The cardinal purpose of this debate is to obtain some positive answers from the Government, who so far have failed to answer clearly and definitively the questions raised by the Opposition.
The Government's infamous industrial relations legislation left a bitter taste in the mouths of many of us. The Government have sought to impose on the British trade union movement, and now exclusively on the miners, a rule of law which undermines the traditional openness and flexibility of industrial relations and negotiations with Government, industry and the trade union movement.
We are witnessing, and bitterly experiencing, probably the longest major strike in Britain this century. The miners' strike of 1984 is potentially the miners' strike of 1985, as the Government's indifference to the crisis in the coal industry in now apparent to everyone in the country —ordinary people as well as politicians.
The handling of the strike in legal terms is significant, in that the rule of law is being used against the legitimate views and actions of a trade union aspiring to fulfil the aims and objectives of its members as represented in its leadership. A paramount symptom is the Government's attempt to suppress the rights of that union and its members, with all the vigour that they can muster.
The law on sequestration and the apparently prejudiced interpretation of it by the courts is rapidly leading to the erosion of civil liberties. In the view of many of us, that will be the result of court decisions based on bad law.
In a democracy, it is imperative to strike a balance between the maintenance of public order and the legitimate right to express dissent. During the miners' strike, the law has been used to upset the traditional balance and to establish the right of the forces of law to go to extreme lengths. I am sure that during the debate my hon. Friends will give examples of civil conflict in the coal fields. There is an abundance—an encyclopaedia—of evidence that civil liberties have been trampled upon by certain actions taken in the name of the law. A climate of opinion has been created in which it is felt that such actions can be justified. Acting either on direct instructions or on some weird interpretation of the law, the police have taken that view in relation to the miners.
One does not need much imagination to see how the same attitude could be extended to other constitutional situations. At present, the miners happen to be regarded by the public as an unreasonable, dictatorial and unconstitutional force that is threatening civil law and moving towards civil disorder. People take that view because that is how the media and Government spokesmen have presented the situation. Public opinion is easily moulded by the media. It is very responsive to what the media present as normal. The presentation of certain selected items and issues by the media always has a receptive audience. That is called "normalisation".
The amount of media time given to Government spokesmen can easily influence people in the desired way. It can certainly be done; it is done. Regardless of the current dispute, we should be aware of the power of Government to manipulate public opinion through the media.
There is no point in democracy unless it can safeguard civil liberties. That is what is at issue now—not pit closures or the 5·2 per cent. The whole perspective has been changed by the Government, acting through the media. They have conditioned the minds of ordinary people to believe that there is now an aggressive force within the nation that chooses to ignore the whole spectrum of British law.
What is an economic pit? How is an economic pit to be defined? I am not talking in terms of pounds and pence, or in terms of the criterion of profits before people. Nor shall I talk about the NCB's accounting system. I worked for the NCB for 30 years, so I know about it. I worked as a unit engineer at the pits. Even there, we manipulated the figures. The figures were not distorted or untrue. As with the media, it was a matter of presentation. It is quite easy to do. The NCB does it when it fiddles the books.
The yardstick is the same. We are told that there are uneconomic local government units.
It must be more expensive to make a miner redundant than to invest properly in the coal industry. If the Government and the NCB failed to close the 20 pits, the cost to the NCB in subsidies would be £275 million per annum. If they are closed, the Government will lose a maximum of £480 million a year in redundancy payments, supplementary benefit and lost tax revenue. That ignores the additional cost of job losses in industries that supply the mining industry. All the evidence about the economic aspects of the dispute is there to be examined.
Anyone who knows the industry knows that £130 million a year is spent on pensions for past employees and that there is a subsidence charge of £245 million a year. Those charges have nothing whatever to do with operating and production costs. The board has always made an operating profit. I had to make my returns from various collieries on that basis. Overhead costs and Government interest charges were always dealth with on the other side of the page. That was the right way. The Government must understand that, on that basis, even last year with the overtime ban which lasted six weeks the board still made a profit of £1 million.
The Central Electricity Generating Board pays 40 per cent. less for coal than for oil. Examination of how the NCB books are distorted shows how greatly coal is undervalued. At the stroke of an accountant's pen, the figures are made correct. If the NCB sold its coal to the electricity board 20 per cent. rather than 40 per cent. cheaper than oil, it would make a profit of £1·1 billion year. That is the real perspective. It should also be borne in mind that it is twice as expensive to force a miner on to the dole as it is to keep him in work in a so-called uneconomic pit. Such facts are unchallengeable. Some of us know the system and have worked it. We know that what the board is presenting is fictitious, unreliable and biased. It is also predictable, because of Government interference.
We should also consider the reduction of spending capacity that will result from the redundancy of 20,000 miners. It is forecast, however, that we will need another 40,000 miners by the end of the century. I do not know what will happen to the mining stock between now and then. If anyone believes that it is possible to go out on the streets tomorrow and recruit miners and train them in 16 weeks, he believes nonsense. Miners are generated. They stay in families and go from generation to generation. If we destroy that basic intake from mining families and mining communities, we shall create a vacuum that will never be filled. Someone must reckon up that cost. I do not want to talk about training schemes, but they will be no substitute for the generation of miners that we have always known.
The cost of the dispute in lost production, in steel, in rail, in electricity, in tax payments and in policing costs is already close on £4 billion. If common sense does not prevail and if there is not an honourable settlement which is based on what we believe was a genuine attempt by the NUM to secure a future for mining families, I venture to suggest that it would be foolhardy and utter nonsense to ignore the economic facts that I have outlined. If we are not careful, these imaginary problems will remain for the rest of this year and throughout 1985.
I notice that not one energy Minister is present this evening. They again display their total indifference because of the closed-shop attitude of the board in negotiations. One of the Government's legal representatives—the Solicitor-General—will reply, and to him I say that, regardless of legal interpretation, it is not difficult to understand what bad law has done. The miners' case is as great and strong as ever, and it will be so in the future.
Order. I wish to help the House and I do not want to restrict debate if I can help it, but I remind hon. Members that the subject we are discussing is Price Waterhouse and the sequestration of NUM assets. Hon. Members should relate their remarks to the topic before the House, and no doubt the Minister will reply accordingly.
We have heard the impassioned voice of the coalfield, and as the grandson of a miner I fully understand the feeling in our mining communities as expressed in the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe).
The Attorney-General did neither his case nor himself justice when, under Opposition pressure, he made his statement to the House on 11 December this year. The House of Commons is entitled to an explanation. The Attorney-General is answerable to this House, and it was because he failed to give a proper explanation, and adequately to answer the questions put to him, that my hon. Friends have sought this debate.
I hope that, for the future, Law Officers will learn that the House will not be brushed on one side. If anything novel or extraordinary has to be done, it is much easier to come clean and to explain to the House at the earliest opportunity what the Government are doing.
Instead, the right hon. and learned Gentleman sought to attack me, and ignored every question that I put to him. I readily forgive him for not following every utterance I have made on television and radio and in the press, particularly as many of them emanated from Cardiff, but I have gone to the trouble of listening again to one of the tapes, when I said that whoever was in breach of the law — be he a picket or a policeman—must be answerable for that breach.
I quoted the words of Lord Atkin, and I did so even though I forgive the Attorney-General for not knowing everything I have said elsewhere. However, I do not forgive him readily for not recalling that I told the House:
The rule of law is the same for everyone",
and I quoted the memorable words of Lord Atkin who in the dark days of war in 1941 said:
In this country, amid the clash of arms, the laws are not silent. They may be changed, but they speak the same language in war as in peace".
It is not incumbent on me or any of my hon. Friends to repeat like parrots every utterance that we make of our regard and respect for the role of law. I hope that the Solicitor-General will recognise that tonight.
In his attack upon me, the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General missed the whole point of our concern. As I said on 11 December, there may be a hypothetical or a real need to protect the courts. We were concerned, first, about the basis for his actions. Secondly, assuming that the Attorney-General had the power, was it right for him to do it? Although there may have been advantages, was it not conceivable that the disadvantages of his actions outweighed the advantages? The Attorney-General did not throw any light on the basis for his actions. If our courts need to be protected, I believe that there must be a proper basis for their protection. Our concern relates to the basis for the actions of the Attorney-General.
The written answer which I received last Friday from the Attorney-General contained the first utterance that his actions were based upon the common law. The common law is based upon precedent. It cannot be made up. We should like to be told whether any precedents have been discovered since the exchange on 11 December for the actions which have been taken. Why are the Government so coy? Why did we have to wait until last Friday for the first reference by any Minister to the fact that the actions of the Attorney-General were based upon common law? No reference was made to this fact in any answer which the Attorney-General gave to the House.
Although there may, therefore, be a power to grant an indemnity under the common law, I was also told last Friday that, without statutory authority, the common law cannot be activated in order to pay out money under the indemnity. I should like to know how that will be provided. I come back to the original question: have the Government been able to discover throughout the long history of this country any precedents for this indemnity?
I should also like to know whether there was any real need for this action. The senior partner in Price Waterhouse said that the firm did not ask for the indemnity and that this indemnity was unsolicited. The Attorney-General has told the House that he made inquiries about what had happened and discovered that Price Waterhouse had asked the court whether there were any funds. Price Waterhouse were told that there were no funds, and they seemed to be content.
It has been repeated time after time that neither Mr. Justice Nicholls nor Price Waterhouse approached the Attorney-General. Therefore, what evidence was there—I hope the Solicitor-General will face up to this—that the orders of the court might, in the words of the Attorney-General, be frustrated? Perhaps we might be told the full extent of the property which Price Waterhouse have seized— not only the money in the bank but the houses and other property owned by the National Union of Mineworkers.
Many of my hon. Friends put down early-day motion 233 regretting the fact that the Attorney-General referred to Price Waterhouse as an
ordinary commercial firm who are liable to run out of money".
Price Waterhouse is the third largest accountancy firm in the United Kingdom, with an annual income from fees of over £60 million. They are discussing an amalgamation with Deloitte Haskins and Sells, the second largest accountancy firm in the United Kingdom, whose annual income from fees is also over £60 million. Price Waterhouse hardly comes into the category of an ordinary commercial firm which is likely to run out of money. I understand that Price Waterhouse are far from happy that the spotlight of the Attorney-General's comments has been turned on them at a crucial stage of the amalgamation negotiations. The Solicitor-General laughs, but I am sure that he if speaks to the senior partners of Price Waterhouse they will confirm what I have said.
