HC Deb 13 February 1979 vol 962 cc974-83

4.17 p.m.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, East)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill resolve trades disputes in industries or services where industrial action causes emergencies affecting life and death; to set up arbitration procedures which come into effect after the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service has certified that all normal negotiating procedures have been exhausted; to make provisions for an independent arbitration tribunal; and to define circumstances in which the decisions of this tribunal may, by prior agreement, be binding on the parties thereby withdrawing the trade unions' right to call a strike; and to give guidelines to the tribunal as to the criteria it should take into account when making an award including special recognition for the agreed withdrawal of the right to strike. I seek leave to bring in this Bill against a background of widespread public anxiety at the way in which some groups of workers in recent weeks have used the strike weapon to inflict pitiless misery against those members of the community who are least able to defend themselves.

The House will readily recall that in recent weeks we have had reports from Ministers about bereaved families having been obstructed in burying their dead, about accident victims who have not been rescued by ambulances, about cancer patients who have been denied treatment, and about hospitals whose telephone switchboards have been shut down and whose medical supplies have been interrupted.

Strike action which inflicts that kind of human suffering in life-and-death situations is a stain upon the honour of civilised society. Yet, however strongly we may condemn the action of some strikers, we ignore their legitimate grievances and frustrations at our peril. Men who have spent loyal careers in emergency services do not suddenly refuse to answer 999 calls out of bloody-mindedness. They are driven over the brink because they are filled with desperation—a desperation which those of us who have not tried supporting a family on less than £40 a week can only guess at and sympathise with.

Unfortunately, the Government so far have appeared to be unable either to soothe the public's growing indignation at the disruption of the life-and-death services, or to redress the legitimate grievances of the strikers. We seem to be stuck in an impotent vacuum from which there emerges a great deal of largely irrelevant noise about voluntary codes and concordats. Yet, paradoxically, there is a deafening silence from Her Majesty's Government when it comes to proposing specific constructive and lasting remedies.

I believe that the time has come when Parliament must seek to create a legislative framework which keeps open the basic emergency and humanitarian lifelines of our community, which puts an end to pitiless abuse of the strike weapon, and which at the same time offers some help to those desperately low-paid workers who carry out specialist duties in the life-and-death services.

I do not believe that it is an impossible task to reconcile these objectives. There seems to be a growing awareness on both sides of the House of the fact that the answer to these problems may be found in the concept of no-strike agreements. What the Bill seeks to do is to provide a legal framework encouraging groups of workers in the light of their services to enter into no-strike agreements with their employers.

Under the terms of the Bill those workers who have undertaken to guarantee a strike-free service to the community will be entitled to extra financial recognition. They would receive this either as a result of negotiations with their employers or, in the last resort, as the result of a decision by an independent arbitration tribunal.

I make it clear that this Bill will apply only to those workers who have voluntarily entered into no-strike agreements. But is a voluntary agreement of any kind enough? Unfortunately, in today's unhappy and undisciplined world of industrial relations, we have become all too familiar with the dishonourable spectacle of maverick shop stewards who call their members out on strike in breach of agreements, and even while negotiations are still in progress.

Perhaps given the sea change in public opinion on union matters that is now sweeping through the country, and given the good sense and decent values of the overwhelming majority of trade unionists, one might be optimistic about the chances of seeing no-strike agreements honoured in the future. But, in dealing with life-and-death services, Parliament cannot afford to take any chances. For the sake of common humanity and of common sense, the time has surely come to enshrine in law some clear and mandatory procedures for settling these particular trade disputes.

Under the terms of the Bill, any dispute in the life-and-death services covered by a no-strike agreement would, in the last resort, be referred to an independent arbitration tribunal which would sit once ACAS had certified that all the normal negotiating procedures had been exhausted. I suggest that the arbitration tribunal should be set up on a "three wise men" basis, with a High Court judge as chairman. It would take into account all the usual factors in wage disputes—low pay, unsocial hours, Government policy at the time, specialist training and skills, the cost of living, relativities, differentials, the lot. But, in addition, under the terms of the Bill, the tribunal would be empowered by statute to include in its award an extra recognition of the fact that the workers had voluntarily entered into a no-strike agreement.

