HC Deb 04 May 1939 vol 346 cc2209-18

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

10.59 p.m.

Mr. Ellis Smith

I desire to raise a question about which I gave notice at Question Time. The question was: To ask the Minister of Labour whether he is aware that Government contracts are being carried out at Messrs. Air Speed, Limited, Portsmouth; that a trade dispute has been in existence since 5th April over the non-application of the national agreement which provides for a differential rate for the men involved and that the constitutional pro- cedure has been exhausted; and, in view of that, will he take steps to deal with the dispute. The Minister of Labour replied as follows: After full consideration of further representations which have been made to me, I adhere to the view expressed in the answer which was given to the hon. Member on Monday. I hope that even at this late hour it will be possible for the Minister—

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

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

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

Mr. Ellis Smith

As I was saying, I hope to be able to produce some facts and evidence that will assist the Minister to intervene in this dispute. In 1920 a national agreement was arrived at between the unions catering for woodwork in the aircraft industry and the aircraft manufacturers. This national agreement contains the principle of differential rates for aircraft workers. From 1920 till the present time the terms of that national agreement have been operative. In February, 1938, even the national employers themselves—and this is a point that I want the Minister to note, because it should assist him to intervene—used this agreement against a claim made by the unions for an increase in wages. The claims of the unions have been made right through in accordance with the provisions for avoiding disputes which are contained within the national agreement. It was in November, 1938, that a works conference was held in Portsmouth, where this question was dealt with between representatives of the Air Speed Company and the men employed by that firm. This went on for weeks, correspondence took place, and eventually, on 16th March this year, a conference was held between representatives of the national engineering employers, the National Union of Vehicle Builders, and the United Pattern Makers Association. At that conference my hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) was congratulated by several people because of the way in which the case was presented and the claim of the union was based upon the national agreement.

This dispute is giving some concern to all who know anything about it, because it is agreed that the constitutional machinery has been used by the unions up to the present time, and Government contracts are being affected by the deadlock which has been brought about. Some 250 men are involved in this dispute, against their own desire. They do not want to be involved in it. They would far rather, in this national emergency, be spending their time on the production of aeroplanes, but their manhood is at stake, and it is a question of principle and of standing out for the retention of the national agreement. We therefore contend that the time has arrived when the Ministry of Labour should intervene. If the unions and the employers are to continue to negotiate settlements and national agreements, if we are to avoid friction in the future, it is most important that when questions of this character arise the Ministry of Labour should intervene. In addition the Fair Wage Clause is supposed to be operating, and if the Minister cannot enforce the exact letter of that Clause, he should at least impose the spirit of it in this deadlock which has been brought about as a result of the national agreement not being applied by this firm.

Up to now the unions have acted constitutionally all through, have exhausted every constitutional step. Last Friday the Under-Secretary of State for Air paid a glowing tribute to the men employed in the aircraft industry, and all who are acquainted with that industry know that he was stating the facts. The aircraft turned out in this country are the admiration of the whole world, and it is surely wrong that the workers should be involved in a dispute of this kind against their own wish. Those are the facts, stated as briefly as possible in order that the Minister can reply, and I hope that he will give an undertaking that he will reconsider the whole matter and use his influence in order to bring the two sides together and end the deadlock.

11.7 p.m.

Mr. E. Brown

The whole House will agree with the hon. Member's tribute to the engineer as an engineer. Wherever he is the engineer is a great man, and in my judgment there are no engineers so fine as British engineers. But we are not discussing the personal qualities of the engineers; the question is whether or not the Ministry of Labour should intervene in a particular dispute. I shall not say anything about the details of that dispute. I have given this matter most serious consideration, as the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) knows. The object is to secure a settlement of a dispute in an industry in order to avoid dislocation of work. This case was first brought to my notice by the hon. Member for Stratford (Mr. Groves) and the hon. Member for Gorbals two weeks after the strike commenced. As has been already said, there is in the engineering industry a well-established and very effective joint procedure for negotiations between the employers and the unions, and discussions took place over a long period, culminating in meetings between the executives on both sides. The House will see that there has been a thorough discussion of the matter. The meetings of the executives shows the gravity of the issue. The difference, however, was such that no agreement could be reached, and, the procedure being exhausted, a strike which involved about 230 men took place.