Price Waterhouse do not act as public benefactors when they are appointed court sequestrators. They do it for money, on an ordinary commercial basis, and they are paid on a solicitor-client basis. They are not there because they love to act as sequestrators. There is other work that they could do to earn their £60 million a year. They enter into it with their eyes fully open and, on that basis, there was hardly any need for the Attorney-General to have come to their aid on the first inquiry about whether the court had any money.
The Attorney-General told the House on 11 December that Price Waterhouse went to the court and were told that there were no funds and that it' seemed "so simple" to him — the order of the court should be enforced. He said:
As guardian of the public interest, I was the only person who could do that,."—[Official Report, 11 December 1984; Vol. 69, c. 929.]
We have to be satisfied whether, in issuing unsolicited and unprecedented indemnities, the Attorney-General has not jumped the gun. Has he not perhaps acted a little impetuously? He told the House that he relied on information coming partly from the registrar of the court, as a result of his inquiry, and partly from newspapers. That is a very odd approach for the Attorney-General to adopt when making a crucial and unprecedented decision.
Even more important constitutional matters than the action of the Attorney-General arise in this context. Will his action be a precedent for further involvement by him in a range of civil litigation? If there is a matrimonial case in which large funds have been moved out of the courts' jurisdiction—as they are, from time to time—will the Attorney-General come to the aid of the party—who is denied his rights when the order of the court is frustrated? The pleasures of having the Attorney-General's indemnity should apply to all; the law should be the same for everyone. Or is this a one-off exercise, applying only to litigation involving the NUM? Is that union being singled out for the use of the Attorney-General's new-found power of indemnity, or can everyone involved in civil litigation expect the same pleasures and privileges?
If there is to be a widespread repetition of the Attorney-General's action, presumably we can expect the Estimates to include a token provision of £1 to cover the possibility of future incursions by the Attorney-General into indemnity in civil litigation.
My final point relates to the Attorney-General's judgment in the matter. Given that this is current litigation in a highly contentious area and in a politically highly charged atmosphere, was it prudent of the Attorney-General to intervene at this stage? If there were clear and unambiguous evidence that the court's will would be frustrated, because, for example, this or any other firm was not willing to act as sequestrators, the position might be different. But, given the flimsy evidence before us and the Government's failure to present their case, the real danger is that the Attorney-General has been unnecessarily involved in civil litigation and has created a precedent for the future; we know not where it will stop.
That is what concerns me. I refer to the cherished concept of the independence of the Attorney-General's office and to the danger of tarnishing it. I value the independence of the judiciary. I set out my views about the dangers of tarnishing that in a recent article in The Times. In the same way, I value the Attorney-General's independence. With hindsight, was it wise or prudent of the Attorney-General to act? I am reminded of a war slogan "Was your journey really necessary?" In the same way, on the evidence before us, were the Attorney-General's actions really necessary?
This case is of great interest, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) has outlined the main legal issues involved. In particular, he referred to the question of the impartiality of our Law Officers. He posed them some very interesting questions, some of the answers to which may be set out in legal terms. But while those answers are important in that they will form part of the continuing struggle that we have to put up against the Government, we know what they are. After all, the Government are motivated not by any need or desire to maintain the law, but by blind hatred for the mining community.
The Conservative party does not like the mining community. It is determined to break the NUM, and it has taken this opportunity to do so in whatever way it can. It cannot win the economic argument or any other argument, so it has tried to use the law to bludgeon coal miners into returning to work. Thus, the Law Officers' actions are motivated not by the need to carry out the law impartially, but by blind dogma.
The coal mining community is participating in one of the most heroic actions that any group has participated in this century. I say "heroic", because those people are looking not for money to line their pockets—the sort of thing that Conservative Members would probably understand—or advantage or to improve their working conditions, but for protection of their communities and jobs. It is a pity that Conservative Members do not act as patriotically as them. I cannot see it as anything other than a heroic fight.
Perhaps I am slightly conditioned by my recollections, especially at this time of the year. As a young boy I used to walk with my father over the mountains from a pit village called Penybryn down past the coal owner's house to a small village in the next valley. We went to collect the Christmas poultry. There was a sense of unreality as
one walked into that small village. The first thing that one noticed was that there were no men. There were a lot of women, but no men. The name of the village was Senghenydd. Those days were brought back to me quite graphically when I received a Christmas card from my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell). It says:
Lest we forget. From Marion and Ray Powell.
On the inside is something written from a friend of mine called Les Gassor, the chairman of an NUM lodge. It is entitled "The price of coal", and says:
The manager of the mine was found guilty of 8 charges of failure to carry out his statutory duties and he was fined £24·5½p per life. The COAL COMPANY was found innocent of any blame, but after pressure from the SOUTH WALES MINERS FEDN, the Inspector of Mines filed an appeal. In 1915 the Court of the King's bench allowed the appeal on one charge and sent the case back to the Magistrates Court for conviction. In February 1916, 3 years after the explosion, the same magistrates found the COMPANY GUILTY and fined them £10. Who looked after the widows and orphans left behind? The local community of course, just as they are now when struggle and strife have taken the place of grief and sorrow in our area. Those who criticise the lack of respect for the law shown by strikers in our fight to save jobs, should remember that we have never had justice in the whole history of our Trade Unions
and of our relationships with the law.
The price of coal is one which has been paid heavily by our communities. A miner's life is a fight for existence every time he leaves home to start his shift in the pit and is more of a struggle now than ever when the Government wishes to cast him and his family on the scrap-heap for short-term, short-sighted `economic' reasons.
That was written by Les Gassor, a striking miner, in 1984.
I remember that village. I remember my father going to work. I remember waiting and hoping that he would come home. I remember my brother, who now lives in Dorking and who was a pit overman, being badly crushed when he went to bring out a boy from the village who was trapped in the coal. Those people have an enormous sense of togetherness and community.
I am afraid that Conservative Members just do not understand the miners and the mining community. They do not understand that they are prepared to suffer nine months of continuous hardship, not for any selfish reasons, not to line their pockets, but simply to protect their homes and communities. They were the same miners who, in 1916 and 1917, rallied to the flag and laid down their lives by their thousands in the trenches of France, as evidenced by war memorials in every mining village in south Wales.
During the last war miners gave their all to provide the energy to keep this country going to push back the bounds of Fascism that is now coming back to Britain. They were miners who, in 1948, after the industry was nationalised, gave their all and produced reduced-price energy in order to revitalise and recharge this country so that it could recover from the war. If they had had the economic price of coal then, they would have built up so much capital that they would never have had to borrow a single penny. But they provided cheap energy for the country because they were taken into public ownership. Perhaps they saw themselves as public servants. The union also co-operated, foolishly in my view, because at the end of the day it has turned out that, although the present leader of the NUM warned miners many years ago of what would happen, his voice went unheeded. He is castigated now and subject to the utmost vilification, but if his views had been followed 10 years ago, we might not have been in this mess today.
The miners inherited a bankrupt industry in 1948. In 1919 the Sankey commission, which was set up because of the abuse of the coal industry by the coal owners during the first world war, said that our coal was so vital a resource that it was too precious to leave in the hands of private industry. Yet, it was more than 30 years before it was taken into public ownership.
I am only sad that the Government are not loyal to people who have given enormous service to the country. The Government are unpatriotic and will eventually sell everyone down the river for a quick buck. They will never understand the miners or the mining communities. That is why they will never beat them. They can bludgeon the miners back to work, sequestrate their union's funds and starve their children, but they will never beat them.
The debate is about Price Waterhouse. We must consider the sinister reasons why it has entered into the dispute. It gives me no pleasure to speak about the miners' strike and the sequestration of their union's funds. There should not have been a strike. The Government, for their own motives, brought the strike about, which brought Price Waterhouse on to the scene. There was no need for the strike, and therefore the responsibility must rest firmly on the shoulders of the Government.
When I was asked what the lads hoped to gain by striking, I said that they had everything to gain and nothing to lose because the strike was justified by the Government's entrenched long-term views about the coal industry. The Government have pursued and are pursuing short-term policies that are selling the nation down the river. Until such time as they consider the long-term needs of the country, we shall stumble from crisis to crisis.
I now turn to Mac the Knife. A great deal has been said about concessions that the Coal Board has made. The Coal Board has not moved one inch from day one of the strike. The introduction of Price Waterhouse into the dispute was therefore inevitable.
NACODS held a ballot. As a result of that, the Government said that the National Union of Mineworkers should accept what had been offered to NACODS. It was to receive its money and to be offered a talking shop when a pit was to be closed. The pit review and the colliery review closure procedure needs to be helped. That is at the heart of the strike. The Coal Board will decide to shut a pit, it will announce it to the union, and the union must then go through the charade of meeting the people who took the original decision to close the pit.
I do not know many instances where the board has back-pedalled. It may have changed its position slightly with regard to some development work, but apart from that it has not shifted. I have sat on the area consultative committee in Doncaster for many years. The lads said, rightly, that such local consultative committees are nothing but talking shops, because, at the end of the day, the Coal Board will make the decision, irrespective of how well the lads have presented their case. The Secretary of State for Energy announces to all who will listen that Scargill will not move from his position. What he should do is to tell Mac the Knife not only to shift his position but to get on the next boat to America.
The Government have not been honest about their long-term plans for the industry. If they are allowed to proceed on the course that they have taken, I envisage an industry with no more than 65,000 to 70,000 men producing 70 million tonnes of coal from a few super-pits. It is obvious that that policy will be pursued, because the Government are always saying that market forces should dominate our industries. If market forces are allowed to dominate, we must also take into account the balance of payments. Has the Chancellor of the Exchequer taken into account the amount that Price Waterhouse will spend in Europe on trying to return the NUM funds?
The Coal Board has announced the sacking of 450 men for vandalising pit property. I believe that the Secretary of State for Energy and the Government should resign, because they are causing more damage to the industry than are any lads back in the coalfields. We should consider the damage that the Government and Price Waterhouse are causing in our communities. The long-term plans about which the Government talk in relation to "Plan for Coal" are not worth a light unless they are geared to an energy policy. In 1978, there were posters on the billboards saying to the lads, "The industry needs you, and you will have a long and happy future with us."
It should not be for the Coal Board or the Government to decide whether a pit should close. We should have an independent panel to which both sides could present their cases. If the Government and the Coal Board are so convinced that what they say is correct, that panel will support them. When one takes into account all the policies, and how they affect the quality of life, there is obviously no case for pit closures.
Last Wednesday, the Attorney-General gave the worst performance of any Tory Minister— it was atrocious. One wonders what the connection is between the Attorney-General, the Government and Price Waterhouse. I do not doubt that when the historians are writing about this dispute, they will dig out something to show the link. I wonder whether it is the old boy's network, because at one stage Price Waterhouse used to be involved with the Government. It could be that the old boys are working together to add a little extra money to the millions that they already make.
