PRICES AND INCOMES
Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)
I beg to move,
That the Temporary Restrictions on Pay Increases (No. 1) Order 1966 (S.I., 1966, No. 1444), dated 18th November, 1966, a copy of which was laid before this House on 18th November be withdrawn.
Before I come to the subject matter of the Order, I should like to offer our congratulations and best wishes to Alexander Lyonthe Parliamentary Secretary, because I believe that this is his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. He is a great loss to the back benches, and he will be a great acquisition to the Front Bench. He had a distinguished predecessor, and I am certain that in due time his successor will also have had a distinguished predecessor.
I now turn to the Order, which is one of the now fairly numerous examples of compulsion being applied under Part IV of the Prices and Incomes Act. It concerns 34 people who work at the Rockware Glass Co. Ltd.
As I understand them, the facts of the case are that the 34 men are maintenance engineers in a factory which employs about 1,070 people. The factory produces glass under a continuous process, which means that the furnaces must be kept going for 24 hours a day, and for seven days a week. Maintenance work must therefore be carried out while the hot furnaces are still running. It may need to be done as much as twice a day or only twice a week, according to circumstances. It is accepted that the work is uncomfortable and inconvenient, and it has always been accepted that it attracts a special payment.
Before September, that payment was at the rate of 1s. 10½d. an hour. As it had stayed at that rate for some four years, the maintenance engineers felt that the time was ripe for an increase, and negotiated an increase for that work with the management. On 27th September, they agreed with the management an increase bringing the rate of pay up to about 2s. 3d. an hour. That was after the statement of 20th July. The management wished to comply with the Government's request to support the prices [column 390]and incomes standstill and therefore felt that it could not pay the increase.
The maintenance engineers took a rather different view, and I do not think that that is surprising. Perhaps we in the House might take the view that if we had not had an increase for some four years we might warrant being treated as a rather special case. At any rate, we took that view comparatively recently. The maintenance engineers felt that the prices and incomes freeze was not meant to apply to that kind of payment, and because the firm would not agree to pay them they decided not to do maintenance work on the furnaces. I understand that they did everything else in accordance with their normal duties except work on those furnaces. They did not strike or anything like that; they just refused that job.
The firm managed to continue during the whole of October without their services by bringing in staff to do the maintenance work on the furnaces. According to Press cuttings, it then found that it could not carry on any longer and said that it would have to pay the increase, for otherwise the whole plant might have to go out of commission.
It informed the appropriate Ministry that it would pay the increase from 4th November, and consequent upon that information the Order was made on 18th November and came into operation on 21st November. The company naturally obeyed the Order, and the men concerned met their union officials to decide what to do. They did not decide immediately to go straight back to their duties. They tried to find out the implications of the Order.
Those are the bare facts as I understand them. I believe them to be correct in every detail, but I shall doubtless be corrected by the Parliamentary Secretary if I have said anything that is not strictly in accordance with the facts.
A number of points arise. First, as far as I am aware, this is the first Order to be made in a case where there has been no previous increase for a period as long as four years. If the Order runs its full appointed span, there will have been nearly five years between the last increase and the next possible increase for doing that job. That is a very long time. [column 391]
I contrast it with one or two other cases under the prices and incomes régime. The Government have permitted a number of increases in cases where people get regular annual increases every year, and naturally it seems rather ironic that some people are permitted their annual increases and yet others have an Order made against them when they have not had an increase for their work for a period of some four years. I see that the hon. Gentleman looks rather puzzled. I am referring to the considerable number of people who have annual increments, for an increment is an increase whatever one likes to call it, none the less so because it is laid down in regular stages.
The hon. Gentleman also knows that there have been a considerable number of other increases which have got through, some of which the Ministry knew about, with the Government being the sole arbiter of what increases should be permitted and what should not. This is a completely arbitrary use of their powers under the Act. They may wish to take arbitrary powers, but we on this side do not like the use of arbitrary powers.
My second point concerns the period between the making of the Order and the time when the employees themselves decided to accept it. There was quite a distinct period. I understand that the employees met to decide what they should do about the Order and what its precise legal effect was. This involves turning to the Act itself, under which the Order was made. It is clear from Section 28(3) that, if the employers contravene the Section—if they do not comply with the Order—they are liable to a fine of an unlimited amount in the case of a body corporate. It was, therefore, clear to the employees that the penalty for the employers would have been very severe if they had disregarded the Order.
