I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to facilitate the organisation of secret ballots in connection with trades union activities.
Every attempt by members of the Opposition to introduce proposals that are likely to lead to moderate and sensible reforms in trade union practices calls forth an entirely predictable and uniformly hostile reaction from Government supporters. Indeed, sadly, I have reason to believe that there will be another manifestation of that Pavlovian reaction this afternoon. We may well hear a lecture on management studies from an hon. Gentleman who claims to speak in the name of the workers and who will put up yet another smokescreen about the dangers of confrontation with the unions and the inappropriateness of legislation on trade union activities. That point seemed to have singularly little appeal to the Government and their supporters a few years ago when they rammed through the trade union laws that have done so much harm to the country.
In fact, every day the smokescreen becomes easier to see through, although sadly there was an example only last week when even such a normally percipient observer as the Lobby correspondent of the Daily Telegraph was himself confused by the smokescreen in his appraisal of the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Page), who suggested that trade union members paying their political levy should have the right to decide which party should benefit from that levy.
My proposal is more moderate still. It is no more than to give to trade union members the right, should they so choose, to introduce a greater degree of democracy into trade union procedures. After these agonising months of industrial chaos—chaos that still continues—it is the very least that the people demand of Parliament.
As the effects of Government legislation and policies have worked their way into the system, the public have begun to see clearly the economic and political power that is exercised at national level by trade union leaders—although, sadly, their power over their own membership is often found to be wanting. They have witnessed the trade union leaders' destruction of the Prime Minister's 5 per cent. pay policy. They have seen the Government fail to extract from the TUC anything more than the tepid platitudes of last month's concordat, even in an election year. They are coming to know more and more about the massive funds that are controlled by the trade union leaders and the powers that they exercise as paymasters of the Labour Party.
The public regard with increasing cynicism the procedures of the Labour Party conferences at which Labour Members, who, very rightly in the case of Rhodesia, demand one man, one vote, seem obliged to accept one man, 1 million votes when they are sitting in Blackpool or Brighton, where those votes are wielded by individual trade union leaders. Those leaders are very important, not only to their trade union members but to all of us. It is therefore vital that they should be representative of their membership.
Believing, as I do, in the innate good sense of the British people, I am convinced that the more representative the trade union leadership is, the better it will be. We must therefore be ready, as the Bill proposes, to offer any sensible help we can to improve the level of democratic practices in the trade unions, whether it is to offer facilities for postal ballots, to encourage employers to co-operate in the organisation of secret voting, or in any other way.
Undoubtedly, some progress has been made. We have the example of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers. After the introduction of a postal balloting system there was a dramatic increase in the percentage poll for union elections. That union now benefits from what is widely regarded as a sensible and moderate leadership. [Interruption.] I hope very much that such an accolade from the Conservative Benches will not cause any embarrassment to that leadership. Very much more needs to be done—[Interruption.]
Some Labour Members are obviously not accustomed to trade union bargaining procedures. Too many
trade union leaders are appointed to positions of considerable power, often for life, by mechanisms that fall very far short of any reasonable democratic practice. I call in aid the darling of the trade unions, the arbitrator in chief, Professor Hugh Clegg, who, in his own study of the General and Municipal Workers Union, entitled"General Union ", pointed out that
A regular attendance of 100 in a branch of 3,000 would be considered good. It can be seen, then, that elections are determined by a small minority.
The general secretary of the GMWU and acting chairman of the Trades Union Congress, Mr. David Basnett, claims that he was elected to his job—and, as I understand it, elected to it for the rest of his working life—by 208,000 out of 832,000 votes, but it is clear that his actual support was a very great deal less than even the 25 per cent. that he claims. The GMWU is one of those unions that use the block vote system, under which those who turn up to vote at the elections also use the votes of those who do not. What sort of democracy is that?
I mention Mr. Basnett only by way of example. I do not intend to single him out, important though his position is—
Order. I know that the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Perry) feels strongly on the question. That is why I addressed my remarks to hon. Members in general rather than to the hon. Member in particular.
I have no intention of making a special case of Mr. Basnett. I wish to use his story as an example of many, as we know that that story, or worse, can be repeated at many points and in many posts throughout the trade union movement.
The case for secret ballots over strike decisions is perhaps less clearcut, but it is nevertheless strong. In order not to delay the House further—[Interruption]—I will cite only two pieces of evidence in support of my argument. They are pieces of evidence which, I can assert with confidence, will be regarded as impeccable and as unchallengeable by the Labour Members who are giving me such a courteous hearing.
I refer, first, to the concordat negotiated last month between the Government and the Trades Union Congress, which made a strong recommendation that union rules should provide for strike ballots to be held. Secondly, in this House the Prime Minister has agreed that a show of hands
is not a satisfactory way of conducting affairs ".—[Official Report, 7 November 1978; Vol. 957, col. 684.]
I submit that I have made clear to you, Mr. Speaker, that the challenge that we have to our industrial system can be defeated only by increased democracy. The Bill seeks to give the ordinary union membership the opportunity to assert that democracy. I trust, therefore, that the Bill will have the support of the House.
I am, indeed, Mr. Speaker.
This is the eleventh, the sixteenth or about the twenty-eighth attempt by some extremely ignorant Conservative Members to talk about trade unions and the trade union movement of Great Britain in a hostile and critical way. It is not at all untoward that Members of Parliament should talk about great British institutions in a critical way, but it is a pity, and a waste of the time of the House, when a Member asks all these hon. Members to listen to him and displays the most abysmal ignorance of his subject.
The hon. Gentleman might at least have done a few minutes' homework. He should know by now that prejudice by itself is not enough. The House knows well when an hon. Member is just blowing his trumpet and has no substance to his argument. The hon. Member has demonstrated this very vividly during the last 15 or 16 minutes of his Ten-Minute Bill speech. It was very difficult to discover exactly what he was getting at. His motion says something about
The organisation of secret ballots in connection with trades union activities.
It is not very informative.
The hon. Member's speech was even less informative. He bumbled along from one subject to another. He thought that it might be a good idea to have a vote on this, on that and on something else, but he did not stop for a moment to examine the implications of what he was saying.
The hon. Gentleman conceded, towards the end of his speech, that the case for having compulsory ballots in a potential strike might not be clearcut. [Interruption.] If he is saying that it is clearcut, he should be reminded that it was tried by the last Conservative Prime Minister, and it did not work. It was catastrophic.
As to the rest of what the hon. Gentleman might have been saying if he had been a bit more lucid, I suggest that he should have done his homework by looking at trade union rules. He would have discovered that most British trade unions are election-ridden. He mentioned the Associated Union of Engineering Workers. In a calendar year that union never has a moment when it is not involved in some sort of election.
Having mentioned the AUEW the hon. Gentleman, no doubt inadvertently, slipped in one of his value judgments, one of the criteria by which he would judge what was good and what was unsatisfactory union procedure, which is presumptuous and arrogant. He said that he approved of the last AUEW elections because a moderate and sensible leadership had been chosen. The House heard him say that. That is most interesting, coming from the Tory Benches. That moderate sensible leadership has put in a 40 per cent. wage claim. The hon. Gentleman should urgently have a chat with his Chief Whip, if not the Leader of the Opposition, about what is moderate and sensible.
The hon. Gentleman seeks to make judgments about the internal affairs of unions on the basis of his ignorance. He forgets that there are other great institutions that do not have elections. He does not mention them, and I shall not, either. He knows what I am talking about. He was not being even-handed; he was simply setting out on yet another attack on unions.
The ballots that he talks of exist. Almost every union in the country—and its electoral procedures—was investigated for the Donovan report. The report stated that
Elections in the trade union movement are generally conducted with an almost excessive punctiliousness and by any sensible criterion the extent of malpractice is negligible.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman or his hon. Friends would accept the Donovan report as a reasonably authoritative judgment, but the country did. If the hon. Gentleman does not, that is his misfortune.
The hon. Member should also bear in mind another comment from the Donovan Commission, on ballots for strikes, namely, that
It is difficult to resist the conclusion that most of the comments made about this position reflect the belief that the only sensible way to vote in the context of an industrial dispute is to vote against the strike action.
Tory Members frequently and impetuously demonstrate that they do not approve of strikes, but their plea for secret ballots will not alter the strike situation. Their frequent assertion of hostility to free strike action by free workers is shared with the central committee of the Russian Communist Party. For that reason alone, we will vote the hon. Member's Bill down.
|Division No. 100]||AYES||[3.55 p.m.|
|Adley. Robert||Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)||Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)|
|Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne)||Hampson, Dr Keith||Page, Richard (Workington)|
|Atkinson, David (B'mouth, East)||Hannam, John||Pardoe, John|
|Awdry, Daniel||Harrison, Col Sir Harwood (Eye)||Parkinson, Cecil|
|Bain, Mrs Margaret||Hastings, Stephen||Pattie, Geoffrey|
|Baker, Kenneth||Hayhoe, Barney||Penhaligon, David|
|Banks, Robert||Higgins, Terence L.||Peyton, Rt Hon John|
|Bell, Ronald||Holland, Philip||Price, David (Eastleigh)|
|Benyon, W.||Hordern, Peter||Prior, Rt Hon James|
|Berry, Hon Anthony||Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey||Pym, Rt Hon Francis|
|Biffen, John||Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)||Raison, Timothy|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Hutchison, Michael Clark||Rathbone, Tim|
|Blaker, Peter||Irving, Charles (Cheltenham)||Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal)|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||James, David||Rees-Davies, W. R.|
|Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown)||Jenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd&W'df'd)||Reid, George|
|Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent)||Johnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead)||Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)|
|Braine, Sir Bernard||Jopling, Michael||Rhodes James, R.|
|Brittan, Leon||Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith||Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon|
|Brooke, Hon Peter||Kershaw, Anthony||Ridley, Hon Nicholas|
|Brotherton, Michael||Kilfedder, James||Rifkind, Malcolm|
|Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)||King, Tom (Bridgwater)||Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)|
|Buchanan-Smith, Alick||Kitson, Sir Timothy||Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)|
|Buck, Antony||Knight, Mrs Jill||Rost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)|
|Bulmer, Esmond||Lamont, Norman||St. John-Stevas, Norman|
|Butler, Adam (Bosworth)||Latham, Michael (Melton)||Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)|
|Carlisle, Mark||Lawson, Nigel||Shelton, William (Streatham)|
|Churchill, W. S.||Le Marchant, Spencer||Shepherd, Colin|
|Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton)||Lester, Jim (Beeston)||Shersby, Michael|
|Clark, William (Croydon S)||Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland)||Silvester, Fred|
|Clegg, Walter||Lloyd, Ian||Sims, Roger|
|Cope, John||Luce, Richard||Sinclair, Sir George|
|Cormack, Patrick||MacCormick, lain||Skeet, T. H. H.|
|Costain, A. P.||Macfarlane, Neil||Smith, Dudley (Warwick)|
|Crawford, Douglas||MacGregor, John||Smith, Timothy John (Ashfield)|
|Crouch, David||MacKay, Andrew (Stechford)||Spicer, Michael (S Worcester)|
|Dean, Paul (N Somerset)||Macmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham)||Sproat, lain|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Marshall, Michael (Arundel)||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Drayson, Burnaby||Marten, Neil||Stanley, John|
|Dunlop, John||Mates, Michael||Steel, Rt Hon David|
|Durant, Tony||Mather, Carol||Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)|
|Dykes, Hugh||Mawby, Ray||Stewart, Rt Hon Donald|
|Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke)||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin||Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)|
|Elliott, Sir William||Mayhew, Patrick||Stradling Thomas, J.|
|Eyre, Reginald||Meyer, Sir Anthony||Tapsell, Peter|
|Fairbairn, Nicholas||Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove)||Taylor, Teddy (Cathcart)|
|Fairgrieve, Russell||Mills, Peter||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Fell, Anthony||Mitchell, David (Basingstoke)||Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret|
|Fisher, Sir Nigel||Moate, Roger||Thompson, George|
|Fletcher, Alex (Edinburgh N)||Monro, Hector||Townsend, Cyril D.|
|Fletcher-Cooke, Charles||Montgomery, Fergus||Waddington, David|
|Fowler, Norman (Sutton C'f'd)||Moore, John (Croydon C)||Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)|
|Fraser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St)||More, Jasper (Ludlow)||Wakeham, John|
|Fry, Peter||Morgan, Geraint||Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir Derek|
|Gardiner, George (Reigate)||Morgan-Giles, Rear-Admiral||Wall, Patrick|
|Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian (Chesham)||Morris, Michael (Northampton S)||Walters, Dennis|
|Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife)||Morrison, Hon Charles (Devizes)||Weatherill, Bernard|
|Glyn, Dr Alan||Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester)||Welsh, Andrew|
|Goodhart, Philip||Mudd, David||Whitelaw, Rt Hon William|
|Goodhew, Victor||Neave, Airey||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Goodlad, Alastair||Nelson, Anthony||Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)|
|Gow, Ian (Eastbourne)||Neubert, Michael||Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)|
|Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry)||Newton, Tony||Younger, Hon George|
|Grant, Anthony (Harrow C)||Nott, John|
|Gray, Hamish||Onslow, Cranley||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Grimond, Rt Hon J.||Oppenheim, Mrs Sally||Mr. Raymond Whitney and|
|Grist, Ian||Page, John (Harrow West)||Mr. Toby Jessel.|
|Abse, Leo||Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N)||Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W)|
|Allaun, Frank||Bidwell, Sydney||Buchan, Norman|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Bishop, Rt Hon Edward||Butler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green)|
|Armstrong, Ernest||Blenkinsop, Arthur||Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)|
|Ashley, Jack||Booth, Rt Hon Albert||Canavan, Dennis|
|Atkins, Ronald (Preston N)||Boothroyd, Miss Betty||Carmichael, Neil|
|Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham)||Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur||Carter-Jones, Lewis|
|Bagier, Gordon A. T.||Boyden, James (Bish Auck)||Cartwright, John|
|Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)||Bradley, Tom||Castle, Rt Hon Barbara|
|Bates, Alf||Bray, Dr Jeremy||Clemitson, Ivor|
|Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood||Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)|
|Cohen, Stanley||Hughes, Roy (Newport)||Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)|
|Coleman, Donald||Hunter, Adam||Roberts, Albert (Normanton)|
|Conlan, Bernard||Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford)||Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)|
|Cook, Robin F. (Edin C)||Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln)||Rodgers, George (Chorley)|
|Cowans, Harry||Jay, Rt Hon Douglas||Rooker, J. W.|
|Cox, Thomas (Tooting)||Jenkins, Hugh (Putney)||Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)|
|Craigen, Jim (Maryhill)||John, Brynmor||Rowlands, Ted|
|Crowther, Stan (Rotherham)||Johnson, James (Hull West)||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Cryer, Bob||Johnson, Walter (Derby S)||Selby, Harry|
|Cunningham, G. (Islington S)||Jones, Barry (East Flint)||Sever, John|
|Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiteh)||Jones, Dan (Burnley)||Shaw, Arnold (llford South)|
|Davidson, Arthur||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald||Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert|
|Davies, Bryan (Enfield N)||Lambie, David||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzll||Lamond, James||Short, Mrs Renée (Wolv NE)|
|Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)||Lee, John||Silverman, Julius|
|Deakins, Eric||Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough)||Skinner, Dennis|
|Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)||Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)||Smith, Rt Hon John (N Lanarkshire)|
|Dempsey, James||Litterick, Tom||Snape, Peter|
|Dewar, Donald||Lofthouse, Geoffrey||Spearing, Nigel|
|Dormand, J. D.||Luard, Evan||Spriggs, Leslie|
|Dunn, James A.||McCartney, Hugh||Stallard, A. W.|
|Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth||McDonald, Dr Oonagh||Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)|
|Eadie, Alex||McElhone, Frank||Stoddart, David|
|Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun)||McKay, Allen (Penistone)||Stott, Roger|
|English, Michael||Maclennan, Robert||Strang, Gavin|
|Ennals, Rt Hon David||Madden, Max||Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley|
|Evans, Fred (Caerphilly)||Mallalieu, J. P. W.||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)|
|Evans, loan (Aberdare)||Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)||Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)|
|Evans, John (Newton)||Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)||Tilley, John|
|Ewing, Harry (Stirling)||Maynard, Miss Joan||Tinn, James|
|Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.||Meacher, Michael||Tomlinson, John|
|Flannery, Martin||Mikardo, Ian||Urwin, Rt Hon T. W.|
|Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)||Millan, Rt Hon Bruce||Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.|
|Foot, Rt Hon Michael||Morris, Rt Hon Charles R.||Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)|
|Forrester, John||Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)||Walker, Harold (Doncaster)|
|Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald||Moyle, Rt Hon Roland||Walker, Terry (Kingswood)|
|Garrett, John (Norwich S)||Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick||Ward, Michael|
|Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)||Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King||Watkins, David|
|George, Bruce||Newens, Stanley||Wellbeloved, James|
|Gould, Bryan||Noble, Mike||White, Frank R. (Bury)|
|Graham, Ted||Oakes, Gordon||White, James (Pollok)|
|Grant, George (Morpeth)||O'Halloran, Michael||Willey, Rt Hon Frederick|
|Grocott, Bruce||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley||Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)|
|Hamilton, James (Bothwell)||Ovenden, John||Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)|
|Hardy, Peter||Park, George||Williams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)|
|Harrison, Rt Hon Walter||Parker, John||Williams, Sir Thomas (Warrington)|
|Hart, Rt Hon Judith||Parry, Robert||Woodall, Alec|
|Hayman, Mrs Helena||Pavitt, Laurie||Wrigglesworth, Ian|
|Heifer, Eric S.||Pendry, Tom||Young, David (Bolton E)|
|Hooley, Frank||Perry, Ernest|
|Horam, John||Prescott, John||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Hoyle, Doug (Nelson)||Price, William (Rugby)||Mr. Eddie Loyden and|
|Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey)||Radice, Giles||Dr. M. S. Miller.|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)|
|Question accordingly agreed to.|
|Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Raymond Whitney, Mr. Nicholas Ridley and Mr. Toby Jessel.|
|TRADES UNIONS (SECRET BALLOTS)|
|Mr. Raymond Whitney accordingly presented a Bill to facilitate the organisation of secret ballots in connection with trades union activities: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 6 April and to be printed. [Bill 115.]|
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The need for this Bill has come about because most of the executive and clerical staff in the Court of Session, the High Court of Justiciary and the sheriff courts of Scotland have withdrawn their labour. They have done so not because of a dispute in the courts but as part of selective action called throughout the Civil Service by two Civil Service trade unions. As I said during the debate last Tuesday, strikes that start six weeks before the settlement date and where there is a process of negotiations going on cannot be justified.
