§ 5.35 p.m.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a Statement on the dispute between the Messenger Newspaper Group and the National Graphical Association, on the disorders which have arisen outside the company's works, and on the wider implications of the dispute.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to ask the Unstarred Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I believe that what has happened in Warrington this week has shocked public opinion in this country. It has been one of the worst episodes of industrial violence which we have witnessed in this country for several years. Before discussing some of the issues involved, perhaps I may set up some of the 835 background to the dispute. Mr. Shah, the founder of the Messenger Group of newspapers. is a successful small businessman. With a staff of only five, he formed the first company in the existing group in 1974, when he founded the Sale & Altrincham Messenger, a free distribution newspaper. He now has six such newspapers, all in the North-West of England, and employs a staff of 120 people.
§ Mr. Shah's first printing work was carried out at Carlisle under a closed shop agreement with the National Graphical Association. Five years later, in 1979, he moved to Stockport. where he again signed a closed shop agreement with the NGA; and. as I believe a number of your Lordships will be aware. he himself was until this week a member of the NGA. Two years later. in 1981, serious problems began to arise at Stockport between Mr. Shah and the NGA over the introduction of new machinery and over a new house agreement.
§ Nevertheles, soon afterwards, in 1982, when Mr. Shah opened a new plant in Bury, he had discussions with the West Pennine Branch of the union, and an application was made for an interim closed shop agreement. However, Mr. Shah and the NGA failed to reach agreement on terms and working practices as between Bury and Stockport, and Mr. Shah cancelled his application for the closed shop at Bury. Four months later the Bury plant began to operate with a combination of people, some of whom were members of the trade union and some of whom were not.
§ By the beginning of this year Mr. Shah had begun to recruit for his printing works at Warrington. He had still not firmly ruled out a closed shop agreement, and he agreed to allow the NGA to make a presentation to his staffs at Bury and Warrington. This they did, and in June of this year the company held a secret ballot of its employees, inviting them to express a view on the post-entry closed shop. His staff rejected it. This was reported to the National Graphical Association executive, and there were further meetings with the Messenger company. However, as we all know, no progress was made on this, and, on 4th July this year. the NGA told his members in Stockport (where there was a closed shop agreement) to withdraw their labour. Eight NGA members did so.
§ However, notwithstanding that, Mr. Shah continued to publish his newspapers. So the NGA then moved against Northern County Newspapers, a subsidiary of Reed International. They were a minority shareholder in one of the Messenger Group newspapers. In order to emphasise their displeasure, NGA members in another Reed subsidiary, the Daily Mirror, disrupted production of its Northern and London editions for one night. Reed International promptly sold its minority stake in that one newspaper back to Mr. Shah, and. of course, the industrial disputes at the Daily Mirror then ceased.
§ At the same time the National Graphical Association persuaded the National Union of Journalists to join the dispute; and at this stage I should declare an interest in that I have been a member of the National Union of Journalists for over 30 years. The NUJ ordered its members not to supply editorial material to non-unionists. In September Mr. Shah went to the 836 courts against the NUJ for inducing its members to breach their contracts, and the High Court issued an injunction against the NUJ. The National Union of Journalists' executive were prepared to defy the court, but the majority of the members at Stockport were not. Nine NUJ members refused to cross the picket lines, but 14 others did so.
At about the same time Mr. Shah made application for two injunctions against the National Graphical Association. The first related to a letter from the National Graphical Associationto local advertisers. This asked them, in the bluntest terms, to withdraw their advertising. The letter read, in part:
Such a demonstration would be appreciated by NGA members working on other newspapers, who may be handling your work for publication".
Mr. Justice Boreham granted the injunction, holding that this kind of pressure was unlawful. He also granted the second injunction, holding that secondary picketing at Bury and Warrington was unlawful. However, the picketing continued. Then, on the 10th November Mr. Shah applied for a writ of sequestration against the NGA because of its refusal to observe the terms of the second injunction. A week later the union was found to be in contempt and was fined £50.000. As we know, last Friday Mr. Justice Eastham fined the union a further £100,000 because of the continuance of the contempt, and issued the writ for sequestration. The National Graphical Association that night decided to close down Fleet Street.
§ I now turn to the issues that I believe arecentral to the dispute. When I saw Mr. Shah in Bury on Monday of this week he showed me the outline terms of his proposal to ACAS, which was aimed at settling the dispute. In this document he proposed some qualified acceptance of the closed shop and an offer to accept binding arbitration, with the re-employment of the sacked six NGA strikers from Stockport. The NGA rejected this formula out of hand later that afternoon.
§ That night, following the meeting of the TUC's Employment Policy and Organisation Committee, I still felt, on the basis of what I had learned in Bury that afternoon, that there was a prospect of success within 24 hours. But on Tuesday afternoon the National Graphical Association refused to meet the Messenger management unless Mr. Shah was there; and Mr. Shah would not leave his beseiged Warrington printing works unless the NGA ceased its unlawful picketing there. He would not, he said, desert his embattled staff. In the light of what happened a few hours later, I think most of us would understand why he took that view.
§ I now turn to the character of the picketing and the harassment waged by the NGA and some of its members against Mr. Shah and his staff. Even before the events of this week, there had been a series of exceptionally unpleasant incidents. First, there was last week's violence on the picket lines at Warrington, which was severe, but of course not as severe as we saw the night before last. The House will recall that when the Manchester Evening News endeavoured to report the appearance in court of some of those charged with offences in connection with that picketing, the NGA promptly shut down the Manchester Evening News.
§ Next, there were the telephone calls made indiscriminately to the staff of the Messenger, who are 837 of course continuing to work. Ordinary working men and women received calls designed to wake them up at two and three o'clock in the morning. There were obscenities, and there was shouting at and jostling of ordinary men and women who were simply trying to do a normal day's work. Then there was the ultimate piece of nastiness: the arrival late at night at Mr. Shah's house of three separate undertakers' vehicles, bearing coffins. There were three small children in the house on the night that that happened.
§ I now turn, if I may, to the events of this week. First, let us be clear—I think most of us are—about the state of the law. As I indicated on Tuesday, it is quite wrong to suggest that in some way the present Government's employment legislation is the central factor in the disturbances which took place this week in Warrington. In fact, that view is entirely mistaken. Mass picketing of the kind practised outside Mr. Shah's printing works was unlawful long before the passage of the present Government's legislation. Pickets have been entitled to operate only on the basis of what I shall describe as "peaceful persuasion". They have a right to communicate with anyone who is prepared to listen to the facts of a dispute and to appeal to them not to cross the picket lines. But how can anyone pretend that that was the intention of the 4,000 people who arrived in Warrington on Tuesday night? If their objective was in fact peaceful communication, why, I wonder, did so many of them arrive with bricks, bottles, and ironbars? In my view they arrived with one purpose: to blockade Mr. Shah's works and to prevent him from publishing and distributing his newspapers. Such conduct, of course, is wholly unlawful, and it was unlawful when there was a Labour Government in office.