My hon. Friend is right.
The Attorney-General said that the Government were not creating a precedent that would pass on from one act of vandalism to another. I wonder whether he will have a word with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and advise him to take some VAT off the pop record that was made for Ethiopia. It is a pity that compassion and the crocodile tears that one sees on the Tory Benches on that matter do not come through in reality and in practice here. Miners who were made redundant before the strike began, and whose notice ended after the strike had started, have found that there is no compassion or understanding for them.
Great play has been made about the pit violence. I have not heard any condemnation from the Tory Benches of police violence; not even a question mark has been raised about what happens in our coalfields. In Toxteth there was a public inquiry, but in Armthorpe, a pit village where the police behaved like a set of hooligans, nothing whatsoever happened. There seems to be a sinister central control in this dispute. On the point about breaking the law, I wonder whether the Prime Minister will comply with the EEC ruling and pay the milk fines that are due from this country—or is she above that law?
Does the Solicitor-General agree that the hardships and humiliation that the suffragettes suffered to ensure that women got the vote were worth while? If they had not taken such action, this country might have been better off, because we would not have had this Prime Minister.
This is an important debate, and, with great respect to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) who is a master of the understatement and of discretion, it is not a debate about minor indiscretions by the Attorney-General. It is not a debate in which we say to him, with hindsight, that he could have done differently. We are debating a cold attack on the law of Parliament and the constitution by the Attorney-General.
When I first saw the Supplementary Estimates in the Red Book concerning this so-called token provision for sequestration, I immediately said to myself, both as a barrister and a member of the Treasury Select Committee, that the provisions were illegal. My subsequent inquiries served to reveal the truth of that.
My first instinct was to ask: what is the authority for these provisions? I knew that there was no statutory authority because I had seen that problem before when I was on the Treasury Select Committee. I asked a journalist whether he could give me the Downing street briefing about what had happened. The journalist illegally provided me with that briefing. The briefing, dated Monday 10 December, was issued at 12·5 pm by Mr. Bernard Ingham, the Prime Minister's press secretary. The briefing stated:
The legal powers were given under the common law powers of the Crown. The Crown has the same freedom as any other individual to give an indemnity … Since the Crown is dependent upon parliament to vote the necessary funds, it has been agreed between the Committee of Public Accounts and the Treasury that where a need to incur contingent commitments arises from a continuing policy requirement, powers should be conferred by statute. However, when giving an indemnity is a one-off exercise it is proper to rely on the Appropriations Act to provide the funds.
The Appropriations Act is a camouflage for illegality in this case.
I am sorry that the Attorney-General is ill and so is not present to hear the condign criticism that is justly made of him on this occasion. I shall advance four arguments. First, I know, from my position on the Treasury Select Committee, that no attempt should be made to extend common law powers into areas in which they do not properly belong, into unconvential areas and into areas where they would not be properly understood. That must be a definitional equation, because the purpose of common law powers is to be conventional and understood. In this case, the powers are not conventional and are not understood by hon. Members or individuals outside the House.
Secondly, for as long as anyone can remember, it has been the practice that any common law powers arrived at under the Crown prerogative should not be used in politically contentious cases. It is impossible to conceive of the use of the powers of the Crown prerogative in a more politically contentious matter, so their use stands squarely outside the conventinal use of such powers by the House.
Thirdly, questions have been asked about the precedents in this case. I have looked at all the precedents since time immemorial—or at least the year 1189—and there are no precedents in this case.
The fourth argument involves the analogy used by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith). If, by some chance, the Chancellor lent me some money, I refused to pay him back, he then took legal action, I salted my money away abroad and sequestrators were sent in, no hon. Member or anyone outside the House in his right mind would suggest that the Attorney-General would have powers under the Crown prerogative to make token provision for sequestrators. That is the fundamental abuse of the civil law, to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred.
The Attorney-General has confused the use of his powers. He has powers to advise the Government but does not have powers to advise the Conservative party for the purposes of political advantage. That is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has done in this case. The Attorney-General has advised the Conservative party on how to gain political advancement and, in the process, he has abused the law, parliamentary sovereignty and the Constitution.
What is worrying is that the Attorney-General did not act on a one-off basis; this is part of a pattern followed by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. That is why it is all the more important for hon. Members to stand up and say, "No, we have had enough of this Attorney-General and the abuse of these powers."
We all remember sanctions busting in Rhodesia. I am one of about half a dozen people in this country who have seen the original files. I know about law breaking by politicians, civil servants and Sir Frank MacFadyen. I remember this Attorney-General coming here and saying that he supported the Director of Public Prosecutions in not prosecuting those people because some of them had retired and it would be difficult to obtain the evidence.
When I was at the Bar, no one ever came up to me and said, "Don't bother, Mr. Sedgemore. I understand that your client has retired," or "It will be difficult to get the evidence." That was a similar abuse of the law. We all remember that only last November, when The Observer published a series of articles about waste at the Ministry of Defence, the Attorney-General decided to take action against Mr. Williams and The Observer. What is worse, those of us who know remember the Attorney-General going to the Garrick club and saying that he would "get The Observer". He wanted "to get" The Observer because the Prime Minister was being attacked over Oman. That is a disgraceful, shameful abuse of the Attorney-General's power.
We cannot have the Attorney-General, once over sanctions busting, once over Mr. Williams and The Observer and once over the sequestration by Price Waterhouse, abusing the powers of the courts of this land. That is the Attorney-General. If he were here, the right thing for him to do would be to resign. The right thing for people such as me to do when we go outside the House is to report him to the Inns of Court and say, "We have had
enough." I do not know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether you remember reading E. P. Thompson's "Whigs and Hunters" in which he said:
The laws of England were a nuisance, to be bent and manipulated by the ruling classes.
The person who has bent and manipulated the laws of England for too long in the House of Commons over the past six years is the Attorney-General.
What are we to say about Price Waterhouse? It is engaged in a merger with Deloitte Haskins and Sells, which will make it the biggest accountancy firm in the world. The message that must go out from the Conservative Benches and the Attorney-General is that Deloitte Haskins and Sells would probably be unwise to become involved in the kind of political dynamite into which Price Waterhouse is leading it. It will have nothing but trouble from Labour Members, and, if there is a future Labour Government, it will have nothing but trouble from them. It will have trouble from nationalised industries, local authorities, quangos and future Governments. The only decent thing to come out of this whole discreditable and despicable operation will be the ruin of that merger.
We all know that the managing director of Price Waterhouse earns £187,000 a year. It is monstrous that the Attorney-General should seek to indemnify that firm, with its turnover of £60 million per annum, and which pays its director £187,000.
The Attorney-General has debased and demeaned the laws of this country. I am not interested in listening to the Solicitor-General's answer. I do not want to be rude to him, but on occasions like this it would probably be better if we were to adjourn the debate so that the Attorney-General could answer for his misconduct and for the way in which he has debased the laws of this country, our Parliament and the constitution.
This matter may be the responsibility of the Law Officers and one can understand why the Solicitor-General is here, but, as my hon. Friends have already made clear, this debate also has a great deal to do with energy. I rather regret the fact that there are no energy Ministers on the Treasury Bench, because words have been and will be said which suggest that their presence would have been appropriate.
Even though the matter may primarily be one for the Solicitor-General, I regret that there is no one present on the Conservative Benches with any interest in energy, and that there is no Conservative Member to give support and sustenance to the Solicitor-General as he seeks to answer my hon. Friend's charges.
The Government may feel that they have been ingenious. It may be an ingenious adventure or initiative, but if the degree of ingenuity that has been employed in this rather sordid enterprise had been applied at any time during the past 10 long months of dispute, the nation might have been better served. It is almost 10 months since those employed at Cortonwood colliery were told that their colliery would cease to produce coal in five weeks. The Government may be free—I do not know—from the charge of manipulation in this adventure, but they have watched the media manipulating the facts for virtually the whole of the past 10 months and refrained from comment. The chairman, deputy chairman and secretary of the National Coal Board have made public comments to the effect that the board never proposed that Cortonwood colliery should close in just five weeks. Mr. MacGregor and his deputy, Mr. Cowan, along with the secretary to the board, Mr. Brandrath, in a letter to The Times, claim that it was merely proposed that Cortonwood should be subject to face colliery review procedures. They carefully ignored the fact that Cortonwood was down for cessation of production in five weeks, and the Government allowed them to do so. The Coal Board has deliberately and conveniently forgotten that, and over the ensuing months it has ignored the decision that it knew, and must have known, was made.
The Government have been ingenious in introducing this precedent. I only wish that they had shown ingenuity in ensuring that the truth in this bitter dispute was not allowed conveniently to be forgotten.
Another example of manipulation was when one of my hon. Friends became concerned about speeches made in the House by some of us who represent coalfield communities. He wrote to the chairman and expressed his concern about a case which he had heard presented in the Chamber. He observed that it was astonishing that Elsecar colliery should be closed in the latter part of 1983 and that over a hundred workers from that colliery should be moved to Cortonwood and given a guarantee of five years' work. Ministers are well aware that the reply was, in effect, a denial of a guarantee of five years' work. The deputy chairman wrote to the effect that, far from a guarantee of five years, everyone at Elsecar and Cortonwood knew that Cortonwood had a much shorter life than five years. He knew, as everyone in the board knew and as Treasury Ministers should have known, that the guarantee had been given.
We have had a great deal of ingenuity. There has been this ingenious precedent of paying a company which did not seek to be paid. On the other hand, there has been an absence of any ingenuity that might have brought this bitter dispute to an end. The dispute has continued for months longer than it need have done. There have been months of enormous hardship and embitterment. I do not know, but the dispute may continue for many more months.
If the Government had shown any sensitivity—they have already been accused of a complete lack of it—the strike would not have occurred. Instead of devoting effort to promoting peace, or to trying to assuage the bitterness, which will last for a long time, they have adopted a clever and almost undergraduate approach of providing money to a company which did not ask for it. That will create a dangerous and serious precedent.
I regret that no Department of Energy Ministers are on the Government Front Bench to give moral support to the Solicitor-General. I regret that they are not here to hearken to the calls for sanity that have been and will continue to be made. But if the hon. and learned Gentleman and his colleagues are to rely on this sort of adventurism, the nation will sooner or later wake up to the realities that face us.
