HL Deb 22 March 1979 vol 399 cc1306-27

5.0 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The need for the Bill arises because most of the courts in Scotland, including the Court of Session, the High Court of Justiciary and the Sheriff Courts are seriously crippled by a strike involving many of their staff. This strike is part of a national campaign of industrial action being taken by two Civil Service Unions: the Civil and Public Services Association, the CPSA, and the Society of Civil and Public Servants, the SCPS, in furtherance of a pay dispute with the Government. These unions have specially selected the Scottish courts for a total withdrawal of labour, and in the event some 84 per cent. of the staff of the Supreme Courts and some 83 per cent. of the staff of the Sheriff Courts are on strike.

Negotiations on civil service pay are carried out at national level. The Government have given assurances that the pay research settlements negotiated with the unions—and I should say that there are seven other unions not on strike—will be implemented, that the settlement will be staged, though the staging will be subject to negotiation, and that any dispute on the amount of pay research based settlements will be arbitrable under the terms of the Civil Service Arbitration Agreement, though the settlements will be subject to staging. Negotiations on pay, with a view to a settlement before 1st April, are proceeding.

We regard this strike as quite unjustified, beginning, as it did, six weeks before the settlement date and when negotiations were going on, as indeed they still are. The Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Employment met senior representatives of both unions involved no later than last week, on Tuesday, 13th March, and pointed out to them the problems the strike was causing and tried to persuade them to call if off. This they were not prepared to do, and the strike continues. I am sure we all regard the courts, and open access to them, as a fundamental part of our democracy, and it is intolerable that, for most of Scotland, the courts—and that includes the Supreme Courts—are virtually at a standstill and have been so for the last four weeks. At a debate on the position in the Scottish courts in another place on Tuesday, 13th March, there was agreement all round that the situation was deplorable and that legislation was required to ameliorate the position as much as possible.

Not all the courts have stopped entirely and the judiciary, in some cases with the help of staff who are not on strike, have been doing what they can to keep the courts in operation, and we are very grateful to the judges and staff concerned for their efforts and determination to keep the administration of justice in being. About 12 of the smaller Sheriff Courts are functioning normally. These are, in the main, single Sheriff Courts with a small administrative staff where sufficient staff have decided to remain on duty. In other courts, certain classes of business are being undertaken, again because sufficient staff is available to enable this business to be dealt with. All courts are dealing with very urgent matters—for example, interim interdicts and committals of persons charged with serious offences. In no case has a person been denied the opportunity to apply for bail. The High Court still sits to deal with bail appeals. But let there be no mistake. The courts, particularly the major and busier courts, are seriously crippled, and even with the determination of the judges to take on what is possible, nothing like the general run of work can be carried on where the majority of staff are absent. And that, unfortunately, is the position.

My right honourable friends the Secretary of State and the Lord Advocate have been keeping a close watch on the situation and the problems that have arisen. They have been much helped in their task by points raised by the Lord President of the Court of Session, by honourable Members in another place and many others. As a result, certain needs have been identified and are incorporated in the Bill now before your Lordships' House. Our aim has been to keep the legislation as short and simple as possible, an aim which I am sure will have the approval of all noble Lords.

In deciding what legislation is required, we have tried to maintain the balance between the needs of the community in the field of law and order and the rights of the individual. I believe the Bill achieves the necessary balance. The Bill is of a temporary nature, as is to be expected of emergency legislation, and I am sure your Lordships will appreciate that it will not cure every problem created by the strike. Most strikes cause inconvenience and even hardship to innocent parties, and this strike is no exception. I would emphasise, too, that the Bill in itself will not return the courts to normality. Only a return to work by all the staff can achieve that.

The aim of the Bill is, first, to extend certain legal time limits; secondly, to deal with the question of the 110-day rule; thirdly, to enable crimes to continue to be prosecuted; fourthly, to allow the courts to extend the range of business they can undertake, where that is possible; and, fifthly, to cope with a problem affecting the Keeper of the Registers in Scotland.

With your Lordships' permission, I shall briefly describe the main provisions of the Bill. Clause I establishes the temporary nature of the legislation. It provides that the Bill will cease to be in force one month after the date prescribed by an order made by the Secretary of State. It also provides that the period from 23rd February, when the strike began, to the date to be prescribed by the Secretary of State will be the "emergency period" for the purpose of the Bill. In other words, the Bill will be retrospective to 23rd February. If I may amplify that a little, the strike started on 23rd February 1979. Under the Bill, the emergency period starts on and includes 23rd February 1979, and comprises and includes two separate periods of time. They are, in chronological order, first, the period of the strike itself; and, secondly, the period that elapses between the end of the strike and the date prescribed under Clause 1(1). There is also a third period: a period of one calendar month starting on the prescribed date.

