HC Deb 08 July 1964 vol 698 cc416-23

3.48 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a permanent commission to which the Minister of Labour may refer for report and recommendation matters relating to the structure and operation of trade unions. Trade unions occupy a powerful position in our national life. They affect many people directly and all people indirectly. It would not be surprising if there already existed such provision for their accountability as I am proposing this afternoon, or some machinery of a more positive character. I shall not be surprised if the proposal I make is not entirely unopposed. It is interesting to ask why, when the lack of such machinery has been recognised for a long time, any proposal to fill the gap should not command undivided support.

I think that the answer to that question lies in the history of the protracted and often bitter struggles by which the trade unions built up their position. They built it up in constant collision with established authority and with the law. Although that battle has long passed it is still difficult for some people to realise that the trade unions are now part of the Establishment and that they must assume a stable place in the balance of the Constitution.

By a process very familiar in our history the successful rebel assumes with a share of power a share of responsibility and, once the militant phase is over, also a share of accountability. The balance of our Constitution, I believe, lies in this, that in public matters everyone is accountable to someone else. Many are accountable to Ministers of the Crown. The Ministers are accountable to this House. This House, as we all have good cause to know at the moment, is accountable to the people.

Employers are accountable to the Monopolies Commission—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—and I got the impression last Monday that the party opposite thought that they should be more accountable. They are also accountable to the Restrictive Practices Court, the scope of which we have been busy enlarging through the Resale Prices Bill.

By virtue of their size, their cohesion, their accumulated funds and immunity from legal action over a wide sphere trade unions now exercise more real power than any association of employers does or can ever hope to do. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Trade unions are exempt from the competence of both the Monopolies Commission and the Restrictive Practices Court. They are not answerable to Parliament. They are, in fact, not answerable to anybody outside themselves.

It might be said "Why should they be?", since they are private societies? They are registered under the trade union Acts and come under the scrutiny of the Registrar, who has certain formal powers of scrutiny. I might be asked what other private society is required to answer further for what it does. The answer is, first, that the trade unions enjoy, under Act of Parliament, the special legal immunities to which I have referred and, secondly, that they have employed their power and immunities to establish, possibly rightly, such a postition that in many occupations unless one is a member of a particular trade union one cannot exercise one's skill.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

What about the Law Society?

Mr. Bell

I will be happy to consider any extensions of the principle I am putting forward. I am glad of the support for the principle itself.

Because of their strength and immunity, the trade unions can, when they choose, bring whole industries to a standstill and exert the most immediate and drastic effect on the daily lives and needs of the whole community.

I consider that these are adequate reasons why they should not be treated like any ordinary society. To say that is not to say that the infliction of personal injustice or public inconvenience is a part of the normal daily activities of the trade unions. Of course it is not, but to say that the power to inflict such detriment, personal and public, exists and that examples of both are not unknown is, I hope, to state in moderate terms what all hon. Members know to be the facts; and it is a sufficient answer to the argument that trade unions should be allowed to go about their industrial business without any form of scrutiny, even one so modest as I suggest.

My proposal is that there should be a commission—not a Royal Commission which would brood over the whole issue for two or three years—and then produce a general report on trade unions. That might be a perfectly good thing, but what I am proposing is a permanent commission, analagous to the Monopolies Commission, which was itself created by Statute to consider the working of employers' combinations. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about the lawyers?"] I hope that hon. Members opposite who are intervening will permit me to complete my remarks, because I do not want to take longer than 10 minutes.

The Monopolies Commission can consider only what the President of the Board of Trade refers to it. I propose that the trade union commission should consider only matters referred to it by the Minister of Labour and that, like the Monopolies Commission, it should have power to report and make recommendations which, if Parliament so resolves by affirmative Resolution of both Houses—as in the case of the Monopolies Commission—would have the force of law.

The matters which could be referred to it might be those relating to the operation and structure of trade unions. I do not imagine that a particular industrial dispute—that is, between employers and employees—could be successfully referred to it, but I think that matters like the union structure in a particular industry most usefully could be. We might not have spent so many fruitless years trying to grapple with demarcation disputes in the shipbuilding industry, and still be so far from a final solution, had we had the sort of body which I now advocate. Hon. Members might be interested to know that the Shipbuilding Advisory Committee has stated that the situation in the industry …stems from the history and traditions of the industry, which die hard and have their effects even after the original cause has disappeared". The Committee added, and this is particularly important: … it is not common sense to let things go on as they are". The trouble is that things have gone on as they are for a very long time.

