HC Deb 20 November 1947 vol 444 cc1390-6
Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I beg to move, in page 4, line 20, to leave out "thirty-first," and to insert "tenth."

The Chairman

It might be convenient if that Amendment and the one in page 4, line 21, to leave out "forty-eight," and to insert "fifty," were discussed together.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The point on the first Amendment is a very small one. It is simply a question of drafting and of convenience. The proposal is to alter the date of expiry from 31st December, to 10th December, simply to bring it into line with the other provisions of the Bill. It is not a point of any great principle. but merely a question of tidiness.

The point on the second Amendment, in one aspect, is considerably more important. I invite the attention of the Committee to the provision in Clause 5 with reference to the date to be named by the Minister of Labour under the Restoration of Pre-War Trade Practices Act. Under the Clause as it stands, the final date fixed under this Bill is 1948. Our proposal is to make it 1950. Perhaps I may be allowed to explain the point of substance. Under the Restoration of Pre-War Trade Practices Act, 1942, provision was made that, during the war, certain practices in industry which tended to restrict production should be put into cold storage for the duration of the war, with the very proper proviso that at the end of the war period they should be restored. They were to be restored at a date to be named by the Minister of Labour by Order, but that date, when allowance is made for the Amendment to the Act of 1946, could not be later than 31st December of this year; that is to say, the freedom of the Minister of Labour to name the expiry of the war period, as the law stands at the moment, is 31st December of this year.

I have no doubt that the extension of that by one year, which the Bill provides, is the result of the negotiations which the Minister of Labour has had with both sides of industry in the National Joint Advisory Council. I apprehend that the date fixed in the Bill is fixed because that was the date recently agreed upon by the National Joint Advisory Council. What is proposed by this Amendment is not necessarily to put the date for the restoration of these practices back to 1950. It is merely to provide that the Minister shall have, as it were, elbow room up to 1950 in which to make the order. The Minister can make the order specifying any date he likes before that date, but he is compelled to make that order by 31st December, 1948. as the Bill stands.

Surely, it would be a display of ludicrous optimism on the part of any Member of the Committee to believe for one moment that we shall be out of the economic emergency by 31st December of next year. It is obvious that we shall not be in that position. Therefore, it seems to be very short-sighted to leave no option to the Minister of Labour, whatever he may think, to extend the war period for the purposes of this Measure beyond 31st December, 1948. It may well be that the Minister of Labour at that time will have strong opinions. If he has, it will be necessary to come back to Parliament and to provide for an Amendment to this Measure. If, on the other hand, I am being unnecessarily pessimistic and our economic troubles disappear in the next few months like the mists of morning, then the position of the Minister will not be altered if our Amendment is accepted. The Minister will still be free to make the order at any date which, in his judgment, seems right. All we are seeking to do is to extend the period during which his free judgment may operate.

I suggest that the Minister of Labour must appreciate the possibility that 31st December, 1948, may be too early. That is a possibility which no responsible Minister could wholly exclude. All that we seek to do by this Amendment is, as I expressed it a moment ago, to give him more elbow room and to provide that he shall not be compelled to make his order until 31st December, 1950. That is, I think, a point of considerable importance. It is recognised on both sides of the Committee that the suspension of restrictive practices in industry which took place during the war was of very considerable assistance. I do not think it is disputed that it is of great assistance now. All I suggest is that it is unreasonable to assume that that necessity will have ceased to operate by 31st December of next year. It is in those circumstances, and with a desire to be helpful to the Minister of Labour in his difficult task, that I have moved this Amendment.

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

I appreciate very much the spirit in which the Amendment has been moved and the intention behind it, but I draw the Committee's attention to all the arguments that were used earlier in these discussions for having annual opportunities for discussing the extension of this wartime legislation. It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman is meeting his hon. Friends coming back. I quite agree that, if the Amendment were accepted, it would not compel my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour to terminate the wartime restrictions at any earlier date than is provided for by the agreements with the National Joint Advisory Council. In this matter we have to depend upon a large measure of goodwill. The trade unions were entitled to ask the Minister to terminate that Act at the end of this year, and I think the Committee should keep in mind what is involved in the suspension of the prewar practices. I have examined the huge file of agreements that have been registered with millions of men in the trade unions, who have sacrificed rates of pay with regard to overtime and certain practices and customs in their trades, and have agreed to very substantial relaxations. In general, this Act was a means of assisting this country in the conduct of the war effort.

Mr. Molson (The High Peak)

Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me to interrupt him? If he now has all this information in his Department, how is it that, when this matter was first raised and we asked questions as to what were these restrictive practices, we were always refused the information by the Minister of Labour and also by the Prime Minister?

