HC Deb 01 August 1912 vol 41 cc2356-60

I hope the House will bear with me whilst I refer to a matter relating to the Home Office. I am afraid it is going to be an echo of the recent—happily we may use the adjective—dock strike. I think my right hon. Friend is already in possession of the facts of the case, and therefore I will review them very briefly indeed. When the men returned to work it was agreed that no alteration should be made upon the conditions which had been observed hitherto, and more particularly in respect of the taking on of trade unionists outside the dock gates. That was one of the conditions which the men laid down, and which they will certainly do their best to maintain. In respect of Victoria Dock, the members of the trade union lined themselves up against a wall on the footway, near to the Custom House Station. That, I may say, is a principle of trade unionism in the docks. The Free Labour Association and the Shipping Federation, and those who have attempted to break down trade unionism, and the men who are not trade unionists, are taken on inside the dock. Those men go inside the dock and are taken on by the foremen, who then come out and select the men from the trade unionists. Although that may appear to be an exceedingly small point, yet it is a very important one from the point of view of trade unionism, as everybody knows who knows the history of the struggle of trade unionism in connection with dock labour in London.

At this particular point, in respect of this dock, for over forty years I believe this custom has prevailed. From time to time, in order to suit public convenience, the particular spot where the men have gathered, at what they call their place of call, has been changed. About nine years ago an arrangement was come to between the Dockers' Union and the police that the place which is now being used should be the place, and every morning, from about a quarter-past six, and every noontime, from about a quarter or half-past twelve, the men who want work, especially if they are members of trade unions, and, in fact, it is only members of trade unions, go to this particular place and the foremen come out and select their men. Then, according to the rules of the union, as soon as the selection has been made for the day, or half-day, or shift, or whatever it is, the men are bound to disperse, because they do not want the members of their union to loiter about in the street and to take on casual jobs; so that there is no danger of obstruction of the traffic or of anything that would be objectionable from the public point of view. That is the recital of the habit of the place. The strike took place, and the strike was settled. The strike ends, and the men yesterday and the day before went to the usual place of call at this particular pavement and waited to be taken on by the foremen. Yesterday at about a quarter to one the men lined up, and the foremen came to select them; and, according to our information, which has been placed before the Home Secretary, and which is information not from members of trade unions, but from representatives of the employers, namely, the foremen who saw the whole of the proceedings—according to their statement given to us, and according to statements made in the Police Court this morning by a person who was accused of having assaulted the police or obstructed the police, and by witnesses who were called on his behalf, whilst this was going on a body of policemen marched down and were lined across the end of the street so as to block egress and ingress. They also blocked certain streets leading off this main thoroughfare, leaving only one street down which the men could go.

Without any provocation and without any demonstration being made against them, and without any reason, so far as we can make out, and so far as the witnesses who gave their evidence, and so far as affidavits disclose, Inspector Boxall, who was in charge of the contingent, gives the order to clear the place, and called out at the top of his voice, instructing his men to use their batons in doing so. The men escaped hither and thither. They ran down the only street that was available, Freemason's Road. They found the streets leading into Freemason's Road had been blocked by policemen before they got there, and that a van has been drawn across Freemason's Road a little way down, which made it impossible for the men to escape easily. Some of them who escaped into shops were dragged out of the shops; the man who was brought before the Police Court this morning was one of those. I will refer to his case subsequently, and as to what the magistrate did with it. Then in one case, a Mr. Lewis Lewis, who is an official of the Dockers' Union and in charge of an office at No. 5, Freemason's Road, and who was receiving pay from men who were there paying their subscriptions, states that policemen actually went into his office and took those men who were paying their subscriptions out of his office, and hustled them and batoned them in the process. We have evidence of a man going into a jeweller's shop, who came to us last night and gave us his statement, of being dragged out of the jeweller's shop and ill-used. There was a man brought before the magistrate this morning who escaped into a shop and was ultimately arrested after being bruised and broken by batons. The case against him was heard this morning, witnesses were called, and the magistrate, who has not certainly erred on the side of the men, I do not say he has been unjust, but has not erred on the side of the men in giving his sentences during the dispute; having heard the witnesses and having listened to the evidence discharged the man; and the other prisoners who were brought up this morning were remanded for a week.

I think we really must know why this was done. A deputation went to my right hon. Friend last night to lay the facts before him, and he was good enough to inform them that he would make inquiries with a view to stopping a similar proceeding this morning. I regret very much, as I thought that would be all right, that the intention which I had formed to go down myself at half-past six o'clock this morning and see the proceeding was not carried out. If I had thought there would have been any failure in the matter, and I do not blame my right hon. Friend for I assumed that what he said meant that the men would have been allowed to line up and be called on by the foremen, I would have gone down as I had intended to do. Lo and behold! we are told to-day that the men who assembled in their old place simply to be taken on outside the dock-gates, the foremen being there, were again hustled by policemen. They did not use batons to-day, but the men were hustled by the police and cleared off, and with the result that a boat which was going to be unladen by those men's labour is being unladen by labour of non-unionists who went inside the dock gates, a way to which these men object. We want to know is this place of call going to be abolished? If it is, at whose instance is it going to be abolished? If it is going to be abolished for good reason, why did not the police in the ordinary way approach the men's officials and reason the matter out with them, and negotiate the matter as they have done before? Is it that somebody who can influence the police and use the police wants to drive the men inside the dock-gates in order to be taken on? That is a point on which I think the House is entitled to get an answer, and, above all, in view of what took place yesterday, and in view of the affidavits which are now in our possession, and the basis of which, in the form of written statements my right hon. Friend had handed to him last night, and in view of what took place in the Police Courts this morning, I think we are very reasonable in asking that an inquiry should be held into the whole proceeding. An inquiry is now proceeding regarding certain events in Bermondsey which took place a week ago. Here, as we allege, without provocation, without warning, without a justification of any kind, men doing what has been done for forty years in that district and in respect of that dock and the adjoining dock, assembled in a place where they have assembled for nine years, and which is the ordinary method of the trade, are subject to assault by the police. Surely this House will insist, if it will insist on anything, upon an inquiry being held so that we may understand the meaning of all this, why it was done, and under what circumstances it was carried out. I hope my right hon. Friend will consider the request is a very reasonable one, and a very proper one, and with that recital of the case, and with that request, I leave the matter to the House, hoping that the Home Office will see to it, first of all, that this place of call is to be preserved and the men are not to be forced to go inside the dock gates to be taken on; and, secondly, that law and order, an excellent principle for the men, is also an equally, in fact more, excellent principle for the police.

And, it being a Quarter-past Eight of the clock, and there being Private Business set down by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means, under Standing Order No. 8, further proceeding was postponed without Question put.