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Employees (Political Tests)

Volume 465: debated on Friday 20 May 1949

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Snow.]

3.59 p.m.

In the short time at my disposal I wish to raise the question of the imposition of political tests by employers upon their workers and to inquire what measures the Government will take to discourage this reprehensible and undemocratic practice. I am well aware that it would not be in Order to propose legislative changes of any kind and that I must confine myself to administrative action. I am also aware that unfortunately on this occasion the House is unable to pronounce more definitely——

It being Four o'Clock the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Snow.]

that the House on this occasion cannot pronounce its views more definitely on this matter than has already been done by protests from these Benches, and by Motions which have been put down by the Liberal Party and by a group of Members of the official Opposition.

Political victimisation is no new thing. Members not only of the Communist Party, who are suffering at the present time, but also of the Labour Party and other progressive parties have suffered from it throughout British history. Recently, however, there has been a regrettable tendency for an increase in political victimisation, due partly, I suppose, to the intensification of what is described as the "cold war" and partly also to misapprehension as to what lead has been given by the Government on this matter.

If I may absolve the Government from giving any lead which would encourage political victimisation, I do so by quoting the words of the Prime Minister in his statement in March, 1948, on the measures taken to provide security in the Civil Service, when he said:
"… this action is being taken solely on security grounds. The State is not concerned with the political views, as such, of its servants, and as far as possible alternative employment will be found. …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th March, 1948; Vol. 448, c. 1704.]
That was the view of the Prime Minister, and is the policy that has been pursued by the State, but unfortunately, other employers have not taken so enlightened a view.

In September of last year there was a case in Norfolk where two growers employed by the Eastern Growers Marketing Association were dismissed, and the managing director is reported to have said:
"We cannot have people in this office with extreme views, whether Fascist, Socialist or Communist."
This illustrates how dangerous such a practice may become once it starts by dealing with the Communist Party, and how soon it spreads far beyond what was intended.

In May, 1948, the Aylesbury Borough Council passed a Motion calling on the council to remove Communists and Fascists from key positions.

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I know he is aware that this is a very difficult subject for him to discuss in the House. He must relate his remarks to Government or Ministerial responsibility. He cannot discuss what goes on in private firms unless he can show there is some Ministerial responsibility.

I intend to do that, and to argue that directly as a result of these resolutions, the Minister of Labour is called upon to take certain administrative action. I must, with your permission, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, explain what is happening so that I can show what administrative action will be required.

On that occasion the National Association of Local Government Officers said that unless Parliament had proscribed the Communist Party as an illegal organisation, no one would be—
"justified in commencing an inquisition into the opinions of our members."
That brings me to the cause celébre of recent weeks, which is the case of the proposed action by Messrs John Lewis which, as I hope to show, will lead to administrative difficulties for the Minister of Labour, and action will thereby be required. On 5th March a secret memorandum was issued by the chairman, in which he called the attention of the John Lewis Partnership to the fact that the Central Council was asked
"whether the partnership ought to admit or retain Communists or, for the matter of that, Fascists …"
in their partnership.

The hon. Gentleman himself asked a Question on 3rd May, in drafting which, I admit, there may have been some difficulty, in which he asked the Minister of Labour:

"whether, before making the facilities afforded—"—
by the Minister of Labour——
"available to commercial firms, he will come to a general agreement with them that no political tests shall be imposed on employees. …"
As the hon. Gentleman will remember, the Minister then said:
"No, Sir."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd May, 1949; Vol. 464, c. 802.]
The Minister did not say, "Yes, Sir."

On a point of Order. Surely the effect of that Parliamentary Question and answer was that the Minister declined to take administrative action; and surely it is perfectly open to the hon. Member to urge that administrative action ought to be taken, even though the Minister has already declined so to do.

Further to that point of Order. Is it, then, the Rule that unless one can prove Ministerial responsibility, we are not allowed to make public protests about this matter in this House?

