HL Deb 24 May 1976 vol 371 cc78-84

6.21 p.m.

The MINISTER of STATE, DEPARTMENT of EDUCATION and SCIENCE (Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do approve the draft Industrial Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, which has been laid before it under the Northern Ireland Act 1974. The purpose of the draft order is to give effect to those recommendations requiring legislation made by the Review Body on Industrial Relations which reported in 1974 and, in important respects, to bring the law of Northern Ireland relating to industrial relations into line with recent legislation in Great Britain. The Review Body to which I have referred was established in 1971 by the then Northern Ireland Minister of Health and Social Services. It was comprised of 10 representatives of the Confederation of British Industry in Northern Ireland and the entire Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. It was charged to consider what changes, whether in law or in practice, should be made to promote the most harmonious and effective system of industrial relations in Northern Ireland.

During the time when the Review Body was at work, the Industrial Relations Act 1971 was in operation in Great Britain. That Act did not apply in Northern Ireland and consequently Northern Ireland escaped much of the controversy to which it gave rise elsewhere. Instead, the representatives of employers and trade unions in Northern Ireland together considered what action should be taken there. They proposed that the system of industrial relations in Northern Ireland should continue to be based on voluntary principles and they made a great many recommendations as to how the system could be strengthened and improved. Their report was unanimous. This was a considerable achievement, and I should like to pay tribute to the Review Body for the important contribution that they made towards the fostering of good industrial relations in Northern Ireland. I think some of their good sense might have helped us here during the difficult times of the Industrial Relations Bill.

Following the publication of the Review Body's report, the Industrial Relations Act of 1971 was repealed and major new legislation was enacted for Great Britain, but not Northern Ireland, in the form of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Acts 1974 and 1976 and the Employment Protection Act 1975. Many of the provisions of those Acts cover matters dealt with by the Review Body. As regards those matters. the order follows closely the provisions of the Westminster legislation. Many employers and trade unions operating in Northern Ireland are based in Great Britain and your Lordships will, I am sure, agree that it is in the interests of all concerned and of the avoidance of confusion that there should be no unnecessary differences as between the law in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Some of the provisions of those Acts are covered by this order, but in due course I shall be introducing further legislation for your Lordships' consideration.

I now turn to the detailed contents of the draft order. Part II (Articles 4 to 19), together with Schedule 1, provide for the establishment of a Labour Relations Agency which will be independent of Government control and financed from public funds. The Agency will be a body corporate and consist of a chairman and nine other members appointed by the head of the Department of Manpower Services. Three of the members will be appointed after consultation with employers' representatives and three after consultation with representatives of trade unions.

Article 5 lays down the general duty of the Agency, which is to promote the improvement of industrial relations and to encourage the extension of collective bargaining, together with the development and, where necessary, the reform of collective bargaining machinery. The Agency's functions include undertaking research and providing advice on matters related to industrial relations. It will undertake conciliation in relation to trade disputes which cannot be settled through the existing machinery. Together with the Department of Manpower Services. it will discharge functions relating to the application of the Terms and Conditions of Employment Act (Northern Ireland) 1963 in sectors of industry where pay is low and that Act cannot be invoked. It will review, co-ordinate and advise on arrangements for industrial relations training. Article 7 gives the Agency functions relating to the settlement of trade disputes about the recognition of trade unions. Article 8 enables a claim to be submitted to and an award to be made by the Industrial Court where, contrary to a recommendation by the Agency, an employer fails to recognise a trade union.

It is central to the Agency's functions that it should proceed with the co-operation of those with whom it comes into contact and it is not empowered to impose its will upon them. The Agency's functions are similar to those of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service in Great Britain. They differ in that, for the time being at least, the Agency will supplement rather than replace the Department's Conciliation Service. Provision has been made in Article 16 however, to transfer the Department's conciliation functions to the Agency should it be found desirable to do so.

Part III of the order confers upon Northern Ireland employees certain rights which exist in Great Britain under the Trade Union and Labour Relations Acts 1974 and 1976 and the Employment Protection Act 1975. Articles 20 to 41 give effect to the recommendations of the Review Body that employees should be given statutory protection against unfair dismissal. In so doing, it follows closely the Westminister legislation and hence provides for the achievement of remedies for unfair dismissal by way of a complaint to the industrial tribunals. These Articles are' supplemented by Article 48, which gives employees the right to a written statement of reasons for dismissal. These Articles contain the same provisions concerning the closed shop as the Great Britain legislation. Articles 42 to 47, like provisions in the Employment Protection Act 1975, enable the employee of an insolvent employer to obtain from the Northern Ireland Redundancy Fund payment of certain debts due to him from his employer, including, for example, arrears of wages, holiday pay, and pay for statutory minimum periods of notice. They provide for the Department thereafter to assume the employee's right and remedies against the employer in respect of such debts which have been met from the Fund.

