HC Deb 01 July 1965 vol 715 cc972-82

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

10.42 p.m.

Mr. John Horner (Oldbury and Halesowen)

The matter which I wish to put before the House relates to certain provisions of the National Insurance Act. In so far as I have to refer directly to those provisions, Mr. Speaker, I do so in relation to their administration and interpretation by the statutory authorities. I hope that you will not be obliged to call me to order and that I shall not incur your displeasure by going beyond the proper boundaries of an Adjournment debate.

The National Insurance Act obliges a person who is thrown out of work as a result of an industrial dispute at his place of work, before he can receive unemployment benefit to prove—the onus of proof is upon him—to the insurance officer that he is not participating in the dispute, that he is not financing the dispute, that he is not directly interested in the dispute, and that he is not a member of a grade or class of worker any single one of whom is directly interested in or is financing the dispute which has put him out of work.

Such rules, or similar rules, have existed since 1924, and, clearly, their object is to prevent the Insurance Fund from being used to finance strikes. No trade unionist with whom I have discussed the problem has questioned that cardinal principle. But of recent years the method of application of these rules has resulted in a fund of bitterness and hardship which has led to a growing body of ill will amongst workers who have been affected by the interpretation of these rules by insurance officers.

Following a series of Questions put to her by several of my hon. Friends and myself, the Minister informed the House that in concert with the Minister of Labour she had decided to ask the Royal Commission which is now investigating trade unions and industrial relations to deal with the whole matter.

The Royal Commission has a difficult task. I have studied the body of decisions which have been made by Commissioners since 1946 on appeals in relation to this subject and I confess that I have been unable to find any common pattern in those decisions. Indeed, so involved and complex have been the matters which the Commissioners have been obliged to consider that I doubt whether any ordinary worker could have the slightest comprehension of the position in which he might find himself—and the disadvantages to which he might be put—if, as a result of a dispute in his place of work, although he might have no connection with that dispute, he found himself unemployed and unable to draw unemployment benefit.

I am informed that since the last war on no less than six occasions the T.U.C. has sent deputations to six different Ministers of Pensions and National Insurance. It is impossible, in an Adjournment debate, to survey the whole of this intricate field.

A few months ago, however, many hundreds of my constituents were out of work as a result of a dispute at the vast Austin plant in Birmingham. The plant is a great undertaking, an enormous industrial complex covering many acres. It is rather like a town with about 20,000 inhabitants. About 350 maintenance fitters' mates found themselves obliged to withdraw their labour and for nearly three weeks my constituents, along with many thousands of others, were unemployed. They were denied unemployment benefit and National Assistance.

To have obtained unemployment benefit they had to prove that they were not financing the strike. That they could do, and did. They then had to prove that they were not participating in the strike. That they could do, and did. They then had to prove that they were not directly interested in the strike. That they could do, and did. They then had to prove that they were not of a grade or class of workers one single member of which was directly interested in the dispute. That they could not do. Many hundreds of my constituents failed to prove this and were denied unemployment benefit.

These men at this giant plant felt that they had no possible connection with the 350 maintenance fitters' mates who were on strike, yet they were turned away by the insurance officers. And the bitterness of their disappointment was made more bitter by the apparent inconsistencies and contradictions in the decisions given by the insurance officers.

I will give the House one example of inconsistency—that of the National Union of Vehicle Builders. The maintenance fitters mates who were on strike were members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. There are shops at Austins in which only members of the National Union of Vehicle Builders work on car body building. These are closed shops from the point of view of the vehicle builders' union. When the insurance officers were satisfied that no identical type of workers worked in other sections of the plant, they agreed that unemployment benefit should be paid. But there are nearly 20 unions represented in this great industrial factory.

To help to achieve smooth industrial relations, the National Union of Vehicle Builders has, in certain of its shops where the majority of their 5,000 members are employed, agreed that men holding other union cards shall be allowed to work in those shops. We must commend this union for a sensible decision that makes for easier and more flexible industrial relations. Yet wherever there was even one member of the A.E.U. working in a vehicle building shop, all the workers of the National Union of Vehicle Builders were disqualified from benefit. It needed no more than one A.E.U. member to put the whole shop out of benefit. The Amalgamated Engineering Union man was like a carrier of the plague.