Mr. Ness Edwards

I am afraid I have no knowledge of that, but I can tell the Committee that agreements that have been registered under this Act relate to the suspension of payments for overtime, dilution, the employment of women instead of men, hours of normal employment and night work, and in all these things very great sacrifices have been borne by the members of the trade unions of this country. They were legally entitled to ask that those practices should be restored at the end of this year, and at the end of last year they came to the conclusion that these practices should be restored. However, in the middle of this year, when there were signs of a crisis, discussions took place which were very largely instigated by the trade unions themselves, and we put it to them that it was desirable that they should postpone the restoration of their prewar practices, in view of the economic situation of the country. They rightly agreed, and I think hon. Members on both sides of the Committee will pay a compliment to the trade unionists for their readiness to sacrifice their prewar practices at this time of crisis.

In those discussions we asked them to agree to this machinery for extending the life of this Act, and they agreed to an extension for 12 months. It seems to me that we would be liable to a charge of breach of faith if we extended the Act for three years. I agree that, technically, it does not compel the Minister to terminate the practices, but, when dealing with a subject of this magnitude, which so vitally affects the economic life of this country, and which is an expression of generosity and patriotism by the trade unionists of this country, we ought not to lay ourselves open to a charge of breach of faith. In those circumstances, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his Amendment.

Mr. W. S. Morrison

The Committee has listened with great attention to the right hon. Gentleman, and I rise merely to make one or two observations. The first is that I think the right hon. Gentleman was pursuing the wrong hare when he seemed to detect some inconsistency between the line we are following on this matter and the line we have followed upon the regulations. We on this side of the Committee take the view that government by regulation is a power that must be jealously watched and which ought, in our view, to come up for review every year, but there is no government by regulation in this particular Clause of the Bill. It is an Act of Parliament which has been passed, and it cannot be amended except by Act of Parliament. We take the view that an Act of Parliament which has been passed through all its stages in the House is a very different instrument of government from a regulation, and consequently there is no inconsistency whatever in my hon. Friend suggesting that this Act of Parliament should be amended in a different way from that in which the Bill proposes to amend it, because it is an Act of Parliament and not a regulation.

6.15 p.m.

The other thing which I want to make abundantly clear is that the Amendment does not put off or postpone by a day the restoration of prewar practices, if the time has come for restoration. It ought to be quite clear that that is not the effect or intention. The Amendment was merely put forward with a sincere desire to help the right hon. Gentleman to improve this Measure in a way that would make it a more effective instrument in his hands. I think the view which I have gathered from the speech of the right hon. Gentleman is that he and his right hon. Friend might be embarrassed if this Amendment were passed, not because it would, in fact, alter the position to the detriment of the trade unions, but because it might be supposed to be a breach of faith. We do not wish to press a party point, or even a point of substance, to the degree of embarrassing the right hon. Gentleman in his task, and, in the circumstances, I am sure that my hon. Friends will not wish to insist upon the Amendment.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

It is no part of our wish to embarrass the Parliamentary Secretary, or indeed the Minister, in the conduct of these manifestly delicate negotiations, and if the Parliamentary Secretary, in the exercise of his responsibilities, assures the Committee that, however, irrationally, the atmosphere of these negotiations might be poisoned were this Amendment to be accepted, that would be a conclusive argument for not pushing it through. Before asking the leave of the Committee to withdraw the Amendment, I would ask for one assurance. In view of the attitude which the right hon. Gentleman has taken, can he give an assurance that, if a situation arises in which, in the considered judgment of the Minister and himself, it is desirable in the national interest to postpone the date, he will not allow the time which is inevitably taken by legislation, or the claims of other competing legislation, to prevent him from pressing strongly for that legislation to be brought forward?

Mr. Ness Edwards

I think I can very readily give that assurance, if the National Joint Advisory Council agrees. We might find at the end of 1948 that the life of the Act should be extended, and, if so, we would come to the House and seek the necessary authority. In fact, we must come to the House and get that authority. I can certainly give that assurance.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

In the light of that very clear assurance from the right hon. Gentleman, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Ede

I beg to move, in page 4, line 44, to leave out "during," and to insert "after."

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. W. S. Morrison) and his colleagues for drawing attention to this drafting error in the Bill. The Amendment will correct it, and I thought that, by putting my name at the head, it would indicate that, the Government were prepared to accept it.

Mr. W. S. Morrison

This Amendment was put down to correct an obvious slip. The right hon. Gentleman has used his powers to put himself at the head of the queue in proposing it. I have no objection to that, and I am only glad that the Opposition has been of assistance by their vigilance in the matter:

Amendment agreed to.

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

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.