HC Deb 28 January 1977 vol 924 cc1952-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Graham.]

4.1 p.m.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

I want to raise the dispute at Motoradio Co., Ltd., Blackburn, which I believe is a test case of the effectiveness of the Employment Protection Act. In doing so I want to draw the Government's attention to a very disturbing situation for which the Government have, either directly or indirectly, responsibility. I raise this matter confident that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment will act in the light of the information that I am about to lay before the House, because I know that his heart is in this legislation and that he is as anxious as I am to see that trade unions get their recognition rights.

In summary, the situation is that in April 1976 the overwhelming majority of the production workers at Motoradio Co., Ltd., Blackburn, joined the General and Municipal Workers' Union complaining of poor wages and bad working conditions. Ten months later the firm is still successfully defying the union's attempt to get recognition, despite the fact that the matter was first referred to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service for its help as long ago as last June.

The result of this delay is that the union's confidence in Section 11 of the Employment Protection Act and the willingness of the Government to see that it is enforced has been undermined. The workers have been discouraged from seeking a peaceful settlement of their grievance, and a dispute has been precipitated. Many of the workers concerned have left the firm's employment in disgust. The union's efforts to secure recognition have been weakened seriously and industrial relations at the firm have been soured.

I have sent my right hon. Friend extensive details of all that has transpired between the union, ACAS and the firm. But perhaps it would help the House if I were to summarise the developments which have so disillusioned the workers and their union.

In April of last year, 32 out of 50 production workers at the firm joined the General and Municipal Workers' Union complaining of their treatment by the firm. A Mr. Moffitt, regional organiser of the union, immediately wrote to the chairman of the company, Mr. Barber, asking him for a meeting to draw up a recognition and negotiating agreement along traditional lines.

In June, when Mr. Barber had not even acknowledged the unions' letter despite reminders, Mr. Moffitt wrote to ACAS asking for its help. As a result, ACAS contacted the firm and was told that the matter would be dealt with by Mr. Sloane, managing director of the company, and that there would be no difficulty. The union therefore promptly wrote to Mr. Sloane and eventually an agreement was drawn up which was signed on 13th August by works director Mr. Martin on behalf of the company. When the union promptly followed this up by putting in a claim on behalf of the women workers on the ground that their wages were out of line with wages paid in similar firms—at Mullards and Park Brothers and others—for similar work in the area, the balloon went up.

On 25th October Mr. King went to see Mr. Barber to see how matters were developing. Mr. Barber told him that as far as he was concerned he did not recognise any union and that Mr. Martin's signature to the agreement did not bind the firm. In the presence of ACAS Mr. Barber tore up the agreement and ordered a union official from the local branch—Mrs. Dawson—off the premises.

Again Mr. Moffitt was in touch with ACAS and the long story progressed. When on 2nd November Mr. Moffitt wrote to ACAS pleading for help and telling the service that the firm was still determined that it would have nothing to do with any union, ACAS contacted the firm to try to arrange a meeting, but without success. It advised the union to make a formal application for ACAS intervention under Section 11 of the Employment Protection Act. This the union promptly did on 19th November.

Time was rolling by and action was strolling by. But meanwhile, on 15th November, 40 of the firm's workers came out on strike, exasperated by the delay and by the fact that apparently they were getting nowhere and by the firm's highhanded treatment of a supervisor. The union made the strike official.

On receipt of the union's formal application under Section 11, ACAS sent a Mr. Whalley, to whom, for some unexplained reason, the case had apparently been transferred, to see Mr. Barber to discuss the inquiry that ACAS is enjoined to carry out under the Act. After that, ACAS rang the union to say that Mr. Barber had agreed to an inquiry. The company's chairman was very adept at evasive action. Shortly after this Mr. Barber phoned the union to announce that he was going to sell the company, and he explained this also to Mr. Whalley of ACAS, claiming that his decision to sell made the inquiry unnecessary.

ACAS accepted this without even consulting the union. Of course the company has not been sold and the union could have told ACAS that Mr. Barber never had any intention of doing so. He was merely playing, and playing very successfully, for time. However, the union was not to be deterred. At Mr. Moffitt's insistence the inquiry was eventually resumed. In the meantime the workers of the firm, who were on strike, had been picketing the company's premises in a bleak part of Blackburn through some of the worst weather we have seen this winter. They held out for seven weeks in spite of a lack of encouraging news from any source in spite of the Christmas period, and in spite of the physical hardship which the pickets—almost entirely women—were suffering.

