§ 3.57 p.m.
§ Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Kinross and West Perthshire)
The matter that we are debating today, namely, the operation of the courts in Scotland, may at first sight appear to be peculiarly Scottish and of no interest to English, Irish or Welsh Members of the British House of Commons, but it is important to understand that this is a major constitutional issue, in which a British trade union has taken the decision to use the senior and less senior staff of the Scottish courts in order to advance its claim and the claim of ⅓ million trade unionists in the Society of Civil and Public Servants who have nothing to do with the courts of Scotland.
It is true to say—I say it with immense regret—that it is unique in the history of our democracy that recourse to law is presently denied to the citizens of a part of the kingdom. Not since King James V granted the charter to the Court of Session in 1532 have the citizens of Scotland had no recourse to law and been denied their civil rights and the rights of the public in the criminal law. We have never before achieved a situation in this country where justice was silent and mercy was gagged. We have never before had a situation in which such a fundamental constitutional effect has been achieved by the Government. That is the charge that we make against the Government today.
One arm of the constitution is in suspense. Of all the arms of the constitution, it is probably the most important. It is a matter of fundamental interest to hon. Members wherever they sit in this House, whether they wear the badge of civil rights on their sleeve or are interested in the sovereign constitution of the United Kingdom. The fact cannot 280 be escaped that as a result of Government policy and the Government's actions or inaction, the operation of the courts of justice is in abeyance.
Let us consider what, in practice, the effect is in Scotland. Let us remember, in passing, that a British trade union has chosen to use the courts in Scotland because of our superior procedures and because it can finance the strike for longer and therefore do more damage and make it more obvious. Had the Scotland Act been in effect, this major constitutional situation in the United Kingdom could not have been raised in the British House of Commons, as Scottish law would have been a devolved matter.
Let us consider the effect. Hundreds of summary cases are in suspense because the papers cannot be obtained and cannot be serviced. Every day, literally thousands of motions throughout Scotland, at all levels in civil law, to adjust rights and obtain the remedies of citizens, are without effect. Every week in Scotland 200 or 300 persons seek the remedy of divorce, more often than not to obtain the benefit of remarriage. At the moment they cannot obtain that remedy. There are those who may seek to legitimise the children of a relationship or to marry a person to legitimise their relationship before their death. Those rights are in suspense.
In the criminal law, matters are even more serious. The extent of that seriousness is underlined by the fact that before the strike began the Lord Advocate obtained in 39 cases an extension of the 110 days provision under section 101 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975.
In Scotland, when a man has been committed to prison for trial he must be tried within 110 days or for ever set free from all pains of law in respect of the alleged offence. That is intended to protect the individual from unwarrantable imprisonment in anticipation of trial while he is presumed to be innocent. It is not intended to protect the interests of the Crown.
The Law Officers are members of a Government who have brought to pass the suspension of justice. The court granted the applications, and that means that those concerned will serve the equivalent of six months without remission and may be 281 acquitted. That is one of the worst effects of the strike for which the Government are responsible, namely, the sweeping aside without justification of the great protection of the innocent citizen in section 101.
For what period are the Government willing to imprison people without trial in Scotland? What do they regard as a reasonable time? Will they make further application when the 60 days that they obtained in the 37 cases, and the 30 days in two other cases, come to an end? Alternatively, will they think it proper to use section 35 of the Act to release on bail those charged with murder or to keep in prison indefinitely people on charges of murder? These are questions that the Government must answer today.
I have referred to the effect, but what is the cause? The strike is having an effect, in myriad ways, on many more than those who are denied justice. It has an effect on the practitioners. It has an effect on their staff, who have had to be laid off. It has an effect on those who service the courts, on those who provide food, and on those who have been made redundant or unemployed. It has an enormous effect on many people, and I find it rather ill that the union concerned claims that its action is designed to hit the Government machine and not to hurt the public. I can think of no action that has hurt, more centrally, the interests of the public in Scotland and the constitution in Britain.
What is the cause of the action? The cause is that under the Priestly Commission of 1953 to 1955 a procedure was introduced for raising civil servants' pay by a system of comparability. It was provided that the Pay Research Unit should compare the pay of those in the Civil Service with those outside it, to obtain what appeared to be a just comparison for equivalent work. Whether that is a right principle or a wrong principle, it was the agreed procedure. Although it was renegotiated in various ways and in various years, it was only in the first pay pause in 1975 that the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), suspended the operation of the agreement and subjected the Civil Service unions to the rigid requirement of statutory rises.
282 As the Prime Minister told us in July 1977, there is to be no statutory norm. Therefore, the procedure should revert to the previous position. At a meeting of trade unionists the other day the Prime Minister said:The proper way forward is to press on with agreed procedures.The complaint of the union is that the agreed procedures, which are clear, have been abandoned. The procedures are that there is a report by the Pay Research Unit in mid February and negotiation until the award is made on 1 April. That cannot be reciprocal unless it is remitted to arbitration. All that the Government need to do to return justice to Scotland is to agree to abide by the procedures and by the injunction that the Prime Minister gave to trade unionists.
Working in the courts of Scotland, I never believed that those who have been chosen to be the shock troops of the union would ever descend to attempt to deny justice to others supposedly to obtain justice for themselves.
The gravity of the charge against the Government is that they have made trusworthy men mistrust the word of the Government. They have made loyal men descend to disloyalty. They have made men who have served the course of justice faithfully and honourably for all their lives, or part of their lives, scrap justice and throw mud in its face because they do not believe that they can trust the Government's word. The gravity of the charge is not that they have offended gravediggers and caused them not to bury the dead; it is that they have enabled their policy to reach the stage when men of such trust and responsibility have been driven along the same course, by the same policy, to take the law of mob rule into their own hands.
That is the extent of the constitutional crisis that the Government have created. I do not condone the taking of such action by those persons of integrity and responsibility. I urge them to return to the service of justice, to which they have a fiduciary responsibility as servants of the law. I sincerely hope that they will serve justice by their return. The Government, equally, have a duty to remove the obstacle and to make it possible for them to return with honour.
283 One of the characteristics of society under this Government is the predominance of mob rule, mob decision and mob will. It might be said that those who are now on strike are in contempt of court; it might be said that they are part of a conspiracy to defeat the ends of justice. But, of course, the law is suspended.
The Deputy Keeper of the Signet, who is responsible for the signeting of actions, removed the signet so that actions can timeously be begun, because there is in Scotland, as I imagine there is in England, a prescription of time within which one must commence an action.
Mr. Bonar, branch secretary of the Society of Civil and Public Servants, wrote to the Deputy Keeper of the Signet on 8 March 1979 and said:While I can appreciate the concern of the legal profession over the current situation and their desire to protect the interests of their clients,"—a fairly condescending appreciation—I am sure that you can understand our position, which is that as summonses are normally signeted by members of my branch, this work should not be handled by anyone else during the industrial action….Nevertheless, my branch is prepared to countenance the signeting of actions which involve the expiry of a triennium "—that is the prescriptive period—within one month of the signeting date, but I must ask you to advise "—here is the anarchic warning—any solicitor who requests the signeting of any other action, other than the aforementioned, of the strong possibility that this could lead to the blacking of such action following the cessation of the industrial action ".That is the threat, and I look forward to seeing the SCPS blacking the action taken by members of the National Union of Mineworkers against the National Coal Board if a solicitor signets such a summons the month before the triennium is up. I hope that the Government and the Lord Advocate will confirm my view that if such action were to be taken by any person after this deplorable situation has ended it would amount to a contempt of court, at least, and, furthermore, to a conspiracy to defeat the ends of justice. It would mean that if any action had been handled in the meantime justice would be denied for ever to the parties to that cause.
I cannot believe that there has been a more serious and a more anarchic threat made in this country, and I trust that 284 those who are responsible for the sending of that dictatorial edict will entirely understand its implications. I bitterly regret the fact that these men have begun this action, and I regret even more the fact that they were selected by a trade union to do the dirty work. I therefore appeal to them to return.
Whose fault is it that even the SCPS has decided to take such action? Whose fault is it that it has decided to descend to the point at which it says"To hell with society, to hell with the effect. I will do anything, use any force, descend to any level and resort to any trick, in order to obtain what I want "?
It is the Government's fault, for two reasons. First, it is their fault because they have a doctrinal devotion to the trade unions and to the rule of mob will. If the Government allow one group to act in this way they cannot complain when another group acts in the same way. Secondly, it is the Government's fault because they have consistenly appeased the bully and betrayed the tolerant. Those who are tolerant, and who are now betrayed, feel most bitter and can resort only to the same atavistic behaviour themselves.
It is entirely the Government's fault. They are responsible for sowing the seeds of the belief that the mob will win. They are responsible for ignoring those who did not join the mob. The Government are responsible for those, of whatever integrity, who have learned the lesson that mob rule, pushing one's way to what one wants, and the law of the highwayman always works. The Government are responsible for urging the highwayman to go and rob and for urging the passengers to hand over their goods.
What have the Government done about this? They have done almost nothing. I do not make that charge against the Secretary of State for Scotland or, indeed, the Lord Advocate. I make it against the Prime Minister, and I regret that he is not here today, though for a good reason. I brought to his attention the fact that the courts of Scotland were on strike. I wrote to him on 26 February, when the strike was firmly entrenched. It is the intention and belief of the union that its funds will enable it, if necessary, to carry on this strike indefinitely. 285 Certainly, it has a fund that could paralyse the courts of Scotland for six months.
In my letter to the Prime Minister I spoke of the unique constitutional nature of this action and urged him to recall Parliament. He was unable to find time to reply to that request. No doubt he was canvassing in Cardiff, South-East during those 10 days, which demonstrated his pellucid understanding of Welsh feeling.
I received a reply on 7 March from the Lord President of the Council, shortly after Parliament had returned from the week's recess. He said:Had there been any necessity to recall Parliament last week I can assure you the Government would not have hesistated to do so. But as you will know from Bruce Millan's statement in the House on Monday, the situation is being kept under constant review. The position is of course extremely serious, but to describe it as ' anarchy ' is, I hope on reflection you will agree, entirely unwarranted. I do not think that a debate on this subject would be helpful at the moment.No doubt the Lord President of the Council had in mind his abominable words to the Post Office workers on 15 May 1977, when he said:If the freedom of the people of this country, and especially the rights of Trade Unionists, if these precious things of the past had been left to the good sense and fair-mindedness of the Judges we would have had few freedoms in this country at all.We have no freedoms in Scotland at all when we are deprived of recourse to the law.
What has the Prime Minister done? In July last year I asked him a question when he was introducing us to the concept of consensus. I asked him what would happen if one side or the other did not consent. He told me that that would not happen. He said:You do neither. You win people over."—[Official Report, 20 July 1977; Vol. 935, c. 1620.]But it has happened. The Prime Minister has not talked anybody round, or even tried to. That is the charge that we make against the Government.
If the English courts had been on strike the Prime Minister would not have been indolent. If the Old Bailey had been on strike he would not have been indolent. If only he would understand that it is not more government, in an Assembly, that the Scottish people want. They want to be treated with exactly the same concern and 286 urgency as they would be treated if they were closer to home.
If the Prime Minister had understood the situation, I do not believe that the paralysis of justice—one of the pillars of the constitution—would have been allowed to drift on into the state to which it has drifted in Scotland.
What can the Government do? First, they must say either that they will keep to the agreed procedure or that they will not. They must make that clear to the union. Secondly, if the Government decide not to keep to that procedure, they must say what they propose to do. If the Government propose to stick to that policy, they must make certain that justice is not wounded and that it is returned to the people who live in Scotland. They must introduce emergency legislation to prevent rights being conscripted. If necessary, they must suspend trial by jury—a serious step. They must ensure some form of justice. The alternative is either that those who should be tried are not, or that they are kept indefinitely in prison.
The Lord Advocate has told me that about 1,300 cases due to be heard in the sheriff court in Glasgow have not been called, and that 110 of those who should have been tried have been declared"No-pro"and are free for ever.
Of the 870 people awaiting trial in Edinburgh, 120 have gone free. That is fundamentally unfair to those who are tried. It is fundamentally unfair to those whom they wronged, if they did wrong them.
§ Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)
The hon. and learned Gentleman said that we should suspend trial by jury. I am a layman in these matters. I do not think that one of the cases to which he referred involves trial by jury. The most appalling of the many appalling statements that the hon. and learned Gentleman has made is to suggest that we should suspend trial by jury. In what way is that likely to restore justice to Scotland?
§ Mr. Fairbairn
Trial by jury is already suspended. People will languish in prison, people on murder charges will walk the streets, or they will be tried by a single judge rather than by a jury. That is the seriousness of the position, and the Government must face it.
287 The Government must protect rights by introducing emergency legislation. They must protect the interests of justice. The first duty of any Government is to protect the interests of justice.
