Lords amendments agreed to.
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Norman Fowler) : In the light of recent disputes the Government are reviewing the law on industrial action. We will bring forward any proposals in due course.
Mr. Riddick : I welcome the review. May I suggest, however, that a possible way forward would be to remove the legal immunities enjoyed by trade unions during strike action, particularly in public service monopolies? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the decision by the National Union of Railwaymen to continue its strike after the other two rail unions had accepted British Rail's offer is almost unbelievable and utterly disgraceful? Does it not show that the NUR does not give a damn about the travelling public?
Mr. Fowler : I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says about the decision itself--it was a deplorable decision, and one which caused hardship to many people. I can only hope that the NUR will think again about its policy. As for the review, we shall obviously consider the whole position and, as I have said, bring forward proposals in due course.
Mr. Bowis : Does my right hon. Friend agree that far too many strikes take place in the public as opposed to the private sector? Does he also agree that there are far too many monopolies in the public sector? While any strike is to be deplored, the effects of strikes in the monopoly public services go far beyond the people directly involved in the industrial action, hitting those who cannot use alternative
Column 204provision, either because there is no such provision or because they cannot afford it. Should not my right hon. Friend take action to protect the vulnerable in our society?
Mr. Fowler : As I have said, we are reviewing the legal position. As an immediate step, I think that the NUR should accept the tribunal award, as have the other unions concerned. I do not believe that the public will understand if one of the unions keeps the strike going. We want an end to the dispute and so do the public--and so, I believe, do most railwaymen.
Mr. Grocott : Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to condemn people in well-paid jobs, including Ministers, who are always attacking those in low-paid jobs for taking industrial action to improve their standard of living?
Mr. Fowler : No one is attacking anyone at this point. [Interruption.] We are saying that the NUR should follow the example of the other two unions and accept the tribunal award. It would come well from the Opposition--particularly the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher)--to condemn industrial action which is causing unnecessary hardship to many thousands of people.
Mr. Cryer : Does the Secretary of State not realise that the same sort of attack was made on the trade union movement in pre-war Fascist Germany? As the Prime Minister who appointed the right hon. Gentleman--and who may well be shifting him--supports trade unions in Poland, will he tell her that trade unions in this country should also have rights, which should not be confined to Poland? Why should not the NUR make its own decision after the weeks and months of deception on the part of British Rail management, which has betrayed agreements and continually gone behind the union's back, especially in the courts?
Mr. Fowler : I believe that the vast majority of people want the NUR to accept the tribunal's decision. The other two unions involved in the dispute have accepted it, and it is incomprehensible that the NUR has taken its present position.
The purpose of industrial relations legislation is to protect the public, and every poll carried out shows that our trade union legislation is supported by the vast majority.
Mr. Devlin : Is my right hon. Friend aware that since 1979 there have been three times as many strikes in the public sector as in the private sector? Does that not make the case for further privatisation and also for the further regulation of public sector unions, whose strike action inevitably hits the most vulnerable people?
Mr. Fowler : No decision has yet been taken on privatisation. I repeat that the immediate action that can be taken now is for the NUR to call off the industrial action and accept the tribunal's award, which has already been accepted by the two other unions.
Mr. Fowler : There is, of course, a right to strike, but I think that the hon. Gentleman and also the public would expect us to look at strikes in the public services. We are not alone in doing that. Other European countries are
Column 205having similar problems. I have already said that we shall review the position, and that is what we shall do. When we have reached conclusions, we shall announce them.
Mr. Jacques Arnold : Will my right hon. Friend accept from me that my constituents in Kent are fed up with strikes in the public services and with the posturing of national union officers? Is it not a fact that the losers are not only the public but public servants in the south-east and that we should be far better served by regional pay and local negotiations?
Mr. Fowler : That is obviously one of the issues in the dispute, but I think that what the public and the railwaymen want is an end to the dispute. Apparently, only the NUR executive wants the dispute to continue. I very much hope that the Labour party will make it clear this afternoon that it, too, wants the industrial action to be called off.
Mr. Meacher : Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge and make clear that a ban on public sector strikes--something which the Government talked about during the dispute--is a daft idea? It did not work during the second word war, it was specifically rejected by the Government in 1981, it is not operated in other European countries and it is simply an invitation to provocation by management. Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that if he seriously wants to safeguard essential services, as we all do, he would do far better if, rather than withdrawing fundamental democratic rights, he sought to improve the arbitrary and inept mismanagement that we have seen so often in the public sector in recent years?
