HC Deb 11 December 1974 vol 883 cc688-724

12.32 a.m.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Mutton)

Before calling the Minister to move the motion, "That this House approves Commission Document No. R/2976/73", I wish to inform the House that Mr. Speaker has announced his decision not to select the amendment in the names of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould) and his right hon. and hon. Friends.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. After the announcement of this business by the Lord President of the Council last Thursday, I went to the Vote Office and obtained the documents for this debate. The first was the document mentioned on the Order Paper. The second was the Explanatory Memorandum dated 17th April and signed about that time. I understand that subsequently— indeed, it is known—another supplementary Explanatory Memorandum was submitted by the Minister which altered the nature of the document before us. I know that that did not reach the Vote Office until this morning. Therefore, unless any hon. Member had known by word of mouth that it was there, he might not be aware of the important nature of that second document. I put it to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the procedure is, to say the least, irregular.

I do not propose that we should not discuss the matter tonight or ask the Minister to withdraw it. However, I draw attention to the fact that this is the second time that there has been an irregularity concerning Explanatory Memoranda about this kind of order. The last time that I raised this matter was on energy when the Explanatory Memorandum was again late and was delivered the day before the document was to be discussed.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am a comparatively new Member of this House. I wonder whether the House is competent to discuss a document which has been altered before reaching the House and on which hon. Members have so little information. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) explained that this information has not been placed before the House. It concerns me greatly that this House should be placed in a position not only of discussing documents emanating from Brussels, over which we have no control, but that it should not be given information on documents which are altered before coming here and are put down as being unaltered.

May I ask you to rule whether the House is competent to discuss the document on the Order Paper?

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I think that it will be appropriate for me to deal with the two points of order that have been raised and then to return to the right hon. Gentleman.

The point of order raised by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) is not a matter for the Chair. I think that point will have been taken in other quarters.

On the point raised by the hon. Member for Keighly (Mr. Cryer), it will be in order for him to raise that matter in the debate, if he so wishes.

Mr. Jay

My point of order is that, if I understand the situation aright—and if I am wrong I hope somebody will explain the facts—we do not have before the House the document that we are being asked to approve. Am I not right in thinking that, owing to the extraordinary method of dealing with legislation by the EEC in Brussels, the document in question was suddenly withdrawn at short notice and is not before the House? All we have is the previous document that has been superseded in Brussels, and a short Explanatory Memorandum of a document that we do not have. If that is so, is it reasonable to ask the House to proceed on that basis?

Mr. Peter Kirk (Saffron Walden)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If Labour Members had taken their places in the European Parliament they would be fully informed on all these matters. The document has been fully discussed there.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk) is addressing me on a point of order.

Mr. Kirk

The complaints now being made by Labour Members are without very much validity.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

On a point of order. Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I first refer to your original reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing)? I think you said that the matter he raised was not for the Chair. With respect, may I suggest to you that Mr. Speaker is responsible for seeing that papers and documents are available to hon. Members, so far as it is within his power to do that.

I appreciate it is not Mr. Speaker's fault that his officials have not obtained the appropriate document, but the fact is that we have to deal only with documents that are listed under the Orders of the Day. If we do not have the document that we are supposed to debate, surely we are not complying with the Orders of the Day. We cannot possibly comply with them because the document that is before us is not listed on the Order Paper. You know as well as I do that I am not allowed to take part in proceedings that are not listed on the Order Paper as Government business under the Orders of the Day.

The document that we are being asked to discuss is not available. I am therefore sure that my hon. Friend is right in saying that Mr. Speaker has not been able to get the appropriate document to enable us to comply with the Orders of the Day. In those circumstances, I suggest that we cannot proceed, and the Leader of the House should move to report progress and ask leave to sit again.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Edward Short)

The motion refers to Commission Document No. R/2976/73. That document is available in the Vote Office, and I have a copy of it here. I understand that the amendment has not been selected, so the document on which the motion is based is available in the Vote Office.

Mr. Jay

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think the Leader of the House is mistaken. The original document was R/2976173. The amended document is also R/2976/73, but that does not alter the fact that we do not have the amended document.

Mr. Paul B. Rose (Manchester, Black-ley)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would it be for the convenience of the House if the Minister were to say whether the document has been amended? My right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) says that it has been amended. My information is that consideration of the draft is continuing by officials within the Council of Ministers' framework, as is stated in the Explanatory Memorandum. If that is the case and the matter has gone no further, the document before the House is the last document, and my right hon. Friend is wrong. If that is not the case and there is a document in existence, then my right hon. Friend would be right. Could the Minister not tell us what the position is?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

This is not a point of order, but a question of a motion on the Paper.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Eraser)

On a point of order. The Document 2976 has been before the House for several months now. What I have done is to lay in the Vote Office the memorandum submitted to the Scrutiny Committee. I thought that it would assist hon. Members in this debate to have that memorandum, which was submitted to the Scrutiny Committee on 29th November. The supplementary memorandum dated 20th November summarises the position taken by various Community States on the original draft document. It also sets out the position taken by the British Government. I hoped that the original Commission document, together with the memorandum which sets out both the present situation and the Government's view on it, would be enough to proceed upon.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrewshire, West)

There is a genuine difficulty here with which the Minister has not dealt, and perhaps it should be answered from the Chair. It relates to the supplementary Explanatory Memorandum. These Explanatory Memoranda have particular force in view of the new mechanism which we have developed to deal with EEC matters. It is signed by the Minister himself and says: A number of points have yet to be agreed, but the draft which is to be discussed at the Council meeting is expected to be on the following lines. So we are asked to discuss and presumably approve either an existing draft or a future draft which is still to be agreed, with a number of points to be put forward. The information given in the Explanatory Memorandum is that it is expected to be on certain lines. I do not know to what extent we or you, Sir, are the custodians of the dignity of the House, but this seems to be an extraordinary document to be approved by the House in those terms.

Sir Derek Walker-Smith (Hertfordshire, East)

Further to the point of order. This motion is not in the ordinary form of asking that the House take note of the document. It asks that the House "approve" it, and it is in the name of the Prime Minister and other eminent right hon. Gentlemen. The House should be told which document the Government are asking it to approve—whether it is the existing document dated 4th December 1973, bearing this number and the subject of an Explanatory Memorandum on 17th April, or whether it is another document and if so whether that document exists and is likely to be before the House. The right hon. Gentleman will see the inherent inconsistency. The approval which is asked for in the motion is inconsistent with the last paragraph of the supplementary memorandum, which says that the Government are expressly dissenting from something in the revised directive. Perhaps neither proposition is correct, but both cannot be. Perhaps we should have some elucidation.

