HL Deb 06 April 1982 vol 429 cc155-63

5.33 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Gowrie, I beg to move that the House do approve the draft Industrial Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1982, which has been laid before the House under the Northern Ireland Act 1974. Many in this House will recognise the subject matter of the order, which largely enacts the provisions of the Employment Act 1980 in Northern Ireland. It is now a year and a half since we debated the Employment Bill in this House and noble Lords will no doubt be relieved to hear that I intend to be considerably more selective in my comments tonight than it was possible for my noble friend to be on the earlier occasions.

Industrial relations is a transferred matter. The separate body of legislation on this subject which existed before direct rule has been added to since then by orders-in-council. Historically, the Northern Ireland legislation in this field has been basically similar to that in Great Britain and it is Government's view that Northern Ireland industrial relations legislation should continue to reflect Great Britain's advances. We are, however, fully conscious that all the local Northern Ireland considerations are taken into account and, in discussions with the Province's industrial relations partners, made that point clear. In pursuance of this policy the Government fully consulted on its proposals in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the most significant result of these consultations is the decision to retain statutory provisions relating to the recognition of a trade union. We have accepted the argument that the Northern Ireland provisions incorporate greater flexibility and have not proved as unsatisfactory as the Great Britain provisions now repealed by the Employment Act 1980. In addition this Order carries amendments to the Wages Council Act (Northern Ireland) 1945.

I now propose to review briefly the main provisions of this order. First, as to trade union ballots and codes of practice which are covered by Articles 3–5, in recognition of the Government's view that greater use should be made of ballots in conducting trade union affairs, these provisions enable the establishment of a scheme for the reimbursement to independent trade unions of the cost of secret ballots and require employers to provide facilities for the conduct of ballots in certain circumstances. It is currently envisaged that the reimbursement scheme will be administered by the Labour Relations Agency.

Article 5 enables the Department of Manpower Services, after consultation, to issue codes of practice containing practical guidance for promoting the improvement of industrial relations. Noble Lords will be aware that two such codes of practice on picketing and on the closed shop have been issued in Great Britain. Consideration is being given to similar action in Northern Ireland, but no decision will be taken until full local consultations with the Labour Relations Agency and others have been completed.

Articles 6 and 7 contain provisions on exclusion from trade union membership. These articles provide protection for employees in situations where the closed shop operates by enabling them to seek compensation through the industrial tribunals should they be unreasonably expelled or excluded from membership of a trade union. In addition, under the heading of "unfair dismissal", Article 8 widens the grounds on which dismissal from employment for non-membership of a trade union is unfair where a closed shop agreement exists. In particular, dismissal would be automatically unfair where the individual generally objects to membership of any union, or a particular union, on the grounds of conscience or other deeply held personal convictions. At this point I should like to mention that Article 17 provides employees with similar rights where action short of dismissal is taken against them aimed at compelling them to join a trade union. Should an employer feel that he was induced to dismiss a complainant for non-membership of a trade union then that employer, under provisions of Article 12, may join as a party to unfair dismissal proceedings a person, union or contractor whom he claims is responsible.

The remaining provisions under the "unfair dismissal" heading—that is Articles 9, 10 and 11—amend the requirement concerning the onus of proof in unfair dismissal cases. They provide that in deciding whether dismissal was fair a tribunal should take into account the size and administrative resources of the employer, they ease the burden on small employers by exempting firms with less than 20 employees for two years and make certain changes to the basic award element in assessing compensation for unfair dismissal. As a result of representations made during the consultations in this legislation we have taken steps to exclude the employees of small voluntary schools from the small firms exemption in order that they might have parity with their colleagues in the controlled sector.