The hon. Gentleman understands the position perfectly correctly. As regards the other hon. Member, when the Minister says that he has no responsibility—and he said that he had not, in reply to the Question by the hon. Member for West Wolverhampton (Mr. H. D. Hughes)—he thereby disclaims any responsibility at all, and that is the difficulty which the hon. Gentleman is in.

On a point of Order. I think that if you look at it again, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, you will see that the Minister did not disclaim responsibility. He said in fact that no action was taken to discriminate at this time. If I might just raise one or two of the proposals that I wish to put to the Minister of Labour——

This is a point of Order. If workers are to be dismissed from a particular firm, they are referred to the Ministry of Labour. Cases of wrongful dismissal arise. Cases arise of the action to be taken by the Ministry of Labour in supplying workers to take up those vacancies. These are all points I wish to put to the Minister but, in order to do that, I must explain what action has been taken by the firms in question.

I understand, and I appreciate the desire of the House to discuss the matter, but we are all bound by the same rules of Order and procedure. That is the difficulty I am in as well as hon. Members. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman can only, in one sentence, refer to something which might happen, as being likely to cause vacancies which the Ministry of Labour exchanges might have to fill.

I take it Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that it will be in Order for hon. Members to refer to instances of dismissals on political and religious grounds of employees of nationalised industries and local authorities?

It depends upon which ones they are. In some cases the Minister takes more responsibility than he does in others. We shall see.

May I submit the point that the Minister is concerned in any matter which will affect industrial peace or lead to industrial dispute. An action of this kind is calculated to have repercussions quite outside the range of the administration. Has not the Minister some responsibility in that connection?

He said not in his answer. He may have changed his mind today, but he has already said "No."

If I may briefly elaborate the point, it is that a resolution has definitely been passed by this firm on the Motion of the hon. Member for West Aberdeen (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley) who assumed the role of chief Red-baiter at this point, saying that 12,000 employees of this firm should

"be required to sign a declaration that they are neither members of the Communist Party nor in sympathy with the doctrines of that party,"
on pain of immediate dismissal. A further resolution to take similar action against Fascists was defeated after a speech by an hon. Gentleman who said, "The Fascist——"

Order. The hon. Gentleman knew that I was on my feet. He really must not proceed along those lines any further.

I have now completed the necessary part of my case to explain that there is some considerable danger that a large number of workers from this firm are likely to be dismissed and are likely to be flung back on to the machinery of the Ministry of Labour. I can substantiate that by the fact that the appropriate branch of the Transport and General Workers Union have passed a resolution:

"… re-affirming their abhorrence of Communism but stating their intention of refusing to sign any declaration concerning their political or religious beliefs."
A number of responsible individuals in managerial posts in this organisation have taken a similar line. It is therefore, quite clear that if this line of action is persisted in, there will be a number of workers flung on to the machinery of the Ministry of Labour and a number of vacancies will require to be filled.

What are the issues at stake here? It seems to me, first, that the political beliefs of an individual should only be taken into account in determining his employment where this is directly related either to the nature of that employment or to the problem of national security. I am——

I am sorry. The hon. Gentleman must not go on to discuss what happens in individual private firms or even in firms generally. That has nothing to do with the Minister of Labour at all. I know that the hon. Gentleman realises the difficulty he is in.

Am I in Order in asking whether the Minister has thought out some subtle way in which he can be within the bounds of Order, in order to let the hon. Member make his case?

I do not know what is now in the Minister's mind. I can only know what was in his mind on 3rd May this year.

This is an important matter which we should get clear. As I understand from you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, the decision as to whether the Minister is responsible has been made by the Minister. Surely, the Minister is empowered by this House to be responsible for labour relations in this country. Surely, he has a responsibility quite apart from this particular iniquitous position. Has he not got a responsibility for general labour relations from which he cannot escape even if he wishes to?

