HC Deb 12 July 1946 vol 425 cc829-38

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Michael Stewart.]

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Ungoed-Thomas (Llandaff and Barry)

The Conservative Party have been talking for a long time about the question of priorities in government business. I am sure South Wales will recognise, with some little annoyance, the obstructive tactics followed by the Opposition on a matter which concerns their country very little at the expense of holding up business on a matter which concerns this country very deeply.

The matter which I wish to raise has already been before the House and this is really a prolongation of the Debate on the Adjournment on 22nd February on the question of traffic through the Welsh ports. The matter is brought up again now, because practically nothing has been done meantime, so far as we can see, to deal with the problem. It is very unfortunate that this matter has to be dealt with on the Adjournment. I hope we shall soon have a Welsh day, and that we shall soon have a Welsh Minister. One thing which has been brought home to us very strongly in dealing with the Minister of Transport over this matter is that the position of Wales would have been incomparably stronger, if we had had a Minister at Cabinet level who could deal with the Minister instead of Members having to pray for the Minister's intervention and supplicate his assistance. We are profoundly disturbed at the position in the Welsh ports. I say that not only on my own behalf; every member of the Welsh Parliamentary Party is solidly opposed to the Minister on his lack of policy in dealing with this matter.

Let us consider what the position has been since the Debate in February. The exports of coal and coke have roughly held their own, but that is Inc entirely to the fact that the coal now being exported is "banked duff," poor quality stuff which has been mined long ago. There is no prospect of the exports continuing once that "banked duff" is disposed of. Other exports in the four weeks ended 24th February, at the time the last Debate took place, amounted to 250,000 tons. In the four weeks ended 19th May, they were 120,000 tons, which is a drop of more than 50 per cent. The latest figure I have is for 16th June, when the amount was 95,000 tons. The total of all exports for the last four weeks has been lower than at any time since the Debate on 22nd February.

Imports are just "ticking over". There is no improvement at all. Nothing has been done to bring into the Welsh ports generally any imports to make up for what was known to be the difficulty in regard to exports. The employment position is shown by the fact that in the eight weeks up to 29th June, there were on the effective register 3,053 transport workers, as compared with 3,364 at the time when the last Debate took place. Thai is a drop of 311.

Hon. Members


Mr. Ungoed-Thomas

Dockworkers, yes. The average figure of unemployed is 1,400 during the last eight weeks compared with 1,227 at the time of the last Debate, an increase of 127 even on a reduced register and making with the reduction in the register a total of 483. The percentage of unemployed on the register in South Wales generally is 43 per cent., and in Barry it is as high as 52 per cent. That is the picture. It is a picture of steady deterioration during the period since the last Debate.

We in South Wales can only judge the Government by the action that has been taken. In addition to the unemployment position, we see, whatever the Minister may say, that the dock charges have been put up, that the docks have been treated as merely ancillary to the railways, that in Barry, for instance, edible oil storage tanks are being closed down and that the Great Western Railway are removing their divisional stores from Barry to Swindon. When the Minister is asked to do something about it, he washes his hands of it, and says that he cannot interfere. He is paying £43 million under his contract with the railways, which gives him control of the railways. Unless he is in a position to deal with the policy of the railways, what on earth are we paying the £43 million for?

There has been a certain amount of action. The Ports Committee in South Wales has been exceedingly active, and has drawn up a most valuable report. Steps are being taken in South Wales to set up a cargo clearing house. I understand that the Great Western Railway are reviewing their dock charges. We are very glad to know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has a Committee sitting on the question of a free port, and we in South Wales are all very proud of the part which one of our own Members, the Secretary for Overseas Trade, has played in dealing with this point. All these matters are important, but they are all limited in their effect, local in their incidence, and they do not touch the fundamental general problem, which can only be dealt with by the Minister of Transport. Our concern in this Debate is to concentrate our attention on what the Minister of Transport can do, and what his policy is. Action naturally depends upon the plan or conception of the future of the ports. Here, may I make it perfectly clear to the Minister that none of us is claiming any special opportunity for Wales as such at the expense of England. All that we are claiming is that there should be a national plan for the whole country, that the Welsh ports should fit into that national plan, and that under that national plan we should have fair play.

