HC Deb 22 March 1974 vol 870 cc1479-85
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Foot)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement about the Government's plans to repeal the Industrial Relations Act 1971. If there has been any delay in notifying the right hon. Member for Penrith and the Border (Mr. Whitelaw), I apologise in advance.

As I have already made clear, the Government intend to introduce new legislation to replace the Act as quickly as possible. The new legislation will repeal the whole of the 1971 Act except for the provisions on unfair dismissal, which will be retained with some improvements; a more radical revision will be undertaken later. It will abolish the present system of registration of trade unions and employers' associations and replace it with a system of voluntary certification to be temporarily exercised by the Registrar of Friendly Societies.

Tax relief on provident income will be available to all organisations certified, if necessary, as trade unions by the registrar. The legal immunities for trade unions and individuals acting in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute which existed before the 1971 Act will be restored and extended in certain respects. The law will be changed to enable pickets to stop vehicles for the purpose of communicating with people in them, subject to specified conditions. The National Industrial Relations Court will be abolished, and other arrangements will be made for dealing with appeals from industrial tribunals in unfair dismissal and redundancy payments cases.

This first Bill will not provide for the setting up of an independent conciliation and arbitration service. It is proposed to do this in a subsequent Bill, but mean- while full preparations for the service will be made; the necessary consultations will start as soon as possible. It is intended that later on the service will be given statutory functions, including the certification of trade unions and employers' associations.

My aim is to introduce the Bill in this House on 1st May, if at all possible. I am putting in the OFFICIAL REPORT, today an outline of these proposals. I shall, naturally, welcome the observations of the TUC, the CBI and the other especially interested organisations.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Employment for what he said at the start. I assure him that he has treated me with all possible courtesy, and I am totally relaxed about the situation. I know that no Governments make statements on a Friday if they can avoid it, and I quite understand when they find that they have to do so. I have had sufficient responsibility in this matter for a long time to understand the circumstances.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Opposition will certainly wish to cooperate when the Bill is produced in seeking to ensure that there is a framework of law for industrial relations in which the rights and obligations of trade unions are fully recognised in the community as a whole, and that we shall certainly do that when we see the Bill? There are many vaguenesses in the statement, and I fully understand why that should be so. We shall wish to examine these matters in great detail when we know more about them.

The right hon. Gentleman said that legal immunities for trade unions and individuals will be restored and extended in certain respects. That is an important statement, and one wishes, naturally, to see what it means. What the right hon. Gentleman says about picketing could mean a lot or nothing, depending upon the specified conditions. Again, we shall wish to know more about that.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for setting out his intentions. We shall wait to see the Bill, and we shall seek to co-operate on the basis that I have set out.

Mr. Foot

I am glad that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border is in such a relaxed mood. We shall do everything in our power to keep him in that condition. I am grateful for the way in which the right hon. Gentleman put his remarks. As for the vagueness in my statement, the right hon. Gentleman is correct, but I must tell the House that some of that vagueness is removed in the document which will be published in HANSARD. The matters will be further specified in the Bill when published, but I believe that when the right hon. Gentleman, the House and the country read the further document to be issued today they will have a good basis for the later discussion which will take place in this House.

Mr. Atkinson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that virtually every trade unionist in the country will celebrate today as a great landmark in our history? Is he further aware that in the infamous past, resulting from decisions by the National Industrial Relations Court, many thousands of pounds have been legally pilfered from the trade unions? Does my right hon. Friend intend to organise, retrospectively, the repayment of some of this money taken from the trade unions? Secondly, following repeal of this legislation, what are the Government's intentions in respect of outstanding cases still to be heard by the court? Will he give a definitive statement about what will happen to some of those outstanding cases?

Mr. Foot

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the first part of his remarks, and I agree that our proposals deal with the immediate troubles arising from the 1971 Act. The transitional arrangements involve a different question and are referred to in the document which I have mentioned. At the moment I cannot say anything beyond what my hon. Friend will read in that document this afternoon —and what, possibly, will be read by many others tomorrow morning—about what we propose in dealing with the transitional state of affairs. One of the reasons that we have been so eager to speed up this matter relates to the curtailment of the number of cases that might arise under the legislation, but the question of existing cases is a quite different matter.

Mr. Pardoe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he will have the support of the Liberal benches in the repeal of this divisive Act, but that we shall await publication of the Bill before deciding on the details? While welcoming and understanding the Secretary of State's intention to bring the Bill to the House before 1st May, may I ask whether he is aware that there will be wide-spread disappointment that his statement made no mention of any move towards industrial democracy, without which our industrial relations will remain a battlefield?

Mr. Foot

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks and his reference to the co-operation which lie and his party are willing to give, I must tell him that there is rejoicing not merely in this House but in much higher quarters at such a conversion. Therefore, we are happy to hear that statement from the hon. Gentleman. As for proposals to extend industrial democracy, we wish to do that by every possible means. Some of these things can be done without legislation, and some will require legislation. It is our intention that a major Bill will be introduced—I trust by the present Government or by its immediate successor—dealing with the whole question of industrial democracy, and certainly we shall be having discussions on the matter. I think it can be said that our Bill has been prepared for quite a long time. However, it is not possible—I am sure that this will be well understood in many quarters in respect of many different matters—for us to put into the Bill not only the question raised by the hon. Gentleman but many other matters which we should like to see it contain. It is our purpose to get the repealing legislation through the House as swiftly as possible because this will contribute to the good industrial relations which I am sure the hon. Gentleman desires.