Mr. Max Madden (Sowerby)

Further to the point of order. This debate is taking place on the recommendation of the Scrutiny Committee. As a member of that Committee, I was given to understand yesterday that this document had been amended and that neither the amendments nor the supplementary Explanatory Memorandum was available to the Committee.

Mr. John Davies (Knutsford)

Further to the point of order. There should be a slight correction here. The supplementary memorandum was made available to the Committee, admittedly very briefly, before it sat. It is also relevant that, in developing these proposals, which are a matter of scrutiny by the Scrutiny Committee, there is a regular process of improvement and amendment by the Member States; inevitably, at any given moment, there may be matters which are not different from the original proposals. But we have before us a valid proposal which is down for debate.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

The right hon. Gentleman must surely be wrong. He says that the memorandum was available but that it was available before the Committee sat. In that case there was no Committee. It is only when the Committee sits, has the documents put before it and is called to order that it is a Committee. Therefore, my hon. Friend must be right. The memorandum was not available to the Committee as a Committee, in the same way as it is not available now to the House.

Hon. Members

Withdraw it.

Mr. Edward Short

There is no point in withdrawing it if the House wants to discuss this sort of thing. This is the kind of difficulty we are getting into. I hope the House will realise that it is not the fault of the present Government. The sovereignty of Parliament has been taken away from us in this kind of matter and we are trying to do our best to enable the House to discuss it. I fully accept that the present situation is not satisfactory.

I do not know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether you would be prepared to reconsider the question of the amendment, but I understand that, if you were prepared to reconsider it, my hon. Friend the Minister would be prepared to accept the amendment. If this would be helpful to the House, I think that it would expedite our business considerably.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Perhaps I might explain to the House that the ruling was given by Mr. Speaker earlier yesterday, and I do not think I am empowered to alter a decision which he has taken.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The fact that the Government have indicated that, for the assistance of the House, they are prepared to accept an amendment surely could not have been within the knowledge of Mr. Speaker, and I submit that it would be for the assistance of the House if you felt able to call the amendment.

Mr. Jay

Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If the Government are willing to accept the amendment, and since our amendment states that the contents are subject to amendment by documents which are not before the House, I take it that the Government are agreeing with us that the relevant document is not before the House. If that is so and the Government agree with it, how can we be asked to approve it when we have not seen it?

Mr. John Fraser

Further to the point of order. It might be helpful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I indicate that the amendments that are suggested to any Commission documents are made by a number of Community countries, in some cases by the Community itself. It is my understanding that, in accordinace with normal diplomatic practice, the amendments and the discussions which have taken place through the Community machinery would normally be treated as confidential. What the Government have tried to do in the memorandum is to give the House an indication of the view taken by other member Governments, to summarise those views and, as I said before, set out the view of this Government. That was the way I hoped the matter could proceed. The amendments, however, are made by other Governments.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Having heard the arguments, I think that I should be in order if I acceded to the request of the Leader of the House, because I feel that a new situation has arisen. I am sure the House will bear with me, however, when I say that, having heard the arguments, I am prepared to accede to what the Lord President has suggested because I think it is a new situation and because when Mr. Speaker made his original ruling yesterday morning the facts as they now appear were not then apparent.

12.49 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Fraser)

I beg to move, That this House approves Commission Document No. R/2976/73. I do so subject, of course, to our being willing to accept the amendment when in due course it is moved.

I fully understand the difficulties which face hon. Members who are not serving on the Scrutiny Committee in preparing for debates of this kind. As I said before, it was with this in mind that I arranged to have placed in the Vote Office a supplementary memorandum which had been submitted to the Scrutiny Committee. The memorandum sets out the form the directive is likely to take bearing in mind the views of the other Governments in the Community. It sets out one provision with which the Government are not prepared to agree and it generally sets out the Government's attitude to the directive. I hope that the information in the memorandum will go some way towards removing the doubts which may exist in the minds of hon. Members about the Government's attitude towards the proposed directive. Because of these difficulties we shall be prepared to accept the amendment.

I should like to devote most of what I have to say to the substance of the directive and the Government's attitude towards it. First I shall comment on the criticisms which are implicit in the points of order and in the amendment. Points which are raised about the procedure will be carefully listened to tonight. I do not propose to deal with the procedural matters which trouble the House except to say that the establishment of the Scrutiny Committee and the provision of debates of the kind we are now having represent an important constitutional development. But this is part of an evolutionary process which is why questions concerned with keeping the House informed of the Government's handling of Community business are currently under consideration by the Scrutiny Committee.

My right hon. Friend the Lord President and my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs are both well aware of the problems of distribution of Community documents, and I am sure that they will study the points of order and other points which may be made on the subject tonight. I further understand that my hon. Friend will be giving evidence to the Scrutiny Committee. It may be that there will be an opportunity then for these matters to be discussed more fully than they can be tonight.

I turn now to the directive, which is of major social importance. The broad purpose of the directive as it is likely to emerge is to produce a common approach within the Community to the handling of mass dismissals, and basically it does two things. It requires employers to consult workers' representatives in advance about proposed redundancies, and it requires them to notify the redundancies to a public authority. In Britain that authority is the Department of Employment.

The draft directive was part of the Social Action Programme drawn up at the summit meeting in October 1972. It was already under discussion in Brussels when we took office earlier this year. At the meeting of the Council of Ministers last June, I reserved the United Kingdom's position because we needed more time to consider the proposals, to finalise our own ideas, to discuss them and to consult in our own country. I think that I said in answer to a Parliamentary Question in June that I did not apologise for delaying it so that it could be discussed in this House and in the country.

Since the June meeting we have formulated and published our proposals in the consultative document on the Employment Protection Bill. Paragraphs 65 to 72 of that document embrace and go further than what I hope to agree at Brussels. We have received comments from the TUC and the CBI and other organisations on the proposals. Concurrently there have been intensive discussions in Brussels at official level with the Commission and other member States about the details of the proposed directive.

As a result the draft directive, as it is now likely to come before the Council, is broadly in line with our own proposals for the Employment Protection Bill and its aims are entirely consistent with Labour Party policy. Although there are certain matters still to be discussed with the Council of Ministers when it meets next week in Brussels, the main provisions of the directive are of the kind we would want to put in the Bill whether we were members of the Community or not.

We accept that there is advantage in having protection against mass dismissals throughout all the Community countries so that multi-national companies cannot set one country off against another. I therefore make no apology for commending the broad terms of the directive to the House, subject to further discussions just referred to.

As the law stands, hundreds of workers can be and sometimes are made redundant at 24 hours' notice. Our own proposals are an immense advance. They require advance consultation with recognised independent trade unions at the earliest practicable time about all proposed redundancies, however small. They also require redundancies to be notified in advance to the Department of Employment. At least two months' warning would have to be given to the Department if more than 10 workers in any one establishment were to be dismissed within a period of 30 days, and three months' warning if more than 100 workers were to be dismissed within a period of 90 days.

