HC Deb 26 January 1956 vol 548 cc439-48

The Authority in constructing the works authorised by this Act shall not employ or cause to be employed any person who is paid, either directly or indirectly, by way of salary, contribution to superannuation fund or otherwise, any additional sum of money on condition that he does not join or maintain his membership of any trade union.—[Mr. Mikardo.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

7.1 p.m.

Mr. Ian Mikardo (Reading)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

I should first like to apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Sir F. Messer) for having unwittingly and unwillingly been the cause of curtailing his speech on a subject on which, we all know, he is a great authority. Whilst I am in an apologising mood, I should like to apologise on behalf of my hon. Friends and myself for any inconvenience which our action in tabling this new Clause may have caused the sponsors of the Bill. The Bill has been brought forward by an important, most progressive and effective national authority for purposes which it doubtless considers important, and it is not with any desire to interfere with the purposes of the Central Electricity Authority that we have taken this action I should also like to express regret for any inconvenience which we may have caused the right hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Ways and Means, whose kindness and helpfulness to all of us have earned our gratitude and respect. It is only because we think that an important point of principle is involved, and because we think that this Bill provides a proper vehicle for bringing out that point of principle that we have sought to delay the Bill's progress in order to obtain consideration of this new Clause.

The purpose of the Clause will be clear to hon. Members. It is to ensure that in carrying out any of the works which the Bill authorises there shall not be employed any persons whose remuneration is partly made up by sums the payment of which is conditional upon such persons not being members of a trade union.

It may be a source of surprise to hon. Members in all parts of the House that in this day and age there should still remain such practices in our country. There is, for example, an organisation, quite common in certain parts of the engineering industry, which is known as the Foremen and Staffs Mutual Benefit Society. Its membership is open to all foremen and people of similar or higher industrial grades in federated engineering establishments, provided that they fulfil two conditions. The first is that they must be nominated for membership, not by another member but by their employer—in itself a rather strange procedure. The second condition is that they are not members, and do not become members, of a trade union.

As its name implies, this organisation is a benefit society. It obtains its funds partly from subscriptions from its membership and partly from payments by employers, and distributes those funds in the form of benefits of one kind and another. Those benefits are doubtless valuable, the society is undoubtedly serving a useful and commendable role, and no one would have anything to say against it if there were not this rather shameful restrictive condition of membership.

Clause 7 of the Society's constitution reads: Members of a trade union either registered or unregistered shall not be proposed as ordinary members of the society, and if any ordinary member becomes a member of a trade union either registered or unregistered, he shall thereupon cease to be a member of this society. The effect of that can be seen at once. A man who has been a member for some time may well have accumulated benefits of quite considerable value. If at any time he thinks of joining a trade union he has to weigh the desirability of doing that against the benefits which he will lose by being automatically excluded from membership.

This is a sort of closed shop in reverse—not an organisation confined to trade unionists but one limited to non-trade unionists. I think that all hon. Members will agree that such an arrangement does not accord with the present climate of British industry. Over and over again, members of Governments, irrespective of party, have paid well-deserved tribute to our trade union movement for the important, constructive and moderate part which it plays in the work and counsels of the nation. It is inconsistent with that atmosphere that there should exist and be supported by employers' organisations a form of society which seeks to make the trade unionist a second-class citizen.

In recent times particularly there has been a great deal of public interest in, and public talk about, what are sometimes rather loosely called restrictive practices. This is a restrictive practice of a particularly pernicious nature, and something about which we ought to be concerned. For many years the Trades Union Congress has been concerned about it. As long ago as 1923, at the annual Trades Union Congress, a motion was moved by the Amalgamated Engineering Union and seconded by the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, condemning the restrictive clause in this society's constitution. That motion was supported by other unions—the draughts-men, the distributive workers, the rail-waymen, the marine workers—and carried by an overwhelming majority.

To go over all the intermediate history would take too long but the T.U.C. consistently took the same attitude. A similar resolution was carried unanimously at the 1942 Congress, and the matter was subsequently reported on by the General Council in 1943, 1944, 1946 and 1947. In addition the Non-Manual Workers' Advisory Council of the T.U.C. passed a similar resolution, and so did 53 trades councils all over the country in a later year.

Notwithstanding the widespread concern expressed by the trade union movement, the General Council, which has considered this problem very carefully, has never found it easy to deal with it by general legislation. The drafting of general legislation to cover all our many and varied industries, some publicly and some privately owned, presents very considerable technical problems. It was therefore thought that perhaps the best way to deal with this matter was for some sectors of industry to take the lead and show an example by saying that they would have nothing to do with an organisation which discriminated in this way against trade unions.

I am bound to say that the discrimination is sometimes quite severe. I have personal knowledge of cases of firms in which promotion is barred to people unless they are members of this society—and that means that promotion is barred to people if they are trade unionists. That is something which in the industrial climate of these times we ought not to tolerate.

