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Prime Minister (Engagements)

Volume 934: debated on Thursday 30 June 1977

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asked the Prime Minister if he will state his public engagements for 30th June.

This morning I presided at the final session of the meeting of the European Council and was later host at a lunch for participants in the meeting. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be holding further meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.

On this last day of the British Presidency in Europe, does not the Prime Minister rather regret that in the eyes of the country and the EEC the past six months have been characterised much less by initiatives and achievements on the part of this country and much more by a resurgence of anti-European feeling within his own party?

The six months of the British Presidency have been marked by a very efficient conduct of business and by progress in a number of areas, at least one or two of which I hope to be able to report at 3.30 today —[Interruption.] On the contrary, it needs nine to come to an agreement on anything, and that takes quite a lot of doing.

As for the resurgence of anti-European or anti-Common Market feeling, some of my hon. Friends are reflecting a feeling in the country of exasperation about conditions generally, which they are wrongly relating to membership of the European Community. As there is no practical prospect of our leaving the Community, it is better that we combine and direct our efforts to reforming the features about it which do not suit British convenience. Of those, the agricultural policy is certainly one.

If my right hon. Friend has a little time on his hands today, will he take time to examine the company accounts of that squalid little man George Ward, who apparently has not sent the accounts to Companies House in compliance with the law? Does not my right hon. Friend get a little sick of watching George Ward on television night after night, along with some of his colleagues on the Tory Benches, pontificating about upholding the letter of the law when he is not carrying it out himself?

I have not watched him every night on television—I understand that he has now complied by submitting his accounts—but I see no reason to depart from the view, which I hold very strongly, that no one should be dismissed from any firm or company for the simple act of belonging to a trade union.

Because of what the Prime Minister has just said, I should like to ask him two questions. First, in view of his reply to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), is he aware that in our own Industrial Relations Act 1971, which he repealed, we enshrined the right to join a trade union? Is he also aware—and if not, will he make inquiries about it—that there are at the moment some three people on the staff at Grun-wick who are members of unions and who have been since the dispute started? That does not fit in very well with the sentiments that the right hon. Gentleman expressed about people not being allowed to join a union.

I am sure that in the Industrial Relations Act 1971 there must have been something good. [Interruption.] It was a bad Act and the Opposition know that it was a bad Act. That is why it was repealed. I can see that we can anticipate a very interesting debate later today, and I do not propose to go too far into it now. I hope that the Leader of the Opposition, in the question that she is putting, is affirming the right of ordinary employees to belong to a trade union—[HON. MEMBERS: "And not to belong."]—and not to be dismissed simply for that reason.

Not only am I affirming it, I am pointing out that there are apparently three people at Grunwick who have been members of unions since before the dispute started. Therefore, it cannot be alleged correctly that people have been dismissed because they have joined a trade union. On one occasion last week the Prime Minister himself alleged that people had been dismissed for joining a union, but when he was asked to name them, neither he nor the Department of Employment could answer.

I have no doubt that these matters will be gone into in greater detail in the course of the debate today. Until it is proved to the contrary, I must say that I adhere to my view that there is every reason to believe that people have been dismissed for membership of trade unions. That is a fundamental principle, and I ask the right hon. Lady to deny that this is so if she knows so much about it.

Will the Prime Minister join me in leaving it to a court of law to decide this matter and not to make judgments previously?

With respect, membership of a trade union is not something that should be left to a court of law—

The hon. Gentleman is not the best man to talk about hooligans. The simple principle, which I thought should be affirmed and which I thought was generally agreed by the whole House—but apparently I am wrong —is that membership of a trade union is the right of every individual employes, and not merely of three individuals in any firm.


asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for 30th June.

I refer the hon. Member to the reply which I gave earlier today to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle).

Will the Prime Minister answer today the letter I sent him at the weekend about trade union membership? Will he accept from me that people in the Conservative Party of course believe in enshrining the right of any person in this country to be free to join a trade union but also believe in enshrining the right of any person not to join a trade union? Will he join me in sponsoring a motion in this House upholding both these freedoms?

I shall look into the question of a reply to the hon. Member, although I am not certain about the letter to which he is referring. I cannot undertake to reply today. On the second part of his question, I am glad that he is catching up with the principle that should have been apparent to the Conservative Party for the last 100 years.

Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the Conservative Party's attitude over this matter shows up the transparent hypocrisy of the so-called rapprochement between it and the trade union movement? Does he further agree that after a General Election victory by the Conservatives—which God forbid—there would be a period of social disruption that would rip the country apart because of the stance that they have taken on this issue?

I find it a little difficult to define the attitude of the Conservative Party. I think that Conservatives are very divided in their views on this matter. Half of them, in one part of their minds, know what is right in principle, and the other half cannot fail to make political capital out of a very difficult situation.

Is the Prime Minister aware that many people in the House must feel that the whole question is very complex and not subject to a simple answer? Is he further aware that when he asked the Leader of the Opposition whether she felt that a man should be free to join a trade union, she answered quite unequivocally "Yes"? Will the Prime Minister answer "Yes" or "No" equally unequivocally to the question whether a man should be free not to join a trade union?

Within the limits laid down in the matter of agreements supported by the Conservative Party and others on issues like closed shop, the answer is "Yes".

Will the Prime Minister consider taking time off from his public engagements today to broadcast to the nation? Following last week's debate on the Price Commission, it is quite clear that a prices free-for-all is the cornerstone of Tory policy.

I think that the 31-hour debate last week showed clearly that the Conservative Party is as much out of tune with the public on this issue as it is on many others. I hope that it will be possible to point out that the whole purpose of the Conservative opposition to the Prices Bill last week was to weaken, omit, and ensure in every way that price control is as flexible as possible, against the interests of the public.

Does the Prime Minister accept that there are disagreements between both sides about the limit of the right of belonging and not belonging to a trade union? However, the present law, enacted by this House, defines these rights clearly. Will he endorse that these rights should be determined through the courts and the procedures laid down, instead of through industrial warfare conducted in the streets?

I find it difficult to answer a general proposition of that sort. It is my experience, after a long record of trade union membership, that the more the courts stay out of industrial relations the better. This was a basic mistake that the Conservative Party made earlier, and I would have hoped that Conservatives would learn from that. There matters are better settled outside the courts.