HC Deb 24 July 1972 vol 841 cc1318-25

Mr. Prentice (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the industrial situation.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Maurice Macmillan)

The dockers are on unofficial strike in nearly all ports throughout the country. There has been some industrial action in sympathy in other industries. This action is in protest against the imprisonment of five dockers for refusing to obey a court order. This order had been made in relation to a complaint by Midland Cold Storage Limited that blacking led by the men concerned was ruining its business. As the court explained in its judgement, the order was made to provide a period of truce while the merits of the complaint were examined. The court drew attention to the fact that the men concerned had rejected the constitutional processes of their own unions and the joint negotiating machinery of their industry.

The Government have all along recognised that the pace of technological change in the docks is giving rise to serious human problems. We accordingly welcomed the establishment of a Joint Special Committee on the Ports Industry, under the joint chairmanship of Lord Aldington and Mr. Jack Jones. This committee, which includes lay dockers, was set up by both sides of industry to seek agreed solutions, and it has worked hard to produce an interim report on this complex problem in six weeks.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries and I saw the joint chairmen of the Special Committee this morning prior to a meeting later today at which the committee will finalise its report and publish it this evening. The joint chairmen indicated the committee's broad conclusions and conveyed to use its request for financial assistance over and above industry's own award to enable the measures it had in mind to go ahead. We said that the committee could count on a sympathetic response from the Government bearing in mind the industry's special problems—technological and social. We made it clear that Government assistance would start as soon as normal working is resumed in the ports.

The Joint Special Committee has made real progress in getting to the roots of the present troubles in the docks. I am sure that the whole House will wish to join with me in expressing gratitude for the hard and persistent work that it has done. Its report will show what can be achieved by discussion and negotiation. I believe that when the general body of dockers see the report they will recognise that unofficial blacking is not the way to achieve a solution and that the approach adopted by the committee is the only way to reach sensible arrangements that are fair to all concerned.

Mr. Prentice

The Industrial Relations Act has now placed the country in the crisis about which we warned the Government for a long time. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the most remarkable fact about his statement is that he did not once mention the effect of the Industrial Relations Act on this situation? Will he acknowledge the sequence of events which has occurred and persuade some of his right hon. Friends to stop fudging the issue and pretending that the situation could have arisen even if the Act had not been on the Statute Book?

Is it not clear that there is a sequence of events from the beginning of an action in the court by employers under the Industrial Relations Act leading to the arrest of these five dock workers and, inevitably, to the kind of reaction by dockers and other workers of which the Government had been warned throughout all the debates on this legislation?

If the country is to be rescued from the mess into which the Government have plunged it, will the Secretary of State recognise that this can now only happen along two lines? The first is the acceptance of the Jones-Aldington recommendations. I am sure we all agree with the tribute the right hon. Gentleman has paid to the members of the committee, who have clearly done a considerable job in a very short time. I also welcome what he said about Government financial help. I am sure we all agree that the Government have responded quickly to this, as well they might in view of the mess into which their policies have plunged the country.

Will the right hon. Gentleman honestly acknowledge that, whereas the report might readily have been accepted last week, it will be ten times more difficult to get it accepted this week in view of the events of the last few days?

Will the right hon. Gentleman then go on to recognise the vital point that the Government's pride is the least important element in this situation, that as long as the Industrial Relations Act remains on the Statute Book we shall be plunged into ever greater economic difficulties and ever greater jeopardy concerning respect for the law of this country, and that, therefore, the Act must be repealed or at the very least suspended without further delay?

Mr. Macmillan

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about the work of the Jones-Aldington Committee and about the Government's quick response. The fact that the Government welcomed the setting up of the committee and were ready to respond so quickly was due in part to the unions concerned failing to produce any solution to the problem without our help.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the Government's pride. It is not, as he made clear earlier, a matter of the Government's pride; it is a matter of the rule of law. As the right hon. Gentleman said, I have no sympathy at all for Bernie Steer and the others gaoled. They were wrong to organise picketing and blacking against the policy of their union. They were even more wrong to defy the court. The right hon. Gentleman went on to complain that he thought that the Act was bad law, but he also said that it was the law and that nobody could claim to be above it.

This is not a situation that was created or introduced by the Industrial Relations Act. The Industrial Relations Court made that plain, and in giving judgment it said: The reason is not to be found in the Industrial Relations Act so much as in common fairness and elementary justice. In the Chancery Court it was made plain in the judgment of Mr. Justice Megarry that it is not a case of dockers fighting to save their jobs, but of dockers fighting to take the jobs of others by putting Midland's business in peril. That is the law of the jungle, but the law of the jungle is not law, but force.

Mr. Driberg

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that some of us do not accept the Establishment myth that bad laws must be obeyed? On the contrary, we look to the respectable tradition that bad and stupid laws should be resisted and defied. Some of us agree with the five dockers in prison that the Industrial Relations Court is worthy of contempt. The sooner that court is dismantled and the Act repealed the better.

