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British United Trawlers (Dismissals)

Volume 893: debated on Thursday 12 June 1975

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10.22 p.m.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise the case of two of my constituents—namely, Mr. Albert Carr and Mr. Albert Miall—who were dismissed by British United Trawlers on Thursday 15th May. Mr. Carr and Mr. Miall both live in Cleethorpes, in my constituency, although they work in Grimsby.

The background to the case is that on 8th May 1974 a national strike was called by the AUEW in protest against the fine imposed on that union by the Industrial Relations Court. Mr. Miall, Mr. Carr and a third man, Mr. Stevens, refused to take part in that strike. As a result of that action they were sent to Coventry by their workmates—in other words, their workmates would not work with them. Basically the three of them worked together as a small team.

At the start of this year Mr. Stevens emigrated to South Africa. He came to take a somewhat emotional farewell of me, saying that he no longer wished to stay in this country if people were to be treated in such a manner by their workmates. Mr. Carr and Mr. Miall came to see me in January of this year. My first action was to write to Mr. Scanlon of the AUEW to ask him about the dispute between his union and these two men who remained members of the union. I received a reply in April, which reads:
"Dear Sir, we refer to our letter of 10th February 1975 and your letter of 29th January. We have received a report from our Grimsby District Secretary and can find no evidence of any dispute between our Grimsby District Committee and any constituent of yours who is employed at British United Trawlers."
This was absolute nonsense. Mr. Carr and Mr. Miall remained members of the union but their fellow unionists refused to work with them.

I come now to the action and conduct of the company. In January of this year Mr. Carr and Mr. Miall applied to Mr. Bill Letten, the Deputy Managing Director of British United Trawlers. Mr. Letten is responsible for all the trawler operations out of Grimsby. However, he refused to see them.

On 11th April Mr. Carr and Mr. Miall received a letter from Mr. Fraser of the company informing them officially of the disciplinary action which had been taken against them because they had said they no longer wanted to work with each other as they were getting on each others' nerves. The letter said:
"The purpose of this letter is to confirm what was said and the action taken at an interview in my office this morning at 8 a.m. … I then informed you that your conduct on the morning of Friday 4th April constituted industrial indiscipline, that I was now giving you formal warning of that fact and that any further breach of discipline on your part could prejudice your subsequent employment with the Company.
This formal warning was recorded in your presence, in the log book kept in this office, the entry signed by myself and countersigned by Mr. A. E. Trigg."
Why were the other members of the work force who refused to work with Mr. Carr and Mr. Miall not disciplined? I fail to see any difference in the relationship of these workmen in refusing to work with Mr. Miall and Mr. Carr and that of Mr. Carr and Mr. Miall in declining to work together. These two men had suffered quite a lot by this stage and were disciplined because they would not work together.

In British United Trawlers there have been other cases of indiscipline over the last few months. One of the employees threw hot tea over another employee and no disciplinary action was taken. Earlier this year one of the employees of British United Trawlers went to sea in one of the company's vessels and the captain turned back because the man was so drunk that he constituted a hazard at sea and had to be landed by the Spurn light vessel and sent back. A third man employed by the company was being paid overtime but was found shopping in the town. The only action taken against him was that he was to be fined one hour's pay. There seem to be two very different types of law employed by British United Trawlers in respect of their discipline over employees.

On 15th May this year Mr. Carr and Mr. Miall received identical letters from British United Trawlers. They said:
"We do not comment on the events which created and maintained this unwillingness of your fellow work people to work alongside you; that you should pay due regard to the strength of their feelings has always been our advice to you."
What about the strength of feeling of Mr. Carr and Mr. Miall, men who refused for reasons of conscience to take part in a political strike? I fail to see why men should lose their jobs because of political convictions sincerely held.

The letter continued:
"During attempts at conciliation you have been advised by us and by others of the nature and scope of a compromise. You have not wished to compromise and have throughout made clear to us that you had no intention of so doing."
Mr. Carr and Mr. Miall were happy and content to work with the other people in the work force at British United Trawlers. It is not these two men who are sending their workmates to Coventry; the workmates are doing it to them.

