HC Deb 29 November 1983 vol 49 cc763-8 3.30 pm
Mr. John Smith (Monklands, East)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Employment to make a statement on the National Graphical Association dispute.

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

Before reporting on the current situation of the dispute between the Stockport Messenger Group and the National Graphical Association about the establishment of closed shop arrangements at the firm's subsidiaries at Warrington and Bury, I should advise the House of the further developments that have occurred since I spoke in the House last Wednesday in connection with the High Court actions. The court on Friday imposed a further £100,000 fine, following the failure of the National Graphical Association to pay the fine of £50,000 previously imposed and to obey the injunction to refrain from organising unlawful industrial action.

The court also ordered the sequestration of the union's assets. Later the same day, the union appealed to the Court of Appeal for a stay of the High Court's orders, pending a substantive appeal against the orders which is due to be heard tomorrow.

I understand that the Court of Appeal asked the union for an undertaking that it would pay the fines. No such undertaking was given and the Court of Appeal accordingly refused to stay the orders of the High Court but did limit the sequestration to £175,000. I understand that the commissioners have now secured this amount.

I also advised the House last Wednesday that the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service was seeking to arrange a further meeting between the parties to resolve the dispute. Following certain preliminary discussions over successive days, a meeting took place between the parties under the chairmanship of ACAS on Sunday in Manchester, and a further one took place yesterday. Regrettably, agreement did not prove possible.

Nevertheless, ACAS continued until late last night and again this morning to explore whether an acceptable basis could be found for a further meeting today.

The union made it clear that it was willing to travel to Manchester for a meeting with Mr. Shah and his fellow directors. Mr. Shah confirmed his willingness to attend provided that he could have assurance that the mass picketing threatened for Warrington this evening did not occur. The union was not able to give such an assurance. I much regret, therefore, that it now seems clear that it will not be possible for a meeting to take place today.

I confirm that ACAS will continue the efforts that it has been making throughout the dispute to find an agreed solution, but it is clearly not helped by the further threats of mass picketing which have been made. Mass picketing has no place in industrial relations in Britain. Moreover, in this dispute, mass picketing has already been determined by the courts to be unlawful and it is now positively frustrating the chance of a settlement.

Mr. Smith

Is the Secretary of State aware that a local dispute which was essentially about the reinstatement of six workers has been escalated into a serious national dispute because of the effects of using the Government's employment legislation? Is it not a serious fault of that legislation that a legal process is set in motion which, at each turn, makes conciliation more difficult? Has the Secretary of State read the article which appeared in yesterday's Financial Times which said: It is a weakness that springs from the enhanced power of management to use the ordinary courts of law, not with a view to producing a settlement of an industrial dispute, but to bring a trade union to heel"? Would it not be appropriate for the Secretary of State to note that the threat of more legal action also inhibits useful discussions? Would it not be appropriate for the Secretary of State, in the national interest, to make a special appeal to both parties to have further discussions at his instance? As his legislation signally fails to recognise the national interest, will he make up for that defect by replacing it with a personal initiative, which the Opposition would support?

Mr. King

The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that the dispute is essentially about reinstatement. In fact, it originated in the union's desire to enforce a closed shop in two plants that were not closed shops. The dismissal of the six workers was a consequence of a dispute which originated in a different way. It is important to remember that.

When the right hon. and learned Gentleman invited me, as he did yesterday on "The World at One", to ensure that the good offices of ACAS would be available, he spoke, I believe him to have said, with the full authority of the Leader of the Opposition. He will now be aware that, while he was inviting me to do that, such talks were taking place. As I have already made clear, ACAS has been closely involved. That is its proper role.

It will be a matter of great regret to many right hon. and hon. Members that the right hon. and learned Gentleman asked a private notice question and responded to my reply without explaining his attitude to the intimidation and obstruction that will occur as a result of the NGA's invitation to mass picketing at the Warrington plant. Will he respond on behalf of the Opposition—I hope with the full authority of the Leader of the Opposition—and endorse the statement of his right hon. Friend the deputy Leader of the Opposition, who said that industrial disputes have to be conducted without violence and within the law?

