but I think that the House will agree that in a situation of this kind the Government have a responsibility and that we should have been totally failing in that responsibility if we had not taken precautionary steps.

    As the right hon. Gentleman, who knows as much about these matters as I, will recognise, it is unclear how far such contingency measures can go to meet the situations that might arise. The honest truth is that no one is quite clear what types of situation may arise, their scale and frequency, the work load and the problems that may be posed. The contingency arrangements are not a solution to the problem, but they are the best response that the Government can make in terms of taking precautions at this stage in view of the serious consequences that could arise.

    It is important to make it clear that we face serious disagreements. The water industry and the national joint industrial council have recognised in the past that they could face serious disagreements in their negotiations and discussions and there are procedures for seeking to resolve such disagreements. I hope very much that those procedures will be successful and I trust that it is the hope of the whole House that ACAS will be able to find some basis on which the matter can be resolved sensibly.

    I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He has said twice that there are procedures within the industry for the settlement of disputes. The prerequisite of the settlement of the threatened dispute is the freedom for employers and employees to negotiate freely. Can the Secretary of State assure us that the Government are prepared to back off and stop leaning on the employers by insisting on the 4 per cent.?

    The trap that the hon. Member is trying to lead me into is a discussion of the merits of the arguments that are being deployed before ACAS. The issue has a long history, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath said when he referred to comparability.

    I shall not go any further into the subject. It has a long history. Many meetings have taken place. There is a substantial divide. That is no secret between the bodies concerned. I may have misheard the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West (Mr. Brown), but I wish to correct a factual point. The offer of arbitration as an alternative was made at the first meeting between the employers and the unions. It has not emerged more recently. That is part of the procedures in the industry. The House will understand that I do not wish to press any further on the subject today.

    The hon. Gentleman fairly asked me about contingency arrangements. It was proper for him to ask, in view of the gravity of the problem. I hope that I have made it clear that those contingency measures have been taken and have now been put in hand. I am sure that that is the assurance that the hon. Gentleman would wish to have.

    I am grateful to the Secretary of State for speaking but I am left with a profound sense of disappointment. I appreciate his reply to the contingency planning point. The fact that he spoke about it in isolation, apart from any constructive discussion of how we may get out of the negotiation impasse, will lead people to fear the worst.

    The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West (Mr. Brown) made is crucial. I hope that the Secretary of State will deal with it. I accept that arbitration may have been offered on the first day of negotiations. In practice, that means that when the trade unions met the employers, they were told that they must accept 4 per cent. or go to arbitration. What is more, the 4 per cent. was offered on the instruction of the Government. In no sense is that free negotiation. That is what has brought us to the present extraordinary circumstances.

    It is essential that the Government do not go into the merits of the negotiations—it would be ludicrous for me to suggest that—but when ACAS goes back to the employers' side tomorrow, it must be able to ask whether they can settle and negotiate freely. That is the only question that a trade union organiser worth his salt is interested in.

    If the Secretary of State does not take this opportunity to clarify that point, his statement will not have helped but will have made a real solution more difficult to achieve. He should have taken this opportunity to say that the negotiators are free to negotiate to the best of their judgment the most sensible settlement that they can achieve for the industry. If he cannot tell us that the negotiators are free to settle—free, that is, from Government interference—I regret that the problem will be even more difficult tomorrow than I thought it would be.

    The right hon. Gentleman has invited me to advance some ideas as to how the dispute might be resolved. I wish to make it clear that, because these matters are currently being considered by ACAS, I have no intention of intervening. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot comment further. ACAS is holding discussions with each party concerned and it would be irresponsible to comment further.

    The right hon. Gentleman asked a specific question. He understands the position very well, and also why it would not be wise for me to comment further.

    If the hon. Gentleman listened, he would understand why I shall not give way.

    9.45 pm

    I declare an interest as Secretary of the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union group of Members of Parliament. I wish to express my deep concern. We are on the brink of a national stoppage that could result in far worse consequences than have resulted from any other stoppage experienced in Britain. I refer to a stoppage in the water supply and sewage industry. I was encouraged when the Secretary of State intervened, but disappointed with his statement. If anything, he has worsened the position. I hoped that he would say something to give hope for believing that the needless stoppage would not take place.

    I have a letter from Mr. Eddie Newall, the secretary of the national joint industrial council for the industry. He is a national industrial officer in my union. Two-thirds of the 29,000 workers in the industry are organised by the union. He says in his letter:
    "The combined memberships have voted by 4 to 1 to reject the Employers' offer and to authorise strike action in the Industry. The Executive Councils have considered the ballot result and given authority for strike action to secure a satisfactory settlement. Contacts with the Employers since then have made it clear that the Government has, in effect, taken over the decision making in the negotiations and that the Employers have no freedom whatsoever to respond to the desire of the Trade Union Side for a negotiated settlement."
    That is a serious statement, which a responsible individual such as Eddie Newall would not put on paper if it had not been absolutely true, chapter and verse. The letter continued:
    "I should point out that whilst the unions are determined to safeguard public health and safety it is inevitable that if troops are used our members will walk out completely. They have made this clear on several occasions."
    I sincerely hope that the Government take on hoard the seriousness of the nature of the dispute if troops are involved. I must warn the Government that, without the assistance of the professional engineers in the industry, the troops cannot do the job. I was Army Minister for five years, and can claim a little knowledge of the capacity of the technical corps of the British Army. I can say without fear of contradiction that there is no way in which the Army, Navy and Air Force combined can provide the technical know-how to avoid an absolute catastrophe if the dispute goes ahead.

