HL Deb 23 July 1981 vol 423 cc351-2

3.12 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing

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 whether in the light of the comment of the Master of the Rolls in the Court of Appeal on Section 17 of the Employment Act 1980 that, "I confess to a sense of bewilderment; it is the most tortuous section I have ever come across", they will now amend the Part of that Act dealing with secondary action.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I learned at only about 1.30 this afternoon that an Appeal Committee of your Lordships' House this morning allowed a petition for leave to appeal in the case to which the Question relates. Therefore that case is now again sub judice. Therefore, I can only properly say that the desirability or otherwise of amending the law relating to immunity for secondary action was among the subjects canvassed in the recent Green Paper issued by the Government. The Government are currently assessing the various comments made on the Green Paper.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, as my noble and learned friend will recall that many people both in this House and in another place find it very difficult to understand the Act, would it not be to the advantage of trade unions, employers and others who have to try to administer this Act, not least our judges who find it tortuous while most of us find it incomprehensible, if the Government were to consider whether a clearer and more easily followed draft might replace the present Act in the autumn when new legislation is contemplated to be brought forward?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, in view of the nature of the situation which drew attention, as the springboard for legislation, to a particular remark by the Master of the Rolls in a particular case, I do not think that I ought to say any more than that I will bear what my noble friend has said carefully in mind.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, is it not possible that their Lordships in the Appellate Committee may not be in quite the same difficulty as the Master of the Rolls?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, over 50 years I have seen so many Lords Justices, Judges of the High Court and Law Lords inveighing against the, to them, apparently incomprehensible language of Acts of Parliament of very many kinds and on very many subjects, that my withers are comparatively unwrung.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton

My Lords, without in any way wanting to comment on matters which are sub judice, since the Question is before your Lordships would the noble and learned Lord tell the House, and the country, whether the interpretation placed upon the section by the majority of the Court of Appeal was one which the Government intended or one which the Government did not intend? Irrespective of the particular litigation, it is a matter of great importance to trade unionists and others, since it dealt with a case which was not secondary action within the meaning of the Act. Did the Government welcome it, or did they not?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I think that is just what I ought not to say when the matter is sub judice.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, while being very wary of addressing the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, and while believing that probably what I wish to ask is not necessarily connected with Section 17 or with secondary action, it is nevertheless something which I think should be said. Might I ask the noble and learned Lord, as the word "employment" is mentioned, whether there will be any opportunity of condemning the industrial action which is being taken to prevent the publishing of the Radio Times covering the Royal Wedding next week, in view of the fact that this is depriving millions of people of a very innocent pleasure, of which there is is very little today? I take no sides in this matter but it is something which I think should be called to the attention of the House.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am always grateful to the noble Baroness, but I think I should require notice of that rather separate question before I could answer it either intelligently or accurately.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that Section 17 of the 1980 Act would have been much better understood if the textual method of amendment of previous legislation had been used on that occasion?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I think that this is a view which can be expressed in many contexts, but I am not absolutely sure that it arises out of the particular section to which the Master of the Rolls was referring.