HC Deb 02 April 1984 vol 57 cc676-83 5.16 pm
Mr. John Smith (Monklands, East)

I beg to move amendment No. 19, in page 10, line 34, at end, insert 'which breach must be adequately defined'.

Mr. Speaker

With this we may take amendment No.20, in page 10, line 40, after 'employment', insert `which breach must be adequately defined'.

Mr. Smith

The amendment relates to the provision that requires a particular question to be put in a ballot under part II. The Bill requires a trade union engaging in an official strike to hold a ballot prior to the strike if it wishes to retain its immunity from civil process for actions for damages. However, the Bill goes further and requires a particular question to be put. One might have thought that the question to be asked in the case of a projected strike was self-evident—"Are you or are you not in favour of going on strike?"—but the question required by the Bill is a little more complicated.

The Bill says that the ballot paper must contain a question (however framed) which requires the voter to say, by answering 'Yes' or 'No', whether he is prepared to take part … in a strike involving him in a breach of his contract of employment". The result of that provision will be that each ballot paper will have to include a question like, "Are you in favour of taking part in a strike against your employer, which will involve you in a breach of your contract of employment?" Why on earth is it necessary to put those latter words into an apparently simple question? Why do we have to decorate the question with the words "in breach of your contract of employment"?

Some of us suspect a devious purpose behind the drafting hand. The purpose is not hard to find; it is to seek to influence people who read the ballot paper for the first time to answer no rather than yes to the question posed. They may think that the strike is different from others because it involves them in a breach of their contract of employment. Most strikes are automatically in breach of a contract of employment, but the voter may be unaware of that fact. There is no good reason why the proposed words should be put on a ballot paper. We must conclude that the reason why the statute will require those words to be included is to seek to influence the persons making the choice. That raises fundamental questions about the bona fides of the operation. If the Government were acting in good faith they would have nothing to fear from the proper and simple question, "Are you or are you not in favour of going on strike?"

I do not know which Minister is to reply to the debate. It will probably be the Minister of State. He will probably be forbidden to deal with part HI, which he ran away from in Committee. No doubt he will be peeled off to deal with part II, thereby giving his presence in the Government an atmosphere of legitimacy.

Why is it necessary to introduce these matters in this way? We suggest in the amendment that, as the Government will require the words involving him in a breach of his contract of employment to be put on the ballot paper, they should go further and explain to the person casting his vote in which way a strike breaches his contract of employment. In other words, he should be given more detail to enable him to make up his mind.

On Second Reading, Conservative Members thought that we on the Labour Benches were making a fanciful suggestion in pointing out that the words mentioned had to be incorporated in the question. However, hon. Members who served on the Committee will recall that it was conceded by the Government that such words had to be included on the ballot paper. Since then, the thought has occurred to us that we might deal with the issue in the way in which the Government cause health warnings to be placed on cigarette packets. I suggest that there would be nothing illegal in placing an asterisk beside the word "strike" on the ballot paper and then, at the bottom of the paper, making reference to the fact that a strike might be in breach of a contract of employment.

Would it be legal for there to be an asterisk beside the word "strike" with, at the bottom of the ballot paper, the words, "Under the Tory Government's anti-trade union legislation, we are obliged to point out to people voting in the ballot that a strike might possibly be in breach of your contracts of employment"? I suggest that that is the way in which this issue should be handled — in as ridiculous a way as possible—and it seems that it would be legal to do that. I hope that the Minister will confirm that it would be legal, or will deny its legality and give his reasons accordingly.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

We debated the background to this series of proposals at length in Committee. Hon. Members who took part in those debates will know that the Government made it clear that the purpose of having this requirement was to ensure that people realised that the action which they were being invited to take was in breach of contract. I told the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) that it seemed not unreasonable in this life, when we talk a good deal about rights, to talk occasionally about duties, and one of those duties is to stick to one's contract, unless one has good reason to do otherwise.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

That is a silly thing to say.

Mr. Gummer

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that is a silly remark, perhaps we should say it more often. We might then realise how important it is to get a balance between rights and duties in society.

