§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Harper.]
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Edwin Brooks (Bebington)
The Donovan Commission has already figured prominently in our debate this evening, and among other things it has recently given us a valuable summary of the so-called trade dispute disqualification for unemployment benefit, and I am conscious that any remarks of mine will do scant justice to a deep-seated, complex and controversial problem to which there is no simple answer.
It would also be out of order, in a debate such as this, to recapitulate those arguments which led the Commission to argue for certain changes in the law, although it is relevant to my subject to-night to stress, as did the Commission, thatsubject to minor drafting amendments the conditions under which disqualification for unemployment benefit occur have remained unchanged since 1927.My purpose is not to delve into the remote past, but to describe a number of events which occurred in my constituency, and on Merseyside, during the Parliamentary Recess, and, in particular, I should like to examine what happened at Girling's brake factory, Bromborough, where successive disputes led to serious dislocation throughout the motor industry.
The scale of the turmoil which these and similar local disputes can cause in such a closely interlocked industry needs no stressing. Rather like the chain reaction in a critical mass of plutonium, 1717 the economic repercussions are wholly disproportionate to the original small-scale explosion over wage rates, bonuses, or what-have-you.
But if only because such inordinate damage can be sparked off by local grievances and resentment, it is important that potential friction-points are removed wherever possible, and that the role of the State is seen to be fair.
As the law now stands, workers laid off by an industrial dispute are entitled to unemployment benefit if they can prove that they were not participating in the trade dispute which caused the stoppage, nor financing it, nor directly interested in it. But, in addition to this, there is the so-called "grade or class" provision, which debars the worker's entitlement to benefit if he belongs to a grade or class of workers, some members of whom were participating in, financing, or directly interested in the dispute.
In 1927, this provision was narrowed, and has since applied only in respect of workers of the same grade or class employed at those premises where the stoppage occurred.
Now, against this background, let me turn to the dispute which erupted initially on 22nd August and again in the first week of September, and involved 27 standard body shop inspectors of the 204 inspection department at Girling's. This was an unofficial dispute over a productivity bonus, and according to a letter addressed by the firm on the 4th to the local employment exchange, the 40 remaining patrol inspectors at the factory—who had been laid off as a result of the dispute together with many other employees—wouldnot benefit from any productivity bonus the 27 patrol inspectors obtain from our domestic negotiations.Furthermore, went on the firm,they are a different class of patrol inspector than the ones that were in dispute with the company,One the face of it, the firm should know best what goes on within the factory, and it was quite clear that any link between the strikers and their similarly titled workmates was tenuous. Nevertheless, the wheels of procedure ground on, and the firm were asked for further details on behalf of the regional insurance officer. 1718 Eight questions, which I presume must be fairly standard ones, were put. including:How are each group of workers regarded, i.e. are they skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled?I suppose that as a means of building up an identikit of ineligible outlaws, such questions might contribute relevant information. But if I can look more closely at the question I have just quoted, it seems hard to square this with the concluding part of paragraph 977 in Donovan, which relates how an attempt by a local insurance officer to define a man's "class" of work in crude terms such as "semi-skilled" was dismissed by the Chief Insurance Commissioner.
As Donovan makes clear, to use such crude designations for the purposes of the Act would be to disqualify vast numbers of workers all of whom fall within that same general class as the actual strikers. Yet the questionnaire seems to regard such correlations as meaningful.
There is not time to discuss each of the other questions, but the same sort of criticism can surely be levelled at the question "Are the two groups of workers interchangeable?"
In levelling such criticism, I realise full well the dilemma of the Ministry officials who have to interpret a law which Donovan itself regards as ambiguous and unsatisfactory, and which appears to have been so regarded as early as Lord Blanesburgh's Committee on the unemployment insurance scheme in 1925–27.
Nevertheless, I am bound to say that the plight of the 40 unfortunate patrol inspectors—for they were refused unemployment pay as from 22nd August, in the light of the replies sent to the questionnaire—makes me doubt whether the procedure for implementing the grade or class provision can be other than pendantic, inflexible and bureaucratic.
Indeed, the problem is almost one of semantics, with vital terms such as "class" of work being open to varying interpretations of the sort of I have described over the "unskilled" argument Again, if I may quote Donovan:We ourselves are"—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. If the hon. Member does not give way. the hon. Member 1719 for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) must remain seated.
§ Mr. Brooks
It would be more appropriate if I concluded the sentence. The Donovan Report says:We ourselves are not able to suggest a definition of 'directly interested' which will put all doubts to rest.I hope that that clears up the point.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Member has no prescriptive right to intervene. His right to do so is conceded to him by the hon. Member who has the Floor.
