HC Deb 27 November 1973 vol 865 cc210-4
Q5. Mr. Bidwell

asked the Prime Minister if he intends to consult the TUC and CBI on alterations to the Industrial Relations Act.

The Prime Minister

As I told the hon. Gentleman on 22nd November, I am ready to discuss the Industrial Relations Act with the TUC and CBI on any appropriate occasion.—[Vol. 864, c. 1550.]

Mr. Bidwell

May I remind the Prime Minister that he and the Secretary of State for Employment made it clear that the main pillars of the Industrial Relations Act were not negotiable with the TUC? In view of that, is not the Prime Minister mainly responsible for the united opposition to discussions with the Government? Is he further aware that the public are exceedingly worried about the state of industrial relations, and see the use of the emergency powers legislation as an alternative to decent industrial relations procedure? Does he realise that they are beginning to think the Prime Minister is pig-headed, bordering on wooden-headed?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Member will not expect me to accept any of those allegations, and certainly not the last. As for the structure of the Act, when I became Prime Minister I invited the co-operation of the TUC on working out the proposals for the consultative document. We then asked for its cooperation on the consultative document, and at any time during the passage of the Bill there could have been consultations, but it was not the wish of the TUC to carry them through. Since the Bill has become an Act I have consistently said, in the many meetings that I have held jointly or separately with the TUC or CBI, that we shall consider any specific amendments which are put to us, but I have also asked that the Act should be given a reasonable opportunity of being worked. [Interruption.] I do not believe that those who refuse to work the Act, who are becoming more and more limited in number, are in a position to point out any weaknesses they believe it may have.

Mr. Adley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that most people will be glad that my right hon. Friend in no way seeks to be an apologist for the Act. [Interruption.] Apart from those who are obliged to register their vocal protests at it, most people, including millions of trade unionists, recognise already that the Act is doing its best to bring labour relations into the twentieth century.

The Prime Minister

Yes, and as I have constantly said in the House, more than 15,000 individual trade unionists have used the Act because they considered it right to do so, and many of them did so for their own benefit.

Mr. Orme

When the Act passed through Parliament, did the Prime Minister envisage the President of the National Industrial Relations Court, at a subsequent date, making public statements about judgments that he passed in the court? What has the Prime Minister to say about Sir John Donaldson's speech last night? Is it to become normal practice that High Court judges go outside their court and criticise decisions that are still open to appeal?

The Prime Minister

As Prime Minister I cannot be responsible for the utterances of Her Majesty's judges, whether inside or outside the High Court. They must take responsibility for that.

Mr. Russell Kerr

Tory stooge.

The Prime Minister

I understand that the judge made a factual statement in order that there should be no misunderstanding about the sequence of actions which followed his judgment.

Mr. Holland

Can my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recall any particular benefit derived by the last Government when they accepted the advice of the TUC and abandoned their own industrial relations legislation?

The Prime Minister

I have often expressed my view about that. If the last administration had carried their legislation through to the statute book the whole attitude towards industrial relations would have been different.

Mr. Prentice

Will the Prime Minister address himself to an aspect of this case which was ducked by the Secretary of State for Employment earlier today, namely, the gross impropriety of the seizure of part of the political fund of the AUEW in the recent case? Will he acknowledge that this money was subscribed separately by political levies—which are distinct from subscriptions—by ordinary trade union members and was intended for political purposes only? The levies are paid by those members who choose to subscribe them. Is this not a serious constitutional development on which we should hear something from the Government Front Bench?

The Prime Minister

I am not prepared to make the statement for which the right hon. Gentleman is asking. The court lays down a clear procedure for such cases and it is the court's responsibility to see that it is followed. It is not the responsibility of Her Majesty's administration.

Mr. McCrindle

I understand my right hon. Friend's position, but if he is to strengthen the hand of moderate trade union leaders would it not be wise for the Government to give some thought at least to outlining which parts of the Industrial Relations Act are negotiable and which are not?

The Prime Minister

I have done more than my hon. Friend asks, because when this matter has been raised in the talks either by the CBI or the TUC I have said that we are prepared to consider any amendment put forward by them on any part of the Act. I cannot make a fairer offer than that.

Mr. Loughlin

May I revert to the point put by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice)? Will the Prime Minister recognise that a serious constitutional issue is involved here? The money that has been sequestered by the National Industrial Relations Court could not lawfully have been used for other than political purposes. Is the Prime Minister saying that the National Industrial Relations Court is a political court and therefore is entitled to sequester £100,000, or is he saying that Sir John Donaldson is above the law?

The Prime Minister

I am not saying either of those things, as the hon Gentleman knows perfectly well.

Mr. Loughlin

You are.

The Prime Minister

I am saying nothing of the sort. It is not a political court, and neither are the judges above the law. What the judge was explaining yesterday was that it was for the commissioners named in the writ of sequestration to determine, at their discretion, the assets to be taken in payment of the fine imposed by the court. That is not the Government's responsibility.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Since it has been a long-standing constitutional convention over many centuries—indeed, it is enshrined in the Bill of Rights—that proceedings in this House cannot be called into question in any court, how can it be justified that the president of a court, acting and speaking in his capacity as president, should seek to call in question and answer statements made by my hon. Friends which were proceedings in Parliament?

The Prime Minister

Again, that is not a matter for which the Government are responsible. [Interruption.] I emphasise that. Indeed, right hon. and learned Members opposite have constantly emphasised, quite rightly, that a Government should not interfere with the course of law. As a Government should not interfere with the course of law, they cannot be responsible for Her Majesty's judges, for what they do in a court of law or for what they say in their speeches afterwards. If action is required by Parliament, the procedure is constitutionally laid down.

Mr. Wilson

Has the right hon. Gentleman, as Prime Minister, no concern for long-standing conventions which have protected this Parliament from outside interference? If he will not give an answer today, will he consider the matter, take advice on it and inform the House of his findings?

The Prime Minister

Of course I am prepared to consider the matter and ask for further advice about it, but I maintain that if Parliament wishes to take action in these matters the procedure has long been laid down. It is a constitutional procedure, and not one for the Government.