In considering compulsory powers, one must work through all foreseeable conclusions to see where the acquisition of such powers leads us. Let us try to do so in this case. If the employees had decided not to fall in with the Order, they would have been contravening Section 16(4) of the Act, which happens to be in Part II which is applied by Part IV to the Orders made under Part IV. This Section is couched in very wide terms: [column 392]
“If any trade union or other person takes, or threatens to take, any action, and in particular any action by way of taking part, or persuading others to take part, in a strike, with a view to compel, induce or influence any employer to implement an award or settlement in respect of employment at a time when the implementation of that award or settlement is forbidden under the foregoing provisions of this Part of the Act, he shall be liable——
(c) on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding one hundred pounds, and
That is couched in very wide terms. It is not limited merely to a strike but includes where a trade union or employee takes any action to influence the management for an increase.(b) on conviction on indictment to a fine which, if the offender is not a body corporate, shall not exceed five hundred pounds.”
I want to spend a few moments on this, because it is extremely wide. It would appear that these employees did consider whether they should take any action. They were supplied with copies of the relevant part of the Act and got proper advice. But, as the hon. Gentleman knows, a case has arisen in which the employees did not accept the Order which was made upon them under the Act, as a result of which the company, which observed the Order, has now gone out of business and the employees have found other jobs. This could have happened in the present case and we must therefore consider it, because it could have been one of the logical further consequences of the compulsory powers which the Act provided for the Government to take.
If the employees in this case had decided not to continue work on the furnaces, but had carried out all their other duties, I wonder if the Parliamentary Secretary would say if that would have been an action which would have rendered them liable to very heavy penalties under Section 16? The point arises here that, in the other case to which I refer, which is analogous in so many respects, the Government took no action at all against the employees. As the House knows, we on this side were against Part IV altogether and this was one of the reasons.
As a result, in the other case, of the employers observing the Order and no action being taken against the employees, the firm is temporarily out of business, [column 393]until the dispute is resolved and the employees have found other work. Can the Parliamentary Secretary say whether, if the people had not gone back to work on the furnaces, the Government would have intended invoking Section 16? This is obsolutely crucial to the powers that they have taken and to the continuation of those powers.
I have not the slightest doubt that both the Government and the Parliamentary Secretary hoped to goodness that they could get through without ever being asked the question, and without having to consider whether they would have to invoke it. It would have been better if they had considered it at the outset, as a number of hon. Members on both sides, did. [Interruption.] I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will try to answer this. Whether he will succeed is a different matter. Both the hon. Gentleman and I know that Parliamentary Secretaries have a lot of donkey-work to do and often cannot go as far as they would like to do in giving answers from the Dispatch Box. They are neither fish, flesh nor fowl and they have to do as they are told. That is just a friendly warning from one who has had to do it.
A further point that I wish to raise concerns the period of duration of the Order. If workers are to have nearly five years between the last increase and the possibility of an increase at all, they wish to be assured when the Order will terminate, and that no similar Order will be put in its place. As I read the Act, there are a number of possibilities, varying in accordance with the way in which the Government view the Act and what assurances they give. The average person, who has not read the Act, would believe that the period of severe restraint would end by 30th June. It may well be therefore that those to whom this Order applies imagine that from 1st July they will be free once again to apply for the increases and will be free to get them, to the extent of 2s. 3d. an hour. The Parliamentary Secretary can revoke this, and the revocation is to be operative from 1st July. He has powers to do so in the Act.
The second possibility is that the Order could continue for the whole of the duration of compulsory powers, in other words until 11th August, 1967, which [column 394]would be substantially beyond the end of the period of severe restraint. A third possibility is that the Order could be continued indefinitely, because the Government decided to prolong Part IV or to substitute something for Part IV which would have the effect of prolonging the Order.
I should like to know when this is going to end. I do not expect that the Parliamentary Secretary can tell us, but these men ought to know, if they have accepted this Order, along with their employers. I am thinking of all employers and employees, of which this case is an example, because they in this period are negotiating pay for the next period. I sometimes think that if we had in the Government more people who had employed people on their own account, we should probably have had a greater understanding of the differences to which the period of standstill and of severe restraint can lead, not knowing what will happen during the coming July.
Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)
If the Parliamentary Secretary cannot tell my hon. Friend when it will end, perhaps he may be able to go so far as to say when he thinks that somebody will be in a position to say when he thinks it will end and the date the statement will be made.