I cannot predict how long the strike will last. The degree of dislocation in the business of the courts will depend in large measure upon the duration of the strike. The Secretary of State will make his judgment when the strike ends as to how long or how short the interval needs to be between the ending of the strike and the start of the final month which follows the emergency period. It is hoped that that interval between the end of the strike and the prescribed date will be short; but I shall not attempt any guess as to how long it might be, as the factors which will determine its length are not known, or knowable, at this stage.

The Act has to have effect for the whole of the emergency period because it is, of course, quite possible that, in some cases, the time limits to which Clause 2 relate have already arrived. That is to say, the last date for raising an action or taking some essential step in relation to some legal proceedings may have been 23rd February 1979, or any date since then. Clause 1(2) therefore makes the Bill retrospective. That is essential, though regrettable. I should add that the same circumstances which make retrospection necessary would make it necessary to proceed with this Bill even if the strike were to end today. This is because only by primary legislation can certain rights lost as a result of the operation of a time bar be restored. The full resumption of work would not restore rights already lost.

Clause 2 provides that, where something requires to be done in relation to any legal proceedings and is governed by a time limit or period of time, it may be done at any time up to one month after the expiry of the emergency period. This provision will ensure that no person will, because of the strike, lose any rights to do anything in legal proceedings. Perhaps the most important right preserved by this clause is the right to raise an action of damages for personal injuries within the three-year period. This will enable such an action to be raised within one month of the end of the emergency where the three-year period expired during the emergency. To put it another way, Clause 2 has the effect that any time bar which would, in the ordinary operation of the law, affect legal proceedings, shall not have its normal effect. The clause therefore suspends the operation of any such time bar or limit until the end of the month which follows the emergency period. Thus, for example, if an action for personal injuries were due to be raised by, say. 10th March 1979 at the latest, the pursuer would be able to raise his action at any time before the end of the month referred to in Clause 1. So, in the case of time limits occurring while the strike itself lasts, the additional time will in no case be less than one month plus the time before the prescribed date arrives. This clause will therefore reassure the many people who have expressed concern that rights might be lost because they could not be exercised during the strike.

The extension of time limits will also apply to criminal proceedings and will ensure that where the time within which criminal proceedings must be taken expires during the emergency period, the proceedings may be raised within one month from the end of the emergency period. Certain other procedural periods of time laid down in rules of court will be suitably extended, as will the right to appeal against the decision of a licensing board.

I turn now to Clause 3 and the 110-day rule. As I have already mentioned we have tried in the Bill to maintain the balance between the public interest and the rights of the individual, and in this clause the public interest predominates. The purpose of the clause is to suspend the running of the 110-day period within which the trial of an accused person who has been fully committed, must be concluded. The clause provides that in computing the 110-day period no account shall be taken of any period during which an accused person is in prison and which occurs during the emergency period. No person who is judged to be a danger to the public (and unfortunately there are some) is being released. I can assure your Lordships that no person is being unnecessarily detained in custody—if possible they are released, but all will be brought to trial if the evidence warrants trial. I would also assure your Lordships that we shall continue to watch cases involving the extension of the 110 days with very great care.

Clause 4 makes it clear that criminal proceedings may be started and continued during the emergency by allowing the accused and witnesses to be cited to a criminal diet even though any ordinary sitting of the court has been suspended because of the strike. This will also enable court business to resume with the minimum of delay as soon as the courts return to normal. The clause also ensures that criminal cases do not fall because they are not called in court on the date which has been fixed for them during the emergency period. Any new date will be initimated to the accused person not less than seven days before it arrives.

The purpose of Clause 5 is to enable work to be carried on in the courts during the emergency period. Subsection (1) empowers a judge, including a sheriff, first to do anything during the emergency period in relation to legal proceedings which could be done by the clerk of court, sheriff clerk or other officer of court; and secondly, in any particular case, with the consent of the Secretary of State, to authorise any person to do anything in relation to that case which could be done by the clerk of court, the sheriff clerk or other officer of court.

