HC Deb 06 June 1972 vol 838 cc235-44
Q5. Mr. Leslie Huckfield

asked the Prime Minister whether he will place a copy of his speech to Scottish Conservatives on trade unions on Saturday, 13th May in the Library.

Q9. Mr. Meacher

asked the Prime Minister if he will place in the Library a copy of his speech at Perth on 13th May on industrial relations.

Q12. Mr. Duffy

asked the Prime Minister if he will place in the Library a copy of his public speech to the annual conference of the Scottish Conservative Party in Perth on 13th May on industrial relations.

Q13. Mr. Peter Archer

asked the Prime Minister if he will place in the Library a copy of his public speech on industrial relations in Perth on 13th May.

Q14. Mr. Skinner

asked the Prime Minister if he will place in the Library a copy of his public speech on trade union and collective bargaining made at Perth on 13th May, 1972.

Q15. Mr. St. John-Stevas

asked the Prime Minister whether he will place a copy of his public speech at Perth on Saturday, 13th May, 1972, on the subject of industrial relations, in the Library.

Q16. Mr. Douglas

asked the Prime Minister if he will place in the Library a copy of his public speech at Perth on Saturday, 13th May, 1972, on the subject of industrial relations.

Q17. Mr. Ashton

asked the Prime Minister if he will place in the Library a copy of his public speech in Perth on 13th May on industrial relations.

Q18. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Prime Minister if he will place in the Library a copy of the public speech he made at Perth on 13th May on the subject of industrial relations.

The Prime Minister

I did so on 16th May, Sir.

Mr. Huckfield

Does the Prime Minister recall that he laid great stress on the need to represent consumer interests in trade union negotiations during that speech? Does he honestly think that by prolonging the railways dispute by going through that monumental exercise of trying to drive a wedge between railway workers and their unions the Government have acted in the best interests of the consumer? Or are not the Government about to abandon any pretence of representing the consumers, since food prices have risen by 17 per cent. since they took office?

The Prime Minister

I emphasised that, if there is to be a new arrangement for conciliation, it cannot be one which merely needs agreement between employers and employees which can be at the expense of the consumer. If the hon. Gentlemanand the Labour Party do not want that, but merely an arrangement in which trade unions and employers together can settle regardless of the interests of the consumer, they had better say so. I again emphasise that the ballot has given a further period without disruption or inconvenience to the British public or damage to the economy. I believe that that is worth while.

Mr. Meacher

As the Prime Minister waxed so eloquent about "one nation", how does he justify the fact that the £21-a-week railway worker would be worse off if he were to accept the Railways Board's best offer because of the loss of means-tested benefits under his Government's policy, whilst executives earning over £5,000 a year, on his own Government's figures, have each been given nearly £400 in the Budget? Why does not the Prime Minister admit that his "one nation" is a magic circle of surtax payers?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman is therefore saying that he opposes any policy of raising the wages of the lower-paid workers, he had better be quite clear about it, because that is the logical conclusion of what he said. This Government have done more to raise the tax threshold through the last Budget, as he knows, than any Government before them. Therefore, let the hon. Gentleman give credit where credit is due.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Would not a rail strike now be exceedingly damaging both to the economy and to the interests of the railway men themselves? As the gap between the two sides is now so narrow, is it not the fact that, given good will on both sides, it could be bridged?

The Prime Minister

Any industrial unrest is damaging to the economy in some form or other as well as being damaging to the interests, both short term and long term, of those who work in the industry. Therefore, every effort should be made to reach an agreement, but it cannot be an agreement which is constantly at the expense of the consumer by putting up fares, as it does in the case of the railways, and by increasing freight charges, which are then reflected in all other prices. There must in a negotiation be movement by both sides. The Railways Board has constantly moved. There has not been similar movement from the unions.

Mr. Archer

Does not the Prime Minister appreciate that he cannot both have a purposeful discussion with the trade unions and at the same time cast himself as the spokesman of the union-bashers, and that strident union bashing becomes no more plausible when it is clothed in legal vocabulary and labelled as being in the public interest? Which horse does he intend to ride?

