HC Deb 10 July 1974 vol 876 cc1479-90

(1) It shall be unlawful for any trade union official of any trade union to attempt to persuade any person whether a member of the union or not to engage in a strike or other industrial action—

  1. (a) not being in contemplation or further ante of a trade dispute but having the objective of applying pressure upon Parliament or one or more Ministers of the Crown or any Court of Law in Great Britain; or
  2. (b) same as referred to in subsection (2) of this section whether or not in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute if the strike or other action would be likely to bring about a serious hazard to the health or safety of any person or persons.

(2) No action shall be unlawful by reason of subsection 1(b) of this section if it arises out of a trade dispute and not less than two weeks prior notice has been given in writing to the Secretary of State for Employment by or on behalf of the trade union concerned of the intention to take the action in question.

(3) Any person suffering loss or damage by reason of any act or action rendered unlawful by this section shall be entitled to take civil proceedings for damages in respect thereof.—[Mr. Onslow.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Onslow

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time. [Interruption.]

Perhaps I may allow a minute or two for Liberal Members to leave the Chamber as noisily as they like. I hope to persuade the House that in moving the clause my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Waddington) and myself are reluctant to detain the House long in speaking to it. It is true—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. May we have silence, except for the hon. Member who is addressing the House.

Mr. Onslow

Even I will try to heed your injunction, Mr. Speaker.

The clause would make slightly better sense if the first word in paragraph (b) were "Save" instead of "Same". There seems to have been a touch of the Alf Garnett about the printing of the wording. It is a charming innovation but unfortunately it is destructive of the sense. Otherwise the clause is fairly clear and I hope that I need not spend a great deal of time going over what is states.

I should like to explain briefly why my hon. and learned Friend and I are putting forward the clause. We were members of the Committee. We agree that, having sat through most, if not all, of the Committee's sittings, we were left at the end with no clear idea how the Secretary of State was empowered and how he would be minded to discharge the duty, which falls to the holder in his office in every Government of this country, of protecting the public interest against whatever threats might be levelled against it.

9.45 p.m.

I remember asking the Secretary of State at one point, though not on this specific matter, where he was prepared to draw the balance of interest as between the trade unions on the one side and the public at large on the other side. Even when reading what passes for the OFFICIAL REPORT of our debates I can find no answer attributed to the Secretary of State on that point. We now have another opportunity, therefore, for him to tell us where he sees the balance lying and at what point he is prepared to say that a Socialist Government—he himself is a Secretary of State—would stand and seek to defend the public interest.

The Under-Secretary, who has just replied less than adequately to the debate, said in his opinion the Government had adequate emergency powers. I am as unconvinced of that, having heard them recited, as I was unconvinced that the Government of which the Secretary of State is a member see the need to have the powers which the new clause would give them. I hope I am wrong. I hope that at least the Secretary of State or whoever replies from the Government Front Bench will be able to tell us that he not only condemns the political strike but sees a real defence of the public against the political strike, whether that strike takes place in what are admittedly the peculiar conditions of Northern Ireland or whether it takes place, as we must conceive to be possible, in what we are pleased to regard as the more normal conditions of the rest of the United Kingdom, whether it takes place in an area where the stakes that are being played for, if that is not too frivolous a way of putting it, are those of human health and even human life, as we have unhappily seen in the case of the health service, or whether it is simply in an area where the losses that members of the public stand to find inflicted upon them as third parties are a massive loss of food in ships which cannot be refrigerated or some other considerable loss or disadvantage which is likely to be inflicted upon the long-suffering British public and which by that very fact exercise a political influence against the Government of the day to adopt a course of compromise if not of surrender.

I hope, therefore, that the Secretary of State will be able to give us a convincing answer to the questions cast within the framework of the new clause. If he does that, I shall be content. I do not make this argument in any spirit of mockery or refusal to be convinced. I put my inquiry to the Secretary of State perfectly genuinely. I am as anxious now to hear him say "Here we will stand. This defence we will provide. The public can rely upon us to give them protection in this deal and to this degree" as when this matter first came up in Committee. I hope very much that without further ado he will now be able to satisfy me.

