HC Deb 10 July 1950 vol 477 cc1103-12

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

10.16 p.m.

Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)

The point I wish to bring before the House is one which will be of general interest, namely, the refusal of a company known as the Banque Beige Pour L'Etranger (Overseas) Ltd. to accord normal trade union recognition to its staff. Briefly, the history of the case is that the bank was established in this country in 1934 to carry on the business of the bank of that name in Brussels. It is affiliated to the Société Générale de Beige, but it is a British concern and is worked under licence. I do not think that there is any dispute that the majority of the staff, 133 out of 198, are members of the only recognised trade union of bank officers, the National Union of Bank Employees which is the only union of bank employees affiliated to the Trades Union Congress.

Since 1948 the bank have been refusing to give these members of its staff normal trade union recognition. In 1948, when I believe the first approach was made. the bank replied: The management do not wish to discuss with outside parties the arrangements of the bank Just how they define their staff as "outside parties" of the properly constituted organisation representing that staff, I fail to understand. The serious point is that the salaries and conditions of service of the employees of this bank are well below those of other banks in London. The National Union of Bank Employees is fully recognised by one of the big five, Barclays Bank, by the National Bank and by most of the smaller banks. Indeed, it is recognised by all the banks where it can be shown that union members are in the majority. In other banks the employees make their grievances known through a body known as the British Bankers' Association to which—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. Can he say in what way there is Government responsibility here?

Mr. Hynd

The Government responsibility is that the Minister of Labour has authority to use his influence with this employer to accord trade union recognition to the staff.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I doubt if that is sufficient. Has the Minister any statutory or quasi-statutory responsibility?

Mr. Hynd

I think that he has. I think that the Minister of Labour has full authority to bring pressure to bear on employers who take up an attitude of this kind, and by bringing that pressure to bear he might compel them to alter their attitude. That is the case which, with your permission, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I shall attempt to make.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Perhaps the Minister will indicate whether that is the case and whether the Ministry accept responsibility for this matter?

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

I am afraid that, so far as the Ministry are concerned, we cannot agree that we have any statutory obligations. We attempt to intervene in any issue which may resolve itself into a trade dispute, but I certainly could not agree that, so far as the Ministry are concerned, we have any statutory obligation, or, in fact, that we should force arbitration in the conditions which my hon. Friend has laid down.

Mr. Hynd

May I ask the Minister, with your permission, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, whether he has not a very considerable industrial relations department, which has been set up for the express purpose of fostering proper industrial relationships? Surely, this is one of the main functions of that Department? If it is not, I should like to know what is the function of the industrial relations department.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I think the Minister would have to tell me whether it is the practice of his Ministry to intervene in matters of this kind. If so, it would appear that he has some responsibility in the matter. and it would then be in order.

Mr. Lee

Yes, it is the practice to intervene to attempt to bring about a reconciliation between two contending parties, and, in fact, I will try to say what we have attempted to do in this case.

Mr. Hynd

I am much obliged, Mr. Deputy-Speaker.

In January of this year, there was a little bit of trouble with this bank, arising from the fact that trade union literature was to be distributed. In order to call attention to the way in which it might affect the staffs of all banks, a poster parade was held in the streets by members of the staffs of other banks during their lunch hour, and making no reference to this particular bank. However, the bank took umbrage, and resorted to what I can only describe as childish reprisals, namely, withdrawing a grant promised for the employees' sports fund and a grant towards an annual dinner—a very childish action, in my opinion.