I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, having heard what my hon. Friend has said, has taken the hint. If he cannot make a general statement, he should give an indication by reference to the Order, because it is this Order which we are discussing.
My first point about the Order is that it concerns the smallest number of workers which have yet been the subject of a special Order. It means that the Government will be quite willing to make an Order for, perhaps, simply one or two workers. It means that whatever their intention may have been when they introduced the compulsory Part IV, they are now willing to use it even in individual cases if necessary.
The Parliamentary Secretary will tell me that there would have been repercussions if he had not introduced the Order. The first thing that every permanent official teaches every new Parliamentary Secretary is all about repercussions. The hon. Gentleman will probably tell me [column 395]that if the Order had not been brought in, there would have been repercussions to the process workers at the plant, repercussions from that plant to another owned by the same company—I see that his back benchers are already nodding even though I have not got to the end of the repercussions. He will say that there would have been repercussions from that company to the whole of the glass industry, from that industry to the whole building industry, and so on. There are always repercussions in Parliamentary Secretaries' lives. This could perhaps have been foreseen when the powers were taken.
I doubt very much whether there is any hope of deflecting the Government from their course of compulsion for the time being. I hope that they will not ultimately persist upon that course of compulsion, because——
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)
Order. The hon. Lady is now discussing the whole of the Government's economic policy in this matter, and that is out of order on this Motion.
It is possibly in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I relate it to the Order. I hope that the Order will terminate at the very latest on 11th August, 1967.
As the Parliamentary Secretary has probably gleaned, unless anything unforeseen happens there is not likely to be a vote on this matter tonight. I have tried to deal with it modestly in the hope that we might get some answers from the hon. Gentleman about his intentions concerning these 34 workers.
Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)
I should like to say a few words in support and endorsement of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher). Those of us who stay late at night to take part in the debates on the pettifogging and pathetic Orders which flow from the prices and incomes legislation do so with a degree of sadness and yet, I suspect, with a sense that we are participating in a debate which must touch upon some element of principle.
This evening, I ask myself what principle is implicit in the Order that we are discussing concerning these 34 [column 396]employees at the Rockware Glass Company. It has been the argument hitherto that the Government would exercise these immense residual powers sparingly but selectively so that guidelines would be established which would enable the rest of industry to take note. It is an argument which I have never found particularly credible, particularly against the background of a deflationary economic policy which renders the whole of the interventionist prices and incomes legislation irrelevant, but none the less taken on the basis of establishing general principles through selective action.
We must ask ourselves what are these principles that have now been established under this Order applying to remuneration for maintenance work by employees of Rockware Glass Limited. It cannot surely be the principle that if one has waited for four years, then one is still too near to the time of one's last income increase. This is not the message which is being spelt out by this particular Order. Neither can it be the argument, surely, that the sum itself is so enormous as to create an unhappy precedent.
What worries me perhaps more than anything else is that here one is dealing with an occupation which is undoubtedly one involving unpleasant working conditions. Most of my industrial experience is in the Midlands, and I suppose there one thinks of the kind of foundry work done in the Black Country where often people work under very adverse physical circumstances. In areas such as this it has very often been most difficult to recruit indigenous workers, and it is to these areas that many immigrant workers have gone because this work is of such an unpleasant character.
We must ask ourselves very seriously whether the modest pay increase that was proposed for Rockware Glass employees does not touch on at least one element in the incomes structure where, if the Government were to lay down any guidelines, they would and should have been happy to have turned a blind eye. I am certain that if the full weight of Government intervention and the law is to be employed to try to maintain stability of wages in these extremely onerous and unpleasant working conditions, then we in Parliament may well be establishing exactly the [column 397]wrong kind of guidelines if we expect other people to be influenced by the decision we are asked to take tonight.
There are two other points I should like to make. At no time does it seem to me, in my understanding of the case history of this dispute, was there any attempt by the workers to put duress upon the employers. It was a settlement which was negotiated and agreed. Therefore, I do not believe one could for one moment sustain the argument that here were a small group of people holding the country—and perhaps implicitly the community—to ransom. So, here again, no guideline is created on that proposition.