Again, the sheet metal workers could prove that they were a class, category or grade separate and distinct. They were paid because they could show by the complicated nature of the industrial process that there was no other type of worker doing that work. Yet, in the same highly complicated process of production, vehicle builders who found themselves working alongside the sheet metal workers were disqualified.

I am sure that the House has not been able to follow the logic of complicated procedure. But when it is realised that vehicle builders working alongside sheet metal workers doing identical work were disqualified, it does not need much imagination on the part of anyone with experience of industrial relations to appreciate the great bitterness that was caused on the shop floor. The union secretary wrote to me: Decisions barring men from benefit while the men they work with get benefit, bring the whole system into disrepute. We do not ask for strikes to be supported from public funds, but surely the Minister can see that common sense is used. I am sure that my hon. Friend will say that the Minister cannot interfere with decisions of statutory authorities, but I suggest that there is a case for the Minister to consider, in association with her Advisory Committee, whether the changes that have taken place in industry over the 41 years since these rules were first laid down, together with the complexity of such a vast industry as the British Motor Corporation, do not require some advice to be given to insurance officers which may help to remove some of the worst anomalies and hardships.

I would also suggest that, the Minister having decided to refer the major issue to the Royal Commission, the Commission might be asked to deal with this matter, as a separate and distinct issue, on the basis of an interim report.

I put it to my hon. Friend that the Minister, in placing the Department's evidence before the Royal Commission, should make it clear in the very plainest terms that a matter that has produced such dissension and ill-feeling and hardship amongst so many thousands of people over so many years ought to be dealt with sympathetically. Fortunately for the credit of trade unions and managements, the British record in regard to strikes is better than that of any other industrial country except Western Germany and Sweden.

We are not asking for public subvention of strike funds. I have tried to bring to the attention of my hon. Friend and the House some of the issues that are felt so sharply on the shop floor. This matter has to be resolved. The Government have decided to refer the subject to the Royal Commission, and I hope that it will be dealt with speedily. In the meantime, I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to take such action as is open to her to deal with some of the aspects of this issue that are most deeply and sharply felt by those concerned.

10.55 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Norman Pentland)

I, like other hon. Members in the House, have listened with particular care and interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Horner). I am aware, of course, of his wide knowledge of the issues he has raised this evening and of his sincere concern for the people to whom he has referred.

I think that my hon. Friend would accept without hesitation that if he takes into account the background of my right hon. Friend the Minister and myself he will find it quite obvious that we also have a knowledge of the problems involved and share his concern about the hardships that can be suffered by those to whom he has referred. I therefore assure him at once that those of us who know this problem and those of my hon. Friends who have raised this question from time to time must realise that the Minister and I have one objective in mind. That is to try to find a realistic solution to this long-standing and difficult problem.

My hon. Friend is quite right, and he knows this as well as I do, that in the examples he gave this evening my right hon. Friend has no power to intervene in these matters as the decision has to be taken by the statutory authorities. This is embodied in the National Insurance Acts.

I want to make quite sure that there can be no misunderstanding about the present position. The trade dispute disqualification undeniably lies within the terms of reference of the Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers' Associations. This must dispose of any proposition that some other advisory body might be asked to conduct a simultaneous review of this disqualification.

Not only would there be the absurd situation of interested people having to give their views and evidence twice to two different bodies or, if that were too great a burden, having to choose which body they would give evidence to, but the two independent bodies themselves would be put into an intolerable situation. They would be justified in regarding this simultaneous reference as the gravest discourtesy because no chairman of any independent advisory committee could reasonably be asked to accept a remit lying fairly and squarely within the purview of some other body.

