HC Deb 03 March 1986 vol 93 cc124-32

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Durant.]

11.2 pm

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

For 28 years before coming to the House I worked as a printer on the News of the World and later on The Sun in Bouverie street. I am sponsored by the largest printing union, SOGAT '82.

Rupert Murdoch's callous and malevolent sacking of his entire work force of 5,500 without a penny of compensation or redundancy pay is an act of savagery unparalleled in British industrial relations. It is an affront to justice and ordinary human decency.

I shall begin with what the dispute is not about. It is not about new technology. That is something that the unions accept, and already operate on other newspapers. The truth is that in the Wapping machine room there is no new technology. The machinery there is secondhand. It is 16 years old and it has been in store. It is the same as that which was running in Bouverie street and Gray's Inn road. It is old letterpress machinery, with no facility for printing colour. The new technology in Wapping is in origination, in computerised photocomposition. This already exists and it is being worked with union agreement at the Daily Mirror and The Mail on Sunday. Let no one say that the unions are Luddite. Technology cannot excuse the barbarism that has occurred.

One of the most offensive aspects of this squalid story has been Murdoch's lies, the conspiracy of deceit, over months and years. One example is his cynical pretence of negotiating the transfer of staff to Wapping while all the time working deliberately and cold-bloodedly to eliminate the staff completely. One myth is that the company tried to negotiate for six years and could get nowhere. That is the opposite of the truth, as I shall show.

The staff at Gray's Inn road were not involved in negotiations because it was told that it was not going to Wapping. All the members of the clerical staff on all the newspapers were told that they were to stay put when the printing moved and that as a consequence they were not to be involved in the negotiations. The chapel and the department where I worked was the News of the World machine section. I have documents which show that what were called preliminary discussions were proposed by Mr. O'Neill for the company on 3 May 1983, when he invited chapel officials to tour the new building and then to fly to Finland to visit a modern printing plant. The management at that time gave clear, firm, categoric guarantees that there would be no compulsory redundancies.

On 2 January 1985, discussions had reached the stage where Mr. Britton could write the chapel a lengthy letter setting out all the areas of agreement and the company's proposals. He again reiterated: The company has given assurances that no regular employee need make himself available for voluntary redundancy. These management proposals were accepted by a chapel meeting in January 1985.

On 12 January 1985, Mr. Isaacs, the father of the chapel, wrote, as he put it, "with pleasure" telling the management that relations appeared good. At the last meeting with the management, Mr. Isaacs stated that the chapel would

accept all the constrictions laid down by management, and are prepared to move forthwith into Wapping to print the News of the World. But all this was a blind; it was bogus; it was a cheat —for all along, behind the smokescreen of these phoney negotiations, Murdoch was advancing his secret strategy to provoke a dispute and sack the entire work force. All talks were broken off by the management in the spring of last year. The management said that Wapping would not be used for the News of the World or the Sun but for an entirely new title, The London Post. Despite the attempted secrecy and repeated denials, information leaked about people being bussed in from Southampton and about electricians doing production work. The talk of a new title was a further deception covering the final preparations for the production of the four Murdoch newspapers at Wapping and simultaneously throwing the entire work force into the street without a penny.

These 5,500 British workers, our fellow citizens, have been the victims of a disgraceful, cynical and carefully laid plot to deny them their basic entitlements under British law. The Government should explain whether they approve, whether this is the sort of industrial relations practice that they want to encourage. These thousands of people have in many cases given a lifetime of service to these publications, often predating Murdoch's ownership. They are not just statistics, but people, flesh and blood with lives, families, futures, hopes and feelings. Are they to be callously discarded and thrown without a moment's thought on to the dole queue?

By this brutal action, Murdoch saves more than £40 million, and possibly £60 million, in redundancy pay and gloats about it. But who picks up the tab? The answer is the taxpayer, in state benefits. So the Government are subsidising Murdoch's barbarism with millions of pounds. Are they happy about this? Do they approve? I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will tell us.

