HC Deb 04 January 1916 vol 77 cc885-92

After the termination of the War it shall be an implied term of any contract of service between the owner of any controlled establishment and any person employed in such establishment that the provisions contained in Schedule II. of the Munitions of War Act, 1915, shall apply to such contract, and be enforceable by any civil action. And this Section shall continue to be in operation notwithstanding that the Munitions of War Act, 1915, or this Act shall have then ceased to operate.— [Mr. Roch.]

Clause brought up, and read the first time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a second time."

This Clause has been framed with the object of preserving the trade union restrictions and customs with which the workmen have parted. The workmen, both on the Clyde and elsewhere, as the right hon. Gentleman very truly said earlier in the day, fear lest after the termination of the War trade union restrictions and customs with which they have parted may not be restored to them. The object of this Clause is to give statutory effect to that which I think is the wish of the Government and of every Member of this House. The right hon. Gentleman is himself, I think, under the impression that under the Munitions Act as it stands full statutory provision has been made for the safeguard of these restrictions and customs. I want, as clearly as I can, to put before him what I think is the extraordinary difficulty and tangle in which the statutory preservation of these restrictions now stands. As the Munitions Act is framed the safeguard which is given to trade unionists is contained in Section (4), paragraph (4), of the principal Act, and that is to the effect that in every controlled establishment the employer shall be deemed to have given an undertaking to observe the conditions which are laid down in Schedule II. Schedule II., of course, contained the trade union restrictions in accordance with the Treasury agreement. It was discovered rather late in the day that the Munitions Act, as it then stood, came to an end when the Ministry of Munitions ceased to exist, so that really that undertaking ceased to have any statutory effect when the Ministry of Munitions came to an end, which might be within a period of six months after the War. Later on an attempt was made to deal with the difficulty, and a proviso was put in Sub-section (2) of Section 20 which sought to keep alive this undertaking. I will read the proviso:—

"Provided that Part I. of this Act shall continue to apply for a period of twelve months after the conclusion of the present War to any difference arising in relation to the performance by the owner of any establishment of his undertaking to carry out the provisions set out in the Second Schedule to this Act, notwithstanding that the office of Minister of Munitions and the Ministry of Munitions have ceased to exist."

That was a well-intentioned proposal to deal with the difficulty which had arisen. But what I wish to point out is that while that attempt has been made to give statutory effect to the safeguards for those restrictions, it does not really have that effect at all. The effect of this proviso is that if, after the War, there should be any dispute as to these restrictions, and if they came within the ambit of Part I. of the Act, then they should be arbitrated on, and supposing they are arbitrated on and an award is given, then any breach by either party is to be subject to a penalty. Therefore the safeguard of the trade unionist is that if he gets an award, and if there is any breach of it by the employer, then the employer is to pay a penalty. But observe this curious effect: The Munitions Court, which alone can enforce the penalty, and the rest of the Act which creates the offence, have gone and ceased to exist, so, while you have the award, the workman cannot enforce it by a penalty. It is very difficult to make my point clear, because this is a highly technical subject. But my point is that Part I. of the principal Act alone is kept alive. The procedure, as I understand it, will be, if there is any dispute as to whether these restrictions are kept in force after the War, the Board of Trade is to arbitrate, and when it has arbitrated, and if there is any breach of the award, there is a penalty incurred by the employer. But that penalty can only be enforced by the munitions tribunal. It is only a subsequent part of the Act which creates the offence, so that the workman is really in the curious position that while he gets an award he has no power of enforcing it.

Suppose Part I. really has the effect of precluding him from striking. That compulsory power is kept alive, and his power to strike will have ceased to exist even when the War has come to an end. I have taken the precaution of consulting several learned friends who are experts in this particular branch of the law. They admit that the matter is one of extreme difficulty, and they think with me there is practically no statutory safeguard in the peculiar state in which the law stands. The object of my Amendment is to make it perfectly clear and to put it in statutory form that it is an implied term of every contract of service between every individual workman and every individual employer in a controlled establishment that these restrictions shall be restored, and that it shall be a contract which he can enforce by civil action. That puts the matter on a more stable basis than it is at present, and it is with the object of getting a real statutory protection, such as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman wishes to give and is under the impression he has given, that I move the new Clause.


I beg to second the Motion.


Perhaps I may be allowed to explain the position in regard to this matter. My hon. Friend has read the proviso of the original Act—^Section 20—which refer to the Second Schedule, and in this Second Schedule I find these provisions:—

  1. "(1) Any departure during the War from the practice ruling in the workshops, shipyards, and other industries prior to the War, shall only be for the period of the War.
  2. (2) No change in practice made during the War shall be allowed to prejudice the position of the workmen in the owner's employment, or of their trade unions, in regard to the resumption and maintenance after the War of any rules or customs existing prior to the War.
  3. (3) In any readjustment of staffs which may have to be effected after the War, priority of employment will be given to workmen in the owner's employment at the beginning of the War, who have been serving with the Colours, or who were in the owner's employment when the establishment became a controlled establishment."
I should say, certainly, that these provisions carry out the object aimed at by the hon. Member, especially when considered in connection with paragraph (7) of the Schedule, which provides for notice to be given to the working concern of any proposal to change working conditions.


I am afraid I have not made my point clear. I do not dispute a single word that has fallen from the right hon. Gentleman. My doubt is whether there is any power to enforce these provisions. The power of enforcing the undertaking is provided in Part I., but the penalties can only be enforced through the munitions tribunal, and when this Act ceases to exist the munitions tribunal will also have come to an end. This Act will cease to operate when the Ministry of Munitions ceases to exist, and therefore any breach of the undertaking cannot be dealt with in any possible way.


