HC Deb 25 November 1959 vol 614 cc370-3

3.30 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the interpretation and enforcement of an agreement providing compensation for redundancy in the cotton industry made between employers and workmen in August, 1959; and for purposes connected therewith.

I say at once that I seek leave to introduce this Measure entirely on my own responsibility. The application for leave does not imply in any way any criticism of the parties to the agreement. All the information I have is that both employers and workmen are doing their utmost to secure a fair interpretation of a highly complex agreement, arrived at under pressure of time, relating to a vast variety of problems, which was of interest to about 50,000 workers. But, also, I understand that there is much delay and anxiety. The position of hon. Members representing textile constituencies is rapidly becoming intolerable, because we cannot get any information and we are inundated with questions to which we cannot given an answer.

I do not wish to direct any criticism to the President of the Board of Trade today. [HON. MEMBERS "Why not?"] I would sometimes, but not on this occasion. Indeed, it was a Member on the other side of the House who wrote: This officer, all will allow, Is grossly overpaid. There wasn't any Board and now There isn't any trade. So far as I know, the President of the Board of Trade would be anxious and willing to help, but by the rules of the House he finds himself compelled to a vow of silence and he has to say reluctantly that he cannot give us any information about these important matters, because the rules preclude it.

The custom of the House prescribes that if the President of the Board of Trade says that, whether it be true or not, as long as he thinks it is true, Members cannot put Questions to him because the Table must refuse Questions if the right hon. Gentleman says that he has no responsibility. My Bill would give the right hon. Gentleman a responsibility and the opportunity that, I feel, he craves to have to make a democratic explanation to the House of the very grave difficulties that have arisen.

I should like to give the House one or two brief particulars. Of course, I cannot even guarantee that they are precisely authentic, because we have no means of getting precise particulars. Many mills have closed for up to six months. The agreement provided that the first payment of compensation should be made on the second Friday after closing. Many workers have not yet received a penny. The total amount paid in compensation up to this moment is less than was given to one football pool winner last week by a football pool firm. The highest figure which I have been given is that about £170,000 has been paid in compensation to 3,400 out of 9,000 claimants who have lodged their applications. I believe that figure to be approximately accurate.

But whatever provisions are made for an appeals board, for consideration of difficulties, and so on, there remains the difficulty at the mill level, and it is at the mill level that difficulties arise. If I may be forgiven for saying so, it is in Oldham, too, that difficulties specially arise, because there we have the Oldham Operative Spinners' Association that caters exclusively for the craft union of mule spinners, which is likely to lose half of its members. I am told that, for their part, the position has been reached in which the agreement is rapidly becoming unworkable.

The agreement provides for compensation for workers who have served out a notice given by the employers and who have left with the employers' permission. What happens to those who have served out a notice given by themselves? It remains in doubt. The agreement provides that compensation shall be payable to those who have lost their employment after 23rd April this year. Suppose, however, that a mill were temporarily closed and the men were temporarily stopped at that time and the mill had been closed after that date without their resuming work. Are they qualified or are they not? All these problems arise and they are very grave problems.

There is very great disappointment in Lancashire, because it now seems that of the figure referred to by the Prime Minister as compensation to be poured into Lancashire—in a speech, admittedly, made under rather unusual circumstances, at a special time—apparently about 96 per cent. is to go to shareholders and about 4 per cent. at the most may go to the workers, if and when they get it; and of the original estimate of 40,000 workers who were expected to benefit, the figure is now 25,000. As I say, 9,000 have lodged their claims. There is, of course, the special difficulty of workers who were not wise enough to be members of a union. They are entitled to have their claims examined, presented, and so on, but at the moment no machinery is provided for them.

I desire to make it clear to the House that the Bill that I seek to introduce is not controversial. I do not seek to alter the agreement. I do not seek to criticise any of the parties. I seek only leave to introduce a Measure which will enable the President of the Board of Trade to interpret, endorse and make the provisions which are essentially necessary; because there is the final problem that our law, in its infinite wisdom, has never provided any adequate recourse for the individual party to a collective agreement. He is faced with the possibility that if his claim is disputed he can only have recourse to the expensive and rather long-winded procedure of the county court; and unless he has the help of his trade union he is unlikely even to have that opportunity.

In those circumstances, this Motion is one that the House might well agree to so that we can have an opportunity of discussing the Bill in due course. I ask for no more than that. I do it humbly, making no criticism. It is a cant phrase in our courts that justice should not only be done, but should be seen to be done. I would add to that that it is even more important in democracy that, if injustice is being done, it should be seen to be done and that the light of our democracy should shine upon these difficulties. It is in that hope that I humbly ask the House for leave to introduce this Measure.

Mr. Speaker

Who will prepare and bring in the Bill?

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

On a point of order. I did not hear you collect the voices, Mr. Speaker, and I wondered whether other hon. Members had.

Mr. Speaker

I am in error. I am afraid that I presumed from the absence of objection that there was none.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Leslie Hale, Mr. Mapp, Mr. Sydney Silverman, Mrs. Castle, and Mr. Frank Allaun.