These requirements would enable the manpower services to assist as necessary with redeployment or retraining and would also enable the Government to consider any further steps which might be needed to avoid or minimise the effects of redundancy. No individual notices could take effect until after the warning periods had expired, but individual workers could leave earlier if they so wished, and would keep their entitlement to redundancy pay provided they did so with the agreement of their employers.

By contrast with the proposals in the Employment Protection Bill, the draft directive in its present form would make it possible for dismissals to take place 30 days after notification, but would enable the competent public authority to extend that period to 60 days if it thought fit.

We propose to amend the directive so that we can comply with it by stipulating an initial period of notice of not less than 60 days, which fits into our proposals for the Employment Protection Bill. I would not agree to the directive if it did not contain that amendment. I regard the 60-day minimum period of notice of mass redundancies as more satisfactory than a 30-day initial period with only the possibility of extension by a public authority. We would have 60 days as our own standard requirement. There would be exceptions to cover special circumstances where notice would be impracticable.

As the directive does not fix any minimum period, there is nothing to prevent member States laying down longer periods if they wish. The proposed directive establishes a minimum protection, but in no way inhibits member States from exceeding its provisions. In the Government's view, the proposals I have referred to represent an important advance in social policy. They should do much to ensure that proposed redundancies are fully discussed and considered in advance and that, where redundancies are unavoidable, they are handled in a sensible and humane way.

I hope that the proposal, as it fits in with our own domestic proposals for legislation, will commend itself and have the support of the House.

Mr. Neil Marten (Banbury)

Before the Minister sits down—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

The Minister has already sat down.

12.58 a.m.

Mr. Bryan Gould (Southampton, Test)

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to end and to add: while approving the objectives of Commission Document No. R/2976/73, considers that it can only be noted since its contents are subject to amendment by documents not before this House ". The document is important, covering a vital area in our industrial relations. Moreover, it covers a field which is already the subject of draft domestic legislation. Therefore, it raises, potentially at least, the whole problem of the compatibility of Community legislation with legislation emanating from the House.

The motion asks the House to approve the document. It is not for me to speculate why that formula was adopted on this occasion. Some of my hon. Friends would argue that, given that the renegotiations are continuing and that the whole question of EEC membership is still outstanding, it is inappropriate for the Government to ask for approval of EEC documents. At least the procedure has the advantage that it impliedly recognises that the approval of the House is an important matter. It follows that to withhold approval would also be an important matter, which could not fail to have consequences for my hon. Friend the Minister when he goes to Brussels. It would be very valuable to have that confirmed by the Minister.

I said that this document was important. It is also—at least, so we are told—unexceptionable because it marches along the same path as our own Employment Protection Bill. But with the best will in the world, we cannot approve this document because in essence it no longer exists in the form in which it was presented to the House. We are told in the supplementary Explanatory Memorandum that there will be a revised draft, that a number of points have yet to be agreed, that the draft which is to be discussed is expected to be on certain lines, and so on. In those circumstances, it is impossible for this House to reach a view which is at all meaningful on this point.

Let me give an example of the sort of difficulty that we face. The unamended document contains in Article 3(1) the provision: The competent public authority may prohibit the notified dismissals … We are then told that this document as it stands is accepted by the Government and we are invited to approve it.

The only comment made in the Explanatory Memorandum is that this proposal poses greater difficulties for the United Kingdom. Then when we come to the supplementary Explanatory Memorandum we are told that the amended document may contain a proposal for the public authority to be empowered to veto the redundancies. That seems to be no different from the existing Article 3(1). Yet we are told in the supplementary memorandum that the Government may oppose this provision and will not accept a draft which includes it. Have the Government changed their mind as between one memorandum and another, or will the amended document be in a different form from that which we have? We cannot tell. There is no way in which the House can form any sort of opinion on this point. This is one of the most important points in the draft document, and yet seemingly we cannot have an answer from the Government on that point. As a result, this debate is regrettably a charade.

Given the pressure on parliamentary time, especially in relation to EEC documents, it is a shameful waste of time. This is not a matter to be laid at the Government's door. It is one more instance of the total inadequacy of our present arrangements for dealing with EEC legislation.

I am told by my friends on the Scrutiny Committee that no fewer than 15 1½ hour debates remain outstanding and the Commission is producing one proposal of this sort each day. In those circumstances, unless the Government wish to invite the House to make a fool of itself, they must either withdraw the motion or accept the amendment.

1.4 a.m.

Mr. Christopher Tugendhat (City of London and Westminster, South)

As the Government have said that they will accept the amendment, and as the whole discussion concerning the amendment arose from a purely internal Labour Party dispute—[HON. MEMBERS: "No".] I am sorry; the bulk of the discussion came from the other side of the House. However, in view of the reaction to my remarks, I will totally withdraw.

Mr. Buchan

Does the hon. Gentleman understand the point of the reaction? He is saying that these matters of legislation which affect this country deeply have to be treated as a bit of party infighting. They are nothing of the kind.

Mr. Tugendhat

Clearly, I made a regrettable statement. There are two quite separate points at issue. There are important issues of principle enshrined in the document and also the different issues of principle concerning how Parliament treats legislation of this sort. It is on the document itself and not the way in which Parliament handles matters of this kind that I propose to speak. Among my hon. Friends are members of the Scrutiny Committee and of the European Parliament, and they are in a better position than I to deal with the points about the way the House deals with legislation of this kind as opposed to the issues in the document.

This is the first time we have been dealing with legislation of this sort since the Prime Minister's apparent change of heart towards the Community at the Paris summit, and it is appropriate that it should be concerned with an area which is the direct responsibility of the Secretary of State for Employment. I was interested to note that work on the document was well advanced when the Government took office. It shows that the Community, contrary to what some people have argued, is very much concerned with important social issues and with the same kind of problems concerning the quality of life of the workpeople, the relationship of the worker to his employer, dismissals and conditions of service, as we are.

This is perhaps in its way the most eloquent possible commentary on the nature of the concern in the Community and on so much of the misunderstanding in the Labour Party about what sort of Community it is. I do not suppose that the document will convert the Secretary of State, but it may go some way towards softening his opposition to everything which comes from the Community.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Foot)

Perhaps I can put the hon. Gentleman's mind at ease. All the confusions which have arisen have fortified my belief that the operation of the methods in Brussels is incompatible with the proper functioning of this House.