The final thought I have, and which I put to the Parliamentary Secretary, is this. This Order was made during the period of standstill, but of course we are no longer in the period of standstill. As I understand it, the original agreement was made on 27th September. But ought we not now to re-examine and reinterpret this settlement in the light of the criteria of severe restraint? Is it the view of the Parliamentary Secretary that these people are no more deserving under the criteria of severe restraint than they were under the criteria of total standstill?
If that is the case, the 34 men whose pay we are debating tonight can well wonder if they have been singled out for treatment which was not offered to those who were the beneficiaries of the bonuses under the Acrow scheme. If they are of such a literary disposition as to read the Guardian newspaper, they will note today that, in an interview, the managing director of Acrow says that he has another bonus which he hopes to pay out.
It is precisely that kind of question, on a debate even as narrow as this, which raises the sort of principles which justify all the cynicism and doubt which we have about the social justice or economic sense of the Government's prices and incomes policy.
Mr. Harold Walker (Doncaster)
If my fellow A.E.U. workers at Rockware Glass read the report of this debate, they will share my astonishment at the support which they have received from the hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) and the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. [column 398]Biffen). I share their hope that they can spread their understanding of the problems of the industrial worker to many more of their right hon. and hon. Friends.
The hon. Member for that white-hot crucible of industry, Oswestry, was quite right when he said that what the workers at that factory want to know now is how the criteria under which this Order was established modify the circumstances in which they find themselves in the period of severe restraint, and the important matter about which I want to ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is when they will become eligible for the payment which has been agreed by the management of the factory. The significant point is that it was agreed by the employers and, in their eyes, was justified. Having had experience of negotiating with engineering employers, I know that if a case can be justified to them, it is justified—period.
The other question to which the workers at the factory want to know the answer is concerned with the period between 27th September, when the agreement was concluded, and 20th November, when the Order was made operative. Here I am in some doubt about what is meant in the Explanatory Note to the Order. I do not know whether it is correct, but my interpretation of the Order is that it is not retrospective and that the company should pay the amount outstanding in respect of that period, even if it is not to be paid after the 20th November.
I must confess that I find the Explanatory Note as confusing as that which it seeks to explain. If any right hon. or hon. Gentleman can explain that which it seeks to explain, I will gladly spend a few hours with him trying to understand it. “Gobbledygook” is a very moderate word to apply to sub-paragraph (3) of paragraph 4. I am as unable to understand that sub-paragraph as I am the Explanatory Note.
There is not only the question of interpretation. I would remind the House that, if we cannot understand it, how can we expect people, who are not lawyers, Parliamentarians or politicians and whose primary task it is to work with their hands, to understand such abstruse and obscure legal verbiage? Apparently they [column 399]were not given a chance to try to understand it, and I ask my hon. Friend to tell the House what machinery there is for informing the workers who are involved in such negotiations and decisions as are referred to in the Order of the making and issuing of such Orders. So far as I understand the position, my fellow A.E.U. workers at the factory await notification at first hand of the Order and of the way in which it affects them. They learned about it from the Press. I rather doubt whether the employers learned of it from the Press, but these workers are directly involved, and they should, therefore, be notified.
It is incredible that we should be discussing this Order at the end of January, 1967. Those who went into the Lobby in support of the Act under which this Order has been made did so in the firm and certain belief that by this date the thing that we were voting for in Part IV would have faded into history. Nobody thought that at this time we would be in the period of severe restraint, and would have to consider the criteria by which lower-paid workers could receive an increase. Although by comparison with some of their fellow workers in the factory these men may not be considered to be among the lower paid, by golly, by contrast with salaries paid in this House, and in the professions, and to those at the apex of the industrial and social structure of this country they are very low-paid workers indeed.
It is astonishing that the majesty of the Mother of Parliaments has to assemble here at this hour to consider the kind of money that we are talking about in this case, the money paid to these 34 men for a normal week. Some of the people to whom I have referred can pick up this kind of money for a few minutes on television, or for writing a short article in a magazine. It all seems so fantastic. The sort of money that the country is spending at the moment could pay these workers for the next 12 months, and we could save the time of the House, and our time.
I hope that my hon. Friend will give these men a clear indication of when they will get this very small sum of money which, from all that I have heard, and from my own experience, I know that they deserve. I hope that my hon.[column 400]Friend will deal with the points that I have made: first, about the machinery for advising workers affected by Orders such as this. I hope that there will be precious few such Orders. Secondly, will the increase be applicable for the period between 27th September when the agreement was made, and 20th November when the Order was made operative? Thirdly, when can they look forward to some payment under their hard-won agreement?
