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Grunwick Processing Laboratories Limited

Volume 934: debated on Thursday 30 June 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the dispute at Grunwick Processing Laboratories Limited.

During the past week or so I have had a number of meetings with the parties concerned. I have discussed the situation with the Managing Director of the company, Mr. Ward, and his advisers, and with the General Secretary of APEX, Mr. Grantham. I have attempted to explore with both sides how sufficient progress might be made towards resolving the issues in dispute and to defuse the explosive situations which exist on the picket line and elsewhere. These escalating troubles must be laid to rest before they do more damage.

During the course of the discussions I considered very hard in what way progress might best be made. I formed the conclusion that, if the parties were able to give me certain assurances, I should appoint an independent mediator to investigate the circumstances of the dispute, to make recommendations to the parties, and to report to me. I wrote to Mr. Ward and Mr. Grantham last Friday to say that I would appoint a mediator if they would agree to co-operate with him and abide by his recommendations The union was prepared to give me these assurances, but, despite long discussions, I have been unable to persuade Mr. Ward and his advisers to agree to abide by a mediator's recommendations. In view of this, I have come to the conclusion, very regretfully, that the appointment of a mediator would not bring about any early progress.

The Government have been considering what further steps might be taken, since it is clear that matters cannot be allowed to go on like this. I have, therefore, today appointed a court of inquiry under the Industrial Courts Act 1919. Its terms of reference are:
"To inquire into the causes and circumstances of, and relevant to, the dispute, other than any matter before the High Court until the final determination of those proceedings, and to report."
These terms allow all the circumstances and issues involved to be examined, other than the ACAS recommendation on union recognition, the validity of which is being challenged by the company in High Court proceedings which begin next week.

The chairman of the court of inquiry will be the right hon. Lord Justice Scar-man. The other members will be Mr. J. P. Lowry, Director of Personnel, British Leyland Limited and formerly Director of the Engineering Employers' Federation; and Mr. Terence Parry, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades' Union. I have asked the court to begin its work with the greatest urgency.

Courts of inquiry under the 1919 Act are not set up lightly. This is only the second since 1972. But this has been a very long, bitter and damaging dispute, which still shows signs of widening. I believe that a court of inquiry is now the right course. Over the years, courts of inquiry have brought about the resolution of other disputes that were equally damaging and intractable.

To do so the court needs every possible help. First, it will be looking for full co-operation from the parties. I would urge them to give it every assistance and to help it expedite its proceedings.

Secondly, and this is most important, it needs to be able to proceed in a reasonably calm atmosphere. Action by either party aimed at reinforcing entrenched positions, including mass picketing or any other action that might lead to breaches of the law, does not help. I would appeal to both APEX and Grunwick to consider whether their behaviour is calculated to increase the chances of achieving a peaceful solution of the dispute. I am very well aware of the strength of feeling of both parties to the dispute, but I think that I am entitled to urge this upon them and upon others involved. I would also hope that this appeal will have the full support of the TUC and the CBI.

Finally, the court's attempt to seek a peaceful solution needs the full support of the whole House. I am confident that this will be forthcoming. I hope that any statements made now, or in the debate that we are to have later, will be of a kind that will help and not hinder this effort to find a peaceful solution.

Is the Secretary of State aware that it is essential that this inquiry should take place in a calm atmosphere and that we should start by a resolution to that effect in the House today? Is he aware that if that calm atmosphere is to be maintained, it is essential that picketing outside Grunwick be reduced to no more than the level of a few weeks ago, and that it should remain at that level during the whole of the court of inquiry?

Secondly, may I take it from what the Secretary of State said that the Post Office workers will lift their ban? Does he accept that that is an essential prerequisite to the court of inquiry? [HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] It really must be an essential prerequisite that the law is upheld. Is the Secretary of State further aware that, given these two essential prerequisites—the level of picketing and the lifting of the ban—hon. Members on this side of the House would urge full co-operation by both parties with the inquiry?

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is not trying to put conditions on the support that his party will give to this court of inquiry. As to the calm atmosphere and the relationship between that and the number of pickets, the violence that has accompanied certain of the demonstrations outside the plant is something I greatly deplore, but that was not related only to the number of pickets. It was related also to the actions of a number of people there. I have every reason to believe that the general secretary of APEX will seek to co-operate fully with the police in every way he can to avoid any further violence or disturbances outside the plant.

On the Post Office ban, I am not laying down conditions for this court of inquiry. If I could have obtained assurances and conditions that would have enabled a mediator to do his work properly, I should not have come here today to announce this court of inquiry. What I am doing is appealing to all those concerned to give the utmost co-operation to this inquiry and to ensure an atmosphere in which it has the best possible chance of resolving this dispute.

