HL Deb 23 November 1983 vol 445 cc253-5

3.42 p.m.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, it maybe for the convenience of the House if I now repeat an Answer given to a Private Notice Question in another place about the dispute at the Stockport Messenger Newspaper Group. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment delivered a Statement which reads as follows:

"As the House will know, there has been a dispute over the past year between the Stockport Messenger Group of Newspapers and the National Graphical Association in connection with the establishment of closed-shop agreements at the firm's subsidiaries at Warrington and Bury. As a result of action taken by the union during the dispute, the Messenger Group sought an injunction against the union in the High Court. The injunction was granted requiring the union to desist from organising unlawful industrial action. The court subsequently found that the injunction was not being observed and imposed a fine of £50,000 on the National Graphical Association for breach of that injunction. The fine has not been paid and I understand that the High Court has now directed that it wishes to deal with the non payment of the fine on Friday of this week.

"As the House will also know, there have been intermittent incidents of intermittent incidents of intimidatory picketing at different plants culminating in the mass picket at Warrington last night. One policeman was seriously injured. I understand a number of arrests have been made. Criminal charges have already been brought against those involved in earlier incidents and further charges may be made against those arrested last night.

"In connection with the substance of the dispute, the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service has already been involved in seeking to assist the parties to a resolution of this dispute. I understand that the conciliation service are seeking to arrange a further meeting of the parties very shortly.

"Whatever the arguments in relation to the dispute, I hope that all sides of the House will join with me in deploring the disgraceful behaviour that occurred at Warrington last night, to reaffirm that such conduct has no place in industrial relations in this country and that the law must be observed".

My Lords, that concludes the Answer.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, may I first thank the Minister for repeating the Statement on this particular dispute. May I also extend our sympathy to the people who were injured last night, especially the policemen and the pickets concerned. I must emphasise here that violence has no part in our philosophy in the resolution of industrial disputes. It serves no purpose whatsoever and very often has the effect only of delaying a settlement.

Part of this Statement refers to court proceedings that are to take place, I understand, on Friday. I think that it would be incorrect of me to attempt to pass any comments on that particular facet of this Statement. But is it not a fact that the best way of resolving this situation for all concerned would be a quick settlement acceptable to all? May I ask the Minister whether he will urge the Secretary of State to give the fullest and most urgent support to ACAS in their attempt to convene another conference by all parties concerned in order to get a settlement of the sad state of affairs that exists at present?

Lord Rochester

My Lords from these Benches I should like to join in thanking the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, for having repeated this statement. In this House we have our differences over employment legislation. Indeed, during the passage of the 1982 Employment Bill (as it then was) my noble friends and I actually voted against the selective dismissal of strikers following industrial action—one of the issues in this dispute. But a law to which we on these Benches in general subscribe has been enacted concerning secondary picketing and it covers among other things this very point of selective dismissal.

That legislation was endorsed at the general election last June and we, for our part, are clear that the action that has been taken by the National Graphical Association and other unions is unlawful and should be condemned. Therefore, such question as I have will be of a rather rhetorical kind. Is not the National Graphical Association, with which before now I have had to negotiate, notorious for its restrictive practices; and does not the refusal of this union to abandon unlawful secondary picketing or to pay the fine imposed upon it by the Higher Court represent an attempt to impose on society the most restrictive of all practices? Is there not now an obligation resting on us all to back the police, whose duty it is to enforce the law, and to support any further legal sanction which may prove necessary to ensure that the law is upheld?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for the responsible way in which they received the Statement. Also, I should like to extend on behalf of these Benches our great sympathy and anxiety to the policeman who was hurt in the incident last night. We hope that his recovery will be rapid. In respect of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, the point here is that of course ACAS has a role, and, indeed, has had a role, but nothing that ACAS can do can prevail against those who not only deliberately break the law but continue to encourage their members to do so. This is simply unforgiveable and has no place in any kind of credible industrial relations system. This was the point made substantively by the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, and I have to say that I wholeheartedly agree with him.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether it is true, as reported in some newspapers, that, with the employment by this firm of only 120 people, no less than 500 of the pickets were bussed in from areas around? Is he able to say whether the union, before imposing the closed shop, has made any attempt to hold a ballot; and, if so, what was the result of the ballot?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, with regard to my noble friend's preliminary supplementary question, I have to say that the NGA has a particularly bad record in seeking to coerce employees into joining trade unions against their will. All the information that I have suggests that the employees of the Messenger were content not to proceed with the closed-shop arrangement and that the people creating the incidents which we all regret so much came in from outside.