Nearly 10 months have passed, at the end of which all we can see is this sort of adventure by the Attorney-General, supported by the Solicitor-General, and action that deserves the pen of a latter-day Gilbert and Sullivan. It may provide the material for someone to write a paperback to while away the tedium of a dull journey. It may have filled the headlines of the newspapers and provided people with comment about the jet-setting life of some City financiers. It does not actually help us one jot or tittle to solve the problem that has dominated the lives of many of us in the House for virtually 10 months. It is the condition of those whom we represent that should command attention from Government, not silly initiatives by people whose titles may almost have stemmed from Gilbert and Sullivan.
I trust that the Solicitor-General will remind his colleagues in government and energy Ministers that, while the Opposition recognise the severity and seriousness of the precedent that is involved, we are concerned about a much greater and deeper reality. It is that to which the Government's ingenuity should be addressed.
In the debate earlier today, a Minister would not allow money to be spent on house building. That was completely wrong, but it is what the Minister decided. In contrast, on 11 December, the Attorney-General was throwing money about like confetti. Is it not strange that only today a Minister objected to money being spent on providing houses for the needy, yet the Attorney-General had plenty of money to throw about to protect those who have plenty of money? It is a strange affair, but that is what happened.
The Attorney-General said that Mr. Justice Nicholls ordered sequestration, and the sequestrators appointed by the court were named on 11 December as Price Waterhouse. That was due to a civil action brought to the courts — Taylor and Foulstone v. the NUM. That is important, because it is the issue that we are debating tonight.
The Attorney-General said that the Government would indemnify. I am not quite sure what that word means. I think that it means that if anybody loses any money, the Government will compensate him. As a layman, I think that that is what it means. The Government will indemnify Price Waterhouse against the costs that it incurs. I think that the Solicitor-General will agree with that. On 11 December there was no reference to Justice Davies. Therefore, I come to the conclusion that only the costs of Price Waterhouse will be indemnified. Nowhere can I find in the Attorney-General's statement any reference to Justice Davies. I think that the Solicitor-General will agree with that.
On 6 December Michael Arnold, senior involvements partner of City accountants Arthur Young McClelland Moores, was appointed as receiver. At no time did the Attorney-General say that the Government would look after that firm. They are only going to look after Price Waterhouse under the appointment of Justice Nicholls. Nothing from Justice Davies will be looked after at all, because that was not mentioned in the statement of 11 December. The appointments and statements of certain people will be covered, but nothing else. That is important, because what Justice Davies did will cost a lot more. Will the Solicitor-General confirm that the intention is to look after Justice Nicholls but not Justice Davies? If that is so, the costs—at present about f100,000—will have to be divided.
If that is not the position, there is a great gap which needs to be clarified in relation to the Attorney-General's statement, as I am sure the Solicitor-General will agree. I hope that the Solicitor-General will make a statement about that today. If his statement differs from the Attorney-General's statement, it will mean not that the House was misled on 11 December but that all the evidence—the whole truth, as it were—was not given with regard to the support to be given by the Government. I hope that the Solicitor-General will explain exactly what the Government intend to underwrite.
I cannot imagine why the Government decided to support Price Waterhouse—a firm so rich that it could afford to lend the Government money if they got into difficulties. It is strange indeed. I should have liked to ask the Attorney-General about that, but I accept that he is ill and that I therefore cannot do so. If there is a reason for supporting in this way the actions of a legal firm acting on behalf of the law of the land, it is strange indeed that the body against which action is being taken is the National Union of Mineworkers.
Action of such magnitude has never been taken against other unions. I agree that there are other issues on which action could be taken. Indeed, it has been done. The law of the land—not the state—was involved in 1972, in the case of Gold v. the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers and in 1973 in the case of Col-Mech Ltd. v. the AUEW. But in those cases the amount at issue was only the amount required by the law. This is the first time that the law of the land has ever attempted to take the entire funds of any institution, and the institution involved just happens to be the NUM.
There are special factors involved in this case, and the action taken has never been taken before. I question the position of the Attorney-General under the law of the land.
What is also vitally important is not what the Attorney-General has done, but what he has not done. With regard to certain issues involving law and order, the Attorney-General has sat back. The Solicitor-General may say that law and order is the Home Secretary's job, but it has been necessary for action to be taken by his Department. The hon. and learned Gentleman has not acted to protect certain issues, when he could have done so. There was the occasion when four policemen invaded the house of an 84-year-old woman in Stainforth in my constituency. That poor beautiful lady weighed about five stone. Nothing was done. The Attorney-General did not take action against any policeman or anyone else. That was a disgrace. The matter could have been taken further, but the lady did not wish it to be.
In the early days of the mining dispute, when there was no trouble, I was in Nottingham when a car was pulled open because the men inside would not wind the window down. The police smashed the windscreen. They could have hurt' those poor miners. I telephoned the chief constable of Nottinghamshire. He was not available. I spoke to the deputy chief constable. I said, "You cannot condone this." He said, "I do." He condoned that violence. He condoned physical violence, and the Attorney-General was not interested. Yet he should be looking after the nation.
There are ways of complaining about such occurences. The Home Secretary says, "Take it up. Complain. Take them to court. The NUM has plenty of money." The NUM has no money now, so how could anyone sue it? It is embarrassing to hear the Home Secretary tell us to sue the police when the NUM's money has been taken.
I should like to ask the Solicitor-General a direct question. Did the Prime Minister have anything to do with that decision? That is all I am asking. I hope that I shall get an answer.
The sequestration of the NUM's funds by Price Waterhouse, the blank cheque that the Government have given to underwrite that company and the involvement of the Attorney-General's office in this dispute is a combination that has been brought about by fetching the law into industrial relations. The danger in this dispute is that the Government seriously think that, by Price Waterhouse sequestrating NUM funds, they can .break the union. Even Tuesday's Financial Times wrote:
Nalgo not to give sequestrators details of funds for miners … The Nalgo decision could itself place the union in contempt of court".
Where will it stop, this bringing of the law into industrial relations? The union's money does not belong to the general secretary. NUM money does not belong to Scargill; General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union money does not belong to Basnett, Transport and General Workers Union money does not belong to Moss Evans; and Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen money does not belong to Ray Buckton. The money belongs to the members who have contributed for many years.
I joined a union when I was 14 and have paid union contributions every year since, even when I served in the Armed Forces. There are many like me who have belonged to a union for many years. When the Government think that they are getting at a general secretary, they are in fact hitting all the members of a union.
If the law could solve industrial relations, the simplest thing would be for the Government to pass a law that required everyone to go to work from 7.30 am until 5 pm without a break. Indeed, why should they not pass a law saying that the miners must go back to work tomorrow morning—if the law can solve industrial relations? The law has the opposite effect. It has lengthened rather than shortened this dispute. Many people in Britain feel that there are two laws—one for some people and another for the rest. When the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food came back with milk quotas from Europe, dairy farmers were not particularly happy. When there was a milk race at Aberystwyth, dairy farmers got their tractors and Land Rovers out and barricaded the road to stop the milk race. One farmer was arrested. Yet hundreds of miners are arrested for obstruction when they merely step from the pavement to the road. Tha is why people think that there are two laws.
When the Prime Minister went to speak at a Tory meeting in Wales, someone among a group of farmers' wives who were demonstrating threw an egg and hit the Prime Minister. Nobody wants that to happen, but the point is that nobody was arrested. Yet hundreds of miners who stand outside mines shouting "Scabs!" are immediately arrested and put in gaol. That is why many people think that there are two laws and that the law is being brought into disrepute.
We have seen all this before. I remember the sequestrator coming to Hebburn urban district council, as a result of industrial relations legislation which was introduced by the 1970–74 Government formed by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), to take £50,000 of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers' money which was invested in that council. It did not work then and it will not work this time, because a union's assets are under the caps of members of that union. They cannot be taken away.
Many people also feel strongly about the Social Security Act, which denies benefit to the dependants of strikers. A few months ago I asked the Prime Minister why the law should treat the dependants of the Yorkshire Ripper—who is in jail to protect society—better than the dependants of a Yorkshire miner who is on strike to defend his community. That is nonsense.
If a trade unionist went to work tomorrow and voted for a strike, £16 would be deducted from the benefit paid to his dependants, but if he went to work and shot the foreman, he would be put in jail and his dependants would be looked after. That is the nonsense of our trade union legislation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) hit the nail right on the head when he said that the issue is not about uneconomic pits. It is an attempt to break one of our strongest trade unions. Given the legislation which has been introduced by the Government since 1979—the Social Security Act, the Employment Acts of 1980 and 1982 and the trade union legislation which has recently received Royal Assent — it is easy to see what is happening.
Many years ago I read an article by Martin Niemoller on what happened in Germany between 1933 and 1945. He said:
When they came for the Communists we were not Communists—so we did nothing.
When they came for the Jews we were not Jews—so we did nothing.
When they came for the Social Democrats we were not Social Democrats—so we did nothing.
When they came for the Trade Unionists we were not Trade Unionists—so we did nothing.
When they came for the liberals and intellectuals we were scared—so we did nothing.
When they came for the Churchmen we were frightened—so we did nothing.
When they came for us we looked for help—but we were alone!
The same is happening to the trade union movement, and those words are as true now as they were when Martin Niemoller first wrote them. In the context of this dispute they would read:
When they came for the steelworkers we were not steelworkers—so we did nothing.
When they came for the railwaymen we were not in ASLEF —so we did nothing.
When they came for the NGA we were not in the printing industry—so we did nothing.
When they took the union cards off the civil servants at GCHQ we were scared—so we did nothing.
When they came for the miners we were frightened—so we did nothing.
When they came for us we looked for help—but we were alone.
That is my message to the trade union movement, and I hope that it takes notice of it.
Lest we forget why we are gathered here this evening, it might be worth recalling the incident that took place the other day in the Chamber, when the Attorney-General ventured upon what can only be described as a vicious attack on my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris). That was an occasion that we all recall, because nothing that my right hon. and learned Friend said in any way deserved the response that he received. It might be that the Attorney-General is not au fait with the practices of parliamentarians in this House, and that may be why he made that mistake.
I cannot match the passion of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), who put his case emotionally and accurately on behalf of the people he represents in the valleys of south Wales.
I was born in Ty-coch, Swansea. As a child, I remember going up those valleys with my father. I remember sitting at the knee of my grandmother who explained to me what happened in south Wales in the 1920s. I have never suffered such experiences. I can savour them only through the experience of others, but they bear examination. They illustrate what may happen if the Government get their way. The Government wish to use the law of this land to destroy the National Union of Mineworkers. Let nobody outside the Chamber be in any doubt about their intention. If they do not understand the implications of the Government's intentions, they should read the history of the Labour movement and try to understand the implications of smashing a trade union. We can remove a union's assets and take away its worldly wealth, but we cannot remove its sole raison d'etre.
