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Senior Colman Engineering Ltd, Cheshire

Volume 115: debated on Tuesday 28 April 1987

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Ryder.]

I am grateful for this opportunity to refer to the Senior Colman Engineering company in Sale, Manchester, which is not a large engineering firm. While this dispute involves only 112 workers, those people are important, as is the issue involved. Indeed, the issue is as important as that facing any large factory, such as a Ford plant in the motor car industry.

First and foremost, I will explain my involvement. I am the secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union parliamentary A group. I have been requested by our national secretary and by the district committee to expose some of the disgraceful details appertaining to this district.

The dispute commenced on 16 January and it developed into a serious confrontation because of the sheer arrogance and unreasonableness of the company. Also, I should add, the company did not follow the agreed procedure that is laid down. The Government often tell workers to act responsibly but we very rarely hear them telling managements to act responsibly and to behave themselves in respect of the terms and conditions of their workers. It is interesting to be talking about industrial relations because I read a report in The Times dated 23 April about a speech by Lord Young on industrial relations in which it was said:
"the Government was on the right lines with its industrial relations policy …
He told a CBI conference in London that no Government could legislate good industrial relations into being but since 1980 there had been extensive consultation and a step-by-step approach towards a legal framework which, he said, was fair, realistic and suitable for both the economy and society.
Lord Young said proposals in the Green Paper 'Trade Unions and their Members' shared a common central theme: Promotion and protection of the democratic rights of trade unionists as Members of their trade unions."
This policy falls far short when we examine the circumstances of this dispute. All kinds of measures to control trade unions are advocated by Government Ministers but it is noticeable that there are no penalties when we experience what I term rotten companies. We often talk about training courses and I think that it would be money well spent if we introduced training courses for good company management, because it is recognised that there are failures in this area.

The dispute arose because the management victimised four workers. There was an immediate factory mass meeting. Arising from the meeting a secret ballot was taken at which 110 workers voted for immediate strike action and two workers voted against. The Government are supposed to favour secret ballots and responsible trade unions. I think the Minister would agree that this was an overwhelming determination that there was a grievance. An AEU official went to the company and appealed for some reasonableness and asked it to observe agreed procedures. But, following discussions, he finally registered a failure to agree.

There have been further attempts to conciliate in this matter and my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme), who is the chairman of the AEU parliamentary group, wrote two letters. He wrote to Senior Colman and the Paymaster General. From the management of Senior Colman there was a rather curt reply, little better than one paragraph, which said:
"It was kind of you to write to offer your assistance in trying to bring about an end to the dispute in Sale. The matter is being handled by the local management and I have passed your letter on to them."
That is the concern and response from the management.

The Paymaster General also replied to my right hon. Friend. I shall take one or two brief extracts from the letter. He referred to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. He said:
"ACAS has been in touch with both parties and remains available to help them reach a settlement."
He went on to talk about jobcentres. I hope that the Minister will take note of one paragraph in which the Paymaster General said that Jobcentres
"must … be seen to be neutral … and must not take action that might make matters worse."
He went on to say that on 22 January the employer had informed the jobcentre that the strikers had been dismissed and that the AEU district secretary had informed the jobcentre that the dispute was declared official. The letter goes on to admit that a Mr. Yendley, the regional manager for the employment service in the north-west, decided only four days later, on 26 January, to resume advertisement of the vacancies.

It is our contention that the Manpower Services Commission should not in any way act on behalf of companies to recruit scab labour. I am sure that there was a contradiction when the Paymaster General said that jobcentres must remain neutral. If they were to remain neutral they would not have taken any part in the recruiting of labour.

I shall now deal with the real dirty work that has been carried out by the company. I think that hon. Members will say that it is practically beyond belief in the 20th century. Four of the strikers happen to be deaf and dumb. The management arrogantly proceeded to attempt to intimidate them. They gave an ultimatum by telephone to the homes of those four handicapped people saying that unless they returned to work within one hour they would be sacked. It also told them that because of their disability they would probably never work again. In addition to that there is a management scoundrel who visited a home to see the wife of one of the dear and dumb strikers while he was on picket duty.

It is obvious that the management was trying to use the handicap as a weapon. In view of all that, I think that the management representative is worse than a scroundel; he is nothing less than a management leper. What about equal opportunities for the handicapped? If those people had been black or women they would have been able to take proceedings, and lines would have been imposed on the company. It appears that because they are handicapped there are no penalties that can be imposed on the company.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) reflected on that problem and said that he would try to introduce some legislation to encompass protection for such people. However, at the time the Government said that there was no need for any further legislation and that it was their belief that there should be a process of education and exhortation of the management to encourage it to behave in a responsible way. It has hardly been acting responsibly. It is obvious that we need legislation. In view of the management's conduct we should label all the products of Senior Colman Ltd. in Manchester with the words "industrial lepers", because that is what the firm and management are. They are prepared to go to any limit to intimidate the workers to go back to work.