Mr. Macmillan

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman should take that line, especially because if this court were dismantled precisely the same judgment would have been given by the Chancery Court under the 1906 Act.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Will my right hon. Friend confirm again that if the solicitors of the firm concerned had gone to the Chancery Court rather than to the Industrial Relations Court the same situation would have arisen as the one with which we are faced today?

Mr. Macmillan

I cannot anticipate the judgment of any court, but the Chancery Court made it plain that in its view the only reason why it could not give judgment in this case was that it was an industrial matter and should be judged by the Industrial Relations Court. The court went on to say: Those who obtain jobs in that way"— that is, by putting the jobs of others in peril— might in their turn have their jobs taken from them by other people with greater power or cunning. It is the weak who would go to the wall, both employers and employees. It is the function of the law to protect the weak against the unfair use of power. I think that that indicates to my right hon. Friend what the situation in the Chancery Court would have been.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Is it not improper for the Minister to be saying what the courts would have decided?

Mr. Macmillan

I did not say that.

Mr. Wilson

Is it not a fact that the obiter dicta of Mr. Justice Megarry referred to what was currently before him? Does not the right hon. Gentleman recall that even on some of the actions which he has initiated the decision of the lower court has been set aside by the Court of Appeal and further appealed to the House of Lords? Would it not be better for the right hon. Gentleman to stand by his responsibility for this Act?

Mr. Macmillan

I am not seeking to evade my responsibility for the Act, nor have I made the slightest attempt to anticipate the judgment of any court. Every word that I have said is a quotation from a judgment or, as the right hon. Gentleman prefers to call it, in the case of Mr. Justice Megarry, an obiter dicta.

One thing that is quite clear is that this situation was not created by the Industrial Relations Act. The action would have been illegal in any case, and it is unfair, and it is still open to those who are now in prison to appeal if they wish to do so.

Mr. Edward Taylor

Would my right hon. Friend confirm that this action by the shop stewards has been carried out without authority or support from the TGWU? In the present difficult situation, is not my right hon. Friend entitled to a straight statement from the Opposition about whether they support acts of anarchy against legislation, introduced by a Government who were democratically elected to bring it in?

Mr. Macmillan

I understand that the TGWU and other unions involved were not supporting any of the action in blacking the lorries going into the Midland Cold Storage Depot. I hope that the same is true of right hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Mr. Eadie

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he is a member of an Administration that is becoming more and more politically accident-prone when dealing with the whole question of the economy and industrial relations? Is he trying to say that the action which he has allowed to go the courts out with the control and jurisdiction of Parliament is going to help the Aldington Committee in getting a settlement? Does he not agree that what his Government have produced is industrial anarchy, and that people of this country have to suffer because of their incompetence?

Mr. Macmillan

I do not agree that the Government are accident-prone in industrial relations, except on the definition of the hon. Gentleman that they are prone to accident when seeking to defend the weak against the strong and to bring the rule of law into an area where it is conspicuously needed.

Mr. John Page

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people in the country feel that the dockers now in prison have sought this pseudo-martyrdom for political rather than industrial reasons and that in this anarchistic attitude they are being egged on by hon. Gentlemen opposite?

Mr. Macmillan

I think that my hon. Friend is right in saying that those now in prison have made a fairly strong effort to get there, and I have no doubt that their motives are those which he attributed to them.

Mr. Atkinson

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the docker shop stewards could purge their so-called contempt by accepting the Aldington Report? If that is so, can the right hon. Gentleman explain why Sir John Donaldson took the decision that he did to imprison the shop stewards when he must have known the date of publication of the report? Why do the Government want the shop stewards in prison at a time when the report will be discussed by the wider dock movement?

Mr. Macmillan

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is quite aware of what he is suggesting. He is suggesting that the matter of purging contempt of court or of committing people to prison is a matter for the Government. It is not. It is a matter for the court, and it is important that the Government should not seek to interfere with the judiciary.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I have received notice of an application under Standing Order No. 9, and I think I should take it now.

Mr. Harold Wilson

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely, the industrial situation following the committal to prison of the five dock workers. This is not the time to comment on the issue, but that it is urgent, justifying priority over announced business, will not be contested. The docks are at a standstill, the movement of food and raw materials is precluded and food processing and marketing are held up. Equally, I submit that there can be no doubt that it is specific, fulfilling a test which always has to be satisfied in these matters, and this is clearly and undeniably an issue on which the Government carry the gravest responsibility.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman gave notice that he would ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he thinks should have urgent consideration, namely, the industrial situation following the committal to prison of the five dock workers. I am quite satisfied that the matter raised by the right hon. Gentleman is proper to be discussed under Standing Order No. 9. Does the hon. Gentleman have the leave of the House?

The leave of the House having been given

Mr. Speaker

The Motion for the Adjournment of the House will now stand over until the commencement of public business tomorrow, when a debate on the matter will take place for three hours, under Standing Order No. 9(2).

The Motion stood over under Standing Order No. 9 (Adjournment on specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration) until the commencement of public business tomorrow.

Mr. Kaufman

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When the Leader of the House makes his Business Statement tomorrow will he tell us what will happen to the Opposed Private Business set down for tomorrow?

Mr. Speaker

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will make note of the point.