The charge that we make against the Government is that as a result of their pay policy, having dressed up inflexibility as strength, and weakness and surrender as consensus, they cannot honour an agreement. They have made the most trustworthy members of society resort to primitive and childish behaviour. Mob rule, the rule of force—that is all it is. The Government have caused the ordinary person to believe that by forcing others to suffer he can obtain what he wants for himself. By their policy the Government have inevitably, steadily and constantly created that atmosphere. The lesson that they have learnt is that that attitude will always work.
The Government have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. They have been weighed in the balance of justice and found guilty. They have been weighed in the balance of honesty and found out.
If they will not restore that supreme element to the constitution to Scotland today, it is time they allowed the electorate to pass sentence and remove them from office. If they will not restore the constitution, let them make way for somebody who will.
§ 4.26 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Bruce Millan)
I agree that the present situation in the courts in Scotland is deplorable. But I was not absolutely clear whether the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) was condemning or condoning the action of the staff. Whether he was condemning or condoning the action, I am afraid that his account of where we stand on the pay negotiations was not accurate.
The action in the Scottish courts is part of a wider dispute between the Government and two of the Civil Service unions, the Society of Civil and Public Servants and the Civil and Public Services Association. Those unions have decided to take selective action.
Negotiations on Civil Service pay are carried out at national level. The Government have given assurances that the 288 pay research settlements negotiated with the unions will be implemented and that the settlements will be staged—though the staging will be subject to negotiation The Government have already said that the staging will be completed by no later Chan 1 April 1980. Not all of the civil servants concerned seem to be aware that this commitment has already been entered into by the Government.
Any dispute on the amount of the pay research-based settlement will be negotiable under the terms of the Civil Service arbitration agreement. The settlement will be subject to staging.
The joint processing of the pay research data, which covers about 450 separate studies, is continuing with all possible speed. Civil Service Department officials have begun discussions with the national staff side aimed at clearing the ground for subsequent decisions. It is the firm intention of both sides to reach a settlement before 1 April.
I emphasise that the settlement date is 1 April. There is no question of our having gone past the settlement date. In that respect this dispute is entirely different from the dispute which has affected the National Health Service ancillary workers and the local government manual workers, whose settlement dates were in November and December last year.
In this case the settlement date has not yet been reached, and yet industrial action is being taken. In my view, strikes which start six weeks before the settlement date and where there is a process of negotiation cannot be justified.
§ Mr. John Ovenden (Gravesend)
My right hon. Friend was talking about the operative date for the settlements. Will he tell the House what happens to the operative date if no agreement is reached by 1 April? In an agreement is not reached until the end of April or later, from when does that settlement date?
§ Mr. Millan
There is no question but that the settlement will date from 1 April, even if the settlement is not reached until after 1 April. No doubt my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will correct me if I am wrong, but I have checked on that particular matter. Therefore, the argument that the strike is necessary before 1 April to avoid a delay in the payment being made is not a 289 good one. In any case, it is the intention of the Government to reach a settlement before 1 April.
§ Mr. Robin F. Cook
I hope my right hon. Friend will take advice from the Minister of State to make this point quite clear on the record, because many of the civil servants who have been to see me certainly labour under the impression that it cannot be back-dated to 1 April because of changes introduced by the Government in the course of the 1975 negotiations, which were introduced unilaterally by the Government specifically to prevent back-dating.
If my right hon. Friend will give an assurance that any settlement will be back-dated to 1 April, that will be very valuable, but I hope that it is the correct assurance.
§ Mr. Millan
I can confirm what I have just said. I do not think it is a particularly useful function to carry on negotiations on the Floor of the House. In any case, one is dealing with a hypothetical situation, because it is certainly the intention of the Government that a settlement will be reached before 1 April. In my view, however, if the negotiations go beyond 1 April, there is no reason why the settlement should not be back-dated to 1 April. That is a matter for negotiation. If my hon. Friend is worried because he feels that that will not happen, I must tell him that I do not believe it is necessary for him to be concerned about it.
Of course there have been contacts between Government and the trade unions concerned, both on general and particular problems. I should say to the House that, together with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Employment and the Minister of State, Civil Service Department, I met senior representatives of the unions concerned this morning. I pointed out to them that the action of their members was causing hardship to many members of the public in Scotland, who for the first time in generations were being denied access to the courts. I told them that I believed the cumulative effect of the strike would be a blow to the very fabric of society. Therefore, I asked them on that basis to call off their action. I have regretfully to tell the House that they have refused to do so and therefore the action is to continue.
§ Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Thornaby)
Before my right hon. Friend leaves the question of the national dispute, in view of the urgency of the whole situation, as illustrated by this debate, can he tell us how soon the Government expect to be able to bring forward a firm figure for the offer and firm dates for the closing of that offer?
§ Mr. Millan
We are in the middle of that process at the moment. Figures have already been spoken about. These figures have been prepared by the PRU system. We have already given a pledge that the figures that are brought out from that system of comparisons will be implemented. There is no question of that. There is an argument about the staging, but we have given a pledge on the figures themselves and we have also given a pledge, as I have already said, that the figures can be subjected to arbitration if they are not ultimately agreed.
§ Mr. Millan
I hope that I shall be allowed to proceed with the rest of my speech, because I want to turn to the Scottish courts in a minute. The point that I am making at the moment is that negotiations have continued and have made substantial progress.
§ Mr. Grimond
I am obliged to the Secretary of State for giving way and for what he has said. Is he able to tell us what, for instance, is the present salary of sheriff clerks?
§ Mr. Millan
There is a variety, depending on the particular rank. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to look at Hansard of yesterday's date, when I gave the figures in answer to a question by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton). The full details are there. It goes without saying that the courts can function normally only if the staff return.
With respect to the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire, it is no use calling on the Government, as a number of Opposition Members have done, to get the courts working unless at the same time he takes a view about what the Government should do about the settlement concerned. It is a matter for negotiation. I do not wish 291 this dispute to go on for any longer than it has done already, but those who are on strike are not furthering their cause, because the Government have no intention of being intimidated by this industrial action into making settlements beyond a level that they consider to be reasonable. Therefore, the strike itself will not produce additional benefits for the trade unions concerned.
§ Mr. Malcolm Rifkind (Edinburgh, Pentlands)
When the right hon. Gentleman says that there is no way in which the courts can reopen before the pay dispute is settled, is he saying that the Government have given no thought to trying to reopen the courts before the settlement is reached by taking the sort of action that he took at the time of the firemen's strike to ensure that essential services are provided by whomsoever might be available to provide them?
§ Mr. Millan
We are already doing that at the moment, but if the hon. Gentleman has some bright ideas about that and is called during the debate we shall listen with great interest to what he says we ought to be doing that we are not doing at the moment. I shall come in a minute to what we are doing.
The extent of the industrial action is substantial. It involves the High Court of Justiciary, the Court of Session and the sheriff courts in Scotland, and the bulk of the staff both in the Supreme Court and in the sheriff courts are on strike at the moment in Scotland. The effect on the administration of justice is very substantial indeed.
The present position, as I reported it to the House on Monday 5 March, is that the Lord President of the Court of Session has made rules of court suspending normal sittings in the High Court, the Court of Session and the sheriff courts, except for certain categories of business, and also suspending procedural time limits laid down by the courts. These suspensions can be varied by the Lord President or by the sheriffs principal within their sheriffdoms, wherever it is possible and desirable to do so, either by allowing specific courts to carry on normally or by allowing specific classes of business to be done in courts which otherwise could be subject to suspension.
In the results, 12 sheriff courts are functioning normally, but these are in the 292 main single sheriff courts with a small administrative staff and where sufficient members of the staff have decided to remain on duty. The main sheriff courts in Scotland are not functioning at present to their full extent. In other courts, certain classes of business not covered by the general exceptions are being undertaken, again for the same reason, that sufficient administrative staff are available to enable it to be done.
All courts are dealing with very urgent matters—for example, interim interdicts and committals of persons charged with serious offences—so I hope that the House will understand that, although business has been dislocated, it has not ground completely to a halt and that, with the co-operation of the courts themselves, we are giving priority to urgent business. For example, in no case—and there is a civil liberties point here—is a person being denied the opportunity to apply for bail. The High Court is still sitting to deal with bail appeals.
If I may look at the present situation from two, as it were, contradictory points of view, first from that of law and order and then from that of civil liberties, on the law and order aspect I assure the House that no one charged with a serious criminal offence is getting off scot free, although, as the Lord Advocate has already indicated in the answer he gave yesterday, some minor cases have been dropped. I am sorry to say that that is inevitable in the circumstances. But we are talking here about a comparatively small number of minor cases, and I understand that virtually all of these are road traffic offences. Certainly there is no question of dropping serious charges.
The procurator fiscal continues to serve complaints. What happens at the moment is that the complaint is served on the person informing him that the case will fall on a particular day in a particular court. If the fiscal anticipates that the court will still be affected by strike action on that day, he will write to the person advising him not to come to court on the date originally given. He will be advised not to destroy the complaint and to await further notice, because the case will be called later. The procedure I describe is a standard one, but it is not necessarily followed in every court, because some courts are functioning normally and, 293 therefore, the practice will take account of local circumstances.
It is not true, as some commentators in the press and elsewhere have suggested, that a large number of people who have committed serious offences in Scotland are not being proceeded against. We are safeguarding that situation. Equally, it is not true that we are detaining in custody any person for longer than the public interest requires. I shall come later to what we are doing with regard to the 110-days rule.
The House will know from my recent statement that my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate petitioned to the High Court with regard to a certain number of cases affected by the 110-days rule, so that the persons concerned have been or will be kept in custody beyond the 110-days period. There are a number of other cases where persons who would have been affected by the 110-days rule have been released. In these cases, it has been judged that there is no serious danger to the public. May I make it absolutely clear that by releasing these persons the operation of the 110-days rule is suspended, which means that those persons will come to trial. Any person who is judged to be a danger to the public is being detained. In other cases, the person may be released. In the former cases there is no question but that the person concerned will come to trial. We are not keeping people in prison for any longer than we have to in the necessity of the case. Equally, we are not releasing people from prison so that they do not stand trial.
§ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West)
Is it not true that not one criminal jury trial is being held anywhere in Scotland? Surely that amounts to much more than mere dislocation?
§ Mr. Millan
I am informed that that is not completely accurate, but I have already said that there is a serious situation. I am not sure what the hon. Member's contribution has added.
To sum up, we have taken action to keep the situation under control. Even if the courts restart tomorrow, next Monday or whenever, there will be a backlog of cases which will cause considerable difficulties for some time to come. I am 294 in no way under-rating the seriousness of the situation. Those of us who are familiar with the problems of Glasgow at sheriff court level will not relish any action which causes an even greater backlog there. A delay in administering justice can often mean that justice is denied, and I accept that absolutely. There is no question of being complacent about this. We have tried to deal with the difficulties as best we can with the co-operation of the Lord President of the Court of Session and the courts.
I had hoped that the dispute would have been settled before now and that the courts would again have started to function. As I told the House, I was keeping the necessity for emergency legislation under review. I have now to tell the House that I believe emergency legislation is required to deal with certain matters. We cannot carry on without legislation. I have tried to act with the convenience of the House in mind. I intend that the Bill with the necessary provisions will be published on Thursday of this week. It is in draft, but I am willing to listen to today's debate to see whether I need to amend it in any respect. That will still give time to publish the Bill on Thursday. We shall have to talk through the usual channels about progressing the Bill through the House.
It would be useful if I were to tell the House what the Bill covers as we have it at the moment. First, provision will be made to enable time limits to be extended so that anything which should have been done during the period of industrial action can be done during the period of one month after the end of the industrial action. This will cover such matters as the three-year period within which claims for damages for personal injuries must be raised. It covers civil as well as criminal matters. On that last matter, a trade union has told me that it has workmen's compensation claims—I am not sure whether that is the modern term; they are claims for injuries at work—which are almost reaching the three-year limit. We must protect these cases and every other kind of civil case where there is a time limit, and the Bill will do that. It will suspend the operation of the time limit for the period of the industrial dispute and give a leeway at the end so that we can ensure that the courts are properly 295 functioning again before the time limit expires.
Secondly, we shall take power to enable the maximum period of 110 days during which an unconvicted prisoner may be detained in custody to be extended to take account of the period when the courts are affected by industrial action, so that it will not be necessary for my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate to make individual petitions. The Bill will automatically take care of and extend the 110-days period.
§ Mr. Fairbairn
Will the Secretary of State enlarge on that? Is that without limit of time? Does it mean that if the strike were to last for six months, six months would be added to the 110 days?
§ Mr. Millan
The limit of time will be extended basically by the period of the industrial action plus a bit extra at the end. I take the hon. and learned Gentleman's point. Civil liberties issues are involved here, which is why I mentioned earlier that, where my right hon. and learned Friend does not believe it is absolutely necessary to retain a person in custody, that person is being released, not to go scot-free, but to be tried later. As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, there are some dangerous characters around—not only in this place—and that situation will be protected. There is nothing here that is absolutely satisfactory, but we must do what we think best in all the circumstances.
