Orders of the Day — Emergency Powers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th August 1972.

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Photo of Mr Maurice Edelman Mr Maurice Edelman , Coventry North 12:00 am, 8th August 1972

I share the hope which has been expressed that the Jones-Aldington Committtee will be able to produce a fair solution in the interests of all as quickly as possible. We are in the midst of a national crisis which affects Coventry, the most inland of cities, as much as it does the Outer Hebrides. I want to address myself to the nature of the crisis and the quality of the emergency powers which the Government now seek.

A foreigner observing our debate might think that it is a striking example of British flair. Here we are, in the midst of a crisis of the greatest magnitude, debating these grave matters in a thinly attended House in the euphoria of a holiday which is about to begin. We are debating the matter in the almost total absence of the Press. We are discussing these grave issues as if they are merely one part of a general ragbag of end-of-term measures which have to be tidied up before we leave for the vacation.

I say that as no reproach to those hon. Members who are present. The fact of their presence shows their concern in the matter. Nor do I necessarily say it as any kind of reproach to those hon. Members who are absent. But here we are confronting one of the gravest issues of our time. The situation is deteriorating day by day not specifically in relation to the docks but as an aspect of the general decline in the industrial climate. I regret very much that this important subject is being debated in such a thinly attended House.

The emergency regulations themselves are of an importance which only those who have read them with care can appreciate fully. They restrict freedom of speech. In effect, they restrict the right to picket. They attribute to the Government powers of arbitrary arrest. Regulation 2(3) is of the utmost importance to our liberties. It reads: Any reference in these Regulations to the doing of any act shall, unless the context otherwise requires, be construed as including a reference to the making of any statement. I draw that to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends. These emergency powers are not concerned merely with actions which may involve penalties. They are concerned with statements by anyone who may be thought to have it in mind to engage in any action which will attract penalties.

This is a very grave and serious matter, and I go on by quoting one or two others of the regulations which are brought before this House. Regulation 33(3) reads: No person loitering in the vicinity of any premises used or appropriated for the purposes of essential services shall continue to loiter in that vicinity after being requested by the appropriate person to leave it. There follows a description of "the appropriate person".

What does that mean in terms of the traditional right to picket which the right hon. Gentleman defended specifically? It means that anyone who is regarded as loitering for any purpose whatever, including picketing, may be arrested and subject to the penalties provided for in the regulations.

I quote a third example of the enormous and draconian powers which the Government are acquiring by means of these regulations which are going through "on the nod" tonight. Regulation 36 reads: Where a constable, with reasonable cause, suspects that an offence against any of these Regulations has been committed, he may arrest without warrant anyone whom he, with reasonable cause, suspects to be guilty of the offence. These are enormous powers which have not been required by anyone in our history since Oliver Cromwell. While it is true that under a benevolent Labour Government the use of these powers in reserve might be condoned or tolerated, I certainly should not willingly entrust them to right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite. Indeed, I should sooner entrust a delinquent child with a loaded gun than these emergency regulations to the Government.

Despite the glib statement by the right hon. Gentleman that these powers are held in reserve and are not likely to be used, I ask him to consider the present mood of the public, to which his hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) referred. The hon. Gentleman quoted from the Evening Standard. Perhaps I may do the same. The lead letter in the Evening Standard this evening, written by a lady whose name I will not give because I do not believe she deserves advertisement, says: Isn't it time somebody called their bluff"— she was referring to the dockers— and released us from their tyranny? We've got a State of Emergency. She was anticipating the debate tonight. Why not use it now and give them"— the dockers— 24 hours to unload these ships, or else! That is the mood which has been generated by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite; that is the context in which we are discussing these emergency regulations; that is the deteriorating climate in which the Government will acquire these enormous powers.

In cerain situations, in the interests of the nation as a whole, there may be critical moments when the Government require certain of the powers included in these regulations. However, the Government must consider whether the application of any of those powers, in the context of the attitude which has been created among trade unionists generally, will lead to an even worse situation.

One of my hon. Friends earlier spoke about good and bad laws. Certainly when we talk about good or bad laws we are applying valued judgments which none of us would tend to apply when it came to observing or rejecting the law. However, there are moments when a certain section of the public feels so disadvantaged and unjustly done by that it is hard for those people to refrain from acting in a way which we might deplore in terms of the law but can understand when it comes to their particular and human rights.

Although the Government may acquire the right of repression by these emergency laws, unless they seek to tackle the underlying and fundamental reason for the problem we face at the docks, which finds its echoes among trade unionists throughout the country, then indeed they will find that, even if the dock strike is settled, there will be further repercussions, further strikes, and further occasions for them to introduce emergency regulations in what I have already described as the deteriorating industrial situation in this country.

When this Government came to power the rigid idealogical principle introduced by the Prime Minister was that of confrontation. That theory of confrontation has lain at the roots of every major strike in this country since those days, including the docks strike today. The doctrine of confrontation was that the workers and the trade unionists must be taken on. That attitude has percolated downwards so that, although the Government have now had a certain change of heart, throughout industry there are managements which remain attached to the idea that somehow or other they can deal with the trade unions only by using a mailed fist.

We have been concentrating on the strike at the docks, but I think we ought to take note that all over the country many strikes are taking place. Some of them have been going on for much longer than the docks strike. They are strikes with great social and economic consequences, such as the one at the Jaguar works at Coventry where the men have been on strike for six weeks. The men there have been vilified on the ground that, somehow or other, they have prevented a major British product from being manufactured and sold. I must say in parenthesis that I regard it as extraordinary when workers are vilified for withholding their labour on products which they themselves have made when they are fundamentally the people who are responsible for creating a first-class car like the Jaguar. These men have been out on strike, not because they have been bloody-minded, as some papers have suggested, nor simply for the sake of striking. They are out on strike because they have definite grievances which they have presented and which have been rejected by management.

The Prime Minister has now rightly indicated that he wants to have tripartite discussions between the Government, the trade unions and management. That is a proper method of proceeding which he should have undertaken two years ago. I believe that it is right to have that colloquy between the interests involved to try to obtain some kind of harmony between all those concerned. Unfortunately, the new attitude has not yet reached those ranks of management where it is most applicable and where it could be used; for example, in the Jaguar strike.

While believing that, on the whole, Members of Parliament should not seek to intervene in industrial disputes, I have in the past, and, perhaps I can say, with some success, tried to bring together the parties concerned in the dispute. I must record tonight that Lord Stokes not only did not discuss the matter with me, despite my application to him to discuss it, but he asked some intermediary to talk to me. The fact is that instead of taking the opportunity of harmonising those who were in conflict he has allowed this ruinous strike to continue.

I make mention of that because I believe that there are structural problems in Britain today which, even when this docks strike is ended, will produce almost identical results. One has only to look at the machine tool industry, where, because of the apprehension that the same problems as the docks now have with containerisation might recur in some way, there has been a reluctance on the part of the industry to invest. The result is that a firm like Herbert-Ingersoll, making one of the most advanced ranges of machine tools in the world, is going into the hands of a receiver, simply because management has been unable to make the necessary investment because of the belief that if it were to do so it would have redundancy problems which could not be settled. One of the most advanced firms in the world is falling into the hands of a receiver, and the economy as a whole, instead of benefiting from this advanced technology, has been forced to lag behind while our German, Italian and French competitors have been able to go ahead.

The problem of containerisation is, in a sense, a metaphor of all the problems of industry in the second industrial revolution. It is an illustration of the way in which, unless there can be some harmonisation of the interests of the trade unions, the employers and Government, the crisis we are facing tonight will recur and recur.

It is no use for either side to turn to violence. We have seen how people have sought to defy the law, somehow in the hope that by their physical rejection of it they may achieve their aim. We all know that the physical rejection of law is not merely an act of violence but a form of revolution. Once one enters into that phase of revolution, one gets counter-revolution. Once one enters the phase of violence, there is counter-violence. Once one enters the phase of anarchy, one gets Fascism. All these things we have avoided throughout our history by means of a consensus, that consensus which hon. Members on both sides of the House have been talking about and without which it is impossible for Britain to survive.

We are now living through a most critical time. The infection of violence spreads very rapidly, and the infection of strong measures tends to produce counter-measures.