HC Deb 05 August 1975 vol 897 cc421-4
Mr. Brittan

I beg to move Amendment No. 197, in page 91, line 12, leave out '16, 20, 21'.

This matter was raised in Committee when we proposed that application of the Bill to the Crown should not exclude Clauses 16, 20 and 21. Under the Bill as unamended the exclusion of the Crown from these clauses would mean that it would not be possible to enforce the provisions relating to recognition and the provision of information.

We have considerable reservations about the principle behind these procedures and we have already expressed grave doubts about the appropriateness of the remedies for failure to recognise or disclose information. However, if it is thought proper that there should be remedies of this kind, we do not see why they should not extend to the Crown as well. No doubt the argument will be put forward that the Crown will be good boys and there is no need for coercive provisions of this kind, but that would be an argument against extending the provisions of any legislation to the Crown and that has not been accepted in the past. We do not see any reason why the Crown should not also be bound by these provisions.

In Committee, the Minister indicated that there were special factors affecting the Civil Service which might make it undesirable for these provisions to be applied to the Crown. He did not explain what those special characteristics were. We felt a little suspicious and considered that these special characteristics were better known to the Government although there might be other special characteristics affecting other people in other employment which were not known to the Government but which were just as real and significant as the special characteristics of civil servants.

However, we withheld our suspicions because we were promised a statement by a Minister for the Civil Service, who was carefully unidentified by the Minister of State in the debate in Committee. In the last two or three hours the presence of a certain Gentleman on the Government Front Bench has led one to expect and hope that a statement will be forthcoming from that quarter tonight. Although one's sense of mischief greatly tempted one not to move the amendment in order to see what would happen about the statement, one's sense of responsibility prompted one to give the Minister, who has been sitting here for so long, the opportunity to make a statement.

The Minister of State, Civil Service Department (Mr. Charles R. Morris)

In keeping with the undertaking given by my hon. Friend the Minister of State in Committee I think it right that I should make quite clear the Government's intention that civil servants should receive essentially the same benefits from the Bill as do employees generally. For this reason, most of the provisions of the Bill apply directly to Crown service. There are, however, certain differences between Crown employees and private employees which make it necessary to proceed in a somewhat different way. This has long been recognised in the Whitley Council system, under which staff relations in the non-industrial Civil Service have been successfully conducted since the early 1920s.

I am proud of this long history of successful staff consultation and involvement in the Civil Service, and it is our objective—which I am sure we share with the National Staff Side—to maintain and continue to improve these longstanding practices of consultation and negotiation, together with the established procedures for arbitration, which have served us so well over many years.

I should explain that in several respects the Civil Service has already anticipated some of the things now provided for for the first time in the Bill. I have mentioned arbitration. In respect of conditions of service such as maternity leave, we are already in advance of the Bill, and the same may be said of our policy of encouraging union membership and the provision of facilities for trades union representatives, including time off, and so on.

There is therefore no question of the Government not being prepared to give their own employees the protection that other employees will enjoy under the Bill. At the same time, Ministers have a responsibility to this House for the operations of government—a responsibility which they cannot lightly set aside. Indeed, in this respect Ministers are more fully answerable for their management responsibilities than is any private employer. I do not complain about this—it is right that Ministers should be subject to the full rigours of parliamentary scrutiny—but it does mean that we need to modify certain provisions in the Bill, as they affect the Crown, in order that this responsibility to the House is not removed.

Therefore, we propose that the legislation should allow a recognition issue to be the subject of an independent inquiry by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, but not of a reference to the Central Arbitration Committee, in the event of a dispute about the application of its findings. It would not, therefore, be possible for the CAC to make binding awards under Clause 16 on matters for which the Government must answer to Parliament. I can, however, give an assurance that, following a reference under Clause 11, under which the union would be able to develop in full its case on recognition, the Government would normally observe the recommendations of the ACAS. If the amendment were accepted it would mean that decisions on matters which could include conditions of service for civil servants could be taken, in effect, by an independent body rather than by Ministers responsible to Parliament.

I cannot believe that hon. Members would readily accept a situation in which a Minister told the House that a par- ticular decision was none of its concern because it had been taken by the ACAS or the CAC.

The same constitutional considerations apply to Clauses 20 and 21 which are concerned with the refusal of an employer to comply with a declaration of the CAC on the disclosure of information to a trade union, which would have been given after the union had argued its case in full. These are matters on which it is right that Ministers must remain ultimately responsible to Parliament. Equally, I can give an assurance that, following a finding by the CAC that a complaint on disclosure was well founded, the Government would normally accept that finding.

For the reasons I have given this evening I cannot advise the House to accept the amendment moved so eloquently by the hon. Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan). I hope that I have demonstrated that it is the Government's intention, so far as is possible, to conform to the spirit and letter of the Bill so far as their own employer responsibilities are concerned.

Mr. Prior

We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving us this account. We have heard the authentic voice of bureaucracy and it does not get any less long-winded as time goes on. It was Sir Winston Churchill who once said that a certain statement used every cliché in the English language except "Prepare to meet thy God" and "Please adjust your dress before leaving".

The hon. Gentleman has exceeded even what Sir Winston described with the platitudes and clichés that we have heard in that statement. We are grateful to him for making it, because it was necessary. We hope that civil servants will become a little less long-winded as time goes on. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan) will withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Brittan

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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