If I may state the position, the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Byers) has clearly put the case. My answer "No" on that occasion was in a particular instance. The Ministry of Labour certainly has a responsibility. Should dispute arise in any business or firm, it is the Ministry's duty to become available to the parties, and to endeavour to overcome that dispute or any prospective disputes which bring the case within our responsibility.

May I submit a number of ways in which I think direct Ministerial responsibility arises and ask the Minister some questions? If workers are in fact dismissed on these grounds, does the Minister propose to re-submit these workers for vacancies in that particular firm, or is my right hon. Friend going to take cognisance of the political conditions laid down by a private employer in victimising these workers? Secondly, there is the question of unemployment benefit. The Minister has already given one answer to a question in this House, and another Minister has done the same thing in the House of Lords, where it has been stated that in the past benefit has not been disallowed in cases of political victimisation. I hope the Minister will again state that position quite clearly in its application to this particular case. Thirdly, I should like to know from the Minister whether there is a right of reinstatement in cases of wrongful dismissal of this kind.

I understand that, in a number of industrial enterprises, there is by trade union agreement, a right of reinstatement on the grounds of wrongful dismissal, and there was a case recently at New Cross, where a worker was dismissed on political grounds and where the appropriate organisation, the A.E.S.D., finally secured his reappointment, but that is a trade union arrangement with particular firms, and I am not clear whether the same right lies in all cases, like this one of Messrs. John Lewis which I have in mind.

Further, I should like to know whether, in the administrative arrangements of the Ministry of Labour, there is any record kept of the fact that a worker may have been dismissed for political reasons, and whether there is any record of the political views of any workers who pass through the machinery of the Ministry of Labour. Finally, I would submit to the Minister that it is within his power, although he said in reply to my Question that he had not done so in the past, to satisfy himself that no unwarranted conditions are being imposed by any firm before he agrees to provide that firm with the facilities of this Department in supplying workers for vacancies.

I have tried to keep within the rules of Order. I believe there are important principles which arise here, but I think that the Government and Parliament alone should have the right to determine whether or no any political organisation should be proscribed, and, if that were done, the penalty applied to its members should be legal, and not left to economic sanction by any particular employer. I believe this raises very important questions of political principle, and I trust that the public conscience will be aroused so that this particular organisation will realise that it has overstepped the mark and will agree not to go any further with this kind of action.

The hon. Gentleman must not proceed any further along those lines. Mr. Thornton-Kemsley.

4.15 p.m.

I find myself in a certain amount of difficulty, and I must at the outset declare an interest in this matter, as indeed has been indicated already by the hon. Member for West Wolverhampton (Mr. Hughes). It was I who proposed the resolution at the meeting of the elected Central Council of the John Lewis Partnership, which the hon. Member has named, that Communists ought to be excluded from that organisation——

The hon. Member is in the same difficulty, of course, as the hon. Member for West Wolverhampton (Mr. H. D. Hughes).

I was just explaining, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that I was in that difficulty, and in accordance with the invariable custom of the House I was declaring an interest——

On a point of Order. Much as I disagree with the hon. Member for West Aberdeen (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley), in view of the number of remarks which were in fact made before you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, ruled against my hon. Friend the Member for West Wolverhampton, may I submit to you that it is only fair to allow the hon. Member for West Aberdeen to reply to those remarks.

It is difficult to know until a Member has said something whether he is out of Order, because I do not know what he is going to say. The hon. Member for West Aberdeen knows that he must not follow the remarks made by the hon. Member for West Wolverhampton, which as soon as he made them I ruled out of Order.

I quite agree. With respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, what I should like to do, if it would be in Order, would be to reply quite briefly to charges which have been thrown across the floor of this House this evening about the "iniquitous decision," and that kind of thing. It does seem to me that that is not in accordance with the practice and traditions of this House, that that sort of thing should be said without the representative of that organisation having an opportunity of refuting such charges.

The hon. Member has not any ministerial responsibility to answer for that firm, and he cannot proceed along those lines any further. He must relate his remarks to that degree to which the Minister of Labour referred when he intervened.

