The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mrs. Shirley Williams)
I am under no illusion, as a non-lawyer, that I am in the easiest possible position in this debate. I can only argue that perhaps an economist has something to contribute to the Ministry of Labour, though I am not sure that it is to this particular aspect of its work. I shall endeavour to answer as clearly as I can the points which have been raised in the debate, and I declare in [column 793]advance that perhaps legal language does not come tripping off my tongue.
First I come to the two most crucial points made by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite about the county courts not being used on appeal against removal from the register, or on an application for restoration to the register by a company with regard to the refund or premium payments.
I think that the first point to make is that Section 7(5) of the Selective Employment Payments Act does itself indicate that the tribunals shall be used, and this Act has, of course, been passed by the House. I will not rely purely on that point, however, but I will add a few more reasons why I think it was the view of my right hon. Friend that extension of the work of the tribunals in this respect was more appropriate than appeal to the county courts.
First of all, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson) will be very fully aware, the chairman of a tribunal must in any event be a lawyer, and he must be a lawyer of the sort of seniority which is normal for a county court judge. He is supported by two laymen, one drawn from each side of industry, but this may well be felt by employers appealing to the tribunal to be something of a safeguard, since they can be sure they will have somebody who understands their problems as employers, and not only purely legal questions.
Secondly, I think it is fair to say that work of the tribunals, both under the provisions of the Industrial Training Act under which they were originally set up, and subsequently under the Redundancy Payments Act and then the Selective Employment Payments Act, has been regarded as very satisfactory. Moreover, there is the protection, of course, afforded by the Council on Tribunals.
We felt that another reason for using the tribunals rather than the county courts is the informal atmosphere of the tribunals, which we felt would itself be an advantage particularly for small employers who wish to be but who may find difficult or expensive to be represented.
Finally there is the point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty), that among those who will be drawn from the employers' [column 794]panel are many people with a good deal of experience of taxation matters. He asked whether I can explain why the tribunals should be used for taxation matters. I would point out that generally the Special Commissioners of Taxes are used as tribunals in Income Tax cases, and that it can be argued that the tribunals have at least as much experience of tax matters as the county courts.
Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)
The hon. Lady disagrees, but this is a matter, perhaps, of different advice from different lawyers.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman argued that conceivably the Regulations now being laid before the House were ultra vires. I think that I can only here refer him to the words directly
“to be referred to and determined by a tribunal”
in the provisions of Section 7(5), and which give the employer the right to require a question to be referred; and if he exercises that right—this is the force of the word “may” in this context, which differs from the Redundancy Payments Act—the case shall be determined by the tribunal, which is a way of giving the right and obligation to refer the matter to that tribunal.
With regard to the questions about the Minister's case, which were raised by a good many hon. Members opposite and the right hon. and learned Member, I think that perhaps the best thing I can do is to try to explain fairly fully the background to Rule 3(1,a) in the Regulations, under which, of course, there is no corresponding right for an applicant to apply for an order requiring the appropriate Minister to give particulars. This is a point which aroused a good deal of feeling on the other side of the House.
I would say, in reply to this, that the only information in the possession of the appropriate Minister—that is to say, either the Minister of Labour or the Minister of Agriculture—would be information supplied by the applicant himself. Certainly, the Minister's decision in any particular case would be based on the view he took as to the legal effect of information supplied to him by [column 795]the applicant. It was felt that this was hardly an appropriate matter to be supplied by the applicant, and that it would be a more appropriate matter to argue before the tribunal. Therefore, it was submitted to the Council on Tribunals that the effect of making Rule 3(1,a) bilateral, having in mind that the Minister would not have information on the matter in any event, would impose an unjustifiable burden on tribunals and confer no benefit on applicants——
I do not quite follow the hon. Lady there. What burden would it impose on tribunals? All they have to do is to make an order. What the hon. Lady says does not go anywhere near the length of the argument, because it is normal in any case for the one side to say how much of the facts it admits or how much is in dispute. What she says does not at all meet the point of why the Minister should not do that. It does not impose any burden on tribunals. Likewise, the grant——
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman cannot make a second speech. He can ask a question.
Then I will do that. Does not the hon. Lady agree that her proposition does not deal with the obligation on the applicant to give grounds, or why the Minister should not state his grounds?
Had the hon. and learned Gentleman waited for a moment, I would have come to that point.
There is an obligation on the Minister to state his grounds—that is one of the important points I wish to make—and to give his reasons for a decision to include an employer, or exclude an employer from the register, for the purposes of premium or refund. That decision basically arises from the whole of the information available to the Minister on the matter. It is, therefore, because an application for further information other than that already comprehended in the application to the Minister to supply reasons would be an application for information not available to the Minister in any event, since it is in the light of the reason given by the Minister that the [column 796]employer feels he has further information to give on the basis of which he applies for reconsideration, that we see no purpose, in justice or otherwise, would be served by this bilateral or mutual application both ways.
The point made by the hon. and learned Member for Southport (Mr. Percival) is already dealt with by the obligation on the Minister to give reasons for refuting the application.
Sir J. Hobson
If the Minister gives a reason and then there is an application that reveals a lot of new facts, the Minister may desire to contest those new facts on quite different grounds from those at the original decision. It may raise points never raised before. Why should the Minister not be obliged to say what he has to say against the case put by the employer?