Mr. Fowler : As I have made clear, we are reviewing the law on industrial relations. We shall make our proposals known after the review. The whole House will have noted that the hon. Member for Oldham, West has taken his line straight from the NUR executive. He has offered not one word of condemnation of the industrial action. The fact is that however damaging or irresponsible any industrial action is, the hon. Gentleman will always support it.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick Nicholls) : Representations are received from time to time. The eligibility conditions for employment training are sufficiently widely drawn to help those who are most disadvantaged in the labour market.
Mr. Janner : Is it correct that the Department of Employment has given instructions to employment service managers that the number of people to be admitted to or referred for employment training must be increased by 50 per cent? If that is true, does it not mean that people will be put on employment training who are totally unsuitable for it and that this is yet another of the Government's efforts to fiddle the unemployment figures?
Mr. Nicholls : No, the employment training programme is the most successful programme so far to train the adult unemployed to get themselves back into the world of work. The programme is supported by a great number of
Column 206Labour-controlled authorities. There is no question of its being compulsory or of trying to force people to train. The Government are anxious that anyone who has it in him to benefit from the sort of training available should do so.
Mr. Simon Coombs : Does my hon. Friend recognise that in some parts of the country the number of people available for employment training is diminishing rapidly? Will he therefore examine carefully the need for a flexible policy to ensure that the additional cost per head is allowed for in Government budgeting for the future of the scheme?
Mr. Nicholls : My hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to the consequences for employment training of the declining unemployment rate. He may have wondered why the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) did not remind the House that the percentage fall in unemployment in his constituency for the year ending June 1989 was 19.2 per cent. We accept that funding arrangements have to be kept under review.
Mr. Fowler : In March 1989 the work force in employment in the United Kingdom was 26,685,000. This represents an increase of nearly 600,000 since March 1988 and is the highest level of employment ever in this country.
Mr Maples : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the increase in the general level of employment in Britain has resulted in a fall in the level of unemployment in my constituency of more than 20 per cent. in the past 12 months? What is the level of unemployment in Greater London and how many vacancies are registered there?
Mr Fowler : Greater London has an unemployment rate of about 5 per cent. In Greater London generally, unemployment has fallen by more than 24 per cent. in the year to June 1989. Overall, there are now 226,000 vacancies in jobcentres around the country and we estimate that there are 600,000 vacancies in the economy generally. In Greater London there are about 25,000 vacancies in jobcentres and more than 100,000 in the economy. There is therefore no reason why unemployment should not continue to fall, provided that pay settlements are reasonable and strikes are avoided.
Mr. James Lamond : Why does not the Secretary of State give us the other side of the picture? For example, more than 15,000 people have lost jobs in the textile industry this year alone. There is never a statement from the Dispatch Box, like the one boasting of the Honda investment, about the closure by Courtaulds in the north-west.
Mr. Fowler : Obviously, there are areas where unemployment has been more difficult and has risen in contrast with other areas. The hon. Gentleman will know that the rate of employment in the north-west has reduced at a faster rate than most other areas of the country.
4. Mr. Hardy : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how many officials of the Manpower Services Commission are directly involved in the supervision of employment training ; and what is the average number of schemes and participants for which each such officer is responsible.
Mr. Nicholls : Around 1,500 staff in the Training Agency's area offices are involved in the administration of employment training. These staff are engaged in a range of duties, including checking claims and authorising payments, monitoring schemes and general office duties. Taking into account these different functions, on average there is about one member of staff per training agent or manager, or one member of staff per 130 trainees.
Mr. Hardy : That scarcely suggests that there are sufficient resources to provide a proper response when there are grounds for serious concern about any particular scheme, as is the case with one scheme in the metropolitan borough of Rotherham, about which my hon. Friends and I have been in correspondence with the Minister.
Mr. Nicholls : I do not accept that the figures show any such thing. I can only repeat the offer that I made to the hon. Gentleman as long ago as May--that if he and his hon. Friends wish to see me to discuss a particular scheme I shall be more than happy to do so. Certainly his views would not be shared by his own metropolitan borough council--a Labour- controlled council which is involved in employment training as a training manager and provides 175 places.
Mr. Baldry : Does not employment training provide high-quality training for those in the work force or the potential work force who might otherwise find it difficult to obtain skills training? It is not the case that 18 per cent. of those on employment training have literacy or numeracy difficulties, 11 per cent. come from ethnic minorities, 12 per cent. have physical disabilities and 50 per cent. come from inner cities? Those groups need to be targeted to bring them into the labour force. Instead of carping, the Labour party should be applauding these initiatives.
