HL Deb 28 June 1989 vol 509 cc731-4

Lord McCarthy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to legislate against unofficial strikes by imposing criminal penalties on strikers or additional liabilities on unions.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Skelmersdale)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government regularly review industrial relations law in a manner consistent with the step-by-step approach that they have adopted over the past 10 years. They bring forward proposals as and when necessary. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment is currently reviewing the law in relation to industrial action with a view to issuing a consultative document later.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that uninformative Answer. Does he deny that the Secretary of State said publicly that he was considering proceeding against unofficial strikers? Is it not true that, if he does so, he must proceed by the criminal law—locking them up—or he must proceed against their union? That will mean that the Government are saying, "You must discipline your members if they strike but you must not discipline members if they do not". Is that feasible?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, first, I should not dream of denying in this House especially my right honourable friend's words. Secondly, I am extremely doubtful that new criminal penalties are appropriate. The reform of legislation since 1979 has shown that changes in civil law liability can be highly effective in curbing irresponsible official industrial action. I see no reason why the same should not apply to irresponsible unofficial industrial action.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is the Minister not aware that the Government are already in trouble with the International Labour Office in relation to legislation already on the statute book? In the present circumstances therefore is it not unwise to contemplate further legislation?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the Government are not committed to bringing forward any particular proposals because the review is under way.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that as long ago as the publication of the Conservative Party Manifesto for the 1983 general election it was contemplated that action would be taken to deal with strikes in public services which hurt the public? In view of what is now happening and the hardship that is being imposed on millions of our fellow countrymen by the irresponsible and selfish action of the strikers, is there not a good case for proceeding?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble friend that there is public demand for proposals to be brought forward which will end the particuarly nasty form of industrial blackmail implicit in unofficial action.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, will the Government take account of the view that it is the tightness of the existing law binding union leaders that has prompted the recent unofficial action on the Underground and in the docks?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, that is a point of view with which I do not entirely agree. A consultation paper will be published and such points can be made within the context of consultation on that paper.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is it not quite wrong that a few thousand people in public service should hold the whole community to ransom? In considering the need for legislation on this matter, will the Government bear in mind the desirability of making it a clause in contracts of employment that in the event of disputes on wages there should be compulsory arbitration.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, that is certainly a consideration that I should be happy to put to my right honourable friend. However, in commenting on the implicit point made by my noble friend, London's commuters would vehemently disagree that the kind of irresponsible unofficial industrial action we have seen recently should be allowed to continue. They have borne the brunt of recent unofficial industrial action on public transport services in the South-East. London's travelling public are helpless victims, not a party to the dispute, and nor do they have any means of hastening its resolution.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, is the Minister aware that men do not go on strike lightly and that there is always a reason for doing so? He has not said one word about management. For example, in the dispute with the railways something should be said to the people who are stupid enough to apply to the courts for an injunction the moment they go to ACAS in the middle of the negotiations. Everyone agrees that that was foolish and mad. Is it not about time that the Minister and Government understand that the threat that they will not work is all that working people have? It is as simple as that.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I believe that the whole House would agree with me when I say that a union belongs to its members and not to its council, and that basically our legislation has sought to give unions back to their members and to restore a proper balance between the rights of employers and trade unions. As regards the courts, of course it is implicit in our constitution that the courts are the final arbiters of what is the law in a particular case.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, does my noble friend not attach any significance to the fact that for the same weak reasons the same industries on the same day are also going on strike in other Continental countries?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I must admit that that was a rather fast ball because in recent weeks strikes have been on a continuing basis. I am not aware that other countries have had strikes on a continuing basis.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, does the Minister not understand that legislation which this Government brought in is resulting in employers going to the courts much earlier than what one would term the normal timing in any industrial dispute? Does the Minister not understand that the only people who can settle a strike are the two parties involved, and that the willingness of the employers to run to the courts far too early prevents any early settlement from being made?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I certainly accept that there are other ways of dealing with this particular problem; for example, in many of the Community countries collective agreements are legally enforceable and arbitration of disputes is mandatory. However, that is not a way in which any of us have sought to take forward employment law in this country.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, could we not debate this matter with greater clarity and sense when we know what the Government propose and whether they propose anything? Could we not do so better than at oral Question Time?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend. Of course, there will be an opportunity to discuss this matter, possibly through the good auspices of the usual channels, as a result of the publication of the consultation document. However, in the possible event of legislation Parliament will be able to devote its usual care and attention to that legislation.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the trade unions, particularly those involved with the railways and docks, have done their best, bending over backwards, to keep within the law imposed upon them by the present Government? Is he also aware that in relation to arbitration, one problem of the railways at present is that the Railways Board intends—and this partly what the strike is about—to abolish the Railway Staffs Tribunal, which of course is the arbitration machinery? Will the Government not step in at this stage and tell the railways to negotiate properly instead of trying to impose their will on responsible trade unions?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord's question, much as it interests me, is rather wide of the Question on the Order Paper. However, I agree with him that as regards British Rail positions are currently rather entrenched.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there is a sad and worrying aspect to all this? As has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, for about eight years the present Government have been introducing legislation which is, quite frankly, brutally anti-trade union. What worries many people is that the first objective of any form of authoritarianism, such as Mussolini, Hitler and other such people, has always been to try to destroy the trade union movement wherever it exists. Will the Government try to be an honest arbiter between the two parties involved which in this case are the employers and trade unions, hold the ring and endeavour to bring them together, so that a reasonable acceptable result car be produced?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I do not believe that that is the job of government; but it is the job of ACAS, on whom governments have relied for several years now. I should point out that 2.9 million working days were lost in the 12 months to April compared with an average of 12.9 million in the 1970s. I cannot believe that continuing changes to employment law have done nothing to bring about that situation.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, does the noble Lord not agree that we have not started this hare? It has been started by the Secretary of State, who has gone around the country making vague statements about how, sometime in the future, he wants to proceed on the issue of unofficial strikes. We are asking what he is going to do and why he is going to do it?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the only advice that I can give to the noble Lord, and therefore to the House, is to await the consultation paper.

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