When the matter was reported to me I took steps to obtain information from both sides in the usual way, in order to see whether there was any useful action which I could take. In these matters it is always the desire of the Ministry of Labour, as it is their duty, to use their influence—nearly all moral influence—to prevent small events becoming large ones, if we can do so. The issue upon which this strike took place in the establishment of Air Speed is not confined to their establishment, because other classes of workers not on strike are also concerned, and it is obvious from the length of the discussions between the parties that a serious question of principle is involved; and with every desire to assist to the extent of my powers I have come to the conclusion that my intervention will serve no useful purpose. After a survey of the facts and the arguments used and taking the wider view of my responsibilities for the general position in the industry, I came to the conclusion that we would do more harm than good by intervening.

Mr. Buchanan


Mr. Brown

This is a matter of principle, and we cannot possibly regard it as one which affects only the men who are on strike. It is far wider than that. Nobody regrets more than I that such a situation should have arisen but as the hon. Member is aware, the members of the union have already been informed that when work is resumed, it will be possible for the unions concerned to raise the whole question as it affects the industry generally and to have it discussed in the normal way. It is not for me to make any comment on the merits of the dispute but I am of opinion that the best service that I can render is, to suggest that this course should receive the serious consideration of those concerned. That is all I can say in answer to the plea of the hon. Member. It is my considered view after a most careful review of the facts.

11.12 p.m.

Mr. Buchanan

I hope you, Mr. Speaker, and the hon. Members present, will forgive me for again trespassing upon the time of the House. I appeal to the Minister to go a little further. He has at least met us to some extent. Up to now I have never had any suggestion about the discussion of the wider principles from any responsible organisation, and to that extent, the Minister has made some suggestion in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke (Mr. E. Smith). But there are two points which I would put to him. Nobody denies that the men have gone on strike constitutionally, but the employers take the view that they must return to work before there can be another meeting. Surely that is the negation of the principle of negotiation. Usually that is only done in the case of unconstitutional strikes, but in this case we have exhausted every other means. What is to hinder the employers meeting the unions' representatives even though the men are engaged in the dispute?

Secondly, I would like to know where the Minister gets the evidence that this dispute involves wider issues. He spoke with that disarming fairness which he sometimes uses against his more simple opponents, of whom I happen to be one. He said he consulted both sides and then went on to say that the issue involved more than this case, and that other firms were involved. Where did he get that information? Did he ask the unions for their opinion on that aspect of the matter? We have never said that this involved wider issues. We claim that it is a simple issue, as the Minister will find if he re-examines the Fair Wages Clause. A national agreement was entered into by which certain men were to be paid a penny an hour over certain rates. It is admitted by the employers that the extra penny is not being paid. They make certain defences, but the penny is not being paid, and I ask the Minister, as one who has a responsibility in these matters and who is well known for his readiness to compromise, to consider this matter with a view to a reasonable compromise. I am not going to take the other view, that all the compromises should come from the other side, but I am sick and tired of my colleagues being constantly abused when they offer a compromise. Instead of being appreciated their compromise is used as a further argument by those who say "You should not have taken any step forward."

Why not get the two parties together? Why not get them and ourselves round a table with one of the Ministry of Labour people in the chair? I am not going to ask the Minister of Labour to take the chair; he has capable officials. The Ministry of Labour has first-class officials any one of whom I would trust, such people as Mr. Leggett. Let the chairman use his powers of negotiation and diplomacy between the two sides in order to get a settlement. Surely that is not impossible. We are being told of honour and the need for negotiation. I cannot understand this talk of dignity. I am taking a risk tonight in suggesting a compromise. It is difficult for me to say these things when men are on strike. I can easily be challenged on the ground that I had no authority and no right to make these suggestions, yet I am prepared to make them.