The right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East made it clear that he thought it ridiculous to ask people fairly and reasonably whether they wanted to go on strike. He asked whether it would be reasonable so to word the question on the ballot paper as to make it as ridiculous as possible. We now know where he stands. He thinks that it is ridiculous to ask people whether they want to strike.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has opposed the proposition that we should ask people that question, and he now wishes to make the wording of the question ridiculous. I hope that the public generally realise that the official Labour party takes the view, first, that people should not be asked whether they wish to strike or take industrial action; secondly, that they should not be reminded that such action is contrary to their contract; and, thirdly, that the question should be phrased in such a way as to make the whole thing as ridiculous as possible. That sums up the Labour party's attitude to the Bill and it illustrates how out of touch it is with the 83 per cent. of trade unionists, who believe that the question should be asked.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

Will the Minister now answer the major point that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) made, that the prime purpose of including the words proposed by the Government on the ballot paper is to persuade people not to go on strike by putting fear in their hearts that they are in some way being unlawful by breaking their contracts of employment?

Mr. Gummer

The purpose of that part of the question is to remind people of the truth—that taking a certain course of action is contrary to their contracts of employment—and if Labour Members are afraid that by reminding people of the truth they will decide that they do not wish to strike, the reason for the strike must be very flimsy indeed.

Labour Members want to do something which they have every right to do. A trade union can add some explanation to the question if it wishes to do so. What is being suggested is the minimum amount that it would be reasonable to ask. We believe that it is not unreasonable to remind people that going on strike or taking industrial action is, in most cases, contrary to one's contract of employment. In a world in which we make demands for our rights, it is not unreasonable occasionally to remind people of their duties. I hope, therefore, that the House will reject the amendment.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

I shall relate this part of the Bill to what is happening in the coalfields today, and I hope that the Minister will explain how this provision is supposed to work in practice.

When we debated previous trade union legislation, we were assured that peaceful picketing in groups of six would be allowed and that such pickets could talk to people on their way to work and try to persuade them to join a dispute. Although we voted against that, we accepted that the right of democracy must prevail and that people should have the right to ask others to take up a cause.

Previous legislation introduced by the Tories, when enhanced by this Bill, will be at variance with what we were assured would be the effect of their proposals. In the current situation, in arguments about whether people should join a dispute, before or after a ballot, those who are out on strike in the Nottinghamshire coalfield have not been allowed to approach those who are still working.

Because of the policing in my constituency, 527 miners have been arrested in the last 10 days, not for acts of violence—not for pushing and shoving on a picket line —but often for trying to get to the pit. They have been arrested, having been stopped by the police at the Nottinghamshire border at the entrance to the A1, and told, "Turn back and stay in your own county or you will be nicked," and often they have been arrested virtually for no reason.

One of them complained to me yesterday. He told me that he reached the picket, stood there and said to a man who was walking past on his way to work, "Why not come out with us?" The man retaliated by sticking two fingers in the air, to which my constituent shouted, "Scab." I agree that that might not have been a nice word for him to use, but it is in common use in industrial disputes such as this. My constituent was immediately arrested for using that word. He was arrested not under any industrial relations legislation but for offensive and insulting behaviour. He was detained for 23 hours in a police cell, wearing tight handcuffs for much of the time, was hauled before the court and told to go away and not go near any other NCB property, except his own house.

We are led to believe that that sort of thing will not occur when the type of ballot that we are discussing becomes law. However, despite what we say here, the police have laws of their own.

Mr. David Lightbown (Staffordshire, South-East)

Although the case that the hon. Gentleman is putting does not have a bearing on the subsection before the House, I feel that I must put it on record that a large number of my constituents have voted to work in the mining industry but are being stopped from working by a large number of flying pickets from south Wales. Those pickets are not coming from south Wales to stand peacefully at the pit; six of them——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. If the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) were to deal with that intervention, he would be out of order. Any incident must be related to the amendment.

5.30 pm
Mr. Ashton

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I regret having given way. The hon. Gentleman was quite wrong in any case. Some pits in my constituency are on strike and others are working, so I know both sides of the argument. The Bill is supposed to allow industrial relations to be conducted in a peaceful, civilised manner so that ballots can be held and, equally important, so that people may seek to persuade others to adopt their point of view.

Miners at pits threatened with closure have asked why workers at a pit 200 miles away which is not to be closed should have a say in a ballot relating to a threatened pit. That is a perfectly logical argument. It does not seem very democratic to allow people 200 miles away to determine by national ballot the future of those at a threatened pit especially if those whose jobs are threatened are not allowed to put their case to men at other pits.

The police are disregarding present industrial relations law. They switch to a common criminal approach and use offences such as insulting or offensive behviour if they cannot make a case under the industrial relations legislation.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ashton

No, I shall not give way again. I have already given way once and regretted it.

People are now being arrested for offences that have nothing to do with trade union law. They are then hauled into the court and told that they must not leave their homes and villages or cross county borders.

