HC Deb 30 July 1975 vol 896 cc1911-23

'(1) This Act shall apply to officers, officials and employees of the House of Lords and House of Commons as it applies to employees of the Crown, and for the purposes of this Act the employer of these persons is deemed to be, in the case of persons employed in the House of Lords, the Clerk of the Parliaments, and in the case of persons employed in the House of Commons the Speaker of the House.

(2) The Clerk of the Parliaments and the Speaker may delegate all or any of their functions under this Act for such time or for such purposes to such persons they may designate as appropriate.'—[Mr. Rose.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Rose

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

The clause stands in my name and in the names of 29 of my hon. Friends. It seeks to remedy the unfortunate anomaly which arises from the history of this House and the Palace of Westminster, in particular the way in which it affects the status of servants of the House under the House of Commons (Officers) Act 1812.

The clause implies no criticism of the current office holders or of any of those who are charged with the difficult problems and heavy responsibilities involved in providing the services of the House. It is often said that no trade unionist would countenance the hours and conditions of hon. Members, but at least hon. Members have the right to choose, and we can alter our conditions, given the political will and the motivation. That is not true of servants of the House or servants of the House of Lords.

In moving the amendment, I accept that analogous treatment with the Civil Service is supposed to obtain for House of Commons employees, but the Civil Service Estacode contains rights which do not apply to servants of the House in that they are applied selectively by the Staff Board—that is, the Clerk Administrator with the four deputy departmental heads.

Only yesterday an unfortunate incident occurred when a member of the staff of the House was summarily dismissed. I make no comment on that because it would be entirely wrong to prejudge an issue about which we cannot know the facts. We are disturbed that there is the feeling that members of the staff should not have fewer rights than those enjoyed by ordinary employees in the Civil Service in respect of appeals procedures, with ultimate recourse, if necessary, to an industrial tribunal. In total, the Bill extends the scope of application of the industrial tribunals in a number of ways. The new clause will apply that extension to servants of the House. Currently there is uncertainty among members of the staff because the Estacode applies only in selective cases. There is not set procedure which applies to those employed by the two Houses.

The purpose of the clause is to place members of the staff in the same position as they would hold if they were civil servants. The problem that we face is that the rules of order are such that we cannot take retrospective action in the sense of giving to members of the staff by means of the Bill, notwithstanding the clause, the rights and protection that apply in respect of the 1971 and 1974 Acts, the office, shop and railway premises legislation and various other pieces of legislation. However, it would be a major advance if we were to apply this measure to servants of the House, in that it would be the first step towards their receiving parity of treatment with members of the Civil Service. It would also be a first step towards their receiving the kind of protection that is afforded generally by means of other legislation.

I regard the clause as only a step in the right direction, limited as it is by the rules of order in respect of the matters to which many of us would have liked it to apply, not least in respect of unfair dismissal. Civil servants have their own internal machinery for the ultimate right to take their case, under the unfair dismissal provisions, before a tribunal. That happens rarely, but the right is there as an ultimate recourse. That is something that should apply no less to those employed by the House.

It must be recognised that in the Bill there are derogations in respect of recognition of trade unions and disclosure of information by the Crown which reduce the legal, if not the practical, protection of servants of the House. That applies even if the clause is acceptable. However, to equate the servants of the House with civil servants would be a significant advance. Regardless of how kindly, fair and indulgent current employers may be, such conditions can never be a fair substitute for legal rights that are properly enshrined in an Act of Parliament and made accessible to employees.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State has been extremely helpful. I know that he has earned the admiration of my hon. Friends for the manner in which he has conducted the Bill, but not least for the approach that he has adopted towards this matter. On Second Reading on 28th April my hon. Friend said: I am sure, however, that the House will agree that it would be indefensible if, in matters covered by this legislation, parliamentary staffs were in any less favourable a position than staff employed by a Government Department. After saying that special consideration was being given to that matter, he said: I am able to give the House a firm assurance from the House authorities that they will ensure that, as far as is constitutionally possible, the staff here are treated similarly to civil servants in these matters. If it were the wish of the House that this undertaking should be embodied in a formal way, we would see how this might best be done."—[Official Report, 28th April 1975; Vol. 890, c. 45.] It might best be done by accepting the clause, which commands a wide degree of support.

The problem that my hon. Friend has recognised stems from the anomalous position of the Palace of Westminster and its employees as embodied in the 1812 legislation. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State has said, that gives the Serjeant at Arms and the Clerk of the House the power to dismiss staff without notice, with no redress or appeal. It is not suggested that this is done every day of the week, but we suggest that the situation is not acceptable.

8.45 p.m.