I find it hard to envisage a fairer system for settling trade disputes in the life-and-death services, since it must result in workers, who under the Bill register their no-strike agreements, getting some extra money, while as a quid pro quo the community gets a guarantee that its vital lifelines will no longer be disrupted.

Unfortunately, I am enough of a realist to understand that there will probbably be some doctrinal, Left-wing objections to the principles of the Bill. It is to those that, in conclusion, I now briefly turn. These objections are likely to fall under three headings. First, the Bill introduces "the law" into trade union matters, particularly if the tribunal's award—which under the Bill is binding on the parties—is still not accepted and strike action then follows. Secondly, it introduces the principles of compulsory arbitration procedures. Thirdly, in certain circumstances it takes away a man's right to strike.

As to the law, the Bill would in no way seek to invoke the criminal law. In the unlikely event of workers refusing to be bound by the tribunal's findings, they would not be liable to be fined or imprisoned. What sanctions would then exist? In civil law, a formidable range of immunities is granted to acts done in furtherance of lawful trades disputes. These immunities would be suspended if workers in the life-and-death services made their dispute unlawful by refusing to honour the tribunal's findings. In short, an aggrieved party, such as a hospital denied medical suplies, could seek an injunction and perhaps recover damages under the civil law of tort and contract. I believe that would be a sufficient legal sanction.

I turn to the question of the introduction of compulsory arbitration procedures. I do not think that Parliament should shrink from such an approach. I remind the House that compulsory arbitration procedures have at various times operated satisfactorily in this country as a result of Acts passed in 1915, 1940, 1951 and 1959. Moreover, compulsory arbitration procedures exist today in other parts of the world, notably Australia, and do not appear to operate to the detriment of workers' interests.

With regard to the withdrawal of the right to strike, I reiterate that the Bill would come into effect only when unions had voluntarily entered into no-strike agreements. Moreover, the right to strike, although an important freedom, should never overrule the right to live. As a civilised community, we simply cannot continue to tolerate a situation in which the rights of the sick and injured to medical survival treatment are dependent upon the dispensations of a picket line, which may or may not be granted by a strike committee.

It has become necessary to introduce a Bill of this nature because of recent sad events in our hospitals, emergency services and even in our graveyards. Those events have disgraced Britain in the eyes of the world and here at home they have shamed most of us. On behalf of the whole community, Parliament must act soon to remedy this wretched situation. As a first step along this road, I ask the leave of the House to bring in the Bill.

4.23 p.m.

Mr. George Rodgers (Chorley)

I oppose the Bill because I believe that it is ill-conceived, unenforceable and un- democratic. It is ill conceived, because its intention is to utilise the present concern brought about by industrial disputes as an emotional bludgeon with which to attack the trade union movement.

The terms of the Bill are specifically directed at trade unionists. It contains no proposals whatever to restrict the activities of professional bodies. Hospital consultants and other senior medical practitioners, who, more than any trade unionist, can surely influence a life-and-death position, will not be affected. Despite the Bill's title, it does not attempt to define a life-and-death circumstance. For example, would it apply to lorry drivers, refuse collectors or school crossing attendants? Where would the line be drawn? What criteria would be taken into consideration? We are not told; we do not know.

In his haste to exploit the difficulties brought about by the action of low-paid workers who provide essential services to the community, the hon. Gentleman has produced a concoction of proposals which, if implemented, would undermine years of effort to establish a voluntary code of industrial relations between Government and trade unions. The formula for a compulsory element in negotiations would be clearly unenforceable. Indeed, if we recall the infamous Conservative Industrial Relations Act 1971—

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman is seeking to oppose my hon. Friend's Bill. Is it in order for him to do so by reading something that he has prepared before he has listened to the speech and does not know what is in the Bill?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

When I first entered the House, it was not the custom to read from documents, but that practice appears to have crept in. I cannot rule the hon. Gentleman out of order.