There was, however, something more serious behind it all, apparently, because what the bank is really trying to do is set up a company union or staff committee, which my trade union colleagues will recognise under the old title of a "Spencer union." In doing so, the bank granted certain conditions for the bank employees, notably giving bonuses to members of the staff who served in the Forces, and who, unlike members of the staffs of other banks, had not had their salaries made up to them at the time. That was done without consultation with anybody representing the staff, and therefore it created a lot of anomalies which could have been avoided if the bank had granted normal trade union recognition. This staff committee has proposed a new grading system for the staff which is embodied in a most extraordinary document which I hold in my hand. They propose to claim a higher grant—something approaching the normal salary paid in banks in London—but this higher rate is to be granted on these conditions: While no one is infallible, men in this class should not be prone to make mistakes and certainly should not make the same mistake twice. They should conduct themselves strictly in accordance with the spirit of the written and unwritten rules of the Bank and should never need calling to order. If by any chance they should offend, they would not rank among those people who are always ready with excuses. Then it goes on: Although we are not primarily concerned with a man's private life, it will be definitely in his favour if he lives in a quiet orderly fashion, relying for relaxation on sports, activities and hobbies or other healthy pastimes. That sounds rather like an extract from a story by H. G. Wells about the conditions of shop assistants 50 or more years ago, but it will illustrate the antediluvian attitude of the management of this particular bank, and it is no wonder that any self-respecting staff should turn down a degrading document of that kind.

I apologise for bringing up the matter in this way, because I know it is embarrassing to the Minister, but he can have no complaint about my raising it on the Adjournment, because in March I asked him to receive a deputation, which he refused, saying that there was no further action which his Department could usefully take in the matter. On 28th March, I put down a Question, and was told by the Minister that he did not think this was a matter in which he could usefully intervene. In reply to a supplementary question, he said he would see whether he could use any influence in the matter. On 4th April, I raised the matter in a debate about joint consultation in industry. On 18th April, I put down another Question in reply to which the Minister said that he was unable to say whether there was any further action which he could usefully take. On 16th May a Question was put by my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Mr. Gibson). to which the Minister replied that he had no power in the matter.

I repeat that this is a quite unsatisfactory situation, and that the Minister, with his large industrial relations department and with all the authority which he can bring to bear, ought to be able to do a little better than that. I am a little disappointed and puzzled at the Minister's action. I am puzzled because I cannot believe that he is quite as helpless as he says he is. I am disappointed because I feel that he is not using his full powers. I suggest that the Minister might at least give public expression to the Government's view concerning an attitude of that kind in the year 1950. He should make it quite clear, for example, that a bank with foreign connections such as this one has should be particularly scrupulous in observing the recognised British standards of industrial life.

Freedom of association is not something new or local; it is now universally recognised as one of the elementary rights of workers of all grades, and is embodied in the Charter of the Inter- national Labour Organisation, and every other modern institution of that kind. I think that the bank ought to be made aware of the feeling of the House on this matter, a feeling which I am quite sure is shared by both sides. I respectfully ask the Minister to use all the authority at his disposal to bring this home to the bank, and to get them to alter their attitude in the matter.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Leather (Somerset, North)

I rise to support on general principles the plea made by the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd). This is a case about which there is a good deal of obscurity, but some of my hon. Friends on this side of the House have tried to investigate it. On the basis of the evidence, so far as we know it, we believe that the National Union of Bank Employees has a good case. I say quite frankly that there may be other elements about which we know nothing, but in so far as we are aware of the facts, we believe that the union is a bona fide organisation. We understand that it has a sufficient percentage of representation in this particular case, and that therefore it is entitled to recognition.

We support the organisation of office workers in all grades in bona fide unions, such as the N.U.B.E., and I agree with the hon. Member for Accrington that these particular employees have a legitimate case. I ask the Minister to lend his assistance and his offices, such as they may be, to see that a fair conclusion is arrived at, and that this matter does not become a canker which creates ill-feeling in banking circles.

10.29 p.m.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Leather) and the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd). I feel that this is a particularly important case because this is a foreign bank, and misunderstandings are likely to arise. I have no intention of attacking foreign firms in this country, but I very much hope that this bank will be able to clear its name of what are, possibly, unfair insinuations. I have the greatest sympathy with the National Union of Bank Employees. While I reserve judgment until I have heard the other side of the question, I hope that the hon. Gentleman who is to reply will indicate that the Minister of Labour is exerting, officially or unofficially, these powers and that influence at his disposal in order to bring about a satisfactory settlement of the dispute.

