HC Deb 11 July 1974 vol 876 cc1627-38

7.15 p.m.

Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)

I beg to move Amendment No. 78, in page 10, line 29, at end insert: (2) No such picketing shall be lawful unless the trade union whose members are to attend at or near any such place as is mentioned in the foregoing subsection for any purpose mentioned therein shall first notify the chief officer of police for the area which includes any such place giving him the following information

  1. (a) the names of the union members who are so to attend; and
  2. (b) the dates and times at which, and places at or near which such members are so to attend.
The clause is a statement, to which no one would take exception, of what should be the law relating to peaceful picketing. Peaceful picketing sounds such an innocent thing that one would hardly believe the regrettable incidents which have taken place in recent years when people have tried to indulge in it. We are all familiar with those incidents. There is no need for me to remind hon. Members of their details, but we should profit by our experience and try to make some provision, administratively workable and quite simple and sound in principle, which would enable those regrettable incidents to be avoided in future. That is the purpose of my amendment.

The method of the amendment is to say that picketing would not be lawful unless the trades unions concerned first notified the police, gave the police the names of those who would be acting as pickets, and told them where they would be picketing. On many occasions the police already receive that information by one means or another, but if on all occasions they could obtain it from the outset they would have great advantages. It would enable breaches of the peace to be prevented and would enable the police in doubtful cases to ensure that the law was being complied with.

In that context I must point out that the very wide extension of the meaning of the term "trade dispute" bites on this clause relating to peaceful picketing and means that in future there may be even more doubtful cases of peaceful or allegedly peaceful picketing in controversial circumstances than there have been in the past.

Another result would be that if the police were there they could protect the picketing trade union members from angry members of the public, even from the angry wives of trade union members.

This is an eminently reasonable proposition. I claim no merit for the amendment's drafting, but if it is sound in principle, as I hope the House and the Government will find it, any defects in drafting can quite well be put right in another place.

7.15 p.m.

Mr. Foot

The right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) has put his case very briefly. I shall reply briefly, although I entirely agree with him that the question the House is to decide about picketing generally is important. It is obviously one that must be discussed more fully on another occasion.

When we published our Consultative Document about the Bill we said that we thought we should be able to carry further the arrangements which were to be made about picketing generally and the law to provide for it. We wished to do so partly because of recent experiences and partly because of some of the changes of the law that we think have taken place as a result of the interpretation of the picketing law. For that variety of reasons, we wanted to include in the Bill a consideration of picketing generally.

However, when we went about it we discovered that it was a complicated subject and we did not think we should be able to deal with it properly in the Bill.

One possibility was that we should have a series of regulations that would be issued under the Bill, but we did not think that that would be effective, because we thought it wiser to think out what would be the form of the regulations before asking the House to deal with the matter in that way. Therefore, we have postponed dealing with any question of picketing till the Employment Protection Bill.

What we have done is not to extend the law about picketing in any sense. Whatever may have been on previous amendments the arguments about extension of the law, there is no extension of the law about picketing under this provision. Indeed, in a sense there is a limitation, because, as compared with the infallible 1906 Act, the clause excludes picketing of people's homes.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman introduces a proposal about notification to the police and how the police should deal with different forms of picketing. Obviously, that is a major matter to be dealt with under regulations, if we think of regulations, or under the general provisions of the Bill. Therefore, we do not think that it would be sensible to pick out notification of the police, be cause there are several other aspects in which the police themselves are interested, apart from any other considerations. We think that the proper way to deal with a reform of the law of picketing is to take into account the representations of the police and others concerned, such as the National Council for Civil Liberties, which has an important document on the subject. We propose to do that in the next Bill. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's suggestion will form part of the consideration to be included in that kind of discussion.

Sir David Renton

Probably through inadvertence, the right hon. Gentleman has stated a proposition that could not hold under the Bill. He said that the Government will be making regulations under the Bill.

Mr. Foot


Sir David Renton

I understood the right hon. Gentleman to say so, and I think that other hon. Members will bear me out. At any rate, the power in Clause 23 to make regulations does not include a power to make regulations for purposes in relation to Clause 12, relating to picketing.