There was considerable discussion of this clause in another place and I should perhaps explain a little more fully what this subsection is intended to do. The provision removes any doubt there might otherwise be about the validity of judges and sheriffs doing things, or authorising some other person to do things, which customarily or by statute are normally done by the clerk of court or sheriff clerk. For example, in a number of statutes duties are placed upon the clerk of court or sheriff clerk and judges and sheriffs are now, in relation to the business they are undertaking, carrying out duties which might be construed as being proper to clerks; the clause both empowers and validates such action. It also empowers a judge, in any particular case, to authorise a person to do such work but only with the consent of the Secretary of State. The necessity for the judge to obtain the consent of the Secretary of State was inserted by amendment in another place to make it clear that it was the Secretary of State who should decide when such a step should be taken.

If the strike continues for a substantial period then, though Ministers would much regret the necessity to do so, we cannot rule out the possibility that offers of outside help that have already been made may have to be accepted. This will be very necessary if the public interest requires that the range of business being carried out by the courts must be extended. The decision as to whether and in what circumstances the Secretary of State would be prepared to give his consent would be a question of policy for him to decide. There is no question of the judges, individually or collectively, being required to take a decision of this kind.

Clause 5(2) empowers a court to accept as valid a copy of an original document which has been lodged in court, and provides that any such copy shall be taken to be a true copy unless the contrary is proved. Many documents in cases are unobtainable because of the strike but copies of these will usually be held by the parties. If the parties are agreeable to using these copies so that progress in the case can be made, then this subsection allows a court to accept a copy in lieu of the original document. The purpose of subsection (3) is to ensure that if in the keeping of any record of the proceedings mistakes are made by a judge or other person doing anything by virtue of subsection (1), such mistakes do not invalidate those proceedings. Turning to Clause 6, the purpose of this clause is to permit the registration of deeds by the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland where this is being effectively prevented because deeds are not able to be stamped owing to the industrial action being taken in the stamp office in Edinburgh.

My Lords, as I said at the beginning of my speech, we have aimed to keep this Bill short and simple. It has a very limited purpose and it will not bring the courts back to full activity. I much regret, as do my ministerial colleagues, the necessity to introduce it at all, but it will help to deal with certain problems and, we sincerely hope, enable the courts to extend the limited range of business at present being undertaken. I commend the Bill to your Lordships, and beg to move that it be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—.[Lord McCluskey.]

5.17 p.m.


My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for having explained this emergency Bill to us, and I say at the outset that we on these Benches welcome the action which the Bill represents. Indeed, we believe that the Bill is much overdue and that it is now urgently needed. Therefore we will help towards it being ready for Royal Assent this evening after having gone through all its remaining stages in this House. We certainly intend to co-operate.

It is an emergency measure and we think that it should have been introduced at an earlier stage in this deplorable strike. The Government are open to severe criticism for not having taken action until this late hour. We deplore the reasons which have made the Bill necessary because it appears that the strike has been selectively arranged by two Civil Service unions. It has almost paralysed the Scottish courts and it has been aimed with that in view. It is deliberate and, I suggest, inexcusable because it is causing injury and distress and loss in a haphazard way to individuals who happen to have cases waiting to be dealt with, or already being dealt with in the courts. To that extent the rights of those individuals are being damaged and eroded because cases are not being heard. Where time limits apply—and the noble and learned Lord referred to some of them—valuable time has been lost.

The Bill is especially needed because of the 110 day rule in Scotland. Briefly, that means that there is a period of 110 days in which a charge must be pressed or the accused person can go free. It is therefore a matter of public concern that persons charged with very serious crimes should not escape prosecution. Also, in the other direction, there is concern that because the system of justice has been bought almost to a halt, people should not be detained unnecessarily long while there is much delay in proceedings.

The Bill is a short one and it is rough and ready in its application. It falls inprecisely and unevenly in its treatment of certain persons variously affected by the standstill in a court or by inability to proceed in a court ab initio. It is imperfect and open to criticism. Those points have had attention drawn to them already, but it is acceptable because it is an emergency measure and the Bill is temporary in its nature. For we must recognise that if we pass this Bill, as I hope we shall, today, we are suspending the Scottish equivalent of habeas corpus.