I only heard the latter part of the hon. Member's speech in which he referred to Section (20) of the original Act. He will see there is an express proviso that Part I. of the Act shall continue to apply for a period of twelve months after the conclusion of the War, and surely that meets his point.


I am afraid the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not hear me elaborate my point, which was that only Part I. of the Act is kept alive and the remainder ceases to exist, and consequently there will no longer be a munitions tribunal. The Section which makes any breach of the undertaking an offence under the Act will have gone, and while there will still be machinery for making an award and imposing penalties for any breach, there will be no power of enforcing the undertaking. But if the right hon. and learned Gentleman will say, on his authority as a Law Officer of the Crown, that the whole Act is kept alive by this proviso, and that the munitions tribunal will still exist for the purpose, my point vanishes. The issue was put to me by two or three trade union secretaries, and I took the precaution to seek the advice of hon. Friends learned in the law on this matter. They agree with the view I put forward. But I repeat, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman assures me the whole Act is kept alive, I will accept his view of the law.


I did not say the whole Act was kept alive. The hon. Gentleman has Section (20) before him, and if that does not meet his point, then I am afraid I really do not understand it.


Like the Solicitor-General, I have not heard the whole discussion, but I am fairly well seized of the point made by my hon. Friend. I think it is one of the utmost importance— whether there is a real safeguard for the restoration of these conditions, and whether it is to have any value at all. As I understand it, there is a doubt with regard to Section (20), which provides that Part I. of this Act shall continue to apply for a period of twelve months after the conclusion of the present War to any difference arising in relation to the performance by the owner of any establishment of his undertaking to carry out the provisions set out in the Second Schedule to this Act, notwithstanding that the office of the Minister of Munitions and the Ministry of Munitions has ceased to exist. I had something to do with the insertion of this proviso. It will be within the recollection of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Munitions that when the original Act was going through the House of Commons he had a conference with my hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Hogge) and myself at which we made a special point about the safeguard for twelve months. At that time the form of words included in the original Act was put before us. As it happened, the Committee stage was rushed through the House. Personally, I was unable to be present, and other hon. Members who were interested had really no time to consider the full effect of this proviso. undoubtedly it keeps in existence Part I. of the Act, but Part I. only is retained. The machinery for the purpose of giving sanction to it is set up in Part 11., or, at any rate, in some later part of the Act, and consequently, as that part is not kept alive, there will be no sanction whatever for it.


I am very anxious to understand exactly the point of my hon. Friend. He suggests that, although there is a penalty which can be inflicted upon any employer who refuses to restore trade union conditions, the tribunal which should enforce it will not be in existence.


Nor the offence.


I take it the offence would be, and obviously it is the intention of the Act that the machinery should be. It is suggested that there is some oversight which requires to be cured. Perhaps I do not quite realise the point, but I am certain of this, that the proper way to deal with it is not to convert it, as my hon. Friend proposes, into a civil action. I will undertake to consider between now and the passing of the Bill through another place, if there is anything in the point, and if there is I will give a guarantee that it shall be put right.


I am confident the proviso was inserted in good faith, and I myself did not foresee the possibility that the machinery for enforcing this right might cease to exist. It is important, of course, that the Minister of Munitions should give this undertaking. We realise now that he has much greater power with the House of Lords than in former days, and in view of the authority which ho wields over that House I think my hon. Friend may be well content to accept the right hon. Gentleman's undertaking.


I am glad the right hon. Gentleman has given this assurance. I would have supported this New Clause earlier but for the doubt I had as to the particular method of attaining what my hon. Friend (Mr. W. Roch) aims at. We dislike having to fall back upon civil actions to secure trade union rules and privileges as they existed prior to the War. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we have often been met with almost mocking laughter and cries of derision at labour and trade union meetings when we have assured working men that all those conditions would be restored after the War. It is most important that some method should be devised on such lines as the Minister of Munitions has just mentioned and that it should be put into an Act of Parliament, so that we can point to some definite statutory plan which will give working men the assurance we have already tried to give them verbally. Members on the Labour Benches will be very glad if some such form of words can be found.


Before we pass from the proposed Clause, I desire to raise one point. I understood that my hon. Friend (Mr. W. Roch) was anxious that some machinery of a permanent character should be established for the maintenance of trade union rules.


For a year after the War.


That is the very reason why I rise. I do not think the matter is perfectly clear. Subsequently to my hon. Friend's speech the discussion centred upon the point whether there was machinery in operation for twelve months after the War. That is only a part of the problem in which we are interested. We want the same protection for the restoration of trade union rules subsequently to the period of twelve months after the War. I believe the general opinion is that the most acute stage of industrial depression will not be the twelve months immediately after the War, but some time afterwards, and in that period we shall require the safeguards most. I hope that the Minister of Munitions will insert in the proposed Amendment some words which will give a permanent assurance and safeguard to the trade unions for the restoration of their rules.


I am very glad the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Snow-den) has raised this point, because I do not think my right hon. Friend has quite appreciated the real meaning of the proposed Clause. It may be perfectly true that the proposal to deal with the matter by way of civil action may not be the best method by which to attain the object. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he would not afford a safeguard to those who share this grave misgiving by accepting the Clause as it stands and in another place altering it by substituting some other process, possibly of criminal action, for the civil action, if he so desires. It would give great reassurance to those who know how vital it is to the masses of the workers of the country who feel that the critical period will be the years after the twelve months subsequent to the conclusion of the War. I suggest that my right hon. Friend might accept for the time being the Clause as moved and amend it with regard to the methods of enforcement before the Bill leaves another place.

Question, "That the Clause be read a second time," put, and negatived.