HC Deb 17 February 1948 vol 447 cc1120-8

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

10.16 p.m.

Mr. Rankin (Glasgow, Tradeston)

I desire to call the attention of the House to the general position at the Port of Glasgow in so far as it relates to shipping and to the movement of goods. It one views this question in terms of finance and takes note of the fact that the financial accounts of the Clyde Trustees for the six months ending December, 1947, show, as compared with the same period for 1946, an increase in revenue of £183,000, one is inclined to say that the situation at the Port of Glasgow is a healthy one; but, as has often been argued from these benches, the financial result is not a sure indication of a healthy economic state of affairs, and if we view this problem from the point of view of the dock worker, we get a somewhat different approach and appreciation.

The labour force at the docks numbers 3,400, and of that number today 2,200 are fully employed. Eleven hundred are only partly employed, and 100 are not employed at all. That gives a somewhat different picture from that which is presented merely by the financial returns of the Clyde Trust. If one looks at the picture from the point of view of the ship-owners or the merchants, we find they are continually troubled by the fear of a depression or slump setting in. I think it is the business of the Government to say that, with a Labour Government in power, there ought to be no fear of a depression or a slump.

I wish to emphasise that we do not feel that there is a deliberate discrimination against the Port of Glasgow, yet if we look at the tonnage carried inwards and outwards at the port we find that in 1938 7,250,000 tons were carried either in or out. In 1946 that had fallen to 6,250,000 tons, and up to the end of December it had fallen to 5,250,000 tons. These figures cause us to think, because these are the docks, and this is the port, which during the war moved 50 million tons of cargo, and 500 million tons of shipping without mishap, and all the facilities which were there for that work are still there, and have, in fact, been expanded We recognise at the same time that the world's trade has deteriorated. That is natural. We do not attribute the fall in imports either to the bulk-buying policy of the Government or to the flat rate for freightage on the railways. But there is a fairly widespread feeling on the Clyde today that this situation is largely due to bad organisation.

I wish to submit one or two examples to the House of the type of organisation which could and should be improved. First, I am assured it is the fact that today we have berths at Glasgow lying empty waiting for liners to unload, while at the same time, at Liverpool, liners are waiting for two or three days to be unloaded, and are unable to get berths. Secondly, I am assured that there is far too much berth accommodation being given to repair work at the expense of carrying, and I am told that twice the amount of space in berthage is being given to repair work as compared with cargoes. Thirdly, the attention of the House has already been directed to the fact that ships are coming to the Port of Glasgow after they have been unloaded at other ports in the south. Their cargoes have been transferred to coasters and brought round in that way, or sometimes by rail, and often by land. We had the grotesque case of a ship which unloaded at a port in the South and came round light to the Clyde, in front of coasters which were carrying a Glasgow cargo from that Southern port. I do not suggest that, in itself, is a disease, but it is the symptom of something which is wrong.

So far as surface haulage is concerned, a good deal of the cargo which is unloaded at southern ports comes either by road or by rail, and up to Saturday of last week—roughly for the first six weeks of this year—6,000 tons of bacon, meat and butter unloaded at Liverpool came to Scotland either by road or rail. That is a rate of 52,000 tons a year, which represents to the Port of Glasgow 17 large ocean-going liners which could come in with cargo and which would go out with exports to other parts of the world.

But the most serious feature of that aspect of the case is that these goods are being carried by railways which already are overburdened and which, in addition, as my right hon. Friend himself said when dealing with the Transport Bill, have rolling stock which today is not up to date. So far as the freezing vans are concerned, in some cases they are so bad that the meat being carried deteriorates, especially in the summer, and the consumer in Scotland is, as a consequence, getting inferior meat. Further, when it is transported by rail from the steamer it means that the cargo is being handled four times, instead of only twice, as would be the case if it were taken direct to the Port of Glasgow.

With regard to the cargo which comes by road, that means that in a time when petrol is short we are using petrol for purposes which could be avoided. It is a national wastage, and I am sure my right hon. Friend will give his serious attention to that aspect of the case which I put before him. I quite agree that it is difficult to get an overall picture: I am giving examples, and to get a complete picture of what is happening today I am asking my right hon. Friend to answer now the question which I put this afternoon to his Department. Will he tell the House how much is being paid in freight for moving goods from English ports to Scotland by coaster, including chartered vessels, and by road or by rail? I suggest that an answer to that question will give the House a complete picture of the situation as it affects Glasgow and Scotland.