§ Next, it is argued that the present Government's employment legislation has been so provocative that it has led to the violence that has occurred. That, I think, is a fairly odd theory. I suspect that the House can recall without great difficulty what happened in the first few months of 1979, during the "winter of discontent". There was then substantial violence, even though at that time the present Government had not been elected to office.
§ What, my Lords, about the Grunwick dispute? I remember being asked to go there as Minister of State at the Home Office by the then Home Secretary. I saw the thousands of pickets brought down there by Mr. Scargill and others, and I watched the violence when the pickets attempted to bar the way to coaches carrying employees of the company.
§ I am perfectly prepared to blame the Government for a very great deal, but the idea that they are the cause of the present dispute is, to be blunt, nonsensical.
§ Of course it is true that the courts now have greater powers to deal with unions who behave like the National Graphical Association; and the reason for that is that the electorate has willed that it should be so.
§ Certainly, I tend to look with some scepticism on the claims made perhaps by all political parties following general elections that they possess a number of clearly-defined mandates. On that, I very much agreed with what the noble and learned Lord the Lord 838 Chancellor said during his Dimbleby Lecture when he was in Opposition. But as regards the last election, how can anyone seriously suggest that there is not a mandate for trade union reform in this country? Trade union reform was in fact one of the central issues in the campaign. In that election two-thirds of those who voted supported either the Government or the Alliance, and 61 per cent. of trade unionists voted against Labour candidates. I believe that in such a situation public support for the legislation already passed, and the legislation that is pending, is strong and is growing. I believe that the events of this week at Warrington will make that public support overwhelming.
§ I have, I hope, made it clear what I believe the dispute is not about. Let me now say what I believe is the crucial issue now facing us. It is whether powerful men and powerful trade unions are exempt from the laws of this country. It is about whether the British people, or the National Graphical Association, will decide what legislation Parliament will he permitted to pass. It is about whether young men and women serving in the police service can be violently attacked in the streets when they are upholding the laws of this country. My Lords, it is about whether we are to maintain the rule of law.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, before I start to put the case as seen by the main Opposition party in another place, let me commence by stating at once that I have no pecuniary interest in this dispute, nor do I represent the NGA, nor have I met any officials of the NGA regarding this dispute. In my maiden speech in this Chamber I expressed my delight and appreciation at being ennobled and sent to this place in order to take part in the deliberations regarding the affairs of the nation. I was aware, however, and still am aware, that I was not joining a mutual admiration society. Politics being what they are, even though this place has a reputation for being somewhat less controversial or political than another place, I knew that there would be times when the differences that divided us would be minor and at other times more profound and serious, depending on the nature of the issue before us: and I submit to your Lordships that the debate taking place today comes into the latter category.
What, I ask myself, is the objective of the noble Lord. Lord Harris, in initiating this debate? Is it in order to try to bring some calm to bear in an explosive industrial dispute, or is it an attempt to exploit the situation and perhaps to restore the waning political fortunes of the Social Democratic and Liberal Alliance? Certainly, after listening to him this evening, watching the Leader of the Liberal Party on television last evening, listening to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, on the radio this morning and reading comments in the press, the priority of the Alliance party appears to he the latter and not the former.
It was interesting to hear the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, this morning concerning his visit to the Grunwick factory during the dispute there. I wonder whether he went there on the same day as the right honourable Mrs. Shirley Williams, the president of his party, who thought that that cause was worthy of 839 her support. He said that he went there as a Minister and violently disagreed with what was happening under a Labour Government in which he was serving. Why did he not do the honourable thing and resign his post, like other people of various Governments of different colours have done in the past—
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he will be good enough to give way?
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
That is the only point that I am going to ask the noble Lord about. Is he aware that what I said was that I went there at the request of the then Home Secretary, who was deeply alarmed about what was going on in the Grunwick picket line and wished to be reassured that all possible steps were being taken by the Government to support the Metropolitan Police. What I saw then persuaded me that some change in the law was necessary, because of the very serious situations which were arising there; and, of course, there was clearly no adequate framework of law.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
Nevertheless, my Lords, the noble Lord did not take the subsequent action that I would have expected him to take, if he had a violent disagreement with things that were taking place under a Government in which he was serving. So not only does the alliance party have two parties, two leaders and two policies, but it can also be seen on this occasion to have, quite blatantly, two faces.
The noble Lord also informed us on the radio this morning—and he has given a blow by blow account of it this evening—that he met Mr. Shah personally on this matter, but that he understood the NGA case by reading the newspapers. What a strange comparison it is that Mr. Shah had a private interview with the noble Lord, but the noble Lord chose to exercise his views on the NGA case through the newspapers, who are blatantly opposed to the NGA case, anyway. So much for impartiality.
However, my main purpose is to indicate to the House the views of the main Opposition party and, so that there will be no misunderstanding, I beg leave of the House to read a short statement on the dispute which was issued last night by the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, the right honourable Neil Kinnock. He said:I am extremely concerned at the fearful way in which the dispute is developing and at the wider implications that it has. I welcome the role that the TUC is playing in seeking to resolve this dispute. It stands in sharp and serious contrast to the complacency demonstrated by the Government again this afternoon in the House of Commons"—this was yesterday afternoon"—and that inactivity is clearly deliberate and politically motivated. I condemn without reservation the violence in Warrington, whoever uses it, and the union has on several occasions already made it plain that they completely share this view"—
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
I am not giving way. Then:I call upon the Government to exercise the power which only a Government has to take the initiative with the employers in order to bring them to further negotiations and resolve the dispute, which is the only practical means of ending the dangerous situation in Warrington".I might underline that by saying that that is not the first time that has been said, because on previous occasions in this Chamber I have indicated quite clearly that violence of that type has no part in our philosophy. But to deal briefly with the statement, I am glad that it states that the use of violence in an industrial dispute serves no purpose whatsoever and, in my opinion, it very often takes the limelight away from the main issue that the argument is about.
Speaking as a grassroots trade union member of 46 years' standing, I indulged in my first strike at 15 years of age before the war. I was also included in industrial action during the war as a trainee apprentice, when the engineers—and I think my noble friend Lord Scanlon will remember this—received an increase of 3s. a week, while the apprentices had nothing. There was a national strike of apprentices, but there was a simple way of curing it. They sent us all our calling-up papers so the strike was called off. But I am bound to say from experience that the only parties who can finally settle an industrial dispute are the two parties involved. They may well be assisted in this by the conciliation services, but intervention by other agencies or bodies, whether they be the law or people who demonstrate on a picket line in a dispute in which they are not themselves involved, can only exacerbate the situation and make things more difficult.
