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Railways (Closed Shop)

Volume 929: debated on Tuesday 29 March 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Employment what discussions he has had with the British Railways Board about the operation of the closed shop.

Is the Minister aware that of 31 employees of the nationalised British Railways Board who have been dismissed for refusing to join a union seven had more than 29 years' service to the board? In view of the events of last Wednesday, does the Minister not understand that even the Liberals believe that there is a crucial issue of individual freedom involved here? Will the hon. Gentleman make a better statement to the House than that which he has just made?

I must tell the hon. Gentleman again, as I have done many times, that the Government's policy on these matters is one of neutrality. We leave these issues for determination by employers and trade unions. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is advocating a return to the conditions that existed under the Industrial Relations Act—conditions that were emphatically rejected by the electorate in 1974 and which had had disastrous results.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is another way of looking at this matter, namely, that a man who has not paid any trade union contributions for 29 years but has during that period allowed the trade unions to negotiate wages on his behalf and has taken the money, has been freeloading all of his life?

The freeloader is a cause of genuine concern to all trade unionists. I do not want to take sides, because we adopt a position of neutrality. It is worth bearing in mind that if the persons to whom the hon. Gentleman refers have been in employment with British Railways for the period that he suggests they ought to have looked at their contracts of employment, which made provision for trade union membership.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that while a closed shop can be organised—as some are—to take account of deeply-held personal convictions and the length of service of existing employees, it is deeply offensive and intensely unfair when these considerations are overridden and people with long service are sacked as a result? Is he aware that we cannot accept that in standing by and doing nothing in such circumstances the Government are being fair? They are being intensely partial. They are not being neutral.

The hon. Gentleman persists in his inability to recognise the realities of the situation. The Opposition are under a duty to make their position clear. If they say that there ought to be a statutory right for an individual not to belong to a trade union, clearly they are once again moving along the disastrous road of the Industrial Relations Act, with all its harmful and ineffectual consequences.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the disgraceful nature of the Minister's reply, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise this matter on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity.