HC Deb 19 November 1946 vol 430 cc813-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. R. J. Taylor.]

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Niall Macpherson (Dumfries)

The matter to which I have to refer tonight has already been raised in the Debate on the Address this afternoon from both sides of the House. It concerns the status of the Aeronautical Engineers' Association in the civil aviation corporations. If I were a member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, loyalty would probably compel me to take the same view as has been taken today, but I ask all hon. Members of the House to treat this question tonight as impartially as I have tried to do. I have no special favour for the Aeronautical Engineers' Association, and I certainly have no animosity towards the other unions involved. The affairs of this union have been brought to my attention by constituents of mine on whose behalf I presented a Petition not long ago.

There has been a good deal of genuine misconception and, I think, a certain amount of misrepresentation, either voluntary or involuntary, both in the House and outside, regarding the origin and activities of this Union. The tremendous expansion of the aviation industry during the war led to the bringing in of a large number of workers who had had no previous experience of aircraft maintenance and had served no ordinary apprenticeship. They were given a course of training by the Government in order to equip them for their duties. By the end of the war many of these men who had been occupied in skilled jobs of maintenance during the war had become skilled men, and large numbers of them had actually qualified for licences. At the time, when this question first arose the A.E.U. were not prepared to receive them within their ranks, although they are now. Therefore, in 1943, a union was formed consisting of these men whom, I say again, the A.E.U. were not prepared to accept. It is, therefore, entirely false to describe this organisation as a breakaway union Can anyone object to its formation? Here was a new and expanding industry. Would it not have been an economic waste for men who had acquired skill in serving the Air Ministry during the war not to be allowed to put that skill at the service of the civil aviation corporations at the end of the war if the Air Ministry were not themselves prepared to make use of them?

I emphasise again that this cannot be described as a breakaway union, and I would say at this point that of the present total membership of nearly 2,000 in the Aeronautical Engineers' Association only about 300 have ever belonged to another union. Many of these men who were trained in the Air Ministry during the war are now employed in civil aviation. In the British European Airways Corporation the Aeronautical Engineers' Association has so far only about one quarter of the total employees, but in the far greater B.O.A.C. they have a contributory membership of about 1,700 which, in their own grades, is far more members than all the ten unions affiliated to the T.U.C. put together. In the British South American Airways Corporation the Association has over 90 per cent. of the employees engaged on ground maintenance. These figures can be proved and established, but in spite of that the Association is not recognised by the corporations. Let there be no mistake. I am not talking about the total employees in all the unions, but about aircraft maintenance personnel. Perhaps the Minister, in reply, will say to how many those actually amount. An indication is given in a B.O.A.C. advertisement in "Flight" which mentions an aircraft maintenance staff of 4,000 men.

Not until 1943 did the B.O.A.C, which was previously a non-union employer, conclude an agreement with six other trade unions, whose combined membership at that time represented a very small proportion indeed of the total employees. Having started in the maintenance units of the R.A.F., the Aeronautical Engineers' Association grew very rapidly in civil aviation. There were four factors that determined it. In the first place, there was a sense of frustration due to the failure of the A.E.U.—in the opinion of the employees—to look after their interests. They felt that, after all, here was a small industry employing 5,000 or 7,000 employees; why should a vast trade union of 750,000 members bother about such small fry? The result was that a num- ber of A.E.U. members joined what was already a growing union.

The second point which influenced them was that the majority of employees engaged in aircraft maintenance industries regarded the industry as a new and expanding one, and there was every case, in their view, for control from within the industry itself and not from outside. The third factor which influenced them was the fact that the Aeronautical Engineers' Association offered much better sickness rates. It must be admitted that the reason was that their management expenses were kept relatively low and that the union are not interested, being a non-political union, in collecting fighting funds. The fourth point which influenced them was that the Aeronautical Engineers' Association were able to show solid achievement. They had negotiated with, and had been accepted and recognised by, Skyways. They had negotiated terms with them which were extremely favourable. I believe they are the most favourable terms in civil aviation. The position is, therefore, that while private enterprise recognised the Aeronautical Engineers' Association, the corporations have refused to do so.