I suggested that the organisation was one that might be improved, and I suggest that one or two methods could be employed. First, that cargoes should be allocated before shipment. Secondly, I suggest that shipowners and merchants should get together in order to make the best use of space. For instance, if a ship is being sent to Liverpool and later might call at Glasgow, why should the Glasgow cargo be put in last so that it must be cleared away before the Liverpool cargo can be reached? That has happened. That sort of thing leads automatically to road or rail transport. It should be kept clearly in mind that every ship that comes into the Port of Glasgow with cargo is a ship which will leave the port with cargo, thereby helping Scottish exporters to send their goods abroad.

Another aspect of the question to which I wish to direct attention is that of passenger transport. There was a time in the history of the Clyde when we used to have five Anchor liners, two United States liners and six Cunard White Star liners sailing every month, each of those ships affording accommodation for 1,400 passengers. That was on the United States route. On the Canadian route we had the Donaldson, the Cunard White Star and the C.P.R. liners which had weekly sailings all the year round. The position in the Clyde now is that there are three motor vessels, each capable of carrying 12 passengers fortnightly on the United States run, and three motor vessels each capable of carrying six passengers on the Canadian run. Where is "the glory that was Greece"—or Glasgow? The result is that Scottish passengers must proceed from Southern ports. I say emphatically that that is wrong.

If this can only be made right by means of a subsidy, then a subsidy should be given. This would be one subsidy to which there would be no opposition from the hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite. I am told that the Americans are out to capture the Atlantic trade. They are prepared to subsidise their shippers for that purpose. If we are to stand up to that, then we must be prepared to subsidise our passenger services. I have tried to present to my right hon. Friend a case which is agitating Glasgow, the West of Scotland, and indeed the whole of Scotland. I am sure that he will he able to give an answer which will satisfy us.

10.29 p.m.

Mr. J. L. Williams (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)

I am very glad that my hon. Friend has been able to raise this question. I do not propose to weary the House with figures, but I can testify to the fact that the fears expressed among his constituents on the southern side of the Clyde are also expressed by people on the northern side who are engaged in this industry. Great concern has been felt for many months about the policy of the Government in bringing commodities from abroad to be discharged in English ports and distributed from one centre. It has been suggested that storing and warehousing in Glasgow may be a problem, but against that there is suggested very strongly that the allocation for Glasgow and the West of Scotland at least could be left in ships coming to the Clyde. By so doing, you would save unloading in the first place and loading in coasters again. It would be merely a problem then of allocation before the whole cargo is dispatched.

One explanation, I understand, is that there is need to economise in shipping tonnage. The reply I get from my constituency is that, even allowing for this, the outcome is very harsh on Clyde shipping traffic. Here is the fact that greater pressure is brought to bear upon railroad traffic and consequently, looking at it from many angles, I believe, like my hon. Friend the Member for Tradeston (Mr. Rankin), there are questions to answer. Great concern is felt among people who have suffered in the past and who fear they are going to suffer in the future.

10.32 p.m.

Mr. Maclay (Montrose Burghs)

I want to say very quickly that the House should be very grateful to both hon. Members who have spoken for putting a very reasonable case before the House about a problem which I know is worrying very many people. One point I should like to make, in case the Minister does not reach it, is: What is the function of the shipowner in this matter? The shipowner has two main jobs to do. He has to take the cargo to the destination that the merchant wants to send it to, and I think that the Minister on the Bench tonight should be the Minister of Food rather than the Minister of Transport, because he is a very big merchant these days so far as shipments into this country are concerned. The shipowner is also concerned—and I think both my hon. Friends had this in mind—with the speed of the turn-round at port. While on the face of it, it may seem wasteful that ships may have to come up empty, with coasters going ahead with small portions of cargo to be put out at other ports, in fact the ship will save substantial time in port by proceeding immediately to bunkering berth. I wish to make the point dead clear. I think the person to get after this is the merchant and perhaps the Minister of Food.

Mr. Rankin

I realise that. As my right hon. Friend perhaps knows, I did suggest to his Department this afternoon that some points of the Debate would touch the Ministry of Food and therefore he might perhaps ask them for answers.

10.34 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

I would like to associate myself with the first remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Montrose Burghs (Mr. Maclay) of appreciation to the hon. Member for Tradeston (Mr. Rankin) for raising this matter tonight. I do not think we can regret giving time to studying the problems of an important port like Glasgow and if, as my hon. Friend suggests, I happen to be in a position of liaison responsibility rather than of direct responsibility, nevertheless, that is a responsibility which I gladly accept. I should like to give assurances to my hon. Friends who raised this matter that both I as Minister and my Department will continue to give attention to this matter, because we do realise that many adjustments of this character that flow from the circumstances of the war need careful attention in the postwar period.

