§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.6 a.m.
§ Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrewshire, West)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It may seem strange to the House that in the year 1978 we still have to declare and clarify the right of any group of workers to take their democratic right to strike. However, that is the present position.
Even more curious is the fact that the statutes—which, at the least, cast doubt on this technical right and, at the worst, seek to prevent it—go back to criminal procedures that refer to footpads, thugs and hooligans. In 1978, the concepts embodied in those provisions are still written into the various Acts that govern workers in the Post Office. That is the situation that we must deal with, and that is the background of the Bill.
No doubt many Opposition Members will say that the Bill is unnecessary and that the right of these workers to take action exists, however doubtful it may be. There will be others who will say that it is dangerous that workers in this important industry should be given this right. I suspect, even more regretfully, that some people may say both.
The Bill arises out of fairly recent events and a series of legal judgments in connection with those events. Many people in the Post Office—and, indeed, many people in the country—have believed for a number of years that they have the right to strike. That right was exercised in 1964 and again in 1971, the same year in which the Conservative Government brought in their industrial relations legislation. In 1973 the Post Office workers took secondary action—a matter which no doubt will be discussed today—connected with French nuclear tests in the Pacific. They then took secondary political boycott action. There were no legal repercussions on any of those occasions, nor in relation to any working to rule which has occurred in the Post Office. I must stress that such action has been 863 occasional. We are dealing with a body of men who over the years have served the country well and behaved eminently responsibly towards the country and their employers.
In 1976 there occurred the events centred on Grunwick Processing Laboratories. I do not want to go into all those events, but they caused enormous feeling and had a great effect on the development of the trade union conscience throughout the country. At that time the Union of Post Office Workers, in support of the Grunwick strikers—and they were supported by most other workers—boycotted Grunwick mail. To stop that action the National Association for Freedom took out an injunction alleging a criminal offence in breach of the Post Office Act 1953.
I remind the House that the statutes deal with the delay or detaining of mail and arise from criminal legislation concerning potential criminal action. Arising from various consultations, these measures came to be regarded as legal requirements.
The UPW suspended its action after an assurance that the company would agree to arbitration, so the issue was not put to the test until January of last year when, again, the National Association for Freedom asked the Attorney-General to issue an injunction against the postal workers.
Unfortunately, when that occurred, the issue was never properly resolved. The case put by NAFF was supported by the Court of Appeal, which said that the unions were violating the Post Office Act and issued an injunction. Lord Denning made clear that, in his view, it was an offence wilfully to delay or detain the mails, and it is this aspect of wilful detention which relates to both a strike and other forms of action.
Lord Denning was very firm, and I shall quote from his judgment as it appeared in reported speech in The Times of 17th January 1977:Section 58(1) of the Post Office Act 1953"—which deals with delay or detention of mails—applied to every officer (any person employed) however humble in the Post Office. It any such person disregarded it, anyone in the land could lay an information.Further, he said:By Section 68 of the Act any person soliciting or endeavouring to procure an offence 864 punishable on indictment under the Act was guilty of a misdemeanour.Lord Denning went on to say that that applied to anyonewho solicited the offence of delaying or detaining any postal packet, whether a trade union or an individual. Let there be no doubt that that was the law of the land. There had been an amending Act in 1969 covering the new public authority, the Post Office. So the law was comprehensive and clear.It was against that background that the enormous doubt about the position of Post Office workers arose. The decision of the Court of Appeal was overthrown by the House of Lords, which decided that the Court of Appeal had acted wrongly in granting an injunction, but the problem was that the issue at stake was never the question of the right to strike but, rather, whether the Attorney-General's discretion could be challenged and, second, whether any private citizen—in that case the NAFF—could bypass him to obtain an injunction.
Therefore, the effect of that decision, far from clarifying the situation, only made clear that Post Office workers were prevented from being a target of civil injunction, but they remained, or appeared to remain, just as vulnerable to criminal prosecution if they decided to withdraw their labour. As Lord Diplock said:That such conduct by postal workers would constitute a criminal offence punishable upon indictment by imprisonment or fine is plainly beyond argument.Therefore, at the very least, the matter remains in deep doubt, and for that reason, if for no other, the Bill is required. Those who argue that it is unnecessary must face the implications and consequences of the doubt, since there is not only the question of a union or a group of workers being restrained by knowledge that they would be committing a criminal offence. There is also enormous restraint if they are in doubt as to whether they would be committing a criminal offence, and the practical effect is the same. As I say, that in itself is sufficient reason for the Bill.
I cannot imagine an employer having any better weapon than an assumption in the mind of his work force that they would be committing a criminal act if they were forced into industrial action against him.
That was the view of The Times, and it is worth quoting the comment by The 865 Times at that time, that is, 17th May 1977:The right of postal workers to strike in their own interest is dubious.Since this is The Times, I take that word "dubious" as being used in the correct sense.It was not seriously disputed during their 47-day strike in 1971, though Professor K. W. Wedderburn"—perhaps known to some of us as Bill Wedderburn—did draw attention at the outset to the fact that the Post Office Act 1953 made it an offence punishable with imprisonment for any officer of the Post Office who 'contrary to his duty wilfully detains or delays' any postal packet, or solicits another to do so. That seems plain enough on the face of it, though if contracts of employment referred to procedures for industrial disputes, or anything of that kind, it might be possible to argue that striking was not 'contrary to duty'. But from the discomfort Mr. Tom Jackson has shown it must be supposed that this would not be easy.It is rather nice to see The Times expressing sympathy for Tom Jackson—or, indeed, almost any other trade union leader.
Thus, in view of the doubt and uncertainty, it is clear that legislation must be brought in to put the matter beyond peradventure, declaring that postal workers—although they will still have not the same rights but lesser rights than any other group of workers have—have the right to strike. Let us be clear that that right is a right which in greater form is possessed by every other group of workers or, for that matter, any professional group in this country.
I refer again to what Lord Denning said:Many statutes are not at all clear. The Post Office Acts are clear beyond doubt.It is true, however, that he said also:In 1971 there was a strike in which the postal workers stopped work for several weeks. I would not be prepared to assert that this was a breach of the criminal law. It could be said that, by stopping work, they did not wilfully detain or delay the mail. … However that may be, no action was taken in the courts at that time to test the legality of the action.Therefore, as I say, the situation remains wide open, and the difficulty which postal workers face is that such an action might be instituted against them at any time.
866 I turn now to the Bill itself. I suggest that the best way of reaching an understanding of its effect is to look at the Explanatory Memorandum:The Bill declares that it is not an offence under these Acts for Post Office workers to go on strike, either on their own behalf or in sympathy with other people.I shall be dealing with that later on.
Clause 1 sets out the right to strike. Subsection (1) gives a clear declaration of the right to strike. I shall spend a little time on subsections (2) and (3), which set out the circumstances circumscribing action of another kind. The right to strike will be clear and unequivocal, whether in relation to disputes within the Post Office or in relation to sympathetic action. Subsections (2) and (3) circumscribe any other kind of action which might be interpreted as delaying or detaining the mail, such as a work-to-rule, a go-slow and so on.
Subsection (2) provides that it will no longer be a criminal offence to delay mail in the course of industrial action, and subsection (3) provides the same protection so long as the action is taken in a dispute with the Post Office itself.
We needed to put the matter in that form because we had to link it specifically with the present Post Office Acts. The relevant sections are referred to in subsection (2)(a) and (b) which bring in the criminal background relating to delaying or detaining mail, and paragraph (c) introduces the same principles with reference to the Telegraph Act 1863. Subsection (3) provides that such action which might delay or detain mail will no longer be criminal either, but only in so far as it is in a dispute within the Post Office itself.
As well as making that clear, the clause serves another purpose since, without doubt, there has been a great deal of ill-informed discussion on these matters. A great deal of the discussion in the Press which I have seen has been misinformed. It might have been better if people had consulted me or had waited for publication of the Bill. I am referring here to the question discrimination.
I do not wish to spend to much time at this point save to say that the purpose of subsections (2) and (3) is to make even clearer what is later declared in the Bill, namely, that discrimination in the sense 867 of blacking a particular firm or person will not be permitted. It is not permitted at present. I am not proposing to alter that, and, to be frank, my main reason is that I recognise reality. It would not be easy to get such a change through the House at present, with the existing balance of forces in Parliament, whether one thought it desirable or not. That makes the matter clear and prevents any loophole in the application and intention of the Bill, which is to prevent discrimination from happening.
§ Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)
I ask the hon. Gentleman to clarify a matter which arises from what he has just been saying. If another Cricklewood situation were to arise, where a group of Post Office workers went on strike against the advice of their union and were suspended, would the hon. Gentleman regard it as permissible under his Bill for action to be taken by other Post Office workers, which might be directed against the Post Office, in sympathy with those who had been suspended for unconstitutional action?
§ Mr. Buchan
We are dealing here with a criminal offence. I do not like dealing with hypothetical situations, but if a criminal offence were committed, there would be no sympathy action in relation to it. We are concerned, with legalising a situation as closely and clearly as we can. If the hon. Gentleman is in any doubt about that, we can pursue the matter in Committee. However, the intention of the Bill is not to allow for that.
Subsection (3) (b) of Clause 1 makes it clear that industrial actionmust not be discriminatory, in the sense of being directed against particular persons or classes of persons, so as to deprive them of the use and benefit of Post Office services.That is the declaration. Subsection (4) states thatPost Office workers do not, by calling on other such workers to take industrial action of any kind, commit any offence.In subsection (5) we are trying to clarify. I understand that some hon. Members may be in doubt about the reference to Post Office workers. The subsection reads:any persons engaged in the business of the Post Office.868 The intention is partially to protect the Board and partly, or mainly, to protect the trade union officials who may be responsible for calling the strike, or organising it.
§ Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South)
Subsection (4) states thatPost Office workers do not, by calling on other such workers".Does that mean other Post Office workers, or does it include persons employed in other industries?
§ Mr. Buchan
It refers to workers employed by the Post Office. Under subsection (5) trade union officials are also included. Subsection (4) does not refer to outside workers. As long as action within the Post Office is illegal, it is a criminal offence for outside people to call upon Post Office workers to take action. If the Bill becomes an Act, we shall make such action legal. It will then be quite permissible, as it is at present throughout the rest of the trade union movement, for other workers to ask the Post Office to take such action. Clearly, the Bill seeks to legalise the position for the Post Office and the reference to "other such workers" is a reference to the Post Office itself.
The reason that we have had to link the Bill's provisions so closely with existing Acts instead of framing purely declaratory subsections is that the various Acts limit Post Office workers' industrial rights in the sense that they were designed in the past to prevent individual employees from tampering with the mail. The Post Office unions have made it clear that it is not their position to seek to remove sanctions against individuals tampering with the mail. Those sanctions remain in the Bill, as subsections (2) and (3) make clear. However, subsection (1) provides thatPost Office workers do not, by taking industrial action, commit any offence".I emphasise that much of the discussion in the Press has concentrated on discrimination. The now notorious article appeared in the Daily Mail. That newspaper seem to assume from the beginning 869 that the Bill would be nasty. The article stated thatIn February another Left-wing MP"—my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) may not be so happy about this—Mr Norman Buchan will bring in a Private Member's Bill to allow Post Office workers to go in for any selective blacking in a sympathetic strike. If that Bill is passed, I think it is fair to say that no one will be safe".It seems that old ladies will stay in their beds terror-striken.
That is nonsense. It is necessary to emphasise the intention of the Bill because of the distortions that have taken place. The position is not as simple as the Daily Mail suggests. First, the suggestion in the Daily Mail article is untrue. Secondly, the Post Office workers all agree in their backing of the Bill. I emphasise that all the unions involved in the Post Office have given me overwhelming support for the Bill as it stands.
The House must understand that the Bill is a major concession. The right to take sympathetic action by blacking material and work involving other groups of workers when industrial action is taking place is deeply ingrained in the trade union movement. The Bill is not a minor concession. The whole trade union cycle is making a deep and major concession. Indeed, the Bill still singles out Post Office workers from other workers by depriving them of a right that exists elsewhere in the trade union movement. Therefore, I want no one to say that discrimination is terrible, that blacking is terrible. In fact, it is one of the most common forms of sympathetic action that is taken and necessarily so.
Workers who cease producing material in the middle of a strike every often deserve and receive the support of other workers. It is asking a great deal of other workers to expect them to go out on strike, but it is necessary that they should show their solidarity and help fellow workers by being allowed to black. The Post Office workers, recognising the difficulties for them in this place and the deep principles involved in relation to the Post Office, have voluntarily accepted that for the present they must remain in a different category.
I feel, Mr. Speaker, that I stand like Clive, who, when accused of bribery, said 870 that he was astonished at his own moderation. I, too, am astonished at my moderation. Whether it is right or wrong, we recognise that certain things cannot be done in the present circumstances. The application of various forms of action could have the effect of delaying the mail, and the Bill seeks to avoid such action taking place. Apart from the blacking aspect, we are not allowing Post Office workers to take other forms of industrial action in support of others in case there is concealed discrimination.
That is the final closing of the loophole of discrimination. It is a deprivation of the rights of Post Office workers in that they cannot take other form of action under the Bill such as going slow or working to rule in support of other workers. That can be done only in Post Office disputes.
The other great misapprehension is that the Bill will deal only with Post Office disputes and not with sympathetic action. I understand how that misapprehension has arisen. Against the background of the sort of article that I have quoted, which appeared in the Daily Mail, the Union of Post Office Workers told its members that it was important to remember that the Bill attempts to set the position right in relation purely to Post Office disputes in which its members might be involved. This seems to have caused a great deal of heartburn about what had "mainly involved" rather than "purely involved in Post Office disputes.
The sentence which followed makes it perfectly clear. It will not extend any inducement to Post Office workers involved in secondary action of the type being engaged in at Grunwick in 1976 or the boycott proposed for South Africa last year. In discussing the action in relation to the Post Office, the union was clearly referring purely to the Post Office. What was clearly in its mind was the need to make it crystal clear that it was not to involve discrimination of the kind mentioned. There is no distortion, and I am sorry that there is this misapprehension, because 99 per cent. of the Bill is meant to secure the rights of workers in the Post Office in relation to their own industry.
We cannot legislate—I could not ask the Post Office workers or any other group of trade unionists to agree to this—to 871 exclude trade unionists from the right to participate with others in solidarity action. It would be inconceivable, if we faced again the situation which faced us at the time of the passage of the Industrial Relations Act which cut so deeply into the trade union position, that I should ask Post Office workers not to take part in a day's stoppage, a political strike involving all other workers. The right to take sympathetic action must be written into the Bill. If it is a question of all trade unionists, we cannot single out one group in this way. This is deep in the psyche of our movement and in the psyche of the trade union movement. It is the final defence of the working people.
I should like to quote someone from whom I do not normally quote, Mr. Brian Walden. He describes himself as a moderate. I think some of us might say, indeed, he might say, that he was a Right winger. I remember vividly the only speech that he made during the discussions on the Industrial Relations Act. He said this, speaking of the Conservative Party:It is very difficult for people with a certain background, with a certain temperamental inclination, with a certain view, for instance, of patriotism and of the courts, who have a certain view of responsibility and of duty, people with a background that has been not only in their own lives but in their training basically individualistic, to grasp how much so many of us on this side are shaped by a different set of values; no better, no worse—just different.They are collective values. They are values very well understood. Indeed, the whole reason why the Labour Party exists is that we were able to stand together as a group when we were anonymous. There are very few of us here today with any name or reputation who would be here if it were not for the fact that millions of anonymous people stood together."—[Official Report, 27th January 1871; Vol. 810, c. 686.]It is a deep and basic right of the working people of this country to take part in such sympathetic action, and I cannot separate the Post Office workers from that, nor would they wish to be separated. This has been my position from the beginning of discussions on the Bill. Those who go around speaking against this Bill should remember that this is the view of the union, not just my own view.
I was pleased to receive, once again, an expression of total support from the Union of Post Office Workers in a telegram today which says: 872Extends full support for your Private Member's Bill and wishes you every success in the House today".The telegram goes on to express appreciation for my splendid efforts on the union's behalf—
§ Mr. Buchan
I want to make the point that if Conservative Members think that, despite the wording of the Bill, despite the declaration on discrimination, it is possible for blacking or discrimination to sneak in, I am prepared to look at amendments in Committee which will help to ensure that the Bill expresses what I intend it to express.
I will resist any attempt to prevent sympathetic action of any kind. That can be discussed in Committee.
The Bill will wipe out, once and for all, the question of criminal action in relation to a group of workers. I wish to quote what Lord Carr said when he was Robert Carr and Secretary of State for Employment. During the discussions on the 1971 Act, he said:we … do not believe in the detailed application of the criminal law to industrial relations".—[Official Report, 11th December 1970; Vol. 808, c.821.]The Post Office is one small remaining area to which the criminal law still attaches, and it is this that we must wipe out.
I want to remind Conservative Members that the Conservative Party accepted the position as enunciated by Lord Carr. The then Conservative Government wiped out the criminal provisions affecting similar groups of workers. Under section 133 of the Industrial Relations Act and Schedule 9, the Government said that the gas, water and electricity supply workers would no longer be subject to the provisions of the criminal law in respect of industrial action. For one reason or another, the Post Office workers were left out. They were probably left out because Robert Carr might have assumed, as perhaps others did, that these workers had the right to strike. In any event, they were not given that right in the 1971 Act, and the clause dealing with this point was not discussed because of the guillotine. The issue was never made 873 clear. It has never been legally tested since.
The Post Office workers are exactly comparable with those other workers. It cannot be argued that the Post Office, although it is vitally important to the country, is any more vital than the supply of gas, electricity and water. There is this anomaly. The Conservative Party recognised in 1971 the necessity to clear up this situation but left a group of workers still subject to criminal action. I would expect the full support of the Tory Benches on this point.
The immediate case for legislation is that the law is confused over the question of industrial action and needs clarifying. Post Office workers must not be placed in the impossible position of not knowing where they stand. While it is unlikely that the Attorney-General or the Post Office would take such action, nevertheless the workers in the industry remain vulnerable to a private prosecution for a breach of the criminal law. It could be done by an individual or an association and I can think of one, the National Association for Freedom. Following that, the executives of the Union of Post Office Workers and the Post Office Engineering Union could conceivably be prosecuted for conspiracy if they decided on strike action.
The argument that the monopoly of the Post Office makes it a special case and that the workers should bear special restrictions because of the responsibility placed on them is acceptable in so far as it prevents discrimination against individual users. I recognise that there is this problem. But that must not be allowed to provide a rationalisation for depriving these workers of the fundamental right to take industrial action against the employer when that becomes necessary. There is also the question of the anomaly in relation to workers engaged in similar activities.
If this Bill were enacted, it would leave only the police who did not have the right to take this industrial action. I recall that the Home Secretary said on 9th March last year:I have offered the Police Federation an inquiry into their constitution, and I hope that once the present dispute on pay is resolved, we can make progress in setting this up. The inquiry will include the position of the police 874 with regard to industrial rights bearing in mind also, of course, their unique position in the maintenance of public order. It would be wrong to take decisions on matters of such importance to the whole community until Parliament has considered the recommendations of the inquiry."—[Official Report, 31st March 1977; Vol. 929, c. 200.]Clearly, then, even in regard to the police, the one body that would remain, thinking, discussion and movement are taking place in order to clarify the position.
The objective of the Bill is to remove the basic anomaly to which I have referred. Existing legislation would remain in force in regard to any criminal interference with the mail or telecommunications, and again, I emphasise that there would be no right to take discriminatory action.
