HC Deb 14 March 1979 vol 964 cc450-2
27. Mr. Rifkind

asked the Lord Advocate when next he intends to visit the Court of Session and the High Court of Justiciary.

The Lord Advocate

I am in regular contact with both the Court of Session and the High Court of Justiciary.

Mr. Rifkind

Does the Lord Advocate agree, in retrospect, that it would have been better if the emergency legislation to deal with the strike in the courts had been introduced at the beginning of the emergency some weeks ago rather than at this belated date? In particular, does the Lord Advocate feel that the proposals to allow judges to appoint other persons to do the work normally done by sheriff clerks and clerks of court would be having an effect now if the Government had been prepared to act when the emergency began?

The Lord Advocate

Deciding whether to introduce emergency legislation is always a difficult responsibility for any Government. They must consider the situation from time to time. The hon. Member should remember that to introduce emergency leglislation before an emergency has come about is a serious step for any Government to take.

The hon. Member is anticipating the publication of the emergency Bill, which is not due to take place until tomorrow. In the delicate situation in which all of us are anxious to see the courts resume work it is not right to anticipate the provisions of the Bill or how it is proposed they will be carried out.

Mr. Dewar

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that although many of us feel that the strike by court workers is premature, it should be recorded that this is the first time that such a strike has taken place? Will my right hon. and learned Friend distance himself from the surprising suggestion made by many Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), that the withdrawal of labour by such workers should be made illegal?

The Lord Advocate

I agree with my hon. Friend. It would be strange if one group of employees were excluded from the general right of peaceful picketing and the general right to withdraw labour. The doctrine that the end justifies the means is one which all democrats would reject. My hon. Friend may agree, or disagree, with that. Those who are concerned with the administration of justice and are involved in the present strike must ask themselves whether it can ever be right to bring the courts of justice to a halt in the name of just remuneration for themselves.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Will the Lord Advocate confirm that the purpose of his legislation is to protect the rights and freedoms of every British citizen under the law and to ensure that the administration of justice shall continue?

The Lord Advocate

I can give that assurance.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Will my right hon. and learned Friend reconsider his answer a little and emphasise that those who are now on strike in the courts have never been on strike before? Does he agree that the strike is symptomatic of the deep grievance that they feel? Will he make it clear that those who condemn the strike as being irresponsible do nothing to contribute towards peace in this sphere of employment?

The Lord Advocate

That is a fair point. I agree that this action represents a deep feeling of grievance. But I make a qualification. Those who are directly involved in the administration of justice in Scotland constitute a small minority of those involved in the strike. One must look at the responsibility of those who, on a United Kingdom basis, are responsible for bringing the courts of justice in Scotland virtually to a standstill.