HC Deb 30 July 1975 vol 896 cc1871-8

'(1) An employee to whom this section applies, who takes part in a trade dispute shall not, by reason of so taking part, be the subject of any disciplinary proceedings whatsoever which could, but for this section, be brought against that person by such a body or association as is mentioned in subsection (2) below and with which he, or his employer, is registered, enrolled or to which he or his employer is otherwise affiliated.

(2) This section applies to an employee who, or whose employer, is registered or enrolled with, or otherwise affiliated to, any body which confers on him, or his employer, an occupational qualification or otherwise indicates that he or his employer has attained such a degree of proficiency, knowledge, skill or expertise as to fit him or his employer to follow a particular profession or calling'.—[Mr. Ronald Brown.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Ronald Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

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

The clause is self-explanatory. It is designed to overcome the difficulties which face solicitors employed by a local authority when that authority is involved in an industrial dispute. Here I must declare my interest, being parliamentary adviser to a trade union and to NALGO, and I therefore speak on their behalf.

The situation which the clause seeks to put right came about because of an industrial dispute in which solicitors were trying to exercise normal democratic rights in pursuing the aims and objectives of their association with a view to to improving wages and conditions of employment. The solicitors were faced with a dilemma. If they failed to support their association, the association would consider that it was not getting its just dues in the sense that it had decided by a majority to take action. If, on the other hand, the solicitors supported the association, they were liable to be disciplined by the Law Society. It seems quite improper that any individual employed by a local authority or similar organisation should be subjected to these unreasonable pressures.

6.30 p.m.

I know that discussions have been taking place over a long period to deter- mine the Law Society's attitude, but to the best of my knowledge it has said firmly that it objects to solicitors taking part in any form of industrial action. It still reserves its right in such circumstances to haul before its own disciplinary committee a member who has taken part in industrial action. To date, I do not think that this has happened. That is because no one has reported a solicitor for having taken part in an industrial dispute. However, the fact remains that the Law Society has a power which I consider to be unreasonable.

In the clause, I have tried to lay down a reasonable balance between allowing an individual, be he a solicitor or a member of another profession who belongs to a professional organisation, to exercise his democratic rights in pursuing the interests of himself and his friends where he works and ensuring that he does his job properly according to the edicts of his profession.

I do not believe that the new clause can be seen to be a diminution of the standards to be expected of a practising solicitor. I believe that it should commend itself to the House and that it would right a real wrong. Above all else, it would allow many professional people to have the same rights, the same privileges and the same freedoms as the rest of us in exercising their right to engage in an industrial dispute if they saw fit to do so.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Harold Walker)

I fully recognise the problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) has raised. He is seeking to tackle a complex problem. As he put it, professional men who belong to a trade union may well be caught between conflicting obligations. If they take industrial action on the instructions of their union, they may be disciplined by their professional body. If they refuse to take part in industrial action, they may well be disciplined by their union. This is a problem that has emerged much more sharply in recent years with the growth of white collar unionism, and it seems likely to become more acute.

I am sure that the House will see the importance of seeking to remove any restrictions on the right to strike. That is a matter which we have all regularly upheld.

My hon. Friend has been candid with the House and has made it clear that his new clause arises from an example of this difficulty in local government in which he was involved. I am sure he will know that I have been involved in discussions centring on the problem both with representatives of NALGO and in meetings with representatives of the Law Society. Following those meetings there was discussion between the parties. I understand that the outcome of the discussions has been some kind of declaration by the Law Society which has received a warm welcome from NALGO.

I understand the view that no matter how welcome and progressive a step the Law Society's new position may be, there may well be other professions entitled to similar assurances so that they are not caught in the Catch 22 situation to which my hon. Friend referred. I think that the difficulties that have arisen, which I hope are now largely resolved, with local authority solicitors are not necessarily difficulties that may arise with other professions.

My hon. Friend will recognise that the terms of his new clause go right across the board. He will be aware that different kinds of problems may arise in the medical and engineering professions, for example. It is extremely difficult to try to lay down general principles—particularly on the statute book—that adequately and satisfactorily meet the varying circumstances of the different professions. It is my conviction, particularly in the light of the discussions to which I referred, in which I have been involved and which had such a useful outcome, that the best way of proceeding is along the lines of following the discussions that took place with NALGO and the Law Society. Perhaps the best and most constructive way of proceeding is to get the parties concerned in each situation, as and when it may arise, to seek to work out between themselves some kind of agreement or arrangement.

I have had no approach nor representation to suggest that there is at the moment an acute problem facing any of the other professions. However, if such a problem arises—and it may arise in local government—what we have been able to achieve with NALGO and the Law Society we will seek to achieve again. I am equally sure that the ACAS will be willing to make its resources available for the parties.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

I have been listening carefully to the Under-Secretary, but he has been going a little fast for my rather slow brain on this warm afternoon. Will he say a little more about his negotiations with NALGO? I am hoping to take part in this debate, and the negotiations that he has described are important as regards the speech I hope to make.

Mr. Walker

I am sorry that I went too fast. Probably the hon. Gentleman knows that it is my habit to do so, although it may be a bad habit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch referred to a situation that had arisen concerning solicitors employed by local authorities who were members of the appropriate section of NALGO. He asked why there should be a conflict between their obligations to the union and their obligations to the Law Society, a professional body. As my hon. Friend rightly said, negotiations have been going on for a long time. We had discussions with the parties and sought to encourage them to reach some kind of voluntary understanding. I understand that the Law Society has prepared a declaration on its attitude towards the conduct of its members who become involved in the sort of situation that my hon. Friend described. Apparently the Law Society's declaration is regarded as highly satisfactory by NALGO.