It might be asked whether I am seeking to do something that the Post Office workers do not want. The answer to that question is "No". In our early discussions with the Post Office unions, I laid down what I saw as three possible pillars. The first was the right of Post Office workers to strike in relation to their own industry. The second was the right to take action or to strike in relation to outside workers—the question of sympathy again. The third pillar was the right to black. Very early on, we had all decided that the right to black—in other words, discrimination—was clearly not on, both because of the grave matters of principle which it raises and also because of the present political situation.
That left us with the other two pillars to which I have referred—the right to take action in relation to the Post Office Act 1953 and the right to take action in sympathy with other workers. It is on that basis that the Bill has been constructed and the drafting and redrafting has been done. In any event, quite apart from the Bill having the complete backing of the main unions, the responsibility for it is mine. We are here to discuss and, I hope, to pass what is in the Bill. Whatever may have been said about it in the Daily Mail or elsewhere, it is also now the responsibility of the House. Publication of the Bill should clear this up once and for all. It cannot now affect any previous discussion or people's attitudes to the question. I hope, therefore, that we shall not hear much about the unions preferring to be deprived of rights rather than wanting to gain them.
875 The onus now passes to the Opposition, and I am eager to hear the response. I do not need to make the case on behalf of the Post Office workers. That is manifest. No other group is deprived of these rights. The onus is upon the Opposition to show why Post Office workers must be excluded from these rights as compared with workers in the gas and electricity industries and so on.
With regard to anxiety over sympathy strikes, I want people to consider the real world. If I were to go to my car workers in Chrysler and ask them, for example, to give their support to some action by a group of people in Lancashire making valves, because the valves were coming up to be handled by my workers, I would not need to ask them whether they would black the use of the valves. They would say "Yes, we will black them." That is the kind of response that one gets. If, however, I went to ask them to come out on strike, knowing that no one else would do so, they would almost certainly say "No."
That would be the decision also of the Post Office workers in a similar situation. First, they would not be allowed to black. Second, in the real world they would not take action on their own as the only people on strike in Britain in support of a dispute. But in regard to that which affects the whole trade union movement they have every entitlement and every duty to respond.
I hope that the Bill will have the support of the House and that hon. Members will not oppose it. I hope that if people seek to make criticisms they will remember that this is 1978, and that what I am putting forward is not only a just and democratic proposal but a vital and necessary one.
§ 11.45 a.m.
§ Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)
I have never heard the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) put anything in such moderate terms as he has used today. That is in itself a cause for suspicion. I think, however, that he has been extremely persuasive on an issue which is very much more difficult and sensitive than he acknowledged in his speech.
I support the hon. Gentleman when he said, at the beginning of his speech, words to the effect that one can doubt that 876 the Post Office has served the country very well and that the personnel of the Post Office have the reputation—and an enviable one it is—for integrity and responsibility. But that is not an argument in favour of the Bill.
I was greatly struck by the hon. Gentleman's quotation from the speech made by Brian Walden. I happened to be in the House at the time when it was made and spoke during the same debate. It taught me something that I had not fully appreciated before—the different approach to these matters of someone of his background as opposed to my own, which is a much more individual and personalised one.
I do not dispute that eventually every man and woman has an eventual right in any occupation to withhold his or her labour, but, nevertheless, there are circumscribed conditions involved. The hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West said that it was astonishing in 1978 that he had in this House to define the right of a group of workers to take industrial action, but the position is not unique. For example, there are the people in the police forces and in the Armed Forces.
When the hon. Gentleman talks of the right to strike in one of the most sensative areas of our community, I think that the question needs very careful consideration. My party and the Government had discussions about the desirability of a Bill of this kind. After discussions between the Government Departments concerned and our own spokesmen, it was found impossible for the Liberal Party to agree on a joint approach with the Government on this problem. The Bill is very much more modest than the proposals that the Government originally had in mind. Nevertheless, I am unable to support the hon. Gentleman on his Bill—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Litterick) is even less intelligible in a sedentary position than he is in a standing position.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)
Order. There will be no sedentary interjections. Mr. Hooson.
§ Mr. Hooson
The postal service is one of the most sensitive, if not the most sensitive, areas involved in the running of a modern State or a modern economy. Industrial action within it can undoubtedly 877 cause chaos, as the Irish Republic is learning at the present time. It can jeopardise the economy. It can threaten a State's security. For this reason, successive Acts of Parliament—including the Post Office Act 1953, which is not an old Act but a relatively modern one—have had a succession of sections creating or maintaining a criminal liability for interference with the mails. There is at the lowest end, for example, a very modest provision for a fine of £20 for delaying packages or messages in Section 59(f) of the 1953 Act and in Section 45 of the Telegraph Act 1863.
It is very significant that no Government, Labour or Conservative, in the years they have been in office, have thought it right to change the law on this subject, knowing full well that the provisions have never, as far as I am aware, been used in the case of an industrial action. In the current atmosphere of opinion, it might therefore be thought sensible to give the Post Office workers the explicit right to strike, as the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West is seeking, among other things, to do in the Bill. I should like to put on record that it is my personal belief—not a belief shared by all other members of my party—that in all public services this right should be specifically withheld until proper and detailed processes of negotiation and arbitration have first been exhausted.
I believe that the right to strike is always there. Even members of the police or the Armed Forces have the eventual right to withhold their labour, but with certain consequences. No one can force anyone in a modern democratic State eventually to do something contrary to his will. On the face of it, therefore, these provisions appear to be moderate. But there is much more to them in principle than appears from the moderate speech of the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West.
As a normal principle, I think that it is highly undesirable to make industrial action, or the pursuit of industrial action, the basis of a defence to a criminal charge. I share the view—which I know the Attorney-General himself holds—that it is better to remove criminality altogether than to provide the industrial dispute, or the pursuance of it, as a defence.
878 The first question I should like to ask is whether we should maintain that it is right that an individual should still be convicted of a criminal offence, albeit a very unimportant one in itself, if he delays a letter or a message. Is that sufficient to merit criminal conviction, or should it be merely an administrative offence? I think that it is more than an administrative offence. I believe that interference with mail strikes at the heart of the community and at its communication system. Therefore, apart from the question of any industrial dispute, I believe that it is right to maintain that the delay of a postal package should continue as a criminal offence.
§ Mr. John Ellis (Brigg and Scunthorpe)
As I understood my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan), he was not proposing to change that situation. I find it difficult to follow the hon. and learned Gentleman. Is he saying that the Bill does not go far enough—and, therefore, that he cannot support it—or that it goes too far? The hon. and learned Gentleman also referred in his speech to arbitration. I should simply like to know where the Liberal Party stands in relation to this Bill.
§ Mr. Hooson
The hon. Gentleman should listen and be patient. I have only recently started my speech. I am developing a theme. I have suggested that the first question is whether we should get rid of the criminality aspect altogether. My conclusion is that we should not.
I believe that the Bill is vague and ill-defined. Second, it tends to ignore the vital protection given to the Post Office services. Third, it ignores the monopolistic position granted by Parliament to the Post Office, which in turn gives great security to its employees. Fourth, it allows industrial action in disputes that do not involve the Post Office at all. I find that highly objectionable. Fifth, I do not think that the changes in the law with regard to a vital service like the Post Office should be made by a Private Member's Bill. If the Government want to change the law, they should have brought in a Bill which should have been debated on the Floor of the House as a Government Bill.
§ Mr. Buchan
The hon. and learned Gentleman almost threw away his remark 879 about sympathy action being objectionable. Does he apply that to every other trade union and professional group in the country? Is he saying that it is only objectionable for Tom Jackson's or Bryan Stanley's members or is objectionable per se? Is the Liberal Party proposing any legislation to ban all sympathy action with regard to the entire British trade union movement?
§ Mr. Hooson
The answer is "No". We are not proposing to ban sympathy action generally with regard to the British trade union movement. But the Post Office is in a special position, just as the police are in a special position. The hon. Gentleman talks about other unions, but ignores the special position of the police, for example.
I now come to the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1(1) refers toindustrial action … so long as the action consists in no more than going or remaining absent from their duty".What does that mean? Does it mean, for example, that a Post Office worker would not be committing an offence if he had a valuable consignment of mail in his van and abandoned it on the highway without warning in pursuance of an industrial action? If he left his van on the highway and thieves took the cargo and the goods were lost, according to the Bill there would be no offence. I invite any Labour Member to interrupt me and tell me whether I am wrong.
§ Mr. James Lamond
I believe that the hon. and learned Gentleman would have been better advised not to have prepared a written speech. He should have listened to what my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) argued so modestly and moderately. My hon. Friend answered that question when he said that no doubt there would be questions of detail and principle that we shall want clarified. He said that in Committee he would be perfectly willing to listen to any amendment which would seek to clarify the position, such as in the case the hon. and learned Gentleman has outlined. The hon. and learned Gentleman persists in reading a speech which he prepared before he heard my hon. Friend fully explain the Bill.
§ Mr. Hooson
I prepared my speech just as the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West prepared his. I listened carefully 880 to what the hon. Gentleman said. The point I am raising is not a matter of detail. It goes to the heart of the Bill, because it illustrates the particular position of Post Office workers. They are in a position, just like the police force, of special sensitivity in the community.
Clause 1(2) is concerned with "industrial action", which is neither defined nor limited. The definition of "trade dispute" comes within the meaning of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974. Therefore, as was rightly pointed out, Clause 1(1) is the widest part of the Bill. It could be argued that the rest of the Bill is superfluous. If Clause 1(1) stood alone, I believe that it would cover all the things that the hon. Gentleman had in mind. I believe that the Bill goes too far.
For example, had Clause 1(3) stated:For subsections (1) and (2) to apply, the industrial action—(a) Must not be taken otherwise than in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute to which the Post Office is a party",I personally could probably have gone along with the Bill, but without that qualification I cannot.
§ Mr. Buchan
The hon. and learned Member is, in effect, saying that he is in favour of Post Office workers being given the right to strike in the event of a Post Office dispute but in no other situation. It would be simpler if he said that.
§ Mr. Hooson
I have made it clear from the start that I find sympathy action by Post Office workers utterly objectionable.
Clause 1(3)(b), which concerns discrimination, leaves the door open to backdoor discrimination. I have in mind, for example, the "direct agent's bag" service of the Post Office which is provided for the exclusive use of the printing and publishing industry. Therefore, in reality as opposed to theory, there could be direct discrimination against a specific printing or publishing firm in a town where it was virtually the sole user of that service.
What is more, if ever there is provision of this kind included in our law, the monopoly powers of the Post Office should be lifted automatically in the event of the services to which they are subject being suspended or disrupted by industrial action. I do not think that the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West 881 sufficiently appreciates the position of the monopoly. This is what distinguishes the services of the Post Office from many other occupations.
§ Mr. Hooson
I am, therefore, against the Bill. We in this House have a special duty to safeguard the public. I sympathise with the Post Office union leaders, who have been very concerned about the Gouriet action and so on. They want to protect themselves from politically motivated and what they regard as frivolously motivated court actions. However, this is not the way to do it.
Parliament owes the public the highest duty to protect a vital public service from the consequences of politically motivated action and what the public would regard as frivolous action in the Post Office itself. This is a vital and sensitive sphere with very important considerations.
Let me say how I think that the problem should be approached. I am in agreement that Post Office workers should have the eventual right to strike. However, I think that they should only have it in relation to a dispute which concerns the Post Office. What is more, before this right is exercised there should be very detailed processes laid down which should be exhausted before the right to strike and the exoneration from criminal liability comes into effect.
I have in mind, for example, the kind of circumstance that I have detailed—unlikely to happen, but possible—of a postman in the pursuit of an industrial dispute abandoning his van in the street and saying "It is now 2 o'clock. We are going on strike at 2 o'clock and I am not back from my round. Therefore, I abandon my van in the street with valuables in it", and then the valuables are stolen and great loss is caused. That kind of circumstance should not be allowed to rise. I agree entirely that it would be extremely unlikely to arise, but it could arise under this Bill. Therefore, I think that the approach is wrong.
If we are to give Post Office workers the right to strike, having regard to the vital importance of the Post Office's services and having regard to how the whole country could be put out of action as a 882 result of a determined politically motivated strike, we ought to lay down with great care the processes to be followed. Only in those circumstances would I go along with the undoubted right to strike.
§ 12.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Roger Stott (Westhoughton)
I wish that I could say how pleased I was to be called immediately after the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson). However, I found his speech difficult to understand, rather turgid and very unhelpful.
I must first indicate to the House that I have a declarable interest in this debate. For most of my working life I was employed as a telephone engineer by the Post Office. I am a member of the Post Office Engineering Union, and I am in receipt of sponsorship from my union as a Member of Parliament.
I am sure that the whole House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) for introducing this Bill. I extend to him the thanks of my own union and the Union of Post Office Workers—
§ Mr. Stott
I am afraid, no gold watch—for all the work he has so diligently performed in bringing forward his Bill. He deployed his arguments very fully and very ably. I want also to express my personal thanks to my hon. Friend, because he has given me an opportunity to get on the official record for the first time in two years, with the appropriate dispensation.
I do not think that it is necessary for me to argue about the fundamental right to strike, because that right has long been established, living as we do in a democracy. For many years it has been taken as a matter of course that Post Office workers had the right to take industrial action, and there has never been any positive attempt by this House to remove, curtail or otherwise restrict that right.
In this respect, Post Office workers were, until 1970, in a different position from employees in certain other public undertakings. My right hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) named them—gas, electricity and water. Those employees were restricted in their ability to take industrial action because it would have been in breach of 883 their contract of employment to do so since it was deemed to be a criminal offence to deprive the public of gas, electricity and water. But these restrictions have been lifted. They were removed by the Conservative Government's Industrial Relations Act 1971, Section 133 of which made this quite clear and explicit.
I am sure that there will be general agreement that there has never been any intention other than that Post Office workers should be similarly treated or that they should have any different rights in respect of industrial action.
What is quite clear is that, after a court decision, if there is any uncertainty about the position, that uncertainty must be rectified. My hon. Friend's Bill seeks to rectify that uncertainty. There is every reason why Post Office workers should be treated on an equitable basis. There is no reason why any restriction should be imposed on their right to take industrial action.
No one can deny that it is necessary to protect the public from criminal acts designed to disrupt the nation's postal and telecommunications services. Such protection is embodied in the 1863 and 1953 Acts. However, the Bill seeks to make clear that industrial action against the employer, the Post Office, is an entirely different matter.
It is the basic right of all groups of workers, including Post Office employees, to take action against their employers in support of their own interests. This should not be judged as a criminal offence. I wish to make one matter perfectly clear as, I am sure, will those others of my hon. Friends who are sponsored by Post Office unions—my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding), my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grange mouth (Mr. Ewing), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Morris). It would be wrong for any of us to give the impression that the passing of the Bill would create a charter for industrial action.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West said, the Post Office has a long tradition of good and stable industrial relations. It is only very rarely that the Post Office unions have taken industrial action. Bearing in mind that 884 the Post Office is the biggest single employer of labour in the United Kingdom—indeed, in Europe—its industrial relations record has been quite remarkable. To those of us who have worked in the Post Office, however, that record is understandable.
I know from my personal experience that many of my colleagues in the industry take a great deal of personal pride in providing an efficient service to the public. Indeed, there are many instances in which one can find three generations of a family working for the Post Office in various industries up and down the country.
The industry has, by and large, a contented work force and very little turnover in staff. My own union, the Post Office Engineering Union, has taken strike action only once in the last 10 years. It was for one day, in 1969, and, if my memory serves me aright, it was the first time for 80 years. There have, of course, been ups and downs. There still are. But the fundamental basis of industrial relations in the Post Office is and will continue to be a tradition of patient negotiation until a mutually accepted solution can be reached.
Even in the best-run industries there may be occasions when negotiations break down. When that point comes, the Post Office workers must be able to exercise their right. Any uncertainty about that right or classifying such action as a criminal offence clearly puts the Post Office unions in an impossible and unenviable position, if they are denied the opportunity to use industrial action, even as a last resort, to protect their members' interests.
I cite another example of our attempting to co-operate with the Post Office Board. The fact that the industrial democracy experiment was introduced into the Post Office is indicative of the general approach of the unions towards the industry in which our members work. The Post Office Engineering Union has always realised that the security and standard of living of its members depends on the continuation of a thriving and profitable telecommunications business. There is, therefore, absolutely no desire for anarchy or industrial strife but simply a wish to establish fundamental industrial rights.
885 I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West for bringing in the Bill. However, as he knows, some concern has been expressed in my union that the Bill does not go far enough, and we readily recognise the parliamentary difficulty in so doing. It seems to me that the Bill as drafted does not cover permanent officers of the unions concerned. In other words, they might be liable to prosecution if they induce their members to take industrial action. I am sure that my hon. Friend will deal with this matter in Committee if there appears to be any dubiety or uncertainty about it.
§ Mr. Buchan
We have attempted to cover this in Clause 1(5),In this section a reference to Post Office workers is to any persons engaged in the business of the Post Office (whether or not employed by it)".I shall certainly look at it so see whether it is defective. I believe that it is not, but we shall consider it in Committee.
§ Mr. Stott
I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. I hope that he will look into the matter, because I still feel that there is a little uncertainty about it.
This is an uncomplicated Bill. It seeks to extend the democratic right of Post Office workers to take industrial action. I very much hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading, because we should not exclude from the right to strike the Post Office unions, which, by are large, have a tremendously good record of industrial relations and serve the nation very well.
§ 12.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Lamont (Kingston upon Thames)
Perhaps it would be for the convenience of the House if I intervened at this point to make clear the views of the Conservative Opposition on the Bill.
I start by agreeing that some of us were a bit surprised that the matter should have been raised in the form of a Private Member's Bill. The Bill was, after all, originally referred to in the Queen's Speech, and one might have expected that there would have been Government legislation. Indeed, the Leader of the House, accompanying it with one of his usual tirades against Her Majesty's judges, made an official announcement at the Union of Post Office Workers' con- 886 ference in May. Some of us thought that it would have been more appropriate for him to have made that announcement in the House rather than at a conference outside, but that is something that we have to get used to.
It has to be recognised that the suggestion that Post Office workers should be given the right to strike will undoubtedly in some quarters cause anxiety and fear. Most people will initially have doubts about the question of the mail being interfered with for political reasons. They will strongly feel that mail should never be left to the local or national whim of an official. Certainly, to withhold the delivery of mail from any business would be to exert irresistible pressure on it. We all know, from what has happened in the past, that the consequences could be very unfortunate.
One can think of other situations, such as the holding up in the post of medical supplies. There again, the problems that could be created by industrial action in the Post Office would be very serious. One has to accept that many people will be deeply worried simply at the subject being raised.
Some people will wonder whether it is overwhelmingly in the interests of the workers of the Post Office to be able to take industrial action. Confidence in the service has declined in recent years. The volume of business has remained static. More business has diverted from the Post Office. The prospect of further interruption to the service could undermine confidence further.
We recognise that Post Office workers feel that they are in a unique position. They feel that whilst others, such as the electricity workers, have the right to which the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) referred under the 1971 Act, the Post Office workers are in an anomalous position, and I should find it difficult to argue that Post Office workers are more like policemen than like power workers.
The very fact that the power and electricity workers were given that right in 1971 would not of itself be an overwhelming argument for the Post Office workers to be given the same right now, because in 1971 the right was given in the context of an entirely new framework of law and of certain obligations being placed on the trade unions. But that is 887 history. The fact is that the workers in the Post Office now feel that they are in a different situation, and this has to be recognised
§ Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)
Will the hon. Gentleman help us about this? Was it not the intention of the then Conservative Government that all workers, apart from the police, should have the right to strike, even in a discriminatory way? Was it not just an oversight that the Post Office Act 1953 was not included in the provisions of the 1971 Act?
