Civil Contingencies Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 16th November 2004.

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Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe Shadow Minister, Home Affairs 4:45 pm, 16th November 2004

My Lords, your Lordships will now be more than familiar with this amendment as I have run it at both Committee and Report stages of the Bill. We have brought it back to Third Reading as, I am sorry to say, each time we have a debate on the issue the Minister, despite her best efforts, has not convinced me of the Government's way of thinking.

The amendment would leave out one of the two exceptions in the Bill; interfering with strike action. I have spoken about my objection to this exception at length, but I want to take a little time to outline our concerns one last time in the hope that I can persuade the Minister to accept the amendment.

We on these Benches do not believe that it is right or sensible to allow strikes to continue when the country is facing or about to face a national or serious emergency. It is obvious that in such a situation we may well need ambulance drivers and crew, firemen and workers in transport, most commonly London Underground workers. For one reason or another, which I will not go into now, these groups are also those which feature most prominently in the national news for industrial action. The point I made on Report about strikes during the Second World War was unfortunately misunderstood by other noble Lords and I shall try to explain it further today.

During Committee, the Government put forward the argument that during a time of crisis those on strike would come back to work without question. Unfortunately, the statistics I used on Report showed that goodwill alone cannot be relied upon during times of national crisis. It is sad to say that many withheld their labour during the Second World War; a time when to do so was frowned upon.

I move on to another of the Government's arguments; that we have always had the exemption and that it should remain because of historical significance. It seems a curious argument from a Government who want to get rid of the Lord Chancellor, want to get rid of hunting and seem determined to get rid of jury trial, which is one of the cornerstones of our legal system, that simply because we have had a law for 80 years we should keep it on the statute book.

The Government's final argument which has been most recently advanced is that there are criminal laws in place for individuals on strike who know that they are endangering lives. However, I am unsure how this would work in practice. If someone were already out on strike and did not know that there was some sort of emergency, clearly he would lack the mens rea required to commit a crime and incur criminal liability.

We have been working hard to try to put sufficient safeguards into the Bill. We have improved it in a number of ways, but this is a point about which we still feel strongly. The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said on Report that the right to withdraw labour within the law is a fundamental right that should be protected, even during emergencies; that the deliberate endangerment of human life or property, or causing illness or injury, are matters of criminal law. That is fine, but this does not—I repeat, does not—as the Minister believes, place a proper limit on the potential effects of industrial action.

I urge the Minister, at this late stage, to reconsider our amendments. I beg to move.