Mr. Gale


Mr. Ashton

The hon. Gentleman may speak next if he wishes, but I shall not give way to him. These interruptions are intended merely to stop me saying what I intend to say.

People have been handcuffed and locked in cells. The promised telephone call home has been refused. The police say that they will contact the person's relatives. Then, at about 3.30 am, the men's wives or mothers are told that their husbands or sons are in prison. That is not the kind of law that we were promised in industrial disputes.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This justification for the behaviour of louts, thugs and bullies has nothing whatever to do with the clause under discussion.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is for the Chair to decide when an hon. Member is out of order.

Mr. Ashton

The Bill will supposedly ensure peaceful picketing. Having been arrested for shouting the word "scab", the miners asked what they were allowed to shout. The chief superintendent suggested the word "bounder" — a well-known trade union expression. They might even have been prepared to shout out "bounder" if they had been allowed to get to the pit. The successful working of trade union legislation promised by Ministers has simply not taken place.

On Saturday, a local priest asked to go with the pickets peacefully to see what was happening at local colleries because he had received complaints, but the police turned him back at the A1 boundary. Press reports state that the police believed that the priest was going into Nottinghamshire to cause a breach of the peace and warned him that if he continued he would be arrested. He was asked to get out of the car and the officer is reported to have said, That dog collar does not mean a thing to me. It could be a miner in disguise". With the best will in the world, it is clear that the Government's legislation is nonsense. The police in the area are working 18 or 20 hours a day, going to bed at about 4 am and out again at 9 am. They are paid £84 for the night shift. There are constant complaints that they are billeted in a Proteus camp just outside my constituency, that the food is lousy and that they are not allowed to go into the village or have any contact with local people. There are complaints that the telephones in the village——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he must relate his remarks to the voting papers.

Mr. Ashton

I understand that a decision is to be made on 12 April as to whether the NUM is to have a ballot. [Interruption.] Conservative Members should not cheer too soon. The Mail on Sunday opinion poll yesterday showed that 61 per cent. of NUM members favoured strike action. Anyone with long experience of trade union relations, as many of my hon. Friends have, knows that there is a time in an industrial dispute when the union cannot get the members out and another time when it cannot get them back in. People who have been out for a month or so become hardened and they are determined not to go back without some concession or reward, so let it not be thought that a ballot of the miners would automatically be against strike action. The Government fell into that trap in 1972–73 under the first industrial relations Act. The late Maurice Macmillan forced a ballot on the railwaymen and lost by six to one. That lost him his seat in the Cabinet and he never really recovered his political career afterwards.

We are discussing what is to be allowed in a ballot, how the ballot papers should be framed and how the lawyers come into it. History and experience show that when lawyers get involved, morality, ethics and fair play seem to go out of the window and we finish up with charges of contempt of court and the like. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may laugh, but 527 people have been arrested. The motive is not to charge them, because the courts cannot possibly deal with that number of people, as we discovered at Betteshanger before the war. Those 527 miners cannot possibly be locked up or fined, but they are prevented from taking any further part in the action because they will be arrested for contempt of court. That is entirely outside the concept of the legislation before us. No legislation can cover every eventuality.

I went to the NUM headquarters at Barnsley yesterday and I have a long list of cases—I shall not read them all out, as that would be out of order—showing what has happened to people who wished to exercise their right to picket peacefully. When Mr. Stubbins of Woolley branch had an angina attack the police refused access to Newstead colliery medical centre although the union officials, the nursing sister and even the pit manager pleaded that he should be allowed to receive treatment.

There was another arrest in a pub last week——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that he is straying a good deal. He must confine himself to the amendment.

Mr. Ashton

I am trying to show what happens when legal complexities are brought into these matters, as the Bill seeks to do. I believe that there will be a ballot in the NUM within the next couple of weeks, but I hope that the Secretary of State does not imagine that the Government's legislation is the be-all and end-all of the matter or that it will work. The past two or three weeks have proved that the Government's legislation does not work and is making things worse rather than better.

Sir Raymond Gower (Vale of Glamorgan)

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) took the line that he did because he gave the impression that he does not mind the strike being prolonged. I should have thought that everyone wished for an early settlement of the miners' strike which would ensure the future prosperity of the industry and splendid employment for those who wished to work in it. I hope that that will be the case.

The hon. Gentleman's point is a bad one. He must realise that in this case and in most others men who have been balloted and who have voted to remain at work have been picketed by persons who have not been balloted. It is a remarkable situation. In other words, most of those who ask the men not to go back to work have never been balloted themselves. Therefore, those who have been balloted are being prevented or dissuaded from working by people who have not voted at all. His example is poor.