§ Mr. Lamont
It would be pointless for me to speculate as to what the reasons were for the 1953 Act not being included in the provisions of the 1971 Act. But it is quite clear that when there have been strikes, as there were in 1971, Government have not felt able to take action. Hon. Members may speculate as to the reasons for that. I feel strongly that unenforceable law is bad law and that unclear law is also bad law. Therefore, it is right that attempts should be made to clarify the law.
There is all the difference in the world between the right to strike in a dispute with the Post Office and the right to take discriminatory action against particular users. We would feel very unhappy if the right to hold up the mail ever became a weapon of industrial warfare. It would be wholly wrong if Post Office workers ever said that they would decide whether a user's needs would be supplied.
I need not emphasise the powerful threat that this could be to a particular business. It could paralyse it extremely quickly. The fact that the Post Office unions have a record of moderation and good sense and that industrial relations generally have been good—we applaud this—does not mean that we should not look critically at giving powers as wide as those in the Bill.
The Bill purports to give people the right to strike to improve their conditions of employment. However, does it attempt only to do this? How well does it meet that objective? Is there a balance between the rights of users and the rights of workers? We should not forget that users have rights as well. Does the Bill in fact confine itself simply to giving Post Office workers the right to take in- 888 dustrial action in a dispute with the Post Office?
We feel that the Bill is rather different from what we were first led to believe it would be. The hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West referred to a circular sent out by Mr. Tom Jackson to branch secretaries of the Union of Post Office Workers. This circular used the phrase "purely Post Office disputes". The hon. Member argued in his speech that other parts of the letter indicated that perhaps this was not the case and the letter was clearer than we understood it to be.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Hayhoe) has had correspondence with Mr. Jackson about the Bill. Mr. Jackson wrote to him on 31st January this year and said:Contrary to the impression created by the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph last week, this Bill does not extend to Post Office workers any entitlement to indulge in secondary or sympathetic action".He went on to say that the object was to establish thatwhen our members take industrial action in the furtherance of a trade dispute with their employer, such action cannot be construed as a criminal offence.My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth said that it would have been the Opposition's view that if the Bill had confined itself to that objective we would have recommended supporting it. That is why the Conservative Trade Unionists' Organisation wrote to Conservative Members asking them to support the legislation. The national committee of that organisation said:This Committee notes that the Private Member's Bill to restore to Post Office workers the right to strike does not give the right to secondary or sympathy strike action in any non Post Office dispute and calls upon the Parliamentary Party to attend the House of Commons on the 17th February and to support this Bill.That was its understanding and the entire basis on which my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth and my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) corresponded with the UPW. However, that basis was rather different from this piece of legislation.
The Bill allows sympathetic action, and that was what we thought it did not do earlier. That is quite significant when the definition of "trade dispute" 889 has been widened in various other pieces of legislation by the Government.
The real kernel of the problem is not the question of sympathetic action but whether the Bill really does succeed in the objective that the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West outlined in his speech—that of preventing any discriminatory action from taking place.
§ Mr. Buchan
I should like to clarify an earlier point that the hon. Member raised. I do not think we need disagree on this. I have been sent a copy of the letter that was sent to the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Hay-hoe), by Mr. Tom Jackson, in which he says:I have now had the opportunity to study the Buchan Bill and I have also been told that you and your colleagues are having some difficulty with the preamble.I am sorry that this is the case for the Bill does no more than accord the Union the same legal rights as are enjoyed by all other trade unionists in Britain. In one respect the Bill does not even go as far as this. We will be forbidden to discriminate against an individual firm or for that matter a particular country.So if your colleagues are fearful that this could result in another Grunwick or South African situation I hope this will still their fears".The main burden of the letter was that references to sympathetic action are always followed by their saying "along the lines of a Grunwick dispute".
§ Mr. Lamont
The hon. Member is quoting from the letter of 16th February, the most recent letter written after we discovered that the Bill was rather different from what we had anticipated. The other letters from Tom Jackson to my hon. Friend did not accord with the 16th February letter. They were entirely different.
I do not want to concentrate simply on sympathy strikes. I want to know whether the Bill really does succeed in preventing Post Office workers from taking discriminatory action, because that is what people's legitimate fears are about.
Clause 1(3) sounds fine. It imposes two qualifications for subsection (2) to apply. The first is that the dispute must be with the Post Office, and the second is that action must not be discriminatory in being directed against particular persons or classes of persons. We are worried 890 that subsection (2) applies only to actions that are less than strike action—that is, an action short of actually going out on strike. Only these are qualified as having a dispute against the Post Office and being non-discriminatory.
The hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West may say that a strike cannot be discriminatory if workers go out on a strike that is not aimed at a particular category of people or a particular user. But can we be so sure? Suppose that a particular post office goes out on strike against its employer. In some cases, individual officers handle mail that is largely composed of packets and letters from one firm. The hon. Member may say that that mail could go to another office, but it is not as easy as it sounds. The action might spread, and although the alternative of another office is open for outgoing mail, this does not apply to incoming mail. I do not think that the Bill prevents discriminatory action in quite as copper-bottomed a way as the hon. Member suggests.
Furthermore, the way in which subsection (1) is drafted leaves considerable doubt as to whether the user is safeguarded adequately. It uses the phrase "industrial action". We know from the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act that industrial action is not the same as going on strike. The hon. Member has tried to meet that point by using the words:so long as the action consists in no more than going or remaining absent from duty".I have no doubt that by adding the words "no more" the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West probably meant "only", but subsection (1) does not say that. It seems to leave out the possibility that it, as well as subsection (2), would allow certain actions short of going on strike. It would allow the go-slows and the delaying of mail referred to in subsection (2). The difference is that qualifications apply to subsection (2) but not to subsection (1). If the Bill goes to Committee, we shall want to amend it so that subsection (3) applies to both subsection (1) and (2).
We believe that the Bill could allow discrimination and that it does not entirely safeguard users. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) spoke of the possibility that once 891 strike action had been announced, a postman carrying mail or out in a van might, at the appointed hour of the strike, abandon the mail. This also raises the serious question of whether the provisions of the 1953 Act regarding carelessness and misconduct are affected by the Bill. That is not clear.
It is also not clear whether, if a life or death telegram had been sent and accepted before industrial action was taken, there would be any obligation for it to be delivered.
§ Mr. Stott
I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that during the one-day stoppage by the Post Office Engineering Union in 1969, and, indeed, whenever we embarked on stoppages, sufficient cover for emergencies was always ensured. I imagine that we would never, in any circumstances, take industrial action without covering emergency services.
§ Mr. Lamont
As individuals, we may recognise the moderation and good record of people such as Tom Jackson and the UPW, but we are passing the law of the land and we must consider how it is to be written into the statute book and what safeguards are provided against genuine dangers and problems.
Returning to the use of the phrase "industrial action" and the point that there might be a dispute in which discriminatory action could be taken, we have another example in relation to specific services that could be blocked. Such action might discriminate against individual users. There was a recent example of a postman refusing to deliver some sacks on the ground that they exceeded his normal load. He was eventually overruled and good sense prevailed, but we have to see whether the Bill would meet all these problems.
Even Clause 1(3)(a) which, on the face of it, is a sensible provision setting out to prevent discriminatory action, might leave the door open to certain types of back-door discrimination. Some services are used by specific classes and categories of people. For example, the direct agent's bag service is used almost exclusively by printers and publishers. and a strike against that service in a town could amount to action against a particular user. We might be able to pass amendments to get round this point, 892 but it is a loophole, albeit a small one, through which a certain type of discrimination could take place.
We view the Bill with some misgivings and anxiety. Perhaps the most important point relates to the monopoly of the service. The Post Office is one of the most complete monopolies. Everyone uses the postal services, and the alternatives of telex and telegrams are also Post Office monopolies.
When Post Office workers say that they are in the almost unique position of not having the right to strike, it should be pointed out that they are also in the privileged position of being a statutorily protected monopoly; and if it is right to reconsider the sanctions against strike action, it must also be right that the position of the monopoly should be reconsidered.
Many hon. Members will take the view that if criminal sanctions are to be removed these should be an obligation on the Secretary of State automatically to lift the monopoly. There are many persuasive arguments in favour of such automatic action. First—we always want to be constructive—it might make the life of a Labour Secretary of State easier because it would leave him less open to pressure from other unions not to use his powers to lift the monopoly.
Secondly, if the monopoly powers are to be lifted, they must be lifted quickly, because action against any firm can have an adverse effect very quickly. Thirdly, there is the argument that, if the monopoly power is not lifted immediately in a major strike, the position of those providing private services is one of great ambiguity.
We are told that one of the reasons for this legislation is to protect Post Office workers from what Labour Members regard as frivolous or individualistic legal action. But there should be no possibility of individual Post Office workers being able to take frivolous action against people providing private services when there is a major Post Office strike.
The monopoly was introduced with the specific purpose of preventing the mail being interfered with by sectional interests. It would be perverse if it were to be used to make mail services more vulnerable to interruption.
§ Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
The hon. Gentleman has cast a cloud over the whole Bill. Will he tell us bluntly whether he and his Friends intend to vote against it?
§ Mr. Lamont
The hon. Gentleman has anticipated my next words. If the Bill were in the form that we had been led by correspondence to expect, and if it did not allow the possibility of sympathetic action, I would have no hesitation in recommending my hon. Friends to support it. However, the Bill is different from what we were led to expect. We are not wholly satisfied that it effectively prevents all possibility of discriminatory action.
If the Bill goes into Committee, we shall suggest amendments to meet the points that I have made. I hope that the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West and I will be able to come to an understanding about the kind of amendments to be made to rule out all possibility of discriminatory action. At the moment, we do not regard the Bill as drafted as acceptable. If it is amended, it may become satisfactory legislation. However, in its present form, I cannot recommend my hon. Friends to support it.
§ 12.41 p.m.
§ Mr. John Ovenden (Gravesend)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan), first, on his good fortune in the high place that he won in the Ballot and, secondly, on his good sense in promoting this measure.
The Bill does not go as far as many of us would wish. In a debate of this kind it is only fair to make that statement. However, it goes some way to remedying the injustice which is currently imposed on Post Office workers. It is unjustifiable to single out any group of workers for the denial of the right to strike. Despite the tortuous arguments put forward by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), I have heard no valid reasons today why Post Office workers should be treated so differently from other workers.
Post Office employees, as my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West said, are far from strike happy. Indeed, they have an excellent record of responsibility and moderation. Before their right to strike was thrown into any 894 doubt, the Post Office had a remarkable record of industrial peace. As I see it, the intention of the Bill is to restore to workers in the Post Office a fundamental and basic right which is available virtually to all other workers.
The right to withdraw labour is not exercised flippantly or casually by any group of workers, whatever we may sometimes be led to believe by the Opposition and by their friends in the media. Many people tend to forget that in a prolonged strike the employees suffer most. They face financial loss and in many instances suffer extreme hardship. The decision to strike is not entered into lightly.
In the ultimate, without the right to withhold labour, workers are powerless to protect their rights or to resist injustices that may be imposed upon them. That is an affront to the dignity and self-respect of all workers. It is only the right to withhold labour that distinguishes a free man from a serf. In many respects it is also the basic right that distinguishes a free society from a totalitarian society. It is the first step towards totalitarianism when a State withdraws the right of free men to withdraw their labour. I hope that we all accept that the right to strike is a fundamental one.
Why should Post Office workers be excepted in any way from that right? In 1971, as we heard a number of times in the debate, the Conservative Government restored to workers in the electricity, gas and water industries the right to take industrial action. In the debate—I take issue with one of my hon. Friends who said that no debate took place, because there was a short debate on Clause 133 which, in Committee, was Clause 120—the then Solicitor-General, the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe), who is now the Shadow Chancellor, on behalf of his Government said that they thought it right to withdraw that restriction in view of the changed technical circumstances and the new sophistication in the industries involved. I should have thought that every word of that statement applied equally to the Post Office. I fail to see why Post Office services should be regarded in a different light from the vital public services of water, electricity and gas.
895 We have heard that the Post Office is a monopoly. To many people the electricity industry is also a monopoly. If electricity workers have the right to with draw their labour, I cannot see that it is right at any time to withdraw that fundamental right from Post Office workers. If we want to challenge the basic right to strike because certain employees work in essential industries, that is a different argument, to which the Opposition may address themselves. However, it is totally misleading to try to create an artificial difference between the power and public service industries and the Post Office as such.
§ The Minister of State, Department of Industry (Mr. Gerald Kaufman)
Does my hon. Friend agree that there was an obligation on the hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) to discover from his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe), who, after all, was the Minister responsible at the time, why Post Office workers were excluded from the Industrial Relations Act 1971? The hon. Gentleman said that he did not know why they were excluded, but he had a simple recourse open to him. He could have asked his right hon. and learned Friend, who is alive and a Member of the House. It is unfair that we should have to wait for the revelation of Cabinet papers before we know whether it was inadvertent, in which case the Opposition ought to support the Bill, or deliberate, in which case they have a duty to tell the House why it was deliberate.
§ Mr. Ovenden
Not yet. I am answering my hon. Friend. This is a valid point. The Opposition owe us an explanation of this matter. I was inclined to be charitable to them and to believe that they had excepted Post Office workers because, like many of us, they did not realise that there was a restriction on their right to strike. But they have deliberately excluded them without saying why. As they have not explained what they were doing, we should take a far more serious view of the matter.
§ Mr. Ovenden
No, not at this stage. I am still dealing with this aspect of the matter. We deserve an explanation from the Opposition Front Bench why Post Office workers were not included in the 1971 provisions. I am sorry that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery has left the Chamber. I think that we deserve an explanation from him on the question why the Liberal Party, feeling as it does, did not vote against that concession in the 1971 Act.
§ Mr. Gorst
Will the hon. Gentleman ask his right hon. and hon. Friends why, in the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974, when they put right so many things that were wrong, they did not put this anomaly right? It is no use asking my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) why he did not consult his right hon. and learned Friend when the hon. Gentleman had an opportunity of doing exactly the same.
§ Mr. Ovenden
At that time we were not entirely clear about the position. We could not do everything at once. If we could, presumably the country would be in a far better position today than it is.
§ Mr. Ivor Clemitson (Luton, East)
Surely the basic aim of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act was the repeal of the Industrial Relations Act. Perhaps I may go back to another matter before my hon. Friend leaves the question of power workers. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) earlier posited the problem of life and death in relation to postal services. He asked what happens, for example, about a telegram or telephone message which may mean life or death. Surely electricity workers may be in a similar situation. Was there any suggestion, when Section 133 of the Industrial Relations Act was passed, that this general exemption from criminal action should be hedged about with any reservations about life-and-death situations?
§ Mr. Ovenden
My hon. Friend has pointed out, as have others in the debate, that Post Office workers are not the only people in the special position that the Opposition pretend. Many other workers are in a more powerful position, and industrial action on their part may have 897 graver consequences than industrial action on the part of Post Office workers. We have read in the last few days of possible industrial action by hospital consultants. I wonder whether the Opposition would wish to withdraw the right to strike from hospital consultants because of the dire consequences that such industrial action could have.
A good deal has been said this morning about sympathetic action, a matter on which the Liberal spokesman dwelt at some length. The hon. and learned Gentleman seemed to favour Post Office workers being able to pursue industrial action in support of their own claims, but argued that they should be denied the right to support any of their colleagues in the trade union movement. If, as I see, it, Post Office workers are to have the same basic right to pursue their own claims, I see no reason why we should draw an artificial barrier when it comes to their taking sympathetic action.
Sympathetic action is a basic part of trade union activity. It is a basic right to be able to take action in support of colleagues in the trade union movement if one believes that their case is justified. This Bill goes some way to restore the rights of sympathetic action, and for that reason I welcome it. The Bill allows strike activity in the form of sympathetic action, but no other kind of action. That raises some difficulties, and I should like that matter to be examined in Committee.
Apparently we are saying that Post Office workers can take strike action in support of workers—workers who themselves may only take action in banning overtime, working to rule or something that is far short of a strike.
We are saying that it is permissible to strike in sympathy, but not to take the same action as that which is being taken by the group with which one is expressing sympathy. There is some contradiction in that respect. We are giving Post Office workers the right to take the ultimate action, but we are denying them the right to take effective action on the same lines as that taken by the groups which they are supporting.
There are in the Post Office some employees of unions which have members from other places of employment—members in the Civil Service, for example.
898 This Bill would give the right to employees in the Post Office to strike in sympathy with colleagues in the Civil Service who are in dispute. However, it would not give them the right to take any other action. It would mean that if there were a dispute in the Civil Service involving, say, members of the CPSA and the SCPS in the form of an overtime ban, work to rule or similar action, members of those same unions who work in the Post Office could not take such action in support of their union colleagues. In other words, they could take strike action or no action.
I hope that the Bill will be amended to allow members of the same union the same right to take action, whether they work in the Post Office or in the general Civil Service. It would be unfair to deny Post Office workers in the Civil Service and public service unions the right to support their colleagues in the Civil Service at a time of industrial action.
It is surely unfair to deny Post Office workers the right to support union colleagues who are involved in work of a similar nature. That situation could well arise where work was being carried out by the Post Office which, if continued on a normal basis, could be used to undermine industrial action taken by members of the same union in the Civil Service. It would be unfair if this Bill were to prevent that happening.
A good deal has been said already about discrimination. I wish to make my view clear, namely, that I want to see Post Office workers given the same rights in regard to discrimination as workers elsewhere. I see no reason why Post Office workers should be denied those rights. I accept the political arguments advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West. He was frank and honest with the House in explaining why the Bill does not go as far as some of us would like.
I do not regard blacking or discrimination, whatever one cares to call it, as reprehensible action, as the Opposition appear to do. I do not think there is anything morally wrong in a set of workers who find that the situation in a firm is such that fellow workers are being denied a decent living wage or basic trade union rights deciding to take industrial action in support of those workers who have been ground down.
§ Mr. Ovenden
I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman once. He will have plenty of time to speak and to defend the causes that he usually espouses.
I was saying that I see nothing morally wrong in such discrimination. It is fit and proper action for the trade union movement to take. Any decent trade unionist who faces that situation would want to respond in that way and to use his power to protect workers who did not have the power to take action for themselves. However, Post 0ffice workers are not being given that right in this Bill. Perhaps that is unfortunate, and it is undesirable that we are not affording them that right, but I appreciate the political problem involved. I find nothing reprehensible in proposing that Post Office workers should have that basic right.
I do not think that the words "blacking" or "discrimination" are dirty words in trade unionism. It is an example of the way in which the trade union movement sticks together in fighting for basic rights and decent living standards for all people, whether or not they happen to be represented by the union that is taking action. I hope that eventually the Post Office workers will be given that right.
In the meantime, this Bill marks a great step forward in improving the rights of Post Office workers. I hope that it will receive the full and wholehearted support of the House. I am sorry that there has been such nit-picking from the Opposition on some parts of the Bill. It appears that this liberal measure, which seeks to restore to people basic, fundamental rights, does not enjoy the support of the Liberals. If Liberals in the past had taken the same view as the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery, I wonder whether the trade union movement would ever have been able to overcome the problem of the Taff Vale judgment. I doubt it.
§ 12.57 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Tebbit (Chingford)
When we talk about subjects connected with the Post Office, I often wonder how many people have had experience of Post Offices overseas. I think it right at the outset of my remarks to contrast the service offered in the British Post Office 900 with that afforded to the consumer overseas. It is an area of comparison in which, in general terms, this country comes out exceptionally well, compared with almost anywhere else in the world.