Part IV of the draft order corresponds to Part IV of the Employment Protection Act relating to the handling of redundancies. Part V contains miscellaneous and supplementary provisions, of which I will mention the most important: namely, Articles 63 and 64. which bring the law in Northern Ireland into line with that in Great Britain concerning the enforceability of collective agreements and the liability of individuals in tort in relation to acts done in contemplation or furtherance of trade disputes. Article 65 provides statutory authority for the operation of schemes providing for temporary employment subsidies and recruitment subsidies for school-leavers. These schemes are already in operation in Northern Ireland and are being run under Appropriation legislation, as was the case in Great Britain prior to the provision of the necessary cover in the Employment Protection Act.

Article 67 provides for the application in Northern Ireland, with appropriate modification, of any charter in force in Great Britain relating to the freedom of the Press. Your Lordships will be aware that this issue gave rise to considerable debate during your deliberations over the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Act. The issue is essentially a national one. and it is appropriate that action should be taken in Northern Ireland in accordance with that taken in Great Britain.

The Schedules contain supporting provisions of which, again, I will mention only the most important. Schedule 3 replaces Schedule 2 to the Contracts of Employment and Redundancy Payments Act (Northern Ireland) 1965 and brings the law of Northern Ireland into line with that in Great Britain. Part I of Schedule 5 implements recommendations of the Review Body by amending the Wages Councils Act (Northern Ireland) 1945, with a view to fostering the development of collective bargaining machinery to replace wages councils in sectors where they are at present needed. Part II of the Schedule amends the Contracts of Employment and Redundancy Payments Act (Northern Ireland) 1965 and Part III amends other Acts.

This is a long and, in some respects, complicated order. It is the outcome, however, of a great deal of deliberation and consultation that has taken place as between representatives of employers and trade unions in Northern Ireland and the Department of Manpower Services. The draft order is of considerable importance to the future wellbeing of Northern Ireland and I ask that it be approved. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Industrial Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, laid before the House on 11th May, be approved.—(Lord Donaldson of Kings-bridge.)

6.31 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, for his explanation of this substantial order and, incidentally, for the assistance which I have received from the Northern Ireland Office in clarifying some points within it. However, having said that, there are one or two points which I feel 1 must add. Some five years ago the Review Body, to which the noble Lord referred, Vs, as asked by the Northern Ireland Minister of Health and Social Services at the time to proceed by way of basing industrial relations in Northern Ireland upon voluntary, and not upon statutory, principles. That is the reason why the provisions of the Industrial Relations Act 1971 were not incorporated into the law of Northern Ireland. When the noble Lord referred to that Act, I was a little surprised that he failed to mention that Part III of this order, which deals with unfair dismissal, is more or less based exactly upon the 1971 Act. But, apparently, once we have the blessings of a Labour Government, the principle which was agreed upon unanimously by the Northern Ireland Review Body, as the noble Lord said, is to be totally dispensed with, and we are to have the whole objectionable array of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act provisions and the Employment Protection Act provisions imported into Northern Ireland; not least, the principle of the enforceable closed shop, which I find totally objectionable.

I say this particularly because these pieces of legislation will undoubtedly raise costs for Northern Ireland industry and commerce, which is very much to be regretted. In many respects, costs in Northern Ireland are higher than they are in Great Britain. If the Government are really serious about wishing to attract more investment to the Province, they will do well to hesitate before laying an additional burden on Northern Ireland business.

I have only two questions to ask, and I should be grateful if the noble Lord could perhaps provide me with answers. I should like to ask whether any appointments have yet been made to the Labour Relations Agency; and, rather more importantly, whether the Government can give any indication at the moment of the annual running costs of this new Agency. With those two small questions I shall certainly support the passing of the order, but without any enthusiasm.


My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, cannot find any enthusiasm for giving the workers of Northern Ireland benefits comparable to those enjoyed here, but I do not know whether it is worth reopening that subject. A good deal of time was spent in this House on the principle as it applied to England, and I do not think it would be desirable to argue the case again. Therefore, it onlyremains for me to answer the two questions which the noble Lord has asked, to both of which, luckily, I have the answers. So far, no appointments have been made to the Agency, and the estimated cost is £150,000 per annum. Having provided those answers, I have no more to add to what the noble Lord said.

On Question, Motion agreed to.