Articles 13–15 are concerned with maternity rights. Article 13 amends the existing provisions about giving notice of absence for maternity and exercising the right to return. Article 14 relieves employers of five or fewer employees, with the exception, again, of voluntary schools, of the obligation to reinstate an employee after maternity leave, and that relief is extended to all employers where it is not reasonably practicable to reinstate the woman in her original job and an offer of suitable alternative employment is made. I am particularly pleased that Article 15 of this draft order introduces a new right for pregnant employees to have reasonable time off with pay to receive ante-natal care. I know that it has been the practice of many good employers to provide such a facility in the past, and we sincerely hope that its extension to all employees will be of advantage to them.

Article 16 amends the calculation of guarantee pay by changing from fixed calendar quarters to a more sensible system, under which there will be entitlement during a rolling period of any three months. The provisions in Articles 18 to 21, falling under the heading of Restrictions on Legal Liability are concerned with limiting secondary industrial action. The purpose of the Articles is to limit the immunity from actions in tort granted to individuals to those situations in which they have a direct interest. Article 18 therefore provides a new definition limiting lawful picketing in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute to a person picketing at or near his own place of work. While providing safeguards in respect of trade union officials, the provision will give employers afflicted by the "flying picket" the ability to seek an injunction to stop such picketing.

Article 19, which I admit is rather complex, in essence limits lawful secondary action to action taken within a cordon of first suppliers and customers of an employer in dispute. Where secondary action not falling within the definition of lawful secondary action takes place, then, once again, an employer may seek an injunction or damages in the Court where the action complained of brings about a breach in a commercial contract. Nothing in these provisions is aimed at removing the accepted right of trade unions to take industrial action in support of members directly affected in a dispute with their employers.

Article 21 has no counterpart in the Employment Act, but is in response to representations made in Northern Ireland to bring the wages councils legislation there more into line with Great Britain. There are three main amendments. First, wages councils will be empowered to make their own wages regulation orders, which in the past have been made by the Department of Manpower Services. This will bring wages councils into line with their Great Britain counterparts and with the Agricultural Wages Board. Secondly, the amendments will enable such wages regulation orders to become effective immediately upon the expiry of a statutory 21-day objection period, even if this involves an element of retrospection. Finally, the Department of Manpower Services will be enabled to refer questions about the operation of individual wages councils, or the system as a whole, to the Labour Relations Agency for a report and recommendations. Articles 22 and 23 provide for repeals of Northern Ireland legislation analogous to the repeals made by the Employment Act with the one notable exception which I have already drawn to the attention of noble Lords; that is, that we shall retain the statutory trade union recognition provisions in Northern Ireland.

Before closing, I should like to acknowledge that one of the many attractive features of Northern Ireland for potential investors is a proven record of good industrial relations. I do not believe that the changes envisaged in this legislation will in any way affect that situation, as it seeks to deal only with the most damaging abuses which may occur. It also is the Government's view that it would not be in the interests of any of the industrial relations partners in Northern Ireland to have significantly different basic rights and responsibilities in these matters from the rest of the United Kingdom. I, therefore, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Gowrie, who will reply to this debate with much greater facility than I could, commend these proposals to the House. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 20th October be approved.—(Lord Elton.)

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (The Earl of Gowrie)

My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Blease, gets up, I should like to apologise to the House for not being in my place as I should have been. I was advised that this order would come on substantially later. But it was my responsibility and I am most sorry. I should also like to congratulate my noble friend on the brio and clarity with which he delivered the brief at very short notice.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, may I thank both the noble Lord and the noble Earl for their explanatory outline of this order. I join with the noble Earl in complimenting the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on his versatility in stepping into the breach. As the noble Lord has indicated, this order will introduce into Northern Ireland's industrial relations legislation the main provisions of the Employment Act, which was enacted in 1980 for Great Britain. The noble Earl and the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Mr. James Prior, in their previous ministerial offices, both played leading parts in steering the Employment Act 1980 in its passages —rough passages, in my opinion—through both Houses.

