HL Deb 12 November 1975 vol 365 cc1879-88

3.39 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House I will repeat a Statement which is being made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment about the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill in another place. I will use his own words:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill. In particular I should like to say a few words to the House in explanation of why it has not been possible to reach agreement between the two Houses.

"First, the Government have not been able to agree to the proposals put forward in another place because we considered that it was quite inappropriate to provide that breaches of the charter should be taken to the courts in the way suggested. That is our objection in principle. The fact that the particular proposal which the other House has put to us involves the use of a concept which was described by my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor as not only unusual, but fraught with difficulty and obscurity, has been a further complication. Lord Goodman yesterday described his own proposal as unquestionably uncertain, unquestionably obscure and unquestionably open to argument. It is that proposal which he asked us to put on the Statute Book.

"Second, I must make absolutely clear that we were unable to agree to the proposals put forward by another place because our aim has been to achieve, as quickly as possible, arrangements within the industry which would provide effective safeguards against any risks to the freedom of the Press which might be thought to be involved in the passing of the Bill. We, therefore, could not ignore the possible impact on the attitude of the parties within the industry of insisting in advance that the charter included a number of rights favoured especially by one side to the discussion. The majority in another place have, most unwisely, disregarded that risk altogether.

"I do not wish to make a detailed Statement about all the issues which have arisen, but a large number of controversial and misleading comments have been made.

"First, it has been suggested that all the attempts at a compromise have come from Lord Goodman and his associates and that the Government has been obdurate. No one who has followed what actually occurred could believe that. I welcomed the idea of a charter when the possibility was first raised. I suggested when the House debated the issue on 12th February on the Report stage of the Bill that if the parties wish to have it incorporated in some code of practice the Government would certainly be prepared to consider it. We welcomed Lord Houghton's Amendment immediately it was made. The matters which the charter should cover have been made more specific. The charter will now be relevant to all proceedings before courts or tribunals. The ground which the Secretary of State can cover if he has to make a charter without the agreement of the parties has been limited—a concession which Lord Goodman himself has described as substantial. The Government have genuinely sought a sensible settlement and I repudiate all Lord Goodman's statements to the contrary. He accused me in the House of Lords of bad faith and I think on reflection he would wish to withdraw any such accusation.

"It is particularly alleged that the Government withdrew a compromise offer at virtually the last minute yesterday and that we were very close to an agreement. This Statement, repeated in the Times today, completely misrepresents the position. The Lord Privy Seal rightly and immediately made clear in another place that no firm proposal was made. Certainly exploratory discussions took place following a brief meeting between Ministers and Lord Goodman. A draft was drawn up in an attempt to see if there was room for agreement on a provision about public policy which would meet both the Government and Lord Goodman. There was a good deal of discussion; but in the end Lord Goodman rejected the Government's preferred version. However, it is quite wrong to see this as the only outstanding issue. At the meeting Lord Goodman made it clear that there were a number of other issues on which he wishes to insist, and that the Government should make major changes. In particular, he insisted, as he did in another place yesterday, that the provision relating to the coverage of the charter must contain a right of journalists not to be unreasonably expelled or excluded from a union. The Government do not think it necessary to set this out as something which must be included in the charter. Nothing in the Bill prevents the exercise of existing Common Law rights in this field. The Government believe that when Section 5 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act is repealed the TUC's proposed independent review committee will provide adequate machinery to deal with any cases which cannot be satisfactorily resolved within the machinery of individual unions. Moreover, the NUJ's own machinery means that no member can be expelled without the agreement of the National Executive, and within the union there is also appeals machinery. Nevertheless, this is the point on which Lord Goodman is now placing so much emphasis and on which he was demanding a change even if some compromise had been possible on other issues, although it is a very different proposal from those put to me originally by the editors which were about the position of editors in the closed shop.

"On the constitutional question, it is necessary to recall that this is the first time for many years, indeed it is one of the rare occasions in several decades in which the House of Lords has gone to such lengths to frustrate the will of the House of Commons. Yet who will claim that this is the most controversial of all measures introduced in the period? The Bill is itself a repeal of the Industrial Relations Act of 1971 which was passed through this House under the guillotine and which now by general consent is necessarily to be repealed. Yet the House of Lords never invited the Commons to reconsider a single controversial provision of the 1971 Act.