Can my right hon. Friend say whether Mr. Ward's intransigent refusal to have a mediator was inspired and instructed by the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst), who is advising him? Did he conduct the negotiations or did Mr. Ward? If, when the result of the court of inquiry is known, the management still proves intransigent and refuses to accept the result, can he confirm that the union has every right to pursue its lawful grievance and to get people to join the union or not to join it as the case may be?

It is the case that in my meetings with Mr. Ward of Grunwick the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) acted as spokesman throughout almost the whole of those discussions.

However, I have no reason to believe that he was not representing the views of Mr. Ward or the directors of Grunwick, and I do not challenge the right of Mr. Ward to decide who should act as spokesman for him. As to whether the company, or the union for that matter, will abide by the recommendations that may be produced by this court of inquiry, I believe that it would be a grave matter if either party were to ignore the recommendations of a court of such high standing, consisting as it does of an eminent judge and two highly-regarded industrial relations experts, who will lay their report before both Houses of Parliament.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we welcome his statement and compliment the Government on the inquiry that they have set up? Is he further aware that we particularly compliment him on the membership of the inquiry, especially the fact that a member of the judiciary is to be the chairman? We hope that that implies support for the judiciary and can be taken as an indication of that.

Is he finally aware that we support his appeal to all sides of the dispute to co-operate with the inquiry? Will he understand that if anyone, from inside or outside the factory, attempts to interfere with the proper conduct of the inquiry, he will be dealt with in proper fashion by the law of the land and by the upholders of the law, that is, the police, who have our admiration and support in the actions they have taken?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his most ready response to my appeal for the fullest support for the inquiry. As for his welcome comments about the membership of the court, I am very grateful for the ready response I received from the three men who have undertaken to form the court and their willingness to make themselves available at very short notice to conduct an inquiry that has to be regarded as a matter of urgency and great concern.

If this firm had such a brilliant case, one would have thought that it would readily have accepted the principle of a mediator, that it would have said "We welcome this, because we have a perfect case." Instead of that, my right hon. Friend—his behaviour and that of his Department have been absolutely first rate—now has to set up a court of inquiry. The straight question which must be asked of my right hon. Friend again is if, on advice from certain people, this management says, "We will not cooperate," what he will do about that.

I rarely try to avoid a question, but I ask my right hon. Friend to allow me to avoid this one. To presume to consider what will happen if this court does not achieve the purpose for which it is set up will raise possibilities that we do not wish to consider. I hope that the whole House will wish to work on the assumption that the court can make an important contribution to the resolution of the dispute.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Grunwick management will co-operate in every way it possibly can with this court of inquiry? Is he further aware that it will give the most careful consideration to any recommendations? Is he further aware that it will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, for it to co-operate if undue duress is exercised upon it at the time the inquiry takes place?

Finally, can he say when this court of inquiry will be sitting? Will it be at the same time as the High Court and any other court proceedings? If so, how does he imagine that it will be possible for the management of Grunwick to be in two places at the same time?

I welcome what the hon. Gentleman has said about the cooperation of the firm with the inquiry. I regret that he should have cast doubts upon that undertaking by his references to its being dependent upon whether certain actions are judged as placing the firm under duress. I hope that that may be set aside. As to the times of the sitting of the court, I am confident that Lord Justice Scarman will very much appreciate the needs of both parties to the dispute to deploy their case in the High Court action and will arrange the sittings of his court accordingly.

Did my right hon. Friend notice the final part of the question of the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) in which he said that the court of inquiry may be stultified not only by the immediate proceedings pending in the High Court but by subsequent proceedings, which may even mean appeals to the House of Lords, and could take many weeks? Will he recommend to the court of inquiry that it should get on with the job as quickly as possible in order to stultify any more obstruction by the hon. Member?

I shall certainly recommend to the court of inquiry that it proceed as a matter of urgency with its task. In asking people to participate in the court I had that very much in mind, and they are aware of it. As to the possibility of High Court action conflicting in some way with the progress of the inquiry, I do not subscribe to the view that that could occur, since the terms of reference are specific in excluding any consideration of the matter before the High Court. I am sure that we can rely upon the court of inquiry to avoid trespassing on any matters which would be sub judice as a result of the High Court proceedings.

While one welcomes the fact that a court of inquiry under so very distingished a chairman will enable the facts to be clarified, will the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the cooperation of both sides in the working of the inquiry will be assisted if it made clear in this House that any recommendations made will not be legally binding upon the parties?

It is true that, under the 1919 Act, any inquiries set up cannot produce recommendations which are legally binding upon the parties. I cannot necessarily agree that reminding people of that is essential or necessary or conducive to bringing about a resolution of the dispute. I hope that what hon. Members will wish to do, having reflected upon the suitability and eminence of those who will be running the inquiry, is also to consider that their recommendations may be such as to inspire some confidence and a willingness to comply with those recommendations.

