HC Deb 01 July 1971 vol 820 cc780-8

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

1.27 a.m.

Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)

I seem destined to make 90 per cent. of my speeches in this House in the early hours of the morning. I first met my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Bishop) today before nine o'clock this morning, so he and I will have done 17 hours apiece in the House today. I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting us this debate, because I think that the subject is perhaps a classic case for such a debate. I think that we shall prove your wisdom.

This case deals with an injustice to 68 men and involves a sum of about £19,100 in redundancy payments. Forty of the men were made redundant on 28th December, 1968–two and a half years ago. It will, if we can clear the matter up, give me and my family some respite from the continual stream of callers at my home, by foot and by telephone, from my constituents involved. I do not blame them. It seems from my constituents and others that, after the High Court ruling on this case on 20th January, 1970, most of the money has already been spent or is spoken for and there are a good few holidays depending on these expected payments.

I have had an opportunity of looking through the files of this case, which are considerable and of a very detailed nature. They speak volumes for the work done on the case by the Nottinghamshire N.U.M. solicitors, the area officials of the Nottinghamshire N.U.M. and the branch officials of the Clipstone and Rufford Colliery N.U.M.

Looking through the list of 68 men involved, I seem to know most of them personally, because it seems only a short time ago that I was working with them at Rufford Colliery. I was once a branch official until I was elevated to this House. I have followed this case closely from the start from my contacts with these men, but it is only fair to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark and I were brought into the case officially only on 26th March last.

The history of this case started on 28th December, 1968, when Blandford Gee Cementation Company, which did certain contract work for the N.C.B. at Clipstone Colliery, such as tunnelling and making pit bunkers and road heads, made 40 men redundant, or dismissed them or transferred them to the N.C.B. At this point, the Nottinghamshire area of the mineworkers' union decided to claim redundancy payments for the men involved.

The case, or a test case involving two individuals, was brought before the Industrial Tribunal first at Nottingham on 24th April, 1969, then at Lincoln on 20th June, 1969, and then at Sheffield on 19th September, 1969. The decision of these Tribunals was dispatched to all the parties on 6th January, 1970, but it found in favour of Blandford and Gee. My union decided to appeal to the Divisional Court of the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court, and entered the appeal on 20th January, 1970, just 14 days after the Tribunal's decision was announced. The appeal was heard in London on 14th, 15th and 16th April, 1970, and it reversed the Tribunal's decision and found in favour of the ex-employees of Blandford Gee.

In the meantime, on 28th March, 1970, Blandford Gee dismissed 28 men from Rufford Colliery who were not included in the original test case. A second test case was started but was adjourned awaiting the outcome of the Clipstone men's test case. So the total involved at both collieries is 68 redundancies.

Since the High Court decision on 16th April, 1970, the union's solicitors have been in negotiation with Blandford Gee and the Department of Employment and agreed the amounts of all redundancy payments involved, a total of approximately £19,100. It is worth noting that this amount and the sums involved for the individuals would be more in total today due to the rapid rate of inflation since December, 1969, and, of course, with 2½ years' interest on the amounts. Some consideration of these points when payment is made is justifiable.

However, as a result of these claims and the N.U.M. claim for costs, Blandford Gee went into liquidation on 12th November, 1970, and, on 13th November, appointed Mr. J. H. Priestley of 93, Queen Street, Sheffield, as the liquidator. At this point, the union's solicitors, the union and the men involved expected payment, because by now the normal time limit of appeal, which I understand is six weeks, had long since gone by.

It is now July, 1971, and despite letters from the union's solicitors to the liquidator, Questions in the House from my hon. Friend and me, plus letters to the Department of Employment about the long overdue payment to these men, the liquidator has not given notice of appeal. He was appointed on 13th November, eight months ago.

The reason for this debate is that it is high time that these men were paid what is their justifiable claim. The liquidator has had more than enough time to make up his mind to seek leave to appeal. How long have the men to wait before the Minister thinks that sufficient time has elapsed to rule out the liquidator, or can the liquidator hold up this payment indefinitely? Is not it time that the Minister, as he said in his letter to my hon. Friend on 23rd April, use Section 32 of the Redundancy Payments Act and paid these men out of the Redundancy Fund? After all, that is what it is there for. Surely the Minister is now satisfied about the justice of the case, and that the liquidator can no longer string these men along.

