Anthony Meyer – 1978 Speech on the Loyal Address

Below is the text of the speech made by Anthony Meyer, the then Conservative MP for West Flint, in the House of Commons on 1 November 1978.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn) that, if a Labour Government were to be returned with a large majority, the policies about which we heard from the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) would feature in their programme rather than those currently being defended by the Prime Minister. Indeed, I would go further and say that it would be a question not merely of the size of the majority which would drive them that way, but more the expectation of four or more years of power. In other words, at the beginning rather than at the end of a Parliament they would show themselves more ready to embark on Socialist measures.

I can see only one consolation in the postponement of the election which the people of this country so manifestly wanted—an election which I am certain, whatever the opinion polls may say, would have resulted in a decisive Conservative victory—and that is the elegant, charming and witty speech made by the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) and ​ the fact that we shall have him with us for the duration of this Parliament.

If I wanted to find in the Queen’s Speech a convincing reason why the postponement of the election was so disastrous, I should find it primarily in the statement that

“legislation will be introduced to improve arrangements for compensation of workers on short-time, and to reduce redundancies at times of high unemployment by encouraging the alternative of short-time working.”

I am sure that that will be an extremely popular proposal. It is a way of masking the unemployment which, despite temporary improvements, is gaining on us apace. Employers’ contributions to national insurance are to be increased to subsidise short-time working. It seems a classic example of the kind of short term measure that we get in a pre-election period from a Government who are worried about their prospects—a measure which certainly will be popular and will equally certainly contribute in the long term to a worsening of unemployment because it will contribute markedly to a worsening of our competitive ability. As an operation, it is like filling in the cracks in the facade by digging away stones from the foundations. I believe that the consequences of this operation, as with other short term cosmetic operations for concealing unemployment, will prove to be disastrous in terms of future unemployment.

I turn briefly to those items in the Gracious Speech which concern the Principality as I am the first Welsh Conservative Member to speak to the Address. It seems from the Queen’s Speech that the Government have paid quite a high price to secure those three vital Plaid Cymru votes. Having listened to the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mrs. Bain) and the impossibly high price that she was putting on the Scottish National Party’s support to either side of the House which cared to bid for it, I understand why the Government settled for the slightly softer option of buying the votes of Plaid Cymru.

The proposals in the Queen’s Speech for improved compensation arrangements for the victims of pneumoconiosis and silicosis are welcome, but I hope that no one will run away with the idea that these are the result of a sustained campaign by Plaid Cymru. Its part in this ​ matter reminds me of the fly on the coach wheel which, as the four great shire horses dragged the coach to the top of the hill, triumphantly exclaimed “You would never have got there without my help.” There has been an all-party effort to secure these improvements. I am sure that any Government who found themselves in a position to improve these compensation arrangements would have done so. The fact that this Government have done it at this time indicates that they are anxious to secure the votes of Plaid Cymru. I hope that they are also converted to the need for these improvements.

There is one other item possibly affecting Wales on which I should like to touch. I note with curiosity that the Government have renewed their pledge or reaffirmed their commitment to the reorganisation of the electricity supply industry in both England and Wales. I think that very early on we should have an assurance that that does not mean that MANWEB, the company which provides electricity to North Wales and Merseyside, is to be split into separate Welsh and English elements. All who know about such matters know that the cost of supplying consumers in North Wales is much higher than the cost of supplying consumers in Merseyside where the population is greater. A split of MANWEB can result only in higher electricity tariffs for people in North Wales.

I hope that we shall have an early assurance on this matter. If we do not, there will be considerable alarm and despondency at the prospect of still further increases in electricity tariffs which are already bearing heavily on certain consumers, particularly old people and those who are unfortunate enough to have electric heating in their homes.

I shall deal briefly with two omissions from the Gracious Speech. The first involves a prosaic matter, but it causes considerable and increasing concern to certain people in my constituency. I had hoped to find some reference in the speech to the necessity of amending the Shops Act 1950. I had hoped particularly for an amendment to Part IV of that Act which deals with Sunday opening. We are in an inextricable mess over the law on Sunday opening. This is imposing an intolerable duty on local authorities, particularly in areas which can claim to be resorts. They have the right to permit​ opening on 18 Sundays a year. That figure is not adequate because of the short seasons which affect many holiday resorts. The law imposes upon local authorities the intolerable task of forbidding shops from doing something which they and the public want to do and which is in the interests of all but which is contrary to the law. Local authorities suffer great unpopularity because they must carry out the law. The situation is not their fault. It is time that the law was changed.

Local authorities are unable to do much to control the fly-by-night operators who set up Sunday markets. These are often in unsuitable areas and they cause traffic congestion and dirt. There are provisions to forbid this activity but they are inadequate. The delays and complications involved in enforcing the law make it virtually impossible to catch the fly-by-night trader. If the laws are enforceable, they are enforceable only against respectable stall operators whom no one wishes to harass. Local authorities need greater powers of discretion both to permit Sunday opening for respectable traders and to prevent the installation of undesirable types of Sunday market.

I shall make my point briefly. There is one omission from the Queen’s Speech which grieves me. It concerns a matter which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition mentioned. I am grieved about the omission of any arrangements for improving the process of consultation of trade union members on the election of their officers and the decision to take industrial action.

I was glad to hear my right hon. Friend give a pledge that a Conservative Government would make provision for a postal ballot to be conducted at public expense for major trade union decisions. I hope that that principle will be extended to include the provision for a secret ballot—not necessarily a postal ballot—on every major decision affecting industrial action. I confess that I do not understand the hostility which this proposal arouses on the Government side of the House.

I am sorry that the Lord President is no longer in the Chamber I have read of the indignation which he summoned up when he commented on the difficulties which were put in the way of ​ the introduction of a secret ballot for parliamentary and other elections when local land or mill owners were able to intimidate those employees who voted in a way which was unacceptable to the boss. The secret ballot is the most elementary requirement of democracy. No system can call itself democratic if it does not, as a matter of course, include provision for a secret ballot.

This matter is of particular concern to my constituency. In my constituency a number of industrial disputes are being fomented and maintained which were possibly originally caused by direct intimidation by militant elements which do not scruple to use the most ruthless methods to oblige their fellow workers to come out on strike and remain on strike. The consequence is that North Wales, part of which I have the honour to represent, which once boasted that it had the finest labour relations in the country, can no longer make such a boast because a large number of major building projects are being deliberately sabotaged by professional agitators using the art of intimidation.

A secret ballot for all such decisions would destroy the ability of such agitators to intimidate fellow workers. To argue that a secret ballot among the miners and the railwaymen confirmed a decision to strike is not the answer. In those cases the majority genuinely wanted to take industrial action. In such cases industrial action is justified. But in too many cases the militant minority, using the most thuggish of methods, intimidate their fellow workers into going on strike when that is the last thing that the workers wish to do.

No one suggests that a secret ballot should be enforced on those who do not wish to vote. The objective can be achieved by providing that unless a decision is taken by secret ballot the decision loses the special protection and immunities which are provided by the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act. The special advantages conferred on industrial procedures should be removed unless a decision has been validated by a secret ballot.

There are few things to which I look forward more in the programme of the incoming Conservative Government than the carrying out of that pledge which my right hon. Friend repeated this afternoon.