Another of the circumstances in which the Secretary of State may obtain such an order securing a 30-day deferment of the strike is that it would
create a serious risk of public disorder, of
(b) … endanger the lives of a substantial number of persons, or expose a substantial number of persons to serious risk of disease or personal injury.
The whole House will agree that those are circumstances of the utmost seriousness to the nation and that it is right and proper that the Secretary of State should have such a power if, and only if, he believes that in going to the High Court he can help to bring about a settlement. It would be a useful addition to the Secretary of State's armoury in seeking to protect the public. With respect to hon. Members who may be strongly involved in the interests of trade unions or employers, the essence of the clause is to seek to protect the public.
We suggest only 30 days instead of the 60 days which was provided in some former legislation and which is the practice in other countries. That suggestion is made because it is felt that 30 days is long enough to enable an urgent public inquiry to be carried out, should such be the wish of the Secretary of State. That would generally be enough time to enable any substantial change in the stance of the disputants in a strike to take place, if it is going to take place, and the dispute can be settled by negotiation or public inquiry.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and I have deliberately not allied the clause to a ballot on the employer's last offer. That is because I for one have always doubted the value of such ballots. Almost invariably the members of the union will not vote on the issue but will treat it as a vote of confidence in the union leadership. Secondly, they see it as a situation in which they cannot lose, because if the ballot goes in favour of the union's rejection there is a possibility that a greater offer will come from the employer and there is no likelihood of a smaller offer.
There is useful experience in the United Kingdom as well as elsewhere of the operation of such a provision, because the 60-day cooling-off period in the 1971 Act was used on one occasion in a railway dispute, when the union and its members adhered to the order of the then Industrial Court. Some Labour Members have made it clear that they do not like the Industrial Court and that they would have much greater respect for the High Court. Therefore, we have included in the new clause the requirement of a High Court order. That is designed deliberately to meet the arguments that were advanced by some Labour Members.
It is true that when the cooling-off period was used it did not lead to an immediate settlement, but only one trial is a poor guide. The certainty is that in other countries it has been highly successful. If we look at experience in the United States, from which the Secretary of State is now borrowing ideas such as the independent arbitration and conciliation service, and if we look at the history of the cooling-off period we find that it operates successfully. The ballot may not work but the cooling-off period does work.
I remember vividly talking to the President of the longshoremen's union at the time of a strike in the United States. He was the trade union president who was involved in the dispute. He said of the use of the cooling-off period that it was a useful crutch for negotiators to have on which to fall back.
My final point in moving the new clause—if I might have the attention of the House—is that it could not be used arbitrarily at the capricious whim of the Secretary of State. I am not suggesting that the whims of the Secretary of State are frequently capricious. Nevertheless, the clause could not be used in such circumstances. The Secretary of State would have to go to the High Court and convince it that the continuation of the dispute would injure the national economy, imperil national security, cause serious risk of disease or endanger life.
I cannot think of any part of the Bill which could not be improved upon by the insertion of the clause if we are to look after the national interest, people's lives, national security and the national economy. It is only in those circumstances that the Secretary of State should have the power to use the clause, and even then only if he considers that its use would be conducive to a settlement.
I commend the clause to the House as a useful additional armoury for the Secretary of State in dealing with industrial problems.