Because of the difficulty of general legislation, perhaps the best way to deal with the matter is to seek one or two sectors of industry which might set the example by routing out this discrimination from their midst. Because of that, some hon. Members will recall that in 1952 I ventured to introduce a Bill under the Ten Minutes Rule barring these practices from the nationalised industries. I am happy to say that the House did not find that a controversial Measure.

Amongst the sponsors of the Bill were hon. Members on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Willes-den. West (Mr. Viant) and Mr. Harry Wallace, then a Member of the House, two men who have given many years of distinguished service to the trade union movement, were amongst its sponsors; and so, from the other side of the House, were the hon. Members for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. R. Harris) and for Somerset, North (Mr. Leather), for whose support on that occasion I was very grateful.

Moreover, the House gave leave to introduce the Bill without a Division, and although I am aware that that does not necessarily imply support for the Bill on its merits, I think that this mixed sponsorship and the reaction of the House on that occasion shows that it was a non-controversial view of the House, certainly not a view controversial between the parties, that these practices were not desirable in British industry.

Where are we to look for some sector or sectors of British industry in which a lead might be given in this matter? It seems to me that industrial organisations, whether they be publicly owned or privately owned, which come to the House and seek the service of the House for the passage of legislation for their benefit, could be said to have a special obligation to see that their labour-relations practices are above suspicion. It seems to me, therefore, that there must be many cases of sponsors of Private Bills who might not unreasonably be asked to show a lead in this matter. That is why my hon. Friends and I took the opportunity of putting down the Clause. I am not sure whether we followed the best procedure and put it down at the best stage; and if we did not, then I am sorry that we did not, and we must take care not to repeat the same mistake on another occasion.

Mr. Speaker

I realise the reason for what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I have been waiting to hear something about Blyth and its generating station, with which the Bill deals. It is true that matters of principle may arise on a Private Bill, but it is generally when some provision in the Bill is thought to be obnoxious from the point of view of principle and it is sought to exclude it. The hon. Member is trying to introduce a new Clause. I was waiting to hear whether it had any relevance to the Blyth Generating Station.

Mr. Mikardo

As I understand it, the Bill authorises the Central Electricity Authority to carry out considerable works in connection with the Blyth Generating Station. In the course of those works a great many people will be employed. The question of the labour relations under which those people are employed is a matter which must concern the House. It must concern the House, equally, whether they are employed on the Blyth Generating Station or on other works carried out by the same or other parties.

What I am seeking to argue is that if one can get employers of labour and users of contractors who employ labour to accept this principle, then one will have made a beginning in getting a section of industry in this country which is free from this objectionable practice.

I may be asked, "Why just this Bill?" I would make this answer: this Bill is sponsored by a great public institution, and the public corporations, under the legislation under which they were set up by the House, have very special responsibilities in the field of labour relations. The Electricity Act, under which the Central Electricity Authority was set up, makes the most specific provisions, about labour relations in the industry and the responsibility of the Authority with respect to labour relations.

It seems to me that an organisation of that sort, and especially one, if I may add this in parenthesis, which is headed by a man who in his day was one of the great figures of the trade union movement, might well be disposed to show an example in this matter to other employers in this country.

It is on those grounds that I introduce the new Clause.

7.8 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I beg to second the Motion.

In view of the advice which you have tendered to the House, Mr. Speaker, I will say a word, first of all, about the Blyth generating station. This is a matter which has affected my constituency. We have shown a very lively interest in the project and I should like to say at once that we are of the opinion that the Bill has been considerably improved in the course of its passage through the House and its consideration in Committee.

If, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading (Mr. Mikardo) has said, we have caused some inconvenience in raising the matter at this stage, I will atone in some measure by being brief. My hon. Friend has put the case admirably. It is a case which has been broadly accepted by the House. It is not a partisan matter in the sense of divisions between political parties. I hope we can say today that we accept trade unionism; and if we accept it we must surely agree that it would be wrong to recognise anybody who excludes trade unionism.

We feel that this is particularly irrelevant on this occasion because here we have a public authority, created by the House and responsible to the House, which is about to carry out its work, and we feel that it would be a reflection upon the House itself if, in the course of the construction of this generating station and the expenditure of public money, foremen and others engaged upon these works should be subject to this invidious distinction and should be debarred from being members of a trade union.

Surely the time has come when we must be sincere in our respect to trade unionism and must say that everyone is entitled to be a member of a trade union, whatever his job. The eligibility for trade unionism should be as broad as it possibly can be. The determination of who is appropriate enough for the particular trade union should rest with that trade union. We think that it is offensive that any limitation should be put upon anyone barring him from associating himself with a trade union and the trade union movement.

This is a substantial point; it is not an arid, academic point. My hon. Friend has said that the Foremen and Staffs Mutual Benefit Society is, in effect, substantially subsidised by the employers. In those circumstances, it is particularly offensive, if we have a body which is very largely supported by the employers, that it should be able to impose upon people occupying a critical position in the works a condition debarring them from being members of a trade union.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, it is a very effective ban upon anyone who happens to have been a member of this society for any length of time. Should he think it a right and proper thing to become a member of a trade union, he has to suffer the penalty of forfeiting all the benefits towards which he has contributed. He would also debar himself from promotion. We think it absolutely wrong that promotion should be as it were in a closed shop, confined to people who are not members of trade unions.