Mr. Foot

I am sorry if that is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman understood me to say. I must have misled him. There is no power to issue regulations about picketing under the Bill, and there is no proposal to take such powers. If I inadvertently said that, I am sorry. Certainly, that was not my intention. We are not asking the House to settle in the Bill anything afresh about picketing. We are maintaining the law as it stands, with the single exception of a limitation about picketing of people's homes. We expect that over the coming months, in preparation for the Employment Protection Bill, there will be opportunities for discussion about this. When we come to consider that Bill we can decide whether we deal with picketing either by changes in the law or by having regulations that could be operated under that new legislation.

I hope that on that basis the House will not embark on a general discussion about picketing. I appreciate that it is an important, indeed a fascinating, question. Many hours could be spent on the subject. When I arrived at my Department on taking office I was told that the previous Government had had long discussions about this. I do not wish to suggest here that officials at my Department were breaking the law by referring to what the previous people did. I am sure that the officials were not breaking the law. We can have long discussions on this subject later when further legislation is considered.

I hope that the Opposition understand the position, that no change is now being proposed in the picketing law apart from the single provision which I have referred to—and that concerns a limitation rather than an extension.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

The right hon. Gentleman cannot brush the amendment aside so lightly. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) is a former successful Minister in the Home Office and he, probably better than anyone else in the House at this moment, will well know what would or would not help the police in regard to picketing. I wish to support the amendment. The clause places particular emphasis on "peacefully", inasmuch as that word appears twice within the eight or nine lines of the clause.

Whatever intention the Government or the right hon. Gentleman may have in this matter, it will not necessarily be transmitted to the picket lines at the place of work which is the subject of picketing. The clause refers to peacefully obtaining, or peacefully persuading ". Peacefully obtaining or persuading can lead to impatience as busy people are detained and, in turn, prolonged detention can lead to violent action. Surely it is better for the Secretary of State to accept this modest amendment, which would enable the police to be on the spot in the first place and thus prevent trouble arising.

I do not know whether the Secretary of State intends to intervene again in the debate. It is confusing—sometimes he does intervene again and sometimes he does not. I should be interested to know whether, since the amendment was tabled, he has taken any steps to consult the police and get their advice. If he has done so perhaps he will give the House the benefit of any advice he may have received from the police organisations. I am sure that the views of the police on this matter would be helpful to the House.

From the small amount of information I have been able to gather I believe that the police would warmly welcome notification being given to them before picketing takes place. I am concerned that under the clause there is no limit as to the number of pickets who can suddenly descend on an area without warning. The clause refers to "one or more", but how many more? There is no limit on the numbers of pickets who can suddenly appear without prior notification, and this could often lead to a dangerous situation.

What the amendment proposes is the very least that should be put into the Bill in regard to this matter. Other useful additions could be made to the amendment, such as requiring that notification to the chief police officer for the area be given in writing, and that the addresses—not just the names—of pickets be given so that their bona fides can be established.

I am convinced that if the amendment is included in the Bill some of the disgraceful and unhappy scenes of hatred and violence seen at picket lines in this country in recent times will be less likely to recur. I do not think that I am putting it too strongly to say that it is in the national interest that the amendment should be accepted.

Mr. Fell

I do not intend to transgress on the Secretary of State's suggestion that we should not dwell at length on this amendment, but I am a bit surprised at his attitude. My right lion. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) has experience of this matter. He spoke only briefly, which is perhaps unusual for people in his profession. He has put down the most concise and easily understood amendment one could imagine, dealing with only a small part of the subject of picketing.

Had the Secretary of State been in opposition and faced with this sort of small amendment he would have entranced the House for probably 40 minutes and terrified the Government with his elocution and his beautiful language. Yet he now says that we must not dwell on this little amendment because we are going to have jam tomorrow—that we are going to have a Bill later which will put everything right. The Secretary of State is full of good intentions and says that he will deal with the whole question of picketing in future legislation. But the proposal now before us is simple and is not difficult for anyone to understand. It is perfectly simple for even me to understand.