I am particularly concerned that the action has centred so much on the courts, which are used and are intended to be used by all members of society as the forum where justice is sought. Its denial to others by those who claim to be seeking justice for themselves is unacceptable and is to be deplored. I had hoped that the unions and their members would call off their action, and, as I explained to the House last Tuesday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and I had met senior representatives of the unions concerned that day to try to persuade them to call off their strike action. This they were not prepared to do. The strike therefore continues.
As the debate in the House last week showed, responsible opinion is agreed that the situation is intolerable and that legislation is required to ameliorate the position as much as possible.
The courts have not stopped entirely, however, and the judiciary, in some cases with the help of staff not on strike, have been doing what they can. I am very grateful to those judges and staff concerned for what they have done to carry on emergency business. Some courts are able to do more than others because more staff are available and some 12 of the smaller sheriff courts are working more or less normally. Even with the will of the judiciary to take on what is possible, nothing like the general run of work can be carried on where the majority of staff are absent.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate and I have examined the problems that have arisen. We have been helped by the many points raised by the Lord President of the Court of Session, honourable Members and others. Our aim has been to meet as simply and as expeditiously as possible certain needs that have been identified. In deciding what legislation is needed we have tried to keep the balance between, on the one hand, the needs of the community in relation to law and order and, on the other, the rights of the individual. I believe that we have done this while at the same time endeavouring—and succeeding—to keep the Bill as short and simple as possible.
Like most emergency legislation the Bill is of a temporary nature, and I emphasise again that it will not restore the courts to normality. Only a return to work by the staff will do that. Nor will the Bill deal with each and every problem that the strike has caused. Let there be no mistake—a strike of this kind leaves casualties, and no one regrets this more than I.
The aim of the Bill is, first, to extend certain legal time limits, and in so doing reassure those who have, for example, claims for damages for personal injuries which cannot be raised because of the strike; secondly, to deal with the question of the 110-days rule; thirdly, to enable crimes to continue to be prosecuted; fourthly, to allow the courts to extend the range of business they can undertake, where this is possible; and fifthly, to cope with a particular problem affecting the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland.
Some of these matters can be examined in greater detail in Committee. As we are attempting to carry out the operation in one day it will help the House if I explain briefly, but in some detail, the main provisions of the Bill, clause by clause.
Clause 1 provides that the Bill will cease to be in force one month after the date prescribed in an order made by me. The period from 23 February, when the strike started, until the date in the order, will be known as the emergency period. The provisions of the Bill will have effect during that period. The date that I shall prescribe is likely to be some time after the end of the strike—I emphasise that—to enable the courts to resume normal working order. At the moment, I am not able to say how long that will be. It will depend on how long the strike continues. There will be a short time after the end of the strike before I prescribe the date. I shall, of course, consult the Lord President of the Court of Session and the sheriffs principal before deciding on the date.
Much concern has been expressed that rights may be lost in relation to legal proceedings, because they cannot be exercised during the present industrial action. Clause 2 will extend legal time limits and ensure that no person will, by reason of the industrial action, lose any right to do anything in relation to legal proceedings. The most important right of this sort on the civil side that will be preserved is—as I have already mentioned—the right to raise an action for damages for personal injuries within the three-year period. The clause will enable such an action to be raised within one month of the end of the emergency, where the three-year period expired during the period of the emergency. That time limit should take care of that matter.
The Secretary of State indicated that there may be a period of time after the courts have begun functioning again but before the end of the expiry period. Will he indicate whether persons who otherwise would have been time-barred will be able to initiate action during that grey period? He has just stated that their only right will be to initiate action one month after the end of the expiry period.
I take note of the hon. Gentleman's point. I hope that there is not a technical deficiency in the drafting—I shall look at it during the course of the day. There is not intended to be a period during which the emergency legislation does not bite, if that is what is worrying the hon. Gentleman. It is intended that the right will be there until the end of the emergency period and for a short time afterwards. It would be anomalous if there were a grey period in between that was not caught. We shall deal with the matter in Committee, but I believe that it has been covered.
The extension of time limits will also apply to criminal proceedings and it will ensure that where the time within which criminal proceedings must be taken expires during the emergency period the proceedings may be raised within one month from the end of the emergency period. Certain other procedural periods of time laid down in rules of court will be extended, as will the right of appeal against the decision of a licensing board. Other rights will also be preserved and these will be specified in Committee.
Turning to clause 3, I have already said that we have tried to keep the balance between the public interest and the rights of the individual. I assured the House last Tuesday that no one charged with a serious criminal offence is to be allowed to escape prosecution because of the emergency. Therefore, clause 3 suspends the running of the 110-day period. In computing the period of 110 days, no account shall be taken of any period during which an accused person is in prison which occurs during the emergency period. I told the House last Tuesday that any person who is judged to be a danger to the public is being detained. We shall continue to detain such persons. In other cases—subject to the normal decision of the court which has the ultimate decision in these matters—persons have been released when they are not considered to be a danger to the public. All persons, of whatever category, will be brought to trial.
I am conscious of the civil liberties issues involved here. One does not wish to keep people in gaol any longer than is necessary. I assure the House that the extension of the 110-day rule will be watched carefully by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate and myself.
I apologise for intervening in a predominantly Scottish debate. Will the Secretary of State be good enough to give an assurance that he will look carefully—I ask no more than that—at a specific bail application where there are genuine compassionate circumstances, with a view to alleviating real hardship?
We have already provided that bail applications are being heard. I cannot consider the merits of a particular case, but I think it is important that cases should be heard. If the hon. Gentleman will give my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate details of the case that he has in mind, I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend will be happy to look into the matter.
Clause 4 makes provision to make clear that criminal proceedings may continue during the emergency by citing the accused and witnesses. Criminal cases will not fall because they are not called in court on the diet fixed for them during the emergency period.
Clause 5 enables a court, in the absence of normal staff, to extend the range of business that it can do, where that is possible. A judge—that includes a sheriff—may do any work which could be done by a clerk of court, sheriff clerk or other officer of court. In any particular case, a judge may also authorise any person to do anything in relation to the legal proceedings which could be done by the clerk of the court, the sheriff clerk or another officer of court. The provision has given rise to much comment and, unfortunately, some misunderstanding. Therefore, I wish to deal with it more fully.
In the first place, it seems sensible to have a power that would allow suitable other persons—where these were available—to assist judges in carrying out their duties. At the moment, such a degree of flexibility is necessary to ensure the most effective use of staff available. In the event of the strike continuing for a substantial period, then—much though I would regret the necessity to do so—I do not rule out the possibiilty that offers of outside help, which have already been made, would have to be accepted. That will be necessary if the public interest requires that the range of business being carried out by the courts must be extended.
I should like to make clear that I should regard it as my duty, as the Minister with a general responsibility for the operation of the courts, to say when such a step might be taken. I do not expect the judges, individually or collectively, to take a decision of this nature. After all, it is a question of policy and the judges are not anxious to make that sort of decision. Once the decision had been taken by me, it would be for each court to decide whether, in its own particular circumstances, such action was necessary and possible. Therefore, I hope that this statement makes the position clear and removes any suggestion that the judges have been given a"strike breakers' charter ". It is a matter of policy, and it is for me.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. What he has said will go some way to relieve the anxieties that some of us have felt. I am sure that he is aware that we shall want to return to the matter on the clause stand part debate. We are discussing the most controversial part of the Bill, which has occasioned the most anxiety on the part of the staff who are involved. Has the Secretary of State received word that the meeting of sheriffs in Glasgow yesterday came to the unanimous conclusion that they would not wish to have the power to appoint any person in place of the clerks of the court, on the ground that it would jeopardise the permanent relationship with their own staff?
I have already made clear that these are matters for me and not for judges or sheriffs. They do not wish to take those decisions. The policy decision would be for me, and I should take responsibility for it.
Similarly, there is no question of the judges or sheriffs being expected to recruit temporary staff. I wish to dispel any notion of that kind. If, in the event of a lengthy dispute, a court were to decide that its range of business could be extended—provided certain staff were available—my Department, the Scottish Courts Administration, would, as before, accept responsibility for the manning and remuneration of the necessary staff. The responsibility is mine, and if the occasion were to arise I should be willing to shoulder that responsibility.
The Secretary of State is aware that the Bill allows the judges, on their own decision, to ask other persons to assist them in the running of the court. If it is the Government's view—and decision—that the right should be exercised only with the concurrence and consent of the Secretary of State, that provision should be in the Bill.
A specific amendment has been tabled on that matter. We shall discuss that when we come to it. There is a good reason for drafting the Bill in this way. If the policy decision were made, it would not then be a matter for the Secretary of State to give individual authorisation to individual persons in individual courts; it would be a matter for the judges. I wish to make clear that the policy decision would be made by me and not by the judges. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) said, the judges do not want to be put in the position of making such a decision.
I should like to repeat what I said earlier about the clause, because it is important. The provisions cannot provide, any more than can the Bill itself, for the courts to return to full business. That can happen only when the staff go back to work.
The purpose of subsection (2) is to enable the court to accept as valid a copy of an original document that has been lodged in court and provides that any such copy should be taken to be a true copy unless the contrary is proved. That provision applies to any document lodged in court, whether it is part of the process of the court or a document lodged as a production in order to be proved in evidence. The documents may not be readily accessible because they have been locked up by those on strike, but copies are normally held by the parties and the provisions in subsection (2) allow a court to accept such a copy in lieu of the original document.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. It would be helpful to my hon. Friends if we knew what was in the Secretary of State's mind. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) said, the right hon. Gentleman is providing for a policy decision, and I do not see how that can be done unless legislative provision is made for it. Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to accept amendment No. 2, or something like it? If not, how does he intend to proceed?
I shall explain clause 6 in a little detail because it deals with a separate, rather technical, issue but it is a matter of considerable importance to many people. The purpose of the clause is to permit the registration of deeds by the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland where that is being effectively prevented because deeds are not able to be stamped due to the industrial action being taken in the stamp office in Edinburgh.
Under section 17 of the Stamp Act 1891, any person who has the duty of recording any deed is liable to a fine of £10 if he records any deed that has not been duly stamped. That provision has the effect of preventing the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland recording any deed that is not duly stamped. That has meant, among other things, that purchasers of heritable property valued at £15,000 or more have been unable to record a title to their property and so to acquire a real right to it. That, in turn, has meant that financial institutions have been unwilling to lend in security of such property if the borrower does not have a recorded title.
It is estimated that in normal circumstances about 900 property writs a week require to be stamped before being recorded. It is serious that the normal arrangements are not operating, and there are possibilities of considerable personal hardship being involved.
The first part of clause 6 therefore provides that section 17 of the 1891 Act shall not have effect in relation to the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland while the Bill is in force. That provision will enable the Keeper to record deeds that are not duly stamped in the registers for which he is responsible.
However, in itself, the provision might not be sufficient to attract the usual consequences of recording or registering such deeds and, in particular, might not confer a real right upon an unstamped deed in the Register of Sasines. That is because the Stamp Act 1891 provides that, unless
a deed is duly stamped, if should not be given in evidence in civil proceedings or
be available for any purpose whatever ".
Accordingly, the second half of clause 6 provides that, notwithstanding the provisions of section 14 of the 1891 Act, when such a deed is recorded or registered it will be available for any purposes, provided that it is duly stamped within a certain time, namely, within three months from the date of its recording or registering or such longer time as the Commissioners of Inland Revenue may allow. The provision has, of course, been agreed by the commissioners and by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State at the Treasury.
I hope that my explanation will have been helpful to the House. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate and I will be glad to try to answer questions in Committee, but I have given fairly detailed information about the provisions and I hope that that has been helpful, not only for the Second Reading debate but for our consideration of the later stages of the Bill.
I regret that it is necessary to introduce the legislation. It has a limited purpose and will not restore the courts to their full vigour.
It is a sad commentary on our affairs that the Government, who came to power when the miners were on strike and we were playing our role of peacemaker, are now, at the tether end of the Parliament, bringing in a blacklegging Bill.
The Government have it in their power to settle the matter readily by meeting the trade unions concerned with a view to coming to arrangements over the Pay Research Unit. Instead of doing that, they have introduced a Bill which will allow blacklegs to be brought in—at a heavy price, one would assume—to take the place of those who are on strike.
I want the Secretary of State to tell me specifically what sort of wages the lawyers who will be involved will be paid for doing the jobs that are usually done by the workers, some of whom are low paid, in the courts.
It is a sad commentary that the Bill should be necessary, but it is necessary. There was a meeting earlier today with the unions concerned, and negotiations are continuing, which means that the strike is quite unnecessary.
I was saying that the Bill has a limited purpose and will not restore the courts to their full vigour. However, it will help to deal with certain problems and I hope that it will enable the range of business at present undertaken to be extended. On that basis, I commend it to the House.
The Opposition welcome the Bill with intense regret and deep foreboding. I hope that the House will allow me to deal with some of the general principles raised with such clarity by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner.) in his intervention during the Secretary of State's speech, and which hon. Members on both sides of the House, whatever their loyalties to political parties, organisations or groupings, had better get clear if they wish to remain members of a democratic society.
We welcome the Bill and the moderate terms in which the Secretary of State introduced it. We commend the right hon. Gentleman's modesty, though not his tardiness. It was evident on day one of the strike—and let us call it a strike and not by any presumptive and euphonious term such as"industrial action "—that criminal and civil rights of private citizens and citizens in the generality, forming part of our State and community, would be lost and that therefore a Bill to protect those lights was essential.