Mr. Rodgers

The infamous Conservative Industrial Relations Act 1971 actually recognised the position. It repealed restrictions upon the right to strike in public utilities, including electricity, gas and water. The House may recall that the same Act introduced a compulsory ballot procedure with regard to strike action, although this was invoked on only one occasion—during the 1972 British Rail dispute. On that occasion the ballot was overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action. Significantly, the procedure was never used subsequently.

Compulsory arbitration has been invoked in this country only during times of war, under defence regulations, but even in such extreme circumstances it did not prevent strikes taking place. Even a modified version of the war-time arbitration system was abandoned in 1959, not only with the consent but with the overwhelming approval of the employers' associations.

The Royal Commission on trade unions and employers associations, which reported in 1968, considered the peacetime use of compulsory arbitration but did not recommend its use in the fashion that has been recommended today. Of course, in recent years considerable advances have been made towards a voluntary code of conduct. This has been achieved by a network of conciliation services through ACAS. An independent arbitration can now be arranged by the Central Arbitration Committee as a result of the Employment Protection Act.

However, we are surely being invited into the realms of fantasy. A programme is now proposed that would come into effect only if all the normal processes of negotiation were exhausted. Although the Bill refers to life-and-death circumstances, it advocates a system by which it may be years or for ever before a result is achieved. It certainly recommends procedures that could bring the law into disrepute.

Let us be quite clear about what is being proposed. It is suggested that a tribunal should be established with powers to impose a decision upon one party regardless of the wishes of the other. Far

from assisting industrial relations, this would make collective bargaining completely impossible. Negotiations would become meaningless if either party knew that in the end a solution could be imposed on the other by an outside body.

It is apparent that the scheme that has been outlined is totally undemocratic. We in this place talk much about democracy, but many hon. Members are obviously reluctant to face the reality of living in a democratic society. Democracy often brings inconvenience, and it sometimes imposes hardships on both those who take advantage of the right to withdraw their labour and those who feel the impact of such action. Those who take strike action frequently directly experience the hardship that is brought about as a result of their own policy. None the less, the right of workers to withhold their labour is enshrined in the democratic principle.

All too often Conservative Members concentrate their minds upon the consequences of strike action rather than on the causes. It would be better by far if they examined the reasons why decent people who provide valuable services feel compelled to take strike action in order to draw attention to their cause.

The Division that is about to take place will identify and separate those hon. Members who genuinely seek a good relationship with the trade union movement from those whose first reaction at times of industrial difficulty is to abandon the whole concept of democracy.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and Nomination of Select Committees at Commencement of Public Business):

The House divided: Ayes 209, Noes 207.

