HC Deb 23 November 1983 vol 49 cc319-25 3.32 pm
Mr. Speaker

Before calling the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery) to ask a private notice question, I must tell the House that I understand that the trade union in dispute with the Messenger Group Newspapers has been ordered by the High Court to appear before it on Friday regarding non-payment of a fine. The Messenger Group has issued a writ for sequestration, which will be heard at the same time. I must, therefore, disallow any reference in questions to these matters before the court as being sub judice.

Mr. Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment whether he would make a statement about the industrial dispute with Messenger Group Newspapers.

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

As the House will know, there has been a dispute over the past year between the Stockport Messenger Group Newspapers and the National Graphical Association in connection with the establishment of closed shop agreements at the firm's subsidiaries at Warrington and Bury. As a result of action taken by the union during the dispute, the Messenger Group sought an injunction against the union in the High Court. The injunction was granted requiring the union to desist from organising unlawful industrial action. The court subsequently found that the injunction was not being observed and imposed a fine of £50,000 on the National Graphical Association for breach of that injunction. The fine has not been paid, and I understand that the High Court has now directed that it wishes to deal with the non-payment of the fine on Friday of this week.

As the House will also know, there have been intermittent incidents of intimidatory picketing at different plants culminating in the mass picket at Warrington last night. One policeman was seriously injured. I understand that a number of arrests have been made. Criminal charges have already been brought against those involved in earlier incidents and further charges may be made against those arrested last night.

In connection with the substance of the dispute, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service has already been involved in seeking to assist the parties to a resolution of this dispute. I understand that the conciliation service is seeking to arrange a further meeting of the parties very shortly.

Whatever the arguments in relation to the dispute, I hope that both sides of the House will join with me in deploring the disgraceful behaviour that occurred at Warrington last night and to reaffirm that such conduct has no place in industrial relations in this country, and that the law must be observed.

Mr. Montgomery

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the workers were offered the choice of joining the National Graphical Association, that the union had a chance to put its case, and that after a secret ballot the workers decided that they did not want to join the union? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that the union has accepted that point?

On Sunday there was a 13-hour meeting between the two parties and ACAS. The point of difficulty seems to be the re-employment of the six people who withdrew their labour. That difficulty has arisen because the other employees in the organisation are not happy to have those people back—[Interruption.]—because for 20 weeks people have suffered harassment and intimidation from those people and the other union bullyboys. Why did we enact the Employment Act 1982 if it is to be ignored by such people? I hope that the Government will make their position clear, because a small firm is being intimidated by a union.

Mr. King

Had it not been for the 1980 and 1982 Acts, the Messenger Group would have had no recourse against the secondary picketing that took place, and the attempts to breach other contracts, which were part of the substance of the complaint to the court in respect of which the injunction was granted.

I know that my hon. Friend will also accept that, whatever be the system of law, it has been accepted by every party in the House and by successive parties when in government that picketing is lawful only when it is peaceful. Intimidation and obstruction are criminal offences, and the law must be observed.

Mr. John Smith (Monklands, East)

Does the Secretary of State agree that a politically inspired private notice question does not help the solution of a sensitive industrial dispute? [Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen who proclaim the rule of law should listen to criticism in reasonable silence. Is the Secretary of State aware that the Opposition deplore violence and extend their sympathy to anyone affected by it? Will he equally recognise that the National Graphical Association issued a leaflet to those involved in the dispute? I quote from it: On behalf of the Organising Committee it is requested that the demonstration remains peaceful and you are asked not to attack the building or be provoked into using violence. Does the Secretary of State accept, if he can hear me above the interruptions from behind him, that the trade union involved acted responsibly in giving that advice to its members? [Interruption.] May I say in the presence of the Secretary of State that the conduct of Conservative Members is not consistent with the type of order that they proclaim to those involved in industrial disputes?

The substance of the dispute is the serious matter with which all those involved in settling it are concerned. Does the Secretary of State accept that it is an extremely serious dispute with the potential for spreading rapidly throughout this sector of British industry? Is not the dispute within the area of settlement as what is now at stake is no more than the jobs of the six NGA members who were dismissed by Mr. Shah?

Is not the most important part of the Secretary of State's statement his reference to the ACAS meeting? Should he not now revive the old Ministry of Labour tradition of putting the Government's weight behind conciliation and the resolution of the dispute as early as possible?