There might be referred to the body I advocate the unsolved and highly embarrassing problem for the unions of the individual member who, for some reason or other—perhaps conscience or eccentricity—has been expelled from his union, and is not just fined a small sum of money, but is debarred from using the skill that he possesses. There might be referred to it some of the restrictive practices of labour—

Mr. Archie Manuel (Central Ayrshire)

What about the employers?

Mr. Bell

—which we all know exist just as much as we know that there are restrictive practices on the employers' side. However, about those on the labour side nothing at all can be done at present.

There are, for example, the restrictive practices in London newspaper offices, which were referred to in scathing terms in paragraphs 77 to 114 of the Report of the Royal Commission on the Press, in which it was said by that Commission that there was one-third overstaffing in London newspaper offices, that some of the demarcation difficulties were "grotesque", that the restrictive practices which existed were "wholly without justification", that productivity had declined significantly since before the war and was continuing to decline, and that some of the restrictive practices were 40 years old. The Commission also said: Inefficiency is not turned into efficiency because the parties have agreed to it … The truth is that the very organisation of industrial relations in this industry contributes to inefficiency. I have seen it stated—[Interruption.]— and despite the interruptions of hon. Gentlemen opposite I will try to restrict myself to 10 minutes—in a newspaper that the Government have put on a "strong two-line Whip" in my support this afternoon. I fear that that is an agreeable exaggeration. I hope, however, to have the support of my hon. Friends in the Lobby today, because not only is this a cause which I have been putting forward for over seven years by every means short of a Bill, but I have seen support for it grow from small beginnings until, I think, I shall today have the support not only of my hon. Friends but of a number of hon. Members opposite.

The reason for my suggestion about having this support is obvious. For long years the cry has been, "Leave it to both sides of industry"—itself an anachronistic expression. The rate of progress by that method has been that of a diffident snail, and after many years very little can be recorded. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House believe that the time has come when Parliament should take the first initiative. It may be that a Royal Commission would be the right answer. It is not for me to say.

The danger of a Royal Commission is that when it reports there might be initiated a broad doctrinal solution of this problem, while what I ask leave to introduce is a much more British and pragmatic method of approaching this problem—a method which, by its very character, would enable there to be gradually built up, by a series of public and impartial reports, a kind of case law on the subject. Later, the next step may take shape in our minds and, perhaps, even be as un-controversial as the introduction of the Restrictive Practices Court was after the Monopolies Commission had been in operation for some years.

I know that there are strong prejudicial feelings among hon. Members opposite about this. I sympathise with them, but is the situation not this? We have for 16 years been imposing one inquiry and control after another upon the practices of employers. We have not said, in relation to management, "Leave it to both sides of industry". We have said that Parliament must intervene. Is it suggested that on the labour side among the trade unions all is perfect? If not, must we leave it to both sides of industry, or have Parliament and people also some interest? Why is it reasonable that the trade unions and the labour side should claim to be the judge and jury in their own cause when that is plainly wrong for the employers?

I hope that the Opposition, which, of course, have a particular connection with the unions, will on this occasion abandon their glowering hostility to any proposal of this sort, rise above barren prejudice, seize the opportunity to put country before party, and give to this proposal the support which its merits deserve.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees

at commencement of Public Business).

The House divided: Ayes 149, Noes 145.

