Industrial Relations

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th December 1973.

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Photo of Mr Reginald Prentice Mr Reginald Prentice , East Ham North 12:00 am, 4th December 1973

I have concentrated my remarks on what is wrong with the Government, what is wrong with the Act and, to some extent, what is wrong with the court. I do not want to start to discuss what the AUEW can or cannot do. I may be tempted to say what is wrong with the AUEW. I would rather my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) did not tempt me down that path. We take a different view of such matters. That is known publicly. We should not take the time of the House on that matter. That is why I will not be led down that path by my hon. Friend or Conservative hon. Members.

I shall reiterate briefly the general argument that the Labour Party has against the retention of the Industrial Relations Act. I can do so with brevity because we have ploughed over these furrows many times in the past. First, the Act has played a major part in the chaotic state of industrial relations in the past three years. The Act has made a reality out of the myth—it was a myth for many years—that the British working people were particularly strike prone.

By all the international comparisons which have been made by the ILO and other organisations, it is plain that Britain has had a low strike record for a long time. If we take the 10 years from 1962 to 1971 inclusive, we were about halfway in the league table. We were higher in the league table than we need have been because of the increase in strikes towards the end of that period. In 1972, which was the first year of the Industrial Relations Act, Britain lost about 24 million days in industrial disputes. That was the highest total for any year since the General Strike of 1926. It was the highest total of any industrial country in the world in proportion to its population. That was a direct result of the confrontation policy of the Government both in terms of the Act and in terms of related policy.

The second general point is that whenever the Act has been used in any major dispute it has made things worse rather than better. During the railway dispute of last year the manoeuvres of the Government and the court to produce a cooling-off period and a compulsory ballot delayed for two months the settlement of the dispute. It was eventually settled in June on terms available to the parties in April.

The docks strike of last year was totally unnecessary. It arose from action in the Industrial Relations Court at the very moment when the Jones-Aldington Committee had practically concluded its work on settling the main issues in dispute between the two sides. I challenge Conservative hon. Members to tell me of any instance when the two parties in dispute have found the Act to be of help.

Conservative hon. Members will probably say that the provisions for unfair dismissal are a help. Of course they are. That is why they were in the Labour Party's 1970 legislation. That is why they were lifted from the legislation. Those provisions should remain. When the Labour Party talks about repealing the Act it is speaking about not that part of it but the rest of it. Everybody knows that, although some Conservative hon. Members try to pretend otherwise.

As a result of the dangers arising from the Act—for example, the railway situation and the docks situation—and because it has been seen to be so damaging, it appears that the Government now dare not use it. It seems that they have not dared to use it for some time in relation to any of the industrial problems which face Britain. Earlier this year we have seen the gasworkers' dispute and the hospital workers' dispute. The Government did not go for a ballot or a cooling-off period. In the miners' dispute, the electricity workers' dispute and other disputes now going on they are not going for a ballot or a cooling-off period—or are they? I challenge Conservative hon. Members to try to make a case for the relevance of the Act in the context of the real problems facing industrial relations in Britain.

The employers' organisations take the same view. In fact, every sane and rational employer stays out of the court. The Act which was supposed to bring in a new and better era of industrial relations is so dangerous and so explosive that neither the employers nor the Government who invented it are prepared to make use of its provisions.

My fourth point is that as long as the Act is on the statute book someone somewhere will be stupid enough to use it. That person may be a disgruntled individual such as Mr. Goad or a stupid employer such as the manager of Con-Mech. When they do so we have to go once again through the whole sequence of a tiny legal issue being blown up into a national crisis and causing disproportionate damage to industrial relations without even the original issue being solved.

My fifth point arises from a recent decision of the National Industrial Relations Court which merited more discussion than it has had. I refer to the court's decision on 20th November to award damages to General Aviation Services, those damages being payable by the Transport and General Workers Union arising out of the loss of General Aviation Services' business at Heathrow Airport. If the Con-Mech sequestration reminds us of the Osborne judgment, this decision takes us back to the Taff Vale case, and it follows the extraordinary decision of the House of Lords in the Heaton case last year. We are lucky not to have had more cases of this kind in the interval.

What is the doctrine of that decision which was applied recently in the GAS case? It is that any loss incurred by an employer or by another party as a result of the actions of shop stewards is the liability of the union concerned even though the union concerned had not endorsed or approved of that local action, and presumably even in cases where at national level the union concerned was unaware of the action. The concept enshrined in these decisions is that a union is a kind of army with the general secretary as a field marshal who can give orders to all those acting throughout the country—in the case of the Transport and General Workers Union, a vast union covering dozens of different industries all over the country—and that somehow the union at the centre has to be responsible for all those actions.

If that kind of decision is repeated and we get a rash of similar decisions we can expect the eventual break-up of effective trade union organisation. I ask the new Secretary of State to look especially at the GAS decision and to seek advice on what the consequences of it would be for the structure and the future of trade unionism, and he should ask himself whether he wants to go down that road.

My sixth and final point is that in this debate we should consider the effect of the Industrial Relations Act on our respect for the law. I do not wish to trespass on the matter raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell), on which, you, Mr. Speaker, have promised a ruling tomorrow. I do not think that I am trespassing on it if I say that, having read the Lord Chancellor's remarks, I think that he is entitled to ask for the maximum respect for the law, and in general terms I support him to the hilt. However, he and his Cabinet colleagues have to ask themselves, what contribution this Government have made to respect for the law in the past three years. I put it to the House that the most damaging blow to our respect for the law was the passage of the Industrial Relations Act. If the law is to be respected it must not be an ass. This law has been proved to be an ass over and over again and at ever-increasing frequency. The Lord Chancellor and his Cabinet colleagues who introduced this proposal have to face their responsibility for what they have done to damage respect for the law.

Whatever else one may think of the episode last summer when five dockers' shop stewards went to gaol, no one can claim—or can they?—that it was anything else than bad for respect for the law that they went to gaol for contempt of court, that a few days later they came out of gaol without purging their contempt, and that they went straight back on the picket line and proceeded with the very actions for which they had been committed in the first place. I do not intend to discuss the merits of their actions or the industrial aspects of them, but an Act which is so manifestly absurd as to have those effects will diminish respect for the law.

I began by suggesting to the new Secretary of State that he ought to argue with his colleagues for a change of course, and especially for the repeal of the Industrial Relations Act. In the event—I am afraid, the likely event—that this does not happen, let me repeat the pledge that has been given many times from this Dispatch Box in the past year or two. It is that in the very early months of a Parliament with a Labour majority the Act will be repealed.

Let me repeat what I said recently in the debate on the Gracious Speech. The repeal should not be seen in isolation. This is not a negative act of policy. In the Bill that we bring forward to repeal the Act, which we have in an advanced form of drafting, we shall make provision for the establishment of a new conciliation and arbitration service appointed by the Government but thereafter independent from day-to-day political interference, available to give help at national or local level in the solution of disputes. That Bill will be followed by other Bills concerned with the protection of the worker and our measures to provide for an advance towards an industrial democracy.

Our concept is that the urgent repeal of the Industrial Relations Act should be seen as the first step to the development of more constructive and co-operative relationships in industry in place of the senseless confrontation into which we have been plunged by the divisive policies of the Conservative Government.