Last weekend a very beautiful photograph appeared in the Observer Review. It showed five women standing on a picket line in south Wales. Underneath was the heading:
No surrender in the valleys.
The expressions on the faces of those women showed their sheer guts and determination never to be defeated. That is what the Government face. They cannot resolve the problem in the courts, through sequestration, or by destroying the NUM. The Government will have to face the wrath of the tens of thousands of people who will never forget what is happening today. We are talking not just about a few people, but about the families of those miners who are in the front line of this very tragic experience—perhaps as many as 250,000 people in the heart of Britain's industrial areas. They form the backbone of the industrial working class of this country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda said, they will never forget.
There is an alternative to sequestration. During the last two or three weeks we have repeatedly drawn the attention of the Government to two recently published documents. One was published by five academic accountants, all of whom have experience of the accounts of the NCB. The second document was published by the London Business School.
The first document effectively challenges most of the commercial and financial assumptions of the National Coal Board about its closure programme. That case was answered at the Dispatch Box by the Prime Minister in response to a number of questions that were put to her by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). Upon each occasion we went back to those who carried out the research and asked them to clarify the position. Subsequently they withdrew the original document which was to be published in the magazine Accountancy. Yesterday morning the revised version of their original document went into print in Accountancy Age. Most of my hon. Friends have a copy of that document. It answers all the criticisms made by the Prime Minister in the House and by the National Coal Board in discussions with the Government, the Prime Minister's private office and the magazine "Accountancy". Their reservations have been answered, and that document is relevant.
The London Business School document must he viewed in terms of its ability to provide a solution to the industrial action. The document says that if allowances are made for fluctuating potential profitability in pits — what the authors define as avoidable costs — about 160,000 people are currently employed in pits which are potentially profitable. That figure has been derived by applying the most stringent criterion of profitability; that is, that every pit must break even, not just the industry as a whole. The document states:
Suppose the miners' fierce resistance to further closures, following a period of three years in which some 35,000 mining redundancies were peacably agreed, does reflect their fears that a further 100,000 jobs could disappear. Is a compromise possible whereby the National Union of Mineworkers is persuaded to accept the principle of closure on economic grounds in return for a guarantee that the principle will not be pursued to the point where the industry is completely decimated? If such a compromise is sought, then further discussions of the economics of the industry will be needed.
That document and the others are an alternative to sequestration. They are the olive branch which independent observers, watching from outside, who wish to see the dispute resolved are submitting as the basis on which further negotiations can take place. On the basis of conversations with persons who are close to the National Union of Mineworkers national executive, I believe that if the Government were to show, in even the minutest way, that those two documents could form the basis for a resumption of negotiations, the National Union of Mineworkers would tell the Government — privately, initially—that things could start to happen.
The dispute will have to end one day. The Government have alternatives. They can use the courts and sequestration to crush the union. They may remove its assets, but they will not crush the spirit of the miners. Whatever happens, the union will remain in spirit.
Alternatively, the Government can send even a tiny signal of an intention to examine documents that might form the basis of further negotiations. If they did that, people would wish to go to the negotiating table and we would see the end of the dispute.
If we proceed on the basis of what has happened so far —we have already spent, on a conservative estimate, £1·5 billion— a further £1 billion may run down the plug-hole in a matter of months. Is that what the British people want? Those two documents could form the basis of negotiation and bring the parties together. To talk in terms of there being no movement in the NUM's position would be highly irresponsible if the Government said that those documents could form the basis for negotiation. If the Government made that offer, I am sure that the NUM would equally wish to respond, and that people throughout the United Kingdom would say that it should do so.
There is a way out of the dispute. The Government need not go back to the courts. The courts are not needed. Flexibility is needed. Those two documents provide the basis for flexibility. The Minister should go to his colleagues and say, "Let us have a look at those documents that Labour Members have been on about for the past three weeks. Let us send signals out to the NUM and see whether what those Labour Members said in the debate the other night was empty rhetoric or really meant something." I know that what I have said is based on real conversations that have taken place.
I shall take note of the time, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I am glad to have this opportunity to speak about the sequestration, Price Waterhouse, and the unprecedented guarantees that the Government have given. They are unprecedented, but not unexpected. The Government are dogmatically determined to defeat and destroy the NUM. Hon. Members should make no mistake: the sole reason for sequestration and for giving that indemnity was to destroy the NUM and to end the dispute in that way. The Government will not win like that, because, as long as the miners are willing to withhold their labour, they cannot do so.
I represent a constituency that was founded on two industries: cotton, which has almost gone, and coal mining, which has completely disappeared. In Burnley coal was mined for 500 or 600 years, but our last coal mine at Hapton valley closed about two years ago. Many people still work at Agecroft and other pits, and travel to work every day. But there are retired miners and miners who took redundancy because they felt that they were too old to take the transfer when Hapton valley closed. They say that their only regret about this dispute is that it did not happen a few years ago, and that we did not fight to save the mines in Burnley and in many other areas. That is the tragedy. That is what should have been done.
The amazing thing is that, although the NCB has closed its operations in Burnley, within the past few months a private coal mine has opened to extract the coal that the board left behind. At tomorrow night's meeting of the planning committee in Burnley there will be yet another application to mine more coal from the pits left there.
Every industry fiddles the accounts and shows profits where it wants. Multinationals can even show profits in the countries that they want. Until last year I worked in an industry that manufactured television tubes. We were told that we were making them at a loss, but another part of the company that made the sets, was making a substantial profit out of those tubes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) said that the NCB's objective is that every pit must make a profit. That is nonsense. We must judge the industry as a whole. Whether the industry is successful depends on how it meets the nation's energy needs. That cannot be judged solely in accounting terms. We should look at the national energy policy. If the Government were doing their job, they would use coal to extend the life of the natural gas that we have and start feeding substitute natural gas into the pipeline. They would also consider coal liquefication and extending the life of our oil reserves with substitutes. Those are the directions in which we should be working.
The Prime Minister often refers to Victorian values and seems to be proud of them. Let us remember the old industrial and pit towns of Britain in Victorian times. Is that what Britain wants to return to? The Prime Minister is trying to return the trade union movement to Victorian times. Britain may have been wealthy. We may have been powerful in Victorian times, but that power was achieved on the backs of ordinary working people. That surely cannot be acceptable in 1984 and 1985.
There is no doubt that the NCB provoked the dispute by not abiding by the agreed procedures at Cortonwood. Having invested a large amount of money and told the miners that they had a future, the NCB suddenly said that production would cease in five weeks' time. That would obviously be provocative and cause a dispute.
The police have turned people back on motorways because they believed that they might be going to picket and that there might be a dispute or some other unfortunate incident. If that were done on any Saturday, when coaches are travelling to different parts of the country with football supporters, in the belief that there may be a disturbance at a football match, it would not be acceptable. That is the path down which the Government are going. It is an infringement of civil rights and the development of a police state. We want to see that practice ended. Since the dispute began in the first week of March, the Government have not taken one positive action to try to resolve the dispute and get the miners back to work. I have never known another national dispute where the Government have not tried to intervene at some stage to try to bring both sides together in negotiations to resolve the dispute.
The Government have not intervened because they have one objective: they want to defeat the mineworkers and Arthur Scargill. That will not be allowed to happen because it is not Arthur Scargill's battle; it is the NUM's battle, and it has the support of many millions of people in Britain. It has the support of the Labour party and it will win. Ultimately the Government will have to recognise that there must be negotiations and that we must try to achieve a peaceful settlement and develop sensible energy use in Britain.
I am grateful to you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Roughly one third of the pits in the Lancashire coalfield are in my constituency and just under one third of its miners. My miners have been on strike since the beginning of the dispute and they remain resolute in their determination to see the matter through to the end. I mention those matters in opening because when we begin to consider the matter, many questions, particularly with regard to the sequestration, require to be answered.
I made an application to ask a private notice question on Monday this week which was refused. It was very much in the terms of a question that I asked the Attorney-General, to which I received an answer. I seek not to be critical because it is not good manners to be critical of a person in his absence. I do not seek to be critical. However, on that occasion I received an answer that as a solicitor—I am no longer one—I would not have given.
My question was whether or not the precedent set in this matter would be extended. I received a professional attack in reply, as did my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris). I am used to the professional banter of the House, but that does not negate the question. On what precedent were all these matters based? We now hear that it is the common law of England. That is like saying to a farmer that there is a grain store over there. It means nothing. It does not answer the question.
The private notice question that I sought to put down on Monday was this. At the time of the Attorney-General's statement we were told that the sequestrators had about £8,000 in cash, which they could glean towards the payment of their fees. The sum was paltry and Price Waterhouse needed to be indemnified. However, it did not want it. That is on public record, so, that matter need not be pursued further.
The House was not told, what any competent lawyer already knew, that the National Union of Mineworkers owned many properties in which its existing officials and retired former officials were tenants. Those union assets are within the United Kingdom and are available to the sequestrators. During the weekend there were press reports about former members of the NUM being written to about the payment of their rent, including Lord Gormley. He was asked to pay his rent and he said that in future he would pay it to the sequestrators.
When the statement was made to the House, that fact was clearly known to the sequestrators. Was it known to the Attorney-General? The assets had a tangible and genuine value and were within the possession of the sequestrators in so far as an application for payment of rent had already been made. What then was the need for the indemnity? The assets were there.
I would not countenance or support the realisation of those assets, but the principle is established. The assets were available. The question of my right hon. and learned Friend to the Attorney-General and that which I put were exactly the same. Bearing in mind what normally happens in a sequestration, what was the purpose of the indemnity? The truth is that it was a purely political act, motivated not by the Attorney-General, but from another quarter, as was clearly demonstrated by the press statement. One more knife was being driven into the wound which has been unnecessarily created during the dispute.
It has been blatantly obvious from the word go that, had the normal rules and practices of industrial action been applied to the dispute, the matter would have been resolved a long time ago. Every time a solution has been sought—my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has referred openly to this in the House—the Coal Board negotiators telephone, not the Coal Board, but Downing street. The dispute has been driven deeper and deeper by the Government's complete inability to negotiate or to behave in a way that sought negotiation.