Division No.77] AYES [4.30 p.m.
Adley, Robert Boscawen, Hon Robert Clark, William (Croydon S)
Alison, Michael Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent) Cooke, Robert (Bristol W)
Amery, Rt Hon Julian Brittan, Leon Cope, John
Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne) Brooke, Hon Peter Costain, A. P.
Atkinson, David (B'mouth, East) Brotherton, Michael Critchley, Julian
Baker, Kenneth Buchanan-Smith, Alick Crouch, David
Beith, A. J. Buck, Antony Dodsworth, Geoffrey
Bell, Ronald Budgen, Nick Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham) Bulmer, Esmond Drayson, Burnaby
Benyon, W. Burden, F. A. du Cann, Rt Hon Edward
Berry, Hon Anthony Butler, Adam (Bosworth) Durant, Tony
Biffen, John Carlisle, Mark Eden, Rt Hon Sir John
Biggs-Davison, John Chalker, Mrs Lynda Emery, Peter
Blaker, Peter Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton) Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen)
Fairbairn, Nicholas Langford-Holt, Sir John Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Fairgrieve, Russell Latham, Michael (Melton) Ridley, Hon Nicholas
Farr, John Lawrence, Ivan Rifkind, Malcolm
Fell, Anthony Lawson, Nigel Roberts, (Michael (Cardiff NW)
Fisher, Sir Nigel Le Merchant, Spencer Rodgers, Sir John (Sevenoaks)
Fletcher, Alex (Edinburgh N) Lester, Jim (Beeston) Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Forman, Nigel Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Rost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)
Fowler, Norman (Sutton C'f'd) Lloyd, Ian Royle, Sir Anthony
Fox, Marcus Luce, Richard Sainsbury, Tim
Fraser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St) McAdden, Sir Stephen At. John-Stevas, Norman
Freud, Clement McCrindle, Robert Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Fry, Peter Macfarlane, Neil Shelton, William (Streatham)
Gardiner, George (Reigate) MacGregor, John Shepherd, Colin
Gardner, Edward (S Fylde) MacKay, Andrew (Stechford) Shersby, Michael
Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian (Chesham) Macmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham) Silvester, Fred
Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife) McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury) Sims, Roger
Goodhart, Philip Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Sinclair, Sir George
Goodhew, Victor Marten, Neil Skeet, T. H. H.
Goodlad, Alastair Mates, Michael Smith, Dudley (Warwick)
Gow, Ian (Eastbourne) Mather, Carol Speed, Keith
Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry) Mawby, Ray Spicer, Michael (S Worcester)
Grant, Anthony (Harrow C) Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Stanbrook, Ivor
Grey, Hamish Mayhew, Patrick Stanley, John
Griffiths, Eldon Meyer, Sir Anthony Steel, Rt Hon David
Grimond, Rt Hon J. Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove) Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)
Grist, Ian Moate, Roger Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)
Grylls, Michael Monro, Hector Stokes, John
Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Moore, John (Croydon C) Stradling Thomas, J.
Hampson, Dr Keith More, Jasper (Ludlow) Tapsell, Peter
Hannam, John Morgan, Geraint Tebbit, Norman
Harvie Anderson, Rt Hon Miss Morgan-Giles, Rear-Admiral Temple-Morris, Peter
Haselhurst, Alan Morrison, Hon Charles (Devizes) Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret
Hastings, Stephen Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester) Thomas, Rt Hon P. (Hendon S)
Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael Mudd, David Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)
Hawkins, Paul Neave, Airey Townsend, Cyril D.
Hayhoe, Barney Nelson, Anthony Trotter, Neville
Higgins, Terence L. Neubert, Michael Vaughan, Dr Gerard
Hodgson, Robin Newton, Tony Viggers, Peter
Holland, Philip Onslow, Cranley Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Oppenheim, Mrs Sally Wakeham, John
Howell, David (Guildford) Page, John (Harrow West) Wall, Patrick
Hurd, Douglas Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby) Walters, Dennis
Hutchison, Michael Clark Page, Richard (Workington) Warren, Kenneth
Irving, Charles (Cheltenham) Pardoe, John Weatherill, Bernard
James, David Parkinson, Cecil Wells, John
Jenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd&W'df'd) Pattie, Geoffrey Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
Jessel, Toby Percival, Ian Whitney, Raymond
Johnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead) Peyton, Rt Hon John Wiggin, Jerry
Jones, Arthur (Daventry) Prentice, Rt Hon Reg Wigley, Dafydd
Jopling, Michael Price, David (Eastleigh) Winterton, Nicholas
Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith Pym, Rt Hon Francis Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Kaberry, Sir Donald Ralson, Timothy Younger, Hon George
King, Evelyn (South Dorset) Rathbone, Tim
King, Tom (Bridgwater) Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Kitson, Sir Timothy Rees-Davies, W. R. Mr. Jonathan Aitken and
Knight, Mrs Jill Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts) Mr. Patrick Cormack.
