HC Deb 08 March 1920 vol 126 cc949-51W

asked the Minister of Labour if dissatisfaction exists in those industries that have established Industrial Councils when decisions and agreements arrived at are ignored or set at defiance by those employers who are not parties to those agreements or members of employers' associations; and whether he will consider the advisability of making the decisions and agreements upon wages, conditions, and hours of employment arrived at by all Industrial Councils binding upon the whole of the respective industries when they represent two-thirds of the workers and their employers concerned, so as to prevent employers underselling those who are helping to establish industrial peace?


I propose to answer this question in some detail because the principle involved is one to which public attention ought to be given. I should say, in the first place, that while it is the fact that several Joint Industrial Councils have asked for powers to make their agreements compulsory on the whole trade, it is far from being the case that this demand is universal. This division of opinion was to be expected in view of the controversial history of this and the allied question, from which it is difficult to dissocate it, of making awards of Courts of Arbitration compulsory. In 1913, the Industrial Council, a body consisting or representatives of employers' associations and trade unions, under the. chairmanship of Sir George (now Lord) Askwith, reported that, subject to certain conditions to which I need not allude, an agreement entered into by associations of employers and workmen, representing a substantial body of those in the trade or district, should be made applicable to the whole of the trade or district concerned. The matter was then considered by the Trade Union Congress, at which the proposal was rejected by a large majority. The Trade Union Congress had previously rejected the idea in 1912, and the Labour party adopted the same attitude in 1913. The hon. Member's proposal was the subject of one of the recommendations of the Provisional Joint Committee of the National Industrial Conference. I endeavoured to secure the opinion of the Trade Union Congress in September of last year, but I understand that the Parliamentary Committee was unable to bring the matter before the main body. I made a further attempt to ascertain the reception which the proposal would meet from workpeople's organisations at the time when I was introducing the Industrial Courts Act. At that time, however, it was rejected by the trade union organisations largely on the ground that it was proposed, and I think justly proposed, to make compulsion two-sided, penalties for breach being provided equally against employers and employed. Under the Trade Union Act of 1871 and the Trade Disputes Act, 1906, not only is it impossible to enforce legally an agreement made between employers' associations and workers' associations, but it is also impossible to bring an action against either such association for inducing or assisting its members to break the contract to which it has itself been a party. Contracts between employers and workmen's associations rest, therefore, only upon the good faith of the parties to-them, and, unless the law is altered in this respect, it is difficult to see how it is possible to make them legally binding upon persons who are not themselves, parties to the agreement. The difficulty of making compulsion apply equally is perhaps not greater than the practical difficulties which would be involved in making agreements of joint industrial councils compulsory on the whole trade. Not only would complicated questions of demarcation and trade definition inevitably arise, but the question of the extent to which any given group of employers or employed represented a large majority of the trade would require close examination. There is the further difficulty that certain wage settlements affect an industry, while others affect a craft extending through a number of industries. For these reasons it is clear that the matter is not one which can be settled without a great deal of further discussion and examination. In saying this, however, I am not averse from giving further consideration to this matter, but unless a substantial agreement of opinion exists among employers and workpeople I should not be prepared to introduce the necessary legislation.