HC Deb 31 March 1953 vol 513 cc1041-5

Sir E. Boyle (by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Labour whether he has any statement to make about the Austin motor dispute.

The Minister of Labour (Sir Walter Monckton)

Yes, Sir. As the House will be aware, the stoppage of work at Austins began on 17th February, and up till yesterday the intervention or assistance of my Department was not sought by either party. The other unions concerned within the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions had recommended to the National Union of Vehicle Builders that they should consider asking me for the appointment of a court of inquiry, but the union decided instead to approach the Trades Union Congress.

On Monday, 23rd March, the company announced its intention of discharging any employees who had not returned to work by Friday, and in accordance with this decision 1,583 men were discharged. On Saturday, the union decided to take certain measures for widening and intensifying the stoppage. It was in these circumstances that I received yesterday a request from the union to set up a court of inquiry under the Industrial Courts Act, and my Department at once communicated with the parties concerned in order that I might be informed of their views.

Discussions are proceeding and I will make a further statement before the House rises for the Easter Recess.

Sir E. Boyle

While thanking my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply, may I ask him whether he does not agree that the public interest is best to be served by an inquiry into this long-drawn-out trade dispute?

Sir W. Monckton

I quite follow the point which my hon. Friend makes, but I take the view that it is better that discussions, and opportunity for discussions, should precede a decision.

Mr. Isaacs

May I ask the Minister whether the party making application to the Minister for a court of inquiry have given any indication of their intention of resuming work while the inquiry is going on? In that event, would he approach the management of the firm with a view to their withdrawing the dismissal notices if such an arrangement were made?

Sir W. Monckton

No, Sir. The union concerned has approached me to order a court of inquiry. That is all they have asked for, and that is the proposition I am now considering.

Mr. Edelman

As the application comes from the union, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman, in the meantime, use his restraining influence with the British Motor Corporation to prevent them from taking any further reckless action which might have the effect of spreading the strike throughout the industry?

Sir W. Monckton

I am sure that the hon. Member would be among the first to realise that the sort of point he has been making is one which is part of the discussions taking place now. I do not want to add anything to what I have said on the main point. I shall be ready, with permission, to answer a Question on Thursday which has been put down on this matter, even if it is not reached.

Mr. Sevan

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that there is no more effective way of producing a strike than to give notice to workmen on the grounds of redundancy, and then to re-employ some and not re-employ others who are available for the work and who have a claim to it on grounds of seniority; and that this is calculated almost to cause stoppages? While not wishing at all to prejudice this inquiry, unless hon. Gentlemen want to have a series of strikes all over the country will the right hon. and learned Gentleman call the attention of the employers' representatives on the Industrial Advisory Council to the necessity, where men are put off and re-employed, that they should be re-employed in such a manner as to give a sense of justice and equity to all the men concerned?

Sir W. Monckton

I am very well aware of the necessity of giving a sense of justice and equity to all the men concerned. I am equally aware of the necessity of giving a sense of justice to both parties who are interested in a dispute of this sort. It would not be wise for me to take any particular point by itself. If there is to be a court of inquiry I had better not give judgment before I hear evidence.

Mr. Chapman

Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman any reason to believe that the management is willing to accept and to abide by the findings of a court of inquiry? After all, the men have said that they will. Has the management given any assurance to the Ministry on those lines? Secondly, can the Minister confirm or deny that the management is now threatening to dismiss other workers who refuse to perform work regarded as "black" by the National Union of Vehicle Builders?

Sir W. Monckton

The right to set up an inquiry of this sort, as the right hon. Gentleman will remember, does not depend upon the consent of the parties. Those applying in this case, for reasons which I well understand, have said that they will follow whatever the recommendations of a court would be. I have not asked for, and, therefore, I have not received, any undertaking of a comparable kind from the other side. What I want to do is to get the views of those concerned and then to decide for myself whether the court ought to be set up. As to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I have no knowledge of the matter to which he has drawn attention but I will make it my business to get it.

Mr. Bevan

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman has not decided to set up a court of inquiry immediately, we are entitled to ask questions in the House on the matter, however controversial they might appear to be. All that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is doing at the moment is having discussions. Will he, therefore, represent to the employers concerned in all parts of the country that as there is short-time working going on in some places, and as men are being put off on grounds of redundancy, they ought not to provoke strikes of this sort?

Sir W. Monckton

I hope that I always make it plain to employers and others that the last thing I want to do is to see action taken which will provoke strikes. I want now to provoke a settlement, and I do not think that any criticism by me of the parties at a moment's notice like this is likely to have that effect. That is the only reason. I am not for a moment suggesting that it is improper to put controversial questions but I desire, if I can, to remain in a judicial position.

Mr. Poole

In view of the fact that there are over 1,000 men now who have been thrown out of employment and dismissed by this firm, is not speed the essence of a settlement here? Would not the Minister be well advised to set up a court of inquiry at once, unless he wants an extension of this dispute?

Sir W. Monckton

Speed is certainly the essence of this matter. On 12th March, I indicated my readiness to consider any efforts, any approach which might be made to me to conciliate. The matter reached me for the first time yesterday. I at once got into touch with all parties concerned. The discussions are taking place today. I propose to make a decision by Thursday. I do not think that I am lacking in speed.

Mr. Yates

While appreciating the Minister's prompt manner in dealing with this matter, may I ask him whether he will take into consideration—and I am speaking as one who has lived in this area for many years—the very deep-seated feeling there is about the methods by which redundancy is considered by this factory? Will he also bear in mind the deep-seated resentment there is in the City of Birmingham at the recent action of this firm, which they do not feel is justified, in discharging 1,583 men?

Sir W. Monckton

The matters to which the hon. Gentleman has referred are, plainly, matters which will have to be borne in mind by anyone who is making a decision on this case.

Mr. Summers

Will my right hon. and learned Friend, before this episode is concluded, take a look at the regulations affecting the withholding of unemployment pay so far as it may affect those who are anxious and willing to take a job but are prevented, through no fault of their own or anyone else, from the means of occupying one?

Sir W. Monckton

I am well aware of some of the difficulties that arise in that connection, but fortunately for me there are limits to what falls within the scope of the Department concerned, and I shall have to take up that matter with one of my right hon. Friends.

Mr. McGovern

If I understood the Minister aright he said that the strike had lasted for a month before the trade union took any action. Is it not deplorable that a strike of this magnitude should be allowed to continue for so long before any effective action is taken? Is it not about time, in order to prevent a recurrence of this nature, that there should be some automatic arbitration on matters of this kind?

Sir W. Monckton

It would be dangerous to assume that responsible people in the trade union movement did not take interest in this matter. The matter went from the trade union concerned to the confederation in which that union has a part. It was two or three times considered there before it came to the Trades Union Congress. I do not think that there was any lack of interest in dealing with it.