HL Deb 30 June 1977 vol 384 cc1239-48

4.6 p.m.

The LORD CHANCELLOR (Lord Elwyn-Jones)

My Lords, the Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment is as follows:

"With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the dispute at Grunwick Processing Laboratories Limited.

"During the past week or so I have had a number of meetings with the parties concerned. I have discussed the situation with the Managing Director of the company, Mr.Ward, and his advisers; and with the General Secretary of APEX, Mr.Grantham. I have attempted to explore with both sides how sufficient progress might be made towards resolving the issues in dispute and to defuse the explosive situations which exist on the picket line and elsewhere. These escalating troubles must be laid to rest before they do more damage.

"During the course of the discussions I considered very hard in what way progress might best be made. I formed the conclusion that, if the parties were able to give me certain assurances, I should appoint an independent mediator to investigate the circumstances of the dispute, to make recommendations to the parties, and to report to me. I wrote to Mr. Ward and Mr. Grantham last Friday to say that I would appoint a mediator if they would agree to co-operate with him and abide by his recommendations. The union was prepared to give me these assurances, but despite long discussions I have been unable to persuade Mr. Ward and his advisers to agree to abide by a mediator's recommendations.

"In view of this I have come to the conclusion, very regretfully, that the appointment of a mediator would not bring about any early progress. The Government have been considering what further steps might be taken, since it is clear that matters cannot be allowed to go on like this.

"I have, therefore, today appointed a Court of Inquiry under the Industrial Courts Act 1919. Its terms of reference are:—

'To inquire into the causes and circumstances of, and relevant to, the dispute, other than any matter before the High Court until the final determination of those proceedings, and to report'.

"These terms allow all the circumstances and issues involved to he examined, other than the ACAS recommendation on union recognition, the validity of which is being challenged by the company in High Court proceedings which begin next week.

"The Chairman of the Court of Inquiry will be the right honourable Lord Justice Scarman. The other members will be Mr.J. P. Lowry, Director of Personnel, British Leyland Limited and formerly Director of the Engineering Employer's Federation; and Mr.Terence Parry, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union. I have asked the Court to begin its work with the greatest urgency.

"Courts of Inquiry under the 1919 Act are not set up lightly. This is only the second since 1972. But this has been a very long, bitter and damaging dispute, which still shows signs of widening.

"I believe that a Court of Inquiry is now the right course. Over the years, Courts of Inquiry have brought about the resolution of other disputes that were equally damaging and intractable.

"To do so the Court needs every possible help. First, it will be looking for full co-operation from the parties. I would urge them to give every assistance to the Court and help to expedite its proceedings.

"Secondly, and this is most important, it needs to be able to proceed in a reasonably calm atmosphere.

"Action by either party aimed at reinforcing entrenched positions including mass picketing or any other action that might lead to breaches of the law, does not help, and I would appeal to both APEX and Grunwick to consider whether their behaviour is calculated to increase the chances of achieving a peaceful solution of the dispute. I am well aware of the strength of feeling of both parties to the dispute, but I think I am entitled to urge this upon them and upon others involved. I would also hope that this appeal will have a full support of the TUC.

"Finally, the Court's attempt to seek a peaceful solution needs the full support of the whole House, and I am confident that this will be forthcoming. I hope that any statements made now or in the debate we are to have later will be of a kind that will help and not hinder this effort to find a peaceful solution".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement

4.13 p.m.


My Lords, this is a very im- portant announcement and I am sure that the House is grateful to the noble and learned Lord for having repeated it in this House. I am sure also that we should continue to be informed, step by step, of any matters of which the other place is also informed at the same time.

I certainly agree with the final paragraph of the Statement. Of course, we are not holding a debate here—a debate is being held in another place but that does not affect us—but I think it is very important that anything that is said in Parliament should be said in a tone, and perhaps in words, that do not inflame feelings on either side. I therefore want to be very careful about anything that I may say on the matter.

I did not myself anticipate the announcement of a court of inquiry but I am far from saying that it was not the only weapon left in the Government's locker, so I do not want to criticise. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord, when he comes to reply, could remind us exactly what the powers of such a court are. As he says, the appointment of one is slightly unusual in modern industrial practice—the Act, of course, dates back to 1919. Perhaps we can be told what will be the status of its report. To what extent will the report include, or be capable of including, recommendations, as distinct from findings of fact, and what powers of enforcement, if any, either during the proceedings or thereafter, exist? I think that the House would like to be informed about these matters because not everyone is fully aware of them.