The noble and learned Lord has himself said what I believe to be the situation, that it is impossible to tell how long this strike will continue. The other place took this Bill on Tuesday and also allowed all its stages to be passed in one day. They spent seven hours on the Bill; they examined it as closely as they could in that time and amendments were made to the Bill. One effect of that examination and of the amendments was to bring out clearly the Secretary of State's responsibilities at all stages, and I was glad to hear the noble and learned Lord underlining that point in his opening speech. It is difficult to place decisions on judges where any connection with the politics of a strike is involved. But it has been brought out in the debates in another place that the Secretary of State will retain his responsibility for all policy decisions.

My honourable friends in the Commons for Scottish constituencies examined the Bill as thoroughly as they could at short notice, and I suggest that they are to be congratulated on bringing out the points which needed to be discussed. I do not intend to go through those points again today, and I would suggest to your Lordships that we do not attempt further amendment today. Of course, if there is some point, perhaps a major defect in the Bill or some necessary addition, which has come to notice in the last 36 hours —because it is only 36 hours since the Bill was in the other Chamber—then we should discuss it and, if necessary, a manuscript Amendment could be made. When the Second Reading is concluded the Government can tell us the latest position on this. But I repeat that unless something has cropped up which needs to be done in the last few hours, we should not attempt to amend the Bill.

In agreeing with the noble and learned Lord that the Bill should be passed through all its stages quickly today and be ready for Royal Assent this evening, I must make clear my judgment and that of my honourable and noble friends that the Government should have acted much sooner. I do not criticise the noble and learned Lord, Lord McCluskey, personally; he is not involved in this because it is entirely a matter for the Secretary of State for Scotland. It must be said that the Secretary of State has been dilatory in facing up to a decision that clearly had to be taken, and which he has now taken almost two months to the day since this strike began. In Scotland the Secretary of State is the Minister responsible for most matters relating to the judiciary and to the courts, having many of the functions which in England and Wales belong to the Lord Chancellor. Parliament has had very little time to examine and pronounce upon the Bill, which must be passed without delay. We shall watch very carefully the effects of the Bill in Scotland during the next few days and weeks, and will bring to the attention of Ministers, and if necessary your Lordships, any matters that arise about its application.

5.25 p.m.


My Lords, I rather expected to hear in the course of the debate on this Bill some remarks about the conduct of the civil servants concerned. I thought it was appropriate for me to intervene for a few moments to put another point of view on a situation which we all deeply regret. My noble and learned friend described the conduct of the civil servants concerned as unjustified. The noble Lord who has just spoken said it is a deplorable strike. Condemnation is freely thrown around when some people go on strike, but condemnation is sometimes surprisingly muted when other people go out on strike, the mineworkers, for instance.

In another place yesterday this Bill was described by one honourable member as a blacklegging Bill. One of the associations concerned in the dispute has a strike sheet in lurid form which they send round to all their members, including, of course, those on strike, and the headline in the latest issue to reach me says "Scabs Charter for Scots Judges". These are emotive words in trade union disputes. Words of this kind are really the very stuff of strike campaigns. I dislike them. I do not like this kind of stimulation of militant emotion on matters which should be capable of more rational treatment. Whether they are terms used by the striking unions or terms of condemnation used in your Lordships' House they are more calculated to inflame opinion than they are to advance the merits or justice of the matter. There are two organisations involved in this dispute, and I must say that after 40 years of the closest contact in and with the Civil Service I am astonished that what has happened has happened. I could never have believed that this situation would be reached in the Civil Service. I think we might ask ourselves why it has come about.

This Bill is clearly necessary at this moment. It was probably desirable at an earlier stage; I do not dispute that. It is an emergency Bill to deal with an emergency, and I give it my full approval. I see no escape from it. There are occasions in the course of industrial disputes when authorities and management may hesitate to take action to offset some of the consequences of the strike, but where the liberty of the subject is involved, where the administration of justice is concerned with the rights of the individual citizen to fair treatment at the hands of the law, then I think the Government are fully justified in safeguarding the rights and liberties of the subject and are fully entitled to do what they can, even to the extent of asking for a temporary change in the law, to see that people are not held for unduly long periods or suffer injustice.

While this Bill is regrettably necessary, I am not, however, for blaming everything on the staff. We maintain that the right to withdraw one's labour is a condition of being free men and women. How often have we heard the enunciation of that principle. Yet, when workers exercise that right they are frequently accused of being irresponsible or told that the withdrawal of labour is deplorable or unjustified. Granted that public opinion is entitled to give a verdict on any dispute that is a matter of public concern; but it is always difficult to fix responsibility. The words "justice", "justification" and "responsibility" are key words in all activities of this kind. Very often they are construed to mean what the users of those words want them to mean.

