HC Deb 24 February 1969 vol 778 cc1081-8

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

79. Mr. Judd

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity if she will make a statement on the trade union recognition dispute in the steel industry.

The First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (Mrs. Barbara Castle)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now answer Question No. 79.

The House will recall that the decision of the British Steel Corporation in May last year to restrict recognition for supervisory, technical and clerical grades to the six unions then already recognised nationally by the corporation and to refuse it to two white collar unions—A.S.T.M.S. and C.A.W.U.—led to industrial action by white collar employees in some steel plants and in the motor industry, where large numbers of workers were laid off in consequence.

I appointed a Court of Inquiry into the dispute under the chairmanship of Lord Pearson. It recommended that the two white collar unions should be given national recognition and that all the unions concerned should seek to agree spheres of influence for recruitment purposes.

Following the publication of the report of the inquiry, the corporation made determined efforts in discussions with the two groups of unions to find a solution which would be broadly on the lines recommended in the report and which would be acceptable to both groups. In a further endeavour my Department also had discussions with all the parties. Unfortunately, no basis for an agreed solution could be found.

Faced with this impasse, and given the recommendation of the Pearson inquiry, the corporation gave notice in December last of its intention to grant recognition at plant level on equal terms to the "six" and to the "two", while leaving the question of national recognition in abeyance. The "six" indicated, however, that if this policy were implemented, they would instruct their members to take orders only from staff who were members of the "six" and to handle only work approved by members of the "six". If carried out, this would undoubtedly have caused serious disruption of production in the corporation's plants, and had widespread repercussions on industry generally.

In this situation, I sought the help of the T.U.C., which agreed to consider the problem, and held intensive consultations through its Finance and General Purposes Committee with the two groups of unions last month. In the light of the ocmmittee's report, however, the T.U.C. General Council felt obliged to conclude that there is at present no possibility of all the unions reaching common agreement on this problem.

It therefore recommended that the corporation should recognise the "six" as collectively the most representative group, and in itself an adequately representative group. This recommendation was made in the knowledge that the "six" will maintain that recognition of the "two" should be limited to the extent that applied immediately before vesting day.

My constant endeavour throughout this dispute has been to work for a solution which could be accepted by all concerned. This was the primary purpose of Lord Pearson's recommendations, of the subsequent efforts made by the corporation, and of my request to the T.U.C. I am in no doubt that this would be the most desirable form of solution. I am now equally clear, however, that this is not in practical terms a present possibility.

This has been confirmed by the T.U.C.'s consultations last month, and by the extensive discussions which the corporation has held since the T.U.C.'s recommendation was reached. I have no power in this situation to arbitrate or to impose a solution on the parties.

In these circumstances, the corporation must now consider as a management responsibility how it should discharge, in relation to the grades of employee concerned, its statutory duty for deciding matters of trade union recognition. I understand that it is giving urgent consideration to this matter, and expects to reach its decision in the near future.

Mr. Judd

In view of the wider significance of this whole sorry story, not only for the steel industry but for industry throughout: the country and relations within industry, can my right hon. Friend explain why she is not to refer the issue to the new Commission on Industrial Relations? Can she explain what criteria she will use in future in deciding whether or not to refer disputes to the new Commission?

Mrs. Castle

The British Steel Corporation asked me whether I would consider referring the matter to the C.I.R. But when the C.I.R. is set up in the immediate future there will be no possibility of statutory backing for its recommendations in inter-union recognition disputes until the legislation to give effect to the Government's White Paper proposals has been enacted. Until then, my powers are confined to conciliation and inquiry. There has already been a full inquiry, and the powers I already possess have been fully used.

Mr. R. Carr

Can the right hon. Lady say why, in this very difficult and long-drawn-out dispute, the white collar workers have at no time been asked for their views or given a chance to express them? Having appointed a Court of Inquiry, why does she not stand by it instead of abdicating her responsibilities to those white collar workers?

Mrs. Castle

That is a fine piece of rhetoric, but it shows that the right hon. Gentleman was neither listening to what I said in my previous reply nor seriously weighing up my position. As I explained, I have statutory powers, which are limited. They are powers of conciliation and not of arbitration in recognition of disputes. During the whole course of this attempt to reach an agreed settlement I have been acting in a conciliation and not an arbitration rôle. The right hon Gentleman knows perfectly well that I have no powers to impose a solution, even if recommended by a Court of Inquiry.

Mr. Tinn

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the T.U.C. General Council, which includes non-manual workers, was unanimously in favour of the manual workers in this matter, and that her statement is to be welcomed in the steel industry?

Mrs. Castle

It is an important fact that the General Council of the T.U.C. made its recommendation unanimously.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Why did the right hon. Lady set up such a high-powered Court of Inquiry if she was not going to accept its recommendations, when considering this appalling inter-union shambles? Will she at least tell the British Steel Corporation to bear in mind that while the "two" have only a limited membership in the industry, in Scotland they organise more than half the white collar workers, and are, therefore, entitled to recognition.

