HC Deb 14 July 1961 vol 644 cc845-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Gibson-Watt.]

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Frank Tomney (Hammersmith, North)

The issue I am raising concerns the refusal to grant unemployment benefits to a section of workmen known as platers' helpers employed in the shipbuilding industry. They are unemployed as a result of a trade dispute between two unions. It is, in effect, a demarcation dispute. The unions concerned are the Society of Boilermakers, Shipbuilders and Structural Engineers and the Ship Constructors' and Shipwrights' Association. It is in some ways a geographical dispute. The work in the factory was allocated differently. Otherwise this dispute would not have arisen. However, it has occurred. Although the work performed by both unions is of the same type, the platers are assisted in the performance of their task by platers' helpers.

The dispute has been outstanding now for sixteen weeks. There has been a submission by the insurance officer against the claimant, who is a member of my union, the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, and this submission is the subject of an appeal to the Insurance Commissioners. It is interesting to go into the background of the complaint. I wish to read two provisions of the National Insurance Act, 1946. Section 13 (1) provides as follows: A person who has lost employment in an employed contributor's employment by reason of a stoppage of work which was due to a trade dispute at his place of employment shall he disqualified from receiving unemployment benefit so long as the stoppage of work continues, except in a case where, during the stoppage of work, he has become bona fide employed elsewhere in the occupation which he usually follows or has become regularly engaged in some other occupation". Section 13 (6, b) provides as follows: the expression 'trade dispute' means any dispute between employers and employees or between employees and employees which is connected with the employment or non-employment or the terms of employment or the conditions of employment of any persons, whether employees in the employment of the employer with whom the dispute arises or not. That covers a wide field.

The dispute will concern quite a number of industries. I submit that this is why the dispute is so long outstanding. It turns on a very narrow point. According to the definition of "trade dispute", if the man helping the plater stands to gain more employment or to lose his employment by virtue of a trade dispute he is held by the insurance officer to be a party to the dispute. This raises very wide complications. The men in these two sections of British industry are skilled craftsmen.

Their wages, terms and conditions are negotiated by the unions. This presupposes that a plater being sent to the employment exchange, or applying for employment with a shipbuilding company, would take his plater's helper with him, as a qualified journeyman. It must presuppose that, but, in fact, the opposite is the case. We claim that the plater's helper is classified as a general labourer, under general labouring conditions, and is engaged as such.

Whether he is upgraded within the establishment to other work for which he gets bonus premiums on top of his base rate is at the option of the management—and that option is observed by the management in every contract of employment for general labour that I know—that workers can be moved about from one department to another.

This, then, puts the definition of general labourer clearly on the plater's helper, although at the time of the dispute he could have been employed on the work about which the dispute has arisen and that work may have been of a semi-skilled nature. He can, therefore, return to the employment exchange and there be offered other work of a general nature, and, in most cases, has been so offered it.

That is proved conclusively by a local tribunal decision given in favour of the insurance officer in case No. 53 in the Glasgow Partick division, on 26th June, 1961. In that case, Commissioner Shewan allowed the claim of Andrew Stewart, one of our members employed in the same conditions on the same kind of work as the skilled man.

The Minister's interpretation—or non-interpretation, because no decision has been given by him yet—has been on the narrow terms of a trade dispute. Surely, when we passed the Act in 1946 we never intended that it should penalise unskilled workers and general labourers as it has done, because if we extended that idea to other industries it would, indeed, cover a tremendous field.

In raising this matter, therefore, I realise that the issues involved are possibly wider than these particular cases, and it may be that the whale Act wants looking at. Where one has a conflict of union interests, and a service interest of a genuine union character has been made to suffer as the result of a dispute involving skilled trade unions, the men are debarred from unemployment benefit, although their wives can get National Assistance benefit.

There is evidence to hand, also, that in some cases these people, regarded as general labourers and employed at the period as platers' helpers, have sought other employment in the shipyards for greater security, and have been transferred to that employment, and in other cases the employers themselves have moved them within the confines of the factory from department to department.

The kernel of the issue is that this subsection should have been framed on the basis that the definition of employment—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I know that he will bear in mind that I am not permitted to allow him in this debate to ask for legislation except incidentally.

Mr. Tomney

When the subsection was framed, perhaps it was not realised that it would have these effects. As I have said, most wage rates and conditions are negotiated on the basis of skilled grading or craft grading, and the cases of general labourers on the basis of national labour agreements, either under national arbitration or agreements by the unions.