If this adjournment debate or the threat of it has stung the liquidator into action and he has now made application to appeal, I ask the Minister to ignore it and make payment. Even if the liquidator seeks and obtains leave to appeal, my union, the N.U.M. of the Nottinghamshire area, has given me authority to say on behalf of the officials at Berry Hill, Mansfield, that it will proceed with this case in order to secure justice for these men.

On the other hand, if the liquidator has got his finger out and finally decided not to appeal, this debate has served its purpose, because we shall have a decision one way or the other.

I hope sincerely that the Minister will bring this case to an end tonight and end the uncertainty for these men, their families and others who have become involved along the way. As a good constituency Member himself, the Minister must have a little sympathy for me and my family. We happen to live surrounded by the families involved, who are aggrieved by this injustice which they cannot understand and which is certainly not of their making.

It is usually the lawyers, and so on, who seem to get their own way in matters like this. I ask the Minister to come down on the side of the little man tonight by announcing a payment of the sums involved as soon as possible.

1.35 a.m.

Mr. E. S. Bishop (Newark)

I am pleased to have the opportunity of joining my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) in this debate which, though necessarily brief, is yet long enough for us to expose a situation which, if not remedied, has all the dimensions of a national scandal.

I speak, as did my hon. Friend, on behalf of the men of the Mansfield and Newark areas who have patiently waited for over two years for this grievous matter to be resolved.

My hon. Friend, to whom I pay tribute for his part in this campaign to get justice, has detailed the main sequence of events leading to this debate this morning and, even at half past one, there is no need for me to repeat what he said.

Before drawing the Minister's attention to aspects of the Redundancy Payments Act, 1965, to which my hon. Friend referred, which I think are relevant to this situation, I should like to pay tribute to the officials of the National Union of Mineworkers of the Nottinghamshire area, to the N.U.M. officers and members at the two collieries concerned, Clip-stone and Rufford, and to the N.U.M.'s legal advisers. Between us we have been passing round a lot of paper work in the last few months. Much credit is due to them for their concern and persistence in this matter, justifiably so, because of the gross injustice which has been suffered by our constituents.

Section 32(5) of the Redundancy Payments Act, 1965, provides that an employer, if a company, shall be taken to be insolvent if inter ali a resolution for voluntary winding-up has been passed with respect to it. That applies in this instance.

Blandford Gee's liquidator was appointed on 13th November, 1970 and although, after negotiations in the summer of 1970, agreement was reached over the amount of payments between the solicitor and the Department of Employment and Ministry Forms RP21 were signed by each claimant, the liquidator of Blandford Gee refused to sign.

In his letter to me, dated 23rd April, following Questions which my hon. Friend and I tabled in the Commons, the Under-Secretary of State claimed that the Secretary of State could not, in the knowledge that the judgment of the High Court might still be contested in the Court of Appeal, be satisfied as to the employee's entitlement to the employer's payment as he anticipated that leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal was being sought.

I was informed by the N.U.M.'s solitors on 18th June that notice of appeal to the Court of Appeal had still not been served upon them. That is the time between the appointment of the liquidator in November, 1970, and a few days ago. It seems that in the circumstances there is no justification for the Department of Employment withholding the payments to the men which it is under an obligation to guarantee.

The non-appeal by Blandford Gee's liquidator has left the matter in a state of suspended animation. The Minister told me, in his reply on 23rd April, that if the outcome is that the redundancy payments are due, they would be met from the Redundancy Fund.

Finally, I should stress that Blandford Gee has paid no part of the redundancy payments, being in liquidation directly as the result of its inability to meet the claims to redundancy payments. It has not paid the costs of the appeal, amounting to £370, despite the court order on it to do so.

