8 DECEMBER 1979, Page 3

Payment by results

The miners have shown more sense than their leaders by declining to strike for an increase of more than 20 per cent. The Coal Board's offer, given the circumstances of its finances and the miners' productivity, was absurdly generous. At the same time, there is no good reason why faceworkers down the pits should not earn the £150 a week or thereabouts which Mr Scargill this autumn has chosen to deem appropriate. Indeed they should, and could, earn a great deal more: and many would now be doing so had the NCB and the NUM enough guts and gumption between them to work a system of payment by results. At the moment, the hardworking miner is held back by the lazy miner, the efficient pit by the inefficient, the good coalfield by the bad, the moderate area by the militant.

Given present oil prices, the coal industry should be highly profitable; the miners should be highly paid; and the coal they get should fear no competition from coal mined in the United States or Australia and shipped here. British Foal needs to be efficiently mined if the domestic coal industry is to flourish, and it will only be efficiently mined if wages are related to output. If each pit was its own business, selling its own coal and settling its own wages, the country would soon get all the coal it wanted, and the miners Prepared to work for all the money they wanted. But until some government has the sense to give the mines to the miners, we must make do with the NCB and the NUM. Neither has behaved sensibly, the one offering and the Other demanding too much. In the circumstances, the miners refusal to strike is a great relief.

It is pretty absurd that a wage settlement, which in the upshot will cost over 20 per cent, should be greeted with any kind of relief at all. But the Government is spared the horror of a miners' strike; and it begins to look as lithe c°,_ ming winter will not, at any rate in terms of strike action, °e anything like as discontented as the last. There will doubtless be a lot of grumbling dissatisfaction; but it now seems probable that manufacturing industry and the public Utilities will be working more or less normally, if not, alas, flat out. We will remain in recession.; but we do not look to be locked in endless strife. The British Steel Corporation's

wage offer of two per cent, immediately following its statement that a further 25,000 jobs will have to go, should serve the nation as a salutary cold douche. British Steel cannot afford any increase at all, as its two per cent offer in effect asserts.

The steel industry, like the coal industry, would gain from treating each of its plants as a business of its own. It is no accident that in South Wales some of the plants thought too small to be worth nationalising have managed to make steel profitably, while despite its mammoth investment in South Wales, British Steel has never managed to do so. The Government has spoken firmly to British Steel, whose Dr David Grieve says, 'The facts are —we are bust. It's like Old Mother Hubbard — there's nothing in the cupboard.' If British steelmaking, and its workforce, are no longer to be subsidised by the British taxpayer, and cheaper foreign imports are to be preferred, how much longer are British coal or British car making and their workforces to be subsidised? Why close down a loss-making steel plant, but keep open a loss-making mine or car plant? Why offer 20 per cent to an unprofitable miner and 2 per cent to an unprofitable steelmaker?

The industrial scene is bleak. But glimmerings of commonsense break through. The engineers have settled, not too unwisely. The militants have lost a battle at Longbridge. The miners have repudiated Scargill.No doubt public employees of central and local government will have theii strikes and go-slows, but these, although they will cause inconvenience and possibly distress, will not materially impoverish the country, for such employees, when not striking, spend rather than create the country's wealth. The Government has nothing much to be proud of — it tacitly encouraged wage settlements in line with inflation at 17 per cent —but it has also less to be frightened of this coming winter than it might have had. Things are probably not getting actually worse. There is nothing that a combination of guts and gumption will not put right, not excluding the coal, steel and vehicle industries. It is either payment by results, or borrowing and bankruptcy: guts and gumption, or gutlessness and gormlessness.