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Railway Employees

Volume 901: debated on Sunday 2 March 1975

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asked the Secretary of State for Employment whether he is satisfied with the operation of the closed shop now in force for employees of the British Railways Board.

The operation of a closed shop agreement between the British Railways Board and railway unions is a matter for the parties concerned in the industry.

Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that it is a serious erosion of individual freedom that all future entrants into the employment of British Rail will have to belong to a union, regardless of any deeply held religious beliefs or grounds of conscience? Will he confirm that if any present employees of British Rail are dismissed for refusing to join a union, they will be entitled to unemployment benefit?

The hon. Gentleman has given a misrepresentation of the agreement reached between British Rail and the unions. It is a post-entry scheme, in any case. The agreement, in general, has taken into account decisions made by this House on the subject, and that is the right way for them to proceed. No dismissals of British Rail employees have yet taken place, so the question of eligibility for unemployment benefit does not arise.

Perhaps I may add, in view of the grotesque misrepresentations that have appeared in the newspapers over the last day or two, that I have no powers over the decisions of the Commissioners and others concerned with the payment of unemployment benefit. That is quite right. It does not enter into my powers or province in any way. A leading article in The Times today, for example, was based on wrenching a single sentence out of a whole letter, most of which the paper did not print. On the basis of that, they called me a fascist. That shows the discrimination and taste of Dr. Goebbels.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us on the Labour Benches—I would hope all of us—take strong exception to the editorial in The Times today? To suggest that my right hon. Friend is a fascist, or anything like a fascist, is grotesque, as he says. Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us, including me, have suffered over the years by being dismissed by employers and not receiving unemployment benefit, quite wrongly, because we have had an argument with a foreman and have been dismissed on the basis that we committed industrial misconduct? Is my right hon. Friend aware that we need to consider the matter with a view to protecting workers, rather than the other way round?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said. I fully agree that die circumstances in which unemployment benefit is paid are nothing to do with the other question. The two matters are entirely distinct. For anyone to try to push them together is a misrepresentation of the facts.

When the right hon. Gentleman talks about decisions made by the House, is he not aware that we expressed concern, certainly on the Opposition Benches, during the passage of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Bill and then during consideration of the amending Bill, about the erosion of personal liberty to which his measures were leading? In view of the great anxieties in the nation as a whole about the erosion of personal liberty, would it not be wise for the right hon. Gentleman to drop the amending Bill?

What I said was the literal fact. The British Rail agreement takes full account of the decisions on the subject made by the House, decisions with which the right hon. Gentleman agreed. Therefore, I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman is complaining about. British Rail took account of all that had been settled. Much misrepresentation goes on about this matter. I understand that the Opposition have agreed that the closed shop should no longer be illegal. Why do they not acknowledge that, if it is a fact? That is what they voted for. They agreed to it, so let them not make these accusations.

We are deeply concerned to ensure that the liberty of the individual shall be protected in trade unions. The proposals which we have put forward for dealing with the matter and which the General Council of the TUC has accepted, can protect the individual as well as trade unionism better than any of the proposals made by the Opposition.

The right hon. Gentleman is quick to complain about misrepresentation by other people, but he does not hesitate to misrepresent the views of the Opposition and many other people on every possible occasion. Is he aware that we have always tried to write into any provisions for the closed shop safeguards for the individual, including proper safeguards for expulsion or exclusion? We believe that there should be an independent tribunal for the purpose, and not the trade union organisation, which will be judge and jury in its own case.

It is not a question of the trade unions being judge and jury in their own case. We have argued the matter many times, and the House has voted many times for the view that we accept on the matter. We believe that those proposals will provide better safeguards for trade unionists than were provided before. The right hon. Gentleman is running away from the simple fact that he and his hon. Friends sought to deal with the matter by outlawing the closed shop. That was proved not to work, and therefore we have sought a better protection for both trade unions and the individuals concerned.