Surely the unions are not so stupid that they would not be able to understand the amendment? Surely even the dimmest member of a trade union would not be so dim that he could not understand this simple amendment? Surely the police are not so stupid that they would be unable to understand the terms of the amendment? Surely the execution of what is sought in the amendment would not cause inordinate trouble? Surely the Secretary of State can accept the amendment for the time being, until he brings in the legislation in which he has promised he will cover this entire subject? I appeal to him not to resist the case which has been put so briefly and so well by my right hon. and learned Friend.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Woodhouse (Oxford)

I wish to support my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton). Even if the amendment is unlikely to be pressed to a Division, I hope that the Secretary of State will nevertheless take careful note of the points that have been raised and of the additional matters I want to deal with when he comes to consider the form of future legislation on the subject, which we hope will embody the principle of the amendment. My reason for regarding the amendment as a particularly apposite one on which to speak arises from a practical experience in my constituency on 1st May a few years ago.

As will be recalled, there was a general but not unanimous campaign for launching a strike in protest against the then Industrial Relations Bill. It was left to different unions to decide whether they would take part in that strike. In my constituency the bus drivers decided that they would not. Nevertheless in the early morning of 1st May the bus drivers in Oxford were forcibly prevented by pickets from driving out of the depot. Those pickets did not belong to the same union as the bus drivers. They were merely trying to enforce a general attitude of industrial action.

The police were not forewarned of the action that was to take place and were unable to arrive in time to permit the bus drivers to go to work. Accordingly the drivers were prevented from working as they wished to do.

There are two respects in which the amendment would be appropriate to such circumstances. First, if the provisions of the amendment had been law at that time the police would have been notified of the intention to picket. They would have been there and able to prevent any illegal action.

There is another respect in which the amendment is apposite. As I understand it, Clause 12 contains no reference to a trade union. It refers only to persons picketing. My right hon. and learned Friend's amendment implies that picketing would be lawful only when conducted by a trade union involved in the dispute.

Sir David Renton

May I congratulate my hon. Friend upon the alertness of his observation?

Mr. Woodhouse

I am grateful. I want to pursue that point because I am reliably informed that on the occasion to which I am referring a large number of pickets who prevented the bus drivers from driving out were not members of any union, except possibly the National Union of Students. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will bear this point in mind for the future. It is intolerable that picketing should be permitted in such a situation, when not only are the pickets not trade unionists who are in any way involved in the dispute but they are not even people who in the ordinary sense of the term belong to a trade union. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to give an undertaking that he will bear these points in mind for the future.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) on introducing the amendment. I cannot understand the Minister's argument. This is an important yet a small alteration. I do not understand why he cannot include it in the Bill. It would be in the interests of strikers, police and everyone else. The right hon. Gentleman has said that he will introduce more comprehensive legislation later. That is very good but I cannot see why it should inhibit his accepting this small amendment, to which I do not think he has any objection in principle.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman listened with great care to what has been said and has promised that he will incorporate these points in future legislation. It is a pity we cannot have this one now. I am sure that the public feel strongly on this issue. The amendment would be of great assistance, because we have all seen the sort of situations that can arise in picketing.

Mr. David Waddington (Nelson and Colne)

I do not believe that the invention of television has proved to be an unmixed blessing, but at least it has brought home to people some of the objectionable practices which sometimes occur during an industrial dispute. The Secretary of State cannot argue that the Bill is not a suitable vehicle for dealing with the problems of picketing. because he has chosen to deal with it in Clause 11. Further, it is surely an open secret that shortly after he took office he was considering dealing with picketing in this way.

It is wrong that the public should have to wait before they can receive satisfaction on such vital matters. What worries me—I was worried about this in the debate on secondary boycotts—is that I am not sure whether the Government have their heart in the right place. I was not pleased to hear what the right hon. Gentleman had to say about the offering of the National Council for Civil Liberties. The public certainly realise that there are abuses which have to be dealt with. I support the amendment because it is the least that the public are entitled to expect.

Mr. Prior

The brevity of this debate and the reasonable tone of the speeches should not be allowed to conceal from the House or the country the depth of feeling on the subject of picketing. This minor amendment would go some way towards helping the police to control some of the things we have seen occurring at pickets and would allow people who want to go about their normal, peaceful duties to do so.

