HC Deb 01 May 1923 vol 163 cc1190-7

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to repeal the Trade Disputes Act, 1906. This is a short and simple Measure of law reform, and the only material Clause in it proposes to repeal the Trade Disputes Act, 1906. Last week the public mind was much exercised by the report of a case in the paper where a member of a trade union was proved to have received very severe pains and penalties at the hands of the executive of a branch of a trade union for working overtime. But what is not generally realised is that for every case where a workman can now recover for wrongs committed against him by his trade union there are hundreds and hundreds of cases where no redress lies. The sole ground of that disability is that the Trade Disputes Act makes a trade union absolutely immune for all wrongs committed by its officers against its members or against other persons, even if those officers of the trade union have acted in the course of their employment and within the scope of their authority. This Act was passed in 1906 in, spite of persistent warnings and opposition from the Conservative benches, and in spite of many misgivings among the more enlightened Liberals of that day. That opposition and those misgivings have been abundantly justified by the results, because this Act has caused not only a great amount of unemployment but also an incalculable amount of human misery. I should like to put in plain and unembroidered terms the three main provisions of the Act which it is desired to repeal. The first is Section 2 which sanctions picketing at or near the house or place where a person resides or works or carries on business for the purpose of what the Act calls "peaceful persuasion." In the last 17 years this Section has been found to give a cloak and cover to intimidation and violence. Many men and women who were anxious to go to work have not gone to work because they feared to leave their homes at the mercy of mobs. The second Section which it is desired to repeal is Section 3, which reads: An act done in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute shall not be actionable on the ground only that it induces some other person to break a contract of employment or that it is an interference with the trade, business, or employment of some other person, or with the right of some other person to dispose of his capital or his labour as he will. Let me give an illustration how that Section has worked. I shall give an illustration from the actual history of the colliery area in Lancashire and Cheshire, and, of course, there have been many such cases. The official of a trade union goes to an employer and draws attention to the fact that certain men are working at that colliery who belong to a constitutional union but not to the Miners' Federation, and he says to the employer that he will stop the pits unless these men are dismissed. The employer is induced to dismiss these men, because he fears to have his industry ruined. Moreover, the individual who is dismissed has not the chance of finding other employment, because all the employers in that area are in the same position. They know that their pits will be stopped if they give these men jobs. What is the good of our debating the right to work, what is the good of talking about opening careers to talents, and what is the good of the late Prime Minister (Mr. Lloyd George) saying in Manchester on Saturday last that Liberalism stands for the preservation of the freedom of labour if all parties in the State tolerate a code of law which is the negation of liberty? The third point in the Act to which I wish to draw attention is Section 4. Under that Section no action can lie against a trade union in respect of any wrong committed by it or on its behalf. That immunity from liability is not limited to wrongs committed in the course of a trade dispute. A trade union can libel a man, it can slander a member, it can negligently run him down, and no remedy is available. That immunity has been described by a distinguished equity Judge as the unrestricted capacity for injuring other people—a privilege possessed by no other person, society, or corporation in the Realm. It is not merely a legal question; it is a social and economic question, and the great mass of thinking trade unionists themselves realise that what they once regarded as a triumph is simply a mirage.


You know, of course.


Of course, I know. I represent a purely industrial constituency, and I have the support of at least as many trade unionists as the hon. Member. What thinking trade unionists realise is that the whole code of trade union law needs drastic and urgent reform, and they appeal to Parliament to deal with that question with wisdom, justice, and, not least, with courage. In order to get the trade union law revised in that way, it is essential, as a condition precedent, to get rid of this bad law of 1906, in order to restore to trade unions what I think I can fairly describe without irony as the precious gift of legal responsibility. There is no irony in that, because all history and experience shows that the possession of great power without responsibility is a blot on any social system. With that purpose in view, I respectfully commend the objects of this Bill to Parliament and to the country, and I ask the House of Commons for leave to introduce it.


Let me congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman at least upon his courage, if not upon his wisdom. Hon. Members will observe the difference between his action and that of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister two days ago was asked when he was likely to deal with this iniquitous trade union tyranny that now exists.


I do not think that those were the terms of the Prime Minister's answer.


It is a short definition. When he was asked to deal with this question, the Prime Minister said, "I propose inviting responsible trade union leaders to discuss the question with me." My hon. and learned Friend says, "Oh, no, this is the action of a coward. No such methods with me. I do not want to consult people. I want someone who will deal with it right out." Then the hon. and learned Gentleman comes along and says, "Here is a Bill that is going to free the working classes of this country from the tyranny of the trade unions," and, on behalf of the working-classes of this country, we merely thank him for his championship. But, he says, take the case last week where a poor working man was denied his right to live. Take the case, not of one, but of those 30 members of the medical profession who, two years ago, when they applied for a job on trade union rates, were told, "This is blacklegging, and we will deny you the right to live." That is trade union tyranny about which my hon. and learned Friend is silent. At all events, he has not had the courage to introduce a Bill to deal with it. Then he rightly says that he is an authority on this matter. That is perfectly true. He himself is a member of the strongest trade union in the country, and he knows some of the actions of that trade union. But we do not intend to treat this Motion seriously. The Trade Disputes Act which he now asks the House to repeal was the Act that was responsible for the creation of this party. If hon. Members want to hasten the day when we cross to that side of the House instead of sitting on this side, not only should they get on with their Bill, but we say to them, "Persuade the Government to give you all the facilities which they can for its passage." Therefore, and to show how sincere we are in this, we do not even ask the House to divide on the Motion.

Question, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to repeal the Trade Disputes Act, 1906," put, and agreed to.


A Division was challenged. I understood that when my right hon. Friend (Mr. Thomas) rose—


I have already declared that the "Ayes" have it.


But I called out "No," and said that the "Noes" had it.


I only heard a single "No."


Are we to understand that, simply because the Labour party do not go to a Division, and do not challenge a Division, no other section of the House is to have the right to challenge a Division?


The hon. Member is not to understand anything of the sort.

Captain BENN

On that point of Order. May I inform you, Sir, that I also said "No," and several of our hon. Friends said "No"; and, further, that we relied upon the Standing Order, which says that an hon. Member may be called upon if he opposes the Bill.


I did not know what was going to be said when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby rose. Situations of this kind have arisen before. I cannot go back on my decision. I have declared that the "Ayes" have it.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Gerald Hurst, Lieut.-Colonel Nall, Sir Henry Craik, Sir Frederick Banbury, Major Sir George Hamilton, Mr. Hopkinson, Colonel Sir Charles Burn, Dr. Watts, Lieut.-Colonel Archer-Shee, Colonel Sir Charles Yate, Mr. Samuel Roberts, and Captain Shipwright.

  1. TRADES DISPUTES ACT (1906) REPEAL BILL, 774 words
  2. cc1196-7
  4. c1197
  6. c1197