Mr. Smith

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Opposition have repeatedly made it clear that we deplore violence in all circumstances? Is he also aware that we have made it clear that, if the Government expected unbalanced, divisive and discriminatory legislation to be accepted without difficulty, they must have had a curious notion of how that legislation would be applied to industrial disputes in the real worlds.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, although it is clear that the courts' decisions must be obeyed, it is worth bearing it in mind that the decisions which emanate from discriminatory legislation are, not surprisingly, seen as stacking the cards on one side? Should he not now conciliate rather than score political points?

Mr. King

Perhaps I might tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the House something of which he and the House were not aware yesterday. Yesterday, ACAS was trying to achieve a settlement, as it had been throughout the weekend. It is with the agreement of the House that that role is properly discharged by its independent service, not by Ministers intervening.

I listened carefully to what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said about what he called observance of the law. Will he confirm that industrial disputes should be conducted without violence and within the law? Would such a statement be made with the full authority of the Leader of the Opposition?

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that a private notice question is an extension of Question Time. I propose to allow questions on this statement until 3.50 pm.

Mr. Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to tell the hotheads in the Labour party and the NGA that the way to change legislation is through the ballot box and not through violence and intimidation? There are already two busloads of people in the Warrington area. Would my right hon. Friend reiterate that the employers offered a binding arbitration and that this was refused by the union? That should be underlined, because the Opposition are apparently not prepared to accept that fact.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the dispute occurred because the union was trying to force other members of the firm to join a union against their wishes? Will he ask the Opposition to use their influence with the union to have the illegal picketing withdrawn, and then perhaps an agreement can be reached?

Mr. King

I do not wish today to discuss the individual merits of the dispute, although I believe—it is common knowledge in the press—that an offer of binding arbitration was put forward by Mr. Shah. I am anxious that this dispute should be settled. I hope that the settlement will take place within the law. I also hope that before we finish these exchanges a clear and unequivocal statement will be made on behalf of the Opposition that they believe in the rule of law, that they deplore violent and intimidatory picketing, and that the rule of law is recognised by all hon. Members.

Mr. Robert Litherland (Manchester, Central)

Will the Secretary of State tell Conservative Back Benchers that the violence is not corning from the NGA pickets but that it is caused by the Government's legislation? Is it not about time that they repealed the Act and, in the short term, took an initiative in this matter? To send the matter to arbitration would be to give the blacklegs, the parasites and the scabs a say in it. No trade union in its right mind would accept that.

Mr. King

As the hon. Gentleman will know, mass picketing has never been accepted by any Government of whatever party, and when it involves intimidation or obstruction it is a criminal offence. I should have thought that, with his Manchester connections, the hon. Gentleman would be anxious to discourage the problems that are bound to arise for the workers at the plant, the pickets and the police.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

Would the Minister remind Labour Members that the legislation which covers secondary picketing was passed in the 1980 Act? That Act has already been tested at the ballot box and was given the people's overwhelming approval at the last general election.

I have spoken to employees of the Stockport Messenger this afternoon. They are my constituents. They tell me that they have an overwhelming desire to have the dispute settled, but they will not give way to the bullying which has been going on. Up to a thousand pickets are now converging on Warrington to picket a plant where there are never more than 10 employees at any one time.

Mr. King

Such mass picketing, as the code on picketing made clear, only exacerbates disputes and sours relations not only between management and employees but between the pickets and their fellow employees. If people wonder why this problem has arisen, and other problems that are difficult to solve, that is where the answer may lie.

As my hon. Friend confirmed, it is absolutely clear that, as the requirements of the law relate only to picketing at or near the place of work, the type of picketing in question—as has already been determined by the court—is unlawful.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

Does the Minister accept that an agreement was reached with. Mr. Shah on the question of the closed shop and that he reneged on it. Does that not make Mr. Shah a devious person to deal with? In the light of this experience, does the Minister agree that the courts have no role to play in industrial relations? Will he now act like a statesman and bring the two parties together under his auspices in order to reach an agreement and bring this damaging dispute to an end?

Mr. King

I do not think that he hon. Gentleman's remarks are helpful. He should be seeking to find a way to end this damaging dispute.

