HC Deb 25 July 1938 vol 338 cc2862-70

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]

10.51 p.m.

Mr. Whiteley

I desire to raise a matter of principle particularly with regard to the power of an insurance officer to determine as to when a trade dispute should end or when it should not end. This matter arises out of the dispute at the Betteshanger Colliery in Kent on 30th April, when 226 men were dismissed in the ordinary way. Arrangements were attempted in order that these men should have the privilege of being re-employed at the colliery before any new hands were taken on. This the management refused, and in consequence there was a dispute which went on for seven of eight weeks. Then on 22nd June terms of settlement were suggested as follows: That all workpeople who have not withdrawn their cards from the colliery offices and who are now available for work shall resume their ordinary employment at the colliery immediately or as soon as the work can be made available by the management. The company agrees to re-engage as many as possible of the men 'stood-off ' for whom they can find suitable work, and in the event of any of the 226 men not being re-absorbed the company will agree to meet the men's representatives when requested to discuss any specific case or cases. On the 22nd June these terms were put before the men and by ballot they accepted them. We therefore say that, a ballot of the men having taken place, this dispute automatically comes to an end. When the men who could not be immediately absorbed signed on, the insurance officer intervened and made the following observations: Whilst the contention that the trade dispute ended on Sunday, 26th June, is not contested, it is submitted that the claimant lost his employment on 3oth April, 1938, owing to a stoppage of work due to a trade dispute at the premises where he was employed and that the stoppage of work has not yet terminated. … Accordingly the claimant's unemployment after that date (26th June) on which the dispute was settled was due to the dispute and to the continuance of the stoppage of work brought about by that dispute. The officer there, the House will see, relies mainly upon the fact that there has not been a general resumption of work, but the ballot had taken place. That, in our opinion, decides that the dispute itself is brought to a conclusion. It is with that power that we want to deal to-night. Further to that, we have the important fact that the manager gave a personal guarantee that two weeks' notice should be given by the management in any case of intention to employ any new men before the whole of the 226 men had been dealt with. We have, therefore, the important fact that the manager actually agreed before the ballot that the 226 men would be taken into consideration before there was any question of new men being brought in. If the management had taken that position at the start on 30th April there would have been no dispute. Therefore, the men cannot be said to have been responsible in any way for the situation that arises in consequence of that dispute. During the course of the dispute 100 lads joined the Army, and when it came to an end there was a shortage of boy labour. That made it more difficult for the management to find immediate room for all those who were ready to commence work. The insurance officer brought this matter before the Court of Referees, which made the following decision: There was no general resumption of work on 27th June when only 100 men had returned to work and it therefore follows that on that date claimant was unemployed owing to a stoppage of work following and forming part of the trade dispute which commenced on 30th April, 1938. The court have been asked by claimant's representative to say whether, in the event of the appeal failing, there has been a general resumption of work upon any date subsequent to 27th June, 1938. If the court has power to give such a decision, they find that there has been a general resumption of work upon the ground that approximately seven-eighths of the men are back at work and the work at the colliery is proceeding normally. The work generally is not now held up as a consequence of the dispute, in fact only a small proportion of the work is so held up. The umpire does not use the words' complete resumption of work.' It is further held that claimant is out of work for a reason that cannot be said to be a direct consequence of the stoppage of work; it is considered that the cause (i.e., enlistment of the boys and the present shortage of boys) is indirect rather than direct. The court find that the date of the general resumption of work was on 30th June, 1938. The insurance officer is not even content with that. He writes a letter to the agent of the Kent Mine Workers' Association: Dear Mr. Elks, I am unable to accept the finding of the Court of Referees in the case of your member, W. Dickens, and am consulting the Chief Insurance Officer with regard to an appeal to the Umpire. I am trying to dispose of the matter with the least possible delay, and I thought you would like this early intimation of what is contemplated. You will, of course, have an opportunity of commenting on the appeal if and when it is decided upon. The court gives a decision that in their view, as seven-eighths of the mineworkers have resumed work, the colliery is in full going order, but even then the insurance officer objects. Apparently he has made up his mind that 100 per cent. of the men must be at work before unemployment benefit can be paid. We take strong exception to the fact that one man has the power to decide whether when a stoppage has actually come to an end—

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment lapsed, without Question put.