Since the noble Earl's appointment as deputy Northern Ireland Secretary of State, he will be aware of the separate and distinctive features of trade union structures and organisation in the Province, and the marked differences in industrial relations procedural arrangements. The noble Earl will also be aware of the considerable concern about the order which has been expressed by many in Northern Ireland who are directly involved in manpower matters and industrial relations, and especially the pronounced opposition to the order which has been repeatedly made during the past 12 months by the central trade union organisation; that is, the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

Noble Lords will have noted that this order was debated in another place in the early hours of Wednesday, 24th March, when, after a Division, it was approved. Therefore, for the reasons which I have outlined I do not propose to raise in detail the contentious issues which are contained in the 23 Articles and 3 Schedules of this order, and which are well-known to the Government as they have already been debated at some length. Therefore, I propose to confine my remarks to a few pointed, but not argued, comments and questions which should make clear our views and the reasons why we on these Benches are opposed to the order.

I repeat that Northern Ireland has its own separate legislative and administrative framework of industrial relations. The record of good industrial relations in the Province has been widely referred to by Ministers, and by others directly concerned in promoting Northern Ireland's industrial development interests throughout the world. Even within the last few days, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Mr. James Prior, referred to this record when he spoke at St. Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, on 31st March. Mr. Prior was speaking to the subject, "Our responsibility to our community" and he was dealing with a number of matters, including the economy, social welfare and politics. During his address, he stated—and I quote directly from a paragraph in the text of the address— I have a number of things in mind. The first is industrial relations, which is something I have been concerned with for very many years. Industrial relations in Northern Ireland are by no means perfect and there is much which can be done to improve them. But that said, the truth is that Northern Ireland has one of the best records of industrial relations of anywhere in Europe. Its record is certainly much better than that for the rest of the United Kingdom. This does not mean that one side has managed to dominate the other. It means that there is a degree of understanding of the nature of the problems, and a willingness to work constructively for their resolution, which is all too often lacking in other places. The way in which people learn to co-operate together at their place of work is one measure of the maturity and tolerance of a community. People who criticise Northern Ireland for its violence, or because they believe that it is peopled only by bigots, would do well to note this and perhaps to learn from it". I have never held that Northern Ireland trade unionists, or management, are any more industrially virtuous than trade unions and management in other parts of these islands, but I am convinced by experience that the lines of communication in Northern Ireland, and the industrial procedures, enable manpower and industrial relations matters to be dealt with more speedily, effectively and efficiently, not only because the lines of communication are much shorter and more direct but also because we rely much more on the good sense, knowledge and expertise of the practitioners than on legal sanctions and edicts of law.

I would not detract one word from the statement of Mr. James Prior which I have quoted. He re-echoes the views expressed by many in Northern Ireland commercial and industrial life, including civil servants—persons who are knowledgeable about modern industry and dynamic and positive management-trade union relationships. Northern Ireland has many real attractions and incentives for industrial investment. Good industrial relations is one of them, upon which we should attempt to capitalise at every turn and at every event.

It is my opinion, and I believe it is the opinion of many others, that it would be disastrous if this record of good industrial relations were to be tarnished or impaired as a result of the introduction to Northern Ireland of legislation which is neither indigenous nor necessary. Past experience in Northern Ireland indicates that it is best that the various industrial interests should be enabled to work out the industrial procedures appropriate to the needs of the Province. Many of the provisions in the order are irrelevant to Northern Ireland's needs. Some of them could be seriously harmful. Perhaps I may quote a few examples. The balloting provisions could be used to further sectarian ends. This is particularly true of ballots on union constitutions and on the elections for officials and committees. The trade union movement has been an oasis of tolerance in a desert of sectarianism. It is, I believe, up to everybody, including the Government, to preserve and nurture this oasis.

In over 40 years of trade union activity in Northern Ireland I have not experienced or heard of a single case of a worker being dismissed as a result of a closed shop agreement. Now we are legislating for a closed shop and for compensation. Could we be tempting fate unnecessarily? Could we be in some way encouraging a way of stepping out of the existing relationship that obtains in Northern Ireland so far as closed shop arrangements and agreements are concerned? The picketing law in Northern Ireland has been for some time different from that of Great Britain. Two recent cases prove that any problem of illegal picketing, including flying pickets (which are not a feature of Northern Ireland industrial life), can be quickly remedied by the courts under existing Northern Ireland statutes.

I should like to put a few questions to the Minister which I believe are relevant to the attempt to legislate in this particular field. May I ask the noble Earl whether this order will contribute one iota to a much needed investment programme? Will one extra job be created by the implementation of this order? Are there not already signs that the implementation of this order as it stands will have a disruptive and a negative influence on industrial relations in the Province? May I ask the Minister whether it is a fact that the Government have recently agreed to set up a joint working party, representative of employer organisations, the trade unions, the Department of Manpower Services and the labour relations agency? If this is so, surely this body should be given every opportunity to examine Northern Ireland's industrial relations needs before any new legislation is put into effect.

Finally, may I say that, along with the noble Earl yesterday, we attempted to bring forward a step in the political development of Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom Government are adjuring politicians to come together and tackle Northern Ireland's serious industrial and economic problems. Along with others I have publicly supported and worked for these declared aims. Surely it would be in keeping with this approach to encourage employers and trade unions to get together and work out an industrial relations strategy which would help to attract new industry and assist existing industry.

May I invite the noble Earl the Minister to continue to use his good offices and his influence, even at this stage, towards the particular ends which I have mentioned. Even at this stage I believe that it is possible in some way to put a moratorium on the legislation as it is and to move forward in a co-operative way towards producing in Northern Ireland dynamic, positive industrial relations procedures applicable to the needs of Northern Ireland. As I have already indicated, we on these Benches are opposed to the order. However, in upholding the conventions of this House we do not propose to divide the House on the Motion to give approval to the order.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, I was going to thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for so ably introducing the order and welcome him back to the Dispatch Box, but he has disappeared. Nevertheless, we are grateful to the noble Lord for introducing the order in the noble Earl's absence.

Whatever else may be wrong in Northern Ireland, it seems to be accepted on all sides that industrial relations are generally very good. Unfortumately, the high level of unemployment may have a lot to do with this. It is tragic that when employment is easy to come by a mad scramble for higher wages is apt to develop. When the recession ends I am not clear how the Government will deal with this in the United Kingdom as a whole, but that is outside today's debate.

I believe it makes sense that the law in Ulster should in general be brought into line with the situation in the rest of the United Kingdom, as it has been since the enactment of the Employment Bill in 1980. I have noted what the noble Lord, Lord Blease, has said, but I do not agree with the argument that this order may lead to a deterioration in industrial relations. My party largely supported the Government over the Employment Act 1980, guided by common sense together with a desire, as always, to protect the liberty of the individual. I will briefly run through the provisions of the order.

The arrangements for trade union ballots remove a financial burden without in any way making ballots compulsory. I cannot see any grounds for complaint here, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Blease, said about sectarian problems. The codes of practice to be issued by the Department of Manpower Services are described as "containing practical guidance for promoting the improvement of industrial relations". Nobody could, surely, disagree with at least this aim.

Then there is the ending of the closed shop and the threat of dismissal for not joining a union. This is a potential subject for major debate. I will just submit that in principle the individual should be allowed to decide for himself. It seems to be eminently reasonable that pregnant women should be allowed paid time off to undergo ante-natal treatment, though it is perhaps sad that such a provision has to be enacted.

Lastly, in this brief survey, we have the measures to deal with the problems of secondary picketing, flying pickets and secondary industrial action. The winter of discontent under the Labour Government showed a considerable abuse of powers by some of those organising either official or unofficial strikes.

Lord Blease

My Lords, not in Northern Ireland.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, I am talking about this country at the moment. I do not oppose the provisions in this order to check such action. At the same time, I am sure it is vital that rewards for labour are fairly distributed and are seen to be so. That also, of course, can be the subject of a further major debate. In summary, I repeat that we believe this order is reasonable.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, from this Bench we have never yet differed on a vote with my old friend and colleague Lord Blease. I am very glad that he is not taking this to a vote because, if he did, I should have to differ from him. The only objection to this order that I can see is the objection held that any legislation about trade unions must be wrong. We do not share that view. We believe that trade unions should be as near as possible to the same position as other people with certain well-established exceptions which no one is trying to alter—such as the right to strike, and so on.