"But the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill, by contrast, was a measure passed through this House in all stages without any resort to the guillotine and with increasingly large majorities in a House of Commons where the Government commands no such considerable majority of its own. And yet the House of Lords have intervened and used their residual power to prevent us placing on the Statute Book a measure for which we have a good majority in this House and a mandate at two elections. At a time when respect for Parliament and more especially this elected Chamber is of such supreme importance in overcoming our national problems I believe everyone in this House should join in condemning this challenge to democratic authority. Consequently, the Government have every intention of reintroducing this Bill in the next Session."

My Lords that completes the Statement.

3.47 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be very grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the House for having repeated that non-controversial and un-tendentious Statement. A great deal of it was concerned with the disputes between Mr. Foot and the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, and I do not intend to concern myself with that matter. I know that he was told by both the noble Lord opposite and the noble Baroness that this Statement would refer to him, but the noble Lord did not find it possible to be here. I am not in any way criticising the Government for that. The noble Lord, Lord Goodman, is perfectly capable of looking after himself and if I am there I shall be interested to see the next round.

I do not intend to say very much because we had a long debate yesterday on the subject, but there are two points which I must make. Mr. Foot is quite wrong when he talks about this House "frustrating the will of the House of Commons." He is quite wrong when he says that what this House has done is a challenge to democratic authority. Also, he is quite wrong when he says that we are preventing the House of Commons from placing this measure on the Statute Book. Yesterday your Lordships decided by a large majority to exercise the rights which were given to this House by the Parliament Act 1949. That Act makes it absolutely plain that after the period of time laid down in that Act the will of the House of Commons shall prevail. This House has been using the power which the will of a Socialist Government in the House of Commons gave to us and it is absurd to pretend that we are thwarting the will of the people.

3.49 p.m.


My Lords, first may I commiserate with the noble Lord the Leader of the House in having to repeat that Statement to your Lordships. There is so much in it which is so petty-minded that it does not deserve comment. I suppose it is due to the end-of-term frustration from which many people suffer at this time of the year. Certainly I follow the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, in not commenting upon the different interpretations of the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, and the Government regarding what happened over a period of five hours ending at two o'clock in the morning. However, it is clear that all parties were very close to agreement and there is no reason why further talks should not take place in the very short period of delay which will occur at the beginning of the next Session. I would hope that this is a course on which the Government would embark.

But I should like to reiterate from these Benches that we place on record our total unacceptance of the Secretary of State's opinion that this House has frustrated the will of the House of Commons. We have done nothing of the sort. We have exercised our legitimate powers to uphold a principle on which Peers on all Benches—Liberal, Conservative, Labour, Cross-Benches, and I hope there are one or two Bishops in the Lobby, although I am not sure, but certainly it was the feeling of the House, and not merely of one small section of the House, that this was a matter of fundamental principle—thought it right to protest. In my view, the Secretary of State's Statement comes oddly from a member of a Government which has the support of only 28 per cent. of the electorate. I am not going to indulge in a long discussion on electoral reform, but every time I hear "manifestitis" coming in, it makes my blood boil, from a Government who are occupying seats in another place which do not really belong to them.

3.51 p.m.


My Lords, one fact of life is that there is a long corridor between your Lordships' House and another place. It is true that some took a long time getting here—


And some went back again, my Lords!


Yes, my Lords, some went back and, whether it is our fortune or misfortune, they returned. But, seriously, your Lordships yesterday exercised the residual rights under the Parliament Act; that is as we see it. Of course, as between Members in another place, who sit there as a consequence of an election as opposed to creation under the Life Peerages Act or, like myself, solely because of a twinkle in a father's eye some fifty-seven years ago, there is a marked difference concerning our respective authorities. Therefore, particularly as this is a matter that had been going to and fro between the two Houses, I suggest it is well understood that another place should consider that the decision which was taken in your Lordships' House last night to be frustration.

If the Amendment which was voted on had any real merits—if it was not, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, himself referred to it "obscure"—I might have thought that your Lordships' House had acted with sense; but bearing in mind the description by the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, of the Amendment on which noble Lords opposite voted, I do not think the House did great credit to itself as a revising and legislative Chamber.

How close we were to agreement. I think I used the phrase yesterday that the tide flows and the sands move. There were times when one thought that one was close to agreement, only to see that agreement ebb away. Speaking personally, if there were to be further discussions—and whether further discussions are possible I do not know—I would certainly wish to see them conducted in a more formal way than in the last few days. I say this quite deliberately. I do not want to go over the ground covered yesterday in the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodman. He is not present today although, as the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said, I made an effort to see that he should be here, and therefore I will not deal with his speech. But when I read the leading article and the report in The Times newspaper—and we were talking about the freedom of the Press—it is about time we started talking about the basis, the confidentiality, and the honesty of reporting. I do not want to say anything further on that subject.