In Committee we moved an amendment which would have made it possible for the right hon. Gentleman to introduce regulations on the subject. This was a suggestion he put forward in his earlier document. That is the right way to proceed. If he is in a position to come forward later with further legislation dealing with picketing we shall welcome it. If, as is much more likely, it is to be left to the Conservative Party, when in government, to do something, I can tell my right hon. and hon. Friends that I have every intention that we should introduce regulations to govern the rules of picketing very much along the lines suggested by the right hon. Gentleman in a footnote to his document of 22nd March. That would go a long way towards reassuring the public, who feel deeply that the present situation should not be tolerated.

Mr. Cyril Smith

I feel that I ought to put on record the views of my colleagues and myself on the subject of picketing. Our view is simply that picketing should be legal, but beyond that we believe that the fewer laws there are about picketing the better. We believe that most people who picket are peaceful citizens and that the situation should be kept in perspective. The number of occasions on which people cause trouble when picketing are rare. In our view legislation is not necessary to deal with such occasions.

Legislation which attempted in some way to regulate the conditions, times, circumstances or methods of picketing would only worsen the industrial situation. Basically my party's attitude is that picketing should be made legal, but beyond that it should be left to the common sense of the police and individuals.

With great respect to the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir David Renton), I do not believe that anyone who has the slightest knowledge of the way in which trade unions work would expect paragraph (a) of the amendment to be implemented in practice.

Mr. Foot

This short debate illustrates the different emphases that ate placed on different aspects. The whole House cannot immediately arrive at the same conclusions about the way in which picketing should be dealt with. If it did, it would be a unique occasion. The problem is not so easy as that.

We shall bear in mind what has been said by the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) and by all hon. Members who have spoken to his amendment. The proposal contained in the amendment is one consideration that has to be taken into account, but it is not the only one. The police may criticise what the right hon. and learned Gentleman proposes, and the police will have the fullest opportunity to say what they think about the proposition, as about others.

I have been asked whether we consulted the police. We did so when we started to consider whether we could deal with picketing in the Bill. We had discussions with the Home Secretary and with other Departments. The Home Secretary put to us the views of the police. It was partly as the result of those discussions that we decided not to deal with the whole matter in the Bill. It was evident from what the police said, through the Home Office, and what others said, through other Departments, that if we were to get it right we should have to take longer.

We should also have to take into account what was said by the National Council for Civil Liberties. I do not know why anybody should jeer at what the council says—

Mr. Waddington

If that is the right hon. Gentleman's view, why did he think it right to deal with picketing at all in the Bill? By doing that, he has given the impression that the Bill is a charter for trade union rights—and hang the rights of the community!

Mr. Foot

If we had not put that provision in the Bill there would have been no law about picketing. If the hon. Gentleman thinks the matter over for a moment he will realise that we have taken the only sensible course. We protect the right of peaceful picketing. That is the law as it stands. We have sustained that right, and no one should complain on that ground.

We shall take into account the ideas that have been put forward tonight, and many other ideas. When we bring forward our Employment Protection Bill no doubt we shall have a day's debate on the subject of picketing, which gives rise to much public interest. We wish to deal with this matter properly, and we do not claim to do so in the Bill. There will need to be much fuller examination and we shall have to take into account views from all quarters. That is a perfectly sensible way to proceed.

Sir David Renton

In seeking the leave of the House to withdraw the amendment, I also ask leave briefly to speak again. I shall ask leave to withdraw the amendment, in spite of a sense of disappointment, because the right hon. Gentleman said that when he takes his next bite at this controversial cherry of trade union legislation he will bear in mind what has been said in the debate. For that, at least, I am grateful.

I agree with the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) that we can leave a great deal to the common sense of the police. One of the purposes of my amendment is to give the police the opportunity to exercise their common sense. They cannot exercise it unless they know that picketing is to take place. I also agree with the hon. Member for Rochdale that only on a minority of occasions do things go wrong, but when something does go wrong it is essential that the police should be there at an early stage and not arrive too late.

I hope that in his further thoughts the right hon. Gentleman will bear in mind the not unhelpful device which all trade unionists should welcome, of trade unions exercising some control over peaceful picketers.

For those reasons I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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