HC Deb 24 November 1964 vol 702 cc1235-46

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

10.36 p.m.

Lady Tweedsmuir (Aberdeen, South)

The purpose of this Adjournment debate is to call attention to a three weeks' unofficial strike by welders at Hall Russell's shipyard, Aberdeen, of which I wrote in detail to the Minister of Labour. At one time, it involved 400 men. It took three weeks and, above all, it involved the livelihoods and right to work of two loyal trade union members.

Since entering the list for this Adjournment debate, the dispute has at last been settled, I am glad to say, I hope permanently. However, it raises certain serious issues, and I thought it right that the House should have the chance to consider them. Above all, as I wrote to the Minister, I hoped that the Minister would take the chance of giving the House his considered views on what action he thinks can be taken in future to resolve such disputes before they get out of hand, for this is one of many unofficial strikes up and down the country which endanger men's livelihoods, inconvenience the public and put our whole economy at risk.

To give a mere outline of the background to these issues; it will be seen that this dispute was not an unofficial strike about working or wage conditions, nor an inter-union demarcation dispute, but an unofficial strike over 1s. Three members of a boilermakers' union were charged by another member with a breach of union rules. These three members were asked to meet the district committee of their union at Dundee. All welders in Hall Russell's shipyard were asked to pay the expenses of the three members and, by a majority vote taken at a meeting outside the usual branch meeting, it was decided that each of the men should pay 1s.

Two welders refused to do so, a Mr. Gillies, who is a constituent of mine, and a Mr. Brown, who both asked me to take up their case on their behalf. These men refused to pay 1s. because they were paying their own fares to Dundee. Mr. Brown was bringing the charge which was preferred and Mr. Gillies was to support him.

It was then decided at this unofficial meeting that the welders would refuse to work unless Mr. Brown and Mr. Gillies were dismissed, and so the management was informed. After three weeks, the management gave the two men concerned four weeks' notice.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

On a point of order. The hon. Lady is attempting to reopen an industrial dispute which is now happily settled. It is quite unnecessary for her to reopen all these facts.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Dr. Horace King)

That is not a point of order.

Lady Tweedsmuir

As I said at the start, the purpose of this debate was to raise issues which were serious in themselves. They were a fact and happened, and it was important that this House should consider them and the Minister should have an opportunity to give his considered views on what can be done in future to ensure that these disputes can be settled in time.

The management told me that a decision to give notice to the two men concerned was forced upon them, not so much because of the 400 people who were suspended, but because the existence of the company and of all it employees was at stake. Everyone will understand the very hard decision that was at stake, but there was also a great principle involved, namely, the right of two men to work and to support their families. The management took the view that the dispute was an internal domestic matter within the union, which was true. However, when the men walked out and it was clear that the work and livelihood of others would be involved, it seems to me that at that stage the matter went beyond an internal domestic dispute. Unless management takes a stand, its functions are usurped by others.

I know it is easy enough to say this when one has not the responsibility of thousands on one's shoulders, but there are times, surely, when a stand must be taken on a principle, when others are themselves prepared to stand for a principle. I am convinced that it would lead in the end to better and happier industrial relations. As Mr. Gillies himself says in a courageous article in the local evening paper: I took my stand over a principle. The principle at stake was whether we were going to have a dictatorship at Hall Russell's where right did not count, but where the majority was everything, even although the majority was wrong. No workman and no employer can shut his eyes to this challenge. It is Brown and I in Hall Russell's today; it might he a neighbour tomorrow. Therefore, what did the union do to protect their own members—for Brown and Gillies were long-standing, fully paid-up members of the union, and Gillies is a member of the shop stewards' committee?