Thirdly, provision will be made to take account of the fact that certain procedural requirements in criminal proceedings which may not be able to be complied with will be complied with, for example, to ensure that criminal proceedings do not fall because the diet is not held. Again, the problem is that we do not wish proceedings to come to an end simply because there is a delay in reaching trial. There will be a general provision to cover that.
Fourthly, provision will be made to enable a judge of any court to do anything during the period of industrial action in relation to the business of the courts which would otherwise have to be done by a clerk of court, sheriff clerk or the officer of court, and may authorise any person to do any of these things. That picks up part of the point made by the 296 hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind). That is a facility that enables certain things to be done by the judge himself rather than by an officer of the court.
Finally, the court will be empowered to accept copies of documents in place of principal documents when this will enable progress to be made in appropriate cases. I hope that when we produce the Bill we shall have the co-operation of the House in passing it quickly.
None of these measures will ensure the return of the staff to the courts, but I hope they will assure hon. Members that the general public interest and the interests of litigants will not be lost. I must pay tribute to the fact that the courts have been and are still dealing with emergency business, and I gladly pay tribute to all those who are dealing with that business. I am very grateful to them, but before we can extricate ourselves from this extremely unfortunate situation it is necessary for those who are now on strike to return to work.
In view of what I have said today, and given the widespread public concern in Scotland about the present situation, I hope that even now, despite the unsatisfactory nature of the meeting I had with the unions this morning, they will recommend their members to return to work.
§ 4.50 p.m.
§ Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)
I believe that the House will support the Secretary of State for Scotland in his decision to introduce emergency legislation. I leave it to those more expert in the law to debate whether this legislation, as he has outlined it, will cover the points at issue. He has outlined five major points which certainly seem to deal with some of the anxieties already expressed, but whether they will cover the ground I do not know.
As has been said by the previous speakers, the mere fact that emergency legislation is introduced shows the serious state to which the law in Scotland has been reduced. Necessary as it may be—as the Secretary of State indeed agreed with the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn)—this does not obviate the delay and injustice that will be caused to certain people because of this strike.
297 I find myself in considerable agreement with the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire, but I would put a rather different emphasis on where the blame lies. I believe that the Government's policy is indeed responsible for some of the strikes from which we are suffering. However, I do not for one moment think that that excuses the strikers—particularly strikers of the type who are now on strike in the courts of Scotland—from the action they have taken.
I believe that there is a dangerous tendency to blame the Government for anything and everything. Any Government will suffer from this, and I strongly suspect that a Conservative Government will suffer from it even more than the Labour Government. It is up to this House to say that people who go on strike are personally responsible for their actions and they cannot ride off that responsibility on to the Government, on orders from their union or shop stewards or whatever.
I find it most shameful that people of the categories who are on strike in Scotland—who are not badly paid and who are meant to be professional people with high responsibility—have taken this action. They are by no means the only ones. For instance, people in my constituency and others are complaining about a strike by computer operators which is preventing farmers from receiving payment. Here again I must tell them that, in the first place, they must lay the blame for that upon the computer operators. People may have their views about Government policies, but the Government cannot be held responsible for every strike that takes place.
When the Secretary of State for Scotland dealt with the history of this matter, he pointed out that negotiations are going forward and that he hoped to complete them by 1 April. He made out a case for saying that this strike was not only shameful but highly premature. Previously I have criticised the Government for their slowness in dealing with grievances. I still feel that that is a serious feature of negotiations. However, I am glad it is on record that it is hoped that a settlement in accordance with agreed procedures will be reached by 1 April, and that if it is not reached by that date 298 there is every possibility of any settlement being backdated to 1 April. I should have thought that that would remove the last possible excuse for this strike.
I am critical of the Government's policy and I do not believe that it is possible to deal satisfactorily with pay and salary decisions when we have such an enormous public sector. I simply do not believe that even if the Archangel Gabriel was in charge of all the computers in the world he could produce comparable schedules of pay throughout the whole public sector—the nationalised industries, quangos, the Civil Service, local government services, advisory bodies and so forth. It simply is not possible.
It certainly may be possible with a smaller public service to take into account its position and advantages and to compare it with similar jobs outside the public sector, but when the public service is the size it is at present I believe that that is a major factor in making the economy almost unworkable. Certainly it makes it excessively difficult, if not impossible, to come to any decision about salaries which will give satisfaction.
I have always felt that it is a great drawback of our politics that one of the major parties in the country is the political wing of a particular section—that is, the trade unions. That being said, it must also be said that everybody and every organisation is asking for more and production is not rising.
It cannot be said too often that it one section receives more when production is not rising another section will get less, either because prices will rise or because their pay falls behind. There is no escape from that. It should be said again and again. We can pay people £1,000 a week, but they will not gain unless someone else is minus £1,000 per week or production rises dramatically. I do not believe that that is understood, but it should be understood by exactly the sort of people who are on strike in this dispute. Above all, they are the people who have everything to lose from rampant inflation, yet they choose to take this kind of action.
It must be said that this strike is not against wicked employers but against the taxpayer and is being conducted against the taxpayer by people who, compared 299 with most of the population, are pretty well off. I asked the Secretary of State what they were paid. I am not at all clear on the figures, or exactly what the range is, but I think I would be right to say that at the top it is in the region of £8,000 upwards. If I am wrong about that I shall be corrected. They are not the lowest paid workers.
Further, I think that the country must realise that the days are gone when dirty and unskilled work was paid very much less than comparatively attractive, skilled work. The people that we must pay more money to are those who do the dirty and unpopular jobs and those who show enterprise. We, as politicians, lawyers and so on, must take relatively less. We all pay lip service to this idea, but we never put it into practice.
I hope, like everyone else, that public opinion will support sensible measures against this type of action. My fear is that when the hospitals go on strike everybody is irate at that particular moment and then, three or four months later, it is forgotten about and we all slope back into the old ways. If there is one body of people who deserve higher pay, it is the nurses. They have said that they will not go on strike, and I trust that thye will not be penalised for that. I believe that it would be quite monstrous if people such as the sheriff clerks, who are much better paid, who do work of no more responsibility and who have shown considerable irresponsibility, gain through striking when the nurses, who have said that they will not strike, are offered the kind of derisory increases which so far have been their lot.
I hope that the Government will stand firm. I do not say that they should break the agreed procedures, but I think that they should look at them again. They might also look at the manning of some of the public industries. What is interesting is that when people go on strike it is very often quite possible for their work to continue without them. I am not saying that that is entirely so in the Scottish courts, but I hope that the Government will stand firm on this matter and that they get support. That does not in the least mean that I agree with their general policies. However, looking at the country as a whole, it is essential that this type of action, which is pure blackmail, should not succeed.
300 If the Government have more money to give away, let them give it to the nurses and to some extent to the doctors. I do not believe that the people who are presently on strike in Scotland deserve sympathy, nor do they deserve to be made a special case of any sort.
§ 5.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)
Perhaps I should start by declaring an interest. I am—at least nominally—still a partner in a Glasgow law firm which derives a good deal of its business from practising in the courts, both civil and criminal. In that sense I obviously have a direct interest in the outcome of this strike, because it affects the legal profession just as it affects the sheriff clerks and their staff who are presently in dispute with the Government.
The firm with which I am connected has had a certain amount of publicity in its attempts to put some pressure on the Government to get a settlement of this matter. However, I assure the House that I speak for myself today. Perhaps when I finish some of my connections in other areas will wish to underline that point. I am at one with the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) in that I accept that this is a serious and difficult situation and that the disruption of the legal services is not something that we can accept in an easy or light manner and just shrug off.
This dispute is difficult for the public. It has long-term implications for them. Indeed, I take the view that in some respects the public are not alarmed enough about what is going on. Certainly, I have not had one letter from any person in my constituency either for or against the industrial action. I do not think that people realise the considerable difficulties that will lie in the future when this strike is settled, which I hope will be soon.
I should first like to ask several questions of the Government and perhaps get a little more information. However, the Secretary of State has helped already by giving some useful information. On the criminal side, there will undoubtedly be enormous difficulties as the backlog builds up. This is not a new situation. This industrial dispute may have one rather pleasant side effect: it will concentrate all our minds upon the quite impossible conditions which have existed for a very long 301 time in some of the major Scottish sheriff courts.
If one appears on a summary complaint in Glasgow, pleads not guilty—here I am talking about the time before this dispute arose—and a trial is set, it will certainly be a diet of trial four or five months after one's appearance. That cannot be a satisfactory situation at any time.
This debate is on the operation of the courts in Scotland, and not just on the strike. It is perhaps worth making the point that at Scottish Question Time the continual questions about Glasgow sheriff court are justified because of the unpleasant circumstances and conditions under which sheriff clerks, solicitors, accused, witnesses and the public generally have to operate in the present premises in Ingram Street. There is very little of the dignified majesty of the law there. There is not even the kind of inertia and dignity of a passive and negative sort that goes with the kind of"Bleak House"image of the law. It is a kind of scurrying, ants' nest of a place, with everyone milling around trying to cover four of five courts simultaneously. Unfortunate members of the public are understandably totally bewildered about when and where they are supposed to be at any given time.
What worries me is that the backlog will build up. I should have thought that the problems of summary and indictment trials in the Glasgow sheriff court—no doubt it is the same in other sheriff courts, such as Edinburgh, with which I am not so familiar—in nine or 10 months will be desperate as a result of this lengthy delay.
I know that the Secretary of State has made clear—and no doubt the Lord Advocate will repeat it—that there can be no question of taking the easy way out by putting"No proceedings"upon a large number of significant criminal prosecutions which could otherwise have been proceeded with. That would be extremely alarming for the public and would be an extremely bad principle to establish. I have seen the written answer in today's Hansard to the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire indicating that there are 110 cases of"no-pro"in Glasgow and 120 in which no proceedings have been marked in Edinburgh.
302 I take my right hon. Friend's point that these are comparatively minor road traffic offences. But it would hopelessly overdo it, and be somewhat cataclysmic in one's approach, if one suggested that this constituted a breakdown in law and order. We shall clearly have to cut our cost in respect of these minor matters. If we have to do so, I do not think that that will necessarily be the end of the world.
No doubt the Lord Advocate will want to emphasise that there can be no question of significant offences—say, of housebreaking, assault and so on—being marked for no proceedings at some future date. If the unpleasant reality is—I hope that it will not be—that this stoppage will go on for some considerable time, perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend can give some hint of what the policy of the Crown Office and his Department will be in the future.
We are entitled to some reassurance in this regard. Certainly around Glasgow the place is rife with rumour that those who penetrated the procurator fiscal's department have seen the place knee-deep in complaints which apparently have been jettisoned and put on one side. I accept that that is not a position which any of us would want, but perhaps a little reassurance would be of some assistance.
I should like to say a few words about the 110-day rule. This is an important principle of Scottish law, and one of which we are rather proud. I have had some experience in that I have dealt with clients who have been in trouble in England and who have found themselves on remand in custody awaiting trial literally for periods of up to six or seven months. I can think of one girl whom I dealt with on her return to Scotland who spent about six months in prison awaiting trial on charges of mugging, only to be found not guilty. That is an astonishing contrast to what happens in Scotland, and it is something that we would be extremely reluctant to abandon, even under the pressure of an industrial dispute of this kind.
I accept that the Secretary of State and the court's administration have two unpleasant alternatives if the strike continues. First, they may have to release people who would not normally be granted bail—presumably for good 303 reasons; here we must trust our courts—whch would be highly alarming to the general public. I assume that anyone who is subject to the 110-day rule and whom it is thought could not be released prior to trial is either suspected of being in very serious trouble or has a record which would make his release unsafe. It would be extremely dangerous if my right hon. Friend were to issue a blanket statement that such people should be released after the 110-day rule expires.
Secondly, we are forced to the reluctant conclusion, as has the Secretary of State—and reluctantly I support him—that we must declare the period of the industrial dispute as dies non and the 110-day rule again applies only when the courts are back in operation.
That is not a satisfactory solution to this problem. This is a very serious issue of civil liberties, and I am sure that the Government will be the first to accept that. Having stated that there is a problem, we can criticise Ministers only if we come up with a more satisfactory solution. Given that for various unfortunate reasons a settlement may be delayed, I reluctantly accept that there is no alternative to the one that my right hon. Friend has announced.
I imagine that the number of people who will be involved is very small. Perhaps the Lord Advocate can give us some figures about the number of people who are at present awaiting trial and in respect of whom the 110-day rule has been operating. It would be interesting to know what size that group is.
The hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire pressed the Secretary of State on how long this should be allowed to run. Clearly, in a sense, it is not satisfactory to say that the gap will be for as long as the industrial dispute lasts. That begs every possible question. It would be an extremely alarming situation if it were to go on month after month. That is something which the Government would have to re-examine if that turned out to be the situation. I very much hope that long before we reach that stage we shall have found a solution to the problem.