It is our regret that, out of fear of strike-breaking or some other anxiety, the Government did not do their duty and protect those rights ab initio. They have a duty as the Government to protect the rights of the citizen, and it is not good that they should be protected in reverse. Furthermore, when such rights are in peril it is the duty of the Government to protect them before they prescribe, and I have a suspicion that but for last week's debate, which came out of the Opposition Supply day, this Bill would never have been brought in even yet. The rights of those who lose them, or risk losing them—and let us be absolutely clear that those who might be detained in prison without trial might even be pickets—are important rights and are no better and no worse whoever may be the person that loses them.
I am sure the hon. and learned Gentleman would agree with me that if new clause 4 were passed it would be impossible for pickets ever to be imprisoned because it would be entirely illegal for people ever to picket and they would therefore not be able to do so. May I press the hon. and learned Gentleman to say whether he endorses the view of his hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) that strikes should be entirely illegal in areas of the public sector of this kind?
Yes, and I shall have something to say about that which I hope will not fall on deaf ears, nor will even be lost in principle on the hon. Member for Bolsover, whose loyalty—[Interruption.] I will say it in time, if I may. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to leave the Chamber, he can do so. I have no intention of ordering or altering the order of my remarks to suit him just because he belongs to a trade union. I hope that the order and the morals of the remarks I have to make will not be lost on the hon. Member for Bolsover, whose loyalty to certain groupings is liable to blind him to understanding his duty to others.
I think it is important when considering this matter that we appreciate that we are in fact suspending the rights of certain citizens. If I may answer the interjection of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), as he will see during the course of my remarks, I take the view that we owe a moral duty to our neighbour. There are at any rate some people in the community whose jobs are so important and whose duty is so great that they have a fiduciary duty to carry out their obligations to their neighbour, whomsoever he may be, regardless of whether they belong to one or other organisation. I hope that no hon. Member, whether he be Christian or agnostic, would depart from that precept, which seems to me to be necessary and inevitable in a society of any kind. I start from that point.
That is a silly and childish intervention. We are discussing serious matters of principle for all British people, whether they be Communists, Socialists, miners, trade unionists, lawyers, Ministers of the Crown or even unemployed solicitors representing Glasgow, Garscadden.
But let us be in no doubt as to what this Bill does. It is essentially the first step towards dictatorship. It is the first step in suspension of the rights of the citizen, made necessary by the refusal of some citizens to carry out a moral obligation to their neighbour. Let us not forget that this is the first winter of consensus. It is not the great winter of confrontation; it is not the winter of dissent. This is the winter of the consensus introduced in July by the Prime Minister. It is our first winter of Socialist consensus, and we have to have an emergency Bill—and I understand why the hon. Member for Bolsover objects to it, because he would object to anything which stood in the path of a herd in search of water if the nerd had a trade union card stamped on their bottoms.
What I was attempting to explain, as I usually try to do, perhaps awkwardly at times, is that in this case, as in many others, there is a group of workers who feel that they ought to be getting a little bit more money than some other people think they should. In this case, it is the people in the courts and, on the other side, the people in the Government, backed seemingly by the Opposition in view of their welcome for this Bill. I want justice for all and I know that in some circumstances the courts can provide it, even in Scotland, I suppose. So I am not in favour of this anarchical situation which the hon. and learned Gentleman seems to describe. All I am saying is that we have no need for this Bill, no need to take these first steps towards dictatorship, provided the Government will agree with the unions that they will accept the Pay Research Unit's conclusions. Then we can all go home and forget about this. That is my view. It is as simple as that.
The simplicity of the views of the hon. Member for Bolsover has always attracted me. It is similar to the simplicity of the highwayman's view —" There is no necessity for anybody to get hurt. I happen to have the gun and you happen to have the money." The hon. Member's view is"I know all of you have got some money. I know that the Secretary of State has some money in his boots. I know that the Lord Advocate has certain hidden assets. I know that the hon. Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing) has funds. I am just a simple highwayman who wants more money, and if you hand over your money, and if the Pay Research Unit will decide whether the Secretary of State or the Lord Advocate should contribute most, there is no need for this row."
That is the moral and the law of the hon. Member for Bolsover. Anybody can say that one never needs to fight anybody if the weaker party always gives in to the robber. That is not difficult. I could solve the world's problems very easily. There would not have been a war in this century if France had agreed that Germany should invade it; and there would not have been a war if Poland had been willing to join the Greater Reich. Indeed, there would not have been a murder in a concentration camp if the Jews had had the decency to commit suicide.
The hon. and learned Gentleman will recall that last week my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook), on a question about the Opposition's attitude to pay research, asked whether the Opposition supported the full implementation of the Pay Research Unit's report of 1 April of this year. The hon. and learned Member said that he was sorry that he could not help him on that point. Presumably the hon. and learned Member now can assist us. He is telling us that the Opposition do not accept the implementation of the Pay Research Unit's report. That is the gist of his remarks. Will he confirm it so that he can put us out of our agony?
That is not the gist of my remarks. I do not want to try the patience of the hon. Gentleman, but I shall come later to the matter of the Pay Research Unit.
Let us be clear that we are removing certain rights and are detaining people in prison, albeit prospectively dangerous people, without limit of time. As that is a civil right, Labour Members, if it involved a flying picket, would be making a great fuss. But because on this occasion the stamp of trade unionism is on the other foot, the defenders of civil rights seem silent.
Of course the trade unions are not bringing in the Bill. The highwayman would not bring in a Bill to say that it was wrong for anybody to resist him.
Until recently we regarded ourselves as a Christian society. Whether or not all of us are Christians or practising Christians, we supposed that in our society we had a duty—one hopes a loving duty—to our neighbour, as is echoed in the fraternal claim of the brotherhood of man made by the Labour Party. We are enjoined to love our neighbour as ourself and to do to him what we would wish him to do to us. Indeed, it is fundamental to society that each man forgoes certain rights and indulges in self-restraint and self-discipline in order to have the greater benefits provided by society.
Let us be clear that this Bill in part protects those rights, but in part suspends them. That is what we are doing, and this is but the beginning of a process that will become necessary every year if the concepts of the hon. Member for Bolsover were ever to take a dominant place. Self-restraint is operated as a willing price for the benefits of society.
There are two alternatives. The first is to have an authoritarian State in which no citizen can resist the strength and power of the State and in which each must do as he is told at the whim of the State, subject to the punishment of the State—organised normally if it is successful by an anonymous system of"clyping ", as we say in Scotland, or secret police in Bolsover.
The second form of society is a society which precedes civilised society and in which those who have rights have them because they have the force to obtain and keep them. Because of their power, they are able, either by association with others or because they have certain powers or weapons, to have rights and benefits. That is an anarchic and primitive society. In such a society groups rule by force according to their will and allow their will always to overcome that of weaker people.
There is a fact of life from which nobody, no matter to what association he may be loyal, can escape. Crowds have a corporate will and power that transcend the conglomerate power of those who compose it. They also usually suspend moral will and normally act in a manner, if acting by force, to which often no member of that crowd would have consented had he been asked individually. A crowd that acts by force is a mob. If one has a society in which crowds act by force, they will suspend their moral conscience in advance of their actions. Where a crowd is using a strike as that force, it has probably obtained the moral absolution of the Labour Party in advance because it is done in the name of a trade union.
I believe that no act in which one tortures, wounds or destroys the rights of another member of society or one's neighbour or friend can be justified or sanctified because it is carried out in the name of a trade union. It is no more sanctified or justified than if it were carried out in the name of the Faculty of Advocates, the Secretary of State for Scotland, or anybody else.
The Labour Party will have to come to terms with the fact that, because the words"trade union"are mentioned, group force against other members of society—most of whom probably are members of a trade union—does not become justified. In retrospect, we cannot say that what is done by force by a blue collar worker is good but that what is done by a white collar worker in the same terms is bad.
Each of us is one another's neighbour and owes a duty to the other. We cannot escape our duty by joining a crowd because that crowd happens to be a trade union recognised in terms of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act and is a registered union affiliated to the TUC.
The extent of the logic of my argument, which I put with all gravity, is that even when we consider the role of the Secretary of State for Scotland, whose actions have been admirable in this matter, the extent of crowd rule can be illustrated by saying that when the right hon. Gentleman tries to protect the constitutional rights of the citizen, the highwayman then increases his threats. The highwayman and his friends take the view that if the Secretary of State will not do their will and attempts to resist their plunderings they will bring down the whole house on his head. They will make matters worse for the rest of the community. If the Secretary of State does not give in to them, they will make pensioners unable to obtain their savings and pensions and will wreck society. That is the simple issue that is before us. Those who choose to refuse to do their duty by their neighbour deserve that others should do it on their behalf.
The Secretary of State—and I regret it—said that this was not a strike-breaking charter. I do not think it is a strikebreaking charter, but if we remove the emotive words"strike-breaking charter"I regret that it is not a piece of legislation which will compel people who have a legal and moral duty to their neighbour to fulfil it.
How have we come, in our tolerant, democratic and decent society, to a state where anybody, however well paid, exalted, sensible, or responsible, is willing to indulge in—I use the word again—childish behaviour by saying"If you do not give in, I shall make life absolutely intolerable for victims in society until I persuade you, by torturing them, to surrender "?
That judgment arises partly out of the eternal marriage of the Labour Party to the TUC—or at any rate from the fact that the Labour Party, or one of the Government parties in this country, happens to be the child of the trade unions. That fascination and filial piety is demonstrated no better than by the devoted and implacable devotion of the hon. Member for Bolsover. I admire the principle of devotion, but I do not admire it when it ignores the effect it has on other people. I believe that the main duty rests on two people—the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) and the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan). The former dressed up weakness as strength and the latter is weakness in reality. The former dressed up resistance to this kind of behaviour as confrontation, and the latter dressed up surrender to it as consensus. There is the charge, and if we need a third blind monkey who turns his eyes, ears and senses to wrong, it is no doubt the Lord President of the Council.
Those right hon. Members have brought about a situation where men of all ranks—from Mr. Speaker, if I may say so without disrespect, the Secretary of State, right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Front Bench, and those in the Public Gallery, right down to the most humble person in society—say"If I am sanctified by belonging to a trade union, I have no moral duty to my neighbours and I am entitled to wound them, hurt them and increase that wounding and hurting until I get my way." If I may say so to the hon Member for Gravesend (Mr. Ovenden), the fact that a person may have a justifiable case on a matter of pay can never justify abdication of his moral duty in society.
The hon. and learned Member complimented me on my patience in listening to him. I did not need complimenting, because it was no hardship. I have a sense of humour and I always enjoy his speeches. However, he promised my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) that he would reply to the point regarding the right of public sector workers to go on strike and to my point about whether the Conservative Party accepted the implementation of pay research in its entirety this year. The hon. and learned Gentleman has now said"In conclusion ", so I take it that he does not intend to reply to either point. Does he think that he has replied?
If the hon. Member for Gravesend is to be present, I suggest that he also indulges in the art of good listening. I said to the hon. Member for Garscadden—neither hon. Member is a good listener, one no doubt because he is a solicitor and the other because he is a trade unionist—that I believe that a fiduciary duty is placed upon a large number of people in many occupations in this country, in a modern State, and they should not have the right to withdraw their labour. If they have that right, I believe that it should be coupled with the loss of equivalent rights such as the rights they have under the Employment Protection Act, the Redundancy Payments Act, the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, the Equal Pay Act, and the Contracts of Employment Act. I could add more.
I believe that it is impossible for a society to function if the right to withdraw labour not only exists but is regularly exercised by all groups in society, from top to bottom. The Secretary of State for Scotland was quite right to have said to the Civil Service union concerned"We will listen to your reports, and we will make recommendations and those recommendations will be the subject of an award on 1 April." I am sorry that the weakness of the Government has compelled them to say"Yes, we will give all that these people recommend, but we will phase it ", which means that they will put off the trouble until next year, the year after or the year after that.
We must be quite clear that in pay negotiations we cannot have absolute rules so that we can say"You made an agreement." I accept that there has been difficulty with the pay pause, but we cannot have absolute rules whereby people say"Before, the system was such, and whatever the rights and wrongs of it, I demand that you return to that system. Regardless of the needs of the nation, or whether it means that the nurses, doctors, civil servants and Members of Parliament get nothing, I want my bit ". That is the other face of the coin of selfishness which, I hope, I have described with some modesty this afternoon—[Interruption.] I did not hear the hon. Member for Bolsover, but I think that he should make that interruption standing up.
I have no doubt that the fantasy exists in some minds—particularly in the minds of Labour Members—that money, like fresh air, is free and that all we need to do is breathe it in. As with Santa Claus, we just write a letter and he will bring it in his sack. It is all there, if only the rotten old red-dressed Scrooge would hand it over, if only"Santa Government"would hand it over. But let us be clear that before"Santa Government"can hand it over they must go to the household of the hon. Member for Bolsover and take that money away from him, or borrow it from an international banker and charge it to the household of the hon. Member for Bolsover. So let us get away from such fantasies.
If there is plenty of money in this country, why do not the Government double everybody's pay? Would the hon. Member for Bolsover do that? Let us give everybody £100 million a year. These are unrealistic fantasies, and if the hon. Member for Bolsover believes in them I had not appreciated that he was quite so stupid. At least he has a loyalty to principle which would be a great credit to any child, but when it comes to adult thinking I sometimes have my doubts.
In our society I believe that the grave-digger has a moral duty, in all circumstances, to bury the mother of the lorry driver when she dies. I believe that the lorry driver has a moral duty to deliver food to the doctor and his family. I believe that the doctor has a moral duty to operate on the civil servant when he is ill. I believe that the civil servant has a moral duty to ensure that payment is made to the mother of the nurse when she needs her national savings. I believe that the nurse has a moral duty—which, God bless her, she is fulfilling and understands—to tend the sick of all those categories when they require attention.
If we suspend that moral duty, we have no answer. Therefore, in welcoming the Bill with mighty regret, I think that all hon. Members in humility should understand where such conduct leads them. It is no good standing on ceremony and saying"Yes, but it was my right ". It is not our right. It is our duty to our neighbour in society to do our duty, and no claim or award of pay can ever reduce that duty.
I think that the Secretary of State said last week—and I would accuse him not of unfairness but of misunderstanding—that I had not appealed to these people to return. Lest there be any doubts, let me do that now. I know many of these people and have worked with them. I could not have believed that they would be willing to throw dust in the eyes of justice just because they have some dispute with the Government. I appeal to them personally—not as a crowd, a union or as the shock troops of the SCPS—to go back to each of their consciences and to do their duty by justice. If we wish to have a democratic society, those who are necessary for its function must do their duty. If we do not, there is one horrid alternative, and that is to answer force by force. That is what the Bill in principle is about. It is suspending the rule of law and answering force by force.
I find the appeal to the individual members of the sheriff clerks' departments who are on strike a little incongruous from the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn). After all, he spent the last 35 minutes informing us that they are no better than highwaymen, that they are torturing the innocent in order to batter the Government into unworthy surrender. To use that kind of language, to cast them in that role and then to think that in some sort of way they will listen sympathetically to the hon. and learned Member's appeal, is an essay in optimism—I shall not use the word"childish ", because it has been used too often—and an essay in the futile.
We have been treated to a remarkable tour d'horizon from the hon. and learned Member. It is his private moral world. While eccentricity on the Back Benches can often be entertaining, when it is translated on to the Front Bench it can become extremely confusing and misleading. For reasons that I shall give in a few minutes, I am still hopelessly confused about the position of the hon. and learned Gentleman and, more importantly, as he spoke from the Front Bench, about his party's position on a number of matters that were raised in interjections, which seemed to me to be matters of fundamental importance in connection with the purpose of this legislation. I am confused about the basis on which the Conservative Party would wish to settle this strike and whether it would accept the findings of the Pay Research Unit and implement them. In addition, despite a veritable torrent of words from the hon. and learned Gentleman, I do not know whether he is in favour of banning and making illegal strikes in the public sector, particularly in the courts, and if so how he defines those areas where those strikes should be illegal.
We got a blanket statement that there were areas where illegality should apply, but there was no attempt to explain, define or set out the rules. I am not sure whether we were being invited to assume that the Conservative Front Bench wanted to make illegal strikes right across the board. In fact, the hon. and learned Gentleman, carried away by his own command of language, got very near to suggesting that. I hope that those Conservative Members who speak later, especially the Front Bench spokesman, will put a little more definition on some of the more remarkable statements that have been made.
