HL Deb 31 January 1980 vol 404 cc984-6

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government to what extent secondary and tertiary picketing have been taking place in support of the strike against the British Steel Corporation, and what is the police estimate of the largest and the average number of such pickets during daylight hours.


My Lords, it is clear that there has been extensive secondary picketing during the steel strike, including picketing of steel stockholders' and users' premises. I regret that detailed information about the number of pickets involved is not available.


My Lords, did my noble friend hear the one o'clock news when it was reported that 70 pickets were picketing a firm in the Midlands, that scuffling had been widespread and that arrests were made? Can he say why the Government are so reluctant to set a limit on the number of pickets who can picket outside a factory and its entrances, particularly as this request was made by the Police Federation many years ago and continues to be recommended now?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, we are very well aware that, as strikes progress, feelings harden, tempers rise and the situation can get out of hand. We feel that the present law on secondary picketing is confused and ambiguous and that is why we seek to amend it. On my noble friend's latter point, the police have powers to limit the number of pickets where they believe that too many are likely to lead to breaches of the peace. We intend that there should be guidance on the number of pickets in any code of practice which follows on our legislation.


My Lords, would the noble Earl agree that the question of whether or not there has been secondary or tertiary picketing is largely irrelevant? This is a term of art which it is impossible to define and apply on any picket line. The crucial thing is whether the pickets went beyond the known law. Will he tell us whether any of these pickets went beyond the narrow limits of the law—which states that pickets are to attend peacefully for the purpose of communicating information and seeking to persuade—and whether, if they did so or if they committed any offence like obstruction or resisting the police, the police in their wisdom decided not to prosecute? If they decided not to prosecute, what is the point of changing the law?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, any offences committed are not a matter for me, as the noble Lord knows. We intend to see that picketing is lawful, or subject to immunity, only at a person's place of work. It will be clear when a person is picketing outside his place of work. There is ambiguity about that and many other issues—an ambiguity which we are seeking to clear up in order to improve industrial relations in this country.


My Lords, can the noble Earl say whether it is the intention of the Government to make provision in the Employment Bill that pickets will be required to wear armbands so that they can be identified as belonging to one union or another?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, that is a little wide of the Question. Nevertheless, I would draw my noble friend's attention to the fact that the TUC code of practice gives some rather ambiguous guidance, but guidance nevertheless, on the use of armbands. In my view, that would be best dealt with by a tightened provision in the code of practice.


My Lords, would not the Minister agree that the code of practice has so far failed? Would it not, therefore, be better to introduce some rules as to picketing in the terms of the Employment Bill?


My Lords, that is exactly what we are doing. The code of practice is an extension of the Bill in order to get sensible procedure in ad hoc situations; but there is no question that we are not going to amend the law where it affects secondary picketing.


My Lords, do not the results given yesterday—that there were more days lost on industrial strikes in this country in 1979 than in any year since 1926—suggest, when compared with other countries' records, that they order their affairs and arrangements better than we do here? Would the Minister be able to let me have a summary of legislation in respect of picketing, secret ballots and closed shops as it concerns other countries if I put down a Question for Written Answer to that effect?


My Lords, I will certainly try to oblige my noble friend in that regard. I agree with him that the self-inflicted damage of poor industrial relations has been very harmful to this country and we are determined therefore to try to improve that.


My Lords, can the noble Earl remind us how this country's number of days lost in industrial disputes in 1977 and 1978 compared with those lost in other western European countries in view of the statistics given for last year by the noble Lord opposite?


My Lords, as I have said, that is wide of the original Question, which dealt with secondary picketing. I know perfectly well what the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, is getting at: he is arguing that one gets fewer industrial disputes in a period of pay policy. The trouble is that one gets more of them when emerging from a period of pay policy, and that is the situation we are now in.


My Lords, would the noble Earl accept that, in the light of recent judgments and events, many of us welcome his recognition that there is an urgent need for Parliament itself to make clear what immunities should apply in this field?


My Lords, I am in total agreement with the noble Lord.