HC Deb 12 December 1983 vol 50 cc675-8 3.30 pm
Mr. John Smith(by private notice) (Monklands, East)

asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the National Graphical Association dispute.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Tom King)

Further negotiations between the Stockport Messenger group and the National Graphical Association took place throughout last week under ACAS chairmanship. These lengthy negotiations ended without agreement in the early hours of Friday morning. I understand that the chairman of the group, Mr. Shah, put forward proposals for the re-employment of the six dismissed strikers, which the NGA did not reject and which could have resolved that issue. However, the NGA refused to give up its demand for a closed shop at Bury and Warrington. On the central issue of the closed shop, the NGA continued to insist on its establishment, but Mr. Shah was not prepared to accept this against the wishes of his employees, and it was on this issue of the closed shop that the negotiations broke down.

Later on Friday morning the contempt proceedings in the High Court in Manchester, which had been adjourned a week before at the request of both the Messenger group and the NGA, were resumed. The NGA was fined a further £150,000 for the unlawful picketing which occurred between 22 and 24 November in its continued defiance of the orders of the court, and £375,000 for the unlawful picketing at Warrington between 29 November and 1 December.

The national council of the NGA met on Saturday and decided to call a one-day strike of all its members on Wednesday 14 December. I trust that both sides of the House will join me in condemning further recourse to indiscriminate and damaging industrial action. It can do nothing to resolve the NGA's dispute with the Stockport Messenger group. All that it will achieve is substantial damage to companies that have no connection with this dispute, and it can only put at risk the jobs of many of its members and other employees as well.

For all those reasons, and not least what are likely to be the serious consequences for the NGA itself, I hope that it will no longer seek to pursue this dispute in defiance of the law.

Mr. John Smith

Is the Secretary of State aware that his account of the negotiations held by ACAS will not be accepted by at least one side to the dispute as entirely accurate and unbiased? Is he aware that between now and Wednesday there is time to avoid a national printing strike, and does he accept that, as the Secretary of State for Employment, he has a responsibility to foster good industrial relations?

As the nation is faced with what could become a damaging national dispute, is it not his duty to help all sides in the dispute to find a settlement? Should he not now invite the parties to meet today, or at the latest tomorrow, at the Department of Employment to discuss with him ways of avoiding the conflict? If he does not do so, will he, as the Minister responsible, not miss an opportunity to take an intelligent initiative, which might tip the balance in favour of a settlement of the dispute?

Mr. King

I have tried to represent the facts of the dispute as fairly as I can. The House will have noticed something that some hon. Members did not appear to accept the last time that I made a statement, which is that the dispute is about the imposition of a closed shop. It is clear that the problem of the reinstatement of the six could be resolved, but now the dispute is seen clearly for what it is—the imposition of a closed shop against the wishes of the employees of the firm concerned.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman appears to have forgotten that a previous Act of Parliament set up the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service to take over that function of the Ministry of Labour; and because it is an independent body, it has tried to act in the finest traditions of the service to find a means of resolving the dispute. I repeat my request to the right hon. and learned Gentleman to join me at last in saying that there is no advantage in this dispute to either party, and to the NGA in the present position, in pursuing unlawful means in trying to resolve the dispute. I hope that he will urge now, from his position in the Opposition, that the union should stay within the law in its pursuit of the dispute.

Mr. John Smith

Does the Secretary of State note that once again the Government appear to believe that responsibility lies uniquely on the shoulders of the Opposition, and not of the Government, in seeking an initiative to settle the dispute? Is he aware that there are seldom winners in industrial disputes, but that the paramount responsibility of a Secretary of State for Employment is to try to settle disputes, and that the setting up of ACAS in no way removed that responsibility, which is placed upon him by Parliament?

Mr. King

I am in no way seeking to dissociate the Government from their responsibility. I have made it clear that the Government believe that all disputes should be settled within the law. I invited the right hon. and learned Gentleman to join me in that, but I notice that once again he has signally failed to do so.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that this is a private Members' motion day, and that the debate on private Members' motions must end at 7 o'clock. Therefore, I propose to limit supplementary questions on this matter to three from each side of the House.

