HC Deb 01 February 1945 vol 407 cc1707-15
Mr. Summers

I beg to move, in page 18, line 24, leave out "five," and insert "three."

It is appropriate to remind the Committee that we are now dealing with Part III of the Bill, which raises quite different considerations from those relevant to Parts I and II. Here the principle evolved during the war has to be prolonged, namely, the legalising of arrangements voluntarily arrived at between two sides of organised industry. Powers are taken to enable someone affected by an employer not following those agreed arrangements to have recourse to the courts as a consequence. There may be one or two Members of the Committee who will be aware of my association with the steel industry, and, therefore, it is only right that I should say that, in expressing such views as I now intend to do, I am expressing my own views as an individual, and not the collective views of any particular body.

The Minister, on Second Reading, made it plain that it is his intention and desire that the conditions envisaged by Part III of the Bill should be made effective for a period which, it was estimated, would coincide with the transitional period, when there will be considerable dislocation and difficulty and abnormal situations in transferring from war production to peace production. The Amendment seeks to reduce the five-year period stated in the Clause to a three-year period, but references to this point in the Press have tended to obscure the fact that the five or three-year period does not begin until the expiry of the Conditions of Employment and National Arbitration Order. Whichever period may be taken, we are in fact dealing with a period that is to start from an unknown date. The Conditions of Employment and National Arbitration Order has relevance to war conditions, and I would expect the view to prevail that those conditions will be equally valid durng the course of the Japanese war as they are during the course of the German war. It might follow that the current Order might well last for a considerable time because we have not even yet finished with the German war, and we shall then have the Japanese war to contend with afterwards. I suggest to the Committee that it is not a great stretch of imagination to say that the Bill, as drafted, might well govern the conditions which are to be made for the next eight years and it should, surely, be possible in a shorter period to have passed the transitional years and enable us to assess the peace conditions which are likely to prevail.

3.15 p.m.

There are those, I know, who regard this principle of enforcing joint arrangements on everyone as a good thing in itself and as one which should be made a permanent feature of our industrial life. There may be those who take the opposite view and dislike it and consequently will wish to reduce this period to the shortest possible. I would like to make it plain to the Committee that for my part I have an open mind as to whether this should be part of our peace-time arrangements when conditions once more become normal. I do not think that one is justified in deciding on the merits of that kind of system on the experience we have had so far. The conditions during the war are obviously totally different from those which prevail in peace-time. It is a very important point whether the findings of two sets of people in this matter—on which body, may I remind the Committee, the Government are not in any shape or form represented and of which there is in all probability no so-called impartial chairman, but which substantially represents the two sides of industry—shall be made binding on a minority elsewhere, regardless of the fact that that minority has had no opportunity of expressing its views during the course of negotiations. There is also the point of how far it is found possible for the arrangements entered into to be honoured in practice. I do not, by saying that, wish to cast any doubt on the integrity of the trade union leaders who enter into those joint arrangements. One's experience proves that it is the contrary and that when once an arrangement is entered into, it is their ambition and determination to see that it is honoured. But we have had experience during the war of far too many unofficial strikes being started contrary to the advice of the accredited leaders of the trade unions. Here is a system which depends upon the representatives of both sides being able, in practice, to enforce on their constituents the arrangements which they have mutually agreed shall prevail. Until one can have adequate assurances, from experience, that the two sides are capable of honouring such an arrangement, it seems to me to be asking too much to go beyond the transitional years in enforcing such arrangements with legal sanctions.

The question arises, What is a reasonable period to regard as transitional? I think it is relevant to remind the Committee that the period ahead which was proposed in agriculture—not necessarily directly related to the transitional years, but, nevertheless, intended to help over the uncertain period—assured farmers of certain benefits in the matter of prices up to 1948; and also that the conditions that should prevail for coalminers were provided for up to approximately 1948. Here, as I have indicated, we may be going as far as eight years ahead from now—five years beyond the time which it was thought reasonably possible to cover in the coal trade and agriculture. It seems to me not only unnecessary, but possibly most unwise, to legislate at this juncture for conditions which it will be extremely difficult to foresee, namely, those of the peace years which will follow the transitional period. I said that this period does not start until an unknown date, namely, the date of the expiration of the current Employment and National Arbitration Order.