I do not welcome the Bill. I do not think that anyone could welcome it. But there is a recognition among Labour Members that some of the provisions are necessary. There will be no cavil from me in accepting that. Obviously—and I am glad that my right hon. Friend stressed this point—Labour Members accept that there is no way in which this legislation can get the courts back to normal. No legislation can do that, given the total withdrawal of labour by staff of the sheriff courts and the Court of Session. What the Bill can do is to safeguard certain essential rights. To some extent, it can ameliorate the consequences of the industrial action, which, by definition, is intended to cause inconvenience and is unashamedly doing so.
The only thing that will remedy the situation is a settlement. As we are in the business of appeals, it is almost futile to think that speeches in this House asking people to call off their industrial action at this stage are likely to be successful. But if my right hon. Friend was right in what he said the other day about back-dating, and if we have a Government assurance that phasing will be completed by April 1980, it seems to me that the difference between the two sides is not such as to justify a continued and lengthy dispute. I very much hope that within the next two or three days there will be an offer on the table which can be the basis of proper negotiation as to the phasing, timing and implementation of the settlement. As a result, I hope that we shall be able to get people back to work very quickly indeed so that the situation which the Bill is designed to remedy will end almost before the legislation comes into effect.
I confess that I do not see this as a measure of meeting force with force, as was suggested by the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire. It is something more important than that. It is an attempt to preserve individual rights which will be lost for ever if there is no legislation, as a result of which innocent people might be prejudiced in a serious and fundamental way. Having said that, there is no question in my mind that the Bill meets force by force, nor would I support it in the Lobbies if, like the hon. and learned Gentleman, I believed that this was a first step to dictatorship.
The hon. and learned Gentleman welcomed the Bill, presumably, on the ground that it was a first step to dictatorship. That is perhaps explicable, given his general political viewpoint. But I do not see it for a moment as a first step towards dictatorship, and I do not suppose that anyone connected with its introduction saw it in that way.
It will obviously do something to remove the anomalies which could prejudice the individual, and on that basis it is necessary. Clause 2 relates to the extension of time limits. During the emergency debate the Conservative spokesman properly made the point that it would be monstrous if somebody who had a good claim—often, because of the intricacies and delays of the law, good claims do not come to the courts because actions are not raised until very late in the triennium—lost an action for reparations which had merit purely and simply because when his professional advisers got to the point of recognising that his position had to be protected, because of the protracted nature of the negotiations, they found that the courts were on strike and it was impossible to raise that action. It is right that the Government should act at this stage to make it clear that they will not allow that to happen. That is one of the principal provisions of clause 2. That is exactly the kind of thing which it is important to meet at this time.
That is almost beyond controversy. But the most important part of the Bill in terms of argument is clause 5. I confess that I approached it with a somewhat sideways look, because I was a little wary about what was contained in it. I welcome the assurances given by my right hon. Friend that there is no question of sheriffs looking for help or recruiting staff in an attempt to get their courts operating on the very restricted basis on which they could operate—for matters such as full committals, bail appeals, and so on. That is all that is authorised at the present stage.
I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook. I gather that the Glasgow sheriffs have indicated that they would not wish that responsibility in any case. That is entirely sensible. But even for that limited number of hearings it is right that the individual sheriff should not be left to recruit. There is a wide spectrum of views and opinions on the shrieval benches of Scotland and no doubt there are some who might be tempted, but I am sure that the vast majority would not wish to have that responsibility.
I was surprised to hear the Secretary of State say that offers had already been made. I am not clear where the offers came from. I am aware of only one offer. That came from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), who, with a broad brush, offered the services of the solicitors' profession. I admit that I come from the less refined part of the solicitors' world—I come from Glasgow, not Edinburgh—but my experience is that there is no enthusiasm among solicitors for the mantle which has been thrust upon them by the hon. Member. I should be surprised if there were any offers of that kind from solicitors in my part of the world. I should like to know where the offers which have been refused by the Secretary of State came from.
I would be sad if a policy decision were taken to move in outside staff. If someone in the sheriff clerk's department is prepared to undertake these duties, or if a sheriff himself can do jobs that would normally be done by other members of the court in order to relieve pressures on the courts, that is fair. But I should be unhappy to see that principle widened, because that would escalate the industrial trouble in a way that could not be justified.
We have a duty to seek clarification from the Conservative Party about two simple issues. The first is the matter of the Pay Research Unit. I asked the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), at the end of his closing speech in the emergency debate, whether the Conservative Party was in favour of implementing the Pay Research Unit recommendations now. In a sense that must seem an attractive option to the Opposition because they argue that there should be no strikes in this area. If one is removing the right to strike, there is perhaps a moral pressure upon a Government to implement an independent pay research recommendation without negotiation, without phasing and without any caveats as to the implications for economic management, inflation or public service pay levels.
The tone of the speech by the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire shows that he is not in favour of that. He made it clear that he saw this strike as a force majeure. He saw it as a bestial example of mob rule—to use his own kind of language—and as organised strength in a bad cause to beat the Government into submission.
If that is so, it does not sound as if he is in favour of implementing the Pay Research Unit recommendations immediately. He raises these issues and promises an answer, and though my hon. Friends and I may be obtuse we did not hear a clear one. I press the hon. and learned Member, and also the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West, to make clear what the Conservative Party's position is on this issue, because they must have given it thought and must have a general view.
The hon. Member says that I described this strike as the use of force in a bad cause to obtain advantage. Will he tell the House whether he is in favour, in any circumstances, of using force against innocent members of the community for a cause, however good, in order to obtain advantage?
Yes. I defend the right of a worker to withdraw his labour as a last resort. I said in the emergency debate that I thought there was a case, particularly if back-dating was allowed, for arguing that this strike was premature. I regret that we are in this situation, but I do not accept, as apparently I am being invited to do, the principle that all strikes are essentially wicked because force is used. I believe that there is a right to withdraw labour. What I am not clear about is in what circumstances the Conservatives say that labour should not be withdrawn. We had the impression from the hon. and learned Member that it would be over a wide sphere and a large number of employment areas. He has not, however, made it clear exactly why he would favour the withdrawal of labour being banned in this case.
I believe that there is a case for negotiation about the phasing-in of the Pay Research Unit recommendations. I think that the guarantees given by the Government are an entirely reasonable basis for continuing negotiations. That is why I should like to see them implemented speedily. I do not think there is anything silly about raising that issue. What is the Conservatives' view about a"no-strike"clause? I should also like to hear from the Conservative Party some clarification of its attitude towards strikes in the public service.
The hon. and learned Member used violent language. He spoke about strikes torturing innocent people. That was the extreme phrase that he used. It came through clearly that he is opposed to strikes in a general sense. That is fair enough. But I hope that as he is speaking from the Conservative Front Bench and, presumably, for his party, we shall hear from other Opposition Front Bench spokesmen what exactly are the circumstances in which strikes should be made illegal and on what grounds they would be made illegal. That is not an unfair request.
I take a more liberal view of trade unionists, perhaps because I have been one. The trade union to which I belong, the Law Society of Scotland, is extremely effective and powerful. The only one that I can think of that is perhaps more effective is the Faculty of Advocates. It maintains an exclusive right to audience in the superior courts of Scotland, much to the benefit of those gentlemen who practise within it. There may be a case for that, but it ill behoves the hon. and learned Member, from the security of his trade union/professional association/vested interest, to sneer at those who have to use the right to withdraw their labour in order to improve their position.
I take a serious view of this strike, because I have made my living in the courts. I do not undervalue the courts. However, I do not think that the melodrama concerning the unique and damaging nature of the strike is justified. Strikes hurt many people. People are hurt when they have to boil their water because of a strike by Waterways Board employees. Firms are hurt when they experience a cash flow squeeze because of a transport drivers' strike in which they are not involved. All these activities are damaging and they underline the reason why strikes should be a last resort and why they should be implemented only when absolutely necessary. I am sure that every trade union official will agree with that.
This strike is not so unique that the people who are involved in it should be singled out for a statutory ban on the withdrawal of their labour. I have not had an intellectually satisfying explanation from the Conservative Front Bench as to why they should be so singled out.
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. It is always difficult for him to stop in the middle of a sentence because often he uses only one main verb in the course of a speech. He accuses me of using the word"torture"and saying that it is emotive. I believe that if a member of society made the hon. Member's mother stand in the snow and drove the ambulance away when she was suffering from cancer, that might properly be described as torture. I should like to think that even the hon. Member's conscience might be tortured if that happened or if he was the ambulance driver and he drove away.
I am surprised that, as a lawyer, he has not read the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Act 1976 and does not know what a trade union is under that Act. He wrongly describes a professional association, unregistered and unaffiliated to the TUC, as a trade union. Let me remind him that both the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates are associations which protect the interests of the public. The hon. Member knows that he and I have a duty to obey instructions and to carry out the services that we are entitled to carry out, if anybody bids us, as an absolute professional rule. Nothing is entitled to interfere with that right of the citizen, and I would not allow it to do so.
I am not attacking the Law Society of Scotland or the Faculty of Advocates, but I have a considerable number of reservations about some of their activities, as I have no doubt that the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire has.
I accept that under the terms of the 1974 legislation they are not trade unions, but they perform effectively and powerfully the same role as trade unions. They have done a better job for their members than many trade unions, mainly because trade unions operate in areas which are less easy to organise.
The hon. and learned Member asked us to consider the cancer patient who is denied an ambulance. That is a powerful and coherent argument. What about the business which is prejudiced and collapses, causing the loss of jobs, because its cash flow is affected by a strike in which it is not involved? These are prices which we have to pay when men are driven finally to withdraw their labour. The logic of the hon. and learned Member's argument is that strikes should be illegal across the board.
I understand that the Conservative Party does not agree with the hon. and learned Member. The logic of the hon. and learned Member's argument is that strikes should be made illegal. If that is not the position, the Opposition Front Bench should make clear where they draw the line. I want the areas to be defined and the argument to be defended. Simple and clear bites of definition and doctrine are involved. I look forward to the Opposition's reply.
I expressed my views in the debate last week. It is disgraceful that sheriff clerks should behave as some of them have. They are meant to be professional people. They have a duty to the public. They are taking action for purely selfish reasons.
This is not a strike against wicked employers. It is a strike to compel the Government to give those involved more for their own benefit. The method that they employ is to disrupt the life of the community. The morals involved are those of the kidnapper who says"I shall kidnap you and unless somebody else pays up I shall kill you." I do not say that this is as bad, but the argument is the same.
A free society depends upon the bulk of the people acting according to the presupposition of a free society. They cannot call upon the Government to abide by the rules if they do not abide by them themselves. The presupposition is that the rule of law depends upon people accepting the common good and the common application of the law. Once the people cease to do that, there is no end to the ad hoc application of the law in the interests of the groups which happen to have power. The presupposition of a welfare society is that we take some notice of each others' welfare. The action of NUPE, for instance, will ultimately destroy the welfare society.
I wish to ask one or two questions about the Bill. Perhaps I should have tabled amendments. I have not done so because I do not pretend to understand the intricacies of the law. I am glad that I did not table an amendment. I thought that clause 5 meant that a judge could authorise persons to undertake certain duties. I am told that that is not so but that the Secretary of State is involved. That is an illustration of the difficulties facing the layman. I hope that we shall have a definition of the word"judge ".
It is important that people should understand the law. Are the Government satisfied that the Scottish people will be sufficiently informed about the Bill? I understand that it may be impossible to inform everybody whose legal position is affected, but I hope that there will be general knowledge throughout Scotland about what is being done.
Some unfortunate people in my constituency, as in others, are paying fines. I understand that fines are not being accepted. Will the Bill mean that they are accepted?
School janitors made it impossible for others to carry out their duties because they removed the keys and, in some cases, the records. Is there power in the Bill to enable the courts to continue their work if the sheriff clerks or other officers attempt to obstruct that work?
Somebody, through no fault of his, may be injured as a result of passing the Bill. Is there any power to recompense such a person? Some people may be put to expense or harmed by the Bill. Will they have any redress? Perhaps these are Committee matters, but I should like light to be shed upon them.
This is the beginning of an extremely dangerous process. Do not let us be misled by stories that other strikes have been worse. We are indulging in emergency legislation in which we normally indulge only at a time of war. Once we begin on this path and the presuppositions of a free, legal and decent society break down, we shall experience such legislation again and again. Each Bill will be called in aid as a precedent for the next. Each Bill will be more stringent than the last. This is not a petty matter to be brushed aside. It is all too likely that it is the beginning of a process which could do great damage to the country.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) was right to draw our attention to the seriousness of the Bill. I am not a lawyer, but I think that the right hon. Gentleman's reading of clause 5 is correct. Today we shall be considering amendments to give the clause the meaning that we believe it should have.
The Secretary of State ignored the political background to the dispute, perhaps for understandable reasons, but before the Bill goes into Committee the political considerations should be taken into account. This must be one of the saddest pieces of legislation that we have had to consider in the House. It is not the first time that emergency legislation has been necessary, but never before have we had to act in this way to safeguard the administration of the courts.
I respect the Secretary of State's determination to take this action. It cannot have been easy for him to persuade his Cabinet colleagues, particularly as several of them recently joined the picket lines themselves.
Sad as the Bill is, it is fitting that it should be introduced by the Labour Party—the party which worships at the altar of trade unionism and which now finds that its own trade union monster is completely out of control. The weapon that Labour Members used to get into office five years ago has been turned on themselves, to the detriment of good government and the good name of civilisation in this country, which, until a few years ago, was the envy of the world. Ministers have only themselves to blame for this state of affairs. The only cure is a long period in Opposition in which to reflect on the policies of appeasement which have brought about the near collapse of our system of justice in Scotland. The lesson of the past few years is that strikes will continue as long as they pay off and are worth while. That is why this Bill is so important. It attempts, in a small but significant way, to reverse the value of going on strike.
The Bill has invited threats of further strike action or escalation of action if it is enacted. These threats have been made in conditions that are already not far short of a general strike in the public sector. So be it. The policy of appeasement has to stop, as the Secretary of State has recognised by introducing this Bill and also in his other dealings with Civil Service disputes at the Scottish Office. I do not know whether the civil servants taking part in these disputes were balloted before the action was taken. I do not know whether they questioned why Scotland should be chosen as a pilot scheme for action in the courts which may spark off a much larger dispute throughout the United Kingdom.
It is interesting that the public sector should provide this Labour Government with such difficulties. The Health Service is in a state of near shambles. In the Civil Service and the nationalised industries many of these difficulties have occurred in bodies which are the Labour Government's own offspring. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) remarked that these strikers are behaving like children. They are, in fact, the spoilt children of Britain today. They seem to have little care for the hardship they impose on others. They are all anxious to make up for the effects of inflation on their pay packets during the past few years. They write to Members of Parliament asking us to support each and every special case. I believe that every Member of Parliament, certainly every Scottish Member, has received letters from civil servants, university lecturers, laboratory technicians in the Health Service and teachers asking for special attention to be given to their case.
There was no point in the pay policy of the past few years if everyone now seeks to catch up and believes that the wage award for the next 12 months should compensate for the smaller wage awards made during the past few years. Pay settlements must continue to be moderate, particularly in the public sector. That is why, regrettably, this Bill is necessary. As I think the Secretary of State recognises, there is not sufficient money to make awards that would enable everyone to catch up on his 1974 position.
I should like to make two further points. I hope that the civil servants on strike will consider their own personal position on the basis that we cannot afford to have shop floor trade union attitudes in the Civil Service. Loyalty to the service should still mean something. It is all very well having trade union solidarity. The empty Labour Benches suggest that there is some trade union solidarity going on elsewhere. Whatever loyalties one has to a trade union, they must take second place, at least in the Civil Service, to a sense of duty and loyalty to that service. Every civil servant should wish to set an example to industry. There can be no excuse for people whose jobs are guaranteed behaving like sheep at the behest of trade union officials. I fear that is what is taking place in this dispute.