It is not only Welsh Members who are concerned about the absence of any evidence of planning on the part of the Minister. English Members and Scottish Members are equally profoundly disturbed at the lack of any indication that this matter has been thought out at all. Notice was given of this Debate under the title "Unemployment in the Welsh ports," but we are not concerned exclusively with finding alternative employment for the men there. We are concerned with the part which the ports are to play in the future. The ridiculous position at the moment is that labour is organised, controlled and planned, but the ports themselves are not. When my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary introduced the organisation and planning of labour, it was at a time when the ports themselves were planned. Under the present Minister the planning has been knocked aside for the ports, but it remains for the port labour. I cannot do better than to quote a very strong observation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Elland (Mr. Cobb) who intervened in the last Debate. He said: What is the good of planning labour supply or the intake of labour into the docks, if we do not at the same time plan ship arrivals, which must be done nationally, and if we do not plan port facilities, which must also be done on a national basis…? No expert in large-scale, long-distance planning would dream of doing such a thing because it just does not make sense."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd February, 1946; Vol. 419, C. 1493.] I hope that the Minister will not repeat what he said at the end of the last Debate, about political pressure and uneconomic and unbusinesslike suggestion. He said: Under no circumstances would I allow myself to be influenced to agreeing to what I considered to be an uneconomic or unbusinesslike proposition as a direct result of political pressure."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd February, 1946; Vol. 419, C. 1504.] It is unbusinesslike and uneconomic not to have a plan or even any conception of the future of the ports of this country. And if any political pressure will induce the Minister to produce such a plan, we shall exert every single ounce of political pressure that we can possibly bring to bear.

We must have a policy. It may be that I am doing the Minister a great injustice. He may have a policy, but we have seen no indication whatever of what that policy is. We have suggested that there should be a long-term plan with a short-term plan to tide over until it comes into operation, but the only indication we have had from the Minister is what he said in the last Debate, when he rather scoffed at the idea of a long-term and short-term policy. He said: I see no short-term or long-term policy, but I see one sensible policy to which we should address our minds as rapidly as possible, and that is the need for the co-ordination of the whole of the docks, harbours and waterways system of this country."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd February, 1946; Vol. 419, c. 1506.] What does that mean? If it envisages a national plan in which each dock is to play its part with harbours, waterways, and roads and railways too, all well and good. But by themselves those words are meaningless. Of course we must have coordination among the docks, harbours and waterways. In addition to that—and this is the vital question—will they be joined up in a comprehensive plan with shipping? Will there be harbours not merely in relation to our internal communications but in relation to overseas trade and shipping as well? I would like to refer to an observation made by Lord Ammon in a recent speech. He said: The ports are vital to every aspect of our economic life. Indeed, in a country such as ours … the efficiency of a port may well determine the economic life of the hinterland. Such an important fact of our national economy cannot be subject to the caprice of local enterprise … If, as I think, it is in the national interest for peace and war that our ports should be efficiently maintained, it follows that available shipping and the flow of trade must be related to these ports, as well as other relevant factors. Neither men nor machines improve in idleness. In my opinion we cannot allow the well-being of our ports and some 100,000 men to depend upon what has been called ' the free exercise of judgment in commercial enterprise '. The natural interplay of economic forces ' must be harnessed to the best interests of the whole community. If the Minister of Transport had made his speech of 22nd February along those lines, and had pursued a policy on those lines, there would never have been the need to bring this matter before the House again at all. What is the national plan? Is there a plan? What is it?

What I want to concentrate on for the few moments left to me is the short-term policy, with which we are concerned in the immediate future. We suggest that, in the first place, there should be an allocation of shipping. I understand that the Minister has powers to allocate shipping, but from his speech in the last Debate I understand that he refuses to exercise those powers. He said: I would not say that the Government are without power in that direction, but the application of that policy, particularly if it developed to any extent, would be a complete reversal of the policy which has been followed since the end of the war of trying to get shipping and our commerce back to normal conditions, and then reshaping policy to deal with this new set of conditions."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd February, 1946; Vol. 419, C. 1510.]