This case, which concerns quite a number of our members, has now been outstanding for well over three months. I can imagine the diffidence with which the Commissioners approached this. I submit that it should not be allowed to be outstanding much longer. On the submission by the management of Messrs. Cammell Laird the employment exchange in Birkenhead has more or less committed itself on the previous point that I have raised regarding the disposition of platers' helpers who have other work throughout the factory. They said in a sub-paragraph in reply to a questionnaire from the employment manager: The other questions you pose must be approached entirely without reference to the demarcation of work dispute. Should redundancy arise in respect of platers' helpers, it could happen on rare occasions that if we have vacancies for labourers the redundant helpers may be offered the alternative work, which would, of course, be at a lower rate of pay. The words "lower rate of pay" demonstrate quite clearly that the man was employed initially on the labouring rate and that is his first classification. Therefore, the classification given to him as a plater's helper, whether he was benefited or penalised by the terms of the dispute which may or may not have given him more work, is quite immaterial. We take the point of view quite rationally that if more work is available for platers, it does not necessarily mean that there is more work available for platers' helpers. If the volume of work increases on any given project in any department concerning platers' helpers, then surely it means that there must be more platers. They may be doing the same number of hours on the job, but it does not necessarily mean more work or more overtime, so the Commissioner's case falls down on that point also.

These men have been very patient and the union has been very patient in these negotiations but they realise that other positions depend upon this. We have submitted evidence to the tribunal that, for instance, it should not be held that an accountant's clerk involved in a dispute should necessarily become unemployed because the accountant was unemployed. It should not be held that if school teachers strike, the school caretaker should also be out of work or declared redundant and be denied the benefits of unemployment assistance. Therefore, in asking the Minister to give some decision on this, we do so in view of the increasing gravity of the position.

I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to give a few moments to my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Collick) who has had this matter under review because it is a constituency matter for him as well as for some hon. Members who have Glasgow constituencies. I should be obliged if my hon. Friend could have a few moments as he has been very patient and helped me considerably on this case.

4.14 p.m.

Mr. Percy Collick (Birkenhead)

My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Tomney) has well stated the facts of this case on behalf of members of his own union who happen to be my constituents, and I support what he has said. I do not want to elaborate the detailed facts, because I well understand that as the law and the regulations exist at the moment this case is before the Commissioners, who will make their decision.

I want to impress on the Minister that these men have been deprived of their unemployment benefit, rightly or wrongly, for something like three months. I imagine that the Parliamentary Secretary will probably tell us that the machinery is that this will go to the Commissioners, the Commissioners will give their decision, and that will be the final part of the case. I submit to the Minister that this needs the Government's attention.

This case is three months old to my knowledge. For how much longer will this decision be withheld? I have raised this case before and there can be no possible excuse. It is no use saying that the Commissioners have not yet heard the case. Why have the Commissioners not yet heard the case? Only a short while ago there was a case of delay in making a decision which nearly caused an industrial dispute of great magnitude in this country. These men, having paid their contributions, have a legal right to expect benefit, and if the Ministry's attitude is, "Having regard to case law, we do not think they are entitled to it," surely it is up to the Ministry to see that the final decision is hastened.

When I discussed this matter over the telephone with the present Secretary of State for the Colonies, when he was then Minister of Labour, it appeared that there was a shortage of Commissioners. If there is a shortage of Commissioners I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that her Ministry, with the Ministry of Labour and the Lord Chancellor's Department, should see that the Commissioners are more adequately staffed so that they can pursue this matter and come to a decision.

It is utterly indefensible that these men should have to wait three months before a decision is made—and, indeed, in other cases I have known the period to be much longer. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will agree that that is a state of affairs which is quite indefensible and which needs the Government's attention.

4.17 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Miss Patricia Hornsby-Smith)

I am grateful to the hon. Members for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Tomney) and for Birkenhead (Mr. Collick) for the clear manner in which they have put this case.

If I may say so, the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North was able to speak with much greater freedom than I shall be able to speak in reply, and I am sure that he will appreciate my dilemma as the hon. Member for Birkenhead evidently did, from what he said about the case, in that matters of adjudication in National Insurance are decided by independent statutory authorities, and this House has deemed it right and proper that the Minister shall not be judge and jury in his own cause. That therefore places on us an obligation not to intervene in any way in the process of an appeal in these disputes.

As this matter is now before the authorities, it would be improper for me to comment on the points which the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North raised. The points which he raised are just those points which I am sure the union representatives will quite rightly have put to the Commissioner, but it would be out of order for me to make any comment, and I hope that he will exonerate me of any discourtesy if I do not attempt to reply to that aspect of the case.

This is an imporant issue, which is being dealt with in accordance with very long-established principles which have been considered and reviewed by successive Governments and which have been unheld over the last thirty years as a fair and workable arrangement which safeguards the interests of the general body of contributors to the National Insurance Fund.

