HC Deb 28 July 1927 vol 209 cc1569-74

Lords Amendment:

In page 3, line 14, at the end, insert Provided that no person shall be deemed to have committed an offence under any Regulations made under the Emergency Powers Act, 1920. by reason only of his leaving ceased work or having refused to continue to work or to accept employment.

The ATTORNEY-GENERAL (Sir Douglas Hogg)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment. The Amendment is one which is designed to prevent any undue hardship being inflicted upon the individual striker under Clause 1. The House will remember that in Committee in this House an Amendment was moved by the Government and accepted, under which it was provided that no penalty should be inflicted upon the individual striker merely for taking part in an illegal strike. It was suggested in the Debate in another place that it might be possible, under the Emergency Powers Act, to make a Regulation which would inflict a penalty upon a striker for merely taking part in a strike. I do not think it was a very probable contingency, but it was possible under the language of Clause 1 of the Bill. The Amendment now under consideration is designed to ensure that, neither in the Regulations made under the Emergency Powers Act nor under this Clause, shall it be possible for the person who merely takes part in a strike to be subject to any penalty for so doing.


I cannot quarrel, in one sense, with the description which the learned Attorney-General has given to this Amendment. Hon. Members will be missing a good deal of the history which has brought this Amendment on the Paper if they do not realise that, first of all, this Amendment was moved, if not by myself certainly by a Member of the Labour party in this House, although on the general principle that any Amendment moved from this side was to be rejected with contumely, the Attorney-General did not accept the Amendment at that time. Secondly, the learned Attorney-General referred to the fact that this Amendment was moved in another place. He omitted to say that it was moved by a Member of the Labour party in another place. The truth of the matter is that the Attorney-General and his advisers completely overlooked the fact that under the Emergency Powers Act it would be possible to prosecute a striker if you suspended the proviso which now prevents you from prosecuting a striker. From his point of view, no doubt, he would like the House to believe that this proposal is a very small and slight thing. This provision arises from the fact that it was the intention of the Government, until quite late in the proceedings on this Bill, to make the individual striker liable for striking, under a criminal prosecution. Owing to the attack which was made on the Government because of this iniquitous proposal, and when by-election after by-election had shown the unpopularity of the proposal in the country, the Government finally climbed down and cut out of the Bill the power to prosecute the individual striker. The facts remain, however, as an earnest of what their idea was when they first introduced the Bill. They certainly intended to make the individual striker liable.

One other matter should be mentioned on this Amendment. The Amendment does not follow the language of the Emergency Powers Act. The Emergency Powers Act says that you shall not prosecute a man for taking part in a strike, and the strike which was there contemplated was the strike of men leaving their employment. Until this Bill was introduced there never had been in any Statute or even in any dictionary anything which led one to suppose that a strike would include the case of a man refusing to accept employment. It is interesting to observe that though the Emergency Powers Act refers to a strike as we always understood it until this Bill was introduced, that is, merely leaving employment, this Amendment says that it shall not be an offence by reason of a man "having refused to accept employment." We know what happened in another place. On the Committee stage the Government took out the definition of a strike, and particularly the obnoxious feature that a refusal to accept employment for insufficient wages or under conditions, however bad they might be, was an offence under the Bill. On the Report stage they put it in again. That was an indication of the intention of the Government at the last stage of this Bill. Now the Government have to admit that their Measure would make a strike illegal not only if people leave their work, but even if, after they have been locked out or for any reason they think fit, they refuse to accept employment, however bad it may be. That is why we find in this provision the words "refuse to accept employment."

The proviso, as hon. Members will see, takes away the criminal liability. Therefore, it is unobjectionable: we can scarcely say it is objectionable, because we moved it. If persons are not now to be prosecuted for refusing to accept work the thanks are due to the Labour party and not to the Government. But for this Amendment every striker who refused to accept employment could have been prosecuted under the Emergency Powers Act Regulations and could receive three months imprisonment. Let the House be assured that if we are not challenging this particular Amendment it is because we ourselves are responsible for it, and if the Government had accepted it at an earlier stage there would have been no need to trouble this House and another place with it.


The hon. and learned Member for South-East Leeds (Sir H. Slesser) is not quite accurate in saying that this particular Amendment was moved by the Labour party in another place. What is true is to say that a form of words which had some relation to this was moved, and the Lord Chancellor promised to give it consideration, and it was the Lord Chancellor who moved the form of words of this Amendment, as will be found in the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Debates in another place. It is as well to make that correction of a statement which may be repeated in the country. Although I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman that this Amendment is an improvement, yet the House may be interested to know that when the Lord Chancellor gave notice that he would move this Amendment Lord Thomson was "very grateful to the Noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack." Therefore there was not quite the same feeling with regard to this Amendment in the other place.


The House will feel deeply grateful to the last speaker for reminding it of two things, first that there is no other Liberal champion present.


You are quite wrong.


I apologise to the Liberal party. I did not see the hon. and gallant Gentleman. I am sure the House will be very much indebted to the hon. Member for Leith (Mr. E. Brown) for explaining one fact to the country, and, secondly, for reminding the House that whatever else may be said he wants to let it be strongly emphasised that there are still some Liberal Peers. It is perfectly true that this Amendment was moved from these Labour benches in the Committee stage of this Bill. The Attorney-General then said something entirely different from what he has said to-day. The Secretary of State for War was not here at the time and knew nothing about it, and we are more concerned in talking to those who do know. When the Amendment was moved from these benches the Government found valid reasons against it. The reason why we do not propose to divide on this Amendment is, first, that it shows the justification of the original Amendment which we moved, and, secondly, that it emphasises the stupidity of the Government and leaves the Liberal party bankrupt, and incidentally it justifies the late Prime Minister in adding to the dignity, ability and common sense of the other place.

The SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Sir Laming Worthington-Evans)

would not have intervened but for the fact that the right hon. Gentleman pointedly referred to my ignorance upon the subject. I remember one thing that he seems to have forgotten. When the Bill was introduced the Labour Party said that under no conditions would they attempt to improve the Bill. I imagine, however, that this Amendment is being accepted by the Labour Party because they think it improves the Bill. Indeed, the hon. and learned Member for South-East Leeds (Sir H. Slesser) has claimed it as a great merit that this Amendment was proposed by a representative of his party in the House of Lords, and presumably in order to improve the Bill. Because the Government accept the co-operation of the Labour party in improving the Bill at long last the right lion. Gentleman says that I know nothing about it.