Oral Answers to Questions — Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th November 1975.

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Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale 12:00 am, 12th November 1975

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill. I apologise to the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) if he has received a copy of this rather lengthy statement at a rather late moment.

In particular, I should like to say a few words to the House in explanation of why it has not been possible to reach agreement between the two Houses.

First, the Government have not been able to agree to the proposals put forward in another place because we considered that it was quite inappropriate to provide that breaches of the charter should be taken to the courts in the way suggested. That is our objection in principle. The fact that the particular proposal which the other House has put to us involves the use of a concept which was described by my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor as not only unusual but fraught with difficulty and obscurity has been a further complication. Lord Goodman yesterday described his own proposal as unquestionably uncertain, unquestionably obscure and unquestionably open to argument. It is that proposal which he asked us to put on the statute book.

Secondly, I must make absolutely clear that we were unable to agree to the proposals put forward by another place because our aim has been to achieve, as quickly as possible, arrangements within the industry which would provide effective safeguards against any risks to the freedom of the Press which might be thought to be involved in the passing of the Bill. We therefore could not ignore the possible impact on the attitude of the parties within the industry of an insistence in advance that the charter should include a number of rights favoured especially by one side to the discussion. The majority in another place have, most unwisely, disregarded that risk altogether.

I do not wish to make a detailed statement about all the issues which have arisen, but a large number of controversial and misleading comments have been made.

First, it has been suggested that all the attempts at a compromise have come from Lord Goodman and his associates and that the Government have been obdurate. No one who has followed what actually occurred could believe that to be the case. I welcomed the idea of a charter when the possibility was first raised. I suggested when the House debated the issue on 12th February on the Report stage of the Bill that, if the parties wished to have it incorporated in some code of practice, the Government would certainly be prepared to consider it. We welcomed Lord Houghton's amendment immediately it was made.

The matters which the charter should cover have been made more specific. The charter will now be relevant to all proceedings before courts or tribunals. The ground which the Secretary of State can cover if he has to make a charter without the agreement of the parties has been limited—a concession which Lord Goodman himself has described as substantial. The Government have genuinely sought a

sensible settlement and I repudiate all Lord Goodman's statements to the contrary. He accused me in the House of Lords of bad faith, and I think that on reflection he will wish to withdraw any such accusation.

It is particularly alleged that the Government withdrew a compromise offer at virtually the last minute yesterday and that we were very close to an agreement. This statement, repeated in The Times today, completely misrepresents the position. The Lord Privy Seal rightly and immediately made clear in another place that no firm proposal was made. Certainly exploratory discussions took place following a brief meeting between Ministers and Lord Goodman. A draft was drawn up in an attempt to see whether there was room for agreement on a provision about public policy which would meet both the Government and Lord Goodman. There was a good deal of discussion about alternatives, but in the end Lord Goodman rejected the Government's preferred version.

However, it is quite wrong to see this as the only outstanding issue. At the meeting, Lord Goodman made it clear that there were a number of other issues on which he wished to insist and that the Government should make major changes. In particular he insisted, as he did in another place yesterday, that the provision relating to the coverage of the charter must contain a right of journalists not to be unreasonably expelled or excluded from a union. The Government do not think it necessary to set this out as something which must be included in the charter. Nothing in the Bill prevents the exercise of existing common law rights in this field.

The Government believe that when Section 5 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act is repealed the TUC's proposed independent review committee will provide adequate machinery to deal with any cases which cannot be satisfactorily resolved within the machinery of individual unions. Moreover, the NUJ's own machinery means that no member can be expelled without the agreement of the national executive, and within the union there is also an appeals machinery. Nevertheless, this is the point on which Lord Goodman is now placing so much em- phasis and on which he was demanding a change even if some compromise had been possible on other issues, although it is a very different proposal from those put to me originally by the editors, which were about the position of editors in the closed shop.