We can all play politics. We can all say that we want resolution on our terms, but I say this to the Government: every day that passes, people in my constituency are paying the price for the intransigence of the Government and their unwillingness to make a move to resolve the dispute. Many thousands of my constituents, whether they be miners or miners' relatives or children, have suffered inordinately because of the Government's intransigence. It is unnecessary, and it has always been unnecessary, because this matter could have been resolved with good will round the table, provided that the government recognised one thing: that the miners have a deep and abiding loyalty not only to their colleagues but to the industry. The mining communities believe that their industry is worth while. They have a belief in its future that the Government have failed to recognise. The Government seem to have a simple motto: if it stays still long enough, sell it. The coal mining industry is not for sale. It must be developed in the interests of society.
Long after the Government have left office, there will be a coal mining industry, because people such as the constituents whom I am proud to serve will have fought again and again to maintain it. They believe in its future, they recognise its potential, and they will give their all to develop it. It might be a nice new year gesture if the Government showed some confidence and faith in the industry, and tried to do something to support its future rather than seeking to destroy it at every turn.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe) on initiating a debate—I shall try not to stray from the subject—on Price Waterhouse and the sequestration of NUM assets. My hon. Friend, with his great knowledge of mining, expressed his view with sincerity of purpose. I know that his union and his mining friends appreciate his representation of them in the House. I was interested to hear my right hon. and learned Friend the member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) sum up succinctly the legal technicalities, and I hope that the Solicitor-General's reply will show why the Prime Minister was able to give direct instructions that the costs of the firm trying to sequestrate the assets of the NUM would be met by the Treasury.
Will the Government be able to answer some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore)? If they are, as he suggests, infringing the laws of the country, is it not time that the House had an explanation of why, and who gives them the authority if they have it?
It is strange that in a similar case, affecting a different union, the Transport and General Workers Union, the Government have brought in William the Conqueror to rescue the Tory party and to assist the sequestration of funds from the TGWU. The Morning Star of Wednesday 12 December says that the High Court
pulled an official White Rabbit out of the hat to extract £200,000 from the Transport and General Workers Union funds, without imposing sequestration.
The title of the court official discovered for this purpose is the Queen's Remembrancer, a title introduced by William the Conqueror. The Government are going back into the depths of history to find out different officers. Whenever I walk through the corridors of the Palace of Westminster, I am intrigued to find different people lurking around, but I have never found a Queen's Remembrancer. Can we have an explanation about this person. Who pays his salary? What does he get? According to the article in the Morning Star, the holder of
this ancient office, is Mr. J. R. Bickford-Smith, a barrister and a master of the High Court, whose job is to remember and collect debts owed to the Crown.
The court's decision to avoid going through the procedure of sequestrating funds from Britain's biggest union, follows the undignified treatment of the receiver appointed to grab the miners' funds in Luxembourg. I ask for a reply from the Solicitor-General as to who the Queen's Remembrancer is, why he has been appointed, and why it was possible to appoint him before the Government brought in Price Waterhouse to sequestrate the funds of the NUM.
In the Welsh valleys, most of the striking miners have photocopies of the Economist's leaked version of the Ridley report. That shows clearly what the Tory party intends to do with the NUM and with the trade union movement, and what the Tory party in six years of office has accomplished. Things that were not in its manifesto are included in the Ridley report. This proves conclusively what we have said in the House over a number of years.
In March 1983, the then Secretary of State for Energy, the right hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson), gave the House a statement to say that he was appointing Ian MacGregor as the chairman of the NCB. He said:
Accordingly, a fee of £1·5 million will be paid to Lazard Freres in compensation for the loss of Mr. MacGregor's service. Two thirds of that fee will be refundable on a pro rata basis if Mr. MacGregor does not complete his full three-year term." — [Official Report, 28 March 1983; Vol. 40, c. 19.]
Who on earth on the Government Benches, with all their directorships, managing directorships and ownership of many companies would have appointed any person to that type of job at that salary? How long would Government Ministers have allowed that person to remain in office? Mr. MacGregor was appointed on 1 December 1983, and, for 10 of the 14 months he has been in office, he has had the industry on stop. What private company would have allowed that to happen? What private company would have appointed Mr. MacGregor?
Many of my hon. Friends who have participated in this debate tonight asked questions about Mr. MacGregor's appointment when his appointment was announced to the House, and they are still asking questions. Was Mr. MacGregor appointed for the primary purpose of ensuring that the NUM was crushed? I know that the Prime Minister, Ministers and many Tories are still smarting at the result of the NUM's action during the term of the previous Tory Government. I regret the fact that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were not in the Chair when my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) described what is happening to the miners, their wives and children.
I shall be proud until my dying day that I was born the son of a miner in the Rhondda. Miners are the most compassionate race of people one could ever meet. I assure the House that in no way will the mining communities capitulate to threats from the Tory Government. For over half a century, the miners have endured suppression from the Tory Administration. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda stated, the miners will not capitulate to this Government, and the sooner the Government appreciate that fact and negotiate, the better.
Perhaps the Solicitor-General will read my speech on the motion to adjourn the House for the Christmas recess. I asked hon. Members to give two days of their holiday to discuss the miners' dispute. That might be the answer to the problem. If we are the legislators of this country, let us resolve this dispute. My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) is the only Member who has tried to resolve this dispute. If the Government had taken the lead from my right hon. Friend, I am sure that the dispute would have been resolved long before now.
We are debating the intervention of Price Waterhouse which, before this case, was a firm of accountants unknown to the country at large, despite the fact that it controlled an empire worth £60 million a year. It is interesting to step back and to realise why the company became involved in the courts in the first place.
Price Waterhouse became involved because of the action of two scabs who took a case through the courts. They received funding from companies such as United Biscuits. On the secret advice—it later became public—of Mr. MacGregor and his runner, Mr. Hart, shuffling between Hobart house and 10 Downing street, those two individuals were advised to attack NUM funds. Along came Price Waterhouse. The debate correctly concentrates on the way in which Price Waterhouse attacks the NUM's assets.
Not just the NUM's assets are threatened by the work of Price Waterhouse. This week's Militant newspaper prints the letter from Price Waterhouse which has gone out to the general secretaries of every trade union. It demands of every trade union that they issue a report to Price Waterhouse stating the amount of each and every payment that they have made to the National Union of Mineworkers, and whether it was in cash and by way of a loan or gift. If payments were made by cheque, Price Waterhouse require sight or a copy of both sides of the cheques. It wants to know the person or persons to whom the payment was made, the purpose for which the money was used by the miners, whether it is intended to make any further payments with full particulars if they are. Price Waterhouse notes that it is authorised and commanded by the court to take into possession all the assets of the union and says that it intends to track down any money presently controlled by other trade unions which is destined for the NUM.
That is not just an attack on the NUM and its assets but a threat to the control of the funds of 10·5 million members of the Trade Union Congress and its affiliates.
All that Price Waterhouse obtained in the first instance was Lord Gormley's house and swimming pool, and about £8,000 in cash. The date upon which the decision was made to chase the rest of the union's money in Luxembourg is significant. It came at the end of the failure of another of the Coal Board's tactics, which was carried out on the Government's instructions. That was the so-called drift back to work.
The Secretary of State for Energy claimed as far back as July that 60,000 miners were at work. The NCB did not reach that figure until about the middle of November. We must recognise that today 90 per cent. of the miners in Scotland, 97 per cent. of the miners in Yorkshire and 99 per cent. of the miners in south Wales are on strike and have remained solid for nearly 10 months.
The carrot had failed. The bribes had failed. The sums of money that had been approved in the House at half-past one, two and three o'clock in the morning which gave lump sum social security payments to miners to give up the jobs which belong rightly to the next generation in the mining areas leaving school had failed. The Government then thought that they should try the stick, and attack the union through its funds.
The Government used the same speed, prompted by the same obsession of the Prime Minister's, as they had used to attack miners' benefits when they tried to starve them back to work. Only a week ago I asked the Leader of the House in business questions, and the Treasury Bench in questions to the Chancellor immediately before, about the Government's intention to attack single striking miners over the housing benefit that it had been found they were entitled to claim for 10 months if they were paying rent to relatives when living at home. When I asked whether the Government intended to introduce regulations they hummed and hawed. They would not commit themselves. They made the regulations on 17 December; they laid them before Parliament on 18 December; and they came into operation on 19 December. During my brief membership of the House I had understood that there was normally a 21-day waiting period between regulations being laid and coming into operation.
When it comes to attacking the miners, by Price Waterhouse or by laying regulations on the Table, the Government are obsessed almost to the point of insanity with tracking down money which rightly belongs to the NUM or its members. Matters are entirely different when it comes to tax evasion or tax avoidance. There we see plans to close Inland Revenue offices and reduce the number of staff who tackle those who salt money away in Jersey, Guernsey or the Isle of Man. Which nationally know firm of accountants was employed to track down Lord Vestey and his butchers when they paid only 10 quid in tax on £2·5 million profit, or whatever the precise figure was? Was Price Waterhouse brought in then? No. That is because he was a mate of the Tory party. It is a matter of class.
When workers and their money are involved, employ a £60 million firm of accountants to chase them, and give it all the resources it needs. When it is tax evasion and avoidance try to sweep it under the carpet and see whether the matter can be forgotten. That illustrates the political nature of tonight's discussion, and the class nature of the law in the way that it is being employed by the Tory Government at present.
The law is not neutral, not even in this hallowed Chamber where law is supposed to be made. We on the Labour Benches know that it is invented by those like the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The right hon. Gentleman invented it when he was Secretary of State for Employment and so did his predecessor. The law is administered by Tories like Lord Chief Justice Donaldson, who intervened in the battle of the National Graphical Association with Eddie Shah at Warrington. He tried to take the money of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers in 1972. He was the head of the industrial relations court in 1971. We are told that when someone puts on a piece of white fur he becomes a neutral Lord Chief Justice. The present Lord Chief Justice is a former Croydon Tory councillor and a past president of the Conservative and Unionist Association at Cambridge university. I do not believe that his decisions are entirely impartial and fair once he dons a wig. Let us remember that he was consorting with Ministers as recently as 36 months ago and planning recently enacted anti-trade union legislation.
The law is funded by political interests. United Biscuits funded Taylor and Foulstone, which initiated the action against the NUM, and that company funds the Tory party. It is one of the largest contributors to the Tory party. When it comes to selecting a sequestrator, the Government do not have the nouse to pick someone who does not have a political background. They picked a bloke called Brewer the first time round, the vice-chairman of the Hallam Conservative Association. How political can one get? However, the Government saw fit to pick a sequestrator with that sort of political background.
Of course, the Government have had the support of the newspapers. Virtually all the editors have been knighted by the Government. The legislation that we are discussing, which is being followed through by Price Waterhouse, has a political history. It was political when it was invented, administered and enforced.