The two men's solicitors have sent me a long statement of all the various meetings between union officials and their members and Brown and Gillies. I sent the Minister a copy, and therefore the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the time it took for union officials to get under way and to do anything effective. Indeed, the length and circumstances of the strike speak for themselves. We have a newspaper which is published in the City of Aberdeen, and it claims to be the only Labour paper in Scotland. On the welders' strike, it said this: The trade union principle at stake in the welders' strike has been the enforcement of a majority decision, but in this case it was a decision taken outside the normal branch meeting, and it is absolute tyranny to compel a decent member of the branch committee to contribute towards the fare of a branch delegation when he himself had to pay his own fare. Then this newspaper, the Clarion, goes on to say: It is now painfully clear that stronger and swifter action by full-time trade union officials is now called for in regard to unofficial stoppages. The withdrawing of trade union membership cards is not too stiff a penalty to pay for refusing to obey a union instruction to return to work. This was stated by a newspaper which is a great upholder of the whole trade union principle.

I am bound to say that it could not be thought in this dispute that union officials were in any way cautious because of doubt as to their legal position. I am informed on the most experienced legal advice that this case is not comparable with Rooks v. Barnard. In that case a threat was made by officers of a union to call out trade union members in breach of their contracts of service. In this case, unadvised, no tort was committed because there was no threat. There was merely a statement of fact to the management of Hall Russell's by officials of the Boilermakers' Society that they were unable to resolve the dispute among the welders.

As I said, happily this dispute came to an end and the welders were reinstated, although still many men in the yard refuse to speak to them. I think it only fair to quote from a letter which I received only today from their solicitors. It goes: So far as Brown and Gillies know, there was no approach from any full-time officer of the union to Hall Russell's requesting their reinstatement. It would seem that the same people as informed the management that the workers would not work with Brown and Gillies told the managers of the men's change of decision. It goes on: The welders took their lead in victimising Gillies and Brown not from any of the branch officials who happened to work in Hall Russell's nor from their shop stewards but from individuals who hold no position of authority in the union. This is a very important fact, because when we get to a state of affairs where a union, through circumstances best known to itself, is unable to try to protect its loyal trade union members, one is bound to ask where can the Ministry of Labour come in?

That was why I asked a Parliamentary Question of the Minister of Labour. I wanted to find out when it was that he first contacted the union officials in this dispute. The actual unofficial strike started on 5th October, but long before that there were rumblings of discontent, murmurings and disagreement which went right back to 5th May and which culminated in the fact that three men were charged with a breach of union rules, whereby this dispute took place. I was informed by the Minister of Labour that he first wrote to the officials of the union on 23rd October. The actual strike took place on 5th October, although in Part 2 of the Industrial Courts Act, 1919, it is clearly stated that the Minister of Labour has power to inquire into cases and the circumstances of any trade dispute, whether reported to him or not and, if he thinks fit, to appoint a court of inquiry to inquire into the matter and report to him.

I am certainly not suggesting that this matter should have been the circumstance of a public inquiry, but I do suggest that where for any reason union officials are unable to protect their own loyal trade union members, the Minister of Labour should take the power which Parliament gave him to enter and offer his good offices at a very early stage of a dispute such as this.

That is why I asked the Minister what action he considered could be taken at an early date in these kind of disputes to prevent them from sliding into a situation beyond which it became far more difficult to extract all those concerned.

Since this dispute there has already been another, of an unofficial character, involving the shipwrights. Happily, the men have gone back to work, although the dispute is not settled. I believe that the publicity given to unfortunate unofficial stoppages by the Press, the men concerned and in the House has helped to try to get some speed into dealing with these matters. There is no doubt that there is a very real concern, not only among the public but among many trade union members as to the extent to which trade union officers are able to protect their own members.

It was just because of these genuine difficulties that we proposed that there should be a general inquiry into trade union law and practice. That was why I was more than interested to see that the Board of Trade has now decided to establish an independent committee of inquiry into the shipbuilding industry. I presume it will cover these delicate and fundamental questions because the terms of reference include … research into how the industry can best be equipped and organised to make it competitive in world conditions, and what action can be taken by managements, trade unions and the Government to this end. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary will know that the former Minister of Labour set up an inquiry in 1962 into industrial relations in the shipbuilding industry; and that representatives of the employers, the employees and the trade unions took part in it. For over eighteen months those discusions went on, and no agreement was reached, but I believe that in some yards, at least, some good was achieved. It was a good try, and that is why I wish the present inquiry all success. At the same time, I believe that the public feel that there ought to be a real review of the practice and law of trade unions today. That subject has not been examined for sixty years.