On the constitutional question, it is necessary to recall that this is the first time for many years—indeed, it is one of the rare occasions in several decades—when the House of Lords has gone to such lengths to frustrate the will of the House of Commons. Yet who will claim that this is the most controversial of all measures introduced in the period? The Bill is itself a repeal of the Industrial Relations Act of 1971, which was passed through this House under the guillotine and which now by general consent is necessarily to be repealed. Yet the House of Lords never invited the Commons to reconsider a single controversial provision of the 1971 Act.

The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill, by contrast, was passed through this House in all stages without any resort to the guillotine and with increasingly large majorities in a House of Commons where the Government command no such considerable majority of their own. And yet the House of Lords has intervened and used its residual power to prevent us placing on the statute book a measure for which we have a good majority in this House and on which we had a mandate at two elections.

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Stretford

Twenty-eight per cent.

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

At a time when respect for Parliament and more especially this elected Chamber is of such supreme importance in overcoming our national problems, I believe that everyone in this House should join in condemning this challenge to democratic authority. Consequently, the Government have every intention of reintroducing this Bill in the next Session.

Photo of Mr James Prior Mr James Prior , Lowestoft

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for saying that he gave me short notice of the statement. Perhaps that is the only thing in it for which I should be grateful. We find it a deeply disappointing statement but it lives up fully to the standard we now expect from the right hon. Gentleman. It is a classic example of misrepresentation and hypocrisy. I dare say that Lord Goodman will have something to say about that too. [HON. MEMBERS: So what?"]

How dare the Labour Party seek to lecture us on respect for Parliament and the law? Is not the right hon. Gentleman once more putting Socialism before freedom? Is it not absurd for him to pose as the great conciliator when every concession has had to be wrung out of him by force of argument and under pressure from dissenting colleagues? [HON. MEMBERS: "Sit down."] Where are all those Cabinet cowards of the cocktail set now? Where have they all disappeared to this afternoon? [An HON. MEMBER: "All the Conservative ones have gone home."] So would Labour Members if it were not for a three-line Whip, the Whip that we hope will throw out the right hon. Gentleman's statement. Is not this attempt to label—[Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

Order. I hope that the House will quieten down. The Minister has made a statement and he is entitled to be questioned on that statement. [Interruption.] Order. I do not need any assistance in making my rulings. The Minister is entitled to be questioned, but there is no entitlement for speeches to be made. Perhaps the time will come next Session when speeches will be appropriate, but for the moment we are having only a statement. The Minister must be questioned upon it, and I do not intend to allow such questions to go on for very long.

Photo of Mr James Prior Mr James Prior , Lowestoft

Does not an attempt to label this as a challenge to democratic authority come ill from a Labour Government, above all on the issue involving the freedom of the Press? Even at this stage, will not the right hon. Gentleman agree to the Royal Commission looking at this issue so that he may come back to the House with a proper Bill which guarantees the freedom of the Press?

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

The question about the Royal Commission has been answered on a number of occasions. Of course, the Government will take account of the recommendations of the Royal Commission. Like you, Mr. Speaker, I had some difficulty in detecting any questions which might have been buried in the right hon. Gentleman's rhetoric. He said that he wondered why we should think that the rights of this House have something to do with democracy. I would have thought that this was one of the essential parts of democracy. I was trying to underline that we cannot tolerate the second Chamber being prepared to intervene against Labour Governments on these matters but never, even on far more controversial matters, against Conservative Governments.

Photo of Mr George Cunningham Mr George Cunningham , Islington South and Finsbury

Leaving aside the wider considerations of the future of the upper Chamber, is it not insufferable that amendments were made in the other place to a House of Commons Bill when they would not even have been in order in this House? If the other place does not put that right, we in this House must do something about it. Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that the Government are not opposed to legislation on the freedom of the Press and that some such legislation will come along in the course of this Parliament?

