HC Deb 20 February 1979 vol 963 cc253-6
Mr. Fairbairn

I beg to ask the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, to put to the Secretary of State for Scotland the following question, of which I have given him private notice, namely, what contingency provisions—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."]

Mr. Speaker

Order. When a private notice question has been allowed, the hon. Member concerned has to keep to the terms of the question that I approved.

Mr. Fairbairn

—what contingency provisions will be made for litigation and trial in the courts of justice in Scotland from Friday 23 February onwards, when all clerical grades of court officers will be on strike and the courts of justice will be suspended without limit of time.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Bruce Millan)

I understand that there is a possibility that members of two Civil Service unions who are employed in the Scottish courts service, which covers the High Court of Justiciary, the Court of Session and the sheriff courts, may take industrial action as from 23 February in connection with pay negotiations.

I consider any action which would prevent the proper functioning of the courts to be utterly deplorable.

Should such action be taken, the indications are that a few sheriff courts will continue to function normally, but in others it may be possible to deal only with essential civil and criminal business. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate has taken steps in the event of strike action to reduce the amount of criminal work coming before the courts after 23 February. The Court of Session and the High Court of Justiciary are making rules of court, by Act of Sederunt and Act of Adjournal, to make provision for the suspension of the civil and criminal business of the Court of Session, High Court of Justiciary and sheriff courts, should this be necessary.

The situation will obviously vary from court to court and my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate and I will keep the matter under constant review.

Mr. Fairbairn

I am obliged to the Secretary of State for his statement. I share his view that any action which prevents the administration of justice is deplorable.

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that this is the first time in any part of this country that the administration of justice has been suspended by strike action? Does he also appreciate that Scotland has probably been chosen because we have a rule of law which prevents a person in custody being tried after 110 days?

Will the Secretary of State therefore give special help to his right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate to ensure that justice is done, whereby the guilty are not allowed to go free because of this action and the innocent are not held in custody as a result of this action? Will the right hon. Gentleman introduce emergency legislation to ensure that in this country justice is done?

Mr. Millan

My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate hopes to deal with the question of the 110-day rule by petition to the High Court later this week. As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, it is, of course, for the High Court to decide on the petition.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Bearing in mind that trials have to be completed within 110 days of the date of committal, is there not a serious risk that many persons charged with serious crimes will have to be released unless emergency measures are undertaken by the Lord Advocate? May we have a firmer commitment from the right hon. Gentleman that something effective will be done to ensure that the general public are properly safeguarded?

Mr. Millan

I have already answered that question. My right hon. and learned Friend's petitions will be presented tomorrow. I cannot give an absolute assurance to the House. The hon. Gentleman, as a lawyer, will know that these matters are for decision by the High Court. We are attempting to cover the situation. The hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) talked about emergency legislation. If we have a long strike and there is considerable dislocation, I may have to consider taking that action, but at present I believe that we may deal with the matter in the manner that I have already indicated.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call the three hon. Members who have been rising to ask supplementary questions.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

What emergency arrangements are being made to take care of the cases of those who have been arrested on charges and who cannot be released on bail until applications for bail have been considered by the courts?

Mr. Millan

The Acts of Adjournal that the High Court of Justiciary will be introducing as from tomorrow will deal with that difficulty. We are attempting to cover all these difficult matters. I believe that the Acts of Adjournal will cover the difficulty that the hon. Gentleman has in mind.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

In view of the continuance of industrial action by public service employees, and especially its effects on schools, what contingency plans has the right hon. Gentleman for polling arrangements next week?

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is a separate question, which the hon. Gentleman must present in some other way.

Mr. Rifkind

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that strike activity that seeks to prevent and succeeds in preventing the administration of justice is to be considered political and not merely industrial action? In these special circumstances, what thought has the right hon. Gentleman given to finding replacement staff who are able and willing to do the work of those who are refusing to work?

Mr. Millan

If necessary I shall consider the latter part of the hon. Gentle man's question. The action that has been taken is utterly unnecessary. It is concerned with a pay claim that is not due for settlement until 1 April. Some of those concerned are not by any stretch of the imagination to be considered in the low-paid category. I understand that a number of those who have indicated that they will be on strike from next week are earning more than £10,000 a year.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that if the action that the Lord Advocate proposes to take is successful it will prevent persons accused of serious crimes being set free or other persons being detained indefinitely? Will he bear in mind that it was only last week that the Government announced with a blaze of publicity the new concordat with the unions, which included the following: The TUC emphasises the vital necessity of maintaining…services essential to the…safety of the community…during industrial disputes. Does he propose to invite the TUC to indicate how it can honour the pledge or concordat in view of the desperately serious problem facing Scotland?

Mr. Millan

I can give the hon. Gentleman and the House the assurance that I shall be doing everything possible to avert the industrial action that is to take place. If, unfortunately, the action takes place despite these efforts, I am not able to give categorical assurances on some of the matters that the hon. Gentleman has raised. They are not matters for Ministers alone, as they also involve the courts in taking decisions. As for the Government taking the initiative, the initiative has already been taken by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate.

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