It would be useful tonight for the Government to remind employers of some of their social responsibilities. I wonder how it is that companies from countries such as Japan can come over here and make a success of managing and co-operating with the work force, yet British employers—this employer is not isolated—can wreak havoc and go mad without any sanctions for pursuing ruthless policies. I ask the Minister whether he approves of this and whether the Government support it. I plead with the Minister to give an assurance that he will instruct the MSC not to interfere in a legitimate dispute which has arisen because of the sheer incompetence and arrogance of the management of this factory.

I ask the Minister to condemn the management for its conduct and to give a lead by requesting the company to go to ACAS. We, as trade unionists, encourage the workers to respond responsibly; to go to ACAS, get around the table and resolve this unnecessary and hurtful dispute which is a disgrace and is causing concern in the north-west. I assure the Minister that this dispute will not go away; it will fester for some time. The whole trade union movement in greater Manchester is appalled and up in arms about what is going on. The north-west is asking for some lead from the Minister. I appeal to the Minister to co-operate. If he will co-operate, we shall certainly co-operate in reaching a satisfactory resolution. I appeal to companies to introduce new thinking and new policies for resolving disputes between management and workers.

11.52 pm

Does the hon. Gentleman have the agreement of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham) to intervene in the debate?

I am much obliged to the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham). The company in question is in my constituency. In this case, as in many others, there are two sides to the dispute. I am quoting from a document, which states:

"The factory became unionised three years ago and has maintained a stable workforce. The Company in its long history has never witnessed a strike. Never that is until now. It is with genuine regret that that record has now been blemished."

From what document is the hon. Gentleman quoting?

I understand that it bears the stamp "AUEW Manchester".

My understanding is that the company decided that it was time to computerise its production records and, in consequence of that, it approached the senior shop stewards' committee and discussed its proposals for a new form of time sheet so that it would meet the requirements of the computer software. After several requests, the company dismissed four of its employees for misconduct — failure to comply with what it regarded as a reasonable instruction. Therefore, the employees went on strike and after three or four official warnings the strikers were dismissed.

The instruction was that they should complete the new time sheets instead of the old time sheets, not an onerous imposition. It is about time that the trade union movement, including that in the Manchester area, started living in the modern age of computers and working to co-operate with management to maximise production instead of objecting at every turn.

I am sorry, but I have been granted only a couple of minutes. The hon. Gentleman may catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The company then proceeded, having warned the strikers and given them official notice, to recruit a new labour force.

I do not accept the criticism of the hon. Member for Blackley of the MSC manager, Mr. Yendley —

The hon. Member for Blackley had his full chance to deploy the union case. I would be obliged if the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Brown) would allow me to make what I hope will be only a brief intervention.

On 12 February the hon. Member for Blackley quoted a letter from the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme), which said that Mr. Yendley had been actively assisting the company—

The hon. Gentleman is not on the picket line now.

—in recruiting workers while an official dispute was taking place. However, my understanding is that once the dispute was made official no more recruiting took place. The union took a considerable time to make the dispute official and by that time the company had already recruited through the MSC.

The hon. Member for Blackley referred to the four deaf and dumb employees, about whom great play has been made and who, it is said, were treated disgracefully. Let me quote from a letter from the mother of one of those deaf workers. I shall not identify her by name, but she said:

"I am writing on behalf of my son who is deaf…he left home at 6.45"—
this is once the strike had started and he wanted to attend the factory to keep his job—
"to pick up"—
his friend—
"on his motorbike to get to work but they could not get through. Thursday morning I got up at six o'clock to make him a flask of tea and a sandwich in case he couldn't get anything while at work. He left home at quarter to seven, as he said he was walking … but still didn't get in and was told to stop outside."
It is clear that at least that individual wanted to get to his place of work and it was the union picket that prevented him from doing so. When he was dismissed, the AUEW was responsible—[Interruption.]

The AUEW was responsible, and he did not lose his job of his own volition.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, when he replies to the debate, will bear in mind that the account presented by the hon. Member for Blackley was very much an ex-parte affair. As he made clear, in the House he is a distinguished representative of the AUEW, and he is entitled to that. However, several members of the work force certainly wanted to attend for work, but were prevented from doing so by pickets from the hon. Gentleman's union.

12 midnight

We have perhaps had the liveliest debate of the day during this Adjournment debate. First let me congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham) on his speech and acknowledge the patently sincere and deeply felt concern which led to his wish that this matter sho:uld be debated in the House. We have also heard the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) who put the case for the other side of the dispute.

I must say straight away that it is, of course, always sad to see people lose their jobs — but in any individual situation the question whether to take industrial action is entirely a matter for the employees to decide. Holding a ballot before industrial action gives union members the opportunity to think about the possible consequences and decide for themselves whether they are willing to take the risks involved. Strikes invariably put jobs at risk—either immediately, as in this case, or as a result of the longer-term damage that they can do to the company concerned.

There may be some confusion over the question of immunity and the protective effect of a ballot before strike action. Let me try to clarify the point. The Trade Union Act 1984 made it a condition of immunity that before calling a strike or other industrial action, a trade union must obtain the support of its members through a secret and properly conducted ballot. Trade union immunities, however, protect those who persuade others to break their contracts. not those who, by going on strike, break their own contracts.