Where does responsibility lie in the present case? Does it lie with those who are on strike or with those who have created the conditions in which the strike has taken place? How do we apportion responsibility in these circumstances? Alternatively, is it all one-sided? Do we blame the Government, or do we condemn the civil servants? In condemning the civil servants one must bear in mind that one of the two organisations involved in the dispute—the Society of Civil and Public Servants—represents the executive classes and middle ranges of management in the Civil Service. They are perhaps the most responsible body of civil servants that one could find. The other organisation is the CPSA which represents the great mass of clerical officers, clerical assistances, typists and grades of that kind.

How come that so many civil servants previously of peaceful conduct, who have jettisoned the strike weapon as part of the equipment of negotiation and of industrial relations in the public service, are now in the mood which leads them to withdraw their labour in some key sectors of public administration? As my noble and learned friend has said, this situation has brought about the disruption of the Scottish Courts, and to overcome those difficulties we must consider the Bill.

My noble and learned friend introduced the Bill in temperate terms and I have no criticism, in general, of what he said. But, there is one point as regards this matter which I think I should correct. The Secretary of State for Scotland when introducing the Bill in another place on 20th March at column 1317 of the Official Report, said: As I said during the debate last Tuesday, strikes that start six weeks before the settlement date and where there is a process of negotiations going on cannot be justified". Those are the exact words that my noble and learned friend used this afternoon. I must correct them both. The strike did not take place six weeks before the settlement date; it began six weeks before the operative date of a new settlement. There is a big distinction between the two. The operative date of a new agreement is 1st April 1979. Negotiations had not really begun within three weeks of the operative date of a new agreement.

In the United States when contracts come to an end it is customary for the unions and management to begin negotiations on a new contract well in advance of the expiry of the current one. Because of the nature of the information which the Civil Service Pay Research Unit has been accumulating over recent months, it was undesirable that negotiations should begin too long before the operative date, in order that the latest information and its careful examination could be undertaken before the negotiations actually began. However, I must stress the fact that 1st April is not the settlement date, but the operative date. Indeed, the Government themselves have decided that negotiations shall begin before the date which the Secretary of State said was the settlement date. One can never be sure in conducting negotiations of this kind whether, if one overruns the operative date, retrospection will be effectively safeguarded. Is it dated back? Those are the troubles which can occur if negotiations are too prolonged after the operative date has passed.

There is nothing in any agreement on Civil Service pay within my knowledge which says that negotiations shall not begin until the operative date of the next stage in the review of salaries. As it is, we are told that the negotiations have begun already. This strike would not have taken place if Her Majesty's Government, a few weeks ago, had been firm about their intentions on the use of, and the negotiations upon, the report of the Civil Service Pay Research Unit. What the Staff Side of the Civil Service Whitley Council were asking for was a restoration of negotiations on the fair comparability principle.

I was chairman of the Civil Service Staff Side in 1955 when, arising from the Priestley Commission's report, we introduced the principle of fair comparability. The Civil Service Pay Research Unit was set up to collect, distil and apply to the Civil Service scene information regarding comparable rates of pay outside the public sector. The operation of that principle was suspended by the present Government in a situation which I am not criticising. However, it was suspended and the Civil Service Pay Research Unit was disbanded or suspended and it was only over a year ago that the Government decided to resuscitate the Civil Service Pay Research Unit under an independent chairman—my noble friend Lord Shepherd—and to bring the result of the renewed consideration of fair comparability into the discussions this year. Here we are: that is the point that we have reached. The Civil Service has been looking, as other sections of the public service have been looking, for fair comparability.

We have passed out of the Welfare State: we are now in the comparability State. We are all being related to somebody else. This is a vast and complex field of relativities and comparabilities which is a veritable minefield for any Government that try to find a rational way through this jungle. The Comparability Commission which is being appointed is to deal with the claims of the local authority workers. For the first time it has been brought formally into a fair comparability review. The Civil Service already has its review. The teachers come next: a fair comparability exercise has been undertaken by both sides of the Burnham machinery.