On 23rd June I asked the Secretary of State for Employment whether he will introduce legislation to apply employment protection and health and safety legislation to servants of the House of Commons in such a manner that they will be on the same legal footing as civil servants. The Under-Secretary of State replied: During the Second Reading debate on the Employment Protection Bill my hon. Friend the Minister of State gave an assurance on behalf of the House authorities that parliamentary staffs would, so far as constitutionally possible, be treated similarly to civil servants. … I am at present considering in consultation with the House authorities and the Leaders of both Houses, the possibility of formally applying legislation to parliamentary staffs to the same extent as it applies to civil servants."—[Official Report, 23rd June 1975; Vol. 894, c. 61.] I hope this evening that the Minister of State will give the House the pleasure, for once, of accepting a clause which is close to the hearts of many hon. Members. We are aware of the difficulties that arise in respect of the House of Commons, the staff of which is now around 500 and has to undergo the peculiar hours of work in this place and its strange departmental structure. This is a remarkable anomaly. Despite the general advance in industrial law and the protection offered to employees over a wide range of matters, not least the excellent advances offered in the Bill, excluded from the scope of the various Acts are employees of the House who assist us in our business of getting legislation through the House, if only to the extent of providing us with snacks at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, in conditions which would certainly be unacceptable to those who work in other parts of industry and in commerce.

It is bad enough that those employees should be excluded from legislation such as the Contract of Employment Act, the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Race Discrimination Act, and the Sex Discrimination Bill, but to exclude those employees from the provisions of the Employment Protection Bill—a Bill which is intended to extend protection to employees everywhere—is a startling anomaly and a paradox which is not acceptable to Labour back benchers.

I invite my hon. Friend the Minister of State to say that this House as a good employer should be keen to set an example. This is not asking a great deal, and it is the first step in the direction of wider application of the various Acts which protect those who serve this House and who serve the nation in getting our legislation on the statute book.

Mr. Rooker

I support the provisions of the clause. I addressed the House on this subject yesterday afternoon on a Ten-Minute Rule Bill relating to the Royal Palace of Westminster. The main plank of my argument was that the protective labour laws which we were seeking to enact for 20 million working people should operate in this House. I sincerely hope that the Minister of State will be able to accept the clause since the Bill which I introduced yesterday was not opposed by any hon. Member.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

On every conceivable ground the Government ought to accept the spirit in which the clause has been moved, if not the exact words, and I think that my hon. Friend will do that.

It must be inconprehensible to workers outside this House that here we are legislating for their protection but we do not legislate for the employees within this Place. These remarks may, strictly speaking, be out of order, but if I hurry I might get away with it.

If we were to look further at the appointment of these employees, as well as the way in which their working conditions are controlled, we might get somewhere. The question is a much wider one than would appear from the problems posed by my hon. Friend in dealing with the clause. Right from the top to the bottom this place needs a damned good clean-out, but we cannot do it within the scope of the clause.

My hon. Friend referred to the matter of the member of the staff who was summarily dismissed. I do not know for what reason it was, but if that happened at Seafield colliery in Fife the entire pit would have been out. But we accept an incident of this sort. I do not know who authorised whomsoever dismissed that person, but I think we have a right to know and that the person who was dismissed ought to have a right to appeal against that dismissal. There ought to be much more democratic control by ourselves of this establishment.

Members of Parliament are in some cases regarded as employees by some of the staff, who are selected on a basis of nepotism which is completely indefensible in this House. I should like the Government, not necessarily in answering the arguments on this clause but on some future occasion, to announce that they will set up a sub-committee of bloody-minded Members like myself to deal with these matters, because they are all related to the clause that my hon. Friend has moved.

Mr. Greville Janner

May I join my hon. Friend's proposed committee of bloody-minded Members? I am sure that it will be an all-party committee. We have some bloody-minded people in the Opposition—certainly on this issue, if not on others. All hon. Members ought to feel extremely strongly on this issue, and they ought to be both ashamed and embarrassed at the way in which the staff of this building have to carry on their duties.

There is an old saying that it is the shoemaker's children who most often go unshod, and in this House it is our staff for whom we do not legislate. We take great care and pride in trying to see that other people's staff are looked after, but the conditions of our own staff are carefully pushed into the background.

I believe that my hon. Friend was being too kind and fair and indulgent when he said that those who run this building at the moment are kindly, fair and indulgent to those they employ. I consider that the way in which some of the people who work in this building have to endure their days and nights is quite disgraceful.

I shall give two examples. The police, who give such tremendous service to us, have a mess which I have been trying to get them out of for months. Sewage overflows into the place in which they eat. It has happened not once but four times in the last few weeks. Each time they are told that the drains have been cleared out and that it will be all right. But still the police are not moved. In the Strangers' Cafeteria—to which you have been known to go on occasion, Mr. Deputy Speaker—the temperature sometimes rises to as high as 100 degrees. People are working in there all the time but hon. Members can go out and enjoy the glories of the Terrace when having their meals and drinks. They can look at the river in comfort while the staff of the House have to live and work in temperatures which would not be permitted for staff in other places.

This is a very moderate and sensible clause. I hope very much that the Government, if they cannot accept its wording, will give an assurance that the staff of this House will be brought within the scope of benevolent legislation designed to provide decent working conditions for other people. We cannot leave our own staff out of our minds any longer.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

I should like first to pay a sincere tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose), who has always given an enormous amount of time and effort on behalf of what I would term the working people generally, and particularly with regard to labour relations and Bills concerned with labour relations. He has done yeoman service, because if half the things that go on in this place regarding the very poor pay of our lower-paid and middle-paid staff and their appalling conditions were generally known, there would be an outcry in the country.

I suggest that the Shadow Leader of the House should invite the Press to tour the House so that newsmen might be shown some of the ways in which we treat our staff and the appalling conditions in which they have to work. I think that Press representatives could write some hair-raising articles, and people really would be shocked.

Therefore, anything that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley can do to help by way of his clause is to be welcomed. I am sure that the Minister of State will accept the clause unreservedly. I hope that in this case he will not say that the clause is not worded as he would like. With his legal knowledge and experience, I am sure that my hon. Friend will have framed it in good legal phraseology.

We all know, however, that when civil servants advising Ministers want to block any proposal, they always suggest that the amendment in question is not worded in quite the right way. We know, too, that they hate to think of the staff of this House being in any way allied to them.

In this case, I am sure that my hon. Friend has framed his clause in sound legal phraseology and that it will be accepted without question.

Mr. Booth

The clause seeks to apply the provisions of the Bill to all the staff of this House in the same way as it will apply to Crown employees.

First, perhaps I may refer to a little of the history of this matter as it affects this House. The authorities of the House approached my Department to see whether the provisions of earlier legislation in this area could be applied directly to the staff of the House. The technical problems at that time appeared to be considerable, and when the matter again arose in the context of this Bill it was thought appropriate to deal with the question by analogy. On Second Reading I gave an undertaking that the Government would enter into further discussions with the appropriate authorities to see how best the objectives to which the House authorities fully subscribed of covering their staff by the provisions of employment protection legislation could be met.

However, the clause also seeks to apply the provisions of the Bill to the staff of another place. I am sure that it would not be the wish of any hon. Member here to seek to intervene in the essentially domestic concerns of the second Chamber in a two-Chamber legislature. We can in this House quite legitimately consider our own internal arrangements and the position of our own staff, but I think that we should leave it to Members of the other place to deal with the position of their staff in such a manner as seems appropriate.

I might add that the appropriate Committee of the other place has resolved already that the provisions of this Bill and of associated legislation should be applied to its employees by analogy.

The new clause seeks to achieve its purpose by taking Mr. Speaker to be the employer of all persons employed within the five Departments and by enabling him to delegate his functions as he sees fit. This is an ingenious solution to some of the problems we have encountered hitherto and it is among the possible solutions which we have been considering. However, particularly in view of the circumstance surrounding the tabling of the clause, I think it would be appropriate for me to request the sponsor to withdraw it in order that the Government may give the question further consideration, in the light of opinions expressed in the debate today, with a view to ensuring that appropriate arrangements may be made before the Bill finally passes into law.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Hayhoe

The Minister of State has referred to the circumstances in which the clause was tabled. Indeed, on yesterday's Order Paper, which gave notice of the clause, the sponsoring names were not as they appear today. I discovered that my name appeared as sponsoring one of the new clauses, as well as the names of some of my hon. Friends. A misunderstanding must have occurred because, as I indicated to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), whose name was then heading the list of sponsors, I believed the general approach of the clause to be entirely reasonable, but I felt constrained to withdraw my name as it had been put down without my authority. I understand that that was the view taken by other hon. Members.

Having heard the Minister of State, I am sure it is the intention of all hon. Members that the provisions of labour legislation should be applied to those working within the House as we make sure that they are applied to those outside. It would probably need to go rather further because the matters raised about the police canteen, sewerage and heating are covered not by the Employment Protection Bill but by other legislation. From what the Minister of State has said, I understand that there is a general move forward to ensure that all these matters are put into a proper form. I do not believe that this is the occasion for those who wish to exert some power over the other place to put forward their arguments, because such arguments it seems to me are ill-deployed at a time when we are trying, by agreement, to move through a heavy load of amendments on the Bill and to let the House rise at a reasonable time. Perhaps those who wish to pursue, albeit within the rules of order, matters which are to some extent—I put it no higher than that—peripheral to the main purpose of the Bill might contemplate that they are prolonging the sitting of the House. Moreover, they may not be serving all that well the interests which all of us have in mind.

We could presumably go into a long argument whether this proposal should by the decision of this Chamber be imposed upon the House of Lords. I should not have thought that that would be a good use of our time. The debate has shown that there is support in all parts of the House for something along these lines. I support the Minister of State's call to the mover of the clause to withdraw it so that proper action can be taken at a later stage.

Mr. Rooker

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is the first time in 18 months that I have raised a point of order. I seek your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on the basis of what the Minister has said. If an amendment or a new clause is put down to a Bill and those hon. Members whose signatures are attached to it know nothing about it at the time and subsequently withdraw their names from the clause, but then re-table it by replacing their names, with the Clerk knowing that everything was legitimate and themselves agreeing with the clause, can you confirm that that new clause is in order?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

If it had not been in order it would not have been called.

Mr. Rose

I can clarify how this situation arose. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Luard) originally took the clause to the Table Office. On the back of a sheet of paper was a list of names of persons to be approached to sign it. He omitted to sign it himself and it appeared in the names of other Members but not in his own name. He has asked me to alopogise. I understood that he would not be present, but I see that he is.

My hon. Friend should be spared any embarrassment, because he has performed a valuable service to the House. Had he not taken the new clause to the Public Bill Office, we would not have had the opportunity of having this debate and of hearing my hon. Friend the Minister give his undertaking. Indeed, we should not have heard the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Hayhoe) endorse the principle that not only should the Bill apply to employees of this House but that the whole range of protective legislation relating to health, safety, unfair dismissal and so on should be applicable. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford. Notwithstanding the omission of a signature, which many of us do on cheques perhaps, my hon. Friend has performed a valuable service.

It has been suggested that the new clause should be withdrawn. One reason given for that course was that the House of Lords should decide for itself. I find that almost as extraordinary a proposition as suggesting that health legislation should be applied by ICI only if ICI wishes to apply it.

In the first instance this Chamber must pass legislation. Although the House of Lords has certain limited powers in the way that it may amend legislation, they are powers with which some of us would not agree in any event. As I said, in the first instance this House has to pass legislation. It should not accept the principle that the House of Lords can ride roughshod over its employees or that it has some independent authority separate from Parliament as a whole. The House of Lords is part of Parliament in any event.

To say that this matter should apply only by analogy with respect to employees is not good enough. That is the present position. It applies by analogy but without the force of law behind it. Therefore, there is always the danger of a capricious interpretation. When the force of law does not apply and there is no ultimate appeal, say, to an industrial tribunal in a case of unfair dismissal, notwithstanding good intentions, misunderstandings can arise and there is no ultimate legal redress. There is not the safeguard of a permanent understood code as there is in the Civil Service through the Estacode. For that reason, I am reluctant to leave the matter there. However, I have a great deal of faith in my hon. Friend.

Mr. Booth

With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to indicate that the explanation of the mystery surrounding the initial tabling of the new clause can be of great assistance to us. The House should know that my right hon. Friend and I attach considerable importance to the matter covered by the new clause. In the course of seeking to find a solution we were involved in discussion of the matter with others concerned, including the authorities of both Houses, until late last night. Therefore, the difficulty which arose may have coloured attitudes or influenced decisions. Now that the matter has been cleared up, it may be less difficult to make progress. The view that has been strongly pressed, to proceed by analogy, may not be good enough. I again appeal for withdrawal of the new clause, on the grounds that—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Is the Minister intervening in his hon. Friend's speech or seeking to address the House again?

Mr. Booth

I am seeking to address the House again, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

But the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose) is addressing the House.

Mr. Booth

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Rose

I think that I follow the gist of what my hon. Friend was saying. I have the utmost faith in him and his good intentions. I was not privileged to serve on the Standing Committee, but those hon. Members who did have paid tribute to my hon. Friend and the way in which he handled matters. I know that his heart is in the right place with regard to these proposals although others are less enthusiastic about them.

Because of that, and that alone, I would not seek to press the matter or embarrass my hon. Friend. I accept his undertaking and hope that, in the not too distant future, there will be a Bill that goes far beyond the new clause and takes in by analogy all protective legislation advantage of which can be taken by other workers but not by the employees of the House. I resent the suggestion from an Opposition Member that by intervening, we have damaged the interests of the people in this House because they may be detained a little longer. I am sure there have been many more trivial matters on which they have been detained, and I think this is one of the matters on which they would be happy to be detained.

Mr. Booth

The peculiar position arises that the House is legislating for its own people and the House is the only body that can change legislation. I hope we might forget our differences of view about the second Chamber arrangement and that we might be at one when the matter is discussed in another place and that proceedings there might resolve the matter.

Question put and negatived.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it possible for a supply of the selected amendments to be placed somewhere where they will be available to hon. Members? They are normally put in the "No" Lobby, but such is the interest in this Bill that they have all been taken.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I understand that the usual circulation has been undertaken. There should be copies in the Lobby, but I will have inquiries made.

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