I would not object if the Minister preferred to clarify the matter still further by fixing a particular date when this Clause should cease to have effect—in other words, to make the best assessment possible now of the transitional years, and to make the Bill operate for that period; but we are asked to assent to conditions applying over a completely unknown period, which may be five, six, seven, eight, nine, or 10 years—I do not know. It would be more sensible to fix a period which we can be reasonably sure will cover the transitional years, and to let that be the period provided in Part III of the Bill. For instance, if 1950 was thought to be the time by which conditions could be reasonably expected to settle down, I would accept that as eliminating the defects in the five-year period following the National Arbitration Order as at present set out. On those grounds, I would ask the Committee not to legislate, as we should probably be doing by this Clause, for the peace years, but to see that the conditions apply only to the transitional years. When that time is ended, we shall be better able to judge the merits of prolonging the system still further, and in that way help to make conditions more satisfactory in industry.

Mr. Burden (Sheffield, Park)

On the last occasion when I had the pleasure of following the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Summers) I was happy to be able to agree with him. I am sorry to say that I cannot do so this afternoon. I feel that he has not made out his case for shortening the period to three years. I think that one of the things for which the future will thank the present Minister of Labour is that he is striving in every possible way to see that, after this war, we are not thrown into the industrial strife that we had after the last war. The longer we have, after the present turmoil is over, for the country and industry to settle down, the longer period of tranquillity we have, the better for all concerned. I am sure that five years is really the minimum that we ought to allow. The Clause only gives legal sanction to agreements which have been arrived at voluntarily between reasonable men on both sides in industry. Those of us who have learned a little economics will appreciate that in industry, as in other things, the Gresham law operates, and the bad will drive out the good. It is to deal with the people who are not prepared to play the game in industry that this Clause is of very great importance. Organisations which are not militant in the ordinary sense attach very great importance to this Clause. Certain things have happened during the war, and advantage has been taken of the arrangements under the Arbitration Act, which has enabled us to put right things which, I am sure, the hon. Member for Northampton would desire to be put right. I mention one instance, what is known as the Bingley case, in regard to the payment of allowances to those serving with the Forces. We might get all sorts of things like that arising in a transitional period. I hope the Minister will stand by the Clause, and not accept the limitation which is proposed.

Mr. Erskine-Hill

I support very strongly the views which have been put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Summers). The hon. Member for Park (Mr. Burden) put a very good argument for retaining on a permanent basis the terms of this Clause, but if what my hon. Friend is doing is to deal with the transitional period, and if the temporary war regulations are going to last for an uncertain period, I should have thought that three years would be ample to cover the transitional period. It is, I think, according to all the dictates of good sense, when facing an unknown period to take a reasonable period into account before the time begins to run. Therefore, the three-year period will, no doubt, turn out to be three and a half or four years, or some such time, which will be, in my opinion, ample to cover the transitional period. I ask the Minister, therefore, to consider this Amendment favourably, along the lines argued so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton.

3.30 p.m.

Mr. W. J. Brown (Rugby)

The hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Summers), who wants to limit the five-year period in this Bill to three years, usually brings to our Debates a sense of logic upon which I compliment him and which I often envy, and a force of reasoning which is difficult to resist, but, upon my soul, I cannot understand what he is driving at to-day. He referred to the virtues of the open mind. These virtues must not be confused with the vice of the empty mind, and I thought that his mind on this subject was, in fact, empty. The trouble is that he has not yet made up his mind whether the basic principle underlying this Clause is good or bad. If he had made up his mind that the Clause was bad he would have opposed it as a whole; if he had made up his mind that it was good, he would not have tried to limit the duration of its effectiveness.

I hold that the principle underlying this Clause is good. I speak as a trade union official and also as a minor capitalist, and in both respects I take the view that the good men in industry ought to get together against the bad men in industry. I can assure the Committee that the holiday camp industry, with which I am connected, can afford to pay good wages and give good conditions of service, but not until the conditions given by the good employers are made obligatory on the bad employers shall we get the necessary floor to wages and conditions in that industry. Taking the view that that is good and not bad, I resist the view that we should reduce the limit from five years to three.