What do the Government do? Apparently they offer them 8 per cent., or a reference perhaps to the Comparability Commission. Where are we all going? The nurses have not had their claim settled; no one has been settled in the public sector, except those who came first to establish their claim to the application of the principle of comparability: the defence forces, the police and the firemen. The firemen had to strike for it and the police had to threaten to strike for it. I do not know what the defence forces threatened to do, except leave.

Now we have the Civil Service, the nurses and the health employees. This is becoming one of the major issues of industrial peace in this country. The public sector is now so large and so important and is involved in such vital operations in the apparatus of the State and of the welfare of people, that if we cannot reach a settlement in this area, we are in for a very rough time indeed. I believe that in this situation could lie the seeds of administrative anarchy.

The restiveness of the Civil Service astonishes me. I confess that, like the Prime Minister, I failed to realise the full significance of what was welling up in the public sector at the turn of the year, which we have seen in some forms which are not only deplorable but even detestable. Pay in the public sector has fallen behind and we have had this trail of trouble and ill-will, and what is more, the revolt of the rank and file against their leaders. I stressed before, that in many instances the leaders have been taken charge of by the rank and file.

All our experiences over the past two months raise wide issues of industrial relations, principles of fixing public sector pay, social contentment, administrative efficiency and many other considerations which go pretty wide. Therefore, this dangerously poised position between selective strike action and more widespread disruption must be dispelled very quickly. It can be dispelled next week if the Government continue the negotiations, which have scarcely begun. No money has been mentioned; nothing has been put on the table. If preparatory postures are negotiations, then perhaps we have had them or are having them. But so far there have been no negotiations. They must begin next week.

I hope that next week the Government will be able to assure the staff side of the Whitley Council that they will hold firmly to a reasonable application of the principle of fair comparability, realising our present difficulties. There is surely a reasonable bargain to be struck, having regard to all the circumstances. Indeed, I doubt whether we need look at this problem in terms of the staff side of the Whitley Council being unreasonable and bloody-minded; I do not think they will be.

However, the crux of the matter, affecting this Bill, will come upon us next week. I sincerely hope that the Government will have the will to resolve this dispute and get everyone in the Civil Service back to work, and so take the heat out of the situation. It is a very grave matter indeed. There are other organisations which so far have not participated in this industrial acton, but which are leading a very troubled life indeed at present. I am deeply concerned that unless we are very careful the Civil Service National Whitley Council will be destroyed as a result of some unions fighting for it and other unions not fighting for it. The unions who have fought for it will say to the others, "You will not tell us what we shall agree to. We have had our people out on strike for two months. We have maintained them while they are on strike. Careers have been ruined. People have been suspended. Much money has been spent maintaining these people". They will say to the Institution of Professional Civil Servants and the Inland Revenue Staff Federation—of which I used to be General Secretary and at which my noble friend Lord Plant was my successor—"Who are you to tell us?" Those two organisations will be in a position where the militancy of the two bigger unions will prejudice the harmony of negotiations on the staff side. Surely we shall not have disruption in the Civil Service and the wrecking of the Whitley Council machinery as well?—because if we do, the end of this day will be a very sad one for those who have worked for 50 years to uphold the principle of reasonable, rational negotiation between the official and the staff sides in the public sector, who have a record of productive and constructive negotiation and consultation which is the envy of the world. Unless we are very careful, we are within 50 hours of destroying it.

5.47 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships will surely be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, for touching upon those aspects of this dispute to which the Bill relates which have perhaps not been sufficiently regarded until now either in the other place or at large in the country. I only regret that I have not the expertise, if it were necessary, to follow the noble Lord further into these aspects. Understandably enough, there is widespread and profound concern throughout Scotland over the circumstances which have given rise to the need for this Bill. That concern derives not least of course from the circumstance that in Scotland we are traditionally proud of our legal system and our courts of justice.

Most of the questions which occurred to me as arising out of the actual provisions of the Bill were sufficiently answered by the noble and learned Lord, Lord McCluskey, in his presentation of the Bill and, as always, I am sure that your Lordships were grateful for its clarity and its qualities.

There are only two matters on which I wish to touch before I sit down. First, I wonder whether the responsible Ministers have been sufficiently alert to their responsibilities in this area. Together with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy—and I think that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, agreed with him—I cannot understand why the Government have been so slow to bring this measure forward. Therefore, I wonder whether Ministers were sufficiently alert to their responsibilities; because, of course, they are very clear, particularly in the Sheriff Court but equally perhaps in the Court of Session.