In the meantime, the object of this Adjournment debate is to ask the Parliamentary Secretary what further action he believes can be taken at an earlier stage of unofficial disputes of this nature to resolve the problems before they get out of hand, because the whole House will appreciate that the fundamental question lying beneath all this is whether any group of men has a right, or should be able, to take away a free man's livelihood. That is why I trust the hon. Gentleman will be able to assure the House and the public by a considered statement of his Minister's powers, and his attitude to the serious issues that are involved.

10.53 p.m.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I am sure the House will deplore the fact that the hon. Lady—

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I wondered whether my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir) was aware that the limited amount of time left was to be shared by a back-bench Member. If not, is not the interruption against the conventions of this House? Surely the mere 11 minutes left should be given to the Minister.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Samuel Storey)

That is not a point of order.

Mr. Hughes

I was saying that the House will, I am sure, deplore the fact that the hon. Lady has used this opportunity to make an unjustifiable attack on trade unionism in general and upon Aberdeen trade unionism in particular. What has happened in this industrial dispute is really a victory for orthodox and constitutional trade unionism—

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes

—and for the Aberdeen Trades Council in particular. If the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) will allow me, the time is very short—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—and I want to correct the misapprehension that has been created by the hon. Lady—

Lady Tweedsmuir

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. and learned Gentleman to restrict the time of the Parliamentary Secretary, who is to reply for the Government on a very important issue?.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I am in the hands of the House. The hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) rose, while the Minister did not.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Further to that point of order. The Parliamentary Secretary was on the point of rising when the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North rose. I believe that the conventions of the House ought to be observed by the hon. and learned Member.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I have already said that that is not a point of order.

Mr. Hughes

In view of what fell from the hon. Lady's lips and the interrupter seeking to waste the precious half hour which is allowed for the Adjournment, I want immediately to take this opportunity of paying tribute to the solidarity of trade unionism in Aberdeen which overcame certain individualistic tendencies and overcame difficulties arising from certain disputes which have not been referred to by the hon. Lady. The dispute arose from certain complexities—

Sir Harmar Nicholls

On a point of order. I should have thought that the rights of this House laid down quite clearly that a private Member's time allocated in an Adjournment debate which calls for a Ministerial answer should be fulfilled and not frustrated in this way by another back-bencher.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I have already told the hon. Member that that is not a point of order. I hope that he will not further pursue the matter.

Mr. Hughes

Mr. Deputy-Speaker—

Lady Tweedsmuir

Perhaps the hon. and learned Member will give way for a moment. I am sure—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker


Mr. Hughes

The hon. Lady referred to a letter from the Minister of Labour dated 23rd November. I shall refer to the essential part of that letter. The dispute arose from two dissatisfied workers—

Lady Tweedsmuir

Will the hon. and learned Member give way?

Mr. Hughes

I have said that I will not give way.

Lady Tweedsmuir rose

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady must not pursue the matter.

Mr. Hughes

The essential part of that letter from the Minister of Labour which the hon. Lady did not read is this—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. Hon. Members must not continue to interrupt while sitting down.

Mr. Hughes

The essential part of the letter, which the hon. Lady—and I am astounded at her leaving it out is: The employers eventually gave the two welders four weeks' notice to terminate their employment. Before this notice expired the national officials of the trade union concerned, with whom my officers had been in touch, succeeded in persuading their members to withdraw their objections to working with the welders. The firm then cancelled their notice..

Lady Tweedsmuir rose

Mr. Hughes

I will not give way.

As a result of that the strike was happily settled on orthodox constitutional trade union lines by officials of the relevant trade unions in Aberdeen, by officials of Aberdeen Trades Council. In view of what has happened, I pay tribute to the solidarity of trade unionism in Aberdeen and, in particular, to the effective work done by its able and energetic secretary, Mr. James Milne.

