HC Deb 27 November 1973 vol 865 cc187-90
1. Mr. McBride

asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he is satisfied with the operation of the Industrial Relations Act.

11. Mr. Cohen

asked the Secretary of State for Employment which parts of the Industrial Relations Act he is prepared to repeal or amend.

16. Mr. Bidwell

asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he now intends to bring in amendments to the Industrial Relations Act, in the light of the Government's experience of its working.

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

The Government have no proposals at present for changes in the Industrial Relations Act. As I explained in answer to a Question from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mr. Parry) on 19th November.—[Vol. 864, c. 333–4.]—I am satisfied that the Act has brought important benefits. I propose, after consultation, to reduce the qualifying period for unfair dismissals from two years to one ; I am about to start consultations on the disclosure of information under Sections 56 and 57 of the Act ; and I am prepared to consider constructive suggestions for its further improvement.

Mr. McBride

Has the right hon. Gentleman considered the failure of the Act to deal with Con-Mech Engineering Limited, a rogue employer whose refusal to accord recognition to the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers to act on behalf of its members employed by the firm has exacerbated industrial relations? Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the inoperability and the politically biased legal rigidity of the Act are shown clearly in the pathetic and unprecedented explanation offered yesterday for his court's decision by Sir John Donaldson, the President of the Industrial Relations Court? Is not there one law for the rogue employer and absolution for him, and fines for trade unions?

Mr. Macmillan

The only reason for any difference of treatment between the employer and the employees in the Con-Mech case is that the union refused to go to the court.

Mr. Cohen

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the statement by the President of the Industrial Relations Court recently, when he said : Some parts of this Act are ill-conceived "—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am afraid that one of the rules is that hon. Members may not quote at Question Time.

Mr. Cohen

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. Does the right hon. Gentleman recollect that when the Industrial Relations Bill was passing through this House we were told by Ministers of his Government that this legislation would reduce the number of strikes and the periods lost through strikes? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this has not proved to be the case and that if one studies the record it is clear that the situation has deteriorated? In view of this, is not it now time that the Government took the initiative and came forward with constructive proposals to amend the Act in order to try to relieve the present situation?

Mr. Macmillan

I do not accept that any recent increase in strikes has been due to the Industrial Relations Act. The recent strikes have been entirely on matters of pay. I do not accept that we have taken a difficult attitude over the Act. My colleagues and I have made it clear that we are prepared to consider any constructive suggestion at any time, as soon as the unions are ready to talk to us.

Mr. Marten

Will my right hon. Friend say how many employees have benefited from the unfair dismissal provision in the Act?

Mr. Macmillan

Over 15,000.

Mr. Bidwell

Is not it the case that, by and large, the unfair dismissals part of the Act is acceptable to the trade union movement but that generally and overwhelmingly the Act is poison to industrial relations? Does the right hon. Gentleman recall the time of the railway-men's compulsory ballot, when he said that he was learning? What the right hon. Gentleman has just said does not indicate that he has learned very much. Is that not because he is unable to apply his independent mind to the substance of the situation, because a stubborn Prime Minister is responsible for the retention of the whole of the Act?

Mr. Macmillan

There is no difference between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and me about the retention of the Act. Like my right hon. Friend, I do not accept that there is any element of stubbornness. The Act is in operation. A large number of cases have been dealt with by the National Industrial Relations Court. Some have been settled by conciliation outside the court's auspices, some have been settled out of court, and some have been settled following a CIR reference and report. I am happy to say that many unions have appeared before the court in this respect, with the exception of the engineering union.

Mr. Adam Butler

Does my right hon. Friend accept that although some small changes in the Act may be necessary it would be wrong to debate this subject in a political and emotive atmosphere?

Mr. Macmillan

I fully accept my hon. Friend's suggestion that there are small alterations which could and should be made to the Act. As I have made plain to the House and the trade union movement, we are prepared to discuss these and other matters at any time. I agree that this debate should be conducted in an atmosphere of calm and good sense.

Mr. Prentice

Referring to the Con-Mech case, is the Secretary of State aware that we are sick and tired of the way he uses the controversy about AUEW policy as a smoke screen for the Government's responsibilities. Will not he acknowledge that something grossly improper from the constitutional point of view has recently occurred, in that moneys from separate, voluntary, political levies, paid into a fund which is protected by law from being used for anything other than political purposes, have been seized? Is that not one more urgent reason, in addition to all the other reasons, for the repeal of this legislation?

Mr. Macmillan

It certainly is not a good reason for the repeal of this legislation. The Act specifies that these funds should not be used in compensation. If the union would apply to the court it could object. I do not accept that the refusal of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers—practically alone among the unions—to use the court is a smoke screen for Government policy.