Will my right hon. Friend ask the Leader of the Opposition to request the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) and those who are very vociferous with him on this issue—[HON. MEMBERS: "He is on his own."]—to help to settle this dispute even now, without an inquiry or anything else, by simply accepting that the workers at Grunwick have the right to join a trade union— [HON. MEMBERS: "They do not want to. Do they have the right not to?"]—and to ask that the normally accepted procedures of decent employers be respected by Mr. Ward? If the Conservatives are not prepared to make that sort of statement, is it not clear that the Conservative Party is indicating, without any shadow of doubt, that it wants to go back to the industrial relations scene not only of 1970–71 but far beyond that, and that it had better make up its mind whether it is for free trade unionism or not?

We are to debate this matter. Questions put now should be put in order to seek further information on the statement and not to anticipate the debate which is to take place

Since it is obviously essential that the inquiry should take place in as near normal an atmosphere as possible, would not the Secretary of State think it right that he should add his weight to the call made at an earlier stage by Mr. Tom Jackson, that those who are carrying out an illegal action at Crickle-wood should desist?

I made clear in my original announcement that I join those on all sides of this difficult dispute who will urge that people should desist from any actions which in themselves are illegal, or which might lead to illegal actions, during the court of inquiry—and I would say at all times.

There will be general agreement that the even-handed tone of my right hon. Friend's statement is appropriate to his office. But must he not agree that from his brief account it emerges clearly that the union has at all times fully co-operated with his efforts to settle the dispute? Does he agree that Mr. Ward, inspired by the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) has refused to co-operate, and that we have now for the first time before the nation and Parliament the true story of this tragic dispute? When my right hon. Friend rightly appeals for everybody to be helpful, must not this include the police resuming the practice that they adopted for one day when the Home Secretary visited the site and allowing the lawful pickets to enter the bus and try to persuade the people at work to join the strike?

As I understand the law on picketing, provided there is no violence, provided there is no threat to the peace—[HON. MEMBERS: "Or intimidation."]—there is no reason why pickets should not enter a bus to seek peacefully to dissuade people from taking any actions which might militate against their interests in the dispute.

I propose to call two more hon. Members from each side, because we shall be debating this matter fully.

Did the Secretary of State's reply to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) amount to the right hon. Gentleman's telling Post Office workers to desist from breaking the law and to get back to delivering the mail, or not?

Part of what I said amounted to an appeal to all those involved in this dispute, either as direct or associated parties, fully to observe the law.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the court of inquiry has been brought about as a result not of a few pickets being on the picket line for 30-odd weeks, with few people taking any notice, but because of the immense union solidarity, shown particularly by the Post Office workers at Cricklewood, whom we regard as being very important elements in the matter? Because such inquiries are shaped by the environment of the times, as was the case with the Wilberforce Inquiry into the 1972 miners' dispute—when the dispute continued and helped to shape the minds of those sitting on the court of inquiry—does not my right hon. Friend agree with me, harking back to those days, that it is very important that the blacking and the picketing continue in order that those who decide the issue decide it in that kind of environment and not when the dispute has been cooled off?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that a number of actions taken in the name of trade union solidarity have brought the dispute to the notice of the public, and to that extent have contributed to the statement I have made today. But I do not follow him—

—in his suggestion that it is crucial that all actions that have been maintained up to this point should continue through the period of the court of inquiry.

Arising out of the Secretary of State's earlier answer to one of his hon. Friends, for the avoidance of doubt would he make clear—if necessary after consultation with his right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, who is sitting next to him—that neither Section 15 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974 nor any other right enables a person to demand entry to a motor bus or any private vehicle?

I did not say that the law gave anybody the right to demand entry to a bus because he or she happened to be picketing. What the law gives to those conducting picketing in an industrial dispute is a right to attend at a place for the purpose of peacefully communicating in an attempt to persuade. I suggest that it is hard peacefully to communicate with and persuade somebody who is inside a bus if one is outside the bus and kept at a distance from it.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us on the Labour Benches have no faith that this most reactionary employer will accept what the court of inquiry recommends, which my right hon. Friend has already said will not be legally binding? The employer has denied the basic right of trade union representation and flouted the ACAS report. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only way to settle the strike is to support the TUC's call to give assistance in every way possible to the strikers? Is it not a dangerous precedent when an employer flouts the will of Parliament as expressed in the Employment Protection Act and all we can do is to set up elongated courts of inquiry?

What the employer has done is to challenge a body set up by Parliament on the employer's submission that it has not carried out its duty in the way that Parliament required it to. That is now a matter for determination by the High Court, and therefore it is not open to me to comment on it now.

Having said that, I do not agree with my hon. Friend that the only way in which the dispute will be settled is by an escalation or even a continuation of actions which have been taken up to now. It behoves every hon. Member and all those concerned in the dispute to pause and give careful consideration to whether the announcement of the court of inquiry that I have made today must be seen as an essential vehicle to the resolution of the dispute if we are not to face more serious trouble.