Mr. Tugendhat

It has been agreed that that is a separate issue from the matters contained in this document. Clearly, the right hon. Gentleman finds himself in large measure in agreement with the Community on the document. We share his concern over the possibility of dismissals by multi-national companies in one country, designed to strengthen their bargaining position against workers in another, and his desire to ensure that dismissals in any case are conducted in reasonable and appropriate fashion, with due regard to the interests of the workers as well as of the company concerned. On that basis of principle, there is not a great deal between us.

But some issues arise from the document and the Employment Protection Bill discussion paper which cause us concern. First, the document brings the State very much more directly into the whole question of dismissals than has normally been the practice here. I recognise that the European proposals do not break new ground, and that the principle of State intervention is rightly enshrined in the Redundancy Payments Act, but the document goes very much further towards bringing the State into the whole area of dismissals, and that reflects the fact that in some European countries trade unionism is not as highly developed as it is here, and therefore some problems which here are dealt with on an employer-union basis primarily might be more suitably dealt with with a greater degree of State intervention in some other European countries.

In this country, with its established practices and its highly developed system of trade unionism, I should have thought that the degree of intrusion by the State goes rather further than we would like to see and raises certain problems. For instance, it is not clear at what point a company, finding itself in financial difficulties and feeling that it may have to lay off large numbers of men, as may be the case in the coming winter, would have to disclose its intentions to the State and to the trade unions. Nor is it clear how the trade unions and the Department of Employment would inter-relate. The responsibilities of the two do not seem to be closely defined in the document.

It would be desirable if the Minister could give us more information on how he sees the relationship between the Department, the employer and the trade unions in such matters. We are worried by the prospective powers which the document gives to the State to prohibit and delay redundancies. I listened with interest to what the Minister said about the fact that the Government would oppose the idea that the public authority should be empowered to veto redundancies. None the less it is there and it is a matter of some concern because it raises difficult problems for a company which finds itself on the verge of bankruptcy.

I could see difficulties arising—if this document was passed into law—for a board of directors which had to meet the requirements laid down here. A company might find itself in a position in which, under the Companies Acts, it ought to cease trading. The implications of the document in that context are not clear.

My final point is as equally relevant to the Employment Protection Bill, as we understand it, as to this document. Little attention is paid to the position of employers. We accept the desirability, indeed necessity, of paying due regard to the interests of working people when redundancies and dismissals take place. But so many of the provisions of the Employment Protection Bill and this document pay no regard to the great costs imposed on employers through having to deal with problems of this sort, when by definition, if they are laying men off, they are likely to be doing badly.

This is an aspect of Government policy —whether in the Bill or the document— in which the Government and the Community appear to be paying little attention to the industrial realities of a company which finds itself in difficulties, which needs to lay off people and which may have to act quickly. New costs and impositions are constantly being placed on companies which, in their present position, are in no condition to bear extra costs.

The principle of the document seems to have much to recommend it. It also seems to have implications for companies and the existing legislative system as well as for our present system of handling relations between trade unions, employers and the Department of Employment which are, to say the least, unclear. I hope that the Minister can clarify these points when he replies to the debate.

1.15 a.m.

Mr. Ivor Clemitson (Luton, East)

If there is to be a new version of this document, I hope that what purports to pass as the English language is improved. One particular gem which I liked was the phrase "increasingly less justifiable". There must be a shorter and more elegant way of stating the thought. The jargon is to be expected. For example, I am sure that workers in Vauxhall Motors or in other car factories will be pleased to know that they are to be beneficiaries of "upward harmonisation".

I do not wish to quarrel with the conclusions reached in the document, although I, too, note that the Government seem to have changed their position. For example, in the 17th April Explanatory Memorandum, referring to the veto powers of public authorities, it is stated that: The principle of granting powers to the Public Authority to delay or prohibit the proposed dismissals poses … difficulties. whereas in the latest Explanatory Memorandum there is the much more positive statement that the proposal may also contain a provision for the public authority to be empowered to veto the redundancies. In common with the majority of other Member States, the Government is opposed to this provision". Presumably the Government have shifted their ground—[HON. MEMBERS: "The ground has shifted."]—or perhaps, as hon. Members say, the ground has shifted. Perhaps the Government will clarify this point.

What I wish to quarrel with in the document is the way in which the conclusions have been reached. Incompatible arguments are adduced for doing the same thing. On the one hand, we have what might be called the argument from the point of view of the welfare of the worker. There is talk of "security of employment" and of improvement in the working and living conditions of workers and their upward harmonisation —that blessed phrase. There is talk of "providing social protection". On the other hand, there is the argument about creating conditions for better, or fairer, or whatever other term we want to use, competition. What is the competition that is talked about in this document and in many other documents emanating from the EEC and its institutions? Is it the perfect competition of the classical economists?

If I may be permitted to go back to the basic source, the Treaty of Rome, Article 85 provides: The following shall be prohibited as incompatible with the common market: all agreements between undertakings, decisions by associations of undertakings and concerted practices which may affect trade between Member States and which have as their object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the common market, and in particular those which:

  1. (a) directly or indirectly fix purchase or selling prices or any other trading conditions;
  2. (b) limit or control production, markets, technical development, or investment;
  3. (c) share markets or sources of supply;
  4. (d) apply dissimilar conditions to equivalent transactions with other trading parties, thereby placing them at a competitive disadvantage;
  5. (e) make the conclusion of contracts subject to acceptance by the other parties of supplementary obligations which, by their nature or according to commercial usage, have no connection with the subject of such contracts".
Every one of those rules is broken by virtually every company in every industry and market in a modern economy. The objective of the modern company or corporation and especially the multinational company, which the document mentions several times without a hint of criticism, is to limit and indeed eliminate competltion.

If the members of the EEC were serious about creating conditions for fairer and better competition, presumably there would be a wholesale attack on large companies and corporations, which would be about as effective as trying to sweep the Atlantic with a broom. As a corollary, we should be trying to free the labour market by a wholesale attack on trade unions and on their restrictive practices, cutting out such nonsense as the Redundancy Payments Act, Contracts of Employment Act, which clearly interfere with the free working of the labour market.

Action to protect employees and to provide them with security, and attempts to prevent the development of areas of mass underemployment, are incompatible with chasing this mirage of competition, and rightly so. Competition is as dead as the dodo. One can only come to the conclusion that talk of competition is some kind of ritual obeisance which has to be gone through in every document issuing from the EEC institutions. It does not add to the clarity or the consistency of any argument. As some of us suspect, it may be a little more sinister than that. It is in fact a cloak behind which the interests of supranational companies are protected and furthered.

Any move towards furthering the protection and improvement of conditions of working people is to be welcomed, but let us do it for the right reason and not because of the nonsensical mishmash presented to us in this document.

1.23 a.m.

Mr. John Davies (Knutsford)

The matter dealt with in this document is of unquestionable importance. That is why the Scrutiny Committee suggested that it was a proper matter for debate.