The letter continues:
"During the whole of this period we have consistently tried to afford you work of similar content and scope to that given to other employees in your trade. However, as you yourself have commented, in this industry there are severe limitations on the scope of work, when for extraneous reasons the allocation is restricted to only one or two people and it has been extremely difficult for us to operate first with the three of you, and latterly with you and Mr. Miall as a small team."
This I agree with. The company has not been in a particularly easy position over the problem. The difficulties were not created by Mr. Carr and Mr. Miall refusing to work but by their fellow employees refusing to work with them.

Payments made by British United Trawlers to Mr. Carr and Mr. Miall were eight and four weeks' severance pay respectively—the bare minimum it had to pay by law. I regard this as the final insult levelled at these two men by their previous employers. I hope that the Minister in his reply will comment on the way in which British United Trawlers behaved.

The way in which these men have been treated by British United Trawlers brings to mind some words spoken by Edmund Burke on 22nd March 1775:
'It is not what a lawyer tells me what I may do but what humanity, reason and justice tell me I ought to do."
I believe that Mr. Carr and Mr. Miall are entitled to humanity, reason and justice.

10.32 p.m.

The hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Brotherton) wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the dismissal of Mr. Miall and Mr. Carr on 22nd May, and I myself replied to his letter. I can understand why the hon. Member has raised the matter again in this Adjournment debate. Since, however, both men have already complained to an industrial tribunal of unfair dismissal under the provisions of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, I am sure that the hon. Member would not expect me to risk prejudicing judicial consideration of their complaint by commenting in detail on the merits of their case in our debate tonight.

Nevertheless, I would like to comment briefly on the statutory unfair dismissal procedure which the men have invoked. The Government have already made significant improvements to the procedure in the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act. For example, even if Mr. Miall and Mr. Carr had started work only on 8th May last year on the day of the union's strike against the fine in the Con Mech case, they would already have completed sufficient service with their employer to qualify them to complain of unfair dismissal.

Under the provisions of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, from 16th September of last year employees needed to have completed only 52 weeks' continuous employment with their employer before they became eligible to complain of unfair dismissal, and as from 16th March this year that period has been reduced to 26 weeks. Another important change which we introduced into the unfair dismissal provisions in the 1974 Act was to extend the normal time limit for making complaints from 28 days to three months. I understand that Mr. Miall's and Mr. Carr's employment was terminated when they were paid wages in lieu of notice in about the middle of May; they would then have until the middle of August for their complaint to be sent to and received by the Central Office of Industrial Tribunals.

These extensions in the scope of the unfair dismissal provisions are worth while because experience of the statutory procedure has shown that employees who use the procedure have a good chance of securing a remedy for their dismissal. In the first place there is a chance for a conciliation officer of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service to help the parties to reach an agreed settlement of a complaint without the need for a tribunal hearing. In 1972 and 1973 about one-quarter of the cases dealt with resulted in a settlement of this kind, and in 1974 the proportion was as high as 30 per cent. In each of the three years another 12 or 13 per cent. of completed cases resulted in a tribunal recommendation of reinstatement or re-engagement or an award of compensation or a redundancy payment. In fact, for 1974, when cases which were withdrawn or dismissed on grounds of ineligibility are excluded, nearly half of all completed cases were successful either at conciliation or at a tribunal hearing.

This does not mean that we are complacent about the quality of the remedies available to successful applicants. Although reinstatement was first identified as a separate remedy in the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act there have been very few tribunal recommendations of reinstatement since the Act came into force. Again, although we raised the upper limit for compensation from £4,160 to £5,200 in that Act the distribution of amounts of compensation agreed in conciliation and awarded by tribunals has changed very little since the Act came into force. This is why, as many hon. Members will know, we have decided to take further measures in the Employment Protection Bill to strengthen the remedy of reinstatement and re-engagement and to provide an irreducible minimum level of compensation for every unfairly dismissed employee who cannot be reinstated or re-engaged.

However, some of the hon. Gentleman's remarks might be taken to imply that the men's complaint of unfair dismissal should be partly directed against the fellow members of their union and not only against their employer. For example, the hon. Gentleman is quoted in Lloyd's List of 23rd May as having made the following comment on the men's dismissal:
"It is a sad day for Britain when large public companies like this should allow their workforce to be controlled by the militant Left—and not by the board of management".
It is not clear who are supposed to be the militant Left in this case. It is presumably either the men's workmates who are alleged to have "sent them to Coventry" or those members of the union's local branch who are alleged to have wanted to fine the men for not taking part in the strike on 8th May last year.