If Murdoch makes even bigger profits from his British operation by this shabby injustice—he told the New York Times that he expects a 75 per cent. increase in profits next year—what will he do with them? He will export them to America to finance his media empire there. Is this what the Government want to encourage and reward? Murdoch owns 95 newspapers worldwide, yet his four United Kingdom newspapers make more profits—some £50 million last year—than the rest put together. The thanks that the British staff got for producing those profits was the sack from an unscrupulous proprietor who has just sold out his citizenship to become Americanised so as to own more newspapers in America. A former British Conservative Prime Minister once described a business man as the "unacceptable face of capitalism". Is not Murdoch's the ugliest, most repellent, unacceptable face we have seen? Will the Government dissociate themselves from it, or endorse it?

Few would not now recognise that in Brenda Dean and Tony Dubbins the printing unions have two of the most reasonable, measured, temperate and realistic of leaders. They have leaned over backwards to reach an accommodation. The most far-reaching concessions were made to Murdoch to obtain union recognition: an unprecedented offer of no disputes without ballots; binding arbitration triggered by either party; a profitability, efficiency, productivity and job flexibility commitment; joint union comprehensive schemes; and fewer bargaining units—all this, plus direct input, both editorial and advertising. Let no one say that the unions were dinosaurs—not willing to change, to negotiate, to reach agreements taking on board new conditions and working practices. What more could the unions offer and still remain trade unions?

But Murdoch does not want, and is determined to destroy, free, independent unions. Instead he wants a single, tame, domesticated, client, yellow dog union, rather like the staff association at Government Communications Headquarters. He wants all industrial action, however minor, whatever the provocation, or circumstances, even at the end of disputes procedure and after a ballot, banned completely. He goes further than General Jaruzelski. He wants servitude. His lawyer's definition of industrial action includes refusing voluntary overtime and attending unauthorised meetings. For those offences, under the special form of legally binding agreement he wants, individual workers could be sued for damages and stripped of their homes and personal possessions. He deliberately and calculatedly laid down impossible conditions to engineer a strike.

A letter from the law firm of Farrar and Co. of 20 December 1985 to News International, advised on "the cheapest way" of dispensing with the present work force". It explained: The idea is to catch as many employees in the net as possible. It even advised: there may be some merit in having piles of dismissal letters at exit doors". That was in case the industrial action was of short duration. They wanted to ensure that they caught everyone in time. The lawyers reminded the company: We talked of this some months ago". In other words, they had been conspiring and planning it for a long time. Has anyone heard of anything more despicable and shameful in industrial relations? It is a form of industrial terror.

New technology should be welcomed by all. It should be a boon to all. Its introduction should be by negotiation, handled sensitively, in a humane way, especially for people who have given years of service. All sorts of calumnies have been spread about printers, even by the present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, previously the Secretary of State for Employment. He alleged on the BBC television programme "Question Time" that he had personal experience 10 years ago of SOGAT Saturday night jobs at the News of the World being ballotted around the country and that they were paid £300 for one night. As I worked at the News of the World 10 years ago, I told him that he had grossly misled millions of people. I sent him evidence in writing which showed that pay for a long 14-hour Saturday night in. 1979, seven years ago, including all the overtime, was around £50. Ten years ago it would have been considerably less. In other words, the Secretary of State, in his gross and crude exaggeration, was about 1000 per cent. wrong. I gave him that information in writing on 15 February, but I am still waiting for him to correct the falsehood and put the record straight.

Many of those sacked were women — clerks, telephonists, librarians, cleaners, sales staff and circulation representatives—by no means excessively paid, but all victims of the same brutal treatment. Will the Government stand up for them? We should not forget the journalists, or "journos" as Murdoch disparagingly calls them, who were told, without consultation, to be bussed ignominiously behind the razor-wire fortifications at 24 hours notice, or be sacked. Those who honourably refused were dismissed with standard letters addressed "Dear Sir/ Madam". So much for press freedom and so much for the integrity and independence of the press. No wonder 108 journalists have left The Times since Murdoch took over.

We must all look at the grotesque operation of the law. If workers undertaking a strike after a ballot with an overwhelming majority can be dismissed, where is the right to strike? That could not happen in any other democratic country. Elsewhere, a contract of employment is suspended during a strike and reinstated afterwards. That must be rectified in this country.