Mr. Nicholls : My hon. Friend has it exactly. At a time when unemployment is coming down dramatically--in the constituency of the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), for example, it has fallen by 27.7 per cent. in the past year--those still unemployed find it harder to get back to work. The whole climate of employment training and the various waivers of eligibility criteria are designed to ensure that those most in need of help obtain the help that they need.
Mr. Adley : I welcome that answer, but does my right hon. Friend not agree that there is a slight incongruity in his reply and the fact that Ministers at the Department of Transport with responsibility for British Rail have not met the unions for a year? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the intransigence of the National Union of Railwaymen, which we have seen in the past few hours holding the jobs of other workers to ransom, is one reason why there is an urgent need to restructure the trade unions in the railways and replace three trade unions with one? Does my right hon. Friend see any role for his officials in trying to bring that process forward?
Mr. Cope : As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the way out of the present difficulty is for the NUR to accept the 8.8 per cent. offer arising from the tribunal's decision. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service is, of course, always available to help both sides in any dispute and it, rather than my officials, is the proper body to approach.
Mr. Wilson : If the Minister gets around to meeting trade union leaders, will he place on the agenda the plight of 16 and 17-year-olds? Does he realise that one of the risks of meeting trade union leaders is that the bogus unemployment statistics that Ministers use so freely may be challenged? Does he accept that according to statistics supplied by the House of Commons Library, fully one quarter of the alleged drop in unemployment in Scotland between April 1988 and April 1989 is accounted for by the simple device of removing all 16 and 17-year-olds from the unemployment register? More than 18,000 Scottish unemployed 16 and 17-year- olds were claiming benefit in April 1988. In April 1989, there were none. Does the Minister regard that as a success for Government policy or for statistical sleight of hand?
Mr. Cope : No trade union leaders whom we have met recently have raised that matter. There are plenty of youth training scheme places available in all areas, including the hon. Gentleman's own area. That is the most important point. All the statistics are published and made available. on a proper international basis.
6. Sir Michael Shaw : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how many complaints about secondary picketing or secondary action have been received by the trade union commissioner ; and if he will make a statement.
Sir Michael Shaw : I welcome that reply, but does my right hon. Friend not agree that the Government's action in changing the law has been received well and has been of real benefit not only to all those engaged in industry, but to the general public?
Mr. Cope : Yes, I think that it has been an exceptionally beneficial measure, which we introduced among other trade union reforms. It would be exceptionally damaging if it were reversed, as the Labour party intends.
Column 209the workers--predominantly women--are in the fifth week of a strike and trying to persuade management to grant trade union recognition? Does he understand that the women concerned, who when in work receive £61 for a 38-hour week, are anxious to obtain trade union recognition and to improve wages and conditions of employment? Will he urge the management of Ever-Sure Textiles to get back to the ACAS talks so that this unhappy dispute can be resolved quickly?
Mr. Cope : I do not intend to intervene in the dispute. No applications for assistance about secondary action in the case the hon. Gentleman mentioned or in others, have been received by the commissioner.
7. Mr. Colvin : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how many days were lost through strikes in the first quarter of the current year and in the same period of 1979 ; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Fowler : In the first quarter of this year, 175,000 working days were lost through strikes. During the first quarter of 1979, in the period of the last Labour Government, the number of working days lost through strikes was 6,724,000.
Mr. Colvin : What is all this talk about a summer of discontent? On the basis of those figures, the position during Labour's winter of discontent was 40 times worse than the present situation. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that industrial disputes in the public sector are three times more likely than in the private sector and that if we want industrial peace in public transport, whether among railway workers or air traffic controllers, we should either ban strikes or privatise the industries, or both?
Mr. Fowler : I have already said that privatisation is a longer-term issue. We are reviewing industrial relations law and will make our announcements in due course. I think that most hon. Members want an end to the current dispute and want the NUR to accept the offer that is now being made.
Mr. John P. Smith : Does the Minister recognise that the primary reason for the reduction in strikes since 1979 was mass unemployment-- topping 3 million--and the decimation of whole tracts of the industrial sector? Does he recognise that much of the legislation passed during that time has been irrelevant, which is why we now have an upsurge in strikes?
