Orders of the Day — Industrial Relations

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st November 1972.

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Photo of Mr Reginald Prentice Mr Reginald Prentice , East Ham North 12:00 am, 1st November 1972

If that is the Government's intention, on a matter of this importance there should have been something in the Gracious Speech to indicate a willingness to consider amendments to the Act.

Before the Summer Recess the House had to return time and again to debates on the chaotic effects of the Industrial Relations Act upon our society. In the last four weeks before the recess we had a weekly debate on the situation, particularly in the docks, and the related questions of the effect of the Act upon industry and society. Yet we return after the recess with the Government blandly assuming that they can go on as they went on before. They are burying their heads in the sand in the most irresponsible and ridiculous fashion.

Going back over the experience of the months since March, the railwaymen's dispute and the docks dispute between them proved up to the hilt that those of us who attacked and criticised the Act were absolutely right in our conclusions. If we had had the opportunity to construct situations to prove the criticisms we had made earlier, we could not possibly have constructed two better examples than those which occurred in the railwaymen's and the docks disputes. In the railwaymen's dispute the Government's powers were shown to be not merely irrelevant but damaging in a vitally important industrial dispute. The docks dispute concerned the power of other people to take an action for unfair industrial practice before the National Industrial Relations Court. I think we are entitled to something more than the rather bland lecture we had from the Minister of State this afternoon.

What are the lessons to be drawn from the chaos of the summer? First, being a perennial optimist, I will assume that the Government have at least learned one lesson: that they are not likely to repeat their handling of the railwaymen's dispute by using their power to go to the court to ask for a cooling-off period or a ballot in the way that they did on that occasion. I should like to believe—I always assume there is a certain amount of common sense among hon. Members on the other side of the House, however discouraging practical experience may be—that they have at least learned that much and that that part of the Act is a dead duck from now on.

Secondly, I hope we can assume—I think we can, as there is a lot of evidence of this—that the vast majority of employers are not likely to use the sections of the Act which enable them to go to the court with cases of unfair industrial practice. Indeed, the majority of sensible employers never intended to do so from the beginning.

Simply to come to these two conclusions is not the same as assuming that the Act will have no effect. There are cases before the NIRC at the moment, several of which are potential time bombs. As long as the Act remains in its present form some people will be stupid enough to use it. Some people will take to the court cases which would better be left out of the court. It may be an individual employer, a section of workers, or an individual consumer. The sections go very wide indeed. Some people will do this. Sometimes it may be an autocratic, narrow-minded employer who already has bad industrial relations but is determined to show off in his local chamber of commerce or Conservative Club what a big man he is because he stood up to the unions. The Act is a perfect charter for him. In a different way it is also a charter for the Trotskyist shop steward—I have no time for the Trotskyist shop steward—to create the maximum disruption, and lays on a scene for him to do so in many cases.

Cases can be brought and resisted by individuals who have a particular grievance, real or imagined, who believe this is the way to do it because Parliament has provided this framework for it to be done. Any of these people in their various ways can be instrumental in escalating a particularly local argument into a national crisis which can cause a major national stoppage, just as the docks strike was caused in the summer by reasons which should not have occurred. The docks strike occurred at the moment when the two sides of industry had worked out what could have been a settlement of the whole dispute without a strike.