Mr. King

I am sure that the whole House will hope that the further meeting that ACAS is seeking to arrange will be helpful in resolving the core of the dispute. While the original substance of the dispute is important and its resolution will help to remove this problem, I cannot walk away as readily as the right hon. and learned Gentleman from the events of last night and the type of behaviour that took place.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman accused my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery) of asking a politically motivated question, as though he is supposed to ignore the incidents that took place last night and on earlier occasions affecting his constituency and constituents. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that I referred to the intermittent disputes at the various plants and to the seriousness of this matter. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was not equivocating in any way on what I took to be his categoric denial of violence in picketing. I am pleased to say that I understand that the TUC has also issued a statement condemning the use of violence. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his right hon. Friends will lend their good offices to ensure that every effort is made to prevent any recurrence of this type of action.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Before I call another hon. Member to speak, I should say that a private notice question is an extension of Question Time. I propose to allow questions on this statement to continue until 3.55 pm. We have a further statement and an Opposition day debate thereafter.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the forces of law must be sufficient to meet the needs of the law? Is he reassured that the law as it stands is sufficient in its scope to meet episodes such as this and that the forces of law, particularly the police force complement, are large enough and well enough trained to meet incidents such as that which occurred the other evening?

Mr. King

That is not a matter for me. It is first the responsibility of the chief constable concerned. My hon. Friend will wish to pay tribute to the fact that, after the first problems the police encountered, they took the necessary steps to ensure that the mass picketing and the obstruction and intimidation did not prevent the progress of the business.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

First, does the Secretary of State accept that the constituency involved is not that of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery) but is my constituency and that his hon. Friend is interfering in my constituency without even having the decency to tell me that he proposed to table this question? Is not the bully boy in this case the employer, because he brought in paramilitary thugs with dogs, which inflamed passions? Is not that the reason why violence occurred?

Secondly, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there could be an agreement? The right hon. Gentleman has admitted that the union has been flexible and that the TUC is backing the union in this dispute. Is he aware that if only the employer would stop victimising the six members and reinstate them the dispute could be over tomorrow?

Mr. King

I recognise, and I sought to make it clear—I think the hon. Gentleman heard me say it—that the company is affected at three plants in three constituencies. A number of hon. Members are affected, and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery) has already taken the trouble to raise the matter on the Adjournment. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) took part in that debate. I shall not enter today into the merits of the dispute, which I hope can be discussed at ACAS and resolved. However, it distresses me that the hon. Member for Warrington, North can speak but utter not a single word of criticism or deprecation about the scenes of violence, which have no part in proper industrial relations in this country.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of the pickets at the factory gates came from other parts of the country and, in fairness to the NGA, were probably members of other unions? Is it not against the principles of picketing and an abuse of the law that they should do that?

Mr. King

As the company involved employs only 120 people, it is clear that a picket of 1,000 or more must be a breach of the law. It is well known and has been accepted by Governments of both parties that intimidation and obstruction are criminal offences that have no place in peaceful picketing.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

As a member of a separate print trade union, Sogat '82, I should like to ask the Secretary of State whether he recognises that we are dealing with an employer who reneges on agreements. Secondly, does he appreciate that the NGA has bent over backwards to reach agreement in this case to the extent that it has reached a provisional agreement, a copy of which I have with me, that all employees at Bury and Warrington will stay in their jobs and only new employees will be members of the union? Thirdly, is he aware that the seven members of the NUJ who took industrial action have been taken back by the employer but that he is refusing to take back six members of the NGA? That is the sole issue in dispute. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to use his offices of conciliation to get an agreement to take those six men back. Would it not be a pity to have industrial Armageddon over six men?

If those principally concerned go down the road of stealing the property of the union and seeking to destroy it, not only will that be bad for industrial relations—do not expect any more copies of Hansard or newspapers—but the state will be biting off more than it can chew.

Mr. King

I know enough about the background of the dispute to know that every one of the statements that the hon. Gentleman has made to the House is itself the subject of bitter argument in this controversy. That reinforces my judgment that I do not propose at the Dispatch Box to comment on any of his remarks.

Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North)

May I remind my right hon. Friend that there are victims well beyond this internecine war? The public will be deprived of the newspapers and titles that they are used to, retail distributors and newsagents will suffer financial loss, and, as usual, the public will suffer. On seeking to resolve the dispute, will my right hon. Friend remember the public interest, which is paramount in all things?

Mr. King

There are procedures and ways in which disputes of this type can be resolved and should be resolved without industrial action but, if it takes place, it should at least be conducted within the law. What is unacceptable to the people of this country is that people should refuse to observe the law.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Is the Minister aware that there is mounting anger in Stockport over the fact that this dispute could have been settled by agreement at the beginning of the week had Mr. Shah not refused to take back the six workers in Stockport, in my constituency, who throughout this period have observed the law and picketed in the most respectable way? Will the Government now use their good offices to persuade Mr. Shah to reinstate the six people and thereby have the whole dispute settled? Will the right hon. Gentleman remember that the reason why these people are not being allowed to go back are the blacklegs who have been recruited since and who object to them returning to work?

Mr. King

The House will have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery) refer to allegations about the conduct of some of the members of the firm who were affected in that way, and the question of their reinsatement obviously arouses considerable controversy. I shall not enter into that because that matter is, I understand, now at the heart of the resolution of the problem. ACAS is giving the matter its close attention and is seeking to arrange a meeting, and I shall not enter into the pros and cons of it at this stage. I say unequivocally that, whatever be the pros and cons in terms of the original dispute, illegal and intimidatory action of the kind we have seen and criminal behaviour are intolerable.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

However big or small the case, will my right hon. Friend confirm that in a true democracy the law, and the will of Parliament which passes the law of the country, must in the end prevail?

Mr. King

That is what I have been seeking to reinforce to the House today. The trade unions enjoy certain rights and privileges—whatever title one gives them—of immunity under the law and are protected by the law, and it is as much in their interest in the long run that the law should be observed by others; they should insist that their members also observe the law. I trust that the TUC, having condemned violent behaviour, will take every possible step to ensure that no such events occur again.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I would rather not take a point of order at this moment.

Mr. Atkinson

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, I wish to refer to your ruling—

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Atkinson

—when you ruled—

Hon. Members

Sit down.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I said that this was an extension of Question Time. It will take time out of that if I take points of order at this stage. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise a point of order, I will take it afterwards.

Mr. Atkinson

On a point of order,—

Mr. Speaker

Very well, but I must tell the hon. Member that taking his point of order now is taking time out of the private notice question.

Mr. Atkinson

I hope that you will allow the time, Mr. Speaker, because my point of order relates to an important matter on which you have ruled. You said that it was sub judice to refer to charges which are to come before the court. However, that did not prevent the Minister from out of hand condemning workers in relation to charges on which they have not yet appeared before any court. The Minister said that those workers were already guilty[Interruption.]—and he asked Opposition Members to condemn their behaviour as though they had already been found guilty of those offences. Should you not prevent the Minister from referring to that issue, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker

The Minister has not talked about the guilt of individuals in this case. When I granted this private notice question, information about the matter going before the courts was not known, and that is why I made the statement that I did.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)

Is the Secretary of State aware that I had a long meeting last Saturday with the full-time secretary and officials of the NGA at which strong allegations were made of police brutality against pickets? [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] Is he further aware that a number of pickets suffered head and leg injuries and concussion and that one of my constituents, Mr. Peter Stanton, whose height is less than 5 ft and who weighs less than eight stone, has a fractured shoulder bone? Will the right hon. Gentleman urge the Home Secretary to have words with the Cheshire police for a cooling down of tempers? The NGA members regret the injuries to a police officer in the early hours of this morning. Is he aware that if action is not taken to cool down the situation this will turn out to be the Grunwick of the north?

Mr. King

There is a proper procedure for charges or complaints of that kind and that certainly should be observed because nobody condones that sort of behaviour. The hon. Gentleman calls for a cooling down of the situation. I suggest that anything he can do to discourage such an assembly of pickets he should do; the assembly of, I understand, nearly 1,000 people outside the Warrington plant could hardly be a contribution to a cooling down of the situation.

Mr. Alistair Burt (Bury, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituents working on the Messenger newspaper voted on the closed shop issue some weeks ago, voted unanimously against and, as a consequence of that, now have pickets at their door? Does he agree that the National Graphical Association should call off its threat to my constituents' livelihood, look after the business of those who have chosen to represent them and leave my constituents alone?

Mr. King

I am aware of reports of the ballots that were taken and I understand that, according to those reports in both plants concerned there was a majority against membership of the NGA, the decision having been unanimous in one plant. That is part of the background to the dispute. My interest in the matter is to see that the dispute about recognition or the closed shop is resolved in a proper way, and neither I nor the Government are prepared to condone the sort of illegal and intimidatory picketing that has been taking place.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. In view of the point of order that was raised, I propose to take one more question.

Mr. Martin J. O'Neill (Clackmannan)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my union, the National Graphical Association, regrets that anyone should have been injured in the dispute but recognises that this morning the TUC came out in support of the NGA on the core of the issue—the victimisation of six former members of Mr. Shah's staff whom he has refused to reinstate? Is he further aware that it would be greatly appreciated by the trade union movement if he ensured that his officials acted as constructively as possible to secure conciliation because the only issue now at stake is that of the six members, and the union is looking to the right hon. Gentleman for support on that issue?

Mr. King

As I said in my statement, ACAS, which is independent, is seeking to achieve a settlement of the dispute. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will lend his good offices to ensuring that the NGA, in wishing to prosecute an industrial dispute—which it is entitled under the law of the land to do—will ensure that it conducts it within the law.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A few days ago you were asked, as the result of a newspaper article, about the SDP and Liberals in particular not getting a fair crack of the whip in relation to speaking opportunities in the House. It may be remarkable to people outside Parliament—though it is not to most hon. Members—that when we get into the sharp end of politics, as we have just been doing—with the Tories supporting the bosses and the Labour party supporting the workers—SDP and Liberal hon. Members are not to be found.

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order for me.