Why is that? There can be only one reason, and that is T.U.C. pressure. It is exercised not only upon the corporations, for if it were exercised on the corporations the position would be the same as in similar cases. It is exercised through the Government upon the corporations. All the facts point that way. Clause 19 of the Civil Aviation Bill, as originally introduced, was similar to a Clause in the Coal Mines Bill. It provided, in effect that the corporations would consult with any organisation appearing to represent a considerable body of workers. To guard against the possibility of political pressure, and to ensure that there could be publicity given to any unwarranted refusal to recognise a union, I put down an Amendment suggesting an appeal to the Minister, so that the Minister would be held accountable to this House. The Government later put down an Amendment exempting the corporations from consulting an organisation, even though it thought it appropriate, if the corporation was satisfied that the existing machinery was adequate. It is not clear whether that Amendment was the result either of pressure from the T.U.C. or of fear of pressure. The existing machinery cannot conceivably be considered adequate when the union whose membership is greater than that of all other unions put together in these grades is not consulted at all. What has happened since? My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Central Glasgow Colonel Hutchison) and I have put down Questions on this matter. On the last occasion I was told by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation that it was a matter in the first instance, for the trades unions concerned, and the corporations who are the employers. The trouble is when do we get past the first instance? Recently the formation of a joint industrial council for the aviation industry was announced. The Aeronautical Engineers Association applied through the Ministry for membership. They received an answer, not from the Ministry of Labour, but from the National Union of General and Municipal Workers to the effect that all grades represented by the Aeronautical Engineers Association, were covered within the trade unions having agreements with the airways corporations. Actually, neither of the two corporations has any such agreement, to the best of my knowledge.

How long are the Government going to continue this farce? The Minister is in daily contact with the civil aviation corporations. The corporations are financed by public money. Are the Government really going to allow, not to say oblige, public corporations to permit injustices by refusing to recognise an organisation which represents the majority of the workers in certain principal grades of the aviation industry? That is not a question of day-to-day management, but of principle and of the national interest. Just in case the Minister should attempt to hide behind Section 19 of the Act let me remind him what the Lord Privy Seal said during the Debate on that Section: I have no doubt that the hon. and gallant Member for Central Glasgow would be one of the earliest to put down a question and the matter would be ventilated."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 19th June, 19th;—35] That, in my view, is a clear undertaking that the Government will not wash their hands of this matter. At last it has been ventilated, and I call on the Government to attend to the matter. I hope to hear from the Minister when he replies that he will exercise his influence and his powers, so as to ensure the position of the Aeronautical Engineers' Association. This Association is not a breakaway union; it is not mainly composed of dilutees but has a far larger proportion of ex-R.A.F. men and has more members in the grades it covers than all the unions affiliated to the T.U.C. put together. I hope the Minister will give this union fair play.

10.23 P.m.

Colonel J. R. H. Hutchison (Glasgow, Central)

Though I can add little to the clear exposition of this case by my hon. Friend, there are one or two points which I should like to add. By a coincidence, this case has been considered and has been in the forefront of our deliberations today. There is nothing that I have heard during the course of the Debate on the closed shop that has in any way altered my mind that here is being perpetrated a transparent injustice amounting almost to persecution. We heard words used by hon. Members opposite during the course of a Debate this afternoon▀×▀×

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)

The hon. and gallant Gentleman is not in Order in referring to a previous Debate today.

Colonel Hutchison

I beg pardon. I will keep my remarks exclusively to the Aeronautical Engineers' Association, but it was one of the subjects which was closely examined this afternoon. This is the same identical union—▀×

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. and gallant Member is not only occupying much of his time on this point, but he is also getting out of Order again.