Mr. Waddington

The Bill provides new legal immunities for trade unions. It legalises many practices which apart from this Bill would not be legal—and yet most people, while perhaps very sceptical as to the benefits which resulted from the Industrial Relations Act of 1971, I am sure take the view that there is no reason to think that today trade unions are weak and oppressed. Most of them would agree, if it were put to them, that the trade unions are strong and capable of doing considerable damage to the community. Most people, if asked whether they believed in political strikes, would say that they certainly did not.

The attitude of hon. Members opposite has at the very least been somewhat ambivalent. One has seen a marked contrast between the attitude of right hon. Members opposite on political strikes in Ireland and their attitude towards political strikes in this country when a Conservative Government were in office prior to February. One has also been a little alarmed at the attitude of some right hon. Gentlemen and Ladies opposite towards the industrial dispute involving the nurses, when the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Social Services were not forthcoming in saying that Mrs. Brookstone was not entitled to usurp the power of Parliament and to tell Parliament how to behave.

My hon. Friends and I are concerned to have a clear statement from the Government on these all important matters. I do not suppose that we shall press the new clause to a Division, but we find it peculiar that the Government have ducked this issue time and again.

Everybody knows that some unions are now so powerful that they can do untold damage to the community and are prepared to use their industrial power to topple Governments. Everyone knows from the antics of Mr. Scanlon that some unions are even prepared to use industrial power to reverse the decisions of a court. In those circumstances, when a Government introduce a Bill to extend the legal immunities of unions and to grant them immunity such as they have never had before, they must tell the people how they will be protected against abuse of industrial power—whether it be a union deliberately setting out to get Parliament to reverse a democratically-made decision, an attempt to get a court of law to reverse a decision or an attempt, which would fall under subsection (2), to use industrial power regardless of the safety of other citizens.

I earnestly beg the Secretary of State to recognise that the time has come for him to make a sensible statement about the Government's attitude. So far, we have heard cant about the wickedness of the Industrial Relations Act, about how the TUC will set everything right and about how Hughie Scanlon is a very good boy after all and does not wean half of what he says. At the end of the day the public know that although the Industrial Relations Act can be faulted, unions are now more powerful than ever before, that the Bill will make them still more powerful, and they are surely entitled to a definitive statement about where the Government stand.

Do the Government believe that Mrs. Brookstone can decide whether there should be pay beds, or should Parliament decide? Does Parliament decide that a judge should apply the law or, if Mr. Scanlon feels like it, should be decide the law? The new clause gives the Government an opportunity to say for the first time where they stand on these issues.

Sir Raymond Gower

The Minister may find it easy to reject the clause for technical reasons but I should like to add to the arguments in its favour. My worry about political strikes is that they fall equally on good employers and bad. One can understand the strike directed against a bad employer—a firm, an individual or a large limited company that maintains bad conditions or pays unsatisfactory wages. But what one cannot understand is the general, blanket form of industrial dispute, the ill effects of which fall on firms which have good industrial relations and firms which have bad industrial relations, firms which pay good wages and firms 'which pay had wages, firms which go out of their way to be good employers and equally firms which have neglected their duty as employers.

This disturbs many of us. It is something comparatively recent in our industrial history. In the years before the last war one could understand the reason for so many of the strikes. Conditions were bad. One could understand why people were ready to take that kind of action. But what is much more difficult to understand is this sort of strike, the effects of which seem to be applied indiscriminately against good employers and bad. It is in that context that we should like to hear the Secretary of State's views about these matters, although I appreciate that the new clause can be rejected for many reasons.

