HC Deb 31 January 1940 vol 356 cc1200-6

Order for Second Reading read.

5.57 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Assheton)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This is a Bill to adapt two systems of regulating wages to the circumstances of war time. The first of these systems is the Trade Boards system, under which something like 1,200,000 people now work. It has been in existence for more than 20 years, and I think it will be admitted that it has been a success in the field to which it applies. It is especially important in time of war that the system should be maintained in effective operation. The second of these two systems, the machinery of the Road Haulage Wages Board is of more recent origin. It was established under the Road Haulage Wages Act, 1938. The conditions of road transport in war time are, of course, very different from the conditions which prevail in time of peace and certain modifications are necessary to bring the scope of this Act into line with present conditions.

The present procedure by which changes of wage rates can be made under these systems requires statutory periods of notice for the various stages, and it takes several months for proposals to become effective. In war time, it may be that impatience at these statutory delays would lead to action being taken outside the Trade Boards or the Road Haulage Wages Board procedure, and to difficulties and disturbances which might be avoided if proposals could be carried through with more speed. The Bill, therefore, enables the Minister of Labour to modify or to suspend certain provisions of the Trade Boards Acts and of the Road Haulage Wages Act by means of regulations. These changes can be made only for the strictly limited purpose of adapting the machinery to war-time conditions. It will not be possible by regulation to create any new offence, or to increase the penalty for any offence, or to change in any way the system by which minimum rates are fixed by various trade boards, or proposed by the Road Haulage Wages Board, and confirmed by the Minister.

Moreover, regulations will not be made without prior consultation with representative organisations concerned, both on the employers' side and on the workers' side. I should say that consultations have already taken place with the larger organisations concerned, and I am happy to say that general agreement has been reached regarding the nature of the simplifying procedure embodied in this Bill. Briefly, the changes proposed are that each trade board will be allowed to shorten the period of notice of proposals for fixing rates or for revision, provided it is not less than two weeks. At present the period is two months. The trade board will be allowed to reduce its quorum of one-third of the representative members, and at least one appointed member, to not less than one member from each side, and one appointed member.

There is also a point connected with the definition and classification of road haulage workers, which is made necessary by the new system which the Minister of Transport has put into operation. Under this defence permits are issued in classifications roughly approximate to the A, B, and C licences, and provision is now proposed in this Bill for holders of permits to be dealt with as if they held the corresponding licences. The A and B type of permits will come under Part I of the Act, and wages of the workers will be regulated by the Wages Board. This is a point which has been agreed to by those concerned.

Although holders of the C type of permit are not necessarily confined to the carriage of goods in connection with the owner's own trade or business, as they were in the case of the old C licences, it is proposed in so far as they do confine themselves to their own trade or business, that they will remain, or be brought under, Part II of the Act. This, again, is a matter on which agreement has been reached. Further, C licences, or C permit vehicles operating under the group system devised by the Minister of Transport, will be treated in all respects as C licence vehicles so long as they continue to work in the group, even though they do not confine themselves to their owners' business. I think it will be agreed that this is a wise provision and a necessary measure to enable the group system to work satisfactorily. On that point agreement has been reached with those chiefly concerned. There does, however, remain a small fringe for which appropriate provision must be made, namely, vehicles operating under a C licence, or corresponding permit, which may, in fact, from time to time carry goods for hire or reward for persons outside their own group. It is not the intention of the Minister of Transport that C operators should be able to compete with A and B hauliers. It is very rare for C holders to carry for hire and reward outside the scope of their own group but where there is any evidence of abuse the regional transport commissioners, can, and do, restrict the operator to the conditions of a C licence. The extent of this problem, therefore, is very small, and there is no doubt that we shall be able to find a satisfactory way of regulating for this rare type of case. The matter is now under discussion with the Board and other organisations concerned.

In conclusion, I would like to stress two things. The first is that nothing in this Bill, or the regulations which can be made under the Bill, will affect the freedom of employers and trade unions to negotiate, on a voluntary basis, rates higher than those fixed by a Board, or of taking any case to any arbitration machinery which may be available. Second, I would stress that this legislation is definitely of a temporary character and that it terminates automatically when war-time conditions cease. This Bill does not change any of the fundamental principles on which the machinery of the Boards operates. It merely provides ways in which it may be speeded up to suit the conditions in which the industrial life of this country now finds itself. I hope therefore that the House will give a Second Reading to this Bill.

6.8 p.m.

Mr. Benjamin Smith

The hon. Gentleman will know that there have been very protracted negotiations on all the aspects he has mentioned coming within the terms of the Bill, but, speaking on behalf of those who represent our point of view, I want to offer a welcome to the Bill. It in no way infringes any Act which is on the Statute Book, but it does facilitate negotiations and will, undoubtedly, check any untoward action through what I will call procrastination. The only aspect I would ask the hon. Gentleman to consider carefully is that which he rightly describes as the "fringe" in connection with the C licences. There is no doubt that, unless it is watched very carefully, these people will be carrying for hire and reward and will be active competitors against other interests. As I say, we welcome the Bill on Second Reading, and hope that the Government will give very early facilities for the passage of the Bill in this House so that the work can be carried out.