Mr. Peter Bessell (Bodmin)
The whole history of this Order has been explained fully and clearly to the House by the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), and if I may say so without being impertinent, she put her case with great clarity and force.
Parliament is here assembled at this hour, nearly ten minutes past Eleven, to discuss a pay increase for 34 workers, and, as the hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Harold Walker) so rightly said, not only is the majority of Parliament being invoked for this purpose, but so also is the enormous power of the Government. What is the purpose behind this? It is to deny 34 men, who do a wholly unenviable task, an increase in wages from 1s. 10½d. an hour to 2s. 3d. Parliament is being invoked for the express purpose of saving no more and no less than about 11s. or 12s. a week. If this were not so tragic it would be ludicrous.
I join with the hon. Lady in congratulating the Parliamentary Secretary upon his appointment. Every hon. Member will be glad to see him in his place at the Dispatch Box tonight. At the same time, he has a miserable and unenviable task ahead of him. Somehow or other he has to justify this Order, and I do not think he can do so in terms which are logical or acceptable to the House or to the people. If we were discussing a wage increase affecting 500,000 employees, or a matter affecting a large sum of money, the Government would be right to defend their prices and incomes policy, however much I might disagree with it. But in this case we are dealing with a matter of merely 34 men.
I know that I shall be told that there is a principle involved. That is the first reply that will be made. But it is the principle that worries me. Whatever the [column 401]political differences between hon. Members on this bench and hon. Members on the Government benches, there is one thing that we have in common—the fact that the history of our two parties was born of an overwhelming desire to set right injustice wherever it may occur. It is the proud history of the Labour Party that it grew from the working people who were subject to the gravest injustices and the most appalling hardships over the centuries. Their history is the history of the trade union movement, and to think that a Labour Government should tonight be keeping the House sitting—that Parliament should be present in session—in order to deny a matter of 11s. or 12s. a week to 34 workers, is not only ludicrous and tragic but something which the great movement which the Parliamentary Secretary has the honour to represent is likely to regret very deeply in the years ahead.
Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)
I have disagreed on numerous occasions with the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell), and tonight I take grave exception to the tone with which he addressed the House and the strictures which he cast upon the party of which I am a member. The hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) was in good form tonight, talking about this “trifling and pettifogging Order” . He said, “Where is the principle?” . Let me tell him the principle. Here, in this minute case, we have a cast iron example of what the Prices and Incomes Act is all about; why it is necessary, and why it was necessary, in order to guarantee justice and fair play for the vast majority of British workers.
They are only 34 men, yet they are only part of the number of men involved in similar agreements that were worked out by the A.E.U. and other glass manufacturing firms throughout the country. Other factories were also expecting a rise. In this case, the 34 workers would not accept the principles of the Prices and Incomes Act and would not do the work, unless the management paid the agreed rises, even though it was explained that the management were refusing to pay only because of the Act. They were alone in that. All the other workers——[column 402]
Mr. Harold Walker
I would correct my hon. Friend. Maintenance workers employed by Rockware Glass in my constituency and elsewhere have felt just as resentful as the workers affected by the Order, but have not voiced their resentment. They have been mute.
I am glad that my hon. Friend accepts my point. Though they were resentful elsewhere, they were mute, because they respected the law and the principle behind the prices and incomes policy. Although they may have felt it unfair and unnecessary to stop their increases, they did not take industrial action, unlike the 34 workers in this branch of the company, who decided that they knew better and would not work.
Inevitably, this caused difficulty in the firm. What would have happened if the Government had told the company that they would not trouble the House of Commons about this small number of men and that the men should be paid? Every other one of the company's employees eligible for such an increase would have applied for it. Every one with grounds for claiming a rise between June and December would have claimed it——
Does the hon. Gentleman know how many had waited four years for an increase?
I will come to that point.
There would have been some inevitable argument. Others would have said, “If the maintenance men on this job are doing it, so can we.” The Government were right to exercise their powers over this limited group.
The hon. Lady asked how many have waited four years. Let us get it straight. What they have waited four years for was an increase in the increment for particular hot work. It was not a general wages increase. They had increments among the general mass of glass workers but had not had an increment for this kind of hot work.