In view of the failure of ACAS to act and the conditions that the women were going through, on 6th January Mr. Moffitt decided to call the pickets off, although the strike was not abandoned. The plea for sanctions by other unions was continued. But once again ACAS considered this as an opportunity for prevarication. On 13th January three members called on Mr. Moffitt at the union offices to suggest that, in view of the fact that pickets had been withdrawn, an inquiry as to the union's rights under Section 11 was no longer necessary. Of course Mr. Moffitt rejected this. He said, and he continues to say, that his application under Section 11 has not been withdrawn. What has happened since and what is happening now no one knows. Rumour has it that ACAS has been holding up its inquiries, waiting for Mr. Barber to return from a winter cruise.

What we do know is that weeks have gone by without effective action by ACAS and that, as a result, the ground has been cut from under the union's feet. A number of the firm's employees who had joined the union have left the firm in disgust and have taken up jobs elsewhere. The remaining workers have no doubt been intimidated by Mr. Barber's attitude. So when ACAS does make its inquiries—and it must, as the Minister knows, make inquiries among workers employed by the firm—it could be that the union will not get the recommendation from ACAS that it would have received had the inquiry been held when the union asked for it.

In view of this catalogue of delay and ineffectiveness, the union's anger is understandable. That anger has been fanned by the fact that the Department of Employment has continued to send workers to the firm during the strike, despite four telephone calls from the union office asking that it should not do so. The mood that has been engendered in the union by the history of this dispute is best summed up by a letter that Mr. Moffitt, the regional organiser of the General and Municipal Workers' Union, sent to me. He gave me permission to read it to the House and I quote: Further to my letter of the 4th January, I found need to recommend to the members of the the GMWU on strike at Motoradio Limited that their continued activity in picketing the factory should cease as from Thursday, 6th January, 1977. The reasons for the recommendation have been made known to my Regional Secretary, and they include our disappointment at the failure of ACAS to institute an enquiry within the period of seven weeks since the date of the dispute; the failure of the Department of Employment to co-operate by refusing to send prospective employees to Motoradio; the inability of the Inspectorate of Factories to take action against the company, in spite of evidence (admitted by the company) that women and children, non employees of the company, were working there on Sunday, 12th December; the apathy of the Inland Revenue authorities, whose only advice when requested to claim Income Tax rebate on behalf of our members, was that the members should sit at the office door until the company made their tax entitlements available. In addition, as the majority of our members are women, the exposed position of the factory and the inclement weather was becoming progressively a danger to their health. We hope still to pursue our claim through the medium of ACAS and to continue our dispute by prevailing upon fellow trades-unionists not to handle or in any way become actively engaged in work destined for, or received from, Motoradio Limited. After this experience, I have reached the conclusion that, in spite of the legislation intended to improve industrial relationships and to offer protection to trade union members, the use of industrial strength is still the only method by which recognition or any other improvements can be obtained. I am sure that my hon. Friend hears those concluding words with as much regret as I do. The whole purpose of the Act was to enable the union to achieve recognition in a peaceable fashion without recourse to industrial action.

I appreciate that the Government's intentions on the Act are excellent. I also know that my hon. Friend's record on these matters is second to none, but if he examines the long history of this case he will see that there was intolerable dilatoriness by ACAS, with delay being caused by passing the case from one person to another. I believe that four different people were involved in the case over a period of eight months following the bringing in of ACAS.

Something has gone seriously wrong with the way in which ACAS is operating. It appears that something has gone wrong with the legislation. Perhaps the service is inadequately staffed and that the lead given to the service by my hon. Friend's Department is not vigorous enough.

I am sure that my hon. Friend shares my concern about this matter, and I hope that he can promise to take some action this afternoon and will hold out some hope for this disillusioned union.

4.17 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Harold Walker)

I can well understand why my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) thought it right to raise this matter in the House. I appreciate the restrained way in which she put the case because there has been great strength of feeling behind this matter. There has been a long and bitter dispute and the issues still have to be resolved.