6.9 p.m.

Mr. Watkins

There is one aspect of this Measure to which I would like to draw the Parliamentary Secretary's attention. I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherhithe (Mr. Benjamin Smith) in welcoming the Bill. I think it is an excellent Bill as far as it goes, but it has one very serious deficiency. It is true that certain arrangements have been entered into with the trade unions in order that the rates of pay and working conditions of men engaged in the road haulage industry may be properly safeguarded. The Minister spoke about a "fringe" for which arrangements still remain to be made, but I am concerned with another fringe for which this Bill makes no provision. The road haulage industry is carried on, not only by the people who are actually engaged in the movement of vehicles, but by a large number of clerical workers, supervisors and administrative workers for whom neither this Bill, nor its predecessor, makes any provision. When the previous Bill was under discussion the then Parliamentary Secretary justified it, perfectly properly, by saying that it would produce a system of fairness as between one undertaking and another. But complete fairness as between one undertaking and another can only be secured when all the employés, in all the undertakings, are properly covered by similar safeguarding machinery.

The position to-day is that in the road haulage industry there are hundreds, and probably thousands, of men for whom there is little or no trade union protection, and no statutory protection such as is provided for in this Measure. The Parliamentary Secretary said that this scheme would bring about a measure of justice to a large number of people engaged in this very important trade, but I want to ask him whether full justice is given to the workers in this trade if a large number of them are left out of it entirely. What actually happens is that a road haulage undertaker in Scotland, employing some hundreds of clerical and supervisory workers, would not recognise the trade union which sought to represent them, and would not enter into negotiation with the trade union for rates and conditions. The result was that ultimately the patience of the men became exhausted and they threatened to strike in order to get trade union recognition. The undertaking gave way, recognised the union, and a satisfactory agreement was reached. It ought not, in the twentieth century, to be necessary for a group of workers in any industry to threaten to strike before trade union negotiations are entered into. Another instance is that of a firm, and I mention its name—Pickfords—a road haulage undertaking largely financed by the railways, employing hundreds of clerical and supervisory workers. It is not provided for in this Measure. Pickfords, in spite of the railway backing, refused to recognise the trade unions, and the men are entirely at the mercy of the heads of the undertaking so far as pay, hours and holidays and other things are concerned.

I believe the Government consider that trade unionism is a valuable factor in our industrial life. Trade unionism regulates wages and conditions and provides the opportunity for peaceful improvement in an industry, and is generally beneficial all round. But, in this important industry, the road haulage industry, where the Government have undertaken to provide statutory machinery for settling wages and working conditions, we find that the clerks, supervisory and technical people, for whom I am speaking, are left out. The union of my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherhithe will negotiate settlements for rates of pay for his people, but the foremen and supervisors who control his people have no trade unions to represent them and may receive less in pay than the men they have to supervise. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will look into this matter and see if the suggestion I am making cannot be carried out.

The Parliamentary Secretary said that this Bill will do nothing to impair the freedom of trade unions to negotiate with tie employers. The trade unions, however, are not allowed to negotiate for clerks with the employers, in a number of undertakings in the road haulage business. At this time of day that is all wrong. There ought to be trade union recognition, trade union negotiations and trade union agreements. I would like the Minister of Labour to look into the matter so that in the whole of the road haulage industry there will be complete trade union recognition and satisfactory negotiating arrangements for governing the conditions of the clerical and supervisory staff as well as the operating staff. This is a point of real substance, and I hope that a satisfactory assurance will be obtained from the Parliamentary Secretary.

6.16 p.m.

Mr. Mander

One looks at any Bill with such a Title as this has very carefully to see whether it limits or interferes with the admirable work which has been done for so many years by the trade boards and more recently by the machinery connected with road haulage wages. I understand the object of the Measure is to make this machinery work more smoothly and rapidly in war-time, and I gather that the Government do not intend to interfere with any of the provisions which are really effective for the purpose of negotiating and maintaining wages. That being so, we naturally heartily support the Bill. The Parliamentary Secretary mentioned that the quorum of the trade board was now reduced to three.

Mr. Assheton

Not necessarily three. That is the minimum, and each board will be allowed to determine the number.

Mr. Mander

Yes, I quite understood that. If that number is thought satisfactory we must leave it at that. I should like to say a word in support of what the hon. Member for Central Hackney (Mr. Watkins) was saying about the necessity for the recognition of trade unions and trade union negotiations throughout all industry and, in particular, the road haulage industry. It is all very well to say that the representatives of both sides are free to negotiate and fix higher rates of pay than are laid down under this procedure, but if one side refuses to recognise the other side the thing is farcical. It is absurd in these days that any employer or body of employers should take up the attitude that they will not recognise the organisations of those whom they employ. I hope that the Minister will, on behalf of the Government, make it clear, not only that these negotiations can be carried on as he said, but that it is the desire of the Government that they should be carried on; also that the Government think it is in the interests of public policy that employers should recognise collective bargaining throughout all the trades connected with this Bill and that they will do all they can to encourage and support them. If he will say something of that kind it will do something to give meaning to the words that he has used, which otherwise have very little meaning.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House for To-morrow."—[Major Sir James Edmondson.]

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.