Colonel Hutchison

I will keep close to the Aeronautical Engineers' Association. By any standards that we apply to the claims of this union it has a right to be recognised. As my hon. Friend has already emphasised, this is not a breakaway union. You cannot break away from nothing. It is not a splinter union, because you must have a parent body from which to splinter away. It has, in fact, proved its membership in two ways. It has proved it by showing the grand total of its adherents, and it has proved it by a strike. We have heard it said that men do not strike lightly, or on a subject about which they do not feel deeply, and to that view I completely subscribe, and so we have, by these two yardsticks, evidence that this association, this union, in fact controls the bulk of the members for whom it caters, whereas there are competing for the minority that are left some six to ten other unions affiliated to or connected with the T.U.C. We have also heard it said that the greatest good for the greatest number must be the measure and policy to guide us in a matter of this kind. Then let it apply in this case, because undoubtedly the Aeronautical Engineers' Association does represent the greatest number.

When this matter was being debated at the time of the Committee stage of the Civil Aviation Act, the Lord Privy Seal, referring to some protests that I had made, said that this House was the proper place to ventilate this matter, but we have heard the Minister of Labour say that in fact the Government have no control over this situation. Ministers surely must make up their minds. They have only to read the Civil Aviation Act, to discover that throughout the Minister of Civil Aviation has the widest possible powers over the whole situation. To disclaim any authority or any power merely means that that power is being handed over to some other body, which itself is dominating the Ministry and the Government. That other body must be none other than the T.U.C. If this is to be an example of what we may expect in the future for nationalised and other industries, if in fact the Government allow themselves to be used as a channel for pressure to be brought to bear in a matter of this kind, then I say that they are conniving, first at a tyranny, because it is irresistible pressure which can be brought to bear in this way upon men; they are conniving, second, at a monopoly, because the caucus will allow of no competition; and, finally, they will be lending their hand to a negation of democracy, because the caucus which will dominate the Government has not been elected by public suffrage. Are the Socialist Government going to allow themselves to fall into such low depths? If they are not, they will find ways and means to see that the justice which is the only thing I am interested in in this matter—I have no connection whatever with any of these unions—will be done to these men, who have been clamouring for it for so long.

10.29 P.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation (Mr. Lindgren)

May I first thank the hon. Member who opened the Debate for the manner in which he raised his point? I am sorry I cannot extend the same congratulations to the second speaker this evening. When one has a dispute between two parties, words or actions by persons who are not directly associated with the dispute, very often widen the breach, and it is much better for the general "bringing-together" of the parties that as little be said as possible of an inflammatory nature. Therefore, I do not propose this evening, in spite of a little temptation, to go into the statements or inferences which have been made by one side or the other, but rather to deal with general principles.

What are these general principles? First, the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Macpherson) quite rightly referred to Section 19 of the Civil Aviation Act. That Section places a responsibility upon each of the corporations for a decision as to which staff organisation they will negotiate with and what machinery and method of negotiation will be adopted. My noble Friend takes the view—and in this, with a considerable amount of industrial experience, I am in full sympathy and full support—that this is a question of management, of relationships between employer and employed, and that in questions of industrial relationship Ministers should interfere as little as possible There is, in industry, a generally recognised method of procedure for such matters, and it is far better that inside an industry, these tried and trusted methods of machinery should be used with the least possible interference from any outside organisation or body. The corporations themselves have recognised their responsibilities with regard to these negotiations. They have in fact said "We are common employers in the common field of civil aviation. Therefore we are prepared to have a common form of machinery, to deal with wages, conditions of employment and so forth inside that industry."