The increment would have been 4½d. an hour, which amounted to only 2d. in the £ on the number of hours they worked. It was not as though they would get gloriously rich, like some of the people whom my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. Harold Walker) mentioned—barristers or Members of Parliament. It was such a small [column 403]increase that less hardship was caused by its denial than by the denial of some other increases frozen in July. There were these workers who had a much stronger case for an increase during the period of the complete freeze, and yet they accepted the freeze. They accepted that, in the interests of the nation, it was right that they should not have their increase. Why in the name of justice should these 34 men get even this small increase if we are to preserve any degree of equity?
This is the principle on which the incomes policy is based. We are trying to work out, perhaps for the first time in a democracy, and certainly in a democracy where we have such an intricate negotiating machinery as exists in this country, a fair distribution of increasing wealth between the workers, on the one hand, and the employers, on the other hand—and the consumer as the third party. Since the end of the war we have seen a rate race in which the powerful were getting bigger increases in their incomes?
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Member is generalising the debate a little too much. He must return to the Order.
I was trying to explain why the Order was so appropriate and far from the trifling and pettifogging matter suggested by one hon. Member.
Is the hon. Member telling the House that his concept of social justice and economic sense in a period of severe restraint, as opposed to a period of standstill, is such that it is evident to him that these workers should have their wages frozen as increases are not justified under the criterion in the White Paper on severe restraint?
I am not sure whether I should be in order if I answer the question, but I will try to do so. If we are to try to bring into this complicated wage structure and this complicated negotiating machinery this new element of fairness between worker and management, and to include the consumer, inevitably in this period in which this idea is being accepted by the community there will be inequalities and difficulties [column 404]in translating principles into action. We are coming into that period.
In respect of the Rockware Glass Company we are facing up to the difficulties in a period of severe restraint. There is a kind of rough justice in a period of complete freeze, when everybody is affected alike. We come now to the very difficult question of trying to select between groups of workers. Whether these workers come into a privileged group which should get their increase and hon. Members are in a group which should not get an increase is a simple question, but as between the workers in the Rockware Glass Company and another group of lowly-paid workers such as agricultural workers, there is great difficulty in translating the principle into action.
But what is the alternative to this Order in respect of the 34 workers? The alternative is surely a return to the free-for-all, and I am not in favour of the free-for-all. I know that the hon. Member for Oswestry is in favour of it, as the ablest lieutenant of the archpriest of the free-for-all. Unfortunately, the latter is not in his place tonight, but this is a classic case to discuss with the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell). Why did these 34 men take the law into their own hands?
Mr. Harold Walker
How is it suggested that they took the law into their own hands?
These discussions took place. My hon. Friend went with most of us through the Lobby in support of the Prices and Incomes Act. When the Rockware Glass Company workers decided that they would use industrial action to get the increase which they demanded they were outside the law.
Mr. Harold Walker
Oh, yes, they were.
They did not go on strike or anything like that.
Yes, in my view it comes within Section 16.
Section 16 comes into operation only after an Order has been made. Until an Order was made they were within the law.[column 405]
Here we come to the crux of the matter. Thirty-four men were saying, “Why should we abstain from taking the increase which the management has agreed to give us?” One man said that it would be illegal. The hon. Lady disagrees with him. Another man said, “Of course it is not illegal. Look at this” , and he produced a copy of a national newspaper in which there was a report of a speech by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West. Using the language that the hon. Lady has used, it said, “It is absolute rubbish to suggest that there is anything illegal in getting a wage increase.”
Accepting for a moment the niceties of what the hon. Lady says, the point that I am making is that none the less the right attitude for these men to have taken was the attitude taken by the rest of the workers in the Rockware Glass Company. The reason that these men did not take it was that they relied upon the interpretation of the Act which the hon. Lady has just given us and which the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West gave in his speech.
If this is technically correct, in my view it is not the right attitude to engender in relation to the incomes policy. If the hon. Lady is going to push it to these ends, what she means is that every group of workers should continue up to the point where the Government make an Order.
Sir Harmar Nicholls
It is obvious to everybody that the hon. Gentleman is struggling very badly now. He told the hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Harold Walker) that these men had acted illegally. In the light of what my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) has said, and despite the words that he has used since, does he still say that prior to the Order being made the men were acting illegally?
