HC Deb 17 April 1957 vol 568 cc2059-70

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

10.21 p.m.

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

The problem that I wish to raise tonight is one upon which I questioned the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance earlier this week. It arises out of the recent strike in the shipbuilding and engineering industries. It affects my constituency and the constituencies of a number of other hon. Members.

It appears that a number of workers who were declared redundant and signed on at the employment exchange twelve days before the recent strike commenced have had their benefits suspended because of the strike. Many of these workers were genuinely redundant. One firm in particular in my constituency—Palmers—had intimated to the employment exchange that, because it was carrying out a policy of reorganisation and introducing new machinery and so on, workers would be paid off. Some of the workers knew as early as February that within the next few weeks they would become unemployed. These workers are among those affected.

Other workers are also affected, including workers who were in no way concerned in the shipbuilding or engineering industries. In one instance, some of these workers were employed on construction work as labourers at a chemical factory. They were declared redundant by their employer because the contract was com- Future Defence Policy set out in Command pleted. When they went to sign on at the employment exchange they were told that because they had become redundant within twelve days of the commencement of the strike they were not entitled to unemployment benefit.

This decision was based upon decisions reached by the umpire more than twenty years ago. Today the social conscience of this nation will not tolerate the unemployed being treated in a harsh, inhumane and uncivilised way as they were twenty years ago. The Ministry will be doing itself an ill service and spoiling the good name it has built up in the post-war years if administrative decisions of this kind are to be made.

I will illustrate what has happened. These men, because they have not been called out on strike by their trade unions, were obviously not entitled to strike pay. Yet they were informed by the Ministry of Labour that because, in the opinion of the Ministry, they were out on strike they were not entitled to unemployment pay.

Furthermore, because the Ministry of Labour included them amongst the strikers, the National Assistance Board adjudged them to be strikers and they were, therefore, denied unemployment benefit by the State, National Assistance benefit by the National Assistance Board, and strike benefit by their respective unions.

At a time when those in responsible positions were doing everything they possibly could to keep the bitterness of the men within bounds and to pave the way for a settlement, I was astounded that the chairman of the tribunal denied me permission to hear the test case. I made the request in a very fair way. I am not one of those Members of Parliament who feels that he has some extraordinary right to invade territory where others would not be permitted, or who thinks that they should have special favours, but in the circumstances of this case, when scores of my constituents had come to see me and had expressed in typical working class language just what they were thinking, it would have been helpful if the court of referees had permitted me to hold a watching brief, which was all that I asked.

It would have been helpful because, when this blanket decision was made, the natural reaction of the men on strike was that it was the fault of the Ministry of Labour. They felt that the Ministry should have been impartial in the dispute. I am not saying that the Ministry was responsible; I am trying to convey the thoughts of the workers. In a dispute which had created such a depth of feeling it was very undesirable that at any point a decision should have been made which made it appear that the Ministry of Labour was taking the part of one side or the other, especially at a time when the Minister was deeply involved in trying to get the two sides together.

If this policy is carried to its logical conclusion, it will mean that if, in a strike area, the sales of a shop go down and the assistants are dismissed, they will be denied unemployment benefit because it will be argued that they have lost their jobs in consequence of a strike. In the same way, if, because they are on strike, the tenants of houses have no money to pay their rent, it can be argued that because the rent collectors have been told that their services are no longer required, because the tenants cannot pay the rent, they should not be entitled to unemployment benefit.

I know that it would be out of order for me to suggest anything in the way of amending legislation in this Adjournment debate. I shall not do that. I hope that similar circumstances and a strike of the magnitude that we have had recently will not occur again. But the Minister appoints the chairmen of the courts of referees and other officers, and, without there being any question of amending legislation, is there any reason why, when he is making these appointments, he should not drop a hint about how Parliament intended the Act to be interpreted? I am sure that it was never the intention of this or any previous Parliament that these Regulations should be interpreted in the way they were during the recent strike.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will take note of what has been said and will appreciate that it has been said in a spirit of helpfulness and in an endeavour to avoid in the future feelings of bitterness and detestation about the Ministry which became apparent during the recent strike. If, by raising this matter, I have been able to achieve that, I shall consider that this debate has been worth while, and I shall be satisfied, despite my feeling of frustration at being unable to take part in the defence debate.