On the civil side, the Secretary of State is absolutely right to legislate in order to correct the anomaly which might arise when the triennium runs out and good claims and reparation actions fall on those 304 grounds alone. It is not just trade unions' claims, but the mass of claims for damages arising in reparation actions. It would be monstrous if they were to fall on this technicality and the professional advisers had no way to redress the balance because raising actions in the courts was a physical impossiblity.
It is an interesting corrective to the widely held view on the Conservative Benches that restrospective legislation is wicked by definition. I. too, have reservations about restrospective legislation. It should not happen as a matter of course, or be accepted practice, but special circumstances require special steps. It is a form of retrospective legislation that none of us will like, but it is right and just and must be supported. I hope that it will be supported by both sides of the House.
I could continue with a long catalogue. There is a moratorium on the recovery of debts, which is not satisfactory. Quite clearly, divorces cannot go through. Weddings have been arranged on the basis that undefended proof dates had been set, and considerable cost, inconvenience and genuine distress have been caused because the arrangements have had to be unscrambled. I could go on listing the unpleasant consequences of the industrial action, and reach the sad conclusion that the interim action that can be taken is limited. As long as the dispute continues, we shall have the disruption and chaos that inevitably follow.
It is a truism, but perhaps worth saying, that that is the purpose of a strike. At the end of the day there is no point in complaining that strikes have unpleasant consequences. They are intended to impose pressures. Whether blue collar or impeccably white collar workers, at the end of the day they are trying to cause inconvenience, and in this case they have succeeded. The only solution is to persuade them to return to work in advance of a settlement, or offer a settlement that will get them back to work. There is no other way. We may to some extent be able to minimise the difficulties, but we have to live with them, and they will be unpleasant and cause much unhappiness.
I do not take the cataclysmic view of the dispute of the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire. He exhibits a fine turn of phrase and an almost melodramatic turn of mind. There 305 are many other strikes with unpleasant consequences. I was in Edinburgh not long ago, and it was not pleasant to have to boil the drinking water. There has been disruption in hospitals and closure of schools. These are unpleasant consequences of strikes under any Government.
We must consider how to reach a settlement. At one time the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire said that the sheriff clerks were paragons of virtue, men of dedication and vocation serving the goddess of justice. Apparently overnight they have been turned into a mob with mob rule, will and decision. Neither extreme is justified. Sheriff clerks are human beings, and some one likes and some one does not. Their levels of idealism vary, like those of Members of Parliament or any other group of workers. They are entitled to strike. There are circumstances when they, like other groups of workers, can consider industrial action but I am not satisfied that the present situation or the stage of the negotiations justifies the withdrawal of labour.
The remarks of the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire on the English and Scottish court systems exhibited a Scottish paranoia that was politically unwise and unjustified. He has preached to us in high tones about the benefits of union and the sins of a too exclusive Scottish view of life. He should have avoided such a crass and unjustified over-simplification.
§ Mr. Fairbairn
Does not the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) think that a person who is a clerk of course, and therefore a servant of justice has a duty to justice that overrides all personal considerations?
§ Mr. Dewar
It is not that absolute, but there should be a reluctance to take industrial reaction If there were an absolute ban, there should be rules to make that clear. Strikes should be a weapon of last resort in all fields, particularly in this. My complaint about the action of the SCPS and the CPSA is that I do not believe, perhaps through misunderstanding and lack of information, that we had reached the stage that striking was the 306 only weapon left and without it no progress could be made.
The date for a pay settlement was 1 April. The Pay Research Unit had made recommendations that were open to negotiation. Negotiations have been proceeding behind the scenes and should be allowed to proceed. The unions should not have considered further action until it was quite clear that what was being offered was totally unacceptable and no improvement could be found by negotiation. We had not reached that situation.
I say to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) that while it is true that senior principals earn £9,000 or £10,000 a year, they are a tiny group among those employed in that service. A large number are of the clerical officer grade and earn £1,698 to £3,280 a year. It is hardly a living wage at the bottom of the scale. When negotiations get under way and we reach a settlement of the dispute, I hope that there will be some weighting towards the bottom of the scale. That may not be popular with everyone in the unions. In this department, and in other parts of the Civil Service, the lower end is particularly badly treated. Although it is a sensitive subject closing of differentials to benefit the lower paid is much needed.
I accept from the Secretary of State that the negotiations are in the context that the phasing will be completed by 1 April 1980. That is an extremely short period. I assume that that means that it is possible to get not only an immediate payment on 1 April but an interim payment between then and 1 April 1980. It is open to negotiation. That period seems reasonable, given the pressures on pay policy of public service pay awards, where the Government cannot duck because they are in the front line as an employer. We have until 1 April, and we have the promise of restricted phasing and the suggestion that back-dating to 1 April is possible. As one who would always defend the right to withhold labour even in the courts, I believe that in those circumstances the strike is unfortunate.
I hope that the unions will reconsider the position. If they cannot go back to work immediately, I hope that we can get the kind of settlement before 1 April to which the Secretary of 307 State referred. Given the circumstances, it would be unfortunate to prejudice the administration of justice and hopelessly choke and clog the courts. The strike may well be premature and unnecessary. I say, not in any hostile spirit, that there is a real need for a drastic re-look at the pay scales at the lower end, but I hope that the unions will be flexible and consider whether it would not be in the best interests of the country as a whole if they returned to work.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Malcolm Rifkind (Edinburgh, Pentlands)
Like the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), I take part in this debate as a member of the legal profession, but my primary concern about the problem is as a member of the public who has been both depressed and angered by the shambles in our courts in Scotland during the last few weeks.
It has been pointed out that for the first time in the history of the High Court and the Court of Session these courts are no longer available to the public. It is an ironic and fitting comment on the present state of industrial relations that courts of justice, which were able to remain open during the First World War, the Second World War and every other emergency in this century and the last, should have closed their doors now because of a pay dispute. That is a fitting comment on the seriousness of the situation and the absurdity of the scale of action that has been taken to deal with a pay dispute, however justifiable the grievance in that dispute might be.
Hon. Members have already spoken about the serious consequences for a large number of people in Scotland that have flowed from the closure of the courts. While I appreciate the vast number of people who will be inconvenienced, I wonder how many of these same people have themselves taken part in other industrial disputes that have caused similar inconvenience to their fellow citizens. This is the curse of the present situation. Individual members of the public condemn without qualification those whose industrial action inconveniences them, but seem willing themselves to take similar action when it affects other people.
I suspect that some of those in the sheriff clerk's office and others taking 308 part in the picketing outside the House of Commons were the first to complain when the gritting supervisors in Edinburgh withdrew their labour over Christmas, thereby bringing the city to a halt. It is clear evidence of the anarchy that has crept into our system of industrial relations that so many sections of the community, without any serious consideration of the consequences, are prepared to inconvenience the public as a whole because of a pay dispute with the Government or their employer.
The Secretary of State pointed to another serious danger flowing from the emergency legislation that he seeks to introduce. I welcome that emergency legislation and am only sorry that it was not introduced a week ago. However, some of those who have been refused bail and who would otherwise have to be released under the 110-day rule will, undoubtedly, be found not guilty. As a result of the emergency legislation they may be kept in prison for weeks or even months for reasons that are in no way related to their offence but because of the industrial action being taken by officials of the courts. I hope that those officials realise that it is their responsibility, and theirs alone, that people, some of whom will be found to be innocent eventually, will be kept in prison indefinitely. That is very serious.
One must emphasise that in this form of industrial dispute the fact that the public as a whole are suffering is not a by-product of the dispute. The public are the target of the industrial action. When we first passed strike legislation in this House many years ago the right to strike, to take action and to picket was seen as a means of ensuring that employees could make life difficult for their employers in order to bring pressure upon them. If, as a result, the public were inconvenienced that was an unfortunate, accidental by-product of the action.
That is not the position that we are facing now. Those civil servants who have withdrawn their labour did not do so in order to inconvenience the Government. They did so in order to inconvenience the public and thereby bring pressure on the Government. It was a deliberate and preconceived intention of the action that life should be made as miserable as possible for the community 309 as a whole in order not that the people who were suffering should make recompense but that the Government would be forced to take action. This is a totally different form of industrial action from that envisaged when industrial legislation was first approved by Parliament. This has totally changed the nature of industrial disputes and it is why Parliament must act in a comprehensive and radical manner.
Reference has been made to the grievances of the civil servants taking part in the action. I do not dispute that some of them may have justifiable grievances. The hon. Member for Garscadden pointed out that clerical assistants receive a very low scale of remuneration, but they are not the only people taking industrial action. Those involved in the strike include the range from the deputy principal clerk of session and justiciary, whose salary ranges from £6,700 to £8,700, to sheriff clerks whose salaries range from £4,000 to £10,000. These are people who have withdrawn their labour because of an industrial dispute, irrespective of the consequences to the public as a whole.
I have far more time for the low-paid nurses who, despite a much more substantial grievance, have, by an overwhelming majority, refused to take industrial action, harm the community and bring intolerable pressure on the public because that would be contrary to the principles of their profession. I have more time for people like the nurses, who have decided not to use the community as a target for their action or to use the public as pawns in their dispute, than for civil servants, sheriff clerks and legal officials who, whatever the merits of their grievance, are prepared to take action of this kind.
It was reported in the press that the Lord Justice-General, Lord Emslie, referring to the action being taken, described it asan act of grave irresponsibility ".When he made that statement the joint strike committee of the unions involved replied in the following terms:It would indeed be an act of grave irresponsibility if we were to submit to the Government's grossly unjust treatment of Civil Service pay.No one is asking them to do that. That is a matter between them and the Gov- 310 ernment in the pursuance of their negotiations. The nature of their irresponsibility is not their refusal to accept the pay proposals put by the Government but the form of industrial action that they are prepared to take to pursue their objective.
I spoke to one of the pickets yesterday, and he was quite open about the unions' objectives. He said that they hoped that by making the operation of the courts in Scotland impossible they would force the Government to act. That was an interesting admission because it was an admission that their objective was to win their case, not on its merits, but by making life miserable for the community. If we find in this and other cases, that the grievances are to be resolved, not on their merits, on the arguments, or on the question of an independent assessment, but on the capacity of that minority to disrupt the life of the community, those who describe that situation as one approaching anarchy are quite justified.
I do not believe that the Government can shirk their responsibility, not only for the seriousness of the situation but for the way in which it has been allowed to develop. The Government's major failing was not to identify from the beginning that action such as this is not simply an industrial dispute. I sometimes wonder whether the very phrase"industrial action"is not grossly irrelevant to this matter. The sort of situation with which we are faced is not an industrial dispute, or a conflict between employer and employees, but a political action. By that I do not mean party political or political in the sense of seeking a purely political objective. I mean that it was political action because it was action deemed and directed at the very organs of the State and seeking to disrupt the very workings of Government in order to pursue an economic objective. That is political action, and the Government should have recognised it from the beginning. They should have condemned it in the most exclusive terms.
All along, the Government's attitude appears to have been that they cannot treat this dispute any differently from any normal industrial dispute. They seem to feel that they must not take any action to prevent the strike from succeeding because that would simply antagonise people and lead to a worsening of the situation. That is a wrong approach 311 which has simply encouraged the people taking such action to believe that they have only to hold out long enough and they will undoubtedly succeed.
There is a second point on which I condemn the Government. At long last, we have today had the announcement from the Secretary of State that there is to be emergency legislation. That is a curious description when the Bill is to be introduced several weeks after the start of the emergency. When the Secretary of State was pressed by hon. Members to introduce emergency legislation he suggested that it was not necessary, that he would keep an eye on matters and that, as they developed, he would see whether it was required.
I notice that the Secretary of State is indicating that he did not say that. Let me remind him of what he said when he was pressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton):I am keeping the whole situation under continuing review to see what further measures, including emergency legislation, may be required ".—[Official Report, 5 March 1979; Vol. 963, c. 902.]Many of the measures to be included in the emergency legislation not only should have been introduced the moment the emergency began but would have been capable of being introduced at that time and would have helped to deal with the problem to some extent. For example, there is a sensible proposal that many court procedures do not require court officials—the judge need not be assisted and can act on his own. There is no reason why that measure could not have been introduced from the start. Another sensible proposal is that photocopies rather than originals of documents may be used in court. If the Government had been prepared to take action, that is another matter which could have been introduced at the start of the dispute. I believe that the delay to which the Government have acquiesced has been harmful and dangerous.
At the time of the firemen's strike the Government made clear that the strike would gravely endanger the community and that they were prepared to take all possible action—including bringing in troops—to deal with the effects of it. On this occasion the Government do not appear to have taken any such measures. 312 The Secretary of State challenged me to offer suggestions on how to mitigate the effects of the strike. A sheriff suggested a proposal to me which I believe to be possible. A number of law firms have made clear that if they were asked for one of their partners to take over, on a temporary basis, the activities of certain of the sheriff clerks in the courts, legal actions could proceed in ways that are not available at the moment. I do not say that it would work, or that it would deal with other than a minority of cases before the courts, but the Government do not appear to have given any thought to such proposals.