For 140 years a first-class service has been offered by the Post Office—a service which in terms of safety of the mails is above reproach—very different from the situation that exists in many other parts of the world. But nothing stays static, and many hon. Members have noticed a change in the amount of circular mail that comes to us through the post from abroad. Although of British origin and referring to purely British affairs, that mail comes to us from Holland and similar places. Although I have put on record a tribute to the Post Office, I believe that we should not assume that all is well or that it will stay well for ever. Our Post Office undoubtedly was the envy of the world at one time. However, it may be that that supremacy of service has been greatly undermined.
There are a number of people who would suggest that the service offered by our Post Office in 1978 is far worse than it was—or certainly not as good as it was—in 1840, well before the invention of the internal combustion engine, which one might have thought would have speeded the transit of the mail, and perhaps even made the mail less rather than more expensive compared with other services.
We do not often discuss the Post Office and Post Office workers in this way, so let me say at once, before I forget it, that I am often puzzled about who are the "Bolshie" Post Office workers who interfere with the mail in the way that the mail of North-East London was interfered with a year ago, to the great distress and loss of very many people. I have never yet met a "Bolshie", difficult or impolite postman delivering my mail. My postmen have always been the most delightful and courteous of men, men who have gone beyond what is required of them in their duty in making sure that I, at any rate, and most of my neighbours were well served.
I come now to some of the points at issue in the Bill. There seem to be two. First, should Post Office workers have the right to strike against their own employers in pursuit of a dispute with that employer? Second, should Post Office 901 workers have the right to stop or interfere with the mail because of an unrelated dispute?
I do not think that we are greatly exercised or divided on the first issue. However, let me hasten to add—this has been said already—that the Post Office is a monopoly, and a monopoly of the most rigid kind. Not only is it a criminal offence to interfere with the mail; it is a criminal offence for anyone other than the Post Office, or possibly its licensee, to carry mail. Therefore, if we are to remove one area of restraint, we should apply our minds also to removing the other, since the right to a monopoly carries with it an obligation to those whose work, whose business, or even, perhaps, whose health and life depend upon the product or service of the monopoly.
Therefore, the mere introduction of the Bill has brought into our minds the question whether the Post Office monopoly should be allowed to stand. After all is said and done, this Bill, together with the Post Office Act granting the monopoly, is a licence for the printing of money, and possibly a far more lucrative licence than any other which has ever been granted.
If that licence is abused, if the Post Office, under pressure from its workers, increases prices or allows standards of service to fall, there will undoubtedly be pressure to end the monopoly and it will have to go.
Despite many of my views about the nature of a free economy, I have the gravest reservations on the question whether we should benefit in general if that monopoly were rashly broken. I accept the arguments often advanced that the service in the great conurbations and in much of the country would almost certainly improve, but when we come to the problem of finding the right way to serve the more distant parts of the community, we have to think seriously whether it would be right to break the monopoly.
Therefore, I am not rushing in to say that the monopoly must be broken, although I warn hon. Members that, if the Bill is enacted and if the standard of Post Office services falls—if it falls below a given level, and if prices rise beyond 902 some level or other—the balance of argument will change, and the new balance of argument will be that the monopoly should be broken rather than maintained.
§ Mr. Gorst
My hon. Friend is addressing himself to the monopoly in the carriage of mail, but the same argument applies to the telecommunications side, and that is included in the Bill. A withdrawal of labour or of services—for example, in the repair of installations—could be equally damaging. In fact, services on the telecommunications side might be a much more practical proposition if one came to the point of dismembering the monopoly, if that were required in such circumstances.
§ Mr. Tebbit
My right hon. Friend is right. But I am not rushing into this matter; I am treating it cautiously. The House may assume that when I refer to the mail in reference to the monopoly I mean the whole monopoly of Post Office services. My hon. Friend should assume that I refer to the telecommunications service at the same time.
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) spoke of the potential loss through industrial action of articles of mail entrusted to the Post Office. It is no good saying that that is not likely or has never happened. A lot of things are not likely or have not happened but the law has to provide for them, because such circumstances may arise and the law has to be complete.
An article in the post is rather different from articles dealt with by some of the other State semi-monopolies, such as coal, power and gas, because an article in the post is not the property of the Post Office. It remains the property of the sender until it is delivered to the recipient. But, of course, from the moment when one drops that article of mail into the letter box it is in the care of the Post Office, under its monopoly care.
It is provided in the Post Office Act that if the Post Office loses an article or delays it, no matter how much damage is done to the interests of the owner of that article while it is in the care of the Post Office, no action in law lies against the Post Office for loss or damage, with the solitary exception of the trifling amounts of compensation that may be obtained for the loss of a registered packet.
903 It is no good saying, as so many of my constituents did—I pulled a few of their letters out of the file this morning—that one has suffered grave loss as a result of the industrial action taken in the North-East of London 12 months ago. Businesses were prejudiced. People suffered financial loss. But there is no recompense. No action can lie against the monopoly, yet people have no choice but to use the monopoly.
At the time of the industrial action in North-East London, many people had no knowledge that it was in progress and they blithely posted their letters. Some of the letters included cheques in settlement of bills, and so on. For one constituent of mine an application for a job was delayed. In another case the offer of a job was delayed and my constituent did not get that job. But he had no recourse against the Post Office.
Therefore, we have to consider not only the monopoly of the Post Office but whether, in the new circumstances that the Bill would create, the citizen entrusting his property to the Post Office should have a right of action against the Post Office if it does not discharge its duty towards him.
The second point which has been raised relates to sympathetic and discriminatory action. A number of my hon. Friends, indeed, people at Conservative Central Office, were, I think, much misled by the circular issued by the Union of Post Office Workers, to which reference has already been made. The hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) may say what he likes, but when I read in a circularIt is important for it to be clearly understood that Norman Buchan's Bill attempts to set the position right in relation to the purely Post Office disputes in which we might he involvedI assume that that is what the Bill is designed to do.
Many people made the same assumption, and on that assumption many of us were well prepared not merely to let the Bill go but to give it a fair wind. The Conservative Trade Unionists' Organisation took that view. So did my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) and his Front Bench coleagues.
To emphasise the point, I add that there was further correspondence—this has not 904 been mentioned yet—between my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Hayhoe) and Mr. Tom Jackson. I do not believe that either of them would object to that correspondence being made public. I quote first from my hon. Friend's letter to Mr. Jackson:Dear Tom,Thank you very much for your letter of 31st January about Norman Buchan's Bill which is due for Second Reading on 17th February.I do not foresee any difficulty if this Bill does no more than to make it absolutely clear that industrial action in furtherance of a trades dispute with the Post Office as their employer is not unlawful.I want the hon. Gentleman to notice those words especially. I shall read them again. I do not wish to delay the House but it is important that we get the matter clear. The letter reads:I do not foresee any difficulty if this Bill does no more than to make it absolutely clear that industrial action in furtherance of a trades dispute with the Post Office as their employer is not unlawful. However, if the Bill goes wider and in particular if sympathetic action especially of a discriminatory character, is included, albeit unintentionally, then it will run into great opposition as I know you will understand.I hope that Norman Buchan and his advisers can keep the scope of the Bill within the narrow confines you envisage".In reply on 7th February Mr. Jackson replied to my hon. Friend:Dear Barney, Thank you for your letter. I am grateful for its contents. For our part we are doing our best to see that the Bill does only what you suggest".That is a letter written by Mr. Tom Jackson on the notepaper of the Union of Post Office Workers. The last line is telling. It states:The latest information is that we have succeeded—but there's many a slip! Thanks".On 7th February it was Mr. Tom Jackson's view that the Union of Post Office Workers had succeeded in doing that which my hon. Friend had suggested, namely, ensuring that the Bill did not go any wider thanindustrial action in furtherance of a trades dispute with the Post Office as their employer".It seems that there was a slip at some time between 7th and 17th February. There has been a marked change of opinion on the part of the Union of Post Office Workers.
§ Mr. Buchan
In the first place, it was on 7th February that I sent the right 905 hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) a typescript copy of the final draft of the Bill. There is no slip there. In the second place, what he was being asked about was sympathy action—I am quoting the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Hayhoe)—especially with regard to discriminatory action towards Grunwick. It is that aspect that concerns both Tom Jackson and myself. We feel that discrimination should not be included. That was the burden of the Tom Jackson letter. However unfortunate the wording might be in relation to "purely", and so on, from an early stage it was clear that we could not include discrimination. That was true of Mr. Tom Jackson. He and his union are isolated from the general body of trade unionists in terms of the general principle and right to strike.
§ Mr. Tebbit
The hon. Gentleman tells us that "purely Post Office disputes" does not mean "purely Post Office disputes". That is his first proposition. His second proposition is that when my hon. Friend said "particularly if" and "especially of" that meant that the remainder of his letter was to be ignored. The main burden of the letter wasI do not foresee any difficulty if this Bill does no more than to make it absolutely clear that industrial action in furtherance of a trades dispute with the Post Office as their employer is not unlawful.It seems that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the "however" and the "especially" override the rest of the letter.
§ Mr. Barney Hayhoe (Brentford and Isleworth)
The letter from which my hon. Friend is quoting is, as it says at the beginning, in reply to a letter from Mr. Jackson dated 31st January. My hon. Friend quoted from it in giving the Opposition Front Bench reaction to the Bill. I remind the House of the words that are used. The letter reads:Contrary to the impression created by the 'Daily Mail' and the 'Daily Telegraph' last week, this Bill does not extend to Post Office workers any entitlement to indulge in secondary or sympathetic action (commonly known as 'blacking'). It seeks no more—those were the words that I reiterated back to Tom Jackson—than to clearly establish that Post Office workers have the entitlement they (as well as Governments) always felt they did have in 906 relation to industrial action in disputes with their employer.I do not think that there can be any doubt, whatever the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) may now say and whatever he may have said to anyone else at the time, about the import of the correspondence that I had with the General Secretary of the Union of Post Office Workers. There can be no ambiguity of any sort in what Mr. Jackson wrote to me and in my letter of reply. It ill serves the free debate if the water is muddied by trying to confuse by quoting from later letters.
§ Mr. Tebbit
I am not suggesting in any way that the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West has not been entirely consistent in what he says. The hon. Gentleman has been entirely consistent. I am not suggesting that he has been anything else.
§ Mr. Tebbit
If the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon) wants to make a speech, no doubt he will have the opportunity to do so. In the meantime, I shall be grateful if he will allow me to get on with my speech.
I suggest that for a considerable time the Union of Post Office Workers was trying to prevent the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West from having his way. That is why Mr. Tom Jackson wrote:The latest information is that we have succeeded—but there's many a slip!I think that the hon. Gentleman is the slip.
§ Mr. Buchan
That is what I heartily deny. That is absolutely and totally not true. The discussion that I was having with the union throughout the period concerned was exactly the discussion that has been given expression in the Bill. I shall not get involved in a semantic argument about someone else's language. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there was no slip of the sort that he is suggesting. There was no disagreement between myself and the union. If he wants to pick up the stylistic methods of Tom Jackson, he had better do so with Tom Jackson. There was no dubiety about what we were hoping to achieve by means of the Bill. In effect, I believe that our aims have been achieved.
907 Secondly, from the moment that the Bill was published the truth was known. In the drafting of the Bill I was responsible, no matter what the unions might have said. I disagree that the intention is as the hon. Gentleman describes. Even if that were so, responsibility for the Bill remains mine and not Tom Jackson's.
§ Mr. Tebbit
I think that we can leave that part of my remarks. The hon. Gentleman said that he does not want an argument over semantics. He is saying that he is disinterested in semantics. He is saying, in effect, that words mean what he says they mean and not what the English dictionary says they mean. That is the essence of what he is saying. The Minister of State, Department of Industry, must not do his Kermit the Frog act too often, it gets terribly boring.
It is significant that the sponsor of the Bill, in defending the right of sympathetic strike action, spoke specifically of political strikes. That which was said by the hon. Gentleman and by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) prompted the House to wonder how things might work out in practice. Let us suppose that a group of workers engage in a discriminatory boycott. Let us say that they refused to deliver any more mail to the Socialist Workers' Party because of its anti-democratic and violent propensities. Equally, let us suppose that the Post Office, rightly in those circumstances, took action against that group of workers, telling them "It is nothing to do with you whether the customers of the Post Office have political views with which you agree or disagree. It is your job to deliver the mail in a non-discriminatory way, and Mr. Buchan's Bill"—it might be an Act by the time that such a conversation takes place—"has not made any change to your position in that respect."
I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that his Bill seeks to make no change to that condition. However, let us suppose that the Union of Post Office Workers came under pressure from some of the shop stewards. Suppose it told the Post Office to lay off those chaps—and I mean "lay off" not in the industrial sense of putting them off work but in the sense of not taking any action against them. Suppose things got worse and the Post Office did take disciplinary action and suppose that it told other people to 908 deliver the mail which those workers were refusing to handle. Suppose that the second group of workers said "No. We are not touching the work which ought to be done by men on strike." Would that be a discriminatory boycott or would it be sympathetic action? I suspect that it would be sympathetic action. So it would be pefectly easy, under the hon. Gentleman's Bill, to achieve at one remove the discriminatory boycott and there would be no way in which we could deal with it.
It seems that after the Attorney-General's work—I must say I am still mildly confused over the state of the law—the citizen could not bring, or force to be brought, a criminal action against those who were engaged in the discriminatory boycott. It would seem unlikely that this Attorney-General, at any rate, would bring an action. It would seem very unlikely that the Post Office would initiate criminal action in those circumstances. We would have the system perfectly completed. As a result of the passage of this Bill we would have legalised the discriminatory boycott at one remove.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman says that the Bill is not designed to do that, although I rather gathered from his remarks and those of his hon. Friends that, were circumstances different, and were there a Labour majority in the House, he would have brought forward a Bill to do that, because that is what he wants to do. I see the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Stott), who I believe is Private Parliamentary Secretary to a distinguished Member of the Administration, nodding his head. We know what the form is. It appears that the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West is in grave danger of achieving his objectives by error, not stealth. It would be wrong to imply stealth. It seems, from the expression on the hon. Gentleman's face, that he is only just coming round to the realisation that this is the effect of his Bill.
§ Mr. Buchan
I am not sure whether I am more flattered at the recognition of my honesty or at the recognition of my cunning. Clearly, both cannot be right. I merely make the modest point that if the fear is that there is a loophole which could lead to any discrimination—and it is the intention of the Bill to prevent discrimination—I shall willingly look at an 909 amendment which could better express the purpose of my Bill. The hon. Member is indulging in fantasy with his fanciful analysis of the National Association for Freedom taking out an injunction to protect the Socialist Workers' Party. If there is an element of truth in what he says we shall look at it in Committee and be generous.
§ Mr. Tebbit
The hon. Member says that he will look at this in Committee. Having looked at the Bill, I do not see any way whatever in which such an amendment could be made without completely removing the right to take sympathetic action of any sort. The hon. Gentleman says that he is being generous. What he is saying is that he will look at a proposition which would completely torpedo his Bill. What is more, he says that he will look at it as someone who wants to legalise secondary boycotts and discriminatory boycotts but appreciates that there is not a majority for that in the House at the moment. I am not unduly moved by his offer to look sympathetically at an amendment which would do precisely what he does not want it to do.
I want to be fair to the hon. Member—
§ Mr. Tebbit
It is no good having a discussion unless we are fair to each other's proposals and, so far as we can be, to each other's motives. That goes without saying. I read today in The Daily Telegraph an article by Mr. Peter Gill, of the Telegraph's political staff. I do not know whether the hon. Member has had time to read it yet. If I may I will refer to that part of it which seeks to quote the hon. Gentleman. Because part of it is a direct quote and part of it is in indirect speech, it is fair to read it all and to let the hon. Gentleman confirm whether it correctly expresses his view. It says:In a general call from the TUC, for instance ', Mr. Norman Buchan, Left-wing Labour MP for West Renfrewshire, and sponsor of the Bill, said ' you cannot expect a body of trade unionists to be hived off from the whole movement'.He said that under his Bill postal workers would have been allowed to take action against Mr. Ward's North London factory provided all staff at the local Cricklewood sorting office 910 had struck and taken action against the whole community.Postal workers could also have joined in trades union protests over South Africa provided they had organised, say, a one-day solidarity strike rather than sought to 'black' the mails to and from South Africa".I do not know whether that represents the hon. Member's views truly.
§ Mr. Tebbit
Whatever the Bill says is couched in rather obscure language. What the House is interested in and what the public is interested in is whether a Bill which, according to Mr. Tom Jackson and on the understanding, of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth, was designed to allow Post Office workers to take industrial action against their employer in pursuance of a dispute with their employer is, as the hon. Gentleman now says, designed to allow postal workers—
§ Mr. Tebbit
All right; not "designed". But by accident its effect would be to allow postal workers to take action against Mr. Ward's North London factory. I understood that the hon. Gentleman told me earlier that he would sympathetically consider amendments to prevent that. But here, in this morning's paper, he is saying that that is what his Bill would do, and he knew it.
§ Mr. Tebbit
Totally wrong on which count? Am I wrong on the count that the hon. Gentleman would or would not consider sympathetically any amendments which would stop discriminatory boycotts, or is the hon. Gentleman now saying that what is attributed to him in the paper is not what he said, whereas a moment ago he said that it was what he said?
§ Mr. Buchan
It is not The Daily Telegraph which has misinterpreted the position, it is the hon. Member. The situation is straightforward. The Post Office workers will have the right to strike. They will not have the right to take discriminatory action. They will not be able to strike to prevent the mail going to 911 South Africa. They could strike so as to affect the entire mail. The hon. Gentleman is creating a Doomsday situation which none of us can appreciate. It is a lot of nonsense, a lot of imaginative facts.
§ Mr. Tebbit
They are not my imaginative facts; they are the hon. Gentleman's. He says that his Bill would have allowed workers to take action against Mr. Ward's North London factory. Presumably it will allow them in future to take action against Mr. Ward's North London factory, provided only that the whole Cricklewood staff took action.
§ Mr. Tebbit
We have now got things perfectly clear. This Bill is so designed and will have the effect of allowing discriminatory action. We have gradually sliding out from under what I may emotively call the flat stone the real purpose of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) said that the Bill was unacceptable in its present form but he did not propose to divide the House. He wants to amend the Bill in Committee. The longer we look at the Bill, the longer we discuss it, the more we let the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West talk about his Bill and intervene to explain it, the more it is clear that it is extremely doubtful whether it is possible to amend the Bill in Committee to make it acceptable.
I shall make a rather different proposition to the hon. Gentleman from that which my hon. Friend put to him, and it will be a far more generous one. If the hon. Gentleman and the Union of Post Office Workers or anyone else can produce a Bill which has a closer resemblance to the Bill about which my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth and Mr. Tom Jackson were corresponding earlier this month, I shall be willing, if the hon. Gentleman will take the risk, to consider acting as his co-sponsor to make sure that it gets through. It would then have support from both sides of the House. The Bill that was being discussed by my hon. Friend and Mr. Tom Jackson was a very reasonable one, whereas the Bill now before us is a very dangerous one indeed. In the lack of that sort of understanding with the hon. Gentleman, I could not feel entirely bound to accept the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Thames.
912 The supporters of the Bill have made much of the reasonable and responsible record of postal workers, and they are very right to do so. It is a good record, despite the blemishes. Apart from mentioning what the hon. Gentleman said about Mr. Ward in the newspaper this morning, I did not want to get involved in the particular blemishes of the action against apartheid and against Mr. Ward. After all, it always seems curious to me that the great cause célèbre in this area should have been an action against apartheid on the one hand and against a distinguished Anglo-Indian business man on the other, and I did not particularly want to get into that area. But blemishes of one sort and another—there was also the industrial action in North-East London 12 months ago—are becoming more rather than less frequent. In any case, the very fact of the good record undermines the case for any change in the law such as the hon. Gentleman has been putting forward.
