Newspaper Industry Dispute (Court of Inquiry)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th April 1955.

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Photo of Mr Alfred Robens Mr Alfred Robens , Blyth 12:00 am, 4th April 1955

Mr. Robens (by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Labour and National Service whether he has any further statement to make about the dispute which has caused a stoppage in the newspaper industry.

Photo of Sir Walter Monckton Sir Walter Monckton , Bristol West

Since my earlier statement to the House there have been developments in this dispute. The continued inability of members of the Newspaper Proprietors Association to produce newspapers as a result of the strike of maintenance engineers and electricians caused them to give notice to members of the printing trade unions employed by them to terminate their employment on 15th April. Following this decision approaches were made to my Department by the Printing and Kindred Trades Federation, and I received a deputation from the General Purposes Committee of the Trades Union Congress. Both stressed the serious consequences to members of other trade unions which had resulted from the stoppage of work by members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and Electrical Trades Union, and asked that every endeavour should be made to secure a resumption of work as quickly as possible.

My officers have been in contact with the parties throughout and a further joint meeting of the parties took place under the auspices of the Ministry on Friday, 1st April. Efforts to find a basis for a resumption of work lasted for more than ten hours, but no agreement was reached on the main issue of the amount of the increase in wages to be paid to the maintenance engineers and electricians. The representatives of the Newspaper Proprietors Association repeated their willingness to refer the dispute to arbitration and to abide by the result, but the union representatives were not willing to go to arbitration.

In the circumstances, I have set up a Court of Inquiry to inquire into the causes and circumstances of the dispute, which will proceed with its examination of the dispute as rapidly as possible. I regret that the hope which was expressed to the Amalgamated Engineering Union and Electrical Trades Union on my behalf that work should be resumed immediately to allow the Court to conduct its inquiries in a strike-free atmosphere has not been realised, and I feel sure that the House will share my view that now that an impartial inquiry into the whole dispute is being conducted the trade unions concerned should recommend their members to return to work without delay.

Photo of Mr Alfred Robens Mr Alfred Robens , Blyth

Does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman regard it as highly desirable that the Court of Inquiry should complete its task before the notices given to all other workers in the newspaper industry expire? If so, could he say whether the Court of Inquiry will complete its work before that date, 15th April? Secondly, does the Minister feel that, despite the ten hours' negotiation which his Department had with the unions concerned, it is not too late to make a further approach to see whether or not the men would resume work until the completion of the work of the Court of Inquiry?

Photo of Sir Walter Monckton Sir Walter Monckton , Bristol West

I share the view expressed by the right hon. Gentleman about the urgency of the work of the Court. I have every hope that it will set about its task of hearing the matters in dispute on Wednesday after such preliminary meeting as it thinks necessary, and that it will do its best to complete its work and let us have the result before 15th April so that we may know where we stand. I am sure that the Court will do its best. I cannot say more. If the right hon. Gentleman can think of some other means of getting the men back to work before that date, I shall be very glad to try to adopt it. I am satisfied that there was no other move which could have been made last Friday—indeed, there was very little after the Friday before—which could have had that result. I only hope that the view of the right hon. Gentleman, which I hold myself, about the desirability of getting back to work while the Court sits, will have some effect among the men.

Photo of Mr Alfred Robens Mr Alfred Robens , Blyth

Is it clear to the unions in dispute that it is impossible for any negotiations to take place until the Court has completed its work and that, therefore, at least until then, the dispute is really without much avail? In those circumstances, is not it common sense for the men to resume work until such time as the inquiry is completed?

Photo of Sir Walter Monckton Sir Walter Monckton , Bristol West

It was upon that basis that, through my officers, I urged the men to resume work while the Court was sitting. At that time they felt unable to do so. I hope that they will read what the right hon. Gentleman has said and take his advice.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore Lieut-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore , Ayr

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many of us here, and, I believe, many others outside, would prefer to continue without the London newspapers rather than to submit to a pressure which is very akin to blackmail?

Photo of Sir Walter Monckton Sir Walter Monckton , Bristol West

I suppose that all hon. Members of the House must bear this infliction as well as they can. As to the second part of my hon. Friend's question, I would rather not qualify anybody's action until the Court has reported.

Mr. Lee:

Would the Minister make it clear that in setting up the Court of Inquiry he has been influenced in some degree by the fact that the unions have refused to go to arbitration? Further, would he point out that it is quite unusual, almost unheard of, in this country to ask trade unions which have never had the opportunity of negotiating with the employers to go to arbitration?

Photo of Sir Walter Monckton Sir Walter Monckton , Bristol West

It is undesirable that I should go into this matter which the Court will have to inquire into, beyond saying that I set up the Court solely because when representations were made to me it was the only step that I could take which might have resulted in the men going back to work. I still hope that it will have that result.

Photo of Mr Alfred Robens Mr Alfred Robens , Blyth

Have the unions in dispute agreed to take part in the work of the Court?

Photo of Sir Walter Monckton Sir Walter Monckton , Bristol West

They have been informed that the Court will be sitting on Wednesday. I have not yet heard of any decision on that point.

Photo of Sir Martin Lindsay Sir Martin Lindsay , Solihull

Can my right hon. and learned Friend say what is the number of men involved now and the number who are likely to be put out of work after 15th April if the stoppage continues, including the unfortunate street vendors?

Photo of Sir Walter Monckton Sir Walter Monckton , Bristol West

I should not like to be held to the number, but among the unions concerned in the Federation of which I spoke I suppose it is between 15,000 and 20,000. I cannot give the number of news vendors, but most of us know that some of these unfortunate men are already suffering hardship as a result of the stoppage.

Photo of Mr Reginald Paget Mr Reginald Paget , Northampton

Is not it a fact that the extent of this stoppage is the result of the operation of a newspaper cartel, and that a number of newspaper proprietors have been anxious to pay the increased rate pending a settlement, and to publish, but are not allowed to do so by the cartel? Is not it a fact that the strike can be stopped tomorrow if the increased rates are paid pending a settlement of the dispute?

Photo of Sir Walter Monckton Sir Walter Monckton , Bristol West

I must say to the hon. and learned Member that I have often found cases in which it would be easy to bring a dispute to an end if one gave the fruits before the negotiation took place. As to the rest of the hon. and learned Gentleman's suggestions, he is better informed, as I would expect him to be, than I can claim to be, but I have a hope that those are just the questions which the Court will discover for itself.

Photo of Sir Godfrey Nicholson Sir Godfrey Nicholson , Farnham

Apart altogether from the merits of the dispute, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there is great concern in the country on the larger issues involved? It is a serious situation if a few hundred people on both sides can hold up the processes of democracy by preventing the dissemination of news to three-quarters of the country. Will my right hon. and learned Friend bear that aspect of the question in mind?

Photo of Sir Walter Monckton Sir Walter Monckton , Bristol West

I certainly do not underestimate the importance of a stoppage of this kind. It is a serious reflection that it has on this occasion been brought about by a complaint by about 700 men.

Photo of Mr Alfred Robens Mr Alfred Robens , Blyth

At the same time, the right hon. and learned Gentleman would agree, would he not, that the 700 men have a perfect right either to withhold their labour or not in accordance with negotiations which take place with the employers? Will not the problems which have arisen from this dispute become much more clear when we have the result of the inquiry?

Photo of Sir Walter Monckton Sir Walter Monckton , Bristol West

I entirely agree. I do not want to add another word. Let the Court inquire and report and let me withhold judgment until I have got the report.