HC Deb 08 July 1949 vol 466 cc2592-8

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

3.44 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)

The strike at the London Docks has not improved today and I regret to state that the result of the ballot taken by the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers cannot be expected to give any reliable result. It has to a large extent been boycotted by the men. Although, as I am sure the House will be glad to know, the number of men working totals 15,000, unfortunately the number of men who should be at work but are not is 10,000.

I think it will, at this stage, be appropriate to recall to the House the salient facts of the strike. It concerns an inter-union dispute in Canada, which is not the business of anyone in this country, and nothing we can do here can effect a settlement. Canadian ships are coming to our ports loaded by Canadian dockers. These ships, therefore, are not "black" and there is no justification on trade union principles for holding otherwise. This has been stated plainly by the trade unions themselves here after a full consideration of all the facts. Both the unions involved have instructed their members to return to full normal working. The only reason why we are having to deal with the trouble in this country is that the Communists see in it a chance of fomenting unrest, injuring our trade, and so hampering our recovery and with it the whole process of Marshall Aid on which the recovery of Western Europe depends. The issue with which we are faced is not one of a legitimate industrial dispute. We are faced with a challenge to the whole authority of the State, and it must be met.

Troops are being used to safeguard food supplies, but the stoppage has wider effects, and in its present economic situation the country cannot afford delays in the turn-round of ships and the hold-up of exports. The Government have accordingly decided that, unless the port is fully working, without discrimination between ships, by Monday morning, they will advise His Majesty to issue a Proclamation under the Emergency Powers Act, 1920, declaring that a state of emergency exists. The Act of 1920 provides that where a Proclamation has been made the occasion of its making must be communicated to Parliament forthwith. The Act enables regulations to be made for securing the essentials of life to the community and these regulations must be laid before Parliament as soon as may be.

Mr. Harold Macmillan (Bromley)

The right hon. Gentleman has made a very grave statement which, in the baffling circumstances which surround the country in this and many other fields, reveals a very serious situation. He will not, I know, expect from this side of the House that we should enter into any Debate, and I trust that my hon. Friends will take that view, for I think it would not be valuable if the time which is left to us were devoted to a Debate on these matters. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for having given us notice that he was going to make this statement. As I understand it, this is a preliminary caution, since should this Proclamation be made, it will be his duty to report it to the House of Commons on Monday, I think that my hon. Friends and I would prefer to reserve any observations we have to make until that time.

Mr. Solley (Thurrock)

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. Can you advise me whether there is any procedure whereby, in spite of what has been said by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bromley (Mr. H. Macmillan), this House can, here and now, debate the extremely grave statement by the Home Secretary?

Mr. Speaker

There is no procedure at all. This Debate will end automatically at 4 o'clock and we shall then go on to the Adjournment.

Mr. Ronald Chamberlain (Norwood)

Since the dockers have made it quite clear that they are prepared to unload all the boats except the two Canadian ones under dispute—indeed, a number of them have assured me personally, that that is the case—would it not be a matter of ordinary worldly wisdom, in which neither the Home Secretary nor the Ministry of Labour is deficient, to send our troops to those two ships, so that the strike or lockout could end immediately? Is it not still possible, as an act of ordinary worldly wisdom, now to concentrate the troops on those two ships? Can I have a reply to that?

Mr. Mellish (Rotherhithe)

As one who claims to know a little more about the dock situation than the hon. Member who has just spoken, and while I appreciate the point of view of the men about this being a lockout and not a strike and fully understand it, may I point out to my right hon. Friend that it has already been explained to the men that when one traces this back to the beginning, it is the two Canadian ships in dispute which are the cause of whether this is a strike or a lockout. Therefore, we have urged, it is known, that these men resume work——

Mr. Solley

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. If it is in Order for the hon. Member for Rotherhithe (Mr. Mellish) to make an ex parte statement on the dock strike, why is it not in Order for a person like myself, who has a different view, to make a speech?

Mr. Speaker

It is perfectly in Order.

Mr. Mellish

Therefore, is the Home Secretary not aware that the men today are arguing that this is a lockout, but in fact they ought to understand that there will be neither strike nor lockout if these two Canadian ships are worked? Again, I ask, as I asked in the House the other day, is it not monstrous that suggestions should come from the Communist Party in this House, and again from my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Chamberlain), that we should get troops to unload two ships which are in dispute?

Mr. McGovern (Glasgow, Shettleston)

Might I ask the right hon. Gentleman, apart from the actual dispute, whether he can tell us when the Government—allowing for the development of liberty in this country—will deal with the Communist Party and recognise that it is in the service of a foreign Power and that they are doing everything they can to wreck the economy of this country? Is it not time that the Communist Party was treated on that basis by the Government?

Mr. Solley

Mr. Speaker, I did not understand that this was a short Debate. In the circumstances I would like to bring to the attention of the House the views of the strike committee—or the lockout committee, which ever point of view hon. Members want to accept—on this matter. I have in my hand a leaflet which has just been issued by the central lockout committee——

Mr. Daines (East Ham, North)

Can the hon. Member tell us who this lockout committee are, and who appointed them?

Mr. Solley

I will read the contents of this document—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."]—I am not concerned about that. All I know is that this central lockout committee, rightly or wrongly, apparently has the confidence of the dockers who are being locked out. I have only a few moments and I think it is right that the House should know that the strikers, or dockers who are being locked out, say—[Interruption]—I quite understand the remarks that come from hon. Members of the Labour Party on this side of the House. That is the tragedy of the present situation, that they are taking the side of the bosses. The leaflet says this: Now that the workers are beginning to show their teeth to the employers, it is inevitable that someone sooner or later will discover that the refusal of the workers to blackleg or go hungry through low wages and high prices, are really Communist plots. It is a difficult job, of course, to depict elected leaders of workers when there is trouble—nearly all solid Labour men in the main—as all villains, nevertheless sooner or later it has to be attempted. The real facts surrounding the Portworkers Lock-out and the Railwaymen's work-to-rule are so damaging to the employers and National Boards, that concealment of them and misrepresentation has to be undertaken. Portworkers know blacklegging when they see it, and they don't take long to make up their minds what to do. They know they have two choices when there is a dispute between workers and employers; either take sides with the worker against the employers, or with the employers against fellow workers. It is not conceivable that men with years of struggle and proud traditions of solidarity would betray principles that they sucked with in their mother's milk. Yet men in high positions, and put there by workers, degrade themselves by stooping to become propaganda stooges for employers by mouthing their lies and quackery in defence of the action taken by the Shipowners against Portworkers, in an effort to break down these principles. No complaint has yet been made by the Government with regard to the employers action——

Mr. Speaker

I really do not think this the time to read out a leaflet like this, which is pure propaganda. There is a Rule against reading out from newspapers or reading too much of one's speech, and I must apply it here.

Mr. Solley

Of course, I must and do abide by your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, but I should have thought, with great respect, that it would have been interesting to have on record—and I am sure the nation would like to have on record—what the views of the—[An HON. MEMBER: "Which nation?"]—what the views of the dockers are in this matter. Let me say that it is a scandalous thing that a Labour Government should invoke the Tory strike legislation of 1920, when they have at their command ample machinery whereby these two ships, which are the subject of a trade dispute, could be isolated from other ships in the docks and the lockout thus come to an end. A very simple principle is involved. In the docks it has been a custom of the industry for many years that if a job is in dispute, irrespective of the merits of the job, no other worker shall be called in to do that job. That is a principle which by custom and tradition has become binding not only upon the dockers but upon the employers.

Mr. Mellish

Would the hon. Member not agree that if it was proved that the so-called "black" ships were, in fact, not "black," the men would resume work?

Mr. Solley

The answer to that is very simple. The tradition is that while the dispute exists, irrespective of its merits, and whilst there is a bona fide belief that the job may be a "black" job, it is the custom of the industry, binding upon both sides, that no other worker shall be called in to undertake the job of a "scab"—I am using the language of the dockers. That being so, it is idle for the Minister of Labour to say, as he said the other day, that it is a statutory obligation binding upon the National Dock Labour Board that they shall request dock workers to act as scabs. There is absolutely nothing in the dock regulations which binds the National Dock Labour Board to do anything of the sort. I challenge any hon. Member to bring to the notice of the House any regulation, statutory or otherwise, which is incompatible with or contradicts the trade practice to which I have referred.

The simple solution of this lockout lies in the hands of the Government. I appreciate that the lockout has resulted in very serious injury to the economy of the country at a moment when no serious person can tolerate a further heightening of our economic crisis. But rather than say to the appropriate authorities, "These two Canadian ships must be left aside so that the whole of the rest of the dock can proceed with its ordinary, everyday work," this Labour Government has invoked the strike-breaking powers of 1920. If there be an emergency, it is an emergency which has been brought about directly as the result of the Government's action. While there may be something to be said one way or another, for the action of the dockers—I am not going into the bona fides or otherwise of the dispute; I do not pretend to have an expert knowledge of whether they are right or wrong—of this much I am confident: that the solution to this problem lies in the hands of the Government, and that while the dockers rightly think that this is a "black" job which they are being asked to do, they are acting in accordance with trade practice not to pursue it. Finally, I will just say—[An HON. MEMBER: "Give way for a reply."]—If hon. Members want me to give way for a reply, I do so immediately.

Mr. Ede

With the permission of the House, may I just say, with regard to the whole of the speech of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Solley), that both of the unions involved, who organise the men in these docks, have declared that these ships are not "black" and have ordered the men—their members—to proceed to unload them. One of the rules of the dock is that orders which are given must be obeyed. It must be quite clearly stated that this is not a dispute between the unions and the employers. This is an unofficial dispute organised not for industrial, but for political purposes. There is not a single point of industrial matters outstanding between the employers and the employed at the London Docks.

Mr. Blackburn (Birmingham, King's Norton)

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether there is any substance in the reports about picketing in relation to the ballot and whether picketing has had anything to do with the boycotting of the ballot, and will he make it quite clear that if there is any physical intimidation it will be the subject of proceedings?

Mr. Ede

Throughout the dispute the police have had instructions to watch for any sign of physical or other intimidation. I have been informed that no such intimidation has taken place.

Mr. Chamberlain

Will my right hon. Friend answer my question: Why could not the troops have been sent to the two Canadian ships, which would have resulted in an immediate cessation of the strike?

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.