I must say—and it is the only thing on which I think I can make a very positive contribution—that the noble and learned Lord and the Government could hardly have found a more acceptable chairman than Lord Justice Scarman. He really is an outstanding judge, and I think his contribution to the national life will increase as time goes on. Naturally enough, I wish the inquiry every possible success and I can at any rate speak as to the chairman, although I personally do not know the other very distinguished people involved. I am sure the Government have chosen the best possible chairman for this purpose.

My Lords, I myself rather wish that the appeal made to APEX and Grunwick in the eleventh paragraph of the Statement had extended more explicitly to other bodies concerned, because the situation has now developed well beyond the original disputants and I feel that it would have been helpful to have appealed more directly to those on one side or the other who have been encouraging activities which might inflame feelings, pending the hearings of this inquiry.

The noble and learned Lord and the House will have noted the rather serious statement made by the Master of the Rolls in a speech yesterday when he said, "The mobs are out". What had seemed to be a small dispute the size of a man's hand has now cast a shadow over the sky of the whole constitutional life of this country. We must hope and pray that the forces of decency and law will prevail in the end.


My Lords, I—

Several noble Lords: Order!


My Lords, we on these Benches also welcome this Statement, and would certainly support the appeal contained in it for restraint by all parties in the period leading up to the time when the court sits, and also for full-co-operation with the court when it does sit. We note with interest that it was only yesterday that my honourable and learned friend in another place, Mr.Emlyn Hooson, said that there was a clear case for a totally independent inquiry into the state of affairs at the Grunwick factory. It is in the interests of all concerned that such an inquiry should take place. In these circumstances, it is right that we on these Benches should thank the Government for acting so very rapidly upon the proposal put forward by the Liberal Party.

If I may, I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord about one matter. Under Section 4 of the Industrial Courts Act 1919, the Minister, when he refers a matter to a court of inquiry, may refer any matters which appear to him to be connected with, or relevant to, the dispute. May I ask whether any decision has yet been taken as to what are the matters which are relevant to, or connected with, this dispute? In particular, will those matters include certain areas where, clearly, the law is at the moment in a somewhat unsatisfactory state? These include the whole law of picketing and the question of the closed shop and the rights of individuals in certain circumstances to decline to join a trade union. Also, what are the powers of ACAS to carry out ballots in circumstances such as this? We would hope that the court of inquiry would have the widest possible powers to consider not simply the immediate area of this dispute but also a number of these controversial and highly relevant areas that are directly connected with it.

4.19 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome which has been given to the proposal to set up a court of inquiry. Its aim is to find a peaceful solution to the painful situation which has arisen, and I am very happy to note from the tone and content of what has been said that your Lordships will certainly seek to further that aim. Of course, I forgive the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, for claiming for the Liberal Party parenthood of this suggestion. I do assure him that it was something which was contemplated even before the observations made by Mr. Emlyn Hooson in another place.

But coming to the serious aspect of this matter—and I am grateful for the welcome of the proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, asked about the status and powers of the court of inquiry. Its status is that of a statutory body, whose report will be made to both Houses of Parliament. It can make recommendations. The extent of compliance with those recommendations will depend upon whether those who are affected by them will recognise that those who constitute this court are men of great standing. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, said, Lord Justice Scarman is one of our most eminent judges, who has given great service to the State, and he is supported in this inquiry by two distinguished experts in the field of industrial relations—if I may say so, on both sides of the fence. Therefore, I would expect that any recommendations that emanate from this body will be accepted and followed up.

The court has power to order persons to attend and produce papers. In this field, there are no specific statutory powers, or powers in the field of contempt, but once again I would hope that the status of the body and its statutory position—the fact, as I say, that it will report to Parliament—will add up to full acceptance by all concerned of their duty to co-operate to the full with the court of inquiry. I agree with what has been said, that it is important to defuse the explosive situation that has arisen and I am satisfied that the terms of reference, which are very wide, will enable the court, if it thinks fit as I would expect—it will, of course, be for the court itself to determine what ground it should cover, whether it will deal precisely with the matters referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder—to consider how the dispute began, the strike, the dismissals, the behaviour in an industrial relations sense of the union and the company, what next to do and matters of that kind. The terms of reference have been made deliberately wide, so that all of these matters may be considered; and I repeat the plea that has been made by the Secretary of State, that all that is necessary should now be done to restore calm to enable this inquiry to be conducted, and that those actions which have up till now been taken which have inflamed the situation should cease.