The first point to get clear is that a complaint of unfair dismissal must be a complaint against the employer. Conservative Members have sometimes argued that where an employer is induced to dismiss an employee by pressure from a third party—I am neither suggesting nor denying that there is evidence of such pressure in the present case—it should be possible for the employer to make the third party share the responsibility for an unfair dismissal. Indeed, the Industrial Relations Act included provision for the employer to join a third party to the case where a dismissal had been found unfair and to argue that the third party should repay to the employer part or all of the compensation awarded against him. We on this side have consistently argued that this is not the right approach. The employer takes the decision to dismiss, and it is therefore he who must defend this decision and face the consequences of it.

The statutory unfair dismissal procedure provides, however, for a conciliation officer of the ACAS to offer the parties his services to help them arrive at an agreed settlement of the complaint without the need for a tribunal hearing. At this stage there will sometimes be a chance of resolving a dispute between the dismissed employee and other members of the employer's work force so that the employee can resume his previous employment.

This case is in no way affected by the legislation relating to the closed shop. It is not related to the provisions for exclusion and expulsion from a union or to the union rules provisions of the legislation. It is important to set straight the facts of the case as we understand them in relation to the law on these subjects.

First, these men have not been dismissed because they were not union members but were required, in accordance with the terms of a union membership agreement, to be union members. So far as we are aware, there is no closed shop agreement in operation in the establishment where the men were working. In any case, they are apparently still members of the union.

I assure the Minister that these men are still fully-paid-up members of the union and that they have done nothing to incur the displeasure of the union except that they refuse to take part in a purely political strike.

We are agreed at least that it is correct to debate this matter on the premise that these men are still members of the union.

Secondly, these men have not been arbitrarily or unreasonably expelled from their union. Still less have they been dismissed from employment as a result of such an expulsion. There appears to be no question of their bringing a complaint against their union under the present Section 5 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act as they are still union members and no action has been taken to expel them.

Thirdly, there has not, so far as I understand it, been any misapplication of the union's rules. Nor are the rules themselves defective or indaquate. Although it is not for me to explain or defend the union rules of the AUEW's engineering section—the union's officers are perfectly well able to do this themselves—as a member of another section of the same union I was naturally concerned at any thought that these men might have been unfairly treated by the union, even if that unfair treatment had no bearing on their dismissal.

My officials have therefore been in contact with the union's officers to establish whether any action was taken against them as a result of their refusal to take part in the strike on 8th May last year. My understanding is that no fine or other sanction was applied against them. The executive council of the union ruled that no action should be taken against them, and the district committee confirmed that it would follow the executive council's lead at a meeting with Mr. Miall and Mr. Carr on 15th January this year. Moreover, I understand that the hon. Member for Louth was told that the district committee was not taking action against any of his constituents when he wrote to make inquiries in April of this year.

Against the background of this information it seems clear that any dispute over the two men's failure to take part in the strike last year was a clash with other members of the union who were working at the same firm, not a formal dispute with officials of the union.

There is therefore no basis in this case for anyone to argue, as has been argued in other contexts, that the law should intervene in union affairs to set their rule books in order. The AUEW's rule book is exceptionally full and very clear in providing for the settlement of disputes between the union and a member and for the procedure to be adopted at any hearings or appeals.

If for any reason the two men had been dissatisfied with the way in which they had been treated, on the grounds that the rules were unjust or had been misapplied, they could have sued the union—and they do not need any provisions in legislation to enable them to do so.

The saddest part of the whole story, however, is the origin of the dispute between the men and their workmates. If there had been no Industrial Relations Act there would have been no Industrial Relations Court, no Con Mech case, no fine and no strike in protest against the fine. This case is a poignant illustration of the divisive effects of trying to regulate industrial relations and solve industrial relations problems by legal sanctions instead of promoting practical co-operation between management, unions and workers within each firm. Difficulties in personal relationships on the shop floor cannot be legislated out of existence, but they can be faced and dealt with if everyone on the shop floor is involved in finding an agreed solution.

As I said at the outset, I cannot deal with the merits or demerits of a matter which is before an unfair dismissals tribunal. However, I hope that I have indicated the Government's concern that for anyone who complains that he has been unfairly dismissed our legislation should provide machinery for redress. We are anxious that such amendments and improvements as we have made should provide a means of redress for the hon. Gentleman's constituents or any other person in this land who feels that he has such a grievance.

Question Put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to Eleven o'clock.