I hope that the Secretary of State and the Lord Advocate, in the circumstances in which this Bill is being debated in all its stages today, will give fair consideration to the detailed amendments which have been put forward by my hon. Friends as well as those tabled by my hon. Friends which obviously deal with some of the Government's omissions in the Bill. Given the spirit of co-operation that we hope exists to deal with this short but important, Bill, I trust that the amendments that have been tabled will be given fair consideration by the Government.
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for my voice. Unfortunately, although I am my party's parliamentary spokesman on health, this does not guarantee my immunity from the common cold. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) and the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) have touched on the need to recognise that we are all members of society, one of another, and that we should bear that in mind whenever we feel ourselves obliged to move towards strikes. I agree with that approach. I thought, however, that the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire was speaking about a moral Utopia in which human nature and original sin had been abolished. I do not know whether this will be part of the Conservative Party's next election manifesto—
My hon. Friend is no doubt right. I support the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) in his call for the Tory Front Bench to say whether the next Conservative Government, if there ever is one, will seek to abolish strikes altogether in order to compel us to recognise that we are members of society, one of another, or whether this will be done only in selected areas. We should be told. The electorate in Scotland will want to know whether the right to strike is to be taken away totally or only in selected areas. If it is to be done in selected areas, we should know which ones. People working in those areas might take umbrage and not turn out to vote Conservative.
We must bear in mind that this is not a national dispute. It is a United Kingdom dispute. [HON. MEMBERS:"It is a national dispute."] It is a United Kingdom dispute. The situation that we are seeking partially to remedy is only part of a much wider situation. The House must proceed warily in what it does today. It will be no good if, having passed the Bill, the result is an escalation of this conflict and the creation of a deal of bad blood between the courts and court officials for many a long day after the overt dispute is over.
I had intended to refer to the remarks of the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire when he went out of his way, in the debate last week, to make copious references to mob rule. He did not go as far as to say that the sheriff clerks constituted a mob, but he sailed as close to that as his prudence allowed him. Today he has spoken of highwaymen and torturers. We must ask ourselves: are the sheriff clerks and others in dispute really highwaymen and torturers? Are they behaving like mobs? I have no doubt that phrases like"mob rule ","highwaymen"and"torturers"go down well in heaving Tory bosoms. Do they conduce either to ending this dispute rapidly or to providing the atmosphere for reconciliation after the dispute is over? I think not.
Vote-catching speeches may be all the rage at the moment. I often see Tory speakers in the House cast their eyes upwards. I had naturally assumed that their eyes were directed to Heaven in prayer, no doubt to obtain the grace of the happy death of the Government, but I have come to the conclusion, most reluctantly, that they move a little to the right of that blessed place to take a quick look at the Press Gallery to see whether the content of their speeches is being noted for their favourite daily newspapers.
The real and lasting solution to the dispute is not the Bill but a return to work. Are the Government trying as hard as they can to obtain a settlement, or are they leaving the dispute to run on for a while to chasten the unions involved? The Government are well aware that the courts affected are hundreds of miles away from this place. Had the Law Courts in the Strand or the Old Bailey been affected, would the Government have been taking their time in such a lordly way? I rather think that they would not.
The Bill does not touch upon the vexed issue of back-dating any award, an issue which several hon. Members, including myself, pressed the Lord Advocate to answer last week. Would it not now be appropriate for the Government to come completely clean? They could even, perhaps, resolve the dispute by doing just that.
I remind the House that during the debate last week the Secretary of State said:
There is no question but that the settlement will date from 1 April, even if the settlement is not reached until after 1 April. No doubt my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will correct me if I am wrong, but I have checked on that particular matter.
He said a little later:
In my view, however, if the negotiations go beyond 1 April, there is no reason why the settlement should not be back-dated to 1 April.
That seems clear, but it appeared today that the Prime Minister is by no means so certain as the Secretary of State. I hope that the Government will respond and that we shall have complete clarity between the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and the unions involved.
Last week I mentioned the problem of the backlog. The Bill does nothing to deal with the backlog that is building up as a result of the strike. It is a backlog which, certainly at the Glasgow sheriff court, is being added to an existing backlog. Perhaps the Government cannot tackle the period after the emergency dealt with in the Bill—it deals only with the emergency—but will they take the opportunity today to give a general outline of how they propose to tackle the backlog? I offer one or two tentative suggestions. For example, we could increase the number of sheriffs. We could ask for one or two sheriffs to come out of retirement to assist. Will the Government give us an inkling of how their minds are moving?
The Bill is not without its difficulties. The House must be tempted to speculate on what is being done to reduce the effect of the strike not by open legislation in the House but by administrative decisions, whether expressed in writing or by word of mouth. For instance, is there any truth in the rumour that the police have been instructed to arrest only major criminals? Will the Government assure us categorically that there is no truth in that rumour? Citizens have a right to know that justice is being administered even-handedly, even in an emergency.
I comment briefly on the idea that those other than sheriff clerks should be allowed to carry out some of the work of sheriff clerks, I note that the Bill refers to"any person ". The mind boggles at who might be involved. In last week's debate I said:
I wonder whether this "—
that is, using other than sheriff clerks to perform the functions of sheriff clerks—
would not be a recipe for chaos. I should have thought one would require experts trained in the procedures to function as sheriff clerks."—[Official Report, 13 March 1979; Vol. 964, c. 288–329.]
It is an idea that could be a recipe for chaos in several ways. It could inflame the dispute by appearing to provide for strike-breaking. It could lead to muddle, both during the dispute and after. We do not know what qualifications the volunteer staff would have. The Bill refers to"any person ". The volunteer staff could conceivably muddle files and papers so that what the sheriff clerks left in good order when they entered upon the dispute may be found by them to be in confusion on their return to their desks. If that were to happen, there would surely be a further delay in clearing the backlog.
I support the Bill, with a certain reluctance. It could conceivably inflame the dispute, although sincerely I hope that it will not do so. However, in the end we must surely consent to a reduction of the rights of some individuals—the sheriff clerks in this instance—to guarantee the rights of those who are involved with the law, either as alleged criminals or as litigants. They, too, have their rights. In many instances they are unprotected except by the law, and they require the protection of the House.
The hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson) was less than fair to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn). If we had a Utopia, there would not be any necessity for law. It is precisely because my hon. and learned Friend is a realist and understands that we do not have a Utopia that he argues that we must have the proper functioning of our legal system.
There lies the fallacy of the argument of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar). The law cannot be regarded as being in the same category as the water supply or transport services. In a free and democratic society the law is fundamental to every citizen. Therefore the Government rightly have a responsibility to maintain the law. That respossibility is above and beyond any other.
Much as we regret the necessity, the Government are right to introduce the Bill. I am glad to support it. I, like the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), view the introduction of measures such as the Bill, important and justified as they may be, as forming extra and emergency legislation to maintain the law, which, as I have said, is fundamental to our society. The necessity to introduce such measures is a judgment on the way in which we conduct our affairs. It is a process that we must not enter lightly. It is something that we have to question and consider carefully.
I take up one other remark made by the hon. Member for Galloway. Let us be under no illusion about the distress, problems and difficulties that such disputes cause for ordinary individuals. This morning I received a letter from an ex-constituent whom I have helped in the past. Unfortunately, she is involved in a divorce action. She went to the courts to obtain an order to enable her to have access to her children. Not surprisingly, the court rightly deferred its decision so that various social reports could be obtained. In the circumstances, that was a reasonable and not surprising action to take. However, my constituent now finds that there is no prospect of the second court hearing taking place to consider the social worker's report. That is serious. The mother is trying to obtain access through the courts in a proper way. However, court hearings are suspended because of the action of those who operate the courts.
The constituent I mentioned does not know her position. She is in great distress of mind, not knowing whether she will obtain access to her children. Regardless of the recommendations of the social workers, no one knows to what the children may be subjected in the interim period. That leads to distress for the mother, who is unable to obtain access to her children, and for the children. That is regrettable.
Clause 5 covers the situation where the Secretary of State is prepared, as a matter of policy, to allow a judge to bring in other people to do the work. There is nothing in the Bill that will bring about the alleviation of distress. I beg the Lord Advocate to clarify the situation of such a person in relation to this Bill. Applicants will not be helped unless the Secretary of State is prepared, under clause 5, to authorise a judge to appoint any other person to carry out the work that should have been carried out by those involved in the dispute. I raise the matter in this sense. I hope that those who are party to the dispute will realise, in pure human terms, the distress and agony which they are causing and which is demonstrated by the case of the individual I mentioned.
I was surprised at what the Secretary of State said about clause 5. It enables a judge to
authorise any person to do any such thing in relation to such proceedings.
When Parliament gives power to a judge, it is there for the judge or the judiciary generally to use. However, the Secretary of State said that that power would not be used unless he made a policy decision that it should be used. I pressed the Secretary of State in my intervention—I hoped that it would save time in Committee—to tell us in what sense his policy decision would be given power under this legislation. Surely the judiciary either does or does not have the power. If power is to be exercised at a later stage at the discretion of the Secretary of State, let that be stated in the Bill so that we may arrive at an opinion on it.
A fundamental of justice is that the judiciary is independent of the Executive. I am not aware of any other cases where the judiciary is subject to the policy decisions of the Executive. I have heard instances where the Government have been challenged to tell the courts to perform certain actions. However, Ministers have rightly said that they had no right to give a direction to the courts or the judiciary.
I understand that the Secretary of State does not wish to enter easily into using the powers under clause 5 until he believes it to be necessary. If that is so, let him state in the Bill that the use of this power will be delayed. Let us know the procedures under which that power will be introduced. Clause 5 is totally unsatisfactory. It is not in the best traditions of justice. I hope that the Lord Advocate will explain the matter when he winds up the debate.
I have an observation to make about the Labour Party. Today we are discussing an emergency Bill which is needed because this is the first time for 400 years that the courts in Scotland have been closed. Present in the House are the Lord Advocate, two Ministers, the Scottish Whip and the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State. It is disgraceful that there is not one other member of the Labour Party present. Nor is there one other Labour Member of Parliament from a Scottish constituency. I make a special exception of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), who has been present for most of the debate and who made an important contribution. It is deplorable that hon. Members—whatever their views—have not seen fit to be present, much less make a contribution, during a debate on an emergency Bill of great importance to Scotland.
I start by making a request to the Secretary of State. There has been a great deal of confusion about whether any offer to those on strike—or other civil servants—would be back-dated to 1 April if agreement were reached after that date. The Minister stated last week in a previous debate on this matter his understanding that any agreement would be retrospective. He said that there was no urgency to reach agreement by 1 April. That interpretation is disputed by many trade union officials involved in the dispute. There is considerable doubt in Scotland and in the Civil Service unions as to the truth of the matter. The Minister has had one full week in which to find out whether his observation was correct and justified.
I hope that either the Secretary of State or the Minister who is to reply will say categorically whether any settlement reached will be retrospective to 1 April. I shall be happy to give way if the Secretary of State wishes to make that clear. There has been grave doubt about the matter. The Secretary of State's contributions appear to have only added to the confusion. I see that he does not want to make a statement now. I hope he will ensure that the Lord Advocate or the Minister who replies will say whether the Secretary of State's statement last week was right or wrong. This matter must be known to the Government. It should be known to the Civil Service unions if an early resolution of the problem is to be achieved.
Everyone must welcome the emergency Bill as making a small contribution towards curing the chaos in the Scottish courts system. It is deplorable that we have had to wait for several weeks of an emergency for this Bill to be introduced. There is nothing in the Bill that could not have been introduced when the dispute began. All its provisions were as relevant then as they are now. All the Bill's provisions would have made a contribution from the moment the strike began in February. We must, and are entitled to, know why the House and the country have had to wait so long for the Government to bring forward this measure. Is the delay due to the fact that the Secretary of State and his Cabinet colleagues were not willing to allow it to come forward? Has there been disagreement within the Government and the Labour Party, or between both? We must assume that there are circumstances now which did not prevail two weeks ago and which have resulted in the legislation now being brought forward.
We are entitled to suspect that, but for the pressure being brought by the Opposition, this Bill might not, even now, have surfaced and that not even this small and modest contribution towards dealing with the chaos in the Scottish courts would have been attempted.
The Secretary of State said—I believe him—that the Bill would make a modest contribution towards helping to solve the problem. It is a miserable shame that that contribution was not made two weeks ago when the strike began, as we might now have seen the fruits of the Bill and its benefits to the overall situation.
The dispute is part of a general Civil Service dispute. It is not simply that the courts are on strike. Many Government officers are taking similar industrial action. The computer at the Scottish Office is not functioning. A significant amount of harm is being done. It was reported that as a result of the industrial action neither teachers' pensions nor benefits to teachers' dependants were being paid. We know of old-age pensioners being denied payment of national savings certificates and premium bonds, apart from other grievances. These actions are taken by trade unionists against fellow trade unionists. We are entitled to comment on the sad way in which the situation has deteriorated in recent months.
I know of one somewhat amusing consequence of the industrial dispute. The Secretary of State, quite correctly, announced last Friday that officials in the Scottish Office must do certain work that was otherwise normally done by their striking colleagues. A certain Mr. Ken Thomas, a leading Civil Service trade unionist, said that this was a disgraceful suggestion and that if the Government insisted on carrying on in this way his union would consider taking legal action. It clearly had not dawned on Mr. Ken Thomas that it would be somewhat difficult in present circumstances for him to take legal action, because his own trade unionists were preventing anyone from taking any legal action on any issue anywhere in Scotland for the foreseeable future. That illustrates the ludicrous state of our industrial relations.
We shall obviously have an opportunity in Committee to consider the contents of the Bill, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) that, if the Government wish to supersede the clear terms of the Bill, it is deplorable that they have not put their desire into the Bill. The Bill specifically, and without qualification, gives the judges the right to authorise other persons to carry out certain work. The Secretary of State is right in saying that there is an amendment dealing with that matter, but it is an Opposition amendment, not a Government amendment. Unless the Government intend to accept that amendment—and, if they do, they should have indicated so at an earlier stage—the Secretary of State is saying, in effect, that a fundamental matter of Executive interference with the judiciary is to take place not by Act of Parliament but contrary to the apparent implications of an Act of Parliament. That is not a sound basis for legislation, and I hope that the Secretary of State will reflect on it.
The hon. Member for Garscadden referred to those of us who believe that the time has come for certain limitations to be made on industrial action by certain public sector officials. He indicated that, it the court officials were on strike, the position was no worse than when strike action was taken by other groups. I suggest, with respect, that it is quite different. The hon. Gentleman knows that for many years the Army and the police force have not had the right to take industrial action. The reason for that has not been a philosophical distinction made by Parliament, or by successive Governments of all political views, but that it has been appreciated that the job of the Army and of the police is that of law and order. If those whose special responsibility it is to ensure law and order and the fabric of our society are to withdraw their labour, not only are problems and inconvenience caused for the public but the very sinews of the State are endangered and the very cohesion of society is threatened.
To a real extent, those involved in the administration of the courts are in an identical position. The job of the police cannot be looked at in isolation from the job of the courts. The police and the courts are two sides of the same coin. It is the job of the police, if they apprehend people, to ensure that they are brought to court so that their alleged offences may be dealt with. It cannot be said that it is right for the police to be prevented from striking, because otherwise they would not be able to catch criminals, but that nevertheless it is all right for the courts to stop functioning in such a way that there is no means by which society can deal with the criminals once they have been apprehended by the police.
I do not want to be put in the position of saying that I think that a strike in the courts is unimportant. I do not think that, because it has serious consequences. But there is an important point of difference between the police and the court strikers. If the police go on strike, there will be crimes committed and those concerned will not be apprehended or detected. There will, indeed, then be a fundamental effect on the fabric of society. Unpleasant though it is, there are already some very long delays in the administration of justice. I deplore the fact that the necessity to withdraw labour will lengthen those delays, but at least justice will be done, even if it is delayed. With the time-bar provisions of the Bill, people will be able to exercise their rights and criminal trials will take place. It is not the same as it would be with a police strike, in which event there would be a once and for all loss of detection and of law enforcement.