Basically the rule is that unemployment benefit cannot be paid to a man whose unemployment is due to a trade dispute at his place of work, unless he can show that neither he nor any one else in his grade or class there is participating in or directly interested in the dispute which caused the stoppage of work. The rule applies to all workers, whether members of a trade union or not, and the disqualification lasts as long as the stoppage continues, except where, during that stoppage, a person has become employed elsewhere in the occupation which he usually follows or has become regularly engaged in some other job.

I want to clear up one frequently-voiced misconception. The trade dispute qualification is in no sense penal. It is based on the recognition, which successive Governments have upheld, that loss of employment due to a trade dispute is not the sort of unemployment for which the National Insurance Fund is intended to provide cover.

The decision regarding the imposition of the trade dispute disqualification does not lie with my right hon. Friend but is entirely one for the independent statutory authorities appointed under the National Insurance Act; first, the insurance officer, next, on appeal, the local tribunal and, on further appeal, the National Insurance Commissioner, who is the final adjudicating authority under the Act. My right hon. Friend has no power to intervene in any way in the decisions of these authorities.

In relation to the general history of this case, a stoppage occurred at Cammell Laird's shipyard on 7th March involving platers and shipwrights, which subsequently affected platers' helpers and other tradesmen. A number of platers' helpers claimed unemployment benefit and a test case was brought. By agreement with the union, an individual claim was selected as a test case and this claim covered eighty-two other platers' helpers. On 17th March the insurance officer ruled: The claimant is disqualified for receiving unemployment benefit from and including 9th March, 1961, and for so long as the stoppage of work continues because he lost employment owing to a stoppage of work which was due to a trade dispute at his place of employment". On 21st March an appeal was lodged to the local tribunal and it was heard on 14th April, when the claimant was represented by his trade union. The insurance officer submitted that, while the claimant and other members of his grade or class did not participate in or finance the dispute, they were directly interested in the matter in dispute and were, therefore, unable to obtain relief from disqualification. The tribunal confirmed the insurance officer's view and disallowed the appeal. Against this decision the claimant's union appealed to the Commissioner on 21st April, 1961.

Concurrently with this appeal, other trade dispute cases were in process of going through the statutory procedure. In all, about 3,500 workmen were involved in another stoppage arising out of a pay dispute. A substantial number of claims for unemployment benefit by those made redundant was allowed, because the claimants satisfied the conditions set out in Section 13 (1) of the 1946 Act. In other cases, they were either disallowed by the insurance officer or referred by him to the local tribunal.

As a result, about fourteen appeals—in addition to the one in which the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North is interested—were made to the Commissioner. Four trade unions and seven different employers were concerned. In the case raised by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North it was necessary, after the claim had been heard by the local tribunal, for the insurance officer to make additional inquiries as a result of further submissions by the unions.

If, for example, an appeal is referred to the Commissioner with new submissions from the union, before such inquiries can be made, consideration of it may have to be postponed until additional evidence is obtained. This is an annoyance to the claimant and to the unions representing him and may add to, rather than reduce, the overall time taken.

I am sure that hon. Members will agree that it is of the utmost importance that a high standard of adjudication should be maintained, not least in these difficult and complicated trade dispute cases. It is, therefore, important that, despite the difficulties, the insurance officer should present the full story to the Commissioner. If this were not done, the Commissioner's adjudication might be delayed by the need to ask for further information.

In this instance, the issues were complicated and I understand that the appeal to the Commissioner raised not only the question of whether the platers' helpers were directly interested in the dispute, but also the further question of whether the individual claimant himself had become "bona fide employed elsewhere", and this issue called for further inquiries.

I have given this brief outline because I think that it only fair to point out the very considerable complications that face the statutory authorities in these cases. Nevertheless, we share hon. Members' desire to reduce the long period which may elapse between an appeal to the Commissioner and the submission of the detailed evidence in support of it. These cases are difficult and complicated and I can assure hon. Members that my right hon. Friend is anxious to see that there are no avoidable delays in dealing with claims and appeals.

To this end, there has recently been a review of the appeals procedure, and an experiment is now taking place to see whether the preparation of cases for the Commissioner, not only in trade dispute matters but in appeals generally, can be speeded up. I assure both hon. Members that neither we nor the Ministry of Labour are complacent about the matter and that, so far as we are able, every facility is being provided to the statutory authorities to enable them to deal as quickly as possible with cases referred to them.

I must, however, emphasise that these are completely independent authorities in whose procedure the Minister has no power whatever to intervene. It is for them to decide, in their wisdom, the scope and extent of any inquiries they require to be made, and it is for the Departments concerned to obtain the information needed as expeditiously as possible. The special importance of trade dispute cases, and particularly test cases, which may affect many employees, is very much in mind. I assure hon. Members that we shall do all we can within the limits of our responsibilities to ensure that cases are settled as quickly as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Four o'clock.