It would be hard indeed to disagree with much that was said by the mover of the Amendment, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould) in terms of the difficulty which the House clearly faces in being asked to approve a document which, even in its first form, still contained the disagreeable characteristics to which the Government have referred in the supplementary memorandum.

Here I have much sympathy with the point made by the hon. Member, but when he said that the debate had become a kind of charade he spoilt the efficacy of what he said earlier, because the issues are vital ones.

The advantage possessed by this House in relation to these many legislative matters within the framework of the Community is that Parliament is party to the process of discussion and argument which takes place during the finalisation of proposals. This does not apply to domestic legislation. In the case of domestic legislation the House is presented with a cut and dried proposition in its final definitive form, which has been worked out behind the shrouds of Government Departments, as I know well.

Here the House has the desirable opportunity to get into the act during the preliminary stages. How we can call that a charade mystifies me. This is an opportunity for the House to exercise its powers in relation to all these matters.

This is what the Scrutiny Committee was meant to do. It was put there to try to bring to the House matters which were in process so that hon. Members might have the opportunity to influence Ministers' minds, to declare their views, and to help in the formulation of proper and imaginative provisions within the framework of this legislation.

Mr. Gould

If the right hon. Gentleman accepts the point which I made in the early part of my speech, it follows that the conclusion is also correct. The object of this debate was to ask the House to approve a document whose terms hon. Members could not know.

Mr. Davies

I understand the hon. Gentleman, and I admit that the form of approval seemed inconsistent with the document presented to us. But if we took the hon. Gentleman's views to their logical conclusion, and any piece of domestic legislation was still subject to amendment, it might in the same form be termed a charade. But that is not the case. The purpose in handling domestic legislation is to influence it, to change its nature and to improve it. That is the opportunity which is provided through the mechanism of which the House has approved in setting up the Scrutiny Committee. It would be a great pity if the hon. Gentleman's view and the general objection to form, which is characteristic, understandable and part of the system of the House, were to prevent discussion of the fundamental issues at stake in matters of this kind.

Issues of this kind touch the very centre of some of our most difficult problems, be they domestic or international problems. To allow the form constantly to dominate, when we should be more concerned with the essence, would be bad ,and would stultify our objective.

Mr. Marten

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the safeguard with domestic legislation is that we have a Committee stage, where the Opposition can move amendments? In the case of a document such as this, which will eventually be approved by the Council of Ministers, there is no opportunity for hon. Members to move amendments. My right hon. Friend agreed with the principle in this paper, but he had many criticisms. If we had been allowed a Committee stage on the wording of the document, he would have moved many amendments and fought them bitterly. But, because we are in the Common Market, we cannot do that.

Mr. Davies

In relation to this form of legislative proceeding, we have a means of intervening at the stage of gestation. It is a valuable asset. It would be a great pity if the House discraded it or regarded it as a charade. Here we have an opportunity to influence Ministers' minds, if anything can. After the debate, they will be armed with the feelings of hon. Members. Let us not reject that. It would be unwise and short-sighted.

1.29 a.m.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Coventry, South-West)

The acceptance of the amendment enables this House to avoid approving a non-existent or superseded document. We are thus enabled merely to take note of it. But we are still left in a very regrettable position.

I cannot accept the view of the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) that this debate is a valuable exercise. If he is right when he says that it is normal for us to have before us matters which have been prepared "behind shrouds" and which are "cut and dried", that may be a hint that some procedures of this House and Government attitudes and habits could stand improvement.

The right hon. Gentleman omitted to consider the final and irrefutable argument that the House has the final approval. With ordinary legislation, Members of the House can say "Aye" or "No", whereas, however much we may exercise our minds in debate tonight, we shall not have any right to say "Aye" or "No".

We are given to understand—not from any document before the House but by the Financial Times—that the communique being issued from the EEC summit says: To improve the functioning of the Council of the Community, they consider that it is necessary to renounce the practice which consists of making agreement on all questions conditional on the unanimous consent of the Member States. That is a statement of extraordinary importance. It is regrettable that we read it in the Financial Times. Those of us who have raised questions of parliamentary sovereignty have been told that we need not worry, that all will be well because there is a veto and Britain need accept nothing that it does not choose to accept. We are now told that that situation is slipping away from us. It is impossible in this situation for the House to consider the content of the draft document as though it were quite separate from the method.

It seems to be agreed on both sides that the procedures for dealing with directives, regulations, and so on, leave much to be desired. However, I should not like the House then to be led into a search for what it might consider to be a more satisfactory mechanism to do a job that is impossible. We find ourselves in these difficulties perpetually, because we are dealing with a bureaucratic and centralised institution that does not lend itself to democratic scrutiny.

We are told that it is in order for us to approve the contents of the document because it parallels our proposed employment protection Bill. This suggests that we are being told that the draft document is innocuous, not that it is helpful. After all, we are intending, in any case, to introduce an employment protection Bill. Therefore, we are being told that the House of Commons itself can deal adequately with the material before us.

In this case the directive marches in line with the Government's thinking and, perhaps, with the thinking of the House. What if this were not so? Then whose will would prevail? Nothing which has been put before me during the months I have been a Member has done other than show me ever more clearly that in the last analysis the decisions will not be made by the House or in any way directly by the British people. If redundancy matters are to be adequately dealt with, we do not need somebody standing above us but we need better mechanisms more directly in the work place. Let us seek more direct democracy; let us reject this bureaucratic and centralised system.

I believe that it is sought to make a mockery of this House. I was astonished to hear the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk) say that if we were in the European Parliament we would be better informed. How dare the hon. Gentleman stand in this Chamber and make such a statement. I regret that this debate is being conducted at such a late hour and that this point will not receive the publicity it deserves. The British people would be very interested to know what is happening in the House at this moment.

Mr. Tugendhat

If at some point the Government chose to put the hon. Lady on a delegation to the United Nations, would she not find that very helpful and would she not return to this House better informed?

Mrs. Wise

No. I was sent to the House of Commons by the electors of Coventry, South-West. It is to the House of Commons that they expect me to be responsible on their behalf, and to report back to them.

I have never considered myself to be a tremendous parliamentarian. I happen to think that our parliamentary democracy is incomplete; I want to see it extended in many ways. But since I came to the House I have found myself more and more driven to the view that we must defend the parliamentary democracy we have because we are in great danger of being stripped of it all. Because I feel that it is incomplete, that does not mean I want to get rid of what we have got.

What is being played out before us tonight is not a draft directive on redundancy but the question of the relationship of the EEC to this House. I suggest that that relationship is unsatisfactory and will remain so. I am deeply disquieted by what is being put to us as progress at the EEC summit. I feel that the one shred of protection which we were to be given is in danger of being thrown away.