They have clear responsibilities for the efficient administration and organisation of the courts. In view of what happened a few years ago, I should have thought that they might have been more alert to the situation because, of course, there was then a strike among the civil servants. It is perhaps significant and merits reflection that at that time the courts in Scotland were hardly affected at all. It was a very short strike—a token strike —and I think lasted just one day. However, even then it was unthinkable that the staff, particularly of the Court of Session, would ever have gone on strike.

What has happened to make 80 per cent. of these loyal public servants—when I knew them, very conservative public servants—change their attitude and come out on strike, so that the machinery of justice, of which we have been so proud, comes, practically speaking, to a standstill? I wonder, as I say, whether the responsible Ministers have been sufficiently alert to the needs of the situation. Perhaps it should be explained why, since the courts are of course concerned with the fundamental rights of the citizen, it was thought unnecessary to bring the Bill forward until now.

The only other point I wish to make is that I wonder what thought the responsible Ministers have been giving to the appalling chaos and confusion which I imagine will have to be dealt with if this strike goes on for much longer. Have the Government made their contingency plans? I do not ask them necessarily to tell us what they are, though we should no doubt be grateful if they felt able to do so. But I wonder whether they have them, because it will indeed be a big administrative problem to clear up. I know that many of the loyal sheriff clerks and clerks in the Court of Session are greatly perturbed as to how it may be possible to deal with this when the strike is over. The longer the strike lasts the worse the chaos and confusion will be, and we must keep in mind that this chaos and confusion, relates among other things to some of our fundamental human rights as citizens.

5.52 p.m.


My Lords, when I passed through Edinburgh on Tuesday on my way to the airfield through the snow, my railway line having been blocked by a collapsed tunnel, I saw strikers' pickets at the rear entrance to the Sick Children's Hospital. I had such a surge of emotion that I said to myself that if the opportunity presented itself I should take part in this debate. So it is with that sense of immense regret and the deepest dismay that one acknowledges that a situation calling for legislation of the nature of this Bill has arisen in my native Scotland, of all places.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in his sympathetic, knowledgeable, and wide-ranging speech said, "How has it come about? Where are we all going to?" I share his dismay that it has happened at all. But to me it is only symptomatic of the gradual decline of our national moral fibre. I have viewed the steady deterioration in respect for law and order over the last few years in this country with such despondency that I feel we are already on the slippery slope that leads to civil commotion, disorder and possible violence.

We have now had a good look at the unacceptable face of present-day Socialism, and I do not like the look of it, no matter how honeyed are the Socialists' phrases, such as "industrial action" and "withdrawal of labour"—not strike; no, nothing violent—and so on. I therefore welcome this Bill and will delay its progress no longer. As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy said, it should have been initiated some time ago. The fact is that the pursuit of the dictatorship of the proletariat is becoming a threat to the wealth, the peace and the tranquility of the realm, for which those of us who attend Prayers daily pray. I support the Bill.

5.55 p.m.


My Lords, there are several points to which I ought to reply. First, there is the criticism made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilson of Langside, and just now by the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, to the effect that the legislation should have been introduced earlier. This is emergency legislation. Emergency legislation should not be a first reaction to a situation, however difficult the situation may be; it should be a last resort.

Secondly, the character of this legislation necessarily involves that judges may, in certain circumstances, do work which under normal circumstances would be done by the persons now on strike. The House will appreciate that judges are reluctant, and have been reluctant, to be hastened into taking over the work of persons on strike, because that might lead the judiciary to be accused by those on strike—and one heard the intemperate language quoted from one newspaper by my noble friend Lord Houghton—of entering on one side of a dispute which has certain political overtones.

Further, and this is not an idle matter, there is also the danger—and this is well recognised by the judges and ourselves—that if they undertake work which the strikers would normally have done, then that work might subsequently be blacked, as it were. A case tainted, as they see it, by work of this kind during the emergency period would then be subsequently blacked. This would create dramatically serious problems in relation to the law of contempt of court.

There is a third reason why we should not have been hurried into this legislation. The matter of course is urgent. But I think the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, would support me in saying that a considerable amount of work required to be done to get this legislation into the best possible shape. We do not like doing it, and this House does not like doing it: that is to say, taking legislation and passing it through in one day. Because however hard we may work, and however well we may think about these matters, it is desirable that if possible there should be a period for mature reflection to make a reassessment in the light of the arguments, and therefore we are reluctant to introduce legislation which is not able to be subjected to that kind of mature criticism.

