Orders of the Day — Industrial Relations

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd July 1972.

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Photo of Mr Reginald Prentice Mr Reginald Prentice , East Ham North 12:00 am, 3rd July 1972

The solution was suggested in those talks but was not followed up by British Rail or by the Government or anyone else.

I also remind the Prime Minister that Vic Feather, just before the cooling-off period was applied for, said, "Give me 24 hours and I shall try to settle it" and, clearly, in view of what happened afterwards, he could have done so. It would have represented a settlement on the basis which could have been obtained two months earlier.

I wanted to go on to suggest that, quite apart from not serving the public interest, the Government's manoeuvres during those two months did not even suit the Government's interest and that this was just another chapter in their policy. They looked back nostalgically, for another victory such as they got over the postmen, and they were smarting from what had happened in the 1922 Committee over what was considered there to be their surrender to the miners, and so they decided to take on the railwaymen. The effect of their manoeuvres in the two months did not even enable them to do that, because again the settlement at the end was of the same order—or a bit higher—as it could have been in April. The mood of the railwaymen in June was more determined and was hardened, and they would have been more ready in larger numbers to go on with a long struggle in June than some were in April.

I am bound to return, upon the rail dispute, to one issue which has cropped up in this debate and during the discussions over recent weeks, that the whole episode calls in question not only the judgment of Ministers but the good faith of Ministers, and I am bound to return to the question of evidence the Government had when they applied to the court first for the cooling-off period and secondly for the ballot.

I draw attention, as 1 did earlier in an intervention, to the wording of the Act, Section 138. The Government had to satisfy the court that in their view a cooling-off period would be conducive to the start of negotiations, conciliation, or arbitration. In the cooling-off period there were no negotiations except for a three-hour meeting. There was no conciliation. There was no arbitration. There was no move by the Government to bring about any of those things, and I put it to the House, therefore, that there was no evidence, when the Government wanted to create a cooling-off period, that it would be conducive to a settlement by any of those methods.

Similarly when the Government applied for the ballot under Section 141 they had to show reasons for doubting whether the workers who are taking part or are expected to take part in the strike or other industrial action are or would be taking part in it in accordance with their wishes…". I put it to the House that there were no reasons. In reply to my intervention earlier the Prime Minister said the Secretary of State had given reasons. I should like to know when, because I believe that I have been in the House every time the Secretary of State has answered Questions or made statements on this subject. Inevitably, there have been many Questions and many statements, but there have been no reasons. I can rememeber the occasion when he said he had reasons, but I cannot remember him saying what those reasons were. Nor did the Prime Minister when he was questioned on this. Both of them fudged.

The Secretary of State has another opportunity tonight to spell out those reasons. If he does not, people will be bound to conclude that this is one of the worst lapses of integrity even of this Government. In addition to all the other reasons for getting rid of the Act, there is the reason that it puts temptation into the path of the Government to depart from the standards of integrity which Ministers should follow.

The docks dispute gives us a different illustration of the folly of this Act. For some weeks the country has been in a critical situation; we have been under notice of an official dock strike. On two occasions the dock delegate conference has postponed the strike notice to allow the leaders of the union to continue to negotiate on the matters in dispute. Progress has been made and agreement has been reached on fallback pay, severance pay and holidays. On the cruicial question of employment, with particular reference to containerisation, we still do not know whether we shall have a dock strike. The committee, under the joint chairmanship of Jack Jones and Lord Aldington, has been at work on this. I am sure all hon. and right hon. Members hope that they succeed in their efforts, and would advise the dockers to look to these negotiations to solve their problems and not go ahead with any action that is not authorised by the national dock delegate conference.

The background to the dispute, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), is of growing unemployment in the docks, over one-third of the jobs being lost in the last seven years, many in areas of high unemployment. It is clear that the constructive efforts of both sides in the dispute and of the Secretary of State and his Department have very nearly been completely sabotaged by the effect of the Act. The Prime Minister said that the fact that it was being brought into the open and that the Jones-Aldington Committee had been formed was somehow due to the operation of the Act. How he works that out, I do not know. That is twisting the truth to an incredible extent. The problems were there and the two sides were trying to solve them. The Act is irrelevant to these problems, and the Act has nearly destroyed, and may still destroy, the efforts of both sides to bring the dispute to a satisfactory solution.

The Act is so drawn that any tin-pot employer, like Heatons, or any group of workers anxious for their jobs, such as those at Chobham, or any individual, can take a union or a group of workers to court and escalate a local situation into a national crisis that can bring an industry to a standstill. That is the essence of the folly of the Act.

In putting this point to the Government I am speaking directly to the Motion. If they hint or imply tomorrow to the TUC that they will go easy on part of the Act and put the emergency procedures into cold storage, that will not be enough. If they ask the CBI and the Employers' Federation to advise their members to do the same, that still will not be enough. As long as the Act remains on the Statute Book some people somewhere will be crazy enough to use it, and the consequences of their using it in the wrong circumstances could be to bring a great national industry and the economy of the country to a standstill, as might have happened a fortnight ago but for the surprise intervention of the good fairy in the shape of the Official Solicitor.