The escalation in this dispute stems from the fact that after a peaceful dispute, which had lasted over 21 weeks, Mr. Shah sought redress or recourse to the law as passed in Acts of Parliament by the Conservative Government and now supported, obviously by the alliance party—
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
No, my Lords. I am not giving way. The noble Lord is down to speak and no doubt he will make his point, when I shall not interrupt him. Those Acts of Parliament have been described by the noble and learned Lord the Master of the Rolls. He said that he had become very conscious, notably during his national Industrial Relations Court experience, that the legal system was not. in practice, evenhanded as between employers and unions. Current functions put the courts almost entirely in the business of restricting or penalising the latter and not remedying their grievances. In view of those opinions, how can we say that the trade unions, if taken to court, will receive justice? They will receive the verdict of the courts, based on the law as it stands. But what to them is that sort of justice, bearing in mind the opinions expressed by the noble and learned Lord the Master of the Rolls on this subject?
841 One of the first standing committees on which I served when a comparatively new Member of another place was a committee dealing with a criminal law Bill, a committee which was almost totally dominated by honourable and learned members from both sides of the House. During the period that this committee was processing the Bill an appeal was heard, and allowed, by the noble and learned Lords of Appeal concerning a particularly nasty and vicious sexual assault on a young woman. I am not challenging the judiciary but explaining what happened on that occasion. No doubt the noble and learned Lords were convinced that this course should be adopted and the appeal allowed; but, through the media, the public at large were astounded that such a verdict could be arrived at.
Following this, I made the point—and I make it again now—that in my opinion, and in the opinion of many others, a law, to be good and effective, has to be seen by the majority of the people affected by it to be balanced, fair and equitable, otherwise it is a bad law and the courts administering it may well come into disrepute. However, it would require further legislation to redress the balance in this particular matter. Therefore I suggest we begin this as a matter ofurgency.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, gave a chronological report of the dispute, as seen through the eyes of the NGA. I say that it has been an ongoing dispute for 21 weeks and that it has developed in phases, as does any other industrial dispute. However, since I began at lunch time to write my notes for today's debate the dispute has taken a much more sinister turn. I understand that in another place at Question Time the Leader of the Opposition questioned the Prime Minister as to whether she had met Mr. Shah in private. I understand that her answer was not very conclusive. I have here a copy of Mr. Shah's newspaper, the Sale & Altrineham Messenger, which carries a photograph of the Prime Minister with Mr. Shah and Mr. Fergus Montgomery, the Member of Parliament for Sale and Altrincham, socialising together on the very day that Mr. Shah was granted his injunctions by the court. I am sure that the fair minded public will draw their own conclusions about that. This is a Prime Minister who stoodon the steps of No. 10 Downing Street and talked about uniting the people. It shows nothing but an absolutely intolerable, vindictive and vitriolic view of the Prime Minister and her views about trade unions.
§ Lord Denham
My Lords, order! The noble Lord must not mention a member of another place in opprobrious terms.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, if I have transgressed the normal practice of this House I willingly withdraw. Nevertheless, the facts are on record. The Prime Minister met Mr. Shah on the day he was awarded his injunctions by the court. I leave noble Lords to judge whether this was socialising—or what did they discuss? I am sure it was not a case of the Prime Minister discussing with Mr. Shah a course of action which would resolve the dispute in a manner acceptable to all the parties concerned.
To come to my final point on this particular dispute, it is within the power of the present Government to 842 take the initiative and bring the disputing factions together in order to resolve the problem. I submit that the Government will be failing in their duty if they fail to do so.
§ Lord Wigoder
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, as he earlier was—perhaps a little unusually for this House—unwilling to give way for what was intended to be an entirely courteous intervention, may I ask him simply this. He reports that his Leader in another place has condemned violence, whoever uses it. What is meant by that expression? And in particular, is there any allegation by the noble Lord that any unlawful force has been used by anybody on this occasion, except by the demonstrators?
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, first may I say that I thought it was not in keeping with the traditions of this House for me to give way when I was reading a statement made by somebody else. The intervention ought to have come at the end of that statement, when I could have dealt with the matter and with the points of other noble Lords who may also have wanted to intervene. It has been made quite clear that when one speaks about violence it means violence from any quarter. I do not for one moment condone (nor does my Party) the fact that people who have no interest in the dispute are going up to Warrington. Perhaps noble Lords would take the trouble to read page 2 of today's Standard. This action has been openly condemned by some of the official union pickets, who are on record as having physically restrained people from attacking the police. That is no part of my speech; it is reported in the Standard. I believe I speak on behalf of the leader of the Opposition when I say that I do not believe for one moment that, though the police appear to have been justified in smashing up the van which the trade union was using, everybody in a democratic community would countenance that as being completely and utterly necessary. I believe the noble Lord said "from all quarters". If there were quarters from which no violence came, then obviously they are not involved in the statements. I leave it at that.
§ 6.7 p.m.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, it is a pleasure to be able to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, if only to put a slightly different point of view. I am sure your Lordships are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for tabling this Question for, as he said, a grave situation exists. It is grave because it could impinge upon the maintenance of the rule of law, for here we have—let us strip it down to its essentials—a party to civil proceedings which has acted unlawfully and against whom an injunction has been granted, and is now in contempt which is continuing. At his instigation, others—not parties to these proceedings—are not only assisting in the continuance of that contempt but wilfully extending its ambit in open defiance not only of the civil law but of the criminal law.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, who said on Tuesday that this dispute is no longer an industrial dispute. It is—and we have to face it—a political dispute which constitutes a direct challenge to the courts and to Parliament. It is a challenge mounted by 843 a mere handful of trade union officials with the apparent support not only of Her Majesty's Opposition but of the TUC—a handful of men who are able to summon forces of coercion and disruption, obedient to their instant command, to defy the civil and criminal law of the land, in the hope (in their hope) that in a dungeon of industrial turmoil of their own contrivance they may exert their various types of pressure at will.
What is the price of the ransom? With respect, I would ask the noble Lord. Lord Dean of Beswick, to attend to this point if he will; to do me the courtesy. The price of the ransom is one which no political party duly elected by parliamentary process could ever afford to pay; for this handful of men, infected by their zeal and dedicated to their cause, would burn our ballot boxes. The price demanded is no less than the right to govern in the wake of some fundamental changes in the order of our society, with terminal effect on parliamentary institutions and on the rule of law.
Where does Her Majesty's official Opposition stand? Where does the Trades Union Congress stand? It seems to some of us—with due respect to what has been said in your Lordships' House (and I refer not to what has been said in another place) by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick. and as was adumbrated by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, a moment ago—that it is a somewhat futile, Neronic gesture to say, albeit with sincerity, which I concede, "We, Her Majesty's official Opposition, abhor violence", and yet to take no positive step to dampen the flames of disorder.
It seems to some of us that the Trades Union Congress, by lending its support in such circumstances, has lost its way and has mistaken its true role in democratic society. It is not for the Trades Union Congress to challenge the courts or Parliament. It is not for the Trades Union Congress to aspire to govern. Indeed, Mr. Len Murray expressly so acknowledged earlier this year.