1.38 a.m.

Sir Derek Walker-Smith (Hertfordshire, East)

I shall be very brief indeed at this hour, particularly since the debate is subject to a time limit.

I think that there must be general agreement with the view put forward by the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) that so far we have not perfected any arrangement for the discussion of the manifold directives that come from the Community. That is no great surprise to any of us who have studied these matters. We could improve on the situation if the Leader of the House when asked about these matters, instead of assuming a rather pained expression and saying "This is the sort of difficulty into which we get landed", were able to make some constructive proposals—for example, by grouping a number of these directives and bringing them on at a more reasonable hour so that we could take longer to discuss them and also so that there could be a greater attendance of hon. Members.

As for the constitutional position, the hon. Lady will appreciate that in the setup of the Community the Council of Ministers—paradoxically, in a sense, because they are executives in their own Governments—are the legislative body. The House of Commons is giving guidance to its Minister in order that he may put forward an appropriate view in the Council of Ministers. Under the terms of the treaty he has certain rights and powers. Under the so-called Luxembourg Convention he has additional powers. We shall be very interested in due time to see what the so-called renegotiations—I shall explain at a more appropriate time why I say "so-called renegotiations"—propose to do regarding the Luxembourg Convention.

On the document itself, I should like to indicate the correlation of Article 1 and Article 3.

Under Article 1 an employer who intends to effect dismissals for one or more reasons not related to the individual behaviour of the workers … must notify the appropriate public authority ". Under Article 3, to which criticism has properly been directed, The competent public authority may prohibit the notified dismissals if, after investigation, it is found that the reasons, within the meaning of Article 1, invoked by the employer are non-existent. Translated into terms of this country, that would mean that the Department of Employment would be charged with the responsibility of considering the whole financial position and prospects of any company which regrettably found itself having to make redundancies. That seems a very difficult task for the Department to discharge.

The processes of consultation are obviously good and appropriate, but one would have thought that, by and large, those would have been done in any event without too much intervention by the Departments of State over here.

Finally, because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak, may I ask whether we can at last have an elucidation of this curious riddle which has baffled hon. Members at this time about the Government's attitude regarding Article 3 and how they come to table a motion for the approval of the directive which includes the provisions of Article 3 to which we are told, some months later, the same Government are apparently opposed? It is a peculiar paradoxical riddle. The Minister may satisfy the curiosity of the House when he replies by explaining how the Government have come to do that. I note that in this context they are prepared, in inviting the approval of the House of this document, to accept Article 6 with its mandatory provision for amendment of legislation to conform with the directive tabled at a time certainly when it included this obnoxious Article 3. An explanation of this apparently contradictory situation would help the House and inform our minds.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before calling the next hon. Member, I remind the House that the debate must finish at 2.19 a.m. There are to be two Front Bench winding-up speeches and it has been suggested to me that they should commence at two o'clock.

1.44 a.m.

Mr. J. M. Craigen (Glasgow, Maryhill)

When the Minister winds up, will he deal with the problem which can arise where a large-scale company operates on the basis of integrated accounts and might determine to close one of its branches? There have been several cases in the West of Scotland during the past year where it has become very difficult not only for the employees within a company but for the Government to unearth the true facts and know just how viable a particular unit of production is.

This document talks about consultation and notification to the public body, about a warning period, and so on, but, in the kind of situation to which I am referring, unless these groups can really determine the true facts of the case it will be difficult for the Government to suggest to the company concerned that it should think again about its redundancies.

1.45 a.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

The intervention of the Secretary of State in the speech of the hon. Member for the City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Tugendhat) anticipated the observation that I was going to make; namely, that it was an irony to find the name of the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) attached to an invitation to the House to approve a document which illustrates in classical fashion the radical incompatibility of the very system of the EEC with the legislative powers and competence of this House of Commons. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a document which more clearly demonstrates the exorbitant ambitions of the EEC for harmonisation in the most rigorous sense within the Community as a whole.

There are, as I understand it—and the hon. Member for Luton, East (Mr. Clemitson) was essentially on the same point—two possible approaches. The one which I imagine would command the support of the majority of hon. Members on both sides of the House is that the respective countries should as far as possible eliminate the obstacles to intercourse of trade and the movement of goods and capital between themselves.

Of course, while they retain their own distinctive laws, their own distinctive practices—indeed, their respective national characters—the result of that would not be perfect competition; but it would be as close an approach to perfect competition as was compatible with other values which many people place higher than the perfection of competition. But if there is to be perfect competition in the academic abstract sense in which the Commission evidently envisages it there must also be total harmonisation, so that there is no inequality of practice, let alone of law, between one part of the Community and another; and in the Explanatory Memorandum which prefaces the directive that is clearly set out as the motive.

I notice that the Minister suggested that our proposed legislation for the protection of employment might be more generous, might be more embracing, might go further than the protection envisaged by the Commission. I am afraid that that will not do. I am afraid that that would defeat the objects of this policy as surely as if our protection were inferior to that which is here required.

The logic here requires that we shall carry out neither more nor less than the protection in the specific form in which it is envisaged by the Commission for the whole of the Community. That means that this is a directive that has to be taken literally. Of course, it being a directive, we shall implement it in due course—we shall be obliged by our own legislation to implement it—but it is this directive—no other—that we must implement in order to comply with our duties within the Community.

It is not suitable to be implemented in the law of this country. I take matters at random. Article 1 contains a definition of the circumstances in which the subsequent provisions are to bite. It is a detailed definition and is presumably, therefore, intended to be reflected in the legislation of all the member countries. But a coach and horses could be driven through this definition of the applicability of the provisions. Paragraph 2 refers to "at least 10 per cent." of the usual number of workers being dismissed over one month. But presumably there is no difficulty in dismissing 9½ per cent. in each of any number of successive months. Such is the wisdom of the Commission in drawing up the directive to component States.

Article 3 says that the competent public authority may find the reasons stated by the employer non-existent, in which case it forbids the dismissals, but this is an extreme case. Let us suppose that, even though not non-existent—there must be some reason for the employer to dismiss a large number of employees— the public authority finds them more or less inadequate. What then? We are not told. There is no provision for that.

Article 4 provides for an entrenched mediation procedure, but there is no indication, if the mediation comes to no specific conclusion, of what is to follow.

These are articles which are impossible to translate into tolerable legislation. Yet they or their successors will be binding upon this House in the terms of Section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972.

I should have thought that this House and this country would have learned, even in our domestic context, the difficulty and sensitivity of matters affecting the security of employment and the relations between employers and employees. Here are instructions, not even backed by an intelligible philosophy, with no philosophy of financial relationship between the State and the firms or of the degree of responsibility which the State will take for the burden which it imposes upon employers and thus, indirectly, upon employees.