I view the Bill with a very jaundiced eye. It may be that what I hear later in the day will reassure me, although what has come out during the course of the discussion—and particularly what the hon. Gentleman has said in his interventions in my speech—has made me more rather than less jaundiced about the Bill.
§ 1.33 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. Eric G. Varley)
At this stage I will indicate to the House the attitude of the Government to the Bill, and in doing so congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) on bringing forward a Bill which I believe gives an opportunity to remedy a great injustice. That injustice is that in the 1970s workers in the Post Office are inhibited by the criminal law from taking industrial action in support of their own interests as workers in their own industry.
We in the Government had already undertaken to introduce legislation to remedy this situation because we believed that the doubt cast on Post Office workers' industrial rights—arising as it did from an interpretation of existing law—should not be left open to question in future. We therefore welcome the Bill which has been brought forward on the initiative of my hon. Friend and 913 everything that is contained in this Private Member's Bill.
I do not want to go into some of the Committee points raised so far in the debate. My hon. Friend has already indicated a willingness, if the House gives the Bill a Second Reading, to look most carefully at the points which have been raised. I can, however, tell the House that on Second Reading the Government fully support the Bill.
I cannot emphasise too strongly that the Bill establishes for Post Office workers normal industrial rights—rights which everyone, even Opposition Members, had previously thought they possessed. I shall come to that aspect in more detail in a moment or two.
The Post Office is, of course, massively involved in the affairs of the whole country. In order to be so involved it employs 400,000 people. It has a long tradition of dedication to the public service, and those whom it employs are fully conscious of the essential part they play in keeping the nation's communications services going.
The postal business handles 30 million letters a day. It collects items from 123,000 posting points for delivery to over 21 million addresses. The scale of the operation is almost too large to grasp, but it gives an indication of the degree to which postal workers are involved in our lives.
Another example is the telecommunications business. It handles 55 million telephone calls a day, which in itself is a mammoth operation. But that is not all. It also provides services which keep the business community in touch with clients—facilities such as telex and data transmission.
The counter services of the Post Office demonstrate that Post Office operations are an essential part of our daily lives. Members of the public go to post offices to collect pensions and social security payments, to buy television licences and to pay their road tax. They can also hold a Giro account which provides them with banking services six days a week. One trip to a post office can cope with all these requirements and many others as well. It is the workers who provide this wide range of services—post, telecommunications, Giro and counter facili- 914 ties—whose basic industrial rights are at present in doubt.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Stott) pays tribute to the Post office workers and says that they are not a strike-happy, recalcitrant or bloody-minded work force, I agree entirely. Over the years, we have grown to recognise their value and to pay tribute to the responsible attitude of Post Office workers and all who work in that great organisation.
There is, of course, a high level of co-operation between the management and the work force, which was recognised very recently in the House when we embarked on legislation which would provide for the two-year experiment in industrial democracy. The House will recall that the arrangements were agreed jointly by the management and the unions, and the experiment is now under way. The full co-operation of the work force is essential in achieving improvements in efficiency.
The Post Office's annual report for 1976–77 pointed out that its staff had shown great good will and understanding in its approach to cost reduction programmes, and the Carter Report on the Post Office shows the importance of maintaining and improving the efficiency in the services run by the Post Office.
We shall be looking to everyone who works in the Post Office to take up the challenge of greater efficiency all round. All the workers in the postal business know that it is in their interests to maintain good relations with the public. I have already outlined to the House the massive services that they provide. They know that they have to win, if possible, a higher volume of mail. They know that they have to move into an area in which services are provided more economically, so that the finances and the profitability of the Post Office can be maintained and its prices kept stable. Continued co-operation on mechanisation and on all the other matters that we have debated on previous occasions in the House is important.
The hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) says that the great involvement of the Post Office in the life of the community and the way in which postal services impinge on our everyday life are factors which lead him to the view that 915 we ought to be extremely cautious about giving Post Office workers what I regard as basic human rights. Those factors lead me to the opposite conclusion.
I believe that the reason why my hon. Friend's Bill is so important is that it would be the height of folly to destroy the tremendous good will of the Post Office's work force by continuing to impose sanctions on their basic industrial rights. The workers believe that there is a great injustice here.
§ Mr. Tebbit
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. This is an injustice—if injustice it be—which has been there for the past 140 years or so. Therefore, it cannot be that much of a burning issue. Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman accept that I am in agreement with the concept of the Bill which was being discussed between my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Hayhoe) and Mr. Tom Jackson? I am not trying to hold up this great reform. What worries me is the discriminatory action which will be taken under it.
§ Mr. Varley
My hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West has described his Bill to the House, as well as his intentions. The hon. Member for Chingford sees something much more sinister in it. My hon. Friend said that he would be prepared to look at all these points and debate them at greater length if the House would give the Bill a Second Reading. If the hon. Member for Chingford is expressing sympathy, and is genuinely doing so, he ought not to vote against the Bill today but rather should persuade his hon. Friends to allow it to come under close scrutiny in Committee.
My hon. Friend has already said that the first part of the Bill is a declaratory expression of what he believes—and what, I think, most people believe—to be the existing legal position. I shall come in a moment to the confusion that has arisen. The legal advisers to the Government also take this view. I remind the House that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General told the House on 23rd June last year that it was the general view that for Post Office employees wholly to withdraw their labour would not be a breach of the criminal law.
Clause 1(1) of the Bill also confirms that Post Office workers can strike in 916 sympathy with a dispute outside the Post Office. That, too, is already legal. I remind the House that solidarity is a deeply held principle of trade unionism. It would be unthinkable for us to take away the right of Post Office workers to demonstrate their solidarity with their fellow trade unionists by withdrawing their labour.
The Bill's declaration of their rights to take sympathetic action goes no further than that. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, who I hope will be a member of the Standing Committee, will be able to give the Government's view, if that is required, as well as any further legal clarifications that are needed. But, as I understand the Bill at present, its provisions will not enable Post Office workers to engage in blacking action which is intended to discriminate against individual users.
The Government are aware that many hon. Members have serious reservations about blacking. But we would find it inconceivable if Conservative Members sought to deny Post Office workers the basic right confirmed by what I think is the proper interpretation of the Bill as set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West.
The second purpose of my hon. Friend's Bill is to establish the right of Post Office workers to take industrial action short of a strike in a dispute with the Post Office in support of its own interests. Here again, we are concerned with a fundamental right of trade unionists.
I should like to know whether Conservative Members really wish to deny this right. The hon. Member for Ching-ford says "No, but within certain limits". But I think that the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) would probably deny Post Office workers even that right.
§ Mr. Varley
The hon. Gentleman would not. Therefore, we have a duty today to let the Bill go into Committee so that it can come under close scrutiny. If there are doubts, let us see what those doubts are.
Seven years ago, the Conservative Administration removed the constraints on industrial action by gas, electricity and 917 water workers. I know that this is not entirely comparable. I know that there is a difference in the nature of their businesses. I accept that immediately. For the life of me, however, I do not know why seven years ago the Conservative Administration did nothing about Post Office workers. I am sure that it was not because they did not wish Post Office workers to be able to take industrial action. At that time no one realised that the criminal sanctions in the Post Office and Telegraph Acts could bite on industrial action.
I should like to remind the House of some dates. At the beginning of 1971 there was a seven-week strike of postal workers. But the Government of the day did not attempt to prosecute the workers then, nor again in 1973 when there was a postal boycott of France. The conclusion that must be drawn is that the Conservatives at that time were unaware—until last year—that there were any barriers to industrial action by Post Office workers.
The House will also remember the passage of the 1971 Industrial Relations Act. Some of the more agreeable—or, should I say, palatable?—provisions of that Act were designed to implement a policy of removing any remnants of the criminal law from industrial relations. The then Secretary of State for Employment, now Lord Carr, said in a speech to this House that the Government of the daydo not believe in the detailed application of the criminal law to industrial relations".—[Official Report, 11th December 1970; Vol. 808, c. 821.]Unfortunately, in their abolition of criminal penalties they missed the offences in the Post Office and Telegraph Acts, leaving the Post Office workers in a position from which they rescued the gas. water and electricity workers.
I ought not to blame the Conservatives too much for that. Few of us at that time realised that these constraints existed. [Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Hayhoe) now saying that the Conservative Party knew this?
§ Mr. Hayhoe
No. I said that no amendment was put down to that effect and, therefore, that that was the generally 918 accepted view of everyone in the House at the time.
§ Mr. Varley
I believe that is right. The hon. Gentleman is really confirming what I am saying. I believe that there was a genuine misunderstanding of the situation at the time of the 1971 Industrial Relations Act.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has clarified this. I assume that what the hon. Gentleman has just told us is the view of the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe), who, as the then Solicitor-General, took part in the many debates on the Industrial Relations Act.
If there was a genuine misunderstanding by the then Government and the then Opposition, who did not realise that the criminal penalties would bite on Post Office workers in the way that they have done, the House has a duty to put that matter right at the first opportunity. My hon. Friend's Bill provides that opportunity.
However, I would blame the Conservative Opposition if today they prevented the Bill going through. I am certainly confident that if in 1971—I am glad that the hon. Member for Brentford and Isle-worth confirmed this—the Tories had been aware of the position, they would have liberalised it pretty quickly. I cannot see how they can fail to support the Bill today, because what we are trying to do is to rectify a grave injustice which was overlooked during the passage of the Industrial Relations Act.
§ Mr. Norman Lamont
What is at issue here is not what the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) says he wants to do or what he says his Bill does. What is at issue is not what is written in the Explanatory Memorandum. What is at issue is the effect of the Bill. He made it clear—I wish that the Secretary of State would address himself to our serious argument—that the Bill prevents discriminatory action. For reasons which I explained, the Opposition think that the Bill has plenty of loopholes which allow discriminatory action. It is not enough for the Secretary of State to say that we should support the Bill because of some principle. We ought to support or reject it according to its effect as drafted.
§ Mr. Varley
I do not happen to agree with all that was said about discriminatory action, how difficult it was to prevent it and the rest of it. That is a matter that we can go into at another stage. But if, in 1971, the then Conservative Administration would have taken action to remove some of the criminal penalties that exist in terms of their effect upon Post Office workers, I cannot understand why they cannot let the Bill go forward to its Committee stage so that these matters can be considered. My hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew-shire, West made it quite clear that he wanted to see the Bill go through in a form which was broadly acceptable and that he did not want to take some of the action which the hon. Member for Ching-ford described.
§ Mr. Tebbit
What the Secretary of State does not seem to understand is that these reforms were made as part of the Industrial Relations Act. The Industrial Relations Act has been removed from the statute book and with it have been removed many of the restraints and obligations laid upon trade unions. If the right hon. Gentleman is saying that we can have the whole Industrial Relations Act back again provided that we include Post Office workers with the others, we may be able to do a deal.
§ Mr. Varley
That is not a serious point. It is just a debating point. The hon. Member for Chingford knows that some of what I have described as the more acceptable features of the 1971 Industrial Relations Act were retained and were included in the legislation brought before the House to repeal the Industrial Relations Act.
§ Mr. Hayhoe
Since the Secretary of State has been praying my remarks in aid, let me make it clear that I was saying that I believed that we thought at the time of the 1971 Act that Post Office workers could take industrial action in furtherance of a trades dispute with the Post Office as their employer. Certainly I thought that to be true, and what I said in my correspondence with Tom Jackson and what has been running through this whole debate is that we saw no difficulty—if doubt has now arisen about that—in getting it put right and making it clear that industrial action in furtherance of a trades dispute with the Post Office as their 920 employer was not lawful. A Bill to do that would meet no difficulties in the House. The problem is that the Bill goes much wider. The Secretary of State should not use what I said on that narrow point, which is merely a re-expression of what I have written to Torn Jackson, as being supportive of the wider provisions of the Bill, which I said expressly in the correspondence would lead to difficulty.
§ Mr. Varley
In fact, there is a difficulty of interpretation of the Bill at this stage. I do not want to be abusive to the hon. Member for Chingford, but he made some rather fanciful suggestions and proposed all kinds of arrangements which I do not think apply at all. The fanciful arrangements that he described could be put under the scrutiny of a proper Committee stage.
I get the impression from some Opposition Members that they really look for difficulties in the Bill. They say that it goes beyond what they themselves would like to do. Therefore, although they do not want to prevent Post Office workers taking industrial action, they feel that they have to kill the Bill at this stage. We as a Government say that we support the Bill and that we support what my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West said by way of interpretation today. There will have to be clarification, but the best way to do that is to let the Bill go into Committee so that it can be examined. After all, such things as amendments can be made once the sense of the Committee has been taken.
§ Mr. Alexander W. Lyon
My right hon. Friend is right. The 1971 Act removed criminal penalties upon power and gas workers who took any kind of industrial action. There was no qualification about discriminatory action. That is true of every industrial worker in the country. It was not because of the Industrial Relations Act framework. It was done in response to a recommendation of the Donovan Committee which had nothing to do with the Industrial Relations Act.
§ Mr. Varley
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comment, because he played an active part during the passage of the 1971 legislation.
I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. I have indicated the Government's view of the Bill.
§ Mr. Norman Lamont
Will the Secretary of State support amendments which may be put forward in Committee to remove any possibility of discrimination, especially by applying subsection (3) to subsection (1)?
§ Mr. Varley
The Government have an attitude to the Bill. We support it. If there are difficulties of interpretation, we want to examine them. We want to do that in consultation with the Post Office Board, the trade unions and the others concerned. Our views will be indicated during the Committee stage. I should have thought that that was the only reasonable and acceptable attitude to adopt at this stage of the Second Reading of the Bill.
As we know, the Bill has the support of the trade unions within the Post Office organisation, representing the responsible men and women to whom the hon. Member for Chingford paid tribute. I hope that he does not praise them one minute and kick their backsides in the rest of his remarks. That is not the way to endear himself to these loyal men and women. He says that he has never met an angry postman in his life—[Interruption.] It may be that the postman concerned has never met the hon. Member for Chingford. However, everyone who knows him knows that on occasions, when he is trying, he can be very nice—that is, when he is not advising the Leader of the Opposition and operating as one of the Gang of Four. We all know that he can be extremely courteous. If he believes genuinely that Post Office workers have the right that we are discussing and that at present they are suffering great injustice, it is his duty to support this Second Reading and to express his anxieties during the Committee stage.
The Government support the Bill. Its terms ought not to offend any hon. Member who believes in trade unionism and the principles which inspire all those who believe in a free society. If the House fails to give the Bill a Second Reading, it will have taken a step back into the nineteenth century. That is not an idle remark. A vote against the Bill will be a vote against the fundamental rights of workers which have been built up slowly and painfully over many decades. I have no hesitation in advising the House to support the Bill.
§ 1.59 p.m.
§ Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)
I begin by paying my own brief tribute to all those who work in the Post Office. They have built up, established and now maintain the highest quality of service. If any criticism should be made of the Post Office, it should be made against management decision-making for having in some instances forecast incorrectly the present needs and for having geared up both mechanically and electronically to meet them.
The importance of the proper operation of the mail and telephone services cannot be over-exaggerated. It can even be made equivalent to and as important as the continued operation of the forces of law. But I believe that there is too little discussion of the alternatives to an all-embracing national right to strike. There is too little discussion on the question whether there are alternatives in terms of limiting a national right to strike, not only for Post Office workers but for the very groups of workers who were given the right to strike under the 1971 law, namely, the power workers, the gas workers, and the workers for electricity and water undertakings.
I believe that we have moved a very long way from the situation that pertained when Donovan wrote his report and when the Industrial Relations Act was produced. We now face a difficult national situation in which we have to weigh up on the one hand, the needs of national solidarity and, on the other, the requirements of trade union solidarity.
If the House shares my concern, it will not be in favour of the Bill. I hope that discussion of the Bill today will lead to greater discussion of all the other actions that could be taken instead of giving the right to strike, most particularly compensating economic benefits in terms of wages, pensions and indexation. I believe that such benefits could easily be of as great importance and benefit, if not of greater benefit, to members of the unions which might thereby be affected. But the right to strike that we are discussing is that of Post Office workers. I shall confine my remarks to the telephone workers, because so far they have received only tangential reference in the debate.
923 First and visibly, if the telephone workers were to go on strike, they would put at risk all calls placed through an operator, interfering with all emergency calls made to the police, to the fire services and to hospitals. The hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Stott) said that there had always been staffing to a level required to maintain the services so that emergency calls would go through. If that has been the case, and if that is the intention hereafter, surely there should be some reference to such safeguards in the Bill.
Secondly, there has been some mention, but only very slight, of the effect upon the sound and television networks of a Post Office workers' strike. Any broadcasting which depended upon a line lead because of the distance from a studio, or a line lead because of the distance from the transmitter, would be subject to interference. For the same reason that I advocate safeguards on behalf of emergency telephone calls, so I believe that the Bill, if it goes through, should have built into it safeguards to protect broadcasting.
The curtailment of engineering services to the land lines and the automatic operation of the telephone service would slowly—and sometimes not so slowly—affect all commercial users of the telephone lines. This would affect the newspapers through their need for information transmittal. It would also increasingly affect them through material transmittal, because the landlines of the telephone services are being used increasingly for the transmission of visual material.
It would affect commercial and Government computer operators and—perhaps not, so far, to the awareness of the House—such computer operators as the Open University, which I visited just 10 days ago, and which relies entirely on a computer operation for the administration of its courses. The Open University estimated that its computer services down the line had to be serviced once every two and a half weeks. Very quickly that period of two and a half weeks would be reduced to about one day if the engineering services were withdrawn, and if they were not taking place on a one-day basis the system would quickly go out of operation.
Lastly, curtailment of engineering services would affect the telex for general 924 information transmittal, such as providing information for newspapers, for the Government, or ourselves, and for commerce. I was going to ask the Government whether it was their intention to introduce a separate Bill as well as to support this Bill, but after the Secretary of State's recent comments it seems to me that the Government are treating the Bill as the Bill that was referred to in the Queen's Speech. That was indicated by the Secretary of State's support for it and by the words of the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Westhoughton.
If this is the Government's Bill, I wonder whether a Minister can explain what co-ordination has taken place with the Liberal Party as part of the co-ordination promised by Lord Winterbottom, the Government spokesman in the other place, when it debated Post Office services imediately after the Queen's Speech.
§ Mr. Hooson
If the hon. Gentleman had listened to the earlier part of my speech, he would have heard me say that it had been discussed with the Liberal Party and that we had refused to go along with the Government.
§ Mr. Rathbone
I listened to every word that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) said earlier, but that point somehow escaped me.
I wonder whether the Government will explain what discussions they had with the unions. There seems to be a considerable lack of co-ordination and a lack of understanding what the Bill is about, what it is designed to do, or what it will do. Again, such consulation was promised by the Government spokesman in the other place.
I wonder what discussion there has been with the Post Office management. No reference has been made to it by either the sponsor of the Bill or the Secretary of State. Yet it, too, was promised before the introduction of the legislation when the matter was debated in the other place.
Lastly, and by no means least, what discussions were there with the Post Office Users National Council before the introduction of the Bill? That, too, was promised by Lord Winterbottom on 16th November.
§ Mr. Buchan
The hon. Gentleman asks whether there has been discussion with the Post Office Users National Council. Yes, I met the council. There was a generally sympathetic view of the situation. Two or three of its members have written to me to express their reservations on the Bill.
§ Mr. Rathbone
I appreciate the hon. Member's mentioning that. It is a pity that it was not mentioned earlier and that it had to be elicited. I missed it if it was mentioned earlier.