Strike breaking is not improper in this dispute. The public are suffering grave inconvenience as a result of the strike. Therefore, any activity, including the replacement of sheriff clerks with anyone capable and willing to do that work, should be given the fullest consideration.
Picketing has been taking place outside a number of Scottish courts in the past few weeks. I do not know whether picketing a court could be classed as interference with the course of justice, but if it is not an offence it should certainly become one. Although the actions of the courts are severely limited, certain procedures are continuing—the hearing of bail appeals, custody matters and various other procedures. To allow picketing of a court of justice in an attempt to persuade officials not to enter that court should be a criminal offence which should be prevented by the law of the land. I hope that the emergency legislation will make specific provision in that direction. If it does, it will have the support of all those who are seriously interested in ensuring that the administration of justice is not unlawfully impeded.
I believe that the time has come for those involved in the administration of the courts to become subject to the restrictions placed on the Army and the police. I do not believe that they should have the right to withdraw their labour and pursue an industrial dispute. Withdrawing the right to strike from any section of the community is a serious matter. However, when that section of the community has clearly demonstrated that it is using that right not simply to cause inconvenience to the employers 313 but to cause maximum hardship to the rest of the community, I believe that the community is entitled to consider the prevention of such behaviour in future.
Court officials are not the only people in that position. In recent years the whole nature of industrial disputes has changed. Many groups are prepared to cause maximum hardship to the community, and many of us who would never have believed that we would seriously support a curtailment of the legal right to strike are obliged to reconsider our views. The alternative appears to be continued escalation of disputes over the years to come.
I understand that the civil servants, particularly court officials, feel that they can continue their action for up to three months because they are receiving full strike pay. If that happens, we are talking about not only inconvenience but a total collapse of the courts of justice in Scotland. If it is to be prevented only by giving in to pay on their merits but in order to avoid disruption of this kind—the remedy is worse than the disease. That is the dilemma facing the Government. Unless they reconcile themselves to difficult and bitter decisions, we are in for a serious future that will bear no relation even to the present hardships.
§ 5.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)
I should like to refer to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) on the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn). My hon. Friend taxed the hon. and learned Member with his remarks about Scottish paranoia. I was surprised to hear the remarks of the hon. and learned Gentleman. An odd lack of confidence has been evident among hon. Members in the past two or three months about the capacity of the House to debate Scottish affairs. This debate, if it does nothing else, knocks on the head the curious idea put around in Scotland that we usually debate Scottish education and Scottish health at 3 a.m. for about 40 minutes. This is a three-hour debate, on a specifically Scottish issue, at a prime time in the afternoon. We are talking about resolving a Scottish dispute which 314 has been going on for less than three weeks.
§ Mr. Fairbairn
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that when we asked for a debate the Lord President refused one. The Opposition have provided time for a debate. The hon. Gentleman should note that the Lord President tried to force an Assembly upon us because there was no time for debates here.
§ Mr. Cook
That was not my point. I am saying that the House of Commons is now debating a specifically Scottish matter.
I am concerned at the growing tendency of the House to wish to debate industrial disputes. It is a regrettable trait, irrespective of whether they are Scottish or United Kingdom disputes. After all, the Chamber itself is based on conflict and division—the way that we sit represents that conflict and division. It is improbable that, in that context, the kind of division contained within an industrial dispute is likely to be resolved by us working in a party political forum.
A buttress for that observation was provided by the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire. No hon. Member could be under the illusion that that speech will make it easier to achieve a settlement of the dispute. The hon. and learned Member referred to those who are in dispute as primitive, childish, atavistic and succumbing to mob rule. The hon. and learned Gentleman is entitled to his point of view. It is a free country, and nobody denies him his right to put his interpretation on events, but it is extremely improbable that that sort of language is likely to persuade the strikers that they are at fault and that they should resume normal working. He has gone about it in precisely the way to make that less likely.
The hon. and learned Member read extracts from the letter of my constituent, Mr. Bonner. He did Mr. Bonner a considerable disservice in burying under the exegesis of the commentary which he put upon that letter the essential point of it, which was to provide means by which the triennial rule—the three-year ban—would be provided for and that cases could be provided for, even though the three-year rule was coming up. That 315 was the point of the letter, although it was dressed up in denunciatory language, which is the nature of industrial disputes and negotiations.
There is only one way to get the courts back to normal working, and that is by achieving a resolution of the dispute. The Government face a difficult problem that has not been touched on so far in the debate. It arises from the analogues being produced by the current Pay Research Unit studies. It appears from the results of those analogues that the highest paid have fallen furthest behind and that the lowest paid require the smallest increases in order to achieve comparability with those in the private sector.
That is the real problem for the Government. They are facing a campaign, with which I have great sympathy, to provide something for the low-paid because they are low paid and, simultaneously, a demand to restore comparability for those who are much higher paid. There is, therefore, a separate issue that the Government will have to look at outside the context of the present dispute, namely, whether the range of salaries is appropriate.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) quoted some figures. I am not sure that they are the same as the figures that I have, which show that executive officers in the High Court start at £2,500 a year and that the highest paid employee receives £10,800. That is a remarkable range of salaries within what is essentially a management function. I doubt whether that sort of salary range could easily be found on the management side of any factory or industry.
It is open to question whether we should not be trying to compress some of that differential, and particularly whether we should not be looking at the large number of increments in each grade. It is difficult to understand why one man should be paid more than another because he happens to have been in the job for several years longer. It is time that we looked at that problem to see whether we can get compression within grades, if not between them.
§ Mr. George Younger (Ayr)
I cannot quite see where the hon. Gentleman is trying to lead us. He started by saying 316 that he thought it was unfortunate that we should have to discuss these matters on the Floor of the House, but he is now going into matters with which the comparability study is designed to deal. Which view does he take?
§ Mr. Cook
The hon. Gentleman will recollect that his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire pointed out that the debate had been arranged by the Opposition. I regret that we are debating the subject and that the Opposition have used a Supply Day for that purpose. However, when they have made that decision, it is a bit rich for the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) to suggest that those of us who believe that they should not have chosen this topic should stay away from the Chamber and sit in the Tea Room and watch the proceedings on the internal television sets. I have a right and a duty to speak on behalf of my constituents and those in the High Court, which is in my constituency. However, I take on board what the hon. Member for Ayr said.
We do not expect in this debate to settle the dispute, but I wish to put to the Government two points which I hope they will bear in mind when they meet the other side on Friday. I raised the question of back-dating during the Secretary of State's speech. If I caught him right, he made a fairly categoric statement that there was nothing to prevent back-dating and that he would expect it in the event of a settlement not being concluded by 1 April. It would be immensely valuable if the Government could make that undertaking plain at the next negotiating session. There may have been a misunderstanding, but those in dispute believe that the 1975 changes introduced by the Government prevent back-dating or, at least, leave the decision on backdating to the Government. It would be most valuable if an undertaking could be given on that aspect.
The other aspect that the Government will have to consider is that it is all very well for them to say that they will honour the PRU findings and that they will be staged from 1 April, but they also have to give some indication—by Friday, I submit—about the way in which increases are to be staged. We cannot expect the staff side to settle on that basis until it has some idea of when the percentage 317 increases are to be paid and how they are to be staged.
Having said that about the particular dispute, and taking the hint dropped by the hon. Member for Ayr, I should like to move to the wider issues. The House was created to debate and resolve the wider issues, and it is to them that we should address ourselves.
I regret that we have constantly been debating dispute after dispute in the past two or three months on a fire brigade basis of dashing from one dispute to the next. It is time that we, as a political entity, addressed ourselves to the central problem of how to achieve a workable incomes policy that is acceptable to the nation at large.
I have to say that I am regarded as something of a reactionary among my close colleagues in the Labour Party because I am prepared to countenance an incomes policy. It is a little misleading to suggest that recent disputes in the public sector have been the result of incomes policy. They have not. They have been the result of the evasion of incomes policy in the private sector. There cannot be one hon. Member who is not aware of what I mean. Any hon. Member who goes round the factories and industries in his constituency will know how the private sector has managed to evade the guidelines and norms of the past two years.
That was brought home to me particularly vividly at a large industrial concern in my constituency. I asked the personnel manager a year ago if that year's pay settlement would be 10 per cent. With a twinkle in his eye, he said that it would look like 10 per cent. That is exactly what happened. There were many settlements in the private sector which looked as though they were within the guidelines but which actually provided increases well in excess of them. One of the suspicions of the Civil Service staff side is that the PRU was suspended precisely because it would provide hard evidence that the pay guidelines were being evaded and circumvented in the private sector.
We have talked much humbug, inside and outside the House, about the virtues of self-financing productivity agreements not being inflationary, but such agreements are inflationary in the 318 longer run because we have to provide comparability for those who are not capable of negotiating a self-financing productivity deal. There is no way that senior officers of the High Court could negotiate such an agreement. There is no way that the nurses could do so. If we are to let some groups get through the guidelines on the basis of self-financing productivity agreements, we have a duty to ensure that comparability is maintained for those directly employed by the Government and who cannot negotiate similar agreements.
I recognise that there is no majority in the House for a central policy on incomes. One reason is that the Opposition are strongly committed against such a policy. In addition, there is little prospect at this stage in the life of this Parliament of getting such an agreement. However, in the long run, we shall avoid the process of dispute after dispute only if we get such a central policy. In the short run, we shall get a resolution of this and other disputes in the public sector only if we recognise that the private sector has got round the policies of the past two years and accept the consequence of that, which is that we must honour the relativities and comparabilities of public sector workers.
§ 5.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Hector Monro (Dumfries)
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) made a wide-ranging speech. I agree with him that we must find a way of resolving the dispute, but I believe that he was wrong in making a blanket criticism of the Opposition for raising the subject. If Scottish Members cannot raise a problem of acute importance to Scotland on the Floor of the House, our Parliament is not the force that we all wish it to be. I am glad that the Secretary of State intends to introduce an emergency Bill later this week. He has been pushed into action at long last, and that is one indication of the value of this debate arranged by the Opposition.
Whatever the Secretary of State and the Lord Advocate have been doing over the past few weeks, they have given the impresison of great complacency in relation to this most important issue. They have given the impression of a great lack of foresight of the inevitable. They have taken little action and have shown no 319 resolve to find a solution to this industrial action. Even today we assume, apparently, that this action may be over in a week or two, but it might take months. I hope that the Secretary of State is working hard on contingency plans if that turns out, unfortunately, to be the truth. So far the Government have not backed the continuing excellent work of the police force by ensuring that the courts are open and that justice is being administered, and seen to be administered, for the general public. The law is being ridiculed.
We are well aware of the reasons for the dispute, even though we cannot accept those reasons. It is intolerable that any union should attack justice in Scotland. The basis of the disagreement seems to be founded on the procedures for determining Civil Service pay which were apparently agreed in 1974 and revised in 1977. We have been sent the details in a letter from the union. The Government refutes them, as the Secretary of State made plain this afternoon. The case for the Government was set out in a letter dated 28 February from the Minister of State, Civil Service Department. Both letters seem to be perfectly clear. It is up to the Government to recognise the misunderstanding. It seems that there is a major misunderstanding. It is the Government's duty to resolve it. This is a constitutional issue that has never previously arisen. No one condones a strike which so affects the public. I fear that many of those on strike are reluctantly taking part in it. They are only fulfilling the orders of their union as a last resort. It is sad to see responsible people put in that position.
It is all very well for the Secretary of State for Employment to visit North-East England at the weekend and highlight the success of the"concordat ", when justice is not seen to be working in Scotland. The Government must speed up the negotiations.
Let us look at the position in the courts. Many hon. Members have spoken of the problem. The High Court, the Court of Session and many sheriff courts are closed. Some, such as those in Dumfries, are proceeding under great difficulty and only as a result of the exceptional work by the sheriff, the sheriff clerk and the procurator fiscal.
320 The Minister said that he would bring forward a Bill this week and was anxious to hear from hon. Members about matters that he might include in it. Many share this doubt. There is uncertainty about the Act of Adjournal and Act of Sederunt. Does the Act of Sederunt overcome the three-year civil rule? I hope that that will be made clear in the Bill. Does the Act of Adjournal operate if cases are not called on a specific date? If the cases are not called, are they finished? I think that the Minister indicated that that would not be so. However, over the weekend there was doubt about this, and also about motoring offences. When licences have been forwarded to the court, they cannot be returned because the clerks have not been operating. Is the licence temporarily invalid if a date is fixed and the case is not taken on that date, when the licence has obviously not been returned? People are now asking about those factors.
All this is causing enormous inconvenience, expense and damage to the reputation of the courts of justice. For instance, the High Court was sitting in Dumfries in the week that the strike commenced. There were three cases. There were more than 100 witnesses. Only one case was called. The witnesses in the other cases were sent home, at enormous expense. Many had to travel over 100 miles. What did those witnesses think of the state of justice after all their efforts to attend and help the courts?