My Lords, if I may just add to that my personal welcome for the setting up of the court and relieve the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack of any unhappiness, I called for this last Friday and I am very glad that both the Liberal Party and the Government have caught up with me in the course of little less than one week. But it was, I believe, the only step left that the Government could take. Of course, inevitably, there is a certain weakness in courts of inquiry, but having been involved with them and with the Act which set them up, I feel that there was nothing else the Government could do. As to membership, I, too, join in unreserved congratulations on securing the services of the chairman. But while, I hope, choosing my words as carefully as other noble Lords, I am a little surprised at the membership. I should not have thought that the past history of British Leyland's industrial relations was an outstanding recommmendation, and I am a little surprised about the Fire Brigades Union. But now that they have been appointed, one can only wish them both, with the chairman, the best of luck.

What I really rose to put to the noble and learned Lord is perhaps something that can be put only from one on these Benches, and one can hardly expect him or the Minister to put it. But when we make a plea to both sides now to calm it and cease provocative actions, and let the court have the right atmosphere in which to proceed, what we really mean is that APEX and the TUC should call off mass picketing from any other unions with which they are associated. We also mean that those highly political advisers, who have gone in to help Mr.Ward—perhaps I should put the word, "help" in quotes—whose knowledge of industrial relations is, I should have thought, a good deal less than their knowledge of political issues, should now step down and then the issue will be able to be judged in the calm that it should have.

4.26 p.m.


My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that if the court of inquiry confines itself to the cause of the trouble, and seeks an urgent solution, that is one thing? But if it is to extend its range over the question of peaceful picketing et cetera it will raise a number of other important political issues that may cause further trouble? Is he further aware that there is a rumour in the City of London in business circles this morning that a number of very prominent businessmen, who are concerned about an extension of the dispute through the Post Office, electricity and in other important directions, are proposing to acquire an interest in the business and bring about an urgent solution of the problem? Is he aware of this rumour in the City of London in business circles, because, if he is not aware of it, I am.


My Lords, I am invited to answer that question. The answer is that I have no knowledge of these manoeuvres. If they are existing, I hope that they will cease. I detect that the message emanating from this House at this moment of time is "cool it", and that is the best atmosphere in which this court of inquiry can progress. I am delighted to judge, from yet another claimant to parenthood of this idea, that it must have a good deal of legitimacy. I think that the composition of the court is admirably suited for this situation, and I think that the best service we can now do to it is to wish it every success in its endeavours, which are to find a peaceful solution to the strike and not wander on a large academic range of investigation.


My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord just enlighten me on one point? How does this arrangement affect the court case, which I believe is going on at this moment, about the postal workers' interference with the mail going to Grunwick? Perhaps I ought to declare an interest in that my nephew by marriage happens to be the Director of the National Association for Freedom, and I know that there are various plans afoot for getting the mail through to Grunwick. How will the court case and other matters be affected by the Government's plans?


My Lords, the position is that the terms of reference, which I read out, specifically exclude the matters which arise in the case before the High Court and there will be no clash. Of course, as Lord Justice Scarman is the Chairman, he will see that there is no overlapping with the issues that arise in the court proceedings.


My Lords, will my noble and learned friend confirm that this tribunal of inquiry, constituted under the Tribunals of Inquiry Act 1919, is precisely the Act under which the Belcher Tribunal was constituted, upon which he conducted a campaign on injustice almost unparalleled, in my experience? Is he not aware—I am sure he is—that, time after time since then, we have raised the injustice and impracticability of the proceedings in this Act, which permit cross-examination without any direct relevance whatever to British laws of evidence on the asking of questions.


My Lords, I hasten to reassure my noble friend that this has nothing whatsoever to do with the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, or the proceedings under that Act, so he can set aside forthwith his anxiety. The court is to be set up under the Industrial Courts Act 1919. The previous courts which have been set up under that Act have operated justly and fairly and have never been subject to the kind of criticisms which flowed from hearings under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act.

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