There is also confusion in some lawyers' minds—I am not a member of that profession—about there being no mention in the Bill of the Telegraph Act 1889. Mention is made of the Telegraph Act 1863, but the Telegraph Act 1889 has some bearing, I am told. Nobody has mentioned the 1889 Act so far. It would be useful to know how this Bill interlocks with that Act, whether it has some effect on the definition of a message, and whether it has some effect on what is defined as interference in the transmission of a message.
This leads me to my penultimate point, which is the relationship of the Bill, under Government sponsorship, with the analysis and recommendations of the Carter Committee. I wonder what effect the Bill will have, if it leads to industrial action, on the measurment and assessment of the operations of the Post Office, operating as it does in its monopoly situation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ching-ford (Mr. Tebbit) mentioned. I raise this point because it was touched on in the Carter Report, paragraph 8.2 of which said:The Post Office is given a defined purpose and a somewhat ambiguous financial target, with the idea that together these should enable the management to get on with running the business efficiently, at arm's length from Government".It went on in the next paragraph:It may be all very well for Government to be at arm's length from a nationalised industry which has no monopoly, and which is subject to the discipline of market forces (e.g. British Airways).Later, it added:Where market discipline is absent, the will of the people for the maintenance of proper services and reasonable efficiency has to be interpreted and conveyed by Government.'926 I wonder whether this is being interpreted property in giving Post Office workers the right to strike as identified in this Bill.
It is peculiar that the Government have not asked the Carter Committee for advice on this matter, and to investigate whether other democratic counties have given this right to Post Office workers. If they have done so, what are the statutory cooling-off periods suggested as a parallel to that right? How are Post Office workers protected by counter-balancing benefits if that right is not given to them?
I believe that any action that might encourage strikes in this sensitive area is an action that can adversely affect people in all parts of the country, particularly in times of personal or national emergency. This could be a retrograde step in the shaky operation of our democratic principles. Democracy is a fragile plant, and interfering with political communication, persuasion and answerability through the broadcast media might be deleterious to its future health.
The Bill is very questionable in as effect on the public and the country as a whole. It is also questionable in its effect on Post Office workers. I hope that the House will not give it a Second Reading.
§ 2.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)
This debate has been notable in one respect—when the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) utters a panegyric in favour of 140 years of a nationalised industry we can bet our lives that he will do so on a Friday, when there are no members of the Press here to report him. However, it is on the record that there is at least one nationalised industry that has received his badge of approval.
The Post Office has done a good job for many years, even though there have been difficulties recently over costs. It has sought to provide a universal service throughout the country for every hamlet and village and every business firm in every major city. For that reason the attitude of Post Office workers is important. Over the years their attitude has been beyond reproach. That should be weighed in the balance if there is any suggestion that they would act irresponsibly if a legal fetter that Parliament did not intend to impose upon them were removed. I do not think that they 927 would act irresponsibly. It is important to stress that in this debate.
It is also important to stress the way in which this matter has come before the House. In 1971, when the then Conservative Government decided to remove the legal fetter on industrial action by power and gas workers, they obviously intended to act in accordance with the recommendations of the Donovan Committee and not because of the Industrial Relations Bill. The Donovan Committee thought that it was wrong that service workers should be denied the right of industrial action that was allowed to every other kind of industrial worker.
The reason why this fetter was not removed from Post Office workers was that nobody thought that they were under such a fetter. Nobody thought that the Post Office Act 1953 imposed a burden on them that was not imposed on any other group. Had the Conservative Administration realised this they would have removed that fetter then and there.
Therefore, I find it most surprising that when the Post Office went to the Court of Appeal, the Court of Appeal could say that Section 58 of the 1953 Act was as plain as a pikestaff. So plain, in fact, that nobody in this House would ever have suggested that it would remove the right of Post Office workers to take industrial action. No one in 1971 thought that that was the case, either, and no book on industrial law before Gouriet thought that there was such a fetter on Post Office workers. Therefore, Mr. Tom Jackson was absolutely right to say that Parliament had never intended, by Section 58 of the 1953 Act, to inhibit Post Office workers from taking industrial action.
In this Bill we are simply seeking to put the position right after what I regard as a wrong construction of Section 58 by both the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords. We are seeking to do no more than put Post Office workers back in the position that everyone thought that they were in already before 1976—a position that all other workers except the police enjoy.
My complaint against the Bill is that it does not do that. Every other group of workers can take discriminatory action, and there is no reason why Post Office workers should be singled out for a con- 928 tinuing legal fetter. We shall take this decision against the background of the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) and his friends in the National Association for Freedom, Gouriet, the Post Office, and all that this meant. Had it been decided to do this in 1971 there would have been no question about it. There would have been no restriction necessary such as that contained in Clause 1(3). Opposition Members suggest that we should consider this in Committee with a view to widening that subsection to cover subsection (1), but I suggest that in Committee we should take out subsection (3) altogether, otherwise we shall be leaving a fetter on Post Office workers which does not apply to any other workers except the police.
Of course there is a danger in this. There is a danger in industrial action anywhere. Any group of workers can hold consumers to some degree of industrial ransom, depending on their strength of power. The power workers can do it. We all know that if Post Office workers go on strike, they can hit a lot of people very hard. They can also hit one particular firm very hard—to the extent of actually crippling it. I am not denying that. But so can the power workers, the miners and the dockers. In fact, the dockers can cripple the country in a fortnight.
I do not say that the dockers should not have the right to strike or to remove their labour in a discriminatory way. All I am saying is that what is good for the dockers, the miners and the power workers is good for the Post Office workers. If Conservatives do not think that that is good for the country, one of them should bring in a Private Member's Bill taking away the right of strike action from all workers.
I do not believe that this Bill can come into law and preserve that injustice against Post Office workers. I recognise the limitations under which my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) is working. It is not his fault. At the party meeting on the Queen's Speech at the beginning of this Session, I raised the question whether the Government were going to bring in such a Bill and I was told that I had not read the Queen's Speech properly, because such 929 a promise was included. What a promise it turned out to be—the promise that my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West should be selected from his place in the Ballot to bring in a Private Member's Bill. The difficulty is not today but in Committee, where Opposition Members will put down amendments. The difficulty is also on Report, where Conservative Members can get together again to try to amend the Bill. It will only need two of them to cause problems. Then we shall need time, and we shall have to go to the Government and ask for more time.
It is not good enough for the Government to say that they cannot adopt the Bill as their own because there is not enough time in this Session. They will have to make time anyway, and we should have made time for a Bill with this degree of priority. It should have a lot of priority in any Labour Party programme.
I maintain that this is an essential Labour Party Bill. It says that workers in the Post Office should be treated on the same basis as every other industrial worker. I do not expect the Tories to accept that view and I do not even expect the Liberals to accept it. It is a long time since the Liberals had the reforming attitude of the 1906 Liberal Government. I have no doubt that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) would not have felt comfortable in that Government. We have moved a bit since then. The Liberals have died and we have come to life. We now stand for the rights of workers and a Labour Government should put right the anomaly in connection with Post Office workers.
I recognise the problems faced by my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew-shire, West, but at the appropriate stage I shall move an amendment to remove Clause 1(3) from the Bill.
§ Mr. Norman Lamont
I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises that every word he is saying makes it more difficult for us not to vote against the Bill. What he is saying is in direct contrast to what the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) have said. They told us to take it in good faith that they would abide by their 930 intentions not to allow discriminatory action and that the drafting of the Bill was merely a detail.
How can we be sure that the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon) will not be on the Committee? Will he at least give us that assurance?
§ Mr. Lyon
I think that the Whips can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, but that gives him no assurance for the Report stage.
I have said what I propose to do, and if the House wishes to support me, it will do so. When the Government lost an important vote the other night, no one suggested that the House had no right to make that decision. If the hon. Gentleman gets together with enough of my hon. Friends, he will be able to defeat my amendment—though I do not believe that anyone on the Government side of the House should be involved in any such move.
In a divided House with a minority Government it is difficult always to get through what one believes to be right and therefore there is often a degree of compromise. I can see that at work in this debate. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) says that he will keep his lads out of the Lobby at a price. I believe that the price is too high. If the Bill went through on the understanding on which the hon. Gentleman wants it to go through, it would be at the price of continuing the victimisation of Post Office workers, and I do not believe that that is acceptable.
It would be better if we faced the fact that the Tories will have to defeat a Bill which gives a right to Post Office workers that the Tories themselves accept ought to be given, on the basis that it also gives them the rights of every other industrial worker—but which the Tories do not want to give them.
If the Tories want to take that on board, they may do so, but I shall not allow them to do so on my back and I do not believe that they should be allowed to do so on the backs of the Labour Party. If we are to have a vote on that, let us have it. I think that we would win it, but if we lose I shall be happy to leave the Tories to explain to Post Office workers why they cannot go on strike even against their own employers. I do 931 not believe that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames will lead us to that. If he does, that will be OK. That is how things sometimes work out. We shall have to see what he does then.
§ 2.24 p.m.
§ Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)
I join other hon. Members in giving praise to Post Office workers. For several years I have been involved in the telecommunications side in connection with the telephone users' association, but when I was a student I worked for two Christmases delivering letters and parcels for the Post Office and my sons have done the same, so I know what pleasant and agreeable people work for the Post Office and what an excellent service they give.
If any criticism could be levelled at me, it would be that the go-slow for which I was responsible in the time that I worked for the Post Office was due not to industrial action, but to total inefficiency.
I greatly appreciate, as does everyone else, the cheerfulness and the good services rendered by Post Office workers.
§ Mr. Gorst
If the hon. Gentleman feels that my remarks were patronising, I withdraw them and merely offer the acceptance of all hon. Members and the whole community of the excellent work that is done by Post Office workers.
I also concede that everyone should have the right to withdraw his labour. If that is considered patronising, I make no apology for it.
§ Mr. Gorst
Having said that people should have the right to withdraw their labour, I must add that I do not believe 932 that Post Office workers should have the right to withhold the mail. I share the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) on this matter.
If they withhold the mail and they have conceded to them the right to withdraw their labour in a dispute with their own employers, I believe that there should also be an automatic cancellation of the monopoly for the supply of that service when there is a strike. It is not defensible for the monopoly to continue in these circumstances, and I apply that view to both posts and telecommunications.
I hope that we shall divide against the Second Reading, because I believe that the right of sympathetic action accorded under the Bill which will enable discrimination to take place—albeit in a sledgehammer to crack a nut fashion—is a defect in the principle that lies behind the Bill. That is why we should vote against it now and not later.
I listened with interest to what the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) said about what was and was not in the correspondence between him and others, and between my right hon. and hon. Friends and Toni Jackson, but I do not see the relevance of that because we are concerned not with what was in the correspondence or was understood as a result of the correspondence but with what is in the Bill.
It is because of what is in the Bill, particularly in Clause 1 (2) and (3), that I believe it to be unsound and unacceptable in principle, and I hope that we shall not give it a Second Reading.
§ 2.29 p.m.
§ Mr. Ivor Clemitson (Luton, East)
As a number of my hon. Friends have said, this is a modest Bill. It is not a revolutionary measure and it certainly does not put postal workers on all fours with other workers in the community.
The immunity from the possibility of criminal action extends, I understand, only to an all-out stoppage of work and, in the case of industrial action short of a strike—go-slows and so on—only to action against the Post Office itself. Even then, it is hedged about with reservations on discrimination. The Bill does not cover sympathetic action short of a strike, and industrial action short of a strike 933 must not be discriminatory. The Bill falls a long way short of putting postal workers on the same footing as other workers.
The question to which Opposition Members have failed to address themselves is what groups of workers are in an analogous position to Post Office workers. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) referred on about five occasions to the Armed Forces and the police. I inferred from what he said that postal workers were in some way in an analogous position to those categories. I suggest that workers who are in an analogous position to Post Office employees are those in the electricty, gas and water industries. As has been said time and again in the debate, under Section 133 of the Industrial Relations Act 1971 workers in those industries were specifically excluded from criminal actions in regard to the 1875 Act and the Electricity Supply Act.
§ Mr. Hooson
I do not think that there are any precise analogies, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is really suggesting that there are. I think that Post Office workers are in a separate category altogether.
§ Mr. Clemitson
Surely that is the nub of the argument. I am not suggesting that there is a precise analogy. I am looking for the closest analogy. It seems to me that workers in the gas, electricity and water industries are in a more analogous position to postal workers than are members of the police or the Armed Forces. They are analogous in the sense that they work in industries which have monopolistic positions. That is one important point of analogy. Another is that they work in industries which provide basic services. They work in industries whose activities impinge directly upon all or a major part of the community at large.
If the Opposition claim that there should not be extended to postal workers even the modest immunity proposed in the Bill, they must show that the position of postal workers is special and is not analogous to the position of workers in the gas, electricity and water industries. They must show that the difference is a major difference of principle. The Bill does not put postal workers on all fours 934 with workers in the gas, electricity and water industries. It goes only part of the way. Therefore, it is incumbent on Opposition Members to show that the difference between postal and other workers is not small but is of fundamental principle. That is the question to which, with respect, the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery, to whose speech I listened carefully, did not address himself. Neither did other Opposition Members who have spoken in the debate.
The question to which I want to address myself is: what were the purposes of the sections of the Post Office Act 1953 and the Telegraph Act which imposed criminal sanctions? Those are the matters with which the Bill seeks to deal.
I thought that the only way to find out what those sections were designed to do was to go back to the debates when those sections were passed by the House Therefore, I went back to Hansard of 1953. There I found that Mr. Speaker said:The Bill"—the 1953 Bill—is a Consolidation Bill, and the only question on Second Reading is whether it is wiser to leave the existing law scattered about in separate Acts or to combine it one Act."—[Official Report. 3rd July 1953: Vol. 517. c. 820.]There was no debate whatsoever on the 1953 Act, so I thought that I must go behind that. Therefore, I went back to the preceding major Act, the 1910 Act, which had exactly the same provisions written into it. I looked up the debate. The Earl of Granard—I am not sure whether mine is the correct pronunciation or, indeed, whether he was a precursor of Granada Television—said:My Lords, this is purely a Consolidation Bill, which, with the exception of certain Acts that have since been added, was submitted to a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament in 1896. I trust your Lordships skill give the Bill a Second Reading.Again, I was rather frustrated in my purpose. I was trying to find out the purpose of those sections, why they were inserted, and so on. Therefore, I had to go still further back. I got back to 1837. This was just after Fs were printed as Ss. [HON. MEMBERS: "Be careful."] It is all right because this statute is printed with the Ss as Ss. The statutes before then, to which I did not go back, were different.
935 I found that Section XXV of the 1837 Act provided:And be it enacted, That every Person employed by or under the Post Office who shall contrary to his Duty open or procure or suffer to be opened a Post Letter, or shall wilfully detain or delay or procure or suffer to be detained or delayedand so on. I thought "My goodness me, these words sound awfully familiar." Indeed, I looked at another section—Section XXXVI—and that provided:And he it enacted, That every Person who shall solicit or endeavour to procure any other to commit a Felony or Misdemeanour".I thought "My goodness me, those words sound pretty familiar, too." The words that I have just read from 1837 are the same as the words in Sections 58 and 68 of the Post Office Act 1953, which was not debated because it consolidated a measure of 1910, and that was not debated because that, too, was a consolidation measure, and so on.
§ Mr. Ron Thomas
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his historical research. Perhaps he will assist me. At the time of the American War of Independence, there was some question of a message not being delivered. Did that have anything to do with the actions of American postal workers?
§ Mr. Clemitson
Unfortunately, my researches did not get that far, because last night I ran out of time.
When I reached the 1837 Bill, I thought "Surely the Bill must have been debated, so that I can see the purpose of its provisions". I looked up the Official Report of 15th June 1837, which readsThe Earl of Lichfield in moving the second reading of the Post-office Acts Repeal Bill, stated that this Bill, the Postal Duties Bill, the Franking Bill, the Post-office Management Bill, and the Post-office Offences Bill, had one great object in view—that of"—wait for it—consolidating and improving the laws relating to the Post-office.At that time in my researches it was nearly midnight and I could not take the matter back any further.
§ Mr. Clemitson
I began to have serious doubts. But the point I am trying to make is that we have had these provisions on the statute book for over 936 100 years and they have not been debated in this Chamber. They have merely been consolidated from one Act to another throughout history.
The question arises whether it is reasonable that such provisions, which date back before 1837, should be used in the context of industrial action. I remind the House that in 1837 the Tolpuddle Martyrs had just been shipped overseas, and another 34 years were to elapse before the great trade union Act was passed in this House—an Act which brought trade unions in a sense out of the legal limbo in which they had existed since the repeal of the combination Acts only a dozen years before. Yet these provisions pre-date 1837.
Those provisions, which date from the period before 1837, have survived into the twentieth century without any debate. How absurd it is to consider using them for a purpose for which they could not conceivably have been originally designed. They were written in a historical situation which was totally different from our present situation. How absurd it is to use provisions which were directed clearly against criminal activity in the normal sense of the word to make industrial action a crime. We may well think it absurd that people should seek to use those provisions for that purpose, yet there are clearly those in our society who seek to use those provisions for just that purpose. No doubt secretly, in their heart of hearts, they regret the repeal of the combination Acts and a number of other events which have happened. But times have changed.
No longer do we transport people away from this country for life. Section 27 of the 1837 Act lays down:Every person who shall steal from or out of a Post Letter any Chattel or Money or valuable Security shall in England and Ireland be guilty of Felony, and in Scotland of High Crime and Offence and shall be transported beyond the Seas for life".No longer do we transport people for life for stealing a letter, or for belonging to a trade union.
§ Mr. Tebbit
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will remind the House which Administration deported the Tolpuddle Martyrs and which brought them back again.
§ Mr. Clemitson
It was the judges who were responsible for that action—in other words, it was a judicial action. We are always hearing from the Opposition about the importance of the independence of the judiciary. They constantly say that we should not criticise any of the actions or decisions of the judiciary, however eccentric or downright mad they happen to be.
I was saying that times have now changed. I believe that by and large for working people they have changed for the better. Therefore, I welcome the Bill, even though it does not go quite as far as many of us would like. I hope that the House will give it full support.
§ 2.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Ron Thomas (Bristol, North-West)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, East (Mr. Clemitson) on making an entertaining and brilliant speech. I am only disappointed that he did not go back in his researches to the years before 1837. Many of us were waiting to hear exciting stories about Dick Turpin and the times of Queen Anne, leading at some stage, one presumes, to the introduction of a Bill on this topic. We are still not clear whether a Bill was ever introduced.
§ Mr. Thomas
Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, East will go back to the Library and let us know the answer to these questions before we conclude. I shall carry on talking until he gets back with that information.
We all agree that it was a very different House of Commons in those days, even in 1837. We had only just had the 1832 Act with the first injection of any kind of democratic franchise, limited though it was. The hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) has now left the Chamber.
§ Mr. Thomas
The hon. Gentleman tried to involve us in a debate about who sent the Tolpuddle Martyrs off to Australia. He tried to suggest that it was the Liberal Party, when we all know that at that time there was simply Tory Party No. 1 and Tory Party No. 2. Anybody who could divide the Whigs in 1830 from 938 the rest, including the King's Party, and all the rest of them, and who could say who were the Tories and who were the Liberals would have an enormous job on his hands. I wish to emphasise that I found the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, East most entertaining and instructive.
Personally, I find the Bill a weak measure indeed. There was a good deal of shadow boxing in the speech of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont), but I do not think that the Opposition regard this measure as a serious threat. When the hon. Gentleman was asked whether the Opposition would support the Bill or vote against it, he simply replied that he could not recommend his hon. Friends to vote for it He did not say whether he would recommend his hon. Friends to vote against it
I suspect that there will be one or two from the Tory Benches voting against it—the mavericks who are still living in the nineteenth century in industrial relations terms, who believe that the Bill is in some way a major breakthrough for industrial relations and all those who work in the Post Office.