§ Mr. Brooks
Speaking from memory, the hon. Member will find it in one of the paragraphs between paragraph 950 and paragraph 990.
Finally, on this vital difficulty of definition of terms used in the Statute, there is the anomaly, if not the ambiguity, inherent in the disqualification extending only to workers employed in the same "premises"—particularly in a period when it can truly be said that no factory is an island. Short of the change proposed by Donovan—to abolish the grade or class provision and end these capricious and bitterly resented decisions—I would have thought it sensible to disqualify such men, and only such men, as the firm itself in the first instance is prepared to allege fall within the Act.
Such an allegation would, naturally, have to be tested carefully, in the same way as at present, by the regional insurance officer; but it would end such absurdities as the disallowance of the 40 inspectors at Girlings, since the firm would not have wished to see innocent men "fined" by a blundering State bumbledom. I put this suggestion forward somewhat tentatively, since the rules of procedure forbid me doing what I would otherwise do—which is to reinforce wholeheartedly the Donovan recommendation about the abolition of the grade or class rule.
My second case history, again at Girling's last autumn, was closely linked to the original dispute I have mentioned, but quite different issues of procedure were raised by it. The dispute which led to unofficial action by the 27 inspectors was settled on the weekend of the 1720 14th-15th September, but in the meantime a further dispute involving security men at the factory—who were supported by the lorry drivers—had completely closed the works.
The circumstances of this strangely interwoven sympathy action are not really relevant to my story—and they were in any case described in a well-authenticated article by Anthony Cowdy, in the Sunday Times of 22nd September—but suffice it to say that the inspectors, all 67 of them, were unable to resume work on the 16th.
On the 18th, following the men's perfectly natural and legitimate request for unemployment pay as from the beginning of that week, the local employment exchange sought some clarification of their position from Girling's. The firm were asked to confirm that agreement had been reached and that "all patrol inspectors would have resumed work on the 16th but for the current dispute with security men etc."
On the 19th, following representations to me by some of the inspectors, I had lengthy discussions with both the firm and the local employment exchange manager, and I summarised the position in a letter sent that same day to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Employment and Productivity. The firm, which did not receive the letter of inquiry by the employment exchange until the 20th, were naturally only too happy to clarify the position of the inspectors, and the whole matter, I felt, could have been settled—subject to a confirmation in writing—by a quick telephone call from the regional office to the firm.
However, despite my making the point that the inspectors had by then been without unemployment pay for four weeks—and that includes the 40 who had never even struck in the first place—Manchester were unable to reach any quick decision. I personally was given to understand that "all the papers" had to go up to London, although I am blessed if I see why we have regional and local offices unless they have delegated powers to make quick decisions in cases such as this.
Small wonder that as the days went by the resentment of the 40 inspectors mounted, for, in effect, they were now being penalised not only for having been 1721 unlucky enough to belong to the same grade or class as their striking colleagues, but also for having been unable to return to work because another group of workmates, not even in the same grade or class, had in the meantime taken industrial action. The regional office appears not to have consulted the C.I.O. until 25th September, two days after the men finally were able to resume work.
A few days may not matter much to Ministry officials, who are no doubt groaning under the weight of all the papers which they are busily despatching back and forth to London. But it matters to men who are denied something to which they rightly feel entitled. In fact, it was not until the Friday of the following week—the 27th—over a week after I made my own telephoned and written inquiries, that the matter was sorted out and benefit granted as from the 16th. It may well be true, indeed, that the regional insurance office approached the local offices to authorise this only as late as 2nd October.
In a reply which my hon. Friend sent me on the 18th of this month, which covered a wide range of issues accumulated during the previous month, he said thatthe circumstances of trade disputes inevitably make it very difficult for our officers to establish all the facts necessary to enable the statutory authorities to determine the claims made by workers laid off.I accept that delay is unavoidable in such circumstances, and I do not want to suggest that officials who are burdened by a host of claims are being dilatory for the sheer hell of it. But I really do not see, in the dispute which I have just described, why the whole matter could not have been settled by a simple question being put to the firm: are the inspectors still off work because of the dispute which some of their number engineered, or is their present unemployment inadvertent? Surely that involves precious little paper work.
Instead of that, I received a letter only this evening from the personnel manager of the firm in which he said:You will, I am sure, understand when I say that in the aftermath of the strike the patrol inspectors who did not receive benefit were very bitter, and I regret to say the blame was directed against the management of this company.1722 That is not the way to establish good industrial relations in this industry.