Sir Derek Walker-Smith

Reverting to the point that I put to the Secretary of State for Employment on Tuesday about the revision of the law on picketing, may I ask him to ensure that the conditions to which he referred will not go beyond the communication of information for the purposes of peaceful persuasion, and that in the provisions which he proposes to bring before the House there will be no legalisation of intimidation?

Mr. Foot

We have no proposals, and have never wished to have any proposals, for the legalisation of intimidation; that has never been our view about picketing. We have taken the view that some of the rulings or decisions of the House of Lords raise important questions about civil liberties generally. In our Bill we shall seek to try to deal with some of those questions. These are important matters to be debated, but we are not in favour of intimidation. We are in favour of restoring and protecting the rights of trade unionists and the public generally to exercise their proper civil liberties in industrial disputes.

Mr. Tomlinson

Is my right hon. Friend aware how warmly his statement will be welcomed in the country as a whole and how gratefully it will be received by those who are concerned to see some sanity restored to our system of industrial relations? Will he give an assurance that he will consult the TUC and CBI and also will take the fullest opportunity to consult this House on the detailed legislation that is to appear?

Mr. Foot

In my opinion, the most essential consultation of all is with this House, and I do not believe that I should enter into consultations with other people outside it which would inhibit decisions to be made in this House. That is certainly the attitude I take. I believe that this applies even more to the House of Commons in its present situation than it might have applied to any previous Parliament. I have always taken this view in other circumstances and I take it about this Bill and I believe that all people throughout the country whether trade unionists, members of the CBI or whoever they may be will agree with me that the proper people to represent their views in the final resort are their elected spokesmen in the House of Commons.

Mr. Bell

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what is the nature of the document which he said is available to us today? Secondly, will he be careful to protect the civil liberties of a driver who does not want to stop and be "peacefully persuaded"?

Mr. Foot

When the hon. and learned Gentleman and others see what our proposals are in approaching the question of picketing, I think they will see that we are acting in defence of our civil liberties, and indeed, I claim that we are so acting.

As for the nature of the document, it is a fuller statement of the proposals in the Bill which we are to put forward. The proposals are being sent today to the TUC and the CBI and to some other bodies, but I thought that it was only right that the House of Commons should have that document at the same time. It will be printed in HANSARD today. It is not in the Vote Office, since that was not possible under our arrangements, but certainly Members of the House of Commons will be able to read the document almost as speedily as anybody else. Therefore, when we come to discuss these matters, hon. Members will have had the fullest possible opportunity to read all about our proposals.

Mr. W. E. Garrett

Will my right hon. Friend consider delaying any provision in the forthcoming Bill aimed at making a redundancy payment to the infamous president of the Industrial Relations Court? Will he make representations to his right hon. Friend the Prime Minster to ensure that that man is sent to the Cayman Islands?

Mr. Speaker

Order. That sort of expression is not permitted.

Mr. Fell

I wish to refer to a point put to the right hon. Gentleman by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Tomlinson) in regard to consultation with outside bodies. We all realise that the Secretary of State for Employment is very much a House of Commons man, and we were pleased with his reply, but, nevertheless, he said in his statement that he would consult outside bodies. He later said that he was anxious to get the legislation enacted as quickly as possible and is very much taken with 1st May, which is natural. Will he give an assurance that there will be full consultation with outside bodies, where this is necessary?

Mr. Foot

When I first saw the CBI and TUC within three or four days of going into the Department, I stressed to both that I believed the period for consultations would be extremely brief—much briefer than in normal circumstances. I shall say why I think that is a perfectly proper approach to this Bill. What we are doing in the main, though not entirely, is to restore the situation that prevailed before 1971. Therefore, it cannot be said that we are rushing the country into some absolutely new situation. We are restoring, in the main, a situation which existed before. That is one reason why it is valid to say that we do not need consultations on the scale that existed before.

But there has always been great constitutional difficulty about consultations with outside bodies, and, in some respects, the briefer the period for such consultations, the better, except, possibly, on a Bill of such detailed complexity that such consultations have to be gone through in order to prepare a Bill at all. I do not think that that is the case in this matter, since it has been debated extensively over several years. I believe that we are behaving fairly to outside bodies. Above all, we are behaving fairly to the House of Commons.

Mr. Bagier

Is my right hon. Friend aware that not only will the trade union movement widely accept the statement but that it will be greeted with great rejoicing by many employers' associations? Does he agree that this is a first-class example of a Government fulfilling their election pledges at the first available moment? Does he agree also that when we talk about a single society, the result of this Bill will be that the trade union movement will be able to unite itself agate following the divisive effects of the 1971 situation which led many of our colleagues to leave the fold of the TUC?

Mr. Foot

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks, especially when he tells me that I can expect to have thanks from employers' organisations. I have not yet received a vote of thanks from the CBI and other bodies concerned, but I shall open my post tomorrow with an added sense of expectancy.

Several hon. Membersrose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is becoming nearly a debate. There is another statement to be made.

Following is the information

Back to