The hon. Member is wrong, with respect, on two fundamental counts. Charges have already been dropped in some cases specifically because of this strike action. For the most part, these have so far been relatively minor charges, but the courts have been on strike for only a fortnight. What will happen if the strike continues for three months, as the civil servants are threatening? Clearly we might well be in a position in which a large number of other charges will be dropped, not because of any inadequacy of evidence or because the prosecuting authorities now believe that the persons concerned are innocent and entitled to be acquitted, but because the courts are not in a position to carry out their duty. That is the first flaw in the hon. Member's argument.
The second flaw in the hon. Member's argument is even more grave. This year, for the first time in the 400 years of the courts' existence in Scotland, court officials are on strike. Who is to say that it will not happen next year and the year after that? Who is to say that we are not reaching a stage at which it will be normal not only for car workers, miners and those in manufacturing industry to go on strike but also those involved in the administration of the State and the administration of justice? We seem to be reaching a stage at which it is regarded as perfectly proper for them, as a matter of course, to assume that, whenever they have a grievance against any Government, it is perfectly proper for them to withdraw their labour and thereby bring the courts to a halt.
Are we to say that we are quite willing to anticipate, for the foreseeable future, every year the courts ceasing to operate for two or three weeks? Is not this an invitation to a system of industrial relations which would bring exactly the same destructive consequences as would arise from allowing industrial action to be taken by the police or the Armed Forces? We are dealing here not simply with public servants but with public servants the nature of whose employment is concerned with the very fabric of the State and without whom the State cannot continue. It is not unreasonable in such circumstances for the community to apply to those persons the same restrictions as it has applied for many years to the police and the Armed Forces.
As I said in the debate last week, we have seen the nurses, a group with a legitimate grievance, nevertheless refusing to inhibit or destroy the interests of the community in their pursuit of that grievance. I am glad that the Government have responded in a more generous way than they did originally. They have made an offer to the nurses of what is said to be about 13 per cent., a figure far greater than was originally offered. That was not because the nurses went on strike. Indeed, in many ways the Government are far more embarrassed and put in a far more difficult position by employees who refuse to go on strike, because of their sense of public duty, and despite their deep sense of grievance, than they are by the sort of action taken by these civil servants at the present time.
We have to find a new system of industrial relations, but in the meantime, as long as this industrial action continues the Bill, puny effort though it is, is a modest contribution to ensuring that the very minimum capacity of the courts is allowed to continue for the foreseeable future.
There are one or two remarkable features of the debate. The most remarkable is that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) and one or two others have totally failed to appreciate the extreme seriousness of the position that we are discussing.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) put his finger firmly on the problem when, speaking from the experience of one who has been in this House for longer than most of us, he pointed out the extremely serious nature of what we are discussing. Here we have the Government—admittedly in their dying days—introducing emergency legislation to suspend a number of our usual liberties under the law, in order to enable or help them to break a strike. That is the purpose of the Bill.
It is amazing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) pointed out, that this has taken place with virtually no attendance by Labour Back Benchers. Apart from the hon. Member for Gascadden and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who made a very useful contribution to our discussions, no one else has been present on the Labour Back Benches. That in itself is a most important point that should be registered and realised because it says a great deal about why we have got to the point where the Bill is necessary at all.
The Secretary of State and the Lord Advocate are right, of course, to bring in the Bill. It is absolutely necessary. Let them never have to say that in their hour of need the Opposition refused to support them. It is perhaps not unfair of me to add, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I can remember many other Oppositions within the last 15 years who would not have dreamt of raising a finger to help a Government in this position. If there had been any faces on the Labour Benches. I would have expected them to be blushing scarlet at that remark, because the irresponsibility of all Labour Members, from the Prime Minister downwards, during previous far less serious industrial disputes in the early 1970s has been thrown back in their faces today, for we have today a Socialist Secretary of State—perhaps I should correct that and say a Secretary of State in a Socialist Government—coming to this House with legislation to help him to break a strike.
It is not an isolated instance, nor is it accidental, nor, as the hon. Member for Garscadden would like to think, is it a small local difficulty that can be shrugged aside. It is an inevitable consequence of the policies, attitudes and organisation of the Labour Government over the past six or seven years. Day in and day out, week in and week out, they have encouraged militancy. Moderate and sensible Members of the Labour Party have been seen on picket lines supporting various illegal causes. We warned them many times over the past years where this would lead. With the Bill we see one of the milestones that we feared and have been warning against for so long.
I well remember when we started on the new and deplorable chapter in our history. It was when the previous Labour Government, led by the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), condoned the activities of the rent rebels of Clay Cross and Clydebank. That was done in the face of the law, by using law officers, and it devalued the standards of impartiality of the law. They are aware of that and are embarrassed. Compared to this issue it was trivial, yet that was the first step, and what has followed is inevitable. Worse will follow unless the community as a whole, including the Labour Party, comes to its senses. It must realise that in a civilised society the rule of law, support for the rule of law, and the supremacy and independence of the rule of law and the judiciary must be placed above party interests, Unless that is done we shall look back to this day, which is sufficiently grave, and consider that it was not so bad. There will be worse to come.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland rightly struck a note of alarm about what the Secretary of State was doing. Although I support what the Secretary of State is doing, I do not condone the events that have led us to this position.
At the centre of the problem we must consider why respectable—and reasonable—members of society, such as those who work in our judicial system, the sheriff clerks and their officers and officials, take such action. Those of us who come into contact with them have a great respect for them. Their work is of a high standard. I have always believed that officers of a court were professionally competent and had a high standard of conduct. But these responsible and respectable members of society have been driven to the desperate strait of withdrawing their labour—although that phrase is not appropriate when applied to such workers.
They have been driven to that, first, by realising that in society ordered by a Labour Government it pays hand over fist to use industrial strength. Those who use it get more money, and those who do not use it do not get more money. Although I believe that it is wrong, they feel that unless they take such action they will not be heard by the Government. I have told all those to whom I have spoken that I wish they would go back to work and that they should never have gone on strike, although I appreciate the feelings that led to that action.
Secondly, the Government have been leading the country to this position over the past five or six years. They have made it clear that they do not appreciate the feelings of responsible members of society. It is therefore essential for people to look after their own interests and ignore the standards of public service that previously they had taken for granted as part of their careers and of the past history of their jobs. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) rightly drew our attention to the fact that we have not only rights but obligations.
After years of inflation and difficulty, I wonder how many categories of people genuinely believe that they are undervalued, underpaid and ignored. There are not hundreds but thousands all over the country, and one does not have to look far from here to find them. The message of the Government is that these categories of workers will not be listened to unless they act irresponsibly, and the Government are reaping the harvest of that irresponsibility. They richly deserve every embarrassing moment as the Bill inches its way through the House.
The Labour Benches have misrepresented, intentionally or unintentionally, the views of almost every speaker from this side of the House. I thoroughly sympathise with the feelings of those who are striking in the courts, but I do not condone their decision to strike. I wish that they would go back to work at once, and my sympathy will be 10 times greater when they do so.
I am sure that the Government never wished to get into this position. They will not agree with much of what I say, but they should consider carefully our views. In the quietness and solitude of their homes they should consider whether every word is not true. They have brought upon themselves these grave consequences by breaching the sacred principle that in a democratic free society the rule and practice of law, and the judiciary that crowns the rule of law, are sacrosanct and must remain so over sectional interests, personal wishes and party politics. That is the long-term message of this grim day. I hope that the Government will take it to heart.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) that this is a grim day. It is indeed. He did well to emphasise that the Government today are reaping what they sowed. They have encouraged militancy at every point from the day when the Leader of the House gave way to the miners five years ago. Every day that has passed since then, they have encouraged people to think that might is right and that if a person causes enough trouble and misery he will get his way.
None the less, although the Government deserve what they have got, the people of this country do not. We should be sympathising with them. It is with great regret that I support this Bill, but I do support it. In doing so I shall make two points briefly, because I spoke on this matter during the debate last week.
First, we all know that the civil servants involved, particularly those at the lower end of the scale, have a substantial point in their claim. I am referring not to the sheriff clerks on £10,000 a year but to those who are being paid the almost incredible sum of £1,600 a year. But whether they are justified in their claim, they are certainly not justified in the actions that they are taking to achieve that claim. That is an absolute truth—the claim may be justified but the actions cannot be justified.
One reason why they cannot be justified is that they are causing too much misery. In fact, the misery they are causing is out of all balance with the difference between what these people are being paid now and what they would be paid. My hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) gave one example of the misery.
Another reason why the action is out of all proportion to the claim is that the civil servants are putting at risk something which is much too important—the very fabric of law and order. Justice must be above all other interests. It was typical of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) that he sought to equate the disruption of justice with the disruption of our lorry transport system. That shows his total misunderstanding of the gravity of the situation that we are debating today.
My second point is that civilised society cannot exist if the law cannot be enforced. That is what we are seeing now—the law is not being enforced, whether it is a case of a child going to her mother or whether a breach of the road traffic regulations is dropped. One or two shoplifting cases have been dropped, and crimes are being committed which will not even be tried. Unless we can enforce the law, we cannot support civilised society.
A number of us have been subjected to a bit of misunderstanding on these matters. The hon. Member for Garscadden paid me what he thought was a compliment the other day when he said that I was advancing a surprisingly liberal attitude on a certain matter. I said then that the civil servants involved in the dispute had a perfect right to strike. Personally, I am extremely reluctant to remove the right to strike from anyone. This is one of the ultimate safeguards of the individual vis-a-vis the State, big employers or other groups. I believe that more emphasis should be put on the individual and less on the big groups such as the trade unions, the employers or the State. But, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) pointed out, this might be the first of many strikes that we see in the courts, horrifying prospect though that is. If civil servants see that they are getting away with it, they may try it again. Therefore, society must be prepared to take steps to protect itself against that happening.
It could be argued that a precedent is required. If so, the police do not have the right to strike. Therefore, why is it wrong to take from those who run the courts the right to strike? The Scottish National Party claims that in saying this we are saying that all strikes should be abolished. That is so ridiculous that I would not bother to mention it, but no doubt The Scotsman will put it in big headlines tomorrow, together with photographs of SNP Members who are not even here. Of course that is not what we are saying.
I hope that the Conservative Party will make it clear in the next manifesto that we think that the right to strike should be exchanged in this instance for a guarantee that the pay of these civil servants is kept up to standard. We are taking away one right and giving another—that of guaranteed payment. That is a fair deal for the civil servants, and society would benefit. We cannot go on as we are at the moment.
For those reasons, I hope that the House will support the Bill.
I shall speak for only a few moments in welcoming this Bill. We accept its introduction into the House, however reluctantly, because this is such a serious situation. It is incredible that in 1979 we have to produce emergency regulations to sustain justice in Scotland. However, the Bill only puts justice into limbo. It does not provide it as speedily as it should be provided.
My hon. Friends were right to highlight the fact that this Government's actions over the past five years are coming home to roost. I have made my position clear on many of the points which I raised in the debate last week. At 6.59 p.m. in that debate the Lord Advocate said that he would reply to those points as quickly as possible. At the time he had only another minute to go, so I have been waiting ever since in keen anticipation of his replies. Some have been answered by the Secretary of State today and I am grateful for that. I hope that the Government will spell out in the winding-up speech a much broader picture for the general public in Scotland so that they can appreciate exactly what will happen when the Bill passes into law and how their problems will be affected.
I know that Government policy is to play this in as low a key as possible and pretend that nothing is happening, but I hope that we and the press will emphasise that justice is not taking place in our country at present. The Government must explain the situation loudly and clearly to the people of Scotland and allay their fears. They must spell out the position on civil actions. The Secretary of State indicated that everything is now retrospective to 23 February, but he must spell out how this affects those who were on the verge of bringing actions at that time. Are any cases time-barred by the dilatory action of the Government in introducing the Bill?
I asked the Lord Advocate last week about motoring cases. I am sure that he would have replied if the time had been available. Many people who are to be prosecuted for minor cases have forwarded their licences to the court. On the days that their cases should have been heard, their licences were temporarily suspended for the period of the hearings. The clerks are now on strike and cannot return their licences. What is the validity of the licences from the day on which the cases should have been heard? There are many people in that difficult position who would like to know where they stand.
I appreciate that the reason why we are having this debate is that jury trials cannot take place. I should like to bring home to the Lord Advocate and the Secretary of State that a number of men who are presently awaiting trial in prisons have to be retained under high security. That places a greatly added burden on our short-staffed prison service, and I hope that the Secretary of State will bear that in mind.
I asked the Lord Advocate about cases that require speedy justice, for example, football hooligans. An offence on a Saturday requires justice, it possible, on the following Monday or Tuesday Presumably, these cases will go into the pile and it may be six months before they are heard or perhaps they will be dropped If they are heard, it will be after a long delay that the witnesses will have to recall what happened and the speedy administration of justice will not take place.
Many of my hon. Friends are concerned about clause 2, the timetable and when the strike will be concluded. Where do the Government stand today in relation to negotiations? How near are they to resolving the strike? No hon. Member has condoned the strike—we have all criticised it strongly. We appreciate that it has to come to a conclusion and that it has to be negotiated by the present Government. We have heard statements from Ministers—particularly from the Lord Privy Seal—and from the unions. These statements conflict. Surely the matter can be resolved and explained to the House today. Obviously the Government believe that they are right, but the case of the unions cannot be so blatantly incorrect that it should be thrown out without a fair discussion. I should like the Lord Advocate, when he winds up the debate, to explain where we stand and what will happen next. When will the Lord Privy Seal hold his next meeting? Or will the Secretary of State hold the next meeting?
The union seems to be saying that it will not accept staged increases of the various types that the Government have put forward over recent months. It is demanding the full increase now. The Government, of course, have made out the case for the other side. Will the Lord Advocate spell out today what measures will be taken for the resolution of the strike and the length of time that the Act will be in force? That is crucial to the debate.
I join my colleagues in wishing the Bill a speedy passage today. But the Government must not in any way try to reduce their responsibility for the existence of the strike and for their dilatoriness in bringing the Bill before the House.
The processes of justice in Scotland have suffered a coronary attack as a result of the dispute. No hon. Member should be under any misapprehension about that. Considerable distress has been caused by the strike, not just for those accused of crimes, whose legal rights might be at issue, but also for those who are dependent upon the courts' confirmation of resources with which to run their households. Legal actions for debt have also been held up. These are important matters which have had an impact upon the daily lives of our citizens.
Apart from the provisions of the Bill, it is important that the dispute should be solved as quickly as possible. I should like to refer to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro). Clearly, the backlog of work which will affect the courts will continue long after the dispute is resolved. There have been complaints time and again about delays in certain sheriff courts. Questions are tabled every month about visits to the sheriff court in Glasgow because of the insufficiency of the facilities provided there to deal with the backlog.
I had hoped that when the Criminal Justice Bill became an Act indictable proceedings would have been concluded within one year. That Bill still has to go through the House and Report stage and it is now under severe scrutiny and attack because of the inability of the authorities to be able to put it into effect if it is enacted in its present form.
Will the Government re-examine the confusion that has developed about backdating? Much criticism has been made of those who withdrew their labour prior to the date of negotiation—1 April 1979. But if there was no question of backdating a future awards, the negotiations had to start before 1 April. Otherwise, those employed in the sheriff courts and in the quarter sessions would lose backdated increases in pay if the settlement was not achieved until, for example, May or June. A clear statement should be made by the Government that any settlement will be back-dated to 1 April. That might well be conducive to the ending of the dispute.
Most of the clauses in the Bill contain proposals to lessen the effects of the emergency and can be seen to have some potential effect. But clause 5 raises problems—apart from the embarrassing ones raised earlier that it may involve us in a"blacklegs' charter ", which worried the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), even if clause 5 permitted judges to employ authorised persons to carry out certain proceedings within the courts, where will the skilled labour be obtained to put it into effect? My experience of sheriff clerks—I have no experience of quarter sessions officials—is that they are very skilful. Their advice about court procedure is called upon day in and day out by solicitors. They have picked up practical knowledge, apart from their theoretical training, about the procedures of courts and how they should be conducted.
The High Court of Justiciary has also made clear in certain appeals that the procedures adopted in lower courts are particularly important, not just in relation to their adjectival nature but because the accuracy of the minute-taking of the proceedings may be important in relation to an appeal.