I was speaking without the Act in front of me. But the hon. Gentleman is making the same mistake as the men working for the Rockware Glass Company. What we are talking about now is the technical nicety of whether one commits any illegal act either before the Order is made or after the Order is made. If I may carry the argument a stage further, I would point to the way in which the Act was designed, [column 406]in order to create a last resort for the Government in case anyone decided to act in his own interests irrespective of the interests of the rest of the community. The Government use this last resort only when they have to make an Order.
Would it not have been far better to have let events take their course? If it snowballed and if hundreds or several thousands of workers were involved, there would be a very strong argument under the Government's present policy. Is it not very inequitable to pick out 34 workers who have a genuine case for needing—not wanting—an increase in salary?
The hon. Gentleman completely fails to understand the point. Here we are discussing one Order which was made and which stopped a whole succession of claims which might have been put forward.
The hon. Gentleman is being naïve now. If he has not learned the industrial lessons of the last 20 years he must be the only Member in this House who has not done so. The lesson of the last 20 years has been that wherever there has been a wage increase in industry there have inevitably been other groups of workers within the same area who asked for an accompanying increase. This has gradually snowballed throughout the whole of industry. Of course, it could more easily be demonstrated by a large group of workers such as, for instance, a claim by the A.E.U. or by the railway workers. But it can equally be claimed that this was true of small groups of workers. This is the real reason that we need this kind of power.
Here is a classic case of the Rockware Glass Company employees—only 34 in number—who have said that they will challenge the authority of the Government and that they will elect to put their interests before the interests of the community at large. Whether they were right in saying that they were not doing anything illegal, whether the hon. Lady and the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West are right, the fact is that if every group of workers had acted in this way, there would have been no effective wage freeze at all. Everybody, even though he may have no [column 407]interest in this political argument, accepts that the wage freeze not only was desirable but has been successful in controlling the increase in costs in British industry.
I believe that far from going to the extent that the hon. Lady wants us to go in telling this group of workers, or any group of workers, that as from June of this year there will be a return to the free-for-all, we must establish some kind of continuing system which gives the long-stop to the Government—the long-stop such as is proposed in Part IV of the Act, and then perhaps something more flexible could be introduced. I believe that this Order is the very best argument that could be advanced for proceeding with some kind of statutory control.
Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)
The hon. Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) was very pleasant in the way he presented his point of view, as he always is, but he disclosed himself on this occasion to be a man of paper. He gave me the impression—I may be wrong—that he is far removed from any direct contact with the practical atmosphere of the industries. Otherwise he could not have taken this narrow, legalistic line that he did.
The hon. Gentleman was somewhat contradictory in taking that line. He was taking the narrowest of lines. He said to his hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. Harold Walker) as well as to my hon. Friends: “You ought to read the small print. It is all very well for you to make these generalisations, calling for general sympathy for this small group of men, but read the small print.” When he accused those men of having acted illegally, and when he was put right by my hon. Friend, he called it splitting hairs and introducing niceties. If one is going to base an argument upon what is pretty well the small print—nothing to do with the general aim that the Government had in mind when the Prices and Incomes Act was brought in—one ought to follow it right the way through.
The hon. Member for Doncaster said that some members of his union would be surprised to know that this issue was [column 408]being raised from these benches. I would say that they would be surprised at his surprise that we had raised it. If there is one job which an Opposition should do, particularly an Opposition with the record which my party has, dating back to Lord Shaftesbury—and I do not know why the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) should claim for his own party the credit due to both our parties when everything grew from what that Tory Lord Chancellor did——
Mr. Harold Walker
I expressed astonishment not that this issue was being raised, but at the support which hon. Members opposite were giving to shop stewards. We welcome that support, which makes a refreshing change from the kind of vituperative condemnation of shop stewards which we generally hear from hon. Members opposite.
Sir Harmar Nicholls
We always support stewards when they are right and when they act reasonably.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. We must not move away from the Order and into a general debate.
Sir Harmar Nicholls
I add my congratulations to the Parliamentary Secretary on his appointment. I sat in his place for five years, too long to be a Parliamentary Secretary. He wants to get into the Cabinet long before that, or he will find that life is not worth living. He has the unenviable task tonight, for his first job at the Dispatch Box, of defending this Order.
I ask through him why the Government have made things difficult for themselves. One understands the general reasoning behind the Prices and Incomes Act. The general view was that it was all right, but the Government ought to have known that in applying it in detail they would have to use a great deal of discretion. I cannot imagine a case which would bring the Act more into contempt and which would make people want to ignore the Act and the good ideas behind it than the case which is the subject of the Order.