Lamont, Norman Rhodes James, R.
Allaun, Frank Carmichael, Neil Eadie, Alex
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Cartwright, John Edge, Geoff
Ashley, Jack Castle, Rt Hon Barbara Ellis, John (Brig & Scun)
Ashton, Joe Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S) English, Michael
Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham) Cohen, Stanley Ennals, Rt Hon David
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Coleman, Donald Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood) Colquhoun, Ms Maureen Evans, John (Newton)
Bates, Alf Corbett, Robin Ewing, Harry (Stirling)
Bean, R. E. Cowans, Harry Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Flannery, Martin
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Craigen, Jim (Maryhill) Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)
Bidwell, Sydney Crowther, Stan (Rotherham) Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Blenkinsop, Arthur Cryer, Bob Ford, Ben
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Davidson, Arthur Forrester, John
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Davies, Bryan (Enfield N) Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur Davies, Rt Hon Denzil Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd)
Boyden, James (Bish Auck) Davies, Ifor (Gower) Garrett, John (Norwich S)
Bray, Dr Jeremy Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Deakins, Eric George, Bruce
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Buchan, Norman Dempsey, James Golding, John
Buchanan, Richard Dewar, Donald Gould, Bryan
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Dormand, J. D. Graham, Ted
Campbell, Ian Duffy, A. E. P. Grant, George (Morpeth)
Canavan, Dennis Dunn, James A. Grant, John (Islington C)
Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)
Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife) Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Mason, Rt Hon Roy Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Hart, Rt Hon Judith Maynard, Miss Joan Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Meacher, Michael Silverman, Julius
Hayman, Mrs Helene Mellish, Rt Hon Robert Skinner, Dennis
Heffer, Eric S. Mikardo, Ian Snape, Peter
Home Robertson, John Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Spriggs, Leslie
Howell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham, Sm H) Mitchell, Austin (Grimsby) Stallard, A. W.
Hoyle, Doug (Nelson) Molloy, William Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Huckfield, Les Moonman, Eric Stoddart, David
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Strang, Gavin
Hughes, Roy (Newport) Morris, Rt Hon Charles R. Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
Hunter, Adam Morton, George Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln) Moyle, Rt Hon Roland Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Jay, Rt Hon Douglas Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
Jeger, Mrs Lena Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King Tierney, Sydney
Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Newens, Stanley Tilley, John
John, Brynmor Noble, Mike Tinn, James
Johnson, James (Hull West) Oakes, Gordon Tomlinson, John
Jones, Alec (Rhondda) O'Halloran, Michael Torney, Tom
Jones, Barry (East Flint) Orbach, Maurice Tuck, Raphael
Jones, Dan (Burnley) Ovenden, John Urwin, T. W.
Judd, Frank Palmer, Arthur Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Park, George Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Kelley, Richard Parker, John Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Kerr, Russell Parry, Robert Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Kinnock, Neil Pavitt, Laurie Watkins, David
Lambie, David Pendry, Tom Watkinson, John
Lomond, James Perry, Ernest Wellbeloved, James
Latham, Arthur (Paddington) Price, C. (Lewisham W) White, Frank R. (Bury)
Leadbitter, Ted Price, William (Rugby) White, James (Pollok)
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Radice, Giles Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Litterick, Tom Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S) Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Lofthouse, Geoffrey Richardson, Miss Jo Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)
Luard, Evan Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock) Williams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson Robertson, George (Hamilton) Williams, Sir Thomas (Warrington)
McCartney, Hugh Roderick, Caerwyn Wise, Mrs Audrey
McDonald, Dr Oonagh Rodgers, George (Chorley) Woodall, Alec
McElhone, Frank Rooker, J. W. Woof Robert
MacFarquhar, Roderick Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock) Wrigglesworth, Ian
McGuire, Michael (Ince) Ryman, John
McKay, Allen (Penistone) Sedgemore, Brian TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Selby, Harry Mr. Bruce Grocott and
Madden, Max Sever, John Mr Ivor Clemitson.
Mallalieu, J. P. W.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jonathan Aitken, Mr. Hugh Fraser, Mr. Patrick Cormack, Mr. Andrew MacKay, and Mr. Peter Temple-Morris.