In view of the way in which my time has been eaten into and the fact that the Minister wants time to reply, I say no more. I have put forward enough to correct the impressions created by the hon. Lady.

10.59 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Ernest Thornton)

I proceed straight away to try to answer some of the points made by the hon. Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir). There appears little doubt that the unofficial strikers acted unconstitutionally both in regard to their industrial agreements and union rules.

In regard to the criticism of the men, if they had been misguided but eventually accepted good advice, as they seem to have done now, and behave responsibly, nothing is gained by rebuking them for past mistakes. Probably the best interests of the firm, the union and the men concerned will be served by not publicly probing into the case now. If, however, it is true, as has been reported, that the two men have been sent to Coventry, this is to be deplored. The men should apply the spirit as well as the letter of the union's advice.

As to what the Department can do to prevent a similar situation arising in the future, the answer to that question must be that it is impossible to provide in advance against every possible situation that might arise in an industrial establishment. This is particularly the case when, as the noble Lady has pointed out, the circumstances are as exceptional as they are here. This does not mean to say that disputes of this kind should be lightly regarded. This was an unofficial and unconstitutional strike which disregarded the procedure of the industry and affected an employer and other work-people who had no concern with the matter at issue. It was essentially a matter of internal union discipline and, in those circumstances, union members should loyally abide by the constitution of their own union.

No Government can control the feelings of workers or the actions of individuals, but when such difficulties arise the Government urge that they should be threshed out in an orderly and responsible manner. The Government cannot impose good industrial relations, although they may give advice and help. In a free society it must depend on managements, unions and individual workers seeking to accommodate their differences in a reasonable and responsible manner.

I hope that we shall not exaggerate the incidence of these strikes. This strike is quite exceptional, and I speak from 35 years' experience as a full-time trade union officer before accepting my present post in the Government. While strikes are usually to be deplored and should be avoided wherever possible, we have to appreciate that they will take place from time to time. Let us remember that our record as an industrial country in the incidence of days lost in strikes compares very favourably with other industrial countries in the Western world.

I am not by any means disposed to agree in its entirety with the criticism made of the union. In general, union officials and union executives deplore unofficial and unconstitutional action as much as anyone. They carry heavy responsibilities and, in this case, their efforts have brought the dispute to an end, about which I think we are all very happy. The noble Lady criticised my Department for not having acted early enough. This is not the case. The Ministry of Labour does not in any circumstances deal directly with unofficial strikers, and I warn the noble Lady and the House of the danger of the Ministry becoming involved directly with unofficial strikers.

The contacts of my Department's officers must be through the recognised and responsible officers of the trade union concerned. This applies to all kinds of disputes, but clearly it has an even greater force when the matter at issue is an internal affair within the union concerned, as was the case with this dispute. It was known from inquiries made at an early stage in the dispute that union officials were doing their best to handle the situation. There were therefore no grounds at that stage for my Ministry's officials to make a direct intervention. However, on 23rd October, as the noble Lady has indicated, my Ministry's Chief Conciliation Officer, following an approach from the firm, wrote to the General Secretary of the Boilermakers' Society asking that further efforts be made, and he subsequently maintained informal contacts until the matter was brought to a conclusion. I must make clear that, in the circumstances of this dispute, this was the most that the Department could possibly do. I endorse, and I am sure that the House will approve, the action which was taken.

We are all concerned about the rights of individuals and of minorities, and I appreciate the noble Lady's desire to seek to protect the rights and freedom of the individual or of small minorities. But let us not forget the need to protect the rights and freedom of majorities. The right of workers collectively to withdraw their labour is a fundamental right in a really free society—I am speaking now about official strikes—and danger would lie in attempting by law to control the situation. Indeed, the strength and vitality of liberty in a nation can be measured broadly by the degree of freedom to exercise that right without a wide net of legal prohibition.

The noble Lady raised this matter, I thought, in relation to the Rookes v. Barnard case, indicating that there were—

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

Adjourned at six minutes past Eleven o'clock.