The terms of reference of the Royal Commission were announced in February of this year, well before the recent criticisms of the trade dispute disqualification arising from the dispute at the Austin Motor Works in March. The fact that the Minister was able to announce recently that the trade dispute disqualification was within the Commission's terms of reference does not of course imply that it was open to her to have given the subject to any other advisory body. I am sure that my hon. Friend fully recognises that. The position, therefore, is that the trade dispute disqualification cannot be referred to any other advisory body in addition to the Royal Commission.

I wish to make it clear that I do not regard this situation with dismay. I hope that my hon. Friend will feel relieved of any dismay he may feel before the end of my speech. My hon. Friend referred to the National Insurance Advisory Committee. I take the opportunity of expressing our great debt to that Committee which, as the House knows, has always given, and continues to give, services of the very highest order.

The trade dispute disqualification, however, is not simply a National Insurance matter. It is embodied in the National Assistance Act as well as in the National Insurance Act. Moreover, even if one considers the unemployment benefit disqualification by itself, this is not solely a matter of National Insurance policy. It goes deep into the field of industrial relations and a number of vital trade union principles are involved. For a subject of this nature and of such great importance in industrial relations, the Royal Commission seems to be the ideal body.

My hon. Friend is anxious that this subject should receive a speedy review. I am quite sure, however, that this is a subject which just cannot be dealt with quickly. As my right hon. Friend the Minister told the House on a previous occasion, the trade dispute disqualification has existed unchanged for over 37 years and many Ministers in successive Governments, particularly since the war, have tried to find a better formula, but they have not succeeded. This is, as my hon. Friend has made clear, a very complicated subject.

There is an infinite variety of circumstances in which a trade dispute can develop. It is no good looking for a formula which might be fair in certain types of dispute which come easily to mind, but which would not be suitable for other types of dispute. Nor is it any good looking for a formula which might meet the criticisms of those feeling aggrieved as a result of some particular dispute, without taking a comprehensive look at all its effects and repercussions. Any general review of this provision must allow ample time for thoughtful and constructive evidence to be brought forward and must proceed deliberately and exhaustively, if it is to provide a sound foundation for amending legislation.

The provision has stood the test of time for many decades. It is applied not just occasionally, but very frequently indeed. I need hardly remind the House that last year over 2¼ million working days were lost by nearly 900,000 workers in over 2,500 different stoppages. Yet the desire which has been expressed that the review of this provision must be a speedy one springs mainly from the particular circumstances which arose earlier this year.

I fully understand why people who, by subjective standards, feel aggrieved at not being able to qualify for unemployment benefit during a dispute in which they do not consider themselves involved should press for something to be done quickly. But it certainly cannot be said that all public comment on the provision has supported these complaints. From an objective viewpoint, it could hardly be contended that the present provision is so universally regarded as wrong that quick action is essential. On the contrary, as I have already indicated, any efforts to secure a very quick review would, I am sure, be mistaken.

It has been represented that a provision which has remained unaltered for 37 years must be regarded as out-of-date in modern industry. My hon. Friend says, quite rightly, in my view, that it is in need of urgent overhaul. I would agree with that. I would most certainly agree that a full review is now desirable. However, I do not agree that the length of time it has stood on the Statute Book is any indication of the speed with which we must now attempt to amend it.

As I have already said, efforts have continually been made by Governments in the post-war years to find some alternative formula, but even so no better rule has emerged. In the previous Labour Government, as my hon. Friend will probably be aware, this disqualification was examined very thoroughly by Ministers of National Insurance and Ministers of Labour.

Incidentally, our late colleague Aneurin Bevan felt deeply about this disqualification. As Minister of Labour, he applied himself rigorously to trying to find a solution to this disqualification, but he was not successful and no solution to the difficulties was found. Therefore, if the present formula can be improved, the manner of doing so is not nearly so obvious as those who advocate a quick review seem to imagine.