The Prime Minister

I am having perfectly meaningful discussions with the unions at this moment. This therefore contradicts the hon. and learned Gentleman's thesis. If he is saying that the unions should not be required to comply with the law passed by Parliament, I cannot accept it.

Mr. Wilkinson

Whilst not wishing in any way to comment on the dispute which is at present sub judice between Panal-pina Services Ltd. of Bradford—a container firm—and the Liverpool dockers, will my right hon. Friend indicate what steps the Government intend to take, when this matter is resolved, to make shop stewards more aware of their responsibilities under the Industrial Relations Act, which very much affects the industrial future of the heartland of northern England?

The Prime Minister

I do not wish to deal with any detailed cases in the House, especially when they are before the court. The court has already made certain comments on the question which my hon. Friend raised.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Prime Minister aware that when he made this speech to this packed audience he said that the Industrial Relations Act will not work by itself? He can say that again. He also talked about protecting the consumer. Would that be the same consumer who buys beef, who is priced out of the mortgage market, and who has to pay the new-style Tory rents? Is it not highly likely that he either is a trade unionist or has been a trade unionist, or that she is married to one?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to discuss agricultural matters he had better apply himself to the question why in any particular season there is a greater demand for beef than can be met. He knows full well that this is not only a European question; it is a world question.

Mr. Tapsell

Is not one of the important elements of the "one-nation" philosophy the protection of the poorest among the community? Do not those who consistently champion policies likely to encourage inflation, in particular by excessive wage demands in relation to productivity, strike a serious blow at those least able to defend themselves?

The Prime Minister

This is absolutely true. It is the fact that over the last two years, when members of the Labour Party have encouraged every exorbitant wage claim they could see, they have damaged those who are the poorest in the community. On the other hand, the trade unions as well as employers and many hon. Members must make up their minds whether they are prepared to help the lower-paid employees without putting such a weight on the wage bill as a whole that it causes inflation. This is a serious, problem. I recognise the problems of differentials, but these problems must be faced if lower-paid workers are to be seriously helped.

Mr. Ashton

Will the right hon. Gentleman say why his Government brought in a Bill containing parts subject to the sub judice rule which gags the Press and Parliament and other major leaders of opinion and yet he persists in making inflammatory statements? Does he choose his occasions very carefully to make these statements or does he blatantly ignore the sub judice rule?

The Prime Minister

The sub judice rule applies to all courts and all matters before the courts, but the question of contempt is now being examined. When the committee reports, we shall be able to consider the matter further.

Mr. William Hamilton

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that when he and his friends were in opposition they strongly advocated that the Government should accept in full the 30 per cent. wage claim of the doctors? Will he address himself to the question which was put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) and look at tne so-called exorbitant wage increase which the railway men are being asked to accept? Does he not recognise that thousands of railway men with families, taking into account their loss of rebates and family income supplement and the rest, would be worse off with the increase? So far from the lower paid workers being protected, they will be penalised.

The Prime Minister

The previous Government were under the same obligation as we were concerning the doctors' review board. We accepted the obligation. That is not the position with the wage negotiating machinery in the railway industry. There is provision for arbitration through the railways' own machinery, but it was rejected by the unions, although the Board was prepared to accept it, so the machinery did not operate.

The second point, which is important, as I fully recognise, concerns the tax threshold and the social service benefits threshold and the level at which they impinge on earnings. I am prepared to look at the figures, but I repeat that the Government, through the family income supplement and through the tax changes, have done more to help that group of the population than any other Government.

Mr. Harold Wilson

The Prime Minister referred to the sub judice rule and the Act passed by Parliament last year. Will he tell us whether he foresaw—I hope he will say that he did not foresee—that Parliament would be gagged for three weeks on a matter of public policy, a political decision taken by the responsible Minister on which he could not be questioned in the House, which must be totally unprecedented? Even when that close period is over, as it is now, the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State refuses to be accountable to the House by giving his reasons for the references he made under the Act.

