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Miss Joanna Harris: Closed Shop Policy

Volume 417: debated on Friday 13 February 1981

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11.13 a.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a statement on the talks between the Secretary of State for Employment and Miss Joanna Harris on the closed shop policy of the Sandwell District Council; and what steps they propose to take following these discussions.

My Lords, on 9th February, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment met Miss Joanna Harris and three other employees of Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council who had been threatened with dismissal if they did not join a trade union. He reaffirmed his support for their refusal to give in to the council's tactics and restated his condemnation of the council's intolerant policy, and noted that NALGO is also disregarding the TUC's own guidance on the closed shop which urges tolerance. My right honourable friend went on to explain how the law now operates since the passage of the Employment Act 1980. The Government are currently reviewing the law on the closed shop in the Green Paper on Trade Union Immunities. Developments at Sandwell will be fully taken into account in the review.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that answer. First, is he aware that this closed shop policy was imposed after Miss Harris and a number of others became employees of the local authority? Secondly, is he aware that it has also been suggested that the action of the local authority is unlawful? Is that so? If their action is unlawful, are the noble Lord's department and that of the Secretary of State for the Environment proposing to warn this local authority and any others which may be contemplating equally offensive behaviour of this character that they are putting themselves at the risk of a surcharge from the district auditor? Lastly, is the Minister aware that a very large number of people in this country regard the behaviour of the local authority as absolutely outrageous in putting this young woman into the position of having to choose between her principles and joining a very, very long dole queue and that if in fact matters of this sort cannot be resolved under the present law there will be an overwhelming demand for a change in the law?

My Lords, may I reply to the noble Lord's questions in reverse order. The Government are reviewing trade union immunities so far as the closed shop is concerned in the Green Paper which is under discussion. All of us are aware of the sense of outrage and indignation which this particular case has aroused all round the country. The noble Lord asked me about a surcharge on members of the council or on the council itself. That is a hypothesis. The question of a penalty or a fine will be taken up and decided by an industrial tribunal. So far as we understand it, Miss Harris has not yet gone to a tribunal. That is her right. To the very first question which the noble Lord asked me, the answer is, yes, the Government are aware that Miss Harris joined the council before a closed shop policy was introduced.

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware of a letter which the Secretary of State wrote to Mr. McWhirter and issued to the press on 4th February before seeing Miss Joanna Harris which, after publicly condemning the council's ruthless and inhuman closed shop policy, went on to say explicitly:

"It is quite clear that what Sandwell are proposing is unlawful under the terms of our recent Employment Act."?
May I ask the Minister whether he will now repudiate the Secretary of State and explain that in fact the Employment Act which was recently passed, regretfully, through this House without any amendment of this clause specifically licenses employers to sack employees in these circumstances and fobs them off with the possibility of compensation if they go to an industrial tribunal?

My Lords, I would not repudiate anything which my right honourable friend says. Far be it from me. I am always tempted when noble Lords quote from letters to say to them, "Read on, read on", because very often such statements are taken out of context. I do not think that the noble Lord is doing that. The noble Lord asked me about fobbing off employees. The Employment Act 1980 does no such thing. That Act strengthens the position of the employee. Under the 1980 Act, if an employee's case is proved to be conclusively in the employee's favour at the industrial tribunal, that employee stands to gain a very large sum in compensation.

My Lords, without pressing the noble Lord further on this particular case but in the light of the review which he has announced, will he bear in mind that there are always a number of people in this country who are quite prepared to be employed at rates of pay and under conditions of work which have been gained for the class as a whole by the trade union movement without at the same time accepting part of the responsibility themselves to aid in that particular process? Will he also bear in mind that translated into purely general terms, the arrangements which are referred to in the Question have been found to be to the advantage of wide sections of British industry and have been paid tribute to many times by leading employers in this country?

My Lords, the law of this country—and, indeed, the Employment Act—does not entirely support everything that the noble Lord has said. We believe that the Employment Act has strengthened the position of each individual employee who wishes to work throughout industry in the United Kingdom, either in a union or outside it. In this particular case, Miss Harris wished to work for that authority. When she entered employment her contract in no terms stated that she had to join a union and we believe that the Employment Act 1980 strengthens the right of Miss Harris and indeed the right of every similar worker.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that a right to compensation for loss of a job is not an adequate answer in cases like this, where an employee has a job of which she is fond and in which she wishes to work? Is my noble friend further aware that, if the outcome of this case is to show that this lady is to be deprived of her job, albeit with compensation, that will satisfy many of us of the complete inadequacy of the present law?

My Lords, I take my noble friend's point, but I hope he will accept that in the last resort this Government—and many others—have recognised that no Government and no law can force people to work together.

My Lords, assuming that what the district council proposed is lawful as opposed to unlawful, can we take it from the attitude of the Secretary of State towards this young lady that it is the intention of the Government, if it is found that the district council is indeed behaving lawfully, to change the law?

My Lords, I believe the question of whether it is lawful or unlawful in this young lady's case has yet to be decided, and indeed that is the very reason for which industrial tribunals exist. It is they who decide whether or not the council has acted according to the law.

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell me why it is that many employers are so much in favour of the closed shop? Surely they have an argument which we should consider as well, because very many employers are in favour of the closed shop.

That well may be, my Lords, but I think the noble Baroness will recognise that that is a different question from the one which I have been asked today.

My Lords, taking up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, is the noble Lord aware that the crucial question in this case is whether this young woman can get her job back, because compensation is not enough? The central question is whether she is going to get that job back. At a time of high unemployment it is intolerable that this young woman should be put in this position by a local authority behaving in this grossly totalitarian manner.

My Lords, the Government share the feelings of your Lordships' House. I understand that it is for the industrial tribunal to decide on the merits of the case, and the industrial tribunal can require the employer to reinstate or re-employ the employee if the employee's case is found to be justified. I think that we should not pre-judge the case, nor indeed should we go on with the duties of the industrial tribunal. I understand the case will come up early next month and I think we should leave it at that.

My Lords, in view of what my noble friend has said, I think it would be well if we were to pass on to the next business.