Question again proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]

Mr. Whiteley

Our point is the definite one that an insurance officer ought not to have the power to determine whether men shall be entitled to unemployment benefit or not, particularly when a ballot of the men has been taken and the ballot has decided to bring the stoppage to an end. I am not going further to refer to the fact that this stoppage was brought about by the refusal of the manager to agree to the terms of the men, to which he eventually did agree, and that when he did agree the stoppage was brought to an end. Here we have a situation where men are ready to resume work, and some of them do resume work. Others cannot be absorbed, and are placed in a very unfortunate position. During these seven or eight weeks they have not been entitled to unemployment benefit because of a trade dispute, and when that trade dispute is brought to an end the insurance officer refuses then to grant them unemployment benefit and takes exception to the fact that the court decides that with seven-eighths of the men at work the remaining men are entitled to unemployment benefit.

It appears to me that the insurance officer might have the power to decide that if only a small fraction of men, even one-tenth or one-twelfth, were out of work he can still take up the attitude that a full resumption of work has not taken place. We stress the point that the men were placed in a very unfortunate position not because of their own fault but because of somebody else's fault, and were forced to seek public assistance in order to keep body and soul together after having fought a battle on a principle which they won over a period of eight weeks. I want the Minister to examine these facts and to direct his attention to the important point that in our opinion when a ballot has been taken that a trade dispute shall be brought to an end that at that point these men are entitled to unemployment benefit.

11.3 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Lennox-Boyd)

The hon. Member has raised a matter of very considerable complexity and one which, since it affects a great number of people, is of very great human importance. He has taken this opportunity of raising it on the Adjournment, and I am glad that he has found time to do so. My right hon. Friend has for some weeks been fully in touch with this situation through the insurance officer, and also though the representations that have been made to him for many weeks by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Dover (Major Astor), who has from the start of this difficulty represented the interests of the miners concerned, the town council of Deal, the Public Assistance Authority of the county of Kent, and all his constituents in a way that his friends realise he would invariably do. As the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Whiteley) knows, the particular point which he has raised springs from Section 26 of the Unemployment Insurance Act, 1935, by which an insured contributor who has lost employment by reason of a stoppage of work due to a trade dispute at premises where he was employed is disqualified from receiving benefit as long as the stoppage of work continues.

In this case there was a stoppage of work at Betteshanger Colliery which started on 30th April. The trade dispute came to an end, I think, on 25th June as a result of a ballot among the men, and work was resumed two days later, on the 27th. The Insurance Officer held, and he held up to three days ago, that the stoppage of work was not over, and so he disqualified those workers still unemployed from receiving benefit, ruling that though the trade dispute was at an end the stoppage of work was not over. This may appear to some hon. Members as an over-fine distinction, but the House should realise that the statutory authorities which Parliament has set up are confronted with a difficult and complicated task. In this matter case-law is voluminous and complicated, but in general, as any hon. Member who examines the position will agree, the Umpire has taken the line that a stoppage of work does not necessarily come to an end until there has been a general resumption of work. There is abundant evidence in the leading cases on this subject for the view that a stoppage of work need not be complete in order to exist, and that claimants should remain disqualified after the dispute is over if the stoppage of work due to the dispute still continues.

I recognise that a large number of workpeople are concerned in this case. When the dispute started there were some 2,637 men and boys employed in the Betteshanger Colliery. On 30th June, 1,756 were employed, and not, if my information is correct, seven-eighths of those employed at the start of the stoppage, as the hon. Member suggested.

Mr. Whiteley

The proportion which I suggested was from the court of referees, who decided upon seven-eighths.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I have given to the House the information which I have at my disposal. By 4th July, the number employed had grown to 1,872 and every day more and more workers were being taken back. The Insurance Officer kept his eyes on the position every day. The men appealed to Dover court of referees against the continued disqualification imposed by the Insurance Officer and the court decided that the stoppage continued only until 30th June. As the hon. Member has said, the Insurance Officer thereupon appealed to the Umpire against the decision of the court of referees. The decision of the Umpire is now awaited, and I hope and believe that it will be expedited. As I said the number of men who returned to work increased daily. Two or three days ago, on 22nd July, the Insurance Officer came to the conclusion that the stoppage could be said to be over, and he removed the disqualification from benefit as from and including 22nd July.

Mr. Kelly

How many had resumed by that date?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I am afraid that I cannot give exact information on that point, and I should be misleading the House if I suggested that even if I had the information it would furnish any general criterion in this matter. The men who were still out of work on 22nd July will now not be disqualified from the receipt of benefit. Hon. Members will realise that this does not affect the position as between 30th June and 22nd July, that is a matter for the Umpire, and I hope and believe that his decision will be given speedily.

