§ 7.19 p.m.
§ LORD DELACOURT-SMITH rose to move, That this House takes note of the industrial situation. The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is not a subject upon which at the moment one is likely to find oneself short of material, and it is not easy to select from the various 259 aspects of the present industrial situation those which should be particularly emphasised, or to select observations which one hopes will be constructive in the situation in which we now are.
Last Friday the Financial Times reviewed the figures which have just been issued by the Department of Employment for Industrial Disputes for the first half of 1972. They used the following words:
At 15.4 million the number of days lost through industrial disputes in the first half of this year is already well above the 13.5 million total for the whole of last year which itself was the highest annual figure since 1926, the year of the General Strike.
§ They went on to point out that although this year's figures are, of course, influenced by the more than 10 million days lost by the miners' strike the statistics now issued by the Department of Employment show that the recent trend towards fewer but longer strikes appears to have ended and that the number of strikes is growing.
§ The number of days lost in industrial disputes is not the only, and in my view not even the best, index of the state of industrial relations. But it is to strike statistics that the Conservative Party, particularly when in opposition, encourage the public to pay most attention. Certainly by that test we have seen a steady deterioration in industrial relations and a rise in industrial strife since the present Government took office two years ago. It would be a bold man indeed who would suggest that the second half of the present year was necessarily likely to show an improvement. We have at the moment a national dock strike. It may be that the noble Lord who is to speak for the Government will have a particular announcement to make in that regard. We must in all parts of the House hope for an early settlement on the lines of the Jones/Aldington Report.
§ Had it not been for a particular sequence of events we should yesterday have had a national day of protest and industrial action organised by the Trades Union Congress in which they would have called for the support of all affiliated unions. Had that taken place, it would have been a development of great seriousness. The fact that it was in active contemplation casts a light upon the present industrial situation and the present state of industrial relations which 260 should make us all pause and take stock. Some find it tempting to say that there is in the disputes of the last two or three weeks one simple issue over-riding all others—that of the rule of law. Of course, every man and woman should obey the law or be ready to accept the penalty for disobeying it. But difficulties arise when, because they see the issue as a vital one, men defy the law fully accepting the consequences of that defiance. When the consequence is imprisonment and when many other people sympathise with them, the situation becomes one in which the law breakers are regarded as heroes and difficulties accumulate. Those imprisoned become an immensely powerful focus of feeling about the issue. Imprisonment has always made the settlement of any industrial dispute much more difficult.
§ It is not the first time, and I do not think it will be the last, that individuals have in a calculated way defied the law and been prepared to accept the punishment which that carried. When that has happened—and it has happened here and in other countries—it is usually wise for the authorities to take a hard look at the situation and at the ways in which they may ensure that breaking the law does not command sympathy. I hope therefore that the Government will not play exclusively on this aspect of the situation, important though it is, and will not pursue the course of trying to present the Opposition or the trade unions as in favour of anarchy. Trade unions are accustomed to obeying the law. It is an unfortunate half-truth which has gained widespread currency and which has not helped our consideration of industrial relations that trade unions are in some way above the law or beyond the law. There are many aspects of trade union life and activity which for many years have been subject to legal process. The trade unions have always shown a great respect for the law.
§ In the period ahead, as I see it, it is not the possible breaking of laws that is the problem, although life is difficult for trade unions when they hardly know from day to day what the law is and what are the implications of successive judgments. I personally do not think that it is the possible breach of the law that is the main element in our industrial situation at which we ought to look. A main element 261 seems to be that it is likely that the trade unions will stick to the intention not to co-operate in the operation of the Industrial Relations Act, will continue to decline to register, will decline to nominate members for the N.I.R.C. or to cooperate, save in limited circumstances, with the Commission on Industrial Relations. These intentions are not unlawful, but they are a symptom of a deep division that cannot fail to reinforce the need for all of us to review the situation which we have reached. I would emphasise that these are not intentions which are in character with the British trade union movement. The record of that movement of co-operation with successive Governments is well known.
§ We must therefore ask ourselves what has contributed to the present unhappy situation. It is, first of all, the whole attitude of the Government in dealing with the trade unions. They have from the first given the impression of treating them as scapegoats, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The Government seemed to think that their co-operation in seeking to combat inflation was not worth having. This led in the first months of the Government's Office to the unions being snubbed and their constructive suggestions rejected. The Government have placed the main emphasis in fighting inflation on restraining wages while holding themselves free to take action which has allowed many costs affecting the working-class budget to rise. This attitude has turned every major wage negotiation into a confrontation with the Government and it has not been a successful policy when one looks back over it from the Government's point of view.