I suggest that the Minister, under the Act, is empowered to pay. Indeed, the Act, in Section 32(2)(c), states that where the employee's right to the payment arises out of a period of not less than 104 weeks, the Minister shall pay to the employee out of the fund a sum calculated in accordance with Schedule 6 to this Act reduced by so much (if any) of the employer's payment as has been paid. I suggest, therefore, that our innocent constituents, who have been legal shuttlecocks, are entitled to payment at once, and I hope that the diminishing value of the £ and the possibility of getting interest over the last two years will be taken into account.

We are grateful for the opportunity of raising this matter, even at this early hour of the morning. We hope that we shall get satisfaction for those we seek to serve.

1.40 a.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Paul Bryan)

In my Written Reply to the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) on 2nd April, I stated that the liquidator of the Blandford Gee Cementation Company was considering whether to appeal against a High Court judgment in favour of the employees. I have today heard that there will be no further appeal. The hon. Gentleman will be happy to hear that the way is therefore now clear for payment to be made to the men out of the Redundancy Fund.

This late news makes unnecessary most of the speech that I had prepared to deliver tonight, but for the benefit of those most affected, and therefore most impatient at the course of events which had delayed payment of their entitlement, I think that I should perhaps explain and justfy the conduct of this case by my Department, because it is important for all to see that the Department is impartial and fair in handling such situations.

The suggestion has been made that when employees of the Blandford Gee Cementation Company claimed payments for the Redundancy Fund on various dates from 18th November, 1970, my right hon. Friend should at once have made payments to them by exercise of the powers conferred on him by Section 32(1) (b) of the Redundancy Payments Act, 1965. That Section empowers the Secretary of State, if certain conditions are fulfilled, to make payments from the Redundancy Fund to employees who cannot obtain them from their employers, provided that he is satisfied that they are entitled to the payments.

I must emphasise this: Section 32 was designed to ensure that employees who are entitled to redundancy payments are not deprived of them by circumstances such as the insolvency of the employer. One of the purposes of the Redundancy Fund, which is financed entirely by statutory contributions paid by employers, is to ensure that the failure of a particular employer shall not have that result. But the Secretary of State also has a general responsibility under Section 26 of the Act for the control and management of the Fund. His general responsibilities would not be discharged if he were to make payments from the Fund before he could be satisfied about the entitlement of the recipients.

It is certainly our aim to make due payments as promptly as possible, and to this end to resolve as early as possible, so far as this lies within the control of my Department, any doubts about entitlement. In exceptional circumstances, however—and those surrounding this case certainly were exceptional—doubts did arise which my Department could not by itself resolve.

I need not now recapitulate the earlier history of the case which has been the subject of proceedings before the Industrial Tribunal and, on appeal from the tribunal's decision, before the High Court. It would, in any event, have been improper for me to comment on the decisions either of the tribunal, which is an independent judicial body, or of the High Court. Appeals from decisions of the tribunal can be made only to the High Court on the point of law, and appeal from the judgment of the High Court, where leave is given, lies to the Court of Appeal.

I shall, therefore, only draw attention to certain facts and dates. On 16th April, 1970, the High Court gave judgment against the company and ordered that if the parties could not agree on the amount of the payments the application should be remitted to the tribunal for assessment of the payment. As the same time the High Court gave the company leave to appeal. The normal period for appeal would have expired about mid-July, 1970, but the Court of Appeal has a discretion, on application by the appellant, to grant leave to appeal out of time.

Until today's decision by the liquidator not to exercise his right of appeal the legal entitlement of the employees to redundancy pay was still in doubt. With his responsibility for the control and management of the Redundancy Fund my right hon. Friend was therefore not in a position to authorise payment. I am sure that this authorisation will bring satisfaction not only to the recipients, but to the hon. Member for Mansfield and the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Bishop) who have so consistently supported their claims.

Mr. Concannon

It would be churlish of me not to thank the hon. Gentleman and his Department for the considerable activity in which they have been engaged in dealing with this matter. I would particularly thank the Minister for leaning on somebody to come forward with a decision. At the same time I should like to thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Bishop) and myself an opportunity to put our case before the House tonight, which has had such a wonderful outcome for everybody involved.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter to Two o'clock.