What has been the effect of this Government's legislation? Within days of starting a lawful dispute following a ballot, SOGAT found itself snarled up and enmeshed in a dozen legal actions, its funds sequestrated, with a firm of chartered accountants controlling every penny the union owned. Was that the Government's intention? The union did not set out to break the law, ignore it, or be in contempt of it or to hide its funds. The union has been open and honest in its attitude. However, the law is geared to make it impossible for British workers to engage in a dispute and not be ensnared by it. Many hon. Members voted to restrict union activity, not to abolish it, but that is what has happened.

The legislation stopping secondary action was supposed to protect innocent third parties. Action was restricted to the workers' own employer and the employer's immediate first supplier or customer, but who is the employer if Murdoch sets up a maze of fictitious and allegedly independent companies? If former employees of Times Newspapers, or News Group newspapers knock on the door at Wapping where those newspapers are now printed, they find that the employer has disappeared and now calls himself something different. He calls himself London Post (Printers). It would be secondary action. Is that what was intended? The wholesaler would be the first customer, but not when Murdoch sets up a company between the papers and the wholesaler. Then any action becomes secondary.

To implement this chicanery, Murdoch set up six separate companies in the year before the dispute. Murdoch has exploited, twisted and manipulated the new laws to render trade union or collective action legally impossible. That cynical spectacle is causing a groundswell of public opinion against him. Even his own Wapping-produced Sunday Times of 16 February talked of the legal ring-fence that now forbids or cripples many traditional forms of industrial action. The paper quoted Eddie Shah as saying that the dispute is being "suffocated by the law." Murdoch's own paper actually goes on to say: There is little doubt that so far in this dispute the law has operated almost entirely to corral and circumscribe the unions, to a point where some are wondering whether the balance of worker-employer power may have shifted too far. An editorial in The Guardian talked of the shock on learning that 6,000 well-paid jobs can be junked overnight, without warning and without compensation or redundancy pay. The trade paper, Printing World, talked in an editorial on 19 February of the unfairness of the position. Mr. Murdoch may well be congratulating his lawyers on the subtlety of their machinations, but others are aware that the employment laws are being twisted … For a company to divide itself into associated companies solely as a means of invoking the law against secondary picketing is a cynical manoeuvre. If that is the law then the law needs to be changed. Do the Government agree with that? Will they now change those unjust laws? Does the right to withdraw labour still exist in Britain? Do workers have any rights at all?

The Labour party is clear about those anti-union laws. It will scrap the lot and start afresh, with workers' rights. But the existing laws are the Government's. Theirs is the responsibility. Are they prepared to restore some balance, fairness and justice? Will they give an assurance that they do not have yet another anti-union Bill coming along? The present laws not only permit, they positively incite, injustice, strife, division and bitterness and situations such as Wapping. Is that the Government's idea of "caring capitalism"?

What the House and the country will want to hear tonight is what the Government are going to do to promote a settlement. For the staff and the unions are not going to go away. The dispute and the picketing will continue until there is a settlement. A settlement can come about only by negotiation.

The electricians and the journalists at Wapping still have to live in the community. They will not want to work in those appalling conditions for ever. Already they are complaining to management. Engineers have refused to maintain the machines. The London press branch of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications, and Plumbing Union who staff the Fleet street papers were not consulted or balloted. On 29 January this year they sent a resolution of protest to their union. The present situation with its unfairness, hardship and confrontation cannot endure for ever. There must be a resolution. I ask finally: will the Government use their influence to get the parties together, and encourage proper negotiations to end this evil situation?

11 . 19 pm

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Does the right hon. Gentleman have the consent of both the Minister and the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) to speak?

Mr. Shore

Yes, Sir.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) for raising this scandalous matter in the House and giving me the opportunity to say a few words about it.

It is utterly deplorable that 5,500 print workers, men and women, should have been sacked by Mr. Murdoch. It is even worse that the circumstances should have been deliberately engineered so that they forfeited their redundancy pay and that their pension rights should have been put at risk.

It is a disgrace that the journalists employed on News International papers are compelled to work in an industrial complex surrounded by razor wire and security guards.