Division No. 131.] AYES [4.3 p.m.
Agnew, Sir Peter Harris, Reader (Heston) Prior, J. M. L.
Allason, James Harvie Anderson, Miss Proudfoot, Wilfred
Anderson, D. C. Hastings, Stephen Pym, Francis
Arbuthnot, Sir John Heald, Rt. Hon. Sir Lionel Quennell, Miss J. M.
Atkins, Humphrey Henderson, Sir John (Cathcart) Redmayne, Rt. Hon, Martin
Barlow, Sir John Hill, J. E. B. (S. Norfolk) Renton, Rt. Hon. David
Beamish, Col. Sir Tufton Hirst, Geoffrey Ridley, Hon. Nicholas
Bennett, F. M. (Torquay) Hocking, Philip N. Robertson, Sir D.(C'thn's & S'th'ld)
Berkeley, Humphry Hollingworth, John Roots, William
Biffen, John Hopkins, Alan Ropner, Col. Sir Leonard
Biggs-Davison, John Hughes-Young, Michael Russell, Sir Ronald
Birch, Rt. Hon. Nigel Hutchison, Michael Clark Seymour, Leslie
Bishop, Sir Patrick Iremonger, T. L. Shaw, M.
Black, Sir Cyril Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Skeet, T. H. H.
Bossom, Hon. Clive Johnson, Erio (Blackley) Smith, Dudley (Br'ntf'd & Chiswick)
Braine, Bernard Kaberry, Sir Donald Smyth, Rt. Hon. Brig. Sir John
Bromley-Davenport, Lt.-Col. Sir Walter Kerby, Capt. Henry Stainton, Keith
Buck, Antony Kerr, Sir Hamilton Stanley, Hon. Richard
Burden, F. A. Kershaw, Anthony Steward, Harold (Stockport, S.)
Clark, Henry (Antrim, N.) Lagden, Godfrey Storey, Sir Samuel
Cleaver, Leonard Langford-Holt, Sir John Studholme, Sir Henry
Cordeaux, Lt.-Col. J. K. Leavey, J. A. Talbot, John E.
Costain, A. P. Lilley, F. J. P. Taylor, Edwin (Bolton, E.)
Coulson, Michael Linstead, Sir Hugh Taylor, Frank (M'ch'st'r, Moss Side)
Craddock, Sir Beresford (Spelthorne) Litchfield, Capt. John Taylor, Sir William (Bradford, N.)
Critchley, Julian Lloyd, Rt. Hon. Selwyn (Wirral) Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret
Cunningham, Sir Knox Longden, Gilbert Thomas, Sir Leslie (Canterbury)
Curran, Charles Lucas, Sir Jocelyn Thompson, Sir Kenneth (Walton)
Dalkeith, Earl of Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh Thornton-Kemsley, Sir Colin
Dance, James McAdden, Sir Stephen Touche, Rt. Hon. Sir Gordon
d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, Sir Henry Maclean, SirFitzroy (Bute&N. Ayrs) Turner, Colin
Donaldson, Cmdr. C. E. M. MacLeod, Sir John (Ross&Cromarty) Turton, Rt. Hon. R. H.
Duthie, Sir William (Banff) McMaster, Stanley R. Vaughan-Morgan, Rt. Hon. Sir John
Elliott, R. W. (Newc'tle-upon-Tyne, N.) Maginnis, John E. Vickers, Miss Joan
Emmet, Hon. Mrs. Evelyn Maitland, Sir John Walder, David
Errington, Sir Eric Markham, Major Sir Frank Walker-Smith, Rt. Hon. Sir Derek
Fell, Anthony Marples, Rt. Hon. Ernest Wall, Patrick
Finlay, Graeme Matthews, Gordon (Meriden) Ward, Dame Irene
Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Maude, Angus (Stratford-on-Avon) Webster, David
Fraser, Ian (Plymouth, Sutton) Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J. Wells, John (Maidstone)
Freeth, Denzil Montgomery, Fergus Williams, Sir Rolf Dudley (Exeter)
Gammans, Lady More, Jasper (Ludlow) Willis, Sir Gerald (Bridgwater)
Giles, Rear-Admiral Morgan Morrison, Charles (Devizes) Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife) Morrison, John (Salisbury) Wise, A. R.
Glyn, Dr. Alan (Clapham) Nugent, Rt. Hon. Sir Richard Woodnutt, Mark
Glyn, Sir Richard (Dorset, N.) Oakshott, Sir Hendrie Woollam, John
Goodhew, Victor Pannell, Norman (Kirkdale) Yates, William (The Wrekin)
Gower, Raymond Peel, John