I cannot see any person, whether legally qualified or not, being able to take up the skilled work done in the sheriff courts. The Secretary of State—or the Lord Advocate—owes the House an explanation of what the Government have in mind in connection with the enabling powers conferred by the Bill.
I should like to mention in passing one amendment that has not been selected for debate.
In that case, I shall have to raise the matter in the clause stand part debate—a course which I had wished to avoid.
The real problem in relation to clause 5 will be finding professional and skilled people who will be able to give help. My hon. Friend the Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson) was right when he said that amateurs taking over the work could cause more confusion than if they were not brought in. Bringing in people from outside must be a last resort to deal with cases that a sheriff may identify as emergencies requiring urgent attention.
It is sad that we have to deal with this sort of legislation, but in relation to certain civic rights—the 110-day rule and the triennial prescription—some action is urgently desirable.
I intend to be very brief. I appear to be the last speaker from the Back Benches and hon. Members no doubt wish to get on to the Committee stage.
It is important to point out that, on this serious day for our country, the main contributions in the debate have come from Scottish Tories. There have been fleeting entrances and speeches by members of the minor parties, but the Government Benches have been notoriously empty and contributions from them have been notoriously scarce in this vital debate.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), who is muttering from a sedentary position, entered the Chamber for the first time only a minute ago.
What worries me is the difference between the way that my hon. Friends are reacting now and the way that the Labour Party reacted in 1974 in circumstances that were not all that dissimilar from those that we face today. That leads me on to worry about the refusal, or the inability, of the Labour Party to do anything about passing any legislation about the growing and dangerous power of certain trade union elements, such as outlined by the Leader of the Opposition.
If the Labour Party is ever to govern again after it has lost the next election, some day and somehow it will have to face the monster that it has created.
All I can say is that that must have something to do with Scotch mist or the fact that they have a different type of clock in the Western Isles. Unlike those from the islands, we do believe in the time-machine.
If I may conclude my short speech, I repeat that if the Labour Party is ever to govern again after it has lost the next election, I hope that it will support us if we run into this sort of situation or that it will decide how to deal with the monster that it has created. It is with some reluctance and sadness that my party and I will support the Government in this unfortunate legislation.
An hon. Member said earlier that the House wanted a speedy passage of the Bill. He will have to study the meaning of the word"speedy ". If I call the Opposition spokesman now, I shall call the Lord Advocate afterwards. I had better call the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North, who has not heard the arguments. If he should repeat the arguments that have already been made, I shall have to accuse him of reiteration. I hope that he will try to keep his speech as brief as possible.
I understood that there was unanimity on the need to get the Bill through. Had the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Fairgrieve) not been so provocative in his remarks, I should not have felt compelled to rise.
It is not good enough for Conservative Members simply to blame the Government for the present series of events. We are desperately looking to the Opposition for a statement about how they would deal with the position. We should be told specifically whether the Conservatives are in favour of the implementation of the work of the Pay Research Unit.
We have been trying to get such statements from the Opposition for many months. I am as entitled as any other Member to ask what is the Opposition's policy before their spokesman winds up the debate. I am surprised if Tory Members think that that is undemocratic.
The Opposition will get nowhere by trying to avoid the questions. Are they in favour of the implementation of the PRU? If they are opposed to strikes in the courts, where else are they prepared to say that strikes should be illegal? What is it that makes them say that the democratic right of individuals—[Interruption.] Why are hon. Gentlemen opposite so upset at being asked to answer simple questions? Do they have something to hide?
The only thing that is upsetting the House is that we have been discussing this matter for some three and a half hours and the hon. Gentleman has not been here. If the Government put up Back Benchers to filibuster, they cannot expect to get their legislation today.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have not been put up here by anybody to filibuster, nor is it my intention to do so. If Conservative Members are as anxious as we are to get the Bill through, it would be far better if they would allow me to make this brief speech without interruption.
Are the Conservatives saying that in this or any other area they are in favour of making strikes illegal? The fact that people are taking the attitude that in whatever circumstances they operate they will go on strike to get the best possible bargain is a reflection on the kind of information that has been coming from the Benches opposite. They are the people who have been talking about"free collective bargaining ", and if there is free collective bargaining people have the right to use what weapons they have and what influence they have to get the best possible bargain. I do not think that the Opposition should be absolved from responsibility for the damage that they did by removing from the Government the possibility of applying sanctions against firms and industry.
I certainly would not cancel any contracts, because we are in a different situation. Tory Members are saying that the Government should not try to bring any influence to bear on those concerned, but at the same time they want the Government to take direct action. It is curious that the Conservative Party is for ever telling the Labour Party, and certain sections of it in particular, that it is seeking to turn this country into some kind of central mid-European State behind the Iron Curtain. Those are the only countries that have the kind of control of the economic situation that is demanded by the Tory Benches. There is a contradiction there which they cannot and will not resolve.
It is my belief that the best way to proceed in this matter and on this strike is to get agreement as quickly as possible. The passage of the Bill will not by itself resolve the problem, but it will resolve other matters in the legal system which have to be resolved.
The provocative speeches of Conservative Members—[HON. MEMBERS:"No ".] I think that I have touched a raw nerve. They are upset because they have made these speeches time and time again. [HON. MEMBERS:"Withdraw ".] I shall not withdraw my remarks, but I give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that we do have a raw nerve on this side of the House, bearing in mind that one of the most important fundamental Bills to come before the House of Commons has been discussed with one Labour Back Bencher present and one Labour Back Bencher speaking. I regard it as an affront to the people of Scotland that on such an important issue we are listening to this last-minute contribution by an hon. Member who walked into the Chamber only five minutes before he spoke.
I thought that the hon. Gentleman did not want us to speak, so what is he complaining about? I am trying to get answers from hon. Gentlemen opposite, and no amount of dancing around and jumping and hopping from one foot to another will prevent the questions being asked, and they really ought to answer them.
I hope that when the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) winds up the debate he will tell us specifically how he would deal with the situation, otherwise people will be certain that they are only up to mischief-making, and they will not be any the better regarded in Scotland for that.
I listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) with astonishment because it appears that he was addressing the Conservative Opposition as though they were the Government. Perhaps this is merely a sign of the times and opposition comes more naturally to the hon. Gentleman than government. I am bound to say, however, that if he had heard my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) speak he would have learnt that at that time there were virtually only five Scottish Labour Members of Parliament in the House of Commons, although there are 41 Scottish Labour Members of Parliament; and for most of this debate very few Labour Members have been present. I think that that is a matter for comment.
As the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson) said, this is a United Kingdom dispute, and it is obviously a matter of supreme importance because it is vital to protect the rights and freedoms of every British citizen, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) has said.
The Secretary of State stressed in his speech that the courts are a forum in which justice must be sought. Again and again today, throughout the debate, one point has been made by hon. Members—the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), the hon. Member for Galloway, my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) and for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) and the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson)—in relation to clause 5, namely, whether the authorisation for the clause comes directly from the Secretary of State or whether these powers are being given to the judges so that they may use their discretion.
I accept what the Secretary of State has said, that the intention is not to have a strike-breaking or blacklegging clause, but I implore him to look very hard indeed at amendment No. 2, because it makes it absolutely clear that the decisions in this matter must come directly from him. It is highly desirable that that amendment should be passed so that there may be no doubt about this matter.
The hon. Gentleman has talked about clause 5 and amendment No. 2. The effect would be that before outsiders could be brought into the courts there would have to be a policy decision by the Secretary of State as distinct from individual sheriffs. Will the hon. Gentleman say a little about when the Conservative Party thinks that that option should be used? Is he in favour of using it at once?
The hon. Gentleman is being extremely irresponsible, because he stated earlier that, in his view, many lawyers thought that employing volunteers at this stage was not desirable. I suggest to the hon. Member that many lawyers want the action to come from the Secretary of State, but only when it is absolutely necessary. I am not suggesting for a moment that it is absolutely necessary now, but if this strike goes on indefinitely for up to six months the mood among the legal profession in Scotland may change. I think that all of us on both sides of the House hope that this strike will end.
The right hon. Member for the Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) stressed the seriousness of this matter and he in the last debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Pentlands in this debate made it quite clear that there is more sympathy for the nurses' claim and the restraint they have exercised than there is for the clerks.
The hon. Members for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) and for Aberdeen, North are so desperately anxious to discover what the Conservative Party policy is that I must tell them straight away that it would be wrong and misleading for us to try to outbid the Government in buying off the strike. We do not see that as our role at all, and my hon. Friends the Members for Ayr, for Edinburgh, North (Mr. Fletcher) and for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) all said that strikes will continue for as long as the Government are willing, or anybody is willing, to pay to those striking the maximum they are asking for. That is a situation which we deplore. We believe very strongly that there should be speedy negotiation, and we certainly want the general situation reviewed.
In a number of categories of employment, strike action is against the national interest. My hon. Friend the Member for Pentlands has given the examples of the police and the Army. There is no question of our banning strikes under compulsion. We would seek to obtain the agreement of those in certain positions—for example, those who work in the courts—to surrender their right to strike in exchange for a system of wage payments which would ensure that they would not fall behind and which would be entirely satisfactory from their point of view. This can be done only by negotiation and agreement.
As for the Pay Research Unit, we strongly support the principle of its continuance, but it would be quite wrong for us to engage in a Dutch auction, in the course of a serious industrial dispute, about the timing of the implementation of its report.
I have been asked a number of questions, and I wish to ask the Lord Advocate one question. In the last debate I passed on to the Government the offer made by Mr. Bonar, the secretary of the SCPS branch of the Court of Session. In the debate on 13 March, I mentioned that Mr. Bonar had explained that
if a guarantee of meaningful negotiations on the Pay Research Unit report was made the national executive councils of the CPSA and SCPS would be called to consider the request of the Secretary of State to call the action off in the Scottish courts."—[Official Report, 13 March 1979; Vol. 964, c. 334.]
What consideration has been given by the Government to this aspect? Will the Lord Advocate give the House a general progress report on the present position?
I wish to return more closely to the Bill itself. Clause 2 presumably deals with time-bar and prescription, areas of the law which are dealt with by the Prescription and Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973. These prescriptive periods run from the moment when certain rights become enforceable. The word"enforceable"may cause trouble because, in the first week of the strike, no summonses were signeted and, therefore, no rights were enforceable at that time and they could not be enforced in the courts.
A question may arise later as to when any prescriptive period starts to run. Does it start when the courts are closed, or when the right could be enforced through the bringing of an action? The Law Society of Scotland has suggested that the time limit should be two months. The Law Society takes the same point as was made by the hon. Member for Dundee, East, namely, that there will be a tremendous backlog of cases. I hope that the Lord Advocate will let the House know what policy will be pursued on that point.
I must also ask the Lord Advocate about fiscal measures not covered by clause 2. Yesterday I was given a satisfactory answer by the Minister of State, Treasury, who I am glad to see is present. He said:
The Board of Inland Revenue will be prepared to extend the time limit as necessary to cover cases where it is satisfied that the distribution could reasonably be expected to have been made by 31 March 1979 if the industrial
action had not taken place."—[Official Report, 19 March 1979; Vol. 964, c. 446–7.]
Will that concession be extended to all other fiscal cases which may be similarly involved?
Furthermore, capital transfer tax is also causing problems. For example, if a shopkeeper dies and his will cannot be confirmed because the Commissary Office is on strike, it is important that that aspect should be covered. Under the present law CTT must be paid before confirmation is taken. This means that many people have to pay a large sum and cannot get the money because they are unable to sell the shop in question. Therefore, they have to take a vast loan and to pay a great deal of interest. I understand that the Treasury is taking a sympathetic view and is organising repayments. Will the Lord Advocate confirm that?
Clause 3 is a worrying clause. Its effect is that untried prisoners will be locked up on an indefinite basis as long as the strike continues. These powers are draconian, but unfortunately they are absolutely necessary. It is particularly worrying that the courts have no power to review the position.
How many persons in Scotland accused of serious crimes in the High Court are acquitted? Is the figure in the past 10 years 20, 30 or 40 per cent.? If the Lord Advocate examines the number of persons charged with murder, rape, incest or any other serious offence he will see that a considerable number have been released. If such people are to be kept indefinitely in prison without trial, it raises a difficult issue. The European convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms states:
Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be deprived of his liberty save in the following cases and in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law ".
Everyone arrested or detained…shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorised by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release pending trial.
That is impossible under the Bill. It seems that there is only a limited number of possibilities. One would be to let accused murderers go free on the streets—which would not be acceptable to any of us. Another would be to allow those
who are accused of serious crimes, if they so wished, to elect for trial before a judge sitting without a jury. An amendment has been tabled to that effect. The other possibility is that a person stays in prison for an indefinite period of time pending trial. It may also mean that people who may otherwise have been kept in prison before trial will be released on bail and that more people would be released on bail than would normally be the case. Perhaps the Lord Advocate will say how that clause will work in practice.
Why is there no mention in clause 4 of the Court of Session? Where a proof may be held during the emergency, an interlocutor will be pronounced allowing proof of trial, and in the practice in the Court of Session this interlocutor contains a warrant to cite witnesses.
Clause 5 relates to a most sensitive matter with which the Lord Advocate will have to deal, namely, whether he will agree to amendment No. 2. Even if there is only the faintest possibility of volunteers being required in the near future—indeed, there is a strong possibility of this happening in the next few weeks—it is important that the authorisation must come directly from the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns has already stressed the independence of the judiciary. This is a most valued principle and must not be undermined.
Clause 5(2) deals with copies of documents lodged in court. Does the phrase
copy of any document lodged in court
mean a copy of any document already lodged in court prior to the strike? After all, it seems that only such documents would be inaccessible. Does the clause envisage that the judge would decide at proof whether the document is admissible and that it would remain admissible subject to proof that it is not a true copy? For example, I refer to a case in which there is a dispute about a document not being genuine. In such a case, where does the onus of proof lie?
In regard to clause 5(3), why are the words"failure or omission"used? Why not"acting or omission "? Could some acting of a judge invalidate proceedings? Perhaps the Lord Advocate could give the House his view. If assistants are volunteers, will they be paid by the State? If not, will they be protected from civil liability as a result of the consequences of volunteering? For example, if a volunteer who was not an expert were to lose a document, would he be liable under the civil law for damages?
One area of grave concern that is not covered is that of confirmation. The Law Society of Scotland has made representations on this point. I hope that the Lord Advocate will take these matters into account. The special committee set up by the Law Society states that it is
aware of many instances where a widow is either suffering dire financial hardship or is being obliged to pay penal rates of overdraft interest because of the inability of her solicitor to obtain confirmation to her late husband's estate because of the present industrial action…From the point of view of the solicitor the present inability to obtain confirmation also brings to a standstill estate planning.
Many of these matters are highly technical, but where constituents are involved and make complaints it is worth considering how these clauses will operate in practice.
In regard to the Stamp Act, will the Lord Advocate say whether he considers a period of three months to be adequate? It may well be that it is too short. Do the provisions of clause 6, in line 37, mean that a deed has to be"duly stamped"with a nil penalty at the most if there is a good reason for delay? Is it the case that the clause does not deal with deeds requiring to be stamped but which will not be recorded? I hope that we shall discuss these matters in much greater detail in a moment.
This is a worrying Bill because in many respects it is the legal equivalent of martial law. If the strike continues for a prolonged period, it will be necessary to review this legislation. Rushed legislation is not always the best. I ask the Lord Advocate to review these matters in the light of experience in the coming weeks and months.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear—and I think other hon. Members have taken the point—the object of the Bill is not to cure all ills created by the present stoppage in the courts. It is restricted, firstly, to preserving rights which would otherwise be irretrievably lost. Secondly, the Bill is aimed at continuing some functions of the courts to deal with matters of special immediacy and to maintain continuity in the machinery of justice. In other words, it is a fort-holding operation.
I think it has been recognised by hon. Members who have taken part in the debate that the courts have a unique position as the universal place of recourse for redress of injustice and that that function must be given and allowed to be fulfilled.