It is difficult to see how I could bring the parties together when one of the parties finds it difficult to leave his plant. His workers are facing the threat of thousands of pickets outside, and it is understandable that he therefore finds it extremely difficult to leave the plant. Far from being helpful, the mass picketing is positively impeding the settlement of the dispute.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the mass picketing would have taken place anyway, whether or not the Government had passed the legislation, as it did before the legislation existed? The only difference is that the Government have made mass picketing illegal, as the people wished and the union has no right to use it.

Mr. King

It has always been illegal to obstruct the highway or to intimidate people when going to their place of work. I am glad to have the endorsement of the chairman of the Labour party on this point, because he appeared to suggest that there was a call in the Labour party to support the union in encouraging breaches of the law. I am referring to encouraging and paying people to come from other parts of the country to support the pickets. [Interruption.] The hon. Member says that that is untrue, but I have the evidence here from one branch offering funds to union members to come from other parts of the country to support the pickets at Warrington.

Mr. Martin J. O'Neill (Clackmannan)

This dispute is clearly a product of the unworkable legislation and the untrustworthiness of the employer who has reneged repeatedly on undertakings, and has frustrated conciliation.

Mr. King

The hon. Member has a connection with the printing industry. He may have worked in it, as I did for a number of years. We both know that mass picketing by people unconnected with the firm has never been part of proper British industrial relations and is extremely damaging, not least to the trade unions themselves.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Stockton, South)

Some people are seeking to use this dispute as a battering ram to defeat by unconstitutional means the legislation to take the matter before the courts. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I deplore the action being taken outside the law and strongly support the comment by the deputy leader of the Labour party that the NGA should obey the law.

Mr. King

It would be encouraging if the hon. Gentleman's forthright condemnation were echoed by other Members on the Opposition Benches. There is no great enthusiasm from some right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench to rise to their feet. The House will draw its own conclusions from that.

Mr. Richard Hickmet (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

Does the Secretary of State accept that the present dispute has nothing to do with employment legislation but is an example of the anarchy presently ruling in Fleet street? What is the future for Fleet street when members of the NGA are apparently currently earning up to £700 a week and new machinery cannot be introduced?

Mr. King

I should not like to speculate on the future of Fleet street, but it will be plain to anyone that the actions of certain workers in walking out and striking, as they did, cannot improve Fleet street's prospects and can only serve to damage their prospects and those of other workers in Fleet street.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

The House will know that I am a member of Sogat '82. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the substance of this dispute is the re-employment of six men? Will he further confirm that after Mr. Shah reneged on his first agreement, as the Secretary of State said, further negotiations took place last Sunday when Mr. Dubbins spent the whole day with the company and Mr. Shah agreed to set up a separate enterprise to re-employ those six men? Since then Mr. Shah has reneged again. In those circumstances, does the Secretary of State agree that, instead of wheeling out judges who hand out fines of £50,000, £100,000, £250,000 and £10 million, it would be far better for him to use his offices of conciliation to seek the re-employment of those six men and settle this dispute?

Mr. King

May I start by correcting what the hon. Gentleman said? It is a fallacy to say that this dispute originated in and is about the reinstatement of six men. It is about the establishment of closed shops at the Warrington and Bury plants. The workers at Stockport were subsequently called out by their union at another plant in support of the action in the two other plants. That is how the dispute originated. The question of reinstatement arose when those six employees went on strike and were subsequently dismissed. The origin of this dispute is the establishment of closed shops in the two other plants.

Possible ways of resolving this matter have been discussed. ACAS representatives have been actively involved in trying to find some way of resolving it. One of the ideas was the one mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. There is not the slightest prospect of such ideas being carried forward towards the settlement that must be achieved unless there can be a meeting of the people involved. That meeting will not be possible if one of the parties to the meeting is barricaded in his plant by thousands of people demonstrating.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether, if you have time during the course of the day, you will be able to carry out research into the number of occasions that the House has been discussing a Bill when Ministers have argued that the law is the law and must be obeyed and such laws subsequently have been dropped by the Government? You might find that in 1971 the Government were arguing that the law was the law but that before we had reached the end of that Parliament they had dropped the legislation.

Mr. Speaker

It might be an interesting piece of research, but I do not think that it is a matter for me.