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West Midlands

Volume 932: debated on Tuesday 17 May 1977

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asked the Prime Minister when he next plans to visit the West Midlands.

Since the Prime Minister cannot visit the West Midlands, will he explain to the people there the logic of his Government's position whereby one set of people—the judiciary—are criticised for carrying out their duties while another set of people—the Post Office workers—are to be legally exempted from the consequences of failing to carry out theirs?

I am not aware of any criticism of Her Majesty's judges. I understand that there was a historical exegesis which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House entered into when addressing a trade union conference. Frankly, I do not think that he went far enough. He should have said something like this: that the

"trade union organisations",
"being enmeshed, harassed, worried and checked at ever step and at every turn by all kinds of legal decisions".
If only my right hon. Friend had used Sir Winston Churchill's language, I might have been more in agreement with him.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Labour Members will be disappointed that he has no plans to visit the West Midlands? Is he further aware that we need an urgent and positive approval of British Leyland's plans, including the new Mini, in the interests of the economy both of the West Midlands and of the United Kingdom as a whole?

I am well aware of the importance of British Leyland's investment future. I understand that the matter is now being studied, but I am not aware of the exact position that discussions have reached. I shall, however, convey my hon. Friend's comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry.

May I return to the supplementary question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson)? I do not know which reports the Prime Minister has read, but is he not aware that, according to some which purport to be verbatim, the Lord President's remarks went further even than the question of the trade unions? I shall paraphrase what he said since I am not permitted by the rules of order to quote, but I intend to give an accurate representation of the words used. The right hon. Gentleman said that if the freedom of the people of this country had been left to the fairmindedness of judges, we should have precious little freedom in this country. That is meant to be a paraphrase from The Guardian. I believe it to be accurate and I believe that the comment should be wholly repudiated. It was a totally disgraceful remark to have made.

I am satisfied, as one who has been a trade unionist all his life, that my right hon. Friend was referring to the attitude of judges to the trade union movement in the past. Let me remind the right hon. Lady, if she is unaware of the history, that after the repeal of the Combination Laws men were sentenced and transported to Australia, and that in the middle of the century there was a judgment by the courts—[HON. MEMBERS: "Which century?"] I am referring to the last century, which is what my right hon. Friend was referring to. In the middle of the nineteenth century there was a judgment by the courts which pretty well left it to any trade union official to abscond with the funds. There was the Taff Vale Railway case in 1901, and then there was the Osborne judgment. The right hon. Lady and the Conservative Party had better understand that the trade union movement knows where it stands on these matters.

Is the Prime Minister aware that I think his remarks will satisfy very few people in view of some of the other comments that have been made in the past by the Lord President in this House about Her Majesty's judges? Therefore, may I ask the Prime Minister whether he and every member of his Government have total confidence in the impartiality of the judges and value their total independence?

The judges of today were not referred to by my right hon. Friend. [Interruption.] I shall answer the question in my own way and in my own time. As I said, my right hon. Friend did not refer to the judges of today in his remarks, and any attempt to try to suggest that he did is totally false. Anybody who knows the history of the trade union movement and the relation between it and the courts knows the situation. As to the position of today, my right hon. Friend was casting no reflection on judges at all. That was made clear by the Lord Chancellor in the House of Lords yesterday and I make it clear again today. This is really just another red herring—

But this is the sort of thing that we shall get more and more from now on.

Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the most fruitful and important aspects of the sovereignty of this House is its right to alter the existing law as established by the decisions of the courts at any time? This is one reason why a Bill of Rights is incompatible with the free constitution of this country.

Yes, I understand that, and I agree with the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). What was encased in the examples I quoted, and it is burned deep in the hearts of trade unionists who have been brought up in the movement, is that it has been Parliament that has had to be brought in on every occasion in order to deal with interpretations of the law that the judges have given.

I revert to the original Question. Will the Prime Minister have second thoughts and go to the West Midlands to discuss with those who voted Tory and who are employed in the car industry how it was possible to do so? It should be borne in mind that had it not been for a Labour Government there would not be a car industry at all in the West Midlands.

Yes, I would be ready to do that if I went to the West Midlands. I would also point out that the present temporary hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) has a singular lack of understanding of the trade union movement.