HL Deb 12 December 1983 vol 446 cc26-8

4.15 p.m.

The Minister of State, Privy Council Office, and Minister for the Arts (The Earl of Gowrie)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat an Answer given to a Private Notice Question in another place about the National Graphical Association dispute. The Answer was as follows:

"Further negotiations between the Stockport Messenger Group and the National Graphical Association took place throughout last week under ACAS chairmanship. These lengthy negotiations ended without agreement in the early hours of Friday morning. I understand that the chairman of the group, Mr. Shah, put forward proposals for the re-employment of the six dismissed strikers which the NGA did not reject and which could have resolved that issue. However, the NGA refused to give up their demand for a closed shop at Bury and Warrington. On the central issue of the closed shop, the NGA continued to insist on its establishment, but Mr. Shah was not prepared to accept this against the wishes of his employees, and it was on this issue of the closed shop that the negotiations broke down.

"Later on Friday morning the contempt proceedings in the High Court in Manchester, which had been adjourned a week before at the request of both the Messenger Group and the NGA, were resumed. The NGA were fined a further £150,000 for the unlawful picketing which occurred between 22nd and 24th November in their continued defiance of the orders of the court, and £375,000 for the unlawful picketing at Warrington between 29th November and 1st December.

"The National Council of the NGA met on Saturday and decided to call a one-day strike of all their members on Wednesday, 14th December. I trust that all sides of the House will join me in condemning further recourse to indiscriminate and damaging industrial action. It can do nothing to resolve the NGA's dispute with the Stockport Messenger Group. All it will achieve is substantial damage to companies who have no connection with this dispute and which can only put at risk the jobs of many of their own members and other employees as well.

"For all these reasons, and not least what are likely to be the serious consequences for the NGA itself, I hope that they will no longer seek to pursue this dispute in defiance of the law."

My Lords, that concludes the Answer.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, may I first thank the Minister for repeating the Answer made in another place to the PNQ on this very important dispute. I do not think that the Statement adds much to that which has already been reported in the press and the media over the weekend, following the breakdown of the negotiations last week. Of course, it is in an extremely delicate situation at present. Surely the Minister must be aware that there is still time, short though it is, to seek to avoid a national printing strike. Will he not also accept that one of the responsibilities of the Secretary of State is to foster good industrial relations where possible? May I therefore ask the Minister if he will ask the Secretary of State at this late point in time to call together all the sides involved in this dispute, either today or tomorrow, in an effort to avoid what could be a very damaging dispute for all concerned?

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, my noble friends in the SDP and my noble friends on the Liberal Benches are somewhat puzzled as to what the object is of this Private Notice Question and its inevitable Answer, because it adds absolutely nothing to the information already available to the public and it does absolutely nothing except to give an opportunity to Members of the other place and to Members of your Lordships' House to make provocative remarks that cannot do the situation any good at all.

In so far as we are asked to comment, I comment very briefly. First, the issue being very largely whether or not a closed shop should be imposed contrary to the wishes of the majority of the employees, our views on these Benches are perfectly clear: that would be totally improper. Secondly, we note what the Answer says on the fact that there is going to be a one-day strike on Wednesday. I do not think that the media ought to exaggerate the extent of the grief with which the public will view the possibility of their being deprived of their newspapers on Wednesday. Indeed, I think that many of us are deeply concerned that the disorganised rabble which represents the newspaper publishers at the moment has brought this to some extent on its own head.

Thirdly, we would take the view that this is at the moment a dispute between an employer and a trade union in which the Government are not directly involved but in which the courts are directly involved. It is of supreme importance to the rule of law that the supremacy of the courts should be upheld, and we on these Benches are determined to see that it is.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, could I say to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, who wanted the Secretary of State to call the various parties to this dispute together, that exhaustive attempts at conciliation have been made throughout this dispute, and particularly in the last week. It is now quite clear that what stands in the way of a negotiated settlement is not in fact the future of the six dismissed strikers but the NGA's rigid insistence on a closed shop. That is what this dispute has always been about; and I therefore cannot see, sadly, that there is much scope for further attempts at conciliation.

May I say to the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, that the Private Notice Question, I understand, was put down by the Opposition spokesman, and therefore, of course, my right honourable friend had to answer it. I agree with the noble Lord that the law on this issue is quite clear—that, of course, the Government are not involved, but the courts are—and, on behalf of the Government, we very much hope that the NGA will see their position clearly and will call off the threatened industrial action which I think would deprive many of the public of their newspapers on Wednesday.