Why will not the Minister intervene? Is it because we are inferior and should not be treated in the same way as the employers? This is the feeling in the minds of the men, and I am beginning to feel that way myself. If the employers went to the Minister, the right hon. Gentleman would arrange a meeting all right. I would ask the Minister earnestly to try and get the parties together, and arrange for one of his officials to take the chair. I hope that he will at least take my suggestion seriously. The men feel very deeply that the Minister is one sided in this matter. I do not take that view. I have not asked the men to come out on strike, because I always feel that as I have £600 a year it is not fair for me to ask them to come out and get nothing. But once they have come out on strike I, as the chairman of their organisation, have taken their side, and surely it is not too much to ask the Minister to take the responsibility for trying to get the two sides together.

11.19 p.m.

Mr. Brown

With the permission of the House I would like to reply to the hon. Gentleman. I have told the House that if I intervened I should do more harm than good and that I am exercising my judgment in this matter to the best of my ability in the interests of all concerned. I will add no more to that. When the hon. Member says that the position is not what it would have been if it had been the other way round. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) here. It happens that I have probably had experience of industrial relations for a longer period than any Minister in modern history. I have had three years at the Mines Department and, with one month to go, four years at the Ministry of Labour.

No such suggestion has ever been made before, and I repudiate it with all the strength at my command. The hon. Member for Llanelly knows that there was a dispute in South Wales in which he was concerned, and it was desired that influence should be used with the employers. The hon. Member can bear testimony, if need be, to the fact that I thought it right to do that, and did it, as I always shall. As long as I am Minister of Labour, I shall do what is my public duty, and stand up in this House and justify myself. I do that as a most whole-hearted believer in collective agreements and collective bargaining. I have done everything I could to forward that method, and I think the history of the last few years is a proof that I have done it not without some success. The hon. Member's suggestion is really unworthy, and I hope that, if that idea is in the men's minds, he will do me the justice of disabusing them of it. I have made a considered statement. When the hon. Member talks about sincerity, anyone who has sat for long years in this House with him well knows his sincerity, but there is not a more subtle Parliamentarian than he, and I hope he will realise that in what he has said to-night he has not been fair to the Minister of Labour.

11.22 p.m.

Mr. James Griffiths

I only intervene to reinforce the appeal of my two hon. Friends that the Minister of Labour him self should take the initiative in this case. The right hon. Gentleman has made reference to a dispute in which I was concerned, as president of the South Wales Miners' Federation, some years ago. We were then on the eve of a strike which would have involved 150,000 men. There was no difference in principle between that case and the present one. We were on the edge of a strike, and we were all anxious to avoid it, but did not know how to, and, as in this case, negotiations had come to an end. We had exhausted the constitutional procedure, and had reached a stage when no settlement was possible, and the agreement lapsed in the mean time. We approached the right hon. Gentleman, who was then Secretary for Mines, and I agree that I was one of those who suggested that he should call the two sides together. He issued the invitation, and both sides came together—

Mr. Brown

No; not quite that. The suggestion was that I should bring the two sides together to consult, but I suggested that there might be an alternative—that the employers should be got to ask the men to meet them, and that is what happened.

Mr. Griffiths

I do not think the right hon. Gentleman's recollection is quite as clear as mine. We managed to get the two sides together—

Mr. Brown

That was afterwards, after it had broken down again.

Mr. Griffiths

We met at the Mines Department, and spent a whole evening there—

Mr. Brown

That is true, but the employers and the union had met twice together already, on my initiative, and I used my influence with the employers to ask the men to meet them, but it broke down again.

Mr. Griffiths

We met at the Mines Department, and the right hon. Gentleman acted as liaison officer between us; and eventually, after long hours, we reached a settlement. We should never have reached that settlement if we had not come together. Why not do the same here? Why not ask the two sides to the Ministry of Labour? That would pave the way. Surely, as Minister of Labour, he is responsible to the nation, just as he was when he was Minister of Mines. I am sure he has the influence and power—and influence is the important thing—to bring the two sides together.

Mr. Brown

With the permission of the House, I will intervene again to say that I am sure I am right and sure I am acting in the interests of the industry as a whole and of the nation in standing by what I have said to-night, and that I should do more harm than good in adopting the suggestion of hon. Members opposite.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-six Minutes after Eleven o'Clock