I wish, finally, to turn to the quite distinct procedures over disqualification due to so-called "misconduct". In the standard form of inquiry which is filled in by an employer following termination of a worker's job, misconduct is stated to includesuch matters as breaches of discipline or works rules, or conduct which is inconsistent with the fulfilment of conditions of employment, or which prevents an employee from performing his work efficiently.I accept, of course, that an employer must have the absolute right—a common law right confirmed in the Contracts of Employment Act, 1963—to dismiss without notice for misconduct. No one could tolerate the sort of gross insubordination which might well, among other things, endanger the safety of fellow workmates. But procedure over dismissal is one thing; procedure over the repercussions of various types of dismissal upon unemployment benefit is another thing altogether.
The present situation is that where unemployment is due to misconduct as I have described, or due to the worker losing his employment "voluntarily without just cause," he is liable to forfeiture of benefit for up to six weeks. Last month I was told by the late secretary of the Birkenhead branch of the E.T.U., Mr. J. F. Johnston, of the experience of some of his members. They had. he wrote,changed jobs and were made redundant in less than six weeks work. Their benefit was suspended whilst inquiries were made from the firm which made them redundant and from the previous firm they had worked for. When the Ministry found out they had been simply made redundant, their benefit was restored.My subsequent inquiries were answered by my hon. Friend on 27th September. He explained the way in which the six weeks' disqualification rule led to a procedure—in essence non-discretionary, if I understand him—whereby inquiries were made to all those employers for whom the unemployed applicant for benefit had worked in the previous seven weeks. If any reply "raises doubt" about entitlement,payment of benefit is suspended while the necessary further inquiries are made of the claimant, and sometimes of the employer.1723 Despite my hon. Friend's explanation, I find this all rather unsatisfactory. Furthermore, this simple example seems to illustrate the wholly dubious philosophy of the rule itself. For here is the State accepting the unsupported word of the employer, and delaying the payment of perhaps urgently needed benefit to someone who has been presumed guilty of an alleged misdemeanour for which—even if true—he has already been punished by loss of job. The employer, who might have unfairly alleged misconduct—a point which Donovan grapples with in a major section—gets off scot-free. He is not fined by the State if the allegations prove groundless or mendacious.
To put it summarily, I suspect that for many years we have tended to confuse two distinct issues: industrial disciplines and National Insurance provisions. But even accepting, as here I must, that the law is the law and that the State should act as a financial long-stop to the employer's authority in the factory, I urge my hon. Friend to look again at the day-to-day procedure for determining blame. I am uneasy about a procedure which seems to penalise, and even humiliate, a man before he has an opportunity to put his side of the argument.
Put this way, I feel that all my cases have at least this much in common; that whether the person be one of my patrol inspectors who struck, or one who did not strike, or one of Mr. Johnston's electricians, we see a procedure which is riddled with anomalies and potential unfairness, and conducted with a painstaking slowness which does nothing to help remove the thousand and one pinpricks caused to industrial relations. The Ministry is rightly urging a more rapid disputes procedure to help eradicate these damaging strikes. A similar sense of impatience would not come amiss within the Ministries themselves.
§ 9.31 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (Mr. E. Fernyhough)
The subject which my hon. Friend the Member for Bebington (Mr. Brooks) has chosen to discuss on the Adjournment tonight has been raised many times in the House in the 20 or so years that I have been an hon. Member. 1724 On past occasions I have done precisely the same as my hon. Friend in raising this matter.
My hon. Friend has expressed concern with the way in which the trade dispute disqualification has been applied in the circumstances of the dispute at Girlings. He will not, of course, expect me to make any comment on what he said about this. The date from which the disqualification of the patrol inspectors was removed was a matter, as are all decisions on individual cases, for the independent statutory authorities alone, and my right hon. Friend has no power to intervene in them.
I wish to speak of the trade dispute disqualification itself, because I know from experience that men affected by it sometimes find it difficult to understand why they have been refused benefit, not least in the very complicated dispute of the kind we are discussing. It would, in any event, be unrealistic to expect any rule which deals with so controversial a subject to escape criticism, and we all recognise—I am sure that my hon. Friend does—that trade disputes can develop in a great variety of circumstances, and the problems of devising a formula which will limit the payment of unemployment benefit in a way that is accepted as reasonable by all concerned—that is by management and trade unions—are very formidable indeed.