I should like to point out that, much to the vast credit of the trade unions, prior to the Act of 1971 there was no single case on record where the order of the court was not obeyed, however unpalatable that might have been. Not only that: when the Act of 1971 was introduced, it was made plain by trade unions that they would always obey the law of the land if only administered by ordinary courts and not if they were special laws administered in special courts by what they stylised as gentlemen wearing lounge suits instead of being duly attired in wigs and robes. This, they said—and I, for one, believed them—was an affront to dignity. I, for one, had considerable sympathy with that approach.
Subsequent to the Act of 1971, such was the attitude—and it continued. "We will always obey the courts": that was stated in open court as late as 1973 in a case in which I was concerned, the Cory Lighter-age case. That was stated by counsel on behalf of the Transport and General Workers' Union. Has that attitude suffered a sudden sea change?
Although it is possible for a civil court of its own motion to enforce its order against persons other than parties to the proceedings, it would be impracticable. 844 It would be politically unwise for the judiciary to take any initiative against those who, in open defiance of the law, seek to extend a measure of contempt on parties to the proceedings in the circumstances now obtaining. Indeed, it is hardly appropriate to leave the initiative there, with the attendant difficulties of identification which those of us who tend to practise occasionally in this branch of the law understand, and the expense which any layman who does not have to practise in the law understands even better. It is really hardly appropriate to leave that initiative to the aggrieved party to the proceedings.
I agree that the question of the repeal of legislation simply does not arise. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has said, it is not a viable option. It affordsno solution. It would be unacceptable to the vast majority of the electorate who support the law as it stands. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick. may I say that he argues that laws should be seen to be fair, balanced and equitable by those affected by them. But to the majority of those affected, the laws are; they are to the majority of the trade unions who put my party in office again—we would never have got in without their vote. It is idle for the noble Lord to seek to pretend otherwise. If he thinks about it for one moment, he must give me the point.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, will the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, permit me to intervene?
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, I made the point that the noble and learned Lord the Master of the Rolls does not think so, either.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I do not quite understand what I was supposed to deal with by way of answer; I hope that if I do not answer, the noble Lord will not consider it as an intentional discourtesy.
The repeal of those laws would not even satisfy the insatiable demands of those who say that they will not obey the law because they do not like it—the vast minority. The whole concept not only would be an abnegation of government but would also debase the whole democratic system. It is not only unacceptable; it is inconceivable. I am surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, should think and speak otherwise.
§ Lord Beswick
My Lords, I know the noble Lord better than most—I knew that he would give way. I am sure he is not trying to be unfair to my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick. My noble friend quoted the Master of the Rolls. It was the Master of the Rolls who pointed out that the present legislation appears to be imbalanced. Will the noble Lord say if he is criticising the Master of the Rolls?
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I am quite prepared to criticise the Master of the Rolls in the right place, which is in his own court, when I am appearing before him—but certainly not in your Lordships' House.
§ Lord Beswick
But then to be fair, my Lords, will the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, not criticise my noble friend if he is quoting the Master of the Rolls?
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
No, my Lords. With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Beswick—without the "Dean"—I maintain my criticism, albeit misconceived, because I believe it to be right. I am criticising the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, for his stand on what he has said. He has in my submission put forward a political thesis which is not only wholly unacceptable but inconceivable in any form of democratic society. With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, I do not believe that he really understands what he has done. So I do not withdraw. The noble Lord, Lord Beswick, knows that I always withdraw if I think I have got it wrong. I may have got it wrong, but I do not think I have got it wrong, and therefore I do not withdraw it.
Your Lordships have heard far too much from me, so I will say just this in conclusion. It is no longerto the point that this dispute erupted over half a dozen men in Warrington. It is no longer to the point that this union has assets in excess of £10 million subject to certain outstanding claims. It is not to the point that many of its members earn in excess of £300 a week, and some of the order of £700 a week. It is not to the point that this union happens to like the closed shop. And it is not to the point that this union implements a variety of restrictive working practices.
What is to the point is that we should work our way out of this moment of crisis. I again respectfully beg to disagree fundamentally with the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, when he says that this is a political issue on which any democratically elected party can afford to disagree. In my submission, it is not, because it involves a fundamental challenge to our parliamentary institutions. I would greatly hope, and am sure (because I am an optimist, and, somehow, in this country we in fact work our way out of any crisis) that if the full implications can be seen in their true perspective, not only by Her Majesty's Opposition but also by the TUC, we shall be able to draw on our ample reserves of goodwill and commonsense and, I hope, close ranks to preserve the rule of law, whether or not we like it.
§ 6.22 p.m.
§ Lord Harris of High Cross
My Lords, 1 have a special reason for thanking the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for asking this Question on the implications of the NGA dispute. Ever since arriving in your Lordships' House four years ago I have frequently been credited with, and occasionally criticised for, speeches by the noble Lord; and I have had to point out that Greenwich is in Social Democrat territory but High Cross is held from the Cross-Benches.
846 I find myself in quite exceptional agreement with the noble Lord in his strictures about the misuse of union power on this occasion. Unlike my namesake, or my noble friend Lord Marsh who will speak next, I am an economist, and I have been primarily concerned with the baneful effects of closed shops, which are the central pretext of the NGA campaign. It has always seemed to me clear that the unions' stranglehold over the supply of labour must operate simultaneously to violate the freedom of the individual and to produce all of the customary mischief that comes in the wake of a monopoly; and in printing the closed shop is particularly vicious because it inflates wage costs, preserves overmanning and obstructs modern methods.
Overmanning may appear to maintain employment, hut, as always, it protects yesterday's jobs, and in the short run, at the expense of tomorrow's employment opportunities. When the NGA uses its monopoly powers to raise wages in Fleet Street to £300, £400 and, I am reliably informed, occasionally £500 a week for semi-skilled workers, we have come quite a long way from the struggles of the early Tolpuddle Martyrs. It must be understood that none of these jobs occupied by NGA members is ever advertised in the press. If it was, there would be queues of applicants linking the job centres throughout our land—people willing to undertake these modest labours for suitably modest payment. So the essential fact is that we are here seeing a union struggling for great powers and with very great prizes at stake.
The 1982 Act provided for ballots on closed shops to be held, as I understand it, by next November. But the trouble is that such ballots will offer no relief from the exactions of the NGA, who will vote, if they have their modest wits about them, uniformly in favour of preserving their closed shop, on the principle that highwaymen do not readily surrender their weapons when there are rich pickings to be had. Nor could we expect relief from the employers of Fleet Street, who often come in for rather hard words for their lack of consistency, and so forth. But how can you expect employers to offer sustained, principled resistance when they are so vulnerable to interruption through strikes? I understand the Daily Mirror, which is not a paper I have regularly read, lost in a single day a net income of £2 million, for the simple reason that it could not sell Saturday's advertising and Saturday's newspapers on the Monday, when the NGA were prepared to permit them to republish.
