I move amendment No. 7:—
In sub-section (3), page 6, to delete all words after the word "scheme" where it first occurs in line 48 to the end of the sub-section.
The sub-section to which this amendment is being moved is the one which penalises employees of the Electricity Supply Board who belong to the pensions scheme by depriving them of the benefits of that scheme if they go on strike. This section is probably the most objectionable one in the whole Bill, and, in my opinion, very definitely mars what is, as I said last week on the Second Reading, a very desirable piece of social legislation. It is altogether unnecessary and it has aroused more antagonism to the Bill than any other proposal, particularly among manual workers and workers organised in the trade union movement.
The amendment asks that the service of participants in pension schemes should not be broken for the purpose of the pension scheme simply because they have gone on strike. The object that the Minister has in view in this Bill could have been achieved better by setting up some form of conciliation machinery, making provision for the prevention of disputes, rather than by making provision for penalties as now set forth, if workers are constrained for some grave reason—a reason of conscience or some other valid reason—to withdraw their labour.
In that regard, I would like to dispel the idea, pretty prevalent in circles outside the trade union movement, that strikes are a form of national pastime engaged in by organised workers. Anyone who has had the misfortune to be a participant in a strike, particularly a long strike, knows the economic consequences which follow. Workers are very slow to go out on strike unless there is a very grave reason. In this connection, I submit that the Minister already has the power he needs in the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act, 1875, and in the originating Act of the Electricity Supply Board, where it was made a criminal offence to interfere with the generation, transmission, and distribution of gas—or, in this case, of electricity. I think he has all the safeguards required in both of those measures.
We regard that portion of the sub-section that we propose should be deleted as entirely unnecessary, and, having regard to the two Acts to which I have referred, as redundant. Many workers will find difficulty in participating under this Act—particularly lower paid workers—because of the financial obligations it will impose on them, but they would be willing to get over those difficulties if this definitely objectionable clause could be disposed of. I have some knowledge of the feelings of workers—particularly manual workers—in regard to this section. They feel that, as long as this section stands, very many of them will not participate in any scheme. I know that the Minister has stated that there is no obligation on them to take part and that, if they want to leave themselves free to take part in any action such as strike action, they can do so by not coming into this scheme. That would be very undesirable.
There is another aspect that we, as representatives of the trade union movement, cannot overlook. Many good employers in industry pay pensions to their workers without any obligation. Because they are good employers they pay those pensions. In my own trade, rather substantial pensions are paid to certain classes of workers. If we were to let this section go, without making a protest, it might occur in future that employers would put an obligation on workers who participate in any pension scheme, to give an assurance that they would not engage in strike action at any time. We feel that it is necessary to make a protest here about that. The Minister himself has stated that he would like to see a development of pension schemes for other classes of workers. If he gets away with this Bill, he may be tempted, in any schemes in the future, to impose a similar clause— even though the service might not be an essential service or one where workers should not go on strike.
In regard to the statement about workers having the desire to strike, I would say there is no desire on their part to engage in that costly luxury without very grave reason. If this country were invaded by an alien power and the Electricity Supply Board workers decided, as has been done in the past, that they would close down for a week, would they be regarded as taking action coming within the scope of this section? Would they be penalised for that?
I also wish to refer to the provision in paragraph (c) of sub-section 3, where it is laid down that "all contributions paid to the said fund by such person, or by the board on his behalf, in respect of the period of service so excluded shall remain in the said fund and shall not be repayable." That is a very unfair clause. I will not go so far as to say it is ungenerous, but it seems to me to be rather unfair that workers participating in the scheme should be penalised, not only in respect of pensions in the future but also in respect of contributions paid before the commission of that "wilful act" which caused, or might have caused, an interruption in the generation, transmission or distribution of electricity. The worker should be entitled at least to the repayment of the contribution he had made prior to the commission of the overt act which will cause this service to be excluded in the computation of his pension rights.
I would urge the Minister to give at least some consideration to the points which I have made in respect of this sub-section. We believe it is altogether too harsh. There is no desire to go on strike. If the Minister introduced some sort of conciliation machinery, it might much better serve the object he had in view. Having regard to the good conditions and constant employment already referred to, we do not think there is any desire for precipitate or hasty action, but we think it is an affront to the manual workers in the service of the Electricity Supply Board that they should have this section imposed on them.