It is equally unacceptable, though so far little noticed, that the more than 3,000 people who live in Wapping— which I represent—should have their lives increasingly disrupted by a dispute in which they are not engaged and which they cannot influence. That disruption is happening in two principal ways.

First, convoys of heavy lorries leaving News International, escorted by police cars—sometimes with their sirens blaring—are being diverted away from the Highway, which is the natural route, and taken on a circuitous route through narrow streets in the heart of residential Wapping.

The noise of these heavy vehicles, the grinding of gears as they change down, and the speed with which they are driven, are a major disturbance and source of danger for the people who live in Wapping. That continues from mid-evening until well into the early hours of the morning. Minor accidents have already occured and more serious ones have been avoided by a whisker. The worst incident yet happened in Thomas More street on Saturday night, 1 March when a TNT lorry driver drove straight at a group of local people and demonstrating print workers. The road was very icy and slippery and the driver hit Mr. Tony Flint, a sacked switchboard worker, on the site and he was knocked unconcious and had to be taken to hospital.

My second point is that Wapping is being turned, for several days of the week, into a prison for the people who live there. It is now the most heavily policed area in the United Kingdom. People are constantly being stopped and questioned and asked for proof of identity when on foot. Residents driving home have had their cars turned back. That is a gross interference with the normal and lawful rights of free access to one's own home in one's own community. I have had many protests by letter and telephone from constituents and from such collective bodies as the Wapping tenants association, the Wapping parent action group and the trades council.

Clearly, no complete remedy will be found to these problems until the dispute is resolved. These are powerful and additional reasons why the Minister should abandon the "hands-off' and passive stance of his Department and lend his weight to securing an early and negotiated settlement.

11.23 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. David Trippier)

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) for giving me notice that he wished to intervene in the debate. I shall certainly consider the two specific points that he has drawn to my attention and if necessary I shall draw them to the attention of my colleagues in the Government.

I can tell the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) that we all want to see a swift and peaceful solution to this dispute. I am not here this evening to give advice either to News International or to the print unions about how they should conduct their business. I am certainly not here to talk about personalities. I must challenge the assertions made by the hon. Member for Newham, North-East about the fairness of the laws that the Government have introduced on industrial relations and I make no apologies for speaking about the law for which my Department is responsible.

Let me briefly remind the House what was left by the Labour Government when we came to power in 1979, as the changes that were subsequently made have a direct bearing on the dispute at Wapping. In 1979, trade union officials had immunity for the organisation of all sorts of excessive forms of industrial action, such as for example, indiscriminate secondary action, strikes—mainly about political matters—picketing at other people's places of work and secondary action to enforce the closed shop. In 1979, trade unions had almost complete immunity from legal action to recover the cost of the damage they had caused and at that time union balloting practices included balloting at inconvenient branch meetings and indirect block voting systems for union elections and strike votes by a show of hands at mass meetings.

The aim of the legislation that we have introduced step by step since 1979 has been to redress the balance of power in industrial relations, which had been shifted greatly in the unions' favour by the legislation of the Labour Government. Not even the hon. Member for Newham, North-East could deny that. We have given employers legal remedies against unreasonable action taken by trade unions in several situations. First, there must be a trade dispute between employees and their employer which is wholly or mainly about industrial matters. That means that unions can no longer organise political protests, which can greatly damage employers who have no control over the issues involved.

For all industrial action organised by a union, we have made immunity conditional on the holding of a properly conducted secret ballot in which the majority of those voting must say that they wish to take part in the action. It is important to stress that every person asked to go on strike must be given the chance to vote, and that is especially relevant to Wapping. They must be reminded that, by taking industrial action, they will be breaching their contract of employment that by taking strike or other industrial action, they are putting their jobs at risk. That is what our law requires, and that is again especially relevant to Wapping.

We have also limited the circumstances in which employees may take lawful secondary action. Where secondary action interferes with the performance of commercial contracts, or threatens to do so, its organisers must satisfy—

Mr. Leighton


Mr. Trippier

The hon. Gentleman has already had a fair crack at the debate, and I agreed to allow the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney to intervene, so I have been left with only a short time in which to answer the debate.