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Ungoed-Thomas

The only assenting observations that came on the last occasion were from the Chairman of the Port of London Authority opposite, in the same way as the only noises of approval now come from Conservative Benches. It is completely contrary, of course, to the whole of our Socialist policy to abandon the tremendous opportunities which we have, while controls are on and while war conditions are operating, to shape policy, instead of allowing things to go back to peacetime conditions and then to dislocate them again in order to carry through some plan of the Ministry of Transport. If the President of the Board of Trade had acted in accordance with the Minister's principle, we should not have had the tremendous rise in exports which is a result of his very vigorous policy.

The second suggestion is that suitable Government cargoes should be sent through Welsh ports. May I quote a passage from a letter which I have received on this matter—not from somebody who operates through the Welsh ports? My own company ships, for example, are normally scheduled to discharge in Hull but I have so far failed to get authority from the various Supply Ministries, who are still our greatest purchasers, to stipulate for their cargoes to be discharged elsewhere. Sugar and tinned meat for distribution in the South of England and Wales, both moving in large quantities, could most certainly be called for delivery at Cardiff in addition to other commodities.'' Will the Minister now state what is the position with regard to getting Government cargoes through Welsh ports? What does he propose to do with regard to the Cardiff cold store? Thirdly, what steps has he taken in order to open up Midland traffic? Fourthly, has he taken any steps at all to deal with the decentralisation of chartering from London? These are the four points which I have not time to expand but with which we are concerned in the immediate future.

The result of the Minister's policy, or rather the lack of policy, in South Wales has been creating a lack of confidence, and it affects South Wales profoundly as the Minister can easily realise because of the terrible experience we had there under Conservative Administrations between the two wars. What we find difficult to understand is what there is in the policy of the present Minister of Transport to distinguish him from any supine Minister in a Baldwin Administration. If there is any such distinction, we should be delighted to know what it is. At the moment we do not see any sign of it.

I would urge this. We are not here merely picking up points of detail. We see no sign of any practical policy at all from the Minister except the laissez faire of procrastination. What is that policy? Some of us disagree with the policy of the Board of Trade or the Minister of Health in various details but they have our enthusiastic support on the general lines of policy they are taking. There is a fundamental difference between that and the position of the Minister of Transport. What we are concerned about is that there is no evidence of any fundamental grappling with this problem. We get the impression that the matter is just being fiddled with, and it is no consolation to know that the fiddling is being done by an amiable fiddler.

4.19 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Llandaff and Barry (Mr. Ungoed-Thomas) that I regret that on the two occasions this question has been before the House, it has arisen on the Adjournment, because I should certainly welcome an opportunity of dealing with the problem of the ports of this country in a fuller manner than we can under those conditions. The hon. Gentleman has levelled a rather forthright attack on me about which, of course, I do not complain.

Nevertheless, I welcome the opportunity of getting this problem in its proper perspective. I notice that he concluded his remarks by putting four questions to me. First, he asked what action is being taken to get the Supply Departments to divert their traffic through these South Wales ports. A question of that description at once acknowledges that that traffic is determined by the Supply Departments and not by the Ministry of Transport which, after all, is a service Department. His second question was, what steps do I propose to take with regard to the Cardiff cold store? My hon. Friend and those who are associated with him know very well that that is a direct responsibility of the Ministry of Food, and is not a matter that can be determined by the Ministry of Transport.

Mr. Cove (Aberavon)

We shall have to have all the Ministers here, then.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, Central)

Surely, on these important issues, there is some consultation between my right hon. Friend and his colleagues in the other Ministries?