I wish to make clear at the outset that it would be wrong of me to accept responsibility for the part played by ACAS in helping to resolve these issues or for the way in which it has exercised its responsibilities. I am not in any way seeking to deflect criticism towards ACAS. I simply wish to point out that ACAS is a wholly independent service, and is free to operate in the exercise of its statutory duties and other responsibilities in the way it judges best. It is that independence which is so essential to the way in which the service so quickly established the trust and confidence of industry and the way in which it continues to command it.

I assure my right hon. Friend that I shall bring to the attention of Jim Mortimer, the Chairman of ACAS, all that she has said in this debate. I am grateful to her for letting me have, in advance of the debate, some of the details of the problems she has described. It may be useful if I give the sequence in this sad chronicle of events and comment on them as I go along.

I understand that it was in May 1976 that the regional organiser of the General and Municipal and Workers' Union first approached the managing director of Motoradio Limited stating that the majority of manual worker employees at the establishment had become members of his union and formally requesting that the union should be recognised. At first the regional organiser received no response, and early in the following month he approached the regional organisation of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service for assistance. Officials of that body wrote to the company and, following a further approach to the managing director, a meeting was arranged between the union and the works manager of Motoradio on 6th July, when a draft recognition and procedure agreement was discussed. On 13th August that was duly signed between the two parties.

I think that at this stage it would not be unfair to comment that the outcome reflected considerable credit on the efforts of ACAS, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend would not wish to disagree about that. The essential rôle of the service is to assist in furthering arrangements for collective bargaining and to promote settlements by conciliation. That was what appeared to have been achieved.

A few days later, the union wrote to the company with evidence of national and local rates of pay in support of a request for improvements in pay for women workers. Receiving no response, the union once more sought the good offices of ACAS on 23rd September. Again with the help of ACAS, a meeting was arranged on 22nd October between the company and the union, with the ACAS representative present to discuss this new substantive issue. Regrettably, deplorably perhaps, the meeting ended in deadlock.

I understand, as my right hon. Friend has said—she put it in more graphic terms than I shall use this afternoon—that the chairman of the company sought to insist that the existing terms and conditions at the factory must be accepted if the factory was not to close and, furthermore, unilaterally sought to abrogate the recognition and procedure agreement. My right hon. Friend said that the agreement was literally torn up.

I should not for one moment seek to explain, still less defend, that action of the company. In the circumstances the ACAS representatives were unable to assist the parties to reach a settlement, but—I think that my right hon. Friend, who has had enormous experience in these matters, will recognise this—the nature of conciliation is such that the conciliator should not be blamed for failing to be instrumental in ensuring that parties in dispute agree together. I rather doubt whether it has been my right hon. Friend's intention to suggest that.

The service continued ready to give any further assistance that might have been helpful. In mid-November a yet further issue arose. I understand that it was concerned with the selection of a new supervisor from the shop floor. That was the thing that triggered off a strike, and on the information supplied to me I understand that 27 employees withdrew their labour on 15th November and that the General and Municipal Workers' Union made the strike official. Naturally enough in the circumstances, the strike also had the objective of securing a satisfactory settlement of the previous issues.

Four days later, on 19th November, the GMWU formally referred the recognition issues to ACAS under Section 11 of the Employment Protection Act. It was only at that point that the statutory procedure on a claim for recognition was invoked. I doubt, therefore, whether it is wholly fair to suggest that 10 months elapsed without ACAS achieving anything.

Once the formal reference was made, ACAS was in duty bound to follow the statutory procedures. That is to say, if a settlement cannot be achieved by conciliation there must be a full inquiry into the issue, ACAS seeking to ascertain the opinion of the workers and making any other inquiries it judges to be necessary with a view to deciding whether a recommendation about recognition should be made. There was no way in which ACAS could attempt to impose a settlement short of this. The service has no powers at large to impose an abrogated agreement on one party or another, nor would it be sensible or practical to contemplate such powers.

From this point on, I would judge that my right hon. Friend's criticisms of delays are well founded. The situation was, however, that ACAS first found that the company was not prepared to meet the union. That meant, of course, that ACAS had to work towards separate meetings with the company and the union about the necessary inquiries, and these took place on 10th December.

Mrs. Castle

Surely ACAS, having been in the dispute since June, knew perfectly well that Mr. Barber was not prepared to have a joint meeting with the union.

