HC Deb 22 June 1972 vol 839 cc706-11
Q4. Mr. Bidwell

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on his official meeting with Mr. George Meany, the American trade union leader, on Wednesday, 7th June.

Q3. Mr. Clinton Davis

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on his official meeting with Mr. George Meany, the United States of America trade union leader, on 7th June, 1972.

Q7. Mr. Ewing

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on his official meeting with Mr. George Meany on 7th June.

Q9. Mr. John D. Grant

asked the Prime Minister what official discussions he had with Mr. George Meany, president of the American Federation of Labour/ Congress of Industrial Organisations, on Wednesday, 7th June; and if he will make a statement.

Q16. Mr. Arthur Lewis

asked the Prime Minister whether he will make a statement on his recent official discussions with Mr. G. Meany, the Secretary of the American Congress of Industrial Organisations.

The Prime Minister

I had an informal talk with Mr. Meany on 7th June. The details of my discussions with trade union leaders from overseas are confidential.

Mr. Bidwell

Will the Prime Minister agree that he should not be so coy on the subject because it is well known that Mr. George Meany said about the Prime Minister's industrial relations policy that it embodied the worst and discredited features of anti-trade union law in the United States and that it was hardly likely to work in this country? On reflection, would not the Prime Minister agree that this has proved to be exactly the case? Will he not also agree that yesterday's meeting between CBI and TUC representatives, who are struggling to set up some sensible workmanlike arrangements in industrial relations, is a course much to be preferred?

The Prime Minister

Although my talk with Mr. Meany lasted well over an hour, I should point out that he did not raise any questions about legislation in this country affecting industrial relations; nor has Mr. Meany, so far as I know, since our meeting discussed any of the matters on which we exchanged views. As for the second part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, the proposal for conciliation arose from my meeting with the TUC and was then discussed in my meeting with the CBI. Through these two meetings it was arranged that the CBI and TUC should meet for the first time for two years. I am delighted that this has happened and that progress is being made.

Mr. Ewing

Is the Prime Minister aware that it was widely reported that Mr. Meany was relating the experiences of both the United States Government and the United States trade union movement about such matters as the cooling-off period and compulsory ballots? Will he reconsider his answer to my hon. Friend and to the nation before his Government does irreparable damage to industrial relations? Will he seriously reflect on the problems experienced in the United States and withdraw his industrial relations legislation?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I must repeat that these matters were not discussed. The report originated even before Mr. Meany had his meeting with me. I must point out that the American system differs from the present British industrial relations legislation, particularly in terms of the last offer arrangement which is written into the cooling-off period. It does not alter the fact that American experience shows that the cooling-off period in those instances where it has been given has meant that a large majority of disputes have been settled either during it or immediately after it.

Mr. Adley

Following the latter part of the question from the hon. Member for South all (Mr. Bidwell), would my right hon. Friend agree that the fact that the CBI and TUC have agreed to get together at last is an indication of the effectiveness of the Industrial Relations Act? Would he further agree that the long-term climate of industrial relations in this country appears to have had one good result already—namely, that it has brought the two parties together?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I think the Industrial Relations Act has also had other results—[Interruption.]—in bringing about action in particular spheres of industrial relations where nothing had been done before. An example of this is the containerisation dispute. Because of the Industrial Relations Act, a committee has been set up and the Government were instrumental in the formation or this committee through my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment.

Mr. Grant

Since the Prime Minister will not take advice from any trade union, who does he expect will help him over the next crisis resulting from his policies—the Official Solicitor again or the Official Receiver?

The Prime Minister

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and his party ought to declare to the country whether or not they believe that the law should be observed. On the question of contempt, proceedings may arise in the same way on any law of the country, whether it is the industrial relations law as it is now or industrial relations as it existed before the Bill became an Act.