So we must look to the Government to consider further measures to moderate the effects of the wholly irresponsible use of the closed shop. I am going to ask the Minister—I make an early announcement on this matter—if he will consider the introduction of a lay-off clause. In July 1982 (Vol. 433, cols. 177–183) the noble Lord. Lord Marsh, and I urged a lay-off clause in an amendment to the 1982 Bill, and indeed it was the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, who resisted that amendment. The trouble is that, at present, managements faced with strikes by a minority of the workforce are not able to protect their businesses and their future employing capability, their ability to go on employing in the future, by limiting the outgoings when they are notable to sustain production. So that the NGA, representing, I understand, something like 847 25 per cent. of the production workers in Fleet Street, can go on strike with the result that the newspapers must continue to pay the other 75 per cent., mostly members of SOGAT, for doing nothing. In this strange situation, so far from SOGAT officials using their influence with the NGA to minimise the reckless use of strikes, SOGAT members stand to gain an extra holiday at full pay.
Even if there were not some political trouble-makers around, itching to aggravate this dispute and to confront the Government, Ministers have an urgent need to mobilise moderate and responsible opinion on the side of upholding the law and of avoiding so far as possible damaging strikes of this kind that threaten long-term employment in printing and ancillary businesses.
The Earl of Gowrie
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way, since he mentioned me. Before he leaves that question may I point out to him that managers have no obligation to continue paying any of their workforce in those circumstances.
§ Lord Harris of High Cross
My Lords, I believe that we went over this question a year ago. In most European countries there is a power vested in management to withhold wages on the service of certain notice and for a certain period of time in the event of force majeure, or some other circumstance, where they cannot maintain their production as a result of the minority of their workforce being on strike. It is true that in this country some employers—for example, in engineering—have, through negotiation, made arrangements for a lay-off clause. But the prospect of Fleet Street being able to negotiate with SOGAT, or the NGA, for a lay-off clause is very remote, and it is precisely in the circumstances of a powerless, beleaguered employer that the Government must reach out and arm them with this necessary authority. It would go some way towards redressing the balance of costs that now fall disproportionately upon employers who. I repeat, are the ultimate guardians of all future employment prospects.
Therefore, I am asking the Government to learn one lasting lesson from these unhappy events and express the readiness to reconsider the urgent case for a lay-off clause to strengthen what I continue to consider, despite the Master of the Rolls, is still an unbalanced and inadequate law that favours strikers and irresponsible conduct, rather than the continuity of business and employment.
§ 6.32 p.m.
§ Lord Marsh
My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for raising this subject on this particular occasion. I find it rather worrying in many ways that we are debating it on a rather one-sided basis. Many noble Lords are rising to condemn what has been happening, and many are expressing concern, but in terms of participation from the Opposition Benches this has been one of the most unbalanced debates that I have ever experienced in this House. It is somewhat strange.
848 One of the frightening things about this dispute and about the incidents which we see on our television screens and which we read about in our newspapers is the extent to which we know that the dispute is moving towards a major confrontation. The confrontation is not with the Conservative Party. Confrontations with the Conservative Party, or the Labour Party, are what politics are about. That does not worry any of us. It is confrontation with the state, with Parliament itself. The challenge is not to the Conservative Party, nor to the Prime Minister—she is capable of looking after herself. What is at issue is a challenge to the courts, a challenge to legal judgments which one may not like. Every time I get a parking ticket I find it offensive, oppressive and unreasonable, but that is the law, and I must observe it. Here we have people saying that this is a law that they do not like and that they will not observe it. That is a very different issue. That is not an argument about the Conservative Party, or the Labour Party; it is an argument about the way in which we live.
As one who knows some of the people involved, what worries me, and what I find frightening is that in many cases we are talking about reasonable and intelligent men who are allowing themselves to be used and exploited by the ultra Left, which does not have the faintest interest in six workers at an obscure newspaper in Stockport. This is presented as an industrial dispute, but there are a dozen industrial disputes going on around the country bigger than this on every day of every week, of every year. Normally we have more than that in Fleet Street on every day of every week, of every year. This is not a normal industrial dispute. Thousands of people book trains, hire coaches, get together and move in a valiant battle to defend trade union rights: 4,000 pickets threatened by 12 workers bringing out a newspaper! That is not a normal trade union dispute.
One must consider the people involved, some of whom I have had the privilege of working with over the years. Joe Wade is a very reasonable chap. Mr. George Jerome is also a highly intelligent, very able and reasonable chap, though I do not agree with all his politics. I cannot believe that they honestly think that the laws passed by a Government who were elected less than six months ago by a massive majority can be defied by the exercise of pure brute force. Of course there are many people who find the industrial relations laws offensive, but they were a major issue at the last election, and at the election before that.
The trade union movement organised many meetings around the country to oppose that legislation, which it found deeply and fundamentally offensive. The Labour Party put its case against the legislation clearly and consistently all the way. But at the end of the day we had an election; and these are not the Conservative Party's laws, they are the nation's laws. The nation voted for those laws by an overwhelming majority—whether one likes it or not. I am sure that many members of the CBI do not like laws passed by Labour Governments. In the event of a Labour Government, is the CBI then entitled to take direct action to frustrate those laws? There must be people in the services who would be opposed to some of the Government's policies in the defence field. Are they entitled to rise and use the power which they have 849 as small, unelected groups to frustrate the authority of such a Government?
The moment that one begins to look at the implications of these actions one is looking at the negation of democracy and our parliamentary system. This is no argument about the Prime Minister, the Conservative Party, or one of the legal gentlemen at the top. It is the system in which we live which is at stake. Powerful forces comprising unrepresentative people with whom noble Lords opposite would have very little sympathy are behind and in control of this particular dispute, and they are moving it to where it is almost totally out of control.
As one who has been a Minister in the past and has had to defend some fairly difficult briefs, may I say that the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, did a gallant job, on which I congratulate him. I should not have wanted to be in his place. Had I been in his place—which I should not have enjoyed—I should have felt a little more comfortable and enthusiastic had I had a little more support from colleagues behind me. After all, they put him there. The amount of enthusiastic support coming from the Benches behind him, the mass of speakers on the list who want to rally to his support at this moment of conflict with the Government, is rather thin to say the least.
The noble Lord mentioned the presence of Mrs. Shirley Williams on the Grunwick picket line. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, who is a flexible character, dealt with that particular point, but he was in some difficulty. I have no difficulty about that. I think that it was one of the very few incidents in her public life which were shameful. I believe that support for the Grunwick picket line was the beginning of what we are now seeing. I believe that the support of some of those people on that picket line was disgraceful when, as Parliamentarians, they stood there.
The noble Lord suggested that this industrial dispute was peaceful until Mr. Shah decided to invoke the industrial relations law. I attempted to intervene. The noble Lord was perfectly entitled not to give way at that point. I put the point now which I should like to have put then. Does the noble Lord not believe that the right of any citizen at any time and in any circumstances to invoke the law of the land is fundamental to our democratic system? That is not provocative. Anybody is entitled to invoke the law. That is what it is all about. There are noble Lords here whose ancestors we managed to rout in the past simply to preserve that particular point: the law applies to us all, and we are all entitled to use it. If the argument is that what precipitated the present circumstances with which we are faced of fighting in the streets and bloodstained policemen being carted away is that an individual went to the courts, I must say that I find the implications of that pretty frightening.