The Prime Minister

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman can be correct in saying—I will check this—that what happened under the law was unprecedented, because whenever a Minister makes an application to the courts, it then becomes sub judice and it obviously remains so until the case is finished. It was emphasised throughout the debates on the Act that the court was a High Court with all the status and standing of a High Court. But I repeat that the whole question of contempt is being examined, and when the report is published the House will no doubt be able to consider its conclusions.

Mr. Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman queried whether what happened was unprecedented. Is it not a fact that the matters referred to the court and which it had to decide were matters of public interest which should be for Parliament and not for judges and that the only question which they could consider about the right hon. Gentleman's submission was whether, when he said that he had reason to think that the railway unionists did not support their leaders, he had reason for it which he did not have to state to them and which he has now refused to state to the House, and they could report only on whether he was sane when he made his submission? Is this what the right hon. Gentleman meant when he referred to the Act? Can he give us any precedent when matters of public interest were disregarded by the courts in such a way that Parliament could not debate either those questions or the whole Government economic policy background to the decision?

The Prime Minister

This matter was dealt with by the judge in the lower court and by the appeal court, particularly by Lord Denning in his judgment. He set out what he considered the Act required of the Minister. Both judges discussed the points on which the Minister could be challenged, and they also discussed whether it might be legally possible but politically wise to do something else. I should not like to try to précis the views expressed by the learned judges in those cases, but it has long been a matter of argument in Parliament whether a Minister could give before the court his judgment as to what was required and whether the court had to accept that. There are precedents for that in much of our legislation. It has been argued in Parliament for a very long time.

Mr. Wilson

I am sorry to press the right hon. Gentleman further, but this matter affects the traditions of the House about the accountability of Ministers to Parliament. Is it not a fact that a Minister is accountable to Parliament for the decisions he takes? The right hon. Gentleman says that these matters were fully discussed by the court. Is he not aware that all the court could do was to take the law as it emerged from Parliament? Is he aware that the two Sections of the Act which were relevant to the long court consideration were debated by Parliament for only two hours and five minutes in one case and for only three hours and twenty-five minutes in the other case—because of the guillotine imposed by the Government? Therefore, Parliament is gagged in respect of an Act which was passed through a gagged Parliament.

The Prime Minister

I was trying to carry on a serious discussion with the right hon. Gentleman and I do not think it is helped by emotive cries of that kind. This is a serious point. If the right hon. Gentleman is arguing that the Act should not have been passed or that the relevant Sections of it should be amended, that is, I agree, a perfectly tenable argument for him to put forward. But I should not like to give any further judgment about the Act without the opportunity of consultation and consideration. That would be only right on a legal matter. I could not accept that a Minister must discuss matters in the House which are sub judice under the normal rules. That is a matter for Mr. Speaker to decide, not me. I recognise that the right hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) put forward proposals under which Ministers would take the decisions. We deliberately rejected that course in favour of an impartial court taking the decision.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I think that we should pass on to the next business.

Mr. Atkinson

On a point of order. I should like to raise a matter concerning the exchanges to which we have just listened and your ruling, Mr. Speaker, during Questions to the Secretary of State for Employment. You rebuked a Member for not being too careful about his remarks on the court and you thought that Members should be particularly careful in future when they refer to the court.

The point is that there is a basic difference between this court and any other court in that what is assumed to be the equivalent of a jury sits alongside the judge. Therefore, it must surely be reasonable for Members to criticise the four lay members of the court who are not in the same position as the judge in giving the ruling they have. Perhaps you would reconsider the comments which you, Mr. Speaker, made to an hon. Member about the sub judice rule and the care with which we should make remarks about the court.

Mr. Speaker

I do not recognise that as a point of order on which I have to rule now. All I said earlier was that hon. Members should exercise some care about what they say. They have respon- sibility for what they say. I apply that to almost any question or statement they make. They should be careful about what they say.