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) said that there was no trial by jury. The Lord Advocate might clear up the point whether any trials are taking place anywhere at present. The sheriff clerk—I refer to Dumfries, where he has done excellent work—cannot man the court alone. Cases, if held, could be blacked. This state of affairs must surely be unacceptable to the Government.
Who decides which cases will be heard? Who decides which cases will be blacked and which withdrawn? It is most unfair that some cases may be heard and others may never come to court.
The Minister rightly highlighted the issue of the mounting backlog. I am told that in Dumfries there are 316 complaints in respect of which no dates have been fixed; 100 were fixed for 4 April, 71 for 6 April, and 52 for 11 April. Over 539 321 cases are outstanding at present, plus six jury trials. It will take years to catch up, when the situation is developing as fast as it is and getting blacker and blacker each day that the strike continues. How can the Government allow justice to be administered in such a hopeless and haphazard way?
I touch briefly, as the matter is sub judice, on the important issues relating to cases of terrorism. Obviously the longer these cases are withheld from the courts the greater the strain on the prison service which, naturally, has to treat those who are on remand with extreme security. I hope that this strain is not prolonged in a service that is already pushed to its limits and that the Lord Advocate will give some indication of when these cases will come to court.
Again, there is the issue of football hooligans. Some of these cases are held in district courts and others are held in sheriff courts. These cases deserve speedy justice, especially those of hooliganism and vandalism. The memories of witnesses and of those who are accused fade rapidly. Many people, including myself, believe that maximum sentences provide the only way to prevent the continuing intolerable behaviour of these hooligans. I hope that the Lord Advocate will indicate that these cases will be heard as speedily as possible, especially as we are coming to a period of exciting and important matches in the next few months, when we are always liable to have more hooliganism than at other times in the season.
The Government must accept that the courts are slowing down and are overwhelmed. The future holds disastrous consequences if speedy action is not taken within days. We shall all wish the Bill well and help its progress through the House. It is important that the Government are seen to be in control. Today and over the past few weeks that has manifestly not been seen to be the case.
§ 5.58 p.m.
§ Mr. John Ovenden (Gravesend)
It is with trepidation that any English Member of Parliament ventures into a debate such as this. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) that this is simply a Scottish issue. It has wider implications, 322 in the light of the dispute in the Civil Service. I declare my interest as an adviser to the Society of Civil and Public Servants, which is one of the unions involved. That interest is known. It is declared in the register of interests in the proper fashion. I would take the same line on any public sector dispute, irrespective of my interest.
This has been a strange debate. I listened with great interest to Opposition speakers, especially the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn), to try to discover the Opposition's line of thinking on this matter. All members of the Opposition who have spoken seem to be walking a tightrope. Every so often they tend towards verging on condemning the trade unions. They then step back to attack the Government. I am not sure what is their line.
I am also not sure of the thinking of the Leader of the Opposition on this dispute. In her own inimitable, simplistic fashion, addressing the Prime Minister, she said:Is he aware that we join him, agreement or no agreement, in condemning a strike that takes place before a current agreement has run out and while negotiations are still in progress? "—[Official Report, 22 February 1979; Vol. 963, c. 623.]I regard the fact that we have not had quite that degree of condemnation today from Conservative Members as a step in the right direction. They are coming to appreciate that these disputes are not quite as simple as their leaders often try to pretend.
There is no argument in this Chamber, I am sure, about the seriousness of the industrial dispute facing the Scottish courts. Instead of bemoaning the problems and talking of emergency legislation, we ought to be addressing ourselves much more to the root cause of the problems. We ought to be appreciating the urgency of solving the problems involved in the Civil Service dispute. If we could get to grips with those problems we would not have the disruption in the courts and we would not be dealing with this issue of emergency legislation.
Both unions involved in the dispute have tried to act generally in a responsible fashion. They have taken extraordinary measures to protect the poor, the sick and the elderly from the effects 323 of the dispute and to make sure that the disadvantaged sections of the community receive the benefits to which they are entitled and do not suffer. I hope that my right hon. Friend will pay tribute to them for the measures that they have taken in that respect.
In the Court of Session, the unions have agreed to some action which will ensure that claims for damages are not time barred. They have moved some way in that direction to try to help out in a very difficult situation. But there is a limit to the exceptions which can be made in any industrial dispute. There is a limit to the areas which can be exempted from any industrial action if that action is to have any effect at all and if the people involved are to make their point and express their feelings about the way they are treated.
I am sure that if the Civil Service dispute was having no effect at all we should not be here today debating it and we should not have had the meetings this morning between the trade unions and my right hon. Friend. It is the fact that the strike is biting that makes people sit up and take notice. It is a pity that we have to come to that, but that is the way in which things often work. Industrial disputes have to have some effect if they are to be noticed at all.
Conservative Members have said that it is permissible to hit at the Government but not at the community. That is the most pious of platitudes. How can one do it? Government exists to serve the community. The services which the Govment provide are for the benefit of the community. How can one disrupt the Government's activities, therefore, without damaging somebody, or without some people not getting the payments to which they are entitled, or not getting the refunds of money to which they are entitled, or not getting the treatment in the courts to which they are entitled?
As soon as one starts to hit at the Government, one hits at the community which the Government serve. Unfortunately, there is no way in which that can be avoided. Civil servants are justifiably angry, and they are trying to find a way in which to express their anger. They are angry over the shabby way in which they have been treated on their pay claim. They are equally angry over 324 the ill-founded abuse to which they have been subjected, both inside and outside this House, and over the distortion of facts which has taken place in this dispute.
It has been asserted in this House by the Prime Minister and others that the Civil Service dispute is in breach of agreements. The reverse is the truth. We are faced here with industrial action which is in defence of agreements, in defence of the pay research system accepted by Governments and trade unions, and in defence of the system of comparability which the Government themselves now regard as central to the solution of industrial problems in the public sector.
If we are to have any chance at all of getting public sector unions outside the Civil Service to have faith in the system of comparability and to let their claims be dealt with in that fashion, we must not allow that system to be undermined in the Civil Service by the Government not living up to their obligations. I hope that the Government realise the seriousness of the situation, not just in the Civil Service, but in the public sector as a whole.
The Pay Research Unit was reactivated by the Government last year, but the Government have so far refused to commit themselves to a settlement this year on the lines of the Pay Research Unit report if that report recommends in excess of a 5 per cent. pay guideline. The Government have shown their determination over recent weeks to use the cash limit system to enforce a settlement along those guidelines or otherwise to impose cutbacks in public expenditure to counteract any excessive pay claim.
We shall not reach a solution of this problem unless the Government are prepared to be much more forthcoming than they have been so far. Perhaps we have moved a little way this afternoon. It has been said up to now that trade unions should not take industrial action before their existing settlement expires. I understood that the problem involved was that of the implementation date and that if we did not get a settlement by 1 April the operative date of any settlement would be endangered. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland seemed to be implying today that the Government are prepared to commit themselves to a 325 back-dating of the claim to 1 April, whenever a settlement is reached. He did not actually go that far. He said that he could see nothing to prevent such back-dating. He needs to go a little further than that and to give this commitment. If he sees nothing against it, I do not see why the Government should resist such a commitment. It would go some way to clear the air on that aspect of the problem.
The civil servants affected by the dispute feel that there has been a lack of urgency over the problem on the Government side. This is not a new problem that has crept up on the Government, appearing from nowhere—a problem that we did not know about months ago. It has been evident, even to the most disinterested observer, that this problem was inevitable from the day when the Government wrote 5 per cent. into their White Paper on pay, and from the day on which they reactivated the Pay Research Unit. It is evident to anyone with the merest smattering of knowledge on the subject that those two moves are not compatible. We all know that the Pay Research Unit will not arrive at a settlement below 5 per cent. We know that pay movements in the private sector have gone ahead of those in the public sector. We know that workers in the public sector have fallen behind. We know that any Pay Research Unit report is bound to recommend increases to put that right. It was inevitable that there would be conflict between the PRU recommendations and the Government's pay policy, and we could see it coming months ago, yet the Government seem to have dragged their feet in moving towards any meaningful negotiations to reconcile that problem.
On 6 February Lord Peart, the Lord Privy Seal, met the Civil Service unions. They met again, I understand, on 16 February and on 2 March, when Lord Peart authorised urgent discussions between Civil Service Department officials and the trade unions over the pay claim. Those talks have not really got off the ground, and they cannot get off the ground, for the very good reason that the CSD officials have no brief to work on because the Cabinet has reached no decision about its policy towards the implementation of pay research. The dispute cannot be resolved and there cannot be meaningful negotiations until the Gov- 326 ernment make clear the extent to which they are prepared to implement pay research findings from 1 April, until they make clear whether they are prepared to go beyond their 5 per cent. guideline, until they make clear whether they are prepared to go beyond double figures and until they make clear what proportion of the Pay Research Unit recommendations they are prepared to implement.
The Government must also be much clearer about the phasing of the remaining part of the settlement and about the implications for future pay settlements. We have been told today that the rest of the pay settlement would be phased over a period up to April next year, but the Civil Service trade unions will be due for another settlement from April next year. We shall then have another settlement to put into operation. What is to be the effect of the phasing of the 1979 settlement on the April 1980 setlement?
These are the questions which the Civil Service unions have been asking. They have become frustrated because they are unable to get the answers to those questions. Because they cannot get the answers to those questions, and because the Government will not commit themselves fully and the Cabinet will not reach a decision, there are no meaningful negotiations. The frustration of the Civil Service unions is showing itself in the actions which are being taken in the Scottish courts and in other parts of the Civil Service.
I understand today that the trade unions who met the Secretary of State offered to convene their executive councils immediately if the Government would authorise the CSD to embark on detailed negotiations. That is an offer which the Government cannot afford to refuse. If they are serious about tackling the problem, they ought to be prepared to give that commitment. The Cabinet ought, as a matter of urgency, to define exactly what is Government policy on this matter.
A great deal has been said in the debate about the conditions of civil servants. Not a great deal has been said by some Members about the worth of civil and public servants in general. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) said that in some Civil Service and public sector disputes he did not even notice when people went on strike. At 327 least that is not the case in this dispute. If it were, we should not be having this debate. Everything that has been said about the problems in Scottish courts points to the importance of the people who are involved in this industrial dispute. If we are prepared to recognise their importance by holding a debate when they are on strike, why do we not recognise their importance when they are working and pay more tribute to them then? Why do we not also recognise their importance and the value of their job by making sure that they get a fair deal in pay settlements and are not forced to take the action in which they are now involved?
Other comments have been made about the general pay level of civil servants. At least one Conservative Member implied that people should not get pay rises beyond a certain limit if they are already reasonably well paid. That is a strange idea of Tory Party pay policy. I hope that it will be expanded upon, because some of us may be prepared to go along those lines. We are talking about a settlement in the Civil Service based on fair comparisons. Those fair comparisons apply at whatever level in the Civil Service one discusses. If one accepts that there are differentials in the private sector, depending on the responsibilities that people bear and the skills they possess, that must be reflected in the Civil Service and the public sector where those differentials must also exist.
The comparisons must lead us to the conclusion that the same treatment should apply in the application of pay research to assistant secretaries, clerical officers and clerical assistants. If they are underpaid compared with their counterparts in private industry and other parts of the community, there is no way in which we can shrink from our obligations on the basis of the Pay Research Unit system which the Government and the trade unions accept.
It is not true that the vast proportion of civil servants are privileged people earning vast salaries. Some of them enjoy comfortable salaries, but I would not say that too many enjoy high salaries, certainly not compared with the extortionate salaries paid to many people in private industry for bearing far less responsibility. Of the civil servants in this country, about 300,000 in the grades rep- 328 resented by the CPSA—the clerical assistants and clerical officers—are earning less than £60 a week, which is the TUC's low pay limit. About 8,000 executive officers represented by the SCPS, earn less than the £60 limit. Those 8,000 executive officers hold responsible positions within the Civil Service and perform valuable work for the community. Some of them are graduate entrants to the Civil Service, yet 8,000 of them are paid below the TUC's £60 limit.
This matter must be put into perspective. When one talks about civil servants, one is not talking about a high paid elite, a band of permanent secretaries on five-figure salaries. One is talking about hundreds of thousands of people who do a valuable job for the community in DHSS offices, jobcentres and unemployment benefit offices. They do that job often for little more money than the people to whom they are paying out benefits. I was worried for a moment that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) might grab on to that as an argument for reducing social security benefits. In fact, it is a good argument for paying people the rate for the job and eliminating low pay.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central made a valuable point. He remarked that although this debate is about Scottish courts and their problems, it opens up a much wider field of incomes policy. One of the big problems in relation to incomes policy is what to do about low pay. That is an area to which we must address ourselves. The Government have a particular concern, because so many of the low-paid are employees of the Government and are their responsibility.