I was a full-time trade union official for nine years and I am proud of it. But I do not believe that when I ceased to be a trade union official and became a Cabinet Minister I somehow or other lost privileges which I had enjoyed as a trade union official to defy the law but were no longer with me when I became a Cabinet Minister. It is an argument that one really cannot sustain.
850 Let us look at some of the arguments which are put. Mr. Alf Parish, another very able man, who is the NGA's national secretary, said yesterday:Our members are opposed to violence".I am sure we are all opposed to violence. We could take a quick vote on it. There is no dispute on that. He continued:Once they heard there was trouble at Warrington they did not want to be involved … I do not know where all these weirdos come from".I could name a number of polytechnics and universities, but that would be a diversion. He went on:The only thing they have achieved is to deflect people's attention from the issue that really counts".Oh no! That is not the issue which counts with these people. He goes on to say:We have been let down by the people who used us and did not do anything to support us …Other groups have used us for their own reasons".Of course they have. Other groups have been using the Labour Party for their own reasons for several years past. That is how so many noble Lords in this House are sitting on Benches which must surprise them. Of course they are using the situation. Can anyone really believe that 4,000 people—many of them with no conceivable interest in the printing industry—for several cold nights laid siege to 12 print workers in Stockport, fighting and injuring dozens of policemen in the course of a normal industrial dispute?
People talk about mass picketing. In the past 10 years I doubt whether there have been six mass picketings in this country. It is a very unusual process indeed. Does anyone believe that a violent demonstration which resulted in 72 people appearing in court, only nine of whom were printers, was a normal dispute in the printing industry? All logic is opposed to this. Even more worrying, does anyone believe that this is a debate about a normal industrial dispute, when only one single member on the official Opposition Benches has the courage to express a view?
Why is it so difficult for members on those Benches of your Lordships' House—whichever way they feel—to stand up and say quite simply and clearly, "We support what the NGA is doing"—we can leave aside the fact that none of them want violence—or, alternatively, "We condemn what the NGA is doing"? What I find remarkable is this deafening silence on an issue of this importance. If I may say so, I think it would be accepted that the Labour Benches accommodate more people with direct experience of industrial relations than any other part of this House. There are many trade unionists of great experience sitting on those Benches. There is much accommodation over there for lawyers specialising in industrial relations or lecturers who write books about industrial relations.
§ Lord Marsh
No, no. I am speaking in very general terms. There are noble Lords who preside over tribunals concerned with industrial relations' problems; and yet in relation to this particular problem not a word is said. The reason that not a word is said, I believe, is that many people on both sides of this House and of another place recognise that this is 851 a wicked, dangerous and evil development in our society. I find more worrying than the knowledge that they recognise that the fact that they say nothing about it.
Today's Morning Star in its editorial defines the position clearly:We must fight to make the Tories the losers. Their anti-union laws must he shown—like the Industrial Relations Act and others—to be inoperative in the face of militant action".If such an objective were to be achieved, it would mean that the electorate could vote for whichever party they wished; but at the end of the day the policies of that party could be vetoed after the election by the activities and pressures of small groups. None of us believe that the National Front, because it does not like the Race Relations laws, has a right to picket outside Mosques, or that the Brown Shirts of Hitler's Germany in the 1930s had a right to use their mass force to prevent Jewish traders carrying out their normal business.
I believe that this is a watershed in which this Parliament will have to make up its mind which side it is on. It is not about a printing dispute in Stockport; it is about democracy in Britain.
§ 6.46 p.m.
§ Lord Rochester
My Lords. when my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich tabled his Unstarred Question last week, I must confess to having had some doubt as to whether it would be opportune for it to be asked today. This was because in my experience it has proved to be a sound maxim that during the course of an industrial dispute it is generally best that people who are not aware of all the relevant facts should say as little as possible in case unwittingly they make its resolution more difficult. It seems to me. However, that in the light of the events at Warrington during the past two nights the Question is asked in a timely way. If I may, I commend my noble friend on his prescience in putting the Question down for today. From what my noble friend said it is clear that he has gone to great trouble in obtaining as much first-hand information as possible about this dispute and its origins. I should like simply to support him by contributing a few words from the Liberal side of our Alliance and in so doing to respond, as other noble Lords have done, to one or two of the points made in the discussions so far.
The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, appeared to be resting his case on the point that, because the Employment Acts of 1980 and 1982 were not in his view—never mind the view of the Master of the Rolls—even-handed as between employers and trade unions, the Government should now intervene, presumably to bring pressure to bear on the employer to come to some compromise arrangement with the union that is chiefly involved. I disagree.
In my view one of the great advantages of recent employment legislation, as compared with the Industrial Relations Act 1971, is that the Government are now able to keep out of industrial disputes, settlement of which is left to the parties immediately involved, aided when desired by the independent Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service, which was established by a Labour Government in the first 852 place. Has not the time come for the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, and his party to recognise that obstructive and intimidatory picketing has always been illegal in both criminal and civil law under Labour as much as under Conservative Governments? Should he and his noble friends not now make up their minds that such behaviour constitutes—as has been said by other noble Lords—a direct threat to the authority of Parliament and the judiciary, which for the sake of the future of our democratic way of life, they should join with the rest of us, including, I believe, the great majority of trade unionists, in condemning without reservation?
On the other hand, I have heard it suggested (not as yet today) that employers generally should now make more use of the powers open to them under the recent legislation in bringing actions for damages against trade unions. Again. I take leave to disagree with that view, and in so doing hope I shall not be accused of aiding and abetting collusion between employers and trade unions to circumvent the law: rather is it my view, a straightforward matter of recognising what I believe to he a fact of life in industrial relations, that the individual employer is best placed to judge whether it is in his company's overall interest to bring an action of this kind. He should be left alone by the rest of us to make that decision for himself.
Of course, it may sometimes be felt that employers are unwise in the course that they take or do not take. As we saw last weekend, the Messenger Group dispute has undoubtedly had repercussions on national newspapers. I have some sympathy with a remark reported to have been made by Mr. Len Murray. the General Secretary of the TUC, a few days ago, to the effect that newspaper proprietors have got the unions they deserve. With due respect to the noble Lord, Lord Marsh. I think they have.
In its leading article this morning The Times pointed out that in Fleet Street weak management and strong unions have combined to suppress the impulsion of new technology and to limit competition. It is the consumer—in this case, of news—who has thereby suffered.
If there is one good thing besides an enhanced respect for the law that may come out of recent events at Warrington, I fervently hope that it will be the profits, wages, salaries and jobs of relatively small groups of people which will be up for grabs as never before. As a Liberal, I would welcome that warmly. Indeed, my Lords, let us hope that in the end we shall all have cause to look back with some thankfulness to the outcome of the cruel crunch that came at Warrington last Tuesday night.