The Tory Government have failed to crack the solidarity of the majority of miners. They have wasted £4,500 million and more in trying to defeat the NUM. That sum would enable the Government to reduce the burden of every taxpayer by £4 a week or to pay about £25 a week to every person on the dole. That is an example of the uneconomic terms of the strike. Apparently it is more economic to invest that sort of money to try to break the NUM than to give a decent sum to those who are on the dole. The money that the Government have spent in furtherance of the dispute would have been sufficient to provide a new general hospital as well as six new comprehensive schools and 1,000 council houses in each of 45 cities of the size of Coventry. Instead, the Government have spent the money in trying to break the NUM. In addition to the money that they hake already spent, they are funding Price Waterhouse in pursuance of a vindictive court action.
The Government have tried to convince the miners that they were working in an uneconomic industry with uneconomic pits. That argument has failed. It is ironic that one of the five professors of accountancy who have destroyed that argument is a Price Waterhouse man at Manchester university. The Government selected a firm of accountants and one of its members scabbed on them by saying that their economic argument was up the chute. There has been a report from Dr. Andrew Glyn to the effect that their economic argument is up the chute. The Government have included the interest payments that they have received from the National Coal Board. They have included also the compensation payments that have been made to those whose homes have been destroyed by subsidence, especially in the Mansfield area. They have included the pensions paid to retired miners.
Even if the Government close every pit in Britain, they would still have to pay compensation for subsidence, pensions to former miners and interest charges on loans that have been guaranteed. How can those obligations be a charge on the present generation of miners? How can they be a charge on Cortonwood, Betteshanger or any of the other pits that are under threat? They should be a charge upon the Government and they should be borne by them. They should not be used in an attempt to prove that the industry is uneconomic.
The Government have tried to starve the miners back to work by cutting benefits. Benefits have been reduced to a level that is lower than those that would be paid to the families of murderers. They have tried to bludgeon the miners back by the use of the police.
As there are one or two faces in the Chamber that are new to the two debates on the miners that we have had in the past 10 months, I shall say again — it is worth repeating—that four months ago my sister had a baby. My brother-in-law is a member of the NUM. He is an electrician at the Selby coalfield. I visited my family at Selby a couple of days before the baby was born and we watched the television news together. At 20 minutes to six o'clock on the BBC news there was a report of seven policemen in the south being sent to arrest post office robbers who were known to be armed with sawn-off shotguns.
At 5.45 pm on ITV there was an entirely different story in the headlines. There were 1,000 policemen in riot gear on horseback with dogs, truncheons and shields escorting one man—Brian Green—into the Gascoigne Wood area of the Selby coalfield. When it comes to law and order, in the eyes of the Tory Government, it is a bigger crime to stand on the picket line and defend one's job and one's community than to use a sawn-off shotgun. In that case, one out of the seven policemen was shot in the groin and the head. He was put on a life-support machine, and subsequently died, yet more policemen were used to get one scab into a coalfield than were sent to arrest people known to have sawn-off shotguns.
If the fight goes on and the Government succeed in taking away the miners' money for the use of Price Waterhouse, that will not destroy the mood and morale of the NUM and its members, who are defending their communities and their jobs. The argument has nothing to do with economic or uneconomic pits. In the language of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, this is a battle to neuter and castrate the trade union movement, with the NUM being the first in line. The Tory Government think that if they can crack the NUM, the others will despair and be demoralised, and can be beaten. It will not work. The miners will not be defeated. In my area of Warwickshire, and in Wales, Scotland, Yorkshire and other areas, the miners will not be defeated.
The system lorded over by the Government is not working. Some 5 million are on the dole, 6 million live in damp houses, 9·7 million cannot afford a holiday away from home without staying with relatives, and 15 million are on or below the officially defined poverty line. Those are the economic reasons why the Government want to attack the trade union movement. Only the trade unions stand in the way of the working class being further pauperised and the Government enriching their own supporters.
At the beginning of the debate we were talking about Price Waterhouse having to go round the world trying to find the money. I said a few days ago, when the Attorney-General was not sick—I rather suspect that he is not today; he is dodging the column—that it was possible for Price Waterhouse to get the £200,000 without any problem, without travelling outside this country, because ever since the strike began those who have been working in Nottingham, south Derbyshire and Leicestershire have been paying their union contributions through the normal system to the NCB. The element of their contribution that would normally go as part of the imprest account to the NUM has not been sent, so the NCB has more than £200,000 of NUM money, national money, that it could have collected by a simple telephone call to two or three of the working areas, and that would have been the end of it.
If anybody has any doubts about what this business is all about, as many of my hon. Friends have said, it is about trying to cripple the NUM. The Government hope that if they can get away with that—which they will not—they can set upon the rest of the trade union movement, and trade unions will fall like a pack of dominoes. I shall tell the House what the sequestrators and the Government should be doing. It is time that they looked for the disappearing pound. It is 1·174 on today's exchanges against the dollar. It has dropped to the lowest point against all the currencies that are usually used for measuring the level of the pound.
Here we are, with a Government spending up to £5,000 million to try to crush the NUM, and the pound has reached its lowest ever level. In 1974, we defeated the Tory Government, who deliberately went to the country. The NUM did not force the election; the Tory Government decided on it. We defeated them then because the oil prices quadrupled. Would it not be ironic if, when we win this one, it is because the pound has fallen through the floor as oil prices have tumbled? As we watch the pound disappear, it will become clearer to the Government day by day that they will have to try to negotiate their way out of this mess. We have all heard about the Ridley plan. Everyone—even The Economist—knows what that was all about.
I will tell the House what I have learnt from this sequestration business, and I hope that the Labour Government will remember it in the future. If it is right to send Tory officials around the world as sequestrators looking for money that belongs to the working class, because it comes from working people's contributions, the Labour Government must be prepared to go after the Tory money that finishes up in foreign banks to avoid tax in Britain. It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. There is always something that can be used. I warn the Solicitor-General that the time will come when we shall be following the money that the serried ranks of Tories put outside this country rather than pay their taxes in Britain to finance the Health Service and look after the old age pensioners.
Right from the start the Government, with their Fascist tendencies, set out to try to smash the unions, using the police force as the Prime Minister's private army and using the DHSS to starve little children. They have told the BBC that it will not get its licence fees unless it toes the Conservative line. "Speak for MacGregor or you won't get your increase", was the message to that element of the media which some people-I am not so stupid—believe to be impartial. Things are not very different with ITV. A film was commissioned from Ken Loach on the cultural side of the strike. There were people reciting poems, two or three folk singers and a small contribution from me in a speech about Wordsborough. But as soon as they saw the film the Government, with their army of people at ITV, banned it from Britain's screens because it told a story about the pits that they did not want people to hear.
The Government have been using all the echelons of the establishment to try to crush the miners. They have sent stipendiary magistrates to Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire because they were not satisfied with magistrates born and bred in the mining communities. They have used judges to get innumerable writs and injunctions through the courts, brought by working miners on the advice of people straight from the Prime Minister's press office. Few Opposition Members and very few miners will ever again doubt that the arm of the executive and the judiciary are closely combined to try to smash the unions.
A Lloyds bank circular dated 22 November, immediately after sequestration, reads as follows:
Any Branch holding an account … or assets in the names of the following, should report the full details immediately by telephone to the Chief Inspector's Department".
The list that follows begins with John Burrows. He is not on the national executive. He is a Derbyshire miners' official; Kenneth Homer is a Yorkshire miners' official; Nell Elizabeth Hyett is a press officer and has never been elected to any position in the NUM; Henry Richardson is a Nottinghamshire miners' official; Samuel Thompson is a Yorkshire miners' official; and so it goes on.
Those are the lengths to which the Government will go to try to crush the NUM, but we have drawn up a list of ideas that unions can use to get round the restrictions imposed by the courts. We are telling all the trade union executives to ignore the threats from all those involved in the sequestration of NUM funds by continuing to make large donations to the miners' solidarity fund and by offering the NUM large long-term interest-free loans. I want that written in Hansard. They should levy all trade union members at a rate of between 10p and 50p a week. They should collectively hire and pay the wages of all the staff employed by the NUM in all the coalfield offices, for the duration of the strike.
If the other trade unions do that, they can get round the sequestration order and help to finance a continuation of the NUM's tremendous and honourable battle. The battle is not about wages; it is not about greed; it is not about materialism; it is about the right to work and to stop the march forward to the dole queue.
We are calling upon trade unions to dodge the sequestration order by hiring staff on a consultancy basis so that NUM members can give advice—"advice" in inverted commas—to union officials. We ask them to purchase The Miner so that we can continue to get the message across, and to use transport to take people to demonstrations
Those are some of the things that the trade unions can do. They can also step up industrial action. It may well be that, in the new pay round that is beginning, the Government will not be as lucky as they have been during the past 40 weeks. There will be unions that decide that it would not be a bad idea to take on the Government, because the Government could not handle two major disputes at the same time. The Government will not continue to be as lucky as they have been throughout the dispute in that respect.
We are determined to fight on. The Government may think that they have everybody taped. They may think that they have their Back Benchers taped, as indeed they had them taped earlier today. They may think that they can bully their way through to success after success. They may think that luck will be on their side all the time. They may think that they can use the judiciary and the police. But the Government's luck will not last for ever. There will be a reckoning day. As a result of the Government's bullying, and their attacks on the trade union movement, the Government will fall.
The point of this debate is to mobilise support throughout the country, and that is the point of the collections that we make in every Tory constituency in the land. We went to Finchley the other day, to Madam Dross's constituency, and collected money there. We are sending money to the miners from every part of the land. We shall continue to collect that money in order to finance the strike and to provide the umbilical cord between the NUM and the rest of the working class. We will not allow the Government to cripple the NUM and to smash the trade union movement.
I intervene briefly in this dispute to underline what my right hon. and hon. Friends have said in an important debate about a major industrial dispute. The debate arose on the Price Waterhouse situation. I have some evidence for saying that, after being appointed to do the job, Price Waterhouse realised what problems it was up against and what difficulties there would be in chasing the money. I do not believe that Price Waterhouse was influenced by the cost. I believe that the firm made it clear to the Government that the game was not worth the candle and that it was tiring of the situation. The Government realised that if Price Waterhouse withdrew as sequestrator, the matter would go back to the courts and another problem would be created. The Government therefore told Price Waterhouse that it must carry out the court's injunction and that they would indemnify the company for any costs that were incurred.
When he made his statement a few days ago, the Attorney-General talked about a cost of £50,000. The company's fees last year were in excess of £62 million. The Solicitor-General must explain why the Government should, quite unprecedentedly, intervene in a legal decision.