The Bill has come forward largely because of the Grunwick affair. Unlike some Opposition Members, I believe that what the Post Office workers at Cricklewood did in the Grunwick situation will long be remembered by the British trade union movement as a fine example of international working-class solidarity. The hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) can laugh at that if he likes. It is astonishing that anyone in this place can defend an employer who exploited a group of immigrants, giving them rotten conditions and low pay, and then denied them the right to join a trade union. If the hon. Gentleman laughs at anything I say, I shall take it as a compliment.
We know what was happening to those workers in Grunwick, and the Post Office workers at Cricklewood rightly felt sympathy and understanding towards them. That is why they took their action, and the Union of Post Office Workers and the British trade union movement ought to be proud of them.
The hon. Member for Hendon, North shakes his head at that, making even more clear how much the trade union movement ought to be proud of them. The 939 more he shakes his head and denies it, the more will they be remembered for what they did, and the more he shakes his head, the more shall we remember that there are still in this country employers such as Ward and Grunwick.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon) in saying that we ought to take out Clause 1(3). I have heard no case justifying that Post Office workers should be treated differently from any other workers.
The official Opposition will not divide against the Bill—I am confident of that—not because they think there are no dangers in it but because they cannot even begin to defend voting against it. It is a weak measure which does no more than give Post Office workers, within prescribed limits, certain rights. As I understand it, if there is a national dispute against the Post Office, as there was in 1971 to improve what were then pitiful wages for postal workers, they are given the right to know that there will not be the dubiety about the law and the possible criminal liability that there is now.
Second, if Post Office workers planned to take industrial action—not industrial action short of a strike, as has been pointed out—perhaps in sympathy with a one-day strike called by the TUC—say I, hopefully—against any kind of a stage 4 incomes policy, with this Bill on the statute book they would know that it would not be a criminal offence to take such action.
However, as my hon. Friend the Member for York pointed out, the Bill retains the idea, notion or demand that Post Office workers should not be allowed to discriminate in their industrial action. My hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew-shire, West (Mr. Buchan), the promoter of the Bill, said that this was a major concession. He was very much underplaying it. In my judgment, it puts Post Office workers in a unique position totally different from that of any other group of workers.
It has been said that some kind of monopoly is involved here and that we should view matters differently in that light. There are plenty of other monopolies both on the employers' side, of course, and, as some would argue, on the workers' side. There are plenty of power stations which affect large estab- 940 lishments, and I suppose that the ordinary consumer at home would say that it was a monopoly if the electricity went off and he had no other form of heating. I do not, therefore, accept that argument.
I suppose that it could be argued that the firemen had some sort of monopoly. I do not accept that for certain individuals not to receive their mail for X number of days is anything like as serious as the situation which, I believe, the Government unfortunately allowed to happen, supported by the Opposition, when during the firemen's dispute there were fires and, perhaps—we do not know—loss of life as well as loss of property ensuing. Therefore, as I say, the argument on monopoly has not been established.
It is an extremely important trade union weapon that workers should be allowed to discriminate in this way. I repeat that the trade union movement should be proud of the way in which the Cricklewood Post Office workers discriminated as they did against Grunwick. They will long be remembered for doing so.
In my view, therefore—this may or may not be regarded as an application to join the Committee—there ought to be an amendment to delete Clause 1(3) so that, from now on, Post Office workers will be treated no differently from any other group of workers. Nothing that I have heard so far has justified treating them as a special case.
As has been said, until recently, when the case was brought by Gouriet, or, rather, the National Association for Freedom, it was thought that Post Office workers had the right to go on strike. We are still not clear whether that is so. I warn some of my hon. Friends—not the Opposition—that if the nondiscrimination provision remains in the Bill, the court will interpret it as meaning that it is the will of the House of Commons that to take discriminatory action is in some sense illegal.
In other words, if that provision remains in the Bill, it will still be possible to be able to argue that the law is unclear in that respect. On the other hand, the courts could well say that it was the will of the House of Commons that such discriminatory action should be regarded as criminal. That worries me greatly, and I regard it as another good reason for taking subsection (3) out altogether.
941 As I have said, it was thought until recently that the Post Office workers could take any other form of action that is taken by other workers in Britain to pursue an industrial dispute, whatever the aims of that dispute. It has already been emphasised that under the 1971 Act those working in the gas, electricity and water industries have, if it is to be so described, the privilege that until then was the cause of a great deal of doubt. That was because lawyers argued whether it would be in order for each one of the workers concerned to hand in his notice. It was argued whether that would or would not be a strike. Many industrial lawyers made considerable sums in writing books on whether those working in the gas, electricity and water industries could achieve the same objective of a strike by merely handling in their notice.
I know that there are some employers who do not recognise such action as indicating that workers refuse to work under a certain contract or a proposed change of contract. They probably gleefully grab the notices and send the workers down the road. It is equally the case that under our unfair dismissal legislation we still have what I find to be a ludicrous situation, although the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) goes a little way to remedying it, but only in unique circumstances.
If a group of workers goes out on strike, the employer during or at the end of the strike can sack all the workers. That is considered fair. It is only if the employer takes back some of the workers who have been on strike that there is considered to be unfair dismissal, as he has discriminated against the others. Therefore, those working in the public services—some prior to 1971 and presumably the Post Office workers today—ask themselves whether by handing in their notice in their tens of thousands they are covering the supposed dubiety of criminality of a piece of legislation that has yet to be found but which has been consolidated on a number of occasions since 1837.
As my hon. Friend the Member for York rightly said, the Government promised in the Queen's Speech that they would be introducing legislation to give workers in the Post Office the right to strike. I assume that that meant the right 942 to strike that is possessed by all other workers in Britain.
Mention has been made of the police. Some of us do our best to encourage the police to join a legitimate trade union. I would give the police the right to strike. I note that the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) shakes his head in disagreement. Again, that makes it clear that that is something for which we should be pushing.
A number of us have pushed hard to give members of the Armed Forces the right to join a trade union. We shall continue to push for that. I am pleased to note that the hon. Member for Hendon, North shakes his head in disagreement. I am sure that he disagrees fundamentally with that proposition.
I assumed that the Government would come forward with a measure that would give Post Office workers the full rights that are possessed by other workers. I do not blame my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West for the Bill that he brings before the House. My hon. Friend explained the difficulties that faced him when he drew up this measure. I am sure he will understand when I tell him that I am disappointed by the Bill. I shall do anything possible to delete the part to which I have referred. I see nothing wrong in so doing.
Some of the Tories want to throw out the Bill altogether. It may be said that that is legitimate. Some of them want to throw it out because they regard it as a piece of militant Marxism or Trotskyism, but some of us feel that it is one of the weakest little Bills ever to come in front of us since we have been in this Chamber.
We believe that it is legitimate on our part to say that we shall be voting for the Bill at four o'clock. That is because we shall have the opportunity to remove the part of the Bill that, we believe, fails to give a fundamental freedom to a group of British working people—namely, those who work for the Post Office.
§ 3.5 p.m.
§ Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)
One would imagine that today we were discussing some radical or far-reaching revolutionary measure and that we were trying to push through, in the teeth of severe opposition, a measure that would incite postal workers to go on strike 943 at the drop of a hat. My hon. Friends have stated clearly how limited in scope is the Bill. If we look at the terms of the Bill and the negative way in which it approaches the issue we can see just how modest it is.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) for bringing forward this measure. Even when passed, this Bill will not put Post Office workers into the same category as other workers. I cannot see the difference between Post Office workers and those in the electricity, coal or gas industries. I do not see what is so important, so romantic, about the Post Office. There is a romantic attachment to the mail—there are no sexual overtones in this—which does not apply to other industries. The supply of water, electricity, coal and gas is every bit as important as receiving letters—perhaps more so. I am sure that my hon. Friends will agree that they could go for a few days or weeks without receiving letters but it would go hard with them if they did not receive a supply of water or electricity.
It cannot be that at this point in the twentieth century the debate is degenerating into a wrangle about the general principle of the right to strike. Surely that is something that was decided a long time ago. Although, as a doctor, I have reservations about it, I begin to think that there may be something in the idea of reincarnation. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, East (Mr. Clemitson) went back all those years into previous centuries. I see Tory Members reincarnated as those ghostly figures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
§ Dr. Miller
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, East could not find the original Act. He said that it was in the days when Fs and Ss were mixed up. I suggest that it may have been a Feckless Act. If we get mixed up like that, hon. Members may begin to see why I spoke about the romantic issue of the mail.
Modest as it is, this is an important Bill. It has the support of all the Post Office unions. Despite its limited scope, since it has that support, it is incumbent upon the House to give the Bill our approval. I appreciate the moderate stance of my hon. Friend the Member for 944 Renfrewshire, West. He was astonished by his own moderation and modesty. I am not surprised by this, because I find that my hon. Friend is a modest and moderate man, in spite of the derision with which that suggestion was treated by Tory Members.
My hon. Friend, probably more than anyone else, appreciates the limitations of his proposals. Since this limited Bill has the support of the Post Office unions and the trade union movement generally the least that we can do, despite our misgivings and despite the interpretation that can be placed upon the clauses, is to support the Bill. We should do so with a view to further legislation following this measure. The Bill is merely the first step towards ironing out the discrepancies which apply to Post Office workers. We must seek to bring them into line with all other workers in all walks of life.
§ 3.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
It would appear that the Tories have lost their tongues. As an ex-teacher, I find them a class of very slow learners, and they have a lot to learn from this afternoon's proceedings.
I was fascinated by the historical research of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, East (Mr. Clemitson). I enjoyed his speech very much, but while he was speaking I could not help ruminating about his research, and wondered whether he had considered, for example, the Battle of Balaclava, at which there was something called the charge of the Light Brigade. Admiration has come to the Post Office workers this afternoon from the most unlikely sources, but I believe that the charge of the Light Brigade need not have taken place. It was all due to a message not having been delivered properly. Had Tom Jackson and the Union of Post Office Workers been in charge of communications at the battle, there need never have been a charge of the Light Brigade, and Lord Tennyson may have done whatever he wanted to do about that.
§ Mr. Ron Thomas
I wonder whether my hon. Friend is necessarily correct in his historical research, because this may have been the first example of discrimination by Post Office workers in that part of the world.
§ Mr. Flannery
I shall not go along the path indicated by my hon. Friend, although I know his big interest in history and many other things.
When it comes to supporting strike action—and I mean strike action in reality, as opposed to theory, because the Tories support it in theory, of course—the Tories remind me of the hopeful maiden who is reputed to have prayed "O God, make me pure, but not yet." Every time we hear the Tories saying that of course they support strike action, we are bound to wonder which strike they have ever supported. When working people have found themselves in the hands of some Gradgrind Grunwick gaffer and have had to come out honourably on strike to fight for a reasonable standard of living, have the Tories ever supported their right to strike?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) said, the right to strike is the hallmark of a free society. I am sure that in Chile postmen do not have the right to strike. I am sure that in the Soviet Union, sadly enough, they do not have the right to strike. I am sure that in many other countries the workers do not have that right. But in our country there has been traditionally a right to strike. If the Tories had their way, they, like the Governments in the countries I have just mentioned, would not allow working people the right to strike. Certainly the Tories are totally against any extension of that right to those sections of workers who do not have it at this moment.
§ Mr. Flannery
My hon. Friends are trying to take me up alleys which I should dearly like to tread, but I shall resist that temptation. Our party, the Labour Party, recognises the right to strike and takes the greatest care to see that this right is maintained. I am told that the Liberal Party support that right, but its lone speaker today, the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) gave me very little cause for hope about that. Indeed, when I saw the way in which the Liberals voted on the two Bills on successive Fridays I was very worried. Certainly the entire Tory Party supported George Ward in the Grunwick dispute. 946 The Tories were proving the need for the Bills which received a Second Reading.
I was a Teller, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne), and I was in the "No" Lobby as they were nodded through. There they were, in their serried ranks, still defending what their ancestors defended 100–150 years ago, when my hon. Friend went back to turn up this possibly non-existent Bill. Tory Members are under a cloud of suspicion. Many people still fear that Conservative Members do not believe in what they say they do. Tory Members allege that they agree with strikes in general, but never specifically.
The Post Office workers are not visualising a strike at the moment. Therefore, all that we want Tory Members to do is to put on record their general belief in the right to strike. They do not even have to vindicate that belief—certainly not just yet. We just want them to put their views on record by voting for the Second Reading of the Bill, and thereby prove to our people that when they say that if they are elected to be the Government—which God forfend—they will work with the trade unions as an honourable family in the way that we do, they mean it.
People outside might become suspicious if the Conservatives do not vote for the Bill and might wonder what it would to like with the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) and her echelons leading this move towards so-called friendship with the trade unions. It would be nothing short of a miracle if the Tories were ever to support a just strike.
The Post Office workers, like the firemen, are a group of patient and orderly people. They are on record as having done noble work throughout the years. All that we are asking is that they be given some semblance of the trade union rights enjoyed by their brothers and sisters in the other unions.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas) that this is a timid Bill and that it should go a great deal further, but the timidity in which we have to engage—I do not agree with a lot of it—seems to be necessary because this measure seems to be in some danger from hon. Gentlemen opposite. We have to watch them with 947 great care. We do not know how many coats there are in the Lobby. We do not know how many cars there are in the area. We do not know whether they will debouch into the Chamber at about 4 o'clock. They may try to give the impression that only one or two of their supporters are present, but if we leave the trenches for a short time they may suddenly descend upon us in their serried ranks and I may have to go into the "No" Lobby and nod even more of them through. Let the Tories put their views on record and not be in breach of what they have said about working with the trade unions. Let them not deny Post Office workers the right to strike.
I said a moment ago that the Bill, thought important, is moderate to the point of timidity. I mean that, because we have talked about and read with great care all that has been said on this subject. I should have liked something much stronger, because confusion surrounds the rights of many workers. That confusion means that when working people are driven into a position of desperation and want to take action they wonder whether they are breaking the law. Now is the time to make the position clear and ensure that there is clarity about what can be done so that those concerned know what is the law and what action they can take.
§ Mr. Flannery
When the hon. Gentleman tells me that he wants me to help the House, having previously told me that he was trying to help the Grunwick workers, I begin to wonder what he means by "helping the House". I shall therefore proceed, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me, to make my speech in the way that I want to make it. What I should like is very much in line with what my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West wants, and therefore there is no point in going over that.
I am one of those people who would like the police to have a proper trade union, to be in the TUC and to have the right to strike. The hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) asked "What about the picket line at Grunwick?" I assure the hon. Gentleman that if it were 948 not for him and his boss, George Ward, there would be no need to have a picket line at Grunwick, nor would there be any need for the police to be there. In the same way, many people of that ilk are causing the police—very expensively—to be in places where they would not need to be if Conservative Members gave democratic aid to sections of the public which need that aid.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that there is another point with regard to the over-stretched police force. We should also ask Conservative Members why it is that 3,000, sometimes more, police—as we have witnessed when we have been there—should go to this picket line when there are literally thousands of other jobs that need to be done by the police. For example, a four-year-old lad in Yorkshire is now lost. I wonder whether 3,000 police are searching for him, as opposed to using the excuse that they cannot had him. Surely the police should be doing jobs like that rather than defending George Ward.
§ Mr. Flannery
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Tomorrow, in Birmingham, there will be many police. I should like to develop that theme, but I shall not. Instead, I shall stick to the points that I want to make.
Not long ago the seamen—who were called "a tightly knit group of politically motivated men"—were confused about their rights to strike. That dispute has been partially settled. It is a problem that we still have to deal with. At some time in the next week or so, some of us will be going in a deputation to the Ministry of Defence on the subject of the trade unionisation of the Armed Forces. These are all vital matters, in the same way as the rights of the Post Office workers are.
§ Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)
After listening carefully to some very good speeches it would seem to me that if we stop Post Office workers from using their labour in their bargaining encounters with the management, and if we do not give them power to negotiate the value of their labour, they will never really be able to negotiate a decent standard of living. That is what this Bill is all about. It simply gives them the right to discuss 949 with the management the cash that they require in exchange for their labour.
§ Mr. Flannery
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The background to any strike action is the attempt to achieve better wages and conditions.
But because Conservative Members loathe trade unions, and always will, we have to combine and struggle in order to attain these things. I shall spend only a few minutes longer, because I know that other hon. Members—not Tories—may wish to speak.
If Conservative Members do not want us to engage in this honest and moderate attempt to cut through the clouded atmosphere surrounding the rights of Post Office workers, they will oppose us. By doing so, working people throughout the country will see them as having opposed us, as they have done on the previous two Fridays. What Conservative Members do at 4 o'clock this afternoon will therefore be a test of their sincerity. It will prove whether they support—generally, never mind specifically—the right to strike and strike action.
Their support could allay any suspicions—and God knows there are many—about Conservative Members with regard to strike action and trade unions. Their vote will prove to us, and to people outside this Chamber, where they really stand. If Conservative Members do what is honest, good and progressive they will allow the Second Reading of this Bill to go ahead, despite the backwoods reactionaries who linger on the Conservative Opposition Benches.
§ 3.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)
I yield to no man, on whichever side of the House he sits, in my respect for Post Office workers.
§ Mr. Lawrence
There are Post Office workers throughout the country who deliver our post in circumstances of great hardship. There are postal workers in all our constituencies who labour long and arduously to make sure that this country has a postal service second to none. So I do not want it to be thought that those of us who have doubts about the sense 950 of the Bill wish to reflect any criticism upon Post Office workers.
My doubts are directed more at those hon. Members who seem to claim to speak for all postal workers. If it were possible to ascertain the will of all such as the postman who daily delivers to my door a large bundle of parliamentary papers and if it were possible to ascertain the will of all the postal workers in the country, I have very grave doubts whether it would be found that they would support the Bill.
I do not think that people—postal workers or anyone else—feel that the time is right for an extension of the powers which some hon. Members are demanding for the trade unions. It may be perfectly true that there is no present intention to abuse what we are told is the spirit of the Bill. It may be perfectly true that there is no strike on the horizon and that there is no blow which anyone thinks ought currently to be struck. But to give the facility for doing something which might in due course be unacceptable does not seem to be demanded at present.
§ Mr. Spriggs
The hon. Member said that he had doubts about the Bill representing the view of all Post Office workers. I can assure him that I have received a letter this week from the St. Helens branch of the Union of Post Office Workers saying that it wishes me to be here and to vote for the Bill. What is more, many others of my colleagues have received similar correspondence appealing for support for this very Bill.
§ Mr. Lawrence
I am grateful for that information. However, to underline my argument, I might tell the hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) that I have not received any correspondence from postal workers in my constituency asking me to support the Bill, from which I assume that the postal workers in my constituency either do not want the Bill or do not know of the Bill and, therefore, do not feel sufficiently strongly about its necessity to write to their Member asking him to support it.
§ Mr. Lawrence
The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) says "Don't be silly". This is the other side of the coin put forward by the hon. Member for St. Helens. If it is being urged that a branch has supported the Bill, it is perfectly proper to urge that another branch has not supported it, and I have received no communication from postal workers in my constituency asking me to support the Bill.
§ Mr. Stott
The hon. Member was not here earlier when I declared my interest in that I am a Post Office Engineering Union-sponsored Member. The Bill affects the POEU as well as the UPW. We have an annual conference which determines union policy, and it is a representative conference of all our branches. Last year, our union conference decided overwhelmingly that it wanted and required legislation to make sure that we had the right to strike.