It is important, therefore, that when we introduce it we ourselves behind the scenes in Government, as it were, should have spent as much time as we properly could in making sure that that legislation did not suffer from defects of a kind that could be avoided. I can assure the House that I took part in a number of discussions and that a vast amount of work was done before this legislation was introduced, and I believe that this has contributed to what some noble Lords have described as a delay. I hope that those who have listened to this debate, or will read of it, will not accept the criticism that the Government unduly delayed. In my judgment the Government did what was proper, and introduced the legislation at the proper time in the light of the circumstances I have referred to.

In view of what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, said about amendment, I can inform the House that no remediable defect has come to our attention since this Bill first saw the light of day or indeed since its main provisions were first outlined on Tuesday, 13th March. Accordingly, the Government have no amendment to propose. I should certainly be grateful to the House not only for the support already expressed for the Bill in principle but for the fact that no Amendments are proposed here which would cause the Bill to have to go back to another place.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, dwelt upon a rather wider question: the question of responsibility for the situation in which we now find ourselves. It was not my intention to go into that in any detail, and I do not propose to do so now. Lord Houghton spelt out in clear terms that those now on strike and taking this action feel they have a grievance, and he made clear what that grievance is said to be. But does he say, and do those on strike say, that everyone who has or feels he has a grievance is entitled to go on strike while negotiations continue, so inflicting permanent and irretrievable damage on members of the public with whom they have no quarrel? If one asks—I think this was foreshadowed by something Lord Campbell said—what is the character of this strike and who suffers, then the character of this strike is that no one who is now striking will suffer any loss because arrangements have been made within the union that those who are out on strike will receive full pay from union funds and contributions from other members of the Civil Service, so they suffer no loss. Who, then, suffers loss? Is it the Government? It is not the Government—the other side of the dispute—who suffer loss. Those who suffer loss are the private citizens and, in a real sense, the whole body politic, which is something entirely different from the Government.

The character of that damage—I can mention only a few cases—is that necessarily, because of the operation in Scotland of the 110-day rule, some of the people now detained in prison charged with serious crimes (some of whom, looking at the matter in the light of past events, may be declared innocent at their trials) will spend perhaps many extra weeks in prison. That is something we can never give back to them, so this damage is permanent and irretrievable, and that is a direct consequence of this strike action about which we can do nothing.

There are other less serious cases, but to the people involved they are serious cases. For a person whose divorce should have been finalised at the end of February or during March and who had arranged to marry—there may be children who would be affected by the change in status—that cannot now be done. Where there are wills to be confirmed and estates to be distributed, these matters cause real hardship in individual cases. I urge the strikers to recognise that what these people—these professional people —are doing is inflicting permanent and, in some cases, serious damage on people who have no part in this dispute and can do nothing to settle it.

These are important matters and we can understand that people have grievances. After all, the nurses have grievances, and Lord Houghton mentioned the nurses, but they do not go on strike. Sometimes one has to say, "I shall have to live with my grievance and find some other way of putting it right". The vital point is that the negotiations are continuing and all matters involved in the settlement are the subject of negotiation. It is, I repeat, deplorable that this strike, inflicting this type of damage, should continue in these circumstances.

I should reply to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilson of Langside, said in the second point he raised—I have dealt with the first; namely, about the chaos and confusion which will arise, and there will be, as he said (and he has immense experience of these matters) serious administrative problems. I have to say about that at the moment that we cannot yet assess what they will be; as he rightly acknowledged, much will depend on the duration of the strike. Furthermore, it would not be for the Government to lay down hard and fast rules about what is to be done.

The Government require to consult the judges, the sheriffs principal, the sheriff clerks themselves—they will have to deal with the problem as much as anyone in the end—the procurators fiscal, the police and the professional bodies representing lawyers in Scotland. Those discussions will then determine what requires to be done. That is the only answer I can properly give at this stage to that perfectly proper question which the noble and learned Lord asked. I do not think I can sensibly add to what I said in my opening speech and I thank noble Lords for their contributions to the debate.


My Lords, something which the noble and learned Lord said tempts me to quote some lines from Burns: Let us pray that come it may, And come it will for a' that, That man tae man the world o'er, Shall brithers be for a' that".

On Question, Bill read 2a: Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order No. 43 having been dispensed with, pursuant to Resolution, Bill read 3a, and passed.