The law has never protected people's jobs when they breach their contracts by going on strike. In those circumstances, the employer has always had the right to regard the employment contract as terminated. However, it protects strikers against selective dismissal and victimisation. The basic principles of the legislation governing dismissal in a strike have remained unchanged since 1971. When statutory protection was first introduced — they are to allow the dismissal of all workers on strike, but to give protection to those selectively dismissed, and to those not re-engaged when others are. That is the position on unfair dismissal in relation to industrial disputes.

With regard to the conduct and resolution of disputes, it is not the Government's job to intervene in individual disputes, but rather to establish a sound legal framework in which employers and employees can shoulder their own responsibilities. The resolution of disputes is essentially a matter for employers and employees themselves, with the assistance, if they wish to have it, of the independent Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, which always stands ready to provide any help it can to the parties in any dispute. I understand that ACAS has been in touch with both parties in this dispute and remains available to help them reach a settlement. In addition, if any of the employees dismissed feel that they have a legitimate claim of unfair dismissal against their employer, they have the right to apply to an industrial tribunal—though it will, of course, be for the tribunal to interpret the law in each particular case.

I now want to consider the involvement of the Manpower Services Commission's jobcentres in recruitment for certain jobs at Senior Colman Ltd. following the dispute which I think is the central point of concern for the hon. Member for Blackley.

I think that it is important—

Will the Minister answer one question? Will he confirm that my hon. Friend's point that 110 members voted in favour—

Order. We cannot have two hon. Members on their feet at the same time.

With great respect, I am operating on a very tight deadline because I have given a proportion of my time to my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme. It was up to the hon. Member for Blackley to give his colleague the hon. Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) a proportion of his time. I shall use my time in my own way.

What happened in this case, I understand, is that Senior Colman Ltd. asked the jobcentre at Altrincham to service vacancies for the jobs of the four workers initially dismissed, and the employer told the jobcentre manager privately that there was a possibility that he might need her help to fill a further 106 vacancies if the rest of the work force did not respond to an ultimatum to return to work or be dismissed. On 22 January the employer told the jobcentre that those still on strike had been dismissed, and asked the jobcentre to fill the resulting vacancies.

Perhaps when the hon. Member has been in the House a little longer he may understand how Adjournment debates are conducted.

MSC staff, following standing guidance, waited a few days to provide a cooling-off period and then sent about 140 people to the firm for interview, after warning them about the industrial dispute. After interviewing, about 90 were placed. On 28 January the employer informed the jobcentre that all vacancies were filled. Since then. the jobcentre has had no contact with the firm.

All the action taken by the jobcentre in question, and its regional management, was entirely in line with the tried and tested procedures that have governed the employment service's handling of job vacancies during a trade dispute for many years now. It may help if I explain what these procedures are, and what are the principles underlying them.

Jobcentres have a general duty to provide a service for employers and people looking for work. Under the Employment and Training Act 1973 the Manpower Services Commission is charged with an equal responsibility to employers and Job seekers. This means that it must be neutral in all matters relating to the provision of services. This stance must apply to industrial disputes. even though in practice it is difficult for the employment service to appear to all concerned to be acting in a neutral way. If jobcentres service vacancies for an establishment affected by a dispute, unions often take the view that help is being given to the employer. If jobcentres refrain from servicing these vacancies then employers may well complain that the jobcentre is supporting the employees.

The policy is therefore to treat such job vacancies as normally as possible, but with the important distinction that intending applicants are informed that a dispute is in progress so they can decide for themselves whether to apply for employment. If the vacancies have arisen directly because of a withdrawal of labour, action to fill the jobs may be suspended for two days, or longer in exceptional circumstances, to allow a cooling-off period to see whether the dispute may be resolved in the meantime and a confrontation avoided, and to make sure that there are real vacancies on offer rather than just the threat of dismissals as a negotiating ploy. This is exactly what happened with the Senior Colman vacancies at Altrincham jobcentre.

One very important aim of these carefully considered procedures is to try to ensure as far as possible that the Manpower Services Commission does nothing which could be regarded as exacerbating a dispute, or worsening industrial relations within the firm involved. Another important concern is, of course, the practical question of personal risk to job seekers who apply for vacancies and have to cross picket lines. The procedures are designed with these factors very much in mind, and have been looked at again very recently to ensure that we, and the MSC, still regard them as the best way to deal with what can be very delicate situations.

I hope that what I have said will reassure the Member for Blackley that the procedures that the Manpower Services Commission puts into practice in these sorts of circumstances are long-standing, fair and sensible, and that they were operated reasonably in the case of this particular dispute at Senior Colman Ltd.

Let me sum up then what the jobcentre did and why it did it. It was notified of around 100 vacancies in a company where the employer was threatening to dismiss all those who were on strike. The jobcentre staff concerned, following their standing guidance, decided to take no action on the vacancies for a few days, during which ACAS was consulted as to the genuineness of the vacancies and the prospects for a settlement. When it became clear that there—

The Motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eight minutes past Twelve o'clock.