Quite properly, several of my hon. Friends have been very diligent in their efforts to achieve some positive change in this field. I must make it clear that my right hon. Friend and I are certainly not on the defensive in this matter. My right hon. Friend explained in her answer to Questions on 24th May that she had herself given the most thorough examination and thought to this provision and to all the various suggestions which have been considered up to now. But she also was unable to fine a better rule. Other Ministers of different political creeds might have been excused for concluding that nothing further could be done, and leaving it at that.

This, however, was not good enough for us, and we were very glad to find, following our consultations with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour, that it was possible to confirm that the trade dispute disqualification provision was within the purview of the Royal Commission, which is, of course, highly qualified to give it exactly the detailed and authoritative examination that we consider it needs.

No one would deny that the trade dispute disqualification is undoubtedly a complicated provision, and my hon. Friend has emphasised that point vividly this evening. I agree that intractable difficulties can stem from it in certain types of dispute. The Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers' Associations, however, is admirably qualified to consider this most difficult problem. In my view and in the view of my right hon. Friend, the issues involved deserve independent examination, particularly in regard to the industrial relations standpoint, at the very highest level. The existence of the Royal Commission gives a perfect opportunity of securing this. I have no doubt that this will be seen in the long run to have been the correct way of dealing with this very complicated issue.

The Royal Commission, as the House knows, has very wide terms of reference and a number of problems that it will be considering are closely bound up with the main criticisms that have been levelled at the trade dispute disqualication. For example, the Royal Commission is likely to be examining, among other things, unofficial strikes, closed shops and similar practices, union mergers, mobility of labour between grades and classes, and so on.

It would, therefore, hardly be sensible to ask any other body than the Royal Commission to conduct an independent and detailed review of the trade dispute disqualification in order to look for possible ways of overcoming these criticisms without knowing the outcome of the Royal Commission's examination of these points.

I hope that I have said enough to convince my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend and I share his concern very deeply indeed, and that the decision that we have taken is sensible. I hope that I can impress upon him that the decision that we have taken is a worthwhile endeavour to find a solution to one of the most complex provisions in our National Insurance Acts.

11.9 p.m.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I thank the hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Horner) for raising this important question, and I take this opportunity to put three points to the Minister.

I feel that, within the framework of the present situation, a great deal could be done by the Minister to speed up consideration of these cases. In a recent dispute in my constituency, there was a case similar to that cited by the hon. Member, Some men came out on strike, and a far larger number were laid off in consequence. These people put in a claim for unemployment benefit, and it was more than a month before the insurance officer was able to give a decision in the matter.

In fact, the period was 44 days, and I have given all the circumstances of the case in writing to the Minister of Labour. Therefore, a claim was made that the matter go before the tribunal, but it has not been considered yet, although it arose out of a strike which took place in March. I hope that the Minister, before considering what major changes should be made, will do something to improve the situation within the present framework.

I hope that the Minister will carefully consider all the consequences of accepting the suggestion which his hon. Friend put forward tonight. Consider the situation which could arise in a normal works. A district committee meets to consider whether a claim should be put in on behalf of electricians. It decides that a claim should be made on behalf of maintenance electricians, who comprise one-fifth of the membership of the branch.

The maintenance men come out on strike in support of the claim, and all the people at the works are laid off in consequence. The remaining four-fifths are electricians, all members of the same union, and it is quite clear that, in the normal process of industrial negotiations, if any part of the claim is conceded to the maintenance men, almost certainly something will accrue to the men on the production side.

I have in mind disputes of the kind we are having in many industries, notably in the motor vehicle industry, in which a strike by a small number of people can bring a whole works to a standstill and put many thousands out of work. I want the Minister to think very carefully before making any change of the kind suggested by his hon. Friend. I entirely agree that it is a question which should be looked into carefully because of the difficulties which have arisen as a result of apparent anomalies in the decisions of insurance officers in different cases, but I hope that the points I have made will be kept closely in mind when major changes are being considered.

What would be the consequence of a change along these lines? Would it have the effect of bringing strikes more speedily to a conclusion, or might it prolong them? There might be a strike involving a small number of men directly concerned, with a large number—

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 thirteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.