10.32 p.m.

Mr. Cyril Osborne (Louth)

I wish to support the plea made by the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough). Men in my own constituency went through the same experience and appealed to me. They were not in a union, and when they were declared redundant, because 80 per cent, or 90 per cent. of their fellow employees were on strike, they got nothing from the welfare services because, as they were told, they were on strike. In a way, they were "sent to Coventry".

I made inquiries, and I was told that this was a long-standing arrangement; that it was a difficult problem which had been shelved by successive Ministers. I urge that it shall not be shelved again. I can assure my hon. Friend that people in my constituency felt very sore about it, and neither side wishes men to feel a sense of injustice at such a time.

10.34 p.m.

Mr. H. A. Marquand (Middlesbrough, East)

I am not surprised that the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) has experienced in his constituency incidents of the kind complained of by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough). They have happened also on Tees-side. Men employed by contractors, whose work ended while the strike was on, have been refused unemployment pay. We cannot understand that, because Section 13 of the National Insurance Act, 1946, dealing with this subject, states: A person who has lost employment … by reason of a stoppage of work which was due to a trade dispute at his place of employment shall be disqualified for receiving unemployment benefit. … What seems to have happened here is that people have been disqualified when they have lost their employment by reason of a dispute which did not occur at their place of work.

I wish to draw attention to an administrative aspect of this problem about which I questioned the Minister when the matter was raised at Question Time the other day. I asked the Minister what part was played in the administrative procedure by the National Insurance officer. He said that he did not know whether the National Insurance officer in London had given guidance to the local insurance officer on the spot in making his ruling. The fact that the same rulings were made in different parts of the country rather suggests that he did. I want to know why, and on what authority, the National Insurance officer could give guidance at all.

As I read the Act, it speaks in Section 43 (3, a) of an officer appointed by the Minister being given power to determine questions as to the right of benefits and of authorising the said officer either himself to determine any such question or to refer it to a local tribunal. It does not say anything about the said officer getting guidance from a third party.

When I looked at the Regulations made under the Act to deal with this part of the Act, I find, in Part IV, Regulation 10 (1): Any Question as to the right to benefit shall be submitted forthwith to one of the Insurance officers. The Regulations seem throughout to imply that the insurance officer will be a person in a certain locality who will give a decision from which an appeal will lie to a local tribunal. I have not been able to find any reference to a National Insurance officer.

I do not see how the Minister can be satisfied that the Act is being administered fairly and impartially unless local officers who know local conditions can alone make the determinations. It seems quite wrong that a National Insurance officer can give general directions or guidance about how a statute is to be interpreted, and I would like the matter to be explained. The statute refers all the time to an insurance officer as one of the officers of a locality.

10.37 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Miss Edith Pitt)

The point chosen by the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) is connected with the 12-day rule, but I will try to answer the other points about people in his constituency who were not in the engineering or shipbuilding trades and the question about his presence at the tribunal.

There is in particular the point the hon. Member mentioned about the decisions being made by an umpire twenty years ago. He felt that in these days the decision should be interpreted differently. I would remind him and other hon. Members that the trade dispute provisions of the Act were unchanged from 1927, and that they were re-enacted by the Government of the hon. Member for Jarrow and his right hon. and hon. Friends in 1946, in the National Insurance Act. These provisions were not the subject of question at any time during the passage of that Act.

An interpretation of Section 13 of that Act leads us to the 12-day rule which has by now become established case law. It is the practice of the statutory authorities to consider, under the disputes provisions of the National Insurance Act, the position of all workers who claim unemployment benefit and have been laid off within 12 days of the stoppage.