10.31 p.m.

Brigadier Peto (Devon, North)

I should like to support the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) who raised this matter. I have letters from branches of that Union in my own constituency, and I am only too happy to support him in his plea.

Dr. King (Southampton, Test)

I support, with very real pleasure, the appeal which the hon. Member for Accrington has made. The National Union of Bank Employees in my town approached me and asked me to support this matter. I can say to the Minister that the bank employees of the country feel there is a real injustice being done to their fellow workers in this bank, and I hope the Minister will be able to do something for us.

10.33 p.m.

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

After the debate we had in this House some months ago on joint consultation, and the general agreement on both sides that it was necessary for closer consultation, and after the statement by my right hon. Friend the Minister, I should have thought that there would be no doubt, either in this House or throughout industry, that the Government, through the Ministry, would welcome far closer and more mutual association of both sides of industry, using industry in its widest sense to include the professions and banking.

The hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) has raised this issue in Questions on a number of occasions, and I think he really should clear his mind on this point. He seems to be under the impression that my Ministry have the right to intervene in this case, and to force the employer to accept a position, which up to now this bank management has not accepted, that it must, in fact, recognise this particular union. Of course, that is something quite outside the jurisdiction of the Minister of Labour.

Mr. H. Hynd

I am sure the Minister will believe me when I say I am not labouring under that misapprehension. I am well aware that the Minister has no statutory right to force the bank to take a certain attitude, but the whole trend of my remarks was that he had tremendous moral suasion which he could use if only he would.

Mr. Lee

In reply to that argument, we have tried to use that moral suasion of which my hon. Friend speaks. In June, 1949, the National Union of Bank Employees sought the assistance of my Department in connection with the refusal of the bank to enter into negotiations with them. We referred the matter to the regional industrial relations officer in London, who, on a number of occasions, discussed with both the bank management and the representatives of the union whether in any way he could help in bringing the two sides together. In fact, he offered to arrange an informal meeting under his own chairmanship in an effort to find a mutually satisfactory solution of the problem. This offer was not accepted by the management.

The union claims to have a membership of some 73 per cent. of the staff of the hank. I think that figure tallies with the figure which my hon. Friend gave, I am surprised to hear from my hon. Friend that the salaries paid at this bank do not compare favourably with the salaries paid in the trade as a whole. The union representatives expressed some dissatisfaction with certain salaries, but did not report any dispute on salaries or on conditions of employment. They simply confined their request for assistance to this matter of recognition.

Mr. Hynd

That being the first step towards negotiations on the salary question.

Mr. Lee

That makes an appreciable difference to our position. Hon. Members have pointed out that they believe the Ministry of Labour have a certain obligation in relation to the dispute, but in fact it has no jurisdiction within the Arbitration Orders to ask the National Arbitration Tribunal to intervene on a question of the recognition of a trade union by an employer. We could ask—and have asked, as the House is aware—the National Arbitration Tribunal to sit on wage or salary disputes, but I must emphasise that so far as the union is concerned it has not raised the issue of salaries or conditions of employment at all. What it has raised has been purely the demand for recognition by the management for this particular bank.

I was relating the steps we have taken following the failure of the efforts of the industrial relations officer to secure a joint meeting. Questions were asked in the House and on 28th March last, in reply to a supplementary question, my right hon. Friend stated that he would see whether he could use any influence to bring about a settlement. The attention of the bank was drawn to the answers given in the House on that date, and they were asked by the Ministry whether they would be willing to attend a joint meeting with representatives of the union if such a meeting was convened by the Ministry. The bank replied to this request as follows: We would send a representative as a matter of courtesy. We fail to see, however, what useful results can he achieved as we are not prepared to alter our attitude. Hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House have expressed themselves tonight and on other occasions in a manner with which the Government agree broadly, that is, that if only we could get acceptance of the necessity for joint consultation throughout the profession it would certainly be a great step forward; but I must again emphasise to the House that the Ministry have no power to enforce recognition of any trade union by an individual employer. On 16th May, in answer to a further Question in the House, my right hon. Friend replied: The question of trade union representation is a matter for settlement between the employer and the trade union concerned. I have no powers in the matter."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th May, 1950; Vol. 475, c. 1020.] I do not know that I can add a great deal more. I do not, for my own part, in the least dispute almost all the points that my hon. Friend has made, and which have been supported from both sides of the House. I can only reiterate that, so far as the Ministry are concerned, we have, as I have illustrated, tried to bring both sides of the profession together. The union last asked for the help of the Ministry on 8th February this year. If they wish for any further assistance they will doubtless ask for it. I must, however, make it clear that the only action open to the Ministry is to offer the services of a conciliation officer in an attempt to find a satisfactory solution to the problem.