Many people working in the Civil Service are a party to the dispute that we are discussing. They look to the Government for a fair and just settlement. I hope that the Minister will be able to give some assurance about the Government's attitude to the implementation of pay research, how far they are prepared to go towards a settlement on 1 April and what their proposals are for phasing. We might then be able to get the parties back round the table for meaningful talks and solve a dispute which is causing untold suffering in the Scottish 329 courts and in many other Government Departments.
The issue cannot be solved in this House by simply bemoaning the situation. It cannot be solved by condemning the people involved, as the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire was doing when he was tottering on that side of the tightrope. It is a problem that can be resolved only by putting right people's grievances. So often the Opposition in this House spend time condemning people involved in industrial disputes and dealing with the symptoms of our industrial and economic problems instead of getting to the core of the problem and sorting out how to ensure that these people get a better deal. Until we address ourselves to that problem, we shall solve not a single industrial dispute.
§ 6.17 p.m.
§ Mr. George Thompson (Galloway)
Unlike other speakers, I have no personal interest to declare. I am not a lawyer. I have never been on strike either as a forest worker or as a teacher—or, indeed, as a Member of Parliament. I have never figured in any court proceedings. I understand that the two sheriff courts in my constituency are still functioning, although some of my constituents may be involved in the High Court or the Court of Appeal.
I should like to back what the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Ovenden) was saying and also the remarks of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) about the need for the Lord Advocate to give a clear statement on this problem of back-dating so that no one leaves the House without knowing the Government's intentions. I was puzzled by a remark of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), who seemed to be urging that people other than sheriff clerks might be called upon to function as sheriff clerks. I wonder whether this would not be a recipe for chaos. I should have thought one would require experts trained in the procedures to function as sheriff clerks. I hope I have not established too high an opinion of sheriff clerks. If the hon. Gentleman was right, it would indicate the I had perhaps had too high an opinion of them.
330 This is the only time in Scottish history that the supreme courts have been brought to a halt. It may also be the first time that it has happened to the sheriff courts, at least since the Middle Ages when certain noblemen were occasionally inclined to take the law into their own hands, notably in the old Stewartry of Kirkcudbright.
I draw the attention of the House to an editorial in The Guardian yesterday which said:In which Western European country has the machinery of justice virtually ground to a halt because of industrial action? The answer is Scotland, where the civil servants' strike has closed almost every court in the land. The fact that this has attracted so little publicity simply confirms for Scottish lawyers what they have always known: that Westminster has little interest in anything that happens north of the border.At least the Government have been dragged to the debate today to discuss the matter. We should welcome that.
I welcome the legislation that the Secretary of State proposed. I am glad that the Government have yielded to good sense, although they have been slow in doing so. There is need for more activity than they have shown. I take the view that we ought not have strikes except as a last resort when all procedures have been gone through.
The lower end of the pay scale seems to require amelioration. I am not always convinced that amelioration at the lower end of the scale should necessarily mean an increase at the higher end to maintain differentials. I do not know how we can continue to maintain substantial differentials at the top of a pay scale when we are finding difficulties in producing the wealth that is needed to pay for them.
We have the 110-day rule, the six-month rule on summary procedures and the triennium in civil damages, but there is the difficulty that our legal system does not recognise amnesties. Many of the Roman systems recognise them and prisoners are released on such occasions as coronations and visits of important personages. In Scotland we would consider that procdure to be unfair. Therefore, it would surely be unfair if people were released with no procedures taken merely to lighten the burden of the potential backlog.
I apologise to the Secretary of State if he mentioned the matter to which I 331 now turn. I had to leave the Chamber for a few minutes during the right hon. Gentleman's speech. There is a problem about the granting of legal aid certificates. I understand that certificates are not being granted at present. That means that trials are postponed and that lawyers who might be appearing for those whose trials are postponed are not even able to start preparations as they are uncertain whether legal aid will be granted.
What will happen when everybody returns to work? Obviously the strike is bound to end in time. I understand that there are about 5,000 or 6,000 persons awaiting hearings in the sheriff courts. The Lord Advocate knows from the many times that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) has raised the issue that there have been problems at the sheriff court at Glasgow through the years. There is a backlog at that court already. What will the Government do when we return to normal to expedite the clearance of the backlog? Will more sheriffs have to be appointed, or will sheriffs be asked to work longer hours? What solution will be proposed?
The present situation, however it has been arrived at, is bound to have an adverse effect upon the ordinary citizen in Scotland. It appears to the ordinary citizen that in a certain sense law and order is crumbling in our society. Therefore, we must take action to restore the respect and esteem in which the Scots legal system and the Scottish courts are properly held. I should like to know what measures the Government will take to do that.
§ 6.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Iain Sproat (Aberdeen, South)
I had intended to make a peaceful and placatory speech to surprise the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grange-mouth (Mr. Ewing) and I still intend to do so, on the central issue of the debate.
My hon. Friends and I have found it surprising that throughout much of the afternoon and evening, during a debate central to Scotland, mostly only one Scottish National Party Member has been in the Chamber. When the Secretary of State made his announcement about the emergency regulations there was no SNP Member present. For the most part there 332 has been present only the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thomson).
§ Mr. Thompson rose—
§ Mr. Sproat
I gladly give way to the one member of the SNP who has been in the Chamber most of the time.
§ Mr. Thompson
Does the hon. Gentleman accept, as Mr. Speaker has on occasion pointed out, that sometimes an hon. Member has to leave the Chamber for a necessity that I should have thought the hon. Gentleman understood? There have been several of my hon. Friends on the SNP Bench during the afternoon.
§ Mr. Sproat
I was not referring to the fact that the hon. Gentleman left the Chamber briefly. I was referring to the fact that his hon. Friends hardly entered the Chamber. It is to that that I raise objection, especially as we have just had a gruelling three weeks on the central issue whether Scottish matters are debated sufficiently in the House of Commons. I am glad that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) said that the House is giving prime time to a Scottish subject. I hope that those in the Scottish media who like to spread misstatements that Scotland never gets a fair crack of the whip in the House—for example, newspapers such as The Scotsman—will report the fact fully and fairly in tomorrow's editions.
§ Mr. Douglas Crawford (Perth and East Perthshire) rose—
§ Mr. Sproat
No, the hon. Gentleman has been in the Chamber for only the last two speeches.
I welcome the fact that the Government are now to bring forward emergency proposals. It is a pity that it has taken a debate introduced by the Conservative Party to make the Government do so. However, it would be churlish to do other than welcome the announcement of the emergency proposals. I appeal to those on strike to go back to work now that the emergenecy proposals have been laid before the House and now that they have had an assurance from the Secretary of State that any pay award will be backdated, as I understood the right hon. Gentleman, to 1 April.
I should never seek to deny that those who have taken action have the right to 333 go on strike. I do not deny that many of them may have a good case for feeling that they are inadequately paid. I agree that we are not talking about sheriff clerks earning £10,000 a year. We are talking about those who have a good case. However, I am sorry that they seem to have been caught up in the general attitude of"strike first and negotiate later ".
They have a right, which they are properly exercising, to go on strike. The community must now consider whether the damage that has been brought about by the strike is not so great that in future those who are now on strike should be part of the community that has a no-strike contract and guaranteed build in increments in their pay scales. We cannot continue to have justice in Scotland brought almost to a halt over a pay dispute, however justified it may be. That is a proposal that I hope the Government, or the next Government, will consider. I hope that they will consider making those who are now on strike part of a no-strike sector of the community.
The present action has produced two serious results. First, it has produced delays. As the Secretary of State implied, justice delayed can mean no justice. Already delays in justice in Scotland are scandalous. The present action will greatly add to the present horrifying backlog. There are people in prison who may later be found innocent. Those people are being detained in prison for far longer than would otherwise be necessary. These people are certainly getting injustice.
I hope that the clerks will consider carefully the effect of their action, which is causing delays in the process of justice and keeping innocent people in custody. Over the past few years we have seen justice and the process of law and order brought increasingly into disrepute. That is not a party issue because it has happened during both Conservative and Labour Administrations.
Justice may not be crumbling as a result of the action that is now being taken, but its authority is being diminished. The dignity of the law is being lessened by the strike. However good a case on pay those on strike may have, I hope that they will consider the long-term damage that they are doing to the law in Scotland. I earnestly beg them 334 to reconsider their position and to return to work in view of what the Secretary of State has said.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West)
I declare a specific interest as a lawyer but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) I have a much more general interest as a member of the public. While many matters have been raised today, one matter transcends all others. It is that justice in Scotland has been suspended indefinitely. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) said, justice delayed can be justice denied.
This is certainly a matter for the United Kingdom, as the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Ovenden) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) said. It is extraordinary that on the very day when Scotland was voting whether it should have its own Parliament, in the old Parliament House all work had come to a stop. That was unsatisfactory.
The British trade union movement is intimately involved in this matter. Funds in excess of £1 million have been allocated so that the clerks in Scotland can stay out for a long time—in excess of three months, and possibly up to six months. It is fair to say, although the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) is not present, that his constituent, Mr. Bonar, had the courtesy to speak to me this afternoon. As secretary of the SCPS branch of the Court of Session, he explained that if a guarantee of meaningful negotiations on the Pay Research Unit report was made the national executive councils of the CPSA and SCPS would be called to consider the request of the Secretary of State to call the action off in the Scottish courts. I recommend that the right hon. Gentleman considers that offer as a matter of urgency.
The hon. Member for Gravesend asked what is the policy of the Conservative Party. I can tell him in one sentence. Emergency measures are needed, and have been needed for some time. We are glad that the Secretary of State has promised to bring these forward. We should have preferred them earlier, because had they come then the need for retrospective legislation—which we dislike—would have been unnecessary. But we are glad 335 that he is introducing them, even at this late stage.
No hon. Member should underestimate the importance of what is happening. The Secretary of State is to introduce the legal equivalent of martial law. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) said, this is a serious matter. Every weekday throughout Scotland a large number of criminal trials come up for disposal. If summary criminal trials are not brought within six months they fall and cannot be revived. That means that the course of justice in Scotland is being interfered with. This strike has been going on for two weeks, which means that summary criminal trials, running into hundreds, have been lost. They have not been postponed, they have been lost altogether. Virtually no criminal jury trials have taken place anywhere in Scotland recently.
§ Mr. Dewar
The hon. Gentleman said that he would say in a sentence what Conservative policy was. It appears that there should be emergency legislation. I should like an answer, in a sentence, to two matters. First, is the hon. Gentleman in favour of the Pay Research Unit settlement being implemented immediately without any phasing, as the unions want? Secondly, is he, like the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) saying that there should be a ban on striking in the public sector? Or does he agree with the surprisingly liberal view of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat), who would allow people to strike in this sector?
§ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton
I start from an entirely different premise from that of the hon. Member. My premise is that the rule of law must be enforced, whatever the circumstances. I cannot satisfy the hon. Gentleman on his two questions, but I can satisfy him about what he said in his speech about the congestion in the Glasgow sheriff court. That congestion is so bad that something must be done about it. Even before this industrial dispute took place the procurators fiscal were working under intense pressure. Accused persons were facing up to five and a half months before their summary cases were brought to trial. Others were waiting for up to a year for 336 sheriff and jury trials because of the congestion.
The backlog of these cases will build up to an intolerable extent. Only last week the assistant procurator fiscal in Glasgow revealed that one out of five trials in the Glasgow sheriff court will not proceed even when the strike is over. The hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson) said that that would be unsatisfactory. It is estimated that the number of trials that will never come to court in the Glasgow sheriff court has reached the astonishing figure of 150.
Mr. Ross Harper, the senior partner of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), and former president of the Glasgow Bar Association, said:Petty crooks and thugs arrested by the Police are daily walking free from Scotland's strike paralysed Courts and are laughing at the Law.That brings the law into serious contempt, and I ask the Lord Advocate to specify how many breaches of the peace will not be proceeded with. The secretary of the Police Federation in Scotland, Sergeant Joe Black, said:It is a piece of nonsense that people can escape from the Law because of action taken by Courts staff.We shall look carefully at the terms of the emergency legislation to see whether something can be done about that. But the matter does not stop there. Cases affecting children are sometimes referred to the sheriff court for a ruling on the facts when there is a dispute. Many of these cases will become time-logged and be lost. This is unsatisfactory for social workers. There is anxiety not only that those charged with crimes may never appear in court but that some persons may be imprisoned indefinitely without trial.
We have no habeas corpus provision in Scotland. Instead, we have the 110-days rule in serious cases. That means that the trial must be completed within 110 days of the committal of an accused person for trial, or he or she must be released. We are very proud of this safeguarding of individual freedom, but under the Act of Adjournal, which deals with procedure, this rule can be extended by petition on cause shown. This has been done already in some 40 cases. The Secretary of State is absolutely right to bring 337 in emergency legislation, since it would be wrong to expect judges to keep people in prison on a semi-permanent basis as a mere procedural matter. The rights and freedoms of the individual are matters which must be dealt with by this Parliament. If those recently charged under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provision) Acts, and those whose cases were to be called last week in the Glasgow High Court, are to be detained indefinitely without trial, that should be for the House to decide.