§ 6.53 p.m.
My Lords, I put down my name to speak on this Question for one reason only: to make a small point which I suspected would not be made by anyone else. I am not an employer; I am not an employee; I am self-employed, and as such I consider myself to be a member of the general public. What riles me about all this at the moment is the way that the unions talk about the law as being the laws of 1980 and 1982. The law that I, as a member of the general public, think is behind all this trouble is the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974, Section13 of 853 which gives the unions almost total immunity from civil suit.
A lot of people say: "Why should the unions and members of the unions be above the law which ordinary people have to abide by, otherwise they will be taken to court?" The 1980 and 1982 laws have tried to trim those immunities a little. To my mind they have not gone nearly far enough and I hope that we shall see a 1984 law trimming those immunities even more. But, my Lords, let us remember that those are immunities—they are not rights. The law has given to the trade unions immunities from civil suit; the law has not given to the trade unions the right to do anything in the way of what we have seen up in the North this week. I thought that that was a point which ought to be made in this debate.
§ 6.56 p.m.
§ Lord Scanlon
My Lords, I crave your indulgence to speak, not because of any of the innuendoes or hints from the noble Lord, Lord Marsh. The record will prove that I asked for my name to go down on the list of speakers long before he spoke and I do crave your indulgence on a number of points. First, I have an advantage over all your Lordships; I have been sequestrated and it is not a pleasant experience. Anyone who thinks otherwise had better go through it.
Let me say at the outset that one can create a situation to suit one's points of view merely by the art of exaggeration. But seeing that exaggertion is the order of the day, let us take the simple analogy that is being preached to us: we must accept the law. The German people voted for Hitler. If they have to have an excuse for the holocaust that happened, their excuse is: it was the law. We arc full of praise for Solidarity in Poland: they are defying their law as they know it. If we go back into history, the whole history of the trade union and Labour movement is based on a defiance of unjust laws. The Combination Acts would still be on the statute book if the Labour movement had not rebelled. if we had not objected. I am not justifying it; and I will come to in a moment—the Taff Vale dispute.
One talks, as the noble Lord, Lord Spens, does about the graciousness that we should have as trade unionists because we have got immunity. There would have been no trade union movement if there were not immunities. Many of your Lordships opposite may well say: "And a good thing!" This law that we are presently talking about is aimed in that direction; so, of course, there will be objections and there will be resistance to unjust laws.
It seems to me, noble Lords, that we never learn. I will say—I think I have told your Lordships this before—that in the 3½ years that the Industrial Relations Act was in operation in Britain it cost my union alone £8 million: in sequestration of funds; in fines; in legal fees. And do not the legal gentlemen wax rich on any law and from disputes benefit?
We did not do anything illegal; we just refused to attend court. We said we would not accept the judgment of a court that in more private circles even the very hierarchy of the law itself objected to—there was objection to having two High Courts. But the simple fact remains that we did not do anything illegal. 854 We suffered the penalty. If one chooses to disobey the law or evade the law, then you suffer the penalties. The trouble with some evasion of the law is that you have very rich lawyers to tell you how to do it, and that goes particularly for income tax. I know the difference between evasion and avoidance, but it is a narrow line that many of us find very difficult to appreciate when we are talking the niceties of industrial law.
Let us come to the real issue. Nobody—nobody, that is, in his right mind—will do other than condemn in the most forthright terms the lunacy that has been taking place up in Stockport by people not connected with the dispute at all. If you want any more forthright declaration, let me tell your Lordships that in the height of the trouble that my union was involved in, in the Industrial Relations Act, I was called a Right Wing reactionary because I would not support the call for a general strike. That is the type of people you are dealing with and who attach themselves to some of these disputes. But that is not a reason for ignoring it or utilising what they have done, perhaps with very ulterior motives in order to destroy the very thing they arc supposed to be supporting. So I plead with you, "Deal with the dispute itself".
The noble Lord, Lord Marsh, asked, "Will anyone get up and say that they support the NGA?" Yes, I will quite unequivocally. I believe that the NGA has the right to say that it will not pay fines imposed by this court and that it will suffer the penalty for that. It has decided to suffer that penalty. I should now like to say a word of caution, although it may well be too late. In the whole history of the Industrial Relations Act. not one responsible employer utilised that Act. Not one, in spite of difficulties. It was an adage among us that we would resolve our difficulties. Yes, we commit stupidities on the trade union side, almost equal to some of the stupidities committed by employers. But it is a far better way of dealing with it than the nonsense we are witnessing now as a result, not of the trade unions going to law, but an employer going to law.
In the whole of that history, I repeat, not one responsible employer used the Act. It was the "nutter"—if your Lordships will pardon the expression. It was the chap who was either seeking notoriety or a quick buck. Look back at history at the goads and the con men, and another small employer. What his motivation is, I do not know. But I would rather that we should make an appeal for direct negotiations or at least to use ACAS as a means of resolving this before we get into some of the confrontation that is likely later on. I know that Governments will not rescind Acts. Governments do not live by such means. They do not even put them on ice; but at least in these circumstances we could appeal. It is not my job to intervene in problems of other industries. But if an employer chooses to use the law, you are not just left with the judgment and its enforcement. You are left with all the acrimony, agony and antagonism that exists between employer and trade union thereafter. That is where the damage will be done.
So, my Lords, yes. condemn violence straightforwardly and outright by those who practise it, condemn this law for what it is—a direct affront to every thinking trade unionist. They will rebel against it. They will refuse to comply. I hope that somehow, in 855 some way, employers will see to it not to utilise this law but to utilise the forces of conciliation to resolve disputes because recourse to the law has never done anything other than bring far greater trouble than it ever resolved.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask whether he will concede that some of the employers who invoke the law, particularly the smaller ones, do so to stay in business?
§ Lord Scanlon
My Lords, I do not want either to impute motives or make allegations against anyone. All I will say is that if they believe that utilising the law will help them to stay in business, I believe that they are being wrongly advised. The acrimony that will follow afterwards is far more dangerous.
§ 7.6 p.m.
The Earl of Gowrie
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Scanlon, will know that I have a great deal of respect and affection for him because when I was a very new Employment Minister I learnt a great deal from him. But I must say that I can follow him in very little of what he said tonight. It seems to me that it was extraordinary for him to use the phrase "a direct affront to every thinking trade unionist" in terms of legislation that all opinion in your Lordships' House this evening—this was not even contested by the speaker from the official Opposition Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick—and all known tests of opinion, whether in election polls or in opinion polls, has shown to be wrong. As stated by speaker after speaker tonight, the threat to the law is a threat to laws that have been passed with an overwhelming degree of popular support from within the trade union movement as well as from outside it.