May I remind you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that my hon. Friend the Member for West Wolverhampton called the hon. Member for West Aberdeen "the chief Red baiter" and surely the hon. Member for West Aberdeen should, at least, have the opportunity to say whether he accepts or declines that imputation.

Since this organisation has been charged with conduct which is reprehensible and so on, and since it has been suggested that what that Partnership has decided to recommend to its management—not what it has carried into effect but what it has decided by a majority vote of those elected representatives to recommend to its management—since that is said to be——

Since that is said to be grossly indecent and iniquitous, what I wish to suggest to you as a corollary is that it might lead, as has been suggested, to industrial unrest, and there might come a time when the Minister might be called upon to intervene. I think on that point I am entitled to say one or two things before the Minister replies. The first is that that recommendation which was made was not made without very careful consideration over a period of seven weeks and after discussions in all the——

I am afraid that this is much too intimate and detailed information for the House. The hon. Member must relate his remarks to the liability or the non-liability, or the likelihood of the Minister of Labour having to intervene.

On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. As we are on the Adjournment, am I not right in thinking that hon. Members are entitled to deal with any matter of public importance, provided it does not relate to legislation; and this clearly is a matter of public importance, since there has been a good deal of attention devoted to the intimate affairs of this firm in the Press.

I do not know when the hon. Member for Luton entered the Chamber, but it is quite clear also that no Debate can take place unless there is a Minister responsible as well—leaving out the question of legislation.

On that point of Order. May I ask is not it the case that there have been Adjournment Debates when there has been no Minister on the Front Bench?

Even if no Minister was present, there still remained a Ministerial responsibility.

I have tried to keep myself within Order and I hope I shall be able to do so. This recommendation which may have been made by another organisation—it does not matter—that a certain line should be pursued might possibly or conceivably lead to dismissals, and lead to trouble which might cause the intervention of the Minister of Labour. But it happens that this particular firm is a private firm. It is, in fact, a Partnership. It seems to me—and I submit this point as being reasonable—that it is quite within the law of the land for any body of men and women partners, whether there are three partners or, as in this case, 11,500 or 12,000 partners—to decide whom they would wish to associate with in that partnership. To that extent I agree with you entirely, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that there can be no ministerial responsibility, and that whatever that partnership likes to do, it is entirely——

That seems to me to be a case that this House might well consider—that the whole thing really is not the responsibility of the Minister of Labour.

4.21 p.m.

Before the Minister replies, might I ask him whether, in the interest of avoiding industrial unrest and of preserving our cherished right of absolute freedom of thought on this subject of complete freedom of choice of employment without regard to political views, he will express the view that it is most undesirable that any employer, whether a national employer, a local authority, a private company or a concern which calls itself a partnership, although a partnership of 15,000 people, should impose any kind of political views upon its employees?

4.22 p.m.

As I understand it, the ministerial responsibility is for labour relations, and labour relations involve those who employ people. It has been said that this does not extend to a partnership of 15,000 people. Partnership is a relationship which involves a conception of equality of liberty, of co-operation of peoples—all as absent from this organisation as are those same qualities absent from a——

On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. If I am denied the right to defend this Partnership, is it competent for the hon. and learned Gentleman to attack it in this way?

I was going to stop the hon. and learned Gentleman. The hon. Member may have seen that I was about to rise.

My observation was only this: that this is a strict matter of labour relationship in which it is the Minister's business to see that the ordinary decencies and liberties which are expected of Englishmen are observed.

On a point of Order. Is it competent for the hon. and learned Member to get in these phrases like that and try to slip them past the Chair when there is no right of reply?

The proposals of the hon. and learned Gentleman may need legislation, and therefore they are out of Order for that reason also.

4.24 p.m.