Mr. Tom King

Did Mr. Meany explain to my right hon. Friend the care taken by American unions to ensure that members are aware of their rights? Further, did my right hon. Friend see the serious allegation in The Times last week that a number of unions are not ensuring that their members are aware of their rights of action against unfair dismissal by their failure to pay attention to the Act?

The Prime Minister

This is not a matter that we discussed, but it is obviously vitally important that trade unions should bring to the notice of all members their rights and at the same time their obligations. I gave figures to the House the other day which showed that in the first three months of the operation of the relevant provision of the Industrial Relations Act some 1,600 cases had been brought by individuals, mostly by members of trade unions, against employers because of grievances, including cases of what they believed to be unfair dismissal.

Mr. Lewis

If the Prime Minister did not discuss these matters with Mr. Meany, will he invite Mr. Meany back and discuss these matters with him? Will he ask Mr. Meany to tell him a few home truths, and in turn explain to Mr.Meany that these matters were never discussed in this House? Will he also point out to him that if these provisions had not been enacted, we should never have been in the mess in which we now find ourselves?

The Prime Minister

There was every opportunity to discuss this matter before the Bill was introduced, both with the trade unions and with the other bodies—if they had been prepared to take advantage of the offer that was made. There was every opportunity for reasonable discussion in this House as well, and indeed the Bill took a very long period of time. There was also plenty of opportunity for discussion of proposals which were very similar in many ways to those put forward by the Leader of the Opposition when he was Prime Minister and by his Government, proposals from which he immediately ran away.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Will the Prime Minister withdraw what he said a few moments ago about the Opposition not having said that the law must be obeyed? Is he aware that I said this twice on television before the first decision of the courts, and is he further aware that I set it on record last Saturday? Will he not throw around such smears and, when he does, will he withdraw them? Secondly, with regard to knowledge of the law, is it not clear that the courts themselves cannot get the hang of this law at all? Is he further aware that this is not only because the law is wrongheaded, irrelevant and incompetently drafted but, contrary to what he has just said, because we did not have adequate time for debate in this House? Will he tell the House how many hours and minutes the House had to debate—including ministerial speeches—the three Clauses which have been the subject of references to the courts?

The Prime Minister

I am glad to hear the Leader of the Opposition say that the view of the whole of the party opposite is that the Industrial Relations Act should be obeyed. If that is the view of the right hon. Gentleman, I will withdraw what I said. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will also insist publicly that if people are in contempt of court and held to be so—I am not referring to any specific case—they too should accept the verdict of the court on contempt. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will make that absolutely plain as well. If there are any cases of contempt under any law of this country certain consequences follow, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will make it plain that he accepts those consequences, whether it be the Industrial Relations Act or any other Act that is involved.

As for the provisions of the Industrial Relations Act, I certainly do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman's conclusion. I think he should read with care the judgment of the court on a particular case and not generalise.

Mr. Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman has no right to prejudge future decisions of the courts about contempt. There have been no such decisions which have stood up on appeal up till now, and in the case last week the whole shambles was resolved by the Official Solicitor. Is the Prime Minister aware that, even so, I said last week that the law must be obeyed in that case? Further, I appealed to the dockers to go back to work in the light of the intervention of the Official Receiver—[Laughter.]—obviously he comes next; I should have said "Official Solicitor". Will the Prime Minister therefore withdraw the imputations in his last remark, as he was generous enough to withdraw his first? Will he also answer the question relating to the number of hours and minutes that we had in this House for debating the cooling-off period, the ballot and the blacking? If the right hon. Gentleman does not know the answer, I can tell him: 3 hours 25 minutes, 2 hours 5 minutes, and no time at all.

The Prime Minister

There was ample time to discuss the Industrial Relations Bill, and we all know that the party opposite was determined not to have a reasonable discussion on that Bill. But I put to the right hon. Gentleman again my point, which I do not withdraw, that where a court holds that there is a case of contempt, that means that it should be obeyed. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to insist on this, whether it relates to the Industrial Relations Act or to any other Act.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Business Question. Mr. Harold Wilson.