Surely we have had enough of ill-considered legislation in this field in recent years to last us for a long time, without having this kind of stuff imposed upon us. It is only by our own mature legislation, first of all debated in principle and then, by the proper legislative process, considered in detail, so that, as far as possible, not only the mind of Government but all contingencies can be considered, that tolerable law can be made for the people of this country. This is not to be remedied by another stage in the consultation process. It can be remedied only by this House regaining its legislative competence, and that in turn means that Section 2 of the 1972 Act and all its works has got to go.

1.53 a.m.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

Whatever their views on the motion or some of the wider issues alluded to by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that this has been an interesting debate. This is the fourth or fifth "take note" debate. I know that the motion is to approve, not to take note, but I use the phrase only in the widest generic sense to describe what the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee was right to call a process and procedure of scrutiny of European proposals and secondary legislation, which, whether hon. Members opposite like it or not, is becoming increasingly effective.

This was a strange procedure to the House when it began, but it is now becoming more familiar. I am expressing only a personal view. Hon. Members on all sides will have varying views and nuances about these matters. I do not, however, think that what was said at the beginning of this debate by some Labour Members is valid. Their misgivings are for a totally different reason. They are not concerned with the procedures, despite the fact that they put down an amendment; but I shall not go too far in developing that theme. They are not so much concerned with that, nor is the right hon. Member for Down, South. They are concerned to continue to keep in existence the Second Reading debates on the accession legislation, which was debated at great length, incidentally, before certain hon. Members who have spoken in this debate came to the House. They have had the opportunity—I hope they have used it, but perhaps, if they have not, they will be honest enough to admit it—to read all those debates, not only the Second Reading of the treaty legislation but the Committee and all remaining stages.

It may be for the pleasure of certain hon. Members that the House should continue on these "take note" or "approval" motions which will continue to come forward, because there is a great deal of business of this nature ahead of the House which is being processed through the Scrutiny Committee. It may be for the pleasure of some hon. Members to continue these interminable Second Reading debates, but they do the House a disservice, they do the country a disservice and, gratuitously, they mislead the public.

It was extremely interesting in tonight's debate that not only Labour back-bench Members but the Secretary of State for Employment was nodding enthusiastically as hon. Members on their side of the House were waxing lyrical and querulous about every syllable in every paragraph of this draft directive.

Mr. Madden

Will the hon. Member give way?

Mr. Dykes

Not for the moment. I may decide to give way presently.

Hon. Members should get all this in perspective. If I may say so without sounding too presumptuous, my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk) suggested—again, correctly— at the beginning of this debate that if the Labour Members had a delegation at Strasbourg, at a Parliament which is not elected—it is not a conflict of being elected to two institutions, to which the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) referred—they would have a chance to see the detailed stages of all these processes.

Mr. Spearing

Will the hon. Member give way?

Mr. Dykes

Yes, presently, to the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden), who rose first.

If Labour Members do not want to send a delegation to the Parliament, cannot they send an observer? I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden reads the New Statesman. I read the Morning Star and Tribune. It is a good thing to know what the other side is about. Why do not Labour Members take more of a genuine interest in what the European Economic Community is doing in terms of the activities of its various institutions? That would be a very good thing.

Now, I give way.

Mr. Madden

The hon. Member must have a curious sense of humour if he thinks that those of us who are critical of the provisions of this document at 2 a.m. derive any great pleasure or comfort from being here. We are here to discuss these issues on the Floor of this House because they are issues of great moment and magnitude. They are also issues which it is our responsibility to discuss here.

As the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), others of the hon. Member's hon. Friends and my hon. Friends have pointed out, we have serious misgivings and there are deficiencies in this document. I hope that those of the hon. Member's very well-informed Friends who attend the European Assembly have aired those grievances, otherwise one is left to assume that there are internal differences in the Conservative Party on these issues of great moment and magnitude.

Mr. Dykes

That was a long intervention, and I apologise for having gone on for some time before giving way. I know that the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and possibly some of my hon. Friends wanted to intervene, and there may yet be an opportunity for them to do so.

I hope I am not misunderstood. The hon. Member for Sowerby has missed the point I was making, undoubtedly badly, for which I am sorry. The point I was trying to get at was not in textual terms on the draft directive that the hon. Member and some of his colleagues did not have misgivings about it and were worrying about having insufficient opportunity to debate it. Of course, the House may decide in the future that there are alternative modalities needed for the scrutiny procedure.

The European Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of the proposals in the draft directive, and that vote included the Social Democrats and Socialists in the Assembly. The important Social Affairs and Employment Committee of the Assembly enthusiastically endorsed the proposals as well. I can refer hon. Members to many of the pages of the debate which show that the matter has been completely examined at that stage.

Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)

My hon. Friend says that the European Assembly at Strasbourg voted overwhelmingly for this directive. Did the Conservative representatives at the Assembly vote for Article 3?

Mr. Dykes

Yes, they did. [Interruption.] Does my hon. Friend wish to pursue the point, because I will give way again?

Mr. Biffen

I would be grateful if my hon. Friend used these valuable few moments remaining to explain why he thinks the Government are wrong to exercise their potential veto on Article 3 and why he thinks that the Conservatives are right to support the directive as if stands without such veto.

Mr. Dykes

I was not a party to the debate in the Assembly, but when reading the accounts—and I speak from memory on the point because I cannot find it, although perhaps the Secretary of State can find it more easily for me —it is necessary to bear in mind that the Assembly is a consultative body where frequently approval is expressed for certain things which may be changed later and referred back to the national legislature.

Mr. Marten

Come off it.

Mr. Dykes

That is a reasonable answer, I think.

Mr. Spearing rose

Mr. Dykes

I cannot give way at this stage.

I should like to pass on to comment on what the Minister said in opening the debate. I wish to express a generalised and enthusiastic welcome for the principles in the directive, for its main articles and for the proposals, for example, for the definition of the unit of employment as described in the document.

These are not highly controversial matters between the two Front Benches. A strong will seems to be developing in the House in favour of a rational framework of protection for employees faced with what on the Continent are frequently now being called collective dismissals and what in this country is sometimes called mass redundancy, the latter expression having an undesirable sound. This is particularly apposite when the economic situation of the nation is so serious and unemployment is likely to rise very sharply. The Secretary of State must be extremely worried about the trends in unemployment, and, therefore, any legislative measures the House can take to cushion the effects of that unemployment will be very welcome.

But we are talking about unemployment of more than a small number of people in a small enterprise, which will occur for various reasons. It is important to bear in mind that what has been discussed in the Community at various levels and various of the institutions is the question of redundancies arising from mergers as well as from companies getting into difficulties. I hope that the Minister will say a little more about companies getting together on a national basis, which is the primary pattern.

