HC Deb 13 May 1981 vol 4 cc753-4
5. Mr. Norman Hogg

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what steps are being taken as a result of the effect of the Civil Service industrial action on the Scottish courts.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

The sheriffs principal at Glasgow and Edinburgh, where there is strike action, continue in consultation with the Scottish Office, the Scottish Courts Administration, the sheriffs and court users to see how to increase the amount of work which sheriffs, without the assistance of supporting staff, can undertake. Emergency cases continue to be dealt with, and I am glad to be able to say that a limited amount of other business has been possible, but the courts will not be able to achieve anything near normal working until staff return to duty.

Mr. Hogg

Does the Minister agree that the time is overdue for the introduction of legislation similar to the Administration of Justice (Emergency Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1979? Does he not agree that the time has come for meaningful negotiations with the Civil Service unions so that there may be an end to that dispute?

Mr. Rifkind

If the Government thought that emergency legislation would bring back normal working to the courts, we should introduce it. However, sadly, that is not so. The greatest service that the hon. Gentleman could do in this regard would be to stop making the kind of inciting speeches that he made in Cumbernauld earlier this month, when he encouraged civil servants to escalate their action and thereby bring hardship to old-age pensioners and others on pensions and cause disruption to the general public.

Mr. Ancram

Does my hon. Friend agree that people who work in the courts have an overriding duty to sustain and promote the administration of justice? Will he take an early opportunity to remind those people who are hindering justice by industrial action that that duty is greater than their desire for personal gain?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is, of course, correct. It is fortunate that on this occasion, unlike the last occasion under the Labour Government, the industrial action has been restricted so far to the Edinburgh and Glasgow sheriff courts, whereas last time it affected every sheriff court in Scotland, the High Court and the Court of Session.

Mr. Dewar

Do we take it from what the Minister said that there is no need for emergency legislation to preserve individual rights? Does the Minister accept that public confidence in the administration of justice has been badly shaken, in that the busiest court in Europe has been effectively closed since 23 March? Although he may think that inaction is a plausible posture for this Administration, will he accept that most people in Scotland think that it is time that we saw some signs of life from Ministers?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman will know that the provision of discretion to the courts to extend what would otherwise be time-barred civil cases, introduced under earlier legislation, has dealt with the problem that could not be dealt with at the time of the last industrial action under the Labour Government. Normal working can return to Glasgow sheriff court not by emergency legislation—sadly, it would not have that effect—but only by those who normally work in the courts recognising that their real duty is to the public and thus returning to normal working.