§ Then the Industrial Relations Act itself widened the gulf. I do not think the Government even yet fully understand how deeply opposed the trade union movement is to that Act and the loss of confidence in the Government which was created by the way in which it was introduced, by the disregard of the Donavan recommendations and by the lack of consultation of a true kind with the trade unions. It is true that opinion polls can be quoted to show a section of trade union opinion sympathetic to the Act, but generally, if my experience is any guide, those who are prepared to declare themselves sympathetic to the Act are the less active and less involved trade union mem- 262 bers. Active trade unionists, those who contribute to the formulation of trade union policies and whose lead their fellow workers are usually content to accept, are overwhelmingly critical of the Act and of the way the Government have handled it. This, of course, has been expressed through formal trade union channels.
§ I shall not try to cover the whole story of the Act as it and its defects have been so widely canvassed in the Press and elsewhere in the last few days. But it is fair to say that it has failed in all the major claims which were made for it. It was claimed that it would reduce the time lost in strikes. In fact, the time so lost has increased. Everybody heaved a sigh of relief, in the light of experience, when the Government made it clear that they had at any rate no immediate intention of invoking the Act in the present dock strike. It was claimed that it would produce a better spirit in industrial relations. The spirit, my Lords, has worsened. It was claimed, above all, that it would strengthen moderate, constructive trade union leadership. We are well familiar with and well accustomed to the activities of those in the trade union movement who always seek to suggest that relations with the employer and with Government should be thought of in terms of conflict and never in terms of co-operation, whatever the circumstances. The Act has been a boon to such extremists.
§ It has been widely recognised in the last few days that there is a danger of the Act bringing the law into disrepute. This is indeed now being said almost everywhere. I will not go through the other defects which experience has revealed: the extent to which the operation of the Act itself ties the hand of Government; prevents the Government from taking initiatives which they might otherwise wish to take in industrial relations situations; the degree to which an industrial situation can be transformed by the activation of the provisions of the law by one individual or one firm without regard to the effect which that might have upon negotiations going on, perhaps covering the industry as a whole. Indeed there is, I think, no denying that the present dock strike, having its genesis in the rejection by the dockers' conference of the Jones/Aldington recommendations, is in part due 263 to the great worsening of the situation at that time by the operation of the Industrial Relations Act.
§ The ordinary man or woman on whose respect for the law we all so much rely for the maintenance of a civilised society can hardly have that respect increased when one sees the opposite view taken on a crucial provision of a newly enacted Act of Parliament by the Court of Appeal and then by the House of Lords—both unanimous and both reaching their decisions upon chains of argument which it is extremely hard for the ordinary man to follow. These defects and dangers are being more and more widely and urgently recognised. When one looks to the future, of course it is always tempting for a Government to believe that they should pursue their policies and hope that they will gain acceptance after initial hostility and criticism, but it is hard to believe that co-operation with the Act will grow. This will, of course, have to be discussed at the Trades Union Congress early in September and my own judgment is that at that time the hostility to the Act—
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ [The Sitting was suspended at 7.39 p.m. and resumed at 7.44 p.m.]
§ LORD ABERDARE
My Lords, I am sure that it will be your Lordships' wish, the noble Lord, Lord Delacourt-Smith, having been taken ill, to express our hope that he will soon be back with us. I think that it would be most dignified, and a token of the respect in which we hold the noble Lord, if we were now to adjourn the House. I accordingly move that the House do now adjourn.
§ Moved, That the House do now adjourn.—(Lord Aberdare.)
§ LORD SHACKLETON
My Lords, I am sure that, in the circumstances, that would be the right course. We appreciate the sympathy which the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, has expressed and we 264 wish to echo those sentiments. As it will be possible for us to raise this matter on another occasion, I am sure that the course he has proposed is the right one in the circumstances.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR (LORD HAILSHAM OF SAINT MARYLEBONE)
My Lords, before I put the Question, I am sure that the whole House will wish to be associated with what has been said from the two Front Benches. Noble Lords will, I know, wish to send to our noble friend, Lord Delacourt-Smith, our deep affection and say that we greatly admired the courage with which he sustained his duties to-night.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.