Mrs. Castle

Hon. Members opposite must realise that the appointment of a Court of Inquiry in no way puts the Government in a position to enforce its recommendations on the parties concerned. That is the position, and we had better face it, because otherwise all our discussions of industrial relations become completely confused. Courts of Inquiry are frequently set up by my Department in an attempt to get an agreed and peaceful solution. There have been other cases where the parties have refused to recognise the findings of the Court of Inquiry. This is by no means the first time.

As for giving advice to the British Steel Corporation, I want to make it perfectly clear that my rôle was a conciliation rôle. I have no statutory duty or rights as regards recommending recognition. This is a management responsibility of the B.S.C., and it is not for me to give it advice.

Mr. Tomney

Would it not have been better if my right hon. Friend had informed the House, when she set up the Court of Inquiry, that she had no powers of decision when a recommendation was made on the competition between unions? The recommendation is a matter of great concern to them. Will she look at the matter from now on from the point of view that it would have been better if the Court of Inquiry had not been set up?

Mrs. Castle

I cannot help it if the House does not closely follow the proceedings when they are put in front of it. The terms of reference for the Court of Inquiry were to examine the dispute. This was common form for such Courts of Inquiry. They have been set up frequently in the past, and the House has always been aware that the Government have no powers to impose the findings on the parties concerned.

The purpose of the Court of Inquiry was to try to find a settlement of what then was an industrial dispute: it was not set up to arbitrate on a recognition issue.

Mr. Richard Wainwright

Since the right hon. Lady has told the House that the door is still ajar, and since her record shows that when she speaks of conciliation she does not mean peace at any price, will she remind the Steel Corporation that to refuse reputable unions the right to recruit new members would be to deny any semblance of this remaining a free country?

Mrs. Castle

I am sure that the Steel Corporation has all relevant considerations in mind and will now be attempting to take a very difficult decision, which it has to take as a responsibility of management.

Mr. Heffer

Will not my right hon. Friend agree that in this complicated situation it is much wiser for the House of Commons to allow the General Council of the Trades Union Congress to use its authority to try to sort out an inter-union problem which can be exacerbated by statements made in this House by hon. Members who know absolutely nothing about it?

Mrs. Castle

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we want the T.U.C.—I certainly do—to develop a rôle here which will enable these inter-union disputes to be settled within the trade union movement itself, but I also want them to be settled peaceably. It was with that aim in mind that I referred the matter to the T.U.C. for its help. I suggest now that in this difficult situation we do not say things which exacerbate this situation, but recognise that the Steel Corporation has ahead of it a very difficult job of management, and that we should give it all backing.

Sir J. Rodgers

Am I right in supposing from an earlier reply that the right hon. Lady proposes to introduce legislation—or does she not propose to introduce legislation—to bring such a dispute within the ambit of her powers?

Mrs. Castle

If the hon. Gentleman will read the White Paper "In Place of Strife", he will find suggested there a procedure for the settlement of inter-union disputes, but the starting point of that procedure is, and in my view should be, reference to the T.U.C, in the hope that the T.U.C., as I said, will be able to settle these inter-union disputes peaceably within the confines of the trade union movement. But the White Paper also suggests statutory powers if T.U.C. efforts fail.

Mr. Anderson

Accepting that my right hon. Friend has no direct responsibility in this matter, and that, perhaps, the past intervention was misplaced, can she say whether the B.S.C. should consider it desirable, in tackling the problem, that there should be as few unions as possible in the industry?

Mrs. Castle

I do not think that it is for me to pronounce upon which unions, and how many unions, are recognised by the Steel Corporation. It is a statutory obligation, and my intervention has only been at the point where industrial dispute has arisen. I have a duty in this situation to try to conciliate and to prevent damage to the country's industry, and that has been my sole object.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Brooks

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In reply to my supplementary question to Question No. 41, I was advised by my hon. Friend that the Minister would later be making a statement on the content of my Question. My supplementary was, therefore, never answered.

I simply ask your guidance for the protection of hon. Members. If we are to have supplementary questions not answered, and the Member has no opportunity thereafter to put the point, it is an abuse of the House.

Mr. Speaker

That is a very fair point. The hon. Member may put his supplementary question now.

Mr. Brooks

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the report of the Court of Inquiry was presented to Parliament and not to the Government; and that it does no service to Parliament to ask us to shut up every time we seek to comment on something which is of great importance to the future not only of the trade union movement, but of the country?

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that, while many of us recognise that her task is one of conciliation, this will not come about by ducking the basic questions of principle which are argued in this particular matter?

Mrs. Castle

Far from the House having been asked to shut up, I thought that it had been in very full cry indeed for the past quarter of an hour. I can only say to my hon. Friend that the Steel Corporation will have the recommendations of the Pearson Committee in mind, just as it will have in mind the recommendations of the T.U.C., when trying to settle this issue. I can only repeat that the recognition issue is not for me.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The Foreign Secretary.