§ Mr. Lawrence
I accept that. What I do not accept is that the votes cast at those conferences or the views expressed by trade union leaders are necessarily what the rank and file of the organisation want. I say this from my own experience as a Member of Parliament. There have been a number of issues which have been part of the political battle in this House where I have wanted to discover whether the ordinary trade unionist in my constituency supported the line that I might have been thinking of following.
I have very seldom—it is not through lack of consultation—found wholehearted support from rank and file trade unionists for any of the measures that have been introduced by this Government or their supporters. Rank and file trade unionists, understandably, tend to let their trade union leaders get on with the decision-making process and then sometimes find that the decision which has been made is not necessarily acceptable to them.
I recall the Common Market campaign and particularly the strength of support of Clive Jenkins, who was then and is now the leader of ASTMS, for the anti-Market view. One might have been led to suppose that that was the view of ASTMS. I can only tell hon. Gentlemen that in the course of the Common Market campaign, which I fought with all the enthusiasm of a General Election, spend- 952 ing three weeks of my time going round the constituency trying to drum up support of the view that my party and the Government shared, I did not meet one paid-up member of ASTMS who wanted Britain to come out of the Common Market.
That is why I say that, although I understand and appreciate and am interested to hear the views of those who represent the unions, I do not necessarily think that I must be forced to say that, because a spokesman of the union has said "This is what the rank and file in the union want", it necessarily is what the rank and file of the union want.
This links with a point made by the hon. Member for St. Helens in an earlier intervention. He said that the Bill only asserted rights which were very important to the unions, rights that they desperately needed, and that to vote against the Bill would be to oppose something that was long overdue. I think that that is the upshot of what he was saying.
But how have they managed without these rights to date? I have no doubt that Tom Jackson and the other union leaders have been successful in their bargaining and negotiations with the employer, and that they have achieved as high a standard of living for their members as one would have expected them to do. Although it has doubtless not all gone their way, they have been successful in the leadership of their unions which have sought to improve the standard of living of their members.
I have not noticed that there has been a wide public acclaim for the terms of the Bill. Being very thorough about these matters, one of the things that I always do—I hope that Labour Members will forgive me for doing so—is to turn over a Bill to see by whom it is presented and who are its supporters. It is one thing to be asked to vote for something because the unions want it—that is a matter which we in Parliament have to consider. But we in Parliament are entitled to take a view which is not necessarily a rubber stamp of a decision which has been taken by various unions. We would say that we are the sovereign Parliament and that it is not just a question of what particular pressure groups want, although we must take that into account.
953 At the back of the Bill there are the names of a number of hon. Gentlemen. There are the names of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) and those of a number of other distinguished parliamentarians who, nevertheless, tend to support the Left-wing side of politics in the House. I know that they will not take exception to my saying that.
§ Mr. Spriggs
The hon. Member is pointing a finger at my hon. Friends on what he calls the far Left of the party. But these are our colleagues we work with them and believe in the same things. The basic point about the Bill is that, if we in Parliament refuse to allow Post Office workers to bargain their labour power in exchange for a decent standard of life, we are being less than fair.
§ Mr. Lawrence
I have already dealt with that point. If that was really at issue, of course I would be more sympathetic. But up to this moment it has not seemed to be so vital to have the Bill, and postal workers have managed in their bargaining to achieve fairly satisfactory results. If that were not the case, surely before now, and at some time after the February 1974 General Election, the Government of the day would have introduced legislation to remove what is apparently being portrayed as a hideous anomaly. I can understand Labour Members being partisan and slightly exaggerating the case. But it is an exaggeration.
That is why it is rather important to turn to the back of the Bill and see the names of the presenters. One should not automatically be turned off from supporting a piece of legislation just because it is sponsored by a number of Left-wing Members. However, it should place Conservatives a little on their guard to see a measure, which has not hitherto commanded the determination of the Government or of Labour Members generally, presented on a Friday four years after the Government came to office and hailed as a matter of great urgency.
I have looked with great care at the Bill. I did not feel that because it was presented by a number of Left-wing Members it would necessarily be wrong to support it. However, when I looked at it I saw that it was not all that it had been cracked up to be.
954 The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) said that if only Mr. Tom Jackson had been the communicator, some nice things would have followed from that. I drew the attention of the House to the reason why there may have been some ambivalence in Conservative reaction to the Bill. We take very seriously the views expressed by the trade unions, because when we come to form the next Government we shall have to work with the trade unions, just as the present Government are having to do.
In today's edition of the Daily Telegraph there was a quote from Tom Jackson about the Bill, and it seems that the upshot of his communication was that the measurewould restore the right to strike on 'purely Post Office' disputes, and that industrial action could not be extended to cover Grunwick and South Africa, for example.If that was all that was intended by the Bill—the very limited terms that Tom Jackson was indicating—it would have been less open to objection than it is now. But I see in the Explanatory Memorandum that the Bill does more than that. It declares that it is not an offence for Post Office workers to go on strike either on their own behalf or in sympathy with other people.
What we are talking about is not what Tom Jackson appeared to be saying about the Bill when doubtless Conservatives might say that, if it were a constructive measure that the unions needed badly and it did not go against the wishes of the majority of people in this country, there was no harm in it and we would not oppose it. That may have arisen because of bad communication rather good communication, or it may be that Mr. Jackson was misquoted. Certainly the Bill does not fit into quite the same formula that we were led to expect. A number of my hon. Friends will join me in asking why we should give this sort of extensive power, especially when we see the names of the sponsors. We must be forgiven for being a bit suspicious.
The hon. Member for Hillsborough said that my hon. Friends had supported Ward at Grunwick—I do not think that that is precisely the position—and that we were thereby proving the need for the Bill. The hon. Gentleman was not tying himself to a narrow interpretation of the Bill being solely for the use of Post Office workers 955 acting on their own behalf. He was placing the emphasis on:or in sympathy with other people".He portrayed his feelings, which were communicated to the rest of the House and which we are entitled to take into consideration since he is a sponsor of the Bill. For him this Bill, among others, could be used to stop my hon. Friends doing anything in support of Ward or people like him. That is a very different animal from what the great communicator Tom Jackson was apparently referring to.
§ Mr. Tim Renton (Mid-Sussex)
I have been following with interest my hon. Friend's point regarding sympathetic action. Does he agree that under Clause 1(3) it is not clear what degree of sympathetic strike action is permitted and that, for this reason, the Bill is in contradiction with the Explanatory Memorandum and gives the impression that it has been badly drafted?
§ Mr. Buchan
If the hon. Gentlemen had been here three or four hours ago, they would have learned the answers to their questions. The Bill does not provide for extensive action. It limits the trade unions to much less power than is available to other workers.
The onus is not on us to defend the Bill. It is on the Opposition to say why they wish to deprive workers of even that limited extension of power. Conservative Members are identifying themselves as anti-working class and anti-trade union. They cannot even make sense of a simple Bill. God help us.
§ Mr. Lawrence
If the Bill is so important and so desperately needed by Post Office workers to prevent their being severely penalised, I cannot understand why this great Labour Government, who have been in power since February 1974 and have passed a number of comprehensive trade union measures, have not introduced the Bill. If it is so desperately important, why have we had to wait through four years of Socialist Government activity—which I hope will not be much prolonged—for the Bill to be introduced?
956 I conclude that the answer must be that it is not desperately important. It has not been a matter that has occupied the Government. It is being put forward by the Left of the Labour Party and is more extensive than it appears. It will give powers to those who want to take disruptive action above that which should properly be taken in the ordinary course of negotiations with the Post Office. If that is not so, why did the hon. Member for Hillsborough, threaten that it might be used in a Grunwick-type situation?
§ Mr. Flannery
The hon. Gentleman is distorting what I said. Although he was present when I spoke, he is acting as if it were three hours prior to his coming in. In fact, I deplored the timidity of the Bill, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas). If he has not realised that Grunwick posed a whole series of problems, not just the obvious one, I suggest that he gives new thought to it. I was postulating that there were many matters that I would want in the Bill. I hope that Opposition Members will accept this measure, because it is nowhere near as strong as it should be. Therefore, it might be more up their alley.
§ Mr. Lawrence
I should perhaps have accepted the Bill, but for that part which extends it beyond action purely for postal workers to action in sympathy with other people. That comes into the whole category of trade union activity about which I am most doubtful. If the promoter of the Bill could give me an assurance that it would not be used to take action against an organisation, such as Grunwick, which was supposed to be opposed to trade union interests or the interests of working people who did or did not want to join a trade union, I should have a different attitude towards it.
§ Mr. Gorst
Perhaps I may help my hon. Friend. I noticed that he had to slip out at an earlier stage in the debate. Therefore, he may have missed the help that was given to us on this matter by Labour Members. They said that there would not be any discriminatory action on the lines of the Grunwick dispute but that there would be a blanket operation—namely, all firms in an area not just one, would suffer. That is the way that this 957 sympathetic strike action might work in future.
§ Mr. Lawrence
My hon. Friend has made the position clear on the wording of subsection (3)(a) and (b). There are some palliative words in the Bill which are intended to lull the apathetic or disinterested into thinking that the sphere for activity would be very narrow. But I think that the sphere for activity of a discriminatory kind, which is apparent from the form of the words, is very wide.
If Labour Members feel that the Bill is vital for Post Office workers, because without it they cannot bargain or negotiate with their employer on their own behalf, and if that is the one matter that preoccupies them—that it is a long overdue reform that for four years they have been unable to prevail upon their Government to re-introduce, notwithstanding the patent unfairness to Post Office workers—I suggest that they can do no better than to take the Bill away and re-present it without those subsections which indicate that Post Office workers may take action not only on their own behalf but in sympathy with other people. If such a Bill is presented without what I consider to be that offensive part in it, I shall not oppose it.
I do not think I can do fairer than that unless we are being misled by Labour Members. I am not saying that we are being misled by them, but they must do something on those lines because the form of words in the Bill as it stands can be used to take to task anybody who may find himself in a position of supporting Grunwick or a Ward-type situation. If that is so, that is enough for me. If they do not delete those provisions, there is no way in which they will get my support for the Bill.
§ 3.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Thornaby)
I do not want to be led away from the subject under discussion by the speech made by the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). He made a number of irrelevant points, and it must be remembered that he was not present for the majority of the debate.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) on introducing the 958 Bill. I shall seek to reply to some of the points made in this debate.
There have been four clear views expressed. First, let me deal with the view expressed by the missing hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) who, even though he may not have explicitly stated it, nevertheless gave a clear impression that he did not want to give Post Office workers the right to take industrial action. That ghost has been in the background of other Opposition speeches and that argument has given rise to a certain amount of horror among many Labour Members.
The second view was set out explicitly in the speech of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont). He was prepared to support a Bill that would give Post Office workers the right to take action, but only in furtherance of a trade dispute with the Post Office as their employer. He wants to see the matter tightly restricted and going no further with any form of sympathetic action.
Thirdly, there is the view of the sponsors of the Bill that the right to take action by Post Office workers in a trade dispute with the Post Office should include the right to take sympathetic action. However, that does not include sympathetic action which would be discriminatory against an individual customer, whether it be a country, firm or individual. That is a very clear view, which my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West and other sponsors, and indeed the trade unions, want to see.
§ Mr. Wrigglesworth
I cannot give way; I have very little time. I am trying to reply to the whole debate, and I cannot give way to the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) who has just come into the Chamber.
The fourth view that has been expressed today by some of my hon. Friends is that there should be no restriction what ever on Post Office workers, and that they should be treated in the same way as other workers and be allowed to take blacking action, sympathetic action and any other industrial action under the provisions of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974. That view was 959 strongly expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon).
Naturally, that is a view which will receive a good deal of support on the Government Benches, but those of us who are sponsoring the Bill do not accept it because at present—my hon. Friend the Member for York referred to this—we feel that the only way in which we can get the major principle established and put on the statute book, that is, that Post Office workers should be given the right to take industrial action free of the threat of criminal proceedings against them, is to have a compromise. There are those who are not prepared to accept that, but we are, and the unions are prepared to accept it.
That compromise will give the right to take limited sympathy action, though not the sort of sympathy action which other unions can take, and will establish the right of Post Office workers to take industrial action in furtherance of a trade dispute with the Post Office.
I come now to some of the other comments made. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery made a fairly tortuous speech which was rather difficult to follow, but behind it all, I believe, he was suggesting that Post Office workers should have no right to take industrial action at all. However, he suggested also that perhaps all workers in the public sector should have some sort of arbitration system to go through before being allowed to take industrial action. He did not expand upon that, and we were left wondering quite what his suggestion was.
The hon. and learned Gentleman painted a picture of postal workers driving out of their depots with their vans full of mail bags, parking them by the roadside and then going on strike, or going halfway down the motorway and parking them there, or leaving the mail lying around in the streets and then walking off on strike. All this seemed most unlikely and, frankly, struck me as a bit of scaremongering which I was sorry to hear the hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames take up later. I can only 960 say that the state of affairs conjured up by the hon. and learned Gentleman is most unlikely.
The hon. and learned Gentleman should look at the Bill again, because he finished by saying that he would support a Bill which gave a rather more restricted right to Post Office workers. I hope that, after further consideration, he and his right hon. and hon. Friends on the Liberal Bench will be prepared to support the present Bill.
I come now to the hon. Member for. Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), who made a typically ingenious speech in which he spoke of the Bill as being acceptable in some senses but then went on through vitually every clause and said that it was not acceptable. He made a great deal of the correspondence that had passed between the promoter of the Bill and the General Secretary of the Union of Post Office Workers. All in all, the hon. Gentleman gave me and, I believe, my hon. Friends the impression that he really did not want the Bill in any circumstances.
I do not think that any of us were surprised at the hon. Gentleman's speech, because it was typical of the views that he has expressed on this subject on other occasions.
If the Opposition vote against the Bile and try to stop its Second Reading, they will show that they are trying to get the best of both worlds, paying lip service to the principle, bowing a little to the facts and acknowledging the rights of workers, while at the same time pandering to people's fears and not really wishing to agree that trade unionists should have the right to strike.
I hope that the Opposition will not do that but will allow the Bill to go through, and I call on my hon. Friends to support it.
§ Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—
|Division No.119]||AYES||[4.0 p.m.|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Grant, John (Islington C)||O'Halloran, Michael|
|Armstrong, Ernest||Grocott, Bruce||Orbach, Maurice|
|Ashley, Jack||Hamilton, James (Bothwell)||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Atkins, Ronald (Preston N)||Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)||Ovenden, John|
|Atkinson, Norman||Hardy, Peter||Owen, Rt Hon Dr David|
|Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)||Harper, Joseph||Padley, Walter|
|Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood)||Harrison, Rt Hon Walter||Palmer, Arthur|
|Bates, Alf||Hart, Rt Hon Judith||Park, George|
|Bean, R. E.||Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy||Parker, John|
|Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood||Hayman, Mrs Helene||Parry, Robert|
|Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N)||Heffer, Eric S.||Pavitt, Laurie|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Horam, John||Pendry, Tom|
|Bishop, Rt Hon Edward||Howell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham, Sm H)||Perry, Ernest|
|Booth, Rt Hon Albert||Hoyle, Doug (Nelson)||Price, William (Rugby)|
|Boothroyd, Miss Betty||Huckfield, Les||Radice, Giles|
|Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur||Hughes, Mark (Durham)||Richardson, Miss Jo|
|Bradley, Tom||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Hughes, Roy (Newport)||Robinson, Geoffrey|
|Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||Hunter, Adam||Rodgers, George (Chorley)|
|Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W)||Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford)||Rooker, J. W.|
|Brown, Ronald (Hackney S)||Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln)||Roper, John|
|Buchan, Norman||Janner, Greville||Rowlands, Ted|
|Butler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green)||Jenkins, Hugh (Putney)||Sandelson, Neville|
|Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)||Johnson, Walter (Derby S)||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Canavan, Dennis||Jones, Alec (Rhondda)||Sever, John|
|Cant, R. B.||Jones, Barry (East Flint)||Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)|
|Carmichael, Neil||Jones, Dan (Burnley)||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|Carter-Jones, Lewis||Judd, Frank||Short, Mrs Renée (Wolv NE)|
|Cartwright, John||Kaufman, Gerald||Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)|
|Castle, Rt Hon Barbara||Kelley, Richard||Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)|
|Clemitson, Ivor||Kilroy-Silk, Robert||Silverman, Julius|
|Cocks, Rt Hon Michael Bristol S)||Kinnock, Neil||Skinner, Dennis|
|Cohen, Stanley||Lamborn, Harry||Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)|
|Coleman, Donald||Lamond, James||Snape, Peter|
|Colquhoun, Ms Maureen||Latham, Arthur (Paddington)||Spearing, Nigel|
|Conlan, Bernard||Leadbitter, Ted||Spriggs, Leslie|
|Cook, Robin F. (Edin C)||Lee, John||Stallard, A. W.|
|Corbett, Robin||Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough)||Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)|
|Cowans, Harry||Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)||Stoddart, David|
|Cox, Thomas (Tooting)||Lipton, Marcus||Stott, Roger|
|Cryer, Bob||Litterick, Tom||Strang, Gavin|
|Cunningham, G. (Islington S)||Luard, Evan||Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley|
|Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiteh)||Lyon, Alexander (York)||Swain, Thomas|
|Davidson, Arthur||Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)|
|Davies, Bryan (Enfield N)||McDonald, Dr Oonagh||Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery)|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil||McElhone, Frank||Thorne, Stan (Preston South)|
|Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)||MacFarquhar, Roderick||Tinn, James|
|Deakins, Eric||MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor||Tomlinson, John|
|Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)||Maclennan, Robert||Urwin, T. W.|
|de Freitas, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey||McNamara, Kevin||Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.|
|Dell, Rt Hon Edmund||Madden, Max||Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)|
|Dormand, J. D.||Magee, Bryan||Walker, Harold (Doncaster)|
|Douglas-Mann, Bruce||Mallalieu, J. P. W.||Walker, Terry (Kingswood)|
|Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun)||Marks, Kenneth||Ward, Michael|
|English, Michael||Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)||Watkins, David|
|Ennals, Rt Hon David||Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)||Watkinson, John|
|Ewing, Harry (Stirling)||Maynard, Miss Joan||Weetch, Ken|
|Faulds, Andrew||Meacher, Michael||Wellbeloved, James|
|Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.||Mellish, Rt Hon Robert||White, James (Pollok)|
|Fitch, Alan (Wigan)||Mendelson, John||Whitehead, Phillip|
|Flannery, Martin||Mikardo, Ian||Whitlock, William|
|Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)||Millan, Rt Hon Bruce||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Foot, Rt Hon Michael||Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)||Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)|
|Forrester, John||Molloy, William||Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)|
|Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)||Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)||William, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)|
|Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd)||Morris, Rt Hon Charles R.||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|Garrett, John (Norwich S)||Moyle, Roland||Wrigglesworth, Ian|
|Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John||Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick||Young, David (Bolton E)|
|Ginsburg, David||Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King|
|Golding, John||Newens, Stanley||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Gould, Bryan||Noble, Mike||Mr. Russell Kerr and|
|Graham, Ted||Ogden, Eric||Mr. Ron Thomas.|
|Bell, Ronald||Fairbairn, Nicholas||Hooson, Emlyn|
|Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)||Gardiner, George (Reigate)||Lawrence, Ivan|
|Buck, Antony||Gow, Ian (Eastbourne)||Macfarlane, Neil|
|Clark, William (Croydon S)||Grant, Anthony (Harrow C)||Mates, Michael|
§ The House divided: Ayes 212, Noes 20.
|Moate, Roger||Renton, Tim (Mid-Sussesx)|
|Montgomery, Fergus||Ridley, Hon Nicholas||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Pattie, Geoffrey||Tebbit, Norman||Mr. John Gorst and|
|Rathbone, Tim||Wiggin, Jerry||Mr. Ivor Stanbrook.|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).