Mr. Barnes

Perhaps I may be permitted to deal with that later. I have only ten minutes at my disposal, and if I am interrupted I shall be limited in the information which I can give to the House. The third question which my hon. Friend directed to me asked what action I am taking with regard to increased facilities to encourage Midland traffic to ship through the South Wales ports? The fourth question was whether any action had been taken for the purpose of encouraging the re-use of the provincial brokers for chartering arrangements? I think I have got the four points clearly. My Department has been responsible for the general administration of those ports and has taken action in all those four matters. Whether the results are satisfactory or not is a different matter, but the Ministry of Transport has certainly dealt continuously with those problems. I myself brought representatives of the South Wales ports and the Supply Departments together under my chairmanship, for the purpose of examining the diversion of the traffic of the Supply Departments to the South Wales ports, and those negotiations with the Supply Departments are still proceeding. It serves no useful purpose to ignore the difficulties which are in the way.

Some of the aspects of policy to which my hon. Friend has referred, and has approved in his references to other Departments, are organically connected with this method of dealing with supplies. The same thing applies with regard to the Cardiff cold store. That question has been discussed with the Ministry of Food, and I am neither competent nor in a position to deal with any reasons that may apply to that situation. On the question of Midland traffic, I have been considerably surprised by the lack of appreciation of any action that I have taken in that direction. On the last occasion I emphasised that, in my view, the important aspect of this problem was to provide fast, efficient, cheap, modern transport facilities from a big productive area like the Midlands to the South Wales ports, and I propose to deal with that, if I have time, in a reference to the general cargo subcommittee's report to which I think it would be more adequately related. But if there is one thing upon which I have concentrated since I have assumed the responsibility for this Department, it is to develop, as quickly as possible, a system of more or less uniform and improved road facilities covering the whole of these Welsh ports right through to the Midlands.

Mr. Ungoed-Thomas

At what date will the road be started to be built, and has anything been done to improve the Severn waterway?

Mr. Barnes

My hon. Friend should not be too impatient. He has had an opportunity of putting forward his views, and he should now allow me to make my own points. I am replying to the point about Midland traffic facilities. Plans are already being advanced. Work has actually started on some sections. The order has been made with regard to the Severn Bridge. I would emphasise to my hon. Friend that the Severn Bridge has been talked of for many years, but this is the first time that a decision has actually been made with regard to that important development, and that within a space of a few months. The order has been made, but I have to await the public inquiry which is laid down by Statute. I have every hope, if there are no undue delays with regard to Parliamentary procedure and inquiry, that I shall actually be able to make a start on the Severn Bridge in the early part of next year. I submit that does not represent any kind of delay in major policy on matters of this description.

With regard to the motor road, which I think would be of great assistance, from the Severn Bridge approaches right through to the Midlands, I would remind the House that, so far, I have no power at all to construct a vast motor road of that kind. Nevertheless, whatever difficulties may be in the way, I sincerely hope we shall be able to overcome them rapidly, and that the whole scheme of improved road transport facilities to the Midlands will be accomplished in the shortest possible time. If that is taken into consideration, with the comments in the general cargo sub-committee's report, it will be found eventually to represent a very valuable contribution. The hon. Member made one very clear statement to which I would like to draw attention. He said that nobody was claiming any special privileges for South Wales at the expense of other ports. That was a clear and specific statement, and I accept it as such. First of all, I would bring to the notice of the House the fact that we are dealing here with a general problem. The conditions that have been referred to with regard to the South Wales ports are not peculiar to the South Wales ports. I frankly admit—and no one regrets it more than I do—that it is more severe in the South Wales ports. The hon. Member himself opened this Debate by recognising that the origin of that severity was the peculiar circumstances of the coal industry at the present moment.

Mr. David Grenfell (Gower)

Arid general cargo.

Mr. Barnes

At the moment I am dealing with coal. I do not think even the hon. Member would level at my Department or myself responsibility for the coal situation and its effect on the South Wales ports.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South)

The ports will be the responsibility of the right hon. Gentleman next year.

Mr. Barnes

I quite agree. Although they may be my responsibility, I do not know that I can say definitely next year, because that would be anticipating legislation.

Mr. Cove

There will not be any left.

Mr. Barnes

I think that answers the general question of policy. That undoubtedly represents a general policy of grappling with a problem of this kind. My time is rapidly passing, and I did want to give one or two figures. Taking the North East coast, the percentage of unemployment in dock labour at the moment is 38.2 per cent. I want to deal with London. The number——

It being Half-past Four o' Clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.