Mr. Foot

The three hon. Gentlemen who have spoken on the new clause have raised a whole variety of major questions. If I were tempted to answer them completely, perhaps we should injure that happy atmosphere of speedy progress which we are all so eager to cultivate. Therefore, I hope the hon. Gentlemen will excuse me if I do not deal with all the particular personal matters that they raised. But they must not assume that because I have not replied about Mr. Hugh Scanlon I accept what they said about him. Some of their descriptions of these matters were grotesque. But, as I say, that is a temptation I should reject.

We on the Government side of the House do not believe that there is anything in the Bill which injures the supremacy of Parliament. I say that not only in reply to the hon. Member for Barry (Sir R. Gower) but also to the right hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Macmillan). So far from the Bill injuring Parliament, we think that its passage will greatly assist the reputation of Parliament. It will do so because the best thing that Parliament can do on this subject is to pass workable Bills, and not Bills which are incapable of being operated. Therefore, that is what we are doing.

However, this is an important question. In some respects it could be said that this new clause is more important than the previous new clauses, because its passage would certainly cause grave injury to industrial relations in Britain, not merely for technical reasons and technical deficiencies in the clause but for other reasons which I shall seek to describe. Therefore, we hope very much that, after I have discussed these matters, hon. Members of the Opposition will be prepared to withdraw the new clause.

The clause provides for two different types of limitation on industrial action, and it is necessary to distinguish them. The limitation in sub-paragraph (a) on action having as its objective the application of pressure upon Parliament or one or more Ministers of the Crown or any court of law in Great Britain would apply only if such action is not in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute. The limitation in sub-paragraph (b) applies to all industrial action likely to bring about a serious hazard to the health and safety of persons, but if such action arises out of a trade dispute the action would not be unlawful provided that two weeks' prior notice had been given to the Secretary of State. Therefore, there is a conglomeration of two different ideas in the same clause.

The approach, we believe, suffers from a number of defects and disadvantages and may in part rest upon a misunderstanding of the position which will prevail under the Bill when it is law. The limitation in sub-paragraph (a) singles out particular types of industrial action for political purposes which are not in con, templation or furtherance of a trade dispute. It does not cover all such action. But the present Bill does not give persons, including union officials, immunity from action for breach of contract unless the acts inducing the breach are in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute.

Legal action has rarely been taken in the past to restrain strikes carried out other than in the contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute and action under this clause would be similarly unlikely. It is difficult in practice to distinguish strikes called for political purposes from those which are in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute. There are normally elements of a trade—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Ordered, That the Trade Union and Labour Relations Bill may be proceeded with at this day's Sitting, though opposed, until any hour.—(Mr. Coleman.)

Question again proposed, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Foot

There are normally elements of a trade dispute in such disputes which have political purposes. In case hon. Members might wish to intervene to suggest that that doctrine does not win their immediate approval, perhaps I may refer them to the case last year in which this was demonstrated, the case of Sherard v. ALLEW, which turned on the definition of "industrial dispute" under the 1971 Act; but the points apply to a trade dispute too.

Lord Denning made it clear that a dispute between the TUC and the Government was not an industrial dispute and he implied that political strikes as such would not fall within the definition of "industrial dispute" because they were not in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute. Nevertheless he held that the dispute in question might be an industrial dispute and he refused the interlocutary relief sought on that account.

Lord Justice Roskill, agreeing with Lord Denning's conclusion, said that the phrase "political strike" should be used, at any rate in a court of law, with caution because it did not readily lend itself to precise or accurate definition. It is all too easy for someone to talk of a strike as being a political strike when what that person really means is that the object of the strike was something of which he as an individual subjectively disapproved.

Professor Kahn-Freund, whose authority has been quoted earlier but in less good cause than I am now quoting him, has commented that the line between political and industrial action is far from clear. He asked How can it be clear in a world in which the political and economic spheres of life are indistinguishable … Where is the line between a strike to induce an employer to raise, or not to reduce wages, and a strike to press the Government for measures which would enable the employer to do so? He concluded that the problem was insoluble. Therefore, if Professor Kahn-Freund regards it as insoluble, it shows great temerity on the part of Conservative Members to think that they can succeed where he was likely to fail.