10.40 p.m.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson

May I have the permission of the House to speak again? I am very disappointed with what the Parliamentary Secretary has said. I agree that his Department have limited powers, but it seems to me that they also have unlimited functions and duties. The attitude adopted by the bank must render it open to conclusions which are not of a pleasant nature. I have no doubt that the bank will do its duty; I am sure it is merely misguided and mistaken.

I hope that before the Debate concludes the Minister will express with more emphasis his undoubted desire that the bank should follow the normal practice and recognise a union. In this case it would appear to be the N.U.B.E., because it seems that that union has a 73 per cent. membership. That is a great preponderance. It is not easy for bank clerks to join a union under the direct discouragement of the management, but in this case 73 per cent. have joined.

I hope that in the face of this expression of opinion from both sides of the House the Department will go forward with added zeal in taking the necessary steps. Before the Debate closes, I should like to hear from the Minister that that is the intention of his Department.

Mr. H. Hynd

Whilst I studiously refrained from using anything but the most moderate language in putting forward the case, I must emphasise that this is a matter of vital trade union principles. It is not just a local quarrel between some body and a local bank. This is a matter of principle and it is of very wide national interest. I have not heard any explanation of why the Minister refused to receive a deputation on a national level. That sort of thing would have brought home to the bank that this is more than a local matter concerning the London conciliation officer of the Ministry. It is a national matter of principle.

Mr. Lee

If I may have the permission of the House, I would say that it is rather unusual for me to have to be pressed to attempt to get trade union recognition for people. It is quite a new experience for me. So far as the Ministry are concerned, we are willing to do everything that is humanly possible to bring the two sides together. I have tried to illustrate the measures we have already taken, and we shall continue to try to find a loop- hole by which we can bring the parties together. Short of being given the power to direct employers to recognise trade unions, I do not know that we can do much more.

Speaking for the Government, I have to hold a position of neutrality. I do not want to appear to be weighting the scales. If I could speak as an individual trade unionist, I should be willing to throw my cap in the air if somebody told me that we had at last got this bank to recognise the trade union.

I hope the views expressed on both sides of the House will help to show that there is a genuine desire on both sides to see recognition of bona fide trade unions by employers. If there is any way in which we can assist in bringing about that very desirable objective, I assure the House that we shall be very ready, willing and happy to use every method of persuasion, short of that of compelling recognition. We shall be happy to do everything in our power to bring about reconciliation in the hope that it will lead to better understanding in the future.

Mr. Orbach (Willesden, East)

Would not the Minister send for the representatives of the bank and explain exactly what both sides of the House feel about this matter? I believe that if he would see the representatives of the bank and tell them that the House, having debated this matter, from both sides expressed the desire that the bank should recognise the rights which are normally extended by British employers in this country, then perhaps we should have a happier result to this dispute than anything we have seen at the present time.

Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Erdington)

Perhaps at the same time the Minister might tell them what he thinks himself. I do not think this is a case in which the Minister ought to try to hold the balance between good and evil. There is no doubt that in this case one side has been willing to negotiate the whole time, and the other side has not. I think the Minister ought to say a little more, and ought to use a little more moral persuasion to make this bank face up to its obligations.

Adjourned accordingly at Fourteen Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.