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Prime Minister: Trade Unions

Volume 826: debated on Monday 19 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans the Prime Minister has to meet representatives of the Trades Union Congress, as well as individual trade unions, in the light of the current economic situation.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is responsible for labour relations and works closely with trade unions. Engagement is essential to developing and delivering our policies, and during the pandemic it helped to support jobs and to keep workers safe. For example, the unions and business worked together to help deliver a package of economic support through the job retention scheme that has protected millions of jobs.

My Lords, can the Minister request his colleagues to make clear what the basis is for the Government’s current policy, which comes across as rather dismissive and uncaring in view of the rapid rise of inflation? Can I ask him to encourage the Government, in view of the sharp rise in inflation since the last pay review body reports, to ask the pay review bodies to reconvene and bring forward in January proposals for an interim settlement that takes account of the recent rapid rise in inflation and of staffing levels, such as the 600-midwife shortfall reported to me by the Royal College of Midwives this morning?

I thank my noble friend for that question but, as he knows, the Government have said that they will accept the recommendations from the independent pay review bodies in full. We certainly hope that the trade unions will call off the actions that are causing so much misery to billions of people all over the country.

As the former leader of Unite the Union, let me tell noble Lords that no worker wants to go out on strike, as it costs them wages that they can least afford to lose. But workers, such as our marvellous nurses and others, are being driven to despair and desperation; their must-go place before Christmas is the local food bank, unfortunately. Pay the nurses and other public servants proper wages covering inflation that is not of their making, and stop hiding behind the farcical and outdated review body’s recommendations. It is corporate profiteering that is driving inflation. Does the Minister agree?

It will not surprise the noble Lord to know that I do not agree with him. The reason we have independent pay review bodies is to try to take the politics out of these settlements. The Government have said that we will accept those recommendations in full. Frankly, some of the increases that are being asked for are unaffordable.

My Lords, over the weekend several senior government spokespeople have justified not increasing the offer on public sector pay because it would fuel inflation. I believe that the Minister here is more economically literate than those spokesmen, because he knows well that public sector pay does not fuel inflation, neither is it driving private sector pay—you have only to look at the discontinuity now. Will the Minister please disabuse his colleagues of this specious argument? Will he urge them to sit down with the nurses and settle this dispute?

Of course we want to see the action ended and the dispute brought to an end, but it remains the case that, if above-inflation pay rises are accepted, that will mean less money for the services that everybody wants to see expanded. There is a limited pot of money that can go only so far.

My Lords, at some point the Government are going to have to find a way out. The Minister’s noble friend has suggested a very elegant way—by asking the review body to review the evidence. Would he confirm that the report of the review body for nurses came out in July, based on evidence submitted three months before? Surely there is a unique case here to ask the review body to look again.

I understand the point that the noble Lord is making but the problem is that, once you make an exception for one group, I imagine that lots of other deserving groups will also want exceptions made for them. Pretty soon, the exception becomes the rule. We are sticking to the position that we asked the pay review bodies to look at the appropriate level of remuneration; they have done so and we have accepted their recommendation.

My Lords, is it not true that, in the National Health Service, there are many different grades that nurses can achieve? They can go on doing the same job but be promoted up the grades and get more pay.

I am not overly familiar with the pay grades in the National Health Service—perhaps my noble friend Lord Markham could have answered that on the previous Question better than me.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Government have lost the public opinion battle? Nobody believes that the independent pay review is independent or the Government’s figures about how much it will cost per household. The Government frittered away billions on the PPE scandal, so people just do not believe them any more. Will the Minister accept that it is time to sit down and talk money with nurses, posties and railway workers?

It is very easy for Opposition Members to say that we should grant this and that pay rise, but only a limited number can be funded. The noble Baroness talks about PPE; I seem to remember that, when we had these debates in the House at the time, the Opposition Benches were united in telling us that we needed to procure more of it as quickly as possible and not let other things get in the way of delivering essential PPE for our health service professionals. That is what we did.

My Lords, does not the independent report predate a further surge in inflation? What do the Government consider to be appropriate to deal with that further surge?

I am not familiar with the details of the negotiations. I can tell the noble and learned Lord only that the Government have accepted in full the recommendations of the pay review body. I assume that, when it reports again next year, it will take account of the inflation that has taken place this year.

My Lords, do the Government understand that this pay review body made its award when there was low inflation? Inflation is now at 10% or higher. Is it not time that we asked it to look at this again and give a fair offer? It might not be above inflation, but it would be a lot fairer than the one being offered.

No matter how many times Opposition Members ask the same question, they will get the same answer. We have accepted the recommendation from the pay review body. The next step is that another pay review body will presumably look at the issue again next year and take account of the impact of inflation and workforce patterns on availability and recruitment, et cetera, for this year. That is the appropriate time to do it.

My Lords, during the recent crisis, the mood of the nation was clearly that we were all in it together and people observed common rules—with a few exceptions in Downing Street and Barnard Castle. However, that is not the public mood in the current cost of living crisis; the mood is much more divisive, and the burden is falling almost totally on public servants. Is this not a recipe for strikes and for key workers leaving the essential services on which we all depend? Will the Government adjust their position and discuss with the TUC and relevant unions how we can recreate that mood of being in it together, come through this crisis and put an end to the damaging disruption?

We sit down with the TUC and others to discuss these matters, and we worked together during the pandemic. I remind the noble Lord that the TUC does not represent all workers; 75% of workers in this country are not in trade unions.

Does my noble friend agree that it is very difficult to imagine, and in some cases to remember, what it is like as a family to look towards Christmas not knowing how you will meet your responsibilities? Does that not put a particular cast on the current rail strike, which is aimed not at fat cats but at the young, the weak, the sick and, in particular, old people—grandparents who want nothing more than to get home and join their families for Christmas? Does he agree that the rail strike is looking less like a normal industrial dispute and more like one man’s ego trip?

My noble friend makes an important point. It is almost as if the rail unions, in particular, are seeking to punish the public at this difficult time and exploit the monopoly position that they have to make life as difficult as possible for people wanting to join their friends and family for Christmas. It is appalling behaviour.

My Lords, on Tuesday the UK quarter 3 growth figures will be published. They are expected to show that the economy has contracted by 0.2%, as well as real falls in household disposable income as wage increases fail to match inflation. These pressures on working people will have a severe impact, with families already cutting back on food and heat. What discussions have the Government had with the trade unions on policy options which will give families the support they will need to get through the crisis in the winter months?

We have given extensive levels of support. We are spending tens of billions of pounds on direct support to households over the winter on energy bills, cost of living payments, et cetera. This Government have an excellent record of standing by people, both in the pandemic and since then. We all know it is a difficult time; public expenditure is tight and, if what the noble Lord says is true and the economy has contracted, then there is even less money to go around because tax receipts will collapse as well. We have to keep all of these matters under consideration. We will stand by families as much as we can, and I think our record proves that.