I think also that the noble Lord was quite wrong to raise the spectre of what could be called legitimate civil disobedience when he talked about Hitler and when he talked about Solidarity. The essence there, it would seem to me, is that the German people may have voted Hitler in, but having elected him in, they could not get him out. And the essence in the case of Solidarity is that Poland is not a parliamentary democracy.
The issue here is the importance not so much of electing your Government in (anyone can elect a Government in) but having the right to get it out. You must however obey its legislation while its legislation remains on the books. The important issue surely in a parliamentary democracy is the role of the Opposition. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, that there are more important things at issue here than this sad and worrying dispute. It is absolutely integral to the political health of this country that we have an official Opposition, a loyal Opposition and a parliamentary Opposition. I beg the Labour Party to reconsider its position on this dispute and this matter. If it does not do so this week, we are, I believe, witnessing the disintegration and degradation of a great political party, a party that still has a lot to contribute to our essential political wellbeing.
This general issue notwithstanding, when an industrial relations dispute has occupied the attention 856 of the nation for a number of days, as has been the case with the Stockport Messenger newspaper dispute, it is, I think, healthy to stand back and remind ourselves of the basic facts at issue and the real issues at stake. I therefore welcome this debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, and the chance that it gives me to make a brief reply on behalf of the Government to it.
As speaker after speaker has acknowledged, this dispute is not about the sacking of six men. This is a dispute about the attempted imposition of a closed shop on people who have made it abundantly clear that they do not want one. There are two plants in the Messenger Group, at Warrington and at Bury, which have never had a closed shop and whose employees have signified by voting in a secret ballot that they do not want to work within a closed shop. That was not good enough for the NGA, who have throughout the dispute been seeking to impose a closed shop at Warrington and at Bury by industrial action. At an early stage that industrial action took the form of a strike at the third plant at the Messenger Group, at Stockport, where in fact there was a closed shop. When the six NGA members at Stockport broke their contracts and refused to work, they were dismissed, as their employer had every right to do.
In other words, the dismissal of the six NGA members was a consequence of a dispute which the NGA itself had started; it was not the origin of the dispute. It has been said that Mr. Shah is ready to concede a closed shop and that the only remaining difference between him and the NGA is the six dismissed NGA members. I do not know where this idea came from. I would simply point out that Mr. Shah has insisted throughout that any agreed settlement must protect his existing non-union employees, and that, of course, is quite inconsistent with the imposition of a full closed shop. It is, therefore, a cynical travesty to say, as the Labour Party has been saying, that the appalling violence we saw on the picket line at Warrington, notably last Tuesday night, is the direct result of the Employment Acts of 1980 and 1982. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for trenchantly reminding us of that.
Of course, Mr. Shah obtained an injunction to restrain the NGA's secondary picketing under the 1980 Act, and the union has subsequently been fined £150,000 for disobeying that injunction on two occasions. But all that is a matter for the civil law. The violence, intimidation and obstruction which took place at Warrington on Tuesday night were offences under the criminal law. Furthermore, they would have been criminal offences if they had occurred between 1974 and 1979—during the lifetime of the Labour Government—because the criminal law as it affects picketing has not been changed in any way under the present Government.
For instance, I have with me an extract from the TUC guide on the conduct of industrial disputes, which was published in February 1979, during the "winter of discontent", as it is called. It says:It is lawful for persons acting in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute to picket at or near a workplace provided they do no more than peacefully obtain or communicate information or peacefully persuade workers to abstain from work".857 It would have been nice (to put it at its most polite and mildest) for the Leader of the Opposition in another place to have turned his mind to that document, or for some of the senior members of a previous Government in another place to have done so.
The police were present at Warrington on Tuesday night to enforce the criminal law and to keep the peace. Their presence had nothing whatever to do with the injunction granted to Mr. Shah under the civil law, because the police have absolutely no role whatever in the enforcement of the civil law. The claim that the violence we saw on Tuesday night resulted from, or is excused by, the employers resorting to a civil law remedy is not merely grotesque: it is offensive (as the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, reminded us in a memorable speech) to the very principle of the rule of law.
While I acknowledge that the law is always the law and must be obeyed until it is changed, I repeat that I can think of very few pieces of legislation over the last decade which have received such overwhelming support as the 1980 and 1982 Employment Acts. Your Lordships will well remember the revulsion against secondary picketing, which was never more cogently expressed than in your Lordships' House by a former chairman of the Labour Party, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. He was echoed this evening by two former Labour Ministers—Lord Harris of Greenwich and Lord Marsh. We of course welcome these distinguished conversions, but we would remind your Lordships of who put the law on the books in the first place.
I should like to put it to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, whether the Opposition proposes to repeal the law on secondary picketing and so deny employers like Mr. Shah any remedy in civil law. I am also sorry to say that we failed to hear any specific repudiation by the official Opposition, either in another place or in this House this evening, of the barbarous and, I assume, criminal actions of members of the NGA and their supporters. It really does not do for the noble Lord, Lord Scanlon, to talk about "nutters", because we know that the expenses were paid and the buses chartered by members of the union.
I should like to quote from an article by the political commentator who has been most consistently critical of this Government's policy over the broadest number of fronts; namely, Mr. Peter Jenkins of the Guardian, who yesterday wrote of the NGA:Its membership is exclusive, restrictive and rich. It is a bastion of obsolete craft privilege, a handy Luddite scapegoat for the technological backwardness of British industry".Later he wrote:The union was in flagrant breach of the law not on behalf of the pay or working conditions of Mr. Shah's employees, but by seeking to induce him by secondary actions to sign closed shop agreements at other plants and against the wishes of the employees there. The character of the dispute was made evident in the presence of 1,000 or more pickets—their expenses paid—besieging and intimidating a company employing only 120, of whom only 35 were members of trade unions".Mr. Jenkins concludesUnder the circumstances the 'Stockport Six' were hardly Tolpuddle Martyrs".All that we have heard from the official Opposition in this context are vague and unspecific disavowals of violence. That is simply not good enough. Moreover, several members of the party opposite admit to having 858 been on the picketing line on the night of Tuesday 29th November, and, in another place, have been boasting of being so present. What is the attitude of the Leader of the official Opposition to that? I think the public will want to know it.
Another myth in respect of this dispute is that the law is in some way preventing a resolution of this dispute by conciliation and negotiation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The obstacle to resumed negotiations is not the law, but the intimidatory picketing itself. Mr. Shah has repeatedly made clear that he is willing to meet the NGA but that he is not prepared to negotiate while his factory is blockaded by unlawful pickets. I do not think any person could find that attitude at all unreasonable.
In conclusion, I want to say just this. No one in his right mind wants to see this dispute prolonged for one day longer: but the way forward to the resolution which we all want is clear. It is for the NGA to call off its unlawful pickets, to obey the orders of the court and to put an end to the obscene and carefully rehearsed violence, to the bullying and intimidation which have gone on far too long and which have no place in British industrial relations. I am an optimist, and I have no doubt that they will come to their senses and do so. I am far more despairing, however, of the party which has the name of the Labour Party following suit.