Mr. Onslow

I would not dream of rushing in where Professor whatever his name is fears to tread, but there is a limit to the extent to which the Secretary of State should feel obliged to blind me with science. Getting back to the words-of-one-syllable department, may I ask him to rehearse what he is saying more briefly by agreeing with the proposition that there is nothing in the Bill which fundamentally alters the position of strikes which are, by the admission of those engaged in them, primarily political in their purpose? That is to say, they are not necessarily to be treated as trade disputes because of anything in the Bill and there are other remedies which apply to strikes which fall outside the category of trade disputes in the first instance and, what is perhaps more to the point, the remedies of the third party, who may find himself crushed between the millstones of such a situation, are still as they were before this legislation was brought before the House.

Mr. Foot

There is nothing in this legislation that would alter the position on these matters compared with pre-1971, but the hon. Member has not fully understood what I was saying. Not merely was I refuting what he said, but Professor Kahn-Freund was refuting him more effectively; he was showing that if one tries to describe political strikes in this way one will get into difficulties which one should seek to avoid. The suggestion that people should be encouraged to take action all over the country to recover the damage they might have suffered from such action is a recipe for universal chaos. It is encouraging litigation affecting industrial disputes on a scale which I would have thought even the most eager supporter of such intervention by law in industrial affairs would have been keen to avoid. I hope that what I have said on the question of political strikes is sufficient to remove any such suggestions from the minds of members of the Opposition.

Although that part of the clause relating to health or safety does not involve exactly the same issues, it does cover some of them. However, I shall not go into this matter in detail because when I went into subsection 1(a) in detail the hon. Member for Woking was not entirely satisfied, and therefore I shall abbreviate my remarks on subsection 1(b) in order to accommodate him.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that if the clause were pushed into the Bill it would do great injury to our industrial relations. I am not saying that the hon. Gentlemen who put forward the clause had that as their intention. It is clear that they did not fully realise, as others may not have realised, what would be the consequences of the clause if passed. There is not the slightest doubt that if the clause were passed it would overturn the definitions which Lord Denning, Professor Kahn-Freund and others have sought to understand, and therefore would run the risk that strike action could lead to much greater difficulties than anything the hon. Gentlemen had contemplated.

Sir Raymond Gower

I do not dissent from much of what the right hon. Genleman has said, but would he accept that great hardship and damage could ensue—perhaps great national views-papers could be destroyed—through strikes caused by nothing to do with bad industrial relations, such as a strike based on the policy of a Government to carry on trade with a foreign government of either the extreme right or the extreme left? Clearly such a strike would have nothing to do with bad accommodation or bad wages, and yet some newspapers in this country could be brought to their knees in such a strike. Is that not a matter of great concern?

Mr. Foot

It is certainly a matter of great concern. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my hon. Friend the Minister of State and myself have spent much time in the past three months at the Department of Employment doing our best to try to assist in preventing strikes in the newspaper industry. It is of the highest importance in terms of free discussion throughout the country that we should try to get a situation in the newspaper industry which would avoid such strikes, but circumstances such as the hon. Gentleman mentioned would not be avoided by action as suggested in the clause; indeed such circumstances would be greatly multiplied.

I do not wish to be provocative, but the clause could do grave injury to industrial relations in this country. I appreciate that that is not the intention of hon. Gentlemen opposite, but it would be the result.

I hope I can summarise the matter without being offensive by saying that the clause amounts to the 1971 Act with knobs on and I hope that it will not be passed through the House at this late stage.

Mr. Onslow

I hesitate to disagree with the Secretary of State, although he must not take my silence for consent, any more than we necessarily take his silence for acquiescence.

The right hon. Gentleman has replied constructively. At least, he has made his position clear. Whether he has made the position satisfactory for the general public, I rather doubt, but I see no purpose in prolonging the debate. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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