Therefore, in common agreement with the Ministry of Labour and with the assistance of the Ministry, they have set up a national organisation for dealing with problems relating to wages, staff and conditions within their own industry. One section of the joint industrial council constitution allows of the addition of membership to the industrial council. The Aeronautical Engineers' Association have applied for membership of that council. I am quite certain that it was not the intention of the hon. Member for Dumfries to mislead the House in any way, but he did refer to the fact that an application had been made and that a reply had been received from the secretary of the Municipal and General Workers Union. He may find in the first place that that letter is written on the notepaper of the Municipal and General Workers Union, but in these joint industrial councils, you have an employers side with an employers secretary, and an employees side with an employees secretary. What the Association has received is an acknowledgment, from the employees' secretary of the joint industrial council, that the application has been received and will be dealt with. That is how I see it, and if I have done an injustice to the hon. Member, I will immediately withdraw, but I did gather from his remarks that he thought that the Municipal and General Workers' Union were controlling the conditions of employment within that industry. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] It is clear that hon. Members opposite, whose knowledge of industrial subjects is not extremely large—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"]—I can only infer it from their remarks—are not aware that it is usual in dealing with joint industrial councils, for the secretary of the employees side of that council to reply on the notepaper of the organisation with which he is associated.

Mr. Macpherson

The information I have is to the effect that the A.E.A. were told that they were already catered for within the trade unions concerned, and that these did not include the A.E.A.

Mr. Lindgren

That is a statement of fact, but it does not take away from the responsibility of secretaries of the joint industrial councils for replying to letters which they have received as secretaries, and for replying on their own organisation's notepaper to the other organisation concerned.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd (Mid-Bedford)

If a letter is written to a Minister, is not the correspondent entitled to receive a reply from the Minister?

Mr. Lindgren

Again, dealing with correspondence between Members of the House of Commons and a Ministry is slightly different from dealing with correspondence in trade, industry and commerce and between one union and another. A joint industrial council is something different from a Government Department.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

Really, I cannot let the hon. Gentleman get away with that. I was for many years at the Ministry of Labour. I received a large number of letters dealing with all sorts of such matters. I did not pass them on to trade union officials to answer. I answered them on behalf of the Ministry, or saw that the Minister answered them. I did not pass them on to one of the new vested interests controlling our affairs to answer for me.

Mr. Lindgren

Again, as the hon. Gentleman has not been as polite as he might have been, may I say that if he had any knowledge of joint industrial council working he would not have made the statement which he has just made? A joint industrial council is made up of representatives of various organisations. The secretary of that council receives a letter and acknowledges it and deals with it. That letter will be submitted to the joint industrial council by the secretaries of the council and a reply will be received from the council. My noble Friend the Minister of Civil Aviation and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour are very gratified indeed that the two sides of the civil aviation industry have got together in a joint industrial council. They have got together on the basis that if there is a dispute in the joint industrial council it shall be submitted to arbitration. I do suggest to this House, with the greatest respect, that when one is dealing with the relationships in industry between employer and employee it is far better to deal with them on the basis of normal industrial practices than to deal with them on the basis of discussions within this House. If this House leaves the matter with the organisations concerned, then I am certain that they will settle them within the industry without any interference from this House, or from the Minister. I am certain, too, that that is, on a general basis, the desire of this House. After all, the inference from the benches opposite, in particular, has always been that there should not be interference with industry if industry can peacefully settle the problems with which it has to deal.

Colonel Hutchison

Before the hon. Member sits down, will he say whether he means that there is an arbitration tribunal, or a court of appeal to which this matter can be brought?

Mr. Lindgren

There is, first, a joint industrial council. When the matter is considered by the joint industrial council, every application for membership which is submitted is considered. If the other side agree and there is general agreement in the council, then the new member is admitted. If there is no agreement, or there is objection from one side or the other, then the applicant is not admitted.

10.39 P.m.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

That is a very interesting confession. I am not allowed to delay the House very much at this time, but I would like to protect my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Central Glasgow (Colonel Hutchison) against the suggestion that he made inflammatory remarks or did inflammatory things. He did his best to call off a strike in the interests of the aircraft industry. He succeeded, just as the hon. Lady the Member for the Exchange Division (Mrs. Braddock) did in the Liverpool area. There is one question I would like to ask, and I hope to have an answer. Was any effort made by the Government to persuade these corporations not to recognise this union? Can the Parliamentary Secretary give a solemn assurance that no effort of that kind was made?

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the Debate having been continued for half an hour,Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Order made upon 13th November.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty Minutes to Eleven o' Clock.