HC Deb 21 March 1973 vol 853 cc610-5


Lords amendment: No. 7, in page 13, line 6, at end insert: () Where, under subsection (4) of section 7 of this Act, the Pay Board have given notice of their intention to make or give an order or notice under that section then, for the purposes of subsection (2) above, the giving of the notice under the said subsection (4) shall be treated as if it constituted the making or giving of the order or notice to which it relates.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan

I beg to move, That the House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

The purpose is to extend the protection given to an employer against industrial action to the 14 days during which the Pay Board has to give warning notice of its intention to issue a restriction or notice under Clause 15.

At present it is not, as the House will know, an offence to strike under the Bill, nor to take strike action, except for the purpose of inciting contravention of an order or notice, and this extends to a limited extent the potential offence of contravention of an order or notice for that compulsory period during which the Pay Board has to give 14 days' warning notice that it intends to issue a restriction by order or by notice. This is logical.

Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)

On Shrove Tuesday I had the agonizing choice of whether to give up for Lent pleasure or the Counter-Inflation Bill and, with some reluctance, I chose the former and I regret that I had to leave the birthday party of the Minister for Aerospace and come back to this amendment because it raises an issue of some substance.

When this subject was discussed in the other place, the Earl of Gowrie referred, as my right hon. Friend has done this evening, to the fact that the amendment would extend the period of 14 days during which the Pay Board has to give warning notice of its intention to issue a restriction order.

What I do not like about the amendment is that we do not know the thinking of the Government on the extent to which the 14-day period is protracted. It seems to me reasonably open-ended. Above all else, I do not like, in the terms of the amendment, the giving of the notice under the said subsection (4) shall be treated as if it constituted the making or giving of the order or notice to which it relates. This marks one further nudge in the direction of government by invitation rather than government by law, and that Sir Frank Figgures is going to raise an eyebrow, and that is half way to giving the notice. It extends the policy whereby we have the weekend speech, the Press release and the rest replacing the rule of law.

I hope that I am not developing this area beyond what it will reasonably bear, but, of course, it is against the background of legislation and the fashion of legislation which relies a great deal more on exhortation and leaning than upon the actual law.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear in mind that there are reservations about this because it was moved with extraordinary brevity in the House of Lords. It was done in two sentences. The watchdogs of the workers were wholly absent in the sense that not a single comment was offered from the Opposition benches. We have a sit-out from the Tribune group and are wholly dependent on the amiable revisionist from East Ham, but this comes in a clause which relates to offences and against a background where a large number of people in this country believe that it will be illegal for hospital workers, gas workers, or coal miners to go on strike after this Bill becomes law. Of course it will not be illegal. However, in my surgery on Friday I had someone who had come to discuss industrial relations and was convinced that it would be illegal and he was an immensely reasonable person.

This is the sort of atmosphere that is being created—that the purpose of the Bill is to create offences so as to enforce greater industrial discipline over remuneration. An amendment of this character seems to widen the scope and control of the board so that it will have an extended period during which it may operate the notice procedure. Above all, by the technique of saying that for the board to say that it intended to issue a notice will be the same as if it had issued a notice, we drift into legislative refinements that carry within themselves some dangers.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan

By leave of the House; merely to correct my hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen), may I say that there is no question of extending any period of notice? It is simply that during the statutory period of notice, that period that has to be given by the board before an order or restriction may be issued, it is possible under this provision for a prosecution to be brought with the consent of the Attorney-General, and I do not think that that is in any way a weakening of the rule of law.

Mr. Prentice

Before we let the amendment pass, I ought to say a few words on behalf of amiable revisionists and tell the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) that we studied the amendment with great care. It seemed to us to flow logically from the rest of the clause, and the clause seemed originally to be drafted rather ineffectively.

Given the fact that the clause is part of the Bill, we saw no particular objection to the amendment, but we have objected to the clause itself. In so far as I need to defend our attitude, and I need not do so at any length, I wish to say that we dislike the strategy of the compulsory incomes policy and we believe that the clause, as it stood and as it will be amended, will cause a great deal of trouble.

We believe that, despite the protestations of Ministers, the scene is set for people who choose to defy the courts to go to gaol as a result of contempt of court actions. We believe that the scene is set for those who wish to be martyrs and are determined to be martyrs to be able to become martyrs. We object to the clause, and we voted against it in Committee.

However, I see no reason for going over that ground again, and I do not see any reason why noble Lords should have gone over it again. I think I should say that on behalf of those who have been described as amiable revisionists and thereby accused of not doing their duty on behalf of working people.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

Will the Pay Board be able to make any order unless an employer has made a declaration that he intends to pay employees in excess of the permitted amount? For an order to be made, will it be essential for an employer to give notice if he is a category I employer, or to give some indication if he is a category II or category III employer and intends to make a higher settlement?

This is rather important, because if it is impossible for an order to be made in this instance it seems as though the Government are inciting an employer to break the law in order that the Pay Board shall be able to give him the protection of the law. This is not quite clear to industry, and I am not sure that it is totally clear to hon. Members. It would be helpful if my right hon. Friend were able to give a lead in this matter at this stage.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Brian Walden

The Opposition in no way wish to prolong the discussion, but, quite unwittingly, I think, the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) has slightly muddied the waters. Let the Opposition say again—because it relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen)—that there is no question of law until an order is served. An employer may pay what he chooses. He may offer his workers what he likes, and they may demand what they like. There is no sanction of law whatsoever. It cannot be said sufficiently frequently. The Government have taken no powers whatsoever to prevent an employer making an offer to his workers or to prevent his workers demanding wage increases.

The law becomes operative when an order is served. Every sensible trade union and every sensible employer will obey the law when the law becomes operative—and every sensible trade union and every sensible employer will take no notice whatsoever of Government exhortation; each will do what he thinks is best.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords Amendment: No. 8, in page 13, line 24, leave out from "approval" to "this Act" in line 25 and insert: under Schedule 2 to this Act, or for consent under any provision of.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Michael Havers)

I beg to move, That the House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

This is purely a drafting amendment. As it stands, subsection 4(e) of the Clause relating to penalties for furnishing false information covers applications for consent under Part III—that is, Clause 12, dealing with VAT—and does not deal with applications for other consents, such as those dealing with restrictions on insurance premiums. The amendment is simply designed to cure this omission.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords Amendment: No. 9, in page 13, line 39, after "(2)"insert: or paragraph (a) of subsection (4),

The Solicitor-General

I beg to move, That the House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this amendment we can take Lords Amendment No. 10, in Clause 16, page 14, line 32, leave out "section 15(2)" and insert: subsection (2), or paragraph (a) of subsection (4), of section 15.

The Solicitor-General

These amendments are considered necessary to rectify a small inconsistency in the Bill. The Bill provides that where there is a possibility of an offence being committed by a trade union official, so long as that official is acting within the scope of his authority it will be the union itself, whether registered or not, that will be liable, and not the official.

It is impossible to exclude the possibility that the powers available under Clause 13(1) may at some stage be required to obtain information or documents from trade unions, registered or unregistered, and it may be that in those circumstances a trade union official, acting within the scope of his authority, is directed not to provide that information. Since, when acting with his official hat on, he is covered in the rest of the Bill it seemed wrong that he should be excluded from that protection in this provision, and the amendments are designed to cover both registered and unregistered trade unions.

It may be described as a poor law but in this connection an honest law.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords Amendment agreed to.

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