There is another clear example of the inescapable duty of the Government to act. I have given a number of examples. It is that no person who is charged with a crime and who is convicted in a Scottish court can go to prison until the clerk has signed an extract for the prison governor. No prison will take a prisoner until the clerk has done that. Clearly, under the law this must be changed. All these factors indicate the need for emergency legislation. In civil cases many actions for damages become time-barred if they are not raised within three years. I am glad to say that the Secretary of State has said that he will deal with this.
There are many other remedies which have been denied. No divorce cases are being heard, and no divorce petitions are being served. The payment of legal aid fees has stopped because the Scottish Office computer is not working. Companies against which arrestments and inhibitions have been laid have no means of recalling them. Inhibitions prevent proper title to property being established, and arrestment means the freezing of funds. A building firm might be unable to give the proper title to property because of an inhibition, and there is no way, during the strike, of recalling it. If someone dies leaving a will it cannot be confirmed in the commissary office because the staff are on strike. Because the will cannot be confirmed the property cannot be dealt with.
Many building society mortgages are being held up because title to a property cannot be recorded unless the deed has been stamped in the stamp office, where the staff are on strike. In those and many other spheres people cannot have recourse to their normal rights of freedom under the law.
§ Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)
The hon. Member has asked for emergency legislation which has already been promised by the Government. My hon. Friends and I listened with bated breath to hear whether the Opposition Front Bench is in favour of immediate implementation of the pay deal and of banning strikes in this area.
§ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton
The Opposition are absolutely determined that the rule of law shall be enforced and that justice is restored. That is what this debate is about. If the hon. Member has representations to make on behalf of trade unions, he must make them to the Government. If the Government are to give way and surrender to what the strikers are asking for, why did they not do it a long time ago? This is the Government's responsibility, I have mentioned the offer made by Mr. Bonar, and the Secretary of State must deal with that.
Only the Government can ensure that justice is restored to the Scottish people. I shall ask the Lord Advocate four questions. First, will the Government introduce retrospective legislation which will protect the public against the complete absence of criminal justice? Secondly, has the Lord Advocate considered the temporary suspension of criminal jury trials so that alleged crimes are dealt with by a judge sitting without a jury, and thus prevent the breakdown of the operation of criminal law? The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central deplored that possibility. Of course that proposition is horrific, but the alternatives are that accused persons will be held in prison for unacceptably long periods without trial or that a judge shall sit alone without a jury.
Thirdly, will the Lord Advocate introduce emergency legislation so that he can ensure, through his advocates depute and procurators fiscal, that the prosecution of crime will be resumed immediately. Fourthly, if any civil actions have been prescribed or become time-barred, will the Government introduce retrospective legislation to deal with them?
Another issue was alluded to in the excellent speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire and by my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro). 339 It concerns the blacking of processes. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire used one example. I shall use another which appeared in The Scotsman on 8 March. Mr. John Ross, a member of the civil servants three-man strike committee, was reported as saying:The Strike Committee will continue in operation to consider cases of strike-breaking and black-legging. We will refuse to handle business initiated during the strike which could have been averted…Court staff would refuse to handle cases where small fines had been imposed. Civil actions which were proceeded with could also be blacked by staff.Mr. Ross should be careful, or he may find that he is embarking on the dangerous course of inciting clerks to pursue their genuine grievance outwith the framework of the law. He would be advised to read the ruling given in the case of Her Majesty's Advocate v. Airs in 1975. Lord Emslie summed up the matter in one sentence when he said:Contempt of Court…is the name given to conduct which challenges or affronts the authority of the court or the supremacy of the law itself, whether it takes place in or in connection with civil or criminal proceedings.The courts obviously have a duty to preserve the impartial administration of justice. They cannot be indifferent to acts which undermine their impartiality and their authority.
In my work as an advocate and as an interim procurator fiscal I have found clerks to be extremely helpful and to be men and women of honour and integrity. Many of them have given a lifetime of service to the courts. I realise that they are certain that they have a genuine grievance against the Government, but I hope that they will pursue their complaint within the framework of the law.
The threats of blacking processes are a challenge not only to the courts but to the supremacy of Parliament. If implemented, they may be construed as perverting the course of justice, which is a serious offence. Many lifelong friendships are at stake as well as the community spirit in the courts, and also the rights and freedoms of all British citizens under the law.
I hope that the clerks will not allow themselves to be manoeuvred into sabotaging the rule of law. That is not in the interests of the courts, of Parliament or of the British people. If they 340 try to undermine our system of justice, sooner or later justice will prevail.
We shall not vote against the Government tonight. We have asked for emergency measures to be introduced as quickly as possible. We wish that they had been introduced sooner, but the Government have responded to our request, and when they introduce the necessary emergency legislation on Thursday it will have our support.
§ 6.46 p.m.
§ The Lord Advocate (Mr. Ronald King Murray)
I am grateful for the welcome that has been given to the announcement by the Secretary of State of our intention to introduce emergency legislation to deal with this matter and for the promise of assistance in the House to deal with the matter expeditiously.
The debate has served a useful purpose. It has enabled hon. Members to consider all aspects of the problem. I shall attempt to deal with as many of the important issues that have been raised as I can in the time available. I hope also to reassure the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) about the four questions that he put to me.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) asked about the pay range of those who are on strike. The salary range for a senior principal, at the top level, is between £9,059 and £10,809. At the bottom of the spectrum are clerical officers whose salary range is from £1,698 to £3,280. Obviously there is an intermediate hierarchy between those two extremes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) asked a number of important questions. He wanted reassurance about proceedings which were abandoned. He asked about the size of the backlog and about custody cases—an issue to which other hon. Members referred.
I answered a parliamentary question yesterday and said that about 230 cases have been abandoned. These cases will not be revived. The normal decisions which prosecutors have to make have been applied but in the unusual circumstances of a strike. I share the view of hon. Members that under no circumstances should the prosecution depart 341 from the ordinary canons which are used in deciding whether prosecutions should be brought, except when there is no way of avoiding that.
All serious cases such as those involving dishonesty and breaches of the peace will be brought to trial when that is possible. I go further: they will be brought to trial as soon as possible. I can go further and say that they will be brought to trial as soon as possible, and I shall amplify that a little later.
When one comes to the 231 cases or thereabouts where the matter has been abandoned entirely, I think it is right that I should take as an example Edinburgh sheriff court, where the biggest number have been abandoned. A very large proportion of those were road traffic offences; very nearly all of them were for prosecutions in regard to careless driving or something less serious than that. That is typical. We are concerned with really minor cases that nevertheless would take up time in the sheriff court.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)
May we be given an assurance that none of the cases concerned relates to driving under the influence of drink?
§ The Lord Advocate
I can give that assurance, with one exception. The one case known to be abandoned in Dunoon was that of an American Service man who was due to appear in court on a drinking and driving charge, but he was also due to leave for the United States of America. The decision made was that in the broad interests of justice it would have been undesirable for him to have been kept in this country. I do not know whether the United States forces would have been required to detain him in custody, but it would have been necessary for him to be kept in this country merely for that purpose. The decision was made that that case should be abandoned. I think that that was a correct decision.
However, I can give the general reassurance that I think the hon. Gentleman requires, that no material case will be abandoned in this way.
As for the size of the backlog, I cannot give any reassurance to the House. In a parliamentary answer to which reference was made earlier, I have given an indi- 342 cation of the scale of the problem as it exists from when the strike began, less than three weeks ago. Some thousands of summary cases and some hundred or more of sheriff and jury cases are involved. Quite obviously, if the strike goes on for a material length of time, the number of cases that will be placed into the backlock will increase in proportion to the lapse of time. I cannot give any reassurance about it, except to repeat what I have already said to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) that these are not cases that will be abandoned; they will be postponed. Again, that will be subject to the normal discretion that the prosecutor has to exercise all the time.
I think I am bound to point out that one of the factors to be borne in mind is that where undue delay for one reason or another is already affecting cases, and if a delay of many months perhaps were to occur as a result of this strike, obviously in some of these cases one would be bound to reach a decision that the total delay would be so long that it would be unconscionable to press these cases any further.
However, I can give a general reassurance, not as to the size of the backlog, but that it is my intention to ensure that all of the cases in the backlog are pursued to prosecution where that is appropriate, in accordance with the normal canons. I shall deal with the mechanics of that, because hon. Members have pressed me to say how I propose to do it and how it can be tackled.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gars-cadden made a third point, in regard to the 110-day custody rule. I think I can reassure him on this. In the emergency legislation announced by my right hon. Friend, we are seeking to take a power. Obviously, if one makes provision that during the period when the courts are not in operation detention that otherwise would count in the 110 days should not be computed for that purpose, it would mean—and I think the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) pressed the point strongly—that a number of people would be in custody for a period longer than they ought to be under the statutory provisions. Although that would be unavoidable, this power would not be exercised to the full. In no case would anybody be detained 343 under this power for any longer than was absolutely necessary.
A review has taken place since industrial action began and some of the 39 people who were in custody under the 110-day rule whose cases have been reconsidered have been released without condition at the moment.
§ Mr. Fairbairn
I should like to ask the Lord Advocate two questions. Will there be a power of appeal to any court if one can be convened against detention without trial? Secondly, when he says that in no case will a person be unreasonably detained, does that include cases of terrorism and murder?
§ The Lord Advocate
If I may take the second point first, quite obviously the question whether the detention of persons for a period is reasonable will depend primarily on the nature of the offence and its seriousness. Clearly, with the more serious offences, there will be no question of people being released from custody.
On the first point, I should make it clear, as has already been said by my right hon. Friend, that bail appeals are being heard. There is no reason to suppose that where necessary an appeal court could not be convened where an emergency arises. However, perhaps I may amplify these matters in a moment when I deal more fully with the question of the emergency legislation and its impact.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) expressed anxiety about another category of persons—and this relates to the point with which I have just been dealing—namely, those who at the end of the day are acquitted. They would have been detained under the 110-day rule in custody for a long period—obviously to their great prejudice. Those are the sorts of people who have to be kept very much in mind. When the Crown is reviewing the 110-day custody cases at present in detention, that is very much one of the matters to be considered. Clearly the seriousness of the crime has to be considered and the case against the accused. Those factors and many others that I have not time to mention are earnestly taken into account in reconsidering and reviewing the 110-day custody cases.
Before I leave the matter, I am bound to make it clear that the problem of the 344 110-day custodies is a cumulative one. Whereas about 14 of the 39 originally detained have been released, others are coming near the time when the 110-day rule will come into effect. That is one of the reasons why my right hon. Friend and I feel that emergency legislation is now necessary. However, I can reassure the hon. Member for Pentlands that that matter will be very much in the minds of prosecutors when considering this.
The hon. Gentleman then raised two other matters on which I think I should briefly touch, because they were referred to by other Members, although perhaps not in the precise terms used by him. He seemed to take some exception to the members of particular unions picketing at the Court of Session. He seemed to indicate that those administering justice in the courts should perhaps not have the right to withdraw their labour. I do not propose to enter into that matter in any detail. I simply point out, as other Members have done, that it would seem rather anomalous to take the view that any one category of employees, as matters are at the moment, should be deprived of the rights accorded to other employees. It has been accepted generally—and the recent accord between the Government and the Trades Union Congress vouches it—that any means cannot be justified by the end. If the end is to achieve better conditions for trades union members, it does not follow that any means whatever can be used for that purpose. Indeed, that is one of the matters that is embodied in the accord between the Government and the Trades Union Congress.
Therefore, when one thinks of other unions that undoubtedly have the right to picket and to withdraw their labour, it would seem odd to exclude these unions from that and at the same time, presumably, exclude the sanction that goes with it—which must be that any means to achieve an end is not justified. Again, I think it is right to point out that in this case—and my right hon. Friend made it clear when he opened for the Government—we are dealing with a strike that is a United Kingdom strike where, on any view, a small minority of those involved are working in the administration of justice. There is an anomaly which those involved must face up to and answer according to their conscience. The anomaly is that in seeking just 345 remuneration they are bringing the whole machinery of justice to a standstill in Scotland.
May I turn to the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Ovenden)—I think the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson) also touched on the same matter—on the question of pay negotiations and the Pay Research Unit. Despite what has been said on the matter, I think it would be wrong for me to attempt to go beyond what my right hon. Friend said. He made clear the position that the Government take, and it is a reasonable position.
May I come back to a large number of questions which the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) put to me. The Act of Adjournal and the Act of Sederunt have been of assistance, but both those Acts deal primarily with procedural problems—
§ It being Seven o'clock, and there being Private Business set down by The Chairman of Ways and Means, under Standing Order No. 7 (time for taking Private Business), further Proceeding stood postponed.