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

I am glad to reaffirm my hon. Friend's proposition. We shall send a Bill once more to the House of Lords, I hope very soon in the new Session, but of course we shall seek by whatever may be the best method to try to ensure that all the agreements we have made in this House concerning the freedom of the Press are included in that proposition.

Photo of Cyril Smith Cyril Smith , Rochdale

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of us on the Opposition side find the hereditary principle of accession to the other place revolting? Will he none the less accept that until the Government do something about altering that method the second Chamber has a right to influence legislation? If he accepts that premise, may I appeal to him to hold meetings between now and the reintroduction of the Bill with responsible people in another place at least to try to find some compromise within the Bill?

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

The Government have tried very hard to secure a settlement of this issue, and that is why I repudiate absolutely the case made in some quarters and repeated by Lord Goodman yesterday that I had not sought to do so. I doubt whether many hon. Members in this House would repeat Lord Goodman's accusations. Most of my hon. Friends who have differences of view on the issue will remember the lengthy discussions we had on the question.

The proper place to settle these matters is the House of Commons. The House of Lords should take account of what is said in this place, particularly when it is emphasised and re-emphasised by votes here. My complaint is that at the end of all these votes and debates the other place has set out to frustrate the decision of the House of Commons. Whether that is done by hereditary peers or anyone else, it is objectionable to this House.

Photo of Mr Sydney Bidwell Mr Sydney Bidwell , Ealing, Southall

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, having regard to the way in which relationships between the Commons and the other place have progressed over the years, it is reprehensible that the leadership of a mere life peer in the House of Lords has led to the present situation? Does it not raise the question of the necessity for an inquiry by Back-Bench Members on both sides of the House to go into the ways and means by which such people get into the legislative process?

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

That raises much wider questions, and I should not be tempted to follow my hon. Friend into pursuing them.

Photo of Mr Norman Atkinson Mr Norman Atkinson , Haringey Tottenham

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A number of points have arisen from the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, but most important is what happens to workers' rights suspended as a result of the elimination of the 1971 Act. As I understand it, if the normal procedures are followed, it will be some considerable time—

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

Order. This has nothing to do with me. The hon. Gentleman is allowed to raise only matters of order over which I have some control under the Standing Orders of the House. If the hon. Gentleman is putting a question to the Minister, it is no longer in order and it is not a point of order.

Photo of Mr Norman Atkinson Mr Norman Atkinson , Haringey Tottenham

With great respect, Mr. Speaker, I think that it has a great deal to do with you. [An hon. Member: "Sit down."] I shall wait for Mr. Speaker to tell me. I shall not sit down because a mediocrity on the Opposition Benches tells me.

We on this side of the House are concerned about the suspension of trade unions' right to organise. What has happened in the House of Lords has stripped organised workers of basic rights. The normal procedures have been outraged and an important principle is at stake. [Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

Order. This is intolerable. I must be allowed to listen to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr Norman Atkinson Mr Norman Atkinson , Haringey Tottenham

How the whole matter is handled, Mr. Speaker, depends on you, as I tried to say in the points of order I raised this morning towards the end of yesterday's sitting, when again, as a result of an absolute abuse of parliamentary procedures by the House of Lords, we had to agree or reject amendments to a Bill which were clearly out of order because they would increase the cost of the legislation before the House of Commons. I understand that that is—

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not rehash this morning's point of order. He was completely wrong. The amendment to which he referred was a Government amendment made in the House of Lords. It did not involve an additional charge. If the hon. Gentleman is good enough to read the Official Report, he will see how clearly that was stated. He was on a very bad point then. May I now hear the hon. Gentleman's present policy?

Photo of Mr Norman Atkinson Mr Norman Atkinson , Haringey Tottenham

We are discussing an extremely important point, Mr. Speaker. It cannot be dismissed in the hope that trade unions will remain in a state of suspended animation until the House of Commons can return to the business in 12 months' time. Workers are stripped of their organisational rights as long as the passage of the Bill is prevented by the House of Lords, and that is not good enough.

