Oral Answers to Questions — Industrial Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th July 1972.

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Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton 12:00 am, 25th July 1972

I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

Our first charge against the Government is that on the very day that the Jones-Aldington Committee produced its report on dock employment the Government were sitting in the Cabinet room presiding over an almost total stoppage in the docks and in some parts of wider areas of industry, a stoppage which, as we warned, was the direct and inevitable consequence of their inept and malevolent manoeuvrings in industrial relations.

In the last debate on this subject those of us in the House who represent dockers, and some of us representing the lorry drivers serving the docks as well, spoke of the deep anxieties felt in dockland and the need for fundamental solutions to the fundamental human problems, solutions which Mr. Jones and Lord Aldington were determined to seek. I paid tribute to the rôle of the Minister in those vital preliminary stages before the Jones-Aldington Committee got to work. Even so, the work of the Committee would have been destroyed at the outset, through the intervention of the fussy, prissy legislation which is the hallmark of this Government, had it not been for the intervention of the Official Solicitor—the first intervention of the Official Solicitor. The Government, powerless to help themselves or the nation are now praying for the nearest thing the legal system provides to divine intervention in the second intervention of the Official Solicitor.

Yesterday the work of the Jones-Aldington Committee was set at nought. It had produced a report which, by dealing with the real fears and anxieties of the dockers, could have rid dockland of the protective measures which have been taken by dockers and lorry drivers as they saw the need for them in defence of their jobs. On Thursday of this week the dockers' delegate conference had to decide on the Jones-Aldington Report. It would not have been easy even without the committals to prison. Fears and suspicions die hard on the waterfront. But now the conference must take its decisions against a background of the fiercest anger and blazing resentment that the docks have ever known.

There opposite me sit the men responsible. The Solicitor-General is, I think, shyly sitting at the end of the Front Bench, but he is there, too. [Hon. Members: "Where is Barbara?"] She has gone to hospital this afternoon, if Conservative Members want to know.

Those on the Government Front Bench are responsible for what could be the second shutdown in industry in less than six months, both of them the result of doctrinaire postures in industrial relations, first on the miners and now on the docks, both the result of a total miscalculation of the mood of men who feel themselves unfairly challenged with the power of the State, and in this case with the majesty of the law arrayed against them.

Let the Government accept their responsibility like men for what has occurred. What has happened is the direct result of a law of their making, a creation of their design, the Industrial Relations Act, and the Industrial Relations Court, which because of the law that court has to administer is rapidly proving the most irrelevant and expensive judicial bauble in history. The Government sit there in the face of the crisis they have created, unable to act, paralysed, immobilised, impotent, politically and morally bankrupt in this situation. [Interruption.] They caused it, but they cannot get out of it, unless the Official Solicitor comes to their help once again.

We have heard a great deal of the Prime Minister's personal style of government. Let me give him one canon of government with which in his heart he must agree. No Government must ever put themselves in a situation where they are powerless to act in the face of a national crisis—and that is where the Government are today. This Government, by the nature of the legislation they forced through the House, have rendered themselves ineffective and powerless to act. They are now the prisoners of their own law, like a bench of right hon. Frankensteins ruefully contemplating the damage and devastation caused by the legal monstrosity they created. [Interruption.] I have plenty of time. Conservative Members may laugh at the fact that the docks are closed. The Government Front Bench closed them. The Government are looking at the damage their legal monstrosity has created. But, at least, even Baron Frankenstein, before being destroyed by the monster he had created, did not go on Radio 4 whining about it and blaming everyone but himself, like the Secretary of State for Employment last night.

The Government talk about the law. Not everyone will like this, but my right hon. Friends and I have repeated many times—I said it publicly before the first ill-fated reference to the court by the Secretary of State for Employment—that the law must be obeyed, even manifestly bad law. [Interruption.] I said it on television. I have said it throughout.

But there is an implication here. Bad law must be changed. That is why we have made it clear that we shall immediately repeal the Act, if the Government have not themselves been forced through a short repeal Bill to slit the throat of their own legislative progeny. For side by side with compliance with the law—[Interruption.] I want to be brief, but I have plenty of time. [Hon. Members: "So have we."] So have we, when the Prime Minister gets up. I have noticed that Conservative Members are never so noisy as when they are in deep trouble. That is why they are being noisy this afternoon, and they know it. Those on the Government Front Bench know it. They are not joining in.

Side by side with compliance with the law is another obligation, an obligation on Government to introduce laws capable of reflecting—indeed, strengthening and not destroying—that sense of national consensus on which the spirit and the working of our democracy must rest.

I say this to the Secretary of State for Employment. Not long ago the name of Macmillan and the word "consensus" were regarded as something like synonymous. Now that name is debased as the right hon. Gentleman acts as a messenger boy and apologist for a leader who rejects in his heart the very idea of consensus, whose style of government is a system of confrontation based on the memory of those partisan cheers that he used to get when he went around the country peddling the distorted doctrines of the Inns of Court Conservative Association—whose members are now working. They are working all right, but the docks are not.

The Secretary of State now stands on the burning deck with a microphone in his hand but with nothing to say except to appeal to the law. There is something totally improper in his ex cathedra pronouncements in the House and in his broadcasts that had NIRC not existed the Court of Chancery would have brought about the situation we face today. He cannot say, he is not entitled or empowered to say, what the judgment of that court would have been, and he, above all men, should be wary of pre-judging the actions of the Court of Appeal. If he or the Lord President want to repeat their claim that without NIRC the law would have been enforced, let either of them tell the House how many workers in total were ever in prison as a result of the pre-1971 law.

Nearly two months ago at a trade union conference—and Ministers should try to attend them sometimes because they might learn a bit more about the subject—I warned about the dock situation and the inability of the court so constituted by the Act to deal with the deep social problems and fears. I contrasted on that occasion the work of Lord Devlin on docks decasualisation, and my suggestion to the Government then was "Devlin in, NIRC out". Anyone who saw Lord Devlin on television last night and heard his wisdom, his humanity, his hard-headed realism, and his respect for the law that has been debased by the Government's Act would regret that even at this late stage the Government did not take that advice. Yet this afternoon the Prime Minister sneered at Lord Devlin as he and other Ministers at the time sneered at the Devlin Report on the Nyasaland massacre. [Interruption.] I refer hon. Members, if they do not accept what I say, to Mr. Harold Macmillan's memoirs on the subject.

Since the Prime Minister appears not to have seen Lord Devlin on the television, I assume that he has asked for a copy of the text and that he will study it. If not, I will remind him of one or two comments made by Lord Devlin last night. He said that the Act might have worked out quite peaceably…But in the light of hindsight, I think that there are some provisions of it which do rather turn the thing into a confrontation between the Courts and trade unions and which I should like to see go". He went on: First of all there's contempt of court. I wish that contempt of court had never been introduced at all but it was in the Government's Bill. He said This, after all, is a new field. It's a new court and it's a court"—