3.54 p.m.


My Lords, I wonder whether I may say another word from these Benches. I have played a little part in the events. First, may I thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for the relatively conciliatory tone—all but the last few sentences, which were not aimed at us—in which his words were uttered. I accept, of course, and endorse exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Byers, and my noble friend said about the constitutional issue, but there is another point which I should like the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, to consider and, perhaps, convey to his colleagues.

I personally resent—and I expect a great number of people in this House will resent—the rather ungracious and unmannerly tone in dealing with this House after what has been going on for the last three months. It is not simply a question that we have not—for the reasons given by my noble friend—"frustrated the will of the people" or "challenged democratic authority" because democra- tic authority is defined in and protected by the Parliament Acts, and I cannot complain that the Secretary of State has done the very thing which in a sense the House will remember I invited him to do last night.

What I resent is this: Ever since last July this House, which is not remunerated by salary, has been putting itself to very great inconvenience—all of us have—in one measure after another of a highly controversial, intricate and difficult kind. I personally have suffered a good deal of inconvenience, but in fact I have probably suffered much less than most noble Lords who have been much more diligent in their attendance to things like the Community Land Bill, the Industry Bill and the petroleum Bill, all of which are much more difficult and lengthy than the Bills for which I have been responsible. Not only have we not frustrated the will of the people or a democratic authority, but we have put ourselves out in order to assist the Government to get their business through. I think probably both the noble Baroness—I was going to call her the Captain of the Queen's Horse, but I will call her instead the Chief Whip—and the Lord Privy Seal know perfectly well that, not only have we not held up Government business or frustrated the will of the people, or challenged democratic authority, but we have gone to extreme lengths to facilitate the passage of Bills even though we felt free to amend them and to criticise them. I hope it will he conveyed to the Secretary of State that he has been most unfair to this House—not simply misleading on a constitutional issue, but unfair to it on a question of morality.

3.57 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to respond to the noble and learned Lord. Sometimes I think my noble friend is the captain of the cavalry; indeed sometimes I think she must feel that she is captain of the Queen's elephants! The pressure is very hard when it comes to questions of duty.

I do not believe in counting chickens before they are hatched, and there is still a major piece of legislation to be finished this afternoon; but in the light of what the noble and learned Lord has said and in anticipation of the House continuing in its co-operative mood and spirit, I should like to say that I was looking at some statistics the other day and I noticed that your Lordships had passed Bills this Session that, on average, had come from another place every five weeks, which is a relatively short time. Bills which were introduced in your Lordships' House naturally took a little longer, but the average time taken was seven weeks. I fully and freely concede to the noble and learned Lord—and if his Chief Whip had been present, more directly to him—that we on this side of the House have had nothing but the fullest co-operation on the timetable and we are, indeed, grateful. It is perfectly true that if we had not had this degree of co-operation between the two sides this very heavy legislative programme could not have been completed.

I am also conscious of the very special burdens that have been placed on a relatively few people, because at the end of the day the leadership of legislation has to be conducted by a relatively few from the Front Bench opposite. If it were not for the Front Bench opposite, then the House as a whole would not deal with legislation as it should be dealt within Committee and on Report. I fully acknowledge that. I had intended doing it on a more convivial occasion after the gracious Speech, but having been invited to convey the views of the noble and learned Lord to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, I thought I would take the opportunity of expressing them here. Not only will I convey what he has said, but I will also show personally to my right honourable friend what I have said to this House, it being on the record.

My Lords, I would only say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, who knows my right honourable friend over many years in another place, that he is a very charitable man, a very great friend and a very great Parliamentarian. No doubt I have a sense of his feelings that a Bill which he has tried to get through on two occasions has again been frustrated. But I said to him very early this morning that I thought that when this Bill came back to your Lordships, Your Lordships' House would not obstruct it but, perhaps reluctantly, would see it through, if that is so, I do not believe any harm has been done.

May I say, too, that if in Parliamentary language some words are rougher than others—and yesterday I had to listen to one who was not all that pleasant to listen to—as Parliamentarians I think we have to take it. It was Mr. Truman, I believe, who said that if the kitchen is hot, get out of it. I suggest there is no harm done in the exchange of language of that sort. We know the spirit in which it occurs. May I repeat to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and other noble Lords opposite—and particularly to my own colleagues who have supported the Government during this difficult time—that we are indeed grateful, myself particularly, for the co-operation received in seeing through this legislative programme. If you have made one mistake, my heart is big enough, and I will forgive you.