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

Order. I understand the sincerity with which the hon. Gentleman makes this point. I fully realise the importance which he attaches to it. But it is not within my power to allow a debate on it today. This is a matter of argument on the substance. It has nothing to do with the rules of order. It may be a very important point, but it is not one for me.

Photo of Mr Norman Atkinson Mr Norman Atkinson , Haringey Tottenham

Can you advise the House, Mr. Speaker, as to the procedures that are now involved? How can we as Back Benchers protect the people whom we represent by using legitimate procedures of the House of Commons to get the Bill back on to our Order Paper? My right hon. Friend says that he is frustrated to the extent that he can no longer bring back the Bill. We have got rid of the other legislation, and now I understand that we must wait until about next November before we can yet again talk about trade union rights. Can you advise Back Benchers, Mr. Speaker, on the best way in which they can protect the rights of those whom we are sent here to represent? If you are now saying that there is no way in which we can legitimately raise these issues in the House, we shall have to take extraordinary measures to reinstate—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

Order. The hon. Gentleman has raised a perfectly—[Interruption.] Order. May we stop this shouting across the Chamber.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

An hon. Gentleman opposite started it.

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

I do not care who started it. The hon. Gentleman is continuing it.

The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) is on a perfectly fair point. I think that it is unwise for the Chair to give too much advice too often. But if I were in the hon. Gentleman's place, I should make a great big row about his point as soon as the House meets again, which will be in a very short time. That is the time to do it. We shall be here again—all being well, and not knowing quite what will happen during the next few days—this day week. That is the time for the hon. Gentleman to start to raise his point. He must do it loud and strong, and no doubt he will.

Photo of Mr Norman Atkinson Mr Norman Atkinson , Haringey Tottenham

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. You can rest assured that your advice will be taken.

Photo of Mr Neil Kinnock Mr Neil Kinnock , Bedwellty

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I realise that there are great constraints upon your time and that you cannot call every hon. Member who rises in the hope of asking a Minister a question on a statement. Nevertheless, the reason for our being in this situation is the abuse of this House by a bunch of unelected busybodies in the other place.

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

Order. I shall not allow that kind of reference to the other place. It has a long tradition. It exists with its present powers by virtue of an Act of Parliament passed by a Labour Government in my early days as a Member. It has those powers. Whether that is right or wrong is not a matter on which I should express an opinion, but I will not have that kind of expression used.

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Keighley

In view of the grave constitutional crisis which now faces Parliament, Mr. Speaker, could you endeavour during the period of the Prorogation to consult my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about examining the serious constitutional nature of the position whereby the Lords has defied the Commons yet again, with a view to introducing into this Chamber as soon as possible after 19th November a short, sharp Bill by which we can abolish the House of Lords?

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

If I had the power to introduce into this Chamber short, sharp Bills, many people might be very surprised. Mrs. Shirley Williams—statement.

Photo of Mr Neil Kinnock Mr Neil Kinnock , Bedwellty

Further to my point of order, Mr. Speaker. I fully acknowledge your position as not only the guardian of the rights of Back Benchers but the custodian of certain traditions in the Palace of Westminster and the relationship between the two Houses. As someone acutely aware of the moods of people outside the House, however, as well as the rights of Members, I am concerned about the suspension of the rights of many people. The very least that we should be allowed is to refer to the way in which those rights have been suspended.

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

If the hon. Gentleman tries to catch my eye during the debate on the Address, he may or may not succeed.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

On a totally new point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I, through you, ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House when, after we return next Wednesday, we can get a clear statement from the Government saying when this constitutional position will be cleared up? I understand the deep feelings of my hon. Friends, which I totally share, but we cannot solve the problem here and now. Therefore, while my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is present, I believe that we could at least have an indication of how soon the matter will be cleared up and the Bill can be put on to the statute book.

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

No doubt the Leader of the House will have heard that point. I do not think that this is an appropriate occasion for him to answer it.