HC Deb 02 August 1951 vol 491 cc1624-30

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

82. Mr. VIANT

, —To ask the Minister of Labour whether he has yet reached agreement with both sides of industry as to the future of Statutory Order No. 1305; and if he is in a position to make a statement.

Mr. Speaker

I gather that the Minister of Labour wishes to answer Question No. 82.

The Minister of Labour (Mr. Robens)

Yes, Sir. I am glad to say that as a result of my discussions I am in a position to present to the House a new Order carrying the broad agreement of both sides of industry to replace the Conditions of Employment and National Arbitration Order, commonly known as Order 1305. I should like to take this opportunity of paying tribute to the public-spirited and statesmanlike approach to this problem that has been shown by the British Employers' Confederation, the General Council of the Trades Union Congress and the representatives of the Nationalised Industries in the course of these discussions.

The House will recall that the existing Order was a war-time measure, continued in force after 1945 with the agreement of both sides of industry on the understanding that it could be revoked at any time at the request of either side. In my opinion, the time has arrived when, for a number of reasons, the Order must be reviewed. To take one instance, experience has shown that the enforcement of penal sanctions against persons taking part in strikes and lockouts gives rise to extreme difficulties.

I have now made a new Order, to come into effect on 14th August, which will revoke Order 1305 and will provide a ready means for dealing with disputes that cannot otherwise be settled. The provisions of the Order are framed to develop and strengthen the voluntary systems of negotiation and to uphold the sanctity of agreements and awards.

With this in view, access to the Industrial Disputes Tribunal which is set up will be limited to employers, organisations of employers and trade unions that habitually take part in the settlement of terms and conditions of employment through voluntary machinery established in the industry where such machinery exists. If there is no such machinery, access will be limited to the employer concerned and the trade union that represents a substantial proportion of the workers.

The Order contains no provision prohibiting lockouts or strikes but I will have discretion to refuse access to the Tribunal where action is being taken resulting in a stoppage of work or in a substantial breach of agreement between the parties. Such matters as the employment or non-employment of a worker and claims for reinstatement are excluded from the Order. Experience has shown that such matters are not susceptible to settlement by compulsory arbitration.

There will be no possibility of using the machinery as an appeal against an award under the Industrial Courts Act or settlements reached through the voluntary machinery. While there will no longer be a general obligation on all employers to observe recognised terms and conditions of employment or terms and conditions not less favourable than the recognised terms and conditions, the Order provides machinery for settling issues of this kind in respect of particular employers. Copies of the Order are immediately available in the Vote Office.

This new Order is experimental. That is our way of doing things in this country. I have informed the representatives of the organisations with whom I have had discussions that if at any time either side wish the Order to be discontinued it will be reviewed immediately. But I venture to hope that this may not be necessary and that the Order may provide a piece of machinery suitable for our peacetime requirements and capable of rendering the maximum assistance to industry in the settlement of disputes peaceably without recourse to lockout or strike.

Our industrial relations system rests on the voluntary principle and it is my hope that that principle and that system will be strengthened by this new Order. No piece of machinery can, however, be successful without good will and I have endeavoured to devise an Order which will command the good will of both sides and operate to the advantage of the community as a whole.

Mr. R. A. Butler

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in general, it will be our desire to give this Order a fair wind? I am sure that he will realise, however, that we must first obtain a copy and then study the Order before we make any detailed comments upon it. We certainly accept the Minister's view that the voluntary bargaining system should be maintained in this country and supported on all occasions. In so far as the Minister has said that this Order supports that principle, we shall certainly be with him. Further, we are gratified that, to use the Minister's expression, both sides of industry have supported this Order. We should wish, as His Majesty's Opposition, to give our general support to the principle of it.

I should also like to welcome the fact that the Minister has stated that the Order contains no provision prohibiting lock-outs or strikes. That is in accordance with what we have already expressed and in accordance with the policy which we had already adopted as ours, so we welcome that development which we think is an improvement upon a situation which, as the Minister said in the earlier part of his statement, was rapidly proving unworkable.

Mr. Viant

I take it that the Minister is endeavouring, as far as possible, to get back to pre-war conditions, and to trust more and more to the confidence of both sides in avoiding, averting and settling disputes when they arise, and that this machinery is devised wholly to that end.

Mr. Robens

Yes, Sir. Broadly, that is true. My own views about this matter are, I think, well known. I believe in voluntary settlements. I hope that, as a result of this Order, wherever there is machinery for voluntary agreements, both sides of industry will put into that machinery provision for arbitration, so that there will be no need for reference to the new Tribunal at all. I believe that both sides of industry are quite capable of settling the bulk of the problems that arise within their own machinery. I hope that, as a result of this Order, we shall strengthen that view.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The right hon. Gentleman described the Order as experimental. In view of the immense importance of this subject, will he consider whether it is one that ought, in the long run, to be dealt with by Statutory Instrument or whether it should not be dealt with by a Bill which can be debated and, possibly, amended in this House? I ask him to consider that from the point of view of a permanent solution. Would he tell the House exactly what provision the new Order inserts in place of the old paragraph 5 in Order No. 1305—the paragraph which imposed the obligation to observe recognised conditions? What provision is in the new Order to secure the enforcement on both sides of generally recognised conditions?