If the secondary action is indiscriminate in its effects — for example, if its main effect is to disrupt the business of employers not involved in the dispute—its organisers have no immunity. The requirement, which is now most familiar, is that secondary action should take place at a customer or supplier who has a commercial contract with the employer in dispute, and be aimed at the supply of goods or services between them.

There are special provisions to cover the case where, because of a dispute, the employer in dispute transfers work normally done by his employees to an associated employer such as a subsidiary company. We did not, as some urged at the time, and some people seem to think now, outlaw all action in those circumstances. A reacting of section 17 of the Employment Act 1980 will show that we gave unions the right to take action against any associated employer to whom work is transferred because of the dispute.

However, immunity for secondary action is subject to further conditions. Inducement to break a contract of employment has no immunity if it interferes with the supply of goods or services and the reason, or one of the reasons, for the industrial action is that the supplier does not recognise, negotiate with or consult trade unions or union officials, or because he employs members of a certain union or non-union members.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

Another management brief, just as in the Silentnight debate.

Mr. Trippier

The hon. Gentleman would be amazed. I wrote most of it myself.

The law on picketing is also important. Where pickets interfere with the ability of employers to fulfil their commercial contracts, they and their organisers normally have immunity from civil law proceedings only if the picketing is at or near the pickets' place of work and the purpose of the picketing is peacefully to obtain or communicate information or peacefully to persuade a person to work or not to work.

Mr. Prescott

What about Murdoch?

Mr. Trippier

I have to tell the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) that daubing cars with paint is not peaceful persuasion by anyone's standards.

It is important to remember that picketing which is not peaceful and which, for example, leads to violent or abusive behaviour, intimidation or obstruction of the highway, is likely to involve offences under the criminal law. There is no immunity for people who commit such offences while taking industrial action, and they may be arrested and prosecuted by the police.

All this means is that the industrial relations scene to which the hon. Gentleman refers is light years away from the one that we inherited. I am pleased to admit that the number of strikes is at a post-war low and that the number of days lost shows a substantial decline.

Mr. Leighton

What about Murdoch?

Mr. Trippier

I said at the beginning of the debate that I would not refer to personalities.

This decline has been made possible partly by our laws, but our laws alone cannot take all the credit. They would not have succeeded if they had not reflected and kept pace with the views of ordinary working people. Ordinary working people do not want to be called out on strike without first being asked for their views, and that means not just a car park show of hands but a properly conducted secret ballot. Ordinary working people do not want to be dragged into somebody else's dispute.

I do not want to go back over old ground, but I think that the Labour party suffers from a peculiarly short memory. They were, after all, swept from power in revulsion against the wholesale spread of secondary action and secondary picketing that gripped the country in the winter of 1978. Our aim has been to see that never again will there be such wholesale damage done to employers, trade unionists, non-union members and the community at large by the spread of someone else's quarrel.

We have done all that we can to open the doors of new technology. The hon. Member for Newham, North-East said that that was not relevant, but I think that it is extremely relevant. So often in the past secondary action and mass picketing with its bully-boy tactics have been used to stop the implementation of new production techniques.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

What about Murdoch's bully boys.

Mr. Trippier

Standing out against new technology does not preserve jobs, it destroys them. Of course, not all the jobs that disappear in this way in the United Kingdom are lost for ever. Many of them are alive and well and living in our competitor countries, where there has been a longer tradition of shared objectives between management and work force. I have said before that I do not work to advise either of the parties in this dispute—

Mr. Prescott

What about Murdoch?

Mr. Trippier

I do not wish to get involved with personalities, as the hon. Member for Newham, North- East has sought to do, by referring in emotive language to one individual.

I want to end simply by noting that a new realism is developing in other industries and indeed, thanks to Mr. Eddie Shah, elsewhere in the printing industry. I hope that that realism will one day take root in Fleet street.

11.32 pm
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I think that the Minister has disgraced himself tonight. He was asked important questions about Murdoch by my hon. Friends and he has not had the guts to reply to them or to state where he stands on Murdoch's role in this affair.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-eight minutes to Twelve o'clock.