To take these matters one by one, there is the assistance to trade unions to ballot, there is some reservation about the closed shop, there are the fairly generous arrangements about unfair dismissal, and there are the excellent arrangements for maternity. These are all things which cannot be objected to by anyone. The picketing laws may possibly be objected to by some but they are not objected to by us. We are very happy to support the order and are very glad that there is to be no Division on it.

6.2 p.m.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, may I make a general welcome to the way in which the order has been received. It is with a very peculiar sense of déjà vu that I am here at this Dispatch Box on matters such as secondary action, secondary picketing, secret ballots and the rest, and in a Chamber graced at the moment by the presence of my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack and also the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, on the Labour Back-Benches. One might almost be sleep-walking back into the dear, dead days of 1981.

I would like to clear up one thing. As the noble Lord, Lord Blease, very fairly pointed out, the Government have always emphasised the great strength of the industrial relations tradition in Northern Ireland. I might just say to the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, that industrial relations, measured in terms of the number of strikes or stoppages, were considerably better in Northern Ireland than on the mainland, even during periods of far fuller employment. There is a different tradition—and, in fairness, there are altogether different problems—in Northern Ireland.

Taking up a remark made by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, we are concerned in this legislation—as we were concerned in the parent legislation, if I may so put it, a year or more ago—with common sense and the liberty of the individual. I do not believe that even our sternest critics, who are at any rate professionally disinterested, have thought that the Employment Act 1980 was especially draconian. The great question this evening is not the principles of the Employment Act 1980, but whether it is wise that there should be a divergence between legislation in this field which is on the statute book for the United Kingdom as a whole and that which applies in Northern Ireland.

It is the view of the noble Lord, Lord Blease (and he is very experienced and respected in this field in Northern Ireland), that we could bring down a guillotine or moratorium to "freeze" things there for a time and perhaps examine the question. This is just the kind of action that a devolved Assembly could put to the Government to take. The Government believe that it is much better that the law in both parts of the Kingdom should be in line. No one should read into my remarks that we are setting up this legislation in Northern Ireland in order to encourage people in Northern Ireland to try to dissemble or undo it. We are not thinking of that at all. But it is interesting that given the different traditions of Northern Ireland there could be opportunities for dealing with the transferred matter in this way.

The noble Lord, Lord Blease, made, with great respect, the old point about whether any jobs would be created by this kind of legislation. I do not believe that jobs are exactly the issue here. I go back to the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, about common sense and the liberty of the individual. Northern Ireland has a very grave unemployment problem and the noble Lord will know that we are trying all we can to improve the situation substantially, but that will take a lot of time. There could be difficulties though, particularly in terms of our attempts to attract external investment there, in having to deal with a totally different set of industrial relations, laws and procedures than apply in the rest of the Kingdom.

In closing, I would like to repeat my apology at the outset for my blunder in not being able to introduce this matter into your Lordships' House. With the caveat given to us by the noble Lord, Lord Blease, which I have to reject but which could be taken up in the Province itself at a later stage, if the appropriate structures were there, generally, I welcome the way in which the order has been received and recommend that it move through your Lordships' House.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton

My Lords, while welcoming back the noble Earl, whether with a sense of déjà vu or not, I wonder whether he would care to add any remarks that might reassure the trade union movement in Northern Ireland that, although this parent legislation had to be spawned across the sea, the Government foresaw no future course of action of that kind?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I missed the last part of the noble Lord's question. What was it that "the Government foresaw"?

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton

That you will not do it again, my Lords.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I will not give any hostages to fortune in general, and to the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, in particular.

On Question, Motion agreed to.