I do not understand this opposition coming frond that side of the Committee. I doubt whether the hon. Member for Northampton recognises what a change in the trade union position is represented by the acceptance of Clauses of this kind. In the United States of America, the American Federation of Labour has for many generations proceeded on the basis that it wanted no regulation by the State whatever. In this country, the trade union movement has reconciled itself to the idea of State regulation only gradually and with difficulty, and when a Labour Minister of Labour—it is true I had to have a few sharp words with him at Question Time to-day, but I am supporting him at the moment on this Clause—is able to bring to this House a Bill which provides that for five years from a specified date the agreements reached in industry shall have the force of law, I should have thought that the Tory Party in this House would have hastened to accept it with both hands. This represents something like a revolution in the traditional attitude of the Labour movement in this country.

The hon. Member for Northampton is troubled about strikes in war-time, but he must do the Labour movement some justice there. The actual number of days lost in unofficial strikes during this war is about one-seventh of the number of days lost in the last war, and in view of some of the labour conditions which are endured in Britain to-day—on which I found the Minister of Labour singularly unrepentant at Question Time—what I am surprised at is not the number of days that have been lost in strikes during this war, but the smallness of that number. In any case, whether the number be small or large, it does not affect the principle at stake in this Amendment. I regard the Clause as good, and I see no reason why we should limit it to five years. I do not see why it should not be a permanent feature of our industrial legislation, and I would resist the Amendment to reduce that five years to three.

Sir G. Mander

I also am one of those who would like to see this Clause made a permanent feature of our industrial life, and I hope the Minister will not accept the Amendment to limit it. After all, this is not just a question of the war. We had long experience of agreements of this kind before the war, and, therefore, to try to link it up with war conditions is not really to give a true picture of the situation. I took a great deal of interest in these joint industrial councils for some time before the war, and my experience was that a number of them were most anxious to obtain powers of this kind. So far as my experience went, in every instance the trouble experienced was that a limited number, a minority, who had every opportunity of presenting their case, were refusing to play the game with the good employers. There seems to be every reason why the good employers and the workers, when they get together, ought to be supported, so that decent standards of wages and conditions should occur throughout industry. I agree with what has just been said by the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown) that this represents a change from the point of view of the trade unions. We ought to recognise and encourage that, and I think that anything which will tend to limit the beneficent influence of this proposal would be regrettable. Therefore I hope that my right hon. Friend will say "No" to the Amendment.

Mr. Bevin

If I may summarise the Debate on this Clause, it seems to take two forms. One view is that the Clause should be permanent. I doubt very much whether my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Summers) really wants to make it shorter, and what he really wants, if I understand him aright, is to retain Parliamentary control over the situation during this period. Without going into all the arguments, I think possibly that between now and the Report stage I could really meet those points of view. When two people are on opposite sides, it is safer to walk down the middle—

Mr. Barnes (East Ham, South)

As long as one is not walking on both sides at once.

Mr. Bevin

—and I think it is possible in this case. The fact is that Order 1305 will, as my hon. Friend says, continue for some time. I do not know when it will come to an end and neither does anybody else, but we are anxious that there shall be no sudden interruption of the arrangements which Order 1305 seeks to cover. If the Committee approve, and if there is agreement on both sides, I am willing between now and Report stage to look for the appropriate words which would accomplish this purpose: that the Clause would come into operation when Order 1305 ceased to have effect—whatever date that may be, it may be a year or 15 months, I do not know—and would continue until the end of the year 1950. That gives it virtually six years from now—that is, the two Orders together. Then Parliament should be given the opportunity of continuing the Clause under the Expiring Laws Continuance Act. So, by a combination of these methods, I shall keep Order 1305 going, bring this Clause in when that ceases, and Parliament can determine, on the date when we deal with the Expiring Laws Continuance Act, whether the Clause will go on or not. That is an attempt to bring both sides together.

Mr. Summers

May I express appreciation of the Minister's desire to reconcile the various views which have been expressed in connection with this Clause? I would ask those who would wish to see the principle in Part III made a permanent feature, not to use this as the vehicle for attaining their end, because there are relatively few hon. Members here to-day who have looked upon this as other than a transitional matter. If they have ideas of introducing such features into our permanent industrial life I would suggest that there are more straightforward ways of bringing them about than by this course. I hope Members will appreciate the Minister's attitude, and will allow me to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made:

In page 18, line 27, after "remuneration," insert: or minimum remuneration for the work on which he is employed.

In line 31, after "1943," insert "the Education Act, 1944."—[Mr. McCorquodale.]

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 20 to 22 ordered to stand part of the Bill.