Mr. Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the printers and typesetters employed by the Messenger newspaper group earn more than the average earnings in other provincial newspapers in the north-west of England; that the employees of that firm and their families are covered by a private medical scheme, which perhaps the NGA does not approve of but which is extremely popular among the employees; and that the company has a profit-sharing scheme? Is it not disgraceful that a man who is standing up for the rights of the majority of his employees should be so vilified by Mr. Wade, who tries to paint him as a Scrooge and skinflint employer, grinding the faces of the poor, when this man started in a small way in 1974, has built up a successful business and has produced the new jobs that the Opposition are always screaming about?

Mr. King

I have heard it said that the wages being paid by Mr. Shah were way below average wages, and I made some inquiries about the matter. On the evidence available to me, it would appear that he pays wages that are above the average of an NGA employee working for a provincial newspaper in the north-west. On that basis, my hon. Friend's information would appear to be correct. I wish to have no part in the imposition of a closed shop against the wishes of employees, and it would be encouraging if just a few voices from the Opposition would endorse my view.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

I pay tribute to ACAS, and is the Minister aware that I believe that he is right not to intervene in the present dispute? The main effort should be to urge the TUC this evening to assert the principle that it has always upheld—the rule of law—and to say that it will not sanction further action by the NGA in defiance of the laws of Britain.

Mr. King

Obviously, I would not wish to anticipate the important meeting this evening of the TUC's employment policy and organisation committee. However, the TUC urged the Post Office Engineering Union to stay within the law. This is an important matter, and if the TUC is concerned, as it must be, about respect for trade unions in Britain, it must try to ensure that the unions operate within the law.

Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)

Will my right hon. Friend continue to resist the Opposition's blandishments for him personally to interfere in this dispute? Does he also recall that during the Grunwick dispute the Labour Secretary of State interfered to no avail whatever?

Mr. King

I have not found the Opposition very blandishing so far, and I have no intention of being attracted by any such siren calls—as though somehow a Minister has a superior ability over the professionalism and experience of the ACAS staff.

Grunwick is often cited as though in some ways there was a similarity. Grunwick was about the refusal of an employer to recognise a union. Mr. Shah has made it absolutely clear that he has no objection whatever to people belonging to a trade union if they so wish. I should have thought that any hon. Member who still stands for personal freedom would support that attitude.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

Is not the NGA keen to get a closed shop when the workers do not want it because it will in future be able to make those workers strike against their will on pain of exclusion from the union and loss of their jobs? Is it not utterly disgraceful that by their silence the Opposition are prepared to condone such infringements of personal liberty?

Mr. King

I should have thought that on reflection the Opposition would now have realised that within the law as it stands it is and must be every man's right to belong or not to belong to a union. We have sought to ensure that a closed shop cannot be established except with the overriding support of the vast majority of the people concerned. On all the evidence available to me, that does not seem to be so in the Stockport Messenger group.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

Is it not possible to get a sensible answer from the Minister about this serious dispute? Will he continue to shirk his responsibilities on the slender pretext that statutory machinery exists to effect conciliation? Does he not recognise that in the interests of the rule of law and good industrial relations he has a responsibility to initiate negotiations, which so far have failed?

Mr. King

I have recognised that my first responsibility is to ensure that the facilities and agencies which exist under statute to help in the resolution of these disputes are made available. ACAS has worked many more hours than some Labour Members appear to realise in an effort to resolve this dispute, and I confirm that it remains available to do so if the opportunity exists. The hon. Member invites me to resolve this dispute within the rule of law, but it is the rule of law that I have sought to uphold.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

Does the Secretary of State not agree that Mr. Shah originally reneged on a closed shop agreement, that before going to ACAS agreement had been reached on a post-entry closed shop and that the issue was then about the re-employment of the six people? Does that not prove that once again Mr. Shah has shifted his ground? Surely the right hon. Gentleman should be more interested in conciliation rather than confrontation. As this matter is serious, will he intervene in the dispute and bring the two parties together before this week's damaging strike to the printing industry?

Mr. King

It is incredible that the hon. Gentleman can imagine that hon. Members on both sides remain so ignorant about the origins of this dispute that he can maintain that it is about the reinstatement of six members. He knows perfectly well that those six members were originally called out on strike because of a dispute over the introduction of a closed shop at Bury and Warrington. The hon. Gentleman rewrites history in seeking to represent the dispute as he has. In no way do I seek to attribute blame, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the withdrawal of Mr. Shah and the Messenger group from pursuing their application for an agreement followed the NGA's tearing up of its previous agreement with the Stockport Messenger group.