There is one point, however, which my hon. Friend made that rather caused me some concern. He appeared to deprecate the fact that a good proportion of the berthing accommodation in Glasgow is used for repair work. I should have thought that would have been welcomed on the Clyde. It appears to me that there has been a great and outstanding contribution by the Clyde which is pre-eminent and unchallenged in the quantity and quality of its ship construction. The very organisation, experience, and skill which resides up and down that great river and port surely are bound to attract a good proportion of the repair work which is going on at the present time.

Mr. Rankin

I would like to make myself perfectly clear, and to say that not only can we undertake the repairs, but we will take the cargo, too.

Mr. Barnes

I can well understand that Scotland might want the lot, but if I may relapse into talking about my own constituency I would point out that I represent an East London constituency, and the people there say that all the repair work is going to the North and not, consequently, being retained in London. But I think we have adjusted that position.

Now I come to my second subject, and I say there is not much point in stressing, as has been done, the enormous volume of traffic which certain ports handled during the war years. We all appreciate that, and I should be the first to acknowledge the remarkable service which the Clyde—and if I may say so here, the South Wales ports and the Western ports—gave in that terrific struggle. But that was because other important ports and harbours were closed down and the traffic at the other ports was abnormal. Regarding the hon. Gentleman's references to adjustments which followed, the problem of the South Wales ports occupied the attention of this House some time ago and as a result of the co-operation which my Department secured from the interests concerned, we were led to certain improvements.

I am not indicating that we were able to solve the basic problem of reconciling peace-time trade and war-time trade. I would remind my hon. Friend that the Ministry of Transport has been, and is, engaged in offering the same services and the same machinery to the Clyde shipping and industrial interests But, first of all, let me get this question of the peace-time and the war-time trade in its proper perspective. It has to be remembered that many factors have intervened to affect the shipping trade and that figures can be very misleading. We are discussing as a complete problem the imports and the foreign trade of the Clyde. The facilities for exports are largely determined by how far cargo vessels are available.

I will deal with passenger services separately, although in view of shortage of time, hon. Members may like me to deal with the passenger problem in a sentence, because that does not affect the trade problem. The position is entirely unsatisfactory I agree, but one cannot lay the blame on any particular quarter, and it cannot be remedied at the moment. The Ministry of Transport is handing, and has handed, back shipping as rapidly as it possibly can to the shipowning interests, but the passenger liners have suffered in this respect more than any other class of shipping. Practically all our passenger liners were requisitioned during the war, and completely converted to military service. Even when they are derequisitioned by my Department, a long period must elapse before they can be restored to their normal service. The Donaldson Line suffered very severely during the war. The majority of their vessels were sunk or destroyed, and passenger liners have been released more slowly than any other type of ship. The House is aware of the big evacuation problems, of the demobilisation of the Services, of the evacuation of Indian troops and civil servants, and of the Palestine problem. The owners of lines running passenger ships have suffered more than any other section of industry in this respect.

Coming back to the problem of trade, Board of Trade volume index figures show that in 1947 U.K. imports into the port of Glasgow were 75 per cent. of the 1938 imports. If you take the trade of our ports generally, Glasgow does not compare unfavourably with that majority of the English ports. If I may direct attention to the practical measures for dealing with a situation of this character, I think it was in October, 1947, that the Scottish Board for Industry, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, and the Clyde Navigation Trust, the three bodies primarily concerned, began to take an interest in this matter, because of the growing concern which prevailed about this situation in Scotland. The Clyde Navigation Trust, very wisely I think, started out to collect what evidence it could from traders, industrialists, and commercialists. On 4th December, they submitted the first evidence to my Department of the experience of Scottish industrialists. On 30th December, further information came along, and my Department then circulated it to all the Supply Departments and importing Departments, which my hon. Friend had indicated can play an important part in the solution of this difficulty.

After examination—and I should like to say they have shown a willing spirit of co-operation in this, although there are really serious problems of economy involved — the Supply Departments responded to my invitation to meet on an official level. On 11th February, a conference was held in my Department with all those Departments of State which were interested, together with the officers and advisers of the Clyde Navigation Trust. At that meeting, there emerged a suggestion from the Ministry of Transport that the Clyde Navigation Trust—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Fourteen Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.