I shall obviously not be able to reply to all the points raised, in the debate—[HON. MEMBERS:"Why not? "]—because it would take me a very long time. It may please hon. Members if I say that I shall pick out the main points that I think I can now answer off the cuff. I do not think that Opposition Members would want a hasty answer to some of the detailed points that have been raised. I do not want to bore hon. Members—even those opposite—and I hope, therefore, that some points that I do not answer will be picked up when we come to debate the clauses. I am sure that that is the appropriate way to deal with the matter.
I welcome what the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) said about accepting that clause 5 is not intended to be a strikebreaking clause. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to take the view that this confers a power on judges to make the appointments to which the subsection refers. The point is that the authority conferred on judges is for them to exercise at their discretion. That meets the question about qualifications. It is clearly tendered as a power which the judges should have, but it is not a strike-breaking power. The responsibility for the employment of sheriff clerks and clerks of court, as my right hon. Friend made clear, remains with the Secretary of State. That is why a matter of policy in this connection must be a matter for him.
As the Lord Advocate appreciates, I am a very simple person. I listened to the Secretary of State and to what the Lord Advocate has just said. As I recall, the Secretary of State said quite clearly—and I can be contradicted if I am wrong—that this power could not be exercised by the judges without the authority and decision of the Secretary of State. As I understood the Lord Advocate, he said that the judges can exercise this power at their discretion. In other words, the Secretary of State is saying that the judges can exercise the power only if he says"I tell you to"or"I permit you to ", and the Lord Advocate says that the judges can do it when they like. He invents the schizophrenic formula that they will use the discretion and the Secretary of State will use the policy. We must be clear what the Government mean.
I regret giving way to the hon. and learned Gentleman, because the matter is perfectly clear. [HON. MEMBERS:"It is not."] It is perfectly clear. The responsibility for policy decisions is that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and he made that absolutely clear. He said that he accepted that the responsibility of deciding whether extra personnel should be brought in to do the jobs of those who are not working was a policy decision which rested exclusively with him. It is not a matter for judges to decide.
No, I shall not give way. The matter is clear beyond a doubt. After all, we are dealing with a specific amendment which the Opposition have tabled. There seems to me to be very little purpose in dealing now with the substance and merit of an amendment which is tabled relating specifically to this point—
That is a power that the Bill clearly confers, and if a judge cares to use it he can do so.
Let me repeat what I have said, absolutely clearly and without any ambiguity. The responsibility for making any decision of policy rests firmly with the Secretary of State, and he said that. The last word that I can say on the matter at this stage is that it would be wrong for the Government to impose on judges responsibility for a matter of policy which must be the Government's responsibility.
I do not think that it would serve any useful purpose if I gave way again. I have many specific matters to answer, and I think that I should try to deal with some of them.
I am not for one moment suggesting that the points that have been put to the Government should not be answered this evening. They certainly will be. I am merely saying that if I attempt to answer all the points I shall be on my feet continuously and we shall have virtually a Committee stage. So far I have attempted to deal only with one point which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West in his closing remarks.
We have been very co-operative on the Bill. We simply want to know the position. The fact is that clause 5, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, confers the right on judges to appoint people. On the other hand, he said that the Secretary of State is reserving the right, the political decision, as to when it should start. We must know exactly what the answer is. Is he saying that the Government's policy is that clause 5 should not be operated until the Secretary of State gives the starting orders, but that, on the other hand, the clause confers on judges the right to do so? Does he intend to put a commencement order on it? Does he intend to accept our amendment? We must know whether the Government are proposing a clause which they do not want to be operated until the Secretary of State gives the go-ahead.
Then I withdraw that, because, quite frankly, I do not think that these interventions help to clarify the matter at all. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) was saying at the end of his intervention that this matter was the subject of a specific amendment. I entirely agree with him. It seems to me that the effect of his intervention was simply to prove that this matter would best be left until we deal with the specific amendment.
Let me repeat what I have said, because to this extent I think that the hon. Member for Cathcart clarified the position. The Government's view is that the appointment of personnel to carry out the work of those at present withdrawing their labour should not be started until a policy decision has been made. That is the Government's position.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West raised a number of other points. The next point that I can properly take up is the time limit of one month which is mentioned in clause 1. clause 1. Perhaps the clearest way to deal with this is to point out that the time limit of one month, which first appears in clause 1(1), is related to the time which is covered by the emergency period.
The provision at the beginning of clause 1(1) states:
This Act shall cease to be in force one month after the date prescribed by the Secretary of State by order made by statutory instrument ".
Therefore, in regard to what one might call problems of re-entry—getting back to normal after the emergency period after the strike has been settled and so on—the extent of time covered by this is a matter for the Secretary of State to take into account in the statutory instrument which he will issue in due course.
For example, the strike could end in a week's time, but it may be that the points which the hon. Gentleman had in mind would require the Secretary of State to consider a delay of one month before putting forward a statutory instrument. That would require a further period of one month before the Bill itself would lapse. Therefore, the flexibility which the hon. Gentleman thought was desirable is built into clause 1(1).
The hon. Gentleman then asked about the fiscal concession about which the Minister of State had told him in reply to a written question. In particular, he asked whether the concession made in regard to the transitional relief time limit would be extended to other fiscal time limits. I understand that the answer is, in general,"Yes"in cases where there are court proceedings and where court proceedings have led to prejudice by virtue of the strike of court personnel; in other words, where there are relevant court proceedings and where there has been some prejudice due to delay.
Will this concession be considered also for those whose relatives are unfortunate enough to die, who have to pay capital transfer tax but who cannot realise the property because they cannot get it confirmed and therefore cannot sell it and raise the money?
I think that capital transfer tax is a different matter. The hon. Gentleman specifically asked for repayments of capital transfer tax to people who are unable to get confirmation. That was what he put to me. My information is that Inland Revenue will be issuing a press notice dealing with certain points on capital transfer tax, including the point that the hon. Gentleman has just put to me.
The hon. Gentleman said that people would be locked up for considerable periods under the provisions of clause 3. That is perfectly true. He asked for the statistics of persons in Scotland who were acquitted. I am afraid that I cannot give them off the cuff, and perhaps that is another matter which could be dealt with when we consider clause 3.
Clearly, if the strike were to go on for a long period the specific problems that the hon. Gentleman put to me would require to be solved. They are very difficult and acute, and I appreciate that the Conservative Opposition have an alternative solution which they have put forward by way of amendment. The problems, certainly in the short term, are not as difficult as the hon. Gentleman made out. It is a matter of very grave regret, certainly on the Government's part, that anyone has to be kept in custody for a period longer than 110 days during the present emergency.
However, it is only right to have a sense of proportion and to realise that we in Scotland are fortunate in having such a stringent time limit. There are many other countries, including England, where this period of time would be quite acceptable and where no one would think very much about someone being kept in custody, even on serious charges, for a period very much longer than 110 days. We must have a sense of proportion about this.
Provided that the strike does not continue for a protracted period, I believe that, in regard to the amount of prejudice, although very real and unfortunate for those who at the end of the day may be acquitted, it would be exaggerating matters to maintain that it was something that would not be accepted on a European scale, especially since we have a much more stringent time limit than many of our European companion States.
I should like to try to deal briefly with some of the other matters that were raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) was right to draw attention to the fact that there appeared to be some contradiction between what was said by the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) and what I had certainly understood official Opposition policy to be in relation to industrial disputes and strikes. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West has perhaps helped to correct the possibly misleading impression that the hon. and learned Gentleman gave in that regard. Indeed, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr Rifkind) presented the Opposition view in a rather different light. It is difficult to avoid the inference that the hon. and learned Gentleman was seeking to make out that all strikes were illegal because they were the activities of highwaymen, that all combinations of persons to withdraw their labour are criminal conspiracies—
Well, I heard what I heard. The hon. and learned Gentleman seemed to imply that trade unions are unlawful because in some sense they are an expression of collective rather than individual opinion. If that is not what he meant, I am happy to accept that, but the contradiction was certainly apparent to some of us. If that is not what he intended to imply, I am happy to accept that and to pass on to some of the other points.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) asked me a question on judges, which I think I have dealt with. In any event, I would rather leave that until we consider the matter in much more detail when we come to the relevant clause. He asked about information in regard to an earlier clause—I think it was clause 4(2). I can reassure him on that matter. There is an Opposition amendment dealing with this matter—No. 10—to which the Government are sympathetic. Nevertheless, we are here dealing with a rather technical aspect of procedure, and it reflects the fact that normally when, for example, summary diets are fixed, arrangements are made by the prosecutor with the court. It is when the diet is obtained that intimation is made to the accused. Therefore, there is really no prejudice to an accused person.
One is really trying to organise court business in a rational way, and at that stage there would be very little point in intimating to an accused person that he might or might not be tried on a certain day. What he really wants to know is what day has been provisionally fixed for him to appear in court. Therefore, the question of information is perhaps not the one which the right hon. Gentleman thought he was dealing with in relation to this clause.
The right hon. Gentleman made an important point about the payment of fines. I think that one of the sheriff courts in his constituency—Shetland—is sitting normally and therefore there is no problem in regard to payment of fines. But the courts are not operating normally in Orkney. I believe that the practice which is followed in other courts is being operated there, which is that when fines are imposed the time for payment is put well ahead, in the hope that it will be entirely clear of the present industrial action.
The other point with which the Government have a lot of sympathy—it was one of the right hon. Gentleman's observations—is that here we are dealing with emergency legislation. Other hon. Members have expressed the same view. It has been correctly stated that the supreme courts of Scotland have not been closed in this fashion since 1532 when they were reorganised in the form of the Court of Session. That is a matter of great regret. But at the same time it must be recognised that there can be no justice without the courts. There can be no way of enforcing one's rights, or remedying injustice, unless some minimum relic of machinery of justice is there. That is the other side of the coin.
It is a matter of great regret, and one that I deplore very strongly, that at the moment the Scottish courts are virtually at a standstill. On the other hand, the seriousness of that state of affairs surely justifies an unusual provision such as the present emergency Bill. It is calculated to meet an emergency. In that regard it is a modest measure, because, as was pointed out, it cannot put the courts back into full action or anything like it.
The hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson) asked for reassurance about major criminals. I can reassure him that there is no question of anyone not being charged with a major crime during the present crisis. Indeed, the only change in procedure in this regard is that when the police charge or arrest someone who commits a crime which perhaps justifies imprisonment or custody, they are giving consideration to releasing such persons and reporting them to the procurator fiscal for citation, which preserves the right to bring a charge at a later date but which at the same time does not involve the problem of having such persons in custody. Arrests are taking place. Certainly fewer people are being detained in custody than there normally would be. I can give the assurance that there is no question of major criminals not being arrested. There is no question of their not being brought to trial.
That is difficult to answer in the abstract, but obviously one does not seek to arrest and detain people if that can be avoided. Fewer people involved in minor crimes will be detained. I think that the distinction between arrest and detention is important, because one might arrest someone for a minor breach of the peace. He would be taken to the police station and charged. Details would be taken and he would perhaps be warned that he would be cited, and in time he would be. The question of arrest is different from that of custody. We are trying to minimise the number of people kept in custody pending trial.
It would be unwise for me to attempt to distinguish between major and minor crimes. I cannot go beyond what I said in the debate last week, when I pointed out that dealing with certain offences has been abandoned altogether. These are minor traffic offences. They are typical of the minor cases and are, perhaps, not worth pursuing. Above that level, there is a range of traffic cases which, while undoubtedly minor, should not be abandoned. They are, however, the cases to which one does not give the same priority as to common law offences such as housebreaking or assault. Beyond that broad generalisation, one must try to pursue what is thought by most people to be criminal activity. It is difficult to regard road traffic statutory offences as major crimes.
The hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) said that he welcomed the Bill, and I am glad of that. He emphasised that this is a serious situation. He appreciated that, deplorable though it might be, the situation merits the kind of limited emergency action that we are taking in the Bill.
The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) asked many questions which I feel duty bound to try to answer because I failed to answer them on the last occasion. The Bill makes it clear that it deals only with the points that I mentioned earlier. It deals with the two vital steps which preserve rights which otherwise might be lost irretrievably—the continuation of the function of the courts in dealing with matters of special immediacy and the maintenance of the machinery and continuity of justice. It is a modest Bill, and that is all that it claims to do.
It would be wrong for me to attempt to spell out more fully at this stage what the various clauses mean. We shall deal with them in amendments. It would be wrong to suggest that the Bill is any kind of panacea for the emergency in the Scottish courts.
The hon. Member mentioned civil actions for damages provided for in clause 2. I believe that he wanted me to define the kind of civil case that the Government had in mind. The kind of case that we have in mind is that of an action for damages for personal injuries where the triennial limitation means that if an action is not started within three years from the date of the wrong complained of, the right of action is lost. The effect of clause 2 is to stop that limitation. In other words, if shortly after the start of the strike on 23 February—let us say 26 February—it was the end of a three-year period for someone who had not yet brought an action to court, clause 2, because it is retrospective, would enable that action to be started despite the fact that two years had elapsed. Perhaps that is the kind of illustration the hon. Member sought.
The hon. Gentleman asked me today, and last week, about motor vehicle licences. I am informed that there is no legal impediment to drivers who do not have their licences because they are in the court and are not returned to them because of the present industrial action. Such drivers are not prevented from driving. I assume from the way that the question was put to me that this concerns cases where licences have been sent to the court and there has been no further procedure.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the strain on prisons. I believe that he was referring to the 110-day custody period. This is a matter of importance, but all I can say at present is that the Government have it in mind. No doubt this matter can be canvassed later.
I turn to the question of football hooliganism. In Glasgow it is the practice to take football hooliganism cases in the sheriff courts. This is done to bring home to offenders the seriousness of their crime and to ensure that the sentence received is suitable. It is done so that the courts can impose high sentences for bad cases of hooliganism, penalties which could not be imposed by the district courts when lay justices are trying such cases.
In this crisis it will be possible for the district courts to deal with football hooliganism. In Glasgow, for example, stipendiary magistrates have the same sentencing powers as the sheriff. Football hooliganism cases in Glasgow can be dealt with by the stipendiary in an appropriate way. For the rest, I can say only that in the meantime the matter will have to be dealt with by the district courts which are still sitting. I am sure that I have not answered all the questions put to me.
I wish to ask the Lord Advocate about a question which he has not answered and which cannot properly be raised in Committee. He will be aware that hon. Members on both sides of the House have pressed him to clarify, on behalf of the Government, the problem created by the comment of the Secretary of State last week that any settlement that is reached after 1 April will be retrospective to 1 April. There have been requests from both sides of the House for this matter to be clarified. Will the Lord Advocate please state the Government's considered view on this?
I do not propose to answer that any further than it has already been answered. [HON. MEMBERS:"It has not been answered."] My right hon. Friend has already dealt with this. Hon. Members may not like the way in which he dealt with it, but he has dealt with it.
No, I shall not give way. The Floor of the House is not the place to conduct industrial negotiations. It has been made perfectly clear by my right hon. Friend—indeed, it was made clear in the debate last week—that these are delicate matters which are under negotiation. The Lord Privy Seal met the unions today to deal with this matter, and questions were asked of the Prime Minister during Question Time today. It would be wrong for me to attempt to add further to the replies which have been given already. This is not my responsibility. The responsibility lies with the Lord Privy Seal. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister indicated today that the questions put to him would be referred to the Lord Privy Seal. That is as far as I propose to go at present.
I refer the Lord Advocate to the passage in question so that we are not in doubt. The Secretary of State for Scotland said:
In any case, it is the intention of the Government to reach a settlement before 1 April.… I can confirm what I have just said. I do not think it is a particularly useful function to carry on negotiations on the Floor of the House. In any case, one is dealing with a hypothetical situation, because it is certainly the intention of the Government that a settlement will be reached before 1 April. In my view, however, if the negotiations go beyond 1 April, there is not reason why the settlement should not be back-dated to 1 April. That is a matter for negotiation."—[Official Report, 13 March 1979; Vol. 964, c. 289.]
Is that the Government's view?
The hon. and learned Gentleman has been helpful because he has made clear that what my right hon. Friend said is free from doubt. He may not like what my right hon. Friend said, but there can be no doubt about the clarity of it.
I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will realise that it is