Mr. Fowler : I do not accept that. Every opinion poll has shown that the public value the changes in the law that have been introduced since 1979. I know few people who want to return to the kind of conditions that we had before 1979. The only exception is the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher).
Mr. Roger King : Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the great changes that has occurred since 1979 is that working people and management have worked much more closely together in providing pay and conditions based on productivity and an understanding that unless they produce the right goods at the right price their jobs and future prosperity are at risk?
Mr. Fowler : That is right. Over the past year, there has been a record increase in the number of jobs created. One of the lessons learnt from the 1970s was that industrial action and strikes not only lost jobs but exported our jobs overseas. I do not think that anyone wants to return to that situation. That is why it is so eccentric of the Labour party to put forward proposals to extend secondary action and secondary picketing.
Mr. Fatchett : Does not the Secretary of State realise that later figures for this year show a substantial increase in the number of days lost through industrial action? How does he explain that increase? Is it because of the Government's failure to handle inflation? Is it because senior management are paying themselves up to a 200 per cent. wage increase? Is it because the present Secretary of State believes that he has a personal career interest in generating conflict in industry?
Mr. Fowler : I make it absolutely clear where we and the Government stand. We want to see an end not only to this dispute but to other industrial disputes. The public certainly want the railway dispute to end, as do most railwaymen. The most indicative part of the debate this afternoon has been the way in which the Opposition Front Bench avoided every opportunity of condemning industrial action and of urging the NUR to follow the example of the other two unions, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, and to accept the tribunal's arbitration decision. The public will draw their own conclusions about the Opposition's attitude.
Mr. Gow : Is it my right hon. Friend's view that today's strike and any future strike called by the NUR are unjustified and unjustifiable? Is it his view that it is in the best interests of every member of the NUR, of every employee of British Rail, of British Rail and of the travelling public that this strike should cease at once?
Mr. Fowler : Yes, that is entirely my view, and it is also the view of the overwhelming majority of the public and of all the travelling public. I think that the message that should go out is that this strike should be called off. It is against the public interest, and the sooner it is called off, the better it will be for everyone concerned.
Ms. Ruddock : Is the Minister aware that his figures conceal the fact that there has been a cut in places which greatly exceeds the cut in the level of unemployment in Greater London. Is he trying to run down the Deptford skill centre? If not, how does he explain the fact that the number of students on the plumbing course has gone down from nine to four, that no tool kits are provided and that there is no instructor? Could it possibly be because the skill centre is based on prime development land? Does this not
Column 211make a complete nonsense of the £14 billion employment training advertising campaign that the Government are promoting?
Mr. Nicholls : No, it does not. If the hon. Lady looked at the success of employment training, she would see that it has been very substantial. That success is apparently shared in by her London borough, because at the time of the original contracting for places to provide employment training, her local Labour-controlled authority expressed an interest in the scheme. It is quite obvious that, when the unemployment figures are falling, there may be a reduction in training places. The point is that this scheme provides places for those who want to be trained. That is something in which the hon. Lady should take delight and not denigrate.
Mr. Ian Bruce : Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have got their figures wrong in terms of employment training simply because, in their wildest dreams, they could not have expected unemployment to come down as quickly as it has? Will he confirm that many private employers are now providing a great deal more training as an incentive for people to join their companies, and that this is to be welcomed--indeed, it should be welcomed by both sides of the House?
Mr. Nicholls : My hon. Friend is exactly right. We never predicted the extent to which the unemployment figures would fall. The fall has been even larger than the Labour party said it would achieve with policies that have failed in the past. The important thing about the programme is that it is working and that it has the increasing commitment of the employer community. It has shown that it can get unemployed people back to work, and it has the support of local authorities throughout the country, many of them Labour controlled. The only place where the scheme is constantly denigrated is in the House, by Opposition Members.
Mr. Tony Lloyd : The whole House will have noted that the Under- Secretary of State has totally failed to answer the original supplementary question. Let me repeat it for his benefit. Will he comment on the quality of a scheme where trainees are supposedly on a plumbing course but there is no instructor and no tool kit? Is this not typical of employment training? Why does he not respond to that? Secondly, will he respond to the question about whether the Government intend to run down the Deptford skill centre-- the number of instructors at the end of August will be two thirds what it is now--because, as planning permission has already been granted on that site, it is worth far more as a piece of real estate than it is as a place for skills training?