This was one reason why the Donovan Commission was asked by the Government to examine the working of the trade dispute disqualification for unemployment benefit. I will come to its recommendations, to which my hon. Friend referred, though I realise that as legislation would be required to implement them, I would incur your displeasure, Mr. Speaker, if I said too much on this topic.
My hon. Friend will appreciate that it can be a difficult task to establish the true and relevant facts of the situation when a dispute occurs, a task which has additional difficulties as the situation changes and further grades of worker are affected.
That was so in the case of the Girling dispute, where there were further withdrawals of labour arising from other 1725 issues but affecting the intended resumption of work. Then there was the complication of a later second withdrawal by the patrol inspectors.
Strictly speaking, the National Insurance Act, 1965, results in the disqualification of all persons laid off because of a trade dispute at their place of employment unless they are able to prove that they are free from disqualification in the way allowed by the Act. In practice, however, careful inquiries are made by employment exchanges, in consultation with regional officers, to discover from the employer and the trade unions or parties concerned the detailed facts of the situation which the statutory authorities will require.
It would not be possible to deal efficiently with the large numbers of workers who can be affected by disputes without adopting what is known as the test case procedure. This involves the selection of individual cases which are agreed with the unions as representative of the various grades of workers involved. The procedure is advantageous to claimants, to the adjudicating authorities and to our Department. It saves large numbers of individual claims liable to disqualification, and saves the adjudicating authorities from having to determine every individual claim. It speeds up the adjudication process—and, indeed, permits the speedy allowance of all those cases in which benefit can properly be paid. For these reasons it is generally regarded as acceptable by the workers organisations.
Trade dispute claims are considered by regional insurance officers because of the complexity and importance of the cases and because the effect of decisions goes far beyond a single employment exchange area. My hon. Friend will have noticed that the test cases for the large body of operatives affected by the dispute in the first place were investigated and selected, sent to the regional insurance officer and decided favourably by him within a matter of five days.
It is the case representing the 40 patrol inspectors who were laid off following the withdrawal of labour of 27 patrol inspectors which is presenting difficulty. This case involved several inquiries before the regional insurance officer imposed a disqualification for the period of the stoppage. An appeal was made 1726 against that decision at the beginning of this month, and the appeal will be heard by the local tribunal on 4th November. Papers have to be prepared for the use of the tribunal, the claimant and other interested parties. In fixing the date for the hearing, the availability of the chairman and members has to be taken into account, together with the necessity of at least a week's notice to all concerned. The object is to fix the hearing at the earliest date possible and permitting the attendance of a full tribunal, the insurance officer, the claimant, the trade union representative and, where necessary, the employer.
I now turn to the separate question of disqualification because of misconduct or leaving voluntarily and the inquiries which have to be initiated by employment exchanges. When such doubts arise, my hon. Friend will appreciate that there must be adequate protection for the National Insurance Fund against claims for benefit. In these circumstances, there is no alternative to suspending payments of benefit whilst inquiries are made. But my Department's local offices fully realise the necessity for making these essential inquiries with the utmost speed. Nevertheless, there must be times when the facts are difficult to establish and the inquiries—in fairness to all concerned—are bound to take longer than may seem reasonable to a man who believes that his benefit has been wrongfully withheld.
I think we are all aware that the present trade dispute rules for unemployment benefit have at times caused a good deal of dissatisfaction, and my hon. Friend has certainly made his dissatisfaction clear tonight—particularly with the "grade or class" provision. But let us recognise what these rules are supposed to do. They are not intended to enter upon the merits of the dispute—and indeed they must not do so—nor are they intended to imply any judgment upon the parties to the dispute. They exist simply to limit the payment of unemployment benefit so that it cannot be said that the State social security scheme is giving financial support to people who stand to gain from an industrial dispute.
Naturally some of those affected by the rules will claim that they are harsh, and certainly nobody would deny that their practical operation is at times 1727 exceedingly complex. But then, so are some of the disputes to which they must apply. As my hon. Friend has said, the Royal Commission has recommended the abolition of the grade or class provision. It has also suggested that the concept of financing should be considerably modified. These recommendations, along with numerous other recommendations made by the Commission, are now being considered by the Government in consultation with both sides of industry. Inevitably, this takes time, but we realize 1728 the urgency of reaching conclusions and my right hon. Friend has undertaken to present a White Paper as soon as possible.
We share my hon. Friend's concern about these issues, but this is not a simple matter, nor simply an insurance matter. It goes deep down into the whole question of industrial relations.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Ten o'clock.