I am saying that other professions may well find that the best way to proceed is by means of negotiation and agreement rather than for us to try to lay down on the statute book general principles that will be difficult to match with the differing circumstances and problems that arise with different professions. I am suggesting that the better approach might be to seek some kind of understanding. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department would be available to assist as "midwives" if such problems arose in respect of other professions. Clearly the ACAS might be able to assist with such problems. It might be that there is scope for codes of conduct. They could be considered and prepared by ACAS. Those are preferable options to trying to lay down in statute form something which may land us in difficulties. In the light of my remarks, I hope that my hon. Friend may feel able to withdraw his clause.

Mr. John Page

I feel that the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shore-ditch (Mr. Brown) has raised a most important and significant matter. In his interesting speech he referred to the position of solicitors and their relationship with NALGO. As the Under-Secretary of State has said, the area in question is spread much wider than matters concerning solicitors and includes almost all professional people. As has been said, there could be a conflict of duty and ethic between a trade union in a trade dispute and the duty and ethic of the professional man and his professional institution. That is something which the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch is trying to remove by means of the new clause.

The hon. Gentleman is saying that if in an industrial dispute the professional man's professional susceptibilities are involved, they should be disregarded. That is a dangerous philosophy to follow at any stage. It is very similar to the removal of the right of a conscientious objector in wartime to refuse to serve in the Armed Services. Are we to refuse an objection on conscientious grounds in what might be called a situation of industrial war? There is an analogy here between the position of editors and the National Union of Journalists.

My view is that the wise thing to do is not to remove the rights and the accepted responsibilities of the professional man but to give him the umbrella of a trade union under which he can shelter if there is an industrial dispute. I am thinking of the situation of solicitors in local government. Furthermore, what view would the Minister take about the position of a doctor in the service of a local authority who might be in difficulties in his relationship with NALGO but whose responsibility lies more to the British Medical Association? I am not sure that the clause should suggest that the oath taken by a doctor should be nullified and that his appearance before his professional medical body would not be relevant if in an industrial dispute he contravened that oath.

We must also consider the wish of trade unions to try to achieve maximum membership, particularly in industrial organisations where professional and nonprofessional people are employed. Some companies have reached agreement that they should be fully unionised. In that case, the only refuge for the union man may lie with a white collar union, such as TASS. There is an example from the Rolls-Royce factory in Bristol where draughtsmen and others in TASS refused to accept work given to them by professional engineers in other unions.

I am thinking particularly of the United Kingdom Association of Professional Engineers. The Daily Telegraph carried a report of that dispute and ended by saying: The spokesman from UKAPE said, 'This is a bid to smash a group of professional grades. TAS aims to represent all staff, from shop floor to boardroom, whether they like it or not'". This matter must be taken seriously. If the protection in a professional sense is removed by the clause from the professional man, he will not have much chance to stand out against the larger unions.

The second example which I should like to give involves NALGO and the water service for England and Wales. That service employs about 1,700 professional engineers, 900 of whom are paid-up members of UKAPE. In the whole of the water authorities NALGO has 11,000 members in the non-professional and clerical grades. However, even though UKAPE has 50 per cent. of the membership of professional engineers, it is denied representation on the National Water Council for purposes of collective bargaining because NALGO refuses to sit down with that association.

The Minister informed the House that discussions had taken place between the Law Society and NALGO and implied that the outcome was highly satisfactory to NALGO. Was the meeting also considered to be highly satisfactory to the Law Society and to solicitors employed by the local authorities?

Mr. Ronald Brown

The hon. Gentleman has wandered into the area dealt with by the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act. The clause does not impinge on that issue. We are dealing with the rights of people to take such actions as they wish without being subjected simultaneously to disciplinary action by a professional body.

6.45 p.m.

Mr. Page

The hon. Gentleman should look at the other side of the coin. The professional man knows that if he offends against the rules of his professional association, he will be hauled before that body. That provides a defence for him in a case involving pressure by the big battalions such as NALGO or any other union with which he may be concerned.

I was attracted by the Minister's suggestion of a code of conduct. That matter should be explored. I hope that the signpost put up by the Minister will be examined by the professional bodies. There need not be any great fuss or row about this proposition. However, I do not think the clause should be allowed to be part of the Bill because I believe that we are not yet ready for its proposals. I shall be happy to read in the newspapers in the months ahead that the Minister has met the various engineering and other professional bodies together with the TUC and has reached agreement with the aim of safeguarding professional men in this modern world.

Mr. Hayhoe

Although the Minister put this matter in the context of discussions between the Law Society and NALGO, I believe that there are many wider issues concerning doctors and the engineering profession. There is also the question of the code of conduct observed by professional men and women and the possibility that in times of industrial action such a code may conflict with the rules of the union to which the person belongs.

The clause seems to suggest that priority should be given to the union rule book over a code of conduct set up by the professional body. I am sure that the Minister was correct to say that it is not easy to deal with these matters by legislation and that it is much better to seek to resolve it in discussions between the unions and the professional bodies.

I welcome the agreement between NALGO and the Law Society, if only because the chief executive of my local authority has been involved. I know that he and others in his profession are worried about the situation. The wider question needs further study. I hope that this debate will be read by ACAS officials and that they will examine this point. The conflict of interest has now become more explicit with the growth of white collar unionism and the extension of the traditional, manual trade unions into new areas of activity in which professional and white collar workers are employed. It is important that we find ways to resolve this problem. I do not regard the clause as the right way, but ACAS may help to find the solution.

Mr. Ronald Brown

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the very courteous way in which he answered me. I have some sense of scepticism, because the Law Society has hemmed and hedged all its agreements so far with caveats. I am sure, too, that my hon. Friend has tried extremely hard, and in the knowledge that the Law Society will perhaps have its attention drawn to this debate, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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