Since 1920, the statutory authorities have applied this test to decide to what extent suspension from work should be treated as equivalent to final termination before a period of recognised holiday. To this extent, the 12-day rule was beneficial in intent because the purpose was to allow suspension to be treated as employment that was terminated if it was longer than 12 days and so to enable unemployment benefit to be paid for recognised holidays.

In 1931, the umpire, who was, of course, an independent statutory authority, confirmed the application of a similar test for determination whether a person could be treated as definitely discharged before a stoppage. The test applies to a worker habitually employed, or who habitually seeks work, at certain premises, and whose employment ended before the stoppage of work at those premises. It has been held that if such a worker is laid off within 12 days before the stoppage he must be regarded as having lost his employment by reason of the stoppage, unless there is strong evidence to the contrary.

I want to make it clear that it does not apply to the man who can prove that his employment has ended and that he would not go back to that employer or to that employment. Here I take up the hon. Gentleman's point; shop workers and the like could not be affected because the strike is not at their place of employment. I hope that that is clear.

Equally, because of the 12-day rule, there is no disqualification for the worker indefinitely suspended for reasons unconnected with the dispute a fortnight or more before the stoppage, but the worker who is not finally discharged, and only suspended, within a fortnight of the stoppage may be disqualified if, had there been no stoppage at his place of employment, he would otherwise have been employed there.

Whether the man is discharged or only suspended is a matter for the statutory authorities to determine. It is not always easy, I agree.

Since 1920, in the particular industry in which the hon. Member for Jarrow is interested—shipways—it has been held that men are not discharged in the ordinary sense, but are regarded as doing semi-casual work. Those men, when a job is completed, may be temporarily suspended, but they regularly seek work, and expect to return to work, in the same or in neighbouring yards.

If the man concerned can establish to the satisfaction of the statutory authorities that he had severed his connection with the yards, he would not be disqualified. If he cannot, he is in the same position as anyone else working for a regular employer shortly before the stoppage begins—for instance, someone who is sick or who is on short time. It would clearly be unreasonable to exempt such a man from the disputes provisions for unemployment benefit if he were as much concerned with or affected by the dispute as his colleagues who have equally lost work because of it. This is a matter in which the commissioner's decision is final, by the law as it stands, and could be altered only by fresh legislation, which is not, of course, a matter for an Adjournment debate.

In the other instance, the men he refers to, who are neither in shipbuilding or engineering work—they are the men employed at Lennigs were paid off on 22nd March, the last working day before the strike, during which all technical men on that site withdrew their labour. The benefit was initially disallowed by the regional insurance officer on the grounds that the labourers were connected with the dispute. On further inquiry, he discovered that the men's wages were governed by rates of pay in the building industry and not in engineering or shipbuilding, that they were not participating in the strike, and that no labourer on the site was a member of any union participating in it.

In the light of that information, the regional insurance officer reviewed his decision on 16th April, and allowed the claims, and the local exchanges were notified yesterday. The men concerned, I am told, have now all returned to work, but are being notified immediately of the decision to allow claims, and invited to claim any benefit due.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

My hon. Friend did mention that he was generalising, and a number of constituents of other hon. Members are affected. Would the hon. Lady go so far as to say that the same procedure will apply in those cases?

Miss Pitt

If they come under the provisions, and if their employment was suspended within 12 days, then I think they will be subject to the 12-day rule; but the hon. Member may be quite sure and clear—as I am sure other hon. Members are—that all these decisions are a matter for the independent statutory authorities. I could not comment on a particular case. The hon. Member for Jarrow began by referring to a particular case. I could not comment. It has already been before the tribunal, and there is a further right of appeal to the commissioner, if the men choose to exercise it. I could not give an "off the cuff" answer to a particular case. Each one would have to be decided upon its merits by the independent authorities.

I was going to deal with the question as to who has a right to be present—

Mr. Fernyhough

I am sure the hon. Lady will do me the honour of accepting that I was not saying that I had a right to be present, because I know that the Act has laid that down, and it says who may be present, with the permission of the chairman.