I must declare an interest. I am a lawyer. I do not think that lawyers have all the answers, but if the law is not enunciated with some sort of clarity the world will be in chaos. I am afraid that legal draftsmen are needed for that. The rights and wrongs of a case must be set out in clear legal terms. I agree with the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) that if possible we should have as simple a question as we can—and a straight yes or no answer. I appreciate that we must never destroy a person's right to withhold his labour. That is an absolute right in a free society which must be regarded with sanctity. However, when a decision of this importance is made, its consequences should be pointed out. In other words, it is a serious matter to vote for a strike. That step might be decided upon but it should be realised that the consequence is to break a contract of employment. Whatever the consequence, the person making the decision should be aware of its importance.

Mr. Allan Rogers

What will happen to the other partner in the industrial relations contract — the employer, who, perhaps arbitrarily, removes the job of a person with whom he has a contract, perhaps even c losing down a colliery and causing great distress to everyone involved? How does the hon. Gentleman suggest that that should be handled?

Sir Raymond Gower

The hon. Gentleman's remarks would have had greater validity 20, 30 or 40 years ago in a strike between employees and employer. In those days the consequences for the employer were serious. He might lose his livelihood. Owing to the nature of our modern industrial set-up an administrator or an employer does not suffer personally. It is the community which suffers. The prolongation of a strike is injurious not to a few individual employers but to the community. That is why it is so serious. Therefore, it is important that the person deciding to strike should realise that it is a serious matter which may be contrary to a contract of employment. It should be brought home to him that his decision to strike will affect the life, comfort and well-being of his community. Therefore, the Bill is not unreasonable.

Mr. Gummer

The House should give full support to the police in their job of ensuring that those who wish to work can. That is the job of the police, and they decide how best to do it. That power is right and fundamental to the way in which we run our society.

Much of what the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) said did not seem to relate directly to the amendment. He talked about a union-wide ballot. There is no question of a union-wide ballot. These ballots are to ask those who are to be called out on strike or to take industrial action whether they wish to do so. That seems reasonable. It is also reasonable to point out, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Sir R. Gower), the seriousness of the question being asked. It is also reasonable to allow a union to decide what other questions it wants to put into that ballot.

This is an odd amendment, because it does nothing but circumscribe what the union should do. The union has every right to do what is in the amendment already. When the public hear what has just been said, it will become more and more clear to them that the sensible way forward is to ask people who are urged to take industrial action whether they want to do so. It will be much better to do that than to carry out this constant attack on the police.

Mr. Ashton

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that canvassing is allowed in elections in which we take part? That was a legitimate purpose at the general election in June and will be the case in future elections, perhaps in a couple of weeks' time. We deplore violence on picket lines because it achieves nothing. But picketing is a form of canvassing. It is against the law to go to a person's house to picket, but what is wrong with peaceful canvassing outside a pit?

5.45 pm
Mr. Gummer

To say that violence on a picket line is to be deplored because it achieves nothing seems to me to explain it all. Violence anywhere is to be deplored because it is violence, not because it does not achieve its purpose. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he would not deplore it if it achieved its purpose? That seems to lie behind what he said.

Of course it is reasonable to canvass in an election. The hon. Gentleman was talking about something different. He was talking about intimidation and the circumstances in which people were unable to go to work when they wanted to. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman says, we want to ensure that people who are called out on strike have the right to decide whether they want to strike or take industrial action. When they are asked that question the seriousness of the matter should be brought home to them. They are perfectly free to decide for themselves how they want to answer the question. The House should support their right to be asked the question and to answer it.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Gummer

I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 10, line 40, leave out 'or interference with its performance'. This is a short Government amendment to meet a point that was raised by Labour Members on how the ballot question might be put. We have sought to leave out the words or interference with its performance". That meets the point about complication, and therefore I hope that the House will be able to accept it.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Gummer

I beg to move amendment No. 12, in page 11, line 19, leave out 'voting' and insert 'entitled to vote'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendment No. 13.

Mr. Gummer

The amendment tries to meet points that were raised in Committee. We have sought to see that a trade union must take such steps as are reasonably necessary to ensure that those voting in any ballot are informed of the results as soon as reasonably practicable after the holding of the ballot. The amendment will ensure that the obligation to inform applies to those entitled to vote in any ballot, not simply to those voting, otherwise it might be restricted unnecessarily. I hope that the House will support the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 13, in page 11, line 32, leave out 'voting' and insert 'entitled to vote'. —[Mr. Gummer.]

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