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Closed Shop Agreements (Public Sector)

Volume 949: debated on Tuesday 2 May 1978

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asked the Secretary of State for Employment in which industries in the public sector there are closed shop agreements; and whether he will make a statement about the policy of the Government towards the closed shop.

The information is not readily available. The Government have consistently maintained a position of neutrality on the subject of closed shop agreements. We believe that whether they should be introduced—and, if so, in what form—is a matter to be determined by agreement between the employers and trade unions concerned.

Is the Minister aware that in the publicly owned British Railways 40 employees have been dismissed for refusing to join a trade union and that two more were dismissed when they resigned from their trade unions? How does he reconcile the Government's policy of neutrality towards these matters with Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that each worker shall have the right to free choice of employment?

I sometimes wonder whether the hon. Gentleman listens, because we have been having this dialogue over many months now and I have repeatedly pointed out to him that these are matters on which it would be quite inappropriate for the Government to interfere. I have said repeatedly that we would hope that where union membership agreements were entered into they would be handled in a flexible and tolerant manner—[Interruption.] It would be quite inappropriate for the Government to be dictating to any employer or trade union, in a way that the Opposition tried to do and failed, about whether or not they should enter into union membership agreements.

With regard to the operation of the closed shop, has my hon. Friend looked into the situation at Thomson Regional Newspapers, where the journalists are at present subject to a lock-out? Would it not seem that the militant tendencies in this industry at least belong essentially to the employers?

Of course, it should be recognised that there are difficulties with employers as well as with trade unions in this respect. But, in the particular case that my hon. Friend has mentioned, I think that it would be equally inappropriate for me to comment or to seek to intervene in that situation. If the services of ACAS can be helpful, they are available to be called upon.

Will the Minister say how the neutrality which he and the Government say they have towards a closed shop differers from the neutrality of Pontius Pilate washing his hands?

The hon. Gentleman ought to try to think of something original. I think that that is at least the second time that he has tried that. The Government's position, in accordance with our General Election manifesto commitment, was that we would revert the law to that which applied before the Industrial Relations Act 1971, and that is the law which has applied for many years in this country, and that is the law now. I have pointed out—and I regret that I have to do it again—that when the Opposition tried to outlaw closed shops, closed shops flourished in spite of that. The only result was that the Conservatives produced the most massive loss of working days due to industrial disputes that we have suffered since the General Strike.