Miss Pitt

I was not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman asserted that he had a right. I was wishing to deal with the general principle of who has a right to be present at these courts, which are, of course, closed courts, the public and Press not being admitted. The Regulations of 1948 specify those who have a right to be present but leave it to the tribunal to decide who may be regarded as an interested party. Again, this is not a matter on which I can comment. My right hon. Friend made it clear, in answering the hon. Gentleman's Question on Monday, that the decision was taken by the tribunal itself. However, the hon. Gentleman may like to know that his constituents were represented by their trade union officials at that particular tribunal, and other trade union officials whose members might be affected by the outcome of these particular cases, which were test cases, were admitted as interested persons.

The first man was a painter, who was represented by Mr. Youll, of the National Society of Painters. The interested parties present on that case were Mr. McDonald, the district delegate of the Boilermakers' Society, Mr. McCutcheon, the district delegate of the Shipwrights' and Ship Constructors' Association, and Mr. Lake, the district secretary of the National Union of Municipal and General Workers. In the second case, the man was a driller. He was represented by Mr. McCutcheon, the district delegate of the Shipwrights' and Ship Constructors' Association, and the interested parties present were Mr. Youll, of the National Society of Painters, and Mr. Lake, the district secretary of the National Union of Municipal and General Workers.

My right hon. Friend expressed a certain sympathy with the point raised on Monday. If there is any question of these Regulations being modified, I would say that that is one of the matters which the Franks Committee has been taking a keen interest in. We ourselves in the Department have given evidence and have quite frankly told the Committee of the restric- tions imposed by the Regulations. The Minister is now awaiting the Report of that Committee, which I am told is expected early in August. We shall wish to see what recommendations the Committee makes about closed courts before we make up our minds about any change.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned also that those of his constituents who were denied unemployment benefit were denied National Assistance also. I think that that cannot be correct, because, even though they are not eligible for unemployment benefit—strike pay, of course, is no concern of ours—their wives and children, if they are in need, may apply for, and should certainly receive, National Assistance.

Mr. Fernyhough

But if the men were not going to be on strike, they did not get National Assistance for themselves or strike pay.

Miss Pitt

My point—I am sure this is what the hon. Gentleman wishes to be reassured about—is that their families did not suffer from lack of assistance in that way.

The hon. Gentleman referred also to the Minister of Labour appearing to take sides in this matter. He referred to a "blanket decision". Similarly, the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand) asked by what authority guidance was given—the guidance to which my right hon. Friend referred on Monday. Those two points are tied together.

My right hon. Friend said on Monday that he had no knowledge of any guidance that had been given, but in any event it was not his province. Following Questions on Monday, we have made some inquiries, and we find that some guidance has been given by the Chief Insurance Officer, which the right hon. Gentleman will recognise as a very proper thing to do because the Chief Insurance Officer has a duty to advise regional and local officers on the law by directing their attention to it, particularly in the case of an emergency in which many cases have to be considered. The process of seeking and being given guidance is a continuous one, for it goes on all the time. I understand that on this occasion much of it was given by telephone.

There is no question of either a directive or instructions being given by the Chief Insurance Officer. He has properly discharged his duty of keeping regional and local insurance officers informed of the law and of giving them guidance where they have asked for it. It is the same method that has operated for twenty years or more. No change has been made.

The hon. Member for Jarrow expressed the hope that the Regulations might be interpreted differently. It is a question not of Regulations but of an Act. If it were to operate any differently, amending legislation would be needed, unless there were change in the commissioner's decisions. The commissioner is appointed by the Crown, and the tribunal chairman is appointed by the Minister. Both are independent authorities. It would be very improper for the Minister to inter- fere with them or tell them how to interpret the law.

10.50 p.m.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

I would ask the hon. Lady to inquire whether instructions were given by the Chief Insurance Officer in connection with Falmouth, where 2,000 men were declared redundant before the strike began, due, the employers say, to a lack of orders because of the Suez incident. It seems rather—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.

Back to