    Mr. Newall continued:
    "The Government seen determined on enforcing a rigid 'pay policy', and denying the Employers the freedom to negotiate a settlement which deals with the specific problems of our industry. It would seem that they are prepared to face up to a major industrial conflict with a group of workers who have never before taken strike action on a National scale, and who have a history of reaching negotiated settlements."
    That shows the serious nature of the issue. Those workers are not a set of industrial hotheads who down tools at the drop of a hat three or four times a year. They are an extremely responsible work force who, in the past, have responded at all times to negotiations and who would do so on this occasion if they were given the opportunity.

    If the strike comes off, there can be no doubt where the responsibility will lie—firmly at the door of the Government. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) said, at the general election many trade unionists voted for the Government on the basis of a commitment to free collective bargaining. The water workers are denied the right to negotiate with their employers, the National Water Council. To talk about arbitration at the opening meeting of national negotiations, to make one offer and then to say that it must be arbitration or nothing, makes complete and arrant nonsense of the negotiating procedures in the industry. Arbitration is a long-stop, something that is used when the employers and employees have been locked together in endless hours of negotiation and can make no headway. At that point, they say "We must go to arbitration". They do not say that on the first day of the first meeting.

    It is an open secret that the water employers were prepared to go to that first meeting and to make an offer of about 6 per cent. If that had happened I am convinced that, two or three meetings later, the negotiations would have been completed and a settlement reached. There would have been no talk of strike action whatever. However, it goes without saying that the employers were instructed by the Government because the Prime Minister is obsessed with the 4 per cent norm in the public sector. That obsession exists despite the fact that she besmirched herself by the commitment to free collective bargaining that she gave during the 1979 election campaign.

    We all know about the unceremonious way in which the chairman of the National Water Council, Sir Robert Marshall, was bundled out of office, sacked or given the boot. Why? He was not prepared to remain as chairman and to see his industry bedevilled by the Government. The threatened strike could be avoided within hours—I am extremely disappointed with the Secretary of State's statement and the fact that he has now left the debate—if the Government were prepared to return to sanity and to announce tonight that the National Water Council and the NJIC for the industry could get back round the table and recommence, or commence—"recommence" was the wrong word to use—meaningful negotiations. It is scandalous that at this late stage the Government have not sought the permission of Mr. Speaker to make a statement on such a grave threatened dispute.

    I need not describe the scenario of the disaster that will befall the British public if the strike goes ahead. The idea of sewage flowing down Downing Street and Whitehall does not appeal to me, but the idea of sewage flowing down the streets of West Newcastle appeals to me even less. I hope that it will not happen, but it could happen if we reach a precipitous position.

    It angers and worries me that this has happened despite the fact that the water workers are eminently reasonable people. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Sir W. Elliott) is chairman of the Newcastle and Gateshead water company and he knows how reasonable his employees are. The hon. Gentleman nods his head in agreement. If the Minister could have said from the Dispatch Box tonight that the Government are prepared to allow the National Water Council and the NJIC to enter into meaningful negotiations without the Government insisting on the 4 per cent.—

    Does my hon. Friend accept that the dispute turns the Government's policy on its head? Previously, when public sector workers were in dispute they asked to go to arbitration and were refused by the Government. Now the Government are saying that the water workers must go to arbitration immediately without negotiation. During the National Health Service strike the Government said "Get back round the table". That is exactly what my hon. Friend is asking for the water workers, but the Government have taken an entirely opposite attitude towards them.

    My hon. Friend is correct to say that in this case the negotiations had not started when the Government said that there must be arbitration, whereas in other public service disputes there were endless hours of negotiaion and arbitration was refused.

    Although the water workers are eminently reasonable, attitudes will harden if a strike starts. I am sure that after two or three meetings between the employers and the employees a reasonable solution could have been agreed without any strike threat. Now we have that threat, but it is still possible to avoid the strike. It is imperative that we do so, because once the strike starts and attitudes harden, the individual who might have said "8½ per cent. to 9 per cent. is enough for me", if he has lost a week or two weeks' wages, will say "To yon place with the Government. They will pay for this now. I want my 15 per cent."

    Finally, the leading article of today's edition in Newcastle of The Journal, states:
    "This is a major challenge to the Government's policy on public sector pay—and since we have never lived through a water workers' strike before, it is difficult to calculate what the precise effects will be.
    "Potentially, of course, the consequences for the health of the nation could be very serious indeed—and it must be said that the Government are so far losing the propaganda battle over the four per cent. offer."
    The British people are certainly not behind the Government on the 4 per cent. offer. The editor of the journal concludes by saying:
    "The danger is that the public may now become the victims as the watermen test their determination against the Government's resolve.….unless the new Environment Secretary, Mr. Tom King, can be persuaded to make an eleventh hour intervention."

    It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.