A Minister from the Department of Energy should have been present to hear the debate. My right hon. and hon. Friends have rightly linked the debate with the dispute. That is what it is all about and why Price Waterhouse has been involved. The dispute has now been going on for 10 months. It is a major dispute and, in my opinion, quite unnecessary. It has been created by the NCB's decision of 6 March to make proposals which, in the current financial year, would have meant the loss of 20,000 jobs and the closure of 20 pits. That is what is on the table. The NUM has no demands on the table. This is an argument about not wages or hours, but jobs. It is an argument about the preservation of jobs and of communities, but it does not stop with those 20,000 jobs and 20 pits.
Several reports have questioned the accountancy. We have had the reports of accountants, of the London Business School and of "Diverse Reports" on television recently, which made it clear that not 20,000 but 70,000 jobs and 70 pits are involved. That would represent a reduction of the industry from about 180,000 jobs to 100,000. If that reduction took place and the industry were concentrated solely where there are new pits and where there is new investment, the result would be death for the coalfields of south Wales, Lancashire, Kent, parts of Yorkshire, Scotland and the north-east. The new areas receive 81 per cent. of the investment. The remaining 19 per cent. goes to other areas.
In that regard, the question "What is an uneconomic pit?" is brought into the open. If we exclude pits that the NUM agrees should be excluded because they have been exhausted and pits out of which it is geologically impossible to get coal, what is an uneconomic pit? If the investment and the priority are given, the coal can be got and there is no such thing as an uneconomic pit.
I should like to develop my argument. I should have liked to exchange views with the hon. Gentleman, but I must finish in a couple of minutes.
I believe that there is a basis for a negotiated settlement of the dispute. Last Friday, the TUC put forward sensible and positive suggestions. It asked the Government to reconvene talks, which the NUM was prepared to attend, but the Government said no.
No, I will not.
In my opinion, the Government do not want a settlement of this dispute. They are deliberately allowing it to continue into next year. They want to see a victory over the NUM, but neither I nor my hon. Friends believe that they will achieve that victory. The sooner they realise that, the better for them and the country.
We are now going down a very dangerous road. That is why some of us have worked night and day to try to resolve this dispute on a basis which is honourable and acceptable to the NUM and to the other bodies involved. If the Government do not take heed of what I am saying, some of these problems will come home to roost in 1985.
The Government may think that they are winning, but they are not. Having gone into the coalfields, I know that the miners who are out will stay out. They will fight, and that fight will be increasingly understood by the people of the country. The Government should act now. If they do not, be it on their head if there is a continuation of the dispute well into 1985.
It is a matter of great regret to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General that on the clearest medical advice he is unable to be here tonight. On 11 December he returned for a day or two only from a period of absence due to sickness, and I regretted the slur cast upon him in the recent speech of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who suggested that by his absence the Attorney-General was dodging the column.
However, in a spirit of realism, I did not find that suggestion any less fantastic or unrealistic than many others which graced the hon. Gentleman's speech.
I shall begin with a few comments about the writ and procedure of sequestration in the context of contempt of court—[Interruption.] I shall then describe briefly the special status—[Interruption.] I wonder whether Labour Members are really concerned about the matter we have been discussing. If so, I hope that they will listen, but I have some time left and I shall continue whatever the noise. I shall say a little about the special status and the function of the Attorney-General in matters that concern contempt of court. I shall briefly review the history of the action in which these proceedings against the NUM for contempt of court have culminated in the appointment of sequestrators by the High Court. I shall then recount in outline the matters which led to the Attorney-General's intervention, and describe the power under which it was taken. I shall also deal with the questions which have been asked, but given the shortness of time, if I omit some I shall endeavour to deal with them by correspondence.
From that I anticipate that it will be apparent for those with ears to hear that my right hon. and learned Friend acted with entire constitutional propriety, and that the attacks made upon him have been intemperate and unfounded.
Sequestration is a method by which a court enforces its judgments and orders by proceeding against the property of a person who is in contempt of court. It is a procedure of contempt of court. It can be employed by a court only where the person against whom it is employed is in contempt by disobedience of an order of the court. The purpose of sequestration is to enable the court to force a person in contempt of court to purge his contempt.
I have sat for three hours listening to the debate. I have 12 minutes in which to answer. I propose to do so and to address myself to the real issues. I come now to the status and function of the Attorney-General in matters which concern contempt of court. Holders of his office have traditionally had a role in cases of contempt of court. It was described by Lord Diplock in a quite recent case in the House of Lords—the Attorney-General v. Times Newspapers in 1973. Lord Diplock commended the practice adopted since 1954 whereby the Attorney-General accepts the responsibility of receiving complaints of contempt of court from parties in litigation and of making an application in his official capacity for committal of the offender if he believes this course to be justified in the public interest. Lord Diplock used these words:
meaning the Attorney-General—
is the appropriate officer to represent the public interest in the administration of justice. In doing so he acts in constitutional theory on behalf of the Crown, as do Her Majesty's judges themselves, but he acts on behalf of the Crown as the fountain of justice and not in the exercise of its executive function".
I come next to the appointment of sequestrators. Sequestrators were appointed by Mr. Justice Nicholls in the case of Taylor. The reason was that the union had not paid a fine imposed upon it by the court. The court therefore, in the exercise of its jurisdiction, appointed the sequestrators to seize the assets of the union in order to oblige the union to pay its fines. The hon. Member for
Oginore (Mr. Powell) asked why the Queen's Remembrancer procedure could not have been used. It was a method that could have been used but the court chose to use sequestrators. Either procedure was available. The court is not controlled by the Government. The court has a compltely untrammelled and independent jurisdiction. Mr. Justice Nicholls fined the NUM £200,000 on 10 October for contempt of court. He ordered that if the fine was not paid within 14 days he would consider ordering sequestration. That is what Mr. Justice Nicholls did.
I turn to the circumstances that led to the giving of the indemnity. By 12 November only about £8,500 of NUM assets had been seized by the sequestrators. The hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) asked whether or not certain properties are owned by the NUM. To our knowledge there are two. There may be more; I know of no others. Those properties are owned or lived in by Mr. Daly and Lord Gormley. They were known at the time of the Attorney-General's statement to be the property of the NUM, but my right hon. and learned Friend's statement was perfectly accurate. He said that they set about taking possession of the assets and that they had been able to seize assets only to the value of about £8,500. The vast majority of the remaining assets of the union, amounting to many millions of pounds, had been transferred by the union to banks in various foreign countries.
In proceedings taken in Dublin the sequestrators obtained an interim injunction in their action to secure funds that had been lodged in Dublin. The Dublin High Court had given an interim injunction and the sequestrators had obtained the agreement of the Irish judge to accept a bond for £2,500 to be paid for out of the sequestrated assets. The sequestrators undertook to use their best endeavours to find such a bond, but they experienced difficulty in finding insurers who would provide a bond in the market. A bond was ultimately obtained, but only after the indemnity was offered by the Attorney-General.
At that point, the sequestrators approached the court that had appointed them, and I understand that they expressed some concern that they were being asked to provide a bond and might be exposed to personal liability. They learnt from the court that it had no funds of its own. Learning of that—I hope that the House has expressed a genuine interest in what happened, because it is on that basis that I am endeavouring to give an accurate account of what occurred—the Attorney-General spoke to the senior sequestrator, Mr. Larkin, and learnt that the sequestrators had set aside £50,000 of their own money to be spent before they would go back to the court. In the opinion of the Attorney-General, it was on the cards that if that money were spent and no money from which the sequestrators could be reimbursed had been seized, they would go back to the court to seek a discharge.
It was as a result of that discussion about the difficulties facing the sequestrators that the Attorney-General decided that it would be in the public interest to offer the indemnity to cover the sequestrators' reasonable and proper costs.
I have been asked about consultation, and the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Welsh) asked whether, as he put it, the Prime Minister had any part. The Attorney-General was obliged to consult Ministers to discover whether the contingent liabliliy might be imposed on the Treasury. Following that discussion and consultation, he offered the indemnity, in the circumstances that he has already described to the House.
I have been asked by what authority the Crown is entitled to give that indemnity. The answer is that it was given under the common law powers of the Crown, which has the same freedom as any individual in the realm to give an indemnity unless precluded by statute. There is no such statute—
I have already said that a bond was ultimately obtained for £2,500, which is what was sought by the Irish court. However, it was obtained only after the indemnity had been put forward.
I said that the Crown's power derives from the common law and there is no statute in this case precluding the issuing of an indemnity by the Crown. It is entitled to take that action. Before any money can be paid under the indemnity, the Crown must get statutory authority, which is why a Consolidation Fund Act would be required if the money had to be paid.
On behalf of the Attorney-General, I want to make it clear what the argument is. My right hon. and learned Friend has been subjected tonight, in his absence, to attacks that reflect on his honour. [Interruption.] I wish to to have an opportunity to reply to them —[Interruption.] I shall reply to them, whatever the noise. Whatever issues this matter gives rise to, they will not be illuminated by my being shouted at by Opposition Members.
Any Law Officer has to exercise his special jurisdiction as a guardian of the public interest and, indeed, his judicial jurisdiction in such a way as to exclude any consideration of party partisanship. That is fundamental to our arrangements. No Law Officer needs to have that pointed out. Any Law Officer knows that his decisions may be attacked as being improperly taken. I do not credit the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) with the common courtesy of having given my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General notice of what he was going to say.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Solicitor-General to attack an hon. Member for not having given notice, when in the normal course of events the Attorney-General could be expected to reply to the debate? Cannot we have a modicum of common sense from the Solicitor-General?
The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch knows that he should have given notice, even if the Attorney-General was here. I say only that his allegations against my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General inspire in me a contempt very different in character from that with which we have been dealing.
Never before, to my knowledge, has there been a precedent for this—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"]—but never has there been a precedent when a fine imposed by a court has been defeated, defied and frustrated by moving the assets overseas. This was an unprecedented strategy and it demanded an unprecedented intervention in the exercise of an undoubted jurisdiction by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. The attacks on the propriety of his actions and of the courts I reject utterly; and I reject them with profound scorn.
Before I take the hon. Gentleman's point of order, I must remind him that we are now in private Member's time. Any time now taken up will come off the time allotted to another hon. Member who has been fortunate in the ballot.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have presided over much of a very serious and important debate on the funds of a national trade union and on the effects for its members. During that debate, and particularly during the concluding speech of the Solicitor-General, two Tory Members were in the Chamber: one was in a penguin suit and he passed out during the debate. That does not show any respect to the Chair, or to the seriousness of the debate. That hon. Gentleman was the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh).