Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd November 1973.

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Photo of Mr Reginald Prentice Mr Reginald Prentice , East Ham North 12:00 am, 2nd November 1973

When the hon. Gentleman asks, "By whom?", let hon. Members on both sides of the House pause. Let us be frank about what has happened. Hon. Members know that I do not defend the attitude of the AUEW towards the court. I have criticised its attitude in the past, in the House and outside. It is wrong. I do not need to go over that ground again, except to add that, whatever view is taken about the issue of principle and the best way in which the Industrial Relations Act should be opposed, I believe that the AUEW faces a severe practical problem in terms of the effect of the recurrent fines upon its funds. I hope that when the dust has settled steps will be taken to recall the national conference representing all four sections of the AUEW so that the union's strategy can be reviewed. I do not believe that the AUEW serves its members by paying ever-increasing fines.

I am not making it any part of my case to defend the AUEW's action. Equally I hope that no Conservative Member will defend an employer who in 1973 was so reactionary as to deny the right of his workers to organise and to be represented, and to resort to dismissing people who tried to organise a union in his premises. The real issue before the House is neither the conduct of the union nor the conduct of the employer. The issue is whether an incident of this kind should be escalated into a national crisis.

I shall quote from the CIR report as reported in The Times this morning. It states: The dispute in this small factory has given rise to vastly disproportionate and damaging consequences. In our view this could have been avoided by attention to good industrial relations practice. Yes, it could have been. But in a country of this size, with its great complexities of industries and many thousands of firms, here and there and from time to time there will be managers who behave badly.

What will be the consequences? Surely the Government should have learned their lesson last year when the dispute arose in Midland Cold Storage. That had the effect, because of the operation of the Industrial Relations Act—the hon. Gentleman was trying to suggest that the Act did not cause the strikes of last year—of leading to events which led to an escalation of the crisis. That plunged Britain into an unnecessary dock strike which had damaging effects on our exports, the economy and our working people. That will happen again and again as long as the Act remains on the statute book. As long as the Act remains, somebody somewhere will be foolish enough to use it.

The second count against the management of Con-Mech, apart from its attitude to the union, is the fact that it brought the case to court. Most employers in employers' organisations, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, have the sense to stay away from the court. The employers' organisations recommend their members to stay away. However, as long as the Act is on the statute book in its present form, some people will use it. We are lucky that not more people have used it. We might well have had far more cases which could have resulted in far greater damage to the national economy.