Realising the difficulty of hon. Members in keeping themselves in Order, I rise with considerable diffidence, but I think I can quite properly apply myself to the responsibility of the Minister. His responsibility is to endeavour to create and encourage good relationship between employers and workers, to provide improvements, to avoid disputes, and in so doing to remove irritants and provide guidance. That is what we are anxious to do in this matter. We feel that in matters such as this which come to our notice, there is an irritant and that it would be helpful to those concerned if we gave them good guidance. The guidance which we would give them is to remove the irritant, because unless we do so we may find ourselves in a difficult situation.

People employed in firms—I am not speaking of this firm in particular—may suddenly be asked to sign a declaration. Many trade unionists remember the infamous declarations of years ago, and we do not want to see infamous declarations brought up again. They may be asked to sign a declaration. They will refuse and they will be dismissed, and certain questions will arise. First, are they entitled to unemployment benefit? Secondly, what are we to say to another firm which says to the Ministry, "Supply us with a workman" and, having been supplied with a workman, asks, "Why did he leave his last employment?" Are we to be left in the position where we have to say, "He left his last employment because the firm which employed him did not like his political opinions"? That would be awkward.

I can understand the difference between a firm's views on political opinions and their views on political conduct. That is where confusion has entered in this instance. I must say that the secretary of this firm has been good enough, and I think wise enough, to send me a verbatim copy of the debate which took place on that occasion and believe me, it was just muddled thinking and a confusion of the issue of the man's opinions with that of the man's conduct.

On the other hand, suppose that firm lost a number of their men, because it is quite clear from the reports that the decent fellows will not sign the document. They send to us for other men. The manager of the local employment exchange finds men he thinks are suitable and they are sent. These men are told they must sign the document. They say, "Nothing doing." They come back to us. We are starting a little merry-go-round and we do not know where we are going to stop.

I think it is necessary to point out that in this instance it is not the firm which has reached this decision; it is a co-partnership association in the firm which has reached this decision, and not by a very large majority. They are making recommendations to the firm and, therefore, I think I might take this opportunity of saying to the firm, in the manner of this House, "Just drop it." No good purpose can be served by trying to pursue a man for his political opinions, because one would only get into the region of religious opinions and so on.

May I close by drawing the attention of the House to some very wise words used by one of the speakers in that debate? I think it sums the matter up completely. They are:
"If such partners do make themselves such a nuisance that they interfere with our business, on purely business grounds there is no reason why we should keep them. The fact that we have in our midst people who might differ from us is a good thing; if for nothing else, it helps us to discover our own point of view. It helps us to believe sincerely in those things which our fathers believed in, but which we have never had to think about much ourselves."
I conclude by saying, therefore, that whatever are the responsibilities, should any arise they will be faced by the Ministry; but we can avoid the necessity of facing these responsibilities if the firm will look at this from a broad, commonsense point of view and say to themselves, "Some of the members of our co-partnership might have this idea but, as broad-minded employers who believe in freedom and the right of conscience and the rights of individuals, we shall not accept those recommendations."

In view of what the Minister has said, perhaps I might comment that we on this side of the House do not like a closed shop. We do not like a closed shop for political purposes or for people who possibly do not wish to join a trade union.

How about a closed shop where an employer says he will not employ a man who is in a trade union?

We shall remember the words of the Minister when disputes come about in the future about the closed shop. Perhaps he will then remember his words.

Perhaps the House will give me permission to reply, in view of what the right hon. Member for Epsom (Mr. McCorquodale) has said. I think it was a little unfair and unreasonable of him to confuse this matter of conscience and of political opinions with that of membership of a trade union. After all is said and done, many hon. Members in this House belong to a club, and they will not allow anybody to have the benefits of that club unless they pay their contributions. It is not a question of conscience; it is meanness to those who pay their contributions.

May I ask the Minister a question? Will he make it quite clear, so far as the administrative arrangements of labour exchanges are concerned, that the local manager will not accept a request from employers for the engagement of labour where those employers state that the employment is restricted to persons of certain religions or certain political parties?

The Question having been proposed at Four o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Four o'Clock.