Grosvenor, Lord Robert Percival, Ian TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Hall, John (Wycombe) Pickthorn, Sir Kenneth Mr. Ronald Bell and
Hamilton, Michael (Wellingborough) Pounder, Rafton Sir Rupert Spier.
Ainsley, William Cliffe, Michael Ginsburg, David
Albu, Austen Craddock George (Bradford, S.) Gourlay, Harry
Allaun, Frank (Salford, E.) Cronin, John Greenwood, Anthony
Alldritt, W. H. Dalyell, Tam Grey, Charles
Awbery, Stan (Bristol, Central) Davies, Harold (Leek) Griffiths, David (Rother Valley)
Bacon, Miss Alice Davies, S. O. (Merthyr) Griffiths, Rt. Hon. James (Llanelly)
Baxter, William (Stirlingshire, W.) Deer, George Hamilton, William (West Fife)
Beaney, Alan Dempsey, James Hannan, William
Bence, Cyril Diamond, John Harper, Joseph
Benson, Sir George Doig, Peter Hayman, F. H.
Boardman, H. Driberg, Tom Healey, Denis
Bowen, Roderic (Cardigan) Dufly, A. E. P. (Colne Valley) Henderson, Rt. Hn. Arthur (Rwly Regis)
Boyden, James Ede, Rt. Hon. C. Herbison, Miss Margaret
Braddock, Mrs. E. M. Edwards, Rt. Hon. Ness (Caerphilly) Holt, Arthur
Bradley, Tom Edwards, Robert (Bilston) Houghton, Douglas
Brockway, A. Fenner Fernyhough, E. Hoy, James H.
Butler, Herbert (Hackney, C.) Foot, Michael (Ebbw Vale) Hughes, Cledwyn (Anglesey)
Butler, Mrs. Joyce (Wood Green) Fraser, Thomas (Hamilton) Hunter, A. E.
Carmichael, Nell Galpern, Sir Myer Hynd, H. (Accrington)
Castle, Mrs. Barbara Ceorge, LadyMeganLloyd (Crmrthn) Hynd, John (Attercliffe)
Irvine, A. J. (Edge Hill) Monslow, Walter Spriggs, Leslie
Janner, Sir Barnett Morris, Charles (Openshaw) Steele, Thomas
Jenkins, Roy (Stechford) Mulley, Frederick Stonehouse, John
Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S.) Noel-Baker, Francis (Swindon) Stones, William
Jones, Dan (Burnley) Oliver, G. H. Stross, SirBarnett (Stoke-on-Trent, C.)
Jones, J. Idwal (Wrexham) O'Malley, B. K. Swingler, Stephen
Jones, T. W. (Merioneth) Oswald, Thomas Symonds, J. B.
Kelley, Richard Paget, R. T. Taylor, Bernard (Mansfield)
Kenyon, Clifford Pannell, Charles (Leeds, W.) Thomas, George (Cardiff, W.)
Key, Rt. Hon. C. W. Parker, John Thompson, Dr. Alan (Dunfermline)
King, Dr. Horace Pearson, Arthur (Pontypridd) Thornton, Ernest
Lawton, George Pentland, Norman Thorpe, Jeremy
Lee, Frederick (Newton) Randall, Harry Tomney, Frank
Lewis, Arthur (West Ham, N.) Rankin, John Wade, Donald
Lipton, Marcus Reynolds, G. W. Wainwright, Edwin
Loughlin, Charles Rhodes, H. Watkins, Tudor
Lubbock, Eric Roberts, Goronwy (Caernarvon) Weitzman, David
McCann, J. Robertson, John (Paisley) White, Mrs. Eirene
MacColl, James Rodgers, W. T. (Stockton) Wilkins, W. A.
Mclnnes, James Rogers, G. H. R. (Kensington, N.) Willey, Frederick
McKay, John (Wallsend) Ross, William Williams, LI. (Abertillery)
Mackenzie, Gregor Shinwell, Rt. Hon. E. Willis, E. G. (Edinburgh, E.)
Mallalieu, J. P. W. (Huddersfield, E.) Silverman, Julius (Aston) Winterbottom, R. E.
Manuel, Archie Slater, Mrs. Harriet (Stoke, N.) Woodburn, Rt. Hon. A.
Mapp, Charles Slater, Joseph (Sedgefield) Woof, Robert
Marsh, Richard Small, William Yates, Victor (Ladywood)
Mellish, R. J. Smith, Ellis (Stoke, S.)
Millan, Bruce Snow, Julian TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Milne, Edward Sorensen, R. W. Mr. Popplewell and
Mr. Frank McLeavy.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Ronald Bell, Mr. F. M. Bennett, Mr. W. Clark, Mr. Goodhew, Mr. John Hall, Mr. Clark Hutchison, Mr. Kershaw, Mr. Kitson, Mr. Graham Page, Sir R. Russell, Mr. Speir, and Mr. Wall.