Mr. Nicholls : It should be obvious from everything that I have said that the Government are totally committed to having a training programme which is of a proper quality. If the hon. Gentleman has a particular case where he believes that those high standards of training have fallen down, there is no reason why he cannot bring it to my, or my right hon. Friend's attention, and we will look at it. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman tries to pretend, by coming to the Dispatch Box with case details which we do not have, that that says something about the quality of the programme, but all it does is say something about the quality of Labour's opposition to the employment figures coming down.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Lee) : Instructions to disablement resettlement officers require them to consider the availability of suitably registered disabled people, and the degree of commitment shown by employers towards meeting their obligations under the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944.
Mr Ashley : Does the Minister recognise that more than three quarters of firms do not fulfil their quota obligation to ensure that disabled people make up 3 per cent. of their work force? Is he aware that more than half of those firms receive a permit from the Department to enable them to evade their responsibilities to disabled people? Does the Minister accept that the Department is showering firms with permits as though they were confetti--18,500 of them--making a mockery of the quota system? The Minister should advocate granting permits only in exceptional circumstances when there are no disabled people available to do the job, which is not so today, with two thirds of disabled people looking for jobs.
Mr. Lee : The right hon. Gentleman will know that we are examining the quota system as part of our wider review. The first draft of the review document is with Ministers now. The right hon. Gentleman said that we had been showering permits on firms. In fact, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the numbers have been constant for some years.
Mr. Lee : We are always doing just what my hon. Friend suggests and I also stress that the Government have spent substantial amounts of money on help for the disabled--about £220 million in mainstream employment terms and a further £128 million on specific programmes in 1988-89.
Mr. Wareing : Would it not make more sense if, instead of making threats about abolishing the quota system, the Minister made a positive attempt to ensure that the system worked? For example, when will the number of disablement resettlement officers be restored to its 1979 level? Should not the Minister be keen to help disabled people rather than trying to ruin the existing system which is being destroyed by his Government's policies through the Department's allocation of permits?
Mr. Lee : As I have said, the Government are spending a substantial amount in trying to help disabled people in a host of ways. I resent the hon. Gentleman's claim that we are threatening the quota system. That is far from the truth. I am saying only that the quota system is being examined sensibly as part of our overall review. In addition, I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that the Public Accounts Committee questioned the quota system and pointed out that it was costing £1.4 million to administer.
Mr. Sayeed : Does my hon. Friend agree that surveys show that disabled people give loyal, capable and consistent service? Will his Department point out to employers just how valuable disabled people are and encourage them to employ more, voluntarily?
Mr. Lee : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We believe in a policy of promoting the employment of disabled people by good practice rather than by legislation and with the increasing tightening of the labour market there are greater opportunities than ever before for the employment of disabled people.
Mr. Nicholls : There are 1,307 organisations which are contracted with the Training Agency to provide training as training managers. A further 180 organisations are contracted to provide assessment as training agents.
Mr. Wallace : In a written answer to the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) on 6 July, the Minister said that of the 23 large company employment training schemes, almost half had fewer than 50 per cent. of the maximum number of places allowed taken up. Apparently, the drop-out rate has been accelerating. Given that employment training is the only scheme available for the long-term unemployed and as someone who therefore wants that scheme to work, may I ask the Minister whether he accepts that those figures are unsatisfactory? What assessment has he made of what has gone wrong and what does he propose to do about it?
Mr. Nicholls : For someone who expresses his commitment to employment training, the hon. Gentleman makes a highly selective use of the information given in parliamentary answers. The hon. Gentleman should look at the total number of placements provided by employers as training managers at both national and area level. If he examines the employer placements provided by many major national companies he will find that there are more than 14,000 places available in training managerships and a great many employment placements with major employers who are not training managers.
Mr. Loyden : Does the Minister agree that the reason for the drop outs and the low take-up is that, with few exceptions, the employment training scheme is a sham? Evidence shows that in many areas many of the schemes are closing down because the places are not being taken up.
Mr. Nicholls : No. That is just about as far from the truth as it could possibly be. The training programme has the support not only of Conservative-controlled authorities, but of many Labour-controlled authorities. It is that cross-party and cross-community support that helps to make the scheme so successful. The shame of the Liverpool city council, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is that it went further than merely not joining in ; it actually tried to boycott the employment training programme. That says
Column 214something about the real commitment of Left- wing councils to doing something positive to help those who need help.
Mr. Raffan : By asking the British Tourist Authority to devolve greater authority to its overseas regions, does my hon. Friend risk the possibility of more uniform and so less effective promotion of Wales overseas?