HC Deb 10 April 1967 vol 744 cc651-4

10.5 a.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a bill to repeal the Trade Disputes Act 1965; to amend the law concerning trade unions, and to confer better protection against threats and other abuses in the course of trade disputes. It is just over two years since the Trade Disputes Bill was introduced in this House. Its purpose was simply to override the decision of the House of Lords in the case of Rookes v. Barnard, which was that a man whose employer was induced to dismiss him by the threat of a strike in breach of contract could claim damages from the person who made the threat. The 1965 Act, in effect, says that that man will have no remedy.

In the case of Rookes v. Barnard, the British Overseas Airways Corporation was induced to dismiss Mr. Rookes from employment at London Airport by a threat from union officials that there would be an immediate strike unless Mr. Rookes were dismissed because he was not a member of the union. It was, therefore, a dispute about what is called "the closed shop".

The implications of that decision and, therefore, the scope of the Act which I seek to repeal, were narrow, and likely to relate, in practice, only to attempts to secure complete union membership by threats. That being so, it is interesting and highly relevant to consider why the 1965 Act was passed.

The Minister of Labour, who was in charge of the Bill, said: I have opposed the closed shop throughout the whole of my trade union career … for the … reason that it means too great a concentration of power."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th February, 1965; Vol. 706, c. 1020.] The right hon. Gentleman spoke of the danger of its causing unnecessary hardship to individuals, and of the real problem of The area of collusion between very big industrialists and very big trade unions …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th May, 1965; Vol. 712, c. 1261.] Nevertheless, he thought that the Bill should be passed so as to give certainty to this part of trade union law until the Report of the Royal Commission, and to create a more harmonious atmosphere with the trade unions.

I opposed that Bill, as did my hon. and right hon. Friends, upon the ground that such an operation, while it might be justifiable or neutral in the abstract, was not a legitimate exercise when it was being conducted at the expense of wronged individuals, who might suffer grave detriment and loss in the intervening period. Since then, we have seen widening circles of detriment and loss. Those affected are remedyless—and remedyless by Act of Parliament. It is to bring alleviation to them that I now seek to repeal the 1965 Act and otherwise to amend the law.

The union involved in the Rookes v. Barnard case was the Draughtsmen's and Allied Technicians Association. It is perhaps an understatement to describe it as a very militant union. It was surely to be expected that when the last threads of protection were ripped off the individual by the 1965 Act D.A.T.A.'s coercive activities would develop in a crescendo of confidence and aggression. That is exactly what has happened.

In March, the firm of Hebron and Medlock, in Bath, had to tell 350 employees that it must dismiss them unless they joined D.A.T.A. Mr. Medlock, of the firm, said: I have done everything possible to resist this. We are co-operating with D.A.T.A. under duress … The divisional D.A.T.A. organiser wrote saying there would be no more contracts for us with Rolls-Royce until a closed shop agreement was signed with the union. I took legal advice and was informed we had no redress in law, and that the unions were virtually untouchable. The firm's statement to the men, after saying that the management had resisted the proposals of the union, goes on to say: However, events over the past 12 months have changed the situation. The union now has a number of signed agreements with major engineering companies, including English Electric and Rolls-Royce, under which they will only use contract firms approved by D.A.T.A. Neither D.A.T.A. nor Rolls-Royce denies this, but seeks to justify it. No denial has come from English Electric.

It is not for me to say what the Minister of Labour had in mind when he used those words on 18th May, 1965, during the passage of the Trade Disputes Act to which I have referred, and which I now repeat in full: I am concerned about the present position, but I am far more concerned about the future. The area of collusion between very big industrialists and very big trade unions … will be a real problem in considering where power lies in this country."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th May, 1965; Vol. 712, c. 1261.] I merely say, speaking for myself, that I believe that I see now an area of collusion which threatens freedom in an unacceptable degree, which violates the spirit of our constitutional arrangements and which makes a wry mockery of the rule of law.

This situation has developed during the 18 months since Royal Assent was given to the 1965 Act. Therefore, I ask that Parliament should now urgently at the very least reconsider the question whether this situation can go on drifting until, some day, action may be taken on some future report of a Royal Commission.

The Bill which I seek to introduce would propose amendments of the law going beyond the repeal of the 1965 Act. That Act speaks only of threats to break contracts, but the effect of passing it has been to throw a cloak of respectability over a wide variety of threats. The present development is a refinement of older techniques. D.A.T.A. threatens Rolls-Royce and English Electric that it will inflict some loss on them by industrial action if they give work to firms which D.A.T.A. blacklists.

Those firms are then told that they will go, or stay, on the D.A.T.A. blacklist unless they do what D.A.T.A. demands. Usually, that is that they shall not use self-employed draughtsmen nor employ draughtsmen who are not D.A.T.A. members. In all this there is not necessarily any threat to break a contract, because the right periods of notice may be given.

Accordingly, I should propose some amendments that would restrict generally the use of threats and, in particular, withdraw protection from threats when used to coerce people into union membership. In that way the law would come in to fill the gap left by the ignoble and spineless surrender of great companies like Rolls-Royce and English Electric, which have put their great names and their business custom at the disposal of militant union officials. I hope that their shareholders will find a way of giving a sharper edge to the contempt that is publicly felt for their rô1e in this business and that, for our part, the House will give me leave to bring in the Bill and submit it to the consideration of Parliament.

Question put:

Mr. SPEAKER'S opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the proceedings stood deferred pursuant to Order (Sittings of the House (Morning Sittings))

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