Mr. Walker

I can only report on the sequence of events described to me by ACAS and what its judgment was in the circumstances. It is not really for me to comment upon the judgment.

As my right hon. Friend said, progress was again delayed when ACAS was told by the chairman of the company of his intention, or apparent intention, to sell the business. This appears to have been followed by a complaint by the union to the Factory Inspectorate about an alleged breach of the provisions of the Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act 1920 to the effect that women and children were being employed on a Sunday.

ACAS apparently proceeded with the arrangements for recognition, but it was not until 23rd December that it was able to secure the company's agreement to the provision of the necessary information. I understand that some of this information has now been provided but that still further inquiries are to be made. It is true, as my right hon. Friend said, that these inquiries have been delayed by the absence of both the company chairman and the works manager. I understand that the company chairman has been on holiday and that the works manager has been ill.

The position now, however, is that the company has assured ACAS of its full co-operation. I hope, therefore, that that means that rapid progress can be made. ACAS has kept in touch with the regional organiser of the union, and I understand last discussed the position with him on 13th January. In the light of the information that I have been able to obtain, it is clear that co-operation has been hard and slow to establish, but I think it would be unwise for me to be tempted into any comment that might increase the difficulties that lie ahead in seeking a resolution of all the issues.

Mrs. Castle

Can my hon. Friend give an assurance that if inquiries by ACAS are going ahead among the workpeople they will be extended to former workpeople who joined the union but have been intimidated and frustrated into leaving the company's employment?

Mr. Walker

I understand that the majority of those on strike have gone back to work with the company. Certainly I shall draw to the attention of Jim Mortimer the wishes of my right hon. Friend in this matter.

It is not for me to tell ACAS how to carry out its business. It will be recalled that in another issue that we recently debated in the House, which contained similar characteristics to this case and in which a recognition issue is at stake, ACAS is seeking the views of those concerned in the kind of situation referred to by my right hon. Friend—namely, those who have not gone back to the company but are still part of a claim for recognition in its broadest sense. I do not want to prejudge the case, but I hope that recognition will speedily be granted.

My right hon. Friend made some general criticisms of the new statutory procedures on recognition. I take note of and will carefully consider all that she said. Obviously we shall be monitoring the operation of these procedures and, as with all the other provisions of the Employment Protection Act, we shall be prepared to consider whether changes are necessary in the light of that experience.

I think it is also to be expected that ACAS itself in its annual reports might feel it right to comment on its experience. It might be a mistake to come to any judgment now. The relevant provisions have been in force for less than a year and have not yet been fully applied. By that I mean that no case, following the Section 11 procedure, has reached the stage of a reference to the Central Arbitration Committee. The procedure has not been thoroughly tested throughout its length.

One other matter raised by my right hon. Friend to which I must refer briefly is her complaint of the submission of new applicants for employment at the company by the Employment Service Agency during the strike despite complaints by the union. The ESA locally was aware of the dispute. Its general policy in such a situation is to advise would-be applicants about disputes so that they are fully aware of the facts. The purpose is to safeguard the interests of the job seeker, whose benefit would not be at risk if, having been informed of the situation, he or she chose not to seek employment with the company. I think that we must leave it to the judgment of the applicant for employment. It is the duty of the ESA primarily to have regard to the interests of job seekers, and this is the policy that has been followed consistently for many years.

My right hon. Friend said she regarded this a test case of the efficacy of the Employment Protection Act. I repeat that these are rather early days. However, I am entitled to say that last year—I am sure that the House will welcome this—we saw a significant improvement in industrial relations. That was confirmed by the significantly improved strike statistics. It is my belief that the Employment Protection Act has made and is making a significant contribution to that improvement. I know that my right hon. Friend shares my hopes—this was reflected in her remarks—that the Act will continue to help to bring about an improvement in industrial relations generally, but it is right, and we must be prepared, to consider whether, in the light of this kind of experience and similar experiences, any changes are necessary so that things may improve still further in future.

I repeat my assurance to my right hon. Friend. I shall reflect carefully on what she has said when I reach her speech in Hansard. I shall ensure that the Chairman of the ACAS Council is fully aware of all she has said and the criticisms she has levelled at his organisation.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.