We should like more information about the veto on any action by the appropriate public authority, which is the Department of Employment in this country, to stop dismissals. This will be a difficult point to cover. We wait to see the employment protection Bill. We wait for a date for its announcement, and hope that the Minister can help us on that tonight. On 3rd December the Secretary of State hinted that it might come before Christmas, as a kind of Christmas present, or soon after. The Bill is important in relation to the draft directive.

I believe that there is a meeting of the ministerial council on the subject next week. Therefore, we are close to important decisions being made at the appropriate level, as we are still members of the Community.

It would benefit the House if the definition of the sizes of the dismissal ratios could be clarified. In the draft directive there is the basis of, for example, at least five workers for a unit of employment of 20–50 workers, at least 10 per cent. of workers dismissed for 50–250 workers and at least 25 for more than 250. I may have misheard the Minister, but I thought that I detected a numerical conflict between what he said about the basis, the suggestions in the fifth section of the employment protection Bill consultative document and the basis given in an answer by his hon. Friend the Minister of State on 3rd December, when he said: we envisage that any employer who lays off 10 or more workers in any one establishment, to be dismissed within a period of 30 days, will be required to give 60 days' notice, and any employer proposing to lay off 100 or more workers in any one establishment to be dismissed within a period of 90 days, will be required to give 90 days' notice."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd December 1974; Vol. 882. c. 1337.] What will be the Government's line on the ratios in the ministerial council?

I repeat our welcome for the proposals in the draft directive. Our rejection of the way in which it emanated from the Council in response to the original drawn up by the Commission in November 1973 has been wrong or has hindered the directive's examination by the House. We have followed the normal procedure by which Economic Community Council proposals for directives have been processed so far. There is no objection today which would not have applied on previous occasions. After the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Bill was debated last week at an early hour in the morning we had a "take note" motion. On that occasion there were very few Members in the House, no doubt because it was 9.30 in the morning, and no voices were raised against it. That motion was based on the development of Community documents which had developed in entirely the same way as those which have been debated this morning.

I hope, therefore, that hon. Members who continue to be reluctant to accept the reality of this country's position in the wider European scene, and the need for us to rely on our European friends to help this country in respect of all sorts of matters, but not least our economic welfare in the future, will get their objections in perspective and within reasonably pragmatic limits and not seek to cause difficulties about important and desirable objectives such as the proposed Community legislation in this document.

2.12 a.m.

Mr. John Fraser

With the leave of the House, speaking for myself and, I think, for my hon. Friends, we reject the proposition that they ought to be going to Strasbourg to debate this matter. I applied a reserve—not a veto—and blocked the directive last time it came before the Council of Ministers. I did it because I thought it ought to be considered in this country, and I thought there ought to be an opportunity for Members of Parliament to discuss it. I make no apology for that, and I still take that view.

May I now answer some of the questions put by the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes). He asked about redundancies arising from mergers. There are proposals, which are not likely to come up in the near future, from the Commission about mergers, employment and redundancy. I think I have enough on my plate dealing with this directive without going into any other matters at present.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about Article 3 in the draft directive, relating to the power to veto redundancies altogether. May I make clear, as I hope the memorandum makes clear, that I would not agree to that provision. It does not cater for our country, and I would not allow the document to go through with that provision in it.

As to the employment protection Bill, we hope to see it published in the New Year.

Mr. Biffen rose

Mr. Fraser

I cannot give way now. I am short of time.

Inevitably many comments have been made about procedure. I cannot discuss procedure at length. All I can say is that there are unsatisfactory aspects to it. There will be occasions when this can be discussed.

I accept the criticism that a motion to approve a document as a basis for discussion is not the best way to do it, and I express my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould) for tabling his amendment approving the general objectives of the directive.

I was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Test what the Government would do if the proposals were rejected by the House. Any Government, and particularly a Labour Government, would be very much at peril if they chose to ignore the wishes of the House and went to Brussels or Luxembourg and agreed something which did not have the support of the House of Commons. That is why we regard it as important to have discussions and consultations in the House, and with the trade unions and the CBI, before going back to try to agree something on the proposals which are now before us.

I was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) what would be the position if the directive were out of line with the feeling of the House. Where I have doubts about things like the veto and unilateral arbitration, I am not prepared to accede to them. I think the memorandum makes that quite clear.

The hon. Member for the City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Tugendhat) asked about the relationship of the employer, the trade union and the Department when the redundancy notices are given. The Department set out in its consultative document the purpose for the Department in having advance notice. It is in the terms of our Labour Party manifesto to try to ensure that redundancy does not lead to unemployment, that it should lead either to retraining or to redeployment.

The period of notice will enable the Manpower Services Commission to look at the situation, perhaps ameliorating the effects of redundancy, and it will certainly give time to set up job teams and look at the possibilities of retraining and redeployment. We are not satisfied with a situation where hundreds of people can be given only 24 hours' notice, leaving the unions and the Department to sort out the subsequent mess.

We shall use the advance notice for that purpose. The unions will have a period in which they can arrange the form which the redundancy takes. I am told that it is no good a man waiting until the end of the period of redundancy notice. Often, he will want to start looking for another job before the notice expires, and the union can negotiate that kind of arrangement.

There may be other occasions when a union, because it is provided with information, is not satisfied that there is adequate reason for redundancies, and the period of notice gives it at least time to enter into negotiations with the management to see whether there are better ways to deal with the situation than by mass sackings.

I was asked about a firm that is in financial difficulty. I may say that had certain firms which find themselves now in financial difficulties taken the unions and their work people into their confidence much earlier and followed the kind of procedures we hope to achieve by the employment protection Bill, it would have been better for them and the workers involved.

There may be exceptional occasions where it is not possible to give long periods of notice. An example which comes to mind is Flixborough, where there was a massive explosion. In such circumstances, one could not expect management to give advance notice of the consequences of such a disaster.

The Commission intends some kind of scale with regard to the size of the dismissal, and a scale has been put in the draft directive. We propose to keep to the figures we have in the employment protection Bill, a minimum of 10 over a period of 30 days or 100 over a period of 90 days. We may reduce the figure to five in order to reach agreement with other countries, but apart from that we shall keep to the figures we have in the Bill.

Finally, it is wrong to suggest that one has to try to achieve redundancy laws in order to have fair competition between one country and another. It is right throughout Europe to try to alter the balance of power in favour of ordinary working people and their families against multinational companies and large concentrations of power, and for its own sake and not for the sake of perfect competition. I endorse that view strongly. It fits in with our ideas, and I hope it has the support of the House.

Amendment agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House, while approving the objectives of Commission Document No. R/2976/ 73, considers that it can only be noted since its contents are subject to amendment by documents not before this House.

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