I am conscious that what I have said may not altogether satisfy hon. Members. [HON. MEMBERS "It does not."]—but I have stated the situation as it exists, and the decision of those statutory authorities which Parliament has set up, and with whose decisions my right hon. Friend has no power to interfere. I hope that what I have said will answer the doubts in the minds of hon. Members opposite, both as to the position in regard to the insurance officer's decision, given three days ago, and as to the decision of the Umpire, which is now expected.

11.10 p.m.

Mr. James Griffiths

This question is of very great importance. I, like every other Member here, have handled many of these cases, and, speaking from memory, I do not remember a case in which an insurance officer has allowed such a period to elapse before deciding that the general stoppage of work is over. What was the criterion on which, on 22nd July, the insurance officer decided that this stoppage was over? If on 30th June he decided that it was not over, because of what he regarded as the large number of men still out of work, what was the number of men out of work on 22nd July? Surely, if it was the number of men who were still out that decided him on 30th June to refuse benefit, it must have been a lesser number of men which on 22nd July decided him. If this is the criterion, we are laying doyn something which I am sure is quite new, certainly in my experience, namely, that the number of men still out determines whether the dispute is still continuing or not. That may mean that the dispute may be regarded as continuing for months afterwards. I understand that the insurance officer has decided that as from 22nd July the dispute is over. Does that mean that these men will get benefit, or does it mean that from 22nd July they have to put in their waiting days and then get benefit?

11.13 p.m.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

With regard to the hon. Member's first question, men have been returning day after day, and, as he will realise, it is reasonable to assume that a considerable number have returned since 4th July, the last day for which I have given the figures to the House. Although it is not for me to say what would be in the mind of the Insurance Officer in arriving at his conclusion as to whether or not there had been a general resumption of work, quite obviously he would take into account the fact that in the intervening period a considerable number of jobs have been found for the men, and there would be considerably more employed on 22nd July than on 4th July. But I must repeat that I cannot interpret to the House the mind of these statutory authorities which Parliament has set up, and in whose decisions neither my right hon. Friend nor I have power to intervene.

With regard to the hon. Member's second question, the decision of the Insurance Officer which I have announced to the House is that the men are not disqualified from receiving benefit as from and including 22nd July. I repeat that to the House although I fully appreciate the point of the hon. Member. The difficulty in which I am as regards the first question applies equally to the second, and I cannot add to or detract from the statement of the Insurance Officer, which I must give to the House in its entirety, leaving the House to interpret it, namely, that as from and including 22nd July those men who are still out of work are not disqualified from receiving benefit.

11.14 p.m.

Mr. Whiteley

Would the hon. Gentleman look up the court of referees' decision? He will find that they said on 30th June that seven-eighths of the workmen had resumed work. If he finds that to be correct, will not he and the Minister of Labour use their influence with the insurance officer to point out that, as seven-eighths of the men had actually resumed on 30th June, he should not have extended the period to 22nd July.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Kelly

The statement made by the hon. Gentleman is very serious and, if carried out, will have far-reaching effects. When a dispute comes to an end it is not possible in most cases to have a resumption of work by everyone who was concerned in the stoppage. You have to allow for only a certain number returning. To suggest that when the firm has taken into its service all those for whom it could find work, that is not going to be counted as a general resumption, is something that I am amazed that the Minister has permitted his servant to do—because the insurance officer is under the direction and in the service of the Minister. The Minister has no right to shelter under these officers, stating that they are statutory officers and that he has no right to interfere with an insurance officer as to the entering of an appeal. There was a resumption for all those for whom employment could be found. To penalise the others in the way they have been penalised is contrary to the spirit and the letter of the Insurance Act, and I hope the Minister will again look into this matter.

There is another serious matter. The Court of Referees decided that these men were entitled to their benefit, and I gather from the Minister's reply that no regard has been paid to the decision of the Court of Referees, and that the men were not paid benefit despite that decision. I hope it is not going to be the practice of the Minister, when a court has decided in favour, that benefit is to be withheld because some individual servant of the Minister decides that he will enter an appeal to a higher court. They have a right to that benefit. It should be paid for that period, until the competent authority—in this case the umpire—has decided.

Adjourned accordingly at Seventeen Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.