My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) and the hon. Member for Bodmin were absolutely right to emphasise the size of the issue. It concerns 34 men and increases of from 1s. 10d. to 2s. 2½d. a week for [column 409]a group of men who have not had increases for four years and who, if the Order goes the full term, will not have had increases for five years. The Government could not be on weaker ground.
I do not agree that there would have been the chain reaction which the hon. Member for York mentioned. I can well understand that we have to keep in mind the dangers which can flow from a chain reaction, and over the years we have seen this leap-frogging when we have given way at one point and so many others have come along. When bringing in legislation for the general good, it is right that the Government should be alert to the importance of not giving way at a point where to do so would be to cause a chain reaction.
But I am certain that with the justice behind this case at the time there would not have been such a chain reaction. Even if there had been such a reaction, the Government would have been showing good sense and would have been applying the main provision of the Act with ability if they had waited until it got to that point at which it was significant and where the leap-frogging was reaching the point at which it endangered the nation.
Mr. Alexander W. Lyon
Where does one draw the line in a period of complete freeze? I can see that room for discretion must be left in a period of severe restraint and that there would have to be room for discretion if this legislation were to continue permanently, but where is the line drawn in a period of complete freeze so that everyone feels that justice is being done?
Sir Harmar Nicholls
It is not easy to answer that with the question put so specifically. My charge is that the Government have not shown themselves able to decide where the line should be drawn. Wherever else was right to draw it, this was not the point, involving as it does 34 men who have not had increases for four years and whose increase had been agreed with and not pushed on to the employers.
I concede that if the matter had reached the point where the chain reaction that the hon. Member said was such a danger was likely to start, then was the time for an Order, and to take [column 410]the stand. One of the jobs of government is to make unpalatable legislation as palatable as possible. That is the only way the Government will deal with the problem of trying to get the prices and incomes situation back on a sound basis. When all the powers of legal sanction that the hon. Member had in mind are used at the wrong time, the whole of the Government's intentions are brought into disrepute and the chance of getting the effects they want are immediately weakened.
Mr. James Tinn (Cleveland)
I apologise for not being able to be present during the whole debate. I have listened with keen interest to the remarks of the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls). It seems to me that he is rather quarrelling over the drawing of the line on a marginal basis, conceding that it is not possible to say exactly where it should be drawn. After conceding the disputability of exactly where the line should be drawn, surely he will also concede the massive success so far of the period of absolute restraint on wage increases? Does he not consider that to quibble over the marginal drawing of the line is rather ungenerous, considering the magnitude of the crisis?
Sir Harmar Nicholls
We are at present discussing a particular Order. I cannot express the same pleasure as the hon. Member for Cleveland (Mr. Tinn) on the country's general economic health. We are not out of the wood yet, and I do not yet feel like throwing my hat in the air. Whether the hon. Gentleman will be able to sustain his satisfaction depends on how the Government use their judgment on the next period of restraint. That will confirm whether the joy expressed in the hon. Gentleman's question has a sound basis. If they do not show sounder judgment on that important stage than they show on this, I do not think that the hon. Member will get the pleasure he wants from the eventual result.
We shall not vote on this—my hon. Friend made that perfectly clear.
Sir Harmar Nicholls
The Liberal Party is here in force. I do not know what might happen. Until a minute or two ago it did not look likely that we should have a vote. [column 411]
We think that it should be underlined as firmly as we can that this is not only a matter of introducing legislation, however well based, but also of judgment and good sense in applying it. In the present instance, I do not think that that judgment has been shown.
Even now, the Government could revoke the Order. They could say that it was made in the period of standstill, and I concede that it is more difficult to use the discretion for which I ask during that period. It is much easier now to revoke it for the group of men concerned, who have the strength of their case behind them. We could then see whether there was the chain reaction the hon. Gentleman suggested or whether men in industry recognised that discretion had been used properly in this case.[column 412]
Mr. Alexander W. Lyon
The point made by the hon. Member a number of times is that the Order displays bad judgment by the Government. Would he not agree that the very restricted number of Orders the Government have been called on to make shows that they exercised good judgment in making this class of Order in particularly difficult circumstances, and thereby restricting the number or Orders that needed to be made?
Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;
House counted, and, 40 Members not being present, adjourned at 12 minutes to Twelve o'clock till Tomorrow.