This is a point we thought should be argued before the tribunal. The point is that it is only in the light of the information given in the application that the Minister will be able to reconsider or add to the reasons he originally gave for refusing an application, or refusing to accept the employer on the register.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman raised the question of jurisdiction between English and Scottish courts. I would point out that it would be for the employer to decide—if there were any question about the precise area in which his premises were—which of the jurisdictions he wished to use. By passing through a central registration, namely, that of the London secretary to the tribunals, in the first place, there would be no question of a clash of jurisdiction. The area of jurisdiction would be decided at that point.
The date of the restoration of the company to the register is for the tribunal to decide. The Minister does not decide it. I would refer the right hon. and learned Gentleman to Section 7(5,b)——
Sir J. Hobson
It is quite right—I appreciate that it is Section 7 to which the hon. Lady refers—but the only matter to which the procedure applies is what is set out in the order, and surely that question is not remitted, under the procedure in these Regulations, to the industrial tribunal.[column 797]
I understand that the tribunal would have the right to decide on the date of the restoration of the company to the register, unless that date was the date on which the company had applied for restoration.
Section 10(2) makes it clear that the reference is not merely to “premises” but to the business carried on. Both matters must be taken into account. Costs concerning hearings before the tribunal would normally follow the decision made. It would not be the case that the costs would necessarily always be awarded against the applicant.
I was also asked about the question of timing. The timing of this matter is within the discretion of the tribunal under Rule 10(2). Notice will normally be required under that Rule, and the tribunal may grant an ex parte application in connection with Rule 3(5). Under that latter Rule it is possible for an applicant to require documents to be produced for inspection and to be set aside or varied. Under Regulation 24(2, 5) a party can apply for a summons to be dispensed with and under paragraph (6) of that order a summons against a party taken out within the expiration period can mean that documents may be required to be produced.
I come to some of the other points raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington. First, the question of the original application. That must be made through the central office. The reason is because the central office will be free to allocate an appeal to the appropriate offices and then the office must at once inform the applicant of the address of the relevant office.
The reason for doing this is to build up a central register of appeals and to avoid any of the complications that might flow as a result of firms which have many branches being uncertain as to which area of the country they should apply. There might be a number of complications about this and it seems simpler to arrange for all original applications to go through the central office and then be allocated to the regions which are most appropriate.
On this and other occasions the right hon. and learned Gentleman has referred to the tribunal itself. Originally, as he is aware, tribunals were set up to deal with [column 798]appeals under the Industrial Training Act against assessments to levy. It was later agreed that it would be very much in line with the recommendations of the Franks Committee, which reported on the subject of tribunals, that wherever possible new jurisdiction should be given to the existing tribunals.
The Act indicates that the matters should go to tribunals and not to county courts and that suggestion was in line with the recommendations of the Franks Committee. My right hon. Friend agreed to assimilate appeals under the Act, and it was agreed that the industrial tribunals already set up to deal with the Redundancy Payments Act, the Contracts of Employment Act and the Industrial Training Act should be used in this way.
It was pointed out that when the Redundancy Payments Act was added to the sphere of responsibility of the tribunals, the Council on Tribunals welcomed the concentration of jurisdiction in fewer and stronger tribunals. It emphasised the importance of having people of the right calibre to serve on these tribunals.
I need not go into detail into the make-up of the tribunals, except to refer to a Question which the right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington put to my right hon. Friend some time ago arguing that there were some delays in obtaining hearings before tribunals. I would not deny that, but it is interesting to note that there has been a rapid increase in the panels of both employers and employees since that question was raised.
In July, 1966, there were 134 employers on the employers' panel and there are now 214. There were, at that time, 118 employees on the employees' panel, and today there are 190. The reason why there is not a better balance is because of the greater commitments of employers, and this makes it more difficult for them to attend as frequently as employees.
In this connection, when my right hon. Friend replied to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's previous Question, a reference was made to “frequent changes” in the panels. Some suggestions have been made indicating that there had been many resignations and a heavy turnover in staffing the panels. That is not [column 799]so. There have been only eight resignations, and the reference to “frequent changes” was simply a reference to additions to the existing panels.
I shall say a word or two about the areas in which the tribunals sit. Here again, a point made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman has been to some extent met by my right hon. Friend. There are now 14 centres in England and Wales and six in Scotland, The tribunals have sat for a period of 100 days and they sit simultaneously.
The order extends the power of the presidents to the chairmen nominated for the purposes of the tribunals. One of the purposes is to give powers to the chairmen under which they can hold hearings in certain places, appoint the times of the sittings, and appoint lay members. This lifts a burden, which is very great, from the presidents of the tribunals. It is my right hon. Friend's intention to set up regional offices of industrial tribunals in Newcastle, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, North Wales and the Midlands and in addition to appoint two assistant full-time chairmen to the central office to enable hearings to be held as rapidly as possible.
Another matter which may be of assistance to the House relates to references to tribunals. The employer will always have an opportunity first of clearing factual questions with the local office of the Ministry. If he is not satisfied, he may clear such factual questions with the headquarters of the Ministry of Labour. We felt that it should be possible to make reference to the Central Office and for employers not to have to deal with questions which were far from their own addresses.
In the light of the various points I hope that I have shown why the tribunals were considered more appropriate than county courts. I stress that this is precisely in line with what the Act says.
Question put and negatived.