Mr. Robens

The answer to the latter part of that question is that if there is an employer who is not observing the recognised terms and conditions, then that is a matter to be called in issue. Accordingly, it will be referred to me and, if there is voluntary machinery for settling a matter of that kind, I can refer it to that machinery. If it is a case of a non-federated employer, or one where there is no machinery, then I can refer it to the Tribunal, which I must do within 14 days. The Tribunal then has two tasks which it may perform. If it decides that the agreement should cover this employer and that this employer should observe the recognised terms and conditions, it may decide and award accordingly; or, secondly it may decide that he should operate terms and conditions no less favourable than those set out in the general agreement. With this Order, each case would have to be taken separately and proved on its merits, and not automatically, as it was under the old Order.

With regard to whether this ought to be incorporated in permanent legislation, that is a point of view which is worth considering. I should think that, where we are dealing with a matter affecting the lives of many people, it would be as well to allow an experimental period, and that, when we have found out what happens, we might change it slightly. I do not know. The Order provides flexibility and, in a few years' time, it may well be that we might cover this in permanent legislation.

Mr. Ellis Smith

Could we be informed of the date of this agreement? Am I correct in understanding that it is to be put into force on 14th August? If so, does that mean that it is not subject to the affirmative Resolution when the Order is laid on the Table?

Mr. Robens

No, Sir. It does come into operation on 14th August, but it does allow the 40 Sitting days in which a Prayer can be moved and a debate can take place.

Sir H. Williams

Many strikes have been called unofficial strikes. Apparently, the people who appear before the Tribunal must appear through their trade unions, but these are the people who are in dispute with their unions. What is to be done where people strike against the advice of their own unions?

Mr. Robens

This new Order does not take away any of the powers which the Minister now has, or, indeed, any of the existing influence which he exerts—because, although he may not have powers, he can exert a moral influence. There will be many cases where people will not observe what has been laid down and in these cases we must do as we have always done, bring the two sides together and preach a little sweet reasonableness. I am certain—and things are moving in this direction— that there is a greater sense of responsibility on the part of both workers and employers in relation to industrial disputes. It is the basis of our democracy to encourage self-discipline among individuals.

Mr. P. Bartley

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether this new Order makes any provision for the reference of disputes in regard to the recognition of trade unions to the Industrial Disputes Board?

Mr. Robens

No, Sir; it does not. This refers only to wages and conditions.

Sir Edward Boyle

As many tens of thousands of His Majesty's subjects will be interested in the announcement which the Minister has just made, will he consider publishing a popular leaflet explaining, in very simple terms, the differences between the old Order and the new one?

Mr. Robens

That is worth taking into account. I rather think that either the trade unions or the employers may have taken that up, but I will certainly have a look at it.

Mr. Pannell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, under the old machinery, any recognised bodies setting up their own machinery—I have in mind particularly local authorities and the Co-operative movement—have the right to recognition of that machinery and need not have to go to the arbitration tribunal? May I ask him whether that principle of voluntary agreement is to be continued? Secondly, are any bodies of workers to be kept outside this Order? Will it, for instance, be possible for employees and staff of this House, for whom trade union recognition has not yet been accorded, to take such action as they think necessary under the new procedure?

Mr. Robens

I was not aware that members of the staff of the House were not permitted to join a trade union. That is another issue, and I take note of it. In relation to the first part of my hon. Friend's question, the ordinary voluntary machinery is something that I want to strengthen. If there is, within that voluntary machinery, something which provides for arbitration and there is a dispute, then it will go to that part of the machinery to be settled, and there will be no appeal from that to the Tribunal. In point of fact, we are now giving to the voluntary arbitration machinery the same force that we gave to the independent tribunal's award.

Mr. Mikardo

While joining in the welcome given to my right hon. Friend's statement, which I am sure will be universally welcomed throughout the country, may I ask if he is aware that, where the machinery in the past has fallen under criticism and created difficulties, it was generally not because the machinery was bad, but because it was slow? Will he do everything in his power to ensure that the new arrangements will operate somewhat faster than the old ones have done?

Mr. Robens

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that apparent slowness in the working of machinery has caused a great deal of frustration and irritation among the people who have to abide by it. I have cut down the 21 days to 14 days, and I do not think that we ought to have a period much below that. I will use all my influence in all these cases to see that matters are dealt with as promptly as possible, because I firmly believe that prompt settlements in negotiations taking place on matters at issue will prevent many of the industrial disputes that now arise.