As my hon. Friend said, this is a matter which repeatedly and constantly has had the attention of the Trades Union Congress. I should have thought, therefore, that it was our duty on every occasion on which this problem arose to take any opportunity open to us to express out disapproval and condemnation of this practice. We might not have done so very conveniently on this occasion, but this is one occasion on which we can see that the House expresses its view. This is an occasion in which works involve expenditure of public money or are undertaken by a public authority responsible to this House.

This is a matter on which, so far as we know, the House is not divided. Personally, I am not aware of anyone willing to take the view that it is right and proper to debar people from being members of a voluntary organisation or trade union. I hope that as the occasion arises the House will not equivocate, but will clearly express its point of view and say that if there is any element of public expenditure it is a matter in which we are properly interested and shall not allow anyone engaged on the works—in whatever capacity—to be debarred from his proper right of being a member of a trade union.

7.23 p.m.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Charles MacAndrew)

First, I should like to thank the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Mikardo) for the kind references he has made to myself. I wish to intervene in this debate to make a few observations on the new Clause moved by the hon. Member for Reading, not on its merits which are no concern of mine, but on a matter of procedure to which the debate gives rise.

Hon. Members will be aware that as Chairman of Ways and Means I am made responsible by the House for supervising the passage of Private Bills through this House. The reason for that is that Private Bills, unlike Public Bills, are not promoted by Members of this House, but are introduced on the petition of outside persons or bodies. My duty, therefore is, in the words of one of my predecessors, to ensure that these persons or bodies get their case fairly put before Parliament and that the machinery of the House of Commons is properly used to deal with their case. It is from that point of view and that point of view only that I am intervening in this debate because I think that this procedure is being endangered. It is not with the merits of the hon. Members Clause that I am concerned, but at the late stage the hon. Member has thought fit to bring it forward.

As the House is aware, the effective control on the details of a Private Bill is exercised by a small semi-judicial Committee which hears evidence from the promoters and from petitioners against the Bill. At Second Reading stage the House has the opportunity of directing that Committee's attention to any aspect of any problem relevant to the Bill and if that course had been adopted in this case the Committee would have had the opportunity of examining witnesses on the point. But the case is very different now. The Bill has been through Committee in both Houses and after this dual examination the hon. Member is now proposing to add new matter to the Bill. In my view, this action is not in accordance with the traditional procedure.

I repeat that I am not concerned with the merits of this Clause. Nor am I complaining that the hon. Member put it forward. He is quite within his rights to do so and to express his views in support of the Clause but I hope, having stated his views, he will not press for the inclusion of the Clause in the Bill, for the reasons I have given.

7.25 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Cleveland)

I want to intervene very briefly in the debate on the proposed Clause, and I can do so with rather greater confidence now having heard the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading (Mr. Mikardo). As one with some personal knowledge of electricity supply affairs and of trade union matters in the industry, I felt at an earlier stage that the principle put forward by my hon. Friend was an excellent one and one which I fully support, but I wondered whether it was right to attach such a big and important principle to quite so small a peg.

It also seemed a little hard to me that the nationalised electricity supply industry which is responsible for constructing this generating station and the light railway and tunnel empowered by the Bill—an industry which on the whole has a very good history of labour relations—should be smeared, even by accident, with any suggestion of support for vicious anti-trade union practices. Of course, my hon. Friend made it perfectly clear that that was not his intention when he spoke.

I have made inquiry of the Central Electricity Authority and as I thought was the case it assured me it has been and remains completely its policy to employ as many trade unionists as possible and so far as its contractors are concerned it ensures that the Fair Wages Clause is enforced. As my hon. Friend said, a very eminent nobleman, a member of another place, who is an ex-general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, is head of the organisation. It would seem extraordinary if he were to countenance these bad anti-trade union practices of which my hon. Friend has spoken.

Another reason why I felt it right to intervene, although my fears have again largely been put to rest, was that it seemed to me that this proposed Clause might imply that the trade unions in the electricity supply industry—I think there are ten with negotiating agreements with the Electricity Authority and area boards—were not capable of looking after their own affairs and of managing the labour relations policy of the industry. I am sure my hon. Friend knows already that if those of us concerned with trade union matters in the nationalised electricity supply industry thought that the Authority was indulging in the practices of which he spoke, with or without his proposed Clause, we should take the strongest exception.

I understand that my hon. Friend proposes to withdraw the Motion and in that case any danger that the electricity supply industry would be accused of joining in these vicious actions will be removed. Perhaps on another occasion my hon. Friend may find another more guilty industry for his attention.

Mr. Mikardo

In the light of what has been said by the Chairman of Ways and Means and the guidance he has given the House—for which I am very grateful—and assuring my hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland (Mr. Palmer) that I appreciate his industrial patriotism, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill to be read the Third time.