HC Deb 01 May 1973 vol 855 cc961-6
1. Mr. Garden

asked the Secretary of State for Employment whether he will make a statement on the extent of union acceptance of the Industrial Relations Act.

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

A number of trade unions are using the provisions of the Act and as a result have been able to gain important benefits for their members. I regret that most of the unions affiliated to the TUC have not so far been prepared to do so, though all of them, with the exception of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, are now willing to defend themselves before the National Industrial Relations Court.

Mr. Garden

Is there any truth in the allegation that the Act has led to a falling off in the use of conciliation? What specific proposals has my right hon. Friend received from the TUC for amending the Act?

Mr. Macmillan

No, there is no truth in the allegation that there has been a falling off in the use of my Department's conciliation facilities. In fact, the number of disputes in which we conciliate has been rising steadily and in 1972 it reached an all-time record. We have received no specific proposals as such from the TUC.

Mr. James Hamilton

As the General Secretary of the TUC has said that if the Government are prepared to consider amendments to the Act put forward by the TUC that might become the basis for a discussion on the economy, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman would be receptive to such an approach?

Mr. Macmillan

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that he is willing to discuss any serious proposal for altering the Act. A number of proposals have been put forward publicly in the air but no proposals have been put forward as a basis for discussion.

Mr. Fell

How long will it be before some of the dimwits on the Opposition benches realise that when the Prime Minister has told the House time and again that he is prepared to discuss anything at all that the TUC wants to discuss, he is prepared to do so? How often must the Prime Minister repeat that assurance before unwilling hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition side are prepared to believe it?

Mr. Macmillan

I do not think that is a question for me. I see some hope in the fact that Mr. Scanlon appears to be less adamant than he was before about the possiblity of amending the Act.

Mr. Prentice

Does the Secretary of State accept that the recent report of the Commission on Industrial Relations, although couched quite properly in neutral language, confirms that the Government's expectations of the results arising from the Act have been completely unfulfilled? Now that it is universally recognised that the Act has been a disastrous failure, is it good enough for Ministers to say repeatedly that they will consider other people's suggestions for amendment? As the Government inflicted this damage on the country, is it not up to them to produce their proposals for amending the Act or, better still, for repealing it?

Mr. Macmillan

We have had a large number of statements from the unions saying that they do not like this shoe but they have not yet told us precisely where it pinches. That is probably the first step, which I hope we shall be able to discuss before long. The CIR made a factual report on the Act. One reason which the CIR noted for the shortcomings in the operation of the Act is that a large number of unions are not getting the advantages, for example, of the agency shops, and have not been able to do what the National Union of Bank Employees and the National Union of Seamen have done by using the Act to their advantage.

10. Mr. Thomas Cox

asked the Secretary of State for Employment what recent representations he has received calling for a review of the working of the Industrial Relations Act.

23. Mr. Sillars

asked the Secretary of State for Employment what is the state of his consideration of the future of the Industrial Relations Act.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan

As I have said on a number of occasisons, I am prepared to consider any constructive proposals for improving the operation of the Act. I have recently received suggestions from the National and Local Government Officers Association and the National Union of Bank Employees.

Mr. Cox

I note the Secretary of State's reply. Is he not fully aware that it is the view of millions of people that the Industrial Relations Act is now the greatest failure of all the supposed policies introduced by the present Government and that even the Government themselves are scared to implement the Act, as has been shown by recent disputes when they could have sought a ballot of workers involved but did not do so? Is it not the Minister's responsibility to announce his proposals on the Act and to seek a meeting with trade union representatives as quickly as possible?

Mr. Macmillan

I do not accept that the Act has in any way been of the order of failure described by the hon. Gentle- man, nor is it a fact that the Government have been in a position to use the emergency provisions and have not done so. In recent disputes, as the hon. Gentleman will discover if he studies the wording of the relevant provisions, the Government were not in a position to use the emergency provision. A great deal of publicity has been focussed on a relatively small number of cases. The Industrial Relatitons Court has had a number of successes in which there has been little publicity. There have been 30 complaints about unfair industrial practices which were disposed of by the court by the end of January; 20 were withdrawn following a settlement and only 10 had to be decided by the court. It was never envisaged that the working of the Industrial Relations Act should be judged by the number of cases which came to the court.

Mr. McCrindle

It is not true to say, however, that the present state of the Industrial Relations Act is rather unsatisfactory to all concerned? 1 understand my right hon. Friend's point that he is awaiting suggestions from the trade unions, but could he assist the situation by at least drawing up a list of those aspects of the Act which are immutable and those which are negotiable and by suggesting that a meeting takes place between himself and the CBI and TUC on the basis of such a list?

Mr. Macmillan

I would not wish to follow a process which sought to lay down what was immutable in the Act. The only point which is immutable is a point which has been rejected by many trade unions, namely, that the whole of our industrial relations system should be operated within a framework of law. That is immutable. We are willing, as we have made plain, to discuss with the unions and the employers the whole operation of the Act with a view to improving it.

Mr. Sillars

Will the Secretary of State say whether we have just witnessed a change of Government policy? When the legislation was originally conceived and laid before the House, the former Secretary of State said that there were certain pillars of principle which were immovable in terms of negotiation. Is the right hon. Gentleman now saying that he has changed that policy?

Mr. Macmillan

I was seeking to compress my right hon. Friend's remarks and to try to bring them within the one immutable thing which comprises a number of facets of the Act—namely, that the operation of the Act should be subject to the framework of the law. There are various aspects of the Act which, because of that consideration, can be altered only marginally or in ways which would not violate that principle.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Is it not time that the Industrial Relations Act ceased to be a political football, at least in this House? It is within the recollection of many hon. Members that very similar legislation was thought to be necessary by the Labour Government, which is some confirmation that there is an economic need for something on those lines? Has not the time come when the Opposition should encourage the trade unions to accept my right hon. Friend's invitation to meet him instead of putting obstacles in the way for narrow party political propaganda reasons?

Mr. Macmillan

My hon. Friend is right to say that there is now developing a fair measure of acceptance that something of the nature of the Industrial Relations Act is necessary. That has been a movement by some unions which until now have been saying that there is no room for the framework of law in the conduct of industiral relations. At last we have received even from the most extreme opponents of the Act a realisation that successful industrial relations can be conducted only within the framework of the law.

Mr. Prentice

Is it not clear that from 1906 onwards we had a framework of law which helped us to have better industrial relations than most industrial countries and that when the present Government departed from that framework they were going against the advice of the Donovan Commission and of practically all informed opinion on this subject?

If I may revert to the supplementary question I put on Question No. 1, which has not been answered, what possible justification is there at this stage, now that the failure of the Act is universally recognised—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]— for the Government sitting back and saying that they are waiting for the trade unions and others to tell them what to do? Is it not time that the Government, which produced this mess, came forward with their own answers, their amendments or, better still, their proposals to repeal the Act?

Mr. Macmillan

The right hon. Gentleman tends to take up a somewhat contradictory position. He and his colleagues, when in government, found it necessary to change the legislation and brought forward measures, which they subsequently dropped, which contained penal clauses which are not within the framework of the Industrial Relations Act. He has also been insistent that we should consult before bringing forward suggestions. The Government have said that they will do that. In bringing forward suggestions for the alteration of the Act we will consult and take note of any responsible views and opinions which may be put forward.